“We just seem to have lost all our morals and principles these days.” - Dolly Parton
Gone are the days when folks could go to the picture show for a quarter; gone are the days when one was forced onto the landline to contact a friend; gone are the days when men tucked in their shirts and opened the door for the one with whom they were going steady. "Things have changed," says Great-Grandfather, as you sit on his knee looking into a worn, seasoned face capped by thick white hair, each one a different experience, a different piece of advice. And Pap is right, things have changed. But they started changing long before he realized and in much more poignant ways. Indeed, Pap, things have changed. You’re more right than you know.
Like Tim McGraw, we might miss the “old and outdated way of life.” You know, those days when “crack’s what you were doin’ when you were crackin’ jokes.” Morally (and naively) idealistic visions of the past aside, social expectations of folks have been changing since at least the birth of the Enlightenment.That said, this metamorphosis of expectation is merely a symptom of a deeper cause. Ethical sea-changes don’t happen without a catalyst, and as we survey the last couple hundred years of intellectual history, it’s clear that this is no different.
For millennia, and in a variety of expressions, humans were theistic (and overwhelmingly still are). Especially for Christianity, whose God is both personal and absolute, both one and many, God’s nature undergirds a certain moral code. The objective foundation for our ethical actions is God Himself. Of course, things change sometime around the Enlightenment, at which point humans are encouraged to slough off most all authority, especially of the religious persuasion, and to place humanity upon the altars in the High Places. Indeed, we move from a theocentric world to an anthropocentric world. David Wells is so on the money here that he’s worth quoting at length (and I mean AT LENGTH):
"Clearly the Enlightenment promised far more than it was ever able to deliver; one way of understanding this is to think of it as a Christian heresy. What Christian faith had offered was retained while the Source from which that offer had been made was rejected. The prerogatives that had belonged to God did not simply disappear; now they reappeared in human beings. The revelation he had given now reappeared in the form of natural reason, which would do what revelation had done but without the discomfort of requiring humanity to submit to the God from whom the revelation had come; the idea of salvation was retained but transformed into the drive for human perfectibility, at first achieved by moral striving and then, as we know it today, by psychological technique; grace became effort; the life of faith became the hope of personal growth; and eschatology became progress (what Lord Acton called the religion of those who have none). Thus was the Christian Trinity replaced by a substitute trinity of reason, nature, and progress.27 The place God had occupied was now occupied by the human being. Meaning and morality, which only God could give, were taken to be purely human accomplishments; but in promising what only God could do, the Enlightenment sowed the seeds of its own downfall. It promised too much. It promised, in fact, that all human problems could be solved by purely natural means — and that, plainly, rested on false assumptions. It both underestimated the magnitude of the problems and overestimated the capacity of human nature to remedy them."
But Wells is saying nothing new. In fact, this very point was prophetically made over a century ago by Friedrich Nietszche. In The Gay Science, we meet Nietzsche’s Madman. As the Madman walks into the public square, he finds non-believers amid a fit of mockery. They ask themselves, cackling all the way, “Where has God gone? Is He lost?” Yet, they themselves have not ceased to find meaning, joy, and purpose in their lives. The Madman inserts himself into the conversation, proclaiming that they have all killed God, and that, as a matter of fact, they are all hurtling through meaningless nothingness. He asks, "Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?” The mockery stops. The laughter ceases. The crowd falls silent. They look at The Madman, amazed and astonished. The Madman then says, “I have come too early.” Kelly Kapic observes, regarding Nietszche’s parable: "If humanity killed God—if the Holy One never was—then redemption is not possible. Pain has no meaning. Betrayal, lies, selfishness, greed, and lust—there can be no criticism of these, even if we hurt others in the process. Everything is reduced to strength and power...The madman understood what all the others had not: the absence of God has everything to do with this life, with the present, with our struggle to find meaning now. And for our purposes, this has everything to do with our pain, our hurts, our fears, and our hopes.”
Nothing but the Triune God can fulfill not only our need for objective morality in a practical sense, but also our desires for justice and hope and purpose and meaning. These things do not come meaningfully out of the minds of man, for he may eat and drink, but tomorrow he will die.
I didn’t write this article to rant against the culture in which I operate or to rant in favor of a set of cultural ideals which, in large part, are just that: culturally conditioned expectations of which the Bible knows little. Of course, I have tattoos and pierced ears and a beard. I did, however, write this article to make clear one thing: one cannot have their cake and eat it, too. One cannot consistently subscribe to a “Death of God” theology while also advocating for some objective moral standard, for what or whose standard must we live by? Indeed, the repetitive question of the toddler bouncing on Pap’s knee resounds in our ears: “Why?"