Thursday, September 25, 2008

"The Cross is Our Only Theology"

Book Review: Evil and The Justice of God by N.T. Wright, (InterVarsity Press, 2006)

In his justly acclaimed book Luther's Theology of the Cross, Alister McGrath reminds us of Luther's theological motto that "the Cross is our only theology". This does not mean, of course, that theology speaks of no subject but the Cross but that the Cross and what God accomplished there is the vital center of all truly Christian theology. All that Christians have to say about God must finally be grounded in the revelation of the Cross, the revelation of God's absolute justice and absolute mercy.
N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham and New Testament scholar, lives by Luther's motto in this book. Wright is clearly aware of the problem posed for Christan faith by human suffering and injustice but he does not want us to treat "the problem of evil" as a philosophical puzzle to be "resolved" by either subtle metaphysical speculations or by an impoverished skepticism. Instead, Wright wants to look at the problem of human suffering in the light of the suffering of God on the Cross. He is aware that there are various inadequate Christian treatments of the Cross, treatments which range of the tendency of liberal protestantism to sideline the Cross to the tendency of evangelicalism to interpret the Cross as primarily a means by which God grants forgiveness to individuals. Wright argues that Scripture views that Cross as being at the very center of God's redemptive purposes, purposes which result in the complete liberation of creation from evil (along the lines of Romans 8)
Wright devotes an entire chapter to examining the treatment of evil in Scripture, reading it as the narrative of God's redemptive purposes for all creation. In this context, evil and suffering appear not simply as "problems" but as things which raise questions about two fundamental Christian affirmations, God's faithfulness and the goodness of creation. Wright reminds us that the narrative that is Scripture is not intended to simply provide us with information so that we can "solve the problem of evil". Rather, Scripture tells us about what God has done, is doing and will do to overcome evil. Perhaps one of the most surprising things it tells us is that God has chosen not to overcome evil by a mere act of will but, rather, has chosen to work through human beings and not around them. Most discussion of "the problem of evil" assume that God really should have made creation an evil-proof utopia or that he should remove it from creation instantaneously from creation by an act of almighty will. But, Wright notes, Scripture tells a very different story, a more complicated story. God begins his dealing with evil by calling Abraham and Israel into covenant relationship, a relationship which reaches its fulfillment in the one person who embodies both the covenant and the human beings who are intended to keep it--Jesus Christ. God acts from within his creation to redeem and liberate it--he does not demolish it in order to save but but protects its integrity by acting within it. God's decision to work through creation and not around it means that the work of redemption takes time and we may mistakenly interpret the length of time it takes as a lack of concern on God's part.
Atonement (the theology of the meaning of Jesus' suffering and death on the Cross) is somewhat out of fashion in some circles. Some have contended that atonement is a small concern in the New Testament and is almost foreign to the gospel narratives. Wright makes a substantial case against this view. When we read them carefully as organic wholes we discover, according to Wright, that the "Gospels tell the story of Jesus' death as the story of how the downward spiral of evil finally finally hit bottom with the violent and bloody execution of this man, this prophet who announced God's kingdom" (p. 83). What happens on the Cross is that Jesus takes upon himself the full results of the human failure to carry out our vocation to bear the image of God in the world. Death is the ultimate result of evil because evil is far more than immoral acts; evil is anti-life and anti-creation and as such can not create but can only destroy. On the Cross, God allows evil (in its political, religious and spiritual manifestations) to do its worst to his Son and, thus, to exhaust itself. In the resurrection of Jesus, we see that God's new creation has already begun, that evil is a spent force and that God has triumphed over it. With the resurrection of Jesus it now become possible to anticipate a world without sin, death and evil because in Jesus this world is a present fact.
But, Wright reminds us, Christians are not without a vocation in the realization of this new future: "It isn't that the cross has won the victory, so there's nothing more to be done. Rather, the cross has won the victory as a result of which there are now redeemed human beings getting ready to act as God's wise agents, his stewards, constantly worshiping their Creator and constantly, as a result, being equipped to reflect his image into his creation, to bring his wise and healing order to the world, putting the world to rights under his just and gentle rule" (p. 139). Deliverance from evil does not happen without something happening to us.
Wright does not claim to have solved the "problem of suffering". He helps us to see that short of the kingdom of God we will always have questions about the goodness of creation. What Wright does claim to have done is to have placed the issues of suffering and evil in the proper context, the context of the Cross which, as Luther insisted, is our only theology.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Would You Like Some Theology With That Latte?"

