It seems so archaic, so ancient, so 19th century: the threat of a world power attacking a sovereign nation. Yet, 150 years later, we are speaking again of Russian war in the Crimean peninsula.
A lot of what I research is bound up with the WWII era. Unlike WWI, the “war to end all wars,” WWII really was a crush of ideologies. Rising Fascists, expansionistic Communists, and Democrats in the throes of colonial self-examination met in a titanic battle of flesh and technology. It was an age like no other, and it haunts us still.
One of the features that we tend to forget is that the two World Wars collapsed what was a great movement of human optimism in the Western world, spanning from the Enlightenment of the 18th century to early years of the 20th. And if that optimism did not die in Berlin, Auschwitz, Dieppe, and Hiroshima, then it certainly was obliterated by the proxy wars that littered the century, these puppet theatres of battle perpetrated by the Great Ones of the Cold War, namely the Soviet Union and the United States. With the death of Modern optimism in the advancement of humanity, coupled with the collapse of religious significance, we find ourselves in an age of cynicism and apocalypse. Trust me, I’m Generation X. I could hardly be bothered to write all this down.
Sometimes I wonder if the optimism is returning. There is a trust in technology and scientific progress among a few social commentators, some of my colleagues, and a good number of my students—a kind of optimism that would make Voltaire wink, I believe. But when that optimism threatens to break into Western culture, or some buildings fall, or some storm crashes to shore, or some celebrity is arrested for drunk driving–then we remember, and we return to our apathy.
But, even in the wake of WWII, some of our social prophets had to remind us of the great danger of blind optimism in human progress. Reinhold Neibuhr’s The Irony of American History plays out the story of this optimism in the American project. He argues that:
“Practically all schools of modern culture, whatever their differences, are united in their rejection of the Christian doctrine of original sin” (17).
The theology of the fall, or original sin,
“asserts the obvious fact that all men are persistently inclined to regard themselves more highly and are more assiduously concerned with their own interests than any “objective” view of their importance would warrant.“ (17).
This view, in the years from the Enlightenment through WWII, was not just antiquated, but was anti-humanitarian. By contrast,
“Modern culture in its various forms feels certain that, if men could be sufficiently objective or disinterested to recognize the injustice of excessive self-interest, they could also in time transfer the objectivity of their judgments as observers of the human scene to their judgments as actors and agents in human history” (17).
It is the belief that people can get better if—depending on your politics—you either remove the barriers to innovation or build bridges to success. And when individuals get better, the society will improve. Step back from religion, superstition, out-dated economics. Instead, embrace the human potential of social science and national bureaucracies, and it will be okay.
I think Reinhold Niebuhr is too subtle when he says:
“This is an absurd notion” (17).
Moreover, people don’t really believe it—either scientists or social programmers (politicians). To prove this, Niebuhr goes on to demonstrate where this idea came from. The “myth of American innocence” grows out of the Enlightenment confidence in “Man” (humanity in general, but with a male tinge). From there, America’s founders fled the failing European project and set up a program of intellectual freedom and scientific exploration in America. Thomas Jefferson was one of the key voices in telling the story of newness and innocence at the birth of America:
“Jefferson was convinced that the American mind had achieved a freedom from the prejudice which corrupted the European minds, which could not be equaled in Europe in centuries. ‘If all the sovereigns of Europe,’ he declared ‘were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudice and that as zealously as they now attempt the contrary a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out.’” (26)
It is difficult for us to hear those words—the claim of America’s lack of prejudice—when decades passed before legislative bodies recognized non-white people and women as fully human. But, remembering the context, and remembering a century of eugenic exploration and secular race wars that would follow in mainland Europe, perhaps his voice is prophetic.
But note the tone of optimism. Not just a hope in possibility, but an unbridled belief that, given the right political scenario and scientific environment, a culture can do what no culture has ever done: it can become just.
Niebuhr has his doubts, and he has these doubts because he lived through two world wars and the Great Depression. I suspect he doubts also because he has a neighbour who steals his newspaper, or a co-worker who hums when he reads and eats other people’s lunches from the refrigerator, even if they are properly marked. Niebuhr recognizes the basic fact that humans, despite their political playgrounds, remain human. To use J.I. Packer’s words, though humans are not as bad as they could be, they are neither as good as they can imagine they could be. To use C.S. Lewis’ idea, humans don’t just fail by other people’s standards, they fail by their own.
But, we might ask: given America’s illusion of innocence, why is it not worse? Why does it not descend into tyranny or anarchy? Niebuhr answers this in two ways, the first way confirming the second.
First, the liberal democracy of the United States puts in place a number of limits to the power of individuals:
“Though a tremendous amount of illusion about human nature expresses itself in American culture, our political institutions contain many of the safeguards against the selfish abuse of power which our Calvinist fathers insisted upon” (22).
The safeguards keep America from falling into its own illusions. Which leads to Niebuhr’s second point, that these safeguards show that everyone secretly knows the myth of innocence is really an illusion:
“According to the accepted theory, our democracy owes everything to the believers in the innocency and perfectibility of man and little to the reservations about human nature which emanated from the Christianity of New England. But fortunately there are quite a few accents in our constitution which spell out the warning of John Cotton: ‘Let all the world give mortal man no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will. . . And they that have the liberty to speak great things you will find that they will speak great blasphemies’” (22-23).
If Americans really believed their innocence, they wouldn’t need the safeguards. But they place these limits on power, which separates them from the greatest social threat of the period (1949-1952), Russian-styled communism.
I referenced C.S. Lewis above, and there is an odd connection between Lewis’ ideas in the early 1940s and Niebuhr’s project of Christian realism. Lewis had read Niebuhr’s Interpretation of Christian Ethics at the outbreak of WWII and found it “very disagreeable but not unprofitable” (letter to Warren Lewis, Jan 14, 1940). In general, Lewis was not a fan of “contemporary theology,” so he knew little else of Niebuhr. But look how he begins a 1943 British essay called “Equality”:
“I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau [from the Enlightenment], who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters” (Present Concerns, 21).
The links are striking. Both Niebuhr and Lewis recognize the fallen nature of humankind in a way that contradicts the social trend—the zeitgeist—of democratic societies for nearly two centuries. WWII itself was the greatest testimony that this optimistic human project had failed. By the time Niebuhr wrote, the utopia of Russian communism had failed to check its own evil, and fascism became an underground, extreme phenomena. It was not yet “the end of history,” as Fukuyama would later proclaim, crowning democracy as the only surviving social idea. But only democracy remained with its potential for moral innocence. For both Niebuhr and Lewis, though, the strength of democracy is in its realism, how it holds hope for moral and social and technological progress in tension with safeguards against centralization of power and outright tyranny. We don’t have democracy because humans are inclined to affirm equality; we have democracy because they so often tend to inequality.
Neither C.S. Lewis nor Reinhold Niebuhr abandon all hope. Humans are fallen, but not lost in the abyss, they are bent but not entirely broken. Neither of these Christians thinkers that sit on different parts of the Christian spectrum, however, would be surprised by the recent Russian incursion into the Crimean region of the Ukraine. And they wouldn’t have been surprised by the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq, or the Canadian occupation of Afghanistan. What each recognizes, in his own way, is the plain human fact that we don’t always do things well. We are fallen. And, when we launch into the world, we tend toward a chaos that is only ever checked by social structures of morality and government, and never ameliorated permanently by them.
So, the real question Lewis and Niebuhr would have us answer is not why Russia is threatening to invade Ukraine, or why Western military policies have failed in the Middle East. The question for us is this: what do we do in the midst of a world where things don’t always go well? That question too, it turns out, is archaic, tinged with antiquity.