I end up sharing a lot of links on Twitter, so I thought it might be worth collecting what I think were the stand-out pieces of the week. (“Stand-out” doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with every word, just that these were the most interesting or thought-provoking items I came across).
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.
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.
Emergent blogger Tony Jones calls for a “schism” regarding women in the (evangelical) church:
If you attend a church that does not let women preach or hold positions of ecclesial authority, you need to leave that church.
If you work for a ministry that does not affirm women in ecclesial leadership, you need to leave that ministry.
If you write for a publishing house that also prints books by “complementarians,” you need to take your books to another publishing house.
If you speak at conferences, you need to withdraw from all events that do not affirm women as speakers, teachers, and leaders.
I agree with Jones that this should be a non-negotiable position in the church. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I belong to a church that has ordained women since 1956.*
Some of Jones’s commenters contend that it would be more gracious and Christ-like for supporters of women’s equality to remain in fellowship with those they disagree with. While this has a certain ring of plausibility, it ignores the reality of institutional power and structural inequality. A church can contain disagreement over women’s equality, but at an institutional level it has to decide for or against it. Either you ordain women or you don’t. To advocate remaining in a church that doesn’t ordain women is not, therefore, a policy of even-handed neutrality. If one stays in such a church, it is at the cost of sacrificing the equality of women. “Let’s agree to disagree” tends to skirt the question of structural inequality and provide cover for the status quo.
Now, mainline Protestants shouldn’t feel too smug about this, not least because true, substantive equality is still an aspiration in many of our churches. Women pastors continue to face hurdles that don’t affect their male colleagues, and we are still far from where we should be. Moreover, Christians whose churches (like the UMC) that have yet to enact policies of equality for their LGBT members face an analogous dilemma. If women’s equality is non-negotiable, is it OK to stay in fellowship with people who oppose LGBT equality under the conditions of structural inequality? If so, what is different about this case that makes it OK?
*To be more exact, the Methodist Church, which was the largest of the bodies that merged to form the United Methodist Church in 1968, had been ordaining women since 1956.
Most liberals and Democrats admit that the rollout of the Affordable Care Act has been a mess. How serious this is for the long-term success of the law is a matter of debate, but no one thinks this has been anything other than a rocky start. The most visible problem, of course, has been the all-but-non-functional healthcare.gov website, which has prevented people (how many is uncertain) from signing up for insurance plans under the new federal exchange. But more recently the focus has shifted to the architecture of the law itself–specifically changes to the individual insurance market which have resulted in people having their existing policies cancelled and, in at least some cases, seeing the amount they will have to pay to get new policies go up.
There are good wonky liberal responses to this–Jonathan Chait provides a nice overview here. The short version is that two groups–those without any insurance at all and those who purchased individual insurance–were always going to be the ones most affected by the ACA. For the former, the effects were virtually all positive: they would either be able to afford insurance on the exchanges, possibly qualifying for subsidies to help, or they might fall under expanded Medicaid eligibility. In the case of the latter group, things are a bit more mixed. Many of these people would find that they could now afford policies that were cheaper and/or better than what they had before. But at least some of these people (no one seems to know for sure how many) would end up paying more for policies comparable to what they had before. This is the much-vaunted “sticker shock” we’ve been hearing about.
As Chait explains, the reason for this is relatively simple: the whole purpose of insurance is to put people into risk pools in order to spread risk (and hence cost) around. Thus in any risk pool, those people with lower risks (in this case, the young and healthy) are going to end up “subsidizing” those with higher risks (the old, the sick, etc.). So people who were able to get policies for less, because insurers could discriminate based on your health history, may now find themselves paying more because they are in a pool with people who previously would’ve had to pay more, or wouldn’t have been able to get insurance at all. The very same principle operates in the employer-based insurance model, which is how most Americans currently get their insurance. People whose age and health vary widely are grouped into a single risk pool, with the younger, healthier people effectively subsidizing the older and less healthy.
From a certain point of view this all sounds horribly unfair. But only if you take an ultra-individualistic, short-term view of fairness. As David Kaib nicely explained in a post yesterday, the concept of social insurance rests on a sense of social solidarity. We spread risk around because we want everyone, within limits, to be taken care of and have a shot at a decent life. All wealthy societies have implemented forms of social insurance, including the U.S., despite our individualistic rhetoric.
