For some reason I was thinking of this phrase “hound of heaven,” and then on the radio a couple of days ago happened to hear it mentioned. I’ve heard it before as a metaphor for God in His pursuit of us, but didn’t know that it was explicitly the name of a poem, one written at the end of the 19th century by Francis Thompson. It’s kind of long, but here are the opening lines, maybe you’ve heard these words or some of them. I know I’ve heard before that phrase “down the nights and down the days.”
Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson (1859-1907):
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet –
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’
You know I get a lot of blogs, sometimes deleting one and adding another. The ones that stay on my list a long time are tried and true. One such is Rod Dreher’s blog in The American Conservative. Here he is commenting on a book by David Brooks called The Second Mountain:
OK, so here’s the question. David quotes in the book a friend who asks, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
The question struck me [Rod Dreher], personally, in a political way. The only reason I have any regard for Donald Trump and his presidency is because I am so afraid of the Left, and what they will do to social and religious conservatives once they are back fully in power. I don’t actually believe Trump will do anything to stop this, or could do much to stop it; I think at best he can slow it down. Nevertheless, my politics are driven entirely by fear of the Left, specifically on matters of religious liberty and social policy.
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They really are going after Christian schools and businesses. They really are trying to ruin people by intimidating them into silence, and making them terrified for their jobs if they say the wrong thing to the wrong person. More broadly, the Christian faith really is withering away in our civilization. This has been measured.
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I read recently Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism . . . . I kept thinking about it as I read Brooks’s book. Arendt says a precursor for totalitarianism is radical loneliness, atomization, and loss of traditional groups and ways of understanding one’s place in society.
[Emphases added]. I feel much the same way as Dreher, and I think Arendt’s comment on the origins of totalitarianism in individual hearts is on point. It’s “a” precursor, not the sole cause, but I think it’s part of what drives the astringent worldviews of the woke left. In the absence of healthy normal human interaction, people are more vulnerable to cult-like social movements. For this reason we’re being overrun by the outraged mob in Che Guevara t-shirts, to extinguish independence of mind. Your vitality as an individual is an affront. It’s the zombie apocalypse we all joked about, only now frighteningly real.
Speaking of unhappiness, I commend to you an article from Athaenum Review called The Problem With Happiness . An excerpt:
The greatest Russian writers realized that totalitarian conditions made the idea that life is about happiness look absurd. Put to the test of extreme conditions, utilitarianism failed. Conditions were certainly extreme. The network of concentration camps known as the Gulag archipelago; the deliberate starvation of millions of peasants during the collectivization of agriculture; the routine use of torture during investigations: all these extreme situations served as tests for philosophies of life. How did different philosophies measure up?
The plot of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel In the First Circle turns on the actions of a professed Epicurean [one who believes happiness is only maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain].
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It might seem odd that a Bolshevik should be an Epicurean, but the novel makes clear that these two forms of materialism share a common tenet: there are no values beyond the material world of here and now. Epicureanism applies this insight to the individual, so that the sole standard of good and evil is the individual’s pleasure and pain. Bolshevism applies the same idea collectively. In Bolshevik ethics, as in Epicurean, all other standards but getting what one wants—for Bolsheviks, that meant what the Communist Party wants—are illusions.
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Compassion, justice, kindness, the sanctity of human life: in Bolshevik philosophy, all these values could only come from religion or its close relative, philosophical idealism. To display compassion, then, was to prove one was not a true materialist and therefore not a proper Bolshevik. If he knew what was good for him, every Bolshevik tried to show he had no compassion at all. The most brutal methods were preferred, and no matter how many people Stalin ordered killed, his secret police asked to kill more.
By the same token, it is obvious to Volodin [a character in In the First Circle] that for an individual, the only standard for judging an action is whether it achieves personal satisfaction. So it comes as a surprise to him when, six years after his marriage, pleasures begin to disgust him. Volodin stumbles on his mother’s letters from before the Revolution and begins to follow her unfamiliar way of thinking. She speaks of staying out all night from love of art, as if art were a value in itself! “Goodness shows itself first in pity,” she writes, a doctrine that contradicts Volodin’s Bolshevik morals: “Pity? A shameful feeling . . . so he had learned in school and in life.” Equally shameful is compassion. “Even the words in which his mother and her women friends expressed themselves were outdated. In all seriousness, they began certain words with capital letters—Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Good and Evil, the Ethical Imperative.” Strangest of all, Volodin’s mother valued tolerance of other’s beliefs. “If I have a correct worldview,” her son asks himself, “can I really respect those who disagree with me?”
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If we are to make our lives meaningful, we must live for values beyond happiness, values that may conflict with happiness. Sometimes suffering can be beneficial, not because it may make us capable of greater pleasures, but because it may deepen the soul. We must live, and we must love, not just on this scrap of earth, not just in the here and now, and not just for our pitiful selves, but for the world of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, and of the great values espoused in Russian literature [as discussed in this article].
You might think all this is ancient history. Why are we talking about 19th— and 20th—century Russian literature? It’s because it speaks to the lived-out consequences of collectivism. It would be a mistake to relegate it to irrelevant history because it was one among many movements discrediting Marxism. Stalinism was a specific of Marxism. Marxism was a specific of communism; communism is a specific of collectivism. They are minor variations of the same disease. Anti-metaphysics undergirds them all. Atheist materialism is not incidental to any of these –isms.
One last thought. I was in a book club meeting the other night when we were talking about intellectual disciplines (discussing Virtuous Minds, by Phillip Dow) when one of the participants mentioned John 5:44. I looked it up, intrigued with the context in which it came up. Of late I’ve come to understand that much of the New Testament I formerly viewed as purely theological statements actually make specific contrasts to prevailing philosophical views. So here’s John 5:44 in the ESV:
How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
This is Jesus speaking, in the context of rebuking those in his Jewish community who did not believe he was the Christ. He said “receive glory,” but I think we would now say something like “seek vindication” or “desire affirmation.” He’s saying that it’s inconsistent for his Jewish listeners to say they believe God, when they actually take their guidance for truth from what society around them says is true. This is the danger of collectivism, I think, and one of the reasons we should be cautious about it, to the point of being alarmed at its advance.
“Collectivism” as used here involves transfer of personal sovereignty to the group. I’m not saying we should be anti-church or anti-social, and I’m not dog-whistling anti-Catholicism. Religious collectivism is of concern, but not the greatest concern, in this age. We should be on guard against delivering autonomy to the state, because that leads to tyranny.