The Death Cult of Expressive Individualism

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The battle of our time is the war between those who demand their right to be creators, over against those who seek to defend their right to be creatures. Everything comes down to that simple division.

The Two Ways

A corollary of the first position—that we must be untrammeled creators, that we must be as gods, that we must ascend the sides of the north—is that the raw material of the cosmos (whatever it is) must be assumed to be infinitely plastic. The process of getting to that point is initially exhilarating, especially when it comes to loosening the requirements of our sexual behavior, but the process, once begun, is not so easily stopped. Before long, the exhilaration is replaced by terror as we find ourselves standing on the lip of an abyss.

But a corollary of the second position is that Darwin was wrong about everything—entirely, and utterly, and completely wrong. God, out of the good counsel of His will, spoke the authoritative word, and where before there had been nothing, there was now Heaven and earth—not the detritus of some big explosion, but rather an enormous jewel, cut by infinite wisdom, and now on display. When He was done at the end of the creation week, this world was well-stocked with all creatures great and small. At the apex of this creation, He placed mankind, His own image, male and female (Gen. 1:27). When He gave us the cultural mandate in the words following (Gen. 1:28ff), He granted us the dignity of being sub-creators, with the granted authority to rearrange the materials He supplied to us, but only with the proviso that we constantly remember that He was the only true Creator.

Because our first parents disobeyed the instructions given to them, our race fell into sin. At the instigation of the devil, we became children of the devil. But God, in his infinite grace, reserved for Himself a seed—fallen, like the rest, but preserved by grace (Gen. 3:15). God promised that a time would come when the woman would have her revenge, and the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, and the long war would be finally won.

And so it is that the antithesis was established. This is the foundational antithesis, and the story of our battles with one another runs down through the entire course of history. There are those of us who want to be creators, and there are those of us who want to be creatures.

Secular Society

In order to have a genuinely secular society, you need to banish any notion of a transcendental authority over that society. Odd little groups within your society might think that there is a transcendental authority outside, but a true secular society demands that with regard to the public square, all such benighted persons act as if there is no such transcendental God. It is to the shame and disgrace of the church that many of us have gone along with this charade.

Ir is possible to recognize that you live in a pluralistic society without granting that society’s right to be pluralistic. When Paul was in Athens, he knew how many idols the city had. He granted that he was preaching to a very religious people, with gods all over the place. What he did not grant was their right to be worshiping all those gods. Hence the sermon.

And this is blithely overlooked by sophisticated Christian thought leaders, by which we really mean thought followers, who take us aside in order to chide us gently. “When you speak that way,” they say, “you are failing to recognize that we live in a pluralistic society . . .”

Well, yeah. Why did you think the sermon was entitled “The Wickedness of Pluralism”?

This is what happens in the downward spiral of secularism. The authority of God is rejected, and the authority of man is erected. Once that happens, a hunt for residual traces of God’s authority begins, in order that those may also be banished. As we continue with the task of banishing them, we discover that we have been eroding the authority of man as well. It turns out that reason, and experience, and morality, and hetero-normativity, are all included as very clear traces of divine authority. This is the process that is at work when you find yourself accused—because of your bad habit of routinely showing up to work on time—of white supremacy. Stands to reason, right? But be careful, because using phrases like stands to reason is also white supremacy.

“We who are Christians never knew the great philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until the anti-Christian writers pointed it out to us. The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.”

Chesterton, Heretics

A Universal Corrosive

I have said on other occasions that relativism is a universal corrosive—it eats out every container you try to keep it in. This is built into the very nature of the rebellion, because relativism hates every form of constraint, and containers are a form of constraint. But we soon discover that this reality is not limited to the limits established by the containers. Relativism also hates the restrictions of nature, including any nature within the substance that filled the container. It turns out that being a created thing imposes some severe limits, which are intolerable to the epistemic rebel.

Think of it this way. God created the world in such a way that every creature has extensive limits (a boundary, a skin) and intensive limits (a nature). Put another way, every creature is finite—it has a beginning and an end, in both space and time. In addition, every creature is also a particular thing, and not a different sort of thing. But both these limitations are intolerable to autonomous and rebellious men, and so they set a disastrous series of falsehoods in motion.

