In America, we have entered “pride month,” yet another season in the liturgical calendar of secular progressivism. Many segments of our society—mainstream media, major industries, professional sports, and even various religious groups—have chosen to celebrate pride month with varying degrees of success.
Meanwhile, opposing voices in the conservative world pursue worthy but ultimately very narrow goals like parental rights or an end to child-grooming. Such battles are good as far as they go, they require a certain amount of courage, and they seem to be achieving some legal victories.
But as is always the case, and as this website repeatedly asserts in its articles, any specific cultural manifestation of evil must be engaged at the level of fundamental philosophical ideas. To paraphrase St. Paul, we must demolish the strongholds of arguments and opinions raised up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Unfortunately, many in the conservative camp who operate at the level of philosophical ideas are attacking the wrong ideas.
For example, Carl Trueman’s recent work argues that the culprit behind much of today’s moral decline is none other than Western individualism. In a similar vein, Patrick Deneen argues that the current degeneration of our culture is the logical result of Lockean classical liberalism itself. In other words, the very ideas at the heart of America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution are openly called into question and blamed for such disastrous consequences as “pride month.”[i]
A more philosophically convincing argument is made by Robert R. Reilly, an author and former diplomat, who roots the sexual revolution in the irrational, subjective emotionalism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In my view, this argument is stronger precisely because it roots the problem in a deeper epistemological tenet: Rousseau’s irrationalism.[ii] Jacob Brunton and Cody Libolt of FTNCI take the same deeper, epistemological approach in their astute observation that presuppositionalists and woke leftists of all kinds are ultimately brothers-in-spirit. I applaud Brunton and Libolt’s merciless attacks on presuppositionalism and their staunch defense of classical apologetics.[iii]
The purpose of this article is to join this conversation and strike at another fundamental idea—an idea even older than Rousseau and presup—which, I believe, underlies the moral rot that we see around us in our culture. That idea is voluntarism.[iv]
Throughout the centuries, classical Christian thought held that God, in His eternal nature, is good. Goodness corresponds to His being, His nature, and He only wills that which is in accord with His own nature. He wills things because they are good, because they conform to His character. He cannot will or command what is not good, because to do so would violate His Divine Person. For example, God can never declare falsehood to be morally right, because God is truth in His very nature. In this view, the Law or commands of God (whether revealed in Scripture or in nature) are eternal reflections of God’s character and the eternal standard of truth and goodness.
In the late Middle Ages, William of Ockham (1287-1347) and John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) came along and challenged this view. In the minds of these thinkers, preserving God’s sovereign freedom was more important than articulating His eternal nature. God’s will and freedom are what is most important about Him (rather than His nature and attributes like truth or holiness). Therefore, God does not command what is necessarily good according to His nature, but merely what He has decided is good…and if He so willed, He could have created an entirely different moral universe. Why? Because His freedom is such that He is unbound by His own nature.[v]
Consider the logical consequence of this idea. If God’s essential attribute is his free will, unbound by His own Divine nature, and if humans are made in God’s image, then our essential attribute is our free will, unbound by our human nature. A confessing Christian in this camp might retort that our wills are bound by God’s will, so voluntarism doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the kind of moral decay exemplified by pride month.
But it does open the door to the belief that “the Good” is merely what is willed, not what is real and true. If the Good is not bound by reality and truth, then it doesn’t take much of a stretch to get where we are today: An increasing percentage of people, unmoored by any connection to biological reality, claim the absolute “freedom” to declare themselves to be one of many gender identities. They claim their freedom to declare “my reality” and “my truth,” regardless of its correspondence to any facts outside their own consciousness. They take Descartes’ nonsensical statement to its logical conclusion: They wish, therefore, they are. And their wish is their command to the rest of us: a command for unconditional acceptance and approval.
In short, what we see in today’s moral mess is individual human beings living out the image of their god: the modern god of voluntarism. It is an image of the primacy of the will over that of reason. It is an image of a god whose nature, character, and eternal Law are (at best) up for grabs, precisely because they are (at best) secondary concerns.
To fight the moral confusion of our day requires more than occasional crusades over specific, concrete legal issues like who gets to use which bathroom or what gets taught to my eight-year-old in school (as important as those legal crusades may be). It requires more than boycotting specific companies like Target or Anheuser-Busch. It requires fighting the deeply irrational and unbiblical ideas that have slowly been taking hold in our culture and institutions for generations, even centuries, and whose consequences we are now experiencing.
We must fight for the truth that God has an eternal nature, an eternal character, that is Good…and that His revelation to us (in nature and in Scripture) is good because it corresponds to His real goodness…not just because He wills it.
Jeffrey KahlJeff holds a B.A. degree in history and political science from Ashland University and an M.Div. from Ashland Theological Seminary. He’s a full time pastor and part time scholar. Like C. S. Lewis, he considers himself “a converted pagan living among apostate puritans.”.”
[i] Carl A. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020); Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019). While both books contain some useful insights and analyses, their understanding and critique of American liberalism and individualism are wrong on both historical and philosophical grounds. For an excellent historical vindication of America’s founding as a moral event, read C. Bradley Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It (New York: Encounter, 2019). For a purely philosophical defense of the connection between morality and classical liberalism, read Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl, Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1991).
[ii] Robert R. Reilly, Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2014). Reilly’s basic contention is that Rousseau rejects the teleological view of nature, sex, and the human person as propounded in the reason-based philosophy of Aristotle. He argues that the proponents of the sexual revolution have exchanged authentic reason for “rationalizing;” hence, their incessant need not just for tolerance of their behavior, but for affirmation of their identities.
[iii] See, for example, Jacob Brunton, The Fight Against Presuppositionalism: Why Does It Matter? Accessed June 6, 2023. https://christianintellectual.com/presupp-consequences/
[iv] The question of voluntarism has its origins in what philosophers often call the Euthyphro Problem: the question raised in Plato’s Euthyphro in which Socrates asks if something is good because the gods will it, or if the gods will something because it is good.
[v] For a brief introduction to voluntarism, see Frederick Copleston, S. J., A History of Philosophy Volume II: Medieval Philosophy from Augustine to Duns Scotus (New York: Doubleday, 1950), pp. 529-544; Jordan Cooper, In Defense of the True, the Good & the Beautiful: On the Loss of Transcendence and the Decline of the West (Ithaca, NY: Just and Sinner, 2021), pp. 98-102.
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