Convictions Freely Chosen: Galen Watts' The Spiritual Turn

Convictions Freely Chosen: Galen Watts' The Spiritual Turn

But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs. Where the fulfilment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all. In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport. No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: ‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Critics of liberalism like Marx assumed its contradictions would bring about its downfall and replacement. Critics like Weber predicted a much less grandiose end. Liberalism and capitalism would go on—probably forever. Far from a blessing, this could well be a curse upon humanity. Combining all the selfishness of hedonistic materialism with all the dull mediocrity of a middle class moderate, the “iron cage” would synthesize the doldrums of liberal state bureaucracy with the ruthlessness of market competition. The result wouldn’t be a world of alienated underground men gnawing on their own impotence. Instead people wouldn’t even feel enough to care about their own one-dimensionality anymore, accepting or even embracing their spiritless resignation as a sign of mature common sense. Weber snidely abjured that such a wretched “nullity” would come to inherit the earth, and would even have the gall to imagine itself the apex of the human soul. 

So runs a very familiar critique of liberalism which, in many flavors and guises, has been lobbed against it since nearly the beginning. Rebutting it serves as the background for Galen Watts’ excellent new book The Spiritual Turn: The Religion of the Heart and the Making of Romantic Liberal Modernity. It’s a necessary task. In its modern form a variety of religious critics, many on the self-declared “post-liberal” right, accuse liberalism of propagating a kind of nihilism. In this telling, pre-liberals from Bacon to Hobbes held that existence has no intrinsic meaning, but was simply matter in motion to be manipulated to service individual selfishness. As this doctrine spread it came to erode the religious foundations of society, leading to increasingly militant forms of secularism and atheism attempting to make a virtue of their very spiritual superficiality. Post-liberal critics accurse liberal secularism of assuming the highest end in life is buying the next iPhone, marching under the slogan of “There’s Probably No God, So Stop Worrying And Enjoy Your Life”. Given this, post-liberals argue we shouldn’t be surprised at how discontented many people are with liberalism.

The “spiritual turn”

Watts, a Banting Fellow at KU Leuven’s Centre for Sociological Research, points out that a “hardened cliché” about Western societies is that they are ruthlessly committed to militant individualism and materialist secularism, leading many to reject the idea that we are “inheritors of shared tradition, or…dependent upon institutions for our sense of self. Rather, we tend to perceive our ideals as emerging from deep within us, as opposed to the society in which we live.” This leads to the corrosion of respect for social institutions and community, and of course for the very idea that there could be transcendent theistic standards to which one can aspire and compare one’s individualistic ideals. So widespread is the sense that this is a crisis that post-liberal and conservative critics have even called for a kind re-enchantment of the world; a conviction that builds upon Edmund Burke’s longstanding lament in Reflections on the Revolution in France that Enlightenment rationalism has stripped away all “the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.” As Watts puts it midway through The Spiritual Turn the most “conservative commentators are especially concerned about the decline of authoritative biblical religion in romantic liberal modernity, and therefore endorse what we may call public enchantment” and heap “copious derision” and “scorn” on those who embrace it. 

Watts emphatically rejects both this conservative interpretation of liberal modernity, and their attempts to reintroduce ideological “pleasing illusions” to resublimate it. Not least because Watts recognizes that these reactionary efforts to enact “public enchantment” are hardly benign. Burke worried that once all the “pleasing illusions” were stripped away from authority its naked truth as being mere power would be exposed and we’d see that a “a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman…” But desublimating these kinds of artificial authorities has proven absolutely central to human emancipation

Watts offers an extraordinarily original analysis of liberal modernity which gets to its very heart. Drawing upon extensive qualitative research conducted for his PhD, along with rich theoretical analysis and argumentation, Watts argues that in fact spirituality and interest in what the theologian Paul Tillich called matters of “ultimate concern” haven’t disappeared in liberal societies. Instead the way we try and understand what is of ultimate concern has changed, in large part for the better. 

Drawing very heavily on the work of Emile Durkheim and Charles Taylor, particularly the latter’s epoch making brick A Secular Age, Watts argues that one mischaracterizes liberal modernity by describing it as militantly secular. If anything one has seen a new kind of religiosity take hold which draws inspiration from  the philosophy of “expressive individualism” articulated by J. S. Mill in the 19th century. Mill was critical of the cruder forms of utilitarian liberalism advanced by hedonistic materialists, who thought that the only meaningful life was one pursuing raw pleasures and avoiding pain. Instead Mill drew on romanticism to argue that each of us has a deep interest in developing our self through expressions of our individuality; acting like a “tree” which “requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” 

