Monday, February 20, 2023

Despair… and a Way Forward

“Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us."

-          Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas


The world where freedom of religion, let alone freedom of speech, is now regarded by some (many?) as a problem for a free society rather than a basic foundation of the same is indeed a strange new world.

Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman

Freedoms once considered self-evident – religion and speech – now must be destroyed, apparently, to save them.  Yes, you say, regarding speech – we heard just this said on capitol hill by the former Twitter execs.  They had to destroy free speech to save it.

But no one is destroying religion to save it, you say – they don’t want to save it, only destroy it.  This, however, is incorrect, as there will always be religion.  Just not the one you have grown to cherish.  They must destroy your religion in order to save theirs.  And their religion is the religion that Trueman has described in his book.

In this new religion, your traditional rights must end where my expressive individualism begins.  Practically defining expressive individualism in the most succinct manner, Justice Anthony Kennedy would write, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992):

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Individuals have the right to define for themselves their identity…and more.  In this single sentence, the road to the end of traditional freedoms was made clear.  If each has the right – the right at the heart of liberty – to create their own…everything (even the concept of the universe?), then any encroachment on their self-generated definitions is to be considered a violation of their rights.  They have property rights in whatever they feel about themselves to be true; this is expressive individualism.

Tolerance was never going to be enough; to tolerate someone is to disapprove of them but allow their continued existence.  Recognition, in the old-fashioned sense, was never going to be enough; it now must mean to affirmation.  Equality was never going to be enough; superiority and dominance is the objective. 

Turning these concepts on their head was always the objective.  This can be seen in Herbert Marcuse, and his essay Repressive Tolerance:

This essay examines the idea of tolerance in our advanced industrial society. The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed.

How to achieve this end?

…it must begin with stopping the words and images which feed this consciousness. To be sure, this is censorship, even pre-censorship, but openly directed against the more or less hidden censorship that permeates the free media.

It always had to result in a loss of freedom of speech, and, therefore, inherently, a loss of freedom of religion. 

Returning to Trueman.  If we are, as Justice Kennedy wrote, free to create our own reality about ourselves and even the universe, then anything that stands in the way – whether thought, word, or deed – is a violation of rights.  Pronouns and wedding cakes are legitimate cause for confrontation, as those who do not use my preferred pronouns or bake a cake for my alphabet soup wedding are violating my property rights in my imagined self. 

A Christian objects to homosexuality as a set of sexual practices.  But this is irrelevant.  To object is a denial of the gay man as a person – his person has been erased.  One cannot hate the sin but love the sinner – the sin is the identity of the sinner.  The two cannot be separated.

…in a world where inner psychology dominates how we think of ourselves, then feelings too become very important in how we conceptualize harm.

Which is why restricting religious views is a subset of the bigger desire to restrict speech.  And here, another supreme court ruling is relevant – with ramifications that may or may not have been intended, nevertheless are coming into play. 

In Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), it was ruled that speech likely to cause imminent lawless action was not protected.  How might this be applied when one has the right to invent and reinvent one’s self continuously, and to not affirm another in their invention is a violation of their rights – even to be considered violent? 

When violence moves from the physical and financial to the psychological…everything changes.

When the words said effect the psychological condition of another, this is violence.  Such speech is the lawless action; the lawless action is inherent in the speech.

The existence of the traditional Christian is a threat to the person who identifies as transgender; the person who teaches Western civilization is a threat to the person whose identity is framed by the repudiation of the colonialist past.

And such threats cannot be tolerated.  They are, or soon enough will be, illegal.  Which leads to a quote by Heinrich Heine:

"Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings."

Trueman concludes his book with the recognition that the narrative he has told is a somewhat depressing one for traditional Christians.   What, then, is to be done?  First, Trueman notes: face our complicity in the expressive individualism of the day. 

He offers an example that makes clear the reality that every Christian in the West is, in a manner, Protestant.  We are each free to attend any type of church – all forms of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches are available to almost all Christians.  It is, if you will, a manner of expressing our individualism.

