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 evangelical liberalism of Georgia Harkness

A common story about 20th century American theology is that liberalism dominated in the early decades, but gradually vanished in the face of more conservative or orthodox alternatives. Theological modernism and the Social Gospel movement seemed to be the wave of the future, but they were swept away by the winds of Barthian neo-orthodoxy blowing in from Europe and by Reinhold Niebuhr’s devastating criticism of liberalism’s naive moralism and shallow optimism about human sin. As the story goes, liberalism has been in decline ever since, as evidenced by the dwindling numbers of mainline church-goers and the resurgence of a newly confident conservative evangelicalism.

Of course, as folks like Gary Dorrien have pointed out, this story oversimplifies things quite a bit. Liberalism has never completely died out, and some of the most creative theological minds of the last several decades have been those working in the liberal tradition. Moreover, Dorrien has shown how putative critics of liberalism like Niebuhr and Paul Tillich were actually working within the liberal tradition, even as they criticized the forms it took during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A less-known but still important figure who never abandoned the liberal tradition was pioneering Methodist theologian Georgia Harkness (1891-1974). She was the first woman to attain a full professorship at a theological seminary in the U.S. and was a life-long proponent of theological liberalism, albeit a “chastened” liberalism. Harkness began her career as a philosopher, studying at Boston University under the renowned personalist philosopher Edgar S. Brightman, did postdoctorate studies under Alfred North Whitehead, and refined her views through interactions with Niebuhr and Tillich as part of the “Younger Theologians Group” and during a sabbatical at Union Theological Seminary.

Georgia_E._Harkness
“I am still a liberal, unrepentant and unashamed.”

Harkness was also active in reform movements in church and society. She was an unflagging proponent of the Social Gospel and maintained her pacifist convictions even during World War II. She was also heavily involved in the Christian ecumenical movement, attending important conferences in Oxford; Madras, India; and Amsterdam. Notably, at one ecumenical church meeting she debated Karl Barth himself on the subject of women’s equality.

So what was the nature of Harkness’ theological liberalism? In her introduction to the excellent collection Georgia Harkness: The Remaking of a Liberal Theologian, Rebekah Miles explains Harkness’ theological outlook using an image developed by fellow liberal Henry Van Dusen. Theological liberalism has two “parents”: modernism–the critical, rationalist spirit derived from the Enlightenment–and evangelicalism–with its emphasis on experiential religion and spiritual transformation. Different liberal theologies share a “family resemblance” in that they contain varying mixtures of both tendencies.

According to Miles, during the critical years from 1929 to 1940, Harkness’s thought shifted from a modernist form of liberalism toward a more evangelical type. An evangelical liberal in this sense accepts the findings of science and critical history; she also sees a continuity, or at least consistency, between God’s general revelation in nature and special revelation in the Bible.  But at the same time, the clearest, most reliable revelation of God’s nature is found in the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as witnessed to in the New Testament. Evangelical liberalism is open to insights from a variety of sources but is grounded in the living Christ of the gospels.

Harkness adopted what she called a “synoptic” approach to theological truth, one that, fittingly, echoes the so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral. All sources of knowledge–authority, experience, science, logic, and pragmatism–should inform our thinking about God. She rejected any exclusive reliance on churchly authority, bibilcal proof-texting, spiritual experience, or natual reason as the basis for theological truth. Instead, she argued that all of these sources have value, but only as sifted through what she called “the mind of Christ.” By this she meant both the image and teachings of Jesus as presented the gospels and the “indwelling spiritual Christ.” Harkness refused to separate the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith.” With Christ as the lens, these other sources of truth receive their proper focus.

In her own recounting of how her mind had changed over the years, Harkness emphasized her shift to a more Christ-centered religion, but at the same time reaffirmed her commitment to liberalism:

Ten years ago I was a liberal in theology. I am still a liberal, unrepentant and unashamed. This does not mean that I have seen nothing in liberalism that needed correction. We were in danger of selling out to science as the only approach to truth, of trusting to hopefully in man’s power to remake his world, of forgetting the profound fact of sin and the redeeming power of divine grace, of finding our chief evidence of God in cosmology, art or human personality, to the clouding of the clearer light of the incarnation. Liberalism needed to see in the Bible something more than a collection of moral adages and a compendium of great literature. It needed to see in Christ something more than a great figure living sacrificially and dying for his convictions. It needed to be recalled to the meaning of the cross and the power of the resurrection.

