Religion and Socialism | Peter Kreeft | From "Darkness At Noon: The Eclipse of the Permanent Things", Chapter 2 of C.S. Lewis For The Third Millennium | Ignatius Insight
There is one thing even stupider than modernism abandoning religion in society: theological modernism abandoning religion even in religion. The essence of theological modernism is the denial of the supernatural (miracles, Christ's divinity and resurrection, Heaven and Hell, the Second Coming, and the divine inspiration of scripture). These fundamentals of the faith are labeled "fundamentalistic"—modernity's other F-word. Modernism reduces religion to morality, morality to social morality, and social morality to socialism.
In fact, its instinctive gravitation to socialism is natural. For socialism and religion are the only two answers to a problem Lewis poses in The Abolition of Man: the problem of the Controllers versus the controlled, the Conditioners versus the conditioned. To see this, we must first review his argument in that book.
Lewis' argument in chapter 3 is absolutely stunning, both in the sense of intellectually brilliant and in the sense of emotionally terrifying. It is that "man's conquest of nature" without the Tao must necessarily become nature's conquest of man. For "man's conquest of nature" must always mean, in the concrete, some men's power over other men, using nature as the instrument. Lewis' examples of the wireless, the airplane, and the contraceptive show this: some men wield the newly-won power over others as its patients. Perhaps they are its willing patients, but they are its patients. Now as long as both the agents and the patients of these powers over nature admit and work within a common Tao, or moral law, they have the same interests, rights, and values. Monarchy is not oppressive if the king and the people are working for a common goal under a common law and share a common dignity. But if the power elite, whether king, voting majority, or media elite, cease to believe in an objective Tao, as is clearly the case in our society, then they become Controllers, Conditioners, Social Engineers, and the patients become the controlled. Propaganda replaces propagation. Propagation is "old birds teaching young birds to fly." Propaganda is programming parrots. Propagation is the transmission of tradition. Propaganda is the invention of innovation. Which of the two is piped into our brains daily by our media?
This new class of Innovators, the Tao-less Conditioners, will themselves be motivated in their social engineering, but not by the Tao, which is supernatural and eternal, a "permanent thing." Instead, they will be motivated by their natural impulses, which are non-permanent things: their heredity and environment, especially their environment, especially the fashionable opinions. This means they will be motivated by Nature, not by "the permanent things," which are supernatural.
Thus "man's conquest of nature" must be expanded at both ends: the conquerors are themselves conquered by nature (Tao-less environment), and they in turn only use nature to conquer other men. Thus "man's conquest of nature" turns out to be nature's conquest of man. Man's triumph is thus man's abolition, for the new man is an artifact. Those who have been conditioned out of the belief in free will, lose their free will. Those who believe they are only clever apes, become only clever apes. "Made in U.S.A." comes to mean "made in the image of King Kong," not King Christ. Where is Christ? In a jar of Andres Serrano's urine. Artists are prophets, antennae.
Now there are only two ways out of this "abolition of man" by social engineering. One is, of course, the return to the Tao. This is unlikely because the one thing modernity resists the most is return. It believes in progress, not repentance. But this would be a solution to the alienation between the Conditioners and the conditioned because both would then be under the same moral law. That spiritual equality would overshadow the physical and social inequality. The authorities would then wield power only in the name of the common objective Tao.
The other way to unity is socialism: not spiritual unity of a Tao but mere physical unity, i.e. social unity, i.e. economic unity. A "classless society" will supposedly make it impossible for one class to conquer or condition others. From the history of secular socialist and communist experiments that we have seen so far, I think we must not only call all the experiments failures but also call most of the experimenters liars and hypocrites. The most systematic oppression and mass murders in history have been carried out in the name of social equality, and blessed by the intellectuals, both of the Left and the Right. Statistical studies have revealed that in Hitler's concentration camps, the cruelest torturers were the most educated.
