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The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back
The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back
Andrew Sullivan
Harper, 2006
304 pp., 1.25

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Mark Gauvreau Judge reviews The Conservative Soul


A Canonization of Subjectivity

Andrew Sullivan's catechism.

In his 1908 masterpiece Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton explored the phenomenon of modern theologians who deny the reality of sin. "The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting point of their argument," Chesterton wrote. "If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can make one or two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat."

There are no cats in The Conservative Soul, the new book by Andrew Sullivan. There is, however, tautology, narcissism, and enough moral relativism to light Manhattan for ten years. Sullivan's premise is simple: We just can't know anything for sure. There's no real truth, and anyone who claims otherwise is not really a conservative but rather a fundamentalist. "The essential claim of the fundamentalist is that he knows the truth," Sullivan writes. "The fundamentalist doesn't guess or argue or wonder or question. He doesn't have to. He knows." In opposition stands the true conservative, whose "defining characteristic" is that "he knows he doesn't know."

The true conservative's only guide, posits Sullivan, is his conscience. The conscience is protean and, in Sullivan's case, prone to New Age bromides: "As humans, we can merely sense the existence of a higher truth, a greater coherence than ourselves; but we cannot see it face to face." According to Sullivan, "We see the world from where we are, and our understanding of the universe is intrinsically rooted in time and place. We can do all we can to increase our knowledge and gain deeper and deeper insight. We can read history and philosophy; we can travel; we can ask questions of young and old; we can debate; we can pray; we can grow through the pain and amusement of daily life. But we will never fully or completely transcend where we are. And even if we could, such transcendence would render us unintelligible to those still earthbound."

This is not original thinking, of course. Since at least Nietzsche philosophy has offered thinkers claiming that there are no fixed truths. What's fascinating is when such ideas are praised by someone like Sullivan, who claims to be Catholic. We "will never fully or completely transcend where we are"? And if we could, such transcendence "would render us unintelligible to those still earthbound"? Has Sullivan ever heard of the saints, who some Catholics still believe are intercessors whose message is intelligible? The Virgin Mary? Not to mention Jesus Christ, who one or two Christians believe is truth itself and who was seen face to face?

Sullivan pits the wisdom of the human conscience against the "diktats" of fundamentalism. But his own conscience doesn't prevent him from misrepresenting Scripture and the views of those who disagree with him. At least twice he cites the Bible story where Mary decides to sit and listen to Jesus rather than help Martha do housework. Sullivan finds great wisdom in the idea that Mary "is doing nothing. She is merely being with Jesus. She has let go." But Mary is not just being with Jesus; she is listening to him speak. To Christians, for whom Jesus is the Word, this is no small thing. Because often when Jesus did speak, it was to lay down some ground rules for living. When asked by the young rich man how to achieve eternal life, Jesus' first answer was to "follow the commandments." Sullivan simply ignores this while citing the passage. But that's not surprising. When your create your own moral system, Jesus winds up serving you, not the other way around. "Does Jesus live in the present?" Sullivan asks. "In so much as the memory of his life and beauty of his message permeates us, yes." But enough about me—how do you like me so far?

Sullivan quotes George Weigel and Richard John Neuhaus out of context, but his real botching is with Pope Benedict. In an address ("Conscience and Truth") given in 1991, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger "couldn't have been clearer about how an individual conscience is by no means, for him, the final arbiter of morality or truth." At least, that's how Sullivan plays it. Not quite. According to Ratzinger, there are two kinds of conscience. One is prone to subjectivity and error. The "deeper conscience"— or anamnesis, as Ratzinger calls it—"consists in the fact that something like an original memory of the good and the true (both are identical) has been implanted in us." Sullivan is sloppy in describing this, perhaps because he is rushing to scream that the pope hates your conscience: "even when you think you are taking a principled, intelligent moral stand, if you are in disagreement with the Pope . . . you are not in fact exercising conscience. That's a delusion fostered by evil. You are merely demonstrating sin and guilt. There is no conscience distinct from truth, Ratzinger insisted." And since truth is revealed by the Catholic Church, "All protestations of 'conscience' against Church teachings are just further manifestations of sin."

Nonsense. In "Conscience and Truth," Ratzinger, rather than renouncing the conscience, elevates it even above the papacy. Ratzinger recalls that the great 19th–century Catholic convert Cardinal Newman once wrote that, if he were asked to give an after–dinner toast, he would drink "to conscience first and the Pope afterwards." Ratzinger makes clear that Newman believed in "a papacy not put in opposition to the primacy of conscience, but based on and guaranteeing it." The thing "which establishes the connection between authority and subjectivity is truth." Indeed, Newman converted to Catholicism despite declaring that "no one can have a more unfavorable view than I of the present state of Roman Catholics." He converted, and spent his life fighting the spread of liberalism in Christianity, because his conscience led him to a defense of what he believed was the truth.

