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Monday, December 26, 2016

No place for sadness

Rince Priebus got himself in trouble today by sending out a message referring to "the good news of a new King," which many people thought was a comparison of Trump to Jesus. The RNC denies this, and perhaps the people who got upset really were reading too much into a simple Christmas message.

What matters is that when we celebrate the birth of Jesus we are, in fact, celebrating the "good news of a new King"--a king whose kingdom remains perpetually  new, perpetually different from all the "kings" who vie for our allegiance, whatever their political orientation.

I've been extremely upset since Nov. 8 and extremely focused on politics. I intend to go on thinking and writing and speaking out about what I believe is a very troubling turn in the public life of the country in which I live. But Christmas reminds me that politics is not ultimate. The rulers of this world are not the powers that really matter.

Pope Leo the Great, in his famous Christmas homily, put it this way:

Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fullness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered through that (nature) which he had conquered.

There is, of course, a place for sadness at Christmas. People who have lost loved ones or who suffer from depression shouldn't be made to feel that they are somehow offending against the holiday. It's important to affirm that many people experience a "blue Christmas."

But barring some such deeply personal reason, I think Pope Leo's words should be taken to heart.

Nothing that we fear in our own lives or in the public life of our society can trump (yes, bad joke) the Incarnation. God has become human. God has placed at the heart of our broken world an endless fountain of life and joy. Let us drink deeply of that fountain in the days to come and share it with our thirsty world. Let us fight evil joyfully and merrily, not angrily or in despair. And above all, let us love our enemies and remember that, in Leo's words, "No one is kept from sharing in this happiness."

One of my favorite "eucatastrophe" moments at the end of It's a Wonderful Life comes when George Bailey runs past Mr. Potter's office, looks in the window, and shouts, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!" It is at that moment that you know that, whether he goes to jail or not, George Bailey has won.

So Merry Christmas to all! God bless us every one.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Guest post for a friend on the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Check out this piece I wrote for my friend Joe Martyn Ricke's website, a meditation on the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

Advent in Jerusalem

I ate lunch in Jerusalem twice this Advent.

Not, alas, Jerusalem the city, but Jerusalem the excellent new Middle Eastern restaurant in my town, right up the road from the other Middle Eastern restaurant, which is called Babylon. So you can walk from Jerusalem to Babylon in about two minutes. Babylon is owned by an Iraqi, and Jerusalem by a Palestinian. I like them both, but I'm coming to like Jerusalem better. It may just be the cult of the new. Or maybe it's the name. After all, medieval Christians longed for Jerusalem so much that they made an armed pilgrimage there and slaughtered thousands of the inhabitants. If my love of this restaurant is rooted in sentimentality, at least it's a less lethal form.

It's so hard for us to deal with the "other" in terms that aren't distorted in some way by our fantasy (in the negative, medieval sense of the term, or the sense in which the Romantics would distinguish "fancy" from "imagination"). I walk into Jerusalem already feeling virtuous because I'm counteracting the election of Donald Trump just by being there. I genuinely love the food, but the fact that I love the food makes me feel both sophisticated and tolerant. And, of course, I know that all of this is silly.

I go into the restaurant with some idea of asking the proprietor if he's had any harassment since the election. But then, I don't actually know that he's a Muslim in the first place (though the sort of goons who would harass Muslims would no doubt assume he was). I know he's from Ramallah, a Palestinian city with a large Christian population. I can't very well ask him "are you a Christian or a Muslim." So I sit there and eat my tabbouleh and my stuffed falafel (utterly delicious), and I wonder what to say, and in the end I say nothing.

I see the young man who helps behind the counter and think involuntarily, "what if it turned out that he really was a terrorist? It's statistically improbable, but it's possible." Then I feel ashamed for thinking it, of course. Then, much later, I think what I should have thought first--what a burden it must be for a young man who looks "Middle Eastern," to walk around in American society knowing that people are looking at him and thinking (even just for an instant), "he looks like a terrorist."

And then I think about how he must see me. What do I look like to him? What does it mean for a Palestinian to set up a restaurant in a community where so many of the churches preach unqualified support for Israel? What does it mean to go to work every day and serve people food knowing that they may fear you just because of the way you look and the accent with which you speak?

In the peaceable kingdom for which we long, we will be able to see the other in all his difference without self-consciousness, without the difference clouding our perception of the other as a person. There is no "color-blindedness." There is no "just seeing people as people." None of us are just people. We all drag around with us a cloud of associations and echoes and resonances. We can't experience each other, or anything else, without such associations. And in the redeemed Creation they will, like the wounds of Christ, be an occasion of glory and no longer of shame. As Chesterton put it, the lion will lie down with the lamb without losing his kingly ferocity.

But here, in this valley of tears, we have to deal with the fact that we are all, in that terrifying Roman proverb, "wolves to each other." We cannot pretend that we do not fear each other, or that we do not sometimes have reason to fear. What we can do is reach out to each other anyway, eat each other's food, speak each other's language, defend each other from injustice, hold each other in the howling darkness. We cannot get wholly rid of the prejudiced associations and assumptions that get in the way of seeing the other in glory as God's good creature. But we can keep moving through the fog toward the dimly seen form of the other instead of sitting down and letting the toxic mist of our own prejudices isolate us from each other.

Oh come, thou radiance from on high,
And cheer us by thy drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.

Next year in Jerusalem.






Thursday, December 15, 2016

Am I a conservative?

In a Facebook conversation a while ago, somebody linked to this 2012 piece by Conor Friedersdorf listing 21 things that Americans sometimes mean by the word "conservatism." It's a helpful checklist for me, because I think of myself as a conservative more often than not, but often don't fit other people's definition of one. So here's how I stack up against Friedersdorf's list:


An aversion to rapid change; a belief that tradition and prevailing social norms often contain within them handed down wisdom; and mistrust of attempts to remake society so that it conforms to an abstract account of what would be just or efficient.  
By this definition I am mostly conservative, though I have a revolutionary/idealistic side as well.

A desire to preserve the political philosophy and rules of government articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
I respect this kind of conservatism and think it's fine in an American context, though not being an American citizen I can't get myself to care deeply about it, and I am bothered by the religious fervor with which many Americans embrace it. I worry about this particularly in the case of Christians (and let's face it, most American "conservatives" are Christians), since the U.S. founding documents often seem to be treated as equal to Scripture and superior to other traditional Christian sources of authority such as the Creeds.


A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, through cultural norms. 
Yes, with several caveats:
1) "traditional" morality can mean a lot of things, all of them to be taken seriously but some of them to be rejected on the basis of the Gospel:
2) the Gospel (the Christian message) is not simply identical with what is "articulated in the Bible," though the Bible is overwhelmingly the most important source; and
3) while I would like cultural norms to reflect the Gospel, I expect that the Gospel will always be to some extent "counter-cultural."

  • A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, using cultural norms and the power of the state.

  • More misgivings about this, due to the third concern mentioned under the previous point. Governments rightly use their coercive power for the common good. The Gospel provides important light on what the common good is. But as even St. Thomas Aquinas (no libertarian or Anabaptist) recognized, not every evil can or should be prohibited by governmental authority.

    An embrace of free-market capitalism, and a belief in the legitimacy of market outcomes. 

    No. I think there are some powerful arguments in favor of "economic freedom" as an expression of the Christian view of human dignity. But as a Christian, I believe that "libertarian freedom" is not ultimate freedom, and that in this fallen world exchanges among human persons are never entirely free or untainted by coercion and manipulation. So I don't believe in "the legitimacy of market outcomes."

    A belief that America is an exceptional nation, a shining city on a hill, whose rightful role is leader of the free world.

    Absolutely not. It's certainly a remarkable country, but I find American exceptionalism to be both foolish and idolatrous.

    A belief that America should export its brand of democracy through force of arms.

    Certainly not.

    The conviction that government should undertake, on behalf of the American polity, grand projects that advance our "national greatness" and ennoble our characters.
    Probably not, but this is really vague.

    An embrace of localism, community and family ties, human scale, and a responsibility to the future.
    Yes--this is the primary sense in which I would describe myself as a political/social conservative.

    A belief that America shouldn't intervene in the affairs of other nations except to defend ourselves from aggression and enforce contracts and treaties.
    I wouldn't go that far, but I certainly think that military intervention should be severely limited and that humanitarian action should generally be non-coercive. I wouldn't rule out the use of military force to defend oppressed people in principle, but in most circumstances it seems to do more harm than good.

    A desire to return to the way things once were.
    I definitely feel that desire very strongly, though I'm also critical of it and wouldn't embrace it explicitly as part of my ideology. I'm sure it shapes many of my beliefs, though, and I'm OK with that.

    Affinity for, identification with, or embrace of Red America's various cultural cues. (For example, gun ownership, a preference for single-family homes oriented around highways rather than urban enclaves organized around public transit, embrace of country music, disdain for arugula and fancy mustard, etc.)
    Definitely not, though I rather like country music

    Disdain for American liberalism, multiculturalism, identity politics, affirmative action, welfare, European-style social policies, and the left and its ideas generally.
    No. I don't feel that disdain or regard it with much respect (does disdain ever deserve respect? maybe sometimes, when it's disdain for something truly evil).

