Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Quote of the Day (42)

It’s hard to believe how frequently “everything old is new again”, how often “what goes around comes around”, or how reliably “the past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes”.

Having studied the past only just a little, I have still seen enough to grudgingly second the truism that “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Even its slightly darker kindred observation, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” though wildly overused, has become clich√© precisely because we have to acknowledge that people do this all the time.

We really must be nuts.

The Predictive Value of Past Failure

It is not just that human failures of the ancient past serve to accurately predict the consequences of our current actions, but, if we are paying attention, we cannot help but notice that even within our own lifetimes we can observe similar repetitive patterns of choice and outcome which hopefully cause us to amend our own later behavior so as to avoid a repeat disaster.


Helmut Thielicke was a university professor, philosopher and theologian active in Germany during WWII and the decades which followed. His outspoken criticism of Nazi policies resulted in his expulsion from academia in 1940, and he spent the later war years giving popular lectures on Christianity to gatherings of thousands even as the Allies were bombing Stuttgart.

Freezers and Television Sets

So then, it is sixty-three years since Professor Thielicke told one of his audiences this:
“Is not Europe, is not the Christian Western world on this same road of separation from its origin and the source of its blessings? Who today knows the peace of the paternal home? Are we not in danger of being stuck with our freezers and television sets — not that they are bad in themselves, but because we have made them into a delusive kind of stuffing to fill up our emptied and peaceless lives? And meanwhile we are still impressed by all this blown-up nothingness and many even indulge the illusion that when ‘X-day’ comes we shall be able to impress the invading Communists with all these gimcracks. I am afraid the Communists will hold their noses at the vile-smelling wealth of the man who has squandered the Father’s capital and goes blabbing around a battlefield with a few decayed Christian ideas. Europe, the Christian West, threatens to become something impossible to believe.”
— Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father (1957)
If you are not already nodding in agreement, Thielicke’s prescience about the long-term consequences of a cultural obsession with “gimcracks” may be confirmed with a few quick Google searches. Like Lewis, Chesterton, Malcolm Muggeridge and even George Orwell in his day (though Orwell may not have understood the root causes quite so clearly), Thielicke saw the downward spiral of Western civilization as inevitable once the “delights of the Father’s house” have been collectively abandoned.

The Post-Christian, Post-Western Christian West

Thielicke’s “Christian Western world” is now decidedly post-Christian, and it is quickly becoming post-Western too, thanks to a wave of immigration unprecedented in human history and which even Dr. Thielicke could hardly have anticipated. Once the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 abolished U.S. national-origin quotas, immigrants from Africa, India and the Middle- and Far East quickly came to make up 85% of new “Americans”, a pattern almost exactly duplicated by Canada, Europe and Australia. The West is all but gone, as is its Christianity and even the vague-but-useful “Christianization” that characterized Western society in my youth, imbuing it with a sort of ambient positive morality that was not always exactingly observed, but could at least be appealed to in a court of law or in the public square. Each of these societies has traveled its own “road of separation from its origin and the source of its blessings”, and we are now only beginning to reap the consequences of our individual and collective foolishness. New America knows nothing of American tradition, history or religious values. The New Americans brought their own cultural baggage with them and have no intention of parting with their treasured delicacies.

Thus if we replace the words “freezers and television sets” with “iPhones and Netflix”, we may quite reasonably apply Thielicke’s words to our own decade despite the fact that they refer to the socio-cultural apostasy he observed in progress in Europe well over half a century ago, and which is really only coming to fruition now.

Invading Communists

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, communism and socialism were collectively declared, if not stone dead, then at least seriously handicapped. We missed what Dr. Thielicke saw, though I have no doubt when he spoke of “invading Communists” he imagined Russian paratroopers in camouflage by the thousands blackening the skies of flyover country √† la Red Dawn (the 1984 version, please!) rather than black clad, cherub-faced overindulged post-pubescents and cancel-culturers breaking shop windows in order to steal sneakers and computer hardware.

Dr. Thielicke also underestimated the addictive appeal our “gimcracks” have for the anarcho-socialist crowd, and quite reasonably failed to anticipate their complete lack of coherent vision with respect to what will rise from the ashes of Western civilization after they have had their little tantrum; as if a comprehensively destroyed culture can be expected to simply rebuild itself, or as if persistent attacks on the persons and property of merchants and deliverymen will have no long-term impact on the supply of food, water and electricity to urban “war zones”. As more than one commentator has wryly observed, we will miss flush toilets.

But as for having “squandered the Father’s capital” much like the prodigal son, I’m afraid my generation and the next couple will have to wear that one, and not with pride. That pithy description is way too close to the mark.

Blabbing Around the Spiritual Battlefield

Moreover, despite the passage of several generations since Thielicke coined the phrase, “blabbing around a [spiritual] battlefield with a few decayed Christian ideas” remains hopelessly pathetic and tragically common. I’m quite sure I have told the story somewhere in this space of my own attempt to share the gospel with a friend’s unsaved partner while still in the throes of rebellion against God myself. I came equipped with “a few decayed Christian ideas” instead of modeling Christ, and let us just say the result was not pretty. Her eventual wistful retort that “If it’s that good, surely you would be practising it” rightly cut me to the quick.

This morning’s reading in Revelation reminded me that one reason Christ, the Lamb, is worthy to pronounce judgment on a wicked world is that by his blood he ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation and made us into a unique kingdom of an entirely different sort which will one day reign with Christ on earth. Get that? He did not ransom entire tribes, languages, people or nations — though there is much about many of these to be commended, and even more to be rejected so long as we must live side by side with them daily, keeping what works from a culture and tossing what does not.

No, the Lord Jesus ransomed people for God from or out of these institutions and identity groups. We may mourn the loss the Europe, America, Canada, Australia or even the world itself as we know it, but all these transient entities are small potatoes compared to the importance of the kingdom and priesthood for whom Christ has paid the ransom. If this is really the beginning of our road home to the Father’s house, then we have more to celebrate than any prodigal son.

Something Impossible to Believe

And that question is certainly open for debate. Many of my online Christian acquaintances are in almost complete denial about what is happening around us, especially those who subscribe to an Amillennial or Post-Millennial view of prophetic scripture. They feel that the institutions around us may be redeemed, or that some sort of detente may be reached with the self-declared enemies of the West. Many are genuinely but naively convinced that the worldwide rioting we are experiencing is primarily about racism and injustice, when these are really only the flimsiest excuses for dismantling the West and rewriting history. All this has happened before, as any student of history knows.

In any case, how do you negotiate with someone who rejects rule of law, declares his right to plunder the property of others in the name of justice, believes truth and even science are trumped by “equity”, and does not even use units of language to mean the same thing we do? It’s impossible. So now either the intransigent socio-globalists will conquer the entrenched Legacy West, or else that enervated, secularized West will temporarily beat back the ideological waves once again, inadvertently extending the Day of Grace for a few more scant hours. Either way, it will not be accomplished through polite discussion, but by main force.

And that latter scenario — by which I mean yet another hiatus in our march toward the inevitable end of history as we know it — could certainly happen; after all, even Dr. Thielicke’s prescient analysis has taken the better part of a century to play out.

But either way, it remains the case that now, more than ever, the Christian West threatens to become something impossible to believe.

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