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By Joe Rigney — 2 months ago
Many people know C.S. Lewis as the author and creator of Narnia. A slightly smaller group know him as a remarkably effective Christian apologist. An even smaller group appreciate him as a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature. Fewer recognize him as a prophet of civilizational doom. But he was.
In a number of essays, in his lectures on The Abolition of Man, and then in his novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis clearly, patiently, and methodically identifies and warns his readers about an existential threat to Western civilization, and indeed to humanity as a whole.
This threat is a pernicious error that enables tyrannical power and totalitarianism. It’s a fatal superstition that slowly erodes and destroys a civilization. It’s a disease that can end our species and damn our souls. Lewis calls it “the poison of subjectivism.”
Doctrine of Objective Value
Until modern times, nearly all men believed that truth and goodness were objective realities and that human beings can apprehend them. Through reason, we examine and study and wonder at reality. When our thoughts correspond to the objective order of reality, we speak of truth. When our emotional reactions correspond to the objective order of reality, we speak of goodness.
Lewis refers to this as the doctrine of objective value, or, in shorter form, “the Tao.” The doctrine of objective value, Lewis writes, is
the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. . . . And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). (Abolition of Man, 18–19)
Poison of Subjectivism
The poison of subjectivism upends this ancient and humane way of viewing the world. Reason itself is debunked — or we might say today that reason is deconstructed. Instead of the human capacity to participate in the eternal Logos, reason is simply an epiphenomenon that accompanies certain chemical and electrical events in the cortex, which is itself the product of blind evolutionary processes. Put more simply, reason is simply an accidental and illusory brain secretion.
“Under the influence of this poison, moral value judgments are simply projections of irrational emotions.”
Under the influence of this poison, moral value judgments are simply projections of irrational emotions onto an indifferent cosmos. Truth and goodness are merely words we apply to our own subjective psychological states, states that we have been socially conditioned to have. And if we have been socially conditioned in one way, we might be socially conditioned in another.
Education Old and New
Lewis thus refers to the apostles of subjectivism as “conditioners” rather than teachers. Under the old vision of reality, the task of education was to “train in the pupil those responses which are themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists” (22). Teachers accomplished this through initiation; they invited students into the same experience of reality in which they lived.
The new education merely conditions. Having removed all objective value and consideration from reality, they are “free” to shape and mold future generations into whatever they want. Having seized the reins of social conditioning, they will condition for their own purposes (wherever those happen to come from) and with little or no regard for the constraints of custom, tradition, truth, or goodness. Lewis concisely describes the difference in the old and new education:
The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds — making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation — men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda. (24)
How Subjectivism Conditions
Lewis shrewdly demonstrates the subtlety of conditioning in his fiction. In Orwell’s 1984, O’Brien forces Winston to confess that 2+2=5 under the threat of having his face eaten by rats. In Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock is conditioned with both carrots and sticks, lures and threats. He is enticed chiefly by social pressure, as his conditioners work on his desire to be “on the inside,” his “lust for the Inner Ring.” Accordingly, they work on his fear of being left out, cast out, and ostracized. Social pressure, more so than direct threats of physical violence, are the tools of Lewis’s conditioners.
In this, Lewis was remarkably prescient. Who among us can’t recognize the impression-shaping propaganda in social-media algorithms, in Twitter bans, in the cancellation of YouTube channels? What we hear and say daily, what we scroll past and click through, what we see and come to assume — all of these are meant to condition us by detaching us from the Straight, the True, the Good, even the Normal. Such conditioning is meant to aid the sinful human tendency to suppress the truth in unrighteousness.
Richard Hooker, the English Reformer and a hero of Lewis, once wrote of the destructive effect of ungodly customs.
Perverted and wicked customs — perhaps beginning with a few and spreading to the multitude, and then continuing for a long time — may be so strong that they smother the light of our natural understanding, because men refuse to make an effort to consider whether their customs are good or evil. (Divine Law and Human Nature, 43)
The poison of subjectivism removes the ordinary checks to such error and evil by denying that good and evil objectively exist at all. And yet, because we live in God’s world and not the world of our fevered imaginations, we can’t escape the pressure of the objective moral order, pressing upon us both from our conscience and from the Scriptures.
Our Cultural Insanity
The result, as Lewis again so ably highlights, is a kind of absurd tragi-comedy. It would be funny if it were not so sad. In Lewis’s memorable words, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful” (27).
As prophetic as Lewis was in his warnings, not even he seemed to have imagined the insanity that subjectivism would lead to. While he clearly saw that such poison would infect our sexuality, the most twisted form that he portrayed was the grotesque femininity of Fairy Hardcastle. But compared to the demented debauchery of the modern LGBTQ+ movement, Miss Hardcastle seems almost quaint.
