Friday, May 22, 2009

The Importance of Truth

Blaise Pascal observed in his book Pensees “When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship. When everyone is moving towards depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops, he shows up the others who are rushing on by acting as a fixed point.” As long as everyone is fitting in with the crowd, no one stands out. We all appear normal. Anyone who stands out appears to be abnormal. The modern equivalent of the first part of Pascal’s thought might be the phrase “everyone is doing it”, as though mass involvement legitimizes whatever “it” is. The modern equivalent of the second part of Pascal’s sentence might be “dare to be different”.

In a day before our modern navigational tools, lighthouses served as a fixed point for ships seeking the entry point of a safe harbor. Without the lighthouse beacon, sailing ships were in great danger of capsizing on the shoals near the coast. They needed that fixed point to steer by. Many shipwrecks occurred when they couldn’t see the light that would guide them safely into the harbor.

Like a ship’s captain, we also need fixed points in our lives to guide us. They provide us with a moral compass. In former times the Ten Commandments along with the commands of Jesus and of the Apostle Paul provided that function. The Bible was thought of as containing absolutes that governed how we were to live our lives. Even if we didn’t always follow them, we still believed in them.

But today we live in a world that no longer believes in absolutes. “Truth” for one person may well be “falsehood” for another. We no longer have absolute standards to focus upon to guide our lives. Anything that purports to come from a higher standard, such as the Ten Commandments or the Bible, is often rejected. We have seen this in the treatment given to Miss California 2009, Carrie Prejean whose views on marriage were in sharp contrast to those of one of the judges. But without such standards, we merely drift along. Without absolutes we are like a ship without a rudder. We have lost a fixed reference point in the relativistic culture in which we live. We have nothing with which to steer the course of our lives. As Pascal says, when society is all moving together in a downward trend, we don’t even realize we have moved. Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan described this process as “driving deviancy down”. He used this phrase to describe the process whereby over time the things that used to be unacceptable in society become acceptable, and even the norm.

The loss of absolute truth leads to a loss of moral and ethical standards. Their loss leads further to a breakdown of society. Over this past year we have seen fraud and greed in the financial market. Many of the individuals being tapped for high level positions in the Obama administration have had tax problems. Nancy Pelosi is having difficulties with the truthfulness of her knowledge of the use of torture. These all indicate a lack of moral character. It is becoming more and more difficult to have trust.

But before becoming too judgmental, we need to examine our own lives. What compass is guiding us in our day to day lives? What standards and absolutes do we hold to? What are the fixed points we steer our lives by? As we intersect with the relativistic culture in which we live we must each ask ourselves “Do I stand out or do I fit in with the crowd?”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Value of Hypocrisy

A hypocrite is defined as “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings”. While it is sometimes applied to successful, respected individuals in the secular community, it is most often applied to those of a religious persuasion and of the church. In most cases, a hypocrite puts on a false appearance of pious virtue. Many people point to hypocrites as the reason for their objection of Christianity. Unfortunately, there is truth to their assertions, for we are all sinners who do not live up to the standards and virtues that we proclaim.

Yet in one sense hypocrites have an important role in society. They point to certain things that are good and proper. Under the definition above, hypocrisy applies equally to holy men and women as well as sexual perverts, child pornographers, gangsters and terrorists. If they are not consistently acting in accord with their stated beliefs, they are hypocrites. Thus the avowed child pornographer, the avowed hit man, and the avowed terrorist who are refraining from acting in accord with their beliefs are hypocrites. The gangster who puts on a façade of being a respectable citizen is also a hypocrite.

But why is it that the majority of people who are labeled as hypocrites come from a Christian perspective? Why doesn’t society label non-practicing child pornographers, gangsters, terrorists and gluttons as hypocrites? Why does it only seem to apply to religious and virtuous people who fail? John Mark Reynolds, in an essay on notes that “Hypocrites are drawn to the great things, because they use them for their own ends.” He adds: “Perversely the very success of moral men tempts the immoral to try to gain the benefits of virtue without the work.” It’s interesting that it doesn’t work the other way around. We never refer to those who have fallen away from their immoral lifestyle as hypocrites. We don’t try to put on a façade of immorality while actually living moral lives. It is only those who have fallen from a higher moral plain whom are called hypocrites.

