All truth is God’s truth

I liked this post from Rachel Held Evans in which she rebuts critics who say that those who propose revisions to traditional church teachings are merely trying to “conform to the world.” She points out that many of the calls for change on matters like gender roles, the relationship between science and the Bible, and sexuality are coming from inside the church, from Christians reflecting on their experience and on new information about the world.

Nonetheless, I’d like to lodge one small disagreement (or maybe just a difference of emphasis). I think RHE*, implicitly at least, may be conceding too much ground to her critics.

In principle, there’s no reason to think that new insights (into morality, for example) must come from within the church. On the assumption that morality arises from reflection on human nature and that reason is a faculty shared by people of every faith (and none),** we should expect that new knowledge would often come from outside the Christian community. The church doesn’t have a monopoly on truth, and when truths are discovered outside its purview, Christians ought to be willing to recognize that.

Christian ethicist Nigel Biggar, in his book Behaving in Public, puts this point well:

If [Christians] believe in human creatureliness and sinfulness and in the eschatological futurity of perfect understanding, and if they believe in these seriously—that is, as applying to themselves—then Christians will come to public discussion with the virtue of docility. They will come ready to listen, perhaps to learn, maybe even to change their mind.

This point doesn’t by itself, of course, resolve any particular moral debate. Christians still have to sift and test proposed new truths, see if they’re consistent with core beliefs they already hold, and consider how much they would have to revise their existing beliefs if they adopt the new ones. But they should be prepared to admit that, sometimes, “the world” is right. In the particular cases RHE is writing about, “the world” is already ahead of most churches (or so I would argue, anyway).

Christianity doesn’t provide us with a ready-made answer to every moral, philosophical, political, or scientific question. The churches seem still to have a bit of a hangover from the days when they were society’s presumed moral guardian—when moral instruction was a one-way street, with the churches lecturing everyone else on right and wrong. But all too often the church obscured or resisted new truth, particularly when it came from outside the church’s boundaries. In our “post-Christendom” setting, “docility” in Biggar’s sense is a virtue well worth cultivating.

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*Referring to her as “Evans” seems rather brusque, but “Ms. Evans” seems too formal, and “Rachel” presumptuous, since I don’t know her personally. So I’m going with “RHE.”

**I realize this kind of minimalist “natural law” position is controversial in some circles and is somewhat unfashionable in recent theology, but it has a long pedigree in the Christian tradition.

Is the welfare state Christian?

There’s been some back-and-forth in the comments to this post about whether Christianity is really compatible with social democracy (or we might just as accurately say welfare-state liberalism). Does Christian ethics require provision for the poor to take place at the local level and/or through private organizations rather than being carried out by the federal government?

This article from Elizabeth Stoker provides a timely response. She says that there are good reasons for Christians to support state-based welfare, not instead of private charity, but in addition to it.

So what is the Christian argument, then, for supporting a compound structure of state welfare programs and private charity when it comes to addressing the stresses of life, which range from poverty to illness and old age? Foremost is the idea that human dignity entitles people to an “existence minimum” which guarantees their basic needs will be reliably met without discrimination based on caprice, race, gender, creed, orientation, or any other marker. Since the guarantee of stability promised by an existence minimum is the foundation upon which lives can be built — and because voluntary private charity is by nature not a guarantee — the state is the best mechanism to deliver a baseline standard of living.

She goes on to point out that, as Reinhold Niebuhr argued, relying on private charity leaves existing power structures in place because the wealthy are still calling the tune.

I think it’s important not to be dogmatic here. Programs should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and and by the results they produce. Some programs–Social Security and Medicare, for instance–have been very successful. Others–the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program comes to mind–had, by general consensus, serious problems, even if there was less agreement about what should replace them. (My view is that the program which replaced AFDC–Temporary Assistance to Needy Families–is also seriously flawed.) The point is that the specific programs should be subordinate to the results we’re trying to achieve. If you’re clear on those, you can be flexible on program design. The state can commit to ensuring a “social minimum” while using a trial-and-error approach to bringing it about. In theory, this should allow for at least some cooperation and give-and-take between liberals and conservatives.

It’s kind of strange that the “private charity only” position has come to be so closely associated with Christianity. Not only is it at odds with the practice elsewhere in the world, but it tends to ignore much of the history of Christian social reform in America.  As Christians (and others) have worked to ameliorate poverty and other social ills, they have often found that this requires large-scale structural or institutional changes that can best (or only) be carried out by the national government. Individual conversion, local efforts, and private charity–while essential–aren’t sufficient.

