Monday, November 28, 2005

Some Romans Seven Questions

This weekend, our pastor continued his preaching series through Romans, and we've recently passed through Romans seven. He had begun preaching through Romans eight, but since his treatment of seven has caused some discussion among the members, he went back and clarified his thoughts on what Paul was saying, especially in the "I do what I don't want to and don't do what I want to" section. I've always held to that section describing the inner battle that exists among God's people, that is, among those truly called. I know that many people believe that this section is talking about Paul's pre-conversion experience of trying to be a "law-keeper." And while I can certainly agree that it does well describe the inability of anyone to obey the perfect standards of God's holy law, the first person, present tense langauge of the passage in question seems to imply that Paul is describing his current experiences and not his (or unregenerate Israel's) past attempts to be "right" with God.
The understandable concern, and I agree with the concern, is that we need to not use this passage as an excuse to say, "Oh, I'm just struggling with obedience, but I'm really a believer." Our lawless/antinomian impulse is always strong, but so is our legalistic impulse, and it seems that we all seem to be able to use certain passages to buttress our preconceived notions of what we think Scripture ought to say about the "normal" Christian life. I'm inclined towards this passage because I do struggle with sin daily. Thus it gives me comfort. But I also admit that I can easily rely on this passage to excuse my sin. But though this is clearly the case, even if I'm guilty of this sin, it doesn't necessarily negate the truth of that view of this passage. The "struggling believer" interpretation of Romans seven may well be the right interpretation, even if it is misused. Likewise, just because I abhor legalism, doesn't mean that the other option is not possible either. It may well be true that it is describing the unregenerate. It may as well be true that to be Christian is to be transformed in such a way that this passage cannot be an accurate description of the daily Christian walk. I'm certainly open to the arguments on either side. My personal weaknesses should not determine how I read the text. If I do that, I end up standing in judgment over Scripture, instead of the other way around. Scripture itself declares in no uncertain terms that it stands in judgment upon us (Hebrews 4:12, 2 Timothy 3:14-15), and can make us wise unto salvation.
So, in light of this reality, we must do the leg work of balancing out the various passages about who we are in Christ. Yes, we are new creations. Yes, our old man/woman has been declared dead. Yet we are also told to continually put to death our old man. So, while he is "declared" dead, he still kicks around so long as we live in our current body. Like the kingdom of God itself, which is an already/not yet reality, we seem to also inhabit an already/not yet state in our being new in Christ. Maybe a visual/graphic expression may be of some help in better understanding this:

old man--------------------------------------------------
Conversion-old man dying/new man growing-death/resurrection
----------------------------------------------------new man

It is in this intervening period of life between our conversion and our final resurrection that we inhabit this duality of the old and new both existing in us, though with the old dying away (being put to death) and the new growing into fullness (putting "on" the new man).
Our pastor is understandably concerned to bring out that we have at our disposal so much more than what we realize in Christ through His Spirit indwelling us. CS Lewis made the point well when he said that our problem is not that we ask for too much, but that we are far too easily satisfied and ask for far too little.
While I still believe that Romans seven is talking about the believing Paul (and thus us in Christ as well), it is not describing the life of a "defeated" Christian. It may well be describing the transitional/sporadic period of what a believer experiences upon trying to measure up to God's perfect standard in their own strength, apart from His power through the Spirit of Christ. Paul, in his heightened conscience, may well be describing what Isaiah described in Isaiah six when he was confronted with the awful holiness of God. This isn't a description of an unbeliever, or even of a defeated believer, but is the natural expression of a moment of realization of God's utter holiness and righteousness. It provokes awe and fear and self loathing, yet with the end result of being reconciled with this same God, thus ending in inexpressible joy. And in fact, that is exactly how Paul ends that section of Romans. Thanking God through Jesus Christ our Lord! This both gives hope to every believer and warns against a cavalier attitude about Who God is and what He requires. Were it not for grace!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Some essay ideas

I started thinking early this morning about an essay about self-hating people and their psychological makeup and how that characteristic may effect larger groupings when it becomes the predominant mindset. How does the self-hating mindset affect a larger culture when that mindset becomes predominant? Can it lead to a cultural decline or even collapse? Can it inversely lead to a cultural revival because of a questioning of basic assumptions?

There was another essay idea I had, but I've already forgotten it. So it'll have to wait until next time. Oh well. Time will tell.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Some interesting conversations

This past weekend, I spoke with several members of the congregation I belong to. One of the things I was struck by was the intellectual and ideological diversity that exists in our congregation. It certainly isn't the majority report in the church, but it nonetheless represents a significant minority that questions the status quo. Fox News isn't the final arbiter of what's true and accurate of reality. These fellow travellers theologically, if not all-together ideologically, nonetheless share a deep-seated uncertainty about what is presented to us for public consumption.

When I speak to fellow members of the church, I speak of the radical agenda of the neo-cons and their Jacobin (left wing) ideology. Yet among other members of the church, I speak of the hard right inclinations that exist among some on the "Christian Right". Inclinations that speak of bringing "America back to God". Yet, in all of this, I'm struck by the strange similarities that coexist between these two poles.

I'm still working out this interrelationship that sees its greatest commonality in the website: This website has furnished the fruitful ground of ideological growth from both left wing and right wing concepts. This site regularly provides a voice to those from those two ideological perspectives. The main unifying factor seems to be a common opposition to current American policy in foreign affairs (and in many cases, domestic affairs). Typically, it's assumed that the underlying assumptions are ideologically and theologically opposed. Yet, I would argue that much of what constitutes the political discourse of today is predicated upon assumptions that limit the dialogue to very limited parameters. Both the left and the right views expressed on the antiwar site are an expression of essentially libertarian views. These libertarian views are largely built around a view of the human condition that assumes that we are sinners because we sin, not that we sin because we are sinners.

I know that this distinction may seem inconsequentual, but how we see our human condition is fundamental to accurately understanding our interactions with each other and with God. The view that we are sinners because we sin is essentially Pelagian, whereas the view that we sin because we are sinners (the Augustinian view) is based on a view of the fall that says we have all been radically infected by this moral virus; a virus that has passed down to every human being, no matter their social standing or class status.

Well, I have to get to training early the next morning for a new study Bible, so I better get going. I hope this little essay will help clarify where I'm at. As always, a work in progress.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Pray for the Gulf coast

This hurricane looks real bad. Obviously, the initial devestation will be felt in New Orleans, and the sorrounding areas, but if it's as bad as their saying, the after-effects may actually be worse. Even in these dark times, I still believe that God is wholly sovereign, and that His hand is guiding these events, right down to the millibars of the barometric pressure. It was intense watching the news today as the storm approaches. It was especially strange to see the lost souls who are staying behind and drowning their sorrows in the French Quarter the day before they may be drowned literally. Very strange. I also was struck by how many people are flocking to the Superdome, tens of thousands at last count, and almost to a person, obviously poor. The wealthy high-tailed it out of there in their Hummers, SUV's and whatall. These poor folks, the desparately poor, the old, the infirm, the homeless, the very young, all end up being left behind to face this terrible event. Thank God for the truly public servants who have stayed behind to help them. May God protect them all.

Monday, August 15, 2005

An essay I wrote a few months ago

I wrote this a few months ago, and have wondered about posting it ever since. Take it as a work in progress (what else is there?). In any event, here it is for what it's worth:


Why do I always assume the worst? Can I listen and actually allow that what you’re saying is honest, as you understand it? Can I believe you, even if I disagree? I live in a world where no one is given the benefit of the doubt. I read and listen to political and religious debates regularly. They both betray this attitude constantly. If I were to listen to others as they portray themselves, what would be threatened? Would I be at risk of losing an argument? Would I be at risk of maybe even changing my mind? Would I be at risk of losing what I hold dear? These are all real risks. Worthwhile risks. Am I to avoid all these things in order to avoid any risk?

Is it safe to question? Is it safe to question you? Is it safe to question me? What is my desire? I like to believe that it’s truth. Is it? Am I seeking after truth with a capital “T”? Is that what I’m seeking after? Or am I seeking after comfort? Am I searching for certainty so that I might be left to leisure in my thoughts and relationships? Is it really easier to be certain? It does, I suppose, provide a sort of temporary rest. But it’s a rest that isn’t steady. It’s a fitful rest, if there is such a thing. It’s a rest that constantly has to buttress the bulwarks of my assumptions. I want to be able to rest. I want to be able to sit for a while and not have to constantly fight for what I believe. But how do I confront from without when I struggle against more formidable foes from within?

Can I safely be generous? May I trust you to be honest with me? I have been wounded before. I have my calluses. They may be unseen. But they still exist. Bring me to you and let me trust you. I want to... I don’t want to. Help me to want to trust you. I also have my hidden sides. There are parts of me that I barely see, let alone reveal to others. Is this all part of what makes it so hard to trust the honesty of others? Do we instinctively attack in order to preempt what we suspect will be done to us? Is this preemption because we know that it’s our own desires that wage war against us inside? We see our own nefarious designs in others’ actions and attitudes, even if it isn’t their action or their attitude that we see, but ours. Are we afraid that our own instincts are going to betray us to others, betray that side of us that we try to keep hidden, well out of sight?

Not everyone is like this. I listen to those who believe differently than I do. I try at least. My interactions with these political and theological debates exist alongside my own struggles in all of my relationships. They are inseparable. I’ve seen the wreckage left behind by taking the worst sense and running with it. It’s usually done with the intention of scoring a momentary point, a tactical advantage; a battle skirmish won. It’s done out of fear, it’s done out of a sense of weakness. It’s done without thinking ahead to the consequences. It’s done with the hope that it will somehow lead to victory. It’s even done with the hope that it will lead to the truth. The truth. The truth. The truth gets slowly dimmed as tactics take precedence over honesty.

