There is a good reason why not many truck drivers and farmers are progressive utopians with dreams of revolutionizing society. A farmer who doesn’t learn to work with the grain of reality is going to have silos with no grain. A trucker who doesn’t learn that the wrong air pressure in his tires will lead to blowouts, or in other words, that he must conform to the rules of physics and not the other way around, is not going to be on the road very long before disaster strikes. In these professions, with their close proximity to grounded reality, error leads quickly to correction and discipline in the most obvious and painful of ways.
But in the softer sciences, conceits and abstract theories can float around and spread like a mind-virus long before their incarnated effects reveal how disastrously mistaken their assumptions were. The long delay is a key and critical difference. The correction and discipline do come, but just like sending a child to time-out 3 hours after they hit their sibling is sure to teach them nothing, so the delayed correction to the wrong-headed theories rarely seem to change the minds of those who adopted them. And by then the damage has been done.
So the farmer and the trucker get discipled into a kind of humility with regard to nature. Their relationship to the nature of the cosmos and of human behavior is such that they must adjust themselves, like a partner in a waltz, to the larger forces they reckon with and harness. The best farmers, or plumbers, or electricians, or woodworkers — all those hands-on trades — are those who best discern and adjust themselves to the raw material they handle, and the natural forces which act on that material. This willingness and ability to adjust to nature as we find it is a kind of humility which is absent from those who aim to remake the world.
Beyond the forces of nature, there are certain universal human elements that must be accounted for as well. For example, being punctual, truthful, and trustworthy will lead to repeat business and recommendations – in short, flourishing. So a brilliant plumber who cheats his customers will not get far, but a personable and honest electrician who burns a house down through shoddy work will do no better. One needs a measure of both practical and interpersonal skills.
If only the work of intellectuals had such tight feedback loops, we could save ourselves so much pain and misery. Unfortunately, the work of the intellectual allows him to entertain ideas which are manifest nonsense, but which sound good and appeal to a great many people for one reason or another. And the more wealthy and decadent a society becomes, where the educated classes are further and further insulated from the harsh realities of the created order — and its humbling lack of flexibility on many points — the more they have the illusion that everything is malleable and plastic. Yes, everything can be re-imagined! And then our perfect utopian vision can be brought to pass!
But God will not be mocked, and the particular shape he gave to the world we inhabit will only be thwarted for so long.
For this reason, I prefer my intellectuals and thought-leaders to also be farmers.
Only a meathead of a man would dare to speak prescriptively to women’s issues these days.
Anyways, here are some interesting links exploring the intersection of modern technology, womanhood, and feminism.
These issues present themselves in different ways in the church compared to the culture at large. While the church appeals to Scripture as authoritative, the culture does not. And so I see the need for intellectually rigorous discussion in the public square on these issues, and I am grateful when I find it. Today I leave you with three examples.
First, a piece by Mary Harrington, whose writing I’ve enjoyed in a few places recently. I don’t know if she is a Christian or not, but she is a thoughtful voice. Over at First Things, she has a book review called Gender After Eden, based on a book by Abigail Favale. In it she deals with some profound questions:
‘The Genesis of Gender’ addresses what I regard as the central cultural (which is to say theological) struggle of the early twenty-first century: the proper relation between technology and the human person, particularly as it applies to women.
She also interacts with the work of Judith Butler. Here is an extended quote that I think is first-rate:
But for Butler, this is obviously the path of liberation, for the fight against the oppressive structures of power that shape our sense of self is a feminist one, and it requires us to dismantle every structure that might induce us to view our reality as men and women as influenced by our bodies —structures Butler calls “heteronormativity.” Ground Zero for that liberation is unmooring reproduction from sex and our bodies. Following her logic to its end, Butler advocates “replacing the maternal body” with technology, with the aim of “fully decoupling human reproduction from heterosexual relationships.” We are finally free when our bodies have no relevance to our most intimate relationships and deepest commitments.
Favale invites us to consider whether this disaggregation of selfhood, reproduction, and embodiment—already underway technologically—really adds up to a better world. From the perspective of her reading of Genesis, it doesn’t heal but rather deepens the postlapsarian fractures in our “spiritual-somatic unity,” offering a vision of selfhood split from embodiment and a relation to ourselves and one another founded in objectification and control. Rather than affording escape from domination, it reproduces the very splits that make domination and control our fundamental mode of being in the world.
Onto our second link, which deals with similar themes from a different angle. Andrew Klavan, whose memoir of conversion to Christianity, The Great Good Thing, I enjoyed back in 2017, was recently on with Jonathan Van Maren’s podcast to talk about his most recent book, The Truth and Beauty. It purports to show that a close reading of the English romantics—specifically Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Mary Shelley—can shed light onto the meaning of the words of Christ in the gospels. If nothing else, a fascinating hypothesis.
In the course of the discussion, Klavan lays out some interesting ideas about how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—perhaps the very first work of science fiction—is centered around the question of motherhood in a technological age. Shelley’s own biography hints at this, as well as certain elements of the text itself. He goes on to posit that this is in some ways the central question facing our culture. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so you’ll have to listen for yourself to get the details. It’s the kind of claim that seems implausible at first; it’s too fundamental. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think he may be on to something. And of course he is by no means the first or the only person to suggest these connections. I just started reading his new book The Truth and Beauty and will hope to post a reflection on that when I’m done.
Thirdly, here is some further engagement with the writing of Abigail Favale, over at The Public Discourse. The value I find here is the substantive engagement with feminist literature (which, admittedly, I do not know well at all) from a religious and/or conservative perspective. Rejecting feminism out of hand as an unbiblical ideology is easy to find among conservative Christians. But those approaches are aimed at other Christians, not the culture at large. They do not really take the questions raised by feminism seriously. When it comes to talking with friends or family members who aren’t conservative or Christian, it’s helpful to be able to have more nuanced conversations that do not rely on appeals to Scripture.
Is it just me, or are we all talking about technology far more than ever? It might be just me. I’m reminded of a strange phenomenon I have experienced a few times. It comes time to replace a vehicle, and I start doing a whole bunch of research, eventually zeroing in on one make and model. Suddenly I am noticing them everywhere: parking lots, streets, and even zipping by in the opposite direction on the highway. They were always there, but I never noticed them. Attention is a mysterious thing.
