Religion & Liberty Online

Can a big bad state deliver us from evil?

Thirty five years ago the American novelist Thomas Pynchon asked the question, “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” The occasion was the then 25th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s Rede Lecture, “The Two Cultures of the Scientific Revolution,” which argued, way back in 1959, that our culture was increasingly polarized into “literary” and “scientific” factions unable to understand each other. Pynchon, from his 1984 vantage point argued:

Today nobody could get away with making such a distinction. Since 1959, we have come to live among flows of data more vast than anything the world has seen. Demystification is the order of our day, all the cats are jumping out of all the bags and even beginning to mingle. We immediately suspect ego insecurity in people who may still try to hide behind the jargon of a specialty or pretend to some data base forever ”beyond” the reach of a layman. Anybody with the time, literacy and access fee these days can get together with just about any piece of specialized knowledge s/he may need. So, to that extent, the two-cultures quarrel can no longer be sustained. As a visit to any local library or magazine rack will easily confirm, there are now so many more than two cultures that the problem has really become how to find the time to read anything outside one’s own specialty.

We talk today as if polarization and fragmentation are something new. We continually find ourselves faced with “new” and “ever greater” problems which overwhelm us. These problems however, as the great religious traditions of the world teach us, are perennial. This fact is ignored by both our literary and scientific cultures.

Pynchon is sympathetic to modern anxieties. He explores the mythic history of Ned Ludd, one who resisted with single mindedness the technology which was transforming his world, a folk figure of Bigness and Badness:

There is a long folk history of this figure, the Badass. He is usually male, and while sometimes earning the quizzical tolerance of women, is almost universally admired by men for two basic virtues: he is Bad, and he is Big. Bad meaning not morally evil, necessarily, more like able to work mischief on a large scale. What is important here is the amplifying of scale, the multiplication of effect.

Here scale is essential, the multiplication of effect. The notion that there is, in a world we feel powerless to control, someone or something which can set it right through sheer force of will. Pynchon posits that such folk figures are the origins of a literary tradition which is animated by a resistance to both technology, rationalism, and secularism:

The craze for Gothic fiction after ”The Castle of Otranto” was grounded, I suspect, in deep and religious yearnings for that earlier mythical time which had come to be known as the Age of Miracles. In ways more and less literal, folks in the 18th century believed that once upon a time all kinds of things had been possible which were no longer so. Giants, dragons, spells. The laws of nature had not been so strictly formulated back then. What had once been true working magic had, by the Age of Reason, degenerated into mere machinery. Blake’s dark Satanic mills represented an old magic that, like Satan, had fallen from grace. As religion was being more and more secularized into Deism and nonbelief, the abiding human hunger for evidence of God and afterlife, for salvation – bodily resurrection, if possible – remained. The Methodist movement and the American Great Awakening were only two sectors on a broad front of resistance to the Age of Reason, a front which included Radicalism and Freemasonry as well as Luddites and the Gothic novel. Each in its way expressed the same profound unwillingness to give up elements of faith, however ”irrational,” to an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing. ”Gothic” became code for ”medieval,” and that has remained code for ”miraculous,” on through Pre-Raphaelites, turn-of-the-century tarot cards, space opera in the pulps and the comics, down to ”Star Wars” and contemporary tales of sword and sorcery.

To insist on the miraculous is to deny to the machine at least some of its claims on us, to assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion become Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings. By this theory, for example, King Kong (?-1933) becomes your classic Luddite saint. The final dialogue in the movie, you recall, goes: ”Well, the airplanes got him.” ”No . . . it was Beauty killed the Beast.” In which again we encounter the same Snovian Disjunction, only different, between the human and the technological.

There is certainly a resistance to rationalism here, but its logic is secular and technological even if at the same time fanciful. While conjuring persons and forces both Big and Bad to combat the forces beyond our control which breathe life into our anxieties and fears it neglects the human heart. They offer what in the end are merely the shadow-selves of technology and secularism. A Manichean double to bring our world back into balance.

Actual religious traditions find the fault not lying with our stars, or this present age, but with ourselves. Prince Arjuna asks in the Bhagavad Gita, composed sometime in the second century before Christ,

How can the mind, which is so restless, attain lasting peace. Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent; trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind. (6:33b-34)

Solomon admonishes us,

Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.
Keep your mouth free of perversity;
keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
Let your eyes look straight ahead;
fix your gaze directly before you.
Give careful thought to the paths for your feet
and be steadfast in all your ways.
Do not turn to the right or the left;
keep your foot from evil. (Proverbs 4:23-27)

I recently discussed the ‘Woke Capitalism’ phenomena with Father Robert Sirico on the Acton Line podcast as well as the anxieties and fears many religious people share concerning cultural challenges we face today. Reflecting on this conversation this week I see a distressingly similar logic of looking to the Big and the Bad in many religious conservative’s calls for government intervention to bring our world back into balance. It is as fanciful as the logic of the great modern traditions of genre fiction and fundamentally an exercise in escapism and an abandonment of our own vocations. Genuine, lasting, transformation does not come from the Big and the Bad which will fight out battles for us but rather by the patient exercise of duty, religious formation, and surrender to God. Only there is the true freedom to change our world and to be changed ourselves.


Photo Credit: Reichstag Berlin – Reichstag building (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.