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Friday, September 18, 2015

Patheos blog on Pope Francis

I was invited to participate in a panel of responses to Pope Francis' upcoming visit to the U.S. Here it is. The title I would have chosen if they had asked would have been "Pope Francis and the alternative to empire," or, if I'd been feeling particularly punchy, "Pope Francis confronts the Empire."

Monday, September 07, 2015

Kim Davis and the ethics of workplace resistance

I hadn't planned to write a formal blog post about Kim Davis. I've gotten involved in several conversations about her on FB recently, mostly playing devil's advocate, and I thought probably that was enough--or even too much.

But then my beloved wife Jennifer complained that she didn't have anyone writing about Davis on the Patheos Faith and Work Channel, and I agreed to write a blog post here and have her repost it over there. So, with some misgivings, here goes.

I'm going to try to bracket the question of whether the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage was the right one, but to be clear on my own biases, I'll start by saying that I don't think it was. More precisely, I don't think the word "marriage" can rightly be used to describe a union between two people of the same sex. At the same time, I support gay couples (and any other permanent, committed association among consenting adults) having legal benefits. The word "marriage" is clearly now used in a legal context to mean "a union that receives certain legal benefits," so I would not myself have a problem handing out marriage licenses if I were in Davis' position. Furthermore, many of the statements she has made both before and after her imprisonment are statements I would not endorse or support.

The question I want to focus on is this: given her convictions, is her decision to stay in office and refuse to issue licenses justifiable? Many people who share her beliefs (perhaps more fully than I myself do) argue that she should just resign. The common argument is that she is "refusing to do her job," and that if your job and your personal convictions conflict, the answer should be to give up your job.

I disagree with that position. For one thing, as this article points out, there are quite a few examples of local government officials defying "higher" government authority in the name of liberal causes, and liberals do not, generally, object to this. Arguably one could claim that these other cases were different because the courts had not definitively ruled. Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, for instance, issued marriage licenses in 2004, but stopped when the courts told him to. He then initiated a suit in state courts which led to a 2008 decision striking down the state law and allowing same-sex marriage in California. There are a number of similar instances of people challenging laws against gay marriage, as well as other laws generally disapproved of by liberals. I don't know if any of these cases involved defiance of court orders. Still, I think it's safe to say that people who agree with the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage condemn Davis not primarily for procedural reasons but because they believe what what she is doing is intrinsically wrong.

Thus, the question I want to address primarily concerns the argument made by many conservatives, who disagree with Davis' refusal to resign while applauding her substantive position. Conservatives sometimes point out that their own criticisms of liberal "lawlessness" (such as the examples mentioned above) ring hollow if they then applaud such actions when engaged in by someone on their own side. Conservatives are, in fact, generally more likely to appeal to "the rule of law" as an abstract principle that must be defended.  So the question before us is: should a person whose job conflicts with her convictions renounce the job?

It seems to me that it depends greatly on just what the conflict consists of. Many of the analogies people are making to Davis' situation are to situations where resignation would obviously be the right course. A person who took a job in an liquor store and refused to serve alcohol would be behaving unreasonably, for instance.

But such an analogy implies that, in fact, giving out marriage licenses for same-sex couples is an intrinsic part of the job of being a county clerk. It is certainly not the whole of her job. It is one particular part, and only became part of the job because of the recent Supreme Court decision.

Indeed, the Kentucky State Constitution has not yet been amended to eliminate the language saying that marriage must be between a man and a woman. Clearly under the currently prevailing definition of the powers and responsibilities of the judicial branch, a law that has been declared unconstitutional is automatically no longer binding. Whether or not that's the right way to view the question (and some conservative commentators argue that it isn't), it might seem reasonable to amend the state constitution before throwing people in jail for following it. The political reality is that there is little or no will to do this, or to impeach Davis. Hence, her opponents have to work through the court system.

All of this political complexity puts Davis' situation in a rather different light. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the various political actors, she is clearly not simply in the same situation as a person who seeks a job in a liquor store while refusing to sell alcohol, or even (the most commonly used parallel) a conservative Muslim of the Saudi variety who refuses to give drivers' licenses to women. Davis was elected under a state constitution that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. She swore to uphold that state constitution. The legal situation has changed under her, in a way that she considers illegitimate. Whatever the moral and legal rights and wrongs of the situation, this has to affect the question of whether someone with her convictions should resign or not.

If those convictions include the belief that the U.S. government ought to follow "Christian principles" (as hers clearly do), then the answer would seem to be "no." Davis is not an Anabaptist. Her "Apostolic" Pentecostal tradition certainly has roots in a quasi-Anabaptist withdrawal from governmental structures, but that doesn't seem to be where her community is today. In other words, for Davis simply to resign would be a tacit admission that the State is an illegitimate place for Christians to be. This is particularly cogent given the legal situation when she took her oath of office.

