Growth Inhibitors: Moral Darkness

In my last post I proposed a way for us to understand why it is so hard for believers to accept or even listen to the ever-growing charge of hypocrisy. Indeed, I know of almost no believers who accept the accusation or even consider the opinions of non-believers on this matter to be valid and worthy of consideration. But, as I suggested, they are, to a certain extent, justified in rejecting (ignoring) the charge, quite simply because many of them are, in fact, not guilty of hypocrisy. But, before you get too excited, remember that their empty innocence is bought at a terrible price, namely redefining or abandoning the biblical definition of what a believer is and the kinds of behaviors one might expect of them. For example, we know that the New Testament admonishes us to regularly participate in the Eucharistic services of the Church. In a way, going to Church is the most enduring and observable indicator of Christian commitment. If we were to abandon that practice and still call ourselves Christians, the watching world would, quite reasonably, call us hypocrites. But what if we changed the rules a bit? What if we emphasized the fact that God loves those who are industrious and rewards those who pursue success with material wealth, a sure sign of His blessing. In that case Sunday morning behavior would not be regulated exclusively by just one principle which we either observe or violate. No! Now we have given ourselves more choices and can confidently pass up one blessing (the sacrament) in favor of another blessing (wealth) or some other activity that we could put on our resume, enhancing our chances of getting respectable employment and the higher earnings that go along with it.  Either way we get our blessing. And so, as if by magic, the very possibility of hypocrisy goes away. Gone, too, is the internal tension that might be caused by deliberately violating a principle we know we should adhere to. Now one can rest in the moral quietude of internal congruence and, above all, the absence of a troublesome conscience all because we would be doing exactly what our actual beliefs now allow us to be doing.

And the watching world? Ah, well eventually they will realize that believers have changed the rules and stop calling us hypocrites. Of course, they are hardly in a position to fault believers for moving the goal posts, since they, themselves, have abandoned all pretence of adhering to fixed or enduring standards of moral behavior. “Moral judgments, as they [have] now come to be understood, [are] essentially contestable, expressive of the attitudes and feelings of those who uttered them.”[1] This leaves everyone wandering about in a free-for-all in which the fluidity of self-confirmation allows each individual to make claim to their own version of “truth.” This renders any actual moral discourse a practical impossibility.

On the one hand, we now have “no established way of deciding between these claims.”[2] Even if we could speak of moral discourse under these conditions, we would find that it is reduced to a contest, my word against yours, my opinion against yours, my truth against your truth. In the absence of external, impersonal standards, there are no facts, no arguments, just personal opinions. We have moved beyond the relevancy of any objective truth into what the Oxford Dictionary describes as the realm of post-truth, an intellectual space “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”[3] It is not that we have entirely lost all contact with truth. No, we still read the Bible and give lip service to its precepts, but the truth this reading might yield has little or no bearing on the moral decisions we make or the behaviors we base on those decisions. Discourse, whatever it might be, becomes endless nattering which can never be resolved into a rationally justifiable consensus for action. Trapped in a frustrating and fruitless debate-sans-truth many will eventually resort to attacks ad hominin, become increasingly violent, and leave discourse in angry, morally divided, gridlock—collective moral paralysis without remedy.

On the other hand, this loss of civil, fact-based discourse will cause us to gradually abandon those shared repositories of truth and knowledge that could help guide our dialog. If everything now rests on individual opinion, there is little need for input of experts, general knowledge, education, literacy, or history. Everything that is needed is found within the sphere of one’s own personal opinion. As the perceived value of knowledge and expertise fades, ignorance, arrogance, and superstition will, of course, rapidly intensify.[4] Moreover, this loss of knowledge is accelerated when we withdraw into the isolation of our respective opinion bubbles in order to avoid exposure to anything we don’t already agree with.[5] This isolation and opinion-centeredness is causing what some have called the gradual dumbing down of our culture. This is clearly happening among the general population where basic knowledge of history, geography, language, etc., are rapidly disappearing. It is also happening in the Church as evidenced by the gradual loss of biblical knowledge, the increasingly distorted views of our own history and tradition. As our “civilization tips over into decline, the contents of its educational and cultural institutions, its arts, literature, sciences, philosophies, and religions…”[6]  are being irrevocably forgotten even among Christians who are themselves being irresistibly dragged down into the dark abyss where the light of faith, biblical literacy, descent discourse, self-transcendence, and kenotic love are being actively and knowingly disremembered.

