Tag Archives: culture wars

Idolatry—The Carefully Guarded Secret of Contemporary Culture

Perhaps there was a time when a catechism of the church could transition smoothly from discussions about what Christians should believe to how they should live. After explaining the doctrines of creation, atonement, sacraments, eschatology, and others, we could move right into morality, virtues and vices, duties and sins. But that time is long gone. Contemporary culture no longer holds presuppositions that make discussions of the Christian way of life understandable. And we have to face the unhappy truth that many people who think of themselves as Christian no longer hold them either.

The foundation and presupposition of biblical morality is God’s right and demand for our absolute loyalty:

“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

God is Creator and Lord, the beginning and end of all things. He gives all things their existence and purpose. God’s will is the law of existence. And those who know and acknowledge this truth seek to know and obey God’s will. They do not claim a right to direct their own lives. Instead, they follow Jesus’ example and say to God, “Not my will but yours be done.” Even the Son of God, who loved his Father and acknowledged his goodness and wisdom, had to obey his God. He renounced all independence and autonomy in relation to God. We should relate to God in love, joy, faith, and admiration. But true test of love for God is obedience, because obedience continues to do God’s will even against inclination, even unto death.

But contemporary culture unequivocally rejects this presupposition. This rejection has roots that go back 300 years in Western history and beyond that to the Old and New Testaments. Christianity asks each individual to establish a relationship to God characterized by faith and obedience. Ultimately each person is answerable to God alone for the way they live their lives. The individual enjoys freedom in relation to God, to believe or not, to obey or disobey. The 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment and the democratic movements that followed applied the Christian view of the God/individual relationship to politics to argue for greater individual liberty over-against the political order. God’s authority trumped human authority, and the individual’s obligations to God trumped the individual’s obligations to the state. Hence human governments have limited authority over the lives of citizens.

However over the past 300 years, the individual’s sacred obligations to God evolved slowly but relentlessly into the sacredness of the individual’s own autonomous self. After the rights of the individual in relation to the state had been established, people forgot the original basis of that freedom. The individual became his/her own god, the source of their own rights and dignity. God became superfluous. Contemporary gods and goddesses reverse Jesus’ statement of submission to his Father. They say,

“Not your will, but mine be done.”

The First Commandment has now been inverted to say:

“I shall have no other god but me.”

The Greatest Command has been rewritten to say:

“I am the Lord my God, me alone. I shall love myself with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength”

Many of our contemporaries knowingly or unknowingly reject the presupposition of all biblical morality, that is, that God should be obeyed in all things. Perhaps there is no more offensive and counter-cultural word than “obedience.” It strikes at the heart of the modern view of the sacred dignity and rights of human beings. Our absolute obligation to God has been transformed from the origin and foundation of human rights and dignity into their greatest enemy. Our contemporaries display an intuitive resentment and a knee-jerk rejection of any moral assertion that suggests submission to any will other than their own, even to God’s will.

A catechism of mere Christianity for a post-Christian, post-denominational culture will be ineffective unless it recognizes and exposes the modern divinization of the individual as the root of modern culture’s enmity toward the God of the Bible. Popular rhetoric of freedom, justice, individual rights, and tolerance is too powerful for immature and acculturated Christians to resist. Its power derives from its deceptive resemblance to Christian morality. Though it sounds vaguely Christian, it is actuality idolatry in its most original form: self-deification and self-worship.

The first and most basic premise of the Christian life is that we should passionately seek God’s will that we might obey him in all things, no matter what the cost.

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The Sins of Christians: Evidence for Christianity’s Immorality?

In this week’s post I want to continue the theme of moral objections to Christianity. Last week I argued that most moral objections to Christianity can be reduced to fundamental disagreements about the final authority for moral truth and the ends moral behavior should seek. The specific issues discussed by the culture at any particular time are merely occasions for the clash of contradictory fundamental perspectives. The view I called “de-Christianized progressivism” rejects all moral authority beyond the individual’s sense of fittingness and any goal other than individual happiness as understood by the individual. In contrast, Christianity affirms the ultimate moral authority of the Creator, who is the absolute standard of right and good, and views the goal of human action and relationships as the creature’s correspondence in character and life to the Creator as revealed in Jesus Christ.

De-Christianized progressivism appeals to a different source of moral knowledge than that to which Christianity appeals. It cannot accept that individuals need any moral guidance other than their own experience and feeling. After all, if the goal of human life is to maintain a feeling of wellbeing and happiness in the present moment, who knows better than I when I am happy and what makes me happy? But Christianity mistrusts untrained and immediate human impulses. Human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness and spiritual transformation. It asserts that individuals’ consciences need divine revelation, community discipline and tradition as sources of moral guidance.

