Trying To Be Good Without God, Or Hoping “We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

Trying To Be Good Without God, Or Hoping “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” December 3, 2021

In his Dialogue with Trypho, the 2nd century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, summarizes the Christian life:

And we who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons,–our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage,–and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified; and sitting each under his vine, i.e., each man possessing his own married wife.
For you are aware that the prophetic word says, ‘And his wife shall be like a fruitful vine.’ Now it is evident that no one can terrify or subdue us who have believed in Jesus over all the world. For it is plain that, though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but the more such things happen, the more do others and in larger numbers become faithful, and worshipers of God through the name of Jesus.
Dialogue with Trypho, CX

For Justin and the earliest Christians, many things about their newfound, and newly founded, faith were still obscure. Doctrines on the nature of the Trinity, the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus and the role of the Holy Spirit had not yet fully developed. However, other things were crystal clear. Metaphysical claims like Jesus being God (somehow) and Him rising from the dead were known to be true. Moral claims as well, like the belief that any virtue which could be attained by man was attainable only by the grace of God, were obvious to early believers in Christ. According to Justin, “piety, righteousness, philanthropy” and even “faith and hope” are all “from the Father Himself” through Christ.

The Source of Human Virtue and Freedom

For early Christians, the virtues of man were not generated by man’s own powers. If anything, that was the doctrine of the pagan nations that surrounded them. Virtue does not emerge from some inherent goodness or nobility in man. Virtue is God’s grace manifested in men. Left to their own devices, men, and even women, are anything but virtuous. 

Further, because of God’s grace it was possible not only for men to become moral creatures, but it was by His grace that men could live freely. By His mercy, man could be liberated from the powers of supernatural oppression and the oppressive weight of their sins. In this freedom, the Christian had no fear of losing his head (literally), being thrown to wild beasts, put in chains, crucified, burned alive or otherwise tortured. God’s grace provided the path to both virtue in life and victory over death.

As such, there was little place for victimization in the thinking of the early Christians. Their oppression was God’s glory, and in spite of every torture and malice of the Roman “system” in which they lived, a system that was objectively oppressive, they saw themselves everywhere free. Nothing and no one in the early church believed in the need to overturn the system in order to be truly liberated. Liberation had already occurred, and the rest was the charitable outworking of that very real event. 

A New Vision of Man

Fast forward roughly 1600 years to early-modern Switzerland (Helveticus in Justin’s day).  Jean-Jacques Rousseau says famously, “Man is born free, yet everywhere finds himself in chains.” For Rousseau, and the multitudes who would follow his humanistic anthropology, man is not “filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness” at birth. Rousseau’s vision is antithetical to what Justin and the early martyrs believed about man. Instead, it was the imperfections in man’s government, in man-made systems, that corrupted and oppressed the otherwise “free” and moral individual.

Other men followed in this interpretation of human nature, men of great historical influence like Marquis de Condorcet, Robespierre, Voltaire and John Stuart Mill. For these, there was nothing inherent in man, nothing about man’s nature as such, that prevented him from being virtuous in his own power. According to these “enlightened” Europeans, man could attain virtue unaided by any divine or extra-mundane force of Person. Rationality and reason alone, along with human effort, could generate virtue.

Not only could man be the author of his own virtue, he could even generate the kind of virtue needed to perfect government and its institutions. All that was required on this vision was an intellectual elite who could put the institutional pieces together in the right way. Upon doing so, this elite of society would set free the inherently good will of “the people.”

Contrasting Visions

In an exceptional treatise on political philosophy, A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell contrasts this “unconstrained” view of man proposed by Rousseau and his intellectual kin, with that of others like Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke. Unlike their French counterparts, these Englishmen saw man as “constrained” by an inherently flawed nature. On this constrained view, human nature would inevitably produce evil in any system it built or constructed. This evil could, at best, be mitigated through social institutions and processes, but it could not be entirely eliminated or excised from the individual or the institutions he creates.

On the unconstrained view of the French philosophers man was perfectible. It was only a matter of time before the right methods would yield the perfect solutions to our social ills. On the constrained view, however, there was no perfection that could be attained by man alone. Therefore, social and economic trade-offs had to be made in order to prevent the worst from happening. The hope for perfect solutions had to be tempered with a common sense realism that took into account this flawed moral and metaphysical nature of man. In short, the unconstrained view sought political and economic answers to the human condition, while the constrained view sought best practices in light of that condition. Sowell describes the constrained view of Adam Smith this way:

The moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular, were neither lamented by Smith nor regarded as things to be changed. They were treated as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in his vision. The fundamental moral and social challenge was to make the best of the possibilities which existed within that constraint, rather than dissipate energies in an attempt to change human nature—an attempt that Smith treated as both vain and pointless.

