Posts tagged ‘Ross Douthat’

Christ, Culture, and Witness

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A perennial question of Christianity asks:  How should a Christian relate to and interact with broader culture?  In his classic work, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr outlines what has become the premier taxonomy of the relationship between the two as he explores five different ways that, historically, Christ and culture have corresponded:

  • Christ against culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are incompatible and Christianity will inevitably be at odds with and should retreat from the rest of the world.
  • Christ of culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are well suited for each other, and Jesus becomes the fulfiller of society’s hopes and dreams.
  • Christ above culture: In this view, broader culture is not bad per se, but it needs to be augmented and perfected by biblical revelation and the Church, with Christ as the head.
  • Christ and culture in paradox: In this view, culture is not all bad because it is, after all, created by God, but it has been corrupted by sin.  Therefore, there will always be a tension between the potential of culture and its reality as well as between the brokenness of culture and the perfection of Christ.
  • Christ the transformer of culture: In this view, because Christ desires to ultimately redeem culture, Christians should work to transform culture.

The categories Niebuhr outlines and the tensions he teases out in his taxonomy are just as salient today as they were when he first posed them in 1951.  Indeed, they are perhaps even more so as America slides into what many have christened a “post-Christian age.”

In my view, the first two categories won’t do.  To pit Christ against culture, as the first view tries to do, overlooks the fact that there is much good in culture.  It can also easily lead Christians into a self-righteousness that spends so much time trying to fight culture that it forgets that Christians are part of the problem in culture, for they too are sinners.

Conversely, to team Christ with culture and to use Christ to endorse your zeitgeist of choice also will not do.  As Ross Douthat explains, when this happens:

Traditional churches are supplanted by self-help gurus and spiritual-political entrepreneurs. These figures cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies, take out the inconvenient bits and pitch them to mass audiences that want part of the old-time religion but nothing too unsettling or challenging or ascetic. The result is a nation where Protestant awakenings have given way to post-Protestant wokeness, where Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen have ceded pulpits to Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey, where the prosperity gospel and Christian nationalism rule the right and a social gospel denuded of theological content rules the left.

Though I would take issue with Douthat’s characterization of Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen as torchbearers for Christian orthodoxy, his broader point about what happens when Christ is made to mindlessly cater to culture is absolutely true.  Culture, it turns out, is a much better line dancer than it is a two-stepper.  It likes to dance alone and will humor Christ only as long as it needs to until it can find a way to leave Him behind and strike out on its own.

In my view, Niebuhr’s category of “Christ and culture in paradox” best explains the difficult realities of the Church’s interaction with culture and the biblical understanding of how to relate to culture.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul opens by writing:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. (1 Corinthians 2:1-3)

The Corinthians prided themselves on being enlightened and educated.  Paul sardonically jibes the Corinthians for their arrogance, teasing, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong!  You are honored, we are dishonored” (1 Corinthians 4:10).  To a church that prided itself in being intellectually and socially elitist, rather than engaging in rhetorical and philosophical acrobatics to impress the Corinthians when he proclaimed the gospel to them, Paul came to them with the rather unimpressive, as he put it, “foolish” message of Christ and Him crucified.  Paul cut against the culture of Corinth.

And yet, at the same time he cut against the culture of Corinth, he also declared his love for broader culture and even embedded himself into broader culture in an effort to proclaim the gospel:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.  To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Paul was not afraid to appropriate culture in service to the declaration and proclamation of the gospel so that as many people as possible might be saved.

So there you have it.  Paul eschews cultural sensibilities at the same time he employs them.  Because Paul knows that Christ and culture live in paradox with one another.

We would do well to follow in Paul’s footsteps.  As Christians, we must not be afraid to cut against culture’s sinfulness and brokenness.  But at the same time, we must also not be afraid to embrace culture’s creativity and respect its sensibilities as often as we possibly can.  And we must have the wisdom to know when to do what.  Otherwise, we will only wind up losing the truth to culture or losing the opportunity to share the truth with culture.  And we can afford to lose neither.

Let us pray that we would faithfully keep both in 2019.

