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MORAL BEAUTY IN A DARK WORLD
By Joseph Loconte
We live in an age which pretends that private morality—what we used to call virtue—is simply irrelevant to a healthy society. Good politics can easily be separated from good character.
According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, moderates are “not ultimately committed to an abstract idea” or philosophy or worldview. Moderates reject the concept of a moral God who governs the universe, because an attachment to ultimate beliefs about right and wrong breeds fanaticism. These “abstract ideas”—such as the ancient belief in a God who defends the widow and the orphan and the unborn—have no place in the mental outlook of the moderate.
This is a novel idea in the history of the We are informed that the moderate voter “distrusts passionate West. “It is not enough to possess moral intensity and bold simplicity” and instead “admires selfexcellence as a kind of skill, unless you restraint, intellectual openness and equipoise.” put it into practice,” wrote the Roman This moderate of liberal imagination is quite a specimen. statesman Cicero. “You can have a skill Evidently, there is nothing—absolutely America needs simply by knowing how to practice it, even nothing—occurring in the cozy, cushioned, if you never do; whereas moral excellence republican virtue. shrimp-and-chardonnay world of the is entirely a matter of practice. Its most Manhattan moderate that summons his important field of practice, moreover, is in the government of moral imagination, nothing that offends his conscience or a state…” provokes his outrage. Nothing except those people who make Cicero was an author beloved by the American Founders, who built upon his insights. None of the architects of the American experiment believed for a moment that it would survive without republican virtue: those moral beliefs and “habits of the heart” that make self-government possible. moral judgments. Staying Morally Neutral Rather, we are told, the moderate “has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind that way of life.” If we accept this view of the moderate, then no citizen, no lawmaker, no religious believer could ever act as a prophet in her society. She could never challenge “the way people live” or the “animating principle” of her culture—principles such as slavery, racism, eugenics, the sex trade, abortion, infanticide, honor killings, to name a few principles that have darkened societies in the past and continue to do so. No, in her infinite capacity for intellectual humility, she remains morally neutral. “Rather, the moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict,” Mr. Brooks intones, “keeping the
Joseph Loconte (Ph.D., University of London) is an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City, and author of The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt. This essay is based on his lecture at Colorado Christian University on Dec. 7, 2012. Centennial Institute sponsors research, events, and publications to enhance public understanding of the most important issues facing our state and nation. By proclaiming Truth, we aim to foster faith, family, and freedom, teach citizenship, and renew the spirit of 1776.
As Patrick Henry observed, “Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.” And none of the Founders, regardless of their personal religious beliefs, imagined that you could sustain virtue without religion—without Christianity. George Washington, in his farewell address, called morality and religion “the great pillars” of political prosperity. But these insights into the nature of democratic republics are widely ignored or rejected today, and we’re paying the price. The Dreaded Extremists The new conventional wisdom is that the greatest threat to American democracy is the person who believes that there are universal, transcendent truths, that these truths are embedded in human nature, and that they are meant to govern human life and human societies. The people who hold such views, people of faith, are now called extremists. The proper moral posture, we are told, is that of the moderate.
opposing sides balanced.” In the noncommittal world of the moderate, the highest good, it seems, is preserving the balanced status quo—no matter what it is. We are in danger of demeaning one of the most redemptive forces in a democratic society: individuals whose Christian convictions propel them into acts of protest, of service and heroic sacrifice for the common good. We are in danger of losing the capacity to honor people not for their celebrity status, but for their acts of decency, of humanity and courage. What Made Their Hearts Burn? We call this quality in people moral beauty. Healthy societies depend on citizens who can recognize moral beauty and who aspire to it in their own private and public lives. When we see this quality in others, even as spectators, we find that such experiences pry us loose from our preoccupations. They lift us out of ourselves.
the heavens. They practiced medicine. They produced art. They built institutions. They wrote laws. They freed slaves. They rescued the innocent from great harm. They stood against the dark currents of their culture. They stood before kings. Let’s consider three stories about such individuals. Francis the Peacemaker First, a story about a peacemaker. In Egypt in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade to recapture former Christian territories from Muslim armies, Francis, a Catholic friar from Assisi in Italy, crosses the battle lines during a temporary truce. Sultan al-Kamil, the ruler of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, agrees to meet with him. “I am sent by the most High God,” says Francis boldly, “to show you and your people the way of salvation by announcing to you the truths of the Gospel.”
