Living In A Culture Gone Mad: Four Ways The Church Can Respond To The Coming Crisis

by Anthony Costello

In a recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, theologian Carl Trueman poses an initial question: why does a statement like ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body’ make sense to us today, where just a generation or two ago it would have been absolutely unintelligible?1Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 19. To try to answer this, he invokes the 20th century sociologist, Philip Rieff, for the sake of explaining to the Church why we find ourselves in such an upside down world. Trueman utilizes Rieff’s taxonomy of cultures to do this explanatory work. For Rieff, society could be categorized into three different “worlds:” first, second and third worlds,2 These designations shouldn’t be confused with how modern economists classify countries according to economic and technological development, although economics and technology might play a causal role in which category a particular culture finds itself. a classification which becomes useful in understanding our current culture. First world societies, according to Rieff, are cultures that define their morality, and subsequently their laws and customs, by appealing to something beyond society itself— to a sacred or transcendent reality. First worlds are “pagan,” however, in that they are largely rooted in primitive religious beliefs that leave mankind open to the whims of fate, fortune, and the furies. Nevertheless, that a sacred reality or sacred history acts as the foundation for societal structures, practices, and codices is undeniable in these cultures.

Second worlds are those that also ground their societal structures, practices and moral norms in the transcendent, but where the transcendent or sacred is expressed through an organized faith or theological system that is open to various forms of rational thought and scientific modes of thinking. Christendom of the ancient orthodox East or the Latin West, or Medieval Islam would be good examples of second world cultures. Both first and second worlds are relatively stable in their cultural forms due to the common sense belief that all things ultimately are sourced in a sacred, transcendent power or Person and, therefore, cannot be so easily altered or amended.

Third Worlds, on the other hand, are drastically different from the first two, in that they no longer accept a reality, a world or world maker, that lies beyond society itself. Society, as Frankfurt School philosopher Max Horkheimer argued years ago, is the sole determining factor of “the world and subjectivity in all its forms.”3 see James Bohman, “Critical Theory” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. for third world cultures. Or, as Trueman says, “Third worlds, by way of stark contrast to the first and second worlds, do not root their cultures, their social orders, their moral imperatives in anything sacred. They do have to justify themselves, but they cannot do so on the basis of something sacred or transcendent. Instead, they have to do so on the basis of themselves.”4 Trueman, 76, emphasis added In short, third worlds are categorically different from first and second worlds, whose own intramural differences pale in comparison. This is why the challenge to Christians living in a third world society like that of the United States or Canada today is much greater than that of early Christians living in pagan Rome or medieval Christians living in 11th century Islamic caliphates.5 The challenge may not be physically greater, but the chasm between people mentally is much vaster, making the communication of the Gospel that much more difficult. The framework for viewing reality is categorically other between first and second worlds and third worlds.

Before considering how Christians might respond to the challenge of living in this kind of “third world” culture, it is important to note three implications of Rieff’s theory. First, all three kinds of culture: first, second, and third world, can and do exist at the same time within the boundaries of one society.6 Trueman, 80. Second, because pagan, theological, and purely secular cultures exist in the same society at the same time, these societies (e.g. the United States, Canada, England and Western Europe) often feel like cultural battlegrounds, “This is the reason why society now often feels like a cultural battle zone: it consists of groups of people who simply think about the moral structure of the world in utterly incompatible ways.”7Trueman, 80.. Pagan-like cultures (animists, spiritualists, new-agers etc.), religious cultures (Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Orthodox Judaism), and purely secular cultures all live and move and have their being together. Regardless of the vast metaphysical, epistemic, and moral chasm that divides their adherents, members of each world find themselves lounging in the same coffee shops, enjoying the same entertainment, and buying from the same online vendors.

