Paul Johnson

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“What is important in history is not only the events that occur but the events that obstinately do not occur. The outstanding event of modern times was the failure of religious belief to disappear. For many millions, especially in the advanced nations, religion ceased to play much or any part in their lives, and the ways in which the vacuum was filled, by fascism, Nazism and Communism, by attempts at humanist utopianism, by eugenics or health politics, by the ideologies of sexual liberation, race politics and environmental politics, form much of the substance of the history of our century. But for many more millions – for the overwhelming majority of the human race, in fact – religion continued to be a huge dimension in their lives. Nietzsche, who had so accurately predicted the transmutation of faith into political zealotry and the totalitarian will to power, failed to see that the religious spirit could, quite illogically, coexist with secularization, and so resuscitate his dying God. What looked antiquated, even risible, in the 1990s was not religious belief but the confident predictions of its demise once provided by Feuerbach and Marx, Durkheim and Frazer, Lenin, Wells, Shaw, Gide, Sartre and many others.”

– Paul Johnson, Modern Times, p. 700

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The 1929 crash exposed the naivety and ignorance of bankers, businessmen, Wall Street experts and academic economists high and low; it showed they did not understand the system they had been so confidently manipulating. They had tried to substitute their own well-meaning policies for what Adam Smith called ‘ the invisible hand’ of the market and they had wrought disaster. Far from demonstrating, as Keynes and his school later argued – at the time Keynes failed to predict either the crash or the extent and duration of the Depression – the dangers of a self-regulating economy, the degringolade indicated the opposite: the risks of ill-informed meddling.

– Paul Johnson, Modern Times, p. 240

I teach the chapter entitled Degringolade to my students tomorrow. In context, the chapter title is a trilingual pun. The students’ first assignment was to research the meaning of the title.

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“. . . his methods of therapy have proved on the whole, costly failures, more suited to cosset the unhappy than cure the sick. We now know that many of the central ideas of psychoanalysis have no basis in biology. They were, indeed, formulated by Freud before the discovery of Mendel’s Laws, the chromosomal theory of inheritance, the recognition of inborn metabolic errors, the existence of hormones and the mechanism of the nervous impulse, which collectively invalidate them. As Sir Peter Medawar has put it, psychoanalysis is akin to Mesmerism and phrenology: it contains isolated nuggets of truth, but the general theory is false.”

– Paul Johnson, Modern Times, p. 6

The reading assignment for the Year Four students at the Schaeffer Study Center this week is chapter one, “A Relativistic World.”

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“. . . modern times did not develop in ways the generation of 1920 would have considered ‘logical.’

[. . .]

“The outstanding event of modern times was the failure of religious belief to disappear.”

[. . .]

“What looked antiquated, even risible, in the 1990s was not religious belief but the confident prediction of its demise once provided by Feuerbach and Marx, Durkheim and Frazer, Lenin, Wells, Shaw, Gide, Sartre and many others.”

  • Paul Johnson, Modern Times, page 700 in Chapter 20 on “The Recovery of Freedom

Today’s Western Civ Four class concluded with a discussion of the last chapter of Johnson’s book. Twenty-five years after its first publication, and 17 years after he added the more upbeat, concluding chapter, Johnson’s work holds up extremely well.

Johnson’s overarching thesis is that the 20th century saw politics replace religion as the “one legitimate form of moral activity.” The results were a tragedy of world historical proportions. Now, as we look back on the bloody excesses of the 20th century, there is hope that mankind may be regaining some perspective. The state cannot reshape human nature. The state cannot usher in a utopia. The state, given free reign, turns out to be a murderous tyrant.

Mankind was saved from the twin evils of politics and statism by the arrival, sequentially, of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan.

I have a message of hope and good cheer for you, gentle reader: The 21st century, like the 20th, will NOT develop in predictable ways – certainly not in ways foreseen by the pundits of the dying liberal intelligentsia. There IS hope. There ARE signs that God continues to build his kingdom. The vibrancy of the church in China and in Africa gives hope. The collapse of the liberal elites (both secular and religious) in the West proceeds and even in some cases appears to be accelerating.

Keep watching. Keep praying. Keep following Jesus. And wait and see what God will do.

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