Posts tagged ‘Theology’

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.

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March 12, 2018 at 4:15 am 1 comment

The Pew View of the LCMS

Religious Landscape

Last year, the Pew Research Center released a landmark Religious Landscape Study that surveyed over 35,000 adults from across the nation about their religious beliefs.  As a part of their research, Pew studied the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  Though I am well-aware of the risks associated with navel-gazing, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the section of Pew’s study that specifically pertains to my church body, because turning the mirror on oneself and seeing oneself for what one truly is – even when it is uncomfortable – can often be a helpful exercise.

Before we dig into the data, I should note that Pew’s survey of LCMS congregants has a 6-point margin of error, which, statistically, is significant.  This does not mean, however, that this survey is not worth our time and attention.  Even with a 6-point margin of error, the study’s findings are statistically substantial enough to be quite revealing.  So on to the study.

I was surprised to see how well my demographic is represented in my church body.  I had stereotypically assumed that my denomination was older than it actually turns out to be.  According to Pew, 30 to 49 year olds, which is my demographic, comprise the largest segment of my church body at 32%. Generation X, which is my generation, comprises the second largest segment of my church body at 28% next to Baby Boomers, who are at 35%.  Millennial representation is much lower at only 13%.  Demographically, then, I am, in many ways, a typical member of an LCMS congregation.  I am not, however, typical in every way – especially in my theological and moral beliefs.  It is in these areas that the data becomes particularly interesting.

For example, when Pew asked LCMS people what they look to for guidance on right and wrong, while 41% answered “religion,” 45% answered “common sense.”  In one way, this is not a surprise.  In the face of the information onslaught of the digital age, we have become informational pluralists.  We garner and glean our information and, by extension, our opinions, values, and beliefs, from a wide array of sources. The idea of a turning to a single, divinely-authored book as the first and final word on morality is simply untenable to most people.  Indeed, when LCMS congregants were asked about their “frequency of participation in prayer, Scripture study or religious education groups” and about their “frequency of reading Scripture,” the largest percentage of respondents in both categories fell into the “Seldom/Never” tier.  Thus, it is perfectly logical that more people would get their guidance on right and wrong from common sense than from religion and from the book on which the Christian religion is grounded, the Bible.  After all, a majority of people don’t even study the Bible enough to have a nuanced understanding of what’s in it.

The Pew study also revealed that many LCMS congregants seem more unified around a politically conservative economic policy than they are around issues that pertain to traditional Christian morality.  Politically, 52% of LCMS people identify as conservative over and against 33% who identify as moderate and 10% who identify as liberal.  72% prefer a smaller government with fewer services and 62% say that government aid programs do more harm than good.  Morally, 46% of LCMS people believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases versus 51% who believe it should be illegal, and 56% believe homosexuality should be accepted with 45% favoring same-sex marriage.  Compare this to 50% of people who identify as pro-choice nationwide and 55% who favor same-sex marriage nationwide.  There is a gap between what LCMS people believe about hot button moral issues and what the general public believes, but this gap is not as wide as one might think.  And, on both the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, the LCMS is less unified than it is around conservative economic policy.

Theologically, I find it unsettling that our opinions on moral issues, which call for our Scriptural agreement, are so diverse while in areas where it’s okay and even desirable to be diverse, we are monolithic.  Take, for instance, the racial makeup of the LCMS.  95% of LCMS congregants are white.  This hardly seems to reflect the picture of the Church Triumphant with its people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).  I understand that we cannot create this kind of Church by our own efforts and I also am well aware that the Church Militant, because it marches forth in a fallen world and because it does not reveal to us the universal Church, will always look different than the Church Triumphant.  But let’s not use our inability to create the Church of Revelation 7:9 as an excuse to not desire it.  After all, every member of the Church Triumphant starts out as a member of the Church Militant.  So the Church Militant should look, at least in some way, like Church Triumphant.

When it comes to the moral and ethical issues that clearly divide not only our society, but also many in my church body, I would simply say that these are issues that demand our continued attention and discussion.  And when discussing these issues, we must understand that just being a part of a church body does not guarantee, nor does it even make it likely, that a person will believe what the church body teaches.  Frankly, in our current cultural configuration, the Church’s voice is just one voice – heard by most only once a week at best – among a steady stream of other voices that speak much more frequently and regularly into people’s lives.  In order to gain a serious hearing among all these voices, it is important for the Church to speak charitably enough that people trust it and clearly enough that people know what the Bible teaches, even if they disagree.

