Canon and Culture: Recovering An Engaging Doctrine of God For the Church’s Moral Witness

What follows is the introduction to a short essay for Canon and Culture. For regular readers, I’ll say that I consider this one of the most important things I’ve written–it’s a message that weighs on my heart, so I hope you’ll take the time to read carefully. Also, I’d like to thank Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer who graciously offered comments on it. The smart parts are his. 

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

doctrineofgodA.W. Tozer famously said “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” (Knowledge of the Holy) If this is the case, then it seems the modern West seems to be in a bit of a jam.

According to much ballyhooed Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, we live in what ought to be described as “a secular age” (A Secular Age). Taylor’s main thesis is not so much that godless atheism is ascendant, soon to wipe out backwards religious traditions in the cold light of pure reason, as the old secularization thesis would have it, but that we have reached a point culturally where belief in God is no longer the default. Five hundred years ago in the West you were born a believer. Now, it is a choice made only after deliberation among various live options.

But it’s not only it’s not just that need to choose whether or not we believe that’s the problem, it’s that the very concept of God is confused and contested in the West. Before you had sort of a clear choice as to what God you did or didn’t believe in–a sort of standard, Judeo-Christian model on offer that everyone was sort of familiar with. Now, once you’ve decided whether there’s something “more” out there, you’ve still got to figure out what that “more” is like. Given our American values of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, it’s not hard to see how this plays out into increasingly diverse, heterodox, subjective spiritualites being offered on the market.

Among other things, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles just how bad the confusion’s gotten, not just outside, but within the church itself. Outside the church we find both the vocal, militant atheists, but also the more popular Oprahesque, emotionally-narcissistic pseudo-spiritualities peddled in works like The Secret, The Power of Now, and Eat, Love, Pray. At the same time, within the church we’re still faced with the warmed-over leavings of theological liberalism, or, possibly worse, the superficial yet terribly destructive picture of God we find in Osteen-like prosperity preachers.

Given this sorry state of affairs, we might ask, “What of the academy?” Kevin Vanhoozer opines that that while a number of theologians have gotten around to speaking of God himself, for the most part there’s a bit of a theological famine on the subject. “Theologies” of sex, art, dance, money, literature, and so forth abound, but God get’s the short shrift (Remythologizing Theology:Divine Action, Passon, and Authorship, pg. xii). From where I’m sitting, the same thing could easily be said of the Evangelical pulpit–God gets plenty of mention, but usually it’s to suggest parishioners consider casting him in a (major!) supporting role within the drama of their own self-improvement.

If I may temporarily adopt the English penchant for understatement, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary loss of the doctrine of God is a bit of a problem for the Church’s public, moral witness.

You can read the rest of my essay over at Canon and Culture

Soli Deo Gloria

The Value of Arguing Even When You Don’t Change Your Mind

self, world timeOften-times in our social discussions we despair that we’re actually accomplishing anything. We see people with entrenched positions arguing with each other and we might be tempted to think, “What’s the point? Nobody’s going to change their minds here. There’s no purpose in arguing about it.” While that’s doubtless true in specific circumstances, especially with particularly stubborn and intractable conversation partners, there still is some benefit to be gained in discussing complex issues with those who disagree with us.

Oliver O’Donovan sheds some light on this for us:

Let us suppose that I disapprove of the death penalty, and take up the cudgels against someone who defends it. As our discussion proceeds, certain things will become clear. One is that there are various reasons for disapproving of the death penalty, some of which may plausibly claim a perennial moral truth, while others are more circumstantial. If my opponent forces me to think hard, I shall understand better what social and historical conditions have made the death penalty appear reasonable to past generations, and I shall have to ask if those conditions could ever recur. I shall come to see that my view of the matter is part and parcel of a wider philosophy of penal justice and governmental responsibility, and I shall be forced to elucidate that philosophy more fully and to test its capacity to shed illumination on other questions, too. None of this could I have gained from talking to those who agreed with me. What it amounts to is that if at the end of the argument I still say, “ I disapprove of the death penalty!” I know much better than before what I mean by it.

–Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology Volume 1, pg. 46

As we discuss difficult issues with good-faith interlocutors, we find that while we might not end up changing our positions, we will hold those positions more intelligently and with greater mutual understanding that before. Instead of simply thinking them blind ignoramuses, I might be persuaded to understand which of the various philosophical underpinnings of my thought, could be rejected by a sane, moral person. Ironically enough, in the very same process I may just come away with a greater conviction of the truth of my position now that it’s been tested in the fires.

I found this to be true of my time in my undergraduate in philosophy. As the only Evangelical kid who would say something out loud, I managed to get into a lot of “robust dialogues” with my friends in and out of class. We’d talk about God, heaven, hell, and morality with great frequency. While my bedrock views remained essentially the same, in that atmosphere of conflict, examination, and friendship, they gained a weight and a nuance they didn’t have before, and so I cherish those arguments dearly, even if they “didn’t go anywhere.”

Of course, this shouldn’t be read as an invitation to argue with everyone constantly. That would be silly. No, instead, take it as an encouragement to hope for good even in the midst of some of the most “pointless” conversations.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why You Just Might Want a Penal Account of Just War

just warI finally cracked open Oliver O’Donovan’s little treatise The Just War Revisited over the break. In it he tries to revitalize a judicial account of Just War theory, along the lines of an international application of criminal law in a situation where no comparable authority is able to adjudicate between nations. He does this against the background of the recent trend in Just War thinking oriented primarily towards accounts that privilege “self-defense” as the only acceptable justification for war, making altruistic/interventionist action less intelligible within modern frameworks.

In a particularly remarkable passage, O’Donovan makes the, surprising to many, suggestion that when we screen out any penal objectives, or considerations of desert, from our moral consideration of war, we actually end up with less restraint rather than more. So what happens when we lose our ability to think of war in punitive terms? Or, put more provocatively, what would we gain if we began to reconsider penal elements in our war-making?

In our own time the notion of punishment, though hardly aired, is an important tacit support for wars of humanitarian assistance, for only penal desert can justify intervention into a foreign state’s jurisdiction and responsibility out of its hands. Without it, international justice is pushed back upon the ‘perimeter fence’. But the notion also has a critical role in keeping war objectives limited. The pursuit of safety can run to indefinite lengths, and the pursuit of right without regard to guilt can be a cruel thing. When Palestinian guerrillas cross the border from the Occupied Territories into Israel and perform isolated acts of terrorism, in reprisal for which Israel launches massive military bombardment, we call it ‘over-reaction’. What we mean is simply that there is a penal disproportion between offense and response. Whatever the guilt of the attack, it strikes us that the Palestinians have ‘not deserved’ all that they are forced to take. Israel may appeal to its need for safety; but that need is infinitely elastic. To require a penal objective guards against the resort to war as a response to non-culpable injury, and prevents the subtle expansion of defensive war-aims into further goals, such as colonisation. Common prejudice is inclined to suppose that punitive objectives make for unbridled war; but the truth is more or less the opposite; they impose the tightest of reins, since punishment is measured strictly by desert. –pg. 58

In other words, if disconnected from concerns about justice as desert, or punishment, war loses important limits. We can claim “defense” as a justification for all sorts of expanding precautionary measures, but war pursued with respect to penal desert can only go so far. Some actions may indeed make us safer, but do our opponents actually deserve them?

C.S. Lewis made a roughly analogous point in his classic essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” His main conceit was that merely deterrent or rehabilitory accounts of imprisonment, capital punishment, and so forth, lose the characteristic trait of justice by dispensing with desert, and ironically become more oppressive:

The reason is this. The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice. There is no sense in talking about a ‘just deterrent’ or a ‘just cure’. We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter. We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.