We don’t know all that can be known. This may sound like a silly statement. But we mostly act as if we are omniscient. We pretend that we can clearly see through to the heart of those we engage in debates with, as though we could see with an unspotted eye. We are proven wrong repeatedly, and then straightaway return to our strong delusional conviction that we can see clearly now. “She must have meant this.” “He obviously intended to…” and on and on. We assume that we can see into the motives. The very thing that we should acknowledge we know the least about is what we bravely state we know most clearly.

We shift in our stories. And each time it’s true to what our purpose is at the moment. If the passing moment brings with it new needs, the truth adjusts itself accordingly. It’s no less true, in that it serves to satisfy my temporary need of proving myself absolutely right. True truth may, in contrast to this bastardized version, be found in a simple acknowledgement of some doubt, even great doubt. But can I trust honesty? Can it be trusted to deliver the goods? Will I enjoy the benefits of the doubt? Actually, the “goods” are found in the honesty that allows the doubt to surface. That is the benefit of the doubt. We grow in that.

Yet, is that all there is? Is it enough to settle for doubt? Can doubt provide rest? Can doubt give me what I need? Is it ultimate? Honest doubt serves a better end than itself. It doesn’t serve to lead us to absolute certainty. That’s just foolish. The moment we find ourselves completely certain, we’ve lied to ourselves somewhere. It’s there. It may be tucked away somewhere in a corner, but it’s there. Usually it’s the corner we’ve just cut that we can find the lie.

And so we have shortcuts. Shortcuts, of thought. Shortcuts, of need. Thinking selfishly. Settling for what should only lead us on to greater satisfactions. Stopgaps. Mental coat hangers wrapped around emotional mufflers, wheezing out its sickness. It holds the problem at bay until it can be dealt with later; all the while the problem is not tended to. The inner workings suffer as the corrosion takes its toll. We sit with our windows rolled up tight, not hearing the noise that disturbs all those around us. Always hoping that we can make it to the next destination, a destination that will somehow magically heal what ails us. And so we run.

Avoiding the inevitable. It’s like those dreams where the more you run, the more your feet get bogged down and the slower you go. It will catch up to you. Whatever “it” is. Admitting a doubt or two is also healthy here. It can lead to coming to terms with what’s been haunting you; what’s been lurking around the edges, like a beggar, trying not to be seen too much, but just enough to be fed. Willing to live in the periphery of existence, so as not to offend, but needing to be seen, needing to be seen as our peripheral vision.

These untended corners speak in moments of unintended quietness. A glimpse of a sight that leads to disquieting questions. We usually quickly resume the busyness that can cure us of reality. A busyness that instills its own hypnotic trance. Doubts can be the first glimmerings of awakening from this deep slumber. We begin to awaken from this catatonic state when we begin to question the assumptions buttressing our lifelong framework. This framework, which begins from nearly our first breath, shelters us from the storms of life. It provides a lens through which we can see the world and make sense of it. This framework, if it’s not based on the actual reality surrounding us, this reality inhering within us, can be deadly. Some frameworks mislead. They can picture unreality.

How often do we decide something quickly? Partly due to time pressures, the urgency of the moment, the sense that “something” must be done, or sometimes just intellectual laziness lets us settle for an answer. Then, when we’ve decided, it’s all or nothing. The Magisterium has spoken. Our pride has proclaimed “Truth” ex cathedra. May it never be contradicted! The hardness of this is like that cement that hardens around our ankles as we run from the beast that chases us in that dream. We slog. We slip the bonds of freedom and slowly sink into the sand that we thought was so solid.

Sand is nothing but rock broken into little pieces. Sometimes it can be broken up dramatically in one smashing moment. Usually it happens slowly, chipping away incrementally, imperceptively, like a background noise, scratching away at the edges. Hissing away as we try to ignore the static. The static irritates. It rankles our nerves. It unsettles our senses. Whether it’s the burr in the saddle, or the slightly off frequency signal, or the low-grade headache that lurks in the shadows, it breaks down anything solid under the pressure, little by little. Yet we build. We build and build, hoping that the fractures won’t be seen, least of all by us. If I close my eyes, nobody else will see it. Right? And so we slap on another coat. But the crack slips through. It’s amazing how much energy has to go into keeping up appearances.

But ironically, the structural defects themselves speak. Remember that hiss, that burr, that low-grade fever? They all stand alongside doubt. They speak when doubt is silenced. The balloon will bulge out when squeezed, no matter how hard we try to prevent it. That’s the strange thing about reality. The nature of nature is that it is inherently self-correcting. That’s not to say that irrevocable damage is never done. Sometimes it is. Too many times it is. But there are limits. Doubts are limits. Doubts are limits before they become too dangerous. They are the first symptoms. Doubts are, when we are healthy, our moral nerve endings, letting us know when the flame is coming too close.

Doubts can offer us a language of reconnection. Doubt can speak to the void of brokenness that pervades our interactions, interactions between people, lovers, friends, families, nations.

