Least Amount of Terror, Greatest Amount of Security

In the provocative Preface to the English translation of his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, Leo Strauss opines that “[t]he controversy between [reason and revelation/philosophy and theology] can easily degenerate into a race in which he wins who offers the smallest amount of security and the greatest terror.” “But,” Strauss continues, “just as an assertion does not become true because it is shown to be comforting, so it does not become true because it is shown to be terrifying.”

Sitting in the background of these remarks, penned three decades after the original German publication of the Spinoza book, is the problem of Heidegger, or more generally, the problem of existentialism—both religious and atheistic. An insecure world, gripped by terror, is what existentialism wishes to both expose and relieve. That relief, however, can only come about “if the highest of which a man knows is absolutely secure,” or so says Strauss. Revelation offers the security of truth, but the terrifying prospect that not even all men who come to knowledge of the truth will be secure in the end. For a philosopher like Heidegger—to turn to Strauss again—“there is no security, no happy ending, no divine shepherd, hope is replaced by thinking, the longing for eternity or belief in anything eternal is understood as stemming from ‘the spirit of revenge,’ from the desire to escape from all passing-away into something that never passes away.”

In considering the state of religion today (particularly Christianity), somewhat removed from the more poignant existential concerns of early 20th century Teutonic philosophers and theologians, it is possible to say that it has come around to the idea that best way to touch men’s souls is to offer the least amount of terror and the greatest degree of security (at least as concerns his final end). This shift, which among “magisterial” Christian confessions, is in noticeable tension with their respective traditions of promoting insecurity and terror as a sure (though perhaps not the surest) path to virtue (and onward to salvation), is often castigated as “liberal,” with “liberal” too often meaning little more than “not conservative” or, rather, “not traditional.” From a certain point of view, this trend does appear to start from the reality of insecurity in this world to a hope for security in the next; terror today does not mean terror for eternity; and the God who made all things good will not tolerate His creation to be lost to sin.

There is something paralyzing about this view, at least as it concerns the time that remains before the end of all things. Granted, under conditions of radically reduced terror and unprecedentedly amplified security, the temporal plane becomes a blank canvass onto which man can lightly sketch or intricately detail his greatest hopes and fears; his basest desires and noblest instincts; and so on, and so forth. There is, broadly speaking, a “background” or “source” to which he can repair to for guidance, namely a holy book with an ostensibly inspired but contested canon that fails to provide its own proper hermeneutic, though except for those who are typically castigated as “fundamentalist,” this need not be the only source. Convention rather than nature becomes the measuring stick, with too little scrutiny being given as to where and when those conventions emerged or why. If “why” is explored at all, it is explored in a “scientific” manner, that is the manner which sociology and psychology and anthropology deem appropriate; man’s movement from cannibalism and rape to agriculture and marriage has a survival component and nothing to do with the illumination of his faculties, either from within or above.

Whether or not this all seems personally quite horrific is secondary to the truth that there are those who do indeed see it as quite horrific. Against the narrative of greatest security and least terror comes a flurry of reminders in the opposite direction, rooted—again—not in existentialist concerns per se, but a nagging sense that physical and psychic hardships of an earlier age pointed toward the truth that without the transcendent, man’s position in this world amounted to nothing. It would have been better to have never been born into a world riddled with war, famine, and pestilence if death could not bring anything except a cessation of the misery without the promise of redemption. But since not all men have an equal participation in these miseries, and by a sheer act of the will, choose to bring new miseries down upon others for their own gain, death alone cannot be the answer—it should not be the answer. This belief, rooted in what seems to be a certain “natural” instinct for justice, should be a relic of bygone ages; it seems look an entirely inappropriate basis for conversion, repentance, and (possible) salvation.