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Is It Time To Redefine Evil? Take 2

The Death of SatanIn my most recent News and Views article (November 2014), I critiqued a portion of Andrew Delbanco’s argument in  his book, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. Delbanco argues that once a view of evil has been superseded by history, it is wrong to try to return to it. For example, uncontrolled female sexuality cannot be called evil after technology broke the cause-and-effect relationship between sex and pregnancy. It was the consequences to the individual and society that made uncontrolled sex wrong. I argued that Delbanco’s argument was not correct. While his argument is coherent and largely accepted by our modern culture, it is based upon the assumption that a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics is a right and true theory. I argued that a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics is not the true theory of morals and ethics; rather, a “duty” theory of morals and ethics is the true theory because it is the one assumed in the Scriptures. Uncontrolled sexuality is not wrong because of its consequences; it is wrong because it disobeys the commandments of God that a person is duty-bound to obey. Consequences are not the basis for deciding whether an action is right or wrong. In this post, I will examine a second way that Delbanco’s argument could be understood. Here is the relevant text:

…Everyone wants to live in a world in which evil can still be recognized, have meaning, and require a response.

When this desire takes the form of an effort to get back the sense of evil in ways that have been superseded by history, it can’t succeed. Sin and sexuality, for instance, will never be reconnected as they once were, because the original linkage doubtless arose as a means of establishing social stability at a time when sex could not be separated from pregnancy. Morals do not have genealogies, and like an infertile family, a particular moral idea can reach a point where the linage comes to an end. For most of human history, uncontrolled female sexuality was deemed sinful because it had a calculable social cost. It was incompatible with the patrilinear family and, later, with the whole social organization of bourgeois society. It was taboo, or sin, whose rationality needed no defense. But when the technology of modern contraception broke this chain of cause and effect between sex, pregnancy, and morality, it broke it permanently. To try to get back this shattered ideal of chastity as virtue, as some well-meaning people are trying to do, is to tinker with the fragments that cannot be reassembled into their old integrity. Our understanding of evil needs to be renewed, not restored. (The Death of Satan: How American’s Have Lost the Sense of Evil. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, New York 1995, p.16.)

In the second way of understanding Delbanco’s argument, a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics is assumed to be true, but it is not the individual that believes it; rather, it is the culture that believes it. In other words, the specific argument is this: if the culture assumes a modern consequentialist theory, then an individual or a group cannot succeed in redefining a concept like evil as it was defined using a different theory of ethics at a different point in history. For instance, Delbanco claims that it is wrong for an individual or a group to try to impose the early Puritan definition of evil in modern America. To define uncontrolled female sexuality as evil using the Puritan concept of sin and evil will never be accepted by modern culture because it has accepted a consequentialist theory of ethics and technology has removed the consequence—the risk of pregnancy. So rather than try to restore the Puritan concept of sin and evil, a more successful strategy would be to start the dialogue from where we are now and try to develop a new theory of evil.

I agree that it is highly unlikely that America would ever return to a Puritan perspective on sin and evil as long as the majority of the culture accepts the modern concept of sin and evil, and a strategy to restore it is unlikely to succeed. There would be too much resistance to defining those concepts in our modern language. Furthermore, even if a duty-based theory of morals and ethics is true, if the culture at large accepts a consequentialist theory, it is unwise to try to impose the true theory by trying to change the language. Starting where we are now, however, and initiating a dialog to redefine evil and sin does seem like a reasonable strategy. If this is the substance of Delbanco’s argument, then I agree with him—with two caveats.

First caveat: I am not saying that Christians have no obligation to communicate the Gospel and its understanding of sin and evil to individuals in the culture. All Christians have that obligation, but that obligation is to the individual, not to the culture at large. It is not the case that all Christians ought to be working to impose a Christian understanding of sin and evil on the vocabulary of modern American culture. I believe that the trajectory of American language and concepts is in God’s hands, not ours.

