Judgment and the Crisis of Legitimacy (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 3)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as well as mention of plot elements from The Dark Knight Rises, though not major spoilers.

I ended the last segment by remarking on the fundamental ambiguity about Batman’s vocation in relation to Gotham—is he still a vigilante, a private avenger, or has he really become somehow a public agent of justice?  As we shall see, this reflects a deeper ambiguity about Gotham itself—is Gotham a community capable of enacting justice, a community which Batman may represent in some way?

It seems like Batman wants to have it both ways.  He desires to work with Gotham’s formal structures of justice, yet outside them; he wants to have a free hand to beat up criminals who need it, but he draws the line there—he will not, like Ducard, take it upon himself to kill them.  He remains masked and hidden, waging his fight against justice in the darkness, rather than in the light of public knowledge, where true judgment must be enacted.  He wants to hang up the mask and cape,* but is repeatedly forced to take them up again.   Read More

Are Christians Anti-Science?

Fewer slurs against Christianity are more common today than the accusation that Christians are anti-science.  You know the portrayal—Christians as Bible-thumping fundamentalists, so sure of themselves they don’t give a darn what science says; Matthew Brady in Inherit the Wind.  A few, perhaps are happy to accept the stereotype, while others regret it, but see this as the price they have to pay in order to be faithful to Scripture on issues of creation and evolution.  Others more cockily insist they care deeply about science, but it’s just mainstream science that isn’t to be trusted, and they trumpet their own idiosyncratic scientific theories instead.  Outside of evangelicalism, and increasingly within, many have nervously shifted out of the firing line, doing their best to renounce all that is scientifically unrespectable in traditional Christian teaching.  On the wisdom of this latter strategy I do not intend to comment here (clearly, I have described it in rather unflattering terms, but on many issues, such accommodation may involve no trace of unfaithfulness).

On reading Merchants of Doubt, though, I was troubled by just how much truth there might be to the stereotype, and I have begun to wonder how true is the claim of American Christians that “We’re not anti-science in general; we just cannot accept mainstream science on Darwinian evolution.”  For when it comes to environmental skepticism, there seems little question that evangelical Christians have been in the front ranks.  To be sure, I speak somewhat impressionistically and anecdotally, but as I look back, it seems to me that not only was skepticism (or downright hostility) toward climate change issues the norm in my evangelical background, but also skepticism regarding the litany of other issues surveyed in Merchants of Doubt—the ozone hole, acid rain, the dangers of secondhand smoke, the dangers of pesticides, etc.  Certainly, “red states” that are strongholds of the religious right also tend to be the places where one would encounter the greatest opposition to mainstream science on such issues.  Much of this may be correlation without causation, and indeed, no doubt the chief source of evangelical skepticism toward environmental science is the same as it was for Fred Seitz and Fred Singer—allegiance to free market ideology, which is threatened by environmentalism.  

But still it seems so incongruous that Christians would so instinctively rally to the side of Big Tobacco or Monsanto that I couldn’t help but ask whether or not there might be a deeper cause.  Two might be identified.  First, I suspect that being a conservative Christian in today’s world cannot help but encourage a certain contrarian tendency, a tendency to “root for the underdog,” so to speak.  We are counter-cultural, we are despised and rejected among men, we insist on positions that are unpopular or anathema in respectable public opinion, etc.  And so we tend to have a predisposition to sympathize with others who hold minority or out-of-the-mainstream views.  If the majority is not to be trusted in matters of morals, then why should we think it is to be trusted in matters of ____ (fill in the blank—science, history, economics, aesthetics)?  Not only do we lend a favorable ear to such voices on the margins of respectable opinion, but we often go on to identify with them, and to extend some of the martyr complex that we may have developed to the resulting scorn we receive.  Within the Reformed world, I wonder if the passion for “Christian worldview thinking” doesn’t contribute to some of this—Christian claims, we are told, will shape how we think about every aspect of life and the world, so if our Christianity is counter-cultural, then why shouldn’t we expect ourselves to be counter-cultural on nearly every subject we take up?

Now, I should immediately add that I have a deep contrarian streak myself, and think there are often sound reasons for doubting the received orthodoxy on any number of issues.  But I have to be honest with myself and always ask how much of my reflexive skepticism might be due to this deeply engrained way of thinking. 

