Openness is a form of vulnerability. Openness to question, openness to explore, openness to reach bold conclusions and overturn tradition: all the graybeard warnings about change are, to some extent, right. Openness and vulnerability are not necessarily good things, taken by themselves. In the Rialto Unified School District, somebody came up with a debate assignment on whether the Holocaust was real. Like as not, it was just a devil’s advocate argument taken in very, very poor taste. Nevertheless, it proves that even that today’s most ardent beliefs (hate, racism, and genocide are evil) are open to future questioning and skepticism. Though doubt is natural, openness to it is not uniformly virtuous, and can even be wicked. Continue reading Even the Holocaust is Open to Skeptical Manhandling
Society is no one. It is the no one who sits in judgment over an activist’s appeal. It is the nobody standing in support of a preacher’s morality. It is the no one who cares for and supports you in your personal growth. Of course, everyone together is society, and good society demands good people to make it up. Society is so much a little bit of everyone that it is very little of anyone and is a dry reed ready to splinter and stab anyone who leans on it for support. And yet, society is something.
If everyone ditched trousers in favor of kilts, “but everyone’s doing it!” would be a meaningful appeal. Although traditional clothing can have deep and significant meaning, monks with manuscripts are no match for punks with printers. Mindless manufacturing is efficient, so whatever the original pattern is, it wins. People just copy, and to a point, they don’t mean anything by it. Copying is a glandular function, not an intellectual one. When I look at pictures of old Mormon homesteaders, all I really see is a bunch of people dressed like pioneers with a surplus of wives. What everyone did covered all the bases the Mormons cared to clothe, but the ideas on the inside were what mattered, and it was for those ideas that the Mormons’ neighbors drove them out.
G. K. Chesterton said something about agreeing to live in peace with each other so we could settle the theology, and he rejected the notion of agreeing on the theology to support settling down to live together. For instance, I consider whether I have a girlfriend to be more lastingly meaningful to my spiritual life than whether women should be ordained, but I refuse to throw up my hands with a resigned “C’est la vie!” so I can get on with romance if society judges one way or the other about women’s ordination. Society says do this and do that. Society thinks this and that. Society has the intellectual depth of a bowl of dog sweat.
Now for a gay marriage reference. If gay marriage supporters say society supports them and it does not, they are liars. If gay marriage supporters say society supports them and it does, they nevertheless commit themselves to perpetual evangelism because opinions come in and out of style just as much as they think they do. If they win the externals without the conversions of hearts and minds, they are going to lose. In the push for gay marriage, as in any other thing in society, there is an A Team of thinkers somewhere doing the intellectual heavy lifting. When they die out, others will come after to continue the push, but good leaders do not keep the mob going so much as they fashion individuals out of the proletarian dust, breathing life into their hearts and minds.
I think that everyone should think the same things that I think. Even if their ways of thinking are different, they should reach the same conclusions and arrange them in the same places that I do. If I have not thought about something, I should hardly dare to call anyone to agree with my position on it. If I am wrong about something, I should hardly dare to surrender when we change the subject and I am right about the new topic. How is it possible for me to demand agreement from others while still calling upon them to do their own thinking? How can I believe in agreement, which builds society, if society is no one? The individual, the lone man or woman, has free will. Society only has momentum.
There are, from time to time, individuals who incarnate their societies’ values and interests. Kings, priests, prophets, scholars, poets, philosophers, entertainers: they live differently than all their family and friends, but they are accepted as part of society, even essential members worth the sacrifice of many lives of ordinary people. The Church has its own catalogue of exemplary people, and in some Christian traditions, they are the Saints. You know, with the capital S. Saints achieve in their lifetimes the reality toward which the Church is struggling and striving, that being union with God and the active revelation of him in every aspect of their lives. Not everyone gets to be a capital S Saint and painted into icons (or for evangelicals, have books and movies made about them), but everyone does get to choose who they will imitate. What is more, they have the choice to imitate a way of life or just drift with the dispassionate tides. Tides care about nothing. Saints care about the smallest things. Free will exists, but my free will and yours are not the only two in existence.
Call it God, call it powers and authorities in the heavenly realms, call it your mother in law’s dead hand strangling you from beyond the grave: all of these wills are working on you. References to society as some sort of authority are like references to a rickety canoe as some sort of stability. That canoe keeps us out of the water, but currents and cataracts work no matter how much we argue about where and how we should go. Society is no one, and we have free will. Society is everyone, and we have duties. “Society says” is a “shut up, stupid” against disagreement and forms a poor argument and even worse proof for anything. Society demands named individuals to stand up and be counted as examples and authorities to be cited. Society demands that something other than society should speak, because society has no will. Society has only momentum. Society is no one.
