cjbanning: (The Bishop)
Ross Douthat’s Wednesday New York Times column this week was “Christians in the Hands of Donald Trump,” which examines the future role of Christian conservativism in an America where 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. (Lord, have mercy.) Douthat draws heavily (and expectedly) on Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, which argues for a Christan partial withdrawal from society to accomplish a renewal and redefinition of vision, to examine what it means to be Church in a society all too often hostile to the message of Jesus Christ.

Douthat's entire column is worth reading (as Douthat usually is), but I was most interested in the passage when Douthat briefly addressed progressive Christians:

The basic model [of the Benedict Option] could be applied just as easily to non-Christian faiths, and it could be embraced by the progressive Christians who find Dreher’s vision — and [ Philadelphia Archbishop Charles] Chaput’s, and [Providence College English professor Anthony] Esolen’s, and [Southern Baptist Convention president] Russell Moore’s — too dogmatic and rigid and anti-modern.

Being a bit of a dogmatist myself, I’m skeptical that a robust institutional Christianity can be built on the premises of contemporary liberal theology and the cultural shifts that it accommodates. But that’s all the more reason for liberal Christians to set out to prove the conservatives wrong, to show that monasteries and missionaries can come forth from progressive fields, to effectively out-Benedict Option the reactionaries and force us to concede that we misjudged them.

In doing so they wouldn’t be abandoning political engagement, but they would be laying a foundation for faith’s endurance when political activism fails. As fail it so often does, as both progressive and conservative Christians have learned at different times across the last few decades — and may soon learn again.


Even given the rise of Donald J. Trump, I simply don't see a long-term future for "conservative Christianity" as it exists in America (anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ) other than death or, more likely, marginalization (think the Amish)--in many ways the very marginalization that Dreher is encouraging conservative Christians to at least partly embrace. I think most Christian institutions will either eventually adapt (albeit some more slowly than others) to the recognition of homophobia and transphobia as real moral evils, as they have (mostly) with racism and slavery, or else wither away.

But in an era of declining religiosity overall, progressive Christianity's future is hardly certain either. I'm more optimistic about our chances than Douthat, who I think doesn't really understand progressive Christianity or what motivates us. Progressive Christianity is not, as Douthat thinks, about simply accommpdating the cultural shifts of liberalism, but instead engaging them with both faith and humility, critiquing them even as we allow ourselves to be critiqued, following the example of the Holy Trinity which exists Godself in a dynamic, perichoretic dialectic of conversation. But church attendance among the more liberal, mainline denominations has been declining, most of our church buildings are emptying and/or closing, and it's important not to minimize the challenges which we face.

But we progressive Christians know that it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, that there is a part of Christianity--the core, we progressive Christians believe, the message and Good News of Jesus Christ--which is very much worth saving. There is something which the Church has to offer America, and the planet, which secular liberalism simply cannot. We are, after all, the light of the world.

I'm already on record as agreeing with Douthat that there's very much a need for a progressive version of the Benedict Option. I've said as much before, on Twitter and elsewhere. We need to embrace what is distinctive about progressive Christianity--not only when compared against conservative versions of our faith, but against the world at large--and live it fully and enthusiastically. We need to be willing to take risks and move beyond that which is comfortable.

Now, I've found most progressive Christians--including progressive Roman Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants (and including most of the Christians of any tradition reading this, most likely)--already understand that our movement IS supposed to be countercultural, that we stand against structural forces of evil and embedded systems of social sin, ranging from poverty and war to homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, classism, and so forth. And obviously political activism is an integral element of that part of our progressive Christian faith, but we also need to be prepared to wander in the wilderness, to be rejected by a society insistent on trying to make us choose between the hateful nativism and social conservatism bent on controlling bodies practiced by our conservative co-believers on the one hand, and an aggressively Godless secularism on the other which denies that religion has any proper place at all in a liberal society or an enlightened age.

Is America a "post-Christian nation"? Well, I suspect that very few atheists would agree with Dreher on that assessment. But it's really a meaningless question, because there ultimately are at least as many definitions of "Christian" as there are Christians ourselves. I do know this, though: America is full of people who are desperately in need of the liberating love of Jesus Christ, who need to be told that the Church of Jesus welcomes them. David Brooks is right that "most Americans [. . .] are spiritually hungry and open to religious conversation." As the progressive Church, we need to initiate those conversations.

As progressive Christians, we are called to be the hands and feet and eyes of our Lord Jesus Christ on this planet Earth, which means being persecuted for Jesus' sake as we seek justice. We are called to speak with prophetic voices and witness, which means frequently being unwelcomed in our own lands, our own communities, sometimes even among our own families and friends. We are called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God; that, in a verse, is what a "progressive Benedict Option" means to me.