I therefore cannot join in the calls for her simply to resign as the obviously correct thing to do. I cannot condemn her, given her convictions, for remaining in her position until forced out and for accepting prison as a consequence of her intransigence. Whatever my other issues with her views and actions, I admire her for her stubbornness and her willingness to be a "squeaky wheel."

There is a further practical consideration here: we live in an age where efficiency is prized above everything else, and where institutions (governmental and otherwise) typically follow the path of least resistance. My own experience as a college professor taught me this the hard way. When my position was eliminated (as part of a very dubious set of financial decisions by the university), I listened to those who warned that I needed to appear desirable and unthreatening to potential future employers. I gave an interview to the student paper in which I bent over backwards to be meek and gentle about what had happened to me. I did throw in what I thought were some fairly obvious barbs against the poor priorities of the administration. But given the reaction, I apparently miscalculated. I was praised high and low for being "classy" and not showing resentment. My mild criticisms accomplished nothing. I wish now that I had been much more fearless and much more explicit. Institutions will proceed in their inexorable, complacent path unless wheels are very squeaky indeed. As C. S. Lewis once said, a few military officers court-martialed for refusing to bomb civilians would accomplish more than legions of conscientious objectors. If you believe that an institution rests on a fundamentally righteous foundation but is losing its way, then standing in the path of the juggernaut and letting it crush you is a nobler approach than jumping off.

At the same time, I can't help wishing--indeed, yearning--for such protests to be made on far more important and clear-cut matters. (Of course, for Davis this is an important and clear-cut matter.) Abortion is one such issue, on which Davis would most likely agree with me. But what about drone warfare? What about police brutality against racial minorities? What about the plight of undocumented immigrants? What about the years of torture practiced by agencies of the U.S. government? There have been cases where people were "squeaky wheels" on some of these issues (conservatives pointing out liberal "lawlessness" use "sanctuary cities" as one example, for instance). But I long for Christians to become more consistently prolife across the political spectrum, and more stubborn and audacious in how they live out these convictions.

As we wait for and work toward that day, however, we need to recognize those like Davis who are standing up for their convictions, whether or not they have chosen the right hill to die on. And we need to do this not only for Christians but for people of other religious traditions or none who make principled stands.

For instance, Charee Stanley was recently fired from her position as a flight attendant because, as a Muslim, she refused to serve alcohol. Certainly her case is different from that of Davis in a couple of ways. Obviously she is not a government employee, on the one hand, and on the other she took the job knowing that alcohol was involved (she converted to Islam recently, and concluded that her faith wouldn't let her serve alcohol even more recently). Her employer initially agreed to an accommodation, but rescinded the agreement because of the complaint of another flight attendant (a complaint pretty clearly motivated by anti-Islamic prejudice, given the reference to "foreign writings" and to Stanley's headgear). Conservative Christians who support Davis need to be rallying around Stanley as well.

Let us all, whatever our ideology, go the extra mile to accommodate the firmly held convictions of others, whether we agree with them or not. Healthy pluralism consists not in the imposition of an iron-clad rule of neutrality (which is impossible) but in a complex dance of courtesy and accommodation to the other. And even when, by our lights, the other does not return our courtesy (her staunchest fans would surely not claim that Davis is a tolerant or accommodating person), we should still go the extra mile anyway. And we should demand that institutions claiming to represent us do so.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Wolf Hall and the myth of the Moral Pragmatist

The BBC/PBS miniseries Wolf Hall is six hours of some of the most absorbing television (or just storytelling generally) I've ever seen. I have not yet read the books by Hilary Mantel on which the show is based, but now I certainly intend to. The series does a splendid job of dramatizing the tense and devious politics of the Henrician court, and its central character, Thomas Cromwell, is splendidly acted (by Mark Rylance) and a riveting fictional portrait.

Emphasis on fictional. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is almost certainly much more sensitive, compassionate, and moral than the historical character. The show goes out of its way to invite sympathy with Cromwell rather than with his hapless victims. In the two execution scenes, of Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, the camera focuses on Cromwell's reaction to the deaths rather than on the victims themselves. (This is particularly the case with More--at the moment of his beheading we get a flashback of Cromwell's early memory of More, when they were both adolescents, a flashback that demonstrates More's privileged social position compared to Cromwell and points up the irony of the present situation, but also draws off our sympathy to some degree from More to Cromwell.) Now this is entirely justifiable artistically on the grounds that Wolf Hall gives us Cromwell's subjective perspective on the events. But the effect of this artistic strategy is to force us to empathize with the ruthless choices Cromwell makes and to see them as difficult and anguish-ridden decisions by a basically benevolent person.

