The Politics of Grace and the Myth of Progress

Freedom, John Gray, and a Low Anthropology.

Will McDavid / 7.4.23

Happy Independence Day to our American readers (and to everyone else, Happy Tuesday …). Amid the festivities, here’s a prescient gem from the archives, originally published way back in October of 2013. 

To think that human beings are freedom-loving, you have to be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.

So says pessimistic philosopher John Gray, in his wonderful book The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. If it’s already beginning to sound a bit glum, well, he can’t really help himself. The first word we need to hear is so often a “no,” a judgment, or a deconstruction.

Have you ever known someone who had a truth sitting right in front of them and couldn’t recognize it? Someone who always exonerates her child — bad grades the fault of teachers, bad behavior of peer pressure; or someone who, like Faulkner’s Jason Compson, is living in a state of total unreality when it comes to their career importance/trajectory? These things are true about us, too, though I’d probably slap the man who told me about the log looming so large in my eye it’s absurd I don’t see it.

For Gray, these illusions can be corporate, too. At the risk of sounding seditious, it really is absurd that we think liberal democracy to be the end-all-be-all of political systems. That is, I value it as much as anyone else, but adherents of English Constitutional Monarchy, Greek (mostly oligarchic) Republicanism, French Absolutism, and dozens of other systems had the exact same end of history idea; their system was the culmination of all past events, the zenith.

All that to say, Gray’s book is discomfiting, jarring; it attacks many of these corporate illusions, especially the “myth of progress,” something memorably taken to task by Charles Taylor several years ago. For us, liberalism (in the broad sense) constitutes much of our notion of progress, allowing us to read in a historical narrative of increasing broadening of governmental authority and increasing individual choice. To detached observers (like Gray), this potentially sounds as strange and improbable as an atheistic notion of human progress (via liberation from the superstitions of the past) might sound to a ‘committed Christian.’

“Man is born free,” Rousseau writes in the opening lines of his argument, “and everywhere he is in chains.” But Gray cites Alexander Herzen, a journalist witnessing political turmoil in Russia, who addressed Rousseau’s idea with the question, “why does everything else exist as it ought to exist, whereas with man, it is the opposite?” And the poet E.A. Robinson, in one of his classic character vignettes, asks about his fictional Flammonde, “What small satanic sort of kink/ Was in his brain? What broken link/ Withheld him from the destinies/ That came so near to being his?” The same could be said of all idealistic political movements — Revolutionary France, Bolshevik Russia, Nazi Germany, etc … or could be said about humanity in general. Such an anthropology closely parallels the biblical view of humanity.

In our contemporary American situation, Gray is unambiguous: fact-denying idealists come in many forms — “the Jacobin, Bolshevik and Maoist, terrorizing humankind in order to remake it on a new model; the neo-conservative, waging personal war as a means to universal democracy; liberal crusaders for human rights, who are convinced that all the world longs to become as they imagine themselves to be.” The neo-conservative agenda has worn itself out; the liberal crusader agenda is ascendant, but in its ascendancy is perhaps newly-wed to a more traditionally conservative embrace of power. “Power always trumps ideology,” as Paul Zahl says in the forthcoming (!) PZ’s Panopticon. It’s not a stretch to imagine an aggressively interventionist foreign policy in the service of more traditionally liberal ideals — “second verse, same as the first” would be the refrain of a realistic view of human recidivism.

What’s the upshot of all this pessimism? A few things: (1), that inordinate hubris — also known as Original Sin, or inflated anthropology — was itself the enabler of Jacobins, Bolshevists, and the other usual suspects Gray lists, and (2) that “man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ,” as Luther said in his Heidelberg Disputation. Kipling’s “white man’s burden” has been transmogrified throughout history — the Republican’s burden or the Democrat’s, the burden of many contemporary Christians trying to remake the city, or the country, or what have you; in what’s often an upper-middle class image. One suspects, in most cases, that the real burden is an inflated view of one’s own notion of progress.

It’s a burden we all willingly bear, a burden to the detriment of ourselves and, more often than not, to the detriment of those we supposedly bear it for.

What would a Christian politics look like? Perhaps something like Dostoevsky’s Christ in the Grand Inquisitor, who answers to no charges, permits himself to be slapped, beaten, and executed rather than to turn stones to bread, display his immortality, or anything else smacking of right-handed power.

Not to say that Christian political activity isn’t a good thing; it can often be; but I wonder if the only way to truly “bear one another’s burdens” is passively, after the model of Christ. And that isn’t so much another political method, or model for us, as it is an assurance — that the sins of political action or inaction, pride or despair, are taken on. In human hands, justice always miscarries, though unintentionally. Gray’s dismantling of our ideas of human progress, if taken to heart, open up our need to the only unity of justice and love possible — that of a love “which covers a multitude of sins.”

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