Our Western society is so deeply divided between these two approaches that hardly anyone can conceive of any other way to live. If you criticize or distance yourself from one, everyone assumes you have chosen to follow the other, because each of these approaches tends to divide the whole world into two basic groups. The moral conformists say: 'The immoral people - the people who "do their own thing" - are the problem with the world, and moral people are the solution.' The advocates of self-discovery say: 'The bigoted people - the people who say, "We have the Truth" - are the problem with the world, and progressive people are the solution.' Each side says: 'Our way is the way the world will be put to rights, and if you are not with us, you are against us.'"
Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, Chapter 3
Reading The Prodigal God for Journey Group has been a very eye-opening and educational experience. In many ways, it has helped me see the divide between elder brothers and younger brothers that goes to the heart of society, not limited by religious influence. As Keller indicates, the difference in the elder and younger brother is the root separation in the way that they try to find happiness and fulfillment.
The elder brother sticks to moral conformity - by doing all the right things, by following the rules, and meeting expectations, he finds his sense of worth. He is the "good son," taking pride in this title, in his accomplishments and the delayed gratification that they may bring. His worth is nominal - he is defined by his status, by his perception, by his reputation. In many ways, he is defined by the things he does not do. He is further defined by his relationships - he is defined by his family, by society, by his associates, and their expectations. He is what he is expected to be.
The younger brothers is following the path of self-discovery. He is the one who needs to go explore, to "find himself," and to do it now. His worth is experiential - to see, taste, touch, do. He is defined by the things that he does. He is further defined only by the terms he sets. He is his own man.
And we definitely see both types of brothers in the modern church. In our couples devotional, Life Under God, The Kingdom Agenda by Tony Evans, we just wrapped up two days that were on isolationist churches and conformist churches.
Isolationist churches are elder brothers to the nth degree. In an odd pairing of terms, they are so focused with moral conformity to the strictest of God's standards, that they are determined not to be affected by the wicked world. Put another way, they are so concerned about not being of the world, that they refuse to be in the world. They lean heavy on the side of truth with very little love (from the previous post here). They remain cloistered off in their building of meeting, exploring the scripture, but preaching only to the saints. The salt for the earth that refuses to leave its shaker; the light of the world that hides under a bushel.
Conformist churches are younger brothers gone rampant. They are so open to self-discovery, they dilute God's word and commands to the lowest common denominator. They are so in the world, they often start looking exactly like it. They lean heavy on the side of love with very little truth (or at least avoiding the harsher truths). So concerned about feelings, they can endanger the eternal for temporal comfort.
I believe this paradigm can also be used to explain the great political divide in our country, for Republicans/Conservatives have come down squarely on the side of moral conformity and Democrats/Liberals have come down squarely on the side of self-discovery.
Since even before the advent of the Moral Majority and Religious Right, Conservatives have pitched their tent with the elder brother. "The moral conformists say: 'The immoral people - the people who "do their own thing" - are the problem with the world, and moral people are the solution.'" I have seen these exact posts on Facebook and other social media from the Conservative view point, the ones seeking to rid the world of all the people that they deem as "immoral" (read: Democrats/liberals) so that morality can reign and cleanup our society. They generally believe in absolute black and white on most issues, and expect the rest of society to believe as they do. If you do not, you are wrong. You have to stand and salute the flag at all times. Authority and in particular police authority cannot be questioned or held to account. Respect trumps all. So long as you say the right things and check the right boxes you are good. Individual freedom is de-prioritized for an adherence to social norms and expectations. You do good because that is what is expected, you go to church because that is what is expected, etc. And so long as those expectations are met, everything works fine.
Liberals pitch their tent with the younger brother, with self-discovery and self-expression. The ultimate in personal freedom. "The advocates of self-discovery say: 'The bigoted people - the people who say, "We have the Truth" - are the problem with the world, and progressive people are the solution.'" And again, I have seen these images on social media as well. Nominally, this is what the support of Trump has been linked to - to the push back against being called a bigot for disagreement with the advocates of self-discovery. Liberals generally see intolerance and social injustice as the worst things in the world. They believe everyone should be able to engage in their own self-discovery and self-expression so long as it does not interfere with anyone else. And because each person must find their own path to self-enlightenment, there are multiple truths that can be embraced. Expectation and social norms are things to be fought against, as it is up to each person to find their own way. And for everyone else to get out of their way.
And, as expected, whether between individual brothers or people, among churches, or politically, the two groups clash with the fiercest of disagreements. "Each side says: 'Our way is the way the world will be put to rights, and if you are not with us, you are against us.'"
The most amazing thing about the parable of the prodigal son is that Jesus says two things about both brothers: 1) they are both equal and 2) they are both wrong. In the parable, Jesus presents each brother as a sinner in need of forgiveness. Both needing their father's forgiveness, both receiving their father's forgiveness, and both being offered a seat at the feast. This is the ultimate shock of the story, particularly to those hearing it when first presented. The Pharisees and Sadducees would have expected the younger brother to be seen as a sinner, they would not have expected the elder brother to be seen as one also. After all, they were the older brother. Beyond the shock of the younger brother being forgiven, the elder brother being seen as unrepentant sinner would defy all thought. And yet, Jesus presents his sin as more serious, because he cannot see past his sin to receive his father's blessing, consequently making him estranged. The parable ends with the younger brother repentant and restored, but the elder brother unrepentant and separated from his father.
Beyond presenting both brothers as equals, Jesus also presents them both as having the wrong worldview. As having a wrong view of their sin. Declaring that both moral conformity and self-discovery are the wrong method by which to live. For both views present an improper view of sin in the brothers lives. The self-discovery view says that "if it feels good, it cannot be bad." The view that so long as my action does not hurt anyone else, and it brings me pleasure, it is permissible. We know this to be false. There is a higher standard. The moral conformity view says that so long as I do this list of things and avoid doing this list of things, I'm ok. It's a works theology, which would have made sense to the Jewish listeners of the day and still resonates with a large group of people today. The idea that "good people go to Heaven." As The Prodigal God states, though, this view enables people to falsely believe that they don't need Jesus as a savior. To allow people to believe that they do not have anything they need saving from. "I'm not a bad person." Not recognizing that the list of dos and don'ts is impossible to follow and is designed to reveal that truth to us. To point us to our inability and insufficiency. To point us to our need for a savior.
Jesus instead presents a third way. A third path for fulfillment and happiness. The only Way. Where we accept our need for a savior, and follow Him, imitating His life and following His directives. It's not a compromise or a blending of the two previous paths. It's something different entirely. And it is through this way, and this way alone that the world is changed. That the two camps are bridged. That sees healing.
And that remains true whether the divide is between people, between churches, or between parties. Whether individually, religiously, or politically.
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
What path are you following now? Where do you find fulfillment and happiness? Do you know there is a better way?
If you are a younger brother, is it time to turn away from the path of self-discovery and destruction that you are on?
If you are an older brother, is it time to recognize your inability and to cast off the weight of expectation, to take up a lighter yoke?
And to us all as citizens, can we put aside this entrenched partisan bickering and find a better path forward?
Let's stop being older brothers and younger brothers. Let's just be brothers, and treat each other accordingly.