Last year, in a Radical Middle newsletter, I made the case that the root cause of all that is wrong in God’s universe is not a love-deficit but an authority-breach. Taking Scripture as our cue, the earliest record of evil goes back to the moment Lucifer, Satan, sought to act independently of God. When he did so, he was perfectly loved by God and perfectly secure. His desire to act independently was not motivated by a feeling of being unloved. He simply wanted his independence.
I went on to say that the love-deficit issue is indeed the primary symptom of that initial act of rebellion – but that the root cause of all our problems ultimately goes back to the fact that we are not aligned to God’s authority.
Over the centuries mankind’s rebellion has ripened. Now we have cultivated a culture in which authority is something to be questioned, resisted, tolerated – but not embraced. And in so doing, we have also developed a society in which we have become the most schizophrenic of people. And this ‘schizophrenia’ is a picture of just how ‘bound’ we are.
We are incomplete yet demand our independence.
There are only two kinds of ‘beings’ that can be truly happy. The first being is one that is complete and independent. By ‘complete’ I mean that such a being would know everything and thus be secure in that independence. The only Being that fits this description is God. The second being is one that is incomplete – because such a being would not know everything – and thus dependent by definition.
The absurdity of fallen humanity is that we want it both ways. Though we don’t know everything, and are thus fundamentally incomplete, we still want to be independent. This is logically an impossible way to live. Yet we resist yielding to God’s authority, acknowledging our dependence on Him. Consequently, in demanding our independence we will find ourselves inwardly conflicted.
The idea of the autonomous, independent individual is illusory. It is a fantasy clutched by postmoderns to buffer the harsh reality that, adrift from God, we are alone and needy.
Fantasy produces bazaar behaviors. When I was young, I fantasized about being superman. I would pin a bath towel to the back of my collar and would run around the neighborhood. Cute, maybe, but had I persisted in the fantasy as a grown man I would have soon been met by the little men in the little white coats. The point is that unreality soon leads to aberrant behavior and illogical thinking.
The insistence, for example, that embryonic stem cells are the best way forward to finding cures to diseases – when the evidence clearly points to the fact that our own stem cells are more than adequate and that we don’t have to rely on abortions in order to harvest embryonic stem cells – shows how skewed our thinking can become just to maintain our ‘individual rights.’ Is it logical to kill the unborn in the name of saving the diseased when we have a better alternative anyway? But to disallow the right to an abortion is to accept a ‘fence’ to our independence. And that is what really galls the postmodern secularist.
We crave community but demand autonomy.
Our confliction is poignantly seen in our culture, where the yearning for genuine community is pitched to the ‘aching point.’
The feeling of being nothing more than a bit of datum on some cosmic computer screen gnaws at postmodern humanity. Yet, we who crave community cannot truly find community because we will not let go of our treasured autonomy. We are addicted to independence. Because we are misaligned to divine authority, we assert our self-sufficiency. We want to be absolutely free and independent to do what we want to do when we want to do it and the world be damned if anybody gets in our way. But it is this very demand that keeps us from valuing a healthy sense of dependence, which in turn fosters genuine community.
We want to feel secure, but refuse to believe in absolutes.
This, too, is a commentary on how conflicted we are. Because our postmodern culture has landed squarely on the side of relativism – that ultimate truth is unknowable, and that the only truth that can be known is what is true to each individual – we are now consigned to perpetual insecurity. Insecure because we can never really know what is – or if there is – absolute truth. The irony is that we would rather live in our insecurity and hold onto our individuality, than hold out for the possibility that there is a universal truth and that it can be discerned. Because to admit there is universal truth is to obligate us to an authority outside of ourselves. Hence, our aversion to authority is making us more and more insecure as people – and we would rather be riddled with anxiety than to let go of our autonomy.
Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, shows how relativism doubles back on itself in a logical absurdity. Specifically addressing evolutionary psychology – which holds that ideas themselves are products of evolution and therefore in constant relativistic flux – she concludes, “If all ideas are products of evolution, and not really true but only useful, then evolution itself is not true either. And why should the rest of us pay it any attention?” Evolutionary psychology is just another genie out of the same bottle of relativism, which has hung around for generations. And relativism is simply man’s insistence that he will not accept any other boundaries save his own independent mind. He will be the measure of all things, even if it leads him to the edges of insanity.
We want the benefits of government, but resist accountability to government.
We want the right to ‘self-government’- which is a cornerstone of American Democracy and central to the Founding Father’s vision – but because of our bent toward independence and resistance to authority, it has become more about ‘self’ and not about ‘government.’ Granted, we know the dangers of intrusive government. But I don’t know that we have connected the dots between our resistance to human government and the mindset that subconsciously resists Christ’s government.
Following in the Jeffersonian tradition, Henry David Thoreau’s mantra was ‘That government governs best which governs least.’ On the face of it, that sounds good… but I think that it is one of the great deceptions at the very root of our culture. Thoreau said something else that reflects our Janus-type confliction between our value of the individual (which is good) and our right to make the individual the highest expression of authority (which is bad): “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly (italics mine).” It is that little word independence that makes all the difference.
As believers, the idea that he governs best who governs least actually creates a subconscious pattern that carries over to our relationship with the Lord Jesus, and his delegated authorities in the Church. If we carry Thoreau’s idea to its logical conclusion, then Jesus governs best when he governs least. This is clearly wrong. It is humanism, not Biblical Christianity. And this runs against the grain of a view of authority that another of our nation’s founding influences held (an influence that we have conveniently pushed to the edges of our national memory) – the Puritans.
We want community but disregard covenant.
