The Third Way, 7: The Sins of the Fathers
“I know our civilization is built on bloodshed and robbery, but I also know that every civilization is built on bloodshed and robbery… I reaffirm the value of the West we have known …. Such a movement [as the ultra-right neo-fascism and populism that has grown so quickly in recent years] could never have claimed to represent the West if the other people who seek and transmit the true values of a civilization and are responsible for the renewal of the culture had not too readily scorned and rejected the positive heritage of the western world. Our intellectuals have sunk into a kind of self-destructive rage and lost the meaning of the great western adventure. ” ….
[the Arab invasion of North Africa (7th century)]: “…what was that but colonialism, and indeed something worse than colonialism? And what of the Turkish invasions that created the Ottoman empire[14th-15th-16th Centuries]? and the Khmer invasions that created the Khmer empire?… and the terrible conquests of Genghis Khan, which were doubtless the most terrible conquests of all, since Genghis Khan probably slaughtered some sixty million people in the course of his reign, or more than Hitler or even Stalin? and the Bantu invasions that created new invader kingdoms in two-thirds of the black continent? What of the Chinese invasions of a third of Asia? and the Aztec invasions of their neighbors that led to what we are told was the wonderful Aztec kingdom that the fearsome conquerors [the Spanish Conquistadors] destroyed, but which was itself in fact nothing but a frightful dictatorship exercised over crushed and conquered peoples? The reason the outside conquest was so easy is that the people under the Aztec heel rebelled against their overlords.” Jacques Ellul, The Betrayal of the West, 1978 (pp. 9-10)
So far in this series, we have found the utopian promises of post-Christian, atheistic Progressivism to be largely an empty shell. In a previous series (The Demise of Christendom), we traced the rise, decline, and fall of Christendom and decided it too had failed the test of leading us into a bright future.
Our culture, and indeed the whole world, has arrived at a place where it seems we need a new synthesis. There is simply no substitute for a heart rooted in principles and relational commitments founded on real, true values. As we have noted, the only thing remotely akin to an absolute value coming out of Progressivism is tolerance. Unfortunately, it too has been voided of content and thus leads nowhere—which is what the Greek word utopia actually means!
Post-modern tolerance and acceptance of every moral posture and of all forms of transient ‘self-realization’ and ‘self-actualization’ are impotent standards by which to judge the truth and validity of anything. \They create no necessary distinction among ideas, actions, or persons even when there are some decidedly very nasty ideas and horrible actions being perpetrated by people even of their onw persuasion. People who, in any sane estimation, could only be considered wicked and bent on real evil actually exist. Unless, of course, we have ruled out the existence of evil itself as a mere convention.
“The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done …. There is no remembrance of earlier things, and also of the later things which will occur there will be for them no remembrance among those who will come later still.” Ecclesiastes, 1: 8b, 9a, 11 (New American Standard Translation).
The Book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible (Qohelet is the treatise’s Hebrew name), what Christians call the Old Testament (the Tenach for Jews), puts it cogently when it declares that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Scientifically and technologically we can of course refute this, but that is not the intent of the ancient writer. The ancient sage was well aware that gadgets and inventions change. He may have had a few ingenious ideas himself. What is not new is human nature, which has been and remains the same from generation to generation.
American philosopher and historian George Santayana famously said, “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.” The flaw in this adage is that even when we don’t exactly ignore it, we repeat it anyway—or deny that it really happened so that we can excuse our desire to repeat it. (Holocaust denial is a flagrant extant example of this.) Of course, the repetition of history is not in the exact details or context, but in the repetition of the same patterns, mistakes, attitudes, and rationalizations.
The ancient philosopher (traditionally identified as King Solomon) who wrote Ecclesiastes said, “I set my mind to seek and explore wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after the wind.” (1: 13-14)
Modern and post-modern humans, Christian, post-Christian, atheist or any other persuasion, could do much worse than to spend an hour or so reading this ancient text. “Solomon” went searching for wisdom, and what he found is simple and profound, straight forward enough for a child to grasp and deep enough for the greatest mind to spend a lifetime cogitating. It speaks directly to the heart of our own culture and rudderless global society.
Ecclesiastes is constructed around a series of ‘gambits’ the author has tried and explored in depth over the course of his life in a search for truth and wisdom. As we read the account of his search, he sounds more and more like a post-modern man, like a sort of incarnation of the search many in hte last century have undertaken—the way of pleasure and self-indulgence, the way of wealth, the way of power and prestige, the way of knowledge, the way of religion and piety, the way of respectability and duty. I will not give the game away by stating his ultimate conclusion at this point. A little time spent journeying with him can help us come to grips with our own time, culture, society, and individuality.
How can a theological-philosophical treatise that is perhaps three thousand years old provide any insight and guidance to a society such as ours? “Solomon” can have had no possible insight into the type of complex, global society we encounter, let alone the furious advance of science, technology, and intellectual expertise in so many new domains of which he could have had no conception. Or couldn’t he, or they, or whoever authored this extraordinary document?
Unless one is of the lunatic fringe which denies that anything Hebrew-Jewish can have any originality or value, there is really no way to deny this brief treatise a place in the all-time great works of literature, as well as one of the greatest works of philosophy, theology, and psychology. Of course, there are some who discount and demean it because it accepts a priori the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, inscrutable, personal Creator-God. Let them be the poorer if their self-imposed bias deprives them of taking it seriously.
Like every other writer who contributed to the Bible (of whom it is estimated there were at least forty, and, contrary to the usual sanctimonious denunciations of this amazing book, one or two of whom were possibly and even probably women[i]), Qohelet (it means ‘Preacher’) simply assumes and accepts that there is a God and that people will answer to Him. There is no debate of the issue—it is, in his view, a self-evident fact. The world, the cosmos, is there in all its splendor and complexity and wonder and beauty. Un point, c’est tout! To debate the point would be folly—arrogant casuistry whose only purpose can be to escape responsibility and accountability. It is an utter waste of time.
Our modern, postmodernWestern intelligentsia is an unparalleled historical phenomenon in its obsession with self-criticism and its renunciation of the foundations which made it. Despite our self—flagellation over the sins of our Fathers, we cannot escape our past or its legacy. As Ellul points out in our opening citation, the Western intellectual elite has most effusively beaten itself and our whole culture up with it, just like the Medieval flagellants we so despise. But our intelligentsia has tried to purge us of blame for the worst of our crimes and misdemeanors by attributing them to those semi-civilized, unenlightened religious zealots, the Christians. Thus we must now strive with might and main to expunge our Judaeo-Christian identity. It is that poisonous delusion called Christendom which is really the root of all that the vicious and aggressive West has inflicted on the rest of the world and nature since the end of Rome, or at least since the Crusades.
it is precisely here that we must part ways with the post-modern,
post-Christian delusion of innocence and join King Solomon [sic] in searching
out real wisdom and truth—about who and what and where we are, not according to
another mythology constructed around the (not-so) new tale of evolution and
progression and utopia. Rather, we need
to come to look reality as it is in
the face and discover another way forward into meaning.
[i] For example, the Judge-Seer Deborah in the Old Testament, and Priscilla, who was a well-respected teaching elder in the New Testament.