After their corrosive lies eat out the containers that used to hold them (societal expectations, sexual morality, etc.), the corrosive lies begin to devour the liars themselves. It used to be that society’s expectations were suffocating, and the legacy of Christian morality was maddening. But having overthrown those, I soon discover that this male body I was born with is trying to tell me what to do. I find that this nose of mine is dictating terms, and so I need to put a metal rod through it. My skin is also more than a little problematic, and so I shall ink it up in ways that will declare to the world who is really the boss.

This cult of expressive individualism is maintaining that deep down within every person is a real ego, the genuine article, which has the authority to contradict absolutely everything outside that little walnut shell of a soul. And so we live in a generation that is maintaining, with solemn faces, that when we work our way down to that central ego, peeling off all the superfluous layers, tattooing them as we go, when we get down to that little imp, that central liar, we will have finally found the truth. What we will have actually found is the mystery of damnation.

Our problems with all of this dunsical folly began with the rebellion of Nietzsche, and the marching creed for this rebellion was formulated by Sartre when he said that “existence precedes essence.” Okay, but what the heck is that supposed to mean? He means that matter has no meaning, no shape, no form, and that the material world is an inchoate mess, awaiting the word of its god. Any meaning that it is to have must to be imposed on it by the will of the being that is doing the imposing— that entity ideally being a French philosopher with lots of nubile bluestockings around. Thus any essence that a being has is autonomously established by that being himself. This is what I was referring to when I spoke of those who demand to be creators.

But it works like this. This world of meaningless matter is a gelatinous mass, quivering like jello on a plate. How it got on to a plate we will not inquire. How the plate was made is a question that will take us too far afield. It’s just there, all right? Then the will of the heroic existentialist fashions the signet ring of his own identity, forging it in the glowing furnace of his own autonomous choices. He then presses that signet ring of his own making into the gelatinous mass, and ta da there it is—his homegrown identity. Now for some bizarre reason, Sartre maintained that such choices had to be made in “good faith,” failing to recognize that his whole system rendered any such qualifications both absurd and meaningless.

Someone may complain that my references to Nietzsche and Sartre and such like are all irrelevant because nobody would call themselves card-carrying members of these epistemic cartels. But depend upon it, the girl at the mall with neon Halloween hair is a disciple of Sartre, whether she wants to admit it or not.

A Corrosive That Keeps on Corroding

But there is a problem. How did we turn an exquisitely fashioned world into a gelatinous mass? How did we come up with a plastic body of matter that could receive the imprint of our autonomous choices? We did it with the corrosive solvent of unbelief. We stopped believing in a transcendent God, a God who revealed Himself to us in nature, in His Word, and in His Son. In short, we stopped believing in Jehovah. We said in our hearts, fools that we are, that there is no God (Ps. 14:1; Ps. 53:1).

We used to live in these very predictable containers. There were binary containers like male and female. There were objective physical containers like tall and short. There were logical containers, like true and false. We were hemmed in on every side, and it was starting to feel a tad claustrophobic.

Then the peculiar forms of cascading unbelief, released by men like Descartes, and Kant, and Nietzsche, and Rousseau, began by eating out the containers. After that, the unbelief began to soften those things that had once been stored within the containers, and what was once a solid identifiable thing became more malleable and plastic—the kind of thing that would receive the imprint of a philosopher’s signet ring. Just press a little harder, and there! You are a girl now.

But there is a problem they have been slow to anticipate. The unbelief that ate out the walls of the containers, and which softened the realities within the containers, is an unbelief that has not yet reached the full extent of its leprous capacity. The unbelief was not done. There is a lot more where that came from.

That which is solid can be rendered plastic, and that which is plastic can be rendered liquid, and that which is liquid can be turned to steam. Try pushing the signet ring of all your autonomous choices into that cloud of steam. Quite the identity you have there, vapor man. And then think about what it means to make such an attempt when your signet ring has also turned into into steam.

Like Keats, the names of all these men are written in water. These are men who are desperately trying to escape the assignment that God gave to them, that assignment being to bear His image.

We are observing the almost complete fulfillment of C.S. Lewis’s prophetic little work of genius, written back in the 1940’s. We are observing the abolition of man.

