If we are to believe today’s pundits—an awfully big “if”—there are many global crises threatening the 20th century. Nuclear weapons and overpopulation currently top the list. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems that there are only two available responses. The first is the “liberal” response, which assumes that mankind already possesses the tools and skills to repair the world: If only people of good intentions will try harder to do the right things, they can fix everything.
The other popular response to the crises of the hour is the “conservative” response—an eat-drink-and-be-merry attitude toward that which is perceived to threaten mankind. This response represents the party of resignation.
The book under review reminds its readers that there is a third way to address the most pressing problems of human societies. The third way is not a moderate compromise between the liberal and the conservative answers. Rather, this third way transcends both. Its perspective goes beyond the easy optimism of much of today’s liberalism and the easy cynicism of some conservatism. It is shaped primarily by what might be called eternity.
Vintage Muggeridge—10 essays, addresses, and sermons by Malcolm Muggeridge and the transcripts of three interviews with him by William F. Buckley Jr.—pictures more than did Saint Augustine receiving the news of the fall of Rome. And Augustine’s response? He turned his thought toward the City of God—toward eternity. Likewise, Muggeridge sees himself in the midst of a contemporary cultural collapse turning his gaze toward eternity.
Muggeridge’s anticipation does not mean that he has no use or time for this world. To the contrary, his concern with eternity results in deepened insight into the affairs of this world. His perceptions are based on two simple claims: First, Muggeridge believes “that God is responsible for Creation, and God is a God of love, not of hate; God is all the qualities that we want to see in the world, and nothing can be settled except in relation to that.” And second, he believes that “man can make an inconceivable mess of anything.”
By assuming grand divine possibilities and grand human limitations, Muggeridge is able to see the irony and stupidity of much human action. Those who strive for a collective good without God set out “seeking happiness, [but] fall into despair, seeking knowledge, into obscurantism and credulity, seeking freedom, into total servitude, and seeking security, into total vulnerability.” Those who strive for personal happiness also fail miserably. “‘To sleep with that girl will make me happy. To have this money and to be able to do this, that, and the other thing, will make me happy. To be able to be eloquent and applauded will make me happy.’ None of these things make us happy. They are wretched things.” Like Pascal and Reinhold Niebuhr, Muggeridge contends that it is the human condition to be tempted by pride to become like gods and to be tempted by sensuality to become like animals.
But also, the human condition lives under the promise of divine possibilities. These possibilities were opened, up to all of mankind in the Incarnation, and they will reach fulfillment in the coming Kingdom of God. Before the Kingdom comes, all is not lost, for “there is this extraordinary happiness, and the happiness lies in being aware that, as a human being created by God, one is fulfilling God’s purpose.”
Muggeridge’s themes are heavy, but he conveys them lightly, directly, and with a wonderful sense of humor. To 1960’s Edinburgh students he preached that “whatever life is or is not about, it is not to be expressed in terms of drug stupefaction and casual sexual relations. However else we may venture into the unknown it is not I assure you on the plastic wings of Playboy magazine or psychedelic fancies.” His description of the standard guests on a BBC television talk show is as funny as it is accurate: You have the sociologist; you have the “life-purist usually with a moustache”; you have a “knock-about clergyman of no particular denomination.” His irreverence is unmatchable: “Half a century in the communications business has served to intensify my skepticism about procedures which purport to measure statistically individual and social attitudes, and I have long considered that the Romans were more sensible in using the entrails of a chicken rather than a slide-rule to forecast the future.”
It might be objected that Malcolm Muggeridge is just a cranky old man who has not progressed with the times. Well, the point is that he has progressed. In his lifetime he has progressed through many of the happy illusions and bitter disillusions of our era into a primary concern for eternity. But his commitment to eternity, his “dynamic orthodoxy” (as John Cardinal O’Connor puts it), encourages him to turn around and see through the little deceits and big lies of those who understand the world without God. Muggeridge is indeed cranky with them on occasion. But more central to the mission of “St. Mugg” is persuasion. For Malcolm Muggeridge is a tireless and hopeful reminder of eternity in a time that is coming apart.
[Vintage Muggeridge—Religion and Society, edited by Geoffrey Barlow (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) $7.95]
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