The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Sacrifice

Homer’s Iliad is an epic poem, originally written in dactylic hexameter in Greek in the 8th Century BC. It tells a story, set in the tenth year of the Greek siege of Troy, about a falling out between the Greek hero Achilles and the Mycenean King and leader of the Greeks Agamemnon, after Agamemnon dishonored Achilles, which led to Achilles withdrawing with his men from the war. The gods are very active participants in Homer’s account of the war, and Zeus decrees that the Greeks will lose to Hector’s Trojan forces until such time as Achilles is properly honored and returns to the war. Agamemnon seeks to make amends to Achilles, but the hero will not listen until, with the Trojans on the verge of burning the Greek encampment, he allows his friend Patroclus to fight in his armour in his place. Patroclus is killed by Hector at which point Achilles, turning his wrath from Agamemnon to Hector, reenters the battle and slays Hector. The poem ends with King Priam, Hector’s father, ransoming the body of his son from Achilles.

Sacrifice is to be found throughout the Iliad. Greeks and Trojans alike sacrifice to the gods of Olympus. Sacrifice, in the Iliad, is conceived of both as offerings which are the gods just due, and a means of placating the wrath of an angry god. The former concept can be seen in Zeus’ arguments with his wife Hera. Hera is single-mindedly set upon Troy’s destruction and is displeased with Zeus’s decision to temporarily turn the tide of battle in Troy’s favour. Zeus takes the position that since he has already decreed final victory for the Greeks that ought to satisfy Hera and that at any rate Hector deserves honor too. He points out that due to Hector’s conscientious piety the altars of the gods in Troy have never been empty. The second concept can be seen in the first book of the Iliad, where the Greeks return Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses, priest of Apollo, to her father. They also bring a hecatomb (a sacrifice of 100 cattle). The purpose of the sacrifice was to appease Apollo, who had answered his priest’s prayers and sent a plague among the Greeks.

The most disturbing sacrifice in the Iliad, however, is that offered by Achilles himself, at the funeral of Patroclus. At the funeral which occurs in the twenty-third book, Achilles slays twelve captive sons of the Trojan nobility and burns their bodies on the funeral pyre as a sacrifice, fulfilling a vow he made to his deceased friend in the eighteenth book. This is the only human sacrifice to occur in the Iliad.

Whatever the sacrifice – cattle, oxen, wine, captured enemies, and whether offered as a routine pious obligation or as a propitiation on the part of a sinner who has offended a god, sacrifices were perceived as gifts men give to the gods and/or to the departed spirits of their comrades and ancestors.

This kind of sacrificial system was not unique to the ancient Greeks. Indeed, versions of it existed among virtually all ancient peoples and some versions of it survive to this day. This includes the ancient Middle East where the true and living God spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, made a covenant with their descendants the ancient Israelites, and later revealed Himself fully in the person of His Son Jesus Christ.

What does the true and living God think of sacrifice? Does He demand sacrifices from His worshipers or accept them if they are offered?

God’s revelation of Himself begins with the five books the Jews call the Torah and which are also called the Pentateuch. These books are the record of God’s covenant with His people Israel. God had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that He would make of their descendants a great nation, give them the land into which He had called them, and they would be His people and He would be their God. The first book of the Torah ends with the Israelites in Egypt, the second book of the Torah begins with them still in Egypt, 400 years later, in slavery. God reveals Himself to Moses, an Israelite who had been adopted into Pharaoh’s family, and Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai. There God makes a covenant with Israel, in which He gives them His commandments, a priest class and religious system to worship Him, and a basic constitution for when they enter the Promised Land.

In the Torah, the God who makes a covenant with Israel, is revealed to be the one true God, the God who created the heavens and earth and all that exists. At the very beginning He is seen as accepting sacrifice from Abel and rejecting the sacrifice of Abel’s brother Cain, which leads to Cain’s jealous fit in which he murders his brother. A few chapters later man has become so corrupt that God sends a Flood to destroy the world, preserving Noah and his family in the ark. After the Flood is over, Noah builds an altar, and offers sacrifices of clean beasts and fowl. God “smelled a sweet savour” – He accepted the sacrifice. God accepts sacrifices from the patriarchs as well.

When Moses goes to Pharaoh to demand that He let God’s people go it is for the express purpose that they might go out into the wilderness and sacrifice to their God. At Mt. Sinai the covenant God makes with Israel is sealed with a sacrifice. It is there that God gives the Israelites, as part of their religious system, a system of sacrifice. The sacrificial system, like most of the ceremonial aspects of God’s covenant with Israel, is recorded in the Book of Leviticus.

How does the Levitical sacrifice system compare to pagan sacrificial systems? There are many similarities. In the Levitical system God ordained sacrifices of animals as well as burnt offerings of grain and other agricultural produce. There were offerings which were to be conducted simply as acts of worship and there were sacrifices that were to be brought by repentant sinners. Then there was the Day of Atonement, to be held each year, in which the High Priest would enter the innermost part of the Tabernacle/Temple with an offering for the sins of the people in general.

There is one very noticeable difference between the sacrificial system established by the Lord and that of many pagan religions, especially those of the other people groups in the Middle East in that era. This is a difference that the Lord emphasizes and which plays a very important role in subsequent Israeli history. The difference is that the Lord condemns the sacrifice of human children as an abomination and a capital crime, whereas Ba’al and Moloch demanded such sacrifices.

There is only one occasion in the Old Testament where God appears to demand a sacrifice of this nature. On that occasion, recorded in Genesis 22, God speaks to Abraham and tells him to take his son Isaac, and go to the region of Moriah and offer Isaac as a burnt offering to the Lord on one of the mountains there. Abraham, obediently set off for Moriah with Isaac and two servants. Leaving his donkey with his servants, he and Isaac took the wood, fire and a knife, and began to climb the mountain. When Isaac noticed that they appeared to have forgotten an essential element of the sacrifice and asked about it, Abraham replied:

“My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering”.

Abraham bound his son, laid him on the altar, then reached for his knife to complete the sacrifice. Here God stopped him and said:

Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

Abraham then noticed a ram caught in a thicket behind him which he sacrificed instead.

This is the only occasion where God commands a human sacrifice of anyone in the Old Testament. (1) He commands it, knowing that He will prevent it from actually taking place, in order to test and demonstrate Abraham’s faith.

In contrast, among the peoples of that part of the world in that era, the sacrifice of first-born children to idols was prevalent. References to the practice can be found throughout the Old Testament. It was the practice of the peoples who were living in Canaan before the Israelite invasion under Joshua and Caleb. This is the context in which God’s order to the Israelites to wipe out the peoples of the land of Canaan after He led them out of Egypt and the wilderness must be understood. It is not explicitly stated as the reason, for God does not need to justify Himself to man, but Israel’s failure to follow through on the order, led to her own contamination. The historical and prophetic writings of the Old Testament record that Israel would in periods of repentance and revival, tear down the altars of these idols, but that in periods of backsliding and apostasy they would not only tolerate these practices among the remnants of these peoples but would join in the worship of the idols and the child-sacrifices themselves, which would bring God’s judgment and condemnation.

There was only one actual human sacrifice which God would ever accept. It was a very different kind of human sacrifice than Achilles’ sacrifice of the 12 Trojans to the spirit of Patrocles or of the offering of firstborn children to Moloch. It was not a sacrifice God demanded of people nor was it an offering man made to God. It was the last sacrifice God would ever accept and it lies at the heart of the New Testament.

