Author Archives: ifaqtheology

About ifaqtheology

Professor of Religion, Pepperdine University Specialties: Systematic Theology, Christianity and Culture Author of: God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered World (IVP, 2013)

A Culture of Diversion for an Age of Boredom

The deeper you probe human nature the more alike human beings from every class and country and age appear. Language and customs change, but the human condition remains the same. And yet, every age has its signature, a particular way the human condition manifests itself. Each age combines humanity’s perennial virtues and vices, pains and joys, and strengths and weaknesses in a unique way. What is the signature of our age? I admit that seeking an answer to this question is asking for superhuman knowledge, which no human being can attain. Nevertheless we cannot help but wish to understand.

I will leave it to others to describe the unique glories of our age. I am driven to understand its spiritual sicknesses. Every time I think about this question two concepts force their way to the top of my list: boredom and despair. Today I want to explain why I think contemporary culture, if it could sign its name, would write “the age of boredom.” I leave despair for another day.

Perhaps you are already objecting to my thesis: “We live in an age of frantic activity, of 27/7 city life, nonstop entertainment, and ever-present social media. How can you say that we live in an age of boredom?” To anticipate my full response let me say here that your objection actually supports my thesis. I argue that we live in the “age of boredom” because fear of boredom drives us to live the frantic lives you describe.

What is boredom, and why do I think it’s at the root of the spiritual illnesses that plague our age? Perhaps our first thought about boredom is of a feeling of having nothing to do, or more precisely, of having nothing that appeals to us at the moment. We feel restless, at a loss, decentered, numb, scattered, empty, and directionless. We need something with enough power to gather the scattered elements of our souls into one place, focus our attention on one task, and energize us toward one goal. The activity of this powerful object in gathering, focusing, and energizing our souls puts us in touch with ourselves; it enlivens our numbness and fills our emptiness. We feel alive again.

The nature and quality of our revived feelings depend on the nature of the object that overcomes the boredom. Some objects move us by awakening feelings of compassion or love or hope. Others call forth fear or anger or grief. Still others evoke greed or pride or lust. In every case boredom is overcome by placing (or finding) ourselves in the power of an object that possesses our souls in a way that unifies, energizes, and directs them. It seems that the soul doesn’t have the power to unify, energize, and direct itself. Hence boredom is the state of every soul not possessed by a power greater than itself. But not every power is truly greater than the human soul or worthy of its highest love.

We live in the age of boredom, not in the sense that everyone is always in the actual state of boredom, that is, the state of being restless, at a loss, decentered, numb, scattered, empty, and directionless. What I mean is this. Our age is dominated by fear of boredom. For many, much of what we do is designed with one purpose in mind: to fight off boredom for another day. In past ages boredom was a malady limited to the leisured classes. Most people were too occupied with digging a living out of the dirt and keeping their families clothed, warm, and housed to wake up Monday morning feeling aimless. Coping with disease, death, and war left little time to dwell on the emptiness within. But very few people living in the western world today are poor in the same sense that the twelfth-century French peasant or the eighteenth-century Russian serf was poor. We’re all members of the leisure class now! Boredom and fear of boredom have become pervasive problems.

The vast expansion of wealth in modern culture has allowed our spiritual poverty to come to the surface. When struggle for survival no longer possesses, unifies, and directs the soul, we face prospect of boredom. We look for other powers and goals to energize us and give us purpose. Many fight boredom by seeking exciting experiences. Fearing to be alone with their empty selves they seek ways to stimulate the feeling of being alive. They want to feel fear, compassion, triumph, surprise, delight, sadness or desire. And the entertainment industry’s main function is to invent ways of creating these feelings within our souls whenever we desire. We listen to music, watch movies, and go to concerts. We buy stuff. Protest stuff. And eat stuff. We hang out and hookup. We numb ourselves with alcohol and prescription drugs.

Modern life is a gigantic, multifaceted project designed to draw our attention away from the nothingness at the center of modern soul. The present age knows of no power great enough to gather all the soul’s passions and focus them on a goal worthy of all its love. And in my view, this absence is the cause of its sicknesses and the reason it deserves to be called “the age of boredom.”