But the most important thing is that, even with Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, even with a Republican-controlled Congress, even with our own co-believers seeking to enshrine in the law the right to discriminate against our sisters and brothers and siblings under the guise of "religious liberty," we must not despair. I firmly believe that we progressive Christians have history on our side, but far more importantly, we have the Holy Trinity as well.
cjbanning: (Default)
On November 8, 2016--the night Donald J. Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States despite losing the popular vote by a record number of votes--New York Times columnist Ross Douthat posted the following tweet:
This is apiece with many similar statements Douthat has made over the last year or so, responding in part to Francis Fukuyama's opus The End of History but also much more directly to the progressive and social liberal use of the famous line of uncertain attribution, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." For perhaps understandable reasons coming from a social conservative, Douthat objects to this sentiment, and those objections have served as a constant refrain within his columns, blog posts, and tweets. Two representative columns are The Case for Old Ideas and The Myth of Cosmopolitanism. I suspect there are blog posts which made the argument even more directly and concisely, but they fail to come up in a quick Google search.

In Checking Charlie Hebdo’s Privilege, Douthat argued that "Rather than a clear arc, [history] offers what T. S. Eliot called 'many cunning passages' — in which persecutors and persecuted can trade places, and even the well-meaning can lose their way entirely." But surely this oversimplifies, if not willfully misunderstands, just what progressives mean when they invoke the arc of history thesis. The belief is not, and never has been, in what Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, in a sermon published in 1853, called the "continual and progressive triumph of the right" (i.e., "the right" as in the morally correct, not the political right):
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
But progressives who accept the arc of history thesis also agree with Parker that from what we can see we are sure the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. We don't require historical omniscience to be optimistic about the direction of human history.

One can understand the argument that the ascension of Donald J. Trump, first in the Republican primaries and then in his surprise victory on Election Night, somehow refutes the "arc of history" thesis. But such an argument actually seriously misunderstands the thesis it attempts to refute, refuting only a caricature in its place. To believe to be on the right side of history is not to believe that one's position is infallible in the short term, incapable of losing elections. After all, one of the fundamental tenets of the arc of history thesis is that the arc of the moral universe is indeed long--and is not a straight line, either.

Insofar as Douthat is simply reminding us that those who believe they are on the right side of history can in fact be mistaken, it is of course difficult to disagree with his corrective. But by repeatedly (despite his own Catholicism) effectively denying the directionality of history altogether, he implies that just because progressives could conceivably be wrong on any given issue, we ought to assume we are wrong on every issue, and concede the debate to the religious conservatives before it has even begun. It's as if Douthat thinks a belief in one's own side's objective correctness ought to be somehow reserved for conservatives alone. And by attacking the arc of history thesis itself, Douthat sidesteps having to engage with the actual content of progressive and left-liberal arguments, why it is exactly we believe our positions to be on the correct side of history and those of conservatives on the wrong side.

For me, my belief in the directionality of history is a fundamentally Christian belief; before my conversion to Christianity, I understood history as being chaotic and directionless, but such a belief no longer seems to me possible, being incompatible with the fullness of the Christian hope and promise. And as a Christian, my new belief in the directionality of history is rooted in Scripture, in particular the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom:
It was Wisdom who delivered a holy people, a blameless stock, from a nation of oppressors. She rewarded the labors of a holy people and guided them on a wondrous quest, becoming their shade by day and their starlight at night. And when these just people stood in victory over the godless, they sang of your glory, God our Deliverer, and in one voice praised your power and called you their champion--because Wisdom gave speech to those who could not speak and brought eloquence to the lips of infants. (10:15, 17-18, 20-21)
The above passage is part of a larger narrative, spanning the 10th through 12th chapters of the Book of Wisdom, which describe Wisdom's presence at crucial moments in the Biblical narrative, beginning with Adam and Eve. These are shown not as discrete divine (or quasi-divine) interventions, but part of a pattern of Wisdom leading and guiding the people of Israel through human history. By constructing this greater narrative of divine presence in history via Wisdom, the author of Wisdom is thus putting forth what I call a "theology of history": a speculative account of the significance and directive principle(s) intrinsic to human history from a position within a particular faith tradition. As Peter Enns notes in Wisdom of Solomon and Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period ("Ps-Solomon" refers to "Pseuodo-Solomon," i.e. the author of the Book of Wisdom writing pseudepigraphically as King Solomon):
In the light of Ps-Solomon’s clear purpose—giving encouragement to a people facing the possibility of death—one begins to see a possible motive behind not only his reference to death as an “exodus” in the opening chapters of the work, but also his choice of Israel’s exodus experience as one of the primary themes of chs. 10–19. Israel’s exodus, her passage from death to life, as it were, is presented by Ps-Solomon as the prime biblical portrait of what Wisdom is doing now in the lives of these persecuted Alexandrian Jews—in their own passage from death to life, their own exodus.
Simillarly, in the Gospel According to St. John, Jesus promises before his death to send humanity the Paraclete (another name for the Holy Spirit, meaning "Advocate") to "abide with us forever"--that is, throughout the entirety of human history (14:16). According to the Episcopal catechism, the Holy Spirit is revealed in the New Covenant "as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ."

