Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—William Butler Yeats
I’m not that big a fan of Tom Wolfe, a novelist whose work often strikes me as a little pedantic. I gave up on him when I read his novel about Atlanta. But he did write an essay 20 years ago that seems somewhat prescient. (And frankly, it’s OK if an essay is pedantic. Mine are.)
The title of his essay was “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died,” a critique of where our faith in neuroscience would lead us. A gay gene, a selfishness gene, a polygamous gene, a happiness gene—pretty soon nothing is our fault. Or our responsibility. The essay is too long to summarize here, but basically he believes this undermines our values and destroys our culture.
Kids, for example, who at one time might have been taught to pay attention, work harder and develop some self discipline are now simply “wired wrong.” This thinking influences everything. And now, as we have seen in recent weeks, these kids are running our universities, forcing the resignation of university presidents and raising troubling questions about the limits of free speech.
Wolfe cites Nietzsche at length to provide some context for our current calamities. He writes:
Nietzsche said that mankind would limp on through the 20th century “on the mere pittance” of the old, decaying, God-based moral codes. But then, in the 21st, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of “the total eclipse of all values.” This would also be a frantic period of “revaluation”, in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old. But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not”.
Last week Matthew Continetti discussed Wolfe’s vision of the “entire astonishing edifice collapsing” in the context of the student uprisings at Missouri State. You can read that yourself. What strikes me is the utter hopelessness of it, the conclusion that nothing can be done, that we are the Imperial Rome of the third millennium, a train wreck about to happen.
In such a world I’m content to believe in a “god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger.” But that’s because I know this same God holds us in the palm of His hand. There remains, we are told, faith, hope and love. It’s hope we need, hope in a sovereign but merciful God who designed our genetics in the first place, who knit us together in the womb.
I watched a play last week, written and directed by my colleague Paul Patton. Gerstein explores the life a Nazi SS officer who sabotaged trains carrying poison to the concentration camps and documented the atrocities he witnessed while collaborating with the Allies. He died a tormented man whose records were introduced at the Nuremberg trials and helped convict war criminals.
In our own way we too are witnesses of great horrors, but we watch them on TV, refugees flooding across borders, driven by unimaginable evil. Horror will come to us too; just ask the people in Paris. Actual aggression will put micro aggression in perspective. And in those moments we will have no way of knowing what impact our testimony may have.
But we can be faithful even in our doubts. And should be.
Because faith is the victory that overcomes the world.