Monday, July 20, 2009

Bound to Nothing

Postmodern philosophy is finally starting to get personal. No doubt it has been personal for many for a long time, but I have largely managed to escape its grasp until now, always safely hiding in bureaucratic layers and protected locales. But now, it seems that every institution has accepted the poor idea that the person and the civil society need not be bound to anything, except for himself or itself. Power is in the hands of those who espouse relativist philosophy, and they are doing their best to legislate it or sell it across the board. One sees it most clearly in the courts, but it is also evident in the church and in the arts. It is no longer an ivory tower thought experiment; it is becoming policy and it's starting to hamper our way of life.

The hearings for potential Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor are perhaps the easiest example, and one I won't need to dwell on. One either sees the Constitution as the founding governmental document of this nation, and one then that must be interpreted as the framer's intended...or not. The "originalist" position is the only valid interpretation of the Constitution in the same way that the only valid way to interpret your home mortgage is by the original terms of the deal. Yet, Sotomayor is a typical product of the "social justice" school of thought that pervades and animates academia, which essentially argues that the "social good" must be brought about whether it complies with the law or not. Social equality and "fairness" then allow for an alteration of the deal, the concept of the "living and breathing" contract, or Constitution.

So the justice is bound to nothing, but his or her understanding of what is socially fair and just. Others have commented on the paradoxical nature of this construct, but as obvious as it seems to me, others seem incapable of understanding that preferential treatment for one group necessarily comes at the expense of another. Or, as a 4-year-old might understand it, two wrongs don't make a right. But now that she will likely be the next Supreme Court Justice (and sounding more conservative than John Roberts in the process), preferential treatment apart from the law could become a frequent pattern of law. Relativism will be legislated, at the expense of justice.

In a more local level for me, my denomination (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) has spent the better part of the last decade discussing and debating the role of openly homosexual clergy in the life of the church. As one might expect, this is a highly polemic issue that, even though nothing has officially been decided, has effectively split the church into two camps. As an official vote looms in August, those that refuse to bind themselves to the church catholic, the scriptures, or even the tradition, may hold my future in their hands. Along with thousands of other clergy, I may be in the position of either staying in a denomination that departs from 2,000 of orthodoxy (but it sure is "prophetic!") or leaving to smaller fringe groups that also largely fail to represent the church catholic. (Please note that this is not a political issue, one in which I am fairly libertarian. The Chruch and state having different binding documents when dealing with this issue.)

There is even a distinct possibility that my future will lie outside the church in what's left of the business world simply because there will be no place to go. It is possible that even if the ELCA survives, it will be a shell of its former self, and will have done nothing with this decision to stop the steady decline of membership. Indeed, why should the laity be faithful to a denomination that is not faithful to its own principles because it defends "the bound conscience?" The ELCA is like a host of protestant denominations that has stopped seeing itself as bound, and has started seeing itself as a social justice playground. Only now it's not a pipedream of seminary professors; it will be a vote for the church, a vote that may tear the denominations apart.

The evangelical churches may fare no better, but for different reasons. In a similar effort to be relevant, big box megachurches have played to the culture, responding to "felt needs" at the expense of the gospel. They are equally bound to the whims of what consumers want out of churches, or at least what consumers say they want. In the long run, it will cost them dearly. Megachurches in some form or another are here to stay, but they cannot possibly live up to their own expectations, nor can they proclaim the truth, because they have not been disciplined enough to refrain from culture's influence. Even though these are the sorts of churches that tend to complain the most about pop culture, they have been corrupted by it.

A few weeks ago, I visited Savannah, GA. While there, I perused their local magazine, The South, and I found what I consider to be a rather typical example of an artist's profile. While the artist clearly has good technical skills, I did not discern a great deal of depth in her approach. More to the point, the driving force of her artwork was geared towards a deconstructionist mindset. The artist was predictably at odds with Christianity and vexed over our overuse of the earth's resources. Her most powerful images and themes were borrowed from Christianity and the "green" sentiment so popular in her circles. Simply putting the two together seemed to create meaningful art.

I highlight this simply as a way of saying that this is representative of the art that dominates the landscape, art that is boringly against traditions of all shapes and sizes. The artists of my generation have bought into the myth that they have enough to express within themselves that they need not be bound to any other authority. That's not to say, of course, that all art should be religious, but it is ironic that a use of religious imagery that wasn't sarcastic would be the rebellious act by today's standards. (This article is an excellent commentary on the end of art.)

All of these are snippets that speak of how we are moving further and further from a hold of something. While fundamentalists cling too strongly to their doctrines in some parts of the world, we are often in full-scale retreat, bound to nothing lasting and nothing permanent. We want to shed restrictions on our own ambition. But in the process, we are leaving things worse for the next generation. We are encouraging a fundamentally childish ethos, and we shouldn't be surprised when it starts to affect us personally. It has for me.

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