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The World That Would Not Obey
No.129: October 14, 2022
Welcome to The Square Inch, a Friday newsletter on Christianity, culture, and all of the many-varied “square inches” of God’s domain. This publication is free for now, but please consider clicking on the button at the bottom to become a paid subscriber to enjoy this along with Monday’s “Off The Shelf” feature about books and Wednesday’s “The Quarter Inch,” a quick(er) commentary on current events.
One of the things I’ve been enjoying lately is reading a little gem of a used book I picked up: Portraits From Memory, by Bertrand Russell. Born in 1872, he passed away in 1970 and I can scarcely think of a more consequential hundred years during which to live.
He was a born aristocrat, a real-life “Downton Abbey” lad who, like so many of that generation, awakened from his decadent slumber by the outbreak of World War I. His was a privileged, if intensely solitary, upbringing. And Bertrand was smart. Too smart for his own good, actually. One might say wicked smart.
And in Monday’s Off The Shelf I will give you some reflections on just how it is a man so brilliant in so many ways could miss the mark so drastically on matters of religion.
Today, I want to highlight something else that has leaped out at me while reading these late-in-life autobiographical sketches: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
But first, if you don’t know Russell, he was a mathematician who spent ten years with his friend Alfred North Whitehead writing the massive Principia Mathematica, a ground-breaking work of logic. He was an atheist philosopher, as well as a social and political activist.
Many Christians know only his name or that he wrote a book called Why I Am Not a Christian. That is unfortunate because he was a man of keen intellect and a man of some consequence. People are more complicated and interesting than a bumper sticker that reads: “Not A Christian.” Russell suffered great isolation and opposition for his pacifism, which, even if you disagree with him (as I do) demands respect. Moreover, to his credit he found himself profoundly out of step with nearly all elite intelligentsia by refusing to admire the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. Conventional wisdom took a long time to realize, as he did immediately, “that they were not creating a paradise.”
Creating a paradise. That brings me to my real topic.
Politically Russell was a classical liberal, which in today’s environment strikes me as a breath of fresh air. Post-liberalism is not new; nationalism is not new; populism is not new; national conservatism is not new; “Christian Nationalism” is not new; these have not been—nor have they ever been—precipitated by a “failure” of liberalism.
Oh, certainly people have long been calling the liberal order a failure, but in my view that is largely because they want it to be a failure. It is wish-casting. These are no disinterested analysts. Patrick Deneen, for example, doesn’t like Protestantism or the individual liberty it brought (he defines it as “radical individual autonomy”—very even-handed of him). That liberty is the very backbone of the classically liberal order. So it should surprise no one that he would write Why Liberalism Failed. It is not intended as a lament or an attempt to fix something that’s broken. It’s intended as intellectual spade-work toward—weird as it sounds—an eventual emergence of some kind of Roman Catholic Empire. Others begin by not liking free markets or free trade or technology or immigration or global economics; lo and behold, all ills are miraculously laid at the feet of the liberal order! Post-liberalism involves highly motivated reasoning and its conclusions are usually baked into the first premise.
Despite what all the young energetic “NatCons” want you to believe, none of this rhetoric about nationalism is remotely new. A friend of mine recently tweeted a criticism of national conservatism and one of these pipsqueaks responded: “Boomer.” Ah, yes. Classical liberalism is old and tired, but nationalism is cutting-edged and exciting! Maybe Boomers are old, but they have the advantage of some education and some life experience and they recognize this movie.
Let’s examine together an obscure passage from Herman Bavinck’s Stone Lectures at Princeton in 1908:
The cosmopolitanism of the ‘Enlightenment’ (Aufklärung) was not only exchanged in the nineteenth century for patriotism, but this patriotism was not infrequently developed into an exaggerated, dangerous, and belligerent chauvinism, which exalts its own people at the cost of other nations.
Oh. So already in the 19th century people were disillusioned by “globalism” (which they called “cosmopolitanism”)? And they exchanged it for a kind of rabid nationalism?
In its turn, this chauvinism was fed and strengthened by the revival of the race consciousness which in Gobineau and H. St. Chamberlain found its scientific defenders.
Oh. And this nationalism was then inflected with race consciousness? Funny. Just the other day Stephen Wolfe, author of a new book, The Case For Christian Nationalism (published by Doug Wilson’s Canon Press), curiously expressed on Twitter the following odd belief:
There is a difference between something being sinful absolutely and something being sinful relatively. Inter-ethnic marriage can be sinful relatively but not absolutely.
