The Crisis of Our Age

Dr. Norman S. Ream is pastor of the First Congregational Church, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. This article Is from his sermon of October 14, 1979.

It is not possible to define or circumscribe historical periods with any degree of exactitude. Rather must we make generalizations. We can say that the Golden Age of Greece was approximately from 500 to 200 B.C. When were the Dark Ages? That too is a period difficult to designate—perhaps from the 8th to the 14th century. When did the so- called Modern Age begin? Sometime aider 1750, perhaps in 1776 with the invention of the steam engine and the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, as well as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But to fix on any given year is no doubt an oversimplification.

It is even more difficult to deal with our own age. When we are so close to something it is impossible to assess it with a great degree of accuracy. Ours has, however, already been nominated as the Aspirin Age, the Age of Anxiety, and the Atomic Age, among others. We can only generalize about when our age began and no one knows when it will end. There are many, however, who are exceedingly fearful of how it will end.

There is another name that could be given to our age and unfortunately it too is a name implying that you and I and many who preceded us have not done very well with our Christian Stewardship. Would that we could call ours an age of enlightenment, or an age of new renaissance. But even the most optimistic would be hard put to make such descriptions believable.

I would suggest that ours could be defined as an age of moral dis-integration—a time during which all the old and generally accepted standards for human behavior began to crumble and to fall apart. Where once there was general agreement as to what was right and wrong, moral and immoral, good and bad, now we are a people seemingly almost hopelessly divided on such issues. We will not admit that this is the result of our moral myopia, however, but would rather insist that we are just more liberal, more tolerant and more understanding than people used to be. But if a society is to be judged by its fruits, as Jesus said a tree was to be judged—and by implication individuals then our society would seem to be in an extremely precarious condition.

“Situational Ethics”

Ours is a society which has adopted “situational ethics” with a vengeance. What is right is what each person thinks is right. In any society where that is generally so, then, in that society there is no way of making valid judgments about human behavior, and no one form of behavior can be defended as being better than any other. No doubt the widespread belief in egalitarianism is in part responsible for such a state of moral anarchy. If we are all equal in all ways, then the morality of a saint is no better than that of a member of the Mafia.

Anarchy and chaos are always the consequence of a loss of order in society. Because, by man’s very nature, he cannot long live without order, when the situation gets bad enough he will turn to any kind of order as being better than none. What is then offered him is an order imposed by force. He finds himself in a totalitarian society where order, civil and moral, is imposed by the will of the omnipotent few.

One need only read the two opening books of the Old Testament to discover that mankind always teeters between anarchy and order, between barbarism and morality. Moses had a terrible time trying to keep his people loyal and faithful to the moral order God had revealed to him. But the Ten Commandments were not new and unique. They were preceded by the code of Hammurabi. Wherever there has been any semblance of civilization there has been—there has had to be—some kind of generally accepted moral order, or an imposed one. Men do not survive in community by instinct alone. And without community there is little, if any, progress. When a community loses its principles, its moral guidelines, then it begins to disintegrate.

Two philosophers have written a book entitled Personality and the Good. Their names are Bertocci and Millard and this is what they say:

A human being will not accept chaos. When he can no longer cope with it he begins to get sick, both physically and mentally. When chaos has won out he is dead. But as long as he is alive he is seeking to reduce chaos in some way or other.

Lack of Moral Discipline

A French scientist by the name of J. Rostand has observed that “science has made us gods before we were even worthy of being men.” We have great means at our disposal but very little meaning, tremendous power but a lack of purpose. The primary need in modern society, contrary to what we read so much of in the media, is not the need for natural resources; oil, or other material things. What we desperately need is not someone to tell us what we ought to do, but someone to show us what we ought to be, not someone who will tell us how to build a brave new world, but someone who will show us how to be new men and new women. What we need most requires a moral and a spiritual discipline, and that is the area where modern man is so sadly lacking.

I am convinced that is not only what is needed, but by our finest young people that is precisely what is most desired, whether they can define it or not. Let me share a quotation from a former liberal modernist who has seen the light and is now a moral and spiritual traditionalist. Irving Kristol is his name. He is a professor at New York University and a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal. He says this:

Young people do not want to hear that the church is becoming modern. Go tell the young people that the message of the church is to wear sack cloth and ashes and to walk on nails to Rome, and millions would do it . . . . Young people are looking for religion so desperately that they are inventing new ones; old religions are pretty good. New ones are being invented because the churches capitulated to modernity at the very time when the rebellious, gnostic, self-confident spirit of modernity was entering a major crisis and was moving toward its own discreditation.

It is in the youth that we see most clearly the reality that men cannot live happily in a state of moral chaos. They do not live by bread alone. They require and they desire rules, standards, principles, to which the majority will adhere and which will give them a sense of oneness as they pursue a high and worthy goal.

Now, these rules, standards and principles must have a source, and only if that source is believed to be beyond the puny mind of man will it have any objective validity. The Hebrew-Christian tradition affirms the source of all moral validity to be God. Out of God’s love for man; out of God’s plan and purpose for him, comes the moral law. It has no ulterior motive nor any selfish pur pose. It is meant to enhance man’s eternal well-being, but it also enhances his temporal state as well.

Success Requires Character

Let me offer the simplest of illustrations, one which has been in my mind for many years. Who makes the most successful salesman in the long run? Is it the man who lies and cheats and steals? Remember, I said “in the long run”. To be sure, in the short run, you may get a big order by sharp practice, but will you get any repeat business? The most successful salesman is the one who is trusted because he is honest, he is sincere, he is a man of character. And what is true in sales is true in every other area of life. These values promote order and trust. Lack of them leads to chaos and anarchy because men and women become constantly suspicious of one another. Which kind of world would you prefer to live in?

A short time ago I received a mild rebuke for not preaching more Biblically oriented sermons. I do not conceive how any sermon could be more Biblically oriented than this one. It’s what the Bible is all about from start to finish. God loves you. Because he loves you he has a goal and a purpose for you. To have you attain that goal and purpose he has given you a Way in which to walk. Here in the Old Testament are Ten Commandments to which you must adhere if you would walk in that way. Here in the New Testament are Two Commandments to direct your path—love God with all of your being and love your neighbor as yourself. How do you do that? Read the Sermon on the Mount—forgive endlessly, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, serve without thought of reward, do good to those who despise and persecute you. But most important of all, we have in the New Testament a person who reveals to us by his example what each of us can become.

All Christian morality is based on God’s love. Why is abortion an evil thing? Because God loves that little child he created, but also because God loves you and does not want you to do anything that would destroy the great potential for good that is within you.

These Christian values are ultimate values. I listened to a professor of economics recently. He was speaking to foremen and supervisors of a large Wisconsin corporation. He knew I was present and that I was a minister. He mentioned the fact and prefaced one of his remarks by suggesting that I might not agree with him. He was right. I didn’t, for what he said was, “Morality is determined by the economic environment.” I would agree that morality—ultimate truth about human action—is discovered in the marketplace, but it is not determined there. It was determined a long time ago in the mind of God when he considered the end and the goal he desired man to achieve. The market may motivate man to act morally or immorally, but it does not determine right and wrong, good and evil. God has determined that.

You and I live, I am afraid, in a time of moral confusion bordering on moral chaos. What can we doabout it? We can live morally ourselves. We can advocate morality to others and defend it when it is attacked. We can pray that God will reveal the truth about morality to enough men and women that our own civilization may be saved before it goes the way of so many that have preceded it.

One thing more, we can be committed to the teaching and preserving of the moral principles taught by Jesus Christ and without which no free and worthwhile social order can survive.

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