October 27, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, October 27, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Cultural cleansing of religious roots from Western civilization desiccating morality
Some arguments it seems these days simply can’t be made in public and that’s why an argument that appeared recently in the pages of the Wall Street Journal compels our attention. The argument is by Bret Stephens, writing in the global view column of that very important newspaper and the headline is this,
“In Defense of Christendom.”Show Full Transcript
Bret Stephens writes,
“The death of Europe is in sight. Still hazy and not yet inevitable, but nevertheless visible and drawing nearer—like a distant planet in the lens of an approaching satellite. Europe is reaching its end not because of its sclerotic economy, or stagnant demography, or the dysfunctions of the superstate. Nor is the real cause the massive influx of Middle Eastern and African migrants. Those desperate people are just the latest stiff breeze against the timber of a desiccated civilization.”
Then comes this paragraph,
“Europe is dying because it has become morally incompetent. It isn’t that Europe stands for nothing. It’s that it stands for shallow things, shallowly. Europeans believe in human rights, tolerance, openness, peace, progress, the environment, pleasure. These beliefs are all very nice, but they are also secondary.”
That is a brilliantly written introduction to a very important argument. Bret Stephens is arguing that we can now see in sight the death of Europe, and he is saying is not because Europe doesn’t believe in anything but because it believes in very shallow things and then he says it believes in those shallow things very shallowly. He makes the stunning but stunningly correct analysis that Europe is becoming morally incompetent and then he writes,
“What Europeans no longer believe in are the things from which their beliefs spring: Judaism and Christianity; liberalism and the Enlightenment; martial pride and capability; capitalism and wealth. Still less do they believe in fighting or sacrificing or paying or even arguing for these things. Having ignored and undermined their own foundations, they wonder why their house is coming apart.”
Now, as I said there are certain arguments that these days simply almost can’t be made in public or if they are they are sure to bring censure. Bret Stephens is fully aware of this when he writes,
“It says something about the politics of our day that this column will be condemned as beyond the moral pale. Such is the tenor of the times that it is no longer possible to assert without angry contradiction that Europe cannot be Europe if it is not true to its core inheritance. This is the marriage of reason and revelation that produced a civilization of technological mastery tempered by human decency.”
Bret Stephens’ intellectual bravery is worth note, so also is the courage of the Wall Street Journal in running this column. But what we need to note is that Bret Stephens is pointing to the fact that you cannot have Christian civilization without Christianity and people in the modern secularizing West are increasingly trying to have some kind of civilization and they’re trying to have it with the gifts of Christian civilization, but they’re trying to deny the Christianity that is at the very root of what made this civilization possible and not only possible but actual. What we’re looking at here is not only what Bret Stephens calls, “a desiccated culture of Europe,” we’re also looking at an intentional cultural cleansing of Western civilization from its Christian roots. Just a few years ago there was controversy when the European Union in dealing with the most basic documents of that political entity refuse to acknowledge even the Christian roots of the civilizations that it now claims to represent. The moral worldview that made modern democracy, modern notions of liberty possible are those that came out of a Christian civilization and have only emerged from a very explicitly Judeo-Christian civilization.
Bret Stephens is onto this when he asked the question,
“What is Europe? It is Greece not Persia; Rome not Carthage; Christendom not the caliphate. These distinctions are fundamental.”
He goes on to say,
“To say that Europe is a civilization apart is not to say it is better or worse. It is merely to say: This is us and that is you. Nor is it to say that Europe ought to be a closed civilization. It merely needs to be one that doesn’t dissolve on contact with the strangers it takes into its midst.”
That again is a brilliant paragraph and it gets right to the heart of the problem. What we’re looking at as we see over and over again is a very strong theological argument now presenting itself to Europe. But it is not in the main a strong Christian theological argument, but a very strong Islamic theological argument. And over and over again we see the fact that modern secularism is simply not up to the task of confronting that theological argument. At the very heart of a secularizing Europe is a vacuum. And a vacuum, as you know from the laws of physics, does not exist for long. Something will fill that vacuum.
