On Signalling Versus Displaying Virtue in a Trumpian Age

trumpI had a few thoughts on the notion of virtue-signalling after watching this first week of the Trump Presidency, the Women’s March, and the March for Life unfold online.

Virtue is a good thing, which is why thinking yourself or being thought to possess virtue is an attractive prospect.

This basic reality funds the critique of what’s recently been termed “virtue-signalling” (though, arguably the concept is as old as Plato’s Republic Bk. 2). In a nutshell, the idea is that in an online age, much of our public talk about justice (tweets, likes, shares, Facebook rants) is just that: public talk. We share the right links, yes, maybe because we care about an issue, but more importantly because we need to be seen to care about it. Indeed, we need to see it in order to assure ourselves.

This is one of the many factors contributing to the regular cycles of social media frenzy about everything from the silly (an insensitive tweet by a celebrity at 3 am) to the serious (President Trump’s executive order). Indeed, social media exacerbates the problem since it’s basically geared towards the practice. There’s now a digital trail of what you have or haven’t said across various formats, which can easily be compared to our peers. Having been online for a while, this seems to be at least part of the problem and a helpful tool for cultural analysis.

I know that in many instances, especially after a tragedy or an outrage, there’s a pressure to tweet or post about it to make sure everybody knows that I too care. I too am saddened, or grieved. I fear that at times when I remain silent, or have found out about something late, I’ll be thought callous for having not said anything.

Of course, with any fancy new word or concept, it can be used cynically. In which case, for those with a more jaded eye, or on the other side of a particular issue, all of the protests, tweets, and so forth are basically just virtue-signalling. This critique tends especially to be leveled by conservatives against progressives whose tribal identification seems to encourage that.

And since Newton’s Third Law generally applies to these sorts of things, I have now seen various progressives complain about the very notion of critiquing public displays of virtue. Why would virtue be anything to critique? Seems worth emulating and encouraging. Indeed, we ought to be cynical about the cynicism and see nothing but self-protection in this.

Jesus on Signalling Virtue

As Christians, it seems wise to look to Jesus at this point. Did he have anything to say about virtue-signalling? Possibly. Let’s look at the Sermon on the Mount:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

 Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:1-6)

Note that Jesus does not condemn prayer, or giving to the needy, or even giving to the needy in public (which is probably where you have to do it). He condemns “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” It is the hypocrisy, the play-acting at virtue which aims at human praise for the self. It is seeking the reward of being thought virtuous instead of  the reward of having pleased the Father.

So, it seems that being wary of virtue-signalling isn’t simply a 21st Century worry, but a 1st Century one.

But, of course, that’s not the whole of the story. Take this famous image at the beginning of the Sermon:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16)

It seems that at one level, then, Christians ought to be concerned for others to see their virtue. When we obey, when we display the attitudes and practice the justice that Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon, the hope is that we will be shown to be daughters and sons of the good Father. Peter echoes a very similar thought in his first letter to Christian “exiles” living among their pagan neighbors (1 Peter. 2:9-12).

We have, then, these two streams of teaching to set in tension. Christians, at some level, ought to be concerned to display the virtue of God to our neighbors because it is right, and so that God can be glorified. But we should also be quite unconcerned with whether they think we are particularly virtuous. Their approval, their estimation of us as virtuous people should not be what we seek.

I would also add for those who pride themselves on not caring what others think, that our self-conception can fall under this ban as well. Many of us are deeply invested in the project of proving to ourselves that we are quite virtuous. Which is why it’s so exceptional when Paul says he doesn’t even pass judgment on himself, but leaves judgment to the Lord (1 Cor. 4).

As my language has already indicated, we might describe it as the difference between displaying virtue and signalling virtue.

Reflections for the Current Time

I bring this up now because it’s something I think many of us will be wrestling with in days, weeks, and years to come. Knowing how, when, and why to speak will be increasingly difficult in an online context that seems to accelerate every day. The breakneck speed at which we come to find things out, are expected to have researched, processed and rendered a thoughtful judgment, and then subsequently either acted or spoken on it seems unsustainable and unhealthy.

[As a side-note, I find it impossible that any, let alone most, of us are competent enough to have informed opinions on all the issues that matter in our world today (excepting rare insomniac journalists). It’s beyond ludicrous that we should all need to make them public.]

