The Big Apple And The Chicken Sandwich

A little over a week ago, Dan Piepenbring, writing for The New Yorker, derided what he called “Chick-fil-A’s Creepy Infiltration of New York City.”  He declared:

New York has taken to Chick-fil-A.  One of the Manhattan locations estimates that it sells a sandwich every six seconds, and the company has announced plans to open as many as a dozen more storefronts in the city.  And yet the brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism.

Mr. Piepenbring goes on to single out the chain’s headquarters adorned with Bible verses, its policy to close its stores on Sundays, and its CEO’s publicly expressed concerns about same-sex marriage as examples of its “pervasive Christian traditionalism.”  As Mr. Piepenbring points out, the company’s purpose statement also betrays its founders’ Christian commitments.  Chick-fil-A’s purpose is:

To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.

As a Christian, such a corporate purpose statement does not trouble me, as it does Mr. Piepenbring.  A cardinal claim of Christianity is that what Christians believe cannot be divorced from the work they do.  The apostle Paul summarizes this spirit when he writes, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17).  A Christian’s creeds, Paul says, should always result in gracious deeds.  Chick-fil-A’s purpose statement teases out this connection.  The first part of the statement explains that the company’s leaders desire to give glory to God.  This is a commitment to a creed.  The second part of the statement explains that the company’s leaders desire to positively impact all who interact with Chick-fil-A.  This is a promise to do good deeds.

There is a secular trend to espouse a kind of happy humanism that claims that people are perfectly able to do good deeds apart from having to appeal to ancient and, according to the secular mindset, distasteful theological convictions.  In this way of thinking, Chick-fil-A would do better to fashion itself as an inoffensively affable and vaguely moral corporation instead of explicitly appealing to, again, according to the secular mindset, burdensome and superstitious Christian convictions.

But why would Chick-fil-A want to do this?  Its founders certainly aren’t secular.  Furthermore, extracting faith from goodness is trickier than many secular humanists care to admit.  Even if something is perceived to be good, without an external source of authority like Christianity, secular humanism still struggles to offer consistent reasons why anyone ought to do good.  Furthermore, apart from faith, people not only have no unifying set of compelling reasons why they ought to do good, they also have no set of stable standards as to what is good.  A coherent morality without a transcendent authority will be inevitably fraught with fragility.

The age-old philosophical conundrums of moral authority aside, there is widespread agreement between Christians and secular humanists on the morality of things like human dignity, community involvement, and good, old-fashioned geniality.  All of these are values that Chick-fil-A, with its evangelical roots, and New Yorkers, many of whom hold more secular sensibilities, espouse.  For this, at least, we should be grateful.  Mr. Piepenbring, however, asserts that, in a city like New York, “Chick-fil-A…does not quite belong here…Its politics, its décor, and its commercial-evangelical messaging are inflected with…suburban piety.”  This may be true culturally if one assumes there is some inherent and necessary pitched battle between a down-home corporation and a high-brow cosmopolitanism, but it is certainly not true personally.  The people who work at Chick-fil-A in New York are from New York.  And my hunch is, they care about New York and desire to serve people around New York.  Maybe we should let them.  And maybe when they smile, chicken sandwich and waffle fries in hand, we should smile back.  After all, one does not have to agree with every value and belief of a particular slice of society to treat them in a way that is neighborly.

I’m pretty sure someone said something about that, somewhere.

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April 23, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Mr. Zuckerberg Goes To Washington

Mark Zuckerberg

Credit: NBC News

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg found himself in the hot seat as he faced Congress, who, as The New York Times reports, turned their interview with him into:

…something of a pointed gripe session, with both Democratic and Republican senators attacking Facebook for failing to protect users’ data and stop Russian election interference, and raising questions about whether Facebook should be more heavily regulated.

Along with broad calls for heavier regulations for the sake of people’s privacy came concerns that Facebook might also regulate people’s posts, especially in light of the many contested “fake news” posts that circulated during the 2016 presidential election on social media.  Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska highlighted this concern, telling Mr. Zuckerberg:

Facebook may decide it needs to police a whole bunch of speech that I think America may be better off not having policed by one company that has a really big and powerful platform … Adults need to engage in vigorous debates.