Last week I was at the last T4G in Louisville, KY, without Twitter, and so I spent a lot of time walking around and looking at things. I’ll admit I felt a little bit like this:
With impeccable timing, Chris Martin wrote a piece titled “Things Are Real Even if We Don’t Share Them.” Ironically, I am sharing that piece with you now, dear reader. But not on social media. Unless you post thispost on social media, in which case we will have achieved maximum self-referential absurdity and the fabric of the universe will unravel.
I plan to write some more on my time at T4G, so stay tuned for that. Lastly, I have been pondering the whole idea of natural and creaturely limits as well as technology’s endless quest to transcend and transgress those limits. There is perhaps no greater illustration of this dynamic tension than the project of transhumanism. It was with great interest then that I read this piece by Wesley Smith at First Things: The Impossibility of Christian Transhumanism.
I’m no movie critic – not even close. I don’t seem to have whatever artistic antennae are required to appreciate the subtleties of the cinematic medium. Nevertheless, like most people, I do have eyes in my head and do enjoy a good movie. And it happens to be a fact that every movie works from a script – a story with characters and dialogue. So the basis for every movie is the written word, while it cannot be said that every book is based on a movie. (Woe to the book that is based on a movie: Thou art a fraud.) My point is that the same dynamics of moral imagination are at play in a movie as in a novel or any other creative work of fiction. And this is where the following quote by C.S. Lewis collided in my mind with a simple observation I’ve made about many of the movies and TV shows made in recent decades, which I’ll get to in a moment.
It remains, of course, true that Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters. The reason is not hard to find. Of the major characters whom Milton attempted he is incomparably the easiest to draw. Set a hundred poets to tell the same story and in ninety of the resulting poems Satan will be the best character. In all but a few writers the ‘good’ characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago [the scheming antagonist from Shakespeare’s play Othello], the Becky Sharp [the morally vile protagonist from Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair], within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder. It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations. … To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not.
C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, Chapter 13. Emphasis mine.
Now since I’ve already dipped into the mode of the woe-throwing Old Testament prophet, I’ll allow myself one more: Woe to the one who looks to Hollywood for moral clarity. And all the people said Amen. But even without looking to movies for moral clarity, it remains a fact that so much of what is compelling about a movie is the moral fabric of the main characters, both good and evil. I am limiting myself here to those movies which are a essentially a contest between moral opposites: crime dramas, thrillers, action movies, or the never-ending series of original or rebooted or off-shoot superhero movies. The simple observation I am making about such movies and shows is that the good characters are becoming more troubled and morally compromised. It is so very rare to see a compelling protagonist that is good. The anti-hero is the hero for our age; the anti-hero is the only kind of hero we can believe in.
The above quote by Lewis is commenting on the scholarly consensus that Milton’s Satan (in Paradise Lost) is more compelling as a character than any other in the story. Lewis then lays out a morally insightful explanation for why that is necessarily the case in fallen humanity’s literature. Another example of this principle is found in the fact that Dante’s Inferno is by far and away more popular and compelling to the typical reader than either Purgatorio or Paradisio.
I used to think that an author’s characters had no vital connection to them – that an imagination could dream up moral monsters and virtuous heroes without it being a reflection of itself. But this is not true. As Lewis says, “It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists [and screenwriters] make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations.” Indeed, we are infected with moral cynicism. We look back on the virtuous heroes of past literature and we groan at the naivety of such caricatures. But this reaction reveals far more about our modern moral weakness than it does about anything else. And our modern writers cannot conceive of a truly virtuous person because our culture has jettisoned objective morality and the priority of character formation.
Adam and Eve and the obedient angels may not have been Milton’s best characters, but I dare say he was able to make them far more compelling than our typical cadre of authors and screenwriters could today. Even when they attempt to treat subjects of similar greatness, it seems they cannot avoid falling into caricatures either of rigid moralists and unhappily repressed religious people on the one hand, or vile hypocrites who are only pretending to be good on the other.
Small wonder then that the heroes we see onscreen, whatever technical mastery and skill they may have, are hardly ever compelling examples of deep moral goodness: Iron Man and the whole Marvel cast, John Wick, Deadpool, and so on. There are of course blessed exceptions to this rule, such as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s LotR Trilogy and Franz & Fani from Terrence Malick’s recent movie A Hidden Life. It takes real effort to pull off these characters well and avoid portraying a plastic pseudo-goodness that comes across more as naivety than virtue. One common element between them is suffering. Perhaps goodness untested by suffering and evil is never very compelling. But I am straying from my main point, which is that we do learn all too much about the storytellers of our time by the manifestations of goodness that they are able to imagine and conjure for us.
Simply put, we do not have deep and compelling moral goodness manifested in our entertainment because a writer’s imagination is constrained by his or her own moral character and by and large we have forgotten (or rejected) the possibility and priority of conforming ourselves to an objective standard of virtue.
I mean, have you ever seen Caillou? That kid’s a brat.
We carry in our pockets little devices with incredible power. We do not really understand how they are made, how they connect to other devices, or how they affect us. And yet increasingly our lives are enmeshed with them. Like so many others, I struggle in my relationship with technology. I find impulses and compulsions at work in me in relation to social media, emails, and other aspects of connectedness that indicate, if nothing else, that this symbiotic relationship is tapping into aspects of my mind and heart that I do not fully control or understand.
While it is true that there is nothing new under the sun, we must nevertheless make the observation that our society is integrated with technology like none before. The fundamental nature of technology has not changed so much – a tool, device, or technique that allows you to exert influence and control over some aspect of the natural world – but the interconnectedness of those technologies and devices certainly has. And the reach they have into our lives has also deepened significantly. All of this begs for wisdom. We need wisdom and understanding if we are to think and act rightly. Thankfully we have a promise that such a request made of God is gladly met: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).
We also have wise teachers to guide us in the particulars of this challenge, gifted men and women who have pondered these questions and written prophetically and insightfully. Among those often cited as authorities on the subject of technology is Jacques Ellul (1912-1994). In the rest of this post, I will share some thoughts on his book Perspectives on our Age, the only English book of his I could track down at the main Montreal public library. It is not one of his major works, but rather an adaptation of interviews he did on his life and work for a radio broadcast of the CBC program Ideas. Which is probably why so much of the book was biographical.
This was my first attempt to read this author that I have heard so much about. It was not quite what I expected. Nevertheless, it was thought-provoking and displayed that originality of thought for which he is famous. The first section was largely autobiographical.
