For the past half-century, the received wisdom among our cultural elites has been that the West is fundamentally bigoted and illegitimate and must be transformed. Melanie Phillips is at it again, taking on these elites and exposing their shallow folly. This woman is indefatigable.
In a superb article in the Jerusalem Post she tells the world that it is eating itself up with contradictions. It does so every time it rubbishes faith and religion because it is cutting the ground from underneath its own feet. By doing so it is putting reason in the same skip.
Among unbelievers, she writes, it is an article of faith that reason, science and modernity are in one box and religion, superstition and obscurantism in another.
Ah yes; the rational, factual, grounded secular world. The one that is currently disinviting speakers and violently attacking universities on the grounds of upholding freedom and equality. The one that is spewing unhinged lies and paranoid distortions at Israel and the Jewish people. The one that appears to be spinning off its axis into utter madness.
Phillips reminds us that this week the Jewish cycle of readings from the five books of Moses begins again in their synagogues. Christians can get into the same boat and identify with everything she reflects on at this turn of the Jewish liturgical year. Christians will begin their cycle with the beginning of Advent in a little more than a month’s time.
The secular world, she reflects, looks on with indifference, bemusement or contempt. The reason for this is something the secular world cannot bring itself to grasp.
The same secular world consigns Christians, the younger brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to the same quaint – but not harmless – category of deluded human beings.
Because the peoples adhering to these traditions are determined to abide by their faith – and in the case of Christians are determined to evangelize, to spread their faith – they are not just harmless delusionals. They are an obstacle to real human progress and must be at least marginalized – if not destroyed.
But the tragic irony of this situation is that the “rationalists” mocking the faithful are leading western civilization on a path of self-destruction. “For”, as Phillips points out, “in setting out to destroy the biblical basis of western civilization, the secular world is in the process of destroying reason itself.”
Phillips’ reading of how this self-destructive process has been operating is this:
For the past half-century, the received wisdom among our cultural elites has been that the West is fundamentally bigoted and illegitimate and must be transformed. Accordingly, biblical codes embodying objective truth and goodness have been replaced by ideologies such as moral and cultural relativism, materialism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, utilitarianism, feminism, multiculturalism, universalism and environmentalism.
Indeed what she says echoes words of warning of Pope John Paul II at the end of the last century:
(With) the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world — Marxism being the foremost of these — there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics.
This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible. Indeed, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism”. (Veritatis Splendor,101)
These movements are all utopian, Phillips asserts. Each in its own way wants to create a new kind of human being and a perfect world. The greens believe they will save the planet. The multiculturalists believe they will excise bigotry from the human heart. The universalists believe they will create the brotherhood of man.
The problem with all these ideologies, she says, is that they are anti-reason.
She is right. The fatal flaw of all these ideologies is that they aim at a utopian perfection and reject the evidence which our reason patently places before our eyes: our fallen nature is of itself incapable of the perfection they dream about. For both the Jew and the Christian that of course is not to say that perfection cannot be attained. “Be you perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” For both these faiths God is real, He is perfect and has promised us redemption.
Phillips traces the hostility of these ideologies to their inherent irrationality:
Moral relativists attack the Mosaic code. Environmentalists attack the (misunderstood) assertion in Genesis that mankind has dominion over the Earth. Materialists attack the belief that there can be anything beyond the universe at all. And so on.
It is no coincidence that these ideologies are both anti-reason and anti-Jew, for Judaism and reason are not in separate boxes at all. The one in fact created the other.
She deconstructs the popular misconception that science and faith are in these “separate boxes”. For the development of science, she argues, monotheism was essential. As the Oxford mathematics professor, John Lennox, puts it: “At the heart of all science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly.”
Science grew from the idea that the universe is rational; and that belief was given to us by Genesis, which set out the revolutionary proposition that the universe had a rational creator. Without such a purposeful intelligence behind it, the universe could not have been rational; there would have been no place for reason in the world, because there would have been no truths or natural laws for reason to uncover.
She then catalogues the great scientists and philosophers, right up to our own time, for whom the idea of science without God was nonsense. They were Jews and Christians.
As we know, not all of them grasped all the implications of the truth which they stumbled on. Many indeed misinterpreted it. But they had one essential clear; God existed and was the author of the universe. Francis Bacon said God had provided us with two books – the book of nature and the Bible – and that to be properly educated one must study both.
Isaac Newton, Descartes, Kepler and Galileo – who said “the laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics,” are all on her list.
As CS Lewis wrote: “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”
But for her the significant point is that it was not religion in general but the Bible in particular that gave rise to science. She tells us how the Hungarian Benedictine priest Stanley Jaki has shown that in seven great cultures – the Chinese, Hindu, Mayan, Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Arabic – the development of science was truncated. All made discoveries that carried human understanding forward, yet none was able to keep its scientific discoveries going.
Jaki attributes this to two critical features that these cultures had in common: a belief in pantheism and in the cyclical concept of time. Science could proceed only on the basis that the universe is rational and coherent and thus nature behaves in accordance with unchanging laws. It was therefore impossible under pantheism, which ascribed natural events to the whims and caprices of the spirit world.
The other vital factor in the creation of science and modernity was the Bible’s linear concept of time. This means that history is progressive; every event is significant; experience is built upon. Progress was thus made possible by learning more about the laws of the universe and how it works.
Given all this, it comes therefore as no surprise to her that the Jewish people find themselves in the very eye of the civilizational storm. The same can be said for the Christians. For her this new hatred is deeper than the perennial scourge of anti-Semitism, something for which confused Christians in their falleness bear a terrible responsibility over many centuries. This new scourge is, she says, all part of the unfolding story of the modern world turning savagely against the very creed on which it itself is based.
I dare to suggest that in her own way she is admonishing us to beware of the darkness of which that great Jewish Christian, St. Paul, warned the people of Ephesus and Thessalonica, surrounded as they were by the secular pagan culture of his time:
“Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of the light (for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful words of darkness, but instead expose them… Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:8-11, 15-16; cf. 1 Th 5:4-8).
Thank you, Melanie Phillips, for your wisdom and your courage in swimming against this relentless current which threatens to sweep us away in its madness.