Confronting Our Culture of Fear, Pt. 2
From the alarming uptick in mental illness to the increasingly hostile culture wars, ours is a culture shot through with fear and anxiety, much of it fed by a 24/7 news cycle that caters to our hunger for sensationalism. In this atmosphere, how do we avoid falling prey to constant fear and anxiety? Though it may come as a surprise, Christianity has a great deal to say about fear, and in this series we’re going to explore a holistic alternative to the constant sense of dread. This episode considers our fear of humanity.
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Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in today. What we are considering is the topic of fear, and really fear in our nation, and how it is increasingly a mindset that's infiltrating basically all levels of our culture. We see it in the headlines. We see it in the media. We see it sort of reflected in the language that's used and a lot of the news that we read, but also in our own experience. We're seeing it more and more as a dynamic in our households and in our own lives. I think so often so many of the conversations I have just with friends these days when we're talking about struggles, many of them revolve around anxiety. Is that you? Do you deal with a lot of anxiety in your life? That's a relatively novel conversation.
2030 years back. Of course people were dealing with anxiety, but the way we use it, how common that word has become is pretty interesting. Anxiety is kind of just this perennial struggle wherever we go. And as a speaking team, we encounter it over and over again. We hear about anxiety, we hear about depression, there's so much worry characterizing our lives. It's just become part of the social fabric of the nation.
And so in the first episode we talked about the distorting lens of fear, the ways in which it minimizes some of our human nature or exaggerates it. And so if you want to go back and listen to that, that might give you some more context for the remarks today. But in this episode, as we talk about fear in our nation, I want to talk about the fear of humanity and the ways in which that increasingly punctuates our thoughts about what a solution is to our problems here in the nation.
How do we fix the United States right now? I think that plays out a lot. I think it arises from this deep out-sized fear of humanity. And it's a weird phrase, so I'm going to unpack it a little bit and explain what I mean by “fear of humanity.” It's not the plainest sense of that word as though we're all just hunkered down in our homes and in our apartments, locking our doors, and we're just trembling and petrified of other human beings. That's not so much what I mean. In this sense I'm contrasting fear of humanity with the fear of the Lord. We'll talk about the fear of the Lord on the final episode, but the fear of the Lord is an expression that's used frequently in the wisdom literature of scripture. It's used in the Psalms, it's used in Proverbs, and it describes a mindset that recognizes the Lord's ultimate control.
So in that sense, what you're fearing, you're living your life as though the Lord is in control, if you're practicing the fear of the Lord, right? Well, if you are animated by a fear of humanity, then your basic conviction is that in the end, human beings call all the shots, not God. And maybe that's you by the way, if you're listening in, whether you're a Christian or non-Christian or if you're asking questions, you're seeking. I'm glad you're listening, but that's the contrast that we're talking about. So if on a fundamental level, your bedrock assumption and many people, by the way, who are Christians, fall into this line of thinking, in fact, the scripture addresses this so often because so often what ends up happening is we drift into a line of thinking where we assume that human beings in the end are the ones who call the shots.
They're the ones who get stuff done. They're the ones you need to really fear, and so it's their approval that you're seeking. It's their solutions that you're seeking because after all, they're the ones who get stuff done. In the United States I think we're particularly susceptible to the fear of humanity because the United States is just such a hands-on nation. That's part of what makes America such a force to be reckoned with on a national scale. There's great innovation in this country. There's all sorts of careful lines of thinking, but all of them, for the most part, broadly speaking, they revolve around how to actually get stuff done.
The one philosophical movement that is truly American that truly flourished here is pragmatism. So how do we get what we want? How do we get stuff done? And as a European, I can feel this contrast quite a bit because I was born and raised in Vienna, Austria and Europeans tend to be very theoretical sometimes. And we tend to ask a lot of high level sort of questions, very probing, existential moody, psychologically deep questions. And Americans, when I moved to the States, we found over and over again people, yeah, but okay, what does that really mean for me here? How do I actually just make something work? How do I get this done? How do I get this engine started?
