Tag: christianity

No One Likes Orthodoxy

I’m thinking a lot right now about (small-o) orthodoxy and creedal Christianity. Perhaps it has always been this way, but it seems a like orthodoxy — real orthodoxy (i.e., affirming the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds to the fullest possible extent) — is out of fashion. Not just with the progressive branch of American Christianity either. I mean across the board.

Today I listened to last week’s Holy Post podcast where Skye Jethani interviewed Russell Moore, the president of the ERLC within the Southern Baptist Convention. When asked what he thought posed the biggest threat to the gospel in America right now, without hesitation, he said “useful Christianity.” In other words, means-to-an-end Christianity. Christianity adhered to for political and cultural power.

Without a doubt, he was speaking to his own camp. We just witnessed plenty of this nonsense over the last (at least) four years with the rise of Donald Trump and the consistent support of Trumpism within the Republican party by those who identify as Evangelicals. Moore was speaking to and about his own camp, calling out error in his own theological family.

But the truth is, this is a problem everywhere. It’s the same exact problem on the American theological left, where we cannot imagine a scenario where Christianity might mean more than social justice. Social justice certainly must be an outworking of Christian faith.. But we on the progressive side (I’d consider myself a blue-ish purple if I had to name it) are hesitant to affirm theological truth that butts up against our scientific and progressive and modern sensibilities. We’re also hesitant to affirm the parts of Scripture and tradition that make us squeamish because of the modern moral compass we have been handed.

This is what I mean when I say I’m thinking about orthodoxy. It’s not fun for anyone. No one likes the implications of it. Following Christ is either too hard for our brains, or it’s too hard for our hearts.

Perhaps we need a renewal. Or, dare I say, a REVIVAL — of a new people, ready to believe what it is that the Master Jesus says, and also DO what that might require of us.

That’s awful Pentecostal of me, and a little bit scary for me to write.

Repentance Means We Are Wrong

I’ve been reflecting recently on a simple question:

Is it possible — or perhaps probable — that Christianity can require something of us that *goes against* our personal moral inclinations?

Perhaps this is too simple of a question. On its face, I think most people would say “Yes.” I.e., Christianity requires us to *change* in some way. Beginning to follow Jesus means that I need to change my current course of action in some way. It almost seems like a silly question to ask.

But I want to dig deeper on this, because I don’t think we often appreciate the reality of this question.

From the time we are born, we are inculcated into a way of living. And within that way of living, we are given a moral compass. It’s probable that this moral compass is acquired from multiple, somewhat unknowable sources. But it stands to reason that these sources would include culture and socialization, ancient philosophy and religion, reason, emotion, political and ideological commitments, geography, and baseline biological instincts. There are probably more that I am missing. This is true for nearly all human beings (barring those experiencing mental illness that prevents them from making moral judgments). In other words, we all have a sense of what actions are “right” and “wrong.” Some of us believe killing animals is morally acceptable. Some of us believe responding to violence with defensive violence is morally right. Some of us believe sexual relationships belong to married, heterosexual couples, while others of us disagree.

Therefore, it stands to reason that prior to submitting to faith in Jesus or a decision to follow Jesus, we have a pre-built sense of “right” and “wrong.” In other words, we have a moral compass. And that moral compass, for the most part is strong. If I believe killing another human being is wrong, it’s likely that I have a strong belief that this is so, and that I ought to never do such a thing.

Now, perhaps there are lesser moral inclinations that are harder to follow. For example, maybe I “know” that I should not yell at my children, but I do so anyway (I clearly have no experience with this). I may have given myself some kind of permission in my head to do this, but will probably feel remorse afterward, and (hopefully) attempt to not do so again in the future.

I want to focus in here on the stronger moral inclinations — the things that we have an unshakeable inclination are right or wrong, and are almost impossible to change our views on.

I might argue that Jesus’ primary call (the call that overarches the ethics to which he calls all humans) is the simple line: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

Why would he issue such a demand unless he is requiring something of us that goes against our moral inclinations?

Let’s look at it another way:

1. We all have a sense of right and wrong.
2. We have no choice but to (at least attempt to) line up our lives with that moral sense.
3. Therefore, the way we live our lives (usually) lines up with the moral duty we feel (especially for *strong* moral inclinations).

