Absolute Fools

A recent post on the worldview of contemporary postmodern liberalism was kindly linked by Gerard Vanderleun over at American Digest. In his link post, a commenter left the following missive:

The essay would have value if there were absolutes. Never have been, never shall be. Our standards of behavior are devised by us, and used or misused by us. We decide which is good and which is evil, and in every case we are right and wrong at one and the same time.

Each of our rules and regulations is enforced through agreement, and through coercion. The wise among us agree to follow the laws because it makes for a calmer, safer life. The fools among us must be made to follow those same laws because they haven’t the wisdom to see the necessity. And this speaks of those ordinances that do make sense.

Those that do not have to be enforced through coercion more often than not because they really don’t make any sense. And there are times when our rules make more or less sense than other times because circumstances differ.

We are responsible for our laws, and for our adherence to them. Our legislation being wise is to our credit. Our legislation being cruel is to our shame. Nobody else can remove that charge from our shoulders.

Now, I take no issue with this gentleman personally; he is doubtless a bright fellow, well-educated in our institutions of higher learning, where professors emeritus emote their postmodern erudition in the lofty ephemeral ethers, far removed from the dross of desperately-ignorant humanity. He is more to be pitied than censured; he has, after all, been taught not to think. But he serves herein a useful purpose, insofar as his comment exemplifies the mindset of those who eschew the idea of absolutes — which assertion is the very metaphysical mortar of secular postmodernism.

I find it interesting that most every argument rejecting absolutes contains within its very language and structure, not to mention its premises, a framework of absolute assertions. And our subject does not disappoint: tossing around terms like “wise” and “fools” and “shame” and “credit”, qualitative words without meaning when there is no transcendent standard against which to measure them. What is shame if not the humiliation of rejecting an absolute good? Who is wise, and who a fool, if there is no standard of enduring and unchangeable wisdom by which to categorize one thusly? The lines of their straightedge are random and irregularly spaced — if there are measuring lines at all — yet they carefully measure and mark off “progress”, confident they have measured accurately. There is, of course, the inevitable rejoinder to all such foolishness which asks, “Are you absolutely sure there are no absolutes?” But beyond this childish rebuttal — childish, not in the sense of silliness or immaturity, but rather of unvarnished simplicity — there lies an even more evident and profound incoherence which can be discerned — from which a not-so-evident proposition emerges from the heart of anti-absolutism.

It is impossible to function as a human being in society without the concept of transcendent absolutes, even if this foundational principle is unrecognized or denied. We as humans do not simply move as pack animals, driven by instinct and primal drives, but are by our very nature creatures of judgment. We are constantly comparing, evaluating, appreciating or depreciating everyone and everything around us. The food is either tasty or awful; the woman is attractive or homely; the music is beautiful or grating; the weather is warm and pleasant or cold, wet, and miserable. Of course, some of these judgments are self-referential: the food tastes good to us, or bad to us; we prefer rock music to Rachmaninoff, while others may differ. Thus to some degree, we individually determine the standard against which we measure objects apart from ourselves. Yet even there it is possible to compare our preferences to a fixed standard: is slasher rock not discernibly different in quality from a Bach fugue?

But within the realm of human interactions, writ large as communities, societies, nations, and cultures, judgments about the outside world become collective, embodied in law and cultural and social strictures. Behavior which is objectionable to some is desirable to others; that which some find beneficial others find harmful. It is at this level of community and human interactions where some overarching determination or standard against which interpersonal behavior is measured becomes utterly necessary if we are to avoid a society capricious in its justice or cruel in its enforcement.

The anti-absolutist posits this standard in the consensus of the group, be it tribal, community, or society. The society at large, whatever its dimensions, determines that certain behavior is acceptable or unacceptable, and enforces the standard through collective coercion or force. While this seems plausible at first glance, it almost immediately runs into problems with the de facto use of absolutes. What standard will the collective mind of a society choose? Is it simply the standard of survival? Is it a collective self-gratification? Self-interest alone? And how can it be a standard at all without becoming, to greater or lesser degree, a transcendent absolute?

