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.



Toward utopia?

I have always had a small-c conservative streak that makes me skeptical of utopian politics. The idea that human beings could, through their own efforts, abolish suffering, strife and injustice once and for all has always struck me as dangerously wrongheaded. Both history and my own religious tradition seem to tell pretty decisively against this kind of hubris. 20th-century communism is probably the most towering example of utopian aspirations leading to widespread human misery. Human nature is not nearly as malleable as various utopian thinkers have supposed, which tends to undercut ambitious programs of remaking society from whole cloth.

But there’s an opposite danger to utopianism, which is to become complacent about the status quo. Just because utopia in the strict sense is impossible doesn’t mean that things couldn’t be a lot better than they are. Complacency is a particular temptation for the privileged–those of us who are relatively well off materially and insulated from the more obvious forms of injustice.

On a more prosaic level, it’s increasingly evident that the fortunes of center-left political parties across the developed world have suffered in part because they no longer offer a compelling vision of the future that can inspire hope among the electorate. This dynamic played out in last year’s presidential election, where Hillary Clinton was perceived (fairly or not) as lacking the “vision thing” (as George H.W. Bush memorably called it). Her realism was ill equipped to fend off Donald Trump’s fear-mongering and grandiose promises to make America “great” again, however untethered from reality those promises were. And it’s no secret that the enthusiasm Bernie Sanders generated was due in part to his willingness to “go big” in his proposals (free college, universal health care, etc.). Again, it’s debatable whether a President Sanders would’ve been able to deliver on those promises, but he provided something like a vision of a better society and not just a series of incremental tweaks to the status quo.

There’s no easy solution to the dilemma between offering big change and staying within the bounds of political realism. Even our most transformative presidents, like Lincoln and FDR, were keenly aware of the limits placed on them by the powers of their office and the political situations they found themselves in. Nevertheless, it seems clear that without some animating vision of a good society, a political party or movement risks losing its reason for being. Maybe there is room for “utopian” dreaming about the society we want to see.

Toward that end, I really liked this article from Australian economist John Quiggin that I came across recently. Appealing to the thought of the great economist John Maynard Keynes, Quiggin argues that the left, broadly speaking, needs to reclaim a utopian vision of human beings freed from extreme material want; such freedom will allow us to enjoy ever-greater amounts of leisure and develop our distinctive capabilities.

In his 1930 essay “‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” Keynes argued that steady economic growth would eventually solve the problem of scarcity and essentially abolish the need to work to survive. Once the age-old struggle for subsistence was solved, humans could use their newfound leisure for other, more humane pursuits.

Quiggin argues that the end to scarcity Keynes envisioned is actually achievable within the relatively near future through a combination of productivity-enhancing technological progress and social-democratic policies. This would require a shift away from the obsession with maximizing wealth and consumption that characterize what Quiggin calls “market liberalism” (and what others call “neoliberalism,” Reaganism, Thatcherism, etc.).

Under market liberalism, the gains of economic output have increasingly accrued to the very rich, while the rest of the population has seen little benefit, and certainly not the freedom from material scarcity that Keynes envisioned.

This could change with a correction in policy, Quiggin thinks:

The first step would be to go back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism. Although that agenda has largely been on hold during the decades of market-liberal dominance, the key institutions of the welfare state have remained both popular and resilient, as shown by the wave of popular resistance to cuts imposed in the name of austerity.

Key elements of the social democratic agenda include a guaranteed minimum income, more generous parental leave, and expanded provision of health, education and other social services. The gradual implementation of this agenda would not bring us to the utopia envisaged by Keynes — among other things, those services would require the labour of teachers, doctors, nurses, and other workers. But it would produce a society in which even those who did not work, whether by choice or incapacity, could enjoy a decent, if modest, lifestyle, and where the benefits of technological progress were devoted to improving the quality of life rather than providing more material goods and services. A society with these priorities would allocate most investment according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit. That in turn would reduce the need for a large and highly rewarded financial sector, even in relation to private investment.

