My older daughter is pursuing a degree at the local extension of one of our state universities. Not surprisingly, the course offerings are more limited than at the main campus, and since she is pursuing a career in social work, she signed up for one of the required courses in Women’s Studies.
Women’s Studies is a relatively recent and notoriously doctrinaire addition to university departments, and I had warned my daughter about what she was likely to encounter: the most shrill, angry, and even irrational fringes of the feminist movement. Indeed, some of the more extreme apologists for Women’s Studies have claimed that rationality is a male way of thinking and should not be imposed on females. Still, we were both taken aback at the unbending and unapologetic polemics of the course, which turned out to be primarily a barrage of propaganda in support of all manner of nonheterosexual identities and behaviors: gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual (those who through surgery and hormone treatments have tried to alter their gender). There was little of what would normally be called scholarship, and, in any event, scholarship—the discovery, examination, synthesis, and application of information—was not the aim of the course. The aim was the propagation of a set of attitudes about the subject, and the acceptable set was not simply tolerance, but approval and advocacy. It was a course that violated everything universities claim about themselves: places where truth is pursued and disseminated objectively and fairly, and where differences of opinion are welcomed as part of this pursuit. In point of fact, dissent was bullied into silence, and probing questions were shuffled off as inappropriate to the course’s aims—as, of course, they were. Small wonder, then, that my daughter came to refer to this course as an encounter with the Lesbian Gestapo.
What caught my special attention was the glossary of terms that were central to the course’s vocabulary, this one in particular: “Sex: an identity assigned at birth by doctors, parents, and others.” Here, clear and dramatic, was the central issue dividing a Christian mind, a Christian understanding of truth, from what has come to be called postmodernism. Here was an example of the watershed issue of thinking and understanding in the first decade of the 21st century. Here we are confronting what I’ll call radical subjectivity.
The question is this: Is truth external and independent of our own minds, or is truth contingent and variable, simply a social, political, and psychological construct?
If the first is true, if truth is objective, then we must conform our understanding and our behavior to its contours. Scripture puts it this way: “This is the way; walk in it.” The task of a Christian thinker, then, is to learn what is true—that is to say, to discover some part of the mind of God—and conform our understanding and our behavior to that truth.
Sometimes this is physical truth, and only lunatics would try to ignore the facts of physics. If the lift force of an airplane’s wings is inadequate to overcome the plane’s weight—because of overloading, say—then the plane won’t fly. This fact is not contingent on my understanding or wishes or on the experiences that shaped my psychological outlook. It just is, and to ignore it is to ensure disaster. It matters not at all if the plane’s designers and pilot are Christians. It’s not “their” physics. It works the same for everybody, and all designers and pilots had better understand what is required to get the plane in the air and keep it there. This is not an assigned understanding; it’s a recognition of what is and how things work.
Christians insist there is also what I’ll call a moral universe, whose laws are, like the laws of physics, both discoverable and binding.
It’s not only Christians who believe this. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson appealed to the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” And when another son of the Enlightenment, Ben Franklin, set out in pursuit of moral perfection, he made a chart of 13 virtues, such as chastity and temperance, and measured his daily behavior against this standard.
Of course Franklin never achieved anything like moral perfection, but the point here is that he recognized a universally authoritative, objective standard of right behavior. To be morally responsible required him to measure his conduct against that standard. The blots Franklin entered on the chart marked his recognition that he had often been “found wanting,” that he had not measured up. This standard was not “his morality,” as the contemporary phrase would have it, but existed independently and was binding upon everyone.
Objective vs. subjective
So what lies behind the astonishing definition of sex that my daughter encountered in her classroom? The answer is a denial of the most obvious implications of a biological fact, that to be born with male sex organs means one is a male, and to be born with female reproductive organs means one is a female.
One would think this identity is obvious: The doctor holds up the newly delivered infant, takes a look at the plumbing, and announces, “It’s a boy.” It’s really not hard to tell; after all, generation after generation has been able to tell, and in precisely the same way: they looked at what was there. And, contrary to what my daughter’s instructor claimed, this sexual identity is not assigned; it’s recognized.
