“The spiritual state of our time is characterized by curious paradoxes. On the one hand, modern man is a naive realist—even a dogmatic absolutist—the material, sensual data being to him unquestionable reality. If he speaks of reality in terms of indisputable certainty, he points to the material world, to the world of space, filled with matter. But it so happens that modern science has shattered and riddled this compact conception of the world in such a way that modern man, without giving up his naive conception of reality, has at the same time become a sceptic…. Reverence for the quantum is, so to speak, the new version of the golden calf.”Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilization, 1. (London: Nisbet and Co., 1947), p. 31.
Brunner’s observation on the spiritual state of the world post WW2 is no less true 72 years after he pronounced it in a lecture in Scotland all those years ago. Our sceptical, postmodern, progressive intelligentsia insist on the one hand that no such thing as “spirit” exists, or at least plays any role in what we experience. Yet they appeal to the invisible absolute all the time in the domain of science; the unseen quantum and the unfathomable random govern all while we somehow, in complete contradiction, observe what seems like organized and analysable phenomena on every side. We have the conceit that only today do we really know anything worth knowing (yet don’t really know what we profess to know)—even as we discount and eliminate whole categories of experience and accumulated wisdom that we cannot fit into these extremely narrow and limited models. As Brunner puts it, “… the material, sensual data [are] to him unquestionable reality.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.” (Quoted in Metaphors be with you, an a-to-z dictionary of history’s greatest metaphorical quotations by Dr. Mardy Grothe. HarperCollins, 2016, p. 191.) Despite the likelihood that our long history with Rome will not teach us much, if anything, Rome will not go away, either in life or in this blog. We ignore the weighty heritage we have received from it at our peril—yet ignore it we largely do and probably will continue to do in future. Similarly, just as Rome will not go away, neither will our heritage from Christianity, as much and as vehemently as so many might like it to.
The EU’s atrocious and gratuitous revision of the historical record in 2003 (see previous blog) notwithstanding, Europe is saturated with cathedrals, universities, institutions, ideas, ideologies, cultural treasures, memories good and bad, and consequences so deeply and complexly intertwined with its present that all the wishing in the galaxy cannot make it go away. Europe, the birthplace of the West, is the product of an ancient super-state that lasted over 500 years. But it is just as much, and perhaps even more, the product of an ancient faith that has infused its spirit and inspired so much of what it stands for that it is culturally and civically suicidal to abandon it. Nonetheless doing its best to abandon it, the West slides ever deeper into hopeless confusion about what it is and who it is and who we, its sons and daughters, really are in our heart of hearts.
But there it is: the city of Rome with all its reminders of past glory remains one of the top five tourist destinations in the world. Europe from the northern reaches of England to the west bank of the Elbe in Germany, from the coast of Portugal to the Bosporus in Turkey, remains filled with Roman ruins and monuments that the curious dabbler and serious student can visit for the rest of their lives and never reach the end. Much of the Middle East has all kinds of Roman remains as well, but conditions for touristic or scholarly visitation there are less than conducive at this juncture.
Like the city of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church still stands and is likely to continue to do so, despite its beleaguered reputation and the disdain of multitudes. It is good that it should, both as a historical institution that encapsulates so much of the West’s heritage and history, and, when it actually succeeds in acting more like what Jesus was aiming at, as a positive social and spiritual voice. Protestants, Roman Catholicism’s wayward progeny, will also remain around, and they would do well to cast fewer stones at their living progenitor. “Those who live in glass houses” and all that…
The West emerged from the ancient twin colossi of Imperial Rome and the Imperial Roman Church after a thousand years of struggle and reconfiguration. That millennium, conventionally called “the Middle Ages”, was an adventure in figuring out what to do with the massive mountain of Roman remains — material, intellectual, spiritual, psychological, sociological, psychic, economic, cultural, etc., etc. — filtered by each of the successor people’s existing and developing characteristics as they emerged from barbarism. Even conflicted Russia, on the cusp of where Europe meets the Orient, could not escape. Japan, which decided 150 years ago to create a hybrid of Western and its own indigenous society, did not escape.
Even China, still officially idolizing the likes of Marx and Mao, has not escaped and cannot escape. After all, Socialism, Marxism, and Communism are derivatives of a progressive, utopian view of life and history rooted elsewhere, as is Capitalistic social democracy. That “elsewhere” is a Biblical conception of linear time from Creation to Final Judgment and the coming of the Kingdom of God at the end, when all things will be resolved in love, peace, and justice for all, regardless of any distinction. (“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” wrote the Apostle Paul.) And the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth is the core message of Jesus and Christianity, at least when it is not suffering from amnesia. That message has, by and large, been disseminated world-wide by the missionaries of the West. Unfortunately, it was taken abroad much alloyed with other baggage which had wrapped itself around it and so became much confused with it. This contamination has led to enormous negative side-effects which have greatly obscured the fundamental positive story of who Jesus is and what He did and is still doing.
As unpalatable as it no doubt is to some billions today, the reality of our global human society and current path of social evolution is that most of our major ideas and governing practical paradigms have emerged from the West’s specific ethos rooted in Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman soil. It may not be politically correct to admit it, and it may be debated and denied among the academic hoi-polloi, but the human ecology and landscape of the 21st century is as it is because Rome and Judeo-Christianity have made it that way.
That is why Brunner says justly, and as aptly now as when he first said it, that our progressive evolutionary paradigm is actually terribly naive and fundamentally flawed. It is a dead end as a road of hope. After all, what is the ultimate purpose? Death and extinction lie at the end of it—however long from now that may prove to be. There is nothing else, and all the struggles to make life better, more tolerable, more just, more equitable, are based on an ideology that is rooted in concepts of a perfect society borrowed from a faith that the same people who, nominally and perhaps really, strive for it profess to despise.
When they cannot face this they demonstrate a lack of integrity. It is they who become guilty of the sin of willful ignorance of which they love to accuse the supposedly blindly naive and superstitious believers in a fundamentally good and beneficent Creator. They cannot honestly face the reality that without a Creator their quest is only a plea to lessen misery while existence lasts. There are so many contradictions in this that it would take a great volume to elucidate them all.
It is a deliberate choice, quite succinctly put thirty years ago by Stephen Hawking, the supreme icon of postmodern Science. In his conclusion to A Brief History of Time, the great astro-physicist and cosmologist admits that God is the admittedly most straightforward solution to the existence of time, which represents everything that exists. But he then completely illogically jumps past his own logic, declaring, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis [God].”
He is really saying that we (the ‘real’ scientific elite), cannot admit that that is the clear and most obvious and practical solution based on the evidence. Somehow, sometime, based on pure faith in Reason and Science (the modern, postmodern, Enlightenment substitutes for Castor and Pollux, the twin gods of good fortune and hope in ancient Rome), we will find a non-God answer. Until then we choose not to turn to God, although He/She/It is the elephant occupying almost the whole room we find ourselves in. That is what Hawking was really saying without saying it.
As we observed in a previous post, the most admired philosopher of modern times among our intelligentsia is Friedrich Nietzsche, who already saw all these contradictions at least a hundred and twenty years ago. Like Hawking, he deliberately chose to continue to hold on to them. Eventually he drove himself to suicide because, as he well knew, his own solutions to our meaningless existence (such as a Superman ruling a Super-race which would emerge to lead humankind into the next exalted phase of evolution) were really soulless and empty. That ideology was later adopted and personally believed as applying to himself and the German people with vicious zeal by a certain Adolf Hitler and his movement. We all know the results, but we have begun to forget them to the point that we may well set off down the repeat-history road warned of by Schlesinger’s shortened version of Hegel’s observation: “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.”
Nietzsche’s most famous line is, “God is dead and we have killed Him.” We live in a culture that thinks that because we declare God, the Creator, dead, that means that, for real, He/She/It is actually dead—never existed in fact. The old Enlightenment philosophes used to call hard-core religionists “invincibly ignorant” because they seemed immune to all appeals to Reason and Science (the modern “Golden Calf” as Brunner puts it) to make them understand that there is no God and never has been. No doubt for most of our entrenched postmodern neo-philosophes, people who cling to faith in (to their mind) an invisible, unknowable Creator, of whatever description, still are “invincibly ignorant”. As we have seen, the shoe fits them as well as and even better than it does those who “cling to faith in a fictitious Deity.”
If turning once more to the Creator is part of our way forward, we must not make the mistake of trying to resurrect past failed approaches to Him/Her. Yet that may well appear to be the most natural way of going about trying to restore or initiate such a relationship. Hegel’s and Schlesinger’s warning is just as applicable in this respect. Christendom (distinct from what Jesus really taught and meant) was not the answer, as we have seen in abundant detail over the course of this blog. Trying to reinstate some sort of Christian-Secular Hybrid State will never bring the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in Heaven.” Neither will an outright theocracy à la Islam where a Church-State holds all the power and enforces a slew of rules to compel everyone to behave rightly, justly, etc. Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Krishna and many other great spiritual leaders emphatically denied the road of political power as a way to bring mass ‘salvation’ to the human race.
The one major and unfortunate exception to this rule was Muhammad. If history teaches anything about using the sword and harsh laws to compel and sustain belief, it is that ultimately this path will fail, but not before it inflicts terrible suffering and massive death. Eventually the failure must and will become blatantly evident. Then, if the oppressors will not mend their ways, and as Jesus once so cogently put it, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”
What, then, is the ‘Third Way’ which we seek? We have seen what it is not and cannot be. What can and should it be, or, more aptly, what could it be like? That is our quest.