Could a plague of biblical proportions be America’s best hope for religious revival? As the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, there is reason to think so.
Three-quarters of a century has dimmed the memory of that gruesome conflict and its terrible consequences: tens of millions killed, great cities bombed to rubble, Europe and Asia stricken by hunger and poverty. Those who survived the war had to grapple with the kinds of profound questions that only arise in the aftermath of calamity. Gazing at the ruins from his window at Cambridge University, British historian Herbert Butterfield chose to make sense of it by turning to the Hebrew Bible.
“The power of the Old Testament teaching on history—perhaps the point at which the ancient Jews were most original, breaking away from the religious thought of the other peoples around them—lay precisely in the region of truths which sprang from a reflection on catastrophe and cataclysm,” Butterfield wrote in “Christianity and History” (1949). “It is almost impossible properly to appreciate the higher developments in the historical reflection of the Old Testament except in another age which has experienced (or has found itself confronted with) colossal cataclysm.”
Americans, chastened by the horrors of war, turned to faith in search of truth and meaning. In the late 1940s, Gallup surveys showed more than three-quarters of Americans were members of a house of worship, compared with about half today. Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Some would later call this a Third Great Awakening.
Today the world faces another moment of cataclysm. Though less devastating than World War II, the pandemic has remade everyday life and wrecked the global economy in a way that feels apocalyptic.
Who will save us now that the monster has broken free?
“Men may live to a great age in days of comparative quietness and peaceful progress, without ever having come to grips with the universe, without ever vividly realising the problems and the paradoxes with which human history so often confronts us,” Butterfield wrote. “We of the twentieth century have been particularly spoiled; for the men of the Old Testament, the ancient Greeks and all our ancestors down to the seventeenth century betray in their philosophy and their outlook a terrible awareness of the chanciness of human life, and the precarious nature of man’s existence in this risky universe.”
The past four years have been some of the most contentious and embarrassing in American history. Squabbling over trivialities has left the public frantic and divided, oblivious to the transcendent. But the pandemic has humbled the country and opened millions of eyes to this risky universe once more.
“Sheer grimness of suffering brings men sometimes into a profounder understanding of human destiny,” Butterfield wrote. Sometimes “it is only by a cataclysm,” he continued, “that man can make his escape from the net which he has taken so much trouble to weave around himself.”
For societies founded on the biblical tradition, cataclysms need not mark the end. They are a call for repentance and revival. As the coronavirus pandemic subjects U.S. hospitals to a fearsome test, Americans can find solace in the same place that Butterfield did. Great struggle can produce great clarity.
Could a rogue virus lead to a grand creative moment in America’s history? Will Americans, shaken by the reality of a risky universe, rediscover the God who proclaimed himself sovereign over every catastrophe?
Mr. Nicholson is president of the Philos Project.
World War I and the adversarial mentality.
It’s the eternal argument. When you are fighting a repulsive foe, the ends justify any means and serve as rationale for any selfishness.
Dax’s struggle is not to change the war or to save lives. That’s impossible. The war has won. The struggle is simply to remain a human being, to maintain some contact with goodness in circumstances that are inhumane.
Disillusionment was the classic challenge for the generation that fought and watched that war. Before 1914, there was an assumed faith in progress, a general trust in the institutions and certainties of Western civilization. People, especially in the educated classes, approached life with a gentlemanly, sporting spirit.
As Paul Fussell pointed out in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” the upper classes used genteel words in place of plain ones: slumber for sleep, the heavens for the sky, conquer for win, legion for army.
The war blew away that gentility, those ideals and that faith in progress. Ernest Hemingway captured the rising irony and cynicism in “A Farewell to Arms.” His hero is embarrassed “by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression, in vain.” He had seen nothing sacred in the war, nothing glorious, just meaningless slaughter.
.. European culture suffered a massive disillusion during the conflict — no God, no beauty, no coherence, no meaning, just the cruel ironic joke of life. Cynicism breeds a kind of nihilism, a disbelief in all values, an assumption that others’ motives are bad.
Fussell wrote that the war spread an adversarial mentality. The men in the trenches were obsessed with the enemy — those anonymous creatures across no man’s land who rained down death. “Prolonged trench warfare, whether enacted or remembered, fosters paranoid melodrama,” he wrote.
