At First Things on Friday, I found myself cheering heartily as Gerald McDermott challenged the pretenses of “post-Conservative Evangelicals.” (No, “conservative” and “liberal” here have nothing to do with politics.)
Here’s the post-Conservative position, per McDermott:
They refuse to let the Great Tradition (the Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox consensus which C.S. Lewis dubbed “mere Christianity”) ever trump an individual’s interpretation of Scripture. This is what can be called nuda scriptura—the idea that the Bible is self-interpreting, needing only the Christian individual to make sense of it. In contrast, Martin Luther’s sola scriptura used the great creeds to fight for the primacy of Scripture over late medieval tradition.
Olson asserts that the Great Tradition has been wrong in the past, which just goes to show that all tradition is “always . . . in need of correction and reform.” Evangelicals should reject any appeal to “what has always been believed by Christians generally” because tradition by nature protects vested interests. The creeds are simply “man-made statements.” They all need to be re-examined for possible “revisioning of doctrine” based on a fresh reading of scripture. Nothing is sacrosanct, everything is on the table. Only the Bible is finally authoritative. But even that is too often mistaken for revelation itself, which in reality consists more of the “acts of God” in history than the words of the Bible. Post-conservatives tend to reject the idea that the actual words of the Bible are inspired, and often prefer to speak of “dynamic inspiration,” in which the biblical authors but not their words are inspired.
The lesson Evangelicals should learn from this new dust-up over evangelical theology and modernity is that sola scriptura is necessary but not sufficient for maintaining theological orthodoxy. Only a “single-source” view of scripture and tradition in which hermeneutical authority is given to the mutual interplay of Scripture and orthodox community—the method that the church practiced for most of Christian history—can protect evangelical theology from going the way of all flesh, to liberal Protestantism.
McDermott is on the right track, but (at the risk of sounding triumphalist or psychic) that track leads either to the insight of Tom Howard’s Evangelical is Not Enough (Howard acknowledges that Orthodoxy would have been a plausible response to that insight) or to the conceit of Peter Leithart’s Too Catholic to be Catholic (Orthodox demolition here).
Evangelicals are, in the aggregate, incorrigible. They’re not going to buy McDermott’s “single-source” view because nuda scriptura is so accommodating, allowing one the simulacrum of piety (“God said it, I believe it, that settles it” or “I’m just a simple guy who takes God’s word literally”) without the inconvenience of having to change one damned thing about your life if you don’t want to.
Sometimes, I think Wesley J. Smith’s role in life, as a no-longer-practicing lawyer, is to stake out an extreme opposite of the sort of species egalitarianism typified by PETA and Peter Singer. His column Friday for First Things, apart from the title (The Grim Good of Animal Experimentation), sets out a pretty Pollyannaish view of animal experimentation. Let’s call it species colonialism, or species triumphalism.
Though I see some trends suggesting that his vocal timbre is needed, I don’t think I’ll ever join him whole-heartedly, because an older voice haunts me. C.S. Lewis thought there was something fishy in our ready acceptance of vivisection:
We may find it difficult to formulate a human right of tormenting beasts in terms which would not equally imply an angelic right of tormenting men. And we may feel that though objective superiority is rightly claimed for man, yet that very superiority ought partly to consist in not behaving like a vivisector: that we ought to prove ourselves better than the beasts precisely by the fact of acknowledging duties to them which they do not acknowledge to us.
(Quoted at “Not One Sparrow: A Christian Voice for Animals“) It’s an argument I hadn’t revisited recently, and I’ll say that I now reject it’s first sentence for what may come as a surprising reason: Angels are not superior to humans. I’ll return to that in a moment because I don’t want to lose what’s good here because of an initial false note.
Not One Sparrow continues:
Lewis doesn’t deny that it might be still be possible for a Christian to in good conscience perform animal experimentation with a high sense of accountability and great care at every turn to prevent “the least dram or scruple of unnecessary pain,” though Lewis himself doesn’t seem to completely sign off on even this prospect. He is especially concerned in the remainder of the essay with the implications vivisection might have for society’s openness to engaging in experimentation on members of our own species: “Once the old Christian idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men.”
On the whole it’s a wonderful essay, from a Christian voice for animals long before his time (if that time has even arrived today). While Lewis raises an important and longstanding concern about how our poor treatment of animals inevitably affects how we treat each other as human beings, I appreciated most of all his brief attention to making sure we relate to animals in a manner which reflects our being made in God’s image. As Andrew Linzey has pointed out: “Our metaphyisical privilege consists in being set in such a relationship to the earth and its creatures that we are required (as part of our very humanity) to exercise God-like care, even of a costly and sacrificial kind. There is no Christian privilege that doesn’t involve service” (Why Animal Suffering Matters, pg. 33-34).
By the way, you might also be interested to learn that Linzey wrote an article on “C. S. Lewis’s Theology of Animals,” which I reviewed for one of my last seminary classes. If you’re interested in a thorough overview of what Lewis wrote on the subject, more than I expected for sure, I heartily recommend Linzey’s article. Apparently, Lewis also touches on the theme of animal experimentation some in his Space Trilogy novels.
Back to men and angels. The notion that angels are superior to men is a piece of sentimental quasi-Christian cultural fluff, typified by “mommy’s an angel in heaven now” as an explanation to children of a parent’s death (real life example, by the way).
Yes, I believe in angels. Not a third as much as I should, but I believe in them. And I believe that they have, in some sense, “power” greater than ours (since I need one as a guardian).
But I believe they are among the “all things visible and invisible” created by God as stated in the Creed. People don’t become angels when they die. Angels’ greater power may just consist in fighting off the fallen angels who’d assault me more effectively if I had no protector.
Yet it’s humans that are made in God’s image. And in specifically Christian perspective, it’s humanity alone to which God has forever united Himself by taking on human flesh in the incarnation of the eternal logos, the son, the second person of the Most Holy Trinity.
When God “brings the firstborn into the world, He says ‘Let all the angels of God worship Him.'” (Hebrews 1:6) Angels are “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation (i.e., us, or at least some of us – Hebrews 1:14) and probably envy us for the great honor of our human flesh now being seated at God’s right hand.
But the issue on which I started was, as Not One Sparrow puts it, making sure we relate to animals in a manner which reflects our being made in God’s image. On that, be it noted for whatever it’s worth, I’m not sure Smith’s position, which borders on insouciance (“Hey, it works and we’re super-special!”), is correct.
This excessive focus on the pope is the poisoned fruit of a marriage surely ripe for wholly justifiable divorce: nineteenth-century “Ultramontanism” and the technology-fueled celebrity culture of the twenty-first century that broadcasts every tweet and twerk around the world.
To love our country, we must first make it lovely, Burke said, and that is where conservatives have failed the culture. They have spent the last several decades reacting too often against harmful cultural influences or walling themselves in for protection. Politics, for many conservatives, has become a weapon to further a conservative “program” rather than a reflection of a conservative temperament and an expression of a conservative culture. Conservatism is not a set of political nostrums, but rather an attitude toward reality that requires more storytelling than policy papers, more movies and art than electioneering. Conservatives, at this point in our cultural collapse, can win only holding battles on that front. The technocratic bureaucracy under which we live speaks only the language of liberalism, and conservatives will not persuade a majority of people so long as we too speak that language.
Conservatives must make their country lovely once more, must “re-enchant” it, as Mark Judge has written.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)