Becoming Sin: The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Ontology of Evil

One of the most terrifying works of art ever conceived in the mind of a man and executed by the skill of his hand, is the 7-foot tall painting of Dorian Gray by the 20th-century artist Ivan Albright. This monstrosity hangs in the halls of the Chicago Art Institute, and it may be warranted to say that any observer who can withstand looking at it for longer than a few minutes might rightly be suspected of either having some form of mental disorder or some serious moral defect. For to gaze too long upon Albright’s “masterpiece,” is quite literally to gaze at an image of human corruption and decay that, in its extraordinary arrangement of matter and form, embodies what could be best described in theological terms as “sin.”

And it was for this very purpose that the artist, Albright, was commissioned. Albright, who learned his macabre talent for portraying human flesh sketching battle-inflicted wounds in France during World War I, created the portrait for a 1945 film version of Oscar Wilde’s modern novel about the inner corruption of man, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Taken together, what Wilde captured in word and Albright in paint and canvas, makes for a vivid reminder of a very uncomfortable biblical truth, namely, the reality of human depravity and the corrosive effects of sin. Wilde’s story about Dorian Gray— the handsome youth who makes a devil’s pact to pursue without regret his every lustful and wicked desire— as well as Albright’s depiction of the inner man that Dorian becomes, also act as a type of apologetic for the traditional view of Hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment— a doctrine that has fallen on hard times due to modern sensitivities, but that still maintains dogmatic status in most church traditions. For it makes little sense to hold to such a harsh doctrine of damnation, unless we truly believe that man not only does evil, but can become it.

The Wild Life of Oscar Wilde

The dandyism of the 19th century author and poet Oscar Wilde is renowned in literary history. But it was not just his flamboyant dress and sharp tongue that made him stand out. Wilde’s sexual escapades were as jarring as his external appearance and as unbound as his creativity. But, those escapades were consistent not just with personal taste but with a particular worldview; even if they likely began where all sinful habituations begin, in early childhood. Wilde’s libertine lifestyle was borne out of both his metaphysical and moral perspective of the universe, one not unlike that of his literary successor, Aldous Huxley, who, with great transparency, explained his own rejection of God’s authority and design, saying:

I had motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. … For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.

Huxley, Ends and Means

Wilde, like Huxley, was both sexually and politically offensive in his day and age. Of course, in 19th century Ireland, the two domains of sexual morality and politics were still fused together by laws of conduct, a notion increasingly alien to most westerners today. As such, Wilde was eventually tried and convicted for the sin of sodomy, a sin, moreover, that he enjoyed with both underaged boys and egomaniacal relish. Summing up his life, Wilde’s fellow Dubliner, George Bernard Shaw, said this:

Oscar seems to have said: ‘I will love nobody; I will be utterly selfish; and I will be not merely a rascal but a monster; and you shall forgive me everything. In other words, I will reduce your standards to absurdity, not by writing them down, though I could do that as well—in fact, have done it—but by actually living them down and dying them down.

Shaw, “My Memories of Oscar Wilde”

But, aside from some general lack of moral development, it was again a particular view of the world which Wilde held that facilitated and justified his debauchery. Wilde, like many at that time, embraced fully, indeed far more fully than others in the same intellectual circles, the practical outworking of the philosophy of aestheticism. Late 19th and early 20th century aestheticism was best articulated by the British philosopher, G.E. Moore, in his book Principia Ethica. Alasdair MacIntyre sums up the core tenets of aestheticism, commenting on Moore’s work in MacIntyre’s own magnum opus, After Virtue:

Thirdly, it turns out to be the case, in the sixth and final chapter of [Moore’s] Principia Ethica, that ‘personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest, and by far the greatest goods we can imagine… ’ This is ‘the ultimate and fundamental truth of Moral Philosophy’. The achievement of friendship and the contemplation of what is beautiful in nature or in art become certainly almost the sole and perhaps the sole justifiable ends of all human action.

MacIntyre, After Virtue

For the aesthete of Wilde’s time and place, there was nothing more than, or beyond, the relishing of friendships and the contemplation of art and nature. These are the “sole justifiable ends of all human action.” While not bad things in themselves, and indeed things worthy of pursuit, nevertheless this view is teleologically a far cry from the Westminster Confession (or the Roman Catholic Catechism), which state that the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Or, as Christ taught, saying in a very particular order, that the two greatest commands are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then to love one’s neighbor as oneself. For the aesthete the first part of this command is meaningless, for God is not a reality that can be loved. The second becomes therefore primary, as the creaturely is elevated in value to the level of Creator, an exchange that the apostle Paul warns about in the opening salvo of his letter to the Romans.

In Wilde’s own writing, which is best understood as the weaving together into literary form this Anglo-philosophical aestheticism with the moral philosophy of Nietzsche, he describes his stance in the preface of Dorian Gray, when he states:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things….Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The last few sentences of this passage evince Wilde’s Nietzschean bent. Here morality no longer means the “slavish” moral values and obligations of the Judeo-Christian revelation, but the aesthetic aspirations of the Homeric mytho-poetic world. Beauty versus ugliness is the “good versus evil” in Nietzsche’s moral universe, and so too in Wilde’s. Wilde’s “wild life” was not predicated on the reality of a divine Nature or the essence of a good God who issues divine commands, rather, it was predicated on the creative powers of man to create his own heavenly realms, and that in the hope of becoming his own god (Nietzsche’s Übermensch) over the realms he creates. In attempting to live like his own god, and under his own authority, Wilde produced his most famous work, Dorian, which is probably as close an autobiography as one might get of the Irish upstart.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Study in The Ontology Of Sin

In Wilde’s story Dorian’s physical beauty acts as a mirror to his purity of soul and moral innocence. That is, until the antagonist, the arch-hedonist Lord Henry Wotton, friend of the portrait’s artist, Basil Hallward, corrupts the young Dorian by inciting in him the innate, yet latent, narcissism of man. The scene takes place in Hallward’s studio, itself described with saccharine flourish, where everything sensual is enhanced for maximum effect. Here, the artist’s world of words expresses Wilde’s own inner proclivities and orientation, that of the aesthete who is also the moral nihilist. Wotton’s character speaks for Wilde as the civilized version of an ancient evil, he is the Mephistopheles of the late 19th century—the tempter in the garden of earthly paradise.

Through Wotton’s influence, Dorian makes an impulsive wish—that the portrait of himself, Basil’s finest work to date, be the thing that ages and corrupts over time, rather than his real-life material body. Wotton has tempted Dorian to unleash an infernal entreaty, one that will make him the center of his own world, a pure sinner, yet without bearing any consequences or punishments for his sinfulness. The painting will bear all the visible marks of Dorian’s inner corruption, while Dorian’s outward appearance stays uncorrupted, the horror of what he has become ever obscured to the outside world. This transference of the substance of evil from person to painting, is the central idea that makes Wilde’s book a modern day classic, even if the theme is old. Another great Irish author, C.S. Lewis, reflected on this ontology of sin in his most memorable sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” when he said:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

For Lewis, like Wilde, the outward appearance did not do justice to what might be on the inside of the person, it did not necessarily reflect the structure or content of one’s soul. As such, what might be revealed at the end of days, may indeed be the most shocking revelation of all, at least after the greater revelation of Christ Himself.
This relation of beauty to goodness is as old as human culture, as Nietzsche rightly recognized, and the medieval doctrines of the “beatific vision” attest to this deep understanding of the divine Good and transcendent Beauty being one and the same in God. It is Wilde’s sundering of this relationship that makes Dorian Gray’s story on the one hand so shocking, yet, on the other, so realistic. For how many of us truly know our neighbor just by his looks or outward presentation? In the novel many are fooled by Dorian, just as we are often fooled in the real world. Indeed, various scandals in the recent history of the church have revealed to us how the cancer of sin often goes unseen in the outward appearance of men—many apparently solid structures are only as real as Hollywood stage sets. Only later, sometimes too late, do we recognize sin’s true effects on one’s soul.

