The Many and the Gone

Paul VanderKlay writes
“Pluralism, both contemporary and historical pushes us into skepticism.

Really? Isn’t this just a longing for Christendom by another name? It seems that the early church lived in pretty much of a pluralistic culture. The problem today is that while we live with our separate worldviews, we now have a different  emperor, a different encompassing narrative. It’s the emperor that you want to pay attention to.

Greeks and barbarians live cheek by jowl. The first deacons were Hellenist. The post-NT culture is rife with separate cultural frameworks, some like the Palestinian Ebonites got called out and expelled. But really, Alexandria thinks one way, Athens another, Damascus a third etc.
Our challenge is how to live across those gaps between different worldviews, different religions. The road is filled with their shrines.
Spiritually, the question of skepticism ties into narratives of the self, and especially of the self’! s knowledge, our tacit epistemology. There are two Christian responses: the self must die (that’s Benedict) and the smoldering wick is not snuffed.


Len VanderZee notes the similarity between our President and the biblical fool

 It strikes me that Trump is basically what the Bible calls a fool. I am not seeking to belittle Trump, but simply to find a way to understand and respond to him, and the biblical word for such a man is fool. Fortunately, the book of Proverbs provides an inspired guide for how to deal with fools.

Fools sets in motion the other question, the real question, the counsel of Wisdom. The Wisdom Literature instructs in taking a prudent, long-term view of things, to be emotionally constrained, etc. This is not merely a sort of Nominalism (true because in the Bible), but especially true for its practicality — this is the stuff that enables rulers to endure and wise servants (and people) to prosper.

Wisdom guards our own reaction in a time of enthusiasm or of excess. As with marches, or certainly with appetites.
Wisdom also is grounded. It does not merely stand aside, “strategically” to mark its time. It is wise, because it knows something. Contrast this to line from Hamilton, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?”
Oh, and about fools. Their way is that of destruction. History teaches that.

Heading South


Photo Credit: Business Insider

The sudden fall of Paula Deen is, if anything, breath-taking.  And to fall because of a an ancient racial slur — surely injustice is at work?  Bill Vis comments

Paula Deen is older than me and was born and raised in the south.  The furor by younger people shows a profound lack of understanding of the world she and I grew up in.  Was it right?  Something I am proud of?  Of course not!  But to condemn someone in her mid-sixties for being a product of the society in which she was a child is grossly unfair.

Was it unfair what happened to Paula Deen? In a sense, absolutely, the same way it was unfair what happened to Detroit autoworkers. She got caught in an ebbing tide.

Her problem is not that she was brought up a certain way, but that she could not adapt to the present rapidly changing make-up of US society.  David Brooks’ column , A Nation of Mutts captures much of the new dynamic, about the shift from Euro-America to a New America. In this landscape, the older folkways are now peculiar, particular to the individual. And perhaps especially those of the South,with its own complicated history on race. To participate in cultural leadership or take a culturally visible role such as Deen had done requires that one be able to present oneself as culturally open. Her inarticulateness — her real sin —  then doomed her.

But it may not have been just a few ill-chosen words.

Adding to the conflagration may be our own politics. The national political scene is dominated not only by an open hostility to a representative of this new America, President Obama, but also by a retrenchment of conservative ideals.  There’s a dynamic there between the political and cultural concerns of the conservative base so firmly anchored in the white Baby Boom generation and the New American mixed identity of the President. In this mix, Deen’s comments however old, even her southern identity give her the appearance of some one on that conservative side. There’s already enough heat in the politics, her misstep provided the oxygen that consumed her.

Holy Innocents

Today is the Commemoration of Holy Innocents, an odd sort of event, sandwiched between Christmas and the New Year. Almost sure to be forgotten.

And there’s truth to that. Nominally, the date refers to the massacre of young boys by King Herod recorded in Matt. 2:13-18 — a way to stop the salvation history unfolding outside of his control: the price of this control is to be the suffering of innocents. But then again, do we need another day to tell us what we already know about Power or Force?  Rather Holy Innocents asks us to look in a different direction, toward the themes of childhood and justice. And for Evangelicals those themes come together a little later in January, on Life Sunday(Jan 20) and the Martin Luther King commemoration (Jan 21) — Holy Innocents by another name.

That January juxtaposition like Holy Innocents today asks for a better ethical vision. It is easy to overlook the ways that we rob children of their innocence. It’s not just the massacres (or abortion), though there are more than enough, but it is also the acts of continuing of injustice, from the child soldier to the exploitation of children in the workplace. All over. Holy Innocents can seem sentimental or perhaps narrow, but it is finally about our obligations to each other and our opportunity to be a shelter, to give justice room in our poor manger.

Christian nation? What could go wrong?

Part of a continuing discussion on a video about America as Christian nation, Paul VanderKlay writes

There isn’t any question that the US is inextricably linked to Christian culture in the west and the development of political thought that formed the US has heavy Christian influence. It is also the case that the US was deeply impacted by the Great Awakenings.

