The “Nothing But” Revolution

The term “revolution” gets bantered about in many different contexts in our world, some good and others not so benign. I am an ardent music lover so for me the revolution wrought by Beethoven in the music world is an electrifying moment in history. As an American I am a direct descendant and beneficiary of that momentous revolution in 1776 that shook the world and gave birth to this great nation conceived in liberty. One can also think of other revolutions that have had quite the opposite, and chilling, effects such as the Communist Revolution in 1917 Russia. History has also witnessed the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific Revolution from which it sprang, and the Digital Revolution which is its great-grandchild.

But the most memorable revolutions tend to be either social, political, or religious as extreme revisions in these areas of life tend to have the deepest impact on all of us. About 60 years ago a psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Stern, wrote a book entitled The Third Revolution in which he proposed that the modern mind has been formed by three successful revolutionaries, Karl Marx in economics, Charles Darwin in biology, and finally Sigmund Freud in psychology. In his analysis Stern advances the argument that each founded his particular revolution upon the philosophy of “nothing but.” And this “nothing but” mechanism has proved time and again to be an invaluable technique for expounding one’s revolutionary ideas.

“Nothing but” is essentially what we might call debunking, because before a new idea can replace it, the old idea has to be debunked. Otherwise there is no reason for people to latch onto the new idea. The old idea that had to be gotten rid of by the three above-named revolutionaries (and agnostics) was any idea of a religious or spiritual order of reality. In other words the old slate had to be wiped clean before some new, materialistic philosophy could hope to replace it. Therefore, as Dr. Stern observed, “To a modern astronomer the earth is nothing but an insignificant speck in the galaxy; to the biologist man is nothing but some chance product of an evolutionary process…; to a dialectical materialist cultural achievements are nothing but by-products of the economic struggle.”

We will return to Dr. Stern a bit later. Just bear in mind his admonition that it is useful to employ the reductive “nothing but” approach when criticizing the old order if a new social, political, or spiritual revolution is to succeed. One needs to debunk what is already widely held or believed as true in order to replace it with a different truth. To be clear, revolutions are not fought in the streets but in the minds of men and women. It is only later that these ideas take to the streets.

My only problem with Karl Stern’s thesis is that it takes a rather shorter view of history than I propose regarding our modern Western culture. I believe that he is essentially correct in what he proposes but for a moment let us look at the before and after snapshots. Before, there existed a medieval world called Christendom where religious faith was taken for granted, even if practice was somewhat lax or understanding incomplete. European Christianity then was broad but shallow. Man’s destiny and hopes for happiness were primarily linked to the world after death. Now fast forward from the Middle Ages to our modern 21st century. We now see a highly skeptical, materialistic, and secularized culture where personal fulfillment in the here and now is commonly viewed as man’s greatest good. Belief in a transcendent being is more the exception than the rule. Clearly over half a millennium the old religious cultural values of Western man have been successfully debunked to be replaced by a new secular orthodoxy based on material and social progress. This transformation did not happen all at once, or even in the space of one long human life span as Dr. Stern proposed. It occurred over a period now approaching 500 years, and it occurred in three broad phases or “revolutions” as a title such as The Third Revolution suggests.

Our modern revolution began inauspiciously enough with the rise of humanism in the 14th century, what historians refer to as the early Renaissance. Although humanism itself was a very benign sort of revolution, it did provide a fertile seedbed for later religious/social upheavals. The Church, wielding significant temporal power and influence in Europe, was also plagued by corruption among her clergy. After an 80 year exile in Avignon, the return of the papal court to Rome resulted in the “Great Schism,” a period of three simultaneously competing popes. The result was confusion and general demoralization. But the faith was still widely practiced. New universities were expanding the reach of education as a general wave of trade, prosperity, and Christian humanism worked to soften, doubtless unevenly, some of the harsher aspects of medieval life.

