Why Isn’t Jamie Smith Alarmed?

Alarm sells more books (and Rod Dreher sells more books than Jamie Smith).

Jamie has a point that Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option traffics in alarmism (does that mean alarm is okay):

And in his much-anticipated book, “The Benedict Option,” blogger Rod Dreher has seen the apocalypse: “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.” Note, again: if you’re not alarmed, you’re not seeing things, a circular reasoning to help work yourself into a froth of fear.

But Rod is right that Jamie goes too far and virtue signals to elite journalists in the nation’s capital who may not view Calvin College in high regard these days (think Calvin alum, Betsy De Vos) when Smith trots out the standard Never Trump meme that alarmism is a version of white backlash. Jamie, who promotes charity, really did go here:

But the new alarmism is something different. It is tinged with a bitterness and resentment and sense of loss that carries a whiff of privilege threatened rather than witness compromised. When Dreher, for example, laments the “loss of a world,” several people notice that world tends to be white. And what seems to be lost is a certain default power and privilege. When Dreher imagines “vibrant Christianity,” it is on the other side of the globe. He doesn’t see the explosion of African churches in the heart of New York City or the remarkable growth of Latino Protestantism. The fear seems suspiciously tied to white erosion.

Jamie may work in Dutch-American country, but he’s no provincial.

So Rod feels betrayed:

I cite the research of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, who documents the stark decline of American Christian belief, compared to historical doctrinal norms. I cite the more recent findings, by Pew, by Jean Twenge, and by others, showing the unprecedented falloff of religious identification and practice among Millennials. And I cite the recent study by two eminent sociologists of religion who found that the United States is now on the same secularizing track as Europe (I wrote about that also here, on this blog.)

If you are a believing Christian who is not alarmed by this, you have your head in the sand. On his blog the other day, Alan Jacobs observed that some public critics of the Benedict Option seem to be operating from a position of “motivated reasoning” — that is, that they are reacting less about what’s actually in the book than in how the book’s premises, if true, threaten their own biases and interests. In other words, they may be motivated to react with hostility to it, beyond legitimate criticism. To put it more uncharitably, as the saying goes, it is hard to get a man to see something when his paycheck depends on him not seeing it.

Is that happening here? I don’t know. I can’t read James K.A. Smith’s mind. I do know that I find it awfully strange that he turned so sharply on the Benedict Option, in the time he did. And I find it especially dishonest — and, frankly, morally and intellectually discreditable — that he would impute racist motivations to me when the book I wrote, which he has in hand, makes a very different claim.

As I have indicated many times, what bothers me about the BenOp is that Rod only seems to understand a cultural crisis now when some Christians (the mainstream calls them fundamentalists) saw it at least a century ago. My sense is that Rod grew up fairly comfortable in mainline Protestant America and only when the mainline churches went really flaky did he look for Christian sustenance elsewhere — first Rome, then Constantinople. But he seems to have no awareness that Protestants circa 1900 saw trends in the mainline world that plausibly predicted what would happen to the Protestant mainline in the Angela Davis era.

One of those Protestants from the turn of the twentieth century who saw the crisis of modern society was a man who has inspired many of the faculty and administrators at the college where Jamie Smith teaches. The college is Calvin and the old Protestant is Abraham Kuyper. The Dutch pastor, university founder, politician and theologian knew alarm and encouraged it among his followers. Kuyper put the antithesis this way:

Not faith and science, therefore, but two scientific systems or, if you choose, two scientific elaborations, are opposed to each other, each having its own faith. Nor may it be said that it is here science which opposes theology, for we have to do with two absolute forms of science, both of which claim the whole domain of human knowledge…. [They dispute] with one another the whole domain of life.

Jacob Klapwijk explains that antithetical vision this way:

Throughout human society, in church, state, and community, the believer is called pro Rege, that is, he is called to follow King Jesus. Pro Rege means mobilizing Christian forces for the battle against idolatrous and anti-Christian powers at work in culture. To build science on Christian principles is part of that calling. The other side of the coin is that every form of s science based on, say, humanistic principles is to be opposed; demanded is a thoroughgoing antithetical attitude toward non-Christian thought.

That is part of the rationale that inspires the institution where Jamie Smith works. It’s the reason why parents send their children not to University of Michigan but to Calvin College. For Smith to act like alarmism is only a card that Rod Dreher plays is to be as historically unaware as Rod himself.

