Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On Liberals and Fundamentalists: Graham Dennis

There have been a series of emails going around my extended family lately about environmentalism and climate change. My brother, Graham Dennis, made a lot of good points in his email so I am going to post it here:

Ever since the dawn of the modern era, two forms of apocalypticism have constantly plagued us: the Christian pre-millenial/dispensational form and the liberal humanist form. They are strikingly similar. In fact, I’d argue that they are doppelgangers of one another. Both of them suggest, in different ways, that the sky is falling. Both of them use this as an enticement to action. Both of them are, I would suggest, a parody of the true gospel and of a genuinely Christian anthropology and eschatology.

First the liberal humanist variety. The liberal humanist forms of apocalypticism have some common features. I think that they all share this basic structure: Man’s machinations have ultimately created his crisis and man’s machinations will ultimately solve his crisis. Noticeably absent is the classically Christian account of the fall. Rousseau is one of the most notable articulators of this parody of the Christian view of fall and redemption. The changes to the story, however, are striking. With Rousseau, the emphasis shifts away from man’s relationship to a holy God, and now the emphasis is squarely placed upon man’s relationship to himself and Nature (so often capitalized by the Enlightenment literati). Whereas on the Christian account, the fall is a fall from God (and his moral order), on Rousseau’s liberal humanist account, the fall is away from a “state of nature.” That state of nature is thematized as child-like innocence. The fall, on Rousseau’s view, is from a state of natural liberty (which Nature gives us). This fall is caused by human transgression. And yet, it is important to notice that this is not sin, proper. In Rousseau’s Emile, it is clear that such transgression is not against the God of the Bible. It is transgression against our natural liberties in a state of nature. This transgression manifests itself in the machinations of social construction. The "fall" is the passage from the state of nature to civil society (hence the notion of the "noble savage"). All that is needed, according to Rousseau, is faithful a reconstruction of this fateful fall. It is really a reconstruction of our "history." This "history" of a fall is explicitly intended to replace the Biblical account (Rousseau completes this "history" in his famous Discourse on the Origin of Inequality). Once the history of the fall from natural liberty is properly chronicled, it is possible to return to a “state of nature” through the creation of a radically new civil compact--not dependent upon Biblical notions of fall and redemption. This civil compact will be based upon a radically new understanding of the “fall,” one that is explicitly intended to be a rival to the Christian story.


O.K., if you feel a gale-force hot wind at this point, please stop reading. The point is important, though. The founders of modern liberal humanism really did intend to replace the Christian account of the fall with another account. And there is a very striking point in this project. The Christian account leaves us in need of a redemption from without. This leaves man in a state of dependence. And given the burgeoning optimism regarding man’s rational powers—and growing hatred for organized (mediated) religion—it fell to the new liberal humanists to create a counter gospel. Ultimately, this was a continuation of renaissance humanism. This newly articulated counter-gospel depended heavily upon two things: (1) a total recasting of the Christian language of fall and redemption and (2) a new "religion" (humanism) that the thinking man could adopt. The proponents of this new “religion” are legion: From Diderot and Voltaire, to Franklin and Jefferson, to Thoreau and Emerson and the northeastern transcendentalists, to John Rawls and Galbraith.


What happened to the Christian account of the fall? Again, Rousseau is important. It fell upon the liberal humanist recasting of the Christian story of fall and redemption to create a powerful counter-story that still retained the basic structure (it was either unintentional or intentional parody—take your pick). The basic story of fall and redemption was recast so that man was both the cause of his own fall (with God removed from the picture—“nature” is now the only background against which his fate is cast) and man is the source of his own redemption. Nietzsche shouts this from the rooftops. He says it means the dawn of a new era of Atheism. Man has become like the phoenix: he is self-immolating and self-resurrecting. And there, my friends, is a basic picture of liberal humanism. It’s not really that complicated. However, it has become very sophisticated in its critiques of Christianity. What makes it so dangerous, however, is that it has also become a more and more sophisticated parody of the Christian gospel. And in that, it is more attractive to Christians.


But pre-millenial dispensationalism is strikingly similar. This is odd since they seem to be such unnatural bedfellows (they really tend to despise one another). Isn’t "liberal" the most desecrated thing for a fundamentalist and "fundamentalist" the most desecrated thing for a liberal? In a way, they are caught in a counterpositional struggle in which they unwittingly parody one another whilst hating one another. Both are prone to alarmism. Both are prone to sloganeering. Both are prone to use the Chicken Little strategy. Both have a certain distaste for authority, dogma, creed. And, most importantly, both are frighteningly human, all too human. Why?


They don’t have roots. They are like what George Bernard Shaw said about America: "The oldest thing is its youth." Ironically, poor George fell prey to the rhetorical litheness of Stalin and Marxist humanism (which purportedly cared so much about the plight of the worker). Liberal humanism is far too prone to adopt the language of revolution; pre-millenial dispensationalism is far too prone to be drawn to fads. Most importantly, in my opinion, they’ve cut themselves off from the perspective of other ages—they don’t practice what Chesterton called a “democracy of the dead.” And in this, they are prone to the fad of the age. Liberal humanism is prone to intellectual fads. Post-millenial dispensationalism is prone to jingoism and kitsch. Taking a quick tour of liberal humanism, we find a graveyard of utopian solutions to the problem of human existence: from the American Socialism of Edward Bellamy, to B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two; from Bacon’s New Atlantis to the Dialectic Materialism of Marx. In fact, we see some strikingly similar cross-fertilization between dispensationalism and liberal humanism in figures like Edward Bellamy (who had both a Baptist background and a northeastern transcendentalist education in Massachusetts). I would argue that they share something in common. They share a profound distrust for authority, and yet a striking (almost comical) inability to sniff out a fraud.


