By Ryan Poe
Rolling down the road, I recently listened to the podcast of a liberal Episcopalian minister with whom I’m acquainted. Instead of his usual live discussion on a religious topic, always with a crowd of local millennials, he’d brought in a woman to sing an old “gospel standard” titled “May the work I’ve done.” The song tells of the Christian making a case for leniency before God’s judgment seat: “May the work I’ve done, my Lord, speak for me,” she sang to the piping of a nearby organ, her voice filling the old church that once hosted Martin Luther King Jr.
I disagree with the song’s premise: I hate to think my works, not Jesus’ death, will speak for me when I die. But I don’t think the hushed crowd of 20-somethings had in mind the age-old debates over grace and works. Their attitude toward doctrine, summed up in a phrase, seems to be, “So what?” We’re used to thinking of these millennials as postmodern and even as post-Christian, but the church hasn’t quite gotten its head around the idea that they’re post-doctrine.
Living in a post-doctrine society carries all kinds of implications for the church. But a major implication is the growing popularity of a type of social justice that’s more social than just. The younger set of Christians seems to care more about societal salvation than eternal salvation.
Denigrating social justice — the go-to response for many conservatives — is an easy but ultimately fruitless response to the problem. But social justice isn’t a new idea or a bad one. In our small way, we at Theology+Now also hope to make society more just.
However, when I say “social justice,” I mean the society conformed to the commandments of God. If we take God at his word, we are living in his creation. And that means everything in creation belongs to God and should agree with God’s laws. Therefore, justice is ultimately the satisfaction of the great law-giver. And this means sin — rebellion to God — is the ultimate injustice. This isn’t a new view. This is the whole basis of our understanding of Jesus’ death: God poured out his retribution for our unjust rebellion on Christ on the cross.
But social justice means something entirely different to many of these passionate young left-leaning Christians. For them, as for much of our secular culture, “social justice” no longer means the society ordered per God’s word but the society ordered per autonomous liberty. By social justice our culture means the freedom to do what you want, when you want, with whom you want — as long as you don’t encroach on another person’s autonomy.
In other words, the foundation for modern social justice theory is the individual rather than God. Consider this random blog post at Patheos:
To put it briefly, I start with the axiomatic observation that my own suffering is a bad thing, something to be reduced and avoided. Critical thinking and empirical experience inform me that that other sentient beings experience their lives in a way similar to that which I do. Their suffering is similar to mine, and is therefore also something to be reduced and avoided.
Our culture is now suffering the consequences of this redefinition of justice, especially in the areas of marriage and gender. What once was up is now down. This same group of millennials mentioned earlier recently had a “reproductive justice” Bible study every bit as horrific as it sounds, that ended with the antinomian conclusion that because God wants us to be happy he doesn’t really mind if we disobey his scriptural commandments.
Here’s my theory: I believe the modern social justice movement is a postmodern twist on the Enlightenment. If we grasp this, we can more clearly see where our culture is headed.
The French Enlightenment thinker René Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”) triggered a radical new way of thinking about knowledge, one that made reason the alpha and omega. His personal theistic beliefs notwithstanding, Descartes’ thought experiment presupposed reason as the law-giver. In short, the individual dethroned God as the “I AM.”
This gave rise to what Philip Rieff in his The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966) called the “psychological man,” whose features include an “anxious Protestant heart” and “open Enlightenment eyes.” Psychological man turned inward in his search for happiness — “a response to an absent God.” He redefined sin as a psychological issue and allowed himself to hope in psychological salvation. But, as Rieff pointed out, even Sigmund Freud’s more moderate stance couldn’t avoid the boredom of rationalism: “Psychological man may be going nowhere, but he aims to achieve a certain speed and certainty in going.”
After briefly swinging the other direction, into emotionalism during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, our culture has arrived at its present postmodern situation of disillusionment.
