Secular Ethics? Think Again.

It often happens that my casual reading and my preaching schedule curiously overlap. Recently, an overlap happened between George Carlin’s irreverent, absurdist, and at times shockingly foul 2004 book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? and the sermon series in which I’ve been describing the characteristics of our secular age. Without further ado, here’s the relevant snippet from Carlin’s book: 

I’m in the Moral Minority

“I don’t think there’s really such a thing as morality. I think it’s a human construct designed to facilitate the control of people. Values, ethics, legal standards—all of these things are human-generated, and they’re lumped under some vague idea called morality. But suppose humans got it wrong? Suppose there’s no actual, objective morality? Suppose there’s just a natural, worldly, secular, common-sense standard of behavior whose purpose is what’s best for getting along and what’s best for survival? That would be a good system. Why should a system like that be overlaid with a sense of spooky, mystical, judgmental oversight?” (Carlin, George, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, 282) 

Carlin, George, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? p282

One has to be very careful in responding to anything that Carlin writes. A kind of modern, secularist Kierkegaard, he inhabits a series of characters in his prose that may or may not voice what he thinks. One of his characters voices the darkest kind of thoughts he can imagine. Another character spews out the foulest things he can think up. A third character even combines the two in an exposé of absurdism. Sometimes it’s merely shocking, at other times it’s quite funny. On rare occasions, it can be shockingly funny. 

But there is also a baseline voice—what I think comes closest to Carlin’s true voice—and this is when he angrily addresses what he perceives to be absurdity—in this particular book, the absurdities of language and religion. (Note: anger is the common thread through all of Carlin’s comedy.) In this respect, Carlin is never more contemptuous, dismissive, and derisive than when he speaks about religion, and about Christianity in particular. Given this disposition, it is reasonable to assume that the above quote comes about as close as we get to Carlin’s actual thoughts on something. 

Carlin claims that a secular morality is superior to a religious one, and I don’t think he’s alone in claiming this. So, how do we respond to his claim? Well, in one respect, Carlin is merely voicing a quite common attack on Christianity, namely, that the atheist does not need religion to be good. Carlin isn’t wrong, but what he (and many others) may not understand is that Christianity has long held that goodness is not the property of the redeemed alone. There are morally good atheists, and morally good Buddhists, and morally good Muslims. So far so good, but I should note that there is also a more cutting version of the above claim. Not infrequently, I encounter the atheist claim that they “don’t need a sky-daddy to be good.” The suggestion here is that Christian morality is based on fear of punishment, rather than any objective criteria of goodness. The secularist, then, in contrast to the Christian, styles himself or herself as good because he or she is good by intrinsic motivation, rather than any extrinsic factor. “I’m good because goodness is good; not because I’m afraid.” 

These are catchy and appealing claims, and they have rhetorical power inasmuch as they make oneself look good at the humorous expense of another. But the truth of the matter is that Christians have never believed that Christianity’s primary purpose was to make us good. Rather, Christianity saves us from sin and death. We do, however, believe that a consequence of that salvation ought to be moral and spiritual transformation. Where Christianity has been reduced to a project of behavioural modification, it has always done harm. 

But we can dig still deeper into Carlin’s claim that a secular morality would be superior. In this, it is important to recognize that his argument has traction precisely because it fits so nicely within the modern, secularist mindset. This is where my casual reading overlapped with my preaching, because one of the hallmarks of secularism is its conviction that the material world is all there is. Put in other terms, there is no supernatural reality sitting alongside or above our universe. Carl Sagan, in the opening to his science show Cosmos, states it elegantly: “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” In this respect, secularism carries with it an attitude not merely of myopic focus on the material, it also espouses an ethic of anti-transcendence. The idea that anything would be above or beyond the material is not only un-testable, it is abhorrent, and the idea that such a transcendent overlay ought to have formative impact on policies and decisions in the present world is laughable, if not evil. Modern secularism is thus an affirmation of the primacy of the material world, combined with a rejection of any authoritative transcendence. 

In light of this secularist mindset, there are two ways I want to query Carlin’s “Moral Minority” quip. The first is to ask where he gets his idea of the good, and the second is to investigate his suggestion of a secular morality—what would it look like? 

First, then, where does he get his idea of good? In the subtext of Carlin’s claim is an idea that there is, indeed, goodness: that some people are good and some are not, and that, furthermore, a purely secular goodness is just as adequate as a ‘subjective’ moral goodness. But what makes one person good and another person not-good? By what standard is one person to be measured against another? 

In any judgment of value—this is the question of good, better, and best—the measurement of one person requires a standard against which to measure that person. Now, it may be easy to identify the good in distinction with, say, radical evil. Most of us would consider ourselves better than Jeffrey Dahmer precisely because we have not murdered, dismembered, and eaten other people. But I’m afraid it’s not so simple, because we need to ask why. Why am I better than Dahmer? Is it because eating people is wrong? Why? What, in the purely secular landscape, actually determines that murder and cannibalism are wrong? I think that the committed secularist will likely appeal to three things: survivability, sociality, and common sense. Cannibalism is wrong because it does not contribute to survivability, is anti-social, and goes against common sense. But a closer examination reveals, unfortunately, that all three considered on the purely secular model, are absurd. 

