Jesus, John Wayne, and Evangelicals: A Brief Reaction

Many of my colleagues and acquaintances have praised Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2021). As of today, the book has received 3,808 reviews on Amazon with a rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. Hence I thought I ought to read it for myself. My “brief reaction” won’t contain a full review, much less a chapter-by-chapter summary, detailed analysis of the argument, or thorough critique. I hope it will nevertheless be helpful for those who have read it or will read it or are thinking of reading it.

The Title

I have to admit that even before I read the book—indeed the first time I heard of it—I had a negative reaction to the title. It seemed designed to be provocative, insulting, and indicting—the kind of book intended to appeal to an extreme faction to reinforce their already emotionally-driven stance. And sure to sell! The subtitle states a thesis that seemed too radical to sustain. How could anyone hope to demonstrate that evangelicals as a group are guilty of corrupting a faith, i.e., the gospel? And are white evangelicals alone responsible for the social and political divisions that plague the country (USA)? Moreover, why add the word “white” to modify evangelicals? Will the book accuse white evangelicals of racism? There is one word missing from the title that I think is implied, that is, “male.” Although there are some women in the book whom Du Mez paints in a bad light (Merabel Morgan and Phillis Schalfly), villains are overwhelmingly male. The cast of scoundrels includes Billy Graham, James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Oliver North, Tim LaHay, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Josh McDowell, Michel Farris, Tony Perkins, and many more. So, being white, male, and a fairly traditional Christian rather than progressive or liberal you can see why I did not resonate with the title.

The Book’s Mood

It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a depressing book. The book begins and ends with what Du Mez considers irrefutable proof of white evangelicals’ hypocrisy and corruption, that is, their overwhelming support for the twice-divorced, serial adulterer, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, islamophobic, arrogant, foul-mouthed Donald Trump in the 2016 election (Preface, xvii). Enthusiasm for Trump is the definitive refutation of evangelicals’ sincerity in all their talk about morality, faith, and family; it is proof that “evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined by theology” (p. 298). Between these bookends she tells story after story of white, male evangelical leaders’ political intrigue, ambition, duplicity, hypocrisy, and sexual misconduct. According to Du Mez the animating heart of evangelicalism is patriarchy, “heroic white manhood” (p. xvi), “militant masculinity” (p. 3), and white nationalism. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t recall Du Mez mentioning a single positive quality or redeeming feature of her evangelical villains. It’s a story of meanness, betrayal, and hypocrisy. That’s all there is. I could not detect in Du Mez’s portrayal a smidgen of empathy. No nuance. No grace.

After reading 300 pages describing dirty laundry and exploring skeleton laden closets, you begin to doubt that there is any goodness left in the world. It took me a whole day to recover my sense of perspective. As a professor of religion, I shudder to think what reading this book would do to the mind and heart of a young college student who knows nothing else about the history of American Christianity.

The Argument

Given the subtitle of the book I expected hear an argument for her thesis. But the adverb “how” in the subtitle should have given me a clue that I would be disappointed. The “how” announces that the fact of white evangelicals corrupting the faith and fracturing the nation is taken for granted. Evangelicals’ support of Donald Trump proves it. Her task is to show how this happened and why we should not be surprised that it did:

History makes clear that this should come as no surprise. Evangelical support for Trump was no aberration. For many white evangelicals, the values Trump embodied aligned with the militancy at the heart of their faith (p. xvii).

With the fact of evangelicals’ betrayal of the gospel established beyond doubt by their association with Trump, all Du Mez needs to do is construct a narrative illustrating how the post WW II evangelical movement was animated from its beginning and throughout its history by ideals of militant (white) masculinity and submissive femininity. The narrative portrays evangelicals’ defense of the Bible and orthodox doctrine and its rhetoric of morality, marriage, and family as serving the basic instinct of (white) male superiority, a will to power masked as theological faithfulness. Evangelicalism, Du Mez contends, is “a cultural and political movement” not “a community defined by theology” (p. 298). This conclusion, I think, is the central point of the book. It is to disempower the male dominated evangelical movement by unmasking the ulterior political motives hidden by its theological rhetoric. It is to imbue her readers with suspicion of sanctimonious rhetoric and free them—especially women—from the linguistic cage constructed by male evangelical architects.

Will it work? Yes. For some people it will. Those who already hate Donald Trump, those burned by evangelical churches, those already leaning leftward in their politics, and theological liberals and progressives will enjoy reading about the sins of their political enemies. As I said at the beginning of this essay, the title of book tells you who the book is meant to entertain.

Critical Assessment

Do I have anything good to say about Jesus and John Wayne? Yes. Having read extensively in American church history and theology, I know most of the stories and characters discussed in the book, but not all. I learned some new things. The book is well-researched and meticulously documented. Her book testifies to her impressive ability to create a narrative out of thousands of facts. Concerning the facts it recounts, I do not doubt its historical accuracy. And it’s pretty well written. But….

On the other hand, I believe the book is deeply flawed. Though the facts are accurate, the narrative is misleading. Her obsession with debunking evangelicalism root and branch is too obvious to overlook. She explains everything evangelicals say and do as manifestations of their lust for power. This thesis makes historical explanation too simple and mechanical. All the characters are rendered as one dimensional ciphers. They don’t even have the virtue of being flawed. They are just bad. As far as readers can tell from Du Mez’s narrative, evangelicals did nothing good; their causes were unjust, their fears unfounded, and their actions divisive.

I began this essay with my apprehensions about the title of Du Mez’s book. Reading the book did nothing to remove them. Despite all the facts marshalled in its support, I don’t accept her narrative. If you read the book, ask yourself two questions: (1) can the evangelical movement really be as unambiguously evil as Du Mez portrays it? (2) If it is legitimate to deconstruct evangelicalism and reduce it to the will to power, is it not legitimate to ask what “metanarrative” or hidden motive controls De Mez’s narrative reconstruction?

Are Progressives the New Evangelicals?

Since I finished my recent review of Roger Olson’s book Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity (July 15 and 19, 2022), I’ve wanted to write something on “progressive Christianity.” As you might recall, I criticized Olson’s book for not describing “Progressive Christianity” in detail. In the intervening month I looked for books, podcasts, and essays to see if I could detect a central theme or principle in self-described “Progressive Christian” materials. I discovered that progressive writers are quite diverse theologically. And this can be very confusing because liberals are always progressive but progressives are not always liberal. That is to say, some progressives deny outright or radically reinterpret traditional Christian dogmas while others confess them. What, then, do all progressive Christians (liberals and non-liberals) have in common that makes them “progressive”?

What Makes Progressives Progressive?

My answer to this question must be somewhat tentative at this point. But I will advance an opinion that may need refinement with further study: The “progressive” label as it is applicable to both groups refers to moral rather than theological matters. All progressives believe in the possibility and the fact of moral progress. Christian progressives believe that certain moral insights of modern progressive culture are morally superior to the church’s traditional moral teaching even if that teaching appears to be based on the Bible. Among these progressive changes are looser attitudes toward divorce, gender identity, casual sex, abortion, and homosexuality.

I dare say that most Christian progressives could not explain why modern progressive morality is superior to traditional moral teaching. Tradition just “feels” wrong to them whereas progressive morality “feels” right. Traditional morality “feels” oppressive, intrusive, judgmental, unfair, unrealistic, inhumane, and antiquated. And it produces unhappiness. Progressive morality breathes freedom and allows each person to seek happiness in their own way. And it frees Christians from having to play the role of the “morality police.”

It won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog when I charge that Christian progressives find progressive morality compelling because they have–whether they realize it or not–internalized the fundamental anthropological principle that has animated the progressive movement for over 300 years:

In its inner essence the human being is free from all alien limits. Its self-appointed task in life is to liberate itself from all external limits and actualize its unique, inner self in the world. Its happiness depends on completing this task.

