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Volume 14, Issue 6: Thema

Nobility

Douglas Wilson

Among other things, the apostle Paul exhorted us to set our minds on whatever is noble. Of course, in order to do this we have to know what it is, and this is problematic for us in a number of ways. When considering the virtues, particularly virtues praised with an ancient voice like Paul's, we moderns have to understand why so much of his language seems like gibberish to us. Or why, even when we think we understand it, the exhortation still falls cold to the ground.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the Enlightenment tsunami overwhelmed the educated classes of the West, and Newton's mathematical descriptions of the world around us seemed to have sufficient explanatory power for everything. Orthodox Protestants did not surrender absolutely. But they certainly began paying servile tribute to this new conquering power, and we believers entered into yet another Babylonian captivity. The public faith of the West became faith in what were called "facts," neutral scientific facts, and these facts began to intrude themselves virtually everywhere. There was one realm, however, that was left alone—the realm of private opinion, or "faith," where facts had no relevance. The tradeoff was that faith was to have no relevance for the facts either. Dare to know, Kant said, right before going back to sleep.
Each person was allowed his own views, provided those views stayed put and did not pretend to be facts. Even conservative Christians accepted the duty of submitting to the ruling facts of the public square and began clinging privately to the tattered remnants of the faith, much as a wizened veteran of Pickett's charge might look at a ragged guidon he found in a trunk forty years after the war.
We modern Christians think we have been given internal and spiritual consolations, but this is where the central deception has occurred. The etymology of the word heresy shows us that it comes from a word meaning "to choose." And in this sense, the Enlightenment has insisted that we all become limited heretics—each of us choosing what we will believe privately behind our eyes and between our ears. What we do not "believe" in this fashion falls into one of two categories—the "beliefs" of others and the "facts" which govern all of us. It is expected of us that our beliefs will differ from those of others, and it is equally expected that our beliefs will remain serenely irrelevant to any discussion of the facts. In the realm of faith, opinion, deeply-held core values, whatever, the Enlightenment insists that we all roll our own—isn't pluralism grand?—but woe betide the one who challenges "the facts." The orthodoxy that governs our lives is no less fierce for being invisible.
But nobility as Paul conceived it is a public virtue, and as such it presents a threat to every form of Enlightenment thinking. Like every virtue, it begins in the heart as our Lord teaches, and it also demands external embodiment like all the virtues. Without an incarnation, virtues do not remain dormant in the heart, but are rather nonexistent. But nobility differs from the other virtues as well. When nobility takes form, we discover that it is the true chrism of genuine civic leadership. And this is why nobility provides such a unique and potent threat to modernity.
The leveling of all opinions as nothing more than private opinions is the defensive and preventative work done by the bulldozer of egalitarianism. But biblical nobility means biblical aristocracy. Put bluntly (and possibly illegally), nobility requires nobles. And as soon as we get to this point in the discussion, all our little demons of envy come out to play. "Aristocrats, eh? Hoity-toity, eh?" But notice what all this envious carping against the very idea of superior men grants. By default, it establishes the public authority of impersonal Enlightenment laws and, from that vantage, gives the governing mandate to the drudges, drones, and wonks who administer all these natural laws upon our sorry heads. No heart, no soul anywhere, just atoms in motion. To use Lewis' memorable phrase, we are now governed by men without chests. This is fitting, because we the people have no chests either. All of this leads to unfortunate consequences, which we even lament occasionally. But the alternative is to be governed by men who are better than we are (by the ancient standards), and we can't have that. In short, the alternative is to repent of our egalitarianism, and we are not up to it yet.
But of course, aristocracy is inescapable. It is not whether we will be governed by the best (aristos), but rather which definition of the best we will accept for our rulers. Currently, being a hollow people, we accept superficial and soulless definitions of the best. And so the work of keeping our great machine going is performed by carbon units in cubicles, busy getting the papers from one side of the desk to the other, while the glamour of the glitterati is provided by silicon sisters of Hollywood. This, we say, is "the best." But the scriptural witness points in another direction entirely. The land is blessed when the king is the son of nobles (Ecc. 10:17). Not only is this not happening in our day; we have revolted against the very idea of it.