Book Review: When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics by Paul Copan (Baker Books, 2008)

No, this book is not about God's favorite coffee and it does not even touch on such crucial theological issues as regular versus decaf. Rather, this book addresses questions that are likely to come up (and for Copan have come up) in conversations over coffee with friends and strangers. Apparently, when Copan goes out for coffee he ends up with a lot more than a latte--he thinks all Christians should be prepared for the same.
Copan has organized this helpful book around three categories of questions, questions to which he provides helpful and clear answers. The first category is "Slogans related to truth and reality". Here Copan addresses questions often raised by a relativist culture such as "Why not just look out for yourself?" and "Do what you want, just so long as you don't hurt anyone". The latter has become the prime ethical principle of our postmodern culture since it appeals to our sense of radical individualism and autonomy. But like many slogans which have noting to commend them but widespread acceptance, this one crumbles upon examination. The question for the person who proposes radical autonomy is that of why autonomous people should stop at hurting other people. This way of thinking has forgotten that freedom is a means of attaining human goodness and not an end in itself. The exercise of freedom can become inhuman and arbitrary.
The second category is "Slogans related to worldviews" and includes such issues as "Miracles are unscientific" and "Aren't people born gay?". The issue of miracles is finally a worldview question and not a scientific question. Science can tell us that miracles are not the result of the normal processes of nature but, of course, we already know this. Behind the Christian belief in miracles is the Christian worldview for which God is the Creator who is involved in his creation and for whom even the "laws of nature" are servants of his purposes. The laws of nature are descriptions of how nature ordinarily works so they do not tell us that the Creator who is their source is incapable of acting beyond them. Miracles are not so much "violations" of the law of nature but signs that there is something more to nature than material cause and effect. The slogan "people are born gay" is commonly accepted with many people assuming that it is the result of "science". As Copan makes clear, this is far from the case. The slogan is based on the simplistic notion that there is a "gay gene" which is analogous to the gene for hair color or height. This view assumes that the explanation of a behavior is also its justification. But this is in no way certain or self-evident. We may speak about tendencies and predispositions but such things do not control a person like a fate. The sad assumption behind this slogan is that biology is destiny and it is a bandwagon that other people (such as alcoholics, pedophiles and spouse abusers) will be happy to jump on to justify their behavior. The simple fact is that we can not say that genetic tendency leads to compulsion. This does not mean that homosexuality is simply a choice and it in no way suggests that those who have left off homosexual practice have done so without huge struggles and fierce resistance.
The final category is "Slogans related to Christianity" which includes the question "Aren't the Bible's holy wars just like Islamic jihad?". It is amazing that people who know virtually nothing about the history of the Church can speak as if "the Crusades" were the central event of Christian history. The Crusades have been largely taken out of their context, demonized and left to stand as a statement about the very essence of Christianity. And, it is alleged, the whole mess began with the divine command for Israel to conquer Palestine. Isn't the history of Christianity simply a history of jihad? No, not really. This way of thinking completely forgets that jihad or holy war was never a continuous policy for either Israel or the Church. Holy war does occur in the Old Testament but only on a very limited scale to secure Israel a space in a hostile neighborhood--it never became a systematic policy and it certainly never became a way of spreading Judaism. Similarly, the Crusades did not stem from a consistent Christian policy and their object was not to spread Christianity but retake land that had once been Christian and was conquered by Islam. This is not to excuse the Crusades but only to say that they occur almost as a Christian aberration and only in the context of consistent Islamic conquest of Christian territory ( including part of Europe). Jihad, on the other hand has been a consistent Islamic policy from the beginning. This is not to say that all Muslims favor violence or are violent. It is only to say that historically speaking Islam has seen force as a necessary way of spreading the faith. It is important to note that within the tradition of Christian just war thinking, a war to spread Christianity has never be considered just.
What I have offered is only a sampling of the issues addressed by Copan. Looking at the book as a whole, I think it is possible to say that in terms of apologetics the two major issues which confront us are widespread ignorance of actual Christianity (both within and outside of the Church) and differences among worldviews. All of this means that the task of Christians is going to get more difficult and not easier. Given that this is the case, it might be helpful to take Copan's with you the next time you go for coffee--if not to share with someone then to read for yourself.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

