Did Humans Flourish Before Modernity?

I hear more doom and gloom assessments that trace our cultural degradation to either to the overreach of the federal government or the egotistical bombast of Donald Trump. Many of these critiques seem to assume modernity (a term that includes everything from pluralism and democracy to capitalism and technology) has produced a set an unprecedented state of affairs that provide no check on human wickedness and offer no protection for the virtuous from the vicious. Today’s roundup:

Too much gubmint:

We must not mistake the sincere agony and lonely battles of the individuals we pastor as they seek to pursue godliness with the political culture that now reigns supreme. The latter seeks nothing less than total and thoroughgoing conformity to its amorality as a price for membership of civil society, no exceptions allowed. We cannot be sentimental about the ideology even as we must have compassion with those who fight their temptations every day. We must also be aware of how fast the law could be changing. In a week when a CNN poll indicated a majority of Americans opposed to the North Carolina ‘bathroom bill,’ we cannot assume that the plausibility framework for legal decisions will be remotely sympathetic to what – to quote Tony Esolen on the same point for the second time this week – ‘everybody believed the day before yesterday.’

Too much Trump:

But previous election cycles gave Catholic voters a prudential choice between candidates who embodied at least some of the major themes of the social doctrine. What is the thoughtful Catholic voter to do when neither of the presidential candidates is even minimally committed to human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity, as the social doctrine understands those concepts? When one party has elevated lifestyle libertinism to the first of constitutional principles (and is prepared to kill unborn children, jettison free speech, and traduce religious freedom in service to hedonism), while the other is prepared to nominate a fantasist who spun grotesque fairy tales about an alleged connection between an opponent’s family and Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before he closed the deal?

That will be a question to ponder carefully in the next six months. The immediate take-away that the American democratic experiment is in deep trouble—and that trouble has something to do with moral judgment.

The perfect storm of Trump and Target:

We are living in a new country. There’s a completely implausible op-ed piece on Ethika Politika today, blaming the Benedict Option for giving us Trump. The idea is that when orthodox Christians vacate the public square, people like Trump triumph. But there’s no evidence that American Christians have by and large vacated the public square. Most churchgoing Christians who are Republican voted for other candidates in the primaries; Trump’s victory showed how little power religious and social conservatives have now. No, most Christians have not left the public square; the public square has left them, so to speak.

That is, Trump is part of what it means to be in a post-Christian nation (and so, by the way, is Hillary, with the platform she’s running on). It is simply an illusion that traditional Christians are a silent majority in this country, and that if we only wake up, we can put matters aright.

So why is it that God was so upset with either humanity or his own people that well before the rise of telephones and open primaries he sent down massive punishments against sin and disobedience? Think of the generation that did not survive the flood:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5-7 ESV)

Or what about Jeremiah’s prophecy against Judah?

Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind—therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth. And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.’ (Jeremiah 19:4-9 ESV)

Yowza!

Shouldn’t Christians who are supposed to be Bible readers act like they’ve seen a wicked world before? Such a recognition doesn’t mean doing nothing. But it should mean not being more outraged than God that humans are fallen.

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50 thoughts on “Did Humans Flourish Before Modernity?

  1. Really? An Englishman feels compelled to take over? Shocked, just shocked. But the Irish, Yanks, Scots, Indians, Africans, Welsh, Aussies, (insert your favorite) have an opinion about Englishman trying to teach them how to do culture. It’s not always happy or good and right.

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  2. D.G. says: But it should mean not being more outraged than God that humans are fallen.

    It would be impossible to be more outraged than God about sin.

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  3. The question is, why do conservative Christians, especially in the U.S. always think the sky is falling, especially when there is so much good news to thank God for? Yes, wacky things have been happening regarding sexual identity in this country. But that is only one small aspect of society.

    We are still in the midst of two hundred years of a drastic decrease in global poverty. The standard of living has been rising for two centuries for millions all over the world.

    In the U.S. violent crimes have decreased by 1/3 since 1994.

