Ideological Moralism and Gospel Grace (TGC)

My life has meaning because of the Cause. You oppose the Cause. You must submit or be destroyed.”

— Modern/postmodern ideological moralism

Charles Taylor

I posted that status after reading a little section toward the end of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self on Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis about the modern demand of benevolence. Nietzsche offers one of the most insightful examinations of how the modern idea that humanity must maintain goodwill toward 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 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 groups. 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 and 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 bare 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. (516-517)

Taylor penned these words almost 25 years ago, but I read them and couldn’t help but think of my own generation and the one coming after us. It’s pretty common to either idolize or demonize our moral sense; we’re supposedly either relativists or morally superior activists. I’d say there’s quite a bit of both. And one “ist” I’d certainly add to the list is “moralists.”

You can go on to read the way this plays out over at The Gospel Coalition.

Top Five Reformedish Books of 2013

AD: I use Grammarly to check plagiarism because what if I go on the Janet Mefferd Show? 

Once again it is time for my annual “Top Five Reformedish Books” of the year. This is actually a horrible post to write. I read a lot of good books this year. Many of them deserve to be on Top Five book lists somewhere. For me, though, these particular five distinguished themselves. Now, unlike some other lists, I am not simply choosing from books published in 2013, but rather from ones that I’ve read in 2013. I am still catching up on 20 centuries of thought, you know. Well, without further ado, here they are:

death by livingDeath By Living: Life Was Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson – I’ve already reviewed this over at the Gospel Coalition where I said:

For return readers looking for quick comparison between Notes and Death, I’d say that if the last one changed the way I thought, this one might change the way I live. Notes invites you to embrace God as the sovereign, beyond-imagining author of this ridiculously unexpected universe. Death challenges you to live as a character, or rather, as a sub-writer of enfleshed, breathing words. Big ones. Interesting ones. Once again, you’ll find yourself in a well-shaken cocktail of poetic memoir, philosophy, theology, sharp wit, polemical fisticuffs, hilarity, and exhortation in the form of a paean to the grace of a life well-lived in the shadow of eternity. For the newcomer, you may want to strap in first.

walking with GodWalking With God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller – I’ve read a number of books on the subject, especially in my undergrad in philosophy, and I have to say, it is going to be the new classic on the subject. Unlike other works on the subject, it is not only pastoral, or only philosophical, or only theological, but approaches the issue of suffering from all of these angles and more. Keller brings sociology, literature, theology, philosophy, and, of course, the Scriptures, to bear on the seemingly intractable burden of suffering and evil. I’ll go out on a limb and say this is his best book yet. Given that you and everyone you know will encounter pain and suffering in this world, everybody should go out and pick up this book.

people and placePeople and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology by Michael Horton – This is the fourth volume of Horton’s dogmatics examining traditional doctrinal loci from the standpoint of a retooled covenant theology. Building on the work of Farrow, Volf, and others, Horton offers an instructive treatment of the origin of the Church, the sacraments, the classic marks of the Church, and her mission in the world. Of course, eschatology figures prominently in the discussion, and there is an excellent discussion of Scripture and tradition towards the front-end. As always, Horton is in constant conversation with Roman Catholic ecclesiologies, Barth, Radical Orthodoxy, Stanley Grenz, and general Evangelicals setting up a clear, irenic, and charitable contrast. While some discussions are a bit thick for the non-specialist, I highly recommend it to anybody interested in the ecclesiological discussions of the day, especially if you’re looking for a Reformed account that can play alongside the big boys like Ratzinger (RC) and Ziziouslas (EO).

athanasius leithartAthanasius by Peter Leithart – I decided to get down to business and read Athanasius’ Four Discourses Against the Arians this year, so I picked up Leithart’s volume as a bit of a guide. As usual, I was not disappointed. Paying close attention to Athanasius’ metaphysical categories and scriptural exegesis, Leithart cleanly and clearly expounds the good bishops’ beautiful Trinitarian and Christological theology, bringing it into living conversation with theologians at work today. Not only is Leithart an able interpreter of Athanasius’ polemical and pastoral theology, he sets the discussion in lively account of his theo-political controversies. For anybody interested in Athanasius, or the conversation around the ‘theological interpretation’ of scripture, it’s a great place to take the plunge.

paul and the faithfulness of GodPaul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright – I’ve waited for this book for a few years now. While I’m only through the first volume (weighing in at 570 pages), I can safely say this is the Paul book of the decade. It will be impossible to write about Paul from now on without engaging Wright’s arguments in this sprawling masterpiece. Beyond that, what can I say? It is the most grossly comprehensive thing I’ve ever seen on the subject. It’s Wright at the height of his powers: asking the big questions, giving even bigger answers; setting Paul in his 1st Century context against various backgrounds (2nd Temple Judaism, Roman, Greek); engaging New Perspectives and Old Perspectives; telling stories and arguing for stories; close exegesis and sweeping overviews from 20,000 feet; actantial analyses for days. No, you don’t agree with everything he says, but that isn’t why you read Wright, now is it?

