John B. Thompson
After much holiday feasting (including pears and asparagus), it’s fun to feast one’s mind on big questions, such as “what is human nature?” Carl R. Trueman, in his recent book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, expands on such questions. Are we creatures of a fallen world, sinful in our being and in need of redemption? Or are we innocents, basically good and only corrupted by societal influences? Contemporary culture, in its multiple forms and forces suggests the latter, but this is not a new idea—this aspect of anti-Christ thinking has been in the works for a few generations of thinkers from the early Enlightenment period to the present.
With that in mind, let me introduce our players for today: 4th century theologian and bishop, St. Augustine, and the 18th century philosopher jean-Jacques Rousseau. Both were thieves in their younger days and both later confessed their wanton behavior and the life-lesson learned in written memoirs. Augustine, in a youthful misadventure with his friends, decided that it would be fun to steal the pears from a neighbor’s tree. They had no intent on eating or sharing them, just the thrill of stealing itself, and no doubt the fun of throwing them around and having a good time at someone else’s expense. And what did Augustine learn from this event? Upon reflection he recognized the corruption in his human nature—in other words, sin. He enjoyed stealing and the rebellious acts of destruction. Augustine’s was a rueful reflection in which he recognized his need for redemption that could only come from Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.
Rousseau, centuries later, also a produce thief, stole some asparagus at a friend’s behest. But his life lesson was rather different: having rejected Christ, Rousseau determined that he was innocent (for who needs a savior if there is no sin). And with regard to the absconded asparagus, ‘society made him do it.’ Rousseau reasoned that his human nature was pure, and it was only the need for food paired with the influence of friends that led him to steal. More generally, he figured that it is only our need for recognition, competition, and perhaps a dose of resentment for those more fortunate than ourselves, that leads us to such things as throwing pears or stealing asparagus (or what have you). Sin was irrelevant: it is not a corrupt human nature that leads to bad behavior, it is a corrupt human society that leads otherwise innocent individuals to ‘bad’ behavior.
So what am I learning? From the sea of increasingly aggressive secular culture and media that we all swim in (which is also infecting churches these days), I am learning that the idea of sin and the need for a savior is being elided (that is, not just denied, which requires an idea to be presented and negated, but ignored, eliminated, erased…). The intent to dismantle what would become Christianity has a long history dating back to the very beginning (think serpent, sin…), and more recently in the supposedly enlightened thought of folks like Rousseau (and Marx, Nietzche, Freud, etc.). Over the past several decades, numerous anti-Christ philosophies (e.g. postmodernism) were mostly just the abstract play things of academics. But that time has passed and these ideas have gone mainstream, including eliding Christian concepts such as sin.
So what should we do about it? Many things to be sure (Rod Dreher can help with details), but for now I will say that we must be vigilant consumers, whatever the source (TV, film, books, news, social media, etc.). and we must not just be reactive, or negative, about this phenomenon, but instead be positive (not Pollyannaish)—we need to reintroduce and reiterate the authentic, historic, biblical Christian worldview, whether about sin, salvation, resurrection or otherwise. Above all we should do this with the kindness of Christ, sharing the hope we have in Him in our attitudes and behavior. And of course, we must critically consume media (and the culture in general) with our children, and teach them to recognize the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that secularism seeks to undermine truth, beauty and goodness, and instead supplant those ideas with faith, hope and love.