Wednesday, September 11

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Throughout all of human history this is a truth that men have taken into account as they have dealt with one another, as they have conducted business, as they have passed laws, and as they have built civil societies.  It is the first and most basic insight of both anthropology and sociology.  Evil exists.  It wrecks havoc on our best laid plans and our sincerest intentions.  The world is infected by sin and populated by sinners.

No one ever had to teach a child how to sin.  No one was ever dependent upon a bad environment to learn how to be cruel or selfish or perverse.  No one ever needed older siblings to show them the ropes of greed, or pride, or dishonesty.

This natural inclination to sin is no petty or trivial matter.  Evil is destructive.  It is bent on death and thus runs roughshod over everything and everyone—including the person who perpetrates the evil in the first place.  If left unrestrained, evil morbidly embraces death.  For, “there is a way that seems right to a man but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12).

The landscape of evil is all too familiar to us.  We have seen it time after time during the course of the last century.  Broken bodies.  Cast off lives.  Stark naked tragedy.  Gore and devastation.  Sadness and sorrow.  There before us lay the vexing specter of mortality and the awful stench of death.  It is a gruesome panorama that defiles our senses and haunts our every waking thought.  It is a nightmare come to life.  The memory of it is carved onto the fleshly tablets of our hearts with a dull familiar blade—a blade variously wielded by Adolf Hitler, or Josef Stalin, or Mao Tse Dung, or Margaret Sanger, or Ho Chi Minh, or Idi Amin, or Pol Pot, or Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden.  Indeed, the calamity of evil clutters the pages of human history.  Its pathos persistently torments the hodge podge ideals of human hope.  Replayed again and again and again, it has become a semeiotic symbol of the end of man and the end of his doing.

Every great society and every great institution has necessarily had to take evil into account.  The simple fact is that relativism is a practical impossibility because of the existence of evil.  If freedom is to survive, and civility is to prevail then evil must be restrained.           

Robert Goguet, in his authoritative history of the development of American judicial philosophy, argued that the genius of the Constitution was that it took this fully into account.  The Founding Fathers recognized that because evil was a present and horrible reality, they would have to choose some identifiable objective standard of good upon which to build cultural consensus.  Though many of them were not personally practicing Christians, the precedence they gave to Biblical morality was a matter of sober-headed practicality: “The more they meditated on the Biblical standards for civil morality, the more they perceived their wisdom and inspiration.  Those standards alone have the inestimable advantage never to have undergone any of the revolutions common to all human laws, which have always demanded frequent amendments; sometimes changes; sometimes additions; sometimes the retrenching of superfluities.  There has been nothing changed, nothing added, nothing retrenched from Biblical morality for above three thousand years.”

The American Framers were heavily influenced by the writings of Thomas Hooker, founder of the City of Hartford in the Connecticut Colony and learned Puritan divine.  Thus they agreed whole-heartedly with his oft quoted maxim on the wellspring of law and order in society: “Of law there can be no less acknowledged, than that her seat is in the bosom of God, her voice in the harmony of the world.  All things in heaven and on earth do her homage; the very least as doing her care, and the greatest as not exempt from her power.  Both angels and men, and creatures of what condition soever, though each in a different sort of name, yet all with one uniform consent, admire her as the mother of their peace and joy.”

John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court similarly affirmed the necessity of a standard of virtue for the proper maintenance of civil stability and order: “No human society has ever been able to maintain both order and freedom, both cohesiveness and liberty apart from the moral precepts of the Christian Religion applied and accepted by all the classes.  Should our Republic ere forget this fundamental precept of governance, men are certain to shed their responsibilities for licentiousness and this great experiment will then surely be doomed.”

Constitutional provisions such as the separation of powers, mixed government, checks and balances, jury trials, and civil rights were all predicated on the notion that left to their own devices men are helpless against the wiles of evil.  In this poor fallen world both sin and the sinners who sin must be restrained if justice is to prevail.  In order for there to be law and order, right and wrong not only must be defined, they must be accounted for in the very fabric of our relationships.

Thus, a brash and cavalier attitude toward any exclusive standard of goodness and morality is perhaps the single most distressing trait of modern relativism.  In the name of civil liberties, cultural diversity, and political-correctness it has pressed forward a radical agenda of willy-nilly moral corruption and ethical degeneration.  Ironically, its brazen disregard for any objective standard of decency and its passionately undeterred defense of perverse impropriety has actually threatened our liberties and diversity because it has threatened the foundations that made those things possible in the first place simply because it has no mechanism for the restraint of evil.  Unfettered evil is the enemy of any and all societies because unfettered evil makes the very idea of society impossible.

Relativism wants the privileges of civilization bestowed upon the citizenry as an unearned, undeserved, and unwarranted entitlement.  But great privileges bring with them great responsibilities.  Our remarkable freedom has been bought with a price.  And that price was moral diligence, virtuous sacrifice, and ethical uprightness over and against real and objective evil.  The legal commitment of relativism to any and all of the fanatically twisted fringes of American culture is a pathetically self-defeating crusade that has confused liberty with license.

