The historian Will Durant once declared that “From barbarism to civilization requires a century; from civilization to barbarism needs but a day.” Throughout this century, a host of thoughtful analysts have warned that Western Civilization is collapsing into resurgent barbarism, glaringly revealed in such things as the controversial art exhibit in Brooklyn which featured animal parts in formaldehyde and a portrait of the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung. The struggle for goodness, truth, and beauty resumes each morning with the rising of the sun.
Convinced that the deepest struggle in America is not about art or abortion but rather one of philosophical beliefs, that a “cosmic struggle” pits Christians against secularists, theists versus naturalists, Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcy ask a fundamental question in How Now Shall We Live? (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1999), urging readers to ponder and develop an worldview which is both biblically-rooted and culturally-relevant. Big questions must be addressed include: “Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Does life have any meaning and purpose?” (p. xi).
Consequently, they begin their treatise by considering: “Worldview: Why It Matters.” “Our choices are shaped by what we believe is real and true, right and wrong, good and beautiful. Our choices are shaped by our worldview” (p. 13). Christians, then, must thoughtfully live out the truths revealed to them through God’s revelation, which answers the fundamental question concerning origins. Philosophical naturalists like Carl Sagan insist that only the material world exists. This position seeps through our culture, even surfacing in a Berenstain Bears book, written for young children, which declares that Nature is “‘all that IS, or WAS, or EVER WILL BE!'” (P. 54).
In fact, Colson and Pearcy make clear, the most knowledgeable thinkers today acknowledge the implications of the Big Bang theory: at an explosive moment the cosmos began. Nothing leads us to think it has always been. While not proving a Creator created the cosmos, ex nihilo, the Christian doctrine of creation certainly fits the data we now have. The miracle of life itself, and the intricate designs molecular biologists are finding inside the simplest cells, makes it even more reasonable to believe in a Designer Who planned it all. Recent challenges to Darwinism, posed by Philip Johnson and others, have opened a vigorous debate, opening the way for thoughtful Christians to press their case for creation in arenas formerly closed to them.
Folks who believe God creates life handle it with care. In the struggle over abortion, we must ever remember that “Abortion has always been about more than abortion. It is the wedge used to split open the historic Western commitment to the dignity of human life” (p. 120). Influential intellectuals, such as Francis Crick, Steven Pinker, and Peter Singer, have been pushing the logic of abortion toward infanticide, weeding out unfit as well as unwanted children. The same folks encourage taking life when age renders one unfit to function normally. Active euthanasia, such as practiced in Holland, has now been legalized in Oregon. To those who so easily take others’ lives, Christians must say, for God’s sake, NO!
At the heart of what divides theists and naturalists, Colson says, is the doctrine of original sin. Secularists forever insist that we are, by nature, good. So self-esteem becomes a mantra daily recited in order to shore up this notion. Accept yourself! Accept the fact that you are accepted by God! The litany of secularism celebrates Man, the true God. The words of Ralph Waldo Emerson portray this view: “As long as a man willingly accepts himself, he will continue to grow and develop his potentialities. As long as he does not accept himself, much of his energies will be used to defend rather than to explore and actualize himself” (p. 155). Dr. Benjamin Spock, counseling parents who wonder how to handle children who steal, declared they probably need more “approval at home,” or perhaps an increased allowance! “A UCLA professor cautioned a class of young teachers against correcting children’s spelling and punctuation: ‘It’s more important for them to crate than follow rules'” (p. 332).
In time, to preserve their creed, naturalists such as Clarence Darrow even declared that “‘there is no such thing as crime as the word is generally understood. . . . IU do not believe that people are in jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control and for which they are in no way responsible'” (p. 181). This position, though rarely so clearly enunciated, undergirds the philosophy of sociologists and criminologists, judges and juries, who refuse to hold criminals accountable for their crimes.
Christians, conversely, reading Scripture as well as history, think we are by nature, inclined to evil. Wisely did Pascal say: “Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine, and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves” (p. 147). When Susan Smith kills her children, when school kids kill their classmates, when politicians betray their sacred trust, Christians see illustrated the sinfulness which forever plagues mankind. They also better understand, in part at least, the problem of pain, for in a universe where men freely sin suffering inevitably results.
The honest answer to all the evil and suffering in the world, Colson and Pearcy say, is the redemption available to us in Christ. What we cannot fix on our own has been fixed by God. Various others “saviors” have been proposed and followed. But when one looks at the results of “liberation” movements, of salvation through sex or science or new age religion, it becomes clear how flawed our efforts have been. Real redemption, which comes with the Gospel of Christ, leads to the restoration of both individuals and cultures. Persons can be saved. Families can be good. Neighborhoods can be re-ordered as police and parents work to make them safe and clean. Nearly 200 years ago William Wilberforce said: “‘the most effectual way to prevent the greater crimes is by punishing the smaller, and by endeavoring to repress the general spirit of licentiousness, which is the parent of every kind of vice'” (p. 366).
