Os Guinness on Covenantal Love, Unspeakable Evil, and Being American Now
“‘I do not know the answer to the problem of evil, but I do know love.’ That’s the key thing. In Jesus, we cannot doubt the love of God for us if we look at the lengths to which He went.” Os Guinness is a social critic, author of more than 30 books and counting and yes, as the name suggests, great‑great‑great grandson to the famous Irish brewer of beverages, Arthur Guinness. An Englishman born to medical missionaries in 1940s China, Os was exposed to dire circumstances from a young age. His early experiences formed in him an appreciation for human purpose, and calling the value of freedom for a flourishing society, a response to evil and suffering, and the meaningfulness of the Christian Gospel in contemporary life. In this episode, we discuss his latest thoughts on American public life today, the meaning of love, the human response to unspeakable suffering and evil around the world, and legacy.
- See Os’ Website for more information and content
- 3:04—Begin interview
- 3:50—Are we too aware of suffering in the digital age? How should we deal with it?
- 7:32—Christians’ distinctive response to suffering
- 9:00—A selection of Elie Wiesel’s Night
- 12:10—Interlude #1
- 13:20—Should we try to explain evil?
- 14:46—Central questions pertaining to the problem of suffering
- 15:20—The God that suffers with us
- 16:50—”‘I do not know the answer to the problem of evil, but I do know love.’ That’s the key thing. In Jesus, we cannot doubt the love of God for us if we look at the lengths to which He went.”
- 17:12—”The Second Coming,” by W.B. Yeats
- 18:35—How do you explain the centrality of love in Christian theology?
- 20:00—Covenantal love
- 20:45—“Evangelicals today have lost their covenant love loyalty.”
- 21:00—The three elements of the Sinai Covenant
- 23:00—The state of covenant loyalty in contemporary America and the church
- 25:40—What hope is there in the midst of the chaos of public life?
- 27:55—The failure of the religious right
- 28:20—What policies or philosophies emerge from the Christian love commands?
- 28:55—Os mentions his most recent book on freedom: Last Call for Liberty
- 30:29—Is there hope for civility in public life?
- 33:09—Interlude #2
- 34:30—Interview resumes
- 35:00—The crisis of accountability
- 37:00—Legacy, the end of life and end of work
- 38:55—How do we contemplate our own deaths?
- 40:48—End interview, credits
Quotes from Os Guinness
- “‘I do not know the answer to the problem of evil, but I do know love.’ That’s the key thing. In Jesus, we cannot doubt the love of God for us if we look at the lengths to which He went.”
- “In suffering, there are two big questions—God’s existence and God’s character. Is He there? Is He absolutely good? Obviously, for followers of Christ, both those are answered not by a theistic proof. I don’t personally put much weight on those…At the end of the day, they’re answered in Jesus. If God is the Father of Jesus, and I’ve come to put my trust in Him, I can trust for His existence and His goodness, although I’ve never seen the Father.”
- “The suffering servant is Jesus. When we see Him on the cross, truly, our God hanging there, we can never go so low in life our Lord has not gone lower to express His love and to save us. That’s wonderful.”
- That’s Christian realism. If you say, ‘Is there anything wrong with the world?’ Absolutely. We Christians are realistic. We know there’s something deeply wrong with the world. As GK Chesterton said, ‘It’s me.’ We all say the same.”
- “Legacy is when the Lord says, ‘Well done.'”
- The Table is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation
- Theme music is by The Brilliance
- Production and engineering by The Narrativo Group
- Edited and mixed by TJ Hester
- Production Assistance by Laura Crane
- Special thanks to Os Guinness
- Evan Rosa on Twitter
- CCT on Twitter
Evan Rosa: “The Table Audio” is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Os Guinness: “I do not know the answer to the problem of evil, but I do know love.” That’s the key thing. In Jesus, we cannot doubt the love of God for us if we look at the lengths to which He went.
Evan: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
Os Guinness is a social critic, author of more than 30 books and counting. Yes, as the name suggests, great‑great‑great grandson to that famous Irish brewer of beverages.
An Englishman born to medical missionaries in 1940s China. From an early age, Os was exposed to dire circumstances. His two young brothers died in the 1942 famine in the Henan Province of China. Approximately three million died of starvation.
