Thinking Out Faith
Incidental Writings on Books, Ideas, Theology and Culture

Friday, January 30, 2009

Sinning in Public: A Morality Dialogue

Setting: Two friends, sitting around a living room of a Sunday afternoon.

Pieter: Hey, let me ask you something, an ethical hypothetical if you will.

Theophilus: Shoot.

Pieter: Ok, say one day a guy’s driving along, minding his own business, when he sees a person apparently stranded by the side of the road.

Theophilus: Uh-huh.

Pieter: Now, there doesn’t seem to be any urgency really, let alone any injury, but the man has a bit of time so he offers to give the stranded person a lift.

Theophilus: I’m with you.

Pieter: So just imagine that the person he picks up is a youngish teenager, say 16. He seems to be nice enough, and grateful enough for the lift, but there’s one problem: the kid swears like a sailor. In fact, he swears like a boat-load of drunken sailors who’ve been at sea and away from any civilizing influence for over a year.

Theophilus: Hmmm. I get the picture. So what of it?

Pieter: Well let’s assume, for the sake of discussion at least, that this language really bugs the man –the owner of the car – say even that the man is a really religious person, a pious man, and that the kid isn’t just swearing but using the Lord’s name in vain left and right.

Theophilus: Ok, I get it, he feels uncomfortable. What’s the question?

Pieter: Well, what should the driver do?

Theophilus: Keep driving.

Pieter: But remember just who is doing the favor for whom. It’s the driver’s car, the driver’s time, which he is employing selflessly in the service of this kid.

Theophilus: And for that he is no doubt to be commended.

Pieter: Right! So here he is, acting the part of the Good Samaritan and all, and this kid is making him feel really awkward and, well more than awkward, he’s really deeply offended.

Theophilus: I see.

Pieter: So, well, here’s the crux of it – doesn’t the driver have the right to ask the kid to cut it out or, well, get out and find another ride?

Theophilus: Ahhh, I see now. So the question is whether or not the owner of the car has a right to expect, and then demand a certain level of moral behavior within his sphere, his personal space.

Pieter: Yes, I suppose.

Theophilus: Well of course we’re leaving aside the question of whether or not the language truly is immoral, or the relative immorality of this versus that language.

Pieter: For now.

Theophilus: Then we are just asking whether, assuming the owner of the car believes the language to be immoral, does he or does he not have the right to expect and demand his moral boundaries be respected within his personal space.

Pieter: Exactly.

Theophilus: Well, what’s really at issue? Are these two the only people in the car?

Pieter: Yes.

Theophilus: So it’s not a question of protecting any influence over others. If there were perhaps a small child in the back seat, it could be argued that the owner is merely concerned over the child’s coming to imitate the assumed immoral language.

Pieter: No, that’s not a factor here.

Theophilus: Alright. Well what’s the concern? Is the man concerned that he will come to emulate the immoral and impious speech? Maybe he’s afraid he’ll hear a certain turn of phrase a dozen times and it will slip into his thought patterns some time down the road?

Pieter: Certainly not! As I said, the man is very pious. Further, he’s not a young man, so it’s highly unlikely that his behavior could be affected in any way by this kid’s. No, for the sake of discussion, assume that it’s impossible the passenger’s behavior would in any way affect that of the driver.

Theophilus: Humph. Well I must confess, I don’t see the problem.

Pieter: So the driver would be within his rights?

Theophilus: No, I don’t see why the driver cares, let alone is offended.

Pieter: But he’s the going out of his way to help out. It would be a slap in the face to have to sit there and endure something so offensive!

Theophilus: Why take offense? The passenger is not swearing at the driver, not insulting him, or threatening him in any way correct?

Pieter: Not directly.

Theophilus: Well how would he be offended indirectly? How does he take offense period?

Pieter: I mean, the use of the Lord’s name is one of the Ten Commandments for crying out loud!

Theophilus: True, but first of all we’re not talking about the degree of offense, whether this word or that word is a little bit worse than that one, we are assuming just that the man believes the speech to be immoral. Secondly, since the man is religious, I think it’s safe to assume he believes the source of that moral standard to be God himself.

Pieter: Indeed.

Theophilus: Right, so since the standard is God’s would not the offense also be God’s?

Pieter: Of course, God would… I mean the man would believe God objects to any immorality.

Theophilus: Yes, of course. Now if we were talking about one of the other Commandments, like the one forbidding theft, then we’d perhaps be having a different conversation, maybe the man would have a certain right to defend his property (then again, maybe not come to think of it), but in this instance certainly, since no one is being harmed, it seems clear to me that the only party with any right to take offense is God himself. And I guess I would assume He can stick up for himself.

Pieter: Of course, but…

Theophilus: But here’s what I’m really concerned about, I know that for myself, that when I am in the company of others who don’t respect a certain moral view that is important to me, I slide frighteningly quickly from merely taking note of the fact, to judging them in my heart.

Pieter: Hmmm.

Theophilus: So what I would ask the man – the owner, assuming he were seeking my opinion – is whether or not he is perhaps in some danger of committing the grave error of judging another’s soul. In this case, the man could be seen as presuming God’s prerogatives in two ways: he is taking offense where the offense is God’s alone, and his is judging the soul of a fellow creature of God’s, a role God is said to be fairly protective of.

Pieter: Well I wouldn’t go that far.

Theophilus: How far would you go?

Pieter: I just mean that the man isn’t condemning the kid or threatening him with hellfire or anything, so come on, lighten up a bit!

Theophilus: Well the question at hand is a moral or maybe, for this man, a purely religious one, so let’s deals with it on that basis. I’m not sure what I’d say to the man if he were just some guy offended by - maybe the political opinions of his passenger, but since we are discussing the offense purely on religious terms, we should take that angle to look at the root of the issue.

Pieter: Maybe.

Theophilus: Well you’ve said that the man is pious, a Christian no doubt?

Pieter: That he is. Yes, a very committed Christian.

Theophilus: Right, well we don’t need to address what a Christian believes about the Ten Commandments, and in any event we are still assuming that the speech violates the man’s moral/religious principles regardless.

Pieter: Of course.

Theophilus: Well then what would scripture say to the man’s question?

Pieter: Which one?

Theophilus: The one about what he should do in the situation.

Pieter: I think the man should insist that the moral guideline be respected.

Theophilus: Fine, but does scripture say that? Does anything command him to do that other than his own feelings? Is a Christian obligated to object to others not following his moral precepts in his presence? Is he even permitted to do so in these cases?

Pieter: Why ever not?

Theophilus: Why indeed. Well there’s a passage that’s leaping to mind, something to do with Christians who have different moral standards and how not to do things that could cause another to stumble.

Pieter: I think I know which one you’re talking about. So what?

Theophilus: Well, hang on a minute; I’m going to find the passage online here …. Ok, yeah, this is it. It’s in Romans, chapter 14. Paul is apparently writing to people, fellow believers, who have differing views on things like dietary restrictions and the observance of various holy days and things like that. Secondary issues to the faith, I think it would be safe to say.

Pieter: Probably. But you said that doesn’t matter – that the severity of offense is beside the point.

Theophilus: Quite right. It’s not relevant to address how egregious the offense is maybe in God’s eyes, but it’s relevant to note that the issue before Paul is secondary because, just like in our hypothetical, we aren’t talking about harming others for example. If Paul were talking about differences of opinion as to the morality of theft or murder, I’m just guessing he’d draw a pretty firm line.