Second, I think we might have a particularly bad case of this contrarian pathology when it comes to science.  The culprit is not hard to find; perhaps the popular Inherit the Wind stereotype is not so far off.  To be committed to creationism (especially young-earth creationism) requires a determination to stubbornly contest almost everything that mainstream science—geology and biology in particular—most confidently affirms.  It may well be true that such contrarianism stems not from any particular anti-science animus, which is earnestly disclaimed by many, but it would be hard to imagine that it does not tend to generate a kind of instinctive skepticism.  After all, if mainstream science can have been so dead wrong on so many fundamental matters, as creationists must insist, then how are we to have much if any respect for it?  It is as if we were convinced that our history professor didn’t know whether Martin Luther or Constantine came first, or whether it was Hitler or Genghis Khan that ruled the Third Reich.  Would we really be disposed to trust him on other matters, however much we denied any particular bias against him?  Indeed, some creationists may feel that to be intellectually consistent, they have to denigrate the reliability of science across the board; if they place great faith in science on climate science, for instance, how can they consistently refuse to trust carbon dating?

 I write this not at all as an attack on creationism; but if creationists are going to hold their heads high and deny the charge that they are simply anti-science, then they’re going to have to find a way of resisting these tendencies; they’re going to have to show that they can take science seriously when it deserves to be taken seriously, and will not just join every contrarian chorus that comes along.  When they do refuse the conclusions of scientific orthodoxy, they’re going to have to be willing to articulate why with theological and scientific precision, without simply resorting to broad-brush attacks on science as a mere “naturalistic religion” or as the tool of some left-wing agenda.  My friend Bradley Belschner makes just this plea in his comment on my Merchants of Doubt post below (in another of our remarkably frequent intellectual deja vus, I was working on this post already before I saw his comment):

It’s important that we know what we’re doing when we oppose a “scientific consensus.” If we oppose global warming willy-nilly without even weighing up the scientific evidence carefully, then how will folks treat us when we start criticizing Evolution? Oh, there they go again—the idiot Christians who refuse to look at real science. . . . I would like for Christians have a reputation for rigorous science, which in my opinion would involve the realization that global warming is real and evolution isn’t.”


Even better are the words of Augustine, writing fully 1600 years ago in De Genesi ad litteram, and still incredibly relevant

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth. This knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think that our sacred writers held such opinions. Then, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well, and hear him maintaining foolish opinions of his own about what our books say, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on matters of fact which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

The Politics of Advent

In a recent post, I mused that the chief Christian contribution to a hypocritical and deceitful worldly politics might be the witness of truthfulness and transparency.  In a typically luminous column for First Things On the Square, Peter Leithart writes of the political message of Advent, the promise that in the second coming, the transparency which seems to elude all our social and political endeavors now will at last be a reality:

There is a city that fulfills Augustine’s dream of social life, but it’s not an earthly city, not the city of man. In the life to come, everything will become transparent to the Creator, and as a result, opacity will give way to complete transparency: “The thoughts of each of us will then also be manifest to all.” When God removes his veil, we will peer into the souls of others. When we are purged of sin, we will freely share the good within. Only in the city where we see God face-to-face will we have faces to face each other. 

By virtue of Christ’s first advent, though, we have a foretaste of this politics of truth in the Church, a politics that we are called to live out and witness the possibility of, however imperfectly:

Sins are not to be concealed but confessed, and Christians are commanded to meet open confession with open forgiveness. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples, a light shining out but also a light that, supplied by the oil of the Spirit, illuminates the corners and dark corridors within.  
Within the church are faint glimmers of a society that might meet with Augustine’s approval. Within the church we find the imperfectly realized possibility of a politics of two Advents.

Peter Takes Two Swords to My Two Cities

Well, at long last, it has appeared.  Deep in the foundries of his labyrinthine mind, Peter Escalante has been forging one post to beat them all, one post to find them, one post to bring them all and in Geneva bind them.  (Hey, if you look at the post, you’ll see that he brought Lord of the Rings into it first, so don’t blame me!) 

Ever since my post “Two Kingdoms or Two Cities?” questioning Wedgeworth’s “Apostolic Succession and Civic Freedom,” and the subsequent discussion that took place largely in the comments section of Wedgeworth’s post, Peter has been promising to smother my “neo-Anabaptism” under a heap of arguments that would make Calvin’s Institutes look like an issue of Reader’s Digest.  He has done so, at last, and you can amble over there yourself now to inspect the scene and determine whether a post-mortem is in order.  

