A year and a half ago I wrote an essay titled “The Only Antidote,” in which I argued for the need to think critically: to use natural powers of reason and conscience to honor, discern, and communicate the truth. Referring to Hannah Arendt’s understanding of the cause behind the rise of Fascism and also referring to a Bible story of John the Baptist’s execution by Herod, I pointed to the crucial and perennial role of critical thought in containing the spread of evil.
Although critical thought can check evil, I contended that ultimately it is no match. Nonetheless, the exercise of thinking critically benefits the soul immeasurably. In subjecting oneself to reason and conscience, we prepare the way of the Lord; decent, honest effort precedes the gift of faith that comes only from God. It is only through the power of God that evil can and will be overcome and destroyed, both within and without. “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” say those who have known what’s necessary and possible.
At the time I wrote that essay, our country was not in imminent danger of electing to its highest political office a man who sports an Orwellian disregard for truth. Now, however, that threat looms: we the people of the United States might, in fact, elect to the presidency a man who represents, enables, and lauds speech and behavior that is beyond the pale of reason and conscience.
Stated at our country’s founding was the claim that we are endowed by our Creator with “certain unalienable rights.” We have, in fact, been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable responsibilities, that among them are right use of reason and conscience. Let’s use them well.
If we assume that pervasive, severe moral catastrophe is not possible in our own country, we do well to heed those who have lived through complete breakdown in their own regions. In the following paragraph, Swiss theologian Emil Brunner, who witnessed firsthand Europe’s descent into Fascism, traces the progression from idealistic humanist philosophy to tyrannical totalitarianism, inevitably occurring, says Brunner, when unchecked by a Christian tradition within that society:
That is to say that idealistic humanism leads to an individualistic conception of society, which in the end must have anarchical consequences. That is why modern society in so far as it has relinquished its Christian basis appears to be in a state of latent anarchy or dissolution. With the middle of the 19th century, there begins a fierce reaction against this individualism, and this collectivist reaction in its turn is worked out logically from a naturalist philosophy. The alternative to idealistic individualism is not free communion but primitive tribal not to say animal collectivism. It is the de-personalised mass-man, the man forming a mere particle of a social structure and the centralised automatic mechanical totalitarian state, which inherits the decaying liberal democracy. Only where a strong Christian tradition had prevailed was it possible to avoid this fatal alternative of individualism and collectivism to preserve a federal non-centralised, pluralistic organic structure of the State, and therefore to avoid that sudden transition from a half anarchic individualism into a tyrannical totalitarianism. But the societies of the West, which abhor the way taken by totalitarian Russia, Italy, and Germany, do not yet seem to have grasped that if the process of de-Christianisation goes on within their society, they too will inevitably go the same way. (The Gifford Lectures, Emil Brunner’s “Christianity and Civilization” http://www.giffordlectures.org/lectures/christianity-and-civilization)
By the 1940s the philosophy of idealism, against which Brunner warns, had begun in Quaker circles to displace the original prophetic, apostolic Christian faith of earlier centuries. This trend was recognized and revealed by Lewis Benson. In an excerpt from his essay “Prophetic Quakerism,” Benson describes the difference between the two doctrines of the Inner Light: prophetic and philosophical (italics mine):
First, the philosophical interpretation understands the Inner Light to be that innate capacity of human beings to comprehend rational and ethical truth….This view tends to make the concept of ‘spirit’ in man identical with the concept of ‘mind.’ The ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ of man is the seat of the divine element in man and the essentially divine reality is not external to the soul.…This view affirms the inherent spirituality of the human psyche due to the presence of a native rational and ethical principle which is divine.
Secondly, the prophetic doctrine of the Inner Light understands that man may become completely spiritualized, that is to say, brought into perfect harmony with the will of the Creator God who is spirit. But the agency for this spiritualization is not to be found by an inventory of man’s native capacities. Man is made spiritual and godly by a power which operates in man but which is nevertheless not of man. It is always the working of a sovereign will distinct from one’s own. Thus there is accessible to man a light which illuminates his moral life, but this life is not present in man as his own psychological possession. It is imparted to man and man has received the promise that it will never be withheld. The condition of the operation of this light within man is his willingness to submit both conscience and reason to this objective and superhuman light. The conception of the Inner Light does not displace human reason, but says Joseph Phipps, it does caution ‘against…the setting up human reason above its due place in religion, making it the leader instead of the follower, the teacher instead of the learner, and esteeming it vested with a kind of self-sufficiency, independent of the direction and help of God’s Holy Spirit.’ Likewise conscience or the ‘sense of ought’ is a quality of human life but it should not be regarded as autonomous and it cannot lead to the ultimate principles of righteousness unless informed by a higher authority. (The Truth is Christ, “Prophetic Quakerism,” pp. 14-15)
The doctrines of “that of God in every one” and “the power of love and good will to overcome war and hate” are derived from the idealism that originates with the philosophical interpretation of the Inner Light. This doctrine is a tribute to human capacity and thus differs from the prophetic doctrine, which places man in total dependency on the power of God to inform his understanding of right and wrong, and to gather, govern, and preserve a people who have Christ as their head: “whose dominion and strength is over all, against whom,” says Penington, “the gates of hell cannot prevail.”
Benson’s piece, written in the middle of the Second World War, when civilization hung precariously in the balance, recognizes the limits of human ability and power to order and preserve the world and the necessity of coming into the knowledge of and obedience to the Will of God, as did the first Friends.
The essay “The Only Antidote” can be read at my website Abiding Quaker under the heading of September.