Category Archives: Christian Living

The Contemporary Moral Crisis (Part 2)*

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.

Succeeding at Success

A few weeks ago I spoke about the “little voice” in the back of our minds that never lets us rest carefree. As soon as we feel ourselves relaxing that very feeling triggers the thought that we ought to be doing something. What keeps the “little voice” awake? What drives the back and forth process between relaxation and anxiety? Is there a state of mind in which our emotions are blended together in a stable harmony? And what unifying force can order the mind toward such peace?

I suspect that the “little voice” means well. Perhaps it is trying to help us toward that perfect balance. But its guidance is only as good as its knowledge and its prodding is only as healthy as its habits. And its ability to succeed depends on its image of success. So, today let’s examine the concept of success.

What is Success?

In general, success is the state of having achieved a goal. Human beings are future-oriented, goal-setting beings. We act to achieve goals. But there are many things we could do and many good things that clamor for our attention. As beings with reason and knowledge, we are able to ignore this myriad of alternative possibilities by selecting and ranking goals. Otherwise, we would become paralyzed into inaction or driven to exhaustion by fear of missing out. Since life demands that we work toward many goals, some serially and others simultaneously, we need a unifying principle to order our goals into a harmonious whole. Some goals seem much more important than others. Some can be achieved quickly and easily while others take longer to reach and require much effort and patience. Some goals are specific, and success is easily measured. Digging up a small stump in my front yard, which I did this morning, took about 10 minutes. Mission accomplished! Training to enter a profession takes longer, but when you graduate and are granted a license, you have succeeded. But why spend 10 minutes working in my yard, and why spend 10 years working toward a professional credential? These goals must be ordered as means toward some even more comprehensive end or they would not seem worthwhile. Achieving them would seem empty and meaningless.

Success at What?

The logic of ends and means leads ultimately to the necessity setting a whole-life goal aimed at the greatest good we can imagine. This one goal becomes the unifying principle that enables us to rank and order all other goals in a meaningful way. The worth of every other goal is measured by its usefulness as a means toward achieving our whole-life goal. But the two-fold problem with most whole-life goals is that (1) they are stated so generally that it’s difficult to imagine actually achieving them, and (2), given their generality, they don’t give us much guidance for what to do on a daily basis. If your whole-life goal is happiness or pleasure or fame or respect or independence, you can never arrive at the destination. And how do these goals impart the wisdom you need to keep on track toward the ultimate destination? This is the soil in which the “little voice” thrives. It sprouts up in the fertile plane between our whole-life goal and our daily lives. It whispers, “Are you sure that what you are doing today is the best way to achieve your whole-life goal? Don’t get too excited about removing that stump and earning that professional credential, because you’re no closer to achieving your whole-life goal.”

God and the “Little Voice”

Is there a whole-life goal that is comprehensive, important, and compelling enough to order all our goal-seeking activity into a harmonious whole but is also specific, achievable, and effective in guiding our daily activity? Is there a supreme end that closes the space where the “little voice” rules? Yes, I believe there is. And you won’t be surprised when I echo the Bible and the entire Christian tradition by saying that God is the greatest good and the chief end of human life. I am sure many will say, “Amen!” to this. But sometimes we’re a bit unclear about how making God our whole-life goal deals with the two-fold problem and the little voice. Unlike other whole-life goals, such as happiness, respect, and fame, God is not a general principle or subjective condition. God is a living reality who knows himself perfectly; God knows exactly what he wills and what he does. God knows exactly what he wants us to do and become. Hence doing God’s will, pleasing God, and living with God forever are specific goals—as specific as removing a tree stump or graduating from graduate school—not vague, unmeasurable generalities. And God knows what he wants us to do each step of the way toward achieving our final goal. The “little voice” thrives on generalities and uncertainties. God does not struggle with the “little voice.”

Succeeding at Success

But is our chief end of pleasing God and living with him forever achievable? If “God” were a general principle like happiness or fame or respect, the answer would be no. Achieving subjective states like happiness—even if that were possible—depends on our own power, and it can be thwarted by unfortunate circumstances. But God is not an abstraction. God is alive, and the achievability of our chief end is grounded in his power and love, not in our power and wisdom. In setting our whole-life goal as becoming and doing what God wills and living with him forever, we are merely accepting his grace and affirming what God has promised to give us. Our success is not in doubt because God’s success is not in doubt. The “little voice” cannot convincingly argue that God might not succeed.

Guideposts Along Road to Success

What about specific guidance for our daily lives, in the big and little decisions we must make? Even if the “little voice” cannot threaten us with ultimate failure, perhaps it can still annoy us with questions about the wisdom of the daily decisions we make. “Is it really best to spend your time reading a book? Perhaps you should have spent more time in prayer this morning? Do you really think you need that new computer?” And on and on it goes. As I said above, achieving our final goal is possible and certain only with God’s power and love. In the same way, God’s power and love alone—not our wisdom—grounds our hope of making the decisions and accomplishing the goals that will lead us to eternal success. If the end is not in doubt, neither are the means. Once again, the “little voice” is robbed of its plausibility. It cannot threaten us with the possibility that our lack of wisdom or the likelihood of making mistakes may lead us irretrievably astray. Trusting in our own power and wisdom, gives the “little voice” its power and plausibility. Trusting in God silences the voice, because then its only option is to question God, and that is not plausible.

Ron Highfield

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