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


A Hothouse of Mutual Admiration

I have been on a blogging sabbatical for pretty much the last three months, I’m afraid, and I wouldn’t blame most regular readers if they’ve given up this blog for lost, especially as its last utterance was hardly a dazzling display of intellect.  But as the maelstrom of conferences and job applications is finally drawing to an end, I hope to resume some sustained blogging over the coming weeks and hopefully months.  However, the posts here are likely to be more personal, occasional, and aimed at my immediate community, as I devote my more public blogging energies to the various other fora in which I have been asked to write.  You will find monthly posts from me on current events at Capital Commentary, monthly essays on historical political theology at Political Theology Today, monthly book reviews at Reformation21, and hopefully regular contributions again at Mere Orthodoxy and The Calvinist International (as well as, Lord willing, essays at Humane Pursuits).

With all of that, I may not keep my promise of blogging here again for long, but I’ll at least make a start over Christmas break, with, among other things, a series of posts sharing delightful excerpts and insights from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, which I recently had the great pleasure of re-reading for the first time in several years.  Most posts will include some brief notes of application or elaboration, in addition to the quoted excerpt; in other cases, Lewis’s observations may serve as the occasion for more extended reflections of my own.  For now, one of the former, from the inimitable Letter #7, on pacifism and patriotism:

“All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged.  Not always, of course, but at this period.  Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep.  Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.  Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse of mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the ‘Cause’ is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal.*  Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true.

We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity of a secret society or clique.  The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her all the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results, from the parties of Paul and Apollos at Corinth down to the High and Low parties of the Church of England.**”

*”thought to be impersonal”—what a sharp observation and rebuke.  For too long in our evangelical circles have we comforted ourselves with the mantra that we “hate the sin but love the sinner.”  Oh, it’s the sin of homosexuality that we hate, not homosexuals or gay rights activists.  It’s Darwinism we hate, not Darwinists.  Socialism and liberalism we hate, not socialists or liberals.  We forget that to truly hate a sin while loving the sinner is a work of grace, against which so much of our sinful nature militates.  In reality, what generally happens is that we so adamantly hate what we take to be sin that we tell ourselves that no sane person could love something so hateful.  Those outside our small coterie, who espouse this deplorable doctrine, are thus scarcely to be considered rational beings, but are virtually blind brutes, and thus are not worthy to be patiently listened to, patiently talked to, or treated with dignity and respect.  All of this, of course, at a very unconscious level; few would ever come out and admit to such feelings.  At the same time, we have so convinced ourselves that pride is an essentially personal sin (more on pride in a later post), that it is always about having too high a view of my own individual merits, that we never pause to consider whether we are in danger of succumbing to that far more insidious and destructive corporate pride which was what Christ and the Apostles so rebuked the Pharisees for.  To be sure, some of them suffered from individual self-righteousness as well, but far more pervasive was their national self-righteousness, their conviction that they were God’s favored people, and all those outside were under judgment.  This kind of pride can co-exist with the most self-flagellating personal humility, and often does in contemporary Reformed and evangelical circles.

**And, one might add, down to the various micro-denominations among the American Reformed, who seem to have perfected this kind of factionalism into an art form.


The Way of Enemy Love: Dismissing Jesus, A Critical Assessment, Pt. 7

In the past installments of this series of reviews, I have made an effort to tread the thin and delicate line of constructive criticism: on the one hand, I genuinely valued many of the things the book was trying to do, and wanted to affirm and advance them; on the other hand, I was genuinely concerned about points of confusion, unclarity, or just plain error, and wanted to draw attention to them when they were significant enough to have negative consequences.  In considering the ways of Weakness and Renunciation (chs. 2 and 3) I coordinated these two objectives by couching my reviews as calls for further clarification, and pointing out how the unclarity could in fact conspire to deprive Jones’s readers of exactly what they most needed—principles for practical action.  In considering the ways of Deliverance and of Sharing, on the other hand, my approach consisted more of attempting to ground a similar practical agenda (at least, so far as Jones’s practical agenda was discernible) in different, firmer theological soil, pointing out how failure to do so could render very good practices—works of mercy and of sharing—spiritually destructive.