Finally, third world cultures, unlike their historical predecessors and contemporaries, are inherently unstable. Because third world cultures must determine their own identity, their own structures of authority, and their own moral norms apart from anything other than themselves, they become societies that are driven primarily, if not exclusively, by the emotional moods of the day and the sheer willfulness to reshape culture according to those moods. Even the natural sciences, logic, and the law find themselves subject to the passions, drives, and creative forces of third world society and its moods and fashions. Indeed, nothing could be more distinct from a Christian view of reality than that of a third world society.8 Except maybe abstract objects and concrete objects With this said, how can Christians appropriately respond to living in a society that is increasingly a third world one? How can we fight on this battleground of perpetual “self-creation” and “self-determination?,” where the majority of those in the culture no longer are willing or able to refer to a transcendent source or cause of morality or even reality?

Four Responses to Living in A Third World Culture

  1. Reconquest

One prima facie option is to reconquer the culture for Christ, or at least for Christian morality, regardless of what people actually believe about Christianity. While there is a biblical way to attempt to retake lost cultural territory, this response can lead to new forms of a spiritual danger that both Roman Catholicism and historic Protestantism have traditionally warned against, namely Messianism.9 see Catechism of the Catholic Church, here. The idea here being that we can reclaim “the land” for Christ via the same means as we lost it to the culture, primarily through politics, and if not there, then through either physical force or some other ignoble and coercive means. This idea of “fighting fire with fire” acts as a fleshy, in the Pauline sense, replacement to the transforming love of Christ. While integration of the Christian vision can be done peaceably through positioning ourselves in places of institutional influence, e.g. in academics, entertainment, and government, it must be said that these attempts often have the reverse effect, i.e. converting the Christian influencer rather than the Christian converting the secular space. This inability to impact culture is one reason why the “reconquest” impulse emerges even among true believers, if not especially among them. Moreover, if the cultural battle has already been lost, which many believe to be the case, then the temptation to take by force, under the banner of some corrupted view of Nationalism,10 Nationalism itself gets a bad rap these days, and I believe there is a good, biblical case to be made for Nationalism increases greatly. As such, this option must be rejected, and that in virtue of Christ himself who came not to overthrow governments and systems, although he could have done so and one day will, but who came to change people’s hearts through love and self-sacrifice.

  1. Capitulation

While readers may say that capitulation is never an option, the reality is capitulation is already the preferred route of many in the Evangelical (and Roman Catholic) church today. The capitulation response seeks not to infect the culture with Christ, but to adapt Christ to the cultural norms and social moods of the day. Defenders of cultural capitulation may argue that this is the means to sow a seed in culture, i.e. through the very affirmation of it, and that by integrating the Church into the culture this is how Christ’s love is shown. However, the damage done to the truth of the Gospel in the meantime is unacceptable and, as alluded to above, whether this is actually an effective form of evangelism is highly suspect. While it can be difficult to know when one is actually capitulating, as Martin Scorcese’s film version of the book Silence brings to light, nevertheless capitulation does not seem to have much going for it, especially in this era of “soft tyranny.”

As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued in his 1968 book Marxism and Christianity,11 At the time he wrote this book, MacIntyre was himself an atheist and a socialist. He eventually went on to convert to Roman Catholicism in the 1980’s. this kind of cultural Christianity ultimately does little for the cause of Christ:

For if Christianity, in even the semi-secular society of the present,[i.e. in 1968] is to be able to present itself as having a relevant content and function, it is forced to present itself as having a secular content and function. Hence the many attempts to demythologize Christianity, to separate relevant kernel from irrelevant husk. The tragedy of these attempts is that what is disentangled as the essential human meaning of Christianity is so platitudinous, and it is platitudinous precisely because what is presented is a way of life in accordance with the liberal values and illiberal realities of the established order. That function of religion which consisted in providing a radical criticism of the secular present is lost by those contemporary demythologizers whose goal is to assimilate Christianity to the secular present.

In other words, liberal or progressive Christianity waters down the Gospel message to the point of impotence in offering any kind of critique or any resistance to whatever the culture it resides in has already determined as the way forward. Capitulators have no “prophetic voice” and, as such, capitulation should be seen as a non-option, regardless of how many Christian “leaders” embrace it as a legitimate approach.

