Anglican Perspectives

The Question of our Day

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

by Adam J. MacLeod

What is a human being? That is the most important question of our day. If we do not answer that question then our neighbors cannot access the Gospel. Ignorance of human nature prevents people from understanding the good ends for which we are created, and therefore from understanding actions and habits that destroy those ends, and therefore from understanding sin, and therefore from understanding the Gospel.

Ignorance of human nature also extinguishes within people the desire to see God. God made us to bear the embodied form of the Source of all goodness. Insofar as the original design of human beings is to bear God’s likeness on earth and to co-order all of creation with Him, to be human is to reveal within the four dimensions of time and space what God is like and what he does. Our neighbors don’t care to recognize God when he acts in the world unseen because they have not learned to recognize his image and agency in the person standing before them, whom they can see. This is not only because Christians often behave badly but also because our neighbors are functional determinists and subjectivists who cannot understand rational agency to create and order for the good.

The gospel has no purchase in our culture in large part because it is unintelligible to most of those around us. True, we live in a depraved time, and the Gospel grows no roots in stony hearts. But the Gospel no longer even gets as far as the heart. The more immediate problem is that the Gospel does not penetrate past eyes blinded by determinism and ears deafened by subjectivism. No one will respond to the offer of salvation who believes that he has nothing to be saved from, who thinks of himself as a meaty machine driven by his genes to satisfy as many of his desires as he can before his existence fades into nonexistence. No one will seek after his maker who does not know his own nature, nor that it is originally good.

We must rebuild knowledge of human nature if we want the Gospel to make sense.

Questions and Answers

Unfortunately, the problem is even more fundamental than the question itself. For the young people around us, the question also is unintelligible. The possibility of answers to questions generally is nonsense. Language and logic are meaningless. Reason does not reveal order because all order is made up of social constructs, fabricated by the powerful to establish discursive regimes that exclude and discriminate anyone not like them.

We must rebuild the very idea of knowledge of truth before we can rebuild knowledge of human nature, before we can hope that the Gospel will make sense, much less be attractive. We have so much work to do. And the hour is so, so late.

Over the last generation or so, the faithful bishops and clergy of the Anglican communion have been fighting a pitched battle in defense of the authority of Scripture. They won the battle and lost the war. Don’t get me wrong: the battle was well worth fighting and it was courageously fought. But it was not fought on all necessary fronts. While holding the line at the historicity and reliability of the Bible, our leaders seem not to have noticed that the post-structuralists and post-moderns who dominate our universities and cultural institutions outflanked us and captured the higher ground without which the authority of scripture cannot be held. Scripture has no meaning if language, logic, history, tradition—even reason itself—are all tools of hegemonic oppression designed to exclude and discriminate. That is what our young people have been taught, and we have not bothered to counteract their nihilistic education. By ceding the ground of reason in order to defend the ground of faith, the church has rendered both faith and reason untenable.

The Way Forward

If we will simply fight the battle that is being waged right now – at this very moment – then we cannot lose. The enemy has taken human rationality. We can and must claw back that ground. If we insist on fighting for ground that has already been scorched and salted then we cannot win.

The church seems determined always to fight the last battle, the one she had already lost before she began fighting. The lights are being extinguished around us and, extrapolating from experience, I fully expect that ours will be snuffed out as well. But I pray for you nonetheless because I believe that God has no obligation to give us advance notice of His movements; He can show up any time He wants. And I pray that my feeble words will help you to understand a small measure of the depths and power of the darkness around us, and that the way out is to run toward the darkest place, the ground where the enemy is even now digging his trenches.

First, we must retake the ground that the enemy is working so hard to defend, the point from which flows human rationality and thus what is distinctively good and God-like within human nature. The possibility that truth exists and that we can know it is epistemically prior to the possibility that human beings have an essential nature, which is prior to knowledge of sin, which is prior to the possibility of redemption. We must reestablish the possibility of order and essence so that knowledge can point to truth and goodness and beauty, and not merely toward power and exploitation and oppression.

Second, having restored the efficacy of the mind to know what is true, we must answer the question that burns in the heart of everyone around us: What am I? The good news is that young people today are desperate to know their identity. And we, of course, know the answer.

Third, having restored the office of reason to know the truth and having revealed the image of God in the essence of human nature, we can point back to scripture and the promise that our nature corrupted by sin can be restored. The Gospel will make sense. Forgiveness of sins will be attractive.