It is foreshadowed in the account of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Note that Abraham told Isaac that “God will provide himself a lamb”. After God stops him from sacrificing Isaac, it is a ram that Abraham finds and sacrifices, not a lamb. It would be centuries later that God would provide that lamb Abraham spoke of.

John the Baptist pointed Him out in John 1:29 where, seeing Jesus coming to him, he said “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”

Christ’s death on the Cross was a sacrifice – the final sacrifice, the last blood sacrifice God would accept, and the only one which would ever be truly effective in taking away people’s sins. St. Paul, writing to the Church in Ephesus, wrote:

And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. (Ephesians 5:2)

Writing to the Church in Rome, St. Paul wrote that God set forth Christ “to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” (3:25). A propitiation is a sacrifice that appeases the wrath of a deity, that turns away the deity’s anger against a sinner, and makes that deity pleased with the sinner again.

It is the author of the Book of Hebrews who gives us the fullest picture of Jesus Christ as the true sacrifice. The Book of Hebrews depicts the Tabernacle/Temple, priesthood, and sacrifices of the Old Covenant as shadow-pictures of Christ, Who is the true High Priest (3:1, 4:14-15, 5:1-10), without sin of His own, Who offered up Himself as the one true sacrifice once and for all (7:27) and so was able to enter the true Holy of Holies, in the eternal Tabernacle in Heaven with His own blood to take away the sins of the world (9). Christ’s sacrifice is forever (10:12), perfects those who are sanctified, i.e., set apart as belonging to God, by it (10:14) and has therefore done away with offerings for sin because it has accomplished remission of sins (10:17-18).

What makes this sacrifice different from the human sacrifices which God condemned in the Old Testament?

For one thing Jesus was the only truly innocent victim. Other human beings have “all sinned and come short of the glory of God”. Offering one person, tainted with the guilt of sin, cannot atone for the offences of other sinners. At the Cross, however, God “made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (Col. 5:21)

Then there was the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice was a voluntary sacrifice. The prophet Isaiah, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, looked ahead through the centuries and wrote of Christ:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus, hours away from the Crucifixion, prayed “Father, if Thou be willing, remove this cup from Me” but submitted to the will of His Father “nevertheless not My will, but Thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). He did not fight back, or allow His disciples to fight back, when Judas brought the priests and temple guards to arrest Him.

Finally, and most importantly, Jesus’ sacrifice was not something that men offered to God, or that God demanded of men. While pagans had a concept of sacrifice as propitiation for sins, the way they understood it to work was that when they had offended the gods, they would offer them a gift, to butter them up, and appease their anger. Tragically, God’s own people often tended to think of it this way as well. This is why there are so many passages in the Prophetic writings where God tells Israel that He doesn’t want their sacrifices – that He wants faith and humility, mercy and justice, instead. This is why King David, in Psalm 51, composed after Nathan had come and exposed his sin in the affair of Bathsheba, wrote:

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (vv. 16-17)

Instead of being something men offer to God, Christ’s sacrifice is God’s gift to man. We have all sinned. We all sin. We have nothing we can offer God to make up for our sin, to make things right between us and God. God, however, being loving and gracious, chose to make us right with Himself. The sacrifice necessary, to make things right between man and God, was not something we could give to God. It was something He had to give to us.

Although Jesus was condemned to die by the chief priests of Israel, those priests did not condemn Him with the purpose of offering Him as a sacrifice. Jesus, as the book of Hebrews tells us, was both the priest and the sacrifice. He offered Himself to God as the final propitiatory sacrifice to reconcile man to God. God declared His acceptance of the sacrifice by raising Christ from the dead and seating Him at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.

It is important that we remember that Jesus was Himself divine. This is vitally important to contemplation of Christ’s sacrifice for at least two reasons. First, the sacrifice of Christ was not just the sacrifice of an innocent man. It was the sacrifice of a Man Who was also God. The Person offered up to God on the altar of the Cross was God Himself, and therefore of infinite worth. That is why His sacrifice is once and for all. Secondly, since Jesus was God Himself, this sacrifice was not something God demanded from or received from human beings. This was a sacrifice, in which God offered up Himself as a sacrifice to Himself, on our behalf. That is why this sacrifice, unlike any other, takes away the sins of the world.

When Jesus died the veil dividing the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Temple which signified the direct presence of God with His people, from the rest of the Temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. It is man’s sin that barred him from access to God’s presence. Christ’s death took that sin away and we are now invited, through faith in Christ and His sacrifice, to boldly enter the presence of God Most High.

Christ’s sacrifice sealed a New Covenant between God and man, a covenant in which everyone who believes in the Savior God has given are now part of God’s people, a covenant in which obedience to God is to flow out of love, not in order to earn God’s acceptance, but out of faith that we are already accepted by God through Christ. The only sacrifices that God will accept from His people today are the “broken spirit” and “broken and contrite heart” that David wrote about and the sacrifice St. Paul wrote about in Romans 12:1:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

(1) Judges 11 is not an exception. There the judge Jephthah makes a rash promise to sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him when he returns from his victory over the Ammonite. It turns out to be his daughter. There is a debate about whether Jephthah actually literally sacrificed her or fulfilled his vow in another way, by placing her in service to God in the Tabernacle. Whatever the case, if he did literally sacrifice her it was in clear violation of the Mosaic Law. There is no indication that God accepted such a sacrifice.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

This and That No. 6

My next essay, on the topic of Christ's atonement, is almost finished and will be posted in the next couple of days. Although the topic is appropriate for Good Friday, I am writing and posting it now because I doubt that I will have the time to do so during Holy Week.

In Canadian political news, the opposition parties have united against the proposed budget for this year, so it looks like we will be going into yet another election. What this essentially means for me is that I will get another chance to decide which is stronger - my dislike for Stephen Harper and his ministers, or my absolute loathing of everything the other parties stand for. If the latter is stronger, I will vote Conservative. If the former is stronger, I will take the stand of Evelyn Waugh, who after World War II:

[R]efused to vote in parliamentary elections, on grounds of conscientious objection. He maintained that it was disloyal presumption for a subject to advise the sovereign, even in the most indirect way, on the choice of ministers... (Christopher Sykes, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, Penguin Books, 1977, p. 395)

While I have been a conservative all my life, I do not believe conservatism necessarily means support for the Conservative Party. A belief in salvation through politics is the defining characteristic of the Left. "If only our revolution succeeds, if only our party wins, if only our policies are enacted, if only our programs received more funding - then we could recreate Paradise on earth." While conservatism is an ideology in the sense of "any reasonably coherent body of moral, economic, social and cultural ideas that has a solid and well known reference to politics and political power" (Robert Nisbet, Conservatism: Dream and Reality, Transaction Publishers, 2002, p. 15), true conservatism is anti-ideology when ideology means a political substitute for religion which promises salvation in the form of an earthly Paradise, in return for faith in and loyalty to party and platform. True conservatism is based on the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Man is fallen, and can only find spiritual salvation through God's grace in Christ. While good government, just laws, personal liberty are all good things, they are not ultimate goods and can never solve all of man's problems, let alone his central problem of sin.

