Saturday, November 24, 2007

Barth quote

“Strange as it may seem, it is still true, that those who fail to understand other churches than their own are not the people who care intensely about theology, but the theological dilettantes, eclectics, and historians of all sorts; while those very men who have found themselves forced to confront a clear, thoroughgoing, logical sic et non find themselves allied to each other inspite of all contradictions, by an underlying fellowship and understanding, even in the cause which they handle so differently and approach from such painfully different angles. But the cause, it may be, is nothing less than Jesus Christ and the unity of the Church.” —Karl Barth

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

My Visit to Merry England

I am enjoying myself here in merry England, making up for lost time with my wife and two younger children. It makes us long all the more to be united under one roof!

The child in the left hand corner of the above picture is not our own but a friend.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Esther's Immigration

Further to my last update on our immigration saga, many people have asked me if there has been any new developments. I regret to say that there has not. We are still waiting.

What You Can Do To Help

I am encouraging people to write letters to our representatives and senators in Congress. By exerting enough pressure on the powers that be, it is possible that Esther’s visa may be expedited. Those of you who are not American citizens can still help by writing to American senators. Simply pick somebody or everybody on THIS LIST HERE. You may also write to your representatives by clicking HERE.

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Questions about Mormonism

The Pacific Northwest, and our neighbourhood in particular, has a high population of Mormons. Not long after moving here I was visited by Mormon missionaries. This gave me the opportunity to ask them many questions about their beliefs. Here are some of the questions I have been asking them, which others may find useful in dealing with this strange heretical sect.

Why do Mormons emphasize part of the Word of Wisdom and ignore the part forbidding the eating of meat except in winter, cold or famine? (Doc. & Cov. 89:12,13).

Why did the Nauvoo House not stand forever and ever? (Doc. & Cov. 124:56-60).

Is The book of Mormon more correct than the Bible? (History of the Church, 4:461.)

Did God have sexual relations with Mary to make the body of Jesus? If not, then does this make Brigham Young, the 2nd prophet of the Mormon church, a false prophet since he claimed that this was the case? (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 4, p. 218, 1857; vol. 8, p. 115.) But if yes, then how was Jesus born of a virgin? ("Christ was begotten by an Immortal Father in the same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers" Mormon Doctrine, by Bruce McConkie, p. 547. See also, Doctrines of Salvation, Joseph Fielding Smith, 1954, 1:18).

Do you really believe that God used to be a man on another planet? (Mormon Doctrine, p. 321. Joseph Smith, ‘Times and Seasons’, Vol 5, pp. 613-614; Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses, Vol 2, p. 345, Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 7, p. 333. "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!!! . . . We have imagined that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea and take away the veil, so that you may see…" Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345. God the Father had a Father, see Joseph Smith, History of the Church, vol. 6, p. 476; Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses, vol. 5, p. 19; Milton Hunter, First Council of the Seventy and Gospel through the Ages, p. 104-105.)

If there an infinite regress of Gods and no first cause, how could we have ever reached the present moment since that would involve traversing an actual infinite?

Is it true that God resides near a star called Kolob (Pearl of Great Price, pages 34-35; Mormon Doctrine, p. 428.)

Is it true that after you become a good Mormon, you have the potential of becoming a god? If so, then isn’t this idolatry? (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pages 345-347, 354. "Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them," (DC 132:20).

Isn’t Mormonism a form of paganism since it teaches polytheism (belief in many gods)? (“Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them…” (Doctrine and Covenants, 132:20; Mormon Doctrine, p. 163; "And they (the Gods) said: Let there be light: and there was light (Book of Abraham, 4:3. Mother goddess, see Articles of Faith, by James Talmage, p. 443; Mormon Doctrine, p. 516.)

What is the Mormon position on the Trinity? (The trinity is three separate Gods: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. "That these three are separate individuals, physically distinct from each other, is demonstrated by the accepted records of divine dealings with man." Articles of Faith, by James Talmage, p. 35. "Elohim is literally the Father of the spirit of Jesus Christ and also of the body in which Jesus Christ performed His mission in the flesh ..." First Presidency and Council of the Twelve, 1916, ‘God the Father’, compiled by Gordon Allred, pg. 150; “Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are only one God. I say that is a strange God [anyhow]--three in one and one in three. . .It is curious organization… All are crammed into one God according to sectarianism (Christian faith). It would make the biggest God in all the world. He would be a wonderfully big God--he would be a giant or a monster." (Joseph Smith, Teachings, 372).

Is it true that Mormon’s teach that if it had not been for Joseph Smith and the restoration, there would be no salvation? (Mormon Doctrine, p. 670.) If so, then doesn’t this contradict with Biblical teaching about the efficacy of Christ’s perfect sacrifice?

What is the Mormon view of salvation? ("One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation." (Miracle of Forgiveness, Spencer W. Kimball, p. 206; "The first effect [of the atonement] is to secure to all mankind alike, exemption from the penalty of the fall, thus providing a plan of General Salvation. The second effect is to open a way for Individual Salvation whereby mankind may secure remission of personal sins…” Articles of Faith, by James Talmage, p. 78-79.)

Can Christians be saved without accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet of God? (According to Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 1, p. 188, the answer is no.)

Why was Joseph Smith still preaching against polygamy in October 1843 after he got his revelation in July 1843 commanding the practice of polygamy? (Doc. & Cov. 132; and History of the Church Vol. 6, page 46, or Teachings of the Prophet, page 324).

If the Book of Mormon is true, then why has the Mormon church changed it? Examples are: 1 Nephi 11:21; 19:20; 20:1 and Alma 29:4. Compare these with the original Book of Mormon. (Gerald and Sandra Tanner have counted 3913 changes in the book of Mormon,
excluding punctuation changes.) Why was a section about Mormon’s living on the moon taken out?

For further reading, see my post 'Joseph Smith: Profile of a False Prophet'

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Thought Police article in HTML

Somebody requested that I put my article on liberalism/Britain's thought police, which I wrote for the Kuyper foundation, into HTML format, so here it is.

The Degeneration of Liberalism

“For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage.”

- 2 Peter 2:18-19

“Men must be governed by God, or they will be ruled by tyrants.”

-William Penn


Hardly a week goes by without a British columnist having recourse to mention George Orwell. Whether the subject is compulsory ID cards, the growing Nanny State or a surveillance system to rival that of any communist country, the words “Orwell warned us” remains the recurring theme.[1]

While 21st century Britain may be doing its best to turn Orwell into a prophet, there is one point where, for all his genius, George left us manifestly unprepared. Although it is an aspect overlooked in contemporary discussion, it is also the key to understanding the current situation.

The point is simply this: the reign of Big Brother is being introduced to Britain from the liberalism of the far left, a tradition that has historically championed Orwell’s defence of civil liberties and free expression.