    A desire to be left alone by government, often coupled with a belief that being left alone is a natural right. 
    I desire to be left alone by government, but I wouldn't call it a natural right.

    A principled belief in federalism.
    Yes, though I think justice and the common good are more important.

    The belief that taxes should be lower and government smaller.
    To paraphrase Einstein, I think that taxes should be as low and government as small as possible, but no lower and no smaller.

    The belief that the national debt and deficits put America in peril.
    Maybe not to the extent some think, but I don't think they are good things.

    The belief that whenever possible, government budgets should be balanced.
    With the caveat "whenever possible," yes I would agree with this.

    Consciousness of the fallibility of man, and an awareness of the value of skepticism, doubt and humility.
    Yes, definitely I'm a conservative in this sense.

    Realism in foreign policy.
    No, not by the normal definition of "realism," which seems to mean "cynical, ruthless pragmatism."

    Non-interventionism in foreign policy.
    Generally yes, especially if we are talking about military intervention.

    Obviously this is a miscellaneous grab-bag of definitions, but precisely for that reason it's a starting point to think more rationally about how we use the terms "conservative" and "liberal."

    And if someone says, "we should just drop the terms altogether"--well, I have thoughts on that too and will share them in another post.

    Monday, December 12, 2016

    Donald Trump and the triumph of right-wing postmodernism

    When I was in grad school, involved in the graduate chapter of InterVarsity at Duke, we spent a lot of our time worry about how Christians should respond to "postmodernism." 20th-century evangelicalism had invested itself pretty heavily in a kind of Enlightenment rationalism, and in the 90s many evangelical intellectuals were realizing that it was time for a course correction. And Duke in the 90s was a center of postmodernism. You couldn't walk down the corridor without hearing someone say "Derrida" or "Foucault." Meanwhile, out in popular conservative Christian culture, "post-modern" was a deadly slur. Good Christians were supposed to believe in absolute, unchanging truth.

    That rhetoric is still with us, of course, but "postmodern" has more and more come to be merely a slur used by conservatives with little understanding of its meaning. When I taught at Huntington University, one parent wrote to the religion department asking us how we interpreted Genesis 1 (with the strong implication that he would not be sending his remaining ten homeschooled children to our institution if we gave the wrong answer). In the correspondence that ensued, what struck me about this gentleman was his apparent conviction that belief in theistic evolution was "postmodern." I tried to explain to him that I believed in evolution precisely because I believe in facts and evidence and that science reveals truth about the world--not very postmodern beliefs at all.

    Creationism is, in fact, a good example of a growing phenomenon that I think needs to be labeled "right-wing postmodernism." When I visited the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky a few years ago, I was struck by the combination of technological wizardry and utter cynicism about science. While the museum claims to present evidence, most of it is designed to work on people's emotions and imaginations and to tear down their confidence in the scientific method. The Creation Museum rests on the assumption that there is indeed absolute truth, found in the Bible, and that merely "human" methods cannot give that truth. Thus, they should always be treated with skepticism.

    And of course it's true that all human methods are fallible. There's a lot of truth to postmodern challenges to Enlightenment ideas of science--I've been very influenced by Thomas Kuhn, myself. But the rhetoric of radical postmodernism, as it's filtered down into pop culture, gives the impression that all truth claims are nothing more than rhetoric serving some ulterior purpose. And this turns out to be a point of view that actually fosters firm beliefs that are immune to rational inquiry. The acid of universal relativism eats away at the tentative, carefully formulated beliefs of critical reason far faster and deeper than at the firm dogmas of fundamentalist religion.

    The election of Donald Trump represents the triumph of right-wing postmodernism. Millions of Americans who think of themselves as conservatives and claim to believe in absolute truth have voted for a "post-truth" political agenda. Trump's flagrant falsehoods are defended as rhetorical excesses, and any criticism of him is dismissed via the genetic fallacy. Over and over again, Trump supporters move the discussion from evidence and issues to the corrupt power structures that allegedly lie behind any opposition to Trump. There are some exceptions who try to make rational arguments for Trump (Dave Armstrong, for instance), but even they speak loudly about the need for facts and evidence only to discount any evidence that they don't like. I hear, even from Dave, a lot more denunciations of the other side's lack of attention to the evidence than I do any actual treatment of the evidence.

    I get that none of this is new, and certainly one can find examples on all sides of the spectrum of people unwilling to listen to evidence that doesn't fit their biases. But the extent to which self-proclaimed conservatives are willing to disregard any serious engagement with evidence and reason strikes me as new. And frankly I think a lot of the blame rests on the shoulders of the "real" postmodernists--the sophisticated academics who sneered for years at the idea of objective truth. Conservatives have, effectively, chosen to take them at their word. And they are playing the game more ruthlessly and effectively than the liberals ever did.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2016

    For the President-Elect: A Hallelujah

    They say there was a secret chord
    That Leonard played, and it pleased the Lord,
    But you don't really care for music, do you?
    Well, now that your election's won,
    You can play your games and have your fun,
    While all the righteous sing their hallelujah.

    You saw her standing in the waves,
    A beckoning torch for broken slaves,
    You saw her, and you knew she saw right through you.
    So you tied the Lady to a chair,
    You pared her nails and you shaved her hair,
    And from her lips you drew your hallelujah.

    We've been here many times before,
    We've borne the burden of this war,
    We've seen tyrants fall long, long before we knew you.
    So build your wall and rear your tower,
    But freedom's not a Ring of Power,
    It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.

    Well, maybe there's a God above,
    But all you've ever learned from love
    Is how to grab whatever looks good to you.
    But it is a cry that you hear at night,
    It's the people who've seen the Lady's light,
    It's the huddled masses singing Hallelujah.

    You'll do your worst, and it won't be much,
    You can't feel, so you'll try to touch,
    I didn't come to flatter or to fool you.
    But even if it all goes wrong,
    We'll stand before the Lord of song
    With nothing on our tongues but Hallelujah.

    Tuesday, November 01, 2016

    Reformation Day post--a year and a day late (or 364 days early)

    The following is an article that I wrote for Christianity Today online last year, which they decided not to publish. So I'm releasing it this year as a blog post. I didn't get it out yesterday, but that's probably appropriate, since it's an argument for All Saints' over "Reformation Day." This article was probably my last attempt to speak as an evangelical Protestant to evangelical Protestants. I will always consider myself an evangelical, but having made the decision to "swim the Tiber" I would not now use the word "we" in quite the same way that I do here.

    Also, this is the longer version--I cut out some of the detail before submitting it to CT.




    When my wife began graduate coursework at Duke University in the fall of 2000, she decided to take a seminar on Martin Luther (her primary field is American church history). When informed of this decision, her mother replied: “Good idea--that’s when we all started.”

     The celebration of October 31 (traditionally All Saints’ Eve) as Reformation Day by many Protestants reflects this intuition that in some way the Reformation was the beginning of “our” identity. But who are “we”? Protestants are an immensely diverse tradition, or broad family of traditions. What do the Pentecostal evangelist T. D. Jakes, the Reformed Baptist pastor John Piper, and the liberal Episcopalian retired bishop John Shelby Spong really have in common? Does their common heritage in something that could be called “Protestantism” really mean more than what any of them might share with, for instance, Catholic and Orthodox Christians?

     Indeed, the vast majority of Protestants share far more common ground theologically with Catholics and Orthodox than they do with the “non-theistic” Spong or the non-Trinitarian Jakes. Yet both the liberal Protestantism of which Spong is an extreme example, and the unorthodox version of Pentecostalism of which Jakes is a representative, appeal to the Reformation as a model. In 1998, Spong issued a “Call for a New Reformation,” complete with twelve theses of his own. By Spong’s own admission, these theses are far more radical than those of the Reformers. But Spong’s choice to link himself with Luther (his 2001 autobiography was titled Here I Stand) wasn’t just clever marketing. It reflected a long history of more radical figures claiming to “complete” Luther’s work and carry his own principles farther than Luther dared to do himself. 

    From the very first, Luther’s writings struck a chord with people who had very different theological preoccupations than Luther himself. Indeed, since Luther’s theology was continually evolving, such “misunderstandings” were to be expected (and may not always have been misunderstandings at all). For many of his early admirers, Luther was a more radical version of the great humanist scholar Erasmus--a hero of intellectual freedom and scholarship who called for a fresh look at Scripture and a focus on inner renewal instead of ritual and elaborate dogma. For educated supporters of the working-class revolutions that broke out in 1524 and 1525, Luther’s doctrine of freedom was a charter for political liberty. For Zwingli and the Swiss Reformers, Luther was a prophetic figure who could be expected to agree with the Swiss conclusions about the radical idolatry of Catholic worship and the error of the doctrine of the Real Presence. As Luther disappointed these early admirers one by one, a chasm opened between those who agreed with Luther’s developed (and developing) theology more or less in its entirety and those who did not. Those who disagreed with Luther claimed that Luther, while inspired by God to challenge the authority of the papacy, did not see the full implications of his own principles, and that his followers were too deferential to him, giving his teachings more authority than any merely human theology ought to have. Some of these critics were unsuccessful in gaining wide support from those with power and influence in European society, and were demonized as “radicals” whose doctrines would overthrow godly order and were radically incompatible with historic Christian orthodoxy. But a wide network of more moderate critics of Luther did succeed in gaining political support, particularly from the magistrates of independent city-states in southwestern Germany and Switzerland.