Pieter: Alright, duly noted.

Theophilus: So, back to the passage, what Paul is really doing is saying two different things at once. He says that, in regards to food for example, he is persuaded that there is no such thing as unclean food. But he doesn’t expect everyone to share his opinion and he definitely doesn’t tell others to violate their consciences on the subject. So, on the one hand, he’s telling those with the stricter standard to keep their practice in faith but not to judge others who don’t also follow it. On the other hand, he tells those with the looser standards not to be a stumbling block for the others, that is, not to eat the objectionable food in the presence of those who object.

Pieter: Precisely, so the person should try not to give offense right?

Theophilus: Well of course, but the question is, Who gets to say that, and to whom?

Pieter: Go on.

Theophilus: Well this is Paul, right, and he’s writing to different factions within the Church. Which is to say, being one with authority in the Church, he is writing to those who are obligated, at least to listen to him, if not submit to his wisdom. Moreover, with that authority, he is saying two distinct things to each of two different factions. He says to those with the looser standards, whom he labels the strong and among whose number he counts himself, to not be a stumbling block, but, to those with the stricter standards, whom he calls weaker, he repeatedly commands them to withhold judgment. In fact! Look here; he says that apparently, for some things at least, ‘it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.’ Ha! Paul, that old moral relativist at it again!

Pieter: Now it’s my turn to say ‘Humph!’

Theophilus: Well, again the main point is that he is counseling different things to different people. To the strict he counsels keeping faith and humility; to the lax, he advises patience and perhaps shared accountability. And here’s where this seems relevant to the issue at hand. The owner of the car is the one with the stricter standard. If he calls himself a Christian then Paul’s word must at the very least be accorded a high level of respect, whose advice to someone in what seems just like the man’s situation, is to withhold judgment.

Pieter: Alright, but wouldn’t he also say to the other person to not be a stumbling block?

Theophilus: Of course…

Pieter: See!

Theophilus: …If they both submitted to the same moral or religious authority. If Paul had two members of the Church arguing over the boundaries of appropriate language, then certainly, he would say to the one, “judge not,” and to the other, “don’t cause your brother to stumble.” But this is key: the two people in the car do not share the same standard let alone the same authority. Well, at least they don’t acknowledge the same authority.

Pieter: But that can’t be right. Swearing is one thing and breaking a clear commandment is another! That’s not debatable for a Christian.

Theophilus: Right you are.

Pieter: See!

Theophilus: …For a Christian. It seems like what you’re saying now is that using the Lord’s name in vain is not one of those issues for which Paul would say differences should be respected. But the fact that the passenger is not himself a Christian, or not known to be one, puts him in precisely the same position as the strong Christian in Paul’s letter. Which is to say: he is innocent of the law. Innocent perhaps due to his utter ignorance of the standard.

Pieter: Now you lost me.

Theophilus: The passenger is innocent in regards to his use of language, even so far as using the Lord’s name in vain, in the same way that the strong Christian without use for holy days and special diets is; his conscience does not recognize the standard.

Pieter: (Grumbles.)

Theophilus: Paul would not enjoin a non-Christian to not be a stumbling block to another person whom he does not yet recognize as a brother in Christ. It’s a question of standing. If Paul believed he had any spiritual authority he would certainly advise the kid to hold his tongue out of respect for some issues and out of obedience for others. And the man could do likewise, but only if the kid is a fellow Christian with whom he has some standing, maybe a friend, relative or fellow Church member. But… but… to the owner, who is a Christian, Paul’s advice, I think, would be unchanged. He would say “judge not.”

Pieter: But certainly the passenger ought to become a Christian.

Theophilus: I’m guessing Paul would agree with you there.

Pieter: So…

Theophilus: So, is the best way to preach conversion by starting out correcting someone’s vocabulary?

Pieter: (Sighs.) You keep dancing around it. I’m just staking out a simple view and you keep moving the ground underneath things.

Theophilus: You give me more credit than I’m due.

Pieter: I just mean that you’re good at scoring debate points, but I’m not convinced.

Theophilus: Of what?

Pieter: That a person going out of his way to help another person doesn’t have the right to expect not to be offended in the process.

Theophilus: Put it this way: I take it for granted that for a Christian at least, it is a requirement to never give offense to anyone else without a compelling reason; unless there’s some greater good being aimed at perhaps.

Pieter: So now the Christian is the one doing the offending? He’s the one doing the good deed!

Theophilus: Well, think about it. We’ve agreed that this kid is clueless. He doesn’t intend offense. He has no standard whatever with respect to the use of the Lord’s name, let alone simple ‘swear words.’

Pieter: That’s the problem!

Theophilus: Well, perhaps for him. But again, within the bounds of the example, he is with respect to language as Paul is to food: without a standard. He could be wrong about this, but he is utterly innocent of violating any standard of his own as he has none! If God has a standard then God will take care of it. I can think of no way for the Christian to communicate his discomfort – his objection – without giving offense; without inevitably causing the kid at least the feeling of being judged.

Pieter: Now you have the man being everyone’s judge again.

Theophilus: Well, what other reason would he have for voicing his objection? I think we’ve established that no one can take offense but God, the same individual with the sole right to judge. No one is being harmed or even tempted to sin in any way. So the background expectation of all Christians to not offend or insult is still in place.

Pieter: No, no, no! The man is uncomfortable, and in his own car, on his own time, which he is using to help others who turn around and offend him while he’s at it!

Theophilus: Well, if he’s merely uncomfortable, I think he should deal with it. If that’s the only issue, I believe the prior expectation to not offend holds. The Christian needs a non-self-interested reason to trump the always binding injunction to love and respect his neighbor.

Pieter: Look, you’re being awfully hard on this guy. Now you have him needing to constantly run around helping out anyone in the least way needy, exhausting his personal resources in the process and not even allowed to so much as open his mouth to express his personal preferences.

Theophilus: Yah, it almost sounds like allowing oneself to be sacrificed for the good of others doesn’t it?

Pieter: Don’t be cute.

Theophilus: No, I’m not being cute. I’m completely serious. Jesus didn’t invite his followers to just occasionally give away some of their disposable resources in order to feel a little better about themselves, he commanded his disciples to follow him in the kind of life which he led, which was one of total self-surrender to God expressed mainly through service of others, others who most of the time not only didn’t appreciate it, but also might insult you in the process, heck, they might even just kill you for it!

Pieter: Well we don’t all have to be Jesus.

Theophilus: True enough. Thank God for forgiveness.

Pieter: It seems to me that now you are the one judging the Christian man. And ironically enough, you’re judging him for his being judgmental. Who are you to judge?

Theophilus: Well it’s true, someone could easily be tempted to judge this man and thereby fall into the same trap I am counseling him to avoid.

Pieter: You’re not going that easy on him to be sure.

Theophilus: Well, if I judged him, then I would undoubtedly need forgiveness. And hopefully, I would follow my own advice and not step in to give him said advice unless…

Pieter: Unless?

Theophilus: …Unless he asked for it, or unless I thought I had sufficient standing in our relationship to offer it. In this hypothetical I’ve been assuming the man asked me for my opinion.

Pieter: Well he did, that’s true.

