The Four Loves: Introduction and Chapter One

The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2018. The schedule is online.

We live in an area that often overvalues the love of nature and undervalues the love of country. At the end of “Likings and Loves for the Sub‐human” (the first chapter of The Four Loves) Lewis makes some astute observations about each.

Concerning nature, he makes the claim that nature doesn’t teach us anything on its own.

If you take nature as a teacher she will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn; this is only another way of saying that nature does not teach.… Overwhelming gaiety, insupportable grandeur, sombre desolation are flung at you. Make what you can of them, if you must make at all. The only imperative that nature utters is, “Look. Listen. Attend.” (page 755 in The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics)

While I think his main point is sound, he words things too strongly here. If I adopted this perspective as he phrased it, I wouldn’t be able to make sense of such passages as Romans 1:20 and Psalm 19.

  • Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
  • Psalm 19:1–2, “The heavens declare the glory of God;    the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech;    night after night they reveal knowledge.”

These and other Scriptures clearly teach that there are things God expects us to learn from nature. But there are not many of these things. Lewis is right that nature gives confusing messages — we can construct clever natural arguments for cruelty as well as for mercy.

Rather than looking to nature to provide our entire system of morality and meaning, Lewis says it is enough to allow nature to give us a framework for thinking:

Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one. I do not see how the “fear” of God could have ever meant to me anything but the lowest prudential efforts to be safe, if I had never seen certain ominous ravines and unapproachable crags. And if nature had never awakened certain longings in me, huge areas of what I can now mean by the “love” of God would never, so far as I can see, have existed. (pages 755–756)

Good stuff and well worth pondering.

Lewis goes on to make some great observations about patriotism. Patriotism is a virtue for Christians as Douglas Wilson points out in his 2016 essay American Jesus:

Patriotism, rightly developed, is a duty that falls under the fifth commandment. I am to honor my father and mother, and this extends beyond them in such a way as to include my people, my tribe. Ordinary and ordered patriotism is not just okay; it is a duty, one that needs to be cultivated.

I highly commend that essay to you. Wilson is on point and adds all the caveats you might be worried about.

One of Lewis’s insights about patriotic love is that it allows us to love and respect people from other nations:

Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that the Frenchmen like cafe complet just as we like bacon and eggs—why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.

And he has particularly strong words to say about those who try to replace the love of country with a commitment to higher ideals:

If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for “their country” they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up.… If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world. (page 761)

Much of what Lewis says in this section reminds me of the way G.K. Chesterton talked about patriotism in Orthodoxy chapter 5, “The Flag of This World.” Chesterton’s point is that patriots see the flaws of their nation and grieve them. Because they love their nation they want to fix it.

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing—say Pimlico [Glen’s note: Pimlico is part of London]. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

So to summarize:

  • Nature is worthy of love but not worthy of worship. Our cultural celebration of environmentalism far to often runs beyond the concerns of ecology and veers into religious territory.
  • Nations are worthy of love but not worthy of worship, and we ought to cultivate a healthy and measured patriotism in ourselves whatever our homeland may be.

See you next week!

The Abolition of Man: Chapters One and Two

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2018. The schedule is online.

Welcome to week one of the Chi Alpha summer reading project!

Some resources that may prove useful to you:

On to Lewis’s argument. He noticed a feature in an English textbook which greatly bothered him: the authors teach that value judgments about the world are statements of feeling rather than statements of fact. Lewis points out that this is a very powerful form of indoctrination and adds that this is an enormous difference from the past.

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. (page 699 in our anthology)

He gives several examples and lumps them together under the common name of the Tao:

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’.… what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself — just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). (pages 701–702)

It is worth thinking about his illustration. I suspect some of you will strongly disagree with it without quite knowing why. Here it is in bare form: not liking children is a moral defect. It is not “just the way you are.” It is the way you have become, and you have an obligation to try to become someone better. And even if your dislike of children was a matter of your genetics of something else beyond your control it would not stop being a moral defect.

But our culture rejects these moral obligations along with many others; more than that, we refuse to seriously consider that they might actually be moral obligations instead of personal choices. We teach that values are matters of opinion. And this leads to the stunning peroration of the first lecture:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (page 704)

In light of Lewis’ argument, reflect on this recent essay about an article in the prestigious publication Foreign Policy: Should Amazon tribes be allowed to kill their young? Foreign Policy editors aren’t sure (Julia Duin, GetReligion):

“In recent years, certain tribes in the Amazon region have been in the news because of their unpleasant habit of killing deformed or handicapped children as well as twins, and even offspring of single moms, soon after birth. They also may kill transgendered individuals. I thought the consensus was pretty clear that such practices were evil. But along came an article (it was a month ago, but I’m only getting around to it now) in Foreign Policy magazine that argued how saving the lives of these children was a western value that didn’t fit with the customs and lifestyle of these tribes.”

If he read that article, Lewis would not be surprised. Rejecting the Tao opens the door to madness.

In the second chapter, “The Way”, Lewis points out that many people attempt to hold on to objective ethics without admitting that they are doing so.

A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge. I will now try to find out what happens if this is seriously attempted. (page 706)

The most common attempt to find a source of values apart from the Tao is to appeal to human nature. When I talk with skeptics on campus they most commonly try to ground morality in evolutionary psychology. But it doesn’t work. Lewis explains:

From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self‐preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. (page 707)

In other words, the only way to derive morality is to presuppose morality. Just as the sum of two numbers will itself be a number, facts can only produce moral obligations if moral obligations are themselves facts.

Lewis says a lot more in these chapters, but this email is already too lengthy.

Those are the things that stood out to me. What stood out to you?

Kicking off the C. S. Lewis Summer Reading Project

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2018.

