True, There Never Was a Golden Age, but….

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Small town Arizona

I enjoy looking through the books other faculty require as reading at the university where I teach–it gives me a sense of the focus of their classes and the gist of the material taught in a particular class. One day I found a book on the 1950s, arguing that it was not a “golden age” for family life, and that families had severe problems then as they do now. My first response was to say to myself, “No kidding.” Only a fool would think that the 1950s or any other decade was some kind of “Golden Age” that bypassed human frailties. Marriages had problems in the 1950s, some spouses were abused as well as some children, and some families were dysfunctional. However, apart from these obvious facts, and apart from useful advances in technology and medicine since the 1950s, it does appear that, despite its flaws, that decade was the last true “Era of Good Feeling” in the United States. It was also the last decade in which a generally Protestant Judeo-Christian ethic was dominant in American thought, even among most Roman Catholics and Jews. Although divorce was sometimes necessary in extreme circumstances of physical and/or emotional abuse or serial adultery, in most cases divorce was frowned upon. Although the Hollywood set would get abortions as well as others, abortion was recognized as a grave moral evil. Only a small minority disagreed. Premarital sex occurred, of course, and the hypocritical aspects of 1950s sexual mores are well known, but at least there was an ideal that the wedding night would be a special beginning of  a new life between two people that is sealed by their first act of sexual intercourse. More extended families existed, especially in the South, the Midwest, and (as is still the case today) in the Italian-American community. Although people moved, outside of the military or of upper business management, extensive moving was rare. The new suburbs, for a time, retained the notion of a “neighorhood” with cookouts and regular visits between neighbors. Small town life, though declining, still flourished in many parts of the country. Alcoholism was a problem, as was always the case, but extensive use of hard drugs such as heroin was rare outside some inner city neighborhoods. There was a growing problem with juvenile crime, but most teenaged social life was tame by today’s “standards.” Although conformity was sometimes taken to an extreme, there was a strong sense that the older generation felt a responsibility to rear a virtuous younger generation. Perhaps the “greatest generation” did not understand the degree to which easy access to material things would create the spoiled and self-serving whiners of the mid-1960s onward, but most tried to rear their children with high moral values. My parents told me that at least in the 1950s a person knew whom he could trust. Today, they said, it is difficult to trust anyone.

The “Great Society” and the destruction of underclass society which arose through their dependency on federal aid, was in the future. The vast majority of children, white and black, were born in stable two-parent homes. A strong work ethic permeated most of American society.

This is not to say that the 1950s did not have deep flaws–struggles over race and the threat of nuclear war, for example. However, I would have rather lived in that kind of culture rather than the upside down world of 2012, in which people “call evil good and good evil” and Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” took place, though not in the direction of the Homeric virtues as Nietzsche desired. Christian culture is rapidly declining in influence, with a new breed of young secularists coming into view who, as Rush Limbaugh (who is right on this point) notes are both desirous of a government “nanny state” to take care of their physical needs while at the same time desiring that the government let them “do their thing” regarding gay marriage, abortion, and other “choices” they deem “personal.” The rapidity of the decline in American character since the 1950s has been astounding. In my own lifetime the world has turned upside down, to the delight of the anti-Christian left and to the chagrin of the few traditionalists standing against the plague of barbarism overwhelming the country.

No generation is unfallen. Yet most members of the 1950s generation would admit when they did wrong. They might do bad things anyway, but they understood them to be morally wrong. Today people strut immoral activity without believing it to be immoral. Academia has been part of the fuel for the fire of relativism, but it is, ironically, an absolutist relativism that denies traditionalists their right to express their views. The universities have become cesspools of relativism, Marxism, and a stifling politically correct orthodoxy. At least in the 1950s, faculty had academic freedom to express their views. Traditional conservatives may have been a small minority, but they were not censored. The university was generally a place of open discussion of ideas rather than the cesspool of radical orthodoxy it has become now.

It is too late to go back–the United States as I knew it as a child is dying. The sense of anomie I and other traditionalists feel has driven some to emigrate from the country and others to retreat to enclaves of like-minded people. In the 1950s I would have felt at home. Even in the 1980s there seemed to be hope for the future. Now I feel like a stranger in a strange land, and I am sure many other people do as well. There are times I want to go back to my grandparents’ house where my parents lived with my sister and I from 1965-1969 and enjoy the simplicity of it all before the madness of the 1960s froze into place in the 1970s. It may be a good thing for Christians, for it forces us to focus on God as the only One who is eternal, the only One who does not change. Going back to the past is pointless–traditionalists have lost the culture. We can trust in God, try to live good moral lives and be good examples to others, be active in church, and enjoy visits with like-minded people without isolating ourselves from the larger society. We know that God will triumph in the end, but until then, we wait “with earnest expectation” for Christ to come.