We go to the church that makes us feel good, or that doesn’t stress us too much.  In other words, where our felt needs are met.  We are more concerned with how the church makes us feel than how well the church conforms to Biblical issues that might makes us feel…uncomfortable.

Do we look back to the Reformation for the model that offers the solution to our time?  The high Middle Ages in the Western Church?  The synergy of the Eastern Church?  No.  Trueman suggests we look back to the first and second century Church, a time when the Church was also the outlaw, the persecuted minority.  A time when Christianity was a marginalized sect, little understood, considered immoral and seditious. 

Eating the body and blood of their god and calling each other “brother” and “sister” even when married made Christians and Christianity sound highly dubious to outsiders.

And claiming Jesus as Lord!  Not the words a Roman Caesar would want to have spoken in his empire.   All of this is much more akin to our time than going back to the most triumphant periods of the eastern or western Churches.

In this earliest of churches, community was central to church life.  Christians cared for and served each other.  Identity was shaped by these communities.  The church was the strongest community in which Christians belonged. 

Christians talk of engaging the culture, but the culture was most dramatically engaged in the earliest centuries by presenting it with another culture.

The church protests the wider culture by offering a true vision of what it means to be a human being made in God’s image. 

It wasn’t a negative argument regarding their enemies; it was a positive argument regarding Christians and Christianity. 

Which brings me to Trueman’s final recommendation.  But a few pages before he gets there, he writes:

…we [Christians] can become so preoccupied with specific threats that we neglect the important fact that Christian truth is not a set of isolated and unconnected claims but rather stands as a coherent whole.  The church’s teaching on gender, marriage, and sex is a function of her teaching on what it means to be human.

Which got me to scream, “natural law.”  But why doesn’t Trueman say it?  Patience, I would come to learn.  A few pages later, he devotes a section to what he calls “Natural Law and the Theology of the Body,” writing that the church needs to recover this idea.

So what is natural law?  Put simply, it is the idea that the world in which we live is not simply morally indifferent “stuff” but possesses in itself a moral structure.

As I have commented elsewhere, natural law is the integration of the physical world and the world of Christian values.  It is also necessary, as I have written here, as a foundation for liberty and necessary as the solution to the meaning crisis (itself a result of the belief that the world and everything in it, including us, is made up of simply morally indifferent “stuff”).

Human beings are made to flourish in some specific ways, and not in others.  We recognize this in many aspects of life – for example, we cannot fly under our own strength.  Natural law merely extends such realities beyond the physical to the moral.  When it comes to sex, well…the form and nature of the male and female body make obvious the purpose of each. 

Why does Trueman introduce this idea of natural law?  He sees it as an important part of the pedagogical strategy within the church itself.  In other words, we need not present various moral issues as merely commands from on high.  In the design of creation, answers can be found:

Does God forbid homosexuality simply because he is a mean tyrant?  Is it just that he does not want my gay friends to be happy?

Natural law offers another, rather obvious, set of answers to such questions.


This ends my work on Trueman’s book.  He offers an interesting narrative as to how the events of the fall we are living in are connected.  Why it is that the fall had to come to completely destroy every traditional notion of what it meant to be a man or a woman and how the two are meant to live; why this had to result in an attack on both traditional Christianity and freedom of speech.

Most interesting to me: in addition to his other recommendations for attending to our community in our local church and our surroundings, he ended on the need to teach, understand, and practice natural law ethics. 

The road to recovery for both our liberty and for offering meaning in life must pass through a regaining of natural law ethics.  It certainly will, eventually, as natural law cannot be violated indefinitely: either men will teach it and live it, or it will violently and ruthlessly defend itself.

God doesn’t have to actively punish fallen societies.  He built the mechanism of punishment into His creation.  We appear to be destined for a time that this will, once again, be so.


