In his commencement address to Kenyon College, the writer David Foster Wallace said, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

Although Wallace never claimed to be an adherent of Christianity, his statement was an endorsement of scriptural principles, namely that to the extent an object governs a worshipper’s comportment, something of the object’s character is imposed upon him. In The City of God, Saint Augustine of Hippo declared the primacy of worship as central to the human condition, avowing that to be human was to embody the worship act, the ultimate recipient of which was the living God. Arguably, much of the power of Augustine’s Confessions is a result of his narrative rendering of this truth. In the account of his life, we find not only his story but also our own—a story of universal longing, the fulfillment of which Augustine expressed in the famous passage, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

While Augustine’s life culminated in his discovering the truth of Christianity, his course was not without its prerequisite foibles. Such is our tendency, our dalliances with idols, and as any reader of Confessions knows, Augustine struggled to detach himself from many such obsessions, including his extramarital sexual relationships. Although he repeatedly affirmed the meaninglessness of these pursuits, most bible-literate believers understand the root of such misappropriations; the predilection to lapse into idol worship is a focal point of the human story and a pathology against which Scripture repeatedly warns.

In the eleventh chapter of How Should We Then Live, Francis Schaeffer begins the denouement of his seminal work with an analysis of the middle to late twentieth century. While navigating everything from Marxism to the accumulating escapism of the sixties, the impetus of the chapter, entitled Our Society, is found in Schaeffer’s depiction of diverging sexual mores. Referencing Alfred Charles Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior of the Human Male and Sexual Behavior of the Human Female, Schaeffer opines that through the use of statistical data, Kinsey had perpetuated the idea that acceptable sexual conduct was simply a matter of moral relativism. Of Kinsey’s books, Schaeffer writes, “their real impact was the underlying conception that sexual right and wrong depend only on what most people are doing sexually at a given moment in history. This has become the generally accepted sexual standard in the years since.”

Writing in the 1970s, Schaeffer had witnessed the advent of an ideological dissolution—the weakening of the Christian consensus and the birth of sexual revolution. Sexual orientation, gender identity, the transgender movement, birth control, the nationalized decriminalization of abortion, and the mass commercial availability of pornography had emerged as national preoccupations. In our time, these have all but reached their prime by way of broad judicial or social normalization, and no less significant have been the recent redefining of marriage nor the latest state legislation jettisoning judicial strictures on late-term abortion. In view of such radical changes, one cannot help but assess the underlying constituents of our cultural transformation: ostensibly, each of the aforementioned movements marches under the banner of personal liberty. They operate via the doctrines of subjectivism and moral relativism, and their authority aims to be totalitarian even if necessarily eschewing reality. On the face of it, modernity’s embrace of these movements, such as in supplanting biological markers with arbitrary gender constructs, pronouns, and policies, is certainly evidence of society’s inclination away from a so-called “heteronormativity”; ultimately, it stands athwart to the Christian truth and objective morality. Take the ancient triad of transcendentals—the true, the good, and the beautiful. The beautiful may yet speak to anyone, but in the eyes of secular culture, to claim objective truth is prejudiced; likewise, to claim objective good is intolerant. Nonetheless, modernity’s doctrines are the mechanisms through which the aforementioned preoccupations continue to surface, and it is in their milieu that we come to understand a fundamental human feature and the nucleus of our cultural transformation: worship.

As Schaeffer affirmed, the sixties birthed not only sexual revolution, drug culture escapism, and a growing acquiescence to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideologies, but also the coming-of-age of postmodernism. In the decades prior, culture had begun to feed on a diet of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Sartre, a course that was set seven-hundred years before in the tendrils of renaissance humanism—mankind’s proclamation of autonomy and its accompanying readiness to bend morality to its will. Religion, at least in its aberrant forms, proved culpable as well, specifically denominationalism in the grasp of twentieth-century liberal theologians. The ensuing detachment of liberal theology from all biblical truth set a precedence for revolution by allowing society to move its foundation for sexual morality away from its Christian foundation. In the chapters prior to Our Society, Schaeffer states, “But for many modern theologians…Because they do not accept that God in the bible and in the revelation in Christ has given man truth which may be expressed in propositions, for them all content about God is dead and all assurance of a personal God is dead…the words [of the bible] become a banner for men to grab and run with in any arbitrary direction…”

