Three Theological Reflections on Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed

Patrick J. Deneen’s thesis in Why Liberalism Failed is clear and direct. “Liberalism has failed,” he writes in the introduction, “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded” (3). He argues that liberalism stands on a faulty foundation, fractured from the start under the weight of its own hubristic self-certainty. The book has already been reviewed extensively including thrice in the New York Times (1, 2, 3), in the Wall Street Journal, in the Federalist, and elsewhere, and these reviews have covered a substantial amount of critical ground for Deneen’s project.

Leaving the evaluation of his argument to others, I instead want to trace the theological consequences of what Deneen perceives so as to orient the calamity of liberalism’s inevitable end to three fundamental errors in its premise: the first is about the meaning of the (un)created world, the second is about the basic anthropological claim and the natural state of human beings, and the third is about the human project and what constitutes bondage and freedom. To meaningfully measure these deviations, I will assume a fundamentally biblical worldview to serve as the standard.

The Meaning of the World

In the third chapter of his book, Deneen argues that liberalism rides roughshod over particular cultures in pursuit of one, universal, liberal culture that, in the final analysis, is really a “pervasive and encompassing anticulture” (64). Under the guise of securing diversity, promoting global entertainment and commerce, and multiplying the possibilities for self-fulfillment ad infinitum, this liberalizing project manages to accomplish three objectives: it sets human beings against nature, it negates the distinctiveness of past and future by relegating all meaning to the present, and it erases the concreteness of particular places. In attacking these “three cornerstones of human experience—nature, time, and place,” liberalism dismantles the basis of culture and, as I want to argue, fundamentally changes the meaning of the world. Genesis 1:1–2:4 allows us to measure the extent of this change.

The first creation account is not a story about what happened once upon a time but rather a claim about what the world is, how it moves, and to what end. The structure of the account matters, as does its particular symbolism and directionality. First, on the structure, all the action begins with just a simple command: “Let there be”, or, importantly in Latin for later resonance, “Fiat”. What comes to be is an order that always dispels chaos, which, for the ancient world (and perhaps for our own), is that which is feared most. This order is established over the course of six days, culminates in the seventh day, and is marked by proportionality and balance. In the first three days, the principles of what will be created in the latter three days are themselves created—the act of creation is deliberate, meaningful, and carefully orchestrated. On day one, light is created, while on day four, the things that give light are created. On day two, water is separated into the sea below and the sky above, while on day five the things that fill the seas and the sky are created. On day three, land is created along with vegetation, while on the sixth day those things that roam the land—animals and ultimately human beings—are created. Day one anticipates and prepares for day four, day two beckons day five, and day three sets up day six. The seventh day stands alone without parallel, a day unto itself, which I will return to later. Rather than some overlaid and impersonal astronomical meaning or independent, self-generated logic bending the distinctness of each part towards itself, each part is given its distinctiveness by the one who utters the word “Fiat”. In sum, each day of the progressive creation is a particular location, a place at once definite and fundamentally referential both to every other part and to creation as a whole. Place matters.

Second, on symbolism, numbers are crucial in the first creation account. “God said” appears ten times—as ten “words”—pointing to the wisdom that upholds the order of creation given over in the Decalogue. But the numbers embedded in the account also provide a way to measure time. There are of course seven days, and then there are seven blessings—“and God saw that it was good”—which measure the span of each day. The name of “God” who speaks, acts, and blesses appears 35 times (7 x 5) and, in the Hebrew, the section of the text dedicated to the seventh day contains exactly 35 words. The measure of each day is from the word of creation to the word of blessing, the measure of all the days is the culmination of the these words, and the singular day that measures the progress of the whole creative work—the Sabbath—is a day that is ordered to nothing other and nothing less than the one who is responsible for the work of creation from beginning to end. Progress is measured according to the relative approach to the completion of the whole, which is far from a vague horizon—it is a definite presence that gives eternal rest and enjoyment. Not only does this creation account disallow “time” from being sucked into the dominance of any one moment detached from the completion of the whole, but it also wards against the meaningless movement of time. Time is purposeful and time has a definite measure. Time matters.