This quality is what captured the imagination of of the Jesus movement, while they were on their way to a village called Emmaus, outside Jerusalem. We encounter these men in the gospel of Luke. They are engaged in an intense road to debate over the meaning of the death of Jesus the Nazarene. And then a stranger appears and walks along with them. The stranger, of course, is Jesus—the risen Christ—but they do not recognize him. He joins their conversation, and he begins to reveal to them an ancient story about God’s mission in our world: a Rescue Mission. When these two companions hear and understand this story for the first time, they are nearly overcome with joy. They exclaim: “Were not our hearts burning within us when he spoke with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” What happens to people when a vision of moral beauty gets hold of them? What does this other world look like in real life, in the lives of real men and women? The history of the West has been shaped profoundly by individuals who caught a glimpse of this vision: they dared bear witness to their faith before a skeptical and often hostile world. In doing so, they spoke truths into their society, often at its point of greatest need. They did not live passively in their culture, they created culture. They invented things. They studied
Trying to convert a Muslim is a crime punishable by death, so the friar is prepared for martyrdom. But al-Kamil finds himself deeply impressed, and invites Francis to stay with him. two members “If you and your people will accept the word Walk again the of God, I will with joy stay with you,” the fearless Christian replies.
“But if you yet waver between Christ and Muhammad, order a fire kindled and I will go into it with your priests, that you may see which is the true faith.” The sultan rejects the proposition and sends Francis, under guard, back to the crusader camp. To Francis of Assisi, it did not matter that both the society around him and even the church itself mocked his spirit of peaceful persuasion. His task was to be a peacemaker, no matter what the odds. Nightingale the Healer Next, a story of healing. At Istanbul in 1854, during the Crimean War, a team of women volunteers arrives to treat the wounded British soldiers. The head nurse—a headstrong, 34-year-old daughter of privilege—is Florence Nightingale. What she finds almost defies description. Soldiers, untreated, lay dying not only from their wounds, but from typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. Nightingale gets to work immediately, establishing sanitation, obtaining medicines, making ward rounds. What caused Florence Nightingale, a woman born into an upper-class British family, to leave behind a life of ease and hurl herself into a swamp of human misery? An entry in her
CENTENNIAL REVIEW is published monthly by the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University. The authors’ views are not necessarily those of CCU. Designer, Danielle Hull. Illustrator, Benjamin Hummel. Subscriptions free upon request. Write to: Centennial Institute, 8787 W. Alameda Ave., Lakewood, CO 80226. Call 800.44.FAITH. Or visit us online at www.CentennialCCU.org. Please join the Centennial Institute today. As a Centennial donor, you can help us restore America’s moral core and prepare tomorrow’s leaders. Your gift is tax-deductible. Please use the envelope provided. Thank you for your support. - John Andrews, Director
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journal offers a partial answer: “God called me in the morning and asked me, would I do good for him alone without reputation.” With that voice speaking into her conscience, Florence Nightingale redefined her vocation. By her labors, she elevated the role of the nurse in modern medicine; she dignified it. She would not rest while others were in need. In the army barracks at Istanbul, she could be seen on her feet for 20 hours at a stretch. They called her “the Lady with the Lamp.” Churchill the Lion Finally, a story about courage. In September 1938, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy gather at Munich to dismember Czechoslovakia. Adolph Hitler pledges that “this is the last territorial claim I have to make in Europe.” British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returns to London waving his paper agreement with Hitler and declaring “peace for our time.” He is hailed by the press, a grateful nation, and equally thankful allies. But one man in Parliament is not thankful. One man believes that his nation’s leaders have made an idol out of peace, and that they have sacrificed justice on the altar of a false god. “We have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat,” Winston Churchill tells the House of Commons. Things will only get worse for the democracies, he warns, “unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”
Christ at Emmaus, Rembrandt, 1654
