The Third Way, 42: Kohelet, 6 – “Folly is in their hearts”

Featured

“Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?  When things are going well, enjoy yourself; but when things are going badly, consider that God made the one alongside the other, so that people would learn nothing of their futures.”

Kohelet 7: 13, 14 (Complete Jewish Bible)

“This state of affairs has led to three things in particular which I see as characterizing the new problem of evil.  First, we ignore evil when it doesn’t hit us in the face.  Second, we are surprised by evil when it does.  Third, we react in immature and dangerous ways as a result.”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (IVP Books, 2006), pp. 23-4.

Bishop Wright refers to the “new problem of evil”.  By this, he does not mean that evil is a new problem.  In the preamble to this statement he explains that the old problem has taken on a very new twist in the last two centuries.  Modern/post-modern humans are continually astonished at the manifest “wickedness, roguery, and rascality” (see Embersley, quoted in the previous instalment) effervescing from individual humans who have been taught better things and intellectually know better.  This undying denial of what is obvious to any objective observation is maintained despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary that has continuously bombarded the human race for millennia, including the West with its entrenched doctrines of progress and human perfectibility.  Incidentally, it is always convenient to forget that this very doctrine was borrowed from, and then mutilated and eviscerated of, its spiritual origins in Christianity.  

Western culture and society persist in believing in a doctrine of inevitable and ineluctable progress rooted in the idea of the inherent goodness of humanity which will one day evolve into some sort of epiphany of an evolved quasi-divinity.  There is manifestly no historical or observational evidence to sustain this unshakeable faith. 

A few examples, going back 3000 years and more, of the indisputable, well-documented, contrary evidence (roughly in chronological order): the Israelite massacre of the Canaanites, the Assyrian slaughters of their conquered peoples, Roman genocides of the Carthaginians and Jews and various others, the Muslim onslaught on and slaughters in (Zoroastrian) Persia and (Christian) North Africa, Genghis Khan and the Mongol terror over most of Asia, Tamerlane (Timushin), a reprise of dear old Genghis.  And for sanctimonious North Americans (including our indigenous peoples): the Aztec terrors in Central America, followed by Spain’s ‘merciful’ deliverance, the Iroquois genocide of the Hurons followed by the white American genocides of many of their indigenous peoples.  Then there is the generalized wretchedness (including massive body counts) of slavery throughout all history in every continent and down to this day.  Oh, and we mustn’t forget the perpetual exploitation of women, and rampant racism with all its wickedness. 

Oops!  Can’t leave out World War 1!  And how about the Turkish genocide of the Armenians (1915-6)?  World War 2, anyone?  The Holocaust, anyone?  Stalin and Mao, anyone?  The Khmer Rouge, anyone?  Rwanda, anyone?  ISIS (Yazidis, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, 2013), anyone?

You get the idea.  As the New Testament puts it, “All have sinned and fall [far] short of the glory of the Creator” and “There is not one righteous, not even one,” the self-proclaimed glory of humanism notwithstanding.  

But apparently it is only the believers in a Creator who are guilty of blind faith and only they have ever done any mass killing.  It’s the religious factor that apparently makes religious fanatics specially reprehensible—more than the ideological terrorists like Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol-Pot, Baghdadi (just-slain ISIS Caliph), and Hitler.  Admittedly, if you proclaim a God of mercy and love and proceed to massacre those who oppose you, defy you, question your truth, and threaten your control, it is perhaps extra-specially despicable and abhorrent.  But it is all too “human” within the general character of human behaviour.  So it is not the religion that is the root cause, but the “wickedness, roguery, and rascality” that lies in darkest depths of the unchanged human heart.

In Kohelet’s words, as he speaks on our behalf from our extremely limited perspective, we dare to say, “God’s ways are crooked”, therefore He/She is not a good God.  Yet, as we have noted, God made this implacable universe out of love. 

