Karl Barth and C.S. Lewis on the Birth of ‘Chronological Snobbery’

progressivismIn assessing various arguments across over the years, I’ve found C.S. Lewis’ notion of the fallacy of “chronological snobbery” to be extremely helpful. He describes this flawed thought process as the “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” (Surprised by Joy,  p. 207) In other words, “That’s what people a hundred years ago believed, surely you can’t expect me to agree to that?”

Although writing off an idea simply because it is old is a fairly common move in our context, ancient philosophers, theologians, and moralists regularly appealed to the antiquity of a doctrine in order to establish its authority for the present. Somewhere along the line the witness of history ceased to be a source of credibility for an idea, and in some cases, became a liability.

I was reminded of this after writing the other day about Barth’s characterization of eighteenth century man as “the absolute man.” His attitude towards life, the natural order, politics, philosophy, the inner and outer self is that of an autonomous master who has come, or is coming, fully into his own such that his power and potentiality is increasingly limitless. It is an impulse that can be traced throughout various spheres of life including, as Barth points out, his attitude towards history.

Barth and the ‘Absolute’ Historians

Barth notes that the Enlightenment is often unfairly criticized as being historically “deficient.” He recognizes that it was during the birth of the modern academy and the proliferation of the various fields of academic discipline which accompanied the time that much careful research into ancient history was conducted.  At the same time, and it is here that Barth sees the force of the accusation, it is at this point that the problematic “critical study of history” began:

But what else can this mean but that it was in the eighteenth century that man began to axiomatically to credit himself with being superior to the past, and assumed a standpoint in relation to it whence he found it possible to set himself up as a judge over past events according to fixed principles, as well as to describe its deeds and to substantiate history’s own report? And the yardstick of these principles, at least as applied by the typical observer of history living at that age, has the inevitable effect of turning that judgment of the past into an extremely radical one. For the yardstick is quite simply the man of the present with his complete trust in his own powers of discernment and judgment, with his feeling for freedom, his desire for intellectual conquest, his urge to form and his supreme moral self-confidence.

What historical facts, even, can be true except those which to the man of the age seem psychologically and physiologically probable, or at any rate not improbable? How, in face of such firm certainty about what was psychologically and physiologically probable and improbably could eighteenth century man conceive of the existence of historical riddles and secrets? And what else in fact could the past consist of than either of light, in so far as it reveals itself to be a preparation and mount for the ever-better present ‘You’ll pardon me–it is my great diversion, to steep myself in ages long since past; to see how prudent men did think before us, and how much further since we have advanced’–or simply of darkness–a warning counter-example and as such, if you like, a welcome counter-example–in so far as the past had not yet sense the right road to the future, or had even actively opposed it.

The third thing which this attitude precluded was that the historian should take history seriously as a force outside himself, which had it in its power to contradict him and which spoke to him with authority. One way or another the historian himself said that which he considered history might seriously be allowed to say, and, being his own advocate, he dared to set for both aspects of what he alleged history to have said, its admonitory and its encouraging aspect.

Protestant Thought: Rousseau to Ritschl, pg. 36

Apparently if we’re looking for the birthplace of chronological snobbery as a dominant intellectual instinct, we need look no farther than eighteenth century man. At root, the impulse to chronological snobbery is the absolute one; it is the confident assurance that history has been in motion leading moral and historical thought to culminate in the worldview or cultural assumptions of the critical historian. Like nature, history was the raw material of time upon which the absolute historian could impose his moral will to reshape and retell the story of his own understanding of greatness. It must be understood, not on its own terms, but from the historian’s own, critical standpoint–one which at no point could be challenged by the object of its study.

Barth draws out a number of deleterious effects this mode of historical inquiry had on this generation of historians, one of the most instructive and damning of which was that, “although as a race they were very learned in historical matters, they were at the same time singularly uninstructed, simply because their modern self-consciousness as such made them basically unteachable.” (pg. 37) When you come to believe that the judgments of this age are inherently superior to those of prior generations simply because they are further down the time-stream, you’ve rendered yourself unteachable; you can’t be corrected or called to account or caused to question any of your own assumptions by any other age than your own.

On Avoiding Snobbery

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment’s absolutist instinct towards history is alive and well in popular Western culture. The myth of progress, and the unconscious tendency to assume a posture of historical maturity and superiority towards our benighted forbears is part of the intellectual air we breathe. Of course, 200 years on some of the details are different; a certain postmodern fuzziness enters into the equation. A touch of historicism or relativism may prevent some of us from judging the past too harshly, and yet the basic structure of thought, in which our ancestors cannot speak a real word of correction or instruction to the present still dominates.

How might we avoid rendering ourselves unteachable by the past? Lewis gives us some sound advice at this point. He says that whenever we encounter an idea or an assumption that we deem regressive, passe, or “out of date”:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

–ibid, pg. 208

In the words of Tim Keller, be prepared to “doubt your own doubt.” Be “radical” enough to question the assumptions of the present age–even the radical, progressive ones–in order to listen to ages past, which, at times, had a better feel for what life in the “age to come” is to be.

Soli Deo Gloria

I’m an Unbeliever

Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins is fond of pointing out that Christians are all atheists of sorts. We are atheists with respect to Zeus, Thor, Marduk, and a whole host of other gods. At that point he likes to quote Stephen Roberts to the effect that he just believes in one less god than we do. One of the main points of this observation is that once you realize how silly believing in Zeus is, you’ll realize the silliness of believing in Jesus. Cute.

