George Grant and the Theology of the Cross: The Christian Foundations of his Thought

by Harris Athanasiadis
282 pages,
ISBN: 0802048757

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An Echo From An Empty Place
by Barry Allen

One point made very forcefully, even definitively, by Harris Athanasiadis is that George Grant was a Christian theological thinker of a peculiar stamp. His thinking on topics from Canadian nationalism to mass society and technology is passionately informed by the theological perspective its progenitor, Martin Luther, called the theology of the cross.

A theology of the cross epitomizes many meditations on the extraordinary affirmation of Christians, that God died on the cross. Simone Weil, a theologian Grant reveres, thinks of the Creation from the perspective of the cross, as divine renunciation, "God renounces being everything." The appropriate response by humans she calls decreation: Self-renouncing love, waiting in emptiness, renouncing force, continuing to love despite the absence of the beloved divinity. A theology of the cross is a theology of deus absconditus, the hidden God, hidden in God's opposite, present as absence, revealed in the most evil of evils, the murder of God.

Grant's work is a kind of theology of the absent, hidden, hiding God. He conceives the task of his critique of modern liberal society as "bringing to light the darkness as darkness." His sweeping criticism of modernity, mass society, and technology aims to expose the nihilistic complacency of liberal society. First articulated by Luther, discovered by Grant in the Scots theologian John Oman (topic of his Oxford thesis), independently and magnificently developed by Simone Weil, "this theology serves to orient, guide, and structure Grant's thought." Athanasiadis is very convincing on this, his main point. But after questions of scholarship come questions of philosophy, and of what to make of Grant's thinking. Here Athanasiadis is weaker. Grant gets too smooth a ride.

Grant's view of North America is that people of the continent (which doesn't include Mexico and scarcely includes Quebec) are pulled two ways: toward faith without theology or philosophy (fundamentalism), and toward science and technology without faith (liberalism). Grant has little to say about the dangers of fundamentalism, and blames everything bad about modern times, from the world wars, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima, to mass society and technology, on liberalism.

For Grant, liberalism is a theology of glory, his expression (after Luther) for any system of thought that is insufficiently impressed by sinfulness, and not grieving over evil. The deity of this liberal theology is, appropriately, liberty, freedom from feudal fealty to anything absolute or transcendent. Liberalism is defined above all by secularism, "the affirmation that we are on our own."

Liberalism, in Grant's commodious usage, stands for individualism and freedom without limitation and restraint, and for scientific knowledge and technique unchecked by shame before sin. It purveys a false idea of freedom as getting what we want, and being satisfied with comfort, security, and control. This false freedom has become the modern faith, the faith of an otherwise faithless mass society, that has "reduced everything to self-centered consumerism, pleasure-seeking, and mastery without limits." Practically everything once worth while in our culturełuniversities, churches, medicine, art, philosophył"have betrayed their reason for being and have conformed themselves to the necessities of the mass society." They have "ended up becoming destroyers of faith, rather than cultivators of a rational foundation for it."

For Grant it is either transcendence or the passions, where transcendence means belief in something absolute, an unconditional Good against which every thought and action is checked. That belief informs his idea of justice, defined as "the inward harmony of human beings with a good that transcends them and defines their nature." Because the sole criterion of this inward harmony is the outward harmony of people living together in society, anything that undermines that outer harmonyłany serious differencełis unjust. One recognizes here a concept of justice that once promoted wars of religion, by interpreting serious difference as dangerous disharmony, and serious disagreement as depravity.

Grant dismisses the claim of Kant or Mill, that you don't need theological transcendence for binding moral values, sweeping aside the critics of metaphysics with a grand ad hominum, blaming their point of view for "the worst crimes of the twentieth century." The Holocaust and Hiroshima are the fault of nihilistic philosophers, who deconstruct metaphysics, discredit transcendence, undermine belief in the absolute.

Grant takes the old-fashioned view that the business of philosophy is "to establish all enquiry and discovery within purposes dictated by the love of God." Philosophy begins with faith, credo ut intelligam, believe in order to understand. Its work is to establish as conclusions of reason what thinkers take on faith about the transcendent Being and its transcendent Good, and then, as Grant indicated, to use all this great philosophical knowledge to ensure that all the rest of knowledgełthe fields of enquiry and discoveryłare appropriately ordered with respect to God's (or Grant's) purposes.

