From all the irrefutable testimonies of human misery there is no logically sound path to the great heavenly Physician; from the fact that we are sick it does not follow that we can be cured. It is possible, as Pascal repeatedly argued, that the human condition, including all its sorrows and evils, as well as its splendours and greatness, is unintelligible and meaningless unless it is seen in the light of sacred history: creation, sin, redemption. If so, it appears that the admissible options are: a meaningful world guided by God, spoilt by men, healed by the Redeemer; or an absurd world, going Nowhere, ending in Nothing, the futile toy of an impersonal Fate which does not distribute punishments and rewards and does not care about good and evil. Promethean atheism might appear, on this assumption, a puerile delusion, an image of a godless world which rushes on to the Ultimate Hilarity.
This is something I’ve been worrying over, specifically as a Christian, for a long time:
… It seems to me that the people who are really wrestling with Scripture are the ones who are taking its authority seriously. After all, if you don’t believe that the Bible is the word of God, if you believe that these are just historic documents with no particular claim on you or on anybody else, that doesn’t lead you to wrestle with anything. You can just dismiss anything in it that you see that strikes you as being alien or that makes you uncomfortable or that you feel that you can’t endorse.
So it’s quite easy to read a passage of Scripture, decide that it’s not something that you buy into, and then put it aside, unless you have a commitment to the authority of that text. If you have that commitment, it actually pressures you. It puts the screws to you. It makes it very hard for you to have a simple response to it.
Jesus talks to a man who is always referred to in the biblical literature as the rich, young ruler. He tells him, “OK, if you want what I’m giving, if you want the kind of life that I have to offer, then take everything that you have, sell it and give it to the poor.” And this young man walks away sad, because he had great wealth.
I read that passage, and I have to struggle with that, because I’m thinking, “What is this passage demanding of me?” It says something to me, because I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe that he is my Lord and my Savior. He says something like this. I have to ask myself, “What does it mean for me?” So far, I haven’t decided that it means that I have to sell everything I have and give it to the poor, but maybe that’s because I’m an inauthentic or disobedient Christian. Maybe I’m not taking my beliefs seriously enough.
So I can say this is the word of God for me. But that that’s only the beginning of my problems. That actually doesn’t solve problems. That creates a whole set of problems, because I have to work very hard to try to figure out what sort of demand this text is making upon me.
With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation coming on, I’m already seeing pieces — they annoy me too much for me to link to them — that see the anniversary as an opportunity to take sides, to say The Reformation is good because it supports this thing I approve of or The Reformation is bad because it supports this thing I disapprove of or This good thing just happened and thanks be to the Reformation which after all caused it or This bad thing just happened so curses upon the Reformation which after all caused it. It’s going to be bad enough when serious Catholics and Protestants use the anniversary to cudgel one another — that’s already started — but everyone else is going to want a piece of the action as well.
We could strive to understand the Reformation, to open up a very complex and multilayered phenomenon for reflection, to break down simplistic caricatures, to discover unexplored (or underexplored) possibilities. But taking sides is what our cultures seems to do with everything now. Everyone seems to be asking of every phenomenon, though with their own tribal affiliation substituted, “Yes, but is it good for the Jews?” So what does the Reformation mean for feminism, LGBTQ rights, transgender rights, race, Republicans and Democrats, Muslims in Europe? That’s what we’re going to be hearing for the next year: a few words on Martin Luther and then that’s enough about him, let’s talk about us and figure out whether Luther is for us or against us. Whatever is happening in this very moment will be the interpretative key people will use to (they think) unlock the meaning of the Reformation. For those of us who are more seriously interested in history and the complicated ways it does and does not shape the present, this is not going to be fun.
Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.
Understanding Trump « George Lakoff. One of the most frustrating things about being an evangelical Christian is the frequency with which you have to hear yourself described by people who don’t have the first idea what they are talking about.
Lakoff’s post is noteworthy because it’s wrong about evangelicals at their best and equally wrong about evangelicals at their worst. As everyone with even the slightest understanding of the history of Christianity knows, evangelicalism has never in any of its forms taught that if you follow God’s commandments you go to heaven. It has traditionally held that no one follows God’s commandments, that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” that “by grace are you saved through faith, not works, lest any man should boast.” These are among the most famous verses in the Bible, but clearly Lakoff is completely ignorant both of them and of the role they played in forming and perpetuating evangelicalism.
But do those verses characterize the foundational beliefs of most American evangelicals today? By no means. As Christian Smith and his colleagues have so exhaustively documented in multiple books — see especially Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, and Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers —Americans who describe themselves as evangelicals increasingly practice a religion that Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. And while the researchers’ focus is on younger people, “emerging adults,” MTD is not a position they have arrived at in spite of what they learned in church, it is the very model of how human beings relate to God that their churches taught them (whether explicitly or implicitly). The God of MTD and its twin, the Prosperity Gospel, isn’t interested in commandments and doesn’t send people to Hell, except maybe Hitler and a few others. He wants us to be happy and prosperous, according to our own definitions of happiness and prosperity.
In short, Lakoff’s imaginary Strict Father Religion, concocted in blithe indifference to the demonstrated facts on the ground — I think of C. S. Lewis’s old tutor Kirk: “You can have enlightenment for ninepence, but you prefer ignorance” — is characteristic of evangelicalism neither in its strongest (most historically and biblically grounded) forms nor in its desiccated Prosperity Deist forms. And, given that Lakoff wants to explain the popularity of Trump among evangelicals … well, the Donald isn’t exactly a Strict Father, is he? More like a sugar daddy, promising to use his unmatched personal charisma to make all the good white people safe and rich — the perfect Mortal God (to borrow a phrase from Hobbes) for Prosperity Deists.
