This series deals with the creeping moral crisis that is engulfing modern Western culture and the challenge progressive 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 Christian doctrines of 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.
Is Christianity Good?
Christianity has its critics and always has. From the beginning it faced opposition from religious and political authorities, from cultural arbiters and 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 biblical miracles, dismissing them as myths, legends, or lies. 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.
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 accused Christianity of being 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 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, and religious beliefs as manifestations of the hidden desire for domination, as strategies to enable one person or group to set the rules for other persons or groups. In a climate of suspicion where every truth claim is viewed as a quest for power, how is a rational discussion of the issues confronting church and society possible?
Is Rational Discussion Possible?
“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 plane, 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 serious matters 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 contemporary discussions of moral issues consist primarily in emotional expressions of approval or disapproval in the absence of conceptual clarity and precision.
*This is part 2 in the series on “The Christian Moral Vision and the Ironies of “Progressive” Culture.” It begins the reblogging of a revised and edited series from 2014.