According to this principle, moral progress in a society is measured by how much self-determination it grants to individuals to pursue their happiness through self-actualization of their inner selves. Needless to say a progressive society will not inhibit the individual’s quest for happiness and, indeed, it will fight against all who would hinder this quest.

Are Progressives the New Evangelicals?

Modern evangelicalism was invented (perhaps reinvented) after WW II by evangelist Billy Graham and theologian Carl F. H. Henry. Between 1925 and 1947, “fundamentalism” had become a term of abuse hurled at conservative Christians. After the Scopes Trial, it became abundantly clear that the fundamentalists had lost the cultural battle and had been exiled from the mainstream to the cultural “backwater” of small town and rural America. Many fundamentalists dusted off their feet and retreated to their cultural islands. Fundamentalists were pictured by the national media as Bible-thumping, science-denying, overalls-wearing hillbillies. After the War, Carl F. H. Henry called on conservative Christians to return to the cultural center of American life under the name of evangelical. Evangelicals founded journals, learned societies, and colleges. They became professors, doctors, and lawyers. By 1976 they had become a significant force in American politics.

After 1990, however, the cultural influence of evangelicalism leveled off and began to decline. After 2010, that decline accelerated so much that the term “evangelical” has become in 2022 analogous to the term “fundamentalist” in 1922. For those enamored by progressive culture, evangelicals are homophobic, transphobic, climate-deniers, and white supremacists. Are such contemporary progressives as Jim Wallis, Jen Hatmaker, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Rob Bell attempting to do to evangelicalism what Carl F. H, Henry and Billy Graham did to fundamentalism? Do progressive Christians aim to become the new evangelicals?

I conclude with a quote from a recent critic of progressivism:

For many departing evangelicals, progressivism feels new, fresh, and relevant. But it is actually not new at all—progressivism is only a replay of old-line Protestant Liberalism. This matters because their Protestant Liberalism is among the fastest dying religions in the world. Evangelicals are coming to Liberalism at exactly the moment that Liberalism is proving to provide no real life (David Young, A Grand Illusion: How Progressive Christianity Undermines Biblical Faith, Renew, 2019, p. 14).

I belief Young is correct in his contention that progressive Christianity is unstable and will lead inevitably to liberalism. Let me make a prediction: Progressive Christianity will not become the new evangelicalism. When a departing evangelical runs out of evangelicalism they achieve too much inertial force to stop in the half way house of progressive Christianity. They will move rapidly into liberalism and from there on into secularism. The progressive principle is not consistent with any philosophy resembling Christianity, for it is the deification of humanity.

Climate Change, the Culture of Experts, and the Common Person

“I Believe in Science”

On my daily walk I pass by two houses with signs in front that list the virtues of the home owners. According to their advertisement, they believe in love, freedom, and other good things. But today I am thinking about one line that asserts, “We believe in science.” When I read it I always want to read it with the emphasis on the word “We.” We—as opposed to Others—believe in science. We are rational and educated people unlike that group that does not believe in science.

Leaving the arrogance and boastfulness aside for a moment, seeing these signs always prompts me to ask, “What does it mean to “believe” in science?” Does it mean to believe in the scientific method in general? Or are they speaking of particular applications of the scientific method, say, in chemistry or physics? Do they intend to assert that the method of empirical science can discover all truth and solve all problems? Or are they merely confessing their trust in scientific experts?

Here is what I think they mean: They seem to be asserting that they accept the consensus of climatologists on the issue of climate change, its facticity, its causes, its effects in the present and in the future. To move forward in our thinking, let me make an assumption about these neighbors. I doubt that they are experts in even one of the sciences that make up the field of climatology. Like me and most of you, they are not in a position to use expert judgment on the issues of climate change, also known as “global warming.” So, what are they doing when they put up a sign in their yard that says, “We believe in science?” As far as I can tell, they are signaling their identity in the—for lack of a better term—educated/progressive class and their allegiance to a political coalition that has placed environmental concerns at the heart of its political platform.

In my estimation, affirming a scientific theory because of its popularity in your social class or because it is an effective tool to gain political power for your side is a very unscientific thing to do. And yet what is a non-expert to do? We cannot do the scientific research for ourselves. And even if we read the research, we will not understand it well enough to make a critical judgment. Moreover, we cannot know for sure that all the experts agree. Are dissenting voices being silenced, cancelled, and rejected for publication? Such things happen all the time. Most of what we non-experts hear about climate change comes from politicians and the media. Politicians are notorious liars and most of us choose to listen only to media that tell us what we want to hear.

And yet, unlike some obscure research in physical chemistry, we must form an opinion about its soundness! For on the one hand, we are told that the very survival of humanity is at stake. If we do not drastically change the way we live we will drown or fry. Wars and mass migrations will change the face of the planet. On the other hand, we are told that human-made global warming is a hoax, the latest and greatest artificial crisis concocted to empower governments to centralize control over every aspect of our lives.

What is a Non-Expert to Do?

Again I ask what is a non-expert to do? I mean here a non-expert who wishes to follow reason rather than emotion or some other irrational motive. I have some common sense suggestions:

The climate change package includes (1) fact claims, (2) causal explanations, and (3) empirical effects, present and projected.

(1) With regard to fact claims, either the average temperature of the earth has increased in the last hundred years or it has not. Either the percentage of the atmosphere comprised of Carbon Dioxide has increased since the beginning of the industrial age by a certain amount or not. These empirical fact claims can in principle be confirmed or disconfirmed with the appropriate scientific instruments if used properly by experts. And these are the easiest scientific judgments for a non-expert to understand and accept or reject.

(2) With regard to proposed causal explanations, even the non-expert can see that we have move into a completely different area. Mathematical measurements are one thing, causal explanations are another. If the average temperature of the earth and the level of Carbon Dioxide have indeed increased over the last century, what caused it? The model I hear presented in the media and by politicians designates human activity, specifically the production of “green house” gases, as the exclusive cause. Specifying the cause is vital to devising a plan to mitigate its negative effects. If certain human behaviors caused the increase, altering those behaviors may slow, stop, or reverse the effect.

How can the non-expert evaluate such causal explanations? First of all, common sense usually warns us against accepting simple explanations for changes in complex situations. You don’t have to be a climatologist to see that the climate on planet earth can be affected by many factors, perhaps many that are unknown to scientists. Non-experts, then, may be wrong, but they do not have to sacrifice reason to be somewhat skeptical of the standard explanation for global warming. And when the cost of the proposed plan of mitigation is taken into account—trillions of dollars in expenditures and a radically lowered standard of living—common sense wants more clarity and certainty.

(3) The projected effects of the temperature increase on the climate and human life are the most controversial of all the climate change theory assertions. Non-expert common sense raises its eyebrows when politicians and media personalities point to every heat wave, storm, flood, tornado, hurricane, and blizzard as evidence of climate change caused by man-made global warming. Even non-experts can understand that scientific theories must propose conditions under which they can be falsified. If every significant weather event confirms the current theory of climate change, then no weather event confirms it; for it shows itself unfalsifiable.

Non-expert common sense strains credulity to accept as rationally sound projections way into the future based on simplistic theoretical models. Skepticism is especially heightened when we hear that climate change models project only negative climate changes, disastrous for humanity. Common sense expects there to be upsides as well as downsides to almost any analogous change. Common sense asks, “Are there no advantages to the increase in global temperature?” Non-experts may be wrong, but they are not stupid and evil to ask such questions. What is the alternative? Shall we trust whoever claims to have science on their side? No. Non-experts have every right and even a duty to use the resources they have, including of course expert opinion, to make their own assessment. If non-experts don’t exercise this right, science will be completely politicized; politicians will determine what counts as scientific truth.

