We need a bigger world
The elite wanted a world without God and they got it. Andrew Sullivan argues that with the decline of traditional religions the godless world has embraced political cults. They are finding the resulting world an uncongenial place.
Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society. ... This is why science cannot replace it. Science does not tell you how to live, or what life is about ...
So what happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed? I think what happens is illiberal politics. ... Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.
But Sullivan's timeline is wrong. The death of God was announced more than a century ago, appropriately enough by Nietzsche's fictional madman. He already foresaw the vacuum that would come. "Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? ... God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him."
What replaced God in the 20th century was cult of man. Nineteeen thirty nine was not only a time of fear but great expectation. Militant humanism in the late 1930s meant being either a Bolshevik or a Fascist for whom the battle for the future was at hand. Which future depended on your point of view. Either the drang nach osten or the workers' paradise would fix everything as soon as all wrong people could be got out of the way.
Things got fixed alright, but not in the way the militants expected. After WW2, a chastened humanity realized the kingdom of man was unattainable through force of arms, especially with the invention of the atomic bomb, and turned its attention to achieving its goals through global institutions instead. The traditional faiths would be allowed to wither away, driven back year by year by advancing secularism, until they were impotent. Then the press would replace the pulpit; the academy would replace the monastery; and the State would substitute for God till the institutions collectively had all the attributes of divinity and decided who would live or die, who would be born or not born, who was man or woman, and even who belonged to what race. It would rule on the very meaning of life itself until there was nothing beyond the competence of the world of man. John Lennon caught it in a nutshell.
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one
Everything would be under control. But since, as Andrew Sullivan argued, religion is "in our genes" some ersatz had to fill the void, some opiate of the masses. So the time from the Fall of the Soviet Union to the present was spent building a substitute. Religion didn't "decline" so much as get replaced and it is easy in retrospect to recall how this was done. Reverence for the great was provided through remoteness and elaborate pageantry. Substitute dogma, sacraments and even hagiography were found. By 2016 a nearly complete substitute religion generally known as Political Correctness had been rolled out.
Everybody knows what PC is because we are all members of its church, born into it at birth. It has sacraments like abortion, blasphemous words one cannot utter, heretical doctrines you cannot hold, individuals canonized by the media you cannot impugn and a roster of the damned with whom you cannot associate. Few say their prayers any more but multitudes spend each day sorting their trash in their backyard altars to the goddess Gaia. Nonbelievers in Global Warming are anathematized as Deniers; virtue signaling has become the new piety. And we are familiar with all of it because our conversion until recently seemed all but complete.
Unfortunately digital omniscience and globalization eroded the religion of men. When Rome, Jerusalem, Brussels and Washington are no harder to visit than Disneyland, and when the peccadillos of the rich, famous and reverend are splashed across social media, then familiarity will breed contempt. The Gramscians marching through the institutions never realized that in capturing the castles they would ruin them and deprive these of their mystery and power to overawe.
The vacuum that Sullivan now feels is not the result of the "death of God" so much as the death of the Cult of Men. You can't even use the word "man" any more without being accused of "toxic masculinity" or species chauvinism. It killed itself with a Catch-22. Yet withal the peasants are revolting. Caught between two fires, what shall we do? "Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?" The madman's problem haunts Sullivan, who asks "will the house still stand when its ramparts are taken away? I’m beginning to suspect it can’t. And won’t."
Yet a moment's thought will convince us we were always falling through space, except now we are aware our artificial handholds were just props. What the elite hanker for in today's populist upheaval isn't God but the lost world of certitude when the PC Lords Temporal and Spiritual could pronounce authoritatively. Control is just what is denied us. A world with God is one where we are not in control, one that contains mystery and uncertainty which cannot be banished; where we are haunted by the unshakeable sense of something very large in the room with us . Do we really want this world? The counterintuitive answer is "yes."
What our current civilization has lost is the capacity to live with the uncontrollable; to act in doubt which is to say in faith. That lack has resulted in the return of loneliness and fear. The WSJ says studies call the Baby Boomers the Loneliest Generation, more unattached than before and often aging alone. Children no longer climb trees in childhood or party in adolescence, as we are increasingly paralyzed by the fear of any action that might be dangerous or interpreted as politically incorrect. One of Britain’s leading scientists recently said:
The ‘religious’ obsession with health and safety is putting off a generation of children from science because they are banned from taking part in experiments ... “Health and safety is awful,” he said, “It’s become like a fake religion and it’s having a significant impact on education. “It is like putting a wall around the top of a mountain in case somebody falls off. Well why would anyone ever climb it.
That fake religion has a name and it is falling on the ground. Europe, writes Joel Kotkin in Forbes, is the "homeland of demographic decline ... Germany, has endured demographic decline for over a generation. Germany’s population is forecast to drop 7.7% by 2050, though this projection has not been adjusted to account for the recent immigration surge." The global world's fear of death is so great it may have lost the ability to live.
It's clear that what is now needed is not a return to certitudes but its complete opposite: the recovery of a capacity for risk. Can man make the journey from atheism to God again? C.S. Lewis made his famous journey from atheism to theism in 1931 after a series of walks with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. But only after, as Lewis explained, having mentally exhausted the beauties of atheism and found it wanting.
These hauntingly beautiful lands which somehow never satisfy,—this passion to escape from death plus the certainty that life owes all its charm to mortality—these push you on to the real thing because they fill you with desire and yet prove absolutely clearly that in Morris’s world that desire cannot be satisfied.
The [George] MacDonald conception of death—or, to speak more correctly, St Paul’s—is really the answer to Morris: but I don’t think I should have understood it without going through Morris. He is an unwilling witness to the truth. He shows you just how far you can go without knowing God, and that is far enough to force you . . . to go further.
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.
If Sullivan's observation that religion is "in our genes" has any truth, it means that the world of men can never be all. We start from the fact that man has declared God dead yet the Cult of Men lies in pieces on the ground. We cannot remain paralyzed where we are. Whether you agree with Lewis or not, it is hard not grasp the attraction of betting that there's something bigger than the global world. We have gone far, far enough at least to force us to go further.
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Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person -- capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or "tribes," a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today's divided world.
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