Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, December 19, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why religion, if not based in truth, is grounded in nothing more than moral aspirations
For many years, Andrew Sullivan has been one of the most influential public intellectuals in the United States and before that in the United Kingdom. In a recent article published in New York Magazine, Sullivan, the former editor of The New Republic, writes of America's new religions. It's found in the Intelligencer column of The New York Magazine.
He starts by saying, "Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It's in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society."
Sullivan is a very interesting figure. As I said, he functions as a public intellectual. He's a man of ideas, he is often a man of contested ideas. He has appeared in many different places, in many different formats of media and public influence. He is well-known as someone who claims a Roman Catholic identity. He obviously writes with spiritual and theological insight. He has publicly spoken of his own struggle with AIDS and of his own gay identity. He was a prominent defender of same-sex marriage early in that debate.
Sullivan, who styles himself a conservative, has argued that the conservative nature of marriage should lead conservatives to want same-sex marriage to be legalized in order to create a more conservative LGBTQ culture. It's a dubious proposition, to be sure. Actually, it's contradictory on its face. It is impossible given a genuine understanding of what is conserved in conservatism to believe that same-sex marriage could ever be the answer to the problem rather than the problem.
But it does point to the fact that there are many, even in the ranks identified as LGBTQ, who are hoping for something other than the inevitable radicalism that is unleashed with that moral revolution. You might say that Andrew Sullivan is a proponent of trying to take that revolution far, but only so far.
But he does write with amazing insight in this article. He writes about the continuation of theological and spiritual issues in realities in American public life, even as this public declares itself to be increasingly secular.
When he starts out arguing that everyone has a religion, that it is in fact impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being, he seems to ground that in an understanding of humanity. But of course, Christians ground that, not merely in an understanding of humanity, but in the Creator who made human beings in his image. It's the imago Dei, the image of God, that explains why we are inherently, why we are continually, why we are universally spiritual beings. And why, as spiritual beings, we cannot be, even if we claim to be, truly without religion.
To his credit, Andrew Sullivan does what many others do not, he defines the word religion even as he uses it. He writes, "By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying 'Truth' or God (or gods)."
Now that's his statement. Let's consider that definition of religion. It's something he says quite specific. It's not just the generalized kind of vocabulary of spirituality that is found in so many less intellectually disciplined thinkers and writers today. No, Sullivan is defining the word. He defines it as a way of life that gives meaning. And what kind of meaning? Everyone wants to talk about meaning.
He goes on to specify a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to, what did he say? Some transcendent value, undying "Truth," Truth is put in quotation marks, even capitalized, or God, he says, or gods.
Now what does he mean by the word transcendent? That's a crucial issue and Christians need to pay very close attention to the use of that word. Transcendence refers to transcending the earthly terrestrial human reality. When we are speaking of transcendence, we are speaking of that which, by its very etymology, transcends our reality and our experience. It transcends what many in the contemporary culture want to call "my truth."
Transcendent truth is enduring truth. Eternal truth. It is truth outside of us, not merely truth inside of us. Here's one of the quandaries of the modern age, it's even a quandary of Andrew Sullivan's article. If you have transcendence, it has to transcend. A non-transcending transcendence is actually not transcendence. That's the ridiculousness of so much modern kitsch spirituality. There is no God who actually exists outside of the human order or outside of the human mind according to that worldview. So in what sense are they doing anything other than speaking to themselves?
Sullivan is again absolutely right when he says that even today's atheists are expressing what he calls an attenuated form of religion. He says, "Their denial of any God is as absolute as others’ faith in God, and entails just as much a set of values to live by," and he says that would include for some, daily rituals like meditation or a form of prayer.
He goes on to write about Christopher Hitchens, one of the most famous of the New Atheists, now the late Christopher Hitchens. He was a dear friend to Andrew Sullivan and he says that Hitchens had, with a certain glee, given him a copy of his book, God Is Not Great. Sullivan describes Hitchens' book as "a fabulous grab bag of religious insanity and evil over time, which," says Sullivan, "I enjoyed immensely and agreed with almost entirely."
But the difference between Sullivan and Hitchens is that Hitchens looked at all kinds of ridiculous religion and said that that invalidates the existence of God, whereas Sullivan says, no, it actually just points to how ridiculous human beings can be, it doesn't reveal one way or the other whether God actually does or does not exist.