Ultimately, under the leadership of Winston Churchill, Great Britain did stand against the monstrous tyranny of Nazi Germany and prevail. His supreme He has worked behind the scenes of history, God went on a deep within human culture and society— statesmanship and moral courage saved civilization from a hopeless future of racist darkness and to rescue mission. incognito—to overcome thefrom a desperate barbarism. “I owe you what every Englishman, redeem the human race woman, and child does,” wrote his daughter Mary to Churchill tragedy of its own making. after the war. “Liberty itself.” Philosopher Dallas Willard calls it the divine conspiracy. In A Divine Conspiracy When we encounter stories like this, what goes on inside our hearts and minds? We’re drawn to these individuals, aren’t we, and to everything they represent. Why? We are getting closer to understanding what has seized the imagination of these men on the Emmaus road. When Jesus the Teacher walked among these men during his earthly ministry, they were captivated by his description of the kingdom of heaven and the promise of Israel restored. Now their attention is drawn not simply to Israel, not to a new political community, not even to God’s kingdom, but to a person—the Messiah. It is to him that the stranger has directed their minds, and they are nearly overcome with joy. What has he told them? He has told them a story about peacemaking, about healing, about courage: all the elements some ways it is like other conspiracies that have appeared in history. It has inspired magnificent heroism, as well as wretched betrayals. It has sparked wars and created exiles. In its cause it has deployed spies and assassins, soldiers and clerks, mothers and prostitutes. The steadfast march of its purpose has toppled kings and determined the fate of nations. Restless Longing And yet the consummation of this conspiracy depends not on the will of powerful men, but on the appearance of a helpless baby, born to a poor Jewish girl in a cramped stable on a cold night, a night as quiet as falling snow. We know Him as the Good Shepherd, the Great Physician, the Prince of Peace, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Alpha and Omega, the Hope of all the ends of the earth. Much of the history of the West—the history of the world, for that
are here, in this biblical story, this vision of moral beauty. An ancient mystery has been revealed: how a world of breathtaking beauty fell into darkness and ruin because of human selfishness. But God, compelled by his great love, went on a rescue mission.
Centennial Review, February 2013 ▪ 3
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Moral Beauty in a Dark World
By Joseph Loconte Can a good society exist without good character? The moderate tendency, exalting tolerance above all, believes it can. Adherents of moral truth are called extremists for believing it cannot. Yet the moral beauty of such heroes as St. Francis, Florence Nightingale, Churchill, Luther— and above all of Jesus, King of Kings— continues to draw us irresistibly.
matter—can be explained by our restless longing to live in a world governed by this King of Kings, in a kingdom defined by peace, justice, mercy, and love. Contrary to liberal delusions, no leap forward toward a more just and virtuous society was ever brought about by people lacking moral and religious convictions. Moderates and moral agnostics don’t move the world. They never have and they never will.
What’s Really Reasonable? We seem to be entering such a period in the West. The followers of Jesus are called to resist the designs of the Evil One: We are asked to embrace this story about God’s rescue mission in our world, to love the Light and to reject the Darkness, to join with others as we answer the Great Calling on our lives.
What will it be for us, ladies and gentlemen? Should we We are asked follow the Nazarene, or should we become If we hope to bear witness to the truths of “moderate” and “reasonable” people as the the gospel in our generation, for the sake of to love the Light. world defines these terms for us? our neighbors and our nation, then we must “There are only two classes of persons who choose sides in this battle for hearts and minds. Moderation can be called reasonable,” wrote the philosopher Pascal, “those and neutrality are not options, for both involve a retreat from who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, responsibility. Both would allow the dark forces of this world and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do to gain ground. not know Him.” “I agree with Dante,” wrote the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Martin Luther was shockingly unreasonable by the world’s standards. “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise,” he told his interrogators at Worms in 1521. It was a declaration that would shame the spiritual lethargy of the medieval Church, rock the social and political foundations of Europe, and alter the course of the West like no other utterance since the Sermon on the Mount. Yet Luther later insisted: “I did nothing; the Word [of God] did everything.” Whatever task we undertake in faith, let the Word of God guide us and sustain us: the Word who became flesh and blood among us, the Word who died on a cross to reconcile us to God, to heal the sickness in our souls, to set the prisoners free. ■
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Colorado Premiere of a New PBS Documentary With guest speaker Donald P. Hodel
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Centennial Review, February 2013 ▪ 4
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