Is there an "inner revelation" of the conscience which teaches us self-discipline by the light of faith? If not, then our "faith" is mere fear or habit or imposture. Christianity is the climax of moral reason, not its opposite.
A Body Without Breath
How Right and Left Have Both Stifled Moral Reason within the Christian Faith (excerpts)
by Dr. John Harris
A Word About Works (from ch. 3)
From Chapter Three: A Word About Works
But just what is a deed of mercy? The medieval church lapsed into a Pharisaical legalism. One was to give generously to the Church, and one was to give generously to the poor: in those two destinations of charity, we see the prevailing thrust of good works today among both conservative and liberal denominations. The conservative believer is too often led to suppose that the status of his salvation depends vaguely, but significantly, upon his tithes and other support of church projects. There may be no other conduct so underscored—the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, with which Martin Luther turned the medieval machine upside-down, may otherwise be waved about as a license to desist from brooding about one’s conduct. Yet where the paying of tithes is involved, conservative denominations expect the faithful to stand and deliver. The more liberal ones have more taste about such things. One doesn’t find them building communes and Disneyworlds of comfy lounges and recreational facilities with money browbeaten from their parishioners. Instead, they tend to invest heavily in projects for the sick, the hungry, and the homeless. In this, their activity is wholly laudable; yet, oddly enough, they resemble the conservatives very narrowly once their money has accomplished its crusade. The liberal minister of today (whom I call neo-liberal later in the book, since I believe the Left lost its once-healthy sense of identity), rarely chasten their congregants for divorcing, living together out of wedlock, or devoting themselves to the expensive pleasures of the cosmopolitan epicure. What, after all, has self-discipline to do with a deed of mercy?
Here we come to the crux of the matter. Scriptural references to the importance of good works (I have listed the New Testament’s at the end of Chapter Five) are often outspokenly clear about self-discipline: it is a requisite part of the Christian life. Paul stresses so often in such strong terms the need to control carnal desires that to discount his advice on the subject would be to undermine his credibility across the board. The passage from John’s first epistle from which I drew the title of this book also appears in the context of strict self-governance, not almsgiving. No one who has any regard for scriptural authority whatever can be in doubt that such acts as suppressing one’s anger, one’s envy, and one’s lust are to be considered good deeds.
I take the position (endorsed by Paul in his letter to the Romans) that knowledge of goodness has been breathed into the human spirit by a loving God—though the embers demand constant fanning and may, indeed, go out. Let me, then, explain the nature of this goodness from a rational perspective instead of simply playing the scriptural trump card. The good deed is one not performed for selfish motives. The doer’s personal good has been factored out of the calculation as much as is humanly possible. That isn’t to say, naturally, that everything contrary to the doer’s self-interest is automatically good (a snare into which well-meaning people stumble). The deed, besides not unfairly advancing one’s own cause, should also advance the cause of others in a responsible way which will encourage their own inclination toward the good. If we were castaways on a desert island, for instance, my making do with a half-ration of food so that the suffering children could have more would be noble. My doing without any food so that everyone could dine in comfort would be a sterile gesture of false martyrdom. I would have given my life for nothing, and the people I "helped" would be spiritually demeaned to the extent that they were physically fattened up.
Thus the good deed requires suppression of self-interest and intelligent calculation of what is in the moral interest of others. The two elements are equally important. If I simply seek to take myself out of the picture without determining whether or not such a sacrifice will be likely to bring others into accord with God’s will, then I am worshiping the idol of vanity, as surely as if I were trying to make myself king over my neighbors. Some people who routinely perform works of public service suffer from this very pathology. Their egotism utterly depends upon having others about them at whose feet they may fling themselves. Their sin is deceptive in that it bears the look of humility—but there are a couple of tell-tale signs. First, they invest very little time in thinking: they have virtually separated thought from their "moral" tours de force. They regard as a further badge of honor their habit of hurling themselves into each new project without stopping to estimate its likely effects. Mere public recognition that the project is worthy suffices for them. And that is the second diagnostic sign: their need of an audience to view their spectacular martyrdom. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus recommends metaphorically that the right hand not know what the left is doing: he says that people who play for an audience already have their reward here on earth and need not expect God’s smile upon them, as well. The word often used for such types is "exhibitionist".
If the False Martyr is not pleasing to God, then how much less so must be the Jolly Good Fellow! Here you have a person who neither ponders long and hard about the ultimate affect of his sacrifice upon others nor, indeed, subjects himself to kinds of sacrifice that are particularly uncomfortable. This type is well represented among all denominations. He’s always ready to loan a few bucks which will probably not be paid back, or to roll up his sleeves and pitch into any enterprise undertaken by his set of beautiful people. Some of his loans and his little missionary jaunts may actually serve a good cause. Statistically, an occasional jewel would be bound to occur… but how much of the credit for that occasion devolves upon him rather than upon blind chance? A deed can have beneficial consequences for sympathetic people without deserving the name of good work. A disreputable mechanic could so poorly repair your car that it stalls tomorrow morning, resulting in your not driving onto a certain bridge whose center has been washed out. The Jolly Good Fellow’s "works" often partake of the felix culpa—the lucky blundering—which we find in some acts of nature. If he lends money to someone who really is going to make the house payment instead of finance another trip to Vegas, you may usually chalk it up to good luck. If the Flyfishing for Heart Disease fundraiser goes well, he certainly won’t pout; but he took particular pleasure in seeing old Curt and Chuck again, and in catching the ever delightful Louise’s eye. He does his bit to make the world one big happy family, all right—both by chipping in his money (quite generously sometimes) and by keeping his own happiness in excellent repair. He has his reward.