In the Book of Revelation, St. John the Divine writes of a "millenium"--a period of time during which Christ reigns over the Earth. As a postmillenialist, I understand this to describe the current epoch of human history:
Postmillennialism holds that Jesus Christ establishes his kingdom on earth through his preaching and redemptive work in the first century and that he equips his church with the gospel, empowers her by the Spirit, and charges her with the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) to disciple all nations. Postmillennialism expects that eventually the vast majority of men [sic] living will be saved. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ's return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of men [sic] and of nations. After an extensive era of such conditions Jesus Christ will return visibly, bodily, and gloriously, to end history with the general resurrection and the final judgment after which the eternal order follows. [. . .] Postmillennialism also teaches that the forces of Satan will gradually be defeated by the expansion of the Kingdom of God throughout history up until the second coming of Christ.
So in a sense, I agree with Douthat that history's only arc is the one described in Revelation--but I believe the millenium (understand to figuratively describe a long period of time rather than a literal 1,000 years) to have already begun. Postmillenialists take very seriously the third petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven." The millenium is thus understood to be characterized by increasing peace and social justice--the arc of the moral universe bending towards Christ, the Prince of Peace--as the Kin-dom of Heaven is established (through the work of the Holy Spirit) upon the planet Earth. This understanding of history recognizes the power of human beings, when empowered by the amazing and unmerited gift of God's grace, to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.

Taking this Biblical understanding of history and synthesizing it alongside the great philosophers of history--Hegel, Marx, Kojève, Foucault, Kuhn, Fukuyama, et alii--yields the theology of history I tried to articulate in part in my essay, History and Christ. As I noted there, it is hardly an accident that Hegel also wrote of a "spirit"--geist--at work in human history. These philosophers helped to identify the dialectical mechanisms through which God is at work in human history. This is of course appropriate because the God of the Trinity is Godself dialectical: three hypostases in perichoretic conversation with one another. (The relational ontology of the Trinitarian relationship is of course prefigured by the relationship between YHWH and Wisdom in the Hebrew Wisdom literature.) To quote Karl Rahner, "the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity" (and I would add, is the social Trinity): God's work in history is a reflection of Who God Is.

Linear history can thus be said to have a progressive nature--i.e. the changes from era to era (scientific advances, evolving moral norms, new forms of polity) can be said to represent in the aggregate objective improvements in some sense, even if what we are not always able to articulate quite what that sense might be. (I suspect both Wittgenstein and his cousin Hayek--a beloved philosopher of the intellectual right--might be helpful there, but that's another subject for another post.) I do not, like Fukuyama, think that modern liberal democracy represents the end of history. But I do think it is the pinnacle of what we have achieved so far, and I certainly do not claim to know what comes after. I also--again pace Fukuyama--do not think the project of liberal democracy itself has yet come close to achieving perfection, as so many important civil rights and essential freedoms remain under attack by structural systems of sin and injustice.

I do, however, see the expansion of civil rights and social justice which I've have witnessed even in my own life as a, however incomplete and impartial, unfolding of the Kin-dom of Heaven. And since my political left-liberalism is grounded in my theological belief in the human dignity of all people as divine image-bearers, I bear no apology for understanding this theological unfolding in explicitly political terms.

Yet if this is the case, how do we explain President Trump? I will not spend time here making the Christian argument against Donald Trump, as that has been done adequately elsewhere, often by religious conservatives (and thus, obviously not every anti-Trump argument linked here is one I personally endorse, since I was and am unequivocally pro-Clinton and many of these . . . aren't, to say the least): Yet we can accept that Trumpism and Christianity are mutually incompatible and still believe that history is guided by the providential hand of God's Holy Wisdom. Believing that God is present in the historical dialectic does not mean that God personally and directly micromanages every historical event. Given the concupiscient nature of fallen humanity, there will be setbacks and backlashes. Humanity will collectively stumble and fall.