Theophilus: Far from judging the man, I intend (you know those things paving the road to hell), I intend, to be judging the standard by which the man and myself would both measure ourselves. What is at issue, it seems to me, in this discussion is by what standard a Christian is called to measure him or herself, not in how well or poorly any individual actually measures up. Of course all of us fall short. Of course the differences between the way any two people fall short is insignificant in the long run. But when one is talking about the standard, it is important to be precise, lest everything else measured by a faulty standard suffers. The danger for the moralist or religious person is primarily the pride of seeming to more closely measure up. Just look at how Jesus dealt with the religious leaders in his time, for acting like they were relatively better off. For me, the standard is Christ, and often that is interpreted for us through the writings of scripture. See, the point is that anyone who is in the position of defending their own behavior – whether the man while judging the kid, or someone else while judging the man’s judgments – is in very serious danger of trying to set up the standard to their own benefit. I take it for granted the self-justification is one of the more dangerous temptations for humankind but is especially so for the religious person.

Pieter: Hmmm.

Theophilus: But even if we hypothetically cut the man all the slack in the world, and assume he is as pure as the driven snow, that it would be impossible for him to presume to judge anyone else, we are still back to our earlier concern.

Pieter: And what was that?

Theophilus: The fact that, for the Christian, there needs to be the assumption of first doing nothing that runs counter to love of one’s neighbor, including simple respect and avoiding the giving of offense, without a strong reason. There’s also the not insignificant missional concern.

Pieter: Oh boy, now what?

Theophilus: Well, as I said before the fact that if one’s selfless motive is to seek conversion, one needs to be mindful of how the other party is likely to receive the overture. If a Christian approaches someone with the opening tactic of correcting their speech, how likely is that person to be interested in the person’s religion and how likely is he to write the person off as just another hypocrite?

Pieter: Now you’re calling the guy names.

Theophilus: Not necessarily, I’m not calling the person a hypocrite, just noting that given the relative prevalence of religious hypocrisy, an opening move of correcting someone’s speech is not very pragmatic and might further confirm the person in their rejection of religion, or that particular religion, as a whole.

Pieter: Well.....

Theophilus: Look, it’s this simple. To justify communicating a moral standard to another person, one either needs to have standing as a friend or authority, or one must have a compelling reason to justify what I take to be the normative posture for Christian action: that of putting the self-interest of others ahead of one’s own. An example of this would maybe be seeking to avoid some harm to another person – which could be oneself or a third party.

Pieter: Right.

Theophilus: And I think we’ve established that there is no harm to another person or to the Christian man in this situation.

Pieter: I guess.

Theophilus: And there is clearly no standing of relationship or authority between the parties…

Pieter: Yeah.

Theophilus: So, what other consideration could there possibly be?

Pieter: Look, that’s very impressive and all, but I say, if it were my car and my time, I don’t need to go out my comfort zone to keep some other person from feeling bad!

Theophilus: Well, that may be ultimately true, but it’s hard to see how Paul or anything else in the gospel would support that view.

Pieter: I have rights over my stuff.

Theophilus: Hmm, that strikes me as a very American view, but not a very Christian one.

Pieter: Oh great, now we’ll blame America for everything.

Theophilus: No, it’s just to say that American ideals are very self-centered. The whole structure of the government is designed to protect people’s right to be as selfish as they care to be as long as they don’t harm anyone else’s right to be selfish.

Pieter: What’s wrong with that?

Theophilus: Well it’s outside the scope of this conversation to say, and perhaps it is the least bad way to set up a civil government, but it’s hard to see how one could square basing a stand upon this kind of demand for private sovereignty with the Christian view. Take for example the Reformed tradition, where that tradition’s view of personal sovereignty is expressed in The Heidelberg Catechism’s question and answer number one.

Pieter: Oh, do enlighten me.

Theophilus: Well, the response to the question of what is to be the Christian’s only comfort in life and in death is that, “I am not my own, but belong in body and in soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.” The view here would be that we do not properly speaking ‘own’ anything, not even our very selves. (How’s that for an American heresy!) Instead, we are merely stewards of everything we are given, including our life and health.

Pieter: Oh, and I suppose you live up to this?

Theophilus: By no means! That’s kind of the point. No one really lives up to it. Again we’re talking about the standard by which actions are measured. We are not to judge, but neither are we to excuse, least of all ourselves. If we judge others, we preempt God’s judgment; if we excuse ourselves, we preempt God’s forgiveness.

Pieter: Well isn’t that profound.

Theophilus: Yes, actually, but I’m obviously not the one making this stuff up.

Pieter: Look, I admit that you’re good at this. You even seem to enjoy this, but that doesn’t make you right.

Theophilus: What would make a view right?

Pieter: I don’t have time for this now. Really, I don’t want to keep arguing. I still think I’m right and nothing you can say would convince me otherwise.

Theophilus: (Sighs.)

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

To Retreat In War: Protesting Strategies and the Strategy of Protest in Democratic Societies

It has been all too common when discussing the current war in Iraq, as with perhaps any war, for someone critiquing the war or advocating any kind of pull-out to be personally accused of any number of things. First and foremost, it will be alleged that the critic dishonors the military service of those risking their lives and profanes the memory of those who have already made the ultimate sacrifice. I say, "Baloney!"

The theologian, novelist and essayist G.K Chesterton, addressing his own day's controversial war, wrote that, "A man who says that no patriot should attack the Boer War until it is over is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it."

The much larger discussion of war and violence in general as opposed to pacifism is one which I am bracketing out here, though not because there isn’t plenty there to discuss.

My operating assumptions here are simply that, given that wars are going to continue to take place, all interested parties should care about the relative pragmatics of a given conflict and that all moral beings should care about the relative justness of how a given conflict began and how it is in fact being prosecuted. In a democracy where the government acts in the name of the people, all citizens are interested parties.

Chesterton really says it all. Unless one assumes that it is impossible for one's own country to ever take a pragmatic mis-step or make an unjust decision based on undue emphasis on self-interest, then patriotic citizens can and should critique the merits and demerits of current actions. Voicing opinion and protest if it comes to that, is an absolute civic duty.

Forget about whole wars for a moment. Let's think about this in terms of individual battles. Imagine yourself as a general in a war like the American Civil War. You're sitting astride your horse, field glasses in hand, trying to assess the status of an action through all the smoke, when your Lieutenant Colonel informs you that the most recent, now-third, wave of attack on a position has been utterly annihilated. Slaughtered to a man. It's your job to decide if it's worth sending in a fourth wave.

Now, take it for granted that you believe your side in the war is fighting for a just cause. Further, assume that you believe that attacking this particular target is mission-critical. Finally, assume also that you know each already-fallen soldier personally to be a most honorable individual who likewise believed sincerely in the cause for which you both fight. But now a junior officer is arguing it would be suicide to keep up the attack. He advises you to call a retreat immediately, re-group and live to fight another day.

Do you A.) Give the officer's opinion the appropriate weight given his relative amount of experience, weigh the pros and cons and decide? Or, B.) Would you denounce the officer as a coward and traitor to the memories of your fallen comrades-in-arms, and immediately call up the next attack? It seems to me this isn't much of a choice. You might decide it’s worth another try, but that would mean you’re doing your job just as the junior officer was doing his. Our leaders are bound to lead us, and the decisions rest with them, but in a democracy, we’re all junior officers.

