The Carpenter


We live in our home, heedless of the carpenter who first gave it its frame. To live theologically in the late 20th C meant living in the post-liberal house build by George Lindbeck. Ephraim Radner gives a very sympathetic understanding of his project:

The point of his theory was to outline how religious communities might better understand other communities, such that dialogue might be fruitful. Lindbeck proposed a now well-known threefold typology that contrasted more conservative scholastic communities (at least in their self-understanding) with more liberal experientially oriented communities, commending finally a third type that was construed in a more “culturally” ordered fashion, in which language, social rules, and coherence provided the framework by which truth is identified. Doctrine, Lindbeck argued, functions differently in these three types of religious community. In the first it is a set of cognitive propositions regarding truth; in the second, it is the articulation expressive of some common religious experience; or finally, in the third “cultural-linguistic” understanding of a religious community, doctrine functions as a kind of ordering “grammar” for practical life with God, and truth is somehow evident in this coherent life.

Another very nice tribute can be found at the Christian Century, where Matt Fitzgerald explains how Lindbeck rescued his faith.

in my last semester, I was assigned The Nature of Doctrine. The force of Lindbeck’s argument overwhelmed me.

The book explained to me why God felt close when I slept on Noah’s Ark sheets, but utterly vague when I tried to be religious without the story I was raised on. If you learn a particular religion’s vocabulary—its strange, unique way of ordering existence—the Divine will become clear (or at least clearer). It is not possible to take a superior stance to a faith tradition and also experience the power it holds. In Lindbeck’s words: “One can no more hope to be religious in general than one can hope to speak language in general.”

As beguiling as the appeal to general knowledge, to the universalization, faith is only known (and practiced) in the particulars, the local, this place and time, this tradition.

Quiet, Modest Pioneer
George Lindbeck saved my Christianity



Man of the Hour

26brooksWeb-superJumbo-2This is nothing like the attention Paul VanderKlay pays, but the man of the cultural moment certainly seems to be Jordan Peterson. As some one outside the moment (and basically wanting to remain that way), I found Patrick Mitchell’s review of Peterson useful. Not surprisingly, David Brooks connects some of the dots.

Parents, universities and the elders of society have utterly failed to give many young men realistic and demanding practical wisdom on how to live. Peterson has filled the gap.

What strikes me as particularly relevant to the age is the insistence on fundamental truths about humanity, not just about our gender tendencies, but our seeking meaning as a necessary condition of our life — that’s a variant of Abraham Heschel’s approach, that we possess the moral duty to explain the wonder, the ineffable we encounter. Both Brooks and Mitchell highlight the realist, the tragic sense of life, this too, coming as an echo of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Ours is a conservative age, if not a reactionary one, and in that framework Peterson provides the essentialist and ethical voice necessary for its navigation, a voice with strong appeals to conservatives. The same voice, its fundamental humanism also offers the alternative to the tawdriness of expression and sloppy ideas that marks so much of the conservative ruling class.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules
The Jordan Peterson Moment
photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star, via Getty Images


Why “Pro-Life”?

Some long thoughts in response to two posts by the always interesting Matthew Loftus:

If Anything is Pro-Life, Nothing Is
pro-life, anti-abortion, and a consistent ethic of anything


There is a much stronger case to be made for the term Pro-Life than what has been argued in this and the earlier post.

Even when considered in its narrower fashion, as you have it (against the lawful yet immoral intentional killing of innocent people), “pro-life” has always understood the problem of abortion more systemically. The reasons that drive women to make this choice are often anchored in economic insecurity, lack of proper medical care, fear, hopelessness, and on occasion a moral carelessness. To say that one is “Pro-Life” is to make a claim about the woman, that she is more than the act of will, but that her life is conditioned by a host of difficulties, difficulties that if properly addressed change the calculation about the decision to end the pregnancy. In a final form, Pro-Life thinks in terms of prevention not proscription: the day after abortion is banned women will still seek abortions; unless one addresses the conditions driving the decision to abort, the law is inadequate, after the fact.

