Thursday, April 03, 2008

Puritans and pornographers

I came across a striking observation in Os Guinness's The Case for Civility. He cites sociologist Peter Berger as commenting that "America is paradoxically viewed in many parts of the world as a nation of 'Puritans and pornographers.'" Compared to secularized countries like France or other European nations, America seems to be overly religious and moralistic. On the other hand, in the eyes of the Middle East and many traditional cultures, America is hopelessly decadent and immoral. Some see us as sexually repressed, and others see us as sexually obsessed. Both perspectives are probably simultaneously true!

This reminds me of something I heard John Stott say some years back about the human paradox - we are created in God's image and thus have tremendous value, worth and capacity, yet we are thoroughly fallen and corrupt at the same time. Sometimes Christians err on one side or the other, either saying that we are basically pretty good or that we are completely worthless. Stott would have us hold the two in tension and not overemphasize either our value or our depravity. As Luther put it, we are simul justus et peccator - simultaneously saint and sinner. That's not just abstract theological truth. It corresponds pretty well with reality and lived experience.

So it's not merely that American society is divided between different tribes, that some are Puritans and others are pornographers and that these camps are locked in a culture war against each other. No, the truth is more significant than that. It's more that each of us is a mix of Puritan and pornographer. Created in God's image, we really do yearn for holiness and transcendence. And as fallen people, we also all too easily gravitate toward temptation and sin. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."

13 comments:

Mark Goodyear said...

This is a headline that got my attention in the RSS reader.

It reminds me of something Xmen and StarTrek producer, Ralph Winter said in an interview on TheHighCalling.org:

"I don't have to choose between doing Snow White or a porno movie. It's always shades of gray in the workplace."

Al Hsu said...

I hadn't thought about the headline in blog feeds!

And thanks for sharing the Winter quote and interview. Good stuff.

Fusion! said...

I liked the solzenitsen quote. It's this that reminds me how much I need to be alert for myself. As one professor told my class one day: all of you know right now what will bring you down one day.

Anonymous said...

Where in Luther's works can I find his "simul"?

Al Hsu said...

Evidently Luther used it various places and times; I just googled it, and it looks like one place that he referenced it is in the Preface to his Lectures on Romans.

Anonymous said...

Al: I just checked Luther's preface to Romans. Though there is much about how one becomes "just" before God, there's no "simul" there.

Al Hsu said...

Anonymous - Hmmm, maybe I shouldn't pull stuff off the web. Here's the link and material I came across:

http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/luther-on-sin-and-grace

Here is Luther from the Preface to his Lectures on Romans. (Far from his best stuff, by the way.)

“Since the saints are always conscious of their sin, and seek righteousness from God in accordance with his mercy, they are always reckoned as righteous by God (semper quoque iusti a deo reputantur). Thus in their own eyes, and as a matter of fact, they are unrighteous. But God reckons them as righteous on account of their confession of their sin. In fact, they are sinners; however, they are righteous by the reckoning of a merciful God (Re vera peccatores, sed reputatione miserentis Dei iusti). Without knowing it, they are righteous; knowing it, they are unrighteous. They are sinners in fact, but righteous in hope (peccatores in re, iusti autem in spe)…

It is like the case of a man who is ill, who trusts the doctor who promises him a certain recovery and in the meantime obeys the doctor’s instructions, abstaining from what has been forbidden to him, in the hope of the promised recovery (in spe promissae sanitatis), so that he does not do anything to hinder this promised recovery…Now this man who is ill, is he healthy? The fact is that he is a man who is both ill and healthy at the same time (immo aegrotus simul et sanus). As a matter of fact, he is ill; but he is healthy on account of the certain promise of the doctor, who he trusts and who reckons him as healthy already, because he is sure that he will cure him. Indeed he has already begun to cure him, and no longer regards him as having a terminal illness. In the same way, our Samaritan, Christ, has brought this ill man to the inn to be cared for, and has begun to cure him, having promised him the most certain cure leading to eternal life…Now is this man perfectly righteous? No. But he is at one and the same time a sinner and a righteous person (simul iustus et peccator). He is a sinner in fact, but a righteous person by the sure reckoning and promise of God that he will continue to deliver him from sin until he has completely cured him. And so he is totally healthy in hope, but a sinner in fact (sanus perfecte est in spe, in re autem peccator). He has the beginning of righteousness, and so always continues more and more to seek it, while realizing that he is always unrighteous.

Anonymous said...

Exactly, though he dances all around it, there's no "simul iustus et peccator." Did he really say it? Where?

Al Hsu said...

It's in that above quote: "But he is at one and the same time a sinner and a righteous person (simul iustus et peccator)."

A colleague just directed me to a paper, "Luther on Galatians," by Arlen Hultgren of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, that says, "The actual phrase 'simul justus et peccator' is to be found in the 1535 edition" of Luther's Lectures on Galatians, and the note citation is LW [Luther's Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, St. Louis: Concordia] 26:232 (see footnote 49); cf a similar expression in 26:235 and in 27:231 (note 39).

http://www.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/20-3_Galatians/20-3_Hultgren.pdf

Al Hsu said...

Oops - Arland, not Arlen.

Anonymous said...

Thanks.

tghali said...

"It's more that each of us is a mix of Puritan and pornographer."

Yes, yes! it's statements like these that appreciate the complexity of it all. It's not simple, it's not easy to fix. I get very frustrated over some of the language of the culture war and I'm not sure that metaphor is right either.

Thanks for stopping by my blog earlier.

Every Square Inch said...

Al

Good post. I think the culture war is well intended but silly stuff - I dislike the moniker. We war against the flesh, we war against sin but I don't know if the Bible places an emphasis on warring against the culture or political entities.

The sin we are to be most concerned about is our own - each of us is both sinner and saint. Thanks for the reminder