Reviews > Culture

The new Pharisees

Culture | In an age of morality lite, America wants self-righteousness without righteousness

Issue: "Charity begins at home," May 16, 1998

The Game of Life is a Milton Bradley board game that has kept its popularity for decades. Children, preoccupied as they often are about growing up, move their little plastic stationwagons along the spaces, picking up a family along the way and hoping the spin of the wheel gives them a good job and lots of money. There was a similar game put out in 1790, as William R. Mattox Jr. points out in USA Today. The New Game of Human Life, now available in historically oriented gift shops, has players move down a long and winding road according to the development of moral character. Landing on "The Studious Boy," "The Assiduous Youth," or "The Benevolent Man" lets the player advance several spaces. Landing on "The Negligent Boy," "The Complaisant Man," or "The Drunkard" will make the player go backwards or lose a turn. (For the record, since we don't even use these terms anymore, our moral vocabulary having become so impoverished, assiduous means painstaking perseverance at a task. Complaisant means being too willing to please. In George Washington's day, that was something bad.) In the 20th-century Game of Life, players try to make it to the next paycheck, and the object of the game is to accumulate as many material possessions as possible. The final goal, the stationwagon's ultimate destination toward which every bright-colored accomplishment is just a step, is retirement. Whoever retires with the most possessions wins. In the game played in the infancy of the American republic, players develop their character traits until they reach a very different destination: immortality. The ultimate goal is to become "The Immortal Man," described in the rules as "a model for the close of life which can end only by eternity." The New Game of Human Life should perhaps come with a warning label: None of us can play the moral game well enough to win. We need Christ, not only to play the game for us but to overturn the board by his death and resurrection for our sins. Nevertheless, though many Williamsburg tourists who pick up the game no doubt see it as humorously quaint, a campy souvenir of the olden days, its moral seriousness stands in stark contrast to our own day's triviality. Christians trying to apply moral principles in the public square are often shouted down by the accusation, "You are trying to impose your religion on everybody else!" The fact is, morality is not merely a matter of religion. Christianity is not about some special moral code, some unique way of behavior to be found nowhere else that will pay off in eternal life; rather, Christianity is about Christ, the God-Man who saves us from our moral failure. Morality is necessary for all human societies, Christian or not. Society today is beginning to recognize that it cannot do without some moral guidelines. There seems to be an urgent need to establish sexual harassment taboos (which would seem to be unnecessary if there is nothing wrong with permissive sex). Medical technology and genetic manipulation are making even secularists squirm, with their mail-order babies and rent-a-wombs. Something seems wrong about the moral mutants that appear on The Jerry Springer Show, faked or not. With children killing children, many educators are thinking that maybe school should teach moral behavior after all. The new attempts to reestablish a moral consensus, however, do not seem to be working. In values-education classes, children sit around in groups sharing their "values," a term that implies that morality is less a matter of truth than personal preference. Hospital ethics boards set up bureaucratic processes that almost always end up permissive. The proper behavior of men toward women, which was once a matter of chivalry and honor, must now be thrashed out in the courts. The problem is, these new moralists, having rejected the biblical worldview that grounds moral truths in the transcendent God, have no basis for their moral perceptions. So they try to construct moralities of their own, forgetting that if morality is merely a construction, it can be remodeled at will. Nevertheless, as William D. Watkins shows in his book The New Absolutes (Bethany, ISBN 0-7642-2019-5), while our age claims to believe that morality is relative and that there are no absolutes, in practice, brand new absolutes have emerged. There is nothing relativistic about the new moral principles of tolerance, feminism, sexual freedom, death for unwanted life, and the various commandments of the politically correct. In fact, we are seeing a new moral fanaticism, directed, however, toward relatively insignificant issues. For many people, the major moral imperative is to recycle. Vegetarians and animal-rights activists debate among themselves the extent to which eating eggs and drinking milk are also acts of oppression. The crusade against tobacco has acquired a moral authority going beyond the crusades against drugs and alcohol. (A recent study concluded that marijuana is harmful because it can lead to tobacco.) Today's ascetics mortify their flesh in health clubs. Such acts of self-denial and social responsibility may be commendable, proof that the moral nervous system is not completely dead. But these new zealots, in tithing-or rather, eating-mint and cumin, are often neglecting the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23). They won't eat eggs, but they believe in abortion. They are against the humane society putting stray dogs to sleep, but they believe Dr. Kevorkian should be allowed to kill sick people. They subjugate their bodies with elaborate diets and excruciating exercises, but they will not control their sexual passions. These new moral absolutes may be demanding, but they are relatively easy to keep, leaving one's personal vices undisturbed. People today tend to be hypersensitive to any moral criticism, lashing out against any suggestion that there may be something morally wrong in their lifestyle or personality. In their conviction of their moral goodness, they angrily reject the possibility that they might be sinners. It all amounts to a new pharisaism. But this is self-righteousness without righteousness.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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