When Evil Comes, 6 – The Two “Wisdoms”

“Behind the technical revolution of the last two hundred years there is a much deeper spiritual process. . . This process begins with the Renaissance, leading on to the Enlightenment, and beyond it to the radically positivist secularised man of today.  Modern technics is the product if the man who wants to redeem himself by rising above nature, who wants to gather life into his hand, who wants to owe his existence to nobody but himself, who wants to create the world after his own image, an artificial world which is entirely his creation.  Behind the terrifying, crazy tempo of technical evolution, there is the insatiability of secularised man who, not believing in God or eternal life, wants to snatch as much of this world within his lifetime as he can. . . . the tempo of its development is the expression of his inward unrest, the disquiet of the man who is destined for God’s eternity, but has himself rejected his destiny. . . the necessary consequence of man’s abandonment to the world of things, which follows his emancipation from God.”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, Volume II. (London: Nisbet & Co., Ltd., 1949, 1955), pp. 4-5.  (Originally given as the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrew’s University, 1948)

Brunner’s analysis and diagnosis has lost nothing of its validity in the last seventy years since he first pronounced it.  If we exchange a couple of words (technology for “technics” and humanity or humankind for “man”) it is as bulls-eyed as when he first composed these lectures.  Of course, if you are one of the secularised of whom he speaks in general terms, you rejoice in the “emancipation from God” but deny that humans have rejected their destiny as eternal beings made to be in relationship with their Creator.

Notwithstanding, how better to describe modern-post-modern Westerners than striving to “redeem [themselves] by rising above nature” and wanting “to gather life into [their] hand[s], who want[] to owe [their] hands to nobody but [themselves], who want[] to create the world after [their] own image, an artificial world entirely of [their] own creation. . . . who want[] to snatch as much of this world within [their] lifetime[s[] as [they] can. . .”?  Other than his politically incorrect use of “man” to refer to the generality of the human race, would Brunner need to change one word of this to describe our ultra-frenetic media-obsessed and information and sensory overloaded society of the 21st Century?

What is the relation of this to our discussion of confronting the evil we find in our faces?  A great deal.  We ended #5, “Know Thyself”, by suggesting that the fundamental disconnect in our present (mis)understanding of ourselves is “on the level of who we are really meant to be, or what we have really been created for.  In other words, we were not meant to be (become) agents of evil, and, being such now, we are not meant to remain in that condition.”  Much of the evil we find distorting and even destroying so much of what is good and noble and admirable, worthy of value and life-enriching, is perpetrated by our own species on us and nature because of our blindness, our loss of “In-sight”, and our failure to grasp who and what we really are and are meant to be.

It is easy in our scientific smugness to lament the superstitious ignorance of our ancient and Medieval forebears in their idolatry and ritualistic flummery.  We mock their use of idols and temples but fail to see our own equally and perhaps even greater idolatry and flummery.  If the old priesthoods and shamans were reprehensible in their manipulation of the poor masses they bamboozled, we are even more guilty because our manipulation and control is more occult, for we pretend to be enlightened and to no longer need to use such deception as we practice it even more powerfully via our technological prowess.  

Meanwhile we have bamboozled ourselves that we owe nothing to anything or anybody, except perhaps to some mystification of the Cosmos that unaccountably could burp up such creatures as ourselves who cannot prevent themselves from believing that they are somehow destined for eternity.  As Qohelet said, we are made with “eternity in our hearts” and cannot seem to expunge that conviction, no matter how hard we try to eradicate it by science, technological overstimulation, and thundering, Goebbels-style [Josef Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, 1933-45] repetition.

Socrates is still sitting in the agora warning “Know thyself!”  Jeremiah is still in the temple courtyard thundering, “Your hearts are above all things deceitful!”  Buddha is still calmly admonishing, “The self you think you are, that is illusion.”  As Brunner points out so well, we have rushed forward with proud science and technology outstripping any moral and spiritual advance we fancy we have made.  In fact, if we believe the evidence of history, we have regressed in the very areas which raise us above the level of mere sophisticated animality.  Unless we really are just cranially enhanced animals .

“In-sight” allows us to see the wonder of the Cosmos and especially of our living planet and of our own incalculably astonishing nature as beings who can in fact “see into”, look above and beyond and deep into the depths and nature of what is.  Our reductio ad absurdum conceit that we understand what the universe, life, and being are because we can see how much of it seems to work is the height of hubris and conceit.  Describing how in no way defines what or tells us why.

By denying the wonder and incredible, unfathomable character of what is and where and who we are, we are laying the foundation of evil itself.  The root of evil lies within, just as the root of knowing the potential for all that is noble and beautiful and worthy lies within.  We encompass within ourselves the ability to conceive and perceive both, and to enact what portrays and produces both.  What is wonderful and terrible both lie in the human heart, and so we see both coming forth in our personal lives and in the history of families, communities, and whole nations and peoples. 

“. . . no one can  tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing,” said James the brother of Jesus in an ancient text admonishing the early followers of Jesus. 

He goes on to contrast the two types of wisdom that flow from the human mind and heart.  One directs us to pursue ambition and pleasure and self-fulfillment.  This, he says, is “demonic” because of the bitterness which it produces like a curse on our lives.  It is “restless poison”.  “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”

James describes the other wisdom as “from above. . . pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.”  (This discussion is found in the Christian New Testament Letter of James, Chapter 3.)

For many of us, the last few months of living with a global pandemic have, perhaps for the first time ever or in a very long time, brought us up against some of the deeper questions that we have buried or pushed out of sight.  Occasionally we may have glimpsed them when someone dear to us has died or when we ourselves have skirted the shores of Charybdis and seen Hades approaching.  But we usually succeed in rushing on with a fleeting concession that “someday I’ll think about that stuff, but for now I’m basically a good person.”  For many, too much procrastination amounts to the day of taking account of “that stuff” never coming, or finding it comes so abruptly that there is no time to find the path through it.

This moment is an opportunity for many to actually reconsider what we are here for, what our being is about, why we live in the crazy way we do, how much time, energy, and money we spend on “vanity” as Qohelet put it.

The other thing that swims to the surface is this whole issue of evil, whether of the variety that comes anonymously from a natural source, or the very personal kind coming from a fellow traveler or group of bandits on the road, or even from within our own hearts.

If we confess that there is real evil, we must also conclude that there is real good, and that there is a choice to be made.  As James puts it, which “wisdom” will we pursue?  Where has “emancipation from God” actually brought us?

TO BE CONTINUED

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