“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting,” wrote Chesterton. “It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
The great man was right in every absolute sense. No society has ever organised itself in complete agreement with Christ’s commandments. But there used to exist palliatives, little relativities that still had some mitigating effect on human nature.
People might not have spent their lives imitating Christ, but a residual fear still gnawed at the back of their minds. What if? What if they’ll really have to pay for their sins in perpetuity? Perhaps it’s better to take Pascal’s wager and assume God exists. If he does, we have a lot to gain; if he doesn’t, we have nothing to lose.
Oh yes, people still killed – they always kill. They kill in the name of Mohammed and Moses, Buddha and Confucius, they kill in the name of every political creed you care to name. And of course they killed in the name of Christ. Give them a killing opportunity and they’ll find a cause.
Yet one has to believe that, but for that fear of God to whom many of them paid only lip service, they would have killed more. In fact, one doesn’t have to believe that. We know. We’ve confirmed that supposition empirically.
For at some point, 300 or so years ago, people decided that God didn’t merit even lip service. The Enlightenment shone its light on them, and they turned their backs on their tenebrous past. They emerged out of the shadows full of self-confidence.
They didn’t need God any longer. They could rely on their own resources to squeeze as much as possible out of this life, for there was no other. Nothing higher than human reason existed, and it could guide people to higher morality than that incomprehensible Sermon on the Mount. It’s not the meek who shall inherit the world, but the strong, clever and enterprising.
Yet Darwin created man in such a way that, no matter how clever he is, or how materialistic, he still needs to believe in something higher or at least grander than himself. Having discarded God, Darwin’s creatures had to look for surrogates.
Those they found in blood and soil nationalism and socialism, ineluctably born out of the original slogan of liberté, égalité, fraternité. No longer united by their faith, people decided to come together on the basis of their politics or their blood.
Both strains have flourished since then, sometimes singly and at odds with each other, sometimes in a happy union. That ultimate experiment on human nature has had three centuries to produce tangible results – and tangible results it has produced.
The first century that was atheist from beginning to end, the 20th, densely covered the earth with more mangled corpses than all the previous centuries of human history had managed. Without God, wrote Dostoyevsky, everything is permitted – yet even he couldn’t envisage the full scale of that everything.
In hindsight, some people are beginning to think that, though of course God doesn’t exist, perhaps paying some lip service to him wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. Maybe, just maybe, the church has a useful social function to perform, if no other.
The anticlerical believers of yesterday have given way to the clerical atheists of today (the late Roger Scruton is a good example of the breed). Christianism has replaced Christianity, but it’s a poor substitute.
Since our clerical atheists don’t believe Christ is the truth, they want to build a new society on a lie. But that foundation is always termite-eaten from the very beginning. Any structure built on it will sooner or later start tottering within an increasing amplitude – and then it’ll come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho.
There is no substitute for truth, and there is no substitute for Christ. Here in the West our choice isn’t between a Christian civilisation and some other. It’s between a Christian civilisation and none.
Merry Christmas to all of you – and a Happy New Year, unsullied by Covid, inflation or the gremlin in the Kremlin.
10 thoughts on “Lip service is better than none”
The vast majority of people I’ve known throughout my life have never (to me at least) expressed any desire for transcendence, and they seem to do just fine.
As for a civilisation being built on a lie; just look at the Muslim world, which for all intents and purposes is in rude health.
Which intents and which purposes? The intents of living in squalor and the purposes of blowing themselves up if ordered to do so? As to the desire for transcendence, it manifests itself in all sorts of ways: psychobabble, meditation and other oriental practices, all sorts of political causes (climate, race, sex etc.). I think what you mean is that the word ‘God’ never crosses most people’s lips, and if so that’s of course correct. But practically everyone you know has some sort of surrogate.
I am days late and I have much to write on many of the ideas above (not as eloquently as you), but I will focus on the Muslim world. There is no Muslim world. They live in the Christian world (or its remnants) – as do we all. I lived in Saudi Arabia for some time and witnessed this first hand. Most of their own ideas are stuck in the 7th century. They live with our modern conveniences because of oil money and would quickly fall back to the 7th century if that money gives out (that’s one solid reason for pushing “green” energy). While most seem to believe in a god, it is difficult to ascertain true belief from lip service – after all, the price for apostasy is death. I once had a young man tell me as we flew out of Riyadh that Allah cannot see him (or monitor his actions) once he is out of the kingdom. Convenient that. True belief? Hardly. If we had religious police patrolling our cities and forcing people into Mass, attendance (and at least lip service) would be greater. Free will is a great and terrible thing.
Dostoyevsky wrote about this in his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor – that was the greatest part of his Karamazovs. Most people, the Inquisitor was saying to Christ, don’t want the freedom you gave him. They find it scary and dangerous. All they want is to have their bellies full. So yes, a great and terrible thing indeed.
But The Grand Inquisitor wasn’t keeping their bellies full. He was shouldering the burden of atheism by preventing reality from destroying the Catholic religion, allowing the masses to believe they were watched over by a loving god.
“perhaps paying some lip service to him wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all”
Correct. Even if no GOD, the teachings of the various scriptures offer a basis for organizing a people by rules and laws a peaceful and orderly society, relatively harmonious.
Issac Thomson: Yes, but without believing it himself; the Inquisitor was a clerical tyrant who would crucify Christ again. Dostoyevsky detested Catholics almost as much as he hated Jews. The Legend is often mistaken for a general anti-Church statement, but in fact it was mostly anti-Catholic. In general, anti-clericalism is a ubiquitous feature of Russian religiosity, which is why Bolsheviks had such a easy ride there. Polish communists found it much harder in their country.
Excellent! At last someone has expressed reservations about Roger Scruton. I have long been puzzled by the unqualified high regard in which he seems to be held. More on this would certainly be welcome.
Roger had a first-rate mind, and we were friends a long time ago, when he edited the Salisbury Review. He insisted on having my pieces in every issue — but then he realised that we saw the world very differently. A many of many parts — an atheist who played the organ in his local church, a philosopher ho was also a compulsive social climber. But never dull.
To see how fast we have collapsed, just check out the YouTube page for the American Ed Sullivan Show during the 1950s and 1960s. Christmas carols were sung with respect, Patti Page sang Happy Birthday, Jesus and Hark the Herald Angels Sing was played on an organ. None of that is aired now. Beauty and holiness have ling departed our airwaves and replaced with consumerist garbage. I trust that your Christmas went well, Mr. Boot.