Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hayek's theology

In The Fatal Conceit, Hayek quotes the Bible probably more times than in any of his other works I've read (and really, to even have one quote is more than usual for him). Of course, I should say right off the bat that many of these quotes are meant to be compared against the view he is propounding. For instance, he quotes 1 Timothy 6:10 ("the love of money is the root of all evil") on the way to countering such fears of money. Many times I had to wonder what his motivation was. In his polemic to construe socialism as a new sort of animism, i.e. a return to primitive religion, was he quoting scripture as an affront on socialists, who would have taken this association as an attack on their reason?

The answer is unclear. It's interesting to note that Hayek begins this book quoting scripture, citing the cultural mandate in Genesis 1. He says,
To understand our civilisation, one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection--the comparative increase of population and wealth--of those groups that happened to follow them. The unwitting, reluctant, even painful adoption of these practices kept these groups together, increased their access to valuable information of all sorts, and enabled them to be 'fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it' (Genesis 1:28).
Not only is this quote a helpful summary of Hayek's overall thesis, but it reveals an interesting fact: Hayek not only quotes from but essentially supports wholeheartedly the cultural mandate given by God in Genesis 1. If this were not the case, none of the rest of his argument would make sense.

In light of this fact, and because the subject is interesting in its own right, I thought I would explore some of the religious thoughts explored by Hayek in The Fatal Conceit. The fact that these religious thoughts appear so frequently in this book (which is to say, more than once, compared with other works in which he is mostly silent on the subject) is curious to me. One explanation might be that he was 89 years old when the book was published, only a few years from his death; and it seems people tend to contemplate religion more toward the end of life. Another explanation might be that Hayek had by this time witnessed the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions and seen how many religious groups, particularly in America, had jumped on board with capitalism, and this stirred him to contemplate what his relationship to religion might be. And then, it might simply have been the most appropriate work in which to write about such matters, since his whole argument is an argument about where our morals come from, and religion is obviously involved in this discussion. Whatever the reason, there is much for me to explore here, giving me a little insight into the religious mind of F. A. Hayek.

The question that I would like to attempt to answer here is, why didn't Hayek believe in God? The best answer I can give to this question is that Hayek didn't believe in God for the same reason that he didn't believe in socialism: he saw that order was often not the result of deliberate design. Thus in refuting the claims of biologist Jacques Monod, that science can derive the right morals on which to base society, Hayek says,
Monod's conclusions stem from his opinion that the only other possible way to account for the origin of morals--apart from ascribing them to human invention--is by animistic or anthropomorphic accounts such as are given in many religions. And it is indeed true that 'for mankind as a whole all religions have been intertwined with the anthropomorphic view of the deity as a father, friend or potentate to whom men must do service, pray, etc.' This aspect of religion I can as little accept as can Monod and the majority of natural scientists. It seems to me to lower something far beyond our comprehension to the level of a slightly superior manlike mind. [The emphasis is mine.]
The difference between Hayek and others who reject belief in God on similar grounds is that Hayek does have a genuine reverence for that which is not designed. I have from time to time remarked that atheists and conservative Christians seem to agree on one thing: whether or not evolution happens, it is definitely a bad thing. Thus for the one side, evolution becomes an argument against God, and for the other, God becomes an argument against evolution. Hayek certainly does not fall into either of these camps. He sees spontaneous order as good. I find the statement above which I have placed in bold to be downright worshipful, as I do many statements from Albert Einstein on the "cosmic religious feeling" which we gain from perceiving the incredible order of the universe.

To get at this worshipful attitude a little more deeply, let me quote another passage in which Hayek is trying to refute the rationalism of the socialists.
There is no ready English or even German word that precisely characterises an extended order, or how its way of functioning contrasts with the rationalists' requirements. The only appropriate word, 'transcendent', has been so misused that I hesitate to use it. In its literal meaning, however, it does concern that which far surpasses the reach of our understanding, wishes and purposes, and our sense perceptions, and that which incorporates and generates knowledge which no individual brain, or any single organisation, could possess or invent. This is conspicuously so in its religious meaning, as we see for example in the Lord's Prayer, where it is asked that 'Thy will [i.e. not mine] be done in earth as it is in heaven'; or in the Gospel, where it is declared: 'Ye have not chosen me but I have chosen you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain' (St. John, 15:26). But a more purely transcendent ordering, which also happens to be a purely naturalistic ordering (not derived from any supernatural power), as for example in evolution, abandons the animism still present in religion: the idea that a single brain or will (as for example, that of an omniscient God) could control and order.
This is a passage worth hanging over and meditating on. The term "naturalistic" is bound to be misleading, I think; we are too prone to equating it with "reductionist." For Hayek, it is just the opposite. By not appealing to the existence of a personal God, we realize a far greater transcendence in the natural order. We realize how small a human mind really is, and that the order we see around us is the result of something so far beyond any human mind that it would be absurd to personify it.