One last point, common sense usually rejects extremes. Extremes are usually based on emotions, desires, wishes, delusions, need for attention, or some other irrational motive. Sound judgement is cautious, patient, balanced, humble, and realistic. I think the non-expert using common sense can reasonably reject the “pure hoax” theory. It makes no sense to argue that human activity has had and will have no effect on the climate. On the other hand, climate extremism is also implausible to common sense. Worst case scenarios are just that, worst case. Hence non-experts who value reason and common sense will probably chart a moderate course in the credence they give to the climate change theory and hence accept only gradual, cautious changes in response to it.

Progressive Christians: Beware of Liberal Theology (Part Two)

Today’s post is part two of my review of Roger Olson’s new book Against Liberal Theology (Zondervan, 2022).

Chapter Six, “Liberal Theology and Salvation”

Liberal theology rejects the traditional doctrine that salvation comes to human beings through the atonement and resurrection accomplished in Jesus Christ. If Jesus’s death plays a part at all in the process of salvation, it is as a noble example of faithfulness to God. Jesus saves only by the continuing influence of his teaching and example. Salvation in Christ does not involve atonement for sin, supernatural transformation, a new heaven and a new earth, or the resurrection of the dead. For liberal Christianity, salvation is about psychological healing, moral improvement, liberation from oppression, and greater social justice in this life. Salvation is “a new principle of life implanted in the heart” (p. 130, quoting Washington Gladden). According to Gary Dorrien, “The liberal gospel is that the victory of spirit over nature may be won if men will appropriate the light and life which are mediated to them through the impact of the historical Jesus” (p. 128).

Chapter Seven, “The Future in Liberal Theology”

It is not an exaggeration to assert that liberal theology possesses no eschatology. Everything in liberal religion focuses on this life. All liberals agree that the resurrection of the dead, the Second Coming of Christ, the transformation of creation, the final judgment, and heaven and hell are at best symbols of an afterlife and at worse left over imagery from Jewish apocalyptic fantasy. If there is an afterlife at all, which many liberals deny, no one will be excluded. All will be saved. Olson quotes John Shelby Spong who entertains the possibility of an afterlife in which there is “some sense of eternity in which my being, differentiated and empowered by the power of love, is joined with the being of others who are at one with the Ground of all Being” (p. 158). As is the case with so many liberal assertions, what they say is not wholly false from a traditional viewpoint. But the claims they make are ungrounded in the historical events of the gospel and what they leave out is essential to the biblical, orthodox faith.

Chapter Eight, “The Crisis in Liberal Theology”

After the American Civil War, liberal Christianity steadily gained influence in mainline Protestant denominations—Disciples of Christ, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran—reaching its high point in the middle of the twentieth century. Since then it has declined precipitously. According to Olson, liberal theology “is frustratingly vague, shallow, limp, unhelpful in answering life’s ultimate questions. It is dying out except in certain mainline Protestant colleges, universities, and seminaries” (p. 174). Liberal theologian Donald Miller may have put his finger on the reason for the decline: “the Christian message [as preached by liberal churches] may become a mirror reflection of the spirit of the age” (quoted on p. 171). Liberal Christianity remains, however, attractive to some people wounded by their narrow, rigid, and dogmatic, fundamentalist upbringing. On their journey toward liberalism (or pure secularity) they move through a progressive stage but do not find it satisfying. Something drives them onward toward liberalism.

What then is “progressive Christianity,” and why does it serve as little more than a rest stop on the way from fundamentalism to liberalism? According to Olson, many on this journey find it [progressive Christianity] “fuzzy, unclear, mediocre, and on a trajectory toward liberal Christianity” (p. 173). Olson observes that,

“Progressive Christianity is not a tradition or a movement or even a real identity. It is simply a label used by many different individuals who do not want to be thought of as conservative and who are attracted to social-justice issues [LGBTQ+, racial justice, etc.], often to the neglect of evangelism, sound doctrine, and traditional Christian norms of belief and life” (p. 173).

In the book’s concluding paragraph, Olson urges progressive Christians to “beware of liberal Christianity, because it is not real Christianity at all. Look for and find a church, a seminary, whatever, that truly takes the Bible and orthodox doctrine seriously but is not cultic in its ethos, like most fundamentalist churches, seminaries, and other ultraconservative Christian organizations” (p. 174).

Observations

In Against Liberal Theology, Roger Olson argues that liberal Christianity is not authentic Christianity but another religion. I believe he develops and sustains this thesis admirably. But Olson also wanted to make a case for “putting the brakes on progressive Christianity.” I think the book is less successful in achieving this second aim, though not by any means a failure.  On the positive side, by reading about liberal theology in such detail and realizing that it is not true Christianity but a heresy, progressive Christians may become more self-aware of their drift and reassess their thinking in the way Olson recommends. However I think Olson’s case is weakened by the book’s lack of a detailed description of what makes a theological position “progressive.” Not every Christian who holds “progressive” views uses that label as a self-description. In the absence of a profile of the progressive stance how will individuals number themselves among the book’s target audience? Olson points to progressive Christianity’s diversity and lack of inner coherence. Perhaps this diversity provides an excuse for not attempting to describe progressive Christianity in greater detail. Nevertheless there must be a family resemblance or an inner principle that unites these diverse positions under the label “progressive.”*

Moreover, while Olson warns progressives against becoming liberal, he does not criticize progressive Christianity as such. At the end of the book I am left with several unanswered questions: Do progressive Christians need to rethink their progressivism? After all, it is in Olson’s words a “halfway house” to liberalism. Has progressive Christianity become “progressive” precisely because it has unknowingly adopted and internalized some of liberal theology’s original critical principles, specifically its view that affirming human freedom and dignity demands liberation from all forms of oppression, with such liberation defined as the right and power of self-creation and self-definition? Is there an internal logic at work driving progressive Christianity inevitably toward liberal theology? If so, wouldn’t “putting the brakes” on progressive Christianity require exposing and rooting out the progressive/liberal principle that drives it forward?

*Do a quick Google search for “progressive Christianity” and I think you will see that for many self-designated “Progressive Christian” groups you could substitute the word “liberal” for the word “progressive” without distortion. For example, see The eight points of Progressive Christianity listed on the progressivechristianity.org website.

Progressive Christians: Beware of Liberal Theology

I’ve read several books so far this summer. I can’t write a review of all of them. However, because of its direct relevance to issues I often discuss on this blog, I want to share my thoughts on Roger Olson, Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity (Zondervan, 2022). Olson has written a very good book with a simple argument whose relevance will be immediately apparent even to casual observers of American Christianity. The book contains 174 pages printed in larger than average type. It is divided into eight chapters and an introduction. Olson writes in a non-technical style readable by a wide audience, though even those educated in theology can benefit from reading it. It is apparent that Olson works hard to present the ideas of liberal theologians accurately and assess their merit fairly.

The Argument

As the title indicates, the book criticizes liberal theology and issues a warning to “progressive” Christians. The argument of the book is designed to achieve two goals: (1) to demonstrate that liberal Christianity is not Christianity at all, or at least it that is not biblical, classical, orthodox Christianity. It is a “heresy,” “counterfeit,” “a false gospel, apostasy” (p. 14); (2) to convince progressive Christians not to slide into liberal theology. Progressive Christianity is on a downhill trajectory toward liberal Christianity. Hence those progressive Christians who wish to remain truly Christian need to understand that there is a stable middle ground between a cult-like fundamentalism and full-blown liberalism. Olson urges them to take this path (p. 174).

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

The introduction and each chapter of the book contributes a different piece of evidence that supports Olson’s conclusion that liberal Christianity is not Christianity but “an alternative religion to true Christianity” (p. 33). In this section I will summarize briefly the essential argument of each chapter.

