More than six decades ago, the philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) saw contemporary society as in the grip of a peculiar paradox. On the one hand, there was widespread disbelief in objective truth; on the other hand, a fawning credulity in regards to all things scientific. Von Hildebrand described it in this way, in an essay called The New Tower of Babel:
One of the most striking symptoms of the attempt to deny our creaturehood is betrayed in the position that many men take today toward knowledge. Here we are confronted with a peculiar contradiction: on the one hand, the ordinary philosophy of relativism affirms as a self-evident fact that there is no objective truth. On the other hand, science is set up as a fetish. On the one hand, objective truth is radically denied; on the other hand, science is accepted as an undisputed authority. It seems as if the resentment against metaphysics has reached a stage of such violence that men are willing to accept everything as true from a teacher who has officially denied the possibility of attaining objective truth as such. Patently, the rebellion against truth is primarily a rebellion against philosophical truth, against truth in the field of ethics, of metaphysics, of epistemology. It is the hatred of absolute truth, culminating in the hatred of supernatural truth. Those who do so, however, do not realize that in denying objective truth in general, that in denying the validity of the first principles, they have undermined science as well If there exists no objective truth, if it is impossible to make any valid statement, science also is a meaningless, empty intellectual game, and we can expect from science neither any solution to practical problems nor any information. The reasoning of these peoples seems to be based on a crass contradiction: that science has proved that there is no objective truth.
Note that von Hildebrand saw this paradox as rooted in man’s refusal to accept his “creaturehood.” Von Hildebrand elaborated on that idea by saying that modern man
wants to be himself the source of all authority in community life. His is no longer the conception of democracy which provides that the individual shall be free to determine the structure and the laws of community life according to the objective norms of right and wrong, in which freedom consists in the fact that one is called to co-operate in finding what is objectively right. His concept of democracy means rather that the majority arbitrarily decides what is right and wrong, that the arbitrary will of the individual is the very source of right and wrong. In other words, the arbitrary will of the individual replaces here the objective norm. Instead of believe that there is a chance that the majority of men will choose that which is objectively right, right independently of their will, this modern man believes that their arbitrary decision makes a law right and legitimate.
Whether or not that was a fair description of society in the 1950s, it certainly strikes me as a prescient description of society in the 2010s.
Consider just a few examples. First, there’s still widespread belief in relativism and widespread rejection of objective truth. In its more limited form, there’s moral relativism (which rejects objective moral truth), but this rejection goes well beyond this. Indeed, the a plurality on the Supreme Court, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey described liberty in this way:
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. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.
So “the heart of liberty” is my ability to be my own god, to create my own universe and give that universe (and the mystery of human life!) meaning… including giving meaning to my own life.
Let’s be clear about what that means. At the heart of any coherent theism is a belief that we are creatures, created by God or a Deity of some kind. That means that, while we may have expansive free will, we don’t create human nature. Rather, we are created with human nature. Human nature is a thing that we discover and that we experience, but not something that we invent. It’s only by accepting this framework that we can understand literally anything about the world around us. I think as a human, I desire as a human, I act as a human. The Supreme Court (or more accurately, a plurality on the Court, back in 1992) has declared that “the heart of liberty” involves the repudiation of this worldview. That’s about as explicit a rejection of creaturehood as possible.
And this rejection of creaturehood, this attempt to make man his own God, manifests itself in myriad other ways: the modern attempt to create new genders for oneself, to redefine and reinvent terms like “man,” “woman,” “sex,” “marriage,” “sin,” “religion,” “good,” “right,” “wrong,” “evil,” and so on. Closely tied to this is the idea (as von Hildebrand described) that we can create these new realities and new moralities simply by legislating them. In this view, marriage was simply something that human beings created (rather than a pre-social reality present in every single civilization on earth and dating back beyond the limits of human history) and are free to recreate. Morality is nothing more than what society or individuals say it is. Religion is either to be rejected, or to be indulged as a sort of opiate: if performing religious rites makes you feel better about yourself, or helps you to forget the grim reality of death, go ahead; otherwise, just sleep in on Sunday. But there’s no room for the Christian notion that the creature man has a debt of honor towards his glorious Creator
It’s in places like the transgender movement that this paradox — between credulous belief in science on the one hand, and rejection of objective truth on the other — rears its head in an obvious way. Scientists have long referred to male and female members of various species, not just humans. Society wants to agree with this, because … it’s science! But the transgender movement views this binary as oppressive to the individual’s right to self-determination and self-definition. And society wants to agree with this, too, because… it’s “the heart of liberty”!
Please understand that I’m singling out transgenderism simply because the logical absurdities are more readily apparent. Any number of other beliefs could have been chosen instead, from the feminist denial of differences between men and women (a denial that negates the possibility of transgenderism, incidentally) to the religious inclusivist idea that all religions teach basically the same thing (an idea which a great many of the religions deny, for what it’s worth). The only difference is that the contradictions latent within these views are often more subtle and harder to ferret out.
So what’s a Christian to do in the face of such a paradoxical society? I would suggest a few things. First, recognize these errors both as errors and as attempts to usurp the place of God. These aren’t harmless, minor errors. They’re attempts by the creature to give himself the role of Creator. Second, recognize that these beliefs are illogical and incoherent: that you can’t both deny objective truth and believe in science, for instance. Third, gently point these truths out. Most of the people who believe these contradictory and erroneous things believe them because (a) they’ve never thought deeply about the matter, and (b) almost everyone they respect has reinforced these false beliefs. Christianity provides a coherent worldview; modernity provides several incompatible and incoherent worldviews (although the incoherent and incompatibility of these worldviews might not be immediately clear to the person living in the midst of them).
Finally, live the truth in love. Worship God as your Creator. Recognize your own limitations and creaturehood. Be grateful to God for those gifts that He has given, and be humble in both those areas that you are particularly gifted and in those areas that you are not. Learn about the world around you, and explore it, rooted in the fact that objective truth really does exist. Pray and let God do the rest.