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The Church’s Influence on Society

Thus if our model of the apostolic life is monks living in a monastery off in the wilderness, we wouldn’t think think that even the highest degree of sanctity would necessarily put an end to violence and disorder in the world. The situation is, of course, very different if we think of the Christian life not in terms of minority communities, but as embracing everyone. But even this doesn’t mean that social order must accrue to sanctity; we have to remember that all parties during the Reformation, but especially the Protestants, held to a hyper-Augustinian position, according to which only a small minority were saved. The way in which Christian living could bring about order in society was thus not, in all consistency, that every member was a saint. That was the path of the separatist sects, firmly refused by both Luther and Calvin. Rather it would have to be that the Godly minority control things and keep them on the right track.

From Charles Taylor’s magisterial work, A Secular Age (p 105).

We can see the way Calvinist and Lutheran societies “kept things on the right track” in Luther’s Germany, Calvin’s Geneva and Puritan New England, among other places.  But is this model workable in our post-Christendom age? And if not, does that necessitate even the Reformed faiths falling back into the Anabaptist social posture that Taylor here has them “firmly refusing”?

A Triple Portraiture of Faith

Let us imagine three individuals.  All three grew up in the same conservative evangelical church with the same conservative evangelical views.  All three self-designated as Christians before leaving for university.

At university, the first found his views about the nature of the universe, science, the world and scripture challenged.  He began to wonder if the faith of his childhood was simply myths and superstitions.  He disliked this idea, and began to read as much Christian apologetic literature as he could find.  He became conversant with the arguments, and concluded that though theism in general and Christianity in particular could not be proved to a skeptic—It is, after all, with the heart one believes, he often said—it could not be disproved either.  It could stand up to scrutiny and one could continue believing without committing intellectual suicide.  He had moments of doubt—moments, indeed, of near crisis—late at night sometimes, but he held on to his faith, including his belief that even where he himself could not defend it or reconcile it, scripture was inerrant and the image painted of God was good, true and beautiful.

Our second individual also went to university and heard the same arguments.  His faith was troubled, and though he also became conversant with many of the standard Christian explanations, he found them insufficient.  In particular, the genocides ordered in the Old Testament seemed wholly out of keeping with the tenor of Jesus in the New Testament.  That one glaring contradiction gave credence to other, very specific contradictions that appeared in the books of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others. He didn’t even notice as his assessment of Jesus gradually shifted from positive to negative, coming alongside his low view of Yahweh.  He found Christopher Hitchens’ depiction of God as a “cosmic North Korea, constantly surveilling the world looking for sin” accurate and frightening.  He read Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus and was glad to have reasons to reject every aspect of the Bible.  Sometimes, late at night, he had doubts, fears that God was actually out there somewhere, perhaps just out of his peripheral vision, beckoning him from his childhood faith to return, but he always managed to think of these as pathological childhood hangups.  He successfully resisted faith.

Our third individual met the same challenges to his faith, and read the same Christian defenses as the first, and the same New Atheist attacks as the second.  He found the Christian apologetics useless, but the atheist attacks to be aimed at the wrong target.  There was an existential fit to Christianity that he found nurturing to his soul, and the New Atheists attempts to characterize Christianity “untrue” were pointless and as “evil and vile” might describe some forms of Christianity he has experienced, but they weren’t the Christianity he understood or embraced.  A literature major, he read Julian of Norwich’s Revelations and the novels of G. K. Chesterton and recognized in them the spirit of Christ he had felt in his childhood.  And while the Bible might be full of historical inaccuracies, and ANE myths, and contradictions, and cover-ups and plays for power—after all, history is written by the victorious, he recognized—it spoke to him what he recognized as God’s truth.  And he loved the the church and its sacraments and its symbolism; he didn’t believe in objective truth and didn’t know what that meant for anyone but him.  But he didn’t feel that he needed objective truth: he had Jesus. 

These are hypothetical, of course, but I know people of all these stripes, and I imagine you do too.  I think many of us have spent time in each of these postures, or at least in a couple of them.  My question is, which of these individuals is in and which is out?  The second gentleman, of course, believes all three are out: there’s nothing to be in. The third doesn’t have objective lines to argue along, but may well hope all three are in in their own way.  The first may well doubt that he is in, but he hopes that he is. How does he feel about the others?

Where are you?  How do you feel about the others?  What do you hope for?  