Returning to the issue of virtue-signalling, one thing we’ll have to wrestle with is how much we allow shame to be a motivator for our action. I can’t tell you how often I have see others putting public pressure on people to speak to an issue, to “use their voice”, etc. Now, in some cases, it may be warranted. Some may be refraining from speech out of fear, cowardice, or self-protective vanity. This is not good. God’s children are told to risk prophetic speech at the proper times.

And yet others do so out of care, a circumspect nature, a desire to not add another ill-informed voice to a conversation about which they know very little, or a wariness about getting sucked into the reactivity of the internet. Some are just busy working a job, caring for children, and the regular cares of everyday life.  In these cases, shaming someone into action can end up provoking guilty silence, cynicism, or the sort of breathless exhaustion which causes people to give up speech altogether.

Another point we ought to be wary of is the way tribal identification can play into this. We don’t just signal virtue broadly to the world, but virtues connected to shared identities within particular tribes and sub-cultures. I had one progressive friend share support for the March for Life this week, only to quickly caveat that she couldn’t be that excited since so many involved were also vocal supporters of torture. (To which my initial thought was, “Well, I’m pretty sure the dead infants didn’t support it.”) The point is that you can’t simply work for a good cause tout court, but you have carefully signal that you’re doing it in ways that align with the virtues your tribe shares.

Of course, similar examples can be dredged up the on the right.

Indeed, here I think tribal loyalties can stop us from speaking out when our conscience tells us we should. Precisely because we don’t want to be seen as the sort of person who virtue-signals about popular issues like race and sex, or participates in the “media freakout” over Trump, we curb our tongues. Ironically enough, one can signal the right sort of critical distance from the fray by refusing to signal. But this is not wise taming of the tongue that pleases the Father (Jas. 3:1-12), but posturing for a crowd.

I suppose the point I’m circling back around to is one I made recently about our work for justice in racial reconciliation. When we work for justice, we do so not for the approval of the most vocal advocates, but because we are children of God. In the current moment, we ought to speak, then, not to signal our virtue, but to display the goodness of God at work in transforming us. If this is our fundamental posture, I think that ought to change things for some of us.

Some of us will be relieved of the pressure to speak about anything and everything. Others of us will be freed from needing to make sure all of our speech conforms to the trends of our favored social group. And still others may be energized and given voice to speak freely at all.

As Christians, it should also change not only whether we speak, but how we speak. Signalling our virtue to our particular tribe doesn’t typically help us cultivate wise voices, but sharp, toxic tongues attuned to the art of the soundbite and the take-down. Of course, the take-down is appropriate from time to time (see Matthew 23). My point is that when our identities aren’t at stake every post on every issue, grace can more easily pervade our speech, even in disagreement.

Finally, some of us might be moved to do more than just speak. If we’re less concerned about displaying than signalling virtue, we’ll allows ourselves to step away from a screen long enough to do something tangible about those issues that trouble our world.

Purified Speech and Prayer

For all of this, I think Christians will need to be particularly attentive to their prayer lives. In reading Sarah Coakley’s stimulating work, God, Sexuality, and the Self, I’ve become convicted that I haven’t payed enough attention to the disciplines of contemplation and prayer in my theological studies. These disciplines shape and form us, make us attentive to the Spirit, and pliable to hear the voice of the Lord in the Word.

How much more do I need that for my online engagement, where I am bombarding with manifestly unholy voices?

It seems now more than ever, for those of us who live much of our lives online, we need to take a disciplined step back and engage in practices that will purify our souls. To curb the influence of the toxic, frenetic voices, as well as protect us from becoming cynical and jaded.

We come around again to Jesus’ injunction, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” It is he who is our reward, and it is only by spending time with him that we will learn to become sons and daughters who display virtue, without merely signalling it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Won’t Get Fooled Again? Machen on Old-School “Jesus v. The Bible” Liberalism

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Machen(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

The Teacher was a bit of a pessimist, so we might be prone to suspect he’s engaging in a bit of dour hyperbole. And certainly, with respect to things of the gospel, this is not strictly true. God does a new thing in Jesus Christ for us and our salvation. He creates righteousness out of sin, life out of death, and makes saints out of sinners.

