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In the fall of 2017, The Falls Church Anglican, in Falls Church, VA, held the “Being Human” conference where Dr. John Yates III and Rev. Sam Ferguson co-taught five sessions that detailed the meaning of being human according to the Bible contrasted with the secular perspective. The conference began with an examination of the historical, philosophical, and cultural ripples that became the tidal wave of the moral revolution. The following is a summary of the first session taught by Dr. Yates.
AMERICAN FREEDOM’S IMPACT
“How did we get here?” The question plagues many an American Church due to the swift cultural change over the past decade. America has seen moral decay practically unrivaled in pace in the history of the world. Caitlyn Jenner and James Obergefell are two names that represent the seismic moral shift. Dr. Yates sees the shift as a natural outcome of an America “predicated on a belief that no one, but you, can possibly know what is best for you—even the One who created you.” The belief, along with the lifestyles it substantiates, is noticeably incongruent and wholly blasphemous. But the philosophical roots of this idea come from a document meant to set a people free from political tyranny by claiming mankind’s natural birthright.
In the United States’ Declaration of Independence, liberty and the pursuit of happiness “have come to define what it means to be human in modern America,” Yates explained. These “good things have come to be seen as ultimate things—as ends in and of themselves.” These two inalienable rights have become idols and are summed up in the word, freedom.
“Freedom is typically understood in two ways: Freedom from and freedom to. Freedom from is freedom from external constraints. Freedom from those obligations and expectations placed on us by others. … This commitment to ‘freedom from’ means that as often as possible our social and legal structures give priority to individuals and treat the individual as the arbiter of right and wrong, good and evil.”
“Freedom from” destroys the joy that comes from embracing the fact of being “made in God’s image.” This is the first mark of being human according to Scripture. We are not little gods possessing the ability to be “arbiter[s] of right and wrong” in order to attain some self-defined degree of fulfillment. God is superior and mankind inferior seeing we are made in His image. “In order to be fulfilled, we must embrace this God-given identity and seek to live it out,” Yates said.
The second mark of being human biblically is reception of a “divine vocation. God gives us a vocation: exercise dominion and multiply through marriage and childbirth,” (Genesis 1:28). Man’s mission corresponds perfectly to his design. He was made in the image of the Divine, one who is sovereign overall. He has graciously shared His sovereignty with man. In the fog of temptation, Eve failed to see her elevated position above the rest of His creation. Freedom from this supposed restraint caused her and has caused millions of others countless hardships, including for many eternal separation from God.
“This turn to autonomy is also a turning away from true humanity. By turning within to find ourselves, we spurn the love that made us.” Yates continued, “Genesis 3 teaches us that after the Fall to be human is to be sinful, broken, and in need of redemption. St. Paul captures the implications of this more painfully and poignantly than anyone else when he describes our human condition in Romans 1.”
Back in Genesis, when the serpent asked Eve, “’Did God actually say?,’ in that moment, the center of authority shifted from God’s self-disclosing word to Eve’s interpretation of it.” Eve decided to be free from what she momentarily perceived as unnecessary constraints. This fatal misperception was codified by Rene Descartes in his dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” Existence is not determined by a reality outside of one’s self. Existence is determined by one’s self.
Dr. Yates said this has been infecting philosophical thinking since the 17th century. It reappeared in the 18th century, when Immanuel Kant wrote, “Autonomy is the ground of dignity of human nature and of every rational creature.” And again, in the 19th century, in John Stuart Mill’s famous quote: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Yates explained these men have significantly influenced America to the point where “we have built a national philosophy … rooted in individualism, … free from all external expectations. … This has led to a cultural obsession with needing to be freed from the judgment of others – either actual or perceived – because judgment destroys self-image, and psychologically constrains personal freedom.”
It is important to note the desire for freedom is not an ungodly pursuit. For the world, the pursuit veers off-course because it is rooted in actions and not in God’s truth (John 8:32).
