Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

My Photo
Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

curator, Christian Quotation of the Day

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Romans 1:32. The Poisoned Apple—I. Psychic truancy

It is a commonplace that one man’s education is another man’s indoctrination. So, let us concede the point from the outset: education has always consisted partly in indoctrination. Without doctrines, that is, without beliefs about the value of reason, language, and culture, there can be no education. A child does not begin learning sums on the basis of his reasoned analysis of its future utility. A child learns sums because a school board has determined that it shall. And so it is with history, language, literature, and all the other disciplines.

All these subjects are undergirded with doctrines and dogmas, many as invisible as the dogma of school itself. We make schools and send children to them, with certain expectations that may or may not be met; but we never question whether there should be a school. (Though, there is a sense in which the very dogma of school as an institution is being challenged, today, and quite successfully. The home-schooling movement has, I am told, over 2 million participants, and it is growing. I am not certain whether this movement could be the basis of a challenge to the public schools, but it will be interesting to watch it as it unfolds. One of the most important components of the home-school movement is, of course, Evangelical Christians.) As another example of unquestioned dogma, while we may disagree on the specifics of right vs. wrong, and posit doubts about the exact nature of global rules about right and wrong, no one seriously suggests that there is no right or wrong, at least in a local and immediate way.

The critique of specific content of the contemporary school curriculum I will leave for others better suited to the task. The question, for instance, of the teaching of evolution versus creation is highly technical, and I am not certain that I even understand the issues in sufficient detail to discuss it. Excellent treatments of this subject are available elsewhere (for instance, in Phillip E. Johnson’s book, The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL: 2000). Practical issues involving teaching technique, such as, New Math and phonics, I also leave aside in this discussion. They are interesting and vital subjects, but the only way any specific subject from within the educational curriculum comes into this discussion is for it to touch the teaching of morals and worldview.

The educational rubric that has come to us from centuries past has been subject in recent years to an increasing revision, far beyond the response that one would suppose necessary to respond to a changing society and technology. This was made possible, in part, by a lawsuit, Murray v. Curlett, eventually decided by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1963, that banned public prayer from public schools. This relatively insignificant decision was puffed up into an attack on expressions of religious conviction in every aspect of public school activity, where previously such religious expressions went unnoticed. Murray v. Curlett was transformed into a wedge, and all that follows is, in one way or another, a result of that wedge being driven into the foundations of the philosophy of education, with tragic consequences. Murray v. Curlett was not the only vehicle, but it was the best that the enemies of God had seen, and they took it.

My late father used to remark that education was the one thing that people were willing to pay for and not receive. It is a pity he did not live to see what we have now. For, today, not only do we pay for education and not receive it, but we have systematically reduced the schools’ capabilities for delivering education, while increasing our requirements of them more than ever. How clever of us to remove the organ and simultaneously demand the function!

Foremost among the organs removed is any acknowledgement of God’s authority over our physical world. Without God, the world and its organization can make no sense. It clearly exhibits a character, complexity, and intricacy, but it only suggests purpose. It does not elucidate intent or destiny. Only God can do that, and so it is not surprising if many students are puzzled as they encounter the marvels of the natural and intellectual world. In the mind of the child, the question, Why, presupposes intent. Modern education teaches causes, not purposes.

So, the initial impression that the world makes on a child is diverted somewhat by the first years of school. By the time the process is complete, the child will have concluded that the natural world is ungoverned by anything higher than nature, except for the occasional human who intrudes his intentions, usually malign, into the steady-state ecosystem. Even if the child has had some outside religious education, it is unlikely that the two competing models of the world can make much of a connection with each other in the child’s mind, particularly given that the intellectual milieu in the schools specifically excludes God at all the places where He might be included. The schools do this intentionally, by mandate, under the watchful eye of the courts. In the schools, God is an absentee.

