Recognizing Political Idolatry

If the human heart is a veritable factory of idols, as Calvin said, then it might be fair to say that theologians see themselves as the factory inspectors, called upon to discern and denounce idolatries wherever they may be found.  Sometimes, however, we are too content merely to take a superficial look at the packaging well after the product has entered widespread circulation, instead of venturing into the factory to see what’s really going on.  Or, to drop the belabored metaphor, sometimes we are overly tempted to identify an idol merely by certain external characteristics rather than by whether it actually rules our hearts as such.  This is a particular temptation in political theology, where critics on both left and right are eager to identify Christian idolatries of the state.  

The right will tell us that we can recognise idolatry by asking whether the state claims to provide goods which only God can provide.  The modern state, we are told, is an overgrown Leviathan, one that presents itself as the saviour from all evils, the solution to all ills, as our modern Messiah.  Whenever someone suggests then that the solution for an economic crisis lies in state intervention, or that state action might remedy economic injustice, or perhaps that the state should be involved in ensuring universal access to healthcare, up goes the cry, “Idolatry!”  God has fixed particular, extremely narrow boundaries to the legitimate intrusion of political authority, we are told, and to ask anything else from the government is to substitute it for God himself.   

Critics on the radical left have their own version of this rhetorical move, one on display frequently in the writings of William Cavanaugh.  For instance, in Migrations of the Holy, Cavanaugh says, 

“The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values, so that it demands sacrifice on its behalf. . . . In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war.  The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the church, meant to save us from division.”  

This particular statement of Cavanaugh’s concern is in fact fairly rhetorically restrained , but the suggestion here, voiced more vigorously elsewhere, is that we may readily discern the idolatry of the state in its call for people to lay down their lives for it, or, even more so, in its call for people to kill others for its sake.  In The Myth of Religious Violence, he thinks it quite significant to point out that very few modern Christians would be willing to kill for the sake of their church, but most would be quite willing to kill for the sake of their country.  Since human life is a good of infinite value, any entity which claims the right to take human life or require its sacrifice is demanding what only God can demand, and is thus idolatrous.


The most striking problem with both of these arguments (in their more simplistic forms, at any rate) is that, if they are true, then not merely we moderns, but the majority of the Christian tradition, can be indicted of idolatry.  Most Christian ethicists through the ages have felt quite able to justify, on clear theological and ethical grounds, both the taking of life by the state and the sacrifice of life in its defence.  They have also felt quite able, on clear theological and ethical grounds, to call for the Christian magistrate’s involvement in any number of areas of concern—not only military and judicial, but economic, social, and religious—as part of his protection of the common good and vindication of justice.  

No doubt, there are a great many ways in which modern politics might be indicted for idolatry, and to be sure, both of the arguments I have just summarized can be and have been offered in more sophisticated and compelling forms.  But if we wish to aptly identify the pathologies of modernity, we must go beyond facile claims that certain political actions in and of themselves necessarily constitute forms of idolatry, and must rather ask whether the fundamentally provisional character of these political actions is being maintained, or whether we have passed over into investing them with a significance and finality which no human action can bear (though certainly, part of this will involve attending to the kinds of actions that are being taken and called for).  On this point, O’Donovan’s remarks in chapter 3 of Resurrection and Moral Order are worth reflecting carefully upon:

“The opposition in Western theology between the City of God and the earthly city has enabled political thought to avoid theocratic conceptions of government, which, by claiming to express the rule of heaven on earth, must unify the earthly and the heavenly into a single totalitarian political claim.  Western theology starts from the assertion that the kingdoms of this world are not the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, not, at any rate, until God intervenes to make them so at the end.  If we ask why not, the answer must surely be that their judgments cannot reconcile the world; thus they can neither be perfectly true nor perfectly merciful.  Their sovereignty can be only a relative sovereignty; and the believer, who knows himself subject to the absolute sovereignty of God’s reconciling judgment, keeps his spiritual ‘space’ in relation to them, just as they keep a certain ‘space’ of their own in relation to the judgments of God.  This does not mean (as it has sometimes come to mean in degenerate forms of the tradition) that the secular state can be independent of God and his claims, or that the pious individual can cultivate a private existence without regard for the claims of his society.  It means simply that earthly politics, because they do not have to reconcile the world, may get on with the provisional task of bearing witness to God’s justice.  And it means that the individual, because he is not absorbed by the claims of his earthly community, can contribute to its good order that knowledge of man’s good which he learns from his heavenly calling.”

