Monthly Archives: June 2022

Understanding the Culture Wars…Why it Matters (Part One)

In every age Christians must consider carefully how to live in their unique circumstances. In one way this task is very simple: keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and hold on to the gospel and the apostles’ teaching. Remaining faithful does not require understanding all the ways people can be unfaithful. Knowing truth does not require studying all forms of falsehood. While this is a very important insight we would do well to keep in mind, not every Christian possesses thorough knowledge of the scriptures or deep understanding of the faith. Not all have become stable in discipleship to Jesus. They are vulnerable to deception by half-truths and clever lies. Hence some within the Christian community need to devote themselves to understanding the cultural context within which God’s people live and sharing their findings with the church. I find myself compelled to engage in this work.

This summer I’ve felt an urgent need for additional insight into the principles that animate the drastically different moral/political/religious visions that do battle contemporary culture. Don’t mistake my concern for despair. I am confident that God’s deity and existence are not at stake, much less in jeopardy, in these controversies. Jesus Christ is and will be Lord no matter what the outcome of the cultural war is. My worry is that some Christians could be swept up in the emotions of the day, take their eyes off Jesus, lose faith in the providence of God, and abandon themselves to hatred, division, and fanaticism.

The Raging Battle

Sometimes I feel like a man standing on a hill gazing silently at a battle raging in the valley below. Who are the participants? What’s at stake in the battle? How did this war begin and when will it end? I understand that I am a part of this world and a participant in this culture. As long as I live I cannot escape the conflict completely. But do not believe I should rush into the battle before I do all I can to understand why the war is being fought and how it relates to the spiritual battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12).

Right and Left

The standard classification of right, left, and center seems inadequate to describe the present cultural landscape. Right, left, and center parties combine greatly disparate ideologies and interest groups to form their coalitions. At first inspection, the whole culture seems to be a chaotic, eclectic patchwork of temporary alliances of convenience.

The right and left are relative terms, and to convey any information they must relate to a fixed point. Historically, these terms derive from the era of the French Revolution (1789). The French National Assembly divided into supporters of the King who sat on the King’s right and supporters of the revolution who sat on the King’s left. Applied to the contemporary social order this mapping makes sense only in relation to an image of the traditional religious/moral/social order taken as a fixed point. The Right maintains a conservative stance toward this order and the Left calls for revolution.

I think the designations “Right” and “Left” are still useful in marking out two general attitudes toward tradition, but they do not help us understand the nuances of difference within each wing. Apart from understanding the Right’s reasons and principles justifying conservation of the past and the Left’s reasons and principles grounding its call for revolution, we can neither understand nor evaluate their programs.

I find it confusing that each party calls to its defense the same set of reasons and principles but apply them in different ways, with different levels of consistency, and in different combinations at different times. Even more confusing, the parties themselves do not seem to be aware, much less possess a theoretical grasp, of how they are using those reasons and principles. To understand the current situation we need greater clarity about the function of principles in the arguments of the parties.

The Rhetoric of Freedom

In the cultural struggle between “Left and Right,” all parties appeal to the same noble and commonly accepted principles. No one says, “I don’t care about other people. I want what I want no matter what others think.” No one lets it slip that they are power hungry or greedy or obsessed with perverted lusts. They talk about legal rights, constitutional rights, and human rights*. They complain of unfairness, injustice, discrimination, and inequality. Sometimes they invoke human dignity, the inherent right to happiness, or autonomy. Let’s explore the meaning of these principles and try to ascertain how they are used by Right and Left to support their positions.

*Note: A “right” is a broader concept than a “freedom” though it includes it. A negative right is identical to a freedom, but a positive right corresponds to what was traditionally known as a “privilege.”

The Many Faces of Freedom

In the history of philosophy and politics “freedom” has been used to designate three basic types of openness for human action. Two of the three have been adapted to develop theories of political freedom. In popular rhetoric, however, they are mixed together, and this conceptual confusion leads to misunderstandings. In view of this confusion let’s first get clear on the differences among the views of freedom being used in contemporary rhetoric.

