Tag Archives: moral crisis

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.

Two Orientations: Body, Soul and Sex (#1)

[Programming Note: This post begins a new series on Soul, Body and Sex. But it continues the subject of the previous seven-part series on Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis. I recommend reading those essays as a foundation for this series.]

Where are we?

In previous posts 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 and intimidation or legislated human law.

Thoughtful (and faithful) Christians find themselves under fire because they submit themselves to the authority of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures and retain the traditional view of the good and the right. When Christians oppose the dominant culture’s subjective view of the good and the right they appear backward, oppressive, insensitive, cruel and downright hateful. Indeed, they appear as enemies of humanity worthy of marginalization, legal proscription and even persecution.

Two Orientations

We are now at the point in our discussion of the moral crisis where we need to speak about specific behaviors. And I might as well begin with the body and sex. In the contemporary controversy over the use of our bodies we see most vividly the clash of two irreconcilable moral visions. Though the particulars differ, the clash 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 the invisible (2Cor 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. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 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. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 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 one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. 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 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 are integral to the “earthly nature.” 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.” And the physical dimension cannot be separated from the social. We use our bodies to communicate with others and our physical urges almost always involve interaction with others.

The Body

The New Testament affirms the created goodness of the body. But the goodness of the body lies in the possibility for the body’s proper use. The body is not absolutely good, so that whatever we do with it is also good. 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 while 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 and unnatural.

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: 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. Our minds enable us to gain wisdom to discern the good and right. The body apart from the mind possesses no conscious knowledge of the good and right. It works more or less automatically and instinctually.

Now consider the two orientations of 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, and the body must be guided by the soul. (Note: the soul is more than the mind, but it includes the mind.) 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–through its automatic and instinctual urges–begins to dominate the mind and the mind 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 merely smart animals. Dangerous ones too!

To be continued…

Future questions: what is the body for? Do I have a right to use my body as I like? Does mutual consent make what I do with another human being good and right?

Moral Law—So Yesterday! Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#4)

The Right

In the first three installments of 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 an essential feature of moral experience. And this requirement leads us to the concept of “the right.”

Hence the concept of “the right” is indispensable for moral reasoning. If something is good because it is “good for” something else, then something 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 to regulate the behavior 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 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.

Natural Law

What is this higher law? And 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 in two things. Natural law either describes (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 sense of natural law do we come under an obligation to act or refrain from acting. In the first case (1) 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. In the second case (2), natural law merely describes “the good” or what is good for us, and, as we noted above, the concept of the good does not include the concept of the right.

Natural law can have the force of moral law only if the order of nature reflects the will of a moral authority above nature. 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 actions that ought to be done or that ought not to be done. The idea of an unjust or wrong human law would make no sense.

Creation

However, for Christian theology the order within nature reflects the will 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.

Hence we are 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 be achieving 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?

To be continued…

 

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…

Forget Truth!…Is Christianity Even Good? Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#1)

Christianity has its critics and always has. From the beginning it faced opposition from religious and political authorities, from cultural arbiters and from 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 the biblical miracles, dismissing them as myths, legends or lies. And 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.

But 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 blasphemed Christianity as 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—the so-called “masters of suspicion”—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, religious beliefs—that is, any objective construct whereby one person or group sets the rules for other persons or groups—as manifestations of the hidden desire for domination.

This is the situation in which Christians must proclaim, explain and defend the Christian vision of life today. You may think I am too pessimistic, that there are many people in the United States, perhaps the majority, who have not adopted moral nihilism as a philosophy of life. You are probably correct about the number of thoroughly consistent nihilists: there are relatively few. But the metric by which I am measuring the moral situation is different. I am gauging the situation by two symptoms that I think indicate an underlying crisis:

(1) How many people do you know who can give a coherent moral explanation for rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness of a particular moral belief they hold? Don’t most people, Christians as well as non Christians, simply appeal to their feelings and choices to justify their moral beliefs? But such justifications merely imitate the nihilistic culture; for that is how it justifies its rebellion against moral rules it doesn’t like!

