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Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Wearying Business Of Secularism–The False Promise Of Social Progress And The Wisdom Of ‘Let It Be’

The beginnings of the Christian Church were simple, and those that Paul established in Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, and Rome were no more than the courtyards of wealthy citizens who, having been converted, were more than willing to open their homes as meeting places for evangelism and prayer.

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Paul, in his letters to these new churches was not only concerned that they learned the wisdom and good news of Jesus Christ, but also in keeping order, discipline, and solidarity.  As a former prosecutor of Christians and having been later imprisoned by Jews who found his preaching seditious, Paul knew how important unity and harmony was for the growth of the new church.  Not only were early Christians beset by non-believers who for political, social, and religious religions attacked them, but also by false prophets who, under the guise of bearers of Christ’s word, distorted the faith and sowed doubt among those whose new faith was precarious and fragile.  Worst of all, Paul knew, dissension within the ranks of these new churches was the most dangerous and potentially destructive of all.  Once church members began to squabble over interpretation of the gospels and Paul’s teaching about them, it would very hard indeed to restore order and a unified faith.

In one well-know chapter of Colossians, Paul speaks of a Code of Conduct for Christian households – the relationships between husband and wife, parents and children, and slaves and masters:

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.  Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.  Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.  Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.  Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 3:18-4:1)

In Ephesians 5:21-33 Paul reiterates the same message but stresses the subjection of wives to their husbands. “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord; for the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, the body of which he is Savior”

While these passages contain elements of hope for the modern reader – love for one’s wife was a unique if not revolutionary concept in the 1st century world of Paul – they are disturbing for most.  How could Paul have spoken so directly and conclusively about the subjection of women regardless of the love they received in return?  How can slavery ever be condoned?

Paul’s answer is clear.  First, social order is important for the integrity of the Christian family, the new church, and Christian society as a whole.  Second, social relationships per se  are insignificant and unimportant compared to the binding, permanent, and salvational relationship with Jesus Christ. Third, social divisiveness and instability divert one’s attention from Christ and his promises of redemption and salvation; and last, the family’s relationships mirror the divine relationship between Christ and his church – the community of those who believe in him.

Not surprisingly other religions preach the same gospel of social order.  The Hindu caste system, much maligned in the West for being anti-progressive if not socially backward for its limitation of individual opportunity, chance, and mobility, is an important feature of Hindu cosmology.  The world is maya, illusion, and any attachment to it will simply deter one from the only purpose in life – enlightenment, knowledge of God, and hope for escape and salvation from earthly rebirth.   The Code of Hindu Social Conduct is essential, and its rules of order – the same family relationships addressed by Paul – are meant to deliberately discourage non-essential, non-purposeful spiritual thought.

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Of course both early Hindus and early Christians had a political agenda as well – the Church would never flourish let alone survive unless the rules of social order were strict and inflexible.  Such discipline, unwavering fealty to the Church, and an obeisance to social, secular order within the context of theology, enabled the growth of the institutional Church.  As Dostoevsky noted in The Brothers Karamazov the faithful want only miracles, mystery, and authority; and Christ’s dubious and conditioned promises of salvation enabled the growth of a manipulative, corrupting institution.   There is no doubt that the Aryans, a colonizing power, had much to gain from a docile, complaisant population.

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Nevertheless, the wisdom of both teachings remains valid.  Social configurations, divisions, aspirations, conflicts, and ambitions mean nothing in light of a more important spiritual evolution.

For the modern secular world, these lessons are no less important.  Social intervention – the modus operandi of liberal democracy – is self-defeating at best.  By insisting that progress is indeed possible and that a better world awaits if only citizens invest time, effort, and resources to achieve it, deflects, deters, and distracts one from far more essential concerns.  Even the most hardened secularist as he nears the end of his life cannot help but wonder about what comes next.  Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Tolstoy’s short story about dying, death, and epiphany, has led a purely secular, practical, and conservative life.  When fatal disease strikes and death approaches he goes through predictable phases of denial, anger, and resolution.  As he nears his death he realizes that his life has meant nothing nor has it prepared him for it.  Only at the very last does he understand.

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Even if critical observation is restricted within a purely secular context, the demand for progress, change, and betterment inevitably leads to the concentration of power, the limitation of individual freedom, and the fragmentation of society.  Governments always exceed their mandate of public stewardship.  The growth of democratic bureaucracies designed to codify and enforce the arbitrary legislation of the State is no different than that of the Catholic Church which over 1500 years grew into an imperial power, an authoritarian institution, and an enforcer of its arbitrary, justifying morality.

The  Vatican’s mandate has been to spread Catholicism, to enforce its principles and codes of behavior, and to grow richer and more powerful than ever.  The mandate of progressive America has been been to spread its doctrine of diversity and inclusivity, to effect structural changes in public and private institutions, and to remake a very individualistic America in its reforming image.  Unless and until radical conservatism prevails, all institutions will be under a progressive anti-libertarian yoke.  The media, academia, and all public and private institutions must follow and adhere to the progressive catechism.  Government becomes the enforcer of this new agenda and increases its size and bureaucratic maze to enable it to better control and dictate policy. 

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Americans have always thought that totalitarianism and authoritarianism could never take hold in the United States; but that belief has always been myopic and idealistic.  Progressive interventionism has already become authoritarian and totalitarian.  No dissent to received wisdom is tolerated.  The progressive view of righteousness is settled philosophy.  As  Francis Fukuyama infamously noted, the fall of the Soviet Union heralded the end of history.  Today’s progressives make the same unfortunate claim.

There are three lessons to be taken from Paul, Hinduism, and the Catholic Church.  First, the world is temporal, illusory, deceptive, and irrelevant to the only purpose of life, spiritual evolution; and that attempts of secular reform are meaningless and spiritually corrosive.  Second, institutions, regardless of their religious or secular origins, tend to build power, influence, and autocracy based on ‘belief’ and then abuse their authority through excessive intervention, control, and regulation. 

The third lesson – let it be – is the most important and universal of them all.  A religious believer who understands that social configurations are in and of themselves without lasting or universal value can let them be, not bothered about challenging or reforming them, and turn exclusively to God.  A secularist can see that over time history has not changed one bit – that conflict, hostility, wars, territorialism, and empire have always been the rule and always will be – and can be unconcerned about social change which, regardless of character or purpose, will always end up as a fruitless and frustrating enterprise.

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