An Unwise Inquiry
In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon writes —
Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.
Yet despite this injunction from the wisest man on earth, there are many Christians today who are unwisely longing for the good old days. Broadly following in the footsteps of Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches, prominent Reformed thinkers are blaming society’s ills on the West’s departure from a “pre-modern”/Medieval understanding of the world and man’s place in it. And while Reformed thinkers’ detailed assessment differs in some ways from that of the Roman and Eastern churches,  their overall opinion is the same — Movement away from a Christian worldview put too much emphasis on the individual’s autonomy, and this led to relativism and the decay of the three main institutions comprising society, viz. the family, the church, and the state.
Now much can be said about just how wrong this theory of cultural decay is, but I have already written quite a bit about this in other articles. So instead of rehashing that same content, I want to draw your attention to the Medieval Era, a time period wherein the marginalized did not gain sociopolitical power because of their victim status, but were, instead, treated as though they were Christ himself. As Sigrun Kahl explains —
In the Middle Ages, work and poverty were inextricably tied to each other. ‘‘Work’’ was a fatiguing and painful effort that poor and powerless people had to engage in to secure their subsistence. The Latin laborare denoted ‘‘to strain oneself, to suffer, to be poor, to work’’. In 12th century French, travail meant the [‘‘The state of a person who suffers, is in pain, toiled away, tormented; a fatiguing effort’’]…A French word for both poverty and work is besoin and its female form besogne…In German (arabeit, arebeit) work meant pain, toil, effort, punishment, and affliction…The English labour was the ‘‘exertion of the faculties of the body or mind, especially when painful or compulsory; bodily or mental toil’’…
Poverty was associated with powerlessness, manual labor, and social problems but all this was outweighed by the glorification of the poor as an image of Christ.
Thus poverty, with which various social problems were inextricably bound, was sacralized by theologians and laity. The poor occupied a paradoxical social position as social outcasts without privilege and power in a world that viewed them with fear, suspicion, and disdain, who nevertheless were viewed as sacred images of Christ for that very reason.
In his foreword to Max Weber’s book The Protestant Work Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, Richard Henry Tawney writes —
Popular feeling had lent a half-mystical glamour, both to poverty and to the compassion by which poverty was relieved, for poor men were God’s friends. At best, the poor were thought to represent our Lord in a peculiarly intimate way… At worst, men reflected that the prayers of the poor availed much, and that the sinner had been saved from hell by throwing a loaf of bread to a beggar, even though a curse went with it. The alms bestowed today would be repaid a thousand-fould, when the soul took its dreadful journey amid rending briars and scourching flames. 
One’s disposition toward the marginalized of society — i.e. the underprivileged whose “otherness”/’“alterity”  disrupted the “hegemonic culture” of that time — reflected whether or not one would be a member of the coming kingdom of God, as the poor were viewed as “stand-ins” for Christ. Centuries prior to the rise of what is today known as identity politics, the idea that one’s moral worthiness and future happiness is directly tied to how he treats the underprivileged of society — the poor, diseased, socially outcast, etc — was articulated by writers and thinkers whose theology, in this regard at least, had begun to veer far off course.
Monasticism: Giving Up Medieval Privilege
This sacralization of poverty, however, went beyond merely viewing the marginalized of society as those whose victim status somehow made them ethically superior to the privileged. Men at this time also desired to give up their privilege by giving away their goods, mutilating their bodies, taking vows of silence, and subjecting themselves to [monastic] communities in which all were considered equal. Individual deviation from the monastic rule resulted in one’s being excommunicated from meals, corporate worship, undergoing corporal punishment, or being excommunicated from the abbey altogether. Within these communes, the private ownership of property was often viewed as a “vice.” Martha Elias Downey explains —
Before a monk becomes part of the community, he is required to divest himself of all possessions including personal garments…The vow of poverty is often viewed as a form of asceticism, but it is first a demonstration of fidelity to the community, an immersion so total that self-will and self-sufficiency have no place. Merton…observes that “it is a poverty in which proprietorship is renounced in favor of the community (or of the whole Church). The monk becomes poor in order to share whatever earthly goods he may have had with the poor and with the community”…
In short, Medieval men following this trajectory believed that this abandonment of their privilege was necessary in order for them to attain the character who was, in their opinion, the Outcast of outcasts — Christ Jesus.
How did one rise above his privilege? By recognizing it, renouncing it, and redistributing it to those who were in need of it. How did one show that he had given up his privilege? By agreeing to live by the rule of the monastery, speaking less and listening more, and subjecting himself to shunning, excommunication, and physical punishment if he failed to live by the community’s guidelines.
