Given that our culture often seems unconscious of the importance of history, of the past, we must recognise that our efforts to pass on an intellectual inheritance to our children and to other children in our community will have to be more intentional than they have been. While I am not ready to head to the monastery (although at times it is tempting), Christians will have to continue to build pockets of sanity in this “perverse and wicked generation”. These pockets of sanity need not have brick walls, and they should have open doors and open arms. Nonetheless Christians will surely have to be more deliberate about fostering certain habits and disciplines, with full awareness that they will receive no support from the broader culture and at times not from the Christian church. Robert Jenson says “If we have a calling ,it is not to join a predefined intellectual enterprise but to reinvent one. And there is nothing preposterous about the notion, since we invented the West’s intellectual enterprise in the first place.” In the words of Alasdair MacIntyre, at the end of his seminal work After Virtue, “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us”
Warning: there will be spoilers for the entire series in this post. If you are planning on watching it (and you should), you should not read this. Save it and read it later 😉
It Is Over
Over the last few years I have come to love this show. I have loved that it takes ethics seriously, that it takes the afterlife as a concept seriously (though also exploits it for some good comedy), that it takes people’s mistakes and evils seriously. I won’t repeat everything that was said over at The Gospel Coalition a couple of years ago, but suffice it to say, this show is worth watching.
I do however want to highlight two ideas that appeared in the last season. These are the nature of a fundamental dualism, and the nature of a good afterlife.
What I am calling fundamental dualism here is the idea that the fundamental nature of the universe is actually two fundamental forces, one of good and one of evil. In The Good Place, these are the good place architects and the bad place architects. While the show is somewhat inconsistent here (occasionally portraying the bad place architects as actually doing good by torturing evil people, saying “Humans are evil, they deserve it”. The show portrays this attitude as being right, and it is), the general idea is that the good place architects, a handful of humans, and eventually Micheal are forces for good, and the bad place architects are forces for evil.
The problem is that this view is impossible. C.S. Lewis famously criticises this idea, and I want to highlight some problems that exist in the show as a result of holding this impossible idea.
Consider this: True bad place torturers have to be good for justice. It’s unjust when evil people torment evil people because they enjoy it. It is only justice when the evil suffer at the hands of a just judge, who is attempting to do good.
I think the bad place architects are actually better than the good place architects. The good place architects are weak, passive, uncreative cowards. None of that is good! Say what you want about Shawn, but at least he’s actually trying to do things. He has some ambition, and is often intelligent and driven enough to accomplish it. The “good” architects lack this. Shawn has some good in him apparently, the good place architects don’t seem to. If Shawn were truly fully evil, he’d be passive and lazy and incompetent. Instead, passivity and laziness and incompetence are marks of the good place architects. They are not good. They are just a different kind of evil.
It’s not an easy choice between hell and heaven in their world. Sure, butthole spiders and penis flatteners do not sound like fun. But neither does an endless zombie existence where all pleasure turns to ash in my mouth. My intuition is that a Dostoyevsky in the bad place becomes a deeper and more profound soul. Not that his suffering is good, but at least he can keep who he is! Hypatia in the good place loses that, and so did all the others.
Why does this problem exist? Because there’s a fundamental flaw in having equal and opposing good and evil forces. That problem is that a fully and fundamentally evil force has nothing good in it. Nothing good. Including things like cunning, intelligence, ambition, drive, courage, or even existence. Existence itself is a good, and so if there is a fully evil fundamental force, it ends up being self defeating. This force can never be an enemy!
No, the foundation force must be good, because it must be the most existent thing, and existence is good. It must be Existence Itself. It must be God. The Good Place shows us the incoherence of this dualism. Even Satan, the most evil thing, is a good thing twisted to evil, and is not a fundamental being but a derivative being. That’s how it must be.
The dualism in the show is self-awaredly silly, and has to be silly because it is actually incoherent. If it were not presented as silly, and if we thought about the metaphysics presented a bit more carefully, we’d start to see the holes in it.
A Good Afterlife
In the last two episodes, our heroes encounter something horrific: the millennia that the good humans have spent in the good place have ruined them. They’ve become mindless zombies, numb to all pleasure, incapable of all deep thought, robbed of all ambition or drive.
