We find ourselves in an interesting time of Western history. I’m no cultural anthropologist and I’m definitely not a historian, but I find it interesting that the last 50 years (and maybe even since the late 19th century), American society and culture has become increasingly aware of the sins of our past. From the atrocities done to the American Indians to the bitter exploitation of migrant workers and lower-income Continue reading
The purpose of writing is communication. The essence of communication is clarity. QED, writing must be clear if it is to be useful. Every once in a while, a writer must retroactively clarify his points because certain aspects of his piece may have seemed ambiguous. After my last post about Barth, several readers reached out with one question: what is the pactum salutis? Point taken. It seems that I need to go and clarify what I mean by the pactum salutis and a brief discussion of its importance in Reformed theology.
In his essay “On Gargoyles,” G.K. Chesterton claimed that the medieval grotesque—the gothic architecture with its gargoyles and strangely misshapen beasts—was the pinnacle of man’s artistic achievement. He contrasted the gothic grotesque with the clean and symmetric architecture of the classical period, claiming that while the pagans “summoned godlike things to worship their god,” the Christians of the Middle Ages “summoned all things to worship theirs, dwarfs and pelicans, monkeys and madmen.” While the Greeks only admitted perfect things to worship their gods, the medieval Christians admitted all imperfect things to worship theirs. Given the right eyes, what once seemed repulsive and distorted takes on a new form as the deeper truth of Christianity emerges from the faces of monsters and dragons.
The world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night. –Matthew Arnold
The modern West has found itself in a place of radical confusion regarding morality, anthropology, and humanity’s telos. A brief look at popular culture will attest to this. For example, watch Season 1, Episode 9 of Bill Nye’s Netflix show “Bill Nye Saves the World” to see Rachel Bloom perform her song “My Sex Junk.” Watching the song was a surreal experience as Rachel Bloom raps a cacophonic series of ideological one liners like “My sex junk is so oh oh oh much more than either or or or,” and “Drag queen, drag king, just do what feels right,” that petered out to a vapid finish when it lost its metrical footing (pun intended) by trying to nail a kindergarten-quality rhyme: “Get off your soapbox! My sex junk’s better than bagels and lox.” Nye came on stage after the song effusive with praise, saying, “that’s exactly the right message.” (It seems the enlightened message of the secular elites has not only lost its ability to speak with insight and intelligence, but has also lost its aesthetic ear along the way).
But it gets worse. Take Raw for example. Chosen for the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and finding popularity at various film festivals around the globe, Raw depicts in illicit detail the sexual and carnal appetites of a virgin exploring and feeding her newfound appetite for all forms of sexuality and all forms of meat consumption—including cannibalism. It has earned a 90% Fresh rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and has been greeted with wide favor from audiences. Raw’s tagline is “What are you hungry for?” which seems to be a not-so-subtle answer to its own question: to be hungry for something is to affirm its validity as something to be consumed. But one wonders how long we must consume the feces of our own amoral appetites to determine these things shouldn’t have been eaten in the first place.
When high-profile messages like “there’s nothin’ taboo about a sex stew” promote radical sexual expression and new movies depict cannibalism and sexual deviancy as edgy alternatives, it is impossible to ignore the implications of a society that tolerates—and in many circles promotes—these messages as viable voices. But many in society—secular and religious alike—do not necessarily celebrate and promote the most explicit messages of radical sexual and moral freedom that many Christians find repulsive. These radical voices have become just one among many to be embraced, validated, or ignored depending on one’s own moral appetite or energy. The cultural voices are many and disparate, as dozens of different subcultures and political groups clamor for recognition and validation of their own ideological sacred cows. The West is a world not of singular deviancy as much as moral chaos: one in which the myriad voices raise to a cacophony of atonal choruses sung in worship of disparate values defined by individually fashioned ideological gods.
Secular modernity is a vast and complicated wasteland—to allude to Eliot—and many from philosophers to historians to poets have tried to describe it with varying degrees of success and clarity. But universal to most of these endeavors is an analysis of the moral framework of the Modern world in contrast to ancient and medieval expressions of “the good.” And with this has come a recognition by many that modernity has altogether lost a unified understanding of what “good” even means.
In his prescient book Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver notes that the Whig theory of history, which posits that history is evolutionary, with its furthest point equaling its greatest point of development, has become rooted into the modern mind, with the effect that modern man has forgotten what it is that makes something good:
“There is ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot. [. . .] For four centuries every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.”
Alasdair MacIntyre voices similar sentiments in his book After Virtue. The context of traditional, objective moral judgments, “a context in which moral judgments were understood as governed by impersonal standards justified by a shared conception of the human good,” have been lost. “Deprived of that context and of that justification [. . .] moral rules and precepts had to be understood in a new way.” He contends that because Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment moral philosophers are caught within the bounds of their own system, a system in which they cannot even agree to the parameters and in which they deny the very objectivity they’re leaning on for support, no one can come to a moral consensus regarding any ethical issue.
