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The battle we face

Today’s conflicts are not about the supernatural but the natural

Friedrich Nietzsche Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Gustav Schultze

The battle we face
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Being recently accused of “fundamentalism” got me thinking: What is the nature of the primary attacks against Christianity today? Are the issues the same as those of the “fundamentalist vs. modernist controversy”? No, they are not.

The original “fundamentalists,” responded to attacks on Christianity made by those influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and claiming that the “supernatural” teachings of Christianity offended reason. Thus, the fundamentalists went to war for such dogmas as the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of Christ, etc. Today, the most important fields of battle are not those “supernatural” dogmas, but Christianity’s teachings about “natural” realities—especially those related to sex and gender. It is on these points especially that today’s “modernizers” attempt to alter Church teaching in order to conform to contemporary social dogmas and to affirm those whom I refer to as progressive sexual identitarians.

Today the accusations are largely moral, as opposed to rational. Our accusers attack us not for transgressing reason but contemporary social dogmas. Traditional Christians are not deemed as imbeciles because they believe in miracles, but as bigots because they affirm that men and women are fundamentally distinct, that sex is reserved for marriage, that marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman and is ordered naturally (admitting tragic exceptions) to childbearing, and that one’s gender corresponds to one’s sex that is given by God and is unalterable.

In some ways traditional Christians are the last line of defense for these “natural” realities that were conceded by almost all in the West until very recently. Our opponents attack the moral codes of the Christian-shaped West; but they do so utilizing Christian categories. This brings to mind Christianity’s greatest modern critic—Friedrich Nietzsche. It is illuminating how the progressive sexual identitarians mirror and invert Nietzsche’s logic in their attacks on Christian moral teaching.

For both Nietzsche and progressive sexual identitarians, traditional Christian moral teaching is deemed a threat to general social welfare because it is an enemy to life. With Nietzsche, the problem was that Christianity, with its concern for the weak and vulnerable, made society weak and held back the strong from being able to do what is required to be great. Nietzsche promoted a humanist ideal according to which persons live beyond the categories of good and evil; thus God must be “killed.” To release human potential, relativism is required. We must do away with Christian morality to become all that we can be.

Progressive sexual identitarians similarly view traditional Christian moral teachings as the problem. These teachings supposedly impede human actualization. But the twist is over the concern for the weak: Contrary to Nietzsche, these accusers argue that Christianity is not responsive enough to those deemed weak. Traditional norms regarding sex, gender, and marriage are viewed as privileging the powerful to the detriment of those deemed “marginalized”—who are, allegedly, held back from living fully as themselves.

Even as they attempt to rewrite the code of good and evil, they don’t ultimately want to live beyond social and religious affirmation. The emancipated still long to be validated. 

Nietzsche wanted to inspire the supermen who would live beyond morality, who would write the rules themselves, without regard for the opinions of others—kill off God to chart one’s own path. Our contemporary critics want to rewrite morality so that broader society and the Church will affirm them and their way of life—coercing God to call their choices good. Recognizing this inversion helps us understand the incoherence of the combination of relativism and intolerant moral absolutism in these progressive identitarians. “Who are you to judge?” But also, “Bake the cake, bigot!”

The progressive sexual identitarians don’t actually want to get rid of good and evil. They want to redefine it. To them, traditional Christian morality is the enemy—it is evil. This presents a great dilemma for many Christians. No one wants to be among the baddies. And when our principles are used against us, we are particularly perplexed. Tom Holland has expounded how, in the Christian-shaped West, even the critiques of Christianity inevitably come from Christian categories. Concern for the weak is one of those. But there is a danger in isolating these principles and weaponizing them against Christians and other essential Christian teachings. Untethered from the Christian whole, an underdetermined principle becomes monstrous. But because the terms are basically Christian, Christians can be easily duped.

Duping Christians leads me to my main interest: Why do so many of these sex and gender dissidents want to change the Church, anyway? Why can’t they embrace a live-and-let-live relativism? I believe it is because they crave validation—even divine validation. The course charted by Nietzsche isn’t livable; the burden is unbearable. Even as they attempt to rewrite the code of good and evil, they don’t ultimately want to live beyond social and religious affirmation. The emancipated still long to be validated.

In his genealogy of modernity, Rémi Brague explains the “modern project” as the endless pursuit to progressively emancipate humans from all that purports to stand above them—from God, law, social customs, nature, bodies, etc. The problem is that we are social and religious creatures. These sexual revolutionaries sense deep down that they need religion and society to bless them, and many will not let go until they secure such blessing. Possessed by a form of the libido dominandi, they lust to live beyond limits and yet are crippled by the need to secure the positive regard of others and to stamp out disapproval wherever it is found. The key target, then, is Christianity—whose moral teachings stand as the last defense of the natural order.

Our battles are not the same as those faced by the fundamentalists of yesteryear. Beware of those who mouth doctrinal orthodoxy regarding “supernatural” matters of faith but promote moral heterodoxy. In fact, some revolutionaries flee to these doctrinal affirmations in order to cover their revolutionary, “unnatural” moral code and their corresponding attempts to change the Church. As our culture progressively rejects basic assumptions about nature and foundational moral realities that were broadly taken for granted until quite recently, it might not be the worst idea to promulgate and defend a new set of “fundamentals” to safeguard the truth.

James R. Wood

James R. Wood  is Assistant Professor of Ministry at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario. He is also a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, a Commonwealth Fellow at Ad Fontes, co-host of the Civitas podcast produced by the Theopolis Institute, and former associate editor at First Things.

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