One of the grand mysteries of faith—of human life—is the irrevocable act. We do things that can never be undone. We make decisions that, in the clearer light of retrospect, should never have been made. But they were made, and acted upon, and the consequences are now out of our hands. How do we salvage the mess we have created? How could anyone salvage the mess, without the ability to go back in time? Great destruction can be wreaked in a moment; the salvage must proceed incrementally.
The western, “Judeo-Christian” tradition is unique among those that have governed the minds of civilized men and women, for its realism—for its direct confrontation with the irrevocable act. From its announcement in Genesis, the tradition has presupposed a radical view of human freedom. Humans are moral actors who, in effect, lack only the freedom to deny their freedom—who must therefore take full responsibility for their acts, and for any foreseeable consequences of their acts, to themselves and others. This began with Adam and Eve.
I beg my agnostic reader not to distract himself from this point with vain speculation about whether Adam and Eve were historical people. Let us agree, for sake of argument, that the Genesis story is pure myth. Ask instead: What is this myth expounding?
That we, the descendants of Adam and Eve, are likewise mortally flawed, and yet, unlike mere animals, we carry the burden of responsibility for our acts.
We have powers finally of life and death, not only over ourselves, but over our neighbours.
The consequences of our mistakes are written not only into our own lives, but into the lives of others, down to the lives of children yet unborn. Forgetting, for the moment, even heaven and hell, the business of our lives is deadly serious, and every human act has meaning.
The “game” was not reset after what we refer to as the Fall of Man. It cannot be played again to a different result. God Himself could not “reset the game” if He wanted: for in the Judeo-Christian view, even what God does is done irrevocably.
This is an extraordinary theological position, and it is easy to understand why “post-modern” or “post-Christian” man, along with followers of every other known religious tradition, should feel quite uncomfortable with such a restriction on God’s power. For with such radical freedom comes the pain of radical accountability: to God, and also to each other.
But perhaps we don’t care what happens to others.
As I have quoted in the past, let me quote again, the profound words of the late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, replying to the central lie in Marxism, which remains the central post-modern or post-Christian lie: “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.”
A great danger in democratic politics comes with just this denial. We are tempted to think that just by voting for a demagogue, a charlatan—for any politician who tells us cynically only what we want to hear—we can change the facts of nature.
We think that we can “make the rich pay,” or otherwise transfer our personal responsibilities to the Nanny State. By some mysterious “social contract,” we transfer to politicians the responsibility for what we have ourselves decided. And in due course, we may punish them, for what we got wrong.
I invite any reader with the stomach for it to consider the incredible demonization of the outgoing U.S. president, which was used in turn to secure the election of the incoming one. George W. Bush, from the balance of evidence a decent man with an honest view of his own limitations, served his country as well as he knew how. He has been made a scapegoat as if he were personally liable for everything that went wrong on his watch. A true scapegoat: for in the end he is blamed even for what was done to him.
John McCain is perhaps lucky to escape that fate. For the same forces in contemporary North American society would turn against him as turned against Mr. Bush—the vicious machinery of recrimination by which “progressive forces” make their advance.
The president-elect may seem luckier, still, for he has an articulate gift for deflecting his own failures of judgment, and for finding plausible scapegoats external to himself.
Watch for this in the trials that will soon beset him.
Yet also, he professes to be Christian. So pray for him, that he will find the courage, perspicacity and prudence that come with the remembrance of our Lord.
The rebuilding effort by the Republican opposition will also need prayers.
Every attempt to disown “conservative principles”—the principles not only of the free marketplace, but of moral absolutes and human responsibility—will be a further setback. The abandonment of the specifically Christian heritage on which America was built can only contribute to her further destruction.