Pew’s Religious Landscape Study has presented us with a challenge – and an opportunity.  It has revealed some areas of moral, theological, and even demographic concern.  My prayer is that we, as God’s people, rise to meet the challenge – not only for the sake of a church body, but for the sake of the world.

January 11, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

Larycia Hawkins

Dr. Larycia Hawkins

Last week on this blog, I discussed the danger of trading theological integrity for political expediency in the wake of Donald Trump’s proposed ban on all non-resident Muslims entering our country.  As I explained, Mr. Trump’s claim that his ban is “not about religion,” though politically palatable, cannot be factually truthful.  His ban, I argued, is necessarily about religion because it affects a whole group of thoroughgoingly religious people.

I also argued that it is important for us, as Christians, to have honest theological conversations with our Muslim friends.  We may disagree on a great number of things, but at least we agree that theology matters.  Categories like orthodoxy and heresy, truth and deity are important to us.  In a culture that is far too dismissing of theology, Muslims and Christians should be enthusiastically engaging in theology.

This is what I argued for last week.  And now this week, almost providentially, I have an opportunity to practice what I blog.

One of America’s premier evangelical institutions, Wheaton College, is embroiled in an imbroglio after one of its professors, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, claimed that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  Wheaton placed Dr. Hawkins on paid administrative leave, explaining in a press release:

As a Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton College embodies a distinctive Protestant evangelical identity, represented in our Statement of Faith, which guides the leadership, faculty and students of Wheaton at the core of our institution’s identity. Upon entering into a contractual employment agreement, each of our faculty and staff members voluntarily commits to accept and model the Statement of Faith with integrity, compassion and theological clarity … Dr. Hawkins’ administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.[1]

Dr. Hawkins’ assertion is well worth our time and attention because it is an example of precisely the kind of theological discussions I would argue Christians and Muslims ought to be having.  Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?  Is Dr. Hawkins correct?

As a Christian, I would answer the question of a shared deity among Christians and Muslims in two ways:  “No, but…”  The answer “no” is necessary for theological honesty.  The answer “but” is crucial to Christian hospitality.  Let me briefly explain both answers.

“No”

It is very difficult to assert, at least in any way that demands a nuanced theology of divinity, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  In defending her assertion on social media, Dr. Hawkins cited theologian Miroslav Volf, who, in an interview for Christianity Today, explained:

I think that Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same …

God is one in both traditions. That’s very important. Two, God is merciful. Also, God is just. God’s oneness, God’s mercy, and God’s justice are significant commonalities. We have different understandings of each of these, but the overlaps are really impressive.[2]

Volf argues that Christians and Muslims worship the same God based on a list of divine attributes that happen to be the same between the two faiths.  His list of divine attributes, however, strikes me as ad hoc.  What about the Christian contention that God is one, yet also three persons?  Muslims do not believe this (cf. Surah 4:171).  What about God’s humanity?  At the heart and soul of a Christian’s faith is the God-man Jesus Christ.  Muslims flatly reject this (cf. Surah 10:68).  What about God’s greatest attribute – that He is love (cf. 1 John 4:8)?  Though one of the 99 names Muslims have for God is “the Loving One,” that God is love seems to be a bridge too far for Islamic theology.

Volf acknowledges such differences, but then moves quickly to downplay them:

There are significant differences that are the subject of strenuous debates. Some differences really are foundational to the faith, like the doctrine of the Trinity. At the same time, there’s this amazing overlap and similarity. We need to build on what is similar rather than simply bemoan what’s different.

Volf’s assertion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God in spite of significant differences in their respective conceptions of Him begs a question:  where would Volf draw his line?  When do differences in theology become profound enough for there to be a difference of divinities?

If somebody postulates the existence of more than one God, I would have to say we don’t worship the same God. If somebody says that God is basically one with the world, I would also have to say we don’t worship the same God.

Again, all of this seems very ad hoc to me.  For Volf, the attributes of God’s oneness and His distinction from creation are vital.  The attribute of God as three persons is not.  Why?  Simply because Volf says so?

