Planned Parenthood, Josh Duggar, and our Crazy, Crunchy Sense of Moral Proportion

Seldom has a dinner conversation so vividly exposed the moral drift of a culture in decline.  Seldom has the troubled heart of a nation been put on display more clearly than in those now infamous videotapes of Planned Parenthood representatives casually discussing the selling of body parts.  Over wine and salad they chatted about less “crunchy” procedures for killing these unborn human beings that would leave those organs more intact.

While many rushed to the defense of Planned Parenthood and insisted that all of this is done for noble purposes, many others were appalled by what seemed to them a barbaric display of utter disregard for human life and feeling.

But the question begs to be answered why anyone should be so shocked.  After all, we twice elected, by a sizable majority, a President who supported partial birth abortion.  If most Americans do not have a problem with their President supporting this “procedure,” why should we suddenly be shocked that mere doctors, nurses and medical administrators are practicing what has become an acceptable position at the highest levels of our government?

And really, is there anything more objectionable about the less crunchy procedure than the crunchy one that crushes those helpless unborn human beings and disposes of them as masses of tissue inconveniently growing in the wrong place?   The fact that it is legal to crush human beings as they emerge from the womb, and dispose of them, should be more disturbing than selling their body parts.

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STERLING, SILVER AND NIETZSCHE: A GLIMPSE INTO THE AMERICAN SOUL

NietzscheAny time a fifteen minute conversation between the owner of a sports team and his mistress is a national news story for several days running, you can be pretty sure the story gives you a telling glimpse into the American soul.  A week ago, it is safe to guess, hardly anyone outside serious basketball fans (and even relatively few of them) could tell you who owned the Los Angeles Clippers.  But no longer.

As everyone knows by now, Clippers owner Donald Sterling was fined 2.5 million dollars by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and banned for life from the league for racist comments he made to his mistress in a phone conversation she recorded.  His derogatory comments about blacks, in addition to being deeply offensive, were also highly ironic since his coach, along with most of his players, are black, not to mention that his mistress is half black!  Indeed, the overwhelming majority of NBA players in general are black.

Now what is striking about this story, but altogether predictable, is the unanimous, passionate condemnation of Sterling’s comments.  Everyone from Charles Barkley to Bill O’Reilly and virtually everyone else in America is in agreement that Sterling’s comments were outrageous and indefensible.   Americans, like most westerners, can be counted on to roundly reject and condemn racism any time it rears its ugly head.

But what is really interesting is the depth and zeal of the moral condemnation that is elicited by the attitude Sterling conveyed.  Indeed, the reaction seems to flow out of the deeply grounded moral conviction that such attitudes are egregious and profound violations of standards that must be upheld.  It is not just that Sterling’s comments are distasteful or personally offensive.  The severity of condemnation and the punishment exacted suggests that Sterling did something that is deeply WRONG, in the strongest sense of that word.

In other words, it suggests that Americans believe there are real moral truths, truths about things that are objectively right or wrong, and not just matters of personal opinion or perspective.  And if you asked WHY racism is wrong, you would likely be told that everyone is equal, that differences like skin color have no bearing on a person’s value or dignity.   It is deeply inscribed in our national DNA that that “all men are created equal,” and that racism is a glaring violation of this self-evident moral truth.

Here is where Nietzsche joins the conversation.  He viewed the modern idea of equality with disdain, and as anything but a self-evident moral truth.  Indeed, he saw the idea of equality as a dishonest and sentimental product of Christian morality that began in a “slave revolt” led by the Jews.  This “slave morality” was fundamentally opposed to the aristocratic morality that valued strength, power, domination, and beauty, and looked down on those who lacked these things as inferior beings.

Nietzsche put the matter like this: “The doctrine of equality!…But there exists no more poisonous poison: for it seems to be preached by justice itself, while it is the termination of justice….’Equality for equals, inequality for unequals’—that would be the true voice of justice: and, what follows from it, ‘Never make equal what is unequal’” (Ellipses in original).

As he saw it then, the notion of equality is a fiction invented by the weak to protect themselves from the strong,   It has no basis in reality.  And certainly, if you try to make the case for equality on empirical or scientific grounds, it is a hard case to advance.  All people are most certainly NOT equal in strength, ability, talent, intelligence, health, beauty, and so on.  That is the reality that was recognized and exploited with no sense of shame by the aristocratic morality that Nietzsche celebrated.

Of course, many Americans might appeal to the larger context of those words I cited above from The Declaration of Independence, namely, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We are all created equal by God, it might be urged, and He has endowed us with certain rights, and THIS is why equality is not merely a sentimental or patriotic slogan.  We are equal in dignity and value before the Creator of the universe and that is far more profound reality than any differences that can be measured in terms of strength, intelligence, beauty, and so on, not to mention even more superficial differences like skin color.

Certainly the idea that we are CREATED, that we were deliberately designed to exist by an intelligent Being who is perfectly good, provides a powerful resource to ground human dignity and equality.  Such a God is better equipped to endow us with rights and dignity than any merely naturalistic process of evolution guided by nothing more than impersonal forces of natural law.

