Confronting a Culture of Fear

Book cover
Unspeakableby Os Guinness

HarperSanFranciso. 242p $21.95

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In the wake of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, as the death toll quickly climbed into the tens of thousands, many religious leaders and op-ed pundits focused on a single question: Where was God?

For nonbelievers, the catastrophe, while tragic, was easily explainable. Science tells us that a violent tectonic shift caused the murderous waves. But for believers, including Christians, the tsunami called into question their most fundamental beliefs, resurrecting Augustine’s challenge: How can an all-good, all-powerful God allow such a disaster?

Unspeakable is Os Guinness’s timely, if disingenuous, exploration of human suffering, evil and God’s design. Timely, because Guinness draws on the responses of history’s greatest thinkers to history’s greatest catastrophesboth natural and man-made. Disingenuous, because Guinness purports to base his defense of Christianity on reason and a fair hearing for other worldviews. He fails on both counts.

Guinness argues that the age-old problem of evil has grown more pressing, given man’s ability to kill with modern efficiency, and cites as examples the mass killings committed by the Young Turks, Hitler, Stalin and Mao. For Guinness, the 20th-century butcher’s bill is an indictment of secularism. [M]ore people in the twentieth century were killed by secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals and in the name of secularist ideologies, than in all the religious persecutions in Western history.

There are several problems with Guinness’s accounting. Historians continue to debate (as Guinness acknowledges) in which camp to place Hitler, a Catholic who was known to have both embraced and derided religion publicly. And it is wrong to see the murderous careers of Stalin and Mao as case studies of secularism run amok. Rather, their lives illustrate the dangers of cult-of-personality regimes, like that of modern-day North Korea, in which leaders are deified. Finally, there is a gaping lacuna in Guinness’s ledger. While he underplays the killing done in God’s name, Guinness ignores the killing by God himself, as recorded in the Bible. If, as the author claims, he is speaking to a diverse audience, then he should have addressed the Books of Genesis and Exodus. As such anti-theists as Noam Chomsky have pointed out, the flood was history’s most successful act of genocide.

Guinness argues that the Abrahamic faiths offer the best means to make sense of and prevent evil. (It should be noted that while Abrahamic is meant to include Islam, Guinness largely ignores this particular faith.) The Eastern faiths, Buddhism and Hinduism, are unsuited to the task, he argues, since both advocate enlightened withdrawal from the world. The Buddha accepted that suffering is part of life; the remedy is the great deathless lake of Nirvana rather than engagement with the world’s problems.

The Hindu faith is also world-denying. Only God is real, and the world is God’s dream. Thus, Hindus would do well to follow the advice of Lord Krishna and free themselves from the dark forest of delusion. While internally consistent, the Eastern faiths are ill equipped to combat evil in this world; at best they call for disengagement.

In reality, as Guinness does not point out, Eastern faithful, like their Western counterparts, have been known to countenance evil. Buddhist leaders lent their support to imperial Japan, and Hindu extremists continue to persecute non-Hindu believers in India.

Guinness’s critique of atheism, specifically the liberal secularism of Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins, is less convincing than his critique of Eastern beliefs. He faults atheism for having no attraction for ordinary people and being too cerebral for everyday life, criticisms that smack of reverse snobbery. (Presumably, Guinness does not reject atheism because it is too cerebral for him.) He also faults atheism for being too bleak. How does it pass the acid test of helping a mourner at a funeral? Guinness asks. But who is the mourner? For many atheists, heaven is an unattractive place. Atheism’s most outspoken champion, the acerbic polemicist Christopher Hitchens, has likened the Christian notion of heaven to North Korea, a place of constant surveillance and servility.