Jesus is quite clear that, in order to be a true worshiper, a person must worship “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).  It is quite difficult to worship “in the Spirit” while denying the Spirit’s personhood, as do Muslims, and it is impossible to worship “in truth” while denying at least parts of what Scripture says is true about God.  It is important to note that the issue here is not whether a person has a complete understanding of God.  Jesus affirms that a person can worship the true God while not having a complete understanding of Him when He says of the Samaritans, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know” (John 4:22).  Worship does not require perfect knowledge.  True worship does, however, require faith.

But the Scriptures are also very clear that if a person perverts what can be known about God from biblical revelation, he has moved from worship to idolatry.  This is why the apostle Paul, when he was in Athens, was “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16), but was also willing to engage the Athenians in a theological conversation around the altar the they had built “TO AN UKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:23).  The Athenians’ altar stemmed from ignorance.  Their idols were built on false and dangerous ideas about divinity.  The altar propelled Paul to further conversation.  The idols incited his unapologetic condemnation.

Considering that Islam does not claim to be ignorant of God, but rather claims that God is widely different from whom Christians claim He is, it is difficult to see how either a Christian or a Muslim can honestly say that both faiths worship the same God.  Just because two divinities share a short list of attributes does not mean they are the same God any more than a mother and a daughter who share some genes are the same person.  This is why I must answer “No” to the question, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” If this is all I was to say, however, I would not be saying enough.

“But”

I firmly believe that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.  This is not to say that I think Muslims have no knowledge of what I as a Christian would confess to be the true God or that the God of Muhammad does not reflect in certain ways the God of the Bible.  In Romans 1, Paul reminds us that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20).  It is no surprise, then, from a Christian standpoint, that the God of Muhammad would have attributes that are influenced and informed by the God of the Bible, for the God of the Bible is not only particularly revealed in Scripture, but generally, though not salvifically, knowable through creation.

Ultimately, even if someone believes that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God, this still does not settle the question of what is true about God, how one is to approach God, and how one receives eternal life with God.  The Quran, for instance, speaks of Jesus, but rejects His death for sinners (cf. Surah 4:157-158).  The Bible makes Jesus’ death for sinners the very locus of His identity (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:2).  Thus, when Muslims and Christians talk about Jesus, the question should not be, “Do the Bible and the Quran talk about the same Jesus?”  Even if they do, this is finally of little consequence.  A better question would be, “Does the Bible or the Quran authoritatively reveal the true Jesus?”  After all, who Jesus is matters just as much as that He exists.

What is true of Jesus specifically is true of God generally.  We need to be asking, “Does the Bible or the Quran authoritatively reveal the true God?”  Who has the true and supreme revelation about God from God?  As a Christian, my answer must be that the Bible has the true and supreme revelation about God from God.  My guess is a Muslim would beg to differ.  But this is why a willingness to have hospitable theological discussions is so important.  And this is why, if a Muslim friend would like to offer his or her thoughtful and respective perspective on the God of Muhammad and the God of the Bible, I would love to hear it.  Understanding may not always lead to agreement, but it does generally lead to charity.  And that’s a virtue both our religions share.

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[1]Wheaton College Statement Regarding Dr. Larycia Hawkins,” Wheaton College (12.16.2015).

[2] Mark Galli, “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?Christianity Today (4.15.2011).

December 28, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Donald Trump’s Sandbox

Donald Trump

Credit:  Huffington Post

I decided it would be best to wait for a while to write on what has become Donald Trump’s now infamous proposal that there should be “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” for a couple of reasons.  First, the outrage, predictably, over Mr. Trump’s ban was fierce and fast and I wanted to allow some time for it to cool.  Reacting to the hottest thing is not always the wisest thing.  Second, I wanted to take some time to gather my thoughts on what has transpired.  It is a tricky thing for a pastor to write about a politician and I never do so lightly.  This is why I also feel compelled to state upfront, lest there be any confusion, that, though I do reference certain political realities, the primary purpose of this blog is not to analyze Mr. Trump’s politics or campaign.  There are others who are far more adept at these types of analyses than I.  I do believe, however, that Mr. Trump’s ban on Muslims has worldview and theological implications that are important for Christians to recognize and to address.  Indeed, what fascinates me most about Mr. Trump’s ban is not so much what he proposed at first, but how he has continued to defend his proposal.  In an interview on Live with Kelly and Michael, the presidential candidate argued, “It’s not about religion. This is about safety.”

