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Archive for April, 2007

Aliens and Exiles

We have likely exhausted A Secular Faith so I will make a final post that returns to the theme of my first. I am concerned that Christian involvement in politics distracts believers from their true and ultimate home. When we become so concerned about moral decline or social disorder in the United States that American Christians are known more for being “conservative” politically than for the religious practices that define them as believers, then we have identified ourselves more as citizens than as aliens and exiles of this world.

This may sound too otherworldly for some and a betrayal of a Reformed world and life view, though I rarely seen the worldviewists interact with St. Peter’s counsel on the Christian’s immigrant status during this period of redemptive history. To keep this concern from becoming merely otherworldly Christians could throw much more energy into the politics of their churches than into the affairs of the United States. It is not as if the church has no need for reform.

In fact, I find it at least ironic if not worse that at the same time as the rise of the Religious Right, Protestant faith and practice in the United States has worsened dramatically. Before Ronald Reagan evangelicals used to care about inerrancy. Now the doctrine of Scripture is barely talked about. Conservatives Protestants used to know something about reverence in worship but during their affair with the residents of the White House they have given the world a form of worship that exhibits no fear of blasphemy (now, we only define idolatry as having a second helping of pie after dinner). And to make matters even worse, the Protestant doctrine of justification is in serious disarray when twenty-fine years ago conservative evangelicals knew the difference between the Council of Trent and justification by faith alone.

Of course, it would be poor social science to suggest that the politiciztion of evangelicalism is responsible for these religious woes. But it would be equally naive to think that the zeal for Christian politics in secular affairs is unrelated to the indifference for Christian faith and practice in the realm of the church.

If Christians really want to have an impact on this world, they may have to worry a lot more about the world to come.

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Darryl wrote: “I like Caleb’s point about love as a social ethic. It sounds far more Christian to me than talk of power, might, the state, legislation, and kingship. But if I didn’t know Caleb better, I’d also think it borders on Hallmarkian abstraction. That is, it sounds like “love will find a way.” I understand that Caleb, with his powers of legal reasoning and attachment to the Kansas prairie is much more situated than that. But I would like to hear him bring his idealism down to reality. Without a specific code, how is such a vague appeal to Christian love any hedge against the liberalism he decries?”

This deserves a full-throated response, as I believe it is the key to these discussions. Yes, our work must be to recover a muscular Augustinian understanding of love as a social ethic from the degradations of Hallmarkian abstraction. So yes, it must be brought down to reality. I appreciate Darryl holding my feet to this fire. This ethic means that to suffer one’s place and one’s people in the particularity of its and their needs is the only true basis for finding love, friendship, and an authentic, meaningful life. This is nothing less than the key to the pursuit of Christian holiness, which is the whole of the Christian adventure: to live in love with the frailty and limits of one’s existence, suffering the places, customs, rites, joys, and sorrows of the people who are in close relation to you by family, friendship, and community–all in service of the truth, goodness, and beauty that is best experienced directly.

It means sticking where you are. It means not separating yourself from others with a three-car garage in a sidewalk-less suburb. It means having babies and teaching them to love their place. It means mothers who actually mother instead of a two income family. It means fathers who actually father instead of abdicating everything to cable-TV and the so-called “experts”. It means working towards an economy that integrates rather than disintegrates. It means staying with your church even when it infuriates you. Leaving a church should be nearly as drastic a decision as leaving a spouse. It means making the old things new continually. It means daily making Odysseus’s choice to give up “immortality” of self to return home. Make no mistake: I am not talking about “being good.” Sometimes this love is filled with sin, despair, failure. It ought to be filled with sin–and forgiveness. Sometimes I think the first sign of health might just be if we could rouse ourselves such a human task as an honest sin now and then–followed by confession and repentance of course. This love, in fact, gives the sinner something to push against. And real sin is the first step towards real redemption. I wrote about this once:

***Most commentators [make] the mistake of wondering whether [we are seeing] the disappearance of the virtue. Rather, we ought to wonder whether we are losing something just as important to a healthy society: the existence of “virtuous vice.” The practitioners of virtuous vice are more forgivable because their sins are human sins, pursued with human passions. They approach life with the attitude of “real vice or no vice at all.” As such, their vices remain on a human scale. Retaining a high level of skill and daring, these sinners celebrate their humanity by consciously risking annihilation. The virtuous vices are virtuous because they carry within them the seed of redemption: a recognition of the truth that human beings are not merely materialistic beings, not just a collection of elements, but spiritual beings capable of a meaningful annihilation. In George Santayana’s memorable phrase, those who practice virtuous vice are “moral, though fugitive.” As G.K. Chesterton put it, “they accept the essential idea of man; they merely seek it wrongly.”***

