To Have or Have Not?: The Problem of Possessing vs. The Gift Of Being

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

Matthew 6:25

In his commentary on the work of Gabriel Marcel, Oxford philosopher F.H. Heinemann1 Heinemann is a little known figure in philosophy, but seems to have been deeply involved with the existentialist movement on the European continent in its heyday. He also claims to have coined the term “Existenzphilosophie” in German, and knew many of the leading existentialist thinkers like Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl personally. Thus, he has all the credentials of an expert in this arena of philosophy. suggests that for the French existentialist the source of ‘alienation’2 ‘Alienation’ is a fundamental concept and a technical term in 20th century existential thought. It is best understood as the individual person’s sense of being alone or isolated from God, others, and any telos or purpose in the world. for modern man lies in man’s “having” or “possessing” certain things or capacities or social functions. This inordinate focus on possessing or having alienates man from his authentic being. Unlike other existentialists of his day, like Sartre or Heidegger, the Roman Catholic Marcel saw the problem of possession as the core of our alienation from God and our true selves. Heinemann elucidates Marcel’s thought regarding the dangers of viewing our identity, our essence, in the act of “having”:

Objects which we possess, houses, books, factories, gardens, or ideas and opinions which we regard as our ‘possessions’, in a specific sense ‘have’ us. We are in danger of being imprisoned or devoured by them. People concentrating on having are in danger of becoming captive souls cut off from other persons and not responding to their ‘presence.’

F.H. Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, 143.

For Marcel, per Heinemann, the more one seeks to have or possess things for themselves, the more one does damage to his own being, to his own “ontology.” Man’s identity becomes confused with the concrete things he owns or even the abstract ideas he considers his own. According to Marcel, if we get lost in this project of having we “suffer a loss of being,” we incur an “ontological deficiency.”3 Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, 143. This having and the subsequent ontological damage it causes could manifest itself in very tangible things like the aforementioned “houses” or “factories” or in things like one’s own intellectual property or one’s success.

However, it is not just in a personal desire to have or possess that man begins to lose himself and his connection to God and his fellow man. Modern man, belonging to a world where the individual is increasingly ‘socialized,’ i.e., incorporated into an increasingly large, powerful state structure, has become a mere functionary (fonctionnaires) of that larger superstructure. In becoming more and more embedded in such a structure, genuine privacy, affection and relationship is lost:

An increasing socialization of life and the growing powers of the state are invading the privacy of the person and destroying the brotherhood of men and the fertile soil in which creativeness, imagination and reflection can flourish.

Heinemann, 143.

In addition, as the technology associated with this socializing process advances, the daily phenomena of human existence become mere “problems to be solved by reasoning and calculation.”4 ibid., 143. The vicissitudes of life all become obstacles to overcome rather than mysteries, i.e. “metaphysical problems,”5 Heinemann, 145. to be acknowledged and explored, let alone entered into.

Here, one could ask, “what happens if one applies Marcel’s concern over seeing things as problems to be fixed through instrumental reasoning, rather than as mysteries to be accepted and pondered, to concrete moral issues?” Instead of seeing moral attitudes or actions as either intrinsically right or wrong, good or evil, inherently dignified or mere means to ends, we see moral issues as primarily political ones; as technical deficiencies to be remedied through technological advances and legal revision. On this view, for example, abortion is not an inherent evil, i.e. the destruction of a mysterious being of incalculable ontological worth, but merely a sociological ill to be overcome through medical technology (e.g. RU-486) and better social policies (e.g. free health insurance).

We see this kind of pragmatic attitude among some Evangelical Christians today, who care less about overturning an intrinsically unjust (and evil) law in Roe v. Wade, or of pondering the great mystery of life more generally, but care only about finding means to dropping actual abortion rates.6 Which is, of course, one aspect of justice but not the whole story. As if the unjust “right” of abortion itself could stay on the books so long as no one actually exercised it. So long as the problems were not actual, it seems many would be okay with the idea that people could still believe abortion was morally justified. So long as we have through technology and social policy eliminated the need for anyone to have an actual abortion, it wouldn’t matter if they theoretically thought it was still a viable option. Nevertheless, this would be to go on thinking that the great mystery of life is itself subject to our possessing the knowledge and ability to destroy it should it ever become too bothersome to us. Few today however would apply this kind of thinking to something like the institution of slavery. After all, it is not okay to believe slavery is morally acceptable even if it is no longer economically viable and therefore not needed.

