Christianity Puts Fear in Its Place

Ever read a news report and thought to yourself, “Wow! I can’t wait until this becomes a podcast or a movie!”? We love our bad news. But an addiction to fear has real consequences and fear distorts our perception of reality. Here’s what to do about it.

The novelist Marylinne Robinson writes, “Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough.” There’s a world of wisdom in these words. That we’re addicted to fear is hardly a surprise. With his trademark crass delivery, the comedian George Carlin once joked that the news was his favorite brand of “entertainment” and the more catastrophic the better—I’ll spare you his gruesome list of examples. That was in the ‘90s. These days, Carlin’s monologue barely qualifies as satire. That our headlines are increasingly dramatic in tone and that the focus on all aspects of the production frequently exceeds fidelity to the facts all serves to confirm that the line between news and entertainment is rail-thin. And we like it that way. Ever read a report and thought to yourself, “Wow! I can’t wait until this becomes a podcast or a movie!”? We vote with our feet/phones, and the votes are in: We love our bad news.

An addiction to fear has real consequences, of course. If we’re living on a steady diet of catastrophe, why are we so surprised at the spike in our anxiety? Pushing against the common wisdom of the age, Dallas Willard once argued that we exercise a lot more control over the way we feel than we realize or like to admit. After all, a good deal of what goes into our heads in a given day comes courtesy of our own choices. Suffice it to say, a soundtrack of non-stop dread and apocalyptic forecasts is going to affect the way you feel.

Fear’s Distorting Lens

Part of what both Carlin and Robinson are getting at in their respective ways is that fear often operates as a distorting lens. And it’s hard to see clearly when you’re running scared.

Speaking as a Christian, I see two major ways in which fear distorts our perception of reality: 1) forgetting fallenness (i.e. human beings are broken and sinful; refers to “The Fall” of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) 2) mistaking fallenness for finality. Though the phrasing is somewhat cumbersome, I’m pointing to a pretty basic polarity: Those who forget fallenness tend to be too optimistic about human nature, and those who see humanity as beyond redemption tend to be too pessimistic.

Those who downplay the fallenness of human nature often equate our various social ills with mere irrationality. According to this view, education is the remedy. If we want a kind of mythic figure to go with this mindset, think of the inner-city school teacher who bravely strolls into the center of urban decay to counter its destructive cycles of poverty and crime with the healing powers of education. We often meet this figure in movies and television shows. Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not denigrating the value of education. The people who devote their lives to teaching in impoverished communities do a world of good, and they truly make a difference. However, the notion that education can repair human nature is naïve at best, downright delusional at worst.

If you’ve ever talked to a social worker or an actual inner-city school teacher, you’ll know the colossal effort required to break through to one kid, let alone an entire classroom. Far from starry-eyed and hopeful, these intrepid educators often display a decidedly stoical disposition. When he met Mother Teresa, Malcolm Muggeridge shrewdly observed, “I never met anyone less sentimental, less scatty, more down-to-earth. Thus, until she can accommodate her lepers in proper settlements where they can live useful, productive lives together, they still go out to beg in the streets of Calcutta if they want to.” A life of providing aid to the destitute demands a steely resolve that’s often mistaken for callousness.

But the problem remains: Education and social reform alone can’t fix all of our problems. As bracing as it might seem, even a world with the ideal balance of social and economic factors would still require locks on doors, a police force, a military. The 2008 economic crash was, among other things, a stark reminder that crime is far from absent among society’s elite. Education is tremendously valuable, but our fundamental flaw is in the heart, and curriculum alone is not up to the task of healing that wound.

What does any of this have to do with fear? In a word, if we forget fallenness, human depravity will come as a shock that inspires varying degrees of fear, anxiety, and even despair. As my colleague and friend Nathan Rittenhouse often points out, Christians are saddened but not shocked by the state of the world. Forgetting fallenness distorts our perspective on human nature and transforms the surrounding darkness into a terrifying anomaly.

If we forget fallenness, human depravity will come as a shock that inspires varying degrees of fear, anxiety, and even despair.

