What is at the heart of the reason for the decline in Western culture? Cultural analyst Os Guinness argues that it is a faulty view of freedom. According to Dr. Guinness, America is at a vital moment in history in which it is being determined whether it will embrace the revolution of 1776 or 1789. Freedom, quite literally, is at stake. Scott and Sean discuss these ideas with Dr. Guinness, which come from his latest book The Magna Carta of Humanity.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. A podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics. And
Scott Rae: I'm your co-host Scott Ray, Dean of Faculty and professor of Christian ethics.
Sean McDowell: Today, we have a wonderful guest with us, a returning guest, we've had multiple times. You'll recognize him because he as an influential thinker writer, author, and today Os Guinness is back because he has a new book called Magna Carta of Humanity. Another fascinating read. I have thoroughly enjoyed going through Dr. Guinness, thanks so much for coming on
Os Guinness: A real pleasure, Sean and Scott. Thanks for having me.
Sean McDowell: Of course. Well, let me ask you, what's the heartbeat of this book? What motivated you at this moment to focus on this message?
Os Guinness: Well, I'm trying to address the heart of the American crisis because put it in a broader sense, we're at a civilizational moment with the decline of the west and the American Republic going through a crisis, every bit as serious as the civil war. You can see this is an extraordinary moment. So I'm trying to address what's gone wrong, but then go beyond that. It's not just a diagnosis. To try and suggest a way forward so that we can recapture the brilliance and the best of the American experiment.
Sean McDowell: You start off the book with some powerful words that your father spoke to you in January of 1949. What were those words and how does your memory of them shape the way you view American civilization culture today?
Os Guinness: Well, I was seven and we were living in Nanjing, the capital of so-called free China. And in January, my dad said to me, son, we're in trouble. Gen Ki Shek has just abandoned the city and we're at the mercy of the red army. In other words, I was there at the climax of the Chinese revolution, one of the two great revolutions of the 20th century. And I lived through the reign of terror in which my own father was accused falsely, in a trial. And there were trials, cases every morning and executions every afternoon. It was an extraordinary time and I could see what it meant to live under Marxism and communism.
Scott Rae: As you said, just a minute ago that you claim that America's more divided today than in any time since the civil war. What makes you conclude that? And what's the heart of that division today?
Os Guinness: Well, people use words like the great polarization. The question is what's behind it. Everyone knows something is bitterly divided. What? Some say, it's the effect of the social media or the response to the former president or the coastals you guys in California against the heartlands the Midwest and the south. Others say no, it's the nationalists and populists over against the globalists like George Soros and so on. But my own argument is that the deepest division runs deeper than any of those. It's between those who understand the Republic and freedom from the perspective of 1776 and the American revolution. Which of course was rooted through the reformation in the scriptures.
And on the other hand, those who understand the Republican freedom from the perspective of 1789 and the French revolution. Because when you look at things that have gone through America in the last 50 years. Postmodernism, political correctness, identity politics, tribal politics, and supremely, the sexual revolution and currently stuff like critical race theory. All these things come not from 1776, but 1789. And you know, we're talking as Christians here, you know what Paul says in Galatians? Who's bewitched, you're following another gospel. You've shifted from grace to works. And in essence, what I'm saying to Americans is who's bewitched you? You're following another revolution. You're switching without realizing it from the best of 1776 to the worst of 1789.
Sean McDowell: In the book, you go into some detail of the differences between 1776 and 1789, obviously the American and the French revolutions. Can you explain a little bit more of the differences of those and how the worldview roots behind them?
Os Guinness: Well, there are any number of differences. Let me mention some briefly. They have different sources. 1776, largely, sadly not fully, came the scriptures, the Bible. 1789 comes from the French enlightenment, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and so on. They have different views of humanity. The biblical revolutions have an immense realism. That's why you have separation of powers. Checks and balances. Why? The corruption of power.
