Lecture 8: Unbelief
30 min read
30 min read
We have now come to the positive and direct exposition of the main theme of these lectures, the thesis that the cause of the Revolution lies in unbelief. We have seen that the Revolution was not a reaction against the old order, for the constitutional principles formerly in vogue were both sound and indispensable, the forms of government were excellent to a high degree, and the abuses were neither so great nor so oppressive as to bring about a Revolution of the kind we are discussing. I have argued, too, that the perversion of constitutional theory could not by itself have been the cause. I directed your attention finally to unbelief, and devoted our previous meeting to the argument that the Reformation, rooted as it is in belief, cannot possibly have borne a fruit that so clashes with its principle: the Reformation was not the preparation but rather the very antithesis of the Revolution.
It is now my task to demonstrate that the Revolution, with its variety of schools of thought and historical manifestations, is the consequence, the application, the unfolding of unbelief. It is the theory and practice of unbelief that shaped the Philosophy and the Revolution of the eighteenth century. A whole series of fallacies and atrocities had to ensue once unbelief gained the ascendancy.
Do not infer that I would thus teach some sort of fatalism. Or was Newton a fatalist when he asserted that by the law of gravity the apple has to fall once it is detached from its stem? As there are forces and laws in the physical world, so there are forces and laws in the realm of morality. And there are times when the power of men is indeed impotent against these principles.’ Yet the irresistibility of the march of events does not abolish the personal responsibility of contemporaries. No one is compelled to bow before the idol of his age.’ It is not his impotence to resist but his readiness to cooperate that will be charged to a man’s account.
And truly, to be convinced of the Revolution’s inevitability in this sense, we have only to glance at the condition of Europe in the preceding century as I have sketched it. The principles of constitutional law had been distorted: authority had been confused with absolutism and liberty with lawlessness. Constitutions had been debased, morals had been corrupted, and religion with most people had become hypocrisy, superstition or dead form. Given this state of affairs, either you must say that the influence of moral factors is chimerical or you must admit that the crash of the edifice thus undermined was inevitable.
Yet from this general assessment I would move forward without tarrying to the gist and kernel of my argument. The necessity of the Revolution can be established with far greater precision from an examination of its unique origin, progress, and denouement. What I am anxious to show is that the real formative power throughout the revolutionary era, right up to our own time, has been atheism, godlessness, being without God. It is this feature that has given the Revolution its peculiar stamp, in its essence and in its practical results, in its doctrine and in its application. From the unbelieving nature of the Revolution one can predict its history. And inversely, one can discern in the facts of its history the constant tokens of its unbelieving origin.
I spoke to you earlier about an “essay at biography”‘ and I believe that this term applies well to the survey I intend to give you of the Revolution’s history in connection with its doctrine. Yet I shall not begin that survey’ today. A physiological examination should precede the biography: through an analysis of the tenets of the eighteenth century I should first like to discover with you the general laws which governed the life of that century. In the biography to follow you will then be able to see how — inversely — the history of that century conformed all too accurately, sadly enough, to these laws. For the moment, then, I am concerned only with the natural history of the Revolution ideas: with their necessary consequences under any and all circumstances and in every revolutionary movement, given their intrinsic nature as well as their fundamental collision with the truth. It is only after this analysis that I shall turn to the actual events of the Revolution, there to direct your attention to these consequences as they were actively present, and indeed preponderant, in determining the way things went.
Before calling upon the witness of history itself I should therefore like to let you see that as a matter of simple logic atheism in religion and radicalism in politics are not only not the exaggeration, misuse or distortion, but that they are in fact the consistent and faithful application, of a principle which sets aside the God of Revelation in favour of the supremacy of Reason. I should like to let you see, in addition, that because this principle contradicts the very essence and immutable order of things it is possible to predict, even without the light of history, the drift of events and the metamorphosis of the principle as it has continued to reassert itself.
This lecture and the following one are accordingly devoted to the argument that when it is free to run its natural course in religion and politics unbelief leads to the most radical doctrines. In a third lecture I will show how the current is made to alter its course again and again by the resistance it encounters in human nature and the natural order.
The eighteenth century lies before us for judgment.When I speak of “the eighteenth century” I do not wish to be bound to chronological precision. I do not begin with 1700 to end with 1800. What I have in mind is the era of that new movement of humanity, the whole epoch of that transformation in world history which, after a lengthy period of gestation, was born in the year 1789. What a subject! How momentous! How difficult! And how liable to divergent evaluations! I shall censure what is for many, even today, an age to admire. How easily, then, might there arise against me a suspicion of pride, of superficiality, of conceit, of arrogant disdain even for that which deserves acclaim. Hence I feel more than ever the need to remind you once again that our allies from the past are many; that our principles cannot be shaken; that our viewpoint is grounded in history.’ I cannot repeat too often that my opposition to the eighteenth century is free of foolish partisanship. My opposition to that age is based upon my rejection of its anti-Christian principle.
I have no interest in securing a bill of indictment. I desire a fair judgment. And it is at once obvious that the eighteenth century must have contained much that was good.’ No age, however low it may have sunk, is entirely destitute of virtue or talent. In fact, sad times have a lustre of their own, for the splendour of things excellent is enhanced by dark surroundings, as stars twinkle the most brightly on the blackest night.