The impression one gets from Grant is, first, that North American society has made a catastrophic mistake, a mistake called liberalism; second, that unless you speak Grant's language and share his religious interpretation, you are part of the problem. You are evil, deluded, dishonest. "Grant increasingly came to see his task as honest reflection on the way things are." What does he think others do, or try to? He admires Luther's dictum that "a theology of glory calls evil good and good evil," whereas "a theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is." People who remain loyal to what Grant attacksłliberalism, modernity, secularismł are said to "obscure the thing as it is by calling good evil and evil good." That pretty much eliminates philosophical discussion. Either you say what is, which turns out to be what Grant says, or you perversely advance the cause of evil in the name of the good.

Grant has no compunction about lofty pronouncements on "the true purpose of humanity," as if this was nothing two men of good will might disagree about, and which promises urgently needed guidance for a multicultural country like Canada. He issues the fatuous demand "that we submit our doing to the necessity of absolute good, in obedience to which alone human beings can find their felicity," without explaining how he knows so much about the absolute good, who is obedient to it, and who has felicity. Presumably that is some of the intelligam he gets for free from his credo. How can one who believes that "the cross is the lens through which one must look at the world as it is" not in all consistency think that those who are indifferent to the cross, whether because they have other religious beliefs or none at all, cannot see the world as it isłthat they are deluded? This is the mentality of an inquisitor.

The book contains some howlers. Connoisseurs of theological nicety will be disappointed to read that the "theologians of the Latin West" (who, if not Thomas Aquinas?) "rejected the distinction between God's essence and being." On the contrary, it was they who invented this distinction (what Heidegger calls the ontolgical difference), and thereby made perhaps the most original contribution to metaphysics since Aristotle. More egregious is the claim that it is the teaching of Western Christianityłthat is, of Augustine, Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Aquinas, Erasmusłthat "human beings were co-creators with God." The idea is nothing short of heresy, and always has been.

Plato supposedly lived in a time of "the decline of religion in the name of science and scepticism . . . [and] a loss of moral and spiritual foundations for conduct." It wasn't skeptics and scientists who killed Socrates. Plato was the greatest exponent of a scientific rationalism directed against the mentality of those who condemned Socrates: The conservatives and fundamentalists, who loved the good old ethos of Homer and the heroes, and despised Socrates for confusing their minds with his demand for reasons and foundations.

Sometimes Grant/Athanasiadis is over-anxious to blacken the modern eye, with absurd results, as when it is said to be a peculiar perversity of modern mass society that we raise children "from early on to accept the assumptions and aspiration of this society as it is." As if back in, let's say, the fourteenth century, or perhaps Periclean Greece, it was altogether different. As if most people, then as now, didn't raise their children to accept the assumptions and aspiration of their society as is. This is not an isolated slip. Athanasiadis says (for Grant) that "the purpose of education in pre-modern society focused . . . on developing a critical awareness of society as it is and a vision of what it ought to be."

Imagine a real pre-modern place of education. It might be a cathedral school, say at Canterbury, in the twelfth century, or a medieval university like Oxford or Paris, or a Roman (or for that matter Greek) school of grammar and rhetoric for boys. There was not a lot of critical awareness of society and its underpinnings being taught in these places. What was taught was core and basic: Public speaking, literacy, Bible, law. Practically all the beneficiaries of these educations found places in the secular or sacred administration of their time, and were sincerely dedicated to the glory of church and state.

To call liberalism "a rejection of any values whatsoever as restraints on freedom" is an absurd canard, and shows how poorly Grant understands what he criticizes. Here is another example: "liberalism believes that with the liberation of the passions people will the better love each other." The secular thought at the heart of liberalism is that you don't need love for a decent moral order. Secularism is a philosophy of urbanism, a philosophy for people who live in cities, in which, invariably, there are many kinds of peopleł different classes, ethnicities, religions, languagesłwho have to get along; they either flourish together or not at all. The secular idea is that you don't have to love your neighbor, just tolerate him, within limits set by law.

Grant was a virtuoso on what Theodor Adorno called "the Wurlitzer organ of the spirit." His favorite tunes are unctuous kitsch ("wonderful truths from our origins in Athens and Jerusalem"), and what he plays is mostly sound and fury signifying nothing. Grant is not a profound thinker. He is someone who needs to sound the way he thinks profundity should sound, but it rings hollow, an echo from an empty place.

Barry Allen teaches philosophy at McMaster University.


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