Lastly, on directionality, all things depart from and find their intended destiny in the one who moves the whole narrative: the creator God. He appears in the narrative not simply as a laborer, not merely as a designer, but indeed as a priest. God is the one who blesses, taking the elements he has created and bestowing on them benedictions—“good words.” Seen as a whole, the entire world comes to resemble a temple, with a sacred and reserved space at its focal point where holiness itself dwells. In the space that is created, and with the time that is given, the priest of this macrocosmic temple moves the whole of creation and each part towards the finality of blessing, where all of nature—what is and has been and will be—is consecrated. Nature matters.

When Deneen points to liberalism as establishing an anticulture, the theological significance of this is to say that liberalism is involved in undoing the logic of creation. “Claiming to liberate the individual from embedded cultures, traditions, places, and relationships,” Deenen writes, “liberalism has homogenized the world in its image” (17). That image is one in which the greatest desire is for the “liberation” of each individual from the claims of place, time, and nature so as to pursue an individualized project of self-actualization. The catch, of course, is that the rules of this project are prescribed by the state, which controls the conditions of “liberty” in the first place. At base is the assumption that nature unchecked by the state is a looming threat and so it must be conquered, that the memory of the past and the responsibility for the future are burdens that must be alleviated through entrenched presentism, and the distinctiveness of particular places are only allowable to the extent that they do not impede the collective aim of liberalism’s project: to render each individual as fundamentally separate and inherently threatening to the individualized interests of every other individual. The world is naturally threatening, human beings exists by nature in a state of radical independence and autonomy, and liberalism begins with the assumption and intention that no one trusts each other. The state therefore secures order against the looming threat of chaos, but only because the meaning of the world has been changed beforehand, right in the foundational principles of liberalism itself.

In the end, liberalism functions as a true ideology because the one thing it never discloses is its true agenda: “What’s most insidious about the cave that we occupy is that its walls are like the backdrops of old movie sets, promising seemingly endless vistas without constraints or limits, and thus our containment remains invisible to us” (5). What really contains us, it seems, is a fundamental assumption about the meaning of the world.

The Meaning of the Human Being

Attendant to this reimaged world is an altered anthropology that bears significant consequences for what it means to be human. In a telling excerpt, Deneen offers a brief testimony from one of his own students:

Because we view humanity—and thus its institutions—as corrupt and selfish, the only person we can rely upon is our self. The only way to avoid failure, being let down, and ultimately succumbing to the chaotic world around us, therefore, is to have the means (financial security) to rely upon ourselves (12).

The primary anthropological concept is the individual, set off against the surrounding environment and other individuals who are themselves a looming threat to the individual’s security. Having dug in as a settled fact of modern life, this anthropological assumption is the result of a twofold revolution in the meaning of the human being: opposition to nature and the tyranny of choice. In order to observe this revolution, I want to appeal again to the biblical view as a standard for measurement, this time observing the second creation account beginning in Genesis 2.

The anthropological claim of the second creation account is that the human being is the integral unity of formed matter and donated breath: “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Gen 2:7, JPS translation). Beginning with the formed matter, the human being is quite literally an “earth creature” (‘adam from the ‘adamah). This ‘adam comes from the stuff of the earth and will never leave behind this orientation. This stuff has been given to the creature as the very basis of its bodily form, making the earth itself an inexpressible blessing to him: it is that from which ‘adam has been formed and receives a material share. That the earth is a blessing to the human being is reinforced in the divine command the Lord God gives to his creature: “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it . . . ” (2:16b–17a). While it is commonplace to focus on the single prohibition, it is more appropriate to note that the garden is a place of abundant gift: “of every tree of the garden you are free to eat.” From the very earth out of which this creature has been formed, trees grow to bear nourishment, and from every one of these the creature may eat, save one. But a revolution in perspective is soon introduced, which changes the vision of the garden entirely, and therefore the vision of the earth itself.

