August 22, 2014

Orthodox Priest: Thieves Hijacking the Language of the Christian Moral Tradition

That’s the title of my latest essay on Catholic Online. (Click here for the nice lead in they gave me, and here for the article). Full text below.

By Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse

NAPLES, FL. (Catholic Online) – In a recent Catholic Online article (Social Justice: Take Back the Term from the Thieves and Build a New Catholic Action) Deacon Keith Fournier writes about a question he was asked at a recent conference:

…the host of the conference made a suggestion that we get rid of the term “Social Justice” because it is now used by ‘the left”. He asked for my thoughts. I strongly disagreed. I insisted that we take back the phrase from those who have stolen it, either on the “the right” or “the left”. He then suggested the Church does not use the phrase “Social Justice”. An attendee did a “google” search of the Vatican documents on his handheld device and reported it was used thousands of times in the magisterial teaching of the Church.

Fournier is right on two counts: The Christian moral vocabulary properly belongs to Christians, and we should not cede the vocabulary to the thieves.

The problem is not limited to the term “Social Justice” alone. Many of the familiar terms drawn from the moral tradition are used in ways that are different today than in generations past. Nothing is sacrosanct. For example, as recently as a decade ago the idea that same-sex partners who “loved” each other had a “right” to “marriage” was inconceivable.  Today many people shrug it off.  To many, the “redefinition” of marriage seems self-evidently true and morally proper.

But how did it get this way? Why is it that these terms, which have been part of the moral tradition for centuries, no longer mean what they used to mean? What can Christians do about it?

The answer lies in the slow drift of Western culture away from God. It used to be that when people spoke about morality, God was automatically part of the mix. When we had to decide what was wrong and what was right, we appealed to higher laws – laws that almost everyone understood came from God – in our sacred texts, teachings, and tradition. When we had to decide the proper way to treat our neighbor, we looked into what those texts, teachings, and tradition said. We don’t do that anymore.

But the drift comes with a cost. “When men quit believing in God,” the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “they believe in anything.” No man can live without God. If he tries to live without God, then he will end up making himself a god. This is as true as the sky is blue. It will never change.

This is true is because man was created to live with and in God. Man cannot live without God just as a child cannot be born without a parent. Out of all the religious texts in the world, only the Christian Scriptures defines this coherently: Man is created out of the dust of the ground (man comes from created matter), but unlike the rest of creation he also has the capacity to partake of God Himself (“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”).

God is the proper object of the deep longing in the soul of man for communion and connection to something higher, to a wellspring that gives life. The longing is a thirst that man himself cannot slake.

When God is forgotten however, that object becomes whatever man fancies it to be. It can be something debilitating like an addiction, or grand in design and promise like a political ideology. Nevertheless, whatever a person chooses, all are substitutes impregnated with false promises and lies that can only lead ultimately to collapse.

When we look back at the last century and see the rank foolishness of belief in political ideologies like Marxism or Facism and their brutal and murderous legacies for example, we see how powerful Dostoevsky’s prophesy was. When we look around today at the epidemic of teenage STDs, or the poverty of single mothers, or the unbridled greed of some on Wall Street, we see that the prophecy applies to all walks of life. Forgetting God leads to the catastrophic breakdown of both society and individual people.

When man unties his morality from God- his sense about who God created Him to be starts to dim. How he understands his purpose in life, what gives life its enduring meaning, how he should treat the neighbor, how his community should organize and govern itself – all the constituents that give human life its purpose, meaning, and order get confused. That’s why, for example, Marxists and Nazis believed they were serving a greater good, why pro-abortion activists think abortion is social progress, or why people believe same-sex “marriage” doesn’t really differ from heterosexual monogamy.

Yet, we still live in a civilization that was nurtured and shaped by Christianity. The moral language of Western civilization is uniquely Christian, not Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, pagan, or any other religion that exists on the earth. The moral vocabulary and concepts of the Christian West come directly from God through the writings of the prophets, the apostles, the Fathers, the Saints – men and women who heard the Gospel and lived in Christ and thereby imparted wisdom to us about who we were created to be and how we should live. We call this the moral tradition.

And here’s the rub. We live in a civilization that uses the vocabulary of the moral tradition on the one hand, but forgets who gave it to us on the other hand.

What happens then when people leave Christianity and want to promote ideas about morality that violate the moral tradition? They have only one option: Hijack the language. They use the terms of traditional Christianity but mean very different things by them. Words don’t mean what they used to mean. Language gets inverted, turned upside down. Do this long and loud enough, and in less than a generation the new meanings take hold.