There is, of course, the teaching of religion. Religion can be taught provided that no proselytizing takes place. An objective study of religion as a social force and historical fact is permitted and even encouraged. Religion is also granted a slice of the public school mind at times of great stress or disaster. Religion is given a room, but it is a room apart. One wonders whether this is not worse than an outright ban on all religious subjects and content from schools. To give the impression that God is a subject alongside other subjects, and that God can be excluded from some subject areas the same way that math or spelling can, is to teach, like it or not, a sub-God, a house god, a deity with purely local or sectional powers. Even the old bearded man in the sky sending down thunderbolts at his pleasure is a better vision of God than this.

Now, I would not for a moment suggest that any of this has the slightest connection with the Way of Christ and communion with the Holy Spirit of God, the Christian life. The nation should teach the Gospel and is responsible for teaching it, according to Scripture, but I do not expect it will begin to do so any time soon. If the schools do not teach the Gospel, it hardly matters what they teach about God (in the sense that whatever they teach about God, without the Gospel, is a half-truth at best; we only know God truly through the Gospel)—except that certain teachings can poison the student’s mind to the truth of God long before he is of an age to reason. Not all those poisonous teachings are specifically religious, nor even all the most important ones.

The most significant teaching that reaches students concerning God is that the intellect, the natural world, history, society, art, law, and morality can all be understood without reference to God as a living being. God as an institution or a functionary, particularly when subordinated to man’s dominion in those areas, can be useful if comprehended in the correctly limited way, as it were. But the God of the Bible is an antiquated notion that has no necessary connection with actual events in contemporary life, save at those rare times of distress or tragedy when one reverts to a traditional notion of God.

This idea, and its many variations, is propagated every day in schools in numerous ways. I suppose that it is all right to teach arithmetic without mentioning God (though He is the God of Truth, and arithmetic is about truth and the difference between truth and lies), but history and law, for instance, are both wrapped up in considerations of God, more obviously with Christianity in the West, but truly with all histories. Removing God from those subjects rips the guts out of them. The message it sends to children is that our history developed through entirely explainable mechanisms and our civics derived entirely from rationalist sources. God, if He played any part in these things, did so as a mere superstition. Art also receives this treatment. For social or economic reasons, artists of the past relied on religious themes in artistic creation; more enlightened artists of our time have abandoned the God superstition as a motivating force in the creation of works of art, so children are implicitly instructed.

Children are not stupid. They see, probably far better than we are willing to admit, that grown-ups do not believe even the limited stuff about God that they teach to children. Otherwise, why would the subject of God be dropped the instant that anything one might be tested on comes up? After all, the stuff you are tested on is, by definition, the really important stuff. And that illustrates the power of this teaching—it is part of the child’s schoolwork.

It is no wonder that children, when they reach an age to reason, often reject God completely. The Sunday God, the chapel God, the God in one section of the library, the God you cannot discuss in biology class—these all confirm the unauthentic character of God that children begin to suspect as soon as Santa Claus has been unmasked. If they can simply ignore the few feeble parts of school that tolerate God talk of any kind, they can get through the entire experience without having to confront any of the difficult and dubious issues that a powerful, uncontrollable, real God might introduce.

The main program of the anti-God movement of today is realized quite effectively in public school curricula and policy. God cannot be taken seriously as a force to be reckoned with in any context but the specifically religious, and only in certain time periods. If that were where it ended, it might be tolerable. After all, I am nervous about teachers in public schools forming a Christian curriculum, just as I wince at the idea of public school principals deciding what is an appropriate public prayer. Moreover, as a potential target of evangelization with the Gospel of Christ in the future, the typical student might be better off as a tabula rasa than an indoctrinated half-Christian. Unfortunately, there is more.


Romans 1:32. The Poisoned Apple—II. The relevance of irrelevance

If the rejection of God, as a force to reckon with intellectually and morally in the education of children, were all that is being forced on us in the City, it might be possible to live with. But the prince of the City has seen the expulsion of God from the schools as an opportunity to expel some of God’s friends and to invite in some new gods. Non-pagan classics have been discarded. Christian counseling for students in crisis is forbidden. Even serious moral issues can only be informed by secular sources, within the school.