As many people have pointed out, this sympathetic portrait of Cromwell contrasts with the harsh picture of St. Thomas More, who is shown as a whiny, egotistical fanatic who has "cast himself as the hero of a drama for all of Europe" and forces everyone else to play his script (an obvious reference to the iconic play and movie A Man For All Seasons). Some of this is fair and well-deserved. More did do plenty of ruthless things himself. He was a fierce persecutor of Protestants, and when More (as he did historically) protests that he "does none harm" Cromwell retorts, effectively, that he has done plenty of harm to people like James Bainham, a Protestant whom More had tortured into recantation but who later returned to Protestantism and was burned at the stake. (Bainham's "relapse" and execution did not take place on More's watch as Lord Chancellor, and the show recognizes this, but again tries to shift our sympathy away from More with a fictional scene in which Cromwell begs More, now out of power, to go as a private individual to Bainham and try to persuade him to recant once again.) Cromwell even suggests (completely inaccurately as far as I know) that Tyndale's arrest and execution on the Continent was somehow the work of More's agents.

More has had his day in the dramatic sun with A Man for All Seasons (and if anyone reading this hasn't seen the Paul Schofield movie, or the lesser-known made for TV version with Charlton Heston, please go out and rent one of them as soon as possible!). It's quite fair to point out More's dark side. Nonetheless, Wolf Hall goes to outrageous lengths to negate More's well-documented virtues and in some cases to ascribe them to Cromwell. Cleverly, More's unusual (for his time) education of his daughters in Latin and Greek is foreshadowed by an earlier scene in which Cromwell does the same thing. So when we encounter the learned Margaret, her father's respect for her intellectual capacities doesn't seem as unusual as it really was. Similarly, Cromwell is shown opposing the king's desire to go to war with France (though for pragmatic rather than explicitly moral reasons). I'm not sure whether that happened or not, but I know that More distinguished himself from the beginning of his career by his opposition to foreign offensive warfare, and in fact nearly brought that career to a premature end as a very young man by opposing Henry VII on this point in Parliament (if his son-in-law Roper's admittedly hagiographic biography can be believed).

There's obvious anti-Catholicism in all of this. Mantel is an ex-Catholic with bad memories of her upbringing and education, and Wolf Hall, like Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth,  illustrates the truth of Chesterton's dictum that England has lost the Protestant faith but has kept up the Protestant feud. But there's more going on than simple anti-Catholicism. Truly zealous Protestants come off only a little better than More. At one point Cromwell reads a letter from Tyndale refusing to sanction the king's marriage and exclaims in disgust: "Tyndale and More deserve each other--these mules who think they are men." This remark nicely complements C. S. Lewis' statement in a letter to an Italian Catholic priest that (after having read all the works of both authors) he considered Tyndale and More to be two of the holiest men of their time.

Holiness, in short, gets short shrift in Wolf Hall. And this attitude is typical both of secular people in the contemporary Western world and of many folks who still adhere to some form of Christianity (as I believe Mantel herself does). It is taken for granted, in many circles, that religious fervor makes people more likely to do evil things, and that true morality is more likely to be found among people who are rather lukewarm in their commitment to transcendent ideals. But this does not, in fact, seem to be true in reality.  In reality, pragmatists have plenty of blood on their hands--I would argue far more than fanatics. Contrary to the stereotype, religion has not been the cause of most wars in history. Most wars, most massacres, most judicial murders have been done by people like Cromwell--cool-headed pragmatists who did what seemed the best and most reasonable thing at the time to advance their own interests and the peace of the realm. That is not to let the fanatics (whether conventionally "religious" or adherents of secular ideologies) off the hook. Their atrocities may be more spectacular. But those of the pragmatists are, I think, far more common.

Mantel tries valiantly to turn Cromwell into a hero, and she does succeed in making even More fans such as myself empathize with him. But in the end Wolf Hall (at least in the TV form as I saw it) says more about the particular prejudices of modern people than about the Tudor period itself. Which is par for the course in historical fiction, and so perhaps not really a criticism.

Acton blog series

This summer, I wrote a series of blogs on my experiences at the "Acton Institute" and my reflections afterwards. You can read them on the Patheos "Mission:Work" blog here (this takes you to the last post, which has links to all the others).

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Canon and authority--a common Catholic argument analyzed

One of the strongest Catholic arguments against Protestantism is the challenge, "how do you explain the canon of the New Testament on sola scriptura principles?" At the same time, Catholics often throw away their advantage by silly overstatement. It is nonsense to say, for instance, that "there was no Bible for 300 years," and it is not self-evident that the Church that canonized the Bible was simply identical to the contemporary "Roman Catholic Church," or that accepting the canon automatically means accepting the Catholic understanding of church authority as a whole.

