The Third Way, 21: The Allure of Rome, Part 2

“[Virgil’s Aeneid and the legendary tales of early Rome] tell us something about how the Romans saw themselves: war-like by nature, as descendants of the god of war [Mars]; empowered with the strength and cunning of the wolf who nursed their founders [referring to the legend of the orphan twins, Romulus and Remus, being nursed and raised by a she-wolf]; and established by desperate men who successfully fought everyone around them for survival.  Many Romans believed that just as it was the fate of the Greeks to bring culture to the world, it was the fate of the Romans to bring order [ordo] to the world …. the Romans from a very early period believed they were destined to rule.  They believed that they were better suited by nature and ability for rule than were other peoples.  And they believed that the gods had selected them for this task.  Perhaps this way of looking at the world underlay their actions somewhat like the concepts of “manifest destiny” and the assumed superiority of Europeans underlay the movement westward by European immigrants in nineteenth century United States.”

James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, Exploring the Background of Early Christianity, (IVP Academic, 1999), pp. 295-6.

The Creator is never far removed from the creation.  We go through life most of the time like sleep-walkers, barely aware of the amazing nature of the cosmos and of how the Creator has made us.  This does not annul the glory of what envelops us and which we share as the sole beings who, as far as we know, actually can perceive and gain some understanding of it and experience it.

Although we are made to reflect the Maker’s glory within the creation, our lust after petty godhood has made us blind and deaf.  We see this played out in plain sight and hearing every day in the way we react to hindrances, frustrations, and impediments to our progress towards whatever ambitions or fancies we have currently placed before us.  We grumble and complain about how such-and-such and so-and-so has blocked us and infringed upon our rights.  We denounce those who encroach on our comfort and challenge our “territory.”  After all, as ‘gods’ we are born to rule, aren’t we?  The only problem is all those other people who think they are gods too!

We are trapped in this conundrum whether conscious of it or not.  Most of the time, we don’t think about, we just feel it.  It is the resting, normal position of the rebel whose rebellion is so ingrained that it is now unconscious, subconscious—until something brings it to the surface, like a direct claim and challenge to recognize that there is a Creator who alone is God, which means I am not and I must give up my throne.  Or perhaps another petty god is more powerful or well-positioned than I, and I must defer to him/her.

While all the great religions do not perceive the Creator and creation in quite the same way, all, in one way or another, recognize the fundamental flaw in human nature.  We are internally broken, finding as much wickedness lurking in our souls as goodness.  If we were to release it, it would consume us, and sometimes the only reason we don’t is that we fear being caught and held to account.  We are bound to fail to fully keep whatever good laws we establish (we are not speaking of disobeying wicked laws), even those we privately make for ourselves to rule ourselves.  No one (except Jesus, some would say) has ever succeeded in living perfectly by what his/her own conscience tells him/her.  Even Buddha abandoned his young wife and child, and he must have known deep down that this was a rather callous thing to do.  Even Muhammad ordered massacres, and he must have known deep down that this was hardly what a God of true compassion and mercy would command.  Even Moses lashed out in anger.  Even Abraham lied about his wife to save his own skin.  David was a murderer and adulterer. 

The great religions attempt to resolve our brokenness differently.  Hinduism explains that our true nature is as errant aspects of the One Reality, the “World Soul (Brahman),” to which we must return and into which we must be reabsorbed, forsaking individuality to achieve nirvana, the bliss of total rest within the all-consciousness without struggle.  Buddhism describes this quest as “non-existence,” similar to the Hindu idea but with no real consciousness adhering to any shadow of the illusion of self.

The three monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, do not see humanity as parts of the One seeking reintegration through a very long cycle of life, death, and rebirth, but as beings created to honour and serve God within the creation.  The ‘orthodox’ view within these three is that humans rebelled and continue to rebel, and the Creator has sought to offer restoration of the broken relationship.  They differ in how this is to be done and what role is assigned to humans in the restoration.  Is it by exemplarily obeying rules and performing rituals, or by accepting God’s mercy and appealing to the Creator’s gracious offer of renewal through a chosen Saviour and Redeemer?  Or perhaps a combination of the two—grace and obedience?

We do not have time or space to examine these approaches and their nuances in depth in this post.  That may be for another time.  We are considering the West’s continuing, strange fascination with Rome, the longest-lived and most successful empire in Western history and perhaps in world history.  Like all human endeavours and achievements, no matter how great, it eventually failed.  But its longevity and “glory” still carry a dim lustre and a sense of nostalgia and wonder.  The West cannot escape Rome’s still potent cultural, historical, and spiritual legacy.  Neither can it escape its spell.

For those who admire manifest power, Rome presents a model and a standard: “If only I/we could create something that could equal what they did!”  For those who long for a united world that brings everyone into order and unity with common values and symbols and similar ideals and goals, Rome’s success continually fascinates and puzzles anthropologists, sociologists, historians, psychologists, philosophers, political scientists, and even some politicians who manage to have a sense of history.  For admirerers of military prowess and martial glory at its pinnacle, Rome offers endless material for study.  Rome’s political and martial prowess was not the story of a one-off genius such as Alexander or Napoleon shooting like a comet across the heavens of history.  It was a system honed to perfection, granting the most perfect instrument yet devised which leaders of talent and ability used to rise to the summit of power and fame.  Julius Caesar did not create the Roman genius for government or the unbeatable fighting machine of the Roman army; he used and honed them to further his own rise to power. Afterward, they functioned more or less well regardless of the frequent stupidity emanating from the throne. Rome’s aura often kept its enemies at bay even when its armies were wavering or engaged in slaughtering one another in civil wars.

What is the mystique of Rome; what lies behind it?  Deep beneath what we see played out we find a hunger that longs for a final answer.  It is a spiritual thing—the quest for the last best realm that will endure and bring true, lasting, unbreakable peace and harmony into the life of humanity, giving everyone a fair shake, a fair chance to be the best they can possibly be.  It is more than a hunger, it is the most basic need all—to know who and what we really are and are really made for.  We know it cannot be found in our endless wars and destructive, competitive behaviour—our addiction to assert ourselves above others which brings only more of the same in return as we seek to “get even, get back.”

The Orientals say we must finally quell this hunger as illusion, drive it out by emptying ourselves of self and ceasing to identify ourselves primarily as individuals, ultimately denying any individual personhood and slipping into the anonymous bliss of nirvana.  That is what the Bhagavad Gita is really about; that is what the Upanishads reveal; that is what Buddha’s Three Baskets disclose, in a somewhat different way.  That is what underlies yoga at its heart, and Zen.

Jesus said that it was all about entering “the Kingdom of God,” and this was the core of his teaching.  He spoke of losing our lives in order to find them.  He spoke of taking up one’s cross to follow him and not doing things the old way, the imperial way, the way of pursuing the glories of “this age.” 

When he taught and exampled what he meant, he was speaking of the way of Rome on the one hand and of compromised religion on the other, both ways of glory achieved at the expense of others, in all the ways that this is done—by economic, social, military, political, cultural, and even religious manipulation and brinkmanship.  In the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Creator, there is no room for any of this.  All of these methods are the “way of the flesh,” the way of our brokenness and rebellion against how the Maker originally made us and what He/She originally made us to be and do.  They are all ways of serving ourselves first, of maintaining and asserting our ‘right’ to be little gods.


The Third Way, 8: Escape from Vanity

“… we need … to imagine a world without evil and then to think through the steps by which we might approach that goal, recognizing that we shall never attain it fully during the present age but we must not, for that reason, acquiesce meekly in the present state of the present world.”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (IVP Books, 2006), pp. 125-6

“Vanity of vanities!  Everything is vanity!”

Ecclesiastes 1:2

(Unless otherwise specified, Bible citations are from the New American Standard translation.)