 

God and Judgement

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Икона "Страшный суд"

Икона “Страшный суд” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today many people desire a God who is nonjudgmental. This God will not judge anyone for their behavior. Even if He does judge, He always forgives, whether or not a person is repentant. He never condemns any act as intrinsically wrong. If the Bible or church teaching that something is essential for salvation, this God says, “Religion gets in the way of a relationship with me. Be spiritual, not religious.” This God demands no religious duties. This God is easygoing when it comes to moral rules. For this God, Hell is an impossibility. All people will spend eternity with Him in Heaven.

One of the amazing facts about contemporary America is that some people will actually worship a deity like the one described in the above paragraph. This pusillanimous being is as worthy of worship as Santa Claus dropping down a chimney. A God without judgment is no God at all. He can be merciful–and mercy only makes sense in the context of judgement anyway.

If God is our Creator, it is reasonable to suppose that He would reveal Himself to man, not only though natural revelation but also through special revelation. He would have further reason to reveal Himself if human beings are fundamentally flawed. Now human beings are fundamentally flawed–it does not take the mass killings of the twentieth century or the conflicts of the twenty-first to see that this is the case. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Gulag Archipelago:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”

God would, if He is the personal God in which Christians believe, provide information essential for deliverance from this flawed state. For Christians, God reveals Himself in Holy Scripture (in Roman Catholic thought, through Holy Tradition as well). Both sources of authority for Christianity reveal a God of both judgement and mercy. God holds people responsible for both their moral and religious lives. Humans all sin–they all do things morally wrong–sometimes not knowing an action is sinful, sometimes being controlled by a force such as lust, and sometimes they plan to perform an action they realize is wrong. All sins are forgivable under the condition of repentance. An obstinate lack of repentance yields the judgment of God, and Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition make is clear that God will allow those who wish to sin to keep to themselves. It is not as much that God withdraws from them–He allows them to withdraw themselves. Since God is the source of all being, goodness, and happiness, their state can only lead to misery. Saying to the sinner, “THY will be done” is a form of judgment, for it says that the sinner cannot live in the presence of God. The attitude of rebellion against God can be fostered by a rebellion against the moral law (which is a subset of the natural law that is available to all people who are able to use their reason). Rebellion against religious limitations, especially against the “scandal of particularity” of Christianity, can also influence someone to stop following God’s revelation to man.

The Church sets theological limits through the Creeds, short statements of belief that summarize the fleshing out of Scripture via Holy Tradition. There are certain beliefs Christians must affirm–if a Christian openly denies these key beliefs (the bodily resurrection of Christ, for instance) and teaches that error, he is liable to be excommunicated. This does not imply he is going to Hell, but the attitude underlying heresy, a pride that refuses to submit to the Church’s teaching, may reflect a character that would not enjoy being in God’s presence.

Holy Scripture and Tradition also make moral demands–no one can keep them perfectly, and they are challenging. “Love your enemies” is almost practically impossible to follow, though some Christians have done so. Avoiding hatred, envy, spite, jealousy, and excessive anger are imperative on the Christian, but no one avoids practicing at least one of these flaws at some point in one’s life. The church states that abortion and active euthanasia as well as physician-assisted suicide are morally wrong–and there is an arrogance to the claim that “I have the right to determine the time and manner of my own death.” Such arrogance is spiritually dangerous. The refusal to follow the Church’s sexual morality can occur due to weakness–or someone may be sexually immoral on purpose yet realize it is wrong. There is spiritual hope for such individuals. But God’s judgment may fall upon those individuals who say that “wrong is right” and “right is wrong” concerning the Church’s sexual ethics. This also reveals an arrogance, a refusal to submit to legitimate authority. Such arrogance may result in God’s judgment in the sense that God may allow those people to do what they will on their own. I am sure He will always be open to receiving them, but they, due to their free will, could decide to eternally reject God. “The doors to Hell are locked on the inside,” said C. S. Lewis.

The Christian God is worthy of worship not only because He is Creator of all things, but also because He is our ultimate judge. He is also a God of mercy–but mercy extends to those open to correction and repentance. Others will refuse to receive such mercy, and God’s judgment is to allow them to live in such a state in their own world–that is, Hell. I personally do not want to worship Santa Claus. God in His glory, justice, and mercy is the only being worthy of worship.

American Civil Religion

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English: The United States Esperanto: Loko de ...