  1. Strategic Retreat

In the late 5th century, as the Roman Empire was crumbling and the Italian peninsula being ravaged by constant, barbaric conquest from the North and the East, Benedict of Nursia retreated strategically to the high hills of Southern Italy, to what became known as Monte Cassino. There he established the first monastery in Latin Christendom and formulate the “Rule,” a way of life which established the ecclesial and social vocation of religious orders. Recently, philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and popular writers like Rod Dreher have suggested that pursuing a contemporary “Benedict Option” may be needed for the Church.

For example, after analyzing the current state of morality in his magnum opus, After Virtue, MacIntyre suggests there are two basic options for modern man in the West, a return to the classical philosophy and virtue ethics of Aristotle, or an embrace of Nietzsche’s “will to power.” Obviously MacIntyre, like many others, does not want Nietzsche. Unfortunately, the culture around us seems to be trending in a Nietzschean direction, where again the sole determining factor of what we do, what we believe, and what we think is right or wrong is the sheer “will of the people,” a will unattached and unmoored from anything transcendent or sacred. For MacIntyre then, Aristotle is the clear alternative. However, he wonders at the end of the book whether this return is feasible. He presents a haunting third option that he mentions only briefly, at the tail end of the book. Having acknowledged that our current cultural climate, our “third world” in Rieffian terms, is eerily parallel to the dark ages of the late 5th and 6th centuries, he says,

If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

“St. Benedict” is in fact the very last word of MacIntyre’s book.

Dreher, following MacIntyre has penned a book simply called The Benedict Option, which also suggests the strategic retreat response. While this approach has many pluses, and can certainly been seen as compatible with both the Bible and the history of the church, it does have its deficiencies. First, it raises the question of evangelism to the culture from which the church now seems to be retreating. Second, in light of today’s ubiquity of technology and media, and our incredible sense of interconnectedness, it is unclear as to how we actually perform this strategic retreat. Finally, if we cannot really retreat, we might run into the problem of trying to form semi-isolated communities that themselves become toxic in their own way. It was one thing for Benedict to “head for the hills” of Southern Italy in the 6th century, but how does the average Christian “head for the hills” in 21st century Southern California? The retreat itself seems almost impossible.12 Here I admit that I have not yet read Dreher’s book, only MacIntyre’s. As such, I imagine I might be straw manning Dreher’s view. Please read the book itself, or go to his website for more. In some sense, from the website, it looks like Dreher is not really advocating for something as drastic as to what was Benedict’s actual response to the encroaching “dark ages.”

  1. The Daniel Plan

A final response could be called “The Daniel Plan.”13 Pastor Steven J. Weibley of the Carlisle Congregational Church in Massachusetts gave me this term in a recent Zoom meeting. While this is not a fashionable call to fast on fruits and vegetables so one can have more energy and lose weight; it nevertheless should likely entail some kind of fasting; a fasting for spiritual leanness however, not the leanness of our waistline. The Daniel plan draws from the story of Daniel as he lives out a faithful and prophetic life amidst the pagan nation of Babylon, the nation that is equated with all the iniquity of the world in the book of Revelation. The nation which is seen as a “whore” rife with sexual and sensual sin, perhaps not unlike our current sex-crazed culture. John Lennox has written a significant book about living like Daniel in the middle of modern Babylon, aptly titled “Against the Flow.” The Daniel plan is preferable to the rest in that it does not seek to overthrow Babylon through coercion or by “playing on the enemies battlefield,” nor does it capitulate on the main issues that the culture would want the church to capitulate on (e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, transgenderism). Finally it does not hide itself from a world that is perishing and in desperate need of a witness to the light and life of Christ.