Survivability is absurd because the universe is winding down to a state of entropic chaos. The endgame of the universe is universal death, and since there is no transcendent (i.e., nothing above or beyond the universe), it follows that there is nothing to escape into in even the wildest dreams of science fiction. If the material universe communicates anything to us about life, it is that it is inexorably planning to wipe it out completely and viciously. If the secularist wants to elevate survival as a motivating factor for practical ethics, we must always ask, “Why?” We’re all going to die, anyway, and everything is ultimately meaningless. 

Sociality is similarly absurd because for as long as humans have existed we have killed one another. If human nature is on the same level of evidence as any other material for scientific study—i.e., as a data set to which we are prohibited from ascribing value—then we have no recourse to good/better/best in describing humanity’s violent tendencies. The best we can say is that sometimes society serves as a temporary holdout to our inner violence. However, on the historic, evidential scale, this holdout is not infrequently mobilized to guide an entire society to attempt the murder and eradication of another. In other words, one common characteristic of human societies is that while they don’t murder within the society, they are happy to murder those outside the society. Often in the name of ‘survivability.’ 

Lastly, common sense is absurd because, on the purely secular model, our thoughts themselves are a rather inconvenient accident of human existence. The universe existed for nearly 13 billion years without our thoughts to influence it, and our thinking is one of the most momentary, startling, and irrelevant features of that timeline. What has common sense, the thinking of minute and ephemeral beings planted on a tiny, obscure, and insignificant wing of the Milky Way, to do with anything? 

Image from the James Webb telescope, each point of light an entire Galaxy. In the words of Douglas Adams, “Space is Big. Really Big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

All this to say, the secular landscape is a landscape that is fundamentally without value—it cannot, by definition, communicate the values of what is right and what is wrong. This is, in fact, the most serious problem with any concept of “secular” goodness, because the concept of good/better/best is itself a fundamentally transcendent idea. To ascribe value to life, or people within life, requires a standard from above them, outside of them. Therefore, to determine whether or not a man or woman is good, simple comparison on the human timeline will always be inadequate—the driving question will be “Good with reference to what? Bad with reference to what?” Survivability, sociality, and common-sense cannot provide such a standard. The only hope for a moral standard that can be applied to all people and all times is an appeal to a transcendent moral standard.  

As I said, there are two lines of inquiry into Carlin’s claim about a secular ethic, and the second is to ask, “What does a purely secular moral ethic look like?” Carlin suggests in his writing that such an ethic would favour ‘survivability.’ I’ve just spent some time, of course, describing how this is an absurdity—the kind of claim the secularist cannot logically make—but for the sake of argument let’s give this one as a freebie. Let’s agree for the moment that surviving is a good, and work out the ethics that follow as a consequence. What happens? 

“Sanctuary!”

An ethic of survivability would need to make decisions about human conduct from the perspective of what maximizes human survivability—not individual human survivability, but the survivability of the race. This distinction is important, because we will be forced to make some very hard decisions that impact individuals, Knowing, however, that they will be done for the race as a whole will allay any outmoded moral hesitations about these decisions. One area where we will have to make these kinds of decisions will be regarding overpopulation. The ultimate survivability of the human race will require regulation of the birth rate. Since humans are terrible at self-regulation, the state will be required to enforce strict policies of birth control. For example, policies that limit how many children a family can have, and then commensurate policies that terminate all pregnancies that fall outside of those limits. 

Survivability will also require a reassessment of resource allocation. Humans that have a higher chance of facilitating the survival of our species ought to be given preferential treatment—they should perhaps be allowed to have more than the standard allotment of children. It follows almost naturally that any sub-optimal human (of below average intelligence, for example) ought to be prohibited from bearing children at all. From this, it follows almost naturally again that any crippled, handicapped, or mentally unstable humans ought to be terminated—ideally before, but occasionally and of necessity after, birth. Lastly, those people who do not contribute to the advancement (and survivability) of the human species will need to be, at minimum, ostracised, and in more serious cases, terminated. This of course includes the elderly, who occasion and outsized drain on resources that can better serve the strong, and also extends to the sexually deviant, those whose orientations by definition do not contribute to survivability. 

The point is this: a commitment to a purely secular ethics that focuses on survivability inevitably descends into eugenics, where a self-selected and self-perpetuating group of human ‘elites’ craft and enforce policies that favour their preservation at the inevitable expense of the rest of the human race. If this sounds suspiciously like Nazism, you’re right to think so. Malcolm Muggeridge, in his essay “The Humane Holocaust,” traces the beginnings of Nazi extermination programmes to the ready experimentation with policies of survivability and eugenics. He writes that “the origins of the holocaust lay, not in Nazi terrorism and anti-semitism, but in pre-Nazi Weimar Germany’s acceptance of euthanasia and mercy-killing as humane and estimable.” What a relief that no such similar policies exist in modern countries today (!). 

Carlin’s thinking, motivated as it is in kneejerk criticism of Christianity, nevertheless voices something many people feel today—that Christian morality is passé, outmoded, and even an active hindrance to the progress of society. The formulation can even take on quite an alarming cast: “The Christian ideas are going to prevent our survival as a species!” But, as I hope is relatively clear from the above, people can only say this if they haven’t thought through the facts. What is more, secular ethics can give no value to human life; it can only be used by certain people to attempt the preservation and prolongation of their own lives—often at the expense of everyone else. 

