Tag Archive: value

Imposing Values

The “Christian Right” is often accused of wanting to push their moral view on society. While there are some Christians who feel they should force Christian laws on those who don’t want them (I’m not one of them), I’m wondering if it has occurred to anyone that progressives are doing exactly the same thing. They have their own ideas and since the Enlightenment have been promoting them with an evangelistic passion.

“We’re not pushing our values on anyone” they may protest. “People just need to be free to choose”. But their supposedly value-neutral stance is a truth claim no more or less than any other, and the moral relativism it entails carries social consequences as real as those that flow from any other worldview. To insist are no absolutes is (ironically enough) itself an absolute statement, a truth claim that would please the most rigid fundamentalist.

Both sides are convinced they are right, and opponents to Christian belief are often as holier-than-thou as those they accuse; perhaps more so because at least informed Christian belief insists that believers are saved not by how good they are but by God’s naked grace. In fact, Christianity raises this issue to the point of doctrine, an understanding prerequisite to any meaningful conversion. I see no such corrective in liberal thought.

There is no truly neutral ground. No matter how you look at it, someone is trying to impose their values on someone else, and this affects everything from families to the law of the land. To accuse only Christians of this misses the true state of things.

Review: The Abolition of Man

I read The Abolition of Man for the first time about 30 years ago and consider it amongst the most important books I have ever read. It’s a tough little book, but worth the time.

It was a tremendous relief for me as a young Christian to discover that Christianity not only made sense, but could be approached critically throughout. Lewis’ particular gift was to expose the facile nature of much of what passes for modern intellectualism, and demonstrated for me that informed Christian belief is intellectually rigorous. If we take into account all we experience in life, it gives a sounder explanation of our world than anything else on the market.

The Abolition of Man begins by examining a book on English grammar in which Lewis notes a disturbing trend; not in how grammar is taught, but in the philosophy of its authors.

Morality is based on the idea that creation is inherently good; that it possesses real value. It is only by dismissing half of what we experience as mere sentiment that modern thinkers can pass a materialistic reductionism off as the whole truth. This is the view Lewis warns us against in Lecture One; the authors of the Green Book would inculcate not better grammar in young minds, but a skeptical outlook that brushes off value statements as emotional, subjective fluff. In debunking experiences that better men considered profitable, humane and generous, they undercut even concepts of justice and truth, cutting out the heart of all it means to be human. They would make us “men without chests”.

And where does that lead? In Lecture Three the author takes this worldview to its logical conclusion, examining its inconsistencies and the danger it poses.

Lewis sensibly points out that we cannot go on seeing through everything; there has to be some sort of objective truth at the bottom of things for anything to make sense. Yet the true skeptic must (if he is to be consistent) discredit all value statements; they are to be viewed only as natural phenomena to be managed with no overarching morality – the “Tao”, as Lewis calls it – to inform them. Such a world would be incapable of any sensible or actually moral action. The debunker has become the blindest of all, for he sees through everything – and gazes into a void.

And should a group of skeptical Conditioners arise with the power to determine the course of subsequent generations, what motives could they have? Having denied value – and hence moral thought – as objective, all that is left is raw utilitarianism and their own fallible desires: both dangerous grounds for any program of conditioning. We may (for instance) consider how the discredited science of eugenics worked in the value-free world of the Third Reich. Having decided that certain races and types of people were a drag on humanity, Hitler’s government set about – albeit in very modern, scientific ways – to eliminate them. By deeming justice a mere sentiment, they became in practical fact the embodiment of evil.

It is not Lewis’ purpose to defend Christian belief in particular with this book, but to rather demonstrate the nature of moral thought, its reality in our lives, and the terrible danger of trying to get around it. Morality is necessarily transcendent, and Lewis cites a number of sources to demonstrate that most religions and cultures share, and always have had this understanding. Morality must, if it is objective fact, be something that originates outside ourselves if it is to make any genuine claims on our lives; and in this we may allow that no religion is entirely wrong – though some are closer to the truth than others.

But it is the modern materialist who strays the furthest, with his truncated, wilfully ignorant worldview denying at least half of the reality he encounters. This is the position Lewis shows untenable: by trying to interpret reality on his own terms, the skeptic winds up with exactly nothing – at least nothing of value. In their quest to be their own masters, they would emasculate humanity. To borrow from the book’s title, they seek nothing less than the abolition of man.