He and his family were split up and expelled from the country by 1951, following years of Chinese civil war and, of course, the eventual establishment of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Tse‑tung.
Later, he would join Francis Schaeffer at the original L’Abri community in Switzerland, eventually moving to the United States in the 1980s to become a leading voice of thoughtful American evangelical Christianity, at a time when such careful thinking was sorely needed.
Guinness’ work is very much a product of his time, and intentionally so. He tries, in each of his talks, articles, and books, to read the current cultural moment we’re in, and comment on a clear vision forward.
His early experiences formed in him an appreciation for human purpose, and calling the value of freedom for a flourishing society, a response to evil and suffering, and the meaningfulness of the Christian Gospel in contemporary life. His writing and thinking is marked by his capacity to illustrate his points by integrating history, story, philosophy, and theology.
I met with him in the summer of 2017 to discuss his latest thoughts on American public life today, the meaning of love, the human response to unspeakable suffering and evil around the world. In this conversation, we cover a lot. The challenges of suffering for modern people, much of which is based in his book, “Unspeakable ‑‑ Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil.”
We then move into a discussion of love, the character of God, and the importance of the Hebraic concept of covenant loyalty to contemporary political life. We address the chaos of American public discourse, and whether civility and character can guide us toward a more hopeful future of dealing with our differences.
Finally, we talk about death, the contemplation of our coffins, the termination of our labors, so to speak, and Guinness’ distrust of the common concept of legacy.
I wonder if we could talk for a bit about your take on suffering in contemporary society, the trouble that we experience. For many of us, technology brings suffering closer than we’d normally be familiar with.
Of course, there’s the kind of life suffering that happens to just anyone, but the news cycle, and I suppose the very concept of feeding people’s almost wanton desire for the suffering of others that comes through Facebook. I comes through social media, Twitter feeds, and so forth. There’s a kind of consistency of the cycle of suffering.
I wonder what you think about this phenomenon of being exposed to so much evil and suffering, so that we’re constantly aware. Yet, what can be done about it?
Os: The way I put it— and I have a chapter on this— is that modernity has transformed evil and suffering. When you look at what’s happening in the world, people say we’re allowing more evil.
You take the fact that, say, 100 million killed in war, 100 million under political repression in the 20th century, and another 100 million in ethnic and sectarian violence. That’s incredible. Does that mean that people are more evil than before? I don’t think so. We’re the same old sinners as ever, but the fact is modernity minimizes pain.
If you take, say, the invention of anesthesia or, in 1899, the patenting of aspirins, historians say around 1900, for the first time in history, an adult in the developed world could live without any pain the whole of their life.
The downside is many modern people, certainly Americans, are very unrealistic about suffering. All they see is virtual suffering. Maybe, when someone in the family dies, they see them in hospital, surrounded with technology, and so on. I grew up in China. My two brothers died in a terrible famine. I saw hundreds of dead people before I was 10.
That’s actually much more typical of the premodern world. You think of infant mortality. Our Queen Anne had 14 children, all of whom died as children. She was the queen! That gave you a realism about life. The rest of the transformations are dark. You think of the transformation of destructiveness.
There’s things like the distancing or the diffusion of responsibility and the division of labor. Things like this that say, “Auschwitz was run like Volkswagen and the other chemical factories in Germany.” You say, “P‑29 bombers, if I see you in the white of the eye two feet from me, I’ll kill you.”
There’s a human element there that makes it much more real than pressing a button at 29,000 feet and obliterating a city. Drone strikes, civilian casualties, and so on.
Evan: Targets on a screen like a video game.
Os: Exactly. Dostoevsky predicted that science would outlaw compassion. What we’ve seen in the 20th century and now is that traditional categories like good/bad, right/wrong have been squeezed out as being relativistic.
What people have noticed is that the instinctive human ways of responding, a community hugging people who are suffering or giving meals to the homeless and so on, is overwhelmed by flying in grief counselors and telling us we’ve got to go through six steps of mourning, or else we haven’t really done it the right way. All the experts and the specialists.
You remember Columbine?
Evan: Yeah, I do.
Os: Compare that with Andy Murray, the great Scottish tennis player. He was four in the Dunblane massacre. In the response to that, the queen went up and just hugged the children and the families. In Columbine, that was the first response, and then in came hundreds of grief counselors, and mourning specialists, and all those.