Socialism's dream is naive because mere equality does not automatically destroy oppression. Egalitarianism can be as oppressive as any tyranny. De Tocqueville pointed out long ago that democratic totalitarianism is not a contradiction in terms, and that Americans are naive if they think that the sheer political structure of democracy will protect them against totalitarianism. For democracy and totalitarianism are not opposite answers to the same question, but answers to two different questions, and thus can be compatible. Democracy is an answer to the question: In whom is the social-political power located? The answer is: in the people at large. Totalitarianism is an answer to the question: How much power are the social-political authorities to have? The answer is: total power, power to reshape human life, human thought, human nature itself.
Here are three examples of democratic totalitarianism: in theory, Rousseau's "General Will" (vox populi, vox dei); in fiction, Huxley's Brave New World; and in fact, the American media establishment.
Only the Tao can ensure freedom. Only when we are bound to a higher law of permanent, unchangeable, objective moral absolutes, are we free from being determined by the lower laws of animal instincts, selfishness, sin, and propaganda. Only conformity to the trans-social Tao can make nonconformity to a decadent society just, or even possible. For we do, and must, conform to something, or else we are formless. The only question is: To what? There are only two possible answers: to what is higher than ourselves or to what is lower, supernature or nature, the Bible or MTV, Jesus Christ or Norman Lear, the Crucified or the crucifiers.
Let's take a time-out and take stock for a moment. How far down the slide have we slid? How much of the Tao is already lost? How many of the objectively permanent things have become subjectively impermanent?
I count at least 33: silence, solitude, detachment, self-control, contemplation, awe, humility, hierarchy, modesty, chastity, reverence, authority, obedience, tradition, honor, simplicity, holiness, loyalty, gentlemanliness, manliness, womanliness, propriety, ceremony, cosmic justice, pure passion, holy poverty, respect for old age, the positive spiritual use of suffering, gratitude, fidelity, real individuality, real community, courage, and absolute honesty (the passionate, or fanatical love of truth for its own sake). That's one lost value for each of the years in Christ's life.
We could, of course, profitably spend hours, days, perhaps lifetimes exploring each one of these 33 lost values; and we could probably add 33 more. But in this age of progress and time-saving devices we have no time for such important things any more—things like conversation, debate, meditation, prayer, deep friendship, imagination, even family. (If the sexual revolution doesn't do the family in, it will die for lack of time.)
But, you may think, this gloomy picture I have painted of a spiritual Dark Ages is only half the picture. What of all the progress we've made?
Well, let's look at the progress we've made. It can be divided into two kinds: spiritual and material. Let's take spiritual progress first. I think there has been some significant spiritual progress in modernity in at least one area: kindness vs. cruelty. I think we are much kinder than our ancestors were, especially to those we used to be cruel to: criminals, heretics, foreigners, other races, and especially the handicapped. I think this is very real progress indeed. I wonder, though, whether one big step forward offsets 33 steps back, some of them also big, some medium sized, but none small.
In any case, the case for progress and modernity usually rests either on one of two grounds: either supposed spiritual progress that is not progress at all (e.g. freedom from superstition, authority, absolutist morality, Biblical literalism, Church dogma, and the like), or explicitly material progress, scientific and technological progress. It is this last area which is spectacular and indisputable, and thus the strongest case for Progressivism.
Our civilization certainly has produced astounding, magnificent, utterly undreamed-of successes in understanding and mastering the forces of nature. I think every intelligent human being born before the Renaissance, if transported by a time machine to today, would be stupefied with wonder, marvel and admiration at the awesome progress in science and technology, i.e. material progress, in our world.
But now I ask a strange and unusual and very upsetting question: is there such a thing as material progress at all? Or is this a confusion of categories, like a blue number, or a rectangular value? I am not sure of this, but I want to suggest, for your consideration, the possibility that there is not and can not be any such thing as purely material progress; that only spirit can progress.