Introduction

A standard definition of liberal Christianity is “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity in Christian thinking about doctrines” (p. 6; quoting Welch). Christian doctrines are adjusted or rejected to conform to modern science and progressive morality. If this definition seems rather abstract, it is because liberalism finds it easier to specify what it does not believe than what it believes. Orthodox Christianity submits to a fixed canon whereas liberal Christianity adjusts to the ever-changing spirit of the age.

Chapter One, “The Liberal Tradition and its Theology.”

The story of liberal Christianity begins with the German theologian and preacher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher rejected a Christianity whose content and truth are rooted in external authority. Everything supernatural must be reinterpreted as natural and rooted in human experience. He reframed Christian doctrines as articulations of the human experience of dependency, a kind of mystical experience of our contingency and the reliability of a mysterious ground of our being. Other liberal theologians followed Schleiermacher’s lead in retaining Christian language and churchly practice but changing its inner meaning and the ground of our knowledge of its content and truth. Many liberals following in Schleiermacher’s wake, however, shifted from mystical to moral experience as the source and meaning of doctrine. None returned to the “external” authorities of scripture, tradition, or the church as the source and norms of Christian truth. Christian truth in all forms of liberal theology comes from within the human self. According to Olson, Douglas Ottati in his book A Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Eerdmans, 2020), though compensating for changes in science, culture, politics, and morality, reinterprets Christian doctrines in much the same way as Schleiermacher did 200 years earlier.

Chapter Two, “Liberal Theology’s Sources and Norms”

As I indicated above, liberal Christianity refuses to allow scripture and tradition to trump reason and human experience as sources and norms for Christian belief and practice. Whether it is the private or the social self, humanity is the measure of all things.

Chapter Three, “Liberal Theology and the Bible.”

For Liberal Christianity, the Bible is not authoritative in any way that would require us to trust it as telling the truth about God or God’s historical interaction with humanity. Its stories may “form” us but they do not “norm” us (p. 63, quoting Delwin Brown). Not to put too fine a point on it, we can accept the Bible when we agree with what it says and reject it when we do not. It’s not too early to ask a question: if scripture and tradition do not tell us anything we cannot learn from our own experience and we can reject anything that does not resonate with our experience, why read it and why preach it at all?

Chapter Four, “God According to Liberal Theology.”

Liberal theology rejects the traditional doctrine of God as omnipotent, independent, omniscient, and transcendent. It rejects miracles and the distinction between nature and the supernatural. But liberals do not want to move to deism or atheism. According to Olson, they opt for a “third way,” which he calls “panentheism.” Panentheism considers God and the world to be one eternal, ever-evolving reality. God depends on nature and nature depends on God. As some liberals put it, the world is God’s “body.” Olson quotes liberal theologian Donald Miller who explains, “God is synonymous with the search for human wholeness, for confidence in the ultimate meaningfulness of human existence” (p. 87). It seems that Miller here identifies God with a deep dimension of human consciousness. Peter Hodgson avers that “God actualizes godself in and through the world” (quoted on p. 88). As is clear from these two statements there is much diversity among liberal theologians in their affirmative statements. As I said earlier, it is easier for liberalism to tell you what it does not believe than what it believes.

Chapter Five, “Jesus Christ in Liberal Theology.”

For liberal Christianity, Jesus is a religious human being who “saves” us by setting a powerful example of ideal humanity. Jesus is not the incarnate Son of God. He did not die for our sins; nor did God raise him from the dead. And yet liberals keep talking about incarnation, resurrection, and salvation. Donald Miller says the quiet part out loud when he admits, “I presently feel comfortable reciting the creed without editing it or feeling a pang of conscience if I affirm something I do not literally believe” (quoted on p. 109). We might want to ask Miller this question: if you don’t believe it “literally,” why say it at all? Perhaps you’ve worked it out with your own “conscience,” but what about the people listening to you who are deceived into thinking that you are one of them? Olson cites Miller’s confession “as an example of how slippery liberal Christians can be” (p. 109). In brief, for liberal theology, Jesus is either an example or a symbol but not the Lord and Son of God of the New Testament or of the creeds. Reliance on symbols rather than historical reality frees liberals from having to defend the facts of the gospel and supposedly makes Christian faith a matter of inner certainty not subject to refutation by historical research. But it also transforms it into a myth whose truth lies not in the storyline taken literally but in the longings the story evokes in the listener.

To be continued…

“A Wizard Ought to Know Better”

Ordinarily, I do not take the time to respond to virtue-signaling public pronouncements from progressive universities and woke academic departments. But today I am making an exception. Below I quote verbatim and in full a statement made by the Dean of Yale Divinity School, Gregory E. Sterling on behalf of YDS. I feel compelled to reflect on the statement for three reasons: (1) I know Sterling and his work in biblical studies. And I was surprised to hear these views coming from him. (2) Many of my undergraduate students have, after graduating from the university where I teach, attended YDS and other elite seminaries and divinity schools. Some studied under Sterling himself at another university. YDS presents itself as a place with an institutional culture, in Sterling’s words, of “appropriately and adequately applying biblical principles and knowledge to critical issues of the day.” In other words, my Christian students get the impression that the YDS takes the Bible seriously as a religious and moral authority. (3) Whereas the Dean’s press release reads like a typical a virtue-signaling pronouncement about public policy, it also makes a theological argument that I find egregiously misleading. In paragraph four Sterling (an expert biblical scholar) says, “There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion.” I will focus much of my analysis and criticism here.

There so much I’d like to say about this Statement. Every line is carefully crafted and every word artfully chosen with a certain audience in mind. But I must limit myself to some comments on a few rhetorical stratagems found in paragraphs 2-3 and deal briefly with the substantive argument in paragraph 4, where the Statement makes a foray into theology. I have numbered the paragraphs for easy reference and bolded significant words and phrases. The Sterling/YDS press release reads as follows:

Statement by Dean Sterling on today’s Supreme Court decision

06/24/2022

Yale Divinity School Dean made the following statement today.

1. Today the Supreme Court overturned five decades of federal protection for abortion that sprang from the Roe v. Wade decision. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision returns the issue to states, which undoubtedly will come to reflect the political divide of our country.

2. The decision culminates a decades-long effort by those who identify as pro-life. But is this decision pro-life or pro a particular ideology? Will those who lobbied for it now lobby for expanded medical support for the women who carry babies to term? Will they lobby for benefits for the unwanted children who are born? Will they lobby for the support of poor people who will not be able to care for additional children? To be pro-life means far more than to oppose abortion.

3. There are millions of American women who feel violated by today’s decision. They understand that this is not only a decision about abortion, but about women’s rights. The decision is a step backward for human rights. Does it portend the reversal of other rights—as some have already suggested? Is the elimination or suppression of individual freedoms pro-life?

4. The pro-life stance is often linked to Christianity and there are many people who are genuine in their faith who will support the Supreme Court’s decision, including members of the YDS community. It is, however, a more complex issue than some acknowledge. There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion. The only text that deals directly with a fetus is Exodus 21:22–25, and it makes a distinction between the penalty levied on someone who causes a pregnant woman to miscarry versus an injury to the woman herself. The former results in a fine; the latter in the lex talionis (an eye for an eye etc.). In other words, it distinguishes between a fetus and a human being. Simplistic appeals to the biblical traditions are just that, simplistic. Christianity is supportive of human life, but we must work through our traditions with care. It is not at all clear that today’s decision reflects a text like Exodus 21:22–25.

5. This decision will not heal our country. It will only exacerbate the divide that already exists. May we find ways to promote life, not political agendas. May we find ways to discuss our differences, not build higher walls.

