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Correcting moral vertigo

We must trust God’s Word to set us straight the way a pilot has to trust his instruments


Correcting moral vertigo
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The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that around 15 percent of airplane crashes are caused by vertigo, which is a false sensation that can lead to disorientation related to fluid in your inner ear. In order to guard against this, one exercise pilots go through early on in their training is induced vertigo. My dad is a professional pilot and an Air Force Top Gun who flew the F-15 Eagle. Growing up around aviation, I was inspired to go for my pilot’s license and I experienced this training firsthand.

For this training exercise, you put on a visor that limits your range of vision so that you can only see what’s inside the cockpit. Under this arrangement, you must rely solely on your instruments and not what you can see outside, which simulates nighttime and low-visibility flying. With the visor on, you close your eyes and your instructor puts the airplane in a slow bank, descent, or climb and holds it there for several minutes. This is when vertigo sets in. Your inner ear adjusts to the current flying conditions and the trajectory begins to feel normal—it actually feels like you’re flying straight and level. After a while, the instructor tells you to open your eyes and check your instruments. Herein lies the danger. You cannot see outside and your senses are telling you that you are flying straight and level, but your instruments are warning you that you are on a flight path that needs correction immediately.

What happens in that split second can be the difference between life and death. Do you trust your subjective senses, or do you trust the plane’s objective instruments?

I think the concept of vertigo is useful when we think about contemporary culture and the subtle ways sin is constantly normalized all around us. How many of us suffer from a kind of “moral vertigo”? The world is on a dangerous trajectory, instilling in us through various media platforms and relationships a sense that what everyone believed even just ten years ago is backwards, and what is completely normal are Orwellian slogans like “transwomen are women.”

By way of illustration, try this exercise suggested by Collin Hansen on a recent podcast episode of Life and Books and Everything. When did the state of California amend its constitution by popular vote to ban same-sex marriage? Does it shock you to know it was November 2008, the same month Barack Obama ran and was elected president on a pro-traditional marriage platform?

What is scary is how rapidly moral vertigo can set in, and how right wrong can feel.

Now consider our current moment, where even in the most conservative evangelical circles we are debating to what extent we should normalize gay marriage. We gain much-needed moral perspective when we remember that only 16 years ago, the most liberal state in America voted to outlaw so-called same-sex marriage, which has only been legal in America for less than a decade and was first introduced on the stage of world history within our lifetimes.

While history gives us moral perspective, we still need an objective standard by which we can calibrate our ethics. To press the “moral vertigo” analogy further, the world has been askew since Genesis 3 when we all sinned in Adam and the world was corrupted. If “flying straight and level” is living according to God’s revelation in nature and scripture, then every normalization of alternative trajectories—sin—contributes to moral vertigo. This normalization causes us to get used to greater degrees of immorality all around us and even within, which sets in as a kind of second nature, or feeling, or instinct. Then, when we turn to God’s revelation, which in this analogy is the objective flying instruments, we encounter a discrepancy between what it says and what we feel to be normal. Herein we are faced with a decision. Either our instincts, feelings, and beliefs are wrong, or God’s Word is.

Do the instruments really say? 

What is scary is how rapidly moral vertigo can set in, and how right wrong can feel.

So what is to be done about moral vertigo? The book of Jeremiah records the words of the Lord to a wayward Israel suffering from a kind of moral vertigo: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).

What are the ancient paths? These are the roads that have been trod before and stood the test of time, because they are the ones that lead to and from God’s revelation. I think this is also what Paul is getting at in Romans 12:2 when he commands the Church: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The one conformed to this world suffers from “moral vertigo” and is therefore unable to discern the will of God. Instead, we must renew our minds by looking to the “instruments” of God’s revelation: God’s world and God’s Word. Otherwise, we crash.

Colin J. Smothers

Colin serves as executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and executive editor of CBMW’s Eikon: A Journal for Biblical Anthropology. He also serves as director of the Kenwood Institute and is an adjunct professor at Boyce College. He is the author of several essays and books, most recently co-authoring an eight-week curriculum, Male & Female He Created Them (Christian Focus, 2023). Colin and his wife, Elise, live in Louisville, Ky. with their six children.

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