Ultimately, the story ends when Dorian, having now descended into every form of narcissistic iniquity, to include murder, is confronted with the hideous painting, which, in its grotesqueness crystalizes each of Dorian’s atrocities. In the last chapter, after what appears to be a paltry attempt to turn over a new leaf after a life of evil, Dorian immediately rushes to the painting to see if his newfound “desire” for goodness has perhaps already altered the painting for the better. But, it has not, for even his thought of becoming good was one born out of self-preservation and pride. The desire was not pure, but itself a sin of “cunning hypocrisy.” Now, only because he could no longer endure the endless experiences of pleasure, the Schadenfreude that attended each evil act, he wrongly thinks that trying to be moral will fix his dreadfully boring life. He thinks he can try on goodness, the way a vain teenager tries on a trashy prom dress. Wilde’s Dorian is not Dickens’ Scrooge, who is touched by the divine and transformed. Dorian is a man whose attempt at goodness would be no better than the whitewashed hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, it is a goodness of his own design, conceived for his own benefit.

Finally, he succumbs to his hatred for himself and the painting which provides the only evidence of the true nature of his soul. He tears into the canvas with the same knife that he used to kill its creator, his old “friend” Basil Hallward. Upon slaying the picture, the picture returns to its original state, a portrait of a handsome, young, and innocent man. Found dead on the floor is a withered, and decayed old man, knife in heart.

Albright’s Imagery, Metaphysics, and The Reality of Hell

Albright’s portrait of Dorian Gray appears only a few times in the movie, however, director Albert Lewin filmed the revealing of Albright’s picture, which comes toward the film’s end, in full color. The only color scene in the otherwise black-and-white movie. The reason is obvious, as it is not enough to say that Albright’s use of color is “vivid,” rather, it is “painful” to the eye. For again, this is no Botticelli figure or Poussin landscape meant to enchant us and woo us into wanting to “be in the painting” as opposed to observing it from without. No, Albright succeeds in his intent to present the repulsive in material form. As mentioned above, to not be repulsed at this “after” image of Dorian is to be either insane or immoral. There is no beauty to be found here, only horror. Photos of visitors to the Chicago Art Institute in the early days of the paintings public release demonstrate what can be called the “right” reaction to Albright’s work.

But, what is it about Albright’s work that makes us convulse and turn away? Like one of his own favorite artists, the 16th century German master, Albrecht Dürer, Albright seems to capture in his art something that is on the one hand entirely realistic, for all of his objects can be found in the same spacetime reality we occupy now, yet on the other hand this realism is imbued with something quite mystical, or better said, something quite metaphysical. One German critic referred to Albright’s style as “Magic Realism,” but it might be the philosopher or theologian who can better articulate the “quiddity” that Albright has rendered through his composition, i.e., its Metaphysical Realism.

Although Metaphysical Realism has been the underdog in secular philosophy departments since Hume’s skepticism and Kant’s critique of metaphysical knowledge, there has nevertheless always been a vibrant strain of Metaphysical Realism in Christian philosophy, especially in the neo-Thomism of 20th-century Roman Catholic and Evangelical theology. While in more technical areas, Metaphysical Realism deals with intricate notions about the existence of things like universals and properties, in a more simple sense it affirms the reality of substances, to include immaterial substances like angels and demons, minds or souls. In philosophy these are concrete objects (not abstract ones), since they possess not only existence but also have causal powers and even moral natures.

The genius of both Wilde’s novel and Albright’s portrait inheres in the demonstration of this dynamic between material body and immaterial, yet substantive, soul. The nature of the soul, its moral structure coupled with its causal powers, is affected by the conscious choices it makes—choices that are instantiated in the physical world through the body. Dorian’s sordid intentions, his lurid thoughts, and most depraved fantasies, all of which are immaterial, are actualized in the physical world through his embodied acts. For Wilde, these immaterial desires are transmitted to his physical form. He does not just commit sins, he literally becomes sin.

In his own modern classic, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis presents us with a similar take on the ontology of sin. In that book, ghostly figures who linger in the “Gray Town” are transported in an angelic bus up to heaven to see, if given one more chance at redemption, whether they might choose God’s grace over their sins. In the end, none but one does. In several places Lewis displays this understanding of sin as an ontological substance, as something we are, or become, not just as something we do. In one scene, he portrays a woman who has through her sin of protesting, in the book “grumbling,” become not just one who protests, but one who is a protest! An image perhaps quite relevant in lieu of our current political culture. The grumbling woman has, or, as the plot goes, is on the brink of becoming a grumble. Alternatively, the lustful man of chapter eleven, the only one who receives salvation, is shown being united to that which was once his sin, but now, being redeemed, are transmogrified into rider and stallion; united in their redemption in Christ. The new man is now one with his virtue, as ungodly lust becomes glorified power.

Does this explain the doctrine of Hell to us though? After all, are not Wilde’s and Lewis’ novels and Albright’s art mere imaginations from the minds of men?

Perhaps.

However, if the metaphysician of realism is correct, and if we take the biblical texts seriously, let alone the atrocities of our own times, then the reality of sin and its effects on the very substance of our souls should also be taken most seriously. The doctrine of eternal, conscious torment may indeed be a hard doctrine to deliver to contemporary culture, but, just because it is difficult to convey, does not mean it is invalid or untrue. In fact, as Lewis also points out in “The Weight of Glory,” it is the abrasive and bizarre doctrines we find in Scripture that further evidence its divine origins, “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.”

That Hell is both a puzzling and repellent doctrine is certainly the case. However, what would the just person say if one day, standing in Gallery 262 in the Chicago Art Institute, she saw Albright’s Dorian slowly emerge from its canvas and move toward her, and perhaps toward her infant child with her. Is it so hard to imagine she might scream out “Oh God, please damn that thing!”?

Would she be wrong to do so?

History testifies that Oscar Wilde was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church through a valid baptism just days before his death. Only God knows the status of Wilde’s soul now, but at the end of his physical life he seemed to die within the safe havens of the church. But, if that is not always the case, what else might we conclude about the final destination of the “dead?”

Coda: A Personal Story of Encountering Evil

It could be argued by someone reading the above article that this is all fine and good, but it is abstract. After all, we are talking in non-empirical terms about images from literature and art, or theorizing in philosophy and theology. The question is begged: How do we know that these “realities” are real? While epistemic certainty is rarely attainable in this life, allow me one personal story that might help make more concrete this theory about sin and hell.

Years ago as a much younger, and more sinful man, I lived in Munich, Germany. My roommate at that time was a journalist working in television for one of the major news networks in the country, RTL. My friend was approached one day by a male prostitute who worked the Munich Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) underground. Anyone who knows Europe, knows that some of the most vile acts of humanity, and, if this essay is correct, demonic ones as well, are centered in the major train stations of Europe’s most illustrious cities. Certainly some are better than others, but when I lived in Germany, many of the Hauptbahnhöfe were absolute cesspools.

