Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: Existentialism

THE HUMAN TRAGEDY OF SIN

4.2.7

Frans Hals: Young Man with a Skull

“There is a way that seems right to a man,

But its end is the way of way of death.”

(Prov. 14:12; 16:25; NKJV)

 

King Solomon was a man who had seen a lot during his lifetime, and writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his collected wisdom is found in the Book of Proverbs.  And the proverb before us encapsulates a pertinent observation about human behavior.  “There is a way that seems right to a man.”  The “way” is the path of life in life down which we choose to go.  And for many of us there is a particular path that “seems right” – it looks like just the thing we want.  It looks enticing and advantageous.  It appeals to our sense of self-interest.  “But its end {final outcome] is the way of death.”  It eventually leads to destruction and death.  What started out looking very promising turned out in the end to be a disaster.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the course of modern Western history.  The ‘60’s were a time of radical experimentation and change.  The Viet Nam War had provoked a widespread revolt against “the Establishment” which came to a head during the Chicago riots of 1968.  Disillusioned many turned to “sex and drugs and rock-n-roll,” culminating in the Woodstock Festival of 1969.  President Nixon managed to get us out of the war by 1973, and the anti-war protests died down.  The hippies of the late ‘60’s graduated from college and became the “Yuppies” of the ‘70’s – young, upwardly mobile professionals  seeking to climb the corporate ladder.

But in many ways the legacy of the ‘60’s remains today.  The sexual revolution and radical feminism changed the way Americans looked at sex, gender roles and marriage.  In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in a decisive break with Judeo-Christian morality.  And the Stonewall Riot of 1969 marked the beginning of the Gay Rights movement.

But where has all of this led us?  Today 40% of all live births in America are to unmarried women (in 1970 it was 10.7%), and 23% of all children are living in households headed by a single female parent.  The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan could cite studies that showed that children from single parent families were far more likely to do poorly in school, live in poverty, and become involved in crime (Family and Nation, 1986).  We have created social dysfunction on a massive scale.

The underlying problem lies in the philosophical assumptions of the Cultural Revolution of the ‘60’s.  Unlike prior reform movements such as the Abolitionism of 1830’s – 50’s or the Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century, the young rebels of the ‘60’s basically took a secular approach to social reform.  There was no clear-cut, unifying ideology, but there were several influences at work.  One of them was Neo-Marxism.  Karl Marx had predicted a social revolution based on an economic class conflict.  But by the 1950’s his predictions had largely turned out to be false.  The Proletariat had not risen up and overthrown the Bourgeoisie in a violent revolution.  Marx’s theory was then redefined in terms of social and cultural conflict.  People are oppressed and dehumanized by the “bourgeois” values of middle class America.  This set the stage for identity politics: one disadvantaged group after another felt oppressed by the white, patriarchal, Eurocentric Establishment.

Another major influence at work in the ‘60’s was Existentialism.  Here the emphasis was on the radical autonomy of the individual.  Concrete human existence precedes any defining essence.  There is no divinely established order to the universe, and therefore we should be free to define ourselves as we please.  The Existential influence was especially felt in the Feminist Movement through the writing of Simone de Beauvoir.  Gender roles are artificial and oppressive and should be discarded.  This eventually led to the LGBT movement and the idea that we should be allowed to choose our own gender.

And behind all of this lies the legacy of the Romantic Movement with its emphasis on individual freedom and self-expression.  And it undoubtedly had a special appeal to Americans with our heritage of freedom, democracy and free-market Capitalism.  It suited the consumer mentality of a generation that grew up in the prosperity of the ‘50’s and could take a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for granted.

The problem with all of this, however, was its secularism.  Both Neo-Marxism and Existentialism were atheistic.  In our sin and rebellion we refuse to acknowledge God as our Creator and Lord.  We want social justice, but refuse to accept God as the source of morality.  But on a secular basis it is virtually impossible to establish any kind of spiritual reality that would allow us to escape from the materialism of modern industrial society.  We wound up replacing the materialistic “bourgeois” values of our parents with “sex and drugs and rock-n-roll.”  We replaced materialism with outright hedonism. It was hardly the triumph of idealism.

But we are still human beings created in the image of God, and we are still accountable to Him.  In the end sin never benefits anyone.  At first it holds out the prospect of freedom and pleasure.  But in the end there is a long trail of broken relationships, ruined health and wrecked finances, and eventually eternal destruction.  We live in a universe created by God; and when we ignore His laws and go our own ways, we invite disaster.  That was the tragedy of the ‘60’s, and that is the tragedy today.  Calling sin “sin” is not being hateful or bigoted – it is simply giving an honest diagnosis in hope of a cure.