Christianity in North America is caught up in this process and is in danger of losing its moral treasures to a self-induced mass amnesia—forgetting decorum, neglecting biblical teaching, disregarding Tradition. As literacy, education, civility, and basic knowledge fade, we also lose the basic resources needed to proceed with new moral enquiries or to recover from the damage already sustained.  We are, as Jane Jacobs has warned, “rushing headlong into a Dark Age.”[7] There are, of course, many today who shy away from the designation “Dark Ages” because it is said to be a misleading generalization that all too often implies “a time of death, ignorance, stasis, and low quality of life.”[8] Nevertheless, since “our society’s analytical elements are in jeopardy,”[9]  as was the case in the Western Europe after the fall of Rome, “we cannot ignore the parallels between the Dark Ages and our own time.”[10]

If the darkness descending generally on our society were not upsetting enough, the failings of conservative Christians have only deepened the distress. By replacing the divine repository[11] of precepts with the vicissitudes and vagaries of individual choice, these believers have all but eliminated the possibility of reliable moral discrimination both in churches and by Christians. If believers who lay claim to the light of Christ’s standard for making moral decisions are in reality governed only by the dimness of their own imaginings, then with what insight can they possibly illumine the moral darkness of a declining society? If the light born by the very children of light (Eph. 5.8) is extinguished by moral bankruptcy, then what hope is left?  With no moral résistance whatsoever, these could-be-luminaries are instead willingly absorbed into the morally self-defining mass of lemmings rushing over the proverbial cliff to join the pervading blackness of an abyss. Are we not now condemned to the state of affairs described by Isaiah? “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (5:20). Are we not now facing the ultimate darkness spoken of by Jesus when He said, the “light of the body [society] is the eye [believers]” but the if eye turns evil, “the whole body shall be full of darkness?” So, if the light turns to darkness, then “how great is that darkness!” (Mt 6:21-23).

Our hearts are heavy, broken by what appears to be the wholesale loss of the values, knowledge, and practices that once defined diverse and vibrant groups and movements of Christians. We are afraid and justifiably speak of the darkness even of those identifying themselves as conservative Christians who albeit are now effectively silenced by their own collusion with prevailing moral dissolution. We quite naturally ask, “Who can help us find a way forward?” Can we expect to find any hope in such darkness, among the spiritually dead? I believe we can and I will explore that hope in my next post.

 

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press., 2007), 57, Kindle (2016).

[2] MacIntyre, After Virtue A Study in Moral Theory, 7.

[3] “Word of the Year 2016,” Oxford Languages, 2016, accessed Nov. 16, 2020, https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2016/.

[4] Arthur W. III Hunt, “The New Dark Ages: How Electronic Media Are Pulling Us Back to Barbarism,” Christian Research Journal 24, no. 01 (2001).

[5] Cass R. Sunstein, #Republic : divided democracy in the age of social media (Princeton ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[6] John Michael Greer, Dark Age America (Gabrioa, Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2016), 10, Kindle (2016).

[7] Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead (New York: Vintage eBook, 2007), Loc. 61, Kindle (2007).

[8] “The New Dark Ages, Part I: From Religion To Ethnic Nationalism And Back Again,” 2013, accessed Nov. 2, 2020, https://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2013/09/the-new-dark-ages-part-i-from-religion-to-ethnic-nationalism-and-back-again.html.

[9] Hunt, “The New Dark Ages: How Electronic Media Are Pulling Us Back to Barbarism,” 8.

[10] Hunt, “The New Dark Ages: How Electronic Media Are Pulling Us Back to Barbarism,” 8.

[11] In another place I referred to what Taylor has called a social imaginary or what Michel Foucault referred to as a regime of truth in order to conceptualize an internalized framework that is used to guide and evaluate our interaction with the other individuals in our immediate social context. As I described it, the Church has been taken captive by the prevailing social imaginary and the ecclesial imaginary has been replaced by the operating principles, the imaginary, of that culture. See, Edward Rommen, Church in the Land of Desire (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2021 (Forthcoming)).

One comment:

  1. I just finished Carl Trueman’s new book, you would appreciate it. I don’t follow his Calvinism (obviously, I’m Orthodox but I came from the same denomination he is in) but he nails the issues pretty well. I think, while it may be true that many Orthodox Christians have the social imaginary of the world, that if an Orthodox Christian really understood and believed that a valid Eucharist can only be found in Orthodoxy (at least normatively) a centering effect might take place because you can’t pick and choose where you go to get Life if Life has an address, a history, identifiable attributes (I hope you understand what I mean here). I really don’t know what would work, but I think this would be a good starting place. The Eucharist sets up a gravity/rotation, a Goldilocks Zone if you will when it is basically understood. The other ologies we have come into view or can with the Eucharist. From there right soteriology, epistemology, anthropology, ecclesiology – a universe is there. My own preference would be to focus on soteriology but I don’t think most people have the attention span. My concern is that when Orthodox for the sake of ecumenicism shy away from the fact that we call ourselves Orthodox – and I understand it’s a tightrope to be truly loving and truly transparent/honest – that we reinforce the current social imaginary. We are a more respectable form of Christian maybe but not necessarily true and therefore we potentially offer no gravitational pull.

    Thank you for the post…

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