Mere Fidelity: The Resurrection of Politics

Mere FiOn this episode, Matt and I and our Mere-Orthodoxy’s friend Jake Meador discuss the implications of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ for political theology. I had a lot of fun with this talk.

If you like the show, please do leave us a review on iTunes. We are also available on Google Play.

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Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Interview with Yuval Levin on “The Fractured Republic”

fractured-republicThis week on Mere Fidelity, we had the immense privilege of having Yuval Levin join us to discuss his important book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in an Age of IndividualismIf you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. It is one of the most interesting non-theological reads I’ve made in a while. In any case, on the show we discuss the problems of nostalgia in politics, our post-nationalist scene, the dynamics of a post-Brexit, post-Trump order, the way class ought to figure into our analysis, and so much more. Honestly, this is one of my favorite episodes.

If you like the show, please do leave us a review on iTunes. We are also available on Google Play.

If you’re interested in supporting the show financially, you can check out our Patreon here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Election and So Forth

Mere FiWe decided it was a good idea to talk about the Election and what it means. We had the full cast and crew for this one to talk about our reactions,the implications for the church in North American, Evangelical witness, as well as our responsibilities as Christians, disciples, neighbors, and so forth. We hope this will be a challenge and an encouragement. We know it was for us.

By the way, Alastair has written an absurd amount of analysis on the election.

Here are a few posts: 10 Sets of Questions to Ask Before Voting For Donald TrumpThe Social Crisis of Distrust and Untruth in America and EvangelicalismHow Social Justice Ideology Gave Us Donald TrumpFurther Thoughts: How Social Justice Ideology Fuels Racism and SexismA Crisis of Discourse—Part 1: Cracks in the Progressive Left, and A Crisis of Discourse—Part 2: A Problem of Gender.

Agree or disagree, there’s always plenty to think about with Roberts.

Well, here it is.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Mere Fidelity: Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”

Mere FiIn this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity, Alastair, Andrew, and I get together to discuss Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations thesis, as laid out in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.When I read it a couple of years ago, it was instantly the most illuminating books I’d read on interpreting our social situation with regard to discourse between right and life, progressive and conservative, (both in religion and politics). Revisiting the conversation with the chaps on the show nuanced some of my earlier judgments, but I still think it’s absolutely worth your time to engage with.

Hopefully this discussion is informative in itself, but also whets your appetite for more.

Soli Deo Gloria

Loving Your Political Neighbor in an Age of Trumpian Anxiety

trump

For some context, you should know that I am a recovering political junkie/idolater. Many who’ve only known me the last few years wouldn’t have picked up on it. Because of my job at church and my own dive into theology, I really haven’t commented on it much, nor given myself over to it in-depth recently. I used to be obsessed as a kid, though.

My dad and I used to follow politics instead of sports and loved it–I still love talking politics with him. I remember the ’92 election and every Clinton scandal from Whitewater to Lewinsky and all the smaller ones everybody forgets (Filegate, Travelgate, Campaign Finance, pardons for money, etc). I remember the Contract with America–not from books. My dad used to print off articles from the WSJ, the Times, the Post, etc. and I’d read them in class when I was bored (and that was in Jr. High). I was downright wonkish. Heck, I even edited the opinion page for my high school paper.

For years the plan was law school, become a prosecutor, then jump into a politics and help gain the Nation back for Christ. Or something like that. And then, through a long, roundabout series of events, I got the call to pastoral ministry and theology around my freshman year of college and a bunch of that changed. Essentially, I went from thinking about the Nation to the Kingdom, and from political commentary to biblical studies, philosophy, theology, and so forth.

At that point, things moderated for me. I began to cool towards the overtly political, started reading the news less, and sort of when into a political detox mode. It was sort of necessary because—as a bit of hot-blooded young fella—things had gotten all tangled up in a fairly unbiblical, “God and country” sort of way. So the break was healthy.

Of course, I realized that at some point I probably went too far in the other direction. There’s a sort of danger that happens when you’re repenting of some error to see-saw over in the other direction. So, instead of being obsessed with politics and identifying the Church with the Republican or Democratic party, or America as the New Israel, you turn into the guy who loves Jesus-juking every political concern. There’s a sort of apolitical attitude some pious types get that forgets that much of the political instinct isn’t just power-plays and over-realized eschatology, but a real concern to love your neighbor by pursuing the common good of the cities, states, and nations God has placed us in. In essence, the confession that “Jesus is Lord” no matter what, becomes hard to distinguish from burn-it-to-the-ground nihilism with a Jesus-fish slapped on it.

Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out my theology of political engagement that takes into account our creation mandate, the corruption of the Fall, God’s redemption, the unique role of the Church in the World, and even my own place as a theology student and possible, future teacher in the Church. As simple and obvious as all that sounds, I haven’t nailed it down.

