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Modern madness

October 17, 2009

by David Crabtree

One day as I entered the university library I read the words carved in the stone above the doors, “Ye shall know the truth. . . and the truth shall set you free.” And then I imagined the gargoyles above laughing deafeningly.

These words seem very out of place in the modern American university. The modern mind associates Truth with tyranny rather than freedom. Truth is, after all, very restrictive. If green is green, then green cannot be white or blue or red; it is green and only green. Truth eliminates a myriad of tempting options. Such a situation is deemed intolerable; so Truth is willed out of existence.

While discussing “national character” with a student one day, I argued that it is not inconceivable to me that in ethnic groups certain characteristics might come to predominate such that we come to associate those characteristics with that group. Furthermore, it is not inconceivable that some of those characteristics could be heritable. For example, we associate blue eyes and blond hair with Germanic peoples, dark skin and curly black hair with Negroid peoples, etc. I continued my argument by saying that it seems quite plausible that the disproportionate number of blacks in professional basketball is due, in part, to anatomical advantages characteristic of blacks.

My interlocutor was appalled by what I was suggesting: “Don’t you see what that thinking could lead to? Someone could argue that blacks have other genetically determined characteristics–like low intelligence. That could lead to systematic, institutionalized discrimination. . . . It can’t be true!”

“I am not trying to justify discrimination,” I responded. “How people would or should respond to such differences is a completely different matter. I am simply raising the possibility that ethnic groups may have genetic differences. If it is true, then it is true, and we must incorporate it into the way we see the world.”

“It can’t be true. It is too dangerous,” were her final words.

I understand and sympathize with her concerns about how my line of reasoning could be used for evil purposes. But I have recounted this discussion for another reason. This student’s response was refreshingly honest. She was rejecting my line of thinking not because she had evidence that I was wrong, but because she was unwilling to accept the implications. The rejection of certain propositions because they contradict cherished beliefs is more common than we realize. We underestimate the extent to which our desires influence what we accept to be true. We conceive of ourselves as eminently rational; everything we hold to be true is considered the most reasonable position. This is an illusion, however. In our saner moments we all realize that it takes little or no evidence to convince us of what we dearly want to be true, while no amount of evidence will convince us of what we can not accept. To pursue the truth sincerely takes a great deal of integrity and bravery. One must be committed to following the truth no matter where it leads.

I am certain that picking and choosing what part of Truth we are willing to accept is endemic to man. Modern society, however, is unique in its rejection of Truth as a valid category. Over the last two centuries a large scale assault by scientists, philosophers, and scholars has provided plenty of support for the belief that Universal Truth does not exist; there are only personal perceptions of reality, with no one perception any more valid than any other. Having slain Truth, man is freed from its tyranny, and each individual has the freedom to construct his own “reality.” But “reality” crafted in the imagination of an individual is actually very unrealistic; it is a dream, a fantasy divorced from reality. Loosing touch with reality is the very essence of madness.

Typically, one who has rejected the existence of Truth and constructed a customized “reality” will not admit to being a dreamer. Quite the contrary, such a person will likely boast in his empirical scrupulousness. He will insist that a sober assessment of the evidence shows there is no Truth, there is no God, there are no moral absolutes. But such protestations are hollow. He is like the hunter who stomps boisterously into the woods and then emerges a short time later confidently to proclaim the woods devoid of game. Truth hides from the arrogant and the distrustful.

At the heart of our society’s rejection of Truth is its aversion to moral absolutes. But God, the architect of the cosmos, built moral values into reality; so we ignore those values at our peril. The natural consequences of violating God’s moral laws are just as certain as the consequences of ignoring natural laws. We can deny the existence of gravity, but if we step off a cliff we will still fall. If we ignore the moral absolutes God has built into the cosmos, we will suffer. You would expect such suffering to awaken us to our delinquency, but typically it does not. Ingeniously, we find more palatable explanations for the suffering: The rise in teenage pregnancy results from a lack of information about sex and contraception rather than a failure to confine sex to marriage; The rise in the number of avowed homosexuals is attributed to an increased willingness of gays to come out of the closet rather than an increasing failure of normal human relationships to be what God intended; The failure of the welfare system is the result of administrative inadequacies rather than the inevitable consequence of a society lacking in true charity. This misdiagnosis of the root problem leads to an endless series of futile treatments. Until the real problem is acknowledged, no real solution to our social problems is possible. The result is a kind of madness. As a society we are always tilting at windmills, always finding problems where they aren’t , oblivious to the problems that really plague us.

This kind of madness is not just pathetic; it is dangerous. C. S. Lewis, writing in the 1950s, expressed his concern about the changes taking place in British society regarding the handling of criminals. He noticed a major shift in the way society thought of criminals, away from the traditional view that criminals had done something wrong and therefore owed a debt to society. The wrongness of the act could be determined by anyone (as represented by jurors), and each crime had a set penalty assigned to it. When the penalty was paid, the criminal was free to go.

Lewis detected a new perspective supplanting the traditional one. Having rejected the existence of moral absolutes, people were unwilling to call crimes wrong-doing; crimes were just anti-social behaviors, and criminals, therefore, were not to be punished, but cured. Given this shift in perspective, experts are now required to determine who is a criminal and the length and nature of the treatment. The potential abuses of this new perspective are alarming. Only experts can determine who needs treatment, and the length of treatment can be unending. Only when the one being treated repents of his anti-social behavior is he “cured.” Given this perspective, all the safeguards protecting the individual from the arbitrary use of state power are undermined, and the ultimate crime becomes rebellion against the state. Thus measures taken to make the treatment of criminals more humane–measures informed by this madness born of rebellion against God–turn out to be cruel and inhumane. Solutions based on folly not only fail to solve problems; they exacerbate them.

At the root of man’s problem is an insufferable arrogance. Man was created by God to live in obedience to his maker, but from the beginning man has had higher ambitions. Man would like to be God. Man would like to determine for himself what is right and what is wrong. And modern man finally has the philosophical justification for the kind of freedom he has been seeking for millennia. But there is a cruel irony in all this. Having rejected the existence of moral absolutes, man has only one basis on which to determine right and wrong: his passions. “If it feels good do it,” has become the motto of our age. To do whatever one feels like doing would seem to be complete freedom, but just the opposite is true. Man’s passions are cruel in the extreme; habitual liars, they promise the world, but never deliver. Speaking of erotic passion C. S. Lewis says, “To be in love involves the almost irresistible conviction that one will go on being in love until one dies, and that possession of the beloved will confer, not merely frequent ecstasies, but settled, fruitful, deep-rooted, lifelong happiness. Hence all seems to be at stake. If we miss this chance we shall have lived in vain. At the very thought of such a doom we sink into fathomless depths of self-pity.”1 Although the passions have always lied, man always believes the next. Where else would he turn for fulfillment? His passions, his desires are his only hope. So having been freed from God’s standard of right and wrong, man is enslaved to his passions.

Man is but a lowly creature with the appetites of a god. No wonder the gargoyles are laughing.

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