When the serpent enters the scene, the first words it speaks to the woman are these: “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” (Gen 3:1b). The implications of this question cannot be overstated, for indeed the premise of the question introduces a rupture with the original vision of the garden. In the original vision, the garden is bursting with gifts, restrained by but one prohibition. In this newly introduced vision, the entire garden is a prohibition. The deeper suggestion is that the whole world presents to the creature signs of rivalry and competition, with the Creator himself as the main adversary.

Having set the tone, the serpent continues with his focus narrowed to the single prohibited fruit: “God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad” (3:5). From the earlier suggestion comes the closing argument: the Lord God himself is greedy, intentionally keeping from his creatures what would make them his equal. By this point, it no longer matters that the woman responded to the serpent’s earlier question with a (not quite accurate) restatement of the original command, because the seed of suspicion has now taken root. The Lord God is a rival to his creatures, this fruit is a sign of that rivalry, and so this whole garden growing out of the same earth out of which the creatures were formed is a place of rivalry. The vision of the garden—the earth—shifts: what once testified to an economy of gift has become an economy of rivalry. This squares with one dimension of liberalism’s twofold anthropological revolution that Deneen observes: “the human separation from and opposition to nature” (37).

The second revolution concerns the other part of the integral union of the human being in Genesis 2: the donated breath. The animating principle for the formed but otherwise inert “earth stuff” is the breath of life that the Lord God breathes into the nostrils of his creature. The power of life, in other words, is an intimate gift. This gift is the foundation of the original condition of human beings, which, rather than standing apart from one another as individuals, is a condition of solidarity expressed as a most intimate union. From the one integral union of formed matter and donated breath, the Lord God creates two persons who share in this one origin and whose union is itself a testament to what and who they are as intentionally formed, animated creatures. Their names are mutually referential—“man” and “woman” (or ‘ish and ‘ishshah)—, their vocation is ordered to union, and their harmony redounds to the harmony of ‘adam with ‘adamah.

Since the divine command is given prior to the formation of the two creatures from the one, there are two possibilities for how each know the command itself. On the one hand, you might consider that both received this command as one undivided creature—the whole human community—meaning that obedience to the command would be an issue of memory and will. On the other hand, you might consider that it was the duty of the first creature to pass along to the second creature the divine command by which both may live harmoniously in the garden, meaning that obedience to the command would be an issue of communication and will. In the end, it is probably best to hold on to both possibilities, recognizing the importance of both memory and communication for shaping and guiding the will. And while we are all too comfortable with conceiving of the drama that unfolds as predicated on the inevitability of disobedience, a closer and more faithful reading of the text would lead us to recognize that the original drama does not concern what will happen when they disobey, but rather concerns (or would have concerned) the question of what it will cost them to live obediently, listening to, remembering, and communicating charitably about what gives them life: the intimate gift of breath they received, echoed in the words spoken to them about how to live harmoniously.

Though it is fool’s errand to try to pinpoint the precise moment of “the Fall” in the Genesis 3 narrative since the whole thing is a slow-motion tragedy of epic proportions, our attention tends to gravitate towards the single piece of fruit, which is fitting since that is where the woman’s attention was drawn. Rather than focusing in on the moment of consumption both by the woman and her pliantly undiscerning male partner, we would do well to recognize what happens immediately prior, following the serpent’s final words. The text reads, “When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom . . . ” (3:6). She judges the fruit, but measuring its value against what? It seems like according to its tastiness, attractiveness, and usefulness, and indeed it is. But again, its tastiness, attractiveness, and usefulness relative to what? The text remains silent on this point, because that is the point. She has established her own, unspecified criterion for interpretation, and her partner limply follows along without speaking a word during the period of deliberation. The criterion they were given was the divine command and that alone was the standard by which to measure what is good, right, and just. Here, they abandon that word, clinging to their own concocted standards. It is the privacy of their own choice that is preferred to the obedience to the command that was given to them, a command that was itself overwhelmingly positive with but one prohibition. A lapse in memory and in communication pushes the will towards this rebellious, highly individualized way of choosing. And this aligns with the second observation dimension of the liberalism’s anthropological revolution: “anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice” (37).