Alarmism happens. It’s even biblical:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)

I do wish critics of modernity like Dreher and Smith would remember that the world went south well before Alasdair MacIntyre or Charles Taylor started writing books. It happened when God barred Adam and Eve from Eden.

Would You Let Your Wife Teach in Public Schools?

As one of our regulars here suggested off-line, Tim Challies should sound so nuanced about movies (or stop slandering actors and actresses):

However, if we were to begin again today, I am quite sure we would not enroll our children in public schools. What concerns me is that our decision would not be based on conviction but fear, fear generated by statements we have heard from others about public schools and, in particular, about public school teachers. Over the years we have encountered hundreds of statements about the dangers of such teachers. We have been assured that public schools are the breeding ground for every kind of social evil, that they are the lair of predatory teachers, that they are full of tenured and unionized employees who care nothing for children. We have heard that public school teachers care only for ideology, that they will allow no leeway for Christian beliefs, that they will do their utmost to undermine the hard training of parents who attempt to raise their children with biblical ideals. In many Christian circles, public school teachers are made out to be the enemies of the faith.

Our experience of public school teachers has been far different and far more positive. And I don’t think we are the exception, not from what I’ve heard when speaking to people in my church, in my city, in my family, and even as I’ve spoken to many of you at conferences or churches or events. Of course some have had bad experiences, but not all. Not nearly all.

So in some spheres, the antithesis doesn’t go all the way down. It does in movies that show skin, supposedly. But imagine if Challies could concede that some films and tv shows that reveal flesh are “far different” from merely being about lust and “far more positive” in their portrayals of characters and social contexts. What if my experience of movies has not been all bad? That despite all the skin-avoiders say about “dirty” movies, these films and shows are about far more than lust, sex, adultery?

In other words, if you can entertain shades of gray with public education — one of the great sins for a certain strand of Calvinism — why not with television and film production? Conflicted minds want to know.

Can't We All Get Along?

Generally speaking, American Christians have a tough time perceiving Muslims as anything but a threat if they are promoting Sharia. But why oh why are not Christians similarly concerned about how threatening they might seem to those non-Christians with whom they share North American civil society? Two examples suggest that Christians have as hard a time fitting into modern secular society as Muslims. First, a Canadian iteration about the limits of public education:

To defenders of the North American status quo, school choice is shorthand for a set of policies that will undermine the effectiveness of a single education system, ensuring that all children are educated along similar core values. For those who advocate against big government and favour free market competition, school choice protects the freedoms of individual families and raises standards and performance. But what if most of us don’t actually make choices this way at the local level? In reality, there are two basic questions that parents ask:

Should we have more than one meaningful option as to where we will send our child to school?

Is every school appropriate for every child?

Parents make decisions regarding the education of their children in many ways. Accessibility to a desired school is among the most significant factors in real estate decisions. And while the range between the quality of schools in more affluent neighbourhoods and those in less affluent ones varies depending on the part of North America in which you live, the notion that common funding formulas automatically translate into equal educational quality is commonly understood to be mythical.

Parents desire different types of schools for all sorts of reasons. Whether they’re placing priority on the language, pedagogy, religious perspective, or any one of an additional dozen factors, decisions regarding schooling priorities can be as diverse as the population itself. The functional social question that emerges is two-fold: Which of these choices should be supported by the community? Should the same rules and the same funding apply to all of the choices?

I personally (all about moi) have great sympathy for this argument but at the same time we should remember that public schools were created to provide a common curriculum and basic level of education for citizenship in a republican or constitutional monarchy. If Christians opt out of public schools — and there are many good reasons — they are also opting out of a common project and claiming implicitly that their faith sets them apart from Canadian or American identity. This is more antithesis than common grace providence.

So where will Christian exclusivism end? Does it extend to vaccines? Maybe so:

Can parents have their children vaccinated with the MMR vaccine without compromising their pro-life principles—without cooperating with the Culture of Death? The National Catholic Register addressed that question this week, and although I cannot find any clear error of fact in the article, I think it creates a very inaccurate impression.

Relying heavily on analysis by the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), the Register explains that parents who choose to have their children vaccinated are engaged only in “remote material cooperation” with abortion. Given the potential risks of disease, the article reports, the Vatican has stated that parents can be justified in chosing vaccination.