“There is a way that seems right to a man,

But its way is the way of death.”

 

THE SECOND SEX

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Simone de Beauvoir

 

Review:

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir

H.M. Parshley, trans.

Vintage Books, 1974

814 pp., pb.

 

The American publisher of The Second Sex calls it “the classic manifesto of the liberated woman,” and so it is.  Simone de Beauvoir was a longtime close associate of Jean-Paul Sartre, and as such was close to the center of the French Existentialist movement.  And yet in some ways she came to have an influence far greater and more lasting than of Sartre or Camus.  It is because her book really was destined to be “the classic manifesto” of the Feminist Movement, and as such it has had a profound effect on Western culture and society.

The book is quite lengthy (814 pages) and devotes a great deal of space to describing in detail the condition of womanhood from birth through childhood, marriage and motherhood.  It is a dreary picture of subservience and drudgery, of women not being able to reach their full potential as human beings due to the male domination of society.  Throughout it all she insists that there are no purely natural differences between the genders.  The apparent differences in behavior that we see in day to day life are the result of social pressure and conditioning.  It is human society, civilization, that has put women in this position, and if we could change society to permit the full development of women’s potential, women could compete with men on an equal basis.

De Beauvoir sees the problem, naturally, through the lens of Existentialist philosophy.  Throughout her discussion she sees herself as an autonomous being who seeks to be an active “subject” who “transcends” her natural circumstances to shape her own destiny, rather than a passive “object” who is trapped in the “immanence” of her environment.  The goal of life, then, is not “happiness,” which can be achieved by being a loyal and devoted family member, but liberty, in which you are free to pursue you own dreams and ambitions.

Throughout her book de Beauvoir emphasizes the role of environment as opposed to heredity in shaping the human personality; but she is opposed to any form of naturalistic determinism.  She scarcely mentions the role of hormones in influencing the way a woman thinks and acts.  “. . .it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural, and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilization . . . Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relations to the world are modified through the actions of others than herself” (p. 806).  She concludes, then, that “woman is the victim of no mysterious fatality; the peculiarities that identify her as specifically a woman get their importance from the significance placed upon them.  They can be surmounted, in the future, when they are regarded in new perspectives” (p. 809).  Hence the impulse to write her book.

So according to de Beauvoir, what would an ideal society look like? She points to what the Soviet Revolution originally promised: women would be trained and educated exactly the same as men, and would work for the same wages.  “Erotic liberty was to be recognized by custom.”  A woman would be obligated to support herself financially, and “marriage was to be based on a free agreement that the spouses could break at will; maternity was to be voluntary, which meant that contraception and abortion would be authorized . . .,” and the state “assume charge of the children” (pp. 805-806).  In her discussion about abortion she goes into great detail about problem pregnancies, but scarcely mentions the moral problem involved in taking a human life.

De Beauvoir in particular paints a dreary picture of traditional marriage.  “Marriage is obscene in principle in so far as it transforms into rights and duties those mutual relations which should be founded on a spontaneous urge . . .” (p. 496).

The underlying worldview in all of this, of course, is an Existentialist one.  There is no God.  There are no divine, eternal essences that define reality.  We exist as autonomous beings and are free to choose our own individual destinies.

But what if God actually does exist?  What if we really are created beings designed to fulfill a divinely ordained purpose?  That would mean that the only way society as a whole can function properly, and the only way that we can find individual fulfillment and happiness, is by conforming to the will of the Creator.  In that case neither man nor woman is free just to “be himself,” to pursue his own selfish desires and pleasures.  Rather we are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37, quoting Dt. 6:5; NKJV), and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 39, quoting Lev. 19:18.  And love, in turn, requires that “whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).  Love, the genuine kind of love that God requires, does not act in a selfish or lustful manner, but looks out for the wellbeing of others.   It honors commitments.  It is a self-sacrificing love, a love that imitates Christ.  It is not just that wives are to be subservient to their husbands; both husbands and wives are to be subservient to God.

In a sense, what de Beauvoir is advocating is the very essence of mankind’s rebellion against God.  She could not have stated it in starker terms.  But in the end we must all face divine judgment.

THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch: The Scream, 1893

 

 

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.  While most political conventions are fairly routine and eminently forgettable, this one marked a turning point in American culture.  The country was roiled over the Viet Nam War.  The incumbent President, Lyndon B. Johnson, had decided not to run for reelection.  There were huge ant-war demonstrations in the city which turned into riots.  Hubert Humphrey won the nomination and Richard Nixon won the election.  In the process a whole generation became disillusioned.