But Sullivan's article becomes really important when he jumps to describe what he calls the modern religion of our supposedly secular age. He argues that in the west, theism, the belief in God, has been replaced with progress, a belief in inevitable and continual human progress.
Several paragraphs later, Sullivan indicts this god of progress as being banal. In other words, largely empty of meaning, unable to deliver on promises. The religion of progress not only defies historic Christian theism, it actually defies reality. Any kind of honest assessment of reality.
But he goes on to also indict liberalism as a modern religion. But he's not talking about liberalism as opposed to conservatism in the American political scene. He's talking about liberalism as an ideal of western liberty that has indeed become a substitute religion for many western intellectuals. But it's also interesting at this point to note that that religion of liberalism is actually now, if anything, more a temptation to those who are identified as conservatives on the American political spectrum.
The liberals on the contemporary political scene have largely abandoned liberalism and have instead substituted faith in a very modern, radical progressivism that tramples upon liberalism, even in the name of liberalism.
But as interesting as Andrew Sullivan's article is at this point, it is where the article is headed that has the greatest worldview significance because Andrew Sullivan writes very convincingly that on the right and on the left in the United States at this moment, in a moment that is, judged by classical theism, increasingly secular, but that just means horribly, dangerously religious, this new society in this new age is headed towards a worship of politics as the ultimate religion. A danger found on both the right and the left, but in starkly different form.
Sullivan writes this, "Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshipers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They," he writes, "are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided."
Now that's incredibly insightful, it reminds me of a column that Ross Douthat wrote some time ago echoing themes I've talked about on The Briefing. It comes down to this, if secularists thought that they disliked the religious right, just wait until they are faced by an irreligious right.
Sullivan, as always, is a very keen observer of the political scene and he gets right to the point and he distills his argument with this paragraph, "For many, especially the young, discovering a new meaning in the midst of the fallen world is thrilling. And social-justice ideology does everything a religion should. It offers an account of the whole: that human life and society and any kind of truth must be seen entirely as a function of social power structures, in which various groups have spent all human existence oppressing other groups. And it," meaning this kind of social-justice ideology, "provides a set of principles to resist and reverse this interlocking web of oppression, from regulating the workplace and policing the classroom to checking your own sin and even seeking to control language itself." He goes on interestingly to say he remembers the old swear words, but the new swear words are words amongst these groups such as "problematic."
The new central doctrine of this social justice religion is intersectionality. In order to document this, Sullivan goes to a recent tweet be Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Her tweet stated this, it's important just by itself, "Our future is female. Intersectional. Powered by our belief in one another. And we're just getting started."
Sullivan, very perceptively, points out that Gillibrand in this case uses the word intersectionality without any necessity of defining it. That tells you something very important. Here is a word that emerged out of Marxist academic political analysis that has now become standard fare, at least among Democrats, as political language, now articulated by a Democratic Senator from New York, who is very clearly eyeing a race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
But Sullivan also understands that this new religion has to have converts. And oddly enough, you might say embarrassingly enough, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is actually one of those converts. She went into the Senate as a blue dog Democrat, favoring gun rights and many other traditionally conservative concerns. But now she wants to be known, as this tweet makes exceedingly clear, that she has been converted. That she is a new devotee of the social justice ideology and religion and she is going to trumpet its doctrines as if she has believed them all along. With the inconvenient truth that she actually didn't.
By the way, when opposition research begins to look at the now liberal Democratic Senator from New York, they are also going to discover that she held what Andrew Sullivan has not forgotten and that is what he describes as anti-gay positions.
There are several really important insights we should gain from looking at Andrew Sullivan's article in New York Magazine. For one thing, earlier in the article, after having very convincingly written about the fact that all human beings are actually religious, he goes on to speak about how that religious dimension becomes evident.
He writes about, for instance, seeing a bumper sticker. He says the bumper sticker stated, "Loving kindness is my religion." But then Sullivan asks exactly the right question. The question is, why? Why is this so important to us? Well, we need to understand that someone probably means to say something when they state on a bumper sticker, "Loving kindness is my religion." They probably do want to say something, they probably don't want to say much.
But Andre Sullivan's asking the right question when he says, why? Why is loving kindness your religion? The point here is that if that religion is not established in truth, real truth, what Francis Schaeffer called true truth, transcendent truth, then whatever religious expression you make, it is grounding and nothing more than moral aspiration or your own emotional satisfaction.
