I had a chance recently to speak to IMAGE editor Gregory Wolfe about the independent course he has charted for his journal of the arts and religion (published by the nonprofit Center for Religious Humanism) since founding it more than twenty years ago. Some of our conversation has implications for thinking about philanthropy, and particularly the way in which the American imagination, which has always tended to be hyper-political, has meant that American philanthropy is more oriented toward supporting "activist making" rather than "contemplative knowing."
Here's an excerpt:
Beer: Was the “capture the politics” strategy that influential conservatives like Buckley put into place the fatal error? Would they have been better off abjuring politics, at least at the national level, for a cultural strategy that focused on encouraging and educating artists, writers, editors, novelists, publishing executives, musicians, and the like? Could such a strategy have achieved a significantly different kind of success?
Wolfe: It’s a question of balance and priorities. I would never advocate that people should be apolitical. But conservatism taught me that, in the long run, culture shapes politics far more powerfully than politics shapes culture. I found that the very nature of politicization was inimical to the task of building and sustaining order. It thrived on a narrative of decline and its strategy was destructive rather than constructive.
I am not about to say that things haven’t gotten bad in Western civilization over the last 100 years, but on the other hand, one of the things a deep conservatism knows is that things are always going to hell in a handbasket. It knows how to balance tearing down with building up. I once wrote a piece called “Why I Am a Conscientious Objector in the Culture Wars.” The argument I made was that if both sides were so busy spraying toxic chemicals on each other’s crops, by the time they were through, nothing would be able to grow.
What moves people’s hearts? The great stories and images that enable them to discover who they are. The political process involves debate about how we understand ourselves, but the meaning of the terms used in that debate is generated through art and culture. If you reduce everything to technocratic and political/economic terms, you also lose the capacity to move anyone. That’s why I was drawn toward the effort to renew the twin wellsprings of culture, art and faith.
Beer: I think it is easy to misunderstand this argument about the limitations of declinism as a point of view. It seems to me the way to characterize your view is not that certain goods can’t be lost or attenuated, but that declinism without hope, without a recognition that things are always getting partly better too, can be deeply destructive. In fact, it sounds like this almost drove you to despair as a young conservative.
Wolfe: I’m a pretty sturdy guy, but there came a point where I had the equivalent of a nervous breakdown—or perhaps a “vocation breakdown.” There was a moment when I realized that as much as I liked witty satire and withering critiques, I couldn’t sustain a life on that. I had to create, and I had to live in a certain kind of hope.
It’s not about withdrawing into an ivory tower or a palace of art and saying, “I don’t care about the battle of ideas or concrete political action in the world.” But it does come down to asking when political movements become enclosed ideological enclaves without a living, breathing interactivity with the larger world.
Beer: In a recent editorial in Image, you made a distinction between “activist making” and “contemplative knowing” as a dominant way of being in or finding meaning in the world. It seems that for all their complaints about politicization, conservatives and Christians seem to share the modern preference for activist making.
Wolfe: In astrophysics, there is a notion that somewhere there is a huge force of gravity called “The Great Attractor,” and a bunch of galaxies are all caught in that force. I think human lives are drawn to gravity wells of vision, and they really do change the way people act and think in the world. For example, without St. Francis or Dante, it would be impossible to understand the medieval world and its vision—its marvelous balance between heaven and earth, the eternal and the mundane. Why should our time be any different?
Beer: There needs to be an attractor force, and that doesn’t come about through politics and activist making. Is this prejudice in favor of making rather than knowing reinforced by the new digital and online technological forms we have? I’m thinking of the common Internet acronym “TLDR” (Too Long, Didn’t Read). Doesn’t that suggest that a deep antipathy to contemplation is inscribed in the heart of these kinds of communication technologies, or am I committing the conservative sin of being overly skeptical?
Wolfe: No, I think that’s a real concern. As someone who edits a literary quarterly in the age of Twitter, imagine my angst about what I do for a living. I’m very sympathetic to arguments made by critics like Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death and, in a more contemporary context, Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies, which defends the contemplative interiority that literary reading develops—and what it can do for the individual and for society as a whole.
It’s important that one not become a Luddite and turn one’s back on technology but find ways to hedge it around with cautionary fences. For Image, that means the blog on our website is a kind of un-blog—not 200-word blurts of bloviation but 800-word meditations. We’re trying to run with the reality of the technology but provide some contextualizing to counter its worst dangers.
You can read the whole thing here.