Can the Middle Be Claimed? part 2.

Carol Howard Merritt at The Christian Century will have none of Tim Keller. Keller had been selected as the recipient of the Kuyper Award for Excellence in Reformed Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, until faculty, students and friends furiously objected.

But Keller’s position on women and LGBTQs in the church, by comparison, would silence at least half of Princeton’s student population. And that’s the issue. I have not and cannot keep Keller from preaching. A PCA church can and does restrict women from preaching.

The student body and alumni had every right to protest the award. That is free speech.

Churches (and other entities) face the double challenge of purity and hospitality. One seems to invalidate the other. Take our pick: be true, or be welcoming, which will it be? Here the Lenten theme comes to bear: sometimes inclusion means, even demands seeing (and including) the enemy. We include, not because of some sentiment like “hospitality” or “inclusion” but because of a cross. In the poisonous partisan world, this reality claims our tongue, and it should claim our welcome.

On the Religious Right

Matthew Lee Anderson picks up the issue of the Religious Right, and in particular its connection to racism. Is it, as Randall Balmer, Sarah Posner and others, linked to racism — is it the color line that drives its animus? Anderson has his doubts.

While evangelicals indisputably have a less-than-exemplary record on questions of race, their own history within the South is not necessarily identical or equivalent to the history of the Religious Right. The most charitable interpretation of Bob Jones is that the Religious Right defended the wrong practice for the right reasons, namely, the freedom of religious institutions to govern themselves.

It may not be race at all.

Ballmer’s thesis appears to underplay the impact of S California in the formation of the Religious Right. This sis the territory mined by Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt. Politically active Christian nationalism emerged from two deep streams: that of southern white protestantism, and the new right synthesis in Orange County. The latter grew from “Okie” immigration of the 30s, which brought Church of Christ fundamentalism and Southern Baptists together — what is most interesting for this story is its relative lack of racial animosity, It was not the color line but anti-communism and the embrace of free markets that shaped the thinking. This is the stream that found Goldwater and put Ronald Reagan into office . To Orange County and the Deep South, we can add the conservative upper Midwest, with its mix of Lutherans (LCMS and Wisconsin) and the Dutch Reformed communities. The Upper Midwest allowed the bridge-building to Catholics that the other two streams lacked.

Finally, one should note the role of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), as a sort of connector to all these strands. The PCA brought a mix of Midwest Presbyterianism from Reformed Presbyterian-Evangelical Synod of Francis Schaffer, a strong push to suburban evangelical ministry, and a more problematic heritage with the church square First Churches of the deep south that stood by segregation. It was from the PCA that we got the culturally assertive forms of faith, from christian education to Hobby Lobby, forms derivative of theology first developed by the Dutch Reformed. .

To add a further nuance, we can consider Peter Beinart’s article, “Breaking Faith” in The Atlantic. recent article on the Trump supporters. He notes that the President draws support from those who are culturally of the Religious Right, rather than from those who regularly worship. And there, the hypothesis that this population would end up in the alt-Right seems at least plausible.

 

Lost Opportunity

The ability of Evangelicals to tap popular trends has always been ambiguous. At once it makes faith available to many, and yet it always threatens to careen of track, to make faith less transcendent and more cultural. The movement needs its prophets.

Sharon Hodde Miller has been thinking about this in particular, and tapping into Walter Breuggeman, as in this quote

“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 3)

Evangelicals and the Loss of Prophetic Imagination

Mything the Stranger

Jonathan Storment has an interesting start of discussion at the Jesus Creed on “The Myth of Inclusion,” that beguiling path of hospitality that certainly seems to be a desired good for Christians. Shouldn’t we be including everyone?

 In the Gospel of John, there is a difference between those who are inside the life of Jesus and those who aren’t. And it turns out the way isn’t for everyone.

Which gives us heartburn, right? This kind of stuff honestly does keep me up at night.  All of us know the pain of being excluded and how demoralizing and dehumanizing being on the outside of something can be.  But do we have any real alternative?

The question of inclusion or non-inclusion shares the same abstract framework as the old “saved/not-saved” and so naturally we stumble into a sort of fine-sifting, a “scholasticism” as an old friend once put it.

Rather, it seems we are bumping into the very scandal of particularity, both of my neighbor and of myself. Inclusion then has its limits because I have my limits, so any attempt at inclusion is partial, or perhaps sacramental: it is a sign of God’s Reign.

The abstract idea of inclusion feeds on a sort of perfectionism, that we can embody properly God’s work. It sees the “telos” of Matt 5 as within our grasp — we get to be perfect, too. But, of course, we cannot.

The question is not abstractly how to be inclusive, but practical, the one on my doorstep, the one that sees and says, “here, let me help you with that.”

The Fruit of Calvinism

Is environmentalism?

This at least, is the take from Mark Stoll in Inherit the Mountain (Oxford, 2015).

