Are man’s deepest thoughts nothing more than the products of certain chemical reactions in the physical brain?
—Gary North, Unholy Spirits (1994)
Here are experts who have access to the most sophisticated and rational analysis psychology has to offer, and they prefer instead to practice yoga and meditation and consult with mediums and gurus.
—William Kilpatrick, Psychological Seduction (1983)
New Year, New You?
With the turning of the year, we often consider programs for personal change. We want to drop a few pounds, lose an addiction, change our spending habits, read more, explore new horizons, whatever. We want to be better people. So we want renewal. That means we make resolutions. We prepare to live them out. We buy the treadmill, we draw up a new budget and maybe even pour some liquor down the drain. And then we set out to be new people.
Usually, it doesn’t work. We don’t follow through. We surrender to the same old patterns. Our recognition of our need to change and our enthusiastic intentions to change don’t provide the kind of power we need to recreate ourselves. For-profit gyms and weight-loss clinics bank on this reality. They sell lots of low price memberships in January. Even as successful a program as Alcoholics Anonymous leaves its members saying flatly, “…and I am an alcoholic.” Becoming new person is most difficult.
So what’s our problem?
The Failure of Rationalism
We are dealing with questions of human nature. What is man? What is the nature of choice? Can man change? Can he alter himself, and if so, how?
The rationalists of the 18th Century believed in the innate goodness of man and in his perfectibility. Charles Finney, the American evangelist, shared this conception of human nature, and the whole tradition of American revivalism has been tainted with it. In this perspective, man has no given ethical nature and is not bound by sin… he is totally free. The theory is he can become whatever he chooses. He can alter his outward behavior as he comes to understand the nature of his circumstances and the probable results of his choices. All he needs is sufficient information, some intellectual training, and a level playing field. Man can and will improve himself. Man can and does choose to be good. It’s really that easy.
Rationalism, however, has some inborn contradictions. For the universe to be wholly and totally rational, all things must stand in logical relationship to one another. Reality must be set and all its interconnections fixed. The irrational, the wholly contingent, the completely new, can have no place. For man this means that his individual nature, character, and personality are “locked in” and a given. They are the product of a mechanistic universe, of mindless cause and effect operating over billions of years. Each choice man makes is simply an unfolding of what potential he already has. For man, the new is merely “the not yet” explicit. It is the potential made actual through man’s interaction with his environment. Any changes we make in ourselves becomes like the precipitate that forms when two chemical compounds unite. It might seem new to the observer, but its nature was set and unalterable from the beginning.
Now if this weren’t enough of a problem, we have had two centuries of mounting secular opinion that human nature is anything but “good.” This was implicit in Darwinism and in the psychoanalysis of Freud. Man is bestial and irrational, and Nature is “red in tooth and claw.” The hope that such realities can or will produce the sort of individual character, let alone social structure, that the moral teachers of the past would have labeled “good,” is self-evidently delusional. Impersonal matter, no matter how rationally interconnected it may be, knows nothing of ethics, morality, or compassion. Change for the rationalist is simply mathematical progression or chemical development, not moral enlightenment and growth.
And it’s here that modern psychology falters. Psychology as a science can only attempt to demonstrate what is and then work with that. Practically, traditional psychology offers to help us adjust, cope, or achieve a better self-image. Real change isn’t on the list. It can’t be. There’s no transcendent place for it to come from.
The Failure of Mysticism
It should be no surprise, then, that not a few psychologists have turned from the rational to the irrational, from science to mysticism. William Kirk Kilpatrick writes:
Carl Jung, for example, centered his theory in an esoteric religious tradition; Wilhelm Reich suffered from messianic delusions; Erich Fromm was strongly inclined to Buddhist thought; Abraham Maslow concentrated his later writings on religion and peak experiences. This “religious” tradition in psychology carries down to some of the most respected and influential present-day psychologists. The attempt to get beyond the ordinary seems, for instance, now to be the main concern of both Carl Rogers and Elisabeth Kulber-Ross, both of whom report having contacted spirits of the dead (99).
The irrational gives us a concept of new, but on terms that are beyond phenomenal description or classification. When we try to explain this new thing with our words, we babble on about an existential experience, an encounter with God, or a moment of transcendence. We need aliens or angels to connect the dots. But the experience always points into the ether. What we do with the new and ineffable will come from what we already are. One man will launch a new religion; another will spearhead a reform movement; still another will consort with the dead. But the “new” provides no direction, no guidelines, certainly no rules. The new for the irrationalist is limited to the spooky and weird.
A New Creation
The kingdom of Judah was given over to wickedness. Her people had no concern for justice or truth. They were certainly strangers to equity, judgment, and peace. Their hands were stained with blood and their tongues spoke nothing but lies (Isa. 59:1-14). Judgment and destruction lay just over the eastern horizon—the armies of Assyria and Babylon.
And yet at this very time God made an incredible promise through His prophet Isaiah:
For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice forever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying…. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD (65:17-19, 25).
What Isaiah foretold was God’s intervention into human history in an unprecedented manner. The language is figurative and visionary, but the promise of a new creation belongs to history and human experience. According to Isaiah, God was going to change the world in an incredible way, and the social and cultural repercussions would be astonishing. Isaiah foresaw God establishing a new City, one bound together in joy and in the love of God—a community living in peace and bringing harmony to all of creation (Isa. 65:19-25). He saw a new world order.
This new world wouldn’t rise out of the existing creation; it wouldn’t be a product of Nature or history. It would be a thing supernatural and miraculous. At the same time, this new world would be completely rational and historical because it would be the work of the coherent, rational God who rules history. God would do a new thing, He would do it in the Earth, and it would be all of grace! Isaiah called God’s people to live in the light of that future, to live by faith in the promise of God.
If Any Man Be in Christ…
The new world that Isaiah foretold is the kingdom of Messiah, the new world order introduced by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus came from outside of history to rescue history. He came as transcendent Deity manifest in finite humanity. He came into our world and into our history. The divine Logos was made true flesh and tabernacled among us (John 1:14). He came to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).
Sin. This is man’s problem. This is why he can’t renew or remake himself. Man is in rebellion against God, which is why it is in his Nature to hate God and His laws. He wants autonomy; he wants to be his own god, living by his own self-made rules. He is self-centered and self-serving. And so all his apparent righteousnesses are filthy rags, and in his flesh, his inherited nature, there dwells no good thing (Isa. 64:5; Rom. 7:18). He is without hope and without God in this world (Eph. 2:12). What Isaiah wrote of Judah is a valid diagnosis of the human condition, and Paul makes the application (Rom. 3:10-20).
But Paul also writes: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Christ’s new world order is a present reality. Jesus can save men from their sins, here and now. He can give us new lives. He can give us peace and joy and the true power to change. He can give us a new world. This is the promise of the gospel. Like the people of Judah, we must throw ourselves on His promise alone for lasting change. This is the stuff of “change” that built our country from the Colonial period through our war for independence and beyond. It’s still available. It’s never too late to receive the grace of change. This is true for individuals as well as nations. What kind of nation would we have if we all committed to ourselves to the promise of the gospel in 2013? My guess is that God would bless us with real change. We need it. Let’s do it!