Mr. Trump’s claim that his ban on non-resident Muslims entering the country is not about religion, though it may be in some sense politically palatable, cannot be factually truthful.  He is, after all, singling out adherents of a religion – not citizens of a nation or members of a political party – in his ban.  This is about religion because it affects a whole group of thoroughgoingly religious people.

There is no doubt, as we continue to deal with the fallout from the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, that the threat of radical Islamist terrorism is real and that national security should be a top priority.  But what often gets overshadowed in so many of our frenetic discussions concerning radical Islamist terrorism is Islam itself and the people who practice it devotedly on a daily basis.   Islam, before it is anything else, is a religion with a developed theological system.  It makes claims about what is true and what is false, what is orthodox and what is heretical.  This is why I am sympathetic to the many Muslims who have claimed that the people who carry out terror attacks are not true Muslims.  In the eyes of these Muslims, radical Islamist terrorists have said things and done things that have placed them so far outside the pale of orthodox Islamic theology that they cannot be called Muslim, at least in any theologically responsible sense.  I would argue in like manner that what members of the Westboro Baptist Church have said and done has placed them so far outside of the pale of orthodox Christian theology that we cannot consider them to be Christian in any theologically responsible sense no matter what the marquis on their “church” may claim.  But it is only through explicitly religious and theological analyses of these groups that we can arrive at such conclusions.  Thus, a theological understanding of and, I would hasten to add, a theological repudiation of what has happened in these terrorist attacks is inescapable.

Though he probably does not realize it, Mr. Trump’s assertion that his ban on Muslims entering the country can be made without thinking through the religious implications could only be taken seriously in a secular liberal society like ours.  In a recent column for The New York Times, Ross Douthat explains how secular liberalism views Islam:

Secular liberal Westerners … take a more benign view of Islam mostly because they assume that all religious ideas are arbitrary, that it doesn’t matter what Muhammad said or did because tomorrow’s Muslims can just reinterpret the Prophet’s life story and read the appropriate liberal values in …

Instead of a life-changing, obedience-demanding revelation of the Absolute, its modernized Islam would be Unitarianism with prayer rugs and Middle Eastern kitsch – one more sigil in the COEXIST bumper sticker, one more office in the multicultural student center, one more client group in the left-wing coalition.[1]

The secular liberal view of religion is one where orthodoxy always takes a back seat to pluralism and transcendent ethics must eventually bow the knee to today’s contingent truths.  Theological claims must ultimately give way to political and cultural concerns.  Whether knowingly or unknowingly, this is precisely what Donald Trump assumes when he claims his ban on Muslims is “not about religion.”  He assumes the long-standing theological heritage of Islam can be quickly and easily ushered aside to make way for a security-driven ban on Muslims in the same way some progressives presume the theological distinctives of Islam can be breezily brushed off in favor of a Western-style spirituality that calls for no real doctrinal fidelity from its adherents.  In Mr. Trump’s case, the politics of security have, excuse the pun, “trumped” any real discussion of theology.  What other name can there be for this kind of prioritization but secular liberalism?

One need to look no further than to the middle part of the previous century to see what happens when secular liberalism gets what it wants.  Mainstream Christian Protestantism now lies in ruins because it bartered away its classical theology for a bourgeois intellectuality acceptable to a politically-minded modernity.

Confessional Christians are in a unique position to discuss with Muslims potential solutions to the crisis posed by radical Islamist terrorists because, for all we disagree on, we at least agree that theology matters and ought to be taken seriously.  It is a particular theology, after all, that, no matter how grotesquely perverted and morally repugnant it may be, drives, at least in part, the aspirations of ISIS.  Such a theology needs to be confronted, deconstructed, and condemned, which, thankfully, is precisely what some Muslim theologians are doing.  An appreciation for theology can also lead us to question whether or not a whole religious group should be summarily and indiscriminately dismissed with the wave of a hand and a flip explanation that a ban on this group is not about religion.  If a group defines itself religiously, as do Muslims, it probably behooves us to respect, study, and take this group’s theology seriously.