If, as our commenter suggests, we decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, are these standards not infinitely malleable by their very nature? Such a philosophy of law is nothing more than the tyranny of the masses, the rule of the mob. For a society may agree by consensus that certain members of the society are inferior by nature, or should be exterminated, or have their possessions confiscated, their daughters raped, their members sold into slavery. Such societies are not mere abstract entities, but stark historical realities, evident in gulags, ethnic cleansings, and rape rooms to which even our most recent decades testify. Such a philosophy in its purest form is the will to power; those who gain dominance, either in number or by force, determine the standard against which all will be judged.

The notion that such a standard is invariably beneficial to a society or culture is ludicrous in the light of history. One need look no further than the 20th century, where the social consensus arising out of pathologies such as Nazism, Marxism, and the emperor worship and militarism of Japan, wrought horrors upon not only the world, but especially on the societies which themselves embraced these pathologic standards. That German militarism and anti-Semitism was profoundly destructive to the very society which engendered these ideas and standards is self-evident; ask the citizens of Hiroshima how Japan’s imperialistic and fanatical militarism panned out.

Yet the world of the anti-absolutist one cannot form a judgment about any such self-evident evils. It cannot say that Nazism and the Holocaust were evil — they can only say that by their own standards, self-engendered and not universal, that such abominations are different. The inevitable moral indifference arising from such a philosophy runs counter to every fiber of the human spirit. We cannot say such things are evil if we cannot reference them against an absolute standard arising above, and transcending, any consensus formed only by a society.

Our very language is steeped in the vocabulary of absolutes — it is impossible to communicate without them. Good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, wisdom and foolishness: these concepts are universal, ubiquitous, and unresectable from language and thought, across all cultures and civilizations.

The consequences of the rejection of absolutes, fully embraced, are nothing short of anarchy — or in its stead, tyranny. There can be no true justice, for justice appeals to a standard above the law, and thus judges not only behavior contrary to law, but the law itself. Absent a transcendent moral absolute, there is no limit to the granularity at which arbitrary determinations of good and evil, right and wrong, may occur. it is a recipe for tribalism at best, as competing groups determine their own rules, rejecting those of other groups, large or small, which run contrary to their perceived needs or desires. The inevitable conflict between tribal standards can bring nothing but perpetual conflict or isolation.

Those who claim to reject absolutes do not in reality reject all absolutes. There is never a quibble about the law of gravity, or the laws of nature, or those of nuclear physics or astronomy. Were they consistent in their philosophy, they would reject the term “law” (which implies an underlying transcendent; there is, after all, no laws without law-givers), and instead describe what their metaphysics mandates: that seemingly predictable behavior is no more than random coincidence; the electron may fall into the nucleus at any time, ending this existence as dramatically and as randomly as it came into being. As Chesterton said, “They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.”

At the very heart of a philosophy of deterministic, self-engendered moral standards stands the individual. The rejection of moral absolutes is nothing more than radical individualism broadcast across society — the notion that we are the sole arbiters of our behavior and morality, the we alone determine what is right and what is wrong. As a corollary, there is another assumption underlying this one: that others should bear the consequences, especially adverse consequences of our actions. Those who reject moral absolutes gravitate to a nihilistic narcissism, where there are rights but no responsibilities, demanding freedom to act as they please without thought for anyone else, all the while demanding that others rescue them from wreckage their behavior has wrought.

This battle of worldviews lies at the very heart of our culture wars, of the endless societal conflicts engendered over abortion, or religion in the public square, or the status of heterosexual marriage, or unrestricted sexual license, or any one a host of other seemingly irreconcilable culture clashes which saturate and sour our daily lives. It is a take-no-prisoners battle, for there is no middle ground, no comfortable compromise which will bring peace and harmony. It is a battle to the death, a battle not only of the mind but of the heart.

It is, above all, about bending the knee, a battle for the soul: we will submit to the absolute, or destroy ourselves in dark delusion denying it.

It’s long past time we choose which it will be.

The Utopia of Relativism

The talk of the past week or so in political circles has been Barack Obama’s tour of Europe — in particular his non-political political speech in Berlin. Two of the better commentaries you will find on the event are the devastating critique by John Bolton, and the more humorous, but equally effective demolition by
James Lileks. I recommend you take a few minutes to digest these gems.

Now, I cannot hope to match the insight and wit of such as these — but nevertheless I hope to toss a few ideas and impressions into the arena of discussion on this subject. I rarely touch on politics on this blog, as others far more passionate and adept at such commentary abound. But there were some undercurrents in the speech which I found very emblematic of our current age, and very troubling, and perhaps I may offer a few insights of value.

