Revisiting a 1974 text that examined the mutual animosities of the 1960s
The word “demonstration” derives from an ancient root that means “to think.” Other English derivatives include “mind,” “mental,” “mentor,” “memento,” “comment,” and “Minerva,” the Greek goddess of wisdom. “Admonish” is a bit more obviously related to “demonstrate,” reminding us that admonishment involves the presentation of reasons and not simply an angry scolding.
In my American Heritage Dictionary, “demonstration” is defined as 1) the act of showing or making evident; 2) conclusive evidence or proof; and 3) an illustration or explanation. In these first three uses, the word retains it ties to rationality. In such usage, “demonstration” suggests the end (in both senses) of an argument. Q.E.D., Quod erat demonstrandum, announces that the thing we set out to prove — and not simply assert arbitrarily — has been revealed to be so.
But my dictionary’s 4th and 5th definitions take an odd turn. The idea of making something evident is retained, but what is now made manifest is not truth or reality reasonably understood but a purely subjective state: “4) A manifestation, as of one’s feelings.” And then the final use of the word: “5) A public display of group opinion, as by a rally or march.”
Of course words can be wayward, prone to wander. But the fact that, in the early twenty-first century, the word “demonstration” is much more likely to suggest a passionate display of feelings or opinions than the reasonable path toward common understanding is a sign of a fundamental disorientation in contemporary society. It is a sign (among other things) of our denial of the correlativity of truth and goodness. “Truth” is at best typically regarded as a description of factuality. “Goodness” is sentimentalized or subjectivized, not a matter for public, rational discussion.
In The Desire of the Nations, moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan described the fate of political communities that have marginalized the Good and trivialized Truth:
“Because the normal content of political communication . . . has come to be the conflict of competing wills, speech has lost its orientation to deliberation on the common good and has come to serve the assertion of competing interests. . . . ’Demonstrations’ aimed at communicating anger or menace, rather than argument or reason, are viewed with complacency as proof of a liberal and open society.”
The demonstrations of recent months have obviously not promoted argument or reason about how we might improve our shared life together. The slogans that appear on placards, T-shirts, banners, and ball caps are asserted with an air of arrogant invulnerability. “Agree with me (and my thousands of co-belligerents) or else.” Some pundits have wrung their hands at the destructive spirit of these demonstrations, and seen them as a failure of civility. We cannot repair the torn fabric of our nation, they warn, until we address one another with kindness and respect. Others lament the irrational mood of these increasingly heated displays of conviction and call for a return to the values of the Enlightenment, which established political life on rational foundations. But there are good reasons to interpret the angry irrationality of these demonstrations — and the millions of similarly spirited op-ed pieces, blog posts, faculty memos, tweets, and sidewalk trash-talking — as the culmination of the Enlightenment’s fatally flawed conception of reason.
During the past year, some commentators have compared the recent demonstrations to the raucous events of the 1960s and 70s. Sometimes these comparisons are made to assure is that there really is nothing to worry about in our political life, because these sorts of things happen all the time. But the fact that symptoms are chronic is no warrant for the assumption that there is nothing seriously disordered. If our epidemic of violent demonstrations is like that of fifty years ago, maybe we can understand the ailment better with the help of thoughtful diagnosticians who observed that outbreak.
Literary critic Wayne C. Booth (1920-2005) was on the faculty of the University of Chicago during the demonstrations of the late 1960s. He witnessed first hand the stand-off between students — who understood themselves as the defenders of values — and faculty and administrators — who saw their institution as a bastion of reason. Each side in this battle was suspicious of the other, because both sides accepted the long-standing dogma of Enlightenment culture that separated “facts” (the raw material of reason) and “values.”
In 1971, while many cities and campuses were still roiling from violent confrontations, Booth gave the Ward-Phillips Lectures in English Language and Literature at the University of Notre Dame. The content of those lectures was expanded and published in 1974 as Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (University of Chicago Press). Booth believed that the uneasy tension that was increasingly evident across the American social and political landscape — and in the West more generally — was a symptom of the fact that “we have lost our faith in the very possibility of finding a rational path through any thicket that includes what we call value judgments.” Anticipating Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue, which diagnosed in philosophical terms the common assumption that all value judgments were simply expressions of irrational preference, Booth used the tools of rhetoric to critique “the belief that you cannot and indeed should not allow your values to intrude upon your cognitive life — that thought and knowledge and fact are on one side and affirmations of value on the other.”