Some of us have vivid memories of the dramatic changes that have taken place in American society since.  We remember the relative tranquility of the 1950’s, and then the turbulence of “the Movement,” the counter-culture of the ‘60’s and the Sexual Revolution.  And since then we have witnessed the rise of radical feminism, the legalization of abortion, and skyrocketing divorce rates.  The country we see today is hardly the country we knew back in the ‘50’s.

The fact of the matter is that the changes that we have witnessed in the last fifty years have their roots much further back in time.  And to understand why it is necessary to understand something about the nature of civilization itself.  Civilizations are formed when relatively large groups of people decide to share a settled existence together.  They form governments, establish cities and build infrastructure.  The engage in commerce, pass laws and prepare for their common defense.  They go on to create works of art, music and literature.  And in so doing they create for themselves a standard of living that far surpasses anything they had previously known as primitive tribal peoples with a hunter / gatherer economy.

There is a problem here, however.  Mankind, as a whole, is in a state of rebellion against God.  The motive in creating these civilizations is self-interest.  And while at first a civilization may be built around some sort of civil religion in order to encourage personal sacrifice for the common good, in the end the very success of a civilization is its undoing.  As it becomes rich and prosperous, its citizens become self-indulgent and generally lose interest in religion and patriotism.  “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“Sweet and beautiful it is to die for the Fatherland”) becomes “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

Underlying all of this, however, is a deep philosophical problem.  As fallen, sinful human beings we do not want to acknowledge God as Creator and Lord, Someone whom we must obey.  And so we will create philosophical systems to provide alternative explanations of reality.  But we must still live in a world that was created by the one true and living God.  This creates a tension between fact and theory, between what we would like to think is true and reality as we actually experience it.

In modern Western thought the problem arose through the scientific revolution of the late Renaissance and beyond, culminating in the publication of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) in 1687.  This, coupled with the reaction against the religious wars of the late 16th and early 17th Centuries, led to the development of a purely secular philosophy, one based on pure reason rather than on divine revelation.  Two of the philosophers who led the way in this were Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

What followed was “The Age of Reason” or the “French Enlightenment.”  The world would make rational sense because it was founded on certain immutable laws of nature.  God was the divine watchmaker who created it all, but does not interfere with it after it was created.  The miraculous and supernatural simply do not occur.  And it is possible to make sense of all of this through the use of pure reason alone.  Any kind of divine revelation is unnecessary.

But where does this leave man himself?  If the entire universe functions according to immutable laws of nature, if everything is based on reason and logic, where does that leave the individual human being?  He becomes nothing more than a cog in the vast machine of the universe.  But we are conscious of having feelings and emotions, hopes and desires, and an inner sense of right and wrong.  Thus it would only be a matter of time before there would be a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and that took the form of an essay written in 1754 by Jean Jacques Rousseau entitled “Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men,” in which he argued that human beings are good by nature and are corrupted by civilization.  This, along with his subsequent writings, helped inspire the Romantic Movement of the early 19th Century with its emphasis on individual freedom and self-expression.  The legacy of the Romantic Movement lived on in the form of Existentialism and Post-Modernism, in the bohemian lifestyle and the beat generation.  Thus the central tension in modern Western thought is between nature and freedom, between rationality and irrationality.

What brought the crisis to a head in the late 1960’s were the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War.  As more and more young people became disillusioned with the U.S. Government and the “Establishment” they came to embrace a variety of alternative lifestyles and Counter-culture philosophies, some of them rooted in Neo-Marxism and Existentialism.  Much of the protests died away in the 1970’s, but the Existentialist viewpoint lived on in the writing of Simone de Beauvoir whose famous book The Second Sex became virtually the bible of the Feminist Movement.  The basic premise of the book was Sartre’s – that existence precedes essence, that we exist as autonomous individuals and should be free to define our own essences.  The practical implication (for women) was that gender roles were artificial and confining, and should be done away with.  Later the LGBT movement would take up the battle cry and argue that gay and transgender people should be allowed to define themselves as well.  The result of all of these changes was a loss of faith in universal truths and moral absolutes.  And this, in turn, resulted in social decay.

But all of this began with the Age of Reason and the secularization of Western culture.  If we try to rely on human reason alone, we have to assume that there is a rational order to the universe. But, as we have seen, this reduces man to the role of a cog in the machine.  But if we assume that a human being exists as a free and autonomous individual, then it becomes impossible to establish a rational order to the universe.