Can Calvinists Love Their Enemies?

A few weeks ago, in a discussion on Facebook, it was suggested to me that we should have no qualms about killing our enemies if they are God’s enemies, that we cannot wish good upon them if God intends judgment on them.  A Calvinist, in short, cannot genuinely love his enemies if they are real bad guys.  I have encountered the same argument elsewhere, and certainly, it has some prima facie plausibility.  If we believe that God has already pronounced an irreversible verdict of judgment on the wicked, then who are we to second-guess that judgment?  Perhaps we are not normally called to be the agents of this judgment, to be Israelite holy warriors (though there is really no reason why the logic should not go in this direction), but if we find ourselves in a legitimate position to enact such judgment—in a courtroom, a situation of war, or a moment of self-defence—we should have no qualms about the death of the wicked, but rather, should rejoice at the opportunity to be co-workers with God, to be the means by which he has enacted his righteous sentence against the wicked.  

But doesn’t Jesus lament over Jerusalem?  Doesn’t Jesus pray for God to forgive his killers?  My interlocutor quoted Calvin to me on this point: “It is probable, however, that Christ did not pray for all indiscriminately, but only for the wretched multitude, who were carried away by inconsiderate zeal, and not by premeditated wickedness. For since the scribes and priests were persons in regard to whom no ground was left for hope, it would have been in vain for him to pray for them.”  Well, that cements it then, doesn’t it?  Calvin himself says that there’s no reason to pray for those who are damned anyway, and that even Jesus wouldn’t do so.  Is it possible then to be a Calvinist and to still take seriously the command to “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”?  


Well, thankfully, Richard Hooker at least thought so (and I’m told that Calvin himself elsewhere speaks more wisely).  The Puritans, determined most of the time to be more Calvinist than Calvin himself, had cried foul at the prayer in the Book of Common Prayer that asks that all men may find mercy, and be saved.  They argue, he says, “that all men’s salvation and many men’s eternal condemnation or death are things the one repugnant to the other, that both cannot be brought to pass; that we know there are vessels of wrath to whom God will never extend mercy, and therefore that wittingly we ask an impossible thing to be had.” (LEP V.49.1) 

Against this Hooker points out that of course, while we know that there are vessels of wrath, we never know who they are:

“Howbeit concerning the state of all men with whom we live (for only of them our prayers are meant) we may till the world’s end, for the present, always presume, that as far as in us there is power to discern what others are, and as far as any duty of ours dependeth upon the notice of their condition in respect of God, the safest axioms for charity to rest itself upon are these: ‘He which believeth already is’ and ‘he which believeth not as yet may be the child of God’ . . . And therefore Charity which ‘hopeth all things’, prayeth also for all men.” (V.49.2)

Hooker goes on to offer further arguments on this point.  For one, it is the mark of charity to desire what is good, and to desire it to the largest possible extent.  Since the salvation of men is a thing good in itself, charity will desire to see this good extended to all men.  Jeremiah, he points out, is not condemned for pleading for mercy toward his countrymen, even when God resolutely denies the plea.  

But how can that be according to God’s will which is contrary to it?  “Our answer is that such suits God accepteth in that they are conformable unto his general inclination which is that all men might be saved, yet always he granteth them not, forasmuch as there is in God sometimes a more private occasioned will which determineth the contrary.”  The former, he says, is to be the rule for our own actions, the latter not so.  Thus it happens that for our wills to be conformed to the will of God does not mean “willing always the selfsame thing that God intendeth.  For it may chance that his purpose is sometime the speedy death of them whose long continuance in life if we should not wish we were unnatural.” (V.49.4)

In conclusion,

“When the object or matter therefore of our desires is (as in this case) a thing both good of itself and not forbidden of God; when the end for which we desire it is virtuous and apparently most holy; when the root from which our affection towards it proceedeth is Charity, Piety that which we do in declaring our desire by prayer . . . surely to that will of God which ought to be and is the known rule of all our actions, we do not herein oppose ourselves, although his secret determination haply be against us, which if we did understand as we do not, yet to rest contented with that which God will have done is as much as he requireth at the hands of men.” (V.49.5)  