It is important for Canada's conservatives to remember that as we enter yet another election. There is no salvation in politics - even "Conservative" politics. That is what conservatism is all about - resisting the save-the-world, do-gooders, who preach a political salvation, and resisting the temptation to turn our own political ideas into just such a religion-substitute. Our ultimate hope must lie, not in who wins the next election, but in He Who died for us.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Centre of Christianity

What is the essence of Christianity, the heart of the Christian message, the sine qua non of the Christian faith?

Many people today would answer this question with an ethical statement. “We should be kind to others”, would be a fairly standard example of this kind of answer.

Is this the correct answer?

Before answering that question we should ponder another question. Why do so many people think that the essence of Christianity is an ethical message about being good or kind to other people?

One answer to that question might be “Because Jesus taught us to be kind to other people”. That is true. In His most famous Sermon Jesus said “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 7:12) Since most people would prefer that others were kind to them this could be paraphrased as “be good and kind to other people.” Does this lie at the absolute centre of Jesus’ message though?

There is an implication of the idea that “being good to others” is at the heart of Jesus’ message that has perhaps not occurred to many of those who would give a knee-jerk “yes” answer to that last question. If, “being good to others” was central to Jesus’ message, with everything else He taught being peripheral, then Christ’s message would be an anthropocentric message, man-centred, rather than a theocentric message, God-centred.

This implication actually points us to the reason why so many people conceive of the Christian message as being basically ethical. There has been a revolution in Western thought over the last 500-800 years.

If we go back to the roots of Western civilization in ancient Athens, Socrates laid the intellectual foundation for two millennia of Western thought when he re-focused Greek thought away from questions about the substance of the material world, which had been the focus of earlier Greek philosophers such as Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, Empedocles of Agrigentum, and Heraclitus of Ephesus. Socrates, focused on questions about things which transcended the material world. “What is courage?” “What is justice?” “What is virtue?” He searched for answers to these questions insisting that a valid answer would be one which would apply universally to all examples of these things. Socrates’ student Plato, through whose writings his teacher is known to us today, developed out of Socrates search for universals, the idea that the material world is an imperfect, shadowy reflection of reality. Reality, according to Plato consisted of perfect, eternal, immaterial, universals which he called eidoi (usually translated “Forms”) and which man could only contemplate through the use of reason. Plato’s own pupil, Aristotle, differed from Plato in that he taught that man approached transcendent universals though particulars that one experiences empirically in this world, but agreed with his teacher that the transcendent universals themselves, are the subject of the highest, truest, and most important knowledge.

This concept of the Athenian philosophers, that things which are invisible, eternal, perfect, and beyond the world available to the senses but imperfectly represented in that world, was the foundation of Western thought for millennia. It provided the intellectual framework within which Christian theology was developed.

Then, over the last several centuries, modern philosophers began to reorient Western thought away from the universal, the invisible, the transcendent, towards the physical world. In the 14th Century, William of Occam taught a form of nominalism (the denial of the existence of metaphysical universals). In the 17th Century, René Descartes tried to develop a rational belief system in which nothing was “known” unless he could logically demonstrate it from something of which he was absolutely certain. His search for such certainty turned inward until he reasoned that since he couldn’t doubt that he was doubting, his mental activity and hence his existence, were certainties. It was a brilliant solution to his problem – brilliant, but autocentric. Immanuel Kant, in the 18th Century taught that our knowledge was subjective, that we can only ever know phenomena (external things as they appear to us) because we play an active role in how we perceive things, therefore noumena (things “as they are in themselves”, this is the term which in classical philosophy includes everything beyond the world available to the senses) are forever outside our knowledge. In the 19th Century, Auguste Comte, one of the first sociologists, argued for positivism, the idea that we can only know that which we can experience, observe, and empirically test in the material world. He taught a progressive theory of the history of human knowledge in which theology and metaphysics are primitive stages prior to the “positive” approach of modern science. In the early 20th Century an extreme version of this doctrine called “logical positivism” became popular in intellectual circles.

This reorientation of Western thought away from the transcendent, invisible, and eternal to the imminent, visible, and temporal both contributed to and was the result of the birth of modern science with all of its blessings and curses. It has also led to a way of referring to the physical world as the “real world” that is popular among parents who wish to encourage their kids to focus on their education and get good jobs, among people who have come to regard life as a long bitter struggle to sustain one’s physical existence, and various others. It has further led to a popular misconception of the relationship between the scientific and the possible. Since scientists express the summaries of their observations as “laws” many people have gotten the wrong impression that a scientific law means “such-and-such has to happen in this way under all circumstances” rather than “such-and-such has always happened in this way in our observations and experiments so there is a high probability that it will continue to always happen this way in the future”.

This in turn has led to a bias against the possibility of the supernatural, of miracles. Thus, people who had adopted these modern perspectives, and who therefore read the Gospels and dismissed the possibility of the Virgin Birth, the turning of the water into wine, the healing miracles, the calming of the storm and walking on water, the raising of Lazarus, the feeding of the 5000, and the Resurrection, but who still wished to think of themselves as Christians, had to look for an essence of Christianity which relegated all of the supernatural aspects of the Gospels to outward religious trappings of the Christian message. This left them with the ethical teachings of Jesus Christ.

Did Jesus Christ make ethics the heart of His message however? Do those who see Jesus as primarily an ethical teacher even understand His ethical teachings?

“Love thy neighbor as thyself” Jesus is often quoted as saying. He did say that, but He was not introducing anything new. He was quoting Leviticus 19:18. Furthermore, He made it explicitly clear that “love thy neighbor as thyself” is not the highest principle of His ethical system. It is only the second greatest commandment. The greatest is to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength”. Loving God, takes precedence over loving man, in Christ’s ethical teachings. This precludes “being kind to other people” from being central to Christ’s teachings. It is important but it is not the most important thing.

Jesus said of these commandments “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”. What does this mean? “The law and the prophets” are what Christians call “the Old Testament” and what Jews call the Tanakh (from the acronym of the initials of the Hebrew words for Law, Prophets, and Writings). When Jesus says that “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” He is saying that the Old Testament is summarized in these two commandments. He is also saying that someone who truly loves God and his neighbor, will keep all the commandments of the Old Testament.

That is something that people who think Jesus’ teachings can be summarized in “be nice to one another” are not likely to be very comfortable with. The Old Testament contains all sorts of commandments that such people usually don’t like. They like to think that the point of Jesus’ teachings was to do away with the Old Testament commandments and replace them with “be nice to each other”. Jesus Himself, however, warned people against interpreting His words this way:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)

These words occur in the Sermon on the Mount just prior to the section where Jesus quotes six Old Testament rules and demonstrates that the standard of righteousness God requires goes beyond the mere, literal, sense of the commandments. The commandment against murder, Jesus says, means that “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” The commandment against adultery, Jesus says, is broken even by lustful thoughts. The Old Testament includes civil law provisions for divorce and swearing oaths, but the righteousness God demands of people, Jesus said, requires that you do not divorce your wife unless she has been unfaithful and that you speak the truth at all times so that an oath is redundant and unnecessary. The Old Testament includes instructions for civil judges as to how to dispense justice and commands love for one’s neighbor. Jesus adds that one is not to take the former into his own hands and avenge oneself and that love should be extended even to one’s enemies.

