Freud, Sex, and New Left Politics

This essay is the third part of my interactive review of Carl Truman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. In parts one and two I told the story of how Jean-Jacques Rousseau relocated the source of individual identity from the external sacred order to the inner psychic world. Percy Shelly and other romantics continued the inward turn but combined it with atheism and a frontal attack against Christianity and traditional marriage. Marx, Nietzsche, and Darwin, each in his own way, continued dismantling the ideas of human nature, divine creation, providence, and moral law. Human beings are free to design their own identity according to their desires unconstrained by obligations to an external order.

Today we continue the story of how our culture turned from viewing “sex as an activity to seeing it as absolutely fundamental to identity” (Trueman, p. 202), transforming sexual preferences from private matters into a “matters of public interest, means by which we are recognized” (p. 204).

The Sexualized Self

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) convinced the world that desire for sexual pleasure is the central driving force for human behavior from infancy onward and that it serves as the main explanatory principle of all human activity. As far back as Aristotle thinkers noted that human beings aim for happiness in all they do. But Freud reduces happiness to sexual pleasure and all human activity to ways of seeking it. Whereas Rousseau had an optimistic view of the inner psychic world, Freud saw the inner world as “dark, violent, and irrational” (p. 206). At its deepest level sexual desire is amorphous and amoral, what might be called in today’s parlance “pansexual” desire. None of the social rules that limit sexual gratification can be justified by reference to a moral law or human nature or any other normative order. For Freud, God is an illusion, religion is a holdover from infancy, and moral categories must be replaced by aesthetic ones. Freud places sexual activity on the same level as attitudes toward foods. Most Americans would experience nausea and disgust if after a hearty meal they were told had just eaten dog stew. Just so, the thought of certain forms of sexual activity create disgust in some people. In today’s terminology, moral objections to disapproved sexual behaviors are called phobias. Moral judgments are dismissed as expressions of irrational psychological associations.

In his book Civilization and its Discontents, Freud argues that the character of a society is determined by the behaviors it permits and forbids, specifically what forms of sexual gratification it regulates. Like Rousseau, Freud sees society as imposing unhappiness and artificiality on the individual. Not surprisingly, however, Freud interprets the relationship between society and the individual in sexual terms. Freud equates maximum happiness with unrestricted pursuit of sexual pleasure, but civilization is not compatible with such behavior. Hence civilization is purchased at the price of individual unhappiness. In civilization, individuals are continually sexually frustrated. Society suppresses what it deems antisocial sexual practices and the individual internalizes society’s rules by repressing sexual desire. In contemporary terms, society is a sexual oppressor and the individual is a victim of sexual oppression. According to Freud, there is no way out of this dilemma.

The New Left and the Politicization of Sex

We’ve seen how Rousseau psychologized the self and how Freud sexualized the psychologized self. Now we consider how the New Left politicized the already psychologized and sexualized self.

Karl Marx theorized that capitalism would continue its trajectory of concentrating wealth in the hands of ever fewer capitalists to the point that it would collapse under its own weight. The sleeping giant of the working class would then wake up to the exploitation built into the capitalist system and institute a new order of communism, that is, common ownership and management of all means of production. But the collapse never came, and the workers never woke up. The brutality of the Stalin regime in Russia and the enthusiastic support that working class Germany gave to Hitler provoked many socialists to look for a revised form of Marxism. The problem with which they wrestled was how to awaken the working class to their oppressed status.

Trueman focuses on two thinkers who play pivotal roles in politicizing Freud’s sexualized self, Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. Both men were born and educated in Germany and immigrated to the United States in the 1930s. The genius of these two thinkers lay in their creative combination of Marx and Freud. They came to the conclusion that the reason the working class had not awakened to its economic and political oppression was its unquestioning commitment to the traditional family. If the awakening is to occur, the working class family must be destroyed.

Reich inherited the Marxist idea that the monogamous, “patriarchal” family and capitalist society support each other. The family must be weakened or destroyed for a truly socialist society to arise. To this theory Reich added Freud’s idea that the existence of civilization requires sexual repression. Reich concluded that “working-class people must be disabused of their commitment to the bourgeois sexual codes that make the traditional family an unquestioned and necessary good” (Trueman, p. 236). However, Reich qualified Freud’s pessimistic idea that civilization in all its forms must repress sexual desire. He argued that only some forms of society required such repression, specifically capitalist societies. In his book The Sexual Revolution (1936), he argued that a truly free and socialist society cannot be created apart from liberating sexual desire from bondage to marriage and the patriarchal family. Drawing on Freud’s understanding of childhood sexuality, Reich argued that the state must make sure that all children are given sex education and that teenage children are given sexual freedom, despite parental objections. In Reich, sex has been politicized and political freedom has been identified with sexual freedom.

Herbert Marcuse* also adheres to the Marxist critique of the traditional family. Social revolutionaries must expose the oppressive nature of the sexual codes that reinforce the traditional family, and one way to do this is by publicly transgressing them. Hence engaging behaviors bourgeois society considers perverted, obscene, or deviant—or supporting those who do—is an important means of protest against the sexual/political oppression of traditional society.

Clearly most people are not familiar with the writings of the New Left thinkers, though almost everyone has some familiarity with Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. But Marcuse and other thinkers have exerted an enormous influence within American universities for 60 years, and their theories, unattached to their names, have touched all of us in one way or another–through education, entertainment, advertising, and news media.

I will end with a quote from Trueman’s conclusion to this section:

The marriage of Freud and Marx at the hands of the New Left may well have started out as a shotgun wedding, but it is very clear that it has proved a long, happy, and fruitful relationship. The fact that sex is now politics is in large measure the result of this unusual marriage, and the latest iteration of that—the transgender movement—also takes it cue from the psychologizing and historicizing of human nature, combined with the now-standard leitmotif of oppression as society’s imposition of its own values and norms on the individual. For any who wonder why private sexual behavior has great public and political significance today, the story of the New Left makes it all clear (p. 263).

*Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was highly influential in left-leaning political circles, especially in American academia. Look him up on Google. You can see YouTube interviews and you can read about his influence on Wikipedia.

Next Time: How gender became disengaged from biological sex.

Genesis of the Gender Revolution

Today I will continue to interact with Carl Truman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The previous essay documented Trueman’s historical method and posed the question that drives the book’s argument: How did it come about that the view of human identity held by nearly everyone in 1500 was by 2020 turned upside down and inside out. Instead of an individual’s identity being determined by their relationships to an external order—God, nature, moral law, and society—it came to be determined by their inner desires and tastes. Instead of being given, identity is now chosen. Instead of conforming to the outside world, modern people demand that the outside world conform to their inner sense of identity.

