“Hey, you hit me!”

“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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .”[1]

Wednesday before last I listed a series of statements that conflict with the truth, but that I suspect are widely accepted by contemporary Americans. In conversation about this it became apparent that a force I had not anticipated would play a big part in how people think: pragmatism.

What is pragmatism? Pragmatism is a philosophy that started in the United States around 1870 (it is actually the only philosophy native to America). It was systematically expressed by Charles Sander Peirce and William James, but it was really transformed and championed by John Dewey (who also radically transformed education in America). Pragmatism evaluates the value of a theory or belief on the basis of its anticipated success in practical application. That sounds good until you realize that pragmatism pits experience against principles. In other words, a pragmatist might say something like, “that’s a great idea but it will never work.” A pragmatist asks, “what will work?” rather than “what is true?”

Allow me to contrast a biblical perspective with a pragmatic one. A Christian believes that truth is reality as God perceives it. A pragmatist believes that truth is “that which works.” A Christian understands that life functions according to principle because God is the Creator and He wove laws into the fabric of His world. A Christian understands that to cooperate with these laws will always have better consequences than to ignore or flout the Moral and Natural laws.

The driving force behind pragmatic thinking is the force of expediency. A pragmatist might say, “we will never find someone to adopt this baby, therefore we should abort it.” A Christian would say, “no matter what price we have to pay, we will see this baby through to delivery because it is always right to preserve life and never right to unjustly take it.”

“No nation can survive when its leaders are driven by a spirit of pragmatism or make their decisions according to political expediency.”  -R.C. Sproul

In 1979 sociologist Robert Bellah and a team of other scholars began a series of surveys that would culminate in the 1985 book titled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (intentionally connecting their research to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America). The author’s described their goal as trying to determine “how to preserve or create a morally coherent life,” something I’d say we’re desperately in need of these days. Bellah and his team studied what “habits of the heart” defined the lives of the prototypical middle class American and noticed a distinct pattern. It seemed that even in the early eighties many Americans had a declining (or no) sense of community or social obligation. Those surveyed had largely even lost the language to express any kind of commitment to anything—church, family, community—other than themselves. Bellah labeled this worldview “ontological individualism,” by which he meant the belief that the individual is the only source of meaning, and he subsequently divided these folks into two categories: expressive individualists and utilitarian individualists.

Utilitarian individualists have embodied the philosophy first suggested by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who tried to create a code of morality based on self-interest. Consequently, they may be described as “consistently pursuing a utilitarian calculus”—devotion to their own self-interest.[2] For the utilitarian individualist life is an endless pursuit of material interests.

Expressive Individualists, on the other hand, exemplify the viewpoint of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Convinced that human passions supersede any consideration of God or reason, expressive individualists seek wealth through the multiplication of experiences and relationships.

It’s strange—in some ways Rousseau and Mill were radically different: one emphasized feeling, the other rational calculation. But they shared what has become the characteristic trait of contemporary thought: moral pride. Rousseau demonstrated the pride of the man of passion; Mill, the pride of the man of reason. Separated by a century and the English Channel they shared an individualism that put man at the center of the universe.

Bellah noticed that these twin strains of individualism were eroding the ties that bind people together, which, in turn, is now threatening the very stability of our social order, as any sense of individual responsibility for the common good is stripped away by our common obsession with . . . ourselves.

The problem, of course, is that radical individualism is directly opposed to action motivated by virtue or tradition. Since any absolute is an obstacle to “self-realization,” American’s new “noble” ideals are personal freedom, choice and tolerance; replacing the old ideals of freedom, duty, and kindness.

And this is what bothers me about pragmatism as a primary approach: it is a utilitarian individualist perspective that ultimately ignores values and principles in favor of desired results (in other words, it boils down to “the end justifies the means”). A pragmatist may not care what the Founders of our country thought, but I take it for granted that we all ought to care what the Founders thought because they founded this country on virtue and principle.

SupremeCourt

In other words, had the Founders been pragmatists there never would have been a War for Independence, they would not have been willing to die for the ideas that drove them, and the first government in the history of the world created on moral principle rather than specific religion or secular self-interest would not have come into being.

In the Declaration of Independence the Founders indicated their belief in a universal Moral Law established by the Creator (“We hold these truths to be self-evident… endowed by their Creator…”). They went on to formulate—for the first time in history—a government not secular and not religious. It was based on God rather than on any specific religion, and yet it was not a secular government serving the special interests of any individual or group.

What is a Moral Law, one might ask—the Law not everyone obeys, but by which everyone expects to be treated. A Moral Law whose universality is indicated not by our actions but by our re-actions. You will know its existence, not by how you might feel about lying to get what you want (this is “justified” by our utilitarian individualism), but by how you feel upon realizing that someone has lied to you. Recall that sense of indignation we’ve all felt at having suffered an injustice? That’s the indisputable evidence of a universally recognized Moral Law.

Remember your younger years?  “Hey, you hit me!” The surprise, the innate displeasure, the automatic censure we hear and recall in exclamations like this from our childhood reliably point to the fact that there is a Creator, that He endowed all of us with inalienable rights, and that as a result ethical legislation is not only possible, but necessary. 

