In explaining the necessity of God in Tragic Sense of Life, the Jesuit philosopher Miguel de Unamuno asserts that it arises when every man, naturally desiring to control the world, confronts the inevitability of death. As the latter treads on our heels, even the most powerful are pressed to the conclusion that the only way to live forever is to embrace a God that loves us enough to grant us life.
Atheists are inclined by this logic to conclude that faith is a delusion. Marx certainly saw it that way, declaring that “religion is the opium of the masses.” But the underlying pressure is evidenced in the pronouncements of some technologists, among them the man I described yesterday who saw our digital sensors, networks and software as empowering us to build God. Others are more humble. At the ACM fiftieth anniversary symposium in 1997, Nathan Myhrvold, then chief architect at Microsoft, envisioned (somewhat playfully) a future in which we could escape death by creating digital simulations of our brains. The video skit included Bill Gates rubbing his chin as he thoughtfully considered the reduction in Microsoft’s benefits budget.
But if delusion is pathetic, oftentimes in the powerful avoidance is grotesque. We have Vladimir Putin, assassin of Russian patriots, proclaiming that Jesus will find no fault with him on Judgment Day. Or the effrontery of Donald Trump who, protected by his army of lawyers, knows that so long as he asserts righteousness, no one has the means to contradict his claims of competency and benevolence. Thus he continues to assert – in contradiction of the actual birth certificate – that his lawyers have compelling evidence to reveal regarding President Obama’s citizenship. Both of these men suffer from the same affliction, the tendency of our bodies to respond to successful acts of aggression by manufacturing more and more testosterone, the chemical driver for aggression. This is a positive feedback loop that was broken only by death in the cases of Hitler, Franco, Mao, Stalin, Kim Yung Un and so many other tyrants. In the prelude, millions of people were sacrificed on the altars of their psychological invincibility.
This dynamic is writ small in the lives of many businesses, congregations and families. People addicted to the rush of adrenaline and the power of testosterone manufacture experiences that stimulate their production. This is why it is said “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The desire for power arises from the biological thrill of success, and to continue to receive that thrill, the addict must continue to risk his power in ever greater contests. In the heat of passion, the suffering visited upon others is ignored.
There are three antidotes to this dynamic. The first is popular rebellion. Paradoxically, this is the very force that pushed Putin and Trump to prominence. At a stump speech yesterday, Trump opened the floor to questions, and the first person to the microphone began to rant hatefully about President Obama and an imagined domestic Muslim threat. Trump did not defuse the situation, instead responding “We need to hear this question!” But often rebellion is merely another manifestation of the drive to power. Unless tempered, it rages out of control, as happened in the Jacobian tyranny following the French Revolution.
The second antidote is reason. Reason builds discipline that forces us to reconcile our actions with their consequences, thereby disciplining our aggression with objective evidence of failure. The tension between reason and will is not just moral, however: heightened levels of adrenaline actually degrade the higher thinking centers of the brain. This creates a terribly contradictory dynamic, perhaps manifesting itself in the fact that most academics do their greatest work in their youth. While testosterone serves the reasoning mind in creating the thirst to conquer and claim ideas, as the successful mind expands, so do levels of testosterone and adrenaline, which destroys the power of reason. In that context, the methods used to sustain power are not as brutal as those used by the social tyrant, but have their own unique form of cruelty, and leave lasting scars on the psyche. Isaac Newton, cheated of credit for a scientific insight by his predecessor as head of the Royal Academy of Sciences, had the satisfaction of burning the man’s portrait. Most victims of intellectual tyranny are consigned to obscurity.
It is natural for supporters to gather around the social or intellectual tyrant during his rise to power. Claiming benevolent intention is a great way of rallying support from the oppressed. Unfortunately, this dictum holds: A man will change his beliefs before he will change his behavior. When that behavior is organized around aggression, enemies must be created when there are none left at hand. All tyrants eventually turn on their lieutenants, often using hallucinatory rhetoric to justify their actions.
A peer once offered to me that all the greatest scientists were lovers of humanity. This brings us to the third antidote: love. This arrives upon us through many pathways. It can be through sex and maternity. It can be when an infant first grasps our forefinger. It can be through service to those in want. In those moments a bond is established, a linkage that makes palpable the suffering we visit upon others. That can be rationalized in material terms: tears on a beloved face or cries of shame are evidence of our failure. That breaks the vicious cycle of success and aggression.
But there is another aspect that goes beyond negative feedback. Aggression stimulates the loins and the mind, but barely touches the heart. Exchanging love with someone just feels good. It opens us up to a world of experience that can be touched in no other way. Ultimately, its rewards are far greater because no one that loves themselves objects to being loved. They do not turn on their friends for satisfaction, because their friends offer them satisfaction every day.
Democracy attempts to combat the urge to power by institutionalizing rebellion. In America, the two Presidents that were awarded most authority were George Washington, who gracefully surrendered power after two terms of service following universal acclamation by the Electoral College, and FDR, who literally worked himself to death through four terms in office. Both those men were governed by a sense of duty and love for their country, a commitment affirmed by the popular voice that is expressed in elections. At the end of the 20th century, those that seek the freedom to act always as they please (the ultimate manifestation of power) responded to electoral constraint by attacking our faith in government. Driven by testosterone and thus unable to govern themselves, they have invested huge amounts of money creating personalities such as Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. As visible in the Oklahoma City bombing and the events surrounding the Republican nominating process, the end result has been to stimulate the resort to violence by others.
Thus we have the wisdom of Jesus: “Render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s.” We have the promise of Jeremiah: “For I will write my law on their hearts, and no man will be told ‘Come learn about my God’, because all will know me.” And we have Christ’s summation of the Jewish experience with law (the rule of reason) and governmental control: Love God and your neighbor.
It is through self-regulation that we discover truth and peace[NIV Matt. 7:13-14]:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
But what other government would we choose, except the governance of our hearts? And to what other authority would be choose to submit, other than the authority of compassion in another? Why do we delude ourselves that there is any other way?