Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, Suicide of the West, contends that America is committing suicide by rejecting the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individual autonomy (liberty) and the sufficiency of human reason to build a better world. His critics suggest that embracing these Enlightenment principles will naturally lead to the death of a culture. So, what’s the solution?
Last week, I noted that some of Goldberg’s critics have said that the Enlightenment’s principles of individual autonomy and the sufficiency of human reason produced stunning material progress because of the milieu of other values with which they were mixed.
More Than Enlightenment Principles Were at Work
For example, John Daniel Davidson rightly notes that “an older order, one that predates liberal democratic capitalism,” is what “gave it its vitality in the first place.” Nathaniel Blake adds this helpful thought about the context in which the liberalism of the Enlightenment was born: “From the family to the variety of intermediary non-state institutions and associations, liberal democratic capitalism depends on commitments and virtues it does not generate.”
What happened, however, was those “other things” went away, either intentionally or necessarily, leaving us today with only individual autonomy (liberty) and human reason.
Davidson suggests that we intentionally “left some things behind,” and quotes professor Patrick Deneen’s observation in Why Liberalism Failed, that in the 16th and 17th centuries, “a series of thinkers embarked on a fundamentally revisionist project ‘whose central aim was to disassemble what they concluded were irrational religious and social norms in the pursuit of civil peace that might in turn foster stability and prosperity, and eventually individual liberty of conscience and action.’”
That disassemblage was, of course, culminated in the French Revolution. Davidson rightly notes that it replaced “moral philosophy and religion with liberalism and applied science.”
Blake fell more into the latter camp. He said, and I agree, “liberalism’s emphasis on individual autonomy and indulgence of the passions (rather than restraint) vitiates the bonds of families and associations that it relies upon but cannot itself produce. Liberal individualism undermines the foundations it is built on.”
What’s the Solution?
Blake suggests that Goldberg make “Edmund Burke his intellectual avatar.”
Davidson says Goldberg needs to “rediscover the old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to.” Of course, those values were espoused by Burke.
These suggestions are fine, but I don’t think they go far enough.
The Only Alternative Solution
If reliance on liberty and human wisdom have brought us to where we are, then why would we think those two building blocks will now make us either the kind of persons we once were or suddenly make us better persons than we now are? More of the same thinking doesn’t produce different results.
In my view, where these solutions stop short is not articulating the only alternative to the Enlightenment’s twin sources of autonomy—the person and his or her reason—the autonomy of the one and only God, what Christians call the sovereignty of God.
We only have two choices in this regard. We can believe that each of us is absolutely sovereign,1 in which case this may be as good as it gets, or we can believe that God is, in which case there is a source outside of ourselves from which change could come.
Why the Silence?
The critics of Goldberg have not gone this far because, I suspect, it would have been impolitic with their publishers; they were writing to a large, diverse audience.
But what about professing Christians? I suspect many Christians cringe at such a stark choice, as have I in the past.
To avoid it, some will say that God is sovereign only over the human heart (or insert some other limited aspect of our temporal existence). I find that many Christians like to think things like that. Such thoughts still come to my mind with a degree of frequency I loathe. Relinquishing sovereignty to anyone or anything is unnatural. We cling, scratching and clawing, to whatever aspect of sovereignty we can. Of course, a God who is only sovereign over certain things is not really sovereign.
But what is really surprising is that the stark choice I’ve articulated is not often heard in our evangelical churches, particularly the seeker-sensitive ones. The leadership in so many churches today seems to be increasingly unwilling to proclaim that which is the only deathblow to the very thing that keeps “seekers” from God—their pretension to ultimate sovereignty and self-determination. Of course, such a proclamation will never be popular to natural-born seekers, primarily because we are told that there aren’t any (Romans 3:11).
But I’m sure my critics will say, “We tried Christianity in the 16th and 17th century and left it behind because of all the wars and oppression that existed. How does a ‘return’ to that help? Are you against all the progress that’s been made? Fowler, you’re at best a nutcase and at worse a Neanderthal.”
I’ll speak to that next week.
- Of course, Thomas Hobbes, who in Leviathan was bold enough to assert this, said we could give up our sovereignty to a ruler in order to alleviate the chaos that individual sovereignty produces, but even he left the autonomous individual an escape valve—when the appointed sovereign would take the individual’s life.
Read the series of commentaries responding to Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West:
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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