The Way of Sharing: A Critical Assessment of Dismissing Jesus, Pt. 6

Jones’s fifth chapter, “The Way of Sharing,” calls Christians to a life of bounteous, exuberant generosity, but one which goes beyond the pale, stingy virtue that we tend to think of as “generosity” or “charity.”  Too many of us complacently accumulate vast possessions and then give out of our excess, secretly congratulating ourselves on giving up something that we are entitled to, and making sure (subtly, to be sure) that the recipient knows we have made a sacrifice.  It is not hard to see that this is not a Biblical model of generosity.  Instead, we are called to transcend the opposition between “mine” and “yours,” to be people of whom it might be said, “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own” (Acts 4:32)  Rather than saying, “This is all mine, but I will deign to give some to you,” we should learn to say, “This is yours, for you have need of it.”  That much, I would agree with Jones, seems clear from the Biblical testimony; and yet this is a subject sorely fraught with confusions and tensions.  Immediately, in our post-Cold War world, our thoughts go to that perennial bogeyman, “Communism,” and its shadowy sidekick, “Socialism.”  Does “sharing” mean giving up private property altogether, and holding all things in common? we worry.  And what, after all, is it that we’re being condemned for—is it sheer abundance of material things, wealth as such?  Or is it some people having more than other people—is inequality as such a problem?  Or is it just some people having too much while others suffer in need—inequality in the face of indigence?  Usually people mean the last of these three, but sound like (or are heard as if) they mean the first or the second. Read More

The Purpose of Discussion

Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World and Time, pp. 45-47:

Discussion is a shared struggle to reach truth and overcome error.  It may often unfold in an eristic form, as an exchange of arguments and rebuttals.  (We see this especially in the phenomenon of the combative personality, the individual who has difficulty thinking through anything at all without picking a quarrel, thrusting discussion-partners into the role of opponents.)  The eristic form has its own right.  Differences at the outset provide the stimulus for thought to progress dialectically.  As we know from politics, the discussion cannot get off the ground if either party denies the other the right to its independent starting point; when the condition for entering discussion is that a key point is surrendered in advance, no discussion can occur.  Paradoxically, then, discussion depends at once on conflicting assertions and on mutual concessions.  But what is asserted and what is conceded are not the same.  We may enter a discussion in perfect confidence that we are in the right against our opponent.  We may be sure that once we have explained ourselves fully, no shred of an answer can be made.  Yet we may still sense the need to prove our impregnability in a clash of steel, to gain real knowledge of what the opponent actually says when confronted with our case and to discern, if we can, what alternative reasoning can be brought to bear against our own.  Even the most confident discussant can expect to learn something from the exercise.

Let us suppose that I disapprove strongly of the death penalty, and take up the cudgels against someone who defends it.  As our discussion proceeds, certain things will become clear.  One is that there are various reasons for disapproving of the death penalty, some of which may plausibly claim a perennial moral truth, while others are more circumstantial.  If my opponent forces me to think hard, I shall understand better what social and historical conditions have made the death penalty appear reasonable to past generations, and I shall have to ask whether those conditions could ever recur.  I shall come to see that my view of the matter is part and parcel of a wider philosophy of penal justice and governmental responsibility, and I shall be forced to elucidate that philosophy more fully and to test its capacity to shed illumination on other questions, too.  None of this could I have gained from talking to those who agreed with me.  What it amounts to is that if at the end of the day I still say, ‘I disapprove of the death penalty!’ I know much better than before what I mean by it.

. . . Individual moral thinking is social not only in its beginnings but in its ends.  Our most secret deliberations, our most independent conclusions, are directed towards a community of understanding.  We think as though trying to win the approval of a judicious audience hidden in the darkness of the stalls, ready to applaud our point of view when the lights go up.  It is not simply that without a community of inquiry our thought cannot begin.  If we cannot envisage a community of agreement our thought cannot have any end in view, either.

When parties to a discussion punctuate it with decisive stands expressed in the first-person singular (‘I passionately oppose . . . !’) that is neither the beginning nor the end of moral thought.  It is a moment in-between, a moment at which the common inquiry has broken down and the common agreement at which thought is aimed has disappeared from view.  The affirmation of the ‘I’-position is a strategy for regrouping and relaunching the discussion, as when a standard is thrust into the ground and the scattered soldiers gather to it.  Rhetorical inebriation may make the standard-bearer forget that he is part of an army, but that is the logic of it.  In the moment of affirmation the ‘I’ takes responsibility for the whole, making a decision on what must be held in common by all.  And so together with the right of a distinctive point of approach must be granted also an anticipation of persuasion.  Serious discussion is entered expectantly, with a view to finding a common perspective which makes sense of an object of hope, still to be looked for; yet it is something to be discovered, not devised.  It is not a negotiated add-on to the prior private convictions of the discussants; it is the realization of those convictions, which, though they may have been held privately, were intended socially.

