The socialism question

socialism

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s been a lively argument going on about the rise of “democratic socialism” within (or adjacent to) the Democratic Party. Obviously, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries is ground zero for this discussion, but we’ve seen a general shift, even among otherwise mainstream Dem pols, toward “socialist” policies like Medicare for All and free college. Most recently, the 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fully paid-up member of the Democratic Socialists of America, unseated veteran Democratic congressman Joe Crowley, leading to a wave of fist pumping or hand-wringing (depending on your ideological leanings) about the specter of socialism haunting the Democratic Party.

Some more traditional liberals have pointed out that Ocasio-Cortez’s (and her like-minded comrades’) platform doesn’t look a lot like socialism as traditionally understood. Rather, it resembles an updated version of mid-20th-century liberalism: a program aimed at taming the excesses of capitalism instead of transcending it. (In Europe this program typically goes by the name of social democracy: a generous welfare state, regulated markets, etc.) Leftists have responded that over the last several decades mainstream liberalism, by embracing deregulation, deficit fetishism and privatization, has moved so far to the right that those further to the left needed a label to distinguish themselves from this desiccated form of liberalism.

Now, I’m hardly the pope of socialism (I wouldn’t even consider myself a member of the church), but it seems obvious to me that “socialism” is an attractive label in part because it evokes the desire for a dramatic alternative to the status quo. This isn’t just something that appeals to young people, but young people are perhaps better positioned than certain tut-tutting pundits to perceive the shortcomings of the American approach to capitalism. Many people coming of age after the Great Recession have dimmer economic prospects than their parents, are saddled with massive student debt and struggle to find good-paying jobs that include benefits you need for a decent life (like health insurance). There’s also the minor detail that they may be inheriting a planet on its way to being rendered uninhabitable by human civilization in its current form.

While the Trump administration and the current Republican congress are exacerbating these problems, they predate the Trump era. Obama-era policies may have ameliorated some of the grosser effects of these trends, but they haven’t reversed them. It’s not surprising that many Millennials like Ocasio-Cortez consider “liberalism”—meaning the type of policies associated with the Clinton and Obama years–woefully inadequate to our present situation. That may be unfair to the Clinton and Obama administrations, who were at least to some extent constrained by the hands they were dealt and would’ve liked to do more, but whoever said politics was fair?

The Democratic Party will probably remain a broad center-left coalition of leftists, mainstream liberals and even moderates for the foreseeable future (and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing). But it’s clear that much of the energy and excitement is coming from the further-left end of the spectrum. And a big part of that excitement has to do with the promotion of big, bold ideas that offer the promise of a tangibly better life for lots of people. Some of these are ideas recently thought impossible within the confines of our post-Cold War/post-Reagan consensus. But one lesson that the rise of Trump should’ve taught us is that–for better or worse–the boundaries of what’s “possible” are wider than we previously imagined.

UPDATE: It’s probably worth clarifying that there does seem to be a genuine diversity of opinion among democratic socialists (and Democratic Socialists) about their ideal society. Some do envision the abolition of capitalism as we know it, whereas others seem more focused on concrete policies (like Medicare for All) that would take certain essential goods out of the market nexus. In other words, “socialism” isn’t just a radical-sounding label for an old-fashioned liberal program (at least not in all cases). There does seem to be a fair bit of slipperiness in current usage, though that may not be entirely a bad thing. It might be more useful for “socialism” to point to a broad set of values rather than a detailed blueprint for a post-capitalist utopia.

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The victory of suffering love

I recently came across this very good talk from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (author of several well-regarded books on Eastern Orthodox Christianity) on “Salvation in Christ.”

Metropolitan Ware offers four questions we should ask when evaluating any proposed model of the Atonement:

  1. Does it envisage a change in God or us?
  2. Does it separate Christ from the Father?
  3. Does it isolate the Cross from the Incarnation and Resurrection?
  4. Does it presuppose an objective or subjective understanding of Christ’s work?

The first question is intended to rule out theories that seem to imply that God’s essential nature or attitude toward us is somehow changed by the work of Christ (e.g., from wrathful to gracious), rather than changing our situation before God. The second is aimed at models that portray the wills or dispositions of Christ and God the Father as somehow at odds. The third emphasizes the importance of holding together Christ’s entire life, death and resurrection as a salvific event. And the fourth posits that the Atonement accomplishes an objective change in the human situation, not just a subjective effect on our attitudes (though the objective and subjective are both essential aspects: As St. Augustine said, “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us”).