The only downside of the Daniel plan, if it could be called a “downside,” is that it will cost people their lives. Like Daniel and his comrades, there will be very real furnaces and lion’s dens into which men and women will be thrown. Prisons will begin to fill their cells with Daniels and Danielas,14 This is already happening, as was the case in Canada recently. who through simply saying “no” to the cultural program will find themselves ostracized and attacked by their nations, their communities, and potentially their own churches and families. However, this response was the response of those in 1940’s Germany who we so admire today. This was the response of men like Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franz Jägerstätter, as well as women like Edith Stein and Sophie Scholl, who in Christ received the power to resist the evil in which they found themselves. Unfortunately today we see many church leaders already capitulating to that same evil out of the mere possibility of losing their audience, their tenure, or another book deal. If pastors, professors, and priests cannot even bear the thought of losing a few friends on social media, or getting a few cold stares on campus, then the likelihood we will see many Daniels is not high. But, the history of the Church, or even any great nation, has never been reliant on sheer numbers. It has relied only on the few “chosen,” who have hearkened the divine call in spite of persecution by the profane. As Tertullian put it, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Conclusion

Of these four possible Christian responses to the unstable and neurotic culture in which the Church in the West resides, the first two are clearly non-starters. They are not really Christian options, even if some “Christians” will pursue them as such. The “strategic retreat” response has its merits: stronger local communities, greater depth of discipleship, avoidance of ‘the worst’ of culture, etc. However this “Benedict Option” also has its deficits: first, how does the command to disciple the nations and preach the good news to the lost go forward, and second, how do we even perform the actual retreat from a culture that is so interconnected through technology and media? Finally, there is the Daniel plan, which like the strategic retreat option is biblically compatible, and seems to have the advantage of not forsaking the task of evangelism or having to find means to escape culture. That said, for the Daniels and Danielas who are in the Church, this will likely spell some kind of very real earthly demise. When Franz Jäggerstätter, the Austrian farmer, persistently refused to sign the Hitler oath, not only was he beheaded, but his wife was widowed, his three daughters left fatherless, and his elderly mother left to die after her son. Their lives after Franz’ death did not improve, they also suffered. Nevertheless, it is sacrifices like these that are the heart of God’s Church and that ultimately unite us to the very suffering of the Cross and the person of Christ.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Beauty, The Law, and Meaning Without God

“The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces!”

Psalm 119

“the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold, sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

Psalm 19

Imagine walking down the street somewhere in America today and hearing the following, “wow, what a beautiful ordinance New York just passed!,” or perhaps “man, California really has the loveliest laws in the nation,” or maybe “boy, these new state guidelines are so delicious, I just can’t stop thinking about them!” Statements like these would sound quite bizarre to modern ears. Laws for modern man are not usually thought of in aesthetic or sensual terms like those found in the Psalms.

For the ancient Israelite, however, the law of God was more than just a series of practical guidelines or arbitrary, apodictic commands. Rather, “Torah” was something to behold, to gaze at, and to ponder. The Psalmist speaks of God’s law and His statues as having a quality about them which required the song writer to speak of them in aesthetic categories. Poetic metaphor was one way to talk of the Law. The Law was not just good, it was beautiful like a melody, tantalizing like honey, precious like the rarest metals. Today, however, while laws may be just or unjust, repressive or affirming, rarely are they likened as gold and silver to our eyes or honey to our lips. Why is this? What, if anything, has been lost to us in how we view law today compared with how the ancient Israelite viewed “Torah?”

Modern Man & The Loss of Aesthetic Ontology

In his magisterial work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains the loss of the “ontic” in Western art, describing how in the modern era a universally accepted ontology, i.e., a shared metaphysical understanding of the cosmos, was no longer available to the contemporary artist. Rather than using common signs and shared imagery to point to the deeper realities of the created order and the “higher times”1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2007), 54-59. of a divinely superintended history, artistic meaning no longer inhered in the metaphysical reference points these symbols represented. Meaning was instead relegated to the sensibilities of the artist himself:

We could describe the change in this way: where formerly poetic language could rely on certain publicly available orders of meaning, it now has to consist in a language of articulated sensibility….[Alexander] Pope, for instance, in his Windsor Forest, could draw on age-old views of the order of nature as a commonly available source of poetic images. For Shelly [1792-1822] this resource is no longer available; the poet must articulate his own world of references, and make them believable.

Taylor, A Secular Age, 353.