In the book’s Introduction, Booth affirms “the belief that the primary mental act of man is to assent to truth rather than to detect error, ‘to take in’ and even ‘to be taken in’ rather than ‘to resist being taken in.’” The mental world we have inherited from the Enlightenment has made us very adept at being suspicious of claims made by others, but bereft of the skills of changing our minds when we ought to. He summarizes the project of his lectures and book as the promotion of “a view of rhetoric as the whole art of discovering and sharing warrantable assertion.”
Here are some other introductory explanations from Booth’s book:
“Instead of pursuing ways of testing values in public discourse, defenders of value have often enough simply accepted the fact-value distinction and then leapt blindly for the value side. Convinced that reason’s domain is a tiny little cold corner of man’s life — whatever can be proved or disproved by scientific method — these counter-dogmatists feel free to assert any value that ‘feels’ right. Since acceptance of the dichotomy — whether by men of reason or men of faith — is often taken as the key test of modernity, I shall call the whole collection of dogmas that spring from it modernism, even though the term has often meant other things.
“The characteristic debate of modernists is a kind of meaningless logomachy between the adherents of reason or knowledge or science and the adherents of values or faith or feeling or wisdom or ‘true knowledge.’ Each of these two main sects — which I shall for shorthand call the scientismists and the irrationalists — can easily show the absurdities of the other, but the polemical displays of either side are so far from engaging the real issues that they often seem to confirm, in their demonstration that meaningful argument about such matters is impossible, the very distinction on which the war is based. . . .
“[I]t is probably accurate to say that from the seventeenth century until quite recently, it grew increasingly unfashionable to see the universe or world or nature or ‘the facts’ as implicating values.. . .
“It is really only in the last seventy-five years or so that the fact-value split became a truism and that the split began to entail the helplessness of reason in dealing with any values but the calculation of means to ends. I cannot trace here the story of the rise and fall of the disjunction, and of various conclusions thought to follow from it. Suffice it to say that by now it has been attacked everywhere, yet it survives everywhere, survives as strongly in the thought of many who defend values as in the thought of those who cling to positivist notions of scientific value.”
Antonio López on the logic of liberalism’s totalitarian tendencies
On Volume 130 of the Journal, I interviewed Fr. Antonio López about an essay in a book he co-edited. The anthology was called Retrieving Origins and the Claim of Multiculturalism. Fr. López wrote the introductory essay in the book, which describes how liberal societies redefine religion and God to fit within the liberal understanding of freedom.
“[B]oth the American and European versions of liberal society perceive human beings as individuals who are defined primordially by their own freedom, and both conceive of freedom not as the capacity to embrace the truth but as the unrestricted exercise of choice — this, of course, takes a concrete historical form in America that is foreign in Europe. This liberal anthropology believes that everything comes after a human choice and is determined by it: work, leisure, family relations, gender, even our own bodies. The perception of freedom as the capacity to determine itself through choice represents therefore the architectonic criterion of liberal culture. This criterion makes it very easy, on the one hand, to perceive other cultures as the fruit of human choices and, on the other hand, to remain unaware of the overarching liberal framework that interiorly shapes every human expression in its own image. Since culture is the ordering of social life in light of a potentially all-encompassing worldview or criterion, the way a liberal society organizes itself is both the outcome and the promoter of this culture whose ordering criterion is free choice. This is one of the main reasons why in liberal societies the task of the state is to create a neutral space in which different groups have access to numerous possibilities for self-realization. The state, whose scope and extension is limited by society itself, is responsible for securing the peaceful and prosperous coexistence of its members, who organize themselves freely according to their own traditions, upbringings, and sensitivities. Within Western democracies, especially in North America, any human being can find a space to live, associate, deepen and foster his or her own culture, and embrace freely his or her preferred religious identity. At the same time, this political framework prides itself on pursuing, preserving, and promoting individual freedom (mainly of conscience and of religion), equal dignity, and self-evident rights. Liberal society therefore governs itself through a juridical state, and its specific legal, judicial, economic, and institutional parameters tend to be seen as self-given, that is, democratically determined by the collective will of individuals whose equal dignity is defended and gradually redefined by the state.