The problem with a purely secular worldview is that if we make something other than God as the ultimate reality, we cannot do justice to reality.  We leave something unexplained.  And to complicate matters, man’s reason is finite – we cannot see the whole picture.  How did we get here?  What is the ultimate meaning and purpose of life? What happens to us when we die?  Philosophers have struggled to answer these questions, but have never been able to come up with a convincing answer – just ask another philosopher.  Secular philosophy leads to a dead end.

The only solution is to be found in God – the true and living God, the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth.  And we are dependent upon the revelation which He has given us in the Bible to give us the answers to life’s great existential questions.  Only then can we achieve our full potential as human being created in His image.

WHAT IS MAN?

 

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One of the greatest riddles in modern thought involves the most intimate of all questions: what is man?  One would think that if we knew anything at all we would what we are – we would know ourselves.  And yet in modern secular thought we are largely a mystery to ourselves.

The problem is that the question of man’s identity is closely tied to the question of man’s origins.  Most modern thinkers believe that we are the product of evolution, a blind, purposeless natural process.  To them there is no such thing as “Intelligent Design.”  But this has created a dilemma for the modern thinker.  On the one hand it has led some to try to explain human behavior in terms of pure biology – we are physical organisms, and our thought processes are purely the result of brain chemistry.  But certain other thinkers, most notably Existentialist philosophers, try to argue that we exist as autonomous individuals, and are thus free to define ourselves as we please.  We exist first and acquire and “essence” or identity as we go through life and interact with other human beings.

But both of these viewpoints represent a radical departure from traditional Western thought.  The ancient Greeks sensed that there was something special about man, that we were rational beings and not mere animals.  We are self-conscious.  We have a sense of right and wrong.  We communicate with each other through language.  And we are conscious of our own mortality.  The purpose of education, moreover, was to help us reach our full potential.  But that, in turn, implied that there was a kind of ideal humanity that we should all strive to become – a sound mind in a sound body.

But human behavior itself is problematical.  We have a sense of what is right, but often we do what is wrong.  There are character traits that we admire and others that we detest.  But why?  Animals do not think that way.  Clearly we are not mere beasts and animals.  But how did we become so different?

The biblical answer is that we were created by God to be special, but then fell from our original state of innocence and became corrupt.  “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’  So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:26,27; NKJV).

There are several significant things about this passage.  First of all the existence of man is the result of a prior conscious decision on God’s part.  God first conceived of the idea of “man” (‘adam) and then brought him into actual existence.  In other words, contrary to Existentialist thought, man’s “essence,” his defining characteristics, preceded his existence.  And this, in turn, means that man must conform to a divinely ordained purpose.

Secondly, what makes mankind so special is that we were created in the “image” and “likeness” of God.  There is some way in which we bear a resemblance to God himself.  Exactly what this is is not defined in the text, but the text does go on to say that man is to exercise control over the earthly creation (“let them have dominion over the fish of the sea,” etc.).  This suggests that man functions as God’s vice-regent here on earth.

This is both humbling and uplifting at the same time.  David could look at the starry heavens and exclaim “What is man that You are mindful of him, / And the son of man that You visit him?” (Ps. 8:3,4)  On the one hand man is just a mere speck in the vast expanse of the universe.  But then David goes on to reflect on the special position that man occupies in the creation: “For You have made him a little lower than the angels, / And You have crowned him with glory and honor” (v. 5 – the word translated “angels” could also be translated “God” – NASV or “heavenly beings” – ESV).  David then goes on to say “You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; / You have put all things under his feet . . .” (v. 6) – the animals of land, sky and sea.   Certainly mankind occupies a special place in God’s creation!

But man sinned and fell – he rebelled against God and gave himself to all sorts of passions and vices.

“The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,

To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.

They have all turned aside,

They have together become corrupt;

There is none who does good,

No, not one.”

(Ps. 14:2,3)

What this means is that the human race, as it exists today, is a twisted perversion of what God originally created.  We fall far short of the ideal humanity.  What is involved in salvation, then, is the restoration of the original ideal – of God’s image in man.  “. . . since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him . . .” (Col. 3:9,10).

What all of this means in practical terms is that we have purpose and meaning in life – we were created for a specific purpose and were designed to fulfill a specific role.  And thus there is a specific goal and ambition that we should have in life: to become the kind of human beings that our Creator intended when He made us.

This explains the paradox of the human condition: we sense that we are more than just animals, but that we are not what we should be.  Our inward sense of things is correct, and is confirmed by the revelation that God has given us in His Word.