For those who believe we’re nearly beyond redemption, however, the pendulum simply swings in the opposite direction. If the inner-city school teacher functions as the key mythic figure for those who forget fallenness, those who see it as final prefer the cowboy. This lone figure recognizes violence as a foregone conclusion and occupies a position of permanent defensiveness. As John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards retorts in John Ford’s The Searchers, “I don’t believe in surrenders. Nope, I’ve still got my saber, Reverend. Didn’t beat it into no plowshare, neither.” That little biblical reference to Isaiah’s paradisal prophesy is deeply revealing—not even heaven can bear disarmament. For these folks, fear is the only healthy state of mind because it’s the one most in touch with reality. Those who downplay fallenness may greet the news with shock and dismay, but those who see it as final simply say, “I told you so.”

In truth, declaring humanity to be beyond redemption is every bit as much of an exaggeration as declaring it wholly innocent apart from social and environmental factors. From recovered addicts and reformed prisoners to reconciled family members, people do turn their lives around. At best, the notion that people are beyond redemption is pessimistic. At worst, it’s a self-serving assumption that spares us the hard and necessary effort of investing in others.

The Fear of the Lord

These days, the phrase “fear of the Lord” is liable to meet with confusion and derision in equal measures. For some it may simply sound foreign. For others, however, it may ring with connotations of repressive dogma and spiritual abuse. In fact, the fear of the Lord is the antidote to the persistent anxiety of our age.

When the sage of the book of Proverbs proffers the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom, he’s cutting against our deep-seated assumption that humans are rational beings in control of their own destiny (Proverbs 9:10). Most of our fears are predicated on this assumption that humanity is in ultimate control, and we spend a good deal of our lives either performing or fleeing from other people. Naturally, this performing and fleeing can take various shapes, but they both amount to fear of what others will think and do to us. In this sense, the family anxiously cataloging their “perfect vacation” on social media in the hopes of winning their audience’s approval is every bit as motivated by fear as the couple who invests a small fortune in turning their house into an armed fortress.

Though the phrase “fear of the Lord” may sound odd or even tyrannical, in fact, it simply reflects an acknowledgement of God’s ultimate authority. Certainly, this assumption conflicts with our autonomous aspirations, but then again, so do the manifold fears that afflict us. It’s hard to maintain the illusion of self-sufficiency when you need other people to validate your existence by “liking” the photos you’ve posted.

If, on the other hand, Christianity is true, the fear of the Lord makes perfect sense. The Lord of all creation is the one in control, and if we “fear” him, we’re simply recognizing his ultimate authority in our lives. In this sense, the fear in this passage doesn’t so much involve dread, panic, and terror as it does a holistic recognition of proper authority. To fear the Lord is to confess him as God. Consequently, extending this kind of fear to anything less than God amounts to idolatry. Other people can hurt you, yes, but God alone holds authority over your ultimate wellbeing. In Jesus’s own words, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).”

Though this verse is the very definition of uncompromising, may I suggest to you that it offers the only holistic alternative to the fear that so often controls us. Honest introspection quickly reveals that we either fear God or people, and if people don’t exercise ultimate authority over your soul, it makes no sense to fear them as though they hold this kind of power.

By the way, if the word soul gives you pause, consider the fact that no other human being enjoys perfect access to your inward life. Nobody knows exactly what it’s like to be “in your head.” Stated so bluntly, these sentences amount to little more than truisms. Why then do we so often fear other people as though they can peer directly into our hearts, inhabit our inner worlds? Does this not amount to a misplaced fear that mistakes human beings for gods? It’s a deep-seated fear that’s as common as it is irrational.

To fear the Lord is to put fear in its proper place by recognizing the author of our souls. This fear corrects the distorted lens that misleads us into forgetting fallenness or seeing it as final. Instead, the fear of Lord informs us that Christ alone can heal our broken hearts and that no heart is beyond his reach. Paradoxically, those who fear the Lord are the ones who don’t need to be afraid.

Confronting Our Culture of Fear, Pt. I

In this episode, "The Distorting Lens," we look at the ways in which fear distorts our sense of reality.

Jan 07, 2020

The novelist Marilynne Robinson argues, “Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never have enough.” 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. In this episode, we look at the ways in which fear distorts our sense of reality.

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Transcript



Please Note: Vital Signs is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you very much for tuning in today.

We're going to begin a three-part series today, dealing with the topic of fear. It's been my experience more and more as I travel around and as I simply talk to people who are present in my life, that fear is becoming more and more of a problem. We seem so punctuated as a nation by fear and it's kind of an interesting feature of our society right now because on the one hand, experts will continue to tell us that we've never been quite as safe in many ways.