Must one, then, be miserable to do good? Of course not: but one must be highly suspicious of one’s pleasure in doing good. There is most certainly a satisfaction which comes of having helped another human being in a worthy cause—but it is a difficult, if not impossible, kind of satisfaction to refine into its purest form. Les vertus se perdent dans l’intérêt commes les fleuves se perdent dans la mer, wrote La Rochfoucauld acidly: "Virtues dissolve into self-interest as rivers merge into the sea." We are immensely complex creatures, with a nature at once animal and spiritual, at once self-seeking and self-despising. Our motives are almost always tainted with some degree of selfish profit (I toss in the "almost" in deference to rumors of a few saintly examples, not because of any personal encounter with that exalted level). Even the proverbial charity of assisting the old lady to cross the street could be a suppressed longing to compensate for ignoring one’s own mother, a desperate bid to think well of oneself after having just cheated a client, a performance staged for the benefit of the beautiful woman watching at the curbside, or any of countless other little favors to one’s egotism.
I am not saying that good deeds do not exist—far from it! The whole point of this book is to plead for their revival in the Christian spirit of serving a higher cause. The very fact that our best deeds (at least mine, and probably yours) are vitiated by some tiny fleck or streak of self-interest must simply remind us of our fallen state, not persuade us to give up the struggle. A large part of the struggle, however, is precisely to stare our selfish motives in face. To declare that toiling with a Habitat for Humanity crew is automatically good displays as much moral blindness as to insist that one’s gift of millions to the Christian Children’s Fund qualifies one for canonization. The liberal denominations are quick enough to scoff at the latter type of person: rich swell with guilty conscience trying to buy himself a good night’s sleep with a check. What about their own "compassionate" undertakings? Why is working in the soup kitchen indisputably the act of a modern St. Francis? Their very stridency in the political arena about the superior merit (and preemptive right to full funding) of all their favorite projects strikes me as alien to the virtuous frame of mind. In pressing for the IMF to forgive poor nations their debt, does the World Council of Churches really give any thought to the number of extortionate tyrants who will see their sinking ship of state thus bailed out? Is it prepared to take moral responsibility for the innocents who may be subsequently starved and murdered by these resuscitated despots? Why does it at least not lavish a few hours of consideration upon the matter before publishing its categorical pronouncements from the moral high ground? Would negotiating a condition or two for the debt-pardoning skew its halo?
I find that I repeatedly have the same misgivings about liberal Christians on a personal level. They are "stand-up" people when almost any variety of communal work requires staffing. They will stake out street corners, walk door to door, or distribute blankets at shelters. I truly admire their easy extroversion; and I probably envy it, as well, since it is a quality which I lack miserably. On the other hand, I often observe their personal lives to be governed by no principle other than having maximal pleasure with minimal commitment. If they donate generously to charitable causes, they do not stint on their own cars, vacations, and nights on the town. They frequently enjoy lucrative employment, and also tend to come from backgrounds where they were denied very little. Their lives are so brimming over with love for the human race that they have difficulty limiting themselves to one sexual partner or, indeed, understanding why anyone would be so "cheap" as to suggest such a constraint. They are sincerely aggrieved when a past companion "gets the wrong idea" and "can’t let go": they will shower this pitiful neurotic with friendly phone calls and notes to help her along to… to her next hook-up, I suppose. And this, too, they call charity.
Such works just don’t work. The Right is wrong, I admit—I emphasize—to release its born-again hordes upon a vulnerable society with the carte blanche of irrevocable salvation. Yet the Left is no less wrong to designate certain earthly causes as salutary, then absolve everyone who "signs on" of all other obligations as if he were a sailor in port between tours of duty. What makes a deed of mercy crinkle and wither into a burnt offering? A heart which offers no real sacrifice—which places what is pleasing upon the altar of its own vanity. The virtues involving self-control, such as chastity, temperance, modesty, and soft-spokenness, do not feed or clothe another human being. They prepare the spirit, however, to feed and clothe other human beings in a reflective and efficient manner which does not have self-aggrandizement at its foundation. Yes, an abstinent sort of person may also be a miserly Scourge. He is so more often than conservatives would like to think (though less often than liberals make out). Just as giving generously to fight world hunger is not automatically a Christian act, though, so abstaining from mood-altering intoxicants and recreational sex is not necessarily a discipline of the spirit. Vanity has myriad forms. Some people fear being laughed at if they become tipsy, or being manipulated if they form an amorous attachment. Egotism, not God, is at work in them, just as in the unreflective, highly visible donor whose whopping contribution ends up correcting a maniacal autocrat’s trade deficit.
Liberal theologians are fond of pointing out that spirit and flesh are not divided in Christianity: that was the heresy of Manichaeus. They’re right. And it is also true, and true for the same reason, that the mind’s subjugating of carnal desire to rational objectives cannot be distinguished from its expressions of charity toward others. A man dedicated to serving his own appetite does not mysteriously cease doing so when he takes out his wallet or goes slumming with a bunch of pamphlets, just as a man who truly has control of his own appetite will not watch a child starve for the sake of his bank account. The spirit acts through, with, and in the flesh; but in order to act spiritually, it must first assert its authority over the flesh. back to top
From Chapter Ten: Neo-Liberalism, Sex,
and the Perversion of Love and Forgiveness
When our "intelligentsia" discarded this very basic notion that moral behavior entails triumph over animal impulse, it resigned its claim to reason. Neo-liberalism has recommended sex for sex to us, on the one hand, because we humans are animals, too, and the only natural way to respond to an itch is to scratch it. On the other hand, neo-liberals have mitigated this creed of hedonism whenever it became indigestible to the broader public’s sense of decency and shame by drenching it in the language of love. Humans are not apes and jackals, after all, it seems: they have refined impulses, and none more so than love. Make love, not war. Give a flower to your honey, get her on the Pill, share a joint, have good sex… everything is beautiful. And, excuse me, it wasn’t good sex, it was beautiful love. A slight slip of the tongue.