Thing is, the nature of love demands a universe where evil is possible because free creatures made for love must have the freedom to choose not to love but to do evil in its stead.  But to avoid blame, guilt, and responsibility we must then blame God, or deny Him/Her altogether, because we don’t want to look ourselves in the face—especially since, as we are told over and over these days, humans are not fundamentally flawed in their nature.  Nevertheless, as we have just observed, in all the greatest evils inflicted on the human race throughout its history, it was other humans doing the accusing and condemning, then wielding the swords, guns, and machinery of destruction one upon another, expending incalculable energy and creative imagination to find new and better ways to pile evil upon evil and body upon body in the name of vengeance, justice, or plain old avarice, power-hunger, and blood-lust.

In the middle chapters of the Biblical book called Kohelet (Ecclesiastes to we English-speakers), Solomon-Kohelet seems to lose his way through the maze of wheels within wheels of causality and depressing socio-economic analysis, as we would now call it.  In this he is very much like a modern or postmodern sociologist.  He tries to take the stance of a neutral observer, striving to sort out the conflicting stories and sets of evidence from this series of what we would now call “case studies” which constitute his raw material.  His questions (which I herewith paraphrase) abound:  “Why do I see really good people continually being crushed and destroyed while wicked people live long, prosperous lives?  Why are good, honest, upright people so hard to find anywhere, anytime?  Why are wise people so hard to find anywhere, anytime?  Why do we understand so little about why things happen, even when it’s so obvious such things will happen?”  (Perhaps this can be stated as “Why don’t we ever learn anything from history, at least not for long?”)  Finally, “Why do the authorities continually ignore and fail to act against flagrant evil and injustice?”

Solomon-Kohelet never blames the Creator for any of this, despite the temptation to do so (which the supposedly wise people of our time find impossible to resist).  He offers three poignant observations (a diagnosis?): “. . . on looking over all of God’s work, I realized that it is impossible to grasp all the activity taking place under the sun. . . . the righteous and the wise, along with their deeds, are in God’s hands—a person cannot know whether these people and these deeds will be rewarded with love or with hatred; all options are open. . . . Truly the human mind is full of evil; and as long as people live, folly is in their hearts; after which they go to be with the dead.” (8:17, 9:1, 9:3)

First, no human mind or any number of human minds can possibly see or understand “all of God’s work . . . all the activity taking place under the sun”.  What is the implication?  That it is supreme human arrogance and hubris for humans to pit their minds and “wisdom” against the Creator.  They thus set themselves up as prosecutor, judge, and jury of their own infinite Creator, and then pronounce sentence.  They are in fact themselves the condemned by their own choices to defy the Creator’s intention for them and the creation He/She placed them in.  Even if we have millions or billions more years (an extremely dubious likelihood), as per the evolutionary story, we will never reach the end of understanding the Cosmos that is stretched out before us.  To quote the current Swedish climate-Messiah, “How dare you/we?” make such an assumption.

Second, it doesn’t matter who we are, rich or poor, powerful or a social nonentity, wise and well-educated or foolish and uneducated (and these do not necessarily coincide), “their (our) deeds are in God’s hands”.  We can imagine that we are autonomous, independent agents fashioning the future and changing the world (or perhaps just our own tiny part of it) according to our own lights, but ultimately, that level of competence and real power belongs only to the Creator who both made us and all that is, and still directs all things, continually willing them to continue to exist first of all.  He/She is not denying or removing our ability to choose, but whatever we choose, it will be brought within the Creator’s orb and integrated with all other things.  And we simply cannot see enough, either in time or distance, to know the outcome of even ordinary decisions and actions: “whether these people and these deeds will be rewarded with love or with hatred; all options are open.”  What is unchangeable in all of this is the nature of the Creator who loves His/Her creation and creatures (including us humans) and respects our power to choose, precisely because of this love.

Third, and most unpalatable and unworthy and undignified in our current spiritual, psychological, and sociological climate: “Truly the human mind is full of evil; and as long as people live, folly is in their hearts; after which they go to be with the dead.”

Of this, more next time.

The Third Way, 40: Kohelet, 4 – Riches, Power, and Injustice

Featured

“Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.  Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”  Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond.

“Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton

“At no point does the [Biblical] picture collapse into the simplistic one which so many skeptics assume must be what religious people believe, in which God is the omnicompetent managing director of a very large machine and ought to be able to keep it in proper working order.  What we are offered instead is stranger and more mysterious: a narrative of God’s project of justice within a world of injustice.”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (IVP Books, 2006), p. 71.