First, the purely political: isn’t this man running for President of the United States? So, why on earth is he giving political speeches to the Europeans? I suppose it is a feeble attempt to burnish his anemic foreign-policy credentials — although I strain to understand why shaking a few foreign hands and giving a too-slick speech to our Germanic übermeisters somehow augments one’s foreign policy portfolio. Having your picture taken with a cow does not a dairy farmer make.

Then there was the heady libation of contemporary liberalism: the obligatory apologies to the rest of the world for America’s great failures. Shortcomings we have an abundance — but, apologizing to the Germans? To the Germans? The same Germans, who spent the first half of the 20th century — and no small part of the previous century — conquering Europe, slaughtering millions and wreaking untold havoc on an entire continent? The same Germans, who killed millions of our soldiers, 6 million Jews, and countless other political and social outcasts in their concentration camps and euthanasia centers? The same Germans for whom we, having crushed them at enormous cost of life and treasure, then rebuilt their country and defended them from another 40 years of horror under totalitarian communism?

Could someone please explain to me why, in any just and rational world, an American politician should apologize for our behavior, to the Germans?

I just had to get that off my chest. There, I feel better now.

But on to larger things: large swaths of the speech spoke in vaunted and eloquent terms of the hope and desire for world united, a world without walls. We heard repeatedly about how such walls — both actual and metaphorical — must be torn down, removing all divisions which confront and challenge us:

That is why the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another.

The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.

Now color me a contrarian, but I am not entirely convinced of the wisdom of this wall-breaching braggadocio. As Robert Frost once wisely said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Should we really be about tearing down every barrier which divides us? Aren’t some of these fences, some divisions, critically important to our safety and integrity? After all, prison walls divide us from the criminals — should we not, if we want to live in peace, harmony, and new age oneness, tear these walls down as well? Is every division, whether existing between nations, or races, or tribes, or religions, by its very nature a candidate for dismantling?

Some divisions, it seems, exist for our protection: the division between freedom and tyranny; the division between nations which oppress and those who liberate; the division between good and evil itself. But to uphold and defend these necessary walls, there needs to be a conviction of the absolutes which form their ramparts. You cannot defend good from evil if “good” and “evil” are but fungible and flexible preferences, made near-meaningless with endless shades of gray obscuring their sharp contrasts and muting their colored brilliance. If right and wrong are detached from their transcendent mooring in absolute truth, and made mere preference or personal piety, then there is nothing left to defend. The walls which have kept the barbarians at bay now become broad promenades welcoming in regal splendor the very forces which will enslave us.

Our modern secular utopians, like their brethren throughout the ages, ignore the differences which matter while elevating the differences which do not. Hence the Christian who stands against the slaughter of the unborn innocents and the Muslim who slaughters the innocent through self-immolation become indistinguishable — both “extremists”, both “divisive” — and we must tear down these walls to live at peace. Such distinctions between religions and philosophies run to the core of their very nature: to dismantle the division is to destroy their unique character, to render meaningless any judgment about which worldview is better for the well-being of man and society. Be hot or be cold, as someone once said — but the lukewarm will be expectorated, with extreme prejudice.

And what of destroying the “division” between rich and poor, the West and East? Is not one more wealthy, more free, more successful, more propitious to its citizens exactly because of the differences which divide us — specifically, respect for human life and property, for rule of law, for individuality, for a spirit of generosity and sacrifice arising out of Judeo-Christian principles instilled at its founding? Shall we instead denigrate a nation which, for all its flaws, has sacrificed countless lives and expended endless lucre throughout its history to free the enslaved and crush the tyrant; shall we become the object of self-loathing and shame which must grovel for its sins before the sinister, the enslaver, and the slothful? Is this the price of such world unity? We have seemingly arrived at a place where we are unable to proclaim the good without the ridicule of the glib; we cannot call an act evil but to the catcalls of the cynics.

In our utopian zealotry, we attack the divisions of substance while elevating the divisions of appearance. The unity which is our strength — a common culture, and language, and shared set of moral values — must now give way to the triumph of the superficial: we categorize by color rather than by character; we talk of freedom while enforcing speech codes and pursuing thought crimes. Religion is our enemy while conformity becomes our religion. Science becomes truth and truth becomes myth; We are overcome by evil because we refuse to call it by name.