Intellectual Roots of the Revolution

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Trueman traces the genesis of the sexual revolution to the middle of the eighteenth century to the “Father of Romanticism” Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). Of course, there are no absolute beginning points within the flow of history, so beginning with Rousseau marks a somewhat arbitrary starting point. Nevertheless given Trueman’s limited aim of explaining the rise of the gender revolution, beginning with Rousseau makes sense. Rousseau was born in Geneva where the Calvinist doctrine of original sin was taught as Protestant dogma. He grew to intellectual maturity in France in the age of Voltaire where scientific reason was proclaimed the source and arbiter of all knowledge. Rousseau rebelled against both original sin and rationalism.

Rousseau argues that truth, goodness, and happiness are found by returning to nature unspoiled by artificial human society. Human beings are born free and are endowed with instincts adequate to guide them in living good and happy lives. But society corrupts them, teaching envy, greed, jealousy, duplicity, and other vices and crimes. Not cold reason or social conventions but inward feeling is the best guide to truth, goodness, and happiness. If only we could live outwardly according to our inward selves! In a sentence that could have been written in 2021, he says, “How sweet it would be to live among us if the outward countenance were always the image of the heart’s dispositions” (Quoted in Trueman, p. 113). A near perfect definition of authenticity! Rousseau’s view of society as the origin of evil entered the public imagination and lead to the discovery of countless other socially constructed forms of oppression: capitalism, racism, and sexism.

Rousseau never denied the existence of God, moral law, or human nature. Indeed, he championed them. Nevertheless, by blaming the self’s alienation from its true self on the social order and by transferring the sources of moral knowledge from reason and revelation to the inner self and its feelings, he laid the foundation for rebellion against other external structures. God, moral law, reason, and nature would in turn become viewed as instruments of oppression.

The Romantics, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin

The romantic poets of the early nineteenth century continue Rousseau’s contrast between the innocence of nature and the corruption of society. Especially relevant to the sexual and gender revolutions of recent times is the career of the English poet Percy Shelly (1792-1822). In his poetry (e.g. Queen Mab) Shelly envisioned overturning the self-alienating social and political order and returning to nature. The chief obstacle standing in the way of this project is Christianity, which he attacked in a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, calling the God of the Bible a “Demon-God.” The idea of God served as a justification for oppression and exploitation of the many by the powerful few. And nothing symbolized the alienating effect of society on the true selfhood of the individual more than the Christian teaching limiting sexual relations to exclusive, life-long, monogamous marriage. Shelly advocates the practice free love where sexual partners enjoy each other for personal happiness alone and renounce all artificial limits. Shelly explains his sexual ethics as follows:

If happiness be the object of morality, of all human unions and disunions; if the worthiness of every action is to be estimated by the quantity of pleasurable sensation it is calculated to produce, the connection of the sexes is so long sacred as it contributes to the comfort of the parties, and is naturally dissolved when its evils are greater than its benefits. There is nothing immoral in this separation (Poetical Works. Quoted in Trueman, p. 155).

The impact of the titanic figures of Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin on the formation of the contemporary world is beyond calculation. Trueman focuses on a few themes that contributed to the plausibility of the gender revolution. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) pursued the logical implications of atheism in both its theoretical and practical forms. For all practical purposes “God is dead,” that is, the idea of God has cease to affect the way people live, even if they say they believe. Nietzsche argues that we must accept the full consequences of God’s demise and give up every idea and practice that depends on God’s existence as the ground of its meaningfulness. For example, we must renounce the ideas that we live in a meaningful world, that human beings have an essential nature or intrinsic dignity, and that there are moral truths. We are on our own. We have to create our own meaning, construct our own nature and dignity according to our tastes, and replace morality with our aesthetic sense. Human nature becomes “plastic” to be molded into whatever shape pleases us. For Nietzsche Christianity is not only false, it is “morally repugnant” and “distasteful” (Trueman, p. 173). For Nietzsche all relationships are relations of power, and any claims to the contrary should be treated with the utmost suspicion.

In Karl Marx (1818-83), the Rousseau-inspired theme of social alienation—now filtered through the philosophy of Georg W. F. Hegel, a story too long to tell here—took an economic turn. Instead of conflicts between civilization and the individual, artificiality and nature, and the external and the internal, Marx views society through the lens of economic class interests: capitalists versus workers, oppressors versus oppressed. Marx places the alienating relationship within society rather than between society and the individual. Hence the ideal condition where alienation is overcome cannot take form as a return to unspoiled nature but must be a humanly constructed, classless society in which workers are no longer alienated from the products of their work. Marx rejects the idea of a given human nature and moral law and views human nature, morality, and religion as derivative of economic relations. Change the economic relations and the other aspects will change in response. Because every relationship is at bottom economic and economics is political, everything is political. There are no pre-political social spaces, and any claims to the contrary should be exposed as masking economic self-interest.

Charles Darwin (1809-82) can be dealt with briefly. His theory of evolution was taken by many as replacing belief in divine creation and providence. The biological order could no longer be viewed as infused with divine meaning and guided by divine purpose. Meaning and purpose were confined to the inner world of the human psyche.

Dead Men Still Speak

Is personal identity grounded in an objective order and achieved by adjusting to that order or is identity located in the inner psychic world of the individual and given concrete shape by expressing the inner sense in the medium of the external world? Rousseau, Shelly, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin, each in his own way, set about to demolish the first view of identity and liberate individuals to construct themselves according their inner desires. And though they have been dead for 120 years or more, their voices still ring out from the lecture halls of academia, the public education system, the entertainment industry, congress and the courts, and in the streets of American cities. Understanding their thought and their profound influence on contemporary culture would go a long way toward helping us comprehend “how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (Trueman, p. 19).

Next Time: We will tell the story of how Sigmund Freud sexualized psychology and the New Left politicized sex.

How Did the Statement “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” Come to be Taken at Face Value?

In the next few essays I want to continue the series on the contemporary moral crisis by interacting with a book I just finished reading: Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020). The book is 407 pages long and deals with a vast number of authors and ideas. I am limiting my task to presenting Trueman’s essential argument as it relates to my theme for the series. For the most part, I will express Trueman’s argument in my own words and avoid burdening the reader with technical language and multiple references to other authors. Perhaps my thoughts can serve as an appetizer to entice you to read the book for yourself.

Trueman’s Method and Goal

Trueman begins with this statement:

“The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (p. 19).

This statement tells us much about the book. When he says that he writes to show “how” and “why” this idea came to be accepted, we see at once that this book will recount a history that explains the genesis of this current state of affairs. Trueman designates the goal of the study as explaining how and why the above transgender statement came to be viewed by progressive culture as “coherent” and “meaningful.” That is to say, the author intends not to assess the truth or falsity of the statement directly but to show why people today accept this assertion at face value when previous generations would have found it absurd and laughable.

This book employs a common historical method that traces the genetic relationships among ideas through time. Apart from historical understanding, each generation is locked within its own cultural framework. One way to escape this temporal prison is to come to see one’s own culture as the product of history rather than as simply the way things must be. Trueman is well aware that showing the genesis of an idea does not by itself demonstrate its truth or falsity. But it can give us enough distance from it to entertain the possibility of criticizing it.

