by Jen Pollock Michel
Through Scripture, we see the goodness of God in his extravagant will to give. As the curtain opens on creation, his first command is not prohibition but invitation: “Be fruitful and multiply.” When the people of Israel are poised to enter the Promised Land, Moses sets before them the alternatives of “life and good, death and evil,” and reprises God’s creation invitation: “Live and multiply and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering” (Deut. 30:16). The gospel itself climaxes in God’s giving: “For God so loved the world that he gave.”
But with the cross at the center of Christianity, critics have suggested that God opposes our flourishing—that obedience is not a means to the good life but rather a form of masochism. As Jesus himself said, in the kingdom of God the only way to save one’s life is to lose it first.
Cruel and Unnecessary Asceticism?
For modern secularists, there is the sense that Christianity has made exaggerated moral demands, which “cannot but end up mutilating us; it leads us to despise and neglect the ordinary fulfillment and happiness which is within our reach” (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 623–624). It asks us to despise our families (Luke 14:26); it commends heavenly treasure over earthly accumulation (Matt. 6:19); it forbids sexual license (Heb. 13:4). According to the critique, Christianity imposes a cruel and unnecessary asceticism, forcing us to repress desire and offending the primacy of individual freedom, the heartbeat of modern exclusive humanism.
It is not simply that Christianity is an alternate ethic in the secular age; it is an enemy.
“In recent centuries, and especially the last one, countless people have thrown off what has been presented to them as the demands of religions, and have seen themselves as rediscovering the value of the ordinary human satisfactions that these demands forbade. They had the sense of coming back to a forgotten good, a treasure buried in everyday life” (Taylor, A Secular Age, 627). In other words, humanity flourishes by throwing off the deadening constraints of religion and following the whims of their desires—wherever those desires might lead…
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