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January 7, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Against Our Better Judgment

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Credit: Dan Mason

Yesterday, in the Bible class I teach at the church where I serve, I made the point that we can be very bad at making appropriate judgments.  We can, at times, judge incorrectly, inconsistently, or even incoherently.  This is why Jesus warns us, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1), and the apostle Paul echoes, “Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

I also mentioned in my Bible class that hardly better examples of our struggle with making appropriate judgments can be found than in the realm of politics.  When an elected official is not a member of whatever party we prefer, we can sometimes treat them as if they can do no right, even if they have some noble achievements or proposals.  But if a person is a member of our preferred party, we can sometimes treat them as if they can do no wrong, even if they have acted wickedly and inexcusably.  We minimize what they have done simply by pointing to an opposing political ideology that, in our minds, is “even worse.”

In his daily news briefing, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, brought to my attention two op-ed pieces, both published a week ago Sunday across from each other in the opinion pages of The New York Times.  One was by the left-leaning Jennifer Weiner and titled “The Flagrant Sexual Hypocrisy of Conservative Men.”  The other was by the right-leaning Ross Douthat and titled “The Pigs of Liberalism.”  Here, conveniently divided by the fold in the newspaper, is our political divide laid bare, nestled neatly in newsprint.  Ms. Weiner decried the breathtaking schizophrenia of Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who, while taking a consistently pro-life stance as a politician and voting for pro-life legislation, quietly encouraged his mistress to get an abortion when she found out she was pregnant.  Mr. Douthat’s piece chronicled the all-around sliminess of Hollywood mogul and liberal icon Harvey Weinstein, who, in a bombshell piece of investigative reporting in The New York Times, was revealed to have harassed and, perhaps, even sexually assaulted dozens of women over the course of decades.

Though both Mr. Murphy and Mr. Weinstein’s actions, because of the egregiousness of their offenses, have been, thankfully, broadly and forcefully denounced regardless of their political commitments, oftentimes, excusing the inexcusable has become par for the course in many of our political debates, particularly, interestingly enough, when it comes to sexual misdeeds.  A desire to see a political ideology defeated can often eclipse a commitment to get some basic ethical principles right.

In one way, this is not surprising.  The Pew Research Center published a report earlier this month on the widening political divides in American life.  Most striking is this chart, which shows just how far apart Republicans and Democrats have drifted – or, as the case may be, run – away from each other ideologically since 1994.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 5.34.29 PMWhen political ideologies become this disparate, it is not surprising that a desire to promote your preferred ideology generally can trump and excuse the public proponents of your ideological stripe when they do not practice your ideological commitments specifically.

So, what is the way through all of our excuses, minimizations, and rationalizations of people who tout a particular political ideology publicly while, at the same time, shirking it personally?  First, we must understand that such instances of hypocrisy are not, at their root, political.  They are spiritual.  A particular political ideology that we don’t like is not our ultimate problem.  Sin is our ultimate problem.  This is why both conservatives and liberals can fall prey to vile sinfulness, as the cases of Mr. Murphy and Mr. Weinstein illustrate.  The titles of the recent op-ed pieces in The New York Times could have just as easily, and perhaps more accurately, been titled “The Flagrant Sexual Hypocrisy of Sinful Men” and “The Pigs of Depravity.”  As long as we pretend that a particular political ideology is a categorical evil to be defeated, we will only fall prey to more evil.  Political ideologies certainly have problems, but they are not, in and of themselves, the ultimate problem.  We are.

Second, we must also be careful not to conclude that because someone espouses a certain ideology while not living up to it, their ideology is ipso facto wrong.  There are many factors that can make an ideology – or an aspect of an ideology – wrong, but a failure to live up to the ideology in question is not necessarily one of them.  A pro-life ideology is still morally right in principle even if Mr. Murphy was wrong in is his actions.  A strong ideology against sexual assault and harassment is still morally right in principle even if Mr. Weinstein was wrong in his failure to live up to this strong ideology.