Principal among the new gods are the bellwethers of culture. Icons of popular culture are a very efficient way for the prince of the City to lead millions to their destruction by guiding a very few leaders. It would be overreaching to suggest that all these popular figures are endorsed in the schools, but clearly some are. For instance, the poets of the beat generation, like Dylan Thomas and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, are practically deified in English classes today, while George Herbert and Christina Rosetti are ignored. I have even heard John Lennon referred to as a great poet. But the problem is not merely that the standards have declined, nor that the past is being forgotten, nor even that the revisionists have been at work, touching up the Mona Lisa with a nose ring and a tattoo.

The poison that has brought about all these evils is the notion that one can revise the past on the basis of one’s desires and beliefs, and that revising the record of the past makes the new view of the past true and legitimate. This historical heresy attaches to the educational system from top to bottom. A kind of ever-evolving new orthodoxy has gripped the upper levels of education today. One reads thesis titles today that assert feminist themes or liberation themes or gay themes to bodies of history or literature that had little or no content of that kind. It is as though demonstrating bigotry in Joseph Conrad can make Jack Kerouac a great writer.

And we are teaching this to students at lower levels of education, teaching them that each succeeding generation can decide for itself what is good from the past and let the rest go. (Of course, they do anyway. But in the past, the new generation has always been informed to some extent by the values of the previous generation. The difference today is that rejection of the past is an article of the new generation’s faith, and only current values and fashion, not inherited models, guide the selection from the new generation’s inheritance.) Moreover, the assertion of a new identity, which is understood to be a vital process for each generation, rests on the rejection of the past, on whatever grounds one likes. Daily, the City dreams up new excuses for changing or dismissing the record of the past. Each revision severs another link to the past, our heritage, our responsibility for what we do with what we have received. We lick up the poison like mother’s milk.

Relevance is a favorite criterion for rejecting the past. This is a charge that stands up against the Gospel, provided one has the right sort of intellectual preparation. Shakespeare is no longer relevant, Shelley is no longer relevant, Lincoln is no longer relevant, so Christ, who is far older than any of those, can hardly be relevant today. Relevance invents new icons every hour. Jesus’ fifteen minutes of fame was a long time ago, regardless that we still have neighbors who need us to love them.

It is an irony that one can therefore discern what is most relevant to the society’s needs and lacks by identifying those things that the society regards as irrelevant. Great literature is irrelevant, according to popular culture, and thus the need for great literature is more pressings than ever. Jefferson and Lincoln are irrelevant, so the inference can be made that never has the need been greater for an understanding of freedom and justice. The Gospel is irrelevant, according to the bellwethers of progress. But just when it is least regarded, the Gospel speaks most powerfully to our culture today.

Simone Weil wrote “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.” Who is saying anything eternal today? Who even supposes it to be necessary? All we are looking for today is a sound bite that will work for the next few hours.

The first cousin to relevance is progress and change. We expect progress and change today. Revision of the past and rejection of previously held standards are the modes we use to accommodate rapid change. We are so used to debunking the past that it hardly seems to be much of an obstacle any more.

The record is clear. Antisepsis, anesthesia, and antibiotics made idiocy out of the previous 4000 years of medical history. Space exploration, nuclear fission, and the bomb have made yesteryear’s physics seem like superstition. Pills, genius training, and the eugenics of genetic screening and selection have made the family ethics of the past indecipherable.

And as for the horse…

“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man.” (1 Cor. 10:13 AV) The notion that there are some arenas in which man has made no progress at all cannot be given voice in today’s elite intellectual circles. Progress and change are now the modes to which we as individuals and as a society have become adapted. Relativism of various kinds has now become so ingrained in our thinking that the possibility of a fixed point has become hard even to entertain.

