It can get tedious debating with secularists today. Endless citations of the burden of proof, the faux-agnostic stance they take toward examining the evidence, and the haughty tone with which they announce their objectivity in denouncing two thousand years’ worth of apologetics, metaphysics, theology, moral theory, and history on the basis of ‘rationality’ certainly gets tiresome. They often appeal to poorly-phrased facts that have found another regurgitation in some cleverly-titled New York Times best seller (that last bit should be a red flag all by itself, really). And appealing to reason, asking for proof, and relying on evidence all have their merits; indeed, if someone is capable of exercising reason then they are morally obliged to do so as often as is humanly possible. But reason can be misapplied and, as with anything else, it can be confused for something entirely different.
Your typical internet activists and the intellectuals they fellate clearly have some other agenda in mind. Most of them are not your run-of-the-mill averagemen who simply remain harmlessly ignorant of the millennia-spanning scope of Christian doctrine and philosophical foundations that make possible their worldview. That said, of course, while the loudest debaters remain just as ignorant of that rich tradition, it is a distinct lack of humility and a distinct overabundance of self-importance that drives the zeal with which they argue. Maybe it’s because they’re teenagers, or because they’re upset at something else in their life. It doesn’t really matter, but in any case, it isn’t difficult to see how an idolatry of the Self has become the chief driver of such animosity. And this isn’t specifically a maturity thing, either. The entire Modernist approach to life and living that our culture has embraced manufactures and requires it.
“No Other God Before Me.”
Written some three millennia ago, the demand from God to the Israelites, recorded by Moses, came at a time in human history when idolatry generally took the form of superstitions regarding pagan statues or images that were imbued with an animistic spirit to whom people would pray and sacrifice animals for material benefits. Things like rain gods or sex gods were supposed to have been found innately within the substance of a particular statue when the statue’s form came to resemble that spirit or god, so making offerings to the statue meant making offerings to that specific deity. Even in the cases where stand-ins were used and the statue came to merely represent the deity invoked, the deity’s presence remained tied to the substance of the statue or temple therein.
The point of all this is that idolatry as thought of in ancient times seems to have very little bearing on the idolatry of today. But idolatry has not properly been forsaken in favor of Godliness. Idolatry is merely the worship of things created with human hands. Its form has merely changed.
Commentators today do well to draw the proper comparisons between the idolatry of the ancients and the lustful pursuit of money and power and sex that is so rampant today. Money, power, and sex are all materialistic ends. Yes, each can serve greater ends when aligned to such a purpose; this would seem to be the very reasoning behind the first commandment.
The practice of idolatry draws from a deeper problem: the misplacement of priorities and the worship of false gods. This is why the first commandment includes both the importance of worshiping God foremost and the importance of scorning idolatry. Abandonment of one means the abandonment of the other, and fulfillment of one generally implies the fulfillment of the other as well. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As the ancients used to pray to a rainmaker to bless them with a bountiful harvest, as they would modify their behavior to appease the rain gods, so too have things like money and fashion, in-group culture, sex, etcetera become the prime movers of human action and suffering.
As money and power have become idols, greed has become the prophet of a new kind of god. Greed for wealth, lust for sensual indulgence, and an appetite for knowledge to wield as power all signify a deification of the Self. It is for himself that Man acts, by himself that he decides what is true and untrue, and with only himself that he decides. As self-indulgent as it is delusional, this new god of the Enlightenment—the same idealized ‘individual’ I referred to in last week’s post—Man comes to believe that he can mature and grow beyond his inadequacies and flaws toward an ambiguous and perfect ideal; Man comes to supplant God and the civilizations that have come before himself, believing their philosophies and cultures to be amusing flames in the darkness of an oppressive Christian regime based on superstition. The basic question of Man’s hubris in the face of the last two millennia of Christian learning is never asked; the framework to ask such a question only exists for those with even the mildest predispositions toward Christian teaching and humility to ask it.
Perhaps this sounds too dramatic. How does a deposition of God from his throne—or simply the mere disbelief in Him—automatically cause Man to elevate himself to it? How is belief in the humanist ideas of progress and a future utopia incompatible with Christian teachings? How are Christian teachings better? How can Christianity defend itself?
But, while each of these are worthy of consideration, none of them really addresses my main point: Man does not live without faith, for faith organizes his priorities into a comprehensible framework through which he operates. It is this commandment by God to place no others before Him that most easily and accessibly organizes those priorities for the common man. It does not necessarily mean that only those who are believers are good, virtuous people, nor does it mean that all believers are good, virtuous people (quite the opposite, in fact), but more on these qualifications later.
