How to Make Mencken a Christian

Turn doubt into fruit of the Spirit:

Doubt signals that this process of dying and rising is underway. Though God feels far away, at that moment God may be closer than we realize—especially if “know what you believe” is how we’re used to thinking of our faith.

Doubt isn’t cool, hipster, or chic. Doubt isn’t a new source of pride. Don’t go looking for doubt; don’t tempt it to arrive out of time. But neither is doubt the terrifying final word.

Doubt is sacred. Doubt is God’s instrument, will arrive in God’s time, and will come from unexpected places—places out of your control. And when it does, resist the fight-or-flight impulse. Pass through it—patiently, honestly, and courageously for however long it takes. True transformation takes time.

Being conscious of this process does not relieve the pain of doubt, but it may help circumnavigate our corrupted instinct, which is to fear doubt as the enemy to be slain. Rather, supported by people we trust not to judge us, we work on welcoming the process as a gift—which is hard to do when our entire life narrative is falling down around us. But we are learning in that season, as Qohelet did, to trust God anyway and not to trust our “correct” thinking about God.

Doubt is divine tough love. God means to have all of us, not just the surface, going-to-church, volunteering part. Not just the part people see, but the parts so buried no one sees them.
Not even us.

Imagine how great it must be to have faith.

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Grade Giver, Grade Thyself

Actually don’t. The optics are off, but end-of-year blogging brings out the worst of the medium:

There is always both wheat and chaff in hurried weekly commentaries. A look back on the past year of my RNS writings reveals plenty of both.

I was right, I think, in my claim that progressive and conservative evangelicals are heading for divorce, though it will never be an entirely clean or complete one.

I was right that America’s national character is eroding — that one sign of that erosion is the nature of our politics and another is the nature of our social media.

My improved peace of mind and retention of good relations with friends and family suggest I was right to abandon Facebook last summer.

I was right that clergy entanglement with American politics is an abiding temptation that regularly makes clergy useful idiots to politicians.

I was right that the (mainly white) Christian right’s embrace of Donald Trump was deeply discrediting to the Christianity that group purports to represent. At least, I believe I was right.

I also think I was right in my regular critiques of the campaign rhetoric and policy proposals of Mr. Trump. Now we all hold our breath to see what kind of president he will actually be.

I was right that differences about ideology, politics, and faith continually tear at the fabric of our society, our churches, and our friendships.

I was right that middle ground on the LGBT issue is eroding.

I was right that the resolution of the Wheaton College/Larycia Hawkins case and her forced departure deeply wounded the cause of Christian higher education, not to mention Professor Hawkins and Wheaton.

It goes on.

Why don’t the smartest people in society not see the problem of self-evaluations? Have they never watched a Coen brother’s movie?

How the Mind Works

Consider two different takes on Russia’s involvement in the recent presidential election. The first from my friend and evangelical historian colleague, John Fea:

At the 2:45 mark in the video Smerconish wonders why Americans of all parties are not upset with the fact that Putin and Russia has influenced a presidential election. If Smerconish is correct, and I tend to think that he is, then “identity politics” (or, as Little puts it, just good old fashioned political partisanship) has now gotten in the way of the national security interests of all Americans, regardless of political party.

Yes, the Cold War is over. The Soviet Union has been gone for over 25 years. But if Putin represents some kind of revival of the Russian threat (as Mitt Romney correctly implied during his 2012 presidential run) then it looks are response to this threat will not follow the Cold War model of unified resistance. Whatever collective outrage we have had in the past about Russians trying to influence American life seems to have now been subordinated to party politics.

Then this from James Kunstler:

The New York Times especially worked the “Russia Hacks Election” story to a fare-the-well, saying in its Sunday edition:

The Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that Moscow put its thumb on the scale for Mr. Trump through the release of hacked Democratic emails, which provided fodder for many of the most pernicious false attacks on Mrs. Clinton on social media.

False attacks? What, that Hillary’s cronies put the DNC’s “thumb on the scale” against Bernie Sanders? That Donna Brazille gave Hillary debate questions beforehand? That as Secretary of State Hillary gave more face-time to foreign supplicants based on their contributions to the Clinton Foundation, and expedited arms deals for especially big givers? That she collected millions in speaking fees for sucking up to Too-Big-To-Fail bankers? That The Times and The WashPo and CNN reporters were taking direction from Hillary’s PR operatives?

