Inadequate Modern Gods

Imagine for a moment that you got an e-mail from a preacher in Ghana , Africa begging you to come over and help him teach people.  You think, “That might be an interesting experience, so you write back and ask for more information.”  The evangelist then writes you back and says, “Don’t worry about anything.  You don’t need to learn our language, our customs, or how we think.  Just come over and help.”  How effective do you think you would be in sharing the Gospel with the people of Ghana ?  You’d probably reply, “I doubt I’d be very effective at all.”  And you’d be correct!  Now, one religious writer states: “Let’s assume that we are missionaries to the United States .  What is needed for our preparation [here]?  … It is important that we understand the society which we are [trying to evangelize]. … It is important to understand that our culture is a melting pot. … We have been a melting pot of [many] peoples and, therefore, of [many] ideas.  The result has been that many different beliefs and philosophies compete for acceptance within our society” (Sproul).  Now tune in here.  This writer continues, “I doubt if there has been a period in all of Christian history when so many Christians are so ineffectual in shaping the culture in which they live as is true right now in the United States .  Perhaps it is because we are intimidated and overwhelmed by the onslaught of these different philosophical systems.  Combating this onslaught is a major challenge facing Christians today” (Ibid).  The purpose of this lesson is to help us to understand our own culture better and to see the inadequacies of the false gods that nine modern philosophies have proposed.  This subject is very broad, and we can only hit the high spots in our brief explanations.

The first philosophy is agnosticism, and its false god is reason.  Agnostics don’t care much for churches because they see them as contributors to “the system”.  Agnostics see God as a figment of man’s imagination, and that all religions were developments of a culture’s trying to fulfill certain social needs.  In the agnostics’ point of view, those who rule the churches are those who can control the masses and keep them suppressed.  With the writings of Charles Darwin, some more changes took place: “gone was human uniqueness [for man became the product of evolutionary process], gone was idea of purposeful design to the universe [for all became the product of random chance], gone was the idea of rationality as yielding any truth other than what could be observed by the senses [in other words, anything in the realm of the supernatural could no longer be believed—God, angels, devils, and miracles were no longer acceptable]” (Moore).  Agnosticism preaches, “Reason, scientific reason must be our god and only its results based on experimentation can provide us with real truth because religious knowledge is only the product of ourselves!” 

Now we can’t deny that scientific reason has benefited mankind, but it has also brought about undreamed of terror as well, as seen in the atomic bomb, chemical warfare and addictions, and the rampant spread of pornography.  Furthermore, if we take agnosticism to its logical conclusion, we end up with a mechanical universe without God in which man is simply a purposeless cog in a big wheel, stripped of his freedom, dignity, and significance.  You see, scientific reason does a great job at answering the “how question”, but it does a terrible job at answering the “why question”!  You see, since agnosticism “writes off the supernatural”, it is really being unscientific and failing to consider all the evidence.  One writer said it his way, “It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists [or agnostics] who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your [own] creed” (Chesterton).  Agnosticism reminds us of Romans 1:22, “Professing to be wise, they became fools …”

The next philosophy is existentialism, and its false god is defiance.  Again, the supernatural is taken out of the picture right off the bat.  Existentialism affirms that man is more than a biological animal with intellectual activities; in fact, he feels strongly and is passionate.  “We are expected to carve out our own existence between [two dates—our birth and our death].  We understand this intuitively.  There is a nagging anxiety about who we are and why we’re here” (Sproul).  So, existentialism preaches that we “must carve out our own destiny by being morally autonomous.  We must be a law unto ourselves and should never submit to any norms because there really are no norms” (Ibid.).  We must have the courage to do our own thing, to be authentic, to defy the system!  “It’s like Jimmy Cagney in the old movie The White Cliffs of Dover ”: when his fighter plane was crippled by enemy gunfire, he knew that he was headed directly toward the chalky cliffs.  With great fanfare and excitement, the movie ends with Cagney spitting through the airplane's shattered glass at the cliffs!  Then, the screen fades to black, and the house lights come on, and the audience screams wildly for their defiant hero” (Sproul)!  As crazy as it may appear, existentialism has become a predominate philosophy among modern film-makers.  Man now has becomes a dare-devil who defies all the odds!

Now this might be great if we lived alone by ourselves, but the reality is that we live in families, and nations, and societies.  We are not morally autonomous, and there are established norms—whether we chose to acknowledge them or not.  Shoot your classmates, blow up a government building, kill innocent people in shopping mall—sure, you did your own thing, but how can “your own thing” take precedence over the all “the others’ things” that they were doing in their lives?  What gives any of us the right to become a dictator?  Existentialism says, “Be a dare-devil and overcome the world!”  Jesus gives us the real truth in John 16:33: “In the world, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world!”