Twenty-first Century humanity is obsessed with the inequities and injustices, real and imagined, of its own society.  Outrage is the tone of the age.  When it comes to considering the claims of a Creator, or the mere existence of a Creator, the principal objection is the existence of evil in the universe.  After all, don’t all the believers in and defenders of a Creator present this Being as infinitely good and loving, or at least benevolently neutral? 

Even pantheists and panentheists come in for scorn and mockery as they try to explain their concept of divinity being inextricably entwined in the very fabric of the Cosmos, indeed as the very fabric itself.  To achieve this, the Cosmos must be in proves of becoming a sort of living thing moving itself towards a sublime summation of all that is in a sort of infinite, amorphous, quasi-conscious bliss of ecstatic communion.  It is amazing to watch how even the great icons of Cosmic science (e.g. Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking) seem to edge ever closer to this sort of “numinous universe “à la Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man)”.  (Once more we run up against the restless human heart with its God-shaped vacuum at its center, as per Augustine and Pascal. . .)

According to the prevailing meta-story of our current culture, if we opt for a personal Creator, we are simpletons and moronic dupes relying on a phantasm because of our moral and intellectual weakness.  Or, if we opt for an impersonal sort of idolization of the Cosmos moving itself towards numinescence and awakening, we are still fools because we can’t bear the weight of being mere burps of an amoral, meaningless, completely random explosion.  In that case, isn’t “evil” really a meaningless concept?  Things just are what they are—no morality involved.  The “laws” of physics and evolution apply at all times and in all places—survival of the fittest, strongest, most adaptable, luckiest, etc., gyrating in the great quantum.  How can the quantum mass of particles and energy have a moral outcome? 

Nonetheless, in our more thoughtful moments when we can absent ourselves from surfing and tweeting, most of us still can’t avoid or evade a nagging sense of something being dreadfully amiss, out of order, off-center, wrong!  There just shouldn’t be this (or any) degree of suffering and pain involved, especially inflicted on the innocent and defenceless—at least among ourselves and, by extension, other living, sentient beings.  Pain as a survival mechanism, perhaps, but as a moral agent. . .?  And, as our hearts and souls tell us as we lie abed a-night alone with our fragility and vulnerability, the greatest wrong, which we see when we watch those we love go through the hardness of life and unprovoked and unmerited strife, pain, and affliction, is death!

But we repress this horror.  We scientifically rationalize: death is part of the natural order; it is the evolutionary order and rule.  It is the agent for elimination of the weak and of renewal and change to make way for the stronger, faster, better which is ever-emerging.  Life needs death – otherwise the planet could never support life if nothing ever died!

But we are still left with an insoluble paradox: why do we, the pinnacle of evolutionary consciousness and incarnation of cosmic self-awareness, have this agonizing, unshakeable sense of unfairness, inequity, injustice?  And death is the “unkindest cut of all”!  How is this innate capacity to conceive ineffable ideas like justice, good, and beauty, and their opposites, of any evolutionary benefit?  How did we ever evolve such conceptions? 

Perhaps they are a means to preserve our species by restraining us from indiscriminatingly slaughtering one another and other species.  They subdue our innate aggressive and competitive instincts; they control our intellect’s capacity to create destructive instruments. 

Until recently, these “controlling mechanisms in the human psyche” were almost universally accepted as instilled by humanity’s Creator (or creators in polytheistic societies).  Remove the sanction of the Creator watching and reserving judgment and, it seems, the only sanction and restraint left is Mutual Assured Destruction (the 1970s MAD principle during the Cold War) which will result from excessive anti-social behaviour.  As the question has been framed, “(How) Can we be good without God?”  Nietzsche proposed that, honestly, we can’t because there is no motivation to be “moral and good” without a Judge waiting to pass sentence.  It all boils down to social convention, not conscience.

Can we be good without God?  Aristotle (see his masterpiece The Nichomachean Ethics)and modern secular philosophers answer “Yes!”  But it still begs the anterior question: “How do we even have a concept of good to begin with?”  And within that, “How do we have a global, almost universal understanding, across all cultures and times, of many elements of what ‘good’ means?”