(2) Imagine yourself standing before a group of your contemporaries, whether the group is chosen at random from society or is comprised of people from your church. Now what reaction would you expect to receive if you argued from a natural or revealed moral law that a certain behavior—especially if it is connected to the sexual revolution in any way—is immoral, that measured by an objective moral standard the behavior is wrong and bad? I think you know the answer to these questions. Modern people, including church-goers, have lost confidence that there is a moral order, that there is a way we are supposed to live our lives.

And, if Christians nevertheless assert such a moral order we will likely face something like what our brothers and sisters faced in the first three centuries. Are we ready?

Next week we begin to explore the vocabulary in which moral discussions are conducted: good, bad, right, wrong, justice, and more.

Heaven and Earth Reconciled: God and the Modern Self #16

This installment completes this series. So, perhaps now would be a good time to let you in on a theological assumption I have made throughout this series: We can arrive at a Christian understanding of God only by viewing everything in the Bible and everything reason may tell us about God through the prism of Jesus Christ. For Christianity, God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit, everlasting self-giving love. There is no other God. Every divine attribute and action, every biblical narrative and assertion, before it can be legitimately incorporated into the Christian doctrine of God, must be harmonized with the vision of God that has come to light in Jesus Christ. The event of Jesus Christ is not merely a revelation of God; it is the revelation of God. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul tells us that it was always God’s secret plan “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” And this text also sets the agenda for theology. All ideas about God must be brought to unity under Christ.

Operating on this theological assumption, I examined the ideas of divine omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in view of the vision of God that was brought into view by event of Jesus Christ. What seemed so menacing when contemplated in isolation appears as such good news when seen light of Jesus. God’s power can no longer be understood as the arbitrary will for domination. Now we know that it is the life-giving Life that appeared in Christ. The true character of God’s omnipresence is revealed in the incarnation of the Son of God. God can be with us, in us and united to us without displacing us. We no longer fear God’s absolute knowledge of us because now we understand this knowledge as the wisdom of his love. God knows how to love us, care for us and save us.

I also applied this theological assumption in our quest to understand who we are in relation to God. We cannot see ourselves as God sees us by studying history or reflecting on our feelings, thoughts and experiences. Nor can we understand ourselves by collecting biblical texts about human nature, sinfulness or destiny, unless those texts are brought to unity “under Christ.” For Christian theology, Jesus Christ is the revelation human nature and destiny. The event of Jesus Christ is the event of God uniting humanity to himself and bring it to its definitive perfection and its final destiny. In Christ we find no conflict between God and the full flowering of human perfection and happiness. Jesus Christ is God and humanity united in perfect harmony. To do the will of God and to seek our greatest good are one and the same endeavor. For God to work his sovereign will and to love the world in Christ through the Spirit are one and the same project. Just as we learn from Christ that God is self-giving love, we also learn that the perfection of human nature is self-giving love. And “self-giving love cannot compete with self-giving love” (p. 213).

To close this series I will quote the last paragraph of the book God, Freedom & Human Dignity:

“At the beginning of this book I expressed concern that we may hold back part of ourselves from God because we fear that God is in some way our competitor, that we might lose something if we give ourselves to God and that God may not be wholly for us. I hope by now we can see that there is not the slightest ground for such fears. The very opposite is true. God is so much for us and we are made so much for God that only by returning ourselves to God utterly may we become truly ourselves and live life to the full. In loving God for God’s sake alone we will find genuine freedom and in allowing ourselves to be loved by God we will discover our true dignity” (p. 217).

Next week I will begin a series that deals with the creeping moral crisis that is engulfing modern western culture and the challenge the 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 robust Christian doctrines 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.

Freedom Means Freedom, Period: God and the Modern Self (Part 6)

Freedom! Liberty! Independence! This is the incessant cry of the modern self. And no concept is more central to its self-definition.  As we saw in previous parts of this series, the modern self resents all external limits placed on its efforts to make itself happy, whether those limits arise from the laws of nature, the desires of other people, or God. It acts as if its essence were pure, arbitrary will structured and limited by no unchangeable forms, subject only to its momentary desires. This view of the self is implicit in what modern people demand, in the way they act and for what they strive.

Very few people actually think about the understanding of the self and freedom their rhetoric presupposes. But bringing these presuppositions out of the background and into the light is essential to understanding our contemporary situation and evaluating it from a position of Christian faith.  And that is our aim in this series.