Consider, too, how the Deep State “Russia Hacks Election” meme was ramped up to top volume coincidentally the week before the electoral college vote, as a last-ditch effort was launched by the old-line media, the diehard Hillary partisans, and a bunch of Hollywood celebrities, to persuade electoral college delegates to switch their votes to deprive Trump of his election victory.

President Obama did his bit to amplify the message by coloring Russian President Vladimir Putin as being behind the so-called hacking because “not much happens in Russia without, you know, Vladimir Putin,” just like not much happened in old Puritan New England without the involvement of Old Scratch. So now we have an up-to-date Devil figure to stir the paranoid imaginations of an already divided and perturbed public.

In John’s and my world, lots of exchanges go round about w-w, what difference faith makes for scholarship, and (John more than I) whether historians add value to discussions of contemporary events. Perhaps the question too often left out is what accounts for the trust that people put in large scale institutions — from the New York Times to the Central Intelligence Agency. I bet that Kunstler isn’t much impressed by powerful institutions. In fact, he seems to know as watchers of The Wire do that institutions and the individuals who work in them are prone to self-interest and corruption. I don’t want to put words in John’s mouth, but he does seem to share with many other academics a trust in the mainstream media.

Is that what history teaches us?

Christianity?

W-w thinking?

Maybe the world is divided between those who put their hopes in princes (depending on the party occupying the White House), and those who think that Progressives were wrong, that there is no “right side of history,” that it’s all “vanity under the sun.”

Not to be missed, though, in Kunstler’s post was this:

Hillary and her supporters have vehemently asserted that “seventeen intelligence agencies” agree with the assessment that Russia hacked the election. It might be greater news to the American people to hear that there actually are seventeen such agencies out there. Perhaps Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama might explain exactly what they are beyond the CIA, the FBI, the DIA, the NSA, and DHS. Personally, I feel less secure knowing that there are so many additional surveillance services sifting through everybody’s digital debris trail.

Exactly. Well, not exactly since I’m not sure what U.S. spies would actually do with my ordinary digital footprint. But 17 intelligence agencies. Where’s the academic left’s outrage over President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s compromise with the Bush Administration’s draconian surveillance state? Can we get an “amen” for original sin and power’s corruption?

Imagine if They Had Worried about Syria

Sean Trende (via Rod) on recent U.S. political history:

Democrats and liberals have: booed the inclusion of God in their platform at the 2012 convention (this is disputed, but it is the perception); endorsed a regulation that would allow transgendered students to use the bathroom and locker room corresponding to their identity; attempted to force small businesses to cover drugs they believe induce abortions; attempted to force nuns to provide contraceptive coverage; forced Brendan Eich to step down as chief executive officer of Mozilla due to his opposition to marriage equality; fined a small Christian bakery over $140,000 for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding; vigorously opposed a law in Indiana that would provide protections against similar regulations – despite having overwhelmingly supported similar laws when they protected Native American religious rights – and then scoured the Indiana countryside trying to find a business that would be affected by the law before settling upon a small pizza place in the middle of nowhere and harassing the owners. In 2015, the United States solicitor general suggested that churches might lose their tax exempt status if they refused to perform same-sex marriages. In 2016, the Democratic nominee endorsed repealing the Hyde Amendment, thereby endorsing federal funding for elective abortions.

All the power of a global hegemon and we use it like this?

Papal Golf

The president of Catholic University of America seems to have taken too many meals at Outback — no rules, just right (no hell, just purgatory?):

What I really love about Pope Francis and the message that he’s trying to get across is that we’re Catholics, we belong to the Church, and we believe what the Church teaches because Jesus came to redeem us and show us His mercy.

The message to others isn’t, “Gosh, you ought to be Catholic because you should follow this or that set of rules.” The message is, “Good news: you’re redeemed. Here’s what a life lived in response to that truth looks like.”

Imagine you’re speaking to someone from Finland who has grown up north of the Arctic Circle, and had never seen a golf course and had no idea what golf was. You’re trying to explain to this person why you love golf and how important it is.

One way of doing it is saying while you’re in the tee box, you don’t want to hit it outside the white stakes because that’s out of bounds and the penalty is a stroke and distance, and you don’t want to go past the red stakes because those are lateral hazards and there’s a stroke penalty. And you don’t want to get in the sand trap because, while that doesn’t cost you a stroke, it’s hard to get out of.