Fundamentally, there are only two, diametrically opposite, answers: (1) evolution made it happen for reasons we can only dimly speculate about, or, (2) the universe’s Creator made us that way for His/Her own reasons.  And the main argument against the second choice is that evil and wrong and pain and suffering exist.  Surely an infinitely wise and good Creator would not make such a flawed Cosmos, one in which cruelty, deliberate evil, the infliction of pain and suffering abound.  If the Cosmos is a reflection of the Creator’s nature, the Creator Him-/Herself must therefore be a cruel, unworthy being.  And who would want to serve such a God?

Which brings us back to Kohelet, our ancient sage, once more.  Solomon-Kohelet does not defend the Creator, even though he continually acknowledges Him/Her.  Instead, he observes (very dispassionately, like a modern social scientist) the world as it is with all its apparently random outcomes.  The “good and just” sometimes suffer evil and calamity in the same way as fools and criminals; the unjust and wicked too often seem to live easy, fat, comfortable lives while the innocent, the good, and the just suffer.  He never facilely resorts to blaming God for this state of affairs, nor does he ever mention a ‘devil’, a demon, or any other supernatural entity as an instigator; such things just are.  But he still has something to say as to why they are as they are, and his insights are right on target to this day.

In short, the perpetrators of most of the afflictions and injustice humans fall prey to are other humans.  He does not deal with what we call “acts of God”.  His concern is what he observes about the treatment of our fellow humans, one to another, one upon another.  “I realized that all effort and achievement stem from one person’s envy of another. . . . something else under the sun that is pointless: the situation in which a solitary individual without a companion, with neither child nor brother, keeps on working endlessly but never has enough wealth. . . .”  And, as to the zealous young person determined to prove him-/herself greater than any predecessors, attaining acclaim and power (royalty in his language) and all that: “Nevertheless, those who come afterwards will not regard him highly.  This too is certainly pointless and feeding on wind.”  (See Chapter 4 of the Biblical book Kohelet.)

Not doing life alone is always better: “Two are better than one, in that their cooperative efforts yield this advantage: if one of them falls, the other will help his partner up.”  A wise, poor youth is better than an old, arrogant king who no longer listens to anyone’s advice—the corruption of power theme again, which he knew well firsthand.

Having observed these things, he puts them in perspective.

“Watch your step when you go to the house of God.  Offering to listen is better than fools offering sacrifices, because they don’t discern whether they are doing evil.  Don’t be impulsive, don’t be in a hurry to give voice to your words before God.  For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few.  For nightmares come from worrying too much; and a fool, when he speaks, chatters too much.” (4:17-5:2)

Thus, the Creator is not intervening to stop people from acting like fools and doing wrong to one another, but He/She is quite aware of it.  We sail along in our ambitions, self-centered goals to “get to the top”, prove others wrong, accumulate what we covet and make our mark with little or no thought of what we’re doing and, more particularly, how we’re doing it.  Perhaps there is some token gesture towards the Maker here and there—“fools offering sacrifices”.  They are fools because there is no desire or attempt to “discern whether or not they are doing evil.”

Kohelet is not here discussing the “great evils”—natural disasters, plagues, famines, wars and slaughters—which everyone can see and abhor while condemning the human perpetrators when appropriate.  That is another discussion.  At this point he is concerned with the petty evils of everyday life, our habitual mindsets, attitudes, and self-centered behaviours that inevitably injure those around us.  The “fool” is the one rushing and toiling along thoughtlessly, heedlessly as if there is no responsibility, no accountability, and no consequences.

If we live like this, we will spend our lives “chasing after wind” and never seeing it because we have never bothered to “go to the house of God”—turn towards the Creator.  Some of us still pay lip-service in that direction in order to appease our consciences (or please someone else, or create a good impression as part of our public persona), but this is “fools offering sacrifices”.

The only way to escape this trap, this treadmill of “feeding the wind”, is to mindfully, deliberately, and humbly turn to the Creator and begin to listen, even more than you speak, “For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few.”

There is much more insight Kohelet offers.  We will pick it up in the next session.

The Third Way, 10: Point of Departure

Featured

“I have ruled out … any possibility that the problem of evil can be solved in terms of developmental progress or evolution.  If the world gradually gets better and better until it turns into a utopia—though we should in any case be appropriately cynical about such a possibility—that would still not solve the problem of all the evil that has happened up to that point.”