I was surprised to find that Marx was a major influence on Ellul throughout his life. He eventually rejected the Communist cause due to his interactions with their groups, and what he saw as their departure from Marx’s thought. He speaks of “a revolutionary tendency in me.” He said it was Marx who “convinced me that people in the various historical situations they find themselves, have a revolutionary function in regard to their society.”
My jaw dropped however when I read his claim that “Marx was not opposed to the family. He himself started a family and was a good father who married off his daughters and so on.” This is patently false, and certainly hinders my ability to take at face value his evaluation of Marx. See Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals (which is valuable despite some lamentable shortcomings) for a rather more sombre view of Marx’s family life. It was not pretty. Ellul’s takeaway from all this however is a decision to side with those who are poor (in the sense of alienation), the ‘excluded’ such as the aged, the unfit, those at the fringes.
Ellul eventually rejected Marx’s atheism. He was disappointed however by the religious authorities that he turned to for answers to his questions, such as the local pastor. He embraced an intellectual attitude where he did not look to anyone to explain things to him but sought out solutions to problems and questions that he had. This would certainly encourage originality of thought.
Turning to his conversion to Christianity, Ellul says that the Bible offered answers to his existential questions, such as the meaning of life, death, and love. The Bible gave answers on a different level than Marx had:
“I was converted – not by someone, nor can I say I converted myself. It is a very personal story, but I will say that it was a very brutal and very sudden conversion. I became a Christian and I was obliged to profess myself a Christian in 1932. From that moment on, I lived through the conflict and the contradiction between what became the center of my life – this faith, this reference to the Bible, which I henceforth read from a different perspective – and what I knew of Marx and did not wish to abandon. For I did not see why I should have to give up the things that Marx said about society and explained about economy and injustice in the world. I saw no reason to reject them just because I was now a Christian.”
It seems that he lived the rest of his intellectual life with these two sources of authority, Marx and the Bible, refusing to let go of either one, nor to create two domains, one material and one spiritual, but forged on in some kind of dialectic holding the two together in a kind of “permanent contradiction.” Fascinating.
He joined the reformed Church in France, which was only faintly Calvinist at that time. But it led him to read Calvin, who he found very interesting for his “rigour, intransigence, and total use of the Scriptures.” He went through a Calvin phase but then moved on to Barth. Indeed, Calvin was completely eclipsed by Karl Barth.
When World War 2 arrived, he was dismissed from his teaching role, his father was arrested, and his wife was in danger of being arrested. So he joined the Resistance. After the war, he tried to influence change in the French reformed Church for 15 years, but failed due to the “traditionalism of Christians,” and the “indifference toward change.” His verdict: “Once a movement becomes an institution, it is lost.” I can only say that, given the nature of the far-reaching changes he had in mind, it seems to me that the mechanism of that institution protected it from being radically redefined. But I don’t know enough about the details of it all to say whether that was for the good or not.
Ellul then tried to change the study of theology: “I kept trying to find what would be possible for a Christian who analyzes society with the apparatus of Marx’s thinking.” What strange echoes this has today as evangelicalism, these forty years later, wrestles with the role of Marxist modes of criticism like Critical Race Theory and intersectionality.
As I said, I was surprised to find so much Marx in Ellul’s intellectual biography. Given the way Marxist categories have so profoundly infected and poisoned so much of Western (especially North-American) intellectual life, and the allergic reaction that the name Marx now triggers in many, it certainly seems to me that Ellul will not gain many friends or eager ears in my circles.
But now we move on to his seminal insights into technology and ‘technique’. In studying the modern world he came to see that technique, as defined by him, had a similar or greater explanatory power than did capital in the works of Marx for the 19th century.
Distinguishing technique from technology, or from machinery, Ellul points out the common theme of efficiency, what we now sometimes refer to as ‘hacks,’ or the relentless pursuit of ever greater efficiency in every sphere and domain of our lives, including our minds, our sleep, our bodies, our meetings, our organizations, our transportation, our schedules, our athletics, our psychology, et ceteraad infinitum (and other Latin phrases). “This expansion of technique to human groups, to human life, is one of the essential characteristics of our world.”
This seems to me to be precisely right. Ellul is helpful in exposing how technology and ‘technique’ have a kind of internal logic and telos which override whatever human aims we claim for the technology we invent. It remains the case that someone comes along, builds on what has been done before, and finds ever better ways of applying technology to more of life, revolutionizing sphere after sphere of human life to conform to this overriding principle of efficiency and inter-connectivity.
The history of technological development since the Industrial Revolution seems to bear this out. It is easy to think that the individual or small group developing some technology is acting in isolation and that the effects of their work is limited to the applications they themselves have in mind. But a broader view suggests that all such efforts are part of an unstoppable wave of technological advancement and expansion.
It is important to be clear-eyed about this reality and to take stock of our relationship with technology. We must never believe the lie that we merely use technology like a tool. Instead, technology shapes us more deeply than we usually like to recognize. And this process shows no sign of slowing down – indeed the rate of acceleration is increasing. Instead of being carried along in the powerful current, we must ask hard questions about how much technology we should really embrace in our lives, and ask how much of that technology is actually leading to human flourishing.
But to answer that question, one needs to have a definition of humanity, of the good, and therefore of what the ‘good life’ is. That is perhaps one of the most important things we need to recover – a vision of human nature. Are we merely biological machines, like the materialists insist? Are we free to define and redefine ourselves by our own authority, as the gender revolutionaries assume? Are we subject so some universal moral law that we ignore and defy to our own detriment, as the classical and Christian traditions teach?
I’ll admit I did not find as much applicable insight in this book as I was hoping. Perhaps other thinkers have gone further and have spoken more directly to the modern challenges facing us today and into the future. If you have one to recommend, please let me know in the comments!
Something unusual is happening. A little over a week ago I penned an article that seemed to boil up from my heart when I first heard the Quebec government’s announcement that churches would have to implement vaccine passports, excluding the unvaccinated from their worship services. I received a large amount of feedback from all kinds of people in all kinds of places. And although my piece had to do specifically with the situation in Quebec, readers connected from all over the globe, including sizable numbers from New Zealand. I don’t know anyone in New Zealand. Clearly the topic struck a nerve.
In this follow-up, drawing on the many conversations I have had with church leaders here and there, I would like to ‘think out loud’ as a way of advocating for wisdom, courage, and balance. I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all option that captures biblical faithfulness for each and every church. That being said, I believe some things are out of bounds, which was the point of that first article.