So this sets us up to start the next post by discussing the first two false statements: “The government can’t legislate morality,” and “No one should force their morals on anyone else.” I hope you’ll keep reading. Thanks for your patience as I write.

“Expediency is an obscene word. It is the word that is ever and always at war with principle. A person who is a Christian is called of God to live by biblical principles. The principles that the Bible reveals to guide our steps are the necessary elements for authentic righteousness. Take away principle, and righteousness is slain in the streets. We need an awakening in the culture and in the church to principle — to working according to truth and to living according to biblical revelation. Without principle, the church as well as the culture will decay, and the church will become a mere echo of the unprincipled pragmatism of secularism.”  -R.C. Sproul


[1] Declaration of Independence. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

[2] Robert N. Bellah; Richard Madsen; William M. Sullivan; Ann Swidler; Steven M. Tipton. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Kindle Location 644). Kindle Edition.

True or False?

This is purely a guess, but I would guesstimate that 85% (probably even higher) of the people I know (Christian and non-Christian) would either outright agree with, or feel pretty sure that some or all of the following seven statements are pretty much agreed upon by everyone and must be right.

  • The government can’t legislate morality.
  • No one should force their morals on anyone else.
  • As long as I don’t hurt anyone else, the government should leave me alone. Whatever consenting adults do is OK.
  • We’re a pluralistic society. We fundamentally disagree on values, so there are no common values to legislate.
  • Legislated morality is not enforceable because the government can’t force people to be good—just look at Prohibition!
  • We can’t legislate morality because doing so involves religion, and that’s a violation of the separation of church and state.
  • Laws can’t change hearts.

I bet you agree with at least a couple of those don’t you? Perhaps a couple of those make you feel uncomfortable, but you have no idea how to argue the opposite?

Guess what? Every single one of those statements is categorically wrong and would have sent any one of the founding fathers of our country (Christian or otherwise) into passionate-Patrick-Henry-mode. Want to know more? Stay tuned…I hope to blog through these ideas in the next month or so.

220px-Patrick_Henry_Rothermel

Unsavory Salt

Interest in religion (or at least spirituality) in America remains high but the morality that ought to accompany it is down. What is going on? Charles Colson explains:

The key to the paradox is the fact that those who claim to be Christians are arriving at faith on their own terms—terms that make no demands on behavior. . . . when the not-so-still small voice of self becomes the highest authority, religious belief requires commitment to no authority beyond oneself. Then religious groups become merely communities of autonomous beings yoked together solely by self-interest or emotion.[1]

Responding to Colson’s comments, James Boice remarks, “Evangelicals will try to view other religious bodies in this category, but the sad truth is that they perhaps even more than others have sold out to individualism, relativism, materialism and emotionalism, all of which are the norms for the majority of evangelical church services today. Evangelicals may be the most worldly people in America.”[2]

These thoughts seem indisputably relevant to our day, but what really unsettles this writer is the realization that Colson spoke in 1989 and Boice in 1996! How much worse is our condition these days?

The Church is the body of Christ, an extension of his person, called under his leadership to create colonies of heaven (“communities of hope”, “villages of refuge”, or “neighborhoods of light”) in the midst of the surrounding culture of despair. Messiah’s values—truly human values—are to distinguish us, to characterize, to form and shape us, and in so doing, to be salt to our culture and light to the watching world. Our homes and communities are intended to be Kingdom of God way-stations, oases in the desert of secular humanistic false religion—what we used to call paganism. Of course, pagans used to worship the representatives of demons, but we now worship ourselves and in so doing serve the same principalities and powers that have been scheming to defraud God of his rightful praise, honor and thanks for millennia past.

And so the Adversary’s empire (that is, pagan and secular ideologies and the communities that embrace them) keeps up its futile fight against the advancing Kingdom of God. “The New Testament writers regularly speak of the world in a human and cultural sense, meaning society organized apart from God and against God, and they see the world as always trying to squeeze Christians individually and the church corporately into its own mold—the mold, that is, of the predominant preconceptions, prejudices, behavior patterns, and styles of life of the particular time and place in which God’s people find themselves.”[3]

Secular humanism is the current populist religion, and do not be fooled—it is a religion—recognized as such by the Supreme Court in 1961.[4] Hand-in-hand with the American practice of individualism, egocentrism has become the highest form of realization, often even perverting the worship of God into something designed to satisfy oneself. Jesus himself said, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38), but we naively pursue our own happiness, all the while wondering why God seems distant and why it is so difficult to make sense out of this life.

Egocentricity is the central core of the image of Satan in fallen humanity. This can be described as unwillingness to see oneself as existing for the Creator’s pleasure and instead establishing oneself as the center of everything. Pride is the classic Christian name for this self-asserting, self-worshiping syndrome, of which “my will be done” is the implicit motto. Though egocentric pride may adopt the form of Christianity, it corrupts Christianity’s substance and spirit. It tries to manage God and harness him to our goals. This reduces religion to magic. Theocentricity that repudiates egocentricity, recognizing that in the fundamental sense we exist for God rather than he for us and worshiping him accordingly, is basic to real godliness. Without this radical shift from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, any show of religion is phony.[5]

The sad reality is that the very folks who are most concerned with “saving” America, with the alarming devolution of our culture away from Judeo-Christian values, are culpable in the rapid descent of Western culture into narcissism. And this writer is likewise responsible, sad to say, but increasingly aware, happy to report.