Third, in a culture that regularly falls short of its values, we must not fall prey to the temptation to indiscriminately shift values to excuse behavior.  Instead, we must call those who espouse certain ideological values to actually live according to them.  In other words, we need to learn how to lovingly judge people’s actions according to rigorous ethical commitments and call people to repentance instead of downplaying and downgrading ethical commitments because we’re desperate to gain or to retain some kind of power.  After all, power without ethical commitments can never be exercised well, no matter which side of the political divide exercises it, because power that is not subject to a higher moral power can, if not held accountable, quickly degenerate into tyranny.

Jesus famously said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).  It is time for us to look beyond the surface of our political divides and peer into the character of our culture.  What we find there will probably unsettle us, but it will also call us to some sober reflection and compel us to want something better for ourselves and for our society.  I pray we have the wherewithal for such reflection.

October 16, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Divorce, Remarriage, Communion, and the Catholic Church’s Existential Crisis

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

I have to admit, I’d be in awe if I got the phone call Jaqui Lisbona did.  On a Monday, a couple of weeks ago, Jaqui’s phone rang.  Her husband picked it up and was greeted by a man who introduced himself as Father Bergoglio.  You may know him better as Pope Francis.  He asked to speak with Jaqui.  Apparently, several months back, she had written a letter to the pontiff asking him if she could take Communion even though she was divorced.  Apparently, her priest had been refusing her Communion for some time now according to the provisions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions … The Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was.  If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law.  Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic Communion as long as this situation persists.[1]

In contradistinction to her priest’s ban, The Washington Post reports that the Pope told Jaqui “‘there was no problem’ with her taking Communion, and that he was ‘dealing with the issue’ of remarried divorcees.”[2]  Predictably, this set off a firestorm of controversy with the Vatican ultimately having to respond:

Several telephone calls have taken place in the context of Pope Francis’ personal pastoral relationships. Since they do not in any way form part of the Pope’s public activities, no information or comments are to be expected from the Holy See Press Office. That which has been communicated in relation to this matter, outside the scope of personal relationships, and the consequent media amplification, cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion. Therefore, consequences relating to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred from these occurrences.

I like Ross Douthat’s analysis of this response:  “This formulation may be technically correct, but it’s also a little bit absurd. Even in ‘private’ conversation, the Pope is, well, the Pope.”[3]  Exactly.  You can’t claim the Pope is the vicar of Christ on the one hand while having him contradict what other vicars of Christ before him have taught on the other.

With that being said, there is something to be commended in the stance that The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and even this woman’s priest, has taken with regard to remarried divorcees and Communion.  In a world that all too readily sanctions divorce and remarriage for reasons as debase and selfish as “I’m in love with someone else and I want to marry them,” The Catechism of the Catholic Church helps to remind us of the gravity of divorce as a sin in God’s eyes.

Still, it has been interesting to watch Catholics struggle to respond to this situation.  They are struggling with how to make a proper distinction between, oddly enough, the Law and the Gospel!  Consider this by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry:

The question of the divorced-remarried and the sacraments is taking up a lot of our time. How should we look at this?

One of the many confounding things about the Jesus of the Gospels is that He fulfills the law, even strengthens the law, and yet extends mercy to literally anyone who wants it, no matter how deep their transgressions, and adopts a resolutely passionate attitude with sinners. This is encapsulated by His words to the adulterous woman: “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

As with all aspects of our faith, structured with paradox as it is, the temptation is always to strengthen one side of the “equation” too much at the expense of the other … Jesus says, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” One camp will say, “He said ‘I do not condemn you’!!!!!” One camp will say, “He said ‘Go and sin no more’!!!!!” …

It seems to me that the excesses go in these ways. The progressive excess is to use mercy as a (however well-intentioned) pretext to amend the law. The conservative excess is to use the law as a (however well-intentioned pretext) to refuse mercy.

Yes, God lays down the law. But God provides infinite mercy.[4]

It sounds to me like Gobry is having the existential crisis of a Lutheran and he doesn’t even know it!  He is taking seriously the full weight of God’s law against divorce on the one hand while leaning on His sweet mercy for divorcées on the other.

