The Creation Project argues we will never understand and address the cognitive and existential dread the Trump phenomenon has unleashed, by merely parsing the man or the immediate circumstances surrounding his election and its aftermath. In a period marked by the unprecedented unraveling of the geological and biological premises of our existence, normal political talking points, policy wonkery, and electoral shenanigans are not sufficient tools for the job. To understand this unprecedented cultural and political inversion, and to grasp the sources of our emotional dislocation, we must go deep into Western thought and traverse a broad sweep of Western history.

I

The premise of The Creation Project is that we can’t separate Donald Trump’s election and the “American Greatness” movement, generally, from the reality of anthropogenesis (the impact of human activities on natural ecosystems), with its recent contributions to rampant globalization, accelerating climate change, breaching inequality, toxically “illiberal” nationalism, and generational abandonment.[1] Understanding the relationship between the political upheavals of our time and the impact of anthropogenesis requires a “paradigm shift,” radically new assessments of the human place in history and in the great chain of being.[2] The reality of anthropogenesis mandates we consider the possibility that nearly every one of our governing assumptions about life on earth, and about the significance and role of humans within it, is incorrect.[3]

Following in the tradition of “big idea” books, The Creation Project argues the emergence of Donald Trump, who has risen above our benighted nation like a toad upon a geyser, has roots in broken conceptions of God, man, and nature.[4] While we cannot take our eyes off the toad, The Creation Project emphasizes that it is the geyser to which we must pay attention, the volcanic rupture of super-heated, toxic emotions that threaten to engulf us as a nation.

II

The Creation Project takes as its starting point an irony. We need to filter the political impact and significance of Donald Trump, a crude and simple man, by embracing new frontiers on thought and action that theories and studies of complexity and of complex systems have in the past half century made available to us.[5] The book’s contribution to this emerging literature on complexity is to apply its principles to the ways in which we think about, inhabit, imagine, and use “history,” those grand narratives we create to explain and justify ourselves.

The simplest way to think about complex systems is via the adage, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” When we consider the marvelous coordinated behavior of ants or bees or birds or trees, we appreciate that their activities and movements are in a sense programmed, governed by laws they themselves do not perceive or understand. Ants, bees, birds, and trees are not “conscious” or “self-reflecting” in ways that we typically associate with the perceptions, activities, and movements of humans.

The contrary idea – that humans, uniquely among living creatures, possess capacities for reason, reflection, consciousness, and choice – pervades our beliefs, our laws, and our institutions. We might call this idea “the part is greater than the whole” adage. This conception of human agency (conscious action) is central to classical and Christian philosophical traditions, providing the lens for how we think about nearly everything related to human existence and activity in the world. Unlike other living creatures, we believe our human nature and human capacities allow us to “govern ourselves.”

But what if this faith in human reason and choice were almost entirely wrong? What if we, no less than other living creatures, were subject at multiple levels of our existence to self-governing systems whose imperatives and laws largely escaped our perception and understanding? How would this awareness (about our lack of awareness) affect our ideas about and relations to God as Creator and Nature as Creation?

III

One of the surprising findings of The Creation Project is that the idea of “Western Civilization” to which hard-right American nationalists of the Trump-Bannon persuasion continually appeal is specifically a commitment to medieval Catholic-Christian conceptions of human nature and natural law synthesized and codified by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica.[6] Nearly 800 years later, the Summa remains perhaps the most influential statement on human nature, the human condition, and human possibility in Western thought.[7]

We would be mistaken to stop at this conclusion, however. Because the Summa’s conceptualization of natural law forms the basis, far more widely, for assumptions about uniquely human capacities for reason, reflection, consciousness, and choice that pervade our beliefs, our laws, and our institutions, and that provide the lens on pretty much how we think anything related to human existence and activity in the world.

The pillar of Thomist natural law is the idea of the imago Dei, that all humans are created in the image of God and that each possesses a spark of the divine essence that discloses itself in the unique (among living creatures) capacity of humans, like God, to reason, reflect, and choose. This human connection to God as Creator, has established the core social imperative of Christianity in the last millennium, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”[8]

The precepts of Catholic natural law tell us that a fully “flourishing” human will consciously build and create by making use of God’s “inferior” creations, those remaining animals, plants, and minerals that exist (we believe), passively and without reasons of their own, as natural resources designed by God to be harvested and extracted for human purposes.[9] We can understand anthropogenesis as the fullest enunciation of this god-like capacity of humans to harvest, extract, and recombine created matter for our own purposes.

IV

The goal of The Creation Project, then, is to give us a framework for thinking about, and tools to address, the crisis of our time. My argument is that this crisis reflects the tension between traditional conceptions of the individual, reason, free will, and morality (derived from the Abrahamic foundations of Western revealed religion) and the emergence since the early modern era of European history of complex, self-organizing social systems for which these traditional conceptions are largely irrelevant.

The Creation Project applies this framework to the history of “Western Civilization” from Greek antiquity to the present day. The book specifically focuses on the history of Europe between the early Crusades of the 12th century and the Spanish Civil War of the 20th century, and on American history from the nation’s founding moments to the elections of Obama and Trump (please see the appended table of contents).

The pivotal moment in this journey, The Creation Project argues, occurs with emergence of self-governing social and economic systems set in motion during the 16th and 17th centuries by the Protestant Reformation and by the era of ocean exploration and empire-building. The common attribute of these revolutionary movements and moments of the Early Modern era was the liberation of content (intellectual, spiritual, and material) from its traditional forms (scriptural, liturgical, legal, natural).