EDIT: In case it wasn’t clear, this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and I consider Peter a personal friend.  No hostility whatsoever.

I consider it a great compliment (and I mean this in all sincerity) to be rebutted by someone as learned as Mr. Escalante, and, although perhaps not up to the British standard of deft, white-gloved refutations, he has been as gentlemanly as I could wish.  However, as I posted over there in an initial reaction comment, his whole undertaking seems to have been somewhat misdirected, in that he constructed his post as a refutation of my manifesto.  But of course, “Two Kingdoms or Two Cities” was not a manifesto, but was intended at least as some summary questions and objections to Wedgeworth’s manifesto.  The goal was to elicit clarification from the “decretist” camp, and Escalante’s reply has obliged with some very helpful clarifications.  However, by taking some of my brief and partial summary statements as a thorough explication of a position, he has, I think, mis-read and miscritiqued some of them.  Hopefully over the next couple weeks, I will be able to follow up on some of these points here, explain where I agree with his position (as I certainly do at many points, now that I’ve seen it stated so comprehensively) and clarify the points where I do not.  For now, a couple brief remarks (these excerpted almost verbatim from the comment I just posted over there):

One very brief point where he seem to have misunderstood me (understandably, as I hadn’t fleshed this out thoroughly in my original posts) regards the relationship of the “State” and the “City of Man.”  Peter say that I basically think “State=City of Man=Kingdom of Satan,” which he says is un-Augustinian. Well certainly that is un-Augustinian, but I never intended to make either of those equations. In the Civitas Dei, the State is as it were the most visible institutional representation of the City of Man, but it is not simply reducible to it…it’s much more complicated than that. “More complicated? Do elaborate,” he will certainly say, and I shall try to, but not just here and now. And of course the City of Man is not the “Kingdom of Satan” simpliciter…Despite his forceful emphasis on the all-corrupting influence of the libido dominandi, Augustine clearly held that human nature, although corrupted, was still intact, and so approximations to virtue and to civic and social good were still possible in the City of Man.

More importantly, and more intriguingly, as I read Peter’s final section, where he dissect the points where I claim “Church” and “State” are in competition, it struck me that the key difference may lie at a rather different point (or is best seen from a different angle) than where he seemed to be putting it. My main concern, I think, revolves around the relationship of “natural law” and evangelical law, to try (probably unsuccessfully) to put it in a nutshell. It’s a question of ethics.

Basically, I am uncomfortable at the way the Reformers tried to rebut the Catholic distinction between the commands and the counsels of perfection. The Anabaptists absolutized the counsels of perfection into a new legalism…that can’t be right. But the magisterial Reformers responded by basically dissolving away the counsels of perfection, and blunting the hard, radical edge of Christian ethics to subsume it back into the changeless categories of the old moral law, the “natural law,” etc. That’s what rubs me the wrong way. And so in saying “the Church” responds to enemies in a certain way, or cares for the weak in a certain way, I’m contending that Christians are to be visible as a community with a social ethics that is not simply expressed in the laws of political justice.

Of course, Peter will reply that this just proves I’m Anabaptist.  But, I contend that I am not simply ruling out the ethics of the political realm as something to be entirely shunned by and excluded from the Christian community. Rather, the political remains a part of the life of the Christian people, but is always being challenged, pushed, and prodded by an evangelical ethics that remains ever dissatisfied with merely natural political justice. Now, of course, I’m just sounding like O’Donovan, and not far from Peter at all, so this can’t be all I really intend to say…obviously, I have a more radical agenda than that, right? Yes, probably so. And I’ll try to uncover the contours of that over the next few weeks.

In particular, in my very next post, I’ll be looking at the relationship between commands and counsels of perfection in Melanchthon, who I was just reading before I saw Peter’s post.

Two Kingdoms or Two Cities?