What I Said, What Happened
On the question of vaccine passports in churches, I landed decidedly on “No!”. This resonated with quite a number of people, though certainly not all. One’s response to my argument against vaccine passports, it seems to me, has a lot to do with how one understands the seriousness of the health crisis and the wisdom of public health directives thus far in the pandemic. Those who reached out to me to share their disagreement generally had more to say about those matters than Biblical principles.
This gets at one of the most pernicious aspects of this whole Covid moment. For those who see it as akin to a meteor hurling towards earth, no cost is too high and no freedoms are too precious to escape this threat and live to see another day. And this makes a lot of sense if that is more or less the nature of the threat. Others see a public health and media establishment always catastrophizing and assuming the worst, and regulations being enforced which seem more like theatre than anything based in data. And the difference between these two paradigms has a lot to do with where you get your news. In my first post I purposely avoided getting into such epidemiological details, knowing that it would only distract from the main point I was seeking to make.
What was that main point, you ask? It was simply to argue that this latest regulation was categorically different than all the previous regulations imposed on houses of worship. My point was this mandate crossed a line that had not yet been crossed in this province. I sought to ground that argument in the Scriptures, as I was writing primarily to fellow Christians. If I were to write an open letter to the government I would base my argument on other grounds, of which there are plenty to choose from.
It was my hope that houses of worship across the province would unite in defying this decree, applying enough immediate pressure to cause the government to rescind it. That has not happened. It was also my hope that Christian pastors and elders would be agreed upon the conviction that to install such a system in their church would be a stain upon that church’s witness, such that whatever other options were considered, this one would be set to the side as a non-option. This has not happened either.
And so we find ourselves in a situation where we are faced with dire choices, none of which are ideal. What are we to do? How do we go about weighing these options? Many pastors and church leaders are facing decisions which may prove decisive for their future ministries and for the continued existence of their churches. The stakes have never been higher in our lifetimes.
Many have noted that social media tends to amplify those voices which are on the extreme ends of any given question. This has something to do with human psychology but also with the kinds of algorithms that control the dials for what gets shown to who. One of the things I have noticed in the course of this pandemic is how this dynamic has played itself out. Needless to say, rare is the social media post dealing with any of these covid-related issues that actually builds bridges between opposing sides. One of the results of this is we become reinforced in our way of thinking.
The temptation is to view anyone more critical of the government as extreme and divisive, and anyone more compliant to the government as cowardly and terminally compromised. When these temptations are indulged, the resulting rhetoric rolls off the tongue – or off the keyboard – with uncanny ease. It is very easy to do, and it feels good too. But I do not think that it is ultimately all that helpful for anyone.
The reality in Quebec is that there are a lot fewer evangelical churches per capita than anywhere else in North America. This means that, by and large, there is more diversity inside those churches than might be the case elsewhere. Why? Because instead of having six churches to choose from in a given town, there is one, maybe two options within reasonable driving distance. The kind of sorting according to personality types and political leanings that can happen in places with a higher density of believers has not happened here to nearly the same degree.
This diversity means that unity in the church requires constant effort. For many pastors faced with this government mandate – which, due to emergency powers, legally has the force of law – the question of unity is a critical one. In many churches where there is a wide diversity of opinion, there are two options which are guaranteed to cause a catastrophic split in their church: 1. Imposing a vaccine passport system in compliance with the mandate, or 2. Holding services without a vaccine passport system, in open defiance to the mandate. Either of those options will instantly alienate a large percentage of their members, making it impossible for them to continue worshipping there. Some zealous folks might say “Good riddance! Let us be rid of them, and separate the sheep from the goats.”
But the pastors I know facing this exact situation are good shepherds. They know that despite whatever deep differences of opinion, these are genuine believers that need to be vitally connected to a local church. They also know that some of them need much pastoral care, prayer, and counseling. And so the question inevitably becomes: Is this decision worth splitting the church? Is it really the only faithful option?
Many are choosing to avoid either of those options, which we might call the two far ends of the spectrum. Among the middle options I have heard floated are the following:
Close in-person gatherings and live-stream services.
Close in-person gatherings and live-stream services to small groups of congregants gathered in homes.
Practice “righteous deception” in the way of the Israelite midwives, purporting to live-stream services while actually meeting in person in a discreet location.
Nobody landing on one of these options would consider it ideal. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t much to be preferred over a permanently damaging church split. In a situation as fraught and complex as this one, it may be that the best outcome we can hope for is a course of action that nobody really loves, but that everyone can at least understand and support without violating their convictions. Such a decision will require that everyone lay aside their personal preferences. It will show that what unites us in Christ is stronger than what divides us in the flesh. And this, I believe, can be a wholesome, faithful, God-honoring path to chart for many churches.
But not all churches. There are some that have a unity of conviction among the leadership, with a congregation eager to follow their lead. Some of these are opting to openly defy the passport mandate while continuing to take all other precautions to reduce risk. Indeed, the risk they are taking is in the form of hefty fines and legal troubles. There is courage here that does not seek to offend, a gracious refusal to comply. I applaud and support these brothers and sisters in Christ. They are able to stand up to government overreach without causing violence to the unity of the body of Christ under their care.
One of the things I learned from reading the Puritans it that there is spiritual danger everywhere. Sin is ever-present in this broken world, and no course of action is without its own particular temptations. For those churches and leaders who have decided to openly defy the government mandate, it is important to be aware and wary of the ditch along the path. Those who have been loudest in their defiance of what they perceive as government tyranny have at times engaged in rhetoric intimating that anything short of equal defiance was compromise motivated by cowardice. In other words, this is the only faithful option.
What often went unstated however was that such judgments presupposed an interpretation of the epidemiological situation that differed greatly from the mainstream narrative. In some circles, these alternative interpretations of the pandemic were dominant. Fed largely by conservative media from the USA, as well as some other online sources, these views ranged from conspiracy theories (it’s a Plandemic!) to far more plausible ideas like ‘the public health establishment has mishandled this pandemic in a historic way.’
Whatever else we might say about such questions, they are not addressed directly in Scripture. We cannot find chapter and verse to explain to us the best practices for a modern 21st-century nation-wide response to a novel virus causing widespread sickness and death. But some of the voices decrying government actions were loudest precisely on those points where Scripture was silent, taking on at times the ethos and energy of a culture warrior or political activist rather than a pastor or Christian leader.