Progressivism’s Powerless Jesus

I float around a lot of online groups—some of them funny, some of them wholesome, some of them so I can maintain professional connections. But some of the groups I follow are wretched, and I continue to follow the wretched ones because they give me insight into how people very different from me like to think. Several years ago—quite by accident, I assure you!—I joined what turned out to be a group of nationalist white supremacists, located in Australia. I was able to observe, as a fly on the wall, what things got people fired up and motivated. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, and at about the same time, I also joined a group of highly progressive ‘Christians.’ I put the word Christian in scare-quotes because it is not at all clear that any of the members, although they claim church affiliation, retain any real semblance to Christianity. Again, a fly on the wall, I have been able to observe the radically ‘woke’ church from within. 

It is often the case, in my group of progressive Christians, that individual members bemoan the fact that there are inadequate resources for their belief structures. They seem honestly surprised, having bucked the trend of 2000 years of biblical and ecclesiological history, that their replacements are inadequate, underdeveloped, and even unsatisfying. One such moment happened after Easter, when a moderator asked how members had spent their Easter season. This request—made with all the requisite nods to trigger warnings and the need to respect various theological perspectives—led to a discussion of the real meaning of Easter. The following quote, taken from Feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether and correcting distortions from the ‘real’ meaning of Easter, was gratefully posted and received: 

This Jesus did not come to suffer and die, to masochistically offer his blood to a sadistic God to pay for our sins, but to liberate us into a new community of joyful life. 

Jesus died on the cross because the mighty of religion and state did not accept his call to repentance and solidarity with the poor, but sought to shore up their system of power and its ideological justifications by silencing the voice of the prophet. His resurrection means that they did not succeed in silencing him. He rose and continues to rise wherever prophets rise, breaking through the system of lies and offering a glimpse of the true God of life who stands against the systems of worldly power. The cross is not a payment for sin or a required sacrifice of our well-being, but the risk Jesus and all people take when they unmask the idols and announce the good news that God is with those who struggle for justice and communicate loving life.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, Women and Redemption (2012)

Ostensibly, Ruether is redressing perceived errors in theories of substitutionary atonement—and, to her credit, there are frequently gross distortions in how that atonement model is presented. The Jesus she presents in contrast to this more traditional model bears the hallmarks of a revolutionary. He is a “liberator,” opposing the “mighty of religion,” those who rejected his summons to “solidarity with the poor,” because they wanted to defend their own “power.” His revolutionary spirit continues to rise whenever “prophets” (like Ruether?) rise up to stand with Christ—or at least with Christ’s God—against “systems of worldly power.” In summary, the cross has not to do with personal sin but with standing for God against earthly injustice. From my experience, Ruether’s account reads as par for the course in progressive atonement theology. 

It was a few days after reading Ruether’s quote that I had occasion to reread one of Malcolm Muggeridge’s lectures from Christ and the Media. In that lecture, Muggeridge presents a thought-experiment. What if archaeologists, a thousand years from now, uncover a massive cache of our current media? From the evidence of our media and consumption habits, what would they conclude about our society? Of the Christian story and its distortions, Muggeridge surmises the following: 

If any of the archaeologists were interested enough, they could trace the adjustments and distortions of the original Christian texts—always, it goes without saying, ostensibly in the interests of clarification—to conform with the concept of Jesus as a revolutionary leader and reformer, a superior Barabbas or Che Guevara, whose kingdom indubitably was of this world, finding in this textual and doctrinal adjustment an example of the infinite ingenuity of the human mind in shaping everlasting truths to conform with temporal exigencies.

Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media, 55.

To me it is fascinating that Muggeridge, writing in 1976, perceived the trend toward crafting Jesus as a theological revolutionary which bears such evident fruit in the thinking of someone like Ruether. But that middle sentence, almost a throwaway comment, bears further reflection and attention—Jesus as “a superior Barabbas or Che Guevara, whose kingdom indubitably was of this world.” In the Q&A that followed the original lecture, Muggeridge expands on this idea. There he says, 

If you make Christ a revolutionary, then you associate him with power, and there is nothing I can find in the Gospels, that has ever been attributed to him, or that any of the Christian mystics have ever conveyed, which conceivably suggests that his Kingdom could be brought to pass through the exercise of power.

Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media, 91.

The logic may appear opaque at first glance, but this is actually a quite simple—and I believe compelling—claim that Muggeridge is making: if you remove Christ’s spiritual work, you are left with a purely earthly gospel. If you excise Christ’s work to resolve the spiritual problem of sin that stands between humanity and God, then what remains is for Christ to become a merely human revolutionary whose targets are not the redemption of human persons, but the condemnation of earthly injustice alone. If you remove spiritual power, you are left only with categories of earthly power. 

There is no doubt that a critique of power is contained within the Christian narrative; but the witness of our tradition is that the critique of human power is sourced in the supernatural wisdom of God—in the cross that is foolishness to Greeks and an offence to Jews. If we criticize power (and we do, and should, and must!), we critique it from the perspective of the Kingdom of God, that reality inaugurated by the resurrection power of Christ through which He has saved a people for Himself. 