That's the basic American kind of mindset. And so with regard to the fear of humanity, I think the common assumption is, yeah, in the end it's great if you have spiritual convictions. By the way, it's great if you think Jesus is Lord. And maybe when you were younger you had a WWJD bracelet and you had Jesus saves T-shirts and you listen to DC talk, and were part of the evangelical subculture. That's all great. And it's good that you have those private convictions that animate your soul and make you feel better. But in the end when we need to actually get stuff done, it's either we need money and resources and we need politics, and we need the right leaders in the right places. And that's how stuff is actually going to get done.
I'm not being cynical, I'm just being realistic. So that's a very American mindset in many ways. And I think that this is where the fear of humanity becomes such a controlling force for us. And I think this is where, and scripture I think really can't address this. I think Christianity can address this in a way that really is surprising and is so needed.
So two years ago at book came out with the title Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen. And this book was a bit of a surprise hit, I think it was Yale University Press. Yes. Yale University Press, and Patrick J. Deneen is a professor at Notre Dame University and I think he was a surprise as everybody else at how successful this book has been. Now when he's talking about liberalism, he's not talking about the Democratic Party or the progressive agenda. He's talking about the liberal order, really the liberal experiment that is the United States.
Now, that's a troublesome and provocative title and it's a troublesome and provocative book, but it's a very powerful book and it has an argument at its heart that carries real force. And I think it's worth wrestling with. Now just as a disclaimer, if you're going to read this book and I think it's worth reading, it doesn't contain so much in the way of constructive solutions and proposals. Really the book is kind of written mainly to take a very critical look at liberalism and its, specifically, its hidden assumptions. So if you're looking for answers, if you are looking for a “what do we do about it,” kind of chapter, the books is a little thinner there. Just so you know I'm just putting that out there as a disclaimer, but here's what he says, and you'll see how this fits in a moment.
But he argues that at the heart of liberalism are two deeply deficient assumptions about human nature and about the nature of human freedom. And they come from three really major figures who became pioneering political philosophers. The one is Thomas Hobbs, the other is John Locke, who takes a lot of what Thomas Hobbes says and the Leviathan and codifies it and systematizes it and makes it very elegant. And also the other thinker here, kind of one of the pioneering scientific minds, at least when it comes to the modern scientific mindset, is Francis Bacon. So these three.
Now, at the risk of this turning into a little bit of a semi boring lecture, let me try to keep my remarks concise here, but this really does. I'm doing this to give you the background to give you the context for where this fear of humanity, this notion that human beings in the end are the ones who call the shots, the ones who have all the solutions and therefore this out-sized concern in this out-sized kind of overestimation of politics or the marketplace to save us.
That's what Patrick Deneen is helping us to see where that comes from. Because when we look at the two major political parties, this is what Patrick J. Deneen argues, and I think he's right. He says, largely speaking, conservatives believe that the free market minimizing government and the free market is what's going to help realize the American dream and it's going to help this nation to flourish. And then the other side believes that, no, no, no. The market needs to come under increasing regulation to prevent exploitation, particularly of marginalized or disadvantaged people. And so the government needs to assume a larger role in regulating and helping us to secure our freedoms.
But argues, Patrick J. Deneen, both of these parties, the left and the right are actually united on their deep assumptions about human nature and human freedom. And both of those assumptions argues Patrick J. Deneen are wrong. Now you can see why this book is so devastating in many ways and you can see why I think the book is going to, I hope, inspire some constructive interactions and some people who come along who are doing work to try to fill the vacuum it might raise, but think about this. Here's the two assumptions that he argues are fundamentally flawed.