This is essentially the program of the leftward-edge of social democracy (or left-liberalism in American terms), and a kissing cousin of “democratic socialism,” depending on how one understands those terms. But it would be in the service of a particular vision–of moving beyond the “money-driven” society toward one in which human beings are free not to work and accumulate, or at least work and accumulate less. And though Quiggin doesn’t mention this in his essay, the environmental crisis calls into serious question whether a world of ever-increasing consumption and accumulation is even compatible with the continued existence of human civilization.

Yet our mainstream politics is usually afraid to step outside the terms of debate offered by market liberalism. Even left-of-center politicians (in the U.S. anyway) typically talk about citizens as workers and consumers first and foremost and tend to valorize the ulta-rich (particularly if they happen to be their donors).

But the great philosophers and religious traditions are virtually unanimous in saying that the good life for human beings consists of something other than endless work, accumulation and consumption. I’m optimistic enough to believe that many people would, if given the choice, prefer to have less “stuff” if their essential needs were taken care of and if it meant they could spend more time with their friends and family, enjoy artistic and creative pursuits, travel, appreciate nature, etc. This is hardly utopian in the sense of bringing and end to human suffering, nor does it require a revolution to tear down existing society and start from scratch (with the rivers of blood that usually entails). But it points to a dramatically different society organized around virtues that our current arrangements tend to stifle. As Keynes himself put it:

I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

Given the current state of things, even thinking about utopia seems utopian! But as the Scriptures say, “where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Bernie Sanders and the progressive foreign policy turn

Foreign policy was oddly absent for most of last year’s Democratic presidential primary. This is odd not just because foreign policy is obviously a large part of the president’s job, but because it’s an area where eventual winner Hillary Clinton was arguably the most vulnerable. You may recall that in the 2008 Democratic primary foreign policy–most importantly the Iraq war–was one of the most salient differences between Clinton and a young upstart senator named Barack Obama. Clinton’s support (or sorta, kinda support, depending on how you parse her votes) for George W. Bush’s ill-fated adventure in the Middle East put her on the wrong side of the liberal base (not to mention the majority of Americans by that point).

Given that history–as well as her role in controversial foreign interventions during her tenure as secretary of state (e.g., Libya)–Clinton’s primary challengers had ample ammunition to attack her foreign policy judgment. While there were a few shots taken early on (I seem to recall both Lincoln Chaffee (remember him?) and Martin O’Malley making hay of this in one of the early debates), it didn’t emerge as a major issue in the primary, particularly once it was a just contest between Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

It was clear that Sanders was more dovish than Clinton, but his campaign focused much more heavily on the themes of economic inequality and Clinton as a symbol of the failed status quo. This appears to have been partly because of Sanders’ laser-like focus on economics and also because he was less comfortable talking about foreign policy. (In the debates he came off as out of his depth at times, even if his instincts were generally sound.) There was also probably less hunger for a foreign policy debate among the Dem primary electorate because Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, was sitting in the White House. Rightly or wrongly, liberals were much more muted in their critique of Obama’s foreign policy, even when it demonstrated more continuities than differences with the previous administration.

Whatever the reasons, though, the primary now looks like a lost opportunity to debate what a progressive foreign policy should look like. But Bernie Sanders, very possibly eyeing another run in 2020, looks like he wants to correct that. He gave a major address this week on foreign policy that tries to broaden our conception of what it entails (like addressing global economic disparities and climate change), highlights alternatives to militarism in achieving our goals, and reaffirms the values of internationalism and liberal democracy.

Full disclosure: I voted for Clinton in last year’s primary, but my foreign policy views hew much closer to those articulated by Sanders. Whether or not Sanders ends up running in 2020 (and I have mixed feelings about that) it’s good to see him (and others, like Connecticut senator Chris Murphy) beginning to articulate a progressive alternative to the status quo.

One of the many unwelcome consequences of last year’s election is that, when it comes to foreign affairs (or anything else, really) the administration in power appears to be combining fecklessness and brutality in roughly equal measure. Moreover, the entire rise of Donald Trump, fueled by xenophobia and fear-mongering, owes a lot to the “war on terror” paradigm we’ve been living under for the last sixteen years. Democrats have often been loath to fundamentally challenge that paradigm, even when they’ve criticized its implementation. It’s good to see some of the party’s leading lights* finally moving in that direction.

*I know Bernie’s not technically a Democrat, but for all intents and purposes he’s tied his political future to the party.