This observation is particularly germane when considering the new corpus of offences restricting speech, religion, public debate and, in some cases, even thought itself, to that cluster of ideas which the liberals have designated ‘politically correct.’[2] The State’s eagerness to function as Guardian, not simply of law and order, but also of the ideologies of its citizenry[3], was made patently obvious last year when New Labour tried to push through legislation as part of the Religious Hatred Bill which would have made it an offence to criticise different religious truth-claims.

Even without the impetus of such a law, UK police currently operate under ‘guidance’ that defines a ‘hate incident’ so broadly that it can include debating another person about their lifestyle.[4] Although this guidance has no statutory force, and has been called ‘pseudo-law’ by one distinguished constitutional lawyer, it can influence the policy of police constabularies provided it does not lead to an actual charge being issued.[5] The effect is that simply to express certain viewpoints is at least treated as criminal.[6]

It was this tendency to police beliefs that Dr. N. T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, lambasted in an address to the House of Lords on 9 February, 2006. Dr. Wright referred to a new class of crimes which “have to do, not with actions but with ideas and beliefs.” He said:

"People in my diocese have told me that they are now afraid to speak their minds in the pub on some major contemporary issues for fear of being reported, investigated, and perhaps charged. My Lords, I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime…. The word for such a state of affairs is ‘tyranny’: sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police."[7]

From religious organisations that must now navigate the increasingly complex labyrinth of gay rights laws[8] to Christian Unions that are being forced to admit atheists into their ranks[9], it is clear that today’s liberals are making sure Big Brother does more than merely watch us: he’s checking out our credo.[10] Chesterton was surely prophetic when he conjectured that, “We may eventually be bound not to disturb a man’s mind even by argument; not to disturb the sleep of birds even by coughing.”[11]


It is instructive to note that this dogmatic intolerance of dissent, while putting public debate into a state of paralysis, has come to Britain in the package of ‘tolerance’, ‘equality’, ‘human rights’ and even - heaven help us - ‘freedom’. These were, of course, the values of classical liberalism championed by the humanists of the Enlightenment.[12] But while the contemporary liberal still likes to think of himself as operating within the ideological legacy framed by such men as Hume, Locke, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau and Mill, the totalitarian utopia towards which he strives would presumably be anathema to these defenders of freedom in so far as it is the ultimate betrayal of genuine liberal values.

This is a point that has not been missed on the old fashion liberals who still remain among us. For example, in his book The Retreat of Reason, Anthony Browne argues that the dogmatic, bullying posture of the contemporary liberal is a betrayal of the true liberalism and rationalism of the Enlightenment.[13] We find a similar theme in the work of the lesbian and self-proclaimed leftist Tammy Bruce, former president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organisation of Woman, and author of The New Thought Police: Inside the Left’s Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds[14] and The Death of Right and Wrong: Exposing the Left’s Assault on Our Culture and Values.[15] In these works, Bruce uses a liberal platform to critique left-wing anti-intellectualism, thought totalitarianism and inverted racism, being careful to insist that she is not a conservative. Similarly, the British commentator Melanie Phillips is careful to tell us that, though “styled a conservative by her opponents”[16], she is really defending the liberal values of the Enlightenment. “…liberalism,” said Phillips at a recent conference, “…has so badly undermined itself and departed from its own core concepts that it is now paralysed by moral and intellectual muddle…. What we are living through in the west is nothing short of a repudiation of the Enlightenment, a repudiation of reason; and its substitution by irrationality, obscurantism, bigotry and clerical totalitarianism – all facilitated by our so-called ‘liberal’ society, and all in the name of ‘human rights.’[17]

Nor is it merely a handful of liberal intellectuals on the fringe who have been challenging the encroachment of left-wing totalitarianism. When Tony Blair’s New Labour government began to be perceived as a threat to Britain’s ancient civil liberties, it was the nation’s mainline liberal newspapers, notably the Independent, the Guardian and the Observer, who unleashed the harshest criticisms of his ‘Orwellian’ assault on ‘liberal values.’[18]

The liberal community is, therefore, divided between two kinds of ideologues: those, on the one hand, for whom the appellation ‘liberal’ is, strictly speaking, an anachronism since they would deny freedom using the rhetoric of liberal values. These I will refer to pejoratively, but also descriptively, as ‘illiberals.’ On the other hand, there are old fashion liberals who keep crying out, “What has happened to the values of the Enlightenment? Aren’t we supposed to be liberals?” Rather confusingly, the later group – which I will refer to as classic liberalism – is often now associated with conservatism, as they seek to conserve the genuine liberalism of our pluralist humanist society.

In this essay I will attempt to chart why liberalism has fractured into this matrix. I will propose that the totalitarian agenda of the postmodern illiberal, while on the surface at complete odds with the values of classical liberalism, is also the logical corollary of the man-centred ethics of the Enlightenment. While agreeing with classical liberals like Browne and Bruce that the emerging totalitarian thought-control represents an anti-intellectualism significantly contrary to the rationalism of 18th century liberalism, I will also suggest that these developments are simply the fulfilment of where the Enlightenment project had to enivitably lead.


As soon as the, so called, ‘Enlightenment’ happened[19], its days were necessarily numbered by virtue of its own philosophy. It could not more sustain itself than a car can keep driving indefinitely without stopping for fuel. Moreover, from its very onset, the Enlightenment could only exist to the extent that it was parasitic on some of the very ideologies it claimed to repudiate. We will consider how this was true in the area of epistemology (theory of knowledge), aesthetics and ethics. Understanding these dynamics will then put us in a position to appreciate how the contemporary illiberal can stand in the wake of the Enlightenment at the same time as holding to an ideology antithetical to the Enlightenment’s main principles.

We start with the observation that the entire Enlightenment project was man-centred rather than God-centred. In the area of epistemology, this led to the theory of empiricism. Empiricism, put simply, was the belief that the only legitimate form of knowledge was that which could be derived through the senses of man. Only through man’s experience of the world can we ever know anything. The empiricists thus denied the earlier view that such things as our sense of right and wrong, our awareness of beauty, rational intuition[20], and so on, are not derived solely from sense observation but were ingrained in our very make-up as human beings made in the image of God. Those who held the latter view had acknowledged that experience and training is needed to awaken refine and cultivate these innate ideas, while denying that the ideas themselves are actually created by the senses. The empiricists, on the other hand, argued that experience does not simply awaken these fundamental ideas within us, but creates them ex nihilo.