Because of God’s expulsion from the schools, education today has in fact become training in narcissism. Through the veneration of progress, we indirectly worship ourselves. After all, we are part of that progress that we believe to be ongoing. Moreover, we are taught that we alone are fit to judge relevancy in our age. Finally, relativism ultimately means that all conclusions about morals, reality, law, and destiny are relative to our selves, to what we think and believe. Our own thoughts create the only moral reality we can know: “…to thine own self be true…” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Sc. 3) is the watchword of the zealous relativists. (Shakespeare placed those words and several other vacant moral platitudes in the mouth of Polonius, a busybody halfwit, which should demonstrate the contempt in which Shakespeare himself held them. Ironically, endless repetition in almanacs and other organs of homely wisdom have paradoxically raised these words to almost biblical authority over the intervening centuries.) That is today’s lesson in the classroom, the City’s training camp, and the students, apt to the appeal to their vanity, do not fail to hear it.


Romans 1:32. The Poisoned Apple—III. Don't mess with taxes

Even more deadly, though it takes longer to mature, is the bland assumption that responsibility is something that one takes up or leaves behind. The fact that in life in the West we have great latitude in selecting occupation, lifestyle, location, friends, even family, is impressed on us early. Freedom, that almost holy word for the right to be whatever kind of person one wants to be, is a curse of the first order when that freedom is not matched by good judgment. In the scope of heaven, that means inspired judgment, counseled by God’s Holy Spirit.

Responsibility is imposed on us, from above. Regardless of how we choose, freely, unfreely, or something in between, responsibility descends on us, surely and inevitably. The fact that our children grow up facing few if any hardships contributes to the failure to learn this lesson. But the schools and the entire education system are optimized to avoid this subject. “If you don’t like it, change it.” “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” “Arguments from authority are not valid.” These platitudes of pragmatism are key attitudes in the movement that teaches that responsibility is a matter of choice.

God fixes responsibility on us. He is sovereign, but He places contingency before us. We are not free to refuse it, and consequently we are responsible for whatever we do. When Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors, He made it clear that loving your friends was not an extraordinary virtue. He meant us to be conscious of the need and responsibility to love the unlovely neighbor, the neighbor we would not bother to love otherwise, the difficult neighbor, the neighbor who does want love from us. The City has silenced this voice, and it cannot be heard within a modern school today.

The pill that confers immunity to love of neighbor is, from the point of view of the City’s architects, the last pill we will ever need.

“Study hard. Study the curriculum of revision particularly hard. Worship success. Love yourself as you wish others loved you.” That is the message of modern institutional education. Fortunately, there is enough of the traditional educational left in the curriculum at the moment for at least some students to emerge as literate, rational, reasonably competent people, but there is much evidence that the traditional curriculum is shrinking as it is being replaced with the revisionist gospel.

Schools teach what the City wants. The City taxes its slaves for the funds required to achieve exactly what is accomplished in schools.

The schools are not the abject failures that some have bewailed. In terms of the City’s needs, the school systems have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams. They are producing good television watchers, good popular culture consumers, good legalists, good apostates, and dutiful citizens, well adapted to a corrupt and degenerate society.

In America, we have locked in place the mechanism that supports and entrenches the educational establishment so that it will continue in perpetuity. No displacement or reform of this corrupt system is within view, and it is hard to imagine what kind of power would be required to dislodge it from its present, impregnable position. The educational establishment has now become the complicit servant, consciously or otherwise, of the City and its prince, doing his will and serving his purposes.

The City preaches diversity but trains to monopoly. The City preaches tolerance but ostracizes those who do not conform to its tolerance model. The City preaches freedom of religion but actively suppresses religious expression. The City preaches responsibility but educates its people to all the ways and reasons to avoid it. The City preaches intellectual and moral freedom but cuts its people off from the only source of information on how properly to use that freedom.