The “love” Jesus preached, then, goes beyond the bland “kindness” and “niceness” that the modern liberal reads into it. Jesus’ ethical teachings are extremely demanding. Furthermore, they are filled with threats of judgment and Hell. This is exactly the sort of thing that people who think Christianity is about “being nice to others” don’t like, but Jesus talked about these subjects more than anybody else in the Bible.

After Jesus’ baptism, and his 40 day fast in the wilderness, the Gospels record that He began His preaching/teaching ministry. The message, the Gospels record Him preaching throughout Galilee is “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” What did that mean?

The kingdom of heaven is what the Jews were waiting for. The Old Testament records the covenant God made with the people of Israel, and the history of how they would be unfaithful, God would judge them, they would repent, and He would restore them. The prophetic literature of the Old Testament records the words of the prophets addressed to Israel and Judah (and sometimes to the surrounding nations) in the last days of the divided Kingdom, in the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions that wiped out Israel’s political sovereignty. The prophets spoke of this as God’s judgment on Israel for unfaithfulness, idolatry, and a lack of mercy and justice. The prophetic pronouncements of judgment and condemnation, however, were tempered with a message of hope. God will not be angry with His people forever. He will establish His kingdom on earth, He will establish a New Covenant in which He will write His laws, not on tablets of stone but upon the hearts of His people, He will send a Redeemer.

“The kingdom of heaven is at hand” meant that that promised time had arrived at long last. Therefore, Israel was called upon to repent and to “believe the gospel (“good news”, in this case meaning that the long-awaited kingdom is finally here). At the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus made it explicit what He meant by “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, when He rode into Jerusalem on the Sunday before Passover on a donkey. He was the promised Redeemer. He was the Messiah. He was the Christ. That was His message.

This had been present in His teachings all along. He said things no ordinary teacher of ethics would ever have said. In the portion of the Sermon on the Mount referred to above, where He expounded on the meaning of 6 commandments in the Old Testament, He used a formula “You have heard that it was said…but I say unto you” which placed His own teachings on the level of the writings He had declared to be authoritative Scripture. At the very end of that same Sermon, just before He compares His teachings to a rock, and people who do what He says to a man who builds a house on the rock rather than on the sinking foundation of sand, He said:

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matt. 7:21-23)

Do you recognize the significance of this? Jesus is saying in these words that He will be the one who will pronounce the final judgment upon men. He was saying that He was Himself God come down from Heaven to live amongst His people.

This lay at the heart of everything He said, and everything He did, from His telling the man with palsy whom He healed “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee” to when He promised the rich young ruler that he would have treasure in heaven if he gave up everything he had and followed Jesus, statements no ordinary teacher could have made without committing blasphemy. He accepted men’s worship, commended those who displayed faith in Him and rewarded that faith, and rebuked those who did not believe, including on several occasions, His own disciples.

When He presented Himself in Jerusalem openly as the Messiah, initially the masses welcomed Him, crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.” By the end of the week, they were demanding His blood from Pilate, crying out “Crucify Him”. That too, lies at the heart of His message.

Jesus at one point asked His disciples Who men said that He was. They gave various answers and He then asked them Who they said He was. Peter answered “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, which answer Jesus commended. He then began telling His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, where He would be put to death, and three days later He would rise again.

On the night before His crucifixion, at the Last Supper He took bread and after blessing and breaking it, He gave it to His disciples saying “Take, eat; this is My body”, then took the cup and after giving thanks said:

Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matt. 26:27-28)

The “new testament” is the new covenant that was promised by the Prophets. What Jesus was saying here as He commissioned the Eucharist, was that He Himself, would be the sacrifice that would establish the new covenant. His sacrifice would do what no other sacrifice could. It would take away the sins of the world, making peace between God and man, a peace into which all people everywhere are invited to participate through faith.

Jesus Christ Himself, then, is the centre of Christianity. Christianity is about Who Jesus is, about His sacrificial death on the cross, and about His Resurrection from the dead. The Resurrection is the evidence which confirms that Christ is Who He claimed to be.

The Athenian philosophers 400 years before Christ came to earth, argued that true wisdom lies in contemplating the transcendent, the perfect, and the eternal, the things which lie beyond the world we know through our senses. The sort of things they had in mind were universals which correspond to categories of physical particulars. God, of course, is also beyond the world we experience through our senses. He does not, however, correspond to a category in the physical world. How then is He to be known to us? In the pagan cultures of two millennia ago, people made statues of their deities and worshipped their deities through these statues. This practice, called idolatry, is forbidden in the Ten Commandments and condemned throughout Scripture.

St. Paul writing in Colossians 1:15 refers to Jesus as “the image of the invisible God”. The word translated “image” there is the Greek word eikon, from which the English word icon is derived. Jesus is what no idol could ever be. He is the perfect image, the perfect representation, of the true and living, invisible God, because He is God incarnate as a true man.

God’s revelation of Himself to man in Christ, particularly the redeeming love revealed in the death and Resurrection of Christ, is what Christianity is all about.

Monday, March 7, 2011

This and That No. 5

First with regards to my last essay, note that tomorrow is the "International Women's Day", a holiday started by the socialists 100 years ago. Today's essay, "Moral Sanity and Abortion" was written for the occasion. I'm sure the socialists, progressives, and feminists will all appreciate the sentiment. ;)

With the exception of Richard Weaver who is quoted in the first paragraph, and Pope Paul VI, everyone quoted in the last essay was a Canadian. Dr. Lionel Tiger, a graduate of McGill University, was born and raised in Montreal.

Tomorrow is also Shrove Tuesday, which is the last day before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the first day of the penitential season of Lent in the Christian calendar, leading up to Holy Week. This brings us to the close of the period I have allotted to myself for political essays this year. Alas, I have not run out of essays. I still have an essay on war that I am working on, as well as one on free speech. I also had planned on reviewing Eric Voegelin's The New Science of Politics, Robert Nisbet's The Quest For Community, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn's Liberty or Equality, Leo Strauss's Natural Right and History and Thomas Molnar's Utopia: The Perennial Heresy this year, mostly as an excuse to re-read this conservative classics. I still intend to write and post these essays this year, but my focus will be on theological topics from the beginning of Lent through to Trinity Sunday (June 19th this year). At which point I will switch to cultural and art topics, tentatively beginning with a review of T. S. Eliot's Notes Toward a Definition of Culture.

Early last week I wrote an e-mail to Jason Kenney, our Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism. At the end of the week before that, Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, the brilliant Serbian-American scholar who is the foreign-affairs editor of Chronicles Magazine, and the author of such books as the excellent and informative The Sword of the Prophet: Islam; Theology, History and Impact on the World and Defeating Jihad: How the War on Terror May Yet Be Won In Spite of Ourselves, was prohibited from entering Canada where he was scheduled to speak at a meeting on the campus of the University of British Columbia. This was not just a case of over-zealous border guards. The decision to ban Dr. Trifkovic from Canada had come down from the Ministry. The same Ministry that continues to uphold the liberal immigration policies set in place in this country by the Pearson and Trudeau administrations in the 1960's, which I have criticized here. These liberal immigration policies, to say nothing of our refugee policies, pose a major security risk to this country. Dr. Trifkovic posed no threat to this country. You can read his account of the incident here, and Diana Johnstone's comments here.