But still I have been quite sympathetic to such leaders. I respect their courage and the clarity of their convictions. The dangers they decry (the infringement of religious liberty and authoritarianism) are not imaginary, even if we perceive them differently. At the same time, I know my heart is not immune to cowardice. But the spiritual danger I see in such a posture is to run roughshod over those Christians who are fearful and do not know what to believe. Competing narratives seem to offer wildly different accounts of the government’s actions. For some, they are heroes making the tough calls to keep everyone safe; for others, tyrants and authoritarians gleefully stripping away civil liberties from the unwitting public. Who is right? And must it be one or the other? Is cowardice really the only possible explanation for the various paths churches have taken throughout this pandemic?
I find that kind of rhetoric to be reminiscent of the ‘fighting fundamentalists’ of the 20th-century. Certain on every minute point of doctrine, nearly every church but theirs was hopelessly compromised and deceived by Satan. Discontent with co-belligerence, they chose belligerency towards all who differed. But this bred a toxic kind of self-righteousness that was not attractive to unbelievers or spiritually healthy for believers. It led to divisions and schism where they were not at all necessary.
As church leaders face some of the toughest decisions of their ministries, many are crying out for wisdom and guidance through prayer and fasting. May God grant them such graces in abundance, both to lead well and to avoid the dangers which lie inevitably along any of the possible paths. And as friends, family members, and fellow believers choose differently, may the unity we have in Christ enable us to disagree charitably, even warmly.
Loving Our Neighbours (Jabbed or Not)
The Biblical principle most often cited to me to support the idea of vaccination passports in churches is love for one’s neighbour. The questions are perennial: What does it mean to love our neighbour in this situation? And in the words that called forth that great parable of the Good Samaritan, just who is my neighbour? Many reasonably see vaccination as an act of neighbourly love. So far, so good. From this premise many conclude that a refusal to get vaccinated is motivated by a selfishness and lack of love for others. I don’t think that’s true, but for the sake of argument let’s assume it is.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that, in Canada as well as many other places in the world, there is a growing hostility towards the unvaccinated that has dark foreboding element to it. In its worst manifestations, the unvaxxed are treated as if they were disease-ridden, unclean, and guilty for the sufferings of others, deserving whatever comes to them. Such scapegoating and marginalization essentially make the unvaccinated a group of societal outcasts. The speed and viciousness with which large portions of our society seem to have “othered” and dehumanized the unvaccinated is one of the most troubling things I have seen in a long time.
But are they not our neighbours too? Do people cease to be our neighbours when they make choices we disagree with? Shall the church of Christ join in the mob calling for them to be shoved to the margins of society? Isn’t the church called especially to those on the margins? What does loving these neighbours look like?
Love, I am told, is patient and kind. It is not arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful. It assumes the best about others’ motivations. Love does not let the categories and divisions of the world tear apart the unity that Christ purchased with His precious blood.
It is a dark day for churches in Quebec, and my heart is heavy. Word came down on the evening of December 16th that houses of worship have been mandated by the provincial government to turn away from their public services those without vaccine passports.
I do not make it a habit to get on my soapbox and declare my thoughts about public policy, but today I am making an exception. I would like to try and make the argument that this new regulation from the government is categorically different than any other regulation that has heretofore been applied to churches, and that in asking churches to do this, the government is asking churches to disobey the teaching of the Scriptures and to betray the essence of being a church.
Elders and pastors have carried a heavy burden since the very start of this pandemic. I know the weight of it, as I served as an elder for the first chaotic year of the pandemic. All the local church elders and pastors I’ve spoken to, without exception, affirmed that they have had under their shepherding care people at both ends of the spectrum (and everywhere in between) when it comes to responding to this pandemic. This government decree has, with one fell swoop, made each of their lives and leadership exponentially more difficult.
Church leaders have, by and large, done their best to thread the needle during these two tortuous years, and have repeatedly had to adapt at the last minute to ever-changing regulations, coming up with new policies for their gatherings. Each of those decisions has been stressful, demanding, and usually criticized by some for going too far and by others for not going far enough. I have immense respect and admiration for these faithful leaders.
When we were mandated to wear masks indoors, we bought masks and wore them. When we were restricted to 50, and then 25 people in the building, we mobilized volunteers and multiplied services, running three per Sunday at one point. We also bought equipment, trained volunteers, and started live-streaming services. When singing was restricted, we chafed and struggled but we sang with our hearts instead of our lips. We did all these things because, as hard as these restrictions were, they did not seem to directly go against the teaching of the Scriptures which we hold as the only ultimate authority in matters of faith and worship.
I will not pretend to be of two minds about this. The announcement from the government marks the start of something completely new. Everything that has come before has been on the scale from mildly to extremely inconvenient. To my mind, the church in Quebec now faces a test not of creativity and flexibility, or of neighbourly love and graciousness, but of conviction and principle.
To be plain: I think it unconscionable for a local church, which is a visible manifestation of the universal church of Christ on earth, to enforce this kind of discrimination. We simply cannot say in our call to worship, “This church opens wide her doors,” while at the same time having someone with a QR-Code scanner shutting those doors on the unvaccinated.
Yes, this new regulation is different. I believe it asks churches to disobey the clear teaching and principles of Scripture that we find in several passages. I will limit myself to two that come to mind, for the sake of brevity and clarity.
First, James 2. In this passage, the church is commanded to not show favoritism by seating a rich person in a good seat and telling a poor person to “Stand over there” or to sit on the floor. The passage concludes by saying to those who behave this way: “haven’t you made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:4). The principle is simple: favoritism that makes such distinctions among the body of believers is wrong. The distinction need not be between rich and poor, but between any two groups of people within the church body who are not treated the same. More could be said, but we move on to a second passage.
In Galatians 2, Peter fell into hypocrisy by separating from one group of believers (the Gentile believers in Antioch) out of a fear of displeasing another group (legalistic Jewish believers from Jerusalem). Paul rebuked him publicly, for he saw that creating such a division in the body of Christ was tantamount to “deviating from the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). These passages do not mince words – let us heed them and consider their implications carefully.
And although the Scriptural principles are clear, perhaps an even more powerful line of argument is found in the power of symbolism.
So let’s picture the scene: In order to obey this mandate, someone will need to stand at the front door with a device that has some government application on it. And that person will need to take each arriving worshipper in turn and scan their government-provided code, at which point their device will communicate with a government database, exchange some packets of information, and find out if they are allowed to come in and worship the living God in person.