I know this because I feel myself getting sucked back into some of the same old patterns of thought and mind that were part of the unhealthy element of my former, political self.

To be honest, the 2016 election is so manic and anxiety-inducing. ISIS, Scalia’s death, the eroding middle class, racial tensions, religious liberty after Obergefell, the Donald, and everything else just seems to be bringing out the worst in everybody. The paranoia. The anger. The consternation and confusion that so many of these sheeple (i.e. my fellow citizens) are so obviously wrong about what matters!…Again, I don’t have this down.

What I have been doing, though, is trying to remind myself of a couple key doctrines as I continue to process my broader theology of political engagement and this election season in particular. I suppose they’re my list of truths that, as an average citizen with moderate levels of political efficacy, will help me stay engaged without becoming obsessed, or forget Jesus’ basic commands to love. Since I figure I’m not the only one who’s been getting sucked in this season, I offer some of them up to you as a brief encouragement as well.

Image of God, Fall, and Neighbor-Love.

The first is quite simply remembering that we’re created and fallen Image-bearers. I recently read that now, as a nation, we are more likely to date and marry someone of a different religion than of a different political party. This is partially because in a secular age, politics becomes our religion.  Whatever the reason, though, the result is that it’s becoming more difficult to relate to people across the political aisle. We’ve become so emotionally and relationally distanced from our political opponents that we have trouble empathetically entering into their intellectual space and understanding their points of view.

This sort of dynamic makes it that much easier to treat them as more than simply political opponents, but ideological threats—the “Other” (sorry for the trigger word). We demonize and thereby lose the ability to dialogue, tolerate, much less love people that disagree with on complex issues like economics, religious liberty, sexuality, and so forth.

Focusing on the doctrines of the Image of God and the Fall help me in at least two ways. First, whoever I’m talking to, no matter our disagreements, is a bearer of the Image of God and is to be treated with dignity, respect, and charity—certainly not with cursing (James 3:9). That doesn’t rule out argument, a sharp joke, or robust rebuke, but it does rule out the contempt that has come to characterize much of our online discourse. In other words, love your neighbor as yourself applies even to Trump supporters.

Second, the doctrine of the fall reminds me that disagreement really can be the result of a sinful refusal of one party to see the truth. And that party just might be me. The fall reminds me that I too have fallen short of the epistemological glory of God and just might stand in need of the correction of my interlocutors. It also sets a curb on my self-righteousness in general, even if I do end up convinced that I’m right on a subject.

Of course, that doesn’t rule out making judgments of character, wisdom, and so forth on the basis of someone’s political engagement. For instance, I’ll be blunt in saying, along with Matthew Lee Anderson, that supporting someone who retweets white Supremacists, won’t repudiate the KKK, breaks up marriages, grossly mocks women, minorities, the handicapped, etc., while there are any other options for an office with access to nuclear codes is a serious lapse in moral judgment. Especially if you call yourself a Christian pastor…But these considerations require that I make that judgment only in the broader context of regarding them as one of God’s Image-bearers, loved by God, and the object of God’s saving activity in Christ just as much as I am.

Penultimacy, Principalities, and Providence.

Paul urged his readers in the church in Corinth to engage in life in the world in something of a counter-intuitive way:

29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Co 7:29–31).

While there are a number of quirks we could get into here, what I see Paul doing is advocating something of a doctrine of “penultimacy.” I don’t see Paul arguing that we should totally cut ties with the world, act as if our marriage vows don’t matter, or that death doesn’t cause us pain. If that was the case, then he wouldn’t spend as much time as he does in his letters addressing all of these issues. He’s saying we should act in such a way that remembers these aren’t the final realities. It’s not so much a matter of whether or not to do these things, but how we should.

In other words, God has acted to redeem the world in Christ. There is a New Creation coming. Yes, what we do in the body and in the world matters for that New Creation life (1 Cor. 6:12-20), but this version of the world is not all there is. Death is not the final word. This marriage is not the final relationship. And—this is where it counts for us—this political order is not the final kingdom of God. These things matter, but they matter in a penultimate way—not in an ultimate way.

Another way of thinking about it is repenting from the heresy of Americanism, which tends to treat America as a new Israel, a chosen nation in some sort of redemptive covenant with God, upon whose shoulders the fate of the Church depends. I believe in providence, so yes, I believe God has plans for America, just as he has for all of human history. I also love my country. But to be blunt, while America is a world-historically significant country, it is not a redemptive-historically crucial one. The Church and God’s plans survived the fall of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the sidelining of the British Empire, and every other nation identified with God’s unique purposes for history. The Church will be here long after America is gone.