  1. That's great to hear another touting natural law as the answer. I got to teach the men in my church the concept last year. I will get a chance to teach again this summer. Another connection I am seeing is that the spiritual and physical worlds have lots of parallels. I think you made a similar point too. When talking about humans natural law applies to our bodies, morals, but also theology or the spiritual realm. I think Christians can better understand each by comparing and contrasting the order on both sides. Great stuff.

    1. RMB, have you written anything about your experience teaching natural law? I recall you saying that you would be teaching, but I don't recall seeing any posts where you discussed the experience.

      I think it might be worthwhile to hear how you prepared, how it was received, what types of objections you faced, what points hit home well, etc. Also, something about the audience - how familiar were they with the concepts, etc.?

    2. The first century church was Eastern Orthodoxy with dogma established by the first 7 Ecumenical councils. The Liturgy of the EO church hasn’t changed in 2000 years. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches cannot say the same. The Orthodox church knows full well the early history of Christianity and the persecution of the early followers. We commemorate martyrs and higher martyrs at every Liturgy.

    3. The first seven councils did not occur in the first century. Therefore, your first sentence is historically inaccurate.

      On its face, your second sentence is false, as nothing like today's EO liturgy was practiced in Acts - the earliest Church. Further, the claim that there have been no changes in 2000 years is also historically inaccurate. Having now read of the history preceding Chalcedon, there was much that was in disagreement in the early Church. From which thread of the earliest Church are you claiming continuity? Which EO liturgy today is the same as was practiced in Antioch AND Alexandria AND Constantinople AND Rome?

      It is statements such as yours that convince me that many EO commenters are more full of pride and arrogance than they are of historical knowledge. These are just mantras, repeated over and over until the brain has been washed.

      I find today's Orthodox liturgy to be beautiful. Yet, many online EO apologists continually work to ruin the experience for me.

    4. Don't even get me started on EO's ecclesiology which is wholly, completely wrecked. Don't get me started on Rome's ecclesiology--the Pope as the head of the Intergalactic Church--either. Nobody is going to be successful appealing to the tradition at this point; the conditions that forged the tradition no longer exist. Bruce Charlton argues that the Churches have frankly failed the litmus tests and are wholly captured at the hiearchical level.

      At the same time, I am skeptical of returning to what I call the Church Juvenile (versus the Church Militant). I don't think we should retreat into the catacombs which is the vibe I get from a lot of writers on this topic. Rather, we should build safe spaces to be Christians and raise families, and exercise what power we can avail ourselves of to do it. But we probably agree on this point.

    5. If these people really believed that each of us has a right to define one's own concept of existence and meaning and the universe, and were willing to apply it CONSISTENTLY in their everyday lives, then they would not be causing so many problems in our society. But they don't really believe it. They are pretending. They want to deceive us. They are only looking for a way to impose their "religion" on everyone else.

    6. AG: "Rather, we should build safe spaces to be Christians and raise families, and exercise what power we can avail ourselves of to do it. But we probably agree on this point."

      Yes, we do.

    7. Bionic, I didn't write anything about teaching natural law but I did put my presentation on my blog. I think you commented briefly on it.

      The audience was 15-20 Christian men who had never heard of natural law before. But they probably had heard terms like created order or God's design.

      I didn't get much feedback. What I heard was positive. They were interested. One person asked how the gospel fit into it, since natural law is all about correct action. It could be confused with legalism or works righteousness. I address that at the end of the presentation. Here is the link for a reminder.

      I will teach 1 Corinthians 12 in July and hope to add a short section connected to natural law by comparing the similarity of spiritual relationships to economic relationships. There is a lesson on natural law in their somewhere.

    8. RMB, I don't remember seeing this but I must have - as you said, I commented on it...fewer brain cells every year, I think.

      It really is a very good outline.

    9. I had a couple of minutes to introduce prayer time today and said the following.

    10. My pastor said that I got my politics into it. I said, yes. As long as it is Biblical that's a good thing.