More recently, someone sent me this bit from Walker Percy: “Christians talk about the horror of sin, but they have overlooked something. They keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowadays one is hardly up to it. There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise. The highest moment of a malaisian’s life can be the moment when he manages to sin like a proper human (Look at us, Binx–my vagabond friends as good as cried out to me–we’re sinning! We’re succeeding! We’re human after all!)” To love like this is to be human, to fail, to struggle in the mud sometimes. It means changing the way we see things and understand the world. This way of seeing–”from the heart”–bonds us to an unenforceable code. Do we need a code to tell us that we ought to have feelings of affection for our kids?

This was the answer I gave to this question a few years ago, I think it hold up fairly well:

***I think for starters, we need to clear our lives of all the mass culture weeds that choke out authentic growth. Not just the Hollywood weed, but the Wal*Mart weed as well. Read the classics and the Church Fathers instead of junk fiction and self-help crap. And then go about the hard work of learning the discipline of place. Get married. Have kids, lots of them. Don’t turn them over to others to raise. When I finished law school I had offers to work at several large east coast law firms for twice the money I could make at home. But home was more important, so we stayed. Shortly after law school, my wife Ann and I, with our four boys, moved to 18 acres outside of town. We try to grow some of our own food, Ann homeschools the boys, we have a commitment to this place and these people that trumps most of the other things we could spend our life pursuing. It isn’t perfect or anywhere near that, but it is, we hope, a decent resistance. Recently I made a move from working at the largest law firm in the state, a job to which I commuted for years, to setting up a solo country practice. There is risk in all of this, I suppose—commitment by its nature portends disaster. Inevitably either we fail the place or person or idea we are committed to or it will fail us. That’s real life though. And in that crucible I think the terrible beauty and transcendent hope of the uncertain journey of faith in Jesus becomes real, and our souls become attuned to that reality.***

I am partial to this sonnet by poet David Wright, especially the last two lines:

“Elegy for Father Jape, Along Old Route 24″

In particular soil, dark Kansas soil,
a man and his wife will husband Jape’s corpse,
layer it low among husks and cobs. Oils
from his reddened face will, in their due course,
become a part of the fall mud. His head
amidst a field of rotted pumpkin shells
will find its home at last. The happy dead
he always preferred to the happy hells
of the living and the glib. “Te Deum
Laudamus” the crows will sing as they pluck
out his hair and leave his eyes. Like Adam,
he gets to see the fall and all its muck.
To save the world, he learns, at last, he must
conserve one fertile place, become its dust.