It is of necessity a soldier's duty to engage in actions when he or she does not fully understand the overall strategy. Thus any sacrifice an individual soldier makes as a result of following orders is equally to be honored. (This is separate from the consideration of whether any action an individual takes as the result of orders is equally defensible, so not so fast with the Nuremberg objections.) So a soldier's sacrifice is in no way to be seen as less honorable if the battle in which they fall turns out later to be the most infamous miscalculation of commanders than it is if it were the most glorious victory effecting a critical turning point in the campaign. It seems to me the people arguing that the honor due to a soldier doing his duty is contingent upon the mission’s success are the ones dishonoring their service.

So back to the current conflict in Iraq. The most consistent criticisms of that engagement have had to do with its efficacy given that the United States sees itself as being in a wider war on terror or fundamentalist Islamic Jihadists. Since the administration that went to war in Iraq, specifically framed it in terms of a wider war, it is absolutely correct to judge it in terms of that wider context. If the war is that against 'terror', and Iraq is just a supposed battlefront, then to call for retreat is to suggest a strategic option whose merits should be duly weighed. To shout down or label cowards, those of the opinion that a tactical retreat and re-deployment is the best strategy is disingenuous at best.

While I'm on the topic, it is amazing to me how minor the difference in timetable in Iraq ended up being. Obama has been consistently pledging to have the majority of combat forces out of Iraq within 18 months of taking office, as long as facts on the ground do not significantly change. The Bush administration concluded a status of forces agreement with Iraq at the end of 2008 which basically agrees to have this same thing done by the end of 2010. So the difference between the administration which planned and carried out the campaign, and consistently argued we had to stay the course, and the new president, who of the top-tier contenders in the election had probably the most serious anti-war credentials (having opposed the invasion before it happened, when that was not a popular stand, and made that fact central to the beginning of his primary battle), who was consistently and shrilly accused of advocating a cut-and-run strategy, amounts to this: six months. Six months! Sheesh.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Founding Fathers ... of Self-Improvement

It has been said that America is a place for new beginnings and second chances. Americans, more than perhaps any other people, are obsessed with the ideal life, with the improvement of their very selves. The Europeans first to land in the new world, and the waves of immigrants ever since, have been people who were by definition looking for the grass to be greener on the other side … of the ocean in this case.

It should be no surprise then to find elements of this nationally characteristic – self-involvement? - fixed from the very beginning, evident even in the hearts and minds of the framers and founders. But reading David McCollough’s superb biography of John Adams recently, I was pleasantly surprised and somewhat amused to find the honesty and vulnerability of the subject as portrayed in his own diaries and letters.

“Oh! that I could wear out of my mind every mean and base affectation,” Adams once vented to his diary. And “conquer my natural pride and conceit.”

McCullough goes on to describe Adams’s frustrated state of mind: “Why was he constantly forming yet never executing good resolutions? Why was he so absent-minded, so lazy, so prone to daydreaming his life away? He vowed to read more seriously. He vowed to quit chewing tobacco. ….

On July 21, 1756, he wrote:

'I am resolved to rise with the sun and to study Scriptures on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, and to study some Latin author the other three mornings. Noons and nights I intend to read English authors .... I will rouse up my mind and fix my attention. I will stand collected within myself and think upon what I read and what I see. I will strive with all my soul to be something more than persons who have had less advantages than myself.'” (McCullough, p. 41)

Then, the next day, as one just might expect, Adams records that he had slept in late and accomplished nothing.

Oh! That this portrayal did not ring so true and cut so deep!

I don’t know how many similar reading plans and lists of goals I’ve formulated, but I do know roughly what percentage have met a fate similar to Adams’s. It’s pretty near to 100.

Perhaps it’s poetic then that this book has inspired yet another attempt on the part of yours truly, and only fair that I record it in this space – also being a product of an attempt at refocusing energies. This time, I’m renewing my goal to read more thematically, less sporadically. Yes, if you’ve been in my house lately and perused my shelves, I am already aware that I have stacks of unread books, representing half a dozen different reading programs, strewn about and gathering dust. But this one has inspiration.

I’ve already stated that McCullough’s biography is superb, and indeed it is. The story is transporting and the writing is transfixing. But that is just the means, the result is an in-depth look at the conversation of ideas alive in this one time and place told through the (mostly) men who moved them, and it is beyond fascinating. It’s, well, inspiring. Inspiration enough for a new reading plan of my own at least. Besides, I have needed for some time to return to study the Enlightenment so famously moved past in this day of obsessive ‘post’ prefixes. What better vehicle than a companion study of one of the clearest and most relevant outcomes: the society and government of the United States?

In this still-first week of the New Year, with resolutions everywhere already waning and falling by the wayside, I lustily and fool-heartedly toss my hat into the ring. Let it be resolved, therefore, that I do commit, here and now, to read at least one dozen books on, about or written during the 18th century having to do with the philosophy, politics or history of the time before reading anything else … much … anything else much. That is, maybe I could allow one or two books on the side, if need be and occasion arise.

(I already have a list of 20 and have started number three. Anyone care to take odds?)

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Benedictine Obedience Defined: Obedience Part II

In my previous post I attempted to give enough of a positive picture of obedience to at least get the idea a hearing.

To continue recussitating the idea of obedience - to try to get it up on its own two feet so we can get it doing some real work - we need to flesh out a bit more of a definition.

For this work I'm turning again to the tradition of Benedictine monasticism. Where better to explore the real implications of a practice than with the supposed experts?

First, many authors point out the significance of the term's etymology. Contemporary Benedictine Esther De Waal is typical here in describing her prior assumptions and how they came to be challenged. She writes that the idea of obedience "used to present me with difficulties until I realized that it came from the word obaudiens, to listen intently, to listen to the voice of God, to hear God's voice and follow it-so that we are led along the path of God's will rather than our own." [1]

Grammatically the word is an intensification of the root word audir, to hear. So we have the word obedience meaning something like: to listen intently or perhaps intentionally. This might initially seem like a cop-out, a kind of saving interpretation. None of us think of merely listening to someone as constituting obeying them. But this objection is based on a misunderstanding. First of all, we do use the word 'listen' as a kind of synonym for 'obey' as in when children are told that they have to listen to their parents. What is meant is obviously more than that the child hear what is spoken. The parents want response; they expect obedience.

The misunderstanding, and the strong negative connotation to the idea of obedience comes from the same mistaken conflation I wrote about before where authority is equated with power. Here we see that when most people react to the idea of obedience, they are reacting to the idea of mere compliance. Instead of complying with a power under threat of force, I am differentiating here a willing obedience to a respected authority.

I remember hearing that phrase 'willing obedience' in a hymn a while back as if for the first time. It was a kind of forehead-slap moment for me. "Of course!" I remember thinking, "Obedience can still be willing!" Perhaps obedience can only be willing. Why is it that we always tend to assume obeying someone can only be in order to avoid punishment?

But while obedience is not fearful submission to power, it also is not just doing what another asks of us when we happened to want to do it anyway. The wind does not obey the voice that commands it to blow the direction it is already headed.

The reason that the mere coincident overlapping of wills is not obedience is that the whole point of obedience is growth. "Real obedience depends on wanting to listen to the voice of God in the human community, not wanting to be forced to do what we refuse to grow from." [2] If we want to grow through obedience - and if we want to grow, we must be capable of obedience - we will have to do things we don't want to do. There is no getting around this. Some things we are asked to obey and that we should obey will be distasteful. Some will of course turn out in the long run to have not been the best course of action.

