The Outward Turn
The "inward turn" of modernity has finally transformed every autonomous human into a rebellious reality-manufacturer and reduced muscular public Christianity to a jejune private mystery religion.
Dear friends and supporters,
In postmodernity, the Self is the god before whom all must bow. Even this is not the most accurate diagnosis of our cultural depravity. It’s more correct to say that the Self is the inventor of reality. The idea of a shared reality, axiomatic for millennia of human history, is no longer a commonsensical supposition. Reality itself is contested.
To assert, for example, that there are two, and only two, sexes is not simply hate speech warranting cultural “cancelation.” It’s an assault against the Self’s prerogative to select its own reality. You don’t get to assume or demand the reality on which all reasonable humans should agree; no, the creation of reality is the Self’s unalienable right.
Reality as an objective fact common to every human is a thought crime.
This reality reinvention didn’t appear rootlessly. It has a genealogy. Its impetus was what historians of ideas sometimes refer to “the inward turn.”
Descartes and the Epistemology of the Self
The inward turn probably started with the French mathematician René Descartes (day-KART). Descartes was interested in arriving at indubitable knowledge among so many competing truth claims of his time. He devised the famous Latin dictum Cogito, ergo sum, "I think; therefore, I am.” Descartes began his quest for absolute certainty with absolute skepticism. He suggested that the very act of skepticism proves, at the very least, that one exists. To doubt must be to exist, because without existence, there can be no one to do the doubting. His epistemology (theory of knowledge) moved out from there.
Man had always believed in an objective world and objective reality. The ancient Jews and Christians everywhere knew that they could know because God had created an objective world that they could know. Epistemology is rooted in faith. There were occasionally solipsists, who believed that they alone existed, but they were by far the madmen minority. Reasonable people believed that the world is real and objective.
Descartes didn’t deny this objective world, but he longed for an autonomous, rationally indisputable foundation for knowing it, and he believed that his radically skeptical approach could furnish that key.
In the history of ideas, Cartesian epistemology began the inward turn away from the objective world as man’s chief interest.
Kant and the Creativity of the Self
The next inward step is the proposal of the premier Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (rhymes with font). Kant wanted to solve lingering epistemological questions by saying that knowledge is a combination of (1) sense impressions from the external world and (2) built-in categories of human thought. Reality is like a large mall parking lot. The parking spaces are pre-established categories of the human mind into which the vehicles of external sense data are parked.
To switch metaphors: the human mind is the internal software that arranges the data entered on the external keyboard.
This meant that, in the words of one interpreter of Kant, we don’t see the things of the world as they are, but as we are. While Descartes began with skepticism, Kant ended with it. An inward turn to be sure.
Kant’s was a universal inwardness, all humanity sharing these mental categories that shaped reality. There is no knowledge beyond our sense world, but our sense world is not immediately available to us; it is always filtered through our internally hardwired mental categories.
This meant, among other things, that man couldn’t know “things in themselves,” but only things as Selves know them. This included God. Man cannot know God, but he can surmise that God exists from his (Self-perceived) reality. We know the world (and everything else) by knowing ourselves.
Romanticism and the (Re)Invention of the Self
Next came late 18th and the early 19th century Romanticism. We could call this a balkanized inwardness. To the Romantics, what was important was not inward mental categories all humans shared, but rather the unique interpretation of life by each individual. (See “Our Romantic Moment.”)
The Romantics were among the first thinkers in history to see humans as inventors of their own Selves. For the pre-Kantians, man was called to conform to the external world, universal reality, God’s creation. Reality was a given. By contrast, the Romantics perceived each individual as an artist, painting not so much the external world, but the internal Self. They were the first in history to act according to the maximum: reinvent yourself.