In many ways, crime is being reduced. We're seeing violence not escalating in quite the ways that we think it is sometimes. Now, there are a number of different factors at play there just from the onset, and we can note some of them.

Our instant access to news, this is still a relatively new experience for us. In times past, you were pretty limited by geography. And when it came to the news, you could keep tabs on what was going on, but you were doing so at a much slower pace. Think about the way the speed of a newspaper, of course, versus our online world. So what that means is that we have instant access to all of the events that are taking place around the nation and they all flood into our newsfeed simultaneously. And what that does is it often creates this atmosphere of real intensity and urgency. And it also tends to mislead us into thinking that more kind of bad news is happening simultaneously all the time at once.

Now, that's not to minimize some of the very serious issues that are going on. But I remember a friend of mine telling me a story that I found really interesting. He talked about the fact that he had asked his grandparents, both of whom were alive during the time of the Second World War. And he asked them, what was it like to be on the ground in the United States during the Second World War? What was that actually like as you were hearing all of these reports as you were thinking possibly about the collapse of Western civilization maybe, and their response was, “well, we actually didn't know too much about what was going on all the time.”

Now, both of them were children at this time, so it needs to be stressed that if they were adults, they probably would have been keeping closer tabs. But isn't that interesting though, because here they are during one of the most cataclysmic wars in history and really they weren't hearing too much about it. And that is such a stark contrast to our own day, where the 24-hour news cycle constantly inundates us with what's going on, constant reporting. And so it tends to create this really intense atmosphere of dread often.

But why is there this deep-seated sense of fear? We know that, that's one reading, that's a relatively superficial reading of what's going on. We have access to more news, therefore we feel more anxiety because we hear about all of these events that are going on, but there does seem to be real breakdown that's happening both on a national scale and also on a personal scale. It's a guarantee now that as our team, for instance, as we travel around, when we're speaking to different audiences, it's a guarantee that we are going to get questions on anxiety and on depression. Why is that? And more and more we're hearing alarming reports that truly are alarming about escalating suicide rates, escalating depression. So there really is a deep sense of fear. And when you look at the way the last election cycle played out, fear played a pretty tremendous role in that election cycle. I think it's safe to say that as we approach next November, we're going to see that again.

Fear is also a very powerful political tool. We know this because this can be used to mobilize people, it can get people to be reactive, it can get them to mobilize around a cause. Fear is often used in a very instrumental way, but it's working though because there is a real sense of fear on the ground. There's a real sense of fear about the future of our nation here in the United States. There's a real sense of fear about who we are. I think in many ways we're going through a national identity crisis. We're really wrestling with what it means to be an American in the first place, what it means to be a US citizen in the first place, and all of this is creating a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear. And so I thought it would be really helpful to talk about that fear.

You know Marilynne Robinson, who's a novelist I like and admire, she put it this way in an essay, aptly titled, Fear. She says, “Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough.” It's this endless road, then there's no end to the precautions that you have to take. Really what she's doing, is she's describing paranoia. And I don't know if you recall, but the phrase the “war on terror” that really began to crystallize in the aftermath of 9/11, the war on terror.

A number of incisive critics and one of them was the theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, pointed out that you can't draw limits on a phrase like the “war on terror.” There's no conceivable end to the war on terror, that's so open ended, that's ongoing. There's no way to close that off. Now, I'm just being purely descriptive here. I'm not taking a side in this philosophical debate with regard to the war on terror, but I am pointing out to you that often there's that open-ended aspect to fear that leaves it permanently unresolved. And so the results are often anxiety, paranoia, and that's increasingly what we see animating our day to day experiences.

It's interesting because Jonathan Haidt and Mark Lukianoff point this out in their recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind. They draw on a lot of the relevant statistics and they point out how safe our time is compared to say, the 1950s. And they're talking about people raising their children. And so they point out, here's a little interesting sociological fact. They point out that in the 1950s kids really roamed pretty freely, right? During the day, they were allowed to go outside and play and they were allowed to go out and break their arms, fall out of trees, just do all sorts of really, really pretty free-ranging activities. And now, they point out that parents are so, so careful and they talk about, they use some of the cultural lingo here, “helicopter parenting,” “snowplow parenting.” I don't know what... “Bulldozer parenting.” I mean on and on the lexicon goes, who knows what the next catch phrase will be, but they're pointing out parents are very, very over-protective right now.

