It’s Friday, August 4, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’re going to find out why President Donald Trump is concerned about the fate of Western civilization, why the Church of England is debating certain questions about human sexuality, and why Neil Postman was concerned that Americans are amusing ourselves to death.
President Trump makes argument for Western civilization in Poland speech
The reality of civilization and differences between civilizations is something that ought to have not only are attention, but our honest assessment. And we’re living in a time in which nonsense prevails in so many circles on these questions that it’s almost impossible to have a sane conversation about the very essence of civilization. Just consider the response to President Trump’s address in Poland in the days preceding his arrival at the G20 Summit there in Europe.
President Trump speaking in Poland dared to use the kind of language that we haven’t heard from an American President in a very long time. He said, for instance,Show Full Transcript
“The fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
Later the President said, and I quote again,
“We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have.”
He also said, speaking of Western civilization,
“We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.”
Now that’s not the kind of language that’s always been associated with Donald Trump though it does reflect much of the thinking of those who were in the inside circle in the administration. It also reflects what the President has indicated to be something of a civilizational reflex, but what’s also a reflex and this is of note is the response especially of cosmopolitan liberals in the West to what the president dared to say. Now in terms of specific policies, the President did mention borders and a few other things, but what’s most interesting is the reaction to the President’s speech by those who say that there should be no President speaking to the importance, not to mention the superiority of Western civilization. We’re in a situation right now that’s been described by a contemporary author in Great Britain. Douglas Murray has written an important book The Strange Death of Europe. He writes,
“Europe is committing suicide. Or at least its leaders have decided to commit suicide. Whether the European people choose to go along with this is, naturally, another matter.”
He then made this astounding statement in a sentence,
“Europe today has little desire to reproduce itself, fight for itself or even take its own side in an argument.”
That’s astounding, very clarifying. Here you have an author saying that Europe is not basically very interested in reproducing itself. We need to note it once was. It’s also not very interested, he says, in fighting for itself. He means here culturally and civilizationally. But what’s most here are his last words. He says that Europe doesn’t even seem to have the will,
“to take its own side in an argument.”
Here you have to recognize that’s very good language because civilization is indeed an argument. Every civilization is an argument: an argument about reality, an argument about truth, an argument about the way people should live, an argument about the definition of what it means to be human, an argument about what it means to be a people. Every civilization makes that argument. That argument is the very essence of the civilization. And for the last, say at least, well, 14 or 1500 years, the West identified as Europe. And where Europe’s influence has continued such as in North America, the West has been making a certain argument about life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A certain argument about human beings that is translated into an argument for human rights. A certain argument for matters economic, political, well you go down the list, including marriage and the family, and all that is the artifact of civilization.
Civilizations make arguments in terms of their artifacts and their artistry and their products. If you go into a museum, for instance in one of the great museums of the West, such as the Louvre in Paris or if you go into the Prado, or you go into the Hermitage, or you go into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, what you’re looking at is an argument, an argument being made through paintings, an argument being made in other contexts through music, arguments being made through drama and literature. But what you have now is a situation in which the West seems to be almost uniquely unwilling to take its own side in an argument. I think Douglas Murray’s language is absolutely brilliant.
President Trump speaking in Poland dared to transgress the modern liberal rule that you can’t speak on behalf of the West and said you have speak only on behalf of the global civilization. There was no greater exemplar of that worldview than his predecessor in the Oval Office, President Barack Obama. President Obama in his globalism did not deny American interests nor the importance of Western representation such as NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but he was extremely reticent to make any argument for the superiority of Western civilization.
Now of course historical judgments have to be made against Western civilization. It has had many failures throughout its past. But the reality is that we are only able to even have this discussion because of the enduring superiority of the Western civilizational argument. Now just to make the matter very clear, Gideon Rachman critiquing President Trump in the Financial Times, perhaps the essence of a cosmopolitan newspaper, said,
“for many western liberals, the west is defined less by cultural achievements and ‘timeless traditions,’” he’s basically critiquing President Trump there, “than by a set of political ideas. Those ideas include political pluralism, freedom-of-speech and — at least in modern times — a belief in the primacy of the individual, rather than the tribe.”
Now here you have Gideon Rochman making the distinction between the civilizational argument that he says here is associated with President Trump, and a civilizational argument he says is associated only with a set of political ideas. But here’s the problem, those political ideas don’t stand on their own. They don’t hang in air. Those political ideas have to rest upon some previous overwhelming argument. There’s a reason why those political ideas that Gideon Rachman mentions here, you might say the entire constellation of human rights, freedom of speech, and the institutions of the Western world. There is a reason why they are in the West. Western civilization needs to regularly examine itself very closely. We need to be our own most severe critics. But at the same time if we don’t make our argument, if we’re unwilling to make the argument, we have to ask the question, do we really believe the argument? And if the answer to that is no, for any number of reasons, we are in very big trouble.