It’s easy to see why this happens. With no struggle and nothing to strive towards, they become lazy and complacent. With every possible desire immediately fulfilled, they’ve lost the ability to even have deep desires!
The solution in the show is to reintroduce death. Death, apparently, gives life meaning. Things only matter if eventually you will permanently stop existing. By creating the door and creating a potential end for each person, they have given back purpose to the people in the good place.
This is the current secular zeitgeist. Paradise is nothing more than wish fulfillment: getting whatever you want as soon as you want it. The ultimate good, according to the modern secular worldview, is having your will fulfilled. Everything comes back to the autonomous human will as the source of everything. Only what you want matters, only what you will for yourself matters for who you ought to be and what you ought to be given.
This is what Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart talks about in his book Atheist Delusions, in the chapter The Age of Freedom:
There is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself
The will, we habitually assume, is sovereign to the degree that it is obedient to nothing else and is free to the degree that it is truly spontaneous and constrained by nothing greater than itself. This, for many of us, is the higest good imaginable. And a society guided by such beliefs must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular “moral metaphysics”: that is, the nonexistence of any transcendent standard of the good that has the power (or the right) to order our desires toward a higher end.
For us, it is the choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good
What Hart has seen is the idolatry of the autonomous will and the free choice above all else. And that is the good place! They just get whatever they want whenever they want it. That’s how the world sees a good afterlife! Eternal wish fulfilment.
The problem is that eternal wish fulfilment, when there is no normative force on what we wish, is not going to actually be eternally fulfilling. Our heroes, after however many thousands of years of the good place, end up running out of things to satisfy their wills. Nothing more to choose. And out of things to choose, they have nothing left to fulfil them, and they leave. And why shouldn’t they? In this universe, they have exhausted all the goods. Finitely many goods for an infinite time do not satisfy, and so they cut their time short.
But in the real world, this is not the case. There is a normative force on the will, and if John Piper and the Christian Hedonists are to be believed (and they are), God’s end goal is for us to desire Him. Those who have attained eternal life by the blood of Christ will not have go-kart racing with monkeys as their highest desire (because how could that ever eternally satisfy?), they will have God as their highest desire. Finite goods couldn’t fulfil our heroes for eternity, but God, the infinite good, could! The Good Place, both the show and the location in the show, are missing God. They are missing the highest good. But heaven without God would not be good, and it would turn us all into lifeless zombies like Hypatia.
The Good Show
I am glad I watched The Good Place. It has prompted these thoughts, and many more. I have thought very deeply while watching it, more than any other Netflix show. I would love to see more like it.
…contemporary Christians cannot be at home in almost in any period of church history. If a present-day Christian attempts to read the work of almost any Christian leader from before the 19th century, he is likely to be shocked by the leader’s supposed rudeness and ‘unchristlikeness.’ For example, in an article on Athanasius—one of the most formative leaders in Christian history—a Gospel Coalition writer observed that modern Christian readers are likely to ‘sniff at his angry style of writing.’ In a preface to a translation of Luther—by two Lutheran academics—the translators remarked that ‘Luther was a person of his time, and his language expresses the roughness of the age.’
Of course, it is only people in the past whose choices are explained away by their social context. Nobody reads a Christianity Today editorial and says that, after all, the author ‘is a person of his time, and his language expresses the gentility of the age.’ Instead, it is 21st-century, middle class evangelicals who are implicitly assumed to have finally gotten christlikeness right after all these years.
Charles Taylor too long and dense for you? I understand. Here’s a nice podcast on the topic of secularism, with a focus on pastoring and discipleship.
“That’s life in a secular age. That’s belief under the conditions of doubt. That’s pastoring and leading the church under the conditions of doubt. Because even watching things happen—whether you’re watching people move from death to life, through salvation, or whether you’re watching people experience healing, physical or emotional or whatever—the reality of secularism is that there’s this nagging, needling condition of doubt.” — Mike Cosper
A poet or prophet or politician who holds an eschatological vision of history believes that history isn’t random or haphazard but has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
While agreeing with apologists on the importance of knowing and critiquing the worldview of those we’re trying to reach, Wax maintains that our critiques lack an understanding of the eschatological underpinnings of modern and postmodern worldviews that have drawn people away from the gospel.