Never mind for now the ridiculously unbiblical notion of “relative” sins; whatever such a category might be, he thinks interracial marriage belongs to it. Make a mental note of that. In fact, make it in thick red Sharpie and triple-underline it. Something tells me that’s going to be important. Bavinck continues:
Not only in different parts of the earth, but also often among the same people and in the same land, races are sharply opposed to each other, striving after the chief power in the state and supremacy in the kingdom of the mind.
Wait. Did Bavinck write this last week? Is this an editorial about Critical Race Theory or something, or an after-action report from the National Conservative Conference? Sheesh, there is nothing new under the sun. “This race glorification,” Bavinck continues,
acquires such a serious character and so far exceeds all bounds, that the virtues of the race are identified with the highest ideal. Deutschtum, for example is placed on a level with Christendom, and Jesus is naturalized into an Aryan in race.
Ah, you know where this is headed, right? Like every Indiana Jones adventure, you’re going to find Nazis at the end of this train. (And with Indy, “I hate these guys!”) Only—and this is an amazing thing—Bavinck didn’t know that. This was 1908, not 1938. Nevertheless, Bavinck immediately goes on to give the most stunning prophecy:
Though [competition between nations] still bears outwardly a peaceful character, it widens the gulf between nations, feeds egoism, stimulates the passions, and may on the smallest occasion break out into a war which would surpass all previous wars in devastation.
Stunning, because just six years after he uttered these words a war broke out that surpassed all other wars in devastation, and it was, in fact, the “smallest occasion” that precipitated it: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. For some reason, the nations of the world decided that was the moment to explode into all-out war. Bavinck predicted it, and his prediction was based on the rise of nationalism and race-consciousness.
Maybe we might cast a skeptical glance at all these people telling us that this new nationalism is completely and utterly benign? Nothing to see here! No worries! This is the good kind of nationalism! (In which marrying outside your race is thankfully only a relative, not absolute sin. Or some such nonsense.) You know what? I’m not actually very keen on putting any of these folks in charge, thank you very much. Not even for dog-catcher.
But enough Bavinck. Bertrand Russell carries the story forward from the First World War. In a short portrait of his tumultuous on-and-then-finally-off relationship with British literary figure D.H. Lawrence, he observes:
The world between the wars was attracted to madness. Of this attraction Nazism was the most emphatic expression. Lawrence was a suitable exponent of this cult of insanity. I am not sure whether the cold inhuman sanity of Stalin was any improvement.
Russell recounts a letter he received from Lawrence. See if you’ve heard any of this kind of thing recently:
‘You must utterly revise the electorate. The working man shall elect superiors for the things that concern him immediately, no more. From the other classes, as they rise, shall be elected the higher governors. The thing must culminate in one real head, as every organic thing must—no foolish republics with foolish presidents, but an elected king, something like Julius Caesar.’
He, of course, supposed that when a dictatorship was established he would be the Julius Caesar. This was part of the dreamlike quality of all his thinking. He never let himself bump into reality.
That could be said of a lot of our present-day dreamers who want—maybe not a king, but some elite committee to move the social organism to some common end. They never let themselves bump into reality. They think they’ll be on the committees. And that they’ll be on those committees forever. Russell continues:
I do not think in retrospect [his ideas] have any merit whatsoever. They were the ideas of a sensitive would-be despot who got angry with the world because it would not obey.
I love that and I am going to remember that phrase: “Angry with the world because it would not obey.” That, my friends, is once again the prevailing sentiment of our age and it knows no political or tribal boundaries. Progressives of the Left are infuriated that the world will not obey. It will not use the right pronouns. It will not buy an electric car. It will not go see the new gay RomCom in the theaters. It will not submit to superior wisdom and insight.
And it is, I am saddened to say, all the rage on the Right, too. Angry with the world because it will not obey. People are unruly. They don’t know what’s good for them. If only we were in charge…
During Russell’s lived century he saw the invention of the automobile, the airplane, and saw the moon landing. But perhaps things didn’t change much, after all. Certainly the human heart and its thirst for domination hasn’t.
We ought to hope, pray, and work toward a future that doesn’t involve a repeat of Bavinck’s fulfilled prediction of catastrophe. For my part, I will start by repudiating all of these tired old forms of “post-liberalism.” Because it will not end any differently than it did the last time.
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