That’s all perfectly true. But reading the Register article, one might conclude that the Vatican has said parents should vaccinate. That’s not accurate. The Pontifical Academy for Life, in a statement released in 2005, said that parents could be justified in choosing vaccination. The statement did not say that this choice was preferable, let alone mandatory.

What the Vatican did say, with undeniable clarity, was that parents have a moral obligation to insist on vaccines that are not prepared by immoral means: vaccines not derived from fetal remains. The Pontifical Academy for Life wrote that “there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically.”

Of course, the reasons against vaccination here are more complicated than parents simply questioning the w-w of the medical establishment. But it does again raise questions about the willingness of Christians to participate in a common life that runs according to shared standards of education, medicine, and science. I get it. No neutrality in every square inch. But how about commonality (at least in a Commonwealth)?

So could the author of the Letter to Diognetus say this about today’s Protestants and Roman Catholics in North America?

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

If he couldn’t, should that make Christians more sympathetic to Muslims who also want to maintain their religious ways?

If We Can Yawn about Blasphemous Cartoons . . .

what about public schools?

Paris has some Kuyperians thinking:

The tradition in which I am currently immersed–the Kuyperian tradition–tends to use the term secular like a curse word. The argument usually begins and ends by showing that there is no such thing – there is no neutrality or objectivity. Everything has a direction, a telos, and some form of religious grounding. It might be the worship of the true God, or it might be the worship of some idol–the point is every part of creation is caught up in a religious direction or grounding. I get it. This, however, is much more an argument against “secularism” and not secularity. Secularity, I believe, is the freeing of the world to be the world. That trees in fact are just as mysterious being trees as they are being the conduit of spirits or even God’s grace to us. Maybe God is happy letting trees be trees? In fact, as Charles Taylor argues in his work The Secular Age, secularity of this type can be traced back to the reform movement of the 16th century. That’s us… those who stand in the line of Luther and Calvin.

So what does this have to do with what happened in France? Maybe reclaiming a healthy sense of secularity can be a tiny step toward preventing people from killing others over cartoons that, to be honest, are disgusting and offensive. (A colleague showed me a cartoon of the Trinity drawn by Charlie Hebdow… yikes!) But what if we all–Jews, Muslims, Christians, etc–recognized that these cartoons have no power, they do not strike at the heart of what we believe, and they are not all that funny. What if we learned to respond to issues like this with a collective “yawn” because the only power these images have is the power we give them? Yes we need to be politically and culturally engaged, Christians should be part of the debate about important issues. But at the end of the day, Charlie Hebdow, Obamacare, or the Green Bay Packers, should not be a reason to hate our brothers and sisters made in the image of God.

And yet, if everything comes down to antithesis, then isn’t enmity everywhere?

Will the Real Kuyper Stand Up?

From Crawford Gribben’s recent review of George Marsden’s book on 1950s America (and more):

His conclusion draws from the philosophy and political strategies of Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), the renowned theologian, newspaper editor, and founder of the Free University in Amsterdam, who also found time to become the Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901–05).

Kuyper’s theory of “sphere sovereignty” incorporated central tenets of the Calvinism he had inherited, but radically reconstructed its traditional political obligations. The Reformed tradition within which Kuyper operated had long assumed that the role of government was to uphold the moral claims of Scripture, and to effect a confessional culture in which societal norms paralleled those of believers. Kuyper’s great contribution to the Reformed tradition was to overturn this consensus, sometimes at substantial risk to himself, arguing for a more limited view of the responsibilities of government, and emphasizing that it ought not to intrude into the “spheres” of family, church, and voluntary associations. Kuyper argued that believers and unbelievers were divided by an “antithesis” that was simultaneously spiritual and existential, and so advocated the establishment of denominational schools and universities within which believers of different kinds could be separately educated.

This intrusion of sharp religious distinctions into the public square was balanced by Kuyper’s advocacy of “common grace”—the notion that all of humanity, as God’s image-bearers, were recipients of divine kindness—which permitted the construction of a public culture that could be non-confessional and non-denominational. Believers, in other words, could organize in robustly confessional institutions within a broader political environment that respected religious difference while enshrining the non-confessional principles of “natural law.” Kuyper’s utopia looked a lot like constitutional Americanisms, however far it would be from the sometimes theocratic assumptions of modern evangelicals.

This is a Kuyper behind whom I can line up. Church is a distinct sphere with limited responsibilities. Kuyperians use natural law instead of insisting on revealed truth in public life. Christian truth serves not as a basis for driving out the secularists and leftists but offers a strategy for embracing pluralism.

