July 1, 2007


Chaos theories: a review of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia by John Gray (Nicholas Blincoe, 28 June 2007, New Statesman)

Everything is getting worse, we are doomed and the only good news is that it scarcely matters because humanity is not worth saving anyway. John Gray's new book Black Mass is not cheery, and one might wonder how a work so deeply rooted in British conservative philosophy could end so far from Disraeli's dream of a "Merry England". Black Mass is a critique of human pretensions and the analytical rubric that underpins it will be broadly familiar to anyone interested in political philosophy. Gray draws on the works of Hume and Hayek, Popper and Berlin, yet uses them as sledgehammers, even against his closest allies. The result is the darkest possible assessment of our current situation and our hopes for the future.

Black Mass sets out by reaffirming the link between philosophical speculation and political totalitarianism: whenever we dream of a better world, we inexorably create something far more terrible. The intimate connection between utopianism and dictatorship was first formulated by Isaiah Berlin and Hayek, who attacked "rationalism", the Continental strand of philosophy associated with Voltaire and, especially, Hegel. Gray provides a compact restatement of this critique from Jeane Kirkpatrick, the one-time US ambassador to the UN. She argues that, "because it assumes that man and society can be brought to a preferred plan, the rationalist orientation tends powerfully to see everything as possible and prospects for progress as unlimited".

Gray accepts this argument, but rather than locate the birth of rationalism in the European Enlightenment, he heads backwards to the birth of Jesus Christ. According to Gray, it was Christianity which introduced the idea that the world can be redeemed and born anew. He rather curiously absolves Judaism of any responsibility for this concept, though all orthodox Judaic interpretations of the Torah have avowed that the world is broken and will only be redeemed and healed at the end of time. Yet his basic point has merit: at a certain point in history, we began to think in terms of "eschatology", a logic devoted to the end days. From this moment on, our eyes have been fixed on the horizon: we have been unable to think of the human situation outside of history, and incapable of thinking of history except in terms of progress towards this horizon.

Gray is schooled in the empirical, or anti-rationalist, tradition and rejects any search for transcendent principles that might define humanity.

The critique of Rationalism is accurate, but he seems to have misread Christianity, which, like Judaism, ought to be left out of the discussion. While Sunni Islam does hold out the promise that men can (must) redeem the world, which gives it the fatal flaws of the isms, Christianity, Judaism and Shi'a Islam await the Redeemer precisely because men cannot redeem the world, least of all by the exercise of reason.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 1, 2007 6:29 AM

Jesus preached the Kingdom of Heaven, which is not the world we live in, but a spiritual kingdom. Lots of His so-called followers have indeed vainly gotten it wrong and no doubt provided lots of evidence for John Gray to blame everything on the Savior. (Talk about not being "rational". Why not blame homelessness on George Washington?)

It is the Mosaic Law that is God's gift to make the physical world better, and maybe that's why he couldn't blame the Jews this time.

Posted by: Randall Voth at July 1, 2007 4:25 PM