Channeling the Tradition

I’ve been out of blogging commission for a week because of vacation with a strangely buggy internet connection. Everything worked, albeit a bit slowly, except my WordPress blogging platform, which consistently wouldn’t let me save my work and presumably wouldn’t have let me publish, either.

It was a very eventful week in “public affairs,” but I was kind of glad for the excuse to take a break from commentary. And at least today, I’m focusing on things more eternal than urgently timely.

My traveling soundtrack with Mrs. Tipsy invariably includes Mars Hill Audio Journal, this time Volume 134, which included retired history professor Chris Armstrong, author of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis.

Excerpts, including a striking suggestion about the primary value of C.S. Lewis — a suggestion which makes a lot of things about Lewis fall into place for me:

Ken Myers: Now again, you repeatedly in this book, deal with mistaken assumptions that many Christian people have about medieval faith, and you’ve already alluded to one. And that is I’ve heard many Protestants say that before the Reformation, Christians weren’t concerned with all of life and one of the great boons of the Reformation was that, suddenly, people realized that the Gospel had consequences for all of life, and God begat Abraham Kuiper.

Chris Armstrong: Yeah, Grant Wacker said once, and I think this may have ultimately come from David Steinmetz, that ever since the Protestant Reformation broke Christendom, Protestants have been trying to figure out how to get back to that original concern for these questions, I suppose you might say, of Christ and culture. And so it’s certainly true that there was a great concern for that in the Reformation and after the Reformation, but it seems to have come not from a previous lack, but from having broken an earlier synthesis.

Chris Armstrong: … As it turns out, [C.S.] Lewis in fact was not just a professional medievalist, but what I call an intuitive Medievalist …

Ken Myer: His consciousness, if you will, was more Medieval than modern, or so it seems.

Chris Armstrong: In fact he claimed that … when in the ’50s he was made Chair of Medieval and Renaissance studies … when he said that “I am a dinosaur. I am an artifact, a creature of the past. You should use me as an example as much as a teacher.” … He uses the distinction between contemplating and enjoying something. If you contemplate something, you look directly at it in an analytical mode. If you enjoy it, you begin to look along it, like along the sunbeam, to see what it illuminates ….

Ken Myers: … Given Lewis’s popularity among Evangelicals, and particularly the popularity of the Chronicles of Narnia — but also I suppose you could include a lot of his books of apologetics — that given the popularity of this person with a pre-modern mentality, pre-modern disposition, who seems to be so affable and helpful as guide to seeing the world and understanding how we understand God, how is it that the Medieval mentality that he embodied is still regarded with such suspicion among people who otherwise might really like his work?

Chris Armstrong: I think that’s a wonderful question. What I would say is the more I read Lewis, the more I thought that his primary value is as a conduit of The Tradition. And I just don’t think that people have seen him that way often. They see him say something that deeply affects them, or that strikes them as being deeply true, and they assume … that he’s simply telling them in a clearer way what Scripture already says, and “Isn’t it good that he’s such a good rhetorician and that he helps us understand these things that are so clearly in Scripture.” What they don’t know is that what he’s doing is actually channeling The Tradition to them. They won’t read those sources, probably, most Evangelicals won’t read Athanasius’s On the Incarnation … of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. But he had read both ….

(Emphasis added)

A podcast I recently began following is Albert Mohler’s Thinking in Public. Last September, he interviewed Alan Jacobs, a regular on Mars Hill Audio Journal as well, following up on Jacobs’ Harpers article The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals?

One thread of their discussion reminds me that Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, insofar as it stands for building parallel consciously Christian institutions to preserve and channel the tradition, even at the price of less “public involvement,” is nothing new:

Mohler:  … I was reminded of the fact—and this was important to my response to your article—just how important Reinhold Niebuhr was in the Cold War, and the fact that his realism, in terms of prescriptions for American foreign policy, became very much appreciated by the Truman administration, also by the Eisenhower administration, and by Henry Luce who was the founder of TIME, who put Reinhold Niebuhr on the cover. But at the same time I was reminded again of how routinely Niebuhr was dismissed by the academy. I was reminded of James Conan, the President of Harvard, trying to bring him to Harvard and to no avail. This is such a mixed picture.