Not So Rational
Faith is an engine eternally at work in Man’s soul. This is why the aforementioned commandment is of such importance; if Man does not invest his faith in God, he will invest his faith in something else—another man, or an abstract theoretical utopian concept, or in himself. These examples are, ultimately all manifestly the same impulse permutated through various moods and attitudes; they are driven by the same basal need for a God-substitute.
In ancient days, pagans, although backwards and generally savage, were capable of belief in something greater than themselves. Community organizations, primitive tribal structures, and even the wide-spanning civilizations of Rome and Greece and Persia and Egypt all shared a codified, detailed religious framework in which sacrifice, offerings, and ceremony were recognized and carried out. The metaphysical underpinning of their respective cults notwithstanding, each civilization required of its participants the recognition of its gods and, on a more utilitarian note, payment of taxes.
This is because Man believes. Even if he does not believe in God, he will believe in a will of the people, or a will to history, or a will of the Earth or the universe or some other will that can make itself manifest. This or he will believe in his own will. On one hand, paganism; on the other, nihilism. Modernity. He will see himself reflected in the things he comes to idolize, whether those things are specifically material things (wealth and fashion) or immaterial but no less artificial concepts (ideologies). Again, the existence of these things is of no issue; they serve well as means to an end. But the only end to which a moral appeal can concretely be made is to the service of God, because the service of other men is simply abstract posturing to appeal to group identities that have no concretely identifiable needs beyond the things God has already willed. Remove God, and such service becomes only to the Self.
Does this mean then that the rich secular billionaire who runs charities throughout the world is doing ill when he uses his money as a means to service the needs of the disadvantaged? Of course not. The will of God remains and the billionaire’s acts of charity are congruent to it even if he remains ignorant of God and His will. Appeals to God exist for the service of other men; God will be and continue to be even if all men have turned away from Him and chosen to ignore his message (although at that point, the second coming will probably be nigh).
The billionaire example reveals the irony of the present metaphysical revolution that has been at work in the West for the past two to three hundred years. The billionaire’s efforts to run proper charities, while virtuous, appeals to no greater reasoning. The love for his neighbor, the treatment of the disadvantaged as being fundamentally the same as himself, and the notion that his position of wealth and ability should be used responsibly inasmuch as he should be helping to better his fellow man are all Christian notions. There is very little reason that he should even care about those lesser than he if he operated within in a purely rationalist, secular worldview. They do not offer him anything of consequence in return for his charitable work—unless, cynically, he runs the charities purely for the sake of positive PR. Such secularism, in fact, can only teach a neo-Darwinist approach toward progress, and in such a case, the disadvantaged and the weak do not deserve help. Such help would in fact disadvantage the society as a whole. But that sort of thinking simply doesn’t fly—not only should it evoke a bit of nausea in the guts of any reasonably-minded layman, following this line of reasoning to its appropriate end means admitting that there’s really no reason why such disadvantaged people should be alive in the first place. Admitting that maybe eugenics, euthanasia, abortion, and ultimately genocide are acceptable ideas when it is simply the inconvenient people that are murdered flies in the face of any appeal to the universality of rights and specifically the right to live, and that just makes apparent the moral vacuum upon which secularism stands.
But this is what brings me back to my point. Could such a conclusion be called rational? A proper argument could be drawn up and argued rationally to this conclusion, absolutely. But only if the premises are accepted—the premises being, namely, that life has no value save for what we subjectively give to it, and that there is no greater purpose to living except for us to indulge in the things we feel make it meaningful (a deliciously ironic statement that seems to undermine its own objectivity).
Reason and rationality are not Man’s prime motivators. Faith, as I said above is an engine eternally at work in Man’s soul, but I go farther than this. Faith is in fact the primary engine. It is in the service of faith that reason and rationality are put into motion.
By the time one is capable of learning how to argue and reason, he has already been born into a family and immersed in a particular culture. His parents, his culture, his education, his peers and superiors, his entertainment—all of it has already shaped the manner of his thinking. And yes, even born in identical circumstances, no two individuals will come to think in exactly the same manner. But to believe that anyone can take a step back and examine himself, his culture, his politics, his anything in a purely rational, ‘objective’ manner is folly. Every culture holds at its core metaphysical and moral presuppositions about the nature of Man, his place in the world, and the purpose of both, in addition to general moral inferences to be drawn from these metaphysical presuppositions. These structures are what make possible Man’s ability to process any information at all. Faith makes it possible for him to accept them, because the willingness to hold faith blossoms well before the ability to reason does.