Monks in the Benedictine order, the biggest and most influential in the West, do not make the vows most are familiar with: poverty, chastity and obedience. Benedictine monks are chaste and do give up owning much in the way of personal property, but their vows are: obedience, stability and conversion of life. And I think it's safe to say that the first two are aimed at the third. The point is to live in closer communion with God. Benedictines believe the way to do that is to commit to one community in one place and submit to the wisdom of that community.

But this seeming self-limitation must not be seen as oppressive but rather liberating. The first work of liberation is the liberation from the tyranny of the self to its own desires.

Another contemporary commentator makes this point well describing this first work of liberation as "the cracking of the thick crust around my 'I' and the orienting of myself to who or what has something to say to me." [3]

I think the dangers of obedience are obvious to everyone. We do not need to rehearse them here. The point to me is that it is clear where the pendulum has swung in the 21st century western world. Most of us as adults are really in no danger of willingly submitting to dangerous authorities. The very air we breathe is that of anti-authoritarianism. (The authorities now co-opt our insurection by marketing to it. The new standard of conformity is to be non-conformist. It is demanded of us that we be our own person. The only truly revolutionary stance is one of submission to an-Other who is not just any other.)

I say this is the case for adults. Where to draw the line in children is wholly another matter. We all know how the natural trust of children and their being taught to respect any adult authority can be tragically taken advantage of. Here too though it is possible to go too far. We could go so far in protecting our children from any possibility of danger that we would have damaged their ability to trust anyone. How much risk-avoidance is worth living a life of relative fear and mistrust? Part of the blame here is on the sensationalizing of the media of what really amount to very rare occurrences. The 'never talk to strangers' stuff we all had drilled into us endlessly is aimed at avoiding a vanishingly small possibility. Kids are almost never abducted by strangers but we're all afraid of it because we've all heard of the few cases where it has happened. [4]

The other serious problem is that with children a lot of what we often expect is just simple compliance. And we do often try to get this any way we can. (If you don't have kids you can't talk.) This is a thorny issue I can't solve here but let me just say that I think there is some room for growing into the willing part of true obedience. Perhaps in children the place of a fully-developed will and the rational mind capable of deciding to submit it, is filled by the loving attachment of trust and respect for the parent. I'm trying to think through my own theories of parenting so I'll have to return to this later.

Finally, it should also be obvious that willing obedience to an authority is not giving up the freedom of the will and the freedom to voice and act upon dissent. Also clear is that any Christian who is in the position of exercising authority would only do so with an eye to fostering the growth and development in freedom of the individual willing to be obedient. Exercising authority requires maturity and great self-discipline.

"The self-giving of real obedience is very clear to Benedict. When we follow the voice of the ones who call us to higher service, we put down our own concerns, allow ourselves to be led by the sights of another, treat our own best interest with a relaxed grasp. We empty ourselves out so that the presence of God can come in, tangible and present and divinely human." [5]

Being able to treat my own best interests (especially when I'm not sure of them) with a more relaxed grasp would sound many days like a little slice of heaven. Would that they were a little easier to actually lay down.


1. De Waal, Esther. Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict p. 13

2. Chittister, Joan. The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages p. 59

3. Derkse, Wil. The Rule of Benedict for Beginners p. 28

4. Daniel Gardner makes the case for how many of our most prevalant fears are not only irrational but downright dangerous in his book The Science of Fear. Fear of child abduction is just one example where we choose to avoid a tiny risk of a horrible event in favor of taking a much higher probability of fairly serious negative consequences like child obesity for example, because our kids aren't allowed to walk to school alone or play outside unmonitored as much as they were in the past. I heard him make his case in an exceptional interview on NPR's Diane Rehm Show.

5. Chittister, Joan. The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages p.57

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Obedience and Harvest Customs: Obedience Part I

Here begins the first installment of my second attempt at a conceptual rehabilitation. I'm officially adopting concepts I find useful but that are currently orphaned by our culture including, largely, the church and trying to get them a fair hearing. I previously took a stab at the word 'authority,' and I continue now with the perhaps even less popular concept: 'obedience.'

In coming installments I will explore some definitions of obedience, but - to get things off on a lighter note - I begin with a poetic meditation on the concept followed by my initial reactions to its place in our current lexicon.

What follows is a work by former Calvin professor Stanley Wiersma, aka folk poet Sietze Buning, taken from his book, Purpaleanie and Other Permutations.



Were my parents right or wrong
Not to mow the ripe oats that Sunday morning
with the rainstorm threatening?
I reminded them that the Sabbath was made for man
and of the ox fallen into the pit.
Without an oats crop, I argued,
the cattle would need to survive on town-bought oats
and then it wouldn’t pay to keep them.
Isn’t selling cattle at a loss like an ox in a pit?
My parents did not argue.
We went to Church.
We sang the usual psalms louder than usual-
we, and the others whose harvests were at stake:
“Jerusalem, where blessing waits,
Our feet are standing in thy gates.”
“God, be merciful to me;
On thy grace I rest my plea.”
Dominie’s spur-of-the-moment concession:
“He rides on the clouds, the wings of the storm;
The lightning and wind his missions perform.”
Dominie made no concessions on sermon length:
“Five Good Reasons for Infant Baptism,”
though we heard little of it,
for more floods came and more winds blew and beat
upon that House than we had figured on, even,
more lightning and thunder
and hail the size of pullet eggs.
Falling branches snapped the electric wires.
We sang the closing psalm without the organ and in the dark:
“Ye seed from Abraham descended,
God’s covenant love is never ended.”
Afterward we rode by our oats field,
“We still will mow it,” Dad said.
“Ten bushels to the acre, mabe, what would have been fifty
if I had mowed right after milking
and if the whole family had shocked.
We could have had it weatherproof before the storm.”
Later at dinner Dad said,
“God was testing us. I’m glad we went.”
Mother said, “I wouldn’t have missed it.”
And even I thought but did not say,
How guilty we would feel now if we had saved the harvest.
The one time Dad asked me why I live in a Black neighborhood,
I reminded him of that Sunday morning.
Immediately he understood.
Sometime around the turn of the century
My sons may well bring me an article in The Banner
Written by a sociologist who argues,
“The integrated neighborhoods of thirty years ago,
in spite of good intentions,
impaired Black self-image and delayed Black independence.”
Then I shall tell my sons about that Sunday morning.
And I shall ask my sons to forgive me
(who knows exactly what for?)
as they must ask their sons to forgive them
(who knows exactly what for?)
as I have long ago forgiven my father
(who knows exactly what for?)
Fathers often fail to pass on to sons
their harvest customs
for harvesting grain or real estate or anything.
No matter, so long as fathers pass on to sons
Another more important pattern
defined as absolutely as muddlers like us can manage:


I was reading this poem a while back, not for the first time, but on this reading the poem hit me in a way it hadn't before, even bringing tears to my eyes. Maybe it means way more to me personally than it could to others for a variety of reasons: conflicts and resolutions in my own relationship with my parents on religious matters, or my current possible tendency to sentimentally idealize rural life.

What I like about this poem, along with most of the others in the book, is its seeming ability to strike a sincere and nuanced balance between critique and reverence for tradition. There's not much humor evidenced in the above selection, but many of the others in the book are quite funny - if you know the subculture. The critique side of the more humorous poems is often carried out with a gently satirical edge, much like that of Garrison Keillor who has a similar gift for being able to satirize his tradition without losing a greater sense of gratitude for what it has taught him, thus avoiding the twin traps of easy sentimentality and unearned cynicism.

