The current implosion of Western society reveals that we are great at criticizing cultures, but ill-equipped to present a positive vision of a good life. Philosophies like existentialism, Darwinism, postmodernism, Marxism, and critical theory can tear down ideas, but do not build anything in their place. They criticize the patriarchy and wonder where the fathers went. They criticize capitalists and wonder where the jobs went. They criticize the police and wonder why crime rises. They say there is no objective purpose to life and wonder why the youth commit suicide. They say humans are evolved animals and wonder why they rape and kill.
It may be objected that Marxism, for example, has a clear vision for the future. But Marxist eschatology is merely a daydream that Marxists have no power to actualize. Decades before Russia’s revolution, Dostoyevsky notes in The Brothers Karamazov that socialism isn’t just about labor, it’s an anti-God philosophy; they don’t believe that God will bring Heaven to Earth, so they try to do this by other means. But only God can bring about utopia by making people altruistic, and so Marxists attempt to do it by coersion. The twentieth century shows that this vision inspires more destruction than production.
The effects of these philosophies are beginning to catch up with us. My parents were divorced, their parents were divorced, my step-dad’s parents were divorced, and I never met either of my two step-moms’ parents. In environments like this, is it any wonder that millennials lack direction? I was told that I could be whatever I wanted to be, but I wasn’t told very clearly what a man should be. Public school taught me that I should go to college and get a good job, but it couldn’t possibly tell me why I should do this. When I began to ask these questions as a teenager, I was left with no foundation, and became depressed. I loved Ecclesiastes because of the ways it criticized things that other people cared about, but the only thought that positively gave me a sense of purpose was that the church and my relationship with God would last forever.
In hindsight I see three deficiencies in younger me’s view of Biblical ethics and purpose. First, I started with the end instead of the beginning. Faced with mortality and entropy, I only wanted to know what would last forever. I knew that God is the beginning as well as the end, but it didn’t cross my mind to build my life around a verse like Genesis 1:28. But if God has told us what to do, we don’t have to wonder how to live a meaningful life. When I realized that God doesn’t actually need my help to make disciples, I had to pivot from doing things because they will last forever to doing things because God told me to.
Second, my understanding of ethics was largely negative. I knew that I shouldn’t hate, covet, lie, be lazy, lust, and cheat. But what should I be doing instead? Sure I shouldn’t be lazy, but what should I be working toward? In a healthy culture, people would basically understand what humans are supposed to do, and these negative commands would keep them from going about it in the wrong way. But as the counter-culture becomes the mainstream culture, we need to build our system of ethics from the ground up, which requires a clear positive vision.
Third, my positive understanding of ethics was too vague. Modern Christians know that we should value the weighty things of the law like justice, mercy, and love. But what does this practically look like? Answering this question requires knowing what our neighbor needs, what God’s blessings look like, and the specific moral commands of God’s law. It requires a knowledge of what the good life is and the wisdom to achieve it.
When I started this ethics series, I didn’t realize how transformative it would be for me, and the reason is that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the positive vision of Genesis 1:28. I’ve learned that a lot of my desires, both righteous and sinful, are explained by this verse, because it is a description of what man was made for. With a clear vision of what my life is supposed to look like, it is easier to turn down the counterfeits.
Today I meant to write on the positive vision of ethics taught in Malachi, and this post happened by accident. Maybe in a couple weeks.