Anyway, this male prostitute, call him Carlos, had had enough of seeing minors trafficked in his area of work. His conscience stung him: too many children being raped. He wanted to help. His solution was to start a non-profit and then seek out journalists who would expose this horrid underworld of the otherwise quaint and idyllic Bavarian capital. What lie underneath the famed Marienplatz with its Glockenspiel was foul, and few knew of it, American tourist and Münchener alike. Eventually Carlos found my friend, call him Thomas. They got together and set up a sting operation in Carlos’ apartment, just a few minutes walk from our own. They outfitted the place with secret microphones and hidden cameras. They were going to entrap predators (they were not law enforcement, however, so the only goal was to expose the truth, not convict anyone of crime; that would hopefully follow).

After two weeks of putting ads into an underground newspaper, in which Carlos pretended he was holding captive a 14-year old boy named Stephan, with whom anyone with the right amount of money (old German Marks, or the newly installed Euro, it didn’t matter) could do whatever he wanted, my friend came home one afternoon. I myself was still enrolled at university at that time, and my dissertation topic, which I never finished, was on the concept of evil in post-WWII German literature—not a pleasant or uplifting topic, to be sure. My friend challenged me: “why don’t you come and see what we are doing? We are catching so many people, several every day. It is incredible. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of people who are coming: young, old, couples, men and women.”

I hesitated. Did I really want to see this? After some inner wrestling, I decided that I had to see if my theorizing about evil was actual. I told my friend I would go the next day. The next day came and I went.

For several hours we sat in the back room, where the mythical “Stephan” was supposed to be chained to the bed rails, ready to be tortured for someone’s pleasure. In reality it was my friend, his cameraman, and soundman who were set up in the bedroom. Carlos waited in the living room receiving calls from potential customers who had seen the fake ad. Carlos also had a dozen or so video cassettes, all of which were empty, but that had provocative titles labeled across the sides. The idea was to offer the tapes first, make a monetary exchange, then ask the customer if they wanted to proceed into the back room to be with Stephan; again, who did not exist. If the customer bought the tapes and agreed to go back to the bedroom to fulfill his carnal desires, Carlos would say a code word, letting us know to come in and spring the trap (the team could not see the video of the camera. Live stream technology was not available to them at that time).

My friend gave me an extra headset as we heard the doorbell ring. The first, and for that day, only customer had arrived. I could listen in to the conversation (this, of course, was all in German, but my German at that time was near perfect). As the conservation unfolded, my heartbeat quickened. I began to sweat. Carlos managed to get the customer to accept the videos, 500 German Marks, a pretty penny for evil. The next step would be to see if the man (from the audio it was clearly a male voice) wanted to go in and be with Stephan. But first Carlos had to lure out from the customer what kinds of things the man wanted to do with (to!) the boy. We needed to hear his inner most fantasies on tape.

How I wish I had not.

My muscles tensed as I heard this voice in the other room agree to all kinds of lurid tortures. Objects were involved. Beyond this I will say no more. My mind raced and my moral compass split into two distinct directions: fury, and fear. One part of me felt more than justified rushing into the room, and pounding that evil thing into submission with brutal force. The other just wanted to run away, and not be near such monsters. Before I could know which impulse was right, as if I have figured it out today, the code word was given. My friend, Thomas, and his team gave a quick “auf geht’s” as they rapidly deployed into the next room, camera light glaring and microphone at the ready. I followed in tow.

Before entering the room that day I had never felt evil before, at least not demonic evil. Of such things I had only read in books. Everything changed that afternoon in Munich. Still, if I thought I would burst into that room and see Beelzebub himself, red horns, hoofs and fangs, I was wrong. What sat before me was nothing of the sort, at least, not externally. There before us sat a pitiful old man, probably in his mid to late 60’s. Someone’s grandfather, perhaps. At least, he looked innocent enough to be one. He nervously smoked a cigarette and looked up at the camera now like a deer in the headlights. What an unassuming and non-threatening little thing he was. Had my ears deceived me? Could such a simple looking creature really be a mutilator of children?

No, my ears were not deceived. This was a vile thing before me. A man desirous, intent, on torturing a child today. After a long awkward series of questions, lasting a few minutes but feeling like an hour, the man finally caught on to what was happening. He stated he now felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave. Again, being only journalists, my friend and his team made the way clear for him to go. I was the last one he passed on the way out the door. The scene seemed to be over. Was it real? Had I really just seen evil in the flesh?

But, it was not even over yet. Who knows how much time passed, several minutes at least. Thomas and Carlos and the team were already reviewing the video footage and the audio. They seemed so professional about it. How could one talk about video quality and sound fidelity after something like that? But, then again, they had been doing this for weeks now. Perhaps they were already inured. Of course, Carlos must have been to some degree inoculated, having seen so much in his own life. Even if now there was an awakening in his own soul.

But, in the middle of this “tidying up” and evaluating, it came. A knock at the door. Everyone looked at each other, bewildered. No one else was expected today, who could it be? Perhaps it was the police? Perhaps they heard about the exposé, and wanted to shut it down. Perhaps one of the past “victims” had claimed that there were some journalists conducting an illegal entrapment operation? But, it wasn’t the authorities. It was the same man. The same, rotten, vile, pitiful old man.

“Can I still have the videos?”

We all stood shocked.
—————————-

I did not convert to Christ that day, although I should have. My conversion would come years later while in the military. But, the reality of evil was shown to me, in the mundane, that day. Nothing, not prison, not public exposure, nor any worldly loss was going to stop that horror from getting what it wanted. He did not care about those things, he wanted what he wanted. The lust of the flesh was insatiable.

What would have stopped it?
A bullet would have. Yes, that would have stopped it.
But, isn’t vengeance the Lord’s?

Do I believe the doctrine of Hell is an uncomfortable one?
Yes, I do.

Do I believe it is true?
Yes, I do.

As The Family Goes, So Goes God

The institution of marriage is not an undue interference by society or authority, nor the extrinsic imposition of a form. Rather it is an interior requirement of the covenant of conjugal love which is publicly affirmed as unique and exclusive, in order to live in complete fidelity to the plan of God, the Creator.

John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (1981)

We make our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We dismantle the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work “double shifts” so that they can mother in private even as they participate in public justice work.

We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.

Black Lives Matter Mission Statement (formerly)1 After many complaints and a drop in approval rating, this portion of the BLM Website has since been removed.

“The nuclear family,” the term itself is nuclear in our culture today. Nevertheless, the connection between the family and the vitality of a culture has been noted since antiquity. For example, in her book on Seneca’s understanding of the family, classicist Elizabeth Gloyn highlights the ancient stoic view of familial integrity and societal welfare:

For now it is enough to say that oikeiosis [affiliation, affinity] is arguably the primary building block of human relations. The first stage, which [Seneca’s] Letter 121 describes, is the process by which babies begin to realise that their bodies belong to them, and thus that looking after their arms and legs is in their own best interest. More advanced stages involve the realisation that the interests of other humans are also our interests; a parent’s relationship to a child is often used as the classical example of assimilating someone else’s interest into our own. So oikeiosis begins in the basic bond between parent and child, and is a key stage in the moral development that ultimately lets humans achieve virtue.2 Elizabeth Gloyn, The Ethics of the Family in Seneca (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 6.

Elizabeth Gloyn, The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, 6.