These correctives have come to us. I do not think liberalism ever had as many utopian illusions as it is now customary in retrospect to attribute to it, but its self-confidence has been challenged both by events and by theological trends. With many others in America I have profited from the currents coming out of continental Europe and too superficially called Barthian. These have come to me through books, but more though the forceful personalities of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich–men with whom I do not agree very far but by whom I am stirred to rethink my faith. They have come at Oxford and Madras through wrestling with continental theology for the liberalism which I believe to have the truth.

My liberalism is, I trust, a chastened and deepened liberalism. But I am more convinced than ever I was before that God reveals himself in many ways and that only through the spirit of free inquiry can Christian faith go forward. I believe in the essential greatness of man, in a social gospel which calls us to action as co-workers with God in the redemptive process, in a Kingdom which will come in this world by growth as Christians accept responsibility in the spirit of the cross. My Christian faith has its central focus, not in Paul’s theology or Luther’s or Calvin’s, but in the incarnation of God in the Jesus of the Gospels. (from “A Spiritual Pilgrimage: Ninth Article in the Series ‘How My Mind Has Changed in This Decade,'” Christian Century 56 (Mar. 15, 1939), excerpted in Miles, ed., Georgia Harkness, pp. 19-20.)

In my view, this combination of openness to critical thought, commitment to social reform, and an emphasis on a personal, life-changing encounter with the risen Christ still has much to contribute the church and the world.

To effect an intellectual revolution

This was the perfect medium for changing the way most Americans thought about the nation’s founding acts. Lincoln does not argue law or history, as Daniel Webster did. He makes history. He does not come to present a theory, but to impose a symbol, one tested in experience and appealing to national values, with an emotional urgency entirely expressed in calm abstractions (fire in ice). He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done it. The miracle is that these words did. In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not, yet, been broken–he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.

–Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg

The address itself, delivered 150 years ago today.

“Leaning no” on Syria

I had been somewhat on the fence about a potential (likely?) U.S. military intervention in Syria, partly because I hadn’t been following it that closely. Over the past couple of days, I’ve been doing a bit of catch-up reading, and this post at Lawyers, Guns & Money helpfully summarizes my basic unease with what the Obama administration is proposing:

It’s not clear how this kind of attack strengthens the norm against using chemical weapons in any substantive way, and given that the response involves killing innocent people the burden of proof is on proponents to explain why this is something other than empty symbolism.

While I agree about the value of upholding the norm against the use of chemical weapons, the risks and potential downsides seem too serious and numerous to justify an attack. “When in doubt, don’t go to war” seems like a sensible principle, especially when the putative benefits are so speculative.

Here’s some other reading that I’ve found helpful:

Chris Hayes, “Here is where I stand

Robert Howse and Ruti Teitel, “Why Attack Syria?

Zack Beauchamp, “How Obama’s Nobel Prize Explains His Syria Policy

John Judis, “Obama’s Syria Gamble in Congress Is Even Riskier Than You Think” and “Obama’s True Intentions in Syria Become Clear

Donna Hathaway and Scott Shapiro, “On Syria, a U.N. Vote Isn’t Optional

Obama’s counter-terrorism speech: return to (a semblance of) normalcy?

The counter-terrorism policy outlined in the president’s speech today hardly describes my ideal approach, but most, if not all, of the changes he’s made or is proposing are steps in the right direction. These include

–continuing the reduction in the number of combat troops in Afghanistan,

–declassifying information on Americans killed in drone strikes,

–reviewing proposals for additional oversight of the targeted killing program,

–putting stronger protections in place against government overreach in investigating leaks,

–revising and ultimately repealing the authorization to use military force (AUMF), and

–closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and finding a way to deal with the detainees there that is more consistent with the rule of law.

