Yuval Harari is the internationally best-selling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which is probably my favorite book of 2016. In the introduction to this fascinating YouTube talk (see below), Harari discusses one of the central elements of the modern self and of the modern world: the authority of the individual’s inner voice. We decide essential questions of personal identity, of right or wrong based on our inner sense. We make critical career choices or other life decisions based on how we feel. “Look within,” we tell each other. “What’s your gut telling you?” we ask. Then there’s that ancient Greek inscription that seems to say it all: “know thyself.”
This approach is often derided by religious types. This was certainly true back a decade or so when I haunted churches, seminaries, and other evangelical enclaves. There’s a higher authority than the self, evangelicals would say. For evangelicals, this was biblical authority. For other Christians, it might reside in the church. In conservative politics, the constitution has (for all practical purposes) a biblical authority. But not so fast.
One of the central elements of modern Christianity is the Holy Spirit. Each individual can access the “leading of the Spirit,” the “movement of the Spirit.” Believers look to the Spirit to influence them on major life decisions, or they may simply get an intuition, a prompting from the Spirit, for something that may seem trivial, like whether or not to go to the grocery store. Christian stories are repleat with phrases like, “I just felt like God was telling me to…..”
And what of biblical authority? Again, it is the Holy Spirit that guides the believer to the Bible and directs a proper interpretation of the Bible. It is the very rare modern believer who does not assign some role to the Spirit in the process of interpreting the Good Book. But herein lies the fundamental difference, I think, between the Christian and secularist.
A modern unbeliever (and believers of a non-fundamentalist variety) typically has some respect for the democratic process, for the collective collaboration of individuals. You might think things through and “look within” and feel strongly that gun control should be tighter or that abortion should be legal, whereas I might come to the opposite conclusion — but for the non-fundamentalist, this should be subject to democratic process, since it is something that affects us all. Not so for the believer.
The believer has a sense that all those who are not of the faith are fundamentally given over to error. The theological term is “total depravity.” For the more fundamentalist, the democratic process is viewed with suspicion because it is undertaken by those whose understanding is darkened, those who still allow themselves to be given over to their sinful lusts and depraved desires.
Democracy? Meh. For the fundamentalist, evangelical believer, the end justifies the means. I recently realized that this is why so many evangelicals can rally en mass around a reprobate like Trump, by far the most godless, immoral man to ever hold the office of the Presidency. Trump is the strongman who will assert the will of God and force the nation to accept traditional Christian values, values that are more and more becoming minority opinions; but to a Christian, being in the minority doesn’t matter.
Evangelicalism is kind of like modern individualism taken to a fundamentalist extreme: I’m right and everyone else is wrong, because God told me so. This is a distinctively modern tone, because prior to modernity, people really did yield to the authority of the church or the sovereign, figuring that these institutions were God’s instrument, regardless of any one individual’s life. The authority of the institutions transcended the individual’s personal impressions.
Frankly, I can’t see this ending well.