The gnostic hubris which is our modern foolishness boasts in what it knows, while knowing not what it does not know. Our ignorance of human nature cripples us; we believe that if we reason with evil, evil will change, charmed by the magic of our words and soothed by the sincerity of our childish desires. Like some love-maddened missionary, we sleep with the strumpet to save her soul, then find ourselves amazed when we become as lost as she.

There is, in truth, but two ways to unity: the way of inner submission, and the way of outer coercion. Within the limits of the frailty of our fallen nature, we achieve a measure of unity by common compliance to inner morals, arising from the recognition of a transcending set of absolutes which dictates such standards for both the individual and the common good. We acknowledge a standard of behavior and restraint which arises from the divine — though we often fall short of this standard, and may differ in some measure on its particulars. We become one — imperfectly to be sure — because we submit to and follow One, whose perfect moral standards and ethical precepts are held as the highest ideal and a noble pursuit.

When such an overarching absolute standard is rejected — as it has been by aggressive secularism, atheistic, reductionist, and materialistic to the core — we can only enforce a form of unity through coercion and power. Inner moral dictates must be subjugated to coerced conformity. It is “acceptable” to hold “values” which are at odds with the secular societal standard — as long as these “values” are never acted upon in speech or behavior. We may believe abortion to be morally abhorrent — but must never act to restrain it; we may hold homosexuality to be morally wrong and believe gay marriage to be a threat to a core foundational institution of society — but to verbalize thus is “hate speech”, and “intolerance”, and “ignorance.” Our unity is the unity of the gag, a multicultural muzzle which celebrates the superficial, elevates the insignificant, tolerates the intolerable — and punishes the moral. Our unity is the unity of relativism, a superficial solidarity where everything is acceptable but absolutes, where anything is tolerated but truth. Such unity strives for the lowest common denominator, maintaining its forced cohesion by the will to power, destroying in its enslaving solidarity the very soul of freedom and the heart of true human harmony.

It is no small irony that Obama proclaimed his utopian tome to the Hun — they of the fertile ground which brought forth Nietzsche and Hegel, and a National Socialism which crushed the dividing walls of Old Europe with an iron fist and a broken cross. Our modern nihilism is far more appealing, wrapped in soothing bromides of hope and change — but no less corrupt and empty at its core.

Beware the man who brings unity at the cost of individuality. Beneath the sheep’s clothing lies something far more ominous than smooth words and glib promises betray.

Two Sides of the Same Coin


The context of Mark Steyn’s trial by the British Columbia Human Rights Commission prompts The Belmont Club to ponder the standards by which we judge good and evil. In Nor iron bars a cage, he asks,

Is there a fundamental definition of evil? Are there things which objectively possess this property independent of the perception of man?

He then draws upon C.S Lewis, who as an atheist struggled with this dilemma:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. … Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too — for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist — in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless — I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality — namely my idea of justice — was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

C.S. Lewis found the soft underbelly of atheism, its irreconcilable logical flaw: it judges belief in God to be foolish, even evil, and life thereby accidental and meaningless — but does so by referencing a transcendent standard outside of itself against which good and evil, or meaning and meaninglessness, are measured. It judges transcendence to be non-existent by appealing to — transcendence.

Lewis’ logic is then brilliantly applied to our current multicultural “human rights” jihad, by zeroing in on the heart of human freedom, choice:

The inescapability of having to choose a standard or axioms — even provisionally — is the fracture line at the base of moral relativism and multiculturalism. … [If] it is true that no one can judge “who’s right or wrong” then who can judge the truth of that assertion itself?
 
It is this illusory attempt to escape from the need to believe in something — even provisionally — that explains why all attempts to enforce an equivalency among all ideas and cultures inevitably creates a fascistic kind of monoculture itself. Belief, denied the front entrance as principle, often smuggles itself in via the back door as fascism ….