Trueman also knows that the same genetic history can be interpreted in at least two opposing ways. Many would interpret it as the history of progress that leads from the darkness of past ignorance to the contemporary enlightened age. Or the same story can be interpreted as the history of moral and intellectual decline. Oversimplifying matters a bit, the first interpretation uses the present as a norm by which to judge the past and the second views the past as the standard by which to measure the present. Again, a genetic account cannot settle the issue of truth or falsity. It can, however, awaken readers to the hidden moral, aesthetic, metaphysical, and political assumptions of the contemporary moral vision. And that is a worthy goal, because part of the rhetorical power of contemporary progressive morality is the pervasive sense of its self-evidence. The first step in challenging it is exposing its lack of self-evidence and its historical relativity.

Two Paradigms of Identity

According to Trueman, the sexual revolution, which has reached the conclusion that gender must be completely divorced from biological sex and transferred from the moral sphere to the aesthetic sphere, is at bottom a revolution in the nature of personal identity (p. 20). Before the year 1500, a person’s identity and all the rules for human behavior were determined by one’s place within a theological, cosmic, and social order that exists outside, above, and before them. You become someone by fitting in, adopting given roles, and conforming to inherited patterns. For premodern people—whether Christian or pagan—that order was sacred, objectively real, and obvious. Individuals were duty bound to submit their inner desires and passions to the ordering power of the metaphysical, cosmic, and moral order. The thought of reversing directions to make the external world conform to the inner world would have appeared absurd. The inner world of the passions was irrational, immoral, and chaotic. It must not be turned loose.

In dramatic contrast, for many modern people identity is something an individual chooses and creates according to their tastes. It is created from the inside outward by expressing inward feelings and dreams in external media. Only by making the outside conform to the inside can one achieve authenticity, the quintessential modern virtue. Resistance to another person’s expressing their inner self in the external world is viewed as oppressive, cruel, and immoral. In the contemporary moral vision, the sacred, objectively real, and obvious is found in the inner psychic world of the individual. The external order possesses no authority to determine an individual’s identity. Appeals to divine law, natural law, or reason are rejected in principle or as soon as it becomes apparent that they contradict an individual’s inner sense of identity. The inner self must be allowed to be itself, to act in character, on the outside as well as the inside.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self explains the step-by-step process by which the first understanding of identity was replaced by the second, so that by the end of the book we understand “how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” (p. 19).

Sex, Identity, and Politics: Two Incompatible Moral Visions

Where Are We?

In previous chapters I’ve tried to get to the roots of the moral crisis that engulfs contemporary culture. At the origin of this crisis stands the abandonment of the long-accepted notion that human beings acquire experiential knowledge of the good as communities and transmit it through tradition. Simultaneously, modern culture adopted a romantic notion of the good as a feeling of well-being and an individualist view of how we come to know the good.

Given its subjective view of the good, modern culture can no longer make sense of the right as a moral rule that conforms to the moral law. Hence the “right” becomes a private assertion of “what is right for me” or it is identified with legislated human law made through the political process. The simmering crisis becomes open conflict when society’s subjective views of the good and right become concrete disagreement about specific moral behaviors. These disagreements can be settled only by coercion in one of its modern forms: protest, cancellation, intimidation, or legislated human law.

Christians who submit themselves to the authority of Jesus Christ and the scriptures and retain the traditional view of the good and the right find themselves under fire. When confessing Christians oppose the dominant culture’s subjective view of the good and the right they are made to appear backward, oppressive, insensitive, cruel, and downright hateful. Indeed, they are portrayed as enemies of humanity worthy of marginalization, legal proscription, and even persecution.

Clash of Moral Visions

We are now at the point in our discussion of the moral crisis where I need to speak about specific behaviors. And I want to begin with the body and sex. In the contemporary controversy over the use of our bodies we see most vividly the clash between two irreconcilable moral visions. During the course of the last one hundred years Western society has been increasingly sexualized and sex has been politicized. The reasons for this development are complex, and I will explain them in greater detail later in this series. However I will say this in advance: progressive culture from its beginnings in the Enlightenment to today sees Christianity as the greatest enemy standing in the way of its advance. With the rise of the Romantics in the early nineteenth century, nascent progressive culture came to see that Christianity’s limiting of sexual relations to lifetime marriage between man and woman grounded in a sacred moral order served as the foundation of conservative and traditional culture. The family is the perennial bearer of tradition. If society is to be made into a progressive utopia, Christianity must be marginalized if not destroyed. If Christianity is to be destroyed, marriage and the traditional family must be destroyed. And marriage and the traditional family can be destroyed only by removing the limits on sexual activity and transforming the meaning of sex. Sex must be removed from the sacred moral order and reconceived as a means of self-expression and self-fulfillment. Without tradition, isolated, and with their identity being reduced to race and gender, individuals may then be willing to become wards of the progressive state and its educational institutions.

We’ve Been Here Before

But the clash between moral visions is not new. The New Testament is replete with warnings about this collision of worlds: two opposing kingdoms (Col 1:3), life and death (Col 2:3), visible and invisible (2 Cor 4:18), the way of the Spirit and the way of the flesh (Gal 5:13-26), and many others. One of the clearest contrasts is found in Colossians 3:1-14. Paul contrasts two ways of living as opposition between two orientations, to things above or to earthly things:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

The New Testament clearly views the moral life as an essential aspect of a comprehensive and internally consistent way of life, at once religious, spiritual, and moral. Its specific moral rules are not isolated and arbitrary. The moral prohibitions in Colossians 3:5-11, quoted above, are interrelated. All of them deal with “earthly things.” The list in verse 5 centers on misuse of the natural urges of physical body: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed.” The list in verse 8 has to do with misuse of our need for acceptance and fellowship from others: “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language.” The physical dimension cannot be separated from the social and neither from our relationship to God. We use our bodies to communicate with others and our physical urges almost always involve interaction with others. They can be used to honor God or disrespect him.

Body, Soul, and God

The New Testament affirms the created goodness of the body. But the body is not absolutely good. Its goodness lies in the possibility of its proper use as determined by the intention of creator. It can be misused and misdirected. Those whose minds, hearts, and wills are set “on things above” want to use their bodies for the Lord, but those whose minds, hearts, and wills are set “on things on the earth” view their bodies as instruments for their own pleasure and power. Those who direct their minds toward Christ desire to learn the purpose for which God created their bodies and the rules for their proper use. To those whose minds are set on earthly things, the Bible’s moral rules for the proper use of the body seem strange, unnatural, and oppressive.

The Bible speaks of human beings as body and soul. We are physical and mental. We possess freedom at some levels of our being, but at other levels the automatic processes of nature operate apart from our choice or awareness. The Bible is not concerned with the philosophical problem of the composition of human beings, with debates about the nature of the soul and the relationship between soul and body. It is concerned with the orientation of the whole human being toward or away from God. But the Bible acknowledges what we all know from experience, that there is a hierarchical order in the relationship between body and soul. The mind is the ruling aspect and the body needs to be ruled and guided by the mind, which in turn needs to be informed by the moral law and common sense. Our minds enable us to gain the wisdom we need to discern between good and bad and right and wrong. The body apart from the mind possesses no conscious knowledge of the good and right. It works more or less automatically and instinctively. (Contemporary culture reverses the order by looking to the irrational passions–in contemporary terms “the inner self”–for guidance about what is real and good.)

