Gehenna in the primitive and liberal mind

Part of St. John Newman’s critique of liberal Christianity is describing it as the opposite extreme of primitive religion. Whereas savage religions place too much stress on God as fearful, liberalism doesn’t stress this enough. Liberalism makes God purely philanthropic, and drops any note of him as the mysterium tremendum. Newman attributes this liberal tendency to the best parts of contemporary civilization, namely its refinement, polite manners, suppression and centralization of violence, etc.

In a paradigm case, liberal Christianity either sees no point to hellfire or describes it in liberal terms as God’s “respect for our freedom” or our “choice to reject God” or “the door that is locked from the inside”. Christ’s description of Gehenna as the place into which God throws sinners and into which they are surprised to end up vanishes completely.

Polite civilization has many moral perfections that humanity struggled very long to achieve, and if it were these that led to this marginalization of the doctrine of hell then it’s hard to see the marginalization as undeserved. And aren’t these moral successes of polite society – ending torture and judicial cruelty, centralizing the exercise of violence, minimizing murder rates – just the sort of perfections that one would expect to do this?

The perfections of polite society developed with the construction of buffers between human life and the natural world. Man alone in the face of nature is a very fragile and utterly outmatched creature. He dies easily by accident or by what are now called minor injuries or routine sicknesses. For all that, it’s a mistake to think he saw the world as a wicked or monstrous. Nature also provided everything he ever was provided with and gave him every glimpse of the beautiful he ever received. If we were left alone in the woods we might learn something of the fearfulness of nature but we would see little of its sublimity; when we go camping alone in nature we might see something of its sublimity but relatively little of its fearfulness- but the actual primitive experience is as abstract to us as a discussion of liberal regimes would have been to aboriginals.

For all that, the buffers we have set up against nature come with a large helping of illusion, not because they fail to save us against real harms but because they generate unrealistic appraisals of the powers we have over nature and its powers over us. As many have noticed, liberal regimes require a good deal of willful ignorance, sanitizing, and silly euphemisms in the face of sickness* and death, and from the beginning liberal regimes have been blind to the actual human capacity for improvement and the speed at which it can be expected to happen, and frustration at this stubborn human resistance to utopia has led to more than one liberal regime of mass terror and systematic murder.

The primitive experience is thus an intuitive vision of the connection between the sublime and the terrible, and the absence of the characteristically liberal blindness to both the intractability and the scope of human evil. Though I doubt I would trade the moral and economic benefits of liberal regimes for the truths that the primitive regimes could see, primitive truths are truths all the same, and the moral improvement of the liberal state came at the expense of losing them.

Christ’s teaching on Gehenna is probably an insurmountable absurdity within liberal cultures, and this arises in part from the moral perfections of those cultures. It arises far more, however, from the characteristic blindness of the liberal mind. One way to understand Gehenna, or its later magisterial development as Augustine’s “city of man” is that utopianism is not just beyond human power but irrational in itself, and the Jacobin-Soviet daydream of universal worldwide brotherhood is no more possible now than in the life to come.


*This is particularly true of our stance toward mental illness, which, if we are honest or even empirical with ourselves, we have almost no idea how to treat. We certainly do not have a success rate proportionate to the confidence manifested by the number of persons we send to treatment.

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