A third philosophy is hedonism, and its false god is pleasure.  Man must seek pleasure and eliminate pain.  The credo of the hedonist is: “If it feels good, then it is good.”  It’s like the hugely popular song of the late 70s where Debby Boone belted out, “It [referring to illicit sex] can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”  Hedonism downplays the eternal and exalts the moment: “Better grab for all the gusto you can now!”  A temporary euphoria from too much whiskey, or from the drug high, or from the one night stand is better than none at all.  Hedonism preaches an old message, “Let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

But hedonism puts all its stock in the physical dimension doesn’t it?  But isn’t there more to our lives than just high feelings from one binge, one joint, and one fling to the next?  And what then happens when you become immune to what used to make you high?  Yes, we must admit that sin is pleasurable, but it is also very short-term.  Heb. 11:25 tells us that Moses chose to suffer affliction with God’s people rather than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin.”  Oh yes, Satan will be glad for you to live it up—for a while—but are you prepared to live it down after sin has left its damage to your liver, to your nerves, and to your other organs?  Think about this too, if I put my pleasure above the welfare of others, where will it lead?  It will eventually lead to loneliness and isolation.  Hedonism says, “Serve yourself and live it up!”  “No,” says Jesus, “What you really must do is deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).  When you do that, you will have an abundant joy and a lasting fellowship with others who are striving to do the very same thing!

The next philosophy is humanism, and its false god is progress.  Again, this philosophy takes God and eternity out of the picture.  All we have is this world, and our morals are determined by our society’s consensus.  Humanism preaches, “We really have no values, only preferences.  Religion only hinders man’s evolutionary progress and keeps him tied to an outdated morality.  We need to rid the world of pain and suffering through technology, industry, and education!  We believe in the infinite perfectibility of human nature.  Yes, if we can dream it, we can do it!  All you religious folks can keep your old pie in the sky, but were putting our stock in a brave new world without any fetter where all just keeps getting better and better!”  The humanists have even written documents in 1933, 1973, and in 1980, so that all the world can know where they stand.

It sure sounds good until we look a little more closely.  In Germany, its society’s consensus determined that killing Jews was the expedient thing to do?  Did that make it right?  Just preferences they say, but whose preferences will become the final authority?  Ridding the world of pain and suffering sounds noble, but again we must ask, “Why?”  As Christians, we do this to follow Christ’s example, but humanists do this to bring about supposed “improvements”, but improvements to whom and in whose eyes?  “To other people,” they would reply.  But why should we set about to help anybody when all of us are really just cosmic accidents?  And in the humanists eyes, improvements can only come to the healthy majority; thus, those in the categories of the unborn, the retarded, and the senile should be eliminated because they will hinder the survival of the fittest!  Yes, humanists like Micahel Tooley and Francis Crick have actually advocated such killings (Moore)!  “Progress” sounds so noble, but it not only overlooks the horrors and sins that mankind is capable of doing but also eventually creates a totalitarian state where those who are “the progressives” will be in a position to decide what is best for the rest of the society (Moore).  Sadly, this philosophy is the one predominant in our public school systems, and especially in higher education!  The apostle Paul shows us that any perfectibility on mankind’s part must go back to God’s mercy, so we could say with him, “By God’s grace, we are what we are … (1 Corinthians 15:10)!”

The next philosophy is nihilism, and its false god is nothing.  It is existentialism taken to its extreme.  It preaches very simply, “We came from nothing, we are nothing, and we’re headed for nothing!”  You see, nihilism literally means “nothingness”.  Nihilism affirms that the supernatural is absurd, and life is the tale of an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Although it is the bleakest of the modern philosophies, it is probably the most consistent.  After all, nothing times nothing equals nothing.  If this world is the only reality, then there can be no God.  And if there is no God, then life has no meaning.  What a depressing and hopeless philosophy! 

Live selfishly, practice violence, be a monster, swim against the tide, do whatever because in the end, none of it matters it all.  Nihilism certainly leaves us very high and dry doesn’t’ it?  We want to have meaningful lives, we want to be significant to at least a few others, we want to believe that our love, and sacrifice, and influence have really been worth something.  Psalm 14:1 declares, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”  The darkness of nihilism is shattered by Jesus who said, “I am the light of the world.  He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12)!

