Irrationality in What Matters Most

on March 5, 2016

Today’s anti-religious polemic claims that thinking which begins with divine revelation, however in harmony with the things we see in the world, is really irrational, because derived from a dogmatic source. Yet experience – particularly experience in the contemporary world – shows that it is rationalists, who address the world by beginning with themselves, who are left with irrationality.

This point was well made by two presentations at a recent conference of the L’Abri Fellowship in Rochester, Minnesota. Michael Andres of Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa discussed the nonconformist search for “authenticity” from the Gnostics to postmodernism, while Christian author and activist Nancy Pearcey discussed the impact of irrationalism on sex and the current war over sexual morality.

Michael Andres discussed the influence of Gnostic ideas on the Romantic period, and the way that this has affected the way people understand faith in the post-Enlightenment period as a result. The “underlying narrative” of the romantic notion of authenticity informs much of the contentious cultural concepts in the areas of “homosexuality, gender, [and] race.” He discussed as an example the “redemptive narrative” of the movie “Frozen.” Its “most memorable moment” was the song “Let It Go,” which expressed the idea that Elsa, the movie’s heroine, should let her true self be realized. But this theme is “in tension” with the point of the movie, which was the damage individual self-actualization causes, i.e., “it freezes everything over.” Being her true self “made her isolated, and it ruined things for other people,” in particular, causing “broken relationships.”

The Gnosticism of the ancient world, Andres said, is about “secret knowledge, that only special people know” which enables “liberation and salvation.” The Gnostic story is “a very dualistic story.” “Emanations” from the ultimate spiritual reality result in heavenly realms and then increasingly corrupt worlds as the spiritual influence dissipates in an ever more material reality. An uncorrupted spiritual reality, however, remains inside each person, which should be freed. The task of personal liberation, then, is to release the true self, the “spark of divinity” from the “meat-locker of flesh.” Gnostics could be ascetic (denying the flesh) or “libertine” (since indulgence of the flesh does not affect the true self). Gnosticism leads to a “profound suspicion” of external factors determining one’s life and a feeling of being trapped by them. “Serenity” is “achieved through final detachment from the imprisonment.” Andres held that Gnosticism has an elitist mindset.

This ancient Gnosticism re-entered the world in the context of the Enlightenment, which set aside religion, tradition, and supernaturalism to view the world only by reason. Another aspect of the Enlightenment was its belief that human beings are born into the world good, until they are affected by outside pressures. The idea of “the noble savage” appeared at this time. With external reality understood to be material and mechanical, void of value, spiritual reality is “compressed” into a person’s inner life. “Everything that is religious [or] moral” is now subjective; it is how one “feels” about things. The result of the internalization of spirituality is romanticism. In addition to the emphasis on the inner self, romanticism was about “revolting against an established order of things, against precise rules and laws and dogmas.” Romanticism favors “imagination over reason,” Andres said, and that it “stresses self-expression and individual uniqueness.” Under the influence of romanticism, the religious heritage that stresses “guilt and good works is eroding.”

Non-conformity is valued in the romantic view, with Nietzsche being a “key figure.” However, for America, Andres said, the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson was far greater. Emerson also influenced Nietzsche – Emerson had a “tremendous impact on American spirituality,” Andres said, and in particular “dismisses family obligations when they conflict with the impulses of one’s own genius … he sneers at those who do good works as an apology for their comforts in life … he does ‘not wish to expiate, but to live … no law can be sacred to me but that of my nature … the only right is what is after my constitution.’” To live according to one’s own law “is what Emerson called ‘self-trust,’” Andres said. “One’s sense of one’s duties will change over time,” in the romantic view. One is not bound by past commitments; we should live according to our impulses. This characteristic of acting according to our inner impulses is what made great people great. “‘Do your own thing,’ go against convention; that’s what life is about” is the main point of Emerson’s thought, according to Andres. Andres said that, like Nietzsche, Emerson believed that “Jesus respected no values other than those he invented … Asserting our own inner nature” is the point of life, and this is discovered in our whims, in epiphanies of insight.