In addition to championing reason over revelation and logical thinking over religious devotion, the Enlightenment ushered the West into a world that looks forward not to the promised New Jerusalem, but to a man-made utopia. In order to emphasize the coming light, Enlightenment eschatology demonizes the past as dark, ignorant, and backward.
In keeping with the progressivism of the 18th-century Enlightenment, the 20th-century sexual revolution also heralded the decay of revelation-based religion and the rise of reason-based science. However, in keeping with its 19th-century Romantic roots, the sexual revolution sought a new kind of mysticism that promised to free the disenchanted modern from the materialism and naturalism of the dour Age of Reason. Forsaking both repressive “medieval” moral codes and any form of scientism that would reduce man to a cog in the machine, the sexual revolution sought “transcendence through self-discovery and expression” (140).
As for the third rival worldview, consumerism, Wax effectively exposes it is as the most subtle and insidious of the three. If, for the architects of the sexual revolution, marriage is merely a vehicle for aiding our search for sexual self-fulfillment and expression, then for the high priests of consumerism, it’s nothing more than a commodity without intrinsic value.
Rory Shiner thinks that 2018 is the time for evangelism. I agree.
Talk to student workers in AFES, for example. They are the ones on the front line, sharing the gospel with the very generation who have been raised on intersectionality and gender fluidity and the whole bit. And yet, again and again, from campus to campus, these student workers are saying that this is the best and the freshest evangelistic environment they’ve seen in their life time.
People are so post-Christian that the gospel is fresh and interesting. They know so little that there’s less prejudice. And if they have an impression of Christians at all, it’s so outrageously negative that all you have to do is offer them a cup of tea and not punch them in the face and you seem like Mother Theresa.
Think about this, and it makes plenty of sense. People in the last 60 years or so have felt, in rejecting Christianity, that it is old and outdated and childish. That they already understand it, and can dismiss it as false. But now they might still have some of that attitude, but in reality they know nothing about Christianity. It’s easy to get someone intellectually curious about Christianity now, or surprise them with how little they know. And this leads to critical engagement. And critical engagement with Christianity leads to Christians.
The harvest is great, but the workers are few. Don’t be afraid or discouraged. Go on the offensive, fight the good fight, and win souls for Christ.
Many of you will have noticed that I reference the book A Secular Age by Charles Taylor quite regularly. Outside of scripture, no other book has been more influential in shaping my thinking about the Western world. Where we are, how we got here, what it means, and where we’re going.
If for some reason you don’t feel like spending 4 months digging through this 900 page tome, then there is an alternative that I haven’t read myself, but some of my friends recommend. From James Smith, the author of You Are What you Love, it is a summary of Taylor, containing many of his most important ideas, and it seems to attempt to make them explicitly and directly relevant to the Christian apologist. I also believe that Smith is Reformed, which always wins points in my book.
If those are too hard (and I strongly encourage you to take one of those two options, even as audiobooks or something) then I have found a reasonably good series of YouTube videos, they seem to be recordings of a philosophy class at a university discussing the book. They are not an alternative, but they may be helpful.
On Wednesday I had the privilege of hearing David Robertson speak at Menai Anglican Church. He covered many topics, mainly in the area of evangelism and apologetics in modern culture. I took some notes, here they are in their very rough and unedited form. Perhaps some will be useful:
Proclaiming Christ in a post Christian culture:
- Acts 17:6. What kind of world was being turned upside down? Don’t just influence, turn upside down. Jesus does this. Not politics. Gospel
- Ireland and Scotland changed quickly. Why are people dancing and singing for abortion? Surely if abortion is permissible, it is a bittersweet and necessary evil.
- We are regressing to a Greco-roman pagan world. Not progressive.
- Secular utopianism. Pinker’s enlightenment, ignores bad stuff. Things can only get better. But things aren’t. Advancing to nirvana never happens. Hitler thought he was progressive. Lewis Namier. Most academics were Nazis.