Certainly, there would be challenges in any honest theological discussions between Christians and Muslims.  I am no Islamic theologian, but as far as I can tell, Islamic theology does not conceive of an Augustinian distinction between a City of God and a City of Man like Christian theology does.  It is this distinction, outlined for us beautifully in Romans 12 and 13, that has allowed Christians to work comfortably and conscientiously in all sorts of governmental systems, including in American democracy, because they understand that no matter what the system of government, the City of Man that is human government is ultimately, even if hiddenly, under God’s control.  The Christian’s call, then, is not to try to create a Christian government, but to be the Christian Church. In Islamic theology, such a distinction between the City of God and the City of Man does not feature nearly so prominently, if, some might argue, at all.  Mosque and government go hand in hand.  Even so, many Muslim majority countries have figured out ways to create at least some distance between their religion and their rulers.  In this way, then, Christians and Muslims have plenty to talk about, for we both struggle with how to live out our respective faiths in our societies, even if our theologies of how our religions relate to our rulers differ.  Furthermore, we agree that traditional religious categories like orthodoxy, heresy, truth, revelation, prophecy, and deity are important, even if we disagree on how each of these categories, right down to the category of deity, should be filled.  But at least we agree that questions about theology are more important and, ultimately, more enduring than questions of politics and power.  This is more than can be said for some in the secular left.

I do not think that Mr. Trump has rigorously thought through the logical and theological inconsistencies of his statements about Muslims.  I suspect he offered his ban to score political points with his base while also tweaking the milquetoast de rigueur of many of the political elites.  I also have a feeling that Mr. Trump might take issue with me claiming that his ban on Muslims “is not about religion” actually shares with secular liberals an assumption about the nature and importance of theology.  But even if he’s doing so naïvely, his comments betray that Mr. Trump is still playing in the secular liberals’ sandbox.  And the consequences of such a foray, to use Mr. Trump’s own phrasing, are “yuge.”
_____________________________

[1] Ross Douthat, “The Islamic Dilemma,” The New York Times (12.12.2015).

December 21, 2015 at 5:15 am 5 comments

Pope Francis and What’s Most Important

Credit: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Credit: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

The New York Times may have called him “the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics,” but it seemed nearly impossible for journalists and pundits to filter Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, which wrapped up last night in Philadelphia, through anything but a political lens. After an obligatory nod to his spiritual status, the Times went on to report about the Pope’s address to a joint session of Congress:

While he checked boxes in calling for religious liberty and defending the family, the heart of his address, and the most time, was dedicated to aspects of Catholic teaching embraced by progressives, especially the overriding need to help the poor and destitute. He was at his most passionate in embracing immigration, alluding to his own family’s history of moving from Italy to Argentina, where he was born …

He also warned of the excesses of globalization, though in far more measured tones than he has in the past, when he used fiery language and the memorable phrase “dung of the devil” to describe unbridled capitalism.[1]

“Religious liberty.” “The excesses of globalization.” “Unbridled capitalism.” Though these things certainly have theological implications, as the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed would remind us, in our society, they are cast first and foremost as political concerns. Indeed, the Times ultimately concluded:

In the end, both sides could walk away citing parts of his message. But the liberal agenda items in his speech were explicit and clear while the conservative ones were more veiled.

Apparently, the real value of Francis’ speech, according to the Times, lies in how politicians will be able to leverage it and not in the theology that was contained in it.

Filtering theology through political policy is fraught with danger. In such a system, orthodox doctrine all too often gets sacrificed to Machiavellian expediency and a Savior who died gets turned into a political operative who just happens to hate all the same people we do.

On the one hand, Francis seemed to defy such bare politicization of the papacy, as Peter Johnson points out in his article for The Federalist, “10 Stories The Media Won’t Tell You About The Pope’s USA Visit.” Mr. Johnson explains how the Pope has taken on both liberal and conservative concerns – everything from climate change and immigration to government overreach and the dangers inherent in the Affordable Care Act. Such political schizophrenia is inherent in Christian ethics, which has the pesky habit of refusing to conform to both the liberal and conservative party platforms. Christianity can, at times, annoy both the left and the right.

On the other hand, it’s not too difficult to understand why the Pope’s address to Congress has been interpreted politically rather than theologically. After all, in a speech that lasted for nearly an hour before a joint session of Congress, the Pope, while covering a whole range of geopolitical and ethical issues, failed to mention Jesus – even once! This seems odd and, honestly, downright disturbing for the leader of a body of whom the apostle Paul noted is at its best when it resolves “to know nothing … except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

In one sense, the domination of the geopolitical and the ethical at the expense of the Christological in the Pope’s words is understandable both in terms of the ecclesiology and the soteriology of the Roman Catholic Church.