Gobry even seems to suspect that the partaking of Communion to a divorcée’s blessing and benefit is not as simple as a humanly contrived promise to sin no more based squarely in a person’s will:

The juridical Gordian knot here is the necessary “firm resolve” not to commit the sin again. But it is not licentious to note that for all of us this firm resolve will be imperfect. Obviously, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But if we search our hearts, do we not find that “firm resolve” is drawn in shades of gray, rather than black or white? …

God’s law is as hard as His mercy is infinite. And none of us are righteous under the law. And none of us, if we are honest, can even be said to want to be righteous under the law, in every single dimension of our life. But, particularly in these delicate and demanding aspects of sexual life and life situations, the grace of wanting to want God’s will is already very precious and important. And is it not in those phases, where we are broken down, and all we can muster the strength to pray for is to want to want, or even to want to want to want, that the Church should be most present with the succor of her sacraments?

Gobry knows that rooting anything salvific and divinely beneficial in our actions or will is a fool’s errand.  It’s not just that we aren’t righteous, it’s that we don’t even want to be righteous.  Indeed, any righteous desire in our will is doomed to an infinite regress, rendered impotent because of sin.  We only want to want to be righteous, or even want to want to want to be righteous.  And even this is giving us too much credit.

So, what is the way out of this morass over who may worthily partake of Communion?  Martin Luther would say, “That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”[5]  Our worthiness to partake of Communion is not and cannot be based in our freedom from sin, our reparations for sin, or the fullness and genuineness of a promise not to commit more sin.  With regard to the Catholic Church’s current quandary over divorce and remarriage specifically, worthiness for Communion cannot be the result of trying to fix the sin of divorce by, after remarrying, getting another divorce, for this is also a sin.  No, our worthiness to partake on Communion can only be based on faith in the One who gives us His body and blood to remedy our unworthiness.  Our worthiness must be based in Jesus because our worthiness is Jesus.

Existential crisis…remedied.

______________________________

[1] The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville, MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1994), § 1650.

[2] Terrence McCoy, “Did Pope Francis just call and say divorced Catholics can take Communion?The Washington Post (4.24.2014).

[3] Ross Douthat, “The Pope’s Phone Call,” The New York Times (4.26.2014).

[4] Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “On Divine Mercy Sunday, Some Thoughts On Communion And Divorced-Remarried,” patheos.com (4.27.2014).

[5] Martin Luther, Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar,” Section 1.

May 5, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Love That Lasts Past One Night

University StudyingOver the past few weeks, the New York Times has published a couple of articles of special interest to Christians.  The first is by Kate Taylor and chronicles the seedy underbelly of the college hook up culture.  The picture she paints is dark and disturbing:

At 11 on a weeknight earlier this year, her work finished, a slim, pretty junior at the University of Pennsylvania did what she often does when she has a little free time.  She texted her regular hookup — the guy she is sleeping with but not dating. What was he up to? He texted back: Come over.  So she did.  They watched a little TV, had sex and went to sleep.

Nationwide, nearly 3 in 10 seniors say they have never hooked up in college.[1]

Take a moment to ponder the significance of this statistic.  It’s not that three in ten college seniors have hooked up, it’s that three in ten college senior have not hooked up.  This means by the time a college graduate walks across the stage to receive a diploma, there’s a 70% chance he or she has engaged in casual, illicit sexual activity.  This is nothing less than ghastly.

Now, contrast this with a New York Times article by Ross Douthat on college campuses as one of the last non-virtual bastions at which to meet a lifelong mate.  He begins his column by citing a 2012 study:

From about 1960 to 1990 … neighborhood and church had a roughly steady influence over how heterosexual couples met, with about 10% of heterosexual couples meeting as neighbors and about 7% meeting in or through houses of worship.  After 2000, neighborhood and church went in to steep decline along with most of the other traditional ways of meeting romantic partners.[2]

It seems the dating strongholds that have traditionally set people on the path to marriage are in steep decline.  This trend does not hold true, however, for college campuses:  “College has also dipped since 2000 as a place to meet, but only modestly,” Douthat notes.  What, then, is the upshot of these statistics?  Douthat concludes:

It seems fair to assume that there are still a lot of people who would prefer to meet their future spouse the old fashioned way — through initial flesh-and-blood encounters embedded in a larger pre-existing social network.  If that’s your preference, the university campus is one of the few flesh-and-blood arenas that seems to be holding its own as a place to form lasting attachments.  So for those Americans who do attend college, the case for taking advantage of its denser-than-average social landscape might actually get stronger as the non-virtual alternatives decline.