One Nation, Tolerant of God

Book Review: American Gospel: God, The Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham (Random House, 2006)

Two very different groups of people have lavished attention on the words of the Founding Fathers on the subject of religion, each attempting to justify a pre-determined conclusion about the role of religion in America. On one hand, conservative Christians have wanted to see the Founders as evangelical Christians who saw the founding of America as an explicitly Christian project. On the other hand, secularists have wanted to see the Founders as French philosophes determined to banish all religion from the public square. The truth, according to Jon Meacham, is to be found somewhere in the middle.

Meacham's book is helpful because he really has no axe to grind. Instead, he offers a survey of what he calls America's "public religion" as this can be seen in the policies and rhetoric of American presidents from Washington to Reagan as these have been deployed against the various crises and events of American history. By public religion, Meacham means a general set of convictions about America which are "religious" in nature. Public religion refers not to any discrete religious tradition such as Christianity or Islam but to the conviction that human beings are endowed with an inalienable value and thus have the right to participatory democracy in a society in which the person, property and conscience of each is respected, a society in which each is responsible for the good of all. If this sounds like a vaguely Christian political philosophy, it is. While many Christians may find this philosophy to be shallow (and Meacham acknowledges that many will), it has been the foundation of a unique society, one in which the government is secular (without any religious commitment) but the culture is richly religious. In short, the American public religion has served as a unifying force in America without necessarily requiring particular, religion-specific doctrines. In other words, "God" in the phrases "One Nation Under God" and "In God We Trust" means whatever anyone wants it to mean--it can even mean nothing: "The nation's public religion, then, holds that there is a God, the one Jefferson called the 'Creator' and 'Nature's God' in the Declaration of Independence. The God of public religion made all human beings in his image and endowed them, as Jefferson wrote, with sacred rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...Properly understood the God of public religion is not the God of Abraham or God the Father of the Holy Trinity...Public religion is not a substitute for private religion, nor is it a Trojan horse filled with evangelicals threatening the walls of secular America. It is, rather, a habit of mind and of heart that enables Americans to be at once tolerant and reverent" (pp. 22-23). (Meacham tells us that during his presidency Theodore Roosevelt attempted--unsuccessfully--to have "In God We Trust" removed from the nation's currency because he thought it cheapened the deity.)
If Meacham is correct, it would be wrong to see this public religion as simply empty and cynical. As he shows, Lincoln viewed the ending of the Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt viewed the reform of American society, Franklin Roosevelt viewed the Second World War and Lyndon Johnson viewed civil rights legislation as essentially religious causes and spoke about them as such.
One of the most famous phrases used in the discussion of the relationship between religion and society is Thomas Jefferson's phrase "wall of separation between Church and State" (used first in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut). What does the phrase mean? We understand this phrase today largely in a negative way, taking it to mean that the government should be secular. This is certainly part of what Jefferson himself meant. But, as Meacham shows, it means more. It also means that religion is free to permeate society without government interference. In other words, the Founding Fathers saw separation of church and state as protecting government from religious control and as protecting religion from the corruption of political power. (Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had ample opportunity to see plenty of both in Louis XIV's France.) Jefferson's religious freedom statute, passed by the Virginia Legislature in 1786 was not an effort to create a secular society but an effort to remove the establishment of the Anglican Church so as to allow all churches, all religions and no religion to flourish if they could: "For the Founders, religious freedom was not equivalent to a public life free of religion" (p. 80).
The religious direction of the nation could be seen when the new federal Constitution was ratified in 1789. It explicitly barred any religious test for the holding of a federal office. The Bill of Rights, of course, went further limiting the power of Congress; Congress could not establish any religion nor could it restrict the exercise of religion. This was not understood as an effort to keep religion out of the public square but as an effort to create a government which was religiously neutral. The Founding Fathers recognized, that religion played an important role in shaping the character of people, taming selfishness and instilling virtue, and that such shaping was essential to the life of democratic nation.
The Founders were, thus, not intent on creating either a Christian commonwealth nor a purely secular republic but something different: "The great good news about America--the American gospel, if you will, is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it. Belief in God is central to the country's experience, yet for the broad center, faith is a matter of choice, not coercion, and the legacy of the Founding is that the sensible center holds. It does so because the Founders believed themselves at work in the service of both God and man, not just one or the other. Driven by a sense of providence and an acute appreciation of the fallibility of humankind, the created a nation in which religion should not be singled out for special help or particular harm" (p. 5).
In all this I think that Meacham is essentially correct. The main problem that Christians have had in thinking about America is that we have tended to confuse nation with Church, investing the former with the mission and attributes of the latter. America is not a thoroughly Christian enterprise and we should not think that it can be turned into one. We have to guard against the view that God's purpose is to turn the world into a version of America. While our citizenship in this country matters much and while we are obligated to contribute to the common good, America is not the Church and our most important citizenship is not in an earthly kingdom.

