From Beer Hall to Park

The riot in Charlottesville this past weekend can readily be recognized as an action straight out of Hitler’s SA playbook: stage a disturbance, and blame the Communists.  The “Communists” in this case are headlined by “Antifa”, a loose collection of anarchists, actual Communists, and various other radical and not-so-radical Leftists who proclaim themselves “anti-fascist”.  The rise of National Socialism to power (in the person of Adolf Hitler) has popularly been put down to any number of uncommonly harsh conditions in Germany: the unrealistic Treaty of Versailles, the Great Depression, the ineffective Weimar government – and so on.  But these explanations rooted in political or economic circumstances overlook the emotional factor: the root of this tactic is that people who would not – one assumes – ordinarily have sympathized with the Nazis were inclined to give them some credence due to their stated opposition to other groups.  It’s a standard enough political tactic, and it does not inherently have to lead to or give cover to violence.  But it can do that too, and the number of people who fell for it this past week is worrying.  Fool us twice, shame on us.

But why did it work?  It worked because there was another group present to blame.  Political scapegoats can certainly be manufactured or exaggerated easily enough, but it is easier to pull the stunt off if some person or group is already there, asking for the label.  The United States’ political scene is increasingly publicly interpreted in terms of Right and Left – which is odd, as actual variety of political views seems in my experience to be increasing.  To those who know they are considered “the Right” it seems that “the Left” has failed to take responsibility for the riots, violence, and vandalism resulting from its own protests.  Though the vast majority of “the Right” would prefer to distance themselves from neo-Nazis, white supremacy, and the like, there are twin fears which result in mere mumbling of platitudes.  The first fear stems from the – sometimes legitimate – assumption that many on “the Left” already see everyone on “the Right” as essentially Nazis-in-waiting: if the “rightist” condemns the white supremacist now, who will he be pressured to condemn next time?  The second is negative: if condemnation of the white supremacists is issued, but their also-violent opponents are ignored, how is the “rightist” supposed to convince his fellows he’s not really a “leftist”?  (The “Leftist”, of course, faces the opposite social pressure: if he admits a “leftist” protest got out of hand, how can he demonstrate he’s not really a “rightist” condoning unjust police violence and systemic oppression of women and minorities?)

We should recognize this kind of fear for what it is.  This is political thinking.  In a political party, I may not be expected to sing the copious praises of the candidate from the next town over at all times, but I am expected to show up at his rally and politely call him a “good American” and parrot whatever the catchphrase of this year’s campaign may be.  What we see, in short, is that violence is being politicized, with neither “the Right” nor “the Left” willing to criticize the vandals with whom they know they are grouped.

It would be as well to distinguish two sorts of civil disturbance.  (There may be others.)  The first – as in Ferguson or Baltimore – helps nobody, but there is a clear cause of perceived governmental injustice.  The second – as this January in Washington at the Inauguration or this weekend in Charlottesville – is about the advancement of a political agenda, simply and solely, by show of force, whether that force remains a demonstration of numerical strength or spills over into actual violence.  The first we should have some sympathy with (even if the crowd’s assumptions are not totally justified), though we can hardly condone the acts and may disagree about the facts.  C. S. Lewis notes for us that, “Hard words sound less unlovely from the hunted than from the hunter,” and I take the same to be true of deeds.  But the second is more complicated: legitimate and secured by law when peaceful; when violent, simply criminal.  The transition is often hard to identify.

If I have digressed this far, in many ways equating the habits of “Left” and “Right”, it should not be taken to obscure the point I began with.  I undertook in this piece to briefly set out the reasons I see for the reactions I’ve seen.  Todays “Left” at times radically misunderstand humanity and what would really happen if their goals were met; but they at least profess to aim at a further realizing of equalities enshrined in American law and ideal.  The “Right” sometimes falls short of even professing those goals – but the white supremacists and related activists who provoked the clash in Charlottesville are attempting to project on us an ideal twisted in essence and refuted in our history by force of arms and law.  To find evil continuing should surprise no one with an honest appreciation of history – even without the Christian doctrine of depravity – but to excuse it out of fear we ourselves will be later libeled is heinous.  And to a real extent, excusing an evil now would only add to the weight of the charge later.  “I was afraid,” is much more pardonable than, “I meant to do badly,” but the results are all too often very similar.