The brotherhood of atheism and multiculturalism are often portrayed as the route to true human freedom, bringing the promise of deliverance from superstition and judgmentalism, thus leading to the fulfillment of true human potential. But the harsh reality is that they are two sides of the same coin, both leading down the path to totalitarianism and fascism. There are no absolutes — except the absolute hatred of those who believe in them. All things are tolerated — except those judged “intolerant” for believing and acting on moral absolutes. We see this trend everywhere, from the exclusion of religion from the public square, to the PC speech codes and suppression of “hate speech” (i.e., conservative or religious thought and opinion) on college campuses, to the Kafka-esque absurdity of the British Columbia Human Rights Commission’s show trials, protecting human rights by suppressing them.

Fortunately Lewis’ framework for making sense of a universe populated by both good and evil can shed light on our more limited problem of figuring out the relationship between freedom and anti-freedom within the framework of freedom itself. The key concept Lewis introduces is one of choice. Not the notion of choice as the fictional ability to do anything without paying a price or suffering the consequences: that is a counterfeit idea of choice composed of the shadows of multiculturalism. But of choice as inherent human ability to select between right and wrong and face the consequences…

It’s not necessary to dwell on Lewis’ idea of good and evil as a kind of broken symmetry to arrive at the counterintuitive idea that freedom is the outcome of a willingness to assume the consequences for choices. This relationship between consequence and choice is at the kernel of the commonplace expression that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. Western society is free to allow every manner of expression only for so long as it is willing to pay the price of doing so …

Consider for a moment why Mark Steyn is a “free” man. It is only partly because he is a citizen of Canada but mostly due to his willingness to write without fear; or perhaps more accurately, in spite of it. Anyone who has struggled against tyranny understands this relationship intuitively. Whether you are in the Warsaw Ghetto, the French underground, or in safe house in Sampaloc district in Manila, freedom is always within your reach, if you are willing to pay the price.

Brilliant essay — as they say, read the whole thing.

The Death of Hell

On a recent post about grace and Karma, a commenter posed a challenging question:

I \'d like to ask you a question because you strike me as an intelligent man of faith. I was taught that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment, a nice euphemism for a torture chamber. Do you believe that those of us who fail to accept grace will be tortured? If not, why not? Augustine and Calvin seemed to believe it.

Sometimes people ask the damnedest things…

I been sitting on this one for several weeks, because, well, the subject of eternal damnation is not exactly the most delightful topic on which to expound. But, hey, anyone can tackle the easy ones, so what the hell…

The topic of hell has never been a popular subject — for reasons not terribly difficult to discern. Yet belief in hell is both ancient and widespread, comprising an important doctrine in some form or other of most of the world’s great religions, especially Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, each manifested by belief in a personal God. In our secular, postmodern age, however, it has become something of a quaint superstition, widely perceived to be a tool for manipulation of the ignorant and gullible by the religious patriarchy. It has long faded from the lexicon of contemporary culture and conversation, and is rarely even mentioned in religious contexts, much less in secular. The death of hell has been quiet, almost unnoticed, like the slow starvation of some hideous child left in the wilderness to die.

Yet the death of damnation has left a vacuum into which far more diabolical spirits have swarmed. Perhaps the most unsettling of these is our growing sense of helplessness against a pervasiveness of evil which seems ever more prevalent, ever more senseless, ever more violent and hideous. The gunman, some hitherto lonesome loser with a heightened sense of victimization and a laundry list of petty grievances, lays waste to a school in an orgy of carnage — and then, having drunk his fill of slaughtered blood, ends his own life by his own hand, leaving naught but a narcissistic video hungrily devoured by a bloodthirsty media, who wish only to “understand.” Other than his final instant of presumed pain, the killer receives no justice, no retribution for his murderous rage — and more perversely, carves out his place, albeit briefly, in history and notoriety.

While such cases are the extreme, unrequited evils of a lesser sort could be multiplied without end. The child molester, who gets out of jail in 3 years on good behavior; the murderer whose high-priced attorneys sway feeble-minded juries to garner his acquittal; the corporate executive who steals billions from the retirement plan of his underpaid employees, getting off with a wrist slap fingering someone higher in the food chain; the tyrant who tortures and murders millions, escaping to live in opulence, dying in a safe secure asylum provided by others of his ilk. Even at the most personal level, much evil goes unpunished, from the undetected adultery, to the undiscovered lie, to the drunk driver not arrested, to the fraudulent tax return which escapes the scrutiny of the IRS.