So why is it that the influence of neo-Calvinism flourished precisely during the most contested battles of the culture wars? One account would have to rely on Francis Schaeffer and his use of w-w to show why Christians could never bend the knee to a neutral public space. Along with that has to go a stress upon the neo-Calvinist notion of antithesis which does a handy job of dividing believers from unbelievers — why it doesn’t divide Calvinists from Arminians, or Protestants from Roman Catholics, or Christians from Jews is another matter.

Does W-w Lack Nuance?

While paranoid observers are still trying to sort out whether “bless you” is permitted in certain classes at the College of Coastal Georgia, evangelicals are upset about Vanderbilt’s decision to prohibit campus organizations from establishing their own standards for student leadership. Matthew Lee Anderson has come to the following realization in the light of increasing hostility to evangelical Protestantism at U.S. colleges and universities:

Many of the most hopeful and best parts of evangelicalism the past fifteen years have been encompassed by an incipient desire for respectability. The resurgent apologetics-evangelicals have sought to demonstrate the faith’s intellectual credibility, while the artistic evangelicals have made it quite clear you can still love Jesus and watch House of Cards, thank you very much. The politically-reformist evangelicals have put a hole in the “not like those Republicans” drum, while the social justice evangelicals have made everyone forget about the Four Spiritual Laws. And some of us—ahem—have pounded on about how we can read the old stuff, too, which can be its own form of “not like them folks there” attitude. . . . the vast majority of us will, I suspect, continue to fight and plead for a kind of respectability out of the earnest, good-hearted desire to see our neighbors convinced of our ideas—or if not of our ideas, at the very least of our sanity. Arguments for ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ and ‘respect’ are coming fast and furious these days, after all, even though they are fifteen years (at least) too late.

Anderson is echoing a piece at Christianity Today in which Tish Harrison Warren commented on Vanderbilt’s decision:

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space. The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus. It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

I empathize with Anderson and Warren, and I can’t deny that a form of anti-Christianism exists in many sectors of the academy that resembles the sorts of prejudices that Protestants used to harbor against Roman Catholics (leaving room, of course, for good sorts of prejudices). But I do wonder why folks like Anderson or Warren are surprised by this outcome. After all, my theory is that gay marriage is simply the push back that evangelicals may be justly receiving for touting family values the way they have for the last three decades. “You want family values? Well, let’s add homosexuality to family values. How do you like them now?”

And now, Vanderbilt’s decision may be simply the consequence of promoting w-w for as long as Tim Lahaye’s wife has been writing about sex. What I mean is that evangelicals, following their neo-Calvinist superiors, have adopted the mantra that faith goes all the way down and separates believers from non-believers. This means that we cannot treat religion as a private matter since it must affect everything a religionist does. It means that the divide between the secular and sacred, between the public square and the church assembly is artificial and arbitrary. It means as well that a Christian scholar will study the arts or sciences differently from the secular scholar, and that the Christian college will be different because faith-soaked institutions will bring religion to bear on every nook and cranny of the curriculum.

In other words, for all the effort to employ “common grace,” the w-w craze has turned Christians into a group set apart on the other side of the antithesis. Even common grace winds up being divisive because it condescendingly grants to non-believers some truth but always reminds them that they really have no good reasons for accessing it. Instead of emphasizing in common spheres like the public square (however naked she may be) or the university what believers share with non-believers, w-w has fed the politics of identity and removed believers into a distinct tribe.

For that reason, can we really blame officials at Vanderbilt for not being able to tell the difference between Joel Osteen and Tim Keller? The way the religious right, with the help of their neo-Calvinist enablers, has carved up intellectual and political life, Vanderbilt is simply following what w-w Christians prescribed. It is further evidence of the old Gypsy curse’s power — “may you get what you want.”

The Lens of Scripture

I continue to be befuddled by the neo-Calvinist claim that Scripture speaks to all of life (of course, in general terms, never in specifics). A discussion has ensued over at Matt Tuininga’s blog that is better than a previous one at Dr. K’s shop. Still, in both cases, some claim that it is natural and ordinary for Calvinists to claim that we view all of life and everything in the world through the lens of Scripture.