Man, then, owes his special dignity to the fact that he was created by God in His image.  But that means that we can find happiness and fulfillment in life only by submitting to His will, but becoming the human beings that He intended us to be.

AND THE DEMOCRATS?

          Recently I received criticism from some Facebook friends over my last blog post, entitled “America’s Broken Covenant with God.”  The criticisms centered around the fact that in the opening paragraph I appeared to be criticizing the Republican Party, but said nothing about the Democrats.  Did I honestly think that the Democrats were free of blame for the current mess we’re in?

In this highly charged political atmosphere it is a matter of “be careful, little tongue, what you say.”  But my intention was not to criticize any particular political party.  Rather, it was to draw attention to the fact that there is an oath contained in the Declaration of Independence, and that that oath obligated us to do something.  We, collectively as a nation, have failed to honor our sworn obligation.  I also pointed out, at least indirectly, that the critical decisions affecting our daily lives are often made by the U.S. Supreme Court, not elected politicians.   The Regents’ Prayer Case was decided in 1962.  Eight presidents have come and gone since then, Republican and Democrat alike; and yet the Court’s decision still stands, and we live in a radically secularized culture as a result.

There is a political process, however, and it does involve political parties.  And in the “culture wars” of the past forty or fifty years the Democratic Party has played a conspicuous role.  It has been at the forefront in attacking Judeo-Christian morality, and it is hard to exonerate it from guilt in all the adverse cultural changes that have taken place during that period.  It is a sorry chapter in American history.

At first it was somewhat understandable.  The Civil Rights struggle of the early ‘60’s exposed the racial injustice in the nation.  Then came the controversial Viet Nam War that inspired massive anti-war protests.  The manifold injustices of American were patent; the calls for reform were urgent.

There was, however, a huge problem.  While it was obvious what was wrong in America, it was not so obvious how to make it right.  The problem, in a nutshell, was secularism.  Most of the protest demonstrations took place on the campuses of large state universities, and the educational programs of these universities were largely secular.  A protest against injustice necessarily involves a value system.  But what was the value system, and where did it come from?  The problem with the “Movement” of the ‘60’s was that it was not rooted in any well-defined system of morality.  Everyone was quick to say what was false; but no one could say what was true.

Some intellectuals turned to the writings of the Existentialist philosophers such as Sartre or Camus.  Others turned to Neo-Marxists such as Fromm or Marcuse.  But all of these were secular authors, and most of them were frankly atheists.

Matters came to a head in the summer of 1968.  Lyndon Johnson had been in office for five years, and even though he had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and had launched the War on Poverty, his reputation was severely damaged by the War in Viet Nam.  Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection; Vice-President Hubert Humphrey became his heir-apparent as the establishment candidate.  Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated.  Race riots filled the streets.  The Democrats that year held their convention in Chicago.  Outside there were violent confrontations between protesters and police.  Humphrey won the nomination but went on to lose the election to Richard M. Nixon.

The nation was bitterly divided, and a whole generation of young people came to reject the values of their parents.  The women’s movement gained momentum.  And the Democratic Party underwent a transformation.  Previously controlled by career politicians, most of them white men, it was now taken over by the younger activists.  In 1972 the party nominated George McGovern with the support of the young activists.  McGovern lost the election, but the “New Democrats” remained in control of the party.

Much of the ideology of the “liberal” or “progressive” Democrats is driven by radical feminism.  It is rooted in an Existentialist philosophy that says that we exist as concrete, autonomous individuals and should be free to define our own “essence,” or self-identity.  For a woman that means that she should not have to conform to a gender role imposed on her by society.  “Women’s Liberation” means freedom from external constraints, and “reproductive freedom” means freedom to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

But what is good for the goose is good for the gander.  By logical extension shouldn’t all human beings be free to define themselves as they wish?  What about homosexuals?  What about transgender people?  What about the husband who just wants to watch football on TV and drink beer all day long, and let his wife do the dishes?  And who should have to stay married if someone younger and better looking comes along?  Shouldn’t we each be allowed to pursue our own self-destiny?  If all the different life-styles should be treated equally and without discrimination, who is required to do anything?  And so today we have men married to men, women in combat roles in the military, and self-identified transgender people free to use the public restrooms of their choice.

The agenda of the modern Democratic Party, however, is unsustainable.  It is based on false premises, viz., that there are no innate psychological differences between men and women, and that homosexuals are just born that way.  And it leads to disastrous results: social chaos.  Human society functions on a male / female dynamic. When that dynamic breaks down, human society ceases to function.  In the absence of social norms, civilization collapses.  What we are witnessing today is nothing less than the self-destruction of Western society.