There is in human nature something which rebels at such injustice, which cries out for punishment proportionate to the crime. We hunger for some restraint upon such evils unleashed, some effective deterrent, knowing our imperfect legal system often fails to deliver its promised justice. Yet, paradoxically, we justify and rationalize our own evil, not merely hoping for leniency if caught but expecting, even demanding it.

If hell does not exist, men would be wise to invent it. If it does exist, we are fools to deny it.

Yet our technologically advanced, psychologically sophisticated, scientifically saturated society can in all its knowledge find no such restraint upon evil. For we arrogate with confident assurance that there is no God; no transcendent moral absolutes; no spiritual or immaterial reality beyond the tangible and measurable. We hunger for justice but have no standard against by which to calibrate it, save our volatile emotions and ever-changing subjective values. We attempt to constrain evil through law and societal coercion, while having no coherent metaphysics upon which such constraints must be grounded. Our GPS satellites are not fixed, but wander through the sky; our maps are detailed, but bear no relation to the geography through which they purport to guide us.
Continue reading “The Death of Hell”

Liberalism & Gnosticism

Sorry to go dark for so long — more on that later. Hope to have some time for new stuff soon. In the meantime, here’s another repost from the past.

 
Sunset SkyIt takes only a brief review of conservative web sites, print media, and pundit blogs to be left with the impression of a deep frustration with liberalism. Not merely the disagreement with their beliefs and priorities, mind you — that is a given — but rather with their peculiar unresponsiveness to arguments of reason and logic. The scenario goes something like this: Some Democrat in Congress or liberal pundit makes an outrageous charge about Bush, or Iraq, or Republicans, or Christians, or whatever. The conservative blogs explode with the news, followed shortly by detailed rebuttal of the charges, or ample testimony to prior events proving the hypocrisy of the attack. Well-reasoned, factual defense is the rule rather than the exception. Yet all to no avail. Those on the Left either shrug, or respond with even more outrageous accusations, or go ad hominem. I often wonder whether all this energy and effort has accomplished anything beyond making us feel better about ourselves and venting our frustration.

I believe the problem is that we don’t understand liberals.

Now, before you start thinking I’m having a kumbaya moment, hear me out: we don’t understand liberals because contemporary liberalism is the new Gnosticism.

Gnosticism as a religion is ancient — predating Christianity by at least several centuries, and coexisting with it for several more before dying out. It was in many ways a syncretic belief system, drawing elements from virtually every religion it touched: Buddhism, Indian pantheism, Greek philosophy and myth, Jewish mysticism, and Christianity.

Gnosticism (from the Greek gnosis, to know, or knowledge) was manifested in many forms and sects, but all shared common core beliefs: dualism, wherein the world was evil and the immaterial good; the importance of secret knowledge, magical in nature, by which those possessing such knowledge could overcome the evil of the material world; and pantheism. It was also a profoundly pessimistic belief system. As J.P. Arendzen, in his excellent summary of Gnosticism, explains:

This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if we only knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence — this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought … Gnosticism is pseudo-intellectual, and trusts exclusively to magical knowledge.

So in what ways is modern liberalism Gnostic in nature?

First and foremost, in modern liberalism, what you believe is more important than how you act. Gnostic sects were often hedonistic — after all, since you possess special knowledge of the truth, and the physical world is evil, why pursue noble behavior with an inherently wicked material body? While not all – or even most – liberals are hedonistic (although Hollywood does come to mind…), contemporary liberalism has enshrined tolerance of hedonism as a core belief.

More fundamentally, there is a disconnect in liberalism between belief and action. As a result, there is no such thing as hypocrisy. So the National Organization of Women, tireless in its campaign on violence against women, sexual harassment, and the tyranny of men in the workplace and in society, stands wholeheartedly behind Bill Clinton, who used a dim-witted intern for sex (in the workplace, moreover!) and who was credibly charged with sexual assault on Juanita Brodderick. Hypocrisy? No, Bill Clinton “understood” women and women’s issues — his knowledge trumped his behavior, no matter how despicable.

There are many such similar examples, once you start looking for them. I recall a gay activist on NPR instructing Terry Gross that the solution to “anti-gay intolerance” (i.e., anyone who had qualms about homosexuality, either in its morality or social agenda) was “education”. If we religious or socially conservative cretins were only properly “educated”–if and when we finally “got it” — then all of our opposition to homosexuality would melt away like an ice sculpture in August.