It would appear that the only time Kenney's Ministry is willing to prevent people from entering the country is when they are speakers with controversial views that some group or another objects to. A couple of years ago George Galloway, the British Labour MP, was banned from coming to Canada. I don't particularly care for George Galloway, nor do I agree with much, if anything, of what he has to say. The reasons given by the government were as absurd as the reasons they have given for banning Dr. Trifkovic. Granted, the government of a sovereign country has the right and authority to ban whoever it wants, except its own people. It is an error, however, to use that authority to keep controversial speakers out, while allowing hordes of immigrants in. It should be the other way around.

Moral Sanity and Abortion

There is perhaps no topic that better illustrates Richard Weaver’s statement that “modern man has become a moral idiot” than the topic of abortion. The arguments made by virtually everybody except the Roman Catholic Church on this topic display a complete inability to grasp basic ethical principles let alone to reason properly and form sound ethical conclusions.

The word “abort” is a verb which has as its object a procedure. To abort something is to stop it prematurely, before it has run its course. When we speak of “abortion” we refer to the act of prematurely stopping a pregnancy which in ordinary circumstances must lead to the death of the developing foetus.

Here the Roman Catholic Church draws a distinction. The Roman Catholic Church says that the term “abortion” is properly applied only to procedures which are undertaken with the purpose of ending a pregnancy. A process that is undertaken for another purpose, such as surgery to save a pregnant mother’s life, that has as a secondary consequence the termination of the pregnancy is not an abortion. Upon initially hearing of this distinction, some might argue that this is purely semantic, splitting hairs, and allowing on the one hand what is forbidden on the other, similar to how the Roman Church’s stance on “annulment” and “divorce” is often seen.

That is not the case here. Here the Roman Catholic Church is applying fundamental ethical principles.

It is right to do good to others. Saving someone’s life is a good example of doing good to others. It is wrong to do harm to others unjustly. Taking someone’s life unjustly is pretty much the supreme example of this. The qualifier “unjustly” is necessary because we live in a fallen world, where people do evil to others, which sometimes requires that they be harmed to stop them from doing evil to oneself or to another person (this is called self-defense and it is recognizably just) and sometimes requires that the community in its law-making and enforcing capacity administer justice by inflicting upon a law-breaker the harm he has done to others. This must always be an act of the community carried out by those holding lawfully constituted authority to administer justice.

What happens when doing good to others results in harm to a third party? Here is where we must be careful. We do not want to carelessly overlook the harm our intended good to one person or group of persons may inflict upon a third party, much less to dismiss or justify that harm, by our intended good.

Thus, in the case of a doctor who is contemplating surgery to save the life of a pregnant mother who recognizes that the surgery will likely or surely also result in the termination of the pregnancy, the doctor must not thoughtlessly reason “well, I’m doing good by saving the mother’s life, therefore it is sad but alright that the foetus will probably die as a result”. This is a situation that the doctor and the expecting parents must consider together and what makes it permissible for them to go ahead with the surgery is the fact that the death of the foetus is probably inevitable either way. If the mother will die if the pregnancy continues to full term then the foetus will almost certainly die too. Therefore, it is permissible and just to save the mother’s life even with the knowledge that doing so will almost certainly mean death for the foetus.

It would certainly not be right, however, for a couple who wish to terminate a pregnancy for other motivations, to ask a doctor to falsely declare the expectant mother’s life to be in danger for the purpose of justifying a procedure that will result in the death of the foetus. Nor would it be right for the doctor to comply with such a request.

It is certainly not right for a society to declare that abortion must be available to any woman who wants it, legally, and at the society’s expense on the grounds that some mothers find their lives endangered by their pregnancies. A morally sane person can see that a moral dilemma exists in a case where the mother’s life is endangered by pregnancy and that the decision to save the mother’s life, while just, cannot be arrived at lightly. This must not be used to justify terminating pregnancies in other situations. There the moral dilemma does not exist because abortion is just plain wrong.

There are areas where a strong case can be made both for “this behavior is right” and “this behavior is wrong”. This is not one of them. To terminate a pregnancy is to terminate a human life. As mentioned above, terminating a human life can in certain circumstances be justified. If you accidentally kill someone, and there is no way you could have prevented the accident, if it is not the result of negligence of some sort, you are not morally culpable for the death. If someone is attacking you or others and he cannot be stopped in any other way than by killing him you are justified in taking his life. If someone has murdered somebody else then the lawful authorities of the community are justified in imposing death as a penalty upon the murderer. If a state of war exists between your country and another country and you are called upon to do your duty to your country by fighting for her in war, your killing the soldiers of your country’s enemy on the battlefield is not murder on your part. Abortion does not fall within any of these categories of “justifiable homicide”.

It must therefore fall within the category of “murder”. That is the only conclusion available for a morally sane person.

The arguments people use to avoid this conclusion are quite revealing.

There is the “what if the mother’s life is in danger” argument which we have already addressed. There is also the “rape” argument.

“Rape is sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person against their consent. If a woman gets pregnant as a result of a rape, how can it be just to force her to go through 9 months of pregnancy and to nurture and raise the child of the man who raped her?” The answer, of course, is that it is not just, but neither is it just to allow her to have an abortion for this reason. The human life growing within her – which is an outgrowth of her own life as well as that of her rapist – bears no culpability for his father’s guilt. She will not have to nurture and raise the child after the pregnancy if she does not wish to do so as she can give the baby up to adoption. The pregnancy will undoubtedly be traumatic for her as a constant reminder of the event which caused the pregnancy. An abortion will be traumatic as well and possibly even more so than carrying the pregnancy to term. Unfortunately, there is no just outcome to this scenario.

Like the case of the expecting mother whose life is endangered by her pregnancy, however, this is an extreme scenario. The vast majority of abortions, legal or illegal, are not done for reasons like these. If society were to decide that of the various unjust solutions to the problem of a woman pregnant due to rape the least unjust is to allow the woman to have an abortion that would still not warrant making abortion legal, easily accessible, and paid for by the government, to all women.

Some try to argue for liberal abortion laws by questioning who qualifies as a “person”. This argument can take on a number of forms. There is the form which says “the law defines personhood as beginning at birth”. All that proves, however, is that progressive liberals drew up the law. Neither truth nor fact can be generated by legislation. If human personhood begins at conception then no amount of laws saying that it begins at birth will change that fact. (1)

Another form of the argument is the agnostic form – “We cannot know when personhood begins”. While I don’t accept that as being valid, let us assume for a moment that it is. Ted Byfield irrefutably answered this argument decades ago. He wrote:

Here is a problem in “values” of the type that modern social studied teachers are encouraged to pose. Several men are out in the woods hunting. Suddenly one of them sees something move in the bush. At last he rejoiced, a deer. Then a warning flashes through his mind. That might not be a deer. That might be one of the other hunters. Question for the class: Should the hunter fire at the thing if there’s a chance it’s another human being? The approved answer is no. (2)

Mr. Byfield went on to explain that he had raised this scenario on a CBC television program where he put it to Dr. Henry Morganthaler! He said “the tape was killed, the program was never run, and I was never invited back”.

The point that Mr. Byfield had made was that it is not enough for the advocates of legal, open-access abortion, to cast doubt upon the status of a developing foetus as a “person” or “human being”. They have to prove that the foetus is not either of those things to make the case for legal abortion.

