Converts and Cradles Together?

Part of the trouble that Protestants have in trying to make sense of Roman Catholicism is the bi-polar character of Rome (in the U.S. at least) and its appeal to evangelicals. Damon Linker explains the attraction that Roman Catholicism once had for him:

I became a Catholic (from secular Judaism) in the midst of a personal crisis. I longed to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth. Catholicism is perfect for people with such yearnings. It tells them that the Roman Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Its magisterial authority can be traced back to St. Peter and the rest of Christ’s original apostles. It publishes a 900-page Catechism filled with elaborate, absolute rules laying out in minute detail how God wants us to live. It governs itself according to an intricate code of Canon Law that first began to be formulated nearly two millennia ago.

For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church’s very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church.

For someone drawn to Catholicism by the promise of order and stability, any sign of change in the church will be unwelcome, threatening. The fact that social and cultural mores shift and develop around it is an argument for retrenchment and improved outreach to a world tempted by sin in new ways. It certainly isn’t a sign that the church should adjust its teachings on faith and morals, accommodating them to the latest trends. Any such adjustment would risk diluting the Truth, and (perhaps just as bad) serve as a potentially fatal concession that the church’s teachings can be fallible. Once that door has been opened, there may be no way to close it. Remove even a single brick from the foundation, and the whole edifice could come crashing down.

What then does a convert do when she understands that the people who grew up with Rome’s promise of order and stability don’t want to perpetuate that reliability but actually desire change? John Zmirak describes where such desires come from and such aspirations must seem odd to Bryan and the Jasons:

When a large group of highly educated people who have dedicated themselves to an organization with firm doctrines, strict rules, and stern demands — such as the Catholic Church — lose their faith in those doctrines, rules and demands, what do they do with themselves instead? Shrug and join the Unitarians? Leave their rectories or convents and go find apartments, maybe jobs as high school guidance counselors?

What do families like the Pelosis, the Kennedys or the Bidens — and millions of non-famous Irish and Italian-American clans with strong ethnic and historical connections to the Church — do with themselves when they reject its teaching authority?

The history of the Catholic left gives us the answer: Such people focused on the parts of the Church’s mission that still appealed to them, such as looking out for the poor and rebuking unjust discrimination. And of course the Church has an almost 2,000 year tradition of offering the needy education, health care, and a voice in the face of genuine oppression. Many Catholics had joined the Civil Rights movement and marched for integration.

In the 1960s, there were fresh, exciting causes available for Catholics to join which modeled themselves on the Civil Rights movement’s tactics and rhetoric, whose agendas were not so compatible with traditional Christian teaching as the noble fight against institutionalized racism had been. Feminists, homosexuals, and anti-war activists began to throng the streets and demand radical changes in American law and policy, and many Catholics with left-wing sympathies and deep roots in the Democratic Party began to exert their energies on behalf of these new movements — assuring themselves that they were acting as Jesus had when he denounced the scribes and Pharisees.

Many grandchildren of Catholic immigrants to our overwhelmingly Protestant country still clung to the pretense that they were outsiders — excluded and marginalized victims of the existing American establishment. So they felt bound to make common cause with every other “outside” group, regardless of the justice of its claims. This outsider illusion made it easy for them to be right about Civil Rights … and then poisonously wrong about feminism, gay liberation, and socialist economics.

It would be like an avid reader of John Calvin (other than Marilyn Robinson) joining the PCUSA with the expectation that mainline Presbyterians actually care about perpetuating Reformed Protestantism.

While Bryan and the Jasons want Protestants to join the ecumenical discussion, shouldn’t they be having that conversation first with the folks in their own communion?

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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.

Could Christ Have Preached Christ and Him Crucified?

Rick Phillips introduces a tension — though that was not his intention — between Jesus’ preaching and Paul’s. We have the old was-Paul-the-second-founder-of-Christianity problem.

Here‘s is what Christ preached according to Phillips:

I noted 4 main types of ministry emphases highlighted by Jesus in Mark:

1. Jesus declaring his deity as Messiah, together with his teaching about God and salvation (i.e. theology and redemptive history).

2. Jesus preaching the gospel: pointing out his hearers’ need to be forgiven and God’s wonderful remedy through his saving work. Included here would be calls to prospective disciples to believe and follow Jesus.

3. Jesus training and reproving his disciples, including ethical and spiritual instruction and his call to evangelistic labor.

4. Jesus exposing false teachers and religious opposition. This includes the confronting and correcting of false doctrine.

And here is how Paul described his preaching:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:1-2)

Again, I don’t think Phillips is trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul, but the way he frames the question does lead in that direction — one that contrasts the way Jesus preached with the way his disciples did (think of Peter in Acts 2). Why isn’t it the case that Jesus is NOT a model for post-ascension preaching — nor is John the Baptist. Until the main event of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the preaching of biblical prophets is going to be types and shadows. Think Geerhardus Vos.

