Allan Bloom on Our Moral and Political Language

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.  Maybe it’s his grouchy style, but I’ve found it enjoyably challenging. It’s the sort of book that I wish I could read with ease but can’t- considering the numerous threads of intellectual history that he is weaving into a coherent narrative. The quote below is an example of a typical passage. His comments about what our language reveals about our thinking are instructive.

41Q1DmHSlmLWhen President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” right-thinking persons joined in an angry chorus of protest against such provocative rhetoric. At other times Mr. Reagan has said that the United States and the Soviet Union “have different values” (italics added), an assertion that those same persons greet at worst with silence and frequently with approval. I believe he thought he was saying the same thing in both instances, and the different reaction to his different words introduces us to the most important and most astonishing phenomenon of our time, all the more astonishing in being almost unnoticed: there is now an entirely new language of good and evil, originating in an attempt to get “beyond good and evil” and preventing us from talking with any conviction about good and evil anymore. Even those who deplore our current moral condition do so in the very language that exemplifies that condition.

The new language is that of value relativism, and it constitutes a change in our view of things moral and political as great as the one that took place when Christianity replaced Greek and Roman paganism.  A new language always reflects a new point of view, and the gradual, unconscious popularization of new words, or of old words used in new ways, is a sure sign of a profound change in people’s articulation of the world. When bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. It was henceforward inevitable that the modern archbishops of Canterbury would have no more in common with the ancient ones than does the second Elizabeth from the first.

-Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,  1987), p. 141

Sick Societies Need Politics

One of the loveliest things about blogs today is that bloggers have the ability to make their writing visible in a way unparalleled before the advent of the personal computer. This also happens to be one of the worst things about blogs today. I tell you this not because I want you to stop visiting my blog, but because I want to make sure you know on the front end that the observation about politics that I hope to make is very, very basic.

Along with a number of my generation (Millennials, I’m told), I have described the American political situation with frustration, disappointment, or- depending on the time of year- complete apathy. We’ve developed differing responses to these emotions, but some have suggested leaving the game entirely.

In the last major election I decided to get involved. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the American government so I could have an informed vote. Turns out, (who would have thought?) I didn’t find candidates in my party who perfectly represented my sophomoric aspirations. I also found that it would take more than Google and a copy of the Constitution to understand our modern social economic situation. Things looked so much more straightforward in my high school textbooks. To top it off,  mounting social evils that regularly appear in the news don’t exactly invite political optimism.

politics-religionSo, as I transitioned from an enthusiastic to a disillusioned millennial, the idea that Christians didn’t really need a place in the civics of ‘this passing world’ became more appealing. My enthusiasm decayed to apathy. What good can politics do? What I failed to see in this process was that I was already making a political decision. When I decided to opt out of certain conversations and activities, I made a political contribution inconsistent with my own worldview.

However, I’m not saying that there are not well-developed Christian thinking that maintains that our involvement with the State should be minimized. I am saying that the attitude, grounded in frustration or apathy, which insists that our modern political system is too broken to fix (or even use) seems historically naïve. From the ancients to the present, political life has tended to be messy. Messy, but not useless. That said, I think that Lewis -by no means a political enthusiast, captures perfectly, as he is wont, the fact that there is a healthy balance to the weight with which Christians can devote attention to politics:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease. — C.S. Lewis

Repentance as Cultural Engagement

…From whence I have often since observed, how incongruous and irrational the common temper of mankind is, especially of youth, to that reason which ought to guide them in such cases, viz., that they are not ashamed to sin, and yet are ashamed to repent; not ashamed of the action, for which they ought justly to be esteemed fools; but are ashamed of the returning, which only can make them be esteemed wise men.  ~ Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Repentance

Pride is the anti-gospel. It promises exaltation but ultimately belittles. In the passage above, Defoe says we’re unashamed to sin, yet we’re too ashamed to repent. I know by experience what he’s describing. In the past, I have worked myself into a shameless rage only to refuse the one remedy to restore relationships and show that I possessed an ounce of wisdom- repentance.

The apostle Paul argued that this problem is deep rooted, permeating any culture that we encounter. Mankind doesn’t see fit to acknowledge God (Romans 1:28), and it replaces a life of praise to God with a life of praise to every god that it can create.

How does this point us to the cultural implications of this problem? Our culture, no matter its strengths or advances, has incurred the wrath of God (Romans 1:18) by its spiraling tendency to self-preeminence.

The church can be tempted to leave it there. “Yep, the world is a mess. It doesn’t know God.” The real brokenness is out there. But Paul wrote Romans 2, among other reasons, to remind us that we stand in the same fearful need. Here is where we have a wonderful chance to remind ourselves of what it means to take the gospel to our culture and see its ability to use us in our brokenness and failures.

If repentance and faith are our means of relating to God, then these characteristics should lie at the foundation of the life of the church. A repentant and believing church shows how powerful the gospel is by demonstrating that faith and repentance aren’t just things that we did at one point in the past- it’s our working out the salvation begun in us (Philippians 2:12-13). Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you –unless you believed in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:1-2

Make no mistake about it, your salvation is still happening. Ultimately, these gospel realities show to the watching world that the gospel matters- all the time. If I am truly communing with the Lord in faith and repentance, the people I interact with will see that, quoth the hymn: “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” He will root out the self-righteousness in me and thereby free me to truly engage culture as an humbled minister of reconciliation.

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance. ~ Martin Luther

Refresh Your Thirsty Neighbor

This is a guest post by Rich Powell, pastor of Grace Bible Church in Winston Salem, NC. You can find out more about him here or hear his expositions of Scripture at gbcnc.org. This post is reprinted with the gracious permission of the author. 

Imagine having to endure a week with no running water and no convenient source of water. Imagine having to even hunt for water. Common in Scripture is the imagery of a spring or a well as a source of refreshment in an arid land. Great would be the disappointment of a polluted spring or a dried up well.

Refreshing waterWe are surrounded by thirsty people and this Proverb speaks of the mouth as a source of reviving drink. It is not just any mouth, however, but the mouth of the righteous. When the righteous opens his mouth, what comes out issues from a heart inclined toward God. God Himself is the “fountain of living water,” and as we drink deep from the river of His pleasures (Ps. 36:8) we become a source of refreshment to others. The mouth, more than just an organ of speech, manifests one’s character and disposition (Luke 6:45). Jesus painted a clear picture of this when He declared: Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:38).

As the Christian speaks to another, what is described in this proverb is more than just positive air. The righteous speaks that which is morally strengthening, intellectually elevating, and inwardly reviving– words of encouragement, grace, and hope because it comes from the nature of God that resides within. The antithesis: “violence covers the mouth of the wicked,” is to issue deceitful words that conceal the ambition of self-advantage – words that spew out of the polluted spring of self-preeminence. All such communication has its origin in the Father of lies.

We can gleam from this proverb a clear exhortation and some profound encouragement. Judge every word you speak: does it proceed from the mind of Christ or does it betray a deep seated selfishness? Remember this: your mouth is a powerful instrument to benefit others. Do not dam it up or let the well go dry. As you delight in the Lord, open up the floodgates and refresh your thirsty neighbor.