This is “a significant shift in the traditional practice of the care of the soul. In place of the long struggle of the divided soul, strained to conform one’s desires to the good of the community and to the divine will as it has been represented in the faith community, the struggle for Emerson consists of asserting one’s own inner nature, that’s what life’s struggle is about.” Our inner nature acts “against society and the obligations it seeks to impose.”

Andres referred to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who claimed to be black and became head of a local NAACP chapter, and former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, who underwent sexual re-assignment surgery, as examples of persons who invoked their right to be who they wanted to be above the physical reality of their bodies. Andres said Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls this turn to the inner self “the social imaginary of expressive individualism.” It has altered “how we hold our beliefs” and “how we come to understand who we are,” and is facilitated by the technology and affluence of the contemporary West. Postmodernism and its “cynicism” toward authority are rooted in this individualism. Although the Bible commonly condemns oppressive governments, in expressive individualism any external determination of people is considered to be wrong. Biblically, our salvation lies not in self-expression and actualization, but in trusting God, who is outside ourselves. This is a very different turn than the romantic turn to the self. Hurt and isolation are the result of expressive individualism. “It’s huge pressure, it’s exhausting, to always have my dream,” Andres said about self expressivism. Expressivism has its own kind of exclusivism, always rejecting the conformity of the outside world, according to Andres. Andres referred to sociologist Christian Smith, according to whom self expressivism has made “our religion about being happy”. The “moralistic therapeutic deism” described by Smith is now “colonizing” various Christian traditions. By contrast a Christian should seek to find his or her identity in Christ, Andres said. It should be added that this means we know his nature and will first through his words in Scripture.

Andres said that in our society a better strategy than correction might be to challenge people who are living out the narrative of self-expressive individualism about how their life is “working out” for them. Sacrificial life has “so much more meaning,” Andres declared. Instead of self-absorption, we should focus on loving and obeying God, and serving the world. However, Andres pointed out that Christian institutions such as the church and the family can be insular, excluding the wider world in ways that they should not. Andres concluded with the famous quotation from Augustine, in which he says that our hearts are restless, until they rest in God.

In a subsequent lecture, Nancy Pearcey discussed how Christian revelation makes better sense of sexual reality than the contemporary doctrine of expressive individualism. She began by noting Supreme Court decisions mandating acceptance of homosexuality that accuse social conservatives of trying to “demean,” “exclude,” and otherwise harm homosexuals with laws implementing traditional morality. This flows from the expressive individualist belief that the external world and its conventions oppress individuals. Traditional sexual morality is thus cruel, and Christians and any others who hold to it are morally defective. Pearcey analyzed this new morality in terms of Francis Schaeffer’s account of universals and particulars in Western philosophy, his famous “upper story/lower story” analogy. The realm of universals, dealing with meaning and value, are placed in an “upper story” of thought, while the particulars in physical reality are known in a “lower story” of thought. Cut off from one another, the upper story deals with the meaning of life – what really matters – but is irrational since it is entirely speculative, while the “lower story” is governed by science and reason, but has no value, since only mechanical interactions with no ultimate purpose can be discovered. Applied to humanity, this results in “personhood theory” in which an empirically discoverable human being is not necessarily a person. Rather, an arbitrary point after conception is chosen to establish personhood. Pearcey noted that key elements of Darwin’s materialist biology were to “deny divine purpose.” This opens up the possibility that functioning human organisms, even if they are well functioning, are not necessarily persons. They are persons only if they meet a social convention of personhood. This caused a “monumental shift in moral thinking. If nature does not reveal a divine will, we can impose our own values.”