The concept of freedom is so central to the modern self that you would think that everyone knows what they mean when they demand it. But most people have only the vaguest idea of freedom. Mortimer Adler and his coauthors in a massive two-volume analysis of the concept of freedom (The Idea of Freedom, 1958), distinguish three main and two subordinate concepts of freedom in the history of Western thought. The three main concepts are (1) the circumstantial freedom of self-realization, (2) the natural freedom of self-determination, and (3) the acquired freedom of self-perfection.

In each of these views of freedom there are four factors, a self that wishes to enjoy good things, an other that blocks the self from such enjoyment, a power that exempts the self from limits imposed by the other, and a state of being exempt from the other. As you can see, freedom is primarily a negative concept. A self is exempt from the limits of the other through a power that can remove the other. Different views of freedom can be specified by discovering how they define these four factors: self, other, power and exemption.

The first view of freedom (self-realization) is the most common. According to this view we are free when we are exempt from circumstances that keep us from fulfilling our desires. It focuses on external limits. You are free when you can do what you want. The second view (self-determination) understands freedom as exemption from all internal, hidden limits that prevent self from determining for itself what it does and becomes. It focuses not on the power to act exempt from limits but on the power to decide for itself, exempt from limits. The third view (self-perfection) thinks of freedom as the power to will only the good. The self that wills evil is not free from all limits, for it is blind to its true good. If it were not blind it would have greater freedom. In each of these historic concepts of freedom a self is exempt by a power that removes a limit imposed by the other.

At last, by examining the modern self’s understanding of the four factors of freedom, we can understand in greater depth its view of freedom. (1) The modern self views the other as anything that blocks the self from realizing its immediate desires—God, other people, the structures of nature. The other is the enemy of freedom and dignity, a spiteful force that robs the self of fulfillment and happiness. The modern self rejects the idea that the other is a condition of the self—an inherent natural limit or sin and guilt—so intimate to the self that it cannot see the difference between itself and the other or get itself free by itself.

(2) The power that exempts the self from serfdom to the other is the power of will inherent in the self. The self frees itself. This powerful self exempts itself through internal determination, rhetorical assertion, protest and demands, technology, political action, or bold or transgressive individual action. (3) The essential self is pure, arbitrary will. The self is its own power, willpower. This conclusion is inevitable since the other is defined as any structure not subject to the self and the power for freedom is identical to the self. (4) The state of exemption or realized freedom is a state in which the self can inwardly determine itself and express itself externally as it pleases without limit.

Briefly, let me say a word about dignity. The modern self defines dignity in terms of freedom. Human dignity is rooted in the human power of self-determination or autonomy. Hence any limit on the self’s freedom is an insult to the self’s dignity. The modern view of dignity asserts that because human beings possess the power to determine themselves as they wish, they also have the right to exercise this power as they wish. Limiting the exercise of this power violates the essence of the self and insults its worth.

Now we can see clearly why the modern self envies God and wishes to become God. It defines freedom and dignity in such a way that only by becoming God can it achieve freedom and enjoy dignity; that is to say, only by becoming like the being it imagines (mistakenly) God must be can it perfect itself and achieve happiness.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 6 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Secret Ambitions of the Modern Self”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Explore the concept of the circumstantial freedom of self-realization. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

2. Explore the concept of the natural freedom of self-determination. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

3. Explore the concept of the acquired freedom of self-perfection. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

4. What core concept of freedom do these three views of freedom hold in common and are these three views compatible?

5. What are the four aspects of the concept of freedom, and do they support the idea that freedom is a basically negative concept?

6. Discuss the final conclusions about the modern self’s understanding of freedom embodied in its version of the four aspects of the concept of freedom. It is it an accurate picture of the tendency of the contemporary culture?

7. In light of this post and the previous five, revisit the idea that the modern self sees God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and happiness. What evidence do you see that this tension affects the way modern people live?

8. How knowing the modern self’s view of freedom help us understand the modern crisis of morality?

Note: next week we will assess the claims and aspirations of the modern self in view of an honest and realistic picture of the human condition.