Met. Ware then considers multiple motifs/models/theories and evaluates how they stack up against these questions. These include what he calls the “exchange” model (the patristic theme that Christ became human so that we might partake of the divine nature), as well as ransom, sacrifice, Christus Victor and loving example. He has something good to say about most of them, suitably understood, although he is highly critical of variants of the sacrificial motif which imply that Jesus’ death was necessary to appease or propitiate God’s wrath. It’s scriptural to say that Christ was our substitute. The emphasis, however, should be that Christ does something for us that we could not do for ourselves. Christ dies “on our behalf” rather than “instead of us.”

One interesting move he makes is to defend the “exemplarist” account (often associated with Peter Abelard) against the common criticism that it reduces Christ to an inspiring example we have to imitate under our own power. This seems to minimize the extent to which sin holds us in its grip and our need of a savior, threatening to lapse into Pelagianism.

However, Ware contends that “this criticism totally misconceives the scope and dynamism of love.” Love is an objective, creative power, not just a subjective feeling. It doesn’t simply provide an example to imitate, but actually effects a change in us. “By loving others we change them. We change the world in which they live.” Thus the subjective/objective distinction collapses.

He goes on to suggest that the example model can be fruitfully combined with a “demilitarized” version of Christus Victor. Christ’s victory is precisely the victory of suffering love. In living out his life of self-giving love, obedient to the point of death, Jesus is unbowed by the powers that would seek to turn him to hatred and violence. In the Resurrection, the power of this love is revealed as stronger than all the “dark things” in the universe and in us. This act of creative, transforming love sets us free.

I haven’t remotely done justice here to the wisdom and warmth in this presentation. If you’re interested in this topic, it’s well worth your time.

 

Affirming Christianity is authentic Christianity

Xtian rainbow

Since this is pride month and since many Christian churches continue to wrestle with the full inclusion of LGBTQ people (including the denomination I’m currently affiliated with), maybe it’s worth sharing how I came to arrive at an “open and affirming” stance. Though I’m probably an atypical case in a lot of ways.

I don’t remember ever thinking there was anything particularly wrong with same-sex relationships. I spent my teenage years and early adulthood as an atheist or agnostic (depending on the week), so I had no conscious attachment to the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality. Plus, I had gay and bi friends in high school and college (issues of gender identity weren’t really on my radar at the time, I must say) and I generally moved in artsy, bookish “alternative” circles that were pretty accepting of gay people.

When I returned to Christianity in my 20s, however, I wasn’t entirely sure how to reconcile this accepting stance with my new faith. In my mind, the Christians who most vocally embraced same-sex relationships were ultra-liberals of the Bishop Spong mold who seemed to water down the truth-claims of Christianity beyond recognition. The faith I had embraced was of a more traditional bent, and I wasn’t sure if it could accommodate a revisionist stance on sexuality. What if the ultra-conservatives and ultra-liberals were both right that orthodox Christianity and conservative sexual ethics were a package deal?

Over time I was introduced to other voices who affirmed same-sex relationships and more-or-less traditional views of, say, the Incarnation and the Trinity (to name a few: Marilyn McCord Adams, Keith Ward, Gareth Moore, Rowan Williams, Eugene Rogers and James Alison, among many others). Just as important, I belonged to LGBTQ-affirming congregations and worshiped, studied and served with LGBTQ Christians whose lives unmistakably exhibited the fruits of the Spirit. These weren’t secular humanists in flimsy religious clothing, but devout Christians who saw no tension between loving Jesus and being in a committed same-sex relationship or having a non-traditional gender identity.

At this point I’m comfortable with what I’ve learned to call “open orthodoxy”: a commitment to the gospel of God’s universal love revealed in Jesus alongside an openness to changing our understanding of the world as we acquire knowledge from multiple sources. Science, philosophy, personal experience, social movements and other religious traditions can all add to our understanding of God’s creation and what it means to live a life of love and service.

I’m not trying to pat myself on the back for my broad-mindedness. These were largely intellectual hang-ups for me and I had very little skin in the game. I’m lucky there were LGBTQ Christians in my life who patiently pointed me to resources for a better understanding and who also lived out their own faith so authentically. (Some of them were regular commenters on this blog back in the day.) My experience has taught me that LGBTQ-affirming Christianity isn’t some counterfeit or watered-down version of the faith. I’ve come to view the affirming stance as not just permitted but mandated by an authentic understanding of the gospel of Jesus.