What had changed between Pope’s early 18th century world and Shelly’s early 19th century one to make it so that the artist himself had to not just render the publicly accessible signs, but also provide his own meaning for the signs rendered, is simple to articulate albeit daunting to grasp as a historical reality. The metaphysical view of the cosmos that had been taken for granted for millennia, an understanding of reality grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition, classical Greek philosophy, and the biblical narrative, had gradually eroded and been lost. The given assumptions that the objects of artistic representation were real was no longer accepted. Whether those representations were scenes of biblical or classical history, e.g. stories of great heroes or saints, or of more abstract realities, e.g., the order and structure of the angelic realm, the artistic signs were no longer consider to point to actual ontological substances, transcendent realms, or even historical persons and events. From the time of the early enlightenment, therefore, the artist would no longer be able to specialize only in the technique of his artistic medium, the goal being to represent both immanent and transcendent features of cosmic truths, but instead to create his own cosmic truths to represent. This marks a fundamental intellectual shift in art from objective mimesis to subjective articulation—from artistic imitation to generation.

This loss of the ontological referent in artistic representation entailed the conceptual shift from understanding the work of art, e.g. the painting or concerto, as the subject’s expression about an object of affection (or contemplation), to seeing the work of art itself as the thing worthy of affection or contemplation. This process began first with the artist and then migrated into the art community, becoming a new “given” for how the culture understands the art it views. Once this philosophical transition had occurred in the mind of the common man, it was no longer to the deeper mystery of Christ’s atonement that say the Isenheim Altarpiece points its viewer, rather it is the Altarpiece itself which becomes the terminus ad quem. It, the work of art, points to nothing other than what it is. The piece of art is no longer an instrumental good aimed at some final cause, it itself is now seen as its own end.2 The impressionist phrase that captured this new philosophy of aesthetics was “l’art pour l’art.”

This, of course, does not mean that we still do not feel or sense something transcendent when we stand before Grünewald’s masterpiece, or when we hear a powerful rendition of Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G Major. But, it does mean that we are left grasping for that which would explain why we feel transcended. As Taylor says about this “absolute” art, “it trades on resonances of the cosmic in us” while at the same time “the ontic commitments are very unclear.”3 Taylor, A Secular Age, 356. In other words, we feel something metaphysically real, but we wonder if that reality is external to us, or is it in the power of the artist himself to create such “realities?” Is the artist discerning some greater mystery, or is he just being mysterious?

Taylor goes on:

The idea is: the mystery, the depth, the profoundly moving, can be, for all we know, entirely anthropological. Atheists, humanists cling on to this, as they go to concerts, operas, read great literature. So one can complement an ethic and a scientific anthropology which remain very reductive and flat.

Taylor, A Secular Age, 356.

If it is the case that man is just being mysterious, i.e., acting mysteriously through his art, then a kind of poetic atheism is possible: itself an amazing phenomena should man turn out to be nothing more than the sum of his molecules—raw matter all the way down. Nevertheless, this loss of a metaphysical component or ontological referent to the artistic expressions of modern man goes beyond just leaving us with a sense of confusion as to the source of our wonderment. It touches upon the nature of morality as well.

The Beautiful and The Good

The relation of the aesthetic to the moral has been recognized since ancient times. In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry highlights how the recognition of that which is beautiful acts as the catalyst for generating that which is good:

“The generation is unceasing. Beauty, as both Plato’s Symposium and everyday life confirm, prompts the begetting of children: when the eye sees someone beautiful, the whole body wants to reproduce the person. But it also—as Diotima tells Socrates—prompts the begetting of poems and laws, the works of Homer, Hesiod, and Lycurgus. The poem and the law may then prompt descriptions of themselves—literary and legal commentaries—that seek to make the beauty of the prior thing more evident, to make, in other words, the poem’s or law’s “clear discernibility” even more “clearly discernible.”