Newman did not introduce this idea to Christianity. St. Bonaventure called the conscience "God's herald and messenger." Gaudium et Spes, a document from the Second Vatican Council, declares: "In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can, when necessary, speak to his heart more specifically: 'Do this. Shun that.' " The Magisterium of the Catholic Church does not take the place of the conscience but rather supports it and helps it develop the truth. As John Paul II wrote in his encyclical The Splendor of Truth, "Freedom of conscience is never freedom 'from' the truth but always and only freedom 'in' the truth. . . . [T]he Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truth which are extraneous to it; rather, it brings to light truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith."

Of course, it's possible to reject this idea. One can live one's life guided strictly by one's conscience, ignoring appeals from religion, all of which claim that they are the way to fully develop and rightly shape the conscience. Yet too often those who take this path seem to lose basic truths in deference to what Ratzinger calls "a canonization of subjectivity"( which is a good alternate title for Sullivan's book). Those who do so often claim to be rebels, avant–garde visionaries wrestling with the issues of the day. The fundamentalist, posits Sullivan, doesn't need to worry about having a crisis of conscience—he simply follows the rules of the Bible or the Church. But "for the non–fundamentalist, life is considerably more fraught." Indeed, "The exercise of conscience can be an exacting affair." Beyond the Bible or the Magisterium in Rome, the non–fundamentalist "must make an effort to ask himself constantly whether his thoughts and prayers are rationalizing his own desires rather than seeking the truth itself." This "proper exercise of conscience is grueling," constantly asking "whether we are self–deluded or engaging in wishful thinking; and it is always open to further argument or revelation."

Yet to be always and forevermore open to further argument or revelation means never having to settle on anything as the truth—except, of course, the impossibility of objective truth itself. This is the paradox of the postmodernism that eats itself; if there is no settled truth, if the sands of morality constantly shift, then how can Sullivan's core beliefs be defended at all? Surely if the consensus in ten years were that killing gays was not only reasonable but honorable, there would be something wrong with that.

Sullivan talks about "moments of struggle" in his "long engagement" with the Catholic faith. He had questions about the nature of the Trinity, transubstantiation, and the Resurrection. His conclusion: "Reaching the answer yes to these questions—and asking them again and again and again—is not an easy process." Of course it isn't. But as Chesterton put it, having an open mind is like having an open mouth: the point is to eventually come down on something solid. And secular doubt is the easiest thing in the world. One can simply take any position on anything. Thus, to Sullivan, "tradition is not a static entity." A good statesman will take into account "the internal dynamics of the evolving societies" to make decisions. That's why conservatives should back gay marriage. Sullivan reveals that he took his confirmation name after Saint Thomas More, but More was martyred precisely because he would not bend to the political and cultural fashions of the day.

While Sullivan praises "the marking of nuance, the weighing of things from different perspectives, the desire to understand something as it is, and not as we would like it to be," his thirst for knowledge falls short when it comes to the teachings of his religion. This champion of the supposedly hungry and expansive mind can't be bothered to honestly engage with ideas with which he disagrees. He touts his Catholicism and pushes homosexuality and gay marriage but can't be bothered to tackle John Paul II's Theology of the Body, the late pontiff's massive and revolutionary work about the meaning of sex and the human body. His engagement with Benedict and other thinkers he disagrees with is superficial and dishonest. Apparently for the thinking, reading, praying, ever–expanding conservative like Sullivan, there's just no time to read things one disagrees with, or engage opposing argument honestly. Sullivan is like Jesus' friend Mary—that is to say, like Mary in Sullivan's version of the story. He sits at the feet of Jesus, not listening.

Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author most recently of God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling (Crossroad).

Related Elsewhere:

Sullivan's The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.

HarperCollins has more information on the book, including an excerpt.

Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:

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The Ties That Bind | Anne Tyler's new novel centers on two very different families brought together when they both adopt Korean girls (Aug. 22, 2006)
Live Like You Are Dying | Finding wisdom in wilderness. (Aug. 15, 2006)
Alchemy in Philadelphia | Revising the history of the "Scientific Revolution." (Aug. 1, 2006)
Not the Wheel Thing | A history of the Tour de France. (Aug. 1, 2006)
Welcoming Resurrection | A volume of new poems from Luci Shaw. July 18, 2006)
Truth, Justice, and … | Some critics of Superman Returns are more blinkered than Lex Luthor. (July 11, 2006)
Dining Dilemmas | How shall we then eat? (June 27, 2006)
Incorrigibly Bookish | Michael Dirda on reading and life. (June 20, 2006)
The Not–So–Evil Empire | A report on The Historical Society's conference earlier this month. (June 13, 2006)
Very Important Fiction | The Gospel according to The New York Times Book Review. (May 23, 2006)
Back to the Garden | Digging in the dirt as spiritual formation. (May 16, 2006)
Words Made Flesh | Calvin College's 2006 Festival of Faith & Writing. (April 25, 2006)
Betrayed Again | The Gospel of Judas Roadshow. (April 18, 2006)

For book lovers, our 2006 CT book awards are available online, along with our book awards for 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, and 1997, as well as our Books of the Twentieth Century. For other coverage or reviews, see our Books archive and the weekly Books & Culture Corner.

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