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Redemption of Reason

Book Review: Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (Ignatius Press, 2005) and Values in a Time of Upheaval (Ignatius Press, 2006) by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

To listen to New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris tell it, one would think that Christianity is the greatest threat to reason in our time, that Christians are fanatical devotees of absurdity and blindness. Their assertions are the result of a kind of blindness and fanaticism. What the New Atheists have done, as Joseph Ratzinger so astutely observes, is to radically constrict the meaning of reason so that it applies only to what can be empirically demonstrated; reason is confined to what he calls "technical rationality" which focuses only on the efficient accomplishment of tasks and judges all thought and action by the canons of efficiency and utility. In short, reason and truth are confined to what is acknowledged by the empirical sciences which are understood to be the sole source of truth.
This means, of course, that religious truth is relegated to the realm of mere subjectivity and may be tolerated at the level of private belief (for now) but must be kept out of the public domain because it is inherently idiosyncratic and "divisive". Further, the whole realm of what Ratzinger calls "ethical reason" falls into the same category--all ethical values and principles are subjective and relative. While this way of thinking may be helpful for the sciences (which have unquestionably born much fruit), it essentially destroys the foundation of the good which leads to the undermining of law; the ultimate casualty, so Ratzinger argues, is reason itself. This may sound like an improbable thesis, but the essays collected in these two books make Ratzinger's case over and over again.
In an essay entitled "Searching for Peace: Tensions and Dangers" (delivered as a speech on the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied invasion of France during the Second World War), Ratzinger argues that world peace can only come about through the reconciliation of reason and religion. We must, he says, deal with the "pathologies" of both reason and religion for this to happen. The pathology of reason is to cut itself off from its roots and to focus on narrow matters of procedure and process; under this pathology there is no Truth, only "information". Such an approach leaves reason crippled: "Sick reason ultimately regards as fundamentalism all knowledge of definitively valid values and every insistence that reason is capable of discerning truth. The only task remaining to sick reason is dissolution, deconstruction..." A reason without roots ultimately can establish nothing but can only be an intellectual acid which finally dissolves everything to which it is applied. Modern "scientific" notions of determinism are a good case in point. When no objective good exists, when all law is but the assertion of power and when no objective criteria exist to evaluate the morality of science then we are left with the law of the jungle which is power divorced from the good. There is also a "pathology" of religion which involves a "partisan image of God," an image of God where God is understood to be "on our side" and the good is understood to be that which advances our standing. (Obviously, this could easily apply to both certain forms of Islam and certain forms of Christianity.) Ratzinger makes the case, a convincing one to my mind, that such a pathology is essentially foreign to both the Bible and to orthodox Christianity for which God is essentially Logos (rationality) and Love.