At issue for Senator Sasse is whether or not a corporation like Facebook will be able to responsibly regulate all kinds of posts that, regardless of their intellectual and logical quality, are politically, though not necessarily corporately, protected under the First Amendment.  Senator Sasse is concerned that Facebook may simply begin regulating speech with which Facebook management does not agree.  The senator offered the example the abortion debate as a potential flashpoint if social media speech regulations were to be instituted:

There are some really passionately held views about the abortion issue on this panel today. Can you imagine a world where you might decide that pro-lifers are prohibited from speaking about their abortion view on your platform?

Mr. Zuckerberg responded that he “certainly would not want that to be the case.”

Corporate regulation of speech is indeed a concern, for even the best regulatory intentions often come with unintended – and sometimes awful – consequences.  At the same time, for Christians, a devotion to free speech must never become an excuse for reckless speech, for reckless speech can be dangerously damaging.  As Jesus’ brother, James, reminds us:

The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  (James 3:5-6)

Thus, with this in mind, it is worth it to reflect for a moment on how we exercise our tongues – on social media, and in all circumstances.  In our speech – and in our posts – Scripture calls us to two things.

First, we must love the truth. 

When the apostle Paul writes to a pastor named Timothy, he exhorts him:

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.  (2 Timothy 1:13-14)

The Greek verb that Paul uses for “guard” is philasso, from which we get the English word “philosophy.”  “Philosophy” is a word that, etymologically, translates as “love of truth.”  As Christians, we are called to love the truth.  We do this by expecting the truth from ourselves, by defending the truth when we see lies, and by seeking the truth so we are not duped by deceit.  In the sometimes wild world of social media, do we tell the truth about ourselves, or do we paint an intentionally deceptive portrait of ourselves with carefully curated posts?  Do we defend the truth when we see others being defamed, or do we pile on because we find certain insults humorous?  Do we seek the truth before we post, or do we pass on what we read indiscriminately because it fits our preconceived biases?  As people who follow the One who calls Himself “the truth,” we must love the truth.

Second, we must speak with grace.

Not only is what we say important, how we say it is important as well.  The apostle Paul explains it like this: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).  There are times when communicating the truth can be difficult.  But even in these times, we must be careful to apply the truth as a scalpel and not swing it as a club.  The truth is best used when it cuts for the sake of healing instead of when it bludgeons for the thrill of winning.  This is what it means to speak the truth with grace.  Paul is clear that he wants the truth proclaimed “clearly” (Colossians 4:4), but part of being clear is being careful.  When anger, hyperbole, and self-righteousness become hallmarks of “telling it like it is,” we can be sure that we are no longer actually “telling it like it is.”  Instead, we are obfuscating the truth under a layer of vitriol and rash rants.

Facebook has a lot to answer for as investigations into its handling of people’s privacy continue.  It appears as though the company may not have been completely forthcoming in how it operates.  And their deceit in this regard is getting them into trouble.  Let’s make sure we don’t fall into the same trap.  Let’s be people of the truth – on social media and everywhere.

April 16, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

CIVIL RIGHTS LEADERS MARCH

1968 was a watershed year in American history.  It was in 1968 that North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive against South Vietnam and its ally, the United States.  It was in 1968 that two U.S. Athletes stared downward at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, hands stretched upward, after winning the bronze and gold medals in the 200-meter sprint, to protest racial inequities.  It was in 1968 that 11 million workers in Paris – more than 22 percent of France’s total population – went on strike, with riots erupting that were so violent, they forced the French president, Charles de Gaulle, to flee the country for a short time.  It was in 1968 that the leading Democratic candidate for president, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.  And it was in 1968, on April 4 – 50 years ago this past week – that the venerable icon of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated while standing outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

To this day, American society is still seeking to come to terms with Dr. King’s death and the horrific racism that sparked it.  Debates over how, how deeply, and whether large swaths of America are racist rage, with no end in sight.  In a decade that was rife with segregation, Dr. King was a powerful and prolific voice for racial reconciliation and human dignity.  This is why 50 years after his death, we still need his wisdom and vision.

Dr. King drew from the rich well of the biblical prophets’ cries for justice to paint a portrait of what could be.  From the dream that he so vividly described on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to the melancholy and pointed letter that he wrote to Christian clergymen while in a Birmingham jail earlier that same year, Dr. King knew that racism was a sin that could – and must – be overcome.  As he explained when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:

I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him … I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality …

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant … I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that we shall overcome!