Such deficiencies could have been overcome by a robust and original defense of Christianity. But that is not to be found in Unspeakable. While Guinness marshals an impressive compendium of quotations from great philosophical and literary minds, his arguments are boilerplate. First, he says, man-made evil is not to be blamed on God or taken as a sign of God’s weakness; rather, it is a symptom of mankind’s fall and a result of man’s actions. Second, suffering is trumped by love and, as personified by Jesus’ crucifixion, is God’s deepest identification with his creatures. Finally, those who still harbor doubtswhose faith is tested by a tsunami’s toll or a child’s premature deathwould do well to simply trust God, who is wiser than we. This gives rise to the most risible sophistry: Can a littleneck clam understand a rocket scientist? No more can we fathom the unfathomable mysteries of God. But then rocket scientists have not communicated a moral code to clams, have they?

Guinness tells us that when an earthquake devastated Lisbon in 1755, the death toll of 60,000 was understood by Enlightenment skeptics as a repudiation of God’s existence. Did Lisbon really have more vices than London or Paris, Voltaire famously asked. But Guinness does not report that as Lisbon crumbled, priests scurried from church to church collecting religious icons at great personal risk. These fragments I have shored against my ruin, wrote T. S. Eliot, a devout Christian. In times of bad fortune, people tend to cling to their beliefs, whatever those may be. Guinness provides no compelling reason to do otherwise.

 

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13 years 4 months ago
I haven't read "Confronting," and on the basis of Mr. Wachter's review, am not likely to. But, though I'm far from being one of those who blames secularism for all our modern ills (it's too often a cheap excuse for avoiding the kind of introspection we all need) I wonder if he doesn't let if off the hook a bit too easily.

I don't know of too many who would seriously have us believe that the Austrian Catholicism into which Hitler was born was instrumental in shaping, let's say, the Holocaust, the launching of the second world war, the concentration camps, and so forth. You could pin the blame for Stalin's crimes on his years in an Orthodox seminary, I suppose; but would you be convincing? Or you could blame Chinese folk Buddhism (which occasionally manifested a millenarian, apocalyptic streak) for Mao's crimes. But what would you have explained?

There are two things wrong with such explanations. The first is that, like it or not, the crimes of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin (one could add others like Pol Pot, or for that matter the Methodist Chiang Kai-shek) were carried out in the name of thoroughly secularist ideologies. Not Enlightenment secularism at its best, of course (though let's remember that out of Enlightenment secularism also came Robespierre, the Terror, and the first total war in Europe); but secularism nonetheless. The second is that while explaining the motives of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin may be psychologically interesting on an individual level, it doesn't really tell us much. The real question is not why these men behaved as they did; it is why millions of otherwise intelligent people followed them and helped them achieve their criminal ends. They all ran what Wachter calls "cult of personality regimes" -- but might secularism at all implicated in the emergence of such regimes? It would be at least an interesting question to debate.

13 years 4 months ago
I haven't read "Confronting," and on the basis of Mr. Wachter's review, am not likely to. But, though I'm far from being one of those who blames secularism for all our modern ills (it's too often a cheap excuse for avoiding the kind of introspection we all need) I wonder if he doesn't let if off the hook a bit too easily.

I don't know of too many who would seriously have us believe that the Austrian Catholicism into which Hitler was born was instrumental in shaping, let's say, the Holocaust, the launching of the second world war, the concentration camps, and so forth. You could pin the blame for Stalin's crimes on his years in an Orthodox seminary, I suppose; but would you be convincing? Or you could blame Chinese folk Buddhism (which occasionally manifested a millenarian, apocalyptic streak) for Mao's crimes. But what would you have explained?

There are two things wrong with such explanations. The first is that, like it or not, the crimes of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin (one could add others like Pol Pot, or for that matter the Methodist Chiang Kai-shek) were carried out in the name of thoroughly secularist ideologies. Not Enlightenment secularism at its best, of course (though let's remember that out of Enlightenment secularism also came Robespierre, the Terror, and the first total war in Europe); but secularism nonetheless. The second is that while explaining the motives of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin may be psychologically interesting on an individual level, it doesn't really tell us much. The real question is not why these men behaved as they did; it is why millions of otherwise intelligent people followed them and helped them achieve their criminal ends. They all ran what Wachter calls "cult of personality regimes" -- but might secularism at all implicated in the emergence of such regimes? It would be at least an interesting question to debate.

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