Current Events Monday: Is There Anything New Under the Sun?

James Hassell   -  

Consider this deep thought from the writer of Ecclesiastes: “What has been, it is what will be, And what has been done, it is what will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, NASB). While this axiom may not stir you to action on a dreary Monday morning, there is something to be said for the fact that the current spirit of the age, no matter how we may dress it up, has already been tried and found wanting.

Let’s consider the controversy over Elon Musk taking control of Twitter. In a recent opinion article, Dean Obeidallah of CNN reports that hate-speech from Islamic terrorists and neo-Nazis on Twitter is skyrocketing. Obeidallah recommends that advertisers pull their funds from the social media titan before “the worst of the worst” take the reins of Musk’s company. You can read the opinion piece by clicking on this link: Opinion: Elon Musk’s Twitter is helping to normalize a neo-Nazi | CNN.

While we will refrain here from a lengthy discourse regarding what can or cannot count as hate speech (see Matthew 5:21-26), we ought to take a closer look at the moral philosophies undergirding both Musk and his critics like Obeidallah. It appears to me that both operate from a rather subjective point of view when it comes to determining right or wrong. To be subjective means that one bases his/her decisions more on personal feelings and opinions than upon a more objective criterion. And there’s the rub. What is subjectively right for Musk is subjectively wrong for Obeidallah. So, who gets to decide which “truth” will win the argument? Well, no one really. Obeidallah’s best hope is to convince advertisers to side with his truth. Musk obviously is using his wealth to sustain his truth. Wealth indicates that one knows the truth better than the other guy, right?

Many people in today’s world believe that subjective truth claims, especially those claims which sound reasonable, are simply the spirit of a more enlightened age. This age has even been given a fancy name: “postmodernism.” It’s the idea that we all have our own reality based on our experiences. We are also said to understand our experiences through different categories of understanding, like “race,” “Marxism/Capitalism,” or even “Christianity.” In other words, postmodern belief assumes that Christianity is one category of many options whereby a person experiences and understands the outside world. The Christian therefore has no real claim to truth, and any attempt at justifying the truth would be viewed as a kind of language game for the unenlightened. A postmodern person could say then that Christian language (and truth claims) is all simply relative to one’s culture and community environment. And if one’s rhetoric becomes too harsh in the eyes of the majority, relative to the other truth claims out there, then one risks being ostracized for going too overboard about a given truth claim.

Did you know that postmodernism actually has been tried in the past? In fact, the so-called progressive, postmodern period of the 21st Century has its roots planted deeply in the philosophies of the 17th Century. The work of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) particularly impacts us today. You would likely not find many people outside of a university setting who would know of Spinoza, but his impact is still deeply felt. Spinoza took the philosophical ball of Rene Descartes (the one who famously said: “I think therefore I am”) and ran with it. For instance, Spinoza claimed that men and women—when it comes to right and wrong—function in a more mechanical way than anything else. Spinoza would say that there is no real difference between good and evil because these are subjective opinions we make based on our categories and experiences. Sin, therefore, is simply our failure at obeying civil law, or an ideal which is to be pursued and enforced by the state (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). And we will know that we are on the right track when we experience pleasure, since pleasure is equated with good. The highest good for a person in this life, then, is to be useful in acquiring pleasure for himself/herself and to seek a higher plane of understanding of our neighbor, while not harming others in their pursuit of the same.

Which gets us back to Musk and Obeidallah. In our postmodern world, influenced by Spinoza, they both have a claim to be right because of their informed, yet subjective, opinions about reality. Obeidallah would argue that he is right because Musk is failing to obey civil law by not censuring hate speech. Musk would therefore be sinning and harming others in the pursuit of his happiness. Yet, Musk could argue that he is right since Obeidallah is failing to obey civil law by attempting to coerce advertisers into leaving Twitter and denying others their right to free speech. Oh, what a tangled web we weave.

So, who’s right and who’s wrong? Is it up to the state to decide? What would Jesus say to Elon Musk and Dean Obeidallah? I’ll leave that to you to consider for now. Meanwhile, it is helpful to know that any new philosophical fad that comes along has been tried before. Jesus however said that he is The Way. What does his claim mean then for you today?