Results tagged “Epistemology” from Reformation21 Blog

Mr. Moral Magoo?


I'm sure there's a generational gap when someone refers to Mr. Magoo. If you're under 30, there's a good chance that you've probably never heard of Mr. Magoo. I just so happened to have watched enough classic cartoons over the years to have seen a few episodes. Mr. Magoo is a cartoon about a legally blind man who blundered around the city, never knowing where he was going or what he was doing. And yet he always seemed to end up in the right place. By the end of the episode, Mr. Magoo had tripped off of girders only to land on another girder exactly in the right place. It made no sense, but he always seemed to survive by the end of an episode. He accidentally made it every time. He had always gone the wrong way and ended up at the right place.

I wonder how many of us have good theology and solid moral positions, but we have no idea how we got to them. Many in the Church have "Magooed" themselves into moral and theological positions that happen to be biblically sound, but we have no idea how we got there. If someone asked us why we believe or do what we do, we couldn't give an answer for it beyond our own cultural norms.

Christians, of all people, need to understand that the why of our moral and theological positions is just as crucial as the what of our moral and theological positions. Here is one example of that about which I am thinking: 

In the south, when I read Scripture that relates to human sexuality, there is very little pushback. When I read Paul's words regarding homosexual behavior in the south, I am preaching to the choir. I still never have anyone come up to me after the service and say that they need to talk about what I said - maybe people are thinking it, but there isn't any obvious pushback. For most, I hope, this is because they're been exposed to the teachings of Scripture and submit themselves willingly and joyfully to God's own revealed will about biblical morality.

However, I suspect that many have simply inherited a proclivity toward the normativity of heterosexual even though they really have never been persuaded from Scripture that this is God's revealed will. Perhaps they personally find the idea repulsive, or they've never had friends with same-sex attraction, and maybe they've spent their whole lives just never even thinking much about the struggle that some people may have. "Of course it's sinful! I find it gross!" But if you asked them why, their answer would be thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. At this point we start to see that there is a very thin line (in fact, one might argue there's no difference at all) between bigotry and culturally inherited bias against homosexuality. It's a moral position that they are correct about, but only by accident.

Another example of this "magooing" of theology has to do with the issue of complementarianism. If our view that only men should be in leadership roles in the church is culturally inherited, but we really couldn't tell you how we got there from Scripture, then that is sexism. Apart from the command and teaching of Scripture, what we end up having is a culturally inherited belief that men are superior to women and therefore that men ought to lead the church, not women.

In both of these examples, what the church needs is a theologically robust understanding of what the Scripture says about human sexuality and about human sexual behavior. We need to encourage our churches to dig down deep into the text and ask ourselves, "What has God said?"

There is a practical reason why we must do this: if our moral and theological positions are only culturally informed, then they can be devastated by a more persuasive cultural norm when it shows its face. In fact, we see this happening quite a lot right now. It seems like the last two or three years have shown that many in the evangelical community had magooed themselves into their views of human sexuality and have been just as easily moved out of them.

Their views were thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. And so when they met someone who shattered their preconceptions about homosexuality, or when they had a son or daughter that revealed they were same-sex-attracted, then of course their culturally-informed (rather than biblically-informed) views folded in the face of overwhelming pressure. I've yet to meet anyone who identified as an evangelical, who subsequently folded on this issue and said, "You know, I look at the word 'arsenakoitai' in Scripture and what it means and had my whole mind changed." The Scriptural twisting ultimately must come after the cultural pressure has been applied and yielded to.

And here is the point: if our morality is culturally conditioned, then it cannot hold up in a day and age when the cultural pressure is so acute, so painful, and so obviously intended to make evangelicals adopt the new morality. Our understanding of God, and our understanding of what it is he requires of us has to be thick, biblical, and rooted in God's self-revelation. Anything less will be blowing in the wind.

Postmodernism already seems passé--so 1970s, or at least 1990s. But if postmodernity has already passed us by then what ideological age is this? Post-postmodernity?

It's obvious we love to consider ourselves "post-" whatever came before us: we not only consider ourselves post-modern but post-colonial (in history and politics), post-traditional (as students, workers, and families), post-structural (in philosophy and literature), post-binary (in sexual ethics and identity), post-Christian (in religion and culture), and so on. To be "post" is to be current, with it, on the leading edge; so it seems almost inevitable that we--whoever "we" are--would want to be post-postmodern just as soon as morning-show hosts and suburban mega-church leaders embraced being postmodern.

But to be post-postmodern isn't easy. Being "post" anything is reactionary. To be post-colonial, for example, is still to be defined in colonial terms, just in the negative; the same holds for being post-traditional, post-structural, post-binary, post-Christian, and whatever else we claim to be post. While we may think we are clear about what we no longer are we continue to live in the long shadow of what was, not knowing how to define ourselves in any other terms. It's not surprising, therefore, that many people view postmodernity not as the dawn of a new positive era of some sort but as the twilight of modernity--"late modernity."

I'm not sure this is the most helpful way to think about the current age, however. While postmodernity may have been almost purely reactionary at the outset it is not just modernity's last rights. Something different is happening here, something new, something that may be so bizarre that it is surely unsustainable, but something nevertheless different and discontinuous with modernity. We are indeed post-modernity.

Consider our shifting concept of liberty. Broadly speaking, pre-modern liberty was a freedom to be virtuous and do good as you were able. In the medieval mind, to be human, male or female, royal or noble or common, and if common a tradesman or merchant or peasant, was really to be something--something that defined who you were and what was expected of you in life. To be free was to be free to play your part to the benefit of everyone around you, according to your station and opportunity.

The modern mind conceived of liberty more in terms of self-expression. You really are something but who you are may not correspond to your situation in life. To be free, then, was to be free from social constraints that hindered you from being truly and fully who you are. Personal happiness was no longer bound up in fulfilling some sort of socially defined role but in being authentically you.

This self-expressive concept of liberty eventually brought modernity to the gay rights movement. The argument was simple: God made some people gay and gay people need to be free to live authentic gay lives, whatever that entails. That argument was adapted in a fairly straightforward way from previous civil rights movements but was to the modernist concept of liberty more or less what phenomenology or existentialism was to modernist philosophy--it's twilight.

At the dawn of the present eclectic, disordered, and decentered age--the postmodern or perhaps post-postmodern era, depending on your view--liberty is no longer conceived in terms of being be free to be who we are but free to be whatever we will. Liberty is not only cut loose from virtue but even from nature. Already, the arguments of the pioneering gay-rights activists who claimed to be something in particular--gay or lesbian--and operated within the old binary strictures of male and female have been discarded. Male and female are not natural givens but just two socially constructed and privileged points on the wide spectrums gender identity and sexual desire. Not even human nature is a given--we are supposedly transient all the way down, and therefore ready to be transcended and free to be whatever we will.

This transient age in the history of ideas will be transient indeed; the damage we do to ourselves until it passes, however, may endure till Christ returns.