Douthat, Paradox, and Dialectic
When it comes to podcasts on religion and public life, Tyler Cowen of the Mercatus Center’s podcast has some rare gems. While most popular politically-charged podcasts are content to frame questions in secular terms, Cowen—an atheist—has a remarkable ability tease out which religious presuppositions are motivating his guests, including some very fine distinctions on points of intra-religious debate.
So when the conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat appeared on his show a couple of weeks ago, Cowen allowed him about 15 seconds before asking Douthat to distinguish his Catholic doctrine of grace from that of Calvin and the Pelagians:
COWEN: So, as a Catholic, you have a kind of intermediate view on how important works are for grace. So you would reject the views of Calvin and Luther… [DOUTHAT: Absolutely.] … that it’s strictly determined by God, but the Pelagian heresy that there is no original sin —[DOUTHAT: Right] — that also is unacceptable to you. That would lead you to Mormonism, or something else. What makes that intermediate position so compelling to you? And is it in some way an underlying feature of how you think about politics?
Douthat’s response, in true Catholic fashion, delves straight into Chesterton and his account of paradox:
DOUTHAT: [laughs] I’ve never been asked that question. I suppose that I’m drawn to the idea that the truth about human existence lies in what can seem like paradoxical formulations, and this is of course very Catholic in certain ways. Certainly a G. K. Chestertonian idea, so I’m just stealing it from other people. But the idea that various heresies of Christianity, Calvinism included — with apologies to my Calvinist friends — tend to take one particular element of you that’s supposed to be in synthesis and possibly in tension, and run with it. And therefore the truth about things lies in a place that may seem slightly contradictory.
Douthat’s impulse to ground the doctrine of salvation on paradox is good. It is the paradox of the Incarnation, after all, that serves as the wellspring of all Christian doctrine. But Douthat’s attempt to do so runs into a problem. He begins to talk about paradox in terms of synthesis, a point which he develops further on:
DOUTHAT: I think that the solution to . . . (maybe now we’re into more Hegelian territory rather than Christian territory), but there’s a solution to a lot of problems in some as-yet-uncertain synthesis. So I write a lot about social conservatism and abortion and feminism, and these kind of issues. And I do think that somewhere out there, in that zone of argument, there is a synthesis of the best social conservative ideas and the best feminist insights that I personally haven’t been able to grasp yet… but that that is where the actual truth lies.
The trouble here isn’t primarily with Douthat’s soft-spoken Hegelianism. The trouble is that Douthat sees the central paradoxes of his faith as prompting him embrace that Hegelian vision. For Douthat, the contradictory poles of the paradox sound a lot like Hegel’s dialectic, and are to be read, perhaps, as a thesis and antithesis, pointing to a not-yet resolved synthesis just beyond our temporal horizon. This is a rather poor reading of Christian paradox, and one that gets us into a good amount of trouble if pursued to its conclusion.
The foundational event of Christianity—the Incarnation—is structured on a number of paradoxes. We are to believe that Christ is simultaneously God and man. We are to affirm that the eternal became temporal, and that this has implications for anthropology—we, also, are temporal and eternal beings. We affirm that in the logic of the Incarnation, the immutable suffered himself to be moved. All of these apparently contradictory statements are the building blocks from which we move to finer points of Christian theology.
So if the edifice of Christian theology is to endure, these foundational paradoxes must be held as stable: both poles of the paradox must be affirmed wholeheartedly in their mystery. They are in what the Anglo-Catholic theologian John Milbank calls a “mutually constitutive tension”—in tension, yes, but a supportive tension that reinforces each pole and renders the paradox stable.1 The paradox of Incarnation, for example, is sustained by mutually constitutive tension of Christ’s human and divine natures, which renders the God-man possible.