Humans abuse power because of sin. Takes a Madison who is a student of John Weatherspoon. Whereas the French revolution, particularly Rousseau, incredibly utopian and the left has had a streak of utopianism. Even Mao Zedong ever since. Or you go on to say, notions of freedom. Biblical freedom is covenantal freedom, freedom within a framework. Freedom requires truth. Freedom requires character. Freedom requires a way of life. It's not the permission to do what you like. It's the power to do what you ought.
And libertarianism and the French revolutionary ideas are completely different from that. But the big difference this last year has been over justice. Now, when we come to justice, both sides agree there is injustice, terrible injustice. There were horrendous things happening in France before the revolution, including the terrible corruption of the Catholic church. We agree about injustice. The differences come in, how you address it.
In other words, on the radical left through cultural Marxism, you set up a conflict of power. There's no God and no truth. So everything's power. And as you know, what they do is, analyze discourse, as they say, how do people speak? So you look for the oppressor, the victim, the majority, the minority, and things like this. Then you weaponize the victim to try and overthrow the status quo. In other words, power without end. And as the Romans put it, it ends only in the piece of despotism. In other words, the power that can put down all other powers. Whereas obviously our biblical view, the Jewish and the Christian view, let me use single words. You have truth addressed to power. And a call for repentance. And then forgiveness and then reconciliation and then restoration and so on. Those are single words, but unpack them and you can see that right can overwhelm wrong rather than might making right.
Scott Rae: Os let's go back to the biblical framework that you mentioned in the re the American revolution in 1776. One of the things I most appreciated about your newest book is the almost exposition of the book of Exodus. And you make the claim that the revolution in Exodus was the sort of the grand revolution that got it right. And really laid the groundwork for the 1776 revolution in its view of freedom. Can you spell out a little bit more how the Exodus connects and forms the biblical backdrop to the American revolution in 1776?
Os Guinness: Well, let's go back a bit further. When the church and the Christian faith became the official religion in Rome, what happened sadly is that the church copied Roman structures uncritically. And the Roman structures were not biblical, they were hierarchical. So you had a Caesar, council, senators and so on. And you had the Pope, Cardinals, bishops, and so on. Now it was a Catholic layman, Lord Acton who made the famous remark that all power tends to corrupt an absolute power, absolutely. And he was critiquing in that remark in the letter, he was critiquing his own church. And the Catholic church and all the horrors of the inquisition. An error has no rights in the medieval world were all result of the corruption of following Roman structures. Now, the reformation of course, solo scriptura, went back to the Bible. And in Exodus, you have not hierarchical structures.
That's Egypt. That's Babylon. That's Persia. You have covenantal ways, and God's founding of his new nation gives you a covenantal idea. And the reformation rediscovered that. Calvin, Zangly, Bullingham, Knox in Scotland. Oliver Cromwell in England, he said "Exodus is the exact parallel to what they were trying to do." Now, of course, in England, the revolution of 1642 fails. We now call it the lost cause. But what was the lost cause in England became the winning cause in New England.
So the Mayflower compact, the first American political statement is a covenant. And covenant came to New England churches and marriages, and then more equally important, townships. So when John Adams writes the constitution of Massachusetts, the first written one, it is, is he says a covenant. And the US Constitution, "We, the people," is a nationalized form of the Hebrew covenant. And that's just the beginning of the reliance on Exodus.
Sean McDowell: Can you give some examples of modern descendants of the French revolution in America? And I ask just so people see that some of these movements today aren't popping out of nowhere, but have deep, historical roots going back to prior revolutions.
Os Guinness: Well, the revolution, we're not talking about France. And in the book I used the shorthand, just Paris. We're not talking about Paris today. The French Revolution only lasted 10 years in France and then came Napoleon. And he said, "The revolution is over." But while it was over in France, it led down the centuries to three great lava flows like a volcanic explosion. The most famous of course is revolutionary socialism or in one word, communism. The Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution. And that's not what we're facing. The third of the lava flows was what's called cultural Marxism. Now that came out of the work of Antonio Gramsci in the 1920s. And he was picked up by the Frankfurt school, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. And in the sixties, the first time I came to this country, the leading voice was Herbert Marcuse in California.