So how does this relate to my take on environmentalism and all of the green issues? I’m extremely, extremely, extremely wary of the liberal humanist strategy in all of this. Why? For the reasons I’ve mentioned above. The alarmism follows the classic pattern: we created the problem and we can fix it. There will be calls to revolutionary transformation. There will be a call to redeem ourselves from the morass we’ve created by establishing new patterns of living, new social structures, and radically rethought institutions. And of course, there will be much evidence presented to demonstrate the need for such change. And do you know what? I agree. There is need for profound change. I believe in the reality of the acidification of the ocean. I think it’s indisputable. I’m not so sure about global climate change (because I’m convinced that the sun drives 99% of climate change, and that even if fossil fuels contribute in some way, they only elongate natural patterns created by regular solar phenomena and the cycles that such phenomena generate). But I’m not a total skeptic there, either. Frankly, I think it’s true that we are gluttonous in our consumption patterns, and that capitalism doesn’t very clearly reflect God’s picture of a redeemed humanity. I love Wendell Berry (I really do—I’ve consumed his essays voraciously lately).


But the philosopher in me cries out for wisdom. When I feel the overweening push to action—now, now, now—I tend to start feeling a little claustrophobic. The first thing that happens in me is a little voice squeaks, inaudibly, mind you: you’re not that important. As a teacher, I have had to be cured of the messianic complex. I’ve had to learn my place in the world. I’ve had to be unmade—not unlike Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The Dragon is our selfish pretension. It’s our tendency to pet ourselves, and overestimate our own importance in the grand scheme of things. Teachers can be prone to a messianic complex. I love Lewis’ sobriety in these matters. Here’s what he says of Eustace after he’s been “undragoned” by Aslan: “To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.” The cure of my ideological pretensions; the cure of my tendency to overestimate my importance; the cure of my tendency to misunderstand my place in the universe. That’s what I’m being cured of as I get older. I’m becoming less important. I’m becoming like what John the Baptist says regarding himself and Jesus: I must decrease, you must increase.


I renounce the category of the radical. Why? For the sake of the health of my soul. Let us dispense with the silly claims that evangelicals have made that Jesus was a radical. Both dispensational pre-millenialism and liberal humanism want a Jesus that is a radical. That’s because they operate in the mode of crisis. But the mode of crisis corresponds to something in our souls. It is the visage of a certain aspect of our souls. And it’s this that I’m trying to avoid as I get older. I don’t see wisdom in it. I see only parody, caricature, and unintentional satire. Satan is a parodist—the master parodist. That’s because he doesn’t have any stories. Niether do I. I renounce the category of creativity. I am not creative. Nor will I ever be. It’s not a Trinitarian idea. Jesus says that he can do nothing without the Father. Paul says: "You are not your own." I renounce the category of revolution. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law—he came to fulfill it. I renounce the category of crisis. God has written us a divine comedy. It’s not a call to inaction, but let’s not turn it into a tragedy with our overweening sense of self-importance!


Does this mean that we don’t act? No. It means that we act with prudence. It means that we look before we leap. It means that we are circumspect and on guard against self-deception. It means that we desperately try to avoid intellectual fads. And most importantly, I think it means that we lay down our arms. Liberals look at Fat Fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and say: “I told you so—you got yours for driving an SUV, not a Prius, and for your gluttonous overeating habits.” They have promoted a new culture of indignation. But in this they are only mimicking the culture of indignation we see with the pre-mil dispensational crowd. Both sides are built on indignation. But it’s not the wisdom that Jesus teaches. I can’t look at fat people and be disgusted by their over-consumption patterns without casting condemnation on myself. I can’t look at drivers of SUVs or CEOs of massive corporations with a baleful nod in the soul that carries with it a sense of self-righteousness. More importantly, I can’t look at fundamentalist Christians (my brothers in Christ) and make fun of them for their faddish silliness or their rapture-ready shopping centers that are attempting to pass as churches (ok, once in a while I do indulge in a little indignation there). Goodness gracious, Lord knows that I’m very silly. And that’s the point of a comedy. We laugh at ourselves because there is joy in the universe. I can’t recast redemption history into a dour tragedy. Our God has made it a divine comedy. And it makes heavy drowsy with the dance (to quote Lewis). In a way, this whole e-mail is ridiculous. And I’ve probably not been entirely gracious (as I wasn’t to poor Julie in her survey). But again, it’s a comedy. Our Lord has shed his blood for us and we have experienced the Victory of God. We can laugh. We can dance.

I think I’ll close with one of my all-time favorite lines from literature:


“A saint is long past any desire for distinction; he is the only sort of superior man who has never been a superior person.” –G. K. Chesterton (Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox). Remind anyone of Dobby?



Note: Dobby was Leslie's grandfather; a saint by any standard.

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