Jacobs: Yeah, it really is a mixed picture. In the article, there’s a point where I’m putting what I think to be the key issue, the key issue is this: for the Christian public intellectual, if there is to be such a thing, that person has got to be both audible and free. That is, if you’re going to be genuinely public, then you’ve got to be audible, you’ve got to be somewhere where people can hear you, people across the range of the culture can hear you. But you’ve also got to be free. You’ve got to be free to be able to speak out of genuine Christian conviction or else what’s the point of you? Why would you even be there if you don’t have that to say? And finding that audibility, along with the freedom, has been really problematic for a long time. And you can lose freedom, not because people are constraining you, but because you’re constraining yourself. And I think that is—you mentioned this in your response—the downfall of liberal Protestant establishment in America. And I think that that downfall happened. Now what a lot of people will say in the liberal Protestant world is that well, we lost our—people stopped listening to us, and so we became marginal. And my argument is that they stopped listening to you because you ceased to have anything distinctive to say; when you didn’t want to say anything that was distinctly or particularly Christian; when all you could really do was to say “Me too” to what the rest of the world was saying. Then why should they listen to you anymore? You became inaudible because you chose to speak in ways that were no longer particularistically, distinctively, recognizably Christian. So everybody else was already saying that stuff, who needs you? So I think they marginalized themselves in that regard. There was a certain self-marginalizing by evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics also, but for almost opposite reasons.

Mohler: … I want to ask you—because this is also something that engendered controversy in your essay—and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you basically say, or imply, that evangelicals, or Christian intellectuals, a better way to put it, willingly withdrew and that it’s largely our fault that there are no Christian intellectuals in the larger public square. And let’s go back to Mannheim for a minute with the cultural production. What didn’t happen that should have? Even trying to take it on those terms, I’m up against a hard place trying to answer the question, What didn’t happen that should have?

Jacobs: Well, Dr. Mohler, I’m not sure that there was anything that should have. Here’s what I mean by that: Christians—orthodox, biblical, Nicene Christians, evangelicals, yes, but also traditionalist Catholics—found themselves in a situation where the intelligentsia and educated classes were to some degree drifting away from them. It was becoming more difficult for them to get a hearing. They became concerned, I think, to make sure that their positions didn’t get lost, that their positions were passed down to the next generation of believers. They chose to do that primarily—not exclusively by any means—but primarily by building up Christian institutions, which in the post-war years with the economic boom there was some money to do. This is an analogy, rather than example. But, Father Hesburgh at Notre Dame was able to transform Notre Dame into a research university because those poor immigrant Catholics in the pre-WWII era, who didn’t have much money to support Notre Dame, had a lot more money after the war and were able to support it. And I think you see the creation of institutions like the National Association of Evangelicals, the founding of Fuller Seminary, and then, existing institutions like Wheaton College, where I taught for 29 years, were able to develop their resources to have, for instance, smaller class sizes, more individual attention to students. They were able to hire people who were more academically ambitious. They were able to build themselves up, and strengthen themselves in such a way that they were able to pass down core Christian convictions to the next generation. But the more energy you spend doing that, the less energy is left over to be a player in the larger, broader, especially secular, culture. And, I’m not sure, I don’t think any of those people were wrong to make the choice that they made.

(Emphasis added) After carefully transcribing audio, I discovered that Dr. Mohler has provided a complete transcript at the site above linked. Help yourself.

* * * * *

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Evangelical schism?

Denny Burk and Andrew T. Walker on one side, David Gushee on the other, agree that there is no bridge to span the gap between their sides. The chasm is sexual. More specifically, in the euphemism du jour, it’s “LGBTQ inclusion.”