But in the Hegelian reading, the two poles of the dialectic are portrayed as at odds with each other, each seeking the abolition of the other, allowing the dialectic to move forward into a new synthesis. A version of this dialectical vision is at the base of the early Christological heresy of Eutychianism. In one version of this heresy, the divinity of Christ completely annihilates (or “swallows up”) his humanity, in another more synthetic account, the divinity and humanity of Christ suffuse into a new nature altogether. In Chalcedon, we see a denial of the synthetic (or dialectic) account of Christ’s nature and an affirmation of the paradoxical reading as the foundation of a robust Christology. The logic of paradox, Chalcedon holds, does not demand the resolution the dialectic craves, but rather provides an apophatic foundation for further inquiry into the nature of the divine. As Milbank describes the concept of paradox more generally, “this implies not an impossible contradiction that must be overcome (dialectic), but rather an outright impossible coincidence of opposites that can (somehow, but we know not how) be persisted with. This is the Catholic logic of paradox—of an ‘overwhelming glory’ (para-doxa) which nonetheless saturates our everyday reality.”2
It is, in fact, precisely this coincidence of opposites that opens the space for any temporal participation in the eternal. Time and eternity are themselves twin poles of a paradox, and it is their coinherence that enables us to make sense of things that appear to us temporally in context of eternity. This dialectic fails to do, to quote Milbank again, “it [dialectic] in reality abolishes that which is synchronically present before us”;3 that is, it situates things in context of a synthesis just beyond our temporal horizon, and thus fails to provide us the means to make sense of what is before us at a particular point in time. This dialectical skepticism of the here-and-now is demonstrated by Douthat later in the podcast, where, discussing the relationship of social conservatism to feminism, he concedes that the truth of the matter lies beyond his own temporal horizon: “I do think that somewhere out there, in that zone of argument, there is a synthesis of the best social conservative ideas and the best feminist insights that I personally haven’t been able to grasp yet, and probably I’m not necessarily equipped to do so, and also that our society as a whole hasn’t grasped, but that that is where the actual truth lies.”
Turning back to Cowen’s initial question, Douthat is attempting to tease out the implications of the doctrine of salvation on his political vision. In describing the paradox of grace and works, he waffles a bit, speaking first of synthesis, and second—possibly—of tension. But if he is to operate consistently within his own Catholic frame of reference, there is no possibility of a dialectical account of salvation: no synthesis of Calvin and Pelagius. Salvation, in the Catholic framework, must be affirmed as entirely a result of the grace of God and must necessarily require good works. To view the relation of grace and works as synthetic would be to subvert the mutually constitutive tension of this paradox, setting grace and works in opposition to each other and, in conceding to dialectic at all, placing the truth of the matter in some place beyond our temporal horizon, not in the coherent, already-disclosed deposit of faith.
Perceptive as ever, Cowen drives this point home: “But, as you know, there’s a tendency within Catholicism to try to use Hegelian arguments to push a very liberal version of Catholicism. ‘Well, this thing is going to keep on evolving, there’s no end to the process’ — so we can get away from your idea of Catholicism as spanning the generations — as something continuous and unified. Are you worried you’ll become too Hegelian?”
Douthat backpedals a bit in response, “to be a Catholic, I think, is to believe that there is a larger body of revealed truths that have to remain as a grounding for civilization, Christian civilization, and so on, even as you grow forward towards programmatic, practical solutions and sociological solutions to new problems that emerge.”
This return to the deposit of faith—that “larger body of revealed truths”—is doubtless driven by Douthat’s genuinely Catholic instincts. It’s important that he ground his theological beliefs there, wherever his Hegelianism may take him politically.
About the Author: Nick Barden is a graduate of Patrick Henry College and the John Jay Institute, where he studied philosophy and political theology. He works at a higher education nonprofit in Washington, D.C., and is a confirmed member of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
(1) John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009), 163.
(3) Ibid. Milbank’s critique is more full-throated: “Alternatively, it would have to be a journey whose only point was the journey, and therefore the scattering promenade of dispersal of all centers and all claims to spatial distinction.”