As in so many similar debates, I think that the correct position, and the early Church's position (which is generally, broadly speaking, the same thing), transcends both Protestant and Catholic views, although the Catholic view, properly nuanced, is basically correct.

The legitimate Protestant criticisms of the way Catholics often present their case are:

1. Scripture is defined in formal rather than material terms--as a canon rather than as particular content. That's how you get what sound to Protestant like crazy statements such as "there was no Bible until the fourth century." This means "there was no fully defined, universally accepted, precise canon until the fourth century." (I'd go further and say, "until the sixteenth," if you really want to define it that precisely.) But to many Protestants it seems pretty silly to use the term "Bible" to mean "a fully defined, precise canon." "The Bible" is a name for the material that the Church has recognized to be divinely inspired. Clearly such material existed long before the fourth century.

2. This brings us to the most common complaint, which is that Catholics confuse the recognition of Scripture with the creation of Scripture. The Church acknowledges that God has inspired certain books. The Church does not make them inspired, and thus to many Protestants it seems blasphemous to say such things as "the Church created Scripture." The common Catholic usage here follows on the first point. If "Scripture" means "a list" rather than divinely inspired content, then it makes sense to say that the Church created the list. But again, to many Protestants that seems to miss the point pretty badly and focus on formalities rather than Spirit-inspired content.

3. And finally, there's the question of what we mean by "the Church" when we speak of the Church determining the canon. That's really the fundamental question between Catholics and Protestants, I think. And again, I think the answer is both/and rather than either/or. Protestants are right that the Church is the body of believers, not just the hierarchy. But many of them see no point in a hierarchy at all, and they are wrong. The Church, properly ordered, is led by bishops in apostolic succession in communion with the Bishop of Rome. And obviously the early Church, which discerned that certain books were inspired by God, was so ordered. However, Catholics spoil their excellent case when they insist on the hierarchical nature of the canon-recognition process. The evidence indicates that this process was mostly a matter of reception by particular communities of believers and then a lengthy process of sorting out the differences between various local canonical traditions. Of course bishops, including Rome, played a key role. But Catholics often speak of the process as if all the bishops got together and issued a decree one day, and that's not how it happened.

Now for the major Protestant alternatives, which I think are untenable:

1. Protestants often argue that Scripture is "self-authenticating." This builds on legitimate point 2, of course--the Holy Spirit both inspires Scripture in the first place and witnesses that it is inspired. But clearly this witness speaks to the Church as a whole and not to individuals in isolation. Not recognizing this is perhaps the greatest error of garden-variety American Protestantism. Fortunately, many folks are recognizing this error and moving to a healthier understanding of how Christians hear the Spirit--in community with each other. That being said, I find that many Protestants use the term "self-authenticating" as a magic formula to avoid thinking about the canonical process at all. If you challenge it, you are challenging Scripture somehow. I have trouble explaining this attitude so as to make sense of it, because I don't think it does make sense.

2. Many other Protestants (or sometimes the same Protestants) argue in a more rationalistic fashion that the early Church used certain objective criteria in determining canonicity, such as apostolic authorship. This website is a pretty standard example of that approach. Now obviously there were criteria that the early Church used, but the formal lists one finds on Protestant apologetics websites make the process seem much more cut and dried than it really was. Furthermore, modern scholarship frequently disagrees with the early Church's decision. For instance, the vast majority of scholars think that Peter did not write 2 Peter. Even pretty conservative scholars like Ben Witherington believe that only part of 2 Peter is authentic. Whether you say "2 Peter is authentic and the scholars are just wrong" or "it doesn't matter whether Peter wrote it, because it's inspired by Scripture anyway," clearly some factor is at work other than an objective determination of whether the evidence indicates that Peter wrote it. 
3. A final common objection is that the "early Church" isn't the same thing as the "Roman Catholic Church." This is perhaps particularly common among Anglicans and others less likely to go with the first two approaches. For many moderate Protestants, the judgments of the Church as a whole are to be taken very seriously, while the modern "Roman Catholic Church" is seen as just one among many fragments of the Church. This is the perspective with which I'm most in sympathy, but as Newman showed, it's very naive insofar as it doesn't acknowledge that the early "Catholic Church" was itself one among many contenders. The canon was forged in controversies with Marcionites and Gnostics who had their own rival canons. It wasn't just "the list of books that everyone agreed on."

So to boil the matter down, I think that the attempts of many Protestants to evade the question of Church authority are in vain. Rather, there are two questions that need to be answered on both sides:

a. How is the early Church related to the Church today? Are all Trinitarian Christians its heirs, or just those in communion with Rome, or some other subset of Trinitarian Christianity?

b. Why do we treat the canonical decisions of the early Church differently than other decisions the early Church made?

Note that both of these questions need to be answered by both sides. Catholics can't just assume a simple identity of the Roman Communion with the early Catholic Church. Nor can they simply argue "we should accept everything the early Church accepted," because there were beliefs and practices of the early Church that Catholics don't accept today (like the very harsh attitude to Jews or some of the cultural beliefs about women). But Catholics do have coherent and reasonable answers to these questions.

If Protestants are to have a reasonable answer, it would go (in my opinion) along these lines:

a. All Trinitarian Christians are heirs of the early Catholic Church, not because the early Church was "just everybody" but because the formative doctrinal choices of the early Church were of particular importance and have proved consistently over the centuries to be the right ones. The differences between early Catholics and Marcionites or Arians are fundamental to our identity as Christians in a way that Catholic-Protestant differences aren't. And this is clearly recognized by the Catholic Church today, since "Rome" acknowledges Trinitarian Protestants as baptized brothers and sisters and makes a sharp distinction between them and such groups as the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses.

b. These fundamentally constitutive acts of the early Church include (but are not limited to) the recognition of the core books of the canon. From this perspective, some disagreement about canon is possible where the early Church disagreed. The only point where that disagreement is still alive today is with regard to the "deuterocanonical" books of the OT. For moderate, ecumenical Protestants (such as Anglicans) the question of whether these books are fully canonical is not terribly important. They clearly should be used and treated with honor, but there are some good reasons to question whether they are fully inspired in the way that the books of the Hebrew canon and the NT canon are.

For this argument to work, it needs to be nuanced, I think, by a recognition of the importance of Rome within the broader Church. I am convinced that the bishops of Rome do have a divinely ordained role to play in safeguarding orthodoxy. I am not convinced that everything they condemn is to be condemned, but I am convinced that they have never accepted into the canonical heritage of the Church (I'm using this phrase to mean more than just books, but also defined doctrines, liturgical practices, etc.) something that is fundamentally incompatible with it. This is the main place where I differ from most Anglicans and other ecumenical Protestants, who generally see your Church simply as "the biggest denomination"--an important ecumenical partner because of its size and its links with tradition, but not qualitiatively different from other Christian bodies. That's why I keep trying to convert personally, but my conviction that all Trinitarian Christians are members of the Church keeps pulling me back.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Greg Boyd's warfare theology part 7--final thoughts

When I began this series, I made it clear that I approached Boyd's theology with a very different attitude to its two major components. I was quite willing to be persuaded of his "warfare theology," which appealed to many intuitions I already had about major themes in Scripture. But I very much wanted to find a way to take warfare theology and leave open theism.

So where do I stand now?

With regard to open theism, Boyd has further confirmed an opinion I had already formed on the basis of my previous reading and conversations with William Hasker. My objection to open theism is not so much that it limits divine power, but that it is insufficiently open to mystery and paradox in the way it speaks of God. Both Hasker and Boyd have made an excellent case that "simple foreknowledge" offers no substantial advantage over open theism in terms of God's providential care. Middle knowledge or Thomist "knowledge-by-causation" do. But if both those options are rejected, then open theism does nothing further to limit God's power. If God only knows what will happen, and does not cause free choices to occur, then God's way of dealing with human beings is no different than it would be under open theism. (I understand that there are counter-arguments to this, and perhaps I will be persuaded when I read them. But I have to go on what I see at present, since I can't read everything there is to be read.)

My primary objection to open theism has been, and remains, that it makes God too "anthropomorphic." I have no reason to believe that a being of the kind described by open theism exists. That is to say, the rational reasons for believing in God point to a reality that surpasses the power of our minds to understand or our language to describe. Open theists generally reject this traditional "apophatic" picture of God as a piece of mystification overly influenced by Greek philosophy. (It isn't, in fact, the way the pagan Greeks thought about God, but that's a separate dispute.) If this transcendent, mysterious, ultimately indescribable reality does not exist, then it seems unlikely that some lesser, more comprehensible being exists who created the universe and is worthy of worship.

It's important to be clear here: I'm not saying that open theists don't worship the true God. We all have inadequate ideas about God--that's the point of the apophatic view I just described. And insofar as I think their views are inadequate, they are "inadequate" because of very real and genuine concerns on their part, including a desire to be faithful to the Biblical (particularly OT) picture of God, which is thoroughly relational and usually anthropomorphic. A dispute about how we describe God philosophically is not the same thing as a fundamental disagreement about the object of our worship. But it's still an important dispute, and I'm not convinced that the open theists are on the right side.