Dr. King’s fight against racism was tireless, and his optimism that racism would one day be overcome by brotherhood was indefatigable, for it was rooted in a hope in a God who creates all men equal.  Dr. King unwaveringly believed that God’s creative design of dignity could conquer even the acridest apartheid of men.

As Christians, we must never forget that racism cuts against the very heart of the gospel itself.  Racism exchanges the love of all for the hate of some and forgets that the very people it hates were loved by Christ so much that He died for them.  To be a racist is to make a mockery out of the very love of God.  In this way, racism is not only an ugly blight societally, but an extremely dangerous gamble spiritually, for God will not be mocked.

Dr. King was hated by many.  But those who hated him, he declared:

I have … decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. 

Jesus decided to love – and He redeemed mankind.  If love has this kind of power, there is simply no better thing to choose.

April 9, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Resurrection of Jesus in History

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

Yesterday, Christians around the world gathered to celebrate the defining claim of their faith:  the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The apostle Paul is very frank in his estimation of the importance of Christ’s resurrection:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17)

Paul places the full weight of Christianity’s reality and practicality on the resurrection’s actuality.  If the resurrection is not a historical fact, Paul declares, then the whole of the Christian faith is foolish.

But how can we decipher whether or not the resurrection happened historically?  N.T. Wright, in his seminal work, The Resurrection of the Son of God, notes that the empty tomb of Jesus combined with appearances from Jesus offers a compelling testimony to the historicity of the resurrection.  If only there was only an empty tomb, Christians would not have been able to claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  Likewise, if there were only phantasms of someone who looked like Jesus, Christians could not have claimed a resurrection.

Wright explains the power of this combination thusly:

An empty tomb without any meetings with Jesus would have been a distressing puzzle, but not a long-term problem.  It would have proved nothing; it would have suggested nothing, except the fairly common practice of grave-robbery … Tombs were often robbed in the ancient world, adding to grief both insult and injury.[1]

Indeed, grave robbery was so common in the ancient world that emperor of Rome shortly after the time of Jesus, Claudius, issued an edict meant to intimidate anyone who would consider pillaging tombs:

Ordinance of Caesar.  It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain undisturbed in perpetuity … If any man lay information that another has either demolished them, or has in any other way extracted the buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other places in order to wrong them, or has displaced the sealing or other stones, against such a one I order … the offender be sentenced to capital punishment.[2]

Apparently, the problem of grave robbery had become so pervasive that Claudius saw no other recourse to end it than to threaten capital punishment for it.  Wright consequently concludes:

Nobody in the pagan world would have interpreted an empty tomb as implying resurrection; everyone knew such a thing was out of the question.[3]

Wright continues by noting that mere appearances of Jesus alone could also not make a case for a resurrection:

‘Meetings’ with Jesus, likewise, could by themselves have been interpreted in a variety of ways.  Most people in the ancient world … knew that visions and appearances of recently dead people occurred … The ancient world as well as the modern knew the difference between visions and things that happen in the ‘real’ world.[4] 

It is only the combination of an empty tomb along with multiple appearances of Christ that could have given rise to the idea that Christ had, in actuality, risen from the dead.  This is part of Paul’s point when he writes that Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6).  Paul knows that one person can suffer a delusion of a resurrection.  It is much more difficult for 500 people to have the same delusion.  And in case anyone has any questions about what these 500 saw, Paul notes that most of them are still living.  People can simply go ask them.

With all of this being said, a primary objection to the historical veracity of the resurrection remains, which is this:  dead people tend to stay that way.  I have never – and I would guess that you also have never – seen a dead person come back to life.  So how can we accept something as fact in the past when we cannot repeat it in the present?

Again, N.T. Wright offers two helpful thoughts.  The first is that history, by its very nature, is the study of that which is unrepeatable:

History is the study, not of repeatable events as in physics and chemistry, but of unrepeatable events.[5]

In other words, just because we cannot – and, in many cases should not – repeat historical events – such as the crash of the Hindenburg, the sinking of the Titanic, or the horrors of the Holocaust – does not mean that they did not happen.  To apply a standard of “repeatability” to the resurrection in order to accept its truthfulness is to apply a standard by which no other happening in history could be deemed true.