Obviously, I don’t want to see the Republic I love and have grown up in (or even the Party) go down—and I don’t think we’re there—but putting the drama of American politics into a broader, theo-dramatic perspective allows us to pump the breaks on our anxieties before they carry us away into thinking we’re involved in an obvious battle of darkness and light, with the sides clearly and neatly drawn into black hats and white hats. No, we forget that our ultimate battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers that span both parties and every political configuration and nation (Eph. 6).

It also reminds us that, no matter the details along the way, we do know where it all ends—exactly where God intends it. We forget too often that God’s eye is on the sparrow and he knows how many hairs are on your head—do we think he’s unaware of the primaries? I’m not saying this with a Pollyannaish view of political providence. Reading the court histories in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings is sobering stuff. All the same, God’s providence is a doctrine for sober times—for prophets living in the midst of sinful Israel as much as for Daniel in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Even on the far side of the worst disaster and death we can imagine, lie hope and resurrection.

Prayer: A Better Way

Again, none of this is meant as a sort of Jesus-Juke to create apathy to the real, political concern and involvement we are all called to in our various roles as neighbors and average citizens on up the line to elected and appointed officials. If this world and its politics did not matter, then Paul wouldn’t tell us to pray for all of our political leaders, whether kings or elected officials so that they might govern in a way that enables a peaceful and quiet life (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

Instead, it is meant as a reminder that part of what makes Christians holy is not simply that we do different things than our neighbors, but that we do the same things our neighbors do differently. We vote, we argue, we serve, we engage, but we do so in the broader perspective of the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension to the throne of the universe from whence he will return to judge the living and the dead. We do it to love our neighbors, not simply triumph over them.

That said, I suppose it is appropriate to close with Paul’s encouragement. Though much of our holiness is caught up in doing things differently, sometimes the different things we do are what enable us to do so. Prayer is one of them because prayer reorients us to all the truths I’ve been outlining.

Praying for our neighbors, our nation, our leaders, our activities puts them in their proper, spiritual perspective. Prayer acknowledges that these things are right objects of our concern—indeed, we are bringing them to God for his concerned action and discernment. Prayer also—since it is for all people—treats our neighbors, our political opponents, and our leaders as worthy of God’s attention and our respect, honoring them as Image-bearers alongside ourselves. Most of all, prayer acknowledges our dependence upon God in Christ for wisdom, for his mercy, and his good, sovereign will.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Have Evangelicals Become Too Obsessed With Politics?

Mere FidelityIt’s election season again, which means that politics is on our mind more than it usually is. But is it too much? This episode of Mere Fidelty, Matt, Alastair, and I discuss the problem of political engagement and obsession in the church. We take up issues like the disconnect between different political and theological classes, the work of James Davison Hunter & the culture war syndrome, the problem of loudest voice in the room, instrumentalizing the faith, and so forth. And we even give Alastair a fantastic new nickname. You won’t want to miss this one.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Can Christendom Ever Be a Good Thing?

Mere FidelityIn case anybody’s been wondering why there have been no posts this week, I’ve been at The Gospel Coalition’s 2015 National Conference for the last few days. I have to say, it’s been a blast, though I am not quite exhausted. That said, we did record a very interesting episode of Mere Fidelity last week concerning the issue of Christendom and whether it’s appropriate for the Church and the Gospel to have some position of privilege in society, or if so, how? We touch on this in light of recent discussions concerning Church and State, power, marriage, and so forth.

Also, Matt wonders whether having a Queen might be a desirable thing.

I pray this blesses you. It certainly ought to challenge you.

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine, Friends Who Are Enemies, and Hope in the Middle of History

StAugustineA little less than 100 years after Christ triumphed over the old Roman gods, the Goths under the Arian-Christian King Alaric followed suit and sacked Rome–mostly just to show they could. The physical impact was relatively minimal but, as historians are quick to point out, the political and psychological impact was cataclysmic. Among varied responses to the sack were those of the pagans who laid Rome’s historic defeat at the feet of the Christians and their new God. By abandoning the sacrifices of the old gods, they had provoked them, lost their protection, and had been left defenseless against the assault.

It was in response to this reality that Augustine of Hippo penned one of his crowning theological achievements: The City of God. His basic point was to answer the charges of the pagans, but in the process he lays out a broad vision of God, his purposes in history, politics, philosophy, and dozens (if not hundreds) of other issues.

To my shame, I must say that despite good intentions for many years, I have only just begun to read it this week. Thankfully, it’s already repaying the time invested with insights relevant to the present moment. One passage in particular in Chapter 35 of Book 1 is worth meditating on for a bit:

But let this city bear in mind, that among her enemies lie hidden those who are destined to be fellow citizens, that she may not think it a fruitless labor to bear what they inflict as enemies until they become confessors of the faith. So, too, as long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear. These men you may today see thronging the churches with us, tomorrow crowding the theatres with the godless. But we have the less reason to despair of the reclamation even of such persons, if among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are predestined to become our friends. In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation.

