Reading highlights of 2012

This was the year I finally got into Civil War history. My reading of McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, mentioned in the last post, was a follow up to reading Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery earlier this year. I really enjoyed Foner’s book, but felt that I lacked an understanding of the broader context of the war, which led me to McPherson’s book. Now I’m looking forward to moving on to James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, a copy of which I received as a Christmas gift.

On the theology front, Friedrich Schleiermacher loomed large this year. I read his systematic theology, The Christian Faith, and it has had a significant effect on how I think about theological questions. I supplemented it with Terrence Tice‘s and B.A. Gerrish‘s introductions to Schleiermacher–the latter was particularly helpful. Currently I’m working through F.S.’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.

I’ve also been revisiting the work of Paul Tillich. I read a lot of Tillich in college, but hadn’t paid him much attention in years. This year I read two collections of his sermons–The Shaking of the Foundations and The New Being. Right now I’m just over halfway through his History of Christian Thought, and I have The Courage to Be and Theology of Culture on deck. I’ve discovered that I still find Tillich’s approach to theology helpful, even if I may not agree with all his specific conclusions.

Fiction-wise, the high point of my year was Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Great Expectations (which I read late last year) was my first foray into Dickens, but Copperfield edges it out in my estimation. While Expectations is more tightly plotted, Dickens’ famous knack for generating larger-than-life characters is on fuller display in Copperfield. I’m thinking about finally tackling Tolstoy in 2013–possibly Anna Karenina.

What were your favorite books this year?

Negative liberty, positive liberty, and the second American revolution

In the afterword to his magisterial Battle Cry of Freedom (which I finished reading over Christmas), historian James McPherson says that the Civil War was a turning point between two different understandings of liberty. He distinguishes them using the terms made famous by Isaiah Berlin: “negative” liberty and “positive” liberty. Roughly, negative liberty is freedom from external interference–the “right to be left alone.” So understood, freedom is essentially opposite to government power: the stronger the government, the less freedom. The American Revolution was arguably a battle for negative liberty in that the colonies were seeking freedom from English domination and that the resulting government was one of sharply limited powers.

By contrast, positive liberty is having the actual capability to do something you want. Freedom in this sense is not inherently opposed to power, but in fact requires a strong government. Freeing slaves, to take the most salient example, required a dramatic increase in federal power.

McPherson contends that, after the Civil War, positive liberty became the dominant American understanding of freedom. He points out that the first ten amendments to the Constitution–the Bill of Rights–were essentially a series of “thou shalt nots” directed at the federal government intended to limit its power; but the post-Civil War amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) established that the federal government did have the power to enforce the equal civil rights and freedoms of citizens. This created a much wider scope for government activity to ensure equal effective freedom.

McPherson observes that the “libertarians and southern conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s who wanted to revive the exclusively negative form of liberty that prevailed before the Civil War were right to make Lincoln a target of their intellectual artillery.”

Unlike these one-dimensional philosophers of negative liberty, however, Lincoln understood that secession and war had launched a revolution that changed America forever. Eternal vigilance against the tyrannical power of government remains the price of our negative liberties, to be sure. But it is equally true that the instruments of government power remain necessary to defend the equal justice under law of positive liberty. (p. 867)

This, of course, is also the view of American liberalism–the liberalism of F.D.R. and L.B.J. and the modern Democratic Party. When conservatives invoke freedom they usually intend to restrict it to negative liberty in McPherson’s sense (although even this commitment is often more honored in the breach than the observance). Freedom from taxes, from regulation, from restrictions on gun ownership, etc. are all framed as negative freedoms. Liberals maintain, though, that government power is necessary to ensure a degree of positive freedom sufficient for people to lead flourishing lives. This is the theoretical basis for the social welfare state and government regulations on nominally private activity, such as pollution. Lincoln may not have been a “liberal” in the modern sense, but there’s a relatively straight line from his political philosophy to New Deal-Great Society liberalism.

Disturbingly, though, the increase in positive liberty often seems to go hand-in-hand with a diminution in negative liberty. We only need to recall Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, F.D.R.’s internment camps, or Obama’s “kill list.” That’s the legitimate insight of the libertarians (and their left-wing cousins the anarchists)–that it’s hard to establish a firewall that confines government power to good purposes. So you end up with an expanded welfare state and civil liberties violations and overseas wars. That doesn’t mean that a free, peaceful, and social democratic society is impossible (the Scandinavian countries seem to pull if off fairly successfully); but it may be a risk inherent in the project.

Small government

“On all issues but one, antebellum southerners stood for state’s rights and a weak federal government. The exception was the fugitive slave law of 1850, which gave the national government more power than any other law yet passed by Congress.” — James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 78

Was Jesus married? Does it matter?

