America Between Jesus and Faust

In my Saturday column I dabbled in a peculiar kind of optimism about the American future, arguing that if we can avoid various forms of self-destruction over the next decade or two, we might find ourselves in a better position than almost any peer or rival — as an aging world’s last bastion of dynamism and growth, possibly centered around the New America taking shape in the Sun Belt cities and the West.

One objection to this vision focuses on my chosen location for this imagined near-future neo-America, given the possibility that climate change will render Texas or Arizona unfit for human habitation. It’s a real concern, and depending on your expectations for rising temperatures and water shortages you might bet on a Great Lakes renaissance instead. But you also shouldn’t necessarily bet against the adaptability of human beings who seem, to my own New England confusion, to really like to live in scorching heat. (Also, did you know, per this essay in our pages, that Arizona uses 3 percent less water than it did in 1957, though its population has grown more than 500 percent since then?)

The deeper objection is a spiritual one, offered by Rod Dreher, who reliably outstrips me in pessimism and comes through again here. “Yes,” he responds, “it is better to live in a country and in a culture that is doing better, materially and otherwise, than all others. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good place to live for the human spirit.” And while America may be in better shape materially than other places, he suggests, it’s just as lost as any other modern society when it comes to having a sense of what he (borrowing from C.S. Lewis borrowing from East Asia) calls “the Tao” — meaning a sense of cosmic purpose beyond mere individualism, and common values beyond the whims and aspirations of the self.

If anything, I don’t think Dreher fired at every target I offered him, because I quoted a description of this imagined New America that used the term “neo-Faustian” to describe its technological ambitions — and what serious conservative or convinced religious believer should welcome a new American century defined by the spirit of the famous doctor, the impulse to bargain for power with the very devil? If you want to cast even my relative optimism as moral pessimism, the proof is in that label: America might have another age of power still ahead of her, but we’ll have to sell our soul to get there (if we haven’t already).

This point touches on a line of tension that runs through a lot of my own writing. I’m a Catholic writer who often criticizes the decadence of the late modern world and urges it to rediscover dynamism and ambition. But if techno-capitalist ambitions are fundamentally Faustian, should a Catholic observer (or anyone else with similar commitments) really wish for them to rise again? In the Bible, after all, Promethean dreams are not always treated kindly: It’s the serpent who promises forbidden knowledge, the bloody-handed Cain who founds the first city, the builders of Babel who are scattered to the winds. Maybe the Promethean spirit in America needs to be exorcised, not revived.

This critique has been raised against both my political and personal writings. Here is Patrick Deneen’s review of “The Decadent Society” for an example of the former sort of criticism (you can read my response here). Maybe more strikingly, here are some comments from Noah Millman on my memoir about chronic illness, “The Deep Places,” which run along similar lines.

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