    In the last 20 years rapes have decreased by almost half in the U.S.

    Gun violence has declined by almost half since 1993

    The abortion rate has been plummeting in the developed world for years now, including the U.S.

    The teen birth rate has dropped by 45% in the U.S. since 2000

    The number of armed conflicts around the world have dropped from around 51 in 1990 to around 11 in 2012

    Democracy continues to spread around the world, the number of democratic countries almost doubling since 1945

    We have made amazing strides in medical technology; people are living longer and healthier if they want to, we’ve eradicated a majority of common diseases that used to kill thousands (I recently had an implant placed in my throat that allowed me to keep my job, an implant not available in any previous generation)

    All this good news, and I’m not even a post-milennialist!

    So why are American Christians so averse to good news? Why is the sky always falling?

    Maybe we are as addicted to the news cycle as the rest and are simply reactionaries. Maybe we are fascinated by sex, so laws having to do with sex become determinative of how we judge the rest of society. Maybe in a good way we realize this is not our home so we are always emphasizing the deficiencies of this present age. Maybe we’re just spoiled. I’m sure there are other reasons I have not though of for this aversion to good news.

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  4. Todd, but the good and bad are always side by side. For every pharmaceutical breakthrough to combat some hideous germ, there are resistant strains waiting in line. The spread of wold wide democracies has been mitigated by radical movements like the well-known Taliban, ISIS, etc. who are working hard to take it in the other direction. While world hunger is being relieved (at least where oppressive governments aren’t hi-jacking grain shipments), there are protests and fears about the genetically modified seeds that make it possible in the first place. And while violent crime rates may have dropped that much globally since the 90’s, it’s hard to convince Chicago residents (Chic-raq) that there’s been any improvement – so it’s spotty.

    Further, technological innovations like VHS tape players, that enabled a wealth of educational and instructional viewing (including religious), only managed to survive and thrive economically because of pornography. And while the very media we’re using right now is excellent for the purposes of meaningful debate and discussion (at least I hope it’s meaningful!) such as we have here, it’s also laden with filth, argumentative, and vile interchanges such as the kind that the Chicago police are finally admitting get used to instigate most of the drive-by shootings – social media like Facebook.

    That’s why I like the masterful view that the author whose face (smoking a cigarette) often appears in the welcome banner of this very blog site – John Updike, especially his magnus opum, the “Rabbit” tetralogy. Inspired by Kierkegaard’s “either/or,” Updike developed his own critique of mankind’s advances and declines with a “yes/but” or “yes/no” way of looking at this tension between the good and the bad that everything in the world. In his way of thinking, we’re only human because of that compromising back and forth conflict – in Rabbit’s case, over a series of four decades. I don’t know that I’d go as far as Updike about that, but I would say that it seems to fit very nicely within the 2K sort of scheme.

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  5. Todd,

    Christian Smith wrote an excellent piece in Books & Culture, entitled “Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics” that asks the same question.

    I also think it’s something of a marketing strategy. There has always been a close tie between the 1960s reemergence of the “paranoid style” in politics and the rise of evangelicalism. Much of evangelicalism’s growth came by blending fundamentalist Christianity with social populism in a way that provided certainty to an increasingly anxious white middle class that was seeing its cultural hegemony begin to disappear.

    In the early 1990s, there was a period of time when it looked like evangelicalism might turn a corner, jettison the social populism, and mature into something of an establishment. But it was not to be. The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 proved to be a pill that many evangelicals could not swallow. Andrew Chignell recounts that Wheaton College held a massive prayer vigil the day after the 1992 election. I was a college senior at the time. I recall that a number of evangelical students wore sackcloth to class the morning following the election. I didn’t understand that reaction then, and I don’t understand it now…24 years later.