Three Reviews: Bruce, Morris, Van Til

F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (1988)

This work is a historical overview of the establishment of the Christian scriptural canon.  Bruce makes brief reference to but largely avoids questions of textual criticism.  Similarly, though a congregationalist evangelical himself, he does not spend any significant time on any discussion of the mode of inspiration or the formal relation of Scriptural to church authority.  The only real surprise is that he suggests Protestants ought to value the apocryphal books more highly, in view of the early Church’s opinion of their usefulness.  For New Testament works, Bruce supports early or apostolic dating, but is not tied to direct apostolic authorship where that is disputed.

The book is sensibly organized and clearly written.  I am not qualified to detect errors of fact or judgment, and I do not know what changes of opinion have been effected by the thirty years of scholarship and study since this book was written.  With that caveat, though, I would recommend this work as a good introduction to the history of the Christian Bible.

Charles R. Morris, A Rabble of Dead Money

Morris describes himself in the postscript as “an historian with a professional background in finance”.  In this history of the Great Depression, although he  begins with an overview of the social and technological conditions of the 1920s, Morris’s main task is to trace various financial decisions that contributed to and then alleviated the Depression.  I found the book immensely helpful for some of the details Morris traces: the development of electric and automobile machinery and marketing; the competing financial models and goals – to say nothing of maneuvering, some amounting to outright fraud – among the world powers (and huge corporations) in the 1920s; and the examination of the effects of Roosevelt’s programs during the Depression.

Although Morris clearly lays out a pattern of causes and effects, he is not here concerned to answer the (to my mind, serious) questions about legality, debt, or sustainability.  He would like to conclude, for example, that Roosevelt’s programs had essentially ended the Great Depression by 1936: he demonstrates that in terms of the financial markets and prices this is actually true.  But he admits that when Roosevelt cut back his “emergency” programs in 1937 on the theory that normal conditions were restored, he quickly had to reinstate them as markets destabilized again.  Morris takes this as a demonstration of the value of intervention, but never addresses the resulting government debt – or whether it is actually a good thing to have the government essentially “locked in” to supporting the economy.  In fairness, the sustainability is perhaps beyond the scope of Morris’s work; management of the debt through the 1970s suggests that such programs might be manageable under the lending-and-interest model of modern finance; but Morris doesn’t even suggest there’s a question, let alone address the legal questions.

Similarly, while his financial indicators may support his thesis, he is forced to admit that in terms of unemployment the “traditional” opinion that it took World War II to end the Depression is valid.  Even the figures counting relief work as employment show at least 9% unemployment persisting through 1940.  The only reason, though, that the failure to address these issues becomes a weakness of the whole book is that in his short postscript he undertakes to briefly analyze some of the failures that led to our recent “Great Recession”.  He attempts to draw parallels – but to draw parallels in four pages between two extended periods, once of which one has just spent three hundred pages describing, is a risky business.  Morris manages no certainty in this postscript, and only highlights some of the larger causal risks in the most general terms.

On the whole, I found this a valuable book.  If certain questions go unanswered, they are after all not the questions suggested by conventional modern finance.  The outline Morris provides of international monetary policies is the most valuable part of the book, as he lays out the differing programs with clarity even for those like myself who are financially uninformed.  He also has a great sympathy for almost everyone involved; he quote another writer to the effect that one ought not to expect anyone to have learned anything from the Great Depression before it happened.

Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism (1963)

Despite my own Reformed Christian beliefs, I do not believe I have ever read anything by Van Til, apart from excerpts featured in Sunday school classes and, if I am not mistaken, in one philosophy class.  The man’s reputation is rather weighty; so I was pleased to find this slim volume, with a title apparently indicating a subject matter of brief apologetic summary of his views.

