Religious tribalism

As a prefatory matter, I have long believed that one’s guiding philosophy is functionally religious. That has ramifications beyond what follows, but those are for another day. For now, think of it as “atheist Stephen Hawking had a religion of sorts.” It’s the sort of thing “scientism” was coined for.

In an episode of “The Briefing,” yesterday Dr. Al Mohler of Southern Seminary reflected on the death of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. You can read a full transcript of the eight minute segment on Hawking using the link above.

Here is how the episode was summarized on Mohler’s Facebook page, which I think is broadly representative of what Dr. Mohler said on the show:

We believe that Stephen Hawking and all of his brilliance was simply evidence of the fact that he was a human being made in God’s image but a human being who died without God. That’s the great tragedy but that’s not what you’re likely to read in the obituaries.

Instead what you’re going to see is a secular world trying to find a secular reason to celebrate a secular thinker and to say something significant about the meaning of his life. At the end of the day, the secular worldview can provide no argument for why the life of Stephen Hawking was ever significant nor your life nor my life. Only the biblical worldview can answer that question and it does profoundly answer that question.

The thing that struck me when a friend showed the post to me is this: If you swapped “Oppenheimer” for “Hawking” and, on the Facebook post, changed the name and photo from Mohler to Francis Schaeffer you could show the entire post to someone, say that Schaeffer wrote it on the occasion of Oppenheimer’s death in 1967 and… it’d be believable.

I love Schaeffer so I don’t mean that purely as criticism of Dr. Mohler. If we must talk like an evangelical from the 1960s, Schaeffer is a very good one to choose. And yet when you read that take on Hawking’s death, the tedium of it still comes across.

Earlier this week I got coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in years. Like me, he grew up in an abusive fundamentalist church which left him with plenty of baggage to work through over a number of years. As we talked, the conversation turned to the work of Jordan Peterson and to a debate that my friend had seen in which Peterson and William Lane Craig, the renowned Christian apologist, argued over the possibility of meaning in human life. I said to my friend that several Christian friends of mine watched the debate and were far more impressed by Peterson than they were Craig. My friend nodded. “Peterson doesn’t care about winning,” he said. “Craig wanted to a win a debate. Peterson wanted to pursue truth.”

If there is a defining problem with a certain brand of reformed evangelicalism, it is that we care more about winning—winning debates, winning political campaigns, winning institutional battles—than we do about simply pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful.

(Jake Meador, The Tedium of Worldview Analysis at Mere Orthodoxy)

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It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

A man … is only a bigot if he cannot understand that his dogma is a dogma, even if it is true.

(G.K. Chesterton) Be of good courage, you who are called “bigots” by those who are unable to conceive seriously the alternatives to their dogmas.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Calvinists and Wahabis

Every year around Christmas time, we begin to hear noises about Christmas trees having “pagan origins.” And there are many who rush to the defense of the poor trees. I yawn. My ancestors worshipped trees, and I daresay their later Christian descendants were glad to see the Church baptizing the trees as well as people. There simply is no “pristine” matter from which the faith starts fresh. God always speaks and reveals Himself in terms that can be assimilated. He does not destroy culture, but fulfills it. The Christmas tree is a stark reminder that the Child born on that day has a rendezvous with a Tree, and that there is no getting around it. There is a Tree at the heart of our faith, even as there was at the heart of the Garden.

CS Lewis once opined that pagan mythology consisted of “good dreams sent by God to prepare for the coming of Christ.” Such myths can also carry deep darkness and confusion – but such is the nature of a world that is broken. God does not offer us redemption by destroying a broken world. He does not erase or eradicate the cultures of mankind. It is only a darkened theology that imagines every production of the human imagination to be worthy only of the dung heap. That sort of destructive view belongs to the scions of Calvin and the iconoclasm of Wahabis: it is not the work of God.

(Father Stephen Freeman, When Chaos Ruled the World – Part I)

Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson, improbable cultural “rock star,” has been on a tear, and the Christianosphere is talking. Heck, the Babylon Bee even got into it.

There is no neutral standpoint, so it is legitimate to ask “where’s Jordan Peterson coming from?”

The consensus is that he’s not Christian, and I suspect that he’s on record to that effect. That’s not to say that Jordanism is altogether incompatible with Christianity. I don’t think it is, but you’ll soon see that there’s dissent on that.

