The Three Worlds and the Tao

Negative World Rejects an Ordered Cosmos

By now, Aaron Renn’s Three Worlds Framework has become a common tool for describing evangelicalism’s relationship to American culture. Here is Renn’s own succinct summary of the framework:

Within the story of American secularization, there have been three distinct stages:

  • Positive World (Pre-1994): Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity. To be known as a good, churchgoing man remains part of being an upstanding citizen. Publicly being a Christian is a status-enhancer. Christian moral norms are the basic moral norms of society and violating them can bring negative consequences.
  • Neutral World (1994–2014): Society takes a neutral stance toward Christianity. Christianity no longer has privileged status but is not disfavored. Being publicly known as a Christian has neither a positive nor a negative impact on one’s social status. Christianity is a valid option within a pluralistic public square. Christian moral norms retain some residual effect.
  • Negative World (2014–Present): Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the elite domains of ­society. Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order. Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences.

Renn acknowledges that these dates are impressionistic as opposed to precise dates (though he provides rationale for the impression). 

Time would fail to rehearse the various commendations and criticisms of the framework. However, one of the more common criticisms runs like this: Hasn’t Christianity always lived in a Negative World? Isn’t hostility to genuine Christianity the norm? After all, doesn’t the Bible say that the world will hate us (Mark 13:13; 1 John 3:13; 2 Timothy 3:12)?

For example, in a recent article at First Things, Carl Trueman argues that Renn’s negative world framework “needs modification.”

For those of us who grew up in Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century, confessional orthodox Protestantism has always been culturally marginal and despised. Ours was always the negative world, albeit perhaps less intensely so than now. For American evangelicals, this is a new experience, one that is disorienting and infuriating. That is why it is important to remember that the message of the Christian gospel has always stood in antithesis to the thinking of the surrounding world, even when the churches and that world had a broadly shared moral imagination. The antithesis is merely more obvious and more socially significant now. But it has always been there. 

That means that the task of the Church and her ministers has always stood in antithesis to the world as well. 

My aim in this essay is to offer a clarification of the framework that addresses this criticism. In the process, I hope to show the framework does illuminate a number of the tensions and divisions among Reformed evangelicals.
My major claim is this: The Three Worlds framework is fundamentally about what C. S. Lewis called the Tao

What is the Tao? Lewis introduced the term in his little book on education called The Abolition of Man. In that book, Lewis sets forth two fundamentally different visions of reality, and the two approaches to education that flow from them. 

The Tao is C. S. Lewis’s term for the objective rational and moral order embedded in the cosmos. 

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt…

It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). (C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools (HarperOne, 2001), 14–19.)

When our thoughts correspond to the objective order of reality, we speak of truth. When our emotions correspond to the objective order of reality, we speak of goodness. The Tao then is the objective order of the universe, and the human way of life that corresponds to it. 

Other names for the Tao include Natural Law or Traditional Morality. Lewis refers to it as the Tao for the sake of brevity and in order to stress its universality. Lewis claims that a belief in the objective rational and moral order of the universe is present not only in Christianity, but in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition, even ancient paganism. What’s more, in the appendix to Abolition of Man, Lewis shows that the particular rational and moral demands of these different traditions have significant overlap, demonstrating the universality of the Tao

As Christians, this, of course, is not surprising. We believe that God created the world, that he created us with intellect and will, and that he has written the law on every heart in the form of the conscience. For simplicity’s sake, I will continue to use the Tao throughout this essay. However, readers who stumble over that term should simply substitute “natural law” or “created order” or “objective morality” for it whenever I use the Tao.

The Poison of Subjectivism

In opposition to the Tao stands the modern ideology which Lewis calls the poison of Subjectivism. This ideology, Lewis believes, is an existential threat to Western civilization, and indeed to humanity as a whole. It’s a pernicious error that enables tyrannical power and totalitarianism. It’s a fatal superstition that slowly erodes and destroys a civilization. It’s a disease that can end our species and damn our souls.

