February 19th, 2017


By request -- today's sermon

Christ and the Philosophers: Through Darkest Zeitgeistheim

Colossians 2:8-23

To conclude my little series of sermons on Christ and the Philosophers, I’m stealing the title of this sermon from a book by C.S. Lewis called The Pilgrim’s Regress, which has a chapter called “Through Darkest Zeitgeistheim."

Der Zeitgeist is a German expression meaning “the Spirit of the Age.” It's the way everybody thinks nowadays, that which is unquestioned, the ideas that surround us like the air we breathe, and like the air we breathe, taken for granted until challenged – and then stiffly defended. So, Zeitgeistheim would be the perilous land where if you think differently about things, you will be seen as backward, as not-with-it, or as dangerous – a public menace. And Christianity is always falling afoul of the Spirit of whatever Age it finds itself in.

Anyway, I’ve been talking about the good, the true, and the beautiful in this series, and those ideas can be expressed in many ways, and combined in many concrete forms – too many for me to go through, one by one. But there is one combination of ideas that you find everywhere these days, and I want to say something about it.

When I was in grad school, I was taking a course in School and Society – a sociology course – and the professor posed two questions to the class. The first was, Is society best understood as being made up of Individuals – or Groups? In other words, which is more fundamental to understanding how society works? And the second question was, Are people primarily consensual or conflictual? That is, are they more prone to cooperation or to competition?

Now, how you describe society and its workings depends on how you answer these two questions. In sociology, these answers – these assumptions – precede all other theory. And there are various ways in which you can combine these elements to explain society. The dominant theory in today’s world – which you will find everywhere – is that groups are the primary forms of identity in society, not individuals, and that all groups are in competition with each other for the resources of society. This is called Conflict Theory.

That means that you can explain society by talking about sex, race, social class, age cohort, nationality, culture, religion, and so on, rather than talking about individuals, who derive their identities more from their group membership than from anything unique to themselves. And all these groups – these different categories - are in perpetual conflict over whatever society has to offer. So men and women are in conflict with each other, and races are in conflict with each other, and the rich are in conflict with the poor, the young with the old, and so on. And the resources of society that these groups compete with each other for are, of course, things like wealth, material possessions, jobs, political power – but also symbols, ideas, words, which acquire their meaning by their being “captured” by some group or another.

This means that all men oppress all women, that all whites oppress all people of color, that all rich people oppress all poor people, and rich nations oppress poor nations. Oh yeah, also, straights oppress gays, the old oppress the young, Christians oppress everybody else, yada yada yada, yackety schmackety. And it means that there is no such thing as objectivity, no “truth” that transcends the struggle for dominance. There is only my truth vs. your truth, and if I can get you to use my words to describe our situation, then that means I’m more likely to win, and my winning – my group's winning – is what defines what is true – and what is good – and what is beautiful. At this point sociology becomes expressible as philosophy, you see. It can also be expressed as political science, where we call this same idea Neo-Marxism.

And from Marxism comes the idea of “false consciousness,” that a person who reaches out to another across the battle lines of group identity to try to get along, or see things in a common frame of reference, is a dupe or a fool – and is betraying one’s own group, which is the only true evil there is. No real compromise is possible between those from different groups. No agreement can stand between them; any seeming agreement is only a tactical truce, a pause to gather strength for the next assault.

Have your eyes started to glaze over yet? Hang, on, there’s a point to this.

So the professor in my long-ago class explained Critical Theory to us, as well as all the other permutations of sociology – and it seemed as though we were merely playing with counters. I thought, this is all interesting stuff, but nobody who was smart enough to understand it would ever use it to draw battle lines with others, surely. I mean, yeah, the angry and the blind, the people who fight for causes they’ve never examined, they might treat people from other groups as “the enemy,” but surely not those who could see it was merely a theoretical construct. Right?

Well, those were the days of the School Reform Movement, and there were lots of interesting books being written that didn’t reflect the same ol’, same ol’ in the field of education. People who had spent their lives in the field of public education were not happy to have so many “outsiders” weighing in on their province. And I was reading one of these books one day in the faculty lounge, trying to see what the fuss was all about, when my sociology professor came up and asked me what I was reading.

I told him, and he made a scoffing reference. I said, You know, I don’t think people are paying attention – they’re just blindly picking sides – ‘cause there’s some interesting stuff in here. The professor wandered off without replying; but from that day, our cordial relationship ceased to exist. He cut me in the hallway, he ignored me in conversation – unless we were in the classroom, I no longer existed.

I was shocked! “These guys really mean it!” You see, I had read one of “those books.” I was revealed as being on the Other Side. I could no longer be included, even socially, among Our Kind of People. It rocked me to my core – not only because I had lost someone I had considered a friend, but because it suddenly invalidated one of my long-held hopes.

