Transforming Christians to Transform Culture

Posts by P. Andrew Sandlin

History Doesn’t Pick Sides — You Do

Posted on September 11, 2014

 

USA Today’s Christine Brennan chided the soft-spoken, retired-NFL-coach-turned-commentator, devout Christian Tony Dungy, for his comparatively benign comment that he would not have drafted the openly gay Michael Sam since he “wouldn’t want to deal with all of it [the controversy].” The unforgivable sin that Dungy and a number of his over-60-years-old crowd committed is, according to Brennan, to be “[o]n the wrong side of history.”

Barack Obama once publicly worried about being on the wrong side of history by not supporting same-sex marriage though, later, he apparently got on the right side of history by supporting it. In fact, as even the left-slated Slate complains, the president is increasingly trotting out that expression “the wrong side of history,” as, for example, when he scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin for invading the Ukraine. Even conservatives sometimes get into the act. Fox News’ Shepard Smith claimed the Republican Party was “on the wrong side of history” for not lining up behind same-sex marriage.

The phrase is often identified with classical Marxists, and Leon Trotsky is reputed to have told his opponents they would end up in “the dustbin of history.”

 

The Metaphysical Myth

 

Behind this idea widely held by leftist radicals is a metaphysical myth, a breathtaking leap of faith. It is this: just as linear history is a record of man’s scientific and technological advance, so it is a record of his moral advance. Earlier morals in history were at best crude and undeveloped and oppressive, and, in many cases, just plain wrong. But as history moves forward, and man becomes more enlightened, as he inevitably will, his morals become more enlightened.

 

But it is, in fact, not true that science and technology have merely advanced. As Carnes Lord has noted, some ancient cultures (notably Egypt and her pyramids) obviously employed technologies every bit as modern as our own. How did that technology get lost for 2500 or more years? From a purely empirical standpoint, scientific and technological advance are not inevitable. But apparently, moral advance is.

 

The radicals will say: “Just think of slavery. It has been abolished everywhere in the Western world. It is not even thinkable.” (Except by radical Muslims in Africa, but we apparently should only be concerned about the putative injustices suffered by the descendants of African-American slaves, and not actual African slaves today.) According to this metaphysical myth, mankind is consistently shedding morality destined for the dustbin of history. (Even expressions like mankind must be shed for the less paternalistically imperialistic term humankind.) When outmoded moralities do reappear, as in the Nazis’ anti-Semitism, they are quickly and relentlessly crushed because they are, well, on the wrong side of history.

 

Disproving a Myth

 

Like most myths, this one is hard to disprove. It is a metaphysical myth. It cannot be empirically disproven because it enlists a standard beyond history by which the events of history must be interpreted. Technological and scientific advance are different. Common sense will tell us that, if our goal is swift and accurate communication with one another, a smart phone is better than a telephone, and a telephone is better than the Pony Express, which has been consigned to the dustbin of history, just as telephones are being relegated to dustbins, and not just historical ones, either.

 

A commonsensical standard for, say, human sexuality is not as clear. Is monogamy superior to polygamy and, if so, to what commonsense standards would one appeal? If the goal is the proliferation of offspring, polygamy beats monogamy hands down. But to assess whether proliferation of offspring should be the chief objective of sexual relationships is to invoke a standard beyond the merely historical. Ironically, however, most radical leftists see monogamy (including, today, homosexual monogamy) as having replaced polygamy in the great march of human history. Radical leftists must enlist a metaphysical standard, a moral standard, that they did not discover merely by historical investigation. To say that monogamy must replace polygamy and that homosexual monogamy is no less legitimate than heterosexual monogamy is to express a judgment based in a particular presupposition, or worldview. No one should simply accept it as an axiom.