Sin never had it so good.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Romans 1:28-34. When choice is unfree (I)

A few years ago, a poet named Robert Bly came into a brief vogue, touting a new or reconstituted vision of male virtue. He proclaimed that a major defect of modern culture was the failure of men to assert manhood and to pass this on to their sons. He decried the “feminization” of men, and he held seminars for men in which they celebrated a kind of modern stoicism mixed with ritual for nourishing the kind of independence, self-sufficiency, and inner calm that his vision of manhood called for. He was an atheist, if memory serves.

Now, I am sure that manhood has taken a severe hit in the course of the past decades of cultural shift that the West has experienced. In particular, the ability, and even the opportunity, of men to lead families has been attacked and undermined. It is part of the “inevitable” change that has come with the abandonment of Christian principles as a foundation for social organization. But there is no more hope for the restoration of right relationships in the family and society through Robert Bly’s program than through any of the thousands of other quick-fix programs proposed in the newspapers, magazines, and grocery-store paperback books that flood our world. There is no salvation there.

The ancient ritual of coming of age amongst the Jews was called bar mitzvah, which means, roughly, “son of the law.” The idea is that children were subject to their parents throughout early childhood, but at the time that they achieve the age of reason, they become subject to the law, responsible to the law. In earlier generations, this no doubt meant subject to the Law. Today, it is merely a ritual, probably regarded with great respect by a small fraction of those in contemporary Jewish society who go through it, but primarily an occasion for a party (I trust that I do not do my Jewish friends an injustice here). In Gentile society, the corresponding universally recognized rite of passage is obtaining the driver’s license. (It is probably worth noting that the rite of Confirmation is a commonly accepted cognate to bar mitzvah in Christian society. Today, Confirmation is so widely debased as a mere ritual that it does not compare well. Hence the example of the driver’s license, which actually requires the attainment of a skill.) Oddly enough, it has a significance that virtually no one recognizes, that the new driver has voluntarily placed himself or herself under the authority of a body of statutes that were not previously applicable, in a way not terribly different from the transformation implicit in bar mitzvah except, of course, for the gravity of the law involved.

The City’s most popular moral codes militate against the sovereignty and responsibility of parents, making a rite of passage unimportant. In the City, children are turned into informers against their classmates and even, in some outrageous cases, against their parents. Since the City thrives on degeneracy, coming of age means adopting one of the approved sets of life norms: the backstabbing ruthlessness of unprincipled ambition provides the dominant career norm, while self-serving complacency and indulgence constitute the life-style norm of choice. What is important to the City is that the subject be responsive to the City’s demands and obedient to its imperatives.

While functioning as the right kind of economic and social quanta, the City’s subjects can seek whatever kind of salvation they want to. There are plenty of gospels around: vegetarianism, weight watchers, social action, crime watch, exercise clubs, culture clubs, civic support clubs, religious clubs, charitable clubs, and even missions. (After all, if you cannot conform to the City’s standards, maybe you will go somewhere else. There is not much of anywhere to go, but out at the edges of civilization, you cannot do much harm.) What is important about any of these forms of salvation is that they will not challenge the authority of the City or its prince.

The rite of passage for the City’s citizens is the right to determine which of the alternative life-styles and rule-sets fits best. You have a right to assert yourself. You have a right to a place of your liking among the City’s strata. You have the right to sexual satisfaction no matter what form that takes (within very broad limits). You have the right to understand your moral universe, and to some extent, even to create it. You have rights. You deserve it.

And in that assertion of choice, the choice is removed, and the City’s subject, a captive to his sin, is taken into his slavery, from which his emergence can only be an Act of God.