Losing Their Religion (part 2)

If atheism is true, then everything’s an accident and any idea of truth must be an illusion. We can’t even know if our science is real, let alone any meaningful concept of right and wrong; any knowledge would be nothing more than a chemical reaction in our heads and no more meaningful than an itch I want to scratch. Any talk of the dignity and value of individuals would be just silly.

The modern idea of “tolerance” fares no better since it insists all truth claims – and especially those of a moral and/or religious nature – have equal authority. How dare we suggest (for instance) that one particular religion is right? But while this attitude appears very modern and broad minded, it implies all these claims are man made, and therefore (since these views often contradict one another) can’t tell us about anything that is actually true, including whether our lives have any meaning. We’re back to square one.

But we all understand and desire justice, which is inextricably connected with the idea that people really matter. Justice and meaning are two sides of the same coin; fairness to others tells us that people have a meaningfulness that can be offended against. To be real, it can never be just an opinion.

How I treat others matters because people matter: that’s the basis for any idea of fair play. So (to bring us back to the start) if the perceived dignity and meaningfulness of humans is actual fact, we really aren’t free to do anything we like.

This has some interesting implications. It means that truth actually is something that can be found out, and that some truth claims are more correct than others. Reason and faith can help us there.

It also means that for anything to be objectively good its value must – by definition – originate outside ourselves, from a source independent and real regardless of what any particular person may think or desire.

In a word, God.

A Reason To Love

By definition, love always looks away from self to the other, valuing them for themselves, not for what they can do for us. It is humility in action.

For love to be durable, we must take as a given that people have inherent worth and are therefore to be treated with dignity and respect – whether we feel like loving or not.

We know this in our bones. Look at the Ten Commandments: it’s basically a value statement, telling us to honour God and our neighbours because they are valuable; God as the source of all value, and others because they are His creation. As they say, God doesn’t make junk.

I’m told not to steal: why? Because to take what is another’s is to say that my wants matter more. I devalue them.

If we are all just accidents, the products of blind natural forces, we are no more significant than a rock or a tree and our sense of value is just in our heads.

But… we’re not accidents.

People Are Precious

We often forget how precious every individual life is.

My mother is in mid to late term Alzheimer’s. A wise, vibrant and compassionate woman has been reduced to a frail shadow of her former self.

Her care has fallen first to my wife, then myself, and my siblings: and it’s getting harder. But if she were to pass, I know I’d move heaven and earth to have just another few minutes to walk her down her sidewalk, to hold a hand and to tell her I love her. She is slipping out of our lives an inch at a time.

We treat people like they will always be with us. They won’t; but the marks we leave on their hearts will follow them into eternity.

What deposits are we leaving in the lives of others? Are we encouraging, affirming (even if in spite of how they may treat us), or do we place things in their paths that they will have to overcome before they can function?

There are enough heart snares in this world. I hope and pray that I’ll not add stumbling blocks to the lives of others, but that I can serve and encourage with the same grace God has given me.

We will not always have the chance to love and encourage. Our neighbours are eternal souls who will be with us for such a short time – we need to make good use of the time we have to deposit into their lives.

A Prisoner of Hope

I guess I’m an optimist.

When I look at the world and see the wonders around us, it simply takes my breath away. We live in a world of beauty, one of value and meaning. I have to believe our lives mean something. I feel little affinity with those who tell us we are just a random collection of atoms bumping into one another; that beauty and truth are things we made up in our heads, that creation is made only to be exploited.

We live in a world of value. Things matter. People matter, matter infinitely.

You Are Important

You’re really something. I mean that. Every single person has a story, has hopes, dreams and desires: and in our heart of hearts we believe our lives are significant. We feel it in our bones, and even when we suspect life is really futile something inside us rises up and says that it’s got to count for something.

When I look at old home movies or photographs of friends and events past, I feel a sense of history, of significance, of my passage through life. Even though I’m just one of billions that draw breath on this planet, I feel this personal history pressing down on me, telling me my life means something: and so then does every other person’s life. I sense the meaning of others as they move through time; everyone has a story to tell. We are all precious and valuable. Our lives and memories are somehow important.