Another thing we need to keep in mind is that even as this article has appeared in recent days by Bret Stephens appearing in the Wall Street Journal, the argument isn’t particularly new and what he’s writing about in this article, it’s something that has been traced for the better part of the last century. Writing decades ago, the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood described the United States and by extension Europe as well as what he called a cut flower civilization. The flowers in the vase are still very beautiful, but they were cut off from their roots. And eventually, as is true with every floral arrangement if those flowers are cut off from their roots they all too quickly fade and die. Elton Trueblood’s point is the very same point being made here by Bret Stephens, you cannot have a Christian civilization, you cannot have the fruits and products of that civilization if you cut that civilization off from the Christianity and from the Christian worldview that gave it birth.
What Bret Stephens does not deal with in detail is tracing exactly how these developments took place. In the length of this opinion piece, he couldn’t go back and show how it is the biblical understanding of human beings made in God’s image that led to the understanding of human rights that is now so central to modern democracies. He did not have the time to go back and talk about how the Christian worldview has understood human responsibility and divine sovereignty as being essential to understanding the rule of law, human responsibility before the law as well as human rights. He didn’t have the opportunity to explain how modern concepts of justice, including not only individual justice but social justice are made possible because of a biblical worldview that grounds justice in the very character of God. And yet in the paragraph we just read, he does point out that Europe is not Greece, it is not Carthage, it is not the caliphate, it is important to note that the very things that Western secularists now prize as central to their own moral worldview, those notions of human rights and human dignity simply have not emerged elsewhere in those other civilizations. They have emerged uniquely, if not absolutely singularly in the understanding of human rights and human dignity that comes from the biblical worldview and as we shall see, only from that biblical worldview. Once you then begin to deny the truthfulness and the authority of that biblical worldview eventually you have what Elton Trueblood described as that cut flower civilization.
Speaking of Europe in particular, but with an argument that should surely be extended to the United States as well, if on something of a delayed fuse, Bret Stephens writes,
“Having ignored and undermined their own foundations, they wonder why their house is coming apart.”
And now we see at virtually warp speed that same house is coming apart in this country and we should note for the very same reasons.
Resurgent paganism in Europe, Japan replaces vacuum of secularism
And then as if on cue comes an article in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times with the headline,
“For many Norwegians ghosts fill a void.”
As we said, nature abhors a vacuum. Something will fill that vacuum and a spiritual vacuum is the same. A spiritual vacuum that is evacuated by Christianity is going to be filled by something else. And in the case of Norwegians as this big article in the New York Times indicates that something else is a resurgent paganism in the form of ghosts. As Andrew Higgins writes,
“Like many Europeans, Marianne Haaland Bogdanoff, a travel agency manager in this southern Norwegian town, does not go to church, except maybe at Christmas, and is doubtful about the existence of God.
“But when “weird things” — inexplicable computer breakdowns, strange smells and noises and complaints from staff members of constant headaches — started happening at the ground-floor travel office, she slowly began to put aside her deep skepticism about life beyond the here and now. After computer experts, electricians and a plumber all failed to find the cause of her office’s troubles; she finally got help from a clairvoyant who claimed powers to communicate with the dead. The headaches and other problems all vanished.”
Higgins then writes,
“Ghosts, or at least belief in them, have been around for centuries but they have now found a particularly strong following in highly secular modern countries like Norway, places that are otherwise in the vanguard of what was once seen as Europe’s inexorable, science-led march away from superstition and religion.”
He went on to write,
“While churches here may be largely empty and belief in God, according to opinion polls, in steady decline, belief in, or at least fascination with, ghosts and spirits is surging. Even Norway’s royal family, which is required by law to belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, has flirted with ghosts, with a princess coaching people on how to reach out to spirits.”
It’s hard to come up with a parable of modern secular Europe more profoundly appropriate than the picture of a member of Norway’s Royal family. A princess who is required by Constitution to belong to the evangelical Lutheran Church, who is the Royal family, with virtually no power over an increasingly secular state that very princess is, according this article,
“Coaching people on how to reach out to spirits.”
One Methodist preacher there in Norway, a man by the name of Roar Fotland said,
“God is out but spirits and ghosts are filling the vacuum.”
