Glenn Olsen is used to his cultural, political and religious views being on the fringes, and this book is no exception, since it is primarily a collection of earlier publications. However, though Olsen argues for a network of non-mainstream ideas, and in fact because he presents thoughtful non-mainstream perspectives, the essays in On the Road to Emmaus should be read and discussed widely. He offers penetrating insights into some of the most pressing matters of American life and principles in a dialogical, forthright, historically well-grounded, extensively footnoted and incisive manner, as he has been doing for the better part of four decades.
This book, Olsen tells us, was conceived as a complement to his recently published The Turn to Transcendence: The Role of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (CUA Press, 2010), to fill in some of the gaps that were left by the earlier book regarding politics and social thought. The collection that he has provided, mostly from his writings in the 90s, is wide-ranging, covering history (chapters on the investiture controversy and the Spanish conquest/settlement of the Americas in the 16th century), spirituality (a chapter on lay spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises), and theology (throughout the essays, especially in his discussion and application of the nature-grace relationship). Most of the essays, however, are dedicated to analyzing the situation of the modern world and in particular the “American experiment,” its principles, ramifications, inherent problematic and possible alternatives.
In his introduction, Olsen succinctly lays out the main themes of the essays as a whole and key tenets of his own view that emerges from them. In what follows, I will endeavor to capture the essence of his thought, imperfect as the attempt will necessarily be. Olsen’s method proceeds primarily by analyzing and revealing the inconsistencies of Enlightenment thought, which he argues is at the heart America’s founding documents (177ff). He describes a variety of positions of Enlightenment thought which he shows render it incompatible with a Catholic worldview: 1) “that reality is ultimately conflictual,” a constant war of all against all instead of humanity being created in and for love and peace (31), 2) that knowledge is power, or purely useful/pragmatic, as opposed to a high valuation of truth for its own sake, 3) that society and the state are not natural or grounded in the family, but are conventional, grounded in individuals who choose to establish a social contract (31-32), 4) that the solutions to all ills can be found in restructuring the world, especially society, rather than in the transformation of the person whose own internal ills are the primary source of our problems, i.e., original sin (94), 5) that freedom consists primarily in “freedom from” restraint (13, 146, 154-55) so that one may, in the words of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning” and follow it without (undue) hindrance (178, 226), and 6) that human history is self-contained and perfectible, rather than eschatological (88, and chapter 3 in general).
Such principles ground the “American experiment” of separation between church and state, which is primarily conceived as liberty for each to pursue his end as he sees best (a concept that both sides of the political spectrum have accepted). There is no thick sense of the good or the common good behind this liberty; the common good is seen to consist in the minimal notion that each should be able to decide upon his/her own good. That historically this has not always been the case and that there have always been contrarian voices, Olsen is not disputing. His point is that this is one of the principles on which America was founded, and it has tended to become more clear over time, such that we now have a strong “deep pluralism,” that is, a pluralism not just of different cultures and the like (which is generally enriching), but of fundamentally different conceptions of the good. Deep pluralism is in the end destructive of any social order or unity, because it, by definition, rules out the possibility of any shared purpose or meaning on the basis of which any common goals/goods can be pursued. Without a common sense of purpose, no community can remain united for long.
Another part of Olsen’s program is the exposure of the religion of liberalism. Liberalism here is the idea that everyone should be free to create his/her own meaning, and therefore that societies must have deep pluralism, which entails no substantive agreement about the common good. The claim of liberalism is that it itself is neutral, taking no side in the debate about the good/meaning, but simply insisting on a forum in which no side is privileged. Two problems emerge. First, no one and no position is neutral. For example, John Rawls, whose view of justice is essentially liberal, when forced to ground human rights in something falls back on the dignity of all human persons, which is itself an idea that originated in Christianity (chapter 9). Liberalism espouses a worldview that is deeply entangled in religious ideas without even realizing it, despite tens of thousands of pages of argument in the last few decades demonstrating the impossibility of anyone being truly neutral. Secondly, liberalism, despite its claims, does in fact make a claim about the good, namely that liberal states in which all are free to pursue their own ends are better than states which have and foster a substantive notion of the common good. To put it another way, liberalism claims that the position of some religions that the state should not be neutral about things like abortion is wrong. Therefore, liberalism takes a position on what it considers a religious issue and thus reveals itself as a religion (as liberalism defines religion, at least). And thus by liberalism’s own principles, liberalism should not be the established position of any government.
But granting that liberalism is incoherent, what should be put in liberalism’s place? Olsen’s own positive view is developed most systematically in chapter six, in which he offers three steps in his argument. First, humans are by nature “religious animals” for whom religion is an intrinsic good, and religion by its nature moves towards public expression and embodiment; to expect religion to be merely private is to distort its very nature and expect it to be other than about the most fundamental questions of meaning. Second, since the purpose of the state is to foster the common good, religion should be supported, fostered and encouraged to have a prominent place in the public square. But this leads to the central problem, and Olsen’s third step: what to do about our religious differences. The first point is that the current situation is fundamentally inconsistent and unsustainable, so we must creatively explore alternatives. Even given the possible destructive elements of at least some religions, “it is better to struggle to exercise this capacity and fail than not to struggle” (136).
As for what to do about deep pluralism, practically speaking, in order to arrive closer to the ideal in the concrete American situation, Olsen’s proposal is piecemeal. He acknowledges that ridding ourselves of deep pluralism is highly improbable any time soon, so we must find a way of managing with it. One intriguing alternative to the current practice, instead of marginalizing all religions in favor of only what can be argued on the basis of (attenuated) reason alone, is to give a voice to all religions as explicitly religious; let each bring its faith (revealed or otherwise) into the discussion. For example, in the matter of public prayer, instead of banning all prayer, why not let each religion take its turn, including even allowing the atheists a turn to have no prayer at all (142)?
This overview has but touched on the highlights. Most of the main themes can be found to an extent in most of the book’s essays, but only in one or two of the essays are any one of Olsen’s ideas developed in substance. Therefore, to get a full view of what he has to offer, one would have to read most of the book, dealing with a great deal of repetition along the way. I suppose that is unavoidable in a collection of related essays from an author whose thought is consistent throughout. One might start with the introduction and chapters one, six and seven for the heart of what Olsen has to offer. Of course, that would mean missing many insightful discussions, such as his explanation and grounding of the principle of subsidiarity in chapter eleven or his common-sense suggestions about equality and hierarchy. But that might also be unavoidable in a busy world with so much to read. However, those who put in the time and effort will be paid back in full.