Taken at a this-worldly level, though, he’s got a point. Natural patterns progress, currents come and go, winds maintain fairly regular rhythms, and so forth.  At the socio-historical level, yes, there are changes, breaks and developments, because humans are thinking, choosing, acting beings who can diverge from the script—and yet one constant that remains is human nature.

I bring all this up simply to note that the history of philosophy and theology, while developing in a bewildering variety of forms and particular details, exhibits a series of repeating patterns. A burst of rationalism and confidence usually sets the prelude to a wave of skeptical criticism. Derrida is not Montaigne is not Pyrrho, but we’d have to be blind to not see some line of continuity and familiar elements even though we can find significant differences between the thinkers. Ideas tend to make a comeback.

This is one of the reasons it’s so instructive to study the conflicts in our church history: the same mistakes tend to crop up on a regular basis, even if they do happen to show development in terms of sophistication or contextual concerns. The battles of our theological forefathers, while not an exact match for our own, can often shed light on the structure of our current debates.

J. Gresham Machen’s classic piece of polemics Christianity and Liberalism is one such text. Written at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist conflict, Machen set out to clearly set out the choice before the Church. But it wasn’t so much a choice between two variations of Christianity as so many thought, but between two different faiths altogether, with different doctrines of revelation, salvation, God, Christ, and more. In other words, it wasn’t just a dispute about variations in our understanding of the incarnation, but whether there was an incarnation!

One of the key battle-grounds, of course, was Scripture: what is its nature and authority? Is it inspired or infallible? If so, how so? If not, why not? Modernists were critical for what had become the usual reasons: science, historical criticism, the moral character of the OT, and so forth. I revisited the text recently, though, and was surprised (and yet not surprise) to find Machen critiquing one very familiar argument forwarded by the liberals of his day:

The modern liberal rejects not only the doctrine of plenary inspiration, but even such respect for the Bible as would be proper over against any ordinarily trustworthy book. But what is substituted for the Christian view of the Bible? What is the liberal view as to the seat of authority in religion? The impression is sometimes produced that the modern liberal substitutes for the authority of the Bible the authority of Christ. He cannot accept, he says, what he regards as the perverse moral teaching of the Old Testament or the sophistical arguments of Paul. But he regards himself as being the true Christian because, rejecting the rest of the Bible, he depends upon Jesus alone.

So, here we are, some ninety years ago facing the now-familiar “Jesus over the Bible” view of authority and revelation. Of course, Machen was unimpressed with its earlier version, “This impression, however, is utterly false. The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus.”

Why does he say this? For two reasons that I can see. First, excerpting Jesus from his narrative setting in both Old and New Testaments limits our ability to actually understand him. Much as T.F. Torrance argues, Jesus only makes sense (his works, his deeds, his aims) only against the backdrop of Israel as well as the witness of the Gospels and the preaching of the apostles through whom we receive our witness about him. What’s more, this runs against the practice of Jesus who both affirmed the Old Testament as the word of God and appointed his apostles to authoritatively teach concerning him and his works in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The second point, though, is that even still, without these considerations, the vaunted allegiance to Jesus’ unique authority begins to erode upon closer inspection:

As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not hold fast even to the authority of Jesus. Certainly he does not accept the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. For among the recorded words of Jesus are to be found just those things which are most abhorrent to the modern liberal Church, and in His recorded words Jesus also points forward to the fuller revelation which was afterwards to be given through His apostles. Evidently, therefore, those words of Jesus which are to be regarded as authoritative by modern liberalism must first be selected from the mass of the recorded words by a critical process.

The critical process is certainly very difficult, and the suspicion often arises that the critic is retaining as genuine words of the historical Jesus only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas. But even after the sifting process has been completed, the liberal scholar is still unable to accept as authoritative all the sayings of Jesus; he must finally admit that even the “historical” Jesus as reconstructed by modern historians said some things that are untrue.