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Some Things Cannot Be Delegated

Never has an age promised so much and delivered so little as ours. Modern culture assures us that pursuing boldly our individual tastes and preferences is the way to create our identities to our liking and escape confining social roles, customs, and prescriptive morality.  Happiness will be ours if only we refuse to conform to readymade social roles and begin to live consistently with our inner selves. And yet, we find ourselves herded into groups whose identity is rooted in ethnicity, a political cause, gender, age, and a hundred other categories. We want to be unique as long as we are surrounded and supported by others just like us. By identifying with a group that vociferously distinguishes itself from other groups, we seek to resolve the conflict between individual and social identity. We self-deceptively adopt the group’s identity as our individual identity, assuring ourselves that we’ve done our duty to “become ourselves.” Becoming a unique individual is not as easy or as pleasant as modern culture makes it sound! Nor is becoming a Christian.

Christian people find the task of becoming an individual no less difficult and subject to self-deception than do our secular contemporaries. Identifying yourself with the Christian faith, a Christian denomination, or a local Christian congregation does not make you Christian. Although becoming a Christian involves adopting an identity that is shared by others and living as a Christian requires that we live in community with other Christians, no one else can become a Christian for you or live the Christian life in your place. The institutional church cannot do it. The clergy cannot do it. Others can guide, encourage, and provide good examples, but you must step into that bright, heavenly light alone and relate directly to your God.

To live as a Christian you must believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. No one else can believe for you. Repentance and confession of sin must come from your heart and your mouth. Identifying with a church where communal prayers and liturgies speak of repentance and forgiveness cannot replace your own inner contrition and secret confession to God. You have to change your own life. The two greatest commands are to love God and love your neighbor. To love God is to acknowledge his love for you, to place him on the throne of your heart, and to seek him as your highest good. No institution, no other person can do this for you. And you have to love your neighbor from your heart. You cannot delegate this task to someone else. No one else can pray your prayers, give your praise, and express your thanks. Experiencing God’s presence is not a group activity.

Living a good life and practicing virtue, while done in community, must be done by the individual. Faith, hope, and love cannot be inherited from your parents or distributed like communion wafers. No one can complete your God-given assignment. It’s not like such tasks as cooking dinner, washing the car, or taking out the trash, which you can have done for you. God gave the task to you, and your doing it is part of its nature. If you don’t complete it, it will not be done.

Human beings judge each other on superficial grounds, external appearance, church membership, group associations, social status, and professional accomplishments. God judges the heart. God knows us from the top of our heads to the bottoms of our feet, inside and out, down to the depths of our souls. We cannot hide from God within the crowd, in the audience. To become a Christian, you and I must first give up the self-deception that the secrets of our hearts are known only to us. We must face the fact that we have been found out, that is, we must come to realize that God has always known our sins. And then, under our own names and in our own persons, we must deal with God directly.

 

 

 

Social Justice and The Great-Cause Fallacy

It seems that everyone who’s anyone these days has attached themselves to some great cause. In introducing yourself to another person you give your name, where you work, and the cause that drives you into the streets. You’re nobody if you’ve not founded a nonprofit organization or haven’t been arrested for chaining yourself to the White House fence or at least have “Activist” printed on your business card. You’ve gotta fight for something—for social justice for the oppressed, for the homeless, for the poor, for the trees, for open spaces, for endangered species, for the climate, for gun rights, for gun control, for children’s rights, parents’ rights, for women’s rights…for somebody’s rights! It’s “Up with…” or “Down with…” or “Out with… or “In with….”