And this is why public discourse in our culture is nothing more than a gigantic bumper car ride at Vanity Fair. Everyone gets into his own opinion and has a jolly time bouncing around the ring established by the invisible authorities. But if God were to raise up leaders who were to actually challenge "the facts"—the boundaries of the ring, the legitimacy of such rides at the fair, and so on—we would soon discover how intolerant of genuine heresy our current masters are. Such a challenge can only be presented by true noblemen, and God bless them when they come. We don't need any more men like our current blow-dried Christian celebrities; we need men like Aragorn, Robert E. Lee, or Athanasius. (Some might balk at the inclusion of Aragorn, but we must remember that fictional men can be true—and real men made out of cardboard.)
Because nobility is such a threat to our civilization, governed as it is by turgid bureaucratic processes, that nobility has to be categorized by the establishment in such a way that their modernist mordor cannot be threatened by it. And so incipient nobility is mocked as corny or sentimental, and serious strains of it are attacked as megalomanaical.
So what is nobility? The exemplar of every virtue is of course the Lord Jesus, and this includes nobility. True nobility always incurs the displeasure of plutocrats, and so they blaspheme the noble name by which we are called (Jas. 2:7). But we have a problem imitating the Lord rightly, precisely because we have known for so long that He is to be imitated. Since this is a given among Christians, we have gotten around the radical inconveniences of imitating Him by treating His name as a blank screen upon which to project those characteristics we have deemed worthy of emulation. And this is how we got gentle Jesus, meek and mild, knocking at the door of someone's ivy covered heart, no doorknob on the outside, you see, with long, flowing hair looking like an advertisement for Redken.
What does it mean to imitate the nobility of Jesus Christ? It means that one must be like the archetype for St. George and Beowulf, slaying the ancient dragon. It means courage in the face of overwhelming adversity. It means becoming a public nuisance. It means penetrating shrewdness. It means killing the giant. It means purity, integrity, and no compromise. It means standing up straight. For us moderns, it involves the startling admission that the fairy tales are true. The histories of desperate rescues, last stands and heroic charges are true. There are far more glories surrounding us than are dreamt of in our bankrupt philosophies. Once upon a time, inside a teen-aged woman named Mary, God was knit into a man. He was born to die, in order that the whole world might be born again in Him.
Correspondingly, the notion that the materialistic universe is just time and chance acting on matter—in obedient accordance with some laws of nature—is false and very funny. "Gravity. It is not just a good idea. It's the law." But things don't fall down because a thing called gravity pulls them. They fall down because they love and obey the One who commands them. The winds and the waves were busy obeying the Lord before they were stopped by Him.
As Chesterton put it so aptly, a madman is not someone who has lost his reason. He is someone who has lost everything but his reason. The first step in breaking free from any bondage is the recognition that the chains are there. Fortunately, it is easy to make these particular Enlightenment chains clank. If you don't believe in dragons, giants, centaurs or unicorns, then you are a child born and bred in their dungeon.
But we are no revolutionaries. Everything in its place. Precise mathematical thinking is a gift from God to help us build houses and suspension bridges, and design beautiful patterns for the tops of our quilts. It was not given so that we might place it in the inner sanctuary of the cerebral cortex and worship it there and govern our lives in accord with its rectilinear dictates.
After the Enlightenment grabbed him by the back of the neck and shook him a few times, Rudolf Bultmann urged upon us the task of demythologizing the scriptural record. But the real task lies in the other direction—the Scriptures must be re-mythologized. Not only so, but we must also re-mythologize our understanding of history. The world and all that it contains must be seen for what it is—an enchanted and magical place. We have fallen under a curse, one that has made us into an enormous collection of dullards. And so we sit staring stupidly at this magical world, and we blink even more stupidly at the history of our race, which is actually the story of a glorious war between great wickedness and greater nobility. We sit there like a row of thumbs, wondering why the story is so dull. Bless us! It is we who are dull—dull in our sin.
As we turn from that sin, we have to recognize that true repentance is more than a mental trick. We cannot get out of this by simply memorizing a few paradoxes and then looking at the world sideways. Christians will not lead any kind of revolt against modernity by dressing like the attendees at a science fiction convention. We do not need to become eclectic weirdoes any more than we need to continue our work as born-again cogs for the machine.
God made the world steeped in His glory and all from nothing. The dragon threw down our first mother and father. God promised that a noble Prince would come, descended from that woman, and that He would slay the dragon. The eternal Word Himself became that Prince and fulfilled all the ancient prophecies. We are born into the family of that great Prince, and nobility is our heritage. We need to live as though it were so.

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