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.

“Jesus’ wife” revisited

It looks like the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment has been shown to be authentic–meaning that it comes from a legitimately ancient document, and may represent a tradition going back to a fairly early point in Christian history:

A wide range of scientific testing indicates that a papyrus fragment containing the words, “Jesus said to them, my wife” is an ancient document, dating between the sixth to ninth centuries CE. Its contents may originally have been composed as early as the second to fourth centuries.

The fragment does not in any way provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, as Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, has stressed since she announced the existence of the fragment in the fall of 2012. Rather, the fragment belongs to early Christian debates over whether it was better for Christians to be celibate virgins or to marry and have children. The fragment is weighing in on this issue, according to King.

“The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus—a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued,” King explained.

I blogged about the theological implications of this back when the fragment’s existence was announced. (Short version: there aren’t many.) There are ample resources in canonical Christianity to support the value of married and family life and the equality of the sexes. If anything, the existence of women disciples who were not linked romantically to Jesus seems to make a stronger case for equality.

 

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.

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.

On pseudo-radical antigay arguments

This and this both seem to me to run aground on the same basic reality: gay people exist, and no amount of quasi-Foucaultian “deconstruction” is going to change that. Even if you could dispense with the concepts of hetero/homosexuality, there would still be people who are exclusively, and more-or-less unalterably, attracted to members of the same sex. And many, if not most, of these people will want to form romantic relationships, which are widely and plausibly regarded as an important part of a good life for most people. Moreover, experience shows us that same-sex relationships can foster many of the same goods and virtues that opposite-sex ones can (and may have unique ones of their own).

These facts are inconvenient for religious conservatives because the options they have traditionally proposed for gay people–feigned heterosexuality or permanent celibacy–are so unappealing. The damage that results from living in the closet is so apparent now that hardly anyone seriously advocates this in public anymore. But celibacy is hardly a better alternative for most people. There’s no particular reason to think that gay people are in general more cut out for celibacy than straight people are. (This is true even if celibacy is pitched as a bohemian alternative to the “bourgeois” nuclear family.) Certainly people can be called to celibacy, perhaps as part of a religious vocation, but it’s unreasonable to demand this of gay people as a class.

I suppose it might be a sign of how much headway gay rights have made that opponents are now resorting to such counterintuitive and esoteric arguments.

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

“Deep time” and religious belief

Keith Ward reviews what sounds like a pretty interesting book on “deep time” and the possible future evolution of religious beliefs.

The acceptance of deep time — of the fact that the universe has existed for billions of years and that it will continue to exist for billions of years — could, if inwardly digested, have a radical effect on human religious beliefs. In the first two chapters of this book, Schellenberg presents the scientific arguments for this view, and argues that the far-future beliefs of whatever succeeds the human species are liable to reduce our own early and primitive beliefs to virtual irrelevance. This is true in science, and we should expect it to be true of religion, too.

You could see this as the cosmic and temporal analogue to recognizing that human religious beliefs already vary widely across different communities. For many people, realizing that their own beliefs are at least partly contingent upon chance and circumstance introduces an element of doubt. The thrust of Schellenberg’s argument seems to be that contemplating what our beliefs may look like to our far-future descendents is cause for even greater skepticism.

Ward provides some good reasons for thinking that we needn’t lapse into wholesale religious skepticism, though. If there is an ultimate reality that human beings can come into contact with, it seems plausible that our experiences of it to date would not be wholly misleading.

I suspect that anyone who postulates that there is a supremely valuable source of universal and ultimate good will expect to find some specific instances of human contact with, and transformation by, this good. A search for revelation will begin, and you might expect to find that while such instances do not disclose all the truths there are to be known about the ultimate, nevertheless they provide accurate information which is not seriously misleading about the nature and goals of human existence.

But he also says that Schellenberg makes a strong case that “religious believers should be much less dogmatic, especially about very detailed and obscure and controversial beliefs” and that they should be more open to developing their beliefs in light of new insights.