Highfield’s Comments

Paragraph #2

In paragraph #2, the Statement speaks of those who “identify as pro-life.” Clearly, by referring to the opponents of abortion in this way the Statement insinuates that they are not really and truly advocates of God-created human life in its fullness. Then follows a series of four rhetorical questions that place in doubt the sincerity of pro-life advocates. The paragraph concludes with this assertion: “To be pro-life means far more than to oppose abortion.” Perhaps it does…but why imply that pro-life advocates do not know this and do not care for children unless they are still in the womb? What is the point of the argument in this paragraph? Is it supposed to justify abortion?

No. It seems to have another purpose. Its effect is to subvert the pro-life movement’s claim to possess the moral high ground. The first rhetorical question in the paragraph makes this clear: “But is this decision pro-life or pro a particular ideology?” This question insinuates that pro-life justices and their supporters may have cynically adopted pro-life rhetoric to advance a hidden agenda of a less noble pedigree. The use of the word “ideology” is revealing. This highly loaded term seems here to mean a system of ideals with the appearance of reasonableness and moral rectitude but in reality a sanctimonious sham concocted to cover selfish and irrational interests. Additionally, the author by accusing others of nurturing a sinister ideology implicitly claims to be innocent of the same sin (Matt 7:3).

Paragraph #3

Paragraph #3 deals with the subjects of “rights” and “freedoms.” According to Sterling, the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to return the issue of abortion to the legislative process is “a step backward for human rights.” Two things strike me about this claim. (1) When someone uses the phrase “a step backward” we ought to perk up our ears. Progressives think they know which direction history is supposed to move and in what moral progress consists—toward greater and greater liberation from all limits on pursuing individual happiness. As stated here it is simply question begging, virtue signaling, and preaching to the choir.

(2) It implies that the right to abort a child is a human right. Why a human right? What is a human right anyway? A human right is a right inherent in being a human being. Before the modern era such a right was called a “natural” right—as opposed to a legislated or constitutional right. But modern progressives don’t believe in natural rights because they don’t believe in natural law, which is the only reasonable foundation for natural rights. And of course the ideas of natural rights and natural law imply a moral lawgiver and Creator of nature. Such ideas are anathema to progressives. Ignoring the question of the grounding of human rights, Sterling classifies the right to abortion as a right given with our humanity. As a human right it is unalienable by the legislative process and, therefore, ought not to be returned to the legislative arena.

The irony here is that the most basic human right conceivable is the right to life. No other right can take precedence over this one because if you are not alive you have access to no other goods. Is a preborn human baby a human being? If so, he or she possesses all the rights inherent in being human. In contrast, the freedom for a woman to abort her unborn child cannot be a basic human right because not all humans can make use of this right. If it is a right, it must be derived from other more basic rights, natural or legislated. Hence the Statement’s appeal to human rights turns out to support a position opposite to the one it intended to defend. If human rights exist at all—a presupposition necessary for the efficacy of Sterling’s argument—preborn human beings most certainly possess them. For the concept of human rights makes no sense at all unless they are acquired by nature and not by law. And the human right to life trumps every other right.

In a point of clarification, this document uses the term “human being” in two different senses. When the Statement speaks of the human rights of women, being human is an ontological or natural status. Only in this way are these rights exempt from legislative reversal. However when Sterling speaks of preborn babies, he determines the humanity of a being according to its legal status. In this move he shifts from appealing to human rights to appealing to legislated rights. However the argument that restricting abortion violates human rights will not work unless being human is an ontological status. And if being human is an ontological or natural status, preborn human beings also possess human rights. The modern legal distinction between being a fetus and being a human being is a legal fiction, false in truth but useful in law. By definition, however, all human rights are possessed by all human beings.

The paragraph ends with this question: “Is the elimination or suppression of individual freedoms pro-life?” The expected answer to this rhetorical question is “No.” But the question is ambiguous in the extreme. Is any and every imaginable freedom under consideration? Or are only certain freedoms meant? In any case, the implicit argument in the question is viciously circular. For it assumes that the “freedom” being suppressed is a legitimate freedom or right—human or legislated. But that is precisely the question being debated with respect to abortion. Additionally, the meaning of “pro-life” in this question is being distorted to mean something like “pro-happiness.” Though it may not promote happiness in the short run, lawfully suppressing the action of destroying innocent life is clearly defending life. The rhetorical question in its present ambiguous form implies that any restriction on “individual freedom” is anti-life. This assertion is manifestly false.

Paragraph #4

Paragraph #4 seeks to delegitimize appeals to the Bible and Christian ethics in the debate over the legal status of abortion. Sterling does not venture to construct a case for the Bible’s support or condemnation of abortion. His objective is wholly negative, that is, to create doubt about the Bible’s usefulness in the pro-life argument.  It is important to emphasize that Sterling does not directly address the ethical and moral question about abortion. He carefully limits himself to the legal/political dimension.

Paragraph #4 begins with the assertion, “The pro-life stance is often linked to Christianity.” Sterling speaks here as if the “linking” between Christian ethics and the question of abortion is something artificial, an arbitrary connection that one makes for reasons not inherent in Christianity or in the desire to protect preborn human lives. Clearly, Sterling wishes to weaken or break that “linkage.” Why? Two possible reasons come to mind. (1) Many people wish to support abortion but do not wish to renounce Christianity completely. Breaking the link would make this position possible. I assume Sterling also falls into this category. (2)  The Bible and Christianity are still respected in our culture by many people who do not practice Christianity and don’t know the Bible or Christian doctrine very well. If Sterling can delink the Bible and abortion he can deprive the opponents of abortion of a potent weapon in the debate.

The notion that the Bible has nothing to say about the morality of taking the lives of preborn human beings when it otherwise takes an interest in every dimension of life—sex, marriage, divorce, drunkenness, greed, anger, and so on—is completely absurd on the face of it. How could someone who knows the Bible as well as the Dean of YDS maintain such an implausible thesis? Perhaps an extra-biblical ideology is at work?

The most controversial assertion in the YDS statement is the following: “There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion.” This claim asserts bluntly the “delinking” of Christianity and the question of abortion. The first thing to notice is that this declaration is not an ethical claim—not directly anyway—but a legal/political claim. When Sterling says that the Bible does not support a “ban” on abortion, it seems that he is speaking of a legislated, secular law and not of a moral obligation. In other words this sentence asserts that the Bible (and Christian ethics based on the Bible) does not demand that abortion be made illegal and punishable. In this assertion delinking the Bible with abortion bans, Sterling does not explicitly offer an opinion on the moral status of abortion.

Almost everyone in our society recognizes that it is impractical for legislators to make illegal every act they believe to be immoral. The assertion that the Bible does not support a ban on abortion is wholly negative, designed to defeat or make doubtful pro-life arguments from the Bible. As worded, Sterling’s delinking statement leaves open the possibility that Sterling considers abortion to be an immoral act that must nevertheless be permitted legally for practical reasons. But he makes another statement later in the paragraph that seems to imply that abortion is permitted morally.

As one piece of evidence for the Bible’s lack of support for the pro-life argument, Sterling reflects briefly on Exodus 21:22-25, which is the only place in the Bible that deals with anything like abortion:

22 “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (RSV).

This text prescribes the penalty for injuring a pregnant woman in such a way as to cause her to have a miscarriage. The penalty for causing the loss of the baby is a fine, not the death penalty as would be required in the murder of a person already born. In commenting on this text, Sterling asserts that this text “distinguishes between a fetus and a human being.” With this interpretation, Sterling goes beyond his prior negative claim that the Bible does not support an abortion ban. His comment seems to imply that the text’s distinction between a fetus and a human being even supports the moral permissibility of abortion. But, as I will show, Sterling’s interpretation is questionable.