The poison of subjectivism upends the ancient and humane way of viewing the world. Reason itself is debunked (today, we would say deconstructed). Instead of the human capacity to participate in the eternal Logos, reason is simply an epiphenomenon that accompanies certain chemical and electrical events in the cortex, which is itself the product of blind evolutionary processes. Put more simply, reason is simply an accidental and illusory brain secretion.

Under the influence of this poison, moral value judgments are simply projections of irrational emotions onto an indifferent cosmos. Truth and goodness are merely words we apply to our own subjective psychological states, states that we have been socially conditioned to have. Indeed, at the social level, this is where subjectivism tends. Because rational thought is merely a brain secretion, and value judgments are merely irrational projections, the imposition of reason and morality in society is always a dressed-up power play.

Lewis saw the seeds of this ideology planted in his own day. However, it was largely theoretical. This ideology was in vogue among the intelligentsia, but Lewis saw it making its way into educational curricula and the popular imagination. Its presence in an English grammar textbook is what prompted Lewis to write The Abolition of Man. Lewis hoped and thought the hard sciences would limit the infection of subjectivism. The practical need for results would hinder the poison when it comes to research and scientific advances. 

But in the twenty-first century, we are witnessing technological and scientific advances employed in the service of subjectivism. Some of the latest “advances” in medicine are used not to heal, but to maim; not to restore the body to its proper function, but to mutilate the body and render it impotent or barren. In a literal fulfillment of Lewis’s warning, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

The Tao in America

What does all of this have to do with Renn’s framework for secularization in America? Well, American culture, like Western civilization as a whole, is an expression or manifestation of the Tao. From our founding documents to our customs and practices, and from sea to shining sea, American culture, for most of our history, has been firmly grounded in an explicit belief in the objective moral and rational order of the universe.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Claiming that American culture is an expression of the Tao in no way implies that America has perfectly conformed to that Tao. Living within the Tao is not the same as living up to the Tao. For significant portions of our history, America has grossly failed to abide by the basic principles of the Tao (such as the Golden Rule). Think of the grave evils of slavery and Jim Crow. However, both the abolitionist movement and later the Civil Rights movement were appeals to the Tao. In fact, Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is a classic American appeal to the Tao, as expressed in the Scriptures, in the Western theological and philosophical tradition (from Augustine to Aquinas to Luther to Bucer), and in America’s own heritage (Jefferson, Lincoln, and the Constitution). 

Thus, we must stress that grounding the social order in the Tao is not the same as living up to the Tao’s demands. But, as both Lewis and King knew, the very possibility of moral progress hinges on the objectivity of the standard to which we appeal. Moral progress is impossible unless we have a permanent moral standard by which to measure. Imperfect and flawed as it has been, the civilizational embrace of the Tao has historically been a crucial feature of American society.

The Tao and the Peculiar Doctrines

But, we must add, not a permanent feature. I contend that the three stages that Renn identifies are fundamentally about American society’s orientation to the Tao, and not to Christianity as such. To understand the difference, we must distinguish between the Tao and what we might call “the peculiar doctrines” of Christianity. Or, put another way, we must distinguish Law from Gospel. 

The peculiar doctrines of Christianity have to do with the Christian solution to the universal human problem. The incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, justification by faith, the forgiveness of sins, the exclusivity of Christ–these are all distinctly Christian. The Tao has to do with the universal human problem itself. 

Thus, throughout American history, the peculiar doctrines have been, well, peculiar. They have been viewed with suspicion by large numbers of Americans. One thinks of Benjamin Franklin’s deism or Thomas Jefferson’s Bible (though, of course, we must also remember that these two were outliers in the early American period; the American founding was a decidedly Protestant affair that frequently recognized the peculiar doctrines). 

Nevertheless, for the last hundred years, doctrines like the exclusivity of Christ have been rejected by large numbers of Americans. But being odd or uncouth or mocked because we Christians believe that Jesus is the divine solution (indeed, the only solution) to our failure to obey the Tao (“there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we may be saved”) is different from being moral pariahs and bigots because we continue to embrace the Tao at all.

