In Defense of a “Red Queen Religion”

I always look forward to reading new posts by Francis Berger, and advise you to imitate my habit of eager expectation. I must, however, register qualified dissent from his latest.  In this post Berger enthuses over another post by a blogger named Kevin McCall, titled “Christianity is Inexhaustible,”  in which McCall asserts:

“Christianity isn’t a Red Queen religion, where most of the energy is spent trying to avoid defects. Christianity can always develop. We can always go deeper in our understanding of Christianity because we can always go deeper in our understanding of Christ.”

Which Berger glosses this way:

“It is very comforting and energizing to consider that Christianity is not an ossified religion, but can instead continue to develop and always develop.”

All of this is no doubt true in a sense, but I daresay it is false in the sense it will most likely be taken.  The “development” of Christianity has normally been the excuse of heretics, and avoiding the defects of heresy (and apostasy) is where most of our energy ought to be spent.  There is a point in every inquiry where the hankering for deeper meanings should be stoutly resisted because all meanings below that point are just fantastic monsters of the deep.  Christianity is not a mystery religion with infinite layers of initiation, as an endless procession of gnostic heretics has told us.  We have it on good authority that its essentials can be comprehended by little children.

In arguing against the hankering for development and deeper meaning, I am not arguing for an “ossified religion” of superstitious veneration for dead forms.  I believe that extreme hostility towards superstitious veneration for dead forms is one of the not at all recondite teachings of Christ.  Christ hated all the fussy folderol of “mint, anise and cumin,” all the sanctimonious “straining at gnats,” all the duplicitous swearing on the altar and not the gifts of the altar.  If he teaches us anything, it is that all religion tends to degenerate into this gay charade of mere show.

From this emerges the paradox that Christianity must develop, but only in order to remain the same.  We aspire to sustain the faith of our fathers, and this forbids us to dote on the forms by which our fathers sustained that same faith.  But the faith we aim to sustain by whatever forms we find convenient is not an improvement on their faith.

This means Christianity is a “Red Queen religion,” or, to speak more precisely, that Christians believe they dwell in the Red Queen’s country, where, as the Red Queen told Alice, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”  The stress on “you” is in the original and conveys the Red Queen’s low opinion of Alice’s ability as a runner.  As the ruddy monarch explains to the panting Alice,

“If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

Both individually and collectively, we Christians must run as hard as we can to remain in the same place.  This is why we should not hanker after any sort of “advanced” Christianity, and why we should be thankful to reach each holiday with a faith not too markedly inferior to that we had on that holiday the year before.  Remember that St. Paul told us that he “kept” the faith by “running the good race.”  If Paul had not run, his faith (and the faith) would have reverted to the “mint, anise and cumin” of moribund Judaism, or would have been swallowed in a bank of Gnostic fog.  So Paul had to run.  But he did not run to get anywhere.  He ran to counteract the natural “pull” towards a gay charade of mere show.  Paul ran  a “good race,” but he ran just like Alice and the Red Queen.

“The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything.”

And so, I submit, should we.

25 thoughts on “In Defense of a “Red Queen Religion”

  1. The historical “developments” of Christianity have all been in the direction of doctrine, in the narrowest sense. You only have to look at modern American Protestantism to see what I mean. When Christianity “liberalizes,” it assimilates to whatever dictatorial or totalitarian ideology currently rules the world.

    • We all know the joke, “the conservative case for (insert latest liberal lunacy here).” It is regrettably true that the joke would not be less funny if we substituted “Christian” for “conservative.” This will probably fall off as the “Christian” brand name loses its positive associations.

  2. Martin Luther has 95 developments he would like to propose for consideration.

    I like this section:

    and why we should be thankful to reach each holiday with a faith not too markedly inferior to that we had on that holiday the year before

    My priest advises every year, for lent, that our lenten ambitions should not be things which we strive to keep only for lent, but should be things we strive to keep forever. In this way, each year for 40 days we seed a new habit that improves our faith. If we do this every year over our whole lives, even if it is a small improvement each year, the compounding interest will do wonders in the race to stay in the same place.

