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Topic: Eikon

The Counsel of History

November 21, 2021

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Eikon.

The Ancient Paths

A central feature of the “long” eighteenth century — a marker of time used by historians to denote the period in Anglo-American history running from roughly the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the English Reform Act of 1832 — was a passion for freedom. This is obvious with regard to the political scene with key turning points like the French, American, and Haitian Revolutions, as well as the attempted revolution in Ireland in 1798. But this deep interest in freedom also dominated the theological scene. Think, for instance, of Jonathan Edwards’s vital study, An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will which is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame (1754), which is usually known simply as The Freedom of the Will. This concern about freedom also dominated elements of the ecclesiological scene. Consider, for example, Andrew Fuller’s marvelous defense of the free offer of the gospel in his The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1785). Nor did this concern for liberty leave the relationships of the genders untouched. Thus, we have the landmark work of feminism in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argued for the freedom of women from the misogynist view that women are inferior to men. Both men and women, she argued in accord with her era’s fascination with human reason, are rational beings and this needs to be foundational to the way the two sexes interact with one another in society.

Now, this eighteenth-century passion for liberty did not run its course with the close of that remarkable period of time. It set the agenda for the modern world so that modernity — and if, you wish, post-modernity — have been dominated by what can now only be called a rage for liberty. So, for instance, we have had the various Marxist revolutions of the twentieth century that sought to free the proletariat from the hegemony of the bourgeoisie — but actually brought about some of the worst tyrannies this globe has ever seen. And we have had the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which might well be called the Second Sexual Revolution, since the eighteenth century saw the first revolution regarding sexual mores, at least with regard to the moral conduct of men.

In more recent days, this revolution regarding sexuality has burst the bounds of what was envisaged in the Sixties and now seeks to break free from the constraints of gender. If a key word of the sixties was “plastic” — a negative term denoting the rigidity and falsity of mainstream society — a key word of the present day is “fluid.” Gender and identity are fluid: we can make ourselves whatever we wish to be and so break free from the constraints of creaturehood.

One of the most memorable courses that I took in high school was a study in grade 12 of the various revolutions that the western world has experienced since the long eighteenth century. One of the key lessons of that course that has stayed with me is that revolutions have constraints imposed by geography and time, economics and human personalities. Freedom is always subject to constraints that are often beyond human control and planning. And this is a good thing. Anarchy, when everyone does what is good in their own sight, is possibly the worst state of human affairs conceivable. The prophets and pundits of this revolutionary who call for gender fluidity will thus find that constraints built into the fabric of nature and time will ultimately challenge their “brave new world.” This does not mean, however, that these prophets and proponents will not bring about significant human suffering. And for this cause, our voices — shaped by Scripture and reason and historical reflection — need to be raised in defense of the creator’s ordering of humanity.

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