You’d rather say, “Here’s the deal: you see that hole down there-we’re going down this short grass here and we’re putting it in the hole in the least number of strokes, and we’re going to have a nice visit while we do it.”

It’s not that there aren’t rules for golf-no out of bounds, no lateral hazards, no sand traps-it’s that focusing on avoiding sin is not the message that brings people to love Jesus.
Pope Francis is exactly right-the bull’s-eye of the Catholic message of the gospel is, “Jesus loves you.” Your life is messed up? We’ve got some good news for you. That’s what I love about Francis. There is nothing in any of that that doesn’t appeal to all of us. . . .

That’s not to say there aren’t out of bounds or rules or anything, which he’s stipulated, but because he’s so inviting, people are willing to take a first listen. Some in the media on the left would like to take from that the lesson that the Catholic Church has abandoned all the rules about lateral hazards and sand traps, and some on the right take the same mistaken view. And of course Pope Francis makes clear that’s not what he’s saying.

But when it comes to discerning a difference between the church and the world, no problem. The U.S. bishops are doing nothing different from the ACLU (I kid not):

When we invite someone to be a commencement speaker, the university is saying something. That’s why the American Catholic bishops say that Catholic universities shouldn’t give honors, platforms, and awards to people whose view is at odds with the views of the Catholic Church.

What they are saying literally is that universities like us shouldn’t endorse people like that. We should not say “Yay, Barack Obama, you support enshrining the ‘right’ to kill the unborn.” We shouldn’t give him honorary degrees or hold him up to our students as our example.

On the other hand, I would be perfectly happy to invite President Obama to Catholic University, even to talk about abortion if he wanted to. What better place than to have a conversation with the President about an issue that is important to Catholics and others? We’re just not going to give him a prize for taking a position that we condemn.

So, this notion isn’t at all inconsistent with notions of academic freedom on campus. It follows the standard kind of distinction that other universities follow.

Here’s a parallel example. Every year we see the ACLU bashing, say Montana State, for inviting some preacher to say an invocation before the commencement. The First Amendment rule about that is that public universities should not endorse religious positions, therefore, the preacher is welcome to come on campus to talk or to say prayers but they can’t make him the commencement speaker.

The ACLU doesn’t come in behind the bishops on their position, but they are saying the same thing.

Speechless.

If You Think Universities are Too Western, You’re Right

Students at Seattle University, a Jesuit institution, have successfully forced a controversial dean to resign. Jodi Kelly, dean of the university’s Matteo Ricci College, drew fire from students when she used the n-word in an email to a student. That the word was also the title of a book by an African-American author didn’t matter to students:

in a discussion with a student who wanted to better understand the experiences of members of minority groups, Kelly suggested Nigger, the autobiography of Dick Gregory, the civil rights activist. Among those who defended Kelly on her recommending the book by name was Gregory himself, who wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed about the debate at Seattle.

Even as attention on the N-word receded, the debate about Kelly and the college she led only grew. Kelly’s critics and supporters agree that she is a proponent of a rigorous humanities curriculum — such as that offered by the college — built around the Western classics. To the protesting students, that was a big part of the problem.

But universities are supposed to be Western. It’s what they do:

Universities are one of the few institutions that are a direct contribution of medieval Latin Christendom to contemporary Western civilization. Being an export wherever else they are found, they are also unique to Western culture. To be sure, all cultures have had their intellectuals: those men and women whose task it has been to learn, to know, and to teach. But only in Latin Christendom were scholars — the company of masters and students — gathered together into the universitas whose entire purpose was to develop and disseminate knowledge in a continuous and systematic fashion with little regard for the consequences of their activities. When professors and students today study and write about universities, they are therefore engaged in more than group therapy in the midst of troubled times for what is now ambiguously called “higher education.” They are analyzing an essential element in the culture that has come to dominate the entire globe. (James M. Kittelson, “The Durability of the Universities of Old Europe”)

In other words, if you want to speak truth to power, don’t go to university. If you do, you join the system of oppression.

What Must I Do To Be Married?

It used to be that Hebrews were the forerunners of the church. Just look at what Jesus says to his disciples on the road to Emmaus. Turns out Bible readers were wrong. It was the Stoics who prepared the way for Christianity:

The Stoics actually lived lives full of joy, peace, and meaning. Though bereft of God’s divine revelation in the Old and New Covenants, they stretched their God-given powers of reason to the limit, reaching many of the same conclusions that Christians came to regarding life, liberty, and love. . . .