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A Glorious Image

So far, our consideration of the corporate responsibility of nations to confess Jesus Christ has focused on the Old Testament. Critics will say that this is the Achilles heal of the Covenanter position. Sure the Old Testament has a great deal to say about nations submitting to God’s Kingly rule, but that is, after all, the Old Testament. What about the New Testament? Doesn’t Jesus make it clear that His Kingship is a spiritual matter wholly unconnected to the political realities of the kingdoms of this world? Those who would take their faith into the public square are reminded of their duty to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21).” Good advice. The question remains, what exactly belongs to Caesar? And more precisely, what does Caesar owe to God?
A Gordian Knot
In Matthew 22 we find Jesus in Jerusalem. Embraced by the crowds at the triumphal entry (Matt. 21:9-11), the Lord did not find nearly as warm a reception from their leaders. Smarting from a series public rebukes at the hands of a Galilean upstart, the Pharisees plotted against Jesus. Seeking to “entangle Him in His talk” (Matt. 22:15), the Pharisees sent their disciples to speak to Jesus. Their disciples did not go alone. Accompanied by a number of Herodians (supporters of King Herod) this mixed company proves that politics really do make strange bedfellows! Who would expect common purpose between puritanically minded Pharisees, zealous defenders the holy law of God, and worldly Herodians, crass apologists of Herod’s impious regime? Only a common hatred for the righteousness of Christ could bring such bitter enemies into union.
Following a prelude of hypocritical flattery the conspirators ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” The problem set before Jesus was exquisite. Pious Jews resented Roman rule. The fortress of Antonia with its Roman Legions and symbols of foreign tyranny were looked upon as blasphemy. Zealots sought to liberate Jerusalem through violent rebellion. The Pharisees were less militant in deed but no less venomous in word. Jerusalem’s crowds shared the hostile sentiment. If Jesus were to declare it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar would He not loose all credibility among the pious? On the other hand, Jesus is confronted by the Herodians. King Herod reigned at the pleasure of Rome. All of the prerogatives of power enjoyed by he and his supporters stood upon the authority of Caesar to rule (and tax) the people. If Jesus declared the unlawfulness of paying taxes to Caesar He would be immediately arrested and put to death.
The enemies of Christ believed that they had backed Him into a corner and tied His tongue into a proverbial Gordian knot. They quickly learned that one greater than Alexander was before them.
The faithful must give Caesar his due
Jesus requested a coin. A Roman denarius was provided. Jesus asked, “whose image and inscription is this (vs. 20)?” The coin bore an image of Caesar Tiberius. On the front an inscription read, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” On the back the were the words, “Highest Priest.” Such blasphemy was an outrage to pious Jews. What would Jesus say of it?
Jesus expounds the 5th Commandment duty of men to their rulers declaring, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (vs. 21).” Jesus calls attention to Caesar’s image impressed upon the coin. What purpose does an image serve but to glorify its object? Since the coin bears Caesar’s picture (and his name) it must belong to Caesar. Those who take from Caesar must give back to Caesar.
Further, Jesus teaches that the coin in their pockets was a symbol of the benefits of Caesar’s authority enjoyed by the Jews. Although not legally obligated to pay their taxes with the denarius, it is obvious that the same people who despised the coin for its blasphemy were unwilling to forego its benefits. Jesus declares that dependence upon Caesar’s courts for justice, his roads for travel, and his coin for commerce create a duty to render to Caesar the honor that belongs to him as a minister of God’s justice. Jesus declares, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesars.”
The faithful must give God His due
Further, Jesus rebukes Jerusalem for her hypocrisy. Days earlier Jesus had cleansed the Temple of its money-changers (Matt. 21:12,13). Jerusalem was filled with false shepherds and inequity. Do those who legalistically pervert God’s covenant of grace, flaunt their additions to God’s Holy Worship, and bind the conscience of God’s people with human regulations have a right to claim moral indignation against Caesar? To such men Jesus declares, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” God gave authority to Caesar to rule over Jerusalem in order that violence might be restrained, order preserved, and that the wicked might be punished (Romans 13:1-7). To Caesar the faithful owe fearful respect and humble submission in all things lawful and/or indifferent. To God the faithful owe doctrinal integrity, purity of worship, and a zealous love for honorable conduct.
Caesar must give God His due
The image of God
Jesus declared that the image bearing coin must belong to Caesar. The image must bring glory to its object. Upon this principle we look again at Caesar. This time our focus is not his image impressed upon a coin. Rather, focus your attention on Caesar himself. What do you see? First and foremost we see a man. No matter what court flatterers might have told him, Tiberius was not the divine son of a god. Rather, Tiberius Caesar, like all men, was a son born of Adam’s flesh. To look upon Tiberius is to look upon the image of God (Gen. 1:27).
Further, if we consider Tiberius’ heart we recognize the inscription of God. There is written the law of God. Paul reminds us that the Gentiles (of which Caesar was certainly one), “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness… (Romans 2:15).” The glory of God is impressed upon Caesar’s being and the signature of His law is written upon his heart. As the Roman coin was an image of Caesar’s glory, and therefore under Caesar’s authority, so Caesar himself was an image of God’s glory and therefore under God’s authority!
An image of wrath
While Caesar, as a man, reflects the Divine image, so Caesar, in his office, reflects the divine image as well. The Scriptures teach that civil authority is not outside of God’s providence. Paul warns those tempted toward evil, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he [the civil authority] does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4).” The title Caesar reflects the office of Tiberius as chief civil magistrate of the Roman Empire. After the flood, God armed the civil magistrate in order to restrain violence and punish the wicked. While the church’s ministry is called to reflect the image of God’s mercy offered, the magistrate’s ministry is called to reflect the image of God’s wrath enforced (Rom. 13:4).
Let us conclude where we began. What does Caesar owe to God? The biblical answer is everything.