Second caveat: I am not saying that God may not give some people the job of influencing the culture at large. He may grant some individuals—writers, for example—a unique platform to directly influence the concepts and meanings of words in the culture. God may call them to use this platform to communicate biblical concepts, such as sin and evil, to the culture in words not commonly understood. In most cases, however, their task is not to impose their concepts and word meanings on the culture but to bring these concepts and meanings to cultural consciousness. I would not absolutely rule out the possibility that God might call such a “prophet” to confront the culture with a biblical concept of sin and evil; however, I do not see this scenario as one that God has commonly used in America recently.

In summary, Delbanco’s line of reasoning can be understood two ways. I analyzed the first in my News and Views article. With the exception of my two caveats, I largely agree with the second way of understanding his argument, namely that in a culture which accepts a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics, it would be unwise for a minority to think that they could impose concepts of “sin” and “evil” on the culture at large by trying to define those words within their own language and not the culture’s.


The Caps Program

Gutenberg College introduced a new study program in 2014: the Caps Program. This program requires graduate level academic work, but it is unaccredited, and the course work is unlikely to be recognized by any accredited institution. The Caps Program could be interesting to two kinds of people: (1) those who want to pursue a graduate level education in one of the disciplines listed below; and (2) those who want to take advantage of the educational opportunities (individual courses) offered in conjunction with these programs. A complete description of the Caps Program is available here.

Caps Program Disciplines:

  • Music History
  • Philosophy of Science
  • New Testament in English
  • New Testament in Greek
  • Old Testament Exegesis
  • New Testament Greek


Four Dangerous Ideas, Part Four: Pursuit of Happiness

The ConsitutionIn the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson writes that we are endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Of these three, the last one may seem out of place as being rather less high minded. We might see life and liberty as unalienable, but the pursuit of happiness seems a little self absorbed. However, the word happiness when Jefferson used it did not have the same connotations that it has today.

The idea of happiness has had a long history. Aristotle, for instance, thought of happiness as the fulfillment of a human being’s goal in life. He distinguished man from all other creatures in the world by man’s rationality and social life. Since these qualities make man unique, then his goal or purpose must be wrapped up in these qualities. Aristotle equated happiness with outstanding moral and intellectual activity in the affairs of the city state. Thomas Aquinas took a similar view, except that for him the goal of human life differed. Aquinas saw the ultimate goal of existence in eternal life. Life on earth, then, could never bring complete happiness (i.e., completion of one’s goal as a human), only partial.

These ideas framed the concepts of John Locke. He wrote,

The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action… (Essay Concerning Human Understanding)

Here Locke seems to relate happiness with the “highest perfection of the intellectual nature” and “our greatest good.” This idea is clearly reminiscent of Aristotle and Aquinas. What Locke does not mean is that the pursuit of happiness is the license to please our worldly desires.

Jefferson, who immortalized the words “pursuit of happiness,” was drawing directly from Locke. In this context, then, it is obvious that the pursuit of happiness belongs with life and liberty in significance.

Today the pursuit of happiness has been reinterpreted to mean the right to go after worldly benefits. We have demeaned the original intent so much that it has become diabolical. The idea that God has somehow granted us the inalienable right to obtain worldly goods is about as antithetical to the biblical picture as you can get. One cannot serve both God and mammon. And yet if a person, organization, or government places restrictions on our ability to pursue our base desires, we feel our rights have been trampled on. How dare anyone prevent us from polluting our minds with pornography!

This demeaned view of happiness is fraught with danger. We live in a culture that has imbibed this view; it is all around us, and it is difficult not to conform to it. This view of happiness is particularly heinous in that it invites us to see that which is evil as noble. We are taught that rights are good and that infringements of rights are bad. Then we are taught that we have the right to follow our base desires. It is not stated in such stark terms because we would reject it. But it is subtly implied in all that we do and hear and see.

An example of this is the battle over sex and nudity in broadcast television. The perception is that the TV censors are infringing on our rights to watch what we want. The freedom to take mind-altering drugs is also becoming a right; it makes us happy. We have a right to health care because health is a part of our pursuit of happiness. The list could go on and on.

The pursuit of happiness as it was originally conceived is noble. We should strive to become the best human beings that we can. What makes us human is bound up with our moral and intellectual gifts. To debase this excellent sentiment by making it a pursuit of money, fame, and physical gratification is a tragedy—and dangerous to our souls.

