In the initial installment in this series, I stated that I have concerns about how current political and social problems are being misunderstood. This implies the somewhat audacious claim that I understand what is actually happening. I am not quite so arrogant as to claim some kind of hidden insight, although in later installments I will talk about some things I think really are overlooked or underemphasized.
In this piece I am going to outline three background authorities that I have been in one way or another familiar with since childhood and which I still consider the legitimate framework for much of my ideals. What I am not going to go into in detail here is my Christian faith, which is even more foundational – with which, I believe, each principle expressed here is consistent.
However, the Reformed churches today – as I understand it this is thanks largely to Cornelius van Til – are at least familiar with and often enthusiastic expositors of the concept of presuppositions or worldview: that is, secondary beliefs or actions will follow from what one is most sincerely dedicated to.
One effect of this is that Reformed churches tend to emphasize preaching and conversion as the Church’s work, more so than any social improvements which may accompany the work incidentally. It would be odd to expect an unbeliever to behave as a Christian without acknowledging Christ (and in fact, moral behavior of unbelievers has been used from the writings of the Apostle Paul onwards to shame and inspire Christians to give a better example themselves).
Generalized, we can say that not just principles of faith but any principles, once admitted, should be able to be worked out and give a point from which individual and social behavior can be critiqued and improved. What is not going to happen is improvement without some kind of ideal to work toward. This entire project is a somewhat chronological explanation of the development of my understanding of social ideals. So in this piece I am laying out some of my initial and still valid ideals: in future additions I will trace further developments and additional insights.
Good behavior ought to be rewarded and bad behavior punished. A just society will do these things. This is perhaps the most fundamental principle, and whether I appeal to religious authorities – the Law and Proverbs and Epistles – or secular ones – fables and fairy tales and novels and plays – the consensus on the necessity of just desserts is unavoidable.
C. S. Lewis, likely most famous as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia series, but also a scholar, author of other fiction and non-fiction, and popular Christian apologist, stands in here for two sets of influences. Lewis’s moral thought – especially in Mere Christianty, The Abolition of Man, and The Screwtape Letters – has played a significant role in shaping how I evaluate morality. In the first place, he shares this distinction with some other authors – I would point to G. K. Chesterton’s essays, for instance – in expressing moral principles in modern terms and contexts; and in pointing out that – regardless of actual practice – Christian principles are not going to lead always to traditional or comfortable conclusions.
But in the second place, Lewis more than any other author is repsonsible for my conviction of the need to include all kinds of people in our societies. I grew up with the Narnia stories: with Talking animals and invading Telmarines turned legitimate (confirmed by Aslan no less) and a Calormene turned queen of Archenland; but also a treasonous Talking ape and wicked dwarfs and even a fallen queen of Narnia. In short, one is judged by behavior – or even by the heart, a matter on which Lewis was willing to speculate more generously than many theologians.
Martin Luther King, Jr. will hopefully forgive me for playing a small game in my title with his now-famous initials. I am not going to spend much time on King’s thought here, as it’s too broad to deal with in its fullness, but also, with regard to one specific principle, implied by everything I’ve outlined above. That is the famous line from a 1963 speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I don’t know when I first heard this, but with regard to American problems specifically, it seemed to sum up everything that we need to accomplish. Not only I, but I believe a significant number of Americans, took this admition as marching orders; as an identification of fault; as a call for action. Only, I am not sure that number is as high as I assumed as a child, in fact it seems a minority so small as to be overwhelmed: we seem as a society at the moment willing to judge our rulers and public figures by almost anything except their character.