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Strange collocation

Bertrand Russell's 'firm foundation of unyielding despair' was tragically odd

Issue: "Save the unions," Oct. 24, 2009

Early in college I read Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian. Russell, 93 years old when I read that book, died five years later in 1970. He was a British philosopher and one of the founders, with A.N. Whitehead, of analytic philosophy.

One great benefit of going to a good Christian college is that you read important bad books with the help of wise Christian scholars. Most 19-year-olds are not ready to navigate the sophisticated arguments of seasoned skeptics. But with the guidance of a seasoned Christian thinker, the navigation can be profitable. It was for me.

Russell stressed the absoluteness of physical matter. In other words, if you trace the origin of everything all the way back, you arrive at impersonal matter, not personal spirit: Matter, not God, is absolute. This meant, for Russell, that there is only material existence.

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This produced one of the bleakest views of human life imaginable. Here, he says, is "the world which science built for our belief."

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of the universe in ruins. . . . Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built (Why I Am Not a Christian, editor Paul Edwards [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957], p. 107).

It doesn't take too much assistance from a wise teacher to help a 19-year-old see something odd in this. Tragically odd. Triply odd.

First the language he uses seems borrowed from another worldview: "loves," "beliefs," "devotion," "inspiration," "genius," "despair," and strangest of all, "soul." To be sure, he insists that these are all "but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms." Really? Why would material atoms collide to create a language affirming realities beyond matter? It is an odd creation of Russell's world.

Second, did Russell really say to his crying children (he had three) that their sorrows were the unfortunate collocation of atoms? Did he say to any of his three wives, in the best of their affections, "This is only the collocation of atoms?" In other words, did he live his philosophy? Or was he playing 20th-century academic games?

Third, when he says, "Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built," it seems to be laboring to sound poetic and meaningful. Even at his lowest moment of self-annihilating philosophy, he cannot repress his God-like self.

The vision of life revealed in the Bible explains more of what we experience than the materialism of Bertrand Russell. It makes more sense out of the material and immaterial, the impersonal and the personal, and puts a solid foundation under the soaring eloquence of Russell's contradictory despair.

Yes, we die. And there is darkness and sorrow. For those who see only that, there will be something much worse than Russell's "extinction in the vast death of the solar system." That is not what hell is.

But for believers, the despair and futility are swept away in the dawn of Easter Sunday.

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. . . . But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:17-20).

I thank God for the unshakeable, hope-filled truths of the Bible. And I thank God for wise Christian scholar-teachers who led me through the swamps of academic unbelief so that I could see how inauthentic its play-actors were.

Some people reject Christ because there are hypocrites in the church. I keep coming back to Him because there is so much academic gamesmanship in the university.

John Piper
John Piper

John is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary.

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