Is this feeling, this intuitive understanding really just a chemical process going on in our heads, or does it speak of some other reality? What is it that actually makes us significant? For generations we’ve been told we are the result of random processes, that we are accidents of nature. They tell us we really amount to nothing; and against all our natural inclinations we have swallowed the lie.

Along that line of thought lie significant implications in our daily lives. If there is no such thing as real value (for therein lies any hope of defining right and wrong), then there is no sense blaming someone who acts wilfully against a fellow human. The torturer and the saint are equal in their nonvalue if both are the result of irrational processes, both merely the effects of blind cause. In fact, if we really believe in nothing but cause and effect, we have no choice in anything, because we are all merely and exclusively the results of chance. The murderer can pin everything on his poor upbringing, and is no more blameworthy than a rock crushing some unfortunate that happened to be walking by when it fell.

If there is no blame, then we are free to follow our impulses, because they carry no moral weight and are as senseless as any other random event. And herein lies a possible motive for supporting such a bleak theory: if there is no right or wrong, then there’s nothing wrong in indulging in hate, rage, lust, or greed – or love. It’s all the same, and we can reject the judgements of others because we have deemed ourselves free of any moral obligations. We can act entirely based on impulse without a care about the consequences beyond those immediately relevant to our own lives, because we answer to nobody besides ourselves. A child might, for instance, refrain from bullying someone smaller – not because it’s wrong, but because the intended victim has a big brother.

I’m not dismissing causes and how they may affect us. Certainly a child raised in a violent, unloving home will be more prone to antisocial behaviour than one raised with love; but he can choose to follow the impulse to anger, or to refuse it. He may have a tougher row to hoe, but once he admits moral responsibility he admits he has choices. In the final analysis, if we believe in free will, we must believe in moral behaviour and personal responsibility.

Everyone’s Important

So we sense our significance. You are important; we must remember that everyone else is too.  In C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, one of the characters arrives on The Other Side and is initially pleased to learn that he will be as famous in heaven as he was on earth. Then he learns to his dismay that everyone else there is famous as well… and the shine’s off the penny. He lived for the comparison, for having pride of place amongst his fellows.

Again, what gives us value? We will examine this a little later, but it will suffice now to qualify the term, and to keep it in mind as we continue. What I’m getting at is what would be called intrinsic value; that is, something whose value is not a matter of opinion, and whose significance would still be intact even if there was nobody around to appreciate it.

In the world of investment, real estate has intrinsic value because it possesses value that goes beyond mere opinion: you can live on it, and if it’s big enough, you can grow food on it. It is a physical object that you can see and feel. That’s why it’s called real estate. It is a real, physical thing. Publicly owned stocks, on the other hand, are largely based on what people think they’re worth. During the dot-com boom of the late 1990’s, many stocks had their values artificially inflated as public speculation ran wild, with no basis in reality, no “bricks and mortar” behind them. In the bust that followed, many found their stocks virtually worthless. Another example would be a rare baseball card. It’s value is tied up exclusively in the fact that everyone who collects wants it; but all it is is a piece of card stock with a bit of ink on it. Its practical value is almost zero. You could perhaps kindle a fire with it, or use it to spread some butter on a piece of toast, but that’s about it.

This is really an apt metaphor for the two worldviews. The bill of goods that we’ve been sold for the last hundred years or so is that we are just the result of random causes. If that’s so, it follows our value as humans is just a matter of opinion, and that there is no real, self-contained value. Like the baseball card, our importance depends on purely others’ opinion of us, and of what use we are to them.  But there will be no talking about being valuable just because you’re human.

One may disagree with this… but really, think about it. If we are only the result of random causes, the best we can do is say our sense of value is an evolved instinct, and that says nothing about actual value, but merely convenience. We’re told we “evolved” this instinct because it had promoted the survival of the species, and well it might; but is says nothing about our real worth or (for that matter) any moral truth. Why then the outrage at bigotry, at genocide, betrayal and child abuse?

Simple: because they are wrong. Fundamentally, intrinsically wrong, and these things would be wrong even if the world never existed.

If we believe in the intrinsic value of people, then we are more like real estate: our value isn’t just a matter of opinion. We have real significance that goes beyond anyone’s estimation of our worth. We are valuable. Every one of us.

And that is a great antidote for despair. Take heart: you are important. You are valuable. You matter. Instead of being captive to all that negativity, you can be hope’s prisoner.