 

The Empirical Failure

 

But the wrong-side-of-history myth fails on the empirical level too, even if it can’t be disproven empirically. Moral optimists early in the 20th century were hailing the end of war, the ushering in of universal peace and brotherhood. Tribalism and xenophobia and their moralities had been found to fall on the wrong side of history and had been replaced by the universal morality of tolerance. But something funny happened on the way into the 20th century: World War I, and then World War II, and then world communism, and then the Cold War, and then Korea and Viet Nam, and then Rwandan genocide, and then 9/11, and then ISIS. If, according to the radicals, each event was on the wrong side of history, much of the 20th century was on the wrong side of history. Which is to say, there’s nothing inevitable about the march of morality, including leftist morality. People make decisions, and they often make wrong moral decisions (however “wrong” is defined), and if enough of them make those wrong decisions, the culture will quickly get on the wrong side of history. There is, frankly, nothing morally inevitable, and there simply isn’t any moral march of history.

 

God’s World of Human Choices

 

This world is God’s world, however, since he created it, sustains it, and will bring it to its conclusion, glorifying him and his truth without his employing determinist moralities, without coercing humans to be good or evil. God alone is absolutely free, but he gives man free choices. He can assure the ends without coercing the means. He gave Adam and Eve the choice to obey or disobey. He set before ancient Israel good and evil. His apostle Paul declares that when God revealed himself to humanity in righteousness, most of it turned to idolatry and consequent perversion. History is not some personal force gradually shedding some morals while adopting others. History is God’s created theater in which he dynamically interacts with man, created in his image, to bring all things to God’s glory. There is no right or wrong side of history, there is only a right or wrong side with respect to God. “Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, ‘Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me’” (Ex. 32:26). “Whoever is not with me is against me,” Jesus states, “and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Lk. 11:23).

 

God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, the Bible, and in creation is the only standard of morality in any historical period. Older morality is not illegitimate (or legitimate) merely on the grounds that it is older, and newer morality is not illegitimate(or legitimate) merely on the grounds that it is more recent. All morality must be judged by the objective standard of God’s revelation.

 

We Can Win

 

We Christians aghast at the onslaught of cultural apostasy surrounding us should derive great comfort from the falsity of historical determinism — the myth that history picks sides on which we’d better bandwagon. The pervasive victory of same-sex marriage is not historically inevitable. Legalized abortion on-demand may be the law of the land, but it is not the iron law of historical determinism. A socialistic state may seem the wave of the future, but it may turn out to be nothing more than the splash of the present. Apart from the predictive prophecy of the word of God (and there is much less of this in the Bible than you might suppose), nothing is inevitable. Properly qualified, Thomas Sowell’s comment “[N]othing is inevitable until it happens” is right on target. The world changes. People change. Churches change. Businesses change. Nations change. Cultures change. Nothing is inevitable until it happens.

 

The moniker “the wrong side of history” is calculated to cut off reasonable arguments and is often simply a dash into irresponsibility. To be on the right side of history is simply to capitulate to the inevitable: “Who am I to impede history’s moral march?” That is the lazy way out, and often the immoral way out. History doesn’t decide anything. We decide whether we will obey God or resist him. “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Rom. 3:4).

 

Don’t be either bullied or discouraged when you are accused of having fallen on “the wrong side of history.” There is no wrong side of history, or right side of history. There is only a wrong and right side of God and his revelation.

 

Being on God’s right side is all that matters — individually, and culturally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Aesthetic Terrorists

Posted on September 3, 2014

In the far-from-Christian New York Times, Dexter Filkins discloses a fact emerging from the ISIS rampage in Syria and Iraq as horrifying in its own way as the images of rape, pillage, torture, crucifixions, and decapitations we are now accustomed to seeing every night on TV: evidence that ISIS fighters are less interested in political objectives that their murders can secure than in simply enjoying the murders themselves. Filkins reminds us of Carl von Clausewitz’s famed aphorism that “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” but Filkins inquires what war might look like when there is no political component — that is to say, when people enjoy the ravages and depredations of war as an end in themselves. Which is to say, finally, that some people kill because they, well, love killing other people. Filkins relates that videos produced by ISIS murderers and their collaborators feature eerie, perverse delight in the murders. This reality, he argues, might belie the words by the murderers (most recently, the decapitators of two Americans) that their goal is to discourage American bombing. The actual explanation is found elsewhere: ISIS simply loves killing people and photographing the killing, and expansionary war is a pretext for their perverse and exhibitionist bloodletting. The beauty is in the killing itself — doing it, and watching the doing of it over and over again.

