(I’m interrupting my series on Predestination vs. Free Will to share some thoughts on the events of the past few weeks.) The horrific murder of George Floyd once again causes us to stop and ask hard questions about our culture. As Christians we are called to be agents of peace, truth, and justice. But doing so requires an understanding of how to think Christianity about this responsibility in our current cultural moment.
As has often been said, “ideas have consequences.” We are witnessing the consequences of three ideas, central to the Christian worldview, which have been forgotten or flatly rejected by our culture. It is sometimes said that Christians can be “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.” But if we are truly heavenly minded—understanding and living out biblical principles—we will be of the most good to this world, fostering human flourishing and the common good.
So we, both those who profess Christ, as well as the broader culture, must reaffirm three central ideas not discussed enough, and lived out even less. When we and others forget these truths, unconscionable acts such as those of May 25 occur, and will continue to occur. When we affirm and live these truths, we will be on the true path to peace, reconciliation, and human flourishing.
There are many much better able to educate us on how to live these truths out. What I can offer is a reminder of these underlying truths which should shape our beliefs, attitudes, and actions.
No One Is A “Mere Mortal” (Or Less)
C.S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” What he means is that everyone, regardless of how we differ, are created in God’s image, and therefore of unimaginable value and worth. Regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, viewpoint, or any of the many other ways we differ, fundamentally we are all worthy of the greatest respect and honor.
Theologically this is known as the “imago Dei.” Literally, this means we are all created in God’s image. Though there is much debate on the details of what this means, it at least means God created us in a way that reflects his glory. Therefore, each and every person is equally valued by God and reflects his image—in our creativity and our ability to be in healthy relationships of love and mutual care for one another.
Unfortunately, this image of God has been marred by sin. None of us live fully in accord with our nature. We all do that which discounts the image of God in one another. But though the image of God in us has been defaced, it has not been destroyed. It still represents the most fundamental truth of who we are. This is a central commitment of the Christian/biblical worldview. And this most fundamentally grounds our ideas of mutual respect and equal rights.
However, many have and continue to discount this truth. Physicalism, captivating the modern view of the world since the Enlightenment, denies this truth. Simply stated, physicalism is the belief that only that which is physical is real. “If I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.”
As I discussed here, it follows that the physicalist believes people are nothing more than evolved matter. We have no soul. There is nothing special about us. We are only different in degree from other animals, not different in kind. (I’ve discussed and critiqued the physicalist view of persons here.)
One of the consequences of this idea is that people will treat other people in heinous ways. If survival of the fittest is the ultimate law, and one person has the ability to impose his or her will on another, then so be it. That’s the evolutionary way.
Furthermore, given physicalism, there are no moral absolutes to guide, direct, or limit one’s “animal instincts.” Since moral absolutes are not physical things, our Enlightenment assumption is that they are “mere” beliefs, and so moral values are determined by individual choice. We say, “Who are you to impose your morality on me?” and “To each his own.”
This idea further reinforces the belief that ethics are relative, and so if I have the ability to do so, I should impose my will on others, if I so choose. As the book of Judges puts it, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25). (I’ve written on this related to Harvey Weinstein’s reprehensible acts against women here.)
These are central assumptions underlying all racism. For instance, Hitler read these ideas in Nietzsche. He concluded that Jews and other groups he disliked were “subhuman.” Furthermore, it was his responsibility to raise above “herd morality” (to quote Nietzsche) and impose his will on others (to be the “Ubermensch” or “Superman”). His reign of terror was the outworking of these ideas.
Similar stories can be told of other cases of regimes of racism. In all cases the “other” is defined as less than human. This gives one, or one group, the right to treat the other group(s) as one might treat an animal, and have no moral qualms about doing so.
Given the far-reaching and highly deleterious results of the idea and implications of physicalism, our culture must recapture the idea of each and every person being equally created in the image of God. Only then will we be able to truly love, honor, and respect one another unconditionally (as poignantly illustrated recently when a protester and police officer embraced and prayed together). This also results in the ability to truly listen to one another and work together toward our shared goals of human flourishing and the common good.
Jesus’ Greatest Commandment, So Often Forgotten
Secondly, and related, is the biblical value of loving others just as much as we love ourselves. Jesus–the smartest man who ever lived–rated this quite highly, saying it, along with loving God, was the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:39).
Martin Luther King understood this well. He believed, based on the biblical worldview, that many problems can be solved if we truly learn to love our neighbor as ourselves. He repeated this theme often–“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend” and “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can drive out hate.”
King unpacked the biblical teaching on loving one another, and very practical implications concerning racial tensions, many times. He does so extremely well in a sermon given at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on November 17, 1957, reprinted here. I’ll defer to him for a more eloquent development of this second point. May we, as Christians, have the ability to better live out this second truth in word and deed, modeling this truth for a world searching for peace and justice.
Third, and again related, is the importance of developing virtue. Unfortunately this is an idea that has fallen out of favor. Historically, the core focus of education was character formation—developing people who lived out the classical virtues (Courage, Discernment (“Prudence”), Restraint (“Temperance”), and Fairness (“Justice”) as well as the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.)
In the words of Walter Quincy Scott, the second president of The Ohio State University, “Any system of education that neglects the moral character or religious nature of its undergraduate youth is fundamentally defective.” Noah Webster similarly observed, “It is an object of vast magnitude that systems of education should be adopted and pursued which may not only diffuse a knowledge of the sciences but may implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue…”
Then came along John Dewey (1859-1952), a physicalist deeply steeped in Enlightenment philosophy. These virtues, as absolute moral values incarnated in people as traits of character, and thus traits of the soul, had no place in the modern understanding of the world. And, therefore, teaching people how to be virtuous was not to be part of education.
Rather, following Enlightenment philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), what is important is teaching students how to have mastery over the world. Education is to be about teaching skills that allow one to produce something “useful.” Education, especially at the university level, gradually shifted toward these pragmatic ends. It was no longer in vogue to see education as ultimately about creating virtuous people. It was now about creating “productive” people.
One way this is seen is in the increasing marginalization of the humanities in higher education. Fields such as literature, history, and philosophy address these larger questions, wrestling with what is ultimately true, good, and beautiful. As the emphasis shifted to the educational pragmatism of Dewey, the humanities lost their value, and are increasingly marginalized in many universities. (For instance, most recently Liberty University shut down its philosophy department. See Mike Austin’s excellent discussion of these issues in an article Christianity Today recently published.)
What is taught in the classroom today is believed in our culture tomorrow. If we place less and less emphasis on teaching the virtues of courage, discernment, restraint, fairness, faith, hope, and love, we can expect more and more acts of cowardice, foolishness, lack of restraint, injustice, cynicism, despair, and hatred. May Christians be a strong voice to return to the centrality of teaching and living out these virtues, so necessary for the common good.
I hope this has been a helpful reminder of these three core truths we all must affirm and proclaim. Furthermore, we must all seek God’s wisdom concerning how–in our various contexts, relationships, and places of influence–to incarnate these truths, “for such a time as this.”
Until next week, grace and peace.