Man is the land where. . . two kings fight; and whatever is good and holy belongs to the one king, and whatever is evil and unclean belongs to the other; and there is no communion or peace between them. . . . And where the fight is once begun between these, there is no quietness in that land, till one of these be dispossessed: but then there is either the peace of Babylon, most commonly under a form of holiness; or the peace of Sion, in the spirit, life, and power. – Penington, Works, 1:141
A few years ago, I was regularly attending worship at a meeting in Philadelphia. For some years, I went to this particular meeting because it was the only one I knew that still had several members with old Quaker surnames, and thus, there was still in evidence something approximating old Quaker theology.
As is typical in meetings, week after week Friends would settle into worship, each on a particular bench that had unobtrusively gained acceptance by all as that person’s domain, their perch year after year, and for a family, generation after generation. I – having been a Quaker for but a few decades – shared a bench with a longtime Friend (or he shared his bench with me) for a couple of years, during which time he informed me that this bench had been his family’s for more than a century.
This Friend was a neuroscientist, and though he had the old Quaker surname (and the bench), he did not have the old Quaker understanding. He was a positivist; and one of the ways he showed his stripes was by evaluating all ministry given during the hour using the sole criterion of time: the ministry was either the right length or it was too long. At the close of each meeting, he would – according to this standard – offer me his evaluation of the ministry (the ministry of others or of myself, if I’d ministered). Seeing his constancy in this practice, I gently expressed my amusement and let him know that there could be other standards to consider when evaluating vocal ministry.
There were, however, other discrepancies in understanding between him and me. In the occasional post-meeting discussion on some spiritual topic, we each would find the other’s perspective in need of further consideration . . . further consideration by the other. Following a number of disagreements over the months, I began to sense there could be no common spiritual ground between a positivist and a Christian. This slow-footed clarity arrived one Sunday morning following a particularly rigorous discussion after meeting for worship.
The exchange culminated while we stood near an open door of the by then empty meetinghouse. Over six-feet tall, the man towered above. Lowering and wagging his finger inches from my nose, he yelled, “There is no God! You have to stop believing that!”
More problematic than the man’s stated atheism was his shouted command: “You have to stop believing that!”
Some might claim that George Fox and other early Friends—perhaps this fellow’s ancestors—could be equally vehement when speaking for their belief, but that would miss the point. It was this man’s manner of persuasion that was foreign to and had no place in early Friends’ practice. Convincement occurred when Friends preached the gospel. “That which may be known of God” (Rom. 1:19) was evoked, and often their hearers were inwardly transformed. A new sense of life, of dignity, power, and responsibility was known when the “life [that] was the light of men” appeared within. The soul at last knew its worth; the person was edified: he or she had become inwardly established.
In contrast, this positivist’s hope rested upon closing down another’s inward life: closing down the high human capacity for discernment and discovery, thus reducing a human being to something less than a person. His sole “convincing” power was a fiat delivered with a tone and gesture of violence, a tactic of depersonalization.
Unbeknownst to him or to me that morning, we each embodied a force that in relation to the other, as Penington wrote, had “no communion or peace between them”; these forces contend (like the two kings referred to in the epigraph) for the soul of humanity: to edify or to destroy. Though this Sunday morning incident involved only two people in an empty meetinghouse, it was, nevertheless, the Lamb’s War: a skirmish in which the powers clashed, powers which when pitted against one another on a grander scale determine history.
In the following lengthy excerpt from his lecture series Christianity and Civilization (1946-48), Emil Brunner, a Reformed theologian of the mid-twentieth century, summarizes the slow devolution of a civilization that is based upon the Judeo-Christian understanding that man is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). The transformation of the civilization was slow, beginning during the Enlightenment and taking several centuries, during which, some Christian doctrine and values were retained, though not their ground. In time, even these vestiges of faith were lost, and with them, confidence in human dignity, an intrinsic part of the Christian worldview. Brunner attributes the rise of corrupt, destructive political systems to a growing unbelief and the slow erosion of faith’s influence that inevitably followed.
