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“Everyone does it,” the high school student explained to me, as she copied the answers, sent via group text, to her homework assignment. “The teacher knows and doesn’t care,” I’m told. And so, the copying proceeds without a thought or care. The assignment is turned in with the confident hope of a perfect score. The over-inflated grade point average is maintained, along with the future hope for admission into a prestigious college and ultimately, a posh job. Given this mentality, pervasive among students and parents, the recent college admissions scandal should hardly come as a surprise.1 When the moral and social order is severed from the sacred order, as it is in our disenchanted age, then why not cheat and manipulate the admissions system in order to secure your child’s spot in their college of choice? If happiness, as is widely thought, consists in the unfettered satisfaction of desire, then why not, once in college, continue to cheat, manipulate, and pay your way through in order to graduate?
Why not indeed? There are at least three problems with this behavior and the mindset that supports it. Given the outrage directed toward those rich and famous celebrities and business owners who have allegedly manipulated the system to benefit their own aims, many see at least one of the problems: the injustice of it all. When the “haves” steal the spots of the “have nots” by bribing their child’s way into an elite university, others who are worthy of admittance on their own merit will be left out. This is unjust. It is wrong. It is theft over honest toil. But there are other problems too, and in order to see them, we need a clear picture of the moral life. We need to recapture a vision of human flourishing that is actually true to the way things are.
THE NATURE OF THE MORAL LIFE
Picture a fleet of ships. C. S. Lewis tells us there are three ingredients needed for the fleet to make a successful voyage.2 First, each ship must be individually seaworthy. The hull must not leak, the mast and boom should be in working order, and the sails ready to catch the wind. Second, each ship must be rightly related to the others. The ships must be far enough apart to avoid collision, yet close enough to help each other in times of need. Finally, the ships must be rightly related to their end, their destination. They must follow a course that will lead them where they wish to go.
Lewis introduces the image of a fleet of ships as a metaphor to help us understand the nature of the moral life. He equates living the good life with the successful voyage of the fleet, and he argues that it, too, has three components. To experience the good life, we first must be rightly related within ourselves such that our imagination, reason, and conscience work in concert to promote right behavior and, over time, excellence of character. A life well lived is a life of intellectual and moral virtue. But human flourishing also means being rightly related to others. Any injustices perpetrated between human beings — lying, murder, theft, abuse, disrespect — are violations of shalom, of peace and order. We were created to live in harmony with others. Even in the garden of Eden, it was not good for Adam to be alone (Gen. 2:18). The good life is a life lived with others, one filled with deep and abiding relationships. We were created to be known and to know, to be loved and to love.
Finally, human flourishing requires us to be rightly related to our end — our purpose. We were created to love and serve God according to the nature He gave us, and we thrive when we live this way. If we locate our lives in the gospel story and live under God’s rule and reign, we will find our identity, meaning, and purpose. The good life is a flourishing life, a life rightly ordered with respect to self, others, and our end.3
CONSEQUENCES OF DISENCHANTMENT
In a disenchanted world bereft of the divine, morality has been reduced to the social component only. But there is more, as Lewis reminds us. Cheating doesn’t just hurt others, it hurts the cheater too. In deceiving others, we deceive ourselves. In taking our cues from an “anything goes” culture, our conscience corrupts. The result is fragmentation; we cease organizing our lives around the good that is God. When we cheat — even in small ways — we form habits that set us on a trajectory with ever-widening implications. Eventually, we will no longer be able even to see or understandor will the good. Our conscience becomes muted, insensitive to rational moral principles (the Bible speaks of a “seared” conscience in 1 Timothy 4:1–2).
By way of example, consider the growing problem of students paying others to ghost-write their essays. When asked if buying an essay and turning it in as one’s own work is a big deal, notice this student’s moral confusion:
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Technically, I don’t think it’s cheating because, like, you’re paying someone to write an essay, which they don’t plagiarize, but they write everything on their own.
SMITH: So they may not be plagiarizing, I say, but aren’t you?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: That’s just kind of a difficult question to answer. I don’t know how to feel about it. It’s kind of like a gray area.4
There is nothing gray about paying someone else to do the work you are supposed to do and then claiming you did it! Scripture is clear on this: “You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15, NIV; cf. Matt. 19:18 and Jesus’s affirmation of this basic moral principle and Rom. 13:9 for Paul’s affirmation of it too). Our actions matter. So does the collective conscience of our culture. It shapes us and our moral sensibilities. When we understand and live according to the sacred order of things, we act wisely. We set ourselves on a path that leads to wholeness and flourishing. When we pursue the modern “quest for authenticity” and prioritize “being true to self” or some version of this Disneyland conception of courage and the authentic, we will, in the end, hurt ourselves and others.5
The deeper issue is that we no longer understand our true end. Without a map or diagram of human nature, we lack a clear picture of what it means to be human. And so we are confused about the nature of happiness. As Lewis colorfully puts it in his book The Problem of Pain, God gives us only the happiness there is, not the happiness there isn’t.6 And what is the happiness that God gives? Our highest good is to know God and take up our place within HHis story in joy and delight. Happiness is not the unfettered satisfaction of desire, rather, true happiness is found in communion with God through union with God as we live out our God-given purpose in this world. This is our end, the only port of destination that will satisfy our wandering hearts. As Lewis describes it, there are only two real options for creatures: “to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response — [or] to be miserable — these are the only [two] alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows — the only food that any possible universe ever can grow — then we must starve eternally.”7 Let the injustice of the recent college admissions scandal awaken your longing, not only for justice but for the wholeness and genuine happiness found in Jesus and the gospel story.
The outrage over the college admissions scandal teaches us one important lesson, too. The human longing for justice has not been completely muted, even if the culture’s collective conscience is corrupted (as the unidentified student in the interview shows so painfully well). Our job as cultural apologists is to nourish and reawaken this deeper longing for goodness (justice being one part of this longing) by living whole lives under the banner of Christ. As we do so, we’ll help renew the Christian conscience and show others the brilliance and beauty of Jesus and the gospel story.
As cultural apologists, one way for us to awaken desire in others is to point out this universal longing for happiness while admitting that it remains elusive. We can explore how this longing for happiness points to something we’ve lost. The longing awakens us to the fact that our world isn’t the way it ought to be and suggests a time when humankind was truly and completely happy, now only a distant memory. The elusive nature of happiness also exposes our helplessness and hopelessness apart from God.
Pascal notes, “This [longing for happiness] he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”8 People today are confused about where to find happiness, seeking it in this-worldly goods or religious works instead of in the gospel and in union with God. But as Pascal concludes, “God alone is man’s true good.”9 Only when we are united with God will we find true happiness. Cultural apologetics involves drawing attention to this universal longing for happiness and the fruitless efforts of humanity to attain happiness through self-effort or created things. By taking this approach, we can help others become more aware of their heart’s deepest longing for God.10
Paul M. Gould teaches philosophy and apologetics at Oklahoma Baptist University and is the founder and president of the Two Tasks Institute. He is the author or editor of ten books including the Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Zondervan, 2019).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith