Fake News, Modernity & Sin by Peter Matheson

Peter Matheson is an active thinker still building on his interesting ministry (among other ministries) as Professor of Church History at Knox College.

Bewildering, but hardly dull, living in our post-truth culture! The twittering never stops.  From the President of the USA down to inanities closer home, the ether is dense with nonsense.  Often enough, too, it is dangerous nonsense. Ghastly massacres are airbrushed into acceptability by regimes as different as Myanmar and Saudi Arabia. Supreme Courts are politicized. Increasingly we wonder what is really going on in the world. The shadow-boxing around Brexit, for example, has taken on comic opera dimensions. Our Enlightenment categories of rationality and empirical verification seem no longer fit for purpose.

One by-product of  all this is that we are coerced into rethinking exactly what we mean  by freedom or rationality, or indeed a good conscience. I recently stumbled on an article  which  made  a  fascinating  connection  between  these modern confusions of  ours and a woefully defective understanding of guilt and sin. It  is certainly  true  that we  have  become  very  cautious  in the  wider  culture  and  even within  the  Church  about  using the language of  sin or guilt – for understandable reasons. Unhealthy hang-ups about guilt in the past loom large in our contemporaries’ minds. Pastorally and liturgically, we are aware that beating the drum about sin is counter-productive.

However, as  the  Latin  tag has it,  abusus non tollit usum: only idiots  stop  a  practice or  abandon a key concept  because  it  can  be  misused.  So, what if proper attention to penitence, to facing up to the issues of sin and guilt, is absolutely central to our faith? And  –  maybe quite  as important  – what  if  our  society  and  culture need  to  hear  a distinctive message from us  about precisely this?  Counter-intuitive, I know. Folly of the Gospel stuff…

The common assumption of our contemporary culture is that we are autonomous beings: that we have every right to exercise  our  personal freedom,  to  make our own  rational  decisions – whether  about  life or  death, personal  or public  affairs – and  that we  should  aim  at  the  fullest possible development of our  personality.  This common assumption need not lead to unbridled individualism, but all too often it does.

But  what  if  our  apparent  rationality  is  constantly being  subverted  by  what  the  Jesuits  used  to  call “inordinate  affections”, by our  conscious  or  subterranean fears, prejudices and  antipathies? Isn’t  it the  case  that good  outcomes  are  constantly being  endangered  by irrational  suspicions  and antipathies in  virtually every  group  we   associate  with?  Don’t we find it in business, schools, tertiary institutions, church congregations, and indeed in all manner of voluntary groups?  And, of course, we ourselves fall under the same condemnation. Our rational faculties are clogged again and again, are vitiated by Kafka-like illusions. Our very humanity seems to bring with it that we are tripped up from the word go, not only morally guilty, but existentially.

So much for our rationality.  Our apparent “freedom” is equally delusional. Just one example: we live in a world of unparalleled inequality, as the rising tide of fugitives from Africa, Asia, South America testifies. But how free are we to recognise this grotesque imbalance?  How free are we for others, for responsibility?

“Your God”, Luther said memorably once, “is what your heart is passionate about”. But how, without a daily interrogation of our conscience before God, do we ensure that our heart is passionate about the right things? A key insight of Luther, after all, was the utter irreplaceability of the individual’s faith, face-to-face with God. No one else could be honest about us except ourselves. No church institution. No counselling service. Here in our individual conscience resides our freedom. Genuine freedom is inseparable from the recognition of our finitude, our relationality, our brokenness. Forgetting, neglecting these is our sin. Lust, greed etc. are a mere bagatelle by comparison.

Liberation, on the other hand, flows from the experience which comes to us when we face up to our guilt before God. For Luther this was the gateway to self-affirmation, the very opposite of self-denial. It freed our rational faculties from the tyranny of our emotional drives and anxieties, our obsessions. Will, conscience and reason could then act in harmony. It  was no  accident, after all, that in apartheid  South Africa,  it  was  the  people  of  faith  who saw things  clearly.

There  is  a  message  here, then, not only for  us pastors  and  preachers, but for  our benighted  world. Elisabeth  Gräb-Schmidt, the  Tübingen  professor  for  systematic  theology  who  set  me  off  thinking in  this  way, sums  it  up  this  way: Luther’s  definition of  freedom resets our  fundamental assumptions about ourselves. True repentance is God’s way of preserving our individual judgement, and therefore our   rationality and freedom. Fake news will then wither on the stem. We can begin to recover the humanum.

5 thoughts on “Fake News, Modernity & Sin by Peter Matheson

  1. Oh Peter you should write more often! Amazingly I found that while the church was lost in the modernist illusion of freedom autonomy and ‘no such thing as sin’ the Holy Spirit raised up a world wide fellowship of men and women in the 12 Step movement whose very survival depended on making an ongoing searching and fearless moral inventory and admitting it before God and another trusted human being. Great piece.


  2. Great writing Peter! My experience is that while the church was asleep during ‘modernity’ God was not. A whole network of people were created around the world for whom as a matter of sanity serenity and survival choose to make an ongoing moral inventory of themselves and ‘confess’ to God and to another trusted human. Of course today we thing of this as the 12 step movement but it’s origins are deep within the Christian faith. I think Jesus would have gladly belonged after all he was powerless over being the incarnation of the love of God.


  3. Sorry about the double posts above! But here’s another. In her final sermon at The House of all Saints and Sinners Nadya Bolz-Webber preached on Grace. In summary she said ‘Grace, to me, is God’s source code. It is the spirit’s renewable resource. And confession of sins or completing a moral inventory and speaking it to another person isn’t the way we earn forgiveness—it’s just the way to force our egos into a posture where we can receive forgiveness.’ To read the whole thing go to https://www.makers.com/blog/pastor-nadia-bolz-weber-delivers-last-sermon-at-house-of-all-sinners-and-saints-thanking-god-grace-beyonce?utm_source=social&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=makers_blog


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