This is, of course, the season, more than any other season, when we wish one another joy and happiness. I may be thought by some to be a Grinch for mentioning a fact that I think weighs on many of our hearts. We are living at a very dangerous moment due to a confluence of a number of things, intellectual, financial, militarily and theologically. I hope to be prudent enough not to attempt to delve into a deep analysis of these matters in what my editors have told me is to be a brief meditation as we enter into the Christmas season. But to be honest and direct, I thought it was necessary to begin with where we find ourselves this Christmas. And that is to say that we are at a perilous moment in history due to the confluence I alluded to above.
How to get to the heart of the matter? That, as Shakespeare might say, is the rub. Yet, as a Christian who believes that the redemption of the world was effected by the Incarnation of Christ, I can certainly use the lens of the Incarnation to understand the state of the world and the people in it, even when, indeed, especially when things are perilous. That is what it means to affirm that Christology is anthropology, i.e., that in order to discover man and what his end truly is, one must study Christ, the perfect man.
If we want to go to root of the modern dilemma we need to identify the tendency that Balkanizes reality, the principle of division. Think of that for a moment: The Scriptures present a vision of the origin of humanity as one of harmony and peace, serenity, and joy. This pervasive harmony permeated the relation of the transcendent God to the material universe, which Genesis says was fashioned by His own hand and pronounced good. There was a union between God and the human family which He fashioned in His own image. Likewise, there was an intimate unity between man and woman, who were made stewards of the whole of creation, which likewise enjoyed an abundant and harmonious existence.
That was the original vision, but a counter and contradictory one entered into the world — a sinister spirit of division, conflict, dissembling. To dissemble is to be dishonest, or to camouflage the truth. It is an attempt to create a new reality juxtaposed to the truth. The primordial Dissembler lied and worked to get others to believe the lie.
What does this excursion into the biblical account of human origins have to do with the dangerous moment I alluded to at the outset? And how does the Incarnation heal the division?
When we look at the history of ideas, we see a relatively modern version of this principle of division in the works of Karl Marx. I know that explicit admissions to Marx’s influence are shunned in these days, but one compelling feature of his thought has morphed into a set of assumptions employed by many, perhaps because it carries for them an explanation for how the world works. This assumption of an intrinsic conflict at the heart of society is at play when unions pit workers against employers, or when feminists pit women against men, or when environmentalists pit the planet against the human beings who live on it and then when they advocate the resolution such class conflicts in more division and conflict.
The point is that lies dissemble and disassemble things. Truth unites and harmonizes.
Nowhere is this more evident and critical than in understanding the necessity of the interpenetration of the truths of economic productivity (efficiency) and human dignity (virtue). On one side of that divide some forget the importance of the market’s efficiency being grounded in a right understanding of the human person. On the other side, in their defense of human dignity (let’s say, to ensure the poor have food), some overlook the practical means to achieve that end. We see this in politics, in academia, and in the church.
The Incarnation of Christ teaches us the importance of Heaven and earth in their coming together in the womb of the Virgin and the manifestation of her Son to the world.
Some years ago Fredrick Hayek offered a sobering speculation: “It may be that a free society as we have known it carries in itself the forces of its own destruction, and that once freedom is achieved it is taken for granted and ceases to be valued….” And then he goes on to ask, “Does this mean that freedom is valued only when it is lost, that the world must everywhere go through a dark phase of socialist totalitarianism before the forces of freedom can gather strength anew?”
He answers, “It may be so, but I hope it need not be.”
Hayek offers a good but partial remedy to this threat. He says that “if we are to avoid such a development, we must be able to offer a new liberal program which appeals to the imagination. We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.”
He is right of course, but he left something out: We must also make the building of the free society once more a moral adventure, for its construction was morally inspired in the first place. It emerged from a vision of man as a creature with an inherent and transcendent destiny. This vision, this anthropology, inspired the institutions of Western civilization: universal human rights; the right to contract and private property; international institutions of charity; the university. All these formed because of the high view we inherited from our Judeo-Christian tradition.
This is what the Acton Institute has been attempting to bring to the front of the debate: a synthesis between religion and liberty, human dignity and economic prosperity. This is the bringing together of piety and technique.
What is so dangerous about our current state of affairs worldwide is the separation of these important truths as we witness an increased global secularization. When a moral vision of life breaks down, secular society seeks political remedies in order to recapture what is lost by the absence of a moral glue that hold civilization together. Tocqueville said it best:
Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?
It may sound like pious naiveté to say that Christmas can show us out of the perilous times, but it is only so if you do not understand what Christmas really is.