Last time we talked about how the Bible is a more reliable source of self-identification than one’s culture.
When we define ourselves based on our desires rather than on something as unchanging as the Word of God we’re either being dishonest or unaware of how our current culture affects our sense of who we think we are. For example when someone today says: “I have same sex desires, therefore that’s who I am. I’m gay.” Keller, using the same two issues above (turn the other cheek and homosexuality), proposes the following contrasting scenario.
Take an Anglo Saxon warrior from the shame and honor culture in the year AD 1200. This particular warrior has two strong impulses. The first is to kill people who are a threat to him. His culture says that might is right! The man with the bloodiest sword is the best man in the territory. To be aggressive is to survive. So when he has the urge inside to cut off the heads of his enemies and display them on stakes he’s acting in such a way that his culture applauds. He self-identifies as a man of honor. “That’s me. That’s who I am. I’m a warrior!”
This same man also experiences a same sex attraction. What’s he do with it? What can he do with it but immediately reject it? It’s contrary to his cultural mores. “That’s not me!” he says to himself. “I don’t know where that came from, but that’s not who I am!” He abandons the idea that this is who he is. He’s a warrior who dominates his enemies and feels right about it on the one hand and yet subjugates his same sex desires on the other.
Time travel to 2016 to a San Francisco man who has the same two impulses well up in him. When people get in his way at work or on the freeway he feels aggression and wants to hurt them. Not only would it be illegal, but it’s not how we roll in civilized society and so he says to himself, “That’s not the real me. It’s not who I am!” Based on his surrounding culture he rejects violent retaliation against his enemies and he signs up for an anger management class.
The same man looks inside and feels same sex attraction. Based on what his surrounding culture tells him he might come to the conclusion, “That’s who I am. I’ve been wondering who I am all my life and I’ve finally found it. I’m gay.” Based on his feelings and the cultural air he breathes, he refuses to self-identify as a brawler but accepts his identity as gay.*
Two people in two different cultures with same two inner impulses, aggression and same sex attraction come to opposite conclusions about how to self-identify. Why? Because each sifts his impulses through his cultural grid and as a result, tends to reject some aspects of what he feels and accept others. Both of them experienced inner impulses, but they have the choice to follow or reject them based on their culturally informed conscience. The interesting thing is they come to opposite conclusions about how they self-identify.
*Please excuse my crass oversimplification of any one individual’s predisposition toward either violence or same sex orientation. I intend no comparative value judgment of these as though when acted on these are equally deleterious in society. I single out these two not only because Keller did, but because they permeate the current national conversation and strike a chord in people who look to the Bible as their standard for behavior.
Plus, I mean no simplistic, “Just Say No!” to either of these, or any other, soul damaging inclination. How one actually swims upstream against their culture’s current is another topic altogether. My point is to remind us to look to the timeless Book for which direction God’s current flows.
Where does the conscience fit in?
Where does our conscience come from and where does it get its information? How is it formed and informed?
The conscience is installed by the Creator as part of our essential equipment and through it we experience divine promptings toward the right and away from the wrong. It might be thought of as a sort of homing device or a compass that God surgically implanted in each of us at birth that tells us if we’re going the right direction or not. C.S. Lewis called the conscience “inside information” about God, “The Law of Decent Behavior.”
The problem is, the conscience is not a perfect rule of thumb because, like a computer, it’s affected by how it’s programmed. It’s subject to viruses, which can skew or even silence it. It can be drowned out by louder voices and by soul damaging vices. It can also be misinformed by other influences, including the influence of culture. How else could thousands in the South, in “good conscience” own slaves or terrorists behead their enemies? The conscience, like our car GPS, can only lead us in the right direction if we can hear it over the traffic noise from the outside or the music on the inside. Then, of course, even if we do manage to hear it correctly we only arrive at our intended destination if we steer ourselves in the course it recommends.
Each of the hypothetical men mentioned above had his own cultural moral grid through which he measured and identified himself. They were both willing to let their culture influence them in their determination of right from wrong. Of course, it was still their prerogative to choose whether or not to identify with one or another inclination.
If we could put these two men in the same room to discuss their respective reactions to their desires they would each consider the other to be the one needing to be liberated from their repressive value systems.
All of this adds up to why we I think we need something outside of us, something beyond us, to inform our conscience and show us who we are and how to live in our culture in the best way possible. Otherwise, as much as we might feel like liberated 21st century people, we’re – more than we realize – the product of a secular humanistic world system and a misinformed conscience. The Creator provided us with a Book of values that span the ages and apply to every time, culture, and race. We would be advised to take it seriously.
“Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.” Romans 12:2 (The Message)
I’d love to hear your thoughts…