It is no accident that many of our most liberal intellectuals reside in the universities, in the rarefied atmosphere where ideas are everything and their practical application moot. We conservatives often marvel at the naivety of the peace movement, where World Peace can be achieved if only we “visualize” it. Like the magic formulas used by the Gnostics to dispel evil spirits and emanations, simply believing that peace can be achieved by “loving one another”, and mutual understanding is sufficient to transform those intent on evil, destruction, and domination. Human shields defend tyrannical monsters who would shred them in a heartbeat were they not so useful, in order to “put an end to war.” Judges implement rulings based on higher Sophia rather than the law, blissfully dismissing their profound impact on the Great Unknowing Masses below.

The profound pessimism of the Gnostic world view is seen in contemporary liberalism as well. If ever there was a gentle giant in history — a nation overwhelmingly dominant yet benign in its use of power — it is the United States of the 20th and 21st century. Yet we are treated to an endless litany of tirades about our racist, sexist, imperialist ways, which will only end when the Left “takes America back” — ignoring that a nation so administered would cease to exist in short order. American liberalism was not always so. As recently as twenty years ago, it was optimistic, hopeful and other-oriented, albeit with misconceptions about human nature which proved the undoing of its policies and programs. Only at its farthest fringes did pessimism reign, but today this dark view is increasingly the dominant one.

Analogies have their limits, as does this one. Ancient Gnosticism was deeply religious, although pantheistic, whereas modern liberal thinking is profoundly secular and agnostic, for example. But even here similarities persist: how many New Age conservatives do you know? Modern secular liberalism is far more religion than political philosophy, and therefore largely resistant to confrontation or compromise based on logic and reason.

Gnosticism as a religious force collapsed of its own weight, crippled by its internal inconsistencies and the lack of power sufficient to transform and ennoble the human spirit. Yet failed ideas die hard, given the intransigence of human pride. How very odd that our predominant postmodern political philosophy is so ancient in origin.

The Advent

40 years — a biblical number.

For 40 years, Moses was in exile, before returning to Egypt to free his people. For 40 years, the Israelites wandered in the desert before entering the promised land.

Our own advent has lasted 40 years as well.

Our preparation for this moment began 40 years ago, in 1968. Vietnam, the Democratic convention, political assassinations, riots in the streets.

“Off the pigs!” “Do your own thing!” “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” “Power to the people!” “Tune in, turn on, drop out!”

It was a time of enormous change. And it was just the beginning of enormous change.

The social tumult of the late 60s was indeed a revolution. Yes, the slogans now appear silly and self-important, but the changes they represented burrowed deeply into the soul of a country. Looking back at its superficial manifestations — tie-dyed T-shirts, bell-bottoms, long hair, communes, free love, getting stoned, rock ‘n roll — these things now seem profoundly foolish, the insanity of youth taken greatly to excess. But the changes of the late 60s and 70s were infectious and intoxicating, and were imbibed deeply by an entire nation.

In these 40 years, we have learned many things. We have learned that slogans about change are the same as change. We have learned that “do your own thing” is a principal worth inculcating into the very fabric of our lives. We have learned that how we feel is more important than what we do. We have learned that ideas do not have consequences — but are themselves consequences.

We have learned that our government is not to be trusted, that our country is not to be loved. We have learned that what our country can do for us is more important than what we can do for our country. We have learned that the government always lies; that the media is always truthful; that corporations are evil; that unrestricted license is good.

We have learned to be green, and to relish the obscene. We have learned that religion is patriarchal and oppressive; that social mores and morality are to be challenged and rejected; that “freedom of speech” means burning the flag, smearing Madonna with feces; immersing the crucifix in urine; being obnoxious, abusive, and vicious while never entertaining criticism or rebuttal.

We have learned not to think, but to feel; not to reason but to react; not to dialogue but to detest; not to take responsibility but to accuse. We have learned to bolster our self-esteem, and worship our self-gratification. We have learned that someone else should always pay; that we are entitled to whatever we want; that wealth and happiness are our birthright. We have learned that god is within; that our existence is a cosmic coincidence; that our purpose is self-aggrandizement and acquisition of money and power. We have learned that only the material is true; that spiritual principles and practice are but opinions; that there is no truth anyway, only narrative.

There is much we have not learned during our long advent.