Now consider the two directions mentioned Colossians 3:1-14 again in light of our created nature as body and soul. Paul speaks of the two ways of living, two possible orientations to God of our whole persons. As whole persons we are body and soul, but the body must be guided by the soul. But the mind must be illuminated by moral and spiritual truth from above in order to guide the body to its proper end, which is to serve God. Paul urges us to set our minds and hearts on “things above.” Unless the mind is set on “things above” it cannot lead the body to do good and right. When the mind forsakes “things above,” the body begins to dominate the mind, which then becomes a mere instrument we use to seek out ways to please the body. It thinks only about “earthly things.” Instead of rising higher to become more and more like God, human beings fall to earth to become mere smart animals. Dangerous ones too!

The Good, the Right, and the Bible

In the previous essays we learned that human beings discover what is good for them through reason and experience. Each new generation must be taught the knowledge of the good acquired and tested by billions of individuals over thousands of years. The knowledge of what is good for us is communal and traditional. It should be obvious to any thoughtful person that no individual can acquire this knowledge from private experience alone.

The contemporary moral crisis was in part precipitated by modern culture’s abandonment of the notion that human beings acquire experiential knowledge of the good as a community and transmit it through tradition. In place of the notion of universal human nature and the goods necessary for its health, modern culture adopted a romantic notion of the good as a feeling of well-being and an individualist view of how we come to know the good. Not only do many people today reject the ideas of human nature, moral law, and the good and right as discovered and defined in tradition, to their ears these ideas sound completely foreign and incomprehensible.

Morality and the Bible

Not surprisingly, then, when Christians appeal to the Bible to determine what is good and right they are met with incredulity and hostility from the dominant culture. Appealing to the Bible strikes modern people as strange for two reasons. First, the Bible preserves a view of the good learned by the Jewish and Christian communities over many thousands of years and passed on in a tradition. Since our contemporaries do not acknowledge that communal experience and tradition are the only ways individual human beings can learn about the good, they reject appeals to the Bible as a moral authority. They would reject the authority of any other community and tradition for the same reason.

Second, Christians do not just appeal to the long-term experience of a community. They also equate the view of the good presented in the Bible with divinely revealed moral law. The rules and laws of the Bible present themselves not only as human discoveries of what is good for human beings but also as divine commands. The natural consequence of not adhering to the good is enduring something bad. But the consequence of disobeying a divine command is divine punishment.

Perhaps this second aspect of the Christian message is the primary reason for the hostility of the ascendant culture. It is one thing to warn people of the negative consequences of their actions. It is another to invoke divine disapproval and threat of punishment in addition to the natural consequences of the bad act. The first warning may cause people to smile at our naiveté, but the second will be taken as an insult and will evoke anger.

But it is not just outsiders who experience difficulty reconciling the good with the right and comprehending the relationship between learning about the good in communal experience and learning about it from a divine command. Believers, too, are often disturbed by the thought that God punishes bad behavior with pain in addition to the act’s natural consequences. Perhaps they are troubled even more by the thought that God might command something unrelated to any obvious good and punish transgressors even when negative consequences from the act itself are wholly absent. The moral crisis touches the church more than we would like to admit.

God and Morality

Why might a divinely commanded moral law may be needed above and beyond humanly discovered good? I am assuming for the moment that we at least understand the reasonableness of looking to the moral tradition contained in the Bible for instruction about the good. I admit that those totally sold out to the romantic view that the good is whatever gives us a pleasant feeling will not grant this assumption. I will address their rejection in due time. For now, I want to address those who are at least open to the idea that it is wise for an individual to accept the moral authority of a long-continuous community and tradition above private experience or abstract theories. But why divine commands?

In view of the human tendency to degenerate into sensuality and violence, we can see the value of divine guidance and inspirations to help lawgivers, prophets, and religious and moral reformers formulate rules that guide a community toward what is truly good. This is certainly how the Bible sees it. After the fall in Genesis, chapter 3, humanity keeps on its downward moral trajectory until there is only one good human being, Noah. From the biblical point of view, the customs of the peoples surrounding Israel are evil and inhumane. The laws given by God through Moses, however, are good and wise (See Psalm 119).

Admittedly, most of the moral laws in the Bible could have been learned from communal experience and they are similar to the highest moral aspirations of nations other than ancient Israel. However human beings are inclined to follow their immediate desires rather than reason and experienced-based wisdom. And this inclination can even poison the moral traditions of whole cultures, for example, Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18 and 19). Hence, from the biblical perspective, God’s decision to educate his people about the truly good by giving laws is a gracious act.

A Christian Morality?

What does viewing biblical morality as divinely commanded add to the moral authority of the Bible considered as a deposit of wisdom from a long-continuous community? The previous section began to address these questions. As I suggested there human beings tend toward sensuality and violence as individuals and as civilizations. And, although it is possible to learn much about what is good for human beings from experience, most people are more interested in immediate pleasure than the truly good. Hence the moral traditions of whole cultures can become polluted and self-destructive or so marginalized that they have little impact on the mass of individuals. The Bible assumes that human civilization has become so corrupt that divine intervention is necessary. The story of the Old Testament includes divinely commissioned lawgivers and prophets sent to a degenerate culture to reveal what is good.

There is also another reason Christian teachers invoke divine commands. Human experience is limited to life in this world. Experience can teach much about what promotes human happiness and flourishing in this life. But belief that God is creator of this world sets human life into a larger context, beyond the range of what can be learned by ordinary experience. If our sole end is living long and well in this life, then good is whatever helps us achieve this goal. But if God created human beings for a greater end, then good is whatever helps us achieve that end.

If we have a God-intended end beyond living long and well in this body, only God can tell us what it is and how to achieve it. We cannot learn this good from individual or collective experience. It should not be surprising, then, that Christians view the moral rules Christians live by as divine commands. This view makes perfect sense, because in Christianity the humanly chosen goal of living long and well is subordinated to the divinely chosen end of eternal life with God. This shift changes everything. Life in the body as a whole is now directed beyond itself. Living long and well in this life alone is no longer the end that determines what is good. We need God’s help both to know and to do the truly good. Those who believe that Jesus is the risen Lord will gladly receive his and his apostles’ instructions about how to live in view of the true end of human life revealed in him.

There are two big reasons the moral life to which the New Testament calls us seems strange and oppressive to our age: (1) even experienced-based moral rules, which focus only on living well and long in this body, sound strange and oppressive to many people. Never in any society has the majority been virtuous, even by Aristotle’s standards! (2) Unless one wholeheartedly embraces the Christian vision of the God-intended end of human life, living here and now in faith for that unseen end appears extremely foolish.