But not so fast – a successful scan will not be enough. A photo ID will also be required to establish that the person is who they claim to be. The ecclesiastical bouncer will need to be ready to turn people away; people who are looking for hope, life-giving truth, and fellowship. Yes, that person will need to be willing to say words to this effect: “You cannot come in to this church, since you do not meet our government’s definition of ‘fully vaccinated.’ You will have to turn around, get back in your car, and go home.” Who is willing to do this work? Are you?
It is a shocking scene even to imagine, but we must imagine it and be clear about what it means. Tragically, I assume it will be a scene playing out at some houses of worship this Sunday and in coming weeks.
While different churches have responded differently thus far in the pandemic, the vast majority have made extraordinary efforts to meet and exceed the safety measures required by the government regulations, even when some of those regulations had awfully thin rationales behind them; the vast majority have sought to honor and obey the magistrates over them. But brothers and sisters, this is not one more rule among many; this is not just a new item on the list. No, this is something we cannot do. Whatever creative solutions and workarounds churches come up with – and there is surely a place for that – this is a line no church should cross.
I earnestly hope and pray that houses of worship of every type and stripe will hold firm to their convictions on these matters and present a unified front of non-compliance. I also hope and expect that those houses of worship will continue to follow all the other recommended safety guidelines even as they disobey this new rule. The posture must be one of gracious but firm refusal: We have bent over backwards, we have stretched, we have multiplied our services, we have taxed our volunteers, we have found ways to make it work, but we cannot and we will not do this thing. To do so would be to cease to be the kind of church we say we are.
The people of God are surely willing to be inconvenienced to a great extent, even to sacrifice much. But we cannot betray those principles and truths which amount to our very obedience to the One who is forever and infinitely above any provincial or national authority. We cannot turn hungry and thirsty souls away from the place where they might hear the words of life spoken to them. The heart of the gospel is the free offer of forgiving and renewing grace to any and all who would come to Jesus Christ by faith. We cannot make such an offer to people who have been turned away because the government told us to.
One feels that this moment is pregnant with meaning, and that much is at stake. The dramatic tension is high. In such a moment, dramatic words are not uncalled for. And I can’t think of any better suited to the moment than those purportedly uttered by the reformer Martin Luther (slightly adapted for our purposes). May this be the essence of the unified voice of the churches of the Lord Jesus Christ in response to this moment:
“Unless we are convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures and by clear reason, we are bound by the Scriptures. Our conscience is captive to the Word of God. We cannot and we will not enforce this mandate, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here we stand. We cannot do otherwise. God help us. Amen.”
(I think maybe even a Roman Catholic could say “Amen” to that).
I conclude with a word to church leaders, among whom are many dear friends and family members. I do not envy your position. Whatever decision you make, there will be emails, messages, and phone calls to face from those who disagree. And indeed, many churches are led by teams of elders, meaning that there is a diversity of viewpoints on all kinds of matters among them. The final decision may not be what every member (or any one member) of that group desired. And yet, for the good of the church, and the glory of God, decisions are made, policies put in place, and the work continues. I have tried to make my case as plain and clear as possible. And while I see a red line here, others may not. Even in disagreement, may we be known for a remarkable gentleness and humility. We never know all that goes into a group decision. Let us believe the best about each other and seek to preserve that precious bond of unity when all around us is division.
I have been enjoying reading some of the writings of Paul Kingsnorth recently. He is a British author of some repute and has a very interesting background. Now a Christian in the Orthodox church, he was not so long ago a radical environmentalist and practicing Wiccan. I first encountered him in an interview he did with Jonathan Pageau, who is another interesting character. Kingsnorth has written for First Things here, where he details his conversion and gives the reader a taste of his style and substance. He is a gifted writer.
I have a weakness for good writing, even when I find myself disagreeing with some or much of what is written. Thus I find myself reading and returning to a broad range of writers – but this I think ends up being a good thing. I am not so rootless in my own tradition that I end up being tossed to and fro, but I love to get inside the minds of those who think differently than me, or who see the world from another vantage point. Good writers are those who can express these thoughts, ideas, and insights with the most clarity and beauty. I am the better for this exposure, and the best of those insights can always be incorporated into my own thinking.
On his Substack, The Abbey of Misrule, Kingsnorth has been exploring the role of technology in modern society in a series of reflections titled Divining the Machine. It is worth reading. I’d like to draw a link between something he explores in Part Five of the series and a theme one finds throughout the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: the relationship between magic and science.
First, Lewis, from his (increasingly?) prescient and relevant The Abolition of Man:
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead. If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking.
We see a fictional representation of this dynamic in Tolkiens’ The Two Towers, where the wizard Saruman constructs an industrial hellhole – or should we say a dark Satanic Mill – in and around Isengard. The key line is placed in the mouth of Treebeard, who says of Saruman:
“He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”
That a corrupted wizard would be the one to lead in mechanization is telling. By itself it may mean nothing, but in context of Tolkien’s other writings on the subject, and those of his friend Lewis, we see that he is making a profound point. Tolkien explains this in a letter to a friend in 1951, where he describes the almost-finished Lord of the Rings as having to do, amongst other things, with The Machine:
By the [Machine] I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised. . . . The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines.
Fascinating. We do Lewis and Tolkien a great injustice when we make it seem that they were simply good writers of compelling fiction. The more one digs into their thought, the more one finds a depth of learning and reflection that informs a stunningly broad range of topics. I will now quote a somewhat lengthy section of Paul Kingsnorth’s piece (but if Rod Dreher is allowed to do it, then so am I).
The scientific worldview is leading us rapidly towards the total remaking of both humanity and non-human nature in the image of the (post) modern self. Science built the Machine. Now the Machine will rebuild the world, and us with it. As Sherrard has it:
“There is a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and mechanised as our own, and this is that we can exist in it only on condition that we adapt ourselves to it. This is our punishment.“
Sherrard presents science as a modern enterprise built on a Christian rootstock that grew out of shape. He is not the only one to make this case, but as I was reading his book, another thought occurred to me; a thought that took me back to the time, not so long ago, when I used to practice magic.
When I say ‘magic’ I don’t mean fairground tricks; I mean the workings of what is sometimes called the Western Mystery Tradition, or, if we want to be spookier about it, the occult. The meaning of the word ‘occult’ is actually less sinister than it has been made to sound: occulted simply means hidden. A few years back, before I became, to my own surprise, an Orthodox Christian, I was a practicioner of Wicca, a nature religion founded by the eccentric Englishman Gerald Gardner back in the 1950s. Wicca is a form of modern ‘witchcraft’, though everyone involved will have a different explanation of what that word means. Being a modern path, Wicca is mostly undefined and eclectic. At its (usually American) extreme, you can basically make it up as you go along, which is why it has proved so appealing to millennial teenagers.