We have not learned history — at least not any history worth learning. We have not learned reason, or logic, or deduction. We have learned nothing of human nature, of its inherent draw toward evil rather than good, of the necessity of moral restraint and regeneration before such mortal and moral gravity can be overcome. We have not learned the limitation of government nor the risks of its encroaching strangulation of our freedom. We have not learned patience, nor endurance, nor self-control, nor deferred gratification. We have not learned that there are things worth dying for, and therefore there might be something worth living for.

Our 40-year advent now draws to a close. The prime-time prophets proclaim the Messiah, who will save us from our spiraling descent with stirring words and mighty miracles. We stand poised to nominate, and perhaps elect, a charismatic individual who is the embodiment of all our heartfelt desires. He alone can end all wars; he alone can destroy tyranny with mere words; he alone can smite the haters, the greedy, the culturally insensitive, the religious zealots. He preaches hope, to those who know not why they are hopeless; he preaches change, to those who have no compass by which to judge its direction.

Imagine such a candidate, such a public figure, running for the presidency a mere 40 years ago. Imagine a presidential candidate with no experience, no portfolio, no principles beyond rhetorical flourish and false hope. Imagine a country which finds such a man not only eligible but epitomizing its very ideals.

You cannot imagine any such thing in any culture which cherishes the responsibility and robustness of its own leaders. Our postmodern evolution is complete; we have grown from a country of adults to a nation of infants. The fruit of our regression is upon us; we are no longer a nation, but a nursery.

“Power to the people,” indeed.

May God help us.

Moses & Multiculturalism


If you are not a regular reader of First Things — well, you owe it to yourself to make it a regular watering hole on you daily reading journey. Excellent writing, in-depth posts on the intersection of faith and the public square, the culture wars, and topical posts on Christianity in contemporary Western culture, from both Catholic and evangelical perspectives.

Today’s post is Moses & Multiculturalism by RR Reno, and it is excellent and thought-provoking — and provides a nice segue into a new essay I’m working on, coming to a web browser near you, Real Soon Now™.

Moving the Ancient Boundaries – III


This is a series on the erosion of moral, cultural, and ethical boundaries in modern society:
 
 ♦ Part 1 — Moving the Ancient Boundaries

 
 ♦ Part 2 — The Rebel & the Victim

 
stone walls

Do not move the ancient boundary stone
   set up by your forefathers.

        — Proverbs 22:28 —

 
In prior posts, we began to examine some of the many ways which a society will evolve and act if it seeks to move the ancient boundaries, to chip away at absolutes, principles, and tradition in order to create a new utopia grounded in narcissism and libertinism. Here, I will continue to illustrate the means whereby an increasingly individualistic and relativistic society, having lost its moorings in faith, absolute principles, and tradition, undermines its own foundations. This post will address the undermining of civil authority and government; the next, the assault on religious authority.
 
 ♦ The Assault on Civil Authority

Authority in Western society serves — at least in theory — the people whom it governs. As embodied in government, it exists to protect, to preserve societal order and norms, and to promote the common good. It functions to protect individual members of society from harm from its renegade members, from natural dangers, such as fire or natural disasters, from large societal upheaval such as riots and civil unrest, and from threats to national security or sovereignty. This authority is embodied in both law and the necessary authorized force to restrain the destructive and centrifugal forces in society and maintain civil order.

But law and legal force alone cannot restrain such evil tendencies, short of enforcing a despotic and tyrannical rule which is the antithesis of democracy and freedom. To function optimally, authority must be based on a shared tradition of self-restraint and ethical behavior, operating under the common denominator that the good of society as a whole outweighs individual desires and priorities — and delegating the enforcement of the common good to those in authority when individual license violates societal norms and standards.

In an age of narcissistic individualism, then, authority must be undermined, for it represents a constraint and impediment to the utopian vision of ultimate human freedom posited in unrestricted individual license. For the individualist, personal gain always trumps the common good. The view of authority in such radical individualism is changed: its goal now primarily — if not exclusively — protection of the individual’s rights, and secondarily, the mitigation of the inevitable consequences of such self-centered behavior. In societies where such individualism becomes preeminent, we see the evolution of authority primarily into the guarantor of autonomy and the guarantee of relief from its effects.
Continue reading “Moving the Ancient Boundaries – III”