It begins again, as it will periodically and will continue as our age disintegrates and until the end of the world. Someone wondered whether I would fit in with the churches here, and the context for the question was the context of music. It is a problem that used to worry me, and it is not a problem that will easily go away, but it captures the continual perplexity with which the people of God in this present time must learn to live: the way of obedience leads through the mountains of our age. If you want to be faithful to God in a generation in which the visible church has lost her way, you are going to feel, from time to time, like you’re the only one doing it.
This is sometimes called by casual people “The Elijah Syndrome.” The phrase is an objectionable phrase. Elijah’s problem was that he believed his big victory at Carmel would be decisive, and then he found out the battle would continue, that God’s ways were not his ways and that God’s solutions took more time. If anybody has a problem bearing the silly epithet “Elijah Syndrome,” it isn’t those who take a grim view of the immediate solutions available in the present circumstances.
I belong to a religion which holds those in high regard who have continued on their way alone, in spite of the circumstances and with a lack of leadership. David, for example, when among the soldiers of the army of the Lord did not follow the example set by all the seasoned veterans or even God’s anointed king. That is to say: faith in God resulting in obedience was not being rigorously practiced among the hosts of Israel, and David stood out for that reason. Daniel also found himself in similar circumstances along with three of his friends. Nobody else in Babylon did as they did, and the way forward for Daniel and his friends was not easy. But it was possible; even though they were alone, the Lord Jesus was with them against all the powers of that age. We could mention Athanasios who stood against the world, or Martin Luther who stood against the consensus of the temporal powers of his age. We admire Luther for the power of conviction the faith God gave him worked. These are familiar examples, and even though it is not common for people to practice as these men did, it is common to admire them in retrospect. And it is right, and part of my religion not only to admire, but, if necessary, to follow them along a similar narrow way whether much or little is at stake. If they stood fearless against the circumstances, how much more should we stand against ours—with or without leadership.
This is not to say we don’t need spiritual leaders. We do need spiritual leaders. But those in positions of spiritual leadership do not always provide the leadership required of them. Church History bears this out and holy Scripture, since both provide examples of men who found themselves in circumstances in which they had to walk alone, not with, but in spite of the leaders under which they found themselves. It has happened more than four times in this world, and Jesus tells us that the way is narrow because it is going to happen to a lesser or greater degree to all of us. And so it is not to be wondered at when it happens even to me.
What Is the Problem?
Machen said something to the effect that we would lose hope if we were to hope in the present circumstances, but we do not look to the present circumstances for hope: we look to the great and precious promises of God. Nevertheless, Machen cannot be said to have been a man unaware of the circumstances of his time. One of the great problems we have is that we can’t seem to pay attention to the present circumstances and the object of our hope simultaneously and in different ways—one is a failure of intelligence, the other a failure of faith, and I believe the failure to do both is called immaturity. It is something Christians have been called to do since the beginning: our affections being set beyond the temporal realm while our lives continue in the quotidian way. Jesus calls us to live shrewdly, like snakes. Christians must learn to understand the present circumstances and evaluate them correctly, yet not to hope in them but rather to hope in God alone while living under the present circumstances. And I think that when it comes to having hope in God alone, the present circumstances are very congenial for that since they do not themselves provide the slightest ground for hope.
The problem is that we don’t want to live shrewdly. Christians have a defanged view of understanding the world because we seem to think that being harmless somehow implies being also witless. But being witless is the very opposite of what Jesus calls us to be, and it has the unfortunate result of making us harmful. We end up being as shrewd as pigeons and about as harmless as snakes. Surely it is obvious that this state of affairs is rather counterproductive.