Returning to the more general problem of alienation from God, our true self, and others through the elevating of “having” over “being,” C.S. Lewis echoes Marcel’s thought (independently I believe), in The Screwtape Letters when he writes about the kinds of possessive claims we make on our lives. These include claims about our bodies and even time itself. Regarding time, Lewis has the elder tempter, Screwtape, advise the younger Wormwood:

They [interruptions] anger him [the Christian man] because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties.

In deceiving the individual into believing he or she possesses the very time that passes, any intrusion upon one’s time by one’s neighbor (let alone by God) is seen as an offense, a “tax” upon one’s property. This opens up the door to various kinds of conflict between the individual self and “the other,” as human pride is further fueled by the enemy and every inch of “our” lives becomes a battlefield. After all, the notion that man possesses time itself can only be the height of hubris!

Regarding the body, it is much the same. The sense of “having” or “owning” a body is the source of incredible pride and egocentricism:

Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they ‘own’ their bodies—those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love’s sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counsellors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

It is this “sense of ownership,” this claim to “having rights” over everything from tangibles like houses and motor-cars,7 for Marcel avoir-possession, or “possessing having” to even the physical pains and pleasures of “those vast and perilous estates” that are human bodies8 for Marcel, the avoir-implication, or “implicit having” that enslaves us. Only when we realize that none of these things are appropriately ours, even if we experience them as such, but instead are part of the Divine life, can we begin to relinquish this false self, and in doing so participate in the life of God. In letting go of our ownership, our “having,” we can really start to be, and having found our identity in Christ, we can truly begin to “be in Him.” Rather than being creatures who possess things, we are transformed into creations that participate in the grand drama of Being itself.

Applied concretely, this would also put us as a society on a much better track than we are currently on, for our goals would not be economic, i.e. related to everyone “having” an equal amount of x, y, or z; but rather ontic, i.e. related to everyone being together and being fundamentally equal regardless of what they have. Perhaps then we would better understand Christ when he says “you are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” Why allow a false notion of possession spoil the salt or hide that light?

“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”

Ephesians 3:8bff

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 often neglected 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 he held. 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 once, 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

Like Huxley, Wilde too was both sexually and politically offensive in his day and age. Of course, in 19th century Ireland, the domains of sexual morality and politics were still fused together by laws of conduct, a notion increasingly alien to many westerners today. As such, Wilde was eventually tried and convicted for the sin of sodomy, a sin, moreover that he enjoyed with both under-aged boys and egomaniacal relish. Summing up Wilde’s life, 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 particular lack of moral development, it was again a philosophical view of the world that Wilde held which facilitated and justified this debauchery. Wilde, like many at that time, embraced fully, indeed 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, commenting on Moore’s aestheticism, sums up its core tenets:

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 day, 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 to some extent worthy of pursuit, nevertheless this pursuit of sensible beauty is teleologically a far cry from that say of 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 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 that of Creator, an exchange the apostle Paul warns about in the opening salvo of his letter to the Romans (see Romans 1:18ff).

In Wilde’s own writing, which is best understood as the literary embodiment of this Anglo-philosophical aestheticism coupled with the moral philosophy of Nietzsche, he describes this stance in the preface of Dorian Gray:

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 as well as Wilde’s. Wilde’s “wild life” was thus not predicated on the reality of a divine Nature or the essence of a good God who issues divine commands, instead it was predicated on the generative powers of man to create his own heavenly realms, and 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, itself as close to an autobiography of the Irish upstart as one can find.

