Enlightenment Blather: Modern Freedom Dispossessed of Genuine Freedom

David Bentley Hart on the funk of Enlightenment rationalism, and its limp-wristed understanding of what constitutes human freedom and liberation; and then the fall-out it has produced in society at large (I will comment after):

Survivor, Rwandan Genocide

Survivor, Rwandan Genocide

[...] And why should this not be so? If the quintessential myth of modernity is that true freedom is the power of the will over nature—human or cosmic—and that we are at liberty to make ourselves what we wish to be, then it is not necessarily the case that the will of the individual should be privileged over the “will of the species.” If there is no determinate human nature or divine standard to which the uses of freedom are bound, it is perfectly logical that some should think it a noble calling to shape the fictile clay of humankind into something stronger, better, more rational, more efficient, more perfect. The ambition to refashion humanity in its very essence—social, political, economic, moral, psychological—was inconceivable when human beings were regarded as creatures of God. But with the disappearance of the transcendent, and of its lure, and of its authority, it becomes possible to will a human future conformed to whatever ideals we choose to embrace. This is why it is correct to say that the sheer ruthlessness of so much of post-Christian social idealism in some sense arises from the very same concept of freedom that lies at the heart of our most precious modern values. The savagery of triumphant Jacobinism, the clinical heartlessness of classical socialist eugenics, the Nazi movement, Stalinism—all the grand utopian projects of the modern age that have directly or indirectly spilled such oceans of human blood—are no less results of the Enlightenment myth of liberation than are the liberal democratic state of vulgarity of late capitalist consumerism or the pettiness of bourgeois individualism. The most pitilessly and self-righteously violent regimes of modern history—in the West or in those other quarters of the world contaminated by our worst ideas—have been those that have most explicitly cast off the Christian vision of reality and sought to replace it with more “human” set of values. No cause in history—no religion or imperial ambition or military adventure—has destroyed more lives with more confident enthusiasm than the cause of the “brotherhood of man,” the postreligious utopia, or the progress of the race. To fail to acknowledge this would be to mock the memory of all those millions that have perished before the advance of secular reason in its most extreme manifestations. And all the astonishing violence of the modern age—from the earliest European wars of the emergent nation-state onward—is no less proper an expression (and measure) of the modern story of human freedom than are the various political and social movements that have produced the modern West’s special combination of general liberty, material abundance, cultural mediocrity, and spiritual poverty. To fail to acknowledge this would be to close our eyes to the possibilities for evil that have been opened up in our history by the values we most dearly prize and by the “truths” we most fervently adore…. [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, 107-08.]

To decouple ourselves from the so conceived pre-critical pre-”modern” mythology of a world governed and sustained by a benevolent creator, is to de-loop ourselves from the order that this good Christian God has woven into the fabric of contingent reality. As Hart so presciently elaborates for us, these ideas of human openness and freedom have resulted in a kind of dark perverted savagery that the childish pre-moderns could never have ever hoped to perpetrate upon the world at large. We live in a “modern” and “post-modern” liberated world guided and pre-destined by our own creative whims; whims that presume to be dispossessed of any relation to someone transcendent beyond themselves.

Apparently Jesus was onto something when he asserted:

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” ~Matthew 15:16-20 (NIV)

And yet, the reality is that once the ‘modern’ world ceases to trade upon the dictates of their own heart, the world will cease to be the world; so defined. But what Hart is highlighting, all things being equal (which they aren’t), is that the method of this world’s madness does not provide the kind of explanatory power that the Christian belief/life system does. There is an answer to be provided to this world that gives it a coherence and purpose that the questions society posits left to themselves cannot appreciate. In other words, once God in Christ is abandoned as the ultimate question maker, then as corollary, he is also retreated from as the ultimate answer giver. And in this vacuum satan’s original lie to Eve flourishes (at least it appears to).

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