    Secondarily, Mr. Bertonneau’s observation about “liberalization” assimilating “whatever dictatorial or totalitarian ideology currently rules the world” is chilling in it’s accuracy. That adequately describes Martin Luther and describes many, if not all, popular heresies. To see what ails the world, look to see what heresy is most plaguing Christianity at the time, and you will have your answer.

  3. “All of this is no doubt true in a sense, but I daresay it is false in the sense it will most likely be taken. The “development” of Christianity has normally been the excuse of heretics, and avoiding the defects of heresy (and apostasy) is where most of our energy ought to be spent. ”

    The difference between Frank Berger’s view, and what I also advocate under the term “Romantic Christianity”; is that the past examples you refer to were all trying to build institutional religions. Frank and I are not. We are talking for ourselves, much as William Blake was talking for himself. We are taking responsibility for our own Christian faith – not trying to organize a rival bureaucratic group.

    (We both worship at traditional churches, Frank’s was Roman Catholic and mine was conservative Evangelical and Anglo Catholic) but do not accept their ultimate authority over our faith.

    Partly because this responsibility is a good thing in itself (we would argue, citing the Fourth (‘John’s) Gospel for one prime source); partly because it is a conscious and honest acknowledgement of what every Christian does, as of the several past decades – since nobody can be an unconscious inherited Christian who simply accepts church authority because he has known nothing else.

    We all make at least one act of discernment, for which we are responsible – but traditionalists make that one discernment a pledge of henceforth submission and obedience to that chosen church’s authority.

    (And if Not, then you are doing exactly the same as I am.)

    And partly because of massive and fatal changes in the Christian churches; which have, from 2020, proved beyond reasonable doubt that they are (overall) on the side of Satan and against God – and, anyway, have all-but shut-up shop in the large majority of cases; abandoning centuries of traditional teaching of essential practice almost overnight, without objection – with indeed enthusiastic assent.

    This applies to the strictest Catholics (Eastern and Western) and Protestants, and to the CJCLDS – all have officially supported the own cessation of whatever were their *core* practices; all have supported at least one (usually more) of the most dangerous and evil secular-left mainstream doctrines of our time.

    In such a situation, the old strategy of “avoiding the defects of heresy (and apostasy) is where most of our energy ought to be spent” has observably failed about as comprehensively as it is possible for anything to fail – and if you cannot perceive that fact, you are not looking very hard.

    I personally regard as fellow real Christians some individual people from Catholic, Protestant and Mormon churches (and of course people of no church) – and I regard traditional attitudes to denominations and ‘heresy’ as a lethal snare which will, over time, lead all Christians who refuse to take personal responsibility to embrace hell – by following obediently, and refusing to think for themselves – in the direction all major church authorities are leading them.

    • I am completely on board with your “romantic Christianity,” while of course conscious that it puts me in a state of acute “fear and trembling.” The bureaucratic structure must be known by their fruits, and those fruits are now failure, fraud and infidelity. “Generation of vipers” just about sums it up, in my opinion. But I am at the same time in a state of acute “fear and trembling” because I see how easily my romantic Christianity can morph into an imaginary Christianity, since there is a little bit of the viper in all of us.

    • Any denomination is a “one stop shop” for all things Christian, and not being able to be an expert on everything, we tend to accept most of the answers off the shelf. For the most part, this works.

      At the same time, we are often challenged to accept–a priori–a church as authoritative and correct on all matters, and our only choice is to submit in advance.

      Finally, I appreciate Dr Charlton’s insights on many things but I find his love of the Mormon to be like a bizarre appendage growing out of his left breast: a constant lurid distraction. Charitably, I will attribute it to English eccentricity.

