Man-centered vs. God-centered Thinking
We now live in demotic times, according to historian Jacques Barzun, and thus we live in a civilization that has lost its confidence and has degenerated into populism. The naturalistic religion of
The events of the 1960’s are often seen as the cause of the current culture wars in American society. In reality, the infamous “sixties,” which basically include from the mid 1950’s to the mid 1970’s, represent the natural culmination of the naturalistic trends we have briefly observed. For example, the so-called baby boomers represent the maturing of the youth culture that had emerged in American history. Emancipated from family identity, separated from the adult world by the school system, many of them reared in meaningless mainstream American Protestantism or nominal Catholicism, influenced by powerful and ubiquitous media, and with growing wealth, free time, and transportation, they lived out the ideals of self-realization. Thus, American pop culture takes its cue from the young and novel, rather than from the wisdom of the aged. In some ways, the sixties illustrate well the seeming paradox of contemporary society – a paradox that the world has no way of solving.
On the one hand, the sixties were the decade of personal liberation from all social restrictions and taboos. God was “dead” and so was his morality. Formality was rejected in favor of just being “natural.” The feminist movement kicked into high gear with strong Marxist undertones, and marriage began to crumble as a social institution. The civil rights movement appealed to the rights of the individual. Elvis Presley and the Beatles brought the new “rock music” to the mainstream, and
The art and architecture of the day reflected this loss of any overarching sense of truth, goodness, and beauty. Twentieth century “art” music had become so intentionally fragmented, difficult, meaningless, and detached from reality that it ceased to attract all but the dedicated elites of the art world. Painting, too, had turned into the absurd or the juvenile – highly skilled absurdity, at times, but absurdity nonetheless. Architecture, which is “the mirror in which a civilization views itself” according to Roger Scruton, showed the same trend. The modernist architecture of the twentieth century was a direct repudiation of the classical ideas of beauty and truth. Of course, modernist architecture has now been largely rejected, but there is no accepted coherent alternative to it. Thus contemporary high culture has abandoned its inheritance, which was shot through with Christian ideas, and has become a pretense, whether in its modern or post-modern expressions.
On a popular level, rock music reflected the triumph of personal autonomy and self-expression (often in libidinous forms).[iii] It served to transmute the personality of its performers into the embodiment of the desires of its listeners and so both expressed and built celebrity culture. So-called Christian pop music emerged as the aural equivalent of a cheerleading squad – it is ear candy to get people excited, but one would not seek wisdom from the blondes there. It is aesthetic fast food, or even a commercial for the fast food. Rap music has now taken the degeneration to a new level. It is the “music” of the lowest level of personal self-expression. It is gut level music, incapable of developing rich judgments and affections, which are inseparably intertwined. Freedom is self-expression, no matter how vulgar.
Technology made this freedom seem possible. A new medium of entertainment and “news,” the television, transformed public discourse and helped to project larger-than-life human idols.[iv] The advent of the PC and the Internet brought seemingly unlimited power and knowledge to our fingertips. Medical science provided “the pill,” supporting the social drive to free physical relationships from marriage and child-bearing, and now genetic engineering and stem cell therapies are promising seemingly unlimited control over human life from conception to the grave. The interstate highway system and jet airliners provided the freedom to travel easily, and space travel conquered new frontiers. Thus modern Americans often trust in technology to provide freedom and make them happy.
The changes were not only taking place in popular culture, but also in law. As Michael Sandel says, “The central idea of the public philosophy by which we live is that freedom consists in our capacity to choose our ends for ourselves.” This “aspiration to neutrality,” he says, “finds prominent expression in our politics and law.”[v] Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy more recently wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This is human autonomy at its most brazen and at its most insane. Highlights of this trend, in varying degrees and ways, include removing prayer from public school, passing the Civil Rights Act, adopting no fault divorce, and legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade.
Yet on the other hand, the sixties marked an explosive growth in government regulation and domestic spending, such as with LBJ’s Great Society. Even though Marxism, per se, in our nation probably reached its high water mark in the 1960’s and 1970’s and has declined since, government regulation and domestic spending has continued to enlarge at a rapid pace. This becomes painfully clear when we consider that from the mid 1970’s to the mid 1990’s was the first time in American history that the federal budget deficit increased during a time of peace, in spite of record federal revenues. This deficit emerged primarily because of entitlement spending. By 2006, entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (excluding net interest) consumed 53% of all program spending and a record 10.8% of the GDP.[vi] Americans, more than any other point in our history, now expect the federal government to provide for them.[vii]
The irony of all this is that as Americans became more emancipated than ever before, they also became more dependent and more regulated than ever before. Mark Steyn put the point in his usual sarcastic but pointed way: “A citizen of an advanced democracy expects to be able to choose from dozens of breakfast cereals at the supermarket, hundreds of movies at the video store, and millions of porno sites on the Internet, but when it comes to life-or-death decisions about his own body he's happy to have the choice taken out of his hands and given to the government”.[viii] This appears to be a paradox, but in reality it is simply the natural result of man-centered thinking. The pursuit of a false freedom corresponds with the enslavement of a false security.
The point of all of the above is not to say that all the changes in American society were negative or that the technological advances were necessarily detrimental. There have been many beneficial effects of improvements in areas such as medicine and agriculture. The problems resulted from the refusal to do all this to the glory of God and in keeping with his revelation.
Christianity in Contemporary
It would be wonderful if we could report that the people of God in
Yet the conservatives (both fundamentalists and new evangelicals, although new evangelicalism has become so broad that it can hardly be called conservative anymore) themselves have struggled with whether to adopt, adapt, or reject the changes in American society. Truth be told, the fragmented state of the churches in
The evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham present a famous example of how conservative American Christianity is thoroughly saturated with American ideals. Although fundamentalists scorned Graham’s decisions to become more theologically inclusive in his campaigns, it is significant that even fundamentalists expressed little concern with the mode and method of Graham’s operation. This is because Graham’s approach rose directly out of the American fundamentalist, revivalist approach stretching back to the Second Great Awakening. Hardly a voice was raised against the inherent problems of “evangelism incorporated” and the Finneyism of Graham’s approach. Even when Graham made statements that contradicted the gospel and included people in his campaigns who denied the gospel, Graham’s popularity was considered indispensable to evangelicalism as a movement, revealing once again how populist American Christianity tends to be.
The adaptation of American Christianity to
The question that most naturally arises then is, where do we go from here? How do we build a culture of faithfulness to God and to the glory of his Son? How can we be God-centered rather than man-centered?
[i] There are those social conservatives who practice something of a hybrid position with respect to Christianity and naturalism. That is, Christian principles influence their thinking, yet they still look to man for the foundations of their morality and philosophy. An example would be the former senator from