Many periods in American history have been overshadowed with a dreadful gloom, times when no one could see any future except in some bleak and blighted misery.
Probably, the war between the states (known as the Civil War) is the foremost of these dire moments. The carnage and destruction of the war remains unparalleled in our history. Even greater casualties of that turning point were the cultural unity and hopefulness that sprang from the ratification of the Constitution less than a century before. A strong case can be made that the assassination of Lincoln was a crucial factor in restoring the sentiment of brotherhood in the nation.
Another well-known moment of strife on the psyche of the American was the Great Depression. During the vaunted reign of FDR, unemployment never fell below ten percent, and for a significant portion of his time in office, unemployment was over twenty percent. Leaving aside the causes of all this (as that is the general focus for those studying the depression), it can be said that the average wage-worker felt his chances in life devastated. Alternatively, most of American history has been packed with hopefulness, even in the ranks of the destitute, the poor, the immigrant who owns only himself and his clothes. In America, upward mobility has given hope to people who had none elsewhere in the world. So what happens when that candle of the American dream is extinguished in our nation?
There is one more significant example in recent history, but I will leave that for later.
For those who lived through these periods, the experience was almost apocalyptic in how it challenged their vision of the world. Nothing could ever be the same after that. After the war between the states, the division between people could kill hundreds of thousands and thoroughly raze the union. After the Great Depression, the economy was subject to instant culling at any moment. To this very day, people find enormous stashes of cash in their grandparent’s homes after the folks have passed away; twenties, fifties, and hundreds slipped into the pages of books or jammed into the corners of desks, because at any time, the banks may go under.
Among many reasons, one which made these events horrific was the slaying of the sense of hopefulness. Because of the havoc and turmoil, people lost sight of hope. It became only an dream brought about by the success of the time. If progress disappeared, so did the hope for future days.
In the past few years, such senses have become prominent once more. For the first time in more than half a century, people are credibly predicting that the generations following ours will have life worse off. These predictions happen throughout history, but what make them unique today are the cases that can be made to back up these predictions.
Culturally, America is more balkanized than it has ever been. Fiscally, her government is on the stark-raving end of madness. Religiously, most of the nation is somewhere between comfortably numb and spitting fire and brimstone on behalf of philosophical and moral relativism. Economically, the bureaucratization has fossilized a once-vibrant market economy. Technologically, the balance tips heavily toward maximizing unproductive entertainment. This is not to condemn entertainment; after all, my own preferred career relies on the consumption of entertainment. But all things in moderation!
Our addiction to instant gratification has actually damaged our society. As a basis, pleasure-seeking utilitarianism ends up chewing away the core of what is necessary in order to transmit values from one generation to the next. There has to be something besides pleasure-satisfaction, because pleasure itself is relative. So if we all base our lives on our relative preferences, as a whole, society becomes incoherent. To the libertarian, this may not be so awful. After all markets are often incoherent, and that’s generally not a problem at all.
But when society can’t determine what qualifies as human; hardly any justice can exist. Half of us believe that unborn babies are human and it is murder to jam medical instruments into their bodies to kill them. The other half are confident that nothing is human if it is attached with an umbilical cord, that it qualifies as a tumor or a parasite.
What about property rights? Surely, personal property isn’t under dispute, right? Oh, no. Marxism is alive and well in America, where many people encourage the abolition of private property (and have to exempt themselves, because even ideas are property).
Examples of these divisions are endless. I suppose what has prompted this gloomy analysis are a set of headlines I’ve seen in the past week. (This, this, this, and this and also this) For those who are interested, check out this History Channel documentary about zombies.
We have disjointed ourselves of absolutes because right and wrong also happen to make condemnation of some preferences. It is uncomfortable to say that one thing is right and another is wrong, in that those distinctions must necessarily transcend personal desires. But if we have no right and wrong, we also have no value, and stories of such horrifying and macabre anti-humanism surely are proof that modern atheistic-humanism has no answer for these things.