Ecclesiologically, popes have historically laid claim not only to spiritual authority, but to temporal power as well. Such power was crystalized in 800 on Christmas Day when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the emperor of Rome. A spiritual authority, on that day, crowned a political one. These days, though the Pope’s temporal power formally extends only as far as Vatican City – and even that authority is largely titular – the papacy’s interest in and influence over temporal affairs lingers. So it comes as no surprise that Francis would seek to shape geopolitical events.  In some ways, I welcome such an effort.  Our geopolitics needs all the sanctified wisdom it can get. But when geopolitical concerns drown out any mention of Christ in a major address from a man who claims to be the head of Christ’s Church, I begin to get a little nervous.

Soteriologically, Roman Catholicism’s view of righteousness and its relationship to salvation lends itself to Francis’ deep concern over ethical issues. As a Lutheran Christian, I will often speak of two kinds of righteousness. The first kind of righteousness is that which is imputed to me from God in Christ by faith. In the words of the apostle Paul:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Romans 3:21-22)

Christ’s perfect righteousness is a righteousness that leads to my salvation quite apart from anything I have done or ever will do. This righteousness is not an ethical task, but a sheer gift, not based on my actions, but based on Christ’s action for me on the cross. The second kind of righteousness involves the good deeds that I do for my neighbor. I am called to love, serve, and help my neighbor, as Jesus explains forcefully in His Parable of the Good Samaritan. When I do these things, I am acting in the way of righteousness. But such a righteousness does not save me. It simply helps others.

In the Roman Catholic system of theology, these two kinds of righteousness are collapsed into one. The righteous acts we do for our neighbor are righteous acts that are also taken into account when we receive salvation from God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this clear enough:

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.[2]

The Catechism baldly asserts that my righteousness cooperates with Christ’s righteousness so that I may attain eternal life. All the good things of which the Pope spoke in his speech, then, pertain to salvation because our good works on these good things aid in our salvation. It’s no wonder, then, that Francis would be especially concerned with our good works, even as the good work of Christ went missing in his words to Congress.

For all the excitement Francis’ visit and words generated, I fear that we managed to overlook what is the most important business of the Church:  to proclaim Christ’s forgiveness for sinners. This, to borrow a phrase from Paul, is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). All of the things the Pope addressed in his speech to Congress are important and should be discussed, but they are not most important.

Mollie Hemmingway puts the situation well when she writes:

It’s wonderful that some people say that Francis makes them feel the church is more welcoming to them. But if it’s just making people feel more comfortable in their politics, instead of making them feel the comfort of absolution, communion and strengthening of faith, that’s not much to get excited about.[3]

This is most certainly true. We can get excited over and become passionate about geopolitical issues. We can strongly advocate for ethical issues. I do all the time on this very blog. But our deepest commitment must be to Jesus. Our first proclamation must be of Him. For long after the concerns of this age fade way – indeed, long after this visit from this Pope is forgotten – Jesus will remain. The best thing this Pope can do, then, is invite us to turn our attention – and our hearts – to Him.

__________________________________

[1] Peter Baker & Jim Yardley, “Pope Francis, in Congress, Pleads for Unity on World’s Woes,” The New York Times (9.24.2015).

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville, MN: 1994), § 2010.

[3] Mollie Hemmingway, “The Pope Francis Effect: Enthusiasm, But To What End?The Federalist (9.25.2015).

September 28, 2015 at 5:15 am 6 comments

Spiritual Speech About Social Concerns

ConfusedLast week on this blog, I discussed a video showing some members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a racist chant. In my analysis, I cited Byron Williams of The Huffington Post and his use of theological language to address the incident:

America’s approach to the original sin of racism maintains an aspect of arrested development. It is too easy to temporarily transfer our moral indignation toward a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma that no longer exists than it is to take the more difficult path that could lead to a meaningful transformation …

The expelled students have already succeeded in dismantling their fraternity chapter. Shouldn’t they be given opportunity for redemption? In lieu of expulsion, could the university have found another way to educate all involved about the poisons of racism?[1]

Williams attaches a lot of theological freight to his analysis of this incident – and, I would argue, rightly so – with words like “original sin” and “redemption.” But I would also argue that he does not frame his theological terminology in a particularly Christian way. Williams’ description of “redemption,” for instance, is more closely aligned with AA’s call to make amends than it is with Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. To be clear, I by no means think that these students should not have to make amends. Indeed, I think such action would be extraordinarily salutary – both for the people they hurt and for the offending students themselves. I only point out Williams’ unconventional use of theological language as an example of how, while many in our culture still have strong theological instincts, such instincts are often not expressly Christian in their content or context.