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 common to 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, be the thing that ages and corrupts over time, while his real-life material body remains forever young. Wotton has tempted Dorian to unleash an infernal wish, one that will make him the center of his own world, a pure sinner, yet who also bears no 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 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, something Nietzsche rightly recognized, even if he rejected what had become of it through the emergence of Socratic philosophy and ultimately Christianity. The medieval doctrines of the “beatific vision” also attest to this deep understanding of the moral 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, some contemporary scandals in the church today1 One cannot help but mention sexual predators like Ravi Zacharias and Jean Vanier, men who used their roles as spiritual authorities and Christian leaders to entrap victims. have revealed to us how the cancer of sin often goes unseen in the outward appearance, or speech, of men. Many apparently solid edifices are only as real as Hollywood stage sets. Only later, sometimes too late, do we recognize sin’s true effects on one’s soul.2 This was definitely the case in both Zacharias’ and Vanier’s stories, as each seems to have died without repentance. An incredible breakdown in moral accountability.

Ultimately, Wilde’s story ends when Dorian, having now descended into every form of narcissistic iniquity, including murder, is confronted with the hideous painting, which, in its grotesqueness, crystalizes each of Dorian’s atrocities. In the last chapter, after a paltry attempt to turn over a new leaf after his life of evil, Dorian rushes to the painting to see if his newfound “desire” for morality has perhaps already altered the painting for the better. But, it has not. For even Dorian’s 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 virtue, 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, Dorian 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 as all of his objects can be found in the same spacetime reality we occupy. But, on the other hand, this realism is imbued with something quite mystical, or better said, something quite metaphysical. One German art 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 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. In more technical areas, Metaphysical Realism deals with intricate notions about the existence of things like universals and properties, but in a more basic sense it affirms the reality of substances, to include immaterial substances like angels and demons, minds or souls. In philosophy these are considered 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 and 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, both 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 glorious power.

Still, does this idea of sin as an ontological substance make the doctrine of Hell more palatable? After all, are not Wilde’s and Lewis’ novels and Albright’s art mere imaginations from the minds of men? Perhaps.

However, if the metaphysical realist 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 her toddler standing at her side? 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 and unscientific. 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.

An Encounter in Munich

Of course, no one looks like [Albright’s painting of] Dorian Gray. The evil that resides in human beings usually doesn’t show its full face to us.

Years ago as a much younger, and more wicked 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.

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. Like in Wilde’s novel, the outward presentation of the famed city covered up the corruption that permeated its soul.

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 sound man 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 blank, 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 the fake “Stephan.” 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).

Thomas 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, for in my mind it could not have been a mind, into submission with brute force. The other just wanted to run away, and not be near such monsters. Like a child, I did not want to see what was in the closet. 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 dismal 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. Carlos returned the money for the tapes, and as he absconded from the scene 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 buy the videos?”

We all stood shocked.

What Kind of Creatures?

I did not convert to Christ that day, although I should have. 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.

The exposé eventually aired on RTL, a few weeks later. I didn’t go back to the apartment with Thomas or his team and was satisfied to watch their finish product on TV. How much effect it had on sex trafficking operations in Munich I never really found out. Around the same time as the report aired, however, Carlos called me (he had gotten my number from Thomas), asking if I could help him translate some documents. I was working part-time as a business translator at a local Siemens office in those days. I agreed.

Carlos came to my apartment and told me more about his plan to create a Verien (in German, an “association” or “legal entity”) aimed at increasing awareness of child trafficking. I did what I could to help him and translated some of his work. I think we met once or twice, and then I never saw him again. I sometimes wish I had found out more about him, someone who was selling his body for sex yet whose conscience had been awakened to an evil within an evil. Was this a new beginning for him: a journey out of the dark of the train stations and undergrounds and into the light?

God only knows.

My own conversion would come years later while in the Army. My encounter that day led me only so far as to know that everything is not as it seems, and that the reality of good and evil was substantial. It also raised in me the question “What kind of creatures are we?” My answer now would echo Lewis’ then: truly there are gods and goddesses among us, some light as angels, others dark like nightmares.