…[E]vangelicals have abandoned a proper commitment to revealed truth and have become mere pragmatists. Instead of proclaiming and teaching God’s Word, the Bible, they are resorting to sermonettes of pop psychology, entertainment-style services and technological approaches to church growth, which is a formula not for the increase of true religion but for the end of it. Evangelical churches are growing, but they no longer have anything distinct to offer. They are popular in many places, but the prophetic, challenging voice of the Christian preacher and teacher, which has been the glory and strength of the church in all past ages, has been lost.

   If this is so, then what is called for today is a new generation of people who are confident that the bible speaks the truth of God and who are not afraid to believe what it teaches, build their lives on its doctrines and proclaim it without compromise to others. What is needed is a generation of Christians who know the bible well enough and obey it radically enough to be a new people or new society to stand over against the world and its system. To recall Augustine, they must become a people who ”love God, even to the contempt of self.”[6]

Will you join me in praying that the eyes of our Christian hearts will be enlightened (Ephesians 1:17-19)? Let’s start with ourselves; if Nehemiah and Daniel can confess their own noticeably missing sins on behalf of their nation, there is no reason we cannot as well.


[1] Charles Colson, Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages. Ann Arbor, MI: Vine Books (Servant Publications), 1989. p 94.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves: Christian Responsibility in a Crumbling Culture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996. p 28.

[3] J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness : Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1995). 178.

[4] “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others.” See Torcaso v. Watkins (367 U.S. 488); Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia, 101 U.S. App. D.C. 371, 249 F.2d 127; Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, 153 Cal. App. 2d 673, 315 p.2d 394; II Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 293..

[5] J.I. Packer, Hot Tub Religion: Christian Living in a Materialistic World. Chicago: Tyndale House, 1993. 71-72.

[6] James Montgomery Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves: Christian Responsibility in a Crumbling Culture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996. p 28.

Discerning God’s Will

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.  Romans 1:13

In A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah, J.I. Packer suggests there are four factors that ordinarily ought to be taken into account when trying to discern God’s will about one’s proper place or task. The four factors are: the biblical, the pneumatic, the body, and the opportunity.

“The biblical factor is basic, in the sense that God never leads us to transgress any scriptural boundaries, and if we think we are being so led we need someone with a Bible in his hand to tell us we are deluded.”[1] The Bible tells us in general terms what is and is not worth doing, what sorts of actions God encourages and what sorts he forbids. In so doing, God says to us, in effect, within these limits, in pursuit of these goals, in observance of these priorities, you will find both the nature and the place of your ministry.

The second factor is pneumatic, meaning both the God-given desires of the spiritually renewed heart, in addition to any particular nudges the Holy Spirit may give, or any special burdens he may lay on our heart(s) over and above the general desires of a disciple pursuing the imitation of Messiah. Packer reminds us that this area is one of frequent self-deception, where mistakes are often made. The classic reference to this kind of guidance is Acts 16:6-8 where Paul is prevented from taking the Gospel into Asia, and then responds to the vision of the Macedonian man.

Packer warns us, “Christians vary, in this as in every previous age, as to how much or how little of this nudging they experience (and no sure reason can be given for the variance, save God’s good pleasure); but it would be perverse either for those who know more of it to treat as unspiritual those who confessedly know less of it, or for those who know less of it to treat as self-deceived those who claim to know more of it…. We may not ourselves often be guided by this kind of inner nudge—few of us, I think, are; but to discourage Christians from being open to it, as has sometimes been done, is radically Spirit-quenching.”[2]

Third comes the body factor: that is, the discipline of submitting such leading as we believe ourselves to have received to a cross-section of the Body of Christ in its local presence. Because there is such a danger of self-deception in the realm of the pneumatic, this is a sensible precaution and biblical guideline consistent with Proverb 15:22 (and 11:14), “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”

The fourth and final factor is that of opportunity. If none of the previous three factors eliminate a particular goal we are pondering then we are left with the fact that we serve the God of providence, and if He is truly calling us to a particular place or task than He will overrule our situation so we might find ourselves able to pursue His leading. If, on the other hand, circumstances make such a move impossible, the right conclusion is that while God indeed has a plan for us, it is not in what or where we originally thought. As we see in Nehemiah’s life as well in St. Paul’s, the final confirmation that God had ordained a particular task or journey was that in quite unpredictable ways the opportunities were provided.

Let us then expect any goal that is God inspired to be consistent with His revelation in scripture, persistent in its nudging our spirit, blessed by others in His body, and made possible through evidence of divine intervention.

Reflect: When God calls me, he makes it possible for me to move in the direction he is leading.


[1] J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness : Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1995). 55.

[2] Ibid, 55-56.