How close were they to divine truth? Musonius Rufus is considered one of the first pro-life philosophers. He praised large families, extolled fidelity in marriage, argued against abortion and contraception, and connected the purpose of marriage to procreation and the unitive value between husband and wife. Quite astounding for someone who was born a few decades before Jesus Christ.

The Stoic philosophers were not interested in pie-in-the-sky theorizing. Rather, they focused on eminently practical topics like: should a child obey his parents? How should we dress ourselves? What is the meaning of pain and hardship? Must we learn what is good and follow it?

Nor were they interested in sin, damnation, sacrifice or expiation.

Kevin Devin Rose left Protestantism for this?

Tying Yourself Up In Knots

Yet another reminder of ecclesiastical superiority:

I am Catholic because Catholicism is true.

It is not a little true.

It is not some truth mixed with error; if I wanted that, I definitely wouldn’t be here. I am Catholic because the Catholic Church is the only place you will find the fullness of Truth. It is for Truth that I became a Catholic, and it is for Truth that I will die a Catholic.

So what’s a truth-affirming Roman Catholic supposed to do with the historical circumstances that reduce credibility, like the Index of Books?

The Index dated back to the Council of Trent, where the Council Fathers sought to protect the faith and morals of the Catholic population by preventing the reading of heretical and immoral books.

Even before that, at the Fifth Lateran Council and earlier, in the ninth century, the Church attempted to ban books which were considered inappropriate reading. And restrictions on the public’s right to read have been imposed, not only by the Catholic Church, but by the Puritans in the original American Colonies.

I remember first learning about the Index at my mother’s knee. In hushed tones she spoke of a neighbor, a woman who scorned the Church’s guidance and dared to read the banned books. At the same time, she raised an eyebrow at the thought that some might ignore the Catholic Legion of Decency’s “C” (Condemned) rating for films or its secular equivalent, the Hayes Code.

If the church has THE truth, and if it puts out an index on THE errors, then isn’t it odd that truth affirmers may now read error? The reaction to the Index on the anniversary of its abolition (that’s right) is mixed. According to Simcha Fisher:

“My take? The Index was a very bad thing, and it’s much more in keeping with a developed understanding of conscience for the faithful to make their own decisions about what to read…. At the same time, it would be a very good thing if the faithful had a clearer understanding that they do have a duty to make careful decisions about what to read.”

David Mills counters:

“…the idea of an index only sounds funny to us because we don’t think of ideas as dangerous. We recognise physical infections but not intellectual ones…. In that, the advantage goes to the men who invented the Index and kept it going. They took ideas seriously. They thought some ideas would poison you just like nicotine-filled smoke and that some people who might innocently indulge should be protected from poisoning themselves.”

Kathy Schiffer takes comfort from everyone doing it:

the truth is that censorship exists everywhere—and that frequently, those most determined to limit ideas are those on the left. Censorship is at play when people would ban the name of God in a public meeting, obliterate the Ten Commandments on a courtroom wall, prevent schoolchildren from being exposed to the Bible in the classroom. Christian parents, in a case of right-triggered censorship, may applaud the removal of the lesbian-themed “Heather Has Two Mommies” from the elementary school library, while at the same time celebrating as a victory for free speech the inclusion of a prayer by the valedictorian at a commencement ceremony.

Even Luther:

The heretical priest Martin Luther, whose rejection of Catholic teaching triggered the Protestant Reformation, engaged in censorship of ideas which he found incompatible with his personal worldview. Besides his inclusion into the Scriptures of the phrase “faith alone,” Luther reportedly burned St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae—his seminal survey of things social and moral and theological—as well as his other works on the nature of God and the world.

Where does this leave the one who says he’s found the truth in Rome? It leaves him in an awkward spot:

But one thing I had solved was the authority of the Church to teach these things. I knew that the Church was protected by the Holy Spirit from ever teaching error. And so I said to myself: Well, if the Catholic Church can not teach any doctrine that is false, then any remaining problems that I have are my own error, and not the Church’s.

That was a key moment for me: the realization that I am not the arbiter of Truth. The Church is, guided by the Holy Spirit. I am not the Church’s teacher; the Church is my teacher.

Except that the teacher no longer instructs about which books are bad, and the same teacher lets students make up their own minds.