And from this recognition certain behavioral expectations follow. Male and female organs, whether belonging to roosters and hens, stags and does, or men and women, are complementary. They have their purposes, and we understand what those purposes are, just as we understand that the forms of our molars or our ears or our nostrils indicate their functions.
But none of this matters to the radical subjectivists. Biological facts don’t determine gender identification; what matters is how they feel. If an anatomical male says he feels like a girl, well, it’s up to him to decide which he is.
And if anatomy is not recognized as determiners of sex, it’s hardly surprising that many postmodern thinkers reject the idea of objective moral standards. In other words, if sexual identity is not a matter of easily observed objective biological markers, but is instead a matter of how one feels—if sexual identification is unmoored from sexual facts—then it’s easy to reject the idea of objective moral markers. My conduct will be guided and judged not by referencing a standard outside my own preferences and inclinations, a standard that includes virtues such as chastity and temperance, but by—well, by referencing what? Anything at all?
Only myself and those in my identity group
If there is no external referent for our conduct, then how can we tell if we’re doing the right thing? If, as so many now insist, what used to be understood as moral statements—“thou shalt’s” and “thou shalt not’s”—are merely statements of power (if, for example, objections to abortion are only the rhetoric of those trying to maintain the subjugation of women), then by what standard is behavior to be judged?
In other words, when people insist that “morality can’t be legislated,” and “you can’t impose your morality on me,” they are disclaiming any common moral authority, an authority outside merely individual preferences; so how can anyone judge what is right conduct?
And here, of course, the postmodern ethicist has run himself into a cul-de-sac, for he cannot live in a world devoid of objective moral standards. He won’t talk long without making value statements that he believes to be morally binding on everyone. When, for example, he declares that a ban on abortion is unfair to women, he has just abandoned his claim that there are no universal moral absolutes. He is saying that we all have the idea that people should be treated fairly. He is adamant about this. He would be shocked if someone replied, “Well, who cares about fairness? That’s your morality, and you should not try to impose it on anyone else.”
There are plenty of arguments about what “fair” means.
Is it fair to try to treat every child in the family exactly the same, or does fair treatment take into account differences in age, temperament, and talents? Is it fair that Bill Gates must pay taxes at a higher rate than I do to use the same interstate highway and be protected by the same military forces? Is it fair that a genetically gifted athlete earns millions playing games while a hard-working field hand gets little more than minimum wage for producing our food?
Here’s the point: We can argue about the application of a moral truth, but only because we recognize that moral truth, that fact in the moral universe. Otherwise, we are simply reporting feeling and preferences.
Christians must take care to keep in mind Scriptural bases for making judgments. I am uneasy when my students tell me that the day’s chapel was a “good” one because they had “felt really blessed.” I’m glad they felt good, but all too often, I’m afraid, they really mean they were excited. It would be just as easy to say, as some might have said, that it was a “bad” chapel because it didn’t excite them. The referent for judgment is their own feelings and little else.
Men and women walk away from marriages, abandoning sacred vows and damaging their children’s sense of security, for the same reason. They believe something else—or someone else—will produce better feelings, and that is the standard of moral measurement. Good people leave good churches because, they claim, their needs are not being met.
Feelings matter. But they cannot be the standard driving our conduct. Devoted soldiers do their duty even when—especially when—they are tired and hungry and frightened. Responsible adults go to work when they’d rather snooze or golf or fish. Good parents care for their children every day, including days when the kids are cranky, disrespectful, and generally unpleasant to be around.
In an age when we hear daily that truth depends, that truth is contingent, Christians must remember that we live in the kingdom of the great I Am, the One Who embodies eternal truth. It is His righteousness, not our own, that we must seek, embrace, and live out.
Jim Hills teaches American Thought and Culture at Corban College, Salem, Ore.