Sunday, 29 January 2012

The problem of Christian moral teaching in a secular, hedonist context

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My general perspective is that modern Christian evangelism should (probably) focus on addressing the alienation of modern man, rather than on ethical issues - that what requires emphasis is the mystical, existential, even metaphysical aspect of Christianity, with sin conceptualized as being turned-away-from God rather than as a list of rules.

And the Christian mystical perspective being described not in terms of what makes you happy, but what is real and therefore productive of meaning, purpose and relation with the universe.

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For instance, that when an orthodox Christian looks at the stars he knows that the Heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork;

whereas for a secular modern like Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) the stars induce the cry:



"I'M SIGNIFICANT... screamed the dust speck."

This cartoon perfectly encapsulates the overweening spiritual pride and underlying utter nihilism of modern, secular man.

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I was led to this idea of focusing on the mystical partly my my own response, when an atheist, to Christian ethical teaching.

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Not by its own choice, Christianity has been brought into conflict with the modern world primarily on matters of sexuality and reproduction.

Naturally, therefore, among-ourselves, Christians must say NO to many things which the modern world first tolerates then encourages.

And this can be done rigorously, and through argument, since Christians share a belief in both natural law and revelation.

(Natural law being the spontaneous, instinctive human morality and spirituality - common to mankind).

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Yet, the fact the Christians must strive to resist modern sexual and reproductive ethics in their internal operations, does not mean that this can effectively be done in the social arena.

It is precisely the triumph of modernity that in the social arena there is no belief in, indeed denial of, not just Christian revelation, but even natural law.

Without even a common basis in natural law, how can specific matters of sexual and reproductive ethics be discussed from a Christian perspective?

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The answer is sexual and reproductive ethics cannot now be discussed from a Christian perspective - but only from a secular and hedonic perspective, concerned with this worldly individual happiness and misery.

Yet to discuss sexual and reproductive ethics from the perspective of what makes people happy or miserable, is precisely to reinforce the secular hedonic perspective.

Even if a Christian were to prove that, say, easy divorce usually led to misery - he could never prove that it always and necessarily led to misery, and the very act of evaluating in terms of here and now misery (or happiness) is precisely the evaluation used by the secular modern world; and precisely not the primary evaluation of Christianity.

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So Christians can merely say what they believe (answer NO whenever the matter comes-up), stick to what they believe (still say NO even when persuasion or coercion is brought to bear); yet decline to explain their sexual and reproductive ethics in terms of secular hedonism

- simply to state that this is how things are from a Christian perspective; in light of natural law and revelation.

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This is, of course, how other and non-native religions always have behaved in The West when trying to hold-out against pressure - not explaining; but instead saying, in effect 'it is not our custom', we cannot comply, we are commanded to refuse this.

And this has indeed proved far more effective than trying to fight coercion using the enemy's weapons.

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In sum, Christians need to internalize that we are living in an alien culture which cannot understand us.

When resisting that alien culture, there is therefore no way to explain the true reason for resistance; merely the fact of it.

Those who truly want to understand must first become Christian.

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14 comments:

  1. A lot of sentences nominally phrased as questions are, in fact, statements or even commands. "What makes you so sure easy divorce leads to misery?" is a question designed to not be answered, a question designed to make the asker look sophisticated and the interviewee look like.

    "I'm not 'so sure' about it. I simply believe it."

    "Oh, so you don't really know."

    "I never claimed to 'really know'. I believe what I believe."

    "Why?"

    "I do. That is the nature of belief."

    "Why?"

    "YOU DO NOT CARE 'WHY'. You feel no need to explain your beliefs because you have appointed yourself Chief Epicurean Interviewer. If you did, anyone could just ask you 'Why' over and over, but because you're part of a phalanx, with all your little hypersecularist science-loving cronies, you think you are right. You have allowed majority rule to determine your beliefs--the core of your being--and people whose beliefs are determined by revelation and tradition emphatically are not mysteries to you.

    "We are effigies to you. Go ahead and try to burn us if you like."

    Oh well, that's a fictitious conversation. I don't know any Christians who are that belligerent.

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  2. This was a very good explanation of something I think you've been saying for a while, and I agree.

    Have you ever read anything at Front Porch Republic? There's been a debate (sort of) ongoing about the value of modernity between a group of writers there and a group at the magazine First Things that calls themselves post-modern conservatives. The PoMoCons have distinguished themselves for there inability to understand their opponents arguments, which is very similar to yours here.

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  3. Also, I think you are too hard on Calvin and Hobbes. There's too much love for life in that cartoon to call it nihilistic, and even that example you showed is not wrong-headed, as far as it goes, it's just incomplete.

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  4. Dear Bruce,

    ‘I’M SIGNIFICANT… screamed the dust speck’

    Yes, maybe this encapsulates the meaningless pride of the nihilist, and points clearly to the joke of his or her extravagant claims.

    But for those who acknowledge a spiritual world, and yet contemplate the apparently enormous gap between the size of the human being in the physical realm as against the infinity of the universe as a whole there still remains a question or two.

    Then again, the difference between the largest dust speck and the most insignificant human being is enormous.

    And the very fact that a human being can ponder his or her significance is itself highly significant.

    Many teachings speak of man as the microcosm of the Divine Macrocosm, which means that all God’s attributes are contained at least potentially in each human being, including a spark of the purest Divinity.

    Furthermore, it was on our behalf that Jesus Christ took human form, which may be one reason that Psalm 8 asks, ‘What is man? etc.’

    So whichever way you look at it, there is a potent mystery in the contrast between our true nothingness in one sense, justifying the virtue of humility, and our potential divinity in another sense, justifying the respect due to every human being.