    This “Reformed” version of Protestantism eventually would prove far more durable internationally than the strictly “Lutheran” version, becoming, in fact, the central “orthodox” tradition of Protestantism. The French refugee John Calvin created a systematic theology that drew richly on Scripture, the Church Fathers, selected medieval authorities, and the teachings of both Luther and his “Zwinglian” critics. Over the long term, Calvin’s version of Protestantism, enshrined in confessional statements such as the Westminster Confession and the Canons of Dort, would come to be seen as the central, orthodox form of Protestantism, with Lutheranism as a smaller, more ethnically limited alternative. Non-Calvinist movements, from seventeenth-century Baptists to 21st-century emergents, have fundamentally the same relationship to Calvinism that Protestantism as a whole has to Catholicism. They are “heretical” variants of the Reformed tradition, rooted in the claim that the Reformed tradition was itself insufficiently Biblical.

     As a result, there are two basic reasons to celebrate “Reformation Day.” One may believe that the Protestants were right in their basic doctrinal claims and that these claims remain the indispensable foundation for healthy Christian faith and life. Or one may see the Reformers as examples because of their willingness to question received tradition in light of Scripture. Of course, plenty of people hold to some version of both. But they always stand in tension with each other. The more firmly one is convinced that the original teachings of the Reformers are correct, the less likely one is going to be to do what the Reformers did all over again. The history of Protestantism is largely the story of people imitating the original Reformers by challenging existing tradition in light of Scripture, and eventually challenging tradition and Scripture in light of reason and experience.

     When the Baptists, most of whom were heirs of the Calvinist tradition, decided that the Anabaptists were right about infant baptism, they were explicitly rejecting a practice that was extremely important to the “magisterial reformers.” When Jacobus Arminius, around the same time, rejected unconditional predestination, he was embracing ideas more akin to those of the Jesuits than those of the classical Reformers. Luther had claimed, in his 1525 debate with Erasmus about free will, that this was the central point at issue between himself and the “papists.” Yet Arminius and the many Protestants who would eventually come to agree with him decided that on this key point, Erasmus had been right all along. And they did so, again, on the basis of an appeal to the authority of Scripture over human tradition.

    Meanwhile, the religious conflicts of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries led to a powerful rationalist movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in which traditional Christian belief was identified with “superstition” and “priestcraft” as well as with political tyranny. The evangelical movement emerged in this context as an alternative both to “dead orthodoxy” and to rationalist heresy. From the beginning it assumed Protestant orthodoxy as its doctrinal formation, while calling for a less pugnacious orthodoxy that focused on “essentials” rather than squabbling over “minor matters.” John Wesley, in his famous sermon on the “Catholic Spirit,” called for broad tolerance of disagreements among Christians (even over such matters as whether the sacraments should be celebrated at all): “Let all these things stand by: we will talk of them, if need be, at a more convenient season, my only question at present is this, "Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart.””

    In the 19th century, this kind of appeal to the heart led to a new kind of liberalism. Schleiermacher and his followers in Germany argued that true religion consisted in experience rather than in doctrine or morality. At the same time, the rise of historical criticism led to an awareness that the Bible was itself the product of history and tradition. The same principle that had led Protestants to criticize tradition in light of Scripture now led many of them to criticize parts of the Bible in light of others, or even to relativize the Bible compared to reason and experience. In the mid-20th century, Paul Tillich defined the “Protestant principle” as “the critical element in the expression of the community of faith and consequently the element of doubt in the act of faith.” Far from Luther’s confident appeal to Scripture, Tillich’s “Protestant principle” relativizes all doctrinal claims, even those of Scripture and the ancient Creeds. To hold to anything unconditionally was, for Tillich, a form of idolatry. Spong’s “Call for a New Reformation” is a more radical and more simplistic version of Tillich’s theology.

     Evangelicals define themselves by the rejection of this “modernist” trajectory in Protestantism and by the reaffirmation of the authority of Scripture. Yet the “Protestant principle” is at work in evangelicalism as well, even if in a more moderate form. Ever since the revivals of the 18th century, evangelicalism has given rise to movement after movement claiming to restore New Testament Christianity or to bring about a more immediate relationship with God. Some of these movements, like Mormonism, denied basic beliefs of historic Christianity and are often seen as not really Christian at all, yet their roots in evangelical Protestantism are undeniable.

    Within evangelical theology in recent decades, numerous challenges to traditional Protestant belief have arisen. The “New Perspective on Paul,” championed by N. T. Wright among others, challenges the key exegetical claims on which the soteriology of the Reformation was built. A more radical challenge is the “open theism” championed by a number of leading Arminian evangelical theologians such as Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Greg Boyd. In his 2001 email exchange with Chris Hall in the pages of CT, Sanders responded to Hall’s appeal to tradition by invoking the Reformation:
    You sound just like John Eck, the Catholic inquisitor of Luther, who claimed it unimaginable that so many theologians could have been wrong on so central a teaching as salvation. I would have thought that someone such as yourself, teaching at a Baptist college, would have more empathy for those who challenge certain traditions. Lutherans, Reformed, and Catholics killed Anabaptists for espousing beliefs that most evangelicals today take for granted. Clearly, Protestants believe that traditions sometimes need changing.
    To be sure, Sanders affirms certain important elements of the tradition: “the ecumenical creeds, the main teachings of the Reformation, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of prayer and community.” But on the specific, very important philosophical point where he challenges tradition, the importance of the Reformation is not what Luther and Calvin actually believed about God’s omniscience but that they were willing to challenge previous theology on the basis of Scripture. This provides, for many Protestants within as well as outside the evangelical community, a warrant for further challenges to traditional ideas the Reformers did accept, while claiming loyalty to their heritage.

    Alister McGrath’s readable and thought-provoking Christianity’s Dangerous Idea fleshes out this understanding of the Reformation more systematically. McGrath argues that there is no one essence of Protestantism except the ongoing willingness to challenge tradition in light of Scripture. The variety and disunity of Protestantism are, for McGrath, not its shame but its glory. The hero of his telling of the story is Pentecostalism, a dynamic movement that sweeps aside dogmas and institutions through a direct appeal to the witness of the Spirit in the lives of believers. But the same language of freedom and diversity that McGrath uses to praise Protestantism could also be used to praise liberalism. McGrath admits (p. 400) that “revisionist approaches” such as those of Spong “are part of the inevitable free market of ideas that shape Protestant identity.” “Protestantism,” says McGrath, “is not a static entity, but a living entity whose identity mutates over time. But that mutation leads to a variety of outcomes--among which some flourish and others wither.” “Revisionist” versions of Protestantism, he argues, “have not attained the wide acceptance found by other new developments, such as Pentecostalism.” The implication seems to be that “wide acceptance” is evidence of spiritual value, because it shows that a particular tradition is meeting people’s spiritual needs. The numerical decline of mainline churches would then be (as many conservative Christians have recently argued) evidence for the spiritual bankruptcy of liberalism. McGrath gives no substantive reasons for considering Pentecostalism truer than liberalism--or for that matter than traditional confessional Protestantism, which isn’t doing very well numerically either.

     An alternative picture of the history of Protestantism was offered by Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller in a recent roundtable discussion with John Piper and D. A. Carson. Keller spoke for all three by saying that the Reformation “essentially got the Bible right.” He argued that later centuries of Protestantism--the Puritans, the revivalists, and the Princeton theologians--added to this Reformation heritage without contradicting it. But this linear account of Protestantism dismisses the many branches off the Calvinist tree as irrelevant. Furthermore, Keller treats revivalism as one monolithic thing, a kind of middle term between Puritanism and the Princeton theology. But many revivalists rejected Calvinism--revivalism was in fact a major force in 19th-century America’s move away from Calvinism. And accordingly, the stalwart Calvinists of the “Old Princeton” school were very dubious about revivalism. Keller makes the story of Protestantism far too linear.
    John Piper, in the same discussion, offered a more strongly worded version of the same basic position. According to Piper, the Reformation did not happen just because the Reformers read the Bible differently--it happened because they “read their Bibles,” which seems to imply that previous Christians didn’t. Piper cites the Renaissance “return to the sources” as the cultural factor that led to this new look at Scripture. (This in spite of the fact that the greatest Renaissance Biblical scholar, Erasmus, was unconvinced by the key doctrinal claims of the Reformers and accused Luther of inventing a new kind of scholastic theology, complicating the simple message of Scripture with his abstract “paradoxes.”) But if Piper is seriously claiming that people didn’t read the Bible, or didn’t do so seriously, before the Reformation, he is clearly wrong. A mountain of scholarship in recent decades has demonstrated just how deep and rich medieval engagement with Scripture was, and how many continuities (as well as deep differences) there are between the Reformation and the previous tradition of Biblical interpretation. (My grad-school mentor David Steinmetz’ two volumes Luther in Context and Calvin in Context flesh this out with regard to the two most famous theologians of the Reformation, as well as many of their contemporaries.) The difference in the Reformation was precisely not that people read the Bible for the first time, but indeed that they read it in a different way, informed by Renaissance literary theory among many other factors. And, as the history of Protestantism shows, Christians did not stop looking at the Bible in new ways in the sixteenth century. To set the Reformation apart from previous tradition as the first time when people really started taking the Bible seriously is to invite other Christians to ask, “what if we haven’t taken it seriously yet?”

     An alternative is to go back behind the Reformation and seek a broader and deeper basis for orthodoxy. This approach has been championed particularly strongly by the Methodist theologian Tom Oden, and was set forth succinctly in 2011 by the evangelical Anglican priest Gerald McDermott. In a First Things article, “Evangelicals Divided,” he argued that the movement is splitting into two distinct camps, the “Meliorists” and the “Traditionists”: “The former think we must improve and sometimes change substantially the tradition of historic orthodoxy. The latter think that while we might sometimes need to adjust our approaches to the tradition, generally we ought to learn from it rather than change it.” McDermott noted that this division largely (but not entirely) coincides with the older division between Calvinists and Arminians. The leading “meliorists” such as Roger Olson are confidently Arminian. Many of the staunchest “Traditionists” are Reformed, though there are certainly Arminians in the Traditionist camp as well. McDermott’s definition of the two camps has its problems. For instance, he admits that Olson, one of his prime examples of a “Meliorist,” “accepts the Great Tradition (the consensus on “mere Christianity” among the Fathers, the medieval theologians, and the Reformers which for most conservatives is authoritative) as a “Third Testament,” which can be ignored “only with fear and trembling,” and warns that “whatever overthrows the Great Tradition is likely to be heretical.”” That is extremely strong language--most conservative evangelicals would probably find it too strong, rather than too weak, in its affirmation of tradition. Yet apparently, for McDermott it’s not enough, because Olson’s affirmation of the historical, contextual nature of tradition (and even of Scripture) inevitably gives cover to more radical views such as open theism or the affirmation of gay unions.

     The bigger problem with McDermott’s formulation, though, is that he includes the Reformers in the “Great Tradition,” as if they fit seamlessly with the pre-Reformation tradition. If that had been true, there would have been no schism in the sixteenth century. In this McDermott follows Tom Oden, author of the phrase “the Great Tradition” and one of the most significant figures in getting Protestants to take the early Church more seriously. Oden’s Justification Reader attempts, unconvincingly (at least to me), to show that the Protestant Reformers’ view of justification was the same as that of the early Church. Alister McGrath is more accurate, in his Iustitia Dei, when he acknowledges that imputation was a novel idea in the sixteenth century, and that in fact Augustine explicitly identified justification and sanctification. In response to letters pointing out the problems with arguing for “Traditionism” while upholding the Reformation, McDermott pointed to the body of scholarship showing continuities between the Reformation and the Middle Ages, and concluded, “Luther was a Traditionist.” This is hardly accurate. David Steinmetz’ essay, “Luther and Calvin on Church and Tradition,” shows that Luther was quite willing to dismiss any Council or other element of Church tradition that contradicted his own theology. That is hardly McDermott’s ‘Traditionism.” Of course Luther upheld those aspects of the previous tradition with which he agreed. Of course he studied the previous tradition and was informed by it. The “meliorists” McDermott is attacking do the same. But only a few of them are nearly as cavalier toward previous tradition as Luther was.

     To say that the Reformation was correct is to say that radical revisions of the Tradition are sometimes necessary. This is the fundamental problem with both the confessional and the neo-patristic versions of conservative Protestantism. But McDermott rightly identifies the fatal flaw with what he calls “meliorism.” To hold up the Reformation as a model for endless criticism of the previous tradition leaves us helpless against the spirit of the age. Evangelical “meliorism” can indeed easily turn into liberalism, as similar movements in evangelicalism have done in the past. The nervousness about slippery slopes that has led to pious and learned people like John Sanders and Tom Oord losing their jobs at evangelical institutions is not without basis. But it is also a disease that will kill evangelicalism spiritually if it is not cured.

     It is clear, historically, that the Reformation was very much a culturally limited, biased interpretation of the Christian faith. It was not a pristine recovery of New Testament Christianity, as Piper and Carson seem to suggest. Nor was it a new divine revelation in its own right, obviously. Therefore, Reformation formulas must be regarded as open to further critique and even possible rejection. This is not the case for the core affirmations of the early Church enshrined in the Creeds and historically shared by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. In short, the Creeds should be non-negotiable, while the confessions of the sixteenth century should not be.

     Perhaps, then, instead of celebrating “Reformation Day,” evangelicals should learn once more to celebrate “All Saints Day.” The relationship between the two holidays is emblematic of the relationship between Protestantism and the older and broader Christian tradition it critiqued. Luther chose All Saints Eve to post a bold criticism of practices rooted in the doctrine of the communion of saints, but which had become radically corrupted. This corruption went deeper than the obvious financial scandal of selling pardons for money. It was, as Luther saw, rooted in a flawed way of thinking about our relationship with God, as if it was our job to wheedle salvation out of God rather than throwing ourselves on his mercy. But by replacing All Saints with Reformation Day, by placing the Reformers alongside or even above the Fathers as normative figures for Christian theology, we have cut ourselves off from the broader streams of Christianity and have committed ourselves to a position riddled with contradictions.

    By restoring All Saints’ Day, we do not need to turn our backs on the spiritual insights of the Reformation. Protestantism has its saints too. When I first visited Oxford in 2003, I paid homage to the “Martyrs’ Memorial” that commemorates the burning of three Protestant bishops by Queen Mary’s Catholic government in 1556. But I did this in a Catholic way, by crossing myself and kissing the spot. Only by gestures like this can I personally do justice to my conflicted feelings about the heritage of the Reformation. We can and should celebrate the principles of free grace, the priesthood of all believers, and the importance of free access to the Scriptures for all Christians. We should sing the great songs of the evangelical tradition, and honor the many men and women throughout the past 500 years who have devoted their lives to the Gospel within Protestant communities. But we should never forget that “we” did not, in fact, begin in the sixteenth century. We began in the first century. And if we want to claim all 2000 years of Christian history as our own, we must exercise proper humility about the role the Reformations of the sixteenth century play in that long story. We should stop exalting the Reformation as an unchallenged norm either in its substantive teachings or in its methodology of critiquing previous tradition. We should offer the great spiritual riches of our evangelical heritage to our brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions, and receive spiritual riches from them in return. We should embrace generosity and freedom of spirit, not because we do not care about doctrine, but because we have rediscovered a firmer and broader basis for doctrine. Only then will evangelicalism be able to flourish as the renewal movement within the universal Church that God’s providence has prepared it to be. Only then, in Wesley’s phrase, will we have a truly “Catholic Spirit.”


    Monday, October 31, 2016

    And he that will reach it, about must, and about must go

    As anyone who knows me is aware, I've been engaged for more than twenty years now in discerning whether or not I should enter full communion with Rome (i.e., "become Catholic"). This journey began--well, it probably began with my parents and grandparents teaching me the Christian faith in infancy. Discovering G. K. Chesterton as a teenager made me begin to think of Catholicism as a live possibility. Phil Kenneson, one of my professors at Milligan College, told me that "Rome was not a bad place to start" (by which he did not mean to convert to Catholicism, but to learn from "Rome" how to take church and tradition more seriously). But I first explicitly declared a desire to become Catholic in my first semester as a doctoral student at Duke University, in the fall of 1995. I had gone to Duke to study the Protestant Reformation, partly in hope of fending off my nascent "Romeward" leanings awakened by Chesterton and other Catholic authors I had read in my late teens. Also, Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity had taught me that the hyper-individualistic Protestantism I'd grown up with and around wasn't necessarily historic Reformational Protestantism. 

    My desire to become Catholic in the fall of 1995 was perhaps premature. After all, I had barely started studying the Reformation, which was supposed to help me figure out what I thought about Protestantism. But all it took, really, was a close encounter with Catholics who really knew and loved their faith for me to fall in love with Catholicism. Or rather, I'd already fallen in love with Catholicism as portrayed in Chesterton, and meeting Tim Gray, John Sauer, and other devout Catholics at Duke made me leap to believe that what I already loved in theory could be true in reality. 

    But I was young and naive and confused, deeply self-doubting and indecisive. Matt Levering, whom I met in the spring of 1996, warned me that "it will be a process of years." I'm not sure it needed to be--not so many years, anyway. But I'm temperamentally prone to believe that anything I want to be true can't be true. And there were plenty of people in my life to tell me that this particular thing wasn't true.

    By 1998 I was convinced that I could never be a Protestant in any confessional or anti-Catholic sense. The choice was between ecumenical Protestantism (either Anglicanism or Methodism) and historic pre-Reformational Christianity (Catholicism or Orthodoxy). The Episcopal Church, of course, offered the best of both worlds, particularly in its Anglo-Catholic expression, which I encountered at St. Joseph's in Durham. But I never quite believed in the Anglo-Catholic claim that Anglicanism was Catholic rather than Protestant. Anglicanism has always represented for me not the repudiation of Protestantism but the hope for an ecumenical Protestantism leading to corporate reunion with both Rome and the East.

