Once upon a time, I asked a group of teenagers, What’s wrong with the world? Now that may be a bold question for kids who have a limited experience in our world. But surprisingly, they had lots of answers. As you can guess, for a Lutheran youth group, they were baffled at the general disregard for what was right and wrong. They were annoyed with the confusion over obvious genders. They were tired of a world where everyone had something to say, and no one has the courtesy to listen. But one of their frustrations stuck with me, something that I didn’t realize concerned them.
This little group of Christians is as normal as it could be, lost in the middle of high school drama, trying to make a few dollars at their first job. Discovering their first heartbreaks and first loves. But they were beginning to notice something about the world around them. Even though it is something that has always been there, I never expected what they were about to say next.
When talking about what’s wrong with the world, one of my more outspoken boys said, “Well they think Jesus preaches hate.”
Fascinating. That a young man who was just finding his voice in the world, the voice of a hard-working and upright individual, the voice of a strong man of faith, the voice taught to him by his father and the other great men that surrounded him. He was frustrated in talking about the love of God because his friends believed that Jesus was a preacher of hate. All of his friends nodded in agreement around the table, a consensus among the high school youth group. What did they seem to understand about the culture that I didn’t know?
Soon after this eye-opening conversation, I stumbled across the book Strange New World by Carl R. Trueman. He beautifully laid a historical foundation for the redirection of how people are understanding themselves in our world today. And this was exactly what my youth group had been talking about. Somehow, they sensed a shift in the culture that was different from the historical faith they had been taught.
From this, it had become clear that the frustrations of my youth group were entirely justified. There had been a redefinition of terms and it was something that was standing in the way of sharing their faith and allowing them to talk to their friends about Jesus.
Coming out of Covid, a whole generation was taught to be locked down in their heads, on their phone, and it became virtuous to redefine socialization in these ways. But what we didn’t anticipate was that our children (and others) were trapped in this new world, one they would not easily escape.
So even though some of these thought patterns were already brewing for years before, the silent lockdown was the perfect Petrie dish in which to experiment. What were small problems before because amplified during the lack of anything else to take their place.
We have all heard the term “authentic”, meaning expressing something real from the inside of a person, which is not false for the person, and not constructed from the outside. It is an individual expression that is understood to be a valuable window into the character of a singular, unique person. But authenticity has recently become a dominant theme in our culture.
Feelings and inner expression have always been a part of the truth. But these feelings haven’t been the authority. Especially in historical Christianity, God has been the truth, outside of what any of our feelings may tell us. Parents have said the truth, even if we do not like what they say. History tells the truth, and it is apparent we want to forget it. Even though the authentic self has been a part of the conversation of truth, there has always been an external authority to guide those feelings.
But a growing interest in the authority of the self has been the cry of our culture. American freedom certainly encourages this way of thinking as a unique and individual self.
And every philosopher in every time is on a quest for truth. So as the landscape changes, without even realizing it, our foundation for believing what is true also changes. If the cultural majority is no longer taught about a God or any external authority, then why should they look to that external authority for truth?
Leading philosophers of the nineteenth century have been laying this groundwork into the thought patterns of our modern society. We shouldn’t be surprised, and we have seen this before!!
Marx reflects on society as something that uses religion as pacification and manipulation by the people in power to control the masses. When someone challenges authority, those who are in charge of religion have a certain pull over them because of the beliefs that they hold. This makes a suitable and easy work place. But what this does is it takes God out of the authoritative position and puts the will and desire of man in charge.
It promotes the idea that religion is for the weak who cannot think for themselves and are easily controlled.
Neitzche grew up watching the moralistic version of the Christian faith, and so when he began to look at religion and the world, he didn’t understand the need for God. Instead, he believed that God was contrived in the mind and the heart of an individual. He challenged the authority of God. And the overarching moral authority that people believed God brought to the situation. If there is no God, then we are our own masters.
And so the conclusion that Neitzche arrives at is that ethics is really just a matter of taste. It is a matter of what an individual thinks is right and wrong, because philosophically, there is no authority. But also Oscar Wilde adds to this conversation, saying, “all that matters I whether a person realizes the perfection of the soul that is within him. All imitation in morals is wrong.” Which is translated, the artistic creation of the self is the only thing that really matters. Self expression, the authentic self.
And so Freud also argues, morality is really a matter of cultural taste. And add this to the way that we view sexual orientation and any other outside judgment of morality. So instead of judging our internal feelings against an outside moral standard, our feelings have become the “authentic” moral standard. These arguments are rooted in a standard that exists only inside, and the greatest offense is to deny the opportunity to speak the authentic self.
So we have seen that this is a new way that we have learned to look at the world, however it is nothing new from what we have learned from our previous philosophers and leaders. But why has it happened now? What is different in our society that makes this way of thought preferable to how we thought about the world previously?
There are many reasons why this is the fertile ground for such a thought of change. But one of the most obvious is the change in technology, and the widespread acceptance of it since the pandemic. The nature of what had happened drove everyone directly to the internal. Instead of looking outside of ourselves into the world, we were forced to look inside ourselves, just as we had been set up for after all of these years. But what was unique, was there was no other option. There was nothing external that could challenge the grab for authority. When everyone was literally confined in their own house, by the blessing of technology, they were also literally confined to their own minds.
The rise of the authentic self was in hiding until it could safely have no opposition. And once the majority of the culture had bought into the idea that God was dead, and there was no hope for an external authority, that’s when the internal authority of the self arose.
