What’s Your Conscience Worth?

Bruce Springsteen says he won’t perform for North Carolina, as long as the state upholds its recently passed law regarding gender and public restrooms. Springsteen is doing what millions of Americans are taught, in classrooms and in culture, to do: Standing up for his conscience, and drawing lines accordingly. But in our era, the question becomes: If this is counted to Springsteen as righteousness, why is it counted as sin to North Carolina?

That’s the kind of morally confused age we live in. In the 1980s, Allan Bloom could write in The Closing of the American Mind that nearly all American college students had one thing in common: A (professed, at least) belief in relativism. Bloom was prophetic and prescient in his time. But is his observation still true today?

There’s reason to doubt it. There’s reason to believe, as several commentators are now saying, that relativism has been weighed in the balance by the millennials and found wanting. Postmodernism’s tantalizing promise of the end of metanarrative and ethical absolutes has tripped over the foot of “academic justice,” Obergefell vs Hodges, and transgender restrooms. What we see in American culture today is not the reign of “Just do you,” but “Just go along with it.” Following your heart is old and busted; being on the right side of history is the new hotness.

G.K. Chesterton observed the difference between two kinds of worldview. The first worldview places great confidence in truth but is skeptical of oneself. Belief in transcendent realities is solid, but humanity’s inherent ability, or even desire, to seek them out is suspect. The second worldview does precisely the opposite: It places great confidence in human abilities, but is wary and suspicious of anything claiming to be truth.

On the surface, it looks like our contemporary culture is the embodiment of the second option. But I actually think that the spirit of our current age is less pure than that. What the Springsteen/North Carolina example shows us is that our culture is actually trying to escape the spiritual and intellectual emptiness of worldview #2 by combining it, in a sort of hideous moral alchemy, with worldview #1. The result is what you might call a secular religion, an indefatigable belief in absolutes that are in turn defined wholly in terms of human instincts and cravings. Those who violate the religion–those who question the inerrancy of human autonomy and progress–are the heretics, who must be quarantined and kept at bay.

The idea in question has been called “New Morality,” and I think that’s a helpful way of understanding the seemingly contradictory cultural trends at work now. The sexual revolution was never amoral; many of its fruits are immoral, of course, but at its core was always a moral center as rigid as that of the religionists it appeared to so deftly defy. By saying that it couldn’t define “person” in Roe v Wade, for example, the Supreme Court was actually defining it, the same way that separate-but-equal did in fact define personhood and citizenship by not defining it. Thus, “safe, legal, and rare” has lost its usefulness for the abortion lobby, which now prefers to talk about the “absolute good” of abortion and the sinister “anitchoice tactic” of humanizing the fetus. You can see the pattern: The language of choice and freedom has morphed into the language of obligation and necessity.

So the language of the culture has changed. Francis Schaeffer was right when he said that all Christians are missionaries to foreign-speaking lands, and so must learn to understand the language of culture in order to speak truth to it. What’s important for Christians to learn now is that the question of relativistic postmodernism was, “What does your conscience look like?” But the question of New Morality is, “What’s your conscience worth?”

The last generation had to insist that the neutering of absolute truth–the “gagging of God,” as D.A. Carson put it–was at odds with the Christian gospel. We had to articulate our religious DNA to a culture that was being taught at every turn that every god came from the same family tree. But now the conversation is changed. Our task now is to show that our un-gagged God cannot be bought off with promises of the “right side of history” and the approbation of our descendants. We must show our beliefs in more than theological argument but in practical acts of rebellion against the cultural consensus.

Whenever freedom of conscience is threatened by the ambient culture, two things inevitably happen. First, pressure will be applied to those who dissent to either recant or to accept their contagion and shrink back to the smallest corners of the public square. The second thing that happens is that sometimes, this pressure works. So we see memes like “Bake for Them Two,” an attempt to end-around, using religious jargon, the question of conscience and so be at peace once again with the spirit of the age. On the other hand, we also see angry, hand-wringing dissenters, for whom the pressures of the surrounding culture are causing them to forget who they are and where they are headed. Both options are capitulations, and both betray the value of our testimony.

Only a conscience worth something can point out when false gods fail to deliver the fire they promise. Only a conscience worth something can lose admission to Ph.D. programs but stand athwart culture yelling, “Stop!” And only a conscience worth something can carry a gospel that is the power of salvation to everyone who believes.

What’s your conscience worth?

 

Christians and College Debt

I’ve found myself thinking about one particular classmate from my undergraduate years. We entered around the same time. He was able to graduate much sooner than I, though, mostly because his Sallie Mae loan covered enough of his college bill so that he could take a full load or more every semester without working many hours (if he worked at all). Unfortunately, my friend made an alarming discovery upon graduation: His bachelor’s degree, though fully accredited and indicative of a high quality education, wasn’t exactly a “Get A Job Free” card. He soon realized that a bachelor’s degree in theology was not going to help him the way he’d planned when his loan repayments came due. He was forced to get a 30 hour per week job and enroll as a new undergrad in a local public university to get a more marketable degree, merely for the hope of landing a job that would empower him to pay off the loan for his first college experience.