Excerpt From: Elaine Scarry. “On Beauty and Being Just.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/on-beauty-and-being-just/id719594134

Moral goodness then, in so many ways, is an expression of an aesthetic quality. The beholder of beauty longs to see it regenerated and further propagated in diverse forms. Most biologically, and concretely, in the reproduction of children. More abstractly and conceptually in the creation of just laws. The former act mirrors the divine act of creation itself, while the latter makes clear or discernible to the rational mind the harmony embedded in creation.

It is necessary at this point to note an important distinction, however, between articulations (e.g. laws or statutes) of “the Good” and aesthetic experiences of “the Beautiful.” This distinction lies in their varying modes of existence. Laws and statutes are propositional and must be formed and understood rationally through properly crafted linguistic structures. Aesthetic expressions are primarily non-propositional and usually engage the emotions. Poets try to split the difference between these two modes by using metaphorical and figurative language and concise verbal constructions to evoke emotions through “word pictures;” something that music and painting do through non-verbal means. Nevertheless, it has been shown that knowledge can be acquired both through the propositional and indirect as well as through the non-propositional and direct.4 see, for example, James O. Young, Art and Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2001) for an extended philosophical treatise on how art conveys knowledge.

Further, beyond the aforementioned desire to propagate that which is beautiful through various means, some more concrete, others more abstract, Scarry goes on to say that there is also a posture of reverence one takes when in the presence of beauty,

“The moment of coming upon something or someone beautiful might sound…like this: ‘You are about to be in the presence of something life-giving, lifesaving, something that deserves from you a posture of reverence or petition. It is not clear whether you should throw yourself on your knees before it or keep your distance from it, but you had better figure out the right answer because this is not an occasion for carelessness or for leaving your own postures wholly to chance.”

Elaine Scarry, Part I: On Beauty and Being Just

Encounters with beauty force the subject to acknowledge something beyond themselves that requires some kind of appropriate response, some “right answer.” Real beauty imposes normativity upon us.

We now begin to see what the Psalmist was getting at when he, under divine inspiration, waxed poetically about the Law. In the New Testament, St. Paul commends the church at Philippi to consider that which is beautiful as a way to know what moral excellence is, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.” (Phil 4:8-9) However, for both the Psalmist and the Apostle Paul, unlike for the post-Enlightenment artist, that contemplation of beauty had a clear object of reference, namely the Divine Nature itself, the very Being of God.

Schiller and Nietzsche: Conflicting Visions

For the post-Enlightenment Romantics the question then had to be raised: could the experience of beautiful phenomena, apart from a religiously defined ontological referent of that experience, “save us” from our existential crisis and provide a basis for our ethics? Friedrich Schiller thought that if the biblical view of God was no longer a metaphysical option for filling in the meaning of that which is beautiful, then the encounter with beauty itself must be the thing that could relieve us from our existential condition, as well as provide a moral foundation. For Schiller and other Romantics, morality is a kind of emanation of the beautiful, but where the beautiful is left impersonal and ambiguous. To be good is to create beautiful things or respond properly to those things that are beautiful. Taylor explains:

Schiller thus gave a wonderfully clear, convincing and influential formulation to a central idea of the Romantic period, that the answer to the felt inadequacy of moralism, the important defining goal or fulfillment which it leaves out and represses, was to be found in the aesthetic realm. This went beyond the moral, but in Schiller’s case wasn’t seen in contradicting it. Rather it complements morality in completing human fulfillment.

Taylor, A Secular Age, 358-359.


In other words, the specified moralities found in traditional religions like Judaism and Christianity, which trafficked in divine laws and moral commands handed down from a personal God, were stifling to the human subject; they were moralistic in that they warred against our more natural instincts and sensibilities. Eternal laws that were claimed to coincide with a divine will were too restrictive to the human creature, and, as such, the experience of beauty itself now became the grounds for ethical appeals. Christian and Jewish moral codes were seen as historically contingent, or so it was argued, and there was a higher law that those religions had perverted in their merely human attempts to articulate morality. Man had progressed and so too his moral sensibility.

