On the way to church yesterday, I was listening to the latest episode of Mars Hill Audio and I swear I heard Ken Myers complain that modern thinkers do not consider human nature in the light of the incarnation and the resurrection. That would imply an understanding of human nature without sin since Jesus lived a perfect life and since believers who go to heaven will live lives in which it is impossible to sin. If the desire is to call people to live virtuous lives and leave behind the viciousness and debauchery that characterizes modern America, the appeal to something higher is understandable. But it also needs to be plausible. And that means taking sin and unbelief into account when thinking about personal and civic virtue. How much “goodness” is truly possible in a world distorted by sin?
And then at church we read an excerpt from Paul’s epistle to the Romans which made me think he must have been writing at a time when he was observing How (or Why) Liberalism Failed (even though the secular liberals at Columbia University set the date for the epistle around 57 AD):
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:20-32)
Is that a description of Times Square circa 1970 or of Trump’s America? Well, if Columbia University is correct, Paul was actually depicting the society of first-century Mediterranean world. And if Paul was writing about his own time, not the United States with its defective Lockean political theory, then maybe the problems we twenty-first-century Americans face are not the product of bad political theory but of bad people who live at all times.
Notice too, how Paul goes on in that epistle to advise about the remedy for such a sorry state. Is it to have a church that becomes a civilizing force among barbarian tribes? Is it more governmental programs that make two-parent families plausible? Is it reading Aliadair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor on the problems of secular modernity? No. All of these remedies might help to lessen the blows of our fallen estate. But the only solution is — wait for it — justification by faith (chs 4-6) and preachers who will proclaim the good news (ch 10). He doesn’t even invoke the Virgin Mary for help.
But what about politics? Paul even addressed that. Honor the emperor, you know, the one who was not very virtuous and didn’t seem all that interested in rolling back modernity.