Have you wondered why it is that we live in the freest and and most prosperous time in world history and yet we’re sort of beating each other up? This is basically what Mr. Shapiro addresses in his book, The Right Side of History.
While that statement may be a gross oversimplification, the book is not. Shapiro asserts that the answer is that we don’t have any shared universal, fundamental beliefs anymore. He addresses what those shared fundamental and universal believes are that are at the heart of civilization, why they are good for societies, and how they produced this good, free, and prosperous society we live in.
Of equal relevance, he also addresses how and why we lost those universal principles. The book is really sort of a short history of philosophy. It is certainly not the worlds easiest read but it is very informative and very useful. It answers important questions that are of interest to thinking Christians. The author writes from the perspective of practicing (I think Orthodox) Judaism, so I will add some of the Christian Biblicist perspective.
The book centers on how the history of the world was shaped by the influences of Athenian philosophy and the Moral, Monotheistic Theism of Jerusalem. He attempts to show how, according to Aristotelian thought, general acceptance of the objective purpose (Telos) of man can be known. Man’s purpose is to act in accordance with right reason. And, this reasoning is objective according to a seemingly natural law. One can find happiness in fulfilling this Telos. Objective moral values can be naturally known because the God who holds those values made nature also. For a society to flourish, people must agree on their Telos.
From the Christian Biblicist perspective: This is what I see as the natural law of the book of Proverbs. Principles in Proverbs are both objectively rational and productive. Even unregenerate people can experience a temporally better life by applying Proverbs principles.
I think I now understand better what the Apostle Paul had to deal with Athens in Acts 17. What he found was a prosperous people who seemed to think deeply enough to understand the natural law of God without actually knowing God. “For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, to the unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you”. - Acts 17:23
Since God placed His law in man by way of the conscience, people can think enough to both know and live in practical ways that make life objectively better than those who don’t. Athens figured out how to live well as a society by obeying natural law, but they didn’t get the religious component right at all. In fact, Athens is the only place Paul went where we find no record of a church being established under his ministry.
Mr. Shapiro also includes a second component in addition to the philosophy of Athens: The Monotheistic Theism of Jerusalem. He asserts that meaning and purpose are found as well in acknowledging a singular, all powerful God. The author argues practically against Polytheism and Pantheism and for a personal, caring God Who involves Himself with mankind.
Shapiro then traverses history, mostly chronologically demonstrating how world history gave rise to systems that compete with the philosophy of Athens and Jerusalem.
America eventually became the first nation in the world to blend, as Shapiro says “natural law, rooted in reason and enshrined by religion.” He demonstrates that all of this is clear in our founding document, “…The laws of nature, and of natures’ God.” And, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
He spends significant time on European and American Enlightenment and Enlightenment Rationalism, the origins of Collectivism verses Individualism, Liberalism, Marxism, and so on.
Enlightenment thinking led to materialism being one’s only meaning; life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than poverty, and freedom is better than enslavement. This is perhaps superficially true, but these do not ultimately provide humans with meaning. Meaning being purpose, or that which comes from either fulfilling ones Telos, or acknowledging an unmoved Mover (Sovereign God) Who gives meaning, or both. In the absence of having a Telos derived from natural law, or a religious perspective, humans will seek out meaning in whatever they have left. That’s how they’re made. If all they have left is the material, then people who don’t get their wants (literally any want) will feel victimized, oppressed, and angry that whoever deprived them is a bad actor. In the absence of meaning derived from the Telos or Religion, people will ultimately worship themselves and their urges.
Science eventually undermined reason and free will in a most unexpected way. Reason had always been used to hem in biological urges. These urges became redefined as animalistic biological urges essentially pressed upon people by nature. It thus becomes a biological imperative to be the “noble savage” and to give in to and define oneself by whatever animalistic urges they feel. “Be yourself”.
Free choice is then no longer present. We are confined to our neurological circuitry. This is the birth of Socio-biology and the cultural justification of Hedonism. Nature seemingly has a mind and it does not request things of you, but rather commands, and you are not a free actor who can disobey it. In this way, Science, which is supposed to uphold reason, became the means by which reason has been dismissed.
We now have a society where no one can agree on the Telos of man, and thus Aristotelian Eudimonia (happiness) is lost, there is no political grace, and every wacky and perverse urge of people is uplifted as identity and deserving of exclusive rights and protections. Shapiro asserts that society has now retrogressed to “the random chaos of the pagan, a belief in subjectivity over objectivity… a belief that reason itself is merely a reflection of power dynamics.” This decay has led to rise of intersectionality, victim culture, and the belief that the traditional Judeo-Christian values adopted by America have been oppressive and hateful.
From the Christian Biblicist perspective: The book is great, but the author makes the usual mistake of conflating true Christianity with Catholicism. So, if you keep that in mind when he deals with figures like Augustine and Acquinas, it’s not hard to parse through. Biblicist Christian beliefs are profoundly different from Roman Catholic beliefs, enough that Roman Catholicism should not be called Christianity at all, but rather Romanism. A full explanation of this is outside the scope of this article.
Also, as a Jewish man, the author rejects the Messiahship of Jesus. This is NOT a reason to not buy and read the book! Having personally followed Shapiro’s work for a while now, I can say he is one of the most equitable and intellectually honest commentators in the public sphere today. However, on this issue, I believe he is not equitable with the Biblical or historical evidence of Jesus.
I only point this out because I don’t think a Christian should read this book expecting a Christian treatment of the subject of Christ. So, don’t be shocked when a Jewish mentions Christianity from the perspective of Judaism!
He asserts that “Christianity redefined the concept of the Messiah entirely. Paul morphed the Jewish idea of a political Messiah who would usher in an age of world peace into a Christian belief of a spiritual Messiah who had to die to atone for human sins.”
He’s only partly correct here. Christianity did not redefine the concept of Messiah, but rather refused to allegorize away the statements of the Old Testament that are clear that Messiah would suffer. Judaism allegorizes those. Also, Christianity does acknowledge a “political” Messiah, the same One who suffered. He simply intends to come twice, the first time to suffer, the second time to reign and usher in a period of peace. Again, a lengthy discussion on this is beyond the scope of this post.
Overall thoughts: Should you read, “The Right Side of History”? Absolutely! A thinking Christian who wants more perspective on the effects of human nature on society and the grace of God in history should read it. It’s a very dense, but important book. However, it’s essentially an argument for Judeo-Christian values without the Christ. It’s an argument for Theistic Moralism.
God has extended common grace and conscience to the world, enough that all men know how we should live, i.e. “Natural Law”. While that doesn’t mean that every person who is a Theist who acknowledges his Telos is born again, I think it means that all have the needed revelation and opportunity to become so.
I’m reminded of Titus 2:11-12 “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to ALL men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world”
I’m also reminded of Proverbs 14:34, “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.”
Though you shouldn’t expect it in this book, Salvation is obviously what is absent from “The Right Side of History”. It’s not that kind of book. But salvation by God’s grace is really the only thing that can give ultimate meaning and purpose to the values the author is trying to uphold. From the Biblicist perspective, it’s not the good values that give us meaning and purpose, it’s a relationship with the One responsible for those values. And He can only be known through Jesus Christ.