1. Freedom to Act as One Pleases

According to John Locke, Jonathan Edwards, and John S. Mill, freedom is leeway to act as you please. Freedom understood in this way is openness to pursue your happiness in whatever way you find promising. You are free insofar as nothing outside of yourself obstructs your external action in pursuit of good things. Maximum liberty, then, is a circumstance wherein nothing external to you inhibits acting on your desires. But everyone knows that we will never enjoy maximum freedom in this world. The laws of nature, our finite powers, limited knowledge, and resistance from other people will not allow it. Pursuing maximum freedom despite its impossibility will work only destruction. Like it or not, we are forced to come to terms with our less than maximum freedom. But however realistic we may be about the limits the world places on our freedom, we may not be able to shake the feeling that we are being deprived of happiness. Different people cope with these limits differently. Some find contentment in resignation to their limits. Others nurse perpetual resentment and defiance. Still others are driven to think in alternative ways about freedom and happiness.

2. Freedom in Classic Liberal Politics

At its best, politics is deliberation about the optimum way to order life in society to facilitate the realization and preservation of the cherished values of the people. Adopting Locke’s, Edwards’s, and Mill’s understanding of freedom, classic liberal political theory holds individual liberty as its most cherished value. It aims to advance and protect each person’s freedom to pursue happiness in whatever way the individual finds promising insofar as such action can be harmonized with every other individual’s pursuit of their happiness. Liberty is so precious that it may be limited only by liberty itself.

A government administered as a classic liberal order refrains from telling individuals in what their happiness consists. In other words, it’s not a “nanny state” that assumes it knows better than you what is good for you. Nor does it take as its responsibility making sure everyone attains happiness; it’s not a “welfare state” whose task is to accompany you from cradle to grave to make sure you have everything you need every step of the way. It assumes that each individual knows best what makes them happy and that they possess the drive to pursue it. The art of politics in the classic liberal state is balancing the liberty of each with all and of all with each. The government assumes the role of a referee that makes sure the game is played according to the rules. There will always be disagreements, conflicting claims, and “bad calls.” The devil is in the details.

As we all know, however, a society ordered purely in accord with the classic liberal political theory has never existed. It’s probably impossible. Other such values as national security, religious and moral belief, human dignity, general welfare, aesthetic tastes, and prejudices often serve as the bases for laws that restrict freedom.

Next Time: Other views of freedom and political order.

I Want it All!

As regular readers of this blog know, I believe a certain image of the human self drives modern progressive culture ever closer to the abyss of moral nihilism. I argued in the previous two essays that this image of the self was constructed by transferring the divine attributes of absolute freedom and unlimited power from God to humanity. Of course progressives know that human beings are not yet in fact absolutely free from all alienating limits; divine status is an aspiration. As an aspiration, however, it drives technological advancement, individual behavior, and progressive social change toward the goal of total liberation of the self from all limits into complete self-mastery. As this description makes clear, modern progressivism possesses many of the hallmarks of a religion; in fact it is a heretical distortion of Christianity. In progressivism, God is replaced by humanity, divine grace by human striving, sin by finitude, and heaven by an ever-receding earthly utopia. Traditional moral rules and conservative social forces—systemic racism and capitalism—take on the role of the devil. Social activists and political leaders serve as saviors, prophets, and priests. Modern people want it all, here and now, their own way.

You Can’t Have it All…That Way

But that’s not going to happen. Everyone knows in their heart of hearts that we are not gods and will never achieve the status of divinity. We will never be absolutely free from all limits. We will never have power over all things. The progressive image of humanity is an idol, a mental representation of our fantasies. And yet, in service of this falsehood people have fought devastating wars, sold their souls, ruined their health, committed murder, and mutilated their bodies. In their despairing hope they strain to make the impossible happen. Why?