C. S. Lewis is dead and we need a new one, someone who can articulate a smart mere Christianity, not just a vague pan-Christianity. We need someone with imagination and intelligence, uniting the visible with the invisible, helping people accept the unseeable God behind the tangible world and like what they have received. Surely, someone must rise to the challenge. Wherever that person is, whatever he or she is doing, I bet I know what it feels like to be the next C. S. Lewis. Continue reading How Does It Feel to Be the Next C. S. Lewis?
Lark News truly is evangelicalism’s finest news source. It is like an onion, with many layers to its journalistic excellence. I recently discovered it after a friend on Facebook linked to an article about a church cutting non-essential members who do not give and do not volunteer. Every article carries hard truth that speakers and writers might either be afraid to address directly or that they might not address tactfully and effectively. They address issues like how churches treat youth pastors, the quality of Christian radio, and evangelical withdrawal from American society.
Satire done well is a beautiful, beautiful thing, and Lark News plays it straight. The great thing about satire is that being quick to get the point makes readers look silly. I am used to The Onion, which is a satirical treatment of general news, and I sometimes figure that others will catch satire when they see it. However, Lark News is good enough that I have seen people get taken in by what they do, much like foreign newspapers mistake The Onion for real news. Satire does not call the reader to be quick enough to jump on a bandwagon but rather to be slow enough to watch where it is going. There might be a fine point to a bit of satire: “You’re right, but you’re doing it wrong!” There might be a grand and sweeping attack: “This whole thing is wrong! Get rid of it!” It is regularly shocking, demonstrating how the abuse of a good idea or the use of a bad idea becomes horrible and absurd. It shows rather than tells.
Lark News forces Christians to reexamine issues that they might not otherwise consider. The articles that I have seen so far attack self-righteousness and legalism, the adoption of business methods into church practices, and unrealistic expectations put upon pastors. One article features a couple who not only practiced abstinence during their courtship but also carried it two years into their marriage. For another, the title says everything: “Church franchise a hit, but hostile take-overs rattle congregations“. Yet another describes how a church completely lost faith in their pastor’s competence as a religious leader after he opened a Twitter account. Even when harmful church practices receive intelligent and sympathetic criticism, they do not always change. Satire offers another way to say the same thing again but in a way that does not only pass through the head.
When people laugh at themselves and come to realizations on their own, changes in personal character are more permanent than when people are ambushed with a sermon. Writing good satire is like parkour for the mind. It takes a bit of flexibility to understand, but to write it requires leaps and twists connecting things that do not belong together in the same path. Sermons are pretty great, but they are easy to make, and even when they are poorly composed, there is no great loss. Poorly written satire, however, comes off as childish or bitter mocking and reduces the likelihood that readers will give an author a second chance. It is good to see someone out there having a go at the ridiculous points in evangelicalism but doing so skillfully, leaving something left for compassion to work on when the whips and scorpions of satire are done. There is much to love in evangelicalism, so it is encouraging to see someone who cares enough to run it through the satirical wringer.
Christianity does not exist apart from being expressed in specific people at specific times. There is no version of Christianity so “above” culture that it can be pulled down and plugged into a new setting without adapters. With that, mixing and matching Christian teachings and traditions is very healthy for the life of any given denomination or tradition. Investigating other Christian traditions gives a good idea of the essence of “mere” Christianity, saves theologians from intellectual inbreeding, and restores atrophied parts of a Christian’s own tradition. Continue reading Mixing and Matching: Do It for Your Own Good, Not for Mine
Last week I wrote a post about doctrines that people feel to be wrong, and I included non-denominational churches as an example of something that I did not feel right about. A reader indicated that I took a very broad swipe at non-denominationalism and that my language was unduly harsh. I agree with that reader’s assessment. I wish to apologize for the unfairly general attack that I made on non-denominational Christianity and more carefully give my views on non-denominationalism and its relationship to theological tradition. Continue reading On Non-denominationalism and Tradition
When universalists look at the idea of people going to hell, they often have an emotional reaction. The idea of people going to hell ought to provoke an emotional reaction, and the number of missions agencies and the fact that people continue to join them and support them shows just what people are willing to do as they respond to that reaction. The universalists, rather than increase their missionary support and go to the mission field, decide instead that eternal damnation is not true. Universalists’ feelings are not wrong, but their doctrine is. Even so, what if a doctrine feels wrong? Does that indicate anything? Continue reading What if a Doctrine Feels Wrong?
