When God Isn’t At The Center

In The Nature of Virtue, one of the most profound treatises on social ethics ever written, Jonathan Edwards lays out how sin destroys the social fabric. He argues that human society is deeply fragmented when anything but God is our highest love. If our highest goal in life is the good of our family, then, says Edwards, we will tend to care less for other families. If our highest goal is the good of our nation, tribe, or race, then we will tend to be racist or nationalistic. If our ultimate goal in life is our own individual happiness, then we will put our own economic and power interests ahead of those of others. Edwards concludes that only if God is our…ultimate center, will we find our heart drawn out not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general.

How does this destruction of social relationships flow from the eternal effects of sin? If we get our very identity, our sense of worth, from our political position, then politics isn’t really about politics, it is about us. Through our cause we are getting a self, our worth. That means we must despise and demonize the opposition. If we get our identity from our ethnicity or socioeconomic status, then we have to feel superior to those of other classes and races. If you’re profoundly proud of being an open-minded, tolerant soul, you will be extremely indignant to people you think are bigots. If you are a very moral person, you will feel very superior to people you think are licentious. And so on. 

There is no way out of this conundrum. The more we love and identify deeply with our family, our class, our race, or our religion, the harder it is not to feel superior or even hostile to other religions, races, etc. So racism, classism, and sexism are not matters of ignorance or a lack of education. Foucault and others in our time have shown that it is far harder than we think to have a self-identity that doesn’t lead to exclusion. The real culture war is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, and that fail to satisfy even when we get them. 

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