But I would not confine myself to this rather insignificant praise. In comparison with what went before it, the eighteenth century is distinguished. It can at any rate not be numbered among those periods of history that have been marked by a despicable indolence. In many ways its endeavour was an attempt to raise itself from the mire. Whatever we may think of its principles, we are cheered to see the spirit of that century banish provincialism, dullness and the self-interest which had marked the preceding years, in our own country as elsewhere.
The eighteenth century was justified in striving for improvements. Even when you dismiss all the exaggerations, there was abundant reason for discontent with the trend of government and the degeneration of the state. There were ample grounds for demanding important reforms in the name of justice and humanity.
In its quest for improvements the eighteenth century displayed an energy that was uncommon and, in the beginning at least, disinterested. As a result of heightened enthusiasm for what was regarded as truth and justice, all mankind’s natural faculties and talents, alerted and mobilized to an exceptional degree, were dedicated to the triumph, not of interests, but of principles.
The eighteenth century had no shortage of fine words and impressive notions.
One thing more. If the age erred in its choice of principles and lapsed from the path of reform onto the road of revolution, there is an excuse to be made for it. What had become of the warmth and fervour of the evangelical persuasion, which earlier had borne so much fruit in deeds of faith? In its stead we find the spectacle of narrow superstition, or intolerant hypocrisy, or fondness from mere tradition for forms of doctrine. Is the ignoring of the truth to be charged solely to the age that ignored it—or also to the age that obscured it?
I hope you will agree that these remarks have done justice to its merits, for here I must end my defence of the eighteenth century. Its basic principle —the sovereignty of man, independence from the sovereignty of God—I consider radically false. With Guizot I say gladly that the age saw “a flight of the human spirit”; but I do not add, “its flight was very beautiful, very good, very useful.” Rather, when I consider how men began that flight by tearing themselves loose from the solid ground of unchangeable principles in order to soar without support in the airy spaces of speculation, then, if the image is not too trivial, I can only compare such a flight to a reckless plunge from an upper storey, ventured for a fatal reliance on artificial wings.
The upshot of the century was untold misery. A golden age was expected, an age of iron arrived. Of course, while progress and movement elicit less disgust than the sort of lethargy which allows only stagnation and routine, and while we would rather see surging waters than dormant pools, it remains a sad fact that energy wrongly directed is the more disastrous as it is the more mighty. The majesty of a mountain stream in no way lessens the horror of the destructive flood as it sweeps across the countryside.
In religion, morality and constitutional law there was no progress, but regress. Men celebrate the advance of “enlightenment.” Unjustly so! There were fireworks and torch lights in abundance. But sunlight was lacking. And without the light of the sun no human wisdom can make the field fruitful.” They that labour with intellect and genius to produce ideas and chart vast systems labour in vain when they withdraw themselves from the rays of the wisdom that is from above; when they renounce dependence upon principles and thus confound freedom of the mind with independence of the mind—a distinction which philosophy too must acknowledge. Ancillon’s strictures on this matter are altogether correct:
Every power must be subject to laws…. So it is also with the powers of the mind. Its laws are eternal principles…. Ideas without principles are a lever without a fulcrum, and principles without ideas are a fulcrum without a Lever….
Between intellectual independence and intellectual freedom there exists the same difference as that between a ship without ballast, anchor or pilot, drifting at the mercy of all winds, and a ship that sails against the wind and even against storms and tempests, guided by a compass and the commands of a competent pilot. …
Relative to principles, the moral and political sciences derived more harm than benefit from the erroneous methods applied to them. While the purpose was to perfect them, they were spoiled. While the goal was to establish them upon solid proofs, they were unsettled. And while the intention was to make them more profound, one descended with them into the abyss of doubt, where they disappeared.Ancillon, Nouveaux Essais, I, 172-178.
To rightly appraise the fatal influence of this century one must keep in mind that it turned even good into evil.” I am not referring so much to the abundance of material prosperity which fell to its lot and which it squandered, so that in this respect too it was rich in promises but richer still in disappointments. I am referring more particularly to all those ideas of justice, liberty, toleration, humanity and morality in which the age—like Satan, who can appear as an angel of light—had at the outset enwrapped itself. These fruits had not been cultivated on its own acre, but in Christian soil. For while one meets with faint shadows of these ideas in the keenest sages of classical antiquity, it is only in the Gospel that one finds them in their strength and true nature,” and it is only the proclamation of the Gospel that conferred upon them a popularity unthinkable in the pagan world. This rich heritage, once orthodoxy failed to preserve it, fell into the hands of the philosophers. And what did they do with it? For all their boasting, these treasures came to ruin under their stewardship. And no wonder. They wanted to retain the conclusions while abandoning the premises, to have the water while plugging its springs, to enjoy the shade of the tree after cutting its roots. Such expectations will always disappoint. Here as well. Plants that flourished on the banks of the Gospel stream could only wither when transplanted to a dry and thirsty land. But no, even in this metaphor there is faintness and inaccuracy. In the poisonous fields of atheism the plants degenerated into harmful growths whose brilliant colours and sweet fragrances concealed deadly toxins. The ideas I have mentioned —magic words with which men thought to summon up perfected wisdom and happiness—were forever trumpeted forth, yet they remained, for all that, mere sounds. And not only were the promises not redeemed: their very opposites arrived. For justice there came injustice; for freedom, compulsion; for toleration, persecution; for humanity, barbarity; and for morality, decadence.