The Wicca I practiced was the more traditional variety: I was a member of a coven, whose workings and details were secret and into which you had to be initiated. The people in the coven were not dastardly devil-worshippers; they were basically good-hearted, interesting people looking for meaning in a society which offered none outside the marketplace. Wiccan covens do all sorts of things, but at the heart of the enterprise is the practice of magic: which, if you’re feeling mysterious or pretentious, you can spell magick.
There are all kinds of magick available to the practicing mage. There’s sympathetic magic, Hermetic magic, herbal magic, elemental magic, High (or ceremonial) magic, folk magic (or ‘cunning craft’), natural magic, Enochian magic (fun with secret Angelic languages) and – for the ultimate rush – Goetic magic, which involves the summoning of spirits to do your will. Faust, who did his famous deal with the devil, was practicing Goetia. At the heart of the practice is the notion that the spirits of the otherworld are ours to command. If we are knowledgeable, smart and well-trained enough, we can summon up the very forces of nature itself, and ‘bind’ them to our will.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going here. The history of magic in the West is a long one, but one thing it teaches is that what we call ‘magic’ and what we call ‘science’ are intertwined. Many of the pioneers of science we know today were also magicians of one sort or another. Bacon was said to be a Freemason and an alchemist. Isaac Newton wrote far more about alchemy than he did about physics, and many of the august founders of England’s Royal Society, still one of its foremost scientific institutions, were alchemists or mages. In the early modern period, today’s distinction between ‘science’ (real, good, objective) and ‘magic’ (fantastical, bad, superstitious) did not really exist. Both were branches of the same effort: to understand the mysterious forces of the universe, and ultimately to control them.
Here is Francis Bacon’s definition of science:
“The knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”
And here is the occultist Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic:
“The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will.”
These could be swapped around without anybody really noticing. The thread that links them together is control. Both the scientific enterprise, and the magical quest which it was part of, spring from the same desire: to know the world, and to bend it to our will. Will, in both cases, is the key word. When Aleister Crowley, pioneering occultist, rampant self-publicist and self-described ‘Great Beast’, created his own occult religion, Thelema, in the early 20th century, he gave it its own famous commandment: do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Thelema wilted on the vine, but we could say that Crowley’s dictum lived on as the foundational basis of what our culture has become.
At this point, any scientists reading will be protesting. No, no! they might cry; that’s not what we do at all! We’re driven only by curiosity, by wonder, by a desire to understand the world! Maybe. But science, always and everywhere, is handmaiden to technology, and technology is, in this time, never innocent. Einstein bombed Hiroshima just as surely as the pilots of the Enola Gay, and he knew it.
My point is not that all magical workings, or all scientific experiments, are bad, let alone the people who carry them out. A magician might want to perform a working aimed at bringing good luck to a friend. A scientist may be searching for a cure for cancer. But the wider project of both carries hidden within it a telos: a direction of travel. It is the direction of the Machine that now envelops us, and the new world it is building.
Clearly there is a lot of overlap here and, I think, something profound we need to grasp. And given our – all of us – embeddedness in the Machine, something to grapple with personally. Are we giving ourselves over to the human desire for control? Is such control always bad? I wish that Kingsnorth dealt with the tension and distinction between the desire for control and the calling we have to exercise dominion over the natural world. I haven’t finished his series yet, so maybe I will find it addressed elsewhere.
One thing is for sure, the signals are coming increasingly loudly and clearly from every conceivable source that our relationship to technology is deeply unhealthy. We need thinkers and resources to help us navigate this with wisdom we do not yet possess. I commend to you the artful writing of Paul Kingsnorth, a voice in the wilderness, to stimulate your thinking in this important endeavor.
In the first post on the topic of chronological snobbery we looked at what C.S. Lewis meant by the phrase and we considered two reasons for its particular prevalence in our own day. In this post I would like to explore related ideas from a thinker that has been helpful to me: René Girard.
Girard was a profound and original thinker whose work ranges over many disciplines. I am familiar with only a few small slices of that work, but some of those slices have been eye-opening. Consider his reflections on the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:29-30.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous,saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’
Girard focuses in on the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees as they built tombs and monuments for prophets who were harassed, persecuted, and killed by their forefathers: “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” He considers this as a kind of spirit, an attitude of the heart that any of us can adopt.
In the context of his broader theory of mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism, he describes this impulse as a mob of the living scapegoating the dead. For our purposes, we can simply say it is the attitude whereby one generation or group condemns those who came before them, exonerating themselves.
Girard points out one historical example of this in the phenomenon of Christian anti-Semitism, the kind that blames the Jews for killing Jesus. It says “if we, who are the spiritual children of Abraham, had been there when Jesus was crucified, we would not have joined the actual children of Abraham in condemning and killing Jesus. We are better than them. We alone would have resisted the mob. We would have stood by him when all had deserted him. We would have been willing to be killed with him rather than deny him.”
When one lays out what such an attitude really claims, as I did above, it starts to be seen for what it is. But usually the claim to superiority is not parsed and exposed for what it is. A claim like that is really more about the person making it than about the people he or she is supposedly superior to. At bottom, such statements are saying something like: “If everyone was as innocent as I am the world would be better. Therefore they must not be innocent like me, because someone has to be responsible for all this mess.”
Ask any high school class if they think they would have stood up against the Nazis if they had lived in Germany leading up to and during WW2. Most will say they would have resisted, which is to claim that if Germany had been populated with 21st-century North American teenagers instead of Weimar-era Germans, Hitler would not have done what he did. More pointedly, it is to claim that each of those students raising their hands, students who allow their wardrobes, attitudes, mannerisms, and vocabulary to be dictated by the passing fads and peer pressures of their social peers, yes these paragons of strict moral virtue, would have had the backbone to stand against what was an immense amount of social pressure and very real threats to their reputations, social standing, finances, and very lives.
In Romans 2:1, the apostle Paul writes “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” We live in a time when forces all around us seem to be working hard to whip up offense, outrage, and judgment towards the other. But not all judgment is the same. Some judgment is warranted and needed, but a lot of it is spiritually dangerous.
