Omnipotent Impotence: Bertrand Russell’s Free Man’s Worship

After spending a long life flitting between the clamourings of boisterous philosophers  – Hegel, Moore, Bradley, Plato, Wittgenstein – Bertrand Russell went to his “rest”.  At one period he was into mind-matter dualism, then into neutral monism (no, not “neural” monism – he had more than one brain cell). He ended his life a materialist. The distressing thing about materialism is that it cannot offer any consistent account of  experience. It’s all talk. Matter ends up as natter.

In his “Why I am not a Christian”, Russell rejects the Christian belief in an ultimate reality. That is not to say that he didn’t spend much of his life in the quest for ultimates. The two ultimate philosophical questions are, first, how do we know what we know?, and, second, “how should we live?” Russell was  only interested in the first. As for the second, he lived as he pleased.

He was never sure about how we know anything. Why then was he so certain that Christianity was wrong? Whatever his reason, it couldn’t have had anything to do with Christ’s claim that “I am the way the truth and the life,” because if Russell didn’t know what was true, or what truth was (except “my truth, your truth”) how could he be so sure that Christianity was not true? The reason is that he loathed all religion, and Christianity in particular. In the preface to his “critical essays”, he says, “I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as they are untrue.” Why, reasoned Russell, throw reason to the dogmas?” Religion, Russell said, neither advances civilization nor can it cure any of the world’s troubles. Besides, he says, there’s no life beyond the grave. Is there!

In his article “A Free man’s worship” (1903), he concludes: “Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way.”  Russell didn’t reject worship per se, for he worshipped the “empire of chance”. Out with the shrine not built with human hands[1] and in with the “shrine I have built,” says Russell. Here is Russell on the “free man’s worship”: “to worship at the shrine his own hands have built, undismayed by the empire of chance.” Imperious matter will have its chance. As Lady Catherine de Burgh imperiously chirped: “I will have my share.”[2]

“Brief and powerless is Man’s life (laments Russell); on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way.”  (Bertrand Russell’s, “A Free Man’s Worship”).

The free man caught up in the chance intrigues of “omnipotent matter” – omnipotently impotent. R.I.P?


[1]  So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,  nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything (Acts 17:22-25)

[2] Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

Of goads and nails

Alvin Plantinga, the Christian philosopher, did his graduate work at the University of Michigan. At Michigan he considered the most important philosophical question to be “what is the truth about this matter?”. His question was often greeted with disdain and as extremely naïve. The specific matter was not what mattered to the scoffers; what mattered was that one would think that truth about any matter mattered.

We use the mind in our socialising, working, playing and many other activities. But, what is the human mind ultimately meant for if not searching for truth – THE truth?

God holds people accountable not only for what they believe but also for how deeply they think about what they believe. My posts are considered by some to be too “intellectual”. Isn’t it possible that deep discussion is confused with “intellectual” (that is, “high”, “scholarly”, “academic”)? The Bible teaches – it commands – in many places to know and understand truth. Commands? Yes. How can Christians obey the command to understand when such a thing is not expected of the “world”? Because when Christ comes to in live them, the Spirit of truth comes to dwell within. If “within” then deep within.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you (John 14:15-17).”

The Spirit of truth is not like a magic potion, which, once ingested, automatically garnishes the gut with divine wisdom. In Christianity, eurekas are rare. The psalmist says “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope (Psalm 130:5). Why does he wait for the Lord? Because he knows that the Lord’s word is true, that his hope in the Lord will never be futile. How does he know that? Because he knows God’s word. How did he get to know God’s word? He obeyed it. And you can’t obey something you haven’t studied.

“Study (be diligent) to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Where is the word of truth (the word of God) to be found? In the One True Shepherd. Christians need to be like nails firmly fixed onto the words of the One True Shepherd – Jesus Christ.  if you are a Christian, how much of your time is devoted to studying the God’s word  – the Scriptures? How much time do you spend on books of which “there is no end?” (King Solomon).

“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My [child], beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Ecclesiastes 12:11-12.

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