A few days ago, I had quite the experience at a local pub here in Hampton Roads. I was spending some time unwinding after work, having a drink and reading Martin Luther’s famous Bondage of the Will. Suddenly, I was brought into a conversation by three people: one gentleman by himself; and a couple. In terms of being able to handle a conversation between adults, I might from now on call these three (in order of the gentleman, the woman, and the man) by the names of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Bad and Ugly were obviously intoxicated (Ugly even more so), and so I tried to minimize my time speaking to them by speaking with Good instead. This proved to be a fruitless endeavor, given that Bad often interrupted Good, and Ugly spent much of his time leaning against me and murmuring things like “Your arguments are really bad” (he never said why) or “I don’t want to talk to you any more” (apparently he couldn’t just go anywhere else in the pub, which was empty). He was also doing small, annoying things like pinching my cheek and saying “You’re so cute,” or randomly tugging on the straps on the shoulders of my shirt. The amount of times Ugly made physical contact with me, in fact, gave me a brief fright that I was either going to have to call the police or reinterpret the meaning of “laying on of hands.”
The range of topics between the four of us was everything from the morality of “self pleasure,” to Calvinism, to whether the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds, to the nature of canon. The part that stuck out for me, however, was near the end, when Good asked me if I believed in “religion or relationship.” I attempted to explain that this was really a false dichotomy, given God is the initiator of faith (and thus religion), and therefore it’s a much more complicated matter (which is probably worth a future blog post!). Bad then cut in, declaring herself “Catholic,” and saying that she liked going to liturgy because it appealed to her.
“It satisfies me, and that’s what’s important!” she said.
I then asked, “So you’re saying that with worship it’s more important to satisfy you rather than God?”
“No!” Bad retorted. “Don’t misuse my words!”
“But that’s what you said,” I replied, “you said the important part was that it satisfied you. That just isn’t scriptural.”
“Well,” she said, changing the subject (or trying to), “I just can’t believe that my Jewish friends are going to hell, because they don’t believe in Jesus!”
“Then you’re at odds with Christ,” I said, “because he said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me,’ and ‘he who is ashamed of me and my words, I will be ashamed of him before the Father.'”
To this, Bad said, “But you can’t handle the Bible like that!”
“Why not?” I immediately asked. “Jesus quoted God’s word against the devil. He quoted it against the Pharisees and Sadducees. The apostles quoted it against the Jews and Gentiles. Acts says that when Paul went into a new town, the first thing he would do is go to the local synagogue and reason with them from the scriptures. The standard was the word of God, and at this moment you are opposed to it.”
Bad’s response to this, and I quote:
“I don’t care!”
Later on, as I drove away from the pub and headed back home, I pondered on what had just happened. Aside from the fact that I felt like I had just experienced firsthand an episode of Wretched Radio‘s Witness Wednesday, the words of Bad came back to me, and I realized that this is the battle cry of man’s unregenerate state before God, and when faced with the truth of who God is they will turn violent and defensive. In retrospect, this seems to be the sad cleverness behind the lie of postmodernity: it offers a friendly answer but demonstrates no substance of truth; it plays the scholar while acting the fool.
Worst of all, this theology presents what appears to be a peaceful facade – a supposed ability to solve all the world’s problems by pretending these problems aren’t there – but in doing so, sacrifice the truth, and become enemies of it. I think it was part of the providence of God that the part of Bondage of the Will I was reading touched somewhat on this very subject; Luther writes, “To want to quell these tumults, therefore, is really to want to remove the Word of God and stop its course” (pg. 91). And likewise, “When we abandon [holy truths], we abandon God, faith, salvation, and all of Christianity!” (ibid) When we throw out the truth standard which God has put in place, then there is no standard, and every man is his own god, because every man is permitted to define god by his own standards.
What happens, then, when this cloak covering evil and error is removed, and the nakedness is exposed? Frankly, nothing much can be done or said. This is why there is nothing left to say except that which Bad said to me that night, when she declared “I don’t care!” Here the facade of peace is removed, and the hostility is shown for what it is. Far from seeking truth, the rejection of the true God and His word is revealed to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. The standard then becomes one we invent, based on what we decide to be truth (even if it is no truth). we in essence base God not around His word and truth, but our word and truth, and hence we place ourselves as the more important factor in worship over and against God. This is rank idolatry, of course, and it is this god which so many today worship. When this god feels threatened, its hostility lashes out at those who dare question its authority, and any gentleness the god has proclaimed to have is shown to be false. As Martin Luther wrote: “The world and its god cannot and will not bear the Word of the true God” (ibid). If, as Fulton Sheen once said, atheism is a cry of wrath, then postmodernity may be called a cry of rebellion.
Moments like what I experienced can no doubt be disheartening, and it can make us feel that we should join those passive voices which have submitted to this worldly theology. However, let us not cease to defend the truth, regardless of who it might opposing us or however they may choose to oppose us. The last word on this shall go to Martin Luther:
“Doctrinal truth should be preached always, openly, without compromise, and never dissembled or concealed.”
Quotations from Bondage of the Will are taken from the translation by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, published by Baker Academic.