Obedience is such a tricky word at anytime, and to modern Americans the very idea has become almost anathema. Much of the reasoning for how this came to be is very understandable, given what it was sometimes in reaction to, even while the current situation of hyper-individualism is obviously lamentable. I'm nowhere near sure where the line falls between healthy and destructive obedience but I'm pretty sure which way the pendulum is swinging. I'm also certain that a Christian life which doesn't have any room for ego-humbling obedience, serving God and others, is just plain incoherent. Within the Church in America it seems like Protesants in general and evangelicals in particular have all but destroyed any structures worthy of obedience or at least any capable of asking for, let alone demanding it.

I believe American Evangelicals are in need of remedying this situation whether they know it or not. I'm not sure how to get there, or even where there is, but I know that we are in thrall to the god of freedom and the only way we can be freed from that most unforgiving of tyrannies - the tyranny of the self to its own desires - is to try to regulate it with a little obedience. Any degree of obedience might be a bitter pill to swallow for those of us on a saccharine diet of instant gratification, but I think the message of the gospel is that it ultimately leads to the only true liberation: the freedom to be who we were created to be, not who we merely want to be. Jesus said his yoke was easy and his burden light. He never claimed that following his way was without burden or yoke. Adjusting to the harness might chaff at first, but it will lead to where we are meant to be.

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Patrick Henry College, Paradigm of the Evangelical Liberal Arts?

I recently listened to a podcast of a booktalk by Hanna Rosin giving a talk (about a year ago) on her book, God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America.The book is about the school that seems to be a veritable breeding ground for White House interns, Patrick Henry College. In her talk, Rosin marvels at the juxtaposition of a student body which is intellectually sophisticated, culturally, well ... at least aware, and yet made up of students who maintain their rigorous fundamentalist faith.

Her main goal seems to be to understand this seeming juxtaposition and drive home just how unique a position Patrick Henry College occupies in the intellectual landscape. I would agree that the school seems to be quite an outlier in terms of many of its specific ends and means. I would not agree with what seems like the implicit assumption in much of Rosin's story: that the fundamental issues Patrick Henry College was specifically set up to address are all that different from other Christian colleges.

First of all Rosin sets up her story describing her view of the tension between the sacred and the secular in the lives of the student body. Rosin describes how she "could sense a real tension between the school's dual missions of leading a faithful Christian life and impacting the culture. The school really wanted the students to study Plato and Nietzsche or the modern novels or the enlightenment thinkers but they were worried that they might be corrupted by their ideas."

The way she characterizes the problem makes it seem like 21st century fundamentalists who are also busy competing for jobs in the White House are somehow the first set of Christians to feel a tension in how to live out their Christianity in public. But this is not a new problem at all. Christians have been wrestling with this at least since Saint Augustine penned his book City of God struggling with the right view of the Church after the fall of Rome. But of course it has really been an issue for followers of Christ from day one. Christians tend to adopt the language of 'two kingdoms' to deal with these issues. We sense two basic tensions: on the one hand there is the eschatological tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom, on the other hand there is the incarnational tension in how we are called to be ‘in but not of’ the world. And we Christians call these things ‘tensions’ with good reason. Answers in this arena are never merely plain on their face. I think anyone who takes their Christianity seriously and lives in a secular society, with secular neighbors or with a secular vocation - which is to say: everyone - struggles with striking the right balance in regard to these tensions at some time or another.

The next problem is that having missed how universal the felt tensions described above really are, Rosin depicts politically hyper-active Patrick Henry College as having somehow stumbled upon the idea of engaging in politics and the broader culture at the same time as maintaining a firm orthodoxy. She then backtracks and uncritically adopts Patrick Henry's characterization of other Christian insitutions of higher learning. Patrick Henry College sees itself as paradigmatic for any theologically robust evangelical liberal arts institution and views other schools either as lacking in true intellectual sophistication and thus not worthy of being called liberal arts institutions (Bible Colleges), or as accomodating too much to the secular University and compromising their orthodoxy (mainstream evangelical schools). Rosin apparently buys their story.

But Patrick Henry College is merely one recent, perhaps unique in some regards, example of a Christian institution of higher learning seeking to have some impact on the wider culture. Rosin is certainly aware not only that there are many other kinds of Christian colleges - liberal Protestant, Catholic, etc. - but even that Patrick Henry is exceptional among evangelical institutions; she mentions in response to a question, both Wheaton and my own alma mater, Calvin College, saying they are places that would almost certainly not hire a six-day, young-earth Creationist. So they seem to fit Patrick Henry's conception of an accomodationist school. But if she knew anything about these institutions, she would know not only that they maintain what most American Christians would see as a conservative core theology, but also that a central part of their missions is to have an impact broader than on their students private spiritual lives. Finally, if she did any more than scratch the surface she would also have know that, on the whole, places like Calvin College have very different ideas on how to go about this cultural and political engagement.

For example, in another place she mentions Farris [the school founder]'s model of reading atheist philosophers as one of doing 'opposition research.' As if one has to read this stuff just to be versed in enemy strategy. But I can't imagine an understanding of liberal arts education more divergent from this than the one in which my reading of atheist, secular or just plain old pagan books took place at Calvin. (Even on this front there is an internal discrepancy in that she admits that not all PH professors agree with Farris's views.)

The problem I think is that Rosin has appropriated wholesale Patrick Henry’s very wooden view of Christianity's two-kingdom mindset. From her viewpoint, a bright young student listening to secular music and reading secular philosophers on the one hand and then going to congress to lobby about teaching itelligent design, is seen as someone completely stepping in and out of their identity as Christians. They might listen to good music because it's entertaining and read secularists because it's useful, but they lobby congress because they're Christians; they do the former just because they're modern young people and only the latter specifically as Christians.

At another point she relates how the students "try and follow Farris's model of living in two worlds at once. Of keeping a running conversation with Jesus in your head at all times while still making it in the real world." ... "Michael Farris is not interested in adapters who bend to the will of the mainstream. He wants shapeshifters who can move in between two worlds with their essential natures in tact." As I've said, I think all Christians try to strike a balance here but Rosin does not see how the line could be tread in any other way than Farris's. Nowhere does she seem to contemplate the possibility of an orthodox Christianity that actually encourages an appreciation for art, even secular art, because it's beautiful and recognizes that all beauty comes from God, or a politics that seeks engage in the public sphere as Christians in order to contribute to the common good without merely seizing power and imposing as much theocracy as possible.

And this is where Rosin's lack of the ability to theologically critique Patrick Henry's understanding of Christian vocation matters. While I have asserted that all Christians feel tensions in how to live out their callings in life, the orthodox view is not that we navigate between purely sacred and secular spheres of life where we could alternately put on and shed our identities as Christians. This strict dichotomous view is not more orthodox or conservative but essentially an instance of the Christian heresy of gnosticism. Against this, Christians must recognize how, in Abraham Kuyper's words, "there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'mine!'" But while this means that we are called to engage specifically as Christians in all spheres of life, this engagement need not, and almost certainly should not, look like that of the stereotypical culture warrior.

Perhaps Rosin's portrayal of what Patrick Henry teaches its students to think is correct. I am not in a position to say. Even if it is, it is a serious error on her part to accept the school's own take on the theological landscape of cultural engagement and to uncritically employ its own self-assessment and characterization of the options available in Christian higher learning.