N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (Intervarsity Press, 2006) pp. 135-6.

“Never, never, never give up!”  Winston Churchill, 1940.

Above are citations from two quite different Englishmen.

Nicholas Thomas “Tom” Wright is a well-known Anglican Bishop and a pre-eminent New Testament scholar and Christian apologist of the Boomer generation.  He has written prolifically at both the popular and highly academic levels, everything from profound investigation into the reliability and validity of the New Testament and the historical context of Jesus to Jesus’ own operative psychology.  His scholarship on the Apostle Paul is enormous.  He has a global reputation and has taught at Oxford, Cambridge, McGill, and St. Andrews Universities.  Only extreme liberals discount his work.  They label him as too traditional, while fundamentalist-style conservatives label him as compromised because he maintains strong dialogue across the perspectival divide on the Bible and does not “toe the line” according to their rigid criteria for Biblical interpretation.

Winston Churchill’s resolution in 1940 is legendary.  In June, France had fallen to the German blitzkrieg in six weeks and Britain stood alone against a triumphant Nazi Germany.  Britain’s only allies were its Dominions, of which Canada was the largest and most important.  With no slight to Canada, this did not generate much hope at the time.  World opinion, including that of the USA and Soviet Union, was in agreement with the defeated French Army Commander, Maréchal Weygand, that Britain would not last three months and would “have her neck wrung like a chicken.” 

Defiantly, Churchill waved off an unofficial German peace feeler via Sweden and declared that Britain would “fight on the beaches … in the fields and on the landing grounds … in the cities and in the hills” and even, “if necessary for years, if necessary alone.  We shall never surrender …” Churchill called forth the deepest well of hope, determination, and courage in an entire people, inspiring other nations in the process, when everything suggested that it was all pretty much over.  Britain and the Commonwealth stood defiant beneath the storm.  Churchill took the long view, waving aside the defeatists even in his own country and government. He later said that he almost never doubted eventual victory, but became absolutely certain of it when the USA finally joined the fight.

A cliché says that the light is never lighter than when the darkness is nearly total, and “the darker it gets, the lighter the light shines.”  The West is in quite a dark place.  Most of us cannot see it, but that is a characteristic of darkness as it sets in.  For a time, our vision begins to adjust to less light.  By straining our eyes and focusing on points that remain more visible, we succeed in convincing ourselves that it is not, after all, so dark as all that.

At this moment, Wright is a point of light in our cultural darkness.  A few generations ago, Churchill was a bright point of light in the darkest hours of modern history.  Across three generations, these two giants join hands in diagnosing the West as having reached a time of crisis and that, at bottom, the crisis is moral and spiritual.  Churchill was no religious zealot, but he identified the world struggle of WW2 as a war “to save Christian civilization” from “a new dark age”.  (These are sentiments he publicly declared in his famous speeches of 1940-41.)

While the Grand Alliance won WW2 and Nazism was destroyed, along with Japanese Military Fascism in Asia, ‘Christian civilization’ (really the remnant of the old Christendom) was only given a reprieve.  It was already quite far gone. 

As Churchill rallied the nation, C.S. Lewis, a much quieter voice of the same era as Churchill (the two died within two years of each other), had been diagnosing the decline and demise of the West with immense perception and insight, even speaking dozens of times on BBC radio in the 1940s and 50s to do so.  Many of his talks were transformed into brilliant and easy-to-read treatises for ordinary people.  Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Four Loves, The Screwtape Letters, and The Abolition of Man are a few titles along these lines.  There are many more.  His better known Narnia Chronicles are a series for children using the back door of fantasy to reintroduce the basic Christian message and worldview to many who would avoid church like the plague.  In this, Lewis was a pioneer in a genre few would take seriously back then.