The spiritually neutered gospel of progressive Christians reveals itself to be overly concerned with earthly power. This is the best it can offer humanity, since it has distanced itself from the gospel’s own critique of power. In this way, it trades a greater power for a lesser one; the real, for a shadow of the real. As a result, the best that progressive theology can offer is a critique of earthly power that itself relies on earthly power. Far from escaping the cycle of power and oppression and offering a genuine critique of the world from the perspective of an Eternal Kingdom, progressivism is forced to make use of the inadequate and corrupted tools of earthly power to advance its agenda. In my experience, the most reliable and frequently utilized tool in its kit is that of shame. Note how progressivism’s targeted sting of traditional theology focuses on the shame you ought to feel for believing such outmoded, harmful things. How dare you think religious thoughts that make God a masochist! How dare you espouse a theology that might harm people! How dare you perpetuate corrupted systems of power in your thinking and actions! In so many cases, a simple outrage at traditionalism becomes a surrogate for good arguments. But the deeper criticism remains, because progressivism’s strongest arguments are not birthed from the supernatural love of God, but from the condemning voice of earthly power. 

Karl Popper, in his 1944 critique of Totalitarianism, The Open Society, writes that “The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.” Popper is speaking of the utopianism created by following figures like Marx and Hegel, but beneath his insight lies the truth to which we are speaking now: that human power is inadequate for the creation of a just society, a heaven on earth. Not only is it inadequate, human power will actively poison the effort. The only power capable of creating just conditions, of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven down to earth, is that power rooted in the cross and resurrection of Christ—foolish, scandalous, otherworldly—which demands an accounting for personal sin. We require supernatural power for our supernatural problems. Without it, there can be no hope for change. 

Six Reflections on Western Support for Ukraine

I’ve been brewing some observations about the situation in Ukraine, and I wanted to share them. I’ll be blunt: I sometimes feel that comments like these are nothing more than opportunistic faff, riding the wave of a news cycle that everyone is watching. Hence, I’ve waited a few extra days to write this because I’d like to keep that from being the case. I hope the reflections that follow are sufficiently substantive to merit reading.

First, I think it’s worth saying outright that the situation in Ukraine has been nothing short of astonishing—whether the astonishment that Russia would actually invade, or the astonishing response of near global censure and support for the Ukrainian plight. What’s behind Russia’s motives, and what’s behind the largely unified Western response? 

In response to the first question, I can only offer a vast and brief oversimplification, and this by means of an insight from Mark Galeotti’s, “A Short History of Russia.” Galeotti asserts that Russia’s primary identity crisis stems from its vast geography—namely, whether it is a European or an Asiatic nation. This insight has come back to me in the recent weeks because Ukraine, in the Western part of the former Soviet Union, has made overtures to join the European Union. This would resolve, for its part, the age-old identity crisis of the Slavic mindset. The Russian Federation has objected, militaristically. 

If this assessment is correct, then it makes some sense of the trenchant response that Russia has offered to the declarations of Western help to Ukraine. For Putin (at least), and certainly for some Russians, what is at stake is something more like the soul of Russia as an entity independent of both Europe and Asia. 

That’s a very short reflection on the “why” of Russian motives, which are doubtless more complex. Where I am prepared to reflect more, however, is on the strength of the Western response. What’s motivating such a powerful, unified set of actions? I’ve got six thoughts on this. 

1. It is simply astonishing to witness war in Europe. It’s certainly unfair to Yemen, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan that we regard war as a normalized aspect of life in these regions, but it is nevertheless true that to witness war in Europe is a thing few expected to see again. Europe is close to home. Europe is supposed to be safe. The last time we saw tanks rolling across Europe like this there were Nazis operating them. This influences a global response both on account of the simple shock of the thing, and also on the basis of the memory of the Second World War. We’re invested because it’s close to home. 

2. It is heartwarming to witness the unity of Slavic Europe in defense of Ukraine. Ukrainian suffering is one thing to see, but it is another thing to watch Poland, The Czech Republic, Moldova, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary (among other nations), marshal their resources and open their arms wide to fleeing refugees. In its own way, it is such a startling contrast to the (perhaps anticipated) balkanized habits of these nation-states. Instead, a sense of Slavic unity in the face of Russian aggression has motivated a deep compassion, and their regional sense of unity is deeply heartwarming to the world. To put this in other words, their sense of trans-national compassion is infectious. We want to be part of it. 

3. There is a refreshing clarity about the situation. When we read stories about other conflicts—civil wars, freedom fighters, insurrections in other nations—the battle lines are often woefully murky. It is not clear who is good and who is bad. But in this story, there is a stark clarity. Russia has invaded, Ukraine has been invaded. Russia claims to be fighting Nazis, Ukraine has a Jewish president (!). And this subtext of Nazism hovers quite strongly in the memory of Eastern Europe, so that comparisons between the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the Nazi invasion of Poland don’t seem that far off. There is about this a whiff of the clarity that marked the Second World War, and I believe that Western support is responding to this clarity. 

