This old house
Exchanging the rickety house of the West with the unshakable house of God
Is it just me, or is our house falling apart?
That’s a rhetorical question—of course it isn’t just me. “Falling apart” has become a rising chorus on both ends of the political spectrum and everywhere in between. I’ve never seen it this bad is a continuing refrain. From my perspective of 70-plus years, the 1970s may have been objectively worse, but seeds sown then appear to be reseeding and reinventing themselves now. How do we understand it?
Carl Trueman’s latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, steps back to take a long look at how we got to the point where “what it means to be an authentic, fulfilled human self” became the be-all and end-all of life. Aggressive self-definition extends to inventing pronouns and grievances, all in search of authenticity. It’s self-evident (to use an antiquated compound) that true freedom means being free to follow every desire and even momentary impulse. But that wasn’t always the case. To track that monumental shift in public thinking, Trueman goes back to the Enlightenment and Rousseau.
I’ve always been interested in history, and this kind of thing is my meat, but try to explain big philosophical or worldview trends to a group of Christian writers or at a ladies’ retreat, much less a secular audience. It’s gaseous and abstract and hard to wrap one’s mind around. Is there a concrete image that can help us understand what’s happening?
Imagine Western civilization as a house built on the ruins of Athens and Jerusalem. The foundation is quarried of Biblical truth applied to a civic understanding of all things in subjection to God. These truths are not quite self-evident, and human selfishness and cruelty means they’ll be applied haphazardly at best. Nevertheless, islands of mercy dot the landscape: hospitals and monasteries. Universities spring up, offering knowledge to anyone lucky enough to get there.
By the time of the Renaissance, the house is solid and ready to expand. With the Reformation, literacy explodes. The foundation is still Biblical truth, the roof is God’s abiding presence, and the walls are geographical boundaries: almost all of Europe, soon expanded to North America.
Revolutions begin to hammer on the roof: scientific, rational, romantic. None, I propose (and I’m not the only one), could have come about without some unifying sense of spiritual reality, but by the time Darwin arrives the roof timbers are splintered. If matter is enough to create and sustain itself, who needs God? Marx and Nietzsche concur, and by the end of the 19th century the roof is gone, leaving the West open to the blinding sun of modernist materialism.
Materialists deny supernatural reality, but not objective reality. All that’s needed, they believe, is for science to discover and define reality, and then of course everyone will recognize it and abandon their superstitions. On we go to a bright new world. Only it didn’t play out that way: Two world wars, massive destruction, and killing on a scale that called for a new word (genocide) led to the disenchantment of reality. What if everything we took to be real is only a social construct? Postmodernism began simmering in academic circles. If social realities can be constructed, they can also be deconstructed.
Modernism removed the roof. Postmodernism took away the floor.
What about the walls? The house of the West now looks like rickety walls surrounding rickety platforms built by warring tribes. The woke, the unwoke, the privileged, the marginalized, are all feverishly trying to reinforce their scaffolds with timbers taken from other scaffolds. It’s no way to build. In fact, it looks a lot like collapse.
But there’s another house. “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). It has a sure foundation, leakproof timbers, solid walls. Can you see it?
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