Many young apologetics students of my generation learned the truism that “without God, anything goes.” While our culture has flirted with the idea of taking amoral individualism seriously, most decent atheists and quasi-theists will prefer to defend a moral framework based on something other than special revelation. Reducing harm or alleviating human suffering is, judging by the zeal with which a few million humans pursue it, a workable (if tenuous) basis for moral formation. Its basic tenets are self-evident, and its basic practices easily accessible.
However, secular moralism is woefully unprepared to deal with the realities of human wickedness. It can invent moral laws for the 21st century, but getting people to obey them has proven to be much harder. Amoral individualism is not actively promulgated in most quarters, although the “follow your heart” school of thought still turns up frequently in a lot of stories. There are, however, enough people following their hearts to fill our societies with greedy, selfish, and tribalistic people. Modern concepts of freedom and new technologies constantly create new ways to express our wickedness. Structural injustices flow out of individual selfishness en masse (e.g. housing segregation) or are perpetuated by elites looking to consolidate their power (e.g. private prison lobbying).
The frustration that many have felt post-election with the general populace’s unwillingness to turn away from a moral monster should stand as evidence that human wickedness is so recalcitrant as to require a spiritual awakening to overcome. However, lacking any substantive transcendental commands, secular moralism has to constantly lean on the fickle proclamations of “science says” to provide the structure for its moral imperatives (Public housing! Diversity offices! Universal Pre-K!) It is possible that empirical evidence for an inherited moral frailty exists, but even if original sin or total depravity can’t be proven by our current methods, anyone who seeks to do good and alleviate human suffering will eventually find that no amount of reasoning, force, or scientific proof will sway those who are in bondage to evil. Racism seems like the most obvious field of inquiry, for as Bradford Davis has said in regards to police brutality, videos cannot cure blindness.
Spiritual or not, secularism has created a catechesis to reckon with these tensions between our moral aspirations and our sinful inclinations. It’s virtue formation for people who are too sophisticated to be caught dead using a word like “virtue” sincerely. They know that a society full of people who simply follow their own moral compasses is doomed to destruction, so there must be a liturgy and a discipleship to counteract the varied evils we visit upon ourselves or encounter in the world. For anyone genuinely interested in and attentive to the problem of sin but not committed to a historic expression of faith, a sacramental struggle is all that remains.
This synthetic moralism—a clockwork orange that longs for the convicting power of a Civil Rights-era black preacher spoken from a metaphysical pulpit—often conflicts with traditional liturgies and confessions of faith as it has begun to create its own (e.g. “rules for allies”), but both old and new moral philosophies agree that human hearts are corrupt, sinister forces exploit the levers of power to oppose the outnumbered forces of good, and that any commitment to loving others genuinely takes incredible discipline, severe humility, and a like-minded community of people willing to sacrifice. The most popular incarnation at the moment calls itself “wokeness”, with the simple shahaada “stay woke” functioning as a creed (at least as its inception) appropriated from African-American vernacular. The particular articles of faith are understood by the enlightened yet continually repeated in order to reaffirm their hope that their enlightenment will continue to burn bright against the darkness of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and capitalism.
There are plenty of individually focused strategies for wrestling with one’s internal faults or ameliorating the despair. Many of these derive from Buddhist or Christian practices (e.g. meditation) or are simply some variation of physical exercise. Therapy replaces confession and the mantra of “self-care” (for those privileged enough to afford it) forms the basis of the only sort of restoring grace adherents can claim. Rarely, however, is this enough to invite the weak-hearted into “the work” or sustain the strong-hearted against the temptations of complacency and consumption that beset many twentysomethings as they age.
The liturgies of secularism are easy enough to synthesize and initial converts sign up heartily as the gross inconsistencies of privilege manifest themselves in mass media. It is far trickier to develop the sort of evangelism and discipleship to actually stave off the effects of original sin and total depravity. Most Westerners born in the last 60 years are deeply committed to exalting autonomy and personal choice, despite how frequently exercising autonomy involves stepping on or over the underprivileged. Without any transcendent obligations to one another or society as a whole, de facto segregation and rape culture thrive. Abiding and measurable change, the eschaton that many acolytes of social justice hope and even pray for, will only come with slow commitment to “the work”– be it community organizing, teaching, or political advocacy. Flashy rallies or stirring essays are about as useful to the work of social justice as great sermons are for forming genuine believers: you can illuminate the truth and draw people to a transformative encounter with the truth, but one-time events don’t form habits.
