Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Coming of the Kingdom

Building Civilization

Human societies can tear themselves apart.  Or they can cohere and build themselves into a civilisation.  What makes the difference?  The overwhelming consensus amongst the Commentariat is technological prowess, material gadgets, and wealth make a people civilised.  Thus, nations and societies are measured and ranked in terms of GDP and living standards.  Such things may be the fruit of a civilised community but they are not its foundation.

Nor are material goods and technological skills the things which enable people to cohere into a voluntary community.  You cannot build a civilisation upon smart phones.  This may seem puzzling until one recalls that smart phones can be used to detonate explosive devices on the roadside.  As poet, Paul Simon put it:

It was a slow day
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
There was a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio . . . .

The problem with larger populations is that immediate mutual benefit arising from co-operation is not so tangible or obvious.  As Peter Hitchens reflects,
We can live at a low level of cooperation by mutual consideration.  But as soon s we move beyond subsistence and the smallest units, problems arise  that cannot be resolved by mutual decency.  Some people grow richer, some are stronger, some acquire weapons.  Power comes into being at a very early stage in human society.  So do greed, competition for scarce resources, and wars with other groups.  Mutual benefit ceases to offer any kind of guide to behaviour.  Who is to say, in a city ruled by a single powerful and ruthless family from an impregnable fortress, that the strongest man is not also always right?  [Peter Hitchens, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), p. 145.]
The apparent greed and rapaciousness is what leads so many to seek salvation in the state.  They look for a god, a powerful god, to defend them from rapacity and laying waste.  The state is all they have.  But, in a grand leap of blind faith, they forget that the state has interests of its own; historically the state has become the most rapacious and destructive of all.  Small people get ground up exceedingly finely through the lusts of the state--which ultimately are the lusts of the few with access to the levers of power.

Is is possible for a society to become civilized, and wealthy, and powerful and sustaining and free?  No longer--at least not until thoroughly Christian civil societies arise once again.  Hitchens goes on to describe some of the warp and woof of civil society necessary for civilisation--things which do not come from gadgets or cults of personality, but from the communal heart of a people.
In wars, men are repeatedly asked to undertake acts of selfless courage that they will not themselves survive.  Men are expected to be responsible for the women who bear their children for as long as they live. Women in return are expected to be faithful to those men.  For economies to develop, men must be trusted to guard valuables that are not their own.  Again and again, for civilization to exist and advance, human creatures are required to do things that they would not do "naturally" as mammals.  Marriage is unnatural.  The deferment of immediate gratification for greater reward is unnatural.  Charity is unnatural.  Education is unnatural.  Literacy is unnatural as if the passing on of lore and history from one generation to another.  (Ibid.)
Yet, without these vital elements you cannot build human society into a civilization.  But when the hearts of the people, the soul of the community has been regenerated by the Spirit of God--that is, when it has pleased God to be merciful to a people--all these vital elements seem "natural".  Which is a half-truth.  Truly, all such duties and requirements are natural in that they are what we were made for: they are all part of God's order and design and command.  But, being blighted by Adam's first sin in which we all fell and having run to ape him in thousands of occasions in thought, word, and deed, such facets are foreign and contrary to our nature, so that God's rule and law become unnatural.  It is in this sense that Christian societies can be said to be unnatural:
Christian societies as a whole are "unnatural", requiring a host of actions that cannot be based on self-interest, however enlightened, or even on mutual obligation.  Meanwhile, the more civilized a society is, the more power is available within it.  Power cannot be destroyed, only divided and distributed.  It may shatter into an anarchic war of all against all.  Or it may solidify into tyranny.  Or it may be resolved into a free society governed by universally acknowledged laws.  But on what basis can this be done?  What agency can be used to place law above force?

A law that does not stand above brute force and have some sort of power than can overcome brute force will not survive for long.  How are inconvenient obligations, those of the banker and the messenger and the merchant, to be made binding?  How are the young to be made to accept the authority of parents and teachers, once they are physically strong enough to ignore them, but too inexperienced in life to know the value of peace and learning?  (Ibid., p. 146.)
There is no one magic switch--and we would not for a moment think that there ought to be.  The Kingdom of God is very, very thick.  Christian society likewise is a labyrinth of interlocking complexities and "little things": attitudes and motives of heart, words of the mouth, small deeds, actions done in secret yet before the face of God--in every home, every street, every congregation, every place of business.  Such thickness is way beyond the power of man to organize or programme.  We can co-operate in this redemptive work of God, but we cannot command it at will. 

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