The Puritans knew that a right understanding of authority produces genuine community, because they understood the inseparability of authority and covenant. To covenant was to yield to the authority that comes when we give our word for something; it is to yield to the authority of the community. It was to place the concerns for the community, and the sense of duty that comes with that, ahead of one’s own preferences.
The idea of covenant, while at times being a codeword for control in some circles, is an idea that has fallen out of favor in our culture. But in many ways, understanding covenant is the way back to rectifying the root wrong of independence. And this is another part of our schizophrenia: we want commitment but eschew covenant. The hyper-individualism that marks 21st century life is evidence that we have not understood authority.
We want safety but no boundaries.
Consider children playing in a fenced playground. They are free because they feel safe. Fences mean freedom, because they give us a sense of safety. Moral imperatives are like fences. God’s laws are meant to release us, not constrain us. If at times they feel constraining, it’s because there is a larger liberty that God is bringing us into that we cannot see. If I tell my child not to play in the street, it is not because I am arbitrarily limiting his options just to remind him who’s boss. I am seeking to preserve his life. A three year old can’t quite see the reason for it – he just has to trust the parent’s word.
It is this way in our relationship with God. We can’t always understand the reason for His laws, but we have to trust that to obey them is to preserve our lives. Why, for example, are there clear boundaries about sexual behavior in Scripture? Because casual sex leads to casual relationships, which leads to loneliness and hurt; because the ‘freedom’ to have multiple sexual partners results in the ‘constraint’ of sexually transmitted diseases; because even having sex with your future spouse before you are married creates a climate of distrust in the marriage that ultimately can erode the pleasure of that marriage.
We want mentoring, but distrust leadership.
The very idea of ‘mentoring’ assumes that someone has enough ‘authority’ that would summon our submission to that mentoring. But our aversion to authority works against us. We are actually subconsciously inhibiting ourselves from being receptive mentees because we have an innate distrust of authority. Because this generation has little trust in leadership, there is no reference point for authority. Many, of course, have a great fear of being controlled by human leadership. But this is the very reason why we have to first align to God’s leadership – and God will not disappoint us.
Still, this tension is deeply felt. Our resistance to authority can actually undermine the mentoring possibilities we might otherwise experience, because resistance to authority makes us un-teachable, and therefore less responsive to mentors.
We want justice but refuse to believe in absolute right and wrong.
At the very root of our moral crisis and every other crisis for that matter, is this issue of refusing to see things in terms of right and wrong. A recent book ridicules the president and defines his ‘tragic legacy’ by finding fault with him for framing the issues of the world in terms of right and wrong. But unless there is a right and wrong, we have no foundation on which to erect a system of justice. We are left with a legal whimsy that all too often creates a vacuum of power, in which no standard can serve as a guard against injustice.
There is no way that you cannot but frame issues in terms of right and wrong. Francis Collins – one of the most respected scientists of our day, the head of the Human Genome Project, and a committed Christian – points out just how illogical relativism can be in his book The Language of God. Speaking of the Moral Law written on all men’s hearts, he writes, “That the Moral Law exists is in serious conflict with the current postmodern philosophy, which argues that there are no absolute right or wrongs, and that all ethical decisions are relative. This view… faces a series of logical Catch-22’s. If there is no absolute truth, can postmodernism itself be true? Indeed, if there is no right or wrong, then there is no reason to argue for the discipline of ethics in the first place.”
Not too long ago a high schooler was caught cheating on a test in school. The violation was blatant, and the consequences very clear. And yet this student had the audacity to turn around and sue the school district for allowing an environment in which he could cheat! That is absolutely ludicrous – but it shows how distorted right and wrong have become in society, as well as how concepts of authority can so easily be twisted to fit the situation. It echoes the ancient prophet’s description of the final end of a rebellious society: They call evil good, and good evil (Is 5:20).
We want global harmony, but dismiss universal morality.
Because postmodern culture refuses to adhere to any possibility of universal authority, we find ourselves with yet another schizophrenia: wanting harmony but eschewing the idea of absolute moral truth, which is a critical component of that harmony. Unity only works if there is a reference point of authority that ties us together. It may appear logical to believe that because nobody has the complete picture, absolute truth can never be fully known. But this flies in the face of reason as well. The fact that we possess an innate desire for community shows that we must also innately believe in the possibility that enough ‘common standards’ exist for community to be realized.
If it is true locally, why not also hold that there is a universal morality that can nurture unity on a global scale? If we dismiss the concept of universal morality as religious totalitarianism, then who decides when we have enough morality that we agree on to construct any community? By resisting the authority of some universal code beyond ourselves, we are actually dooming ourselves to alienation.
The mechanization of this generation
Now we are witnessing unbridled individual autonomy coupled with seemingly limitless technological possibilities. A generation that abhors boundaries given limitless opportunities to transcend and ignore them. We can text, I-pod, you-tube, and ‘IM’ all at the same time without limit. And this is producing a generation that is mentally and emotionally compartmentalized to an unprecedented degree. Unbridled technology is creating a generation of such inwardly compartmentalized youth that it is desensitizing them almost to the point of machine-like amorality.
Even among Christian youth, this compartmentalization – which is a coping mechanism in this culture without boundaries – produces kids who can have intense worship experiences with God one night and have sex with their girlfriend or boyfriend the next.
A society that overthrows the boundaries of authority opens the door to absurdity. The very commodities and values we desire – community, safety, justice, mentoring, security, happiness – are no longer attainable. Only when we abandon our resistance to authority, will we be free of our social schizophrenia. To be truly happy, to be genuinely free, to be actually safe we must go back to the root issue – our bent to act independently of God – and re-align to His authority.
May the Lord richly bless and keenly guide you,