Thus I do not subscribe to the final verdict of Guizot, who wrote, “If a summation were to be given and a definitive opinion expressed, I would hasten to say that the eighteenth century appears to me to be one of the grandest centuries of history, the one which perhaps rendered humanity the greatest service, the one which fostered the greatest and most universal progress. Called upon to assess its case as a public prosecutor, if I may use the comparison, I would conclude in its favour.”” Nor do I speak with Cousin of “the new achievements which it added to the legacy of the preceding centuries,”” for its hallmark was not to add to the chain of time but rather to break it, madly to pursue innovation. Much rather I say with Ancillon: “The sickness, the mania for analyzing everything, has caused it to be said of this century that it was more an age of reasoning than an age of reason.”” The eighteenth century has shown indeed how much, but at the same time how little, human genius can accomplish when left to itself. Did not Guizot say also, “We are living in an epoch of confusion and darkness both morally and socially”? ” What the eighteenth century has shown is that actual ruin follows hard upon the heels of apparent progress. And if I were asked to render my own judgment in a word, then I would say that in every respect and on the broadest possible scale the eighteenth century has confirmed, but then in reverse, the promise that all things will be added unto those who seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.
At this juncture I would have you notice the implication of my view for the appraisal of persons. You need not fear that my judgment will be harsh or unfair. To the contrary. The better one recognizes the power of ideas the more alive he is to the truth of the saying that people, like books, must be judged “in the light of their times.” A kind of atmospheric intoxication can arise which for purposes of determining accountability can best be likened to a state of involuntary drunkenness. We are very much deceived if we suppose that men generally discerned, in a time of enthusiasm rather than sober reflection, all the implications that are apparent to us today. Coolness in the midst of general excitement is rare. As Burke has observed: “Men have been sometimes led by degrees, sometimes hurried into things, of which, if they could have seen the whole together, they never would have permitted the most remote approach.””
These remarks are important for discovering and understanding the causes of the Revolution. People are so ready to blame revolutionary writers like Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau for the rise of atheism and rebelliousness, and to blame revolutionary coachmen like Robespierre and Napoleon for the horrors of anarchy and despotism. And rightly so, insofar as these men through words and deeds took upon themselves a large share of the responsibility. Yet they were also the instruments of the age. The writers only uttered what everybody was already thinking. They were the spokesmen, not the teachers, of public opinion; or if they were the teachers, it was for their leading men a step further along a road of reasoning upon which it was impossible to halt in any case. The same is true of the men who held power during the Revolution. Borne aloft by the spirit of the age, they were subject to its drift. They could not resist the logic of the Revolution. They led because they saw things before other men did and promoted more forcefully what the moment required. They were less leaders than an avant-garde walking along a track followed spontaneously by all. At most they were leaders who themselves were led, driven by the surging masses behind them. We must keep this fact before us if we would not judge their character too severely, if we would not extol their talents too highly, and if we would ascertain properly the nature, coherence and potency of the false doctrines; if in addition we would correctly appraise those others who, though shrinking from extremism and calling inconsistency “moderation,” nevertheless honoured the same principle and are therefore accountable for the error not just to the limits to which they were willing to follow it in their own doctrine and practice, but to the full extent of its development—for the whole series of errors and outrages which issued from the We must keep this fact before us. And we must be convinced of the validity of one of the weightiest political maxims: Principiis obsta—fight the disease at the first symptoms!
Allow me one more comment, about what our view of the age implies for determining our duty today. We shall not break with that age. We shall not dismiss it as an interlude that one may skip over. We shall neither disparage nor discard the benefits which that age wrought in the moral world, like a destructive but cleansing storm. Yet at the same time we shall make absolutely no concessions whatever as to the acceptability of its treacherous basis. We shall not seek to save the future by modifying or moderating or regulating principles that are ruinous in their essence. But neither shall we be indolent or resigned. No, we shall do the only thing that we are called to do: contend for the highest truth, the acceptance of which is a condition sine qua non if we would arrive, while excising the evil and utilizing the good bequeathed us by our fathers as a precarious and precious heritage, upon the sole road which leads to the happiness of nations.
Much of what I have now said will have to be corroborated as we continue our investigation, and much will have to be argued in greater detail. Yet a correct understanding of the essence of the revolutionary development is in my view so important that I felt the need to clear myself of any charge of bigotry or prejudice before proceeding, as now I shall, to elaborate my conviction that the Revolution is in its entirety nothing other than systematic unbelief, the outcome of apostasy from the Gospel.
My argument concerns religion and politics.
Lamennais writes correctly: “There are truths and errors which are at once religious and political, since religion and society have the same origin, namely God, and the same end, namely man. Thus a fundamental error in religion is also a fundamental error in politics, and vice versa.”” In the history of the Revolution the examples and proofs of this correspondence are striking. The same declension is to be observed in the corruption of religion, in the deformation of constitutional law, and in the deterioration of political practice. In religion we find a Voltaire, a Diderot, a Lamettrie; in political theory a Montesquieu, a Rousseau, a Condorcet; in the praxis a 1789 followed by a 1793: Necker, Mirabeau, Robespierre, Marat.
