The Consequences of a World without Constraints

In a world without a creator God Who actually cares about us and about what we do, reducing pain becomes the primary thing that matters. And that leads to all sorts of deformities.

A march on Overdose Awareness Day in 2017 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

A march on Overdose Awareness Day in 2017 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Last Word
Jan. 27 2020
About the author

Eric Cohen is executive director of the Tikvah FundHe is the author of In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology (2008), editor-at-large of the New Atlantis, and a contributor to numerous publications.

Thoughtful readers and critics are the greatest gift to any writer, and so I am grateful to George Weigel, Wilfred McClay, and David Novak for reading my essay on the meaning of Jerusalem with their usual mix of moral clarity and civilizational depth.

All four of us seem to agree that the modern West faces a serious moral and cultural crisis. Social pathologies like broken families, low birthrates, opioid deaths, and sky-rocketing rates of depression are getting worse. And we also seem to agree that charting our way out of this crisis demands a genuine “religious awakening.” We need to recover, restore, and renew the Judeo-Christian moral vision, which will require, as George Weigel puts it, “a long, difficult, countercultural campaign of cultural resistance for the sake of cultural renewal.”

The “progressive” idea that dethroning the God of the Hebrew Bible would improve human life is now showing itself to be a tragic lie. Weigel, once again, speaks well for all of us: “if the true God is exiled, false gods—beginning with the false god of the imperial autonomous Self—will be worshipped, with the grave public effects of deracination and decadence memorably on display in the case of a certain golden calf.” And today, as Weigel describes, the golden calf rules again, as evidenced by

the irrationality of the proponents of abortion-on-demand and the related LGBTQ agenda, leading to the kind of unhinged behavior seen during the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh; the degradation of our universities by a virulent identity politics that mocks any serious notion of academic freedom (or reason, for that matter); the grim determination of secularists to drive not just religiously-grounded argument but also religiously-informed philosophical and legal argument out of public life and public service; and the capture of the Democratic party by fevered activists who regard the God of the Bible as the enemy of human maturation and liberation.

The question is: how did the Western world get here? And does Jerusalem, both the real living city and the ancient civilizational symbol, offer us the best “light unto the nations” to chart our way back—and thus our way forward—toward a civilization that preserves and perpetuates the redemptive truths of being human?

 

In trying to sort out how we got here, it helps to know something about the history and spirit of Western religion, politics, and culture, and very few people know as much or think as deeply about these matters as Wilfred McClay.

In his response, McClay questions my claim that Jerusalem—both the living city and the civilizational symbol—should be seen as the singular “moral capital of the West.” He admits that there are not any other good candidates for the title, but then he reminds us that “the West” is really a product of two civilizational spirits: the spirit of Jerusalem and the spirit of Athens, of Hebraism and Hellenism, of piety toward the God of the Ten Commandments and the rational human quest to understand the natural world by our own lights and on its own terms.

McClay fully recognizes that such dichotomies—illuminated by thinkers like Matthew Arnold and Leo Strauss—inevitably simplify the complexity of both Jerusalem and Athens.

For what is the defining spirit of Athens: the belief in an ordered and knowable universe, or the tragic sense of nature’s irrationality and man’s Sisyphean confrontation with a world that inevitably belittles and destroys even its greatest heroes? Is it Aristotle, or is it Aeschylus?

And what is the defining spirit of Jerusalem: a world of “Thou Shalt Nots” that try to restrain the sinful animal that is man, or a world of creative men and women created in the divine image, who build beautiful temples of gold as monuments of gratitude to the Creator?

 

But let me go McClay even one better: to understand the modern West, I think one needs to have in mind a triad of spirits: Jerusalem and Athens, to be sure, but also the modern spirit of Edinburgh, home of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment, now transformed (or mutated) into the postmodern spirit of Silicon Valley.

The prophets of Silicon Valley are not the direct descendants of the Athenians (or of Adam Smith and Joseph Black’s Edinburgh). They seek not simply to understand the world through human reason but to re-make it, to fix it, to bend it to human will. They believe that man’s technological creativity and resulting technological power is the new and only liberator: liberating human beings from physical illness and psychic pain, and empowering every individual to choose one’s destiny (or “lifestyle”) without natural or religious constraints and without any inherited obligations from one’s ancestors. In Silicon Valley and its offshoots around the world, scientism and bohemianism come together. This is the spirit that defines our age.

And we should give the spirit of Silicon Valley its due. For the new science often serves a truly moral purpose: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, connecting the distant. The pediatric oncologist (not to mention the generations of researchers who armed him with the power to heal): he is a genuine moral hero.

But the problem is that the underlying theology (or anti-theology) of the new scientism is flawed: it assumes there is no God and thus that man is on his own. This anti-theology can lead to bitterness and depression: why do we live in such a painful world? It can lead to heroic resistance: we will find a cure. And it can lead to moral nihilism: without God, we are free to do anything we want. In a world of human pain—a world without a creator God Who actually cares about us and about what we do—the primary thing that matters is reducing pain, which means both enabling all to live as they please without guilt and preempting (through euthanasia and abortion, especially the abortion of handicapped children in the womb and diminished elders in nursing homes) those fragile human lives that would be marked forever by pain or lack of will.

Well, now we live in the world remade by this anti-biblical theology. And for all its successes, we are seeing the dark side: better medicine but also broken homes, better neonatal care but also cultural suicide driven by low birthrates, marvelous high-tech laboratories devoted to uncovering the truths of nature but also universities that marginalize or shut down those who wonder if the postmodern project has led us astray.