Lucy shuddered and nodded. When they had sat down she said: “Such a horrible idea has come into my head, Su.” “What’s that?” “Wouldn’t it be dreadful if some day in our own world, at home, men started going wild inside, like the animals here, and still looked like men, so that you’d never know which were which?” “We’ve got enough to bother about here and now in Narnia,” said the practical Susan, “without imagining things like that.”

C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

Our Most Necessary Christian Response

What should the response of Christians be? How are we to react to all of this? There are certain fundamental doctrines that we need to move back to the center of our lives. And just to be difficult, let us not call them doctrines, but rather dogmas. And let us not just mouth them, but also live them.

Christians must recover a holy dogmatism. And dogmatism does not mean bombast and bluster. As Chesterton put it, “Dogma does not mean the absence of thought, but the end of thought.” We are not to pursue the truth like we were on some kind of a snipe hunt. We pursue the truth until we find it, and then we are to hold it fast.

So we are to be dogmatic, but dogmatic about what? I would suggest four things—creation, law, grace, and life.

Only Jehovah God is the Creator, and we are His creatures. It is He that has made us, and not we ourselves (Ps. 100:3). As creatures, we have boundaries and natures, and have not been given the luxury of inventing ourselves, or reinventing ourselves, or of creating ourselves. We used to be nothing, and now we are something, and so we embrace the glory of limits. Created, finite, limited, and contingent beings have been given the gift of eternal life, and we will luxuriate in our boundedness forever and ever. It would be better to be a molecule in the paving stones of Heaven than to fill up the entire outer darkness with our triumphant howling. We will always be creatures. In Heaven, we like it.

Only Jehovah God is the Lawgiver, and so our morality is assigned to us, like our natures and our limits. God spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden, and He told them what not to do. God spoke to Moses on Sinai, and told Him what not to do. The Lord Jesus sat down on the Mount of Olives, and told us what not to do. Our source for what constitutes moral behavior is to be the law/word of God, and must not be the results of a vote that we took, with every dirty heart we could find eligible to vote. Morality is defined by divine authority, and not by jiggered consensus. But when we return to divine authority as our foundation for morality we discover, to our dismay, that we are sinners. And this leads to the next point.

Only Jehovah God is the Savior, and He did it with His own blood. We secured our damnation by valuing “self” above all else, and the Lord secured our salvation by refusing to value Himself in that same way. He saved us by giving Himself as a sacrifice, and when we receive the efficacious results of that sacrifice, we are enabled to imitate it. We do not duplicate it, but the way of a disciple is the way of imitating it. The objective gospel is the message of the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus, and our assigned task is to believe that this gospel is ultimate truth. Not a tiny truth, not our truth, not a makeshift truth, and not a truth much appreciated in our faith community. No, Jesus Himself is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

Only Jehovah God is our life (John 14:6). The doctrine of creation must be lived, not just affirmed. The doctrine of God’s moral authority must be lived, not just affirmed. The doctrine of the grace that is exhibited in Christ Jesus must be lived, not just affirmed. The Christian life is a life, not an esoteric ideal. As I am fond of saying, theology comes out your fingertips, and whatever it is that is coming out your fingertips represents your true theology. We must live as though God called the cosmos out of nothing just a few thousand years ago, because He did. We must live as though God Himself wrote the Ten Commandments on the tablets of stone with His own finger, because He did. We must live as though our own elected leaders rammed that spear into Christ’s side, because they did, and as though they are still trying to bribe the guards into lying about the resurrection, because they are. We must live as Christians.

And one last thing. There is a necessary context for these doctrines of creation, law, gospel, and life. The corrosive rot of unbelief tries to maintain a metaphysical framework that allows for its continued unbelief, and we must have nothing to do with it. To place the content of the Christian gospel within that unbelieving metaphysical framework is a denial of the gospel. The frame for our affirmation of these four doctrines must therefore be the Christian metaphysical framework, which is that Jesus is Lord.

Unless He is Lord of all, and Lord over all, all your mouthing of Christian cliches is just trying to form a signet ring of your own out of random Jesus-words, and waiting in line for your turn to press it into that gelatinous mass.