“Liberal anthropology and its cultural expression reach into the theological, for, being finite, the human being cannot account for his human and social existence without explicit or implicit reference to the absolute. What man thinks of himself and of society reflects what he thinks of the absolute, God. If the human person is understood on the basis of undetermined freedom of choice, it is because God is considered to be an apersonal and monadic being. The God of liberalism determines itself freely and sees relation with the other as strictly secondary to itself. This God dwells alone in the sheer exercise of its absolute freedom. Obviously, much needs to be said to adequately ground this claim, and the reader will find many rich insights in the following essays to help him ponder the extent of this claim. It suffices to indicate here that liberalism is both theologically and anthropologically anarchic. Liberalism holds that both God and the human being have no beginning, no principle (an-archic) except their own (absolute or finite) freedom. Paradoxically, anarchy — understood as the capacity to fulfill oneself out of one’s own resources — becomes the governing and ordering principle of liberal society that hides itself behind innumerable expressions of human creativity and choice.
“It is possible to perceive without much trouble three different and related implications of the liberal perception of freedom. First, every concrete exercise of determination — whether the expression of an individual or of a whole culture — remains private, that is, enclosed within the self. Human actions and opinions can never reach the status of the universal and hence remain within the parameters of liberalism itself. Opinions and actions image the liberal framework by presenting themselves as apparently original and confined to their immediate range of influence. Second, since every difference (gender, cultural, religious, political, etc.) is the expression of the same abstract freedom, each difference is ultimately seen as indifferent, that is to say, as not essentially different from the others and hence as irrelevant. Thus, despite all its activity, liberal society leads to an insurmountable stasis in which no choice is really effective. Concretely speaking, this means that a liberal society will be able to host within itself different cultures and religions only if they remain private, that is, irrelevant, and hence harmless, to the all-encompassing anarchic horizon. Within a liberal society one can be, for example, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, or Catholic — provided one’s religiosity is freely chosen. Pushing further the message that Lessing conveyed so forcefully in his play Nathan the Wise, we can say not only that there are no moral, existential differences between the major religions, but that these religions are ontologically identical. Liberal societies contend that religions are different expressions of the same private, formal, and abstract exercise of freedom. Third, since there can be only one ultimate principle, the coexistence of different totalizing worldviews is a priori ruled out. Liberalism, apparently allowing the coexistence of different cultures, traditions, and religions within itself, de facto prevents and seeks to eliminate the existence of any culture, tradition, or religion that does not fold itself to liberalism’s self-understanding. In this sense, the novelty of liberalism does not rest in its simply allowing cultures to exist freely within itself, its fostering their individuality, or its absorbing them into a dominant form as did the European totalitarianisms of the twentieth century. Rather, liberalism’s novelty resides in recreating in its own image every human expression (social, political, economic, cultural, religious) that falls within its horizon, while at the same time supporting the illusion that such contentless human expression still preserves its own integrity. Hence, rather than describing the unity that liberal culture generates as integralistic, relativistic, or multicultural, it would be more adequate to account for it in terms of a self-concealing totalitarian worldview.”
— from Retrieving Origins and the Claim of Multiculturalism, edited by Antonio López and Javier Prades (Eerdmans, 2014)
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on acknowledging the Source of rationality
On April 1, 2005 — the day before Pope John Paul II died — Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger received the St. Benedict Award for the promotion of life and the family in Europe. During the award ceremony held in the convent of Saint Scholastica in Subiaco, Italy, Cardinal Ratzinger gave an address titled “Europe in the Crisis of Cultures.” In 2004, a heated debate was waged over whether the text of a new European Constitution should explicitly mention the role of Christianity in shaping European culture. A number of Christian leaders insisted that a more vague reference to “religious values” failed to recognize the Christian distinctives that acounted for the shape of Europe’s cultural formation.
In his address, Cardinal Ratzinger examined the clash in modern Europe — and I might add, as an American, in the modern West more broadly — between two competing forms of rationality: a reason open to the transcendent and a calculating, functional, instrumental reason, defined and exercised within a purely immanent framework. He saw Europe presented with a choice between ordering its life in accord with an Enlightement understanding of reason — a reason without God and hence without adequate grounds for human dignity — or a reason ordered toward God, a reason formed by the Logos who is Love.