So there you have it.  On the one hand, college campuses can be hotbeds of squalid sexual hookups – places where people make out at night and walk out the next morning.  On the other hand, college campuses remain ideal environments for meeting, dating, and, eventually, marrying.

The apostle Paul issues a sobering warning about the effects of sexual immorality, saying that God gives over people “in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Romans 3:24).  When reading such a warning, I can’t help but think of an especially telling story from Kate Taylor’s article:

For many Penn students, their initiation into the sexual culture takes place at fraternity parties during New Student Orientation, a five-day period before classes start in the fall, which, along with Spring Fling in April, is known as the biggest partying time of the year.

“You go in, and they take you down to a dark basement,” Haley, a blond, pink-cheeked senior, recalled of her first frat parties in freshman year. “There’s girls dancing in the middle, and there’s guys lurking on the sides and then coming and basically pressing … up against you and trying to dance.”

Dancing like that felt good but dirty, and like a number of girls, Haley said she had to be drunk in order to enjoy it. Women said universally that hookups could not exist without alcohol, because they were for the most part too uncomfortable to pair off with men they did not know well without being drunk.

The first line of the last paragraph haunts me:  “Dancing like that felt good but dirty.”  Another word for “dirty,” of course, is “degrading,” the very thing which Paul says is the result of sexual immorality.

So often we read Paul’s words in Romans 1 as a condemnation of those whose sexual ethics differ from those of Christianity.  But Paul’s words are much more than a condemnation.  They are a sad statement of reality.  And even the New York Times knows it.  Sexual immorality is dirty.  Sexual immorality is degrading.  Perhaps C.S. Lewis puts it best when he writes specifically of females trapped in sexually promiscuous lifestyles: “I have no sympathy with moralists who frown at the increasing crudity of female provocativeness.  These signs of desperate competition fill me with pity.”[3]  Like Lewis, may we pity those who are so desperate, they willingly degrade themselves sexually.  Such degradation is truly heartbreaking.

The choice is clear.  At college, a student can either degrade him or herself in sexual recklessness, or take advantage of a university’s social landscape to form friendships and, by God’s grace, a lifelong marriage relationship.

My prayer is that more and more people would choose chastity – not only because it gives glory to God, but because it really is better for His creations.  It really is better for you.  You don’t need to degrade yourself.  For you have One who was degraded for you on a cross.


[1] Kate Taylor, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” New York Times (7.12.2013).

[2] Ross Douthat, “The Dating World of Tomorrow,” New York Times (7.19.2013).

[3] C.S. Lewis, C.S. Lewis: Readings for Meditation and Reflection, Walter Hooper, ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 88

July 29, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The State Of Our Public Debate: Same-Sex Marriage As A Test Case

Red Equal SignWhen the Facebook page of the Human Rights Campaign changed their profile picture to a red and pink equal sign on March 25 in anticipation of the Supreme Court hearing cases on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, which prohibits same-sex marriage in California, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts federal marriage benefits to only opposite sex marriages, the response of many in the Facebook universe was nearly instantaneous.  By the time the Supreme Court was listening to arguments for and against Proposition 8 the next day, roughly 2.7 million people had changed their profile pictures to the red and pink equal sign.[1]

Welcome to the way we debate and discuss watershed issues in the digital age.  We post a profile picture.