I do think that Christians in particular are prone to thinking that most of the important development of our religious beliefs has already happened. We look back to the writing and formation of the Biblical canon, the great councils of the early church, and maybe the Middle Ages or the Reformation (depending on our church affiliation) as codifying, more or less for good, the right way of understanding who God is. This is probably inevitable to some extent because Christianity is based on a historical revelation. But another important motif of Christian faith–though one not emphasized as consistently–is the messianic, future-oriented dimension. Christianity teaches that the Kingdom has not come in its fullness and we still see “in a glass darkly.” This might lend support to the idea that our current beliefs about ultimate reality will undergo indefinite revision. But this has to be kept in balance with the conviction, which most Christians would share, that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provide a reliable indication of what God is like.

Science, faith, and cognitive dissonance

Slate‘s William Saletan wrote a post about the much-publicized debate between creationist crackpot Ken Ham and Bill “the Science Guy” Nye in which he argued that, while creationism is a “delusion,” it’s largely harmless because people can compartmentalize their wacky theological beliefs and function perfectly well in modern society. They can even work successfully in scientific and technical fields.

He followed this up with a, to me, more interesting post about Jennifer Wiseman, a scientist working on the Hubble telescope project. Dr. Wiseman is not a young-earth creationist like Ham, but she is a Christian who believes in miracles, like the resurrection of Jesus. When asked how she reconciles science with her belief in divine intervention, Dr. Wiseman responded that miracles are

outside of the natural working of the forces of nature, and so science is not equipped to address that one way or the other. Science is equipped to address how things normally and naturally work. So as a scientist, I study the universe in the way it normally and naturally works and has worked throughout the whole history of time. I don’t look for anything else, because my scientific tools are not equipped to measure anything else. But does that mean that nothing outside of the normal, natural physical processes that science can address ever happened or ever does happen? Well, science can’t answer that question.

Saletan calls this “a textbook case of compartmentalized religion” and says that “[y]ou’d have no better luck talking Wiseman out of her belief in the Resurrection than you would talking Ken Ham out of his belief that God breathed life into the first man.”

But I don’t think this is right. “Compartmentalizing” implies a kind of cognitive dissonance, or even a “double-truth” theory of the kind held by some Medieval philosophers. This was the view that a proposition could be true in philosophy but false in religion; they occupied separate domains and could never conflict. At the time, this was an attempt to reconcile Aristotle’s philosophy (the best natural science of its day) with Christian doctrine, but it was one that the church ultimately rejected.

Based on her comments, though, I don’t think that’s what Jennifer Wiseman is doing, and I don’t think compartmentalization in Saletan’s sense is necessary for believers. A better way to think about this is that there is an order to the universe that includes but also transcends the order discerned by science. God’s actions, by definition, do not fall under the natural laws that science investigates because God transcends the order that those laws describe. On this view, there’s no intrinsic contradiction in saying that scientific laws describe the “normal” operations of nature but that God may act in ways that exceed them. Common observation tells us that dead people don’t come back to life in the normal run of things; but if “the normal run of things” doesn’t have the last word, so to speak, then such a miracle may be possible. God is the one, after all, who creates and sustains the normal operations of nature, and miracles (if they occur) are expressions of this same Power. There is one reality and one truth, but science only comprehends those aspects of reality which its methods are appropriate to.

Now, just because something can be believed without contradiction doesn’t mean that it’s true, and I haven’t said anything about whether beliefs in a divine order or miracles are justified. But the point is that it’s possible to integrate a scientific and religious view of the world without the kind of epistemic compartmentalizing that would allow something to be scientifically true but religiously false (or vice versa).

Do we need another Jesus movie?

Probably not, but we’re getting one anyway. Here’s the trailer for Son of God, due out this month:

Apart from some snazzy modern special effects, this looks depressingly by-the-numbers, right down to the very Caucasian-looking Jesus.

My favorite film versions of the story of Jesus are still Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth and Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. Neither are without their flaws, but the former, in my opinion, is the best straight-ahead film version, while the latter takes the most interesting risks with the story. Maybe it helps that both are based on solid books–Zeffirelli’s on Anthony Burgess’s novelization of the gospel story (Burgess also helped write the screenplay), and Scorcese’s on, of course, Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel.

It’s too bad (though maybe not surprising) that the story of Jesus hasn’t inspired filmmakers to do much more than create period costume dramas of varying quality.

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”: