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.