The Nude Beach Principle

by Nov 28, 2014Culture

The myth of neutrality is one of the most important ideas a Christian can get hold of in this secular age.

Here’s a concrete example of that illusion, provided by excellent Catholic writer Anthony Esolen in “The Illusion of Neutrality“:

Suppose that Surftown has one beautiful beach, where young and old, boys and girls, single people and whole families, have been used to relax, go swimming, and have picnics. Now suppose that a small group of nudists petitions the town council to allow for nude bathing. Their argument is simple—actually, it is no more than a fig leaf for the mere expression of desire. They say, “We want to do this, and we, tolerant as we are, do not wish to impose our standards on anyone else. No one will be required to bathe in the raw. Live and let live, that’s our motto.”

But you cannot have a Half-Nude Beach. A beach on which some people stroll without a stitch of clothing is a nude beach, period. A councilman cannot say, “I remain entirely neutral on whether clothing should be required on a beach,” because that is equivalent to saying that it is not opprobrious or not despicable to walk naked in front of other people, including children.

Here’s another concrete example Esolen provides:

Sometimes to permit is not only to alter the context of the permitted action, but to alter the whole social order. You cannot say, as Stephen Douglas tried to say, that you will allow slavery in those states whose citizens vote for it, and then pretend that that is an act of calm and statesmanlike neutrality. A society that says that some people may own slaves is an utterly different society from one that says that no one may own slaves. That is not a distant consequence of the permission; it is immediate, indeed implied in the permission itself.

And here’s the principle Esolen was driving at:

The nakedly secular state is not a neutral thing. It is something utterly different from, and irreconcilable with, every human polity that has existed until a few anthropological minutes ago. It is itself a set of choices which, like all such, forecloses others; a way of living that makes other ways of living unlikely, practically impossible, or inconceivable.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 12.52.06 AMThis is why James K. A. Smith says in How Not to Be Secular,

The secular touches everything. It not only makes unbelief possible; it also changes belief — it impinges upon Christianity (and all religious communities).

culture makingAnd it’s why Andy Crouch said in Culture Making,

Culture…defines the horizons of the possible and the impossible…. Its constraints and impossibilities are the boundaries within which we can create and innovate.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 1.00.05 AMAnd it’s why Machen said in “Christianity and Culture,”

False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.

It’s why Peter Berger talks about a “sacred canopy” and “plausibility structures.” It’s why Tim Keller talks about “defeater beliefs.”

And I’ll make a little theological leap here: the myth of neutrality is why the Bible makes love for God our most central obligation. A fundamental love of God, granted by the New Covenant, doesn’t validate all your ideas in this present age, because God has left sin in our hearts. And fundamental love for not-God, bequeathed by Adam, doesn’t invalidate all our non-Christian neighbors’ ideas in this present age, because God has left His image in them and shed His common grace on them. Those caveats aside, love for God is a path upward, upward from which you will hopefully begin to be able to see the world more clearly. The cross is indeed high enough for a world view. And love for not-God is a path downwards into dark, labyrinthine passageways from which you cannot see the world as it truly is (Eph. 4:17ff). You can’t be neutral on the whole question of love for the one true God. Such neutrality is not an option; it’s an illusion.

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