Ironically, I find the theology of Tom Oord (who has been on my mind quite a bit recently because of his university's botched and reprehensible attempt to fire him for "budgetary reasons") more convincing in this regard than that of more orthodox open theists like Boyd, Hasker, and Sanders. Oord argues from a conception of God's nature which stands as an alternative (a powerful alternative, though I'm not convinced by it) to more classic formulations. But now that I've read some Boyd, I need to read some Oord (I know his work from blog posts and conference talks, which isn't a good way to understand someone's ideas in depth).

But I also find Boyd's theology more appealing than that of Sanders and Hasker for the reasons I gave in my first post. Boyd's open theism is tied up with his commitment to what I acknowledge to be a thoroughly Biblical picture of God as a warrior against the forces of evil. Yet my attraction to "warfare theology" isn't enough to overcome my misgivings about the overly anthropomorphic picture of God that Boyd shares with Sanders and Hasker.

Furthermore, while I find the broad outlines of warfare theology compelling, I have some serious problems with several aspects of it, which are related to my problems with open theism.

In the first place, Boyd sets up what I think is an untenable dichotomy between "warfare theology" and traditional "blueprint theology," instead of accepting that we may need to hold both in tension. Boyd blames "blueprint theology" for the Church's frequent inability to make a difference in the world. As he sees it, Christians accept that evil is the result of God's providential plan and thus are not motivated to fight it. Evil becomes an intellectual problem to be solved rather than an enemy to overcome. This is a powerful critique and undoubtedly has some basis. Certainly we need a shift in understanding to a more vigorous, unabashed affirmation of God's opposition to evil, and this will involve rethinking what we mean by divine omnipotence to some degree. God's omnipotence is shown above all in Jesus' victory over the powers of darkness on the Cross. Everything must start there.

But historically, Boyd is just wrong in claiming that a traditional view of providence has been consistently and inevitably stultifying to Christian efforts to oppose evil. He cites Cowper's famous "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" as an example of piety shaped by blueprint theology. This is a very poor example for his argument, because Cowper was a strong abolitionist and had close ties to the people responsible for ending British participation in the slave trade--one of the more striking examples of Christians making a clear positive difference in history. For Cowper and other evangelical Calvinists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, trust in God's providence was energizing, not enervating. Boyd sets up a straw man and sweepingly condemns the historic Christian faith in God's inscrutable ways, a faith which has frequently _inspired_ just the kind of radical resistance to the powers of evil that Boyd calls for. Boyd thus falls into the common trap of blaming all the ills of Christian history on a theology he disagrees with, and promising that if we jettison that theology for theology he approves of we will be able to turn things around. This is a harsh way to put it--Boyd's motives are commendable and his passion for justice is a great gift to the Church. But the typical open theist distaste for mystery and paradox causes him to oversimplify the case and set up traditional Christian providentialism as the enemy instead of offering a more modest corrective.

If God exists at all, any true description of God is going to be paradoxical and contain apparently incongruous elements. Any attempt to eliminate paradox impoverishes our view of God.  Christians have, historically, used warfare language alongside "blueprint" language in varying ways and to varying degrees. Boyd makes an excellent case for shifting our emphasis. The popular, semi-Christian belief prevalent in our culture, especially among the poor, is blueprint theology. Most people believe in a God who plans and governs everything, and when a loved one dies they interpret this as God's inscrutable decision to "take" the person. The message that God is on the side of life against death and has defeated the forces of evil on the Cross has not been clearly heard. This needs to be reversed. Rather than speaking as if God were the Master Controller in the sky who in some inscrutable way still opposes the evil that he ordains, we should speak of God as the one who fights against the evil his creatures freely do, while acknowledging that in some inscrutable way God is in control and that even evil, in the end, works toward the ends God has ordained.

Boyd, of course, affirms that God is ultimately in control and that God has freely chosen to allow creation "room" to exercise freedom. And this leads to my second major problem with his "warfare theodicy" as well as with the open theism that underlies it. In Boyd's account, God is still ultimately responsible for evil. If, as Boyd claims, God knows exactly what the probabilities are for any possible world God chooses to create, then God knew that the world we live in was possible. Boyd deals with this by suggesting that a situation as bad as ours had a relatively low probability of happening. In other words, instead of living in the best of all possible worlds, we live in something very close to the worst. God, essentially, took a bet and lost.

Of course, for Boyd this doesn't mean that God loses control or gives up. But it does force Boyd into a dilemma. Logically, either God would have made the creative choices he did if he knew how it would all turn out, or he wouldn't have. In the former case, we are back with the difficulty Boyd seeks to escape. In the second--if God really regrets creating the world, as Boyd's literal reading of Gen. 6 suggests--then we live in a kind of cosmic mistake. God loves us, but not so much that he would still have created us if he had known what terrible evil some of us would do and suffer.

And that is why, in the end, I think Boyd's effort to create an alternative to traditional "blueprint theology" fails. But his picture of God as a warrior against evil, and his rejection of any view that leads us to be complacent with evil, is clearly correct. As with other open theists I've read, Boyd seems to me to pose overly sharp dichotomies and tell me that I must choose one of them. I refuse to do so, even if that means that my answer to the difficult questions Boyd raises has to be, "I'm still wrestling."

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Letter to the board of trustees of Northwest Nazarene University with regard to the firing of Tom Oord

I did not originally intend this as an open letter, but my wife urged me to publish it on the grounds that some of what I say here about issues in contemporary evangelical higher education is worth saying publicly. And I tend to trust her judgment on that sort of thing.

Background for those who don't already know: recently a tenured theology professor at Northwest Nazarene, Tom Oord, was suddenly laid off, allegedly for budgetary reasons. Since the president of the university had tried to get rid of him before, and since he was both a very prestigious and a very controversial member of the faculty, the claim that this was a purely financial decision didn't hold water. Most recently, the layoff has been put on hold while the board reviews the president's decision (though I didn't know that when I wrote the letter).

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

I take the liberty of writing to you because of my deep concern about the recent removal of Tom Oord, and the broader pattern of craven, worldly pragmatism cloaked in piety that is rotting away the heart of evangelical higher education.

Unlike many of the people you are hearing from about this matter, I have no connection with NNU and no direct connection with the Church of the Nazarene. I come from a radical Holiness background (in fact my grandparents grew up in a church where "Nazarene religion" was a pejorative synonym for a compromising, watered-down version of Holiness teaching) but have been Episcopalian since 1998. 

What I have to say to you on this matter comes from my own bitter experience at another evangelical institution of higher learning, Huntington University. I taught for six years at Huntington , arriving in the wake of the firing of John Sanders in 2006. I lost my own job in 2012 for genuinely financial reasons (I was an untenured assistant professor and the generalist in the department, so unlike Oord, I was the logical person to lay off), and the questions concerning presidential leadership and the relationship between Board, faculty, and administration raised in the context of that budgetary controversy were very similar to those that you are currently considering. 

It is my belief, however, that the roots of the problems faced by HU in 2011-12 lay in the removal of John Sanders in 2005-6, and the broader pattern of poor decisions of which the firing of Sanders was the most egregious example. Institutions of higher learning in the United States are facing tough financial and strategic decisions, and more and more are compromising traditional liberal arts education in the name of pragmatism. In the case of evangelicals, however, there is a further factor at work--the intense pressure exerted on university administrations by conservative donors, alumni, pastors, and parents who object to any ideas being taught at "their" institution which violate their particular understanding of Christian orthodoxy. Those who call for the removal of "heretical" faculty are generally themselves deeply sincere Christians, and I respect their piety even when I disagree with their views and their methods. However, the pressure exerted by these sincere believers for godly (if in my opinion misguided) reasons interacts with the broader institutional culture of pragmatism in deeply toxic ways which risk destroying the intellectual and spiritual integrity of American evangelical higher education.

In the case of Sanders, intense pressure by conservative Christians hostile to Sanders' open theism and inclusivism led (allegedly) to a decline in enrollment. Since HU's growth plan was (disastrously) based almost entirely on a steady increase in enrollment, anything that hurt recruitment among evangelical youth was seen as hurting the institution. That pragmatic consideration was, as far as I could discern from speaking to the people involved, the primary reason for the removal of Sanders. As a result, all faculty at HU (including myself) worked in the knowledge that the institution had no genuine commitment either to academic freedom or to doctrinal principles. Any faculty member who awakened controversy would be seen as expendable, even if the administration had no problem with his or her theology. 

I understand that Tom Oord's theology has been examined by authorities within the Church of the Nazarene and found to be compatible with the doctrinal commitments of the denomination. If the CotN had decided otherwise, it would of course not be my place as an outsider to protest. But I do protest with all my heart against the transparent pretext that Oord has been fired for merely financial reasons. Given his stature in his field and (if I am not mistaken) his excellent teaching evaluations, the claim that he was the most expendable member of the department is simply not believable, unless his controversial status is taken into account. No coherent account of why this decision was made has emerged from the administration, as far as I'm aware.