If my argument is that Jerusalem is—or should be—the moral capital of the West, it is because I believe that the spirit of Athens and the spirit of Silicon Valley are both flawed. Athens, you might say, possessed realism without hope: it did not flinch from the dark realities of human nature, and it celebrated the heroic confrontation with mankind’s seemingly tragic, mortal, cyclical fate. Silicon Valley, by contrast, possesses hope without realism: it dreams of a human world without limits, without suffering, and without shame, and it arms human beings with remarkable machines, pills, and digital pleasures that try to hold hunger, death, and anomie at bay.

Jerusalem, instead, offers human beings realism and hope: a truthful account of the wayward possibilities of men and women and thus the need to live under commandment, but also an understanding that human beings are creative because they themselves were created in God’s image and that human history has a beginning, a middle, and a providential end: from Egypt to the Promised Land, with twists and turns, with epochs of darkness and inexplicable personal tragedies, but ultimately a redemptive story if we heed the God Who started it and Who directs it, and Who takes pleasure in free human beings playing their revealed parts.

McClay puts this beautifully in his response to my essay, when he rightly observes that thinkers like Arnold and Strauss, great as they are, “fail to capture the full dimensions of Hebraism in particular: its ebullience, its creative energy, its reverence for the law, its electric sense of living in a world suffused with moral significance.”

I cannot imagine a better description of the true spirit of Jerusalem.

 

And that brings us to the real Jerusalem: the ancient Jewish capital of the modern Jewish state. While sympathetic to my overall argument, McClay also wonders whether the reality of modern Jerusalem lives up to the moral weight I have given it.

Aren’t there, he asks, deep divides between secular and Israeli Jews themselves over the meaning of the Jewish state and the nature of being Jewish? Doesn’t modern Israel also possess its own anti-biblical forces, and isn’t it also filled with people whose spiritual model is more the postmodernism of Silicon Valley than the ancient Hebraism of Jerusalem? As McClay puts it: “Does the actually existing Jerusalem correspond to the political vision of Davidic restoration,” and “is there not a high degree of standard Western liberal-democratic pluralism underwriting the Israeli political order as it actually exists?”

McClay’s challenge is welcome, and it is one I fully acknowledged in my original essay:

Like any normal nation, Israel has its share of corruption, imperfection, fecklessness, and internal division. No one is claiming that modern Israel is—or ever will be—a moral utopia. But the eternal ethos of Jerusalem once again shapes Jewish communities throughout the holy land. In their calendar, language, holidays, and landscape, Israeli Jews live in direct continuity with their biblical past. And alone among the advanced nations of the West, Israel has a high birthrate: a deep sign of cultural vitality connecting past, present, and future.

But I would go even farther, as I also did in my essay: the restoration of the Jewish people as a nation in their ancestral homeland, after centuries of dispersion, assimilation, assault, and near-annihilation: reason cannot explain this. Israel is the best evidence that God exists. And while many of the great Zionist founders believed more in the Jewish people than in God, more in the human greatness of the Bible than the sanctity of its commandments, they, too, were summoned to play some role in a story that they could not—and we cannot—fully understand.

The question that matters today is: will the Jews of Jerusalem shine brightly enough? Will modern Israel look to its own Hebraic past for moral and political guidance, as a figure like Menachem Begin did when he rose to power? Will the modern Zionist project of courageous nationalism and the rabbinic project of sanctified normalcy weave together into an exceptional nation-state that resists, imperfectly but differently, the “deracination and decadence” of post-modernity’s golden calves?

Modern Israel is not yet the Davidic restoration. The waiting continues, and the mystery of the biblical human drama persists. God only knows what new twists and turns lie ahead, or whether some ultimate confrontation with Israel’s annihilationist enemies (like Iran) can be avoided. But as Weigel observes in his response, Jerusalem’s rising generation leaves one hopeful. Something has changed:

In my previous visits to Eric Cohen’s iconic city . . . discussions of religion and democracy tended to be polite but rather sterile; it appeared that the only available Jewish interlocutors for a Catholic thinker like me were open-minded and courteous but thoroughly and irretrievably secular. In 2015, by contrast, I experienced a new determination among younger Israeli scholars . . . to develop a biblically informed and philosophically sophisticated theory of Israeli democracy in particular and of the Western democratic project in general.

Here was a discussion with a future, I thought. Here was a first glimpse into the possibility of a Jewish and Israeli theory of democracy that, rather than imagining that serious reflection on the democratic present and future can only begin with John Locke, incorporated into its thinking the “Hebraic vision” of human nature and human relationships. The evolution of such a theory in Israel would certainly reinforce parallel work by Jews and Christians throughout the rest of the West.

The crisis of the West is real, but the message of Jerusalem is that all is not lost. Far from it. But religious Jews and Christians—and anyone seeking to “live in truth” who now recognizes that postmodern culture is a big lie—need to stop surrendering to the kingdom of secular humanism gone mad.

David Novak says it well in his own response: “Once faithful Jews and faithful Christians submit their faith to the greater authority of any secularist ‘universalism,’ becoming not only in the world but of it, they will sooner or later be done-in by that world.” The alternative is moral courage: to defend our biblical inheritance, to build and rebuild our families and schools and cities in the divine image, to look again to Jerusalem as our lodestar and guide.

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