Although empiricism owes much Francis Bacon (1561-1626), it was really John Locke (1632-1704) who first systematised its principles into a philosophic – I was going to say coherent, but thought better - system.[21] Locke taught that every person enters the world tabula rasa – a blank slate, upon which experience will write. Expanding on the Aristotelian maxim that “there is nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses”, Locke argued that all the ideas in the mind (including ideas of justice, love, beauty, God and truth) are either the products of direct sense-impressions (as a photographic film responds to light) or else the result of the mind reflecting on the data presented to the senses. The mind brings to such reflection only that which it has previously received through sense observation.[22]

Locke’s empiricism stressed the fundamental dependence upon experience of anything we can say or think about its objects. As A. C. Grayling points out, “on the Lockean view the world is colourless, odourless, and silent until a perceiver chances by, when it produces in him visual, olfactory, and auditory experiences.”[23] Yet Locke also tried to be a realist, asserting the independence of the objects of experience from the experience of them. That is to say, he believed we could discover truths about a real world that existed external to our minds and experience. These two strands within his thought created a tension of which Locke was himself aware. Put simply, there was no guarantee that all human ideas of things genuinely resembled the external objects they were supposed to represent. Locke’s tact was simply to dismiss this sceptical challenge as being worth considering. It wouldn’t be long, however, before other philosophers would begin being more consistent with the implications of empiricist epistemology.

Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) exploited these tensions within Locke’s theory of knowledge and pressed empiricism one stage further.[24] He “pointed out that if the empiricist analysis of human knowledge is carried through rigorously, then it must be admitted that all qualities that the human mind registers…are ultimately experienced as ideas in the mind, and there can be no conclusive inference whether or not some of those qualities ‘genuinely’ represent or resemble an outside object.”[25] Human perceptions are not automatic photographs of an external reality, he said, for the mind is only aware of its own perceptions and has no way to ascertain whether these perceptions represent the objects that are assumed. This led Berkeley to his famous thesis– stated in all seriousness – that there is no external, material world. Trees, rocks, houses, and the like are simply collections of ‘ideas.’ Yet, at the same time, Berkeley argued, there is objective content to these ideas because God is the one who produces these ideas in our minds. You and I really do exist, because we are ideas in God’s mind.

Berkeley saw himself as rescuing philosophy from the scepticism towards which a consistent Lockeanism would lead. “…for Berkeley the world is just as we perceive it to be even when we are not perceiving it, because it is always and everywhere perceived by the infinite mind of a deity. The deity perceives the universe by thinking it.”[26]

God was actually quite a useful concept to Locke and Berkeley to save them from the implications of complete scepticism. As Norman Hampson points out, “both Berkeley and Locke, as Christians, assumed that individual sense-impressions had an objective content that was guaranteed by God.”[27]

It isn’t hard to anticipate the next step. Get rid of God and nothing is real, not even our ideas. That is exactly what the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) did.[28] Disagreeing with Berkeley’s idealist solution, Hume realised the logical implications of the man-centred epistemology of empiricism by pointing out that, on the basis of this methodology, there is as little justification for asserting the existence of mental beings (including God) as there is to assert the independent existence of matter. After all, if the only form of knowledge is that which we derive through our senses, then we cannot have objective knowledge of the self since it eludes direct sensory input. What we describe as our ‘self' is merely a bundle of “different perceptions which succeed one another with inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”[29] Furthermore, according to Hume, we can have no knowledge of causality, the presumed basis for all inductive knowledge, since all we observe is one particular event followed by another particular event. We observe a person throwing the ball and then the ball flying through the air, but we do not actually observe the law of cause and effect.

Hume showed, in fact, that in the end we cannot really know anything objectively. Empiricism, when pressed to its logical consequence, naturally leads to scepticism. In establishing this, Hume paradoxically undermined the very basis for empiricism, for as Tarnas pointed out, “he ended up casting into question the objective certainty of empirical science altogether. If all human knowledge is based on empiricism, yet induction cannot be logically justified, then man can have no certain knowledge.”[30]

Few, if any, empiricists are consistent with their epistemology,[31] and Hume was no exception. Realising that he couldn’t live on the basis of his radical position, Hume escaped from the dilemma of total scepticism by saying he still believed in the self and the law of causality even though he couldn’t objectively verify their existence.[32] Like philosophers before and after, Hume lived in the tenuous polarity between the conclusions of his philosophy, on the one hand, and his instinctive common sense on the other.

You can imagine what the next step was. Give up the common sense. This brings us to the radical anti-abstractionism of Nietzsche (1844-1900) and the nihilistic movement, then to the existentialism of Sartre (1905-1980) and finally to the relativism of Postmodernism.
Postmodernism is often seen as representing the abandonment of the Enlightenment. On the surface, this seems obvious: the Enlightenment said there is universal truth, Postmodernism says we each make our own personal truth; the Enlightenment said we should be rational, Postmodernism says no one can be rational because everyone has a subjective bias; the Enlightenment said there is such a thing as the good, the true and the beautiful, Postmodernism says that in a world without God nothing can have any meaning – everything is relative to the individual. While Postmodernism strikes at the heart of all the Enlightenment’s idols, it is also the fulfilment of where such idolatry must eventually lead. Once Locke wrote as he did, making man’s empirical perception the epistemological starting point, Sartre’s maxim ‘everything is absurd’ was inevitable, as was the postmodern axiom ‘all truth is relative.’ Or, as Douglas Wilson once put it, Postmodernism is simply what happens when the modernist corpse begins to rot.


What occurred in the area of Epistemology also happened in the arena of aesthetics. The philosophers of the Enlightenment were particularly keen to prevent artistic relativism arising out of Empiricism. In the wake of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment was highly conscious of its Greek and Roman heritage, not least in the arts. This gave the culture a sense of absolutes, as well as making it part of the training of 18th century intellectuals to be aware of the difference between ‘good art’ and ‘bad art.’ No one was ready to open the floodgates and say that the whole show was just a matter of personal taste.

However, this commitment to aesthetic absolutes was in tension with the philosophy of empiricism, which said that there are no abstract universals. John Locke wrote “all things that exist are only particulars” and that “general and universal belong not to the real existence of things…”[33] This means that when I look at a rose and reflect on its beauty, the beauty of the rose does not really exist – what exists are merely a number of petals, leaves and a stem. The quality we call ‘beauty’ is simply in our minds. The corollary of this is that what may be beautiful to you is not beautiful to me. It would take some two hundred years for Western art to begin reflecting this aesthetic relativism, and a walk through any contemporary gallery will show the process all but complete.[34] At the time of the Enlightenment, however, inconsistency was a luxury people could still afford. They could simultaneously insist on objective standards of aesthetics in practice, even while chipping away at the philosophical edifice on which such objectivity hinged.

Being full of tensions, the philosophy of the Enlightenment was akin to a cheap sweater with a loose thread: once you start pulling the thread, the whole project falls apart. While the areas of epistemology and aesthetics illustrate this principle, it is the Enlightenment’s approach to ethics where this progression is the most striking.