Gardiner Spring, the eloquent pastor-patriot during the early nineteenth century in New York, persuasively argued that the kind of free society America aspired to be was utterly and completely impossible apart from moral integrity: “Every considerate friend of civil liberty, in order to be consistent with himself must be the friend of the Bible.  No tyrant has ever effectually conquered and subjugated a people whose liberties and public virtue were founded upon the Word of God.  After all, civil liberty is not freedom from restraint.  Men may be wisely and benevolently checked, and yet be free.  No man has a right to act as he thinks fit, irrespective of the wishes and interests of others.  This would be exemption from all law, and from the wholesome influence of social institutions.  Heaven itself would not be free, if this were freedom.  No created being holds any such liberty as this, by a divine warrant.  The spirit of subordination, so far from being inconsistent with liberty, is inseparable from it.”

Similarly, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the brilliant Russian novelist, historian, and Nobel laureate, has said: “Fifty years ago it would have seemed quite impossible in America that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose but simply for the satisfaction of his whims.  The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless.  It is time to defend, not so much human rights, as human obligations.”

According to James Q. Wilson, the shabby ambiguities of relativism are a kind of riot of second-bests: “Many people have persuaded themselves that no law has any foundation in a widely shared sense of justice; each is the arbitrary enactment of the politically powerful.  This is called legal realism, but it strikes me as utterly unrealistic.  Many people have persuaded themselves that children will be harmed if they are told right from wrong; instead they should be encouraged to discuss the merits of moral alternatives.  This is called values clarification, but I think it a recipe for confusion rather than clarity.  Many people have persuaded themselves that it is wrong to judge the customs of another society since there are no standards apart from custom on which such judgments can rest; presumably they would oppose infanticide only if it involved their own child.  This is sometimes called tolerance; I think a better name would be barbarism.”

The entire witness of Western civilization bears this out.  Thus, through the ages faithful men have boldly cut across the grain of comfort and convention, warning men and nations of their dire danger: evil lurks.

In the weeks and months immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington no one doubted the reality of wickedness.  No one doubted that there was such a thing as sin.  No one questioned whether or not our world was stricken by evil.  Suddenly, we once again found consensus in the reality of the fall.


Rebecca said...

Hello! This is quite off topic from your blog post but I wasn't sure how I could contact you otherwise.

I have been listening to your lectures on Modernity and America (I am a homeschooling mother who was public-schooled, thus I am only now learning how things REALLY happened...) and have two questions for you- one in regard to the past and one in regard to the future.

I have been reading and listening much on the topic of the Great Depression and FDR. (The Great Depression, A Diary is my current read and it is wonderful.) I find it all fascinating, especially when we seem on the brink of similar woes.

Question #1- (the past)

I understand how FDR perpetuated the problem and the ruinous effects of going off of gold standard-but what I don't understand is what you suggest he ought to have done. Do you think, if left alone, the depression would have fixed itself? I have read your book Bringing in the Sheaves so I am sure I understand how you would consider the poor to have been cared for- but I am just curious to see what the alternate history would look like if things were changed. I know FDR was a scoundrel (you taught me that) but I understand too that the nation was also in a very bad place. I just wonder what things *should* have looked like.

Question 2- Current Day

What would you encourage people to invest in with extra money they can scrounge around? Silver? Gold? Do you think Christians ought to be in the stock market at all?

I know you are a very busy man and I know I am going far out on a limb to even ask these questions of you...but if you ever have a moment to address these questions in comment or blog post form, I would greatly appreciate it. There are very few trustworthy sources these days.

Thank you for all you do- I have really been given a whole new education through your books and lectures (and my family LOVES your Christian Almanac which we read every day at lunch.) I appreciate all you do.

gileskirk said...

Rebecca: Excellent questions. As for the approach FDR could have taken: first and foremost, the Great Depression was created much in the same way that the recent recession was created: by irresponsible banks in close cooperation with Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, and the Federal Government. It was a toxic cocktail of bad policies and risky investments that threw good economic sense out the window. So, FDR could have immediately begun the process of policing the fraudulence (what his cousin TR did in his trust-busting reforms), creating small business incentives, encouraging private distributism (re: Chesterton and Belloc), and mandating sound fiscal policy on the part of the government. Instead, what he did was reinforce the Mercantilist system of Hoover and the Wall Street bankers (what is more crudely called Fascism).

As for the future and investment: I think the plan Dave Ramsey has outlined is quite sound and Biblical. Eradicate all debt first. Pay off the mortgage. Create a solid emergency fund. Then, use some sound financial instruments in a diversified portfolio to prepare for retirement.

Does that help?

Rebecca said...

It helps tremendously! Thank you very much for such a speedy response!

Your answer to the FDR question helped me so much. While reading the book I referenced above, I have just been struck time and time again at the sheer hurt and hunger and desperation that people were living through and how, as a nation, we could have better cared for those people by creating jobs/wealth/food. It was a desperate time.

I am a huge Dave Ramsey fan and we have followed his steps for some time. We are now at the point where we can begin to think about investing and I wonder at the wisdom of using the stock market at all, and especially, in times like this.

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. I know it sounds silly but I feel almost like I've had a brush with a celebrity! :-)