Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein, . . . the warping of a system by “exception”—by “picking out” one part of the structure—and implies that [that structure] is marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation.
So said prolific Anglo-French writer and historian Hilaire Belloc in his The Great Heresies, written on the verge of a second world war that was propelled by competing political and economic ideologies. Though Belloc certainly had in mind heresies of a theological nature, his work encompasses far more than just religious belief. It was intended as a study that would appeal to those seeking to combat the dangerous ideas then imperiling Europe.
Already in 1938, Belloc acknowledged, popular interest in religious heresies was dead. Still, heresies of other types—intellectual, political, and economic—should be of supreme interest to every age. It is worth revisiting Belloc’s writing, because he so presciently identified the insidious heresy of the modern age: a heresy of materialism and relativism that warps the laudable objective of political, social, and economic equality by making equality the final end of man. Moreover, to achieve its end, this heresy forces man to become a slave of the state. The cure that Belloc proposed was to return to a tried and true, traditional orthodoxy of truth, justice, and spiritual redemption.
Materialism and Relativism
Belloc termed what has become the dominant intellectual paradigm of our age “The Modern Heresy.” This term encompasses a broad range of ideological ground, including materialism, relativism, and pluralism. He perceived it as anti-theistic, because it denies the reality of a supernatural reality that governs truth and morality. He writes:
It is essentially atheist, even when the atheism is not overtly predicated. It regards man as sufficient to himself, prayer as mere self-suggestion and—the fundamental point—God as no more than a figment of the imagination, an image of man’s self thrown by man on the universe: a phantasm and no reality.
To the modern heretic, the idea of “God” is useful as far as it goes; it can comfort the afflicted and appeal to man’s fear of death. Yet God, as nineteenth-century theologian Ludwig Feuerbach understood him, is but a projection of the self onto the unknown. He is no origin or arbiter of truth, but only a useful totem that can be molded and shaped as society dictates. This is why, Belloc notes, the Modern Heresy can be both materialist and superstitious. The elites of our age scoff at traditional, historic beliefs in the supernatural, like Jesus’ miracles or His resurrection, but enthusiastically embrace eastern meditation, dream catchers, and crystals. Belloc explains that this heresy is untroubled by such “apparent contradictions within its own body so long as the general alliance” of its members is maintained. Keeping crystals in your pocket or slowly breathing “Namaste” on your yoga mat is hardly a threat to modernism’s broader political and social agenda.
The “Modern Attack” is “indifferent to self-contradiction,” which explains why Americans love to define themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” The ideology “merely affirms,” promoting anything that does not undermine its pluralist underpinnings. Belloc describes it as “advanc[ing] like an animal, counting on strength alone.” This strength is manifested in our own day in brute numbers, but also in the ideologues’ control of many levers of American social power. The Modern Heresy’s proponents believe that the victory of their cause is inevitable, with a brutal determinism―reflected in such slogans as “being on the right side of history”―that would make Hegel proud.
What It Gets Right
How is the secularist, pluralist ideology of our day a heresy, a system that recognizes some truth but twists it while ignoring some essential component therein? As Belloc reminds us, heresies “survive by the truths they retain.”
The Modern Heresy “professes to be directed towards a certain good,” namely, political, social, and economic equality. Yet, Belloc observes,
[I]t does not tell you why this should be a good; it does not admit that its scheme is also to destroy other things which are also by the common consent of mankind good—the family, property (which is the guarantee of individual freedom and individual dignity), humor, mercy, and every form of what we consider right living.
Is this not an appropriate description of the progressive ideology of our day? It seeks to undermine the family by redefining it; it offers us the vapid property of consumer goods while keeping true property of land at arm’s length; and it steamrolls over all opponents, be they nuns or cake bakers. Belloc already perceived the Modern Heresy’s tactic in his own day in its attack on the traditional Western idea of marriage as indissoluble in favor of a pragmatist conception of the institution as only “a terminable contract” that can be nullified by divorce.