Gushee:

[Jonathan Merritt] referred to my own work, an October 2014 book called Changing Our Mind. In that book, which Jonathan helped make (in)famous with this interview upon its release, I argued step by step that it was possible (and, finally, imperative) for evangelical Christians to change our mind on many aspects of “the LGBTQ issue.”

A highlight of this epilogue includes my acknowledgment that common “evangelical” modes of reading scripture and undertaking moral discernment will never lead to a fully inclusive posture toward LGBTQ persons. But I then go on to make the case for why I believe those common evangelical modes are inadequate ways both of reading scripture and discerning moral truth.

I now believe that incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible, and the sources and methods of moral discernment, separate many of us from our former brethren — and that it is best to name these differences clearly and without acrimony, on the way out the door.

I also believe that attempting to keep the dialogue going is mainly fruitless. The differences are unbridgeable. They are articulated daily in endless social media loops.

Still, in Changing Our Mind, 3rd edition, to discharge my scholarly debts and to be fair to those who have sought to engage my thinking, I attempt one last foray into dialogue with my critics on the LGBTQ inclusion front.

There is nothing nasty in Gushee’s mode of expression, but read it carefully. He acknowledges differences over “the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” If he’s a sound Christian, his adversaries are not. Accordingly, he acknowledges that he left Evangelicalism 30 months ago for some unnamed other place, presumably “mainline” Protestant.

If an Evangelical had said this of Gushee first, in exactly the same tone, that substance would have been ipso facto “hate speech.” But all they need to do now is agree and elaborate Gushee’s point.

I’ll not quote Burk and Walker quite so extensively, but they do agree and elaborate. Burk:

It is time for folks on both sides of this debate to come to terms with just how much of a watershed this issue is. The evangelical movement is facing a moment of crisis over this issue. We are about to find out who is for real and who isn’t. We shouldn’t relish this moment as it reveals so much that is unhealthy in our movement. But neither should we shrink from it. We must contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). That is what the true church has always done. And that is what she must now do again.

Walker:

Gushee will no doubt disagree with my framing of the situation, but whereas he thinks he’s leaving evangelicalism, I believe he is abandoning the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). He is abandoning the very words of Jesus who upholds the sexual binary in Matthew 19:4-6. Those are not words haphazardly written or thrown around intended to score cheap internet points. But Gushee’s own words bear witness to the claim that he views his affirmation of LGBT relationships as constitutive to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He views this issue as a dividing line in biblical interpretation, moral discernment, with the result that we — those who stand within two thousand years of teaching — are “former brethren.” I agree and reach the same conclusion as him, though with the opposite position.

My sympathies in this internecine Protestant quarrel are, of course, with Burk and Walker. But while I’m happy at where they’ve drawn the line, I’m honestly puzzled at why they drew it there and not elsewhere (other than aligning with the mutable center of Southern Baptist gravity).

Burk again:

The Side A/Side B approach wants to convince people that differences over these issues shouldn’t really divide us. Some Christians will affirm sexual immorality and some will not. In terms of doctrinal priority, the issue is more like baptism than the deity of Christ. No big deal. We are all Christians after all. Why can’t we all just get along?

There are a number of problems with this kind of reasoning, but I will mention just two:

(1) The scripture casts sexual immorality as a first-order issue. In fact, it treats all unrepented sin as a first order issue that prevents people from entering the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11). No matter what side you come down on in this debate, there can be no question that our conclusions will define how we understand the boundaries of the church. This is not a debate about adiaphora but about the essence of our faith. A church can no more accommodate both points of view than it can accommodate both light and darkness (2 Cor. 6:14-16) ….

Why is baptism “no big deal”? Why is sex “about the essence of our faith” a “first-order issue”? Is all unrepented sin a first-order issue? Then what does “first-order” issue ad to the argument that “unrepented sin” doesn’t cover? Why doesn’t Jonathan Merritt’s test of consistency with the Apostle’s Creed suffice? (Albert Mohler’s Call for Theological Triage, linked by Burk, is helpful, but Mohler doesn’t even rank sex in his taxonomy.)