MacIntyre observes that we have been left the scattered remains of a moral culture with its concepts and language, but they are merely fragments, and the unity and system that undergirds it is gone. The “language” and “practice” of morality is now fundamentally flawed and scattered. Moral language and practice are in disorder because the culture appropriates moral “conceptual fragments” for public and private debates in which all the parties involved have no grounding for their opinions and in which the debates themselves are constructed in such a way as to render them impossible to be settled.
One of the major reasons for such a fragmentation rests in the loss of the concept of transcendentals and universals, a loss set in motion by William of Occam’s nominalism and then taken to its conclusion by the Enlightenment and its progeny. The result of this is that the concept of truth no longer has its roots in something above or independent from man himself. The Serpent’s temptation to become like God has infected the veins of Modern man, and he has become the namer of what is true, beautiful, and good. But in the process, he has lost his grip on truth itself. As Weaver so powerfully contends,
“The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably [. . .] the denial of truth. With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of ‘man the measure of all things.’ The witches spoke with the habitual equivocation of oracles when they told man that by this easy choice he might realize himself more fully, for they were actually initiating a course which cuts one off from reality. Thus began the ‘abomination of desolation’ appearing today as a feeling of alienation from all fixed truth.”
Modern man has undergone “a long series of abdications” by which he has lost the foundation of all authority, while contending that he is the anchor of moral authority. This moral autonomy MacIntyre calls “emotivism,” which are “nothing more than expressions of what the choosing individual feels is right.” Virtue is now understood not as “the good” but merely as the act of autonomous moral choices, the very independence of which validates it as a “good” action. As Dreher contends in The Benedict Option, “In a post-virtue society, individuals hold maximal freedom of thought and action, and society itself becomes ‘a collection of strangers, each pursuing his or her own interests under minimal constraints.’”
Yet, not every secularist is cut out of the same mold. James K. A. Smith rightly notes that the map of this secular age is not a clean-cut, ham-fisted atlas with dividing lines between secular and religious, belief and reason, faith and non-faith. It is far more complex and varied than that. The common American is somewhere in between belief and unbelief, humanism and the transcendent. We live in a “haunted” age, to quote Charles Taylor–one haunted by the gods of the past, even while we live under an immanent ceiling that denies the transcendent. Unbelief, rather than faith, has become the default position. This is rooted in a shift in thinking about what is believable. Taylor notes that we live in a “secular” age, one which he categorizes as an age that embraces radical “exclusive humanism” and religious faith as two options among many, neither as default and neither as foundational. The “plausibility structures” have changed to make religious faith an option rather than a default, and thus autonomous humanism, rooted in radical immanence and concerned with nothing beyond personal self-actualization and satisfaction, is considered a valid and attractive alternative worldview. Thus, while not everyone or even the majority of people in the West embrace an exclusive humanism, humanism has rooted itself into the Western worldview so that even those who seek to embrace a form of transcendence and absolute do so from a position not of faith, but of feeling—a commitment to finding a worldview that soothes one’s burning questions without necessarily the commitment to a holistic world-and-life faith that makes demands on one’s personal autonomy.
But while the flow of intellectual history has led the West to a state of personal and moral chaos, the problems of the Western mind are grounded in the corruption begun at the very fall of mankind. When understood in this way, the woes besetting the West become one among many natural extensions of the human drive to strip off the moral coils of the law of God and assert moral autonomy within an immanent frame of reference. Like every culture throughout time, the modern West has found itself east of Eden. But it is not without hope of restoration, renewal, and resurrection, for God has not left himself without a witness. And education is an important piece of that witness.
To be continued in further posts…
As we enjoy the season of Advent, preparing our hearts to celebrate Christ’s birth and calling out with the saints triumphant for Christ’s return, I am reminded of a church in Paris that I visited a few years ago on my three week trip through France, Germany, and the Czech Republic. As I traveled the landscape of Europe—Paris, Lyon, Nice, Prague, Berlin, and dozens of villages along the Rhine—I noticed a common DNA that dappled their streets and towered over their squares: the old and weathered churches of an age Continue reading
When speaking of Barth, people always wind up at the great spanking he gave to the general framework of classical covenant theology. Most infamous is his full-scale assault on the pact between the Father and the Son. His rejection of the Covenant of Redemption is fascinating. The topic has caused controversy since its full treatment in Post-Reformation dogmatics, but no one really criticized the inter-Trinitarian covenant like the Swiss master. Given the power of his critique, and my disagreement with him, I Continue reading
I think if we’re honest, we’ve all struggled at one point or another with how God can allow and ordain evil and suffering in the world. Most of my friends who have walked away from the faith have left for this very reason. From philosophical arguments to personal stories of pain and suffering to a human revulsion at the seemingly gratuitous evil in the world, there does seem to be a real problem with reconciling God’s goodness and sovereignty with the presence of such evil and suffering.
