Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Can anything be done about the Immorality of our Present Society?

         D. Elton Trueblood, describing the cultural situation in the 1940s said, "The awful truth is that our wisdom about ends does not match our ingenuity about means, and this situation, if it continues, may be sufficient to destroy us." - D. Elton Trueblood, The Predicament of Modern Man, p. 12 -  Trueblood is addressing the culture as a whole. At the time, the culture was still partially affected by the Christian worldview. He says that one of the main areas that he is concerned about is "the Western democracies, where we still pay lip service to the moral and religious principles of Christendom but have actually lost a great part of this heritage." (p. 14) If I may allow myself to make a cultural observation, the "Western democracies" are now, for all intents and purposes, post-Christian. This is most evident in Europe and Canada, but signs of the weakening of Christianity are also all too evident in the United States as well. The effects of the church on society are minimal at best. Our modern cultures no longer even "pay lip service to the moral and religious principles of Christendom." Rather, for the most part, Christian principles are exorcised, as much as possible, from politics, education, and the public square.

        When Trueblood talks about 'ends' he is referring to our the moral goals that mankind sets up for itself. When he talks about 'means', he is referring to the ways in which we interact with each other and seek to accomplish the ends we have set up (such as technological advances). As I noted above, the situation has gotten worse since the 1940s. Our moral situation has worsened, yet our ability to affect the entire world by one movie, message, or movement has increased to proportions that, due to our total lack of morality, are beyond scary.

       Trueblood notes that technological advances could have been, and should be, used to help mankind. Looking at the situation in his day, he asked how things had gotten so bad. He says, "We cannot account for the present series of calamities merely by reference to the natural depravity of the human heart, however great it may be, for that is presumably a constant factor and there are aspects of the present situation which are by no means constant." (p. 13) In other words, part of the problem is man's depraved nature, only the most naive optimists would be willing to claim that man is essentially good, especially in the face of the two great world wars, the terrorist attacks on the world trade center towers, and the many wars that have gone on between those two events. However, man's nature has never not been depraved. In light of this fact Truebloods question, and the answer he gives it are all too important. What has changed? Why is modern culture so much worse than past cultures? The other part of the answer, he claims, is technology - scientific advances.

      He is not saying, and this is so important to keep in mind, that scientific advances (technology) are bad, or wrong. On the contrary, scientific advances and technology, as such, are neutral. They are, in themselves, neither good, nor bad. It is what is done with them that is either good or evil. The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a perfect example of an amazing scientific advance that caused a lot of good, but which also ended up causing the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people. In our post-christian world the reigning moral principle is essentially no different from the time of the judges in Israel's history: "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 21:25) Everyone still does what is right in their own eyes. The difference between then and now is that our world has gotten smaller. Trueblood is surely on to something here. Our world no longer includes a small tribe of people, our actions no longer affect only our family and a couple of families around us. We are now part of a global society. People from all parts of the world are no in touch with each other through facebook, myspace, youtube, blogs, and other websites. The free exchange of ideas on the internet means that one person who speaks loud enough and long enough can be heard by enough people to really change things. The question of course is whether that change will be for the better or for the worse. The advances in technology are neutral, and as optimistic as many scientists may be about so called "progress", the reality is that mankind has not changed. In his day, Trueblood claimed that  "Because of lack of moral direction, what might have been a blessing becomes a terrible curse." (Trueblood, p. 14) Things have gotten worse since his time. It is now almost 70 years since his book was published, and his claims are still true today. This is evidenced by simply looking at one area of moral concern - sexuality.

     Prior to the 1900s men and women were just as sexually depraved as they are today. Men slept with women that weren't there wives thousands of years before Jesus was born. Everybody is, or at least used to be, familiar with the story of King David who saw Bathsheba (the wife of a soldier in his army) bathing on her rooftop. He lusted after her, called her to him, and slept with her. A baby was conceived through their adultery, and in order to cover up their sin King David had Bathsheba's husband killed. (see 2 Samuel 11) This sounds like a plot that has been used in countless modern films. Attraction, adultery, lies and murder. Humans have not changed, we have not improved morally. In fact, it might be claimed that we have gotten worse. What has changed is the facility, due to technological advances, of engaging in immoral behaviour. Adultery is easier, murder is easier, lying, cheating, stealing...all easier. Watching others engage in immoral behaviour has also gotten easier. Technology, which has so many useful applications, has facilitated immorality.