On the one hand, Thomas Hobbes says that all of us in our natural state are autonomous and free. In the ultimate sense, we are radically free. And because of that, because we're radically free, our natural inclination is to see everybody else as a threat because after all, everybody else represents competition. Everybody infringes on your natural freedom in some way because you have to share the social space. You have this obligation to others and that infringes on your freedom. And so your natural impulse is to attack, go on the offensive and go after everybody in order to secure your own radical freedom. And so this is where John Locke comes along and says, yes, and now wait, this is why the law as a purely negative force is so important because that law is desperately needed to contain that radical freedom and to restrain us.
And we're it not for the muzzle of the law. If we were not held back so to speak, we would all just claw one another's eyes out. Now, this assumption I want you to know by the way has been deeply, deeply internalized on all levels in our culture. And you can see it often one of the most powerful, what litmus tests on whether something has been deeply internalized on whether an idea has really sunk in is to look at the way it plays out in the world of our imagination. To see what visions spring up in its place.
And here, one of the clearest pictures that's often trying to vindicate Thomas Hobbes even whether we recognize it or not, is the picture of so many dystopian stories. What movies or stories that turn on technology being destroyed and then chaos ensuing. So at the risk of painting with too broad of a brush.
I mean, you can think about even a recent book like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Or you can think about some of the post-apocalyptic movies like Mad Max and on and on we can go. But the picture is, of course, once civilization crumbles or once technology is taken away. If the grid goes down somehow or there's some cataclysmic disaster, then most people revert to savagery, and or cannibalism or some other horrendous form of survival and everybody's just trying to kill everybody else just to survive. It's this kind of Darwinian picture. The issue is now for a long time, by the way, I want you to know I've been pulled into that. I just thought, yeah, that makes all the sense in the world. That's exactly what happens. Of course you see often technological breakdowns in certain sectors and communities and then there's riots and looting and this is just human nature playing itself out.
Well, I've come increasingly to the conviction that that's actually not the whole picture and that's actually not true. Now, there are plenty of moments of crisis that you can also point to where people really band together and help one another. If you look at in the moments and the hours and the days and weeks following 9/11 and that catastrophe, you saw a lot of people banding together in the midst of this horrendous crisis. The city did not descend into chaos. Human beings don't automatically revert to savagery when sort of the societal order is threatened. That doesn't automatically happen. Yes, I believe human beings as a Christian are fallen. So I think you will see sin rearing its head and you will see people taking advantage when security systems go down, for instance, and they can smash a shop window and grab stuff. But on the other hand you also see people helping others and banding together.
So it's not the full picture. But also if we just zoom out a little bit, one of Thomas Hobbes's and John Locke's critics at the time had a really incisive push on them and he basically said these men who seem to have forgotten their own childhoods there's a lot of wisdom there. When you're born into this world, you're born totally and completely helpless and dependent. And as you grow up you depend deeply on those around you who pour into you, for better or for worse. We're not totally shaped by our environments, but we're deeply shaped by our environments.
And this is what we're wrestling with, as a nation by the way. Those who are born into great poverty for instance, or crime riddled sectors, we know that in societal terms, the cards are stacked against them. Why? Because all of the examples that are being set for them, all of the systems surrounding them, everything that's being pumped into them is pushing them in a particular direction.
And so we are rightly more aware of and self-conscious about privilege. That's a loaded word these days, but it's a real factor that we deal with. It really is. So for better for worse, we're shaped deeply by our parents, by our friends, by our communities, by the nation in which we are born. All of these are factors that shape us. Now, this pushes against our American mindset, which basically says, no, we're blank slates, we can make of ourselves whatever we want. That's John Locke's assumption, but we're not blank slates. We're not. We're human beings who are thoroughly inescapably relational and what's done to us. What happens to us, what's poured into us has an inevitable effect and it doesn't doom us completely, but it does predispose us. This gives us a clue into human nature. So we're not born in a radical state of autonomous freedom. That's nonsense. That's not what human beings are. We're thoroughly relational.