The problem with the Christian nation meme is not that of culture, but of priestcraft. Some one must go out and determine the nature of “christian” and so of the correct understanding of the phrase “Christian Nation.” Who does the interpreting makes all the difference. Even in the court case, the term Christianity was understood in a rather watered down form, viz. what appeals to all men of reason (so likely including the Unitarians). It’s kept loose so as to not obligate any one denomination. Now if we want to go beyond that vague civil religious we must necessarily have a Christian interpreter to properly determine the bounds of this “Christianity”. Rather obviously, that cannot be secular courts. So to make the idea work one needs something approximately like a set of Christian experts (a Sanhedrin? mullahs?) perhaps, whose determination sets the boundary for the nation.

In short, if you want a Christianity that is more than watered down congregationalism, you end up with installing something like a national church. And given the religious census, any appeal to a Christian nation tradition pretty soon ends up at Rome and not at the Baptist church at the crossroads.

Since we don’t know which Christian tradition ought to be normative, the founders were right to adopt a neutrality, a vagueness about the actual religious meaning of “Christian.” Let the denominational ideas duke it out and keep them out of the government.

And of course, by the court standard President Obama is eminently a Christian.  And if you twist doctrine enough, so too, is that Mormon fellow.

So Where Are All the Atheists?

Earlier this week, the BBC published a set of opinions provocatively titled,”Why is faith falling in the US?” The story was attempting to bring a national focus to a survey of global religiosity and atheism from WIN-Gallup International.

The writers naturally came from two camps: Rod Dreher, who  thinks the decline in US numbers can be traced to the rise of Moral Therapeutic Deism (the new favorite conservative whipping boy, evidently); and on the left, by David Dickerson, who believes the decline arises from the conservative church’s political stands, notably that on homosexuality — oh, those traditional stick-in-the-muds.

While both views have merit in their US context — and in truth, I’m sympathetic to both — what  what is striking is how the actual survey  shows this decline in professed religiosity to be going on through a number of developed countries in the same 2005-2012 time frame. Much as we Americans like to hold to our exceptionalism, something ordinary seems to be happening,  the decline in faith of the middle class driven by economic conditions. That is, the loss of economic faith and its secular promised future undercuts our more transcendental view of the future, that God is in control.

This entwining of the transcendental and the secular hope does point in part to that Moral Therapeutic Deism that Dreher cites. Entwining can breed a sort of psychological syncretism where my life and my faith get intimately bound so that psychology and faith are nearly one and the same. Fortunately hope is a bit more powerful than that.

On a side note: The report has some other incredible data in it. For instance, while the US bemoans the number of atheists, it’s really small potatoes relative to the world. The survey found 5 percent self report as atheist, the same number as Saudi Arabia. In most of Europe the number is in the 10-15 percent range.

How do we bear witness?

Eric Verhulst is bothered by the Office of Social Justice (OSJ) of the Christian Reformed Church. And it’s not just that he takes solid, conservative opinions (which he does). Something else is at work with such an office. As he explains it,

These policy matters are quite complex and interconnected – welfare, immigration, environment, the national debt, defense, and so on. There is room for a wide range of opinion that falls within the bounds of Christianity and Reformed thought when it comes to specific policies to be advocated or enacted. In claiming to speak for the denomination, OSJ effectively cuts off that debate before it even gets started, declaring this policy Christian Reformed and that one not.

Even though I speak from the other side of a partisan divide, I broadly agree with this understanding of the complex, interconnected character of the sort of problems we face.  That said, it is difficult to see how the church (denominationally or congregationally) can easily escape wrestling with them. It’s part of being embodied, of taking up social space.

Likewise, as Verhulst also notes,  there may be a number of approaches that will fall within the boundaries of a faithful walk.

But does this preclude taking a particular stance?

The function of the OSJ is one common to all church groups. There will be some committee thinking about how to speak about and to the complex inter-connected  issues in which the church must live out her life.

It seems inevitable that we have to speak. Or more precisely, you and I will have to make decisions for ourselves, in the voting booth etc about issues like that of immigration. How will we decide? How do we integrate that back into Christian life? And where do I get that information?

The very fact that we may come to a particular issue with an existing framework, part of our particular culture, further complicates the matter. On some highly charged items, information outside of our received frame can be very hard to hear (e.g. I have this all the time with the WSJ). Additionally, we bring our own background to the table; a person from Hamilton ON may have a significantly different view of the issue from that of the person in Hamilton MI.

Finally, I have long thought that the real need in the church has been he formulation of biblical and theological frameworks for understanding the issues, rather than particular policy statements. Left and right, there is a noticeable tendency to think simplistically, to cover the issue with some easy Bible verses as if that gave the solution. Perhaps a better way would be to think of social witness as a sort of spiritual discipline — such an approach would modify the policy-advocacy framework we all can so easily fall into.

Discipleship is a matter of embodying truth in our lives, by word and action. It is framed and shaped by or participation in the life of the Church itself, so in that sense our actions are never autonomous, or for that matter, self-evident. The mystery of Grace here, as elsewhere, is that such embodying does in fact convey a whiff of the Grace that is possible. Framed by the life of the Church, such political commitments then can also be free from the univocal nature of the political, where one has to be all in for one side or another, where one is constantly being tempted  –invited– to be consumed by passion.