So, even after declaring our allegiance to Jesus, we sometimes find that the words of Jesus as we actually have them in the Gospels—his pronouncements on eschatology, marriage, his exclusive authority, etc.—must be cleaned up. How did they deal with such a challenge to their claim that they follow Jesus? Machen elaborates:

So much is usually admitted. But, it is maintained, although not everything that Jesus said is true, His central “life-purpose” is still to be regarded as regulative for the Church. But what then was the life-purpose of Jesus? According to the shortest, and if modern criticism be accepted the earliest of the Gospels, the Son of Man “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark x. 45). Here the vicarious death is put as the “life-purpose” of Jesus. Such an utterance must of course be pushed aside by the modern liberal Church.

The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus − isolated and misinterpreted − which happen to agree with the modern program.

We might paraphrase and say that for the liberals of Machen’s day, the central truth of Jesus’ story, his life, his consciousness is what mattered. Some of the details, certain specific teachings, or doings, if they’re not part of this central story, can be discarded or relativized without much harm done. Of course, the question becomes how you decide what counts:

It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas.

It is not true at all, then, that modern liberalism is based upon the authority of Jesus. It is obliged to reject a vast deal that is absolutely essential in Jesus’ example and teaching − notably His consciousness of being the heavenly Messiah. The real authority, for liberalism, can only be “the Christian consciousness” or “Christian experience.”

Now, of course, this not an exact copy of the of arguments we find today. Downstream from the Liberal/Fundamentalist debates, our culture has shifted, and the more explicit liberalism with its anti-supernaturalism, its platitudes about universal truth, and so forth don’t set as well. We don’t mind the resurrection—we love it, in fact. As Trevin Wax has recently pointed out, old school liberals had more problems with the Creed than with the 10 Commandments, but we’ve sort of switched that up. All the same, this is one of those important moments to remember that a historical “precedent” need not be exact in all of its details and may have serious, significant differences. (In other words, Hus really was a precursor to Luther, despite their differences.)

If you look at it, though, it’s not hard to look around the theological landscape (internet or otherwise) to recognize many of the same old moves being made. We have a core Jesus consciousness, or “story” being appealed to over and against the actual words and deeds of Jesus and the apostles that he authorized to interpret and tell us that story. Some parts of Jesus’ teaching (the ones that happen to fit really well with left and center-left, progressive ethical or theological sensibilities) are upheld as the core of the message and life of Jesus and then used as a rule, a canon within the canon, to determine what really counts.

Machen draws out some more of the problems with that:

But how shall the findings of the Christian consciousness be established? Surely not by a majority vote of the organized Church. Such a method would obviously do away with all liberty of conscience. The only authority, then, can be individual experience; truth can only be that which “helps” the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and when once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The result is an abysmal skepticism.

In a sense, I’m sort of repeating myself. But the fact is that history seems to be repeating itself. With variations, of course, but still, the pattern is there, plain as day, for all to see.

And please hear me, I really don’t want to dismiss the differences. The ability to recite the Apostle’s Creed without crossing your fingers, affirming Jesus’ death and resurrection, his Messiahship, and so forth, are not small, theological potatoes. This is not exactly your grandfather’s liberalism. Thank God for that.

All the same, many of the same root problems with your grandfather’s liberalism are there, nonetheless, simply with different symptoms. They haven’t gone away, nor are they any less corrosive in the long run.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Do We Stop Weaponizing Our Victims?

The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors. And our neighbors do the same. They always think first about the victims for whom they hold us responsible.

-Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (pg. 164)

girardAccording to Rene Girard, our society, more than any before it, is obsessed with “the victims”–especially those of exclusion, violence, and social scapegoating. And he would know. The French literary critic and anthropologist is something of an expert on the idea of the victim. His works on the ideas of mimetic desire, scapegoating, violence, and their role in literature and culture as a whole are groundbreaking and influential (The Scapegoat, Violence and the Sacred, etc). In any case, according to Girard, you can scan the ancient literature down the generations, across societies, and you find nothing like the widespread concern for the victims in the modern and contemporary period.

You can chalk this up to any number of sources: the effect of the Gospel on cultures through history, the spread and transformation during the Enlightenment of the Christian concept of charity into one of universal benevolence (per Charles Taylor), our post-Holocaust sensibilities, or any number of other social movements. What you can’t do is deny its pervasiveness. As Girard notes, even if we’re hypocritical about it, we at least know we’re supposed to be concerned for the victims: whether oppressed social groups, races, sexes, orientations, or classes.