What do I mean by spiritually dangerous? Well, I mean that it is dependent on sin and it fosters sin. To judge others for what I am guilty of is to reinforce my own blindness to that sin, thereby distancing myself further from the truth about myself that might lead me to repentance and freedom. It is much harder to admit to a sin that I have clearly – and perhaps publicly – judged another for. I am less able to see it in myself when I get a kick out of pointing it out in others.
So this leaves the one judging further from the grace of humility, further from the grace of gospel sanity, further from the grace of honesty about my sin. These are graces that flow from Christ and to Christ.
When one takes this principle and applies it, what happens? It becomes very difficult to stand in judgment over our historical predecessors, because we now see that to do so is to fall into a very dangerous spiritual trap. It is the trap of saying that we are better and we would not have done what they did.
But does this rule out any and all criticism of the past? Quite the opposite: It allows for the kind of criticism that is good for us, rather than a danger. When I recognize that in the garden of my own soul grows the same root that in others bore such heinous fruit, it motivates me to weed it out. When I recognize that there is more than a little family resemblance between their sin and my own – if not in the fruit, then in the root – this encourages humility.
Indeed the effect is precisely the opposite of what self-righteous criticism produces, namely a deepening blindness with regard to my own expressions of whatever fault I am pointing out in others married to a swelling pride at being found so much superior.
The best writers of history intuitively (or perhaps intentionally) treat their subjects with this kind of moral sensitivity. They do not fall into moral relativism, which may be an enjoyable intellectual hobby for rich and comfortable Westerners, but is insufferable in the face of actual evil. Neither do they unleash a full one-dimensional moral tirade against historical villains, painting them as uniformly evil characters. Rather they preserve the humanity of both heroes and villains, allowing for nuance and being honest about the shortcomings of the heroes as well as the positive qualities of the villains, all while writing with a sense of moral clarity. This kind of history proves informative and beneficial to the reader. It is humbling, sobering, inspiring.
Moving from history to the contemporary, we can apply this idea to so many current cultural issues. For example, I see a lot of folks these days eager to tear down statues of people who, terribly flawed and implicated in evil as they may have been, are nevertheless in many ways their betters. Leaving aside the specific arguments for or against any particular monument, or even for the taking down of statues in general, I just want to point out that this kind of fury, this kind of one-dimensional judgment of those in the past, is spiritually dangerous for all the reasons described above.
To take an example from the opposite side of the culture wars, we have the phenomenon of so many conservative religious leaders who were so thundering in their denouncing of sexual immorality being revealed to be sexually immoral themselves. Zacharias, Falwell, Hybels, and the list goes on and on. We all know such failures do not happen overnight. So we have someone publicly denouncing a sin in others that they are not just struggling against but positively nurturing in their own hearts.
This can happen on the political left as much as on the right, both inside and outside the church. But from my perspective, which is admittedly conservative, it does seem to be a particularly fashionable attitude among progressives on the left these days. If you think I’m wrong about that, let me know why in the comments.
This is part 1 of 2. Click here to skip ahead to part 2, or see the link at the bottom.
It was Owen Barfield who induced a young C.S. Lewis to abandon what he called ‘chronological snobbery.’ I like the term, but its meaning is not immediately clear. Is this what Lewis is referring to when he exhorts us to read old books as a corrective to the errors of the day (most famously argued in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”)?
But no – it cannot mean simply reading old books since Lewis was already reading old books even at an early age (he loved classical poetry), well before meeting Barfield and having his chronological snobbery apparently cured. So what is it, then?
In this post I’d like to explore these ideas a little bit. Let’s start with what Lewis writes about it:
In Surprised by Joy, he defines chronological snobbery as
“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”
There is overlap here with his famous quote from the essay mentioned above on reading old books:
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. … Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.“
Reading old books is part of the solution, but the assumption of “newer is better” goes deeper, and it will likely take something more than mere exposure to old ideas to cure you of it. The fact that today we have many university humanities departments devoted to exposing the ‘hetero-normative patriarchal misogyny’ of Shakespeare and Dante and Milton makes that clear enough. They are reading the material, but with such a distorted lens that it renders no benefit, like eating a hearty stew but straining out everything except the onions.
This snobbery, like all snobberies, is subtle and mostly invisible to the one infected with it. It is something that one detects in others but never in oneself. Think about how often you have heard “what a snob!” said, and how not once was the person saying it talking about themselves. We accuse ourselves of many things, but snobbery doesn’t tend to be one of them.
The attitude, to the degree that one is conscious of it, seems entirely justified by the facts of the case. “After all, I have very good reasons for feeling this way!” So we are dealing with something that must be exposed before it can be dealt with.
I take it as a matter of fact that this attitude is widespread today. And my hunch is that the less historically informed our society becomes, the more this default assumption about the superiority of our fashionable ideas – this snobbery – will spread. I can see two other reasons for its prevalence.
First, there is this myth of progress. Generally speaking, the field of engineering is more advanced now than 400 years ago. The same is true for medicine, physics, and chemistry. These are the hard sciences where a wrong theory pretty quickly slams into the solid wall of objective reality, or better, the world as God made it. Since the delay between theory and result is brief, misguided ideas tend to reveal themselves as dead ends before getting too far, and more importantly, before the theorizers get too attached to the ideas.
But it really is another story when we are talking about fields such as sociology, anthropology, morality, or ethics. The myth of progress is the assumption that steady progress has been taking place in these fields similar to the progress that we can all see happening when we look out the window at the high-speed trains, jet-liners, and orbiting satellites. In this mode of thinking, the latest idea is, by virtue of its novelty, the best idea.
The problem is that the delay between theory and result in these other fields is much longer. By the time the fruit of misbegotten ideas becomes undeniable, not only can there be a huge human cost, but sometimes the entire field of study has become institutionally committed to the bad idea and cannot abandon it despite the growing evidence for its failure.
Second, it is basic human nature to desire to feel superior to others. Simply put: chronological snobbery allows me to feel superior to an awful lot of people – and most of them are not around to call me out on it. It is therefore a satisfying attitude to adopt.
To return to a point in the second quote above, every age – our own included – has its characteristic virtues and its prevalent vices. Future ages, or contemporary observers from outside the culture in question, are able to see and denounce what we cannot. And so we rightly reject the cruel tortures of the medieval world, the inexcusable infanticide of the Romans, and the perverted pedophilia of the ancient Greeks. But if we are not careful, we will miss their virtues and miss the chance to see and address some of our own vices.
In the next post, I’d like to reflect on some related insights I’ve gleaned from René Girard.