Christianity tells us we're made. We belong to the Lord because we were made by him for eternal communion with him. Now, if that's true, it makes sense of our deeply relational lives. It makes sense of the fact that we're born into relationships of mutual belonging. It makes sense of the fact that not only am I responsible in my case for my wife and my children, my family, but if I see somebody else being actively harmed, if I see somebody fall into a lake or a river, I'm responsible for them too, even if they're a total stranger. Why? Because of a common thread of humanity.
If Christianity is true, every man, woman, and child, regardless of nation, creed, any of our distinguishing factors is made in the image of God, and that endows them with inestimable worth. That's a hard word to say. Say that five times fast, “inestimable,” but the point is we're not autonomous, radically free creatures. And the second assumption also comes from Thomas Hobbs, and that is that freedom is purely negative in the sense that if you're free, you're free from all constraints. You're simply unrestricted and the best expression of that freedom is you're purely spontaneous, unfettered, unrestricted desires and choices.
But what should those desires be? What should we want? What's a good thing to want? All of that is left in a vacuum in this view. It's not the shape of your desire that matters. It's simply the fact that it's your desire, it's your appetite at work, and that's the more spontaneous, the more natural to you, the more free.
Now, this is a very, very harmful and deficient view of freedom. Why? Well, first of all, it's purely neolistic. There's no real, because by nature, the way this is being defined is that freedom cannot, your appetite cannot have any kind of telos or design or ultimate end because that would restrict it after all that would point it on some trajectory that may not be your own. It needs to be free and spontaneous. So essentially it kind of is motivated almost by a sort of nothingness, just your own free spontaneous will in a vacuum.
I was reading an article not long ago and I'm going to leave some details cryptic here because of the nature of the article, but it was in a very influential intellectual New York publication. And it was by a person who is pushing, attempting to push all of the progressive gender debates forward and to push the gender debates decisively forward. This person is, they are themselves, transitioning to another gender and even undergoing sexual reassignment surgery. And the article is really wrestling with what would give this person the right to do that. What would give this person the right to lay claim to the distinct identity of another gender with all of the hardships and with all of the different social backlash that this particular gender has endured, how can that just instantly be transferred to them through mere sexual reassignment surgery?
And so this person is arguing. Yeah, there's a lot of political ramifications to that question. By the way, let me give you an aside here that will sound like a foreign language to some of you maybe. I actually believe that there are essential differences between the genders. I would be in essential list. So that means that you can tamper with biology, but you cannot actually alter your gender in the deepest sense. And that's a different discussion entirely. And perhaps if I get really brave, we'll do a Vital Signs series on that. But for the time being, this person is wrestling with the political ramifications. And then says eventually, well, we need to drop these political discussions. I don't need to give a better reason for doing this other than “I want this.” We need to consider this purely from the standpoint of my desire.
There's no higher argument than my desire. You see, that's a very apt expression of this conception of freedom that says it's nothing more than the spontaneous appetites that arise in you at any given moment. There's no higher argument that needs to be given than “I want this.” It's deeply troubling. And Patrick J. Deneen points out in the book what this does essentially is this necessitates by the way more and more and more involvement, and more regulation from the government and from the law. Why? Because in years past, I'm going to use a really antiquated word and he does to the manners, right? The social customs and the manners of a given community would regulate the behavior of its members and shape it in a way so that the government actually actual legal action didn't need to be as intensive and as detailed because a lot of these behaviors were simply shaped by the community.
But now if you make desire, if you say, “I want,” it's the highest arguments, then increasingly you've got to deal with everybody's unwieldy desires. You have to keep them ever more. You have to really keep them under lock and key in a sense and regulate them. And so now there's tinted windows on school buses. Now there's more and more surveillance cameras everywhere because nobody can control themselves because this is a recipe for having no control. Because after all, self-control would fly in the face of your freedom. But again, if Patrick Deneen is right and I think he is, this is a fundamentally flawed way of looking at freedom and it's a fundamentally flawed way of looking at human beings and we can destroy it very easily by simply looking at a squirming little baby. With all the weakness, all the vulnerability that shows us that's a picture of human beings.
