The Culture War as Competing Visions of “The Good”
In the most contested battlegrounds of today’s culture war both sides imagine themselves occupying the moral high ground and the other is morally deficient. Where they differ is where they imagine they derive their source of morality.
Cultural Conservatives and traditionalists will tend to appeal to religious or cultural tradition or religious texts for their moral guide. They feel that the Bible, the Koran, the ways of our founding fathers or past cultural lights should have the authority to shape our private and public worlds.
Many of the cultural progressives today also appeal to a source of authority, the true self within. Culture should support the free expression of individual identity and convictions, at least as far as it doesn’t hurt or impinge on the freedoms of others. This is an egalitarian, libertarian and individualistic view of the good where individuals as free moral agents are served best by creating the lives their passions or inner selves dictate and the duty of society and community is to support these developments. The idea is that if all are thriving as individuals then the community itself will thrive.
David Brooks in his book The Road to Character outlines this conflict.
If you were born at any time over the last sixty years, you were probably born into what the philosopher Charles Taylor has called “the culture of authenticity.” This mindset is based on the romantic idea that each of us has a Golden Figure in the core of our self. There is an innately good True Self, which can be trusted, consulted, and gotten in touch with. Your personal feelings are the best guide for what is right and wrong.
In this ethos, the self is to be trusted, not doubted. Your desires are like inner oracles for what is right and true. You know you are doing the right thing when you feel good inside. The valid rules of life are those you make or accept for yourself and that feel right to you.
“Our moral salvation,” Taylor writes, describing this culture, “comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves.” It is important to stay true to that pure inner voice and not follow the conformities of a corrupting world. As Taylor puts it, “There is a certain way of being that is my way. I am called to live my life in this way and not in imitation of anyone else’s…. If I am not, I miss the point of my life. I miss what being human is for me.” 17
From an older tradition of self-combat we move to self-liberation and self-expression. Moral authority is no longer found in some external objective good; it is found in each person’s unique original self. Greater emphasis is put on personal feelings as a guide to what is right and wrong. I know I am doing right because I feel harmonious inside. Something is going wrong, on the other hand, when I feel my autonomy is being threatened, when I feel I am not being true to myself.
In this ethos, sin is not found in your individual self; it is found in the external structures of society— in racism, inequality, and oppression. To improve yourself, you have to be taught to love yourself, to be true to yourself, not to doubt yourself and struggle against yourself. As one of the characters in one of the High School Musical movies sings, “The answers are all inside of me / All I’ve got to do is believe.”
Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 249-250). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
It isn’t hard to see why there is so much angry conflict. Most of us hold these positions pre-consciously. We experience them simply as part of how we see the world. When someone or something violates our sense of “the good” we react.
Both sides in the culture war feel themselves to be deeply moral, but their sources of morality differ greatly.
Conflict in the Early Church of Rome
Contrary to the narrative portrayed in the American media these differences complete with innumerable nuances run through the church, not around it. We might see this as a new thing but any reading of the letters making up most of the Christian New Testament reveal that their churches too were full of conflict.
Today’s text comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. A good practice if you want to understand a passage in a book is to read the entire book. Most of these New Testament books are not really very long and one would do well to try to read them in one sitting, rather than always devotionally a few verses at a time.
When we read a book like this it’s important to ask yourself “why is motivating the writer of this letter?” It doesn’t take much to realize right from the start in the book of Romans that there are two groups in the church. One group was made up of Jews who became Christian by seeing Jesus as the culmination of God’s work among their people as told in their holy scriptures. The other group were a mixture of other ethnic groups who came into the church out of the pagan polytheism of the Roman Empire. While these groups don’t necessarily reflect the two groups in conflict in our culture today some of the dynamics present in their conflict are present in our own.
The Jewish Case
One of the things we know is that many Jewish Christians in the early church, quite understandably believed that Jesus affirmed their holy Scriptures (which he did) and that everyone in the church should continue to abide by the ancient behavioral codes that the Old Testament prescribed. These included practices such as circumcision of males, ceremonial washing, observing religious feasts and festivals, dietary rules, sexual norms, and avoiding all forms of worship of other gods as was practiced in the cities of the Roman Empire. These were the rules set down by God, the Father God who sent Jesus Christ and for whom he spoke and of which he was a part. Violation of these norms would be offensive, rebellious and dishonoring to their god and could evoke the kind of angry response that ancient Israel had suffered from as spoken about in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. The Jewish Christians had a very strong case and it is easy to imagine that at least initially they would have a lot of power and influence in these new Christian churches.