If Jesus requires us to “repent,” doesn’t this mean that he is asking us to deny at least some of the strong moral inclinations that we feel? Repentance means a “turning away” coupled with a “turning towards.” He recognizes that we are living our lives in a certain way, by inherited moral standards, and expects that we will reject those standards in favor of a different standard (informed by what the world would look like if we lived as if God was “king”).

If we make the decision to follow Jesus, and submit to the requirements of living under the purview of the Kingdom of God, we need to grapple with this problem: what moral standards do our culture and upbringing and natural reason give to us that are incompatible with the following of Jesus?

Power, Politics, and Faith

I have a running theory that political ideologies are always at odds with the Christian faith. In other words, political ideologies are always attempting to displace loyalty to any other forms of faith. Especially religious faith, and even more especially orthodox Christianity.

But let’s put this more simply by way of practical examples.

Let’s say I’m a moderately liberal Democrat in the US in the 21st century. This might mean that I hold to certain policy positions such as:

  • We should expand healthcare to as may people as possible, especially those in financial need
  • We should implement a carbon tax and other policies that reduce carbon emissions in order to help mitigate climate change
  • We should support a woman’s right to choose an abortion and provide the means by which to obtain an abortion
  • We should provide the opportunity of a quality education (including and up to higher education) to all US residents
  • We should require more oversight of police authorities – especially as it relates to the use of force on US residents – and adequately fund other means of community protection and care (mental health workers, social workers, etc.)

These are just a few examples, but you get the picture. I could have done the same thing for someone who identifies as a libertarian, a moderate Republican, or a democratic socialist.

If we’re trying to see why a political ideology like this or any other is at odds with the Christian faith, we have to ask two questions:

  1. Are these policies in accordance with, opposed to, or neutral towards the Christian faith? (and a secondary question to this might be – how would we know where these policies stand in relation to orthodoxy? hint: we’d first need to know what is required of us if we call ourselves “Christian”)
  2. What are the means by which these policies be implemented? In other words, is the how we pursue implementing these policies in accordance with, opposed to, or neutral towards the Christian faith?

Question two, I think, may get at my point more deeply than question one. That’s not to say that question one is unimportant. On the contrary, it could be argued that the in history of US politics, the focus has been on some version question one. E.g., what policies should we implement, and do these policies help make a more just and equitable society that supports the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The reason that question two is more important is a Kierkegaardian stance. His concern is less about the content of faith (perhaps because of the time and place in which he lived) and more about the “how” of Christian faith. What is our relation to the things we believe? Do we hold those beliefs abstractly in objectively (in our heads)? Or do we actively and subjectively attempt to live in the implications of our beliefs?

This is why political ideologies are at odds with the Christian faith. There are no political affiliations I know of that do not attempt to implement policies via power. It may be authoritarian power or democratic power, but it is power nonetheless. To implement societal change – new laws or ordinances, abolishing old laws, etc. – power is required.

Not so with Christianity. In fact, I think it is arguable that attempting to follow the way of Jesus is to relinquish the right to use power to effect change. Rather than use power, the Christian way to effect communal (and yes, even societal) change ought to be what humans often think of as weak and foolish. That is: faith, hope, charity, and forgiveness.

Political ideologies, regardless of their content, are always attempting to displace Christian faith and practice. One attempts to change the world via power and policy. The other attempts to change the world via love and forgiveness.

The question is, which one do we have the courage and faith to align our lives with?

More on Catechesis/Discipleship

I received some good thoughts from a friend in response to my last post.

First, he noted that one of the difficulties of counter-catechesis in American life is that American spheres of formation often have a perceivable endpoint. For politics, we can vote. For capitalism, we can consume. For patriotism, we can support/serve.

Second, he briefly mentioned the difficulty of the Benedict Option — particularly, that it is often seen as a version of escape and the relinquishing of influence in our communities.

American Catechesis

To the first response, I understand and agree, to a point. Old-school systematic catechism also perceived (and perceives?) an endpoint. My first memories of church, before we scooted over to the charismatic/Pentecostal traditions, are from St. Luke-Simpson UMC in Lake Charles, LA. I can specifically recall some of the older children starting to go through catechism, and before we moved to the charismatic church a few miles away, I assumed I’d go through the UMC catechism too (and was excited about that!).