    On the practical level I have always been taken by the solution to this problem proposed by Bunam of Przysucha, a Hasidic Rabbi of the early 19th century, who said:

    ‘Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: "For my sake was the world created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: "I am but dust and ashes."’

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  5. @GR - I *love* Calvin and Hobbes - I'm not being hard on them!

    I own every single C&H strip having (at great expense) bought the collected works in three volume hardback (well, I pretended it was for my son...). In addition to all the books in paperback.

    On the other hand, I don't look to Calvin for moral guidance...

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  6. This is brilliant really. The secular left hates Christianity precisely because of the politics of reproduction and traditional marriage. It is in my opinion the primary reason Democrats and so-called Independents hate conservatism while they themselves often live a conservative lifestyle. So, you say take a tact that removes your beliefs out of the political and make it about a cultural phenomenon that is just foreign to you.

    This works for Islam who should be (are) antithetical to everything leftists hold dear but barely rate a reaction when pitted against Western belief systems.

    Brilliant.

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  7. "So Christians can merely say what they believe (answer NO whenever the matter comes-up), stick to what they believe (still say NO even when persuasion or coercion is brought to bear); yet decline to explain their sexual and reproductive ethics in terms of secular hedonism"

    Why couldn't a Christian engage in a debate about sexual ethics with the intention of undermining the secular-hedonistic morality by going back to first prinicles?

    In other words, turning the debate into a debate about secular-hedonistic morality (and its flaws)rather than sexual ethics.

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  8. Anon 19.18 (Please use a pseudonym)

    Going back to first principle would would indeed work - it would also be fatal to Leftism/ political correctness - so modern secualr hedonists will NEVER, NEVER do it.

    And of course the modern busy, distracted, sound bite world makes it all-but impossible anyway.

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  9. @Son of Moses - yes indeed.

    The reality is something like the reverse of Calvin's comment - so that we are depraved but significant, wretched but significant, don't deserve anything but yet significant.

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  10. Have you ever read anything at Front Porch Republic? There's been a debate (sort of) ongoing about the value of modernity between a group of writers there and a group at the magazine First Things that calls themselves post-modern conservatives. The PoMoCons have distinguished themselves for there inability to understand their opponents arguments, which is very similar to yours here.

    I used to read that blog occasionally. Peter Lawler, one of the PoMoCons, wrote a book called Postmodernism Rightly Understood. I recommend it.

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  11. Ryan,
    I recently read through a lengthy back and forth at FPR from a few years ago:

    http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=4176

    Your mileage may vary, but I think FPR emerged victorious in that skirmish, and everything since seems to be pretty much talking past each other (when the PoMoCons aren't being disingenuously obtuse).

    The main reason I wanted to link to that discussion here is for the end, where the subject turns to the bigger, deeper picture and seems to echo a lot of Dr. Charlton's thinking:

    http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=4176#comment-5103

    For what it's worth, I think the problem with the PoMoCon view is that they discount the damage done to people by modernity, and the degree to which the convenience of modernity prevents any course correction.

    The Porcher sees the ridiculousness of his position in the modern world. It is painfully obvious. He knows that technological masochism is (mostly) legal, but sadism is frowned upon. So what's he to do? Withdraw and live the rural life? What about his kids? But the PoMoCon is unaware of the ridiculousness of his position, thinking he is a boulder standing against the flow of modernity that will eventually divert the stream. I think we know what happens to boulders in streams though. And that's the optimistic version. The pessimistic version is that the PoMoCon is really on a raft in the stream of modernity.

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  12. So Christians can merely say what they believe (answer NO whenever the matter comes-up), stick to what they believe (still say NO even when persuasion or coercion is brought to bear); yet decline to explain their sexual and reproductive ethics in terms of secular hedonism

    - simply to state that this is how things are from a Christian perspective; in light of natural law and revelation.

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    This is, of course, how other and non-native religions always have behaved in The West when trying to hold-out against pressure - not explaining; but instead saying, in effect 'it is not our custom', we cannot comply, we are commanded to refuse this.

    And this has indeed proved far more effective than trying to fight coercion using the enemy's weapons.


    Sorry for quoting you at length, but this is very well-stated, and dovetails exactly with what I blogged fairly recently.

    We're talking about a clash of worldviews, and we need to realize that to a great extent playing by the left's rules is not going to work. What works better is simply telling the truth baldly, and watching as their astonishment turns into curiosity (and more).

    My wife and I recently watched the 1995 movie Joseph. One of the striking things about the film's portrayal of Jospeh is that Joseph's steadfastness evokes just this sort of reaction. It really works this way.

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  13. @Samson J - yes, I think I may have stumbled-upon something important!

    The difficult thing is to break the habits of a lifetime and DO IT.

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  14. Gabe,

    To clarify, I should've noted that my recommendation wasn't intended as an advocacy for either side in particular. Lawler's book seems to me an especially thought-provoking read, though, probably the strongest exposition of the PoMoCon's fundamental philosophical background (which my fondness for Percy likely affects).

    Today is the first time in a while that I've actually revisited that "First Things" blog. The Orthosphere has me in theory, for the most part; only, its practice becomes less certain. I just realized how exactly this very debate has been playing-out in my head w/regard to decisions currently looming in my own life. (I live in a major urban area and, though often struck by rural daydreams, have mostly procrastinated on decisively uprooting myself.)

    I believe I've recently taken a resolute stance in favor of the points you make. My plan is to take a substantial portion of time off modern distractions (perhaps a silent retreat of prayer and meditation), cleanse myself of sin, and then make my final decision. Any favor I have for clinging onto remnants of techno-modernity are, more than likely and to that extent, indicative of my own lack of virtue. Or at least that strikes me as a reliable presumption, given the deceptive "fruits" of modernity.

    What I know with certainty is that both courses require, for moral support at the least, active participation within a devout religious community.

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