March 2012 – When the Apostle Paul visited the city of Athens, the Bible states that he reasoned there with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles as well as “some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” (Acts 17:18).
For two or three centuries before Paul’s time, the ideas of the Epicureans and Stoics were extremely influential in Greek and Roman culture. They were in many ways opposite and competing ways of looking at life.
Epicureanism sought a way to happiness in life through pleasure (although not pure hedonism, as it is sometimes mischaracterized), while Stoicism sought that path through a controlled will and emotional life, as well as a morality lived in accordance with nature and reason.
The nature of societies
While such descriptions border on over-simplifications (Epicureanism and Stoicism went through different stages of development over the centuries.), there should be something vaguely familiar about this Epicurean/Stoic divide even to Americans living millennia later.
That is, while America in 2012 has very few Epicureans or Stoics, we do have our own divide between liberal and conservative, religious and secular, progressive and traditionalist, etc. (See Four poles ... below.)
In fact, such divisions within cultures are normal, according to Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. In her book, One Nation, Two Cultures, Himmelfarb even goes so far as to suggest that all civilized societies contain such internal divisions as a normal feature of public life.
It’s not an idea that originated with her. Himmelfarb cited Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher and economist whose book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, was extremely influential in the early years of the young American nation.
Smith said that in every civilized society two competing moral views develop. “[T]he one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system,” he said.
Those holding to the latter are “prone to the ‘vices of levity’ – ‘luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity, at least in one of the two sexes.”
For most of the modern age, this looser moral view was held primarily by what Smith called “people of fashion” and wealth. The rich could afford to live a life of luxury and licentiousness – and were more likely to do so.
The stricter moral view, based primarily but not exclusively in religious principle, advocates a refusal to participate in dissipation and sexual immorality, even though Smith admitted that practice did not always rise to the principles propounded.
That societies should break into these two main factions should not be surprising, since these different “orientations” appear to be ingrained in human nature. In fact, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus tells a story of a man with two sons who behave in ways strikingly similar to Adam Smith’s framework.
The younger son is the experimenter who breaks the rules in his pursuit of pleasure. In Jesus’ day, these were the “tax collectors and sinners” (vs. 1), many of whom were drawn to the gospel.
“These men and women correspond to the younger brother,” said Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York and author of The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. “They observed neither the moral laws of the Bible nor the rules for ceremonial purity followed by religious Jews. They engaged in ‘wild living.’ Like the younger brother, they ‘left home’ by leaving the traditional morality of their families and of respectable society.”
The older brother represents those who instead seek legitimacy “through an ethic of hard work and moral rectitude,” said Keller.
That dual tendency within human nature manifests itself in societal divisions. “To some degree the so-called culture wars are playing out these same conflicting temperaments and impulses in modern society,” he noted.
A society will come to reflect these distinctive worldviews because both younger brothers and older brothers band together, since they see the world in very similar ways. Each side argues that they are right and the other side is wrong. Moreover, each side tends to go a step further: The other side is the cause of society’s problems.
In civilized societies, Himmelfarb said, there is a constant ebb and flow of the culture away from one pole to its opposite and back again, a constant movement of the pendulum as one view gains the ascendancy and then the other.
“Much of the social history of modern times can be written in terms of the rise and fall, the permutations and combinations, of these two systems,” she said.
What divides America?
Of course, our country was politically divided at its founding and remains so today.
A Gallup poll in 2011, for example, found that a fifth of adults (21%) self-identified as “liberal,” while twice as many said they were “conservative.” Those identifying as “moderate” represented a substantial chunk (37%) of the population as well.
Of course, such categories are not exact, but they do represent real-life differences in the way people think and behave. One fascinating study found that this cultural divide in America even finds its expression in the kinds of television shows people watch.
According to Entertainment Weekly, the TV divide was evident from the annual research survey conducted by Experian-Simmons, which measures “the consumer preferences of various political ideologies.”
The survey found that favorite shows for conservative Republicans included “serious work-centered shows” like Deadliest Catch (Discovery) and competition-based reality programming (think NBC’s The Biggest Loser). Also a favorite: dramas that have more clear-cut good guys and bad guys, like NCIS (CBS).
Meanwhile, liberal Democrats liked “sarcastic” comedies such as NBC’s 30 Rock and dramas with “morally-murky antiheroes,” according to EW.
This latter expression of political differences, however, is puzzling. While political divisions over foreign policy, illegal immigration, or balanced budgets are to be expected, why should political party affiliation influence what television shows one prefers? The answer seems to be that one of the major sources of our political differences is religious in nature.
Gallup found that people who self-identify as Democrats are less religious than the general population, while Republicans are more religious. “Religious” was defined solely by frequency of church attendance.
While 33% of adults overall said they attend church weekly, 27% of Democrats said they do. The percentage of adults overall saying they “seldom” or “never” go to church (46%) is also lower than those who are Democrats (52%).
Meanwhile, Gallup found self-identified Republicans to be more religious: 40% said they attend weekly, while 38% said they seldom or never attend church.
Opportunity for the church
Much has been written on this so-called “religion gap” or “values gap” that underlies the political divide in this country and the culture war. But there can be little doubt that America in 2012 and beyond represents an amazing opportunity for Christians who want to influence the nation’s direction.
The Gallup data on religious orientation and party affiliation reveal that, while Republicans are more religious and Democrats are less religious than the general population, many Americans are in between. Thus many will be, generally speaking, less religious than the GOP but more religious than Democrats. This means that America remains a “mission field” for American Christians.
There can be little doubt that the secular movement in this nation, with its quite successful effort to undermine the Judeo-Christian foundations of America, has contributed to the rotting away of the social fabric. Christians must continue to present Godly principles as the best alternative for the cultural renewal we all desire to see.
To accomplish this, Christians must get involved in every facet of public life. They must run for public office. They must confront corporations that promote wickedness. They must keep a close watch on what schools are teaching.
They must complain to the FCC when network television shows undermine public morality. In fact, there are dozens of ways in which Christians can get involved in the public arena and represent a biblical viewpoint.
However, believers must be careful to also publicly present a gospel-centered viewpoint. In light of the Gallup survey numbers, for example, it is important to remember that religious doesn’t necessarily mean Christian.
Certainly we should reject an Epicurean perspective on life, because the pathway to happiness is not pleasure. But from the standpoint of the gospel the Stoic approach – merely living a moral life – isn’t right, either.
More than any other danger for the Christian, the subtle temptation to become an “older brother” may be the most insidious. Self-righteousness, harshness, and judgmentalism are always lurking nearby, ready to invade the Christian heart.
America will never be able to reform her own heart apart from the sanctifying power of God’s Spirit. Christians must first embrace that reality, and then proclaim it to their neighbors.
Five years ago I listened to a sermon that changed my life. It was preached by Rev. Tim Keller and was titled “The Prodigal Sons.” I recommend it to every Christian. You can download and listen to the sermon for free at: http://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/prodigal-sons. Keller’s book, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, is a further exposition of that sermon.
The book by Gertrude Himmelfarb, One Nation, Two Cultures, while a historical book and not written from a Christian perspective, is eye-opening. — Ed Vitagliano
Four poles of American culture
While there are many ways to view the divisions that exist in American culture, this chart views our current “culture war” in terms of two pairs of opposite poles.
The first pair is the divide between worldviews, or the way in which people view reality. On the top (representing a heavenly orientation) is the religious worldview of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Faith plays a large role, although reason is not excluded. On the bottom (representing an earthbound orientation) is the worldview born out of the Enlightenment. It is secular in nature and claims to rely on reason alone, even though adherents’ confidence in Enlightenment presuppositions is very much like faith.
The second pair of opposite poles is the divide between personalities, with “personality” being defined as an individual’s attitudinal and behavioral characteristics. The people on the left (liberal) generally define life according to their own experiences and thus see the individual as the most important social entity. They take what’s called a progressive approach to public policy. On the right (conservative), people approach life according to a moral framework that stands above the individual and thus should order – and at times restrict – life experiences. These see responsibility to the group – heeding customs and traditions, for example – as more important than individual experimentation.