Now, that's pretty undeniable. I feel that keenly, I have two small children and I'm fairly over-protective myself and I'm fairly nervous, and the prospect of them roaming freely outside kind of scares me. But they point out what's interesting about that was in the 1950s when kids actually were roaming free, it was a lot more dangerous. There were more kidnappings, but now when most kids are not allowed to roam around and really be kids, there are less kidnappings. There's less danger to them. And yet, even as I say that, it feels weird to say that because everything inside of me reacts against it. We have this sense, this paranoia that they're constantly in danger.

And so there's this weird discrepancy that we have to deal with on the one hand between the way we think things are, how dire they seem to be and the way things actually are on the ground. They're not always as bad as we think. But on the other hand, as I've outlined, there is a very real cultural crisis taking place and it's taking place at the level of identity. We don't know who we are, we don't know how to find meaning in life, we don't know how to find significance. And when you don't have meaning and you don't have significance, breakdown begins to ensue.

And so I've spelled some of these symptoms out on other Vital Signs episodes where we talk about how achievement comes to play, this outsized role where you have to try to earn and justify your existence. Well, all of this contributes to this tremendous sense of anxiety. Because if you think identity is in your hands completely and it's a burden on your shoulders, the stakes are suddenly way more high and you find yourself, if you're going to use religious language here, what you're actually trying to do is redeem yourself, which is something no human being can do. And that's a pressure that no person should have to endure. It's a burden no person should have to endure. So these are the two I think elements, the two big picture elements that are contributing to that ambient atmosphere of fear that so punctuates our existence, the discrepancy between the way we feel things are and the way things actually are, and also that growing cultural breakdown at the level of identity.

You know, Marilynne Robinson says something else in that essay on fear that I think is deeply challenging. It's deeply challenging to me. She says, basically she says, I'm paraphrasing her a bit, “I have a two-part thesis about America. Number one, it is filled with fear and two... ” and this is her phrase, “...fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.

That's really what I want to talk about in this three-part series. I want to talk about how Christianity addresses fear and how Christianity frames this in more hopeful terms, and hope that's sustainable in the truest sense of the word. Hope that actually is realistic and that can stand up to the cultural crisis, to what's going on around us.

If that sounds interesting to you, I hope you'll stick with me for this three-part series. But we're going to explore this topic of fear under three headings. Number one, “The Distorted Lens of Fear.” Number two, “The Fear of Humanity.” And finally, in that third episode, “The Fear of The Lord,” which is very, very distinct from the fear of humanity. So, “The Distorted Lens,” “The Fear of Humanity,” and finally, “The Fear of The Lord.” In this episode, we're going to talk about, “The Distorting Lens of Fear,” and this will help us gain our bearings.

But fear is truly a distorting lens from a very common sense standpoint. We know this. If we're running scared, so to speak, we're not behaving fully rationally because our reason is hampered. Paranoia clouds our judgment and fear tends to make us more reactive rather than proactive. We don't think our ideas and we don't think our actions through as carefully. Fear tends to be a distorting lens. But I want to look at how it distorts specifically here in our North American context. And we're going to bring some of the political ramifications in a little bit, but have no fear, this is not me getting all partisan here. This is merely to be descriptive, to really do justice to the way fear plays out both on a national scale and in our day to day lives.

I think there are two major mistakes that we make. These two mistakes that arise from the distorting lens of fear are forgetting fallenness and then mistaking fallenness for finality. Right? That phrased out a little bit cumbersome, so to try to help it stick in your mind, but forgetting fallenness is the first, and the second mistake is mistaking fallenness for finality. And you can actually line up both of these a little bit with certain political sensibilities. Let's examine these more closely.

Number one, forgetting fallenness. What does it mean to forget fallenness? Well, if Christianity is true, it says that there is a fundamental flaw with human beings. There's a fundamental flaw in the human heart. And so what we're seeing in the world around us; the bad news, shootings, famine, economic disparity, racism. All of these wretched features that we encounter time and time again, it seems often as though we can stamp one system of injustice out only to have another one take its place in sometimes a more subtle and more covert and more powerful form than the one before it. Now, why is that? Why can't we seem to fix our conundrum?