But the whole point of that catechism was for confirmation within the church. After those classes, one becomes a full-fledged member of that local body, and of the United Methodist Church.

There was no such system, as far as I was aware, in any of the following churches we attended. Most of them were charismatic or Pentecostal, but all of them focused on inner, experiential change with a focus on right belief. That focus rarely came with systematic teaching or discipleship. Instead, it was simply assumed that serious members of the church attended Sunday school and services on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. Adolescents attended youth group. Children attended “kids’ church” — but to my recollection, there was no systematic basis for teaching the tenets of the faith.

Here is where the difficulty comes in. On one hand, the Evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic mix of traditions I grew up in recognized something essential. That is, spiritual growth is relational and ongoing. Confirmation/catechism can, in some cases, miss this point. The danger is that it can assume completion of catechism and baptism or communion are the “final steps” of the process. Then, spiritual growth (or discipleship, or sanctification, or whatever your tradition calls it) is stunted. This leaves a gap in the formation of character, which can be filled by some of those spheres mentioned above (politics, consumerism, individualism, patriotism, etc.).

So, in one sense, the Evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic traditions get it right. There is little desire for a systematic catechesis because of a fear that it seems like there is no more to do after it’s complete.

On the other hand, my assessment is that the traditions without a systematic catechism have done very little to replace it with a robust alternative. Instead, we have relied on emotional appeals and a heavy emphasis on personal devotion in the form of “quiet time.” (To clarify, I don’t think we ought to divorce spirituality from personal devotion or emotion — those can be important parts of spiritual growth.)

What, then, are we left with? Christians without a deep foundation of theological and creedal understanding. And again, what fills in these theological gaps? The spheres of politics, patriotism, and consumerism. And in some sense, we could argue this is even more dangerous. Because when this happens, those spheres distort the emotions and the personal devotion of the Christian, and it becomes really easy to conflate American ways of life or political commitments with what Jesus seems to ask of his followers.

So maybe what I’m talking about is two-fold. For those churches that already offer a systematic catechism, we need a more robust and continual discipleship which continues to form the character and worldview of its members. For those without a systematic foundation in Christian theology and thought, we ought to start providing a catechesis based on the creeds.

I still think my initial point in the first post is true — we need a strong catechesis, coupled with a continual discipleship.

What I’m not sure about is how many people will actually be willing to give their time to this. It’s much, much easier to continue to adhere to the systems in which we have already been catechized. The pull of American politics, consumerism, individualism, and the like are strong. Maybe that’s why Kierkegaard was so stringent about the fact that the mob is untruth.

The Benedict Option

I was going to respond to my friend’s concerns about the BenOp here, but I’ll leave that for next time. This post already got a little longer than I anticipated.

“Back Row America”

I’m so glad to see a new book coming out by Chris Arnade, whom I haven’t seen online in at least a couple of years. Right around when Trump was elected was when I discovered him, and that was also pretty close to the time that he took a break from online life. I can see why he did so now.

His reflections on rural, poor communities are unique because of his own professional background. Before traveling around America to photograph and document the lives of those whom American culture has deemed “back row,” he was a trader on Wall Street.

Here’s an excerpt on First Things from his upcoming book, Dignity: Seek Respect in Back Row America:

With a great job and a great apartment in a great neighborhood, it is easy to feel we have nothing for which we need to be absolved. The fundamental fallibility of humans seems outdated, distant. It’s not hard to imagine that you have everything under control.

On the streets, few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that we don’t and never will have this under control. It is far easier to see religion not just as useful, but as true.

Forsaking Christianity for the “Greater Good”

3:16: How would you summarize Kierkegaard’s Socratic point of view?