The notion of solidarity rests not only on concern for our fellow citizens, but also a more realistic understanding of our own self-interest. Social and political philosophers like Alasdair McIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and Susan Moller Okin have pointed out that much of the Western political tradition assumes that the typical or normative human being is a healthy, independent, male individual, and this has distorted our concepts of justice. In reality, all of us find ourselves, at some point in our lives, dependent on others, whether as infants and children, or because we get sick, or because we get old and frail and lose our minds. We are “dependent rational animals,” in McIntyre’s suggestive phrase. Vulnerability and dependency are instrinsic to the human condition.
This means that even if you are a young, healthy person, you will, inevitably, be an old or sick person. And when that happens, younger, healthier people will be caring for you. Social insurance is simply a way of institutionalizing this, making it less ad hoc and subject to chance.
It should be obvious that these principles are congruent with Christian ethics, which enjoin care for the neighbor, respect for parents, and justice for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Moreover, the doctrines of original sin and unmerited grace emphasize our common human lot and fact that none of us can save ourselves. Conservative Christians sometimes argue that social insurance is not a proper responsibility of government but that relief for poverty and sickness should come voluntarily from churches and other non-governmental entities. But there’s very little in the Christian ethical tradition per se to support such a restrictive role for government; this view owes more to libertarian conceptions of the “night-watchman state” than anything specifically Christian.
Unfortunately (from my perspective), the U.S. is still caught in the debate over whether the government has a proper role in ensuring economic security for all its citizens. This distinguishes us from most European social democracies, where the debate is more about the means by which the government should do this, the precise levels of expenditure, etc. During the last election, the Democrats emphasized solidarity and interdependence to some extent (e.g., the president’s (in)famous “you didn’t build that,” and in some of the speeches at the Democratic National Convention), but American political discourse still seems largely driven by notions of individual rights and deserts. We need a stronger culture of solidarity to underwrite a commitment to social insurance, and thus the possibility of human flourishing for all.
To those of us of a more moderate or liberal disposition, the tendency of conservative Christians to identify right-wing politics with Christianity per se is a source of no small irritation. Today at Salon, Elizabeth Stoker and Matt Bruenig point out that the American Christian Right’s approach to wealth and poverty is an outlier when compared with Christian attitudes in other parts of the world:
The notable exclusion of poverty from the Christian agenda would doubtlessly puzzle European Christians, whose support of Christian ethical approaches to family life have always been paired with a deep and vigorous concern for the poor. And, unlike their American counterparts, European Christians haven’t been willing to leave poverty up to individual charity or the market to handle. Quite the contrary: Just as public morality is an arena fit for intervention by a Christian-informed government, so too is welfare.
The case is only bolstered if you take Catholic social teaching, Latin American liberation theology, or other non-American traditions into account. The identification of Christianity with laissez-faire economics appears to be a peculiarly American phenomenon.
In a similar vein, in an interview with (somewhat ironically) the American Conservative, novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson stands up for the much-derided tradition of liberal Christianity:
Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.
Liberal Christianity undoubtedly has its problems. But even some of the theological critics of liberalism–like the Niebuhr brothers and Paul Tillich–were not “conservatives” in contemporary political terms. They were decidedly men of the Left, even while they critiqued liberal theology’s tendency toward sentimentality and moralism. To Tillich, for example, love and justice were inseparable, and the political expression of the Kingdom of God would be some form of democratic socialism. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of a major modern or contemporary theologian who is a full-blown right-winger.
Married gay and lesbian couples are entitled to federal benefits, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a major victory for the gay rights movement.
In a second decision, the court declined to say whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Instead, the justices said that a case concerning California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, was not properly before them. Because officials in California had declined to appeal a trial court’s decision against them and because the proponents of Proposition 8 were not entitled to step into the state’s shoes to appeal from the decision, the court said, it was powerless to issue a decision.
The ruling leaves in place laws banning same-sex marriage around the nation. Its consequences for California were not immediately clear, but many legal analysts say that same-sex marriages there are likely to resume in a matter of weeks.
I never expected the court to issue a sweeping ruling in the Prop. 8 case that would’ve enshrined same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. I’m not even sure that would’ve been a good thing, given the backlash it might have created. Under the circumstances, this may be the best outcome supporters of marriage equality could’ve reasonably hoped for.
This post strikes a good balance in responding to the controversy over a tweet Calvinist preacher John Piper posted immediately after the tornado in Oklahoma.