If you allow this decision to stand, you are putting your seal of approval on injustice and corruption. If you ask President Alexander to resign, but also do not reinstate Dr. Oord, then you have not solved the real problem. the real problem is not the poor leadership of one president (I know very little about Dr. Alexander and bear him no malice) but the broader pattern, going far beyond Dr. Alexander or any one institution, of which this reprehensible incident is simply the most recent example. If you are going to have a liberal arts college at all, then you must stand by the academic freedom of your faculty up to the point at which they are officially found by competent church authorities to have violated the basic principles of the Church of the Nazarene. The removal of faculty based on a fear of negative financial consequences resulting from controversy obviously undercuts the intellectual integrity of your institution. But it also compromises the university's claims to uphold Scriptural holiness.

Holiness requires truth. It may be holy, it may be loving, sometimes to remove heretics from positions of authority. It can never in any way be holy or just to remove a man who has been found innocent of heresy simply because his ideas are controversial.

I pray that whatever decision you make in the coming days will be made not in the spirit of worldly calculation but in a manner that you will be able to defend before the Judgment Seat of Christ.

Your brother in Christ,

Edwin Woodruff Tait

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Greg Boyd's warfare theology part 6--how it all fits together

Boyd's "warfare theology" is a comprehensive account of how God relates to the world in providence and salvation, from creation to the final consummation. Having looked at parts of this theology over the previous several posts, we're now in a position to examine how it all comes together. And in doing so, I want to highlight several parts of Boyd's theology that don't come under the previous headings, particularly his eschatology (which is one of my favorite parts of his work).

Boyd's fundamental starting point is that God respects creaturely freedom. Creation, for Boyd, involves God giving creatures a space in which to exercise a certain degree of autonomy. It is central to freedom, as Boyd sees it, that this decision be irrevocable. God can't say "sorry, you are messing up and so I will step in and take away your freedom." At the same time, freedom has a limit--eventually the created being will have worked out the potential for good and evil inherent in its creation, and will face judgment for how it has used the power God gave it. This power affects not only the creature itself but other beings, to a greater and lesser extent depending on the power of the being in question (very great in the case of Satan, for instance).

Boyd supports this high valuation of creaturely freedom by appealing to quantum mechanics and chaos theory. I'm not in a position to evaluate this part of his work scientifically, or even philosophically. But for Boyd, order emerges out of the chaos of myriad beings (or even just quantum particles) interacting with each other. God is in "control" in the sense that God rides the wave of created freedom, guiding it without ever determining the actions of individuals. God moves creation infallibly toward the final goal of union with Himself in peace and love, but God shows his sovereignty precisely by accomplishing this goal through (rather than against) the freedom of His creatures.

God's providence, then, takes the form of responding to the free actions of created beings, sometimes in anger and sorrow, but always with an ultimate purpose of mercy and redemption. Boyd suggests that there have been moments in the history of the universe when creation became so messed up that God had to create the opportunity for a new start through a cataclysmic act of judgment. Boyd speculates that the destruction of the dinosaurs and the creation of the world described in Genesis 1 (recall his interest in the "gap theory") was one such moment. Another, more clearly recorded in Scripture, would be the Flood. God's "regret that he made humanity," while genuine, is not the final word. God always finds a way to respond graciously to the destructive behavior of creation, setting the stage for a new act in the drama of created freedom.

Eventually, however, the misuse of freedom will end. Reality will catch up to those who have tried in vain to create a reality of their own. Following C. S. Lewis and Jerry Walls, Boyd understands hell as a self-imposed punishment, a prison to which people condemn themselves. But following on some hints in Lewis (quite differently from Walls), Boyd suggests that this false reality is, in fact, a kind of nothingness. I don't see this as outright annihilationism, but Boyd certainly approaches annihilationism (and I understand that he may have embraced it more explicitly in recent years). He uses the concept of relativity, again, to suggest that the damned lock themselves into a "now" that is somehow separated from God's "now" and thus left behind. Hence, from the standpoint of God and the redeemed, they no longer exist. (I may be getting this part wrong--it was pretty complex and my slow progress on these blogs has meant that it's now quite a long time ago that I read the book.)

Boyd's entire theology, then, is structured around a progression from an initial good creation rooted in the gift of freedom to a final consummation in which those who have insisted on misusing their freedom will be locked into the false reality they have created, and those who have opened themselves to God's love will rejoice with God in a world from which evil has been banished. His open theism and "warfare theology" are key parts of this vision, but it's important to understand them in their broader context within the compelling drama of salvation that Boyd outlines in these two books. In my final blog post in this series (yes, the series will finally end with the perfect number of seven), I will summarize my own reactions to Boyd's theology as found in God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil.