Category Archives: Cultural criticism

“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.

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The First Casualty of War

Truth often eludes even those who seek diligently it. But we live in a society that no longer seeks truth, that can think of no reason to seek it, and that mocks those rare individuals who do seek it. What do people value more than truth? What is truth’s replacement? The opposite of truth is falsehood, but people don’t love falsehood—at least not directly. Perhaps, some people wish something to be true so much that they deceive themselves or allow themselves to be deceived to enjoy the illusion for a time. But no one likes to be deceived against their will, because being deceived puts you at a disadvantage. It takes away power and freedom from you and gives them to the deceiver. I conclude that people love not falsehood but power, power over themselves and others. And of course power is useful in retaining the goods one has and in acquiring the goods one wants.

The first casualty in war is truth. In a state of all-out war, power is everything, and truth and falsehood are useful only as means to gain power and defeat the enemy. But not all wars are “all-out” contests where any and every means is used to win and winning means the total domination of the enemy. War is any encounter where gaining power over another person is the chief end. Many sectors of contemporary society have become in effect battlefields where different factions seek power over others. And words and pictures are the weapons of choice. The words and pictures are chosen, not because they are true but because they are effective in disempowering the enemy and gaining power for the speaker. Love for truth plays no part. Desire for power is everything.

Prominent among these sectors are politics, education, the press, jurisprudence, social media, and religion. To be more precise and use a postmodern slogan, “Politics is everything.” The power struggles of the political sphere have invaded these other sectors and the political end of domination has replaced the original ends of these other activities. In the minds of its originators this expression (“Politics is everything.”) meant that every encounter, even superficially innocent ones, is really about the power one person or group attempts to gain over another. All truth claims are really masks for power moves. What seems to be different today, as opposed to the 1980s when the slogan “Politics is everything” came into vogue, is that no one tries very hard to mask their desire for power and their disdain for truth. They know “their side” is lying, but they love what they hear anyway. Whether the “other side” lies or tells the truth, they hate what is said because it tends to empower the enemy.

Clearly, God is the missing factor in these war games. Anyone who loves God will love truth. If you don’t love truth, you can’t love God. If you don’t seek truth, you can’t really be seeking God. God is the origin of truth, because God is the origin of everything real. And truth concerns reality. Jesus explained to Pilate that “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” But Pilate replied, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38). “What is truth?” is the cynical question asked by everyone for whom power is the chief value and winning is the exclusive goal. Later on in Jesus’ trial, the governor explained that he had power to have Jesus executed or released. But Jesus replied “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:10-11). To all appearances in the moment Jesus, the lover of truth, lost and Pilate, the lover of power, won. But appearance is not the same as reality and the voice of power is never the word of truth.

We live in a society that sees the world through Pilate’s eyes. It doesn’t love the truth. It loves the appearance of winning for the momentary thrill of victory. In the end, however, truth wins and reality stands, because in the end God wins. But do we have the courage to wait until the end?

Two Roads to Happiness—One Broad, the Other Narrow

It may seem that I have strayed from my theme for this year, which is “love not the world” (1 John 2:15-17). So it may appear, but it’s never been far from my mind. Living a Christian life can be summed up as loving God in every word, thought, and deed and refusing to love the world. You cannot live the Christian life unless you keep ever before you the difference between these two loves. This task is not easy, because “the world” is the dominant way human beings order their lives. That’s why it’s called “the world.” It’s the majority, which enters the “wide gate” and travels the “broad road” (Matthew 7:13). It’s the way of the rulers and powers of this world (Ephesians 2:1-3). It’s the easy way, the downhill road.  You just follow your lusts, do what everyone else does, approve of what they approve, dislike what they dislike, and love what they love. But to be a Christian, to love the Father, you must break loose from the world and squeeze through the “small gate” and travel with Jesus and the “few” on the “narrow road” (Matthew 7:14).

We deceive ourselves if we think that Jesus’ warning about the “broad road” and John’s assessment of his society and culture do not apply to our age. To the contrary, we live in “the world,” and despite superficial differences, our society follows the ways of the world just as thoroughly as first-century society did. And we are just as tempted to love the world as our first-century brothers and sisters were.

Perhaps the most deceptive value that orders society today is freedom. Even cries for justice and equality can be reduced to demands for freedom. Equality largely means “equal freedom,” and justice means primarily equality, which again means equal freedom. But freedom itself remains largely undefined, because everyone thinks they know what it means. They assume without thinking that freedom means the absence of any power or condition that inhibits an individual’s achievement of happiness understood as a subjective feeling. Hidden in this definition is the idea that happiness can never be achieved as long as one endures any condition that is not desired. The worst thing you can do to anyone is deprive them of their freedom, which is the same as making them unhappy. And to make someone unhappy is to deprive them of their reason for living, which is psychological murder.

Why is this understanding of freedom a problem? What makes it worldly? And what makes it deceptive? If we defined freedom simply as “the absence of any power or condition that inhibits an individual’s achievement of happiness,” we could fit the Christian understanding of freedom within it. For the Christian faith, there are powers and conditions that block our way to ultimate happiness, and God is the only power that can free us from those hindrances. And possessing and being possessed by God is the only condition under which human beings can find true joy. But modern society’s view of happiness and how it must be achieved differs dramatically from the Christian understanding. As I pointed out above, contemporary culture thinks happiness can be attained by breaking free from every limit that prevents us from following our desires. Both freedom and happiness are achieved by our own power, freedom by self-assertion and happiness by self-indulgence. As you can see clearly, modern worldly people put the human self in God’s place. In the Christian view, God is the basis of both freedom and happiness. But the way of the world seeks freedom and happiness through its own power. Hence the contemporary world, just like the first-century world, finds its power for freedom and its way to happiness in “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Nothing has changed.