Its falsehood must not be completely obvious to those deceived. Perhaps the growth of control over nature advanced by modern science and technology gives some plausibility to the idea that technology will one day achieve final triumph over all physical limits. Or perhaps there is some truth mixed in with the illusions. Human beings are amazing! Our reason, imaginations, and desires seem unlimited. We have accomplished great things. What may be most significant of all, however, is this: progressivism arose, received its initial plausibility, and still lives parasitically from the energy unleashed into the world by Jesus Christ and his disciples. Progressivism is a secularized form of Christian faith, hope, and love, and in hidden ways—in fading memories and leftover habits of thought—these three virtues still root progressivism in a powerful vision of reality in which all things come from God and move toward God by the power of God. But progressivism has long since cut itself off from Christianity, the original source of its plausibility; indeed progressivism views Christianity as its chief rival and arch nemesis. Hence it is but a matter of time before façade of its idealism falls away and is replaced by the exercise of raw power in service of the interests of whatever progressive group can gain and maintain the levers of power. Idealism without principles leads inexorably to coercion without conscience.

You Can Have it All

The irony in progressivism’s quest to have it all in rebellion to God is that in Jesus Christ God promised that we can have it all! What progressivism attempts futilely to snatch by effort, God wishes to give by grace. Jesus promises a “glorious freedom” (Romans 8:21) wherein God makes us his own dear children who can have anything we want, because, having been made holy by the Spirit, we want only to be with our Father and to receive from his hand all good things (James 1:17). Because God raised Jesus from the dead we can be confident he will raise us to glory, immortality, and incorruptibility (1 Cor 15:53-54). “The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23). When we see Jesus we will be “like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Instead of a pathetic imitation divinity, boastful and proud, but impotent against sin, death, and the devil, the Christian hope envisions for us such an intimate union with God that we will enjoy God’s presence as the true fulfillment of our aspiration “to be as God.” We will be permeated by the Spirit and completely conformed to the image of Christ who is the image of God. Compared with what Jesus promises, progressivism’s ambitions appear shabby indeed.

I want it all! I’ve always wanted it all. But for a long time, I did not know in what the “all” consisted, where to find it, or how. Now I know. I want to know and experience the infinite and eternal good that God is. Nothing greater is possible. Nothing less will do.

Wisdom, Understanding, and the Spirit of the Age

In the previous essay, written about a week ago, I set out briefly what I think it means to be an educated person. Just a few days later during a conversation with some good friends one of them recalled an article that listed the 100 books one “must read” to become an educated person. Since then I’ve thought about that claim and concluded that—though containing much truth—it misses the mark. Among the many problems with this idea, the most damning is its identification of reading with understanding and knowledge of facts with wisdom. One can read those 100 books and thousands more without becoming wise or gaining understanding. And surely we would call no one educated who does not possess understanding.

Searching for Understanding

So, I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to be wise and possess understanding. As a teenager, I felt a great need for wisdom and lamented my lack thereof. I read the Old Testament book of Proverbs over and over and took it to heart. I read the New Testament book of James for the same reason. I took James at his word when he advised, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). And, of course, I pondered Paul’s profoundly counterintuitive claim that God’s deepest wisdom and power were revealed in the cross of Christ (1 Cor 1:18-25). Much of my reading throughout life has been given to the search for wisdom and understanding. What, then, is wisdom and how can we gain understanding?

My search has been for knowledge about how to live a good life, for discernment to make good decisions, and for the intellectual and moral virtues that make that good life possible and protect us from foolishness and evil. It is a quest to understand myself, the human condition, our age, and the possibilities for the future. It is a pursuit of the “happy life,” which Augustine of Hippo defined as “joy based on truth.” It is desire to know my place, do my part, and complete my assignment. It is life in hope of hearing the words of the Master, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt 25:21).