 

Bruce Mazlish once wrote about both acetic revolution and aesthetic revolution. An aspect of aesthetic revolution is often aesthetic violence — the perverse beauty of destroying human lives, murder as high art. A striking example of aesthetic violence projected on the silver screen is the opening of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

 

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Similarly, in the background noises of ISIS ecstasy accompanying videos of suicide missions, beheadings, and crucifixions, we encounter what I’d like to call aesthetic terrorism — terror for its own sake, terror not so much for a political or military objective, but terror because it, well,  feels so good.

 

Aesthetic Terrorism in the Secular Worldview

 

Aesthetic terrorism is difficult to explain within the postmodern Western democratic, which is to say, militantly secular, worldview. According to militant secularism, the world’s problems are largely reduced to educational or technological challenges that reside in the as-yet-imperfect human system. In the face of humans harming other humans, we simply need better education, better drugs, better brain implants, better electro-chemical bodily stimulation, and so on. In the end, there really can’t be moral transgressions (except maybe racism, sexism, and Christian sexual standards) because morality itself is a spurious category.

 

This is why secular elites scoffed at the cowboy president, Ronald Reagan, when he referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and why many of the same people and their ideological successors responded in the same way when George W. Bush referred to the “axis of evil.” Evil simply isn’t real. Like the triune God, it’s a mental construct of unenlightened people.

 

ISIS’s recent aesthetic terrorism severely tests that thesis. In the Dark Knight, Alfred the butler, played by Michael Caine, explains to Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) the motivations of the nihilistic Joker. He tells the story of his time in Burma when he encountered a man who wreaked havoc in the jungles with no discernible motivation: “Some men just like to see the world burn.”

 

 

If evil is an illusion, what do we call people who do not employ murder as an objective to a greater (= political) end but who relish murder as an end in itself? If this isn’t evil, what is it? And if there is no such thing as evil, what do we call this?

 

Aesthetic Terrorism in the Christian Worldview

 

Aesthetic terrorism is readily explainable in terms of the Christian worldview, however. People are sinners. They’re not sinners because they sin; they sin because they are sinners. This is the Christian idea of Original Sin, which, as G. K. Chesterton once noted, is the only Christian dogma that can be empirically verified. From the vantage of the Christian worldview, it’s not evil that needs to be explained, but good. In a post-Fall world, evil is the default. Good is the exception. Good happens because God intervenes in history to restrain people from being as evil as they otherwise would be. We call this God’s common grace. More importantly, he intervened in history in the person of Jesus Christ to rescue sinners from eternal judgment. We call this special grace. Apart from God’s grace, the world would be festered with aesthetic terrorists.

 

The Christian Crusade

 

Which leads to a final comment: the Christian worldview does not offer any schemes of naturalistic redemption. Sinners are converted by God the Father’s love exhibited in the incursion of God’s Spirit in history on the basis of Jesus Christ’s redemptive work. The Bible promises that one day God will rectify all the evil in the world, but that day is not today. Before the eschaton, God has authorized a few less overtly sinful individuals (in the form of civil government) to suppress more overtly sinful individuals (like ISIS) who are destroying his image, in other words, humanity. And if they can’t suppress them, they must kill them. Thirty-five years ago, Harold O. J. Brown argued for the Christian crusade, warfare in extreme and limited cases by which the nations of old Christendom, despite their own drift from Christian truth, nonetheless retaining aspects of Christian morality, unleash their lethal justice against just the kinds of perversity that ISIS is today perpetrating in the Middle East. When the doggedly non-interventionist Rand Paul argues for military intervention to suppress ISIS as he did last weekend (which is not the same thing as Woodrow Wilson’s messianic “making the world safe for democracy”), it is hard to imagine any reasonable moral barrier to at least serious consideration of wiping this depraved plague off the planet.

