Why Mencken Matters

He is a reminder that belief is not normal (to fallen human beings).

The reason for that aside is Regis Martin’s article about the stupidity of atheists (trigger warning for the w-w deniers):

…people do not arrive at atheism as a result of hours heuristically spent perusing the philosophical journals. That is because it is not a matter of the intelligence that compels one to choose disbelief, but a movement of the will. One would have to be pretty witless if, on the strength of a syllogism, one were to conclude that there is no God. An atheist can no more eliminate God’s existence by his refusal to believe than a blind man can by his inability to see expel the sunlight. “The essence of God does indeed lie beyond the scope of intelligence,” Fr. Murray freely concedes, “but his existence does not.” And not to know at least that much, “is to nullify oneself as a man, a creature of intelligence.” Because belief in God is, very simply, the bedrock truth upon which everything else depends. To think otherwise, he argues, amounts to “a miserably flat denouement to the great intellectual drama in whose opening scene Plato appeared with the astonishing announcement that launched the high action of philosophy—his insight that there is an order of transcendent reality, higher than the order of human intelligence and the measure of it, to which access is available to the mind of man.”

In which case, we should never trust an atheist or unbeliever with any sort of responsibility (and we should live in a Christendom because only God-affirmers have the bedrock for truth).

But what if faith is not natural? What if philosophical inquiry and logical deduction still don’t make a man or woman believe? What if, get this, Paul was right?

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1)

Imagine that: Reformed Protestants take atheists more seriously than Roman Catholics because of the doctrine of total depravity. If you start with the reality that all people are lost in their trespasses and sins, that their minds are “darkened” as a result, you set your expectations of unbelievers accordingly. But if you look at faith as the bedrock of understanding the world (think w-w), and you need to trust your neighbors not to do irrational things, then you are going to attribute belief in God to them (and meanwhile deny total depravity).

Mencken matters because he’s proof that unbelievers are smart, and that the Holy Spirit is more powerful than reason in giving people faith in Jesus Christ as their savior.

The Spirit Neglected

I’m not sure what branch of Protestantism Father Dwight belonged to before he converted, but surely you don’t need to be a speaker of tongues to know the importance of the Holy Spirit in accounting for true faith Protestant-style. Somehow, though, Father Dwight believes that faith invariably proceeds from reason (and not from the mysterious operation of the Spirit):

Like most Freemasons, Franklin had a spiritual blind spot. There was nothing wild and mystical in his life. Passion and romance in religion were alien to him. His creed was one of common sense, mild-mannered good works and human virtue. As such it was not only blind. It was bland.

I came across a quotation of his the other day which sums it up. He wrote, “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” It is the sort of sophomoric bromide one expects from rationalist, and it doesn’t stand up to even the mildest of objections.

It is understandable, however. Ever since the nominalists suggested that material things had no connection with the unseen world and were no more than what you call them, a divide had been growing between the physical and the metaphysical realms. The Protestant Revolution confirmed the break, and the Enlightenment hammered it home with the French and American Revolutions.

If there was a divide between the spiritual and the physical realm, then preachers could have nothing to say about science, and scientists had no concern with religion. Science and reason dealt with this world and religion with the world to come, and that was that.

Consequently, the Protestant religion became either an abstract debate about theology or a subjective, emotional experience. In other words, you could be a bookish Bible nerd or a hellfire, “come to Jesus!” weepin’-and-wailin’ preacher. Neither had much to do with the material realm, and neither had much use for science and reason. Thus Benjamin Franklin’s conclusion that to “see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”

Fideists and fundamentalists distrust the man of reason as much as he distrusts the man of religion. Therefore, even today many Protestants take an intentionally anti-intellectual stance, agreeing with the rationalists that faith and reason are incompatible. Blind Benjamin Franklin is father to them all.

