From The Imaginative Conservatism
By Fr Dwight Longenecker
Despite somewhat of a reputation for being a curmudgeon, I have always considered myself an optimist. I usually look on the bright side, try to give the benefit of the doubt, and believe a man is more often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.
Nevertheless, in re-reading William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I was reminded of the perils of optimism. James outlines a type of unremitting optimism that is often a part of the naturally ebullient American nature. James equates this optimism with progressivism and is astute in recognizing in it not only a form of atheism, but a new kind of religion.
The persons to whom I refer have still retained for the most part their nominal connection with Christianity, in spite of their discarding of its more pessimistic theological elements. But in that “theory of evolution” which, gathering momentum for a century, has within the past twenty-five years swept so rapidly over Europe and America, we see the ground laid for a new sort of religion of Nature, which has entirely displaced Christianity from the thought of a large part of our generation. The idea of a universal evolution lends itself to a doctrine of general meliorism and progress which fits the needs of the healthy minded so well that it seems almost as if it might have been created for their use.
James is right to connect this optimistic progressivism to “meliorism”—the belief that the world can be made better by human effort.”
If this is optimism, then call me a pessimist. I have been taught from a young age to reject any form of religion that hints of salvation by good works so, while I am of a generally optimistic nature, when it comes to the belief that through our own effort the whole world will eventually be saved, I am a skeptic. For me progressivism bit the dust when I realized that through the terrors of the twentieth century the humanist believers in progress still held that in each and every way in each and every day we are getting better and better.
In more recent days, the debacle of the COVID-19 crisis, the continued economic, ecological, and social crises the world faces must certainly pop the balloon of the optimist.
And yet the naive believers in melioristic optimism continue to preach their false religion of progress. Frightening figures like Claus Schwab of the World Economic Forum spout forth about the New World Order and a “Great Reset” while other globalists continue to dream of a woke Utopia that is right around the corner.
The problem with such optimistic progressives, like all utopian dreamers, is that for their dreams to become real they must eventually impose their master plan for universal happiness on hoi polloi. “You will be happy, and those who dissent will be removed, leaving only the people who agree to be happy! The beatings will continue until morale improves!”
This practice of this new religion can be traced in the self-help movement and the obsession to keep fit. Devotees go to the gym instead of church and read self-help manuals instead of a sacred text. The power of positive thinking and meditation or “mindfulness” replace prayer, and political activism takes the place of the corporal works of mercy. Making a virtue of victimhood replaces genuine compassion and virtue-signalers become the new self-righteous pharisees.
The new religion has its orthodoxy and its watchdogs. What is perceived as pessimism, negativity, or intolerance is not only eschewed, it is prohibited; and should anyone dare to voice an opinion that seems in any way not to be tender-hearted, tolerant, and brightly optimistic, he will be hounded, howled down, and cancelled.
This false religion borrows heavily from the Christianity from which it has sprung. All of its ideals and dreams were Christian to start with. Tom Holland’s Dominion outlines the reliance of all modern Western virtues on historic Christianity:
Like most false religion, this melioristic optimism is founded on sentimentalism. We usually associate the nice emotions with sentimentalism: kindness, compassion, affection, sweet feelings about puppies and kittens (and so forth) but we too easily forget that there are other, darker emotions in the closet of sentimentalists. Rage, revenge and resentment are not only other emotions, they are much more powerful and motivating emotions than the feelings of sweetness and light.
The false religion of optimism has swept Western society leaving us weak, blind, and easily led. Those who would manipulate us using this false religion are everywhere. Like the fanatical Rev. James Jones with his suicide cult in the jungle, the preachers of progressivism promote their woke gospel through every media and educational channel possible. The optimistic religion of self-help, material contentment, and perpetual entertainment are ubiquitous.
What is the answer? Not pessimism, and not progress, but providence. Did I say I am an optimist? On second thought I reject the term. Instead I claim the gift of hope. I have hope, not in the glorious achievements of man, but in the ever-glorious providence of God. We are moving forward, but moving forward to a completion and a perfection that is not in out hands or in our minds.
That future is one that God has in store for humanity, and it is one that may be both terrible and terrific. In the end, all will be gathered in and redeemed in a way that is more wise and wonderful than we can imagine. The fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich sums it up, “All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” And T.S.Eliot adds, “When the tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned knot of fire, and the fire and the rose are one.”
The nineteenth century liberal Protestant theologians espoused progress. It ended in the trenches of the Great War (which many supported) paving the way for much gloomier, realistic yet personally challenging Barthian neo-Orthodoxy.ReplyDelete