You can see that just the simple human ways are being pushed to the side with science outlawing compassion, as Dostoevsky warned. Modernity has transformed both evil and suffering. They’re different but enormously. Followers of Jesus we begin with realism, because of the fall. The world has gone wrong.
If you look at evil as a whole, the worst evils are done by utopians. The trouble is the gap between the utopian ideal that we think is there and reality is so great there’s only one way to fill it, with force and violence. That’s why utopians actually create the worst evil.
The second worst are the dualists. Those people who think, “I’m good, you’re bad.” “We’re good, they’re bad.” If we’re good we can treat the baddies any way that puts them down. That’s incredibly destructive, too. Obviously, Christians can be prone to that if they’re not careful.
I remember the famous story of a Scottish preacher, Murray M’Cheyne, who was congratulated by a lady after a great sermon. He turned to her quite sharply, and said, “Madam, if you could see into my heart, you might spit in my face.” In other words, he knew his heart was as rotten as anyone he might be talking about, and I quote, “sinner” in Dundee where he lived.
That’s Christian realism. If you say, “Is there anything wrong with the world?” Absolutely. We Christians are realistic. We know there’s something deeply wrong with the world. As GK Chesterton said, “It’s me.” We all say the same.
Evan: A selection from Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” “One day as we returned from work, we saw three gallows. Three black ravens erected on the appelplatz, roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us ‑‑ usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains, and among them, the little pipel, the sad‑eyed angel. The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried than usual.
To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows. This time, the lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS took his place.
The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks. “Long live liberty!” shouted the two men. The boy was silent. “Where is merciful God? Where is he?” Someone behind me was asking.
At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Caps off!” screamed the lageralteste. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping. “Cover your heads.”
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. The third rope was still moving. The child, too light, was still breathing.
He remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. We were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking, “For God’s sake, where is God?” From within me, I heard a voice answer, “Where is he? This is where, hanging here from this gallows.”
Evan: Hi, thanks for listening. For more from The Table and Biola University Center for Christian Thought, check our website at cct.biola.edu. You can sign up for our regular email journal and get access to hundreds of free resources like eBooks, short and long‑form articles on thought pieces. All sorts of videos are available.
Everything we do features Christian perspectives on the big questions. What is love? Can we grow from suffering? How can we disagree well? How can practices of humility, gratitude, and forgiveness, and other Christian virtues lead us deeper into the good life? Finally, what does it mean to be human?
For example, you can find our original video interview with theologian, Jerry Sittser of Whitworth University. I discussed with Jerry the history of monastic and contemplative Christianity, as well as the heartbreaking story of loss he recounts in his autobiographical theological memoir, “A Grace Disguised.”
You really need to listen to Jerry’s story. For this and much, much more, visit cct.biola.edu. Now, back to the show.
Os: When we try and explain evil, we simply don’t know. That’s the problem with Job’s comforters. They said why when they didn’t know why. In attempting to say why when they didn’t know, they were wrong.
In too many Christian explanations, they confuse an explanation with a silver lining. For example, in suffering, almost always, people grow in character. Almost always. That’s not the reason for the suffering. Many Christians say, “Well, God’s putting you through this to deepen your character.” No, they don’t know that.
Maybe, in the suffering, their characters deepen. That’s the silver lining. It’s not the rationale. It’s not the reason. We must never play Job’s comforters, say we know why, when we simply don’t. We got to be silent and just love them. We’ve always got to be clear where we know and where we don’t.
For example, you take the ultimate question, “Why did God create, knowing that…?” You can put in Holocaust. You can put in my wife’s cancer. You can put in anything there. “Why did God create, knowing that…” and fill in your own dots. We don’t know.
The question is, “Do we know the Lord, and know why we know the Lord?” Then we’ll always be in the light about Him, although we’ll be in the dark about a huge amount of life.
In suffering, there are two big questions — God’s existence and God’s character. Is He there? Is He absolutely good? Obviously, for followers of Christ, both those are answered not by a theistic proof. I don’t personally put much weight on those.