The next philosophy is postmodernism, and its false god is tolerance.  “Postmodernism tends to view human experience as incoherent, lacking absolutes in the areas of truth and meaning.  Life and [significance] are assigned to endless browsing of possible alternatives … All beliefs systems are socially constructed by cultures; they are merely relative truths affirmed by a particular culture and uniquely belonging to that culture.  Thus, no one system can dominate” (Sanders).  Postmodernism preaches, “No one belief system should prevail over any other so as to destroy any culture!”  “The issue is power—men should not dominate women, heterosexuals should not dominate homosexuals, Christianity should not dominate other faiths” (Ibid.)  Sure, Jesus can be “a way” but certainly not “the only way,” for we would then be imposing His views on someone who might believe something different.  “Let’s not be tyrannical; let’s be tolerant!  All views are equal, and no view must demand that another fall into line with its precepts because, after all, no culture’s beliefs are any better than any other culture’s beliefs.” 

No one system can dominate, hum, so why are postmodernists even pushing their system?  Who is really seeking to be tyrannical here in the long run?  There are no absolute truths except for one—postmodernism’s god of tolerance is the one that should be worshipped by all peoples of all times!”  You see, we are really right back to the same dilemma of humanism as to who will eventually call the shots.  It is pretty hard to believe that if we all converted to postmodernism, there would never arise any more dictators out there.  On the other hand, Jesus is a benevolent king who can offer us more than any other ruler: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God [sorry, that was not just limited to Jesus’ culture, but was a truth believed for over 2000 years by cultures beyond the Jews as well] and Jesus Christ whom you sent” (John 17:3)!

The next philosophy is pragmatism, and its false god is functionality.  “If it works, use it!” that's pragmatism's creed.  Again the supernatural is totally ignored.  Pragmatism preaches, “After all, who has time for all those ultimate concerns when myriads of problems are staring us in the face right now?  We need solutions and results that science and government can offer us today.  Ideas are true only if they are useful.  Since people can never grasp a truth apart from its utility, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive anywhere.” 

But there are problems here as well.  Pragmatism really asks, “What works NOW?  But what about a final analysis or the biblical truth about eternity?  Again, science and government are great for the physical needs, but they don't offer much concerning the spiritual needs.  And what happens when an idea that's useful today becomes impractical tomorrow?  Would you rather travel in a VW that gets you to your destination or in a Lexus that only goes around in circles?  Are pragmatists often driven to see functionality only in selfish terms?  And what would be pragmatism's answer for our suffering and our deaths?  Jesus gives us the truth against the backdrop of eternity, and only that wider perspective can help us to truly decide what's useful.  “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26)  You see, what seems so practical at first glace (like riches) really turns out to be very impractical in the long run (in light of hell)!

The next philosophy is relativism, and its false god is uncertainty.  Relativism preaches, “There is no supernatural and are no absolutes!  After all, all moral principles come from an individual's conscience.  Nobody can decide for anyone else what is right or wrong” (Moore).  You see, what postmodernism basically did at the cultural level, relativism does at the individual level.  And this means that if everything is true and everybody’s right, then nothing is true, and the word “truth” is now empty of any meaning.  Relativism affirms: “There is your truth and my truth, but there is no truth beyond ourselves to guide us all.” 

You see, this approach again faces the same difficult we saw under existentialism.  This approach might be great if we lived alone by ourselves, but the reality is that we live in families, and nations, and societies.  Relativism is ultimately intolerable because of the need for order in society.  History had taught us that when societies experience this vacuum, the stage is set for the good of the “state” to become the ultimate point of unity.  And hence, dictators like Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler will arise promising great visions of a glorious state which can provide certainty to those who have bowed to the god of uncertainty!  Relativism makes life into one big guessing game where there are no answers, but most folks are not very satisfied with a life full of cosmic question marks!  Jesus once said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,”  Now there's an enduring point of reference!

The last philosophy is secularism, and its false god is life.  Secularism preaches, “There is no eternity and no supernatural realm.  All we have is the here and now.  We must make all our decisions in this closed arena called life.  History has no transcendent goal.  What counts is only this world.  We must live our lives for the immediate!” 

Secularism has the same weakness as pragmatism: “There are no ultimate answers because secularism excludes any ultimate realm” (Sproul).  Jesus taught us that there is more than the immediate; there is the eternal: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice, and come forth—those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29).

“All these different philosophies may seem to be on a collision course with each other, but they all embrace [some common points: they say there is no God, there is no eternity, and our philosophy is the best to follow]!  Look for [these points] in our culture.  Be aware that others [deny the supernatural] when you hear it.  We need to understand the desperate society in which we live, and we need to show them that godless philosophies always come up short of providing us a coherent and comprehensive view of reality” (Sproul).  The Bible still provides us with the best answers for mankind's biggest questions. “God's Word can still provide a lamp for our feet and a light for our paths” (Psalm 119:105).

Sources:

Peter C. Moore, Disarming the Secular Gods  Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989.

Phil Sanders, Adrift: Postmodernism in the Church  Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 2000.

R. C. Sproul, Lifeviews: Understanding the Ideas That Shape Society Today  Old Tappen: Fleming H. Revell, 1986.