In the last decade or so, Christianity has become charged with countercultural energy, a most precious resource in the human symbolic economy. A less technical way of saying this is that Christianity is “cool” again. Whether we’re viewing video clips of famous urban musicians, visiting contemporary art displays, or hearing the political theories of distinguished philosophers, contemporary culture, both high-brow and popular, is overflowing with positive references to Christianity, something unthinkable just a few years ago.
Viewing Christianity this way forces us to desacralize it and recognize that it occupies a special place. Cultural critics work with two assumptions: secularism and Darwinism. The former views Christianity as a more or less unified set of concepts, values, and narratives that can be studied and evaluated without any need to enter into questions of faith. The latter considers contemporary society to be a giant jungle or perhaps a marketplace in which different narratives compete to win the hearts of the people. The success or failure of the competitors depends on their intrinsic qualities, the changing environment, and people’s adaptive responses. While the importance of Christianity in the history of the West gives it a privileged status, it is clearly not immune to the pressures of growth and decline that affect other religions and philosophies.
A valuable guide for our economistic vision of culture is the philosopher and art critic Boris Groys, who has continued the anthropological tradition of Marcel Mauss or Claude Levi-Strauss. For these authors, the basis of human culture is the exchange of values. Culture can be seen as a realm traversed by a line passing between the sacred and the profane, that is, between that on which we place special value and that on which we place little, and where different actors are tying to move different values across the dividing line. According to Groys, what drives this mechanism is suspicion, the human urge to question the nature of reality and to find the essences behind appearances, whether they take the form of the Platonic Idea, the unconscious, capital, or the God of Christianity.
The cultural market is in constant movement because no theory manages to eliminate suspicions completely. Sooner or later the suspicions reappear, producing alternative theories or reviving those that had fallen out of favor. In order to attain, maintain, or regain the most privileged positions in the symbolic marketplace, the defenders of the different religions and philosophical schools are constantly launching new operations to enhance values, such as those Nietzsche dreamed of for his superman. The countercultural status attributed to Christianity today is a way of saying that it is on an upward swing: after spending a few years at the bottom of the cultural hierarchy, it has lately been ascending.
What the philosophical theories contending for the throne have in common is their, paradoxical nature. Even though scientific discourse tries to describe a world free of contradictions, we now know—thanks to Bertrand Russell, Kurt Godel, and Werner Heisenberg, who created philosophies of their respective sciences—that even the explanatory systems we consider most solid (formal logic, mathematics, physics) sooner or later run into some paradox or circularity that forces the system to depend on an external postulate that the system itself cannot explain. As Kierkegaard would say, at the base of all irrefutable truth there is always a leap of faith.
What makes philosophical discourse different —and we, without any scruple, consider religion to be philosophical discourse—is that it seeks to thematize the paradoxical nature of reality instead of trying to conceal it. This mechanism is easier to see than it seems, and once detected, it is omnipresent: Socrates knows only that he knows nothing, Descartes arrives at absolute certainty through radical doubt, Kant closes the door of science to God but then opens the window of faith, etc. The most seductive theories in the symbolic marketplace are not those that explain a tiny parcel of human experience; rather, they are the theories that attempt to make sense of the whole (Lyotard speaks of “grand narratives” and uses the adjective “all-encompassing”). But because attempts to embrace the whole always encounter paradoxes, the only ones that win people’s hearts are those capable of engaging with the paradox and making helpful suggestions.
It goes without saying that Christianity is a bundle of paradoxes. God is one, but God is three. Jesus Christ is divine, but also human. Matthew tells us that the last will be first and the first last. At the same time, Christianity is full of contradictions within itself, as we know from the oceans of ink that theologians have spilt trying to reconcile the Old Testament with the New, or even conflicting verses in the same holy book. Not only does Christianity abound in paradoxes and contradictions, but it differs from less radical theories by creating tensions between opposed cultural values. Such a strategy, according to Groys, turns the most successful philosophies into “places where hierarchical differences disappear, traditional opposition of values are undone, and the power of time (with its contrast between a valuable past and a worthless present and future) is overcome. Thus arises the experience of being outside time, of delighting ecstatically in a realized utopia, of enjoying freedom, and of exercising the magical omnipotence that accompanies the successful, that is, the radically innovative cultural act.” Do we not speak of Christianity as good news?
The problem is that the unequivocally countercultural novelty that characterized Christianity in its origins gradually faded after centuries of occupying the throne of Western culture. Some assaults against Christianity have come from within in the form of critical currents and splits; these have led to divisions that transcend theology and pervade the entire culture, as Max Weber perceptively explained in his comparison of Protestantism with Catholicism. From the beginnings of modernity to the present, however, various discourses have appeared that are completely external to Christianity but are perfectly equipped to explain the totality, thematize the paradoxical, and reconcile apparently incompatible values. They include the discourses of liberalism (individuals can make themselves), Marxism (spirit is an epiphenomenon of material forces), and even postmodernism (reality is a game between unreal discourses). In this philosophically compressed marketplace, there is no immutable order; there is only a cascade of constant ups and downs that are difficult to foresee, reminiscent of stock market movements.