Now some of us might not immediately see the problem with this. After all, it does seem to see things a bit more humanely, less moralistically, and purged of any possible vindictiveness. Yet Lewis goes on to illustrate the problem with an example of where this logic leads in real life:

Let us rather remember that the ‘cure’ of criminals is to be compulsory; and let us then watch how the theory actually works in the mind or the Humanitarian. The immediate starting point of this article was a letter I read in one of our Leftist weeklies. The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And or course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts—and they are not experts in moral theology nor even in the Law of Nature—who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

We see here how relevant and necessary the punitive question of desert becomes in the prevention of tyranny or injustice in the name of supposedly more enlightened accounts. In the hands of the humane social engineers, a crime deserving of a two-year sentence might be treated for five and with electro-shocks “for the sake of the patient”. Or again, if deterrence is the sole motivation for action, that someone be guilty is not strictly necessary for an example to be made. An innocent accused of the crime, or simply held up as an example of what will happen if you do step out of line, will do just as well. (For more on this, I’d commend to you the rest of the Lewis essay linked above.)

To sum up, while it may seem initially less aggressive, more justifiable by contemporary moral sentiments to screen out moralistic concerns about desert and punishment, it turns out we might just want a penal account of Just War.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Morality of the Story (Mere-Orthodoxy Guest Piece)

So, I wrote a piece a while back on the way looking at our lives in the narrative key shapes the way we understand our moral situation. After some tuning up and heavy editing, Matthew Lee Anderson was kind enough to give me the honor of publishing it over at Mere Orthodoxy. You can read it HERE.

Soli Deo Gloria

Some Unoriginal Notes on the Importance of Story for the Moral Life (With Help from MacIntyre, O’Donovan, and Machen)

aftervirtueAlasdair MacIntyre is widely credited with restoring the category of ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ to the forefront of the discussion in meta-ethics. In his influential work After Virtue (1981) he set out his argument for the bankruptcy of most modern ethical theories such as utilarianism and Rawlsian contractarianism and the necessity of recovering an Aristotelian-Thomistic virtue-ethics set within a narrative framework. Among other things, MacIntyre argues that the virtues, those moral practices and habits that characterize the just person, only make sense within a narrative framework because all human action is essentially historical in character–it is historically-enacted and historically-motivated. That is an inescapable feature of human life–whether pagan, post-Enlightenment liberal, or orthodox Christian, we live out of the stories and narratives we tell ourselves. Even the most postmodern among us, suspicious of the various master narratives told to us by modernity, are still living in the sort of story that includes moderns trying to control us through master narratives. Indeed, it is commonly suggested that instead of the idea of the “worldview”, a narrative-identity is a more useful conception for understanding the comprehensive perspective through which we approach moral action in the world.

Now, none of this is all that new. Why bring it up? Simply to introduce a few loosely connected quotes and notes on the importance of narrative for Christian reflection on the moral life that ought to be kept in mind. One is cautionary, the other couple are complementary and, after thinking on them, can be classified under the rubric of Creation, Sin, and Redemption.

1. The Story is About Something (Creation) – First the caution. Oliver O’Donovan in his Resurrection and the Moral Order alerts us against the sort of historicisms which take this emphasis on narrative and history to the point of forgetting that the story is about something. In essence, the denial of the category of ‘nature’ or creation as a relevant one for moral reflection:

We cannot object to the idea that history should be taken seriously. A Christian response to historicism will wish to make precisely the opposite point: when history is made the categorical matrix for all meaning and value, it cannot be then taken seriously as history. A story has to be a story about something; but when everything is a story there is nothing for the story to be about. The subject of a story must be something or someone of intrinsic value and worth; if it is not, the story loses all its interest and importance as a story. The story of what has happened in God’s good providence to the good world which God made is ‘history’ in the fullest sense. But when that world is itself dissolved into history…then history is left without a subject, so that we have no history any more, but only…’process’. And then again, the story of the world as Christians have told it has its turning-point in the saving act of God in Jesus Christ. Through that crisis it is uniquely determined towards its end. But when every determination to every end is understood equally as a determination to the end of history, the critical moment of the story is lost, the turning-point forgotten.

-Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, pg. 60

O’Donovan is getting at the point that creation, as a whole and in human natures as created, is the necessary pre-requisite for history as the stage of moral action–it is the set-up. Unless the human being is a certain sort of thing before the action, and the world is a certain kind of place, the things that happen within it lose their meaning. Without creation as the “theater of God’s glory”, to use Calvin’s phrase, there can be no drama of redemption.