No one presents their cause as evil. No one protests, “Down with justice, up with injustice!” Have you ever seen anyone carrying a sign that says, “Tax the Poor!”? No group occupies the halls of state capitols chanting, “Trash the environment!” No. We adopt causes we think are good, noble, and great; or at least causes we can present as good, noble, and great. Perhaps it should not escape our notice that by adopting a good and just cause I demonstrate to myself and others that I am a good and just person. I present myself as a defender of the defenseless and a champion of the oppressed. I set myself in opposition to the oppressors and polluters, the privileged, the greedy, and the selfish. I manifest my love for the beneficiaries of my zeal for whom I sacrifice an evening a week and a weekend a month. And I am righteously outraged at the evil doers who exploit those I love so much, and I am disgusted by those who turn a blind eye to such injustice. If such a self-presentation were a prayer it would go like this:

“God, I thank thee that I am not like other people—greedy, racist, unpatriotic, or lazy! I am a vegetarian, I recycle, I drive a Prius. I stand for the National Anthem and pay my dues to the NRA” (See Luke 18:9-12).

Am I being judgmental? Then let me bring in a witness. What about the great-cause activists’ claim to love those for whom they fight? The letter we know as 1 John has much to say about loving others and loving God:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Many great-cause activists resonate with John’s critique of the religious hypocrite who claims to love God but doesn’t love other human beings. But the reverse principle is just as true. If you claim to love people but do not love God, you are a liar. If you claim to love some people but do not love all, you are a liar. If you claim to love some of the time but do not love always, you are a liar. 1 Corinthians 13 lists many great causes one could adopt and noble actions one could perform without loving God or human beings:

13 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3; NASB).

Identifying with a great and good cause for which one is willing to give up everything is no sure sign that one loves, that one is a good and just person. In his profoundly insightful book, Søren Kierkegaard reminds us of something we should keep in mind always:

Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man,  that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).

In our relationship with other human beings, with God’s creation, and with ourselves, God is the “middle term,” that is, we must never try to love anything other than God directly. Nothing can be loved in the right way unless it is loved within the act of loving God and because we love God. If you think you are loving people by championing their rights and fighting against their oppressors but are not helping them to love God, you are self-deceived. You do not love them at all. Indeed you may be making them seven times worse off. If you think you can love yourself by asserting your rights and your dignity directly apart from loving God, you are dressing pride in clothing of justice. The greatest cause is learning to love God. The greatest act of love you can do for others is to help them love God, and the most loving thing anyone will ever do for you is to help you love God.

So, you are looking for a great cause? Be sure that your desire to serve a great cause is not secretly a desire to become great by associating with a great cause. We might begin by learning to pray the prayer of tax collector instead of that of the Pharisee:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13).

Social Justice and the American Prophet

The issue of social justice remains the hottest topic I’ve ever written about on this blog. My essay, “On the Difference between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice,” written two years ago, still receives more hits per week than any other essay. So, I’m going to address the topic again from a new perspective.

American Christianity has a long tradition of producing social reformers, social ethicists, and public theologians. These individuals are often seen as carrying on the tradition of such Old Testament prophets as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. They speak to the general population and their leaders, that is, to the whole nation, as if America had inherited the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. They demand justice for the poor, for minorities, for women, for gay people, for transgender people, and for every other oppressed group. And they often root their demands in the biblical vision of justice and community. And this prophetic persona is not limited to left-leaning personalities. Others, right-leaning prophets, take up the mantle of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha and call for repentance from immorality and idolatry. This phenomenon is not limited to high profile preachers, professors, and nonprofit CEOs. With the advent of social media, every Tom, Dick, and Susan can become a prophet to the nation. Of course no one listens to Facebook prophets; no one cares and no one changes.

As venerable and as American as this “prophetic” tradition is, it is based on a false premise. There are no American prophets, and there never have been. And the reason is simple. God has not made a covenant with America or any other nation or nation-state to be his people. The Old Testament prophets were sent by God to challenge God’s covenant people to repent of their unfaithfulness to the covenant. The prophetic ministry presupposes a divine covenant and its binding responsibilities. Apart from a covenant, a prophet is without authority; she or he is just another political advocate. The covenant nation was a failure. The only divine covenant in force today is the New Covenant Jesus sealed with his blood. The new covenant people is not composed of one ethnic group, or of the people living within the borders of one nation state, or even of all humankind. You cannot enter it through birth or the social contract. You enter by faith and baptism into Jesus Christ and in so doing you place yourself under the sole Lordship of Jesus. Prophets have authority only as they speak on the basis of the New Covenant to the New Covenant people, the church. The death and resurrection of Jesus marked the end of divine covenants with nations. There are no state churches or church states! And there are no national prophets!