Having established that, we do not need to depend upon the burden of doubt. It is ridiculous to assert that we cannot know whether or not the foetus is a human being. Leave terms like “human being” and “person”, which have apparently become plastic and malleable in recent decades, and nonsensical rhetorical categories like “potential human being” aside. The foetus is unquestionably a human life. When a human sperm fertilizes a human egg, a zygote is formed which possesses a full set of human chromosomes, a mix from its father and mother which are unique to itself. The process of growth through cell division and replication begins immediately. This is a new life, a unique life, and a human life, from the moment of conception. All scientific facts support this.

That should settle the question for anyone possessed of a modicum of moral sanity. The foetus is a life and is identifiably human, terminating its life falls within none of the categories of justifiable homicide, therefore abortion must be murder. The “pro-choice” movement however argues that “a woman has the right to control her own body”.

It is here that the progressive liberals believes that they have made their own irrefutable argument. The argument is worded in such a way that a denial would have to take the form of “no, a woman does not have the right to control her own body” which would seem to suggest that someone else does, making that women as a class are under the perpetual control of that someone else.

There is a question here, that is desperately looking for an answer. Why does “abortion must be legally accessible to all women” logically proceed from the assertion “a woman has the right to control her own body”? Or to put it another way, why does a woman’s having the right to control her own body mean that she has the absolute right to the final decision of whether another human life lives or dies?

What these questions reveal is that “a woman’s right to control her own body” is not the definitive, irrefutable, argument that the “pro-choice” movement wants it to be. As George and Sheila Grant put it:

When the argument for easy abortion is made on the basis of rights, it clearly rests on the weighing of the rights of some against the rights of others. The right of a woman to have an abortion can only be made law by denying to another member of our species the right to exist. The right of women to freedom, privacy and other good things is put higher than the right of the foetus to continued existence. (3)

Or, as the old adage puts it, “your right to swing your first ends where my nose begins”.

What this means is that no person’s rights are so absolute that they are not limited by the rights of others. Now since that argument must apply to the right of the foetus to life as well, does that leave us in limbo, in a stalemate where the rights of women and the rights of foeti perpetually cancel each other out?

The “pro-choice” answer is to state that the rights of a mature, rational, woman must take precedence over the rights of a developing foetus. At first glance this seems to make sense, although this Nietzschean exaltation of the rights of the strong over the rights of the weak is oddly inconsistent with the egalitarianism that most members of the feminist and “pro-choice” movements claim to believe in. If we look at it more closely, however, we realize that there is another factor that needs to be considered in addition to the status of those whose rights have come into potential conflict. That is the nature of the rights themselves. In the case of the foetus, the right in question is the right to survive, the right to live, the right to exist. In the case of the woman, the right in question is a right to decide and to act. Surely the former must take precedence over the latter in a rational hierarchy of rights, regardless of the status of the rights-bearer.

It is clear that sound, reasonable thinking about ethics, supported by biological science, is on the pro-life side in the abortion debate. Why then, is the other side winning and what could possibly draw someone to hold such an obviously wrong position?

This question became all the more puzzling to me several years ago when I read Dr. Lionel Tiger’s The Decline of Males for the first time. In that book, Dr. Tiger, who is the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, in describing the effects of the invention of the birth control pill, wrote the following:

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the contraceptive pill on human arrangements. The most striking display of this is the baffling historical fact that after the pill became available in the mid-1960’s, the pressure for liberal abortion intensified worldwide. This is remarkably, even profoundly, counterintuitive. It is also an implacable historical reality. Only after women could control their reproduction excellently did they need more and more safe abortions. (4)

Counterintuitive is an understatement. The invention of effective oral contraception meant that women no longer required the cooperation of men if they wished to have heterosexual intercourse without getting pregnant. You would normally expect that this would have decreased whatever demand for abortion there was. Instead it increased it. I had not considered how strange this was until Dr. Tiger pointed out the obvious.

Dr. Tiger’s explanation is that the increase in female control over fertility, meant a decrease in male confidence in their own paternity, and hence a lesser willingness on the part of men to stay with the women they impregnated, leading to the demand for abortion. This may have something to do with it – one would think, though, that if oral contraception created mistrust of women on the part of men it would take the form of suspicion they were taking the pill in secret and blaming the lack of offspring on male infertility than in an increase in the age-old fear of being cuckolded.

I’m more inclined to think that it is all about power. That is usually what lies behind demands that are couched in the terminology of rights. If the pill is regarded as a means of empowering women – it gave them more control over their fertility than they had ever possessed in the past – then what would be the next step in that empowerment process? Proclaiming that women have the right to decide to terminate their pregnancies. Such a right would inherently grant women unilateral decision-making authority over the survival of the human species – a tremendous blackmail tool and source of power.

Most women themselves probably would not have thought of it in those terms. Political radicals who seek to exploit issues pertaining to women to achieve their revolutionary goals, including power for themselves, would have thought of it this way, though.

Interestingly, however one wishes to explain the strange historical fact Dr. Tiger pointed out, it confirms the warnings which Pope Paul VI gave in Humanae Vitae about the consequences of artificial contraception. He warned, in that famous 1968 encyclical, that artificial birth control “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards” and:

forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection. (5)

The position taken by Paul VI in Humane Vitae was the position of the entire Christian Church – Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant until very recently. In the four decades since the encyclical came out, Paul VI’s warnings have materialized. In Canada today, there are no legal restrictions on abortion and it is provided free to whoever wants it by the government out of our tax dollars.

It is best not to speculate on what the next exciting step on this road of progress free of all traditional ethical and moral restraints, will be. I’m sure we’ll find out, to our disgust and dismay, before too long.

(1) Similarly, no amount of legislation saying that a union between a man and a man, or a union between a woman and a woman, is a marriage, will ever make it so. The progressive liberal’s seeming faith in the ability of government to generate fact and truth by legal fiat is a superstition.

(2) Ted Byfield, “The question that got me thrown off a TV program”, originally his back page column for the July 25, 1980 issue of The Alberta Report, reprinted on page 105 of The Book of Ted: Epistles From an Unrepentant Redneck (Keystone Press: Edmonton, 1988)

(3) George P. Grant with Sheila Grant, “Abortion and Rights”, originally published as part of The Right To Birth: Some Christian Views on Abortion edited by Eugene Fairweather and Ian Gentles and published in 1976 by the Anglican Book Centre in Toronto, subsequently republished in Technology and Justice, a collection of Grant’s essays published by Anansi, also out of Toronto, in 1986, where it can be found on pages 117 to 130, this particular quotation coming from page 117.

(4) Lionel Tiger, The Decline of Males, (Golden Books: New York, 1999), p. 35. Bold indicates italics in the original.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

When the People Have the Power

Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred by John Lukacs, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2005, 248 pages, $25.

Richard Percival Graves in his excellent biography of the late 19th – early 20th Century classical scholar and poet A. E. Housman recounts how Housman once told an audience that the only good quality of democracy was that it decreased the likelihood of a revolution because people would find it harder to turn on a government they themselves had chosen. The anti-democratic views of old-fashioned Tories like Housman are not popular in this day and age, nor are they widely understood. For many people today, to express opposition to the concept of democracy is to express opposition to freedom and preference for autocratic government, for despotism.

There are, however, good reasons to be skeptical of the benefits of democracy and the best political thinkers in the Western tradition have displayed just such skepticism. Modern egalitarian democracy proclaims all men to be equal. The theory behind this form of democracy is that every person ought to have an equal voice with every other person in government – or at least in choosing who makes up the government.