The Enlightenment, especially after it became a populist movement, was characterised by values such as equality, tolerance, liberty, human rights and justice. The French philosophes, as they were called, campaigned against religious persecution in the name of tolerance, against slavery in the name of equality, against totalitarian monarchy in the name of human rights, for prison reform in the name of justice and human dignity, against censorship in the name of liberty, against superstition, fanaticism and prejudice in the name of reason.

In one sense, it was nothing new to promote these values, which the Christian tradition had actually pioneered.[35] The innovation lay in the fact that these values were now being advocated within an explicitely man-centred worldview.

Having abandoned any theistic grounding for ethics, there were generally two approaches people began to take. One approach was to say that ethical values are self-evident or derived from a universal natural law. The other approach (more consistent with empiricism) was to ground ethical imperatives in some form of implicit or explicit utilitarianism.

A muddled mixture of both approaches can be seen in the Encyclopédie edited by Diderot.[36] One of the entries, written by de Jaucourt, is on the subject of Natural Liberty while another, by the same author, deals with Natural Equality. de Jaucourt roots both natural liberty and natural equality in a universal standard of natural ethics that is independent of any man-made jurisprudence. From this starting point de Jaucourt is able to claim that all men are equal and, moreover, that everyone is possessed of a natural liberty, which he defines simply as the right to act as they wish – both with themselves and their possessions - within the boundaries of natural law. These boundaries, he announces to us, include not acting in a way detrimental to one’s fellow men and not acting contrary to the government. de Jaucourt then uses this as a platform to attack slavery.

Obviously, this approach to ethics was hard to sustain within the materialistic worldview of the Enlightenment. In the absence of any transcendent standard in which to ground natural law and universal human rights, we end up, like de Jaucourt, having to simply decide by fiat what its boundaries and injunctions actually are.[37] This was one of the reasons why the utilitarian option became increasingly favoured as the Enlightenment progressed. Hobbes, in the 17th century, had set the pattern by suggesting that the prohibitions against stealing had evolved out of man’s discovery that thieving was a nuisance and hindrance to all human endeavour. In the interests of social cohesion, therefore, man decided it was reasonable not to steal. That was more or less the principle to which all the subsequent utilitarians appealed: society works better when people are moral. As Gene Veith put it,

“Utilitarians decided moral issues, not by appealing to transcendent absolutes, but by studying the effect of an action upon the system. Stealing is wrong, not because the Ten Commandments say so, but because stealing interferes with the economic functioning of society. Something is good if it makes the system run more smoothly. Something is evil if it interferes with the cogs of the vast machine. Practicality becomes the sole moral criterion. If it works, it must be good.” [38]

In the end, even utilitarianism turned out to be a cheat for the same reason as the natural law aproach.[39] In the absence of any transcendent standard of ethics, how can we know that we ought to follow utilitarianism? This question can be answered in one of two ways, either by reference to the principle of utility, which would be merely to beg the question (assuming the very thing you are trying to establish), or by appealing to some moral umpire higher than utility. In light of the fact that utility is itself supposed to furnish just such an umpire, to argue for the morality of utility based on any higher ethical standard would merely prove that utility is not, after all, the first principle of ethics. Some thinkers tried to rescue utilitarianism from collapsing under its own weight by bringing the theory of natural law to its assistance. And to their credit, using a leaky bucket to catch the water from another leaky bucket does actually work…but not for very long.

Eventually utilitarianism simply warped into pursuing whatever makes me happy. It was not long, in fact, before all the Enlightenment values began tumbling down. Within a man-centred worldview, human rights inevitably deteriorated into competition for rights; liberty, unloosed from responsibility, began degenerating into moral anarchy; sexual, economic and family ethics were reduced to utilitarianism which was itself reduced to doing whatever makes me happiest as an individual; Christian charity was replaced by its empty parody of tolerance while tolerance itself became little more than licence. The result was a moral vacuum which the neo-morality of illiberal tyrany rushed to fill.


This process of filling the ethical vacuum began as early as the French revolution. The background to the French Revolution had been the Enlightenment’s tremendous optimism about what could be achieved as society was unloosed from its theistic shackles. There was a sense of moving forwards towards an eschatological climax, where science and humanism would usher in a new era – even a new heavens and a new earth. As Enlightenment spread, so it was thought, the old order would be overthrown and replaced by a secular utopia. This is exactly what the French Revolutionaries thought they were doing as they attempted to institute a new era (they even redrew their calenders to make the year of the revolution Year 1). This was indeed the New Earth of secularism, but instead of flowing with milk and honey it flowed the colour of blood.

As the old order was overthrown and those with the anti-establishment ideology come to power, the values of secularism were forced on an unwilling populace. The revolution attempted to use brute power to usher in the secular theocracy implicated by the Enlightenment project. Under the banner of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,’ the movement that began with such high ideals eventually deteriorated into a régime of terror and thought-police with little resemblance, on the surface, to its Enlightenment pedigree.

These developments should not have come as a surprise. Human beings crave control, authority, absolutes - in short, they crave theocracy. If society rejects God, it cannot be long before it rejects liberty and instinctively seeks a secular theocracy to fill the void. As Francis Schaeffer pointed out:

"The humanists push for ‘freedom,’ but having no Christian consensus to contain it, that ‘freedom’ leads to chaos or to slavery under the state (or under an elite). Humanism, with its lack of any final base for values or law, always leads to chaos. It then naturally leads to some form of authoritarianism to control the chaos.”[40]

Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, when unhinged from their Judeo-Christian moorings, logically led to the guillotine. If the attributes of divinity do not belong to the Creator, they will be attributed to man or man’s systems, including the attribute of omnipotence. The state cannot, of course, become all-powerful, but the revolutionary feels compelled to try as soon as the reins of power are safely in his hands. This can be seen wherever the spirit of revolution has flourished. Few people realise, for example, just how much Fascism was seen as the permissive, iconoclast and hedonistic option to its original advocates.[41] It is true that in retrospect we associate Fascism with steel fences, concentration camps and excessive control, just as we associate the French Revolution with the guillotine, yet both began as an avant-garde movement seeking to loosen oppressive restrictions and bring freedom.

