There has been an almost unavoidable historical trend in Christian theology that emerged from the Enlightenment: an overemphasis on questions of rightness, at the cost of our sight for goodness.
In ‘evicting’ God from the universe, or at least any orthodox sene of God in Christian faith, the emerging Enlightenment-scientific worldview replaced God with a pursuit of ‘truth.’ In pursuit of truth, the conception of truth began to be dominated by a conception of truth as representation. Our thoughts are true insofar as it rightly represented what was observed in the world. The critical question that began to direct and move thinking was questions of right and wrong: does our thinking rightly reflect the reality of things? Over time, this lead to the attempt of the Positivists to try create an account of a seamless connection between empirical experience and scientific beliefs to be able to right distinguish between all propositions, which they ultimately failed in.
As a cultural competitor for the hearts and imaginations of the people in Western Europe and, later, in the Americas, Christian theologians began to try to engage in the cultural fight on the same intellectual grounds of the Enlightenment: seeking to discern the right beliefs that match the reality. However, instead of ‘reality’ being the world around us, ‘reality’ was the Scriptures. The Scriptures were essentially the substitute for scientific ’empiricism,’ but beyond that, this brand of Christian thinking attempted to outdo the Enlightenment as its own game. While this way of thinking began to define Christian Fundamentalism, the predilection towards theological and exegetical ‘rightness’ has remained a hallmark of “conservative” Christianity in the West. This preoccupation with rightness has contributed to what is often perceived as the “heartlessness” of Christian doctrine and traditional ethics.
Meanwhile, the strands of the Christian tradition influence by this intellectual attitude became highly allergic to anything “post-modern” as ruining, in their minds, the foundations of truth. In making this comment, I don’t wish to contend that post-modern was a good thing wholesale. In a century or two, after the present say political hostilities have been replaced by new issues and historians look back on the “post-modernity,” whatever this label means, it is my guess that their opinion of this movement in the mid-to-late 20th century and what it gave birth to in the decades that followed had a decisively negative impact of social life, contributing to all sort of intellectual and political movements, on the right and left, that contributed to the violation of people, peace, and the environment through unleashing the unbridled forces of social emotions unhampered by any moral and intellectual framework, which providing the cultural space for the justifications of heightened economic expansionism, sexual objectification, rise of tribalism on the political right and left, etc. Nevertheless, despite my disdain for what I believe to have been catalyzed and enabled by “post-modernity,” the reasons that the conservative branches of Christianity objected to “post-modernity” should not be reduced to simply defending some sense of moral and intellectual order through a theological understanding of God: there was a deep aversion to addressing questions of ambiguity that comes when the very ways we have become so routinely accustomed to think through social reinforcement and praise becomes challenged. The legitimate concerns about the intellectual and ethical dangers of post-modernity largely distracted from attention the psychological aversion to challenge not necessarily one’s worldview, but the very way one’s intellectual imagination was considered to be legitimately and rightly understood to work. Post-modernity was an intellectual bomb that threatened to damage our conceptions of truth by radically challenging our cognitive habits by throwing our sense of right and wrong into disequilibrium.
Now that we in the West live in a society that has become a post-modern ‘dream’ even though the label “post-modern” has now become something cliche and most forgotten, conservative Christianity has not been able to escape this radical challenge to its sense of truth and knowledge.
As a consequence, discipleship among younger people who have been raised as children of post-modernity has becomes increasingly difficult. The intellectual concern about “rightness” that so easily predominates conservative Christianity has very little persuasive appeal to the new generations, who, echoing James K.A. Smith’s work in Desiring the Kingdom, have been trained by cultural liturgies that highlight our sense of our selves as emotional, desiring creatures. Who cares what is “right” or “wrong” according to something when it feels good or bad? A sense of goodness, motivates the younger generation’s sensibilities, however undeveloped an understanding of what the good is.
The sentiments of Luther Ingram’s classic 1972 song comes to mind as expressing: “If loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.” I would suggest that romance is a perfect metaphor for grasping what has happened in our modern world. Throughout history, there have been stories of love and romance that have been “forbidden” and “impossible.” Romantic love challenged the way the world understood conventions and customs of social class and obligations. Love challenged what was deemed to be “right” and “appropriate” in traditional societies. At the heart of romantic love is not so much about what is right or wrong, but desire and care, the sense of goodness of another person.
It it this sense of desire, care, and goodness that increasingly inspires and motivates people today, whereas duty, obligation, and rightness have increasingly less currency. However, whereas the convention-flouting nature of romantic love is typically limited to social status, class, and sex, the cultural shift of this West in this present-day has extended this sense of desire, care, and goodness to almost everything, with minimal concern about right or wrong, responsibilities and obligations, as these are readily perceived as simply means of “oppression,” especially by white males.
However, there is a value for rightness, duty, and obligation as these sort of virtues provide a sense of consistency that allows us to trust our families, our churches, our communities, our nation, etc. The rhetoric of rightness, duty, and obligation is still powerfully nostalgic for older generations because it generates a sense of trust and faithfulness that orderliness creates.
However, at the same time, such rhetoric often masked where the reality of wrongness, dereliction of duty, and failure to meet obligations when the victim was someone of lesser status or class. This is not to mention how those who have little recourse or influence are readily criticized for doing things wrong and piled up with various duties and obligations that others aren’t. For instance, just look at the level of criticism the poor received for being where they are, while they are met with repeated needs to justify their need. When rightness, duty, and obligation is generally held by all, it is a great good that allows people to trust each other and thrive without having to repeatedly turn a blind eye to all the false promises and broken dreams. But, when it is very selectively applied, even if the people applying it are largely ignorant of their selectivity, it can certainly be heard and experience as “oppression” as it deprives those who are burdened by bearing the brunt of such expectation of what they deem to be good while seeing others enjoy the same good.
My hope and dream, them, is to figure out how it is as Christians that we can bring back together a sense of goodness with a sense of rightness. The vision of God’s blessing the nations through Jesus Christ as Abraham’s descendants is first and primarily a statement about God’s goodness to the world. There is a need for concerns about rightness we it comes to Scriptural exegesis, as the storehouses of faith and wisdom for the Body of Christ, and also for theological orthodoxy, to recognize and hear the Christians voices of the past whose experiences have been disseminated into the tradition as fountains of awareness and insight. But rightness is subservient to goodness.
I had a dear friend who taught me and inspired me about this, even though I suspect she had no clue about where it would go at the time. I used to be inundated with a sense of ‘rightness’ in trying to get everything right and precise, but she taught me through her example and words that there is something better than being right. There are goods things in the world, and we need a sense of rightness to guide us to perceive and understand the goods things of this world that do not have a short-half life, but that they last and linger to bear blessings to many generations and, by the love and power of God, into eternity. Goodness without rightness will leave us lost into the throes of desires and emotions of the moment, whereas rightness without goodness will leave us blind to human life. However, a vision of goodness as pedagogically trained by a sense of rightness has potential for Christian thinking and teaching into the future. In this, God’s creation of human life with desire with the revelation of God’s Word to lead us in paths of righteousness come together to form our hearts and minds, to direct our desires and commitments, so that we can live out God’s vocation for us in being made in His image.