And also think Marilyn Robinson. This is what can happen if you use Jesus as your model for preaching and leave out Paul:

Since these folk claim to be defenders of embattled Christianity (under siege by liberalism, as they would have it), they might be struck by the passage in Matthew 25 in which Jesus says, identifying himself with the poorest, “I was hungry, and ye fed me not.” This is the parable in hallowed be your name which Jesus portrays himself as eschatological judge and in which he separates “the nations.” It should surely be noted that he does not apply any standard of creed – of purity or of orthodoxy – in deciding whom to save and whom to damn. This seems to me a valuable insight into what Jesus himself might consider fundamental. To those who have not recognized him in the hungry and the naked, he says, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.” Neofundamentalists seem to crave this sort of language – more than they might if they were to consider its context here. It is the teaching of the Bible passim that God has confided us very largely to one another’s care, but that in doing so he has in no degree detached himself from us. Indeed, in this parable Jesus would seem to push beyond the image of God as final judge to describe an immanence of God in humankind that makes judgment present and continuous, and that in effect makes our victim our judge. Neither here nor anywhere else in the Bible is there the slightest suggestion that our judge/victim would find a plea of economic rationalism extenuating. This supposed new Awakening is to the first two Awakenings, and this neofundamentalism is to the first fundamentalism, as the New Right is to the New Deal, or as matter is to antimatter’.

Revivalist or Metaphysician?

Marilyn Robinson (thanks to our virtuous commonwealth correspondent) joins the New Calvinists in claiming Jonathan Edwards as her homeboy. Along the way she makes one significant concession:

The “awakenings” that were an effect of the preaching of Edwards and others met with objections on the part of conservative churches and leaders in his tradition. While he was defending orthodoxy in insisting that original sin was a real and crucial element in the human situation, his insistence on conversion, at least in the form it took under his influence, was not orthodox. Calvinism had clearly felt free to part ways with Calvin here and there as the centuries passed. Edwards never cites him as an authority. This matter of “visible saints,” people who indicated by any sign other than a faithful Christian life that they were the redeemed, has no basis in Calvin. That is, for Calvin there is no single threshold experience, like the conversion Edwards urged, that marked one in this world as among those who are saved.

It does make you wonder if the New Calvinists get their Calvinism from Edwards whether they have found the genuine article.

But Robinson is not really concerned with John Piper or Tim Keller — can you believe it? She writes to explain how Edwards’ philosophical theology informed her w-w as it were:

Edwards as a Christian theologian begins with belief in a creator, whose role in existence and experience no doubt elaborated itself in his understanding as he pondered the imponderable problem he had posed to himself. The intuition is sound in any case. It places humankind in any moment on the farthest edge of existence, where the utter mystery of emergent being makes a mystery of every present moment even as it slides into the mysterious past. This by itself elevates experience above the plodding positivisms that lock us in chains of causality, conceptions of reality that are at best far too simple to begin to describe a human place in the universe. Edwards’s metaphysics does not give us a spatial locus, as the old cosmology is said to have done, but instead proposes an ontology that answers to consciousness and perception and feels akin to thought. I have heard it said a thousand times that people seek out religion in order to escape complexity and uncertainty. I was moved and instructed precisely by the vast theater Edwards’s vision proposes for complexity and uncertainty, for a universe that is orderly without being mechanical, that is open to and participates in possibility, indeterminacy, and even providence. It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.

This kind of insight leads Robinson to discount Edwards’ revivalism as mainly a circumstance of his time but not something that should make him known primarily as a preacher of hell-fire. I concede that Edwards was the rare revivalist, by twentieth-century standards. Who could imagine Billy Graham or Billy Sunday engaging Foucault and trying to come up with a justification for original sin? At the same time, revivalist achievements may have been higher in the age before mass communication. Think Charles Grandison Finney as a professor of moral philosophy and president of Oberlin College. Revivalism was not necessarily opposed to intellectual pursuits.

At the same time, Bruce Kuklick’s encounter with the apocalyptic Edwards should perhaps have guarded Robinson from an overly intellectual reading of Edwards — an interpretation that is, by the way, more congenial with her church, the United Church of Christ, yes the communion of Winthrop, Nevin, Niebuhr, Jeremiah Wright, and President Obama:

A scream of an owl at night represented to Edwards the misery of devils residing in eternal darkness. In 1745, the Catholic French defenders of Cape Breton, an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, surrendered to their Protestant English attackers. Edwards wrote that the surrender was “a dispensation of providence, the most remarkable in its kind, that has been in many ages.” It was for him a portent of what was to come. The biblical book of Revelation taught Edwards that the Roman papacy was the anti-christian force of the Antichrist that would fall in 1866, presaging a glorious time for the true church that would begin about 2000. These examples are not random—they are bits of reasoning that I can at least grasp; they are the tip of a far more mysterious premodern iceberg.

Confronting this material is paradoxical and perplexing. One is able to appreciate the technical philosophy of a thinker as a manifestation of abstract intelligence. Simultaneously, one can see that the lived world of a thinker is as limited, peculiar, and foolish as one’s own. As a Calvinist colleague of mine has suggested, Edwards’s understanding of his connection to the immediate world around him is no more or less reasonable than that of Linda Tripp when she declared it to be her “patriotic duty” to expose the relation between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. To put my concern another way, reading volume 15 and pondering its implications, I feel that Edwards is a figure closer to Charles Hodge than I had previously thought. (Bruce Kuklick, “Edwards for the Millennium,” Religion and American Culture, 2001)

I have no dog in this fight. Edwards is so yesterday.