“The Revolution,” commented Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose, “like the disbelief which has always accompanied it, cannot be stopped halfway; it is a force that, once awakened, will not rest until it ends in a totalitarian Kingdom of this world. The history of the last two centuries has proved nothing if not this.[42]


We have seen that the Enlightenment’s approach to epistemology, aesthetics and ethics is, at best, a terminal philosophy, containing in itself the seeds of its own self-destruction. Having established this principle, we are now in a position to better understand the continuity and discontinuity that exists between today’s illiberals and their Enlightenment forebears. Just as there is continuity and discontinuity between the rationalistic empiricism of Locke and the radical scepticism of Hume or Postmodernism, and just as there is continuity and discontinuity between the aesthetic values of the Enlightenment and the nihilistic decadence of postmodern art, and just as there is continuity and discontinuity between Rousseau’s doctrine of the Noble Savage and the Reign of Terror’s brute savagery, so there is both continuity and discontinuity between the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment and the tyranny of today’s illiberalism. Put simply, those who wanted to champion human rights and liberty as free-standing values unhinged from any transcendent ethical framework, necessarily planted a self-destruct mechanism on the very values they sought to uphold.

There may be little resemblance between a body newly dead and the rotting corpse a month later, yet the latter is what the former will inevitably become if it is left unburied.


Of course, the contemporary illiberal will not admit that the inevitable rot has set in. Like the characters in Orwell’s Animal Farm, he continues to use the principled rhetoric of his predecessors even when the substance has been sucked dry. As Rose noted:

“The Liberal still speaks, at least on formal occasions, of ‘eternal verities,’ of ‘faith,’ of ‘human dignity,’ of man’s ‘high calling’ or his ‘unquenchable spirit,’ even of ‘Christian civilization’; but it is quite clear that these words no longer mean what they once meant. No Liberal takes them with entire seriousness; they are in fact metaphors, ornaments of language that are meant to evoke an emotional, not an intellectual, response – a response largely conditioned by long usage, with the attendant memory of a time when such words actually had a positive and serious meaning.”[43]

Like Orwell’s animals, who brought slavery under the banner of equality and liberty, the contemporary illiberal is all too happy to welcome any and every erosion of freedom provided it is done in the name of one of his ethical axioms and, more importantly, as long as it does not remove any of his own cherished freedoms.

To their credit, the advocates of today’s secular theocracy are more nuanced than those of the French Revolution. Instead of the guillotine they have political correctness; instead of the reign of terror they have mass media at their disposal. They have also added to the pantheon of secular virtues new axioms, which are even more notorious for their entropy. Look how quickly the virtue of multiculturalism degenerated into competition for group power.[44] Look how quickly diversity became a charter for uniformity.[45] Look how quickly the rhetoric of victimhood gave rise to the tyranny of the minority.[46] Unlike the Christian ethical system, which remains ever fixed in the solidity of the transcendent unchanging God, the liberal’s ethical base is characterised by a constant ethical flux.

We live in a world where the ethical entropy has all but run its course. The humanitarian liberalism of the Enlightenment has warped into the inhuman illiberalism of today, with results that would do even Orwell proud.

As the laissez faire liberalism becomes the new orthodoxy and permeates our institutions of power, it can no longer rage against the establishment, yet because its orientation is intrinsically revolutionary, the only option is to revolt against those beneath its power structures – those, for example, who still dissent from the grinding uniformity it demands. As illiberalism begins venting its revolutionary zeal on those who refuse to be squeezed into the status quo, the stage is set for a conservative counter movement. That is the point at which secular liberalism becomes unstable, for all totalitarian regimes must eventually end in mass discontent and therefore revolt.

This presents the advocates of sanity with a tremendous opportunity, but it also carries with it an enormous danger. The opponents of illiberalism are all too willing to arm themselves with the principles of classical liberalism and fight against symptoms rather than causes. Thus, many conservative apologists are now urging their liberal opponents to simply be better liberals, more consistent with the Enlightenment values they claim to cherish. If the liberals are ever convinced by such an argument, all that would happen would be to simply wind up the clock three hundred years and then watch the whole cycle unwind again. This is because liberal values can never be sustained without first going back and re-establishing a pre-Enlightenment epistemic base. The Biblical terminology for that process is called repentance, and therein lies the difference between freedom under God or enslavement under man disguised as liberty.

[1] See, for example, Deborah Orr’s, ‘New Labour New Britain: How they changed our nation’, The Independent 23 April 2007. Available online at

[2] See Anthony Browne, The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the corruption of public debate in modern Britain (London: Civitas, 2006).

[3] See Steve Doughty, ‘Don't impose your morality: Catholic Archbishop attacks gay rights bill’, Daily Mail, 28th November 2006. Available online at

[4] See Hate Crime: Delivering A Quality Service – Good Practice and Tactical Guidance, published by the Home Office Police Standard Unit and ACPO, 2005, available online at . See also Mark Steyn, ‘What is a crime? It's a matter of opinion’, The Daily Telegraph, December 13, 2005, available online at

[5] See Francis Bennion’s fascinating article ‘pseudo law’, available at

[6] See The Christian Institute’s Update Issue 9, Spring 2007, page 4, for a report on a number of instances where this occurred, available online at

[7] ‘Moral Climate Change and Freedom of Speech’, speech in the House of Lords, February 9 2006,
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright, available online at

[8] See Melanie Phillips’ article, ‘A law that turns sexual tolerance into tyranny’, The Daily Mail, 19th June 2006. Available online at

[9] On Christian Unions, see information posted by the organisation Christian Concern For Our Nation at Also see John-Henry Westen’s article, ‘UK, Canada Ran Neck and Neck in 2006 Race to Exterminate Religious Freedom’ at

[10] See my article ‘Dawkins and the Rise of Militant Atheism’, available online at

[11] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1908), p. 113. Chesterton’s words are a pretty good description of the Protection From Harassment Act 1997. Worded so vaguely that almost any form of repeated conduct can become a crime, it gives the crown authority to prosecute anyone causing a person ‘alarm or distress’ if this involves ‘conduct on at least two occasions.’ Because such conduct ‘includes speech’, and because it is not necessary to demonstrate that the person causing distress has used abusive or insulting words, merely disturbing a man’s mind by argument could become a criminal offence if another person finds it distressing. The penalty is six months imprisonment or an order preventing the person from repeating the offence on pain of 5 years behind bars. It is now used routinely against peaceful protestors. The anti-intellectual implications of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act 2005 is equally disturbing. Although this Act is most known for removing freedom to demonstrate outside Parliament, it also includes a section on ‘harassment intended to deter lawful activities’. Under this act, it is an offence to cause alarm or distress to ‘two or more persons’ by ‘harassing’ them. ‘Harassment’ is defined as seeking ‘to persuade any person ... to do something that he is not under any obligation to do’. This means that if I try to persuade two or more people to change their philosophical views, then because they are under no legal obligation to do so, in theory I could be taken to court for harassment if the other person finds my axioms sufficiently distressing. (See George Monbiot's article 'I'm pleased the case against this ranting homophobe was dropped', The Guardian, October 3, 2006, available online at,,1886185,00.html. See also my article ‘The Orwellian Legacy of Tony Blair’, available online at See also Peter Kitchens, The Abolition of Liberty (Atlantic Books, 2004).