As I have watched the national debate over same-sex marriage unfold, I have been struck by the daftness of so many of the arguments concerning such a monumental issue.  As a Christian, I have grave theological and moral concerns with same-sex marriage, but others have registered cogent concerns with same-sex marriage quite apart from the traditional moorings of biblical Christianity.  For instance, in their book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George offer an excellent argument for traditional or, as they call it, conjugal marriage over and against a revisionist view of marriage.  The heart of their argument is this:

If the law defines marriage to include same-sex partners, many will come to misunderstand marriage.  They will not see it as essentially comprehensive, or thus (among other things) as ordered to procreation and family life – but as essentially an emotional union…If marriage is centrally an emotional union, rather than one inherently ordered to family life, it becomes much harder to show why the state should concern itself with marriage any more than with friendship.  Why involve the state in what amounts to the legal regulation of tenderness?[2]

The authors’ argument is simple, yet brilliant.  Those who argue for same-sex marriage seem to define marriage based strictly on affection.  But there are many relationships that are affectionate, such as friendships, and yet are not state-regulated.  So marriage must be something more than simple affection.  But what more is it?  This is a question that proponents of same-sex marriage have a difficult time answering with any uniformity.

Sadly, the work of these authors has not been well received or responded to.  Ryan Anderson, appearing on the Piers Morgan Show to explain the arguments of his book, was attacked by Suze Orman who dismissed him as “very, very uneducated in how it really, really works.”[3]  Considering that Anderson is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation who received his degree from Princeton and is currently working on a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, I find it hard to believe that he is “very, very uneducated.”

In another example of supporters of traditional marriage being flippantly dismissed, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones took Ross Douthat of the New York Times to task for daring to suggest that an orientation toward procreation ought to be part of the definition of what constitutes a marriage:

It was opponents [of same-sex marriage], after realizing that Old Testament jeremiads weren’t cutting it any more, who began claiming that SSM should remain banned because gays couldn’t have children. This turned out to be both a tactical and strategic disaster, partly because the argument was so transparently silly (what about old people? what about women who had hysterectomies? etc.) and partly because it suggested that SSM opponents didn’t have any better arguments to offer. But disaster or not, they’re the ones responsible for making this into a cornerstone of the anti-SSM debates in the aughts.[4]

In his response, Douthat questions Drum’s account of the origin of the procreation argument for traditional marriage:

If gay marriage opponents had essentially invented a procreative foundation for marriage in order to justify opposing same-sex wedlock, it would indeed be telling evidence of a movement groping for reasons to justify its bigotry. But of course that essential connection was assumed in Western law and culture long before gay marriage emerged as a controversy or a cause. You don’t have to look very hard to find quotes…from jurists, scholars, anthropologists and others, writing in historical contexts entirely removed from the gay marriage debate, making the case that “the first purpose of matrimony, by the laws of nature and society, is procreation” (that’s a California Supreme Court ruling in 1859), describing the institution of marriage as one “founded in nature, but modified by civil society: the one directing man to continue and multiply his species, the other prescribing the manner in which that natural impulse must be confined and regulated” (that’s William Blackstone), and acknowledging that “it is through children alone that sexual relations become important to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution” (that’s the well-known reactionary Bertrand Russell).

Douthat ends his response to Drum with a brilliant one-liner:  “Once you’ve rewritten the past to make your opponents look worse, then you’re well on your way to justifying writing them out of the future entirely.”[5]

This line, more than any I have read in a long time, encapsulates the problem with our public debates – not just over same-sex marriage, but over many controversial issues.  No longer are people interested in debating a big issue with the kind of intellectual rigor or careful thought such issues deserve. Instead, we change our Facebook profiles to an equal sign.  Or we ridicule a Notre Dame Ph.D. candidate as “uneducated.”  Or we make patently false claims about the historical origins of our opponents’ arguments.  We try to write our opponents out of the future entirely.

We, it seems, are much less interested in intelligently discussing and debating an issue and much more interested in asserting our will on an issue.  We no longer care whether or not we arrive at the right position on an issue as long as others bow to our position on an issue.  And, lest I be accused of intimating that only proponents of same-sex marriage engage in such dubious debate tactics, let me be clear that I have seen opponents of same-sex marriage pull these same kinds of sorry tricks.  After all, they’re on Facebook too.  They host cable news shows too.  They write less than thoughtful columns too.

The nihilist Nietzsche seemed to take special delight in laying bare the basest corners of human nature.  In his seminal work Beyond Good and Evil, he summarizes his thoughts on the heart of humanity:  “A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength – life itself is Will to Power.”  Nietzsche purported that people, at their cores, desire to assert Machiavellian power over others much more than they ever desire to converse with others.  This is why Nietzsche saw “slavery in some sense or other”[6] as necessary to human advancement.  Those who are strong must assert their wills over those who are weak.