I enjoyed this podcast of some philosophers discussing Schleiermacher’s “On Religion.” Although they don’t seem to be very familiar with his more explicitly theological work–particularly The Christian Faith–which provides some important context in discussing his views and overall project.
The new pope seems to be taking the “preferential option for the poor” pretty seriously (via bls).
I’m in the middle of this biography of John Wesley. So far my takeaway is that Wesley was in many ways an extremely admirable person, if not necessarily a very likable one. (Of course, the same could be said of many great figures in church history.)
And here’s a new trailer for the upcoming Superman movie:
Grist’s David Roberts has written a follow-up to his “medium chill” post of about two years ago that expands on the idea and its social and political implications. In the original post, Roberts argued, based in part on “happiness research” and in part on personal experience, that it’s more fulfilling to work less to allow more time for enjoying life’s intangible goods–even if that means making less money.
In the follow-up post, he concedes that research he cited in the previous post that seemed to show that happiness levels off after a certain income level (about $75,000) may have been wrong; nevertheless, the relationship between wealth and happiness does seem to be “logarithmic”–that is the increase in happiness you get from each additional dollar is less than the previous one, even if it isn’t zero. The basic point seems to stand: after you’ve reached a certain level, adding more income isn’t going to increase your happiness or life-satisfaction much, if at all.
But if you have reached that level–if you even have the option of “chilling”– you are likely among the richest 0.1 percent of the world’s population. Which means that access to a life with possibilities for fulfillment beyond the struggle for material security is severely maldistributed, to put it mildly.
And if you are so fortunately situated, it’s due to luck far more than hard work, pluck, or anything else that you could plausibly claim to have merited. Where you were born, who your parents are, and your genetic make-up have a lot more to do with your success in life than anything you contribute (assuming there’s some irreducible element that can’t be chalked up to any of these other factors).
Because those of us with more have it not mainly by dint of the sweat of our brow, but because of circumstances well beyond our control, there is no justification for hoarding all that good fortune. (“You didn’t build that,” as President Obama might say.) We need policies–liberal policies essentially–that distribute access to the world’s goods more equitably in order to allow everyone a shot at a flourishing human life.
He goes on to speculate a bit about the possibilities for human life freed from the necessity of working more to earn more. Life should not be about being a fitter, more productive worker bee; it should be about cultivating our innate capabilities for creativity and self-expression in community with others. The seemingly laid-back medium chill turns out to have a rather radical, utopian streak.
All, or nearly all, of this resonates with the Christian view of life as I understand it. In his recent book A Public Faith, theologian Miroslav Volf argues that Christianity’s contribution to the common good is a more substantive and appealing vision of human flourishing than the one that has gained much ground in the modern West. According to Volf, this is the view that the good life consists primarily in the satisfaction of individual desire or preference.
Not surprisingly, he considers this to be a deeply impoverished view of human life. Not only has it lost sight of the love of God, but by focusing on individual satisfaction it is opposed to any robust idea of human solidarity. By contrast, for Christians,
[w]e lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love our neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves. Life goes well for us when our basic needs are met and when we experience that we are loved by God and by our neighbors–when we are loved as who we are, with our own specific character and history, notwithstanding our fragility and failures. (p. 72)
This account is clearly incompatible with a society in which everyone has to scramble endlessly to “get ahead” in material terms–e.g., Thomas Friedman’s horrifying “401(k) world.” Christians should want a world in which people are free from the pressure to constantly “invest in themselves” to please some boss or keep up with the Joneses.
In the Christian view, we aren’t made for working ourselves to death or for endless accumulation, but for lives “rich with relationships and experiences,” as Roberts puts it. In Biblical terms, we might think of the “medium chill” as a way of keeping Sabbath, as described by Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann:
Sabbath, in the first instance, is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. (Journey to the Common Good, p. 26)
This restful withdrawal from over-work and over-consumption is a precondition for genuine community and human flourishing. A good society would be one that made this a possibility for everyone.
At the heart of modern capitalist economics is the idea of infinite accumulation. At the heart of Christian social teaching, however, is a strong conception of distributive justice and the related notion that there is such a thing as having enough. The prevailing American preoccupation with piling up money and material possessions is spiritually deadening. The readiness to defend ill-begotten privileges with force is immoral. The prevailing view of nature as a commodity to be conquered and exploited degrades the sacredness of creation. These themes have marked Christian ethics at its best. Figures such as [Walter] Rauschenbusch and [William] Temple were powerful advocates for progressive Christianity, partly because their minds were rooted in the biblical and spiritual wisdom of the past, partly because they were alive to new challenges and horizons for the church, and partly because they believed that Christianity has an important social mission. If liberal Christianity is to regain its public voice, it must recover this spirit.