What’s more, Lewis thought that the practical need for results in the hard sciences would limit the infection of subjectivism when it comes to research. But in the twenty-first century, we are witnessing technological and scientific advances employed in the service of subjectivism. Some of the latest “advances” in medicine are used not to heal, but to maim; not to restore the body to its proper function, but to mutilate the body and render it impotent or barren. In a literal fulfillment of Lewis’s warning, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Readiness Is All
What then can be done to stave off civilizational doom, the end of our species, and the damnation of souls? Books could be written (and have been written) in answer to that question. But a simple answer runs like this: we can cultivate communities that, by the grace of God, love God and the objective order that he has made, and are ready to act in a world poisoned by subjectivism.
“We can cultivate communities that, by the grace of God, love God and the objective order that he has made.”
Such communities include churches where the good news of Jesus is faithfully proclaimed in word and deed, where refugees from the world are welcomed in the name of Jesus, and where apostles of the world are refuted by the word of God. These communities include families that glory in God’s goodness in manhood and womanhood, that seek to live fruitfully on God’s mission in the world, and that raise children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
These communities include schools that love the truth and do the good, that explain reality without explaining it away, that seek to form students into mature Christians who live with resilient joy in the midst of this broken world.
Such is the need, and the hour is late. But the readiness is all, and our God is still in heavens, and he does all that he pleases.
By John Piper — 7 months ago
Today we address a critical spirit. The question comes to us from a listener named Alan. Here’s his email. “Pastor John, thank you for your insight on many topics in this podcast. My question for you is this: What does the Bible say about a critical spirit? What is a critical spirit? I assume holding high expectations is not the same thing as having a ‘critical spirit.’ So when do high expectations become sinful judgmentalism? And how can I fight against this tendency of focusing mostly on the failures of others?”
Wired to Be Critical
That last question is exactly the right question to ask for all of us, and I include myself here. John Piper is wired to be critical. I remember taking a personality test, I think it was Myers-Briggs, ages ago. And my letters came back. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was INTJ or something like that. This is not the kind of person you want to live with. I remember they said, “Okay, here is your number, Piper, and here’s the narration of what that personality type is like.” And do you know what one of the mottoes was? The motto was, “There’s always room for improvement.”
Now, it’s good to know that about yourself, because it means that you’re a hard person to live with. Nobody likes to be under an incessantly scrupulous eye that basically says, “Well, no matter how hard and how well you do your job, it could have been done better.” I mean, that makes for a pretty oppressive marriage or Sunday school class or church. So I had to be really on top of the sinful proclivities of this way that I was just born. There are no excuses here. I’m not trying to make anything easy.
That’s why I say this last question is so right: What can we do, or how can we think, or are there steps we can take so that we do not become hypercritical people? And if we’re wired that way, can we be changed or exercise self-control to channel it into properly analytical efforts and not people-ruining ones?
Combatting a Critical Spirit
So what are the strategies that I have found in the Bible and in my own life that might be helpful here not to be a hypercritical or judgmental person? You’d have to ask my wife how successful I’ve been at this, but I’m sure bent on being better.
1. Recognize your own faults.
Let’s zero in on the word judgmental, just because Alan referred to it, and Jesus addresses it directly.
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3–4)
In other words, “I’m a super hypercritical person; I see specks everywhere.” But how can you talk about taking the speck out of another’s eye when you’ve got a log hanging out of your own eye? Jesus says,
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)
So, Jesus’s answer to the question of how not to be hypercritical about the speck in your brother’s eye is to be deeply aware of the log in your own. Now, I don’t think that means that the very thing you spot in the other person, which you think is a speck, is worse in you than in him. I don’t think it means that. That doesn’t work. But what it means is that there’s plenty about me, before God and man, that should disincline me to be quick to judge others for specks, because if I got the just judgment that I deserved, it would be devastating.
That’s, I think, the gist of what it means, and it really, really works. I mean, that has a deep effect on slowing down your criticism of others, or at least de-intensifying it, because you know that if God were to treat you with the same rigor that you’re now treating another person, you’d be undone.
2. Remember what you’ve been saved from.
This is really an extension of the first point. Never lose sight of what you have been saved from, or how much it cost, and how much remaining corruption there is still in you. And I base this on Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
“We treat people better than they deserve because God treats us better than we deserve.”
Forgiving as you have been forgiven carries an implication. And the implication is this: being ready to treat people way better than they deserve, because we have been treated so much better than we deserve. So even though we don’t call it forgiveness when we are less critical at the front end of a relationship, the root is the same. We treat people better than they deserve because God treats us better than we deserve. And it cost Christ his life for God to treat us that way.
3. Give thanks.
Fill your heart and mouth with thanksgiving for everything. Ephesians 5:20: “[Give] thanks always and for everything.” Be an amazingly overflowing thankful person. In other words, be radically, radically grateful. Practice waking up in the morning with thankfulness, walking through the day with thankfulness, going to bed at night with thankfulness, because a thankful spirit pushes out a critical spirit.