And while I believe that God is present in the overarching dialectic of human history, I also believe that God respects the free will of human beings created by God in God's own image, that our free will is the exceptional sign of that divine image within us. The belief that there is an arc to history, then, does not require an ignorance of, or a blindness to, that arc's many curlicues.

But this is no reason to abandon those central virtues which define the Christian vision: faith, hope, and love. After all, the fact that the Hebrews stopped to worship a golden calf did not mean that God's Wisdom was not leading them to the Promised Land of Canaan; the fact that we have stopped to elect Donald Trump POTUS does not mean that She is not still leading us today to the Kin-dom of Heaven.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, writing in the Huffington Post in 2013, put it eloquently:
The moral arc of the universe is about the transformation of that which “is” to that which “can and must be.” That includes the redemption of every single life, transformed with the vision of a more just and equal world; a vision that [Martin Luther] King[, Jr.] dreamed of and preached about 50 years ago this week. The most dangerous mistake we can make is to be blind to the continued injustice or assume that the moral arc of the universe moves towards justice on its own and that we are not a part of the bending. [. . .] Believing in the moral arc of the universe that King talked about is more than a faith statement — it is a hope statement — and many people have lost their hope. But we are meant to be used as instruments and with God’s assistant [sic] we can help bend the arc.
And thus, motivated by faith, hope, and love, I reject Ross Douthat's cynicism towards the arc of history, and say with Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of other Christians that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does bend towards justice. Alleluia, alleluia!

A Linkspam

Thursday, 9 June 2011 07:49 am
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
I have a few things I'd like to share, but don't really have enough to say about to justify a post for each on its own, so I'll compile them here:
  • Ross Douthat in the NYT: Dr. Kevorkian’s Victims and Suicide and Abortion. "If we allow that the right to die exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best." Of course, if one believes, as I do--and this has been my consistent position for as long as I can remember--that there exists a universal, positive right to take one's own life (just as I believe there exists a positive right to terminate one's own pregnancy), then the logic seems both obvious and not particularly problematic. Douthat recognizes much of this himself this morning with his blogpost What's Wrong with Suicide?: "The slippery slope that I discussed in the column doesn’t amount to much if you don’t disapprove at all of people deciding to take their own lives." I'd argue the right to suicide flows naturally and inevitably from the understandings of autonomy, self-determination, and human dignity which are foundational to liberal democracy (and as such, to progressive Christianity). As such, any religiously-motivated argument against suicide should of course be considered irrelevant to our public policy. But I also don't think the so-called "Christian" argument against suicide is as well-supported as most people seem to assume. Scripture seems to be largely silent on the issue, so far as I can tell. (Then again, I don't claim to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, so if I'm missing a particularly salient verse or set of verses, feel free to point it/them out to me.)
  • Sarah Posner writes at Religion Dispatches that The Problem with Ayn Rand Isn’t Atheism. I'd say that the problem isn't with atheism or atheists in general--to reject someone's policy insights because they don't believe in God would of course be foolish in the extreme. But at the same time, to treat Rand like a libertarian who just happens to be an a theist as well is to misunderstand both Ayn Rand's psychology and Objectivism as a system down to their respective cores. Just as Rand's hatreds of communism and of the Church shared many distinctive features, so do her rejections of altruism and of theism ultimately stem from the same poisoned well. Richard Beck at Experimental Theology asks a similar question with Can a Christian Be a Follower of Ayn Rand?
  • Dear Reese Witherspoon: All Girls Are ‘Good Girls.’ "If we are dedicated to promoting the collective power of girls and women, we cannot police their sexuality in an attempt to make girls 'good.'" Amen.
  • Mike King, in asking How has evangelism changed in the past two or three decades? puts forth what I think are two useful models of the ecclesiology/evangelism interaction: believe-behave-belong ("If we can just get people to believe the gospel, they will begin behaving properly, and eventually they can belong to our churches") and belong-behave-believe ("Evangelism happens quite naturally when we are entrenched in faith communities that are actively caught up in cooperating with God’s compelling work of restoration").
     

A Case for Hell?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011 09:19 pm
cjbanning: (Trinity)
I mostly agree with the argument that Ross Douthat puts forth in his New York Times editorial, A Case for Hell, with two major exceptions:

1. Douthat writes:
Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.
I'm not quite sure where this special license for atheists "to scoff at damnation" comes from. If there being a God but no hell denies "the reality of human choices" then how exactly does disbelieving in God solve the problem? It would seem that any account of the reality of human choices open to the atheist should also be open to the theist.