There's a really powerful book by Albert Camus, and I've talked about it on the Vital Signs podcast before. It's called The Plague. Albert Camus, I think was a very noble thinker because he was a skeptic. He was an atheist, but he was wrestling with I think one of the most important questions that all of us have to face. And that is, what does it mean to be a good person? What does a good life look like? And Camus had the intellectual and spiritual courage to raise that as an atheist. And he came to the conviction increasingly, and you see this throughout all of his writings, whether it's his nonfiction writing or his fictional writing.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, he says, he really makes the same argument as well. And Myth of Sisyphus, of course, it's probably one of his most famous essays. But he says the point of life is essentially is to be a saint. That is the meaning of life is to live for others, to live sacrificially. You might say, to take up your cross. That's the Christian phrase for it, but to live for others. So what does it mean to be a saint in the absence of God? That's the question hovering over Camus of war, if you will.

And so in his fictional treatment of this theme, The Plague, he has a character who is essentially a stand in for Camus or clearly an idealized version of Camus, the hero, Dr. Rieux. This horrendous plague has broken out and it's killing people. And Dr. Rieux, who is a medical doctor, risks his life to fight this plague and to find a cure. Now, Dr. Rieux has a family of his own, and he risks contamination, so he's really being quite sacrificial. As the novel progresses, eventually, they are able to come up with a cure and they're able to overcome this plague. But the book ends on a very somber note. I think one of the more somber notes in a lot of modern literature because as everybody is celebrating, Dr. Rieux points out, “Yes, but there'll be another plague.”

There's always another plague. There's always another sickness. There's always another illness. There's always some other drastic form of violence against humanity that takes the place of the one that went before it. Even if we find a cure, even if we stamp this one out, another will take its place.

That is his view, but we keep fighting them. We keep fighting and keep fighting. And remember, his Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus cursed by the gods to perpetually push a stone up the mountain, only to have the stone rolled down. He has to go and push it back up again, push it back up again. This pointless labor, in some ways, one of the most acute forms of psychological torture. Yet in that essay, Camus says, that's all of us, all of us.

You wake up in the morning and there sits your stone. You push it up the mountain, it falls back down again, you push it again, and on and on and on. And he says, “Rather than seeing it as absurdity, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” That's what Dr. Rieux is doing. His stone in this novel is the plague and he defeats the plague, the stone rolls back down the hill, and some new plague will take its place.

When we take a look at culture, if we are taking a realistic look, we can see that fallenness is a perennial feature, that our human nature keeps cropping up again and again. There is genuine progress in certain areas. Thank God that chattel slavery for instance, has been rooted out in the United States, but the persistent problem of systemic racism remains, does it not? New challenges arise every time. Sexual slavery is now a massive global problem. Now, I'm not recommending of course, that we say, “Well, it's all hopeless, so let's just take our hands off of the rains by no means.” But I'm saying one of the dangers, one of the part of the distorting lens of fear in our culture is to forget this fallenness.

When we do that, when we forget our human nature, really when we stop looking in the mirror, when we stop having honest, introspective moments where we really wrestle with who we are, ourselves, and what we're capable of. When we do that, the response to what's going on in the world around us to the terrible news is shock and outrage and panic. That's what we see over and over again. If we forget fallenness, we see that panic and that outrage showing up time and time again.

I'm going to draw on my colleague Nathan Rittenhouse, who's younger and wiser than me. He often points the South. He'll say, “You know, when I see what's going on around me, in my community, around the world, I'm sad but not surprised.” You see, Christianity modifies that distorting lens by reminding you of what you're capable of. It's not just the other people out there, it's all of us. It's you and me, what's in the human heart.

Dallas Willard would often point this out. He would say, when we look at the world and we see all of this terrible stuff that's transpiring, we ask, “where does this come from?” He just says very profoundly, “It comes from the human heart.” But forgetting fallenness is also one of the major mistakes that we make and this tends to... Not always. These are kind of futuristic devices, so it doesn't always line up like this, but the political sensibility here that really fits with forgetting fallenness is often a more progressive mindset.