Most of the destructive ideas that have eroded the stability of American society in recent decades have come from the New Left and the counter-culture of the ‘60’s, and have been introduced into the mainstream of American life through the Democratic Party.  Frankly, what the Democratic Party has to offer the American people is nothing less than downright nihilism, and eventually it will lead to an authoritarian reaction.  We shudder to think of what that might be.  As Cicero one said during the declining years of the Roman republic, “O tempora, O mores!” (“Oh the times, oh the manners!”).

WHICH RESTROOM?

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Here we are, in the midst of a presidential election cycle, and what should become one of the most hotly debated issues of the day, but who should be allowed to use which restroom?  The State of North Carolina recently passed a law requiring individuals to use the public restroom that corresponds to the gender listed on their birth certificates.  The Obama administration responded by threatening to cut off all federal aid to North Carolina.  At the same time the administration sent out a directive to school districts all over the country on how to avoid discrimination against transgender people.

It should be noted that the policy adopted by North Carolina is perfectly reasonable.  If we understand things correctly, individuals in North Carolina who undergo sex reassignment surgery can have their birth certificates changed to reflect their new gender identities.  And in the case of a public restroom there has to be a means of identifying a person’s gender.  To allow anyone to use any restroom he pleases is to defeat the whole purpose of having separate restrooms.  It especially puts women at risk of becoming victims of voyeurism.

Contrary to the way the issue is often portrayed in the press, it is not a simple matter of some people identifying with one gender or the other.  Gender Identity Disorder is just one in a whole range of sexual behaviors.  Some people are homosexuals; some are bisexual.  Some are transvestites; some engage in sadomasochism.  There are even some persons who identify as “trans” who are still attracted to the opposite biological sex.  How, then, does one identify a person as one gender or the other?  Where does one draw the line?

There is, of course, a formal psychological definition of “Gender Identity Disorder.”  But once the diagnosis has been made what is the most appropriate treatment?  Logically one could go either one of two ways: either change the body to conform to the mind or change the mind to conform to the body.  The approach favored by the LGBT community is the former: undergo hormone treatment or even sex reassignment surgery to make the body conform more closely to the person’s psychological identity.  But surgery cannot make the person a perfect specimen of the opposite sex: some of the old features are bound to remain.  This puts the transgender person in an even more awkward position: he does not conform entirely to either gender.  He is neither truly male nor female.

But an even deeper problem remains: what caused the gender identity disorder in the first place?  There is no hard evidence that the underlying cause is biological or hereditary.  Rather the available evidence seems to suggest problems in early childhood socialization.  And if that is the case surgery is unlikely to cure the underlying problem, and will leave the “trans” as frustrated as ever.  Is this really a wise or humane way to handle the situation?

Why, then, would we attempt surgery?  Part of the problem is that modern secular psychology does not have a clearly defined value system, and thus has difficulty defining social norms.  Psychiatrists are inclined to think in terms of the patient’s own inward sense of well-being.  Since most people do not want to change the way they think, the therapists tries to find a way to change or cope with circumstances.  In the case of a “trans” person that means transitioning to the opposite sex, enabling the person to live out his fantasy.

But most likely there is a philosophical agenda here as well – the idea, borrowed from Existentialism, that we exist as autonomous individuals and that we should be free to define our own “essence” or identity (“existence precedes essence”).  Seen from that perspective social norms are artificial and oppressive.  This perspective was taken up by the Feminist movement and from there spread to the LGBT community.  It is no longer a matter of “fitting in”; rather it is a matter of “being accepted.”  Hence the calls for “diversity” and “inclusiveness.”

The underlying premise is atheism – that there is no such thing as Intelligent Design, that we live in a meaningless, purposeless universe, and thus are free to define ourselves any way we please.  But this creates a huge problem for society as a whole.  If each individual is free to define himself any way he wishes, and should not be required to any particular gender role, who will assume the duties and responsibilities of marriage and parenthood?  Marriage, by its very nature, is confining and demands self-sacrifice.  And marriage is the very foundation of society.  Without it there is no stable environment in which children can grow and mature.  Human society as a whole depends on the interaction between the sexes, and society simply cannot function in the absence of standards and norms of some kind.

“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27; NKJV).  We do not, in fact, live in a meaningless, purposeless universe – it was created by an intelligent Supreme Being.  Try as we might we cannot escape God’s created order.  We ignore God and His purposes for us at our own peril.

Are we witnessing the collapse of Western civilization?

THE END OF GENDER?