We sometimes hear the well-meaning exhortation, “Christianity doesn’t start with the Bible, but with Jesus Christ.” This might very well be true, but Christians must embrace biblical truth anterior to Christianity, and that is creation as the Bible describes it. Put another way: the Bible is bigger than Christianity. We will not understand his person and work in their greater depths if we bypass creation. This is a small book about not bypassing creation. It’s a book about thinking in creational categories, and purging contra-creational categories that infect our culture and, in too many cases, our churches.
You can order the e-book or paperback here.
Nietzsche and the Morals of the Self
Ethics and morals could not escape the inward turn, and this is where Friedrich Nietzsche (NEE-chu) comes in. If you recognize that once we give up on God and on the universal moral standards implied in the external, objective world, there is nothing and no one left but man as the source of morality, the Self becomes the unquestioned standard of right and wrong.
The brave, enlightened humans are those who recognize this vacuum and are willing to create their own morality. Christians, in Nietzsche’s view, lived according to “slave morality.” They willingly enslaved themselves to false, external moral standards. But enlightened, courageous, enterprising atheists knew that they could create their own standards of right and wrong. And they did.
Postmodernity and the Creation of Reality
These factors and others converged in the 20th and early 21st centuries to yield our present unprecedented culture in which the Self is the creator of his own reality. There’s no shared reality, no common moral order, no external creation. Man creates himself, his gender, his ethics, his mind, his future. Obviously, he must presuppose the objective world to do this, but this is an inconvenient truth he persistently suppresses.
If the individual is male and wants to be female, that is his (her?) choice. If he is Caucasian and wishes to be Asian, that’s an “option.” If his personality is introverted and he prefers to be an extrovert, he can attend a Tony Robbins weekend retreat to guarantee the transformation.
Christianity: The Report from the Interior
The Christian Faith hasn’t been exempt from the inward turn. Christianity includes both objective and subjective factors. Jesus Christ is Lord of both the external and internal worlds. We are to love God with all of our heart, but we are to obey him in all external and horizontal areas of life. Protestants sometimes designate these two factors in our relation to God by the language of “Word and Spirit”: the authority of the external Bible and the internal work of the Spirit.
In most sectors of Christianity over the last century, however, the movement has been almost entirely toward the interior. Christians overwhelmingly wish to be led by the Spirit, and they are right to do this, but they are less inclined to speak of submitting to the Bible. Likewise, the church is an external authority structure, and since they are Spirit-led, the church is optional.
Even biblical interpretation falls into subjectivism. Grammatical-historical interpretation is stale, boring, and frigid. The new hermeneutical principle is more in line of: “Dearie, what is that text saying to you this evening?”
Such Christians often consider themselves deeply spiritual, and it might be a rude awakening for them to consider that they’re embracing a dominant form of worldliness. Western culture is deeply invested in the inward turn, and their own interiorization project is simply a Christianized version of it. They should frankly abandon their compromising worldliness. How to do that?
Implementing the Outward Turn
The outward-facing Word
First, we likely won’t get far as long as we fail to understand that the Bible is essentially about history, not the heart (an astute observation by Scott Haffeman). This assertion is easy to prove, but many people aren’t convinced of it simply because they haven’t thought much about it.
The Bible begins with God’s creation of the cosmos and he gives man a horizontal, this-worldly task: exercising dominion under divine authority (Gen. 1:28–30). He didn’t require of Adam and Eve maintaining a warm, intimate relationship as their life’s main work (indispensable though it is).
Mankind sins, and eventually God destroys almost all of humanity with a universal flood. He calls out a pagan, Abraham, saves him by grace, and creates of him a nation (Israel) with which he covenants himself.
The rest of the Old Testament is almost entirely about God’s dealings with his people in history, not about the status of individual hearts. Make no mistake: God wants a heart given to him. Various Psalms concentrate on a heart devoted to God. The Jews apostatized because they turned their hearts away from their covenant God.
But the Old Testament is overwhelmingly a description of God’s covenant people in a very visible, physical, this-worldly tract of Middle Eastern land that he granted them.