The most baldly tasteless expression of these ideas that I have found in print dates from 1972, a year whose graph indisputably describes cultural trough. Here is what the "Reverend" Lawrence Meredith has to say about concupiscent self-indulgence in The Sensuous Christian (all italics, by the way, are his):
And Meredith proceeds to extol the ministry of a colleague who has rediscovered the "right" interpretation of Christian love:
Well, there you have it. At least Lawrence is just perceptive enough to notice that carnality and charity don’t mix… but no, read the rest of the book (if you feel down to it), and you will discover that all kinds of warm-hug social activism are stewing away somewhere in this great happy debauch of "miraculous" bodies.
Neo-liberalism has these lapses all the time. Its childish naiveté would be touching if it were not hypocritically interlaced with an inflexible materialism and a consequent brutal insensitivity to all true matters of the spirit. German philosopher Ernst Bloch might serve as a more sober example. An explicit and unembarrassed utopian, Bloch believed that people naturally daydream, and that their highest employment is to set about fulfilling those daydreams. He was undaunted by this taint of fixed human nature which complicated his Marxist projections; for though no daydream can ever be utterly fulfilled, and would be succeeded by another daydream even if it were fulfilled, the delight is in the journey. What an idealist, you say! But then, look at how admiringly Bloch cites the French novelist Stendhal on the subject of sexual love—a passage which merely applies the vast historical process of chasing clouds to relationships between two people.
Either seize the woman who attracts you in an impulsiveness verging on rape, or else resign yourself to pining after someone who exists less and less every time you recall her: not a very pretty picture from the people who gave us the word "romantic" in its modern sense! No doubt, a woman who receives that magical first surge of attention can fairly flatter herself that she has a comely face, a nice bust. Thereafter, she had better remember that the lover who keeps sending her poetry isn’t really dreaming of her at all, and that he will be on his way once she has given all she has to give.
You wouldn’t think a feminist would want either to be "sized up" like a cut of sirloin or "dumped" like a rind whose fruit has been consumed; yet feminism was instrumental in indoctrinating our culture with the romantic materialist view of love. It’s a simple choice: carnal lust, which is soon satisfied and too brutal to know much disappointment, or sentimental fantasy, which stirs the imagination to great heights but has no room for flesh-and-blood limitation. The feminist élite accepted this reprise of Hobson’s Choice as quintessentially male, and then assumed the attitude, "We’ll see you and raise you." If a man can be ready-at-first-sight, a woman can be twice as much so; if a man can long to float free and visit every port, a woman can be twice as much so. The race was on to see which gender could degrade itself more.
Needless to say, no Christian apologetic for this approach to love is possible—yet liberal clergymen flung themselves after the contestants, promising them that God forgives everything and that, in any case, such dedication to "love" needed no forgiveness. Bishop Spong, late of the Newark Episcopal diocese, now a lecturer at Harvard, has recently offered this conciliatory pulverization of Christian sexual morality to the intolerant legionnaires of tolerance:
Though Reverend Spong is gracious enough to credit Bishop Ingham of Westminster, British Columbia, for first adumbrating these weighty formulations, the reader may notice an unintended echo of Rev. McIlvenna’s "the only responsible sex is good sex." A little more "high church" here, to be sure… but to my mind, the latter’s hot panting has more honesty than this farrago of fragmented history and pop-psych nuggets stirred into flaccid shreds of Christian teaching. When a votary of ecstasy declares with that spontaneous candor typical of shamelessness, "I want it, I need it, and it feels so good!" the focal point of his preoccupation is apparent to anyone over the age of eight or nine. Bishop Spong, however, must avail himself of the cant invoked by pornographers about needing to let off steam before the pot explodes. No, it’s not quite the same: Spong exhorts us to be fruitful without multiplying lest we burst and buy a Playboy, while Hugh Hefner would have us buy Playboy lest we burst and go rape our shapely neighbor. Odd, that no one advances this argument in defense of controlling a quick temper or an unseemly lust for power: "Just punch him once—you’ll feel better and your urge will go away." But, of course, people get hurt when you punch them. When you merely bed them for the sweet joys of their body, the Bishop’s symbolic angels (he doesn’t believe in any other kind) circle your nest in chorus, and everybody’s happy. You are happy, at any rate… and why wouldn’t your partner be? Is she hung up, or something? What did she expect, a diamond?
New Age, indeed! The truth is that only bishops change: human nature remains the same. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that men who allow sex to rule their lives are heavy consumers both of pornography and of the real thing. They may begin with one and "progress" to the other, but—as long as they’re young, personable, and have plenty of money—they end up partaking of both. (Women have never gravitated to the pornographic, for reasons which we will not explore here: Spong’s treatment of the issue is peremptorily male, despite his obsequious courtship of feminism.) If the Bishop has some specific period like Victorian England in mind, when a stodgy respectability existed side by side with a voracious appetite for illicit sex (and a minor epidemic of syphilis), then he would do well to designate his allusion and hold it up for critical analysis. Victorian decorum, with its marriages crudely engineered for financial profit and its rigid sequestration of "proper" women from most places where men spent their time, was hardly a model for the healthy practice of abstinence. But then, pornography per se was not really the preferred outlet for this "repressed sexual energy". You can’t catch syphilis from a picture.
Leaving aside bishops who would have been better off auditioning for Phil Donahue’s job, why should any thinking person consider the romantic materialist’s cynical pair of options a refinement over the bourgeois marriage bond? Harvest quickly or pine after a ghost… does either of these look more attractive than chaste monogamy? When two people have channeled their sexual drive so as to confirm a temperamental compatibility into the deepest of friendships, so as to bring new life into the world, and so as to surround that life with lasting security, why does the neo-liberal turn away with a sneer? What has sex to offer of a spiritual nature which can compete with the acceptance of necessary limitation? Freedom, perhaps? Well, I suppose the great sexual quest is free in the sense of a self-propelled apple forever rolling along rather than catching upon a spot of ground. Because it hasn’t stopped here or there, it may always fantasize about a better rest. Yet it, too, must finally rot, and its seeds strewn over the surface will sow no tree.