And to cut a long story short, around the '67, '68, he and Rudy Dutschke, the head of the red brigade in Germany called for a long march through the institutions. In '68, Martin Luther king assassinated, Bobby Kennedy assassinated, 100 American cities ablaze, but the radicals knew they wouldn't win in the streets. They needed a long march. In other words, when the colleges and universities win the press and the media, win the culture industry, Hollywood and entertainment, and then you do an end run around America and sweep down and win the whole culture. And that's what's happened in 50 years.
So these ideas have been building up. So people in this year, everyone's excited about CRT, critical race theory. But that's only one of many aspects of cultural Marxism. You have critical women's studies, critical queer studies, critical fat studies. And you go across the board. And Christians need to have a much deeper and wider understanding.
It is an entire way of revolutionary thinking to counter the American revolution. So you take the sexual... People don't realize the sexual revolution, LGBT and all that, began in the same quarter in Paris as the political revolution, the palais royale. And if you read the thinkers like the Marquis de Sade or later Wilhelm Reich, they're quite clear. They will never win they say, until they overcome, one, the church and two, parents. Now, this is much deeper than Hugh Hefner and Playboy in the bill. And we've got to realize that this is a civilizational conflict of ideas that is incredibly profound and very important for freedom and for humanity.
Scott Rae: Now, as to, I think to follow up on that, you make the claim in several places in the book that the underlying philosophy of postmodernism is actually quite uncongenial to freedom. Can you spell out in a little bit more detail how that's so?
Os Guinness: Well, let's put it bluntly. How do you ground freedom? Well, go all the way back. The Babylonians had no view of freedom. It was all determined in the stars. The Egyptians didn't. The Persians didn't. The Greeks didn't. You read Sophocles and the great Greeks, moira, fate, is behind everything. Then people think well, we're in the modern world, surely every atheist believes. Well, you look at atheism, secularism, JB Watson, BS Skinner, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris. And Sam Harris' book on freedom, freedom is an illusion. The front cover is a puppet dangling on stings.
In other words, you take naturalistic science behind everything is either chance or determinism and modern atheism has no view of freedom. Let's be blunt. Freedom is almost unique to Jews and Christians. In other words, the Bible. Made in the image of God, our Lord is sovereign. He is free despite any interference or opposition. We're not sovereign, but we are significant. And the Bible addresses us as people who can choose good and evil, life and dead. Therefore choose life. So the Bible has the strongest foundation and grounding of freedom, which is why, as Paul says in the Testament, for freedom, Christ has set us free. Christians should be the champions of freedom.
Sean McDowell: You talk about how important trust is for a society to experience freedom, not to mention just for the success of the economy. Why is trust so important for free society? And how is it restored when it's been lost to cynicism and skepticism?
Os Guinness: Deep points, Sean. Well, trust is important because the American system depends on Calvinism. Freely chosen consent. We, the people and so on. Now that means it depends on promise keeping. On making a pledge. And you can see today that with the so-called post-truth world of postmodernism, there's a cynicism. Nothing can be trusted. There's no objective meaning. Everything is finally undecidable in a radical relativism. So if everything's power, I don't know where you are coming from. You may have something over me. And so my way of facing you should be with suspicion, because I can't trust you. And you can see a hundred reasons why trust, which depends on truth and people keeping their word, making promises and keeping them. My word is my bond. It's gone.
And so lies and cynicism and suspicion and fake news have replaced everything. Now you can see the elites attack ordinary people for so-called conspiracy theories. And ordinary people attack the elites for their fake news. But actually both extremes are different sides of the same coin. Truth is collapsed and cynicism, relativism, suspicion, mistrust have come in. Now, here's the point. When you have high truth, you can have high trust. And with high trust you can have high freedom. You don't have to look to see what people are doing all the time. Now when you have low truth or no truth, you have low trust and therefore high control. And you have cameras everywhere. Take China with 2 billion cameras, following everyone, everywhere. And that'll come in our country too, because you need either to trust people or to see them in order to control them.