It is worth noting the definite article “the” in Gloyn’s statement about what “the classical example” of “assimilating someone else’s interest into our own” is. For the ancients, the beginning of social morality and public virtue was the parent-child relationship. It was not just one option toward moral development, it was the paradigm example for it. Without this “basic bond” there would inevitably be a deficiency in moral development and a breakdown in virtue; or, more accurately, moral development would be nipped in the bud. This failure to launch would likely demand tremendous expenditures in other areas, and from other domains, to bring virtue to fruition. However, one could probably assert with confidence that in most ancient cultures moral deficiency did not end in long, state-sponsored and tax-payer funded rehabilitation programs for the unvirtuous. Rather, it usually (almost always) ended in incarceration or execution.

By extension, an entire culture comprised of multiple families living and working within in a common geographical and linguistic space will, to a large degree, rely on the ingrained virtue of its individual members for its own continuity and prosperity. This is a truth as old as the Greek polis itself, but one revealed even earlier on the very first page of the Hebrew Bible.

In modern times, Pope John Paul II echoed Seneca on the crucial relationship between the welfare of the organic family unit and the commonwealth of the nation, saying:

Yet it still seems that nation and native land, like the family, are permanent realities.  In this regard, Catholic social doctrine speaks of “natural” societies, indicating that both the family and the nation have a particular bond with human nature, which has a social dimension.  Every society’s formation takes place in and through the family: of this there can be no doubt.  Yet something similar could also be said about the nation.

John Paul II, Memory and Identity, 67.

The formation of society takes place “in and through the family,” and of this there “can be no doubt.” The relationship between family and nation has been attested to throughout history, both in philosophical and political theory, as well as in concrete social and legal action. As John Paul II went on to say in more succinct fashion, “As the family goes, so goes the nation.”3 The full quote, from a 1986 sermon given in Perth, reads “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.”

However, the relationship between the health of the individual family and the health of a nation is not the only deep correlation that has been recognized by great thinkers. The relationship between the make-up of the family and the very belief in God has also come under scrutiny, at least since the Enlightenment, but especially since Freud’s psychoanalytic theories of man and civilization. The formation of familial structures and inter-familial needs relative to religious beliefs have been seen as intimately connected, if not altogether the same thing. The father of social psychology, Erich Fromm, argued it this way:

As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection–protection through love–which was provided by the father, and the recognition that this helplessness would last throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have often so remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place.

Erich Fromm, The Dogma of Christ, 28-29.

For Fromm, and other Marxist Freudians like him, the need for a divine “Father figure” starts with the fundamental social relationship of parent and child. Religion is the imaginative projection that provides a parallel solution to the basic familial need of protection, guidance, and security in an uncertain world of natural forces. However, because these needs are abstract, like justice and love (not like food or water), they are libidinal in nature. They exist in the category of non-physical needs and can therefore be met by religious institutions and their practices:

Religion serves to make it easier for the masses to resign themselves to the many frustrations that reality presents. The satisfactions religion offers are of a libidinous nature; they are satisfactions that occur essentially in fantasy because…libidinous impulses…permit satisfaction in fantasy.

Fromm, The Dogma of Christ, 26-27.

If these reflections by men like Seneca, Wojtyla4 John Paul II’s family name, and Fromm are accurate, then it makes sense that the nature and well-being of the “family” is something that is not only controversial in our culture today, but that should find itself at the center of political and social movements like that of Black Lives Matter. It would make sense for a group like BLM to address the family, if the family is really as important as these thinkers of the past have suggested. After all, if it is the case that “as the family goes, so goes the nation” or even “as the family goes, so goes religious belief in God,” then to control the definition and language of “family” becomes a very desirable goal indeed.

Deconstructing the Family, Reconstructing God

As alluded to above, Freud believed that it was in primitive man’s confrontation with untamed nature that God was invented in the mind of man. Feeling helpless before the power of nature, as in his infantile state, early man fantasized an all-powerful father figure who could protect him from the harshness of reality (the reality principle). Further, as moral intuition and reasoning developed in early society, the need for ultimate justice at the sight of apparent wrongdoing and incomprehensible suffering, as well as the desire for prolonged satisfaction (the pleasure principle), led to the further imagination of an extended realm of conscious existence where punishment and reward would be meted out in full. Nevertheless, much of this imaginative work was generated on account of man’s harrowing battle with “nature red in tooth and claw.”

However, with the rise of modern society, the advance of technology, medicine and industry, the increasing explanatory power of the natural sciences, and man’s increasing mastery over nature, it was thought that the religious illusions devised by earlier civilizations would ultimate fade away. And, to some degree, one could argue they have, since in the most technologically advanced cultures, one sees an empirical increase in what Charles Taylor might call “exclusive humanists,”5 I am adapting Taylor’s notion of “exclusive humanism” which entails people who never come to actually hold to any religious doctrine or faith for the entirety of their earthly existence. i.e., a greater number of people who live the entirety of their lives without regard for the transcendent or any serious religious commitment. The so-called “rise of the nones.”

Nevertheless, even if we assume a posture of victory over nature (albeit COVID-19 has in some ways exposed this presumptive claim), and even if the natural sciences have undermined some religiosity, there is the other fundamental human relation over which man has not yet gained full supremacy,6If one can truly say that man has gained supremacy over nature, which may not actually be the case, even if we have a sense of it. and that is the relationship between the natural family and culture.

While the natural sciences may have given us a way to understand nature without appealing to divine agency, as Laplace suggested in rejecting the “God hypothesis,”7 I do not actually believe this to be the case, but it is not my point in this article to raise the serious challenges to scientism of this sort. it is questionable as to whether the social sciences have been able to give us a way to understand society without making the same appeal. For some reason we can now look at the Grand Canyon and see only natural elements and millions of years, but we cannot look at our neighbor and see only molecules in motion and bio-chemical exchanges. It was argued by some critical theorists in the mid 20th-century8 I am thinking in particular of Herbert Marcuse’s argument in his magnum opus Eros and Civilization, where he sees the locus of societal transformation in the redefinition of both structures of labor (the Marxist feature) and in the redefinition of human sexual identity and marital structures (the Freudian feature). that there remains a vestige of traditional religious belief that lingers in spite of our otherwise progressive, Western culture. That vestige is the nuclear family. We may have successfully suspended belief in providential design in the natural world, but when it comes to social relations the divine still haunts us.

Therefore, if social theorists like Fromm and his manifold disciples are right, then to gain control over the family structure itself would be the primary means to altering religious belief or even belief in God more generally. It is, therefore, significant that Black Lives Matter, a group whose founders openly declare their Marxian heritage, may have a vision of the family that is different than the one presented to us in Genesis 1:27 and 2:18-25. After all, for the true Marxist (and Freudian), those passages themselves are nothing more than the product of culturally situated people. The culture, and its people, are not the product of the passages.9 This, of course, would be the orthodox Christian view, for the passages would be revelatory communications to us, not mere projections by human minds. It is therefore very likely that the far more central issue for groups like Black Lives Matter is not really race, but actually the family structure, regardless of race. We have drifted far afield from MLK’s vision for racial equality with Garza, Cullors and Ometi‘s vision of social justice.

Conclusion: The Real Trojan Horse is Not Race, It’s Sex

If race10 Of course race for most Critical Race Theorists is not a biological category, but a social construct. really is the central focus of movements spawned by theories like Critical Race Theory, then why is it the case that almost every concrete manifestation of that theory is accompanied by an alternative vision of the human family structure and of human sexual nature? Where is the logical connection there? Of course, it does seem to be a logical entailment that if one messes with traditional understandings of gender and sexuality, one will also be messing with traditional understandings of the nature and design of the family. But groups like BLM for some reason need both race and sexuality involved in their program. It is never just about race.