For Ratzinger, Christians have as a mission the purification of religion by reason and the nourishing of reason by religion: "We Christians are summoned today, not to limit reason and oppose it, but to resist its reduction to the rationality of production. We must struggle on behalf of the capacity to perceive the good and the good person, the holy and the holy person. For that is the true fight on behalf of man and against inhumanity. Only reason that is open to God, only reason that does not banish morality into the realm of the subjective or degrade it to the level of calculations, can resist the misuse of the concept of God and sick forms of religion and bestow healing". In short, part of the public mission of the Church is to keep religion and reason both in line and aligned. In this notion, Ratzinger is building upon the work of the Church Fathers and the work of St.Thomas Aquinas.
All this is more than a matter of intellectual discussion as the essay "The Significance of Religious and Ethical Values" makes clear. Here, Ratzinger takes up the issue of religious and ethical values in modern, pluralistic democracies. On one hand, Ratzinger notes, the modern democratic state must have some element of relativism in that the state should not be the arbiter of all values and all ways of living--this is the only way to avoid some type of totalitarian state. On the other hand, however, we have to think about the basis of law since there must be more to law than the action of of the state; law can not be simply whatever is enacted by a legislature. Historically, because of its Christian roots, the West has grounded law in some vision of the good. There are certain rights and certain truths which are not simply granted by the state but acknowledged by the state as existing beyond any political authority. What this means is that law is not simply a set of procedures for living together but, rather, law must enshrine within itself a moral vision of what human beings are and the dignity proper to them. For Christianity, and the civilization which came out of it, human dignity and human rights were derived from the notion of man as a unique creation of God. The whole notion of human rights is both historically and conceptually a fundamentally Christian notion. It is for this reason, Ratzinger argues, that the flourishing of religion within a democracy is essential to the survival of democratic government. The Church is not the enemy of democracy but its greatest ally. Democracy can not be supported by technical reason and law understood as merely a set of procedures alone--reason and law must be nourished by a religious vision of human nature and the nature of the good.
Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures contains an important essay on the rationality of faith and an equally important essay on the right to life. In the latter essay, Ratzinger makes it clear what it really at issue in the Christian opposition to abortion. While some frame this issue as a question of when life begins or a question of maternal rights versus fetal rights, Ratzinger sees it in terms of human rights. The failure to protect fetal life (the weakest and most defenceless of all life) is finally the triumph of the law of the jungle, the triumph of the powerful over the powerless: "It follows that a state that claims the prerogative of defining who is and who is not the subject of rights, and that consequently accepts that some persons have the right to violate the fundamental right to life of other persons, contradicts the democratic ideal...For when it [the state] accepts that the rights of the weakest may be violated, it also accepts that the law of the jungle prevails over the rule of law."
These essays reveal Joseph Ratzinger to be the most gifted theologian ever to hold the petrine office and one of the most important Christian thinkers of our time.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Phil Bowers said...

Michael

I want to encourage you to continue this very good work of reviewing Christian books. Your reviews are very helpful. I will be reading both or Ratzinger's books and looking at CS Lewis's Abolition of
man again.

September 5, 2008 at 5:29 PM  

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