We are keenly aware now of the way that individuals and groups can be marginalized and kept down by the cruel, powerful, or simply dominant, yet apathetic social majority. What’s more, we know we’re supposed to do something about it in word or deed (or, more cynically, at the very least through a token acknowledgment of complicity via Facebook update).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, insofar as it’s connected with and led to great movements of social justice (Civil Rights movements, advances in gender equality, the rights of the unborn, etc), I think it’s a good thing. Whatever the social roots, I think there are deep, biblical justifications for something like our modern concern for the victim.

Christ himself (among many other things) was a victim of violence and oppression at the hands of religious, social, and political powers. He not only atoned for our sins on the Cross but, among his many works, he exposed in concrete form the oppression and violence against the weak at the heart of a world in rebellion to its Loving Redeemer.

Weaponizing the Victim

All that said, as with any religious insight, sin’s pernicious power can twist and pervert it for its own uses. And, as the opening quote suggests, the modern concern for the victim is no different. In a phrase: we’ve learned to weaponize our victims.

Girard elaborates:

We could use our insight discreetly with our neighbors, not humiliating those we catch in the very act of expelling a scapegoat. But more frequently we turn our knowledge into a weapon, a means not only of perpetuating old conflicts, but raisng them to a new level of cunning, which the very existence of this knowledge and its propagation in the whole society demand. In short, we integrate the central concern of Judaism and Christianity into our systems of self-defense. Instead of criticizing ourselves, we use our knowledge in bad faith, turning it against others. Indeed, we practice a hunt for scapegoats to a second degree, a hunt for hunters of scapegoats. Our society’s obligatory compassion authorizes new forms of cruelty.  (pg. 158)

I suppose I could just remind you of your Twitter or your Facebook feed on Tuesday and you’ll see where he’s going. Think of the vitriolic discussions and finger-pointing around abortion, #BlackLivesMatter, the Syrian Crisis, bullying against LGBT kids, religious liberty infringements, and any number of other important instances of victimization and the importance of Girard’s comments should become apparent. Still, I think it’s worth commenting on in this passage and a number of points to add beyond it.

Secret Substitutions and Weighing the Victims

First, there is the danger of second-order scapegoating brought on by our awareness of our tendency to scapegoat others. As soon as we identify a victim and their corresponding oppressor, we are liable to turn the tables, engaging in “secret substitutions”, and vindictively turn the initial oppressor into a victim of even worse violence (physical, social, economic) than the original victims suffered. We see an instance of online cruelty and become a Twitter mob that doxxes and shames a person out of work and society as a whole, all the while convinced of the rightness of our cause. We’re not oppressors, we’re “allies”, or “voices for the voiceless.”

Then there’s the self-righteous posturing element. Girard points out the way we use the victims to prop up our own self-defense against shame and guilt, our own sense of righteousness. Or maybe it’s not self-justification, but a secularized attempt at penance or atonement that drives us to perform our righteousness before men. We prove and perform our righteousness in a couple of ways, at least.

First, we do so simply by publicly supporting the right sort of victims. Girard speaks earlier about the “weighing of victims” that goes on in society. And we’ve all seen that, right? The comparative element in our online conversations: “How can you care about X, when Y is happening?”

Comparative judgments do have an appropriate place, at times. There are some issues that simply are bigger, more important, or more pressing at a given moment. Of course, the problem is that knowing how to rank them can be a difficult judgment call to make and it’s not always obvious. What’s more, my concern isn’t always a zero-sum game. I can care about more than one victim at a time, or acknowledge the importance of one justice issue while realizing that my voice is needed on this other issue over here.

The devious, second dimension to the comparative judgments, though, is the self-justification that comes with knowing my victim matters more. It’s not just that we want to be righteous by caring about victims, it’s that I care about the right victim, while you care about the wrong one. We want to appear righteous, but we also want to be more righteous than she is.

Which brings us to weaponizing the victim. That opening quote is so devastating because once you open your eyes to it, you see it everywhere–especially your own soul. It’s a mirror that exposes to light some of the ugliest impurities in our righteous crusades. Because haven’t you seen that in yourself? No? Well, I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen it in your enemies, right?