There are only a few channels by which converts to the synthetic moral order can become disciples. The sweet but misguided nonbelievers will often say that education is the key to beating back the evils of the world (particularly those that accumulate around traditional religions). In fact, more intelligent people are, in general, simply better at finding justifications for being awful to other human beings. Yet savvier students of human nature will point out that educational systems do not merely transmit information that rational human beings will use to decipher what is best for everyone; the systems themselves are designed to communicate and cultivate a moral order and have a telos—knowing or not—that moves people within it towards certain goals.
Our current educational system is generally oriented at helping young people become the most compliant worker drones possible, with the general recognition that a sufficiently unthreatening diversity serves the interests of a capitalism well: A rainbow oligarchy is still an oligarchy. Since this ideal conflicts with people of conviction regardless of their political or religious affiliations, there is a constant urge to resist or change this telos. Traditionally religious groups and parents tend to withdraw into private schools or homeschooling, while leftists (with fewer alternate institutions for education) see more hope in trying to control and reshape educational systems. This appears to have been most successful in higher education, but the ideological hothouse of the university only cultivates disciples in a minority of elites and has a very hard time reproducing its methods beyond the campus. For all the sturm und drang about the nonreligious moralism that has taken hold at many universities, in the end this moralism depends on the physically and structurally insular environment and only manages to have a vague effect on people who depart from that environment.
Arts and media are another stronghold of synthetic morality, where there is significant overlap between a more popular yet bland moralism and a more stringent anti-racist/sexist moral order. Storytelling has been a means of cultivating virtue for millennia, just as the ability to tell and appreciate a good story has been the fruit of virtue properly cultivated. It does not matter which stories are true (though we always hope that the ones reported in papers are)– novelists and journalists alike create the myths that color and constrain our moral imaginations. The fact that Michael Brown did not have his hands up in the air was immaterial– his death illuminates many other well-verified facts about criminal justice and race in America like a 30-second sparkler in a dark room. Conversely, there is a constant flow of unrepresentative anecdotes about people abusing welfare that help to keep debates about government aid, economic justice, and equal opportunity smothered in fruitless suspicion.
Fictional stories can be some of the most potent, and much of the contemporary Western moral order seems to be best represented by early 90’s Disney movies: follow your own heart, hope for the best in other people, bend the rules if you feel like you have a good enough reason, fulfill whatever destiny you can discern for yourself, and always, always surround yourself with an appropriately diverse group of friends. Yet other cultural works are intentionally trying to speak to particular moral concerns of the most rigorous synthetic morality and ask questions about what sort of virtues we need or want in our society.
In all of these arenas, though, the synthetic moral order lacks a community. Jean Vanier, in his book Community and Growth, elucidates the difference between groups that agitate for a cause and communities: the former are fighting a war with a specific aim, the latter invite people to “come and see”. There is nothing wrong with organizing for a specific fight– there are many battles in our contemporary world that require a militant approach because the spiritual and corporeal powers behind them are ensconced in political and cultural fortresses. Yet if “The Resistance” to Trump does not have a community that forms and cultivates people, only a handful of hard-nosed activists will survive being pressed between the realities of the world and the rigors of a synthetic moral order. A more vigorous sense of community may also ameliorate the Left’s enthusiasm for petty squabbling and heretic-hunting.
Christians have a powerful but under-recognized schema that helps in understanding the distinction between transcendent communities and immanent causes. “Secular” literally and originally refers to that which is immanent; secular and spiritual powers are not opposed to one another but superimposed on each other. The immanent concerns of the secular– for example, racial, gender, economic, or criminal justice– are undergirded by a spiritual understanding, just as our moral practices are dependent on spiritual renewal from death to life in Christ.
The nonreligious, steeped in empirical education, may balk at the suggestion that anything exists beyond the secular and immanent, much less that it affects us. Alan Jacobs sums it up well in his essay, “Fantasy and the Buffered Self”: “We may choose to believe that we can buffer ourselves, protect ourselves against unknown powers. But that’s a kind of wager: if the powers are real, our disbelief won’t deter them.” Most are willing to acknowledge that unnamed forces make people remain obstinate in the prejudices that create oppression, and that their obstinacy cannot be dislodged by reason or emotion. If that’s the case, then it is worthwhile to consult the traditions that are willing to name such forces.
Christians are well-equipped to recognize that spiritual powers and principalities hold sway over human activity and specifically sow harm among the poor and oppressed. Thus, Christians who bemoan the apparent successes of morals contrary to the historic teachings of Scripture should view the synthetic moralists as allies, not enemies. While the apparent corruption of Christian teaching (particularly when synthetic moralism actually lives within some sort of Christian tradition or denomination) might seem distasteful, there are far too many threats far too potent to squabble with people who are already halfway to robust moral formation. The oligarchies of our world laugh all the way to the bank when people who are willing to confront their own frailties fight each other, so we would do well to work out compromises that allow us to combat the corrosion our original sin creates even if some co-belligerents might call human depravity by another name.