The line that really grabbed me was that bit about “among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are predestined to become our friends.” According to Augustine, there are Two Cities in the world, the City of God and the City of Man, and until the future judgment their citizenry are mixed up and jumbled together–hidden, as it were, in plain sight.

History is not immediately transparent before our eyes. Eschatological judgment and the course of history under the guidance of God’s providence will contain surprises that unsettle our too-confident sense that we have a read on things as they are. From this truth, Augustine deduces that Christians are not to despair in the face of even the most virulent opposition.

Why? Because in the sovereign grace of God, it may be that our bitterest enemies may end up our staunchest friends. It is very easy when looking out at the headlines today to embrace a narrative of decline–which may be more or less correct–and then conclude we must settle for a defeatist attitude, bunker up in our churches, and wait out the storm. Or, more personally, it’s possible to look out at our Facebook feeds, Twitter threads, and look at some whom we see to be most hostile, vocal, and critical towards Christian faith and its moral vision, and simply write people off. In our arrogance and finitude, we freeze them as they are, passing judgment before the time (1 Cor. 4),

Augustine has a far different view. God is not bound by the exigencies of history. Trajectories exist, it is true, but God is the God who is Lord over history, both cosmic and personal. What’s more, he is the God of mysterious grace. This is why Augustine can urge hope for our “enemies”–the grace of God overcomes the opposition of those who hate him, through the good news of the gospel. Augustine knew this personally because of his own story of conversion from scoffer to Bishop. But also because of the Apostle whose letters exerted such a magnificent influence on his own theology: Paul, the chief persecutor of the Church whom God called to be her greatest missionary and theologian.

In other words, it is a betrayal of the gospel to lose hope for our enemies, our communities, or even a culture that seems dead-set to gut whatever is left of its philosophical underpinnings inherited from the gospel.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Augustine if he didn’t also highlight the inverse truth: some of our current friends may turn out to be ultimately false believers who end up abandoning and betraying the gospel. We can all think of any number of friends or pastors who seemed to start out so strong, but before the end, turn away and–even worse–drag a number with them. This is the Augustinian limit and caution on hope: set it on the right object.

Our hope for the world, for our neighbor, even our enemies, is ultimately not in human teachers, political programs, or the right method of “engagement.” Our hope is in the God who speaks the world out of nothing, light out of darkness, and a word of justification in the midst of the most damnable moment in history–the cross of his own Son.

We have reason for hope–his name is Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria

How (American) Christians Ought to Respond to the Midterm Elections

flagMany wouldn’t guess this by my writings here, but I am a recovering political junkie. From childhood on, I used to be frenetically concerned with all things politics. Reading the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page by junior high, my dad kept me informed by printing out reams of political analysis every week for me to take to school and read in boring classes. It was fun. I like the horserace elements, the ideological battles, the speculation, and everything that went with it. It was like sports for me, only with old white dudes not doing anything. Kind of like golf, I guess.

These days, I’ve cooled off a bit. Not because politics aren’t important, mind you–they are. I’ve simply had a shift in intellectual priorities. Most of the time, the day to day quirks of my job don’t require a detailed knowledge of which piece of legislation got passed today. Still, right around now, midterms and the presidential elections, some of the old fire comes back and I care again.

Now, I’m still not going to say much about the meaning of what happened on Tuesday. The internet is full of political speculation about whether or not these elections favored conservatives or only disfavored Democrats, what implications this holds for the next two years, or whether Kim Kardashian will make a run in 2016. (Though, I do think I have some solid thoughts on that last one.)

What I will do is ask all of my politically-concerned brothers and sisters one question: Are you praying now?

I don’t mean to be a self-righteous pontificator, Jesus-juking everybody who’s more tightly caught up in this, but I really want us to honestly ask that question. When I was a political junkie, even though I was a Christian who read, prayed, and cared, I didn’t really think to obey one of the only truly clear commands in Scripture about Christians and the political process:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Republican or Democrat, whoever did or didn’t win  in your district, whatever idiotic ballot proposals did or didn’t pass, you as a Christian have at least one clear command about how to respond to the midterm elections: pray for whoever’s coming in.

Pray for wisdom to conquer folly.

Pray for righteousness to trump pragmatism.

Pray for bravery to overwhelm cowardice.

Pray for a vision of the common good to overcome personal greed.

Pray for the shalom of the city to bury its violence.

Pray for the salvation of whoever has come to power so that they may know the joy of Jesus Christ and then be guided by God’s Spirit to govern in ways that reflect the goodness of God’s kingdom for the sake of all.

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.