It is manifest absurdity to say that there is no transcendent moral authority, but that certain things remain morally wrong. The moment we assert value in human life, we also must identify within it some purpose. But if it’s all an accident, and purpose is that which is asserted by humans, then other humans may reject those rules and assert their own. What is truly wrong with someone eating someone else? What is wrong with someone killing their born or unborn child for being an inconvenience or just a bore? What is wrong with stealing from someone else? After all, the thief finds his return on investment worth the increased risk society has placed on stealing. It is almost senseless to assert there is something universally wrong with this, if it is indeed an evolutionary advantage to have no moral core.
We are living in times when enlightenment has brought about darkness. And different from the darkness we have seen in the past, this is a darkness that men embrace and revel in, not knowing the destruction it is bringing.
Many atheists are offended by the notion that one cannot know moral truth outside of the existence of God, and the Christian assertion has been consistent that moral truth is written even on the heart of the unbeliever. It also stands to reason, however, that intelligent man can talk himself into any vision of morality, so that what is written on his heart is inconsequential.
Clearly, some people believe themselves to be operating outside of the ‘herd morality’ and that they do so shows how they believe they are better off for it. In the grand scheme, their choices are only offensive to the average of opinions. If there were enough Ted Bundy’s, there would be no society at all, because everyone would feel utterly guiltless in the most horrific assaults on their fellow man.
The evolutionist may say, ah but then society must embrace some form of morality. Thus, Sam Harris insists that morality is defined as a trait which enhances the propagation of genetic codes. Alright, but a certain German once acted on scientific principles of the time, that certain phenotypical traits were best propagated when preserved from mixture with others. And who is anyone to say that such a thing is necessarily wrong rather than disadvantageous? If it were disadvantageous, fighting a war to stop the genocidal dictator would not have been necessary; his society would have expended itself.
If Harris’ idea is true, then genocide may sometimes be advantageous to a society and not morally wrong. Think the softened West is incapable of such barbarity? Then consider for a moment that maybe the unborn are human also and think of the millions killed for convenience. As a pro-life Christian, I don’t think abortion means the West needs to be destroyed, in fact I think it’s Christianity that has always made the West such a driving force in rooting out and abolishing abhorrent practices, abortion hopefully being one soon to go.
Perhaps it’s unfair to link these cases in the news to post-modern culture, but then post-modernism is all about relativity, so fairness is also a nonsensical idea. Post-modernism and multi-culturalism are two sides of the same cancer that plague the West. I am forced to find hope outside of humanity, because humanity repeatedly shows itself to be hopeless.
Maybe hearing it from a Christian sounds too biased. Consider the words of the late atheist Hobart Mauer who was a legend in his field before he committed suicide in his eighties;
“For several decades we psychologists have looked upon the whole matter of sin and moral accountability as a great incubus and we have acclaimed our freedom from it as epic-making. But at length we have discovered to be free in this sense, to have the excuse of being sick rather than sinful, is to also court the danger of becoming lost. In becoming amoral, ethically neutral, and free, we have cut the very roots of our being, lost our deepest sense of selfhood and identity. And with neurotics themselves, asking, “Who am I? What is my deepest destiny? And what does living really mean?”"
It’s a little worse than that. In becoming sick, rather than sinful, we embark upon a path of redefining what it means to be sick in the first place. Sin implies an absolute frame of reference, but psychological illness can become absolutely relative (pun intended to jab at the apologists for post-modernism). A man can be insane and fully functional. G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy makes the point that the man who is insane is not so because he lacks logic, but because he has used his logic too much. The man who believes himself a onion cannot be merely talked out of it.
Shutter Island illustrates that. *Spoiler Alert* In the movie, the main character turns out to have been deluding himself all along. He is insane and living with an alternate set of facts to avoid the horrible truth about what happened to his family. But seeing this, and remembering what happened to his family, he happily descends back into madness.
We cannot find any way to explain those moral truths we know exist, those which some people talk themselves out of. The only explanation for a moral core is that which our society has decided to abandon slowly, God. And abandoning this core we have lost any authority to say that anything is wrong. The only post-modern sin is to say that sin exists.