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Church & State

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This discussion has been nice and edifying in its own way, but it might be good at this point to just cut to the brass tacks. In the discussion on Christian liberty below, the question of abortion played a central role. This is not just because abortion is the quintessential moral issue of our day, but because abortion lies at the very heart of the problem of protestant/liberal conceptions of Christian liberty. Darryl’s first instinct was to say that abortion (as a policy matter for polititians, not having or performing one) was not within the realm of liberty. However, when pushed on it, he backed off in order to preserve a hard-line on liberty saying he would have to carefully consider arguments in favor of the Mario Cuomo type politician. If this is where this concept of liberty takes the good, traditionally minded Dr. Hart, I say watch out for where it will take weaker minded and souled men. The reason abortion is so central to this question is because modern conceptions of the liberty of conscience (largely enabled and spawned within and around 20th Century American protestantisms) developed, as Cardinal Pell has written, chiefly as a prop for sexual libertinism: “Why do people strain to accommodate absolute sexual freedom as a matter of conscience? Why does no one plead for the right to racism or sexism as a matter of conscience? Could it be because the liberal concept of conscience has been specially formulated in order to facilitate the sexual indiscipline that our culture upholds?”

Before everyone objects that they are not sexual libertines let me say two things: First, in most ways, it doesn’t matter whether one is personally libertine or not when one considers the origin and effect of the line he takes on liberty. If one does not consider these things, I think he is being duped and is likely naive and therefore somewhat dangerous (harsh words, I know). Second, Darryl’s statement below is somewhat haunting: But I am also convinced that a good church is only as healthy as its families and local community. If our congregations were not commuter entities, with Christians living during the week as anonymous consumers and workers, then maybe communities and families could supply some of the bonds and love that you want the church to yield. Ask yourself this: What is the single best defense against the kind of dislocation and alienation described? Answer: lots of kids early in life. In other words, the conditions lamented here are the direct and predictable fruit of another form of sexual libertinism which is just as much at the heart of protestant/modern/liberal ideas about liberty of conscience as is abortion.

Basic Premise: Until the protestant church begins to change its teaching on the subject of birth control (there is some hope that this might be happening), it is doomed. It doesn’t matter how many blogs, fancy philosophies, smart books, creeds, worldview schools we have, or anything else we might try. Someone asked for clarity. That’s about as distilled a statement as I can make.

If my argument is not persuasive enough on its own terms, and since this seems to be my day for quoting my friend Fr. Jape, I offer as exhibit one the pabalum that is currently being shilled on this subject from within the protestant fold (a hopeless attempt to hold both degraded notions of liberty together with the moral demands of chastity–can’t be done, won’t be done!).

At bottom, I think discussions like these which don’t grapple with the central problems and questions of generational fidelity are just so much hot air.

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Or, ‘On the Perils of Life Lived on the Blurry Border Betwixt Body and Soul’

Or, ‘How Fr. Jape learned that to pass water on oneself is oft times a surer token of grace demanding that praises be rendered to our Father than all the pronouncements of wisdom that pass as gas from the mouths (or otherwise) of the learned men of many orders.’

I shall post a link, for fear that the language may not pass muster on this high minded site!

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We used to have the trinity of race, class and gender in the social sciences. Somewhere along the way we dropped class and added sexual orientation. The idea was that these aspects of human existence are essential to one’s identity — everything you see as a woman is colored by estrogen or something like that.

And then came the religious right and Christian world viewism. Evangelicals saw that a way to acquire a place at the proverbial table was to claim that their faith was as essential to their identity as race is to African Americans, gender to women, and sexual orientation to gays. As one of my non-believing friends likes to ask of this strategy, did evangelicals really want to jump in the bed of identity politics with gay activists?

One way out of this predicament is to ask whether Christianity’s claims on the believer are as totalizing as modern gender or race or queer studies have it. (Even more, is faith merely on the order of race, gender or sexual preference?) Yes, God commands us to love him with all of our being. And in the next breath, Christ adds that we are to love — as if we had any love left — our neighbors as ourselves. Could it be that Christianity’s claims are not nearly as total as modern understandings of human identity construe it? If we have duties as Christians, neighbors, husbands, elders, magistrates, fathers, sons — the list could go on — maybe Christians are called to a vocational life of juggling. And at the level of church-state matters, Christians clearly have to wrestle with their identities as resident aliens — they are citizens of two kingdoms and need to negotiate rival claims and responsibilities all the time.

This leads me to think that the tactic of identity politics was a huge mistake for the religious right and that the only way out of it is to recognize how fundamentally hyphenated the Christian life is.

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