How (Not) to Have a Foot in Both Kingdoms: Protestant Models for Christian Citizenship

The following is the full text of a presentation delivered at Wheaton College on September 23, 2016, for an event co-sponsored by The Davenant Trust and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. I am very grateful to Drs. Vincent Bacote and Bryan McGraw for their hospitality and engagement. The full video of the event, including their responses and the extended discussion time following, can be viewed here. Much of this presentation is taken from chapter 1 of my forthcoming book The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology (Eerdmans, May 2017).

 

Life Between Two Loyalties

From the moment that Christ enigmatically rebuffed Herod’s political theologians with the words “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his followers have had to grapple with the challenge of living under “different kings and different laws.” At various times and places, some have been so bold as to imagine they had removed the sting from Christ’s statement, whether by bringing God and Caesar into alliance, by restricting their kingdoms to different worlds, or by ensuring that Caesar would adopt pluralistic policies that would grant free rein to any religious conscience. Each such solution has in due course been exposed as an over-optimistic illusion, leaving Christians to grapple anew with the tensions of their dual citizenship. Whatever the failures of Reformation political thought, it must at least be credited with its refusal to blithely dismiss the problem; indeed, fewer questions, as I hope this study will show, were more central to early Protestant theology and churchmanship.

Let us begin, then, by tracing the legacy of Protestantism’s proclamation of freedom in relation to Western political order. Certainly, few deny that a central contribution of Protestantism, what Alister McGrath calls its “dangerous idea,” was an epistemological revolution: the insistence on the freedom of individual Christian consciences to determine Scripture’s meaning for themselves.[1] Luther’s famous words at Worms offer a memorable summary of this freedom:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.[2]

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Self-possession and the Folly of Idolatry

Luke Timothy Johnson’s book Sharing Possessions (Eerdmans, 2011) has one of the most searching and profound discussions of idolatry that I have ever come across.  I hope to be sharing more from this extraordinary book in the weeks to come, but for now, here’s one powerful and convicting passage that every Christian should read:

“Some questions like the following may help us get the point: What is it, really, that enables us to get up and face each day’s activity? What is it that we will make room for during the day, no matter how busy our schedule? By what measure do I look back over the day, or week, or year, and consider it a success or a failure? In the daily round, is the high point the end of work and the beginning of leisure? The first drink? Is that which I will fit into my schedule no matter what my three-mile jog? When I lie awake in my bed with a feeling of discontent, is it because I did not get done all the work I intended to do that day, or did not get some time to myself, or did not spend time with my children and wife, or looked foolish in a conference, or dread facing a job interview tomorrow? When I look at others of my own generation, as I suspect we all do, and think about ‘where I am’ in my life, what measurement do I use? Do I think of myself as a success or failure in relation to others, and on what basis—my health, my wealth, my work (process or product), my fame, my family, my power over others, my good looks? These are not complicated questions, but they are, for most of us, difficult ones, for they have a way, cumulatively, of locating our center. . . . For, if idolatry is a functional phenomenon, the real question comes when I ask, ‘Where is it that the meaning and power of my individual human life is sought? In what or where do I seek my sense of worth and identity? What is it, seen or unseen, which is the “bottom line” for me, the source of my hope? What is it without which life would not be worth living? What is it for which I move and act, without which I stumble and fall? What gets me depressed? What is it, in my actual life, that functions as my god?’

 

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Piketty Notes and Quotes, 5: Inequality Language Games

Here’s another post on Piketty that isn’t really about Piketty per se, but about the sorts of conversations one finds oneself in when talking about him.  Over the past week and a half, I have been struck by a curious tendency I have encountered in a number of Christians when the subject of inequality comes up.

“So are you saying inequality is a problem, inequality is bad?”

“Well, yeah, I do think that, at least beyond a certain point, it’s a problem.”

“So why is it bad?”

“Well, it tends to create all these negative consequences, you see: social unrest, unhealthy concentrations of political power, oppression, etc.”

“So the problem then isn’t inequality, but people being envious, or people being power-hungry and corrupt, or people being oppressive, right?”

“Well, yeah, but high inequality tends to create those problems.  What’s your point?”

“Ah, but see you’re admitting now that inequality is not bad in itself.  It’s people who are bad, and these sins are just as much sins whether or not I have the same as you or a million times as much as you.”

“Um . . . ok.  But my point is that inequality is still a problem for our society.”

“But you’ve just admitted that inequality in itself isn’t the problem.”

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The Safest Road to Hell

One of the most chilling passages in the whole of Lewis’s Screwtape Letters:

“All humans at nearly all times have some such reluctance [to think about the Enemy]; but when thinking of Him involves facing and intensifying a whole vague cloud of half-conscious guilt, this reluctance is increased tenfold.  They hate every idea that suggests Him, just as men in financial embarrassment hate the very sight of a pass-book.  In this state your patient will not omit, but he will increasingly dislike, his religious duties.  He will think about them as little as he feels he decently can beforehand, and forget them as soon as possible when they are over.  A few weeks ago you had to tempt him to unreality and inattention in his prayers: but now you will find him opening his arms to you and almost begging you to distract his purpose and benumb his heart.  He will want his prayers to be unreal, for he will dread nothing so much as effective contact with the Enemy.  His aim will be to let sleeping worms lie.

As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations.  As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wondering attention.  You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do.  You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him.  You can make him do nothing at all for long periods.  You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.*  All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, ‘I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither  what I ought nor what I liked.’  The Christians describe the Enemy as one ‘without whom Nothing is strong.’  And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness.  But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy.  It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.  Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.  Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

 

* It is worth reflecting for a sobering moment or two just how much the internet now lends itself to such aimless, joyless distractions, how many times each one of us has found ourselves staring at a screen perusing things by “those we care nothing about on subjects that bore us,” and how much such grey reveries sap our spiritual life and love for neighbors.


The Search for Authority and the Fear of Difference

A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a guy who, after years of devoted membership (and various forms of leadership) in Reformed churches, had decided to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Not so much because of any deep-seated disillusionment with Reformed theology, or an intellectual decision that Orthodox doctrine on disputed points was more compelling, nor because of the frequently-cited “aesthetic appeal” of its liturgy, icons, etc.; to be sure, that was a factor, but could hardly be the decisive one for someone deeply-rooted in the Reformed faith.  Rather, it was because “he needed someone to submit to”; he was tired of the burden of always making up his own mind about everything, of the Protestant “heretical imperative” (to use Peter Berger’s term) that drove everyone to define themselves over against everyone else, and to elevate private judgment above all else.  Time to put an end to such individualistic arrogance, he reasoned, and submit my judgment to something higher, older, and more authoritative—rather than “let go and let God…” it was a matter of “let go and let the bishop…”  At least, such was the story. Read More