 

Meanwhile, let us consider that in arguably the most horrifying military expansionism since Nazi Germany during World War II and the Soviet Union just after it, the ethical resources of the great guiding light of modern secularism have left us in darkness.

 

The Christian worldview alone provides both a rationale for this human horror — and a rationale for obliterating it.

5 Things to Know for Monday

Posted on September 1, 2014

  1. God created the world and all that’s in it (including man and woman, in his image) in six days and pronounced everything he’d made as “very good.”

 

  1. Man and woman sinned under Satan’s temptation — breaking God’s heart and his law and eliciting his judgment and the pollution of the “very good” world.

 

  1. God in his grace promised to send a Redeemer to vanquish sin in the lives of humans and in the entire creation.

 

  1. If you trust in that Redeemer, Jesus Christ, alone for salvation, God will wash away the guilt and judgment of your sin (immediately) and the corruption and power of your sin (incrementally) and covenant with you to be your Father both now and in eternity.

 

  1. Human history is God’s laboring-ground for displaying his matchless power and grace and overthrowing Satan and sin and creating a temporal and, eventually, an eternal world exhibiting his love and glory and power and justice over the entire created universe.

White (and Black and Red and Yellow and Brown) Privilege

Posted on August 26, 2014

African-American-Business-WomanWhat I find most objectionable in Matt Chandler’s comments about the Ferguson, Missouri conflagration (literally) is his remarkably unverified and unverifiable statement that “white people, in most cases, have easier paths than most black people,” and, in particular the utter omission, if he is going that route, of addressing secular privilege, female privilege, Asian privilege, homosexual privilege, Roman Catholic privilege, black privilege, Episcopal privilege, college-educated privilege, manual-dexterity privilege, environmentalist privilege, and on and on. There is no white privilege on the campus of some West Coast universities where Asians are clearly superior to whites in intellectual performance — and everyone rightly privileges them on this point. Everybody is privileged in some situations and not in others. It is Matt’s intellectual and social over-simplicity that’s especially offensive. I mean right behind his commitment to political correctness.

 

White privilege is not a sort of lifelong social construct. Different kinds of people during different times of their lives with different characteristics and in different social and cultural situations are privileged. When a black businessman walks into a Four Seasons wearing a Hickey Freeman suit, he is privileged. When a white construction worker walks into the same establishment wearing blue jeans and a dirty T-shirt, he is not. There is no such thing as white privilege or black privilege or male or female or Asian or old or young or rich or poor privilege as an overarching life category.

 

Further, I would be less inclined to believe Matt is capitulating to political correctness were he to boldly challenge the reigning radical racial paradigm. Had he said, for example, “There are some whites who are privileged in this country, and there are some blacks who are privileged in this country, and we need to understand what ‘privilege’ all about,” I’d have a greater respect for him. I’d really enjoy hearing him expostulate on the black privilege of socially unjust racial hiring and admissions policies that harm Asians and Hispanics.

 

There are huge, unverified biases behind the common notion of “white privilege.” I wish Matt had mentioned some of them. 

An Economic KICK (Keep It Complex, Knucklehead)

Posted on August 21, 2014

You have, no doubt, heard the famous advice to speakers, writers and salesmen, expressed in the abbreviation KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. It’s good advice for speaking, writing and sales. But it’s bad advice for other activities.

In fact, the bleating of sincere, moralistic souls for simplicity in modern life is often, by intent or not, a call for increased tyranny.

 

The Tyranny of Simplicity

In the economic sphere, the victory of simplicity almost always necessitates the deprivation of liberty. A good example is price controls. The economy sure would be a lot simpler if tomorrow the federal government decreed that the price for a dozen eggs across the country must be $1.00, the price for every loaf of bread must be $2.00, and the price for a gallon of low-fat milk must be $3.00. Just think how this would simplify certain calculations of grocery store owners and managers. It would be a simple and soon disastrous decision. Why? The free market rests on a highly complex interplay of human decisions, and it cannot be reduced to a simple formula.

I don’t understand all the motivations behind, and mechanisms implementing, the human decisions that every two weeks bring the ice cream truck to deliver to my very own doorstep chocolate mud pies, for which I fork over a little hard-earned cash and then greedily devour. It sure would be a lot simpler to explain why there should be a new law from the Sacramento capital requiring that a dozen chocolate mud pies be delivered to all Californians with the initials PAS.

A lot simpler, yes, but a lot less successful and, worse still, a lot more tyrannical.

In his astoundingly learned and extensively documented work Fire in the Minds of Men, James Billington observes again and again how that revolutionary socialists have historically been committed to a radical social simplicity. Among these revolutionaries, there has been an eerie obsession with geometric and mathematical formulas as a pattern by which society should be redrawn. “If Newton could discover the law of gravity and reduce it to a few simple formulas, why can’t we discover the laws of society and reduce them to a few simple formulas?” The problem is that human society is not analogous to the laws of gravity. Men, made in the image of God, are relatively free moral agents; and the attempts to reduce their society to a few simple formulas inevitably results in tyranny.

By intervening in the free decisions of the grocer, the state sets into motion processes that extract food from everyone’s table. The bewildering complexity of activities and processes that underlay the exchange of goods and services in the marketplace requires and perpetuates human liberty. Each of us makes thousands of decisions every day, most insignificant, some occasionally momentous. If those decisions are voluntary (non-coercive), without molesting life, liberty, or property, they combine with everybody else’s decisions to produce a dramatically free society.

Don’t ask how this happens. Don’t ask how my decision to buy my daughter a new pair of tennis shoes benefits not only the shoe salesman and the shoe store, but possibly a butler in Paris, a baker in San Jose, and a candlestick maker in Tokyo, but this very well could happen and this sort of thing happens every day. If you try to simplify this dizzying complexity, you end up stealing liberty from a lot of people and eventually produce massive shortages (just ask somebody who lived in the old Soviet Union or anybody who lives in today’s North Korea). The complexity of multi-billions of free decisions by millions of people fosters liberty, while the simplicity of a few thousand decisions by a few hundred government bureaucrats creates tyranny.

 

The High Cost of Simplicity

Now the main problem with “simple” price controls is that they absolutize economic information while lacking the capacity to absolutize the reality underlying that information. Imposing price controls on eggs, bread, and milk can’t make chickens lay more eggs, the soil grow more wheat, or cows give more milk. In a free market economy, prices are simply information about underlying realities, not greedily erected, artificial barriers to keep poor (or middle-class) people from getting what they “deserve.” You can’t change the underlying reality by freezing prices, but you sure can change the reality of available products and services by coercively freezing prices: price controls always produce shortages, which hurt everybody’s reality.

 

Complexity and Human Action

I repeat: almost every attempt to simplify the main factors in the realm of the exchange of goods and services in a market economy results in a loss of liberty. Why is this? Because the leading factors in a market economy are not products, services, or even prices, but human decisions and other human actions. Goods, services, prices, and exchanges are the result of human actions, not vice versa. State interference in the market disrupts these human choices and in so doing, creates tyranny. If, in an alleged effort to keep prices down for grocery shoppers, the state imposes price controls on eggs, bread, and milk, the result will (temporarily) benefit consumers (the first ones that get to the grocery); but it surely will not benefit the grocery owner, who, all other things being equal, is forced to pay fluctuating market prices to his suppliers for these products. It doesn’t take a Ph. D. in economics to figure out that the simplicity of price controls benefits one group at the expense of another group. Soon, such price controls will hurt almost everybody, because if the grocery owner isn’t free to charge the price he wants, he eventually won’t be able to afford to buy at his suppliers’ selling cost; and if the supplier can’t sell his goods to the grocer, he will eventually quit buying from the farmers and dairymen, who will be stuck with food that cannot readily enter the marketplace.

Note how complex the spurious attempts at economic simplicity can get.

In the realm of economics, we need to replace the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) with the KICK principle (Keep It Complex, Knucklehead).

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