(Editor’s note: This piece originally ran at the Troubler of Israel blog at Patheos.)
Why don’t we burn witches in 2017? Maybe for the same reason we approve of same-sex marriage. C. S. Lewis explains in “Mere Christianity”:
…one man said to me, “Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?” But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did–if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.
You’ll frequently hear people these days say, “It’s 2017!” as an argument for abandoning some traditional or conservative moral scruple, usually having to do with sex. They mean more than that in this enlightened era, we’ve moved past such moral scruples. Surrendering principles is not, in itself, enlightened.
What they’re implying is that the moral scruples of yesteryear were really expressions of bigotry and hatred. The people who lived back then had no good reason for holding them. They were merely prejudiced and ignorant, and their beliefs about morality were irrational. Thus, casting aside their moral principles is a way of displaying our enlightenment. It’s how we progress.
But this all depends on a lie we tell ourselves. The fact is that bigotry, while always present to some degree in the human heart, is not the reason why people hundreds of years ago held the moral scruples they did. They held these beliefs because in their understanding, sexual immorality was destructive to human flourishing and contrary to the way we were created. Even worse, engaging in unrepentant sexual immorality would lead one to eternal damnation and isolation from God, Who is the source of all life and well-being. Thus, not to stigmatize sexual (as well as other types of) immorality was quite literally to doom human beings to temporal suffering, followed by eternal spiritual torment.
What this means is that those who called their neighbors back from this precipice in love, or only by condemning such illicit acts, were exercising benevolence, to the best of their understanding. To look down on or patronize these ancestors of ours for doing what they believed to be beneficial to mankind, and to smear their motives as bigotry, is itself bigotry, as well as inexcusable laziness. That we no longer condemn sexual sins because we believe them to be fun and harmless, and don’t believe there is such a place as Hell, is not moral progress. It’s just a natural reflection of our worldview.
But following Lewis’ lead, let’s take it one step further: What if we in 2017 are wrong, and our benighted ancestors were right? What if our self-deception is deeper than we’d ever dare to admit on a large scale? What if we’ve papered over and medicated and anesthetized ourselves to keep from feeling the true damage inflicted by our immorality? What if we’ve covenanted together to kill the inconvenient fruits of our enlightened revelries and silence the voices of those hung out to dry in our post-morality culture? And what if–worse still–we’ve stopped our ears and closed our eyes to shut out the memory of God, whom we really know is there, and of Hell, which we still know is a real place, in order to satisfy our lusts while we look down our noses at those bigoted denizens of our cemeteries and their puritanical moral scruples?
If they were right and we are wrong, that would turn our self-important accusations around. It would mean not only that we have to answer for our sins against one another in this life and the life to come, but that these wounds will be salted by the knowledge that we, not our ancestors, were the truly bigoted ones.
Maybe that’s too painful. Maybe it’s easier to just insist we’re the moral betters of those who came before. After all, they can’t defend themselves.
Image: Wikipedia Commons, “el desembarco de los puritanos en América en 1620”