The word “doubt” and the word “brink” are rarely, if ever, found in the same sentence, and with good reason. It is when we have jettisoned doubt early on that we eventually find ourselves standing at the precipice, standing at the brink. One too many words spoken in an argument that never needed to begin. That fateful word said because of a pride kept hard. So many skirmishes won. So many wars lost. So many relationships…lost. A whole litany of words that hold painful meanings. All because doubt wasn’t allowed in. Interior debates cut short by mental partisans claiming territory, claiming words, claiming meanings, for their own. Nothing is allowed that might give an inch to any competing claim.

Doubt is a guest we rarely entertain. Doubt scares us too much. It raises questions. It puts assumptions to the test. It’s like a child who doesn’t know any better and says what is obvious, always to the embarrassment of those around it. Doubt doesn’t know decorum very well. It exposes. It reveals. It shames the shamers.

I want to be free. I want to be certain. I want to know what is true. Doubt stands in my way. Doubt stands before me like a guardian sentry, blocking my access to that which I desire above all else. Doubt refuses to give me entry to the space that will finally provide me the answers, the wisdom, the clarity. The day may come when I can stand in that place. Until then, I am thankful for doubt’s stubborn refusal to give up the fight and let me in. Doubt has given me an ear to hear the voices of others, voices that sometimes don’t agree with me.

It might be asked of me; are you denying any ability to know or believe anything? Aren’t you giving yourself over to excessive introspection, to the exclusion of external reality? These are fair questions, especially in light of what I’ve just written. Yet what I’m raising as a concern is not so much the question of whether we can know, but of what we do with what we do know, or think we know. I believe I can know. I even believe that I can know that I know. In fact, I would dare say that I know that I know. I’m no post-modernist, though they have a tremendous amount to say that deserves a good listening. There is true truth. I believe we can even know true truth. My problem with myself is that knowing true truth is not the same as knowing truth truthfully. I know all too well that I have never known truth truthfully, and it’s almost always been due to my own choosing not to. Even when it’s initially been due to nothing intentional, I respond with unfounded certainties, somehow hoping against hope to cover those loose ends up. That’s my concern. That’s who, I believe, we are.

Monday, August 8, 2005

Jennings, and etc.

As I mentioned on my other site, I realized that I missed Peter Jennings. He somehow spoke to a stability that transcended what we're experiencing right now. Anyway, for what's it's worth, I wish I could see Peter on tonight's news. It's emotional, I know. But I know that I could trust that he would "try" to get things right. And that's something.

Anyway, I recently finished the "Between Pacifism and Jihad" book, and was fairly dissappointed in it. I had hoped that it would provide a serious "Christian" perspective on just war and the problems that we face today. It turned out to be a defence of the "hyper-interventionist" policies that have become the "Christian" response to our international crises. It seems that this book is not much more than a dealing with the ghosts of the author's pacifistic past. This has colored the author's perspective in such a way that he cannot adequately deal with the current circumstances accurately.

The left will continually critique what we do, and sometimes from a good perspective, but ultimately from a fundamentally anti-christian perspective, so that we end up with a perspective that contradicts the basic Christian message of who God is and who we are. As y'all know, I am no more a fan of the right. Some of what they have to say is spot on. Yet they also contradict what Scripture has to say on other points.

The two new books that I'm reading right now are:

1. Dying to Win, by Robert Pape; a University of Chicago prof. who argues that we have seriously misunderstood the terrorist threat.

2.The War on Truth, by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed; a director of a well known peace institute in Brighton England. What impresses me most is his unwillingness to give in to the conspiratorial thinking that pervaded post-9/11 thinking; both from the right and the left.

Anyway, I hope y'all are doing well.


Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Some follow-up thoughts on "false assumptions"

On question 1: That there are people who believe that God has a special "covenant" relationship with America. I agree that the origins of that idea are from a small subset of American theological history. Yet even though the doctrinal content certainly isn't intact anymore, the basic assumption is definitely still intact. We see it in official pronouncements and in speeches from our politicos all the time. Reagan's inaugural "Morning in America" speech qouted Winthrop's famous "city on a hill" phrase, adjusting it of course to the needs of the millenial reign of democratic capitalism. And of course, there's the erstwhile D. James Kennedy giving us his own special "history" of America. Now I know he's not as popular as Dobson or Falwell, but he's got the moolah and he's indoctrinating thousands (at least) with his version of "Christian America". I can't remember the last time he actually preached the gospel. A large segment of the home-school movement is being taught this version of American history. The SBC (not exactly high-church Calvinist friendly territory) has become one of the biggest cheerleaders of the modern manifest destiny chant (which is supremely ironic, considering baptist history). That, and they're the ones calling for Christian parents to lead the "exodus" from public schools towards homeschooling. And it's the homeschooling curricula that is promoting this syncretistic "Christian America" ideology. So while the original doctrinal content is certainly missing from the "Covenant Theology" of the early American context, the imagery and language has certainly proved very useful for those wanting to sway public opinion.

