The liberality of John Calvin

The Lord commands us to do “good unto all men,” universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scripture assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the image of God in them, to which we owe all possible honour and love; but that this image is most carefully to be observed in them “who are of the household of faith,” inasmuch as it is renewed and restored by the spirit of Christ. Whoever, therefore, is presented to you that needs your kind offices, you have no reason to refuse him your assistance. Say he is a stranger; yet the Lord has impressed on him a character which ought to be familiar to you; for which reason he forbids you to despise your own flesh. Say that he is contemptible and worthless; but the Lord shows him to be one whom he has deigned to grace with his own image. Say that you are obliged to him for no services; but God has made him, as it were, his substitute, to whom you acknowledge yourself to be under obligations for numerous and important benefits. Say that he is unworthy of your making the smallest exertion on his account; but the image of God, by which he is recommended to you, deserves your surrender of yourself and all that you possess. If he not only deserved no favour, but, on the contrary, has provoked you with injuries and insults,–even this is no just reason why you should cease to embrace him with your affection, and to perform to him the offices of love. He has deserved, you will say, very different treatment from me. But what has the Lord deserved? who, when he commands you to forgive all men their offences against you, certainly intends that they should be charged to himself.

– John Calvin, quoted by Marilynne Robinson, “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism,” in her collection When I Was a Child I Read Books.

According to Robinson, the much-derided Calvinist and Puritan strain in American Protestantism emphasized caring for the needy, because of, rather than in spite of, its supposed “legalism.” That is, because it valued the Old Testament more highly than some other Christian traditions, the Calvinist-Puritan synthesis was more influenced by the demands for social justice that are found in the Pentateuch.  God’s “liberality” as expressed in these demands is at the root of “liberalism” as a project of institutionalizing justice for the poor.

The case for American social democracy–4: final thoughts

(Previous posts: here, here, and here.)

My summary can’t do justice to Kenworthy’s book, largely because it leaves out the impressive array of data he uses to buttress his arguments. I’m hardly a data-wonk, but in most cases the evidence he presents is clear and fairly persuasive in showing how the policies he favors can ameliorate the problems of economic stagnation and inequality. He’s also fair and level-headed in addressing objections, and generally un-dogmatic about his conclusions.

There are still things to argue with in this book, though. One of the more interesting arguments, to me anyway, is whether liberals/leftists/social democrats should agree with Kenworthy in accepting a future consisting in large part of relatively low-wage service jobs “cushioned” by generous government spending and services, or whether they should work toward reestablishing, in some form, the high-wage industrial model of the mid-20th century. I don’t know the answer to this, but in support of Kenworthy’s position, I think it’s fair to say that no one has yet come up with a way of recreating that model, despite it being the object of a lot of nostalgia on the center-left.

I’d also liked to have seen more discussion of the “intangible” aspects of work–its meaning, the extent to which it engages our capacities and creativity, whether it allows for some degree of autonomy and self-direction, etc. Making sure everyone has sufficient material resources is absolutely a prerequisite for a decent society, but a good society should also allow for everyone, to the extent possible, to exercise their distinctively human capabilities. That doesn’t have happen through paid labor, but given that many people spend a large chunk of their waking hours at work, making it more fulfilling should be on the agenda.

All that said, however, I’m inclined to support most if not all of Kenworthy’s policy prescriptions. Most of them are good ideas on their own merits, even if they may not be sufficient to solve the problems he identifies. I also consider it a mark in this agenda’s favor that it wouldn’t require an unlikely and radical break with past progress, but its natural continuation. If nothing else, it certainly gives the center-left plenty to do in the years to come.

The case for American social democracy–3: how do we get there?

(See previous posts: here and here.)

Observers of 21st-century American politics might be forgiven for thinking that the policies Kenworthy proposes are so much pie-in-the-sky dreaming. After all, the resurgent radical right bitterly opposes much of the existing welfare state, much less new programs. And haven’t the Democrats largely embraced corporate centrism and deficit-fetishism?

Surprisingly, perhaps, Kenworthy thinks the long-term trend of American social policy is toward providing more services, and once programs are adopted, they are very hard to undo. Simply put, the economic trends producing insecurity, lack of opportunity, and uneven economic gains are likely to continue, if not worsen. Policy makers will try to solve these problems, and the kinds of programs that exist here and abroad have a proven track record of helping. So, at least sometimes, they will succeed in expanding or implementing these programs.