A promise they cannot keep: Church of England considers ceremony recognizing transgender identity
Next with summer comes an entire series of denominational and ecclesial meetings, including in Great Britain the meeting of the Church of England’s general synod. A four-day session that made news this year for at least two different actions related to human sexuality, both of them embedding further confusion within that historic church. In the first place in the general synod there was a move to condemn reparative therapy. Now at this point we need to interject as we do always in talking about this, that the Christian worldview never assigns any ultimate hope to any form of therapy. We understand that therapy can sometimes alleviate human suffering and can sometimes be helpful to human beings. But the modern recourse to therapy is invested with hopes that far outstrip the reality.
Our problem is sin not just something that can be reached by therapy, and sin is at the very essence of our problems related to sexuality. And thus we need to understand that something that is merely reparative therapy or so-called conversion therapy can’t really be invested with much hope by Christians. But the key word there is merely. That’s not to say that there are not, quite rightly, methods and approaches that seek to help persons to overcome a same-sex attraction and to conform their lives more to the law of God and to the purpose of Christ. That’s not necessarily something that’s rightly reduced to the word therapy, but we also need to recognize that’s not really the ground of offense. The ground of offense is the suggestion that someone should seek to overcome same-sex desire or to avoid same-sex behaviors. That someone should seek for a redefinition of identity that is more in line with Scripture and obedience to Christ. But therapy is not the real ground of offensiveness here; rather, it became very apparent in the conversation at the Church of England’s general synod that the bigger issue of offense was the suggestion that persons should not be openly and practicing as those who are in a same-sex attraction or same-sex relationship. The suggestion was that it’s wrong to suggest to persons not only that they can change but that they should change.
Now here we need to recognize that the Christian worldview is deeply invested in Scripture’s teaching that we are all broken, and indeed that brokenness is extremely deep. That is to say, that we recognize that the condition of many Christians struggling with same-sex attraction is that they will continue that struggle, but they will continue it in terms of faithfulness to Christ during the endurance of their lifetimes. That’s just something that Christians have to understand which is deeply embedded in our Christian understanding of anthropology, of sin, of Christ and of the Gospel in the Christian life. But what’s abundantly clear is the increasing antipathy towards anyone who would say that anyone ought to change in terms of obedience to Christ or even to seek to change for any reason by any means.
But the most confusing and disturbing action undertaken by the general Synod was its approval of emotion that,
“recognised the need for transgender people to be ‘welcomed and affirmed’ in their parish church.”
Potentially even by a new rite or ceremony of the Church of England in order to recognize the new identity of transgender individual. The BBC reported,
“A transgender liturgical service would not be a second baptism, however, as the Church’s teaching is that humans are made in the image of God – transcending gender – and baptism takes place only once. The Archbishop of York, the Most Reverend John Sentamu, said that “theology has to be done” by the House of Bishops, but ‘it can be done very quickly’.”
Now at this point we simply need to pause and understand what we’re being told here. We’re being told that one of the most historic churches within Christendom has announced that it is now considering a formal ceremony whereby persons would be recognized in a new gender identity by the church, now notice not just pastorally, but officially, even ceremonially. And it’s not going to replace baptism and remember that in the Church of England baptism is when the name is liturgically recognized. But it’s to be something that is almost tantamount to baptism.
Now this is where we need to understand that the underlying issue here is identity. Now we’re not arguing the baptism question with the Church of England at this point. I’ll be glad to make that argument separately. The argument at this point is identity. And what the Church of England is arguing for by its openness to this new liturgical ceremony is the fact that we can somehow actually change our identity in a way that should be recognized by the church. This is a huge problem biblically and theologically. The Archbishop of York says that the,
“‘theology has to be done,’ but ‘it can be done very quickly.’”
But it needs not to be done quickly. It needs to be done faithfully and well. And that theology would need to point out that our identity is not secured by ourselves in ourselves or for that matter even in the church. Our identity is secured by our Creator; and for Christians our identity is in Christ. In this sense, the transgender dimension is by no means even the most interesting or concerning dimension. It’s the identity dimension. The idea that somehow we can declare ourselves to have an identity that the church might now recognize with a ceremony, but that identity is not rooted in Christ, but rather in a personal understanding and a claim of personal identity.
There’s another lesson here of course. That lesson is this when a church changes its theology, eventually its liturgy, its way of worship and its ceremonies, all of that will follow. It will also be changed by even considering this new ceremony. This church is effectively in terms of human identity making a promise it cannot possibly keep.
Worldview Book Recommendation: 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' by Neil Postman
Finally now as the week comes to an end, I want to recommend a book that helps us to understand the world in which we live and help to shape our worldview. For this book we’ll go back 1985. Before the digital revolution, before we knew what a smart phone was, but even then the media environment was becoming a near omnipresent reality. Neil Postman then wrote in 1985 a book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he dared to write, and I quote,
“Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”
Neil Postman was making the point that our ubiquitous media culture even back in the mid-1980s seemed to be pointing everyone to merely being amused. Everything is entertainment. But as Neil Postman says even entertainment comes with its own epistemology – that is a way of knowing – its own authorities, its own way of shaping the world around us. If it was true then, it’s even more true now. We are on the verge of amusing ourselves to death. Christians have to be on the front line of understanding why that fact is not amusing at all.