Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Pillar of Fire

Karl Stern writes in The Pillar of Fire (criminally out of print) that, confronted with the "horrifying picture of innocent suffering" he had witnessed as a Jew in Germany during the Third Reich, he found four ways by which he could react. The first possibility was "despair, moral nihilism and suicide." The second was to react "with an increased Jewish national fervor." The third was to look "through the eyes of dialectic materialism on the disaster which had overwhelmed us." The fourth is what interests me the most, as it is the reaction that appears to have been accepted by society at large: "rationalist pragmatism." Such a response would, in Dr Stern's own words, have looked like this:
If we want to see in the future that no more innocent grandmothers, parents and children are tortured to death, there is only one way. Let us investigate objectively the roots of racial and of of class hatred, with all the tools of present-day science, with methods of economic investigation, of sociology, of behaviorism, of psychoanalysis, in short with all the branches of science which occupy themselves with things human. Let us be as scientific and systematic in the establishment of interhuman relationships as we have been in technology. Let us have some sort of international board of social psychologists to study and to control the relationship of groups of people. In order to be able to do this successfully we may find that we have to abolish metaphysical concepts of human existence because it is possible that those are concepts contributing to tension. If we find this necessary let us be courageous and do it, let us sterilize the air and remove all germs of faith so that we may live more rationally and more peacefully in an aseptic scientific atmosphere. Human affairs have long enough been governed by Belief, let them be governed by Science and Usefulness. In the world of matter the road away from belief to has led to the greatest technological progress in history; why should we not make the same step in the world of human society? Once we freed ourselves from an ancient cosmology the way was clear which led to Television and the Airplane. If we only freed ourselves from equally ancient concepts of the nature of Man we shall have a world in which human affairs, for the first time in history, will be governed by reason. In order to find out why man tortures man, and in order to avoid it once and for all, let us consult those who are objective about it – psychologists and social scientists.

Bear in mind that these were written in 1951. Yet one will find precisely these arguments repeated in the works of the current pack of old new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett – the only exception being that the reigning priestly scientists are now biologists. Dr Stern answers his own theoretical proposition with these words:
To my mind there is only one form of society which is worse than the Marxist or the Fascist one – that is, precisely such a "scientific" society. Compared with it Germany and Russia would look like children's playgrounds. Man's life on this earth would come about as close to the idea of hell as anything on this earth may. Needless to say there is nothing wrong with Economics or Political Science or Psychoanalysis or Social Science or any other similar subject. The great Russian thinkers of the nineteenth century, who were so distrustful of and hostile towards Science, mixed Science (which is precious) with Scientism (which is destructive). It is this scientism as a norm of human life, without God as the center, which leads to a form of nihilism unequaled in history. Saint Augustine, himself an expert at decaying civilizations, once drew our attention to the meaning of the word "nothing" in Our Lord's terrible sentence: "Without me you can do nothing." The word is to be taken quite literally. Christ does not say: "Without me you cannot do very much," or "Without me you can do only a certain amount," or "Without me you can do only little." He says: "Without me you can do nothing." A Christless world, scientific or not, leads to utter negation, to nothingless. Germany and Russia have given pretty good examples of this. However, there are indications that secularism and pragmatism, which have by comparison led a rather amateurish existence outside Russia, may be shaped into some scientific-technocratic norm for human beings. This, not material destruction, would mean the end of Mankind.

An absolutely chilling thought occurred to me as I read Professor Dawkins' apologia for atheism a few months ago: a man like this in power would be a dictator. Dr Dawkins, for instance, argues quite explicitly and at length that the religious education of children is a form of child abuse; he likewise asserts that traditional religious groups such as the Amish should be forcibly assimilated into the contemporary secular world. One can only guess what sort of educational program he would mandate.

What does Dr Stern propose as the solution?
Thus we see four possible answers to the riddle of the abysmal suffering, which we have witnessed in our times. Not one of these answers is adequate. Each of them misses the point. Despair is no solution; even if we wished to despair we cannot because we believe. Resentment is no solution; our dead ones themselves seem to warn us against such a spirit and it would so easily lead us to commit the same cruelties on others which were committed on us. Statism is no solution. Scientism is no solution.

There is only one way: Jesus Christ. If we are concerned with the suffering of those innocent ones, we have first to look at Him. If we are concerned with the Evil which has brought it about, we have first to look to ourselves. Everything else is deception. If I want to renew the world I have to begin right in the depth of my own soul. This is the only true and permanent revolution which I am able to achieve. Class warfare leads to another set of oppressors and oppressed; national revenge leads to another set of persecutors and persecuted; and the Board of Social Scientists for the Prevention of Intergroup Hostilities is the most dangerous mirage to them all because it makes us believe even more that the decisive battle is fought far away from us, outside ourselves; it turns God and Evil into two pale abstracts; it seeks to de-humanize the issue.

What can possibly be added to this that would do anything but dilute its truth and force? Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus (Rev 22:20).

NB: The Amazon link above mistakenly lists the book as "volume 2." It is in fact the entire book, which has always been in a single volume.


Maximus Daniel said...

Fr. Hopko suggests reading this book in a lecture he gave on C.S. Lewis' Abolition of Man (which is a great read also). I think you have linked to a talk he did on another subject somewhere else on this blog.... but I could be blurring your blog with another. Thanks for these quotes! I have looked for this book!

Felix Culpa said...

Yes, Fr Thomas mentions it in the passage I excerpted from his 2007 commencement address in my post "The Logos of the Heart."

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