Losing Orthodoxy in America?: Part III – The Battle of the Heart

In this series, I am arguing that there are three battlefields of human culture upon which orthodox Christianity has failed to successfully contend, and in failing to do so orthodox Christianity will go into rapid decline. Moreover, those who continue to profess and practice this form of Christianity will face actual instances of persecution. I also argued that there is another form of Christianity, Progressive Christianity that will not face the same kind of persecution, if at all.1 Whether or not this progressive Christianity will also go into decline I am not making any argument one way or the other. It seems that the pattern of decline set by mainline Protestant denominations in the 20th century would continue, but it is possible that as the culture changes, new forms of Progressive Christianity could succeed as they adapt to culture. This may be the case too as correlation approaches to theology become more seasoned and accepted at the higher levels of church governance. The three battles that orthodox Christianity has lost, or nearly lost, are the battles for the senses, for the mind, and for the heart of the nation. However, before I lay out why I believe the heart of America has been hardened to an orthodox vision of the Christian faith, a few preliminary thoughts about whether this is all just an exercise in alarmism.

The Rise and Fall of…Just About Anything

The attempt to sketch the decline of something as large as “orthodox Christianity” is, of course, a foolish errand, and would require something like a 1,000 page book to do it justice. After all, anyone who does make the attempt should know that such attempts are made with every generation, and with every successive generation those earlier attempts are usually weighed in the balance and found wanting. They are “over-blown,” “hyperbolic,” and “alarmist,” and, in the end, our current generation is doing just fine. Anthony Esolen puts it this way:

Any man who speaks about the collapse of his culture or civilization must meet the charge that the same things have been said by other people in other places and at other times, and yet we are still here–the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, children are born and grow to adulthood, men and women marry and have children and grow old and die, and nothing is new under the sun. ‘We have heard it before,’ they will say.

Anthony Esolen, “No Option: Clear out the Rubble and Rebuild” (Touchstone, July/August 2020)

Of course, there are three factors which may mitigate the foolishness of my attempt to predict the future: first, I am not suggesting that American culture as a whole will decline, only the orthodox Christian culture in America. This is not an unusual phenomena. After all, there are countries which have strong cultures, economies, and infrastructures but where Christian orthodoxy is actively suppressed, take China for instances or perhaps Canada. Moreover, there are numerous historical examples of orthodoxies being almost entirely lost to whole regions of the globe: Central Asia, North Africa, Russia, etc. The loss of entire Christian cultures is a historical fact, one well documented by historians like Philip Jenkins. Jenkins lays out a basic principle of how Christian cultures have died in his book The Lost History of Christianity:

Churches must adapt, but they face the grave dilemma of just how far to take such accommodation. This is critical when churches are confronted with a powerful and hostile hegemonic culture, creating a society with many temptations to accommodate. Historically, Christians faced the issue of whether to speak and think in the language of their anti-Christian rulers. If they refused to accommodate, they were accepting utter marginality, and cutting themselves off from any participation in a thriving society. Yet accepting the dominant language and culture accelerated the already strong tendency to assimilate to the ruling culture, even if the process took generations.

Jenkins, 245.

Although Jenkins goes on to say he thinks we are “a long way away from any such scenario” like this in the West, I would argue that in the 12 years since the writing of his book things have actually progressed quite rapidly, especially with the ever increasing biases of our political media and the public emergence of potentially hegemonic ideologies like Critical Race Theory, a view that the highly regarded economist Glenn Loury has called “A threat to our civilization,” a civilization all historians agree was grounded in Christianity.2 Loury made this statement in an interview with Al Mohler here. The comment is made around the 51.45 mark. However, that Christian orthodoxy should crumble may mean that the broader culture is not far behind. This, as I noted before, was intimated by the former Cardinal of Chicago, Francis George.

Second, is the fact that much of this decline has, in great part, already occurred and has been documented by others, e.g. the Eastern Orthodox author Rod Dreher or now the Roman Catholic theologian Ralph Martin who have made strong arguments about the current crisis for orthodox Christianity in both of those ecumenical traditions.

Finally, to suggest that orthodoxy, the kind of orthodoxy I posited in the first part of this series, is in decline does not mean that all aspects of orthodox Christianity will disappear completely or that there will be no activity, intellectual or cultural, by orthodox practitioners, even under an extended period of suppression and persecution. History is far too complex for that, as Esolen points out again when drawing an analogy between America’s cultural demise and that of Rome:

If, then, I point out our cultural decline, I need not deny that we have antibiotics, or that men do not brawl in bars as often as they used to. Cultural decline is seldom universal. You can usually point out some regard in which things have not collapsed. A slave in the time of Domitian enjoyed more legal protection than did a slave in the time of the noble hero of the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus, but Domitian was cruel and mad, and the great poet Juvenal, writing in that time, said of the rabble in Rome that all you needed to keep them from rebellion was bread and circuses.