    The direction of the Episcopal Church since 2003 has made that hope extremely dim. The Anglican Church in North America, which divided from the Episcopal Church over the question of gay unions, is also unlikely to seek union with either Catholicism or Orthodoxy. In the past decade or so I've looked more seriously at Methodism as an alternative. But the United Methodist Church seems also headed for schism over homosexuality. There appears to be no escape, within institutional Protestantism, from the dynamic of division.

    Since​ ​2003,​ ​also,​ ​I​ ​have​ ​been​ ​married​ ​first​ ​to​ ​a​ ​Methodist​ ​deacon​ ​and​ ​then​ ​an​ ​Episcopal​ ​priest (who​ ​happens​ ​to​ ​be​ ​the​ ​same​ ​thoroughly​ ​glorious​ ​person).​ ​She​ ​does​ ​not​ ​share​ ​my​ ​belief​ ​that​ ​we ought​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in​ ​communion​ ​with​ ​Rome.​ ​She​ ​feels​ ​called​ ​to​ ​be​ ​a​ ​cranky​ ​voice​ ​for​ ​orthodoxy​ ​within mainline​ ​Protestantism.​ ​God​ ​bless​ ​her.​ ​I've​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​persuade​ ​myself​ ​that​ ​that's​ ​my​ ​calling.​ ​But​ ​I can't​ ​do​ ​it​ ​any​ ​more.
     
    So I'm thrown back on my own individual conscience. This is paradoxical, because I was drawn to Catholicism as a refuge from individualism. The basic dilemma for any would-be convert to Catholicism is that in order to repudiate Luther we must become Luther. We must say, "Here I stand, I can do no other." And I have found this extremely difficult to say.

    To make things yet more complicated, from 2006 to 2012 I was assistant professor of Bible and religion at Huntington University, an evangelical college in northern Indiana. I knew that if I became Catholic I would probably lose my job. I wish I had told them, at the start, that I might quite possibly become Catholic, but since at the time I had already been talking about becoming Catholic for​ ​more​ ​than​ ​ten​ ​years​ ​without​ ​doing​ ​it,​ ​giving​ ​up​ ​a​ ​job​ ​for​ ​the​ ​mere​ ​possibility​ ​that​ ​I would​ ​finally​ ​take​ ​the​ ​plunge​ ​seemed​ ​overly​ ​quixotic. When​ ​I​ ​was​ ​laid​ ​off​ ​for​ ​financial​ ​reasons​ ​in​ ​2012,​ ​I​ ​rejoiced​ ​that​ ​I​ ​could​ ​finally​ ​follow​ ​my​ ​heart.​ ​But it​ ​turned​ ​out​ ​not​ ​to​ ​be​ ​that​ ​easy.​ ​The​ ​habits​ ​of​ ​indecision​ ​I'd​ ​built​ ​up​ ​over​ ​the​ ​years​ ​had​ ​made​ ​it almost​ ​impossible​ ​for​ ​me​ ​to​ ​take​ ​the​ ​step.​ ​And​ ​in​ ​the​ ​wake​ ​of​ ​losing​ ​my​ ​job​ ​I​ ​was​ ​depressed​ ​and even​ ​more​ ​self-doubting​ ​than​ ​usual. Yet​ ​over​ ​and​ ​over​ ​again​ ​I​ ​had​ ​moments​ ​where​ ​I​ ​felt,​ ​with​ ​utter​ ​clarity,​ ​that​ ​this​ ​was​ ​what​ ​I​ ​was called​ ​to​ ​do.​ ​

    In​ ​February​ ​of​ ​2014​ ​I​ ​was​ ​rereading​ ​Tolkien's​ ​​Silmarillion​,​ ​and​ ​I​ ​came​ ​across​ ​the passage​ ​where​ ​Morgoth​ ​impersonates​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​leaders​ ​of​ ​Men​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​them:​ ​“the​ ​Sea​ ​has​ ​no shore.​ ​There​ ​is​ ​no​ ​light​ ​in​ ​the​ ​West.​ ​We​ ​have​ ​followed​ ​a​ ​fool-fire​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Elves​ ​to​ ​the​ ​end​ ​of​ ​the world.”​ ​And​ ​I​ ​knew​ ​in​ ​that​ ​moment​ ​that​ ​the​ ​same​ ​voice​ ​of​ ​despair​ ​was​ ​the​ ​voice​ ​that​ ​had​ ​held​ ​me back​ ​so​ ​many​ ​times​ ​from​ ​becoming​ ​Catholic.​ ​I​ ​had​ ​known​ ​this,​ ​really,​ ​at​ ​least​ ​since​ ​2005,​ ​when​ ​I wrote​ ​a​ ​blog​ ​post​ ​called​ ​“The​ ​Ecclesiology​ ​of​ ​Limbo.”

    To​ ​remain​ ​Protestant​ ​is,​ ​for​ ​me,​ ​to​ ​hold​ ​back​ ​from​ ​fully​ ​committing​ ​myself​ ​to​ ​faith​ ​in​ ​Christ.​ ​It’s hedging​ ​my​ ​bets.​ ​This​ ​of​ ​course​ ​is​ ​not​ ​true​ ​for​ ​most​ ​other​ ​Protestants.​ ​Indeed,​ ​no​ ​one​ ​should even​ ​consider​ ​becoming​ ​Catholic​ ​unless​ ​they​ ​have​ ​the​ ​same​ ​experience​ ​I​ ​have.​ ​The​ ​only​ ​reason to​ ​become​ ​Catholic​ ​is​ ​that​ ​you​ ​are​ ​convinced​ ​that​ ​this​ ​is​ ​the​ ​only​ ​way​ ​for​ ​you​ ​to​ ​follow​ ​Jesus.​ ​I am​ ​so​ ​convinced.​ ​I​ ​have​ ​been,​ ​morally,​ ​convinced​ ​of​ ​this​ ​for​ ​a​ ​very​ ​long​ ​time.

    And​ ​so​ ​I​ ​am,​ ​finally,​ ​resolved.​ ​I​ ​don't​ ​know​ ​if​ ​I​ ​will​ ​be​ ​received​ ​at​ ​Easter​ ​or​ ​at​ ​some​ ​earlier​ ​point, but​ ​when​ ​the​ ​local​ ​parish​ ​RCIA​ ​leader​ ​tells​ ​me​ ​that​ ​they​ ​are​ ​ready,​ ​I​ ​am​ ​going​ ​to​ ​enter​ ​full communion​ ​with​ ​the​ ​Catholic​ ​Church.​ ​I​ ​do​ ​not​ ​want​ ​to​ ​break​ ​communion​ ​with​ ​any​ ​other Christians.​ ​I​ ​am​ ​still​ ​discerning​ ​how​ ​I​ ​can​ ​live​ ​out​ ​both​ ​my​ ​conviction​ ​that​ ​I​ ​ought​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in communion​ ​with​ ​Rome​ ​and​ ​my​ ​conviction​ ​that​ ​all​ ​baptized​ ​believers​ ​are​ ​members​ ​of​ ​the Church.​ ​I​ ​know​ ​it’s​ ​going​ ​to​ ​be​ ​hard​ ​to​ ​do​ ​this​ ​as​ ​a​ ​Catholic.​ ​But​ ​it’s​ ​impossible​ ​for​ ​me​ ​to​ ​do​ ​it​ ​as anything​ ​else.

    My​ ​long​ ​and​ ​winding​ ​journey​ ​can​ ​be​ ​summed​ ​up​ ​in​ ​the​ ​words​ ​of​ ​John​ ​Donne​ ​(ironically​ ​a​ ​convert from​ ​Catholicism​ ​to​ ​Anglicanism):​ ​“On​ ​a​ ​narrow​ ​hill, Rugged​ ​and​ ​steep,​ ​Truth​ ​stands,​ ​and​ ​he​ ​that​ ​will Reach​ ​it,​ ​about​ ​must,​ ​and​ ​about​ ​must​ ​go, And​ ​what​ ​the​ ​hill’s​ ​narrowness​ ​resists,​ ​win​ ​so.” I​ ​don’t​ ​think​ ​my​ ​path​ ​had​ ​to​ ​be​ ​as​ ​long​ ​and​ ​winding​ ​as​ ​it​ ​has​ ​been.​ ​But​ ​I​ ​trust​ ​that​ ​God​ ​can​ ​use every​ ​twist​ ​and​ ​turn​ ​in​ ​the​ ​tapestry​ ​he​ ​is​ ​weaving.​ ​I​ ​entrust​ ​my​ ​past​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​my​ ​present​ ​and future​ ​to​ ​His​ ​loving​ ​and​ ​mysterious​ ​care.

    Monday, October 24, 2016

    Al Smith the papist demagogue: the origins of a "democratic institution"



    Apparently there is something called the "Al Smith dinner," which is a "democratic institution" in danger from Donald Trump.

