Universalism: postwar progressivism as a Christian sect

Apparently there once was a kind of obsolete proto-blog that was called a “book.”

A “book” was like a blog except that the author saved up all his posts for a year or two, then dumped them all in one big printout. This product cost thousands of microcredits, and you had to apply to the Department of Facts if you wanted to write one. And even if Facts stamped your party card, you still had to convince Information to promote you, and those who excelled at this gloriously-opaque task tended to make Talleyrand look like Montaigne.

While this sucked really just as much as it sounds, it did have certain advantages. One of them was that your readers were presented with a crisp and structured argument, rather than a great river of instant manure whose color and consistency can vary alarmingly. This was because the “book” could be “revised” and “edited,” practices we now consider unethical.

And rightly so, of course. We don’t want to return to the past. No one wants that. However, if you write online and you want to speak with any kind of confidence, you have to be able to change your mind. Ideally this is not done by surreptitiously editing the archives, as if one were writing a “book.”

As UR readers have been reminded ad nauseam, one of my many eccentric opinions is that the tradition to which most sophisticated Westerners of 2007 conform is best seen as a sect of Christianity. Since this tradition sees itself as a pure product of science and reason, neither sectarian nor Christian nor even traditional, my perspective is heretical in the strict sense of the word. We can’t both be right.

My argument is that though the tradition is theologically atrophied, its moral and political positions, and its personal and institutional patterns of transmission, identify it as the legitimate modern successor of mainline progressive Protestantism. Since this is only the most powerful branch of Christianity in the most powerful nation on the planet, swallowing its claims of dewy-eyed innocence is a little difficult for me.

This heresy implies a substantial qualitative revision of reality as we know it. For example, Richard Dawkins considers himself a follower of something he calls “Einsteinian religion,” which appears to differ not at all from the aforementioned tradition. From Dawkins’ perspective, he is defending reason against superstition. From my perspective, he is prosecuting one Christian sect on behalf of another. Doh.

It’s simply unrealistic to expect to be able to make this revision, or even evaluate it fairly, without adjusting the language we use to “frame” the problem. To this end I’ve field-tested some neologisms, such as ultracalvinism and cryptocalvinism, and also satisfied myself that existing names, such as liberalism, are just as useless and confusing as they seem.

The problem with the neologisms is that they prejudge the argument. It’s impossible to make them nonpejorative. Perhaps this tradition-to-be-named is a bolus of ancient, benighted lies, and perhaps its followers are either deluded zombies or unprincipled opportunists who need to be stopped. But the whole point of naming it is to synthesize a “red pill” that we can feed to the former, and no such pill has any reason to be bitter.

So I’ve decided I like the name Universalism, with a capital U. Most Universalists would accept this name as an improper noun, because after all they consider their beliefs universal. That is, they think everyone should share them, and eventually everyone will. So all they have to swallow is the capital letter. It goes down easily with a sip of water, dissolves quickly in any hot beverage, can be crushed and mixed with applesauce, etc.

Universalism is the faith of our ruling caste, the Brahmins. It’s best seen as the victory creed of World War II, and it’s easy to connect to the various international institutions born in that victory, which Universalists still regard as sacred if occasionally stained by human frailty, much as an intelligent Catholic sees the Roman Church. (It is not a coincidence that “catholic” and “universal” are synonyms.)

Universalism is actually already the name of a Christian doctrine, the doctrine of universal salvation. This idea, that all dogs go to Heaven and there is no Hell, is best regarded as an extremist mutation of Calvinism, in which everyone is part of the elect. The modern idea of universal salvation comes to us from Unitarian thinkers such as Emerson, and forms the second half of UUism, whose devotees are, needless to say, Universalist to perfection. (It’s an interesting exercise to compare the tenets of UUism to those of “political correctness.”)