Performative Identities: Subject-Formation
Ultimately, what this means is that theologically deviant Medieval understandings of the self were, in some ways, very similar to what we find among contemporary proponents of identity politics. While attempting to argue that Christianity and Monasticism offer a better alternative to identity politics, one which actually achieve the ends for which identitarians strive (as if these were legitimate), scholar David Torrell ironically winds up demonstrating this point while trying to prove the opposite. Following the flawed communitarian line of reasoning against individualism  found in Charles Taylor and his acolytes, Torrell writes —
…contemporary notions of individuality and self-assertion have been, to some extent, significantly influenced by the thinking of the 18th-century Genevan political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau [who] nursed an understanding of the inner self which clearly resonates with the rise in the 21st century of secularized accounts of the person and the prevalence of ‘identity politics.’
With this in mind, it is not difficult to see why Rousseau might be considered to be at the origins of the modern cult of self-exploration and self-empowerment, which makes self-determining freedom the key to virtue and happiness….It is clear that his valorization of the inner self resonates with detraditionalized, secular culture’s estimation of the individual, and which finds itself at the very core of so much ‘identity politics.’ It is markedly different from Christian ascetics’ attempts to eradicate distinctiveness and individualism, demonstrated most pertinently by their donning of identical religious clothing, their taking of new names and the subjecting and negating of their separate bodies and minds to a disciplined regime of community-forming, text-based spiritual practices. Any falsely constructed individualism was to be replaced by a communal subjectivity formed in obedience to scripture and tradition.
What Torrell misunderstands, as do Taylor and his acolytes, is that while postmodernism attacks the notion of universality and promotes the proliferation of individual subversive identities, it does so based on the assumption that such a proliferation of difference is the natural — for lack of a better word — state of all things.
Postmodernism rests upon what has come to be known as a differential ontology, according to which
…the identity of any given thing as constituted on the basis of the ever-changing nexus of relations in which it is found, and thus, identity is a secondary determination, while difference, or the constitutive relations that make up identities, is primary. 
In other words, according to differential ontology all ontological identities are constructs that stand in opposition to an underlying process of change. This implies that all psycho-social identities are likewise constructs which stand in contrast to a universal underlying process of change. Thus, in identity politics gender redefinition on the basis of how one feels can change from moment to moment. One’s psychological states don’t arise from an unchanging and “true” inner self but are the byproduct of the underlying process of change characteristic of all reality.
Since, therefore, any kind of identity is formed by means of constraints, this necessarily implies that psycho-social identities are also formed by means of constraints. And within a social context, the constraints that form an individual’s identity are historical, geographical, and communal. The individual subject’s identity, therefore, comes about by means of his interaction with the social body. This process of “subject formation” is not radically different from what is found in the ascetics; it is nearly indistinguishable from it.
In both instances, actual individualism, wherein the individual has access to objective reality as well as to the means whereby he can judge the veracity or falsity of claims about that objective reality for himself, is attacked. Within postmodernism, the proliferation of differences implies a fundamental ontological sameness, as the distinctions which exist between one thing and another are secondary constructs. While an emphasis placed on the irreducible differences that exist between things serves as a postmodern demonstration that philosophical, scientific, and religious systems are socially constructed, it also implies a fundamental unity of all things, since all things undergo a process of differentiation, individuation, construction. For example, to deconstruct a text is to demonstrate not that a text has no meaning, but that the text’s meaning and what it does not mean are ontologically inseparable. Deconstruction breaks down the individual identity of each meaning and, thereby, showing them to comprise one undifferentiated source.
Given this, it is ironic that Torrell believes that monasticism stands in contradiction to postmodern praxis. Consider his words about how the ascetics/monasteries viewed individualism vs. the “undifferentiated unity.” Torrell writes —
The ascetic’s life was geared towards a return to an original, undifferentiated unity; the demons, by contrast, represented the tendency toward separation, division and individuality. Monastic identity consisted in reestablishing a lost spiritual unity. …Any monk’s existence as a separate individual implies the demonic pull of division. Paradoxically, the multiplicity of individual selves that made up the monastic community became the context for the transcendence of that individuality. Thus, the ascetic self became radically distinguished from individuality; it sought the opposite of self-assertion. The latter privileges autonomous agency over the vulnerable agency of the ascetic self, formed by the history and value system of tradition. What the ascetic body had the potential to realize was a glorified state. Gradually freed from disturbances by the disciplining of the body, it was able to assume, as far as possible on earth, a resurrected body; just as in the Hindu tradition, the body formed by austerity through yoga—tapas—creates a perfection of the body, characterized by gracefulness, beauty and strength.