They say some of the most formative and important years in any person's life are the first two years of their life. Isn't that amazing? The way a baby is cuddled affect the trajectory of your life? That should tell you something about the nature of human beings and how freedom actually works. Christianity says, your freedom is realized when you become what you were made to be, when your true and is realized. Christianity will tell you that you didn't bring yourself into this world. You're not a self-reliant, self-sustaining being. The only self-sufficient being is God himself. You were created and because of that, there is a purpose on your life. There's a call on your life from the Lord and you don't create your identity. You discover your identity. You find who you are and the way you do it is by serving others not serving your own needs.
From a common sense standpoint, we actually can see that this is deeply true. If you try to live only for yourself and you try to realize only your own desires. If “I want,” this becomes your highest argument, it's a recipe for loneliness and despair and deep, deep anxiety because you never get what you want. You never know what you want. You can never make up your mind. This is part of the fear and the anxiety that's punctuating our nation. We just don't know what we want, and we don't know who we are, and we're tearing ourselves apart because of it. This is what's fueling some of our most vicious culture wars. But if “you take up your cross” sounds so counterintuitive and live for others, serve others, you discover yourself in the process. It's almost as though Jesus is onto something. When he says, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it.”
That's the description of reality. That's not just a pithy saying to make you feel bad about yourself. Paul in Colossians 3, writing to believers says, “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” So Christianity says you shouldn't be afraid of humanity. You shouldn't be trying to gain the approval of human beings around you and constantly seeking their approval and constantly looking to politicians and leaders for their solutions and their ideas. That's why we're so dismayed as well when all of these celebrities and all of these leaders are falling and making mistakes and make committing horrible moral failure. That's why that's so disorienting to us. If we're afraid of human beings, if we have the fear of humanity, but the fear of the Lord would mean that you recognize that in the end it's the Lord who calls the shots.
It's the Lord who's in control. It's his will ultimately that will bring about the consummation of history and it's Jesus who is the ultimate King. You see that modifies your understanding of what's going on around you. If you recognize Jesus as your King, if you recognize that, if you want to answer the question, who am I and what do I want? You have to first answer the question, who is Christ? If you recognize the wisdom in that, if you recognize him, then you can handle the brokenness and human beings. You can handle leaders screwing up. You can handle the mess that's in Washington DC. You can handle the mess that's in Hollywood. You can handle the mess that's in the church. You can handle the institutional breakdown. It will make you sad, but it won't crush you and won't lead you to a point of despair because your hope is in Christ, not in humanity.
Once again, to circle back to what we said in the first episode, you'll recognize that we, human beings have to be saved. We really do need a savior and the good news of Christianity is that we do indeed have a savior. And I would submit to you his name is Jesus Christ. If you don't know him, let me get evangelistic for a moment. If you don't know him, what do you have to lose? Just ask him to reveal himself to you. Just ask him. Think of it as an intellectual experiment. Try it out. Ask him to reveal himself to you and look into your own heart. Look at your own resources, look at your own failures and ask yourself the question, can I really save myself? Can I really redeem myself? Can other human beings really saved me? I know I'm talking to people who have been let down.
We all have, but you've let people down as well and so have I. So let's be honest in our introspection and recognize that the problem of humanity is indeed our problem and that we are implicated. And that our freedom, it's got to be more than just the spontaneous expression of whatever happens to be animating my will at a given moment. There's a higher purpose. There's a higher meaning. There's a higher significance to your life. One that goes beyond your own meager wishes and desires. If I want this is your soul's most noble cry. It's way crushingly too small. There's more.
Ask Christ to reveal himself to you. Think of it as an intellectual experiment. If you're not a Christian or if you're a seeker, and if that annoys you, I'm sorry, but thanks for sticking with me for so long.
In the final episode, we're going to talk more about the Lord and more about Christ. And in that episode we will consider the fear of the Lord, which is in staunch contrast to the fear of humanity. But you've been listening to Vital Signs, the podcast, exploring signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer here at RZIM.
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