           This week the world stared in astonishment at the cover of Vanity Fair magazine which features former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner posing as a woman in a corset. The sight has prompted admiration from some, sympathy from others, and outrage from still others.

What are we to make of all of this? What is in view here is a stark contrast between two opposing views of human sexuality. But behind these two different views of sex there looms an even larger contrast between two different worldviews. Jenner’s actions strike right at the core of human existence: who are we as human beings, in what kind of universe do we live, and is there any universal set of norms to which we are required to conform?

We need to be perfectly clear about one thing: genetically Jenner is still a male human being – he has both “X” and “Y” chromosomes. He was born a male, he competed successfully as a male athlete, he was married to women three times and fathered several children by them. Physically he was a normal male human being. His decision to transition to a woman was based on his feelings and emotions.

Jenner says that he has suffered since youth from Gender Dysphoria, or Gender Identity Disorder, as it used to be called. What makes this claim a little hard to accept is that boys with Gender Dysphoria are typically effeminate, whereas Jenner went on to star in athletics. He did engage in cross-dressing years ago, but that might indicate a different condition known as “transvestic fetishism.”

But let us assume for the sake of the argument that Jenner really does suffer from Gender Dysphoria. There is a great deal of discussion and debate about what exactly causes this disorder, and many psychologists will say that it is still something of a mystery. There is evidence, however, that it is the result of a problem in early childhood socialization. An individual’s gender identity develops between the ages of 18 months and 3 years, and during that time a child’s relationships with his parents and peers is critical. In boys an overly possessive mother and a detached father is a common pattern.

But granted the diagnosis, what should the treatment have been? Logically we would think that there would be two choices: 1) try to change the mind to match the body, or 2) change the body to match the mind. Jenner chose the latter course.

But Jenner’s decision raises some profoundly disturbing moral questions. Does it matter what gender we are? Are we free to choose whatever gender we like? What kind of impact does that have on other family members, or society at large?

The transgender movement is the logical outgrowth of radical feminism, with its denial of gender roles. Radical feminism, in turn, is rooted in Existentialist philosophy, which held that existence precedes essence. In other words, as we come into the world (presumably through a blind, impersonal, natural process) we simply exist – we have no particular identity or “essence.” Our identity we acquire through our interaction with other human beings. Therefore in order to be truly free and equal we must create our own identity and force society to accept us as we are. Thus feminist pioneer Simone de Beauvoir could write, “it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilization . . . Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified through the action of others than herself” (The Second Sex, Conclusion). Thus society must be changed in order for women to be truly free and equal.

But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Should men be confined to specific gender roles? Why should anybody be constrained to think or act or dress a certain way – or sleep with a member of the opposite sex for that matter? Thus, the logic goes, Bruce Jenner should be allowed to change his gender if he so desires. The mere fact that he was born a biological male should not constrain him to be one as an adult.

All of this, however, presupposes that God does not exist, and that therefore there is no reason or purpose for anything in life. But what if God does exist? Everything then would have a specific purpose and meaning because it was created by an intelligent Supreme Being. Sex exists for a specific reason and purpose, and we are not free to manipulate it any way we want in order to suit our own selfish desires.

Gender, in fact, is something created by God. “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them’ (Gen. 1:27; NKJV). Eve was created to be “a helper comparable to” Adam (Gen. 2:18,20), and together they were to “be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). Thus men and women are different from each other (by design), and they have different roles which complement each other. Thus together a husband and a wife form a functioning family unit. But in order for the family to function the way it is supposed to both the husband and the wife have to fulfill the specific gender roles assigned to them.

One might be tempted to look at Bruce Jenner and sympathize with him. But where does that leave the rest of society? If we create the impression that there are no rules, that anything goes, then no one will feel obligated to do anything he doesn’t feel like doing. How, then, will anyone make a marriage work or successfully raise children? In showing compassion for one person we create a dysfunctional society, and in solving one individual’s problem we create a myriad of other problems. The latter end is worse than the former. Can we as a society afford to suffer the consequences?

PSYCHOTHERAPY AND MORALITY

    Can science establish a basis for morality? If it could, we would expect to find it in psychology. For psychology is the branch of science that deals specifically with human behavior, and psychotherapy in particular seeks to cure the maladies of the soul. Does psychology, then, provide us with answers to moral and ethical questions?

    Recently we came across an interesting essay entitled “Authenticity, moral values, and psychotherapy,” by Charles B. Guignon. The essay appears in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, which was also edited by Prof. Guignon. At the time that the volume was published (1993) Mr. Guignon was Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vermont.