If at the dawn of the 21st century Christianity is once again on the rise after being neglected for quite some time, we must compare it with postmodernism, the reigning monarch during the last decades of the 20th century. After the Second World War, as Adorno and Horkheimer explained in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, there was a general collapse of the grand theories that believed in the transformation of human nature by virtue of some ultimate principle. They were replaced by an amalgam of philosophies that were first described by Lyotard as postmodern and were exemplified by the European thought of Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida. Broadly speaking, these theories were characterized by their preference for difference over identity, for becoming over being, for flow over stability, for appearance over essence, etc.
Postmodernism is obviously the perfect philosophy for neoliberal globalization. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalist logic has sought to impose itself on the entire planet. As we have known since Marx, capitalism advances by melting down everything solid. The postmodernist preference for flow is analogous to capitalism’s preference for maximization of profit. As a result, by the end of the 20th century the dominant powers were attempting to eliminate all borders in order to establish a global market. The logic of politics is different, however; it functions by means of mandates, prohibitions, and hierarchies that can interrupt the flow of capital in the name of moral values. While the political universalism of the past asked people to abandon personal beliefs and enroll in a collective project of transformation, today’s market universalism asks people to put their personal desires at the center, but it also requires that those desires not be in any way an obstacle to the satisfaction of other people’s desires.
As we have known since 2001, the dream of neoliberal globalization has not been fulfilled. Human beings have not dissolved their differences in a sea of idle language games, nor has the end of history arrived. Rather we have witnessed Islamic terrorism, Chinese nationalism, Western imperialism, and the rise of illiberal political movements. Identity values have gained strength, and politics is beginning to regain some of the ground lost to economics. Just as the World Wars, the Holocaust, and the gulags dulled the cultural radiance of modernity, so have the great recession, the endless migration crises, and the war in Ukraine obscured the radiance of neoliberal postmodernism.
In the midst of this constant back-and-forth movement, many cultural actors have discovered a gold mine in Christianity. According to Christian anthropology, the human soul is not an imbroglio condemned to a perpetual flux; rather, it is an entity capable of achieving salvation. Christianity is democratic because it offers utopia to all human beings regardless of their condition. In contrast to postmodernism, which condemns individuals to an unending and exhausting game of self-transformation, Christianity teaches hierarchies of values and the possibility of overcoming the anguish of flux with the peace of belief. Christianity also differs from the utopian discourses of modernity—such as Marxism, fascism, and liberalism—in its critique of instrumental rationality and scientism, both of which exemplify capitalism’s abuse of human genius to justify its project.
Despite all this, as we have said, Christianity’s paradoxical nature and its ability to live with contradictions explain a peculiar feature of the revaluation it is now experiencing: in the cultural battle to replace the postmodern consensus with a new order, Christianity is a resource equally coveted by the two great contenders. Broadly speaking, the split coincides with the old, but still effective, left-right dichotomy. On the one hand, there is a new cultural right, exemplified by thinkers like Jordan Peterson, Alain de Benoist, and Aleksander Dugin; they are interested in the conservative side of Christianity, which they wield as a weapon for order against chaos. On the other hand, there is the revolutionary left, with theorists such as Slavoj Žižek, Giorgio Agamben, and Alain Badiou; these thinkers appeal to the revolutionary stance of the first Christians and to Christianity’s discourse of radical equality that calls into question all social orders.
It would be very sad for us to finish without taking a stand, so we will present our own opinion. Just as fascism is not the same as communism, the neoconservative reading of Christianity is not the same as the revolutionary reading. The difference between them can be explained by what we said above about the reasons why some philosophies are more successful than others in the symbolic economy: only the most all-encompassing ideas, the ones best able to thematize paradox, are capable of touching the human heart. For conservatives, Christianity is limited to affirming the superiority of partial values such as family, submission to the established order, sexual moderation, and the like. This perspective excludes much human experience and reduces Christianity to a conventional political ideology. In contrast, the revolutionary Christianity we find in the New Testament, especially in the letters of Paul, places paradox at the center. It proclaims: “Let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.”
The New Testament conception of love expresses the ultimate dream of all philosophical discourse: the possibility of experiencing the contradictions of life without having to conceal or repress them. Revolutionary Christianity differs from the conservative kind in its universalist and egalitarian aspiration to transcend all divisions, but it differs also from postmodern progressivism, which condemns individuals to ride an infinite roller-coaster of differences that exhausts the spirit. In promising salvation, Christianity offers instead the most radically countercultural possibility imaginable today: rest.