The Luther Option

If instead, we renew our focus on those Christian possessions shared by all, perhaps we can understand both our faith and each other better. If we turn away from an ideal Christianity to be preserved from the past or built in the future, perhaps we can see better what Christians already do and already are. Because despite our apparent marginalization, our differences and manifest failures, what happens among Christians can still astonish. (Ben Dueholm, Sacred Signposts, p. 8)

It’s widely recognized that we (that is, we in Europe and North America) live in a “post-Christian” culture. Whether this is a cause for celebration or despair varies from person to person, but few deny that the social and cultural hegemony once enjoyed by Christianity has waned in the last several decades (or centuries). Religious ideas and ways of interpreting the world no longer guide how increasing numbers of people go about their lives.

This situation has called forth a variety of proposed responses. The Christian right, or parts of it, wants to reestablish a form of Christian hegemony. Failed Alabama Senate candidate and notorious creep Roy Moore is a particularly egregious example of this. Some Catholic thinkers broadly grouped under the label “integralism” and the “Radical Orthodoxy” school of John Milbank seem to pine for a resurrected Christendom, with the church wielding a form of secular authority. Meanwhile, the “Benedict Option” advocated by conservative writer Rod Dreher and others envisions small, self-enclosed communities adhering to a strict doctrinal and moral orthodoxy—arks where the faithful can weather the flood of secular nihilism and the supposed impending collapse of liberal institutions.

More moderate and progressive Christians seem to be less certain how to respond to this situation. Some welcome the decline of Christian-tinged civil religion, embracing pluralism and hoping that it will make space for a more authentic form of Christian discipleship. On the other hand, the evacuation of shared religious values from the public square can allow the brutal values of nationalism, self-interest, and greed to run rampant.

In this kind of fractured environment, with Christians splintered into various theo-political tribes, is there anything that unites us, much less allows us to make a coherent public witness?

Ben Dueholm, Lutheran pastor and writer, thinks that the Christian churches already have much of what they need in the form of the historic practices that have shaped them for centuries. In his new book* Sacred Signposts he describes how these historic Christian practices can speak to our post-Christian world. They do this by subverting the rules of the workaday world and constituting sites of grace where we glimpse God’s kingdom.

He organizes these practices around Martin Luther’s seven “marks” of the church: the Holy Scriptures, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, forgiveness of sins, the ordained ministry, prayer and worship, and “the cross.” Dueholm says that these practices are in a sense more fundamental than our beliefs or theology; if anything, theology often arises to rationalize the practices. One can hold fast to a practice without necessarily have a firm grip on one’s beliefs or theology.

He dedicates a chapter to each practice, showing how they can interrupt the world’s rules and expectations and create new possibilities for graced living. In baptism, for example, people of all races and classes are adopted into a single family (“neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free . . . “). This challenges the prevalent human tendency to erect and maintain, often violently, barriers between groups of people. This takes on a particular urgency in this era of populist nationalism with its walls and bans.

The Lord’s Supper enacts the permeability of our selves and our bodies as we receive Jesus in the humble elements of bread and wine and join with others in this holy communion. In prayer and worship we offer our time and ourselves to God in a way that challenges both the cult of work and the commodified “leisure” of an uber-capitalist economy.

In each case, the order of grace interrupts, subverts, and resists the order of cause and effect, reward and merit, mine and thine:

In these brutally ordinary things, we encounter grace as the fundamental fact of existence. They are not mysterious additions to a clear and visible universe, but a hard-as-nails foundation for experiencing the universe’s fathomless mysteries. (pp. 168-9)

Following Luther, Dueholm sees suffering and the cross not just as one piece of the church’s theology, but as the through-line of its entire existence. This is Luther’s “theology of the cross,” which is not a theory of atonement, but an entire approach to theology and the Christian life. The Christian God is revealed most definitively in a despised man hanging on a cross. This means that God is not revealed in worldly success or power, but in suffering, both the suffering of Jesus and with all those who suffer.

Unfortunately, our culture is obsessed with avoiding suffering, and we’re all-too willing to inflict it on others if that’s what it seems to take to preserve our way of life. And Christians are no exception: white, Western Christians in particular have inflicted massive suffering under the very sign that should call us to solidarity with those who suffer. This is nothing short of a betrayal of the revelation of God’s solidarity and empathy with creaturely suffering.

Whether we want it or not, whether we embrace it, flee it, or try somehow to do both, the cross is at the heart of the church’s presence in the world, and at the heart of its politics. . . . It asks, ‘Does this embrace the God revealed in suffering in shame, or does it deny that God for the sake of something else?’ (pp. 159-60)

Following its Lord, the church lives under a sign of weakness. Its stakes its life not on its power or prestige, its patronage of the arts or the refined aesthetics of its worship, its dazzling intellectual accomplishments, or the impeccable morality of its members. It lives instead by these holy possessions, these very ordinary things, where grace is both hidden and revealed, like God on a cross. To embrace these possessions doesn’t require “a systematic program of reform, a transcendence of Christian divisions, or a perfect rejoinder to the criticisms leveled by the ideologues of a secular age. . . . They are simply there, as gifts for the whole church, and through the church to the whole world” (p. 167).