An uncontroversial description of Peterson, so far as I’ve seen, is “Jungian.” A more controversial one is “stoic.”

One Charlie Clark, Writing at Mere Orthodoxy (which is thoughtful, reformed-leaning Evangelicals, not Orthodox — I know; it’s confusing) says Peterson is stoic, and it

is too bad then that the backbone of his whole program is what C.S. Lewis called “the Great Sin.” Peterson is, in fact, precisely the character that Lewis describes in Mere Christianity, one of those teachers who,

“appeal to a boy’s Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity—that is, by Pride.”

For Lewis, “to beat down the simpler vices” by means of Pride is a cure far worse than the disease. And this is precisely Peterson’s strategy throughout 12 Rules for Life.

Clark also sees Peterson as effectively “Pelagian” when translated into Christianese:

Theologically, the expression of Pride is Pelagianism, the belief that you can save yourself without relying on God’s grace. This is precisely what we find in Peterson’s work. Consider what Peterson says Rule 2 (“Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.”):

Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance…. Once having understood Hell, researched it, so to speak—particularly your own individual Hell—you could decide against going there or creating that. You could aim elsewhere. You could, in fact, devote your life to this…. That would justify your miserable existence. That would atone for your sinful nature, and replace your shame and self-consciousness with the natural pride and forthright confidence of someone who has learned once again to walk with God in the Garden.

Of course, Peterson, not being a Christian (nor perhaps even a theist), does not intend any of these statements in their theological sense. Nevertheless, the posture he is advocating excludes grace. As Peterson would have it, no one has come to rescue you and no help is on the way.

I like the lads at Mere Orthodoxy. I really do. And caution about any cultural “rock star” is warranted.

But I think the balance lies in another direction, described by an Anthony Bradley article that Clark linked. I’d encourage you to read it for yourself, but I’m going to try soaring up to 30,000 feet to give a meta-summary, including a concept the author doesn’t directly mention: So profoundly has the Augustinian idea of original sin, of people guilty and hell-bound from the moment of conception (perhaps this is later Calvinist gloss), shaped western Christendom, that Christianity as winsome toward feminism has for 50 years or so been savage toward men, and young men have known nothing but shaming as a consequence. To shamed and beaten-down young men, Peterson is a prophet.

Is he a false prophet? Where Evangelical Clark sees Pelagianism, Orthodox Tipsy hears echoes of synergism, with which Orthodox Christianity, rightly so-called, is comfortable to that point that we’re often mistaken for Pelagians. (I’m not about to claim Peterson for Orthodox Christianity, but I know he has at least slight familiarity with it from his interactions with iconographer Jonathan Pageau, for instance here and here.)

So, young Evangelical man, let me prescribe this:

  1. Go ahead and listen  to Jordan Peterson, inspired and lifted by his words.
  2. Remember that he’s not coming from a Christian place and there is no neutral place. Be careful. It’s a jungle out there and the enemy of your enemy may not ultimately be the friend you need.
  3. Be aware that the Sunday morning place that continues the beatings you get during the week is a sect (Evangelicalism) of a schism (the Protestant Reformation) from a schism (the Patriarch of Rome breaking from the other four Patriarchs of the first-millennium Church) — and that Augustine and Original Sin are not part of Christian consensus world-wide, even if they dominate in the world Catholicism built.
  4. Get Thee to an Orthodox Church to put Peterson’s message in historic Christian context. Unless the Priest is a convert with original sin notions still lingering, the beatings should cease. Even if the priest is still crypto-Protestant, the Liturgy knows better. God is gracious and loves mankind, you’ll hear again and again and again.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

On the other hand …

Two critiques of the newly-reposed Billy Graham, which I note not just for the record, but because I cannot help but agree.

First, a George Will column I passed over, then returned to because, well, it was by George Will: Billy Graham was no prophet.

Because Will is a veteran writer, he tells us right away what he’s going to tell us:

Asked in 1972 if he believed in miracles, Billy Graham answered: Yes, Jesus performed some, and there are many “miracles around us today, including television and airplanes.” Graham was no theologian.

Neither was he a prophet. Jesus said “a prophet hath no honor in his own country.” Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.