Walker:

This is not a debate about eldership versus congregational authority, or internecine squabbles on how the end times will occur. This is about what the true church confesses. This is about truth and error. This is about eternal destiny.

Why are Church polity and eschatology not part of “what the true church confesses … about truth and error”?

My Protestant adiaphora detector is getting very old, and appears incapable of detecting these answers. Burk’s and Walker’s assertions seem like conclusions rather than premises even though they’re the right conclusions.

I just don’t know how they got there (or how Gushee got to where he is — not to mention how Jonathan Merritt, Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker came to substantially Gushee’s posiiton), because their explanations just lead to more questions.

I think I pretty well understand Robert A. J. Gagnon, Protestant though he be, but he’s not so much ranking truth as discerning it. (See here, too.)

This may signal a major Evangelical schism. The LGBTQ-affirming have got the cultural wind at their backs, whether or not they’ve decided that they’re not evangelical any more. Burk, Walker and their tribe are facing a tough slog. There will be great attrition in their ranks, I predict, precisely because the line between essentials and adiaphora can seem arbitrary.

I’ve beaten up my former tribe too many times already. I’m really worried that they, who in various ways have positioned themselves as the American paradigm of what it means to be a Protestant Christian, will not hold firm.

I’m not even going to suggest … well, that thing I’m not going to suggest about where there’s firmer ground.

UPDATE: On May 10, I made a few edits that don’t alter my meaning. I will now add one that does expand on what I was getting at:

The Burk/Walker side will experience attrition because the line between essentials and adiaphora can seem arbitrary and the spirit of the age, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, says the greatest commandment is “Be Nice,” the spirit’s debased substitute for “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Do Evangelicals Have What It Takes?

Does it feel like the world has turned upside down and inside out? Does it feel like people whom you love and know — good people — almost seem like they are under some kind of spell right now? Saying odd hateful, hurtful things you can’t account for based on your history with them? Does it feel like there we are under some sort of powerful corporate mass delusion? Are you shocked, not only at what is being said, but what is not being said by Church leaders whom you have known to have a heart for justice, mercy and truth?

There are real reasons for this. This is apocalyptic time. “Apocalypse” in Scripture means “revealing” or “unveiling.” And these are the days when the hearts of men and women in America are being revealed — deep divisions that have long been present are being exposed. Apocalyptic time is inside-out, upside down kind of time. In apocalyptic time, some things are dying and some things are being born. But mostly, it feels like things are dying, at least at first.

(Jonathan Martin, 11/12/16)

I found that quote via Sharon Hodde Miller, who tells in Evangelicals and the Lose of Prophetic Imagination of the “apocalypse” that changed her:

This year has changed me. I say this in all earnestness and with no dramatic intent, but this year really has changed me. I am not the same person I was, and my calling has shifted too.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the change occurred. Perhaps it was a series of events. It began when conservative evangelicals began to endorse a presidential candidate whose rhetoric, lifestyle, and priorities resembled nothing of Christ, but much of the fool as described in Proverbs.

I watched Christians use dubious biblical interpretations and downright bad theology in an “ends justify the means” kind of ethic. I watched those same Christians bend over backwards to prove that this man, who possessed no discernible fruit of the Spirit, was a Christian. I watched Christians remain silent as the man they put in office continued to lie, name call, belittle, and slander. And I watched conservative Christians take up the mantra “Do not judge” in lock-step with the liberals they used to deride, as if Jesus’ words were intended to silence sound judgment.

I saw the same thing, though it affected me much less since I’m no longer an evangelical. It also surprised me less (though the cravenness of it did surprise me) because I had already lost confidence in the ability of evangelicals to conserve anything at all when the heat was on.

But Albert Mohler, who is evangelical (Southern Baptist), made a startling revelation in interviewing Rod Dreher, for Mohler’s podcast, about Dreher’s forthcoming book, The Benedict Option.