But this is probably exactly why she wrote the book. Patrick Henry's students and their mission are headline grabbing. They are more than likely unique, but not because of their intellectualism and not because of their desire to engage the culture, but merely in what they think constitute the right weapons for the Christian to take up and for which battles. If she had started out with a little background discussion of the historical significance of Christian conversations surrounding eschatological and incarnational tensions she could have given us a much more interesting account of exactly how Patrick Henry is, and is not, unique.

So Ms. Rosin and journalists everywhere, please take note, if you meet someone trying to act like a Christian out there in your 'public' sphere, know that we're not all from Patrick Henry.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Cynicism, Faith and the Battle of Experience

In a review of a new Library of America collection of journalist A.J. Liebling's work, Fresh Air contributor Maureen Corrigan relates the following intriguing quote taken from one of his WWII pieces. He writes:

"Cynicism is often the shame-faced product of inexperience."

I found this line immediately striking as a succinct counterpoint to the overly relied-upon assumption that level of cynicism equates with quantity of experience.

We are all acquainted with that kind of world-weary skeptic who is always telling us that if we only knew what was really going on in the world, how truly nasty people consistently are to one another, we'd give up on our faith. This line of thinking will often present any religious faith in a good God as a holdover from the naive infancy of our species whereas now we should all be too grown up to get on with that kind of nonsense. As if human beings in centuries or millenia past were somehow less acquainted with suffering and death than is modern man, or too dull to realize that continued suffering in the face of God's goodness and power was difficult to comprehend. Not so the new enlightened man. We are all so very adult now.

When Liebling says it is inexperience that leads to cynicism, he seemingly says the exact opposite of the above assumption, but I think I know where he is going with this. The cynic usually assumes that the optimist has just led too sheltered a life. This is sometimes the case. But our experience of an event involves both the event itself and how we interpret it and the cynical interpretation is never just a strict conclusion from analyzing the facts.

What seems clear to me is that our interpretations of events, which we will have at least some control over, has much more to do with our overall level of cynicism than we might like to think. We all know that there are those who have lived through the worst humanity has to offer - think holocaust survivors - with their faith in God or maybe a general regard for humanity intact just as we have come across those who seem ready to resign themselves to a jaded view of all life has to offer simply because a girlfriend dumped them. The mere possibility of these two types existing side-by-side shows the lack of causation.

We need to keep ourselves open, whatever the events we live through, to interpreting, and thus actually experiencing life, otherwise than cynically. This openness to re-interpretation does not constitute a diminished experience but an alternative experience and offers a horizon vastly wider than that of the cramped complaints of the cynics.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Blasphemy Challenge and the Banality of Atheism in a Secular Society

In the bad old days of yore, as we are taught to call them, when religious beliefs were not mere matters of private opinion, one could get in real trouble for expressing the wrong beliefs. One could occasionally lose one's life! Now we just get mocked on the internet.

Today, in our enlightened age, one's beliefs or disbeliefs are no more the business of anyone else - let alone anyone in authority - than our tastes in clothes, food or entertainment.

Enter The Blasphemy Challenge. A group calling themselves the Rational Response Squad has come up with a new test of orthodoxy, or perhaps heterodoxy. Their challenge, posted via YouTube a while back, is to make a video of oneself blaspheming the Holy Spirit, the so-called unforgivable sin. The video responses seem to be mostly angry teenagers eager to shock and the occasional atheist celebrity trotted out to verify his credentials (as an atheist clergyman?) by publicly 'passing' the test. The irony of a test of heterodoxy is apparently lost on all involved.

The Rational Response Squad sets itself up as both defending and advocating for atheism. Defending because atheists are a persecuted minority whose right to disbelief is in peril. (From whom?) Advocating because ... well, I'm not quite sure. Altruism? The squad seems to not so much respond as to downright proseletize for their disbelief. They have debated the likes of Growing Pains child actor cum creationist Kirk Cameron (very telling!) and apparently have a weekly internet radio broadcast. Are we to expect late-night televangelists for the new atheism? Why do they care so much if I pass or fail their test. (For the record, I suppose I have failed their test simply by viewing their challenge and not meeting it.)

It's true, unlike the orthodoxy enforcers of old, they do not pretend to wield authority over those they test so they don't threaten those who fail their challenge with more than their enlightened scoffs. (Their method of 'rational response' is basically that of a schoolyard taunt. They've dared me to blaspheme and I've resisted so far. I can only hope they won't double-dog dare me.)

The very idea of the challenge relies on an understanding of Christian faith which is the very worst kind of caricature. It pretends to an understanding of Christianity by rummaging around in scripture's closet for a debatable doctrine based on a single text in order to pick on it. Holding it up for all to see, they can safely conclude, "See, Christianity is silly and thereby obviously false!" This all just goes to show, as if further demonstration were required, that many of this brand of atheist are far more fundamentalist than their Bible-thumping targets. Two sides of the same old coin.

One odd thing about the challenge is that, while it's obvious that it doesn't aim at serious engagement, it doesn't even get the most basic of facts right. Even in this highly debated quote, the scripture says nothing of denying the existence of the Holy Spirit as being unforgiveable but only about blaspheming against it. The scene one where Jesus' good works are attributed to the power of demons. I think that, given this context, a more likely candidate for commiting this kind of sin would be the kind of Christian who condemns the work of the Spirit just because it is carried out through the agency of a secular or non-Christian organization, not some kids saying they don't believe in the Holy Spirit the same way they don't believe in Santa Claus. Give me a break folks. You'll have to try harder than that.

Many Christians are offended by all of this though. Which is probably at least part of the point. Many post videos arguing back. Apparently some have even threatened the atheists to the point that they won't use their last names and even broadcast from an undisclosed location out of fear for their lives. This is deeply disturbing but not that surprising. There will always be those who take these kinds of things personally.

Now I for one am not offended by their blasphemy. I am not God, so how could I be. I also believe that, at least in this respect, God doesn't need me to stick up for him.

This does not mean that I am not offended by the blasphemy challenge. I am. Deeply.

I am offended, as a person who tries to be reasonable, at their use of the word 'rational' to describe what they are doing. Reason's got enough of a reputation problem without this response squad needlessly dragging her name through the mud.

So have your fun with your non-attempts at understanding scripture if you must. Nobody can possibly take that seriously. But lay off reason, some of us need her!

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Baptism, Why Bother? Sacramental Infighting and Clues to Original Meanings

This past Sunday, my son, Jonah Gregory, was baptized. But, "Whatever for?" you might ask. Well I've wondered this myself.

Everyone knows Christians get baptized. Few of us, even if we call ourselves Christians, think about why we were baptized, or why we should baptize anyone else.

Baptism is just one of those things. People don't want to talk about it or think about it because either A.) It's just what every Christian does, so who cares, and/or B.) Talking about it too much will lead to differences of opinion, disagreements between individuals or even divisions between churches, so it's better to leave well enough alone.

Baptism is central to Christianity so discussing its meaning is a shortcut to delving into the heart of the gospel itself. No wonder then about the disagreement. While the divisions we persist in are lamentable (let alone the violence perpetrated in the past by those willing to take just about any division as sufficient excuse), I subscribe to the theory that theological disagreements should be addressed and hashed out instead of ignored in favor of a race to the lowest common denominator. If the teaching of Christianity is worth thinking about, then it's worth arguing about. So we should maintain civility, but let's keep talking. Baptism is worth exploring.

