By David Tulis
The Batman massacre by orange-headed defendant James Holmes is a noisy burp following an extended sit-down meal at a buffet-style restaurant in a strip mall of modern philosophy.
The fare in the first course is a high-fat all-you-can-eat consumerism with two side dishes — steamed post-modernism and cream-slathered despair. Nestled between is a bun from enriched white flour, largely decorative.
The attack that killed 12 and wounded 48 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater is forcing Americans to consider whether their ideas about ultimate causes and God are dead ends.
War against transcendency
James Holmes is a partisan in a religious conflict, and arguably a self-conscious combatant. He represents a worldview that has powerful proponents in American institutions, including public schools with their death education pods and their value-added scientific materialism and the media, which turns everything into entertainment via the picture. Mr. Holmes represents a variety of these ideas. He stands apart from other deniers of transcendency and of God in his wilful and remarkably bold self-consistency. Taking in hand a fat Magic Marker, I hope to sketch his worldview.
The Batman massacre is conceivable within Mr. Holmes’ worldview. It is even a necessity in the cooperation of two aspects of his soul: His personal superiority and his abject sense of humiliation.
The massacre was a triumph of self-directed human action. In preparation, Mr. Holmes submitted himself to months of soul-searching and “motiveless malignity,” the term Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses to describe the hatred of Iago toward his lord, Othello, in the Shakespeare play of that name.
In his preparatory phase, Mr. Holmes solved the question about the origin of sovereignty and predestination. Sovereignty is the power to predestine and ordain events and circumstances. Where does the power reside? To what extent is man sovereign? Either it exists wholly within man — or in his institutions, such as the state — or exclusively in the Creator. This distinction is the one posited by the Christian worldview, and admitted even by people opposed to it, such as atheist Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation.
Making poetic use of despair
Mr. Holmes is a man in despair, as I believe will be shown in his psychological examination in the coming years of court proceedings. His vanity is not inconsistent with despair, and I suggest is a cover for it, a humanizing reaction against it.
Vanity and hubris are Mr. Holmes’ way of accounting for a despair that in another man would have led to an unobtrusive suicide. Indeed, suicide is what his Arapahoe County jailers are most concerned about in the heat after his arrest, for a man in Mr. Holmes’ position is burned out, a shell, a cinder, indifferent as to whether he lives or dies.
Seeing ‘things as they are’ — but rejecting religion
And within Mr. Holmes’ vanity resides a self-vindicating violence, ready to be unsheathed, set to be magnified at the most visible and symbolic occasion.
The premier of “The Dark Knight Rises” provided the opportunity for which he planned for months. It was a poetic moment in which he could make his final statement about the world as it is. The world without God is one his hopelessness accurately perceives, one that is meaningless, pointless, neither good nor evil. I propose that his banalization of evil is Mr. Holmes’ most striking claim, his state of numbness in his solitary confinement his most fruitful contribution to the war against Christ and the Christian religion.
Take an ordinary man or woman like yourself. God by His grace makes use of despair over sin and self-abasement to convert you at a given moment in time. If you are Christian you have experienced this powerful sense of evil and lostness. Christianity calls this brooding over evil in your breast and circumstances conviction of sin. It works unto salvation. You cease an ethical rebellion. You submit to a loving Father. If God intends to save you, you repent of your sins, turn away from them and live obediently under God’s rule and grace, according to the Bible.
This lifelong grace is called sanctification and involves a holy life of self-denial, duty and faithful example of meekness and virtue. He is not sin-free, but he is not a slave to sin. He is a productive, good man, caring of others, and his good works are part of his duty to God.
The Christian analysis holds that the idolator responds differently to this true state of despair. Miserable in sin, such a man pursues worship of false gods that allow for self-will and self-glorification as well as slavery. He rejects God and his law. He boldly determines which rules to live by. He creates a moral code, and according to this credo accounts for the lives of others and portions out his obligation to others and his duty.
Through manmade religion he deals with the sin problem (after a fashion) and by alternative means commits himself to account for the fall that Christianity attributes to Adam, the first man. Such a course is but folly and blindness, the church teaches.
Manmade goodness — is it enough?
The scriptures describe those whom God does not favor as lost, wicked and idolators. The Bible claims to offer the sole explanation for the human condition. They live in darkness, and do not have the light of salvation in their eye nor their hearts. By God’s providence people who reject Him don’t act consistently with their convictions. Many people outside Christianity are good and generous. They feed their children and are faithful to their wives and employers. Many exhibit noble virtues and seek civic good.
A biblical analysis holds that these good deeds bring a measure of peace and stability to society, but looks more deeply. These good deeds are too puny to make a right relationship between God and man. These benevolences are not enough to win favor before God. God the Father declares the sons of fallen Adam guilty. Those exempt from judgment are those whose guilt has been removed by salvation through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Religion solves problems that philosophy imperfectly perceives.
Most people who claim no affinity with Christianity are not consistent with their beliefs about the absence of God. They deny an extraordinary and nonhuman source for determining good and evil. Yet they share many assumptions with Christians. They see murder as an evil. They see rape as evil. They would never rationalize a butchery of civilians by anyone. They condemn offensive wars. Francis Schaeffer and other Christian writers say these people are living off borrowed capital — they borrow notions from the Bible without giving it credit. They deny a transcendent system of ethics, but act in terms of one. They are inconsistent.
The drive to consistency in mass murder
But some people outside of Christianity are consistent. Denying God, they rigorously pursue some variation of the conviction that they are sovereign and the world does — or should — revolve around their conceptions. They despise two-mindedness. If there is no external system to bind them, they will turn their despair to their own ends. In agony over the human condition, and their own personal alienation, they seek heroic consistency and are drawn to mighty deeds of what post-World War II philosophers call existential acts of will. This philosophy of the act of will was developed by theoretician Jean Paul Sartre and the novelist Albert Camus, both Frenchmen.
