The absence of a theological and moral basis for life in early twenty-first century society has become a severe problem. It was discussed in presentations at the recent L’Abri Fellowship conference and reviewed in recent articles (here and here).
In a subsequent lecture, Mike Sugimoto, who teaches at Pepperdine University with research interests in social theories of modernity, discussed the inability of contemporary societies to find a cultural center given the conflicting claims of pre-modern religion and tradition, scientific modernity, and the postmodern affective revolution. The Biblical concept of man in the image of God has prevailed in the Western world for two millennia, but “men today can no longer answer that crucial question ‘who am I?'”
This is a problem in many parts of the world. In China, for instance, economic liberalization and the destruction of traditional beliefs by the communists “has left individualistic nihilism at the heart of Chinese society.” This shows that the identity problem is truly international.
Similar to Francis Schaeffer’s “two story” analogy, there is a non-rational compartment of the secular world that involves the emotions, sentiment, art, and religion. On the other hand, there is a “public space” of science, technology, and reason. This divided world is the outworking of classical liberalism, Sugimoto maintained. He said that this “is a very unstable situation.” It is “unstable for the reason that you can’t totally separate these things.”
To answer the question of identity, Sugimoto observed that the Enlightenment attempted to find truth and a secure life in the public world independent of religion. But this did not work. “You can’t just cordon off government in one area,” governed by science and reason, and religion and art in another area. There is a public/private partnership in the contemporary organization of life. As was noted in a previous article from the conference on the affective revolution, people today want a basis for identity in their own inclinations, with the resulting irrationality which they want acknowledged in the public sphere.
Additionally, there is the process of social (as distinct from governmental) secularization. This is the move by many people from a “theologically informed” private space into a more secular private space. He said that “it’s not that the religious world goes away,” it is simply moved to a marginal existence for much of the population. There is an attitude of “don’t get in my lane.”
The instability of this arrangement, Sugimoto said, has resulted in “the breakdown of the Enlightenment.” There continue to be public intellectuals who are advocates of the Enlightenment, and are interested in “counter-acting” the breakdown. He said that “conservative Christians” are in some measure aligned with this group, but the outcome of that alliance is unclear.
Sugimoto observed that “the nation-state is the glue, that’s trying to hold everything together.” Much social criticism today shows that our current world is one in which the liberal separation of the rational and emotional spheres is “really being tested.” Some even suggest that the liberal political/social arrangement “is beginning to lapse as an idea.”
The secular vision which is struggling to hold things together has been different in Europe than in America, Sugimoto said. The European ideal of separation of church and state was to protect the state from the church. In America, it is to protect the church from the state.
Although liberalism excludes Biblical Christianity from much of the wider world, it retains the ideal of human dignity, which had been the doctrine of “man in the image of God.” There was an ideal of the unity of mankind. Sugimoto pointed to the “Family of Man” exhibition that toured the world in the wake of World War II. It showed people around the world in universal activities, such as eating, work, worship, friendship, and marriage. There was also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proposed 30 rights as a basis for a common human life the world over. While the drafters of the declaration seem to have drawn on Biblical doctrine, they were careful to make no appeal to a theological basis for the declaration. Eliminating theology then raises the question of the basis for these rights, and how they fit together.
One proposal, he said, is to maintain the secularized Christian view of humanity – a view without theological basis – in the near future for the sake for progress, but not indefinitely. However, this secularized version of the Western legacy already seems to be “at a breaking point.” The nation-state is the final framework for order in our world today, both for the creative class, which is trying to get beyond it, and the populist right, which wants to maintain the framework (and is also more religious). What threatens, Sugimoto said, is the doctrine of moral autonomy, expressed by Justice Anthony Kennedy’s infamous “mystery clause”:
“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
This clearly exalts a self which is detached from the world. It has been well discussed by Carl Trueman in his recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2020). In this detached world the self grows smaller and smaller, “until it collapses on itself.”
Sugimoto said that “virtually every elite institution in our society” has accepted the dicta of the cultural left – what is popularly called “wokism.” This includes the arts, government, universities, etc. He said that a “clear articulation” of wokism is that it is a “new faith” that “rejects nearly every fundamental principle of liberal modernity: the existence of an objective and immutable realty that can be discovered by reason, the scientific method, the enduring human nature, impartial equality before the law, secular pluralism, the value of freedom of speech, [and] the separation of the private and public spheres.” He said that liberalism “has acted as a centrifugal force, severing all counter forces,” that kept people “connected to human communities, and launching them outward towards solitary orbits.”