Series Conclusion

Culture is a powerful force. I think we all recognize that at some level. But knowing we are affected and recognizing how we are affected are very different things. I think the juxtaposition of cultures side by side can sometimes help to open our eyes. It is instructive to have an insightful outsider like Solzhenitsyn look into our failings as a society. It is instructive to compare the thinking of the writers of the Federalist Papers with current thought. Even so, we can never escape the danger of an intensely seductive culture. We live in it; we breath it. We conform to this world despite the warnings of Paul. And it is at this exact spot where the danger lies. We are frogs in a pot of water in need of a thermometer. Ultimately, it is the juxtaposition of our culture with God’s values expressed in the Bible that provides the thermometer. But unlike frogs, we cannot jump out of the pot. We must find a path in the midst of the hot water. We must pray, as Jesus did, that God will sanctify us in the truth of His word (John 17:17).


(Part 1: Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech)

(Part 2: Separation of Church and State)

(Part 3: Rule of Law)


Four Dangerous Ideas, Part Three: Rule of Law

The ConsitutionThe United States was founded on a written Constitution. The fact that this document was designed to be the highest law of the land was extremely significant. It put into place the rules by which the country was to be governed, and it restricted the means by which those with power could abuse that power. What the people were responding to was the nature of law in Europe. In most European countries, the decree of the monarch was the law. Granted, the monarchs were severely limited by traditions, representative bodies, and social structures; but in principle, no law could hold the King responsible for his actions.

In the United States, it was important to have the laws clearly spelled out and inviolable. No one was above the law. Everyone was subject to it. The system of checks and balances was included specifically to prescribe the laws for the people at the top.

But every set of laws, no matter how well written, is incomplete. It cannot take into consideration every method by which people can take advantage of others. For every new law enacted to clamp down on damaging or deceitful activity, other new ways can be invented. The laws of the United States relied heavily on the character of the people. The laws specified the minimum standards of behavior, not the expectations of how people will behave outside of the law.

Over the last two centuries, the internal constraints on bad behavior have eroded. Social pressure and expectations had been the primary means to maintain decency. But we have slowly freed ourselves from those norms, and in their stead has come an increasingly bloated set of laws. What has developed is a kind of Phariseeism. We have come to think more and more that whatever is legal is right. The rule of law then becomes a game. Instead of a fixture designed to prevent the injustice of the crown or the aristocracy, the rule of law has become a game in which winners and losers are chosen not according to justice but according to cleverness and availability of resources. Clearly, there have always been those who will manipulate and steer the law to their will. But the prevalence of that attitude has increased.

This trend can easily be seen in the business world. As an example, there was a practice in Wall Street in which traders had figured out how to intercept “buy and sell” orders milliseconds prior to an exchange. Because of their physical proximity and the superior speed of their internet connection, traders could place an order microseconds prior to the intercepted transaction. By this means, they were able to legally skim profits off all transactions they intercepted. This was clearly a fraudulent activity. However, since the practice was new and undetected, it was not yet illegal and thus considered fair game.

Another obvious example of legalism is in the press, as I mentioned in a part one of this series. The press has a great deal of freedom to publish as it desires. Because of the nature of the laws, outrageous injustices can and are perpetrated by the press, all within a strictly legal framework. Individuals lacking internal constraints feel justified in their actions, especially if it brings greater income or prestige.

The legal system itself is a perfect example of the legalism that has developed. I am not directly involved with the law system, so my observations are perhaps not the most accurate. However, it sure seems as if justice takes second place to technical considerations. For instance, if a suspect confesses without the Miranda rights being first administered, the suspect can be acquitted of the charge.

The cumulative effect of legalism is to discourage internal moral constraint. To the extent that the law is seen as the criterion for right and wrong, immoral but legal behavior becomes normalized, accepted. This sort of cultural attitude is toxic to our souls. We need to encourage each other to take morality seriously. We need to have standards other than just the law. The rule of law is good, so long as it does not replace a morality based on a transcendent reality.


(Part 1: Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech)

(Part 2: Separation of Church and State)


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