I made the same points — neither theologian nor prophet — yesterday, but not as an indictment, which Will pretty clearly implies.

The problem, to reframe some of the same points Will makes, is that Evangelist Graham often positioned himself in a fundamentally prophetic role by becoming the intimate of powerful men:

Graham’s dealings with presidents mixed vanity and naivete. In 1952, he said he wanted to meet with all the candidates “to give them the moral side of the thing.” He was 33. He applied flattery with a trowel, comparing Dwight Eisenhower’s first foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount and calling Richard Nixon “the most able and the best trained man for the job probably in American history.” He told Nixon that God had given him, Nixon, “supernatural wisdom.” Graham should have heeded the psalmist’s warning about putting one’s faith in princes.

On Feb. 1, 1972, unaware of Nixon’s Oval Office taping system, when Nixon ranted about how Jews “totally dominated” the media, Graham said, “This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain.” He also told Nixon that Jews are the ones “putting out the pornographic stuff.” One can reasonably acquit Graham of anti-Semitism only by convicting him of toadying ….

Yes, if you’re going to get that close to power, you’re surely obliged to don the prophet’s mantle, especially if you’re purporting to “give them the moral side of the thing.” To paraphrase Will, we can acquit Graham of dereliction only by convicting him of toadying — or by assuming that quietly, and in private, he did truly “give them the moral side of the thing” in a way that was at least minimally prophetic.

Is there another alternative?

Second, Darryl Hart (who I likewise passed over at first) makes a subtler point, and one that I probably cannot make strongly enough to heal scotomata: Graham’s itinerant evangelism inherently undermined Churches.

Graham’s work, which was completely independent of a church or a communion, undermined implicitly the work of local pastors who were trying to the best of their abilities to evangelize the locals. Along would come Graham and all of a local pastor or priest’s endeavors seemed paltry by comparison. Here I’m reminded of what H. L. Mencken wrote about Billy Sunday and the kind of appeal a popular (and traveling) preacher had compared to the residential and denominational variety:

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb …, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important … It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and … self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

… Mencken’s point about evangelicalism and the evangelists who benefited from it stands. Your average pastor cannot compete with the bells and whistles of a mass meeting and the publicity that surrounds it. Nor can your average minister disregard preaching through a book of the Bible or fashioning a homily based on the lectionary and situating that relatively learned speech into the fabric of a liturgy or order of service (for the Puritans out there). In other words, theology, church government, and convictions about worship constrain a pastor, not to mention the responsibilities of ministering over time to a variety of congregation or parish members in all manner of walks of life. Graham could simply give an invitation to receive Christ for seven nights in a row, with a different musical performance or celebrity interview, and then leave town. Your average pastor doesn’t have that pay grade. And if he is actually preparing his flock for the world to come (read death), then a religion that is “a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern” is not necessarily going to cut the Gordian Knot of how sinners become right with the sovereign Lord of the universe.

In other words, not all Protestants were thrilled by Graham’s ministry. In fact, going back to the revivals of the First and Second Great Pretty Good Awakenings, denominationally and theologically self-conscious Protestants (Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed), have opposed mass revivalism because it undermines the work of the ordained ministry and the local church.

Hart says “undermined implicitly.” I say “inherently undermined.” The two are not the same and I stand by my version, precisely because of two things Hart doesn’t mention:

  1. Graham did not merely “give an invitation to receive Christ for seven nights in a row … and then leave town.” He or his aides routinely — in my understanding, invariably — told those who responded to his invitation to go back to their churches, provided only that those churches had Jesus and Bible. That was why he caught flak from Bob Jones and a significant number of others: Catholics were sent back into the maw of the whore of Babylon, as the critics saw it.
  2. But despite #1, Graham’s crusades were ineluctibly parachurch, his Gospel transactional, his salvation forensic. Having lived in his world, I can say from personal observation that a whole lotta folks took their “eternal security” to the golf course or beach on Sunday mornings. That kind of tacit falling away was well known to Evangelists, who lamented it but didn’t know how to deal with it. (Campus Crusade for Christ, n/k/a Cru, came up with a “Spirit-filled life” tract to complement “Four Spiritual Laws,” but even then were frustrated by the crypto-lapsi.)