[12] Hence, it should come as no surprise that the term ‘liberal’ derives from the Latin liber meaning ‘free.’

[13] “…the Enlightenment, and advocates of liberty and freedom of thought such as Mill, Locke and Voltaire, started the opening up of the human mind and gradually put an end to ‘politically correct’ religious beliefs, allowing free and open dissent. During the last century, the human mind has become more open than any previous period, but it is now closing down again. …Coleman described PC as the intersection between the left and the liberal, but added that the hard-line ideology of PC triumphed over the laissez-faire, rebellious liberalism. The result is that PC turned ‘the liberalism of the 1960s into a dogmatic and conformist, even bullying, ideology…. Liberals of earlier generations accepted unorthodoxy as normal. Indeed the right to differ was a datum of classical liberalism. The Politically Correct do not give that right a high priority. It distresses their programmed minds.” Browne, op. cit., p. 29 & 30 & 2. See also P Coleman, ‘What is Political Correctness? The Pros and Cons’, Quadrant Magazine, Australia, March 2000.

[14] Crown Publications, 2003.

[15] Three Rivers Press, 2004.

[16] See

[17] From ‘Liberalism v Islamism’ presentation at the Neo conference, Stockholm, Sweden, 11 May 2007. Available online at

[18] See Henry Porter, ‘Blair laid bare: the article that may get you arrested’ (the Independent, 29 June 2006), available online at; Simon Carr, 'If you still think you live in a liberal and democratic society, then please read on', (the Independent, 15 April 2006), available online at; Andrew Grice, The Legacy: Tony Blair, Prime Minister, 1997-2007 (the Independent on Sunday, 11 May 2007), available online at; Henry Porter, ‘Blair's new laws leave us at the mercy of future tyrants’ (The Observer, February 19, 2006), available online at,,1712998,00.html; Henry Porter, ‘The Limits of liberty: We're all suspects now’ (the Independent, 19 October 2006), available online at; Henry Porter and Tony Blair’s debate, ‘Britain's Liberties: The Great Debate’ (The Guardian, Sunday April 23), available online at,,1759344,00.html; Henry Porter, ‘How we move ever closer to becoming a totalitarian state’ (the Observer, 5 March, 2006), available online at,,1724047,00.html; Henry Porter, ‘Only a constitution can save us from this abuse of power’ (the Observer, 2 April, 2006), available online at,,1744984,00.html.

[19] This is not to deny that the Enlightenment occurred gradually, even imperceptibly at first. Yet it happened none the less. On the gradual evolution of the Enlightenment, see the beginning of Norman Hampson’s book The Enlightenment: An evaluation of its assumptions, attitudes and values (Penguin Books; 1968),

[20] Rational intuition refers to instinctive principles of logic or common sense. The principles of rational intuition function like the axioms in geometry which cannot be deduced from prior premises but have to be assumed before any organized thinking can occur.

[21] See J Gibson, Locke’s Theory of Knowledge and its Historical Relations (Cambrdige, 1968); P. Alexander, Ideas, Qualities and Corpuscles (Cambridge, 1985); J.W. Yolton, Locke and the Way of Ideas (Bristol, 1993); R. I. Aaron, John Locke (Oxford, 1963); D.J. O’Connor, John Locke (New York, 1967); I.C. Tipton (ed), Locke on Human Understanding (Oxford, 1977).

[22] See John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford, 1975).

[23] Philosophy 1: a guide through the subject, ed. A. C. Grayling (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 513.

[24] See Berkeley’s Principles, Three Dialogues and Notebooks. Also see A. C. Grayling, Berkeley: Central Arguments (Open Court Publishing Co, 1986); Berkeley: Critical and Interpretative Essays, Colin Turbayne (ed), (University of Minnesota Press); D. M. Armstrong, Berkeley’s Theory of Vision (Melbourne, 1960), K. P. Winkler, Berkeley: An Interpretation (Oxford, 1989); J. Foster & H. Robinson, Essays on Berkeley: A Tercentennial Celebration (Oxford, 1985); C. B. Martin & D. M. Armstrong (eds), Locke and Berkeley: A Collection of Critical Essays (London, 1968), G. Pitcher, Berkeley (London, 1977); W. E. Steinkraus, New Studies in Berkeley’s Philosophy (New York, 1966); I. C. Tipton, Berkeley: The Philosophy of Immaterialism (London, 1974); K. P. Winkler, Berkeley: An Interpretation (Oxford, 1989).

[25] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (London: Pimilco, 1991) p. 335.

[26] Philosophy 1: a guide through the subject, ed. A. C. Grayling (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 513.

[27] Hampson, op. cit., p. 98.

[28] See H. H. Price, Hume’s Theory of the External World (Oxford 1940); V.C. Chappel (ed), Hume (London, 1966); R. J. Fogelin, Hume’s Skepticism (London, 1985); N. Kemp Smith, The Philosophy of David Hume, 2nd edition (London, 1949); John Passmore, Hume’s Intentions, 3rd edition (London, 1980); G. Strawson, The Secret Connexion: Realism and David Hume (Oxford, 1989).

[29] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, book I, part IV, section vi.

[30] Tarnas, ibid, p. 339.

[31] Kreeft and Tacelli point out that “Not all empiricists are subjectivists and relativists, but they should be; for if truth is empirical, and what is empirical is determined by my subjective experience, then truth is subjective and relative.” Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 365.

[32] Hume even went so far as to acknowledge that after “relaxing the bent of mind”, whether through dining, playing a game of backgammon or having three or four hours amusement with friends, when he would “return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further.” David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature Book One (Fontana/Collins, edited by D. G. C. Macnabb, 1962, originally published in 1739), p. 318.

[33] John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1690).

[34] See my article ‘Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder’, available online at

[35] See John Coffey, ‘The Myth of Secular Tolerance’, Cambridge Papers, Sep 2003, available online at

[36] The Encyclopédie is the perfect place to go to obtain a pulse for the popular arm of the European Enlightenment. It consisted of seventeen volumes, put together in France under the supervision of Diderot, during the years of 1751 and 1772. This Encyclopédie attempted to catalogue the whole of human knowledge. It was a noble undertaking with its aim to create “a universal and rational dictionary…to bring together the knowledge scattered over the surface of the earth,” as Diderot wrote of it. The Encyclopédie has almost become synonymous with the Enlightenment, for it offered more than what we think of an encyclopaedia offering. Not only did it give the latest facts about everything under the sun, it was full of ‘enlightened’ interpretation. It was rather like a massive editorial on all aspects of life. So controversial were many of the viewpoints that the writers were frequently in trouble with the censor. Indeed, Diderot even had to spend some time in prison as a result of his controversial opinions. Nevertheless, the message of the encyclopaedists did get out and that message was that we should view reality in a whole new way, with man rather than God at the centre.