Cultures can be transformed as teachers and artists, preachers and philosophers, align their minds with the truth. To escape the clutches of subjectivism and pragmatism will demand great courage, but it must be done if we are to reinstall a “higher law” to which all of us must answer. “‘The law of nature dictated by God Himself . . . is binding in all countries and at all times,’ wrote the great eighteenth-century jurist Sir William Blackstone. ‘No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force and all their authority mediately or immediately, from this original'” (p. 401). Lacking such a transcendent authority, legislators and judges, professors and preachers, easily impose their own desires and biases upon others. “Unless there is a God who is himself Goodness and Justice,” Arthur Leff of Yale Law School argued in 1979, “there can be no ultimate moral basis for the law” (p. 408). And then everything is reduced to a “sez who?” antinomianism.
In the process of addressing the “big questions,” as part of developing his “worldview,” Colson provides a number of fascinating vignettes which illustrate his thesis. There are folks such as Bernard Nathanson, the repentant abortionist; Martha Williamson, the person who brought “Touched by an Angel” to TV; Henryk Gorecki, whose classical music helped free Poland from Communism; Salvatore Bartolomeo, a New York cop who helped redeem a neighborhood; and Kim Phuc, the little Vietnamese girls whose napalm-charred body shocked the U.S. in 1972, but who lived to ultimately meet (and forgive) the pilot who dropped the bomb. These and many more engaging stories demonstrate the power of God in peoples’ lives, and add a continuous human interest dimension to the book.
Colson and Pearcy have long pondered and written on these issues, and this is a fine, comprehensive summation of their thought.
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Stephen L. Carter, a professor of law at Yale University, worries about the loss of important virtues in the public arena, as was evident in his cogently-argued treatise, The Culture of Disbelief. He continues his probing analyses of life and culture by examining what he considers a “pre-political” virtue in Integrity (New York: HarperCollins, c. 1996), and he writes with a sense of urgency, for he believes “that nothing but an all-out effort to demand integrity of our political leaders–and of their bosses, by which I mean us–will preserve democracy as we have come to know it in the century to come” (p. x).
To define the virtue, Carter suggests three components: “(1) discerning what is right and what is wrong; (2) acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and (3) saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong” (p. 7). Students of Plato and Aristotle, of course, recognize that he is calling for prudence and courage, two of the “cardinal” virtues routinely acclaimed as marks of the good man. As St. Augustine, in The City of God, said it: “‘The peace of the rational soul is the ordered agreement of knowledge and action'” (p. 28). Carter himself, toward the end of this treatise, declares: “The proper use of the human will, then, is to will to follow God’s will” (p. 231).
Prudence, or discernment, enables one to do what’s actually right, in accord with the good. Many there be who sincerely, naively, do what they think is right but who in fact do great harm, both to themselves and others. “For me as a Christian,” Carter says, “a belief in discernment rests crucially on the belief in God and the duty of obedience to God’s law” (p. 27). Here he follows the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas, who wrote: “‘Granted that a person is not always bound to will the same thing God wills, he is bound to will what God wants him to will. Since the knowledge of what this is comes chiefly through the divine commandments, a person is obliged to obey these in all cases'” (p. 27). In many areas, we need do nothing more than consult the Holy Scriptures to know what we should do, or not do. The bumper sticker which declares “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” is not necessarily superficial!
Knowing what to do, however, does not necessarily lead one to do it. One must courageously act out what one believes to be true. In accord with Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must acquired by man by means of some kind of training'” (p. 65). Commitment, steadfastness, and forthrightness characterize integrity, living up to one’s convictions, living out one’s vows. “We are in trouble” in this country, Carter believes, “because nobody grows up to be good by accident” (p. 287) and too few of us are doing what’s necessary to help others grow up good.
With a philosophical foundation established, Carter then addresses some contemporary issues which cry out for integrity. Take the case of teachers recommending students for jobs or professional schools. Writing letters, for some, has become a ritual of praising “the best student ever,” of exaggerating to (hopefully) aid the student’s application. The integrity of language, and thus the integrity of persons using it, has been prostituted. Joined with the equally-reprehensible phenomenon of grade inflation, teachers today have largely abandoned the difficult task of judging their students’ performance. “I believe,” Carter says, “that the grade inflation about which so many people get so exercised rests on a similar refusal by faculty members to behave like adults, that is with enough integrity to disappoint other people” (p. 79).