As I have watched the debate over same-sex marriage unfold, I have become worried that Nietzsche just might be right.  In this debate, winning against the other side has become more important than discussing and reasoning with the other side to arrive at the right side.  And because of that, I can’t help but think that, no matter who wins, we might just all lose.


[1] Alexis Kleinman, “How The Red Equal Sign Took Over Facebook, According To Facebook’s Own Data,” The Huffington Post (3.29.2013).

[2] Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson & Robert George, What Is Marriage?  Man and Woman:  A Defense (New York:  Encounter Books, 2012), 7, 16.

[3] Jamie Weinstein, “Fresh off his Piers Morgan confrontation, Ryan Anderson explains his ‘un-American’ views on marriage,” The Daily Caller (3.30.2013).

[4] Kevin Drum, “The Gay Marriage Debate Probably Hasn’t Affected Straight Marriage Much,” Mother Jones (3.31.2013).

[5] Ross Douthat, “Marriage, Procreation and Historical Amnesia,” The New York Times (4.2.2013).

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (New York:  The Macmillan Company, 1907), 20, 223.

April 8, 2013 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Election Day 2012 – It’s Almost Here

Election Day is tomorrow.  I am, as I’m sure you are, praying for our country and for her leaders.  I am also praying that much of the fear that surrounds this election will be calmed by the peace of God that transcends all human understanding (cf. Philippians 4:7).

This week, my blog is a simple one.  Yesterday in Adult Bible Class, I talked about Mark 12:13-17 with a special emphasis on what Jesus says about paying taxes and honoring God in verse 17:  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  I wanted to put into transcript form (with some slight editing for the sake of readability) my conclusion from Adult Bible Class.  For as we head into voting booths across our land, I think it’s important to reiterate what we talked about – that no matter who occupies the Oval Office, there is only one Occupant on the throne of heaven.  And that alone should be enough to quell our fears and give us hope.  Here is what I said:

I’m going to go on the record today and say that I think it’s time for us to have a smaller government.  But when I say that – before you get too excited or too angry depending on your political persuasion – I’m not talking about tax policy and how we’re going to pay for this or that government program.  I’m not talking about what social programs we should or should not keep.  I’m not talking about whether we should be for or against the Affordable Health Care Act.  I’m not talking about the size of government in Washington at all.  I’m talking about the size of government in our imaginations.  For government – and its attendant greatness or ghoulishness – has captured far too large a place in our hearts and minds.

Here’s what’s happened:  whether Republican or Democrat, many people have bought into this myth that if the wrong guy makes it into office – which always happens to be the guy they’re not voting for – that’s the end of the line.  That’s the demise of our nation.  That’s the disintegration of everything good and moral and noble and righteous in our world.  And people get all revved up and riled up, determined to save what is most important to them by getting their guy into office.

Folks, when this happens, you’re not voting for a president, you’re seeking a Messiah.  And that job has already been filled.

I love what a New York Times columnist named Ross Douthat writes about this:

The party in power claims to be restoring American greatness; the party out of power insists that the current administration is actually deeply un-American – heretics in the holy temple of the U.S.A., you might say – and promises to take our country back…And the country keeps cycling through savior figures, hoping each time that this one will be the One that we’ve been waiting for.[1]

Folks, the One we’ve been waiting for has already come.  And His name is not Barack Obama.  His name is not Mitt Romney.  His name is Jesus Christ.  And, by the way, not only has He come, He’ll come again.

So cast your vote. Be a good citizen.  But remember that even if Caesar gets the coins, Jesus holds your heart.

And that’s what matters most.


[1] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion:  How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York:  Free Press, 2012), 269.

November 5, 2012 at 5:15 am 3 comments

The Problem with Our Politics

“Our politics is broken.”  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a political pundit utter these words on a cable news show.  Usually, when a pundit speaks of broken politics, he or she is referring to the divisive and downright derogatory displays that so regularly parade across our national stage.  These pundits long for the days when politicians could reach across the aisle and work with others who held different points of view to get things done and to move our nation into a bold and bright new future.  “Why can’t we all just get along?” these pundits wonder.