      The picture that has been painted is not very appealing. Of course the question that needs to be asked now is, what can we do the make things better? Perhaps we should first ask, CAN things be made better? If so, how? Well, Trueblood notes that, and I happen to agree with him on this point, "Any reasonably alert person is aware that there is no single solution to the world's ills now or at any time. The problems before modern man are so complex that neither any single solution nor all solutions put together will give us a really decent world. We do not expect Utopia. A thousand years from now our descendants will be facing difficult times, some of their problems being new and others being the same old problems that plague us today, because they will share inevitably in the perennial human predicament." (Trueblood, viii) The time for naive optimism is past. Things are not going to improve all that much, because humans are essentially depraved, human nature is tainted, affected by sin.

     Human culture cannot be redeemed. As long as human culture is made up of depraved humans it will never become perfect - the whole is no greater than the sum of its parts. However, we can do something, and, due to the advances of science and technology, we can have an impact in places that we have never visited or, perhaps, even heard of. I would like to suggest a number of things that can be done to, at very least, make an impact. I will address where to start, some ideas on what to do and how to do it, and I will finish with the message.

     First of all, and for those who are interested this is inspired from the great commission in Matthew 28:19-20, and Acts 1, we need to start at home, in our neighbourhoods, in our schools, and our workplaces. If the whole is no greater than all of its parts, then we, being parts of a global society, need to start with the parts that are closest to us. The truth is that if we can't have an impact in the lives of those who are in our immediate surroundings then we can't possibly hope to have an impact on the entire world. Jesus told his disciples, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:8, ESV) Basically, start at home, then widen the circle.

     Secondly, what can we do? There are lots of things that we can do, but they can all be summarized as follows:  Engage the culture through loving your neighbour as yourself, and by proclaiming, with reasons (in other ways, in a rational way), the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, engaging BOTH the heart and the mind of the culture. There is not conflict between faith and reason, on the contrary, Peter encourages those to whom he wrote to always be "prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect." (1 Peter 3:15, italics are mine.) Quite frequently, people are tempted to engage only the heart or only the mind. Such a practice brings shame onto the gospel. We need to present the good news about Christ, rationally, to the mind, at the same time as we, in love, demonstrate the good news of the Christ shining into the hearts of those around us.

      We engage the heart by being truly interested in the lives of those around us. Everybody has their story, everybody has a background. We need to be meeting people where they are. This is how Jesus reached the hearts of the people surrounding him. He didn't expect them to reform before they came to him. Zaccheus was still a rascally scoundrel when Jesus told him to get down from that tree because they had plans for lunch. We are told that Jesus "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" (Mt. 11:19) Again, we are told, this time in Luke, "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'" (Lk. 15:1-2) So, we meet people were they are. We don't hit them over the head with a Bible, we befriend the sinner! People are not targets they are made in the image of God; and Christians are no better then they are, they are sinners saved by grace. Perhaps we need to remember that "Loving your neighbour as yourself," implies that we look at how we wish to be treated, and we treat others in the same way if not better. As C. S. Lewis says in the article, 'The Trouble with "X"...', "We must love 'X' more; and we must learn to see ourselves as a person of exactly the same kind." (C. S. Lewis, "The Trouble with 'X'...", in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1970), 154.) In this quote, "X" stands for your neighbour. Most of the time we don't need another sermon, we just need someone to listen to us. Why in the world do we think that non-christians are any different? Should we not become known as great listeners rather than annoying evangelists? People are, for the most part, more inclined to hear your side of the story when you have listened to theirs already. Engaging the heart is something that everybody can do in their own home, neighbourhood, school and job.