He’s not unaware of the obstacles to these kinds of reforms, but argues that, on balance and over time (the next 50 years or so), many of these policies are likely to be enacted. He points out, for instance, that although many polls show that Americans are opposed to “big government” in theory, they largely support individual programs like Social Security and Medicare. And once a policy is adopted and has been in effect, support tends to go up.

Given yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, it might be worth focusing on the role of money in politics. This ruling lifted a cap on the total amount someone could contribute during a particular period, while leaving intact limits on contributions to individual candidates. It’s another step down the same path as the controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling, which prohibited limits on independent spending by corporations and unions.

For many folks on the left, the ever-expanding role of money in politics is one of the most powerful obstacles to progressive reform, if not the most powerful. Kenworthy is aware of this, but argues that the role of money in determining political outcomes is overstated:

Even if money totals continue to favor Republicans, it’s unclear how much that will matter. There are diminishing returns to money in influencing election outcomes: when a lot is already being spent, additional amounts have limited impact. The Democrats had less money in 2012, yet they were competitive in the presidential, House, and Senate elections. (p. 163)

In general, he says, the “history of campaign finance in national elections in the past four decades is one of each party and its backers seeking new ways to raise and spend large amounts of money in spite of existing regulations” (p. 163). If this pattern continues, Democrats will find new ways to offset Republicans’ advantages arising from a changed legal and regulatory landscape.

But to many on the left this misses the point: even if Democrats can continue to be electorally competitive, hasn’t the influence of big money pushed them to the right and led them to promote policies that favor the rich? A common story is that over the last several decades the influence of liberals in the party has waned, while corporatist, “third-way” Democrats have triumphed.

Kenworthy considers this objection and responds by showing that, in fact, patterns of voting on economic issues by Democratic legislators at the federal level do not show a shift to the center. If anything, the pattern since 1950 shows a slight shift to the left (see p. 164). (This is partly due to the exodus of conservative southern lawmakers from the party in the wake of civil rights, but even if you factor them out, the pattern holds.) He concedes, however, that focusing exclusively on voting could be misleading since many important policy-shaping decisions are made before a proposal even comes up for a vote. It’s possible that if we could measure this we’d see that the influence of campaign contributions has successfully moved policy to the right. (This strikes me as a fairly significant caveat.)

Nonetheless, the Democrats, while historically more of a centrist than a true leftist party, remain electorally competitive, and the Democratic Party has historically been the main vehicle for implementing progressive economic policies. It’s also worth noting, anecdotally, that in the last few years there seems to have been at least a slight shift toward a more “populist” economic posture among Democrats, which isn’t what you’d expect if big-moneyed interests were all-powerful.

Another major obstacle that many liberals and Democrats would highlight is influence of a more radical and intransigent faction of the right on the GOP (i.e. the tea party). Kenworthy admits that the current GOP and its anti-government rhetoric pose a problem for a social democratic program like his. But he we can expect that the party will move back to the center. Reasons for this would be if the GOP loses an otherwise winnable election and the increasing importance of working-class whites as a Republican constituency. (In fact, last year’s government shutdown fiasco seems to already have provided something of a moderating influence.)  Over time, he thinks, the GOP will find its way back to the middle and come to more closely resemble center-right parties in Western Europe. Its focus will then be not so much on how much the government does, but how it does it.

These claims will probably strike different readers as having varying degrees of probability, and some of the discussion does strike me as a bit Pollyanna-ish. But Kenworthy goes on to point out that, even since the 70s, headway has been made on a number of fronts (e.g., expansions in the EITC, expansions in unemployment insurance, expanded Medicaid access, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and others). Indeed, the Affordable Care Act, for all its problems, is probably the single largest expansion of the welfare state since LBJ’s Great Society and shows that significant progress is still possible.

Next: Final thoughts

The case for American social democracy–2: objections and alternatives

(See previous post.)

After discussing the problems he’s concerned with and his proposed solutions, Kenworthy considers a number of objections to his program, both from the “right” and the “left” (broadly speaking).

For instance, one of the most obvious objections is: how are we going to pay for all this? Kenworthy estimates that the policies he’s outlined would require an additional 10 percent of GDP in expenditures. He thinks this can be accomplished through a combination of tax measures–most significantly a national consumption tax, or value-added tax, similar to those of many European countries, along with modest increases in the income tax rate for high earners, an end to the mortgage interest deduction, a carbon tax, and a few other measures.