Since the time of Jesus, the church has always spoken out against hypocrisy, even in its own midst (although sometimes not as quick as it should). Yet hypocrisy has its place. It points beyond itself to something better. It gives us nostalgia for a higher moral plain. It points to a wistful desire for something beyond us that is good and right and moral and proper. It causes us to compare our own lives with God’s standard so that we can see where we ourselves are lacking. When looking at the lives of individuals whose hypocrisy has been exposed, have you ever asked yourself “How close am I to doing that same thing?” It’s a worthwhile question to ask.

This is not to say that society needs more hypocrites. We would be better off is there were none. But hypocrisy does show us more of God’s standards for society and helps us to be accountable to them. It allows society to affirm what is good. It also provides a check and balance for those of us who embrace the Christian faith, allowing us to see more of how God desires us to live our lives. It points to a standard, outside of ourselves, to which we are accountable. So the next time someone calls you a hypocrite, be thankful. Their condemnation of your behavior just might just be the voice of God, calling you to repentance and a renewed relationship with him.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Freedom of Conscience

We live in interesting times. More and more we are being told what we can or cannot believe and practice. Much of this is being done through legislation. In Great Britain, Christian adoption agencies can no longer refuse to place children with gay couples. Some agencies have closed their doors rather than comply with the new law. Others have conformed, feeling that it is better to help some children than none at all. The archbishop of York stated that "The freedom of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation however well-meaning." The Freedom of Choice Act and the Hate Crimes Act, if they are passed in our country, could have similar effects upon us. Those in the medical field might be required to perform or assist in abortions in both their training and practices, no matter what their conscience dictates. Unless they acquiesce, they might lose their license to practice medicine. Pastors and priests might be arrested and charged with violating the Hate Crimes Act if they preach a sermon against homosexuality. The question has been raised, in semi seriousness, how long before they have to run their sermons by their church’s legal team before delivering them to their congregation? In addition, faith based ministries that accept federal funds may be prohibited from evangelizing or refusing to hire people who have differing religious beliefs.

The Freedom of Choice Act is, by its very nature, hypocritical. It implies that some people have the freedom to choose while others do not. Thus it makes a mockery of both “freedom” and “choice”. The Hate Crimes Act is full of political correctness. It only protects those individuals and organizations that are considered politically correct. Those not politically correct bear the brunt of the law, but are not protected if someone speaks against them. The Act is really not needed since there are already laws on the books that protect all citizens and institutions against personal attacks.

These potential laws open up Pandora’s Box. In many ways they are only the beginning. How long before other controversial things come under attack? How long before doctors are required to assist in suicides? How long before religious adoption agencies are required to place children for adoption with unmarried or gay couples? Will ministers and priests be forced to marry same sex couples even though it offends their conscience? Will parents be forced to put their children in state run schools even though they prefer other alternatives? Where will it all stop? How long before we find that we have lost the freedom of conscience?

If and when these things happen, we will find ourselves facing intense pressure to conform. Careers will be at stake, loss of licenses a reality, incarceration and huge fines a likely possibility, and the continuation of good work done by numerous organizations threatened. Our economic livelihood will be jeopardized – all in the name of “choice”. We need to always remember that without freedom of conscience there is no freedom. Without freedom of conscience we are all slaves to whoever is in control. We are bound to his or her whim, required to obey his commands. We become merely a puppet on a string, only doing exactly as the puppeteer wishes. Without freedom of conscience we will find ourselves again and again in the position of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin. When commanded to stop preaching in Jesus’ name, they responded “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (Acts 4:19). Will we, at that time, also resist the pressure to conform? Or will we accept the security of servitude?