Hooker’s admirable spirit in this passage may be illuminated by reference to his words in a similar context—whether we should hope that God could show justifying mercy upon papists, even the Pope himself: 

“Is it a dangerous thing to imagine that such men may find mercy? The hour may come when we shall think it a blessed thing to hear that if our sins were as the sins of the pope and cardinals the bowels of the mercy of God are larger. . . . Surely, I must confess unto you, if it be an error to think that God may be merciful to save men even when they err, my greatest comfort is my error: were it not for the love I bear unto this error, I would neither wish to speak nor to live.” (From The Learned Sermon on Justification)

Leithart Comes out Swinging for Natural Law

In an invigorating new post at First Things On the Square, Peter Leithart argues, as one might expect him to, for the importance of Christians being willing to say “Jesus is Lord” and use the Bible in the public square, against any theories of secular natural law that imply the possibility of common, atheological norms for political life.  

But, in what is at the very least a significant shift from his usual emphasis, Leithart grants the basic validity and importance of natural law as a key pillar of theological ethics and Christian public life: 

Natural law theory has many uses. Using its categories, we explore the contours of creation to uncover the pathways the Creator has laid out for us. Natural law reasoning can demonstrate the “fit” between creation and revelation. The fact that women, not men, bear babies is ethically significant, as is the fact that human beings talk but animals don’t. Natural law is rhetorically useful for advancing arguments and purposes that would be rejected out of hand if stated in overtly religious terms.”

The problem comes only when we pretend that we could give meaningful content and force to this natural law without any recourse to revelation, or that we can wave the banner of natural law without waving the banner of King Jesus.  

Though the post is quite short and offers only the merest hints about what this relationship looks like for Christian theory and practice, perhaps it is not too much to see here a good dose of Hooker, for whom “nature hath need of grace and grace hath use of nature.”

Why Academics Need Lent

I could make apologies for simply re-posting, verbatim, my Lenten meditation from last year.  However, the liturgy doesn’t make apologies for repeating itself, verbatim, every Ash Wednesday, does it?  (Oh great—I just compared my blog to the Book of Common Prayer.  So much for Lenten humility.)  And these thoughts are as relevant as ever to my experience of studying theology in constant dependence on God’s grace.  Each week, it seems, I am more aware of how little my studying, writing and theologizing is something I do, and how much it is something I receive—as I study, I feel less and less like an adventurer forging my way through the thickets and more and more like a child following a winding little paper trail that my parents have left behind, luring me toward the prize.  Lent serves as an annual reminder of this dependence, and of the far more mundane dependence of the mind on the body and its earthy rhythms.  So enough of the prologue.  Here’s the repost:

Many evangelical and Reformed folks today are wont to turn up their noses at the practice of Lenten fasting.  There seems to be something unhealthily ascetic about it, with the notion that somehow we draw nearer to God by mortifying our flesh and thereby becoming more spiritual.  There seems to be a trace of Gnosticism, a sense that the body is a bad thing and we must beat it down, cast off its desires and its needs, to be truly spiritual.  And there is also a sense that this practice must lead to pride, to the notion that because one has overcome one’s bodily desires to become more spiritual, one may take pride in this superior spirituality and self-discipline.  

And so there has been a tendency to try to re-cast Lenten fasting–we are exhorted to choose something that we are too attached to, and to “give it up” for Lent so that we can become more cognizant of our warped desires, our idolatries of worldly things, and be more single-minded in our devotion to God.  If you care too much about chocolate, give up chocolate for Lent, acknowledging that God is more important than chocolate, etc.  Or it needn’t even be food.  Perhaps you watch too many movies–why don’t you give that up, so as to put God back at the center?  We’re afraid that Lent not be construed as an unhealthy mortification of the body, so we recast it as an opportunity to refocus our desires and devotions on God alone.  