But second, and even more importantly, Wright explains that the early Christians themselves would agree that dead people stay dead!  This is what makes their claim that there was a dead person who did not stay that way all the more astounding:

The fact that dead people not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it.  The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation.  The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim.  It is part of the claim itself.[6]

The early Christians fully understood that what they were claiming was radically unique.  But they claimed it anyway.  Whatever one may think of the historicity of the resurrection, one must at least admit that the biblical witnesses saw something and experienced something that they could explain in no other way than in a bodily resurrection from death.

These considerations, of course, do not constitute an airtight or empirically verifiable case that the resurrection did, in fact, happen.  But history rarely affords us such luxuries.  Nevertheless, these considerations do present us with a case that makes the resurrection, according to the normal canons of history, highly probable and worthy of our consideration and, perhaps, even our embrace.  There is enough evidence that we must at least ask ourselves:  has Christ risen?  And the answer of not only Scripture, but of history, can come back, with sobriety and credibility:  Christ is risen!

Which is why, 2,000 years later, Easter is still worth celebrating.

___________________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003), 688.
[2] Ibid., 708-709.
[3] Ibid., 689.
[4] Ibid., 689, 690.
[5] Ibid., 686.
[6] Ibid., 712.

April 2, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Austin Bombings Come To An End

The city of Austin is breathing a sigh of relief.  After a total of five explosions spread over 19 days, the man responsible for planting nail-filled bombs wrapped in innocent looking parcels on porches and sidewalks all over the city blew himself up as police officers were closing in to apprehend him near a northside Austin hotel in the early morning hours of last Wednesday.

The bomber turned out to be 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt from Pflugerville – a northeastern suburb of Austin.  According to his grandmother, he came from a tight-knit family, was homeschooled, and later attended Austin Community College, but did not graduate.

His family is shocked by his crimes and released a statement that reads, in part:

We are devastated and broken at the news that our family could be involved in such an awful way. We had no idea of the darkness that Mark must have been in … Right now our prayers are for those families that have lost loved ones, for those impacted in any way, and for the soul of our Mark. We are grieving and we are in shock.

There is no other word to describe Mark Conditt’s actions but “evil.”  Human depravity was on full display in this man’s attacks.  Thus, as our nation grapples with this sickening spate of bombings, it is worth it for us to reflect on the dangers of and collateral from human sin.  Here, then, are three thoughts on sin and its consequences.

Sin defies logic.

Following the Las Vegas shooting, when the motive of the gunman began to elude – and, to this day, still eludes – investigators, I wrote:

The questions of “why” will always be, in some sense, unanswerable – even if a motive is discovered and a record of the assailant’s thinking is uncovered … Sin never leads people to act sanely.

What was true then is still true now.  Even as law enforcement officials continue to try to untangle this bomber’s motives, it remains unfathomable how any grievance, any grudge, or any goal could drive anyone to commit these kinds of monstrous, and seemingly random, crimes.  And yet, what feels utterly inscrutable has a strange way of becoming tragically possible when the darkness of human depravity collides with the astounding faculties of our God-given rationality.  Sin corrupts and darkens minds.  It makes the unthinkable, reasonable and the ghastly, justifiable.  Mark Conditt’s actions are a consummate case-in-point.

Sin desires death.

The apostle Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  We can be tempted to excuse the apostle’s words here as a bit of hyperbole until we are confronted with a case like this.  The bomber’s sin took the lives of two innocent people and, ultimately, his sin cost him his own life.  Sin has a cunning way of leading us down a corridor to catastrophe before we even realize what is happening.  The alcoholic who poisons his liver, the reckless driver who is killed in an accident, and the despot who commits genocide against his own people are only a few examples of just how slippery the slope can be from sin to death.  And it’s awfully tough to stop ourselves halfway down the slope.  This is why it’s best not even to start down it.  The Psalmist says of God’s righteousness: “Your righteousness is like the highest mountains” (Psalm 36:6).  Let’s stay on the summit and off of the slopes.

Sin doesn’t succeed. 

This bomber saw five of his devilish devices detonated.  He did not succeed, however, in taking five lives.  This bomber thought he could perpetually terrorize a city.  His plans were frustrated, however, by law enforcement officials who deserve our gratitude.  This bomber’s sin got cut off and cut short again and again.  He did not succeed – at least not as much as he wanted to.

Sadly, the fact remains that two lives are still lost because of Mark Conditt. There is a 39-year-old father, Anthony Stephan House, who won’t be coming home to his 8-year-old daughter because of this bomber.  There is a 17-year-old aspiring musician, Draylen Mason, who will never get to experience college life at the University of Texas because of this bomber.