Put another way, one hundred years ago, conservative, Bible-believing Christians were cultural outsiders because we believed in the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of Jesus, and the coming judgment. Thirty years ago, we were not merely odd but offensive for believing that Jesus is the only way to God. These facts are what led Trueman to modify Renn’s framework.

Today, we might still be mocked for believing in “fairy tales” like the resurrection; we might still be somewhat offensive for believing that Jesus is the only way to God. But more than that, we are culturally despised and regarded as dangerous bigots for believing that a boy is a boy, and not a girl, that a girl grows up to be a woman and not a man, that children need both a mother and a father, and that marriage is an exclusive lifelong union between a man and a woman for the primary purpose of procreation. Each of these claims is rooted in the Tao, not the peculiar doctrines of Christianity. Negative World, then, is fundamentally about the Tao.

Illustrations of the Shift

Renn himself accents this dimension of the shift in his discussion of “Christian moral norms.” According to Renn, the Cold War limited the spread of Subjectivism (or what we can call Tao-rejection or the un-Tao) since the West embraced the God-given moral order of the cosmos in opposition to the Soviet Union with its atheistic communism. The end of the Cold War threw open the doors to the Neutral World, in which, without the existential threat of atheistic communism, rejection of the Tao subtly spread throughout American society, eventually becoming the atheist theocracy of what Auron MacIntyre calls “the Total State.” 

To underscore this point, consider the changing positions on gay marriage of the three Democratic presidents that span this time period. In 1996, at the tail end of the Positive World, Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law, expressing his long-standing belief that “marriage is an institution for the union of a man and a woman.” In the midst of the Neutral World, Barack Obama campaigned on his own personal belief in traditional marriage, while resisting any further attempts to protect the institution (in 2011, his Department of Justice stopped defending DOMA in court). Joe Biden, serving as President in the Negative World on this side of the Obergefell decision, unapologetically embraces the un-Tao and has sought to enshrine its incoherence and absurdity into law and policy. This is the fundamental shift that Renn identifies: the enshrinement of the un-Tao in law has unleashed chaos into the body politic, and conservative Christians, as those who embrace, guard, and seek to live within the Tao, find themselves alienated from a society that is increasingly unmoored from the moral and rational order of the universe. 

At the same time, I want to encourage Christians to speak in the language of the Tao or Natural Law or the created order over simply “Christian moral norms.” Or better, to always remember and regularly express that Christian ethical teaching is universal, normative, natural, and embedded in creation. 

This is especially important because of the way that the poison of subjectivism and its notions of social construction, reinforced by our modern technoculture, have influenced all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike. As modern people, our default is to regard reality as fundamentally plastic and malleable. It’s like play-dough. Progressives claim that Christians or conservatives or the patriarchy have, in the past, molded the play-dough of reality in an oppressive and self-serving way, and now they want to free people to mold the play-dough of reality in whatever way they choose. We ought to be free to construct our identity and our sexuality. 

This way of thinking about malleable reality is so pervasive that even faithful Christians can be subtly catechized into it. We begin to think that ethical reasoning is a fight for who controls the play-dough. Sexual progressives want to mold it in a progressive way. Christian egalitarians want to mold it in an egalitarian way. And we, as conservative Christians, want to mold reality in a biblical way. But the unstated and implicit assumption is that reality is play-dough. And this false view of reality feeds an insecurity among Christians because we think we’re losing the fight for control of the play-dough. 

And this is where a robust understanding of the Tao or natural law or the objective rational and moral order and its proper relationship to Scripture is so important. We must constantly keep two truths in mind. One, reality is not play-dough. It is not infinitely malleable. God has made a cosmos, an ordered and structured world with integrity, unity, harmony, and design. Second, rebellion against the Tao is possible, and can be temporarily effective. As the great sage Chris Stapleton said, “Falling feels like flying until you hit the ground.” 