      • In not submitting in advance, you are on a razor’s edge: you are taking responsibility for your fatih, and you also might spin off into something really weird. I’ve noticed that the people who spin off don’t have someone smarter and better around (how cults begin) to keep them honest.

      • Hence what I just wrote to BC about acute fear and trembling. It is like deciding to perform your own appendectomy after becoming convinced the surgeon wants to kill you.

  4. Though I appreciate your observations concerning my post, JM, I can’t help but feel you have misinterpreted much of what I wrote in that post. The crux of this misinterpretation appears to hinge on the concept of Christianity as a Red Queen religion. I was not referring to Alice in Wonderland, but rather to the Red Queen hypothesis.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Queen_hypothesis

    I kindly suggest you reread my post with this in my mind.

    • The perils of an education more literary than scientific. I’ll admit I’d never before heard of the Red Queen hypothesis. I agree that the substance of Christianity should not “evolve” in order to maintain a competitive advantage over rival worldview, although I do think we should look at many forms in a much more instrumental way. I’m sorry if I misrepresented your view, but do hope I will send a few readers your way. I really do enjoy your blog.

      • That’s funny. Now having read that Wikipedia article, the Red Queen hypothesis sounds more applicable to the situation of Christianity than does the original Alice in Wonderland image. Clearly the fight of ideologies to control the minds of men is a brutal zero-sum game, a sociological arms race, and the technology for conversion and plausibility maintenance that serves well at one time may be fatally outmatched later. In the late Roman empire, pagan religion as a weakly organized adjunct of the polis was overpowered by the relative organization and zeal of the Catholic Church. However, in an ideological arms race, one must run to keep in place. By the late Middle Ages, this same organization seemed corrupt and complacent compared to the social technology in the hands of emerging nation-states. Today, nationalism has itself been superseded, and Christianity is a joke compared to the propaganda and intimidation power, the coordination and unanimity, of the mass media.

      • I think that what I now know to call the Red Queen Problem is the basic justification for censorship. Censorship presumes that true accounts do not have a competitive advantage in the competition for mental space, and therefore require political protection to survive and prosper. This is how I understand the argument for suppression of Holocaust denial, for instance. This states, or at least presupposes, that a true account of the Holocaust cannot compete against accounts that have other and more decisive competitive advantages. To give another and less striking example, this is how I understand the argument for required or core courses in a university curriculum. These courses are protected from competition because competition will degrade their truth content. I know with absolute certainty that this argument is correct, and an unprotected course will (indeed must) compete by reducing its truth content and amplifying its entertainment content and grades. On the other hand, there is no reason for a protected course to maintain high truth content or anything else. So overcoming the Red Queen Problem simply creates the Monopoly Problem.

      • Well, the Red Queen hypothesis is named after the Red Queen in Alice, so the misinterpretation is understandable. Kevin’s use of the term in reference to defects made it clear – to me at least – that he was alluding to the hypothesis rather than the fictional character.

        In retrospect, I should have been more explicit about what Red Queen meant within the context of my post; this would have lessened the chances of misinterpretation.

      • If I hadn’t misunderstood your allusion to the Red Queen, I might never have learned about the RQP; so I at least profited from your ambiguity and my own misinterpretation.

  5. Pingback: In Defense of a “Red Queen Religion” | Reaction Times

  6. “Christianity is not a mystery religion with infinite layers of initiation . . . We have it on good authority that its essentials can be comprehended by little children.” And yet trying to be a Christian without the guidance of trained specialists within a formal organization “is like deciding to perform your own appendectomy”?

    I think William James’s attitude is more appropriate: “Our errors are not such solemn things that they need to take away our lightness of heart. We incur them in spite of all caution.”

    • There is a difference between understanding and doing. I understand baseball perfectly well, but when still feel “fear and trembling” if asked to play the game.

  7. @JMS – ” the argument for required or core courses in a university curriculum. ”

    This actually has it upside down. Historically, universities had a standard, entirely ‘core’ curriculum, which all students followed. So, on that basis, it is optional/ elective courses that require argument.

    Indeed, at medical school I had entirely compulsory courses, except for a month during the final of five years.

    Alasdair MacIntyre wrote about this extensively – perhaps especially in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. When universities are functioning coherently with their society (or, in the case of Medicine, with their profession), they are strongly based on standard curricula.

    Once a university has degenerated to the level of pick-and-mix, it has ceased to have a coherent educational function. Significantly, as I recall, it was Harvard in the late 19th century (under CW Eliot) that pioneered and made-respectable the all-elective non-system – which was a covert admission that its function was no longer primarily-related to provision of education, but was to do with class.

    (I was at Harvard Med School for two months in 1980; and was shocked to discover that of only two clinical years, one was spent on electives, in principle elsewhere: i.e. fully half the clinical training was elective, and maybe not at Harvard. With its highly selected and motivated students, Harvard could get away with this – but it was a sloppy, careless non-system – not a thing to be admired or emulated.)

    When used by non-elite colleges the elective non-system becomes incoherent nonsense. In other words, once people are reduced to justifying a common element to degrees, the degree has already lost its meaning – which is why such justifications are so difficult to provide.

    • I quite agree, but this isn’t how it works in practice. We argue over which courses should be required because (a) the university does not have a coherent philosophy and (b) everyone covets and is jealous of those monopoly privileges. What Bismarck said about laws and sausages could be said about the mercenary bargaining that stands behind a “curriculum.” Many today laugh at the old Victorian idea of educating “the complete man,” but we have no idea what a complete man would look like. At least no common idea.

      • Just to see if I understand what the two of you are talking about, are you referring to electives within or outside a student’s major? That is, is the problem a lack of structure for mastering each particular field, or a lack of structure in fostering broader, general knowledge (e.g. humanities courses for engineers, science courses for English majors)? I think Bruce might be talking about the former and JMSmith about the latter.

        Rival department interests is certainly a big factor in undergraduate general education courses. Enrollment in its classes translates to university funds for a department. I’m happy for the disorganization to continue, because if the university were to come to a consensus on a completely educated man, I probably wouldn’t like it. Departments also have an interest in forcing their undergraduate majors to take lots of courses in their major. I’ve been surprised by how unstructured many of the graduate programs are (not in my department, but in others); many require very little competence outside the student’s research specialty. This is consistent with Tom’s observations about young faculty.

  8. My educational utopia would destroy the monstrous mega-universities and return to smaller teaching colleges for undergraduates. The foundational philosophies of those colleges would differ widely, but the curriculum of each individual college would be philosophically coherent, and the curriculum would be much more uniform than at present. Very few undergraduates are stimulated by exposure to the contradictory worldviews and manias of their professors. Most are just dispirited and confused. My educational utopia would also destroy the accreditation agencies, since they are now the hidden hand of homogenization in higher education. Since we have decided to balkanize our society, I think it is better to balkanize the institutions of higher education than to balkanize the hearts and minds of students. I can live with person who has a radically different understanding of the world, but not with a person who has two or three radically different understandings rattling around in their fuddled brain.

    I think graduate programs would serve students better if they formally recognized three tracks. One track would train the researchers of tomorrow. One track would train tomorrow’s teachers of undergraduates (assuming robots don’t take over). One track would do something with the people for whom graduate school is continuing education. I don’t mean to disparage the third group, only to say that they don’t belong in the first two tracks. The people headed into teaching need to learn more about their field generally, and the requirement to spend three or four years writing a dissertation prevents this from happening.

    • I have given up on universities in the sense that they cannot be improved without a better socirt, which cannot happen without better Men. All awaits the Christian revival.

      Meanwhile it is a matter of fighting the long defeat; necessary, but a depressing life strategy. I thought of it in terms of niches – I tried to create a niche where I could work and a niche of good teaching- but overall the system did more harm than good and was on the wrong side.

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