Even in these tragic cases, however, sin’s victory is tenuously temporary.  The Christian Church will celebrate this Sunday that Christ has conquered death.  And because Christ is risen, we too will rise.  To quote, once again, the apostle Paul: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).  Nails on a cross could not hold Christ down.  And by faith in Him, nails from a bomb cannot take victims out.

This week, we can take comfort in these words:  Christ is risen.

March 26, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Down Syndrome, Life, and Death

Baby Feet

When Eve gives birth to her first son, Cain, she declares, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man” (Genesis 4:1).  With these words, Eve acknowledges a fundamental reality about conception, birth, and life in general:  without God, the creation and sustentation of life is impossible. Each life is a miracle of God and a gift from God.

Sadly, this reality has become lost on far too many.  Life is no longer hailed as something God gives, but is instead touted as something we can create and, even more disturbingly, control.  The latest example of this kind of thinking comes in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Ruth Marcus, the paper’s deputy editorial page editor, titled, “I would’ve aborted a fetus with Down syndrome. Women need that right.”  Ms. Marcus explains:

I have had two children; I was old enough, when I became pregnant, that it made sense to do the testing for Down syndrome.  Back then, it was amniocentesis, performed after 15 weeks; now, chorionic villus sampling can provide a conclusive determination as early as nine weeks.  I can say without hesitation that, tragic as it would have felt and ghastly as a second-trimester abortion would have been, I would have terminated those pregnancies had the testing come back positive.  I would have grieved the loss and moved on.

According to her opinion piece, Ms. Marcus’ concern over whether or not a woman should be able to abort a child with Down Syndrome comes, at least in part, because of HB205, a bill introduced by Utah State Representative Karianne Lisonbee, which would ban doctors in that state from performing abortions for the sole reason of a Down Syndrome diagnosis.  Ms. Marcus passionately defends her position, going even so far as to conclude:

Technological advances in prenatal testing pose difficult moral choices about what, if any, genetic anomaly or defect justifies an abortion.  Nearsightedness? Being short?  There are creepy, eugenic aspects of the new technology that call for vigorous public debate.  But in the end, the Constitution mandates – and a proper understanding of the rights of the individual against those of the state underscores – that these excruciating choices be left to individual women, not to government officials who believe they know best.

Ms. Marcus admits that choosing whether to keep or abort a baby based on certain physical traits or genetic anomalies has “creepy, eugenic aspects.”  But such moral maladies are not nearly unnerving enough for her to even consider the possibility that some sort guardrail may be good for the human will when it comes to abortion.  The ability to choose an abortion, in her view, is supreme and must remain unassailable.

Ms. Marcus flatly denies what Eve once declared: “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”  She has exculpated herself from the moral responsibilities intrinsic in the front phrase of Eve’s sentence and has left herself with only, “I have brought forth a man.”  She has made herself the source and sustainer of any life that comes from her womb.  And as the source and sustainer of such life, she believes that she should have the ability to decide whether the life inside of her is indeed worthy of life, or is instead better served by death.

Part of what makes Eve’s statement so intriguing is that it seems to be pious and prideful at the same time.  On the one hand, Eve acknowledges that God is the giver of life.  Indeed, Martin Luther notes that Eve may have believed her son “would be the man who would crush the head of the serpent”[1] – that is, she may have believed her son would be the Messiah God had promised in Genesis 3:15 after the fall into sin.  On the other hand, what she names her son is telling.  She names him “Cain,” which is a play on the Hebrew word for the phrase, “I have brought forth.”  Eve names her son in a way the emphasizes her action instead of God’s gift.

Countless years and 60 million American abortions later, this emphasis has not changed.  Maybe it should.  As the fall into sin reminds us, human sovereignty is never far away from human depravity, which is why our demand to be able to choose death never works as well as God’s sovereignty over life.

_____________________________________

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 242.

March 19, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Who’s In Charge? The Self As the Source of Authority

Protests

Authority issues are nothing new.  Conflicts over the source, scope, and systems of authority can be found in every socio-political upheaval, in every teenager who rebels against his parents, and in every rebellion going all the way back to Adam and Eve.