Secondly, Pro-Life is a far healthier platform than the nominalist, proscriptive approach when it comes to the changing world of bio-technology. The landscape we now face (e.g. the consideration of CRISPR technology) is radically different if faintly forecast at the time of Roe v Wade (see Leroy Augenstein’s Come Let Us Play God, 1969). Our fertility science has outrun the conventional framing of anti-abortion with cloning, in vitro fertilization, and the shift to chemical as opposed to surgical abortions. One can see the inadequacy of current approaches with the confusion over hormonal contraceptives generally, and over Plan B in particular. The questions about the boundary of life and of what it means to be human will only increase with advanced technology — we need some way of thinking holistically and redemptively about these challenges, and that I submit, is the term “Pro-Life.”

Third, there is a practical, political reason for preferring the term “Pro Life” as opposed to the more functional “anti-abortion.” Evangelicals in particular need some way of separating themselves from the partisanship of the present day, all the more when it comes to social policy and the contentiousness of issues surrounding abortion. The terms of common good and of anti-abortion prove inadequate since both reference one or the other side. Where Evangelicals desire to contribute to the public discussion on left as well as right, let alone to make critical distinctions on the right as well as the left — they need a third place to stand, a place that is their own. Pro-Life again offers such a space. It offers the possibility of engagement and critique that is holistic, systemic, and critically, that is technologically alert.

In this final framing, Pro-Life provides the robust framing for “doing good to all,” for coordinating and informing our actions. I believe that properly understood, “Pro-Life” is less a position on abortion (though that), than a way for Evangelicals to properly speak of what others mean by “common good.” It is less a stalking horse for proscription than an invitation to flourishing, a window to the Kingdom.

Abortion and the Rise of the Religious Right

Allison Vander Broek picks at one of the puzzles of the Christian Right, viz. it’s relation to the anti-abortion movement. Did the Christian Right really arise as a reaction to Roe v. Wade, as the common internal narrative would have it? Or should we follow along after Randall Balmer, and think of the Christian Right as emerging out of the reaction to the civil rights movement, and particularly the emergence of the white Christian schools? Vander Broek notes the absence of evangelical engagement on the question of abortion (something Balmer does as well) and proceeds to ask a couple of questions,

Why did evangelical leaders create and perpetuate the narrative that abortion is what spurred them to political activism? … Why might American evangelicals craft an origin story that’s so off base from reality?… Could it be that it’s a much more heroic tale that evangelicals got into politics to defend babies rather than to oppose desegregation?

Vander Broek decides that the racism narrative is the dominant one, the secret sin of evangelicals. This may be a case of reading our history through lens of the present: the Christian Right drew from several streams.

What Balmer omits is the role of Orange County, where the children of the Okies took on Northern California elites, waging war over several cultural issues, while holding to a virulent anti-communist ethos. This was a movement grounded in the sociology of the sunbelt suburbia, whose issues were not schools but the cultivation of American values. In their emergent mega churches they shaped a politicized faith that elected Ronald Reagan to the governors mansion. Their rise and impact is nicely document in Darren Dochuk’s From the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt (Norton: 2010); the flavor of the movement can be caught in None Dare Call It Treason.

A second stream that plays an important role in the evangelical church and in national politics are those immigrant churches of the Upper Midwest. These were organically Republican communities that also incorporated a high degree of religious motivation to their politics. Social issues were important, but often with a slightly more communitarian shape; and while there was a caution about racial issues particularly in urban areas, nonetheless the community maintained an openness to civil rights. These were the churches that self-defined as evangelical and not fundamentalist, a community that maintained numerous academic institutions: Bethel, Calvin, Trinity Evangelical, Wheaton, and others.

And then there are is the southern revivalist stream that Vander Broek and Balmer identify, whose life was shaped by the reaction to the civil rights movement. Even this has a deep root. The southern revivalistic church was a populist phenomena, with the weight of that racial narrative; it shared the rejection of the post Civil War centralized state. This is the seedbed of Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, and the nascent Moral Majority.

The genius of the Paul Weyrich was to find the issue that took these three regional movements and organized them to a common political purpose. As Balmer relates

“The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition,” Weyrich wrote in the mid-1970s. “When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.” Weyrich believed that the political possibilities of such a coalition were unlimited. “The leadership, moral philosophy, and workable vehicle are at hand just waiting to be blended and activated,” he wrote. “If the moral majority acts, results could well exceed our wildest dreams.”

This new movement would indeed become powerful, but not all at once. It’s politics grew not only from political strategy but for a host of cultural reasons. It was the long march of a generation, a topic for the next time.


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