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  6. Sean,
    As an Englishman I am sorry to read that you think we have botched it so much in telling others what to do and think; our empire legacy still looms large in the thinking of many, if not necessarily yours. I would guess Carl Trueman is not trying to be an imperialistic Brit who is trying to impose on others through his writings, but I am very disappointed that he is trying to address issues by sharing the speaking platform with the Heritage Foundation folks. This raises alert flags about those seeking a great America and American exceptionalism, preferably as might see it through some supposedly Christian framework.
    Todd, you are bang on target that there is a kind of what I would call a weird preoccupation with sex among the evangelicals and ‘true’ conservatives: “Maybe we are fascinated by sex, so laws having to do with sex become determinative of how we judge the rest of society”. Carpet bomb Cruz, the darling of theonomists, was the essence of this obsession as he came towards the end of his futile, cliched ridden presidential campaign railing passionately against trans gender bathrooms as though they were the defining evil of the present generation.
    Why can’t these folks simply focus on God’s coming Kingdom and being Christ like with a measure of hope and joy, instead of throwing much of their time, effort, and attention in trying to politically fix the issues which only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can?

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  7. evan/bobby, I was at Wheaton in 1992. I recall no prayer vigil. If one took place, it wasn’t “massive.”

    Moisturize more and anecdotalize less.

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  8. Paul, thanks for not noticing that the OPC is providing the platform for Carl and Heritage. Now, if they’d asked me, I’m there with a bib on. Same goes for Gospel Coalition.

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  9. I don’t know, Paul, I’ve known a few Englishman( and managed to enjoy their company), and they’re pretty sure they know a few things about YOU that you don’t know and often don’t bother asking permission to act on that intuition. Beyond that, I happen to agree with Todd about the conservatives getting moral whiplash trying to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle, and worse, developing the situational ethics book on the fly. I thought part of the ‘benefit’ of buying into God’s sovereignty was the ability to keep your head while everyone else was losing theirs. So, if that’s still a good and necessary residual of catechism, what other ‘motive’ might be driving the train? Why MUST we respond and respond NOW to the these ‘calamitous’ cultural trends that are here today and gone tomorrow or merely out of fashion even twenty years from now? And what, exactly, is our expertise and training to recommend our reflection and necessary insights much less correctives on these cultural trends, particularly as churchmen?

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  10. sean says: ‘benefit’ of buying into God’s sovereignty (and every other aspect of God’s character)

    amen. appreciate the post making clear the point – how important Christian worldview is and being grounded in reality (His word, by His Spirit) as opposed to whatever else

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  11. That’s right, acknowledge and applaud the “goods” that are high on your litmus for “civilization” but mock other democratized citizens for being concerned that certain human rights are under attack at present.
    Why don’t you let the devil ( acting through government)take “your” house, for in a decade or two? You can always rebuild.
    There’s wisdom in being vigilent. A decade or two is a fourth of a man’s life. The spam of birth to legal age.

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  12. Susan, where’s your confidence in the church (the one against which hades will not prevail)?

    Plus, don’t we live in a fallen world? So why be surprised by the suckiness?

    In case you missed it, I was “mocking” the surprise. I think your own outrage porn got in the way.

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  13. “Outrage porn”—— a term so passé. Righteous indignation —– timeless.

    What democracy wasn’t won by some sort of western imperialism? What barbaric culture wasn’t improver by western cultural ideals?

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  14. Susan: There’s wisdom in being vigilent.

    thank you Susan. good exhortation.
    in sincerity, reminded also, with your ‘rebuild’ word of this exhortation: “For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor.” Gal 2:18, Paul here talking about the potential of fellow Jewish believers returning to the law though they entered into Christ by faith, receiving Him as Savior, and being justified – a legal term declaring someone not guilty, innocent. Period.

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  15. Susan, but how else am I to go forward? Conscience is sacrosanct. Just ask the Rahnerians amongst which you live and move and have your eucharist. I thought the bible said God established the magistrate and raised kings and nations up and took them down? Now, you’re telling me it’s the devil? Cafeteria Christianity alert. Consumerism alert. And, still, nobody likes the tension. Under pressure, ding did a ding did a ding ding.

