Even if There Were No Hell…

Early in the Institutes, Calvin offers some eloquent and luminous insights on the relation of love and fear, and the difference between the righteous man’s fear of God and the unrighteous’s—passages pregnant with significance for political theology as well, as we consider the way that citizens relate to authorities, their earthly lords and “fathers”:

“For, to begin with, the pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God.  And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself; furthermore, the mind always exercises the utmost diligence and care not to wander astray, or rashly and boldly to go beyond his will.  It thus recognizes God because it knows that he governs all things; and trusts that he is its guide and protector, therefore giving itself over completely to trust in him.  Because it understands him to be the Author of every good, if anything oppresses, if anything is lacking, immediately it betakes itself to his protection, waiting for help from him.  Because it is persuaded that he is good and merciful, it reposes in him with perfect trust, and doubts not that in his loving-kindness a remedy will be provided for all its ills.  Because it acknowledges him as Lord and Father, the pious mind also deems it meet and right to observe his authority in all things, reverence his majesty, take care to advance his glory, and obey his commandments.  Because it sees him to be a righteous judge, armed with severity to punish wickedness, it ever holds his judgment seat before its gaze, and through fear of him restrains itself from provoking his anger. And yet it is not so terrified by the awareness of his judgment as to wish to withdraw, even if some way of escape were open.  But it embraces him no less as punisher of the wicked than as benefactor of the pious.  For the pious mind realizes that the punishment of the impious and wicked and the reward of life eternal for the righteous equally pertain to God’s glory.  Besides, this mind restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but because it loves and revers God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord.  Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone.

Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law….” (I.iii.2)

“A second sin arises, that they [hypocrites] never consider God at all unless compelled to; and they do not come nigh until they are dragged there despite their resistance.  And not even then are they impressed with the voluntary fear that arises out of reverence for the divine majesty, but merely with a slavish, forced fear, which God’s judgment extorts from them.  This, since they cannot escape it, they dread even to the point of loathing.  That saying of Statius’ that fear first made gods in the world corresponds well to this kind of irreligion, and to this alone.  Those who are of a mind alien to God’s righteousness know that his judgment seat stands ready to punish transgressions against him, yet they greatly desire its overthrow.  Feeling so, they wage war against the Lord, who cannot be without judgment.  But while they know that his inescapable power hangs over them because they can neither do away with it nor flee from it, they recoil from it in dread.  And so, lest they should everywhere seem to despise him whose majesty weighs upon them, they perform some semblance of religion.  Meanwhile they do not desist from polluting themselves with every sort of vice, and from joining wickedness to wickedness, until in every respect they violate the holy laws of the Lord and dissipate all his righteousness.  Or at least they are not so restrained by that pretended fear of God from wallowing blithely in their own sins and flattering themselves, and preferring to indulge their fleshly intemperance rather than restraining it by the bridle of the Holy Spirit.  

This, however, is but a vain and false shadow of religion, scarcely even worth being called a shadow.  From it one may easily grasp anew how much this confused knowledge of God differs from the piety from which religion takes its source, which is instilled in the breasts of believers only.  And yet hypocrites would tread these twisting paths so as to seem to approach the God from whom they flee.  For where they ought to have remained consistently obedient throughout life, they boldly rebel against him in almost all their deeds, and are zealous to placate him merely with a few paltry sacrifices.  Where they ought to serve him in sanctity of life and integrity of heart, they trump up frivolous trifles and worthless little observances with which to win his favor.  Nay, more, with greeter license they sluggishly lie in their own faith, because they are confident that they can perform their duty toward him by ridiculous acts of expiation.” (I.iv.4)

(italics mine)

Phone-Hacking and Other Misdemeanors

I’ve been procrastinating from offering any public comment on the massive phone-hacking scandal that has engulfed News International and the UK government in recent weeks, as there has been in general more than enough comment to go around, and I figured I could count on my friend Byron Smith to offer some intelligent and provocative reflections on the.  He has not failed me, offering two contributions on the subject last week, one considering the scandal in light of the Wikileaks controversy a few months ago, and another on the systemic flaws it exposes in our corporate culture.

I thought I would also add a few thoughts of my own, seeking to answer the question, “Why has this caused such a furor?”  Don’t get me wrong.  News International’s actions are appallingly irresponsible and depraved.  But the public furor-to-depravity ratio in this recent scandal has far exceeded most other corporate crimes of recent years.  It’s worth cynically asking why.  I have four suggestions.

1) The Scapegoat Factor.  News of the World went to such lengths to invade people’s personal lives because their customers demanded it.  They didn’t wake up one day and say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to ruin other people’s lives for kicks?”  No, they had millions of customers who wanted to feast off of juicy gossip and the public humiliation of others.  They were simply trying to increase their supply to keep up with demand.  This doesn’t get them off the hook in any way, but it suggests that perhaps some of the public fury is the result of a guilty conscience.  Society at large is guilty of this wickedness, and we need a scapegoat to unload our guilt.  Who better than a multi-billionaire like Rupert Murdoch and his minions?

2) The Competition Factor.  This scandal has befallen one large media conglomerate, one that has had rival media outlets fuming in impotent envy for years as it continued to grow its monopoly.  Now they have a chance to hit back.  The media might have occasionally have fun bringing down an Enron or a Lehman, but that’s nothing compared to the satisfaction of bringing down a rival.  So you can expect all non-NewsCorp media are making as much of the scandal as possible.

3) The Misdirection Factor.  It can be quite useful to parade your sins in public and make them out to be terrible indeed–if you’ve got much worse sins lurking in the closet.  You can pretend that you’re coming clean and acknowledging all your faults, so people will forgive you and trust you henceforth, never knowing that you’re just trying to distract their attention from the much worse sins you haven’t given up.  Phone hacking and police bribing is probably pretty minor when compared to the media’s massive collusion in deception and war-mongering, as documented in John Pilger’s The War You Don’t See.  By exposing the minor fault and making a great deal of it, the media can hope to persuade the public that this is the worst of its crimes.

4) The Hypocrisy Factor.  Similarly, the government stands to benefit from angry rants against the wickedness of News International, even if some of this rebounds upon government officials that had close ties to NI executives.  The government can pretend that phone hacking is an unthinkable intrusion on people’s privacy, conveniently obscuring the fact that, especially since 9/11, UK and US governments have been engaged in massive unconstitutional breaches of privacy that make anything News of the World did look like child’s play.