It looks like there’s some skepticism among scholars about the authenticity of the already much-discussed “Jesus’ wife” papyrus–said to be a fragment from a non-canonical Coptic gospel that has Jesus referring to “my wife” and saying that she will be a “disciple.” Much of yesterday’s breathless reporting on the papyrus centered around its potential to “shake up” debates about women’s role in the church. So if the fragment is spurious, does that mean no such re-thinking is necessary?

To start with, we should be clear that, even if it’s authentic, all the papyrus would seem to show–at most–is that there was an early tradition that Jesus was married. (Curiously, few people seem to have considered the possibility that the wife “Jesus” refers to might be the church–an image that goes back to the NT itself.) It wouldn’t, as even the professor who discovered it acknowledges, show that Jesus was in fact married.

Second, even though Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried and celibate, it’s not clear to me that anything of theological significance stands or falls on this. How would the central Christological doctrines–the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension, etc.–be affected by the discovery that Jesus was married? It’s true, as one Twitter-friend pointed out, that it may call into question the reliability of the gospels since you’d think they might mention such a significant fact about Jesus. But against this we should remember (1) the gospels don’t provide “biography” in our modern sense; they are theological-confessional documents intended to witness to faith in Christ, and (2) historical criticism has already called the reliability of the gospels into question in many respects, and yet they still function as the Word of God for people in the church.

All of this aside, I think it’s wrong to suggest that we need certain facts about the historical Jesus to be true in order to authorize things like the full equality of women in the church. As theologian Clark Williamson has written,

The problem with feminist theology is that in its constitutive assertions it is right. Women are fully human, clearly the equal of men, and need liberation from sexist oppression. But if the only way to warrant being a Christian feminist is by appeal to the empirical-historical Jesus as a norm, then Jesus will turn out to have been a feminist. . . . [But i]f Jesus was not a feminist, am I still not free to be one? Is it the role of Jesus . . . to authorize our conformity to him or to author our freedom and creativity, our right to reform the church? Dare we allow the historical Jesus to be himself, a first-century Jew, different from us, or must he reflect our concerns and ideals back to us? If so, how can he ever correct us? (Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel, p. 190).

Williamson is concerned to correct the tendency in some feminist theology to portray Jesus as the egalitarian, feminist liberator from an oppressive, patriarchal Judaism, an opposition that in effect “de-Judaizes” Jesus and reinforces the long history of Christian anti-Judaism. But his point has broader application, I think. If modern Christians want to be feminists (and they should!), they don’t need to justify it by appealing to a shaky historical reconstruction of a “feminist Jesus.” Many churches, drawing on the resources of the canonical scriptures and Christian tradition, have come to see sexual equality as a gospel issue–and that provides a much stronger foundation. Christians shouldn’t be threatened by historical research, but neither should they build their faith on it.

Is belief in a historical Adam a “gospel issue”?

I came across this post by James McGrath–”Ten Really Bad Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam“–which was a response to a post by Reformed blogger Kevin DeYoung arguing for the necessity of belief in a historical Adam.

One reason DeYoung offers that I’ve seen emphasized elsewhere is that without belief in a historical Adam and a historical “Fall,” there is no need for the gospel.

Here’s DeYoung:

9. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s doctrine of original sin and guilt does not hold together.

As James McGrath points out, there’s a bit of sleight-of-hand going on here when DeYoung refers to “Paul’s doctrine of original sin and guilt.” The traditional Reformed doctrine of original sin and guilt is one–and certainly not the only–interpretation of what Paul thought.

That traditional Reformed view holds that from Adam’s original sin of disobedience the rest of humanity has inherited both a propensity toward sin and the guilt of that sin, which merits eternal damnation. Only, the story continues, by pleading the Atonement of Christ can we be delivered from that guilt and its attendant punishment.

But if you don’t think this is an appropriate interpretation of the biblical teaching, then the alleged necessity of positing a historical Adam disappears. For example, the Eastern Orthodox churches don’t teach the doctrine of “orignial guilt” as formulated by, say, Augustine and the Reformers. They acknowledge that humanity has an innate tendency toward sin, but this isn’t the same thing as saying that we’re guilty for something Adam did.

In fact, even leaving aside historical or biological considerations, the idea that God “imputes” Adam’s guilt to the rest of humanity is objectionable on moral grounds. How can it possibly be just for God to hold people accountable for–to the extent of condemning them to eternal hellfire–something over which they had no control and in fact happened before they were even born? You can avoid this problem by embraciing a voluntarist conception of divine goodness, but that’s a price many people aren’t willing to pay.