The idea that humanity continues to progress and we're continuing to move forward and we're improving as we go or casting off old traditions and outgrowing old traditions and coming into a new understanding of what it means to be human ushering in new freedom, but this kind of mindset tends to be overly optimistic often with regard to human nature and often what you have is you forget that we all are fallen. I think the key symbolic figure of the forgetting fallenness, this mindset really goes with minimizing our sinful nature, to you use Christian terminology there. But the big gear there that comes to mind is probably the inner city teacher, right? The inner city school teacher, the person who fearlessly goes into the mall of a very kind of desperate maybe government subsidized area, where there's high crime rates and lots of drugs and lots of possible gang activity.

We see that there's a lot of movies made about this. There's a lot of stories about this, and by the way, they're great. A lot of them are very inspirational, but the figure is this sort of mythic figure of the teacher who goes in there and educates. And that's going to be the solution. Because according to this mindset, the forgetting fallenness mindset, the answer is education. The problem is ignorance. If we would just see the error of our ways, if we would just wake up, then we could fix ourselves and so what's needed is education.

Now again, I want you to hear me carefully. I am not denigrating education. Education is tremendously helpful in these circumstances and it does a lot. It does a world of good to address many of the social ills in a given place. It really does. So education, I'm a big believer in it. But education as something that can solve human nature. No. I wish that were the case, but that's not the case.

You see, the problem I would say ultimately is not that we don't understand what's wrong with us and we just need to be enlightened. In some cases, we do need education to wake us up to some of what's going on, and I'm a big believer in that. But on the deepest level, the problem is not that we don't know what to do.

A number of years ago, a book came out called, Why Can't We Be Good? It's written by a philosopher named Jacob Needleman, and it's a very long book. I've referenced it here before, but his basic thesis is the problem is not that we don't know how to be good. We do know how to be good. We know what we need to do. We know that we need to treat others the way we want to be treated. We need to observe the Golden Rule. As Jesus expressed it, we need to love others as ourselves. The problem is we can't do it. We've never been able to do it. We can't uphold that basic command, which would function as a wonderful fabric for knitting all of society and civilization together. We can't do it. We've never been able to do it down the ages.

So there's never going to be a time I would suggest to you where we won't, in this world, need to lock our doors at night where we won't need a police force, where we won't need a military, where we won't need those who will enforce the laws of the land because human nature is fallen. And if we forget fallenness, it leads to a kind of fear that is expressed best in shock and outrage all the time. We're horrified at the ways in which people are behaving and were dismayed and this tends to lead to growing, escalating levels of anger, acrimony, incivility.

Again, we see that play out on the national stage. We see this play out in political debates. And this is one particular political sensibility. I think that lines up a little bit more with the progressive agenda. But I'm an opportunity offender, so let's move on to the next one, mistaking fallenness for finality. If this links up to a particular political sensibility, I think this one links up more with the conservative side of our political nation because here after all, this is if the former side, if the forgetting fallenness tends to minimize the broken aspects of human nature, the mistaking fallenness for finality side tends to exaggerate them, and this tends to lead to cynicism and paranoia. The view here is that we are surrounded by enemies and we are deeply embattled and we are deeply defensive.

The way you often hear this described in political rhetoric, and I'm just going to speak in very general terms, is this, well, the United States was once a great nation, a land of opportunity with unparalleled freedom of expression and freedom of religious expression. A place where really a dream could be realized, an opportunity for everybody, but that's all under attack now. All of that is being threatened, and there are many people in this nation who want to take that away, who want to tear down the freedoms that have made this country great and we have to protect them.

So if the forgetting fallenness side tends to be overly optimistic with regard to human nature and tends to emphasize education, the mistaking fallenness for finality mindset tends to emphasize protection, right? So not education, but protection. We have to protect the rights that we have. We have to protect our freedoms, we have to protect all of this and kind of the reigning symbol of this. And again, I'm being descriptive here. I'm not entering into any kind of culture wars here. I want to bring in...And by the way, let me just give you a quick aside if you're squirming in your car seat or wherever you find yourself right now.

I am a Christian and what that means is that I'm like everybody else. Human beings are social, political animals. Now, I just mean that in a descriptive sense. We are creatures who have to share neighborhoods and communities and space and we have to share common laws and policies. So I'm deeply invested in politics. I care deeply. But I'm first and foremost, a citizen of Heaven. This is the language of scripture. I belong to the Kingdom of God. And that means I can, and any Christian can climb above these party lines and view all of these earthly endeavors from an eternal perspective, why? Because I believe that in the end, the one I follow, my one true king is Jesus Christ, and he is returning to judge the quick and the dead and to usher in a new heavens and a new earth and that will be the final kingdom, not of this world, a new world.