Anthony Esolen, “No Option:Clear out the Rubble & Rebuild”

Clearly the contemporary church in the West, even very orthodox churches, enjoys all kinds of benefits they did not in the past. And clearly our broader American culture has advanced in ways previous generations could hardly imagine. But, we can also detect with relative ease the crumbling of culture more broadly; the decay in the arts,3 To think that shows like SNL pass for art and entertainment today, is to realize the move from a high to a low culture. the loss of valuable social institutions,4 What ever happened to Rotary club, Knights of Columbus, Salvation Army? Most of their social functions have been replaced by government. and, most profoundly, the rejection of any notion of a national epic or ethos under which all citizens are called to unite and toward which they can strive. Even the loss of the nobility and nature of sport in the modern arenas of the NBA, NFL and MLB shows how far we have fallen from de Coubertin’s vision, the revival of the sacred games of the Olympiad, and how much closer we are to Juvenal’s lament.

For the church in this culture, a point Esolen makes poignantly, there is even a noticeable atrophy in its own language and practice, for just as Pope Gregory after the fall of the Roman culture “was quite aware that his Latin could not match that of the authors in the days of Cicero,” so too we realize today that our English cannot match the English in the days of Chesterton or Lewis, just as our preaching today does not match, or only rarely matches, that of Spurgeon or Sheen. Again, however, this is not to say there will be no Chestertons or Spurgeons in our times, only that they are rare and will continue to become harder and harder to find. And I will only make a passing remark about “skinny jeans and fog machines” as replacements for ecclesial vestments and incense.5 That was my passing remark. Taking these three qualifying observations into account, I find it at least plausible that my fool’s errand may not be quite so foolish.

Losing the Battle of the Heart

Losing the Narrative

“Winning hearts and minds” was a phrase that gained in popularity under the counter-insurgency doctrine of Gen. David Petraeus during the Iraq war. The basic idea, although not a novel one, is that it is more important to convince a local population that you are for them, and have their best interests in mind, than actually winning kinetic battles against the armed enemy in that region. In doing so, you pave the way to a strategic victory in an otherwise hostile land and in a war that cannot be won through sheer force. Winning hearts is compelling a hostile, or at least suspicious, people that you are its liberator, not its oppressor. In convincing hearts you also add allies to your ranks, allies with resources that can aid you in your mission.

It is important here to note that my metaphor breaks down when we think of actual hearts changing in such a way that they become captive to Christ, as in, they become saved hearts. What I am saying here does not relate to theological soteriology, a work that all historical Christians believe (and even many progressives) can only be initiated by the Holy Spirit Himself. Anything, or anyone, that says otherwise has a special place reserved in the hall of heresy, next to the likes of Pelagius and Socinus. Rather, winning hearts in this sense has to do with messaging the Christian worldview and the accompanying Christian life in such a way that even those who refuse its ultimate offer of salvation, still appeal to Christianity as a commendable or even indispensable feature of a moral and just human culture. Pascal put it this way “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” That said we can find people in the West, some very prominent, who while not believers themselves, do find Christianity attractive, and in finding it attractive, also find it indispensable, and in finding it indispensable become allies in its defense.6 I think here of the agnostic author, Tom Holland, who makes better defenses of historical Christianity than many Christians I know of. Their numbers are few however and increasingly far between.

Of course, if there is a war of wars, one requiring the winning over of hearts and minds, it is the spiritual war over the souls of men; a war, as C.S. Lewis once put it, between a “dark power” in the world and the creator of that power. Some might say it is at this point, the very idea of a dark power that keeps the world in a constant state of cruelty, confusion, and death coupled with the belief in an all-loving creator of that very same power, that the battle to win the human heart is already lost. Still this kind of skepticism has usually been reserved for the educated elite and philosophers of religion. While this “problem of evil” has certainly been pushed further down and out into the broader culture, especially due to the “New Atheists” of the early 2000’s, in the end there is a subtler face of secularism that lures away from Christian orthodoxy.

