The True Believer
“Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? And in Thy name have cast out devils? And in Thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matthew 7:22–23)
I have recently finished reading Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Hoffer (1902-1983) was a self-taught American social philosopher known for not only his many writings, but for his working-class roots. In particular, he was a longshoreman for many years, even as he had fame for his scholarly work.
My interest in The True Believer stems from the difficulty I have had in understanding my fellow humans acting as ‘groups’. My own personality is such that I am not, nor have I ever been, a ‘joiner’, with the result that I regard my own life – including and especially my soul – as being ‘autonomous’ or individual. Individuality has both its rewards and costs in our world. The big reward is that one has freedom to choose, and can take responsibility for oneself. The big cost, however, is that one has freedom to choose, and must take responsibility for oneself.
Hoffer’s book – 188 pages of it – conjectures that the reason people follow mass movements, such as Nazism, Fascism, Communism, and Christianity (among others) is that they have found their individual selves somehow lacking, and seek a more powerful and acceptable identity as part of the crowd. Mass movements offer an individual an escape from isolation and a refuge from barren meaningless ineffectual selves. Hoffer argues that: “Those that see their lives as spoiled and wasted crave equality and fraternity more than they do freedom”.
Hoffer’s rhetoric is all the more poignant inasmuch as his book appeared only six years after Hitler’s suicide, and at a time when the brutal despot, Josef Stalin, still led the Soviet Union. Mass movements had wracked the world with war and misery, and the appearance of The True Believer was apropos to the era – as it probably should still be today.
While the book is far more subtle and involved than my brief description here – in particular Hoffer identifies the “true believer” as a fanatic – what the book forced me to think about is just how to reconcile Hoffer’s inclusion of the Christian Church as an example of a mass movement. To write of the Christian Church as being similar to the evils of Nazism or Stalinism may strike some as irreverent and sacrilegious, but in fact, the medieval inquisitions conducted in the name of Christ, as well as countless other evil deeds done in His name, are as cruel and morally reprehensible. History has shown us that it is impossible to defend the Christian Church as a universal force of good in our world if by ‘Christian’ we simply mean where humankind has applied the word.
But to say the word Christian is clearly not necessarily to mean Christian. And there is an obvious disconnect between faith in God through Jesus Christ and what the Christian churches do or do not do. Indeed, if we accept that evil does exist in our world, it only makes sense that true ‘evil’ will masquerade as ‘good’, just as the secular masquerades as the spiritual.
Hoffer’s book – which I thought convincing with respect to the individual psychologies that allowed people to follow mass movements – has forced me, however, to ask myself what is it about Christianity that is different? For it is clear that, like his fanatical ‘true believers’, true Christians also are aware of their own inadequacies – their sin – and true Christians also seek solace in something greater than themselves – in this case God.
But therein lays the difference. ‘God’ is not an excuse to escape our less-desirable selves. Nor is ‘God’ a movement. A religion may be a movement but God isn’t; God is God. And rather reassuringly God isn’t there to be something that takes us away from our autonomous selves to meld us into some ‘universal mass’, but God, through His only begotten Son Jesus Christ, is there to love us as ourselves. It is the gift of His love that empowers us, not the assemblage of many into a mass.
While God is universal, His love for us is a love for us as individuals. God, removed from all the liturgy, politics, profanity, and misused words of churches remains our personal God. It is not that all assemblages of humans are evil, or that all religions are corrupt without good in them, but only that they are imperfect. A reminder to each of us that mass movements can take our freedom away.
How much more beneficial in the long term if we instead took hold of His promises of salvation and peace, knowing that it is God’s love that gives us true freedom.