Haven’t you been agitated by that progressive who is always taking every chance they get to share a devastating story about some victim and immediately tacking the moral on that “this is what Republicans/Evangelicals/Fundamentalists views lead to” or some such statement? Or on the flipside, the way that some legal absurdity just shows the moral bankruptcy of the progressive/Democrat/Post-Evangelical capitulation? Doesn’t this latest tragedy (beautifully) highlight their horrid lack of concern? (A concern which, quite admirably, you have). Don’t these tear-stained faces cry out for the merciless prosecution of our enemies? (Oh, and yes, maybe some aid as well, of course.)

I Am A Danger To Myself

Here’s the thing, I don’t for a minute claim that I escape this, nor, again, that there aren’t situations where that kind of stock-taking and comparison needs to take place. I’ll come clean and say that I have been there in this last month. I mean, with all the Planned Parenthood videos coming out, I’ve sat there appalled at the perceived inconsistency of some of my progressive friends who will trumpet every (in my view) piddling social faux pas, yet remained quiet about it, or whose knee-jerk reaction is to defend the abortion giant. Or be more incensed about Cecile the Lion than tens of thousands of infants butchered. And I honestly think my opposition to abortion and prioritization of it is justified.

But has that been my only concern? Haven’t there been moments where I’ve prided myself on having that sense of proportion? Have there been times when my legitimate concern for these helpless victims hasn’t been edged out my desire to score righteousness points and use that evaluation as part of a broader argument against “deluded” progressives? Am I quieter about other moral issues because they’re not an opportunity to score points against them? Am I more concerned with victims I can hold my neighbors responsible for?

I have to ask myself these questions if I’m going to be honest and avoid running the risk of hunting the hunters, or crassly weaponizing the already-victimized, turning them into objects for my own self-justification. And here’s one of the most pernicious elements of the whole thing: I used myself as an example here, simply to avoid using this post as a third-order exercise in weaponizing the victim against those who weaponize the victims! But I know I’m not the only one here.

Think through the issues, the victims that burden you, and the opponents who anger you. I don’t know what it is for you or who it is for you. Maybe it’s abortion. Maybe it’s racial injustice. Maybe it’s gender or sexuality. Maybe they are friends who’ve gone progressive. Maybe they are Sunday School teachers who stayed Evangelical. Maybe they’re Anabaptists, Calvinists, Roman Catholics, or whoever. And maybe you’re really actually right and they’re really actually wrong. My point here isn’t to say that there aren’t priorities, or a proper place for righteous anger against others on behalf of the victims. Clearly these things actually matter.

My question is this: is your first instinct for the victim or against your enemy? Is it to seek justice or secure righteousness? To bless the hurting or curse the proud? I honestly don’t know sometimes. And that scares me. I remember Paul’s words:

“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Rom. 2:1)

We pass judgment on others in this fashion, only at a danger to ourselves.

Our Hope–the Victim is the Judge

It’s at that moment, though, when I remember my only hope is that one day the secrets of men “will be judged by Jesus Christ” according to the gospel (Rom. 2:16). That Christ Jesus–the One who was the Victim at our hand and on our behalf–is the Judge is my only hope to stand on that final day.

Christ’s gospel is also my only hope to escape this cycle. Only as I continue to recognize my own sin–my violence against God and my neighbor–that put him there is my pride humbled before others. I know that I myself “practice those same things”, in a million different quiet ways. What’s more, it’s only as I continue to trust that his atoning death for sin and resurrecting justification is mine through faith, can I move beyond the self-justifying desire to performatively prove my righteousness against my ideological opponents. My identity isn’t at stake, nor is my need to cover my own guilt and unrighteousness.

Neither of these movements should undercut the motive to seek justice for the victim.

Instead, we are set free to care for the victims as people, for their own sake and the sake of the One whose Image they bear, instead of as pawns in our schemes. Indeed, it opens us up care for more than we had before, since we’re no longer caught up in weighing the victims, making sure we’re working for the “right sort”, the respectable victims who pull up their pants and have don’t have the wrong kind of past. We don’t have to be moralistic advocates. We don’t have to worry about whether or not admitting the evil they’ve suffered plays into our opponents’ hands because, in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it’s not about winning anymore.