In an article for The Weekly Standard, Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Bottum frames the issue of racism and its attendant issue of white privilege, as does Williams, in the theological terminology of original sin:

“All have sinned,” writes St. Paul in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome, even those who have “not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression.” And so too are we all guilty of racism, even those who have never harbored an explicitly racist thought or said an explicitly racist word or performed an explicitly racist deed. “We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood,” as Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-López explains. “Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms.” Racisms under which we all suffer.[2]

Bottum astutely notes that for all the talk of secularism’s encroachments on Western society, our essential impulses are still spiritual. Just look at how we talk about racism as not just a set of actions, or even as a worldview, but as a blight for which we must make atonement.

But as strong as our spiritual impulses may be, something is missing:

The doctrine of original sin is probably incoherent, and certainly gloomy, in the absence of its pairing with the concept of a divine savior – and so Paul concludes Romans 5 with a turn to the Redeemer and the possibility of hope: “As sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Think of it as a car’s engine or transmission scattered in pieces around a junkyard: The individual bits of Christian theology don’t actually work all that well when they’re broken apart from one another.

We are stuck in a societal Anfechtung, Bottum says.  For on the one hand, our culture does indeed have strong spiritual impulses.  This is why we confess and agonize over “original sins” like racism.  But on the other hand, our spiritual impulses do not lead us to the relief of Christ’s cross. Instead, our impulsive anxieties are left to stew in their own juices until they inevitably begin to search for relief and redemption in other ways – in our day, usually in the ways of our body politic. In large part, we in the West have traded the theologia crucis for legislative sausage making.

In many regards, this way of theologizing is merely the inexorable upshot of the liberal Protestantism of the twentieth century. As Bottum explains:

Early in the twentieth century … the main denominations of liberal American Protestantism gradually came to a new view of sin, understanding our innate failings as fundamentally social rather than personal. Crystallized by Walter Rauschenbusch’s influential Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), the Social Gospel movement saw such sins as militarism and bigotry as the forces that Christ revealed in his preaching – the social forces that crucified Him and the social forces against which He was resurrected. Not that Christ mattered all that much in the Social Gospel’s construal. Theological critics from John Gresham Machen in the 1920s to Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1950s pointed out that the Social Gospel left little for the Redeemer to do: Living after His revelation, what further use do have we of Him? Jesus may be the ladder by which we climbed to a higher ledge of morality, but once there, we no longer need the ladder …

The Social Gospel’s loss of a strong sense of Christ facilitated the drift of congregants – particularly the elite and college-educated classes – out of the mainline that had once defined the country. Out of the churches and into a generally secularized milieu.

They did not leave empty-handed. Born in the Christian churches, the civil rights movement had focused on bigotry as the most pressing of social sins in the 1950s and 1960s, and when the mainline Protestants began to leave their denominations, they carried with them the Christian shape of social and moral ideas, however much they imagined they had rejected Christian content.

When I read Bottum’s analysis of our current situation, I can’t help but think of Rudolf Bultmann, the famed twentieth century German theologian, who sought to free Christianity from its so-called “mythical” trappings – trappings like Jesus’ miracles, Jesus’ teachings, and, ultimately, Jesus’ very resurrection. I wonder if this old liberal theologian isn’t smiling down on us right now. After all, his project of demythologizing Christianity has now been completed, probably more thoroughly than he could have ever imagined. For Christianity in secular society has indeed been stripped of all its mythical trappings – including, as it turns out, Christ Himself.  We are left only with the residual ghosts of Christian morality to convict us of socially abhorrent sins without the historical cross of the resurrected Christ to comfort us in all sin.

Of course, orthodox Christians cannot accept Bultmann’s project or its outcome. But even if we cannot accept it, it is important that we understand it. For if we do not understand the theological shape of our secular society, we will perhaps miss opportunities to offer our salvific rest of the story to our society’s guilt-ridden part of the story.

And that would be a sin.

