With irony as it relates to the United States, Edward Gibbon published in 1776 the first volume of his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, finishing his sixth and final volume in 1789, the year the U. S. Constitution was ratified. In this massive work, Gibbon offers an explanation for why Rome fell---the loss of civic virtue among its citizens, weakening the empire on the inside for defeat by a siege of barbarians. The chief virtue he believed lost was manliness, as effeminacy had become rampant among the men.
Nikita Khrushchev, the former Premier of the Soviet Union, said at the U.N. in 1957 in reference to the free world, "We will bury you without firing a shot." Someone could have made that statement and had the fall of the Roman empire in mind. The United States doesn't have to exist for God's will to be done. It is not God Who needs us, but we who need God. We show all the tell-tale signs of a nation that is deteriorating on the inside to the point of destruction.
These signs of American collapse warn of a comeuppance resulting from the church's compromise in the culture war. So far in this series I have contended that we have seen the demise of meaning and the undoing of understanding. I have offered reasons. What are other symptoms of a dying culture?
The Erosion of Discernment
Sometimes when I'm sitting in the dentist chair, the pop song, "Fillings," comes to mind. And then I think "feelings," because the song is actually "Feelings," written by Brazilian singer and songwriter Albert Morris in 1975, and probably represents best the degeneration of decision making in the last quarter century.(1) The world has long depended on feelings as means of discernment and now we call this dependence moral relativism, situational ethics, or existentialism, all of which have been rejected by orthodox Christians.
Protagoras (c. 481 – 420 BC) asserted that "man is the measure of all things." The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 – 420 BC) concluded that each society has regarded its own beliefs and practices as better than all others. Moral relativism says that truth or error are relative to each culture or even individual. Situational ethics determines whether an act is right or wrong based on its probable outcome. And then we have existentialism, which says that an individual's meaning of life comes from his own existence. In an existential reading of Scripture, the reader views the words as concepts that begin inside him and guide him so that the Bible is an authority only in a way that makes sense to the person. Solomon in Proverbs 14:12 recognized this as "a way that seems right unto man, but the end thereof are the ways of death."
Certain subjects considered science in academic settings---sociology and psychology---analyze existence. When theology gets its meaning from experience, now it receives the same academic acceptance as these other "sciences." Beliefs are separated from history and external objectivity and brought into the realm of man's feelings. Theology becomes how each individual or culture finds reality from external, spiritual experiences, each as legitimate as another. God is whatever or whoever discloses itself or himself to men through their own experiences. The meaning of Scripture is not rooted in historic statements of belief and practice, but from within each individual. The Bible becomes what it means to "me."
No one today should think that such subjective theology isn't dogmatic. Instead of the truths of Scripture themselves, toleration of all views has become the new conviction. Acceptance of what everyone else believes protects the church from criticism by the world. Many profess Christianity without living biblical values and with few being bothered that they aren't. What's important is comfort with the experience that one has in his religious community.
The bad man in this system is the one that stands up to say someone or something is wrong. He has violated the one indispensable---unity. Unity stands at the theological center of the new world of religious pluralism. And it really isn't unity. Unity comes from agreement. Unity gets along in particular beliefs. The new agreement, however, conforms in uncertainty. Whatever someone does believe he keeps personal and extraneous. Everyone is allowed to have their own ideas about God, the world, and themselves. As a result, there exists more diversity of theological positions than ever but with a deliberate decision that not one of them alone should be embraced. Adopted beliefs can only be preferences.
Discernment is the ability to decide between what is truth and error or right and wrong. The goal is simple, but it has changed. People still use discernment, and they use it to the same degree that someone chooses paper or plastic at the supermarket checkout. However, what matters is not whether something is right or wrong, but whether it is itself useful or not. Judging between right and wrong has become about discerning what is the most helpful to yourself and the criteria for judging is separated from any kind of objective standard. If you think it's good, it is, and if you think it'll help, it will. There isn't room for criticism, because there's no way it could be wrong, since it is dependent only on you and your opinion.
A few years back I was evangelizing door-to-door and talked to a charismatic man. I asked him about salvation and he gave me a testimony. I gave him a friendly, neutral response and proceeded to ask other questions. I asked him about eternal security. I asked him about sign gifts. He didn't like how the conversation was going, so he told me that he didn't sense the Holy Spirit coming from me. I asked why and he replied with something about unity and love. To him, for me to be loving and unifying, I needed to be tolerant and accepting of what he said. Upon his declaration of his experience, the conversation should have ended right there with my enthusiastic support. It didn't, so he discerned something to be wrong. The Bible wasn't his criteria; his feelings were.