There is a tension here. Rebellious human beings can be temporarily successful. They can violate God’s design in the created order. But reality is stubborn, and nature will take her revenge. 

Moving Forward: The Three Uses of the Tao

Where then does this leave us? How does viewing the Three Worlds as a shift in American culture’s relationship to the Tao help us to understand the present times and walk wisely in the world?

First, it encourages us to secure the vestiges of the Tao that persist in our culture and laws and to aim to recover those that have been lost. In our homes, in our schools, in our stories, in our churches, in our communities, and in our laws, we ought to seek to embrace, recover, and live within the Tao, within God’s objective moral order. And in good Protestant fashion, we ought to do so along the lines of Calvin’s view of the law. Think of this as “the three uses of the Tao.”

In the first use, the Tao acts as a mirror, showing us both the righteousness of God (who stands behind the Tao) and the unrighteousness of men. The Tao here is a schoolmaster that leads us to Christ. 

In the second use, the Tao acts to restrain evil. Human laws, in our cities, states, and nation, ought to reflect and apply the Tao in concrete circumstances.

In the third use, the Tao is a guide for Christians as we seek, with God’s help, to value things according to their value, to rightly order our loves and desires, and to structure our homes, churches, and communities in harmony with God’s objective rational and moral order. 

These three uses go hand in hand. The Tao, whether practiced in homes, preached in pulpits, taught in schools, expressed in stories, or reflected in law, teaches and instructs us in what is good and right. When such laws are backed with just punishment, they also restrain evil. And when they are embodied in a people, they adorn the truth with gracious conduct. 

Martin Luther King expressed the point well when he said, “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.” 

Today we might say, “It would be good if doctors did not castrate boys and mutilate girls because they themselves embraced the Tao. Better still if such actions were unthinkable because the doctors love Christ and the children who bear his image. But short of that, it is still good if doctors refuse to castrate boys and mutilate girls because to do so would bring down upon their heads both civil and criminal penalties.”

King’s statement suggests that law has no effect on the heart. However, he goes on to say that things aren’t so simple. Law may not directly change the heart, but may still have some influence on the heart. “While the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men. And when you change the habits of men, pretty soon the attitudes and the hearts will be changed.”

In other words, good laws restrain evil and teach what is good. In doing so, they affect our habits, and our habits create space for hearts to change (I’ll say more about this in a moment). For now, in highlighting the three uses of the Tao, I want to stress that securing and recovering the Tao is a gospel issue. 

The gospel is only good news in the face of the bad news that we have broken God’s law and stand beneath his judgment. Thus, a society that seeks to live within the Tao is a society constantly engaged in pre-evangelism. The Tao tells us how we ought to live; we then discover that we don’t live up to it. We fail, and fail miserably. At that point, we are ready to hear what the book of Romans has to say.

Here’s how Lewis expressed this point. 

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were.’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with [modern subjectivists]. (C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (ed. Walter Hooper; HarperOne, 1994), 186.

Lewis here mentions full paganism, with its polytheism and sacrificial offerings. We might instead speak of cultural Christianity. Like classical pagans, cultural Christians are sub-Christian, and therefore eminently convertible. Which is why I can’t join those Christians who welcome the demise of cultural Christianity or Bible Belt religion. Cultural Christianity, so the argument goes, was a hindrance to the spread of the gospel. It lulled people into a false sense of security, it covered over rank evil, and it was a stumbling block to unbelievers. So good riddance.

Now there may be truth to some of that criticism, but I think such celebration is a significant error. Cultural Christianity never saved anyone, and to the degree that it covered over sin and wickedness, God hated it, and we ought to condemn it. But cultural Christianity, however imperfect, was and is a manifestation of the Tao. In that sense, it was and is a form of pre-evangelism. It tills the soil to prepare it for the seed. As Lewis said, it gives us something to work on and to work with. It teaches us through laws and customs and cultural practices the reality of the Tao, of God’s moral order. So, cultural Christianity never saved anyone, but it did give many a sense of sin and guilt, which, as Timon Cline has argued, prepared them for the good news of Jesus. 