The truth is that far more fundamental to us as persons than our racial identity is our sexual identity. And, far more fundamental to us as persons than our racial community is our biological family. If the Marxist-Freudian approach to the human person is correct (which it is not), then it is more important to change these structures in order to change society than to change anything about race or racial structures. Race is not the real Trojan horse standing outside the walls of American culture or the Church today. The real Trojan horse is, and always has been, a false view of human sexuality and the God-ordained nature of the family. If these change then, at least according to the Marxist-Freudian, so will our belief in God.

But, Marxism and Freudianism are not true.11 I am making a broad statement about the overall views. Obviously there can be truths found in almost any system of thought, especially ones that have been as impactful as these.Thus, they are not the real culprit behind the construction of this Trojan horse. The real culprit is the age-old enemy of Christ, the enemy that Christ saw fall from heaven like a blitz of lightning. The “isms” of history are merely his means to attack what has been given to man by God, and to twist and turn God’s designs for his purposes and our destruction. In the beginning God did not bother to tell us that He made us “black and white.” But, He did say He made us “male and female.” To deconstruct the family then, as John Paul II pointed out, is to go against the plan of God. It is to be unfaithful to His will. It is to reject His gift to us. As such, we should be careful about embracing any theory or its accompanying social movement that would inculcate in us the notion that it might be okay to mess with the God-given structure of family. Even a charitable reading of the BLM statement (again, now suspiciously removed from the site), cannot help but notice the glaring absence of any mention of a father as the head of the family or even as a necessary component of it.

Finally, I would suggest, that this just is a way, perhaps the paradigm way, for Satan to introduce new gods into a culture. For it is not the case that groups like BLM are doing away with the idea of family completely, or the idea of god completely. They are just seeking to alter the definition and the constitution of family. Of course, the Devil can never destroy anything completely. Only God has the power over existence and non-existence. But, the Devil can counterfeit, and counterfeit family structures may very well produce counterfeit gods for us to worship.

As the family goes, so goes the nation indeed, and possibly even the Church.

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women…And his wives turned away his heart. For When Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God…

1 Kings 11:1-5

Because of the hardness of your heart Moses allowed you to divorce, but it was not so from the beginning.

Matthew 19:8

Losing Christian Orthodoxy in America?: Part II – Losing the Battle of the Mind

In this series I am arguing that a certain form of Christian faith and practice, an “orthodox” form, will soon find itself under governmental persecution, and its pastors, priests, bishops and laypersons will likely incur concrete instances of state sponsored oppression. The reasons for this are critical losses on three battlefields of culture: the battlefield of the senses, the battlefield of the mind, and the battlefield of the heart or emotions. In the first post I argued that orthodox Christianity is quickly losing the battle of the senses. In this post I will show how it is losing the battle of the mind.

Orthodoxy vs. Progressive Christianity

Before I try to show how orthodox Christians have lost the battle for the intellect in America, let me first return to the notion of “orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy in the context of this series should not be equated with Eastern Orthodoxy, an easily identifiable tradition of theology and practice which separated “officially” from Roman Catholicism and Western Christendom in roughly 1054 AD. Here, rather, I am talking about orthodoxy as it relates to the kind of religious beliefs that term might entail, beliefs which can be said to be held in common by all major Christian traditions in Christianity’s roughly 1,980-year history. In other words, the kind of “Mere Christianity” that Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century, Richard Baxter in the 17th, and C.S. Lewis in the 20th century would have agreed upon. I laid out five criteria by which an orthodox, ecumenical church could be recognized. I will not review those criteria here, but try to expound on the term “orthodoxy” so as to get in sight more precisely the kind of Christianity I expect to see fall on hard times.

In addition to the actual beliefs then, orthodoxy refers to the kind of believers who hold such orthodox views, and who arguably will be (or already have been) most affected by concrete forms of persecution in America. For those who think that this cannot or has not already occurred in part in the United States, I would make reference to the following cases: the Jack Phillips case, the Little Sisters of the Poor case, the case of the 2016 Bill 1146 in the State of California. Other examples could be easily multiplied.1 I am bound morally to acknowledge that each of these cases has had positive outcomes for the religious institutions or persons involved. However, these cases show a few things: one, how extraordinarily important it is to have non-constructivist judges on the Supreme Court, and second, that cultural leaders in America are very willing to pursue such litigation against conservative Christian organizations and persons. Third, the idea that such litigation will simply stop, arbitrarily, is naive.

One way to bring orthodoxy more clearly into sight is to look at its main alternative. The primary alternative then to this orthodox form of Christianity, right or wrong,2 I am not arguing about the truth values of orthodox claims vis-a-vis progressive ones. I am only trying to define and distinguish the two. is what we might call “Progressive” Christianity. It is Progressive Christianity that I expect will be less affected by any persecution by the state or through culture. Progressive Christians will be less likely than orthodox Christians to experience any real blow back from secular authorities or pressure from culture.

Thus, let me lay out some possible features of this Progressive Christianity. It is better to speak of “features” here rather than “criteria,” since Progressivism is not something that can be defined apart from its deviation from orthodoxy. Progressive Christianity is itself only clear in so far as we recognize some essentials of orthodoxy, and, as such, there is not a fixed set of criteria by which one could identify as progressively Christian, especially considering that the term “progressive” implies an embrace of change or flux. These features are, therefore, by no means exhaustive, and there will be exceptions in so far as there may be some churches that label themselves “progressive” yet do not display all these features. Nevertheless, here are five features by which we might better understand the distinction between orthodox and progressive versions of Christianity:

  1. Progressive Christianity will likely hold to some form of “correlation” or “correlative” theology. Correlation theology and the methods that define it are known both in the Protestant world and Roman Catholic one.3 I imagine that there are Eastern Orthodox theologians who apply this method as well, I am just unaware of any. A prime example of a Protestant theologian who advanced the theory of correlation would be Paul Tillich, while a Roman Catholic example would be Yale theologian Margaret Farley. In short4And I mean very short, correlation theology is a rich concept and I cannot do it or its proponents justice in this short space., correlation theologies argue that Christians and Christianity are in an open dialogue with the words of the Bible. While the words of the Bible and the propositions found therein might be considered inspired and edifying to any given Christian community, those same words and propositions do not necessarily contain or refer to a fixed, universal, and binding moral or theological content.5 For a comprehensive take on the idea of fixed, universal, and binding theological propositions, see Catholic theologian Eduardo Echeverria’s Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. At a minimum, the moral and metaphysical content and theological truths presented in Scripture must be repackaged to answer the questions of our modern (or post-modern) times. As such, Christian answers are ultimately subject to what drives us existentially today, and what drives us most profoundly today will ultimately determine what we need to retrieve from the Scriptures, or Church History, and what we might conveniently leave behind: what we have in a sense “progressed beyond.”

    This dialogical approach6 This term, I believe, was coined by Margaret Farley to the sources of Christianity that shapes Christian communities often takes broad, biblical themes such as “love,” “justice,” or “liberation” without taking into account the specific moral commands enshrined in the text of Scripture. As such, biblical themes which are still important to us today can nevertheless be detached from specific moral laws found in the Bible or pronounced through the church’s historical teachings.7 One Roman Catholic theologian and personal friend roughly put it this way: correlation theologians and their followers don’t like what might be called “Churchianity” whereby “Churchianity” stands in for fixed, universal, and binding pronouncements of the Church that apply today just as always. The result of a correlation theological approach is often, but certainly not always, an elevating of philosophy and contemporary experience as the norms by which we gauge the validity of biblical truth. In sum, the church today confers authority on those parts of Scripture which correlate best to our current existential experiences and normative judgments about the world.
  2. In light of feature 1, progressive Christian churches will tend to evaluate moral claims differently than orthodox churches. Non-negotiable moral judgments that orthodox Christians make, especially in the areas of life issues (e.g. abortion and euthanasia), human sexuality, and the nature of marriage, will likely find revision among progressive churches that hold to the correlation approach. For these churches, contemporary lived experience and the judgments of certain sciences will demand theological claims be revised to answer the questions which emerge from those experiences and those judgments. Theologian Margaret Farley puts it this way regarding sexual ethics,

“New philosophical links between sex and freedom, sex and power, sex and history, gender and just about everything else, are in some respects so important that there can be no turning back to simpler ways of interpreting human experience.”

Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

In other words, going back to how pre-modern, biblical authors like Paul “experienced” sexuality when he wrote the sixth chapter of his first letter to Corinthians is no longer possible in light of new “philosophical links.”8 Notice, however, that Farley actually goes beyond just sexual ethics here, stating that “just about everything else” is open for revision as well. Philosophy and the sciences have trumped the theological judgments of Paul and maybe even Jesus, each of whom had different cultural experiences of sexuality and no sense of modern science.

3.Progressive forms of Christianity will, unlike orthodox forms, tend to reject the exclusivity of Christ with regard to salvation, instead opting for a religious universalism that allows many (perhaps all) to be saved through means other than Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

4. Progressive forms of Christianity will often see ongoing human experience and the process, or “progress,” of history as equally revelatory of God’s nature and will as the Biblical revelation itself. In other words, the “canon” of revelation is not closed.

5. Progressive forms of Christianity may also be more likely to deny or underplay the metaphysical realities that ground the truth claims of many creedal statements of the historical Church, as well as downplay the supernatural aspects of the biblical witness. In other words, references to demons, angles, spiritual powers or perhaps even a personal God, are often seen as merely symbolic or metaphorical.9 One look at the statements of belief by divinity schools like Wake Forest will demonstrate that the biblical language about God is itself primarily symbolic and therefore contingent upon its historical conditions. As such, it is not a binding revelation to refer to God as “YHWH” or “Father” since those terms are relative to the cultures that produced them. Today we can freely call God “mother” or perhaps just “Ground of Being.”

In sum, any churches or Christian communities that exemplify these features can reasonably be called “progressive.” Moreover, these features of this form of Christianity help us better see what orthodoxy is, and, finally, it is more likely that the churches and communities which exemplify this form of Christianity will not experience the kind or degree of persecution that their orthodox brothers and sisters will have to endure.10 I am not trying to set Christians against each other, I just think it is an obvious truth that churches which are more open or more in sync with the conclusions of the culture in which they live will have a far easier time surviving in that culture. Again, I am making no arguments here as to whether progressive forms of Christianity or orthodox ones are true or false.

With this now in mind, let me turn to the claim that it is on the battlefield of the mind that orthodox Christianity has lost much ground. Perhaps too much to recover the land.

Second Sign: Losing the Battle of the Mind (or Intellect)

The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett was truly a shocking turn of events in recent Supreme Court history. Considering what it took to get such a devoted and brilliant conservative Catholic a seat on the highest court in the land, however, shows the resistance in the culture to thoughtful Christianity.11 I am not unsympathetic to the arguments from Christians who found the way in which Judge Barrett was nominated less than entirely virtuous, although this in no way should diminish the obvious excellence and competency of the nominee herself. The fear of dogmas living loudly in the hearts of men or women with equally powerful minds is palpable among many in positions of social and political power. But, perhaps more shocking than Barrett’s nomination and appointment, is the fact that there even is someone like an Amy Coney Barrett– a serious Christian executing serious social functions in the present culture. When one considers, for example, the rates of conservative Catholic and Evangelical voices in high academia today in comparison to liberal, agnostic and leftist ones, it is amazing that women like Judge Barrett even exist. It is perhaps a credit to her alma mater, Notre Dame, that at least some semblance of orthodox Christian faith remains acceptable among the academic elite. References to the evidence of these astounding disparities between conservative scholars and liberal ones can be found here, here and here.

That said, my argument rests on an assumption, that being that Christians who tend to vote Republican or who identify as politically conservative will be more in line with the criteria of orthodoxy which I set out in the previous post. The corollary to that assumption is Christians who are politically liberal and vote Democratic will also tend to find themselves in churches or denominations that display the features of “Progressivism” I listed above. While I think there is good prima facie reason to think that these correlations hold, I also recognize that there will be exceptions: for example, orthodox Christians who for whatever reason find it more appropriate to vote for political liberals, and progressive Christians who vote for or support Republican candidates for office. Nevertheless, there is data that suggests that political views matter to how one views Evangelicalism in America12 I would extrapolate the same to apply to Roman Catholics. Indirectly then, one might infer that if Evangelicals are mostly viewed by Democrats negatively and by Republicans positively, and if the social agendas of the Democratic party line up better with progressive forms of Christianity13We might also call these forms “mainline Protestant”, while the agendas of Republicans with orthodox forms, then we might conclude that in the academy when we see a tremendous disparity between political liberals (Democrats) and conservatives (Republicans), this shows that the influence of orthodox Christian voices or ideas in the high academy is marginal.

The President of Ratio Christi, Corey Miller, highlights more directly the fact that there are few Evangelical voices in the high academy:

According to Harvard’s recent Crimson Survey, the single largest religious group of the class of 2019 is atheist/agnostic. 4 Erstwhile Harvard student Bill Gates dubs Enlightenment Now, by Harvard atheist professor Steven Pinker, his “new favorite book of all time.”5  Pinker, like a great number of his colleagues, is a self-proclaimed atheist and liberal. From top to bottom, Harvard isn’t what it once was. He points out that in 1990, 42 percent of faculty were far left or liberal, 40 percent moderate, and 18 percent conservative, for a liberal-to-conservative ratio of 2.3 to 1.6 Today, for those ages 65 and older preparing for retirement it is 12:1; and for younger scholars ages 36 and under it is 23:1.7 In Religion departments it is a whopping 70:1!8  There is extreme bias against hiring evangelical Christians.9  It seems there is an all-out assault on the Christian faith where the major battlefield is the universities. Some professors explicitly target Christian faith: “Employing universities in the struggle against faith is a cornerstone in the larger strategy to combat faith, promote reason and rationality, and create skeptics.”10

Dr. Corey Miller, “How We Lost the Universities and How to Reclaim the Voice of Christ” in CRI online

Further, one Barna survey shows that when Democrats think of Evangelicals they think of very different traits then when Republican think of the same subgroup:

The terms chosen most frequently by Democrats were: politically conservative and religiously conservative, narrow minded, homophobic and uptight. The ones that Republicans selected were: religiously conservative (but not politically conservative), caring, hopeful and friendly. It would almost appear that these partisan affiliations are talking about two completely different religious groups. Democrats seem to be pointing out some of the worst qualities they perceive about evangelicals, while Republicans are quick to emphasize positive characteristics.

Ryan Burge, “The Evangelical Identity Crisis”

At the end of the day, many Christians do vote based on individual persons and specific policies, so any claim here does fall prey to the fallacy of hasty generalization. Still, considering the immense discrepancies in numbers at major universities, it is quite reasonable to think that of those very many liberal or left-leaning professors some may be progressive Christian, while of the very few conservative or Republican ones, some may be adherents to orthodox Christianity. Or there are predominantly atheistic Democratic professors in higher education who despise orthodox Christianity, even if retaining some sympathy for Progressive Christianity. Either way, and in conclusion, the empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that orthodox Christians have lost the battle of the mind in virtue of losing a place in the university.

But the loss of the battle of the mind has not come solely through the discrimination of Christians by scholarly adversaries, even though that discrimination is real and has been clearly documented here and here. Students of Evangelicalism in America will be familiar with the tragic turn away from the academy in the early 20th century by fundamentalists looking to carve out a subsection of culture for themselves, a section separate from what they saw as an academic will that had little capacity for truth due to the noetic effects of sin on skeptical minds. Rather than contending with the skeptic on the battlefield of ideas, many Evangelicals decided to retreat into their own intellectual realm, a realm safeguarded by common assumptions and orthodox presuppositions. While not an intrinsically bad thing, this move left a lacuna of rigorous academic scholarship to offset the domination of the universities by atheistic naturalists.

Others, like some mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, did stay in the academic arena, but rather than contest the rise of scientistic naturalism, or its atheistic counterpart, post-modern existentialism, they capitulated much intellectual territory, especially in the areas of Metaphysics and Morality, to their more socially acceptable interlocutors. With the exception of neo-Thomist moves in Catholic Theology and the advent of analytic philosophy of religion grounded in the work of thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig, the academy was left to be fought over between the intellectual offspring of Betrand Russell and Karl Marx (e.g. Richard Dawkins and Michel Foucault). Conservative Roman Catholics and Evangelicals may have had the better arguments, perhaps not unlike Intelligent Design theorists today, but their social clout was not sufficient to stand up to the all too human pressures of their scholarly peers. In the end the will is more powerful than the mind, and winning the sociological battle is just as important as developing the better arguments.

The result of this loss on the battlefield of ideas between the 1910’s and 1990’s has been a culture that takes naturalism as a given. The classical liberal side of this materialist coin may share some common features with orthodox Christianity, for example in its embrace of instrumental reason as a means to objective knowledge,14 Right now there are strange alliances forming between atheists who would otherwise be contending against orthodox Christianity, but who are now locked arm-in-arm with orthodox Christians in the battle against intellectually harmful movements such as Critical Race Theory. Examples would be philosophers like James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian. while the Marxist socialist side of the same coin other ones, like its emphasis on the material care for all people. However, neither is truly a friend or ally of a historical Christian worldview which assumes a reality beyond nature and the truth of transcendent purposes and rewards. In the end each of these worldviews and the manifold causes and movements they birth will inevitably be in competition with Christian orthodoxy in some foundational area. And, as with orthodox Islam, these two cannot peacefully coexist if one becomes too dominant in the culture, for Christian orthodoxy will always attempt to curb, correct, or resist certain flaws inherent in those systems and the (im)moral demands that flow from them. A true Christian orthodoxy will play the prophetic voice to systems not grounded in the reality of God and in the natural law embedded in His creation. This is what Cardinal Francis George was gesturing toward in 2010 when he uttered his now famous phrase. Concrete moral issues like abortion, euthanasia, and transgender rights are all examples of cultural phenomena which orthodoxy can never accept and is called to repudiate.

In sum, philosophers like Charles Taylor have made it clear that we no longer live in a cultural context where religious belief, at least not metaphysically significant religious beliefs, appear plausible to the average person. Taylor puts it this way:

The great invention of the West was that of an immanent order in Nature, whose working could be systematically understood and explained on its own terms, leaving open the question whether this whole order had a deeper significance, and whether, if it did, we should infer a transcendent Creator beyond it. This notion of the ‘immanent’ involved denying–or at least isolating and problematizing–any form of interpenetration between the things of Nature, on the one hand, and the ‘supernatural’ on the other, be this understood in terms of the one transcendent God, or of Gods or spirits, or magic forces, or whatever.

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 15-16.

And once the metaphysical realities that underlie the moral claims and spiritual practices are undermined, the atheistic materialist of either camp can sit back and slowly watch actual churches began to cave to social pressure. That pressure creates even more skepticism about orthodox moral claims. And, if social pressure is stronger than even the strongest argument, the willingness of those who would otherwise hold to historical Christian dogma is additionally weakened.

While Taylor’s analysis goes far beyond a simple “naturalism” versus “Christianity” narrative, it nevertheless is the case that at one time all of the major educational institutions in America were Protestant universities dedicated to the pursuit of divine Truth and the clear explication of that Truth for the sake of building a more moral and just society. That this is no longer the case has been absolutely undeniable for over 100 years now. In this sense, it really is no wonder that the beliefs of women like Amy Coney Barrett seem incredible to other women, like Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Nevertheless, the gradual loss of the research university and centers of academic engagement in the 20th century have made orthodox Christianity only a near lost cause in 21st century America. For even losing the intellectual battlefield and the battlefield of the senses is not a sufficient condition for the decline of orthodoxy in a nation. For that a final condition must be met, and that condition is the loss of the heart of a nation. In my next post I will argue that in losing the heart of America, orthodoxy must prepare for its inevitable demise.

A Power Unto Salvation: Part IV – Can The Supernatural Save?

In this series on the human condition I have surveyed two approaches to that condition: Scientism and Semanticism. I argued that science fails to address the human condition at all, while Semanticism addresses it but cannot address it sufficiently. Semanticism cannot really save us from our deepest fears nor fulfill our deepest longings, just as the natural sciences can provide no answers to the “Why” questions of life. In this post I will look at one final approach, Supernaturalism.

Supernaturalism is decisively distinct from Scientism and Semanticism in one fundamental way: metaphysics. Unlike its materialistic antitheses, Supernaturalism assumes or even argues for the actual existence of non-physical beings, especially non-physical agentive beings like God, gods, angels, demons and human souls. There may be other kinds of non-physical beings, perhaps abstract objects like numbers or sets, but leaving those aside it is the supernaturalist who posits the existence of immaterial agents that have causal powers and even moral natures. Moreover, it is through these agencies that human beings can be saved from their finite and otherwise apparently purposeless existence, because these agencies really do interact with the physical and temporal, altering and shaping the course of human history and the lives of people– people who themselves are more than just their bodies. In other words, these agents, or God as the ultimate Agent, are in contact with the spacetime reality which most of us believe we inhabit.1 Philosophers since Descartes have posited thought experiments like the “evil demon” or the “brain in a vat” which although sounding absurd are nevertheless logically possible.

Supernaturalism and the Human Condition

In the previous post I outlined Heidegger’s way of looking at the human condition, which focused on the phenomena of existence. Existence as being “thrown into” the world– not knowing why we are here, not knowing from where we have come or where we are headed. This being in the world, Dasein, unfolds in time, Zeit, and we are left to struggle between the way we feel about the world and what science seems to tell us is true. For the semanticist, philosophy becomes the new apparatus through which we try to communicate our religious and theological impulses, and it is through such communicative acts, preferably in pluralistic societal contexts that we hope to attain some modicum of meaning and peace about our otherwise hopeless state. The usual end result of the semantic approach is a kind of therapeutic culture, where religious language acts as a sort of psychological safety net that can help us to manage through life until we die. In the words of one Christian scholar, it is a world where religion is reduced to “moral therapeutic deism.”2 This now very popular, and very useful term was coined by the Notre Dame philosopher Christian Smith. I would suggest that this is the dominant view today, at least in western and in particular English-speaking cultures.

Another way of looking at the existential crisis of the human condition was Bertrand Russell’s “firm foundation of unyielding despair” which he thought emerged inevitably from a thorough, scientific analysis of the natural world. All stories, according to the adherent of the Russellian worldview, are naturalistic ones and anything that cannot be reduced down to natural entities–subatomic particles and natural causes, e.g. the law of gravity– are at bottom fictions. They are projections of a physical brain onto a physical world. In the end we must fess up to this stark reality and learn to be the captains of our own “souls.” The genuine adherent of Scientism, unlike the semanticist, also sees any kind of religious language or practice as not only meaningless, but potentially harmful to society. The supernatural approach to religion as well as the semantic approach should both be excised from modern society since they muddy the waters of objective truth.

Both of these approaches seem to leave us wanting when it comes to answering the significant questions of life, however. For when it comes to questions of ultimate origins, meaning and purpose, morality and eschatology both Semanticism and Scienticism seem to say the same thing: we are left to ourselves to develop our own answers. There is no outside help, no aid from above. 3Of course, there may be an intermediary for both types of naturalists, one often portrayed in our films, namely the existence of highly evolved and supra-intelligent extra-terrestrials. Some, although a dwindling number, still hold out hope for a “close encounter” of this kind. On both views we must conjure our inner Sinatra and “do it our way.”

Alternatively, the supernaturalist approach presupposes a very different solution: there is outside help and we can know that that help is there based on revelation knowledge. And, in knowing there is a supernatural realm, we might actually attain real answers and real peace about our situation.

Supernaturalism and Traditional Religion

Supernaturalism then is the prerequisite for any traditional religious belief system: Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Mormonism on the one hand or Hinduism, Janism, and classical Buddhism on the other. While each of these systems will cash out the nature of that which is beyond the physically differently, especially between the two sets listed here, all will hold to some kind of non-physical reality. In doing so each system will have something on offer to answer the human existential condition that the other, non-supernaturalistic approaches will not have.

First, each of these traditional religions will have metaphysical commitments. Most of Christianity’s foundational metaphysical commitments, for example, are contained in its early creeds. Second, because of these commitments traditional religions will ground its answers to fundamental questions in the metaphysical realities that underlie their theological statements. For example, morality is grounded not in social conventions but both in the nature of the God who designed the universe and objectively in the design itself. Thus, moral truths can be discerned both by a careful examination of God’s creation and by a direct revelation of His will. To know the latter, however, requires some kind of communication between the supernatural agent and the human creature. Thus, third, each traditional religious system that holds to metaphysical commitments of a supernatural kind will also have a set of oracles, writings and traditions that are considered revelatory or inspired in some special way.

For the Christian worldview, both Protestant and Roman Catholic versions, the only domain of special revelation knowledge4 Meaning that which can be known about the supernatural realm apart from just our experiences of the world around us. is that of the words of the Bible, or Sacred Scripture.5 Some Roman Catholics hold that there are sacred traditions that are equally revelatory to the words of Scripture, but this is a minority view and one dismissed by the Church at Vatican II. The Bible is a special kind of propositional knowledge, a unique communique between God and man that must be evaluated at a higher level than any other communications about reality, even other communications between God and man, e.g. like personal revelations or rational reflection about nature. However, while the existence of a sacred text or set of inspired oral traditions may count as the standard by which other inferences about reality are to be gauged, this does not mean that sacred texts or traditions must be utilized in every instance of human evaluation about reality. One need not go to the book of Leviticus or to Judges to assess the merits of differential calculus or the taxonomies of marine biology.

Nevertheless, on the broad existential questions, traditional religions, their sacred texts, creeds, and practices will inevitably give answers that presume the reality of some supernatural agent that can or already has broken into the physical world. By doing so, this Agent has initiated some process that will saves us from having to construct our own “ultimate” meaning and purpose for life, that provides for us a human-independent standard of moral behavior, and that will actually rescue us from the finitude of bodily existence and potentially bring us into some new kind of existence. If there are such supernatural Beings with such plans and purposes, then it would seem Supernaturalism has quite a leg up on Scientism and Semanticism. However, Supernaturalism has one central weakness, a weakness that has been continually exposed and argued about since at least Descartes. That weakness is this: how do we know that there is such a thing as the supernatural?

Supernaturalism and Religious Epistemology

The apparent death-knell to a supernatural approach to the human condition did not come all at once, rather there was a long, slow atrophying of looking at the world through supernatural lenses. However, in the West many philosophers will trace the history of the rejection of metaphysical knowledge through at least three main figures: Descarte, Hume, and ultimately Kant. After Kant (1724-1804) the notion that we can know anything about the non-physical world becomes an increasingly minority view among the intellectual elite, a view that ultimately trickles down into popular culture, ending in what we label today as our secular society.6This is a very simplistic description of how we have come to be “a secular age.” For a robust treatment of the history of Western culture’s slide from supernaturalism into secularism, see Charles Taylor’s magisterial tome, A Secular Age.

Nevertheless, in spite of that long slide into a strongly secular cultural milieu, the way the culture operates currently is not conclusive evidence against the possibility of metaphysical or even religiously relevant metaphysical knowledge. The question of how we can know that the supernatural realm of the religious exists has been taken up anew since the mid-1960’s by both analytic philosophers of religion in Protestant circles and by Roman Catholic neo-Thomist scholars. Even non-theists have come to admit that serious metaphysics is back on the table in contemporary philosophy.

In the strain of Evangelical philosophy of religion there are at least two viable models to justifying religious, i.e. supernatural, beliefs: the more science-friendly model grounded in forensic evidence and probabilistic inferences to the best explanation and the Reformed epistemological model, which argues religious beliefs as properly basic and thereby warranted unless otherwise defeated. Representatives of each would be philosophers like Richard Swinburne on the one hand, and, of course, Alvin Plantinga on the other. Both have spawned schools of thought on religious epistemology.

Conclusion: Supernaturalism, If True, Is The Only Approach That Can Save Us

Since the supernaturalist approach to the human condition allows for not only individual and immanent purposes but also ultimate purposes, and since it also allows for not just subjective moral values and socially constructed moral obligations, but objectively grounded obligations and values, and because it provides a real solution to the finitude of physical existence, that is to death itself, Supernaturalism is in the end the only approach to the human condition that really could solve our existential crisis. Only Supernaturalism could literally save us from a world where our deepest longings go unfulfilled, our deepest pains go unredeemed, and all our human efforts, projects, and endeavors ultimately go into oblivion. Unlike Heidegger’s failed attempt to solve the crisis of existence by positing some sacralization of the immanent, Supernaturaism has the resources to actually do so because it maintains there is a God who actually can perfect the immanent through His very real power (and gracious willingness).

If Supernaturalism then has any epistemic justification,7 For a concise yet powerful argument that Christian epistemic practices have the same epistemic justification as our sensory perceptions, see William Alston “Religious Experience and Religious Belief” in Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, edited by Geivett and Sweetman (New York: Oxford Press, 1992) 295-303. it should be clear that it is the best, existential option for anyone who has thought a minute about the human situation. That Supernaturalism has at least some warrant in virtue of both rational argumentation, e.g. theistic arguments from cosmology, design arguments, or arguments from morality or beauty, and personal experiences, e.g. encounters with the divine, the demonic, etc., should further provide a starting point for those skeptical of this traditional religious approach to the human dilemma.

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

Romans 1:19-20