4. Grow in love.
Meditate on what love is and how essential love is to the Christian. What does it mean to love people? And I think most of us should memorize all of 1 Corinthians 13. That chapter is only 13 verses long. It’s the most important chapter on love in the Bible. And you can memorize it in a week if you put your mind to it, and then say it to yourself over and over again for a year or so, and see what happens.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)
Goodnight! Memorize that, say it and say it, pray it and pray it, until it’s you, and God will heal you of much of your hypercritical spirit.
5. Ask how criticism helps.
This is really pragmatic. People doubt the value of this, and I’ll explain why they shouldn’t. Ask yourself this: What good is it going to do for anyone for me to constantly feel so critical of others? What good is it going to do anybody — me or them? Now, you may think a question like that is emotionally useless: “So what? I mean that doesn’t change me. Asking that question doesn’t change me. It doesn’t help me.”
Well, if that were true, if that question were useless, why did Jesus say, when he was trying to help us overcome anxiety — which is just as hard to get rid of as a critical spirit — “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). So, here’s my paraphrase: It doesn’t do any good to be anxious. It’s pointless. Nothing happens, right? Well, why are you anxious? You’re accomplishing nothing.
And I know a lot of people here, then, say, “Well, how does that help?” So say that about being hypercritical: it just doesn’t do any good. Now that’s not the only strategy, but add that to your arsenal of weapons because Jesus said that’s a good question to ask when it comes to a lot of sins: What good are they doing? Are you helping anybody with that particular bent?
6. Look at the world.
Cultivate a view of life, hour by hour, that is more expansive — bigger heart, global, universal, all-encompassing, God-entranced. Look at the whole of life. Look at the whole of the universe. Look at the whole of nature. Look how big it is, and look at all of its dazzling wonders, and be amazed at the world you’re walking through.
So my favorite lit teacher in college, Clyde Kilby, put it like this. (This is one of his resolutions for mental health.)
I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.
So this afternoon, I’m walking back after chapel, across my revelatory bridge, listening on my phone to the history of the Baptists, and it hit me: Turn that thing off. You can listen to that while you’re brushing your teeth. You are walking under God’s blue sky. Look up. Look at those clouds, John. Just look at them. Let him minister to you. You’re inside all day long. You get ten minutes under God’s glory, and you’re going to listen to a book?
“A thankful spirit pushes out a critical spirit.”
Much of our hypercritical bent is owing to the fact that our world has shrunk down to the tiny little situation where this molehill of a speck in a person’s eye — this molehill of a problem — looks a hundred times bigger than it really is because we have made our world so small that this feels big. We have focused our lens so narrowly that we can’t see the glories all around us. So that’s number six.
7. Praise always.
Fill your mind and your heart and your mouth with praise. That’s very much like thanks, but not quite the same. Decades ago, I read this quote from C.S. Lewis. Tony knows it. Lots of you who are listening probably have heard this. Let me say it again, just because it’s so healing. Oh, my goodness. When I first read this, it just washed over me like a cleansing flood for how not to be a cranky person. Here’s what Lewis said about praise:
The most obvious fact about praise . . . strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. . . .
The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. . . .
I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents [and may I add: hypercritical types, INTJ types] praised least. (Reflections on the Psalms, 109–10)
So there it is. The remedy to not be a cranky, hypercritical misfit is to be full of praise. So, fix your eyes on God and the wonders of his creation and redemption, and be filled with praise.
By Steven Lee — 1 week ago
We live in times of polarization and fragmentation. In many places, the ties that have historically bound societies together are coming apart.
Our own society has been brewing a strong and growing distrust of everything under the sun. We don’t trust many of our elected leaders and government officials. We don’t have high confidence in our medical and health authorities. We have doubts about the agendas and intentions of large corporations. Our suspicions about media and news outlets have reached new heights. We have been let down by our educational systems at nearly every level. And the church has not been immune to our cynicism. We have even approached the bride of Christ with wariness and uncertainty.
All this fear is exacerbated, of course, by the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle. Social media, in particular, amplifies our distrust and rewards our outrage. As a result, many of us are less happy, less trusting, and more angry than ever. Division and angst have become like oxygen. Over time, it can feel like any remnant of hope might be slowly eroding, like a sandcastle at high tide.
Painful Polarity in the Pews
As I said, the church has not been immune to the polarization. Congregations have had to navigate higher levels of conflict, controversy, and contentiousness. The pain of divisions in our pews is disheartening. Here we are, the blood-bought people of God, united by Christ, but divided over so much else. This state of affairs has some of us wishing we were still arguing over whether to sing contemporary worship songs or what color carpet to lay in the sanctuary.