Much like gender identity and the transgender movement, abortion remains entwined with modern culture’s subjectivism. In the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, Justice Anthony Kennedy penned the infamous words, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” While also purveyed as a matter of personal freedom, the pro-choice contention is born of a rationale that is, ironically, opposite that of gender ascendency; whereas the latter relies on the veneration of gender so as to revere it as holy, abortion is a result of desacralizing sex. To be sure, abortion is one logical outworking of removing the sex act from God’s intended framework. The biblical mandate maintains sex as sacred, sanctified for the marital relationship; in secular culture, sex, like marriage, is redefined so as to detach it from its consecrated purposes. To eschew all biblical mores makes sex commonplace, transactional, and self-serving, no longer subordinated to love. Therefore, to circumvent the political clamor encompassing abortion, one must strike at the heart of the matter: to uphold sex as sacred and within its God-sanctioned boundaries is to avert the consequences of its abuse. But sex as realized through a secular lens, under the auspices of liberty and license, releases into the world a kind of hell-on-earth, as evidenced by the over sixty-one million deaths since Roe vs. Wade. In How Should We Then Live, referring to the arbitrary absolutes by law that lead to abortion’s decriminalization, Schaeffer states, “Law has become a matter of averages, just as the culture’s sexual mores have become only a matter of averages.”

At its core, the Christian faith can be described in terms of a chronological progression consisting of three parts: redemption, righteousness, and worship. The Christian life begins with redemption through Jesus Christ. A genuine understanding of redemption leads to repentance and naturally seeks congress with virtue, a life given to righteousness in Christ and bringing with it an awareness of God’s mercy. In Confessions, Augustine says, “Can anything restore me to hope except your mercy? That you are merciful I know, for you have begun to change me. You know how great a change you have worked in me, for first of all you have cured me of the desire to assert my claim to liberty, so that you may also pardon me all my other sins…” With this realization follows the true nature of man, and such is the Augustinian point: we are worshippers, and our worship, in spirit and in truth, must ultimately be aligned to God. It follows that one may never have properly-aligned worship without first bring redeemed.

Interestingly, secular culture purveys its own version of the redemption-righteousness-worship progression. Secularism begins with a form of liberation via self-emancipation. In lieu of biblically-defined righteousness, the individual acts according to his or her own and society’s arbitrary code of ethics. Subsequently, with no boundaries, he or she is free to enthrone any idol as an object of worship and authority. In regards to the vacuum that results from spurning the Christian truth, G.K. Chesterton said, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing; they then become capable of believing in anything.” Accordingly, when men choose not to worship God, they will not then worship nothing; they will worship anything.

In the conclusion of Psalm 81, we read of God’s departure from Israel following the nation’s continual rebellion. The King James version reads, “But my people would not hearken to my voice… so I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust; and they walked in their own counsels.” On closer examination, this statement of consequences seems a chilling portent of our own time, and it is also worth noting how the psalm begins: after the commands to worship God (restated seven times), the psalmist makes clear the reasons for doing so. These reasons culminate with verses nine and ten in which God himself states that there shall be no strange god in Israel and neither shall its people worship any other god but Him. Finally, the latter half of verse ten reads, open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it. Such was God’s appeal to the nation, that He alone would suffice as their source of every fulfillment.

Salvation in Jesus Christ is the only means of totally dismantling our claims to personal liberty and license, because it is also—paradoxically—our only source of true liberation. The reality is that the Christian truth validates the discord that exists in our world as well as in ourselves, in the chasms that may exist between who we are and who we feel we should be, but it does so in light of God’s wish for our redemption. This is the beauty of the gospel message, that before we come to Christ and proceed in the process of His sanctification, none of us are as we should be. Augustine said, “God is closer to me than me itself.” Truly, it is the Living God who knows us better than we know ourselves, and He beckons us back to him, to an ultimate freedom from our idols. Such is the human story, the narrative of the restless heart whose only rest is God.

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