There is no love in contemporary liberal love—certainly not when it refers to love between the sexes. The only sentiment which can redeem it from "raw sex" is the fantasy of the utterly fulfilling conquest, which of course spurs the "lover" to desert his latest conquest. Bourgeois marriage, on the other hand, has the potential to transform sex into love—to make it no longer sex at all, but an eternal embrace in whose metaphor are implicated countless generations of children, the great ascending coil of life beyond death where the closed circle of being is almost conceivable. Does that sound too poetic for plodding bourgeois intelligences? But a simple mind may be enlightened by a great soul: Christ was most insistent upon that score. Indeed, it is the neo-liberal, in his "high-minded" disdain of bourgeois artifice, who claims a special bond with simplicity—yet how soon he abandons the claim to advertise his superior intellect! Only a dumb brute could be so complacent as to dwell torpidly in the stifling hold of a lifelong commitment. He has higher aspirations. His grand soul chafes at every limit it encounters…
Such as a promise. Such as the rule of reason over its own "sublime" passions (which it indulges with the generosity of a bull in a field). Such as the most basic moral fact, recognized even by the atheist’s ethics, that the feelings of others must be weighed as carefully as one’s own.
This freedom, you see, is the freedom of death—of that oblivion which precedes birth. It is the freedom of the apple whose seeds will produce no tree: the freedom of non-existence. To roll and roll around one’s private center of gravity, and to make of it an idol: what definitive self-absorption! The unborn naturally assume this posture, but it is grotesque in something which ought to be alive. A living thing which has not yet known birth, eyes studying the navel, knees tucked tightly against the chin, the whole forming a smooth little ball… an aborted soul, perhaps? The neo-liberal self is just such narcissism in action, so intent upon chasing down all its needs and maximally fulfilling them in a furor of holy mission that it fails to notice its dizzy spin around a single axis. It is Peer Gynt pretending to be Faust. It imagines itself to be straying across the boundaries of the universe, to be trespassing now upon heaven, now upon hell, while all the while it is rigidly confined within the microscopic circumference of its self-centered trundles. A life without commitment may go far and wide, but it hasn’t the depth (with no apologies to Bloch) of a dog’s daydream; and what good is latitude, even, when the next breeze steals away your bearings? back to top
6 From The Sensual Christian: A Celebration of Freedom and Love (New York: Association Press, 1972), 162.
7 From Das antizipierende Bewußtsein (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972), 163.
8 From John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998), 160.
From Chapter Twelve: Neo-Liberalism, Utopia,
and the Pathology of Social Decay
My intention is simply to demonstrate that the material "horrors" and decadent bourgeois "luxuries" concerning which neo-liberal philanthropy loves to hyperventilate can be highly subjective. I haven’t been to a movie in over a decade, nor has my family enjoyed an American-style vacation (i.e., a drive to a scenic resort) for at least that long. We live very close to the "poverty level"—yet we get by comfortably, because our life is cautious and frugal. My first-grader can at this moment recite Cicero’s cupidem non esse pecuniam est (free translation: "Give yourself a raise by not buying costly frivolities"). This sentiment, I concede, would hardly endear itself to the caliber of thinker now styled "neo-conservative": a believer, that is, in the God-given joy of material acquisition and the divinely sanctioned engine of unfettered capitalist money-making—a eudemonist, in short. But then, the Left is equally eudemonist in wanting to provide everyone an equal share of the same loot. What I deplore is eudemonism, and what I deplore most about the New Left (as about neo-conservatism) is its wholesale betrayal of the classical liberal resistance to the crude, the shallow, and the carnal.
When someone, for instance, who can’t pay his heating bill drives a $40,000 van, or someone who can’t afford Christmas presents for her kids sets out to "do Vegas" with her boyfriend over the holidays, a neo-conservative would advises that we are witnessing stimulation of the economy, the neo-liberal that we must abstain from judging the "victim" of unenlightened rearing and a corrupt society’s heavy "pressures". Yet it seems to me that we behold a rational being who, through a kind of intellectual laziness which both sides very much encourage, has not calculated the transparent consequences of a few familiar actions. I cannot help but reflect upon the immense complexity of human nature at such moments; and upon the heels of that reflection, another follows about the immense complexity of genuine help. Will it help the single mother of three if we give her children presents while she continues throwing money away on a deadbeat Romeo? I tend to buy the presents, anyway, when such circumstance crop up… but I scarcely harvest the philanthropic glow of a job well done. Haven’t I merely done my bit to ensure that these waifs will spend another year without a mother who can confront reality?
