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.

Beaver Cleaver Was Lost in His Trespasses and Sins

Trigger warning to self: you’ve engaged Carl Trueman critically before and it did not go well. So be careful, be very careful.

The reason for bringing up Dr. Trueman again, even if ever so gingerly, has to do with his recent evaluation of Rusty Reno’s new book about prospect for a Christian society. Trueman writes:

I simply am not convinced that change can be achieved on any significant scale. The causes of the modern malaise are complicated, and their solution must be equally elaborate. For example, as George Grant and David Schindler have shown, technology brings with it a different view of reality from that of traditional Christianity. This mindset is now deeply embedded in our world. The entertainment industry mediates much of what is taken for reality and grips the moral imagination of the masses. The globalized economy has transformed communities and community expectations in ways we have yet to fathom. To borrow that hackneyed but poetic phrase from Marx, all that is solid melts into air. Zygmunt Bauman’s argument, that we live in a time when even the most longstanding and reliable social structures are in permanent flux, seems to me compelling. It must be accounted for by any hope that depends upon the solidity of concepts or institutions from the past. How does one reform or recapture or rebuild that which has been robbed of solid existence?

I generally agree.

But where I push (not shove) back is with the idea that modernity alone has these problems. Ever since the fall, it seems to me, the possibilities of pursuing lives of holiness and passing on the faith have been hard. Just remember what Paul warned Timothy about the “last days”:

understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim 3:1-8)

Was Paul predicting a time when Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche would dominate understandings of human nature and the created order, or was he talking about life in the Roman Empire circa 60 AD? My understanding is that he was talking about life in the Mediterranean world then.

So why do Christians believe modernity is so much worse than any other time? Well, it sure seems that Roman Catholics have a certain nostalgia for the Christian society of medieval Europe, neo-Calvinists for the Christian society of the Kuyperian era of Dutch history, evangelicals in the U.S. for the First Pretty Good Awakening that of course led up to the Christian founding of the United States. Here Protestants want to recalculate critiques of modernity since Kuyper and George Whitefield both fall on the modern side of the divide between medieval and modern periods. In other words, Protestant critiques of modernity play into the hands of certain Roman Catholic apologetics (even if nostalgia for the flourishing of the Middle Ages seldom extends to the Crusades or the Inquisition).

But surely anyone with eyes and ears has to admit that we are living in worse times than 1950s American when Ward and June Cleaver reared Wally and the Beave. I have eyes and ears. I will concede that the 2010s are worse than the 1950s, though I did live through 1968 and that was not a good time. But on a scale of fallen humanity, are modern or contemporary times really worse than what Noah lived through, or Lot, or Jeremiah, or our Lord himself? Doesn’t the fall mean we always live in desperate times?

The point here is not that people who believe in original sin should be relativists when it comes to assessing the way humans live together or proposing ways that are better for a common life together and for the proclamation of the gospel. But I think it is a mistake to cultivate the notion that human flourishing is possible whether by putting in place the right policies or institutions, or by thinking about the past a certain way. I know Dr. Trueman knows this. But it sounds like he thinks we are living through one of the worst times in human existence. No matter how pleasant and reassuring Beaver Cleaver’s America was, it was not the new heavens and new earth. When sin abounds, it’s not a good time. The Cleavers were certainly flourishing as we now count such living, but they were also drowning in sin (and never in church). Shouldn’t that perspective inform the way we view the West post-Foucault?

Is Conservatism Liberal?

For political conservatives, the answer is “sort of” since movement conservatives since the 1950s have generally understood themselves as classical liberals — in favor of markets, representative government, and constitutional separation of powers (including church and state). Modern political liberalism (i.e. New Deal) saw problems of economic inequality, the nature of large-scale war, and foreign diplomacy that classical liberalism could not answer beyond standing up and yelling “stop.” So modern liberals tried to update classical liberalism and ever since we have the leading wedge dividing red and blue states.