Old Testament ethical texts are set in the social world of the Ancient Near East and are notoriously difficult to understand. We are constantly tempted to judge OT ethics by modern progressive standards. I don’t have the space or expertise to engage at the level required for a full discussion. But even the casual reader can see that the text won’t support Sterling’s disengagement (or support) theory.

(1) This text is set in an extensive section of case law concerning personal injuries of different types (Ex 21:12-27). The section prescribes different penalties depending on the nature of the injury and the intentions of the guilty party. Interestingly, different penalties are imposed for the same injury depending on the social position of the injured party. Consider the case of the master and his slaves (Ex 21:20-21, RSV):

20 “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money.

Like these ancient laws, modern jurisprudence of personal injury also takes into account the severity of the injury and the intentions of the perpetrator in determining the penalty. But unlike ancient near eastern law, modern jurisprudence does not (in theory anyway) take into account the social status of the victim in determining guilt or penalty. Here is my point: in this section on personal injury—which includes the text dealing with the penalty for causing a miscarriage—possessing a different social status, though meriting a different standing before the law, does not deprive one of human status. Neither the slave nor the pre-born child—what Sterling calls the “fetus”—receive justice from the law equal to that given to a free adult person. But inequality before the law does not in the Old Testament imply that the slave or the pre-born child are understood to be something other than human. The Bible does not draw this inference—Sterling is wrong here. He reads a modern legal invention back into the Bible.

(2) The text in Exodus 21:22-25 does not deal with an intentional act of causing the death of a baby. It is an accident consequent on a fight among others. The woman is a bystander injured by the disputants. The miscarriage is not caused by the woman or with her consent. Hence we do not know what penalty would have been imposed for an intentional act by the mother or by someone else that results in the preborn baby’s death. There are no laws in the Bible covering intentional abortion. Ancient Jews and Christians held new life to be so precious that an intentional act causing a miscarriage was unthinkable.

(3) In this text (Exodus 21:22-25) the unborn child is treated as valuable. That is clear, and causing a miscarriage even unintentionally through negligence is punishable. Sterling’s conclusion from this text that the child is a “fetus and not a human being” does not follow and, more egregiously, as I pointed out above, this assertion reads a modern legal distinction back into the Bible, a cold and dehumanizing one at that.

Christianity and the Morality of Abortion

Let’s leave aside the legal question and concentrate on the moral question. In supporting his argument that “There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion” Sterling employs an interpretative strategy that every beginning graduate student in theological studies learns to avoid. It cannot be that the dean of an elite divinity school, himself an expert in biblical studies, doesn’t know better. But I doubt his audience will call him out for it because most of them agree with his conclusion and the rest are afraid to object. It’s the kind of legalistic reasoning that Jesus criticized the Pharisees for employing to escape their obligation to honor their fathers and mothers (Mark 7:10-12).

Because the Bible does not specify in so many words every particular act, method, place, and time we are forbidden to do something, these interpreters conclude we are free do as we please with this silence. Instead of seeking God’s will in all sincerity and giving their all to be faithful to Christ in every situation legalists seek to justify as biblically permissible pursuing their own desires by sophistry and legal nitpicking. Elite biblical scholars know better, and I have found that when they begin to talk this way to the public—instead of in their scholarly accent—they are disingenuously using the proof text method of “ignorant” people against them.

Christianity’s ethical demands cannot be reduced to a list of commands and cases. The law and the prophets, Jesus and his apostles, teach us what sort of person to become. We are told that we do not possess the right to life and death over other human beings. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are told that our bodies are not our own. The body is for the Lord’s service (1 Cor 6:19-20). People who know and love Jesus, who have listened to his teaching, who have practiced his ways, and who have been transformed into his image don’t have to ask whether or not they should welcome their human child into the world or kill it before it sees the light of day. They know the answer. They are not looking for an escape clause.

Conclusion

In the second movie of the Lord of the Rings series “The Two Towers,” when Tree Beard the leader of the Ents saw the devastation Saruman Lord of Isengard had visited on Fangorn Forest, he exclaimed angrily, “A Wizard ought to know better!” When I look at the statement from YDS I think to myself, “A dean of a divinity school ought to know better.”

Yale Divinity School Dean Publishes Troubling Statement on Abortion

Below I quote word for word and in full a public statement by Gregory E. Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School decrying the United States Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. “ I do not discuss purely political and legal matters on this blog. However this statement ventures into theology and morality, which are subjects I care about deeply and transcend political divides.  Near the end of the Statement, Sterling makes two assertions that I find troubling:

“There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion.”

And…

The Bible “distinguishes between a fetus and a human being.”

Today I will post the Yale statement for you to read and ponder. In a day or two I will post my reply. I’ve inserted a hyperlink (if it works!) that will take you to the original statement posted on the Divinity School webpage.

The Statement reads as follows:

Statement by Dean Sterling on today’s Supreme Court decision

06/24/2022

Yale Divinity School Dean made the following statement today.

Today the Supreme Court overturned five decades of federal protection for abortion that sprang from the Roe v. Wade decision. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision returns the issue to states, which undoubtedly will come to reflect the political divide of our country.

The decision culminates a decades-long effort by those who identify as pro-life. But is this decision pro-life or pro a particular ideology? Will those who lobbied for it now lobby for expanded medical support for the women who carry babies to term? Will they lobby for benefits for the unwanted children who are born? Will they lobby for the support of poor people who will not be able to care for additional children? To be pro-life means far more than to oppose abortion.

There are millions of American women who feel violated by today’s decision. They understand that this is not only a decision about abortion, but about women’s rights. The decision is a step backward for human rights. Does it portend the reversal of other rights—as some have already suggested? Is the elimination or suppression of individual freedoms pro-life?

The pro-life stance is often linked to Christianity and there are many people who are genuine in their faith who will support the Supreme Court’s decision, including members of the YDS community. It is, however, a more complex issue than some acknowledge. There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion. The only text that deals directly with a fetus is Exodus 21:22–25, and it makes a distinction between the penalty levied on someone who causes a pregnant woman to miscarry versus an injury to the woman herself. The former results in a fine; the latter in the lex talionis (an eye for an eye etc.). In other words, it distinguishes between a fetus and a human being. Simplistic appeals to the biblical traditions are just that, simplistic. Christianity is supportive of human life, but we must work through our traditions with care. It is not at all clear that today’s decision reflects a text like Exodus 21:22–25.

This decision will not heal our country. It will only exacerbate the divide that already exists. May we find ways to promote life, not political agendas. May we find ways to discuss our differences, not build higher walls.

End of YDS statement.

Next Time: Please read my detailed analysis and critique of the YDS statement to be posted soon.

Understanding the Culture Wars…Why it Matters (Part One)

In every age Christians must consider carefully how to live in their unique circumstances. In one way this task is very simple: keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and hold on to the gospel and the apostles’ teaching. Remaining faithful does not require understanding all the ways people can be unfaithful. Knowing truth does not require studying all forms of falsehood. While this is a very important insight we would do well to keep in mind, not every Christian possesses thorough knowledge of the scriptures or deep understanding of the faith. Not all have become stable in discipleship to Jesus. They are vulnerable to deception by half-truths and clever lies. Hence some within the Christian community need to devote themselves to understanding the cultural context within which God’s people live and sharing their findings with the church. I find myself compelled to engage in this work.

This summer I’ve felt an urgent need for additional insight into the principles that animate the drastically different moral/political/religious visions that do battle contemporary culture. Don’t mistake my concern for despair. I am confident that God’s deity and existence are not at stake, much less in jeopardy, in these controversies. Jesus Christ is and will be Lord no matter what the outcome of the cultural war is. My worry is that some Christians could be swept up in the emotions of the day, take their eyes off Jesus, lose faith in the providence of God, and abandon themselves to hatred, division, and fanaticism.