There’s certainly nothing wrong with such a refocusing, and indeed that ought to be part of a healthy Lenten practice, but it seems that something crucial is left out in this approach.  And this, I think, is because the standard discomforts about Lent–it leads to Gnosticism and pride–have got it precisely backward.  Rightly understood, Lent is about purging us of spiritual pride by reminding us of our bodily condition, of snatching us away from lofty heavenly speculations and putting us firmly back in our tabernacles of skin, bones, and appetites.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” the priest tells us as he administers the ashes.  Remember that you live in the body.  And being in the body means being a dependent being, a being that depends upon God’s animate and inanimate creation, in its manifold forms, to continue living, functioning, thinking.  (My friend Byron has highlighted this nicely in a Lenten reflection he’s just posted.)  How does Lenten fasting do this?  Well, it’s really quite simple.

Usually, we don’t know how much we need something, until we don’t have it.  Indeed, we might start to imagine ourselves as self-sufficient, as “self-made men,” because we have become so accustomed to the prerequisites of our existence, that we forget that we’re even there.  If you’ve spent your whole life going to a fantastic church, you might start to imagine that your rich spirituality has something to do with your own excellence of soul, and only when you have to move away into a spiritual wasteland do you realize how dependent you were on the spirituality of others.  Likewise, as long as we have all the food and drink that we need, we forget that we even need it.  We forget that our ability to function, to do anything–to walk and run, to think and write clearly–depends first on the nourishment of our bodies by things outside us.  For academics like me, this temptation is all the more powerful.  The athlete is aware at all times of his bodily needs, but the academic can start to imagine that all he needs is his mind, and his mind is his own, his private domain, the accomplishments of which he can take full credit for.  He may eat three square meals a day so as not to feel a stomach-ache, but he doesn’t really need them to do what he does, right? 

Until he doesn’t have them.  Try skipping a couple meals, and then try to carry on an intellectual debate.  Try to write a paper.  How ’bout just reading a book with comprehension?  It doesn’t take long at all without food before mental function starts to get cloudy, until the conceptual leaps one might ordinarily make with effortless facility become slow and arduous tasks.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  We are not independent minds or spirits, communing with God and thinking deep thoughts all on our own.  We are embodied minds, minds that cannot so much as follow a syllogism without a regular supply of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.  This is easy enough to forget as long as you have that regular supply, but by taking that away, Lenten fasting provides us a rude awakening–it brings us face-to-face with our own frailty, our humanity, our dependence.  

Lenten fasting, then, does not try to liberate us from the body, but reminds us that we are chained to it.  It does not encourage spiritual pride–on the contrary, it mocks the very notion, by reminding us that we cannot take credit for any of our accomplishments–we’re hardly able to even think spiritual thoughts without the aid of dead plants and animals filling our stomachs multiple times a day.  Lent is not an ascetic exercise to take us away from earth on lofty flights into the third heaven; no, Lent brings us back down to earth, the earth of which we are inescapably a part.  Lent reminds us that we are creatures, dependent at all times on other creatures, and on God the creator of all.  

Coercion and the Nature of Authority

In his incredible chapter on “Authority” in Resurrection and Moral Order, O’Donovan offers this incisive summary of the relationship of coercion and moral authority as constituents of political authority, capturing much of what I sought to get at in my series on coercion a year and a half ago.  

“…political authority certainly owes something to two elements of natural authority, might and tradition (which are forms of strength and age respectively).  When law cannot be enforced, losing the authority conferred by might, it becomes a dead letter which people do not obey.  When law is changed too often and too drastically, losing the authority conferred by tradition, it forfeits public respect, so that people obey it cynically and without conviction.  From this some thinkers have thought it plausible to conclude that the authority of law derives exclusively from ‘power’, i.e. from an established structure of forceful domination.  But this is to overlook an important feature of the relation between authority and might.  Although it is true that the possession of might is an indispensable condition of political authority, so that one who cannot enforce cannot command, it is also the cause that an excessive dependence on might will destroy authority.  One who will only enforce, cannot command either.  Violent regimes lose authority, however much additional support they may claim from tradition.  For true political authority to flourish, there must be a stronger motive of obedience than is furnished by fear of sanction and habitual conformity.  People obey political authority because they think they ought.  It exercises a moral authority which can command a critically reflective obedience.” (127-28)