4. Ukraine has better PR than Russia. Ukraine’s president, Zelenskyy, was previously a comedian and actor who had played a president on Ukrainian television. He was so well liked that the Ukrainian people elected him. Qualifications aside (and I believe we can all agree that he has shown himself quite competent in the past weeks), his sense of media-savvy is also quite developed. Putin’s Russia is operating a PR campaign that reads as absurdity to Western ears and eyes, but it is working with many people in Russia. Zelenskyy’s campaign is fundamentally more Western, and therefore better adapted for a sense of Western alignment with the Ukrainian cause. We are in support of Ukraine because Zelenskyy better speaks our (media) language. 

5. Defense of Ukraine taps into our frustrations about misinformation. For the past decade or so, there has been a rapidly deteriorating relationship of trust between news consumers and news producers. What was previously a matter of simple bias (e.g., 20 years ago, when CNN leans left, while FOX voices the right), has become a state of active misinformation. Today, news sources actively curate their production to maximize the outrage of their constituents, and even resist reporting that might alienate their fanbases. Why is this important? Because Putin’s Russia is engaged in a campaign of misinformation, while Zelenskyy’s Ukraine appears to be involved in simple reporting. I suspect that one of the reasons we feel drawn to the fight for Ukraine is simply because in it we see a cypher for our own frustrations with deceptive media. We’re mad at Putin because we’re mad at our own systems of misinformation. Ukraine’s fight feels like a fight for the truth itself. 

6. Good Nationalism. I’ve saved the most difficult observation for last. Several years ago I was at a conference where I heard eminent theologian Jürgen Moltmann condemn nationalism as perhaps the greatest danger to the world today. Certainly there are many people today who would agree with him—that Nationalism is a categorical evil. And yet his statement still gave me pause. Is there nothing good in a sense of national pride and identity? That may be too loaded a question for this short reflection, but however it gets answered, there is on display in Ukraine—and from its supporters the world over—a deep and resonant sense of Nationalism. Ukrainians declare their pride to be Ukrainian, are willing to die to defend their homeland, are trading all their wealth and stability to fight against Russia. There is immense pride in flying a Ukrainian flag. And with them, Poles, Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians, Finns, and many other Eastern Europeans are voicing their nationalistic support for Ukrainian sovereignty. I suspect that the West is responding to the Ukrainian situation in the way it does because something in the narrative of Ukrainian nationalism resonates with us. We also are willing to defend our homes and heritage from invaders. But sitting behind this there is a remaining point of criticism, because we cannot be both proud of Ukrainian nationalism and condemn all nationalism at the same time. 

Thanks for reading. Is there anything that you would add to my list? If so, tell me what it is, and don’t forget to give your reasoning in the comment. 

Why I Am Still Blogging: An Essay About Essays

With a mixture of astonishment and shame, I note that it has been seven months since my last blog post. Amazingly (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), it is not the case that I have simply run out of things to say. Instead, I have been Busy. Only this last year I’ve finished my PhD, a consuming piece of writing on its own. On top of that, my family has moved internationally not once but twice in the last six months. I’ve lately been settling in to the routines of a new job. On top of all this, I’m suffering from a new form of anxiety that I’d like to call “publication anxiety.” It works like this: now that I’ve had some pieces published in magazines and journals, every time I get an idea I think, “I should blog this.” Then I start to work on it and think, “Maybe I should shop this around to get it published somewhere else…” The result is an anxiety that has kept me from writing anything at all. Or, rather, I’ve written some things, but now I’m trying to get them published. 

At any rate, here I am. Writing once again. What is more, I’m writing about writing, and I suspect that the now is as good a moment as any—coming back to blogging after such a long hiatus—to ask what I’m doing here. Why am I still blogging? What do I hope to get out of it? To this question, I believe I’ve got two answers. Allow me to share them with you, today. 

First, I want to blog because I still believe in the essay. That may sound like crazy talk, especially if your primary experience of the essay was writing them for school. I remember those days well, being taught in my English classes to prepare “The Five Paragraph Essay.” An introduction should outline the subject and schematize your three primary points, followed by one paragraph for each of those points, and a concluding paragraph to round out the whole. We wrote countless numbers of these essays during my years in school—the process became rote, and ritualized, and largely lifeless. Structure was not the only instruction in this formative essay-writing season. I recall other stylistic tics that were drilled into us with the fervor of a medieval religious catechism: You shall not use the first person! You shall not use the passive voice! You shall not under any circumstances use the word ‘got’! Imagine my sense of rebellion when, writing an exam in Seminary, I dared to produce a four paragraph essay! Put yourself in my shoes, if you will, when I discovered the freedom of the first person—of saying exactly what thought and why I thought it. Or imagine my feeling of relieved kinship when I encountered G. K. Chesterton’s assessment of Greek accents—and with it of stodgy grammarians as well—noting that because the accents had been added to the text by later authors, not using them rendered Chesterton “as ignorant as Plato and Thucydides.” So many fictional rules! And regarding the passive voice and various awkward elocutions? Those can be made use of whenever I damn well please. 