Is There a Moral Law and How Do We Learn What it Teaches?

The Right

In previous essay in this series we examined the concept of “the good” for its relevance to morality. We discovered that the good is not by itself a moral category. Strictly speaking, the mere fact that something is good for us does not obligate us to seek it. It leaves undecided whether or not we are at fault for refusing it. In my view, a sense of obligation is essential to moral experience. And this requirement leads us to the concept of “the right.”

Hence the concept of “the right” is indispensable for moral reasoning. Just as something is good because it is “good for” something else, an action is right because it corresponds to a norm, standard, or authority. The answer to a math problem will be right when the student understands the symbols and follows the rules for the operations. A history of a Civil War battle is not right unless it corresponds to the facts. In the same way, a human action is morally right only if it measures up to a moral law. And an act is morally wrong if it breaks a moral law.

Human Law

We are familiar with the concept of human law, that is, law legislated by the state. The state claims authority to make and enforce laws for the common good of its citizens. A law is a statement that forbids or requires a certain act and prescribes the penalties for infractions. It is legislated by a legislative authority, enforced by an executive, and adjudicated by judges. But we know that the state is not the ultimate moral authority and that the demands of the state are not right simply because it commands them. Human laws can be right or wrong, just or unjust, good or bad. There is hardly any need to marshal examples of unjust laws. They are all too common in human history. But we can judge a human law to be wrong only when we see that it is out of line with a higher law by which human laws must be judged. They are not wrong simply because you don’t like them.

Natural Law

What is this higher law? How is it legislated and made known? On what authority, and who enforces and adjudicates it? For many thinkers, nature is a prime candidate for this higher law. After all, nature exists independently of human culture and law. So, let’s consider the possibility that there is a natural law that stands above legislated law.

Upon consideration, natural law can mean only two things. Natural law describes either (1) the basic physical laws according to which nature invariably works or it describes (2) the conditions and actions required for human flourishing. In neither of these senses of natural law do we come under an obligation to act or refrain from acting. We have no obligation to act consistently with basic physical laws, since we have no freedom of choice in this area. Obligation and moral law concern only free actions. Even if natural law can tell us what is “good for” us, it cannot obligate us to perform it. The concept of the good does not include the concept of the right. Hence natural law can have the force of moral law only if the order of nature derives from the will of a moral authority above nature. The natural order is to the divine will what human law is to human legislators. If there were no God or anything like God, the order of nature would be a brute fact with no moral authority. Our actions would be limited only by nature’s physical laws. There would be no class of possible actions that ought to be done or ought not to be done. The idea of an unjust human law would make no sense.

Creation

For Christian theology, the order within nature derives from the will and act of the Creator. The world is the creation of an infinitely good, just, and wise God. Hence the true order of nature, including those actions that enable human beings to flourish and achieve their natural ends, possesses moral authority. We are, therefore, obligated to seek to know and follow the law of nature, that is, those conditions and actions that enable human beings to function properly, flourish, and achieve their end. In this way, what is good for human beings (“the good”) and our obligation to obey the moral law (“the right’) converge in the will of God. Or, to say it another way, if we consistently do the good, we will also be acting rightly. And if we consistently do the right, we will also achieve the good.

Where Are We?

Where are we in the series? We’ve arrived at a way to conceive of the union of the good and the right. The will of God is reflected in the created order. So far, so good! But there is much more ground to cover. Do human beings have ends beyond nature? Is there a divine law not given in nature? How do we learn what is good and right? If good and right ultimately coincide, why do we need both concepts, and which is primary?

How Do We Learn Good and Right?

To understand and deal with the contemporary moral crisis, it is first necessary to get clear ideas of the good and the right. I think we’ve accomplished this: The good is what is truly good for us in the most comprehensive sense and the right is a rule for human behavior that corresponds to moral law. But these concepts are still rather abstract. Perhaps it’s time to talk about how we know what specific things and actions are good for us.

The Good and Experience

We don’t come into the world knowing what is good for us. As infants and small children we need adults to protect us from bad things and provide us with good things. Almost immediately, adults begin to teach us the difference between good and bad. Somewhere along the way to adulthood we learn from trusted others and from our personal experience enough to survive. We learn about what is good for our physical bodies. Fire, electricity, and busy streets are dangerous. We need to eat our vegetables and drink our milk. We also learn social goods and evils. We don’t bite our playmates, and we share our toys.

But all the adults in our lives were also at one time children and had to learn what is good and bad from the previous generation of adults…and that generation from the one before it. We can’t just keep resorting to the previous generation. From where did the knowledge of what is good and bad for human beings originate? Remember what we said in earlier chapters. To say that something is good for us means that it enables us to flourish and achieve our natural end. The goodness of a thing or act is revealed when it actually causes human beings to flourish and achieve their ends. It can’t be known theoretically. To say it another way, human beings learn what is good for them by experience evaluated by reason.

Community and Tradition

But we cannot learn all we need to know about what is good and bad for us through our own experience! Indeed, by the time we can survive without constant supervision, we’ve already learned from others a way of thinking about the world and we’ve internalized hundreds of rules about good and bad. We are born into a human community that is already heir to thousands of years of traditional wisdom. We inherit billions of years of accumulated human experience. Hence, knowledge of good and bad comes to individuals in the form of traditional wisdom formulated in rules, maxims, advice, observations, and sometimes in laws. The best and most enduring parts of this wisdom are often preserved in fables, parables, and proverbs. In every age there are wise men and women who pay special attention to this tradition. They collect it, organize it, and write it down. We are all beneficiaries of their work.

Notice that although rational reflection on experience is the original teacher of good and bad, the lessons of experience are mediated to individuals by language, the language of rules. Though the rules derived from the collective experience of the human family are not infallible, it seems foolish indeed for individuals to flout the lessons learned from billions of years of human experience in favor of their limited and as yet incomplete experience in living. Nor would a theoretical notion, such as autonomy or equality, suffice to overturn the authority of such a huge reservoir of experience. Traditional wisdom is derived from millions of completed lives, observed and assessed from within and without. If we really desire the truly good, we should acknowledge the limits of our individual wisdom and pay reverent attention to the wisdom of the moral tradition.

Summary

We’ve learned some important lessons. Human beings learn what is truly good for them through experience, and this good can be confirmed again and again by experience. But we’ve seen that we cannot discover what is truly good for us from our own private experience. We depend on the experience of generations of those who came before us. These lessons help us understand some things about the biblical vision of good and right that are often obscured in contemporary discussions. Given what we’ve learned about how human beings actually come to know the good, it should not be surprising that Christians look to the laws, parables, proverbs, and direct moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments to learn what is truly good for them. Everyone looks to moral tradition in one form or another. We have no choice. But Christians understand the moral tradition contained in the scriptures to be based on more than mere human experience, and it is concerned with a wider horizon and a greater end than life in this world. Christians believe that this human experience was elevated and deepened by divine revelation and providence and by the working of the divine Spirit.