What’s really puzzling to me about a view like DeYoung’s, though, is that it seems to imply that we need a historical Adam in order to recognize our need for salvation. But people don’t respond to the gospel because they’ve already accepted some theory about original sin; they respond to it because it addresses our experience of evil, suffering, and guilt. In other words, if someone asks “How do you know we need saved?”, the answer is “Look around!”

You don’t need to believe in a historical Adam to see that the human situation is in need of healing. The human predicament is one of subjection to suffering and evil, and complicity in the ongoing cycle of victimization and violence. And the Christian gospel is that, in Jesus, God has done something about this situation: specifically, God has revealed and enacted the divine love and forgiveness, has come to share our life and our sufferings, has reconciled humanity to the divine nature, and has raised human nature to eternal life. As far as I can see, the truth of this doesn’t depend on accepting a particular theory about the historical existence of Adam or the origin of sin.

John Wesley on slavery and human rights

I’ve been reading Theodore Runyon’s The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today, which aims to offer a synoptic account of Wesley’s thought and its relevance for the contemporary church. As the title suggests, Runyon argues that the notion of the renewal of creation is key to understanding Wesley’s theology. Specifically, it refers to the renewal of the image of God in humanity through the power of divine grace. Runyon offers the analogy of a mirror to help understand Wesley’s account of the “image of God.” It doesn’t refer to some inherent capacity of human nature, such as reason or freedom, but is a relational notion: we receive the love of God and we reflect it back to the world around us. Wesley was a genuine “evangelical catholic” who combined the Reformation emphasis on justification by faith with an equally strong belief that God’s grace would transform human life and, ultimately, the entire creation.

In the final chapter, “Wesley for Today,” Runyon discusses how Wesley’s theology might be applicable to some current pressing social and political issues. And in articulating Wesley’s approach to what we would now call human rights, Runyon draws extensively on Wesley’s ardent opposition to slavery, which I admit I wasn’t really aware of.

Here’s a pamphlet Wesley published on the question of slavery. An excerpt with Wesley’s response to certain pro-slavery arguments:

“But the furnishing us with slaves is necessary for the trade, and wealth, and glory of our nation” [says the defender of slavery]. Here are several mistakes. For, First, wealth is not necessary to the glory of any nation; but wisdom, virtue, justice, mercy, generosity, public spirit, love of our country. These are necessary to the real glory of a nation; but abundance of wealth is not. Men of understanding allow that the glory of England was full as high in Queen Elizabeth’s time as it is now; although our riches and trade were then as much smaller, as our virtue was greater. But, Secondly, it is not clear that we should have either less money or trade, (only less of that detestable trade of man-stealing,) if there was not a Negro in all our islands, or in all English America. It is demonstrable, white men, inured to it by degrees, can work as well as them; and they would do it, were Negroes out of the way, and proper encouragement given them. However, Thirdly, I come back to the same point: Better no trade, than trade procured by villany. It is far better to have no wealth, than to gain wealth at the expense of virtue. Better is honest poverty, than all the riches bought by the tears, and sweat, and blood, of our fellow-creatures.

And here’s a letter–one of his last, written on his deathbed–to William Wilberforce, then a member of parliament:

Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God before you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.

Wesley, Runyon notes, is sometimes caricatured as a conservative, or even reactionary, “high-church Tory,” but according to Runyon this misunderstands his reasons for, e.g., supporting the monarchy. Wesley distrusted democracy precisely because he feard that it would ride roughshod over the liberty of the individual, particularly religious liberty. He had first-hand experience to draw on, as early Methodists were often attacked by angry mobs, sometimes whipped up by local authorities. Wesley saw “liberty under law” in the form of a constitutional monarchy as the best defense against mob rule. He also observed the hypocrisy of American colonists complaining about the “tyranny” of the crown while at the same time maintaining the institution of chattle-slavery. Had Wesley lived to see the establishment of genuine liberal democracy he might have changed his mind, but his opposition at the time was rooted in a concern for what we would today call human rights. And for Wesley, this inherent dignity was in turn based on the creative love of God.

The miracle of King James’ Bible

Here is the miracle of the King James Bible in action. Words from a doubly alien culture, not an original text but a translation of ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, made centuries ago and thousands of miles away, arrive in a dusty corner of the New World and sound as they were meant to—majestic but intimate, the voice of the universe somehow heard in the innermost part of the ear.

You don’t have to be a Christian to hear the power of those words—simple in vocabulary, cosmic in scale, stately in their rhythms, deeply emotional in their impact. Most of us might think we have forgotten its words, but the King James Bible has sewn itself into the fabric of the language. If a child is ever the apple of her parents’ eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death’s door or at our wits’ end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one’s teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.

Read the rest here.

I don’t think Christians should rely on the KJV as their primary translation, but there’s no denying its beauty and its importance, both religiously and as a shaper of the English language.