03.08.2015 Preaching Text: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
This past week I came across an essay by a professor in Colorado, Justin McBrayer, in the “Opinionator” section of the New York Times. The title caught my eye: Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.
McBrayer begins by pointing out that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. But why? Where is this view coming from?
While visiting his son’s 2nd grade open house, he reports seeing a bulletin board that read:
- Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
- Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes
Unsettled by this simplistic analysis, he investigated and found that these “rules” are based on Common Core standards used by a majority of K-12 programs throughout the country. Within the curriculum students are required to “distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.”
But a “fact,” he argues, can be true even if it can’t be proved. That there may be life on another planet may very well be true, though no one has as yet been able to prove it. Conversely, some things once thought “proved” have turned out false, such as that the earth is flat.
Worse still, he argues, statements are deemed as either facts or opinions, never both! As his son confidently reassures him, facts are things that are true whereas opinions are things that are believed!
But isn’t it possible to believe something that’s also a fact? Apparently not. This is, needless to say, a bit of a problem when considering religious and moral beliefs. For, as it is, all beliefs or value claims are labeled as “opinion.”
The following statements, for example, are deemed opinions in Common Core’s “fact vs. opinion” worksheet:
- Copying homework assignments is wrong
- Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior
- All men are created equal
The explanation given by Common Core is that each of these statements is a “value claim” and value claims are not facts! Any statement that includes the words “good, right, wrong, etc.,” McBrayer reports, “is not a fact,” but an “opinion.” No wonder, he concludes, more and more students don’t consider cheating to be wrong.
At the very least, this means that the content of today’s reading from Exodus of the “10 Commandments”must be understood as pure opinion (as opposed to fact). And, to state the obvious, an opinion is not something that cuts across the spectrum. It has nothing to do with objective meaning, in other words. Rather, it’s a purely subjective hypothesis, one that hardly demands universal acknowledgment much less obedience or compliance.
Now it may be that I’m just a curmudgeon who sees cultural decay everywhere, but I do think McBrayer’s essay ought to make us pause and reflect. If God’s law is simply a matter of personal opinion without any objective basis in fact, certain life-consequences are likely to follow.
If religious belief has no basis in fact, but is strictly a matter of personal, speculative opinion, that says something not only about religion but society. (This is not to say that everybody has to believe as I do, but to relegate religious belief to mere opinion cheapens it, at the very least.)
Even so, why do I go on about it? From the time I came here (and well before) one of the animating principles of my ministry has been to convince you that trusting the world is a tricky proposition.
On one level, I’m keenly aware that for many this message seems unrelievedly negative, depressing. To constantly hear about the waywardness of American culture is not exactly uplifting.
So why do I do it? In the book we read in our study group, Transforming Congregational Culture, author and pastor Tony Robinson points out a basic though largely unwelcome fact about the mainline Protestant church: that for most of its history we have relied on the cooperation and moral vitality of American culture. When most of us were growing up, American culture, as Martin Copenhaver cleverly puts it, metaphorically “tipped its hat” to the church.
As the recent actions of our town’s Cemetery Commission and Board of Selectmen illustrate, these days are over. No longer does the culture necessarily respect the church, but often acts in opposition to it.
Increasingly, the Christian values we long assumed were shared by the wider culture no longer hold sway (consider McBrayer’s essay). The spiritual, moral truths our faith deems fact are now optional opinions we may or may not ascribe to or live by.
So the “method to my madness” is the attempt to disabuse the mainline church of its cozy relationship with the culture. This means, as Robinson points out, no longer relying on the culture to teach Christian values and mores. It is we who must do it.
At the very least, this suggests we have an important role to play in our culture and world: to be the custodians of God’s truth, to strengthen ourselves in and through it, to live our lives accordingly, while sharing the “Good News” with sensitivity and love.
Part of the reason for the mainline church’s current malaise, as I see it, is that we no longer think we have much of a mission. For it only stands to reason that if we think the culture is doing our job already, that leaves very little for us to do!
So the strategy I’ve employed throughout my entire ordained ministry is to help the church see that its future is not to be found in adapting to the culture (which is moving further and further away from us), but by reinvigorating the church’s inner life.
We are told that Christians (and the church) are “in the world but not of it.” This is of central importance, and maintaining this balance is as crucial as it is difficult.
Which is to say that churches either tend to lapse into being “in the world,” as they chase after the latest cultural or intellectual fad, or, at the opposite extreme, they deny that they are in the world as they pursue the idea of being “not of it.” The former is the tendency of the mainline churches (including, perhaps especially, the U.C.C.) and the latter is the approach often taken by our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters.
To walk a fine line between the two opposites in adopting a meaningful and realistic approach is, as I see it, our number one challenge. While we need to remain engaged with the culture, we must also simultaneously reclaim our biblical mandate to engage the culture from a uniquely Christian stance.
In 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul declares that God has made “foolish the wisdom of the world” and that the world does not know God through its “wisdom.” (N.B., Common Core’s understanding of religious and moral valuation.) Only the “foolishness” of the cross (and all that that entails) insures salvation for us and for our world.
The challenge – and opportunity – the mainline church faces today is to reclaim its godly mandate to be the church of Jesus Christ, and in this find it true meaning and purpose. Amen.