Fire in the Minds of Men: Revolution and the Spiritual Impulse

Roses for Stalin by Boris Vladmiriski
Our father which art in Moscow…Roses for Stalin by Boris Vladmiriski

Some rail against religion while simultaneously promoting their personal ideology with notably religious zeal. Beware of “religiology” a blend of politics and the spiritual impulse, it tends to produce violence on an industrial scale.

Politics is about power. Whether a religion adopts a political emphasis like the Catholic Church during the Roman Empire and Middle Ages, or politics incorporates religious aspects like militant Zionism or radical political Islam, the beast looks and acts the same and it is a predatory beast, feeding on those who disagree, because those who disagree are not just wrong, they are evil.

A fascinating book on the subject of revolution and the religious impulse is Fire in the Minds of Men: Spiritual Foundations of Revolutionaries by James H. Billington. Organized religion is mankind’s attempt to codify that which is spiritual; to capture Ultimate Value, to label it and box it up, to appoint experts and establish rituals to perpetuate the brand. As a human endeavor, it is subject to the same failings humans are heir to-greed, pride and corruption. This in no way proves that the spiritual impulse is bad or that Ultimate Value does not exist. It merely shows how some human beings respond to the impulse and to the mystery behind the impulse.

In regard to revolutionaries, Billing states:

“Modern revolutionaries are believers, no  less com­mitted  and intense than were the Christians or Muslims of an earlier era. What is new is the belief that a perfect secular order will emerge from the forcible overthrow of traditional authority. This inherently im­plausible idea gave dynamism to Europe in the nineteenth century, and has become the most successful ideological export of the West to the world in the twentieth.”

Americans tend to view revolutions positively, since America started with one which turned out pretty well. As revolutions go, America’s was not very revolutionary. The founders retained almost all of the values, customs, institutions and laws of the Mother Country. America was very much modeled on Britain, which had done hundreds of years of hard and sometimes bloody work to get to the point where they were in regard to rule of law, rights of citizens and structures of governance. All these were in place and operating in the colonies for over 100 years. America did not start from scratch, but it did change “bosses.”

The Declaration of Independence probably contains the best summation of the spiritual impulse behind the American Revolution.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course there were economic and material impulses as well, but what set a fire in the minds of men was Jefferson’s essentially spiritual appeal. We like it. People in other nations like it. Ho Chi Min quoted it in a speech in 1945.

Other revolutions have been no less spiritually motivated, but some have been more revolutionary in that they sought to change everything; religions, customs, families, work, economic structures-everything. A new man in a new world, that’s the ticket-and that in itself is a concept borrowed from religion: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17) Almost all of these more total revolutions not only failed to achieve a higher good, they achieved violence, purges and often ended in tyrannies. In the end they went back to many pre-revolutionary paradigms.

Part of the reason for this is that humans dislike change, even minor ones like detours or new software at work. They can successfully change only gradually and over time. Revolutionaries, their minds ablaze with the final solution to the human problem, could not wait for people to change. If they opposed, or even questioned the revolution, they were evil and had to go, like the 40,000 French citizens killed during the Reign of Terror.

Revolutions that espoused atheism found substitutes to satisfy the spiritual impulse. The leader became Our Father Which Art in Moscow or a whole new religion was attempted as in the French Cult of the Supreme Being. Secular prophets, priests and rituals were instituted often accompanied by a catechism like The Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

The spiritual impulse is part of what it means to be a human being. It is not going away. That being the case, false prophets with power on their mind will continue to use it to further their ends. How can you tell a true from a false prophet? “You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus said; you will know them by what their actions produce over time.

Meanwhile beware of men with minds ablaze who claim to have the final solution.

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