To understand the erosion of discernment, we must also apprehend what is the cause of this deterioration. First, culture has redefined openness. Being open by definition means being ready to consider a new suggestion, idea, or opinion, while willingly exposing your own thoughts or work to some criticism or challenge. Openness has turned into a kind of indifference toward any one idea or opinion except for toleration. The chief virtue in the new openness is not thinking that our way is better than any other. In the new paradigm of openness, the less important the issue, the more dogmatic the opinion.
Second, society has required a new way of thinking about diversity. People are diverse. That's not hard to figure out. We're all different. The new thinking about diversity, however, needs more than acceptance that people are different. It requires toleration of those differences. A class to teach men to treat every kind of difference exactly the same is called diversity training. The only unacceptable difference is the one that doesn't accept every difference. For instance, I'm different than some people in that I reject homosexuality. That rejection would flunk the course in diversity training.
One obvious diversity is race. Look around. We have people with different colored skin. Not a new revelation to us. Of course diversity says we must not reject people just because of skin color. I accept that. That's not new. Many people never stopped accepting people despite different color skin and various textured hair. However, that's not all there is to it. This "diversity" also says that we must accept the preferences of other skin colors as well. However, skin pigmentation has nothing to do with personal preferences.
What makes the opinion of someone with a particular skin color an exalted opinion? I'll answer. Nothing. Why would being yellow or black or white make any difference as to the value of a preference? I'll answer again. It doesn't. But in the new world of diversity, certain opinions are often given greater value because the skin color of the one or ones who take those opinions. How could this kind of decision-making system be respected? It shouldn't but it sometimes is for very complicated reasons.
True openness should consider whether the values of another culture are acceptable or legitimate, based upon authoritative criteria. The United States has been a nation willing to consider the potential goodness or superiority of another way of living. They have accepted people from other continents often without prejudice. They have also allowed them to celebrate and practice their unique cultural heritage. Real openness does not require acceptance of the diverse manners in which various people behave. It does allow for fair judgment based on objective standards.
If I see an American Indian do a native dance with pom-poms and a loin cloth, I should be allowed to reject his activity based upon what I believe. That should not be interpreted as hatred of him or of American Indian people. It is to say that we can judge a culture and decide that some parts of it are lesser than others. We can recognize diversity without having to judge the differences as equal in value.
This new diversity has degraded the ability to discern. It has already trained many not to judge at all. Others who have never viewed the world like this have become afraid to say what they think. The tragic irony is that our society at large is not open to someone who rejects another culture based on objective criteria. They now deduce that you must hate the person if you reject what he does and how he lives. It is no wonder that in such an environment, people will feel the freedom to live according to whatever moral standard they feel like.
I would like to report that this has not affected churches, but it has. Church leaders know that people now expect to have their behavior accepted without consequence. Someone may have his own view of a particular passage of Scripture that conforms to the kind of lifestyle that he wants to live, so in fitting with how the world judges differences, he wants the church to tolerate it. A church that doesn't relax their standards may be classified as unloving or bigoted. Many churches give in to the new understanding of diversity.
Third, actual discernment has been labeled a sin. If you judge someone for something he does, you'll be said to be committing the sin of judgmentalism. The dictionary says that "judgmental" means: "Inclined to make judgments, especially moral or personal ones." Being inclined to make judgments, especially moral ones, shouldn't be a sin. So what is wrong with being judgmental? Nothing. People just don't like to be judged, so they have maneuvered this particular activity over to the sin column. A person can actually be sinning and get away with it, but if he judges someone else's sin, he's being judgmental. He might not get away with that.
Fourth, the world is uncertain about a standard to judge. Popular sentiment has been allowed to determine what truth is and so truth has become a nebulous, oft changing commodity. At one time, strong, authoritative preachers would banish any doubt by their very demeanor. It was good to believe in something and stand by it. We've become much more nuanced. Now its better to be uncertain and come to truth by referendum. People are more comfortable cobbling together a consensus from varied viewpoints.
What I just described relates to the attack on meaning that I had referred to earlier. The founding fathers of the country only meant one thing when they wrote the consitution. They argued to come to the language that was written but once it was, they would make decisions based upon what it said. Over the years, the interpretation became less about the founder's intentions, but about what people wanted it to mean. Men have done the same thing with the Bible.
It's obvious that the goal with canonizing uncertainty is to broaden our minds and raise our level of tolerance. And if you do criticize another person's value system, it cannot be on biblical grounds or any authoritative basis period. We are not supposed to be shocked or notice the overtly self-destructive nature of aberrant subcultures. Then men are free to live like they want.
Truth itself by nature is antithetical. Biblical Christianity has been based upon that concept. The Bible is rational; it makes sense. If something contradicts it, it's untrue. The world needs men who embrace an antithetical worldview, a biblical mindset that answers questions of truth and morality in terms of black and white.
(1) Even Morris himself should have thought more about stealing "Feelings" from Louis Gaste, a French composer who wrote the song in 1956 and won the rights to it in a lawsuit in 1988.