I’ve described many reasons why I should by all accounts hate the essay, but I don’t, and school, although it tried persistently so to do, was never quite successful in killing off the essay for me. Why is it, then, that I still love the essay? I suppose I should offer the historic answer first: I love the essay because it was through writing the essay that I developed the skill of articulation, of clarity. More than any other academic discipline, writing has forced me to reason my way from A, to B, to C, and to examine the linkages between those steps. The past twelve years of writing has had a wonderfully honing effect on my thinking

I have also grown to love the sense in which an essay is always a journey. The word “essay” has its roots in the Latin word exigere—meaning to test, ascertain, or weigh. In a lovely sense, it comes to be linked with a kind of wild anticipation: knights from a medieval keep may “essay forth,” anticipating an adventure in the forest of Broceliande, a place where they will attempt great things, be weighed against the code of chivalry, and ultimately return with stories of adventure to retell. The essay banks on your willingness to ‘go with’ an author on whatever journey he or she wishes to lead you, to whatever humorous, insightful, or surprising anecdotes that emerge from the fabric of that venture. All essays are travelogues—whether they document a journey of ideas or a holiday to the shore. In this respect, they’re a lot of fun. 

But I have other, more subversive reasons for loving the essay. If the writing of essays demands clarity, the reading of essays demands attention. With alarm I have watched minds—my own included—suffer a seizure in their capacity to attend to any long argument. The tweet, the hot take, blazes across our news feeds and slowly, inevitably, our brains have lost the capacity to pay attention to anything longer than an image macro. Sometimes I fear that the essay is the only thing standing between the inane tweet and the utter degradation of the human mind in the digital age. Baron Friedrich von Hügel once advised his niece, Gwendolyn Green, to “Beware of the first clarity; press on to the second clarity.” In a world that has reduced almost all information intake to a rapid-fire succession of first clarities, how on earth are we to find that second clarity? The answer will be by learning once again to read, and in the systolic and diastolic pulses of clear articulation and careful reading lie the heartbeat of a crucial kind of educational formation: if we will not attend, we will be stupid. 

Lastly, writing essays—extended studies of a subject, journeys through ideas, clear reflections upon or articulation of a concept—stands me in what I regard to be a noble tradition of journalism. I don’t mean journalism as pure reporting, but I mean the latent, and often forgotten, power of the journal: that is, a collection of writings that forms a community of readers. Writers are convicted of the need to speak the truth, and they articulate those truths for a growing community of readers who feel a “Yes.” “Yes. This articulates what I have felt. These words, in some small way, resonate with the ambitions and desires of my heart.” Consider for a moment the pedigree of this tradition and I think you’ll see what I mean: without publication and community, there would have been no Reformation, no Gandhi, no Martin Luther King, Jr., and no Inklings. Communities are not formed around tweets; they gather around ideas, clearly articulated, written words that speak to the condition of our states, our souls, and our ambitions. If there is any hope for bringing our world out of the morass of inept thinking and contemptuous hot-takes, then that hope lies in the recovery of the essay as a way of intellectual formation.

That’s why I still love the essay—because despite the crushing conformity of a school system, I’ve found a joy in clarity that the essay is unparalleled in promoting, a clarity I believe we desperately require if we are to stem a tide of stupidity, and a clarity and attention that might just provide a bright glimmer of hope for gathering together a community around something good, beautiful, and true. 

I said at the outset that there were two reasons why I still blog, and the second is this: I continue to blog because I have a sense of responsibility. I have been a pastor now since 2007, and have been blogging since 2010. Writing for me has always been first and foremost an activity of obedience—I felt quite strongly that the Lord told me to write in 2010. I have been trying to obey that command ever since. But as I watched my communities, and took stock of the information they were receiving online, I realized early on that if didn’t speak some clarity into the sea of information, confusion would uncontestedly win the day. To speak has since become an act of pastoral responsibility. I must do all in my power to model clarity of thought and reflection for the sake of my people, my communities of faith. In the interim, and over the years, many people have subsequently asked me to write about various subjects. I now have a responsibility to them, as well. 

So, I try, and hold up my flickering candle of analog essays against the megawatt digital flash of the modern information highway. Like Dylan Thomas, I shall refuse to “go gentle into that good night,” instead I will “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Doubtless, I’m far too insignificant to make any real difference—and you can comfortably detect and dismiss me on the grounds of my obvious delusions of journalistic grandeur. But perhaps—and to mix my metaphors with glee—my tiny and obedient candle, faithfully lit, may act as a mustard seed for light, truth, and faith among a few. 

Spiritual Abuse

I spoke with a young woman recently about a tough situation in her home church. To describe her situation, she utilized the language of ‘spiritual abuse,’ and something about those words made me hesitate. It’s not language I typically use, or appeal to, and the more I reflected on our conversation, a series of questions began to work their way through my mind: What is spiritual abuse? Have I ever experienced it? Why do I feel like it is language that needs special nuance?

The last question is probably the best place to start. I think the language of ‘spiritual abuse,’ like the language of ‘spiritual warfare,’ may be misused in the church. What I mean is that when I encounter a difficult situation, I hesitate to explain those situations by an appeal to spiritual abuse in the same way I hesitate to account for difficult situations in the church by appeal to spiritual warfare. Don’t get me wrong—I believe that spiritual warfare is real, but I think we should look to natural sources of a problem before we appeal to explicitly supernatural sources. In other words, I feel like we should arrive at warfare as an explanation for difficult people and situations by means of a process of elimination. If something goes wrong, it might be spiritual warfare, but it also might be bad planning, or bad timing, or human error. To put it even more bluntly, sometimes the devil made me do it, but it’s far more likely that you were an idiot. Jumping too quickly to the overtly ‘spiritual’ explanation short-circuits the process by which we need to carefully examine our own motives and culpability in a given set of circumstances.