It’s not unlike the notion that the problem of violence is somehow the weapons. Technology serves to advance the good or evil intentions of the human heart. The problem always lies in the human heart which is naturally inclined toward evil. If you try to take the guns away, you’ll not remove the evil in the human heart and you’ll hinder the good purposes for which that technology exists: stopping evil people who will be stopped by nothing but force. They’ve done it in Brazil: they’ve passed a law against having guns. One doesn’t wonder how may of the criminals are complying—the dilemma is for the law-abiding. They took away the guns in Britain and now they have a problem with knives. They’re trying to take away the knives, but have they considered the depths to which they will cause their own cuisine to sink if they manage to remove that crucial technology in the name of safety? Britain will become the haunt of jackals. What if Britain’s thugs start using pointed sticks, raze the immemorial elms? My point is that you can’t remove the problem by removing objects from the landscape. The solution must lie in the realm of the human heart.
Education, one of my students recently said to me, is the solution to all this violence. Why is it—I asked—the FARC’s leaders are PhDs and these guerillas recruit from the universities? The answer is that education has been limited from the realm of human understanding—science in the medieval sense, with theology at the heart—to the realm of empirical knowledge—the considerably diminished realm of the modern sciences, the realm of the objects in the landscape. Such education tends to ignore the fact of human irrationality, finiteness, and moral corruption. Such education tends to encourage solutions that are irrational, limited and morally corrupt, resulting in fanatical aggression rather than melancholy wisdom, prudence, and civilization. Shrewd as pigeons and harmless as snakes is a good description of the Colombian guerilla. It is too bad that it is also a good description of contemporary Christianity.
What Is the Situation?
A proper education would go a certain way toward solving the problem if it were to make us shrewder, but what is the hope of a proper education if it fails to include the whole realm of human understanding? How can there be a consensus wide enough to influence the education we receive until there is a cultural consensus about what that realm comprehends? And when has such a consensus ever emerged in a short time? If the minimal notions of the consensus of our day have taken centuries of deterioration to form, how much more will a better, more elaborate vision of reality take to work its implications into the imagination of a people?
On one level the problem is simple, but the situation is more complicated than that. I said above that the problem is that we don’t want to live shrewdly. This becomes a greater problem in that we refuse to appreciate the real situation in which we find ourselves when we refuse to deal with the implications of the problem. The situation gives the context of the problem by explaining to us why modern man tends to think of the problem and its solutions in terms of the objects in the landscape. How did this come about?
It began in the 13th century, if Richard Weaver is to be believed, and I believe him. “The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.” The shift in epistemology from believing that ultimate reality was transcendent and spiritual to believing that reality is immanent and material is the most basic explanation because it is the explanation that explains everything else. (That is not something for a chap of mediocrity to start arguing in an essay: you can start reading this crucial book here.)
Several things have resulted from this: the fracturing of Christendom—for good or ill, the rise of applied science, technological societies, and the decline of piety. I don’t want to say that things have ever been well for the church, but things have been considerably better than they are today—it is hard to be a Christian in the twilight of Western Civilization because the loss is catastrophic. And if we are going to be as shrewd as we are expected to be, we are going to have to come to terms with the present situation the way it is. Even if the result is something bleaker than we would like or even know how to handle, we have to understand. The only alternative is to live in a situation we don’t understand, and to pretend our way forward—guessing at the direction. Many people dislike this consideration because we have become so shallow we are no longer used to thinking that something so distant in time can make a real difference in our world.
Never mind that Christians believe that the most significant event in human history took place two thousand years ago.
Disorderliness of Mind
And let us admit it, it is very hard to demonstrate the consequences of an epistemological shift with our preferred way of learning: the TV. We have grown dull, and our ears have waxed fat through modern distractions and entertainments—Richard Weaver talks of these things too. But these sorts of things can be found in the explanations, not of the glib, popular writers who are beset by accolades and bizarrely awarded Nobel laurels, but with the serious writers: writers usually of the conservative temperament, writers with a grasp of the history of ideas, writers who demonstrate an understanding of human folly and shortcomings, writers with the tragic view of life and orderliness of mind—as opposed to mere shallow cleverness, and a cunning instinct for fads.