In tracing this tragedy in political terms, who does Deneen identify as the serpent who recasts the vision of the earth itself and the necessary power of choice? Machiavelli comes closest to the part. “It was Machiavelli,” Deneen writes,

who broke with the classical and Christian aspiration to temper tyrannical temptation through an education in virtue, scoring the premodern philosophical tradition as an unbroken series of unrealistic and unreliable fantasies of “imaginary republics and principalities that have never existed in practice and never could; for the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover that he has been taught to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself” (24–25, quoting Machiavelli’s The Prince).

In other words, Machiavelli insists that the world is not as you fancifully imagine it to be: a place where self-restraint, obedience, and virtue establish the good life for all, because in truth the world is a place of rivalry where individuals must seek security for themselves. The basis of choice must be self-preservation, according to one’s own standards, or else you will be overcome by the selfish interests of others. The fruit of this anthropological vision is the student testimony with which I began this section.

The consequences of this revolutionized anthropology seem to be loneliness, estrangement, miscommunication, and painful labor, both in Genesis 3 and in the lives of persons under the reign of liberalism. But Deneen’s insight turns this assumption on its head for liberalism, and it is likewise a promising insight to apply to Genesis 3 itself. Rather than ending up lonely, estranged, disconnected, and enslaved to work, Deneen argues that we become these things because we want to be this way. It is a failure of desire. The conditions we inherit are the consequence—not the cause—of our fundamental commitments. We do not end up homeless, but rather opt for homelessness in advance because we refuse to consider nature a home—this garden is a threat (78). Our technological society follows from our basic political technology:

One that replaces the ancient commendation of virtue and aspiration to the common good with self-interest, the unleashed ambition of individuals, an emphasis of private pursuits over a concern for the commonweal, and acquired ability to reconsider relationships that limit our [individual] liberty” (102).

Like the forbidden fruit in the garden, the smartphone and other symbols of the “culture of technology” do not first impose an order on those within liberalism’s domain, but rather represent the revolutionized anthropological claim that gives rise to a certain false definition of liberty (109). To appeal to a later and related part of Scripture, the Golden Calf is the consequence of idolatry, not its cause.

The Meaning of Liberation

If the “natural” condition in which one finds oneself in the world is the perpetual condition of being under threat, fundamentally locked in to rivalry with all others who would impinge on one’s voluntarism, then the project of liberty conforms to the task of preserving and enacting the individual power of choice. Liberalism’s assumption is that one is born free, meaning that each individual is first of all an individual and that the bonds of slavery are fastened whenever the individual is constrained by a tradition. Any trace of conformity reeks of bondage, while the assertion of individual identity is the aim of liberation. This is a complete reversal of the classic and especially traditionally Judeo-Christian notion of freedom and of bondage, for in that view bondage is considered to be much more aligned with the enslavement to one’s own untutored appetites and freedom aims at responsible, creative participation in the common good.

In Deneen’s reading, the keynote for liberalism’s conception of freedom comes down to “the liberal human as self-fashioning expressive individual. This aspiration requires no truly hard choices be made. There are only different lifestyle options” (40). The role of the state, therefore, is to secure the seemingly unbounded possibilities for self-expression, which are always reducible to individual preferences and therefore fundamentally opposed to claims of correctness or the objectivity of goodness, beauty, and truth. With the cultivation of character and virtue no longer in view, the twin rule of the individual will and the policing state to secure the individual’s uncommitted autonomy grow exponentially. If this is the societal goal, then the ways in which the society prepares its young is altered accordingly. In one of his most significant strands of critique, Deneen thus evaluates the state of higher education and specifically the liberal arts.