- Religious Fundamentalism. Unthinking Christianity included, but also Islam. Progressive utopian have to believe all religions are fundamentally the same. But Islam is a political system. Welcome them and spread the Gospel
- State fascism. Control of the state over everything. If we remove the church from culture, the state now provides the function of the church: Morality, schools (social engineering, what to think. Safe schools). Values of the elites imposed. Guilty until proven innocent in university sexual assault committees.
- Consumerist dumbed down materialism. Affluenza. Cannot serve both God and mammon. Prosperity Gospel, exported out of the West, is evil.
- New age paganism. Sexuality, mother earth, “cool”. Trying to be different. Nothing new under the sun.
- Sexual confusion and dysfunctional families. Nothing surprising here. Especially pushed in schools, even primary school. Children need a mum and dad.
- Equality: we are becoming unequal. Only focused on sexuality, but finance is more important.
- The church. Society needs Jesus. Don’t patronise poor people, they need the Gospel more than soup kitchens. Australia will become worse soon perhaps. Billy Graham 1959 had long-lasting impact. Moore college had a big impact. Immigrants are an opportunity. But weak on 25-40 year olds, who are sheltered. Tribalism. Struggle with answering objections. And we are going to decline in 10 years without renewal. What can we do: Don’t fight to save Christendom. Make more disciples
- We will never have difficulty in evangelism if the glory of the Lord fills the temple. Don’t let them see us as fake, dead, boring, unreal. Let them think we’re crazy or wrong. But not dead.
- Ireland makes us angry because it’s people shaking their fists at God. Our primary emotion should be sorrow, as God is being mocked.
- How to present our views on social issues? They are shibboleth issues, testing if we are culturally orthodox. Jesus responds with a question to get to the bigger issues. Don’t answer in their framework, take it to a wider framework. Don’t avoid and don’t compromise, but go bigger.
- Sidenote: narratives and metanarratives, new sincerity, end of post-modernism. This is good for us.
- Society has a vision of the church. But it is wrong. The church is for glorifying Jesus and proclaiming the Gospel. Don’t use care for the poor as evangelism, it’s patronising and manipulative.
- Australia has phenomenal opportunities to be useful in Asia for evangelism
“A Theological Sickness Unto Death – Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age” is the title of a paper published in TGC’s Themelios journal. I have read Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks and am working my way through the related A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. For evangelists and apologists wondering what is going on in our culture, and wanting to survey the cultural landscape in order to better strategise our evangelism and apologetics, this article may be helpful.
In Rieff’s view, therapeutic ideology, rather than Communism, was the real revolution of the twentieth century. Compared to Freud, the neo-Marxists were cultural conservatives who still believed in the notion of authority and the idea of a cultural code. The proponents of Freudian therapeutics, on the other hand, would not countenance authoritative frameworks and normative moral codes. In a therapeutic culture, authority disappears. In place of theology and ethics, we are left with aesthetics and the social sciences. Thus, therapeutic culture was born. This tradeoff would turn out to be so destructive that Rieff would describe the United States and Western Europe (rather than the Soviet Union) as the epicenter of Western cultural deformation.
In contrast to the first and second world cultures whose social order is undergirded by a world beyond the visible and a moral authority beyond the self, third world cultures (contemporary Western cultures) sever the connection between sacred order and social order, limiting the “real” world to the visible and locating moral authority in the self. Similarly, whereas each of the first two worlds sought to construct identity vertically from above, our third world rejects the vertical in favor of constructing identity horizontally from below. Rieff knew the result of this rejection would be nihilism: “Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing.
The construction of a fourth world will involve a recovery of sacred order and, by extension, recoveries of revelation and authority, and of transcendent meaning and morality. Recoveries such as this do not enact themselves; they await a people who will speak and act responsibly. This fourth world “people,” Rieff argues, must articulate and embody seemingly defunct notions of truth and virtue, a formidable task in our radically disenchanted and morally permissive third world culture. Nonetheless, in spite of the formidable challenges posed by third world order, there are already cracks in the foundations; although it once seemed liberating to fire God from his post and live without limits, the third world will soon realize that a world without boundaries is a frightening—not a freeing—place. Thus, a responsible people must arise to manifest the beauty of the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”