Why is loving kindness your religion? To state the matter really clearly, it's not likely to stay your religion in hard times if you don't believe that God is commanding loving kindness and will judge us according to his own moral standing.
Sullivan is also writing a very important truth when he points to the temptation towards this kind of ersatz or false religion on both the left and the right in contemporary American politics. There are equal and opposite temptations.
But it's also very interesting to note, as you are looking at the very indictment that Andrew Sullivan offers of this kind of artificial religion, that the definitions of who is and is not what. Even the word Evangelical becomes a part of the contested terrain. So even in this article, when Andrew Sullivan mentions Evangelical, I simply want to note, it is being more culturally defined than theologically defined.
Third, it's also interesting to see how many intellectuals lament the decline of religion, specifically Christianity, and they want a little bit of religion back, but only something tame and controllable. To his credit, Andrew Sullivan understands that the tradition that has given birth to the west is not merely religious, it is specifically Christian. He writes this, "It is Christianity that came to champion the individual conscience against the collective, which paved the way for individual rights. It is in Christianity that the seeds of Western religious toleration were first sown."
He then writes this exceedingly important sentence, "Christianity is the only monotheism that seeks no sway over Caesar, that is content with the ultimate truth over the immediate satisfaction of power." That is, I will simply say, a marvelous and true sentence.
With a sense of compelling tragedy, Sullivan then asks whether or not a political system built upon Christianity can survive when that belief has become little more than a shadow. He writes, "Will the house still stand when its ramparts are taken away?" He concludes, "I'm beginning to suspect it can't. And won't."
But fourth and finally, as a Christian theologian reading Andrew Sullivan's article, I have to reflect upon the brilliance of his analysis. But I also have to say that his argument is only a halfway argument and that is a crucial, even fatal, problem. Andrew Sullivan, like so many others, wants Christianity back. He wants Christian truth back. He wants a transcendent morality back. He wants a transcendent moral judgment back. He wants the cohesiveness of a unified Christian society back. He wants the human respect in human dignity that come with Christianity back. But he also wants it back only about halfway. He wants a form of Christianity back that is compatible with at least much of the modern sexual revolution.
And therein lies the problem. Christianity is not made up only of parts, it is a whole. It is not only a set of teachings and doctrines, it is a comprehensive claim to truth. You cannot summon it back only in part, because Christianity only stands as a whole.
How the apparent disappearance of religion reveals the emergence of a new paganism
Meanwhile, next we turn to an article by Ross Douthat that appeared just a few days after the article by Andrew Sullivan. Douthat's column appeared in The New York Times, the headline, "The Return of Paganism." The subhead, "Maybe there is actually a genuinely post-Christian future for America."
Douthat is another Roman Catholic, he is a prominent observer of the theological and political scene in the United States. He is also someone who has written already an entire book about the translation of so much theological energy of a previous day into political energy in our own. He also, along with Sullivan and many others, recognizes that when religion recedes, it isn't a nonreligious space that's left, it's just a different religion.
And Douthat understands that when Christianity recedes, when it is pressed out of the culture, it isn't replaced with empty space, no religion. It is replaced with some other kind of religion and that religion might be deeply hostile to human dignity and to human values.
In the article that appeared, entitled, "The Return of Paganism," Douthat writes about the fact that as he observes the culture, he notices that the religious impulse of a secular society is increasingly taking an explicitly pagan form. That's what he's talking about with the return of paganism. It's not just, as he notes, the kind of superficial new age spirituality that has marked so much cultural interest over the last several decades. It is instead a rather open unembarrassed embrace of forms of explicit paganism.
Douthat writes about an America in which traditional churches have been supplanted by self-help gurus and spiritual political entrepreneurs. He writes, "These figures cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies, take out the inconvenient bits and pitch them to mass audiences that want part of the old-time religion but nothing too unsettling or challenging or ascetic."
He continues, "The result is a nation where Protestant awakenings have given way to post-Protestant wokeness, where Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen have ceded pulpits to Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey, where the prosperity gospel and Christian nationalism rule the right and a social gospel denuded of theological content rules the left."
By now you've detected some real parallelism between the arguments of Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan. But Douthat, at the conclusion of his article, points to the fact that modern paganism simply can't bear the freight of the kind of meaning that is invested in it and furthermore it isn't cohesive within society. It's not a common faith, it's instead radically individualistic.
But then he gets to one of the very points that echoes Andrew Sullivan, but in reverse. He points out that much of this new paganism is simply, absolutely, profoundly non-transcendent. It's really not even making a claim to transcendence. It's just really a claim to individual meaning, meaning in this world, meaning between our two ears, as if that's enough.