Thomas Cole, “The Oxbow.” Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
While D.G. Hart’s review covers the core notion, that environmentalism is a product of Calvinism, or more specifically the views of the Puritans and the American Presbyterians. This is a push-back to the long-standing critique by Lynn White Jr. (“The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”) that asserted that  Christian (and especially Calvinist) views of the Genesis notion   of dominion and the general dis-enchantment of nature led to its exploitation.
Hart wonders if Stoll and White are looking at the same Christianity. In doing so, he also ponders the role of religion and the degree to which religious affections touch policy.
At the same time, contemporary scholars have good reasons for discounting the influence of religion in peoples’ lives. Sometimes religion is not the sole motivation for a position or policy; at other times, circumstances lend themselves more readily to taking actions based religious idealism. Creating national parks in remote territories is one thing, but regulating the oil industry at a time when the nation’s economy depends on fossil fuel is an altogether different challenge that religion may not happily resolve.
The mystery may be solved by considering the broader structures of Reformed thought. Its high theology places an emphasis on the sovereignty of God; historically this has repeatedly walked over into broader understandings, ones emphasizing immanence. This intellectual deterioration clearly feeds the Transcendentalists, John Muir and others. The Immanent God, is the shadow of the Reformed, Electing God. A second aspect, answering the second part of Hart’s quote above, is the role of Presbyterians in shaping the American regulatory state, with its notion of law and common good. The regulatory apparatus developed at the turn of the 19th Century (see Theodore Roosevelt) is deeply grounded culturally and philosophically in the notion of ordered human relationships and the desire to build for the common good. It is the Reformed thought’s emphasis on the corporate and public dimension of religious life which feeds and shapes the emerging regulatory State.

God the Stranger?

John Suk bravely explores what a  post-theistic stance looks like.

the contemporary approach to the question of who God is and what God does that is most interesting is Richard Kearney’s, as described in his book, Anatheism: Returning to God after God. Kearney describes God using the metaphor of stranger.
 God is a stranger. God is so, in part, because the portrait of God that emerges in scripture is deeply coloured by a billowing sea of unknowing that the authors of scripture swim in.
 So God is a stranger. And this, for me, is what post-theism is all about—finding a way to accommodate not the tried and untrue God of the status-quo, but to find the stranger, who may even give life.

Suk is obviously moving into some deeply personal waters, a way of knowing but not knowing as it were. As with all pilgrims, the language must be his; it is not language that one disputes.

But this business about “God as stranger” did catch my ear as another pilgrim. Leaving behind the ordinary narratives of the status quo is unsettling to say the least, not least because one must surrender in order to find. In the midst of this seeking, perhaps some caution on the meme of God as stranger is in order.

First, there is the nature of that very word, “stranger.” Already at the outset we are in world of us and Him, Our Angel of the Jabbok so to speak. Sneaking into that concept is the hint of self, that I still get to define God, even if God is a stranger, or an empty place at my table. I’m still (subtly) in charge.

Of course, to say God is a stranger is also to say that God is a stranger in the world I experience, that the world can’t speak.

Is that really the case?

Abraham Heschel in Man is Not Alone starts with this world, and more specifically our sense of wonder. The world contains a surplus of meaning; things inevitably point to something other. And off in the corner of our eye, are these experiences of the indescribable, the ineffable. Wonder. This certainly is a  sunnier way of encountering the Unknown.

Another challenge to the stranger is  the idea of forgiveness/hope. How do we start over again, what we do “the day after”? As with the wonder that rises from the surplus of meaning in the world, is there a surplus of possibility for my life? For our life together? Can we do something different? The possibility of transformation is every bit as strange as that of the unknown God.

What I suspect Suk is reaching to is not an epistemological stance, nor an ethical one, but something more intimate. To speak of God as stranger is to whisper another, softer prayer, not that we may find, but that we may be found, and that being found  we may find ourselves beloved.

And that’s the truth

How do we know if something is true?

One of the sources for Truth has been “the plain teaching of Scripture”  — a common term in the circle I run in. The other day, John Suk penned some thoughts on that notion (actually a rather lengthy post). the topic is actually rather slippery, since it moves from the rhetoric used in controversies, to the theological stance of the  Reformation (aka perspicuity), and from there to theology of revelation.

Oh my.

In contemporary terms, perhaps the best term is that of clarity. Couldn’t God have been more clear, wonders Suk

God, for example, could have (as Buechner once imagined in a nice sermon) rearranged the stars to say that “I exist,” or “Jesus saves.” Or used a writing style more akin to Berkof or Plantinga than Isaiah or Paul. But if scripture is the best God can do when it comes to being clear, or perspicuous, I’m disappointed.

Perhaps this clarity business is a misreading, a going off track. After all, there’s a long-standing tradition (back to Benedict) of reading/listening to Scripture to meet God. At its basic theological sense, clarity needs to be connected to kerygma : the text is validated by the encounter, by the message. That seems to be a continuing process, time-tested, if you will.

From this perspective, the plain teaching of Scripture is closely associated with the dis-intermediation of Bible reading: it does an end-run on authority. In doing so, it creates a space for a counter reading of the Tradition; from the individual side, the plain meaning of the Scriptures is subversive — one reason why the Belgic Confession speaks of  “the detestable Anabaptists.”

This aspect of the notion poses an ironic counterpoint to the theological rhetoric of the “plain meaning of Scripture”. In present-day North America the term is used generally to privilege some position, silencing debate, or otherwise asserting the authority of the speaker (who can be a bigger source than God, right?). This claim to “plain meaning” has a further traction within the Anglo-American traditions of plain speech v Latinate speech; and especially the popular icons of the plain spoken western hero as a truth teller. We give a lot of credence to those plain speakers — look at the imagery for George W Bush.

Meanwhile, the plain meaning, spoken by the Spirit to the faithful believer’s heart continues to do its subversive work, educating that reader to such goods as love, hospitality, mercy and justice.