The “versus habit” construes reality as us versus them — a mentality that spread through British society. It was the officers versus the men, and, when they got home, the students at university versus the dons.
George Orwell wrote that he recognized the Great War mentality lingering even in the 1930s in his own left-wing circles — the same desire to sniff out those who departed from party orthodoxy, the same retelling of mostly false atrocity stories, the same war hysteria. As Christopher Isherwood put it, all the young people who were ashamed of never having fought in the war brought warlike simplicities to political life.
.. Some of the disillusioned drop out of public life, since it’s all meaningless. But others want to burn it all down because it’s all rotten. Moderation is taken for cowardice. Aggression is regarded as courage. No conciliatory word is permitted when a fighting word will do.
Today we face no horrors equal to the Great War, but there is the same loss of faith in progress, the reality of endless political trench warfare, the paranoid melodrama, the specter that we are all being dehumanized amid the fight.
“The incredible ripple effect of being at peace with our vulnerability in any situation is that it means that you have to develop compassion for yourself.”
Krista reflects on how vulnerability can bring us closer to ourselves and each other. The fourth installment of “Living the Questions” this summer. We’ll be back to answer more of your questions in the fall.
.. Somehow, that being real and honest about ourselves and our ragged edges is a form of that, is a virtue. And then, like any other virtue, we really have to practice it. Like any muscle, we have to flex it. This is a very withered muscle because we’ve been taught to hide this at all cost.
.. I think the incredible side effect or ripple effect of being at home, being at peace, with our vulnerability in any situation is that it means that you have to develop compassion for yourself. This just becomes basic spiritual growth, basic spiritual discipline and knowledge, that you start to understand that this doesn’t make you special; that everybody else is struggling with this too. You start to get curious and aware that what other people present as strength, or what feels like resistance or aggressiveness, is also a reflection of the struggle they’re having. It very organically allows you to start to take in the complexity of others — including what they’re not saying; including, maybe, when you can start to really imagine and understand, that what they’re expressing or how they’re behaving may even be the opposite of how they’re feeling. It opens up a lot of possibility between you and others.
.. So vulnerability can nurture a sense of empathy with other people.
.. Some people might say being able to choose or embrace vulnerability can be a privilege of those who are in circumstances safe enough to be able to do that. How do you think through that?
.. those of us walking through the world in any given situation, at any given time, for whom it is safer to be vulnerable, do that on behalf of others. That’s what I think bridge people, I always talk about the calling to be bridge people. I think this is one way to describe what it looks like and what’s happening when someone steps into that space.
I’ve been reading Sojourner Truth’s famous 1851 speech, “Ain’t I a Woman.”
“I could work as much and eat as much as a man, when I could get it, and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne 13 children and seen most of them sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
.. When Truth asked the group of mostly white women in her audience whether she was a woman, she was not simply pointing to the hypocrisy of Western thought in which nations and “civilized” societies were built on the enslavement, murder and exploitation of women and children. Truth’s question was a provocation, a challenge to a racial structure built on the dehumanization of an entire group of human beings.
.. The barbarity of American slavery should be recalled more often, if only to truly understand the significance of its demise. It was
- the grief of losing one’s child,
- being raped,
- tortured and
- separated from your own
- family and friends at a whim.
.. It was a system that normalized and codified its everyday brutality. It was life in constant fear and punishing, exacting labor. And it was completely legal.
.. Who successfully sued a white man to get back her son.
.. For example, Truth, in fact, had only five children, not 13 — an embellishment attributed to those who later transcribed the speech for the illiterate former slave.
.. I think of her standing in a courtroom to claim her child and I remind myself that this is what freedom means.
.. I participated in the Occupy movement, during which a crossracial coalition of people from New York to Honolulu protested income inequality, gentrification, police brutality and unjust incarceration. The movement had many successes, but in its immediate aftermath we saw widespread crackdowns in cities around the country on people’s ability to interact and exist in urban outdoor spaces — policies that have aided efforts to criminalize the nation’s homeless and pre-emptively arrest other vulnerable populations.
.. In order to have hope, I have to believe that, after the backlash, things — for black Americans and other oppressed people here and around the world — will change again.