It even serves as a curb against our worst, vindictive excesses. Since we know that beyond the temporal justice we rightly seek in this world–stopping bullying, ending police brutality, saving the unborn–ultimate, divine judgement will either be served at the last day, or has already been handled at the Cross, we are less likely to vindictively fall into victimizing the oppressor and continuing the cycle of violence.

Everything changes in light of the Victim who is the Judge.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 Principles For Those Times When Theologians and Scientists Disagree

every square inchOne of my favorite clips from pretty much any movie ever comes from the cinematic masterpiece Nacho Libre. When Nacho encourages his luchador partner Eskeleto to pray to the Lord for strength, much to everyone’s surprise, he says, “I don’t believe in God—I believe in science.” It’s hilariously simplistic, but it’s reflective of one of the silly dichotomies too many of our students in the church as well as the broader culture still buy into on a regular basis.

Many of us intuitively feel there’s something wrong with that. Still, when it comes to wrestling with the many apparent conflicts between what we were taught in Sunday School and what we learned in our freshman biology class, we’re often at a loss for how to think of these conflicts. Is it really a matter of science versus faith? Blind faith or intellectual honesty? Obviously I don’t think that’s the case, or I wouldn’t still be a Christian.

Over the years of study, I’ve read enough good apologetics and works of philosophy to feel satisfied knowing that whatever new challenges are proposed, there’s eventually going to be some answer forthcoming. Indeed, I believe we’ve got a number of reasons for thinking that the practice of science is best supported on something like a Christian worldview, with its belief in a regular, orderly universe, created by God to be intelligible to the human intellect. Indeed, ultimately there can be no conflict between the truths of theology and the truths of the hard sciences, as God is the author of their shared reality.

That said, it’s always good to have some basic principles in mind when thinking about those moments when it seems that our best scientist and our best theologians do conflict.

Bruce Riley Ashford provides us with a few such principles in his excellent little introduction to a Reformed theology of culture Every Square Inch. (Check out Trevin Wax’s interview with him here.) Towards the end of his chapter on the Christian motivation to engage the sciences (pp. 84-86), he reminds us of three pertinent facts to keep in mind.

  1. “Either group (theologians or scientists) can err; for that reason, either group should be open to correction.” Theologians and biblical commentators have been wrong in their interpretations before. Mistaking metaphorical language for literalistic descriptions of reality and vice versa, there have certainly been cases of over-interpretation of biblical texts, taking them to teach something far more specific than they were intended to. On the flipside, all you have to do is read a short history of science to see how many different scientific paradigms we’ve gone through to explain gravitational force, the orbit of the planets, and so forth to know that we’ve gotten things wrong before.
  1. “The Bible is not a science book.” I know this is rather obvious to many, but the Bible was not written as a biology text book. There are areas where it makes claims about the physical universe and so forth, but by and large, we’re missing the point if we’re reading it as a guide to physics, chemistry, and so forth. It’s God’s covenant document revealing his character, doings, aims, and intentions towards his people in Christ. This is why we need to be rather careful about over-determining our interpretation of the text in the direction of any particular scientific theory. That’s not what the book is for, so using it for that end leaves it liable to abuse and an unfortunate discreditation in the eyes of those who know the shape of the science it allegedly contradicts.
  1. “Science is constantly changing.” As we already said, scientists have changed their minds about all sorts of things. Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Planck, Einstein. Just run down the list of astronomers and early scientists who modified, tweaked, or overturned each other’s pictures of the universe and you see this to be true. Thomas Kuhn’s famous work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions probably overstates his thesis about the new worlds that scientists inhabit when they change their models of understanding the world, but it’s instructive on this point. Even the most secure science—models that are fairly unquestioned in their respective fields for decades—are susceptible to revision. For that reason, Christians need to make sure they’re not too hasty revising their interpretations of Scripture or fundamental doctrines to fit some study that emerged only in the last 5 years and could be overturned next Tuesday.

Obviously, these principles aren’t some easy formula that we plug every problem into and get a clean, easy answer. But we shouldn’t really expect that, should we? Theology and the sciences both deal with reality and reality isn’t clean and easy. That said, these are the sort of broad, wise principles that allow us to proceed in our analysis with care, wisdom, and fidelity to God’s Word and without ignoring what we find in our study of God’s good world.