However, this Romantic view presented a problem, one that lingers until today. For, as pointed out above, the thing that gives meaning to any beautiful phenomena, whether a feature of nature or artifact of man, was no longer to be found in something ontologically distinct from the subject, rather meaning was ascribed by the artist himself. As such, by collapsing moral goodness into aesthetics, Schiller, like his contemporary, Keats,5See “Ode on a Grecian Urn” where Keats famously says “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need know.” can now claim that “Beauty is what will save us, complete us.”6 Taylor, A Secular Age, 359. However, in doing this, he winds up conflating morality with the meaning-making will of the artist himself. Now, it is the artist who gives definition and content to what is moral by articulating the meaning of that which is beautiful, and not by recognizing something metaphysically distinct that gives its own meaning.

The historical consequences of this theory of morality was the aestheticism of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which gave rise to an artistic culture independent of any religious system of thought, but instead acted as a replacement for religion, “So created beauty, works of art, are not only important loci of that beauty which can transform us [into moral creatures] they are also essential ways of acceding to the beauty which we don’t create [i.e. Nature]. In the Romantic period, artistic creation comes to be the highest domain of human activity.7 Taylor, 359. Emphasis added. Later aesthetes like G.E. Moore would develop more philosophically rigorous systems to try and ground ethics in aesthetics.

Taylor goes on to say regarding Schiller’s theory, however, that while this conflation of the aesthetic with the moral is a far cry from the ancient and medieval notions of beauty and goodness (e.g. represented most vividly in the cosmological imagery of Dante), it still leaves some room for God as the ultimate author of beauty itself. A divine Creator of the world has not yet been entirely abandoned by the Romantics, even if particular religious dogmas about Him have been. Nevertheless, having arrived at Schiller, where the distinction between nature and nature’s creator has been significantly blurred, it is not long before we come to Nietzsche, whose rejection of the Creator will “set the aesthetic against the moral.”8 Taylor, 359.

For Schiller, the concept of beauty was still imbued with a residue of Christian morality and Christian virtue, in that “the Beautiful” is reflective of, or somehow still connected to, the notion of caritas, or charity. Love, light, harmony, order, and even selflessness are still the primary hallmarks of beauty. These moral and sensible notions are, even if now only vaguely defined by the artist himself, still thought of as the criteria for which something can be rightly called beautiful. Experiences of “play,”9Schiller’s term for the chief end of man on earth. and friendship, and what might be called the fullness of life are the chief ends of man on earth (and possibly the only chief ends, should earthly existence be the only one available to us). For Nietzsche, however, this kind of aesthetic humanism is still far too indebted to a Christian worldview. It neglects an entire range of human sensibilities, longings, desires and dispositions that are normatively no different than charity and altruism. These are the destructive, the chaotic, and otherwise dark powers of man.

Of course, for Nietzsche, these creative powers of man are not “dark,” in the sense of “wrong” or “immoral” or “deviant” from some standard that itself should be labeled “light” or “love.” No, rather these “dark” powers simply are— they are as human and as life-giving as any other impulse, if not more so. But, these creative energies have, through the rise of two particular worldviews: post-Socratic Greek philosophy and Christianity, become viewed as immoral, wrong, and worthy of marginalization and repression. For Nietzsche then, a return to the pre-moral aesthetics of Homeric culture in light of the decline of Christian metaphysics is the answer to what would otherwise be a plunge into nihilism. This longing for a purely aesthetic world, one unconstrained by Christian notions of morality (or enlightenment rationalism for that matter), can be seen in one of first major work, The Birth of Tragedy as well as in one of his last books, Ecce Homo. As Robert Wicks points out, Nietzsche “expresses his hope that Dionysus, the god of life’s exuberance, would replace Jesus, the god of the heavenly otherworld, as the premier cultural standard for future millennia.”10 Robert Wicks, “Friedrich Nietzsche” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017.