In general, the president was describing a further shift away from the grand “global war on terror” paradigm that he inherited from the Bush administration, and toward treating terrorism as a more discrete, targeted problem. Citing America’s experience in the 80s and 90s, he suggested that terrorism can be dealt with in a more piecemeal fashion rather than as a broad existential struggle.

Needless to say, everything hinges on whether Obama makes good on these changes, and even if he does, there will still be plenty to criticize about the United States’ approach to counter-terrorism. (In particular, I’m still a skeptic of the targeted killing program, even with additional oversight.) But I do find it heartening that all these changes are in the direction of a less aggressive, more constrained approach.

Barbara Lee, hero

Glenn Greenwald has an astute piece today on the 2001 authorization to use force that Congress passed in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. As he notes, the AUMF is currently being revisited, but largely for the purposes of expanding the executive’s authority to wage war.

Greenwald goes on to recount the, well, “criticism” would be putting it mildly, that Rep. Barbara Lee received as the lone vote against the AUMF in 2001.

To say that Lee was vilified for her warnings is a serious understatement. She was deluged with so many death threats that she was given around-the-clock police protection. The Washington Times printed an Op-Ed by Herbert Romerstein declaring that “Ms. Lee is a long-practicing supporter of America’s enemies – from Fidel Castro on down.” On NPR, Juan Williams compared her to Jerry Falwell and said they both “stand out in a nation where President Bush, who did not win the popular vote, now has the support of 82 percent of Americans.” National Review approvingly cited David Horowitz’s denunciation that “Barbara Lee is not an anti-war activist, she is an anti-American communist who supports America’s enemies and has actively collaborated with them in their war against America.” Michelle Malkin labelled her “treacherous” and also quoted Horowitz’s attack.

As it happens, Barbara Lee was my representative at that time–my wife and I were living in Berkeley, California, in 2001. And I, like most other Americans (though maybe not most Berkeleyites), disagreed with Rep. Lee’s vote against the AUMF. I even wrote to her office–a civil letter, I emphasize–criticizing her for her vote. In my mind, she was standing against bringing the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice.

I got off the “war on terror” bandwagon once it became clear that the Bush administration intended to expand it to Iraq, some time in 2002. And in retrospect, Rep. Lee seems a lot more prescient than her colleagues in foreseeing the consequences of giving the executive branch a blank check to wage war. (I wrote a blog post to this effect a few years back.)

I don’t know if it would’ve ultimately made any difference if the AUMF hadn’t passed, or if it had passed in a different form. Would that have prevented the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? It seems unlikely to me given the confluence of the public’s (justified) anger over 9/11 and the preexisting foreign policy designs of key players in the Bush administration.

But if nothing else, Barbara Lee’s example highlights how readily Congress has abdicated its role in overseeing the conduct of foreign policy in the post-9/11 era. (Of course, the roots of this problem go back much further.) We need more Barbara Lees–people who are willing to question the rush to war and our willingness to hand over power to the president in the name of “keeping us safe.”

The Nonviolent God

One of my worries about J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement was that I didn’t think a determined critic would be persuaded by his case for seeing God as essentially nonviolent. He offers some suggestive interpretations of various New Testament passages, but there’s no developed theology of the divine nature or an overarching argument for how his nonviolent understanding of God fits with the Bible as a whole.

In light of that, I’m excited to see that Weaver’s next book, The Nonviolent God, looks like it will tackle just this issue:

This bold new statement on the nonviolence of God challenges long-standing assumptions of divine violence in theology, the violent God pictured in the Old Testament, and the supposed violence of God in Revelation. In The Nonviolent God J. Denny Weaver argues that since God is revealed in Jesus, the nonviolence of Jesus most truly reflects the character of God.

According to Weaver, the way Christians live — Christian ethics — is an ongoing expression of theology. Consequently, he suggests positive images of the reign of God made visible in the narrative of Jesus — nonviolent practice, forgiveness and restorative justice, issues of racism and sexism, and more — in order that Christians might live more peacefully.

I’m not a fully convinced pacifist, but I am convinced that the relationship between God, violence, and Christian ethics is hugely important–and that those of us in the mainline traditions have a lot to learn from “peace church” perspectives. So I’m looking forward to reading this book (which, alas, isn’t scheduled to be published till November).