However, I think there was one more breaking point that was critical for the final overtaking of the authentic self. Since the beginning of time, the last holdout against the internal self has always been the Word of God, proclaimed and modeled by the church.
This may be hard to hear. It may be hard to admit. But the physical church responded in a confessional way when the whole world turned in on itself. The church followed the advice of the lost people whom they served. And instead of fighting the battle of the internal self vs. external authority in the face of death, the church listened to the voice of Eve.
What did she desire? Life. Safety. To be like God. To take the fruit that looked like it was good to eat, but ended up being death for us all. Eve listened to her internal voice, and God let her listen to herself. The result of this was devastating. Because this path did not offer the life that she thought she had created fro herself.
Likewise, the church was faced with a life and death decision. She was scared and looking for life. But she turned inside, Like the folly of Eve. She tried to live by staying home and staying safe. She tried to live by moving online. She tried to live by redefining her love of her neighbor.
So the practice of the church became something that was unexpected. She reinforced the movement to look inside. And the church was no longer an offense to the self, but a partner in her crime.
And the religion of the people became entirely personal. Online experience. Separated from the community. Individual experiences and authority. Bolstering up the sense of self. This was a slam dunk for the modern philosophy of the people. But it was never the authority that historically reigned in the church.
Which would not be entirely bad, except that there was no longer a check and balance to the authority of the self. So the Word of God has been forgotten. In the battle against the self.
Can we come back from such a confession? Will God’s truth reign? Of course. But it is an unfortunate setback for the popular perception of the church that Christian “love” was realigned with the “love” of the world. And that meant, the loving response for everything was to affirm the feelings of the inner self.
It was love to stay home. It was love to stay safe. It was love to wear a mask. It was love to recognize the struggle within another person. It was love to be against God’s definition of what love has been.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes, all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
And that is the love of God. Unfortunately, this is something that could only be taught from the outside. An external story that is spoken into our ears and into our heart. The love of God. This is not the same as the love of ourselves, the love from our hearts. The love that preserves our authentic self.
And so we are in tension with what is love from the outside and what is love from the inside. There is a hostile reaction to any love that finds external authority. Not because it is a wrong idea, per se. But the problem is that this authority originates from the outside, from the external. And this is extremely suspicious.
Consider, the reaction against history, statutes, pronouns, government, and even organized religion. Of course, it has been building for some time. But this has been an explosion of a reaction against all things that do not originate in the self.
And so, Christ has become a symbol of hate. Besides love is affirming the authenticity of the self, and Christ is an external gospel that speaks into our lives with infinitely strange information about who we are, what we deserve, and what he came to save us.
Christ vs. Self
We believe and confess that we are poor miserable sinners who have no hope. We bathe in the blood of a savior who has given his life because ours is not worthy. We eat and drink his blood for the forgiveness of sins that we are able to confess and even the ones that we cannot confess. This is something that we must believe from the outside, the more we learn about the standards and grace of God, the more we understand that we do not deserve anything that is given to us.
But the culture believes that the internal self creates truth. So, there is no external moral wrong to condemn a person. The wrong then is if someone tries to impose on what you believe is truth. This is the worst evil that one can imagine in our current world. That someone will not recognize a self-internal truth.
This is when Christ is perceived as a symbol of hate. And there are two problems:
#1 Christ is Law. (Objective standard) God’s law is external. Christ’s resurrection is historical. As with everything that is distrusted from government to history, God as an external authority already is under suspicion. And so the misunderstood version of Jesus is a moral teacher, one that is wholly irrelevant.
#2 Christ Offends the Self. (You are a poor miserable sinner) You can’t do the law, even if you wanted to. God exposes the terrible things inside of you. Christ also makes you see there is no good inside of you. Salvation is outside of anything you can do. Which is exactly why Jesus came to save you.
But if you didn’t HEAR someone say that to you, how would you know? All you really know from the inside is your discontentment, your sin, your lack to do what is prescribed of you. Christ is the good Son who challenges the authority of your internal self. And that is why any self hates Him.
He offends the self by coming to save the self. That is a blow to the ego. We don’t like that. Yet it is exactly what we need.
These are the problems of comparing our “self” to our God. We don’t compare. And so we either must submit to that truth or ignore it.
By exposing the error in our starting points, we may be able to offer suggestions on how to overcome them. If the self is the perceived reality of truth, then another framework of truth (God) sounds like absolute nonsense. But Christians are not crazy. We are just beginning with a different foundation than the world around us. This foundation for an external truth is just as practical as looking for truth inside of your head. And this isn’t a new phenomenon. But it bears repeating what the root of the problem is. and that these world views are at their core, against each other.
So what is the solution? We must focus on the foundations for truth. To see that God is truth, one must be encouraged to look outside of the “self”. The Gospel of Jesus is an external reality, promising a real resurrection and a real new earth.
There are ways to remind the world of the truth outside of them, and unfortunately, it does in places of pain. Death, loss, and dealing with an external world that we really have no control over teach us there is a greater reality outside of the one we can create. Teaching the curses, the reality of a broken and sinful world, can lead us to the solution of a savior.
We have a tangible connection in our disobedience. We are all sinners. So even if one is struggling with the “self” eventually the physical world will catch up to them. So we keep speaking God’s truth, until they are willing to hear because:
“Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Words of Christ” Romans 10:13.
Strange New World, by Carl R. Trueman