The second aspect of secular freedom is the freedom to. This “is the freedom to define who we are and to pursue that identity without constraint or criticism. [It] has two parts: self-determination and self-expression. Self-determination is the freedom to determine who you are or what you are. Self-expression is the freedom to live the life you’ve chosen for yourself,” Yates stated.
The flaw in this definition of freedom is revealed in its application. If one has the freedom to determine who or what he/she is, then reinvention is “the most human trait of all” as declared in a recent Alfa Romeo advertisement where the company tapped into the individualistic nature of Americans with the hope viewers would see its car as the consummate projection of American ideals. Unintentionally, the commercial “lays bare the fact that the American logic of freedom simply doesn’t work. If ‘the ability to reinvent ourselves is the most human trait of all’ then you cannot ‘stay true to who you are,’ because there is no ‘you’ when you peel back all the layers.”
The freedom to is the force empowering the moral revolution for the past 49 years of which gender identity is a part of. People have the freedom to use and define their sexuality according to their own presumed wisdom. “In our culture, sex finds meaning as the expression of desire. In Scripture, [however], sex finds meaning as the expression of God’s design. In other words, we do not have to look within ourselves to discover how or what sex should be. We must look to Scripture in all its fullness to understand how God intends it to be.”
Another key component of being human according to the divine plan is the beauty, purpose, and use of our sexuality. Dr. Yates explained the freedom to philosophy deceives a person into thinking “island living” is a viable option. But it is “together we reflect the divine image. We cannot do what we have been created to do or be who we have been created to be without being male and female. We are dependent on each other.” Going against intrinsic design leads to confusion and the destruction of a flourishing existence.
PERILS OF SEXUAL IDENTITY AS PRIMARY
The sum of freedom from and freedom to equals sexual identity as ultimate. Dr. Yates stated the significance of this notable first in the history of mankind by citing a quote from cultural anthropologist, Jennell Williams Paris. In her book, The End of Sexual Identity, she wrote,
“Sexual identity is a Western, 19th century formulation of what it means to be human. It’s grounded in a belief that the direction of one’s sexual desire is identity-constituting, earning each individual a label (gay, lesbian, straight, etc.) and social role. … Finding our sexual feelings is part of how we come to know ourselves and present ourselves to others.”
Building off this, Yates said, “It is because of this logic … that the conversation about sexuality is so shrill and divisive. It is not a conversation about sex, it is a conversation about what it means to be human and happy.” Therefore, it is expected a “full-blown affirmation” be expressed as a way of showing respect for a person’s sexual choices. In the culture’s eye, “to question the goodness of someone’s self-described sexual identity [is to] question our culture’s deepest assumptions about what it means to be human. By disagreeing, you are in effect dehumanizing the other person.”
Hence, “’intolerant’ and ‘bigot’ are used to describe those … who hold to a traditional biblical view of sexuality and marriage” because one is not allowing another to be human fully. One’s sexual desire and practice [are considered] literally the most important things about a person. Consequently, teens are feeling an “intense pressure … to figure out what [they] want and therefore who [they] are. This is a strange and completely unfair pressure to foist on adolescents who are awash with hormonal change, social pressure, and personal uncertainty.”
Dr. Yates concluded his point by sharing two key truths about sexuality. The first is our sexuality is broken. In Romans 1, “all kinds of sexual sin are enumerated. Whether the sin is heterosexual or homosexual, it reflects a twisted nature. It is part of our separation from God. It requires forgiveness. We are all sexually broken.”
Secondly, “sex is good and part of God’s design. It is governed by His purposes and not by the shape of our desires. It serves a purpose greater than the satisfaction of desire because it is part of our divine vocation, and contributes to the mandate to steward the earth. Sex is far too important to let it define who we are.”
Despite a broken sexuality becoming a tyrant in many people’s lives due, in part, to the moral revolution, “true humanity and ultimate fulfillment” can be recovered and experienced. It is found on “the path of faith in Jesus Christ. This involves a recognition of the glory for which we were created, a confession of the guilt of our own sin, and a submission to the lordship of Christ.”
Dr. John Yates III is the rector at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, NC.