In our current cultural mise en scène, we seem to have two ascendant loci of authority:  that of personal experience and that of corporate solidarity.  The authority of personal experience claims that, simply by virtue of experiencing something, a person can speak conclusively, decisively, and intelligently on issues that intersect with his or her experience.  It is assumed, for instance, that a person who identifies as gay can speak conclusively on LGBTQ concerns, or that a person who is an immigrant can speak decisively on border policy.  These personal experiences, in turn, coalesce around a corporate solidarity where LGBTQ people come together to form the LGBTQ community, or where immigrants come together to form coalitions like the Dreamers.  These communities then develop their own canons of orthodoxy and heresy, with individuals whose personal experiences or commitments do not conform to the broader communal experiences and commitments finding themselves marginalized or, sometimes, even shamed.

In many ways, our current secular assumptions about the wellsprings of authority parallel the experiments with authority in nineteenth-century theological liberalism.  The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, located the foundation for authority in individual experience, claiming:

If the word “God” is in general originally at one with its attendant notion, and thus the term “God” presupposes some notion of it, then the following is to be said.  This notion, which is nothing other than simply a declaration of the feeling of absolute dependence, or the most direct possible reflection of it, is the most primary notion with which we have to do here, completely independent from the primary knowing proper just mentioned.  Moreover, the notion we have to do with here is conditioned only by our feeling of absolute dependence, with the result that for us “God” signifies, first of all, simply that which is codeterminant in this feeling and that to which we push back our being, that being viewed as what we are.  Any content of this notion that would be derived from some other quarter, however, has to be explicated based on the fundamental content just specified.[1]

Schleiermacher claims that notions of God are founded on feelings of dependence.  One’s feeling of the need for God becomes the basis for a transcendent understanding of God.  In this way, divine authority is found first in personal feeling even as today’s authority is grounded in personal experience.

Likewise, the authority of corporate solidarity finds its advocate in another German theologian of this period named Albrecht Ristchl, who put a heavy emphasis on a theological authority that arises out of the Christian community.  As his famed dictum summarizes: “the immediate object of theological knowledge is the faith of the community.”  More fully, Ritschl writes:

Authentic and complete knowledge of Jesus’ significance – His significance, that is, as a founder of religion – depends on one’s reckoning oneself part of the community which He founded, and this precisely in so far as it believes itself to have received the forgiveness of sins as His peculiar gift.  This religious faith does not take an unhistorical view of Jesus … We can discover the full compass of His historical activity solely from the faith in the Christian community.[2]

Though I am more sympathetic to Ritschl’s emphasis on community than I am to Schleiermacher’s obsession with individual feeling, Ritschl nevertheless strays when he not only celebrates the faith of the Christian community – that is, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3) – but calls for faith in the Christian community, supplanting Christ Himself as the object of faith.  Ultimate theological authority for Ritschl is found in the Christian community even as ultimate secular authority today is found in ascendant activist coalitions.

Whether it be the locus of personal experience or the locus of corporate solidarity, these loci are fundamentally one in the same, for they both ultimately point back to the self.  And authority that is grounded in the self cannot endure because, even as many selves can come together in a corporate solidarity, inevitably, such alliances will fissure as factions arise and their lust for authority will lead to the horrors of war.

One of the fascinating features of our modern notion of the self as the ultimate source of authority is how regularly we seek to elide the responsibility that comes with authority.  Many tout their personal experiences not only as authoritative testimonies, but as grievance litanies that explain why the problems they face are not their fault.  Likewise, some corporate solidarities have a habit of tying the legitimacy of their authority to the severity of their oppression.  Thus, while many may want to have the authority to complain about what’s wrong, they don’t want their authority to include responsibility for their own part in what’s wrong.

Orthodox Christianity grounds ultimate authority in a place quite different from that of the self or of the community.  Christianity’s message is that ultimate authority is in no way humanly grounded, but is instead divinely founded.  Ultimate authority is not in the self, but in a Savior who declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18).

Christianity invites all of us who have been unraveled by our own authority to trust in Jesus’ authority.  For where our authority stumbles, His authority stands.  Maybe it’s not so bad not to be in charge.

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[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, Volume 1, Terrence N. Nice, Catherine L. Kelsey, & Edwina Lawler, trans. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 31.

[2] Albrecht Ritschl in Wilfred Currier Keirstead, “Theological Presuppositions of Ritschl,” The American Journal of Theology 10, no. 2 (1906): 425.

March 12, 2018 at 4:15 am 1 comment

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