27 December 2005

...On "Traditional Values"

Words form ideas and it is ideas that have most impacted the world, both for good and evil. Ideas may be of truth or falsehood, fact or opinion, leading or misleading and, consequently, the recipient must be able to discern the difference or be tossed hopelessly about by the last argument heard. Take the prevalent discussion within popular culture—and within the church—on “traditional values,” for example.

In the late 1800’s, philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche championed the idea of the death of all truth and morality. In Nietzsche’s nihilism, there were no transcendent rules for human life, no absolute moral standard and no certainties on which to rely—only personal values. Freedom, according to Nietzsche, was the shedding of all external constraints on one’s behavior. That line of thinking, in large part, became the genesis of modern day relativism and subjectivism. Having adopted Nietzsche’s philosophy, today’s “values” are highly pragmatic and may be nothing more than convention, preference, habit, feeling, or opinion. They are highly subjective, can vary between individuals or groups and will even change depending on the circumstances. In this context, for the church to talk of and advocate “Christian values” can be problematic. As Nancy Pearcey has put it in her excellent new book, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, “when we use the term values, we are broadcasting to the secular world a message that says we are talking only about our own group’s idiosyncracies [sic], which the rest of society should tolerate as long as it doesn’t upset any important public agendas.”

Historically in the church, before talk of “values” there was talk of “virtue” and objective moral standard. Virtue, by definition, is conformity to a moral standard that transcends us with a corresponding abstention from vice—independent of our personal beliefs (or what we value). As Christians, we confess belief in the standard of righteousness (virtue) found in the Bible. But the thinking of the world has influenced us so that we advocate “traditional values” (whatever they me be) instead of cultivating the virtues of Scripture and a sense of living morally before a holy [and transcendent] God. As one author has put it, “it is because we have lost our virtue that we are left to talk about values.”

The ability to discern the difference can be cultivated by reading, and reading critically. Reading develops our ability to understand the words, ideas, and arguments that we are presented with. Reading develops our ability to understand the times. Reading develops our ability to know and articulate our faith, to minister to one another, and to engage effectively in the public square. Reading will help us to understand and effectively challenge the “values” of today, so let us frequently take up and read!

(First published in Dei Light November 2004)