If people holding opposite sides of these contradictory moral visions clash over issues such as those that excite our culture today without clarifying their deeper disagreements, they cannot possibly understand each other and will simply talk past each other. And since they cannot appeal to the same authority and do not seek the same goal, they cannot even reason with each other. Instead of asking why they cannot reason together about an issue and letting this question drive them to their deeper disagreements—and perhaps agreements on another level—they shift from reasoning to fighting. Opponents begin to view each other as irrational, insincere and evil. Words become weapons instead of vehicles for ideas. Carl von Clausewitz (1790-1831) observed in his book On War, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Unhappily, von Clausewitz’s aphorism describes only too well the current debate about morality. Christians as well as non- or post-Christians are often guilty of shifting too quickly from reasoning to fighting. And I will have something to say about this in future posts. But here I am dealing with objections to the moral vision of Christianity from its critics.

Many critics illegitimately confuse Christianity with the thought and behavior of churches and individuals who claim to be Christian. Clearly, there is a conceptual difference between the essential teaching and moral vision of the original Christian faith and the practice of individual Christians and institutions that call themselves churches. Lay Christians and clergy have done and do bad things. Bishops acted like secular lords, amassing wealth and building magnificent palaces at the expense of the people while neglecting their duty to care for and teach the people. “Christian” princes conducted wars against other “Christian” princes. So-called “witches” and heretics were burned alive. Christian churches sought power in alliance with the political order. Clergy abused and still abuse their trusted positions by molesting children, living in luxury and seeking honor. Indeed, Christians and so-called “churches” do bad things, horrendous things, and they deserve to be exposed and denounced.

And it is precisely by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ and the original Christian faith that they are most decisively exposed and denounced! De-Christianized progressivism cannot possibly be as radical in its criticism. For it possesses no coherent principles by which to criticize such abuses. Non- or post-Christians also seek wealth, desire power and work to satisfy their lusts. And why not? They cannot appeal to moral law or divine judgment or the teaching and example of Jesus to redirect their lives toward the truly good and right. This life is all there is, and it is precarious and short. Carpe diem! Hence their criticism of the behavior of Christians and Christian institutions boils down to criticizing them for not living up to the teaching of Jesus and the original Christian faith, that is, it boils down to an accusation of hypocrisy. They don’t raise any independent criticisms. So, it cannot escape notice that an argument from hypocrisy to the falsehood of the ideals by which hypocrisy is exposed and denounced is self-contradictory. If the Christian moral vision is false, the charge of hypocrisy is evacuated of its moral content. How can hypocrisy be a moral failing if the system within which hypocrisy is condemned is itself false?

Surely it is obvious that failure to live up to an ideal does not disprove the ideal. A bad Stoic does not prove that Stoicism is bad. A bad math student does not prove that mathematics is bad. Nor does a bad Christian prove that Christianity is bad. Hence merely rehearsing the sins of Christians and so-called “Christian” institutions does not constitute a good argument against Christianity’s moral vision. A good argument, that is, a rational argument, against Christianity’s moral vision would, first, need fairly and accurately to describe that vision. Second, it would need to judge Christianity’s moral vision defective according to an alternative moral vision, which as a system can claim as good or better grounding in moral truth. I do not accept expressions of emotion or sentences that begin with “I feel” or “everyone knows” or “we have discovered” or “history will show” as rational arguments.

I challenge the critics of the Christian moral vision to make an argument that meets these two requirements. Only then can we even have an argument. I predict I will be waiting a long time.

Words and Weapons: Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#2)

“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 plain, 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 the serious 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—too many—contemporary discussions of moral issues consist primarily in expressions of emotion, approval or disapproval, in the absence of conceptual clarity and precision.

The Good

In this series I want to address this lack of conceptual clarity. 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 of moral questions.

I find it interesting that even though the word “good” is very general and bland, it is indispensable for discussions of morality. The meaning of the word can range from weak expressions of esthetic pleasure to assertions of superlative excellence. It can be used to express personal preference or pronounce moral judgment. It can be (mis)used 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 one’s use of the term in serious moral discussions.

Examination of all 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; that is to say, 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 is to express the connection between it and a feeling of pleasure. Examples are abundant: that was a good meal, a good show, a good experience.

But an experience can give momentary pleasure and not be “good for” one in the sense of promoting one’s well-being: “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.” These 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 productive”.

Let’s draw a preliminary conclusion. To engage in fruitful moral discussions it is important not to confuse the two meanings of “good”, the pleasant and the productive. 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—although feelings of pleasure or displeasure can still be expressed in reaction to such claims. (Example, “I find disgusting what you find pleasant.)  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 difference is this: the assertion that X is productive of 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.

To be continued…