This dream, of course, is encapsulated in our nation’s de facto, though not official, longtime motto:  E pluribus unum.  “Out of many, one.”  We dream of the day when those in the halls of power – and the population who votes for them – will finally be able act civilly.  And yet, as nice of a sentiment as E pluribus unum is, it is neither Scriptural nor realistic.  Simple observation verifies this.  We may be many in this nation.  But we are certainly not one.

This is why the Scriptural vision of unity, rather than being ad hoc and accidental, is grounded in Christ and is intentional. The apostle Paul explains:

There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Paul uses the adjective “one” seven times in these verses.  And in each instance, the adjective modifies God and His gifts.  Thus, true unity can only be founded in the one true, Triune God.  Scriptural unity begins with oneness of God and not with the multiplicity of man, as does our folksy national motto.

But our problem goes deeper than a simple lack of political unity.  For disunity is merely a symptom of a more systemic and sinister problem.  Our deeper problem is that we buy into so many of the impossibly lofty things our politics and politicians promise.  We have saddled our politics with the responsibility of:

Fostering unity, creating jobs, saving the environment, caring for the poor, reducing the deficit, cutting spending, supporting unions and workers’ rights, formulating corporately friendly economic policies, reforming entitlements, ensuring the long-term fiscal solvency of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, providing for a world-class education, both deporting illegal immigrants and providing them a path to citizenship, and restoring prosperity.

If we just had all of that, then we would be happy.  Hmmm.  Is it any wonder we’re disaffected and disillusioned?  Does anyone really believe any human institution can deliver on all that?

Last week, I came across a column by New York Times writer Ross Douthat, where he poetically and succinctly summarizes the problem with the demands we make on our politics.  Douthat writes:

When strong religious impulses coexist with weak religious institutions, people become more likely to channel religious energy into partisan politics instead, and to freight partisan causes with more metaphysical significance than they can bear. The result, visible both in the “hope and change” fantasies of Obama’s 2008 campaign and the right-wing backlash it summoned up, is a politics that gives free rein to both utopian and apocalyptic delusions, and that encourages polarization without end.[1]

This is precisely right.  For all the help politics and politicians might be able to offer, and for all the good they might be able to do (cf. Romans 13:1-5), they are not up to carrying the weight of the metaphysical freight of the divine.  The expansive power of God is simply too much for them to bear.  Indeed, it is too much for any human to bear.  This is why strong religious institutions, as Douthat duly notes, that strongly trust in and teach the providence of God are so important.  For they proclaim the message that there is only one Messiah of metaphysical proportions and powers –and His name is Jesus.  Anyone else who attempts to do Jesus’ job for Him will fail miserably.  It is foolish to place superhuman hopes on simple humans, be they politicians or anyone else.

The upshot of placing superhuman hopes on simple humans can do nothing but result in the disastrous vacillation between “utopian and apocalyptic delusions” to which Douthat refers.  When a new politician is elected, we speak of him as if he will be able to usher in an eternal golden age of prosperity and unity.  When he unsurprisingly fails, we cry that the sky is falling.

I would submit that the Church stands at a particularly privileged position in our current political environment.  For we can serve as advocates for the One who can and does do what politics and politicians can only dream of.  We can serve as advocates for the One who not only provides for human beings, but changes human hearts.  We can serve as advocates for Jesus.  Sadly, many Christians have all too readily and willingly traded an advocacy of Jesus for advocacy of a certain candidate or political position.  Not that it is bad in and of itself to thoughtfully support a candidate, but we must remain clear on what our politics and politicians can and cannot do.  For our politics and politicians will not last.  And they also will not deliver – at least not in the way we might hope.  Jesus and His promises, however, will last and they will deliver.  In fact, not only will Jesus last and deliver, He will prevail.  As the Church, then, our call is to advocate for Him first.


[1] Ross Douthat, “A Nation of Osteens and Obamas,” The Washington Post (5.16.12).

May 28, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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