English: The United States Esperanto: Loko de Usono sur la terglobo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I said there was a country in which during church services, church members sang tribute to their nation, carried flags in processional, celebrated national holidays, sang patriotic songs,  praised soldiers as war heroes for the native land, honored soldiers in uniform who came to church, of what country would you think first. My first thought would be of Nazi Germany, where civil religion was a way to honor the Nazi state and show loyalty to the Fatherland. Hitler hated Christianity but was willing to use it for his advantage and to stir up patriotism in the German people, especially in gaining help for the war effort. Worship of God was closely tied to worship of the nation-atate of Germany.

The United States, however, is similar to Nazi Germany in the sense that civil religion is a powerful force in American society. It first role with the coming of the Puritans in the seventeenth century, who envisioned America as specially blessed by God, “a shining city set on a hill.” That passage was quoted multiple times by Ronald Reagan. The idea was originally that America would set an example of Christian government to other nations of the world. That idea was reinforced by the Second Great Awakening at the end of the eighteenth century, American Civil Religion grew with the notion of Manifest Destiny and the rise of the American Empire after the Spanish-American War. This was tied in to European ideas of empire, of spreading “Christian civilization” throughout the world. That idea became more dangerous with Woodrow Wilson’s notion that the United States has a duty to spread democracy throughout the world. Thus, “Christianity and Democracy” should be the key words used to describe American Civil Religion. Instead of one’s land being considered a gracious gift of God, and the state ordained by God to punish evil-doers (as St. Paul put it), the nation-state became an object of reverence that rivaled God. American flags are marched in procession in churches along with the cross and are placed close to the altar at many churches. National holidays are celebrated such as Memorial Day and July 4, with hymns and the National Anthem played and/or sung. Soldiers returning from war are treated like Catholic saints. Sermons focus on the greatness of America and how “Christian” America has always been, despite scholarship that shows this was not the case in early America, not even in the case of the founding Fathers. Some churches are openly supportive of wars, including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Church members dehumanize the enemy and call on America to “go over there and kick their a….”. Church members often support every American military adventure, claiming that God is on America’s side, ignoring the one million Iraqi children who died due to sanctions and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed in the Second Iraq War. Only American lives are held precious by God.

The similarities with the Nazi German state church are striking. The state is venerated almost to the point of adoration. The United States flag, which has no business being inside a church sanctuary, is held in reverence almost as much as the cross. If ministers had any integrity and put loyalty to God first, the would take all national flags out of the sanctuary and not celebrate a national holiday as a Christian holiday. That may be too much to ask of American Christians, too many of whom buy into American triumphalism and silly theories such as Premillenialism that help to poison America’s policy toward the Middle East

Worship of the state should be decoupled from worshiping God. The church should pray for “all Christian rulers,” as the Anglican Prayer Book says, but not make the nation-state into an object of reverence. Traditionally it was one’s ancestral land that was worthy of veneration, not the nation-state abstraction. “Honoring the emperor< as St. Peter puts it, does not imply semi-worshiping the emperor, as the early Christians recognized when they refused to pray to the genius of the emperor. If only contemporary American Christians had the same level of wisdom.

The 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference

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English: Lipscomb University in Nashville, Ten...

English: Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

550 scholars from throughout the nation and some from overseas participated in the 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference at David Lipscomb University. This was the first CSC I attended. It was only two years ago that I discovered that those outside Churches of Christ could present papers and/or attend the conference. Since Lipscomb was my Alma mater, I could not pass up the opportunity.

Besides seeing old friends I had not seen in years, I was treated, as were the other conference attendees, to top-notch Christian scholarship. I learned something valuable at every session I attended. In the session in which I presented a paper on functional magnetic resonance imaging and mind-reading (I do not think fMRIs can read minds!), respondents gave me some names of people from the computer science field whom I need to read. That advice should strengthen the paper considerably as I try to get it into journal-submission shape.

The theme was reconciliation, but there were papers in many areas: religious studies, theology, Biblical studies, church history, pastoral theology, and philosophical theology. The strong interdisciplinary focus of the conference is one of its strengths.

The highlight of the conference for me was the talk by Immaculee Ilibagiza, a woman who hid in a small bathroom with seven other women during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Her entire family was killed. During her time hiding, she discovered faith in a God who acts, a God who requires forgiveness, and she was able to forgive those who murdered her family. Her willingness to forgive, the seriousness with which she takes her Christianity, her love for others, and her humility make her a saint of God. Her story put me to shame—and so many others who often refuse to forgive much less serious offenses than Ms. Immaculee Illigabiza suffered. What a fitting end to a splendid conference.