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  16. Let me add and clarify. I believe that outrage porn is a thing. One has to know how to spot it.( Hint: O’Riley)
    But that doesn’t mean that we have to let the whole project( America) go to pot.No need to worry about evangelical getting whiplash. Just keep our own hands to the plow. Which reminds me….where is Cincinnatus when we need him?

    Wherever there is strong Christian principles there IS the culture. Whether it will have human flourishing, as in arts and letters only time will allow. But you have to have morals so that artists can be born. That, and leisure to learn and create.

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  17. Susan, you don’t sound like the stuff of a martyr. Don’t forget about Perpetua. She’s one of your saints and will even hear your prayer and forward it to Mary.

    I’ve heard it somewhere — to die is gain.

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  18. Darryl,

    Yes I know. See Ecclesiastes 3.

    But Christianity is both/and, remember?

    It’s feasts and fasting. Wealth and poverty. Etc.

    I tried 2K and it never worked in theory so it could never work in practice either.
    I’m of the “common” sense. Given to is by God.

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  19. Susan, does that common sense tell you that culture indeed existed WITHOUT any “strong Christian principles”? You’ve heard of Rome and Greece, right, from where the west received its culture well before Jesus himself was ever born?

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  20. I’m less concerned about the trajectory of the culture than what it is bringing to light and confirming about the state of the American church.

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  21. “I tried 2K and it never worked in theory so it could never work in practice either.
    I’m of the “common” sense. Given to is by God.”

    I surrender. And, Susan — I hope you make she-deacon. Or enjoy the one assigned to your parish. For a preview just go to the local PCUSA and as for Pastor Megan. It’s gonna be great.

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  22. Zrim,

    If it truly counted as a good( like justice and so forth) it was a portion from God. Jesus is God and didn’t come to abolish the moral law. He fulfilled it and shows us how it’s fulfilled( did any culture value life as much as Judiaism and Chrstianity after, came on the scene?)
    . We carry our crosses in as far as we accept God’s will for our lives AND do battle with the spiritual realm that is manifest in society.
    Jesus’s kingdom was that prophesied in Daniel( rock not hewn from the human hands) and it will beat all kingdoms of this world. Its an organized kingdom though.and it grew and filled the whole earth.

    Q. Is 2K a tenant of your faith or your politics?

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  23. CW,

    It’s Catholic dogma that women cannot be priests.
    I have no idea about deaconesses. But I do know there is plenty of work to do inside the church that involves, ultimately, working outside the church. Things like praying against abortion and praying and voting for leaders who are morally upright and not merely self seeking.and so democratic that the mob is obeyed( the reason of a republic, right).
    Besides right now I have a family to look after.
    Megan and I don’t see eye to eye. So, No.

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  24. We ain’t changing any doctrine! I’m a bon a fide, son of the Church! But we sure is gonna pastorally apply the hell out of it. It’s better than a Staples ‘Easy button and more handy than a pocketknife. Yee and haw.

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  25. Paul Helm dissents from apocalypticism:

    But in my view he has a black and white, all or nothing, view of modern culture. ‘Cultures’, modern societies, if they are anything, are complex. Whatever Philip Rieff may say (he’s the current must-read for those wishing to analyse cultures), they are not primarily identified with what they forbid, except in the sense that the maintenance of any standards involves having do’s and don’t’s. Every assertion implies a denial, in fact a multitude of them. Cultures have rites of entry, what is permitted and what not. Totems and taboos. Culture has many expressions, some fairly sealed off from others. So, cultures, rather than culture, perhaps.

    Is not the idea that this transgender business will derail ‘the culture’ or promote an ‘anti-culture’ or dam the flow of the multi-faceted interests and talents of men and women rather far-fetched and…hysterical?

    Ya think?

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  26. Meanwhile, not all news is bad:

    Donald Trump’s confusion aside, you might think the abortion debate in America is deadlocked. The term people use for the legal status of Roe vs. Wade is “settled.”

    But a scientific advance could soon shake its very foundations. One of those foundations, legally and morally, is the viability of the fetus — or what we call her when the topic isn’t abortion: the baby. (Ever hear of a “fetus bump”?)