I find it useful to address what baptism itself is from the angle of these divisions internal to Christianity. The basic split is between those who baptize babies and young children, and those who do not. The former group includes the majority of Protestants as well as Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. This position represents what is called technically paedo-baptism (child baptism). The latter group practices believer's baptism or credo-baptism, holding that one must affirm belief before being baptized. They are commonly referred to just as Baptists (from Anabaptists, meaning re-baptizers because, since they do not recognize the validity of infant baptism, they re-baptize in their own manner those already baptized as infants in another Christian Church).

Now I am obviously a paedo-baptist. Both John Calvin, the founding father of my own Reformed tradition, and Luther, the original reformer, taught paedo-baptism. But, though I am personally persuaded by the reasons given in the tradition for baptizing infants, I fully recognize that the tradition of credo-baptism arises out of a sincere desire to be faithful to certain genuine aspects of the Christian life.

At its most basic, credo-baptism stresses the truth of human free will that is both the beautiful gift and terrible responsibility of every human creature. It also underlines the God-given integrity we have as individuals and the way in which God seeks us out often as individuals.

Another thing that can be said for believer's baptism is that it portrays a very clear grasp on the truth that "God has not willed the church to be reproduced through biology but through witness and conversion." [1] In other words, Christianity is not simply a hereditary religion. Rather, following Christ as a disciple is something all are called to regardless of parentage.

As I said, while I find the above elements attractive and the arguments offered in favor of them to be sincere, I am not persuaded. First of all, I have this sense that everything attractive about credo-baptism is covered just as well in paedo-baptist tradition; we do, for instance, obviously seek out and baptize adult converts.

Second, and more importantly, I just don't feel that denying the sacrament of baptism to children fits with my larger understanding of the faith, most especially in its insistence upon the absolute centrality and primacy of grace, even while affirming human free will.

My basic take on why elements of Baptist tradition are attractive despite my overall disagreement is that, like most theological mistakes and even outright heresies, credo-baptism arises not so much out of originating something opposed to Christian teaching as it does from an over-emphasizing of one strand of Christian teaching at the expense of the corresponding part of the paradox.

So just as the ancient heresies fought by the Church fathers were erroneous because they overly stressed, for example, either the humanity or divinity of Christ and ended up denying the incarnation. I would allege that credo-baptism (though probably not tantamount to heresy) has mistakenly over-stressed the role of human free will in conversion and at the very least muddied up a proper understanding of grace.

By way of caveat, I should say that being a Calvinist, the way I would navigate this mystery might be entirely predictable because, in the words of Richard Mouw, "When Calvinists get around to attempting to explain the relationship between God's sovereignty and human freedom, we are so concerned to protect the former that we are willing to risk sounding like we are waffling on the latter rather than to imply in any way that God's power is limited." [2]

So any potential disputant could just allege that their position occupies the center of the paradox and it is the Calvinist who has erred too far to the side of denying human free will. This has certainly been alleged before. But, as I've already said, on the issue of baptism, Calvinists happen to be in agreement with the broadest and deepest streams of the Christian tradition. I've never even heard anyone argue for an early historical precedent of anti-paedo-baptism, excepting, of course, the highly disputed interpretations over baptismal precedent in the New Testament itself, which is an issue I can't address here. In general though, I would be suspicious of any major Christian teaching that is claimed to have been completely suppressed for 1400 years or so only to pop up again in the 16th century.

Because baptism is our entrance into full membership of the Church, our understanding of it will have a direct impact on our understanding of grace. If we want to keep grace in the center of our picture of the Christian life, it should be important not only to see grace at work in the sacrament of baptism, but to be unwilling to compromise on its working there in any way. Lyle Bierma writes, summarizing paedo-baptism in the Reformed confessions, that:

"Whether one is an adult being baptized after conversion or an infant being baptized before conversion, the situation is basically the same. Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. (BC) As the HC* says, both belong to God's covenant and community and . . . are promised forgiveness of sin . . . and the Holy Spirit, who produces faith. Both are called to embrace those promises by faith, the adult immediately and the infant as he or she grows older. Both are saved not by their baptism but by God's grace as they live in faith and obedience as members of the covenant community." [3]*

But it is not just a matter of technical freedom of will, the overall sense of the grace at work in a church that celebrates infant baptism and one that bars it, seems to me to be reversed in terms of who is in the driver's seat in the conversion of the sinner. Bierma again writes that, "baptism is primarily God's speaking to us, not our speaking to him. It is there that he signifies and seals an operation of grace that he performs in the context of a community that he has established. How can this salvation sola gratia (by grace alone) be any more graphically demonstrated than in the baptism of a tiny covenant child, helpless, uncomprehending, and wholly incapable of any meritorious work? Infant baptism sets before the church in sacramental shorthand the entire doctrine of God's sovereignty in the salvation of the elect." [4]

If you say that one can't be baptized as an infant, then you're saying that one can't become a Christian without a certain level of maturity, whether intellectual or moral. It seems to me that if you do this, you are making conversion to Christianity and the salvation it is all about, far too much a result of one's own effort and abilities. I believe, not just that one is saved through grace, but also that one is converted to the faith that affirms this truth through grace. (If one wanted to be dismissive, this would be the place to start throwing that dirty word 'predestination' around!) For me, one always and only enters the Church, whose threshold is baptism, through grace, with the relative understanding of a child, regardless of one's age or maturity. Affirming that we should baptize infants is a line in the sand that reminds us that our conversion, let alone our salvation, is not of our making.

The objection could be raised here that the boots-on-the-ground difference between most baptistic and Reformed churches, for example, is actually very slight because the former often practice infant dedication with adult baptism; the latter, infant baptism and adult profession of faith. This might be true. The pastor and writer Douglas Wilson wrote recently of the idea of a "wet dedication" as opposed to full covenantal baptism. To the extent that this distinction has been lost, the fault is probably that of insufficient doctrinal education in paedo-baptist circles. If Reformed believers know what they are about, then they will always understand the relative importance of infant baptism and adult profession.

The difference between the two might just be a matter of emphasis, but for me, the distinction of where the line for full Church membership lies is very important. I believe that my 5 month old son is just as much a member of Christ's church as his (hopefully) much more mature, obsessively analytical father.

Finally and in conclusion, I can't help squeezing in the following quote on baptism. It's from the mouth of the fictional pastor who narrates the story in Marilynne Robinson's exquisite novel Gilead.

"There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time." [5]

The very beauty and power contained in baptism, signaled to here, probably makes it nearly inevitable that it will be misused. Baptism requires, like every other creaturely gift we enjoy in this life, certain boundaries to keep it from eroding rather than contributing to the dignity of human beings. For me those boundaries are one baptism in the name of the one triune God.



1. Hauerwas, Stanley. The Radical Hope in The Hauerwas Reader. p. 512
Hauerwas here is not discussing baptism but the validity of singleness as a Christian vocation. The point stands as a possible asset for credo-baptism.
2. Mouw, Richard. Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport. p. 27
3. Bierma, Lyle. Infant Baptism in the Reformed Confessions. Collected in, The Case for Covenanental Infant Baptism, edited by Gregg Strawbridge. Accessed on 1-16-08 at
* "BC" & "HC" refer to the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism respectively.
4. ibid.
5. Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. p. 23

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