The majority decision of voting members of the Boy Scouts of America yesterday illustrates C.S. Lewis’ point in the Abolition of Man. In the Boy Scout Oath, a boy vows to keep himself “morally straight.” The term “moral” has lost all objective meaning and is now more about how the person feels about something. There is no objective definition of morally straight and no one knows where to find one. We are lost on the sea of public opinion.
Anyone who studies history knows where this ends. The strongest one wins and the most powerful rules. Lewis was right when he said “I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.” He later states “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.” Nature, red in tooth and claw, here we come.
I recently finished the short work The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. His “starting-point” illustration is from the story of Coleridge where two men look at a waterfall and one calls it “sublime” while the other calls it “pretty.” He then quotes from what he calls “The Green Book” (a high school level English book).
When the man said this is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word ‘Sublime”, or shortly I have sublime feelings.
This quote illustrates the main issue in the decline of western civilization: a loss of objective meaning. The word “sublime” no longer has objective meaning. Nothing has objective meaning. This loss of meaning impacts all of our society including visual art, poetry, architecture, music, politics, law, and religion.
A panel of prominent Evangelical pastors and leaders were asked what the greatest problem in Christianity was today. They all claimed it was a lack of genuine love for God and improper Christian affections. These same evangelicals point to the introduction of popular forms of worship as a leading factor in this problem. They generally see implementing appropriate forms as the primary means to restore proper affection. This is naïve. The problem is not just with Evangelicals and its source is not with popular forms of worship. The issues evangelicals face are part of the larger broader culture in which evangelicals find themselves.
The reality for Christianity today is that our doctrinal statements are incomplete. What was taken for granted for almost 2000 years can be no longer. We need a doctrine of objective value. We do not need a new doctrine but a clear concise articulation of what Christianity has always believed. The “Abolition of Man” is an important work summarizing the problem of the loss of meaning and is helpful in finding a solution.
Christian leaders need to be thinking through these issues. Thankfully, some are.
It was good to see you yesterday. Again, congratulations on the birth of your new son. You and your wife have been truly blessed.
Thank you for your comment on the “Rural vs Urban” photo I recently posted. I have enjoyed taking photos of these sites around farming areas that are being encroached upon by the city. Several book and magazine editors have expressed interest in using them to illustrate urban sprawl and the loss of farmland to development. While I am happy to sell these images to whomever and for whatever reason, pointing out the problems of urban sprawl is not my purpose.
My main point is the same point that Solomon makes in Ecclesiastes 1:4 “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.” The world is always searching for permanence and they are able to fool their eyes into seeing it in buildings and skyscrapers. The reality is that in a battle between rural vs. urban the farmer’s field wins every time. Long after those buildings have decayed, turned into dust and the people who built them forgotten that field will still be there. This truth leads the world to hide their eyes but for a Christian it allows them to see clearly and value what is truly worthwhile. We are able to enjoy the fruit of our labor while recognizing that it is only temporary. It is our portion. Where we do find permanence is in the eternal purposes of a sovereign God. Above all else we fear Him and keep His commandments and by doing so we are invited to partake in the eternal works of God.
Myung, like you I am new to the city. I pray that as you grow in your understanding of Christianity that you see everything, including the city itself, from an eternal perspective. I pray that you invest your life in eternal things. I pray that when you look over the city you do not see buildings and shopping centers, but God calling out men and women for the purpose of glorifying Himself for all eternity. May God open your eyes to see and your heart to overflow with thanksgiving.
Philippians 2:2 fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.
The American west is filled with competing interests. A big one is between farmers and developers. We see the clash of interests every day in south Phoenix.
In Christ’s church there is no place for competing interests. We set our earthly interests aside for our greatest love, Jesus Christ.
Keller’s quote sums up the popular thinking of Evangelicalism. First, this thinking assumes that God is dependent on our ability to create ministry/communication models that will reach the Western world. As I stated in my earlier blog post, this is a small view of an all-powerful God. God will accomplish His will any way He desires. Secondly, this thinking assumes that the problem is one of language and forms and all that we need to do is update our language and forms and we are in business.
This thinking would see ministry in the same terms as a missionary would see preparing for the foreign field. We need to learn the language and culture of the people we are ministering in order to clearly teach them the eternal truth of God. If the problem in our Western secular mission field is that we are speaking a different language and using different forms, then the answer is to learn to speak proficiently in word and deed with the people in our communities in order to effectively share the gospel.
I believe this assessment of the problem is naïve. We are not just having trouble communicating the truth to those people out there somewhere in secular Western society; we are having trouble communicating the truth to our children, our lifelong neighbors, even the people who have sat in our churches for generations.
The problem does lie in the realm of language and forms but it is not that we are using outdated language and forms. The problem is the deterioration of language itself in Western culture and society’s overall loss of meaning. Art critics have bemoaned the decline of meaning in society for well over 150 years. This decline in meaning has affected all the arts including music, visual, literature, and even language itself. And herein lies the problem; we are speaking the right language but language’s connection to meaning is deteriorating.