The Hebrew word often translated as “vanity” also means “meaningless.”  Star Trek, Stargate, and Star Wars notwithstanding, as far as we know or are likely to know any time soon, humans are the only beings who ascribe meaning to existence.  History, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and psychology  indicate that humans have sought meaning in life since they appeared on Planet Earth.  Humans are hard-wired to seek meaning in life, both in general and for themselves as individuals.  Even some genetic research points to this.

Saying that this ‘meaning-seeking’ is a mere residual effect of evolution just won’t cut it.  The instinct to survive is the strongest of all, we are told.  Other species have survived by developing (or being endowed by God with) superior strength and speed, special cunning, or unusual adaptations.  But none of them have ever sought to understand “WHY?”  It is probable that no other species (at least on earth) is cerebrally equipped to undertake such a quest.  That in itself raises the question why humanity is so uniquely endowed. 

Evolutionally, wasting time and energy on seeking meaning may be seen as an actual impediment in seeking maximum security.  We could escape this dilemma by the circular reasoning of saying that survival and preservation of existence is all the meaning required.  Soit—for every species but homo sapiens.  But we all know that circular reasoning is invalid.  It is akin to saying, “That’s just the way it is.”

But humans have this insatiable innate curiosity to know why, what, how, where, when, who.  On top of the general drive to know and be known, each member of the species has an inescapable sense of individuality.  Each of us will seek our own way of understanding the answers to these questions.  Even if it is just by accepting the community story, we are bound to search for our own place in it and the meaning we can find in that.  This universal human drive and need to know and understand, so little relevant to mere survival, has given us religion, philosophy, culture, and science, and no reasonable human being would suggest we would really be human without these aspirations.

In ancient Israel, King Solomon (or Qohelet as the writer of Ecclesiastes calls himself) traced his search for meaning through all the typical roads people of means take, regardless of the century and culture they live in.  Having the means and leisure to explore as he desired, he went deep into each of these typical paths.  He was very modern and postmodern in his approach—anything and everything was grist for his mill.  The difference between the rich and poor in seeking meaning as Solomon did is largely a matter of opportunity, after all.

First, “I set my mind to know wisdom and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.”  The reputed wisest man of his age did not consider a debate about God’s existence as relevant.  It was self-evident.  (Modern atheists can say the same thing from the opposite side, of course, but the large majority of humans continue to disagree with them.)  “Solomon” described himself as searching out answers to all manner of mysteries.  According to what we read in Ecclesiastes, he found that “the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.”(12:12) 

Modern scholars and scientists pride themselves in searching tirelessly for understanding of the cosmos in the hope that somewhere within it they will find the answers to the ‘big questions’ (see list above). The more we search the more perplexed we become.  The secret of life eludes us.  The mystery of order in what we perceive is mocked by quantum chaos.  Purely material explanations come up empty.  The cosmos appears like chaos at the most micro level, yet we experience things as awesomely wondrous in an incredible amazing appearance of ultimate order.  It is all so delicately balanced and arranged as to defy the greatest minds of every age. 

Wearied by the endless quest for understanding, Solomon the proto-postmodern turned to pleasure, just like so many of us do. “I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure.  So enjoy yourself.” (2:1) He partied (laughter, gaiety, wine, acting crazy (folly)), he built splendid houses (palaces), he completed great projects, he planted vineyards and parks, he acquired hundreds of servants and enjoyed as much sex as he pleased (which seems to have been a great deal according to the Biblical account of having three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines), he piled up possessions and money to a legendary degree.  What was the point of ‘seeking wisdom’ when he would just die like any other person who doesn’t bother?  And then when you die you just hand all your riches and stuff down to someone who will waste it like a fool.  So this too is “striving after the wind.”

He was the quintessential modern-postmodern example of ‘success.’ Richer than Bill Gates or any other tycoon we could name, and an absolute political ruler to boot. He didn’t need to use the backroom lobbyists to get his way.

Then he comes back to his senses.  God had not asked or directed him to do any of this.  The rich and powerful just end up worrying constantly about all their stuff, all their prestige and position.  “Even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is vanity.”(2:23) Solomon shrugs and concludes, “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good … from the hand of God [the necessary condition to make it good].  For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” (2:24)

Rich or poor, the first step towards true wisdom and understanding is the realization that God made us to be in relationship with Him.  Only then do we begin to find enjoyment and peace.  It is not about religion, but about who I was really made to be.  I cannot find peace until I accept that I am no accident cast adrift in a vast and meaningless cosmos.  God made me to have a relationship with Him and I will be accountable to Him. 

Qohelet then tells us:

“He has made everything appropriate in its time.  He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”(3:11) Another translation renders this: “He has made everything suited to its time; also, he has given human beings an awareness of eternity; but in such a way that they can’t fully comprehend, from the beginning to the end, the things God does.” (Complete Jewish Bible)

But neo-Enlightenment reductionism reduces humanity to a mere carnal machine, an extremely unlikely “accident” vomited into existence by a cosmic explosion of unlimited proportions.  There is no room for eternity in the heart, even though the material cosmos heavily hints at it with its virtual limitlessness.  The human beholding this physical marvel is filled with wonder and a hunger to look into the ultimate.  But we are told repeatedly that we must relegate our awe and wonder to the realm of ‘superstition.’

Yet the Ecclesiast is no super-spiritual dreamer.  He is the ultimate pragmatist, without giving into cynicism.  His musings tell us that to get on in the world we first have to see it for the way it is, not the way we wish it would be or how we imagine we could remake it if we only had the power to make people ‘behave.’  “No!” he says.  There is a time and place for “everything under the sun.”  Sometimes, we just have to accept that “shit happens”.  Things and people will not conform to my will and desires.  And God isn’t going to make them do it the way I would like.  And there is no point in blaming God.  “God is in heaven, so let your words be few.”  He has His ways and reasons, and, by nature, we are not equipped to know or understand His mind.

The way it is: We plant, we harvest, then plants die.  Birth and death have their place and time.  Healing is good in its time, but even killing has a time.  We covet peace, but there will be war.  Sex is good, but there is a right time and place (“embracing and refraining from embracing”).  Everything works like that.  Over it all, God has set an order, but humans are not his puppets and He will not reduce them to that.  We are free to question God’s goodness and purpose.  But we can’t see very much or very far, so who are we to question Him?  Denying He is even there because you decide you don’t like the way his creation or He works will  not solve your problems or make Him go away.  And you won’t help yourself by shaking your fist in His face and ignoring Him.  You will just cut yourself off from any hope of even arguing with Him. (And, as Job shows us, you really are free to argue with God, although you won’t win.)

The Ecclesiast, Qohelet, Solomon, has much more to tell us about the world as we really experience it.  It is full of oppression and sorrow.  We must live in community and we learn how to do that only with struggle and accommodation and mutual respect.  We must learn how to give God His proper place too.  It’s not “all about me!” despite my delusion to the contrary.

Even so, from a normal human perspective, God does seem unjust and callously aloof much of the time.  What the hell do we do with that?

It is all grist for Qohelet’s mill.  But we will have to carry on this conversation with him next time.

The Third Way, 7: The Sins of the Fathers

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.

But 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.

The Third Way, 6: Path 2—Zealotry

fanatic – 1. Person filled with excessive and often misguided enthusiasm for something. 2. excessively enthusiastic.  (Derivation – Latin, fanum – temple)

zealot – 1. An uncompromising or extreme partisan; a fanatic.

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002.

In the post previous to this one, I suggested that the ‘Second Way’ for humanity to go forward is to rediscover zeal and ‘heart’ in contrast to Progressive Materialism’s exclusivist appeal to reason, logic, and science.  I would suggest that the usual negative connotation of the term ‘zeal’ given by the West’s dominant modern, postmodern, post-Christian cultural and social paradigm must be reclaimed.  The denial that ’emotional’ concepts like ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ add nothing to wisdom and knowledge must likewise be rejected.  Emotion in balance with reason is a form of knowledge and a path to wisdom.  The legitimacy of emotional wisdom and knowledge have long been recognized by modern psychology as essential in becoming a healthy whole person.

In Part 5 we noted that nothing of lasting significance has been done in human history without fervent enthusiasm, dedication, and perseverance—characteristics flowing from the heart and will—areas of the self traditionally assigned to ‘the soul.’  Motivation to see something through to the end cannot come from mere reasoning that ‘it’ is a good and right thing to do.  Striving to move above and beyond what is and what may even be thought possible in any domain cannot occur without the qualities of mind and spirit that zeal imbues.  In other words, anyone who wants to excel, to be the best they can be, to give the best they can give, must be a zealot in the best sense.

The bloody and horrific legacy of the recent past has turned zeal into an almost purely negative concept akin to the despised ‘fanaticism’ for many Western ideologues.  It is only fair to note that the worst atrocities of history—the Holocaust and other horrors of WW2, the Communist massacres in the Soviet Union, China, Kampuchea—were not the work of religious zealots, but twisted people inspired by grossly distorted notions and principles coming from the Enlightenment stream.[i]  We can formulate a long list of extremely negative results from fanaticism and misguided zealotry.  The dictionary calls a fanatic someone “filled with excessive and often misguided enthusiasm for something” and a zealot someone who is “an uncompromising or extreme partisan.”

Even definitions found in dictionaries come from an interpretive perspective.  The key words to question in the above definitions are “excessive,” “misguided,” and “extreme.”  These are value words.  Dictionary editors and composers have a set of values they impose on their work, just as much as any scholar or scientist in any serious discipline.  Is there really any way to measure when enthusiasm has become “excessive” or “misguided,” or when zeal has become “extreme?”

The converse implication of these definitions is that there is a degree of acceptable and appropriate, (“guided” as compared to “misguided”) enthusiasm.  Likewise, there is a converse implication that a partisan can be moderate and reasonable (“compromising?”), rather than “extreme.”  A primary implication is that to be uncompromising, extreme and excessive (however that is assessed) is inherently wrong.

Common sense suggests that zealous people cross the line into “fanaticism” when they condone and perhaps even advocate killing, oppression, and suppression of opposition by force and coercion.  Oppression and coercion can take many forms, both direct and subtle, but any method that denies basic human rights and respect would qualify as “misguided,” “excessive,” and “extreme.”  Killing is simply beyond the pale at any time, except perhaps in the case of a ‘just war” or in self-defence or defence of one’s loved ones.

No ideology of any description—religious, political, economic, social—has a monopoly on common sense, pure logical reasoning, or moral consistency.  Neither does any have a monopoly on moderation in and consistent just treatment of its adherents or those who oppose it.  However, it is manifest that some tend to practise better treatment than others in this respect.  To put it ‘progressively,’ they are more tolerant of dissent.  Historically, no ideology, philosophy, or religion can win hearts if its founders and first propagators are not enthusiastic and zealous about what they preach, teach, and model in their lives.  Let us once more recall the work done by the abolitionists.  It is hard to imagine they would have gotten far if they had been only tepid, moderate, compromising, and unpretentious.  Many other examples would demonstrate the same point.

History shows conclusively that we have only imperfect and flawed exemplars to work with.  Any system which we may choose may succeed in offering us a fine theoretical picture—some with better and more consistently thought-out concepts and principles than others.  But, for any that have actually been implemented at least partially, we have another measure—the historical test results.  This, for history, is the only ‘scientific’ method available, the historical equivalent to the experimental testing of the hypothesis.

We can no longer pretend, à la Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Plato, or Aristotle, that we can devise a perfectly objective method of thought and impartial judgement.  Not even our “pure scientists” at their best can pretend to achieve such a condition, not even Mssrs.Dawkins, Hitchens, or Hawking.

We have been focusing on the West and its society, culture, prevailing ethos, and traditions.  But we find ourselves in a world increasingly dominated by the values and ethos of the West, regardless of geography.  The influence of Western thought, science and technology, and values has infiltrated everywhere, from top to bottom, from pop culture to ‘high-brow’ culture, from philosophy to religion.  

One response to the present Western paradigm built on Progressive Materialism is to simply reject it.  But even those who reject it ideologically are unable to escape its tentacles.  Islamists bent on murderous and suicidal terrorism use the West’s technology to network and infiltrate, and to kill, steal, and destroy.  They typically binge on self-indulgent, Western-style hedonism before carrying out attacks, holding that, as martyrs with a free pass to Paradise, their sins will not be counted against them.

Previously adamantly Communist societies like China and Vietnam see the bankruptcy of the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist paradigm and shift to a hybrid of Western style capitalism and big business, mixed with a State-directed and controlled socio-political system.  They maintain the fiction of “Communism” while having shifted to what is really neo-Fascism.  Ironically, Fascism is a uniquely Western ideology which uses select elements of Enlightenment concepts from the social, religious, and scientific revolutions while distorting them to justify its peculiar nationalist and particularist agenda.

In the seventeen centuries since Constantine gave birth to Christendom, so much has been tried, and nothing seems to have really answered the purpose.  Humanity still faces the same issues and dilemmas that emerged millennia ago with the establishment of the first civilized societies: Who are we? Where are we? Why is there so much pain, suffering, death, and disaster? How can we make a better future, a better world? What is death and is there anything beyond or after it?

“Who” speaks to just what humanity is, just what I as an individual am.  The where speaks to what this world is and what the cosmos we find ourselves in is.  The next questions are about why this cosmos seems so bound up with what, to our human understanding, seems to be unnecessary, arbitrary, cruel, feckless afflictions—the worst of which is death, a sort of cruel joke for self-aware creatures like humans, who have such a hunger to live, explore, and appreciate the wonder and beauty of it all.

Every society ever known has struggled with these issues.  Our age is no different.  For the mass of people living from day to day, these questions are not front and center.  But all normally functional humans will face them and struggle with them from time to time.  As our own mortality looms larger, finding some kind of answers assumes greater and greater importance.  Some event some time will crash through our self-absorbed cocoon and jolt us into uncomfortable and perhaps agonizing revelation that we and all we know and care about share this common destiny.  Most of us do not simply shrug complacently in the face of “The Grim Reaper” or “go gently into that good night.”

As we have observed repeatedly in this blog, the West’s assumed posture is that all that exists is a product of time and chance, or perhaps some unknown innate directing quality within matter itself.  (Hmm – this doesn’t sound much like science, more like magical thinking!)  But, for the rest—the pain, suffering, disaster, and death—there is no special meaning behind it; it is just how things are and must be.  Modernist, atheistic materialism says that our predilection for “finding a greater meaning” is a sort of evolutionary relic that continues to deceive us and divert us.  Our real task is to get on with making ourselves as comfortable and ‘successful’ as possible for however long our strangely self-aware species can survive.

Perhaps it is time to move on from this position to search for another. 

1. I am sure that the champions of the Enlightenment and its legacy would take strong exception to this observation.  However, the Communists, Fascists, Japanese militarist Fascists, and Nazis did not derive their ideology and hate-filled search for “utopia” from the tenets of any major religion which has been the usual historical whipping boy of militant atheists and Progressives seeking the ideal religion free society.  It would be a long discussion to trace the roots of these ideologies, but, except by the wildest kind of loose reasoning, they cannot be foisted on any of the three great monotheistic faiths, or Buddhism or Hinduism for that matter.  They were militantly atheistic (except the Japanese variety with its veneration of the Emperor, the living descendant of the sun-goddess.)