The other point I see being made is that the atheism/theism debate is about belief in a certain proposition: does God exist. The theist does and the atheist just doesn’t. There’s just a proposition’s difference between them and the theist is the one who has to justify his acceptance of said proposition. The problem is that this picture is too simple. Rarely do we simply “disbelieve” in something. Atheist’s minds do not have a blank space where the “theism” belief supposedly resides in the mind of the believer. No, it is filled–with something else. It’s not just believing in Christianity or disbelieving it. It’s believing something else instead.

See, in a sense, we all live by creeds.  A creed is a summary statement that encapsulates our deepest-held, foundational beliefs about reality and the world. We all have them, even if we’ve never made them explicit. Put another way, sociologists tell us that we tell ourselves stories, understand ourselves at very deep levels as actors in some drama, starting with the small, personal ones like “I am Derek, son of Arliett and Tino, born such and such, grew up in so and so, now married, living in Orange, and working towards future X”.  This is a short narrative understanding of myself. We usually fit these into broader narrative understandings such as Buddhism, Islam, Marxism, or Christianity that tell us big-picture stories about who we are, how we got here, and where were going. It’s inevitable.

Because of this, we are all living according to alternative creeds. The Christian recites the Apostles’ Creed, but she doesn’t do so in a vacuum. Rather, she does so in contrast with the other creeds on offer. It is those creeds which I find incredible and in particular, the dominant, competing creed that has been offered up as a substitute–that of the Enlightenment.

A Unbelievable Creed

Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen’s delightful essay outlining his journey from atheism to Christianity, Quam Dilecta has a very helpful description of the creed of the Enlightenment.

There is, I believe, an identifiable and cohesive historical phenomenon that named itself the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and which, although it long ago abandoned the name, still exists. Like the Church, it does not speak with one voice. Like the Church, it has no central government. Like the Church, it is made up of many groups some of which heartily detest many of the others–some of which, indeed, regard themselves as its sole true representatives and all others who claim to be its representatives as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Like the Church, it has a creed, although, unlike the Church’s creeds, its creed has never received an official formulation. But that is a minor point. Its creed can be written down, and here it is:

There is no God. There is, in fact, nothing besides the physical cosmos that science investigates. Human beings, since they are a part of this cosmos, are physical things and therefore do not survive death. Human beings are, in fact, animals among other animals, and differ from other animals only in being more complex. Like other animals, they are a product of uncaring and unconscious physical processes that did not have them, or anything else, in mind. There is, therefore, nothing external to humanity that is capable of conferring meaning or purpose on human existence. In the end, the only evil is pain and the only good is pleasure. The only purpose of morality and politics is the minimization of pain and the maximization of pleasure. Human beings, however, have an unfortunate tendency to wish to deny these facts and to believe comforting myths according to which they have an eternal purpose. This irrational component in the psyches of most human beings–it is the great good fortune of the species that there are a few strong-minded progressives who can see through the comforting myths–encourages the confidence-game called religion. Religions invent complicated and arbitrary moral codes and fantastic future rewards and punishments in order to consolidate their own power. Fortunately, they are gradually but steadily being exposed as frauds by the progress of science (which was invented by strong-minded progressives), and they will gradually disappear through the agency of scientific education and enlightened journalism.”

Van Inwagen goes on to concede that there are various Enlightenment denominations (Marxist, Positivist, New Atheist) who would object that he’s left something crucial out. At its core though, this complex is central to all of them.

It is this creed that I find myself unable to subscribe to for a number of reasons too large to expound here. I will simply point out that any sort of optimism about the human condition in light of the history of the 20th Century has always struck me as farcical. The idea that science and reason (whatever that last term actually means) can actually deliver anything close to a utopia, or even a decent place to live is a fairy tale. Studying almost entirely secular moral philosophy in college had the interesting effect of convincing me that prospects of finding any sort of viable, normative moral system connected with naturalism, (ie. absent the divine, or a transcendent order), is similarly risible. Once again, I commend Van Inwagen’s essay, the second half of which is devoted to showing why he finds this creed untenable.

Where am I going with this? 

I’d be lying if I were to tell you that I never find Christianity difficult and hard to accept. It has moral codes that are uncomfortable, both because they are personally hard to follow, as well as because they are socially unacceptable. Reading the Bible is weird sometimes. I mean, really? Bears? (2 Kings 2:23-25) I look out at the world filled with evil and horror, and even though I’ve read a lot of good answers on the subject, it’s still hard to stomach that God is good while he allows these things. I could go on for a while listing the difficulties. I’m sure you have a number of your own.

Still, when I look to the alternatives I find that while Christianity is tough sometimes, the competing options on offer are just impossible to swallow. At those times, I feel like Winston Churchill when speaking of democracy in the House of Commons:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Please don’t misunderstand me–I think there are good, positive reasons to believe in Jesus. I have to admit though, one of the main ones is the fact I find the other options simply unbelievable.

Update and clarification: There apparently has been some confusion as to the point of his post. Please do not take this as a denigration of either reason or science. As a Christian I believe as humans made in the Image of the Creator God have been endowed with reason and given an impulse towards the exploration and study of nature. Rather, it is a rejection of a rationalism and scientism. Those are two different things. I have a healthy respect for and appreciation of the deliverances of reason and the advances of science while recognizing their limits and the dangers of misunderstanding their role and function in human life.