Monthly Archives: August 2013

Bulverism, and other Societal Weirdness

C.S. Lewis wrote an essay in 1941 entitled “Bulverism: Or, the Foundation of 20th Century Thought” and the concept has some surprising connections to things we take for granted in the 21st century. I suppose that is no surprise, since things which are the foundation of one century are often forgotten in the next.

In Lewis’ time there were two groups that had made certain discoveries that they felt help explain the human condition. Those two groups were the Freudians and the Marxists. Lewis explains them by saying that “The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class.” which is basically how we describe them today, but more important today than what they specifically believed, is how they thought.

Each group felt that they could explain aspects of why people do the things they do based on certain things. This is an idea that is still around today, and influences some important aspects of life. This line of thinking brought Lewis to coin the term “Bulverism.” He explains it by using the following example:

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking’. You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant—but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds.

Why is that important? He concludes:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism.

I think this is so common today that it primarily goes by unnoticed, and that serves secular society in several ways. Think back to the last national tragedy you can think of. If it’s grotesque enough, you’ll hear the media say things like “an act of evil was done today” or something like that, but usually you will not even hear the word evil in association with it. What you will never hear is that the person themselves are evil/bad. Instead, what you will hear is (after the glamorization of the event by the media) that an investigation was done into the person’s past and they had an abusive father or an alcoholic father or was abandoned by their parents or some such thing. Now certainly these things are terrible, and studies have shown that the way a child is raised will impact how it lives as an adult. These things are important, but why not just call the person bad? If you don’t like the word evil, use bad, or even broken perhaps. Anything, just to get the conversation starting.

However, that is precisely what they want to avoid. Why? Because the idea that someone just is evil really goes against the prevailing attitude in society that deep down, at bottom, everyone is good. It’s just their conditions/upbringing that let them down. Conditions are the fault of society, and society is the fault of conditions, to quote the poem. Worse then that, then you will have to start up ethical discussions on the fact that if one person is evil, then you have to define what the line between people who are evil by nature and the ones who aren’t. And worst of all, that’s starting to sound eerily like the Christian idea of original sin, and how the Psalmist writes “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” ( Psalms 51:5) The Bible talks about the innate sinfulness of man all over the place, and even that men love their sin and hate God. And the more things you can put between you and God the better, since you would have to deal with Jesus otherwise.

Francis Schaeffer talked about how man erects for himself a house of defenses against God. One of the tasks of the apologist (and evangelist) is to tear the roof off their defenses and allow them to feel the tension between their beliefs and God’s truth. The truth is that man is sinful, loves his sin, and hates God. But God is Holy and His justice must be satisfied, and there are two places that takes place, in hell and on the cross. Jesus felt the force of the justice of God when He died for our sins, and if you believe in Him that is where things are dealt with, and if not they will be dealt on you in hell for eternity. This is not to say that psychology and other disciplines can’t be used to help fix certain aspects of people, because it certainly can. But we need to get to the fact that the real issue isn’t that someone is “sick” but that they are sinful and separated from God.

The story is a bit more dire for Christians though. Lewis also wrote a few different essays on what he called the “Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” which was so called to be contrasted with the old, penal system and their horrible capital punishment. It was thought that capital punishment was too harsh and the goal should instead be to either inflict a punishment that would “cure” the person, or at least would deter the public from doing something similar. This theory might still be around, but I will have to leave that question to my smarter lawyer friends. Lewis points out that it would still be compulsory, and the idea of justice would be entirely removed from the equation. The whole idea that someone is getting punished, and that punishment is equal to the crime they committed, and therefore that justice has been served, would be eliminated. Who cares if the person getting “cured” is actually guilty or not, so long as the public sees the example and it gets them to not do something. After all, the person would hear something like “nobody is blaming you, we’re just going to cure you”.

Why is this an issue for Christians? Well, if the idea of justice is eliminated in favor of therapy or making a public example, then truth is quietly pushed under the rug in favor of the public good. Certain things/thoughts could become deemed “dangerous to society” or some such thing. If Christianity found itself out of favor to such a degree that it became something which need to be “cured” then this is a situation that could easily play itself out. Cure the people who tell us we’re sick! I don’t know that I foresee that happening in my lifetime, but it’s happened in different areas of the world, and I think there will be persecution in America of Christians during my lifetime. I think very soon the first example of this will be the government forcing some church to marry a gay couple or to shut down. In any case, we need to be watching culture so that we know how to interact with it. We need to have, as John Piper says, broken-hearted boldness to both preach the truth, but to do it because we love our neighbor as ourselves and do not want to see them perish without hope. People are fallen, and we need to say this, and to speak the law so that people see their need for a savior, and then to tell them about Christ.