“See, the demons made me do it!”

I also hesitate to use the term ‘spiritual abuse’ because the language of abuse is freighted with quite strong cultural implications. To be labelled an ‘abuser’ is one of the worst things you can be called in today’s world. It implies intentionality and malice, suggesting that the person accused of spiritual abuse has willfully and consciously abused the people under his or her care. While this is sometimes the case (and I will return to these cases at the end), I don’t think most people who perform actions of spiritual abuse in the Church do so willfully, or maliciously, or even intentionally. I think most spiritual abuse can be accounted for by appeal to incompetence. To put this even more specifically, I believe that most spiritual abuse in the church is born from a lack of self-knowledge. This is a claim that may require some explanation.

What is spiritual abuse, and why do I think it comes from a lack of self-knowledge? I think spiritual abuse is, quite simply, the misuse of spiritual authority. Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the concept of authority, because authority is an intrinsic part of our relationships. Some people have been authorized to teach, guide, discipline, correct, model, and love others. The right use of their authority results in the proper teaching, guidance, discipline, correction, modeling, and love of others, while the mis-use of their authority results in vacuous, inept, or abusive relationships between those parties. In every relationship of authority there is an ever-present danger, because every entrusted matter can be misused, resulting in abuse. The authority invested in parents may be the clearest example of this—a parent has been authorized (by virtue of his or her parental role) to do all of the above tasks for their children. They are good parents when they utilize their authority appropriately, and mediocre or bad parents when they fail to use their authority properly (whether it be through neglect or excessive control).

Yes, parental authority even extends to explaining the facts of life!

What, then, is ‘spiritual’ authority? Spiritual authority is the natural authority of relationships as it manifests in a religious context. Speaking as a Christian, we have a religious text (the Bible), a body of dogma (theology), and a historic body of people who steward that book and dogma (the Church). Together these three factors comprise the primary sources of spiritual authority. Within the Church, specific members are authorized to utilize that authority in specific contexts. For example, parents are authorized to raise up their children in the Lord; pastors and elders are authorized to teach, rebuke, and disciple; and every member of the Church is authorized to call one another to greater faithfulness. But in each of these contexts we encounter the ever-present danger of authority—that is, every matter of spiritual authority can be abused. Additional dangers emerge when we contrast earthly authority and spiritual authority. If I am a prison warden, authorized to keep order and peace in a cell block, I may use physical force to enforce my will; as a pastor, I may not beat people into spiritual submission. If I am a parent, authorized to train up and discipline my children, I may hide their toys, or ground them, or take away their allowances; as a pastor, I may not rob or manipulate my people into spiritual submission. If I am a property owner, I may demand that people stay off my lawn, or park away from my drive, or sue them for property damage; but as a pastor, I may not demand or coerce people into doing anything spiritually. Whatever the context and privileges of an earthly authority, when it comes to spiritual matters we who are tasked to act in spiritual authority will find that our hands are uniquely tied. As a pastor I may not bribe, bully, or beat my people into submission; all that I can do is exhort them, and, moreover, when I exhort them, I may not manipulate them through guilt, fear, or shame. Spiritual authority always goes wrong when we make use of worldly tools of authority in its service.

Why, then, do I think that spiritual abuse tied to a lack of self-knowledge? This explanation may appear complex but hang with me for a moment. At the heart of the matter, a spiritual abuser has confused what I want with what God wants. In other words, the spiritual abuser lacks the self-awareness required to distinguish between his or her personal desires and the mandates of ministry. This is why I can, if I am an abuser, appeal so easily to spiritual rhetoric in the service of earthly agenda; in order to get what I want, I slave the Kingdom of God to my personal desires. Spirituality then serves as a tool for manipulation. Examples abound: If you really loved God, you’d obey me. If you really had faith, you’d tithe more. If you were really humble, you’d agree with me. If you knew Jesus, you wouldn’t act like that. In each case spiritual rhetoric is employed to drive someone to do what I want; it is a rhetoric that shows up in building projects and vision statements, in marriage seminars, revivals, conference programs, and elder board minutes. It’s pervasive.

Behind this confusion (between what I want and what God wants) lies a deeper unacknowledged issue—namely, that the situation faced by people with spiritual authority produces anxiety. In short, spiritual authority comes with a deep mandate to powerlessness. It is God and God alone who changes people, not preachers, parents, or Sunday School teachers. But as ministers who are charged with communicating the good news of Jesus Christ, it is all too easy to take on the life-changing aspect of that message as our task. When we do that—forgetting that it is not our job—we revert to worldly methods of power; we manipulate through our words, we bully our people through our actions, we attempt to bribe them. It is in this way that spiritual abuse is born form this gap our self-knowledge, because no minister consciously wants to manipulate or abuse his people into action. But to men and women who haven’t come to terms with this powerlessness—who haven’t permitted that look in the mirror where they begin to come to terms with their own weakness and ineptitude—then such people must rely on their own power. Oblivious to the innate powerlessness of the call to ministry, we utilize the tools of earthly authority in our spiritual mission. Feeling powerless, such a person appeals to methods that ‘work’, even if they are wrong. The result is inevitably a form of abuse.