    I find this a bit ironic, since when Al Smith actually ran for president in 1928 plenty of people thought he was a danger to democratic institutions himself. He would take the Bible out of public schools:

    Indeed, his candidacy was nothing more than a papal plot to smash the public schools with a club called "violence" and, apparently, poison them with a vial of holy water:

    Among the many denunciations of Smith by indignant Protestants was a treatise by the Methodist preacher Henry Clay Morrison (founder of Asbury Seminary), called "The Battle of the Ballots." (This has been recently reprinted by Asbury Seminary's "Firstfruits Press.") Morrison claimed that, in fact, opponents of Smith had not invoked his religion as a reason to oppose him, but that his supporters had falsely accused his opponents of religious prejudice, and since the pro-Smith side had brought religion into the discussion Morrison was justified in discussing it. His closing peroration gives an idea of his tone throughout:
    If Al Smith should be elected in the coming battle of ballots, the 6th day of next November, I shall be forced to believe that the curse of God has come upon us, because of our spiritual apostasy and reckless lust for wealth and pleasure that has come to characterize such a large per cent of our American people. May the Holy Spirit arouse our womanhood, awaken and stir the manhood of the nation, and may God in mercy save us from a reign of Rum and Romanism.
    Does the desperate rhetoric sound familiar? Try this cartoon, also produced during the 1928 campaign (though it has nothing to do with Morrison), with the caption "Religious liberty is guaranteed, but can we allow foreign reptiles to crawl all over us/"


    Morrison echoes these concerns, arguing that Smith was elected governor of New York "by the vast hords [sic] of un-Americanized foreigners, who have gathered by millions, in New York City, making it a menace to the peace and welfare of this nation." Morrison accuses Smith of calling for "an open door to immigrants," under the excuse of not wishing to separate families. He argues that since pretty much everyone in "southern Europe" is related to somebody already in America, this policy would amount to completely unrestricted immigration of people "raised up under the oppression of a Romish ecclesiasticism" and thus easy prey to the machinations of Tammany Hall.

    If this anti-immigration rhetoric sounds like one side of the current debate, Morrison's worries about Catholic attacks on the public school system, "one of the cornerstones of our greatness," sound like the other. Indeed, if his criticisms of Catholicism sound like contemporary right-wing attacks on Islam, they also echo the language of the "Podesta emails" revealed by Wikileaks.

    The worries of the 1920s don't map exactly onto the political map of the 2010s. Yet it's remarkable how persistent the basic elements are: fear of immigration, fear of corrupt crony politicians, fear of unscrupulous demagogues, fear of "alien" religious traditions undermining America's democratic institutions.

    But perhaps there is a ray of hope. After all, the corrupt puppet of Roman despotism, defeated in 1928 by Herbert Hoover, would survive to become a "democratic institution" threatened in turn by a New York demagogue. I don't want to see Donald Trump give his name to a "democratic institution" of the future, and I'm not too enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton either. But democratic institutions are, let us hope, more durable and more capable of renewal than the prophets of doom would have us fear.

    Sunday, October 16, 2016

    The 'Am and the Yam

    In my ongoing effort to read through the Bible in Hebrew, I just finished Jeremiah 5. One of the things that struck me about it this time through was the contrast between God's control over nature (v. 22) and God's people's ability to resist God (v. 23). God sets the sand as a boundary for the sea, and the waves of the sea can't pass it however much they may rage, but "this people" does manage to "turn aside and go away" from God's purposes.

    In Hebrew, the word for "people" and the word for "sea" rhyme: "'am" and "yam." So the contrast comes through more sharply, at least to me (not being a Biblical scholar, I'm never sure if what I think I'm getting from the Hebrew is really what an expert, or an ancient reader, would get from it). Of course one possible theme here human beings' unique capacity to resist God through the exercise of their free will. But there's a further irony, because the passage is specifically speaking about God's people, whom God has chosen out of the nations.

    Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the sea is portrayed as a symbol of the forces of chaos and evil, and specifically of the "heathen" nations who do not have a covenant relationship with God and who often persecute God's people. The tossing waves here remind me of the raging heathen kings in Psalm 2.

    But the bitter message of this section of Jeremiah, I think, is not just that God's people outdo the forces of nature in their capacity to defy God, but that the heathen nations are paradoxically more submissive to God than Israel is. The Babylonians have just been described (in v. 15) as a nation God is bringing against Judah. In all their heathen rage, they are doing God's will. But "this people" manages not to.

    Not much, it seems, has changed. Those of us aghast at the way large segments of conservative American Christianity have sold themselves to Donald Trump should remember that this is a very old story.

    And, of course, we should watch for ways in which we, ourselves, manage to resist and betray God's purposes for us and for the world through us.

    Sunday, September 18, 2016

    Throne of Blood

    My latest Netflix DVD was a movie I'd seen years ago, Throne of Blood--Akira Kurosawa's magnificent Japanese adaptation of Macbeth. A couple of things struck me this time around that I hadn't remembered from last time. One was that in terms of plot and characterization Kurosawa's version is, in some ways, an improvement on Shakespeare's (yes, blasphemy, I know).

    In Shakespeare, we jump from the witches predicting that Macbeth will become the king to Macbeth already having discussed the murder of Duncan with his wife and beginning to get cold feet about it. In Kurosawa's version, Washizu's wife Akaji lays out a logical (if paranoid and cynical) reason for killing the Great Lord. If Miki (the Banquo equivalent) tells the Great Lord about the prophecy, then the Great Lord (who himself got his position by killing his predecessor, unlike the saintly Duncan) will move to crush Washizu. As they're discussing this, word comes that the Great Lord's forces are moving through the forest toward the castle. It turns out that it's a surprise visit (in Macbeth, Duncan gives notice that he's coming) and that the Great Lord has appointed Washizu to command the vanguard in the coming war. Washizu sees this as reassuring--the Great Lord clearly still trusts him--but Akaji suggests that the overlord is trying to get him killed, while giving Miki command of the central "Spider Web Castle."

    Washizu decides to go along with the murder. Miki throws his support behind Washizu, citing the prophecy. But, as in Macbeth, Washizu now mistrusts Miki, since the prophecy had said that Miki's son would rule. However, since Washizu has no heir, he thinks he can fulfill the prophecy without more bloodshed by declaring Miki's son his heir (Macbeth never considers doing this as far as I remember). Akaji objects strenuously, and finally reveals that she is pregnant. Washizu again capitulates, for the sake of his unborn child, and has Miki murdered. As in Shakespeare, Miki's ghost appears at the feast and scares Washizu out of his wits. Akaji's child is stillborn, and as the invading army cuts branches from the trees (just as in Macbeth), Washizu's own men, whom he has told of the prophecy about the forest "rising to attack," turn on him and riddle him with arrows.

    Washizu's actions, while essentially the same as Macbeth's, are far more comprehensible. At every step, he seems to have good reason to fear that his potential victims will turn on him. (He also doesn't kill women and children as Macbeth does.) His wife is paranoid rather than simply ambitious. The result is a story that perhaps has less pathological intensity than Macbeth's, but actually makes more sense as a study of power and how those who seek and wield power wind up destroying themselves.

    The Criterion commentator sees Kurosawa's version as nihilistic and fatalistic, arguing that Washizu (unlike Macbeth) has no real choice. I think this is nonsense. At any point, he could have rejected his wife's cynical logic and chosen to risk death rather than act dishonorably. And this brings me to the second point I noticed this time around--the role of Buddhism in the forest spirit's prophecy.

    The spirit is referred to in the English subtitles as an "evil spirit," and the commentator calls it a "witch," assimilating it to Shakespeare's three "weird sisters" to which it clearly corresponds. But the song the spirit sings as Washizu and Miki discover it in the forest is full of Buddhist language such as karma and the neverending cycle of human life fueled by desire--language also found in the opening and closing chorus of the movie. The spirit turns a wheel (presumably a spinning wheel) as it sings, evoking the basic Buddhist symbol of the "wheel of dharma."

    The spirit's words to the two generals are full of promise and temptation, but the song that precedes those words points in the opposite direction, reminding them of the futility of desire and ambition, since everything ends in "rotten flesh."

    It seems to me that Washizu does have a choice--he could have chosen to listen to the spirit's song rather than its alluring words, refusing to heap up bad karma by pursuing the path of selfish desire. He could have chosen to act generously and justly even in the face of the real possibility that others would not behave that way toward him. The prophecy unveils the web of karma in which he is caught. But there is always a way out. Stop craving, stop fearing, stop grasping at time and fate in order to control them.

    And the same is true for us, as we worry about what Donald Trump might do or what Hillary Clinton might do or what ISIS might do or what the fundamentalists or the liberals or the gays or the socialists or the capitalists might do to us. We can persuade ourselves that the part of wisdom is to strike first, to treat others as if they were the monsters our fear makes them, or we can choose to break the wheel. We're going to die either way, sooner or later, and we're probably going to die sooner if the cycle of fear and violence isn't broken. So what do we have to lose?

    Friday, August 19, 2016

    Love the person, hate the sin?