Around the same time as I was working through my review of David Van Drunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, you may recall that Steven Wedgeworth also reviewed the book in Credenda/Agenda, setting off a fiery controversy with Darryl Hart over at Wedgewords.  Add some authentic ultramontane Catholics to the mix, shake vigorously, and you end up with Wedgeworth and Co’s three-part manifesto, “Apostolic Succession and Civic Freedom.”  I must confess that I have followed all this only rather intermittently, due to the enormous volume of writing being churned out in the discussion, and more importantly, because I determined that I don’t have a dog in that fight, so to speak.  I have little sympathy with the clerocratic Catholic viewpoint, and still less with the Hart/VanDrunen radically separate doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, but neither could I feel any hint of sympathy with the assumptions that drove Wedgeworth and Escalante to posit the classical Protestant, semi-Erastian model as a solution.  

Rather to my surprise, however, Davey Henreckson at Theopolitical has offered what appears as an only-slightly-qualified endorsement of Wedgeworth’s view, which he labels “decretist,” and given that he asked for my reaction and that I just recently posted my own (skeletal and oversimplified) theopolitical manifesto, I figured I would try to weigh in briefly.  (Earlier this summer, I interacted extensively about all this with two of Wedgeworth’s allies, Peter Escalante and Tim Enloe, and the following reflects some of that discussion as well.)

However, I feel a bit confused in doing so, as if I must be missing something big and obvious (quite possible, since I’ve only followed the discussion intermittently), since I have trouble making sense of several of the “decretists’” assumptions, and can’t see why, given these assumptions, their model would generate any enthusiasm in our circles.  As I made clear in my “A Primer on Christian Citizenship,” my basic starting point is Augustinian (though this of course requires a great deal of further development and clarification), and I am puzzled to find in Wedgeworth’s manifesto no attention to the Augustinian paradigm as a solution.  We are confronted with two typical Christian errors–a separatist impulse to withdraw the Church away from the civil realm, and a clerocratic impulse to try to make the Church lord it over the civil realm, and then the classical Protestant paradigm is ushered in with great fanfare as the solution.  But whoa, wait a minute…isn’t there another alternative?  

Now of course I grant that certain ways of developing the Augustinian paradigm (which is notoriously pliable and susceptible to varying interpretations) would end up not too far from the “decretist” standpoint (e.g., certain trajectories in the O’Donovan’s work would seem to resonate with at least substantial bits of Wedgeworth’s picture), this is not at all an obvious equation and would need to be unpacked a great deal more.  In a fantastic recent lecture called “Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?” Jamie Smith argued that the two-kingdoms “supplement” to the Two Cities paradigm in fact overthrows that paradigm completely, and he offers a powerful argument of what a consistently Augustinian model would look like.  I’m very sympathetic to his project, and indebted to this lecture in what follows.

The key assumption in Wedgeworth’s manifesto that rings hollow to me is his contention that “the Church is not a worldly-temporal entity and thus is in no real ‘competition’ with the State”; throughout the post he pooh-poohs any notion that the Church is an “alternative city” or “alternative society.”  The Church, he tells us “though always embodied, is designed to deal with hearts”; thus it only rules “the spiritual realm.”  Now, again I feel like I must be missing something obvious, but I find it difficult to make sense of such claims.  What would it mean for the Church to deal only with hearts?  What is this supposed “spiritual realm” that is not concerned with physical actions in human society?  I for one am not conscious of a “spiritual realm” within me that is separable from how the Spirit exhorts my body to live in relation to those around me.  And how does this separation work given that about half of the New Testament is ethics?   

As I understand it, the proper distinction is that the Church deals with bodies through hearts, and thus is able to reckon with the whole man, whereas the State can only deal with bodies as bodies.  This, I take it, is what Bucer is trying to say in the opening chapters of the De Regno Christi.  When I look at what the Church is actually called to do in Scripture, it’s hard for me to see how it is not in “competition” with the State. 

Let’s look at some responsibilities of the State, or of political society.  The State seeks to organize men into a community of shared identity and mutual responsibility.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to guide this community in pursuit of the common good of human flourishing.  The Church does this too. The State seeks to establish norms of social behaviour among its members.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to bring about a just relationship between its members, restraining the strong and protecting the weak.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to overcome the threat of external enemies.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to remedy the injustice wrought by evil men in its midst.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to ensure that all its members have their needs cared for. The Church does this too.   