Watts stresses that this expressive individualism lay at the root of many of the liberal counter-cultural movements of the 1960s which were so decried by conservative moralists for their permissive irreligiosity. But in fact, according to Watts, many of the forms of expressive individualism which emerged were neither atheistic or even atomistically individualist. Instead people came to see their spirituality as something that needed to be expressive of their individual value systems, and either reconceived traditional religions in line with their inclinations or developed entirely new ones where suitable. These are what Watts calls “religions of the heart” characterized by a kind of “experiential epistemology” where “feeling is the language of the soul” and “nothing trumps direct personal experience when it comes to [a person’s] spirituality.” Moreover, a commitment to a religion of the heart often entails establishing communities with people who feel the same.  While many of which were experimental and faltered, but plenty of which succeeded in providing a real sense of democratic belonging to their members. Some of these, like Alcoholics Anonymous, provide very tangible benefits to their members, as Watts observes:

Newcomers arrive at the proverbial doors of AA filled with shame and self-loathing. Whether the causes of these are partly (or even entirely) systemic does not detract from the fact that these feelings exist, and often plague individuals, stifling them from forming healthy relationships, engaging in projects, and enjoying life…A central reason for the appeal of the religion of the heart in romantic liberal modernity is its ability to imbue suffering with meaning. The accounts of AA members exhibit this powerfully. We might say then that New Life Fellowship [an AA group] functions as a site of private enchantment, where individuals’ personal lives are imbued with cosmic meaning and purpose, and where they can achieve a sense of redemption.

Defending romantic liberal modernity  

Watts’ aim is not merely to describe this expressive individualist turn to “religions of the heart” but to defend it, and by extension defend romantic liberal modernity against critics who claim it is soulless and nihilistic. He rejects conservative efforts to characterize the new religions of the heart are somehow decadent, unserious or some kind of post-modern pastiche. Watts points out how to many, the sense of connection a person has to their individuated spirituality and the degree of connection felt by those who genuinely feel the same is extremely meaningful.    This would have come as no surprise to someone like Alexis de Tocqueville, who was astonished at how the very religious freedoms offered by liberal America facilitated the formation of affective faith traditions which compared staunchly with the dull throne and altar Christianity of his homeland.  Watts doesn’t lean on the term, but there is a Kierkegaardian sense in which the authenticity of religions of the heart distinguish them from the kind of rote formalism and submission to traditionalist authorities so cherished by conservatives. Indeed I would put the main point more forcefully than Watts would, given the stakes at play in our political moments. As Charles Taylor points out in A Secular Age this spiritual authenticity is one of the best arguments for rejecting a return to “authoritative Biblical religion” since it seriously risks cheapening the importance of faith by making it a social imposition rather than something regarded as of ultimate concern. 

This is a foundational religious problem for the critics of liberalism addressed by Watts. A good example of such a critics is Yoram Hazony, who has developed one of the most systematic conservative critiques in recent years and very much endorses a return to authoritative Biblical nationalism. In his essay “Conservative Rationalism Has Failed” Hazony hypothesizes about a sincere agnostic or atheist who nonetheless chooses to accept and abide by the imposition of traditional religious practices in his “nation.” He does this despite not believing because it is necessary to “revive these traditions, to make myself a more conservative person, to give honor to the ideas and way of life of my ancestors who brought me here (or of the nation that adopted me).” But as Kierkegaard points out in his Attack on Christendom this often has the effect of making faith into something less serious than it is; a concern for the purely “ethical” realm of human nations and their politics rather than an intense and personal commitment of single individual to what is of highest concern to her. It reduces religion and faith into a kind of social glue meant to induce respect for what is human, all too human, and distorts the authenticity of one’s relationship to God or the highest questions of existence. 

Freely chosen

I’m not confident that many of these conservative criticisms are ultimately about rarefied questions of ultimate concern. Many of them orbit around a Burkean or De Maistrean yearning to resublimate the often domineering forms of social hierarchy cherished by the right with a religious gloss. In the wrong hands this runs very close to being a kind of fetishistic idolatry, as Alasdair MacIntyre rightly pointed out in his early classic Marxism and Christianity. To weaponize a faith tradition which held that the “wretched of the earth will know that God is on their side” to defend borders, armies, and nations strikes me as both very illiberal and very inauthentic indeed. 

All this is to say that Watts’ warm, compassionate and deep analysis is a vital contribution to the discourse of our time. He offers a profound counter-point to the cliched trope that liberals care nothing about matters of soulcraft and community, and in fact provides empirical evidence that liberal societies do a better job of facilitating the spirituality of their citizens than competitors. This should not surprise us. It is an enduring truth that the deepest convictions of the human heart cannot be birthed by compulsion, but have to be freely chosen in fear and trembling. 

Featured image is Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”