.. For black Americans, the struggle of emancipation is riddled with its failures: sharecropping, lynching, segregation, disenfranchisement and brutal, unfair treatment by the criminal justice system.
.. John Lewis said in a recent tweet, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair.
Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.”
When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based “social justice” movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well.
If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large. What matters most of all in these colleges — your membership in a group that is embedded in a hierarchy of oppression — will soon enough be what matters in the society as a whole.
.. The idea of individual merit — as opposed to various forms of unearned “privilege” — is increasingly suspect.
.. Any differences in outcome for various groups must always be a function of “hate,” rather than a function of nature or choice or freedom or individual agency
.. Polarization has made this worse — because on the left, moderation now seems like a surrender to white nationalism, and because on the right, white identity politics has overwhelmed moderate conservatism.
.. Trump plays a critical role. His crude, bigoted version of identity politics seems to require an equal and opposite reaction.
.. there’s a huge temptation to respond in kind.
.. anger is rarely a good frame of mind to pursue the imperatives of reason, let alone to defend the norms of liberal democracy.
.. Liberals welcome dissent because it’s our surest way to avoid error. Cultural Marxists fear dissent because they believe it can do harm to others’ feelings and help sustain existing identity-based power structures.
.. the impulse to intimidate, vilify, ruin, and abuse a writer for her opinions chills open debate.
.. An entirely intended byproduct of this kind of bullying — and Roiphe is just the latest victim — is silence.
.. only a member of a minority group can speak about racism or homophobia, or that only women can discuss sexual harassment.
.. The only reason this should be the case is if we think someone’s identity is more important than the argument they might want to make
.. left-feminists are not just interested in exposing workplace abuse or punishing sex crimes, but in policing even consensual sex for any hint of patriarchy’s omnipresent threat.
.. In the struggle against patriarchy, a distinction between the public and private makes no sense.
.. There’s a reason that totalitarian states will strip prisoners of their clothing. Left-feminists delight in doing this metaphorically to targeted men — effectively exposing them naked to public ridicule and examination because it both traumatizes the object and more importantly sits out there as a warning to others.
.. Besides, if they’re innocent, they’ll be fine!
.. can anyone justify why the POSSIBLE innocence of men is so much more important than the DEFINITE safety and comfort of women?”
.. we now have a “gender editor” at the New York Times, Jessica Bennett
.. Does she understand that the very word intersectional is a function of neo-Marxist critical race theory? Is this now the guiding philosophy of the paper of record?
.. At The Atlantic, the identity obsession even requires exhaustive analyses of the identity of sources quoted in stories. Ed Yong, a science writer, keeps “a personal list of women and people of color who work in the beats that I usually cover,” so he can make sure that he advances diversity even in his quotes.
.. there is no art that isn’t rooted in identity.
.. I don’t doubt the good intentions of the new identity politics — to expand the opportunities for people previously excluded. I favor a politics that never discriminates against someone for immutable characteristics
.. what we have now is far more than the liberal project of integrating minorities. It comes close to an attack on the liberal project itself. Marxism with a patina of liberalism on top is still Marxism — and it’s as hostile to the idea of a free society as white nationalism is.
.. the core concepts of a liberal society —
- the individual’s uniqueness,
- the primacy of reason,
- the protection of due process,
- an objective truth
— are so besieged, this is one of the reasons.
.. The goal of our culture now is not the emancipation of the individual from the group, but the permanent definition of the individual by the group. We used to call this bigotry. Now we call it being woke. You see: We are all on campus now.
.. prudence that worries about unintended consequences; that values thrift; that tries to insure itself against future risks; that takes the responsibility of government seriously; that worries about extreme rhetoric; that balances the budget; that insists on constantly taking pains to protect inconvenient constitutional norms; that defends existing institutions. I could go on. It all began with Burke’s recoil from the French Revolution.
.. Is there any institution in the West that is currently less conservative than the GOP?
.. No institution that is integral to our liberal democracy is immune from attack. This includes law enforcement (the FBI), the Justice Department, an independent and free press, the prerogatives of the opposition party, and regular order in the Congress.
It is a party that would impeach a State Supreme Court rather than give up its gerrymandered districts.
.. its cult leader never misses an opportunity to deepen racial divides and to inflame the gender wars.