So that perspective allows me to climb above these party lines. If you cannot climb above party lines and if you cannot survey them in a disinterested fashion, there's a problem, you have been pulled too deeply in. If you view any kind of questioning of a particular political party, if you view any kind of higher level thinking about that party as a form of treason or compromise, there's a problem because after all these are earthly endeavors and there's a good chance you're in an ideological creep. As a Christian, you can stand above that and survey that. That may sound strange to you if you're not a Christian or if you're a skeptic or a seeker here, but may I just suggest to you that this is the benefit of an eternal perspective.

And I'm drawing that language from the Book of Ecclesiastics, where we hear about the two ways of looking at earthly events. There's life under the sun, which limits your gaze to just whatever, whatever's going on here in the earthly realm. And that can often be, if you really take a long hard look at it, that's I think a recipe for Camus's ultimate conviction that well, it's a restless and deeply ruthless struggle to do the right thing and whenever you conquer one evil, another one takes its place. So it can be a very kind of pointless vision. This is why the writer says all is vanity, but if you see it from the standpoint of eternity, then you know that this world is not all that there is. There's a larger perspective which can broaden your horizons. But here, I think when we talk about mistaking fallenness for finality. The kind of reigning symbol of this movement is a gun these days often, right? And this is why guns form such a fierce point of national debate because people see guns as more than simply tools.

It's a symbol of a very particular kind of identity in this nation and a very particular kind of reading of protecting of rights of the right to bear arms, or the right to fight against tyranny. So I think really the reigning symbolic figure in this mistaking fallenness for finality picture is the cowboy. The lone kind of hero who enacts sometimes vigilante justice in order to protect freedom, in order to protect those around him.

There's a lot that could be said here on what philosophers and sociologists refer to as the myth of redemptive violence in the United States. And there's a vast sprawling trove of literature that looks at this quite critically. Everything from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian to a movie like John Ford's, The Searchers with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood's movie Unforgiven, which is one of the more unusual Western movies out there. But we need to think about the fact that, often the distorting aspect here is that this tends to exaggerate fallenness because when we're in this mindset, it tends to transform those who are our ideological opponents into actual enemies.

Now, if Christianity is true, you have enemies. Yeah, you do. You have ideological opponents. You have those with whom you have deep disagreements. You do, but they're all called your neighbor and you are called not to be a pushover and not to just be trampled upon, but you are called to love them and love precludes neither confrontation nor self-sacrifice. There's the balance. Love does not preclude confrontation. We know this in principle. If somebody you love has a habit that's deeply harmful to them and they're indulging over and over again, the loving thing to do is to confront them on it and risk even losing their friendship. It's not loving to step back and say, well, I know it's harmful to them, but it makes them happy apparently. That's not harmful, that's apathy. That actually communicates a form of contempt, leave them to their own devices. But we also know that love doesn't preclude self-sacrifice.

That means putting somebody else's interests before your own. That means risking losing the friendship. That means risking them coming after you. That means risking recriminations. That also just means really serving others, going the extra mile for them, loving them in the deepest sense. This is a supernatural form of love, I'm going to argue. And I've said this before on the Vital Signs podcast, the two greatest commandments are love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and then Jesus gives a bonus answer when he's asked this question, what's the greatest commandment? He also says, “The second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself.” The reason he does that is because number one, the sequence is crucial. And unless you first, love God with all that you are, you cannot love your neighbor as yourself. You cannot love your enemy as yourself.

And so loving others as yourself is an outgrowth of loving the Lord your God with all that you are. It liberates you to love others. It liberates you from the vice grip of fear and hatred. But this is what the distorting lens of fear does in the United States. This is the broad shape that it takes, and I know I'm painting with a fairly broad brush stroke here, but I think this actually does make some sense of our cultural moment. By the way, these lines cross to it. It's not like you're committed only to one of these items if you're a member of a political party. We forget fallenness all the time in any party. Many times this happens when, for instance, whenever you see somebody who's indicted of serious crimes or there's been serious moral failings, and we greet that with shock and dismay.