However, a serious appeal to a Creator comes at a price.  For any Creator worthy of serious belief must be acknowledged as far more than a guarantor of human equality.  More specifically, any God worthy of belief will ground other moral obligations as well as the obligation to oppose racism.

And here is where our divided soul is painfully obvious.  Our culture is deeply relativistic on many, perhaps most moral issues, ranging from abortion to marijuana use to extramarital sex.  Indeed, part of the irony in the Sterling story is that the person who made public the tape of the phone conversation is Sterling’s mistress!  Now the fact that this woman is allegedly having an extramarital affair with Sterling, who is still married, is not even an issue.  That does not even register a blip on our moral radar.

Indeed, the mistress culture is part of the norm in the NBA, where many players are notorious for having multiple children with multiple mistresses. Moreover, the mistress culture is arguably itself a version of domination and exploitation by the powerful.  Every now and again, there is a story about this, but it hardly raises an eyebrow. Worse, we are a nation that tolerates late term abortions, including partial birth abortions.   But let some public figure utter racist sentiments in a personal conversation, and it will create a national furor, and the condemnation and punishment will be swift and severe.

Again, what makes this so ironic is that Nietzsche is one of, if not THE, main fountainhead of the moral relativism that is so prevalent in western culture.  His radical rejection of Christian morality, and his claim that morality is very much a historically conditioned phenomenon with a thoroughly human “genealogy” is a widely entrenched belief in contemporary secular culture.   Nietzsche urged “free spirits” to throw off the yoke of traditional morality, and heartily indulge their natural instincts, whether the instinct to fornicate or to dominate the weak.

Here in a nutshell is the divided soul of western morality. It wants no moral restraint on the first, but absolute moral restraints on the latter.  The question is how long we can sustain our moral outrage for selected issues, while lacking a principled reason for doing so.

Nietzsche would chide contemporary culture for affirming the instinct to fornicate, but lacking the courage to affirm the instinct to dominate.  He poured his scorn on his fellow modern Europeans for rejecting belief in Christianity, while holding to all or parts of Christian morality.  He was convinced that the two stand or fall together, and it was only a matter of time until the moral principles which seemed so self-evident to them would lose their luster.  He wrote: “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality….If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing  to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands.”

America is still a nation of selective moral passion.  We can still get worked up about certain issues.  But it’s much less clear how much moral substance we have left in our hands.

Model Search (or, Recognizing Authority)

Some years ago, just as I was finishing my dissertation, an old friend gave me a friendly warning about a pitfall that I would soon encounter.  He said to me, “You know, the problem is, once you are a “Dr.” people think you are an expert in everything.”  While he was exaggerating a bit, it is true that the letters Ph.D. behind one’s name lend authority to whatever that person says.  And my old friend was mostly right: once I graduated, people frequently responded to the letters behind my name.  One day I was a guy who had been in school way too long and the next day I was somebody worth listening to. 

What is true authority? Why ought we to listen to and pattern our lives after someone? We all need examples of how to live, and nothing instructs like flesh-and-blood. He who has no model is frequently adrift and unhappy, and he who follows a poor example may not realize that his unhappiness stems from it. What causes us to follow poor examples? Allow me to consider a couple of errant paths that are rooted in limited authority.

Authority is not merely given by conferred status. I may address a priest as “Father,” but according to Jesus, my trash collector may have more real authority. When the Jews challenged Jesus’s authority at the temple, he replied, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” (John 7:16-18) The priest has the “authority” to carry out offices within the church, and as a parishioner, I do have to respect his “official” authority. But Jesus clearly separates true authority from false, and he who pursues his own glory should not be an example, even if he is a priest. Ideally, the conferred authority also has true authority, but frequently the two do not coincide.

A second species of limited authority is not conferred but merely limited to a “particular virtue”. I often read that an athlete has been cut from a team despite his near limitless talent, and the cause is typically a life of vice. Let’s get it through our heads that so many people have all kinds of particular talents with little talent for living. If I want to rebound a basketball like Dennis Rodman, then by all means, I should study his every move. Write a story? Look to Oscar Wilde. Design a house? Imitate Frank Lloyd Wright. But from what I read, I ought to forget everything else about their wayward lives.

Those men were each excellent in their particular way, and the world glorified them for their talent.  Jesus’ words in John 7 and his whole life show, however, that he who does the will of God and does not seek his own glory is the one we should take for our authority.  Jesus himself was and is the authority, but in so far as some people imitate him, they too are authorities. 

I frequently find models in people who have little in the way of worldly glory. My own mother and mother-in-law will not make the headlines, but they have lived well. My former priest has authority in my life, and so does a friend who grew up in inner city Los Angeles. None of these people will go down in history, be rich, or steer large institutions. But they each know how to love God and those around them. They have the right end in view, and their lives are a constant reminder of how I ought to live. 

Homosexual Behavior and Fornication: Intimate Bedfellows

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A former student recently asked me why so much of the Christian community has gone silent in face of the growing acceptance of homosexual behavior in our culture. The reasons are no doubt complicated and multifaceted, but let me venture to take a stab at one of the factors I believe is at heart of it.

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