As to the second point, that the founders were largely "orthodox" Christians: Again, I refer to D. James Kennedy. Hardly a week goes by without him extolling the orthodox Christian beliefs and virtues of our "beloved" founders. It's actually amazing to watch. Well.. revolting is more like it. The half-truths and not-so-subtle misrepresentations abound in his revisionist early America. What's amazing is that Kennedy is supposedly a solid Calvinist. If anyone should know better, it should be a theologian and pastor of his stature. Yet he slips the anonymous god of America into the pulpit and into too many Christian's homes; all because he's a "trusted" teacher. How can anyone be called an "orthodox" Christian if they're deeply involved in freemasonry (as most of the founders were), which is inherently syncretistic? Oh, and by "orthodox" I don't mean a sectarian subset of a particular denomination; I simply mean the beliefs and practices that are coherent with the early creeds and confessions of the Church; catholic, orthodox, and protestant. I'm not so concerned with doctrinal debates here. They're important, but in this case, I'd be happy to find a majority of Trinitarians among the founders! There's a few, but not many. Not many at all.

On point 3, the writing of the Constitution and it's deistic influences: This point has as much to do with many in the American church confusing which document should rule their life. Again, this is directed towards those who would argue for a Christian gloss on all the legal and theoretical documents forming our country's rules and actions. I do think it's important to recall that most of the founders were deistic, since Deism and Christianity are totally incompatible. Thus it puts the lie to the founders' supposed Christian orthodoxy. To argue that the founders were orthodox Christians is to betray the gospel for a pot of political porridge. Point 4 is really just an extension of point 3. My point (I think) is that this whole type of argumentation (the "Christian America" one) is dishonest rhetoric to support America's militaristic policies of conquest, but with a "religious" gloss. To the degree that that rhetoric succeeds, it corrupts the church with a false gospel. And every member of the body of Christ must fight this abomination with every ounce of their being.

On point 5, there's a sociological study somewhere that points out that early American's were much less "churched" than today. That, and their behavior was just as base as today's supposedly "more" depraved bahavior. We seem to always give in to the tendency to glorify the "good old days." Human nature doesn't change.

Which leads seemlessly to my next several points: The premise the America has never had imperial ambitions, that our wars are always defensive, and that "our" people are basically "good," and the following prescriptions to reform our nation/church (interchangeable?). These several points all come from my own assumption of America being an essentially Pelagian country. But it's a limited Pelagianism. It only applies to us. As far as the rest of the world (or anyone we deem the "enemy") is concerned, we're hard-nosed Calvinists! They're depraved! It's so convenient. We always get to be the good guys that way and everyone we don't like is the source of all evil. It allows every crime to be committed, all in the name of freedom, democracy, etc. (the ideology de jour). And since our "sins" come from without, the answers will then come from setting up a new rule, a new law, a new social crusade. Or a new real crusade. All for the glory of the god of democratic capitalism. You'll forgive me if I don't say hallelujah.

This all comes from my Augustinian view of the human condition. I've been a political animal from early childhood, and I've always wanted to figure out the "best system" for organizing and balancing human interactions. I started out quite the idealist (and in some ways I still am, or else why would I be doing this?). I wanted to see a system that would give us the best balance of freedom and equality. I was willing to listen to the various theories, from the left or the right. Each has their strengths, but I was never satisfied. Neither side gave the full story of our impulses and our desires, both for the greater good or of selfish impulses. While I looked at several religious traditions in my own search, the one that most cohered with my personal experiences was Christianity. It wasn't the miracles. It was the honest description of the human condition that sold me on its truthfulness and accuracy to experienced reality. Thus my political search has traveled down a similar path. If we get the human part wrong, all the rest will necessarily be an ever-widening array of disconnections from reality (I'm not discounting the reality that our idolatry and disconnection from reality is originally based on our rejection of the true God. Our social and political confusion is certainly a subset of that). So, am I left? Am I right? No, I'm Christian. And if Scripture is accurate to the reality that exists beyond our personal experiences of it, then I have at my disposal the resources of the Sovereign God of the universe through His Holy Spirit, given to me through the work of His Son Jesus of Nazareth.

The church is the bride of Christ. And I fear she (or at least too large a part of her) is acting the part of the whore in my little neck of the woods. That's why I sub-titled my site "For the health of the church." She is my Jerusalem above. I am commanded to love her as Christ loves her. I'm joined to her whether I like it or not. It's just sad that I feel this way. Thankfully, Christ's victory is never dependent on how I or any other Christian feels. His victory is guarranteed by His overcoming work on the cross, and He, through His church, will prevail. But it will only be by His means. It will never come about through corruption. The sword of His eternal word is sufficient. We need fight with no other.

Friday, July 1, 2005

Ten False Assumptions Underlying the Idea of "Christian" America

Here are ten assumptions that I believe motivate many American Christians in their understanding of God's relationship to this nation:

1. That God has a special "covenant" relationship with America; thus causing America to be under the blessings/cursings dichotomy that God specified with OT Israel.

2. That the founders were largely orthodox Christians.

3. That even if some of the founders were deistic, they weren't influential in the writing of the Constitution.

4. That since most of the founders were "orthodox" in their Christianity, the founding documents are therefore refective of "Christian" concepts.