There are perhaps four more things I want to say about spiritual abusers—each rooted in this lack of self-knowledge. In the first place, I think it is very important to acknowledge the fact that abuse begets abuse. Men and women who abuse spirituality most often learned their habits from other ministers, who themselves didn’t know they were being spiritually abusive. We should not be surprised that ministers who lack self-knowledge struggle to lead others into greater self-knowledge. In some respects this means that spiritual abuse is nothing more than a bad habit—albeit a very bad one. Nevertheless, this situation raises some alarming reflections: if a given pastor models spiritual abuse from the pulpit, in his personal life, and in relationships, then the congregation will begin to learn those lessons tacitly. The pastor who abuses his congregation spiritually will give permission to associate pastors, elders, deacons, lay leaders, and parents to utilize those techniques in the authority they exercise over their wards. (To my mind, this raises again the seriousness of a passage like James 3:1, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, for we will be judged more harshly.”)

Students at Heritage Christian school dress like their teacher once a week. To be clear, this isn’t abuse–it’s proper formation!

Second, I think it is terribly important to recognize that a spiritual abuser doesn’t know that he or she is abusive. This is, in a way, unsurprising—if spiritual abuse is a product of ignorance, how can you possibly know you’re doing it? This fundamental gap in self-knowledge makes it all the more difficult to grow out of the habits of abuse. But there are a few additional reasons that make this situation even more troublesome. In the first place, to the abuser’s thinking, spiritual abuse works. More often than not, bullying and manipulation can succeed at getting people to change—at least on the surface. (After all, the abuser is someone who has in all likelihood himself or herself been abused spiritually—“It worked for me, didn’t it?”). To this situation is added a troubling logic—if I do something in ministry and it works, that means my ministry is blessed by God. If God has blessed what I am doing, how could it be wrong? In this way, my earthly metric of success reinforces my bad habits. It becomes far more difficult to self-examine when everything appears, on the surface, to be successful and ‘blessed.’ But in the second place, and more importantly, to admit that I am a spiritual abuser will mean admitting my powerlessness. This is a deeply alarming prospect, because it invites a confrontation with anxiety, with sin, with my own history, my wounds, and those places where I am appealing to spiritual matters to control my own anxiety. Growth in self-knowledge is painful, and willful ignorance is a wonderful way to keep that pain at bay.

Third, because the spiritual abuser does not know the boundaries of her self, her sense of spiritual authority has been collapsed into her sense of self. Because I don’t know where I end and God’s authority begins, this is why I can so easily confuse my agenda with God’s agenda—this is the root of the thinking that “my way is Yahweh.” But the more, in ignorance, I am committed to this collapse, the more I can be convinced that I am doing the right thing. Once again, where an idea of success is linked to a concept of blessing, then success in abusive methods will be interpreted as a blessing upon those methods. Because it works, I am right, and God loves me and agrees with me. This situation also produces a wonderful sense of confidence—even an imperviousness to criticism. God is for me, who can be against me? All of this leads to a further side-effect. For many spiritual abusers, they have so deeply identified with their authority that they perceive opposition to that authority as direct opposition to the self. To disagree with or oppose a person in spiritual authority who thinks this way is to violate their sense of self. Oppose the abuser, and they will respond in the strongest possible terms.

The Blues Brothers had some terrifying nuns…

This, in fact, is the fourth observation, because if you stand up to a spiritual abuser, you will be accused on spiritual terms. In fact, the most alarming thing to a spiritual abuser—who at core doesn’t know who she is—is the presence of a person who does know who she is. To the person who has become accustomed to bullying as a way to get what they want, it is deeply alarming to encounter a person who cannot be bullied. In response, they will pull out all the stops, “You’re so prideful!” “You’re not even very spiritual!” “I suspect that she is under the influence of demonic powers!” Sadly, many good people in the Church have been slandered by others, simply because they wouldn’t cave to the unacknowledged anxieties of their spiritual leaders.

I believe that spiritual abuse is a uniquely difficult problem in the church today (perhaps it is the case in all religious contexts, but I can only speak with authority about the Christian one). The unique difficulty is that to break the cycles of abuse we must grow in self-knowledge. But, as I’ve suggested, spiritual abusers are often by disposition immune to such growth in self-knowledge! I can offer only a few provisional suggestions. First, we’ve got to advocate for good theology of ministry—that is, a theology of ministry that properly emphasizes the power of God and the role of our own powerlessness. Second, we’ve got to encourage growth in the baseline of self-knowledge throughout the Church. Since spiritual abuse is a problem in the exercise of authority, I suspect that change in this area will need to begin with ministers, then work its way down into the pews. Third, and most difficultly, spiritual abusers must be answered by men and women who know who they are and cannot be bullied. This is a painful recommendation to make—it means encouraging faithful men and women to be accused of the worst kind of spiritual offenses, to be ostracized, shamed, and manipulated, but, being confident of who they are and who God is, standing firm.

Addendum: I said at the beginning that there are, indeed, situations of malicious spiritual abuse. These are people who manipulate others through spiritual means, and consciously know that they are manipulating others through spiritual means. Such people are psychopaths, and while there are occasionally psychopathic ministers in the Church, I believe such situations are rare (although newsworthy, when they are outed).