That’s the conclusion to Gary Dorrien’s 1995 book Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity (pp. 375-6). It traces the history of liberal, mainly Protestant, Christian social ethics in America from the social gospel period, through the rise of Niebuhrian “Christian realism,” to the more recent development of liberation, black, feminist, ecological, and other “pluralizing” theologies.
According to Dorrien, a signature concern of Christian social ethics–one that runs like a thread through all these movements–is extending democratic principles to the economic sphere. This has taken a variety of forms: Rauschenbusch’s calls for a “cooperative commonwealth,” Niebuhr’s early Marxist-influenced analysis of social power and class conflict and his later evolution toward New Deal-style reformist liberalism, and the aspiration toward democratic forms of socialism among liberationist voices. Contrary to the impression you might get from the current political scene, American Christian social ethics has long had a strongly social-democratic, if not outright socialist, bent.
Dorrien is far from uncritical of this tradition. He agrees with some–though not all–of Niebuhr’s criticisms of the social gospel tradition. He acknowledges the failures of central-planning approaches to the economy. He also points out that more recent theologians’ calls for “socialism” often have a dreamy, unreal air, and they fail to spell out what they want in concrete terms.
But Christians can’t give up on the need to press for greater distributive justice. Dorrien reviews some recent experiments with greater economic democracy (a term he generally prefers to “socialism”). These include worker ownership and management of firms and public mutual funds for directing investment. In general, he prefers pragmatic experiments in making the economic system more just and democratically accountable that don’t rely on overly centralizing power in a bureaucratic state. Dorrien also emphasizes the ecological impact of economic growth and the pressing need to pursue distributive justice and “eco”-justice simultaneously.
Neoconservative Christian ethicists like Michael Novak have turned their back on this tradition and embraced what they call “democratic capitalism” as the only viable economic system after the fall of Communism. But Dorrien points out that actually existing capitalism not only fails the tests of distributive justice and ecological sustainability–it leads to a cultural coarsening that conservatives themselves deplore, even though they tend to blame it on “liberal elites.”
Dorrien is realistic about the state of liberal, mainline Protestantism. Too often, it has focused more on making sweeping social statements and lobbying Washington than on nurturing vibrant religious communities. While he disagrees with those, like Stanley Hauerwas, who are critical of Christian attempts to create a more just society, Dorrien argues that a progressive Christianity that isn’t rooted in a genuine “spiritual experience of Christ” has lost its reason for being. It’s because of what Christians believe God has accomplished in Christ that they act to foster signs of the in-breaking Kingdom in the social order:
The kingdom to which Christians belong and owe their loyalty is partially prefigured in the world; it calls Christians to bring the transforming virtues of love, peace, and justice into the world; it calls Christians to join sides with the poor and oppressed to attain justice; but it does not make political success the criterion of its action or seek power over the social order. The social ethic of the way of Christ is an ethic of faithfulness to the prophetic biblical ideals of freedom, equality, community, and redemptive love. It calls the body of Christ to be a moral community that incarnates these ideals in the world and lives faithfully by them. It seeks to bring sustainable justice and peace to the world but does not live by the world’s tests for worthwhile activity (pp. 374-5).
This is a responsible social ethic for a post-Christendom world: one that embraces the duty to work for structural justice without surrendering Christian distinctiveness or assuming the role of “chaplain” to the existing order.
British evangelical theologian Steve Holmes explains why he will no longer defend the ministry of women in the church. (Not exactly what you might think.)
I can’t say that this has ever been a “live” issue for me. At nearly every church I’ve been involved with as an adult, women’s ministry was a given. For a year, I did attend a Episcopal parish on the Anglo-Catholic end of the spectrum that might’ve blanched at having a woman preside at the altar, but otherwise, all the churches I’ve belonged to were firmly in the “full equality” camp. The head pastor at our current church is a woman, and I’m looking forward to her baptizing our son next month.
Not once has it occurred to me that the ministries of the women at these churches were “invalid” or otherwise theologically defective. What Holmes writes applies to most of the women pastors I’ve known: “In the face of so evident a work of the Spirit as was seen in her life, who am I to even consider the question of whether God had called her to preach?”