The first explosion, in the sense of a bona fide revolution, erupted in 1517 as Martin Luther’s attack on certain clerical abuses quickly spun out of control. A widely dissolute clergy made the reformer’s portrayal of priests and popes as “nothing but” avaricious charlatans, deceivers, and poseurs seem credible. But had not the Apostle Paul himself warned of such scandals? “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you, and they will not spare the flock. And from your own group, men will come forward perverting the truth to draw the disciples away after them.” (Acts 20:29,30)

It seemed as though Paul precisely predicted what would happen to the Church 1500 years later. Savage clergy wolves were in fact decimating, or at least shamelessly fleecing the flock of Christ. But as the erstwhile reformers themselves began to adopt a more revolutionary spirit they fulfilled the second part of Paul’s prophesy by reinterpreting certain truths and drawing the disciples away from the historical Church of the Apostles and into their own, new congregations. Their vehement debunking of clergy, popes, and even saints and sacraments as “nothing but” superstitions and symbols leapt beyond needed reforms to spark a revolution which permanently ruptured Christendom. Both the Catholic and Protestant camps quickly discovered that it was easier to condemn than to reconcile. Thus a golden opportunity to truly reform was wasted and ended up devolving into a revolution which senselessly divided the Church, and Christians, into two camps.

The second revolution followed in the two succeeding centuries. The Enlightenment became a revolution that would pit faith itself against reason. Enlightenment thinkers more and more portrayed faith as “nothing but” children’s fables or tired legends that only obstructed the true path of reason. The former religious schism contributed greatly to this new thinking especially in the Protestant lands where many spiritual doctrines had already been jettisoned as unreasonable superstitions. But it was in Catholic Italy where the famous case of Galileo cemented the growing hostility between the Church and science; between faith and reason.

Karl Stern comments on this particular controversy in The Third Revolution. “There is no reason why philosophers and theologians, who deal with things of the metaphysical order, should become involved with such questions as the number of teeth in a horse’s mouth, or the elliptic curves of stellar movements. The dreadful mistake was made and very soon the opposite process got under way; today we are at the height of the reaction. Today science takes its revenge for what happened four hundred years ago. There are continuous forays and occasional invasions into the domain of metaphysics. The results are always disastrous.”

The Enlightenment opened wide the doors to what was unthinkable in the time of Luther and Calvin, the debunking of the faith on every level as “nothing but” wishful thinking at best or a cruel and dangerous hoax perpetrated on gullible men and women at worst. Despite making tremendous strides in the various fields of science Enlightenment philosophy ultimately enshrined a materialist world view in the minds of men. By divorcing faith from reason this revolutionary spirit later helped to animate the bloody revolutions in France, Russia, and elsewhere. Reason became an adversarial substitute for the faith rather than its natural friend and ally.

By the advent of the 19th century the third revolution became a logical continuation of the prior two. In his book, Stern speaks of this revolution as three distinct events but I see them all as ultimately compatible parts of the same revolution, namely, a revolution against the established moral order. Whether it be Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, or Sigmund Freud each in his own way began by debunking man himself. Marx justifies his attack on private property by depersonalizing the individual as “nothing but” a social economic unit. Darwin does a similar thing by casting man as “nothing but” a randomly evolved biological organism. Freud ices the cake by reducing man to “nothing but” a psychic bundle of instinctive drives. Most of all religion, according to Freud, is “nothing but” an obsessive-compulsive neurosis. Dr. Stern further notes that, “this theory of “nothing but” appears more devastating the more it advances toward things of a psychic nature.”

Once these revolutionists successfully debunked a Christian based anthropology, man became detached from God and consequently any divine moral boundaries. Moral chaos inevitably ensued. Warfare achieved unimaginable heights of cruelty and barbarism. Hedonism surged as well. It is interesting that Karl Stern published The Third Revolution in early 1954, within a few months of the debut of Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Magazine. Stern’s purported Third Revolution (the Freudian phase) was admirably expressed and fulfilled in the Sexual Revolution in which Playboy played no small part in launching. A full 60 years later we are still dealing with the aftershocks of that Sexual revolution, essentially as a general rebellion against morality.

Of course revolutions don’t just tear down, they also replace what has been debunked with new edifices. The new morality raises up equality above personal accomplishment;extols the worship of nature and the planet over worship of our God. It enshrines the interests of the individual over the good of the family. It praises diversity rather than spiritual unity (yet it oddly demands rigid conformity to any secular “group ethic”). As things now stand our very existence is being justified as “nothing but” the fulfillment of our own private desires and ends. We are then accountable to no one but ourselves. But since the former revolutions have now so conveniently discarded the Church, the faith, and finally a consistent moral order, what or who will be able to save us from ourselves?

Francis J. Pierson

1 thought on “The “Nothing But” Revolution

  1. Man, left to determine his own fate without faith and the moral compass of a loving, transcendent God, may just require his sense of order be totally shaken up and his moral compass be reset by that same loving God.


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