In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ [the heart] and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
—C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
—Judges 21: 25
Most of you by now know the story of the best cyclist in the history of the sport, Lance Armstrong. An enormously gifted athlete at the top of the cycling world, Armstrong suffered from stage IV cancer and was given a high probability that he would not live. He not only survived his cancer, of course, Armstrong became the seven-time winner of the prestigious Tour de France, transforming the sport as the greatest in its storied history. His success ran so deep that it was seen as unbelievable, defying natural human ability. Armstrong defended himself for years against critics accusing him of using performance- enhancing drugs, usually very vociferously and defiantly, including winning millions in successful lawsuits. And, of course, we all know that he recently admitted that his success was not so natural, that he indeed had the assistance of the most sophisticated drug machine known in all of sports and destroyed the careers, the reputations, the bank accounts, and, to a degree, even the lives of untold others who got in his way. And, now that he has come “clean,” he does so with virtually no remorse or contrition, unrepentant in his confession. His only crime, he implies, is that he was caught. He lied and destroyed, and angrily defended himself in the process, to protect only himself, a self-absorbed narcissist of epic proportions.
There is outrage by many at Armstrong—and outrage at those not outraged—because of his lack of honor and virtue. But Armstrong, I argue, is merely the fruit of our cultural tree. The shocking things are not his lies and seemingly unrepentant, unremorseful attitude, but our feigned outrage at Armstrong’s lack of honesty and lack of soul. Should we really expect any more from a culture based on falsehood? Armstrong’s mantra of “everyone’s doing it” may seem weak, but it is one of the mantras of our postmodern world, a world of relativism so similar to the tenth century BC when the writer of Judges proclaimed that, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Armstrong is by no means alone at the judgment seat; we read and hear of Manti T’eo’s lies and the subsequent Notre Dame cover up, the affairs of General Petraeus, the Benghazi cover up, the slightly less-recent Enron deceit and debacle; the list can fill volumes.
Our society undermines honesty in every way imaginable. Underhanded behavior is glorified. Unfaithful spouses are glamorized. Untouched photos are gone. In our nation, politicians are not elected based on their deeply held convictions or their ability to accomplish great things. We choose men and women who are most able to deceptively convince the most people that they agree with them. Lying is not frowned upon. Quite the contrary; it is expected. For truth, you see, has become relative, and therefore ever illusive.
Every photo published is almost expected to be a lie of some sort. Photoshop and filters make pictures seem as if the subject were perfect. Magazines portray a false life as the object of desire. Never mind that it is literally unattainable. Chasing the lie will keep you buying more things. In sports, like so many other areas of our culture, the frequently repeated phrase is, “It is not cheating unless you get caught.” Armstrong, then, never really cheated. He never was caught while competing, only after retirement. We told him performance-enhancing drugs were perfectly fine, so long as he let us believe our naïve fantasy about “LiveStrong.”
Manti T’eo was embarrassed about being conned in such a heart-wrenching manner, so instead of coming clean, he perpetuated the very fraud that was committed against him. And his university—my dear wife’s alma mater, by the way—covered it up. It was more important to the school to keep its squeaky-clean image during its national football championship quest; it was more important to T’eo to remain respectable in the eyes of others than to be honest. What’s that? Respectability is the opposite of honesty? That is our culture. In a world where “image is everything,” integrity is nothing. In a culture where there are no longer absolute truths, you can create your own truths, your own reality. And, all is fine unless you get caught.
In his book, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis included an essay entitled “Men Without Chests.” In it, Lewis depicts one of the problems with our culture: we ask for a virtue while cultivating the opposing vice. Lewis was prophetic in pointing out that relativism—the idea that there is no absolute truth—would lead to the decay of morality and a lack of virtue within society. Without a belief in and the teaching of universal moral laws, we fail to educate the heart and are left with intelligent men who behave like animals, or as Lewis puts it, “men without chests.” Lewis’ treatise (written in 1947) is about the failed educational system, and he asks the question: Can we really divorce truth and values from education? Many of the “experts” of Lewis’s day thought so. Since that time, the idea of “values neutral” education has been all the
rage. It began with the simple relativistic assumption that there is really no such thing as transcendent “right” and “wrong.” This is, of course, the ultimate conclusion we are forced to draw when we adopt some form of naturalism and place humanity as the ultimate arbiter of reality. As we proceeded into the postmodern era, that assumption spread like cancer through academia. From there, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation [became] the philosophy of government the next.” Today, there is hardly a part of Western culture— including the church—that isn’t infected with the idea.
Before long, the educational theorists realized that they must teach some form of truth and morality, if for no other reason than crowd control. In keeping with their attempt to be values-neutral, they settled on a hollow secular humanism that simply compounded the problem, demanding that children act morally while giving them no compelling reason to do so. Ultimately, students essentially were led to believe that it only pays to be morally upright when you think that someone will catch you.
This dilemma is precisely what Lewis predicted. As a culture, we produce men and women “without chests” and we expect them to do the right thing anyway. Heads may appear to have swelled in our time, but largely because chests have atrophied. Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o and General Petraeus and so many others may indeed be men without chests, but they are our men without chests. That doesn’t make what they did excusable. It makes what each of us do each day to affirm honesty and truth, particularly God’s Truth, so very important.