For I had always believed that if I were just smart enough, and learnéd enough, and articulate enough, I should be able to communicate with even the most hostile person and between us we would be able to find some kind of common ground, from which we could find a way to live together. And I nourished the hope that I could also find a way to witness to Christ so that the other person could see what I saw in Jesus.

But if some of those I was trying to communicate with didn’t actually believe that communication was possible, or desirable – that you had to first decide whose side you were on before you had anything to say to each other – then I had been on a fool’s errand. And I remember thinking, you can’t reason with these people; reason is, for them, merely one of the resources of society they are seeking to capture! They believe in the conflict, in the goodness of the conflict. They cannot understand you because they will not understand you.

And then I realized it wasn’t just in sociology or philosophy or political science that I was encountering this. It was in every academic field, it was in the way celebrities talked, in the way the news was reported. And it was even in the field of religion, for there were those, even in our own denomination, who were arguing that we should not attempt to convert people from other cultures to our faith in Christ, since Christianity was a “Western” or “European” religion (which would have surprised St. Paul). So for instance, The cross has no meaning in Asian thought, they said.

And I realized that progressivism in religion wasn’t just the old liberalism of doing good for others. It was this insidious idea that there are oppressor groups and there are victim groups. That your group is the enemy of my group. And there is no Truth – or at least, our truth – the Christian truth – is merely a side to be fought against.

People gripe about political correctness, but they don’t know where it comes from. Well, this is where it comes from. This is the ideology that gave it birth. And it’s not merely an annoyance; it is, in fact, a thoroughly planned attack upon the values we were brought up to live by – because those who identify with other groups want to replace them with values of their own.

It started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and spread from higher education to other fields. Professors who believed in it eventually achieved tenure and then kept out other academics who believed in the old idea of searching for common truths. And whether we’re talking about sociology, or philosophy, or political science, or psychology, or religion, or pop culture, this is what is being taught to our children and young adults by every public institution in our society today.

It is profoundly anti-Christian, for Christianity believes in the catholicity of the church, in a savior who died for all, and a truth that can be translated into every language and lived out in every culture. It is profoundly anti-intellectual as well – for as it believes only in its own ideology, so it reduces everything to ideology, rigidly enforcing its ideas, punishing speech that expresses what it disagrees with. Though it preaches tolerance, it is profoundly intolerant.

And as I say, it is being taught to your children in every institution they participate in – schooling, higher education, pop culture, politics, the diversity racket their employers foist upon them, even (in many cases) their churches. It is the Spirit of the Age. It is the challenge of our day – in politics and in education and in religion. And what can we do about it?

St Paul wrote to the Colossians, "See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ." The philosophy that Paul was criticizing is what later became known as Gnosticism, and the “elemental spirits of the universe” would have been the emanations of deity that they preferred to the incarnation of God in the Man, Jesus Christ. Still, I think Paul would recognize Conflict Theory as an ideology also attempting to replace Christian doctrine, and those two questions we started with – about the group or the individual, and about whether people were primarily consensual or conflictual – as the basic "elements" of the theory. And he would have said the same thing in response to it: That in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” and when you come to him, you are connected to the supreme authority. He defines what is good, not the group or the individual, and he commands it as well.

He has set us free from these things that blind us and bewilder us, even as he has set us free from our sins, "having canceled the bond which stood against us, with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross." And as for these ideological questions, these pronouncements of the all-powerful Spirit of the Age, well, "He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them . . . "

And he goes on to say, ”Therefore let no one pass judgment on you” because you refuse to go along with the crowd and say all the right things. “Let no one disqualify you,” he says, “insisting on self-abasement” before their idols. Indeed, "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch (referring to things which all perish as they are being used), according to human precepts and doctrines?" Oh, they may sound so right and proper – everyone says so – but while "[t]hese have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body . . . they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh."

To belong to Christ is to be profoundly counter-cultural. We must be prepared to be rejected by those to whom our beliefs are an affront. And, yeah, we shouldn’t go about trying to be obnoxious about it. We must be loving in all we do, but we also must not think that there can be any real meeting of the minds with those who deny that minds from different groups can meet at all.

To belong to Christ is to belong to him who is from eternity, not to the Spirit of the Age, that is constantly passing away. I tell you, the Spirit of the Age is the spirit of bondage, who preaches liberation, but whose service is slavery, even for its unhappy devotees. But whom the Son makes free, is free indeed: free to love and be loved; free to make friends everywhere; free to reach across the artificial barriers of group identity and affirm a truth that unites us rather than separates us; free to join hands and together enter the kingdom where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, nor any barbarians or outsiders at all, but Christ is all, and in all.

So don’t let clever people – cool people – socially powerful people – convince you of things that overthrow your allegiance to Christ. And don’t give your children as sacrifices to Moloch, either. Be free. Live free. And help others find their way out of darkest Zeitgeistheim.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.