And demonstrably, there are accounts of the reality of human choices which are open to atheists (and, I would argue, to universalist theists). Atheists are not all--or even mostly, or even signficantly--the fatalistic nihilists that sometimes theists might paint them as. Even if they don't believe that the world has intrinsic meaning (and it's hardly automatic that they would so disbelieve), that doesn't mean that our lives as lived are meaningless. Douthat even makes a feint towards recognizing this en passant: "Hell means the Holocaust, the suffering in Haiti, and all the ordinary 'hellmouths' (in the novelist Norman Rush’s resonant phrase) that can open up beneath our feet." But he then retreats to the tired trope (particularly beloved of conservative Catholics) that meaning simply can't exist in the absence of a particular religious doctrine (here, hell).

As they say in Joss Whedon's television show Angel (in the episode "Epiphany"):
Angel: Well, I guess I kinda worked it out. If there's no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters... , then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause that's all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it.
Kate Lockley: And now you do?
Angel: Not all of it. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because, I don't think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there's no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
Kate Lockley: Yikes. It sounds like you've had an epiphany.
Angel: I keep saying that, but nobody's listening.
Or, to put it another way, just try telling the little children playing baseball that the fact that nobody's keeping score means their game doesn't matter.

2. Just because we are free to say no to paradise--and, assuming for the moment there is a paradise to say no to, I agree with Douthat that we are so free; grace is resistable--doesn't mean that anyone has actually chosen or will choose that option. It's a logical possibility, not a practical necessity. This is, as far as I can tell second-hand, the implicit argument behind Rob Bell's controversial Love Wins, and it's my position as well. To claim that Hell is empty is to step beyond our human knowledge and usurp the Judgment which is God's alone, but the same is true of saying that Hell isn't empty. No number of appeals to the depravity of a Hitler or--and this is Douthat's innovation--Tony Soprano is going to change that.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
I've been engaged in debates recently with an interlocutor who is very fond of spouting the theoconservative rhetoric of the First Things crowd (Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, etc.). Because of this, I've returned to this 2006 book review by Ross Douthat in First Things on books about American theocracy. The best part is when Douthat quotes Ramesh Ponnuru's essay Secularism and Its Discontents:
It may be instructive to think about the wish list of Christian-conservative organizations involved in politics. [. . .] Nearly every one of these policies—and all of the most conservative ones—would merely turn the clock back to the late 1950s. That may be a very bad idea, but the America of the 1950s was not a theocracy.
Douthat comments:
This reality poses no particular problem if you simply disagree with religious conservatives about abortion or gay marriage or prayer in public schools. But if you're committed to the notion that religious conservatives represent an existential threat to democratic government, you need a broader definition of theocracy to convey your sense of impending doom. Which is why the anti-theocrats often suggest that it doesn't take mullahs, an established church, or a Reconstructionist ban on adultery to make a theocracy. All you need are politicians who invoke religion and apply Christian principles to public policy.
Douthat notes, correctly, that this understanding of theocracy would hamper liberal Christians no less than conservative ones:
Just a few weeks before he announced that a “Christian politics” was a contradiction in terms, Garry Wills was in the New York Review of Books celebrating the role of the clergy in the civil rights movement and wiping a nostalgic tear from his eye as he declared that “there was a time, not so long ago, when religion was a force for liberation in America.” After years of blasting any religious encroachment on the political sphere as a threat to the Constitution, the New York Times editorial page awoke to find Cardinal Roger Mahony advocating civil disobedience by Catholics to protest an immigration bill—and immediately praised the cardinal for adding “a moral dimension to what has largely been a debate about politics and economics.” After spending two hundred pages describing all the evils that would pour through any breach in the wall between church and state, Michelle Goldberg suggests that liberals should hope that “leaders on the Religious Left will find a way to channel some of America's moral fervor into a new social gospel.”
This is why I prefer Damon Linker's use of the term "theoconservative" over the more broad (and thus less useful) "theocrat": it resists the relativistic lie that all manifestations of religion (or of Christianity in particular) are equally valid in its recognization that the "existential threat" is not so much religion's involvement in politics in general as it is a certain brand of religious politics (be they Christian, Muslim, or something else) which is socially and politically conservative (a brand which undoubtedly includes the comprehensive natural-law ideology of Neuhaus and Weigel promoted in First Things) and which perpetuates and powers the Satanic system of sexism, homophobia, militarism, and economic injustice which exists in our society.