I hasten to add that I have the utmost respect of those inner-city ministries like Jim Wallis’s where homeless people are given food and beds, fatherless children find a wholesome place to play ball, and immigrants with no English learn how to function in an alien environment. I am not in the least disparaging such worthy enterprises. What I resist is the notion that all the homeless must be fed, all kids matched with mentors, and all immigrants rendered fluent in English before a single denizen of suburbia deserves a good night’s sleep. I resist this notion first because it aspires to an impossible goal, as I have been suggesting—but also because it degrades the good of the soul, and does so in that very fashion for which Wallis and others chide bourgeois materialism. Even if homeless people wanted homes (many do not: they are often quite well educated and have prosperous relatives worrying after them in suburbia’s hypocritical wastes), would they necessarily do better managing Kentucky Fried Chicken or publicizing the latest Adidas shoes? Something in them has rejected that kind of life, and maybe we should honor the something. Every child should be surrounded by caring adults; but there is a difference between charitably donating time (which is easier for childless men like Mr. Wallis) and being berated into playing dad for a child whose mother holds marriage in utter contempt. If everyone could speak English, I suppose we would have a lot more up-and-coming sales clerks and legal secretaries in the suburbs—and a lot less cultural diversity. Is that the goal? Is this the neo-liberal "game plan"? Wear a tie and get a job… demand generous government funding for child support of all kinds… get that diploma and start raking in bucks… it all sounds so noxiously bourgeois; and indeed, one need only follow any liberal social crusade to its indefinitely recessive "omega point" to discover that the route finally circles back to paralyzing mediocrity. Happy little bureaucrats donating a quarter out of every dollar to create more happy little bureaucrats, with "happiness" being defined ever downward to include ever more frivolous pursuits… is this a vision of lower heaven, or a glimpse of outer hell?
Can’t we feed the homeless without denouncing our neighbors because homelessness exists? Can’t we support Big Brother programs without denouncing our neighbors for less than full participation in them? Can’t we offer free English education without denouncing our neighbors because more people enter the United States than it can readily absorb? Maybe we need the homeless to remind us that the eight-to-five existence is highly artificial. Maybe we need the fatherless to remind us that our self-indulgent hedonism has a cost. Maybe we need people speaking strange tongues to remind us that the world is a big place. Wouldn’t it do us good to reflect that life goes on if you fling your wretched job in your dishonest employer’s face; that life will not go on—not very smoothly—if you decide to desert you wife for the cute young sales rep; that life goes on all the time in far more than two languages? Isn’t there something condescending, and even unhealthy, about the mission to erase all abnormality, suffering, and inconvenience from existence? Is it in this cause, then—materialist and orthodox to the point of fascism—that we must all surrender ourselves to the sound flailing of neo-liberalism?
I repeat that generous gifts and charitable services are to be highly prized wherever one may find them, even if God’s ineluctable eye perceives a muddy mix of motives in the benefactor. An event may have morally salubrious consequences without so much as being the product of any human intent at all. A sudden thunderstorm which prevents a man with murder in his heart from seeking immediate vengeance may force him to cool off quite as effectively as a brave and saintly friend would have done. Obviously, we cannot measure goodness only by results (unless, of course, we want to award moral points to the thunderstorm). In the same way, we should not stray from the pragmatic goodness of feeding a hungry man to the conclusion that all who feed the hungry are necessarily good, let alone to the conclusion that all who would be good must feed the hungry. Look at it this way. If you have ever been fortunate enough to see a little-known Tyrone Power movie called The Luck of the Irish, you recall that the central character at last turns down a powerful and lucrative position to marry a country lass and live in happy obscurity. Now, as head of a major publishing enterprise, he would not only have earned a salary capable of lavishing charity upon the hungry and the homeless: he would also have enjoyed such influence through the printed word that he might greatly have advanced charitable political causes. Yet he declines this option in what is convincingly portrayed as an act of conscience. He rejects luxury, glory, and worldly might for an inner peace which courts no special favors and cuts no shady deals. Would the liberal crusader of today consider this man a hero, or even be able to comprehend him? Just think of all the hungry he has allowed to go unfed merely for the "selfish pleasure" of appeasing his conscience!
But most of our utopian clergy, I think, are well aware (beneath their incendiary rhetoric) that their best efforts are in no danger of annihilating life’s diversity, its fertile friction, or its anguish. I have perhaps done them an injustice in implying that they do not recognize the pure fantasy of universal happiness—or have been too charitable. For if they realize that the promised land will always recoil to the next horizon, they do not for that reason exhort us to seek ultimate peace in the heavens above the horizon. They prefer to draw righteous authority from leading their benighted pilgrims upon an endless trek. Who knows what might become of that authority if the landscape ever did spout milk and honey? What would they do with themselves? What would become of their life’s work? Everyone would be drawing a nice check from Wal-Mart or H&R Block, grazing junk food as a family unit in front of the tube, and chattering away in monochrome English-lite. Everyone would be… bourgeois, or post-proletarian in some Marxist sense (which really amounts the same thing, it turns out). Utopia would stand revealed in all its anodyne vacuity.
And there is, I believe, a danger of achieving this brave new world of material satiety, in all its suffocating affluence if not in its transformation of well-fed idleness into bliss. In fact, we have very nearly arrived in the United States. People who own color-TV’s, microwaves, and cell phones consider themselves unjustly pinched because they cannot buy their child the latest fad in dolls or scooters. People who hit McDonald’s and Red Lobster three times a day (my household also gave up eating out some yeas ago) apply at the local church for a Thanksgiving turkey. We are missing something about this puzzle, even though we have all its pieces. We will find the missing element in the mirror: it is the log in our own eye which prevents us from seeing our neighbor’s true need. No, we shouldn’t begrudge children their Christmas toys or families their Thanksgiving feast… but we should re-examine our own commitment—all of us, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief—to toys and feasts.
Life isn’t about diversion and gluttony: not the life of conscience. We should aspire to alter what our poor yearn for and envy—what they find themselves poor in relation to—by altering ourselves. They are too like us: that is the source of their true poverty. Non qui parum habet sed qui plura cupit pauper est, opines the Roman Stoic Seneca in his second epistle: "not he who has little, but he who wants more, is a pauper." A vast mansion isn’t vaguely obscene because everybody doesn’t have one, but because nobody really needs one. The three-foot depth of wrapped presents around the Christmas tree isn’t latently outrageous because some trees are only swamped in two feet, but because all such flashy clutter drowns the meaning of new life in God’s love.
