Ardor, Energy, and Devotion

Here is a bit of a revelation: I am working on a book and have completed about one-third of the project. The book is the result of over two decades spent both participating in and reflecting on our infamous "Culture Wars." There is a confessional quality to what I have written thus far, in that I admit to being blinded by the tribalism that is at the root of the Red / Blue divide.

More on that later.

The reason for this post is that I want to briefly sing the praises of an author who has served as one of my guides: Christopher Lasch. Lasch is best known for his book, "The Culture of Narcissism." However, in my eyes, his great accomplishment is the epic, "The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics."

I have been rereading The True and Only Heaven in preparation for one of the chapters of my own book. It is a genuinely astonishing tour de force - the work of a man whose passion for ideas, honesty and truth is evidenced on single every page. Unfortunately, we lost Christopher Lasch two decades ago, but we can still access his "ardor, energy and devotion" through his work.

The following is an excerpt from a 1994 essay "The Gift of Christopher Lasch" first published in the journal, First Things.


In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics , Lasch not only provided a powerful critique of a view of progress whose culminating hope is a “vision of men and women released from outward constraints” but, even more important, sketched the outlines of an alternative tradition. Examining such disparate figures as Jonathan Edwards, Orestes Brownson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Lasch searched for a conception of “hope” that could be distinguished from the shallow optimism of progressive thought. In contrast to the liberal view of human beings as consumers, he recalled the “heroic conception of life” articulated, for example, in Orestes Brownson’s Catholic radicalism. Lasch noted that Brownson and the early republican tradition shared “a suspicion that life was not worth living unless it was lived with ardor, energy, and devotion.” Agreeing that the suspicion was justified, Lasch argued that a truly democratic culture requires a shared commitment not to diversity for its own sake but rather to “a demanding, morally elevating standard of conduct.” He noted that “political pressure for a more equitable distribution of wealth can come only from movements fired with religious purpose and a lofty conception of life.”

In one of his most impressive chapters, Lasch illuminated the greatness of Martin Luther King, who addressed the nation as a whole but “also spoke the language of his own people, which incorporated their experience of hardship and exploitation yet affirmed the rightness of a world full of unmerited hardship.” Like Lincoln, King drew strength from “a popular religious tradition whose mixture of hope and fatalism was quite alien to liberalism.” In a separate essay, Lasch attributed “the collapse of the civil rights movement” to the liberal insistence, even among pastors, that racial issues be confronted “with arguments drawn from modern sociology and from the scientific refutation of racial prejudice” rather than confronted on the moral and religious grounds that King had articulated so compellingly.

Read the entire piece here.