Post Author: Bill Pratt
A couple of years ago, I asked one of my good atheist friends what he thought the biggest problem facing mankind was. His answer: our propensity to form exclusionary groups. He explained that everywhere he looked, people were grouping themselves and casting everyone not in their group as “the enemy.” He especially felt this to be a problem with religious people, as he was excluded from these communities because he was an atheist.
I’ve often thought about his assessment of the human tendency to exclude and to label outsiders as enemies. Recently I encountered some thoughts on this human predisposition, captured by Tim Keller in The Reason for God. Keller’s answer is drawn from the great theologian Jonathan Edwards.
In The Nature of True Virtue, one of the most profound treatises on social ethics ever written, Jonathan Edwards lays out how sin destroys the social fabric. He argues that human society is deeply fragmented when anything but God is our highest love.
How so? Can’t we dedicate our lives to our family, to our nation, to our own interests? Keller continues:
If our highest goal in life is the good of our family, then, says Edwards, we will tend to care less for other families. If our highest goal is the good of our nation, tribe, or race, then we will tend to be racist or nationalistic [Bill’s note: the Nazis dedicated their highest love to national Germany]. If our ultimate goal in life is our own individual happiness, then we will put our own economic and power interests ahead of those of others.
So how does making God our highest love solve the problem?
Edwards concludes that only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn out not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general.
Since God created each of us in his image, since we are all equally valuable in his eyes, since he desires that everyone one of us spend eternity with him, it is easy to see how the proper Christian response to every man, woman, and child, regardless of race, nation, or creed, is love, not exclusion.
Maybe you’re not convinced that setting our sights on other things cannot bring unity and break down divisions among people. Can’t politics or ethnicity or socioeconomic status or tolerance or morality fit the bill? Aren’t these worthy objects of our highest love?
If we get our very identity, our sense of worth, from our political position, then politics is not really about politics, it is about us. Through our cause we are getting a self, our worth. That means we must despise and demonize the opposition. If we get our identity from our ethnicity or socioeconomic status, then we have to feel superior to those of other classes and races. If you are profoundly proud of being an open-minded, tolerant soul, you will be extremely indignant toward people you think are bigots. If you are a very moral person, you will feel very superior to people you think are licentious. And so on.
There is no way out of this conundrum. The more we love and identify deeply with our family, our class, our race, or our religion, the harder it is to not feel superior or even hostile to other religions, races, etc. So racism, classism, and sexism are not matters of ignorance or a lack of education. Foucault and others in our time have shown that it is far harder than we think to have a self-identity that doesn’t lead to exclusion. The real culture war is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, and that fail to satisfy us even when we get them.
I think Keller and Edwards are right. The solution to my friend’s problem is to make God our highest love; everything other answer is a dead end. I hope that some day he will agree with me.