The reason I think this surprising and unpopular conclusion is true has something to do with the nature of time. To see this, we must speak Greek for a minute. The Greek language is much richer and subtler than English when it comes to philosophical distinctions, and Greek has two words for time, not just one. Kronos means the time measured objectively, impersonally, and mathematically by the motion of unconscious matter through space. For instance, one day of kronos is always exactly 24 hours long, the time it takes for the earth to rotate. Kairos, on the other hand, is human time, lived time, experienced time, the time measured by human consciousness and purposive reaching out into a future that is not yet but is planned for. Only kairos knows anything of goals and values.
For instance, when St. Paul writes, "It is now time to rise from sleep, because your salvation is nearer than when you first believed," he does not mean by "time" something like "June 30 of the year 50 A.D." "It is now time to die" does not mean "it is 3:20 P.M." Ends, goals, and purposes measure kairos, and these things exist only in consciousness, in spirit, not in mere matter.
The reason why I think only spirit can progress is because only spirit lives in kairos. For only kairos touches eternity, knows eternity, aims at eternity. Progress means not merely change, but change toward a goal. The change is relative and shifting, but the goal is absolute and permanent. If not, if the goal changed along with the movement toward it, we could not speak any more of progress, only change. There is no progress if the goal line recedes in front of the runner as fast as the runner runs. You can't steal second base if the second baseman has already stolen it and is running to third.
Think of a circle, like a pie, with a segment, like a piece of pie, in it. The segment is kairos, lived time, lifetime. The circumference is kronos. Kronos limits how much kairos there is (e.g. 80 years), but it does not determine the other dimension of kairos the dimension of progress. Progress means getting closer to the goal, which in my geometrical image is symbolized by the center of the circle. That would be eternity, permanence. Only in the kairos dimension, i.e. the spiritual dimension, can we speak meaningfully of progress at all. The only thing kairos can do is endlessly circle around the center and limit the quantity of any segment of kairos , but the circumference is equidistant from the center. This symbolizes the fact that our lived time, our lifetime, can move toward eternity, but purely material time cannot. You get closer to God by sanctity, not be aging. The world gets closer to God by improving spiritually, not by improving materially. And God is the goal, the measure of progress.
The essence of modernity is the death of the spiritual. A modernist is someone who is more concerned about air pollution than soul pollution. A modernist is someone who wants clean air so he can breathe dirty words.
A modernist cares about big things, like whales, more than little things, like fetuses; big things like governments, more than little things like families and neighborhoods; big things like states, which last hundreds of years, more than little things like souls, which last forever.
A modernist, thus, is one who puts his faith and hope for progress in precisely the one thing that cannot progress: matter. A traditionalist, on the other hand, is one who ``looks not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen, for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (II Cor 4:18) A traditionalist believes in "the permanent things," and the permanent things cannot progress because they are the things to which all real progress progresses.
Perhaps I should modify my stark statement that matter cannot progress at all. Perhaps matter can progress, but only with and in and for spirit. If your body and your tools and your possessions serve your spirit, make you truly happy and good and wise, they contribute to progress too.
But this modification does not help the progressive at all, since it is pretty obvious that modernity's technological know-how and power has not made us happier, wiser, better, or more saintly than our ancestors. When we speak of modern progress, we do not mean progress in happiness, in contentment, in peace of mind. Nor do we mean progress in holiness and moral perfection or wisdom. We speak readily of "modern knowledge" but never of "modern wisdom." Rather, we speak of "ancient wisdom." For wisdom is to knowledge what kairos is to kronos: the spiritual and purposive and teleological and moral dimension.
Incidentally, this point about kairos and kronos liberates us not only from the ignorant worship of the nonexistent god "Progress" but also from the ignorant lust to be "up to date." A date, being mere kronos, has no character. It is almost nothing. It is a one-dimensional line, the circumference. A line can have no color. Only kairos, only a two-dimensional segment of the circle, can have character, and color. Since a date is only a point on the circumference, it has no character. Nothing can ever be really "up to date." What a wild goose chase is our lust to be "with it" or "contemporary"! What a waste of passion and love and energy!