The text of the lecture was published in the journal Communio, and later published in book form as Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. Here are some excerpts from the lecture:
“Of course, Christianity did not start in Europe, and so cannot be classified as a European religion, the religion of the European cultural realm. But it was precisely in Europe that Christianity received its most historically influential cultural and intellectual form, and it therefore remains intertwined with Europe in a special way. On the other hand, it is also true that, beginning with the Renaissance, and then in complete form with the Enlightenment, this same Europe also developed the scientific rationality that not only led to the geographical unity of the world, to the meeting of continents and cultures in the age of discovery, but that now, thanks to the technological culture made possible by science, much more deeply places its stamp on what is now truly the whole world, indeed, in a certain sense reduces the world to uniformity. And, in the wake of this form of rationality, Europe has developed a culture that, in a way hitherto unknown to humanity, excludes God from public consciousness, whether he is totally denied or whether his existence is judged to be indemonstrable, uncertain, and so is relegated to the domain of subjective choices, as something in any case irrelevant for public life. This purely functional rationality, to give it a name, has revolutionized moral conscience in a way that is equally new with respect to all hitherto existing cultures, inasmuch as it claims that only what is experimentally provable is rational. Since morality belongs to an entirely different sphere, it disappears as a category in its own right, and so has to be identified in some alternative fashion, since no one can deny that, after all, we still do need morality in one form or another. In a world based on calculation, it is the calculation of consequences that decides what is to count as moral or immoral. And so the category of the good, which Kant had put front and center, disappears. Nothing is good or evil in itself, everything depends on the consequences that can be foreseen for a given action. Although, on the one hand, Christianity found its most influential form in Europe, we must also say, on the other hand, that Europe has developed a culture that most radically contradicts, not only Christianity, but the religious and moral traditions of humanity as well. This helps us understand that Europe is going through a true ‘stress test’; it also helps us understand the radical nature of the tensions that our continent has to face. But also, and above all, what it brings to light is the responsibility that we Europeans have to assume at this moment in history: what is at stake in the debate about the definition of Europe, about its new political form, is not some nostalgic battle at the ‘rearguard’ of history, but rather a great responsibility for the humanity of today. . . .
“From its very beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the logos, as the religion according to reason. It found its precursor, not primarily in the other religions, but in the philosophical enlightenment that cleared the way of traditions in order to devote itself to the pursuit of the true and the good, of the one God who is above all the gods. As a religion of the persecuted, as a universal religion that reached beyond states and peoples, Christianity denied the state the right to regard religion as a part of its own order, and so claimed freedom for faith. It has always defined men, all men without distinction, as creatures of God and images of God, and has always in principle proclaimed their equal dignity, albeit within the inevitable limits of given societies. In this sense, the Enlightenment is of Christian origin and it is not an accident that it came to birth precisely and exclusively in the domain of Christian faith. True, in that very domain Christianity had unfortunately contradicted its own nature by becoming a state tradition and a state religion. Despite the fact that philosophy, as a quest for rationality — including the rationality of faith — had always been the prerogative of Christianity, the voice of reason had been too much tamed. The merit of the Enlightenment was to insist once again on these original values of Christianity and to give reason back its voice. . . .
“That having been said, the two parties need to reflect on themselves and to be ready for self-correction. Christianity must always remember that it is the religion of the logos. It is a faith in the Creator Spiritus, the source of all reality. This faith ought to energize Christianity philosophically in our day, since the problem we now face is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is therefore nothing but a ‘byproduct,’ and perhaps a harmful one, of its development — or whether the world comes from reason, so that reason is the world’s criterion and aim. The Christian faith tends towards the second position. From the purely philosophical point of view, then, it has a truly strong hand to play, despite the fact that many today consider the first position alone to be “rational” and modern. But a reason that springs forth from the irrational and that, in the end, is itself irrational, is no answer to our problems. Only creative reason, which has manifested itself as love in the crucified God, can show us the way.
“In the necessary dialogue between Catholics and the secular-minded, we Christians have to take special care to remain faithful to this basic principle: we have to live a faith that comes from the logos, from creative reason, and that is therefore open to all that is truly rational. But at this point I would like, as a believer, to make a proposal to secular folk. The Enlightenment attempted to define the essential norms of morality while claiming that they would be valid etsi Deus non daretur, even if God did not exist. In the midst of confessional conflict and the crisis of the image of God, the attempt was made to keep the essential moral values free of contradiction and to undergird them with an evidence that would make them independent of the many divisions and uncertainties of the various philosophies and confessions. The idea was to secure the bases of coexistence and, in general, the bases of humanity. At that time, this seemed possible, inasmuch as the great basic convictions created by Christianity still held and still seemed undeniable. But this is no longer the case. The quest for a reassuring certitude that could stand uncontested beyond all differences has failed. Not even Kant, for all of his undeniable greatness, was able to create the necessary shared certainty. Kant had denied that God is knowable within the domain of pure reason, but, at the same time, he thought of God, freedom, and immortality as postulates of practical reason, without which it was impossible to act morally in any consistent way. Doesn’t the situation of the world today make us wonder whether he might not have been right after all? Let me put it differently: the extreme attempt to fashion the things of man without any reference to God leads us ever closer to the edge of the abyss, to the total abolition of man. We therefore have good reason to turn the Enlightenment axiom on its head and to say that even those who are unable to accept God should nonetheless try to live veluti si Deus daretur, as if God existed. This was the advice that Pascal gave to his non-believing friends; it is also the advice that we would like to give to our non-believing friends today as well. Thus, no one’s freedom is restricted, but everything human gets the support and the criterion it so urgently needs.