He argues that American liberals have been overly focused on making the income tax more progressive, whereas what should really matter to the left is that the post-tax-and-transfer distribution is progressive. This requires a tax base broad enough to finance the programs he’s identified.

He goes on to rebut claims that big government is bad for economic growth, innovation, and employment, marshaling data showing that these are all compatible with the kind of robust social-welfare state he’s advocating. He also argues that such a state is consistent with economic freedom, as conservatives often define it, noting that some social democratic countries have relatively light regulation (including of the labor market). He calls this “competition with cushions”–in essence, you want a dynamic market economy to generate wealth and jobs, but one whose rough edges are smoothed by redistribution and the provision of public goods. The Nordic model shows that this is possible in the real world.

These are mostly objections from the right. Alternative proposals from the left that Kenworthy considers include putting the brakes on globalization, re-industrializing the economy, and revitalizing unions. As I’ve already mentioned, Kenworthy doesn’t think these are, for the most part, either plausible or desirable goals. For instance, globalization (which means both liberalized trade and increased immigration) has arguably helped lift hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people out of poverty. It would be ironic, to say the least, if the American left made policies that would prevent this the centerpiece of its domestic social justice platform. Regarding industrialism and unions, given recent trends, Kenworthy sees little prospect for returning to the mid-20th-century model of high levels of industrial employment and strong private-sector unions.

He goes on to consider other “left” alternatives to his proposals, such as ensuring a high wage floor (vs. a lower wage floor with after-the-fact redistribution) and a basic universal income grant. As far as wages go, as noted earlier, he thinks the minimum wage should certainly be higher, but increasing it enough to make it a primary means of increasing incomes at the lower end would likely reduce employment. He goes on to emphasize that public goods and services can be a means of increasing people’s standard of living, even with relatively low wages. Similarly, he worries that a UBI would reduce employment and weaken support for other social programs.

To summarize, Kenworthy thinks that the Nordic model shows that we can have the dynamic, high-growth economy favored by the right and still ensure economic fairness via the redistributionist policies favored by the left. This puts him at odds, at least to some extent, with both sides of the spectrum. Though I suspect he’d find much more opposition from the right than the left to most of his proposals.

Next post: How do we get there?

The case for American social democracy–1: the problem and its solution

Over the weekend I finished reading Lane Kenworthy’s Social Democratic America. Kenworthy, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of Arizona, offers a clear, concise, and well-argued case for expanding the role of government in ensuring economic fairness and opportunity for all.

Kenworthy’s book is divided into four main sections: describing the problem, making the case for his preferred solutions, dealing with objections and alternative proposals, and arguing that the changes we need are not only politically feasible, but likely. In this post, I’m going to focus on the problem and Kenworthy’s proposed solutions. In future posts, I’ll look at some objections and alternatives he considers, how he thinks we can move forward politically, and finally some of my own thoughts on the book.

The problem

There won’t be much new here for anyone who has followed these debates in recent years, but Kenworthy compellingly lays out the data showing that since the 1970s the U.S. has been moving in the wrong direction. He breaks the problem into three components: economic security, opportunity, and shared prosperity.

Security means “having sufficient resources to cover our expenses” (p. 17); lack of security is indicated by low incomes, declining incomes, and large unanticipated expenses, such as a major health event. Income insecurity has risen in the last few decades largely because of changes in the economy: increased competitive pressures arising from globalization and more demand from shareholders for constantly increasing profits chief among them.

Opportunity does not, for Kenworthy, mean equal opportunity, which would require everyone to have the same “skills, abilities, knowledge, and noncognitive traits.” Instead, he proposes, following economist Amartya Sen and others, that we focus on maximizing people’s capacities “to choose, act, and accomplish” (p. 30). In post-1970s America, he shows, opportunity, as measured by the ability of someone from a poorer-than-average family to move up the economic ladder, has declined.

Shared prosperity means that the economy benefits everyone, even if unequally. Most Americans probably don’t object to inequality per se, but recent decades have seen the benefits of economic growth going primarily to the top 1 percent. “The income pie has gotten bigger, and everyone’s slice has increased in size, but the slice of the richest has expanded massively while that of the middle and below has gotten only a little bigger” (p. 36).

