“My life has meaning because of the Cause. You oppose the Cause. You must submit or be destroyed.”
— Modern/postmodern ideological moralism
I posted that status after reading a little section toward the end of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self on Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis about the modern demand of benevolence. Nietzsche offers one of the most insightful examinations of how the modern idea that humanity must maintain goodwill toward all—“a secularized agape,” especially apart from the context of grace—can provoke feelings either of unworthiness or self-satisfaction in the human soul. Basically, the options are despair or smug self-satisfaction depending on how well you think you measure up to the standard.
Taylor goes on to analyze one further implication Nietzsche left unexplored:
The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward; the bad, the failure, is now identified with other people or groups. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated. This becomes particularly virulent on the extremes of the political spectrum, in a way which Dostoevsky explored to unparalleled depths.
In our day as in his, many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable and even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoevsky’s Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bare the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism. (516-517)
Taylor penned these words almost 25 years ago, but I read them and couldn’t help but think of my own generation and the one coming after us. It’s pretty common to either idolize or demonize our moral sense; we’re supposedly either relativists or morally superior activists. I’d say there’s quite a bit of both. And one “ist” I’d certainly add to the list is “moralists.”
Pick a hot subject (gay marriage, the environment, healthcare, and so on) and scroll through your Facebook feed to find someone updating vociferously on the subject, trumpeting his position and damning the opposition in bold, apocalyptic terms. It’s not just that people are wrong, confused, and perhaps in need of correction; no, they’re downright wicked. As younger generations increasingly identify as “nones” (no religious affiliation), it’s not that they have no moral or spiritual bearings, just that they find them elsewhere.
It’s increasingly popular to eschew any explicit religious system and take that bearing from the reigning “Causes” linked to the benevolence demands of the day (“love,” “justice,” “equality”). This is why our political skirmishes aren’t just about the issues. They’re about a much-deeper justification of the Self. If I’m defined, say, by my healthcare position and corresponding self-image as a moral, caring (or pragmatic and free) person, then when I argue with you, I’m defending my raison-d’etre. You don’t simply have a different opinion on a subject; you threaten my very being.
What’s more, if supporting this Cause is what makes me righteous and pure, your opposition demonstrates your impurity and wickedness, possibly even your inhumanity. You must be opposed, hopefully only through argument. But if you persist in your perversity, other stronger means of enforcement may need to be employed. This is modern/postmodern ideological moralism.
None of this moralism is new, of course. Postmodern thinkers have been describing the way we construct such oppositional identities for years. What’s interesting today, though, is how this sort of logic works out in the lives of my peers and contemporaries. Of course, posting aggressive memes on Facebook isn’t exactly coercion or fanatic violence, but the language used and, at times, the political measures advocated by partisans verges on it. Ideological self-justification is alive and well.
The Gospel of the Cross and the Grace to Disagree
Christians reading this analysis might be tempted to take it as a simple condemnation of secularists, saying, “See, look what happens when you don’t have God.” Perhaps, but that problem doesn’t let religious believers off the hook. As a friend of mine observed, this is simply the logic of Holy War, sublimated and secularized. Again, we see how the whole dichotomy of “religious” versus “secular” breaks down at the functional level. Get rid of God and something else fills the existential vacuum. At this point secularists are only doing what religious people, including “Christians,” have done with their gods for years.
Actually, this observation should prompt Christians to examine where we’re getting our sense of self, our purity, and our wholeness. Is it from the righteousness of our moral positions? Or from the righteousness we have in Christ by grace apart from our moral achievements? If the former, we’re in the same boat as secularists. If the latter, we’re positioned to disagree, even forcefully, without our entire sense of self feeling threatened. Even if others oppose us not only on moral issues but actually set themselves in vocal opposition to Christianity itself, how can we look on them as totally different from ourselves? For is this not precisely who we were apart from God’s condescending grace—enemies of God in need of redemption (Rom. 5:6-11)? And are we not secure no matter what accusation or charge is brought against us (Rom. 8:30-39)?
In short, there’s a visible, practical difference we observe in the lives of those who trust in the Christian gospel as opposed to those who merely subscribe to its morals. Indeed, unless you believe the former you won’t be able to practice the core of the latter—the command to love our enemies the way Christ has loved us. Moralism—secular or “religious”—can only lead to demonizing the enemy. And only the gospel of grace can lead us to the true benevolence that moralism fumblingly strives toward.