Honorable Mentions:

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor

The Word of God for the People of God by J. Todd Billings

Union with Christ by Robert Letham

Soli Deo Gloria

Modern/Postmodern Ideological Moralism

protest“My life has meaning because of the Cause. You oppose the Cause. You must submit or be destroyed. –modern/postmodern ideological moralism”

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

Jesus Wasn’t a Stoic (Or, the Difference Between Socrates and Christ)

spok

Spock, the perfect Stoic. Kinda, not really.

It’s often remarked that the Christian moral ethic we see in the New Testament and the Fathers shares a great deal of similarities with Ancient Greco-Roman philosophies on offer at the time such as Platonism, and especially Stoicism. And it’s true, that superficially, there are. I remember in one early medieval philosophy class, reading Augustine’s comments on how much closer to Christianity the Stoics were as opposed to the Epicureans, who were universally condemned by the Fathers, (and, well, anybody not Epicurean).

That said, while many of the moral precepts are shared across the two systems, Christianity and Stoicism, their moral grounding, or logic, are structurally in different universes. Charles Taylor highlights this difference with respect to “affirmation of ordinary life” and the two systems’ “asceticism” or ethics of self-denial:

Christianity, particularly in its more ascetic variants, appears a continunation of Stoicism by other means, or (as Nietzsche sometimes says) a prolongation of Platonism. But for all the strong resemblances to Stoicism–for instance, its universalism, its notion of providence, its exalting of self-abnegation–there is a great gulf. In fact, the meaning of self-abnegation is radically different. The Stoic sage is willing to give up some “preferred” thing, e.g. health, freedom, or life, because he sees it genuinely as without value since only the whole order of events which, as it happens, includes its negation or loss, is of value.  The Christian martyr, in giving up health, freedom, or life, doesn’t declare them to be of no value. On the contrary, the act would lose its sense if they were not of great worth. To say that greater love hath no man than this, that a man give up his life for his friends, implies that life is a great good. The sentence would loses its point in reference to someone who renounced life from a sense of disenchantment; it presupposes he’s giving up something.

Central to the Judaeo-Christian notion of martyrdom is that one gives up a good in order to follow God. What God is engaged in is the hallowing of life. God first called Israel to be a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). But the hallowing of life is not antithetical to its fulness. On the contrary. Hence the powerful sense of loss at the heart of martyrdom. It only becomes necessary because of sin and disorder in the world…to turn to the paradigm Christian case, that Christ’s teaching led to his crucifixion was a consequence of evil in the world, of he darkness not comprehending the light. In the restored order that God is conferring, good doesn’t need to be sacrificed for good. The eschatological promise of Judaism and Christianity is that God will restore the integrity of the good.

This is, of course, what makes the death story of Jesus so different from that of Socrates, however much they have been put in parallel. Socrates tries to prove to his friends that he is losing nothing of value, that he is gaining a great good. In his last request to Crito, to pay his debt of a cock to Asclepius, he seems to imply that life is an illness of which death is the cure (Asclepius being the god of healing whom one rewards for cures.) Socrates is serenely troubled. Jesus suffers agony of soul in the garden, and is driven to despair on the cross, when he cries, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” At no point in the Passion is he serene and untroubled.

-Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, pp. 218-219

In Christianity, the world is good and so are the world’s goods. God made them and to suffer their loss is true suffering. While there is evil in it, and the satan works corruption throughout it, creation is still of inestimable value.  And so, self-denial, when it involves something other than sin, is not a denial of the goodness of those things we give up.

This is why Jesus was not a Stoic. When he gave up his life for us on the Cross, he was truly giving something up–it was a real sacrifice. This was no mere, cost-less martyrdom for the truth, but a painful, arduous self-giving for our sakes. In giving his life, he was affirming the value of life and working to restore it to its intended glory. But, of course, this leads us to the truth of the Resurrection. Christ’s sacrifices of the good for us was total, but not final. It was not an end in and of itself, but a means to a greater end–the redemption of creation.

The same is true for us at a microcosmic level. We sacrifice all things, excepting sin, with a knowledge that, while a real loss, all that was good about it will be received from God’s hand once again: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”(Matthew 19:29) That actually puts Christians in the ironic position of being able to more readily sacrifice natural goods–for others, for righteousness sake, etc.–while still appreciating them in a way that a Stoic never could. We should enjoy them with great joy while we have them, grieve them when lost, joyfully anticipate their restoration in the glory to come.

All that to say, Jesus wasn’t a Stoic–neither are his followers.

Soli Deo Gloria