At the end of the day, they’re answered in Jesus. If God is the Father of Jesus, and I’ve come to put my trust in Him, I can trust for His existence and His goodness, although I’ve never seen the Father.
Evan: You reference this very poignant part of Elie Wiesel’s Night, where he describes this response, this kind of voice that speaks to him as he asks the question, “Where is God?” Oh, he’s hanging there on these gallows,” in response to this child prisoner that was hung. What do you make of this idea, a God that suffers with us?
Os: Take the trilemma, “Is evil evil? Is God all good? Is God all powerful?” The question you’re raising speaks to the second, “Is God all good?” If there’s a shadow of a doubt anywhere, how can we put our trust in God?
You have, supremely, in the Old Testament, the suffering servant, especially in Isaiah 53. He looks uncannily like Jesus of Nazareth. Obviously, for us, the suffering servant is Jesus. When we see Him on the cross, truly, our God hanging there, we can never go so low in life. Our Lord has not gone lower to express His love and to save us. That’s wonderful.
Say, Dostoevsky, who came through what he called the “hellfire of doubt.” The clincher for him was looking at the Hans Holbein painting of the descent of Jesus from the cross, which, of course, means his dead body being taken down.
He looked at it for hours. His wife couldn’t stand it after more than 20 minutes. He said at the end, “I do not know the answer to the problem of evil, but I do know love.” That’s the key thing. In Jesus, we cannot doubt the love of God for us, if we look at the lengths to which He went.
Evan: “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The blood‑dimmed tide is loosed. Everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
“Surely some revelation is at hand. Surely the second coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out when a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi troubles my sight.
“Somewhere in sands of the desert, a shape with lion body and the head of man, a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, is moving its slow thighs, while all about it reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
“The darkness drops again; but now I know that twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Evan: How do you like to explain the centrality of love in Christian theology?
Os: I would begin right back with the character of God. Now, as you often take a word like monotheism, and we focus on the number, one God. Actually, the point in Exodus where God reveals himself to Moses and then to the people as Yahweh, the point there is not quantitative, it’s qualitative.
In the great Sh’ma, “Listen, O Israel. The Lord our God is one God. You shall love the Lord your God.” In other words, monotheism, the single sole God, immediately you have the idea of love and loyalty. I love the fact that covenant means love that is loyal. In other words, we trust God and are, therefore, true to God.
You see in the prophets that apostasy and unfaithfulness is adultery. Now, you look at modern America where many people are so casual over authority. We’ve lost a grip of the truth, but we’ve lost that sense of covenant love‑loyalty.
The pick‑and‑choose, people throwing out bits of the Bible they can’t stand, and this sort of thing, it is a lack of love. I like the Jewish notion of covenantal love, love‑loyalty. It’s stronger than unconditional love. If you really start to ask what that means. it’s not quite true to Scripture. I like words like covenant love‑loyalty.
Evan: The covenant describes a principal of dedication or a kind of obedience.
Os: A mutual promise to which you are loyal. That can be marriage. It should be public service, the president serving the country. There should be a covenant love‑loyalty. That’s true of the church, and above all true of the word and the Lord of the word. Evangelicals today have lost their covenant love‑loyalty.
The Sinai covenant’s unique for a lot of reasons, but it has three strong features which are incredibly important. This is important for American freedom today. The first feature, it’s freely chosen consent. Three times it says, “The people say, all that the Lord says we will do.” Three times. That is the origin of the consent of the covenant.
Secondly, you have a morally binding pledge. A covenant is not a legal contract. We confuse those words too much. There’s a moral dimension which raises it and broadens it. A legal contract, you want to make as precise as you can, but as narrow as you can so you’re not liable for more than you would like to.
A covenant, no. It covers the whole of life, the way they do their business, the way they have their sexual relationships, the way with the land. It’s all‑embracing.
The third thing is the key one you’re raising. A covenant is a matter of reciprocal responsibility of all for all. As the rabbis say, “You didn’t just have one covenant— as one man you put it — you had 600,000 covenants.”
Someone said, “No, you’re wrong. You had 600,000 times 600,000,” which is a pretty big number, because each of them making a covenant to the Lord. Then under that a covenant to each other. Then, of course, it’s only said once though, in Leviticus, the love of the neighbor.