In contrast, our contemporary social order is catechizing all of us in subjectivism. Laws, customs, stories, rituals–all of these aim to undermine and overthrow the objective givenness of the moral order. Richard Hooker, the English Reformer and a hero of Lewis, once wrote of the destructive effect of ungodly customs.

Perverted and wicked customs — perhaps beginning with a few and spreading to the multitude, and then continuing for a long time — may be so strong that they smother the light of our natural understanding, because men refuse to make an effort to consider whether their customs are good or evil. (Divine Law and Human Nature, 43)

The poison of subjectivism, when expressed in customs and enshrined in law, removes the ordinary checks to such error and evil by denying that good and evil objectively exist at all. That’s what Obergefell, the Supreme Court decision that redefined marriage, did. Marriage was already weakened by no-fault divorce and the destigmatization of adultery and fornication. The lusts, desires, and sinful passions had already done a number on marriage. But those passions and desires had, in some measure, been restrained by law and custom, flowing from the Tao. Obergefell unleashed those passions and placed them in the driver’s seat, leading from L, G, and B, to T, Q, and +. 

And yet, because we live in God’s world and not the world of our fevered imaginations, we can’t escape the pressure of the objective moral order, pressing upon us both from our conscience and from the Scriptures. And this is our task as Christians: to labor to creatively and clearly and courageously press the law of God on the consciences of men. Like Nathan with King David, we must work, with God’s help, to awaken the moral sense of our friends and families, and then to lovingly and clearly turn it to say, “You are the man!” We do this, in hope that they come to feel their lostness and therefore are able, by God’s grace, to see and savor the glory of the heart of the gospel. 

Fault Lines

Second, recognizing the significance of the Tao for the Three Worlds Framework and the Culture War helps to explain some of the fault lines among Reformed evangelicals. I think that one major fault line (with many secondary fault lines flowing from it) is between those who see the societal rejection of the Tao as fundamentally different from the sinfulness of previous generations. In other words, there’s a difference between regular (and even pervasive and high-handed) violations of the Tao (such as Jim Crow), and the wholesale rejection of the objective rational and moral order at all. 

To press this point even more, some Christians look at the present situation and say, “We’ve always had sin; and for the last hundred years, we’ve had relativism and subjectivism. Lewis was writing in the 1940s and he saw it.” And thus, they don’t see a fundamental difference between the 1920s, the 1960s, the 1990s, and the 2020s. 

I’m arguing that while there are organic connections between those earlier eras and today, what we are seeing is the flowering of ideas and trends from previous generations. In fact, no one in recent years has traced the ideological roots of the sexual revolution and the modern obsession with identity more clearly than Carl Trueman

But there is a difference between subjectivism as an ideology embraced by certain academics and elites, and subjectivism as a legal regime, social order, educational program, and market force. In the contemporary world, the major institutions of society have swallowed the poison of subjectivism. Big Business, Big Education, Big Tech, Big Media, Big Entertainment, and Big Government are largely aligned in dismantling the vestiges of the Tao and imposing wicked custom on society. 

Thus, a major fault line among Christians concerns whether this shift is fundamentally significant for the church’s witness, and what strategies we ought to employ in the new situation. 

For example, my sense is that some Christians are reluctant to recognize just how profound the shift from Neutral to Negative World is. I suspect it lies beneath recent debates over “winsomeness” as a rhetorical strategy, as well as debates about the Christian’s relationship to civil society and politics. 

With respect to the first, many of us want our friends, family, and neighbors to know Jesus. And we don’t want them to stumble over other things. We think, “If they stumble over Jesus, that’s fine. But let’s remove the other stumbling blocks.”