The Revolution doctrine is the religion, as it were, of unbelief. It is the negation of everything resting upon belief, so that it affects not only constitutional law but also philosophy in the broad sense —the “science of things divine and human,” as it has been called. Thus I would fail to do justice to our subject if I did not speak to you first about the philosophy of the eighteenth century, in order thereafter to turn more particularly to its political theory.
The principle of this vaunted philosophy was the sovereignty of Reason, and the outcome was apostasy from God and materialism. That such an outcome was inevitable once the principle had been accepted is demonstrable from the genealogy of the ideas.
I hardly need remind you that from the outset the supremacy of Reason was postulated as an axiom in philosophy. This supremacy rested upon a denial of the corruption of human nature. But where Reason was considered uncorrupted, Revelation could contain nothing beyond its reach, or at least nothing against its verdict. Thus Reason became the touchstone of the truth. Accordingly, it became necessary to seek out by blatantly human eclectic methods whatever in the Bible might be considered the Word of God worthy of God. The Word had thus to be ratified by arbitrary wisdom, and Holy Scripture, to be holy, came to need the sanction of human approval. It cannot escape the Christian that at this very juncture the Divine prerogative is already violated as man seeks to be rid of God and to be deified in His place.
In order to calculate the effect which must follow acceptance of the rationalist axiom, we have at hand a very simple device. The philosopher believes what he understands, believes only what seems to him to be wisdom. Now compare his stance with the apostolic utterance: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”‘ Obviously the philosopher will come to reject and to regard as foolishness all the truths that are taught by the Holy Spirit. If he does not contradict or ridicule them openly, he will at least be forced to consider them mere symbols, metaphors or allegories. He will soften the harshness of the Bible’s language with expressions that are in his opinion more appropriate. He will twist Revelation or he will expurgate it. Through a variety of reinterpretations he will provide for the destruction of everything that is essential to the doctrine of salvation. I would point out here only the necessity of the accommodation theory. I shall not enter into details. We know how the deity of the Saviour thus becomes the divinity of the Saviour, how sin becomes weakness, and depravity imperfection, and the atoning sacrifice an act of exemplary love, and sanctification moral perfection, and the wrath of God holy displeasure, and eternal perdition from before the face of the Lord fatherly chastisement, and the God of Revelation the God of Nature, the unknown God.
But how far does this go? As far as any individual’s opinions dispose him to take it. There is no other limit once it is agreed that whatever cannot be reconciled with the understanding is to be considered absurd. You will not insist on an enumeration of all the systems of rationalism and neology. They are innumerable, their very variety disclosing the cumulative effect of skepticism. How could it be otherwise? How, for example, could anyone who denies the deity of our Lord by reason of its incomprehensibility not be on the way to denying everything in His appearing that was supernatural and miraculous? to seeing in His walking on the sea a perambulation along the shore by moonlight and in His death a state of suspended animation?’ or, to come to the point, to dismissing the historical Christ altogether and seeing in the four gospels nothing but fourfold fiction or myth!
Thus the renouncing of the power and spirit of Gospel truth courses towards a Christian deism. Let us see if we can have a permanent resting place here. There is in this sort of deism much ado about Christ, God and morality. But it is idle bombast, a meaningless flourish of words. There is a Christ—there are many Christs—but he is no longer the Christ of the Scriptures. He is a teacher, an example, a sage, a celestial being perhaps, nurtured in. higher spheres of wisdom and virtue. But he is no Son of God, no Mediator between God and men. So what’s the use? Here the words of Pascal apply:
All those who seek God outside Jesus Christ find no light that will satisfy or truly profit them. For either they do not acknowledge that there is a God or, when they do, it is of no use to them. For they fashion for themselves a means of communicating without a mediator with the God whom they have learned to know without a mediator. Accordingly, they fall either into atheism or into deism, both of which are held by the Christian religion in almost equal abhorrence. All our happiness, our strength, our life, our light, our hope is in Jesus Christ. Outside of Him there is nothing for us but vice, misery, darkness, despair, and we find in God’s nature and in our own nothing but incomprehensibility and confusion.Cf. Pensies, 244-246; or in other editions: 543-556.
Is it not possible, however, that the believing and incisive Pascal exaggerates when he places deism on a level with atheism? For is it not true, after all, that the confession of deism, while it rejects much, can go very well together with a certain respect for the remainder of Revelation? And although it refuses to acknowledge God in the Law and in the Gospel, is it not true that deism does profess to honour and worship Him in Nature? — No, men only deceive themselves with such reassurances. Where Reason exalts itself above Revelation the latter must shortly be reduced to a compilation of legends and fables. And Nature itself, once men are blind to the light of Revelation, can always be explained purely in terms of natural forces. And at last even the Deity becomes a mere abstraction, a hypothesis, a hypothetical god: for if men, in order to believe, must first comprehend, what is more incomprehensible, what is more unbelievable, than God! It is not without justification that Lamennais writes:
When one comes to examine closely the system of the deists, one finds in it only incoherence and contradiction. Nature seems to speak a different language to each of them. They seem unable to agree on a single form of worship or a single article of faith. Forced to concede to reason all or nothing, dogmas escape them, morality slips away from them and, whatever they may do, they are pushed as far as the toleration of atheism, …Lamennais, Essai sur l’indifférence, ch. vi
Bossuet therefore gave a correct definition:
“Deism is only atheism in disguise.””Quoted in Lamennais, ibid., ch. v
It is a definition given already in the Bible:
“Ye were without Christ, … having no hope, and without God in the world.”Ephesians 2:12.