What’s remarkable is that 35 times or more, it talks about the love of the stranger. The love of the neighbor, that reciprocal responsibility, every Jew responsible for every Jew. That’s profound. When you have the love of the neighbor, you know Aristotle, you care for “people like us.”
Evan: [inaudible 22:57]
Os: The stranger, the barbarian, the outsider, is not in that. The love of the neighbor, yes, but the love of the stranger, too. That’s remarkable, all part. That’s important today because people have shifted in America from a constitutional republic to a democracy.
But democracy has zero social content. Whereas you may know that the notion of constitution comes from the notion of covenant.
This is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As you know, the Reformation, Calvin Little, Zwingli, [inaudible 23:34] , Knox, Cromwell, they all rediscovered Sinai. Sinai, put it another way, shaped the Jews. Without it, with their persecution and scattering, the loss of their land, the loss of the temple, the loss of the monarchy, they might have disappeared from the face of the earth.
What kept them together was covenant. Here’s the tragedy we’ve got to face today, from the fourth century, when the church became dominant, until the Reformation, Christian structures in the church, the Western church, were hierarchical. They were not covenantal. They were not biblical.
The papacy was a reflection of the Caesar. They took over Rome uncritically. Of course, hierarchical which is based on power, when it’s corrupted becomes highly oppressive and you have the Inquisition and all the horrors of the medieval church.
Which Pope John Paul II was good enough to confess before the world, but they’re a stain on our Christian record. Now, the Reformation went back to Sinai. Here’s the point though. In Europe, and particularly in England, my country, it was the lost cause. That’s what the historians call it. In other words, Cromwell failed, and the king came back.
What was the lost cause in England became the winning cause in New England. Churches, marriages, townships and, say, the constitution of Massachusetts, written largely by John Adams, is a covenant. Many people don’t realize the US Constitution is a national secularized form of covenant.
Sinai is a covenant with God. America at its best was a covenant constitution under God. Now, following the ACLU and Michael Newdow and others, we have a constitution without God. The question is, “What will hold it together?” You’re back to WB Yeats. The center does not hold. America’s in chaos.
Evan: In the midst of that chaos, I’m reminded of the Walker Percy title, “Love in the Ruins.” What hope is there in the midst of chaos? One thing, maybe, we can agree on from any side of the political spectrum, I think it’d be easy to acknowledge the presence of chaos, the presence of disorder in public life. More divisive than ever since the Civil War.
Os: Only a blind man can fail to see it.
Evan: Right. What place do you see for Christian covenantal love in public life?
Os: Back up. Go back to Abraham. You see in the first 11 chapters of Genesis various grand failures. The flood, which is freedom with no order. It had to be judged. Then the tower of Babel, which is order without freedom, and that’s judged. In Abraham, you have the beginning of God’s new way set over against Egypt, set over against Babylon.
The way of God, which is the way of Jesus, should always be set over against the cultures of its day. The tragedy in the scandal of the American church, there’s only one country in Europe with anything like it, save Poland. In every European country for various historical reasons, the church is the minority, small.
The scandal of the American church is a huge majority and yet less influential than tiny minorities like, say, the Jews, two percent of America, or even, say, gays and lesbians, two percent of America. Christians are a huge majority but totally uninfluential culturally. The major reason is we’re weak because we’re worldly.
We’re like the world around us. The chaos of today should call for revival and reformation, that we may go back to living that new way that’s a counterculture over again. In other words, we need covenant love‑loyalty in our marriages, in our churches, in our attitude towards the Scripture.
Instead of the chaos of interpretations and pick‑and‑choose preferences of the moment. For example, one of the worst mistakes of the religious right was to try and do the Lord’s work but in the world’s way. Just in language, demonizing, stereotyping their enemies, rather than someone like Wilberforce loved his enemies, and so on.
We can’t talk about constitutional love‑loyalty in America unless we’re demonstrating ourselves in the church. We got to start with ourselves.
Evan: What politics emerge from the Christian love commands?
Os: I prefer not to start with policies and political positions, but some of the foundational notions of our Western world. In other words, dignity, human worth, liberty, freedom, equality, justice. These are the foundational concepts which were once rooted in the Gospel or in the Scriptures as a whole, and they’ve been cut. So much of the West now is a cut‑flower civilization.
