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Monday, January 16, 2017

The Force Farce

Yesterday we were talking about the charge made by so many non-Christians today that we are guilty of “forcing” our views on them.

At first blush, the charge seemed ridiculous. After all, Christians represent absolutely no threat of physical or political violence: even to imagine that is just paranoid, and completely misunderstands the fundamental necessity of faith. Moreover, Christians may sometimes choose to absent themselves from participating in or approving of worldly values, activities or lifestyles because of conscience, but that represents no threat of force: it’s simply a matter of personal conscience — the very thing that world is at pains to affirm.

So where does the charge of “force” come from?

Our conclusion yesterday was that it is actually a metaphor, a declaration that the declarer has experienced a kind of violent encounter with the objective truth of the gospel. And whenever that is the case, it is not a thing for which we Christians should ever be ashamed; it’s the power of the gospel at work. Rather, we ought to celebrate the fact that our message IS a message of power, one capable of forcing a lost soul to seek God.

Now, that doesn’t mean that being forced to a realization is pleasant. How much easier our world would be if it were! How much happier might we be if our encounters with reality always felt better than our illusions! But they don’t. Most of the time, our illusions feel happier than truth … at least at first.

Forced Out

“If only I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” How many times have you heard — or felt — such a sentiment? Disillusionment, we call it. It’s not a happy experience. The friend you always trusted has betrayed you. Your spouse has taken a lover. It’s not just a lump, it’s a tumor. I won’t make the NHL. My co-workers are just plain better than I am. My investments have bombed. I can’t beat the bottle …

Reality hits us sometimes, and it hits us with real force. We’re just not going to be able to carry on with life as we used to know it, with the happiness and hopes that mode of life held for us; things are going to have to be remade … and often, it’s going to hurt. And in that sense, do Christians “force” things on people?

Sure they do. All the time. Guilty, as charged.

Force, Manners and Messages

Now, it’s only fair to admit that sometimes the force is more perceptible in our manner than in our message. It’s true that we can be quite tactless and blunt at times. We can be guilty of providing the truth without “gentleness and respect”. But to complain of manner is really superficial: the important question is surely whether or not the message is true. Especially if the message is urgent, imperative and important, the primary thing is that it gets delivered — not that it is pitched diplomatically.

If my house is really burning, I’m a fool to be concerned if you yell at me to “Get out!” It’s just what I need, no matter how abrupt you’re being.

And as we say yesterday, the real force of the Christian message comes not from its manner but from its ultimate conformity to the truth. It’s the way things really are. It’s how things are going to be, regardless of whether or not you’re ready to hear it. It’s how things will always be, and how you need to know they are. We can’t “force” anybody to believe it.

Reality will do that.

After all, it’s the truth.

But yep, it will feel like we’re forcing you to something. In that way, the metaphor is perfectly just.

Force Today

Increasingly, we live in a land of illusions — pleasant illusions. Neil Postman famously claimed we’re all “amusing ourselves to death”. Rather blunt, that; but not entirely wrong. Never has any society possessed so many ways of keeping itself from thinking about reality, or from facing the truth. In Postman’s day, it was just the radio, the TV, movies and a few rudimentary video games that could concern him. The internet was in its infancy, cell phones were really unknown. He could not possibly have foreseen our Netflix-ing, Wifi-ing, cell-phoning, tablet-toting social-networking situation, far less the things that are only now in their infancy: virtual reality, delivery drones, cyber-glasses and self-driving cars. But already he could see the direction we were heading, with more and more distractions and fewer incentives to keep our feet securely grounded in reality.

He wasn’t wrong about the outcome, either: failure to engage reality is a kind of early death.

With our many modes and means of entertaining ourselves has come an increasingly expansive and unfocused kind of postmodern consciousness. We spend more and more time on things that have only cyber-significance, and which really have nothing to do with who we actually are and the situations in which we are actually found.

We don’t know life. But boy, do we know how to Facebook.

Opposing Forces

Part of the perception of “force”, then, is a result of this simple fact: that Christians talk about objective reality, whereas the average person today prefers a comforting, subjective delusion. To “force” them out of their comfort zone is perceived — with some justification — as a kind of violence. But two other factors deserve brief mention, one sociological and one philosophical.

Sociologically, we are a pluralist society. We live in a place that shows us many different cultures, religions, ideologies, moral choices and lifestyles. To keep us all happy together, the powers-that-be in education, politics and the media work assiduously to convince us that omni-tolerance is a virtue, and the claim that there is any one truth about anything is exclusive, evil, prejudicial, narrow and mean-spirited. We listen, we learn, and we become accustomed to jumping on cue: things sound “sexist”, “racist”, “intolerant” or “unfair” even before they are. A heavy political correctness hangs over all public discourse.

However, Christianity is exclusive of some of the ways some people want to life. It’s not impossible — or even logically difficult — to be a Christian Indian, Korean, Arab or Jew; but Christianity has absolutely no place for things like moral relativism, sexual deviance or infanticide. Those lifestyle “options”, so happily embraced by our society, are not things with which Christianity can have commerce. And our rejection of them is experienced as a forcing of our moral perspective on other people.

Now, philosophically, we find another factor. Descending from Friedrich Nietzsche and his demented disciples, most notably Michel Foucault, we discover an additional element of the present puzzle. These essentially-nihilistic, atheist philosophers developed a description of the world that interprets all ideologies, beliefs and religions with power. The thinking goes like this: nobody knows what’s really true or not. But everybody argues. What everybody wants, really, is just to control other people. That’s the great secret: all ideology just hides “the Will to Power”, as Nietzsche put it. And Christianity and Judaism (which Nietzsche hated with special passion) are also merely schemes by which Christians or Jews try to make the world obey their wills. And this, if true, would justify a feeling that Christians were “forcing” their views on people, with the additional insight that they were doing so out of mere self-interest and in order to gain power for themselves.

This philosophy is not something most ordinary people would consider. But their teachers and professors certainly do. Our modern Social Science and Education departments are absolutely lousy with it, and it explains the current rise of anti-intellectualism, political correctness, suppression of ideas and strident self-advocacy on our university campuses. If all beliefs are simply “teams” competing for power, and in the absence of any arbitrating truth, then none of these is worthy of serious attention more than any other, none has a real right to rule, and the only way to “speak” is by yelling or whining louder than the competitors. “Force” is all there really is: everybody is “forcing” his or her view on everybody else, with no legitimate way of resolving who is telling the truth and who is not.

Now, the problems with this philosophical perspective are many, but I’ll let Susan Neiman sum them up. She says they’re pretty childish, and quite unworthy of an adult mind. She writes:
“If you’ve witnessed much of this sort of unmasking, you may agree with British philosopher Bernard Williams that it soon becomes immensely boring, and explains very little: claims that knowledge is reducible to power cannot even ‘explain the difference between listening to someone and being hit by them.’ ”
In other words, if you think that encountering someone with a new point of view is an act of violence or force, you’re just thinking like an adolescent. Adolescents often have issues with authority, and frequently can’t really yet sort things out for themselves; so they tend to perceive every challenge to their prejudices as nothing but a power-move. But I think you’ll see that the analogy with Nietzsche et al is certainly not very flattering.

Feeling the Force

In all these ways, then — experientially, socially and philosophically — when the world tells us Christians that we are “forcing” our views on other people, they are responding to a deeply-felt intuition. There is much in the world today to induce them to believe you could not possibly be doing anyone a favour by persuading them to accept any single view of anything — even if what you are trying to do is to save their soul from a lost eternity or convince them not to reject the love of God.

Whatever you say, you will be bound to hear the charge, “You’re forcing your views on me”. And you’re likely to feel the sting of the charge, since it echoes from the very same ethos in which you yourself were raised, and reflects values and experiences into which you yourself may even have been fully propagandized.

So what do we make of this? Well ...

Point One: Suck it up, Charlie!

That’s what it takes to be a Christian. “If they hated me,” said the Lord, “they will hate you too: the servant is not greater than the master.” They hated him without a cause — one thing you could never say about the Lord was that he was a hypocrite. Not even the people of his own town could accuse him of a sin, and his own mother had never seen him, even as a child, do anything that was not consistent with his Father’s will. Yet the world hated him. Don’t think they’re going to love you for preaching a truth to which even you cannot yet quite live up. But whether or not you can come up to it, it will still be true. Stand for the truth.

Point Two: Your society claims not to believe in it, but don’t stop believing in and preaching the objective truth.

Relativism is, after all, self-defeating. All you have to ask in order to know that is, “Is relativism true?” If it’s not, then the relativist is a self-confessed liar; if it is true, then IT must be the one objective truth … which then means objective truth does exist, despite relativism’s claim it cannot! So relativism cannot be made coherent.

But more importantly, do it because God tells us to. Paul says to Timothy:
“Preach the word … reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.”
He even invokes a sort of powerful oath to commission Timothy: I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom,” he says. Wow.

But even more interest is WHY Paul is so urgent in commissioning him:
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”
In other words, it’s precisely because the days are confused and relativistic that the message of truth must be all the more forcefully proclaimed.

But how to proclaim it?

Point Three: Keep it gentle and respectful.

Knowing as we do that modern people are sensitive about truth, we need to be gracious, both in our manner and in our personal lifestyles, so as to enhance the power of our gospel. True, there’s a time for thunder and lightning; but that time is rare. More often, the quiet confidence of a godly presentation reaches hearts more effectively. Being gentle and respectful puts responsibility back on our plate for living what we preach. Let’s hear the word of God speaking to us on that.

Point Four: Finally, no compromise.

Gentleness and respect are about manner and timing, but never about message. The message is always the truth, unvarnished, unaltered, uncorrupted. One of the hardest things to do is to remain unyielding while also trying to be calm and kind. The natural urge of the fighter is to fight; but the natural urge of the pleaser is to please, even if pleasing means selling out the truth. By God’s grace, we need to strike the balance between manner and message, and hold it.

A final danger is the danger of not speaking at all; of letting people not realize what we believe, and of declining to take a stand, even when asked. God keep us from that, because whether we feel it or not, it’s actually no less evil than twisting the truth to please the masses.

Full Force

Christians do not force their views on other people in any literal way. They cannot, if they wish to remain faithful to the gospel. And in standing on their own consciences, they are not forcing anyone else to do anything, despite the whining of those whose consciences are too tender to accept that. Well-behaved Christians are not even ordinarily forceful in manner, but speak with kindness and respect as often as possible. But in at least one sense, the world is right to say we’re forcing our beliefs on them.

That is, that Christianity is really true. Because of that, it is automatically backed with all the force of objective truth. To speak the truth is to always to force away falsehood, just as light instantly dispels darkness.

What’s more, I think the world actually knows it. The phrase, “You’re forcing your beliefs on me” is not ordinarily uttered so much in ire as in fear. The walls of deception have begun to crumble, and the dweller in that doomed city is terrified that accepting what you say will pull down the entire edifice.

It will. It should. No apologies.

We are not out to deprive another person of his or her happy dwelling place. We’re knocking down a house of straw before the wolf shows up. We know that there’s a brick house down the road, and it’s infinitely more serviceable and secure. The person to whom we are talking may not know it yet, but a little temporary discomfort and a few moments of fear and insecurity are all that are necessary to precipitate the all-important move to the next house.

A “Forced” Conclusion

The accusation that Christians force their beliefs on others is a bit of a farce. What it really means is, “I’m living in a fatal delusion, and don’t wish to be disturbed. You’re disturbing me, and now I’m feeling threatened — not by you, but by the truth.”

So don’t let the accusation slow you down. I’m not saying that the people who say it are not articulating something of their real experience. I think they are. But they have misunderstood how the world really stands, and where their real interests lie.

In that sense, not to “force” someone to abandon a false view, a view that stands to precipitate them to a lost eternity, would actually be nothing but an action of cruelty, self-interest and cowardice on the part of the Christian.

In that, and only in that sense, all Christians must always, in love, “force” their views to be heard.

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