    Guignon makes the interesting observation that “Many therapists and mental health professionals continue to feel that mainstream ‘scientific’ theories designed to explain and guide psychotherapy fail to capture much of what actually goes on in the practice of therapy” (p. 216). He tells that “a central part of what goes on in helping people in the modern world will consist in addressing questions about what constitutes the good life and how we can be at home in the world” (p. 217). He quotes Morris Eagle as stating that people seek professional help because of feelings of meaninglessness, feeling of emptiness, pervasive depression, lack of sustaining interests, goals, ideals and values, and feelings of unrelatedness.” These conditions, in turn, often result from “the lack of stable ideologies and values . . . or an atmosphere of disillusionment and cynicism in the surrounding society” (p. 217).

    Guignon goes on to say that therapists are poorly trained to handle such a task because psychotherapy is supposed to be based on science, and “scientific endeavor from the outset has aimed at being value-free and objective, basing its findings solely on observation and causal explanation. The result is a deep distrust of authoritarian pronouncements and value judgments” (Ibid.). Moral concerns are treated “as the personal of the client or as reducible to whatever principles of procedural justice are currently accepted as ‘self-evident’ in its own academic and professional community” (p. 218).

    Moreover, modern psychology tends to be based on naturalistic assumptions. “Part of the achievement of the new science of the seventeenth century was to dispel the traditional image of reality as a value-laden, meaningful cosmos in favor of our modern naturalistic view of the ‘universe’ as a vast aggregate of objects in causal interactions” (p. 219). But where does that leave morality? How would psychotherapy, based on naturalistic assumptions, resolve a moral or ethical question?

    One approach is to rely on means-end calculations. Supposedly science can show us how to reengineer our lives to achieve the greatest happiness and fulfillment. But as Guignon points out, “What is most striking about this calculative-instrumentalist approach, of course, is its inability to reflect on the question of which ends are truly worth pursuing” (p. 219). He notes that older views of life made a distinction between “mere living” and “a ‘higher’ or ‘better’ form of existence that we could achieve if we realized our proper aim in life” (Ibid.). But “the modern naturalistic outlook tries to free itself from such a two-tiered view of life.” “Psychotherapy, seen as a technique designed to help people attain their ends, remains indifferent to the ends themselves as long as they are realistic and consistent” (pp. 219-220).

    In an attempt to get around the limitations of naturalistic science when it comes to discerning any meaning and purpose in life, some Existentialist thinkers tried to revive the earlier, 19th Century Romantic view in which self-expression becomes paramount. Guignon cites the work of Rollo May as an example. Yet the radical individualism latent in this approach still leaves unanswered the question of whether or not life itself has any intrinsic meaning and purpose. As Guignon points out, May “seems unable to account for how the autonomous, disengaged chooser of values could ever come to regard any values as genuinely binding in the first place” (p. 222).

    Which brings us to Martin Heidegger. Guignon suggests that perhaps Heidegger can show us a way out of our dilemma.

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger


    I do not pretend to understand Heidegger. His understanding of Being or “Dasein” is extremely abstruse. But from what we can gather from reading Guignon and other writers who have dealt with his philosophy, Heidegger viewed human existence within the context of human history and society. We have to make choices within the limitations of our circumstances, and it is the flow of human history that gives our actions meaning and significance.

    While that may help the therapist deal with the immediate needs of his patients, it still leaves unanswered the larger question of whether or not life as a whole has any meaning or purpose, and whether or not there are any universally binding norms of right and wrong. We are faced with a particularly unfortunate example of this in Heidegger himself. In one of the other essays in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger Thomas Sheehan notes that Heidegger made a great show of joining the Nazi Party and actively supported Hitler’s cause. And, as Sheehan points out, this was perfectly consistent with Heidegger’s concept of “historicity.” Heidegger looked to the Fuehrer to lead Germany to its historical destiny.

    The basic question, then, remains unresolved by modern psychology. How can science, or any other secular philosophy for that matter, provide us with clear guidance about right and wrong? The answer is that it cannot. Either we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an Intelligent Being, or we do not. And if we do not, if we are merely so many accidents of a blind, impersonal natural process, there is no “right” or “wrong.” We simply exist, with all of our aggression, all of our prejudices, and all of our inhumanity. What you see is what you get.

    And yet we still seek therapy. There is something inside of us that cannot accept this state of affairs as normal. We are troubled by the actions of others, and even by the actions of our own selves. It is the law of God written on our hearts.

    “For thou hast created us for thyself, and our heart cannot be quieted till it may find repose in thee.” St. Augustine, Confessions, I.i.