But if we are in Negative World, and if hostility to Christianity is fundamentally about the Tao (and not about the peculiar doctrines of Christianity), then it will be very tempting to separate Jesus from the demands of the Tao. The problem is that we can’t separate Jesus from his demands, including the demands of the moral law which he established in the creation of the world. We may not and must not water down or mute the voice of God in his word and in our conscience. And how tempting it is to do so. How tempting it is to present Jesus only as the fulfillment of people’s desires and aspirations, as the source of comfort and happiness, without ever pressing upon them the reality of God’s law and their sin. How easy it is to turn Jesus into one more malleable part of reality, one more lump of play-dough that we can mold and shape however we want. How easy it is to re-make God in our image, rather than face the fact that we have dishonored him as the One whose image we bear.

With respect to Christians and civil society, those who believe we have shifted to Negative World are often far more willing to openly advocate for the recovery of the Tao in our laws and customs. Drag queen story hour is not a blessing of liberty, but an affront to our basic humanity. Not only should we preach against such evil from pulpits, but we ought to prosecute the sexual grooming of children, not to mention the mutilation that frequently results from such sexualization. While such efforts are animated by Christian love of neighbor, they are fundamentally matters of public justice, since society’s laws ought to reflect the fundamental moral order of the universe. 

The Importance and Impotence of the Tao

Finally, thus far I’ve been insisting that the Three Worlds and the Culture War is largely about the Tao, and thus defending, recovering, and seeking to live within the Tao is crucial to our calling as Christians in the present generation. In conclusion, I want to insist that the Tao is both important and impotent. It is crucial and insufficient. 

The reason is simple. The Tao is Law, not Gospel. While it may show our need for a Savior, it does not save. It is vital that we recognize the Tao embedded in our nature as human beings and handed down to us from generations past. More than that, it’s vital that we recognize the Tao as it is inscribed, clarified, applied, and expressed in the Scriptures, in which God himself speaks in human language to press home and ground his design and order for us in the face of our sinfulness. In other words, we must recognize that the Tao and the Bible speak with one voice. Nature and Scripture testify to the same objective reality.

But even more, we must recognize whose voice it is. We must move from the Tao (the objective order and our human nature) to the word of God (the Scriptures) to the Word, who was in the beginning with God, who indeed is himself God, and who was made flesh for us and for our salvation. 

And Lewis wants us to see this connection between the Tao and the Word. In a letter to Clyde Kilby, Lewis wrote that the Tao is

the necessary expression, in terms of temporal existence, of what God by His own righteous nature necessarily is. One could indeed say of it genitum, non factum [begotten, not made]: for is not the Tao the Word Himself, considered from a particular point of view?

In other words, in order to defend, recover, and live within the Tao, we must embrace, welcome, and celebrate the reign of King Jesus. In this respect, I would argue that Psalm 2, with its call to kiss the Son of God and take refuge in him, is the word for the hour. 

Why do the nations rage

and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

and the rulers take counsel together,

against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,

“Let us burst their bonds apart

and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;

the Lord holds them in derision.

Then he will speak to them in his wrath,

and terrify them in his fury, saying,

“As for me, I have set my King

on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree:

The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;

today I have begotten you.

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,

and the ends of the earth your possession.

You shall break them with a rod of iron

and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;

be warned, O rulers of the earth.

Serve the LORD with fear,

and rejoice with trembling.

Kiss the Son,

lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,

for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Joseph Rigney

Joseph Rigney serves as Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of numerous books, including Courage: How the Gospel Creates Christian Fortitude (Crossway, 2023).

4 thoughts on “The Three Worlds and the Tao

  1. The problem with the Tao is when any group claims to have either a monopoly on understanding the Tao or an infallible view of the Tao.

    For example, Rigney says that in order to find and live within the Tao, we must welcome Christ’s reign. But one’s warm submission to Christ does not make one infallible in understanding the Tao as the racial views of Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, and J. Gresham Machen proved.

    Not only that, perhaps we need more than a bipolar view of the world, we need to recognize more than just what is objective and what is subjective in understanding the world. For example, the embracing of homosexuality would be counted as rejecting the Tao and would be seen as the result of replacing objectivism with subjectivism. At least that would be the Christian understanding of one who welcomes and celebrates one’s homosexual attraction and urges. But then consider that well over 1,000 species of animals exhibit same sex behavior (SSB) and in at least some of those instances there are benefits to the species. Did subjectivism drive animals from those species into practicing SSB? And were those animals rejecting the Tao?