The solution

One distinctive feature of Kenworthy’s book is that, unlike many on the left, he doesn’t necessarily think we need radical new policy proposals to address the problems he has outlined. Rather, we mainly need to build on and expand existing programs and borrow some ideas from other countries, particularly the Nordic “social democratic” ones (hence the title).*

Economic security can be enhanced by implementing or expanding programs that address low incomes, declining incomes, and large unanticipated expenses. These include the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, unemployment and wage insurance, paid parental leave, and universal health insurance. All of these policies help compensate for fluctuations in people’s income.

To expand opportunity, Kenworthy proposes various improvements to our educational system on the grounds that “schools . . . are our principal lever for enhancing opportunity” (p. 62). These include things like free public colleges, more investment in high-quality K-12 teachers, and universal pre-K education. In addition to educational improvements, he also suggests a cash grant to low-income families in the form of a “child allowance,” reducing incarceration for minor criminal offenses, and instituting family-background-based affirmative action programs.

Ensuring shared prosperity may be the hardest problem to tackle. This is because the forces that have contributed to unequal growth are not easily reversed: globalization, mechanization, immigration, etc. Moreover, it’s not clear that it would be good to reverse these trends even if we could. Kenworthy does think the government can do more to encourage higher-wage employment by, for example, providing personalized job search and (re)training support, subsidizing private-sector jobs, and creating public-sector jobs.

But ultimately he thinks we need to accept that many of the jobs of the future will be relatively low-wage service jobs. Rather than fight this, we should ameliorate it through things like a higher minimum wage and an expanded EITC. We can also provide more  public goods, including public spaces and more paid holidays and vacation time, which can improve people’s standard of living even if they don’t increase their income as such.

Kenworthy even provides his favored proposals in handy bullet-list form:

–Universal health insurance

–One year of paid parental leave

– Universal early education

– Increased Child Tax Credit

– Sickness insurance

– Eased eligibility criteria for unemployment insurance

– Wage insurance

– Supplemental defined-contribution pension plans with automatic enrollment

– Extensive, personalized job search and (re)training support

– Government as employer of last resort

– Minimum wage increased modestly and indexed to prices

– EITC extended farther up the income ladder and indexed to average compensation or GDP per capita

– Social assistance with a higher benefit level and more support for employment

– Reduced incarceration of low-level drug offenders

– Affirmative action shifted to focus on family background rather than race

– Expanded government investment in infrastructure and public spaces

– More paid holidays and vacation time

Lane Kenworthy thinks we need more public goods--like the library where I got this copy of his book.

Lane Kenworthy thinks we need more public goods–like the library where I got this copy of his book.

Next post: Objections and alternatives

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*A note on usage: by “social democracy” Kenworthy largely means the model favored in the Nordic countries, which combines relatively free markets with robust welfare states and provision of public goods. This differs from some other uses of the term, which take “social democracy” to be virtually synonymous with “democratic socialism.” As Kenworthy uses it, though, social democracy is not wholly distinct from, but rather exists on a continuum with, what Americans typically call “liberalism.”

Two recent books on Christian liberalism

Christopher H. Evans’ Liberalism without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition (2010) provides a brief history and qualified commendation of the American tradition of liberal Christianity. He discusses the roots of liberalism in the 19th century, its flowering in the Social Gospel movement, and its continuing diffusion and influence throughout the 20th century. As the title suggests, Evans is far from uncritical of the liberal tradition, but he thinks it still has much to contribute to the revitalization of mainline Protestantism. For example, Evans argues that contemporary liberal theology is too rooted in academia and too detached from congregational life and the living sources of Christian tradition. In particular, he says, liberalism needs to engage more constructively with contemporary evangelicalism; after all, many of the giants of liberal Christianity came out of the evangelical milieu of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Liberal religion will probably remain a minority preference for the foreseeable future, but American still needs a theological tradition that engages critically and constructively with secular thought, responds to systemic social injustice, and promotes pluralism in theology.

