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Old Vices Don't Improve with Age

  • John Mark Reynolds The Torrey Honors Institute
  • 2010 10 Oct
  • COMMENTS
Old Vices Don't Improve with Age


This article originally appeared at the Washington Post'On Faith page. Click to read the continuing conversation.

The new morality is too often the old immorality tricked out in pseudo-scientific language or backed with force. Many seem to assume there is something new under the moral sun, but there is not.

Some simply wish vice to be labeled virtue. Others, far worse, bully and hate.

Two important truths must be simultaneously upheld: vice cannot be virtue, and we must love our neighbor. Christians must not defy the laws of nature and of Nature's God, but we also will not bully or hate.

Some confidently say, "Applauding behaviors supported by decadents in ancient times of course does not indicate that we are in danger of decadence, because we know so much more than the ancients."

This is true, if you mean we have contact lenses and they did not. We have cars and they did not. Of course, we are destroying environment they did not and have practiced genocide on a wider scale than they dreamed.

After all, progress in one area—technology and economic standards—does not equal progress in every other area.  Stalin had better weapons than Joan of Arc, but was a much worse person. North Korea has better technology than nineteenth century Switzerland, but much worse politics and morality.

What exactly is it that we know now that necessitates a change in the hard won wisdom of nearly every ancient culture?

We certainly want nothing ancients did not want and we desire nothing they did not desire. Humanity has not changed. When men desire to abandon wives and children for light reasons, this is not new. When people desire to make babies without making families, this is not new. When people bully and browbeat instead of arguing their point, this is not new. When children mock things that are different and hurl hateful words at others, this is not new.

When the unchaste, the libertine, or the hateful demand we call their wrongs "good," this too is not new. And when cliques in society long to be "cool" and shun those outside their arbitrary categories, this too is not new.

It is all still wrong.

There is nothing new, but every old vice always comes announcing that this time, surely this time, it is different.

Surely we are not so ethnocentric or full of chronological snobbery that we believe every previous civilization that opposed our morality was morally primitive? This is the breathtaking arrogance of the Victorian colonialist, not (supposedly) of modern men and women.

Actual science can never teach us what should be true only what is true at the moment. This was the case when pseudo-scientific pronouncements, such as those of Freud, agreed with traditional morality on some issue, and is still the case when they do not.

Moral reasoning does not come with a calendar, and the belief that we have moved "beyond" ancient wisdom is a prejudice no more attractive now than it was one hundred and fifty years ago in Victorian England. Every civilization must balance the need for progress against the demand to throw out ancient truths because of that progress.

Victorians thought "science" confirmed their weird sexual prejudices and now middlebrow opinion thinks the same about America's. The fact that often they are the opposite opinions should warn us that today's moral fads will be tomorrow's folly.

This call to not worry about sex outside of marriage is not a new call, has no real new arguments, and will lead to the same predictably sad results. People will not grow happier, children will not be born in sufficient numbers or in stable homes, and civilization will not grow stronger. 

There is nothing new in human nature. There are no new moral facts. Sexual desire is still good and powerful and, as Plato saw, still capable of destroying the soul. Traditional religion, which does not measure the value of an argument by the date or by fashion, is not deterring progress. It is deterring decay.

Civilization partly consists of teaching men and women to say "no" to desires that are not productive or useful to their souls. What is productive? First, we would have to know the facts about the cosmos. Is there an afterlife? Is there a God? Does He have opinions on what we do?

There is, He exists, and He does. And if He has been clear on anything it is that human beings are good at kidding themselves into bad behavior when it comes to physical desires. Some pagan cultures believed all sex was bad and it became fashionable to castrate men in order to "restrain" desires. The Christian Church had to stand against such behavior, which even infected its own ranks, and argue against the intellectual fashion of the day.

Our reward was to be murdered by the government on the pretext of condoning depravity!

In this age, Christian morality is once again unfashionable, but this time not for our tolerance of sex, but our intolerance of some forms of sex. If some ancient intellectuals saw sexual desire as an unspiritual horror, we now face a culture that in part believes it is a necessary part of life!

Sexual desire is good in itself, but it can be misused. This is obvious to most of the population of the world, but in Western nations we have deluded ourselves into thinking we have discovered something new when we are really only repeating an old pattern of decadence and decay.

It is utterly predictable, but that is not the only way that sex can go wrong. There is another ancient evil: hatred. When sexual confusion is channeled into hatred or rage, then it is worse than the simple vices. Hatred, desire so utterly twisted that there is no good left in it, is by far worse. Any love, no matter how misdirected or misunderstood, still retains some of its Divine origin. All love is capable of doing good as well as harm.

Hate has no such charms.

Because we are an old faith, Christians have been guilty of every vice and of every hatred. We cannot justify this and no Christian should attempt to do so. But our failure to live up to our high calling, does not justify abandoning the standard.

When students are bullied in school for their choices or their desires, this is more wicked by far than acting on those desires. There is not even the faintest glimmer of love in it and there is nothing of Christ. When a human being struggles with temptation and must hide his proclivities in fear that people will mock or bully him, then that is a false and unloving society.

When reason is replaced by physical coercion, this is worse than a moral mistake. It is grossly immoral. A gospel of Christ that calls us to love our enemies can have no tolerance for men and women who cannot even love different people struggling with different temptations.

There are young adults who face bleak and unhappy years in schools, but this is not because they have embraced the Gospel of Christ. It is true that the Gospel would teach them to say "no" to much that our chattering classes, the new false prophets, declare moral. It is true that reasonable disagreement about the direction friends are taking must be made, but it is not true that force or hatred should be used.

Temptation is no sin, bullying a grievous one. Sexual vice is bad, but hatred is utterly devilish. Christianity says that sexual desire is not who a person is, but this applies to our condemnations as well as our approbations. No man or woman is simply named by their temptation, because all men and women struggle with some form of vice.

Unless asked, as I was here, I should have no desire to repeat condemnations that come from nature and Nature's God. I must tend to my own weaknesses and sin and ask God and my neighbor for mercy.

Demons demonize, not Christians.

Christians plead for mercy.

Jesus heals and forgives.

Jesus, who was without sin, would not throw stones and we should not either. My primary focus must never be one my neighbor's temptations, but on my own. I must love my wife better, be good to my friends, and even learn to pray for my enemies.

Some in our culture demand that Jesus tell the sinner that she is not a sinner. He will not throw rocks at her, but he also will not lie. He will not condemn, He who has the right to do so, but He will not pretend that her old immorality is the new morality.

He sets her free from being identified with her passions and her mistakes and tells her to go and sin no more. This is not just "loving the sinner and hating the sin." That bumper sticker morality is too simple to see the depths of wisdom in the Christian teaching. Christians should love every man or woman, because no man or woman is merely a sinner. We can even look at anything deemed "sin" and see in it seeds of true love and the possibility of goodness. We too are sinners and hope to be more than our sin . . . and hope that whatever it is in us gone awry from God's perfect plan can be redeemed.

There is hope for every person, because God loves every person.

This wisdom will be around in another hundred years for whatever old immorality or hatreds creeps back into our culture.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily, where this article originally appeared on October 12, 2010.

Publication date: October 19, 2010