“Isn’t that what is good about democracy?” many will ask. “What could be wrong with that?”

Well, for one thing it displays a very infantile attitude which can be seen in the familiar expression “I’m just as good as any other man!”. More importantly, however, is that this form of government established as its ideal, the Common Man who is the embodiment of a statistical average. The cult of the Common Man or the Average Man must by necessity always be a leveling force in society rather than an elevating force. A leveling force operates by tearing down the top rather than raising up the bottom. It is destructive rather than constructive.

In this egalitarian democracy is a marked contrast with aristocracy which is an elevating force in society. It does, however, have much common ground with socialism, which is an economic leveling force. Some forms of socialism indeed, refer to their economic goals as “economic democracy”.

“That doesn’t make any sense” someone will say, “democracy goes together with capitalism not socialism. Democracy and capitalism are both about freedom!” This is indeed a widespread notion, especially among those with a progressive vision for the world which involves “democracy” and “capitalism” being spread to every corner of the globe by the American military. People who share this vision are often erroneously called “conservatives” today which creates tremendous confusion in our terminology.

The notion in question, however, is wrong. Democracy is not about freedom and indeed has always been a tremendous threat to liberty. Democracy is the rule of the majority which is an expression of right by might – the might of sheer numbers. This is a force which would completely obliterate liberty – and other more important social goods, like civilization – if it were to be completely unleashed. In Western countries democracy has co-existed with a great deal of political liberty. This liberty has not been due to the fact that the countries are democratic, however, but rather to the fact that democracy has been balanced and checked by other competing principles and forces in government.

Originally, those competing principles and forces were hereditary monarchies and aristocracies. In the Modern Age these were weakened and their role as check on the absolute rule of the majority has been taken over by the ideology of liberalism. Liberalism has for its ideal the absolute rights and liberties of the individual and of minorities rights and liberties which cannot be voted away by majorities. The ideal of liberalism and the ideal of democracy are in fundamental opposition to each other making the notion of a “liberal democrat” something of an oxymoron. A “liberal democracy”, however, in which the forces of liberalism and democracy compete and hold each other’s excesses in check is a constitution which shares some of the strengths of the traditional English parliamentary constitution.

Liberal democracy is therefore preferable to either pure democracy or pure liberalism. While it lacks many of the advantages which the traditional English parliamentary constitution had which can only come from strong aristocratic leadership, it is at its best a form of mixed government, the ideal of the parliamentary tradition, which has been identified with the best possible constitution in Western thought since the days of Aristotle. At its worst it is one step in the Western world’s path towards the democratic ideal. While some see movement towards that goal in positive terms, as being “progress”, others such as myself, do not.

John Lukacs is one of the skeptics. Hungarian by birth and raised in the Roman Catholic faith, Lukacs saw his country of birth conquered, first by the Nazis and then by the Communists. He fled to the United States where he began his career as a professor of history and as an author. Lukacs identifies himself as a reactionary, indicating a traditional or classical philosophical conservative worldview that is radically different from much that is called “conservative” or “right-wing” today, especially in his adopted country. In his autobiography Confessions of an Original Sinner he describes his self-realization of himself as reactionary upon hearing the Nazis sing the Horst Wessel Lied, the Nazi anthem, in the third verse of which the Nazis sing of their comrades fighting against both “Reds” (Communists) and “reactionaries” (traditional, aristocratic, Catholic conservatives).

Throughout Lukacs’ many books there are several themes to which he constantly returns. One of these is the idea that the Modern Age is coming or has come to an end. This does not mean that Lukacs is a post-modernist – at least not in the usual use of term. To a post-modernist, like Jean-François Lyotard, the end of modernity is indicated by the collapse of its “meta-narrative” (a big story explaining everything) and an ensuing skepticism towards all “meta-narrative”. This is an account of spectacular failure. To Lukacs, however, the end of the Modern Age is a success story. The Modern Age is ending or has ended, not because its ideals have failed, but because its vision has succeeded.

Why then is Lukacs to be counted among the skeptics of the progressive view of history?

Lukacs derives his understanding of the Modern Age from Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat of classical liberal views who visited the United States in the early 19th Century and wrote a book about the democracy he saw there. Tocqueville had been born after the French Revolution and had been influenced by Burke’s Reflections, accepting Burke’s negative assessment of the Revolution without fully embracing his admiration for the past. Tocqueville saw the Modern Age as an age of transition, from aristocratic leadership to the age of democracy. Lukacs agrees with Tocqueville’s understanding of the Modern Age and concludes that the transition is now virtually complete. This, however, opens the door to the special dangers of democracy. Tocqueville warned against the “tyranny of a majority” that would characterize an undiluted popular sovereignty.

In his 2005 book entitled Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred Lukacs returned once more to this Tocquevillian theme:

We can see – more: we ought to see – that the entire so-called Modern Age, 1500-2000, especially and particularly in the West, was marked by this dual development: aristocracy retreating, democracy advancing: and that this was once something new, and that this is now at an end. (pp. 7-8, bold indicating italics in original)

Democracy has, of course, meant different things to different people at different times. In the Modern Age and in this book it means the idea of popular sovereignty, i.e. that “the people” are sovereign. The modern advancement of this kind of democracy means, Lukacs declares, the end of mixed government. Mixed government, the classical ideal of Aristotle and Polybius, embodied in the British parliamentary tradition and to which the classical republicans who wrote the original American Constitution aspired, diluted and limited the sovereignty of the people. Now that popular sovereignty has triumphed whatever vestiges of the ancient regime survive do so only at the mercy of the people:

Constitutional monarchies…exist only on popular sufferance: democracy and majority rule may put an end to them in an instant. (p. 11)

This is the situation in my country and in Great Britain, with whom we share a constitutional monarch. Thankfully there appears to be no significant movement to abolish the monarchy although every so often a newspaper will publish an article by some ignorant person suggesting it. Having the monarchy dependent upon public support for its survival is not a good thing for an important reason many people fail to consider. Dependence upon popular support (or popular inertia) for survival prevents a monarchy from properly fulfilling one of the most important roles of a constitutional monarchy – i.e. the role of holding the power of the democratic government in check. This is not the only role of a hereditary monarchy. Lukacs writes:

A hereditary monarchy lends a certain sense of stability to a democratic people, the sense of a family…That is not so under the rule of an elective monarchy such as the American one…Even more important: at moments of great national crises a hereditary monarchy—whatever his other weaknesses or shortcomings—may save an entire country from destruction. In 1943 it was the king of Italy (Victor Emmanuel III) who had Mussolini arrested and deposed; in 1945 it was the emperor (Hirohito) who declared Japan’s surrender, the impact of which was even more decisive than either of the two atomic bombs cast on Japan, or Stalin’s declaration of war a week before. (pp 11-12)

This, of course, is only a small digression in Lukacs’ book which I am stressing because of its relevance to my own country and to my own Tory royalist views. Lukacs discusses surviving monarchies to make the point that the ongoing existence of constitutional, hereditary monarchies does not affect his assessment of the outcome of the Modern Age – “the unchallenged principle of popular sovereignty worldwide”. This, Lukacs contrasts with the aristocratic leadership which characterized the Western world, both in monarchies and republics, prior to the Modern Age.