“Existential ethics is centered not upon moral absolutes,” says Gene Edward Veith in an important intellectual history, “but upon the individual’s moral choices. An action is praiseworthy not in terms of whether or not it conforms to some external moral code, but whether or not it reflects a genuine choice and commitment on the part of the individual. *** [T]hose who blindly conform to other people’s rules are inauthentic. *** Those who freely choose a course of action, asserting their will to shape their own lives, are authentic.” ‡
Such people in their despair often commit suicide. Others, even bolder and yet greater cowards, commit suicide by proxy.
These people, I propose, are the ones who massacre innocents in schools, malls, kindergartens and theaters. They commit extreme acts of violence against others to exercise the exhilarating power of consistency, acting as if they hated the people they slew but feeling in the heat of the moment only indifference — not hatred, not evil, not anger. Just boredom. Their mass and random acts of violence bring terror, screams and panic to their victims, and to the shooters an hour’s work of exhausting tedium.
Mr. Holmes, I submit, doesn’t hate Veronica Sullivan, 6, slain, or aspiring sportscaster Jessica Ghawi, slain, or anyone else he targeted with his rifle. He didn’t loathe the men and women he slaughtered. He felt no personal animosity toward them, no disgust or distaste. He feels supreme indifference toward his victims, and gunned them down to prove it to himself and a horrified world.
To Holmes the university student, it doesn’t matter one way or another that he killed them. He could just as easily that night have gone out for a late-night burger, watched an old war movie on TV then gone to bed before hitting the books next morning. He could have done that. But he didn’t. He built a provisional parallel channel of his life, running alongside to his ordinary isolated student life, to see where it led. And it drove him to a massacre and to boobytrapping his apartment.
Chattanooga escapes massacre for now
How has Chattanooga, Tenn., and Hamilton County avoided such massacre? My perception of this environmentally savvy city and crossroads of the South is that God has greatly blessed it. Three proofs would include the 1993 closure of Chattanooga Women’s Clinic, a strong Christian and homeschool movement, and moderation of appetite for debt.
Still, the city cannot escape the effects of cultural collapse and alienation described by Harvard sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin in a remarkable 1946 study, The Crisis of Our Age[;] The Social and Cultural Outlook. Sorokin explains the end of what he calls Western “sensate culture” in terms of arts, economics, family life and other measurable data. Comparable to decline of “ideational” religious medieval culture is the collapse of ours today which is pragmatic, secular and this-worldly. A key element in the collapse is the loss of Christian antithesis and certainty, Dr. Sorokin says.
How statist pressure crushes the individual
“This is the essence of the fundamental crisis of Western society,” he says in a chapter on the family. The following passage is simply riveting.
For a person living in the time of this crisis the net result is tragic. The proud citizen of the 19th century finds himself deprived of virtually all his sensate values. His boasted individualism is trampled underfoot: he is now an insignificant cog in a huge machine operated without regard to his wishes. His liberties and inalienable rights are gone. He has become a mere puppet. Thousands and millions of once-proud citizens, heirs of the Declaration of Rights, are shunted hither and thither, pushed and pulled about more unceremoniously than slaves by their masters. *** The contractual society of free men — with its contractual economic order and free associations — has disappeared. Even the family is in a state of partial ruin. With the frustration of their fondest hopes and aspirations, the tragedy of their lives is complete. Few periods of human history display so deep a tragedy *** (p 194).
In discussing the rise of criminality, revolution and suicide, he describes the atomization of culture and the marooning of individuals.
Another consequence of periods of transition is an increase of mental disease and suicide. Social life in an overripe sensate culture becomes so complex, the struggle for sensory happiness so sharp, the quest for pleasure destroys the mental and moral balance to such an extent, that the mind and nervous system of multitudes of persons cannot stand the terrific strain to which they are subjected; hence they tend to become warped or even cracked. *** [T]hese persons find themselves without any authoritative guide or any superindividual rule. In these conditions they inevitably become erratic, a prey to incidental individual expediencies, momentary fancies and conflicting sensory impulses.
He continues, describing how statist and cultural pressures bear down on a single person:
Like a rudderless boat in a stormy sea, such a person is tossed hither and thither by the force of circumstances. He has no standard by which to discover how consistent his actions are and whether he is drifting; in brief, he becomes inconsistent and unintentegrated complex of fortuitous ideas, beliefs, emotions and impulses. An increase of disintegration and derangement of personality is an inevitable result. *** Nervous breakdowns are but another aspect of the collapse of a socio-cultural order (pp. 206, 207).
Despite God’s blessings on my hometown of Chattanooga, or yours, there is no reason to suppose that in His government He has not put into place the means and agency to bring such a tragedy within our jurisdiction. If such violence occurs, it is no accident, but part of His superintendence of humankind. If the secret counsels of His will see no such breach of His laws here, by no means will such crimes happen. We may have among us people whose moral codes allow for such bloody acts of courage and willpower. But no massacre can possibly happen apart from God’s providential care.
This assertion of God’s sovereign grace and power is intended not to offend men, but comfort them. Christians have a duty to pray for God’s intervening hand in the protection of their homes, businesses and cities. At worship on the Lord’s Day, in private worship and in family worship, Christians have the privilege of being able to petition God for protection.
The past days’ events prompt us to this grace.
‡ Gene Edward Veith, Modern Fascism[;] Liquidating the Judeo-Christian Worldview (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1993), pp. 95; 126-144, “The Will to Power[;] Fascism and Postmodernism”
Pitirim A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age[;] The Social and Cultural Outlook (New York, E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1946)
Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and its Confrontation with American Society (Nashville; Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983)