  1. There is Truth to Know

Though few of our neighbors have read Hume, Bentham, Marcuse, Foucault, or Derrida, most of our neighbors are either functional subjectivists or functional post-structuralists. Roughly, those over the age of 40 believe what Hume and Bentham taught, that what is most essential to human nature is the satisfaction of passions, desires, and appetites, and that the office of reason is to discern the most efficient way to achieve those satisfactions. Those under the age of 40 believe what the post-structuralists taught, that there is no essence to human nature (or to anything else), that everything which presents as order is in fact made up of discursive regimes constructed by the powerful (especially heterosexual, Christian, white men) to prevent everyone else from instantiating their lived experience in the world where experience must be ratified by others in order to become real.

One does not need a sophisticated, technical understanding of these ideologies in order to perceive their obvious weak points. At bottom, they defeat themselves. They are, in the words of the late Joseph Boyle, performatively self-refuting. They deny that there is any fixed, objective truth for reason to know even while they insist that you should know and accept the fixed, objective truth that there is no such truth.

The way to defeat these ideologies is to go on offence against them. Put them to the burden of proof. Reveal their incoherence. Challenge their terms and assumptions at every step. Because they locate reality in subjective desire and lived experience, they cannot hope to bear the burden of making their own case.

We must stop accepting the premises of Humean and Foucaultian skepticism. We must reject those premises. Truth is true for everyone. And truth is good for everyone.

Do not accept that there are human identities other than Being Created in the Image of God and Being Remade in God’s Image By His Grace. Do not accept the ideas of “heterosexual” and “homosexual.” Do not accept “my truth” and “worldview,” as if Christianity were one socially-constructed worldview among many. Do not accept “lived experience” and “beliefs.” Experience and belief are valuable only insofar as they point toward the knowledge of truth. Do not accept “gender identity,” nor “systemic racism.” Affirm the equal and inherent dignity of all human beings, who alike are created in the image of God, and are made different and complementary, male and female, as rational, embodied, eternal souls.

2. Human Beings are Rational, Embodied, Eternal, Ensouled Animals

There is a huge market for the Christian answer to the question, What is man?. The young people whom I teach are trammeled in post-structuralism. Some of them are angry and self-righteous because they believe that wicked ideology; they find it intoxicating and empowering. They are angry that we refuse to affirm the supremacy of their revealed identities. But most young people are not angry. They are anxious. They feel the absence of essence as a burden. They think they must constitute their own identities out of their lived experiences, and they are painfully aware that their lived experiences do not supply what they need to fabricate a meaningful identity. Furthermore, they are terrified that their unforgiveable social sins will find them out.

For most young people, the most basic truths about human nature would be welcome news. They desperately want to know what they are. To them, the gospel would be an understanding of their given nature and the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.

Animal Nature: Young people already know that they are enslaved to their passions and appetites. To see that they share this nature with the animals is to begin to see that God originally designed our desires to lead us to the good.

Embodied Nature: To learn that maleness and femaleness are gifts of God designed into our bodies is to begin to reconnect those raging, inconstant feelings with the good order that God designed into us from the beginning, and to understand how sin corrupts that good order. And to learn that we are finite beings with limited abilities and time is to be relieved of the impossible burdens to constitute ourselves and to save the world. 

Rational Nature: To understand that what sets us apart from the animals is our reason—our ability to know what is good and right to do—is to begin to understand the law written on our hearts, the natural law, and to know how we are all alike in dignity and inherent worth, despite our various differences. To perceive that reason is God’s gift to rule the passions and to direct us to the good is to see that we have the means of freedom, that the source and center of our inherent, uniquely-human dignity is God’s gift to lead us to fulfilment, and ultimately to Him.

Eternal Ensouled Nature: To perceive that a life of true happiness is a life lived not moment by moment but rather from the perspective of the end of life, judged by reference to those good ends that reason discerns and points toward, is to see that we transcend time, that we were made not to live always within time, and that our true identities are revealed only from an eternal perspective.

3. The Gospel Can Make Sense Again

With rationality and human nature re-established on the high ground of human understanding, we will be in a position to share the Gospel. And our neighbors will be able to understand and receive it. But not until then.

Adam J. MacLeod is Professor of Law at Faulkner University and Research Fellow of the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy. He has been a fellow at Princeton University and George Mason University and a special Deputy Attorney General of Alabama. He has published more than one hundred articles, essays, and reviews, and has authored or co-edited four books, the most recent being The Age of Selfies, Reasoning About Rights When the Stakes Are Personal.

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