The Third Way, 5: Fanaticism, the Second Way

fanatic – 1. Person filled with excessive and often misguided enthusiasm for something. 2. excessively enthusiastic.  (Derivation – Latin, fanum – temple)

zealot – 1. An uncompromising or extreme partisan; a fanatic.Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002.

Humans are “hard-wired” for language and for belief, for faith.  Recent genetic research has strongly suggested these conclusions.  As a parent and grandparent, one has only to observe the marvel of a new child’s development to see the reality.  Fundamentally, we simply cannot live without meaning.  Evolutionist Progressivism tells us there is no inherent meaning but that which we may existentially choose to attribute, but, nevertheless, we must and will still search out meaning of a deeper sort. 

Holocaust and Gulag survivors repeatedly observed that the victims of horror who survived seemed to find some sort of meaning even in the midst of the most terrible circumstances.  This gave them purpose to keep on going and not just revert to the despair of animal savagery.  Ironically, the victims often retained their humanity while the inflictors surrendered theirs.  Even from an evolutionary perspective, humans must find a cause worth living for in order to find the will to survive.  “Progress” simply doesn’t fill the hole in the heart and soul.

“We cannot get to the full solution to the problem of evil by mere progress, as though, provided the final generation was happy, the misery of all the previous generations could be overlooked or even justified …”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God. (IVP Books, 2006), p. 96.

At one level, meaning can be found in the care for a loved one, the protection of family, or even in revenge.  But sooner or later, whether this immediate purpose is achieved or fails, caring for another, or revenge, prove hollow in themselves and something more profound and visceral must fill the heart’s hunger.  Perhaps that is why we sometimes witness and hear of “death-bed conversions.”

Some stories of “death-bed conversions” of some of the famous are possibly apocryphal, but they demonstrate a truth (beyond the perhaps wishful thinking of the ‘faithful’).  One of the best known concerns the famous French “father of the Enlightenment” Voltaire (1694-1778).  Voltaire was especially vitriolic in his scorn and hatred of the Church and Christianity for most of his celebrated life.  During his last twenty years he lived in a château hard by the Swiss border so he could escape arrest in France should they come for him.  As a famous author and promoter of Enlightenment values, Voltaire tirelessly advocated freedom of expression and the primacy of reason and science as the beacons for future progress.

During the 1770s, King Louis XV was seeking a more liberal approach to society and the economy and, with greater toleration in the air, Voltaire returned to Paris amid great acclaim in 1778.  The excitement and strain on his 84-year-old constitution proved too much and he collapsed.  He lay for days unspeaking in his bed, dulling his pain with opium.  When it was clear that he was dying, he began to rail in delirium.  He is reputed to have cried out, against all that he had declared so often about God and superstition, “I know there is a God and that I am going to hell.”  When asked if he wanted a priest to give him the last rites, he refused and turned to face the wall, speaking no more. 

There is a similar story about Charles Darwin.  It says that, as he lay dying, he wished he could retract all that he had written.  He agonized about how he would answer to God for all the harm he had done. 

While these are not ‘conversion’ stories, and I am not claiming that they are necessarily historically true in every detail, they illustrate the innermost hunger in the human soul to know who and what we are.  They show that the most reasonable and ‘scientific’ interpretations of reality do no more than superficially plaster the hole in the center of our being – what Blaise Pascal called “the God-shaped vacuum” and Augustine of Hippo called the “hunger of the soul.”

It is not fashionable in our post-modern, post-Christian West to display too much zeal, to be a ‘fanatic.’  Unless of course it is in adulation of a sports star, a rock star, a great entertainer, or one of the reputable causes such as advocacy of action to control Climate Change.  One has only to observe to see that there is no greater fanatic or zealot for a cause than a new convert to it.  Despite our public distaste for too much zeal, only real dedication and zeal will push a person to achieve something extraordinary.  Many of us might say that we wish (however fleetingly) we could ‘be like that.’

Zeal and dedication are a matter of choosing.  Such a choice requires a strong enough motivation, a cause you believe in so strongly that you are willing to become really enthusiastic, committed, dedicated to – perhaps even dedicate your life to.  Worthy goals and a worthy purpose in life must be strong enough to sustain you when persevering gets really tough. This is so even in the best of relationships and in living with real commitment according to what is true and right.

Zealots or fanatics may be motivated by a variety of influences, including hatred, anger, and a desire for vengeance, or perhaps fear.  But the paradox is that these powerful emotions are actually perversions and distortions of love.  The cause of fear is often ignorance, but its cure is often knowledge, and knowledge is an essential step towards love.  We may be infatuated by someone or something we know little about, but we can only really love someone or something once we really begin to ‘know’ the person or ‘it,’ to become intimate with him/her/it. 

And, in our deepest core, we all long to be known in this way, to be loved and to love.  Love is what makes us thrive as babies, and that never changes for the rest of life.  If we know we are loved and that we can love and be accepted in turn, we can endure the most tremendous and terrible things–even death.  As Jesus said, “No one has greater love than to lay down his/her life for a friend/a loved one.”

When it comes to the crunch, love can even overcome the instinct for survival.  You do not need to choose to feel the instinct for survival.  It is like the need for food and water and the desire for sex.  But love is chosen—at least at the level of application.  The choice of love will bring a mother to starve herself in order to give food to her child.  It will inspire someone to plunge into danger to save another even when death may well be the consequence.  It will even allow someone to choose to refrain from the fiery desire for sex out of esteem for the well-being of the other for whom one has the desire.

The Postmodern, Postchristian West has a crippled view of zealotry and fanaticism.  Because of their identification, especially by our controlling social and cultural paradigm of Progressive Elitism, with the scandals and wrongs of religious excess and ‘superstition,’ we do not know how to truly harness the immense power of the innate need for faith.  Therefore we channel it to frivolities like sports teams and performers, heaping recognition and adulation upon them.  These are ‘within the bounds,’ just as the Romans gave the mobs ‘bread and circuses’ to keep them docile.  A few other causes are permissible within the pale: climate change activism, gender equality and choice, for example.  Even certain brands of ‘spirituality’ (but let us not call it ‘religion’!) may qualify.  On the whole, however, Christianity and, at least sometimes, Judaism cannot be tolerated except as ‘private and personal.’

In our next discussion, we will examine The Second Way, the road of zeal and fanaticism, in more depth.

The Third Way, 4: The Heart Vacuum

“ … 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.

The Third Way, 3: Humanity’s Search for Meaning

“…. [since 1950] certain key words have been taken over by the secular humanists and  given connotations twisted to conform to their program of destabilization.  We may cite words such as “freedom,” “rights” and “discrimination.”  These words, and many others, have acquired connotations explicitly adapted to the secularist agenda for decomposing the social and intellectual frameworks on which Christian civilization has been built.” Harry Blamires, The Post-Christian Mind.  (Servant Publications, 1999), p. 18.

If the subtitle of this post sounds familiar, that is because it is.  It is adapted from Dr. Viktor Frankel’s profound book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankel was a Jewish psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor.  Both his character and work were admirable.

Survivors of the Holocaust and similar horrors, like the Soviet Union’s Stalinist Gulag described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (his trilogy The Gulag Archipelago won the Nobel Prize), have much to tell us about both the dark side of human nature, as well as its nobility – sometimes both even glimpsed in the same individual.  Eli Wiesel points this out in his Nobel prize-winning personal account (Night) of living through hell on earth in Auschwitz.  Even a Nazi guard was occasionally capable of some glimmer of compassion and human fellow-feeling.           

As Steven Pinker and other Progressives have amply illustrated with an abundance of metrics on the material advances of the modern age across all nations and civilizations, there is no denying that life for the great mass of humanity has vastly improved since World War 2.  The question is whether this is ushering in a new social, cultural, and material golden age.  Many assumptions must hold true for that to really happen. 