.. Whatever else this record is, it is an open and outright assault on any concept of prudence, responsibility, or moderation. Which is to say it is an assault on conservatism itself.
.. If there is any future for the conservative soul and mind in America, it will have to start with the wholesale destruction of the current Republican Party. I made that case more than a decade ago now.
My friend Tyler Cowen argues that Jordan Peterson is the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now, and he has a point. Peterson, a University of Toronto psychologist, has found his real home on YouTube, where his videos have attracted something like 40 million views.
In his videos, he analyzes classic and biblical texts, he eviscerates identity politics and political correctness and, most important, he delivers stern fatherly lectures to young men on how to be honorable, upright and self-disciplined — how to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives.
.. His worldview begins with the belief that life is essentially a series of ruthless dominance competitions. The strong get the spoils and the weak become meek, defeated, unknown and unloved.
For much of Western history, he argues, Christianity restrained the human tendency toward barbarism. But God died in the 19th century, and Christian dogma and discipline died with him. That gave us the age of ideology, the age of fascism and communism — and with it, Auschwitz, Dachau and the gulag.
.. Since most conflict is over values, we’ve decided to not have any values. We’ll celebrate relativism and tolerance.
.. Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters. … Most men do not meet female human standards.”
.. Life is suffering, Peterson reiterates. Don’t be fooled by the naïve optimism of progressive ideology. Life is about remorseless struggle and pain. Your instinct is to whine, to play the victim, to seek vengeance.
.. “The individual must conduct his or her life in a manner that requires the rejection of immediate gratification, of natural and perverse desires alike.”
.. Instead, choose discipline, courage and self-sacrifice.
.. Much of Peterson’s advice sounds to me like vague exhortatory banality. Like Hobbes and Nietzsche before him, he seems to imagine an overly brutalistic universe, nearly without benevolence, beauty, attachment and love. His recipe for self-improvement is solitary, nonrelational, unemotional. I’d say the lives of young men can be improved more through loving attachment than through Peterson’s joyless and graceless calls to self-sacrifice.
Why do working-class conservatives seem to vote so often against their own economic interests?
My stab at an answer would begin in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many Trump supporters live in places that once were on the edge of the American frontier. Life on that frontier was fragile, perilous, lonely and remorseless. If a single slip could produce disaster, then discipline and self-reliance were essential. The basic pattern of life was an underlying condition of peril, warded off by an ethos of self-restraint, temperance, self-control and strictness of conscience.
.. Today these places are no longer frontier towns, but many of them still exist on the same knife’s edge between traditionalist order and extreme dissolution.
.. Many people in these places tend to see their communities the way foreign policy realists see the world: as an unvarnished struggle for resources — as a tough world, a no-illusions world, a world where conflict is built into the fabric of reality.
.. The virtues most admired in such places, then and now, are what Shirley Robin Letwin once called the vigorous virtues: “upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent minded, loyal to friends and robust against foes.”
.. The sins that can cause the most trouble are not the social sins — injustice, incivility, etc. They are the personal sins — laziness, self-indulgence, drinking, sleeping around.
.. Moreover, the forces of social disruption are visible on every street: the slackers taking advantage of the disability programs, the people popping out babies, the drug users, the spouse abusers.
.. In their view, government doesn’t reinforce the vigorous virtues. On the contrary, it undermines them — by fostering initiative-sucking dependency, by letting people get away with their mistakes so they can make more of them and by getting in the way of moral formation.
The only way you build up self-reliant virtues, in this view, is through struggle. Yet faraway government experts want to cushion people from the hardships that are the schools of self-reliance. Compassionate government threatens to turn people into snowflakes.
.. a woman from Louisiana complaining about the childproof lids on medicine and the mandatory seatbelt laws. “We let them throw lawn darts, smoked alongside them,” the woman says of her children. “And they survived. Now it’s like your kid needs a helmet, knee pads and elbow pads to go down the kiddy slide.”
.. they perceive government as a corrupt arm used against the little guy. She argues that these voters may vote against their economic interests, but they vote for their emotional interests, for candidates who share their emotions about problems and groups.
.. I’d say they believe that big government support would provide short-term assistance, but that it would be a long-term poison to the values that are at the core of prosperity.