As a pastor of a church, a church I love to pastor, I would personally be glad to never have to talk about COVID, vaccines, social distancing, and the efficacy of masks ever again. While it was a privilege to shepherd our people through a pandemic compounded by political and social turmoil, it was also punishing at times. I’ve now added “global-health crisis,” “mass protests and riots,” and “the threat of nuclear war” to my list of “things I never learned in seminary.”
It’s good to be reminded that polarization in the church is not new. In fact, it’s a problem as old as the church. Already in Acts 6, the Greek-speaking Jews complained that their widows were being neglected (Acts 6:1). Paul admonishes another church for its divisions, quarreling, jealousy, and strife (1 Corinthians 1:10–11; 3:4). They found superiority in their allegiances to either Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, forgetting that Christ is all in all.
Again and again, through Scripture and church history, when sinful people consistently gather, they consistently sin against one another and eventually turn on one another.
Paradox of Christ
The writer of Hebrews tells us to cast off our sin that clings so closely, and instead look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1–2). By looking to Jesus — and his paradoxical qualities — we find help to navigate our polarized age.
“Jesus doesn’t fit into any of our neat and tidy categories or tribes.”
Jesus doesn’t fit into any of our neat and tidy categories or tribes. He is pro-justice, pro-mercy, and pro-life. Jesus is gentle and lowly in heart, and he also will return to make war against his enemies. He is the meekest man that ever walked on earth, yet he will strike down the rebellious nations and tread the winepress of God’s wrath (Revelation 19:11–15). He will save to the uttermost with unparalleled grace and mercy, and he will rule with a rod of iron.
Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) draws out Jesus’s unique and paradoxical qualities in a famous sermon: “The Excellency of Christ.” Jesus is both lion and lamb. He possesses lionlike qualities: ferocious, powerful, regal, and appropriately terrifying. He is full of power, glory, and dominion. A lamb is quite the opposite: gentle, vulnerable, an animal of prey. How can Jesus be both? How is he both judge of all creation and a friend of sinners? How is he both priest and atoning sacrifice? How is he both strong and gentle, worthy and lowly, infinitely holy yet merciful toward his enemies?
This is the wonderful paradox of Jesus. He holds together seemingly opposite excellencies in one God-man.
His Excellencies Undo Us
Typically, we gravitate to the ways Jesus is more like us; we align with those excellencies more natural to our personality and wiring. Who he is, however, admonishes us all to not be one-sided or one-dimensional. Jesus’s example and teaching cuts both ways, admonishing us and encouraging each of us to be more Christlike than we are.
For example, tender believers may be quick to revel in the compassion of Christ: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). They may resonate deeply with Jesus’s weeping outside Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:35). Meanwhile, zealous-for-truth believers might admire his woes to the Pharisees. They may resonate more with Jesus’s rebuke of Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).
Those of us who are naturally inclined toward compassion and sympathy need to learn from his courageous conviction. We need to beware of minimizing the whole counsel of God to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or drawing harsh criticism. We will want to unashamedly portray the truth of Christ accurately — all of it — even as we comfort and care for hurting people. And we might be slow to condemn those contending for truth in the public square who don’t do it exactly the way we would. The gospel will necessarily offend some, and standing for truth in a world set against the truth will require courage and boldness, and may even appear quarrelsome in some eyes.
The same is true for those who speak the truth more freely. Some of us are quite gifted at saying the hard thing, but need to grow in doing so with love. If we can speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, we are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1). We will pray for greater compassion and sympathy, being quick to listen and weep with those who weep. Proverbs reminds us, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Do our words, and the hearts behind those words, consistently reflect the priorities of Christ? We want to become the kind of paradox that we treasure and follow in Jesus.
As you study him, watch where you lean and where you lean away, and then deliberately lean into the diverse excellencies of Christ. Find courage in his example. Where you are prone to wander, work to realign yourself more and more to our North Star.
Truly Great Excellencies
Excellencies is an old-fashioned word meant to ascribe extreme value to someone or something. Royalty would be addressed as “your Excellency.” For Jesus, however, it’s not just a title, but a true and accurate description of all that he is. He excels in his love and grace, in his compassion and justice, in his rule and reign.
“Jesus has no blind spots, weaknesses, or deficiencies. He is all glorious in his diverse excellencies.”
Short of glory, we’re all in process. We’re finite. We’re sinners being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Our instincts are being honed by God’s word and the power of his Spirit. And as he conforms us to himself, our glorious Savior — the Lion and the Lamb — lacks nothing. In every circumstance, our paradoxical Savior speaks the perfect word. He never lacks compassion, and he never shrinks back from a rebuke. He has no blind spots, weaknesses, or deficiencies. He is all glorious in his diverse excellencies.
Therefore, strive to think, feel, speak, and do more as Christ would in this polarized world, and delight yourself in daily receiving his all-surpassing glory and goodness.