Reclaiming the Vocabulary of Morality

In the previous post it became clear that contemporary progressive culture does not use moral words to convey clear ideas about an objective moral order. It uses them instead to convey feelings of approval or disapproval. One of my first goals, then, is to free moral words from their servitude to emotion and restore them to their proper rational function.

The Good

I’d like to begin by reflecting on the concepts of the good and the right, two of the most basic categories necessary for conducting reasonable discussions on moral questions.

I find it interesting that even though the word “good” is very general, it is indispensable for discussions of morality. The meaning of the word can range from weak expressions of pleasure to assertions of superlative excellence. It can be used to express personal preference or to pronounce moral judgment. It can be misused as synonym for the “right” or it can mean the “pleasant.” Given the wide range of meanings for the word good, it would seem important to be clear and specific in our use of the term in discussions about morality.

Examination of the ways the word good is used shows that in every case, except in reference to God or its misuse to mean the right, it is used in a relative sense in which something is declared to be “good for” something else. Apart from God, who is absolutely good, any finite good can be “good for” one thing but bad for something else. Salt is good for preserving meat but bad for snails.

A thing can be “good for” someone in two senses. It can give pleasure or promote well-being. Likewise, it can be bad for someone in two senses. It can cause unpleasant feelings or reduce well-being. To say that something is good in the first sense (pleasure) is to express the connection between it and a feeling of pleasure. Examples are abundant: that was a good meal, a good show, or a good experience.

An experience can give momentary pleasure but not be “good for” one in the sense of promoting well-being. We all know, for example, that overeating is not good for you. And an experience can be “good for” your well-being but not be especially pleasant. We can readily offer examples: “Eat your vegetables because they are ‘good for’ you.” “Moderate exercise is ‘good for’ you.” and “Honesty is the best policy.” Such assertions declare that possessing these goods, regardless of whether or not they give immediate pleasure, advances your well-being. We can distinguish these two meanings of the word good by naming one “the pleasant” and the other “the useful.”

Let’s draw a preliminary conclusion. To engage in fruitful moral discussions it is important not to confuse the two meanings of “good,” pleasant and useful. If one party uses the word good to mean the immediately pleasant and the other party uses it to mean that which is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being, the discussion will be futile. We can hardly dispute a claim that someone finds something pleasant or unpleasant. The claim is the proof! Hence, this type of assertion about goodness is not subject to rational debate. But a claim that something is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being is subject to discussion and dispute.

What is the difference? The assertion that X is a means to long-term or ultimate well-being is a claim about what our physical, psychological, moral, or spiritual natures require for proper and optimum functioning. This can be true only if within these dimensions of human existence there are objective structures and inherent ends, subject to rational analysis. Additionally, these structures and ends must remain constant regardless of our subjective feelings.

Analysis of the concept of the good has led us to the concept of human nature, its proper functioning, and its ultimate end. Is there such a thing as human nature, and, if so, how can we discover what is “good for” it? Do human beings have a natural (and perhaps a supernatural) end, and do we know what it is? These questions lead us to our most basic beliefs about God and creation.

Natures and Ends

In the previous section we concluded that we call a thing “good” when we want to express the relation of being “good for” between it and something else. To say a particular hammer is good is to say that it is good for doing what hammers are meant to do, drive nails and demolish things. In analogy, to say a particular human being is “good” is to say that this human being is capable of doing and actually does what human beings are meant to do. In the same way, a particular human action is good if it does for human beings what human actions are meant to do for human beings.

Notice that hammers, human beings, and human acts can be called “good” only if we know what they are meant to be and do. The idea that human beings are meant to be and do certain things and not others implies that they possess natures and ends. Put as simply as I can, a nature is the design plan or structure of a thing that makes it the kind of thing it is. Inherent in the idea of a design plan is proper function and purpose. Just as a hammer’s design plan makes it suitable for driving nails but not for threading needles, human nature directs human beings to certain ends, not to others. And certain acts enable human nature to function properly to achieve its intended end and others do not.

The idea of the good is relevant to moral issues only if human beings possess natures that determine the conditions under which they can function properly to achieve the end at which their nature aims. Apart from the idea of human nature and its end, the “good” will always be reduced to the “pleasant.” And the pleasant is not a moral category. Whether you find a certain activity pleasant or not cannot demonstrate whether it is good for you. As we will see in the course of this series, at the center of our contemporary moral crisis is loss of faith that human beings possess natures and ends. Human nature and its ends have been replaced by the arbitrary human will.

Philosophers from Aristotle onward attempted to describe the essential features of human nature and the ends toward which it is naturally directed. Aristotle’s work on this subject in Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.) exercised profound influence on Western ethical thought, and it still commands respect today. Although such philosophical ethics as Aristotle developed can play a role, Christian ethics adds three faith presuppositions to Aristotle’s naturalistic perspective: (1) God is the Creator of human nature; (2) Jesus Christ is the perfect example of a good human being; and (3) union with God is the end of human nature.

For Christian moral thought, the idea that human beings possess natures and an ends is securely grounded in the confession that God is the maker of heaven and earth. God created human beings in his “image” and “likeness” (Genesis 1:26, 27). Throughout the Bible, God deals with human beings as if they were designed to function properly by doing certain things and not others. Certain individuals are set forth as examples of “good” human beings. Jesus Christ serves as the supreme example of a perfect human life. Certain commands direct us to engage in activities that show us the best of which human beings are capable, chiefly the commands to love God above all else and our neighbors as ourselves. The resurrection of Jesus Christ and our union with him in baptism ground our hope of eternal life and union with God in the general resurrection.

In sum, the Christian understanding of the good is determined by the following convictions: (1) the most important characteristic of human nature is that it is the image and likeness of God; (2) human nature’s proper function is to image the perfect character of God in the world as informed by the example of Jesus Christ; and (3) human nature is directed by its Creator toward the end of eternal life and union with God. Nothing can be considered good for us that contradicts or inhibits these three principles.

These three foundational principles provide us with lenses with which to read the Bible along with the church to fill out in greater detail the character of a good human being, that is, a picture of what the Creator intended human beings to do and become.

The Contemporary Moral Crisis (Part 2)*

This series deals with the creeping moral crisis that is engulfing modern Western culture and the challenge progressive culture’s moral nihilism poses to the Christian vision of human life. In my experience, contemporary discussions of morality consist of incoherent assertions of prejudice and outbursts of emotional anguish, mixed with rude protests and not so veiled threats of violence. Hence my approach will be to search for what went wrong and to clarify the alternatives that reveal themselves in that search. I think we will discover that the loss of Christian doctrines of God, creation, sin, and salvation preceded and facilitated the loss of a coherent moral vision. And only by regaining a deep understanding and belief in these Christian teachings can we successfully weather the storm about to break on the gates of the church.

Is Christianity Good?