But Lamennais said that “morality slips away from them.” Is that true? Must the practice decline with the doctrine? Indeed it must. For we know, do we not? and we confess, that there can be no Christian life without a living faith in Christ, bound to historical facts—call them points of doctrine or not.’ Although doctrine has come to be discredited with many, who in this respect deny the unity of root, stem and fruit, we trust that few, in this country at least, would go so far as to assert that faith in God can be dispensed with as the foundation of Morality.
Still, someone may demur, morality as such has been an object of respect for some of the atheists who have styled themselves philosophes. True enough. Even atheists will gladly say:
“The essence of religion consists in practice: a man must be upright, merciful, humane and charitable.”Rousseau, Lettre à M. de Beaumont [Archbishop de Paris], p. 59; as quoted in Lamennais, Essai sur l’indifférence, ch. v.
It is only a pity that this asseveration does not help: “Experience proves that as soon as morality is considered independently of religion it becomes as problematic as religion itself.”Lamennais, ibid., ch. iv
“Deism’s morality, like its doctrine, is all opinion, all cant. The whole duty of the atheist is to acknowledge no duties. ‘Properly speaking,’ says a celebrated philosopher, ‘there is but one duty, which is to make oneself happy.’Raynal, Histoire philosophique, bk. XIX.
One shall be free to do all, as one is free to believe all and to deny All.Lamennais, Essai sur l’indifférence, ch. vii
Accordingly, there can be no basis for obligation beyond enlightened self-interest. And where there is no belief in God, what must the prescriptions of self-interest be? Virtue is but a word, an affectation, a dupery. And authority and law, what are they? Cunning contrivances of the weaker, fashioned to constrain the loftier talents of genius. Much better, therefore, to live in harmony with nature: Waturae vivere convenienter oportet (This precept, which is the sum of Stoic wisdom, is found in Horace, Epist. ,1, 10, 12 and Cicero, De Officiis, III, 3, 13.) But such naturalism conforms to what the apostle calls a wisdom that is not from above, but that is earthly, natural, devilish.” “Man’s duties are reconciled with his inclinations; or rather, his inclinations are made the sole measure of his duties.”Lamennais, Essai sur l’indifférence, ch. iv
In this shipwreck of truths even the last plank which men might clutch at perishes. In vain would they cling to a belief in the immortality of the soul, or to any real distinction between good and evil. For their philosophy preserves only the positive, and it regards as positive only the material—that which is within the reach of the senses. The Christian faces suffering and death cheerfully, his eyes fixed not on things that are seen but on things that are not seen: “for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal.” (II Corinthians 4:18) Not so the philosopher. By inverting the order of things he proves himself a true revolutionary at this point, too. To him, things invisible and eternal are daydreams: nothing is real if not visible and temporal. Thus Bolingbroke deprecates the view of any who would claim to have “a moral sense, that is, an instinct by which they distinguish what is morally good from what is morally evil, and perceive an agreeable or disagreeable intellectual sensation accordingly . . .” “There is such a moral sense,” he says, “which may be acquired in some sort by long habits of virtue, and the warmth of true philosophical devotion, but which it is whimsical to assume to be natural.” (Bolingbroke, Works, IV, 16; V, 109; quoted in Lamennais, Essai sur l’indifference, ch.) So nothing remains, save to say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”” (1 Corinthians 15:32)
And so, step by step, men are dragged to the abyss. Reason, granted supremacy, must be obeyed. Many, however, shrink from being consistent at any price. They waver. Halfway down the slope they would quit. Their inconsequence becomes noticeable. “Inconsistency is ever the companion of error, because man never weans himself from all truths at once and because the truths that he retains, incompatible with the error, force him in the end to contradict himself. . . . One escapes the atheism to which the system leads only by multiplying contradictions.” (Lamennais, Essai sur l’indifference, ch. iv.) But such arbitrary recalcitrance cannot withstand the dictates of logic for very long. The error is appealing not just because of its deceptive appearance, which it owes to the elements of truth it arrogates to its own use: it captivates especially because once its principle is granted, every step in its further development has the virtue of relative truth. Thus what many will shun, others will carry forward as a compelling consequence. Where most will shuffle along reluctantly, others will drive ahead. The ones who are utterly convinced, supported as they are by relative truth, will falter at nothing. Here lies the secret of the error’s triumphant power. Where all questions are decided by opinion, by intellectual comprehension, all opinions are equal; and whoever can complement the corruption of the human heart with cogent reasoning and strict logic will therefore carry the day. How can any truth remain unassailed? Does not the highest truth, which is from God, remain fixed forever as the foundation of all truths religious and moral? Deny the foundation: the series of errors flowing from that one error will assume the appearance of truth, while every truth will seem falsehood, misunderstanding, prejudice, superstition.’