But when it comes to theology, how do conservatives fare? Richard Weaver is the fellow who will ever be associated with the conservative conviction, “ideas have consequences,” a phrase that the University of Chicago Press applied to Weaver’s 1948 book which in turn became a classic for intellectual or traditionalist conservatives (which overlaps with movement conservatism at least in the figure of William F. Buckley, Jr. and his circle). According to a recent post, Weaver was a believer in the ancient virtue of “piety”:

… the Christian ideal and Plato­nism produced in Weaver’s conservatism the final key concept of piety, which Weaver described as “one of the oldest and deepest human attitudes.” “I would define piety,” he wrote, “as an attitude of rever­ence or acceptance toward some overruling order or some deeply founded institution which the mere individual is not to tamper with.” Or to put the proposition somewhat differently: “Piety comes to us as a warning voice that we must think as mortals, that it is not for us either to know all or to con­trol all. It is a recognition of our own limitations and a cheerful acceptance of the contingency of nature, which gives us the protective virtue of humility.”

The source of his piety (other than Plato) was the fall (a version of it):

As Weaver explained, “The recovery [of a sense of piety] has brought a satisfaction which cannot be matched, as far as my ex­perience goes, by anything that liberalism and scientism have to offer.” Weaver con­tended there was a “structure of reality” called creation. Man was not the Creator; he was not self-produced. Man is the crea­ture; therefore, he is limited in his poten­tial. Confronted with choices between evil and good, man frequently chooses evil with its accompanying anguish, and this condi­tion is compounded by that ever-present matter of tragedy. In view of these impos­ing realities, would not wisdom and prudence dictate that man ought to be modest, restrained, and humble—in a word, pious? Should he not stand in reverence and awe before this miracle called life?

To compare this sense of limitation and reverence and awe for finite existence to the Shorter Catechism may be unfair. But why wouldn’t the question of this human tragedy lead to a sense of despair, like the string of questions that explain the significance of human sinfulness:

Q. 17. Into what estate did the fall bring mankind?
A. The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.

Q. 18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

Q. 19. What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever.

Q. 20. Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
A. God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a redeemer.

Not to be misunderstood. Any conservative or Christian it seems to (all about) me should welcome a recognition by another human being that we are not gods, that we can’t control the world, and that it is a conceit of monumental calamity to think that humans have any power to remedy or redeem our circumstances. But for conservatives to call this awareness “piety” is to invite all sorts of confusion about the real piety that looks at sin as abhorrent and hopes for a miraculous intervention to save sinners by the only true God.

If conservatives want to be the true friends of religion who mock secularists for dismissing faith, they will need to own religion. It can’t simply be a wave of the hand at “higher things” or faith-based humanism. It needs to be the real deal. And that could well involve choosing between Plato and Moses, between Richard Weaver and Fulton Sheen, or between Whitaker Chambers and Cornelius Van Til.

Did Humans Flourish Before Modernity?

I hear more doom and gloom assessments that trace our cultural degradation to either to the overreach of the federal government or the egotistical bombast of Donald Trump. Many of these critiques seem to assume modernity (a term that includes everything from pluralism and democracy to capitalism and technology) has produced a set an unprecedented state of affairs that provide no check on human wickedness and offer no protection for the virtuous from the vicious. Today’s roundup:

Too much gubmint:

We must not mistake the sincere agony and lonely battles of the individuals we pastor as they seek to pursue godliness with the political culture that now reigns supreme. The latter seeks nothing less than total and thoroughgoing conformity to its amorality as a price for membership of civil society, no exceptions allowed. We cannot be sentimental about the ideology even as we must have compassion with those who fight their temptations every day. We must also be aware of how fast the law could be changing. In a week when a CNN poll indicated a majority of Americans opposed to the North Carolina ‘bathroom bill,’ we cannot assume that the plausibility framework for legal decisions will be remotely sympathetic to what – to quote Tony Esolen on the same point for the second time this week – ‘everybody believed the day before yesterday.’