I’ve just written a book on freedom. You take freedom, incredible confusion in America about freedom. Libertarian freedom, all negative, not positive. It’s unsustainable. You can see liberals, “Get the government out of my body.” Conservatives, “Get the government off my wallet.”
We’re in chaos over freedom. Jews and Christians have the basis for profound views of human worth, human freedom, and so on. Sam Harris, “The New Atheist,” freedom is an illusion. You take the naturalistic scientists. You cannot found a view of freedom in naturalistic scientism alone. You simply can’t.
We’re the guardians, the right defenders. I would prefer to begin there and then move up to things like constitutional freedom because then you start discussing how you run public life.
Evan: Civility, closely related to this problem of chaos in American public life. Perhaps, the felt chaos comes from the level of public discourse that we have.
When public discourse devolves into mere identity politics, or an inability to work through differences with the other. A forgetfulness of love for the stranger and love for the enemy. This is how we form groups and tribes that are ultimately just committed to winning out over the other. What hope do we have in civility for practical solutions to our contemporary problems?
Os: You could have the foundations in place and the overall vision. When you do, civility’s a very important tool or you might say it’s a manner of engagement. It’s often taught by the three R’s, rights, responsibilities and respect.
In other words, civility is misunderstood as niceness. You’ve got to be nice to people. Now, that just simply doesn’t work or it’s misunderstood at a deeper level as a kind of ecumenical search for a Karen Armstrong‑type of underlying unity, That’s nonsense.
At the level of the assumptions to presuppositions of different face, the differences are irreducible and they’re ultimate. There is no underlying unity religiously. You take an orthodox Jew to an Atheist or a Christian with a Hindu, those worldviews are incompatible.
Civility is not the search for an ecumenical underlying unity which leads only to something false and idolatrous. As Christians, we cannot go along with that and pretend they’re all one.
Evan: Would you say that civility starts with an acknowledgment of difference?
Os: It’s got to have that, certainly.
Evan: Fundamental difference?
Os: That’s why you need it. It is, first, a respect for truth and then a respect for the worth of people. For example, you’re respecting freedom of conscience. You shift from coercion, which is the European style of the state churches, the Catholic Inquisition. You shift from coercion to persuasion.
I’ve got to persuade someone if I think they’re wrong and that they’d do better if they believe whatever I believe. I have to persuade them and not intimidate them, or coerce them, or anything like that. Civility’s incredibly important, and it’s a duty for citizens in a highly diverse society.
The challenge for the entire world— how do we live with our deep differences? The deepest differences of all are either religious or ideological. We’ve got to work that out. We, of course, as Christians have a deeper motivation. We want to speak the truth with love.
We want to be like our Lord and have truth and grace together. We have a reason why truth is important, and we have a reason why people should be respected for their worth. Those are our Christian reasons deeper than the secular public reasons. Civility is incredibly important and collapsing by the day.
Evan: Why, hello podcast listener. I’m really honored you found your way to The Table Audio. I hope you’re enjoying getting access to these conversations, but did you know we have a YouTube channel and a whole website just bursting with content?
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Head over to our home page, cct.biola.edu, and sign up for The Table and add some wisdom to your inbox. Now, back for Os’ thoughts on civility, character, public morality, and finally, the significance of working hard until the very end of our lives.
Os: It’s partly related to accountability through visibility. In other words, in a fallen world, people did what was right because it was right and because they were seen. They didn’t do what was wrong because it was wrong, but often because they were seen.
You think of David and Bathsheba, or you think of Plato and Gyges, the shepherd. Here’s the point. In the modern world, because of travel and other things, we are more anonymous today than any generation in history.
You see, that’s part of the collapse of ethics or just civility. One of the crises of modern democracy is a crisis of accountability. I said, “America used to be a constitution under God.” Under God was not just two words. It was the final check and balance, not just the separation of powers from Washington and other things.
Under God was the final accountability, that’s gone. No one today is finally accountable. That’s what will bring down American democracy. Read Lord Acton. He argues that’s what brought down Greece. The democrats were unaccountable. I don’t mean with a capital D, I mean the Athenian democrats.
You can look at Americans today. They’re unaccountable. That will bring them down. Do you know the writer, Stefan Zweig?
Evan: I do.