Having been outside Churches of Christ since 1986, and a member of the Anglican Catholic Church, one thing that surprised me was the openness of the members of the Church of Christ to those of other faith traditions. Another surprise was the higher liturgical religious services with litanies and responsive readings of the psalms. The participation of women in various parts of the service was also a big change from my days at Lipscomb. A big shock was that I was more conservative, both theologically and politically, than the majority of the conference participants. There were a number of papers covering issues of race, class, and gender, areas that, in my judgment, are too often abused by people on the left to further their particular agenda. There was a strong liberal political bias toward social democracy in the sense of the New Deal/Great Society model. There was also a strong sense that the Courts should override the power of the states for the sake of what is good. The difficulty with that strategy is that a Court that has the power to rule for the good also has the power to rule in favor of evil—and world history does not provide a particularly favorable picture of the use of government power. Those who assert such positions mean well and believe that they are practicing their Christianity by changing society for the better and by being “prophetic.” A friend of mine once said that a man at church who is tired after driving a truck for a living does not need a “prophetic sermon” on what a jerk he is for ignoring the concerns of (pick your favorite one or more of the liberals’ “favored groups”). What I hope is that the more liberal people at the conference realize that both liberals and conservatives are concerned for justice and for the poor, but they differ on strategy and on the role of government.

I am more concerned that theologically those questioning much of the tradition in which they were reared would be careful “not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.” There are essential Christian beliefs which are stated by the Apostle’s and Nicene-Athanasian Creeds and by the early councils of the church. The bodily resurrection of Christ, the Incarnation, that Jesus is fully God, fully man, the virgin birth, the Holy Trinity—all are essential tenants of Christianity that cannot be jettisoned without destroying the faith. In addition, the traditional moral teachings of the Church, including traditions concerning sexual ethics, should be affirmed and lived. When people are unsure of the identity of their tradition, especially intelligent and sometimes brilliant academics, it is tempting to lose one’s way.

Another temptation is intellectual arrogance, that “we are better than all those ignorant people in the pulpit.” I have been down that road—and it is a road of sinful pride. Everyone should read Helmut Thielicke’s A LITTLE EXERCISE FOR YOUNG THEOLOGIANS.

All that being said, the 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference was a splendid conference, and God willing, I hope to present a paper there next year.

Christianity and Victimology

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Jesus Christ Crucifix

Jesus Christ Crucifix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christian scholars often tilt toward social democracy or to full-fledged socialism in their thought, as well as an activist role for the federal courts in overturning immoral laws passed by the states. I admire their sincerity and zeal in their cause, but I cannot agree with their naivety about human nature and the realities of political life in a fallen world. In addition, the moralistic way in which they present their message is sapping with more sentimentality than with logic.

There is no question that Jesus demanded the highest standards of conduct toward God and toward one’s fellow human beings. The first and greatest commandment, as Jesus said, is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, with the second greatest requiring that a person love his neighbor as himself. These are not abstract demands–they require that a person take concrete actions to fulfill them. When it comes to loving one’s neighbor, this begins with one’s self, then moves out to family and friends, and finally to strangers in need. The command is also incompatible with any treatment of individuals that violates their dignity–this is like Kant’s third version of the Categorical Imperative that says one should act as much as possible so as to treat a person as an end in himself and not as a means to an end.

Now politically liberal Christians often claim that the federal government should love its neighbor by large-scale social programs for the poor. This sounds like a good, loving idea, but it runs into the problem that poor people are most effectively helped at the local level by people who know their overall situations. Throwing federal money at the poor has only made them dependent and lacking initiative to improve their lot in life. Any observer who has a modicum of objectivity can observe the failure of Lyndon Johnson‘s Great Society. A more modest government, oriented toward the states and to more local areas of control and resource allocation, can do more good to stimulate business to hire more workers and to help those among the poor who desire to raise themselves out of their situation of poverty.

The federal courts should not be in the position of enforcing the particular moral obsessions of judges into the federal law books. Well-meaning court rulings in the 1950s and 60s on Civil Rights were meant to fight clear injustices, but it would have been more in line with the Constitution to allow good people from the states along with people of good will from other places to persuade the good people in each state to fight against immoral laws. With enough political pressure, or with enough voters turning out those who support immoral practices, the state legislatures would most likely follow their best interests in changing the law in the direction of the good. There are no guarantees, but the seizing of state power by the federal courts will only lead to long term erosion of the power of the states and the growth of an inefficient, over-regulating federal government with the power to intimidate individuals through exercise of police power.

Well-meaning Christians look at the world simplistically–“We can change society for the better.” It is a short jump to go from “we” to a mammoth federal bureaucracy that will only grow in power until it engulfs the power of the states–and eventually guts freedom in general.