Christianity has its critics and always has. From the beginning it faced opposition from religious and political authorities, from cultural arbiters and grassroots society. Paul noted that many of his fellow Jews considered the message of the cross unworthy of God and the Greeks dismissed it as foolish (1 Cor 1:18-25). The Romans disparaged Christians as “atheists” and “enemies of the human race.” And the cultured elite of the Empire considered it superstitious. Depending on the spirit of the times, the Christian faith has been attacked as rationally incoherent, historically false, politically subversive, and morally bankrupt.

Christians have been characterized as backward, snobbish, clannish, cultish, and self-righteous. If I may be allowed a broad judgment, it seems to me that in the first three centuries of the church the major criticisms of Christianity were moral in nature. Christianity was attacked as a corrupting influence on society that produced political subversion, social conflict, and moral decline. And many of the early Christian apologists dealt with these charges in their writings.

At least since the Enlightenment, the dominant challenges to Christianity have been intellectual. Philosophers challenged the possibility and need for revealed religion. They focused their critique on biblical miracles, dismissing them as myths, legends, or lies. Historians challenged the authenticity and historical accuracy of the New Testament writings. After Darwin, many critics challenged the truth of divine creation and even denied the existence of God, urging that the theory of evolution removes the need for a supernatural explanation for life. Understandably, most modern defenders of Christianity dealt primarily with these intellectual challenges. Answering the question “Is Christianity true?” has been the dominant concern of modern Christian apologetics.

It seems to me that since the middle of the 20th century the apologetic situation of Christianity in the Western world and particularly in the United States has changed dramatically. The most urgent question has shifted from “Is Christianity true” to “Is Christianity good?” Could we be returning to the situation that characterized the first three centuries of the church in which Christianity’s opponents ignored the question of truth and challenged Christianity’s goodness? Even in the modern era, there has been an undercurrent of moral criticism of Christianity. Deism denied the need for a divinely revealed morality, and the Romantic Movement developed an individualistic and subjective definition of the good that justified transgressing moral conventions.

Karl Marx argued that Christianity justified suffering and oppression and robbed the majority of humanity of well-being in this life by promising rewards in the next life. Friedrich Nietzsche accused Christianity of being a slave religion, contending that its teaching about sin, compassion, humility, and the need for forgiveness kept people from achieving their natural excellence. And Freud explained moral rules as rationalizations of irrational impulses buried deep in the human psyche.

The so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s brought to the surface the undercurrent of Romanticism that has always been just under the surface in American culture. It rebelled against the conventional moralism of respectable society, adopting the Romantic definition of the good as individualistic and subjective. It manifested itself most visibly in the youth culture of drugs, free love, and rock ‘n’ roll. And the postmodernism of the 1980s borrowed from Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud to ground the instinctive moral rebellion manifested in the sexual revolution in a theory of deconstruction and suspicion. This theory interprets all truth claims, social structures, moral rules, esthetic norms, and religious beliefs as manifestations of the hidden desire for domination, as strategies to enable one person or group to set the rules for other persons or groups. In a climate of suspicion where every truth claim is viewed as a quest for power, how is a rational discussion of the issues confronting church and society possible?

Is Rational Discussion Possible?

“Discussion of theology is not for everyone,” warned Gregory of Nazianzus in the heat of the late 4th century controversy over the Trinity. It is for serious minded and thoughtful people. It’s “not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are those who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one of their amusements” (Oration 27, Chapter 3).

Basil the Great describes the controversy of his day (late 4th century) as like a great naval battle:

Imagine, if you will, the ships driven into confusion by the raging tempest, while thick darkness falls from the clouds and blackens the entire scene, so that signals cannot be recognized, and one can no longer distinguish friend from foe…Think of the cries of the warriors as they give vent to their passions with every kind of noise, so that not a single word from the admiral or pilot can be heard…they will not cease their efforts to defeat one another even as their ships sink into the abyss (On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 30).

In a very different setting, Matthew Arnold spoke of his age as dwelling on “a darkling plane, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night” (Dover Beach, 1867).

As I look out on the moral crisis that has engulfed our culture, I see the trivialization of serious matters of which Gregory complained, the explosion of violent passion Basil describes, and the ignorant, nocturnal clash that so troubled Matthew Arnold. My first inclination is to stay out of it and let the enemies vent their passions on each other. Recoiling from the combatant’s sword and the referee’s flag, I prefer to carry the medic’s bag. And yet, perhaps, there is something I can do even during the heat of the battle. For not everyone is enraged all the time. Some have not yet joined the fray, others are resting on the sidelines, and still others wish to stay neutral. And some, only a few perhaps, long to understand what is happening and why and what to do in response.

In riots participants use sticks, broken bottles, and bricks as weapons. In moral controversy combatants use words. Words can convey information or express feelings. They can illuminate the mind or evoke emotion. And the emotions they instill can be positive or negative. Many contemporary discussions of moral issues consist primarily in emotional expressions of approval or disapproval in the absence of conceptual clarity and precision.

*This is part 2 in the series on “The Christian Moral Vision and the Ironies of “Progressive” Culture.” It begins the reblogging of a revised and edited series from 2014.

Introducing a New Series: The Christian Moral Vision and the Ironies of “Progressive” Culture

The Heart of Progressive Culture

After thinking for months about social justice and critical race theory in relation to biblical Christianity, the church, and parachurch institutions, my mind has turned again to the deep moral crisis that has engulfed our culture, especially the culture of the USA. My intuition is this: The center and driving force of the ascendant culture that dominates higher education, many state and local governments, most of the media, nearly all the big cities, popular culture, and entertainment is a moral vacuum that has been eating away for centuries at the moral foundation that guided Western civilization for sixteen hundred years. Despite its utopian rhetoric to the contrary, the ascendant culture offers no alternative moral vision to replace the one it is destroying. Its central moral principle is wholly negative: we must remove all limits and destroy all oppressors and oppressive structures. Supposedly, once all oppressive structures are removed, the authentic human self—hitherto suppressed—will be free to find complete happiness in expressing itself in uninhibited external activity.

The Secret

However as I will argue in this series, a principle that defines all limits as oppressive will also destroy the self, efface the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, wisdom and folly, reason and impulse, and being and nothing. The secret of the ascendant culture—supposedly progressive and enlightened but actually primitive and dark—is nihilism, the universal critical principle, the enemy of all being. In principle it negates God, creation, nature, moral law, community, and every other objective structure that it thinks constricts the self from becoming whatever the imagination envisions and desires. The arbitrary human will to power over itself and all being is its god. This god can create nothing, but it can destroy everything.

I’ve written on this subject in previous essays, and I want to incorporate some of those thoughts into this series. On April 04, 2014 I began an eleven part series on “Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis.” I see no need to rewrite those essays. So, I will begin this new series by reblogging edited versions of the essays in that series. Interspersed with and following those essays I will post new material that expands on some theoretical points and addresses our new situation seven years later.