I feel it's appropriate to ask whether Christians too often fail to take this sense of transcendence seriously. Perhaps if we could make a greater use of apophaticism, we would be able to clarify some of the issues underlying Hayek's argument. For instance, Christians might learn to acknowledge that yes, God is our Father, since he created us and loves us as his children; yet he is also not our Father, since he is so far beyond us that personal terms like "father" don't begin to describe him. Here I have to add that I have often been frustrated personally by a Christian culture so bent on preaching about our "personal relationship" with God that there is often hardly any solemn meditation on what Christians from the beginning have always known: that God is in a real sense unknowable, being utterly transcendent.

On the other hand, Hayek himself surely could have looked into such things on his own. Although I am readily able to sympathize with his arguments, I am also readily able to criticize his lack of theological depth. If he truly cared to quote scripture, he might have gone back to Exodus 3 and examined the name which God declared to Moses. Any sensitive reader of scripture must surely see the Bible pointing to something far beyond what it can actually describe in words. Even the word "God" hardly even hints at the real nature of what the Bible is talking about.

Now when we arrive at the final chapter of The Fatal Conceit, Hayek's argument turns specifically toward religion. He says, "In closing this work, I would like to make a few informal remarks--they are intended as no more than that--about the connection between the argument of this book and the role of religious belief. These remarks may be unpalatable to some intellectuals because they suggest that, in their own long-standing conflict with religion, they were partly mistaken--and very much lacking in appreciation." It is here that he explains that religions, especially the monotheistic ones, were largely responsible for transmitting the morals upon which modern civilization depends. Here he is both friendly and patronizing toward believers. It's almost as if he's saying, "Let's thank our ancestors for believing all those ridiculous things about God. It really helped us out in the long run." It could be worse, I suppose.

Finally, we get to Hayek's defense of the classic agnostic position:
So far as I personally am concerned I had better state that I feel as little entitled to assert as to deny the existence of what others call God, for I must admit that I just do not know what this word is supposed to mean. I certainly reject every anthropomorphic, personal, or animistic interpretation of the term, interpretations through which many people succeed in giving it a meaning. The conception of a man-like or mind-like acting being appears to me rather the product of an arrogant overestimation of the capacities of a man-like mind. I cannot attach meaning to words that in the structure of my own thinking, or in my picture of the world, have no place that would give them meaning. It would thus be dishonest of me were I to use such words as if they expressed any belief that I hold.
I've always felt that there's a good bit of truth in this argument. Notice how he rejects belief in God on the grounds that he rejects the hubris of man. And since he has been so consistent in rejecting man's hubris throughout his economic argument, one can only sympathize all the more with his theological argument. Reading Hayek's reasons for not believing in God produces in me an ambivalence which I often feel in talking to others about faith. Part of me feels that it is all simply a problem of language, or at least a problem of how, in general, humans are supposed to use language. This problem is explicit in Hayek's words: "I must admit that I just do not know what this word is supposed to mean." To a large extent, I don't either. I certainly don't think we can treat God as anything approximately like a human being (otherwise the Incarnation would hardly be a mystery!) nor do I think God is simply a Mind in the sense that a human possesses a mind. Yet we can agree that the transcendent order appearing in the universe is surely enough to make men tremble upon perceiving it. And if we can share this same vague sense of reverence, have we not stumbled upon something divine?