To prove this, if that were necessary, I could now go on to show you in the writings of the English deists, in the attacks launched by Voltaire, in Rousseau’s deistic notions, in the atheism of Diderot, in the materialism of Helvetius, in La Mettrie’s Man: A Machine and in Condillac’s Man: A Statue the progression, the descent, the slide into the pit, of the unbelieving philosophy. But to do so would be superfluous, notorious as this train of witnesses is. Instead, let me just remark at this point that to deny the truth is also of necessity to despise and to hate actively —not just philosophically, but militantly—everything that is adjudged false and therefore evil. And the Gospel and Christian belief are certainly false and evil from the viewpoint of the unbelieving philosophy. Once denied, revealed truths are superstitions. They are evils. They are the worst of the impediments blocking the road to enlightenment and self-perfection. Thus Rousseau finds himself writing:
Revelations only degrade God, by ascribing human passions to Him. I observe that, far from clarifying our conceptions of the Great Being, specific dogmas only muddle them; far from ennobling them, they debase them; to the inconceivable mysteries that surround Him they add absurd contradictions; they render man haughty, intolerant, cruel; instead of bringing peace on earth, they bring fire and sword. I ask myself what all this is good for, and I find no answer. I see in it nothing but the crimes of men and the miseries of mankind.Rousseau, Emile, III, 133; as quoted in Lamennais, Essai sur l’indifference , ch. v.
Let us not forget: the lie is compelled to hate the truth and to proscribe it because it is in the nature of the truth to be exclusive, to be intolerant of the lie. The very presence of the truth is condemnation of the error. So the lie, when it is complete, embraces every remnant of the truth within the circle of its hatred. Deism, however diluted, is an offence to the atheist. Whoever believes in a God, of whatever description, is in the estimate of the atheist a bigoted proponent of childish and harmful ideas. Because atheism equalizes all religions, people believe they can rely on it to be tolerant. They are mistaken. Atheism cannot tolerate the truth, because it cannot be tolerated by the truth. It recognizes a mortal enemy in every belief. It puts up with the least hint of that religion only that keeps silent, that bends its neck, that submits to the rules and regulations of unbelief. Atheism equalizes all religions all right—provided all are equally destitute of the signs of vigour and life. Its tolerance is not unlike that of a murderer towards his enemy, once the victim is dead.
It is this enmity that we must bear in mind if we are to understand the nature of the Revolution. The learned and discerning Albrecht von Haller, who was as anti-revolutionary as his grandson but at the same time a simple Christian who did not look to the Vatican for the Gospel light that kindled in his soul, noted as early as 1759:
Among the most outspoken of the freethinkers we observe aspirit of persecution as violent as it could ever be with a Dominican, although for lack of opportunity it can find expression only in abusive language. Zealots as ardent as Helvetius and Voltaire would persecute and even have blood shed on the scaffolds if they had the power to do so.Albrecht von Haller (1708-77), in a review of Helvetius’ De l’Esprit, in the Göttingische gelehrte Anzeiger, 1759, p. 1034; as quoted in Karl Ludwig von Haller, Restauration, I, 126n
Religion is among the most powerful causes of enthusiasm.When anything concerning it becomes an object of much meditation, it cannot be indifferent to the mind. They who do not love religion, hate it. The rebels to God perfectly abhor the author of their being. They hate him “with all their heart, with all their mind, with all their soul, and with all their strength”. . . This fanatical atheism left out, we omit the principal feature in the French revolution . . .Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace; in Works, VIII, 165-167
The defining feature of the Revolution is its hatred of the Gospel, its anti-Christian nature. This feature marks the Revolution, not, mind you, when it “deviates from its course” and “lapses into excesses,” but, on the contrary, precisely when it holds to its course and reaches the conclusion of its system, the true end of its logical development. This mark belongs to the Revolution. The Revolution can never shake it off. It is inherent in its very principle, and expresses and reflects its essence. It is the sign of its origin. It is the mark of hell.”
I could go on to show you how the same principle of unbelief operated in philosophy proper—the more profound, or perhaps fanciful, discipline—, in the various branches of learning, and even in belles-lettres. I could show you in the systems of the German metaphysicians, in the criticism of the texts of classical antiquity, and in the new treatment of history, how even the indubitable was made the object of doubt. I could show you how literature, after serving as a vehicle for too much foolishness and maleficence, ended by earning the appellation “literature of despair.” It would be inadvisable for us to enter unnecessarily upon by-paths, however, since our time is limited. By omitting whatever does not belong directly to our subject I shall be able in the next lecture to turn at once to political theory, to show you on this ground, too, how being without God in the world entails certain natural consequences: how when the bond between heaven and earth is severed proud man becomes the helpless prey of destruction and ruin.
… In the bitter fruits of the continued practice were visible the nature and effect of the Revolution — and of God’s judgment: “My people would not hearken to my voice, so I gave them up to their own hearts’ lust: and they walked in their own counsels” [Psalm 81:11, 12]. In the judgment there lay also a blessing…. Defective and lifeless forms pertaining to all sorts of wrongs and abuses were swept away. The way was cleared for thorough-going measures.