The Church is a visible body of people gathered out from among other people, united by various signs, rituals, texts, codes, ways of life, by mutual commitment to one another, in pursuit of a common end (an end that incorporates all of human existence).  It is, in short, undeniably (to my mind) a “political society,” an “alternative city” in a very important sense.  Of course, it is much more.  It is not just this.  This is just like the tip of an iceberg–its foundation and source of life is deeper and hidden.  It is a city that lives by the presence of God himself in its midst.  Moreover, although the Church is political, it is of course with a different kind of politics.  Just because it is in a kind of competition with the State doesn’t mean it’s just another state.  For instance, the end which it seeks, though it includes the flourishing of human life here on earth, transcends that and includes a higher end that no State can pursue.  The Church too overcomes the threat of enemies, but it does so through self-sacrificing love, not violence.  The Church too seeks to remedy injustice done in its midst, but by means of exhortation, penance, and reconciliation, not outward punishment.  The Church too cares for the needs of its members, but it also goes beyond and serves those who are outside, to an extent that few states do.

Wedgeworth is convinced that the Church is non-coercive, and consistently talks as if making the Church an “alternative City” has to mean giving it coercive power over its own members and/or over other cities.  Perhaps I am missing something, but I don’t see why.  (For the record, I am not yet convinced that church discipline is non-coercive in nature, or should be, for reasons that may be partially disclosed in my forthcoming essay on coercion; but as I certainly agree that coercion is at most a marginal part of the Church’s work, I will leave that aside.)  Criticize Hauerwas, Yoder, Cavanaugh, etc. all you want, but I certainly think that you have to interact with their claims that it is possible to have a different kind of politics that does not rely on coercion–the Church is inescapably political, and thus inevitably challenges other political structures, but it practices a qualitatively different kind of politics.  This basic claim rings very true with my reading of the New Testament.  It seems that whenever anything like this line of argument is brought up, Wedgeworth and Escalante dismiss this as “Anabaptist utopianism.”  But name-calling is not the same as a refutation.

Now, none of this means that, because the Church is in some sense in competition with the State, that it must be in every sense in competition with the State.  One may legitimately criticize Hauerwas and Co. for failing to allow for the nuances and tensions of an Augustinian model, which affirms that the Church is a city, but allows for some kind of uneasy co-existence, or “selective collaboration” as Jamie Smith puts it.  I am very open to a conception in which, should the civil authorities recognize Christ’s lordship, they will use their position to encourage the work of his kingdom (without coercing Christianity).  But the differences between this kind of Christendom and the “decretist” model, as I understand it, are manifold.  For one, the Church will view this Christian magistrate as something valuable and appreciated, but non-essential.  The Church may still do its work of transforming the world without the aid of the magistrate.  For another, the magistrate’s role is one of self-abnegation, deferring to the presence of the true City within the midst of his city, and seeking to empower it to do its work better, and to make his task increasingly superfluous (Leithart’s Defending Constantine is a must-read on this way of understanding the relationship).  In the decretist model, the two rules exist in a kind of permanent, static relationship of complementarity.   This, I think, is a crucial point of difference.  I do not see a static arrangement, but a dynamic one, an eschatologically maturing one.  As I understand it, the two rules may at times achieve a certain complementarity, but it will always be one fraught with tension.  I think, for instance, of Augustine’s interaction with the Roman magistrate Macedonius, where Augustine famously urges leniency toward criminals and a cessation of capital punishment, that the Church might do its work of bringing about true repentance and reconciliation, though Augustine recognizes that this is at odds with part of the calling of the magistrate.  The magistrate’s calling is, as much as possible, to be rendered obsolete by the work of the Church, though this may take a very long time, and in the meantime an uneasy dynamic tension will have to be maintained.

Wedgeworth and Co. will call this “utopianism”–I call it postmillenialism, although a very tempered and patient postmillenialism.  I am not sure how to persuade those who are determined to see this as “utopian,” except to point to the fact that the New Testament’s vision of Christian ethics and Christian community looks very utopian to us, and also to the fact that many ethical and political developments that would have seemed “utopian” centuries ago have actually come to pass: the end of widespread slavery, the extent to which racism has been overcome, the growth of genuine (though never unproblematic) religious freedom, equal treatment for women (fraught with problems today, but genuine progress nonetheless), the commitment to peace and cooperation among many nations that used to be at constant war (the European Union, particularly).  So many of the dramatic social improvements and advances in ethical sensibility in Western society owe themselves to the work of the Christian Church, and so I would like to trust in the Spirit to bring new marvels to pass as the Church works faithfully to enact the City of God among us.