The Idol of Our Age
By Daniel J Mahoney
Encounter Books, 184pp, £17.99/$15.90
One of the most famous passages in modern literature is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor”, a poem within his epic 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov. It is recited by Ivan Karamazov, an intellectual atheist, and it represents what Dostoyevsky views as the greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and the principal object of lament in Daniel J Mahoney’s Idol of Our Age: materialism.
“The Grand Inquisitor” begins with Jesus Christ returning to Inquisition-era Spain. He is inconspicuous, but everyone recognises him at once. Christ heals a blind man and raises a young girl from the dead. Then the Grand Inquisitor arrives. He instructs his guards to seize them. Christ is imprisoned and condemned to be burned to death the next day. But before that, the Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to interrogate him.
The Grand Inquisitor demands to know why Christ has returned, saying: “We have just finally fixed all the problems you left for us last time you were here.” He laments that Christ rejected Satan’s three temptations in the desert – to turn stones into bread, to cast himself off the top of the Temple, and to rule the kingdoms of the world. Christ rejected material comfort, spectacle and earthly power in favour of freedom and the promise of the eternal. But the Grand Inquisitor claims that this was an egregious mistake, as humanity cannot handle the burden of freedom. Christ, in asking humans to be patient for the life to come, asked too much and doomed them to suffer.
“Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!” the Grand Inquisitor cries.
In the parable of the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoyevsky unmasks the idols of our time: materialism, spectacle and power. Mahoney’s book, subtitled How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity, does so too. This is a worthy and important endeavour.
Mahoney’s reservations about secular humanism are varied. It denies human depravity, claiming that peace and unity are the natural condition of mankind. It demands radical political change, and it is increasingly and fanatically egalitarian, denying human difference. Most importantly, secular humanism pursues “social justice” and material comfort ahead of matters that are more important to the human soul. In reducing man to his material needs, Mahoney claims, it ultimately undermines Christianity’s emphasis on the transcendent.
For Mahoney, the secular humanism he disdains is exemplified by the 19th-century French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Comte, a friend of John Stuart Mill’s, was the founder of positivism and the creator of a literal “religion of humanity”. Comte took the parts of religion he liked – the ritual and structure and social cohesion it produced – and discarded that which he didn’t: the transcendent and mystical. Comte created a religious and social existence where man, not God, was central. His religion, inspired by Catholic worship, was referred to as “Catholicism without Christ”, according to Thomas Huxley and “Catholicism plus science” by others.
In Comte’s religion, instead of God who must be loved, known and served, it is humankind – especially the very best and greatest of humankind. Comte created rituals around the worship of humanity, and in 1849 even went so far as to replace the Christian calendar with the “positivist calendar”, in which months were named after history’s greatest leaders, thinkers and artists.
In another example bordering on the comical, Comte was particularly fond of the feeling of empathy that his girlfriend, Clotilde de Vaux, evoked in him and he desired to let others enjoy that sentiment. After she died in 1846, he had portraits of her hung in his house of worship – rather in the way that Catholics use images in churches to help them venerate Mary, the Mother of God.
Mahoney argues that, in rejecting any moral authority above man and elevating the material, Comte diminishes the dignity of the human person. In his eloquent phrase, “Comte has forgotten that what is highest in man finds its ultimate source in what is higher than man.”
Mahoney draws on the work of past outspoken critics of the “religion of humanity” to make his case. The three “prophets”, as Mahoney calls them, are Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), the political theorist Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008).
Brownson was a renowned philosopher, writer, Catholic convert and publisher of the New England Transcendentalists, a movement that put an American spin on the European Romantic Project, encouraging a reversion to, and celebration of, nature.
For Brownson, the religion of humanity is, in addition to pantheism, the most fundamental challenge to freedom rightly understood – both politically and spiritually.
True freedom recognises natural constraints, affirming the ultimate sovereignty of God. He rejected the individualism of the religion of humanity because he knew this “pure egoism” corroded the duty and loyalty at the foundation of community and citizenship. The rights and consent of the governed have corollary responsibilities. Freedom is limited, and never “global”.
Brownson’s ideal rejected the twin extremes of radical individualism and revolutionary collectivism. He believed that equality of condition is natural – meaning that all man are born with equal dignity and worth – but material equality can never be enforced. To do so would only create “equality in poverty”. He knew that demands for social justice were grounded in a misconception of human nature that is purely materialist – wrong and also alien to Christianity.
Comte’s project to keep the best of the Christian religion while discarding what he perceived as the worst was not the first of its kind. Indeed, it was similar to the Jefferson Bible, in which Thomas Jefferson kept Christ’s moral teachings yet literally cut out his miracles. It also bears some resemblance to the religious ideas of Benjamin Franklin who, though a Quaker by background, in his autobiography treats the topic of the cultivation of virtue and of moral improvement with religious zeal, but discards any concept of a transcendent God.
It’s not difficult to see why men like Comte, Jefferson and Franklin were drawn to these projects. For much of the history of Christianity, the importance of temporal life was diminished, and the afterlife elevated.
However, we also find critiques of this attitude among Christians. This is especially so during the Renaissance in Europe, when the rediscovery of classical Greco-Roman texts provoked much thought about what it meant to be human. For Christian humanists such as Erasmus (1466–1536), Christ validated life on Earth through his Incarnation. Human existence was something to be celebrated and human potential to be cultivated. Temporal life was not the most important priority, but it did matter.
But in our present age, Mahoney argues, temporal life has shifted from being part of what matters to being all that matters. We exist at a time largely oblivious of eternity. We worship the idols of our age – modernity and material comfort – which in turn define who we are. As the Grand Inquisitor said, humans will worship whoever supplies them with bread, or whichever ideology or person meets their material needs and wants.
If only Mahoney had seen fit to share this message with the broader public instead of an academic audience. Most scholars who take the time to read this book will probably already be inclined to agree with him. But his is a message that our world urgently needs.
At the end of the Grand Inquisitor’s cross-examination, he taunts Jesus: “We have corrected your mistakes. The people love us for it. When I burn you at the stake tomorrow, the people will flock to me and praise me and reject you as they did 1,500 years ago. Judge us if you dare.”
The Grand Inquisitor cannot tolerate Christ’s silence. He observes Christ listening to him with quiet emotion, gazing straight into his eyes and evidently not wishing to raise any objections. The old man would like Jesus to say something to him, even if it is bitter and terrible.
Christ quickly and silently approaches the Grand Inquisitor and kisses him on the cheek. The Inquisitor shudders; he goes to the door, opens it and says to Christ: “Go and do not come back… do not come back at all… ever… ever!” He releases him into the town’s dark streets.
“The kiss burns within his heart,” Dostoyevsky writes, “but the old man remains with his former idea.”
The ambiguous ending of this parable is a call to action for us now. How will we respond to the burning in our heart, the longing we each have for eternity? Can we maintain a concept of the transcendent – of that which matters most – in a culture obsessed with the material? Can we appreciate the importance of the material without losing our vision of the transcendent?
Seeking such a balance is worth the effort. Eternity is at stake.
Alexandra Hudson, a former civil servant, is a research fellow for the American Institute for Economic Research and a writer based in Indianapolis. She is working on her first book, on civility