Douthat comes close to this truth with the cynical observation, "A Christian [. . .] is allowed to mix religion and politics in support of sweeping social reforms— but only if those reforms are safely identified with the political Left." This, of course, should only be true insofar as the political Left has actually gotten things right--but since, as a left-liberal, I think there are plenty of issues which it has gotten right (and plenty where it doesn't go far enough, especially on social issues), I don't think there's actually a contradiction there.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
This is the first of what will presumably be several posts on Kendra  Creasy Dean's Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, which is being read throughout the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey this January through June as part of its One Book program.

I blame Rod Dreher.

Rod Dreher was a blogger at Beliefnet.com, where he consistently provided a voice which was theologically, politically, and culturally conservative. Dreher was the sort of guy I would read in order to stay fluent in the best arguments in favor of those positions with which I disagreed, in service of trying to be someone who was a) generally well-read and b) intellectually honest. I didn't read his blog religiously, but I would stop by sometimes when I was in a particularly strong mood to disagree with someone, and some of the bloggers I prefered reading (Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan in particular) would also link to him from time to time.

Rod Dreher's blog is, I think, the first place (or at least the most memorable place) I heard of "moralistic therapeutic deism" (MTD), the "benign whatever-ism" which Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton identified as the dominant faith of U.S. teenagers in their book Soul Searching, the end result of the "National Study of Youth and Religion." According to Smith and Denton, MTD has five main tenets:
  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Dreher consistently saw MTD as a pervasive, corrupting influence polluting Christianity. Of course, that is also how he views liberal Christian theology, so there was always a part of me, reading his thoughts on MTD, that figured that anything which Rod Dreher detested so passionately couldn't be all that bad.

Looking back, I realize I foolishly and without realizing it bought into the implicit etiological narrative I was reading out of Dreher's posts that MTD was sort of a natural endpoint of the slippery slope of liberal theology started by Friedrich Schleiermacher, and continuing through Paul Tillich. Dreher says outright that MTD "is what I believe progressive religion generally is" and makes the link more or less explicit in, for example, this critique of "[p]ost-boomer Christians (PBCs) -- which is to say, young adult Christians":
a majority of PBCs -- 56 percent -- lean towards liberal Christianity. Only 38 percent call themselves conservative-leaning. But does that mean that tomorrow's Christianity will be more liberal? By no means: more than half of religious conservatives attend church weekly, while only 14 percent of religious liberals do. It doesn't take a genius to figure out which demographic is more likely to pass on faith to their children. Then again, perhaps they will pass along a kind of faith -- hello, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism -- just not a faith that would be recognizable by any meaningful historical standard.
More or less accepting this framing of MTD by Dreher led me to conclude that while MTD went much further than I would have preferred in discarding traditional Christian orthodoxy (cf. my statements in Theology and Emergence: "We [. . .] don’t talk enough anymore about the Trinity, about the Holy Eucharist, etc. [. . .] As Christians, we need to talk about these things much more, although probably as well as rather than instead of the more sexy culture war issues"), it was still far preferable to fundamentalism and conservative envangelicalism. As Ross Douthat notes in his response to a defense of MTD by Damon Linker, "The more you fear the theocon menace, the more you'll welcome the Oprahfication of Christianity - since the steady spread of a mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus's views on natural law." (Let me note en passant that Linker is absolutely right in viewing those views on natural law as both philosophically untenable and socially damaging.)

After all, MTD wasn't sexist or homophobic. It didn't encourage to reject the findings of modern (secular) history or science, or to embrace supernaturalism. It didn't oppose the reproductive freedoms of women. It was tolerant of other religions. I found myself sympathetic to the teenagers who, in Almost Christian,
defended Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a worldview they were proud to own, a fair representation of what Jesus intended, if not what he actually said. Tom, a seventeen-year-old lifelong Presbyterian, wondered: "Doesn't the church want us to treat people fairly, be happy, solve our own problems, and get along?" Some considered Moralistic Therapeutic Deism an improvement over what Christianity has come to symbolize in much of the world, as people identify "Christian" with "American." Shawn, a sophomore on the church youth council, exclaimed: "Do I believe that God wants people to be nice and fair to each other? Yeah, I'd stake my life on that!" (27)
Looking at the five tenets of MTD,
  • #1 should be non-controversial to the vast majority of Christians (at least outside the fairly esoteric area of apophatic a/theology).
  • #2 should be as well, as much as the behavior of some Christians might lead one to think otherwise.
  • #3's egoism admittedly falls short of the altruism most Christians (myself included) see as being central to the faith (although it has much in common with those churches which teach a gospel of prosperity).
  • #4 loses the experiential dimension which is at the heart of Christianity's mystic core (as I un/preach in sermons here and here), but also tends to avoid supernaturalism.
  • #5, while simplistic as far as soteriologies go (and clearly bordering on works-salvationism), is also still far preferable to a Calvinism in which people in their total depravity are damned to eternal torment because God capriciously neglects to extend grace to them for what can only seem to be utterly arbitrary reasons, or an Arminianism which understands the acceptance of grace solely in terms of holding a certain set of propositional beliefs as true. Admittedly, it does, in positing a literal and non-mystical heaven, seem to assert some type of realist metaphysics which may not be philosophically tenable.
I entered Almost Christian with this almost knee-jerk reaction of wanting to defend MTD--not as ideal, but as a lesser evil compared to much of American religiosity--against the claims of heterodoxy. However, having finished the first chapter and half of the second, I've found myself pleasantly surprised. Dean primarily locates her critique (so far, at least) of MTD in #3 and #4, exactly where my own critique would rest, arguing not so much for a return to an ungenerous orthodoxy as for a new liberal orthopraxy. (Orthodoxy denotes "right belief"; orthopraxy, "right action.")