Here, it seems to me, is the calling of the conscientiously liberal minister: here should be the source of the new "cry for renewal". The neo-liberal crusader, however, has recognized that turning away from the world will not make him popular among his bored, resentful, highly educated peerage unless he does so in a manner which brings him belligerently face to face with the bourgeoisie; for the real point of turning away from the suburbs is to insult them, and one must quickly snap back around to make sure that one’s defiance has been duly observed. This is pure counter-conformity: not God instead of the world, but anti-suburbia instead of suburbia. Not the spiritual instead of the material, but the mainstream pattern of material emphasis precisely reversed. Where the bourgeoisie has actually scored modest triumphs over lucre and the flesh—in its elevation of monogamy, for instance, or in its dedication to child-rearing—the new liberal agenda calls for immersion in secular squalor (e.g., free love and freedom from offspring at all costs). As a recipe for utopia, this agenda taps far less idealism than an Amish settlement or an agrarian cult. At its best, it may lure a few noble hearts into medicine or the Peace Corps for the right reasons; but most of its footsoldiers require an audience of outraged folks back home, and a lonely life of individual sacrifice therefore draws charges of not changing "the system" fast enough.
And the charge is true, after all. The system is not really changing at all, because it cannot: inequity is embedded in the human condition. The poor are always with us. We understand this admonition of Christ’s in the wrong sense if we receive it merely as an assessment of material resources or of the human complexity behind destitution. The capitalist system has arguably created, or could soon create, enough abundance to feed everyone on the planet; and the fact that some needy would trade their loaf of bread for a jug of wine might as readily be viewed as a medical as a spiritual problem (at any rate, the problem could be symptomatically alleviated by medicine). The real catching point is the giver: the poor are always with us because some of us must always be slaying the dragon of poverty. Otherwise, our armor would rust and our charger drop dead of inaction. We must have our beau geste. How could we play Jesus if there were no bare feet to shoe? Here, by the way, I speak more of those noble hearts toiling away in obscurity than of the contrarian exhibitionist, whose artifice is as easy to diagnose as his motives are shallow. Though the most vocal exponents of contemporary liberalism may consist more of the latter, the former are far more interesting, and probably more common among true leaders. In their greater depth lies a greater fervor with more ability to inspire, even when a crowd of admirers has not been sought.
I do feel the seductions of social works: they are indeed powerful. I recently stopped to converse in my broken Spanish with an immigrant woman whom nobody else on the scene could comprehend. She apparently needed directions to a pizza parlor where she had just been given a job, which happened to be on the other side of town. Since she was on foot, I unstrapped the toddler seat from the passenger side of the pick-up and motioned her in. She got to work on time, and I… I had a most exhilarating sense of having helped another human being. If she had requested me to take her back home that afternoon, or even to become her daily chauffeur, I might well have consented at that instant—out of selfishness. For the selfish purpose of renewing that exhilaration. Yet I am a little too subtle to deceive myself in such a manner. The sight of someone less fortunate materially than we are always stirs guilt in us, so that the chance to redistribute some of our means relieves a nagging doubt even as it fulfills an innate desire to play the hero. A powerful emotion, as I said… but not especially difficult to see as self-serving from both directions. Where have we left the needy in our duel quest to be rid of guilt and full of heroism? The creation of a dream world where we may consider ourselves Templar knights and our beneficiaries may evade an essential error in their practical calculations does not strike me as a very healthy, or even happy, answer to the problem.
One reason for my "subtlety" in these matters, no doubt, is an encounter I had while hiking around Ireland as a young man. In the coastal town of Westport, I was virtually held up by a gypsy woman (the Irish call them "tinkers"). She didn’t stick a weapon in my face—only her wall-eyed stare, as flat and unblinking as if it had been carved from marble. In a monotonous drone whose words I couldn’t at once discern, she kept repeating the same formula: "a couple of pounds, please; please give me a couple of pounds". Since I had scarcely enough for my own expenses, I first tried to ignore her. She merely followed me along the sidewalk as though she were laced into my backpack, murmuring her refrain all the way. I then had the not-so-bright idea of depositing her at the local Catholic church. That maneuver only drew more indignant glares than ever—aimed at me, it seemed, rather than at her. After all, she was part of the local furniture: I was the stranger, and my tactics betrayed that I obviously didn’t know how to handle myself. When this burlesque had dragged on for about half an hour, I finally gave her a couple of pounds which I could ill afford to part with (I supped on bread and cheese, as I recall). Without so much as a "thank you", she vanished in thin air, leaving me with a sense of humiliation every bit as profound as the later exhilaration of my pizza-parlor shuttle was lofty.
For I did not vow never again to help lost souls on the sidewalk—not in the least. What I learned from the Irish incident was what I read in the tinker woman’s eyes: that shame, when it becomes utterly extinguished in one person, can be turned around and used as a blunt weapon against another. This woman had the dead, cold eyes of a stray dog—a dog which has been beaten so many times that it sees the blows in time to dodge them, and will risk one, in any case, for a scrap. No visible humanity was twinkling in them. Nothing she might do, and nothing I could expose her to, could bring her to reflect upon her situation and its future. She merely wanted my money, and she bullied me. Having identified me easily as an outsider, she made her appeal so persistently that shame overpowered me. I only wanted her to leave, to take from my presence not the sight of her poverty (for she was no worse off than I), but of her shamelessness. I found the prospect of a human being who could baldly exploit our natural surges of guilt and obligation and decency without ever batting an eyelash to be terribly depressing. Thank God she didn’t hold out for my last penny: she probably would have gotten it, leaving me to sleep in a ditch.
