The Luther Option

If instead, we renew our focus on those Christina 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 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.

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“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.

Hell and other theological gut-checks

He [God] created this speck of dirt and the human species for his glory; and with the deliberate design of making nine tenths of our species miserable forever, for his glory? This is the doctrine of Christian theologians in general, ten to one. Now, my friend, can prophecies or miracles convince you or me that infinite benevolence, wisdom, and power created and preserves, for a time, innumerable millions to make them miserable forever, for his own glory?

–John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, quoted by Garry Wills in his review of David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament

Adams, like many of the founders, was far from an orthodox churchman, but this statement seems to me fully congruent with the spirit of the gospel. As I’ve written before, though you can find passages in the New Testament that seem to support a doctrine of unending infernal torment, the inner logic of the gospel message seems to point toward some kind of universal salvation.

My views on this have changed somewhat since I’ve had kids. Before, I was probably in the Hans Urs Von Balthasar “hopeful almost-universalism” camp. But I’ve found that having children presents a series of theological “gut checks.” The prospect of passing them on to your children forces you–at least in my experience–to reexamine your beliefs. Could I, in all honesty, tell my kids that God loves them but he also might sentence them (or their friends) to an eternity of of unimaginable torment if they don’t believe the right things, or belong to right church, etc? I decided the answer was no.

As Jesus might have said, if you who are wicked, would never condemn your children to everlasting, conscious torment, how much less would your Father in heaven dream of doing such a thing?

The welfare state is good

Dylan Matthews at Vox has an excellent article defending the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, which is (of course) under attack from the current administration. The piece is long and chock full o’ data, but the upshot is that the program serves people who really need it, not a bunch of freeloaders with backaches as Sen. Rand Paul might tell you.

I’ve written before about how my own family depended on SSDI after my dad sustained a life-changing injury at work. He was about 30 at the time and has been receiving benefits ever since (he’s in his 60s now). Our family got by on SSDI, workers compensation benefits and my mom’s jobs, and we still had to scrimp and save to get by. I was only able to go to college (and become a relatively well-functioning productive member of society) because of student loans and grants for low-income students and a relatively well-funded (at the time) state university system.

Unfortunately, the forces of reaction have been chipping away at our public institutions for support and advancement for decades. But no amount of free-market fairy dust is going to take their place. As I’ve written,

people are not, in general, rugged individualists, including those who think they are. Each one of us is just one accident or piece of bad luck away from becoming utterly dependent on others. The idea that you could tear down the institutions that we’ve built for collective support–rickety and ad hoc though they are–without causing a lot of human suffering is not remotely plausible.

Reasonable people can disagree about how best to devise these programs for collective support. But the radically individualist view that they aren’t necessary looks a lot like a bad-faith rationalization for funneling (even more) wealth to the top, leaving everyone else in the dust.

The multifaceted life and theology of Marilyn McCord Adams

I recently came across this career retrospective/spiritual and intellectual autobiography from Marilyn McCord Adams, the prominent Anglican philosopher-theologian who died last year. She had a wide-ranging career as an important analytic philosopher working in the philosophy of religion and medieval philosophy, an Episcopal priest ministering to gay men in Hollywood at the height of the Aids crisis, and a theologian teaching at Yale and Oxford.

McCord was also a survivor of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse who spent decades, by her account, trying to reconcile her suffering and the wellspring of hatred it created in her with her experience of the all-loving God revealed in Jesus. Accordingly, much of her later work is dedicated to understanding how God can redeem human life from its participation in “horrendous evils,” both as victims and perpetrators. Her approach draws heavily on an incarnational Christology in which God in Jesus participates in these horrors and leads us toward healing.

One of McCord’s more controversial moves is to argue that the primary purpose of God’s salvific action is not to fix the “sin-problem” but the problem of these evils so horrendous that they threaten to render human existence meaningless. With Julian of Norwich she was more inclined to view humans as immature children in need of mercy and healing than fully competent moral agents standing before the bar of an inflexible divine justice.

The reflections in McCord’s essay include a number of interesting observations on, inter alia, the riches and shortcomings of Anglo-Catholicism, the controversies over women’s ordination and LGBT people in the Episcopal Church and wider Anglican Communion, her criticism of the “postliberal” school of theology associated with George Lindbeck, and why she remained an unapologetic (albeit “pessimistic”) liberal.

On a personal note, one of the pieces of work I was proudest of in graduate school was an essay on the problem of evil in which I drew heavily on McCord’s earlier work on divine suffering.