Religion & Liberty Online

Man Is Not the Measure: Whittaker Chambers on Tyson’s ‘Rationalia’

tyson-chambers1“Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world.” –Whittaker Chambers

The vain self-confidence of high-minded planners and politicians has caused great harm throughout human history, much of it done in the name of “reason” and “science” and “progress.” In an information age such as ours, the technocratic temptation is stronger than ever.

As the Tower of Babel confirms, we have always had a disposition to think we can know more than we can know, and can construct beyond what we can construct. “Let us build ourselves a tower with its top in the heavens. Let us make a name for ourselves.”

America was wise to begin its project with active constraints against age-old conceits, but we have not been without our regimes of busybody bureaucrats seeking to plan their way to enlightened equilibrium and social utopia.

Such attitudes emerge across a range of specialties, but a recent proposition by popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson captures the essence rather well.

Thomas Sowell is fond of saying that “the most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best,” and for Tyson, his preferred pool of “evidence” hustlers offer a very basic answer.

It’s but one comment in a string of chronically scientistic sentiments from Tyson, each based on the notion that the “evidence is already in,” so what are we waiting for? Tyson routinely chuckles over his growing impatience with “asking deep questions,” which inevitably lead to a “pointless delay in your progress.” Philosophy is a mere “distraction,” he says, and a “waste of time.” (We can assume he feels the same about theology.)

Indeed, why ask “deep questions” about the meaning of life, or the meaning of a good life, never mind the moral merits of Policy X, when the experts already have “science” and “evidence” to lead the way?

Kevin Williamson has already unpacked the ignorance of all this as it relates to the knowledge problem more broadly, so I needn’t attempt that here. But assuming we understand that gap, it’s worth revisiting a piece by Whittaker Chambers, which speaks more directly to what I think is the bigger missing piece: humility before and faith in God.

In a 1948 TIME cover story on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (who is not my focus here), Chambers begins with a lengthy introduction on the temptations of our scientific age and the tendency to idolize humanistic reason. When man defines nature according to God, Chambers writes, “with prayer, with humility of spirit tempering his temerity of man,” he is “driven by the noblest of his intuitions.” When he defines nature according to himself, however, the inevitable result is “intolerable shallowness of thought combined with incalculable mischief in action.” Enter Tyson et al.

Even for the supposedly religious masses — the “untheological Christians,” as Chambers calls them — “God has become, at best, a rather unfairly furtive presence, a lurking luminosity, a cozy thought. At worst, He is conversationally embarrassing.” “Modern man knows a great deal about the nature of the atom,” he continues. “But he knows almost nothing about the nature of God, almost never thinks about it, and is complacently unaware that there may be any reason to.”

Alas, having fully inhaled communism’s own “rational faith in man,” Chambers already knew Tyson’s Rationalia rather well:

Under the bland influence of the idea of progress, man, supposing himself more and more to be the measure of all things, achieved a singularly easy conscience and an almost hermetically smug optimism. The idea that man is sinful and needs redemption was subtly changed into the idea that man is by nature good and hence capable of indefinite perfectibility. This perfectibility is being achieved through technology, science, politics, social reform, education. Man is essentially good, says 20th Century liberalism, because he is rational, and his rationality is (if the speaker happens to be a liberal Protestant) divine, or (if he happens to be religiously unattached) at least benign. Thus the reason defying paradoxes of Christian faith are happily bypassed.

And yet, as 20th Century civilization reaches a climax, its own paradoxes grow catastrophic. The incomparable technological achievement is more and more dedicated to the task of destruction. Man’s marvelous conquest of space has made total war a household experience and, over vast reaches of the world, the commonest of childhood memories. The more abundance increases, the more resentment becomes the characteristic new look on 20th Century faces. The more production multiplies, the more scarcities become endemic. The faster science gains on disease (which, ultimately, seems always to elude it), the more the human race dies at the hands of living men. Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world.

These words were written nearly 70 years ago, but modern society and modern man has only continued down that path, self-constructing towers to humanistic heights at the expense of human freedom — all for the glory and fame of man. Whereas the top-downers like Tyson believe that truth is already known — rendering freedom and struggle and disagreement unnecessary — the bottom-uppers see a world in which truth and goodness must be actively pursued, with freedom being the big thing that will get us there.

Thus, as Tyson and friends indulge their latest daydreams about (another) “rational age” dictated by the enlightened surveyors of “evidence,” let us resist and overcome this “blind impasse of optimistic liberalism.” Not simply by saying “no,” and not simply through science, properly understood. But by elevating and illuminating the very things it rejects: good philosophy, good theology, and the burning Word of the One they inevitably point to.

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.