“Instead of slowly eliminating religion, as Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and other theorists predicted, modernity has only channeled religious feelings in unexpected ways.
“Belief in God, or at least a Christian God, is decreasing but belief in spirits is increasing.”
He pointed out that in this postmodern time, the interesting thing is the emergence of pre-modern religion. This is ancient superstitions and ancient paganisms. And in one sense, it’s almost as if the New York Times understands what’s going on, almost. As the reporter writes,
“Arild Romarheim, a Lutheran priest and recently retired theology lecturer, described the conviction of well-educated atheists and agnostics that ghosts exist as “the paradox of modernity” — a revival of old beliefs to slake an innate human thirst for a spiritual life left unsatisfied by the decline of the church.”
This professor went on to say,
“Belief in ghosts has become so strong that even the Lutheran Church, to which most Norwegians formally belong, has adopted a so-called “ghost liturgy” for use by preachers who get asked by parishioners to help cleanse haunted houses.”
Now, if there’s one thing more ludicrous than a member of the Norwegian Royal house, a member of the evangelical Lutheran Church coaching people on how to reach out to clairvoyants, it’s the church there coming up with this kind of ridiculous ghost liturgy in which its preachers are supposed to help parishioners cleanse haunted houses. Reporter Higgins is unusually competent in writing this article and he puts these issues into the proper context. He’s assuredly right when he points out that Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx and the other province of modernity were wrong when they said that modernity would lead to the in evitable breakdown of all belief in the supernatural. That turned out not to be so, but it did turn out that in repudiating Christianity, atheism and agnosticism though rising in numbers are certainly not the only definitive characteristics of these postmodern cultures, the very people this article says who claim to be atheist and agnostics turn out to be not so consistently atheistic or agnostic. Having repudiated Orthodox traditional biblical Christianity, they have not become consistent secularists; they have become inconsistent atheists who as it turns out hire Ghostbusters.
What Andrew Higgins does not point out, nor would I fully expect him to is the Christian understanding that behind this is the reality that being created in God’s image means that we are spiritual creatures and there is in us a hunger, a spiritual hunger that eventually is going to be filled by something. Augustine, the greatest theological mind of the early church in those early centuries of Christianity put it this way, he said,
“Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
Speaking of the ultimate consolation of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the book of Ecclesiastes 3:11, we are told that God has put eternity into the heart of every single human being, we are spiritual beings, the Bible explains that very comprehensively and that explains why this story appears in the New York Times, telling us that in hyper secularized hypermodern Norway, people haven’t ceased actually do believe in the supernatural, they’ve just repudiated Christianity and now they believe in ghosts. And then again, almost as if on cue in The Atlantic, another very influential magazine in America, comes an article in the November edition, this one by Uri Friedman entitled,
“Big in Iceland: Paganism.”
“Next year, for the first time in a millennium, a pagan temple will welcome Reykjavik’s faithful. The heathen house of worship, vaguely resembling a misshapen meringue, will be aligned with the sun’s path and burrowed into a hill near the city’s airport. There, like the Vikings of old, members of Iceland’s neo-pagan Ásatrú movement will be able to feast on horse meat, swig from goblets of mead, and praise deities such as Thor, the god of thunder, and Freyja, the goddess of love.”
Friedman goes on to write,
“At first glance, the scene might appear bizarrely anachronistic. But although Iceland officially adopted Christianity around a.d. 1000, paganism never really disappeared from the Nordic island.”
The emergence of pagan Ásatrú or the reemergence there in Iceland parallels with what we just saw in Norway and that builds upon the argument made in the Wall Street Journal by Bret Stephens about the fact that Europe has turned its back on Christianity only to embrace or re-embrace ancient paganisms and ancient superstitions. In The Atlantic article, the repudiation of traditional Christianity there in Iceland is made clear in these words,
“Explanations for paganism’s resurgence range from disaffection with the state Lutheran Church, to spiritual dislocation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, to a harmony between the homespun faith and Icelanders’ liberal values, including support for environmentalism and gay marriage.”