Michael Langford’s The Tradition of Liberal Theology (2014) is less historical and more directly theological and philosophical than Evans’ book. It describes and defends a tradition of Christian thought stretching back to the 2nd century that emphasizes the compatibility of faith and reason, the goodness and rationality of God, theological pluralism, and a nonliteral approach to the Bible, among other elements. He sometimes calls this “liberal orthodoxy” to emphasize its commitment to central Christian doctrines like creation, incarnation, and Trinity. Langford identifies 13 historical figures whose thought contributed to this tradition and argues that it continues to be a viable approach to Christianity in the 21st century. In contrast to Evans’ more America-centric approach, Langford focuses on a particularly (though not uniquely) British tradition and emphasizes philosophical considerations more than social reform. But these books provide complementary rather than conflicting defenses of liberalism.

I wouldn’t identify myself as a full-blown theological liberal, but I think the tradition still has valuable contributions to make to the future of Christianity. These two books provide a good start for thinking about what those contributions might be.

B. A. Gerrish’s “Saving and Secular Faith”

The concept of faith is obviously of great importance in Christianity, but there’s not necessarily agreement on what it means. Faith has been defined as intellectual assent to certain propositions (such as those taught by the church or contained in the Bible). But it has also been interpreted in a more “existential” sense as “trust.”

In Saving and Secular Faith, his short “invitation” to theology, Reformed theologian Brian Gerrish tries to steer a middle course. He rejects views of faith that define it as simply assent to a set of revealed truths, but he also maintains that faith must have some cognitive content. As a working definition, he ends up adopting John Calvin’s account of “saving” faith as “steadfast knowledge of the fatherly goodwill of God.” He later elaborates on this, saying that it “is both (1) perceiving one’s experience under the image of divine benevolence (fides) and (2) a consequent living of one’s life out of an attitude of confidence or trust (fiducia).” For Christians, this gift of faith is given through Christ–specifically through the impact of the narrative of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

For Gerrish, Christian faith is a particular instance of faith defined in a more generic way: the perception of meaning and purpose in one’s life through commitment to an object of ultimate loyalty in which one finds security (p. 33).  Faith is a “construal” or a “construction” of the meaning of reality: our experience is interpreted through a particular lens. (Calvin compared revelation to a corrective lens that allows us to see reality more truly.) This doesn’t mean that the faith one adopts is arbitrary, but there is an irreducible element of subjectivity. Our construal of reality is one that we typically absorb from our community, such as a religious community.

Gerrish argues not only that Christian faith shares resemblances with other types of faith (somewhat awkwardly, he refers to these, religious and non-religious alike, as “secular” faith), but that virtually every approach to reality requires what he calls “elemental” faith. At a minimum, he says, nearly everyone, even a hard-bitten scientific naturalist, assumes that the world exists independently of our minds and that it displays a certain order and regularity. Similarly, when push comes to shove, almost all of us recognize a moral order–duties that we have whether we like it or not. There is a sense in which we are–all of us–practically committed to things we can’t prove.

He goes on to defend creeds and confessions as tools, not for persecuting heretics, but for establishing and maintaining the identity of a community and its construal of reality. But he is equally insistent–in good Protestant fashion–that these must be open to revision. Gerrish also considers, briefly, how religious pluralism and the quest for the historical Jesus affect Christianity’s confession of Jesus as Savior. In short, “saving faith” as Gerrish has defined it does not exclude the possibility that such faith can be mediated through traditions other than Christianity. Nor is it dependent on the results of the latest historical research. What has historically mediated this faith is the “image” of Jesus contained in the New Testament and passed down through the ages by the church, and this is not falsifiable by historical research.

I have some reservations about Gerrish’s argument. In particular, I think his understanding of faith would have been more persuasive if he’d demonstrated more concretely how it would apply to non-Christian traditions. And I’m less comfortable than he seems to be with historical agnosticism about Jesus. But I still found it a winsome approach to theology and faith standing within the venerable liberal Protestant tradition exemplified by Schleiermacher: that is, one that is open to modern thought and experience but which takes Christian uniqueness and tradition seriously. (This is not terribly surprising, since Gerrish has studied Schleiermacher and wrote a very illuminating study of his theology.)

Favorite books read in 2013

This is not based on any kind of rigorous methodology;  these are just the books I enjoyed and/or that “stuck with me” the most throughout the year. As should be obvious, these were not necessarily books published in 2013.