Just as postmodernism’s emphasis on difference/diversity is intended to highlight the vague but shared notion of being for all persons, so too the monastic community’s “multiplicity of individual selves…became the context for the transcendence of that individuality.” Torrell’s statement that the ascetics “live out a distinctive form of collective subjectivity” that is based on a historical tradition and sacred texts is reminiscent of the postmodern emphasis on collective subjectivity which is formed by historical tradition and texts of importance to one’s social body. The similarities here are not insignificant, and they ought not be ignored.
A Present Problem
Given the reality of what I have just detailed, one would think that the Reformed men I alluded to above would at the very least be hesitant to long for the Medieval glory days. Consider just how much of what was happening in the Medieval Era matches up to what we are seeing today.
- The sacralization of the poor
- The sacralization of the disabled
- The sacralization of the socially outcast/the “other”/stranger
- Disdain and condemnation of individualism
- Social justice activities as a litmus test for one’s societal and eschatological worthiness
- Self-imposed silence as a virtue
- The redistribution of wealth for the sake of creating a “just” and “equitable” “community”
- Accompanying self-imposed punishments and bodily mutilation (e.g. castration)
- Subjecting oneself to communal rules which punish individual deviation from the rules with excommunication from everyday activities (including work, eating, and communal worship), corporal punishment, and full excommunication from the community
More can be said on this matter, but is it necessary? Is this not enough to demonstrate that the Medieval Era was not all that much different than our own day?
The proto-identity politics of the Roman and Eastern churches dates very far back, which may lead some to think that much since that time has changed. However, it is necessary for us to remember that the church of Rome has condemned neither monasticism, nor its ascetic communal practices. Up until this very day, Rome and the East grant special status to the marginalized of society as being those closest to Christ, images, in fact, of the Son of God. If we are serious about defeating the World Economic Forum’s agenda, if we are serious about opposing wokeism and identity politics, then we need to be concerned with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxists who claim to be on our side. Their theology and history demonstrate that their socio-economic, political, anthropological, and religious ideas are, in reality, compatible with those of the WEF and its cult membership.
- Ecc 7:10.
- Romanists argue that the Protestant Reformation decentered the authority of the papacy, foregrounding the individual as the autonomous judge over what is true and false Christian doctrine. In their view, this led to the further fragmentation of Christian teaching related to metaphysics in the Enlightenment and Renaissance periods, both of which gave rise to cultural, intellectual, and, therefore, moral relativism.
Eastern Orthodoxists, on the other hand, view Romanism’s acceptance of the filioque clause in the Great Schism of 1054 as the West’s first movement away from their supposed theological orthodoxy, which paved the way for the Reformation. As for the Reformation, its deviation from the theological dogmas shared by Rome and the Eastern Orthodox church are also viewed as playing a key role in ushering in the Enlightenment and Renaissance periods, thus giving rise to cultural, intellectual, and moral relativism.
Some protestants have argued that the Renaissance and Enlightenment deviated from Christian teaching, severing man from God metaphysically, epistemologically, and morally. This resulted in the Enlightenment and Renaissance periods’ over-emphasis on the individual and personal autonomy of judgment. This “hyper-individualism,” in turn, led to a subjective turn in theology where the individual’s personal experience was determinative of what is true or false theology, as was evidenced, they argue, in the various religious revivals of the West (e.g. the First and Second Great Awakenings).
These theories are all similar to what has come to be known in sociology as the “Secularization Thesis,” a theory which postulates that as society becomes more modernized it becomes less religious.
- For instance, see:
- “The Religious Roots of Modern Poverty Policy: Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Protestant Traditions Compared”, in European Journal of Sociology, Vol. 46, Iss. 1 (April: 2005), 95. (emphasis added)
- Quoted in Sahl’s The Religious Roots of Modern Poverty Policy, 96. (emphasis added)
- For more on this concept, see Gray, Emma. “Alterity/The Other”, Union College, https://union.manifoldapp.org/read/literary-criticism-dictionary-2021/section/477b432c-a7c2-4e8c-9009-b84a052937ed
- For a very brief introduction to the concept of “Cultural Hegemony,” see the video below.
- “Monasticism, Monotheism, and Monogamy: Past and Present Expressions of the Undivided Life”, in Religions, 10:8 (2019), https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/10/8/489.
- For more on this, see Palmer, Tom G. “Myths of Individualism”, CATO Institute, Sept 6, 2011, https://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/myths-individualism.
- For instance, Carl R. Trueman in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
- “Self-Assertion, ‘Ignorant Backwoodsmen’ and the Experience of ‘(Un) Safe Spaces’”, in Irish Theological Quarterly, Vol. 85:3 (2020), 230.
- ibid., 233. (emphasis added)
- Cisney, Vernon W. “Differential Ontology”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/differential-ontology/.
- Self-Assertion, 244-245. (emphasis added)
- ibid., 246. (emphasis added)