Unlike Schiller and the earlier Romantics who left open the door to a divine referent, albeit an ambiguous one, Nietzsche slams the door shut by making the creative will of man the sole locus of “goodness.” Where Christ subjects himself to the will of the Father, and Paul calls Christians to subject their will to Christ, Dionysus subjects his will to nothing and no one. The idea of divine moral laws, let alone divine moral laws that are experienced as beautiful and to which one should subject himself, is the sheer antithesis of the Dionysian spirit that Nietzsche proposes.

Conclusion: A Culture of Ambiguity in Art and Law


Fortunately, culture in the West has never embraced the fullness of Nietzsche’s vision, although some historians would see Nietzsche’s view of truth and the will to power (hint: they are the same thing) as intellectually funding, at least in part, the rise of National Socialism in Germany11Robert Wicks points out that Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, who took care of her brother in his invalid years was closely associated with both Hitler and Mussolini in their rise to power in the 1930’s. Herself, an avowed anti-semite, may have thought her brother’s works could intellectually fund the rising nationalism. Some fascists at least were able to interpret Nietzsche in a manner that lent philosophical support to Nazism and the idea of national self-glorification. It is not hard to see how that could be the case. and Fascism in Italy. Also, current trends in American culture do make Nietzsche’s views seem more alive than ever, especially in the realm of art and personal self-expression. Is the creative will of man beyond criticism or reproach? Perhaps recent Super Bowl half-time shows might give us a partial answer to that question.

Still, we are not where Nietzsche would have taken us, at least not yet. We may no longer see the moral law of the biblical God as beautiful to our eyes and sweet to our tongue, but neither do we really feel beyond morality as Nietzsche argued, ready to indulge in every desire and self-creative longing.12However, at this writing, a resolution (HR5) that would allow protections for biological men who simply through the act of self-identifying as women (and vice-versa) are treated legally as women has just passed the House and is waiting for approval in the Senate. In fact, it is hard to even think of what kinds of laws a Dionysian culture would require, if any at all?

It seems, therefore, that we still live, conceptually and existentially, somewhere between a cosmos where the moral law is beautiful because it proceeds from the nature and will of the biblical God, and Schiller’s vision of the moral law being an emanation from a beautiful but metaphysically ambiguous source. This Romantic vision is still a viable option for many, if not the cultural given against which we view morality and the laws we compose to try to articulate it. A vague sense of deity, the “therapeutic, moral and deistic”13The term “Moral, therapeutic deism” was coined by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. god of America’s youth, seems to be about as metaphysical as our current culture can be. The art it produces is as ambiguous as its ontological commitments. We see this cultural ambiguity on display when we watch a classical depiction of moral beauty in films like Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,”14 We also see in reviews of Malick’s film how both the Nietzschean and the Schillerian mindsets react to its overtly Christian theme: see here for an example of both. on the one hand, followed by a Nietzchean glorification of man’s unconstrained creative will in Danny Boyle’s biopic “Steve Jobs”15The film ends celebrating Jobs not for his moral character, although there is an ambiguous attempt to try to show some kind of moral transformation at the end of the movie, but for his sheer creative genius, a genius that allowed itself the freedom to run rampant over the feelings and lives of many for the sake of “creating.” on the other. Between these two presentations of beauty and morality (or lack thereof) is about every Walt Disney film made since 1990, each of which tries to maintain the Schillerian middle ground. These films, like “Mulan” or “Lion King,” suggest something beautiful and mysterious about life, but in its ambiguity, leave interpretation of the experience open, allowing for the construction of one’s own personalized morality. No public ontological referent is on offer here, just vague mystery and personal decision.

In sum, law in the West seems to mirror the ambiguity of our art. Some particular laws appear outright Nietzschean in their intent and content, e.g. the recent HR5 Equality Act, others exist in a more Schillerian vein, the Dream Act?, while others, albeit increasingly few, may faintly reflect, like in a mirror darkly, our once very real belief in a transcendent God and the Christ who came to set us free from the law. However, like our art, the idea that the law is beautiful is an increasingly rare, if not extinct, notion–the triumph of function over form is nearly complete. Today’s laws exist merely to help us manage our social lives, not to illuminate us to the divine nature from whence they flow and to which we are meant to go.