Plutarch once noted the great displeasure of Emperor Augustus, upon the latter’s witnessing some wealthy foreign women in Rome. Carrying puppies and baby monkeys, caressing the animals as they would have their own children, the women inspired Augustus to protest, and with snideness fit for an emperor, he spoke: what kind of people, he asked, would waste motherly affections upon animals?
While his objection seems a bit harsh, as the moral ownership of pets requires some affection on the master’s part (Proverbs 12:10), the reader is left with an uncomfortable realization: that where we direct our affections determines whether that affection is moral. We say we’re to love, but what must we love is another idea in itself; for love isn’t an inexhaustible resource, expendable in every direction. It requires selection, and planning, and that its possessors, by choosing its course, must inevitably exclude some from participation. The virtues possessed by men can be expended in many sorts of ways, but the objects upon which they’re expended makes the difference between children and men, between derelicts and heroes, between the loyal husband and the adulterer. To Augustus, the wasted virtue was a miserable loss fit only for the barbaric; it spent the diamonds of the human soul upon the unaware, and fed the heavens like straw to the petting zoo. Jesus Himself chose the cities in which He would preach: not all touched His healing hand or heard His glorious voice, but few.
If Augustus can have an opinion about the proper direction of affections, God certainly isn’t silent about this issue. That the universe operates according the laws of divine reason, to the Christian, should be incontestable. We gaze upon the rising moon, and see it bring the tide; we harness His laws of physics, and ride in self-propelled wagons of steel and plastic through highways in the mountains. We play musical arrangements, mathematical vibrations ordained by the Almighty’s hand as beautiful, and project them through time and space. Likewise, knowing well that no law exists without purpose, we should recognize that every instinct, every virtue has a designed end, no urge created for urge’s sake, but manufactured by Jehovah for a particular and praiseworthy destiny. And though we may not witness with our earthly eyes the spiritual essence of virtue, even the heathen emperor Augustus could recognize its visible manifestations in the actions of men. He knew that men have particular desires, which, when properly directed, could be classified as virtue; what he didn’t know was the God who made them.
So then, having both natural law and the Bible, the Christian should be the most rational of all men, not simply knowing himself — his instincts, his mind — like other men do, but knowing the Engineer who designed those tools to pursue a particular end. The Christian has both knowledge of what is, and a Biblical map to where it must go. Other men, living in rebellion against their Heavenly King, still recognize virtue (Romans 2), but oftentimes apply it wildly, casting their diamonds into the mud. They march to feed starving Africans, while abandoning their own children.
But excepting Jesus Himself, man has never truly submitted to God’s plan, never content to cherish the things that God cherishes. Christians must note that even should we have The Law, when we direct our gaze earthward, we don’t keep it. The fall of man itself testifies of man’s fickle affections, how, being presented with the sublime, he still manages to seek the pleasures of inordinate desire, even should it result in his damnation. As Grotius once said, pride itself is born in Heaven.
Consider, then, the power of affection, that even beyond The Law exists another by which man acts, a singular logic which determines his steps. Man may perhaps choose martyrdom or poverty, or he may perhaps choose riches and a life of business. But whichever object he chooses, knowing well that varying objects are oftentimes diametrically opposed, and that one must choose a particular end at the exclusion of every other, he can only choose that which he cannot live without, that which he values more than the others. He always acts in preference of something (even inaction prefers the present circumstances), but his affections alone determine his action; his logic simply attempts to gain his affections in the most viable way. Man may be said to prize virtue, or he may pursue pleasure; but even should he forego material gain for the austerity of the missionary, any suffering he endures will be preferable to a dishonorable comfort, luxury in the face of impiety.
If this is the case, then the prime interest of civilization isn’t simply to cultivate educated men, but rather to cultivate tasteful men; not simply men who know of the world, but those who properly distinguish between proper and improper objects of affection. Whether governments or societies uphold this task, the task will be upheld in some form or another; and wisdom notes that when eternal shame lowers her sword, and guides men not with the word of God, that the affections of men will find themselves perverted.
But can man’s affections ever be bridled, until he only loves what is good, and loathes evil? And what would become of us, should we attempt to regulate the affections of men entirely by law? One can only expect tyranny, when the sword alone — the law’s “persuasion” — seeks to instill a love which men have little control over themselves.
For this purpose of directing the affections, men need religion. For religion’s grasp, reaching far beyond the body and penetrating deep into the soul, orders affections according to a universal standard. But only true religion orders affections most properly. And for this reason, false religion is perhaps the most tyrannical construct of all, illegitimately requiring of men not only that they love according to false teaching, but that they love under threat of displeasing the God whose very hand directs their eternal fate. What secular education dreams, religion alone acquires, the annals of history declaring that man, always seeking to dominate his neighbor, is no stranger to this truth.
But false religion, though reaching further than the state, still presses upon man from the outside; it never truly captures his affections. And this is what’s so particularly miraculous about Christianity. Christianity isn’t a passive religion; it comprises nothing less than God’s pursuit of man, the transformation of souls, the passage from death into life. Should a man be wallowing in the mud, too drunk to stand, riddled with every disease and selfish as the worst of tyrants, when God reclaims him, he becomes a saint. His spiritual birth isn’t marked by perfection, nor is it comprised of hollow professions, but rather a total exchange of affections: he begins to love the things of God, and hate the things of earth (Jeremiah 31:31-34); his pleasures, once obtained by wallowing in the mire, can only then be experienced by reaching into the clouds. His affections, his direction, his perception, become God’s, slowly but surely: as Jesus said, his earthly mother and brothers were those who hear the word of God and do it, and one can only do the word of God when in his eyes, he would rather do nothing else. And as the Apostle John said, if a man loves the things of the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, all affections — then the spirit of God doesn’t abide in him. What can this mean, but that to be a Christian is to cherish something entirely different than what the world cherishes?
In the Gospel alone is mankind’s solution, the very power of God manifested in the hearts of men, the domination of the last frontier. Man may fly in rockets to Mars, or travel to the depths of the sea, or conquer starvation and illiteracy and disease, but Jesus Christ alone lords over hearts; He alone restores man, and makes virtues virtuous. And if we want to save the world — if, if we wish against reason that man would pursue God and goodness above all else, that we would love wisdom instead of folly, that we would cherish perfect love above pleasure, and glory above dishonor, then there exists but one answer. It is to preach Jesus Christ as salvation from the wrath of God, and that the evidence of salvation is a spiritual regeneration which seeks out the deepest, darkest evils of the soul and takes them captive.
This is Christianity. That it has been promoted as anything less is one of the greatest injustices the human race has ever known.