Turning to journalism, in a chapter entitled “all the news that’s fit,” Carter laments the lack of integrity in this very important public arena. Admittedly, many journalists are decent, cultivated folks, but too often they write what they want to promote rather than report what actually happens. They use their pens to attack politicians or preachers they dislike, and they effectively “spin” the news so as to protect public figures they support. “Exercising news judgment with integrity is like doing anything else with integrity: it requires both time and contemplation” (p. 96). Sadly enough, too many journalists find neither.
The courtrooms of this nation also need integrity, Carter says. All too many folks, taking an oath to tell the truth disregard their promise. Whether testifying before a congressional committee or making a deposition before a judge, growing numbers of “witnesses” simply say what they think will prove advantageous to them. Juries, sworn to render verdicts impartially, have increasingly made decisions on the basis of race or economic situations or mitigating circumstances which should have nothing to do with their decisions. The “expedient lie” has gained traction throughout America. “Nowadays,” Carter laments, “we have lots of royal forgers. They are at work every day, in politicos, in law, in public relations, in advertising, and in the countless simple manipulations of everyday living” (p. 121). Initially, such dishonesties may seem advantageous, but in the long run they will dissolve our society.
Equally dangerous for America is the dissolution of marriage and the central institution of society. The marriage vow is the most important vow a man or a woman will ever make. The widespread violation of such vows portends nothing but evil for this nation, which virtually leads the world as a divorce culture. In 1994, William Bennett told the Christian Coalition “that divorce, not homosexuality, is today’s great threat to the survival of the family” (p. 143). The issue’s so momentous that Carter devotes two chapters on Integrity to marriage! Starting with the Church, we must once again begin insisting that promises made must be upheld. “For richer, for poorer,” means what it says. Few folks fail to understand what they’ve promised. They find it difficult to carry through with their promises. Yet that’s what makes for integrity. Living by vows is one way we try to live like God, who is the great promise-keeper, the Covenant-Maker.
The political arena also needs a dose of integrity! We often joke about politicians and politics, but it’s not a joking matter if we’re led thereby to discount its importance. Politics undergirds social life, and personal life as well. To live well, we need good laws and leaders. Sadly enough, people are not simply joking about politicians. They are growing cynical. Democracy cannot survive when citizens become detached from and disillusioned with their government. And to the extent many of us get interested in the process, it’s in order to promote our “cause” or our “group.” All too often, our politicians try to bribe us by enriching us. And we petition and march and make demands so as to secure increased funding, oblivious to how our desires damage others, especially those who will inherit our debts!
Carter’s writing is at times a bit wordy, rambling, cautious, overly-discursive, needlessly nuanced. But he addresses and explores truly important issues, brings into his discussion classical sources, and represents a fine Christian thinker whose position and ability enable him to participate in discussions which are shaping the future of this nation.
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Following up on Integrity, Stephen Carter published Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (New York: HarperCollins, c. 1998), which he says “is in a sense a prayer–a prayer for understanding and for our strength, as a nation, to build a society in which we act with, rather than talk about, genuine respect for others” (p. xii). In a nation featuring “barbarians running late” who vent their rage on freeways, where “an astonishing 89 percent of grade school teachers and principals reported that they ‘regularly’ face abusive language from students'” (p. 10), he wants to recall us to a civility which he believes “is the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together” (p. 11).
The loss of civility, Carter thinks, began its slide in 1965, the year this nation became “postmodern” (p. 38). For all its inadequacies–and Carter knows the problems of racial injustice–he cites reams of evidence to who how much gentler, more caring, more civil Americans were 40 years ago. But the traditions which preserved the peace and made society sound began collapsing under the burden of forces unloosed in the 1960’s. Self-expression has supplanted self-control, self-esteem has replaced self-sacrifice as personal goals. Even allegedly refined journalists, on programs such as The Capital Gang, engage in shouting and name-calling which “are truly primitive” (p. 129).
Throughout his treatise, Carter relies upon the wisdom of Desiderius Erasmus, whose little treatise De civilitate morum puerilium (On Civility in Children) made it clear that barbarians cannot restrain their passions whereas civilized people practice exemplary self-discipline. Behavioral standards, decency and courtesy, must be followed if we are to live well with one another. Practicing good manners, importantly, are one way we love one another. Religious people, seeking to love God and man, living out their faith, possess “the most powerful language of sacrifice and aspiration the human race has ever known” (p. 31). Indeed, “I doubt that we can reconstruct civility in America without a revival of religion as a force in both our public and our private lives, because religion can give believers the power to resist the dangerous, self-seeking moral understandings that are coming to dominate our social life” (p. 73).
