“I’ve always thought that people can’t take too much reality. I like being in Ingmar Bergman’s world, or Louis Armstrong’s world, or the world of the New York Knicks, because it’s not this world. You spend your whole life searching for a way out. You just get an overdose of reality. It’s a terrible thing. I am always fighting against reality.” – Woody Allen1
There are two very different attitudes one can take toward the most important questions that face us:
- Whatever makes you feel good, whatever helps you cope with life’s daily challenges, whatever fulfills your sense of self, whatever “works” for you: go with it, as long as it does not get in the way of others doing the same.
- Follow truth wherever it takes you, even if it is difficult. What is real and true always leads to what is good in the end.
There are profound assumptions concerning the nature of reality behind each of these stances, assumptions that it is good to identify and understand.
Our time has sometimes been called the age of the “therapeutic society.”2 There is a strong current running through the modern world that is not so much interested in what is true as in what is pleasurable, what makes us feel comfortable, what gets us ahead, what helps us cope with life. Whether it is clear to the many who hold to and promote this way of thinking or not, this involves a whole philosophical stance toward the world. The philosophy behind it says, “there is no such thing as objective truth. There is no fundamental order to the cosmos within which I will find my identity and according to which I can make sense of things. There is nothing outside of myself that has intrinsic meaning. Therefore, whether I like it or not, I am the creator of meaning for my own life. What I think is true and meaningful is true and meaningful for me. Others can go their own way and come up with whatever works for them.”
The therapeutic attitude has arisen among us at a time when the Christian faith that undergirded our civilization for centuries has increasingly lost the ability to hold together a world of meaning for our society’s members, and nothing obvious has taken its place. Sigmund Freud was an early pioneer in responding to this loss of a cosmic sense of meaning. He turned to the inner world of psychological conflicts and their resolution as the primary way to get along in the world. Since then, the psychological sciences have become the main “go-to” for people trying to sort out life’s drama. Once the step has been taken to seek meaning in what is private and subjective, it becomes ever more difficult to suggest that there is a truth of things that transcends the individual.
Interestingly, however, people do not take such a standpoint when the question concerns the natural sciences. If someone were to say, “The combination of sodium and chlorine in a particular configuration is table salt,” no one would respond, “That’s your truth. For me, sodium and chlorine combine together to form pepper.” All of us would insist that one or the other of these assertions is true and that someone in this conversation is mistaken – both cannot be correct. To think in relative terms about such matters would lead to serious practical consequences: we do not want the people who are building our highway bridges to have their own personal ideas about what is concrete and what is styrofoam.
There is of course a realm of life in which the claim to have a “personal truth” is reasonable. If someone says, “My favorite color is red,” it would make no sense for someone else to disagree and say, “No, my favorite color is blue.” If someone mentions that “Sally is my best friend,” it would be absurd to counter with “You’re wrong about that. Matt is my best friend.” Such cases necessarily deal with the individual and the personal. Blue is not everyone’s favorite color, and Matt is not everyone’s best friend. As the old Latin saying has it, “De gustibus non est disputandam” – “There is no use fighting over matters of taste.” That kind of squabble cannot get us very far, and if we keep at it, we end only in a shouting match.
Once the step has been taken to seek meaning in what is private and subjective, it becomes ever more difficult to suggest that there is a truth of things that transcends the individual.
An important question then arises: what are those matters that are rooted in objective reality and are true for everyone, and what are the things that depend on private taste and preference? The question becomes hugely important when it deals with matters such as God, the order of creation, human nature, right and wrong, and good and evil. Are such things more like the truths of science, or are they more like personal opinion and taste? Do they speak to realities outside of ourselves that exist and go forward whether we acknowledge them or not, or are they matters of our own construction and preference?
From time immemorial, most members of the human race have viewed such questions as matters of truth and falsehood. Either God exists or he does not – he cannot conveniently do both depending on one’s individual preference. Either it is okay to steal or it is wrong – it is not a matter of personal opinion. Either humans are made for a destiny beyond this world or they are not. One’s taste in the matter does not change the facts.
We are now living in a unique time. For the first time in human history, many in our society have wanted to put spiritual and moral matters in the realm of taste and preference, rather than in the category of objective truth. Right and wrong, good and evil, God’s nature and human nature: it is no use talking about them, according to the modern mind, since they are only matters of personal construction. There is thus no sense trying to reason about them, or to study them in order to get closer to the truth.
This creates serious problems. First, it does not really work. As much as we would like to say so, we cannot really view questions of right and wrong as mere personal opinions. If people talk about terrorism, sexual aggression, slavery, or political deception and oppression as just matters of personal opinion, or if they were to say, “Well that’s your truth, but my truth is that it’s okay to blow people up or to steal their money,” not many of us would listen to them. People who claim to be moral relativists seldom mean it; instead, they tend to select one or two questions of right and wrong and demand relativism just for those matters, insisting that other moral matters are absolute. It should not come as a surprise that even self-professed moral relativists insist that there are moral absolutes, as it is part of being human to look for truth in such matters. We all share an instinctive desire for truth and goodness and an instinctive aversion to lies and evil. If we turn away from such desires, we lose something important in our humanity.
