A Culture of Virtue or Vengeance?
Modern political discourse is a maelstrom of voices, demanding rights and liberty. Not much is said, however, on the subject of virtue. This should trouble the Christian on a number of levels:
Every culture needs virtue. It is the oil that keeps our liberties and our rights flowing together decently and kindly. It takes virtue to honor the inconvenient rights of the weak and the poor. Who but the virtuous can respond to inequality and injustice with patience, the way Jesus did: “Who when he suffered he did not threaten. And when he was reviled, did not revile in return, but committed Himself to God who judges righteously.” Only virtue will inspire the citizen to lay his life down for ideals of ultimate moment, and for the people whose lives seem to matter much less than his own.
But here is the conundrum for postmodern American Culture: when we refuse to speak of God, we lose the ability to speak of virtue. Without God virtue loses its ultimate reference point, its binding authority. Without God, it has no way of answering the demand, “Sez who?” Without God virtues become a mere list of human conventions, with no more ultimate significance than table manners.
Our Founding Father’s understood this only too well. You remember the well-known phrase in our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Note these rights come from our creator, not the government, and certainly not from the ACLU. For this reason only each of us has the right to equal treatment under the law. In the court, some are not more equal than others.
Postmodern America, however, finds this logic inconvenient. We like the conclusion, of course, we just want to magic it out of midair! We prefer, instead, to be our own reference point. Homo mensura (Man the measure) is the motto of our brave new world. Here, we are the master. Here, we no longer feel ourselves to be guests in somebody else’s universe. Now, ours is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.
We still like to use the language of the Fathers, of course, but we mean very different things when we do.
We speak of human dignity, but we really mean man is simply the most advanced and intelligent form of life on planet earth. He’s earned the title: “The King of the Swingers, the Jungle VIP!” But is this an adequate platform to lobby to underscore the value of a human life? What does such logic say for the underdeveloped, the less intelligent, and deformed members of the human race? Are we to treasure undeveloped life in the womb, the cretin in the asylum, the Down’s child in the special needs school, or the Alzheimer’s patient in the care home? If we define human dignity simply by its ability, does this not make the less able less dignified— perhaps even less human? As one abortion advocate put it: the unwanted or defective fetus is life unworthy of life. Thus Iceland boasts of their efforts to eradicate Down’s Syndrome — not by curing it, you understand, but simply by killing everyone who has it!
This is neither life nor is it liberty. It is death and the worst form of tyranny imaginable.
When a culture loses sight of God, it loses the ability to speak in any meaningful sense of the good, the beautiful and the true. All that is left is power and the merciless will to punish others for the inequalities we face in life. James put it well, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist there is disorder and every evil thing.” (James 3:16).
Without truth (and the God who defines it), the demand for liberty will act like the fabled, universal solvent, dissolving all the old certainties and rights that used to pave the way to la dolce vita. In its presence, even the solidity of gender becomes a fluid concept in which boys are free to be girls, and girls, boys.
In such a world, the only right left to deny is the right to object, to say, “No! This is madness!” “This is not only wrong, it is damnably wrong!” And with the freedom to make such objections, the Church loses her freedom to preach the gospel.
Which is precisely the reason why the freedom of religion will not be allowed to survive in this brave new world. If you listen carefully you have probably already noticed, politicians prefer to speak of freedom of worship instead of freedom of religion. This is not an insignificant shift. Freedom of worship is the freedom to believe what you want in your heart and to behave how you want in your home and in your pew. Freedom of religion includes all that of course, but it goes much further, allowing the Christian to live out His faith in the secular realm (outside the temple). To live in the “real” world, we will need to play by its rules and at least pretend that the “real” world is the one place in which Jesus is not Lord.
Demur here and you can expect to lose whatever rights you have left, which is always the result of losing this, our first and most fundamental liberty of all.
In the face of this rising tide of secularism, the religious right understandably feels quite anxious. The election of Donald Trump was perhaps the last paroxysm of its fight for life and for the votes to retain political power. None of this should worry us, however. Political power has never paved the road to cultural influence for the church. If anything, such a road leads in the opposite direction.
More than anything else, what we need now is, what Luther would call, “A Theology of the Cross” as opposed to a Theology of Glory. A Theology of Glory gathers around the kinds of things that impress the cold, dead eyes of unconverted people. Where do you find God? The Theologian of glory says, go to the place where all the beautiful people are. Follow the nickels and the noses; that’s where you find God.
The Theologian of the cross, however, looks in a different direction. He looks to the one place under heaven the natural man would never think of looking for glory: at the cross, where the bruised, broken, and bloody body of a Galilean Carpenter hangs in the darkness, under the curse, abandoned by everyone, even God. Here, when God appeared weak, His strength is revealed. Here, when men laughed at his folly, his wisdom is displayed.
To be sure the cross looks ugly, but to the eyes of faith, it is the most beautiful sight imaginable. At the cross, as all the demons rubbed their hands together in victory, God was writing Christus Victor over the cosmos forever. God’s ways haven’t changed. In His economy, dying is still the way to life and loss is still the doorway to everlasting gain. We must lose our lives if we want to save them forever.
So fear not, little flock. The darkest time of night is just before the dawn. Whatever the future holds, God paid too steep a price for our souls to sell us cheaply into the devil’s hands. When it comes to our final destiny, the well-upholstered soprano might not have much of a voice left to sing, but it ain’t over until Aslan roars. And roar He will. Maranatha!