The Christian worldview is a bulwark for objectivity. It always stays the same, based as it is on the Bible. For a Biblical response to racial and sexual identity politics, we should turn to Genesis chapter one, and its account of the creation of male and female in the image of God. This expresses both “unity” and “plurality.” Sugimoto noted that there is unity and plurality in God himself. He said that in “classical Christian teaching the divinely sanctioned union of male and female is the icon of the relationship of Christ to his church, and ultimately of God to his creation.” Statements in the New Testament regarding the adoption of Christians as sons and daughters of God give them their identity. The grafting of Christians into the olive tree of Israel assures them of the righteousness of their identity.
But there is also the idea proposed by Francis Schaeffer of “co-belligerence,” in which Christians can work with others on particular issues. Appeals to common sense and “not being able to walk through walls” can serve as a basis for co-belligerence. One co-belligerent, Colin Wright, who maintains the Reality’s Last Stand website, said that “denying the reality of the existence of the two sexes, male and female, in humans is the absolute pinnacle of science denial. The Biblical story of Adam and Eve is more scientifically accurate on this topic than the mainstream American left-wing media. Many atheists laugh at the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, that a cracker can turn into the blood and body of Christ, yet somehow take seriously the notion that a person by mere self-declaration can be transformed into the opposite sex.”
Sugimoto also referred to two other co-belligerents in the war for belief in objective reality, Melissa Chen, a biologist, and Sam Harris, a neuroscientist.
Chen has a Christian background that she has “distanced herself from.” She was educated at Harvard, and has “given her life” to the battle for objectivity. She is the founder of the Books without Borders organization, which translates books into foreign languages, and is also active in efforts against racial discrimination to achieve “equity.” Harris is best known as a “new atheist,” but Sugimoto said that while in opposition to the prevailing subjectivism, he is also interested in “spirituality, and is really popular with his meditation app.” Surprisingly, Sugimoto said that Rod Dreher is perhaps the only Christian writer “now read by secular atheist scientists.”
Other allies he identified on the side of objectivity are new black public intellectuals who are either Christians or co-belligerent in the battle against wokism. These include John Wood, Jr., Colin Hughes (the youngest of the four), Glenn Loury, (first black PhD. in economics at Harvard), and John McWhorter (a “linguist by training,” who is now the most mainstream of the four). All appeal “to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.” With respect to their religious beliefs, Wood and Loury are believers. None of the new leaders, however, seem to connect King’s work to its Christian justification.
The partisans of objective reality are building the new University of Austin in Austin, Texas. It will attempt to advance academic objectivity against wokeness. Lawrence Summers (who resigned as President of Harvard University in part for questioning feminist orthodoxy), and Andrew Sullivan are involved in the university, as well as Joshua Katz, a classicist at Princeton and a new convert. Bari Weiss, formerly with the Wall Street Journal is “one of the main voices” for the university.
Sugimoto, however, observed doubt in the academic world that a new Enlightenment project can work without a foundation. A recent observation was that “classical liberalism has never existed on its own steam anywhere. Throw out nationalism and religion, and classical liberalism collapses … In 2020, the hegemony of liberal ideas collapsed, and everyone, liberals, conservatives, Marxists, and authoritarians knows it. When hegemony of one ideology comes to an end, competing ideas that seem more powerful sound much louder.”
Technology also has an impact on the loss of the center. Sugimoto pointed to Tristan Harris, who was involved in Facebook. He observed the enormous power of Silicon Valley, which influences “how a billion people spend their time.” Social media is not so much about news, as it is about meaning and identity. It has contributed to the collapse of the public/private distinction, noted above. Harris referred to Einstein’s observation that the two great bombs in the modern world are the atomic bomb, and the “information bomb,” the latter of which destroys “the principle of reality itself, not the actual object.”
In response to a question, Sugimoto referred approvingly to Rod Dreher’s emphasis on “handing down” Christian tradition. We need to be careful to do a good job of catechizing children. Even so, he pointed out that the child must take the tradition as his or her own. Some children may take a “sideways kind of detour,” before returning to the faith. Another important point is that while we want to maintain Christian faith in its purity, we must be “attuned” to ideas in the wider culture “because those kind of ideas come into the church.”
The collapse of the public/private distinction is perhaps the most threatening aspect of the affective revolution and identity politics for religious freedom. As noted in earlier articles this year, the “conversion therapy” bans threaten to prohibit the expression of traditional sexual morality, and perhaps ultimately the need for salvation itself, even in church or the home.
Clarke Scheibe, Director of the L’Abri Fellowship in Victoria, British Columbia, expanded on why classical liberalism has failed to stop a new “soft” totalitarianism in another presentation, to be reviewed in a subsequent article.
It can be viewed here.