5. That the general population was more "godly" than we are today.

6. That America has never had imperial ambitions.

7. That all of our wars have been defensive.

8. That American's are basically a "good" people.

9. That getting "under God" recited nation-wide will bring America "back to God."

10. That putting the ten commandments in public buildings across America will do the same thing.

I'm sure there are more issues that I haven't hit on here, but these are what came to mind as I was considering what I hear from the usual "Christian Right" crowd. What are the assumptions underlying these beliefs? Is it in any way consistent with historic Christianity? Am I just being overly anabaptist in my assessment? Or is it appropriate to question the basic assumptions behind the relationship between the American church and the state? Are we just struggling with a post-Constantinian church/state relationship? Are we actually in a post-Constantinian environment? Anyway, these are too many questions to ask at once; so I'll just ask that if you so desire, please take one of the above statements and run with it. Open it up. Consider what it means to be the church in our current environment; both in terms of speaking to the church about its calling, and then to the larger culture.

And here's a big question for ya: How do we communicate all this to our friends and relatives and fellow church goers/Christians? How do we reclaim a proper ecclesiology? What does it really mean to be the church here and now?

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The President's Speech

Last night's speech by the president gives me great comfort, but not because I am so swayed by his explanations. I'm heartened by the fact that he thought it necessary to give the speech in the first place. I am especially gratified that he thought he needed to speak at a "friendly" venue, such as Fort Bragg, NC. That choice in itself indicates that his policy and approval rating is in trouble. I was especially surprised that so many people chose not to watch his speech here in West Michigan. On the 11pm news, most of the people interviewed said they didn't watch him. That doesn't necessarily mean they disagree with him (it was a mixed bag), but it does mean that his argument isn't getting across to those he wants to get his argument across to. Especially in this neck of the woods. That's bad for Bush. Hopefully that's good for our common future.

On another note, I was surprised at his lack of religious language in this speech. He has regularly used either scriptural or generically religious language in most of his speeches to great effect. The fact that he (his speech writers) chose to not use that technique is in itself interesting. I'm not quite sure what significance that choice may have. It may have none, but it did surprise me nonetheless. Speaking of Bush's use of "God-Talk" in his speeches, here's an interesting piece about just that. I got the link from a discussion board I occasionally frequent (Is that possible, to "occasionally frequent" something?). I think Mark Roberts begins to open up some intriguing issues about Bush's (and by extension, much of America's) "theology," though I wouldn't be so quick to lay the term "evangelical" on Bush, since he has never claimed that term for himself. Just ask Bush's own people. And besides, the term evangelical has become such a wax nose, that it's doctrinal content is effectively non-existent.

Anyway, as you may guess, I'm actually still home; though I'm still considering going out to Pennsylvania to see my dad. In any case, I will get back to recounting my own theological version of American history. It's just taking longer than I thought.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Some links to consider

Here are some good links today to consider that I think can offer some light on what it means to be Christian now. In today's Christianity Today website, their editorial speaks quite well of what we should and should not look to as our final standards in deciding what is right and true. All I can say is: "Well done!" In an interview that they link to, we see Stanley Haurwas's take on what the church's primary responsibility is. I haven't read through the whole document, so I'll reserve my whole-hearted praise till later. But he's always worth listening to, even if there are areas of disagreement. Another piece has an early statement from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus at IRD. Anyway, until I get to the next installment of my whirlwind tour of America's theological and philosophical history, these will have to do. BTW, I head out (Lord willing) to Pennsylvania and NYC on Saturday morning for a week, so my posting may be sporadic or nonexistent until I get back. I hope my car decides it wants to go! So then, let me know what y'all think of these articles. Are they on target or are they lacking in some way? How?

Friday, June 17, 2005

A little exile and a lot of American history

The theme I've been trying to unpack in my own understanding of what the church is and its role in relation to the larger culture has led me repeatedly to the New Testament language of exile and the Old Testament periods of actual exile for the Israelites. While during the OT period, the exile of God's people was predicated on their apostasy and unfaithfulness; God warned them ahead of time that they would be expelled from the land if they didn't obey Him, in the NT period, the same language is used, but in a markedly different way. The NT church exists as an organic community of internal exiles living in the midst of all the temporary kingdoms. These momentary kingdoms are all established by God in His providential manner, yet are all also entirely contingent. They are all at least secondary to God's kingdom, which is both here spiritually and being looked forward to for an eventuall fullness upon Christ's return.

This kingdom of priests that we are live in a world that does not acknowledge our power, or even our relevance. The sad thing is, we don't acknowledge our power and relevance either. We effectively deny both by allowing ourselves to be snookered by the various bells and whistles that are thrown our way as the "latest answer." Of course, the "conservative" evangelical church in America has imbibed deeply of the latest draught of political power, and thus has believed the lie that God's kingdom can be advanced by these momentary means. After all, doesn't the "end" justify them? But the problem is the end. American evangelicalism has bought into a deeply flawed doctrine of salvation which is itself established on a false understanding of the human condition. American evangelicals believe that if we just get enough laws, put in the right judges, elect enough "conservatives," and so on, then we will inaugurate some great revival. This underlying assumption is based on a Pelagian view of mankind. BTW, by Pelagian, I mean the view that says that we are sinners because we sin, not that we sin because we are sinners. In other words, our natural state is that of innocence, and that we are born with a "clean slate" or tabula rasa. This view stands in contrast to the classic Christian view of mankind being born into sin; the whole "original sin" idea. This other philosophical notion is an enlightenment idea and not a basic Christian idea. This, along with a few other philosophical ideas, undergirds almost all of our assumptions about ourselves and western society. If this isn't dealt with, then the rest of our analysis is going to be skewed. And as we all know, fault lines grow as they spread.