2. You Are Not the Only, or Main, Author/Character (Sin) – Although it wasn’t likely his intention, a quote from MacIntyre himself sheds some light on the nature of sin:

I spoke earlier of the agent as not only an actor, but an author. Now I must emphasize that what the agent is able to do and say intelligibly as an actor is deeply affected by the fact that we are never more (and sometimes less) that the co-authors of our own narratives. Only in fantasy do we live what story we please. In life, as both Aristotle and Engels noted, we are always under certain constraints. We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves as part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others and each drama constrains the others. In my drama, perhaps, I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince, but to you I am only A Gentleman or at best Second Murderer, while you are my Polonius or my Gravedigger, but your own hero. Each of our dramas exerts constraints on each others’s making the whole different from the parts, but still dramatic.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue 2nd Ed.,  pg. 213

In drawing attention to the narrative shape of our lives, there comes the realization that, in some sense, we are not just agents but authors. In a theological context this comes with a serious qualification, though–given the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and God’s sustaining providence we are sub-authors at best. MacIntyre reinforces the point by calling our attention to the fact that at the merely human level my authorship is not total or complete. I am a sort of Mad-libber who inserts my responses at key points in the story that already has particular parameters beyond my control. This begins to expose the narcissistic madness we engage in when we claim credit for the blessings in our lives. Most of the good that comes our way is not in any way attributable to our own wonderful moral character, at least not by comparison to others. The fact that you’re reading this blog on a computer right now has more to do with the fact that you were born into a society in which computers are easily-accessed and not in the 5th Century China, than your own stellar work ethic. The resulting story of my life is, yes, something I’m responsible for, but at the same time, not something I can claim credit for. Paul asks, “What do you have which you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7) And yet, that’s precisely what sin is: claiming credit for someone else’s work. It is our willfully blind, ungrateful denial of the Author of our existence, who determines the times and the places in which we will play our parts in his story. (Acts 17:26)

MacIntyre also begins to show us the way this false sense of authorship leads to conflict with our neighbors. At the end of the day, in our arrogance and pride we are convinced that we are both the author and the main character in the epic which everybody else plays a bit part or supporting role. Most conflict comes when you find out that the story doesn’t revolve around you, or when you clash with your neighbor because he’s trying to accomplish his own heroic ends at your expense, and not playing the bit role you’ve assigned him. What else should we expect when two sinners, who’ve rejected any acknowledgment of the true Author or story-line, begin to encounter the “constraints” imposed by the dramas of others?

3. The Power is in the Story (Redemption) – This one is for preachers and pastors. Nearly 60 years before MacIntyre wrote After Virtue, J. Gresham Machen was criticizing the Liberals of his day, among other things, for misunderstanding the nature of Christian moral exhortation. In denying or radically reducing the basic outlines of the gospel narrative into generalized moral principles, “a life”, they robbed it of its power to result in real moral change:

From the beginning Christianity was certainly a life. But how was the life produced? It might conceivably have been produced by exhortation. That method had often been tried in the ancient world; in the Hellenistic age there were many wandering preachers who told men how they ought to live. But such exhortation proved to be powerless. Although the ideals of the Cynic and Stoic preachers were high, these preachers never succeeded in transforming society. The strange thing about Christianity was that it adopted an entirely different method. It transformed the lives of men not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event. It is no wonder that such a method seemed strange. Could anything be more impractical than the attempt to influence conduct by rehearsing events concerning the death of a religious teacher? That is what Paul called “the foolishness of the message.” It seemed foolish to the ancient world, and it seems foolish to liberal preachers today. But the strange thing is that it works. The effects of it appear even in this world. Where the most eloquent exhortation fails, the simple story of an event succeeds; the lives of men are transformed by a piece of news.

- J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pg 42

The Christian call to repentance is not simply a challenge to live differently or adopt some new moral principles. It is fundamentally a call to embrace the drama of redemption that God has authored in Christ as a new story to live by–and that only happens as the Holy Spirit enlightens our hearts through the preaching of the Gospel. Preaching aimed at real transformation can never degenerate into mere moral exhortation because at the end of the day, the power is in the story.

Soli Deo Gloria