“What we most need at this moment of history are men who make God visible in this world through their enlightened and lived faith. The negative witness of Christians who spoke of God but lived against him obscured his image and opened the door to unbelief. We need men who have their eyes fixed straight on God, and who learn from him what true humanity is. We need men whose intellects have been enlightened by the light of God and whose hearts have been opened by God, so that their intellects can speak to others’ intellects and their hearts can open others’ hearts. God returns among men only through men who are touched by God.”
Oliver O’Donovan and his mentor, George B. Caird, offer lessons from the book of Revelation for thinking about politics
In the Introduction to his 2005 book The Ways of Judgment, Oliver O’Donovan described a crisis in Western politics. “Western civilization finds itself the heir of political institutions and traditions which it values without any clear idea why, or to what extent, it values them. Faced with decisions about their future development it has no way of telling what counts as improvement and what as subversion. It cannot tell where ‘straight ahead’ lies, let alone whether it ought to keep on going there.”
I think Dr. O’Donovan would agree that this civilizational crisis has only deepened in the intervening fifteen years, and that it shows no signs of subsiding. As various confrontations in recent years have made clear, the very idea of political authority has become increasingly unintelligible in the modern West, largely due to fateful false steps taken in the development of modern ideas about society, community, personhood, freedom, historical change. For decades, O’Donovan’s work has borne witness to the claim he made in the opening pages of The Ways of Judgment: that Christian political thought – when pursued faithfully and in light of the testimony of revelation and of the thought of the premodern Church — “has an apologetic force when addressed to a world where the intelligibility of political institutions and traditions is seriously threatened.” Christian political theology has the capacity to defend “the coherence of political conceptions as such.” In fact, O’Donovan asserts, “this coherence depends in important and surprising ways upon the faith expressed in the creeds.”
In an age in which most Christians — scholars, politicians, and laypeople — strive to reduce the framework of their political reflections to terms that could be endorsed by civic-minded Deists or even atheists, O’Donovan has insisted that facts of the redemptive work of God in history — centered on the Incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, session, and coming return of Christ — must be perspective points for thinking well about politics. Consider, for example, his insistence that any adequate evaluation of claims about social or political “progress” needs to take into consideration the Biblical account of how the Christocentric ends of history are certain to be counterfeited, especially as modern Western societies strive to set aside their Christian heritage:
“The possibilities open to society with history and memory of the Gospel proclamation do not include naïve malevolence, but only a formation that is demonic to the extent that it is not redeemed and redemptive. . . . The redemptive reality within history becomes the occasion for disclosure of the historical possibilities of evil, an evil shaped in imitation and replication of the redemptive good. Personalised interpretations of the Antichrist theme, which lie buried like fossils in the palaeontological deposit of religious thought, have tended to conceal the importance of the Antichrist conception precisely as an interpretation of the dynamic possibilities of society. For society has become a historical reality within the saving purposes of God. Social evil is not always regression, barbarism, turning back to the primitive esse from the bene esse. It must, under historical conditions, become precisely misdirected progress, corrupt sophistication, the idolisation of historical evolution. Though political experience continues to be troubled by regressive movements, the worst, and the most characteristically twentieth-century, evils of political experience have been progressive.”
Readers may be forgiven their surprise at encountering referenced to the Antichrist in the work of a long-time Oxford professor. But one hopes their surprise gives way to humble receptivity. In a 1986 article titled “The Political Thought of the Book of Revelation,” O’Donovan acknowledged a debt of gratitude to New Testament scholar George B. Caird, “whose commentary (The Revelation of St. John the Divine [London: A. & C. Black, 1966]) taught me how to read the Apocalypse.”