The religious life–the life of love–must never be reduced to doing things which make our neighbors (or ourselves) feel good. Students who are praised when they have not learned anything, work-shirking colleagues who are tolerated rather than confronted, unethical church members who are affirmed rather than disciplined, all point to the loss of civility in our society. Above all, “the greatest sacrifice that all of us must make, but also the most important one, is to try to live our own lives in a way that models civility” (p. 110).
Doing so will involve listening, really listening to others–even those with whom we disagree. Loving others means we listen to what they think. We listen to them as persons, not as members of some particular group. And we try to hear them even though they may, in fact, represent reprehensible views. So Carter urges us not to simply dismiss Louis Farrakhan, despite his abusive anti-Semitism, nor William Shockley, despite his open racism. While listening, we also must eliminate “fighting words” which alienate and anger others. Speaking the truth is always important. But to needlessly incite rancor by the use of “fighting words” violates civility.
Beyond fighting words, Carter identifies certain “technologies of incivility” which must be resisted: telephones, television, cyberspace. Technologies which enable us to gain information without encountering persons, technologies which permit us to survive in solitary cacoons, add to incivility. Take the telephone marketeers who so regularly call when we’re trying to have dinner. Indifferent to our family, unconcerned about our needs for peace and quiet, they intrude via the telephone. Telephones clearly have instrumental value, but they easily keep us from the face-to-face meetings which demand the discipline of civility. Similarly, the Internet, which allows folks to “chat” with utter anonymity, to transact business without personal contact, to download information which may very well have no basis in reality, poses a major threat to sustaining a civil society. To much around us we must say NO! of we’re to live well.
Still more: “To be civil is not to suspend moral judgment; but to be civil may sometimes mean tolerating conduct of which you disapprove” (p. 207). While tolerating it, however, we may rightly seek to stop such behavior through personal persuasion or coercive legislation. Civility does not mean tolerating evil! Few nostrums are more vapid than the claim that “you can’t legislate morality.” Of course you can! And you must! To pass and enforce laws which threaten or punish evil doers may be absolutely civil, as Carter uses the term. “A society that refuses to speak the language of morality is more fearful than free” (p. 213).
In the final section of Civility Carter addresses “civilizing the twenty-first century.” “If America is to be civilized in the twenty-first century,” he declares, “it must begin by civilizing its children, teaching them about the necessary balance between instinct and desire, on the one hand, and doing what is morally required on the other” (p. 229). To do this three institutions must cooperate: home; school; church. In all three we must, with great devotion, seek to model and teach morality.
Parents must, despite the sacrifices involved, take more time to be with their kids and to deliberately provide moral instruction. Repeating some of the themes earlier addressed in his work on Integrity, Carter urges us to remember that not only children are “a sacred trust, a gift from God,” but that “our spouses–and our very marriages–are also sacred trusts, also gifts from God” (p. 244). Men and women committed to civility will, above all, make the sacrifices necessary to marry, beget children, and keep their homes intact.
Churches too must take seriously their charge to civilize children. “Religions do their greatest service to civility when they preach not only love of neighbor but resistance to wrong” (p. 259). Despite the efforts by secularists to skirt religious issues and sideline religious believers, people of faith must keep the faith, even when it proves costly. While admitting that there are some problems with religious bigotry and excess, the graver problem is the failure of Christians to boldly declare their convictions and to call their society to embrace them. Mainline churches–such as Carter’s own Episcopal Church–seem to have abandoned any effort to forge character. “Small wonder,” he notes, that Episcopalians have “an oversupply of priests and an undersupply of parishioners. Protestants seem to be voting with their feet, avoiding those denominations that are collapsing into training grounds for what Saul Bellow memorably termed sheriffs of ghost towns” (p. 275). The sturdy faith which prompted Karl Barth and others to issue the Barmen Declaration in 1934 is what we need today, Carter says.
Finally, Carter concludes with a “Coda: The Civility of Silence.” We’re too busy, too addicted to clocks and calendars, too immersed in noise, to discern ultimate truths. Tragically, “if we lose the vast silences that help define the sounds that fall between them, we may lose the ability to appreciate the transcendent.” Deafened by our own sounds, we easily imagine we’re the source of all that is! “The quiet spaces help to remind us of who and whose we truly are. Lying on one’s back in the deep of a silent night, gazing for an hour at a sky brilliant with sharp, white stars, it is difficult to resist the tug of God” (pp. 288-289). He alone can give us the guidance we need to rebuild civility, to save our civilization.