Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The American Chesterton, VIII: Modernism and the New Age

In the previous posting in this series we saw that in the 1920s, when Fulton Sheen’s thought was formed, the new concept of religion found in the mutability of modernist and New Age thought made it particularly attractive to, the perfect foil for, and a seemingly independent verification of the various forms of socialism — and that socialism returned the favor.  This made the pseudo science of socialism and the quasi religion of the New Age a dangerous combination in a world that had lost its philosophical bearings.

Heinrich Pesch's solidarism was sabotaged.
This “Manichaean mutability” accounts for the alacrity with which the modernist movement adopted the fascist-socialist solidarism of Émile Durkheim — as well as the later regression of Heinrich Pesch’s Aristotelian-Thomist solidarism back to that of Durkheim by Pesch’s latter day followers.  Durkheim’s theory that religion is a social rather than a spiritual phenomenon fitted perfectly into the modernist demand that the Church update its teachings to conform to the needs of the modern world, making the Church both in the world and of it.

God became a useful concept, but not strictly speaking necessary (cf. Grotius, loc. cit.).  The collected mass of the people — humanity as a whole or the community (Der Volk) — becomes God, or the people construct the God they need or desire.  As Sheen described this development,

“In addition to the purely metaphysical or psychological explanations of religion there is yet another which may be called the sociological or the humanitarian.  Among European thinkers this explanation takes a double form: either that of Durkheim for whom God is ‘a divinized society’ or that of [Wilhelm Maximilian] Wundt for whom God is the term which represents the values of life as estimated either by the folk or the community.” (Sheen, Religion Without God, op. cit., 54.)

In this framework, humanity — the abstraction of the collective, not actual human persons — takes the center.  Religion becomes a way of meeting material needs, the greatest good for the greatest number without being limited or qualified by such things as the inalienability of natural rights of minorities or the ungodly.

Within the new framework, spiritual needs are merged into material needs, and the whole concept of religion must change or be changed to conform to the demands of modern life.  As Sheen analyzed this,

Fulton Sheen's thought was marginalized.
“‘The crisis in the religious world,’ he [Professor Charles Abram Ellwood (1873-1946), author of The Reconstruction of Religion.  New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922 — ed.] writes, ‘has been brought about by the failure of existing religion to adapt itself to two outstanding facts in our civilization — science and democracy.’ [The Reconstruction of Religion, 1922, p. 2, note in text.]  He believes that a religious revolution is in the air, and that it is concerned with a transition from ethical monotheism to a scientific and social conception of religion.  And ‘the real religious problem of our society is to secure the general acceptance of a religion adapted to the requirements of continuous progress toward an ideal, consisting of all humanity.’ [Ibid., p. 64, note in text.]  ‘Service of God must consist in service of man.’ [Ibid., p. 100, note in text.]  The traditional notion of God will then be done away with.  Professor Ellwood calls it a Santa Claus notion.  ‘The autocratic conception of God, as a force outside the universe, who rules by arbitrary will both physical nature and human history, will be replaced by the conception of a spirit immanent in nature and in humanity, which is gradually working out the supreme good in the form of an ideal society consisting of all humanity.  And since service of God is in reality service of man, there will be sin in this new religion of democracy; it will be a failure to serve mankind.  In other words it will be ‘disloyalty to society.’ [Ibid., pp. 139, 143, note in text.]

“‘Religion means the consecration of individual life, at first for love and spiritual ends, but finally for humanitarian ends.’” [Ibid., p. 45, note in text.]  (Sheen, Religion Without God, op. cit., 56.)

"Forgotten" Benedict XV battled modernism.
In the world in which Fulton Sheen developed his thought (in common with G.K. Chesterton and Ronald Knox), the First World War had given socialism and modernism a tremendous impetus due to the general failure to resolve the problems caused by the “new things” — although not for the want of effort on the part of Leo XIII, Pius X, and Benedict XV.  Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (and, not to seem exclusive, Fascist Italy) were the natural outcome of the reaction against capitalism and the new things combined with the devastation of the Great War.

As a result, socialism and the New Age became entrenched in the psyche if not the economy and daily life.  No country seemed able to resist.  Both the United States and Imperial Japan, as well as many other countries, fell victim to the new way of thinking and the abandonment of sound philosophy.

It becomes evident why, in addition to its socialism, then, the Nazi movement incorporated so much New Age thought in its formative period in the 1920s.  As Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke explained in his book, The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology (New York: New York University Press, 1992), this did not mean actual demonic influence, as a number of lurid fictional and semi-fictional works suppose.  Rather, Goodrick-Clark demonstrated that Nazi ideology (particularly its racial theories) had its roots in esoteric theories, especially ariosophy, a school of thought heavily influenced by theosophy.

The (fictional) German judiciary on trial at Nuremberg.
Eventually the Nazis established what amounted to a pseudo-pagan theocracy, with socialism supporting its New Age “philosophy,” and esoteric thought supporting National Socialism.  Nowhere was this more obvious than in the changes introduced into the German legal system — something with which every viewer of the Stanley Kramer film, Judgment at Nuremburg, should be familiar.  As George Holland Sabine described this development,

“The judiciary . . . completely lost its independence and security, while at the same time judicial discretion was extended practically without limit. The law itself was made studiously vague, so that all decision became essentially subjective.  The penal code was amended in 1935 to permit punishment for any act contrary to ‘sound popular feeling,’ even though it violated no existing law. . . . Obviously no rational administration of such statutes was possible. Equality before the law and due process were supplanted by complete administrative discretion. What totalitarianism meant in practice was that any person whose acts were regarded as having political significance was quite without legal protection if the government or the party or one of their many agencies chose to exert its power.”  (George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory, Third Edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961, 918.)

Pius XI's social doctrine was ignored.
Within the Catholic Church, “social justice” came to mean meeting individual needs on a large scale, rather than that at which Pope Leo XIII hinted, “the restoration of [the social order] according to the principles of sound philosophy and to its perfection according to the sublime precepts of the law of the Gospel.”  (Quadragesimo Anno, § 76.)  By 1931, when Pope Pius XI presented his completed social doctrine based on the act of social justice directed to the reform of the institutions of the common good, not any individual good, the teaching fell largely on deaf ears.

By the late 1950s when the New Age seemed to have passed and the dangers of socialism exposed, John XXIII thought it “safe” to convene a council.  This would allow him to restart the work of Pius IX and Leo XIII and address the new things interrupted by the decades-long struggle against fideism — what Dr. Ralph McInerny later identified as the greatest danger to the Catholic Church (and by extension to all religion) today.

That John XXIII’s confidence was misplaced is self-evident.  Socialism and modernism, much less the New Age, had not been defeated, but had simply gone into hiding after a fashion, and needed only the right opportunity to resurface.  The aberrations that followed Vatican II, however, would not have gained so much ground had not the whole nature of what it means for something to be true changed.


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