But I digress. So, the American evangelical concept is based on a theology that owes more to Charles Finney than to John Calvin, the Puritans notwithstanding. What unites these two seemingly disparate forces (Puritan Calvinism and Finneyite revivalism) into modern evangelicalism, and its idolatrous relationship with our government, is this: Puritan Calvinism saw America as the "city on a hill." They existed in a context that saw no real separation between church and state. They looked at this "new world" as a holy commonwealth, both in regard to the church and the civil government. Thus, when they saw this New Israel established on these shores, they thought in explicitly ecclesiastical terms, but with a civil component. While I certainly agree with the Puritan's Calvinism, their view of God's kingdom being coterminous with the civil authorities owes more to their European state-church roots than to an exegetical reading of the Old and New Testaments. So, in Puritan thought, they were establishing a new beachhead for God's kingdom, a beachhead that saw no real separation between the civil/religious authorities.

The next step leading to today's situation came when there was a slide towards Deistic and enlightenment beliefs among the leading intellectuals, and even more importantly, among the theologians and pastors during the colonial period. This period, stretching from the mid 1700's to the early 1800's, was characterized by a populace that was largely unchurched and even when they were, were very lukwarm in their religious affections. The leadership of the main churches in the colonies moved away from the Calvinism of their forebearers towards an Arminian theology that focused much more on man's free will than God's sovereignty. This, along with the move towards greater unorthodoxy in Theology proper (doctrine of God), such as the Unitarianism and Deism of the Congregationalists, informed the intellectual thought of most of the founders and their religious (and secular) supporters. America's founding documents can be read much more accurately if read in light of these factors. "Nature's God" is straight up Deism, yet vague enough to be acceptable to more devout (yet less discerning in my opinion) Christians. This god that is less than the God of the Bible became the god of the republic.

The next big change naturally followed this earlier change, in that it moved from the trinitarian God of Scripture to the unitarian god of Deism on the theological side, while on the human side it moved from the earlier Calvinism to Arminianism, and then to an outright Pelagian revivalism borne out of the enlightenment idea of the absolute rule of reason over revelation. Again, this view assumes that men are naturally born "good," or at least neutral in their moral inclinations, and that any evil that comes from them is due to environmental effects. In this sense, we've all become Rousseau's god-children. It was, after all, Rousseau who said (approx.) "Men are born free, yet everywhere are in chains." Mon Dieu! We're French (at least philosophically) after all!

Well, the Buzz is about to close, so I better end this post now. As you can see, my main interest in dealing with American issues is to look into the theological and philosophical precedents that have led to what we have today. It may seem rather ivory tower, but it plays out into real life pretty quickly, and with devastating results if based on unreality. I'll continue with the period of "Manifest Destiny" leading into the Darwinian period next, Lord willing.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

American Church Issues

Well, here's the initial post concerning the issues I sent the email about. To get things started, here's some reading material that I would recommend to, I believe, better understand the dynamics of what it means to be a Christian in America. These books will largely come from a theologically "conservative" perspective, yet not necessarily in a way that fits with other senses of the modern term conservative. A large part of what has made it so difficult to deal with issues accurately has been the degradation of the language and its misuse. Terms need to be explained more than ever if we are to clearly understand what is being said. In any case, here's a foundational article by Christian Smith that I believe helps tremendously in extricating us from our cultural blinders. A very helpful book that I recently read by conservative Lutherans called "The Anonymous God" opens up much of what the problem is in identifying the god of America with the God of Scripture. And while this isn't necessarily directly (though indirectly it certainly is) related to the issue of the church in America, I believe the book by Meic Pearse called "Why The Rest Hates The West", written from an evangelical Christian perspective, yet from Wales, provides a much needed outside perspective to what is facing our country and culture now. Finally, here's a document that is quite remarkable, in that, apart from its tired use of the 95 theses model (understandable though, considering the appropriate comparison to Luther's environment), actually presents a cogent explanation of what American Christians need to be most aware of, and beware of, in our national religious expression. I hope to soon start putting up my own words on these and other issues. But until then, I thought these links would be a good start.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Orthodox Peace Initiative