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.

Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.

The shrinking of imaginative identification

At this point in my life I have probably had a broader experience of the American population than is usual. I have been to divinity schools, and I have been to prisons. In the First Epistle of Peter we are told to honor everyone, and I have never been in a situation where I felt this injunction was inappropriate. When we accept dismissive judgments of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of serving its best interests. The cultural disaster called “dumbing down,” which swept through every significant American institution and grossly impoverished civic and religious life, was and is the result of the obsessive devaluing of the lives that happen to pass on this swath of continent. On average, in the main, we are Christian people, if the polls are to be believed. How is Christianity consistent with the generalized contempt that seems to lie behind so much so-called public discourse? Why the judgmentalism, among people who are supposed to believe we are, and we live among, souls precious to God–three hundred million of them on this plot of ground, a population large and various enough to hint broadly at the folly of generalization? It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts. As we withdraw from one another we withdraw from the world, except as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home.

–Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” When I Was a Child I Read Books, pp. 30-31

You can’t separate politics from morality

To me, the most interesting part of this Dahlia Lithwick article on the recent wave of left-of-center protests in North Carolina is this:

One of the first speakers of the morning opened with a booming, Southern, “Shabbat Shalom, y’all.” An imam spoke eloquently of civil rights. An astute 11-year-old friend observed that when so many religious leaders can agree so much about moral truths, “The speeches can be much shorter.” And when Barber spoke, he toggled almost imperceptibly between quoting the Constitution and the Bible. “Kicking hardworking people when they are down is not just bad policy. It is against the common good,” he preached, pleading, “Lord, Lord, plant our minds on higher ground.”

Progressives are not used to so much religion in their politics. I met someone who planned to avoid Saturday’s protest because of the God talk, and it’s clear that for many liberals, it’s easier to speak openly about one’s relationship with a sexual partner than a relationship with God or spirituality. But there are a lot of liberals who live on the seam between faith and politics. And one of the core messages of Moral Mondays is that ceding all talk of faith and morality to the political right in this country has been disastrous for the left. Or as Barber put it when he spoke, those who dismiss these protesters as “violent, and losers, and leftists, and socialists” fail to understand that the great prophets of the Bible and the founders of American constitutional democracy were “violent, and losers, and leftists, and socialists,” too.

As discomfiting as it may be to hear the Bible quoted alongside the Federalist Papers, the truth remains that for most people of most faiths, kicking the poorest and most vulnerable citizens when they are down is sinful. Stealing food and medical care from the weakest Americans is ethically corrupt. And the decades long political wisdom that only Republicans get to define sin and morality is not just tactically wrong for Democrats. It’s also just wrong. This is a lesson progressives are slowly learning from nuns and the new pope. When we talk of cutting food stamps or gutting education for our poorest citizens, we shouldn’t just call it greed. We should call it what it is: a sin.

Liberals have long been skittish about mixing politics and religion, and often with good reason. After all, one of the fundamental tenets of a liberal society is an embrace of religious pluralism. This has led many academic liberal theorists to take their cue from philosopher John Rawls’ admonition that a liberal society must be “neutral” between competing conceptions of the human good.

But the uncomfortable truth is that this is at odds with much of the history of progressive social movements. Arguably, the two most important movements for social justice in U.S. history–abolitionism and the Civil Rights movement–succeeded in no small part because they appealed to Americans’ religious sentiments. Lithwick’s article suggests that forging any broad-based political coalition in America still requires such an appeal.

Personally, I’m skeptical that any society can maintain a strict Rawlsian neutrality among conceptions of the good life.  Public policy will, I suspect, inevitably reflect prevalent views on what kinds of life are worth pursuing, which for many Americans includes a religious component. In the realm of real-world politics, refraining from taking a position on the good is likely to cede the public arena to the influence of wealth or naked self-interest. This constitutes a de facto endorsement of a certain vision of the good.

The question is whether we can affirm certain goods as worthy of public endorsement while maintaining our commitment to a reasonable form pluralism. I think we can, but I can also see why it might make some liberals uncomfortable.

Best of the week

I end up sharing a lot of links on Twitter, so I thought it might be worth collecting what I think were the stand-out pieces of the week. (“Stand-out” doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with every word, just that these were the most interesting or thought-provoking items I came across).