    In their 1973 Roe ruling, the justices said abortion should be broadly legal before the prenatal child can live outside her mother, but could be broadly restricted after this time. In 1973, viability came in the third trimester. But with today’s technology, viability is at 21 weeks, five days.

    And dropping.

    This technological shift presents us with a puzzle. How could a 23-week-old prenatal child have rights worthy of legal protection in 2016, but not in 1973? Also, if a 23-weeks pregnant woman traveled from New York City to Botswana, the child she carried inside her would lose its rights worthy of protection during the trip. Strange things happen when we tie the value of human beings to a society’s technology.

    Must signify the second coming of Abraham Kuyper.

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  27. Susan, Christianity’s hot and cold?

    To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:

    These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Rev 3)

    please think

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  28. How did faith and politics converse before 2K?
    Christianity is two thousand years old.

    I’m trying to understand the fascination and head -over- heels love of 2K theology/political philosophy.
    Any help would be appreciated.
    Thanks.

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  29. CW,

    Priests and pastor’s or synonymous in Catholicism. If a man is a priest he is a pastor. He may not be the most pastoral in some cases but he is still a priest. Its a matter of office and Persona Christi.
    I can be pastoral but I can’t be a priestess. Again, persona Christi.
    Women can teach, though and there are and have been some very good teachers. In fact there are women who are doctors of the church.
    There are.things for women to do inside and outside the church for the sake of the people who are ,or are not of the body.
    Maybe I am wrong but I don’t care If there are deaconesses. There are already nuns.
    I have my own work to do.

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  30. If it truly counted as a good( like justice and so forth) it was a portion from God.

    Susan, that’s not really what Christian culturallists mean though. If they did, they wouldn’t talk about “strong Christian principles” in relation to culture making and preserving any more than making and preserving chairs by way of “strong Christian principles.” Who talks like that? People with agendas.

    So what they mean has less to do with principles than with people, as in politics, as in our way of life is superior to yours. Nothing necessarily wrong with making judgments in provisional life like that but when you start to import eternity into it it’s an abuse of true religion. It’s bringing God down from his lofty heights, in which case I can see the appeal to both eeevangelical and Catholic sensibilities (which are all about this life).

    Q. Is 2K a tenant of your faith or your politics?

    It’s the teaching of the Bible, so you tell me.

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  31. mboss says: I’m less concerned about the trajectory of the culture than what it is bringing to light and confirming about the state of the American church.

    amen mboss, but our children, right in front of us, falling for and in that trajectory.
    But yes, reminded of DG’s Jeremiah’s reading -the Lord ‘outrage’ through His servant there TO HIS PEOPLE :
    ”Be appalled, shudder, be very desolate for My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water. Jer 2:12-13

    Susan: Its an organized kingdom though. and it grew and filled the whole earth.

    amen Susan…but according to and by the power of the Lord’s higher, not our lower ways- not by pomp and circumstance, nor by bejeweled scarlet and purple, nor by earthly muscle but ..
    the treasure and pearl of great value, wind blowing where it wishes in our midst; good tiny mustard seed sown, then wheat (but tares also) sprouting and growing, while men sleep and how, he does not know;

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  32. Susan, have you never heard of civil religion? Have you never heard of Caesaropapism? The Papal States? WWI as a war for righteousness? The Civil War as a Crusade? Have you heard of the Crusades? Have you heard of Jewish ghettos in medieval Europe?

    Have you heard of problems?

    So maybe a distinction between the church and the civil polity is a way to eliminate the problems.

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  33. Is ” let me explain”, Sean?

    I understand what religious freedom is.
    No person should be made to go against his conscience when it comes to deciding his religion. He also shouldn’t have to violate his religion’s moral or theological doctrines.
    Does the goverment have the right to supersede the teaching of Christianity? How about Islam? It depends whether the the doctrines are truly moral or not, doesn’t it.

