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Futile Utilitarian Religiosity

[Religion News Service, November 14, 1995] 

Pick a page, any page, in your daily paper and you’re likely to find one of two things. Either there’s a horrific story of violence and evil, or there’s a politician or pundit decrying such and telling us America is going to hell in a handbasket. All around us we hear the predictions of catastrophe. What we don’t hear is what to do about it.

That’s not exactly true: there is general consensus that we need to shape up. We need to return to traditional morality, to reserve sex for marriage, to discourage divorce, to encourage attentive parenting. We need hard work, clean play, and a sense of duty. We need to recover a sense of shame about the shameful, and to develop the moral backbone without which a civilization cannot survive. All this is good advice. It is also futile.

It is futile because it is being advanced as a self-motivated fitness program carried on without benefit of God. Yes, everybody ought to behave himself, but everybody’s not likely to do so without outside motivation—not just motivation, but supernatural empowerment.

To understand this, come with me for a moment inside the sweaty mind of John Q. Secular-Citizen. He is panicked. It’s the end of a century, a traditionally volatile time; not only that, it’s the turn of a millineum, and millenial apocalyptic fears are to be expected out in force. John Q. feels small, helpless, and endangered—and those fears are far from unfounded.

John Q. keeps hearing that we’re headed for catastrophe unless everybody shapes up, and he agrees; he’s furious at other people’s bad behavior. But when the opportunity arises on the job to skim a little cash, or to sneak off for a tryst, he seizes it like a greedy child. He doesn’t feel any responsibility to meet irksome good-behavior standards for no reward, not when everybody else is getting theirs. Nightly he is bathed in TV advertisements wheedling that he shouldn’t, needn’t forbid himself any pleasure. As John Q. watches the nightly news he feels cold sweat break in the roots of his hair. There are a lot of strangers who would be glad to kill him. If only all those bad people would shape up, everything would be OK.

Telling John Q. to practice good values is futile. Morality without God is works without faith, and works without faith are not only useless, they are unlikely. No one lives a noble life of self-sacrifice without powerful motivation, and it is a motivation that nothing short of spiritual renewal can effect.

There is a substitute for spiritual renewal, and it is vicarious spiritual renewal, or some counterfeit therof. John Q. and his cohorts are sitting ducks for one glistening, noble figure of integrity. A man who reeled off the right high-flown rhetoric, who had the correct posture and resonant voice and grand exhortatory manner, could walk onto the national stage and seize, not only power, but adulation. Secular America is ripe for a dictator. John Q. longs for someone to give meaning to his life, to make him feel protected, and to embody by sheer force of character all those noble traits that he himself feels too weak and unmotivated to pursue. These noble values needn’t run very deep in our rising Hero; a really good set of teeth may be enough.

It’s a good time to be feeling apocalyptic.

Christians must stand against any attempt to ladle morality on our country without rootedness in God. The attempt cuts to the root of basic Biblical anthropology; it presumes that humans can be good by just trying harder. If that were the case, the Crucifixion was unnecessary.

This is why, as Keith Pavlischek reminds us in a recent issue of Regeneration Quarterly, the great theologian J. Gresham Machen in 1925 argued against the reading of generalized, non-offensive Bible passages in schools. "Moral education along this fashion would have made the Bible a handmaiden to humanitarian goals, downplaying the redemptive message found in Scripture," writes Pavlischek. "Virtues that make no reference to God and are sought for themselves apart from true religion are not true virtues but rather ‘splendid vices.’"

We cannot have true virtues without God, but the solution is not to call for increased religiosity, as if the purpose of faith was to make one a better, more useful citizen. David Klinghofer writes in the Wall Street Journal that this approach "is at odds with most Americans, who view God not as a ‘remedy’ or ‘resource’ like penicillin and natural gas, but as the transcendant force in the universe…Listening to [this talk]…you understand a little about how soldiers feel when they hear President Clinton praising the military." "Getting religion" may not make you a docile citizen. If your government is deeply corrupt, it make make you a very defiant citizen indeed.

What hope, then, in these apocalyptic, millenial times? Hope for true revival. Hold out for nothing less than conversion, repentance, and truly virtuous life. Embody this even if you seem to stand alone. "A society like this cannot long endure," will not be endured, by a God Who is Holy. Whether we next experience wrath or renewal may depend on our current prayers.

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