    Or regarding gender dysphoria and transgenderism. Why is it that scientists are finding possible physical causes for gender dysphoria? If there are such physical causes for that condition, where does the Tao fit in and are there times when subjectivism plays no role in such situations?

    Many of us Christians like to look at America as a good but not perfect nation. And that is why slavery and Jim Crow were used to show that while America is living in the Tao, it is not living up to it. But at what point can we say a nation might not even be living in the Tao? Aren’t we aware of the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow? Did we also include our ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the land, our exploitation of labor and the wars that were waged because of that, our subjugation of women in society, or our wars for profit or advantage? When we kill millions of Vietnamese, at what point do we say that the Vietnam War was not just unwise, but it was immoral?

    The New Testament was right about people, they are forever looking for ways to see themselves as being superior to others. And that includes us Christians. And I think Renn needs to revisit his model and ask why there is such a negative view of Christianity in America. Is it because of how Christians follow their faith in their own personal lives. or is it because of how Christians have continually imposed their Tao on others. And they do so despite the New Testament prohibitions against doing so.

  2. It’s not true that the problem with the Tao is claiming an infallible view of the Tao. There is no problem with claiming that we have an infallible revelation that murder is wrong. It’s obviously far worse to deny the Tao and claim that murder is permissible.

    SSB in animals has no bearing on questions of human morality and the Tao. Humans and animals are different and our understanding of morality is not derived from observations of animal behavior.

    It’s not true that scientists are finding physical causes of gender dysphoria. Correlation does not imply causation, so correlations between transgender identification and brain structure cannot establish that brain structures cause gender dysphoria.

    Where does the New Testament prohibit applying God’s law to others? When Jesus or Paul condemn behaviors, what reason is there to believe those condemnations only apply to Christians?

    1. JW,
      We have an infallible source: God’s Word. But our understanding of God’s Word isn’t infallible.

      As for animals and SSB, the issue isn’t whether SSB in animals touches on human morality, the issue is whether there are physical causes for SSA and SSB in people since it is so prevalent in animal species. And if there are, that does not mean that we compromise what the Bible says about both, but it should cause us to reconsider how we share what the Bible teaches on homosexuality with those who have SSA and exhibit SSB.

      And yes, from genetic defects that interfere with the processing of certain hormones to a person having a different brain structure than their biological sex indicates they should have, scientists are finding possible physical causes for gender dysphoria.

      In your last paragraph, are you talking about the Church when you say we? And how do you mean apply God’s law to others? Do you mean apply God’s laws in just what we preach?

  3. My argument does not depend on the existence of infallible scriptures or infallible understanding. Regardless, your statement that “our understanding of God’s Word isn’t infallible,” obscures rather than clarifies. Words convey truth. We do not need an infallible understanding to know that “You shall not kill” means abortion is wrong. Likewise, we can reject transgender ideology because we are told God made humans male and female.

    We simply cannot conclude from animal behavior that the same behavior in humans has a physical cause. We would not apply this logic to cannibalism.

    At most scientists have suggested a possible physical cause for gender dysphoria. Correlation still does not imply causation. Alternative explanations exist. It is known that brain structures can change over time in response to behaviors and habits. In any event, we should not conclude that men can be born in women’s bodies. Any physical cause for gender dysphoria does not require we treat it with cross-sex hormones, etc. So, when it comes down to policies, a reasonable view is that natural law teaches that we should ban gender transition for minors.

    Of course the Church should preach on God’s law. But then what? Are the hearers to do nothing? In the 19th century if an abolitionist preacher preached on the evils of slavery, should lawmakers have responded by doing nothing?

    The problem is your argument proves too much. I suspect that you believe that sometimes the Tao or natural law should define our laws, but you have not defined where the limit is. When should a Christian understanding influence our laws and when not?

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