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  34. How did faith and politics converse before 2K?
    Christianity is two thousand years old.

    I think it went something like this, this, and of course who could forget this?

    2K is certainly an improvement – maybe the church should deal with ecclesiastical matters and leave the state alone (and vice versa).

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  35. Susan, I’m no one. ‘whack’. It’s GOT insider baseball.

    Well, if you understand what religious freedom is, and you’re for it, you can thank 2k and be in love with it too. And, yes, 2k holds that it cuts both ways. So, you should just be enthralled with the theory and the American experiment.

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  36. Susan,

    No person should be made to go against his conscience when it comes to deciding his religion. He also shouldn’t have to violate his religion’s moral or theological doctrines.

    I remember when the pope said this to Martin Luther.

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  37. Robert,

    Going against conscience in matters of morals would be very wrong. So if you feel guilty about some wrong action, you probably are guilty. Further, neglecting to inform oneself about morals is itself a moral failing if it’s avoided because you don’t want to be culpable. We can know right from wrong by the law written on our hearts, but when in doubt, consult the church. Let me give you a for instance. Say a woman had a tubal ligation because she or her husband didn’t want more children, then they become Catholic and learn that sterilization is a grave sin, but they are also older and the woman is beyond child bearing years and so a reversal would be a waste of money and or dangerous to the mother’s health. As long as they are aware that they committed a grave sin and confessed it, and are open to a miracle even, their conscience is the elephant gun. No court can supersede what is between them and God. But notice, how they don’t get to decide for themselves whether sterilization is a grave sin?
    Deciding to leave a religion because you no longer believe it, is one thing; saying you know of what that religion consists, is another. None of us gets that kind of prerogative.

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  38. “Going against conscience in matters of morals would be very wrong….they don’t get to decide for themselves whether sterilization is a grave sin.”

    Huh?

    But Prots leave room for the conscience in matters indifferent. No need for the church to fill the void.

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  39. It’s not indifferent. That’s the point. You take away part of “what’ the church is for. Now you understand why canon law isn’t excessive. If the need of understanding the aspects of law isn’t excessive in civil courts it surely isn’t in ecclesiastical ones either. Law comes from God, of course, and governs both realms. Two swords, as it were.

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  40. I think you are supposed to ask your agent to ask them to ask you. I wonder just how famous some of these folks arre.

    Carl Truman—“Some may be interested in a conference on June 8 in Bear, Delaware, sponsored by the OPC, where these three topics – the cultural, the legal, and the pastoral — will be addressed. Speakers are myself, Randy Beck (Justice Thomas O. Marshall Chair of Constitutional Law, University of Georgia School of Law) and Tim Geiger (Executive Director of Harvest USA). The subsequent panel discussion will be chaired by Jennifer A Marshall, Vice President for Family, Community, and Opportunity and Fellow of the Heritage Foundation.”

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  41. ” they become Catholic and learn that sterilization is a grave sin”
    Of course the Catholic church is wrong, so they would be burdening their conscience over nothing. Indeed, the burdening of believers with manmade rules like this is a grave sin.

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  42. Susan, then what does “going against conscience in matters of morals would be very wrong” mean? My conscience tells me it’s time to go sterile. The church tells me I can’t. If I heed the church I go against conscience and you say that’s wrong. Now what?

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  43. Is modernity the problem or the fall?

    I fear that Christians who were coming to appreciate the perilous position of the church in post-Christian America may conclude that we can all stand down now, that the danger has passed. That would be incredibly foolish. It’s not simply the Democratic Party that threatens authentic Christianity. It’s modernity. The best we can expect of politics is for it to open a space for the church to do its work of conversion and culture-building. The Trump presidency may – may – solve certain immediate problems for the church, but it will certainly create new ones. Again, I say to my fellow Christians: do not take false hope from the machination of princes. Prepare.

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  44. And I thought it was post-modernityism that was the problem. Of course, the typical description of postmodernism from evangelical doomsayers sounds a whole lot more like Mill than Foucault.

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