What does seem to be the point of departure for many hearts, is not the difficulty of reconciling an all good and all powerful God with the existence of free moral creatures, both human and spiritual, but rather the sense that Christianity cannot deliver the goods when it comes to a heart longing to be a part of a greater story, a cause that aims to fulfill our deepest longings. There are simply other stories out there, other causes: racial justice, climate change, fair trade coffee, anti-vaping campaigns, and now mask wearing that seem to offer more legitimate, more relevant, more immediate, and, of course, far less morally restrictive, life goals. Many of these causes and movements, all of them perhaps, operate entirely within what Charles Taylor called the “immanent frame.” They attract because, in short, they often are genuinely good moral endeavors that have a sense, or are given a sense, of great urgency. They offer the individual seeker of purpose a meaning that goes beyond their own lifestyle interests and narcissistic wants; at least sort of.7 In my own life, after my conversion as an adult, I became very aware of why I did many of the objectively good deeds I had done prior to that conversion. There is, as Kierkegaard elucidated, a universal ethic of which we are all aware, and which we long to try to accomplish on our own. We also long to be seen as good. But, this desire of the “ethical man” to do good and be good is deficient, for in man’s arrogance and pride he thinks and tries to be it and do it apart from God. It is the originating original sin reproduced in history.

However, this seeking for a cause in the world to which one can attach their existential hopes and alleviate their existential angst, if Christianity is true, is merely apparent. For while any one of those narratives, stories, or causes could be incorporated into the grander narrative of Christianity, Christianity cannot be reduced to fit into their overarching narratives (even if some, like Critical Race Theory, are trying to do just that). The problem of course is whether or not the vast majority see Christianity as the story in which all others come together, cohere, and find their ultimate meaning, or whether Christianity is just one option among a smorgasbord of purpose-giving pursuits.8 It reminds me of the 1965 George Stevens movie, The Greatest Story Ever Told with Max van Sydow as Jesus. The cast was incredible, even if the film was a dud. Many are accustomed to hearing about the “bigness of God” in kids’ classes and young adult ministries, but are we able to defend the bigness of Christianity as God’s story? This is often where the heart of the matter lies. This story cannot be detached from the life of the mind and the rigors of the intellect, but the mind and the intellect alone cannot do the cultural lifting necessary to win the war.

However, far be it for me to cast stones, for many great men and women have tried their hand at this task of weaving the art of the Christian faith and their works have done just that. Whether it be Augustine’s City of God in the 5th century or the worlds of Lewis and Tolkien in the 20th, there have been defenses of the Christian faith that have compelled millions. It is in this creative work that the wonder of Christianity becomes very real to many, the kind of wonder that we only rarely glimpse in America today. Andrew Davidson puts it this way:

It is the work of the apologist to suggest that only in God does our wonder reach its zenith, and only in God do our deepest desires find their fulfillment. The apologist may labour to show that the Christian theological vision is true, but that will fall flat unless he or she has an equal confidence that it is supremely attractive and engaging.

Andrew Davidson, Imaginative Apologetics (xxvi)

It is no wonder that many today are drawn to the musings of men like Jordan Peterson, another valiant defender of Christianity who nevertheless remains agnostic. For while Peterson is not inept as a philosopher, it is clearly his trafficking in the register of Jungian archetypes, and his ability to weave back into modern parlance the art and myth of the past that has made him such an impactful prophet of the post-modern era.

However, there is another arena of the heart that is not won on the battlefield of the imagination, but rather on the battlefield of relation. How the orthodox Church has related to the culture it lives in has not been without its problems. In fact, many have earned orthodoxy a justified bad name.

Losing Relationships

Inevitably orthodox Christians will lose relationships and that due to their orthodoxy. Jesus told us as much,

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.

John 15:18-20

However, there are ways that one should lose relationships and ways that one should not. Several factors play into any relationship, and the nature or quality of even one relationship usually has a degree of complexity too hard for any single mind to fully grasp. If we could, there would rarely be divorce as therapists would have long ago discovered the secret formula for marital success. Children and parents would never find themselves estranged from each other and fights among siblings quickly resolved.