Dean takes the title of her book (about which I will no doubt have much more to say, but this post is already overlong) from a quote by John Wesley (she is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, which was founded by Wesley). According to Wesley, the difference between an "almost Christian" and an "altogether Christian" was not belief in the Trinity or the two natures of Christ or the Real Presence or any other dogma, but an action: love (5). The problem with MTD, according to Dean, is "that in fact [it] lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship" (6) and is "so devoid of God's self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit" (12)..

Dean echoes one of my most persistent themes by making this lack of love the result of a pietistic Protestantism which focuses on beliefs rather than experience )

For Dean, then, the problem of MTD is that it is loveless (taking on #3) and that it is non-experential (#4): a critique which is firmly rooted in a position liberal mainline Protestant theology, as befits her UMC affiliation. Liberal theology then, rather than being the cause of MTD, is actually the antidote--but of course, it must be a liberal theology which is effectively articulated and communicated. And this, quite obviously, is not happening.

MTD's failure is that it seeks to deal with conservative theology (both Protestant and Catholic) not by engaging with it but by ignoring it. Its critics are right that that type of approach can result only in a weak, passive faith that is unable to stand up for what it claims to believe in (goodness, fairness, justice, liberation). The solution to the rise of MTD is for the mainline churches to be more boldly prophetic in asserting a liberal orthodoxy, drawing on the insights of Protestants like Schleiermacher and Tilich (and their 21st-century heirs, like emergent Tony Jones or feminist Rebecca S. Chopp) and on Catholics like liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and feminist Rosemary Radford Ruether.

And yes, that involves being aggressive about teaching doctrine: that the relational nature of a Triune God models for us how to live our lives in loving community and how Scripture, Tradition, and Reason speak to us through a perichoretic dialectic of conversation. That the Incarnation informs our understanding of the goodness of the body, including sexuality. That the imago dei tells us that gender is irrelevant in the face of our common reflectiveness of the divine. We need to be much, much better catechists, and we cannot fool ourselves that that catechism does not come with a social and political agenda (centered on the liberation of the oppressed).

And so I find myself forced to do what I dislike the most, agreeing with Rod Dreher, if only on this specific lament:
the mixed blessing of unity )
a final thought )
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
Last week, my parish priest, Father Nathan Ferrell, responded to the Pew Report on The Reversal of the College Marriage Gap:
There is a direct correlation of all of these factors: most non-college educated people live in urban areas (in my urban parish area, only 6% of adults have college degrees), most of these young adults are not married, many of them are having children out of wedlock, and most of them do not attend church or get involved in any civic organizations of any kind.

[. . .]

One can see the trends very clearly if you follow what has happened among the Christian churches in the USA. Until 50 years ago, all of the largest congregations were in urban areas. Today, all of the largest ones are in suburban areas.
I really don't think we can make any automatic connection between conformity to socially conservative mores (pro-marriage, pro-children, as if simply producing more people were a good in and of itself) and the role of Church. There may be a correlation between people who get married before having children and the churched, but there's no straightforward causation in either direction. So there's no reason to automatically assume the absence of a "need to attend church" just because people have had children out of wedlock, anymore than because they are LGBTQ, pro-choice, or believe in evolution.