The poor will always be with us because we will always be poor inside. Along with our ebullient self-satisfaction at having slipped some hapless wight a bill, we shall always (most of us—certainly I myself) be saddled with an eminently manipulable self-suspicion. We shall allow shameless people to shout claims of poverty in our faces and to extort whatever they want from us, because we can never escape the knowledge that our most secret motives are, after all, not quite pure. back to top
From Chapter Fifteen: The Fundamentals:
Back to the Basic Facts of Life and Death
Let us imagine that a supernatural power whose nature is wholly beyond divining or intuiting in any respect to the human psyche has rewarded this élite group for surrendering to its arbitrary decrees. Or rather, since even a surrender implies a choice initiated in the miserable and corrupt human breast, let us say that the Power selects these happy few to respond to its message for no humanly apparent reason at all. An eternity of singing the Power’s praises and standing joyfully in the sublime majesty of its presence is their unearned reward. For the rest of us, an eternal separation from the Power… but that in itself could hardly affect us as hellish, since our psyche has no point of intersection with this force, in any case, and could not become more separated from it than we already are (in a benighted dedication to goodness, for instance). Some supplemental regimen of tortures would have to be added so that the experience would be more anguishing than our daily lives on earth. For some lost souls, I have no doubt that an unending Sisyphean ordeal of rolling boulders up slopes with Tantalian taunts of food and water just out of reach would indeed be insupportable. Again, though, some of us would agree with Camus that life in the present world follows pretty much the same routine; and some of us would take much more comfort than Camus ever did in knowing that no amount of such suffering could undermine our admiration for goodness.
And I put it to you that a hell in the company of this great Comforter—that is, the knowledge that our afflictions were arbitrary and unconnected to the moral inklings within us—would be closer to heaven for us than an eternity in the presence of a power which so afflicts the souls at its mercy. Though our agony should be constantly renewed, we would always have the hope of relief. For we should still have our god of goodness, the god whom we know in our hearts: the more inscrutably and vindictively our tormentor flailed us, the more certain we should be that the ruler of our hearts was elsewhere—perhaps in a deeper vault of the same dungeon. Of course, Milton represents the fallen angels as placing a similar hope in Satan. It was Milton’s right to do so, courtesy of epic convention and dramatic license. Dante was more accurate, however, in stressing that all hope is left behind at the Gates of Hell. Why? Because the soul knows its own guilt, the justice of its own damnation: any hell which seeks to dispense with this one indispensable element must remain entirely a poetic fiction. Hell is the soul’s separation from God, which is its separation from a vital, illuminating energy at its very essence. A damned soul has lost its energy, its will—its love. The light of goodness has been utterly extinguished in it while the knowledge of goodness lingers to weigh it down.
For the power of goodness, as every true Christian knows, is inextinguishable. Hence eternal punishment by some mogul of the universe whose whim is law, to whose magnetism nothing in human nature is magnetized, cannot serve goodness; for everything about such a frightful figure is ephemeral. This Moloch is, indeed, a nightmare of the shallow and the temporary made eternal. When the nightmare passes, the light of that love which never sets in a healthy heart will again command the skies.
I imagine that the enemies of rational faith would object to many of the positions which I have ascribed to them. Their god is by no means arbitrary, they would tell me: what he bestows upon them in an act of grace is precisely the knowledge of true goodness and the strength to conform their conduct to it. But this is mere rhetorical flim-flamming. There are basically four possible relationships between humans and the divine: wicked people and good god, somewhat good people and good god, somewhat good people and malevolent god, and wicked people and malevolent god. Obviously, the enemies of natural theology wish the first condition to reign. Fallen humanity may enjoy faint flashes of moral insight—but these are few, and no courage of conviction stands ready to carry them forward into behavior. Good only appears when God accepts a selected group of souls as His, whether through their submission to some inscrutable rite of passage or (since that submission, as I have noted, implies choice) through a kind of thunderclap tap on the head. After such conversion, however, everything changes. Good conduct either becomes irrelevant (since all is forgiven to the select few) or mysteriously godly. And who is to judge the conduct of the Chosen, anyway? A bunch of unregenerate heathen?
The problem with this line of reasoning is that the élite, being formerly incapable of right action, could hardly have "come to God" through any but ignoble motives: cowardice, laziness, self-interest, etc. Or if their response was dictated by a sense of higher calling already within them (a notion which haunts Arminianism and Moravianism), then they could not have been entirely wicked by nature. No, say the misanthropes, you have it wrong again. God miraculously usurped the will of His elected: there was no moment of decision on their part to respond or not to respond. But in that case, how do we distinguish between a "pagan" who declares, "I refuse to let this lynch mob do its work!" because his conscience nettles him and a "believer" who does so because God has suddenly usurped his will? Is it because the latter has joined, or will proceed to join, the right church? I trust that no one capable of mature thought will advance that distinction. Is the former person, then, just imaginary?
The fact is that the two cases are indistinguishable. True conscience is inner revelation—a conversion oriented to specific circumstances, if you will. And if it pleases some ideologues to insist that all such moments are alien to human nature, and were so even when they were observed in a Cato or a Socrates, then let these moments stand as a history of divine inspiration. So, indeed, they are, since our nature is surely divided against itself: for the better part to dominate the worse no doubt requires some supplementation of benign vigor which we shall never understand. I admit that Immanuel Kant would not have approved of my bestowing a mystical aura upon conscience. He chides both the Pietists and the Moravians specifically, the former for delivering moral insight through supernatural intrusion, the latter for requiring such intrusion to sustain moral insight.6 I accept his criticism, for I interpret it in this manner: enlightenment straight from God could not be mistaken, but we stumbling children of God must always allow that our guiding light may be slightly refracted. Otherwise, we risk a very long fall—from humble righteousness to imperious self-righteousness.
Need I say, however, that the determinists will view any fine-tuning of this "bad men/good God" alternative as yielding an insufficiently squalid estimate of human nature? I can only keep asking why, especially since they are so giddily naïve as to believe that their own nature has been utterly integrated into God’s perfect will. Here, indeed, the seeds of self-righteousness find fertile soil.
