The Silly Little Crowds
Just because everyone says something doesn’t mean it’s right.
The crowd can be wrong.
What the culture says might be different from what God says.
For orthodox Christians, we say and hear sentiments like this all the time. And they are true enough. What most people around you believe about lots of things just isn’t true. If you run around America and ask, for example, what life is about, very few of the answers will match the truth. Who will say we we are made to be God’s sons and daughters, glorifying Him in our words and works? If you were to poll ancient Rome, more people than you’d think would have accepted infanticide. And for much of history, most people have been polytheists.
But I am increasingly persuaded that we need to be careful here. Truth is not a democracy, to be sure. And majorities can err. But that’s not all there is to say. Most of our ideas about the “majority” are not the real majority of humanity, but most of a smaller group. We think of the majority of modern, affluent, Western people. That’s really not that many people. At other times, the “majority” under discussion was most Romans in the first century, or most ancient Israelites, or something else. In the big picture, these are but slivers.
The real majority of humanity—spanning all times, places, and cultures—is different. Thanks to original sin, all peoples everywhere have believed very many wrong things. But they haven’t always believed the same wrong things. Some groups are too individualist, others too collectivist. There have been warmongering tribes and cowardly ones. Prudes live down the street from prostitutes.
The Wise, Massive Crowd
So, with all this variety, any belief which the overwhelming majority of all humans has held—from modern Americans to medieval Chinese to ancient Phoenicians—is special. It’s hard to get ten people to agree on something, much less tens of millions. The only way for so many people to agree on something is for it to be so obvious that no sane person can deny it. Everyone believes in the sun, for only the blind man or the lunatic can do otherwise.
Now, this applies just as well to less physical truth. Visible or invisible, a fact that inspires so huge a consensus must be an unavoidable pillar of reality. Morality is like everything else here. For example, nearly everyone in every time and place has known that human life has some kind of value. To waste human life is, in some way or sense, wrong. People who think bloodshed is no big deal are few and far between in every culture. The biggest disagreement between peoples is just what exceptions they believe in.
Likewise, all cultures believe in some kind of fairness or justice. Nearly everyone agrees that you shouldn’t take advantage of other people. Most cultures know you shouldn’t treat others in a way you would hate to be treated. Obviously everyone doesn’t follow this common law. But they nearly all know it.
If you doubt that there is such widespread agreement, C. S. Lewis has a good response. He compiled strong evidence for it in the appendix to his superb little book, The Abolition of Man.[1. C. S. Lewis, “Appendix – Illustrations of the Tao,” in The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2008).] But the proof of any specifics is somewhat beside the point. The principle of the thing should be clear.
The Ubiquitous Teacher
This brings me to my actual point. If everyone believes something, the simplest explanation is that they all learned it from the same place. The only true common teacher of all people is nature. Everyone lives in the same world. We see the same natural order at work. And this is the work of God, His general revelation. Ultimately, the only source of truth that speaks to everyone is God’s revelation in nature.
The Bible teaches this, of course.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.[2. Psalm 19:1-2 NRSV]
We have to understood that nature is a tool of God. It is the direct working of His hands. He uses it to teach us and express Himself. Thus even Calvin was able to say:
I admit, indeed that the expressions “Nature is God,” may be piously used, if dictated by a pious mind.[3. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.5.5.]
He does, of course, go on to hedge this point. Nature is not God in any literal sense, and it can be dangerous to conflate the two. But, on the other hand, we can’t forget that God is both nature’s Maker and Wielder. Whatever it does is for His purpose. Whatever it speaks is by His Word.
The Divine Consensus
This leads into a great bit from Richard Hooker. In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, he spends a lot of time talking about, well, law. One of the best parts is his account of natural law. This he calls the “law of reason.” In explaining it, he mentions how much humanity universally learns from God’s natural, general revelation. I will quote the relevant paragraph in full:
There are many signs and marks by which we can recognize goodness, some more certain and some less. The most certain mark of goodness is the general conviction of all humanity.
[Quick interjection. This bit sounds weird, but it follows ironically from original sin. As I said earlier, all peoples go wrong in many different ways. Sin comes up with innumerable ways to pervert the truth. But there is only one truth. So while there is lots of variety in error, the constant admission of all people can only be a response to constant truth.]
Therefore a commonly-held falsehood is not refuted until we go from signs to causes, demonstrating that there is a common confusion at the root of the error that explains why so many men have been led astray. In such a case, surmisings and probabilities are not enough to refute it, since the universal agreement of men is the best of these kinds of proofs that we can offer. Times change, and what one man happens to think will not often be thought so forever. Therefore, although we may not yet see why, we know there has to be some necessary reason when nearly all men at nearly all times agree on something, especially on matters of natural philosophy. It is agreed that things acting according to their nature all keep to the same course. The general and perpetual voice of mankind is as the judgment of God Himself, since what all men at all times have come to believe must have been taught to them by Nature, and since God is Nature’s author, her voice is merely His instrument.[4. Richard Hooker, Divine Law and Human Nature: Book I of Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization (Lincoln, NE: Davenant Trust, 2017), Kindle, ch. 8§3.]
And this is it, folks.
The Point of the Matter
Why point out that the unanimous beliefs of humanity are almost certainly true? Even if I’m right, so what? Well, the implications are actually pretty practical.
Take that the general consent of the human race is a sign of truth. If so, then when one small group comes up with an idea that contradicts what nearly everyone else has ever thought, we should take it with a grain of salt. We have good reason to believe that the “standard” view on the matter is something humanity learned from God, by His general revelation in nature.
These days, we probably most need to remember this when it comes to sex and gender. While the world has always had lots of deviant ideas on the subject, some things have always been recognized. Some degree of heteronormativity is appropriate. Men and women are different. The nature of authority is more naturally associated with masculine than feminine virtue. Sex and gender are not free choices but givens of the body and society. Ideas along these lines have been common sense to most people in most times and places, with very few exceptions. And when there were exceptions, they often knew it. Now, one tiny minority, a sliver in the human race of all ages and places, is trying to change the paradigm. We can be fairly assured that they’re wrong.
I would not, however, want to make this only about gender. In reality, this applies to all kinds of things. What the bulk of humanity has always known is usually right. What most people in a few 21st century, first-world cultures think may not be. We should pay attention to the majority voice. It is an echo of nature’s own voice, which is at root the voice of God.