Can someone tell the apologists (that includes Bryan and the Jasons) to act like Vatican II happened?

Don’t Take the Bait

Lots more hue and cry doom and gloom about President Obama’s “letter” (is that have the same authority as an apostolic exhortation?) that instructs all public schools to make bathroom provisions for transgender students. I’m not sure how the president has the stomach for this kind of helicopter presidency when he has time for stop-and-chats with Marc Maron and Marilyn Robinson. Is he really prepared to send federal troops into schools — a la University of Alabama under George Wallace — that don’t comply. If the IRS lets $20 billion get away every year in unclaimed, unpaid, or fake returns (I hear), what’s a bathroom or two to the cause of transgender rights? Heck, is President Obama going to write a letter that specifies the most environmentally friendly way for bathroom users to dry their hands (in the light of climate change; has transclimate as an identity dawned on anyone, a hot planet trapped inside a cold earth?).

But culture warrior Christians feel embattled and are itching for a chance to show the state is tyrannical, wicked, and liberal. Denny Burk’s blood is boiling anyway:

The Obama administration is announcing its intent to coerce through force of law every public school to accept this. He expects your local school to allow boys to use bathroom and shower facilities with girls and vice versa. So long as the child’s parents are willing to go along with their child’s new identity, the school has to let students into the bathroom and locker room of the opposite sex.

This directive is jaw-dropping. The Obama administration doesn’t care whether the local or state school system supports such a move. It doesn’t care whether parents want male students showering with the female students or vice versa. . . .

What is going on here? The answer is very simple. President Obama feels the wind at his back in advocating LGBT rights. Gay marriage is now the law of the land, and gay people are now serving openly in the military. Now President Obama is turning to the “T” in LGBT, and he’s making bathrooms and locker rooms the issue. As the Attorney General has made clear, those who refuse to go along will be treated like Jim Crow bigots.

This radical directive is a heavy-handed, unconstitutional overreach in order to force Americans to pretend that some boys are girls and some girls are boys. It is absurd and wrong. And I wonder if this may not be a bridge too far even for people who are otherwise liberal. Are fathers going to be okay with their daughters undressing in locker rooms where boys can see them? No matter how much one may support President Obama, what dad would go along with this?

Has Prof. Burk considered that a school principal could ignore this letter in much the same way that U.S. drivers ignore speed limits? And what if conservative pundits also decided to ignore the letter and not push the indignant button. After reading recently Andrew Hartman’s book on the culture wars, I tempted to think that conservatives overreacted to matters (like Serano’s Piss Christ) and by protesting gave such transgressive displays more weight than they would have had had no protesters shown up — like millions were going to see Serano’s exhibit without the politics of self-righteousness to motivate them.

If only Kim Davis would come back and lead the charge against bathroom reforms. That’ll work.

Where's Jesus?

Wouldn’t one of those answers that always work in response to any Sunday school question — the Bible, God, or Jesus — be the answer to the dilemma of God’s justice and divine mercy?

But when Pope Francis answers the question, he neglects Jesus and the cross, the ultimate confluence of justice and mercy:

“Sacred Scripture presents us with God as infinite mercy, but also as perfect justice. How are these two things reconciled? How can the reality of mercy be articulated with the need for justice?” the Pope said Feb. 3.

While these two characteristics can seem like opposites, “it’s precisely the mercy of God that brings the fulfillment of true justice,” Francis affirmed.

The Pope made his comments to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly general audience. He recently began a new series of catechesis on the topic of mercy as it is understood in Scripture, in honor of the Jubilee of Mercy.

He said that when we think of justice, what might come to mind is an administration office where victims of an injustice appeal to a judge in court, asking that justice be done.
This, Francis noted, “is retributive justice, imposing a punishment to the guilty, according to the principle that each must be given what is due him.” While certain wrongs can be made right in this way, he said that it “still doesn’t bring true justice.”

Instead, it’s “only in responding with good that evil can be truly defeated,” the Pope said, explaining that this is what we find in the Bible

By helping the guilty person to see the evil done and by appealing to conscience, he can change. Such persons are able “to see their wrong and be open to the forgiveness offered,” Francis said, noting that this is also how families forgive each other, spouses and children included.

Might this be a window into the the problem of Roman Catholic laity not knowing church dogma? And don’t forget how the social justice designs of the mainline Protestant churches eventually made doctrine a trifle.