In the classical view, the understanding of slavery was aligned with “the condition of doing as one wants . . . driven by our basest appetites to act against our better nature.” (This is what the disaster of Genesis 3 portrays). The liberal arts were ordered to leading students out of this jam, cultivating within them the abilities, behaviors, and dispositions conducive to contributing to the building up of culture in particular places alongside other citizens also engaged in the ongoing project of becoming free. Freedom was aligned with the aspiration of creating something together, for the sake of all, even and especially at the cost of one’s own private interests. In this way, as Deneen notes, “the liberal arts made us free” (113).

When the view of the world shifts, alongside the notion of what the human being “naturally” is, the program for training and educating the young shifts with it. If the world is a threatening place, then the project of promoting liberty aligns with the goal of achieving mastery over the world (117). And if human beings are “naturally” set against each other as separate individuals with competing preferences and therefore rivals on the path to self-expression through voluntarist choice, then the aim of education is determined according to the need for individuals to be self-sufficient, finding security in their preparedness for jobs that provide the means for individuals to sustain themselves (116, see again the student’s testimony on 12). We aim for autonomous individuals who become worker-consumers in a market-driven economy dedicated to mastery over the world.

In an especially incisive critique, Deneen connects the kind of training young adults receive in the college party “culture” to the amoral pursuits that contributed to the Great Recession:

Indeed, training at dorm parties and the fraternities at one’s college were the ideal preparation for a career in the mortgage bond market, and the financial frat party of Wall Street more generally. The mortgage industry rested upon the financial equivalent of college “hookups,” random encounters with strangers in which appetites (for outsized debt or interest) were sated without any care for the consequences for the wider community. Responsibility- and cost-free loans were mutually satisfactory and wholly liberating from the constraints of an older financial order. But much as on college campuses, these arrangements led to gross irresponsibility and abuse, damaging communities and demolishing lives (87).

When pushed to their logical conclusion, the practices engaged in “dorm parties and the fraternities” and the exercises undertaken in the “responsibility- and cost-free” financial sector arrive at what might reasonably be dubbed “rape culture.” This “culture” is really no culture at all, but rather an anticulture in which the force of the individual’s will subdues another’s freedom. As a sign of ultimate contradiction, liberalism’s project of promoting of view of liberty in which every individual can say “I will what I want” breeds an environment where aggressors are enslaved to their own appetites, and so is everyone else.

In other words, “The destruction of culture achieves not liberation but powerlessness and bondage” (87).

After Liberalism

In Deneen’s reading, liberalism appears as one of the latest but certainly neither the first nor the last wholesale attempt to undo the meaning of the world, re-envision the meaning of the human being, and reconceive of the project of liberation. Whether Deneen’s critique is aimed directly at liberalism in particular or modernity as a whole is an open question, but what is clear from his sweeping (anti-)cultural and political analysis is that the basic assumptions that drive policy and education and commerce and technology ripen into a seemingly irresistible way of living and moving and having being. By his own prescriptions, Deneen calls for a return to smaller communities, more particular cultures, and more intentional practices in order to recover a sense of citizenship and a project of liberty worth living for. Furthermore, though, if Deneen’s diagnosis, when reflected upon theologically, is also detecting a “fall story” in terms of the biblical view of creation, the human person, and freedom, then Deenen’s civic and political recommendations will also have religious analogues.

And so, for another essay, one might consider the importance of the cultivation of memory as a return to place, time, and nature; of the cultivation of mercy as a training in the truth of human being’s social nature and essential orientation to integral development; and the cultivation of liturgical worship as the remedy to the otherwise seemingly unbreakable addiction to our own autonomous appetites.

Featured Image: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling - Creation of the World [detail], 1510; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D. serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at Notre Dame. His book on death, desire, and the communion of saints is Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints.

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