    Rebecca Bratten Weiss adds her voice to the many condemning the maxim, "hate the sin, love the sinner." I agree with the substance of what Rebecca is saying here, but I still can't see how this means that "hate the sin, love the sinner" is a false maxim. Quite the reverse. She has a good point that labeling people as "sinners" (as if we aren't sinners ourselves) is a problem, so we could rephrase it as "hate the sin, love the person." C. S. Lewis makes the persuasive point that we all take precisely this attitude to ourselves. We hate our own sins because we love ourselves and desire to be free from them. Charity is extending that same attitude to others.
    I don't see any way to reject the principle found in that much-reviled maxim without doing exactly what Rebecca so eloquently condemns in this excellent post. If you really think that you can't draw lines between people and their sins, then, for instance, you either have to tolerate racism or hate racists. I see no other option. I find that usually when people attack the maxim they are thinking of things that they don't consider to be evil at all--usually homosexuality. They are arguing that no one can hold to traditional Christian morality on sexual matters without condemning the person who engages in "sinful" acts. But to test the maxim we should apply it to acts that everyone considers evil, like rape. And here the point under dispute is surely not whether we should hate rape, but whether we should love Brock Turner. In other words, rejecting the principle "hate the sin, love the person who commits the sin" will not lead to more charity, but to less. It will also not lead, as many conservatives fear, to a mushy "love everybody and don't call out sin" attitude. It will lead--and demonstrably is leading--to shrill denunciation of anyone associated with things you really consider evil, with absolutely no sense that you are supposed to love and respect the person who is in the grip of evil.
    The blogger Rebecca is citing in this piece, Susan Cottrell, traces the maxim to Gandhi (she also notes that the basic principle originally comes from Augustine, but both she and Rebecca don't really engage with that, which I wish they did). She argues that since Gandhi says that the maxim is easy to understand but is rarely practiced, therefore he's really saying that it's impossible. But that's not what he's saying at all. He's saying that hating sin while loving the sinner is hard and should be done, not that it's impossible and thus not worth trying. The claim that Jesus didn't teach hate the sin and love the sinner is also rather strange, since the argument is simply that Jesus taught that we should love everyone. But that's the very point of the maxim. According to traditional Christian theology, sin is a privation--something that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, to quote the 1979 BCP's baptismal vows. To "hate sin" is precisely to love the person who is being corrupted and destroyed by sin.
    Cottrell, like many people who criticize "hate the sin, love the sinner," is especially concerned with the way it's used against gay people. I see why, as a short-term strategy, this could be an effective way for progressive Christians to make their point. But as I pointed out above, it has devastating larger implications for how we respond to things that everyone really agrees are evil and destructive. And, of course, Cottrell and other progressive Christians don't think same-sex sexual acts are sinful anyway. Surely the more effective approach, then, would be to show that the maxim doesn't apply in this instance, precisely because it does reflect a valid principle with regard to things that are truly sinful. The strongest argument on the progressive side, it seems to me, is precisely that it's hard to see how one can "hate the sin and love the sinner" in this instance, both because the "sin" is so intertwined with a person's identity (at least in our culture) and because it's hard to see how consensual, monogamous sexual relationships between people of the same sex actually "corrupt and destroy the creatures of God."
    I entirely agree that the phrase has become a cliche and is generally used to legitimize the very behavior that it supposedly rules out. And beyond Rebecca's point about implying that only some (other) people are sinners, I can see how putting "hate the sin" first can be harmful, because it could imply that this is the more important priority. As Rebecca points out, we can "walk away from the sinner" but we can't simply "walk away" from sin. Hence, precisely because of our own sinfulness, we will inevitably twist "hate the sin, love the sinner" into "walk away from sinners whose sins happen to annoy us, while giving lip service to love.
    Perhaps the underlying problem is our need to deal with tricky moral situations with a cliche. So by all means, let's give up on the cliche. Let's stop saying "hate the sin, love the sinner." But let's try harder to follow the ancient Christian theological principle that underlies the cliche--that we should oppose that which destroys God's creation precisely out of love. The only alternative to this is ceasing to love.

    Friday, August 12, 2016

    Intelligent Design, part 2

    My friend Jonathan Huddleston (my most reliably acute critic) pointed out that I really didn't do enough to substantiate the thesis in my last post. In particular, Jonathan asked why God couldn't be the creator in the traditional, orthodox sense (the one who causes all things to be, including the processes of nature) while also "tinkering" (the term I used in my earlier post) by setting up particular structures in the way suggested by ID theorists.

    It's a good caveat. Of course there's no reason God couldn't do both. Theologically, my objection to ID is not so much the claim that God created "irreducibly complex" structures that couldn't have evolved naturally, but rather the confusion of this kind of "intelligent design" with the concept of creation. This confusion is demonstrated every time someone says, "but doesn't anyone who believes in God as creator believe in intelligent design?" 

    Either ID is a scientific, not a theological paradigm, or it's bad theology. That was how I framed the title of my previous post, but I should have made it clearer in the body of the text. If ID is a purely scientific claim, then of course it's not bad theology. And of course believing in a God who can intervene supernaturally in creation keeps open the possibility that God might so intervene to establish these specific structures.

    But I would still argue that an orthodox doctrine of creation is a reason to be slow to accept such scientific claims. That is to say, if most scientists agreed that ID was correct, I'd have little problem adapting my theology to deal with it. But my theology does not make me more likely to think it's correct, except in the sense that of course I believe God is capable of doing this. 

    Traditionally, when God acts in creation in a way not accounted for by the normal "laws of nature," we call it a miracle. And miracles are typically a response to the sin and brokenness that have marred creation. To be sure, there is a minority tradition in Christianity holding that the greatest miracle of all, the Incarnation, would have happened even in the absence of the Fall. And that tradition may well be correct. But in that case the Incarnation would be an exception--and it's also possible that in an unfallen world it would not seem like a "miracle," inasmuch as we would see how all the rhythms of creation are attuned to the divine presence and point toward the ultimate union of Creator and creation in Christ.

    I believe, like Greg Boyd (and following a hint in C. S. Lewis), that creation as we know it has been marred before humans entered the picture. (To be clear: I don't go as far as Boyd, and in my discussion of his "warfare theology" I rather emphasized my disagreements--but I am persuaded by the basic thesis that the world as we know it bears the mark of demonic activity as well as of God's good purposes.) It might be that God needed to intervene in response to the marring of creation, and that ID theorists are picking up on signs of that intervention. 

    But most adherents of ID support it because they believe it meshes with Christian belief better than a more conventional evolutionary paradigm does. (This is one of the reasons why many people have trouble taking it seriously as science, although I don't think it's a fatal objection. It might be that only people with religious reasons to question the dominant paradigm are open to alternatives, and that the alternative will turn out in the end to be true. I think this is unlikely, but it's possible.) That's the position I'm arguing against. In fact, if anything ID theory tends to confuse people about what creation is, and (conversely) appeal to people who already have a less than orthodox view of God and creation. 

    So I repeat my original thesis: ID is either not theology at all, or it's bad theology. If it's simply a claim about certain empirical phenomena, then it's not theology. The phenomena might be signs of divine action within creation, and certainly an orthodox theology could accommodate this kind of "divine intervention" if that's what the evidence pointed to.

    But if ID is taken to be, itself, evidence of God the creator, then the creator it points to is something less than the God of orthodox Christianity. And the entire conversation has further obscured the key claim of orthodox Christianity that natural processes are themselves signs of God's creative power.

    Thursday, August 11, 2016

    Why Intelligent Design is not (good) theology

    One of the most common accusations against Intelligent Design theory is that, while claiming to be science, it is really theology. Usually the people making this accusation see "science" as a good thing and "theology" as a bad thing, so they are effectively trying to discredit ID by associating it with what they see as a pointless and discredited intellectual endeavor. Also, of course, if it's theology it doesn't belong in science class in a public school.

    I think that this is a misunderstanding of ID (also of theology). Intelligent Design, at least as defined by its major proponents such as Michael Behe and William Dembski, is the view that there are specific structures (primarily at the cellular/microscopic level) in living things that cannot be accounted for by Neo-Darwinian mechanisms, and which therefore point to the intervention of an intelligent being in the development of life. ID does not require disbelief in evolution in the sense of common ancestry, though of course many creationists (i.e., people who deny evolution) find ID congenial which has led to a common perception that ID is "soft creationism." Behe, I believe, accepts evolution in the sense of common ancestry. Dembski is more skeptical of it. But either way, ID is fundamentally a specific claim about particular mechanisms that allegedly can't be explained by Neo-Darwinian theory.

    ID is not the same thing as the philosophical "argument from design" associated with William Paley, though it has affinities with it. And neither ID nor Paley's argument is the same thing as Aquinas' Fifth Way, although the latter is sometimes called the "earliest philosophically rigorous version of the design argument". ID rests on the claim that certain specific structures cannot be accounted for by natural explanations. Aquinas' Fifth Way, like his other arguments for God's existence, rests on the regularity of natural laws, not on anomalous features that can't be explained by them. Aquinas' view is further distinguished from Paley's version of the argument for design (as Edward Feser explains) by the fact that Aquinas is speaking of the natural properties of created things, while Paley equates them to constructed artifacts. Paley's version of a philosophical "argument from design" provides the framework for ID. But nonetheless, it is philosophy or philosophical theology, while ID is not.

    ID advocates are often mocked for their apparently dishonest claim that the "designer" might not be what Christians mean by God. Clearly few if any ID advocates think that this is a realistic possibility. But they are making the point as a formal way of distinguishing between the scientific claims of ID and the philosophical religious beliefs that ID advocates hold. According to proponents of ID, science can only tell us that there are certain phenomena best explained by an intelligent designer. Theology and philosophy tell us that this designer is likely to be God. To ignore this distinction is to fail to deal with ID on its own terms.