Imagine it is 2119 in the perfect Progressive world.  War as an instrument of policy has been universally banned.  Violent crime is fading.  We have solved the climate change crisis, controlled and balanced the human population at an optimum level, found ecologically and environmentally friendly methods of providing sufficient food and resources for everyone to enjoy material comfort.  We have been able to allow earth’s other, non-human inhabitants to live in peace without further threat of extinction (at least at human hands).  Progressively speaking, the opportunity for happiness and fulfilment should now be universal.  We dispose of the few sub-standard foetuses before they are born.  We engineer our offspring.  We have amazing technology to do all the grunt work.  We are in the Star Trek world! 

The pursuit of happiness is among the most basic societal and individual goals according to Enlightenment thought.  So says one its most iconic products, the American Declaration of Independence.  But: Is all of this material and social success enough to fulfill the human heart, to capture and satisfy the human soul, and to calm the insatiable trouble-making curiosity of the human mind?  At this point, the historian in me begins to raise some warning flags, to whisper (or perhaps bellow) some doubts.

But in this 2119 scenario each human has the choice and time and leisure and resources to explore his/her/er’s/their innermost aspirations and release the ‘true self’.  The era of true “self-actualization” has arrived!  It is merely a choice to stretch out for the stars and discover who one truly is deep down.

As only Shakespeare knew how to phrase it, “Aye, but there’s the rub!”

Doesn’t the same science and enlightened reason that have given us paradise in 2119 also say that as a species and individuals we really are nothing but a freak after all?  My whiff of a life has no more meaning than the existence of the rock or tree or butterfly in the meadow, for we are equally improbable outcomes. 

Yet my restless mind and heart protest at this affront!  If so, then why have I been endowed (Pinker’s term, or should we say cursed?) with this drive to discover a (illusory?) deeper meaning behind it all?  Why can’t I just be satisfied with ‘what is’ and enjoy the esthetic beauty of form, colour, function, and ineffability, rather than persisting in the notion that it really must point to something greater and higher and nobler?  Oh yes!  I forgot!  This drive to find meaning is a survival mechanism which has made homo sapiens the fittest.  What else could it mean?  This circular answer is the snake oil elixir of the evolutionary Big-Bang paradigm.  We don’t get it now, but we will later – but it really only leads back to the same sticking point in an endless regression.

This debate is far older than our modern-post-modern conceit that only the last 200 years count as the road into ‘truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’.  The Romans and Greeks, Confucius and Lao-tse, Buddha and Zoroaster, all knew about this problem.  The general consensus of humanity before our era was that we are more than this material stuff.  The general consensus remains the same.  But the Progressivist response is that such persistent illusions about existence and its meaning are, like the appendix at the end of the intestine, evolutionary residue clinging to our psyche.  Some day we will grow out of it, we’ll be all grown up and truly independent, mature, and free.

It is true that everyone who thinks will, at some point, suspect that it is “all sound and fury signifying nothing”, as Shakespeare once had one of his characters say.  Senseless violence, cruelty, abuse, undeserved suffering and pain, inevitable death – all confront us with THE QUESTION.  Why? Why? WHY?  The modern-post-modern response is “Because!  That’s just how it is.  There is no why.  Just be thankful you live for a time and can enjoy it while you do.”

But scientists and Progressive thinkers cannot seem to live with it themselves – always delving deeper with that insatiable human curiosity seeking the answer to still another why, or how.  “How does it work?  Why does it work that way?” All the while everyone, at least occasionally, stops along the way to admire the incredible complexity and beauty and efficiency of nature, even within the cruelty.  (There we go again, seeking and imputing a reason – the survival of the fittest strategy.)

Fundamentally, within this Great Debate which lies at the very heart of humanity’s search for meaning in existence, there have been and still are only two basic positions available – duly observed that there are many variations on each of them.  1. IT is all just an accident with no independent exterior cause.  2. GOD (whatever that means) did it.  Both of these basic positions must start from the same body of evidence to present their case: there is a universe, and we are part of it.  Speculation aside, for all we know we are the only self-aware, consciously intelligent agents acting within it with some power (however feeble) to manipulate it for our own ends.

To get a grip on this mind-boggling dilemma, we resort to stories to explain who we are, what we are, how things are, and what role we play in it all.  Everyone chooses a set of basic answers to these issues, consciously or not.  Our chosen answers are neither purely reasonable and logical, nor purely emotional and irrational.  We come to our operative life-paradigms via both roads and call it “common sense”.  What have you experienced?  What have you observed?  What have you been told and taught?  What have you felt?

The point is that we cannot come to a really complete and profoundly satisfying position by declaring, on faith, that reason, logic, and science can and will deliver all we need and want to know or can ever know for sure.  There is a whole other side of human nature that remains unaccounted for, no matter how deeply we may succeed in probing into the “mysteries of the universe” via the pure and applied sciences.  Simply telling us that religion and mysticism are residual holdovers from the ‘olden days’ of ‘ignorance and superstition’ and that we should do our best to discard them, or at least minimize their hold on our psyches cannot ‘cut it.’ By this reckoning, some day we will simply evolve beyond the sense of mystique, mystery, awe, and wonder.  When that happens we will have lost our deepest longings to truly know, be known, be loved, be recognized as worthy of love. If that ever were to happen, we would cease to be human. Surely that is not what Progressives wish for!

We will continue this discussion next time.

The Third Way, Part 2: Progressive Redemption, an Analysis

Progressive Redemption, an Analysis

redeem – 1. buy back; recover by expenditure of effort or by a stipulated payment. 2. make a single payment to discharge (a regular charge or obligation0. 3. convert (tickets, bonds, etc.) into goods or cash. 4. Theol. Deliver from sin and damnation. 5. make up for; be a compensating factor in … 6. (foll, by from) save from (a defect). 7. refl. Compensate for past failings, esp. so as to regain favour. 9. Save a person’s life by ransom. 9. Save or rescue or reclaim. 10. fulfill (a promise).

redemption – 1. The act or an instance of redemption; the process of being redeemed. 2. Christianity – humankind’s deliverance from sin and damnation. 3. a thing that redeems.

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002, p. 859.

            In the first part of this series, we began discussing the Progressive version of humanity’s future.  We cited Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now as a quintessential statement of that vision.  Accordingly, we find that this redemption comes through the human capacity for recursive reason and language allowing us to “deepen our capacity for sympathy-for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration”. 

                Thence begins a process he describes in this way:

“As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature.  We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind.  We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences.  Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by others.  From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.”

Humanity finds itself ‘endowed’ and ‘blessed’ with the resources it needs – recursive reason and the capacity for language being the most salient, it would seem.  On the physical side, one might add begin bipedal and so having upper limbs free to develop prehensile fingers and thumbs with which to manipulate, mold, fashion, and create new things born in our recursive reason (imagination).

As we remarked in Part 1, this progressive tale of redemption partakes of a religio-mythical aura and vocabulary.  It develops its own symbology.  It adopts the language of faith, but asks us to leave behind the connotations of ‘primitive superstition’ which only breeds ignorance and bigotry and division.  If human nature is endowed, who, or what, is the endower?  If it is only the blind forces and chances of natural laws and processes, how is this an endowment?  How is it a ‘blessing’ rather than the mere ‘luck of the draw’ directed by ‘natural selection’?  Endowments mean a gifts, which means there is a giver.  Is the endower mere time and chance, accident?  Statistical near-impossibility? 

So much of evolutionary thought and language reverts to quasi-personification, as if there is a real directing force or (unconscious?) mind built into ‘nature’.  The quantum universe paradigm presents a model of random directionlessness and chaos at the sub-atomic level.  But somehow, despite the seeming chaos, it gives birth to stupendous and stupefying evidence of order and purpose – not just on Planet Earth, but everywhere we can perceive.  There is no way to calculate the ‘odds’ against such an outcome.

As many of our top astro-physical theorists and speculators would have it, the Progressive tale posits endless Big Bangs, so given enough Big Bangs, I suppose this universe could happen once.  We just happen to be the lucky ones this time around – sentient beings with all of these incredible endowments who can self-awarely contemplate our own ultimate futility.  So we must consider ourselves blessed by this eternally self-replicating Big-Bang cycle so that we can pleasurably ignore our meaninglessness. (But so many of us don’t enjoy our brief sojourn in consciousness before out atoms scatter into the wasteland of entropy.) 

So what is the ‘heroic’ tale of our ‘redemption’ in our blessed age of Enlightenment when we can finally fathom just what we are? What does our lonely little idiosyncratic terrestrial blip in an quasi-infinite universe amount to?  Are we left with a reprise of ancient Epicurean philosophy (“eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”) softened by John Stewart Mill’s compassionate Utilitarianism?  Epicureans believed it was best to live and act as if there is no afterlife, no God or gods to whom we must give account.  Enjoy life to the maximum without harming others, respecting their right to enjoy life to the max too, as long as they respect yours.  In other words, as we now say, whatever two consenting adults agree they can and want to do with one another in private, within a few limitations like not killing each other or causing each other permanent injury, so be it.  As for the rest, be prudent and enjoy! Mill’s modification comes with the principle of trying to do the greatest good for the greatest number in all things, when such things go beyond our personal and private lives – as in developing a more compassionate society.

When we add in our modern and post-modern scientific and technological prowess, the fruit of our recursive reasoning and linguistic endowments, we find our capacity to explore how these guiding principles can be applied and reshaped exponentially expanded.  So we shall not ‘go gently into that good night’ meekly accepting our eventual extinction at the hands of relentless entropy and the Big-Bang in reverse in fifty billion or so years – or whenever our sun gives up the ghost and goes supernova.  But we may yet recursively reprieve ourselves by solving the mysteries of interstellar travel in the interim, and so find a new haven to prolong our ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ existence, knowing full well that, along with everything else that lives, we will die as a race in some distant tomorrow.

If I have caricatured the Progressive epic in my interpretation, this ‘true Progressive myth’ (Pinker’s term, not mine), I do not think I have been out of step with the spirit of it.  We will ‘eke out’ our redemption, bit by bit, step by step, hopefully finding the right balance not to extinguish ourselves or irretrievably ruin our little jewel of a planetary home. We will all learn how to get along and help one another to be as content as possible.

Having, I hope, given a succinct and just description of this ‘true’ (because founded on science and reason) mythological vision of Progressive Redemption, let us consider it from the religious angle.  The Enlightenment Progressive will here protest, “Objection!  We are not practicing a religion or engaging in superstition and pseudo-scientific quackery!”

Perhaps not, but perhaps so, even if it is not ‘religion’ in a sense you choose to consider religion, as Andrew Sullivan so cogently explains in his article “America’s New Religions” (New York Magazine)cited in a previous post on this blog.  This is not a semantic game of setting up a straw man and tearing it down to make the other point of view appear ridiculous by implication.  Progressivism has taken on many of the trappings of a religion without appealing to a Deity.  That is why Progressives so frequently find themselves attracted to Buddhism, at least the brand of Buddhism which does not deify Siddhartha Gautama.  (Actually, most Buddhists do deify him.)If Christianity would relinquish its claim and attachment to a divine Jesus, no doubt many Progressives would esteem him and his teachings (minus his own inconvenient claims to be God’s Son, which, as N.T. Wright has so forcefully and convincingly demonstrated in his epic work, he really made) in the same manner.

For the Enlightenment ideology, once we get past the earlier philosophes and scientists like Locke, Hume, Descartes, Newton, and Galileo, etc., etc., (even Kant was still a Deist), as Stephen Hawking famously put it in A Brief History of Time, when it comes to the suggestion of God, “we have no further need of that hypothesis.” Interestingly, Hawking’s conclusion flew in the face of his own admission a little earlier in that work that the evidence as it existed seemed to suggest design and a Designer.  However, as a scientist with a commitment to (faith in) scientific reason’s powers, he simply could not bring himself to accept that conclusion.  He invoked his own Deus ex machina.  Somehow, sometime, our reason and logic, our ‘recursive reasoning endowment’, will lead us to the truth and we will find the Holy Grail – ‘the Theory of Everything’ – which will tie up all the loose ends.

Does this sound a little like religious faith?  Hebrews 11:1 in the New Testament defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.  It is not anti-reason or superstition to believe in something as yet unseen but for which we find convincing substance and evidence –for example, the conviction that my life-partner of 45 years loves me.  I cannot “see” this love except by the evidence of action and experience.  This is not always scientifically demonstrable.  A whole host of non-scientific ‘evidence’ goes into it.  Yet it is quite reasonable for me to believe that it is so. I experience the substance of it every day.

The Enlightenment Progressive has chosen a faith-position, just as much as the Theist.  Defining his premises to exclude other approaches to reason and the same body of evidence a priori does not, as Captain Picard in Star Trek Next Generation puts it, “make it so.”  Defining the universe so that only that which can be ‘reasonably concluded/accepted/posited’ by ‘recursive reasoning’ (please read as Enlightenment Progressivism defines it) does not really define what cannot really be delimited and perceived by human minds.

We can explore chemistry and physics and psychology forever but still not know what life is, what consciousness is, what self-awareness is, what moral intuition is, why we innately experience awe and reverence, or where any of this comes from – and, beyond all that, why it became at all.  To say it is a result of purely cosmic processes and chemico-electrical activity fits the materialistic, ‘reason and science alone’ paradigm for knowing, but denies the experience and intuition of individuals and societies since humanity emerged into the light of day.  Even some animals seem to “get this” at times, apparently stopping to mourn and pine in the presence of death and loss, expressing individuality and personality.

The universe cannot be reduced to a sort of time-chance, dissonant (from the statistically predictable outcomes of the behaviour of the basic energies of whatever is) chemico-physico-atomic-subatomic strange ‘machine’.  The human species cannot be reduced to a sort of accidental conjunction (unless the ‘law of natural selection’ eleminates the chance) of heterogeneous elements that display extremely unusual characteristics because of strange electro-chemical activity in a gelatinous mass of cells located in its uppermost appendage (our heads).

Progressive ‘redemption’ and ‘salvation’ suggests the best possible future as a least-painful, most comfortable, safest possible sort of existence for the greatest possible number, perhaps with a little adventure thrown in from time to time to add a little ‘danger’ and ‘risk’ (which seems to be a necessary stimulus for progress to continue).  The goal seems to be survival for the species for the longest possible time-span.

Is this enough for our species to thrive?  Or is it really a chimera which would, in the long run, stultify and smother who and what we really are?

We will continue to explore this in our next instalment.

The Third Way: Part 1

The Progressive (Enlightenment) Road


This post initiates a new series in this blog.  It will be entitled “The Third Way”.  This series is a sequel to the series of posts under the title “The Demise of Christendom” which extended over eight parts. 

For readers who have not read “The Demise of Christendom”, that series surveyed the journey of Western society and culture over 1700 years, during which the prevailing paradigm of the West’s identity as a society was assumed to be based on the values and story of Christianity.  As we moved through the ‘History of Christendom’, as we may term that long saga, we recall that the model of ‘Christendom’ was flawed from the beginning, having attempted to marry (Roman) imperial, coercive power, as per the typical world order born millennia before during pre-Christian times, with ideals born and derived from the example and teachings of Jesus and his Apostles.  Jesus’ saying that his Kingdom “is not of this present age (way of doing, being, ruling, ordering – the term is kosmos in Greek and is often mistranslated as ‘world’)” was suborned by the temptation that, with the aid and authority of the government holding ‘the power of the sword’, the ‘Kingdom of God’ would be established on earth[i] before Christ’s promised return.