Too much Trump:

But previous election cycles gave Catholic voters a prudential choice between candidates who embodied at least some of the major themes of the social doctrine. What is the thoughtful Catholic voter to do when neither of the presidential candidates is even minimally committed to human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity, as the social doctrine understands those concepts? When one party has elevated lifestyle libertinism to the first of constitutional principles (and is prepared to kill unborn children, jettison free speech, and traduce religious freedom in service to hedonism), while the other is prepared to nominate a fantasist who spun grotesque fairy tales about an alleged connection between an opponent’s family and Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before he closed the deal?

That will be a question to ponder carefully in the next six months. The immediate take-away that the American democratic experiment is in deep trouble—and that trouble has something to do with moral judgment.

The perfect storm of Trump and Target:

We are living in a new country. There’s a completely implausible op-ed piece on Ethika Politika today, blaming the Benedict Option for giving us Trump. The idea is that when orthodox Christians vacate the public square, people like Trump triumph. But there’s no evidence that American Christians have by and large vacated the public square. Most churchgoing Christians who are Republican voted for other candidates in the primaries; Trump’s victory showed how little power religious and social conservatives have now. No, most Christians have not left the public square; the public square has left them, so to speak.

That is, Trump is part of what it means to be in a post-Christian nation (and so, by the way, is Hillary, with the platform she’s running on). It is simply an illusion that traditional Christians are a silent majority in this country, and that if we only wake up, we can put matters aright.

So why is it that God was so upset with either humanity or his own people that well before the rise of telephones and open primaries he sent down massive punishments against sin and disobedience? Think of the generation that did not survive the flood:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5-7 ESV)

Or what about Jeremiah’s prophecy against Judah?

Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind—therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth. And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.’ (Jeremiah 19:4-9 ESV)

Yowza!

Shouldn’t Christians who are supposed to be Bible readers act like they’ve seen a wicked world before? Such a recognition doesn’t mean doing nothing. But it should mean not being more outraged than God that humans are fallen.

Liberal Education After the Fall

Must a student be baptized before pursuing the true, good, and beautiful? That questioned occurred after reading Fr. James Schall’s summary of Tracy Rowland’s lecture on Roman Catholic education.

For Rowland and Schall, the Trinity informs the study of everything and so Christianity is at the foundation of any genuine education:

…the basic Catholic approach to education is that there “exists a relationship between the human intellect, the theological virtue of faith, and the transcendental of truth; there also exists a relationship between the human will, the theological virtue of love, and the transcendental of goodness, and there exists a relationship between the human memory, the theological virtue of hope and the transcendental of beauty.” The transcendentals—one, being, good, true, beautiful—are predicates we can apply to everything that is. They reflect in our being the inner relation of the three persons within the Trinity.

It is possible to pass through schools, even at the graduate level, and not really learn much of truth or of what is important. This result can happen also in Catholic schools. Thus, we need graduates who actually have “Catholic intellects, Catholic wills, Catholic imaginations, and Catholic memories.” They need to be conjoined in a proper order of soul. We want to know the truth, to control our own disorders, to imagine what can enlarge our vision. A Catholic memory will know of its saints and their foibles, of glories and tragedies.

But I wonder why a Christian approach to education, one that takes Genesis 3 and the triumph of Augustinianism over Pelagianism seriously, wouldn’t first start with fallen human nature and the incapacity for those, either unregenerate or unbaptized (depending on your communion), to see the Trinity in the true, good, and beautiful because unbelievers are turned in on themselves. In other words, doesn’t a Roman Catholic view of education presuppose that professors and students are baptized and belong to the same communion?

Schall goes on to explain that Rowland acknowledges that not all students have the same intellectual capacities:

This is not an evil, but an aspect of a common good that makes it possible to participate in a broad range of goods and fruits of labor, and insights of others. Some will be more gifted intellectually than others. Some will have greater hearts, be more insightful, or possess skills or virtues that are good. Not everyone is a genius. Indeed, studies show that only about twenty percent of students are able to grasp subtle abstract points of knowledge. The teachers and schools must know and attend to the differences.