Standing in contrast to this impasse is the Catholic religion which has always contended that faith is reasonable and reason requires faith, or as Pope St. John Paul II put it, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

Perhaps, but if you take the fall seriously (which is arguably the bottom line difference between real Protestants and Roman Catholics), reason doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. As the British divines explained (but Father Dwight apparently did not read):

5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. (Confession of Faith, chapter 1)

Nevertheless, Father Dwight thinks that a belief in the resurrection, for instance, is not that different from testing a cat for feline leukemia:

From that foundation of personal observation and reliance on tradition the scientific enquirer proposes a theory to explore and discover further. So does the religious enquirer. Both devise a theory to meet the facts and answer a question that has arisen. The enquirer then tests the theory with experimentation–gathering data and experiences and processing them through intuition, reasoning and further reliance on tradition. Should the experiment fail, he uses the error to refine the theory and continue his exploration until he finds a satisfactory answer.

This is precisely what the informed and intellectually engaged religious enquirer does. He has certain experiences which are analyzed and filtered through tradition and he goes on to explore further, analyze experience, test reality, reject what is false and affirm what is true, and as he continues his exploration and experimentation he uses a combination of personal experience, tradition, reason and intuition to analyze and construct a working hypothesis.

Then, for both the scientist and the religious explorer there comes a step which we can call “faith.” The homework is done, the data is collected. The experience is analyzed, the tradition is accepted, the guesswork is completed, and the theory has been tested as thoroughly as possible. The scientist or the religious enquirer then changes his actions based on the new belief which he has come to accept based on this process.

In point of fact, a much better explanation for faith comes from the side of an affirmation of total depravity and the inherent limits it puts on human reason. As J. Gresham Machen explained, the miracle of the resurrection makes a lot of sense if you consider the enormity of the human predicament post-fall:

In one sense, certainly, miracles are a hindrance to faith − but who ever thought the contrary? It may certainly be admitted that if the New Testament narrative had no miracles in it, it would be far easier to believe. The more commonplace a story is, the easier it is to accept it as true. But commonplace narratives have little value. The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. Without the miracles the New Testament would contain an account of a holy man − not a perfect man, it is true, for He was led to make lofty claims to which He had no right − but a man at least far holier than the rest of men. But of what benefit would such a man, and the death which marked His failure, be to us? The loftier be the example which Jesus set, the greater becomes our sorrow at our failure to attain to it; and the greater our hopelessness under the burden of sin. The sage of Nazareth may satisfy those who have never faced the problem of evil in their own lives; but to talk about an ideal to those who are under the thralldom of sin is a cruel mockery. Yet if Jesus was merely a man like the rest of men, then an ideal is all that we have in Him. Far more is needed by a sinful world. It is small comfort to be told that there was goodness in the world, when what we need is goodness triumphant over sin. But goodness triumphant over sin involves an entrance of the creative power of God, and that creative power of God is manifested by the miracles. Without the miracles, the New Testament might be easier to believe. But the thing that would be believed would be entirely different from that which presents itself to us now. Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Savior. (Christianity and Liberalism, 103-104)

Father Dwight may have a point about Ben Franklin’s blind spots (is shooting fish in a barrel really intellectually compelling?). But did Father Dwight miss the log creating his own blind spot?

The Sin Paradigm

Jason Stellman and the crew continue to debate the merits of an agape or list paradigm, as Bryan Cross described them way back when. What I find hard to fathom is the plausibility of the so-called agape paradigm if human sinfulness really is as profound as Christianity and Judaism have taught. If human beings really are dead in trespasses and sins, as Paul describes them in Ephesians 2, the agape paradigm doesn’t make a lot of sense. We might cooperate with grace all we want, we might do works that show a genuine faith, but what if we still have a sinful nature? This was part of the doubt that haunted Luther.

Rome’s own teaching on the fall would suggest the implausibility of the agape paradigm. The Baltimore Catechism, for instance, is none too cheery about the prospects of human goodness:

45. Q. What evil befell us on account of the disobedience of our first parents?
A. On account of the disobedience of our first parents, we all share in their sin and punishment, as we should have shared in their happiness if they had remained faithful.

46. Q. What other effects followed from the sin of our first parents?
A. Our nature was corrupted by the sin of our first parents, which darkened our understanding, weakened our will, and left in us a strong inclination to evil.

This is not as strong as Heidelberg:

Question 8. Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness?
Answer: Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.

But it is not that far off. Both talk about corruption of human nature and an inclination to evil.