For example, take the word “love.” In our day any definition of the word never moves beyond the sense that love is a subjective feeling. This way of thinking about love has concrete ramifications. How one feels about the neighbor is more important than what one does for him. In fact, if the good feeling is not there, more often than not the responsibility we have for that person loses its moral force. We walk away from commitments thinking that if we don’t feel committed, it is not important to fulfill them.

Of course love never meant that, at least in the generations leading up to ours. But if this adulteration of meaning is allowed to stand, the next generation will believe that today’s understanding is the one that stood for all time. They won’t know that the past can show them a way out of their confusion because they will read the past in the darkness of the present. When this happens, the moral tradition becomes a prisoner of the present, rather than its enlightener.

This point is not lost on the hijackers. One reason that ideological thieves hijack the moral vocabulary instead of developing one of their own is that it lends an air of authority to their ideas. When hijackers use the language of the moral tradition, they implicitly claim to stand inside that tradition. It’s only a pose of course, but their pose fools many people.

This is what religious liberals like Jim Wallis or leaders of the National Council of Churches do. They are not really interested in traditional understandings of social justice or the common good. Instead, they have taken the secular reductions of those terms but present their ideas as no different from what Christian have always believed. People who don’t know the moral tradition join with those who don’t really understand the politics behind the hijacker’s positions (and many people don’t know either), and are led into deep moral confusion.

We have to fight back. We should not, like Dn. Fournier’s questioner, cede the battle as lost. Christians can’t sit idle and allow the secular or religious left to hijack this language. It is not theirs. And no, it is not tolerant, compassionate, or open-minded to let them think that they have a right to it.

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is an Orthodox priest serving in Naples, Florida. He is President of the American Orthodox Institute and edits the website Orthodoxy Today 

Comments

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    RobZ says:

    I’m not sure it’s always a “redefinition” so much as a reprioritization of the same values. Many will simply place a greater emphasis on some attributes of goodness than on others: for example, one sees this in the total opposition to the death penalty held by some some who stress the importance of mercy over justice. It’s not that their opposition is in complete disregard of all moral traditions, but their outlook as a whole may lack the refinement of a more developed moral intellect in terms of being able to weigh various moral goods.

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    Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

    Homosexual “marriage” is not a redefinition but merely a “reprioritization”?

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      George Michalopulos says:

      Homosexual “marriage” is an oxymoron. On the order of kosher pork or humane cannabilism.

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      RobZ says:

      I wasn’t referring to any specific issue, honestly.

      While Orthodox and RCC moral theology have been generally quite consistent throughout the centuries, it has not been quite the same for our Protestant friends (liberal or conservative). It’s not simply a matter of them chucking all of Scripture and their past traditions as irrelevant: rather, because the individual believer is ultimately the arbiter of the meaning of Scripture (though they won’t often admit this), they have felt free to recast various Scriptural mandates in light of their own understanding of morality (which often reflects the culture they live in).

      A practical example: while divorce is clearly condemned in Scripture (with one exception), many believers undoubtedly found it to be in many cases a moral necessity, perhaps because of neglect, alcoholism or drug abuse, psychological problems or even physical abuse.* When faced with such situations, it’s not surprising that many will appeal to the notion of what is “best” for the kids (or them), for their physical health or what is necessary for their own sanity. My point is that while you might call it a redefinition of sin, I don’t see a sense of malice in it that some might.

      Why does this distinction matter? I think the Church is more likely to be successful in engaging people if it acknowledges that there could be a moral striving on their part, not that they are simply rebellious children looking to throw out the window all moral considerations (not that such people don’t exist, of course).

      * Al Mohler takes note of some of this in his latest article:

      While [no-fault divorce] laws have been devastating to families (and especially to children), Smith makes a compelling case that evangelicals began their accommodation to divorce even before those laws took effect. No fault divorce laws simply reflected an acknowledgment of what had already taken place. As he explains, American evangelicals, along with other Christians, began to shift opinion on divorce when divorce became more common and when it hit close to home.

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    Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

    Robz, not really sure how you points relate to the article. There is no mention of “rebellious children” or authentic moral striving. You seem to be positing good motives as a response to my thesis that, frankly, has nothing to do with my argument. In fact, some of the people you describe may be confused because of the misuse of the language I described. I never said the confused were insincere, just confused.

Care to comment?

*