Why moral absolutism loses in the war for culture
By Rich Carey
Evangelical Christians are prone to embrace unmovable positions on certain issues, which they consider to be moral absolutes. We base these positions on our interpretations of scripture, which we deem to be the infallible, immutable Word of God, given to us as a guide for living in a world marred by sin. These positions serve as anchors for our souls; moral compass points which direct our lives into the path of righteousness and agreement with the heart and purposes of God.
The proper term for such beliefs is dogma. Wikipedia provides us with this definition:
“Dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. It serves as part of the primary basis of an ideology or belief system, and it cannot be changed or discarded without affecting the very system’s paradigm, or the ideology itself.”1
Everyone has a measure of dogma in his or her worldview. This is just the way we are wired, and how we make sense of the world in its current state. Dogma is vital to our mental, emotional and intellectual stability. However, not everyone is equally “dogmatic” in his or her beliefs.
Some people are prone to live and let live. Others have a more “evangelistic” nature and believe they must transform the views of their neighbors to be more like their own. One might refer to this as an element of dogmatism.
Dogmatism is the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of others.2
Dogma, or the adherence to certain beliefs is socially acceptable. Dogmatism is less so, because it has a tendency to force dogma onto others without consideration of their own deeply held beliefs. It implies a moral superiority, which regardless of having merit, is offensive by its very nature and creates friction in relationships. Dogmatism is the devils way of neutralizing dogma by perverting the spirit behind it – by removing love from the truth, making it cold, lifeless and powerless to change lives in any positive way.
Many American evangelicals are nothing if not dogmatic. If you think about the term “evangelical”, it implies being ardent and zealously enthusiastic for a cause. Evangelicalism propelled great social change throughout the Reformation by confronting religious tyranny and ignorance; guiding people back to the liberating spiritual truth found in Word of God. But evangelicalism armed with political power often becomes a self-defeating contradiction that fails in the very thing it hopes to accomplish if dogmatism is part of the equation.
To further complicate matters there is this messy, complicated thing called grace. Dogmatists are not normally strong on grace, because grace overturns the tables in our predictable, organized theological house. Grace is God’s trump card on dogma. Grace, scripturally applied, declares amnesty in the face of judgment. It purposely allows for a violation of the very constructs that hold our worldview together. Indeed, it appears to be God’s unreasonable acceptance of one whose actions are in clear violation of His Word.
One response of the dogmatist to grace has been distilled into a catch phrase spoken from pulpits everywhere – “love the sinner, hate the sin”. While this sounds quite biblical, it is nowhere to be found in scripture. Jesus never said it, and neither did any of the writers of the New Testament.
Though it may ring with a measure of biblical truth, the problem with “love the sinner, hate the sin” is that in practice, it is really nothing more than an mental trick we play on ourselves that allows us to reconcile our dogmatism with the command of Christ to love our neighbor. It allows us to look down from our lofty moral throne and declare to the wretched sinner before us that we love them. Our dogmatism stays intact, and we feel justified.
While God is certainly able to hate the sin while loving the sinner, I’m not nearly so confident in our abilities to do the same. The problem here is that the wretched sinner does not normally feel loved by us because we have labeled them to be a wretched sinner. We have branded them with their sin. Though it was not necessarily our intention, we have made it their identity because we have made hate part of the equation. We have morally elevated ourselves above them and declared ourselves to be better than they, which if you think about it, is not at all what Christ modeled for us. To the “sinner”, we appear much more like the Pharisees that Jesus condemned, than the Jesus who loves them and gave His all for them.
Thus, the typical response of the “sinner” is not to throw wide the doors of their heart and embrace whatever wisdom may drip like so much honey from our lips. Rather, they are far more likely to close down their hearts and minds to us and go on the defensive. Worse, they often go on the offensive and apply their own labels to us, such as “bigot”, “homophobe”, “hypocrite”, etc. because in their minds, we haven’t earned the moral high ground upon which we presume to stand.
The end result is that rather than creating at atmosphere where we may be able to genuinely speak some truth in love and possibly create room for a positive shift in their worldview, we fortify their existing position of separation from God and His forgiveness and push them farther into the darkness. We may win the battle for truth, but we lose the war for souls from a lack of genuine love.
In closing, we would do well to examine our hearts to ensure we are truly walking in love towards our “enemies” as He commanded us to do, knowing (in His great wisdom) that the only force capable of conquering darkness while preserving free will is unmerited, unconditional love.
In Part II of this article, we will examine a few issues that we are presently wrestling through as examples of why our dogmatism fails us in our struggle to re-establish the proper moral compass in our culture.
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