Does Christianity have a message for the people of America or for the world? Yes. But it must be spoken by a different persona, the evangelist! The message to those outside of God’s covenant people is “Repent and believe the Gospel.” To speak prophetically to people outside the new covenant deceives them into thinking that as long as they believe in whatever social reform is being advocated, they don’t need to repent of idolatry and immorality and become Jesus’ disciples. They are deceived into thinking that political power can accomplish as much good as the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; that they don’t need to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2), that they don’t need to “live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6), that they don’t need the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38),  that they don’t need to worry that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4), and that they don’t need divine mercy and forgiveness.

If you find yourself wanting to be a prophet to America (or Canada or Germany or any other nation), if the state of things outrages you, be careful lest you substitute a political message for the gospel and a superficial call for social change for radical conversion to Jesus. Don’t mistake anger and personal offence for passion for justice. Don’t mistake insults, judgments, and self-righteousness for prophetic inspiration. Don’t take Amos or Elijah as your model. Their day has come and gone. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Live it and preach it. If you aim to live as a disciple of Jesus your life will have an inadvertent prophet effect. The light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

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.

“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.

Sexual Harassment and the Morality of Consent

In recent weeks charges and denials of sexual harassment and assault filled the headlines and the “breaking news” interruptions. And if the accused party cannot plausibly deny that the incident happened, the issue then turns on “consent.” Was the incident consensual or not? If the act possesses a consent-like quality, that is, some form of silence or non-resistance, a further question arises: what is true consent? Must you say “yes” out loud in answer to an explicit request? Must you sign a letter of consent? Is later regret a sign of original non-consent? And how soon must the regretting party express doubts about their true consent? Hours? Days? Weeks? Years? These questions and distinctions could be multiplied to the point of absurdity. But I am interested in a more foundational issue.

Mutual consent and legal liability seem to be the highest moral standards contemporary society expects in personal interactions, especially when it comes to sex. Many people can’t think of another reason to judge an action wrong. Whatever self-destructive consequences an act may have for the consenting parties, all that matters is mutual consent. It is assumed that mutual consent removes the possibility of moral objection to an act because (1) there is no higher moral law that consent cannot override. Consent is itself the highest moral law because people have the right to do whatever they want with their souls and bodies; and (2) the mutually consenting action of two or more parties can be isolated from all other people.

[Both of these presuppositions are false to the point of absurdity. See note at the end of this essay for further thoughts on why.]

Don’t misunderstand me. It is a good thing that our society has not sunk to the point that it condones nonconsensual sexual violence and other forms abuse. But there is much more to morality than consent. And Christianity calls us to a much higher standard.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13: 8-10).

Like you I am appalled at the abusive behavior of politicians, media moguls, and business executives that has recently come to light. However I am concerned that many people will take the whole affair simply as a warning to be more careful in their seductions and adulteries. But I urge us to attend to the root problem of such behavior. It’s not failure to get consent. It’s rejection of the God-originated, Jesus-modeled, and Spirit-inspired love that gladly and spontaneously fulfills the law. It puts other people’s needs above its own. It thinks always not of ways to seduce but of ways to bless others. It views power as the opportunity to serve others, not abuse them.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

I hope you will teach your children a higher morality than mutual consent. You will have to do this yourself, by your example and words. And your children will need to see it practiced in a community of Jesus’ disciples. Contemporary society and its educational institutions will not do it for you. Mutual consent is as high a morality as it can imagine.

For an in-depth study of how consent replaced Christian morality in contemporary society see my essay from June 2014:

https://ifaqtheology.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/consenting-adults-body-soul-and-sex-4/