You see this a lot actually in the church lately here in North America. While on the one hand, it's understandable, it's horrifying when leaders are brought down in this fashion and when we see that they've been behaving in these abominable ways, it's understandable. But on the other hand, it shouldn't totally surprise us because after all, human beings remain human beings even when they're celebrities. I often see people overestimating human nature when it comes to somebody who has a lot of influence in a platform. I tend to fall into that line of thinking sometimes myself. We shouldn't, we can't be naive. And on the other hand, mistaking fallenness for finality that cuts across all party lines because you see this being expressed over and over again by people who paint their opponents as evil rather than just misguided. I'm drawing my thinking here again from The Coddling of the American Mind, one of the really shrewd and helpful observations in that book. Again, this is Jonathan Haidt and Mark Lukianoff.

Neither one of them Christians by the way, but they point out that one of the great untruths that has kind of been deeply internalized on our university campuses and now I think nationwide, is that life is a battle between good people and evil people. And they point out that this is so deeply harmful because it takes you off the hook. It paints your opponent as not simply misguided and wrong, but evil. And so that really means the ends justify the means. You can go as far as you want against them. You can use any tactics, any strategies. You want to shut them down, to close them down, even violating their freedoms, even using physical violence. And we see this happening on university campuses, by the way, and this increasing sense of intolerance because the argument goes, well, it's not just that they're wrong, they're evil. I'm actually fighting against evil people, so I'm doing good here. I'm fighting to uphold justice.

You see, that's a very, very harmful line of thinking because you're taking yourself off the hook. You're forgetting your own heart. I often phrase it this way. When it comes to the fallenness of the world, I don't need the news to verify it for me, all I have to do is look in the mirror. And we need that kind of introspection. We really do. We need to see what we're capable of as well because it's going to help us to not fall into that dangerous pride. History teaches us that there is nothing so dangerous and so lethal as blind self-righteousness. Lord, help us when we slip into that mindset. And it's becoming more and more endemic.

So this distorted lens cuts across all the lines. It tends to line up a little bit with certain political sensibilities, but it also, these categories interpenetrate. But on the one hand, forgetting fallenness, minimizing our fallen nature and then being so shocked and dismayed when human beings behave like human beings. And secondly, greatly over exaggerating it, seeing fallenness as the whole picture, and therefore getting over protective and paranoid and trying to fight, fight, fight against evil people wherever you go. It tends to lead to increasing levels of paranoia. It definitely cuts across hospitality. It definitely makes us shut our doors to our neighbors. Both of these are deeply damaging and we are seeing them become more and more widespread throughout the United States.

I think the answer here really from a Christian standpoint is to give us, first of all, and we'll get to the final answer of Christianity on the last episode, but just by way of foreshadowing and just to inject this as a note of hope in this particular episode, which sounds a little bit somber. This is Vital Signs, signs of life in today's culture, but it often gets really somber, doesn't it? But just if we see the world from an eternal perspective, that's a larger perspective. That means that what you see of life under the sun, so to speak, matters and it is dismaying and it's cause for lament, it's cause for action, it's cause for reform, but it also means if you can see that it's not the whole picture, it lifts some of the burden off of your shoulders.

You are not the educator of the world, neither are you the savior of the world, but the world does need a savior, does it not? I think that this is the most common sense and I think on the knows, takeaway. When we look at the human condition and we look at it honestly in any period in history and in our current moment here in the United States, where we are seeing I think cultural crisis in terms of the fact that we just don't know who we are as a nation, we have no idea where we're going and we're fighting tooth and nail about it. When we look at that, I think we can see very clearly we don't have the resources to address this. We cannot fix ourselves. We actually do need to be saved.

And that is the message of Christianity. That's the good news of Christianity, that Christ is in fact our savior, but it often doesn't make sense to people if you just immediately hit them with, “Christ is your savior. Christ loves you. He's come to rescue you.” If you don't understand the problem, if you don't understand what you're being rescued from, that doesn't make sense. But I think if we take an honest look at our culture of fear, we can see why that's the case.

On the next episode, we'll talk about the fear of humanity and how that shapes so much of what we do and how that also works in tandem with our growing sense of fear and our growing sense of anxiety in this nation. So I hope you'll tune into that episode, but you've been listening to Vital Signs 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 Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

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