For many American college students, this story hits close to home. Student loan debt is no longer a minor macroeconomic footnote. Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies instead dubs it a “time bomb,” a gravely serious economic stranglehold on millions of Americans. Collins notes that student loan debt is already higher than the US’s total credit card debt and will, according to some economists, balloon even more at the turn of the decade. One report released last year estimated that 70% of graduating seniors carry debt out of college and that the average student debt was just south of $30,000.

In February The New Yorker ran a fascinating article on Corinthian Colleges, a company that until recently ran hundreds of “for-profit” colleges. Due to financial troubles, Corinthian was forced to shut down all of its Canadian schools and many of its American ones, leaving students–who had taken out significant amounts of loans to help pay for an education from a Corinthian college–with little or nothing to show for their time there. The piece documented the plight of students “protesting” the events by demanding that their loans be forgiven, since the education they were taken out for is worth little. Federal agencies and US senators have joined the fray, imploring Congress to force the forgiveness of part or all of the debts.

This story poses an important moral dilemma for Christian collegians, many of whom find themselves in exactly the kind of financial straits described above. Some Christian writers have endorsed the strategies of the students protesting Corinthian, insisting that student loan is inherently unjust debt and that schools, creditors and government have a moral obligation to wipe such debt clean. That’s precisely the argument of Tad Hopp in his recent piece “Degrees of Debt.” Hopp’s passionate argument is appealing because he’s right that the problem of crushing student loan goes beyond the individual students themselves. His demand for a “conversation” about national debt forgiveness is hard to resist, as is his insistence that federal agencies and loan companies are in perfectly fine shape to not collect a few hundred million more.

But Hopp sidesteps the relevant biblical and moral questions that Christian students tempted to refuse to pay back their student loans are really facing. Before the relationship of a college student to a lender is a systematic justice issue (and it very well may be), it IS, in fact, an issue of individual character. Biblical wisdom literature is filled with admonitions both to avoid debt if possible, and to be sure to pay back whatever is borrowed. Refusing to do so is not only a serious legal matter, it is a matter of personal character before God. The Scripture commends the one who keeps his word even when it costs him, and it assumes that Christians keep balanced accounts with others. A plain reading of Biblical wisdom and morality makes clear that refusal to repay what is borrowed is not an option for a Christian.

But–and this is crucial–that is not the same as saying that Christian college students are doomed to become servant-scholars. There are biblically faithful and intelligent ways to deal with crushing student debt. Hopp is correct that the system is broken, but he needs to take this argument further and realize that the system’s biggest fault is the gap between student expectation and reality. Many students are willing to go into serious debt to enter college because they believe a bachelor’s degree is as good as a career. That was never really true, but it’s certainly a fiction in today’s economy. Hopp is right that we need a national conversation, but not a conversation about debt protests; rather, we need a national conversation about university alternatives like community college, technical schools, apprenticeships, and much more.  None of this suggests that four year degrees are bad or wasteful, but it does suggest that their monopoly on the imaginations of students and the aspirations of parents and teachers is a problem.

What about Christians who currently have student loan debt? As we’ve seen, Scripture assumes that Christians are people who pay what they owe to whom they owe it. That doesn’t mean that Christian students shouldn’t reach out for help, whether in the form of deferments or grants. Depending on the severity of the debt and the life situation of the student, putting a hold on further education might be necessary. That’s OK. Taking a semester off to get control of personal finances is not an admission of defeat or a forfeit of the future. Churches and Christian communities can help with this by dismantling the many stigmas around not being enrolled in university. Knowledge and wisdom are not always the same.

Christian universities should lead the way in being honest with prospective students about the costs of tuition, living, and other expenses. Not too long ago I was looking around on the website of Biola University, a Christina liberal arts school in Southern California. A good-sized section of their “Prospective Students” page was dedicated to calculating the cost of attending a private school in Orange County, including a friendly reminder that life there is considerably more expensive than most of the nation. I was impressed with the effort Biola put forth to be transparent with students, even if it meant some students turning away. Where students get in trouble is when recruiters obscure the realities of debt by encouraging incoming freshmen to “just take out a loan.” Christian schools should acknowledge that loan agencies are an option but never encourage students to go into serious debt without thinking soberly about the implications.

A final word to parents and students together: Don’t be afraid, or embarrassed, if you choose university to select a local school and live at home for a while. In many cases the costs of tuition are only a fraction of the cost of living in a college campus. Ignoring the meaningless propaganda about “the college experience,” parents and students can experience a tremendous amount of financial freedom by picking local schools, especially ones that offer in-state tuition benefits. Some Christians unwisely automatically dismiss this as “delayed adulthood,” but I can assure that what happens in most university dorms bears not even a passing resemblance to adulthood. If living in a spare room or basement can empower a student to throw herself into studies and remain financially afloat at the same time, embrace wisdom rather than the stereotype.