Dreher:

Late in the interview, he said something to the effect of, “Now, I have to ask you a tough question, and I want you to be honest when you answer me.”

I seized up. He continued, “Do you think that Evangelicalism has what it takes to do the Benedict Option?”

I gave him my honest answer: “I don’t know.” I explained that I don’t want to make a comment on a form of the Christian faith about which I know so little. I told him that I have to believe it is possible, because I know Evangelicals personally who are doing it (and interviewed some of them for my book), but in general, I don’t see that they have nearly the resources in their tradition that Catholics and Orthodox do. But that could just be my ignorance.

He replied that he is certain that Evangelicalism does not have the internal resources to do the Benedict Option — but that classic Protestantism does. He talked about how Evangelicals need to plunge deeply back into their Reformation roots and recover the spirituality and structure of the Reformers.

(Emphasis added)

At that admission, I cannot claim to be anything less than stunned. “Does not have the internal resources” for reform is, I believe, the sociological meaning of “corrupt.”

With some evangelicals capitulating to the full spectrum of what now is styled “LGBTQ Rights,” others (perhaps there’s overlap?) becoming Trumpistas, and Al Mohler tacitly calling evangelicalism corrupt, telling it to to go ad fontes to borrow some classic Protestantism to heal its infirmities, I can only wonder

what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(W.B. Yeats, 1919)

UPDATE: Rod Dreher has heard from some folks who consider themselves evangelicals who think their traditions (Anglican and Reformed) have what it takes or are in the process of reclaiming it. I was Reformed, and considered myself “equivocally Evangelical” when I was. Anglicans as evangelicals seems a stretch to me, but “evangelical” is notoriously hard to define.

UPDATE 2: More response to Dreher, this time from someone who’s starting to confront the shallowness of his “Bible-believing Church.”

UPDATE 3: Three very thought-provoking responses, one each from an Evangelical, a mainstream Protestant, and an Orthodox.

* * * * *

As I look at the way we are now, I see a people who wish to be light, free from the weightiness of responsibility, limits, duties. We want sex without fertility, food without calories, endless consumer goods without (observable) environmental degradation, religion without law, divorce without fault, mobility without loneliness, bodies without aging, entertainments without limits. We want our freedoms to be endless and without cost, allowing us to float free from now this to now that, casting off identities and  responsibilities like old clothes discarded.

Of course, to those who are unbearably light, nothing is more repugnant than weight, but we are in our very natures called to weightiness, for we are moral agents, responsible for all.

Whether you think of the text as Holy Writ or mere literature of the past, the early chapters of Genesis indicate to us with bracing clarity the choice before us now. The human emerges from the dirt and yet is somehow responsible for the dirt, capable of tending, keeping, filling, and ordering the very dirt from which he is. The human is told to build, till, improve, cultivate–to husband (in the old sense) the cosmos as its responsible priest. And yet he is to exercise this creativity within the limits of fidelity, for he is steward and not Creator, always dependent, and obligated to be responsible.

How will we make our world and ourselves? Will be we unbearably free, infinitely light, using our creative capacities to cast off our responsible nature and soar into the beyond? Or will we be heavy, using our skill to tie ourselves into the loam from which we came, hoping to be faithful to obligation, duty, and the task of responsibility? Will the tapestry we weave have substance, or just the play of newness, with the shuttle undoing all that has been created before?

I want to be heavy. I want my children to be heavy. I want my life to be one of creative fidelity, finding new ways to be obligated and woven into the fabric of the world and the lives of my lover, my children, my neighbors, and friends.

And yet, weight is difficult to bear, especially for those of us weaned in an age of the insufferably light.

(R.J. Snell, Creative Fidelity and Weighty People, 2/9/12, emphasis in original)

* * * * *

“The truth is that the thing most present to the mind of man is not the economic machinery necessary to his existence; but rather that existence itself; the world which he sees when he wakes every morning and the nature of his general position in it. There is something that is nearer to him than livelihood, and that is life.” (G.K. Chesterton)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.