Victims are created and maintained to support the federal bureaucracy. Group identity trumps individual identity, and the individual is subsumed into a victim-group which in turn is kept dependent by the state in order to keep the ruling order in power. Christians are sympathetic to victims because Christ was also a victim of injustice and suffered a terrible death by crucifixion. Being a victim raises the moral status of the victim in the eyes of many Christians. The victim becomes a Christ-figure who does not need to reform his life, but only needs to say, “I am a member of minority victim Group A, therefore I should receive federal benefits B and C and D, etc.” Christianity needs to open its eyes to its own doctrine of the Fall, so that it recognizes that even well-meaning strategies to bring about justice do not work in real life, especially when those individuals who live irresponsibly do not amend their ways. The victim, in turn, enjoys the status of victim since it takes away his responsibility in life and turns his care over to others.

Christians should take care that their well-meaning, loving strategies do not leave the world a worse place than before. They can do what they can to help individuals in their own communities–that way, one small step at a time, without the poison of identity politics, people can be truly helped.

The Danger of Private “Revelations”

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Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The great seventeenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker once lamented the strange teachings that arise when Christians accept their own private interpretation of scripture over the tradition of the church. The result is practically seen today in 200+ major Christian denominations and over 20,000 total groupings of Christians in the United States alone. The Catholic/Orthodox tradition from the very beginning of the church was that Holy Scripture, while worthy to be studied by any Christian, does not find its final interpretation in the individual. Individuals are prone to error and often misread the Biblical text in terms of their own desires. Thus the Holy Spirit, through the Church Councils, the Creeds, the Fathers, and the Bishops, has guided the Catholic Church into all truth and set the boundaries of acceptable interpretation of Scripture.

A corollary of private interpretation is the tendency of some Christians to assert that “God laid a burden on my heart…..” or “God spoke to me, and therefore…..” It may be the case that God did speak to the person, but such revelations should not be accepted uncritically. I am very careful to make a claim about any private revelation–I prefer to say that God speaks to me through the Sacraments, through His Word in Scripture and in Tradition, and through the consensus of the Church as a whole. Thus, if I were to feel as if God spoke to me, I would determine first of all whether that alleged communication is consistent with Holy Scripture and with the teachings of the Catholic Church. If not, the “revelation” was either of my own (usually selfish) desires or a revelation from a source hostile to God. It is all too easy to justify our own selfish desires by appealing to “God told me I should do x, and it is so amazing that x is what I wanted to do in the first place.” Thus the alleged “revelation” becomes a justification for selfish, prideful, sinful behavior that “cannot be questioned” for “how dare you question the voice of God who spoke to me.” The problem is that God does not contradict Himself, and He would never command a person to violate His expressed will in Scripture, tradition, and His Holy Church. “Prove the spirits,” the Bible says, to determine whether they are genuine. Otherwise, our fallen, sinful nature will take over and we will mistake our own voices for the voice of God.

Charles “Chuck” Colson, 1931-2012

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Krista Tippett and Chuck Colson

Chuck Colson died this afternoon at the age of eighty, and for traditional Christians of all stripes–Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Evangelical Protestant–this is a great loss. His conversion to Christianity occurred in prison, and he changed from one of President Nixon’s hatchet men to the founder of Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry that has helped thousands of prisoners find their way out of crime. I always referred to Mr. Colson as a “Catholic Baptist,” for he had a remarkably high view of the church and of church tradition for a Protestant. He was one of the forces behind the document, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which focused on the common ground, the “Mere Christianity,” to use C. S. Lewis‘s term, shared by all traditional Christians. A staunch defender of the unborn and of traditional moral teachings of the Church, Mr. Colson was the chief driving force behind “The Manhattan Declaration,” a strong affirmation of traditional marriage in the face of continued attacks from both secular and from liberal Christian critics. I have signed the Manhattan Declaration myself, and encourage others to do so.

When I read some of the public comments on the news of Mr. Colson’s death, many were positive, but others questioned the sincerity of his conversion. Given the amount of work Mr. Colson did to improve conditions in prison and to defend traditional Christian teachings, there is no legitimate reason to doubt his conversion. Such attacks are more likely due to hatred of traditional Christian morality and of Mr. Colson’s defense of such rather than a sincere attempt to argue that he was not a true convert.

I have long enjoyed reading Mr. Colson’s books and essays, and I will miss reading new ones. May God be with his family and many friends in this time of loss, and I ask my fellow Christians of their charity to pray for the soul of Charles Colson: Rest eternal grant unto him, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithfully departed in Christ, in the mercy of God, rest in peace.

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