Fiction:

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

I decided to start reading this late last year after seeing the film version starring Keira Knightley. I’m frankly in awe of it, and nothing I can say will do it justice. But the thing that probably struck me the most was Tolstoy’s ability to draw fully realized characters and make the reader truly view the world from their perspective (including, in one case, a dog!). I can see why some people have compared Tolstoy to God: he intimately knows and truly loves each of his characters (sometimes, one senses, in spite of himself). And I haven’t even mentioned the delicately intertwining stories, the astonishingly clear and beautiful scenes Tolstoy draws, the social commentary, and the philosophical and religious musings. Basically, this book deserves every bit of its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written.

True Grit, Charles Portis

I’d seen both movie versions, but had never read the book. Portis’s unforgettable characters, deadpan dialogue, and tightly constructed plot made this a hugely enjoyable read.

Non-fiction:

The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, James Oakes

Oakes’ recounting of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged around a particular brand of antislavery politics isn’t just a fascinating story about two important figures at a pivotal point in American history (it is that, though!). It also serves as a rebuttal of sorts to radicals of every stripe who think they’re too pure for the grubby business of electoral politics.

Systematic Theology, vols. 1 and 2, Paul Tillich

I disagree profoundly with some of Tillich’s basic theological positions, but his thought remains, nearly 20 years after I first read him, a source of stimulation and insight.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Garry Wills

I’m not sure Wills persuaded me of his main thesis, namely, that Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was, in effect, an ideological re-founding of the Republic. But his erudition is undeniable, and his analysis of the address in light of classical and contemporary examples of funeral oratory is extremely illuminating. He also writes like a dream.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Francis Spufford

Spufford avoids nearly every cliche of contemporary religion writing and provides the freshest take on Christian faith I’ve read in ages. Sharp, funny, and heartfelt without being sappy. As I said in my “non-review,” I think Spufford captures how many of us in the “post-Christian” West experience our faith.

How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

This father-and-son team (an economist and philosopher, respectively) ask why the richest societies in history have so much inequality and so little genuine leisure. They blame a combination of political and philosophical failures, and argue for recovering a broadly Aristotelian concept of the good life than can help us get off the production-and-consumption treadmill. Their skewering of trendy “happiness” research and its associated policy prescriptions alone is worth the price of admission. Also worth noting is their critique of liberal “neutrality” regarding the good life.

I’ve got a couple of books going now, and if any finish any before December 31st that blow me away, maybe I’ll update this. Also, looking this over, I realize that I really need to read more books not written by white men.

Keith Ward on creation and the (social) Trinity

Keith Ward’s Religion and Creation (RC) is part of his multi-volume “comparative theology.” Its goal is to develop a contemporary Christian theology in genuine conversation with both modern science and other religious traditions.

The focus of RC is the doctrine of God. Ward argues that recent representative figures from four major religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism) all make similar moves in revising the classical understanding of God.* They have qualified the traditional insistence on God’s complete immutability and impassibility with an emphasis on the importance of the spatio-temporal creation to God. The particular moves they make differ, but they agree that the creation makes a difference to God in a way that classical forms of theism generally denied. In some cases, this means affirming that God experiences time, change, and empathy with the sufferings of creatures.

In the book’s final chapter, Ward discusses the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in relation to creation. He suggests that creation of some kind may be necessary for God to realize the capacity for loving what is truly other. As he says elsewhere, it is “a love for what is other than God but can be united to the life of God in fellowship.”

Ward rejects the view, proposed by some theologians, that God can be perfectly loving in Godself because of the love that exists between the three persons of the Trinity. This strongly “social” view of the Trinity sees the godhead as comprising three divine persons or centers of consciousness whose unity consists of their loving fellowship.

According to Ward, some forms of social Trinitarianism border on polytheism, though a “rather cosy and harmonious polytheism” (p. 322). Social Trinitarians have a difficult time accounting for the necessary unity of the three persons, and attempts to do so often look like subordinationism (i.e., by making the Son and Spirit derivative from, and less than, the Father). Or they treat love as a reified, abstract principle that somehow stands “above” the three persons and binds them together.

It’s better, he proposes, to talk about “one ultimate subject which possesses three distinct forms of action and awareness” (p. 323). The problem with social Trinitarianism, he says, is that it tends to veer into speculation about three divine individuals with intra-divine relations apart from any relation to created reality. Trinitiarian thinking should be rooted in the biblical witness, which does not speak of “three divine individuals in continuing conversation” (p. 327). Rather, “belief in the one God of monotheism, who is somehow mediated to [the apostles] through Jesus and intimately present in the power of the Spirit. The idea of the Trinity does not supersede monotheism; it interprets it, in light of a specific set of revelatory events and experiences” (p. 327).