At the heart of the Christian faith is a claim concerning the nature of objective reality. Christianity posits truths concerning who God is, what he has revealed to us about ourselves, what the moral and spiritual order of the world consists in, and how humans are to find meaning and identity by being rightly related to the way things are. Whether we happen to find those truths convenient or attractive is beside the point. The important question to determine is whether or not they are true. Jesus often insisted on the importance of objective truth. Consider a few of his words from John’s Gospel:
- "The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (4:23-4).
- "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (8:32).
- "Now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God"(8:40).
- "I am the way, the truth, and the life"(14:6).
- "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth" (16:13).
- "For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice" (18:37).
In the midst of a therapeutic culture that tries to press everything into its service, it is good to remind ourselves that Christianity deals in reality, and the reason Christians are so attached to their faith is because they want to live in harmony with the truth of real things. It is wonderful that the truth of things happens to be what it is: that God, the essence of goodness, brought us into being, that he holds us in being moment by moment, that he knows us intimately, and that he has thrilling plans for us. These truths are meant to give us life and hope. Christians also understand, however, that there is much concerning what is true that is profoundly uncomfortable to us. For instance, it is due to our own moral fault that we are out of joint with much of reality and we are in disharmony with God and the cosmic order; the only way to lay hold of the promises of Christ is to willingly undergo an operation that will completely change us, and that is often very difficult, so difficult that it is called a kind of death. The consequences of remaining out of sync with God are frightful in the extreme. Whatever else the Christian vision of the world may be, it is certainly dramatic and serious. In the Christian account of the adventure of life, the stakes are very high.
Under the massive influence of the therapeutic society, many Christians have come to view their faith as fitting into the therapeutic paradigm: "I am a Christian because it helps me cope; because it makes me feel good about myself; because it gives me a sense of happiness in this life." Of course, any or all of these things may be legitimate consequences of embracing the truth, but they are not the reasons for believing. One can see the danger that comes of putting the therapeutic “cart” before the “horse” of objective truth. Once we determine that we believe something because it gives us some kind of comfort, we can easily decide to toss out whatever aspects of belief do not accomplish that task. If staying faithful to a difficult marriage, or fighting a besetting sin, or submitting to God-given limits of my sexual nature, or learning not to love money, position, and popularity fail to move me down the road of immediate happiness, they cease to have any grip on me and I can discard them. "After all," one could say, "God would not want me to be unhappy!" In this way, our faith becomes a private and individual construct, and we approach it the way we would sort out our yoga classes and our reading preferences. Like Woody Allen, we do not want to overdose on reality; instead, we want a way of escape out of the hard bits.
No follower of Christ can accuse him of selling them a bill of goods or minimizing the difficulties they would face. Yet this is tossed aside by therapeutic Christianity, and with it, out the door goes the idea that Jesus is giving us a true account of things that applies to everyone.
Among the most consistent promises of Jesus to his followers was that becoming his disciple would be a hard road, one that would certainly get them into lots of trouble. He gave them a great hope for the future, and he promised them the inestimable blessing of being present to them as they made their pilgrim way. Nevertheless, he was tireless in holding before their eyes the difficulties they would face. “In this world you will have trouble.” “Unless you deny yourself and take up your cross, you cannot be my disciple.” “You will be hated by all on account of me.” “The road that leads to life is hard and the way is narrow, and few find it.” No follower of Christ can accuse him of selling them a bill of goods or minimizing the difficulties they would face. Yet this is tossed aside by therapeutic Christianity, and with it, out the door goes the idea that Jesus is giving us a true account of things that applies to everyone.
It must be noted that there is a sense in which Christianity is rightly seen as tremendously therapeutic. The word “therapy” is rooted in the Greek word that refers to a healing remedy. Jesus revealed himself as the divine physician who came to us precisely to heal us of our deepest diseases and corruptions – but two things should be noted about the therapy Jesus provides. First, he made clear that our worst disease, the one behind every other ailment and the one that will eventually kill us, is the disease of sin. If, when we come under Christ’s healing care, he heals something physical or psychological in us, it is to direct us to the real but invisible (and much more important) healing of the guilt of sin and the wounds of our inner nature. Second, while he intends to heal us utterly of all that keeps us from happiness and plans to bring us to physical, spiritual, and psychical wholeness, that process will not be accomplished under our current circumstances as we are making our way between physical birth and death. In this passing age, we will often need to sacrifice less important aspects of health in order to gain the deeper healing that we need to gain our true and lasting home. This is the meaning of the martyr, the person who willingly undergoes the entire destruction of earthly happiness for the sake of the true happiness to come.
With all of this in mind, a suggestion: As we sort out our way on the road of life, let us cultivate an attitude of intellectual chivalry, setting ourselves to embrace truth, whether it makes things go well for us or not. Let us be ready to converse about such matters, to pursue them rationally, and to confront ourselves when we find that we are living in illusions. This is the only way to live as genuinely free men and women. As we examine the claims of Christianity, we must make sure that we show it the reasonable respect of taking it for what it claims to be, examining it as an account of reality, as an articulation of the most important truths all humans need if they are to attain their ultimate happiness and fulfillment. Whether we believe the account or not, let us insist that it stand or fall for us on this basis alone: Is it true?
1 John Lahr, “The Imperfectionist,” in The New Yorker (Dec. 9, 1996).
2 Philip Reiff wrote a groundbreaking work entitled The Triumph of the Therapeutic in 1966. Many have since taken up the theme.
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