No Prophecy, Just Prescription: Solid Theology (Patheos Future of Evangelicalism)

future of evangelicalismI got asked to participate in a panel of sorts over at Patheos on the Future of Religion in America in the next 5 years. There’s actually a great line-up you should go check out (esp, Trueman, Moore, Meador, Dyck, and Wedgeworth’s pieces). Anyway, here’s the beginning of my two cents. 

When I was asked to weigh in on what I judged to be the future of Evangelicalism, my first thought was, “I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet, I’m just a shepherd of college students.” Who am I to make such weighty prognostications? By nature I’m averse to engaging in any hard futurology — sounds a bit close to astrology. Beyond that, given the increasingly volatile nature of American discourse around religion and the rapidly changing theo-political scene (Obergefell and its rainbow penumbra), we’re dealing with shifting variables whose slopes are slipperier by the day, making mapping a trajectory with any certainty a perilous proposition.

All the same, I’ll hazard a few words about the future of Evangelicalism, not as predictions, but as prescriptions for facing the changes we see all around us and their fallout. From where I stand, I’d say there’s one main priority Evangelicalism needs to set itself, if it’s going to survive the next few years let alone be salt and light for the gospel: prioritizing solid theology.

You can read the rest of my specific article here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Ideological Moralism and Gospel Grace (TGC)

My life has meaning because of the Cause. You oppose the Cause. You must submit or be destroyed.”

— Modern/postmodern ideological moralism

Charles Taylor

I posted that status after reading a little section toward the end of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self on Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis about the modern demand of benevolence. Nietzsche offers one of the most insightful examinations of how the modern idea that humanity must maintain goodwill toward all—”a secularized agape,” especially apart from the context of grace—can provoke feelings either of unworthiness or self-satisfaction in the human soul. Basically, the options are despair or smug self-satisfaction depending on how well you think you measure up to the standard.

Taylor goes on to analyze one further implication Nietzsche left unexplored:

The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward; the bad, the failure, is now identified with other people or groups. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated. This becomes particularly virulent on the extremes of the political spectrum, in a way which Dostoevsky explored to unparalleled depths.

In our day as in his, many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable and even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoevsky’s Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bare the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism. (516-517)

Taylor penned these words almost 25 years ago, but I read them and couldn’t help but think of my own generation and the one coming after us. It’s pretty common to either idolize or demonize our moral sense; we’re supposedly either relativists or morally superior activists. I’d say there’s quite a bit of both. And one “ist” I’d certainly add to the list is “moralists.”

You can go on to read the way this plays out over at The Gospel Coalition.

How Do You Explain the Jews without the Exodus?

exodusWhile I’m sure there are a number of historical and archeological arguments for the historicity of the Exodus, I found this passage Andy Crouch’s Culture Making compelling for its brevity and force:

The exodus does not just have religious significance. It stakes a claim to human history. To be sure, more than a few moderns question whether the events recounted in the Bible happened the way they were recorded. Undoubtedly the biblical texts, like all texts, streamline or condense certain features of the historical events. Yet those who would deny the basic historicity of the exodus, like those who would deny the historicity of the resurrection, are left with a daunting historical problem: how to convincingly explain the coming into being of such a distinctive people, with such deeply rooted and enduring religious, ethical, and cultural practices, without any cataclysmic event like the deliverance from Egypt. One need only compare the exodus account to the crazy quilt of national origin stories in Greek or Roman mythology. We have to admit a pantheon filled with a wild variety of gods of various sort and conditions, playing favorites, and capriciously intervening in history in an endless cosmic competition, seems much better suited to the haphazard process of cultural consolidation in the ferment of the Mediterranean Basin than the idea of a single Creator God who has chosen a particular people and sticks with them with the ferocity of covenant love. Even in spite of their admitted temptations to assimilation and syncretism, even through cycles of marginalization and exile, the Jewish people maintained a tenacious and culture-shaping faith in that one God, YHWH They did so despite living, generation after generation, in cultural contexts where monotheism in general and worship of YHWH in particular was all but impossible. In the face of such and extraordinary religious and cultural achievement, something like the exodus comes much closer to being the simplest and most plausible explanation.

–Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, pg. 204-205

In essence, “How do you explain the Jews without the Exodus?” You can’t.