One of the aspects of the problem is that Christians tend to confuse the problem of education, which is their problem, with the problem of unbelief, which is God’s problem. Christians often believe there is no solution in education because the problem is, after all, a problem of the human heart. If only they could get people converted in sufficient quantities things would improve. But that is not something that is going to happen if many are called but few are chosen; there never will be a preponderance of Christians in the world if the word of the Son of God counts for anything. True, there is a problem with the human heart to which the solution is only supernatural. But the question of education is not the question of the salvation of souls, but of the possibility of such souls for obedience. Being a Christian, studies have shown, does not make a man shrewd, it only brings upon him the responsibility of becoming shrewd. Many who are not Christians have mastered shrewdness: Jesus even attested to this. The realm of the human heart has a wide and varied geography.
One of the worst aspects of our problem is the sheer ignorance, a wide-reaching ignorance. Such ignorance is not only harmful, it is disobedient. A people without discernment cannot be faithful, and this is simply because part of our responsibility as Christians is to be discerning. But our responsibility is not only to be discerning for the sake of having discernment, but for the sake of understanding how we are to be obedient in all the aspects of our life. What we are fond of neglecting, under the influence of the spirit of the age, is that the best things carry a certain depth to them, that our responsibility is great because we are the crown of God’s creation, and that the whole realm of human understanding is vast.
A Situation without Human Hope
The realization of the scope of our responsibility ought to strike fear in the heart of a person. It is a great and terrible responsibility, something shallow-minded persons will find easier to reject because of the sheer capacity it requires. Shallow-minded persons will also instinctively reject the notion that they stand at any disadvantage. It is contrary to our own natural vanity, and contrary to the vanity of a generation whose only unchangeable article of faith is the preposterous notion that we stand at the pinnacle of human progress. But part of that realization, even in those who admit it with gradually eroding incredulity and the corresponding growing of some depth within, is a reaction of sheer panic, and that too must be overcome.
Once we realize that rather than being at the pinnacle of human progress we probably represent a pretty deep trough in human history, we are in a better position to judge our plight. Once we realize we are the shallow-minded and are desperately so, that our ignorance is tremendous, we have begun to know something. But there is one further problem, and that is the problem of the affections. Proof that our affections are astonishingly disordered can be found in what passes for music in our day: people fill their ears with the most insipid banalities and some very ugly sounds (it’s music for Orks, and corresponding language) and it is astonishingly popular for something so unappealingly dreadful and banal. One would not think taste could be so degraded.
But taste is, and taste has been degraded gradually in great leaps over the past two centuries so that nowadays cries of outrage are easily dismissed by pointing backward in time. People objected—people will say—to the stuff you like when it came out in your distant youth, and this is the same. It exposes the hypocrisy of the one objecting, and whatever can be said against our age, the stigma of hypocrisy still seems to be completely attached; in other words, the charge of hypocrisy is accurate and it even seems to stick the way it should. The problem is that of developing our sense of good taste at the bottom of a sewer, and that is quite a difficulty for anybody, let alone for us Christians.
In our day, a Christian is often a byword for someone with the mental capacity of a pigeon—and deservedly so. The world is so full of harm that Christians are still considered relatively harmless by all but some eccentrics like Christopher Hitchens and others with a keen if sometimes inaccurate sense of justice. One would almost rather be considered dangerous. But the unflattering reality is that we Christians have squandered our patrimony, have lived carelessly and fecklessly, and are probably worse off than even Venezuela will be once Chavez gets done. And if you think this dire condition has not affected the most important thing, the thing for which God created his creatures, then you ought to jump down a sewer and try living there for a while to find out exactly how many things remain unaffected in such circumstances.
I think the idolatrous mixture of entertainment and worship for which God’s people in this age thirst is the same as the idolatrous syncretism for which God’s people have longed in every age. In that sense the situation is no worse. The only thing is the gods are lesser gods than they have been of old, retaining nothing transcendent, nothing terrible, nothing at all even remarkable.
