Spiritual Reflections: Decoding America’s ethical divide | Savage Opinion – SW News Media

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The Great Seal of the United States bears the Latin phrase “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “out of the many, one.” In 1776 it championed the union of the separate American colonies, a union severely tested during the War between the States. One may wonder if our union is as close to cracking apart today as it was then. Might the Great Seal soon read “E Pluribus Duo,” in reference to so-called red and blue states?
My interest here is not political, but rather to identify what underlies the sharp divisions of which the red/blue distinction is merely one manifestation. While an article of this brevity could never untangle the complexities of the ethical divide roiling our nation, “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self,” by Carl R. Trueman, does just that. Here I distill a few key concepts from this masterful book.
Drawing from an array of philosophers and sociologists, Trueman identifies two distinct ways of viewing the world in our society. The first way believes the world is designed with innate order, meaning, and purpose. Our quest is thus to discern that meaning and purpose and calibrate our lives to that order. The second way believes the world is more like raw material from which individuals create meaning and determine life’s purpose for themselves.
This first way of viewing the world was more intuitive in an agrarian world. When one’s ability to eat was directly connected to planting at the right time and receiving rain in beneficial quantities, it was easier to perceive life as dependent on the way the world was made—on forces above and beyond one’s person.
The second way of thinking gained currency as technological advances overcame nature. For instance, irrigation systems, fertilizers, and pesticides enabled farmers to assert their will over nature. Automobiles, airplanes, and information technologies increasingly overcame limitations of time and space. Supplied with ever more powerful technologies, self-creation seemed ever more plausible. Life seemed less about conforming to a higher order and purpose and more about determining that purpose and molding that order to one’s will.
These two ways of seeing the world shed light on why, for example, issues of transgenderism so divide us today. On one side are those anxious to protect individuals’ freedom to mold themselves into whatever they choose to become. This is advanced as a fundamental human right because it is essential to an individual’s pursuit of happiness.
On the other side are those who promote conformity to a higher order that must be received. Thus, one’s gender at birth is a biologically determined gift all will do best to nurture. Anger unleashed against the opposing side in this debate seldom reflects an appreciation for why the other side lands where it does.
Having identified these two ways of seeing the world, it is next vital to recognize that these competing perspectives are fleshed out in institutions that labor to steer culture’s perspectives: government, education, media, religion, etc. In more traditional institutions, one’s identity is largely learned and thus primarily received. “This is who you are,” the institution teaches. “You will truly prosper as you learn to conform to this reality and to these purposes which exist for society’s good and your own.”
By contrast, institutions more oriented toward questioning tradition insist that one’s identity is primarily self-determined. If this freedom is impinged by appeal to a higher order, the ones making such a claim are up to no good. Driven by a lust for power, if not hate, they conspire to render the individual inauthentic and this is the unpardonable sin.
This all raises the question of how institutions justify what they teach as mandatory, commendable, or forbidden. In traditional cultures, ethical assertions are always rooted in a transcendent, sacred order to which human beings are accountable. The health of a society is thus realized in two factors: The conformity of individuals to the demands of that higher order, and the beauty and integrity of that order.
By contrast, non-traditional cultures resist rooting moral imperatives in a sacred realm. All is centered in the creative will of society which intuitively knows what is best. This approach is decidedly political in nature because it is primarily lawmakers who inform the institutions what they should (or even may) believe, teach, and promote for the flourishing of society. This good is rooted in the fashionable philosophies of the day and the will of its promoters. It is more adaptable to innovations in societal convictions, more willing to shift society’s ethical goalposts. It is less interested in conserving the convictions of preceding generations.
From 1776, “E Pluribus Unum” served as our nation’s de facto motto. Congress officially replaced it in 1956 with “In God We Trust”—a nod to a higher, received order and the historical reality that no nation has ever survived without a robust sense of one.
Rev. Dan Miller is a pastor at Eden Baptist Church in Burnsville and can be contacted at www.edenbaptist.org. He is one of several area pastors who write for Spiritual Reflections.
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