Dan Popp
Propriety
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By Dan Popp
January 22, 2014

But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner. (1 Corinthians 14:40, NAS95)

When our society rejected the concept of right, we lost an important corollary of that concept, which is our sense of the proper. We once knew without a look at the dictionary that right means upright – conforming to the moral law. Defining proper is a little trickier because we may confuse it with etiquette and customs. These traditional norms may feel (to us in a particular culture) very much like propriety. But the fact that propriety can be confused with relative things doesn't make it a relative thing. When we strip away the stuff that can be mistaken for propriety, we're left with something essential to our humanity: The ability to recognize the true relationships among persons, and act accordingly.

An example will help. When neighbor children address me by my first name, I recoil at that as improper. Some will say that I'm merely stuck in an old custom, and that "times have changed." In other words, they believe I'm confusing something relative for something absolute. I reply that the status of the child vis-'a-vis the adult has not changed, and cannot change. Failing (or refusing) to recognize that status by addressing our elders as if they were playground chums is to fail to place ourselves correctly in the universe. It doesn't bring them down; it brings us down.

That's the confusion that some atheists have about worship, isn't it? "Your god is an egomaniac for demanding that you worship him." But the truth is that, if there is a God who is high above us in power, intellect and virtue, we would be experiencing some kind of malfunction not to want to worship Him. We are not His equals, and it doesn't suit the nature of things to act as if we were.

When I wrote my series of essays on the Ten Commandments, I was struck by how many of them can be defended on the simple principle of what is proper. We "have no other gods" because YHWH alone has both created and rescued us; it would be unthankful and base to dishonor Him by crowding Him out of our hearts with useless wannabes. We "honor our father and mother" not because they have earned it by exemplary conduct; we do it because it is proper.

God is concerned with propriety. He who dwells in eternity does things at "the proper time." His Kingdom is a kingdom of decency and order, where honor and custom and taxes and obedience and praise and support – as well as shame and punishment – are given as payment of a debt. This is the nub of the issue, I think. Propriety is an everyday kind of justice – treating each person as is fitting.

In Dostoevsky's novel Demons, the hollow, disruptive protagonists convince themselves that they have a "right to dishonor," as if right and honor could be separated and made to war against each other. There are dark forces, human and spiritual, that recognize no superior; that want to pull down what is honorable to their own, useless level. They are "radical egalitarians." This is an anti-Christian impulse, and Christians should be on guard against it.

I'm saying that propriety is an absolute principle under which people submit to the truth of their own relative status. But I'm not sure that what is proper in a given situation can be articulated rationally. For example, Dr. Thomas Sowell said, "I do not like to see the future mothers of America becoming soldiers. There are plenty of men who are capable of becoming soldiers and who are not capable of becoming mothers." That's an economist's argument – a pragmatic plea for the efficient use of two different resources. But without this argument, we who bear the image of God should be able to see that women and children are ones that men fight to protect; not ones fighting. We could know, without any practical arguments, that unnecessarily putting women in combat is just not proper.

When God lays out the legal charges against mankind in Romans, Chapter 1, He headlines the list of our murders, insolence and depravity by calling these acts, "things which are not proper." (verse 28) The accusation doesn't strike us with much force because we've lost the value of propriety – and with it, part of our humanity. To steadfastly do things which are not proper shows a refusal to adjust ourselves to reality. It's a kind of self-inflicted insanity. It is pride. Without propriety there is no humility, no rationality, no justice, not even common courtesy.

One day every knee shall bow to Christ, and every tongue confess that He is the Master of everything – simply because that's what is proper.

Devout humility makes the mind subject to what is superior. Nothing is superior to God; and that is why humility exalts the mind by making it subject to God. – Augustine

© Dan Popp

 

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