New Developments

There have been four developments in the intervening years that I found surprising, though in hindsight I can see that they were predictable seven years ago and indeed inevitable. (1) The racialization of all social interactions. In the last few years, the liberal ideals of a colorblind society and merit-based economic advancement have been rejected by the ascendant culture as manifestations of white privilege. (2) The mainstreaming of the intersectional notion of personal identity. Since proving that one is a victim of oppression has become a ticket to recognition by progressive culture, the more oppressed groups to which one belongs the higher one’s status in this culture.

(3) The exponential growth in the popular acceptance of the complete disjunction between biological sex and gender identity. Of course, acceptance of transgenderism and gender fluidity was preceded over the last 30 years by acceptance of LGBQ identities and inevitably will be succeeded by other gender identities and those that transcend other boundaries. Again, given the moral nihilism at the heart of modern culture this development is perfectly understandable. For in principle, progressive culture finds all limits oppressive, and there are many boundaries that have not yet been recognized as limits. And for progressive culture only the oppressed have the right to identify their oppressors. No one is allowed to argue with them.

(4) Most surprising and disheartening is the rapid acceptance of the three developments mentioned above by people who claim to be Christians, especially from younger generations. In the 1960s there was a movement within academic theology called “Christian Atheism.” What I am seeing now is a popular as well as an academic movement I call “Christian Nihilism.” These people and those tempted to join them are at the center of my target audience. I hope I can help them see what they are doing. Perhaps they will reconsider their path.

Once you recognize the nihilism at the heart of progressive culture, all becomes clear. And there is no escape from the iron logic of nihilism from within progressivism. For to escape it, you would need to limit it. And that cannot happen because progressivism admits no limiting principle! There is only one way out: we must reject nihilism completely and rediscover the Creator.

Sheep and Wolves—How to Tell the Difference (DEI Series Conclusion)

In the previous essay I promised to explore three reasons why I do not believe that the principles of diversity-equity-inclusion philosophy as advocated by the academic champions of Critical Race Theory are mandated or supported by the Christian faith. I dealt with the first reason in the previous essay, arguing that DEI philosophy is a worldly political theory designed for governance of everyone within a sovereign state. Christianity is not a worldly political theory and does not obligate Christians to support any such philosophy. Today I will address the other two reasons and bring this series to a close.

Freedom versus Coercion

(2) DEI philosophy is not compatible with Christian ethics as taught in the New Testament. I can deal with this issue briefly because I addressed it already in the essay of June 4, 2021. As I argued in that essay, though Christianity is not a worldly political philosophy and does not obligate us to support any worldly political philosophy, some political orders are more compatible with Christianity than others. Christians surely want to live in a political order where they can freely embrace and practice faith in Jesus. Likewise, if Christians embrace Jesus’s Golden Rule they should also wish others to enjoy freedom to refuse or embrace Christianity. For this reason I argued that, if given a choice between classical liberalism and DEI political philosophy, clear thinking Christians will choose classic liberalism. I concluded the June 4th essay with these words:

Traditional liberalism embraces the truth of the saying, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” In contrast, the philosophy of DEI aims at the unattainable goal of perfection and in doing so becomes the enemy of the good. DEI is not rational because it mistakes its utopian visions for politically achievable plans. It is not psychologically sound because it assumes people will in the long run acquiesce to having their property and positions taken away and redistributed to others in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is immoral in that it employs coercion, racial prejudice, theft, and injustice to achieve its goals. Hence DEI politics is most certainly not mandated by Christianity. And in contrast to liberal political philosophy, it is not even compatible with Christianity.

Ethical Incompatibility

(3) Diversity, equity, and inclusion, as understood in critical theory, are not Christian ethical principles. Nor are they compatible with Christian ethics. First, let’s get clear that the way of life set forth in the New Testament by Jesus and his apostles applies only to Jesus’s disciples, to his Church, that is, to people who claim to be and really are Christians. Now let’s take diversity, equity, and inclusion one at a time and assess their relationship to New Testament ethics.

Diversity

DEI philosophy treats diversity as a positive value in itself. According to this viewpoint the racial, ethnic, and gender makeup of the personnel within an institution—college, business, government agency, or private club—should reflect the proportions of those identity groups within society at large. Disparities in these proportions signal racism, sexism, or some other ugly prejudice as their hidden cause.

Christianity as described in the New Testament does not view diversity as a standalone value. When the NT mentions diversity of gifts and offices within the church (1 Cor 12; Eph 4), it always sets diversity in the context of unity and harmony. And it never seeks to reflect the diversity of group identities within society at large. Diversity is not an end in itself to be sought at the expense of other qualities central to the identity of the church. If the DEI philosophy were applied to the church, it would destroy it by making something other than faith in Christ the principle of inclusion.

Equity

DEI views equity through the eyes of group identity and social conflict. It is political to the core. Members of different racial groups must be treated differently to correct the inequalities among them. The Christianity of the New Testament views human beings within a universal frame. The gospel is preached to all people. All are invited to believe and participate. Within the family of believers, there are poor, widows, orphans, aged, sick, imprisoned, and others in vulnerable positions. Christian ethics is unambiguously clear that those within the church who are able to help those in need are obligated to do so (Matt 25:14-46; 1 John 3:17; James 2:14-17). However, Christian ethics does not countenance treating people differently based on race. It views people as individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses, resources and needs. We should rush to help the sick and the poor. The well and the rich do not need our assistance. Compassion, love, generosity, and hospitality are Christian virtues. Equity is not.

Inclusion

DEI philosophy makes inclusion a central moral principle, as if excluding anyone from any group or institution is always wrong. Of course, this notion is illogical and impractical. Inclusion is meaningless unless the group into which you want to be included has an identity, and identity involves exclusion as well as inclusion. If everyone is included in everything, no one is included in anything! (For more analysis of inclusion, see the essay of May 29, 2021.) DEI uses the rhetoric of inclusion to urge inclusion of certain favored (not all!) previously excluded groups.

The Christianity of the New Testament invites and welcomes people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. But it invites them to believe the gospel, repent of their sins, be baptized, and take up the life of a disciple of Jesus. It welcomes all who do this. However, if you do not believe in Jesus, do not want to stop sinning, if you reject baptism, and want to live according to the flesh, you are self-excluded. You cannot be a Christian unless you believe and live as a Christian! Christianity does not exclude or include anyone based on race or economic status.

Conclusion to the Series

I felt compelled to write this seven-part series on the diversity-equity-inclusion philosophy not so much because it is a destructive, divisive, impractical, and irrational political philosophy—though it is that!—but because I have had to endure the little sermons of some who proclaim that DEI philosophy is plainly, even supremely Christian. It is extremely painful to listen to such displays of pious ignorance and virtue signaling. Even with the most generous interpretation I can manage, it seems they have allowed the superficial resemblances of diversity, equity, and inclusion to Christian principles and their over-charitable—not to say naïve—interpretations of these terms to blind them to their true meaning and destructive implications. But I am very clear that DEI philosophy is not a Christian way of thinking. It is rather a deeply cynical deification of the primitive forces of nature. And opening the door of the Christian fold to this wolf in sheep’s clothing is an act of treachery in which I will not participate.