What Rod Dreher calls the Benedict Option has been getting a lot of pushback from critics — and Rod hasn’t even explained in any detail what he means by it! So before you develop your own premature opinion about it, or even if you have already given your premature opinion about it, here are some things to keep in mind:
1) The Benedict Option, whatever form it ultimately takes, arises from a concern for strengthening the church of Jesus Christ. If you don’t really care about strengthening the church of Jesus Christ, you have no skin in this game, so you’d be doing everyone, including yourself, a favor by, you know, just moving along to other things.
2) Christians, by commandment and by experience, have a complicated relationship to “the world” — the saeculum. In his farewell talk to his disciples, Jesus prays to the Father: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world … I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” And St. Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” None of this is easy to parse; there can be great disagreement over how to implement this vision of believers who are in the world but not of it. It would be foolish to expect unanimity.
3) Moreover, from the very beginnings of the church it has been understood that Christians will not fulfill this divine vision in a single way, but rather in very many ways, according to particular vocations: “many members [organs] of one body” and all that. So if other Christians are discerning a calling that you do not discern for yourself, there’s no need to be consumed by agita — even if the New Benedictines are running for the hills, you can just wish them well and return to whatever calling you perceive to be your own. Nobody is going to make you run for the hills, so relax. (N.B.: the Benedict Option, whatever it is, is not about running for the hills.)
4) Whatever else it is, the church is ekklesia — assembly — and koinonia — community, fellowship. It is therefore a shared culture, or subculture, or counter-culture. Christians cannot simply and wholly offload the responsibility for culture-making to non-Christian members of society. So if you are a Christian, and you don’t think the Benedict Option, whatever you believe it to be, is a valid model of culture-making, then you have an obligation to articulate an alternative model. “I don’t like it” is Not. Good. Enough.
The world which issued from the Renaissance and the Reformation has been ravaged since that time by powerful and truly monstrous energies, in which error and truth are closely commingled and feed upon each other – truths which lie, and “lies which speak the truth.” It is the duty of those who love wisdom to try to purify these unnatural and deadly products, and to save the truths that they distort.
It would be fruitless to try to conceal from oneself that this is a particularly thankless task. Those who carry in the world the energies of which I am speaking think that they have no need of being purified; their adversaries see in them only utter impurity. In vain will the philosopher arm himself with perfect instruments of purification; he runs the risk of having the whole world against him. If he is a Christian, he knows this from of old, and scarcely cares about it, being the disciple of a God hated by both the Pharisees and Sadducees, condemned by the chief priests and by the civil power, and mocked and scorned by the Roman soldiers.
I want to go back to say a few more words about Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, a book for which I wrote a commendatory blurb, and some of the critiques of it. Ross begins the book with a kind of rough-and-ready overview of American religious history, but his chief concern is to look at the last sixty years or so, and the decline during that period of the broad cultural influence of orthodox Christianity. To the claim that there has been such a decline, there are, generally speaking, three responses. The first is that there has been no such decline. The second is that there has indeed been such a decline, but it’s largely the result of an increasingly anti-Christian cultural elite, especially as manifested in American universities and major newspapers and magazines. The third is that the decline exists and is largely (though not wholly) attributable to the failures of American Christianity itself. That’s Ross Douthat’s view, and mine.
To the first response — that there has been no such decline — I would suggest reflection on a few facts. First, that in 1947 Time magazine featured an adulatory cover story on C. S. Lewis — “His Heresy: Christianity” — followed a few months later by an equally reverent cover story on Reinhold Niebuhr. T. S. Eliot, a self-avowed conservative Anglo-Catholic, was the best-known poet in the English-speaking world. W. H. Auden’s explcitiy Christian poem The Age of Anxiety won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, and Auden wrote explicitly Christian and deeply theological essays and reviews for The New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, and many other prominent and intellectually serious periodicals. In the mid-1950s Bishop Fulton Sheen’s television program Life is Worth Living ran on ABC opposite Milton Berle’s show, with which it was highly competitive in the ratings.
Can anyone seriously imagine that such generally public prominence for explcitly Christian ideas and beliefs would be possible in mainstream American media today? Of course not.
The only thing preventing people from acknowledging this strikingly obviously fact is a prima facie insistence that decline-and-fall narratives are always nostalgic and always wrong. But neither of these is the case. One can acknowledge that Christanity has a less powerful public presence today than it had in the 1950s without seeing that decline as inevitable, without seeing it as irreversible, and without seeing it as a wholly bad thing. But to deny that historically orthodox Christianity had a stronger presence in the general American culture in the 1950s than it has today — that’s just crazy talk.
The remaining question is: Why the change? To that there are many answers. For secularists, a Relentless-March-of-Truth account is appealing; for many religious believers, a Perfidious-Mainstream-Media narrative is irresistible. There are other explanations that might accompany these without necessarily excluding either of them: for instance, the rise of broader media contexts that allowed Christian television stations, Christian publishing houses, Christian magazines, and even Christian movie studios to emerge. But even if you take the rise of these Christian subaltern counterpublics seriously — as you should — the question remains: Why did Christians prefer them?
If you’re a Christian, it’s tempting to say (drawing on the Perfidious-Mainstream-Media account) that we were forced into these subaltern modes by the relentless hostility of the cultural elites. That’s a very comforting narrative: we get to cast ourselves as the persecuted minority, and who can resist that temptation? Ross is offering a less consoling explanation: that Christians lost their cultural influence in large part because they lost their connection to historic orthodoxy, preferring comfortably flaccid theologies — of the Right and the Left — that were pretty much indistinguishable from what most religiously indifferent Americans believed anyway.
So for those readers especially hostile to Ross’s account, I have a question: Are you sure it’s not because he’s telling you something you don’t want to hear? — That if you have a marginal place in American culture, the situation may be largely your own fault?