The Shortcomings of Obama/Obama’s America

I don’t imagine I’ll vote this year. I have voted before, and I’m not utterly opposed to it. As I tell my non-voting friends, just think of it as a form of non-violent social protest. Still, inasmuch as I’m convinced the church is a pilgrim people suffering in and trying to save a fallen Babylon culture, I’m convinced that determining who wields Babylon’s sword is a matter of some indifference to me.

I did go see Dinesh D’Souza’s hit job (I mean, documentary) about Obama and found it disappointing, not because it tried to paint a conspiracy-theory portrait of Obama as secretly hating America and planning to bring it down from within, which I think we’re all getting used to, but because it missed the opportunity to make a number of valid criticisms of Obama’s policies. Here we have a President who has redefined “enemy combatant” and “civilian” in such a way that we regularly, robotically kill suspected enemies without trial. Here is a President who ran on opposition to indefinite detention and within his first year established a framework to make such detentions legal. Here is a man who ran against Bush’s abuse of centralized power, and then shored up that power. These are pressing concerns – bordering on terrifying – and here is an opportunity to enlighten a public eager to believe… and nothing is said.

I suspect nothing is said because D’Souza and his constituency have a vested interested in exactly the moves Obama is making, so long as their party can take control of that shored-up power and use it to further their own view of America’s aims.  And what is left for the church to do?  It’s not enough to make sure one group of oligarchs rather than another wields that sword, though we may see some specific ends worth procuring in the process, and that’s not nothing.  Yet our central task remains witnessing to the reality of God’s reign, in which enemies are destroyed not through pin-point accurate unmanned drones, but through the love of God.  Our central task remains to open our homes and  tables, to pray for our leader and troops, and for theirs.  Our task remains to be the church in a fallen world, a world that can’t even recognize its fallenness.

The shortcomings of both Obama and “Obama’s America” are made up for in the church.

If Not Darwinian, then What?

Contemporary Christian creationists often deride Darwinian evolutionary theory and propose one of several current creationist models as a clear alternative.  Of course, these groups debate amongst themselves over exactly which literal reading of Genesis to prefer, including whether or not dinosaurs were present on the ark.  

But what many of these groups fail to recognize is that Darwin did not emerge into something like a contemporary creationist worldview to fire off his evolutionary broadside and leave evolution and “creation” as a dualistic scientific battlefield.  Christians prior to Darwin did not generally hold to what we would recognize as “creationism.”  Instead, they blended the theological insights of Genesis with the most reasonable natural philosophy of the time, whether it was drawn from Aristotle or Linnaeus.  Especially popular were models based around the “Great chain of being.”

But of especial interest is the understanding that was becoming current when Darwin was studying at university and travelling on HMS Beagle.  This was the height of the anti-slavery/pro-slavery debate in England and the Americas, and a scientific shift was underway to justify – often on biblical grounds – the separate status of Africans and other “inferior races.”  For these groups, Adam was seen as the beginning of the Jewish race in particular, and each race had its own lineage and progenitor.  From Desmond and Moore’s study, Darwin’s Sacred Cause,

Those who believed in the separate creation or emergence of each human race or species were ‘pluralists.’ For them the various human species were not blood-kin at all. Each species in its geographical home had a separate bloodline back to the beginning, which never connected to any other species. There was no common ancestor for all the races. Some American writers were already arguing that the origin of all the different races of men’ was the most intriguing subject of natural history. A few laughed Moses out of court and dismissed as flippant talk of climate turning one race into another. These pluralists had Aborigines first appearing…adapted to the sport where they are now found. So black and white had separate ancestries and differed more from each other than one species of dog did from another. With increasing agitation over American slavery, pluralism was a perfect legitimating philosophy. Books were already denying that the separate races or species were equal or ‘sprang from the same primitive root’. Slave and master were thus unrelated, which made the planters’ actions toward their ‘inferior’ captives easier to justify.

In this context, from principles deeply rooted in both scripture and (itself derived from scripture, through divorced from its historicism) Enlightenment humanism, Darwin strove to justify scientifically that all humans are of one blood. If Darwin had not succeeded, it is possible that some other researcher would have. He was not the first to suggest common descent, natural selection and random variation.  But there is no certainty that this view would have won out as fully as it has done.  

What is certain, though, is that the shape of Christian creationism would be far different, with different allies and opponents.  Which ought to suggest something about the relative merits of Christian creationism, being as it is a reactionary and not at all “default” or straightforward view of scripture.

What do you think?  What might the creationist perspective look like today if not for Darwinian thought?  Even if you reject some or all of Darwinian evolutionary theory, could it be seen as beneficial in a humanitarian light?  Even if you affirm some or all of Darwinian evolutionary theory, how can we prevent it from being mishandled in the name of a “social Darwinism”?  