The Raging Battle

Sometimes I feel like a man standing on a hill gazing silently at a battle raging in the valley below. Who are the participants? What’s at stake in the battle? How did this war begin and when will it end? I understand that I am a part of this world and a participant in this culture. As long as I live I cannot escape the conflict completely. But do not believe I should rush into the battle before I do all I can to understand why the war is being fought and how it relates to the spiritual battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12).

Right and Left

The standard classification of right, left, and center seems inadequate to describe the present cultural landscape. Right, left, and center parties combine greatly disparate ideologies and interest groups to form their coalitions. At first inspection, the whole culture seems to be a chaotic, eclectic patchwork of temporary alliances of convenience.

The right and left are relative terms, and to convey any information they must relate to a fixed point. Historically, these terms derive from the era of the French Revolution (1789). The French National Assembly divided into supporters of the King who sat on the King’s right and supporters of the revolution who sat on the King’s left. Applied to the contemporary social order this mapping makes sense only in relation to an image of the traditional religious/moral/social order taken as a fixed point. The Right maintains a conservative stance toward this order and the Left calls for revolution.

I think the designations “Right” and “Left” are still useful in marking out two general attitudes toward tradition, but they do not help us understand the nuances of difference within each wing. Apart from understanding the Right’s reasons and principles justifying conservation of the past and the Left’s reasons and principles grounding its call for revolution, we can neither understand nor evaluate their programs.

I find it confusing that each party calls to its defense the same set of reasons and principles but apply them in different ways, with different levels of consistency, and in different combinations at different times. Even more confusing, the parties themselves do not seem to be aware, much less possess a theoretical grasp, of how they are using those reasons and principles. To understand the current situation we need greater clarity about the function of principles in the arguments of the parties.

The Rhetoric of Freedom

In the cultural struggle between “Left and Right,” all parties appeal to the same noble and commonly accepted principles. No one says, “I don’t care about other people. I want what I want no matter what others think.” No one lets it slip that they are power hungry or greedy or obsessed with perverted lusts. They talk about legal rights, constitutional rights, and human rights*. They complain of unfairness, injustice, discrimination, and inequality. Sometimes they invoke human dignity, the inherent right to happiness, or autonomy. Let’s explore the meaning of these principles and try to ascertain how they are used by Right and Left to support their positions.

*Note: A “right” is a broader concept than a “freedom” though it includes it. A negative right is identical to a freedom, but a positive right corresponds to what was traditionally known as a “privilege.”

The Many Faces of Freedom

In the history of philosophy and politics “freedom” has been used to designate three basic types of openness for human action. Two of the three have been adapted to develop theories of political freedom. In popular rhetoric, however, they are mixed together, and this conceptual confusion leads to misunderstandings. In view of this confusion let’s first get clear on the differences among the views of freedom being used in contemporary rhetoric.

1. Freedom to Act as One Pleases

According to John Locke, Jonathan Edwards, and John S. Mill, freedom is leeway to act as you please. Freedom understood in this way is openness to pursue your happiness in whatever way you find promising. You are free insofar as nothing outside of yourself obstructs your external action in pursuit of good things. Maximum liberty, then, is a circumstance wherein nothing external to you inhibits acting on your desires. But everyone knows that we will never enjoy maximum freedom in this world. The laws of nature, our finite powers, limited knowledge, and resistance from other people will not allow it. Pursuing maximum freedom despite its impossibility will work only destruction. Like it or not, we are forced to come to terms with our less than maximum freedom. But however realistic we may be about the limits the world places on our freedom, we may not be able to shake the feeling that we are being deprived of happiness. Different people cope with these limits differently. Some find contentment in resignation to their limits. Others nurse perpetual resentment and defiance. Still others are driven to think in alternative ways about freedom and happiness.

2. Freedom in Classic Liberal Politics

At its best, politics is deliberation about the optimum way to order life in society to facilitate the realization and preservation of the cherished values of the people. Adopting Locke’s, Edwards’s, and Mill’s understanding of freedom, classic liberal political theory holds individual liberty as its most cherished value. It aims to advance and protect each person’s freedom to pursue happiness in whatever way the individual finds promising insofar as such action can be harmonized with every other individual’s pursuit of their happiness. Liberty is so precious that it may be limited only by liberty itself.

A government administered as a classic liberal order refrains from telling individuals in what their happiness consists. In other words, it’s not a “nanny state” that assumes it knows better than you what is good for you. Nor does it take as its responsibility making sure everyone attains happiness; it’s not a “welfare state” whose task is to accompany you from cradle to grave to make sure you have everything you need every step of the way. It assumes that each individual knows best what makes them happy and that they possess the drive to pursue it. The art of politics in the classic liberal state is balancing the liberty of each with all and of all with each. The government assumes the role of a referee that makes sure the game is played according to the rules. There will always be disagreements, conflicting claims, and “bad calls.” The devil is in the details.

As we all know, however, a society ordered purely in accord with the classic liberal political theory has never existed. It’s probably impossible. Other such values as national security, religious and moral belief, human dignity, general welfare, aesthetic tastes, and prejudices often serve as the bases for laws that restrict freedom.

Next Time: Other views of freedom and political order.

I Want it All!

As regular readers of this blog know, I believe a certain image of the human self drives modern progressive culture ever closer to the abyss of moral nihilism. I argued in the previous two essays that this image of the self was constructed by transferring the divine attributes of absolute freedom and unlimited power from God to humanity. Of course progressives know that human beings are not yet in fact absolutely free from all alienating limits; divine status is an aspiration. As an aspiration, however, it drives technological advancement, individual behavior, and progressive social change toward the goal of total liberation of the self from all limits into complete self-mastery. As this description makes clear, modern progressivism possesses many of the hallmarks of a religion; in fact it is a heretical distortion of Christianity. In progressivism, God is replaced by humanity, divine grace by human striving, sin by finitude, and heaven by an ever-receding earthly utopia. Traditional moral rules and conservative social forces—systemic racism and capitalism—take on the role of the devil. Social activists and political leaders serve as saviors, prophets, and priests. Modern people want it all, here and now, their own way.

You Can’t Have it All…That Way

But that’s not going to happen. Everyone knows in their heart of hearts that we are not gods and will never achieve the status of divinity. We will never be absolutely free from all limits. We will never have power over all things. The progressive image of humanity is an idol, a mental representation of our fantasies. And yet, in service of this falsehood people have fought devastating wars, sold their souls, ruined their health, committed murder, and mutilated their bodies. In their despairing hope they strain to make the impossible happen. Why?

Its falsehood must not be completely obvious to those deceived. Perhaps the growth of control over nature advanced by modern science and technology gives some plausibility to the idea that technology will one day achieve final triumph over all physical limits. Or perhaps there is some truth mixed in with the illusions. Human beings are amazing! Our reason, imaginations, and desires seem unlimited. We have accomplished great things. What may be most significant of all, however, is this: progressivism arose, received its initial plausibility, and still lives parasitically from the energy unleashed into the world by Jesus Christ and his disciples. Progressivism is a secularized form of Christian faith, hope, and love, and in hidden ways—in fading memories and leftover habits of thought—these three virtues still root progressivism in a powerful vision of reality in which all things come from God and move toward God by the power of God. But progressivism has long since cut itself off from Christianity, the original source of its plausibility; indeed progressivism views Christianity as its chief rival and arch nemesis. Hence it is but a matter of time before façade of its idealism falls away and is replaced by the exercise of raw power in service of the interests of whatever progressive group can gain and maintain the levers of power. Idealism without principles leads inexorably to coercion without conscience.