Scott Rae: Os, one of the subjects that you raise in the book I found particularly interesting is when the notion of the cultural dynamics of sin. It's just, it's such an insightful discussion of sin and you raise the question about the me too movement. And the question is so interesting to me. The me too movement. You raise the question, will it be radical enough to challenge this post modern view of power? Or will it just settle for addressing the symptoms of that? So help us understand how you are connecting the me too movement with your notion of the cultural dynamics of sin.
Os Guinness: Well, with the breakdown that I was describing earlier, you can see that every man is now a potential assailant of every woman. And every woman is now a potential accuser of every man. So trusting, open relationships say between men and women and women and men have gone. And we're all taught to be schooled in suspicion and all the teaching on the campuses, and so on People are just nervous to have any relationship or to say anything now. We can't because everything is suspect in the world in which we've created. And this is the logic of the radical postmodernism we've got. And it's absolutely disastrous, not just for a free society, but for human society, because at the heart of everything is relationships. How do I get on with you and with her and with him and so on. And of course the Bible is all about relationships and in essence regimes and rulers. And has very radical, realistic views of all of them.
So you look at Genesis is all about family relationships. You know, Freud talked about sons wanting to kill their parents. The oedipal complex, but in the scriptures you have fraternal complexes and sisters too. So Adam and Eve, Rachel and Leah and so on. You see all these things. The heart of everything is relational and the modern world has gone wrong there. And of course that's where the biblical understanding and especially our Lord speaks to it very directly.
So if we want to have good relationships, the men and women, parents and children, brothers and sisters, we've got to go back to very simple things. Or put it another way, the wonder of where we are is the insanity of the alternative. This is like Romans one. But equally the wonder of it is simply the fact, the simplest things of the gospel are now profoundly relevant. Human dignity, freedom, justice, peace, how to have good relations, et cetera. These things which a while back might have sounded truisms or cliches. And now at the very heart of the American crisis and thank God we are the defenders and champions of these wonderful things. And that's why the gospel is such incredibly good news.
Sean McDowell: We often hear people say things today, such as "live your truth. Be true to yourself." I think this generation is raised basically with no commitment to any authority outside of the self. And yet you say real freedom actually requires authority. So kind of a two part question. Why would freedom require an authority outside of the self? And why do some of the modern authorities, whether it's science or reason, et cetera, not be able to provide the kind of freedom that God does?
Os Guinness: Well, as I was saying earlier, science cannot ground freedom. The scientific method works backwards. What's the cause of the effect I'm looking at and so on. So it looks backwards. But you can't find freedom looking backwards in that way. But if you think, and here I go back to Isaiah Berlin, the great philosopher of freedom, who's Jewish at Oxford and escaped the Soviet revolution. He pointed out, freedom has two parts. Negative and positive.
Negative freedom is freedom from liberation. Someone might be freed from a colonial power or a bully or an abusive spouse. That's very important. Negative freedom. Freedom has to begin with whatever we're controlled by, we need to be freed from. But positive freedom is more it's freedom to be something freedom for something, because that raises the question. Who am I? Am I an animal? Am I a selfish gene? Am I a naked ape? Or am I made in the image of God? In other words, to be truly free to be myself, I need to know who I am and who you are and who other humans are. In other words, freedom requires truth. And that's of course why our Lord says you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. And as I often say, that saying of Jesus is on the walls of more universities than maybe other sayings in the world and yet not followed today.
Scott Rae: Os, one of the things you prescribe as part of the solution to the crisis that faces America and the west, is the importance of civic education. Tell us a little bit about why you think that's so important for a free society to flourish?