However, this book is actually itself a review of books, though in the final part Van Til does lay out his own theories of apologetics in rather polemic style.  It seems that Westminster Press asked three theologians to prepare short books justifying their views of the Christian faith in terms of modern philosophic concepts: Horden advocating a “New Reformation”, DeWolf professing a “liberal” Christianity, and Carnell espousing the “orthodox” faith.  Van Til undertakes to show that the first two are not in any essential way different from each other, – and then that the “orthodox” theologian has not in fact made a good argument for his case despite (Van Til says) holding traditional dogma himself.

I will admit here that I do not have the philosophical or theological background to have fully understood either all of Van Til’s references or some of his arguments.  Van Til’s authors rely on Kierkegaard and Barth, neither of whom I have read; and Van Til accuses them all of being Kantians, while I am not sure I ever understood Kant and only vaguely remember what I did read.  Appeal is also made to other more modern authors, the majority of whom I had never heard of.  My following comments are therefore tentative, as made from a position of relative ignorance.

To my mind, the scheme of the book is essentially a failure.  Horden, whom Van Til treats first, appears from the included excerpts to be the most orthodox of the three: Horden’s scheme is, in professed reaction against Barth, to re-establish the Reformation dogmas in modern philosophic terms.  Based on Van Til’s criticism, he may in some methodological ways have anticipated today’s N. T. Wright; it is not clear from Van Til’s excerpts that he held any unusual doctrines.  In contrast, DeWolf is (at best) a self-confessed modalist; when Van Til accuses him of finding a “Christianity” which adds nothing to what man already knows, I am not sure DeWolf would have disagreed.  If Van Til wished to prove the man a heretic, his job was easy; if Van Til really thought he attempted refutation, the job is sadly incomplete.

Van Til then proceeds to contrast both of these authors with Carnell, the “orthodox” expositor.  This section is more baffling still, as Van Til does not confine himself to the work supposedly reviewed, but drags in reams of matter from Carnell’s other works.  Carnell appears under this scrutiny to have been a bit of a careless enthusiast: some of the passages Van Til cites are in fact alarming, though Van Til repeatedly assures the reader that Carnell’s actual beliefs are orthodox, and it is only his methods which are questionable.  Carnell appears to have thought that any common human mode of inquiry – philosophic, scientific, emotional – honestly pursued will lead at least to the recognition of God.  The grounds on which Van Til prefers Carnell to Horden are not at all clarified in this section.

In the final section Van Til lays out his own position, a statement of “Calvinism” which Van Til believes to be the true form of Christianity.  For Van Til, the evidence of Calvinism’s veracity is that it professes a “self-authenticating” God and leaves no room for human autonomy; he essentially rejects the entire project his three authors had embarked on, as not beginning with the fact of God’s existence and Christ’s testimony.  He criticizes Roman Catholicism not here for doctrinal errors but for supposing human philosophy might be useful or valid; he dismisses “natural theology” and by implication natural law as well, and seems only grudgingly to admit any effect or existence of common grace.

I am inclined to think Van Til misread Socrates, the apostle Paul, and possibly the authors he reviewed here as well: he makes Socrates’ question to Euthyphro on holiness evidence of a philosopher’s arrogance; he characterizes Paul as attacking Greek superstition much as Van Til here attacks modern philosophy, when a less-close minded reading of, for instance, Acts 17 would find Paul making the same kind of “natural theology” argument Van Til condemns.  Seeing this where I do know some of the material, but bot myself familiar with the modern philosophic terminology, I am not sure whether Van Til’s dismissal of all three author’s concern for the difference between known and unknown in God’s revelation is critically legitimate or simply unsympathetic.

Van Til’s book does not succeed as a refutation of the works he discusses; he refuses to participate in their dialogue.  I am sympathetic – as how could any Christian not be? – to his claim that all things are under the dominion of Christ; but I am not convinced by his axiom that any systematic inquiry which does not explicitly begin with the acknowledgment of that lordship is illegitimate and unhelpful.  He has some useful things to say about the meaninglessness of “systems” either of pure determinism or pure chance, and the contradictions implied in trying to combine them; but this philosophic critique is here swallowed up in pure rant.