Despite my well-deserved international reputation as a coward, I occasionally get into arguments with people, mostly on Facebook where no one can punch you. It was during such an argument recently that someone actually implied that I was a liar, one vice for which I don’t have a reputation, as far as I know. We were discussing…. never mind; that’s another essay. But when she asked me where I got my ideas about right and wrong, I said that I’d read the Bible. My opponent laughed that off. She’d never read the whole Bible, she said, and she was pretty sure I hadn’t either.
It was one of those “taken aback” moments that come more and more often as you get older. I realized in a fresh new way that I’m a creature of another century. I have in fact read the Bible more than a dozen times, and I can remember a day when reading the Bible all the way through, though certainly regarded as an accomplishment, didn’t rank alongside claims to have climbed K2 or to have built a model of Graceland out of toothpicks. It’s a long book, I’ll grant you, but not that much longer than The Lord of the Rings.
Now if you’re expecting me to lament the passing of Biblical literacy in our generation, well, I do, but my point here is a larger (or smaller) one. My fears for the future are many, but the one I’m thinking of just now is my fear of losing things that make participatory democracy workable.
Some of you are saying, “This idiot thinks you need the Bible to have a democracy! Nonsense! We have the legacy of the Enlightenment! We have science! We have information and communications unheard of in history! We’ll do just fine without one old book, thanks for asking.”
Still, I beg to differ. Here’s my case.
I’ve written before in this space about the 18th-19th century Norwegian peasant revivalist, Hans Nielsen Hauge. In a book on Hauge’s life published in 1911, bishop and historian A. Christian Bang wrote (my translation): “Everyone knows that the monarchical officials were not accustomed to any contradiction from the people’s side; even when they did not have the law with them, and even when it was a matter of arbitrary and invented laws, they seldom encountered spoken opposition. The people’s congenital respect for authority, their characteristic loyalty, made them quick to submit.… But suddenly people all over the country are turning on the officials; the formerly docile farmers refuse to obey and set their own ideas above the initiatives of the wisest in the land. Men prefer to go to prison, to be martyrs, than to follow the exhortations of the officials.… This is a matter of particular interest as the first significant collision between absolutism and a freer participatory order in our country.”
What Bang is examining here is the first flowering of liberalism — what in Norway is called Venstre, the Left — in one European country. But note its source. This sudden burst of public courage doesn’t rise from the study of Rousseau or Voltaire, and certainly not from Marx, who was just being born about that time. It rose from newly literate peasants reading their Bibles. It was access to the Bible that began to turn ordinary Europeans from subjects into citizens.
Every counterculturalist who ever wore a “Question Authority” button ought to thank black-clad 19th century pietists for coming up with the idea in the first place.
“Historical trivia,” the skeptic will reply. “It could have been any book, the Koran or the Canterbury Tales, just as long as they were reading. It’s the fact that they read, not the particular book.”
No, I don’t think so.
Imagine that peasant, in homespun clothes and wooden shoes, facing the bailiff in his uniform and shiny boots. What gives him the right to talk back? Where does he get the confidence to believe that the bailiff’s brute power — which will certainly see him imprisoned in the short run — must eventually bow before his own common sense? It can’t be a firm belief in the rightness of his own heart. The bailiff has a heart too, as does the king, and they have steel to back them up. No, it’s a supernatural belief that God has spoken in words that simple men can understand, and that that truth has God’s support and must win in the end.
Our modern worldview offers no such assurance.
As Paul Johnson notes in Modern Times, moral relativism always leads to Totalitarianism. Because in a morally relative age, power alone can settle any question.
“Well, you can’t appeal to the Bible anymore,” says the skeptic. “That day is over.”
And that’s what I’m afraid of.