Of course, there are abundant philosophical arguments to reconcile this. Some say it’s the only way to allow for real human free-will. Others say it’s the only way God can reveal parts of his character like grace and justice. Others say it’s the only way to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.
The classic philosophical argument is that if God didn’t exist and wasn’t good, then there wouldn’t be a problem of evil. The very fact that you call something evil is predicated upon a conviction that there are absolute moral standards of right and wrong. For there to be an absolute moral standard, there must be a Personal Absolute God who determines what that standard is and reflects that standard within his own person. He must be wholly and ultimately good or he wouldn’t be God. Thus, God must be good and any actions that he does that seem to the contrary must be explained by the fact that being limited we cannot fully comprehend how all of God’s actions are consistent with his character. You must assume God’s existence and goodness to be able to launch an accusation against his goodness and existence.
From a philosophical standpoint, this seems fairly sound. However, this doesn’t really help us feel any better about it. So perhaps we can’t disprove God’s existence by the problem of evil, but this doesn’t give us any reasons for why God ordains these things. The other answers don’t seem particularly satisfying or persuasive, either. It sure would be nice for God to give a clear reason for why he ordains this–particularly in the face of seemingly incomprehensible and gratuitous evil. While one could argue that God might allow a certain level of evil and suffering for “better ends,” does it need to be this much? If he’s good, wouldn’t he try to at least give us an answer so that we can sleep at night? While I’m not prepared to answer the problem of evil or do any better than others at trying to solve this dilemma, I wonder if we could look at this question from a redemptive-historical standpoint rather than a philosophical one. What if the problem itself fits into the overall redemptive story?
In the Garden, we were made weak and dependent and limited: we were made to always need a king. And within that context, we were blessed and joyful in our dependence upon God. But it didn’t take long for Adam and Eve to balk at their weakness and dependence. Since the beginning, mankind has had a problem with not understanding why God does things. The first sin (eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil) was predicated on a certain perspective: God is witholding something good for no apparent reason. The thing that brought evil into the world to begin with was the desire to be wise like God coupled with a conviction that God is not trustworthy because he is demanding things without explanation and witholding things that seem good. Even before the fall, Adam and Eve had their own problem of evil, their own sense that God is monstrous and witholding the knowledge that we demand. The lie Satan told at the very beginning, that God is an evil God who witholds good and creates evil, is the same lie he continues to tell each of us as we go about our daily lives under the burden of sin and suffering.
If Adam and Eve, who didn’t bear the cataract of Original Sin, still failed to clearly see how God is good, I’m fairly confident I can’t trust my own eyes, either. If this is true, that we act out the same sin they acted out in the Garden, then it makes sense that God’s redemption of the world wouldn’t answer the questions we demanded at the Fall of the World. Wouldn’t God’s plan of redemption seem monstrous to us? In fact, the problem itself–a problem we created by our own rebellion that brought this suffering and evil in the first place–is the very thing that must remain in order for God to restore us back to the Garden of trust and faith and dependence. Faith and trust and dependence and worship are the fruits of restoration, which means we must be put in a position where we recognize in humility that we don’t know, we shouldn’t know, and we should rather enjoy God’s good gifts and wait in trust for the rest to be revealed in time. That’s the way we were made to have the most joy and worship God the best. In order for us to experience redemption and a return to the Garden, we need to be put in a position of repentance (recognizing the sin and evil and suffering in the world) and faith (trusting a God who doesn’t give into our demands to know).
In this there is at least a bit of comfort.
While God doesn’t give us an answer to why or how this is compatible with his nature, he does give us promises that he is doing something about injustice and evil in the world. By bearing evil and injustice and sin upon himself on the cross, God has begun to restore and make things right. And he promises that his final justice and restoration will come when Christ returns, for the wicked and evil to be punished and for the world to be restored to perfection. He doesn’t promise that we won’t shed tears of anguish and pain, but he promises to wipe those tears away as he bears that pain and anguish within himself. He answers the problem not by giving us reasons in this moment, but by promising that at the end he will make it right. Instead of offering answers, He offers us a narrative of human history with a purpose and a denouement where everything is resolved in a beautiful way. As with most things in life, the purpose helps us shed light on how to process the events of the narrative. And while our cataract eyes might not see the beauty of this in the moment, we can rest in the knowledge that one day something like scales will fall from our eyes and the face that seemed so monstrous was the face of love the whole time.