Threefold-ness is a real aspect of God, but it is manifested in relation to creation (p. 329). Theology shouldn’t posit some purely immanent, intra-trinitarian relation of the persons: “intra-Trinitarian being is given to us only in revelation” (p. 329). The basis of trinitarian doctrine is the apostolic experience of Jesus making God present in a new way:

[T]he simple historical source of this doctrine is the apostolic experience of God as loving Father, Jesus as the obedient Son, the Father’s image on earth, and the Spirit as the one who makes Jesus present to every time and place, and unites ll in him. (pp. 330-1)

While the Trinity corresponds to something real in God’s being, we only have access to the “economic” Trinity–that is, the threefold activity of God as we see it in the history of salvation. The economic Trinity is God-in-relation–responding to and affected by the actions of creatures. “This is the responsive aspect of the Divine, which interacts with created beings to check tendencies to disintegration and guide them actively toward perfection” (p. 340).

I’ve always been a bit skeptical of social Trinitarianism, particularly when it’s combined with political theologies which suppose that human communities can and should reflect the intra-Trinitarian life (Kathryn Tanner and Karen Kilby have both powerfully criticized this view). They often seem to rest on just the sort of speculative divine metaphysics Ward is criticizing, and draw what are, to my mind, improper analogies between human communities and the divine “community.” (Obviously there’s a lot more that can be, and has been, said on this topic, both pro and con.)

Even if we reject social Trinitarianism, though, couldn’t we say that God perfectly loves the divine self and would do so even if God had not created a world? Ward would say, however, that God would still have failed to realize the capacity for loving what is genuinely other than God, and that this form of love is a great good. In Ward’s view, it is better to have a universe with creatures who can enter into freely chosen fellowship with God, even if this also creates the possibility of their estrangement. Therefore, he thinks, creation does make a difference to God, enriching the divine life beyond what it would’ve been had God not created.

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*The four 20th-century figures Ward focuses on are Abraham Joshua Heschel (Judaism), Karl Barth (Christianity), Mohammad Iqbal (Islam), and Aurobindo Ghose (Hinduism).

A non-review of Francis Spufford’s “Unapologetic”

You should read this book.

You should read this book.

I’ve been having trouble thinking of something to say about Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic other than “I really, really liked it.” It’s not like any other “religious” book I can remember reading. The closest analogue I can think of are the books of Anne Lamott, who similarly writes about the life of faith with brutal honesty and without pious cant.

The title has a double meaning: Spufford is unapologetic in the sense of not being ashamed of his belief, but he’s also not offering an “apology” in the sense of a reasoned defense of Christianity–the sort of thing you get from some of C. S. Lewis’s writings (not to mention those of many lesser lights). Spufford’s goal is to describe from the inside what being a Christian is like–specifically for an educated Englishman living in a “post-Christian” culture–and to show that it can be an emotionally authentic response to the human condition. He doesn’t shy away from the blots on Christianity’s historical record or from tough theological questions (he’s particularly unsparing of pat theological answers in his discussion of theodicy). But he is equally insistent that, at its best, it provides a compelling response to what he cheekily calls the “human propensity to fuck things up” (or “HPtFtU” as he abbreviates it).

Spufford is a more-or-less orthodox Christian, but he considers theological propositions as secondary to a the immediate emotional experience of faith (not unlike an earlier defender of religion against its cultured despisers). This is the experience of a graceful presence underlying the messy and ambiguous world of daily life–a presence we encounter most piercingly when we have screwed things up. Christians see this presence most fully manifested in Jesus, and Spufford’s retelling of the gospel story provides the theological heart of the book. He recognizes that his faith is a wager–he doesn’t know whether or not there is a God, but “neither does Richard bloody Dawkins.”

What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have paid attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there; to dare the conditional. And not timid death-fearing emotional sense, or cowering craven master-seeking sense, or censorious holier-than-thou sense, either. Hopeful sense. Realistic sense. Battered-about-but-still-trying sense. The sense recommended by our awkward sky fairy, who says: don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid. Far more can be mended than you know. (p. 220)

Despite the intellectual bravado of some professional Christians, I think that this is far closer to how many of us–particularly those of us in the West–experience our faith. But nothing I can write will do justice to Spufford’s book; I encourage you to read it for yourself.