PM: I think that Kierkegaard saw himself as trying to help the citizens of nineteenth-century Copenhagen in much the same way as Socrates had helped the citizens of fifth-century Athens. He seems to have aimed his writings at a particular group of people who, under the illusion that they were leading Christian lives, had to be addressed in a specific manner so that they might overcome this illusion and change their lives accordingly. But while Kierkegaard held a lifelong interest in Socrates and selected his life as a model for his own, he also sometimes worried that relating to others as Socrates did might be incompatible with living an authentic Christian life. He worried that in playing the role of philosophical midwife for his fellow citizens, he himself might be sidestepping difficulties that every Christian must personally confront. If the Christian is to model his or her life after the life of Christ, then, Kierkegaard thought, doing this will include being open about the sort of life one is trying to live regardless of what others might think. In fact, he thought Christians should expect the world to reject what they believe (to find Christian beliefs absurd or ludicrous or perhaps even blasphemous) and, in many cases, to persecute them accordingly. Yet, in order to play the part of Socrates, he would sometimes have to be personally elusive, employing various forms of indirection to shine a light on others’ lives while keeping his own life an enigma. Withholding or concealing oneself is thus sometimes a Socratic requirement, while revealing or disclosing oneself seems to be an essential feature of an authentic Christian life. So I think Kierkegaard sometimes felt a tension within himself, between a Socratic part of his nature and that part of him that placed his trust in Christ.

From the “Pursuing Kierkegaard” interview with Paul Muench on 3:16 AM, emphasis added

I am no Kierkegaard, and no “philosopher” (If by philosopher we mean some genius with academic and perhaps cultural clout, which is often how we use the term — wrongly. But I digress.). But I have sometimes wondered whether my own desires — to “be” a philosopher or a theologian, to be a teacher, to write and to think and to be someone who does those kinds of things — are actually just a way for me to avoid the difficult, internal work of what it means to “become a Christian” (as Kierkegaard would say). Kierkegaard was truly brilliant, but I think he struggled with this in ways that I get but can never fully comprehend. It’s almost as if he forsook his personal religious conviction in order to bring to light the peculiar religious situation of nineteenth-century Denmark. It’s a remarkable way to live, and a remarkable choice to make.

Alan Jacobs on Technocracy

Their great fear is that, if the war is won by technological prowess, then why shouldn’t the technocrats who won the war be given the task of rebuilding society after the war? And this is what all the figures in the book were afraid of — that the winning of the war would actually inaugurate a technocracy that would be extremely difficult to displace from its throne. And they were exactly right. That’s what we got. If they wanted to prevent that from happening, they started too late. The technocracy was already largely in place, and as soon as the major American universities — and Harvard is the signal case here, under James Bryant Conant — explicitly put themselves in service to what Eisenhower would later call the “military-industrial complex,” then technocracy had a death-grip on our social order.

“Christianity and Resistance – An Interview with Alan Jacobs”

The question for us, post-technocracy, is: how ought we resist technocracy as all-consuming, and is that even possible?

All Descartes Can Give Us is Despair

In his history of philosophy, Frederick Copleston seeks to defend Descartes’s legacy against those who would argue that his methodical doubt is just an abstract attempt to arrive at certain knowledge. He writes:

The Cogito, ergo sum is therefore the indubitable truth on which Descartes proposes to found his philosophy… It is the first and most certain existential judgmenet. Descartes does not propose to build his philosophy on an abstract logical principle. In spite of anything which some critics may have said, his concern is not simply with essences or with possibilities: he is concerned with the existing reality, and his primary principle is an existential proposition.

A History of Philosophy IV, 93

Copleston’s (and by extension, Descartes’s) problem, however, is twofold. First, Descartes objectified existence, so that even if he built his philosophy and his understanding of the nature of reality and God and knowledge on an “existential principle,” he abstracted himself away from the reality of that existential principle. This very fact, the foundation of his thought (methodical, relentless doubt) led him away from subjectivity, which, for Kierkegaard is truth. For Descartes, his own existential reality may have served as the foundation for the rest of his philosophical enterprise, but (like God himself) existence was no more than a pragmatic detail, an afterthought to objectified, rationalized knowledge. (In fact, Descartes himself meant to write a moral philosophy, but never felt he was able to do so. Not surprising, given his obsession with method and abstracted knowledge.)

