Thursday, May 17, 2007

An Unpopular Opinion

In the wake of Jerry Falwell's death, I happened to catch an interview on MSNBC with a Jewish rabbi (can't remember his name unfortunately) who had interacted with and debated Falwell on a number of occasions. In contrasting himself with Falwell, he said something very interesting, and, no doubt, very popular - "I believe religion should bring us all together, rather than divide us." It's a common sentiment that is used in secular discourse about the preferred role of religion in society, not to mention what religion's highest goal should be. But as much as I'd like to agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, I'm not really sure I can in the end, and I have no doubt that this conclusion is a very unpopular one.

In thinking about the rabbi's statement, the first thing that pops into my mind is one major historical message behind all 3 major monotheistic religions and even Hinduism. That message being that we as human beings are under the authority of a higher being and/or a higher law. Discarding for the moment the significant differences between each religion regarding the nature of this higher being(s) and the tenets of the higher law(s), the idea that we are accountable to some higher authority is hardly the basis for human unity and togetherness, especially in America. Americans have a proud tradition of embracing self-determination, rebelling against authority, paving our own road, making our own luck, and refusing to be boxed in by rules or authorities. Put simply, we like to make our own rules, and consider this to be a basic right and a basic litmus test of 'authentic' freedom. In America, the idea that we are beholden to a higher authority is immediately construed as a move to limit individual freedom, liberty, and autonomy. Put simply, it is not a belief that conjures up joyous unity in its truth, but angry disunity in its implications.

And let's be clear - this isn't just a dynamic that exists between theists and nontheists. While not every difference between religions can be explained by this, the fact is that many differences between religions, and within religions, are greatly impacted by how people come down on the question of (to put it crudely) what degree we are our own kingmakers. This greatly impacts our understanding of God's sovereignty, and perhaps more relevantly, his providence.

In America, where the cultural tide clearly embraces self-determination and autonomy, it is foolish to think that this doesn't have a significant impact on the theological orientation we bring to the Scriptures, or that it isn't a severely complicating factor in the ability of religion to 'bring us all together'. I agree that religion has the ability to move us closer to unity. But it also has the ability to move us toward division. Scripture speaks very frankly about both dynamics and that both unity and disunity can be both righteous and sinful under different circumstances.

If the Genesis account of the Fall describes the human race plunging into sin as a result of wanting to be like God, the America I know is very consistent in indulging this urge today. A well respected Jewish author (who's name I again cannot remember) once remarked that it's no accident that Mormonism is America's unique contribution to world spirituality. Why? Because Mormonism in its pure form promises that we will be 'little Gods' reigning over our own worlds. This author rightly remarked that there is nothing more American than that. In order for 'religion to bring us all together', this mentality, a mentality that has existed since the Fall of man, will have to be undone, since it is radically autonomous, individualistic, and therefore resistant to a higher unifying law and Being to which we are wholly accountable. To say that the totality of our being is completely and absolutely beholden to the lordship of Christ is anathema to the mentality of self-determination, and stands opposed to it. In this respect, 'religion' will not bring people together, because it proposes an outlook and vantage point that is deeply offensive to most reigning notions of human autonomy that have a spurning of authority as their default setting.

The solution to this impasse is usually to accommodate religion to the culture and make it more palatable on this question. But as unpopular as it is, I just don't think that's the answer. That doesn't mean we become harshly divisive separatists who are uniformly derisive of those who don't see the world the way we do. But it does mean that there are times when we must charitably but unapologetically part company with the wisdom of the world on a number of very basic things, realizing that Kingdom eschatology is not just a neat theological prism, but a street-level reality.


ukrainiac said...

In one of the chapters of Piper's book What Jesus Demands from the World:

“…in our time in history, love is often contrasted with the defense of truth. That is not what Jesus demonstrates. Not here or anywhere. If someone had said to Jesus the words, ‘Love unites; doctrine divides,’ I think Jesus would have looked deep into that person’s soul and said, ‘True doctrine is the root of love. Therefore, whoever opposes it, destroys the root of unity.’”

Piper continues: “…unlike so many who compromise the truth to win a following, Jesus did the opposite. Unbelief in his hearers confirmed that a deep change was needed in them, not in the truth. …when the truth does not produce the response you want — when it does not “work” — you don’t abandon the truth. Jesus is not a pragmatist when it comes to loving people with the truth. You speak it, and if it does not win belief, you do not consider changing the truth. You pray that your hearers will be awakened and changed by the truth.”

Turretinfan said...

Religion not divide us?

That can be spoken only by someone who does not take his religion seriously, particularly when the person's religion is Judaism.

The Torah specifically divides the Jews from the non-Jews, and virtually every religion makes a similar distinction between those within the religion and those outside the religion.


The Seeking Disciple said...

I agree 100% with your post. As a disciple of Christ I must stand for the truth no matter what it cost me (John 16:33). The truth does matter and we stand for the Truth incarnate (John 1:17; 14:6).

I would encourage you all to read Dr. John MacArthur's great book, THE TRUTH WAR. MacArthur does a masterful job of showing how truth is being attacked not only by the world and its system but even by those claiming to follow Christ.

Anonymous said...

Justin says...

J. Matthew, I don't know if you visit other people's blogs, but I just wanted to let you know that I have my own up and running, and I wanted to invite you to it. You can find me at It is pretty empty right now, but I should have articles in there soon.

J. Matthew Cleary said...


Welcome to the blogosphere! I've already linked to you. Don't be a stranger now that you've got your own blog!