I posted that status after reading a little section towards the end of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (yes, after two months I finally finished it) on Nietzsche’s analysis about the modern demand of benevolence. Nietzsche has one of the most insightful examinations of the way that the modern idea that humanity must maintain a goodwill towards all, (“a secularized agape“) especially apart from the context of grace, can provoke feelings either of unworthiness or self-satisfaction in the human soul. Basically, the options are despair, or smug self-satisfaction depending on how well you think you measure up to the standard.
Taylor goes on to analyze one further implication that Nietzsche left unexplored:
The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward; the bad, the failure is now identified with other people or group. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated. This becomes particularly virulent on the extremes of the political spectrum, in a way which Dostoevsky explored to unparalleled depths.
In our day as in his, many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable, even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoevsky’s Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bear the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism.
—Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, pp. 516-517
Taylor penned these words, maybe twenty, twenty-five years ago, but as I read this I couldn’t help but think of my own generation and the one coming up right behind us. It’s pretty common to either demonize or idolize our moral sense; we’re either relativists, or morally superior activists depending on who’s telling the story. I’d say there’s quite a bit of both. One ‘ist’ I’d definitely add to the list is ‘moralists.’
Pick a hot subject (gay marriage, the environment, misogyny, healthcare, etc.) and I’ll scroll through my facebook feed to find someone updating vociferously on the subject, trumpeting their position and damning the opposition in bold, apocalyptic terms. It’s not just that people are wrong, confused, and possibly in need of correction, they’re downright wicked. Of course, this phenomena spans generations, but as younger generations increasingly identify as ‘nones’ (no religious affiliation), it’s not that they have no moral or spiritual bearings, but that they find them elsewhere.
Taking that sense from the reigning Causes linked to the demands of benevolence (“love”, “justice”, “equality”) of the day, is the increasingly popular option, more than any explicit religious system. This is why our political arguments aren’t just about the issues, they’re about a much-deeper justification of the Self. If I am defined by my position on health-care and corresponding self-image as a moral, caring (or pragmatic and free) person, then when I argue with you about it, I’m defending my raison-d’etre. You don’t simply have a different opinion on a subject, you threaten my very being.
What’s more, if supporting this Cause is what makes me righteous and pure, your opposition demonstrates your impurity and wickedness, possibly even your inhumanity. You must be opposed, hopefully only through argument, but if you persist in your perversity, other, stronger means of enforcement may need to be used. This is modern/postmodern ideological moralism.
None of this is new, of course. Postmodern thinkers have been describing the way we construct oppositional identities like this for years, but what’s been interesting to see is this sort of logic at work in the lives of my peers and contemporaries in today’s debates. Of course, posting aggressive memes on Facebook isn’t exactly coercion, or fanatic violence yet, but the language used, and, at times, the political measures advocated by partisans verges on it.
Christians reading this might be tempted to take this as a simple condemnation of secularists, saying, “See, look what happens when you don’t have God.” I mean, in a sense, that’s what’s going on. But that doesn’t let religious believers off the hook too quickly. As a friend of mine pointed it, this simply the logic of Holy War, sublimated and secularized. All it does is point out one more way that the whole dichotomy of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ breaks down at the functional level. Get rid of God, and something else fills in the existential vacuum. In other words, at this point, they’re only doing what religious people have done with their gods for years, including Christians.
Actually, this ought to put believers, especially Christians, on notice to examine where we’re getting our sense of self, our purity, our wholeness. Is it from the righteousness of our own moral positions, or from the righteousness we have in Christ by grace, apart from our own moral achievements? If the former, we’re in the same boat. If the latter, that sets us in a position to be able to disagree, even forcefully with others, without feeling our entire sense of self threatened. Even if others oppose us, not only on moral issues, but set themselves in vocal opposition to Christianity itself, how can we look on them as totally other than ourselves? For is this not what we ourselves were apart from God’s condescending grace? Enemies of God in need of redemption (Rom. 5:6-11)? And are we not secure, no matter what accusation or charge brought against us (Rom. 8:30-39)?
In other words, there’s a visible, practical difference we observe in the lives of those who trust in the Christian Gospel as opposed to merely subscribing to its morals. In fact, unless you believe the former, you won’t be able to practice the core of the latter, at the center of which stands the command to love our enemies the Christ has loved us. Moralism, secular or ‘religious’ can only inspire demonization of the enemy. Only the Gospel of grace can lead us to true goodwill towards all.
Soli Deo Gloria