Because Dueholm focuses on things that Christians already have in common, it might be easy to miss the radicalism of what he’s proposing. Christians have tried different ways to shore up our position in this post-Christian age. We’ve tried slick management techniques, cultural isolationism, cultural capitulation, moral and theological polemics, and enlisting the coercive arm of the state. Dueholm is asking Christians to trust in the grace of the Holy Spirit and the gifts she’s already given to the church. This isn’t exactly a recipe, in worldly terms, for institutional success!  But Dueholm (and Luther) would be the first to point out that, in this case, faithfulness matters more than success. Ultimately, the word and practices of grace are all the church has, but they might be the one thing the world really needs.


*Ben is a Twitter friend and all-around mensch, and the good people at Eerdmans kindly sent me an advanced reading copy of the book at his request. In this post I will refer to Ben as “Dueholm” even though that seems weirdly formal.

“Original Sin Liberalism”

I appreciated this piece from E. J. Dionne on what he calls “Original Sin Liberalism,” which is a pretty accurate label for my own political outlook. Dionne is responding to conservatives who accuse liberals of believing that people are essentially good, and are only made bad by social structures or conditions. Dionne notes that liberals like Reinhold Niebuhr have long been aware of humanity’s propensity for wickedness; this is why they think we need political and legal checks on this universal tendency:

Law exists precisely to “tame the savageness of man,” a phrase that Robert Kennedy drew from classical sources. The human capacity for sin and evil requires us to consider that denying someone the right to own an AR-15 may enhance the right to life of far more people than those restrained by such a restriction. Background checks are based on the view that if we can keep weapons out of the hands of those who have a record of perpetrating violence (as well as those with psychiatric problems), we can reduce the number of evil acts that people are, indeed, quite capable of performing.

An Original Sin Liberal might go on to challenge conservatives who claim to be very conscious of human fallibility and our capacity for selfishness. Why do they so often oppose laws reducing the likelihood that individuals and companies will despoil the environment or take advantage of their employees?

A noble but guarded attitude toward human nature was prominent in James Madison’s thinking, leading him to see the politics of a democratic republic as entailing an ongoing search for balance.

On the one hand, we need to pass laws because we know that men and women are not angels. But this also means that we should be wary of placing too much power in government, since it is run by flawed human beings who can be guilty of overreach. Many of our arguments involve not irreconcilable values but different assessments of where this balance should tilt at a given time on a given issue.

Conservatives who want to pare back the regulatory function of government are arguably far more guilty of dewy-eyed optimism about human nature than liberals. They think (or at least purport to think) that an unchecked market will somehow result in greater well-being for everyone. They embrace the highly counter-intuitive (and empirically dubious) notion that “an armed society is a polite society.” And they’re more likely to vest unchecked trust in law enforcement and the military. It’s true that liberals and their further-left cousins have sometimes been blind to the dangers of power concentrated in the hands of government to oversee and manage the economy, so no one party or ideology is without fault here.

The Christian doctrine of original sin should make us suspicious of all forms of concentrated and unchecked power, whether it’s the economic power of corporations or the deadly power of military-grade weapons and government surveillance. As Dionne suggests, this doesn’t provide a neat and tidy ideology, since we need to maintain a balance between government, the market, civil society, and private initiative. But government has an indispensable role to play as a check on the human tendency toward wickedness. Laws can’t change hearts, but they can limit the damage that sinful human beings inflict on one another.

 

Welch’s at the communion table

I used to make fun of churches who substituted grape juice for wine in communion. Then I joined a Methodist church where that’s standard practice. Its roots lie in the temperance movement, when zealous Methodists and other Christians decided that people struggling with alcohol shouldn’t be presented with temptation at the Lord’s table. Welch’s grape juice even owes its origins to Methodists looking for a shelf-stable substitute for communion wine!

I’m not sure what the research says about how small amounts of alcohol, like what you’d get at a typical communion service, affect people with drinking problems. But now that I’m at a church with a fairly significant number of people in that category, it’s not just a theoretical question. Our church has a large homelessness ministry, and many people at worship on a given Sunday struggle with addictions of various sorts (nor is this confined to the homeless or recently homeless).

Like a lot of people, I drank to excess in college and grad school, and occasionally well into my 20s. But I’ve become more sensitized over the years to the problems alcohol can cause. I’ve known more than a few people who, while not necessarily addicts, have problems with binge drinking or lean too heavily on alcohol to get through the week. And it’s clear that alcohol plays a non-negligible role in public health problems.

