We hear rumours that God is being expunged from the public square. Our eyelids close, we sigh and our heads droop as we recognize the hammer sounds of yet another nail in the coffin. Does the pessimist toast this thud or does the optimist celebrate his prophecy? Is it hopelessly naive and simplistic to remember that our forefather and mother, a certain Mr. Adam and Mrs. Eve, attempted to expunge God from the public garden? At least they knew enough to be ashamed.
I have two students, both seniors, named Adam and Eva. Both heavily subscribe to the pre-Christian (Aristotle and Plato), the Christian (Jesus Christ) and post-Christian (Hugh Hefner) truth: All humans seek happiness. Since God is happiness all humans seek God. They recognize the syllogism, while gently protesting that most of their peers seek happiness, but some categorically do not seek God. Is this a problem with logic, knowledge or culture?
“What do your friends seek?” I ask. “Or rather, how do they define happiness?” The tone and the words of Eva and Adam give evidence to the atmosphere in their public square. Many of their friends believe in God. They, too, state that they believe in God, but the protestation soon gives evidence to the lingering scent of Deism (God is like a clockmaker. He created everything, wound it up and walked away).
So what do they really believe in? Can we know them better by what they do and not what they say? Do some believe that if it is pleasurable it is good (hedonism)? Do some believe that if it is useful it is good (utilitarianism)? Do some believe that if many others are doing it, it is good (conformism)? Do some believe that all opinions (moral in particular) are equally valid (moral relativism)?
Yes, yes, yes and yes, of course! This list of creeds could continue. Unfortunately, the unwitting acceptance of these highfalutin “isms” is quite common among adolescents. Where did they learn to embrace these belief systems, these nouveau religions? Who has convinced them that these other gods have more to offer them and are more immediate? Who has taught them that the sensual appetite is the primary appetite? Is their public square so bombarded with noise, hoopla and the fear of silence that they don’t even hear the sound of the broom sweeping out the wood of the cross?
Wisdom suggests we look for a solution. Adam and Eva recognize a problem. They tell me that their friends, the ones who say they are Christians, and the ones who say that they embrace atheism, seem to be pretty much the same in what they say and what they do. Studies reveal that the vast majority of individuals in the West call themselves Christians. But if that is the case, would they not only welcome God into the public square, but make it pleasing to Him?
“People just don’t seem to have the energy,” Eva says as if she were recognizing some living sadness. “People are so wrapped up in their own lives. We’re all so busy just dealing with the stress of life.” She begins to like the sounds of her rationalizing. This individualism Eva alludes to takes hold at an early age. If there is not enough love, strength and grace in the family, the individual will not have the energy to give himself to the community – let alone to God!
Perhaps the expunging of God from the public square is not an entirely tragic scenario. Aristotle wrote in The Ethics that “men start revolutionary changes for reasons connected to their private lives.” The effects of pain and suffering can be either profoundly good or hopelessly banal. Loneliness, the affliction I believe Eva is referring to, causes fractures and brokenness.
The past 30 years have seen the whole concept of family change, experimented with and reworked. To what effect? What are the results? As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead demonstrated in her Atlantic Monthly article “Dan Quayle Was Right.” “In survey after survey, the children of broken families confess deep longing for an intact family.”
The family, the microcosm of society, has been bleeding evidence for us to see. Can we expect so many of our young to embrace God in the public square if they have felt forced to choose individualism as a survival technique? The natural result of this brokenness is anger. Anger is the natural, normal, healthy response to perceived injustice. Who is responsible for these injustices? In families where the fractures are blatant, the anger is draining. When the fractures are the real undercurrent, the anger is exhausting. Is it not difficult, if not impossible sometimes, to embrace God when your arms are kept so busy massaging the wounded self?
The banality of evil can render us apathetic. Perhaps the absence of God in the public square, as is becoming more and more apparent, will be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps this private pain will help ignite the revolutionary flames of action and fortitude that can give light to our lives again. Perhaps it will cause us to sicken of the dank, abandoned ruins of a public square and long to bring Christ back into the private square of our soul.