     We engage the mind by presenting the message clearly and precisely and by giving honest answers to any questions that we might be asked. Engaging the mind means that our own minds are actively seeking the truth. This does not mean that everybody needs to be able to explain the notion of Monads as expounded by Leibniz or the categorical imperative of Kant. What it does mean, is that we need to, as a truly humble person does, seek answers when we are asked questions that we can't answer. It means that we can't just make the all too easy claims, "You just have to believe!" Or, "It's just a matter of faith!" There are certainly some matters for faith, however, if these affirmations are the default answer to any difficult question, then we are not engaging the minds of our culture. Furthermore, in the same way that we need to meet people were they are when we engage their hearts, we need to meet people were they are when we engage their minds. This means that we don't try to shove the Bible down the throat of a person who does not believe that God exists. We need to start where they are by demonstrating that God exists. This also means, as C. S. Lewis noted, that we need to speak their language, which may mean mean learning a new language, but it may also mean using either technical language (such as philosophical or scientific terms) or common everyday language. Lewis said, in addressing apologists, that "Our business is to present that which is timeless (the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age." (C. S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics," in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1970), 93.) he says further along that "if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one's own meaning." (p. 98) Another way to meet people's minds is by actually teaching them. C. S. Lewis notes that unbelief in students today is, in part, due to the unbelief of those who taught them, whether that be parents, school teachers, friends, or the media. "This very obvious fact - that each generation is taught by an earlier generation - must be kept very firmly in mind...None can give to another what he does not possess himself. No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got." (C. S. Lewis, "On the Transmission of Christianity," in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1970), 116.)

        So, how do we engage the mind of the culture? We teach it. How do we do that? The most obvious answer is by becoming teachers, but we should also use the very technology that is now destroying our culture. Youtube videos, websites, blogs, books, journal articles, movies, and other media.C. S. Lewis has a very interesting point to make on this subject, a point that implies the need for Christians to engage culture in every aspect. He says, "What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects - with their Christianity latent...It is not the books on Christianity that will really trouble him [the modern man]. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian." (C. S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics," in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1970), 93.) This of course means that we need more Christian scientists, who excel in their research and in their faith. It also means that we need more Christian philosophers, more christian business men and women. Basically what we need is more Christians who excel in their own domain, who are the best at what they do. People whose opinion cannot be neglected, but who are also faithful Christians with an intelligent faith. What would happen to our culture if the most professional and well-known people in every domain were Christians? Christianity needs to go back to the marketplace, not with a watered down gospel, but with an intelligent faith being brandished by men and women who excel at what they do. There is so much more that could be said, but we also need to say a word about how to go about engaging culture.

       There is much that has already been said, but we should consider the words of Peter on this subject. Peter, in 1 Peter 3:15-16, says that the defense of our faith, that we carry out by giving reasons for our hope, should be done "with gentleness and respect having a good conscience..." When we bring the gospel to those around us, it needs to be done with gentleness, and humility. We need to respect the person that we are approaching, is that not how we would want to be treated? It all comes back to loving your neighbour as yourself. It is so easy to swing around the Bible, but what is not easy is to wipe the tears off of the face of the lady who just lost her mother, or who just lost a baby. It is not easy to sit beside the man whose wife cheated on him. It is not easy to love the outcast, to care for the homeless, and to help the widow. It is by showing love to the unloveable that we end up being able to tell them about the love of God. A listening ear soon finds that the person on the other end is also ready to hear the Gospel. The gospel must be spoken in order to be accepted, but more often than not it is our actions that open the ears of the audience so that they can hear it and believe.

        Finally, what is the message that we are to carry? I've mentioned it frequently, though almost in code language - the gospel, the good news. What is it? First of all, as a Ken Davis says in one of his comical sketches, "I'm not okay, you're not okay, but that's okay, because God loves us anyways." The message is not, with a finger pointed at the listener, "You're a sinner! Repent!" But, rather, (1) We're all sinners, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Rom. 3:23) (2) God is just and all sin must be judged, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 6:23) (3) But, God prepared a way for all men to be justified before him. "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die - but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:6-8) (4) Justification before God is given to that person who believes that Jesus is God and that he was raised from the dead. "if you confess with your mouth  that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Rom. 10:9. See also Eph. 2:8-9) This is the essential message that changes lives. We may be able to share it with the person because they are ready to hear it on the spot. However, more likely than not, we will have to help our neighbours, coworkers, colleagues, and friends to leap over gigantic hurdles that keep them from Christ. It may be a hardship that is pulling them down; or it may be questions that keep them from Christ (Does God exist? Is truth relative or Absolute? If God exists than why is there so much evil in the world? Is the Bible the word of God? Is the Bible trustworthy? Is Jesus God? There are many more questions that we may have to address.) Whatever the hurdle are you ready to respond.

         We started by lamenting the dismal state of the world in which we live. Our culture is headed, at top speed, down the highway to hell. We can't save our culture, but, we can give it the only remedy that actually has a transforming power. The question is whether or not we are ready to jump back into the culture that Christians have been hiding from for so long.