The modern era has been a time of rich progress. It has been a time of scientific and economic breakthroughs and increasing visions for more and more liberty on personal and political fronts. Yet most of us sense that all is not well in our contemporary world order. Our values, visions, tastes, desires, and longings are all clashing against one another with a tremendous cost in civility, uncertainty, and angst about our wellbeing and future. A number of years back, the scholar Alisdair McIntyre sought to address the competing moral conversations and approaches in our time in his book “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?” His conclusion was that in the public square we have arrived at a place of incommensurable demands and conversations that actually cannot be resolved because the principles involved and the methods employed cannot lead to shared outcomes.
This is certainly a sobering thought and not one to bring a burst of enthusiasm or hope on our early morning reflections. Most of us would contend that we want to view time and history realistically. But what does that look like? Who decides what is realistic? For the Christian, we do so in light of God’s sovereign oversight and rule, in light of God’s word and the nature of reality, and in light of the work of Christ, and in the ongoing work on the Spirit in history. We also take note of what real decisions have been wrought by real people in real space and time, and the consequences of those accumulated ideas and decisions on all we face today. The “inheritance,” if you like, our earlier commitments or rejection of things that were seen as hindrances to personal or societal progress have costs and consequences.
I think here of the intense focus on values and on what one sees as personal rights—such as the quest and pursuit of identity, where this pursuit becomes an absolute and a stance that all must respect. In this quest, the individual is elevated as the sum of all goods and the choice as intensely personal, inviolable, and supreme. With such a personalized value and vision statement operating in many hearts and minds, the idea of compromise, the common good, or any serious validity to views that differ or conflict with mine becomes an anathema. The other is made entirely irrelevant, sacrificed at the altar of self. Reflecting on various versions of how I should “look out for number one” as a means of being serious about my vision and rights, I cannot help but hear a new religious creed: If any man or woman would succeed, let them pursue their passion, take up their cause, and follow their deepest self.
In such a world, everything becomes a simple dialectic of win or lose. Life is easily managed and understood in binary terms for those who adopt this approach. Who is right and who is wrong? Who is good and who is bad? Those who agree are welcomed and those who don’t are vilified. The costs and consequences of this kind of thinking are vast. As a society, we lack any shared philosophical basis to even process the questions. The psychological cost mounts as various extreme views lead the way and fuel deep sadness at the tone and style of interactions. The social price is seen in polarization and fragmentation all too readily confirmed in the hyper-vocal media. The political cost is equally plain to see and painful to admit.
But the gospel invites a contrast in imagination. For the centrality and supremacy of love for God and love for neighbor are clear in the teaching of Jesus whose love is costly and sacrificial. Jesus takes the notion of the common good, the other, and grace itself very seriously. The love of God is both an alternative and an antidote to the strident self-centeredness and selfishness that is fostered by our culture. It is a love that cares, that shows compassion, that reaches out, and yes, that stands for truth while being willing to bear the cost vulnerably. The birth, life, and example of Jesus gives us much to reflect on.
This is a call to renunciation that hits us all at the deepest level but it is also one which would have a serious impact on our own lives and those around us if it were to be embodied faithfully. Am I willing to love others with such a cost involved? Am I willing to deny my right to be right, to win, or to dominate? When in doubt, I turn my gaze to the one who so loved this world that he stepped into it not as a conqueror, but as a vulnerable child. The coming of Christ as an infant in Bethlehem is not just an event or a symbol, it is an invitation to a new way of being.
Stuart McAllister is regional director for the Americas at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.