Understanding the Spirit of the Age

This morning I read an article on “History” in one of my encyclopedias of theology. I found the section on the philosophy of history especially stimulating. It reminded me of my quest for understanding and wisdom, especially of my desire to understand our age and my place in it. I believe strongly in divine providence: God is the beginning and end of all things and Jesus Christ reveals the goal and meaning of history. This faith gives me confidence that history as a whole possesses meaning, that in looking to Jesus we can know what we need to know about God, and in following Jesus we can live good lives. Nevertheless, in trying to understand the spirit of our age and how I can best live in relation to it, I sometimes feel like I am lost in a forest. I believe the “forest” has an edge and a shape, but I can’t rise above the canopy to find my bearings.

Much of my intellectual quest has been devoted to finding—if not the top of the forest canopy—some higher ground from which to survey a larger area of the landscape in search of a wider historical perspective. At least half of the 350 essays I’ve written for this blog have been devoted to this task. As frequent readers know, I view the “spirit of the age” as the energy unleashed by the Enlightenment’s and Romantic Movement’s transfer of God’s attributes to humanity. In my April 18, 2022 essay, “How God Became Man: The Story of Progressive Humanism,” I observed that human beings always see their ideals and ambitions exemplified perfectly by God/gods. In the late Middle Ages (1300 to 1500) theologians began to view God primarily as an all-determining, omnipotent, and absolutely free will rather than an infinite intellect, perfect in goodness, self-diffusive in love. God is everything and human beings are nothing. The modern world held on to the ideal of absolute freedom as the highest good but reversed the relationship between God and humanity: Humanity became the central player in history and God became no more than a supporting actor! Divine providence was replaced by human planning. For the past 400 years, the driving force of history—the spirit of the age—has been the human quest to realize its ambition and presumed right for absolute freedom, for a sort of divinity.

This quest for unlimited freedom has unfolded in stepwise fashion from around 1600 until today. In an essay from October 11, 2013, “In the Year 2013…Will There Be Faith on the earth?” I distinguish between two different types of logic at work in historical development—linear and dialectical logic. (By “logic” I mean the connections ideas and actions have with each other whereby one leads to another.)

The thesis that

“Humanity is in its inner essence absolutely free from all alien limits and can attain this freedom in actuality through its own effort”

is teeming with revolutionary implications impossible to grasp at once. Only in the history it inspires does its latent meaning become manifest and understandable. Only with historical hindsight can we see that this thesis stated above was at work all along. In that history, the moment human beings are liberated from one alien “oppressor,” others oppressors come into view, and so on without limit, without end. The church and kings were dealt with first. History since the American and French Revolutions witnesses one liberation movement after another driven by the linear logic that seeks to unfold the real-world implications of the principle of self-determining freedom. Today, we have reached the point a which the physical body itself—understood as a biological given—has come to be seen as oppressive. Human nature, body and soul, must now submit to the absolute freedom of human subjectivity and willfulness.

However there is another logic at work in the history of freedom—a dialectical logic.

(“Dialectic” refers to conversation or debate wherein one partner’s affirmation provokes the other’s denial. The denial, then, provokes a defense, and so on. You can unfold an idea linearly by yourself, theoretically, but dialectical logic requires conflict with others.)

Strong and unambiguous assertions always provoke denials, and radical acts provoke strong reactions. At some point it becomes apparent—or at least felt—that if the ideal of absolute freedom was put into practice consistently it would mean absolute destruction of all order, truth, reason, and rules. That is to say, freedom without limits works total destruction. Nihilism is the secret spirit of the age, the source of its power, and the mystery of its appeal. But not everyone is fascinated with the specter of total destruction. They foresee that using the ideal of unlimited freedom even in a relatively just cause—for example, the quest for liberation from slavery, racism, and sexism—will eventually destroy the principles by which we understood those causes to be just to begin with. Hence they push back against the “spirit of the age” and “the arc of history.” Such “conservatives” may succeed in the short term, but they will fail in the long term unless they expose the secret nihilism of the age in a way that convinces the cultural leaders of their errors. Sadly I don’t see this happening. The linear logic of nihilism-disguised-as-freedom, of humanity masquerading as God, will continue its destructive course until it is unmasked by history itself or everything is destroyed.