If aristocracy and monarchy no longer hold popular sovereignty in check what about liberalism? It has been seduced by the idea of Progress and has consequently decayed. As the Modern Age ends, not only has popular sovereignty become dominant, but liberalism has accomplished its major goals rendering itself irrelevant and unappealing. Lukacs puts it this way:

If “liberalism” means the extension of all kinds of liberties to all kinds of individuals, mostly as a consequence of the abolition of restrictions on all kinds of people, these have now been institutionalized and accomplished in formerly unexpected and even astonishing varieties of ways. (p. 217-218)

If liberalism has accomplished its major goals and is veering off into nuttier and nuttier territory losing whatever appeal it may have once had, it too can no longer serve as a check on popular sovereignty. Thus we arrive at Lukacs’ major question: “how traditional democracy can exist much longer, when traditional liberalism has decayed.” (p. 6)

What happens to democracy in the absence of aristocracy and liberalism?

[W]hen this temperance [liberalism] is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing more (or else) than populism. More precisely: then it is nationalist populism. (p. 5)

Lukacs distinguishes between patriotism which he admires and nationalism which he deplores, while acknowledging that in certain periods it is very difficult to distinguish between the two:

Patriotism is defensive; nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a “people,” justifying many things, a political and ideological substitute for religion. (p. 36)

Lukacs identifies nationalism as one of two movements that after 1870 became the two powerful forces that would dominate the Western world throughout the 20th Century. The other movement is socialism. Of the two “nationalism proved to be the more powerful and enduring” (p. 31). The achievement of socialism’s goals were made inevitable by the advancement of democracy. In a sense, therefore, socialism’s victory was won before socialism even began as a movement, weakening it’s populist appeal. Nationalism, however, became a very powerful force after 1870, supplanting both patriotism and conservatism. It had a very strong populist appeal and inevitably a populist demand for a “national socialism” to fight international capitalism and international socialism (Communism) arose.

This topic draws Lukacs naturally and inevitably to the movements which figured so prominently in the historical events which dominated his early years and which are the subject matter of many of his historical books. Here Lukacs challenges many of the notions that have accumulated on both the left and the right about World War II, the Cold War, and the participants in both. Lenin and Trotsky, he tells us, were as bad as Stalin if not worse, and were fools to boot, contradicting a popular view in leftist intellectual circles. Stalin, however, was motivated by Russian nationalism rather than by ideological Marxism. He was, like Hitler, a “national socialist”. This, of course, contradicts a popular view on the right.

This part of the book becomes most interesting when Lukacs discusses the relationships between the various forms of thinking in the Axis countries. He dismisses the notion of “fascism” as a general category, arguing that historically fascism is an Italian phenomenon, an older movement than national socialism, which was eventually replaced by the latter, and it is the latter not fascism which has survived 1945. The idea of categorical, generic, fascism he traces back to Stalin, who banned the use of the expression “national socialism” in Soviet Russia, insisting that Hitler and the Third Reich be referred to as “fascists”. He also dismisses the notion of categorical “totalitarianism” as pure nonsense, writing off Hannah Arendt as a “muddled and dishonest” writer.

Hitler, Lukacs argues, was not a reactionary, counter-revolutionary, or man of the Right in any way, shape or form. One would think that this does not need to be argued, as Hitler constantly referred to himself as a revolutionary and a socialist and defined himself in opposition to monarchy, aristocracy, the Church and even the bourgeoisie. Sadly, however, it does have to be pointed out, and Lukacs does a better job than any one else I have ever read on the subject. Indeed, there is very little comparison because much conservative thought on the subject amounts to little more than “liberals believe in big government, Hitler believed in big government, therefore Hitler was a liberal”, an assessment which is confused on every detail, inane, and stupid.

Lukacs does not make the silly claim that Hitler was a liberal. Rather he demonstrates that Hitler was a populist who used his nationalism to unite the German people in support of him. Hitler was by his own words a nationalist rather than a patriot. While many draw a strict dichotomy between dictatorship and democracy Hitler was not opposed to popular sovereignty. Rather he looked to popular sovereignty and depended upon it for his support knowing that he could keep the people behind him by appealing to their nationalist sentiment, uniting them in the face of external enemies and, more disastrously, aliens and traitors from within.

Lukacs’ successful demonstration that Hitler was not a true man of the Right may not be as pleasing to many conservatives as they may think. All countries are national socialist now, he argues, although not in the extreme form that manifested itself in the Third Reich. Moreover, what often is called “conservatism” in the United States today, is actually nationalist populism. The United States did not have a conservative movement until the last half of the twentieth century, he points out, at which point the debate between conservatism and liberalism which had dominated the historical 19th Century was long over, replaced by the new Right and Left of nationalism and socialism. With the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the end of the Modern Age with nationalism triumphant in an era of universal acceptance of the notion of popular sovereignty, Lukacs foresees the conflict of the future as one between two Rights.

With much of Lukacs’ commentary I agree. I do have a few reservations. Lukacs is very opposed to anti-Communism (as well as to Communism itself) for obvious reasons – it was Hitler’s anti-Communism that led Germany’s conservatives to make the mistake of giving Hitler their support in the early days of his rise to power. They would all too soon realize that mistake. Lukacs may have allowed this to have too much influence on his views of the relative merits and demerits of Communism and nationalism. Stalin’s regime closely resembled Hitler’s in its brutality. So did Mao’s, Pol Pot’s, and those of virtually every other Communist you can name. Is this because all of these governments were nationalist or because they were all Communist? When you take into consideration Lukacs assessment that all Western countries are national socialist now an answer strongly suggests itself which Lukacs equally strongly appears to resist.

Then you have the character of Sir Winston Churchill whom Lukacs admires above all others. Of the various personalities of World War II, Lukacs likes to contrast Churchill with Hitler, making Churchill the typical “reactionary” and Hitler the typical “revolutionary”. I do not disagree with this but it is fairly obvious that Churchill was a very strong anti-Communist. He was also unquestionably a nationalist as well as a patriot.

While Samuel Johnson did indeed say “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” I doubt very much that the distinction Lukacs draws between nationalism and patriotism is what he had in mind. The scoundrel patriots that Dr. Johnson had in mind were the American colonists who called themselves “patriots” in their war to separate themselves from Parliament and the Crown and their Whig supporters in Parliament. Were these people motivated by nationalism? Perhaps, but it seems rather anachronistic to me to say yes. There was certainly a tremendous amount of populism in their rhetoric but it focused more on political organization than on ethnicity.

Lukacs does an excellent job of showing the dangers of populism. A demagogue tells the people that an enemy – whether it be an external enemy, their own elites, or traitors amongst them – poses a threat, drawing upon their nationalist sentiments, and demanding that they exercise their sovereignty as a people, by putting him in power and supporting him while he deals with the problem. This is a very real danger. Lukacs fails, however, to address the question of whether there are circumstances in which a limited degree of populism or even nationalism would be an appropriate. What if, for example, elites really were betraying the interests of their own people as the late Christopher Lasch suggested, and demonstrated, that they were doing in his last book, The Revolt of the Elites? In my country and in the United Kingdom, both of which do have a Tory tradition there have been traditional conservatives – reactionaries – who have felt a direct appeal to the people to oppose policies that are against their interests to be appropriate on certain occasions. Enoch Powell did this in the UK. John Diefenbaker did this here in Canada.

Is the answer perhaps that these Tories appealed to the people from within a constitutional framework whereas a true populist would call upon the people to assert their sovereignty without regards to the constitution?