For those of the “unconstrained” party, however, this was just negative thinking. It smacked of archaic pessimism grounded in old-fashioned religious dogma. It was this cumbersome inclusion of past knowledge, of unenlightened thought, that hindered man from becoming the kind of exceedingly rational and virtuous creature he otherwise is by nature. The progressive vision of man becoming fully authentic and actualizing all of his potentials, thus entailed the renunciation of any notion of an inherently flawed nature, and, consequently, any need for some kind of divine influence to aid that nature. We could, if we just tried hard enough, really do it ourselves.

The Unconstrained Vision as A Rejection of Grace

In every generation the unconstrained impulse, man’s impulse to have faith in his own righteousness and act upon that faith, reemerges. Today we see it in a radical Leftist agenda in America that is fueled by ambiguous intellectual movements which seek not just to find flaws in the American system that might be fixed, but which cry out for the system’s total destruction— to “tear the whole thing down.” Everything that came before must go, not just those ideas or structures that have rightly been judged as cruel or unjust. 

The forces that hold to the unconstrained vision, men and women who reject any need for divine aid or help and who really believe a new revolution can solve the problem, are once again at work. Trade-offs are unacceptable for the advocates of the unconstrained view. Only total solutions are acceptable. Perfection is within society’s grasp, if we would only reach out and grab it. However, perfection is a high bar. Thus, any identifiable flaw in the fabric of society must inevitably spur on the next revolution. “Perpetual revolution” (not reformation) is the explicit doctrine of the foot soldier for the unconstrained vision of man.

The problem, of course, with this view, one Justin and the early church Fathers would have roundly decried as heretical, is that it consciously rejects what it regards as the most detestable doctrines of the Christian faith: original sin and the desperate need for God’s grace. Conversely, it was these doctrines that classical conservatives like Smith and Burke maintained in their political and economic thinking, regardless of their understanding of the doctrines source. As such, the unconstrained view is simply false, but oh how false it is!

Man, apart from God’s grace, is sinner, not saint. To fail to recognize this double problem of man, that is, our own inherent corruption and the need for God’s saving and sanctifying grace, is to fundamentally mis-analyze the human condition. It is in this manner that Smith and Burke were far closer to Justin Martyr, and to St. Paul (Romans 5:12), than Rousseau, Condorcet, Godwin or their later American inheritors.

Man Isn’t Good and He Cannot Perfect Himself 

For Justin, then, three things are clear: 1) man before Christ is sinner, prone to war and wickedness and “mutual slaughter,” 2) any virtue in man is a gift from God, and 3) it is in our cultivation of these gifts that we are liberated from the world’s system, and that to the point of even welcoming our own persecution, which is God’s glory and the glory of His Church. 

The alternative to this anthropology is that of the progressive-minded man. The progressive is the one who believes with all sincerity that he has the capacity “within himself” to be perfecter of his own nature and, subsequently, of the society in which he lives. Which of these comes first in order of execution, however, he hardly bothers to contemplate. But, if one had to guess, one would guess the latter, for to point to the external problems of “the system” will always act as an excuse from addressing personal responsibility and one’s own sense of moral guilt.

But, the “progressive” mindset is itself not new. It is as ancient as the biblical revelation itself (or perhaps far more ancient than that). It is the result of man’s original fall from grace. It is the consequence of sin. Nahum Sarna in his commentary on Genesis, describes the origin of the progressive mind in lieu of Adam’s sin:

Man, having already exceeded the limits of creaturehood, has radically altered the perspective of human existence. He lives henceforth in the consciousness of his mortality. He may therefore be tempted to change his condition by artificial means, rather than restoring the ruptured harmony between divine and human will, the harmony that is ultimately the definition of paradise.

Sarna, Genesis, 30

According to this mindset, if only we could change the system, that is, our conditions, then we ourselves would be changed. And so it is with the modern Left that seeks its liberation in change out there as opposed to change from within. For progressive man there is much too critique about the world as such, but little to think about with regard to the human heart and its relationship to the divine. Where and when the attitude of those who consider man to be “unconstrained” begins to gain dominance in a culture, one can expect to see there old injustices met with new ones, and old wounds torn open with fresh blows. For man is not a good creature without God nor is he capable of perfecting anything. 

Coda: Meet the New Boss…

Of the unconstrained view and its perennial attempts to recreate society, Roger Daltrey put it best in one of the greatest rock anthems of all time,

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again.

Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss…
The Who, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

And what is our prayer today, if not this: that we don’t get fooled again.

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