Anyway, here goes:

–Elizabeth Stoker, “The Christian case for raising the minimum wage”

–Mary Charlotte Ella, “Gladiators of the gridiron” (the moral case against football)

–Isaiah Berlin, “Roosevelt through European eyes” (from the Atlantic, July 1955)

–Eric Reitan, “Civil Marriage vs Civil Union: Why NOT Leave Marriage to Churches?”

–David A. Graham, “Peter Seeger’s All-American Communism”

–Michelle Goldberg, “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars”

–William Saletan “The Work Ethic” (on the economic philosophy underpinning President Obama’s State of the Union address)

–Claude S. Fischer, “Libertarianism is very strange”

And for fun, Miley Cyrus (yes, that Miley Cyrus) doing a surprisingly good cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”:

Christianity is not inherently right-wing

To those of us of a more moderate or liberal disposition, the tendency of conservative Christians to identify right-wing politics with Christianity per se is a source of no small irritation. Today at Salon, Elizabeth Stoker and Matt Bruenig point out that the American Christian Right’s approach to wealth and poverty is an outlier when compared with Christian attitudes in other parts of the world:

The notable exclusion of poverty from the Christian agenda would doubtlessly puzzle European Christians, whose support of Christian ethical approaches to family life have always been paired with a deep and vigorous concern for the poor. And, unlike their American counterparts, European Christians haven’t been willing to leave poverty up to individual charity or the market to handle. Quite the contrary: Just as public morality is an arena fit for intervention by a Christian-informed government, so too is welfare.

The case is only bolstered if you take Catholic social teaching, Latin American liberation theology, or other non-American traditions into account. The identification of Christianity with laissez-faire economics appears to be a peculiarly American phenomenon.

In a similar vein, in an interview with (somewhat ironically) the American Conservative, novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson stands up for the much-derided tradition of liberal Christianity:

Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.

Liberal Christianity undoubtedly has its problems. But even some of the theological critics of liberalism–like the Niebuhr brothers and Paul Tillich–were not “conservatives” in contemporary political terms. They were decidedly men of the Left, even while they critiqued liberal theology’s tendency toward sentimentality and moralism. To Tillich, for example, love and justice were inseparable, and the political expression of the Kingdom of God would be some form of democratic socialism. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of a major modern or contemporary theologian who is a full-blown right-winger.

“It gets better”–Christian style

A group called (somewhat ham-fistedly IMO) the “Not All Like That (NALT) Christians Project” has started a campaign inspired by Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” video series. According to the group’s website, the purpose of the campaign is to “give LGBT-affirming Christians a means of proclaiming to the world—and especially to young gay people—their belief and conviction that there is nothing anti-biblical or at all inherently sinful about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.” You can watch the videos they’ve recorded so far here.

The group has already been written up at Religion Dispatches and Time. It’s hard to say what kind of impact it will have, but it’s good to see the “open and affirming” Christian perspective trying to go more mainstream.

A liberal revival?

According to the New York Times, after a period when it was more fashionable to study relatively marginalized religious movements like evangelicalism and Mormonism, historians are turning their attention back to liberal mainline Protestantism. One of the more surprising arguments, made by David Hollinger, is that the legacy of the mainline may be deeper and more enduring than its numerical decline suggests. He contends that, despite the apparent success of conservative evangelicalism in displacing it from the center of American Protestantism, liberal Protestantism succeeded in imparting certain broadly progressive values to American society.

Perhaps providing some support for Hollinger’s thesis, a report released this week by the Brookings Institution and the Public Policy Research Institute suggests that the religious conservatism in America is actually declining, and progressivism is on the upswing. The report summarizes the results of a survey of Americans’ views on economics and religion, and a key finding is that younger generations are more likely to identify as religiously moderate or progressive (or not religious for that matter). This trend seems to mirror the same long-term demographic changes that are contributing to the woes of the Republican Party. In short: America is becoming less old, white, and conservative and more young, non-white, and liberal.

Of course, “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive” and the like are notoriously slippery and malleable terms (particularly when it comes to theology). And we don’t know if increased religious liberalism will translate to a revival of more progressive religious communities. At the same time, though, these trends hardly seem to support the oft-repeated claim that hard-core theological conservatism is the key to successful, growing churches.