The Baltimore Catechism also teaches the need for a perfect savior who can satisfy God’s wrath for sin:

84. Q. What lessons do we learn from the sufferings and death of Christ?
A. From the sufferings and death of Christ we learn the great evil of sin, the hatred God bears to it, and the necessity of satisfying for it.

Again, this resembles the logic of Heidelberg:

Question 12. Since then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, is there no way by which we may escape that punishment, and be again received into favour?
Answer: God will have his justice satisfied: and therefore we must make this full satisfaction, either by ourselves, or by another.

Where Rome and Protestants differ, then, is whether Christ fully satisfies for all of a sinner’s sin. According to the Baltimore Catechism:

Q. 801. Why should we have to satisfy for our sins if Christ has fully satisfied for them?
A. Christ has fully satisfied for our sins and after our baptism we were free from all guilt and had no satisfaction to make. But when we willfully sinned after baptism, it is but just that we should be obliged to make some satisfaction.

In contrast, Heidelberg teaches:

Question 60. How are thou righteous before God?
Answer: Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

This may seem fairly elementary to anyone who knows the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants. But the extent and depth of sin seems to be a category not sufficiently considered in the ongoing debates about how we become right with God, whether by faith alone or by a faith that has within it charity of love which will produce good works and will unite us with God. Those wonder-working aspects of the agape paradigm do not address the real problem of sinfulness and God’s just demand for a perfect righteousness. We may love till we’re blue in the face, but given our sinfulness and the ongoing sin in believers’ lives, how do we know if we have really loved enough?

Maybe the agape paradigm is right. If it is, we’re all toast.

Have the Coen Brothers Lost Their Edge?

tom reaganAn affirmative answer would be one way of reading the recent piece on Joel and Ethan Coen, the makers of such great movies as Miller’s Crossing, Hudsucker Proxy, and No Country for Old Men at Christianity Today. The neo-evangelical habit is to take the rough edges off Christianity in order to make the faith relevant and agreeable to middle America. That also seems to be what happens when the editors at CT turn a kind eye toward former bad boys of Minnesota. I mean, of the many characters available to him, Josh Hurst, the author of the piece, turns to Marge, the family friendly cop from Fargo. Hurst writes:

That’s a good way to describe the brothers’ opus: a chronic search for truth. Some might argue that the Coens’ world is amoral, but a discerning look reveals morality aplenty. Good and evil stand apart from one another as clearly as black and white—or red and white, in the case of their classic crime story, Fargo. Set against the endless snow of the frigid Midwest, it’s a movie about greed, about a perfect crime gone horribly awry—in short, about the wake of destruction left by one man’s evil ambitions, seen starkly as a crimson trail of blood against the pure white terrain.

But then comes the evangelical smiley face:

Fargo’s heart and soul is local sheriff Marge Gunderson, played in an Oscar-winning turn by Frances McDormand. She’s chipper, [did someone say “chipper”?] pleasant, and very pregnant. She’s deeply affectionate and supportive of her husband, Norm. Their tranquil life contrasts the frenzied greed of the bad guys as much as a drop of blood on the snow. . . . Like Marge herself, the Coens have a longstanding curiosity about matters of morality. But hard as they might try, they can’t seem to shrug off the realities of evil as calmly as their most famous heroine.

Another reading of the Coen’s comes more from Tom Reagan, the punching-bag hero of Miller’s Crossing, than Marge Gunderson, the cop who likely pulled the Coens over a couple times during their youthful indiscretions. Tom repeatedly says, after being told to look into his heart, that you can’t know what motivates anyone, not even yourself. That’s actually fairly compatible with what Protestants know about the ambiguity of moral impulses even among the saints. But it is not the same as, “the heart is desperately wicked, who can know it?”

Granted, the Coens did lose some of their mojo when they indulged Hollywood with Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers. Both movies appeared to be parodies of Coen brothers movies, what Hollywood would try to do if it were going to make a movie like Joel and Ethan.

But when you take a movie that features a human leg sticking out of a wood chipper and turn it into a study of purpose and rectitude, you may feel, like the teenager who is embarrassed to find that his parents also like The Who, that the church lady is trying overly hard to live on the edge.