Saith The Man-God: ‘Everything Is Permitted’
If the denial of the God-man has destructive logical implications, it also has dangerous emotional consequences. Dostoevsky wrote that a person “cannot live without worshipping something.” Anyone who denies God must worship an idol—which is not necessarily a wooden or metal figure. In our time we have seen ideologies, groups, and leaders receive divine honors. People proud of their critical and discerning spirit have rejected Christ and bowed down before Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or some other secular savior.
When disrespect for individuals is combined with political idolatry, the results can be atrocious. Both the logical and the emotional foundations of political decency are destroyed. Equality becomes nonsensical and breaks down under attack from one or another human god. Consider Lenin: as a Marxist, and like Marx an exponent of equality, under the pressures of revolution he denied equality in principle—except as an ultimate goal- and so systematically nullified it in practice as to become the founder of modern totalitarianism. When equality falls, universality is likely also to fall. Nationalism or some other form of collective pride becomes virulent, and war unrestrained. Liberty, too, is likely to vanish; it becomes a heavy personal and social burden when no God justifies and sanctifies the individual in spite of all personal deficiencies and failures.
The idealism of the man-god does not, of course, bring as an immediate and obvious consequence a collapse into unrestrained nihilism. We all know many people who do not believe in God and yet are decent and admirable. Western societies, as highly secularized as they are, retain many humane features. Not even tacitly has our sole governing maxim become the one Dostoevsky thought was bound to follow the denial of the God-man: “Everything is permitted.”
This may be, however, because customs and habits formed during Christian ages keep people from professing and acting on such a maxim even though it would be logical for them to do so. If that is the case, our position is precarious, for good customs and habits need spiritual grounds, and if those are lacking, they will gradually, or perhaps suddenly in some crisis, crumble.
To what extent are we now living on moral savings accumulated over many centuries but no longer being replenished? To what extent are those savings already severely depleted? Again and again we are told by advertisers, counselors, and other purveyors of popular wisdom that we have a right to buy the things we want and to live as we please. We should be prudent and farsighted, perhaps (although even those modest virtues are not greatly emphasized), but we are subject ultimately to no standard but self-interest. If nihilism is most obvious in the lives of wanton destroyers like Hitler, it is nevertheless present also in the lives of people who live purely as pleasure and convenience dictate.
And aside from intentions, there is a question concerning consequences. Even idealists whose good intentions for the human race are pure and strong are still vulnerable to fate because of the pride that causes them to act ambitiously and recklessly in history. Initiating chains of unforeseen and destructive consequences, they are often overwhelmed by results drastically at variance with their humane intentions. Modern revolutionaries have willed liberty and equality for everyone, not the terror and despotism they have actually created. Social reformers in the United States were never aiming at the great federal bureaucracy or at the pervasive dedication to entertainment and pleasure that characterizes the welfare state they brought into existence. There must always be a gap between intentions and results, but for those who forget that they are finite and morally flawed the gap may become a chasm. Not only Christians but almost everyone today feels the fear that we live under the sway of forces that we have set in motion—perhaps in the very process of industrialization, perhaps only at certain stages of that process, as in the creation of nuclear power—and that threaten our lives and are beyond our control.
There is much room for argument about these matters. But there is no greater error in the modern mind than the assumption that the God-man can be repudiated with impunity. The man-god may take his place and become the author of deeds wholly unintended and the victim of terrors starkly in contrast with the benign intentions lying at their source. The irony of sin is in this way reproduced in the irony of idealism: exalting human beings in their supposed virtues and powers, idealism undermines them. Exciting fervent expectations, it leads toward despair.
Read the whole thing. I thought of that Tinder essay — though it’s from 1989, it’s still fresh — after reading this essay about the roots of the Alt-Right not in Nazism, but in Italian fascism. Excerpts:
The character traits applauded by today’s libertarians – ambition, superbia, speed, drive, spin, success and spikiness – are the qualities the Futurists valued. There is fire here but never warmth; appetite but never food. If conviviality has an opposite, it is this: anti-vivial, anti-genial and, in its treatment of the future, anti-generative.
Like contemporary libertarians, the Italian Futurists saw themselves as anti-establishment – opposing political and artistic tradition – and driven, as the name suggests, forward to the future. As Marinetti wrote in the Futurist manifesto: ‘Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute.’ Libertarians, like the Futurists, loathe the past, which they associate with the natural world: the future is artificial, and they want to own it. Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Donald Trump backer, describes himself as ‘way libertarian’, and is heavily involved in the Singularity, a vision of transhumanism that promotes artificial super-intelligence to create the end of natural history.
Central to the Futurist manifesto was an adoration of the machine, to the point where the ultimate aim was the technological triumph of humanity over nature. Marinetti foresaw – and was intoxicated by – the idea of a war between organic nature and mechanised humanity. Futurists fetishised cars, planes and technology in general, loving steel and loathing wood, which came gentle from the natural earth. They wanted to force the Danube to run in a straight line at 300km an hour, hating the river in its natural state (‘The opaque Danube under its muddy tunic, its attention turned on its inner life full of fat libidinous fecund fish.’)
Do read the whole thing, but if you’re like me, you will be gobsmacked by the author Jay Griffiths’ blindness to how contemporary progressive ideologies are also all about “the technological triumph of humanity over nature.” They are also anti-teleological, anti-Christian, and all about will to power. They just draw the lines in different places, and take different routes to get there. Whether it’s making the Danube flow in a straight line or using hormones and surgery and philosophical-legal legerdemain to make men into pseudo-women, it’s all the same thing. If there is no logos in nature, all is chaos.
Ross Douthat is correct: if you don’t like the Christian Right, wait till you see the Post-Christian Right. To that I would add: look at the Post-Christian Left. You cannot deny the God-Man and replace him with the Man-God with impunity.