[37] “Not even the right of political self-determination, on which the democracies so vigorously insist, is self-evident; it presupposes objective rights grounded in a transcendent moral order that secular political scientists blur. The entire corpus of human rights is today in peril, because none of the divergent contemporary philosophical theories can sustain fixed and universal rights; yet secular juridical scholars hesitate to return to a Judeo-Christian grounding for rights.” Carl Henry, Twilight of a Great Civilisation (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988), p. 24.

[38] Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times (Wheaton ILL: Crossway Books, 1994), pp. 33-34.

[39] There were other reasons as well. For example, one of the hardest practical problems for a utilitarian is how to navigate between the collective happiness of mankind as a whole vs. the happiness of specific individuals? If we say that both should be equal priority, then what happens when these two goals conflict, as they inevitably will? For example, what if hurting a hundred people would make me happy? Why would that be wrong? Suppose we say it would be wrong because the happiness of the majority is what really counts. In that case, what do we do when the existence of certain people or groups is draining the happiness of the whole? Hitler believed he was justified in exterminating handicapped people since they were, quite truthfully, a drain on the economic system. What if killing one innocent person would make a hundred people happy? On the basis of utilitarianism, it is hard to know how to handle such questions.
[40] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Pickering & Inglis Ltd., 1981), pp. 29-30. ‘To assume that man’s mind is as ultimate as God’s, and therefore to conceive of the universe as a world of chance, requires one to posit the locus of sovereignty apart from God somewhere else in a universe that is greater than both man and God. As it happens, men have posited two basic possibilities for the source of sovereignty apart from God: the individual or the state.’ Lawrence Pratt, ‘The Politics of Pragmatism: Threat to Freedom’ in Foundations of Christian Scholarship, ed. Gary North (Vallecito, CA: Ross House, 1976), p. 121. See also Rousas John Rushdoony, This Independent Republic (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1964), p. 15.

[41] See Gene Edward Veith Jr., Modern Fascism: Liquidating the Judeo-Christian Worldview (Saint Louis: Concordia Scholarship Today, 1993).

[42] Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose, Nihilism: The Roots of the Revolution of the Modern Age (Platina, CA: St, Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994, pp. 29-30.

[43] Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose, Nihilism: The Roots of the Revolution of the Modern Age (Platina, CA: St, Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), p. 24.

[44] “Multiculturalism today, however, has largely lost its ideals, given our postmodern context, and has rapidly degenerated into a search for group power. Todd Gitlin, the cultural critic, has traced out the path of this disintegration by showing that as commonalities became exhausted, differences had to be enlarged. What followed this breakdown was often not the embrace of other cultures but an ugly censoriousness towards other groups and viewpoints.” David Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998. See also Richard Bernstein, The Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1994). See also Paul Edward Gottfried, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy (University of Missouri Press, 2002).

[45] See Anthony Browne, op. cit., chapter on diversity. See also Ross Clark, How To Label A Goat: The silly rules and regulations that are strangling Britain (Harriman House Ltd, 2006), chapter on diversity.

[46] See David Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Inter-Varsity Press, 1998) and Michael Ovey ‘VICTIM chic? The rhetoric of VICTIMhood’ Cambridge Papers, March 2006, available online at

Friday, November 09, 2007

Spirit and Flesh

"Christian imagination differs over details, but all Christian imagination attaches importance to symbols. Whether it is a matter of lowering one's voice in the building where the church meets, or of refusing to use make-up, or of wearing or not wearing a crucifix, or of kneeling, or bowing one's head to say grace or bowing at the holy name, or folding one's hands or crossing oneself, all Christian piety and worship is shot through with the symbolism of either gesture or objects or both. We see the unseen in the seen. The surface of things bespeaks what lies beneath. Our postures, our dress, our gestures, and the artefacts with which we surround ourselves - the very way we bind and gild our Bibles - all cry out that we are creatures whose approach to the Most High, since it cannot be direct like the seraphim’s, must be set about and assisted with symbols.

"None of us is a bare intellect. Our eyes see colors; our noses smell fragrances; our fingers feel textures....

"Some religions beckon us away from all of this. Some even abominate it all.... These religions drive a wedge between us mortals and all that we know of life. They tell us to be spiritual, by which they mean that we must strive to become disembodied; ghosts; souls.

"Historic Christianity, on the other hand, cries "Benedicite!" It calls out "Glory be to God for dappled things!" It lauds and extols the One who is the fountainhead of all shapes, colors, textures, sounds, and smells. The Most High did not create a charade or a trap when He made all of this. The Creation rushes from His superabundant freedom and love and cries out in exultation to Him. No least thing is silent. The timid and beady eye of a field mouse, the fife of the winter wren, the bubbling of water falling over rocks or boiling in a kettle, roars of laughter from a room full of friends, the murmur of a loved one's voice: what does it all say but "Hosanna!"...

"Using Saint Paul's language about flesh and spirit...piety has often spoken as though to be holy ('spiritual') is to be more or less disembodied. Since that is obviously not possible, we will do our best to keep spiritual things distinct from physical things. There will be 'the spiritual life' and 'the ordinary life.' There will be sacred activities and secular activities. When we are praying, we are closer to the center of things than when we are washing dishes, changing diapers, driving in a traffic jam, or sitting in a committee meeting: thus would run this piety....

"Our flesh, having been worn by the Most High Himself, is the most noble mantle of all. The Manichaeans and Buddhists and Platonists on the other hand, who belittle this flesh, and the gluttons and lechers and egoists on the other, who are slaves to it, are still living in division. Only in the Incarnation may we find the knitting back together of the fabric into its true integrity.

"If our religion draws us away from the plain fabric of life, and if it encourages in us the notion that Monday through Saturday are mostly secular, and if it crimps our freedom to join hilariously in all that is good in life, then, be we Bible-believing to the core, something is askew. If piety suggests to a musician that to play his violin or his trumpet in a church service is somehow more Christian than to play it in Carnegie Hall, then it is heresy. If it makes him timorous about being a creature of flesh and blood and pinches him into hesitancy about everything, then it has done him a disservice....

"It is in the physical world that the intangible meets us. A kiss seals a courtship. The sexual act seals a marriage. A ring betokens the marriage. A diploma crowns years of schooling. A doctoral robe bespeaks intellectual achievement. A uniform and stripes announce a recruit's training. A crown girds the brow that rules England. This symbolism bespeaks the sort of creature we are. To excise all of this from piety and worship is to suggest that the gospel beckons us away from our humanity into a disembodied realm. It is to turn the Incarnation into a mere doctrine.