What was happening, however, was that the churches were being flooded with Gentiles coming in who were not circumcised, nor who had any of these Jewish traditions and they were being lead by the likes of Paul of Tarsus, who had been a zealous Pharisee but who was now proclaiming himself to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. The reason Paul wrote the book of Romans was to lay out the religious and moral landscape for these two groups in the church and to try to explain what Christ’s life, death and resurrection meant and how they should all live because of these things.
In chapters 1 through 3 of the book he notes that both groups, Jews and Gentiles begin with a problem.
Follow Your Passions
This is the season of commencement addresses. I love listening to them because it is at commencement addresses that the non-ordained try their hand at preaching cultural sermons. Again, Brooks aptly captures the heart of what most in our culture pre-consciously and implicitly believe.
As I looked around the popular culture I kept finding the same messages everywhere: You are special. Trust yourself. Be true to yourself. Movies from Pixar and Disney are constantly telling children how wonderful they are. Commencement speeches are larded with the same clichés: Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course. You have a responsibility to do great things because you are so great. This is the gospel of self-trust.
As Ellen DeGeneres put it in a 2009 commencement address, “My advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.” Celebrity chef Mario Batali advised graduates to follow “your own truth, expressed consistently by you.” Anna Quindlen urged another audience to have the courage to “honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and, yes, your soul by listening to its clean clear voice instead of following the muddied messages of a timid world.”
In her mega-selling book Eat, Pray, Love (I am the only man ever to finish this book), Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that God manifests himself through “my own voice from within my own self…. God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.”
Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 7). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
If at our core is some authentic self, divine or otherwise that will be out true guide our passions will be the prophet to this secret knowledge.
While this gets played out and reinforced (as a species we feel affirmed and on track when we keep repeating the same thing over and over to each other) we all know this has its limits. If my passion is money few of us would exhort me to rob a bank. If I wake up tomorrow and decide “being a father is no longer my passion” few of us would think it moral of me to abandon my children. We preach passion but we implicitly hold the libertarian clause “as long as no one else gets hurt” to avoid too much disorder.
Eastern Roman Culture Explained by Paul in Romans 1
Paul begins the book of Romans by talking about passions in the Gentile world. Paul essentially says that while God reveals himself in nature we suppress the truth about him and give ourselves over to our passions. These passions create disorder and so we make up all sorts of systems and religions to try to make life work in the midst of our passions.
The ancient world understood the danger of unrestricted passions. From Gilgamesh to the Roman emperors tails of tyrants filled ancient books. When men with power gave full reign to their passions almost anything could and would happen.
People are not stupid and so many ways of reigning in passions from republican politics to Stoic philosophies would develop to curb the passions. To Paul all of this was fruitless grasping in the dark while suppressing true knowledge of God.
Paul saw the Gentile Christians as coming out of this into the true light of revelation which was Jesus himself.
Futility of the Israel’s Revelation
We might imagine that in chapter 1 the Jewish element of the church would feel affirmed, but Paul is ready for them. While God did reveal himself to them and gave them his law the law itself was a sort of honey-pot. The law in the hands of Israel would inflame sin. Paul often speaks of “sin” in Romans in a personified way. Sin, seeing that God created a list of rules uses it to create feed our rebellious nature.
Both groups, whether they are in ignorance or grabbing at the law try to use God or the things of God to secure their lives and make life work according to their terms. Paul says that sin and death run in us, whether they are playing our passions or playing off the law.
Just as the law became a honeypot to attract sin so also Christ, but in him sin was itself trapped and through Jesus’ crucifixion sin and death themselves were trapped and put to death. We are attached to Jesus by faith. Jesus’ victory becomes our victory through faith. Jesus then becomes the answer both for the Gentiles and the Jews. This is the answer that Paul drives home in this book hoping to make one community out of Jews and Gentiles through Christ. Both are finally saved by faith, not by the law and not by following one’s passions.
Romans 8 and the Holy Spirit
Paul works these arguments all the way into chapter 8.
Romans 8:1–11 (NET)
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.2 For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. 6 For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is your life because of righteousness. 11 Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you.
Paul notes that you cannot please God by living out “the flesh”. Paul uses “flesh” in some different ways in his writing but here he’s talking about simply following your passions. Your passions are only a guide to yourself. They might inform you as to what you want and they aren’t necessarily a bad thing but if you make them your master you cannot please God.
Those who make “the law” their master are also in trouble. They cannot do it, in fact sin then works through the law condemning us as well.
Paul then suggests that there is a third way, and that is life by “the spirit”
How Problem with “The Spirit”
There is a reason we like the law. The law seems to offer us an objective standard that we can hold others to. We may try to hold ourselves to it as well but that generates its own slipperiness. How do we know that “The Spirit” won’t simply become another disguise for the passions just like the law became a disguise that sin wore?