The evolution of jerks: Can the central doctrine of the secular age function as a theory of everything?
But finally, in thinking about how this new religion takes various forms, one of its central doctrines is the doctrine of evolution. That's the doctrine without which so many of these new modern religions, these new paganisms, simply could not stand. And according to our worldview, everything has to be explained by something and the new modern secular worldview can't explain much without evolution and it can't avoid evolution in trying to explain anything.
Evidence of this comes in an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal in recent days. The headline is, "The dark triad and the evolution of jerks." Now maybe you really hadn't been thinking about the evolution of jerks, but The Wall Street Journal's been thinking about it.
Glenn Geher, who writes the article, has been thinking about it. He's professor of psychology and the founding director of the evolutionary studies program at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Now why is this interesting? Well, the theory of evolution would kind insinuate that jerks would go extinct. Why? Because jerks would be, by definition, unlikely to form the lasting romantic attachments that would lead to what evolutionists call "successful human reproduction," and thus their genes would simply fall away, according to Darwinian theory, into the past, rather than to be continued into the future.
But the reality is, as this article indicates, it turns out that jerks actually reproduce. And evolutionists have to explain why that would be so. They point to the other part of the headline here, that dark triad, as we are told, several psychologists have identified a group of personality traits known as this dark triad, "which are negatively associated with character and ethics."
He writes, "In a much-cited 2002 paper in the Journal of Research in Personality, Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams, both then at the University of British Columbia, defined the dark triad as consisting of narcissism (an excessive focus on oneself), Machiavellianism (manipulating others for one's gain), and psychopathy (an overall disregard for others)."
As he continues, "People who score high on the dark triad typically engage in behaviors that most people would find obnoxious or immoral." Later in the article he goes on in rather frightening terms to tell us that in his research he has found that slightly more than 10% of the population "may have substantial dark triad tendencies."
Well that's bad news, but perhaps it's even worse news, according to this article that these dark triad jerks also end up often reproducing. The question is why? How can evolutionists explain how a jerk can reproduce?
Geher understands the problem. He writes, "This finding raises an evolutionary question: If humans generally find these traits repulsive and prefer not to mate with those who possess them, how did the dark triad manage to become so prevalent? What is the evolutionary benefit of being a bad person?"
Now there's a fascinating question, where's the evolutionary advantage to being a jerk? But wait, he's got an answer. He says the answer is what is evolutionists call strategic pluralism. "This is the idea that members of the same species might evolve different and even contradictory strategies for survival, depending on the conditions they face. If an individual grows up in an unstable, harsh and unsafe conditions, it makes sense to reproduce early and often. On the other hand, if an individual is raised in stable and safe conditions, they will have more time to wait, choose the perfect mate and have only a few children who are given enormous amounts of time and attention."
What is he talking about here? Well, the bottom line is this, the evolutionists are offering the argument that jerks reproduce because at certain times people need jerks. Jerks are useful under certain circumstances and even as jerks might be considered repulsive, every once in a while they actually get married and reproduce. But he has to explain this as a simply more complex form of an evolutionary pattern that explains all of this. Trust him.
At the very beginning of the article, Geher suggests, "that one fundamental reason people are altruistic," that is kind and nice to one another, "is to make themselves attractive to sexual partners." So as you follow the argument here, by evolutionary standards, what's called mate preferences are often explained by why people want to have romantic relationships with people who are generally good and kind, but sometimes go actually for the bad person. Generally, the bad boy. Because at times society needs a jerk and to a jerk, someone then turns.
My guess is that no one hearing this is going to buy into this argument. But that is simply the point, isn't it? If you are going to buy into the theory of evolution and you're going to deny the entire theistic understanding of reality, if you're going to deny a Creator, if you're going to deny human beings as moral beings made in God's image, if you're going to have to go without the biblical definition of sin, and you're going to have explain everything, and I do mean everything, by the theory of evolution, then eventually you're going to have to answer questions like this. If evolution is true, how do jerks reproduce?
But don't worry, the evolutionists will come up with an answer because eventually evolution can, according to their understanding, answer everything. In this sense, evolution is the central doctrine of the secular age. They can't do without it, they're stuck with it. It's going to have to explain everything. Just watch them.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
Don't be a jerk and meet me tomorrow for The Briefing.