_________________________

[1] Byron Williams, “It’s Not Unconstitutional to Be Racist,” The Huffington Post (3.11.2015).

[2] Joseph Bottum, “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas,” The Weekly Standard (12.1.2014).

March 23, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

In Response to ISIS

Credit:  Christian Post

Credit: The Christian Post

The video was titled, “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” In it, 21 Egyptian Christians, dressed in orange jump suits, were gruesomely beheaded by ISIS militants along a beach in Tripoli. One of the final frames of the video zooms in on the waters of the Mediterranean, red with the blood of these martyrs.[1]

Christians aren’t the only targets of ISIS’ rage. Just last week, ISIS released images appearing to show gay men being thrown off buildings only to be stoned after they fell to the ground. A statement released by ISIS explained that the organization is “clamping down on sexual deviance.”[2]

The reaction to such savage killings has understandably been one of untempered ire. Egypt’s president pledged retaliation against ISIS for the slaughter of its Christians. Indeed, Muslims and Christians together are raising a unified chorus of disgust at ISIS’ actions. Andrea Zaki, vice president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, noted, “With their blood [these martyrs] are unifying Egypt.”[3]

Though the slaughter of Egypt’s Christians has gotten more press than ISIS’ heinous injustices against gay people, both demand a response in addition to whatever political or military responses may be offered in the national and international arenas. Here are two responses that, I believe, are appropriate and important for a moment such as this.

First, we need an anthropological response. After all, whether we are Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, we are all human. Indeed, as Christians, we know and believe that we are all created in God’s image, which affords us not only a shared humanity, but a necessary dignity. This collective humanity and dignity, in turn, involves certain shared hopes and desires. We all desire safety. We all desire respect. We all desire love. When these shared desires are so violently violated, as ISIS has done, basic empathy leads to visceral revulsion. Thus, we can join the world in condemning these acts, if for no other reason than that we are all human.

Second, we also need a theological response. This response is especially urgent because far too many in the broadly secularized West have refused to admit that there are theological drivers behind ISIS’ actions. Writing for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood explains:

We are misled … by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature … The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.[4]

I should point out that parts of Wood’s history of ISIS’ theological origins – especially his claim that ISIS’ theology is of a “medieval religious nature” – are questionable and, thankfully, have been appropriately critiqued. Nevertheless, his basic premise still stands. ISIS is acting in a way that is robustly and rigorously driven by a certain religious understanding. For ISIS, theology is no mere veneer to cover up some naked ambition for power.   Theology is at the heart of who they are. Thus, it does us no good, for the sake of some self-imposed, naïve political de rigueur, to pretend that at least some of ISIS’ drivers are not theological.

This is where Christians are in a unique position to lend their voices to the challenges and crises presented by ISIS. For we can offer a better theology than ISIS’ theology. We can rebuke a theology that allows the slaughtering of people with whom they religiously and culturally disagree, as Jesus did with His disciples when they wanted to destroy the Samaritans because they were a people with whom the disciples religiously and culturally disagreed. And when a theology leaves room for stoning those who live outside of traditional sexual ethics, we can say with Jesus, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7).

Blessedly, the parts of this “better theology” I outlined above are ones with which the majority of the Muslim world would agree – because even though this “better theology’s” origins are explicitly Christian, its implications are broadly ethical.   And even if ISIS’ understanding of Islamic theology is real, it is certainly not catholic. Plenty – and, in fact, the vast majority – of Muslims share our higher ethical aspirations. Indeed, perhaps what was once a Judeo-Christian ethic can expand into a Judeo-Muslim-Christian ethic.

Ultimately, of course, although theology includes ethics, it is more than just ethical. It is finally soteriological. And this is good. Because this means that even as ISIS continues its campaign of terror, it cannot thwart the promise of God that the faithful who have died at ISIS’ hands are now safe under heaven’s altar.  For this we can be thankful. And because of this we can continue to be hopeful.

______________________

[1] Leonardo Blair, “Heartbreaking: Egyptian Christians Were Calling for Jesus During Execution by ISIS in Libya,” The Christian Post (2.18.2015).

[2] Cassandra Vinograd, “ISIS Hurls Gay Men Off Buildings, Stones Them: Analysts,” NBC News (2.15.2015).

[3] Jayson Casper, “Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: ‘With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt’Christianity Today (2.18.2015)

[4] Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic (March 2015).

February 23, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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