One may not ignore the many good things that were achieved during this period. The efforts for reform and renewal were not unfruitful. There was remarkable material and intellectual progress and development. To a degree that would not have been thought possible, the forces of nature were made serviceable to human ingenuity. Many social improvements were brought about. And in the basic features of the [new] political forms lay the germ of civil and political liberty.
Even so, the progress that was made in the areas of law and morality is to be attributed largely to the work of the Gospel. The history of Europe and especially of the Netherlands in the days of the Reformation had shown experimentally the power of saving truth for emancipation and civilization. And although this power was afterwards assigned to obscurity through the powerlessness of a dead orthodoxy, the improvements realized even then prove that only the Gospel contains the true principle of liberty, equality and fraternization, of philanthropy and efficacious humanitarianism.
For the philosophy of the age, despite the anti-Christian character of its main tenet, was permeated with the precepts of Christian morality and the marrow of Christian civilization…. The pity is that most men wanted to have the fruit without the root, the morality without the motive. Faith which worketh by love [Gal. 5:16]? No. Love, yes; but not faith. Love as it is in man, not as it is of God.
Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light (II Cor. 11:14). The ideas that made [eighteenth-century] philosophy so attractive were of Christian origin; they were wholesome insofar as they were gotten from the Gospel, baneful insofar as they were torn loose from it.
In Christian love lies true humanity: recognition of the rights of man, even of the humblest, without distinction of race or colour or birth or class. From this follow (as the eighteenth century took to heart with commendable zeal) the abolition of slavery, of serfdom and of the rack; toleration in religion; the extension of political rights to the lower classes; numerous philanthropies; and the intent to secure an adequate standard of living for all. Formerly, European Christendom had been motivated in its public order too exclusively by the first of the great commandments, Thou shalt love thy God, and by the enforcement of the laws pertaining to its observance. Now however, as men seized upon the commandment Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, they thrust piety aside. Philanthropy was torn loose from its life-giving source. This explains why so many a noble cause met a miserable end and why so much that is vaunted as an achievement of the progress of enlightenment was in reality accomplished only through the faith and persistence of Christians.
Men wanted to be like God, not under God. They spoke no longer of sin but of an undepraved and educable, perfectible humanity…. Such perfectibility found its slogan in the promise of the serpent in Paradise: “ye shall be as God” (Gen. 3:5 [ASV]). — “The Revolution is the spirit of revolt against all authority (H Thess. 2:4), appearing in world history as a ruling principle for the first time in the French revolution” (Daniël Chantepie de la Saussaye).
At bottom the Revolution is the world-historical war of religion (Gen. 3:15), the battle against the living God. — Piety and politics melt together before this supreme question: if there is no sin, there is no Saviour; if there is no sin, the cause of evil lies not in man, who is good, but in the form of government, in the lack of popular rule, in the corruption of society through priestcraft and tyranny….
Where no supreme lawgiver is recognized, where no moral authority governs man, there is no sanctity of office, no independence of government, no support save in the will of the people, no inviolability of property. Liberalism gives way to radicalism and … is genealogically related to communism and socialism….
Authority, in the state and in every relationship, has a source higher than the human will. The moment this divine right of government is denied and sovereignty by the grace of God repudiated—the moment there is no legitimacy, no justice based on unshakable foundations, but instead legality, a justice based only on the inconstancy of man-made law—at that moment there is no barrier against the Revolution, even in its uttermost madness….
That every experiment with the revolutionary system failed was not due to the deficiency of the forms of government. Far from it. Separated from the false theory, the type of government which developed amidst the revolutionary turbulence had as its main objective common deliberation between government and people as the guarantee of civil and political liberty. As far as our country is concerned, this development was in line with the natural evolution of the nation, and was not only preferable to what existed before 1795 but capable also of meeting every new demand of constitutional progress.
“The spirit of the age is one thing, its career another” (Isaac da Costa). One should indeed distinguish between the Revolution spirit, which is the implacable enemy of civil and international order, and the political state of affairs which has arisen under the influence of the Revolution. “On the ground which the revolution has laid waste a new seed is sprouting after laws of its own” (Johan Rudolf Thorbecke). The real progress made by European constitutional law consists in the shift away from the originally patrimonial nature of the European kingdoms; in the diffusion of the conviction that every state ought to be a public affair, a res publica, a society for the common weal In this genuinely republican and no longer private-civil character of the state — which is at once disparate to the ills of popular sovereignty and quite compatible with an independent and powerful monarchy—lie the precondition, the life principle and the vital force of a Netherlandic and constitutional monarchy comparable in sense and spirit to the political order of the English.
Nevertheless, there were repeated disappointments here and elsewhere. Why? Because the one thing needful, the cement also of states, was lacking; because men were averse and remained averse to the Christian-historical foundation; because history confirms what Scripture says: “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision when kings and people, having broken their bands asunder, imagine a vain thing” [cf. Ps. 2:1-4].