Faith Working by Love: A Critical Assessment of Dismissing Jesus, Pt. 5

PrintAfter spending two chapters, “The Way of Weakness” and “The Way of Renunciation” tearing down our idols of power, prestige, and possessions, Doug Jones turns in the next two chapters of Dismissing Jesus—“The Way of Deliverance” (ch. 4) and “The Way of Sharing” (ch. 5)—to provide their positive complement, attempting to give some sense of our mission as Christians.  This mission is a glorious one, in which we, like Christ, “preach the good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind,” and in which we do this in real-world here-and-now terms, rather than spiritualizing all this into mere soul-winning.  It is a mission in which we are called to call none of our possessions our own, but to share sacrificially with all those in need.  Although I will press for greater clarity and specificity at certain points, I would agree that this is a central part of what it means to live as a Christian. But the important question is why? How should we understand what it is we are doing when we do this and why we are doing it?  I’m worried that the way Jones answers these questions will actually undermine the practical vision in profound ways.

Let me put this provocatively: I’m not at all sure that the themes of these chapters ought to be described under the heading of “the way of the cross.”  The cross is central to Scripture, yes, but it’s not all there is. It’s not even all there is to Christ’s work.  The cross is God’s “No” to sin, it signifies all of the brokenness and pain that sin involves and the great cost necessary to cast away that sin and bring healing and restoration; the cross is God’s wrenching rejection of everything that has distorted his good creation.  When we take up our cross and follow Christ, this is our sharing in this dying to sin, this is our painful renunciation of everything that stands between us and how we were meant to live.  While no Christian ethic, designed for sinful human beings, can afford to neglect this central moment in redemptive history, without which lives of Christian discipleship would be impossible, it should be clear at the same time that this moment cannot be in itself the ground of a Christian ethic.  To live as a Christian ultimately means to live as a true human, to live as God created us to live, following in the footsteps of our Head, the Second Adam.  Read More

Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 4—The Way of Renunciation

Print In chapter three, “The Way of Renunciation,” Jones introduces us to the heart of the opposition he aims to unpack in Dismissing Jesus: God vs. Mammon.  “Renunciation” here is about renouncing the “whole social system” that is Mammon: “the spirit of unsacrificial wealth, self-interest, and greed, a longing for greatness and prestige, a grasping for power, the power of domination and violence” (36). 

Renunciation is a complete act of repentance, a turning away from the ways of the flesh and the world and a turning toward the way of the cross.  In many ways, then, this chapter offers something of a meta-statement of many of the chapters that follow.  It remains fairly general, but, as far as it goes, is mostly quite helpful.  Readers may particularly profit from Jones’s extended exposition of the meaning of the three temptations of Christ,  in which he shows how Christ’s rejection of Satan’s three temptations encapsulates his rejection of all that the world holds dear: material possessions, public spectacle and prestige, and power.

Jones clearly thinks that he shines new light on these vices of greed and pride by treating all their manifestations as part of a larger overarching whole, which he names Mammon. But I’m not so sure that this new nomenclature really helps us, on the whole.  To be sure, it sheds light on how many vices that we often imagine to be separate are in fact deeply interconnected, and grow out of one another.  On the other hand, it substitutes vagueness for precision.  Moral theology has made a considerable investment over the millennia in classifying vices, and by collapsing them all into one indiscriminate heap, I worry, Jones makes it more difficult to offer concrete diagnoses of particularly evils or concrete prescriptions for resisting them.  Of course, as I have said, later chapters fill in some of the details of the big picture given here, so this worry may be exaggerated.  Still, I think it’s important to resist, at the level of terminology, a flattening out of the moral life that causes us to forget the radical pluriformity of the sins and
temptations we face. Read More

Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 3—The Way of Weakness



Finally, after a great deal of introduction in the previous two posts (here and here), we will begin to dig into the main body of the book, covering, in this review, chapter two, “The Way of Weakness” and in the next installment, chapter three, “The Way of Renunciation” (don’t worry, that installment will be a lot shorter than this one). In both of these, Jones has some hard words for contemporary American churches, hard words that recall us to crucial Biblical themes that we like to ignore.  My worry, though, comes with the question that must come next, after this realization: “How can I live my life differently so as to be a faithful disciple?”  I’m not sure we’re given enough in these chapters to start answering this question very clearly.  This is not because Jones fails to spell out all the specific concrete applications—indeed, to do so would prematurely stifle Christian liberty and in any case, be of little use because of the immense variety of circumstances in which Christians would be called upon to apply these principles.  Rather, my concern is that Jones does not give sufficient coherence to the concept of “weakness” and “renunciation” to enable earnest believers to determine with any confidence how to apply them.

For in these chapters, Jones challenges two of the great gods of our age, military power and wealth, both points on which conscientious Christians will find themselves challenged by myriad practical ethical questions: when and what is an appropriate use of force, if there exists such a thing?  How can I be a good steward of material wealth, or should I even think in those terms?  Of course, his points in these chapters are broader than that, and he has somewhat more focused discussions of each of these issues in chapters six and five, respectively, as well as returning to critique common Christian views of wealth in chapters 15 and 16 and “American Mars” in chapter 17.   Nonetheless, many of the fundamental ambiguities created in these two chapters will remain unresolved in those later discussions.  Read More