The Universalist synthesis united two American traditions that in the past had sometimes been at odds. One was the ecumenical mainline Protestant movement, exemplified by institutions such as the Federal Council of Churches, whose most daring theologians were moving toward humanism. The other was what might (with homage to Edward Bellamy) be called the Nationalist movement, a vast raft of secular pragmatists, socialists, anarchists, communists, and other reformers, who flocked to the German-inspired university system that developed in the late 19th century, becoming a sort of roach motel for bad ideas.

(One of the most sensible of the Nationalist philosophers, William James, seriously proposed paramilitary forced labor as the cure for all social ills—in 1906. Oh, Billy, if only you knew! And the utopia of Bellamy’s enormously-influential Looking Backward (1888) is essentially the Soviet Union.)

While these groups had generally cooperated in the Progressive Era, there were some tensions—for example, over Prohibition, which the secular Nationalists found hard to swallow. These eased substantially in the New Deal, largely due to the brilliant coup in which Progressives captured the Democratic Party, their former opposition, and converted it into an extremist Progressive movement—while repealing Prohibition. FDR even had a book called Looking Forward printed under his name.

(Interestingly, both the mainline Protestant and secular Nationalist movements have deep links to the evil John Calvin, ayatollah of Geneva. Mainline Protestantism descends from Calvinism through, of course, the Puritans. The Nationalists were strongly influenced by this tradition as well, in its later Unitarian and Transcendentalist forms, but many also studied in the Prussian university system, where they learned the secular versions of Calvin’s divine State propounded by the Genevan Rousseau, and later by Hegel. Death is a master from Germany.)

After WWII, there was no longer any visible quarrel between these factions. Any views which contradicted Universalism became socially unacceptable in polite society. Progressive Christianity, through secular theologians such as Harvey Cox, abandoned the last shreds of Biblical theology and completed the long transformation into mere socialism. Nationalism also becomes an inappropriate term, as with the growth in American power it morphed into internationalism and, as most now call it, transnationalism. Instead of sacralized regional governments, transnationalists want to build a sacralized planetary government—on the principle that, as Albert Jay Nock put it, “if a spoonful of prussic acid will kill you, a bottleful is just what you need to do you a great deal of good.”

Creedal declarations of Universalism are not hard to find. I am fond of the Humanist Manifestos (version 1, version 2, version 3), which pretty much say it all. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is good as well. No mainline Protestant will find anything morally objectionable in any of these documents.

In a probably-vain attempt to boil down all this cant, I’ve defined the four principal Ideals of the creed as Social Justice, Peace, Equality and Community. As we’ve already seen, Social Justice means political violence, and Peace means victory. We’ll get to Equality and Community shortly.

The latest chapter in this sad and savage story was written in the 1960s, when the first postwar generation came of age. These young men and women had been educated by the Universalist “Establishment” which won the war, and were quite unaware that any serious and intelligent person could disagree with the Universalist consensus. The result was a sort of creeping Talibanization in which the doctrines of Universalism became constantly more extreme, a process that continues to this day.

Today, perhaps the simplest definition of Universalism is that it’s the belief system taught in American universities (at least, Federally funded universities). But, again, it is fundamentally a Christian sect, and its moral and political tenets will find echoes in Massachusetts and upstate New York at any time since the 1830s. Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, for example, is a satire of hippies—written in 1852. All that’s missing is the patchouli.

Universalists, as descendants of Calvin’s postmillennial eschatology, are in the business of building God’s kingdom on Earth. (The original postmillennialists believed that once this kingdom was built, Christ would return—a theological spandrel long since discarded.) The city-on-a-hill vision is a continuous tradition from John Winthrop to Barack Obama. In Britain, the closely-related Evangelical movement used the term “New Jerusalem,” which I’m afraid never really made it across the pond, but expresses the vision perhaps best of all. I always picture the New Jerusalem (“in England’s green and pleasant land”) as involving a lot of enormous concrete tower blocks, with the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” playing somewhere on someone’s ghetto-blaster, and a forty-year-old grandmother screaming at her junkie daughter, but I’m not sure this is how they saw it in the 1890s.