In this chapter, I am afraid I shall have to take a blunter approach, although I hope that none will be offended.  In this chapter, the lack of clarity and equivocation is combined with so sweeping an attack on traditional Christian teaching that it is difficult to salvage anything constructive.  Taken alone, either of these might be frustrating, but might still leave us with a good deal to learn or at least converse with.  The real problem arises, as I sought to outline in Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 of this review, when these two tendencies are combined.  If you want to raise the stakes and condemn the mainstream of Christian practice and teaching for abandoning the way of Christ, this might be unfair or inappropriate, but if your terms are clear and your arguments incisive, you can at least prompt a fruitful debate and discussion.  On the other hand, if you write an ordinary work about theology or Christian living, and don’t define your terms all that well and lapse into occasional contradictions, readers might not gain that much from the book, but at least others may be encouraged to try and refine your arguments to more fruitful ends.  But if you raise the stakes—God vs. Mammon, the way of salvation vs. the way of destruction—and at the same time, indulge in constant equivocation, then the result can hardly be edifying.

PrintTo be sure, as a destructive takedown of contemporary American bloodlust and militarism, some of Jones’s polemics obliquely hit home; though for a somewhat clearer and more useful rendition of this, readers might simply skip to chapter 17, “American Mars.”  But aside from the general sense that many of us American Christians might be compromised by too permissive an embrace of the ways of war and violence, and that we might do well to take more seriously Christ’s blessing of “the peacemakers, it is,” readers are given very little which they can use, and quite a bit that they could readily abuse.

Don’t get me wrong.  None of this is to “dismiss Jesus” or the idea that we need to take a good, long, hard look at our attitudes toward violence.  Few Christians, perhaps, have given serious thought to what it means to love enemies (whether on the battlefield or in their personal lives), or wrestled earnestly with the ethics of war.  While I have, after much wrestling and questioning, settled fairly securely into just war camp, I have great respect for sincere and thoughtful pacifists, and have read with profit and appreciation the writings of Yoder and Hauerwas on this subject, as well as the just-war theories of Paul Ramsey and Oliver O’Donovan. Read More


Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 2—Overview of the Way of the Cross

 

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I am spiritually blind.  Conservative Christian and blind. I am one of the many who followed the broad path and said to Jesus “I will follow you” but did “not sit down first and count the cost” (Luke 14:28). . . . I am the rich young ruler Jesus addressed.  I have a car, several computers, lawn sprinklers, a tiled shower, a full pantry, air conditioning, a nice outdoor deck, plenty of books, and I’ve spent years sincerely trying to figure out theological questions—“Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18) (3).

So Doug Jones opens chapter 1 of Dismissing Jesus, “Overview of the Way of the Cross” (see Pt. 1 of my review here).  It is a jarring opening, but an effective one.  It shows us at that whatever this book is going to be, it is not going to be an arrogant diatribe, but a personal confession.  If we feel our consciences pricked along the way, then, we can infer, the author speaks from a pricked conscience as well, and we are anything but alone.

This is a good thing, since the language of “blindness,” which dominates in this first section of the book, would otherwise (and no doubt, still will) raise a lot of hackles. Now, while I have concerns about this language, it is clearly Scriptural.  As Jones points out, “But when Scripture addresses God’s people, it portrays spiritual blindness as rather normal.  It’s regular, common, cutting across Old and New Testaments. . . . [A series of passages are cited.] Blindness everywhere. God’s people have a high probability of blindness” (4).  Moreover, as Jones goes on to show
throughout, the very things that we American Christians have in abundance—wealth, power, security—are those things that most conspire to produce spiritual blindness.  And sometimes, the more convinced we are that we are not blind, the more likely we are to be. At the very least, the accusation of blindness shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but should prompt us to sit up and listen, and take a good look at Scripture and our own lifestyles and attitudes.  Few of us should come away from the exercise without discovering massive blind spots, if not outright blindness. Read More


Resident Aliens?

Having failed to find time to finish my expanded Late Great Natural Law Debate roundup (short version here), I offer in the interval some food for thought from the Epistle to Diognetus (mid-2nd century), which I went through with my Christian Ethics students yesterday.  It offers a very important take on the concept of Christians as “resident aliens”, a rather different understanding than that of Hauerwas and Co.:

CHAPTER V THE MANNERS OF THE CHRISTIANS.

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

CHAPTER VI THE RELATION OF CHRISTIANS TO THE WORLD.

To sum up all in one word: what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.