I'm working through the idea of getting together (organizing?) those who are theologically "conservative", yet opposed to our nation's current policies, whether internationally or domestically. In America, it's quite common to see the intertwining of supposedly theologically conservative beliefs with socially and politically conservative ideology, with the opposite being those who adhere to a liberal belief, both theologically and politically. This dichotomy is false on several different levels, in that it ignores the inherent problem of assuming that Christian orthodoxy can be fitted to any political ideology. As many commentators have pointed out, Christian teaching transcends the political spectrum, in that modern liberalism and conservatism both presuppose an essentially materialist framework for their ideologies, which orthodox Christianity cannot accept. Thus, while individual positions can be agreed with in a limited way, the underlying assumptions propping up these modernist beliefs are diametrically opposed to the beliefs of the historic Christian faith. Every Christian, no matter their denominational affiliation, is to always test whatever is presented before them through the testimony of holy Scripture. Christians may, and should, also use the testimony of other believers from throughout Christian history, and even pre-Christian history, in order to better understand the issues at hand. And Christians should also use to their advantage the sanctified reason of non-Christian thinkers from every age on a host of different topics. Yet in using these various resources, every Christian is to always examine these varous views in light of what Scripture already attests to, whether on issues related to theology directly, or any any others issues of importance. The difficulty in doing this has always been in keeping the proper balance of seeking to be faithful to God and His revelation, while allowing for relative wisdom from those outside of Christian teaching. Often times, the tendency among Christians is to lurch towards only listening to those from within their own tradition, as though God only spoke through them as the "holy remnant". This tendency relegates all other views, whether from outside that particular Christian tradition, or even from outside of Christianity itself, as being wholly corrupt, not having any use under any circumstances. The other tendency, just as wrong, in the other direction, is to assume that since their can be a relative wisdom in other traditions, whether within Christianity's expressions, or further, in other non-Christian beliefs and practices, then that thus proves that each view, whether Christian or not, is a reflection of a deeper, though ultimately unknowable, truth, that is to be given equal weight. This tendency eviscerates the centrality of Christian witness, both to spiritual and temporal claims, and thus cannot be claimed as an orthodox expression of the faith.

to be continued...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


I'd like to start working through this statement step by step and see how it flesh's out.

Thesis 1.
  1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," he called us to become citizens of His Kingdom.
There's a lot to unpack in just this first statement. Christ commanded repentance of those who were listening to Him, whether in His day or us now.
Repentance means changing one's mind, so that one's views, values, goals, and ways are changed, and one's whole life is lived differently. Mind and judgement, will and affections, behavior and lifestyle, motives and plans: all are involved. Repenting means starting a new life. (New Geneva Study Bible, p.1756)
He then says that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." In saying this, Christ is declaring that the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is breaking into this world, and that it is breaking in through Him, Christ Jesus. The kingdom was not to be thought of as some far distant entity that would only come to fruition in a far away future. This kingdom that Christ spoke of was beginning with His advent. His miracles were a sign that this kingdom was beginning right there, right then. The question we're left with is this: What is the 'kingdom' that Christ is speaking of? What is the nature of this kingdom? What does it mean to become a citizen of Christ's kingdom? In what ways is His use of political language similar yet different than the way it's used by the powers of the world. What is the shape of citizenship in Christ's kingdom? What is its characteristic?

In the following theses, we will further unpack what this citizenship entails.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Some Questions

Some questions that popped into my head tonight while I was sitting in Barnes & Nobles drinking some Sumatra (mmmm) and reading Lou Dobbs' new book "Exporting America: Why Corporate Greed Is Shipping American Jobs Overseas":

Is nationalism just fiefdoms (European tribalism) writ large? If so, is economic nationalism just an extension of local/parochial/ethnic allegiances? What is the appropriate Christian response to this? If our primary allegiance is to Christ and to those who are called by His name (the church universal), to what degree can we be allied to a particular national interest? If (by historical standards very wealthy) American workers are being hurt, but foreign workers are being helped by "outsourcing", should we not support this as a means to "lift up" the poor around the world? But what if neither are being helped by this process, but instead these multi-national corporations are only pursuing short-term goals of personal enrichment at the expense of the "host" nations and workers? In this case are these corporations acting simply as parasites, feeding off the host until its energy is exhausted, and then it moves on to its next victim? As a people, should we see these various corporations as a confederation of similarly motivated interests (a sort of United States of Capital) working together (not in some dark conspiratorial way, but in an open and completely understandable fraternity of common interests) to advance their own material interests? If their interests are for their own enrichment and their own self-perpetuation, over and above any national/local/community loyalties, should we then not be concerned to see to a policy being enacted that would limit those impulses? While I don't agree with Dobbs' strong Americanism/nationalism, since my primary allegiance is to Christ (unconditionally) and His church (conditionally), and then further down the line to my country (very conditionally, no matter what country), I nonetheless agree with his concern over the rapacious appetite of the corporate empires that have effectively supplanted (and co-opted) our other governing structures. We stand at the crossroads, being asked to choose. Every moment we buy a product, we stand at the crossroads. Every moment we watch a television program, we stand at the crossroads. Every moment we accept and then propound a political view, we stand at the crossroads. We are always making choices. We are always being political. It's not a question of if, but which political and ethical position we are going to take and are taking. Just some questions on a friday night.