In this tempestuous election year, I’ve been studying Caird’s commentary in the hopes of securing deeper understanding of our own political moment. Here are two extracts from the book, the first from the opening of his discussion of chapter 6, with its seven seals and four horsemen:
“For all the haunting quality of John’s poetry, the hymns sung by the heavenly choir in honour of the Lamb have not revealed any new truth. It was the common belief of the whole early church that the exalted Christ had taken his seat on the heavenly throne at God’s right hand, there to reign as Messiah and Lord; and this belief was based on a psalm which declared that the Messiah was destined so to reign until God had put all his enemies under his feet (Ps. cx. 1; cf. Mark xii. 35–37; Acts ii. 33 ff.; v. 31; vii. 55 ff.; Romans viii. 34; I Cor xv. 25; Eph. i. 20; Col. iii. 1; Heb. i. 3, 13; x. 12 f.; I Pet. iii. 22). If John has something new to communicate about the reign of Christ, it is because he insists on taking the traditional belief with the utmost seriousness. It is not enough to assert that Christ’s reign is already established in heaven and will ultimately be established on earth also at his Parousia; for heavenly events must have here and now their earthly counterparts. It is not enough for him to hold that the regnant Christ reigns over the hearts of those who love him, that he reigns only insofar as men by obedience and loyalty allow him to reign. He believes that Christ is already the ‘ruler of earthly kings’ (1. 5). Unless Christ can be said to reign over the world of hard facts in which Christians must live their lives, he can hardly be said to reign at all.
“During the last thirty-five years of his life John has lived through a series of grim events which might well seem a challenge to the Christian belief in the kingship of Christ: the earthquakes of A.D. 60 (Tac. Ann. xiv. 27); the humiliating defeat of the Roman army on the eastern frontier by the Parthian Vologeses in A.D. 62 (Tac. Ann. xv. 13–17; the persecution of the Christians which followed the fire of Rome in A.D. 64 (Tac. Ann. xv. 44); the four-year horror of the Jewish war which ended in A.D. 70 with Jerusalem in ruins; the suicide of Nero in A.D. 68 and the political chaos which ensued as four claimants battled for the imperial throne, and for a whole year the Roman world echoed to the tramp of marching armies; the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 which had obliterated the luxury resorts of the Bay of Naples and created a pall of darkness so widespread that men feared the imminent dissolution of the physical order (Pliney, Ep. vi. 16); and the serious grain famine of A.D. 92 (Suet. Dom. 7). John’s vision of the four horsemen is intended to assert Christ’s sovereignty over such a world as that.”
In the summarizing final chapter of his commentary, “The Theology of the Book of Revelation,” Caird sounds some similar notes:
“John’s faith in God is all the more remarkable because he was at all points a realist. He was a realist in his appraisal of the churches with their little strength and their variegated weakness, so realistic that we can still recognize in them the churches to which we ourselves belong; yet he never doubted God’s ability to clothe the church in the robe of purity and perfection which would make her a fit bride for the Lamb. He was a realist in his grasp of the power and splendour of imperial Rome and of her ability to crush the church, in his analysis of the real nature of the forces that were devastating the earth, so realistic indeed that his world, once we understand it, is very little different from our world; yet he never doubted that in the battle between the monster and the Lamb the ultimate victory would go to the Lamb. He himself had stood in a Roman court of justice, fortunate to escape with his life, and he believed that countless other Christians must stand where he had stood; yet he remained confident that every verdict of such a court must be either upheld or reversed before the superior court of the great white throne.”
Eighty years ago, C. S. Lewis warned against surrogate contrition
In March 1940, C. S. Lewis wrote a column in The Guardian titled “The Dangers of National Repentance.” England had only recently entered the Second World War, and a number of young Anglican intellectuals were urging their fellow citizens to recognize penitently the extent to which England and other enemies of Germany in the war of 1914–1918 had created the conditions that gave rise to this new conflict. Lewis — who had been wounded in the Great War and whose brother Warnie was at the time of the column’s composition stationed in France — perceived a perilous temptation presented by activists eager to repent on behalf of their elders.
“The first and fatal charm of national repentance is . . . the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing — but, first, of denouncing — the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not ‘they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’ . . .
“Is it not, then, the duty of the Church to preach national repentance? I think it is. But the office — like many others — can be profitably discharged only by those who discharge it with reluctance. We know that a man may have to ‘hate’ his mother for the Lord’s sake. The sight of a Christian rebuking his mother, though tragic, may be edifying; but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony, over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her — that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, groveling before it in the unnatural — the spectacle becomes merely disgusting.”
— from “The Dangers of National Repentance” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970)
Note: A reading of this essay by C. S. Lewis is available here.