There’s another central issue, which is barely touched in this article, but it’s actually central and that is this, what we’re looking at is the fact that these ancient paganisms are by and large not inconsistent with the new moral revolution that this highly secularizing culture is so determined to embrace. That is to say, you can’t have this moral revolution with the binding authority of traditional biblical Christianity, but you can have it with a resurgence of ancient paganisms. To document that point, The Atlantic article says,
“Indeed, Ásatrú approved gay ceremonies in 2003, seven years before same-sex marriage became legal in Iceland.”
Finally, on this note, another piece of documentation, this one by Michael Holtz of the Christian Science Monitor, the headline,
“In ‘non-religious’ Japan, the shrine can still exert a pull.”
He writes about a man who visits a shrine every summer to pray for his family and good health, but that, according to this article, doesn’t make him religious,
“Visiting a shrine to pray is different from being religious.”
He went on to say,
“Most Japanese, including me, don’t think about whether we’re religious or not.”
“It’s a common refrain at Japan’s more than 80,000 shrines and temples. Yet evidence of an instinctive spirituality that infuses daily life can be spotted across the country [that is markedly secular].”
Just a couple of sentences later he writes that,
“Sixty-two percent of respondents identified themselves as either not religious or atheist, placing the country behind only China and Hong Kong in Asia.”
But once again, this time with an Asian documentation atheism turns out to be not so atheistic as it claims to be. Taking atheism to its logical conclusion, prayer becomes absolutely irrational, if not absolutely impossible. But here you have praying atheists indicating that maybe they’re not the atheist they believe themselves to be. But looking at this entire complex and looking at all these items of documentation coming in just the period of a few days, in terms of Western media one central truth become very apparent in all of this and that is that atheism is inherently unstable and so we should note as any civilization that denies the very worldview that gave it birth.
Baby Hitler discussion reveals inherent need for a common moral framework
Finally, speaking of Europe and European history, a very interesting moral controversy emerged at the end of last week. It was prompted by a poll undertaken by the New York Times magazine in which the magazine asked its readers whether or not they would morally be justified in killing an infant Adolf Hitler. Now, in all candor, this led to a series of some of the most ridiculous moral arguments ever made, including some that apparently were more based in science fiction than anything else. Some began to debate the ethics of time travel and the ultimate impact of changes in terms of counterfactuals in history. But the bigger issue from the Christian worldview is this, how in the world would one know that baby Hitler is indeed Hitler? By that I certainly don’t mean that you wouldn’t know the baby by his name Adolf Hitler. But what you wouldn’t know is who that baby was going to become. The Christian worldview reminds us of the reality of human responsibility in the emergence of character and we simply are not able to look at an infant and understand all that that infant will represent. The character of that infant as a man or woman will one day have the moral code by which he or she will one day live, the impact on history which that baby may one day exert.
But my main point in raising this controversy is not actually to deal with the question about whether or not it would be morally justified to kill baby Adolf Hitler. That’s a fairly ridiculous question, but rather the point to the fact that asking this question set loose a torrent of moral discussion largely undertaken by people who no longer share anything even close to a common moral worldview. One other interesting aspect of this is to remember that just a few years ago, a professor at a major American University wrote that his students were so increasingly unable to use moral language that they were unwilling to use words like good and evil, even when applied to the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler. An interesting thing about this particular controversy over the weekend is that the question itself assumes the Adolf Hitler is evil. And then it raises what it described as the moral dilemma of whether or not there will be moral justification for killing Adolf Hitler before he had the opportunity to commit his horrifying crime. As I have said, the question is itself implausible, but the controversy that emerged over the weekend is also very revealing. It reveals the fact that we are not only spiritual creatures, we are moral creatures and there are some moral questions we simply cannot not take seriously. Even if the way we go about it as in this particular controversy doesn’t get to the heart of the problem, it does point to the reality that we are moral creatures and that the question posed here only makes sense within a moral universe and within a common moral framework. But then you remove that common moral framework and you end up with all kinds of moral nonsense, which is pretty much what you can expect in terms of the answers offered to the question raised by the New York Times magazine. But it’s very revealing that you can’t even talk about this story without using words like ethics and evil. That’s an accomplishment of sorts in these strange times and of course it just serves to underline the strangeness of these very strange times.