Christ Crucified or the Spirit of the Age

Christian people are not immune to fascination with the spirit of the age. After all, it appeals to that universal human desire “to be as God” discussed in Genesis 3. And if we think God’s divinity and eternal joy are rooted in his power over everything and his freedom from all limits, we will desire such power and freedom and resent that do not not possess them. We have no defense and nothing significant to say to a culture that pursues openly what we desire in secret. Our only hope is to embrace the counterintuitive truth that God’s deepest wisdom and power are revealed in the cross of Christ (1 Cor 1:18-25). God’s deepest nature is self-giving, other-oriented love. This divine love should be our highest ideal and following the way of the cross our loftiest ambition. The spirit of our age is a substitute god, an idol. And in my estimation coming to see this clearly is a mark of wisdom and an achievement of understanding.

19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:19-21).

To be continued…

What Does It Mean To Be An Educated Person?

What does it mean to be an educated person? This question assumes that becoming an educated person is a valuable goal. Also presupposed is the fact that people are not born educated but must achieve this state through a process of learning. What, then, does one need to learn and how may one become an educated person?

Perhaps the first thing on which to get clear is that one does not need to know everything to be considered an educated person. To begin with, human beings cannot know everything. Much about nature, human history, and culture is not known by anyone or has been forgotten. Future human beings may discover and invent many things hardly imaginable today. Additionally, there is too much knowledge available even now for any one person to master in a lifetime.

The educated person of fifth-century B.C. Greece or eighth-century Persia would not be considered educated for life in twenty-first century America or France. Your ability to negotiate life in rural America won’t sustain you in New York City. Nor could the New Yorker make it on the farm. These examples hint at the nature of education and the basis of its value. Education is a process of gaining at least the minimum of knowledge and skills needed to thrive in a particular society and age.

I think it is helpful to distinguish between acquisition of technical skills—brick laying, cooking, farm animal care, or welding—and acquisition of social skills, the so-called “liberal arts.” In our society we don’t consider a person “educated” simply because they are skilled at husbandry or car repair. We reserve the label “educated” for a person who possesses the knowledge and skills that enable them to engage fully and gracefully in all sectors of the dominant society in which they live. Of course we need to understand our subculture as well, but we don’t need a formal education to achieve this goal. We acquire this knowledge in the same way we pick up our local dialect.

(Note: Acquiring “cultural competence” is all the rage in education circles these days. It seems to mean learning about other people’s subcultures–especially “marginalized” cultures–when what is needed is for everyone to learn how to live in the national/international culture.)

Usually, then, acquiring an education is a self-conscious process of learning the inner workings and interrelationships of the major sectors of the society within which we live—economy, politics, art, literature, law, science, technology, ethics, and religion. Since each of these institutions has come to be what it is today over a long period of time, study of their history is an essential part of understanding their present constitutions. Communicating effectively and gracefully with people from different places and backgrounds is an essential social skill. Reading, writing, and speaking well are, therefore, essential marks of an educated person. And no one can learn to write well or speak well without reading examples of well written literature.

The process of education requires some institutionalization: libraries, schools, presses, and publishers. The reason for this is simple: the knowledge and skills needed for education has been produced over centuries by millions of people living at great distances from each other and speaking different languages. This knowledge must be collected, winnowed, concentrated, and, for the last 2500 years, usually written in books. Becoming an educated person is a process of assimilating the knowledge and skills discovered and developed by many other human beings. Becoming an educated person is a social affair, a process of socialization or even humanization.

As a cautionary note, something has gone terribly wrong if education itself becomes a narrow subculture that so alienates students from the major institutions of society that they cannot skillfully and gracefully live within them.

Questions for future essays: What does it take to be an educator? What does it mean to be a theologically educated person? What does it take to be a teacher of theology?