“ … our modern relativism begins by asserting that making judgments about how to live is impossible, because there is no real good, and no true virtue (as they too are relative). Thus relativism’s closest approximation to “virtue” is “tolerance.” Only tolerance will provide social cohesion between different groups, and save us from harming each other ….
“But it turns out that many people cannot tolerate the vacuum—the chaos—which is inherent in life, but made worse by this moral relativism; they cannot live in a world without a moral compass, without an ideal at which to aim their lives ….”
Dr. Norman Doidge, MD, “Foreword” to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos, (Random House Canada, 2018), p. xx.
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées.
IN the first three instalments of this series, we have deconstructed the limitations of the Progressive Way forward for humanity, based on classic Enlightenment tenets and values. We have not denied the enormous achievements of modern science and technology in raising the much of humanity out of the worst afflictions of poverty, ignorance about basic needs in sanitation, hygiene, medical care, a liberalized market economy, and human rights.
However, Enlightenment Progressivism as an ideology has the fatal flaw of badly distorting and misunderstanding human nature by denying a whole side of it which cannot and will not submit to logic, reason, and scientific method. As long ago as the late 1700s and early 1800s, this flaw was perceived and critiqued by individuals and groups who were later mockingly labelled as the ‘pre-Romantics’ and ‘Romantics’ (as contrasted to the materialist realists). By the mid-19th Century, Enlightenment liberalism had reached its most perfect philosophical expression with John Stuart Mill (On Liberty). Its proponents developed the Higher Critical approach to systematically deconstruct virtually every area of traditional learning. Its primary initial targets were, interestingly and strategically, the Bible and orthodox Christian doctrine and theology. After all, in the West Christianity has always been the main roadblock to the secular humanist socio-politic0-cultural revolution and the ‘great liberation’ of humankind from the shackles of ‘ignorance and superstition.’
This technique of militant deconstructivism is now almost two centuries old and has resulted in the state of affairs described by Dr. Doidge in this post’s opening quote. We face a culture and society which has lost its bearings. It has no moral or spiritual compass except that of relativist ideals which it confuses with virtues (but which are in fact neither ideals nor virtues in any real sense). As Doidge says, the closest approach to a ‘virtue’ or an absolute value this ideology can reach is ‘tolerance’, but not tolerance in any virtuous sense. Rather, in practice, it aligns much more closely to ‘indifference’ and the quest for what Francis Schaeffer calls ‘personal peace and affluence.’ In practice this means that the rest of the world can go to hell as long as it leaves me and mine alone to engage in our own version of the pursuit of happiness.
In other words, the Progressivist Emperor and his imperial courtesans cannot see (or face the fact) that they have no clothes on and their bank vault is empty. It cannot satisfy; it cannot provide materials to build on. As Jesus once put it, it offers a house built on sand, not on rock, and the winds and rains are coming in.
Before we leave this extended critique of the Progressive Road to begin exploring the potential ‘Second Way’ forward for humanity, I beg the reader’s indulgence if I engage in setting a few historical facts straight about the foundations of the Enlightenment itself and of its most cherished and sacred claims for achievements in such salient areas as the enshrinement of reason, logic, science, health advancements, and human rights. As these are relatively easily verifiable historical facts, I will not tax the reader’s attention by providing extensive source citations. I have mentioned similar things in the previous series called The Demise of Christendom (Parts 1-8).
It is time to demythologize the Enlightenment mythology about the state of affairs in the West in the thousand years or so that preceded the self-anointed ‘Enlightenment’ Era. I repeat that I accept some of the critique made by the ‘stars’ of the late 18th Century salon scene – Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, D’Alembert, Hobbes, Comte, Gibbon, Lamarck, Lyell, Kelvin, Agassiz, Darwin (not Charles but his grandfather), etc. The Church had failed in its duty and been the instrument of much suffering, oppression, persecution, and inexcusable slaughter. It had partly betrayed the trust of the people and the commission of Christ Himself to be the light of the world and the hope and succour of the downtrodden. In the name of ‘truth’ it had protected, it had sometimes even enforced ignorance and protected villainy. The (institutional) churches – Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, had much to answer for before God and humanity.
But there is always an ‘other hand.’ On the other hand, because evil was done alongside the good, you cannot just write off the enormous positive, powerful, and irreplaceable work and contributions of centuries of previous scholarship and achievements made by people who held to faith in Christ and firmly said that their faith in God not only inspired them, but gave them the daring and courage to explore the unknown even against much opposition and at great personal cost. A very long list of examples could be assembled to demonstrate this, but we will have to satisfy ourselves at this point with a very short one: Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus, Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Andres Vesalius, Francis Bacon, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, William Harvey, Blaise Pascal, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, etc., etc.
Francis Schaeffer explains it this way:
“ … not all the scientists [in this list] … were individually consistent Christians. Many of them were, but they were all living within the thought-forms brought forth by Christianity. And in this setting man’s creative stirring had a base on which to continue and develop. To quote Whitehead …, the Christian thought-form of the early scientists gave them “the faith in the possibility of science.”