Disillusionment is unavoidable so long as men do not break with the spirit of the Revolution. For the foundation of every liberty and of all authority lies in submission to the Highest Lawgiver. Liberalism is not the spirit of liberty; it mistakes building on an unchangeable foundation for obstinate clinging to all that is old and for misguided repulsion of all that is modern. The precondition for liberty and progress is to be found precisely, in fact, in that which the liberal regards as a worn-out theory of servile submission.
As I explained in my opening address to the Association for Christian Elementary Education:
“There is a school of thought which supplants the Gospel with a Christianity of its own making—a figment, a phantasm—and which kneels before this philosophical idol while rejecting every truth that is revealed and not proven by reason or experience; which despises Christianity as superstitious folly; which makes Christianity a butt even less of mockery than of hatred — yes, of a complete and fanatical hatred, this hitherto ineradicable sect being now the most powerful, hence also the most adverse obstacle to the evolution of mankind. The so-called neutrality [of the public school] grows into the most pernicious partiality favouring unbelief and ends in proselytism for the religion of reason and nature.”Bijdragen der Vereeniging voor Christelijk-nationaal Schoolonderwijs, Il (1861), 32f.
The closing paragraph of Renan’s essay on the critical lives of Jesus is very revealing:
“Eternal beauty shall dwell forever in the sublime name of the Christ, as it does in all those whom mankind has chosen for reminding itself what humanity is and for finding inspiration in its own image….” Études d’histoire religieuse, p. 215. “As it does in all those,” he says. His Christ is not even facile princeps [easily the first] or primus inter pares [the first among equals]. Renan points, rather, to a common ideal that derives from all these personalities. Voila., he concludes, the living God: “There you have the living God, the one to adore.”Ibid.
This becomes the religion of humanity:
“A negating and sardonic unbelief has been succeeded by an unbelief which believes, by a fervent atheism, by an enthusiastic materialism. In our day impiety itself has become a religion.”Vinet, Considérations présentées à Messieurs les Ministres démissionnaires, p. 37. [Cf. also below, p. 000.]
Thus unbelief, too, comes to have its version of divine right and its state religion. The public conscience becomes the highest law for each citizen, even above his own conscience; see my Grondwetherziening, pp. 116-121:
In our day even the Revolution has its divine right. … One striking instance I came across in recent months is from Louis Blanc: The liberals, scarcely victorious, hastened to convert their famous theory of atheism into law without minding that whatever is deducted in the state from the sovereignty of God is added to the sovereignty of the hangman…. One must not confound liberty of conscience with equality of religions: the conscience is a sanctuary which no human power has the right to violate; but it is a long way from this respect for individual and private worship to the abolition of all state religion. The state owes it to itself to direct the moral interests of society just as it directs its material interests: if it declares itself indifferent, it abdicates its responsibility.Histoire de dix ans. 1830-1840, II, 282….
And even a Lamartine says today: ‘Let us fasten again to God, link by link, the summary declarations of our Constitution.’ And would you care to hear how Lamartine formulated the theory of divine right recently on the occasion of the promulgation of the Constitution? Here is a snippet from his priceless speech: ‘People! God alone is sovereign, for he alone is creator, he alone is infallible, just, good, perfect. God’s echo upon the human race is human reason. Human reason alone, therefore, emanating from God, inspired by God, God’s minister in us, is the legitimate sovereign of the nations … The reign of God through the reason of all is called the republic . .. Never since the days of the Gospel has human reason codified a sovereignty more rational, more universal and more legal.’ And now the interpretation of the oracle: Since human reason holds sway, God rules; the People do not submit to the higher sovereignty of God, no, the sovereignty of God is revealed in, in fact resolves into, the sovereignty of the People; the promise ‘ye shall be as God’ is gloriously fulfilled in the apotheosis of the People. — Never, perhaps, has there been a more ludicrous exhibition of rationalist and pantheist nonsense. But I let that rest. I only want to point out that today the question is not: do you acknowledge the sovereignty of God? But rather: which God will you have? the god of the pantheists or the living God whom Christendom worships? . In the words of Stahl: ‘The cardinal question of the present time is the battle between theism and pantheism, and parallel with it runs the battle of Christianity against the de-Christianization of the civilized world. For an abstract theism is impossible today: everywhere the great decision forces itself upon 36 men.’ Philosophie des Rechts, II, vii. As someone so rightly observed recently in the Second Chamber: ‘While we are busy here flailing away at the phantom fear of restoring an erstwhile dominant church, two armies are rallying, that of positive Christianity under the banner of the Cross, and that of positive Unbelief under the banner of Humanity.’ And what Stahl, writing in the Evangelische Kirchen-Zeitung, 1847, p. 639, says of his own country will soon be true of more countries: `There are at present only two political parties in Germany, the Christians and the non-Christians.’ — The continued unfolding of the Revolution ideas will cause any halfway or arbitrary application to become untenable: it will disclose to the full the anti-Christian nature of the theory and thus leave no choice in the long run save total surrender to, or total rebellion against, Him who is set for the fall or rising again of many”.
“The apotheosis of humanity is the spiritual culmination of democracy; it is the very life’s breath of the first French revolution…. A religion is established here, the cult of humanity, and whoever refuses to worship shall be punished with annihilation.”Stahl, Die gegenwärtige Parteien, p. 187.