I will not recapitulate the whole story of how that illusion collapsed and finally and only recently has faded to mere phantom memories.  Anyone desiring to learn more of that story is invited to peruse “The Demise of Christendom”.

The Progressivist Road 

I begin this series with an extensive quote from Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.  Pinker is a highly acclaimed Harvard academic of the first rank who enjoys a well-earned, positive international reputation.  As a prominent point-man and proponent for the Enlightenment and its undoubted contributions to the material improvement of humanity, Pinker has produced a sort of ‘manifesto’ for Progressive Ideology.  It is presented as the true faith and only real hope for humanity to avoid self-destruction, or devolution, or even the complete annihilation of life on earth.  Here is how he concludes Enlightenment Now, his magnum opus, his ‘manifesto’:

“ …. human nature has … been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption.  We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively[i], to have thoughts about our thoughts.  We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity.  We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy-for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.

“These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power.  The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word.  Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts.  And our puny rational faculties been expanded by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.

“As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature.  We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind.  We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences.  Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by others.  From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.  Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril.  But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others have yet to be conceived.

“We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one.  But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.

“This heroic story is not just another myth.  Myths are fictions, but this one is true-true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have.  We believe it because we have reasons to believe it …. it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, (Viking, 2018) pp. 452-3

It is not my desire to dissect Pinker’s projection of humanity’s future in detail here, as tempting as that is.  However, I invite the reader to note a few salient points.  First is Pinker’s use of religious language to speak about the kind of future he hopes for and aspires to for Humanity and Planet Earth.  He says “human nature has been blessed with resources that open space for a kind of redemption. [Emphases are mine.]  He speaks of humanity’s having received ‘endowments’, and anthropomorphizes concepts such as ‘history’ and ‘journalism’, endowing endowment with some sort of autonomous power [which hints at a kind of magical thinking].

Like almost all Enlightenment progressives and their post-modern kin, Pinker does not attribute much, if any, of human progress to the contributions of ‘religion’.  Rather the opposite, if not explicitly, certainly by weighty implication.  He cites a figure of 55 million deaths in wars of religion which the adherents of the major monotheistic religions waged on one another or on pagan miscreants.  In the same quote above, he ends his book [it is the actual last sentence] by saying “knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance”.  I will not dispute his closing statement because I agree with it wholeheartedly, as I in fact do with most of the citation – except to say that it actually requires something more than “only … convictions” which he lists.  Any ‘reasonable’ person would agree with those convictions, including we ‘religious types’ who actually believe we are reasonable – no doubt a largely oxymoronic statement to an Enlightenment Progressive.

Another example of the actually quite religious flavour and fervour of Pinker’s manifesto’s resounding conclusion is his talk of ‘heroic tale’ and ‘myth’.  His use of ‘heroic tale’ is of course borrowed from the (mainly religious) heritage of the West, beginning with the Greeks, whose heroes (such as Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Heracles) were all intimately connected to deities (such as Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Hera, Ares, Hephaestus), the Romans, who had their own parallel pantheon guiding and protecting their destiny, and the Vikings. 

A heroic tale is a specific literary genre involving supernatural elements and the conflict of good against evil, light against darkness, justice against injustice.  It is easy to understand why Pinker and Progressives would frame their story in such terms – to inspire!  The saga of ‘heroic reason’ does not sound very inspirational.  Inspiration needs emotion and enthusiasm, belief in a higher cause, and heroic protagonists who actually act heroically.  Such is the forte of ‘religion’, not science, reason, and logic.  (Not to say that there have been and are no heroic philosophers and scientists.  But even there, conspicuous by absence in Pinker’s heroic tale is the amazing fact that a good many of them were Deists, Theists, and, heaven forbid! – even Christians!  Progressive History is largely revisionist history.)

Then there is the wholly egregious negativism towards a category of story Pinker calls myth.  He implicitly divorces ‘myth’ as he has defined it (“fiction”) from truth, because truth is only attained by the application of reason.  This is the supreme tenet of the Enlightenment.  He wants to have his cake and eat it too – elevating the Enlightenment Progressive Story to the status of the one and only ‘true myth’ – an oxymoron by his own definition.  The problem is that, for us to be converted to (or renewed in our faith in) the Enlightenment Now vision and version of “redemption” – his term – he needs the religious symbolism and language.

He sounds much like Auguste Comte in his invention of the Religion of Positivism as a necessary substitute for (then outlawed) Christianity at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th Centuries as the French Revolutionaries, invoking all the most noble principles of the High Enlightenment, devolved into tyranny and mass killing to rival any done by the ‘Christianity’ they so deplored and excoriated.  It seems that appealing to high philosophical principles and the light of Reason and Science alone simply does not inspire much hope or commitment among the ordinary unwashed masses who just don’t know any better.  The ‘truth’ has to be dressed up with religious vocabulary, regardless of the century we find ourselves in.            

In our next instalment, we will discuss the idea of ‘redemption’ à la progressiste

[i]  Unfortunately some die-hards in extremist groups who still identify themselves as ‘Christian’ would still love to take over the government and then use the ‘power of the sword’, as the Apostle Paul called it in the Letter to  of Romans, to create a ‘Christian’ theocracy.  Sorry guys, we’ve been there and done that and moved on.  It was ugly and would be just as ugly second time around.  Look at Iran or Saudi Arabia.

[ii]  “recursive/recursively” – an academic term referring to the faculty of using an ability or skill to improve itself by tweaking it through new uses and situations.  Simply: a fancy way of saying ‘practice makes perfect’ – like a mechanic or musician learns a new, more efficient and elegant way to do old things and then, from that, finds improvements and makes ‘advances’ in their area of expertise.  In this context, we get better at reasoning by reasoning; we get better at communicating by communicating.  We get better at science by applying previous science and trying new stuff with it.  We get better at helping people in real, practical ways by helping them in real practical ways.  All in all, we learn from our mistakes – but there are always new mistakes to learn from.

The Demise of Christendom, 5

“The concept of a united Christendom with a secular and a religious head (the Emperor and the Pope), which Charles V had briefly tried to revive, had been dying for centuries and suffered a death-blow with the Reformation and the fragmentation of Christianity.  It was now finally buried after [the Peace of] Westphalia [1648] and was only to re-emerge in a rather different form with Napoleon and his ‘new order’.”

Derek McKay & H.M. Scott, The Rise of the Great Powers, 1648-1815. (Longman Group Limited, 1983), p. 6.

Our story of the demise of Christendom has now brought us to the end of its ‘formal’ existence.  In the mid-17th Century, the nations of Europe would still have identified themselves as ‘Christian’, but common allegiance to a spiritual head claiming the earthly mantle of Jesus Christ had ended.  The majority of Europe’s peoples west of Russia (called ‘Muscovy’ in the early 17th Century) still recognized the Pope and adhered to the Roman Catholic Church, but large segments had become Protestant – Lutheran or Reformed for the most part.

As our citation above states, wars of religion in Europe became a thing of the past after the Peace of Westphalia (1648).  However, because rulers were still deemed to have the right to dictate what religion their subjects should adhere to, wars still sometimes carried a substratum of ‘Catholic versus Protestant’, depending on the combatants.  But Catholics often fought Catholics, and Protestants fought Protestants, and all made opportunistic alliances with powers of the ‘other’ religion to support their national interest[i].

Behind the scenes of all the religious and political upheaval from 1528 to 1648, with its marching armies and their rapine and slaughter done in the name of ‘true Christianity’, another sort of ‘Quiet Revolution’ (to borrow a phrase from Canada’s history in the 1960s) had been under way.  We sometimes call this the ‘Renaissance’ and ‘the Scientific Revolution’.  The way we study, speak, and write about such things after the fact always leaves our perception of them segmented and incomplete. 