"The Incarnation took all the properly belongs to our humanity and delivered it back to us, redeemed. All of our inculcations and appetites and capacities and yearnings and proclivities are purified and gathered up and glorified by Christ. He did not come to thin out human life He came to set it free. All the dancing and feasting and processing and singing and building and sculpting and baking and merrymaking that belong to us, and that were stolen away into the service of false gods, are turned to us in the gospel.

"The worship of God, surely, should be the place where men, angels, and devils may see human flesh once more set free into all that it was created to be. To restrict that worship to sitting in pews and listening to words spoken is to narrow things down in a manner strange to the gospel. We are creatures who are made to bow, not just spiritually (angels can do that) but with knee bones and neck muscles. We are creatures who cry out to surge in great procession, "ad altare Dei," not just in our hearts (disembodied spirits can do that) but with our feet, singing great hymns with our tongues, our nostrils full of the smoke of incense.

"Is it objected that this is too physical, too low down on the scale for the gospel? Noses indeed! If the objection carries the day, then we must jettison the stable and the manger, and the winepots at Cana, and the tired feet anointed with nard, and the splinters of the cross, not to say the womb of the mother who bore God when He came to us. Too physical? What do we celebrate in our worship? It is Buddhism and Platonism and Manichaeanism that tell us to disavow our flesh and expunge everything but thoughts. The gospel brings back all of our faculties with a rush....

"The religion that attempts to drive a wedge between the whole realm of Faith and the actual textures of physical life is a religion that has perhaps not granted to the Incarnation the full extent of the mysteries that attach to it and flow from it, and that make our mortal life fruitful once more." Thomas Howard, Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament (Ignatius Press), chapter 2.

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Christianity and Rules

I had a conversation not too long ago with someone who seemed to think that living under grace meant that our lives do not have to be subject to rules. To illustrate what is wrong with this idea, imagine that a teacher came along one day and began teaching that marriage is reducible to having sex. Suppose further that throngs of married couples begin following this teaching, believing that having sex is what marriage is all about.

After following this teaching for a few years, one married couple begins to feel that something is just missing from the picture. “Surely”, the woman says to her husband one evening, “there must be more to marriage than just having sex all the time.”

The man muses for a moment and then replies, “You’re right honey. Marriage cannot be reduced to sex. In fact, I think the opposite must be true. Marriage is about abstinence.”

Now imagine there is a complete swing of the pendulum. This couple begins teaching that marriage can be reduced to abstinence, with the consequence that whole communities of married couples follow them, congregating together to agree to never have sex with their spouse again. Why would you want to have sex since marriage is about abstinence?

Now what did both these approaches share in common? Both approaches are defining marriage in relation to sex. One approach defines marriage in relation to having sex, and one approach defines marriage in relation to not having sex. Although you cannot have a marriage without sex, that does not mean that marriage is reducible to sex in either direction.

The point I want to illustrate by this example is that sometimes what appears to be two extremes is often simply two sides to the same coin. A temple prostitute for the cult of Aphrodite will define holiness in relation to having sex, while an ascetic medieval monk will define holiness in relation to not having sex, but the religion of both revolved around the same object.

Now let’s apply that same principle to Christianity and rules.

One of the things we find in shallow, unthinking evangelical Christianity is a tendency to view everything in terms of rules. This can lead to two extremes. On the one hand, it can produce a legalistic version of Christianity. Since everything is viewed in terms of rules, living as a Christian is reduced to a list of do’s and don’ts.

Realising that this kind of legalism is antithetic to the gospel of grace, many evangelicals go to the other extreme and say that living under grace means no rules. To be under grace instead of law, they say, means not being under the burden of rules.

In both cases, faith is being defined by its relationship to rules, just like in my above examples, both approaches to marriage were being defined in relation to sex. Whether the gospel is viewed as meaning that we are under lots of rules or whether the gospel is viewed as meaning that we are not under any rules, in both cases it is being defined by its relationship to ethics. As such, both approaches are fundamentally legalistic. (In logic, we would call these contrary approaches not contradictory approaches. A contradiction occurs when two statements necessarily have an opposite truth value: if one statement is true, then the other must be false, and visa versa. Statements can be said to be contrary, on the other hand, when they can both be false at the same time, even when they cannot both be true.)

The Biblical approach is not that Christianity is a list of rules, but neither is it that grace sets us free from being under any rules. This is because grace is not fundamentally about rules one way or the other. Rather, it is about what Jesus Christ has done and is doing in us and in the world.

Now it is true that one of the things the Lord is doing in us is to write His laws on our hearts (Jer. 33), just as it is true that one of the things that secures a marriage is sexual union. In the same way that you cannot have marriage without sex, so you cannot have Christianity without ethics (Matt. 18:15-18; Luke 6:46; John 13:34, 35; 15:5, 6, 10; Rom. 1:5; I Cor. 5:1, 4, 5, 11 cf; II Thess. 1:6-8; Rev. 2:5). But just as marriage cannot be reduced to either having sex or not having sex, so Christianity cannot be reduced to keeping rules or not keeping rules. Lifestyle is a necessary part of the Christian walk, but it is not what defines it, just as sex is a necessary part of marriage but is not what defines it. Lifestyle may tell us who is a Christian but lifestyle does not make a person a Christian since you can live a Christian lifestyle and still be unregenerate Similarly, sexual union may tell us who is married, but sexual union does not make two people married (there is such a thing is fornication).

There are many areas where my analogy could be shown to break down. But I think it gets my point across. It helps to explain why evangelical communities that have not understood the heart of the gospel inevitably fluctuate between the polarities of legalism and licence. Those who embrace the later, arguing that grace sets us free from being under rules, are unwittingly setting people up for the legalism they think they vigorously oppose since they are orienting people to think that grace is fundamentally defined in relation to rules.

As I suggest elsewhere (see HERE and HERE), when Paul says that we are under grace instead of law, he is contrasting salvation by Christ the Messiah, with its implications about the universality of his reign and the restoration of the kingdom of God, over against the narrow disgracing of the grace by those who would reinstate the old boundary markers as the distinguishing features of the covenant community. What were the old boundary markers that distinguish the people of God? Observance of Torah (law), circumcision, etc. So under the new covenant, God's grace has done away with the Torah as the distinguishing feature of the people of God. We are under the grace not law. Put another way, it is faith in Jesus the Messiah and not the works of the flesh (circumcision, observance of Torah) that now marks out God’s covenant people, and that faith is manifested in baptism and works of righteousness (see above verses).

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Rock Climbing

One of the things Matthew and I sometimes like to do after church is to go hiking in the Idaho hills.

Last Sunday, Matthew decided to do some dangerous rock climbing as well.

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