When human beings take judgement into their own hands…

I have just been re-reading this passage from Spe Salvi in which Pope Benedict writes:

42. In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgement has faded into the background: Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer’s own soul, while reflection on world history is largely dominated by the idea of progress. The fundamental content of awaiting a final Judgement, however, has not disappeared: it has simply taken on a totally different form. The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested. Since there is no God to create justice, it seems man himself is now called to establish justice. If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world.

He then goes on to cite two philosophers, of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. He could have added a contemporary English philosopher, John Gray.

This morning I listened to these two podcasts from the ABC’s Philosopher’s Zone, in which Alan Saunders interviews Gray about his books “Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals” (Part One) and “Black Mass: apocalyptic religion and the death of Utopia” (Part Two).

Philosophers Zone 28 June 2008 – John Gray at the Writers’ Festival – Part 1
Philosophers Zone 5 July 2008 – John Gray at the Writers’ Festival – Part 2

Gray’s theses in “Black Mass” line up surprisingly well with Pope Benedict’s idea about what happens when human beings decide to take God’s justice into their own hands.

What was new in the late 18th century was the idea that a society [which] may not be perfect but better than any that had hitherto existed, could be created by human effort, human will… from the Jacobins onwards you get the idea that humans can do this by themselves [ie. create Utopia], using often rather terrible means, because in the millenarium we’re thinking the best society, the good society, is preceded by terrible catastrophes, terrible conflicts, terrible cataclysms. This was carried on into secular thought. The Jacobins thought that terror could be pedagogic, people could be taught through being terrorised. And Lenin, who criticised the Jacobins and later on the French Communars on the ground that they were too weak-kneed, they weren’t consistent enough, didn’t kill enough people, also thought this, he thought terror was absolutely essential…

But the idea that terror can be used as part of an armoury of human instruments to produce an incomparably better society, has been adopted not just by Lenin, but by Mao and a whole variety of 20th century totalitarian dictators. What it always produces is an immense loss of life and incalculable numbers of broken lives which don’t end but are broken beyond repair by imprisonment, ill-health, separation from loved ones, and so on and so forth. It never produces the results that it’s intended to produce.

The old slogan, ‘You can’t have an omelette without breaking eggs’ misses out the fact that you can break millions of eggs and still not have a single omelette. And that’s in a way the history of the 20th century so that adamantly and categorically opposed to that kind of revolutionary Utopianism. But I take it as also though, as a secular translation of certain traditions. There are other traditions within Christianity which of course are opposed to this, the traditions of St Augustine of course right from the start in a way almost to start tried to defeat these apocalyptic trends or neutralise them in Christianity. But it’s a secular continuation.

In the course of this program, Gray makes the best case I have ever yet heard for why the US invasion of Iraq was wrong. And he seems to imply what Papa Benny was saying, that the Church, by insisting that “Justice” and “the Kingdom of God” can only come about through God’s own intervention and not by human force, actually protects society from the misplaced ambition of secular states to act as the final arbiter of justice.

You might also appreciate the position (atheistic) that Gray takes in the first part of the interview against the evangelical atheists such as Dawkins on the distinction between human and animal.

I understand and respect the beliefs of Christians and others who think that we’re categorically different because they believe that God has implanted souls in us, but not in other animals. I understand, I respect that. I have less respect and less understanding, well less respect and more understanding actually, of the beliefs of secular humanists who say ‘We’re radically different.’ Professor Dawkins who says ‘Humans alone can choose to defy the imperatives of their genes.’ Well where does this reading come from? Has this come from science, has it come from and is explained in Darwin if we have this feeling? Where has it come from? I don’t understand that at all, it doesn’t seem to me to be coherent if you think that humans belong with all other animals. So that’s one very powerful idea I got from Schopenhauer.

Very interesting.

Maybe John Gray might be a philosopher who is worth reading, even if he is not (in PE’s judgement concerning Neitzsche) the “only philosopher worth reading”.

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0 Responses to When human beings take judgement into their own hands…

  1. Past Elder says:

    I think what Gray, Benedict and others are getting at is that secular Western philosophy, particularly political philosophy, attempts often to preserve religion without religion — hopes for a perfectibility in Man and a better future age, for example, without the religious ideas of how that comes about, not recognising that such hopes themselves are derived from religion. The belief that humans can defy the imperatives of their genes, then, is simply a secular concept of a religous idea of salvation rather than an escape from the religulous ideas of the past.

    (Hey, Bill isn’t the only Maher who likes to have fun with language!)

  2. Schütz says:

    Yes, I think you are spot on. Interestingly, in Straw Man, Gray writes that “Looking into the meaning of history is like looking for patterns in clouds… We cannot be rid of illusions. Illusion is our natural condition.”

    In other words, he rejects any recognition of a “heilsgeschichte” in History, yet believes that we cannot live without these “illusions”.

    But what if, just possibly, the Christian narrative of history were true? As Tolkien told C.S. Lewis: “Yes, it is a myth, but it is a TRUE myth.”

  3. Louise says:

    The definition of “myth” is “central truth.”

    It has only lately come to mean “fallacy.”

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