Are we really, after all, talking about the same thing; or are some people blind, while only believers truly see? The latter would, I suppose, be the traditional claim of Christianity; but it has always been difficult to swallow. Some might find it hard to swallow because they are convinced they see, and that it is in fact the religious faithful who are blind. I myself find it hard to believe that Christians see while others are blind, because I regard myself as mostly blind. For many Christians, it seems that the good news consists in having once been blind, but now seeing. I identify more with the man who was at first only partially cured by Jesus, so that to him people looked like trees walking (Mark 8:24). Seeing is definitely a process, and one in which I can hardly feel I am much more advanced than anyone else.

Still, it's worth noting that perhaps Hayek fell prey to the same rationalism he argued against so effectively. Human reason insists on knowing just why I should use the word "God" or any other religious word. Human reason insists on knowing why I eat the bread and drink the cup. Human reason insists on knowing why I pray or read scripture. Yet just perhaps we cannot know the effect of these practices until we have actually done them. Even the use of particular words is a practice to which we must grow accustomed, words like "God, Father, Jesus, Christ," and "Spirit." Perhaps it is only after we learn to use the words properly that we can even begin to do theology, rather than the other way around.

To bring this to a conclusion, let me quote from Hayek's last lines of The Fatal Conceit, which immediately follow his defense of the agnostic position:
I long hesitated whether to insert this personal note here, but ultimately decided to do so because support by a professed agnostic may help religious people more unhesitatingly to pursue those conclusions that we do share. Perhaps what many people mean in speaking of God is just a personification of that tradition of morals or values that keeps their community alive. The source of order that religion ascribes to a human-like divinity--the map or guide that will show a part successfully how to move within the whole--we now learn to see to be not outside the physical world but one of its characteristics, one far too complex for any of its parts possibly to form an 'image' or 'picture' of it. Thus religious prohibitions against idolatry, against the making of such images, are well taken. Yet perhaps most people can conceive of abstract tradition only as a personal Will. If so, will they not be inclined to find this will in 'society' in an age in which more overt supernaturalisms are ruled out as superstitions?

On that question may rest the survival of our civilisation.
These words are as powerful as any I've read in Hayek's works, and they are well-taken. I, too, sense that the error of socialism is fundamentally one of idolatry.

In a rather bizarre twist of ideas, my reading this year of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion has bumped into my reading of Adam Smith and my more extensive reading of Hayek. From this interaction, I've unexpectedly run into a simple yet profound common theme: we are not in control. All idolatry is in some sense an attempt at gaining control. We reduce divinity down to what we can understand, and we feel more directly connected with the gods. Just as Calvin's theology destroys that presumption in religion, forcing us to acknowledge the utter transcendence of God's providence, so in a strangely similar way the economists of the classical liberal tradition destroy all presumption that we can construct for ourselves the economic order that sustains our lives, forcing us to limit those behaviors, particularly of the state, which are meant to deliberately shape our economic life.

That we are not in control is a profoundly difficult idea to swallow, and it has never gone over well, either in theology or in politics. Yet if, as Hayek suggests, the fate of our civilization depends on acknowledging it, will we swallow our pride before it is too late?


  1. It's a bit surprising not to see any real interaction with Hayek's objection to a personal God as simply "a man-like mind" or some such. The whole notion of imago Dei (at least as the Reformed tradition has understood it, and probably much more broadly) is that man has a God-like mind - that's not to exalt us beyond our actual stature, but to say that our personality, our rationality, our creativity, exist precisely because God is originally personal, rational, and creative. God isn't like us so much as we are like God, our existence contingent upon His and our nature designed according to His wishes.

    That helps us not to be arrogant in assuming we can wrap our minds around God, helps us to acknowledge the mystery of God's radical otherness; it means we can never know God comprehensively (any more than we can ever know anything comprehensively), but we can know Him truly.

    I'd really like to see you interact with Van Til sometime.

  2. Your point is well-taken. There is always a danger, though, in trying to make words point to the unfamiliar. The terms personal, rational, and creative already have familiar meanings in the realm of common experience, and when we point to God as the source of these traits, I would think we have to throw in the caveat that these words might mean more than we originally intended them to mean. This problem is well-known, especially in science, where trying to explain the unfamiliar using familiar terms has caused all sorts of paradoxes, such as calling light both a particle and a wave. Theology, it would seem, has such problems of its own.

    If I read any Van Til, I'll certainly blog about it.


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