Os Guinness: Well, as the Rabbis put it, if you have any project that takes more than a single generation, you need two things. History and schools. And again, as they point out, what did Moses talk about the night of the Passover? They're going free. 430 years in Egypt, mostly as slavery. Tonight they're going free, but Moses didn't mention freedom. They're going to the promised land of milk and honey, their own country. He doesn't mention it. Three times, Moses talks about children. In other words, this story we tell about ourselves to our children is the key to two things. Identity, who we are. And continuity, how it's passed on. Now, if you see that, that means that education and civic education about who we are politically and civically is vital. And yet in America that was thrown out at the end of the 1960s.
But worse than that, civic education was not only thrown out. It was replaced by bad history. So you had the Howard Zinn alternative views of America. More recently, the 1619 project. So look at generation Z. They're incredibly unfavorable to their own country. Not surprisingly because the rotten education they've had about what America is and the collapse of civic education in the public schools is literally suicidal for the American experiment. Now we can say, the same challenge is true for the church. You know, what used to be called catechism has collapsed and the younger generation, generation Z again, is dropping out in droves. Well, partly they haven't had it passed onto them in ways that it should have been done. Now, this is just not their fault. It's the fault of us and the older generation. So transmission is vital to freedom and civic education is a key part of transmission.
Sean McDowell: I've got a final question for you. Prescription wise, it really gets to the heart of your book. And I realize you could probably talk about this answer for the next two hours, but give us one or two points that it would be particularly helpful. You wrestled with a question of how do we address the wrongs of America, but in the right way?
Os Guinness: Well, I briefly looked at it as earlier, but let me unpack some of these things. The prophets, the Hebrew prophets, Amars, Micah, Josiah, Jeremiah, Isiah, they are the first great voices in human history tackling the abuse of power. And thank God they were. And that was justice didn't come from Marxism. And the tragedy is that so many in the church have drunk the Kool-Aid of the radical left. So you take a simple thing that, coming up again and again today. Do you know the book Douglas Murray's, The Madness of Crowds, the dangerous madness of crowds?
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Os Guinness: He's not a Christian, he's a gay and a conservative and an atheist. He points out one of the features of the radical left is mercilessness. Now compare that to the gospel. Forgiveness frees the past, the burdens roll away. Forgiveness frees the past, which is incredible because people, we've all done things we're ashamed of or wrong.
And under the cross, they can be gone forever, as far as the east is from the west and so on. But not only that, forgiveness frees the future. It opens up a future of a second chance. So there's a direct link between forgiveness and freedom. And so once again, the good news of the gospel is incredibly radical. And when you go on down the line like that and show that we should never rely on the tools of cultural Marxism. They are disastrous. And let's be clear with the radical left revolutions, they have never succeeded and they have always oppressed.
And Christians who think that's the way forward are naive and incredibly unfaithful to Jesus and the gospel. The ultimate dealing with sin has to be the cross. But we've got to unpack the gospel, the cross and explore the good news of the gospel in ways that are beyond any cliches. And that directly speak in to the injustice of the day, the racism of the day and so on and so on. But not with the tools of the left. So there's a stark choice today, 1789 or 1776. Or more importantly, the biblical view of the Lord and humanity or the secular view of life.
Sean McDowell: Os, it is always a treat to have you on. And I just got to tell you, as someone I've been looking up to and reading your books for a long time, to hear the clarity, but also just the clarity and call and sense of urgency of the moment that we're in is really, really important. So we appreciate your answers today, but I want to really encourage our listeners to go get a copy of your book, Magna Carta of Humanity. I read it once prepping for this, and I'm going to go back much more slowly and methodically. Read it, think about it, talk about it with my wife and my kids. I really think it's that important. So thanks for your work and just thanks for the time to keep coming back and joining us on the Think Biblically podcast.
Os Guinness: Thank you so much for having me. We're in an extraordinary moment and I know you won't miss it, and I hope all those you who are listening will not miss the urgency of the present hour.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including the new fully online bachelors in Bible theology and apologetics, in which we explore in many of the questions that we talked about today. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.