This liberation of content from its forms is the phenomenon most key to the emergence of the self-organizing and self-replicating complex social systems on which anthropogenesis depends, which we perceive today with the presence and effects of global markets, hive-like cities, mechanical reproduction, digital technologies, and memetic systems of information exchange.

V

The key insight of The Creation Project is perhaps the idea that we should imagine our history through the lens of geology, archeology and stratigraphy. This vertical, layered sense of history, not as a continuum across time, but as an accumulated sediment of cultural deposits that continue to interact and engage with each other, fully conforms to the layered topologies and nested hierarchies we find with complex systems.

The most important consequence of this vertical cartography for our interpretive history of Western Civilization, and for our analysis of contemporary events associated with the Trump presidency, is that history creates its own subduction zones, buried layers subject to enormous pressure from above, consisting of surviving forms or containers for human ambition and aspiration, that periodically resurface during periods of social crisis and upheaval.

Of course, nothing can ever be as it was, and so there is an intensely futile and often terribly destructive outcome from these efforts, effectively, to pour new wine into old (and cracked) bottles and label it vintage. In this sense, the “radical traditionalism” and “textual fundamentalism” of those leading the Trump/Bannon insurgency speaks to the ways in which the outputs of anthropogenesis – globalization, urbanization, migration, and technology integration – have simply chewed through fixed and “eternal” conceptions of human autonomy and human dignity encoded in natural law.[10] The final irony, of course, is that anthropogenesis itself ratifies the promethean implications of natural law’s mighty efforts to identify humans with the Creator, not the Creation. But the self-governing social systems that have launched us into the Anthropocene are themselves indifferent to human individuality, consciousness, reason, and agency.

Appendix: Table of Contents for The Creation Project

1/ Introduction: An Immodest Proposal for Immodest Times

Part One – Dark Enlightenment: Democracy’s Inversion and the Brutalist Sensibility

2 / Which “Tea Party?”: The Intellectual Source Code of the Trump Movement
3/ Catholic Foundations of American Conservative Thought
4 / Imago Dei: Robby George’s Primer on Natural Law
5 / The Brutalists: Private Capital’s War on Nature
6 / Creeping Coup: How Anti-Statists Seized Control of the State
7 / Law of the Land: The Supreme Court’s Deep Catholic Bench

Part Two – Thomist Millennium: Natural Law and Western Civilization

8 / Summa: One Law to Bring Them All and In the Darkness, Bind Them
9 / Marginal Revolution: The World Through the Wrong End of the Telescope
10 / Illumination: The Book and the Cathedral
11 / Abraham’s Children: The Crusades and the Invention of Western Civilization
12 / Inquisition: The Body as Text

Part Three – Emergence: Anthropogenesis and Self-Organizing Social Systems in Early Modern Europe

13 / Reformation: The Text as Body
14 / Ocean Crossing: Empire and the Spaces In Between
15 / Nation-State: The Stratigraphy of Conflict
16 / City: Density, Motion, and Kinesis
17 / Revolution: Science and the Laws of History
18 / Grand Subversion: The Spanish Civil War and the End of Thomism

Part Four – American Prophecy: The Bible, The Meme, and the Machine

19 / Law and Myth: The Constitution as Revealed Religion
20 / Slavery’s Story: Natural Law and Joseph Story
21 / The Inarticulate Major Premise: Common Law and Oliver Wendell Holmes
22 / There Will Be Blood: Settlement of the West and Harvesting the Earth
23 / War’s Empire: Black Jack Pershing and Randolph Bourne
24 / Southern Strategy: Richard Nixon and George Wallace
25 / The New Natural Law: Germain Grisez and Robert George
26 / American Greatness: Michael Anton and Stephen Miller
27 / Infinite Regress: Roy Moore and Joseph Arpaio

Part Five – Light of Creation: The Forest and the Trees and the Spaces In-Between

28 / Four Horsemen: Science, Enlightenment, and the New Atheism
29 / Marvelous Complexity: Emergent Morphologies, Fractal Recursions, and Phase Transitions
30 / The Curse of Entropy: Fallibility and Failure, Resilience and Endurance, Life and Death
31 / Tolkien’s Trees: Environmental Death and the End of Natural Law
32 / Illuminating Life: Return to Francis

Notes

[1] See Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014).
[2]The Great Chain of Being,” Wikipedia.
[3] My ideas about governing assumptions (and paradigm shifts) owe much to Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).
[4] Relevant examples of “big idea” books with enduring influence include: Alasdair MacIntyre After Virtue (1981) Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995); Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006); Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (2007); and Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).
[5] See Herbert Simon’s seminal article, “The Architecture of Complexity” (1962) and Cesar Hildalgo, Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, From Atoms to Economies (2015).
[6] Far from subsisting as a beleaguered fringe in the Siberian wastelands of the academy, spear-carriers for Catholic natural law and moral philosophy are today organized, engaged, well-funded, and firmly in control of the public lexicon on the most critical and fraught policy debates of our moment in time, including conversations about: the global “clash of civilizations”; what it means to serve “the least among us”; the fraught intersection between human sexuality and human conception; and ideas about “human dignity” that connect us to the Creator, but at the cost of separating us from the Creation.
[7] See John Finnis, “Natural Law Theories,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2007).
[8] Genesis 1:28.
[9] See Robert George, “Natural Law,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (2007)
[10] See Peter Schwartz, “Prairie Fire: Steve Bannon’s Dark Enlightenment,” Jeremiadus (2017); Peter Schwartz, “Serving God and Mammon: The Catholic Foundations of American Conservative Thought,” Jeremiadus (2017)