Peace in the Luke’s Gospel

Peace is a central concern of Luke’s gospel, and is often linked with “glory.”  The well-known Christmas phrase has “Glory to God in the highest, meanwhile peace on earth to people of good will.”  Paul Minear has suggested a direct correlation between these two: “the more glory the more peace, and the more peace the more glory.”  

The most peace-dense section of Luke’s gospel is the central journey narrative, when Jesus sends out seventy (or perhaps 72) of his followers to preach and heal in his name.  He tells them, 

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a child of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say,  ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

Willard Swartley, commenting on this passage, observes that “a peace response becomes the criterion by which the people receive [either] the kingdom of God or condemnation.”  Moreover, Swartley argues that by reintroducing the peace theme at this central juncture (as Jesus begins the journey toward Jerusalem), Luke is highlighting that Jesus’ whole mission was one of preaching peace.

Thus the journey toward Jerusalem begins with the proclamation of peace.  As Jesus approaches Jerusalem in chapter 19, peace is again a theme, and again tied to glory in heaven.  The crowds sing “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”  The shout is like a chorus’s response to the angels’ proclamation in 2:14.  Earth answers heaven and accepts its king.  

Except that the religious leaders want to quash this acceptance, to silence the crowds.  To this Jesus responds that if they don’t shout it out, the stones will cry it.   Swartley summarizes the narrative flow at this point:

Jesus comes as king, ringing heaven’s bells of peace; a sea of followers has confessed it. But the outcry may also indicate an abortive dimension: the peace has not been welcomed by all on earth. Hence, in sharp contrast to the mood of the praising multitude, Jesus laments over Jerusalem and pronounces judgment: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (v. 42). The harsh words of judgment upon the city end with the sad explanatory comment: “because you did not recognize the  time of your visitation from God” (v. 44). (Emphasis added)

Being Perfect is Easy

One of the most theologically divisive passages in scripture is from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Interpretations of this passage run to every extreme, from claiming that moral perfection is something that Christians can live for an indefinite period (see John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) to claiming that Christians can’t be expected to do any good at all, and that this impossible standard is set up simply to drive us into desperation and, finally, into grace (see Martin Lloyd-Jones,Studies in the Sermon on the Mount).   

It’s very interesting seeing the casuistic gymnastics theologians will go through in order to fit this statement into their framework, but it’s particularly amusing when the meaning of the passage is so clear.  The most important word is not actually ‘perfect,’ it is ‘therefore.’  In interpreting the Bible (any literature, really) words like ‘therefore’ are incredibly significant, because they show the authors train of thought.  

So what do we see right before this passage?  

You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (src)

It’s so clear.

The perfect that Jesus demands of us is the perfection of God’s love.  To be perfect, total, undiscriminating in our love, as God is.  This isn’t moral perfectionism, and this isn’t something we have to build toward over years of gradual sanctification.  There is no reason to think we couldn’t begin doing it today.  We only have to realize that it is the way of Jesus, to make no difference between friend and enemy, neighbor or foreigner, reliable or untrustworthy, victim or persecutor.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  It’s easy.  You just do it.

The Importance of Perennial Debates

There are some debates that come up in a constant, self-feeding cycle, and I can’t stand them.  See: gun control, Calvinism-Arminianism, Sean Connery or Roger Moore.

But there are debates that by their nature Christians should be constantly revisiting.  They aren’t just examples of intractable gridlock, but signs that we are doing the business of taking scripture and its meaning for our lives seriously.

Theodicy – if God is good why is there evil and suffering – is one of these.  If we’re paying attention to the world as we should, we will wrestle with this until the end.  James Muilenberg wrote, “Every morning when you wake up, before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again.”

Another, I believe, is the issue of women in ministry.  I have written before why I believe the New Testament calls women to all roles within the church and equips women to both pastor to and teach all members of the church.  But I understand – of course I do – that this is not immediately obvious, and that a straightforward reading of many passages seems to obviously go against this belief.

Yet those who would hold to such a “straightforward” reading will be struck by a different dilemma.  For many of us have met women who are certainly Christians manifesting all the fruit of the Spirit, and who are absolutely certain that God has called them to ministry, and who seem to manifest the gifts of such a calling.  Now, such experiences don’t dictate what Christians believe over scripture, but they should and must drive us back to scripture to improve our understanding.

Hence these debates are – and ought to be – ongoing.

What do you think?  What other discussions in the Christian community are we committed to perpetuate?  Which discussions should be closed books?