Cult of Reason and the Reign of the Experts
As rationality demands proof, evidence, and reason to be explicated on every issue, and as faith is pushed further and further away from what is expected for an argument to be reasonable, Modernity—under the guise of rationality—elevates the Self above the world. The Self becomes an individualistic will to which things must be proven and by which things are enacted. The Self, not God, thus becomes the arbiter of moral value, just as the Self becomes the vessel through which facts are accepted or denied based on the prejudices it operates by. These prejudices, keep in mind, are neither reflected upon nor admitted, because the chief source of humility needed to recognize them remains absent. Likewise, appeals to objective values can be dismissed with a simple wave of the hand. As Pilate asked, “What is truth?” The placement of the individual before God on cultural list of priorities necessitates the rule of nihilistic relativism. Anything less is wishful thinking.
This is present in the sciences, wherein the mere mention of God can cost contacts, pensions, and careers. Dismissal of Him from the entire field requires that theories be drawn up which tiptoe around His presence, while the diversification of disciplines has meant that entire fields of science now operate divorced not just from belief in God, but even from any moral compass grounded in God’s will. And this hasn’t just affected sciences either, but the entire spectrum of academic study. Religious tolerance in public places now applies only to those who view religion as window dressings and excuses for sales, not as the ways of life that they are. As one faith must recede from public discourse, another will fill the gap. And Secularism, operating every bit upon faith and prejudice as Christianity does, reigns supreme in education, in entertainment, and in politics.
This removal of God from discourse and thought has dealt a crippling blow to the West. It removes from the table any consideration of the realm of theology, and it has dealt a damaging blow to the study of metaphysics. In doing so, not only have ethics and moral philosophy unraveled, so too have the more practical concerns for the average man trying to get by in life. The search for meaning first turned hollow, then inward toward the Self. Man, Modernity claims, must find a way to have faith in himself so that he can rise above what he is. But Man knows that he is flawed. The lie of the individualist utopia is an appealing lie, a lie whose promises can bring pause even to the most ardent of Christians, but it is a lie nonetheless.
Secularism, as any religion, demands its priestly class. Today, the priests of secularism are its experts, the ones who have pursued knowledge as a means to power, and as power in an end in itself. They have placed power before God, and they live now in the grips of power and data, or worse, the utopic individualist agenda.
The secularist expert believes he has toppled God and in doing so toppled an oppressive system of religious rites and cultural dark ages, but all he has done is rid himself of the framework necessary to recognize truth and live with joy and love in his heart. Undaunted, the secularist expert will live without the concept of love beyond a recognition that lust must be satisfied if he is to remain a reasonable man. He will use behavioral sciences to explain the mechanistic ways in which individuals act; he will attribute to mere chance free will, as it remains incompatible with secularism beyond a convenient talking point; he will posture vaguely about animistic senses of a universal consciousness and possibly even dabble with psychotropics. He will live inside of himself, unable to recognize meaning, deluded in the belief that he can save himself from his own feelings of nihilism and existential dread. And he will be listened to, given viewership and a following, and he will do his part in furthering this culture of denial, not because he is privy to a conspiracy, but because he has learned not to believe in what exists beyond the borders of his flesh.
God’s commandment to the Israelites is every bit as relevant today as it was then. But in ancient times, the paganism that Christendom conquered could be reasoned with and outsmarted. People then believed in something greater, and reason could flourish in such an environment. Today, Modernity has replaced paganism as the great ideological opponent. But paganism was an exterior threat to Christianity, whereas Modernity was birthed from Christianity as a heresy. It came from the very teachings that Christianity enabled and promoted, and as such, it takes for granted every basic metaphysical tenant cemented by Christian doctrine even while it attacks them.
But faith abides. As does God. For the faithful, the world of Man is doomed to sin and petulance, whether it is drowning in it or simply afflicted by it. The world is always on the verge of terrible collapse. Heresy is fought every day, by every man, in every generation. The road to God is long and His light, though constant and full of love, will always have critics who misattribute it, try to shut their eyes from it, and do their utmost to flee from it. But the light will remain as God will remain. Man is fragile, he is weak, and he is flawed. Man has no more capacity to save himself from existential dread and suffering than he has the ability to have been born without parents. Only by the grace of God are we saved. Let no one tell you otherwise.
 There will always be disagreement over which statement qualifies as the first commandment. Some—the Jews in particular—claim that the statement reminding the Israelites of who God is (“I am the Lord your God who delivered you out of the land of Egypt from the house of bondage.”) remains the first. St. Augustine and most of Christian tradition, on the other hand, marks the next statement as the first commandment. It is St. Augustine’s numbering that I go by here.