In opposition to materialism, Descartes proposed a dualism of mind and body, Pearcey said. But this left the relation of mind and body unclear, and a mechanical nature devoid of spirit. Kant later said that “mind is a lawgiver to nature.” In personhood theory, arbitrarily designated humans are recognized as persons, while biological humans are just machines. Such “non-persons have no moral right to life.” A possible consequence of this might be the use of disabled persons rather than animals for medical experiments, Pearcey said. Also, newborn children might well not be considered persons. According to Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, the status of “personhood” remains a “grey area” even at three years of life. A real life example cited of the application of personhood theory was Terry Schiavo, who responded and made eye contact, yet was finally put to death by denying intravenous feeding. A similar issue, Pearcey said, is whether temporarily unconscious people are not persons, and thus have no rights. Against this, she noted that an individual with slight eye contact was found to be fully aware.

These examples show that a Biblical understanding of human beings – that they are more than physical objects no different from any other kind, and bearers of the image of God – gives a more rational result as to who possesses rights than does an expressivist/materialist assessment of an individual’s quality of life. Pearcey noted that biologists are in agreement that life begins at conception, and is a human individual as far as science is concerned from that point on.

With respect to sexual issues in particular, Pearcey said that “the most complete and intimate physical union” is also supposed to be “the most complete personal union,” but the denial of personhood to observable human individuals means that the human body is simply a possession of the human will which resides in the body. Secularists see sex as recreation for the “person” owning body. Pearcey referred to the Sexual Readiness Checklist (given to college students). It considers a sign of sexual readiness the ability to separate sex from love. But people cannot separate the body from the whole person. Disrespect of the person occurs in homosexuality, Pearcey said, since homosexual relations contradict a person’s psychology. According to personhood theory, anatomy has nothing to do with feelings. Biblical morality on the other hand respects our biological identity, she said, and heals self-alienation. Homosexuals thus should focus on the body and human design, not on feelings, Pearcey maintained. The physical body should be regarded as the true identity.

Other consequences of personhood theory are pornography, which is an “extreme separation of the person and the body,” and transgenderism, which says that the body is irrelevant. “All that matters is what we believe in our head.” We are thus now “moving away from the modern [and premodern] idea that sex is immutable” to the postmodern concept of “gender identity,” which is not a fringe idea any longer. A person’s “gender identity” can change from one day to the next, or from one event to the next, Pearcey said. Any objective standard for “gender” is held to be oppressive. The autonomous self should be free to impose its purposes on the body.

Pearcey noted that both Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Sanger were committed Darwinists and materialists. For persons who share this view, life and reality are just about pain and pleasure. But happiness as an ultimate value leads to “degrading of love and life.” In response to a question, it was noted that the immutability of homosexuality does not really accord very well with the fluidity of gender theory, and was really claimed to gain sympathy. But if one accepts transgenderism, then one must accept the reality of the ex-homosexual identity. It was also noted that the Evangelical church is just now catching up to a theology of celibacy, resulting from the experience of homosexually inclined but celibate Christians.

Pearcey said that Christianity was revolutionary against the Gnostic denigration of the body. Sex, being part of the body, is not bad, but good. The “great scandal” of the ancient world was the incarnation, she said, and the idea of the resurrection of the body utter foolishness to the Greeks. But despite whatever secular theories are developed, Scripture assures us that people bear the testimony of God and his revelation in their hearts (Rom. 2:14-16) and from what is apparent to them in the world (Rom 1:18-23). And in the world, “our sexual nature possesses a language which is part of the created order that is declaring the glory of God.” We need to get beyond “don’t” to show that Christian sexual ethics are superior, she said.

The rationalist doctrine of moral autonomy, which at least presents itself as protecting human dignity and a rational encounter between human beings, ends in destroying both, whereas the revealed anthropology and morality of God protects both, even though it means that we must regard ourselves and others as more than what we can see. As Pearcey noted, if we treat sex as primarily for pleasure, then the personhood of others gets in the way. Marriage is not just about pleasure, but about children. The covenant of marriage “protects from the body being cast aside.” Similarly, it might be added, the respect of children for parents, Christians for the church, and citizens for the state ensures that there is basic order in social relations. In these relations, as in the sexual identity and relations Pearcey discussed, we must, as she said, respect the holiness of God and self-sacrifice.

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