Previously in this series, we noted that in the 10th Century BCE King Solomon diagnosed the essence of the human condition with uncanny accuracy.  His analysis applies to every human society that has ever existed or is likely to exist.  As he says, there are all kinds of ways for us to try to discover meaning for our existence as a species and as individuals.  Solomon tried about all there is to try, clinically describing his results like a sociologist conducting experiments.  His conclusion: “It is all meaningless …” Unless …

He states the “unless” succinctly: “Remember your Creator in the time of your youth.”  His conclusion, born of so much misadventure and waste of energy, time, wealth, and genius, is the only valid point of departure possible in order to make any sense of the cosmos as we find it.  He had tried everything else and ended up back at what he had long since abandoned. 

Gandhi once said about finding the non-violence strategy to convince the British to leave India, “I have travelled such a long way, only to end up back home.”  Now we of the West, or at least enough of us who identify with ‘the West,’ need to “find our way back home,” to the only point of departure that can bring us any true hope.  If the West (not to be understood geographically) can find this road, something may begin to happen among us which may become a point of light for the rest of humanity.

But how can turning back to encounter, or re-encounter, our Creator as a community be a serious proposal in this time and culture?  The West is now post-Christian, in practical terms Godless (except for the supreme god of ‘self’), officially and proudly secular—in effect, an atheistic society and culture, at least at the ‘applied’ level.  How can it be in any way reasonable to propose we turn onto a different road, a Third Way?  How can we find our way back to a point of departure our intellectual, social, economic, and political leaders have abandoned (or at least think they have abandoned) decades, if not centuries, ago?

Remember; we are speaking of the Post-Roman West, the supposedly “Christian” West.  The truth is that this point of departure has never been abandoned because, in reality, it was never found, let alone accepted.  As we said in Part 9, “When we begin a journey, we can never get anywhere if we never even find the departure point….  if we get on the wrong flight and never even realize it we will arrive with brutal surprise at a destination we never wanted to reach.”  That is exactly where we are!

 The First Way of the old “Christendom” was never based on going back to the very first ground of departure.  The simplicity of the original Christian “Good News” was swallowed by the imperial ideology and the face-to-face encounter with the living Creator obscured by new levels of mediation and hierarchization.  Very simply, the AWOL staring point is the recognition that we can build nothing that will answer the real need of humanity unless we begin with an absolutely basic transaction between ourselves and our Creator.

Theology itself became a weapon, blocking the ordinary people  from seeing the Creator with any clarity.  The theological sword (and I use the term quite deliberately), has been stretched, violated, and abused for over 1500 years to justify and excuse enormous departures from what the first messengers of the revolutionary ‘good news’ brought.  Theology is a fallible tool, too often quasi-deified as a substitute for the living Creator.  Therefore, we must divest ourselves of the shackles of predetermined categories and limits and old quarrels and bitter recrimination.  God will not sit quietly inside our favourite boxes.  For too long Theology has arrogated a sort of Gnostic insight unto itself and thus shut out myriads of regular folks who only want to meet and know their Maker.  Theology has too often rendered its adepts, pseudo-adepts, and self-proclaimed adepts at least partially and sometimes totally deaf, dumb, and blind to any voices but their own.  We need theology like we need any other tool, as a help to understand and construct a workable framework within which to “live and move and have our being.”  When we take it beyond that and use it to condemn and judge and exclude, even with hatred and enmity and rage, we have ourselves lost contact with the real Creator-God whose nature we purport to defend.

If we are to gain any traction in our present society and culture, we must start from the position of a suckling child, as individuals and groups, humbly and almost without preconceived conceptions of what this world of marvels is and who we are within it.  We remind ourselves of the old funereal formula, “Naked we are born, and naked we die.  Dust to dust, and ashes to ashes.”  Our theologies traditions and quirky habits will evaporate when we “no longer see through a glass darkly, but see face to face.”  If we are to have any hope of inviting the human and greater cosmos to listen, we must once more learn to listen ourselves, and to see without pre-judging what we are seeing according to those old formulae. 

We say there is a living Creator who has spoken.  But He/She is still speaking, still creating. Our senses tell us this all the time as we watch life flow through its cycle, as we watch our children grow and become.  He made us to both manage this creation and the creative process and co-create with Him, at least here on this tiny cosmic jewel we call Earth.  As Jesus once said, “For those who have eyes to see, let them see; for those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”  But the first to see and hear must be those who claim to know the Creator, or we stand in peril of hearing something else: “Depart from Me, for I never knew you.”

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.