You Can Have it All

The irony in progressivism’s quest to have it all in rebellion to God is that in Jesus Christ God promised that we can have it all! What progressivism attempts futilely to snatch by effort, God wishes to give by grace. Jesus promises a “glorious freedom” (Romans 8:21) wherein God makes us his own dear children who can have anything we want, because, having been made holy by the Spirit, we want only to be with our Father and to receive from his hand all good things (James 1:17). Because God raised Jesus from the dead we can be confident he will raise us to glory, immortality, and incorruptibility (1 Cor 15:53-54). “The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23). When we see Jesus we will be “like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Instead of a pathetic imitation divinity, boastful and proud, but impotent against sin, death, and the devil, the Christian hope envisions for us such an intimate union with God that we will enjoy God’s presence as the true fulfillment of our aspiration “to be as God.” We will be permeated by the Spirit and completely conformed to the image of Christ who is the image of God. Compared with what Jesus promises, progressivism’s ambitions appear shabby indeed.

I want it all! I’ve always wanted it all. But for a long time, I did not know in what the “all” consisted, where to find it, or how. Now I know. I want to know and experience the infinite and eternal good that God is. Nothing greater is possible. Nothing less will do.

Wisdom, Understanding, and the Spirit of the Age

In the previous essay, written about a week ago, I set out briefly what I think it means to be an educated person. Just a few days later during a conversation with some good friends one of them recalled an article that listed the 100 books one “must read” to become an educated person. Since then I’ve thought about that claim and concluded that—though containing much truth—it misses the mark. Among the many problems with this idea, the most damning is its identification of reading with understanding and knowledge of facts with wisdom. One can read those 100 books and thousands more without becoming wise or gaining understanding. And surely we would call no one educated who does not possess understanding.

Searching for Understanding

So, I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to be wise and possess understanding. As a teenager, I felt a great need for wisdom and lamented my lack thereof. I read the Old Testament book of Proverbs over and over and took it to heart. I read the New Testament book of James for the same reason. I took James at his word when he advised, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). And, of course, I pondered Paul’s profoundly counterintuitive claim that God’s deepest wisdom and power were revealed in the cross of Christ (1 Cor 1:18-25). Much of my reading throughout life has been given to the search for wisdom and understanding. What, then, is wisdom and how can we gain understanding?

My search has been for knowledge about how to live a good life, for discernment to make good decisions, and for the intellectual and moral virtues that make that good life possible and protect us from foolishness and evil. It is a quest to understand myself, the human condition, our age, and the possibilities for the future. It is a pursuit of the “happy life,” which Augustine of Hippo defined as “joy based on truth.” It is desire to know my place, do my part, and complete my assignment. It is life in hope of hearing the words of the Master, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt 25:21).

Understanding the Spirit of the Age

This morning I read an article on “History” in one of my encyclopedias of theology. I found the section on the philosophy of history especially stimulating. It reminded me of my quest for understanding and wisdom, especially of my desire to understand our age and my place in it. I believe strongly in divine providence: God is the beginning and end of all things and Jesus Christ reveals the goal and meaning of history. This faith gives me confidence that history as a whole possesses meaning, that in looking to Jesus we can know what we need to know about God, and in following Jesus we can live good lives. Nevertheless, in trying to understand the spirit of our age and how I can best live in relation to it, I sometimes feel like I am lost in a forest. I believe the “forest” has an edge and a shape, but I can’t rise above the canopy to find my bearings.

Much of my intellectual quest has been devoted to finding—if not the top of the forest canopy—some higher ground from which to survey a larger area of the landscape in search of a wider historical perspective. At least half of the 350 essays I’ve written for this blog have been devoted to this task. As frequent readers know, I view the “spirit of the age” as the energy unleashed by the Enlightenment’s and Romantic Movement’s transfer of God’s attributes to humanity. In my April 18, 2022 essay, “How God Became Man: The Story of Progressive Humanism,” I observed that human beings always see their ideals and ambitions exemplified perfectly by God/gods. In the late Middle Ages (1300 to 1500) theologians began to view God primarily as an all-determining, omnipotent, and absolutely free will rather than an infinite intellect, perfect in goodness, self-diffusive in love. God is everything and human beings are nothing. The modern world held on to the ideal of absolute freedom as the highest good but reversed the relationship between God and humanity: Humanity became the central player in history and God became no more than a supporting actor! Divine providence was replaced by human planning. For the past 400 years, the driving force of history—the spirit of the age—has been the human quest to realize its ambition and presumed right for absolute freedom, for a sort of divinity.

This quest for unlimited freedom has unfolded in stepwise fashion from around 1600 until today. In an essay from October 11, 2013, “In the Year 2013…Will There Be Faith on the earth?” I distinguish between two different types of logic at work in historical development—linear and dialectical logic. (By “logic” I mean the connections ideas and actions have with each other whereby one leads to another.)

The thesis that

“Humanity is in its inner essence absolutely free from all alien limits and can attain this freedom in actuality through its own effort”

is teeming with revolutionary implications impossible to grasp at once. Only in the history it inspires does its latent meaning become manifest and understandable. Only with historical hindsight can we see that this thesis stated above was at work all along. In that history, the moment human beings are liberated from one alien “oppressor,” others oppressors come into view, and so on without limit, without end. The church and kings were dealt with first. History since the American and French Revolutions witnesses one liberation movement after another driven by the linear logic that seeks to unfold the real-world implications of the principle of self-determining freedom. Today, we have reached the point a which the physical body itself—understood as a biological given—has come to be seen as oppressive. Human nature, body and soul, must now submit to the absolute freedom of human subjectivity and willfulness.

However there is another logic at work in the history of freedom—a dialectical logic.

(“Dialectic” refers to conversation or debate wherein one partner’s affirmation provokes the other’s denial. The denial, then, provokes a defense, and so on. You can unfold an idea linearly by yourself, theoretically, but dialectical logic requires conflict with others.)

Strong and unambiguous assertions always provoke denials, and radical acts provoke strong reactions. At some point it becomes apparent—or at least felt—that if the ideal of absolute freedom was put into practice consistently it would mean absolute destruction of all order, truth, reason, and rules. That is to say, freedom without limits works total destruction. Nihilism is the secret spirit of the age, the source of its power, and the mystery of its appeal. But not everyone is fascinated with the specter of total destruction. They foresee that using the ideal of unlimited freedom even in a relatively just cause—for example, the quest for liberation from slavery, racism, and sexism—will eventually destroy the principles by which we understood those causes to be just to begin with. Hence they push back against the “spirit of the age” and “the arc of history.” Such “conservatives” may succeed in the short term, but they will fail in the long term unless they expose the secret nihilism of the age in a way that convinces the cultural leaders of their errors. Sadly I don’t see this happening. The linear logic of nihilism-disguised-as-freedom, of humanity masquerading as God, will continue its destructive course until it is unmasked by history itself or everything is destroyed.

Christ Crucified or the Spirit of the Age

Christian people are not immune to fascination with the spirit of the age. After all, it appeals to that universal human desire “to be as God” discussed in Genesis 3. And if we think God’s divinity and eternal joy are rooted in his power over everything and his freedom from all limits, we will desire such power and freedom and resent that do not not possess them. We have no defense and nothing significant to say to a culture that pursues openly what we desire in secret. Our only hope is to embrace the counterintuitive truth that God’s deepest wisdom and power are revealed in the cross of Christ (1 Cor 1:18-25). God’s deepest nature is self-giving, other-oriented love. This divine love should be our highest ideal and following the way of the cross our loftiest ambition. The spirit of our age is a substitute god, an idol. And in my estimation coming to see this clearly is a mark of wisdom and an achievement of understanding.

19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:19-21).

To be continued…