Second, I find it unlikely that anyone can proceed upon Descartes’s project without feeling some level of despair about the amount of certainty that one can obtain about the nature of reality, knowledge, and how we ought to act. Further, embarking upon such a project necessarily forces humans (if they are honest about where the project has led them) to infinitely regress into skepticism and either hedonism or despair. Lack of certainty about anything but our very existence (which is the only “accomplishment” the modern epistemological project provides) is the only outcome. Thus, Kierkegaard says we are met with the paradox of God (the infinite) in time and faith, the vehicle of a good human existence.

A Teleological Thesis

On its face, my thesis consists of exploring Kierkegaard’s models of epistemology and determining whether it would be a helpful model to appropriate in the present. I think it’s worth it for many reasons, especially because, as I’ve said previously, “Many of us spend more time building up mental frameworks to maintain our certainty that we are right and others are wrong than we do in living out our ethical and religious ideals we claim to believe.”

The deeper reason I’m focusing on Kierkegaard is because he’s helping me do what I mentioned in my recent post on teleological blogging. In other words, for something to be worth our time and energy and focus, we need to be able effectively answer two questions about that thing:

  1. What is this thing?
  2. What is this thing for?

My thesis is going to be a long-winded, academic treatment of the issue of religious epistemology, or what we can know about what we believe ethico-religiously. The questions I’ll end up asking (and attempting to answer) are (1) What is religious knowledge? and (2) What is religious knowledge for? I find the model of applying these two questions to a problem helpful, because it forces me to parse down the categories further, and helps me to think analytically and historically. For example, I cannot answer question 1 without first answering the question “What is knowledge?” in general. And then further, how do we justify the claim that we “know” something? What can we know with absolute certainty, and we can we only know approximately? And are those things that we “know” even knowable in those ways? Are there other types of knowledge (knowing “that” something is true vs. knowing “how” to do something)? How do we determine which things we say we “know” belong in which categories?

This is how my thesis gets built. Keep asking the questions until I get to a point of clarity. I cannot honestly say whether I’m even in complete agreement with Kierkegaard. He offers what I think is an extremely useful model through his Johannes Climacus literature, and I hope that it helps me to clarify my own thinking. But even more than that, I hope that it helps me to live my life in a truer way than I did before, and that he serves as a guide for living a more faithful, Christian life.

Why We Need Kierkegaard

I obviously have some sense that Kierkegaard’s whole project, especially as it relates to ethico-religious epistemology, is something that needs to be explored. But the real question I think most people have when I tell them about what I’m writing on is why? Why does some relatively obscure (to people outside of academia) philosopher from Denmark in the 19th century have anything to say to us? What hath Christian existentialism to do with modern American Christianity?

I think the short answer boils down to this: we are obsessed with finding the right answer to our ethical and religious questions, and with objectively knowing that the we know with certainty that how we are acting and what we believe is “right.” We are so obsessed, in fact, that many of us spend more time building up mental frameworks to maintain our certainty that we are right and others are wrong than we do in living out our ethical and religious ideals we claim to believe.

Many of us American Christians grew up in faith traditions that placed heavy emphasis on believing the right things (that Jesus died for our sins). Those faith traditions told us that doing so was the guarantee of our salvation. The paradigmatic Bible passage here was Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This, most of us were told, meant that mental assent to this historical claim was sufficient for our salvation. So those of us who believed this particular claim (Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected by God) were saved. And our time needed to be spent doing two things:

  1. Convincing other people that the claim was true, in order that they may also be saved.
  2. Building up apologetic frameworks that helped us to remain convinced that what we believed was true. (In the age of science and information, that particular claim is a difficult one to defend, both rationally and with historical or natural evidence.)

Kierkegaard never argued that there was no objectively right way to live or objectively correct religious framework — that was not his concern at all (he didn’t have that concern, partially because he didn’t face globalism and religious pluralism the way we face it today). His concern was that the objectification of faith claims like Jesus’ death for the sins of humanity and his subsequent resurrection robs the claim of its existential force. In other words, the more time we spend abstractly reflecting upon the historical truth of that claim, the easier it is for us to not live in relation to that claim, to not line up our lives with what that claim entails for our lives.

This was the problem with modernity that Kierkegaard was trying to combat. He saw in the epistemological frameworks of those modern philosophers that came before him, and his contemporaries (Descartes, Hume, Kant, and especially Hegel), the human tendency for objectifying faith claims in order that we could ignore the ramifications in our own singular, individual lives.