So to test this I turned to the Kuyper Reader that James Bratt edited around the time of the centennial celebration of the Stone Lectures. In an essay against uniformity (political, cultural, and religious), which I like very much and that resonates with a localist strain of American conservatism, Kuyper writes this:

. . . do I need to argue the point that all such striving for a false uniformity, the leveling principle of modern life, the demand for one people and one language, run counter to the ordinances of God? You well know the divine word, full of holy energy, that Scripture opposes to that striving: “Else nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” [Gen. 11:6b]. That all life should multiply “after its kind,” after its own, unique, given character is the royal law of creation which applies to more than seed-bearing herbs. That everyone who has been born from above will someday receive from the Lord a white tablet on which will be written a new name that no one knows except the one who receive it [Rev. 2:17]: what else is this but a most forceful protest against all the conformity into which the world tends to pressure us? (“Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life,” 34)

So there we have the Bible as the lens through which Kuyper regards the problem of cultural uniformity. Though it needs to be said that Kuyper’s writing is not rife with biblical citations, nor are his invocations of Scripture, like this one, the most compelling exegetically. So I am not sure that Kuyper exemplifies what Kuyperians claim — that Christians need to look at the world through the lens of Scripture. Self-consciousness, epistemologicial or psychological, might call for a Christian to be careful about attributing his opinions to the revealed words of God.

But then Kuyper goes on in a different part of this essay/speech to state some notions that surely most modern day neo-Calvinists (especially those without Dutch surnames) living in North American would not support (even though I again laud Kuyper’s Dutch chauvinism as a way of resisting globalism and universalism):

Hold the Dutch national character in honor. Drive out our national sins but still love our national ways. Be true to your nature as Hollanders, ladies and gentlemen! Remove from your midst the spineless tendency to bestow extravagant accolades on everything that comes from abroad, and in your appraisals give preference to the things that are made at home. Uphold Holland’s fame in learning foreign languages but let there be no language you would rather speak, and especially write, than that splendid, rich mother tongue in which alone Dutch people can express what a Dutch heart feels. Do no just feed your mind with what has been thought and sung abroad but drink of the vital stream of Holland’s life also from your own poets. Daughters of the Netherlands, do not make yourselves ridiculous by being old-fashioned but also have the good taste and modesty never to present yourselves in a foreign outfit conceived in the capital of France by Dutchmen who no longer understand the honor and dignity of being a Dutchman . . . .

May the illustrious history of your ancestors be more to you than a monument to the past; let it be for you the current of national life that you feel pulsating in your own veins. Yes, just let us be who we are: Hollanders! — in every circle and sector of life. Though our flag no longer dominates the seven seas, still we shall regain the rightful influence by which the legacy entrusted to our people may be made a blessing for all humanity. Let the Dutch people, standing on the blood-soaked soil of our fathers, rise again from its grave. . . .

Would that God gave us such a national will — but then a will anchored in his will. While every nation is subject to the deep truth that it strikes itself from the roster of nations by devaluing its piety, this applies all the more to the national existence of the Netherlands which owes its origin to a religious movement. . . . Without religion there can be no patriotism; where religion is most intense, there the love of country and people is most robust: so history teaches us on every page. (42-43)

Kuyper’s appeal to Dutch hearts, Dutch minds, and even Dutch fashions seems curious from a fellow known for putting the anti in antithesis. If Hollanders have a Dutch heart or mind simply by virtue of growing up on the “blood-soaked soil” of the Netherlands (sorry Dutch-North Americans of the 1.5 generation and beyond), then what happens to the idea that Christian Hollanders by virtue of regeneration share more in common with Protestant Canadians who hail from France? Where are Brazilian Calvinists supposed to go for dress fashions?

But aside from this hiccup in Kuyper’s mental digestion, where exactly is the method of viewing the world through the lens of Scripture? Sure, Kuyper was fallible and made mistakes (as we all do). But would not a biblical perspective on patriotism call for important qualifications to such nationalism? To be clear, what is wrong with this excerpt in (all about me) my estimate is not Kuyper’s reveling in Dutch culture and history — even exceptionalism. A person’s attachment to his people, country, and land is basic to being human — that is, part of the created order. It is not essential, however, to being redeemed. What is wrong, then, is thinking that such an argument is the product of a Christian w-w, in other words, the result of some form of epistemological self-consciousness. I could imagine any number of Dutch patriots, not members of a Reformed church, seconding Kuyper’s call for loyalty to Dutch traditions. I cannot imagine that Kuyper’s logic would appeal to someone who regarded the speaker not as a fellow-Dutchman but as a fellow believer.