Today’s ideology is one that “retains much of the Christian scheme—human equality, the right to live, and so forth.” But it eviscerates what is most essential: God and the inherent givenness of life. It ignores life’s peculiar quality as gift. Moreover, in denying an absolute, eternal creator, it “denies the dignity and therefore the freedom of the human soul.” In denying man an immaterial, eternal soul, it dehumanizes him, redefining him as only a conglomeration of biological needs and affections. This in turn makes him more susceptible to enslavement.
A New Slavery
There is yet another paradox implicit in the Modern Heresy. Its materialist presuppositions lead its proponents to believe man “is sufficient to himself, and it has set up everywhere great idols to be worshiped as gods.” Yet, ironically, while man deifies himself, his materialist ideology works to enslave him by making him reliant solely on this-worldly powers for his welfare and survival. Belloc again presciently notes that “we are witnessing a revival of slavery: . . . slavery to the state and slavery to private corporations.” With no transcendent truth, and no institutions orienting man toward an objective reality, government and corporations become the engines necessary to achieve man’s desires and needs.
For example, Americans have increasingly become dispossessed of land or property and own nothing of real value. They then “become wholly dependent upon the owners; and when these owners are in active competition to lower the cost of production, the mass of men whom they exploit not only lack the power to order their own lives, but suffer from want and insecurity as well.” This rings true with many Americans now living in tremendous debt, whether the cost of their education or the result of their reliance on a credit system they will find increasingly difficult to overcome. The proliferation of cash loan corporations like TitleMax, TitleBucks, and Loan Max are indicative of this new paradigm.
Man is similarly enslaved to the state inasmuch as he becomes dependent on it for his health and livelihood. Belloc explains:
The more the state steps in to enforce conditions of security and sufficiency—the more it regulates wages; provides compulsory insurance, doctoring, and education; and in general takes over the lives of the wage earners, for the benefit of the companies and men employing the wage earners—the more is this condition of semislavery accentuated.
The centralization of power in the hands of the federal government—as much as it provides for the disenfranchised of American society—accelerates the erosion of other competing sources of power. Men become reliant on what Belloc calls “a body of favored officials”—whom today we call the technocratic, coastal elites. Amazon’s recent decision to build a second headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, where it will undoubtedly serve the federal government and the Department of Defense, reflects the fact that corporations and the state are increasingly collaborating, and thereby wedding their two enterprises together inextricably.
As increasing numbers of Americans label themselves as religious “nones,” there are fewer sources of authority to compete with either the federal government or the Amazons, Googles, and Facebooks of the world. We are obsessed with every machination of the executive branch, because the power of other political authorities has waned. Yet, as some writers have already noted, the data we happily provide to corporations about us and our communities—especially when those communities willingly offer that data in their bidding to lure businesses—are truly alarming. Amazon and Google achieve demigod status. When it comes to our interests, preferences, and fetishes, they are omniscient, able to predict and even determine what we desire.
Belloc observes, “we came, before the Church was founded, out of a pagan social system in which slavery was everywhere, in which the whole structure of society reposed upon the institution of slavery. With the loss of faith we return to that institution again.” Though we are often aware of this dilemma reminiscent of science fiction, we are often already too enmeshed or lazy to free ourselves.
An Orthodox Narrative of Truth
The proper response to heresy, Hilaire Belloc’s close friend and comrade in arms G. K. Chesterton noted, is orthodoxy. In our own case, the orthodox ideology needed to combat and defeat the Modern Heresy is one that promotes truth in the face of relativism; structures of justice and mercy in the face of those of power; traditional familial love in the face of “the modern family;” and the beauty of the redemption of sinful lives in the face of a tolerant culture that seeks to do away with sin altogether. Orthodoxy must adhere fervently to traditional conceptions of beauty and virtue, even when doing so is not politically expedient. It must avoid at all costs the kind of indifference to cruelty that is so infectious in our digital age.
Belloc believed that such an approach must succeed, because it stood on the side of reason, and reason, he argued, “has always overcome its opponents.” Here’s hoping that Belloc was as prophetic in proposing the cure as he was in diagnosing the disease.