Being Swiss, Brunner saw close-hand the outcome of centuries of anti-spiritual forces at work, as countries encircling his own fell into totalitarianism in the 1930s. Those bastard political systems – Fascism and National Socialism – were born and bore the marks of their spiritual progenitor, whose countenance was eventually recognized and named: nihilism. Here Brunner gives a short history of the long travel from faith to fascism: [italics mine]
The mere fact that more than half a century ago a man [Jakob Burckhardt] thoroughly awake to the character of his time was able to foresee the catastrophe we have experienced indicates that the eruption of inhumanity, lawlessness, and depersonalization, which we have experienced during recent decades must have had its deep historical roots. True this eruption of anti-spiritual and anti-cultural forces as they appeared first in the Bolshevist, then in the Fascist, and finally in the National-Socialist revolution came to the rest of the Western world as a complete surprise and left it in utter bewilderment. Still looking back on these events, this feeling of complete surprise and horror is not altogether justified in view of the fact that the spiritual evolution during the last centuries was a slow and invisible but none the less indubitable preparation for this outbreak. If we ask, as certainly many during these years have asked, how all this inhumanity, this lawlessness, this collectivist depersonalization was possible, the answer cannot I think be in doubt. The last three centuries seen from the spiritual point of view represent a history in which step by step the central and fundamental idea of the whole Western civilization, the idea of the dignity of man, was undermined and weakened.
For more than a thousand years, Western culture had been based on the Christian idea that man is created in the image of God. This central biblical idea included both the eternal spiritual destiny of every individual and the destiny of mankind to form a free communion. With the Enlightenment, this idea on which the whole structure of Western life was rested began to be doubted.
At first, the alternative to the Christian idea was still a religious although no longer distinctly Christian theism. Then further from the Christian foundation, there came a transcendentalism or idealism, which still remained metaphysical although no longer explicitly theistic. In the middle of the last century this idealistic humanism was replaced by a positivist philosophy of freedom and civilization, which acknowledged no metaphysical but merely natural presuppositions. It is not surprising that this positivism, in its turn more and more, lost its humanistic contents and turned into a naturalistic philosophy for which man was no more than a highly developed animal, the cerebral animal, and this was a conception of man within which such things as the dignity of man, the rights of man, and personality no longer had any foundation.
Benjamin Constant, that noble Christian philosopher of freedom of the early nineteenth century, has comprehended the essence of this whole process of modern history in three words: “De la divinité par l’humanité à la bestialité” [from Divinity by humanity to bestiality]. The totalitarian revolutions with their practice of inhumanity, lawlessness, and depersonalizing collectivism were nothing but the executors of this so-called positivist philosophy, which as a matter of fact was a latent nihilism and which, towards the end of the last and the beginning of this century, had become the ruling philosophy of our universities and the dominating factor within the worldview of the educated and the leading strata of society. The postulatory atheism of Karl Marx and the passionate antitheism of Friedrich Nietzsche can be considered as an immediate spiritual presupposition of the totalitarian revolution in Bolshevism on the one hand and National-Socialism or Fascism on the other. That is to say, the prevalent philosophy of the Occident had become more or less nihilistic. No wonder that from this seed that harvest sprang up which our generation reaped with blood and tears, to use once more Mr. Churchill’s words.
In Brunner’s summary, which ties forms of political order to the Zeitgeist, or the spiritual condition of the age, we note that our own nation was begun at a propitious time. Our founders were eighteenth-century people of the Enlightenment, proponents of reason, who enjoyed the benefits that had accrued from a Christian civilization with its doctrine of man being made in God’s image, and therefore deserving of dignity. This worldview had so long prevailed that the idea of man’s inalienable rights could be “truths [held] to be self-evident,” and as such, individual rights were engrafted into our Constitution, and the rule of law upheld in recognizing that document’s authority.
Without the undergirding Christian worldview, civil rights are not self-evident. With the loss of Christianity and the Enlightenment’s residual cultural assumptions, our social order is threatened. Its continuity rests upon links thin and attenuated, ready to snap. Precedence, tradition, law, and the moral character of our government officials and citizenry are what now stand between us and brutal tyranny that commonly overtakes societies.
These past three years, our attention has been held by the drama of corruption, scandal, and deceit played out by the federal government’s chief executive, and now we hear tyranny growling in the wings awaiting his cue to pounce onto center stage. May the House managers succeed in ridding us of this bad actor who has undertaken an unprecedented assault upon our Constitution, our nation’s long-adhered to script of civic rights and order. We take heart in legislators’ determination to present evidence and argue soundly against the travesty of Trump remaining in office.
From New York representative Jerrold Nadler comes this January 24 statement before the Senate:
President Trump is an outlier. He is the first and only President ever to declare himself unaccountable and to ignore subpoenas backed by the Constitution’s impeachment power. If he is not removed from office, if he is permitted to defy the Congress entirely, categorically, to say subpoenas from Congress in the impeachment inquiry are nonsense, then we will have lost (the House will have lost, and certainly the Senate will have lost) all power to hold any President accountable. This is a determination by President Trump that he wants to be all powerful; he does not have to respect the Congress; he does not have to respect the representatives of the people; only his will goes. He is a dictator. This must not stand. And this is another reason he must be removed from office.