In turn, the devils that synthetic morality can name have haunted the Church for a long time. Far too many Christians have in turn dismissed the role that sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and capitalism play in perpetuating evil and overlooked the unique ways in which Christian institutions have allowed these weeds to flourish in our own backyards. The roots of these evils are now cracking the foundations of our institutions and will only keep growing if we do not use the tools of critical analysis that we’ve scoffed at. We must listen to the people who are pointing out where these cracks lie and learn from the fervor with which they oppose these powers.
Conservative Christian can also learn from the synthetic moralists’ suspicion towards “liberty” and the free market. If anything, the proliferation of pornography demonstrates the insufficiency of any political philosophy that idolizes freedom in isolation because it shows how easily institutions other than the government can enslave us. As wonderful as the concept of “freedom” is, it quickly devolves into lowest-common-denominator appeals to base instincts devoid of any conception of common good or virtue. In an era where this false liberty is corroding everyone, we desperately need to work alongside anyone who is interested in forming virtue.
Again, the willingness to develop rules that often conflict with instinctual desires and require submission to another authority provides great hope for synthetic morality’s power to effect change by adding the trappings of religion. (e.g. “Let people of color direct the discussion.”) Eugene Peterson, quoting Frederick von Hugel, once said that bark is dead, but it protects that which is alive and growing inside the tree. Christian traditions that are eager to jettison the bark of ritual, liturgy, and rules for moral practice are finding themselves vulnerable to every sort of disease, while those willing to embrace the structure of discipline are weathering the storms poorly. These rules are both old and new (for example, preaching against premarital sex must go hand in hand with rigorous child protection policies), but they always reflect a willingness to discipline one’s untrustworthy desires.
Similarly, adherents of synthetic morality should recognize that there are rich resources within the Christian tradition to attack the roots of systemic oppression. Anyone concerned for the poor and oppressed quickly encounters the fact that human depravity always outwits policy “solutions” and is usually two steps ahead of state intervention when it comes to combating evil (particularly when there is profit to be made). We all recognize that “heart change”, trite as that has come to sound, is absolutely necessary in conforming human civilization to its moral aspirations. We all desire civic virtue, quaint as that might sound, for we recognize that just policy is unenforceable among an unscrupulous and self-interested populace held captive to the tyranny of boundless autonomy.
The greatest conflict between Christianity and the enlightenment that creates new adherents to synthetic moralism, though, lies beyond politics, society, or even culture. As with virtually every other alternative to faith in Jesus, it is by works that the “woke” are saved. A deathbed conversion means nothing, and there is no transcendent grace to overcome the darkness inside oneself or forgive those who oppress. Prayer is routinely eyed askance and even shamed, since asking for help and transformation from God could never be anything other than vain repetition. There are plenty of communities and communes where the values of synthetic morality are promulgated, but they are only appropriate for the morally elite and exceedingly intersectional; doubting Thomases need not apply. While Christians and secularists might share the conviction that love moves us to action and repentance precedes reconciliation, we are remain divided by the comfort we fall back on when we realize our actions are insufficient to overcome our own prejudices or call others to repentance.
The dark turn of Donald Trump’s election has helped many people recognize that a great deal of work is necessary to hold back the forces of evil. I hope that this recognition will extend to the idea that grace and divine love are necessary for sustaining soldiers and that there must be a community to include people, not just a cause. There may be people out there who don’t struggle much with their innate tendencies to hurt other people, and are resistant to the social forces that direct such tendencies to “punch down”. I am not one of them, and I haven’t met one of them, either. The moralism that sees the evidence of original sin will eventually require a remedy for blindness beyond legalism. Any enduring concept of social justice requires a crucified Savior. Jesus suffers injustice, takes the punishment for every injustice we have ever committed, and gives us the power to break our own sinful prejudices.
For those who have chosen to synthesize a moralism from the unavoidably Christian Beatitudes and the unsustainably anti-religious self-determination, there is ample room not only for co-belligerence but also mutual understanding with traditional Christians. Resisting the spiritual strongholds of racism, sexism, and greed requires solidarity between people who recognize that self-discipline is inseparable from advancing social goods. The religious must be willing to follow the critique that synthetic moralism makes about how systemic oppression– even that within Christian institutions– hinders our flourishing, often by making it harder for individuals and communities to grow in virtue. The non-religious must come up with a way to form a community that can reckon with inner wickedness and outward injustice– or simply join the one which already exists.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org