“Living within the concept that the world was created by a reasonable God, scientists could move with confidence, expecting to be able to find out about the world by observation and experimentation.”
Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? Volume 5, Complete Works. (Crossway Books, 1982), p. 158.
Schaeffer explains that the claim that the Renaissance recovery of the (ancient) Greek tradition “would have been in itself a sufficient stimulus for the Scientific Revolution” does not hold up. It was “the Christian factor” which drove the Revolution forward. Otherwise, we must ask why the ancient Greeks themselves did not generate the sustained momentum in scientific and technological advancement we find in Europe? And why did it not “take off” in Arabia when Islam had its ‘Golden Age’ of learning? Or in China, where so many ingenious inventions were first conceptualized but afterwards seemed to wither away? Most of the Royal Society of London’s Charter members in the later 17th Century were “religious men” according to the great British historian of the period, George Trevelyan.
The other areas mentioned above – advancements in health and human rights, for example, could just as readily be shown to have been pioneered, engineered, and driven to conclusion by “religious people.” Once more, we must restrain ourselves from making this post even longer than it already is. We could look to who founded all the earliest and now most prestigious universities, who founded the hospitals and first common schools, the orphanages and homes for the destitute. But I will confine my example to but one illustration – the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the 19th Century.
Other than vague pronouncements about some of the brutality and inhumanity of slavery and its horrible accompanying trade by a few of the philosophes, we find little by way of Enlightenment contribution. While it is true that the French Revolutionary Republic abolished slavery in French territory for a short time in the 1790s, it was reimposed later by the Directorate.
The slave trade resulted in the death of perhaps 2 million Africans over 2½ centuries during Trans-Atlantic transport aboard villainously wretched slave ships, but the Enlightenment ‘stars’ are conspicuously silent and notably AWOL in action, even after the facts began to be really understood and screamed for action. How did it happen, then?
It began with a tiny minority in Britain and Pennsylvania – the Quakers. By themselves they could do little. But they could and did set an example by freeing their own slaves and refusing to participate in the trade. They wrote and published about the evils of this business. At that time, slavery and the slave trade were truly a multinational big business which underwrote a huge percentage of the colonial, commodity, and mercantile economy in the British and other Empires.
In the late 1780s, a prominent English MP decided to make it his lifework to eradicate the perfidious trade and, eventually, the institution of slavery itself within the British Empire. His name was William Wilberforce and his motivation was the rock-like conviction that Christ himself had called him to do this. We will not lengthen the tale. Wilberforce and the group of MPs who gradually rallied to support his cause eventually changed the mind of the British people and Parliament itself. Some of Britain’s major Enlightenment liberals actually opposed the cause for a while! The slave trade was abolished in 1807, and slavery itself in the Empire in 1833 as Wilberforce was on his death bed.
Christianity and the Bible are not opposed to reason and logic. In the prophet Isaiah, God invites, “Come, let us reason together,” but we are reminded that we do not have the intellectual capacity to outthink God, or to fully understand either what He thinks or how He thinks. That is because He is God and we are not. To presume we can understand Him and His works fully, let alone judge what He has created and how and why, is to place ourselves higher than God Himself.
And that, we may say, is the real issue. The Enlightenment declares the full independence and autonomy of mankind – “we have no [further] need of that hypothesis”, to quote Stephen Hawking once more. It is the Post-Christian West’s declaration of independence and rebellion, if you like. We look around and see a Creation full of death, senseless and ceaseless suffering, pain, injustice, and what appears to be uncaused disaster and destruction with terrible effects on innocent living things. We are told that if God is good and omnipotent, He could and should have made it without such horrors built into it. If He did not choose to but could have, He cannot truly be good. If He could not create it any way but as it is, He must not be omnipotent. If He is not omnipotent, He cannot be God. If He is not perfectly good, He cannot be God. We do not see a perfect, totally fair, benign, painless Creation; therefore, God is either not good or not omnipotent. Either way, the Being we call God must not exist.
On the surface, this appears to be an airtight argument. A person wanting to posit God must either reply something like: 1. “We cannot judge God or understand Him or His ways, and therefore He does not need to explain Himself to us. We just have to believe that, in the end, it will be resolved for the best by Him in His own good time. Then we will fully understand His reasons and purposes. In the meantime, we must persevere in living as He has said we should, even in the face of all the misery that exists around us and in our own lives.” (Or: ‘Just take it on faith!’) OR. 2. “We admit that there is terrible evil and suffering in the Cosmos. But God did not make it to be that way. As the Creator, He must take responsibility for the way it has turned out. If He really exists, we should reasonably expect Him to do whatever it takes to set it right, even though, as creatures, we cannot compel Him to do anything or reasonably accuse Him of not doing as we think He should.” (The reader may have a better formulation of this classic theological and philosophical dilemma.)
These two formulations will provide the jumping off points for our discussion of the Second and Third Ways of conceiving and approaching humanity’s journey towards a better future.