Today, our culture has largely discarded psychoanalysis after realizing pharmaceutical drugs can cure many of the problems we once assigned to psychology. In other words, our problems are external, not internal. Notice this tectonic shift in thinking about sin. In rejecting God, the Enlightenment made sin a rational problem; in rejecting psychoanalysis, the postmodern world made sin a social problem. And if sin is a social problem, then salvation comes from society.
And this brings us back to the modern social justice movement. In our society, justice means giving people what they’re due — which broadly translates into rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with seeking justice in society. The problem is who defines justice. As long as we cling to the Enlightenment belief that we are the law-givers, our social justice will eventually turn into injustice. In the name of justice, babies will die, successful business owners will lose their businesses and society will ignore underlying issues of gender identity, among other issues.
In George MacDonald: An Anthology, C.S. Lewis quotes the old English preacher and author as saying, “The one principle of hell is — ‘I am my own!’” Lewis puts this quote under the heading “Hell,” perhaps intentionally pushing us further down the rabbit hole of MacDonald’s meditation. We tend to think of hell as a punishment — and that’s true. But maybe hell is also God giving the reprobate mind exactly that for which it has longed since Adam: utter self-possession. Perhaps the reprobate would set foot in hell only to have his cry of “I am my own!” die on his lips in the realization that he truly is on his own, eternally without love or kindness or beauty or purpose or anything that makes life worth living. A place forsaken by God is a nightmare realm.
Even if this theory of hell isn’t true, we know that in this universe the further away we get from the sun, the darker and colder become our worlds — and the same is true of our lives, the further we get from God. The closer we get to realizing the statement “I am my own,” the further away from God we drift into the vast and empty nothingness.
We expect this infatuation with the material in secular rationalists. But this misunderstanding of the foundation of authority and justice — let’s call it materialistic spirituality — is infecting the younger generation of Christians as well.
A recent cultural example is Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence (2016) based on the Japanese novel by Shusaku Endo. Near the end of the film, which is set during heavy persecution of Christians by the Japanese government, Fr. Sebastien Rodrigues has been captured and tortured and told to trample on a fumie, an image of Christ. In the movie’s climax, God breaks his silence and tells Rodrigues in a buttery calm voice that he wants to be trampled on to ease our pain. So, Rodrigues gives in and steps on the fumie, denying Christ and in the process saving himself and the lives of several captured Christians.
The assumption of the movie and of our culture is that loss of life — our greatest material possession — is the greatest evil, greater even than denying Christ. In contrast are the thousands of Christian martyrs through the centuries that chose hurt, torture, death even — all because they knew that the idea that nothing could separate them from the love of God was a two-way street. God will not abandon us — and we should not abandon God.
The path offered up in Silence isn’t new: Faust was dickering with Mephistopheles, trading his soul for material joys, long before. Only now, we think denying God is a good thing, a commendable option — what Jesus wants.
Materialistic spirituality tries to have its cake and eat it too. The new social justice warriors want the same things as the secular warriors and for the same reasons — but instead of being content to contradict the Bible, they now want to bend scripture to their will.
But let’s not be unduly hard on these warriors. To their credit, they care and share. They see problems and they rally to correct them. Ignoring social justice is no longer an option in our media-saturated age — not that we should want to. There’s no putting the social justice genie back in its bottle, and traditionalist Christians must recognize that fact.
Rather than bemoaning our technological progress — a temptation to which we’ve succumbed all too often — Christians should recognize that the desire for social justice is a source of optimism. The desire to safeguard life, liberty and pursuit of happiness isn’t misplaced. We should want to see people leave poverty, to have jobs and health care and transportation and all the other material blessings so many of us take for granted.
The challenge for Christians today is to keep in view the doctrine, the truth, that God is the ultimate authority — while at the same time not losing sight of what he’s doing in this earth and why. We must find the balance James wrote about in his epistle: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). Our wisdom must come from “above” — from the “one lawgiver” James mentions in the next chapter. Else, as James also describes, our wisdom will come from below, from ourselves.
Ryan Poe is editor of Theology+Now.