This pervasively kingdom-saturated history continues into the New Testament. The gospels are accounts of our Lord’s earthly life, death, resurrection, and final commission to his disciples.
Acts discloses the beginning of the new covenant community as it expands outward from Jerusalem. The subsequent epistles are all about gospel preaching, gospel living, and gospel expectation in this world. The vertical commands and comforts are all pressed into a historical service: perpetuating the Lord’s outward-facing earthly kingdom. (See “Gospel or Salvation?”)
The book of Revelation is a graphic, visionary account of Jesus Christ’s crushing the church‘s enemies: first, apostate Judaism, and second, pagan imperial Rome. Revelation concludes not with the saints in a faraway heavenly Nirvana, but with the Triune God descending to earth to dwell with redeemed man, as the new heavens merge with the new earth.
If we fail to recognize the kind of book the Bible is — revelation about how his people should act in history under his authority — we’ll constantly be tempted to assume we must turn inward to most please him, when actually he wants us most of the time to turn outwardly for his glory.
The Bible, in summary, is about God’s kingdom expansion in the earth as a result of his Son’s redemptive historical acts.
If the Bible were chiefly about the human heart, it would be a very different kind of book.
Second, turn outwardly by engaging in tactile, horizontal kingdom work. Evangelize unbelievers. Give charity to the poor. Assist needy and ailing saints. Advance in business and wealth to support your family and outward-facing kingdom ministries.
While God calls Christians temporarily to sequester themselves in prayer, ours is not an inner, hideaway religion. It’s done out in the open; in human history; in the visible, external world. That’s where God is at work. He’s at work in the human heart in order to change human history.
A world right with God
Third, it’s not enough for Christians to be right with God. The world, too, must be right with God. Just as the entire world stands guilty before God (Rom. 3:19–20), so the entire world is the object of his redemptive care (Jn. 17:47).
Both Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1 and other biblical texts make crystal clear that Jesus Christ is Lord of all things, and that he’s working to redeem all things. This doesn’t imply soteric universalism, such that every single individual will be converted.
It does mean, however, that no area of life and culture is beyond his redemptive plan or exempt from his loving authority. The family and the church are his most important historical institutions, but God’s work can be limited to neither.
Christ’s atoning death and bodily resurrection demand nothing less than the Christianization of all of life. If Jesus Christ is not Lord of all, he’s not Lord at all. Music and education and politics and literature and science and technology and entertainment and sculpture and architecture and economics — all these, and all else, have been definitively redeemed by Jesus Christ and will progressively be redeemed by the work of the Holy Spirit in history.
Our task is to press those claims of redemption wherever God has placed us.
The “inward turn” of modernity has finally transformed every autonomous human into a rebellious reality-manufacturer and reduced muscular public Christianity to a jejune private mystery religion.
It’s time dramatically to reverse this turn: outward-facing at all costs.
Sharon and I made it to western Pennsylvania without once wearing a mask. Her 43rd high school reunion will be tonight. It’s been a great blessing to spend time with her godly parents.
We’ll be driving west after July 4, visiting our friends Pastor Doug Enick in Pratt, Kansas, as well as Judge William Graves in Oklahoma City. We’ll then be spending two weeks home in California, and then driving to Alabama. I’ll be addressing the For God and Truth Conference (Pastor Ernie Yarbrough) in Decatur, August 4–7.
I’ll also be delivering two intimate-venue talks on “Christian Responsibility as Cultural Responsibility,” one in the Birmingham, Alabama area (Sunday, August 1) as well as the northern Tennessee area (Monday, August 9). These talks are by invitation only, so please contact me if you’re interested in attending.
I hope to see a number of you along the way. Thank you helping CCL grow in kingdom influence.
Yours for the King,
Founder & President, Center for Cultural Leadership
Is the culture war necessary? Many Christians see the culture war as at best secondary for Christians, and at worst a diversion from their true, “spiritual” calling. This talk reveals that notion to be dangerously misguided:
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