A couple weeks before Fr. Nathan's blog post, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat responded, in a column and a couple of blog posts, to a similar, albeit socially conservatively-premised, study by the socially conservative National Marriage Project--The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America--looking at the so-called "marriage gap," only in terms of beliefs rather than behavior. Douthat writes:
On some questions (the morality of premarital sex, whether a divorce should become harder to obtain) well-educated and less-educated Americans seem to have converged over the last few decades. [. . . T]he convergence [. . .] is absent on the most hot-button issue of all — abortion. There, the country still divides pretty cleanly along educational lines, with high school dropouts strongly opposed to abortion-on-demand, college graduates tilting in its favor, and high school graduates somewhere in between. And surprisingly, that divide hasn’t really changed since the 1970s, despite the changes on other issues, and the shifting pattern of religious practice.
It seems natural, therefore, that immersion in a culture which opposes the reproductive freedoms of women would result in an the type of increase in children born out wedlock demonstrated by the Pew Report, while immersion in a culture which respects those freedoms would result in a corresponding decrease. Call it the Bristol Palin effect. And since those cultures continue to correspond with education/wealth, so too would the number of children out of wedlock, so that poorer and/or less educated people would be more likely to have children outside of wedlock--and births out of wedlock would correspond to lack of religiosity only insofar as education and religiosity correlate, as recent evidence indicates they now do in U.S.-ian culture. (I think that was the fundamental point Fr. Nathan was trying to make.)

Obviously, one of the primary things the Church needs to do in order to speak to those who do not easily fall into the social conservative's model of how the individual and/or family should be ordered is to abandon the type of legalism which proclaims that model as normative.

However, in the face of the failure of the social conservative model of reproductive futurism, the Church has failed to step into her prophetic role to articulate an alternate vision inclusive to both the married and unmarried (including those unmarried with children), to those called to be parents and to those who are not, to those who are straight, gay, and/or asexual, an understanding of sexual expression firmly rooted in the liberatory (queer!) nature of Jesus Christ. But as long the Church stands for nothing, no one will listen to what she has to say.

On Being Straight

Monday, 16 August 2010 07:43 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
From Ross Douthat's blog:
The interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships is, for want of a better word, “thick.” All straight relationships are intimately affected by this interplay in ways that gay relationships are not. (And I do mean all straight relationships. Because they’ve grown up and fallen in love as heterosexuals, the infertile straight couple will experience their inability to have children very differently than a same-sex couple does.)
Blech.

I accept the labels "heterosexual" and "straight" because I recognize that the contingent fact about the actual world that the set of people I find attractive exists almost without exception within the larger set of people who in this (sexist, patriarchal) culture identify as, and/or are interpellated as, female, that the most homosexual activity I could imagine myself participating in would be phone sex with David Tennant (although seriously, David, call me now)--these contingent facts about the actual world results in my inhabiting a position of power and privilege which is simply not possible for me to escape.

But I refuse to let those labels identify who or what I am.

It is of course true that the fact that I have, as a straight person, inhabited this position of power and privilege pretty much my entire life (at least since I was say, fourteen, which is when I consciously began being attracted to women), so much so that it takes an act of will not to take it for granted, this has influenced me--if I'm honest about it, has wounded me--is going to leave me with a radically different understanding of myself and the world, with different experiences, than someone who grew up ashamed of their sexuality or wondering if they would need to keep secret a basic truth of their condition in order to preserve their friendships, their family relationships, perhaps even their life.

But I fail to see how Ross Douthat, or anyone else, can celebrate this fact.
The marital ideal that justifies calling gay unions “marriage,” by contrast, is necessarily much thinner, because it’s an ideal that needs to encompass not two but three different kinds of sexual relationships — straight, gay male, and lesbian.
This is just wrong, of course. There's either just one type of marriage--human marriage--or a lot more than three, once we remember the truth of the existence of intersexed and genderqueer persons. But no, we must all be trapped into our little, oppressive cages of male and female.

Genesis presents us with an alternate truth: "So God created human beings in God's own image. In the image of God, God created them; male and female, God created them" (1:27). Gender difference is revealed by Scripture to ultimately be a superficial difference in the face of our common similarity: the imago dei, our inherent dignity which is a reflection of God.

It's probably overly facile to simply say that if the ancient Hebrews had the concepts "intersexed" and "genderqueer" in their vocabularies they would have included them in the oral tradition which became compiled in the Genesis narrative--the ancient Hebrews were, no less than we today, flawed humans subject to sexism and heterosexism and cisgenderism, and there are plenty of places where Holy Scripture reflects that, a fact with which every principled, progressive Christian must wrestle. To imagine the concepts of "intersexed" and "genderqueer" to exist in their vocabularies, meaning what they mean to us today, is to imagine a radically different ancient society. But that doesn't meant that the wisdom of Genesis doesn't present us with a call to recognize that we all, male and female and genderqueer and intersexed, share a basic commonality before the LORD that renders all other differences ultimately meaningless. As St. Paul writes in Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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