When I referred to “scotomata,” I was referring to such widespread disregard or disrespect of the “institutional” Church as opposed to parachurch ministries. Of this, too, I have personal experience, even though habitually, and all my life long, I’ve attended church — even when I considered church merely a good idea and in no way salvific.

Those who just bristled at the idea of church being salvific are those with the scotomata. Jesus Christ did not “build [His] Church” just to be the sort of thing you might go for if you go for that sort of thing.

You can look that up.

Hart doesn’t put it that bluntly, but a Calvinistic version of that (i.e., a sensibility that probably doesn’t unequivocally see the Church as salvific) is his sensibility, and I agree that undermining local churches was a weakness Billy Graham’s methods could not avoid.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

A Paradox

From my personal journal 4 – 1/2 years ago:

The fundamental difference between Orthodoxy and my former traditions of Evangelicalism and Calvinism is that Orthodoxy does not look to the Bible as the sole and final authority for Christian belief and life. I call that sola scriptura, though some magisterial Protestants might fault the description.

What people may “hear” when I say that is that “if you limit your search to the Bible, you cannot help but come to Protestant conclusions.” But that’s not what I mean, nor do I think it’s true. What I mean is that purported reliance on the Bible as the sole and final authority for Christian belief and life is what it means to be a Protestant historically. Ironically, the Biblical case for the church itself as an authority is stronger than the Biblical case for sola scriptura.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Nominally Saved

Reading a three-part Robin Phillips series on the question “Was Calvin a Nominalist?“, I came away from Part I with some reminders why I have not returned to Calvinism.

I suspect I never was a Nominalist, and at a subliminal level my Realism (for which I lacked a proper name) would have made Orthodoxy compelling eventually, had other things not caught my attention first.

All emphasis and hyperlinks are in the original; bracketed comments are mine.

 Virtue flows out of the bedrock structure of reality, namely God’s perfect nature which finds expression in a teleologically-ordered universe … God does not simply decide what is good [Nominalism], but recognizes what man needs to fulfill his nature and flourish. Hans Boersma explains about this in his excellent book Heavenly Participation,

“For Aquinas, we might say, divine decisions had always been in line with eternal truth [Realism]. For example, when God condemned theft or adultery, this was not an arbitrary divine decision, but it was in line with the truth of divine rationality. Or, to use another example, when God rewarded almsgiving, this was not because he arbitrarily decided that almsgiving was a commendable practice, but because it was in line with the very truth of God’s character.”

Given the congruence between the will of God and the eternal nature of things [Realism], it is possible to say that the virtuous life is a return to reality since it is to embrace what is most fitting according to the primal nature of things …

One scholar who has argued for the influence of Nominalism on the magisterial reformation is Hans Boersma … In his 2011 book Heavenly Participation, Boersma argued that in so far as the Protestant reformers urged that the relationship between the divine and the human is fundamentally defined in forensic or “nominal” categories, and only secondarily in participatory or ontological terms, they colluded with the general nominalist drift of the time. Here’s what Boersma writes,

“The nominalist impact on Lutheranism and Calvinism came to the fore particularly in the tendency to interpret the divine-human relationship in external or nominal – rather than in participatory or real – terms. The Reformation teaching on justification by faith alone (sola fide) exemplified a great deal of continuity with the nominalist tradition. This continuity centered on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The imputation—according to the Reformers, a forensic declaration—was external or nominal in nature. Luther’s notion that the believer was at the same time righteous and sinner (simul iustus et peccator) gave strong evidence of the nominal character of salvation. While believers were righteous in Christ, they remained sinners in themselves. One can well understand why Luther’s detractors asked this question: But doesn’t the grace of God change believers internally? When Luther likened the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to Boaz’s cloak covering Ruth and to a mother hen’s wings covering her chicks, these external metaphors did little to lessen the anxieties of his Catholic opponents. To be sure, Luther did know about the need for good works, and, especially later, he clearly confronted the reckless antinomianism of fellow Lutherans such as Johann Agricola. Nonetheless, it is fair to ask whether Luther’s own articulations of justification perhaps gave occasion for some of his followers to express their aberrant views. Calvin, much like Luther, was intent on keeping justification separate from human works. In order to do this, he, too, maintained that justification was a nominal or external judicial declaration rather than an internal transformation worked by the Holy Spirit. The underlying pattern of the Reformation doctrine, with its strong focus on imputation, would not have been possible without the nominalist developments of the late Middle Ages.” (Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 92–93.)