An educational egalitarianism that presupposed that all students have the same capacities, talents, and discipline will probably end by teaching very little to neglect the real needs and skills of actual students. Some students will be more attracted to truth, others to goodness, others to beauty, and still others to all sorts of practical and unexpected things. “Human lives can turn into narrative wrecks if educators produce people who can think at high levels of abstraction but are emotionally retarded or who lack sapiential experiences, or who conversely are emotionally sensitive but have no intellectual framework with which to make judgments about their inner life.”

But imagine the narrative wreck that comes with a failure to acknowledge that students can’t understand the Triune God without a prior work of grace, that all students try to suppress the truth in unrighteousness apart from God’s saving work.

If Christian education is going to be redeemed, doesn’t redemption need to be part of the conversation?

The Gospel According to Mark

No Mary immaculately conceived, no gospel:

In light of the Incarnation, it is profoundly mistaken to think that humanity is necessarily or naturally sinful. It isn’t. Sin is normal, but never natural. Nature is not corrupt; corruption is corrupt. Sin is precisely what is contrary to our human nature. It is damage to nature, not nature itself, which constitutes sin. Thus, sin (which we all inherit in Adam) is always a warping and a deformation of our nature. In Christian understanding, nature is essentially good since it and grace (not sin) have the same author: God. Grace does not build on sin. It heals sin, eradicates sin, repairs the effects of sin, forgives sin. When that process is complete (as it shall be for the saints in heaven) those saints shall no longer be afflicted by sin in any way. That would be impossible if sin and humanness were identical.

Very well then, if there is nothing intrinsically impossible with the idea of sinless humanness in heaven for people who don’t happen to be Jesus, there is also nothing intrinsically impossible with Mary is being preserved from sin right here on earth by the same God who gets people to heaven. It is true that, apart from the authority of the church, there is no way we could know this about Mary. But then again, apart from the authority of the church, there is no way we would know that the Holy Spirit is God either. All that means is that Scripture is intended to be read in light of the full teaching of the church. When we do, we find that to deny the sinlessness of Mary on the mere ground that she’s human and therefore must be sinful has the surprising effect of messing up our understanding of the Incarnation.

And there is an understandable reason for that. Mary is the source of the Incarnation. Christianity is not merely a religion of the word. It is a relationship with the Word made flesh. But the Word gets his flesh from somewhere. All Christians believe in the blood of Christ shed on the cross. But God the Son, in his divine nature, had no blood to shed till the received it in purity from his mother. No Mary, no Incarnation; no Incarnation, no death on the cross; no death on the cross, no resurrection; no resurrection, no salvation for the world. Get rid of Mary and you don’t get a purified faith: you get nothing. That is the consequence of overlooking this often neglected truth.

Well, isn’t it profoundly correct to think of humanity as necessarily sinful in the light of THE FALL? Why would the Son of God become incarnate if not to redeem sinners. Plus, I was under the impression that sin a violation of God’s law. Eating a piece of fruit is natural, after all.

Post-fall, sinless humans occupying heaven is impossible without grace and forgiveness. Using the possibility of sinless humans going to heaven as the grounds for Mary’s sinfulness seems like a real groin-tearing stretch.

And if Mary needs to be sinless to bear Christ, then what about Mary’s mother needing to be sinless to bear Mary? And what about Mary’s grandmother to bear Mary’s mother? You see where this is going — thanks to the fall, which you don’t apparently see.

But if you insist that we would not have Christianity without Mary, then why did Anselm (a saint by both your and my standards) instead of writing Cur Deus Homo not write Why Mary Conceived without Sin? (Sorry my Latin is rusty.)

One last question: how much theology do you possibly need to be ignorant of to find your apologetics compelling? (So many Marks, so little time.)