It's all in the Bible, of course. All this stuff about "love not the world" and how hard it is for the rich to be saved—it's very practical. St. Teresa of Avila wrote, "Anyone who wishes to enter the second Mansion will be well advised, as far as his state of life permits, to try to put aside all unnecessary affairs and business." One thing painfully obvious about modern "progress" is that we all are much busier now than we ever used to be. All these time-saving devices have done exactly the opposite of saving time: they've killed time, or enslaved us to time, to kronos, to the clock. Jesus is a very good psychologist when he says, in the parable of the sower, that we are choked and suffocated by the brambles of the cares and riches and pleasures of life, so the seed of life cannot grow, cannot progress. Progress retards progress! Progress is the enemy of progress! Business chokes our real business here. Riches make real riches extremely difficult. Remember Mother Teresa's simple, Christ-like words at Harvard: "You did not invite me here from a poor country to speak to a rich country. America is not a rich country. America is a desperately spiritually poor country." America is a poor country. This only seems paradoxical to us. In fact, it is simplicity itself. It is we who are standing on our head; that's why Christ's simplicities appear to us as upside down paradoxes. Once we get right side up again, we will see how simple it is. And the world will see us as upside down and strange, and "out of it." How wonderful to be "out of it" when "it" is the maelstrom.
You may doubt the paradoxical point that progress retards progress. You may think it too pessimistic, world-denying, anti-progressive, irrelevant—"out of it," in a word. Well, here is one more argument for my outrageous paradox against progress. Let's take modernity's supposed progress to its limit, its end, its success. I think its failure will be most clearly and spectacularly evident if we look at its supreme success, by its own standards—like a prosecuting attorney who simply lets the accused criminal talk on and on and hang himself.
Modernity's progress in conquering nature is incomplete because nature still holds one trump card over all her conquerors: death. Nature always has the last word. Suppose genetic engineering conquered death. That would be the supreme triumph. Or would it?
Let's backtrack to Eden. You remember the story, of course. It began with the invention of advertising. Satan invented the first advertisement: "Eat this; it will make you like God." It was a lie, of course, like most of the industry. Modern technology is Satan's new advertisement. It tempts us, as it tempted Eve, to become like God in power (but not in virtue). Artificial immortality would be the supreme sell job. We would mortgage our soul for that, the conquest of the very power of life. That would conquer even the highest of the angels, the seraphim, whom God stationed at the gate of Eden with a flaming sword to prevent us from eating the fruit of the tree of eternal life. Death was God's severe mercy, the tourniquet around the wound of sin, to limit sin to 80 years or so. Remove the tourniquet, and history would bleed to death. Imagine the Roman Empire forever. Imagine the Third Reich forever. Imagine America forever. Lewis speaks of our "nightmare civilizations" whirling around themselves in never-ending gyrations of selfishness and despair (in Miracles), and (elsewhere, in Mere Christianity) of eggs that never hatched (by death) and so went rotten. "You can't just be a good egg forever; you must hatch or go bad." Death lets us hatch; artificial immortality would make us go bad forever. Hell incarnate would reign on earth. That would have to be the end of the world. And most geneticists estimate we will have it in 2-300 years (according to Osborn Seagerberg in The Immortality Factor).
How wonderful Progress is!
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Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College who has written over forty books, including C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic Christianity, Back to Virtue, Three Approaches to Abortion, and The Philosophy of Tolkien.
His most recent Ignatius Press books include Handbook Of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith (with Ronald K. Tacelli), Socrates Meets Descartes, You Can Understand the Bible, The God Who Loves You, and Because God Is Real: Sixteen Questions, One Answer.
A complete list of Ignatius Press books by Kreeft can be viewed on his IgnatiusInsight.com author page.)
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