Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—VIII. Snake oil

The City has plunged the mind of man into darkness in this age primarily through the promulgation of the philosophy of optimism, which together with its closest rival, existentialism and the absurd, occupies every portal of mass communication known to man, twenty-four hours per day, every day of the year. See if you do not recognize some of the philosophy of optimism, as expressed here by Catherine Marshall:

We proceeded to live these propositions, though we would not have stated them as blandly as I set them forth here:
  1. Man is inherently good.
  2. Individual man can carve out his own salvation with the help of education and society through progressively better government.
  3. Reality and values worth searching for lie in the material world that science is steadily teaching us to analyze, catalogue, and measure. While we do not deny the existence of inner values, we relegate them to second place.
  4. The purpose of life is happiness, [which] we define in terms of enjoyable activity, friends, and the accumulation of material objects.
  5. The pain and evil of life—such as ignorance, poverty, selfishness, hatred, greed, lust for power—are caused by factors in the external world; therefore, the cure lies in the reforming of human institutions and the bettering of environmental conditions.
  6. As science and technology remove poverty and lift from us the burden of physical existence, we shall automatically become finer persons, seeing for ourselves the value of living the Golden Rule.
  7. In time, the rest of the world will appreciate the demonstration that the American way of life is best. They will then seek for themselves the good life of freedom and prosperity. This will be the greatest impetus toward an end of global conflict.
  8. The way to get along with people is to beware of religious dictums and dogma. The ideal is to be a nice person and to live by the Creed of Tolerance. Thus we offend few people. We live and let live. This is the American Way. [Marshall, Catherine, Beyond Our Selves, McGraw-Hill, New York: 1961]
This remarkable quotation reads like a catechism of Americanism, the faith that we in the U. S. are taught from infancy. One problem with it is that there is much truth in it. The benefits of good government, happiness, an end to global conflict, the wide application of the Golden Rule, living in peace with one’s neighbors, freedom, and prosperity, are hard to deny. They are real and measurable. Political campaigns consist in hardly anything but nonstop recitations of the catechism of optimism.

And it works. I would not want anyone to think that I oppose reform of our political and governmental institutions for the good of the nation. I vigorously oppose all forms of oppression, economic enslavement, oath breaking, coercion, and corruption. I support freedom, prosperity, a peaceful end to conflicts, the march of progress, the advance of science, etc. No doubt about it. These things are very effective at improving the overall quality of life, and so long as they are consistent with Christian moral imperatives, I cannot think of any reason why we should oppose them.

As to tolerance, Christians are not authorized to be offensive in presenting the Gospel or defending the faith; they are to be respectful and calm. (1 Pet. 3:15) As to happiness, one sees that wealth, friends, and enjoyment are certainly not evil in themselves.

Such is the power of ideas that even so plain a statement as Catherine Marshall’s would hardly raise a ripple of protest in even the most orthodox of American churches. Six of the eight propositions would pass on a voice vote. Most secular institutions would subscribe to all of them without hesitation.

Again, we can see that an assessment of ethics according to results leads to the same kind of quandary as before. If the outcome is generally what we call good, then it makes sense that such an ethic is beneficial and thus the result of sheer pragmatism. No one needs God to arrive at an ethic like that. We have all kinds of practical ethics like that, the work ethic, the civility ethic, the automobile driving ethics. Each of these is the result, regrettably, of some bad experience; each is well intentioned.

On the other hand, the God Who created us knows what is good for us, and therefore any ethic He proposes will necessarily incorporate measures that lead to good outcomes. Which puts us right back in the same place we started.

We can trace the origins of these ideas primarily to the Enlightenment—Rousseau and Locke. Their denial of original sin and assertion of the essential goodness of man, that can be brought out if only the circumstances of life can be made conducive to it, is the core of the American national religion today. It helped to form the principles on which the United States was founded. It has produced an impressive array of results. So, for a person not armed with the Gospel, this looks pretty good.

It certainly beats absurdity, which is the other choice widely posited today. This flip side to optimism asserts that the universe is not rational, that the only reality is the perceived one at the instant it is perceived, that truth cannot be fixed (a hallmark specifically of so-called post-modernism; a “true” existentialist would deny that “truth” is a category that has any meaning apart from an individual’s appropriation of it for his own purposes). The existentialist resists all catechisms (which makes existentialism remarkably difficult to pin down).

In a curious way, the existentialism that we see in practice today is also a descendent of the thinking of Rousseau and Locke. In its incarnation as radical individualism, the subjective vision of the individual is seen to be superior to any exterior competitor. Nothing external can command allegiance, neither by its power, virtue, the breadth of its constituency, foundational truth, nor aggression. In our age, individualism has been transformed into solipsism. Nothing exterior truly exists: it is all sensation, and by introducing a virtual reality, we can determine and to some extent control that existence.

The important thing to note in all of this is not that there are competing philosophies, but that they are both snake oil. Optimism is a dangerous falsification of the nature of man; existentialism, more rampant in practice even than optimism, is delusion itself.



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