Monthly Archives: December 2017

WHEN THAT “NOTHING-REALLY-MATTERS” FEELING COMES OVER YOU

Everyone wants to feel their worth. Everyone hopes to become happy. And everyone longs for significance. But the universe is so big and we are so small. Ages have come and gone before we were born, and the timeline beyond our death stretches out to infinity. Billions of people lived and died before us and others will follow. And even now you and I live among billions of people. Whatever we do and become, most people will never know about it, and the few that do will forget and one day pass into the forgotten past.

Given everything that points to our insignificance are there good reasons to believe that we really are worth something, that our happiness is a real possibility, and that each of us really matters? Some people attempt to create their worth by their individual effort. In my last blog post (December 02, 2017), I wrote about the modern view of the self that sees human worth as the power of freedom to do and become what pleases us. As long as you are feeling this power in action you feel significant. But this strategy will not work in the long run because our wishes and desires are much greater than our powers. Despite our dreams of divinity we are finite, mortal, and small. We cannot make the universe acknowledge our worth or bend to our wills.

Another strategy for securing our significance is to identify with something greater than ourselves. We can forget about our individual smallness, mortality, and weakness by devoting ourselves to a great cause. The greatness of the cause becomes in our minds our own greatness. The great cause most people choose is the state, the most comprehensive and powerful human institution. Politics becomes their all-consuming passion because participating in the greatness of the state is the only way they can feel their worth or believe they matter or create happiness for themselves. But the state is no more divine than individuals are. States are also finite, mortal, and weak. They fail as surely individuals fail. Nor does the good of the state coincide with good of the individual within it. Even for democracies, an individual can be no more than a means to an end. The state’s “greatness” can never really become “my greatness.”

We’ve examined two failed gods, the individual and the state. Is there another way to secure our worth and significance in the face of our smallness, mortality, and weakness? First, we need to specify exactly what we want when we ask for worth, significance, and happiness. We are not satisfied with being worth a little, having limited significance, or experiencing temporary happiness. We want these goods without limit. There are only two possibilities for acquiring what we seek. Either we become God and possess them by nature or God gives them to us by grace. I rejected the first alternative when I rejected the modern view of the self as self-sufficient. And I rejected the state as a substitute God.

God alone can ground our worth, significance, and hope of happiness. God, who knows all things, knows each of us. The Creator of all things decided you should exist here and now. The One who works out his plan for all time and space has assigned you a significant part to play. It does not matter how big the universe is or how many people exist or how long it continues after your death. The infinite and eternal God does not relate to things as big or small or old or young—or even as dead or alive. Our worth to God is not relative to our size or lifespan. To our amazement, God wills us to share in his life and goodness. And if we have God we have all things. So, don’t try to measure your significance by how big a splash you can make in the universe. Measure it by how much love God has demonstrated for you in Jesus Christ.

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“Rules in a Knife Fight?” Or, the Roots of Today’s Moral Chaos

Reason is dead! Requiescat in pace! Or, at least it’s on life support when it comes to morality. Civil discussions of social or individual morality in the public square, in the workplace, in public schools and universities, in social media, and even in church have become impossible in contemporary culture. Moral chaos reigns not only between Christians and secularists but among secular people themselves and among people who claim to be Christian. People don’t discuss moral issues anymore, they fight about them. Discussions are about searching for truth and presuppose people’s desire to know and conform to the truth. Fights are about power, domination, and forced submission of one party’s preferences to another’s.

Believers in truth and reason could gather around reason’s grave and lament its death. We could withdraw into our homes, houses of worship and homeschools and wait for a miracle or for Jesus’s return. And any regular reader of this blog knows that I am not opposed to a strategic withdrawal, especially in contrast to assimilation to dominant culture. On that theme see my May 12, 2017 review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. But I do not believe we ought to acquiesce just yet. To the contrary, I believe Christians should speak up for reason and truth. But speaking up for reason and truth won’t be as easy as asserting that reason is a necessary instrument for finding truth and truth is the way things are whether we like it or not. As true as this assertion is, to our culture it sounds like fighting words designed to exert power and demand submission. How do you reason with people for whom reason is dead, and how do you urge people to submit to truth when for them truth is just another word for preference?

First, I do not believe reason can ever truly die. Nor can anyone ever really abandon the assumption of truth. So, our first task is to probe the contemporary mind, seeking its most basic presuppositions and beliefs, which serve as the hidden foundations of its incoherent moral rhetoric. Where shall we look for these foundations? Every moral theory or rhetorical style of talking about morality presupposes beliefs about basic human nature and the nature and will of God. It is guided by beliefs about what constitutes human dignity, how happiness can be achieved, and what are the greatest threats to human dignity and the most sinister roadblocks to achieving happiness.

Here are three presuppositions that guide the modern mind, which is shared to one extent or another by everyone touched by the western worldview:

  1. Human dignity is grounded in human freedom. And human freedom is the power of the self to decide what it will do and become. Maximum dignity requires maximum freedom. Maximum freedom is achieved when we possess total control over ourselves, our situation, and our destiny. Any limit on freedom is a limit on dignity. And any limit on dignity is an insult.
  2. Happiness is achieved by exercising our maximum freedom to do and become whatever pleases us. What counts as a happy state is determined totally by the preferences of each individual. The modern mind acknowledges no general rules, such as “love God and your neighbor,” for achieving happiness.
  3. The greatest threats to human dignity, freedom, and the prospect of happiness are God and belief in natural law or traditional morality enshrined in law. Since the modern mind links maximum dignity to maximum freedom, the idea of being dependent on and responsible to God, the Creator of all things, is the most serious threat to dignity and freedom. Even people who say they believe in God will not accept any view of God that limits their maximum freedom. They assimilate God to their preferences. The second most serious threat to dignity, freedom and the prospect of happiness arises from other people who are inspired by their belief in God or moral law or traditional morality to impose their morality on others, whether through social pressure or state power.

The history of the last 350 years can be written as the struggle of modern people to free themselves from the “oppressive” forces of God and institutions that support traditional morality. One institution, social practice and philosophy after another has been exposed as “oppressive”. And indoctrination into this ideology has been so effective that the majority of our society can make no persuasive response even to the most radical and total rejection of all limits on the freedom of individuals to do and become whatever they want. We are close to becoming a nihilistic society, that is, of surrendering to the ideology that “all things are possible,” that there is no moral law and nothing real; there is nothing that cannot be or ought not to be changed and shaped according to our collective or individual preferences. This is the relentless logic at work in the hearts and minds of our neighbors and friends, and even in our own; and this is the pernicious logic that makes it inevitable that rational discussions will be replaced by knife fights. Our situation is captured by Harvey Logan’s famous line from the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “rules in a knife fight?”

That famous scene is a parable of contemporary moral discourse:

Hence the first step to addressing the moral chaos that dominates contemporary moral discussions is digging down to the ancient foundational beliefs that led to this chaos. The next step is to demonstrate the absurdity of these foundational beliefs. And the third step is to argue for, proclaim, and live on an alternative foundation, one that secures authentic human dignity, freedom, and hope for happiness. And that foundation is God, the creator and savior revealed in Jesus Christ.