Os: He was one of the best‑known writers in the world in the 1920s, Jewish writer in Vienna. Then he had to flee Vienna. He went to London to escape Nazism, then to New York. Didn’t like either London or New York. Went to Brazil, and committed suicide.
One of his great writings is a six‑page essay called, “The Tower of Babel.” What he says in effect is, “It’s time for us to resume the building of humans striving against their creator. We’ve got to pick it up again.”
You can look at our modern world. I look at Silicon Valley where it’s a high‑tech Tower of Babel, or you look at the European Union which is a kind of political bureaucratic new Tower of Babel where you see that globalization has unleashed the forces that gave drive and rise to Babel. We got to take things like that deeply seriously all over again.
Evan: A friend of yours passed recently, Peter Berger. What do you make of reflection and a awareness of death in society?
Os: My ancestor who started our family brewery was a great friend of Wilberforce. Wilberforce is very unusual. As you know, slavery was abolished three days before he died, after a 47‑year struggle. As someone said at his funeral, the termination of his labors and the termination of his life coincided perfectly. That’s very rare.
Niebuhr is much closer to the mob when he talks about the fact that faith is always, in our lives, incomplete. We’re acting into the world, but we’re acting on behalf of ideals that go beyond the horizon. We have no idea of our legacy.
Legacy is when the Lord says, “Well done.” The idea going around Christian circles now, that in your 50s, 60s, certainly your 70s, you sit back and you think, “Well, this is my legacy.” It’s rubbish. Our lives are incomplete.
We do our darndest for the Lord. Then we let Him pronounce what the legacy is, or other people, if they pick up something they consider worthwhile. We should ever consider legacy. We’re faithful as we can be to the last breath, and then wait for the Lord’s assessment.
Evan: In your book “Unspeakable,” you’re even addressing your first encounter with a dead body. Given the turmoil that you experienced growing up, you say that as a young child, you observed old Chinese men sitting and contemplating their coffins. I found that a bracing and very human picture. What was that practice? What does it mean to you as you grow and age?
Os: I’m now in my 70s. I’ve always, for better or worse, maybe connected with the [inaudible 39:10] days, not just death. I have an incredible sense of time. One of the things in Scripture that many people miss is the incredible sense of time — the day, the moment, the hour, the generation.
You have a positive thing like David served God’s purpose. His generation fell asleep. You have a terribly negative thing that the entire generation, except for Joshua and Caleb, who came out of Egypt, didn’t make it because of their unfaithfulness.
There’s an incredible sense of time in the Scripture. For better or worse, I’ve always felt that. Most of my books are driven by the sense of the moment, the hour. People have got to recognize the crucialness where we’re living.
Evan: In a sense.
Os: Of course, that includes death. People in their 20s are immortal. You get to 30. Long way down the river, you can hear the rapids. 60s, you’re very aware of it. 70, incredibly aware of it. I have always had a sense of life as time, as a journey. Obviously, any of us may suffer, but all of us will die.
Evan: In contemplating then our finitude and our limited time on this earth, we do justice to God’s sovereignty. We do justice to our brevity. Perhaps, it’s brevity with dignity. I just want to say, “Thank you for all your thoughts.” I’m looking forward to so much more to come from you. I know I speak for many when I express deep gratitude for your work.
Os: Thank you, Evan. Pleasure to be with you.
Evan: It’s worth revisiting Os’ question from earlier in our conversation.
Os: The question is, “What will hold it together?”
Evan: Indeed, “What will hold us together?” is perhaps the most pressing question we need to answer these days. What will hold America together? What will hold Christianity together? What will hold our families together? Our neighborhoods? Our friendships? What will hold our very selves together?
Is there hope for finding Logos in the midst of chaos? Love from beneath the ruins? There is. That’s what we’re trying to encourage throughout this podcast series and everything that we produce. Thoughtful, relevant, creative, and wise approaches to keeping it together and making that center hold. More to come. Stay with us. Of course, thanks for listening.
The Table Audio is hosted by me, Evan Rosa. It’s produced by the Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation.
Theme music is by The Brilliance. Production and engineering by the Narrativo Group, more info at narrativogroup.com. Edited and mixed by TJ Hester. To subscribe to The Table Audio, check us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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