There’s a wide grey area here. Plenty of people can drink in moderation without it ever becoming a problem. Nowadays I typically have a few drinks a week, and I still think alcohol can foster a spirit of conviviality among friends and loved ones. Heck, John Wesley himself enjoyed a pint of cider or beer, though he looked askance at the stronger spirits.

But it still seems like our society doesn’t have the healthiest relationship to alcohol. Binge drinking appears to be on the rise, possibly because people feel the need for something to take the edge off our massively unjust and anxiety-producing world. Booze can seem omnipresent in our social lives (and even in some cases our workplaces).

So whereas I used to dismiss it as a kind of pietistic hangover (pardon the expression), I now see the use of grape juice in more concrete terms as a practice of Christian hospitality. And maybe recovering a bit more of that old-time temperance spirit wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. At the very least, it no longer bothers me when I approach the altar to receive my morsel of bread and a sip of Mr. Welch’s finest.

God as Ultimate Mind: Keith Ward’s “Christian Idea of God”

Keith Ward’s recent book The Christian Idea of God is a slim but ambitious volume. It aims to turn on its head the common belief we know the material world is real while ethereal objects like God and the soul are at best speculative inferences.

Ward points out that we’re actually more certain of the existence of mind than we are of matter. Our own first-person experience makes the reality of consciousness certain to all but the most determined reductionists. It’s matter, he says, that is an inference from or interpretation of our experience. The “material world” as we experience it is in no small part a construction of our mind’s own perceptual and conceptual apparatus.

He bolsters this by appealing to contemporary physics, which has “de-mattered” matter in a sense: physicists no longer see matter (and haven’t for a long time) as composed of little solid bits bumping into each other. Matter in contemporary physics is described in the language of entities and forces that don’t correspond to anything that we can picture in normal three-dimensional space. Matter turns out to be just as mysterious as mind!

The point is that we shouldn’t think of consciousness as an alien intruder into the cosmos, or as some kind of epiphenomenon. Consciousness and self-hood are central to our experience, and they should be integrated into our understanding of the world, not explained away. In fact, the conditions that led to the emergence of consciousness are woven into the deep structure of nature’s laws.

If we see consciousness as fundamental to reality, Ward argues, we should understand reality as a whole in a way that is hospitable to mind. The postulate of a mind-like ultimate reality is one way of doing this. The case is further bolstered by the intelligibility, beauty and goodness that we perceive in the world. Ward calls the belief in an Ultimate Mind an “interpretative hypothesis”–which “interprets some experienced reality in terms of concepts that do not derive simply from the observations in themselves” (p. 54). God, of course, is the name that most people would give to such an Ultimate Mind, and Ward adds that “God is a reasonable and natural interpretive hypothesis that helps us integrate these [aspects of experience] into a coherent whole” (p. 55).

The idea of God Ward goes on to develop will be familiar to readers of his other works. His is a personal God of awareness, purpose, and goodness who can be affected by what happens in the world. God brings the universe into existence for a reason—to realize goods that would otherwise be unavailable. And in particular, God wants conscious beings to enter into a loving relationship with God that will allow them to attain their true fulfillment.

It’s really only in the last section of the book where Ward connects his argument to more specifically Christian doctrines. One of the most important ones is the exemplification of God’s kenosis—or self-sacrificial love—in the incarnation of Christ. In Christ, God enters into the world of human sin and suffering. This is for purpose of theosis—united human beings to the divine so they can share in the divine life.

The specific revelation of God in Christ is complementary, Ward thinks, to the philosophical foundation he has laid. There’s a natural consonance between the idea of a God who creates new forms of goodness and relates to his creation in empathy and the loving Father of Jesus. Ward doesn’t make a hard-and-fast distinction between “natural” and “revealed” theology. Traces of this God can be found through general human reason and experience, as well as among the insights of other religious traditions.

To show my own cards, I find much of what Ward says persuasive (which isn’t surprising given the amount of virtual ink I’ve spilled on his writing over the years). His ongoing project of “open orthodoxy” has been very helpful in my own thinking. On this view, Christian theology and faith can’t be walled off from the findings of science or history, philosophical argument, or other religious traditions. Christianity should develop and change, incorporating insights from the full spectrum of human experience, while retaining its core commitment to God’s universal love revealed in Jesus.

p.s. Ward says he intends this book to be the completion of a trilogy on philosophical theology that includes his earlier books Morality, Autonomy and God and Christ and the Cosmos. I discussed those books here and here.

p.p.s. Listen to Tripp Fuller talk to Ward about the book here.