(RNS) In an essay railing against liberals who offer accommodations to those who dissent from the new moral orthodoxy, Mark Tushnet, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, declares: “The culture wars are over,” and “we won.”
But declaring an end to the culture wars seems premature. Time magazine’s cover story last week described transgender rights and bathroom access as the latest flare-up of the culture wars. Different states are debating the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. And churches are mired in debate as well. The United Methodist Church just postponed its never-ending debate over homosexuality, and also took a pro-life turn by withdrawing from a religious coalition of abortion-rights advocates.
Why do the culture wars rage on?
Perhaps it would be helpful to take a step back and look at some of the underlying foundational worldview issues that lead people to the positions they hold. Today’s battlegrounds are only part of the story. The real differences lurk below the surface, and they concern issues related to human autonomy and the definition of freedom.
In 1992, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Kennedy’s definition of liberty captures the perspective of many Americans today, one that narrows freedom to the individual’s decision to define oneself and create meaning in the world. The culture wars are, in large part, a continual battle over the truth or falsehood of Kennedy’s statement when applied to moral issues.
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, describes the mentality of many in American society this way: “No longer do we think we have the power merely to discover moral reality and truth – we think we have the power to actually create it.”
Quoting from C.S. Lewis, he continues: “We now believe that there is no ‘external cosmic order … to which we must conform’ but that truth can be ‘constructed according to the individual’s will.’ We have moved from the ancient understanding that we should ‘conform the soul to reality’ all the way into an age where we ‘subdue reality to our (soul’s) wishes.’”
“Subduing reality to our wishes.” Lewis’ words in 1943 help us understand why today’s new understanding of human autonomy — the idea that the individual is tasked with creating the self and must be the sole determiner of one’s future — is contested.
This vision of human autonomy is behind today’s battles over transgender rights. In 1984, English scholar Oliver O’Donovan wrote about sex-reassignment surgeries and foresaw the culture clash between people who say our nature is something we are to receive and those who believe our nature is malleable and can be repurposed or redefined.
“We cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits,” O’Donovan wrote. “Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature — to the ordered good of the bodily form which we have been given.”
Thirty-two years later, we’re mired in debates over gender and sex, because some in our society view freedom as flourishing within the bodily form that we’ve received, and others view freedom as overcoming and redefining the body. In either case, the debate concerns receiving versus creating moral reality and truth.
For this reason, in his recent apostolic exhortation Pope Francis opposed contemporary gender ideology that assumes human identity is “the choice of the individual.”
“Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift,” he said.
Likewise, battles over life and death — either at the beginning of life (abortion) or end of life (euthanasia) — rage on because human autonomy demands that we decide when human life begins (rather than science or religion) and also take control of when it ends.
And yet, uncomfortable realities confront us: After every abortion, there is a dead body that must be disposed of. What does the rise of sex-selection abortion say about our value system? And what kind of society says the solution to “unwanted children” is to do away with them rather than to want them?
Some philosophers argue for labeling our era as “late-modern” rather than “postmodern,” because we are living through an intensification of modernity’s emphasis on the individual self as the measure of all things, the supreme arbiter of truth and morality, or what Keller calls “the sovereign self.” I suspect the great English writer G.K. Chesterton would have agreed.
In 1935, Chesterton foresaw this turning of modernity toward a late-modern philosophy that enthrones the self above all else. He critiqued modern writers in his day for their failure to consider the things “they receive from the real world that exists already; from the past, from the parent, from patriotic tradition, or the moral philosophy of mankind. They only talk about making things, as if they could make themselves as well as everything else. They are always talking about making a religion, and cannot get into their heads the very notion of receiving a revelation.”
Religious groups fight this same battle, with some who see religion as something constructed by humanity, and others who see religion as something received, as divine revelation. Usually, the leaders who most loudly call for churches to change or update their doctrines are least likely to affirm the revelatory authority of Christian Scriptures.
And so we come back to the fevered frenzy of the culture wars and the symbolic defeats and victories that are, in one way or another, connected to new definitions of human autonomy and freedom. Some see the radical vision of autonomy as essential for human flourishing, while others see it as the road to death — death in the womb, death from pills prescribed by a physician, or the deadening of our bodies through gender-related hormones and surgeries that sterilize the healthy.
Is truth something we make or receive? That is what the debates are all about.
(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After”)