    From the standpoint of "orthodox" science ID is clearly bad science. In the terms formulated by Imre Lakatos, it is a "degenerative" rather than a "progressive" research program. That is to say, it doesn't provide any new, productive insights into the world, but simply interprets the existing evidence in a defensive manner. At least that's how it seems to me, and clearly that's what most scientists think. But perhaps they're wrong. Perhaps Lakatos' criteria are inadequate (I'm more influenced by Kuhn, myself, though from the descriptions I've read it seems to me that Lakatos may provide some needed precision to Kuhn's thesis). Perhaps ID hasn't really had a chance to be productive yet because it's under such constant attack.

    Whatever its scientific credentials or lack thereof, the fact remains that ID is not theology. Or if it is theology, it is a very bad form of natural theology which makes God a kind of tinkerer rather than a true Creator.


    Saturday, July 23, 2016

    Is Game of Thrones more Christian than Lord of the Rings?

    In a recent Facebook discussion, Rebecca Bratten Weiss (of the excellent "Suspended in Her Jar" blog on Patheos) suggested that the treatment of violence in the "Song of Ice and Fire" books by George R. R. Martin is, in a sense, more truly Christian than Tolkien's treatment of the same subjects. In Tolkien a conquering, messianic emperor brings peace through righteous violence. In Martin, on the other hand, violence is portrayed in its full horror.

    Furthermore, in the fourth book, Feast of Crows, Martin presents characters (clerics in the dominant religion of Westeros, the "Faith of the Seven") who provide a moral critique, implicitly pacifist, of the war that has torn the country apart and the ethos of honor and glory that has fueled it. As one of these characters, Septon Meribald, wanders with Brienne of Tarth across the devastated landscape of Westeros, he speaks of the horror of war and the way it eventually "breaks" those caught up in it. "In times like these," he concludes, "the traveler must beware of broken men, and fear them. . . . but he should pity them as well." (Another character, the "Elder Brother" of a monastic community on the "Quiet Isle," has similar things to say.) That Brienne, of all the knights and warriors in the books, is the one to hear these denunciations of war is significant. She's one of the purest-hearted characters in the series--someone who actually takes the code of chivalry seriously, not least because, as a woman, she's not supposed to participate in knighthood at all.

    I agree with Rebecca that Martin provides a powerful critique of war in the Song of Ice and Fire and an ethos of compassion toward its victims, and that the books are far from nihilistic or amoral. However, I disagree with her suggestion that the books are more in line with an appropriate Christian ethic than Lord of the Rings, no doubt in part because of our disagreements about what that ethic is.

    Rebecca is a pacifist. She believes that war is never justified, and thus that a Christian approach to war needs to be one of total rejection. In particular, she has expressed concerns (in this post, for instance) about "play-acting militarism" that "obscures the reality of war." When we read Tolkien, or Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, we imagine ourselves as heroes fighting nobly against terrible odds. This could make us more likely to approve of real wars, because we see them through the mythical haze provided by these heroic fantasy narratives. LOTR culminates in the coronation of a heroic warrior king who brings peace and justice to the world. It could quite conceivably lead us to expect such a messianic hero in our own place and time.

    And these concerns have plenty of warrant. Right after 9/11, I remember reading an article that used LOTR as a template for the geopolitical situation, comparing the French, if I remember rightly, to Saruman. More than once I've heard neo-conservative supporters of an aggressive foreign policy use (or, in my opinion, misuse) Faramir's wonderful speech about "not loving the bright sword for its sharpness, etc.. . . but the things that these defend" as a justification for their position. The fact that Peter Jackson's first LOTR adaptation premiered a few months after 9/11 made this sort of interpretation of Tolkien's work all the more appealing, not least because the movies emphasized the warlike elements in the books and played down the ironic complexity of Tolkien's vision.

    In spite of this, I don't agree that Martin's books are to be preferred (as a whole) to Tolkien's as a guide for Christians in questions of war and peace. This is partly because I'm not quite a pacifist--I believe that just wars are in principle possible, although very rare, a position some people call "practical pacifism." And one of the reasons I take this position is indeed because of my love of Tolkien and Lewis. They have provided me with an idealistic picture of what just war might look like. But I don't find that this makes me particularly likely to justify real wars in the real world. On the contrary, precisely because I have an ideal picture of what just war would have to look like, I have a moral standard by which I can judge the wars that take place in the world around me and find them morally lacking.

    In my experience, this position actually infuriates pro-war people more than pacifism does. In a debate I engaged in on Patheos a couple of years ago with David French and Keith Pavlischek, for instance, Pavlischek snapped that I wasn't a "practical pacifist"--I was just an outright pacifist. It's important for many defenders of war to put all their opponents in a bag called "pacifist" and then declare them all irrelevant to questions of whether it's right to wage a particular war. People who say that in principle a war might be justified, but are almost impossible to persuade of the justice of any particular war, mess up that strategy badly.

    One of Pavlischek's major arguments against pacifism, drawn from Elizabeth Anscombe, is that it makes all violence equally bad. (See his essay critiquing Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian realism, which argues that Niebuhr and the pacifists share the same basic mistake about the immorality of all war.) In Anscombe argues that pacifism leads to the "loss of the conception of murder." If what is bad is violence or killing of any kind, then people lose the ability to understand why killing the innocent is always wrong. People come to think of pacifism as the "absolute ideal," while assuming that if one is not a pacifist there's no use bringing moral considerations into the business of warfare at all.

    I don't think that this is a fair criticism of Christian pacifism. But I do think it's a very fair criticism of the kind of "pacifism" found in the Song of Ice and Fire, and indeed of any pacifism that is primarily founded on the horror of war rather than on the love of one's enemies and the message of the Cross.

    For one thing, I'm not convinced that the Song of Ice and Fire is pacifist. Of course there are problems with even asking whether a series of books is or is not pacifist. But I don't find that reading the books makes me more inclined to pacifism. It's hard to see how pacifism would be an appropriate response to Ramsay Bolton or Gregor Clegane or Vargo Hoat, and I see nothing in the books indicating that Martin thinks it would be. Rather, my visceral response to them is "do whatever you have to do to take these monsters down."

    Martin's dark vision of the horror of war certainly implies that we should not wage war unless we have to. But it also implies, I think, that if we are forced to fight we should do whatever we need to do in order to win. Martin's books embody precisely the polarity of realism and pacifism that Anscombe and Pavlischek criticize. Because any possible vision of just and honorable warfare is deconstructed so ruthlessly, we are left with two options: a pacifist withdrawal from the "game of thrones" altogether, which is compassionate and admirable but cannot in itself bring justice and order, or a grim determination to do what must be done even if it violates traditional codes of honor and chivalry. This is not nihilism, but it is, I think, relativism and consequentialism. (Here's one concrete example--Jaime's monstrous threat to murder Edmure's child appears, within Martin's narrative world, to be the moral choice, because it results in a bloodless resolution to the siege of Riverrun.)

    So which fantasy narrative, Tolkien's or Martin's, would be more likely to give us pause when considering the use of violence in the contemporary world? If my ethical responses were shaped primarily by Martin's view of the world, I would look at ISIS and say, "we must do whatever we need to do to take out these monsters." I would be less likely to worry about the traditional rules of just war, as long as the ultimate goal was to bring peace to the Middle East.

    I oppose bombing campaigns and other morally questionable responses to evil precisely because I am formed primarily by Tolkien, not by Martin. I start with an ideal of what a righteous response to evil looks like, not with the horror of the evil I wish to oppose. And I think that's by far the healthier place to start.

    I've been quoting G. K. Chesterton a lot lately, because so often he seems to have diagnosed the maladies of our culture a hundred years in advance. In his book Heretics, in the chapter "On the Negative Spirit," Chesterton mentions early 20th-century writers such as Ibsen, Maupassant, and Zola, who were controversial for their (by 19th-century standards) often explicit subject matter. Chesterton dismisses this charge and says that the real problem with these authors is that they have a very clear vision of evil but a misty vision of the good. I don't think that applies to Martin exactly--compassion and empathy come across very clearly in his works as unequivocal goods. But I think it's true of Martin as of the more conventionally "high-brow" figures of modern literature that his moral vision is expressed largely in negative terms.

    Chesterton cites an author named G. W. Foote (not someone I've heard of elsewhere) to the effect that pictures of a drunkard's liver would do more to discourage drunkenness "than any prayer or praise," and he takes this as symbolic of the "negative spirit" he sees pervading modern ethics. "In that temple the lights are low, the crowds kneel, the solemn anthems are uplifted. But that upon the altar to which all men kneel is no longer the perfect flesh, the body and substance of the perfect man; it is still flesh, but it is diseased. It is the drunkard's liver of the New Testament that is marred for us, which which we take in remembrance of him." Earlier in the same essay, Chesterton remarks, "A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome."

    Martin's books are perhaps the best fantasy literature since Tolkien. In spite of some exploitative elements, their dark vision is, on the whole, a deeply moral one. They're well worth reading (for adults with strong stomachs), and I agree that they offer a needed counterpoint to Tolkien's more idealistic vision. In particular, they can help correct the ways many people misuse Tolkien as a sanction for nationalism and militarism. But in the end, if I have to choose, I'm still going to go with Tolkien as my primary fantasy author. Martin, for all his merits, has too much drunkard's liver and not enough Virgin Mary.