But, in spite of this complexity, there are always relationships inside the orthodox church that will spoil the story it intends to transmit. This, again, is an inevitability of spiritual war. However, when we see messengers of God, trusted voices of the Gospel, fall from grace, and that through various forms of abuse, it should not surprise that one result is a turning away of the heart from orthodox Christianity itself (at least, a momentary turning away). The rejection of Roman Catholicism resulting from the scandal of priestly sexual abuse; the walking away from Evangelicalism on account of sexual immorality or greed among high-ranking members of Protestant churches or ministries; or the myriad other failures of orthodox communities that hold to the high biblical standard all matter greatly. Further, in most cases, healing does not simply occur overnight.

Finally, there are corporate relationships that turn away hearts from the orthodox faith. While I reject the notion that it was unjustified or immoral for Evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics to vote for and support Donald Trump, that that support had a negative effect on the hearts of many Americans cannot be denied. I am not in any way advocating for the idea that “image is everything.”9 A line made famous by tennis great, Andre Agassi several years ago. I have argued elsewhere that images often deceive, and we must discern the truth of the inner core over being satisfied with the outer appearance. Still, I am saying that, whether right or wrong, some things that orthodox Christians have attached themselves to have caused a stigma. Donald Trump, a man I voted for twice, is part of that current stigma against the orthodox family, and how we respond to both his presidency and now his loss of the presidency does matter to the Gospel. It is at least worth us considering very carefully. Good moves in the right direction are begin made by folks who do matter to the perception of the Church in America. Still, that there are rallies being held, ecumenical ones at that, that are calling for some kind of enduring resistance to the legitimacy of the Joe Biden presidency may, on the one hand, be refreshing, while on the other hand deeply upsetting. For while it is good to see a passionate unity of Christian orthodoxy, nevertheless, what we are unifying around and why we are doing it matters just as much.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has Screwtape, the elder tempter, advise his nephew Wormwood on how to divert the focus of the Christian man from his identity in Christ to his political identity. In the days of WWII, Lewis uses the political images of the “Patriot” and the “Pacifist”10 Today we might say the conservative and the liberal to make his point:

“Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. ”

C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books.

If our Christian faith becomes merely a part of our political loyalty, and the “World” made our ultimate end, then our heart is for politics instead of for Christ–we are living for the finite, not the eternal. This will be noticed by the eyes and the hearts of the culture around us. To be fair to Trump supporters like myself, this temptation to loyalty to politics over Christ clearly cuts both ways, as Progressive Christianity has for some time now found politics to be a golden calf. The alternative, however, is also not the answer, for to do nothing politically may indeed be to allow evil to triumph, something the abolitionists understood well. That a balance between worldly good sought through lawful means and heavenly good sought through unwordly means must be struck is foundational to the Christian life of faith. But, if one had to err on the side of caution, that side should be the heavenly.

In sum, both the failure to capture the imagination of the culture for the sake of Christ, as well as the loss in the realm of relationships has resulted in a major blow to the orthodox Christian story that is, in truth, one of goodness, and hope, and beauty. To use the Hebrew idiom, it is the story of stories.

Conclusion: Winning Hearts, Minds, and Senses Is Not Ultimately Up to Us

As difficult as it may be to accept that our success as orthodox communities to win the hearts, minds, and senses of a nation is ultimately not up to us, and, in some sense, that failure is inevitable, nevertheless it should be recognized as a mystery– a mystery any orthodox Christian must ponder with great seriousness. We, in the end, do not win the war, at least not in a manner that would afford us to boast of a victory we might imagine to have won on our own strength or through our own wits. To depart from this truth would be to move away from the orthodoxy I have been describing and move into the Progressivism I have called its antithesis.

The hope of the orthodox Christian is not to declare victory over a culture or a nation, ours is only to participate in the war for a culture or nation’s souls. Should we overstep our bounds in fighting with other than spiritual weapons, we become like the very culture we aim to see transformed. Should we abandon the spiritual weapons we do have to join the culture, we step off of the spiritual battlefield itself and right into the hands of the enemy.

One lesson I learned in Afghanistan was that one could lose the battle to evil men in two ways: one could fail to resist their aggression with the proper means of warfare and in doing so cede over the land to those who do evil. Or, one could take on the features of one’s enemy and, in doing so, become similarly evil. I’ll admit, there are times in the course of human history, and in particular moments of great moral complexity, when even the most faithful Christian can be tempted to the breaking point and so participate in real evil.11 Do not think that in the West we are not capable of this. We must consider the reality of Christian men and women who have before their very eyes seen their own children raped and savagely murdered. Is everyone of us so certain in our own spiritual formation, that we would not exact revenge upon the murderers if the opportunity presented itself? Is this not why we honor the martyrs who resist that temptation?

Therefore, as was even the case with the ultimate counter-insurgent, Jesus Christ Himself, the Word made Flesh who came to live among the enemies of God, victory in this war is never more than partial. This is reported in John’s Gospel, when the eyewitness writes,

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.

John 1:9-11

God Himself came into His own creation, now broken with sin and death, to rescue people from that sin and that death, yet not all believed in His liberation, and still today most see Him as oppressor and not Liberator. Nevertheless, the things Jesus did were the kinds of thing that could and should win the hearts of men and women. Healing the sick, casting out demons, freeing people from the guilt of their own conscience. All acts of genuine love of the other, all expressions of agape love, which seeks the ultimate for the other even at great cost to oneself.

Winning the heart, however, is the victory of Christianity in the world. For as I already pointed out, one could lose both the battle of the senses and the battle of the mind, yet if one wins the heart of an individual or group, then Christ has conquered them. For one can have all of the most beauteous and spacious church buildings in the world, or all of the best formulated and most cogent arguments of the Truth, but if neither affects the human heart, then salvation has not been gained and the individual or her community remains lost.

As orthodox Christianity dies in the West we should take comfort in two truths about Christianity and its historical persecutions: first, it is always for the benefit of God’s true chosen ones that persecution comes. Jenkins points out that the church under persecution has often understood the persecution itself as part of a communal soul-building:

Such punishments could be understood as a form of correction from which the society would learn lessons for the future, and from which it would emerge stronger. This was, after all, a society in which fathers were expected to apply strict corporal punishment to erring children.

Jenkins, 251

And errant children we are. Further, we should accept, as orthodox believers, the wisdom and traditions, and interpretations of the past. For they are not irrelevant or defunct, no matter our post-modern sensibilities. That God Almighty chastises is a fundamental mystery grounded in the revelation of Scripture. The history of Israel attests to it thoroughly. Through suffering we gain in both purity and wisdom, learning what really matters and how to persevere with the saints.

Second, however, is the more hopeful vision of our transhistorical and eternal connection to all of those who have come before us and suffered, the community of the church militant that wars against powers and principalities as well as flesh and blood throughout time. Jenkins references a work by Charles Williams regarding this profound truth:

Charles William’s Descent into Hell, […] also deals with themes of martyrdom and, in worldly terms, failure. One of the book’s characters is a sixteenth-century Protestant about to be executed for his faith, but his fear of suffering and pain means that he dreads giving in to his persecutors. He draws courage from a mystical linkage with his descendants, a woman in the twentieth century. The lives of both individuals find meaning and purpose across long centuries that for us demarcate separate worlds, but which have no existence in the mind of God. Such a connection is absurd in terms of secular thought, as God does a miserably poor job of respecting human precision about time and space. But such a story reminds us that long ages of Christian absence that we might clumsily term an ‘eternity’ might in reality be no such thing.

Jenkins, 256

What is it then to the orthodox Christian who might face persecution? It is to his or her benefit that he or she join into full communion with women like Perpetua in the 3rd century or men like Tyndale in the 16th. It is for our good that we enter into the complete fellowship with the 21 Coptic priests beheaded on a beach in Libya in 2015. For it was the beheaded apostle Paul himself, the one who saw Jesus in the Heavens, who said, such present sufferings as these are indeed not worth comparing to the vast weight of glory yet to be revealed.

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