This is not a new question, it haunts all of the writings of Paul and we can find no time in church history where this hasn’t been an issue. We should, however point out, that the path of “law” is seldom all that much clearer or without debate or conflict. Both those who appeal to the law of the spirit and those who appeal to a written law have plenty of controversy, differences and debate. Similarly we find that neither legalists nor “the spiritual” are without sin in our experience and certainly not in our sight. Paul in fact calls himself “the chief of all sinners”. So does this “work”?
Our Holiness and our Resurrection
Last week we looked at a later section in Romans 8 where we saw how the Holy Spirit is God’s agent in our resurrection. In this prior section we see that “living in the Spirit” is key to a holy life. Here as NT Wright notes the Spirit’s present work anticipates its future work. The redemption of our inner selves while we decay is in anticipation of the resurrection of our outer selves in the last day.
What this means is that our passions are not destroyed or exiled but rather redeemed. This is done in us in alignment with the same Spirit that was at work in the giving of the law, which was summarized in the Law that became the tool of sin and death.
Just as we don’t have our resurrected bodies yet neither are our passions perfected. While we continue to decay, however, the Spirit continues to work on our passions to be joined by our flesh at the resurrection.
We know Paul is not presupposing that we are perfected, in our physical flesh nor in our passions because he exhorts the Romans, Gentiles and Jews to choose to walk in the Spirit, which of course implies that we often choose to walk in our fallen passions or to choose to walk in the law of sin and death.
Now you might think that some of this is new information and some fun history but how do we live it out? How do we know when we are living by the Spirit or our passions are deceiving us or we are being legalists? The Church has a history of failing spectacularly in all of this? How can we get this right?
The reason I always talk about “Misery-Deliverance-Gratitude” is to illuminate this whole dynamic.
- Following your passions cannot save you, no matter what these commencement addresses say. You will find your passions and endless wild goose chase. When and if you finally secure what it is you imagine you want you will discover it doesn’t satisfy anything like you thought it would and another passion will take its place. You will spend your life chasing these passions usually in a race with the age of decay until all of your youth, your energy, and your life is spent thirsting for what will not satisfy. This is what “following your passions” will deliver to you.
- The law is equally illusory. If you make the law your desire and you fail it, it will crush you. If by enormous sacrifice and perseverance you fulfill it in your eyes you will likely faith the center of the law, which is love, by looking down on all of those who have failed it and neither will you fully know whether you have fulfilled it in God’s eyes. You will imagine yourself more moral and right than God and all other persons only to discover that you have not the power to best God in morality or truth, thus exiling yourself from the one who made the law. It too is a senseless and self-defeating pursuit.
- You can very easily turn even Romans 8 into a new disguise for your passions or the law landing you back into the pit of either passions or the law. You cannot save yourself, you are helpless before the forces arrayed against you.
- God made the law and Christ himself the honeypot to attract sin. Christ destroyed sin and death in his crucifixion and resurrection. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. You cannot save yourself and trying to save yourself keeps you in misery.
- The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have acted together on your behalf to rescue you. Embrace that rescue in faith. That is his invitation to you, to live out what he has already accomplished.
Romans 8:12–17 (NET)
12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh 13 (for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ)—if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him.
- Now we live by the Spirit. It is Christ’s Spirit, in alignment with the revelation of God the Father. Our living in the Spirit is not what rescues us, it is how we respond to our rescue.
- We are shown what love is in Christ and that love is manifest by his Spirit. We are shown the shape of love in Christ and invited to walk with him in his sufferings, praying to the Father for the final resolutions of these sufferings and conflicts just like we’re doing so for the final resurrection of our bodies.
- We can now use the law to give our love the shape of God, not as qualification before God, but to help us express gratitude to God and love for one another.
Do Our Conflicts Then Dissolve?
No. We don’t imagine they did for the Romans and they won’t for us. What this does is contextualize them and give us hope in the midst of them. What we are always at work on is figuring out the shape of love in our lives and in our communities, trying to abandon both slavery to our unredeemed passions and temptations to legalism. This is the work of the church, broken, stumbling, troubled as it has always been. We believe that somehow the Holy Spirit works through this and will perfect us internally just as he’s bringing us all to the resurrection, the perfection of our decaying flesh.
We are always in danger of living out of our old slaveries. Slavery to our passions. Slavery to the law of sin and death. What we are invited into is being heirs of Christ by his Spirit. Failing at this often we cry out as we put off our old slave habits and live in our new freedom as children of God.