Of course, I join Kant in preferring the simplicity of the second alternative above: i.e., that human beings naturally possess a certain knowledge of God’s goodness, even though it is often insufficient to keep them from pitfalls and never sufficient to guide them perfectly straight.7 The apostle Paul defends this position about as plainly as one could ask, although Karl Barth and his heirs have sought to erase the first two chapters of Romans by muddying the semantic water or preserving the icy silence of a "gentleman’s agreement". James Barr’s resplendent pages on "St. Paul and the Hebrew Background" lay to rest any reservations which a reasonable person might entertain about God’s convicting voice within the human heart.8 Professor Barr is moved to lament, "On the whole, people are far more heavily influenced by the strong dogmatic convictions which they have inherited or to which they adhere [than by objective textual evidence], and only with the greatest difficulty can they find it in themselves to admit that the Bible actually points in a direction different from these convictions."9 That realization is indeed as depressing (in Barr’s word) as it is inevitable.
For surely the final two alternatives above should not make us hesitate for an instant… yet what others remain? If we are not permitted to concede the minutest particle of moral insight to the human mind’s operations upon its environment and its own motives, then the sole reason for our calling God good can only be because God is powerful. First we dwell in an unrelieved chaos of values: then a celestial voice declares the boundary lines. Whatever the Voice says goes. Why? Because it packs the power to enforce behind its stentorian tones. When I write "enforce", I mean physical duress, since moral enforcement (which employs the strong hands of guilt and contrition) would require pre-programming in the human heart. To use the word "good" of such herding and hazing would be moral nonsense, as would using the word "evil" of it. Both God and man are beyond good and evil in this Nietzschean universe of raw power—and beneath good and evil, as well. Morality is not possible in such circumstances, unless you wish to call Darwin’s mechanism whereby the fittest survive at the expense of the frailest a moral system.10
Now, I am not recommending the defiance of authority as a virtue. I concur with Professor Molnar (see Chapter Nine) that resistance to authority, far from being an absolute virtue, comes much closer to absolute vice. To violate all commandments simply because they exist is a sterile, parasitic kind of egotism. We see it exemplified in Milton’s portrait of Satan, an ultimately ludicrous figure whose one rule—to defy God’s rules—ironically makes him dependent in every smallest motion upon God’s rules while, besides, depriving him of an obedient dependency’s rewards and comforts. Were it not for Adam and Eve, Paradise Lost would be a genuine comedy! Nothing can be said to win for the moral nullity of Milton’s spiritual counter-conformist (or any other) the slightest degree of respectability.
Yet this is because the authority we know in God is moral, and we can only know it as moral if the basis of understanding it has already been laid within us. Otherwise, we should indeed merely be responding to an autocrat’s whip like slaves and cowards; and should we defy the autocrat on the basis that his authority had no inner basis, we should indeed be in a very odd position of moral superiority over our god. In fact, classical mythology is replete with such figures, heroes whose persecution by the Olympians is deeply troubling to us (thanks to Christianity’s insistence on moral divinity). Why should Prometheus be tortured for taking pity upon the human race? Why should Oedipus be hounded to the brink of insanity for circumstances entirely beyond his knowledge or control? Should the shepherd who saved him as a baby, then, have left him to the wolves—would that have been the "moral" thing to do?
I think I understand why many religious conservatives are opposed to the notion of inner enlightenment. I should like to imagine that my lengthy section on neo-liberalism has well proved how far I, too, am out of sympathy with the abusive invocation of conscience, meditating, and other such inwardly based searches after truth. Professor Barr himself warns, "I share many of the doubts and objections that modern theologians have voiced against the whole idea of it [natural theology]…. I start out on the whole subject as one who is distrustful of the entire box of tricks that makes up traditional natural theology, and ultra-modern theology as well."11 The very phrase "natural theology" (which I have placed in quotation marks more often than not because it makes me so uncomfortable) implies that one may rightly give free reign to nature—but that’s a slippery business. Human nature has something unnatural about it; or to put it another way, the highest calling of human nature is to replace natural law with higher law. Nature would have us clubbing our enemies, stealing more than our fair portion of food, and seducing or violating comely members of the opposite sex. It would have us living like animals rather than human beings; and for a human being to live thus naturally, I repeat, is unnatural, since our essential nature is divided against itself.
6 See pp. 55-56 of Der Streit der Facultäten in Kants Werke, vol. 7 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 1-116
7 In Die Metaphysik der Sitten, Kant plainly declares that moral perfection is a species "toward which striving is a duty, but not reaching (in this life)" since such attainment is impossible. (See p. 446 of Kants Werke, vol. 6 [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968], 203-494.) The number of ill-read authors who deny him this position is quite dismaying.
8 Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1993), 39-57.
9 Ibid., 49.
10 David Walsh bestows upon Nietzsche a kind of agent provocateur role in After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (Washington: Catholic U of America P, 1995); see especially 20-37. All reliance upon human reason, argues Walsh, must eventually end in the raw struggle for power; and the experience of having survived such tutorials in human vanity is precisely what is bringing the West back to Christianity. This appealing Catholic "happy ending" to Reinhold Niebuhr’s debilitating suspicions is common in certain intellectual circles—but it strikes me as entirely too neat. The spiritual encounter which Walsh sees at the far end of Nietzsche’s nightmare is a product of the nihilist’s grim experience only because there is—and always was—something beyond all possible experience which cannot accept nullity. After all, if rejecting Kant’s disinterested imperative involves no logical contradiction, neither does rejecting the horror of the Holocaust or the Gulag. If "this rediscovery of the transcendent foundation of order can extend beyond the experience of a few remarkable individuals" (241), it is precisely because the lesson was not really experience’s to teach, in the first place.
11 Op. cit., 102-102. back to top
more about us recommended books