Language, like all art, is inherently symbolic. This is demonstrated in children as they learn to talk. They see a car and then mom or dad say “car”. They quickly learn to associate the word “car” with the mental representation of the cars they have seen, touched, smelled and heard. A child who has never experienced a car will not be able to give the word “car” any meaning. The more a child is able to experience a car the more the term car has meaning to him.
Language is symbolic and founded on the natural world. One of the reasons we are able to learn another language is that even though the words are different they are symbolizing objects, concepts and experiences historically shared in common by all mankind. Books, magazines, blogs, poetry, can be translated and understood generally by all languages because of the common experiences of all mankind. When there are exceptions it is because the people lack the experience that words symbolize.
For a Christian, understanding the relationship between language and the natural world is extremely important. The foundation of Christianity is Special Revelation through the Holy Scriptures but we often forget that general revelation forms a prerequisite for Scripture. They are mutually dependent.
For a Christian, this is the correct understanding of the important relationship between general and special revelation. God gave His special revelation to men who live in the world of His general revelation.
Here is a simple albeit extreme example to illustrate the point. Imagine you live in a world without male and female where people just spring forth from the earth. You open your Bible and read Matthew 6:9 “Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.” The term “Father” would have no meaning to you because you would have no mental representation to give the word meaning. The fact that you have a father and live in a world where everyone has a father gives this word meaning even though it was written two thousand years ago in a different language and a different culture. We still have a shared concept of a father. The point is that God gives His special revelation in the setting of His general revelation. If you take that special revelation out of the setting of general revelation, special revelation loses its context and meaning.
God’s word is given to men and women who live in this world. Unfortunately, we no longer live in the world that recognizes God’s creation. We have replaced God’s creation with a creation of mankind. We are no longer men, we are machines. The things that were common to all mankind are no longer common to us.
It is almost humorous to read cultural critics of the 19th century mourn the alienation of mankind with creation that was taking place with the rise of the industrial revolution which coincided with the growth of Darwinist understanding of the natural world. They could not have envisioned the universe of ones and zeros we now live in. We have won the battle for the words but are losing any real conception of what the words symbolize.
Read “The Lord is my Shepherd” to a group of inner-city children and ask them what it means. Better yet, ask their inner-city youth leaders what it means. For centuries, these words of David held deep powerful meaning and formed the core of Christian’s concept and worship of God. The reason this metaphor held such a deep hold on the Christian imagination was because mankind had a general familiarity of sheep and shepherding. For thousands of years sheep were the common experience of almost all mankind. Today, most have never seen a real sheep outside of the state fair or a petting zoo and most have no concept of shepherding. The metaphor loses its meaning.
Much of the scriptures use the visible world to help us grasp the invisible. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of salt, light, candles, cities on a hill, shining light, brothers, fathers, sons, civil officers, eyes, hands, teeth, cheeks, neighbors, moths, rust, birds of the air, clothing, harvesting, sowing seed, barns, wild flowers, specks, logs, pearls, dogs, pigs, knocking on a door, bread, stones, fish, snakes, narrow gates, wide gates, broad roads and difficult paths, wolves in sheep’s clothing, thorn bushes, figs, thistles, good trees, bad trees, fruit, fire, foundations of houses, rain, floods, and wind. All these references to the natural world are to give Christ’s words meaning.
We know of these natural elements but we do not know them as they once were known. Take salt for example. We know what it is and its flavor but few know where it comes from or how usable salt is produced. We do not know how to find it or the difference between different qualities of salt. The phrase “you are the salt of the earth” does not mean much to us because our imaginations do not have much to draw from in relation to salt. The first image brought to mind is the salt shaker in our cupboard that we use to salt our fries.
The problem is more than speaking the wrong language. The problem is an increasing degradation of language itself and an alienation from general revelation on which special revelation depends.
A looming crisis for American evangelical churches is that we cannot thrive outside of the shrinking enclaves of conservative/traditional culture. We need to create ministry/communication models that will flourish & grow in a very secular Western world. Our vision should be to develop churches, Christian education & discipleship systems that are effective in the fields of North America. Contextualization is not giving people what they want. It is giving God’s answers to the questions they are asking in forms they can comprehend. - Tim Keller
This is an example of Evangelicals following a miniature god. Is the advancement of the faith dependent on our ability to develop effective ministry/communication models? Does God look over His church in frustration because there is so much He could do but they are not using the right church, Christian education and discipleship systems? This is a little god; the real God is much bigger.
The God of Jonah poured out His mercy on the people of Nineveh against the objections of Jonah. How is Jonah for a ministry/communication model? This is the same God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone. I tremble before the God who will show mercy on whomever He will show mercy. We are to be an aroma of life unto life to those who are being saved and the aroma of death unto death to those who are perishing. In either case we are always triumphant.
God is not dependent on our novel ministry/communication models to carry out His eternal plan. Keller talks of a looming crisis but the current crisis is Evangelical’s little gods.