by Sam Buntz
There is, in the present day, more religious freedom in America and Western Europe—both freedom of and freedom from religion—than has ever before existed in history of the world. That much is plain. But the mere fact that such freedom exists is no guarantee that it will be used. Moreover, it is certainly no guarantee that it will be used wisely or well; this is, of course, not a guarantee that comes with any civil liberty of any stripe. Nor would it be desirable to have such a guarantee, since it could only be offered by an authoritarian state, and fulfilled by no state whatsoever. Yet, as much as I embrace the liberation of religious viewpoints from state-sponsored tradition and socially-mandated convention, I do worry about the ultimate direction such extraordinary freedom—the freedom to actually define one’s own ultimate orientation towards All and Everything—may lead us (despite being whole-heartedly in favor of such freedom). In fact, I consider it the greatest achievement of liberalism, since it’s the most central—the freedom which lies at the very hub of every other, the axle of belief to which all the spokes of action are attached. So, I would obviously never suggest a return to the days when one’s own community enforced—by the soft demands of uniformity and unanimity—its own particular orthodoxy. That’s one of my ideas of hell. But I would suggest that, without supplying people with access to the intellectual tools necessary to think clearly and consciously about defining their own religious or spiritual positions, religious freedom may easily combust, almost spontaneously. More than any other civil liberty, it is the one that can most easily be reversed and transformed into its opposite—one may elect mental slavery, since the burden of freedom proves too difficult, its rewards too slim. This, to my mind, is a great concern—one with immense portent for the future.
In analyzing the course of older civilizations—particularly Greece and Rome—the 18th Century Italian philosopher, Giambattista Vico, noted that the course of such civilizations seemed to follow a certain pattern, one with a peculiar relevance to the future of religious liberalism (which it will take a little time to define). They began by conceiving of human destiny in terms of divine history—the actions of the gods and god-born heroes—in a first “Theocratic Age.” Gradually, they put more emphasis on the deeds of heroic noblemen, centering society on their veneration, in a second “Aristocratic Age”. Finally, the citizenry began to see the greater meaning of history was concentrated within their own selves, leading to the establishment of republics and a third “Democratic Age.” Thus far, this seems like a very optimistic and progressive conception of history. But, for Vico, the third age was not permanent. Having located power within their very being, the people were unable to avoid projecting it outwards onto the institutions they’d created, forgetting that it actually dwelled within their hearts and minds. The Roman Republic devolved into the Roman Empire—with the Senate’s own consent and collaboration—just as Greek democracy had become corrupted and eventually defeated. At the time Vico was writing—in the 18th Century—he could see the beginning of the transition from the Aristocratic to the Democratic Age, and his ideas proved to be prophetic. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, there was a vast outpouring of liberal energy—slavery was abolished throughout Western Europe and the United States, workers gained increasing levels of protection from exploitation, and in the era’s popular literature, great writers like Tolstoy, Hugo, Dickens, Twain, and George Eliot celebrated the heroism of the common man and woman.
A plummet into chaos and a new theocracy seemed visible with the rise of fascism and communism—but something strange happened. The Soviet Union gradually dissolved, and throughout the later half of the 20th Century, democracy seemed, somehow, to preserve itself—not, of course, without hiccups or without the threat of decidedly un-democratic influences. Over two hundred years after the progressive movement towards more democracy and more liberalism really took hold, we still—basically—celebrate the heroism of the everyday, despite an increasingly deprecatory and resentful tendency in some latter-day works of art and cultural productions, which wallowed in corrosive irony and cynical hedonism as opposed to a more humanizing vision. The right to choose and define one’s own religious beliefs is perhaps the most crucial part of this still-prevailing liberal atmosphere: one only needs to think about how the gradual improvement in our understanding of Asian Religions has broadened the intellectual horizons of Europe and the Americas. Yet it is this central civil liberty, which stands the greatest potential of being abused—leading to the toleration of virulent intolerance, and the free submission to one master-slave ideology or another.
Freedom of religion—in a sense, the heart of social liberalism—is the fulcrum where Vico’s transition from the Democratic to the Theocratic Age needs to take place. If, instead of pursuing religion as a way to celebrate and hallow the common heart—the holiness of the affections by which we lead our lives—the human race drifts more and more towards erecting new institutional monoliths, the result will be that we enshrine power in human-made creations which we will likely not be able to bring back to ourselves for some time. A democratic Christian liberal like John Milton was able to read the Bible through his own eyes, as a record made accessible to him by God, The Holy Spirit—and no other intermediary. But, using our freedom un-wisely, we can create any number of intermediaries—being too lazy to assault the difficulties of theological or philosophical interpretation for ourselves—and, consequently, become intellectually enslaved to them. This is quite clearly the case with many people who read the Bible, who prefer to get their interpretations from a convention of clerics or a charismatic minister no less fallible and human than themselves. The same problem is perhaps more starkly visible in the Islamic world, where the theological struggle to interpret the Quran is seeing a steep decline in the power and influence of intellectually rigorous schools, and a rise in the power of the cheap and easy fundamentalist schools—who, for example, assert that the penalty for adultery is stoning, when no such punishment exists in the written text of the Quran itself, despite their claim to be textual literalists. The Christians who note that Leviticus prohibits homosexuality, but fail to mention its prohibitions on eating shellfish and other pleasures in which they regularly partake, are falling into the same predictable pattern. They pretend to cede power over the text to God—but they themselves refuse to rely on the Holy Spirit’s power to speak to them directly, and, consequently, they end up ceding power over the text to petty and smelly institutional authorities.
“God,” Milton said, “made man free to stand, sufficient to fall.” Our freedom is indeed sufficient to make our fall very great. We have projected our mental power outside of ourselves into new technologies and modern institutions with immense speed and success, and the overall effect up to the present moment has been to increase liberty and the quality of life. But, at the same time, this increases the risk of falling into a deeper authoritarianism, because when we forget that the power is in ourselves—and start to vest it in the tools we rely on (be the tool in question a copy of the Bible or a MacBook)—we, as Thoreau said, run the risk of “becoming the tools of our tools.” Thoreau’s mentor, Emerson, also once wrote that “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind”—but, living in the Democratic Age he lived in, he could go on to predict that half of the world’s population would ultimately “strike and stand” for freedom, and that “the astonished Muse” would “find thousands at her side.” Can we accept such an optimistic prediction? It certainly requires immense faith and confidence… But let’s not forget that, in the same way that power projected outwards can lose control of itself, so can our immense intellectual, spiritual, and technological resources help us to access the kind of information that we need to really define, with true independence, our religious and spiritual positions, beyond the influence of the thousand dreary dogmas contending for our hearts and minds. This is the key to avoid falling into the Democratic Age’s devolution. The internet makes it extremely easy to either investigate the truth with individual honesty, or to toss one’s heart under the boots of the nearest two-bit ideology—be it something simply sinister and bonkers like Scientology, or something genuinely evil like Al-Qaeda. Such power need not serve as its own undertaker… Could it break down Vico’s theory, showing that the return to a Theocratic Age is not inevitable? Can we avoid losing control of the power we place outside of ourselves? Of course, we can only answer those questions ourselves—our strength is something we determine. Predicting the downfall of the Monarchy and the State Church, Milton famously and puzzlingly wrote, “But that two-handed engine at the door / Stands ready to smite once and smite no more.” Could it be that, as some have suggested, the “two handed engine” refers to our own power—liberty put at the service of some higher Cause, responsibly determined and accepted?