When I first started hearing about the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, I did not know what to think. It was one more story for news vultures to pick over, one more thing for Facebook friends to post links about, and one more reason for me to be glad that I do not own a television. Never mind George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence of murder, the anger surrounding the trial runs deeper than the death of one black teenager. In response, I moved The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz up on my reading list to understand what people are so angry about. Continue reading Trayvon Martin Was Only One: Review of The Collapse of American Criminal Justice
Spiritual warfare is hardly a neat war between the uniformed armies of equal countries, snapping up this bit of land with all those nice mines and factories in it or grabbing up that lucrative trade route. Spiritual warfare is guerrilla warfare. Satan is in a rebellion against God, so he can hardly sign a peace treaty and must fight to the bitter end, with dire consequences for humanity. Although we are bound up in an irregular war that defies neat solutions, although Christians are on the legitimate side and have to follow rules that the enemy does not, and although the smallest failure is a setback for the kingdom of God, Christians are free to pursue unconventional solutions, rely upon power that the enemy will never have, and the smallest victory is a step forward for the kingdom of God. Continue reading Spiritual Warfare is Guerrilla Warfare
There is not really a “beyond” in Christian theology, given that everything that we learn in Sunday school is still true when systematic theology rears its dogmatic head. It is impossible to transcend the basics. Although there is a “mere Christianity” that all Christians hold in common, it is possible, nay, desirable to elaborate upon what we believe and develop smart Christianity. The question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only or from the Father and the Son together was one issue at stake in the East-West Schism of 1054. The Pope’s decision to tack “and from the Son” onto the end of “proceeds from the Father” in the Nicene Creed spiritually means something. The theology that we believe goes into the kind of people that we become. As learned Christians elaborate upon “mere” Christianity, they are not merely playing a game for bookworms.
In The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky states,
If even now a political doctrine professed by the members of a party can so fashion their mentality as to produce a type of man distinguishable from other men by certain moral or psychical marks, a fortiori religious dogma succeeds in transforming the very souls of those who confess it. They are men different from other men, from those who have been formed by another dogmatic conception.
As Christians examine TULIP, papal supremacy, Arminian soteriology, and weigh the views of Christ’s divine-human composition, they make decisions about what kinds of people they are becoming. Belief Two builds upon Belief One, and believing that subtle distinctions in theology are just Star Trek vs. Star Wars arguments for nerds is in itself a Belief One that supports a Belief Two. What Christians do with people who disagree with them is in itself a spiritual decision. From the lady adding and subtracting dollars in the supermarket to the nuclear physicist playing with imaginary numbers in a top secret lab, while simple math is enough for practical matters, anyone looking at an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in an exhibition lit by nuclear power knows that advanced math is also enough for practical matters.
Mere Christianity is powerful stuff. It helps Protestant and Catholic missionaries cooperate on the mission field to serve people with physical needs and leads Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox Christians to dig for their common roots. Even so, it is not an iron to press flat the various folds following the Good Shepherd. Transubstantiation is not just a funky Catholic idea, and the five Protestant “solas” as an expression of basic Christianity are not practically the same thing as the decisions handed down by the Council of Trent. Protestants and Catholics agreed in many areas as they reformed abuses in the Church, but Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries revealed a Protestant fresh perspective on the sanctity of Church property. If I am an ecclesiological pluralist, it is as a pragmatic maneuver to keep peace with people who love God. Because I believe that Calvinism is wrong, I argue against it when it comes up in conversation, but I have enjoyed fellowship in Reformed churches because they possessed enormous stocks of mere Christianity.
When I find myself debating with Calvinists, I make better progress with them than when I chat with agnostics. My disagreements with atheists and agnostics are actually flat and uninteresting compared to my disputes with Calvinists because of the extent to which we agree. Arguments within the game of Monopoly are far more heated than discussions of whether the game is worth playing. When we quote St. Augustine as saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” it is with the point of letting each other live long enough to make good progress in studying and obeying the truth. Even non-essentials matter, but we also believe that charity is true. Getting into advanced theology matters quite a bit, so when you have to let go of a position, be sure to do so as letting go of a lower rung to grasp a higher.