Romans 1:28-34. When choice is unfree (II)

I do not want to make a big mystery of this. It is simply a matter of logic. By their very nature, moral codes are not subject to choice. The notion that I should follow or adopt the moral code that I like best, or that fits my circumstances best, or that best appeals to my training, intellect, aims, or appetites, or that I should do “what is right for me,” cannot be supported logically. If my choice of moral codes is founded on any of the above criteria, then my morals are no more than an expression, respectively, of my preferences, my assessment of my circumstances, my training, intellect, aims, or appetites, or even my whims. It is not an expression of what is right and wrong in any objective or global sense.

It is a further snare that the act of choosing grants the illusion of choice, the illusion of freedom in an arena where freedom is inherently impossible. (By the way, only one moral code is available. The other formulations are strikingly similar, as C. S. Lewis demonstrates in The Abolition of Man. Moreover, since the moral code has transcendent roots, contradictory variances are impossible; there can only be one. This point is made nicely by David Klinghoffer, in a review of Rodney Stark’s book, For the Glory of God, in National Review, July 28, 2003, where he writes, “If there is only one God, …then that implies that there can be only one transcendentally true foundation on which all of ethics is built. Relativism becomes impossible.” I understand Mr. Klinghoffer to be Jewish. His review was fair and favorable.)

The Law, that great body of prohibitions, that tablet of moral absolutes, which is not a set of suggestions or principles, but actual injunctions, is written on our hearts by our training and our nature. (God has not left us to be complete victims of our society. He scatters His light around as it pleases Him to do so.) When we begin short-circuiting those processes, we pay a terrible penalty as a society, and we pay an even greater penalty as individuals. The Law is true; it is the rightness that cannot be supplanted. (Psalm 19:9. “The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.” [NIV]) Yet the City, our society as it has been evolving in recent decades, has tried to do exactly that. It wants to substitute a new set of foundation principles.

Note what the Law is. It is not a set of moral axioms. It does not set forth a pattern of moral principles. Its statements are not in the indicative mood at all. They do not, in general, assert the existence of anything, any over-arching ideals or paradigms of social organization. Only two indicative statements appear in the Ten Commandments passage, (Exodus 20:3-17) one dealing with the rationale for the Sabbath, and the other, a statement about God’s character, that He is “a jealous God.” All other statements in the passage are imperatives. They function, not to inform us about moral philosophy, but to keep us from falling off the moral cliff. They say to us, in effect, “Stay away from these evils. If you approach them, you are in danger.”

We do not receive reasons why stealing and murder and covetousness and false witness and adultery are wrong; we are simply prohibited from committing these acts, and from their prohibition we infer that they are wrong. The Law delivered on Mt. Sinai is founded on the authority of God. Though the Law has good reasons embedded in it and is therefore not arbitrary, adherence to the Law always boils down to regard for the authority of God. By contrast, the City’s smorgasbord of moral codes is rational, reasoned from humanist principles, and pragmatic. Prohibitions in the City’s moral codes are not absolute but consequential. Corner cases (computer guy jargon for the special cases where rules intersect, i.e., appear to collide) expose gaps in the moral fabric, which therefore require constant revisions. But the City’s illusion of choice for moral codes is the basic mechanism that propagates moral revisionism and relativism.

So long as the moral code is subject to choice of any kind, sin will express itself, and it will do so under the cover of virtue. It will produce obdurate sin, the sort that Jesus described as unforgivable. (Matt. 12:31; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10) To use F. F. Bruce’s line of analysis (in The Hard Sayings of Jesus, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Il., 1983), it is not that slanderers of the Holy Spirit have committed a sin too terrible to be forgiven of, but that those who slander God, who claim persistently and whole-heartedly that God is not able to do what He says He will do, never do repent and hence never receive forgiveness. Sin, preached as virtue, acted out in clear conscience, embraced as salvation, in people whose ideas are mature and well considered, is accordingly an (almost) insurmountable obstacle to faith. (Never say “never.” Look at Saul/Paul. Jesus, the righteous Judge can say, “Never,” for He has the authority, and He can look in people’s hearts. We cannot.)