Boersma is suggesting that Protestant theology followed the tradition of late medieval Nominalism in seeing moral order having an extrinsic relation to nature, with the raw command of a law-giver imposing meaning from outside. Although this is clearly not the full picture of reformation theology, nevertheless we can still cautiously state that where this particular emphasis was dominant, it worked to shift the focus away from a teologically-oriented universe to one in which the connecting link in the ecosystem of meaning was the raw command of God … God’s declarations about a person’s spiritual state bears no organic relationship to the person’s actual spiritual state under the wedge some of the reformers drew between grace and nature. This is why the phrase “as if” was so important in the network of legal fictions drawn up by the Protestant reformers. For example, John Calvin stated in his Institutes that “we simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.” Elsewhere Calvin wrote that God justifies us “as if innocence were proved.” Speaking of Calvin’s doctrine, R.C. Sproul explained that

“…justification has to do with a legal or judicial matter involving some type of declaration. We can reduce its meaning to the concept of legal declaration…. When the Reformers spoke of forensic justification, they meant a legal declaration made by God that was based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, not on Christ’s righteousness inherent in the believer.” [Faith Alone, p. 102]

The important thing for the reformers was first and foremost a change in status, not the healing of our nature … Tom Seraphim Hamilton’s comments about the Eastern Orthodox rejection of imputed righteousness are … relevant. Hamilton writes that

“For Orthodox Christians, imputed righteousness simply makes no sense. The problem isn’t that God is just unable to stand the presence of sin, and when He pretends we are righteous that is fixed. The problem is that we are unable to stand the presence and Glory of God, and this is fixed when God renews us after His own Image and lifts us to participation in His Glory. In an Orthodox mindset, God could impute righteousness all He wants, but this would be completely useless, because the problem has never been legal. The problem is that we are sick, and we need medication. Marking me as ‘well’ doesn’t make me well.’”

Saint John Chrysostom believed that this realist understanding of virtue gives men and women the tools they need for reframing their suffering. In his “Treatise to Prove That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself” Chrysostom discussed the prevailing notion that we are harmed by misfortune … Using penetrating logic, Chrysostom argues that we could only assert that such things actually injure a person if such misfortunes prevent the person from achieving “virtue”, which he defines as the goal/end/telos appropriate to our nature … Chrysostom argues, that we can only talk about misfortunes injuring a person if the misfortune prevents or retards the person from flourishing according to the virtue of human nature. As he says, “let us determine what is the virtue of man, and let us regard that alone as an injury, which is destructive to it.” Chrysostom’s next point is that since the virtue of man is to be united with Christ in true doctrine and uprightness of life, no amount of external affliction has the power to injure a person who does not injure himself:

“What then is the virtue of man? Not riches that you should fear poverty: nor health of body that you should dread sickness, nor the opinion of the public, that you should view an evil reputation with alarm, nor life simply for its own sake, that death should be terrible to you: nor liberty that you should avoid servitude: but carefulness in holding true doctrine, and rectitude in life….

“For since neither wealth nor freedom, nor life in our native land nor the other things which I have mentioned, but only right actions of the soul, constitute the virtue of man, naturally when the harm is directed against these things, human virtue itself is no wise harmed….

“For it is not stress of circumstances, nor variation of seasons, nor insults of men in power, nor intrigues besetting you like snow storms, nor a crowd of calamities, nor a promiscuous collection of all the ills to which mankind is subject, which can disturb even slightly the man who is brave, and temperate, and watchful…”

I included that Chrysostom quote as a sort of bookend: to emphasize the telos or virtue of humans.

Phillips, also a former Calvinist, charitably acknowledges that the Reformational idea of sanctification—which in theory follows (forensic, external) justification—does indeed involve making us well, does have ontological meaning. But, as I have put it, “salvation” these days in Protestanatism of the Reformed and Evangelical varieties typically consists of “justification” with nothing more (“this particular emphasis was dominant,” as Phillips puts it), nothing internal to the saved person, all external and forensic.

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“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.