What’s really impressive about Universalism is the way in which this messianic teenage fantasy power-trip has attracted, and continues to attract, so many people who don’t believe at all in the spirit world, only smoke weed on the weekends, and think of themselves as sensible and down-to-earth. Of course, the belief that all Universalist ideals can be justified by reason alone is a necessary condition. But Christian apologists have been deriving Christianity from pure reason since St. Augustine. You’d think these supposedly-skeptical thinkers would be a little more skeptical.

As a non-Universalist, I can’t help but admire the success of this particular replicator. It is brilliantly designed, like the smallpox virus. The fact that no one actually designed it, any more than someone designed the smallpox virus, that it is simply the result of adaptive selection in a highly competitive environment, heightens rather than detracts from my awe.

The coolest thing about Universalism is that it has the perfect opposition. If a Christian who believes his or her faith is justified by universal reason is a Universalist, a Christian who believes his or her faith is justified by divine revelation—in other words, a “Christian” as the word is commonly used today—might be called a Revelationist.

Suppose you have two faiths. Both claim to be absolutely and undebatably true. Faith A tells you it is an ineluctable consequence of reason. Faith B tells you it is the literal word of God. Which is more likely to be accurate?

The answer is that you have no information at all. Perhaps faith B is the literal word of God, but you have no way to distinguish it from something that someone just made up. Perhaps faith A can be derived from pure reason, but you have no way to know if the derivation is accurate unless you work through it yourself. In which case, why do you need faith A?

In fact, of the two, faith A is almost certainly more powerful and dangerous. As anyone who’s majored in Marxist-Leninist Studies knows, it’s very easy to construct an edifice of pseudo-reason so vast and daunting that working through it is quite impractical. And this edifice is much more free to contradict common sense—in fact, it has an incentive to do so, because nonsensical results are especially subtle and hard to follow.

Whereas when the word of God contradicts common sense, the idea that it might not actually be the word of God isn’t too hard to come by. In other words, if faith A contains any fallacies, they are effectively camouflaged, whereas the “and God says” steps in faith B’s syllogisms are clearly marked and brightly colored, and faith B pays a price in skepticism if God’s opinion is obviously at variance with physical reality.

So a reasonable observer might guess that, in fact, the tenets of faith B are more likely to be true, simply because it is more difficult for them to get away with being false. But in reality, these derivations tell us nothing. Probably faith A is right about some things, and faith B is right about some others.

However, in the struggle between Universalism and Revelationism, the former always wins. Because the Universalists control the mainstream educational and information system, this is really not at all surprising. But since, as we’ve seen, it is not rational for a reasonable observer to choose justification by reason over justification by revelation, a political system in which the Universalists are the Globetrotters and the Revelationists are the Generals is almost certain to be one which systematically propagates lies.

We’ve already seen a few of these lies, and we’ll see quite a few more. However, I think the dynamics of the struggle are better illustrated by questions in which, by whatever coincidence, the Universalists are right and the Revelationists are wrong.

For example, because my zip code is 94114, although I am straight as an iron spear, I happen to see nothing at all wrong with “gay marriage.” In fact I am completely sympathetic to the Universalist view, in which the fact that couples have to be of opposite sexes is a sort of bizarre holdover from the Middle Ages, like the ducking-stool or trial by fire. It’s not clear to me why homosexuality, which obviously has some extremely concrete biological cause, is so common in modern Western populations, but it is what it is.

However, because I am straight etc., and also because I’m not a Universalist, I happen to think the issue is not really one of the most pressing concerns facing humanity. And so it occurs to wonder to me how exactly gay marriage became an “issue,” when no one twenty years ago even thought of it as a possibility. Whatever the force is that brought this about, I find it hard to imagine anyone describing it as “democratic” with a straight face.

If anyone can come up with an example of a way in which American public opinion has changed in this way, but the change has gone against the Universalists and in favor of the Revelationists, I would certainly be interested to hear it. I think there are a few exceptions—notably in the domain of economics—but they all seem to involve an extremely dramatic intrusion of reality, a force which rarely has any direct impact on American opinion.