What is the idolatry of the day if not the worship of the god Distraction? A petty god! The comfortable rituals of the gods of entertainment are dear to Christians. We have grown blind to how they vitiate our minds, our hearts, our strength. Try taking from the Christian his household gods: his movies, his sports, the life of complete casualness, the comforts of an age which were alien to God’s people in past ages. Try giving him the comforts of his God and of his country, Zion: the hymns of the church, the holy Scripture, the joys and terrors of obedience. Try telling the modern, idolatrous Christian that the object of all his desire ought to be Christ of the flaming eyes, and his longing to be prostrated in uninterrupted adoration, fascinated, reverent, quiet, humble before an All-mighty, true, terrible and beautiful, merciful and just, infinitely good being who is wholly and incomprehensibly other. I would not be surprised if most Christians do not secretly long for an eternity filled less with this inconvenient being, and more with their comfortable, casual household gods in whose drab gardens they can putter away the grey hours of their meager notions of everlasting glory.
I’m Tired of Thinking, but I’m Not Done with It
Periodically, it seems, I go through such an exercise as this to remind myself, to wrestle with it again, to make myself think my way into it again and with the hope that I’ll achieve some clarity this time. There is nothing more difficult than thinking, and I need to improve very much at it—we all do. I know I’m unclear and incoherent not by the standard of the average, but by the standard of the norm, and I have a tendency to lose myself in the argument as I’m going along. It is during these moments I most realize what a diminished human I am, and how much I need to work at things like thinking. It helps to be overwhelmed with the horror of living at the bottom of a spiritual sewer: it tends to renew one’s enthusiasm for climbing the metal ladder and struggling again with the manhole overhead.
And yet all the world cannot be given over to relativism and self-doubt. I can doubt myself by a standard, a standard which has real existence and against which I measure, am measured, and to which I seek to conform. When I am alone surrounded by the drug-induced sha-la-la choruses of the 70′s, with the sentimental, bastard gospel songs of another century, with the pervasive syncretism of ages upon ages of disobedience, I can still know with clarity that the affections of worship must correspond to the object of worship: and the object of worship I know, or I am not a Christian.
It is not difficult to realize, here in Colombia, how much need there is, how much training needs to be done, how much the culture of the next generation needs to be shaped as much as is possible (there is no culture of reading in Colombia, only ineffective Government programs because the problem is sensed but never addressed), how desperately we need leadership with insight and godliness. Never mind that they sing the drug-induced sha-la-la choruses the 70′s has bequeathed us, the sentimental, bastard gospel songs, the banalities of Alfredo M. Colon and Twila Paris. The great needs of the USA pale in comparison. The scope of the need is so great it is exhausting to consider. And that is when one is most tempted to capitulate and try as best as one can to fit in—for the sake of being a little helpful.
But while no scripture is of private interpretation, no man can approach God and offer something with an uneasy conscience. The God of the Christian faith is hardly the God of those who capitulate, give up and fit in. And that is why the problem doesn’t worry me: the whole thing is too big for me, it is beyond the scope of my understanding and it is not something I can change though it is something I must resist.
The situation doesn’t obviate my need to understand it as much as possible, and it certainly doesn’t cancel my need to continue moving out of the darkness of ignorance and to grope around for other people to turn in the right direction, but the realization does release me from the superhuman responsibilities of an impossible situation. Our hope is not in the circumstances, but in the immutable promises of God.
People tend to ask, when they begin some of these realizations: What are we going to do? The answer is simple: you are going to be obedient no matter how hard it is. It is always the plight of finite creatures to be in over their heads, and it is always our responsibility to be faithful in everything. But perhaps what people mean when they ask this question is: What does that obedience look like?
It looks like the examined life: shrewd and harmless.
The examined life is difficult, but the unexamined life is not worth living. The gate is straight, the way is narrow, but for the few travelers on the way of personal obedience, there are no insurmountable obstacles. The department of transportation of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ does not build wide roads or easy roads, but it never allows obstacles to block the way forward. And that is why the problem no longer worries me, that is my consolation though I have a problem with which I must deal for the rest of my life. The way of obedience leads through the mountains of our age, but it leads to a worthwhile goal.