We may live in a postmodern age that has abandoned absolute truth as a relic of the past, but there are still many “truths” that the citizens of the west know in their heart are as obvious as they are non-negotiable. First and foremost is that wonderfully optimistic, if brazenly taken-out-of context maxim from Hamlet: The most important thing of all is that we be true to ourselves. The second maxim follows, that we must always trust our feelings and do what we know will make us happy, mentally stable, and self-actualized.
Then there is that fiercely-held democratic truism that the majority is always right and the government’s job is to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. Well, they might not put it in those words, but they do expect their leaders to be practical and pragmatic, to get results. In any case, citizens expect, if not demand, constant progress that will make their lives happier, healthier, and blissfully worry-free.
They may or may not believe in God, but they know that nature runs by certain laws that cannot be altered and that scientists and doctors and researchers, precisely because they understand those laws, are to be trusted implicitly. They may or may not believe in a divine moral code, but they know nothing in that code could possibly prevent them from maximizing their pleasure and minimizing their pain. They may or may not believe in heaven, but they know it wouldn’t dare impede upon the way things work on earth.
These are the verities of twenty-first-century America, both inside and outside the church, and they are rarely stated or questioned. They are simply accepted, along with the ground we walk on, the food we consume, and the air we breathe. They are part and parcel of the modernist-postmodernist worldview that is so deeply woven into our psyche that it is all but invisible—as invisible as the water is to the fish that live and move and have their being within its perpetually wet embrace.
Thankfully, Fr. Dwight Longenecker has unwoven and exposed that invisible cloak, allowing academic and lay readers alike to see not only its individual strands but how they function together to, quite literally, pull the wool over our eyes. To do so, however, Longenecker employs a more dynamic and memorable metaphor: the multi-headed mythological hydra that grew two new heads each time one of its heads was lopped off.
In Beheading Hydra: A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age, Longenecker, a former evangelical and Anglican priest who was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 2006 and currently pastors Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, S.C., links the swirling, interconnected heads of the modernist hydra to 16 “isms” that define the functionally atheistic worldview that so thoroughly pervades secular society that it has come to deceive even the elect.
Is That All There Is?
The first “ism” out of which all the others spring is materialism: Not Madonna’s material girl living in a material world, but the philosophical school that says matter is all there is, there is no separate spiritual realm, either in the universe or in ourselves. Now, many today embrace materialism while claiming to believe in God, but their claims to theism ring hollow.
If there is no heaven or hell, no angels or demons, no human soul that transcends the physical body, then there can be no God. There could be gods like those in Homer, Hesiod, and Ovid, who were born out of the same chaos (undifferentiated matter) as nature; but there cannot be a divine I Am who created the world out of nothing and dwells outside of time and space. The materialist rejects anything that is super-natural or meta-physical, and that must include the God of the Bible.
Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and Benjamin Franklin tried to find a way out of this impasse—to preserve theistic respectability while adopting fully a materialistic worldview—by calling themselves Deists. But Longenecker will have none of it: “Is there really any difference between a Deist and an atheist except a set of manners and the wish to assume a safe position that does not rock the Christian boat too much?”
There is not, and the thinker who saw that most clearly was Friedrich Nietzsche, who saved his sharpest criticism for liberal theologians and Bible scholars who tried to have their cake and eat it too. For Nietzsche, writes Longenecker, Deists like David Strauss “were hypocrites of the first degree—keeping their pulpits and paychecks, their scholarships and their chairs of theology when all along, the end point of their polite materialism had to be atheism. There was no way around it. God was dead, and they had killed Him.”
Philosophical materialism can only lead, in the end, to “theological” atheism, but the swirling and dividing heads of the hydra do not stop there. If matter is all there is and there is no divine, transcendent Creator, then science and history will eventually morph into scientism and historicism.
Whereas medieval and renaissance scientists saw no contradiction in studying the physical world in the light of a supernatural Creator and a metaphysical realm of reality, Enlightenment scientists divided the visible from the invisible and reduced God to an unnecessary hypothesis. For them, the “natural order just was, and nature changed and evolved on its own at random through a mysterious dynamism called ‘life.’”
As it was in science, so was it in history. Just as life was now believed to have evolved through random processes without any kind of intelligent design or oversight, so history now moved forward with no providential plan or purpose. After all, if “there is no storyteller, there can be no story.”
In such a world, there can be no fixed moral code against which to measure our actions and our policies. Enter utilitarianism and pragmatism, which carry the philosophy of materialism into the social sciences. Apart from a universal code of right and wrong, decisions can only be made in accordance with secular standards of utility; apart from a Creator who has endowed each individual with essential worth and value, those standards will have no qualms about sacrificing the few for the sake of the many. In other words, the greatest good for the greatest number.
But how is one to determine what does or does not constitute utility? By appealing to the entrenched mantra of “newer is better.” According to the hydra heads of progressivism and utopianism, whatever brings progress and development is good, no matter the human cost. That is simply the way nature works, and it is up to us to do whatever is necessary to propel history forward, even if that calls for violent clashes between competing groups.
That is why, Longenecker explains, “leftist progressives turn a blind eye to the riots, arson, threats, and violent protests of left-wing activists but clamp down on peaceful right-wing protests. The leftists see themselves as pioneers pushing for progress. The right wing are negative reactionaries who want to turn back the clock.”
Rolling Up Our Sleeves
So much for the society that emerges, step by step, out of materialism. What of the citizens who will live in that brave new society where the dogma of relativism has done away with any dogma that might provide them the limits and boundaries they need?
The answer, of course, is that they will refuse to abide by any limits or boundaries that might prevent them from asserting their Nietzschean will to power. The goal of life is not to conform one’s soul to divine and transcendent standards of virtue, but to express in unfettered fashion one’s autonomous individualism. By individualism, Longenecker does not mean the pioneer and entrepreneurial spirit that helped shape America, but the “proud spirit that stands alone, independent of any authority, any truth, any reality outside its own self-referencing bubble.”
Since the sexual revolution, that proud spirit has manifested itself in ever-increasing demands for complete, unfettered freedom (eroticism) in the sexual realm. But it has also surfaced in the more subtle, and thus more deceptive, form of sentimentalism, which Longenecker defines as “the system of decision-making or taking an action based only on one’s emotions.”
This system, which privileges feeling over reason and heart over head, is just as prevalent within the church as outside it. It ultimately denies original sin, celebrating the feelings of the heart as holy and sacred and placing the blame for evil (or at least criminal) behavior on society rather than on the individual.
This Rousseau-inspired sentimentalism paved the way, in turn, for romanticism, which displaced both theology and philosophy as the arbiter of truth. “Instead, the surge of inner emotions was the criteria for truth, and it was the artist, not the theologian or the philosopher, who became the high priest and guardian of truth, and this reliance on ‘the inner light’ spread through every aspect of society.”
To Change the World, Start With Yourself
Such is Longenecker’s diagnosis of a dying world infected to the core by the venom of the multi-headed hydra. But does he offer a cure?
Interestingly, rather than propose a right-leaning program of direct confrontation with the heads of the hydra or a left-leaning policy of accommodating their subtle poison, he offers something approximating Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. We must change ourselves, he argues, and live out that change in such a way that we will simultaneously expose the lies of the hydra and incarnate an alternative way of living.
Longenecker refers to this inner change as “creative subversion.” Here is how it works. Rather than fight materialism in the academy or embrace Christian consumerism, we must demonstrate to the world our refusal to absorb and imitate its cupidity by tithing generously to our church and other charities. Likewise, rather than debate atheists on television or construct our own modern versions of Deism, we must show forth our belief in an active Creator God by living lives of continuous praise and intercessory prayer.
Furthermore, we must study the Bible and Christian history, not as an end in itself but as a way of training ourselves to perceive in the seemingly random flow of events the providential hand of God. If we do that diligently and prayerfully, we will learn to see, and to teach others to see, “that God was there working through history’s triumphs and tragedies—never forsaking His people—His Holy Spirit never being spent, and that the world is always charged with God’s grandeur.”
While continuing to provide food, medicine, and education to the poor and dispossessed, we must devote ourselves to evangelizing the lost. Only thus can we assert the existence and eternal significance of the human soul and its final destination.
Likewise, if we are to champion tradition over progressivism, chastity over eroticism, and community over individualism, then we must strengthen our own schools, families, and churches. Instead of complaining that we live in a world that offers freedom without restraint, let us use our radical freedom to freely choose a path of radical obedience.
“[T]he poison of progressivism and the false dream of utopianism,” Longenecker assures us, “can be defeated, not with argument, debate, or discussion but through real action by real people who are simply rolling up their sleeves and doing what they can where they are and with what they have.”
If we will commit ourselves to doing just that, we can, I believe, lay claim to a currently unfashionable -ism that is stronger than all the swirling heads of the hydra: optimism.