We can perhaps relate more holistically to it by thinking of how people a hundred years from now will try to make sense of all the diverse currents, trends, and influences converging in the early 21st Century.  We relate to it all as a continuous stream full of mingling currents.  Future historians will probably have to break the era up into ‘areas’ of study – the media (establishment mass media, social, and other), art and culture, economic issues, international affairs, social trends and developments, religious and spiritual concerns, etc.  But these things are never separate from one another.  They always flow together, inextricably intermixed, impinging on one another.  An economic decision always has social and political aspects, and could well carry over into the moral and spiritual and even artistic realms.

Since the early 16th Century, new developments in scholarship and inquiries into the natural world had been awakening interest in science, in knowing more about history, in learning more about the roots of culture and the study of the world and the universe.  For Europeans, whole new continents had been discovered and were under intense exploration and colonization with a host of possibilities, including commercial and religious expansion.  Telescopes were opening up the universe and opening minds and eyes to see it in a new way that, for some, threatened their paradigm of ‘God’s’ order.  Anatomical discoveries were revealing how the body works.

Thus, at the same time as the religious and political order of ‘Christendom’ had been shattered, to many it appeared as if the theological and philosophical order that underpinned the old ideas of ‘God’s appointed order’ was also being torn apart.  Perhaps the whole basis of ‘Christendom’ was open to challenge, and there needed to be a radical reconception of Creation and Divine Order?  Not many would then go so far as to suggest that God’s existence was open to question, but deep questions of God and Science and Revelation and Faith began to resonate.

 In the 17th Century, around the time that the Peace of Westphalia restored a structure of relative peace and order to Central and Western Europe, or shortly before, the first generation of ‘Philosophes’ portending the burgeoning of the ‘Enlightenment’ burst upon the scene like an intellectual and scientific fireworks display.  There had been earlier forerunners (e.g. Copernicus, Bacon, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo), particularly in the field of astronomy, but within a short time a whole host of even greater ‘new lights’ appeared in the intellectual firmament.  There were advances in medicine, optics, and a host of areas, as well as astronomy.

Some of the most significant thinkers and scientists of the time include René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Hugo Grotius, Samuel Rutherford, Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and John Locke.  We could add many more to the list.

These early ‘philosophes’ are the initial stage of what became known as the Enlightenment.[ii]  They represent a gathering sea-change in thought, and thus in the dominant worldview in Western culture.  For more than a thousand years Christianity (or at least the Roman Catholic version of it) had provided the foundational understanding of what is, who humans are, how the world works, and what is to become of it all.  By the 17th Century, certainties were fracturing, just as Christendom had fractured.  New science offered a new understanding of the universe.  New continents meant exposure to many new cultures and influences, including spiritual and philosophical challenges, bringing many of even the most basic views up for re-examination.  No amount of censorship by nervous ecclesiastical authorities would prevent this process.  This is the air the thinkers on our list breathed and the current of ideas they swam in.

Some of these early philosophes were devout Christians, or would have considered themselves so.  Others were doubters and perhaps agnostics, and at least one was an out-and-out atheist.  Descartes (1596-1650) discarded revelation and the Bible in trying to explain what a human is and who or what God is.  He considered himself a good Catholic, but his famous series of Meditations offered the Enlightenment thinkers a road to accept a Creator but leave behind the Bible, Church, and ‘superstition’.  He gave us the famous one-liner, “I think; therefore, I am,” turning the focus on the individual’s supremacy in judging what is real and exists.  Logic and reason became the supreme tools for assessing such questions, as they also were for discovering truth about the universe through ‘Science’, which could now stand independently as an authority in opposition to Scripture, revelation, and dogma. It must be said that most of the early modern scientists were still practising Christians and did not see reason and science as opposed to faith. Rather, they were complementary ways of finding truth, for God is the God of Creation.

Pascal (1623-1662) rejected Descartes’ logic, writing many notes on why logic and science must fail to lead one to truth unless submitted to God, who stands above and beyond all such methods and can still intervene directly in the universe He created.  Yet Pascal, possibly even more brilliant than Descartes, still used incisive, brilliant logic to argue against those who would deny God by using those same tools.  Pascal was a pioneer mathematician and physicist, but is most remembered for his Pensées, a collection of notes he intended to turn into a great apologetic treatise in defence of Christianity. Unfortunately, he died before he could carry out his project.

Grotius (1583-1645) was a Dutch legal scholar who wrote enormously important work on the foundations for what we now call ‘human rights’ and ‘international law’.  He was a devout Christian and argued that there were no ‘human rights’ or law without God as guarantor, and that no sovereign or state could escape giving an account (to God, ultimately) for their treatment of subjects and actions towards other states.  Grotius wrote of ‘natural law’ – the law written in nature, in the order God created.  As with so many things, the later Enlightenment ‘lights’ would readily adopt his conclusions, minus God.  Logic and science approved them, so God need not be included.

So too with Rutherford (1600-1661) who gave us Lex Rex, (Law Is King in English), arguing for the supremacy of law, even over absolutist sovereigns.  The Supremacy of Law is a pillar of modern constitutional thought, but Rutherford argued that only a system of law rooted in God’s law could stand.  Laws not rooted in the Supreme Law must fail to be truly just and become mere tools for human rulers to impose their will.  On the other hand, even rulers must give an account to God and can be held accountable in this world for breaking the law.  Subjects need not obey rulers who are clearly violating God’s express law.  Once more, the later philosophes loved the principle of making sovereigns accountable to law (and thus to the courts at some level), but saw no need to keep God involved.

Newton (1642-1727) was one of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of all time.  Many volumes have dealt with him.  One of the lesser known aspects of this polymath and extreme eccentric was his obsession with understanding the Bible, especially its apocalyptic side.  Newton was at least a Theist, believing there is a personal God who not only created an amazing universe according to a set of ‘laws’ which science seeks to discover, but that this God could (and did) intervene in His creation – although He normally stood aside.  The later Enlightenment ‘lights’ thanked Newton for his amazing work in physics and for giving them the intellectual and scientific machinery to leave God aside in understanding things as they are.  However, they emphatically rejected his ‘superstition’ as completely irrelevant and inconsistent with ‘the greatest mind of the age’.

The last three on our ‘short list’ will be discussed in the next post.  They proceeded to dispense with the need for ‘superstitious fear-mongering’ in order to bring authority into an argument.  They thus signal the entry of the next stage of dismantling Christendom.  For the Enlightenment militants, this was nothing less than deconstructing the moral, cultural, and social legacy of Christendom (and the influence of Christianity).  This became the scarcely disguised aim of the Enlightenment program as the 18th Century moved forward.

Our tale will continue in Part 6.

[i] Then as now, the ruling classes or monarchs, usually together, determined what ‘national interest’ meant.  Some of the greatest wars of this period were focused on dynastic issues as much as questions of territory and trade.  Then as now, there was no such thing as a ‘disinterested’ or ‘pure’ casus belli [reason for war] to uphold a noble principle of right and justice, or to relieve oppression.  Rulers respected the right of fellow rulers to treat their subjects within their borders as they saw fit without maintaining a ‘right of intervention’ to end persecution or oppression.  There were no ‘armies of liberation’.  Armies were composed of mercenaries and conscripts, usually of the meanest class of men.  The officers were usually nobles seeking fame, fortune, and influence.  Then as now, woe to the civilians caught in the battle zone.

[ii] François Marie Arouet (1694-1778) of France, better known as Voltaire, is often credited with inventing the term (in French, ‘Illumination’) ‘Enlightenment’ for what was taking place all across Europe.  The ‘heyday’ of the Enlightenment was from 1740-1788, but what was then launched carries forward to this day in the West, and has rippled across the world.