This is the first week of our summer reading project. I’ll be sending out reminders to read along with some commentary on the readings throughout the summer. Remember that the schedule is online (you can print it out and use it as a bookmark if you find that helpful).

This week we’re reading the first two chapters of The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis: “Men Without Chests” and “The Way” (pages 693–717 in the anthology).  If you don’t have a copy of the book yet, you can hear it entertainingly presented on the C.S. Lewis Doodle YouTube channel (not all of our readings are on this channel, but some will be).

I believe this is one of Lewis’s most important books, and I am not alone in my opinion. In The Narnian, Alan Jacobs (himself an excellent essayist) calls The Abolition of Man the “most profound of Lewis’s cultural critiques” (page 174).

At first you may wonder why you are reading about a British high school textbook from 1939, but as you progress into the chapter you’ll discover that Lewis is pointing out a profound error in thinking which has become even more widespread today. I encourage you to persevere; the payoff is worth it. The last four sentences of the first chapter are among the most powerful I have read, and you will find that the second chapter seems to be addressed to your contemporaries at Stanford.

To Change The World, Week Thirteen

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

I’ve very much enjoyed this book. Having said that, want to flag two reservations I have now that I’ve finished reading it.

First, Hunter has a certain quality I’ve noticed in other Christian scholars (N.T. Wright comes to mind). It’s a John The Baptist syndrome which manifests as the scholars conceiving of themselves as lone voices crying out in the wilderness, when in reality there is a broad conversation they are participating in — and there are many who substantially agree with them.

James. K. A. Smith’s review in The Other Journal How (Not) To Change The World highlights one example:

Indeed, one of the oddities of the book is the complete absence of Abraham Kuyper from the discussion. I note this, not as a failure to be comprehensive (I respect the “essay” genre), but only because where Hunter ends up is so close to Kuyper’s model (even if Hunter is rightly critical of Chuck Colson’s bastardization of Kuyper in How Now Shall We Live?).

And Andy Crouch gives several more in his Books and Culture review How Not To Change The World.

This leads to the one feature of this book that is troubling, and genuinely perplexing. Hunter is quite thorough in his documentation of both the sociological literature and primary sources from the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the neo‐Anabaptists. What you are unlikely to ascertain from the text or the notes, however, is the existence of any Christian scholar or public actor who has pursued the course Hunter recommends other than Hunter himself, along with a few of his students and associates. D. Michael Lindsay’s study of 360 Christians “in the halls of power” is waved aside as a mere cataloguing of isolated individuals, even as Hunter goes on to critique their generally pietistic and ecclesiologically deficient approach to their faith in precisely the terms that Lindsay has used in interviews about his work. Lindsay’s February 2008 article in the American Sociological Review argues for the importance of overlapping networks and models of élite agency. Hunter does not reference it at all, nor John Schmalzbauer’s People of Faith: Religious Conviction in Journalism and Higher Education, nor, in a slightly different vein, Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity. It would take nothing away from Hunter’s brilliant synthesis to acknowledge that others are doing similarly important and influential work.

When it comes to Christians attempting to do some good in the wider world, Hunter finds very few he can put in a good light. Charles Colson is dismissed as a quasi‐Hegelian idealist based on his enthusiasm for worldview education, rather than recognized for his considerable network‐convening savvy. Gabe Lyons’s Fermi Project comes in for sustained examination only for its sometimes glib promotional material, not for the work it is doing to build overlapping networks of young élites in some vital cultural centers. The patient and wide‐ranging intelligence of Os Guinness is similarly passed over in the course of making a point about evangelical individualism. Hunter devotes several pages, rather than just an endnote, to dismissing my own book Culture Making, and some of his criticisms, as of the others mentioned, are fair as far as they go. But a reader of his summary would never guess how much my book and his overlap in their fundamental concerns and final vision

Second, at the end Hunter claims that we should not try to change the world. It seems to me he’s being a bit disingenuous. He wants Christians to be sent by the Church into every sphere of society (including the elite networks which generate cultural change) and take faith‐based actions that lead to human flourishing. Hunter still believes Christians should change the world, he just likes talking about it in a more low‐key way. His plan for transformation is humble, but it is nonetheless a plan for transformation.

It’s just something to bear in mind. No book is perfect, and as flaws go these are far from crippling. Hunter is generally a clear writer and is clearly a profound thinker. All in all an outstanding read.

Now a few thoughts from the closing chapters:

CHAPTER FIVE: THE BURDEN OF LEADERSHIP — A THEOLOGY OF FAITHFUL PRESENCE IN PRACTICE

Hunter thinks that we should serve God in our generation by practicing what he calls “faithful presence.” Both words matter — we must be faithful to God and present in every sphere of society.

“But the great commission can also be interpreted in terms of social structure. The church is to go into all realms of social life: in volunteer and paid labor—skilled and unskilled labor, the crafts, engineering, commerce, art, law, architecture, teaching, health care, and service. Indeed, the church should be sending people out in these realms—not only discipling those in these fields by providing the theological resources to form them well, but in fact mentoring and providing financial support for young adults who are gifted and called into these vocations.” (page 257)

There is a particular peril for those who called into the high‐status vocations:

Because Christianity has lost status in the institutional centers of the modern world, those believers who work and live in the higher echelons of culture, politics, business, and finance are under great pressure to carefully “manage their identities” in part by hiding this discrediting information about themselves. In this case, the consequence of disclosure is to be excluded themselves. The temptation to be deceptive or dishonest about one’s faith in these circles is enormous. (258–259)

This is a real thing that I have seen many times at Stanford. I recall one graduate student hyperventilating when her PI found out she was an evangelical Christian. Her concern that she might experience negative consequences was not imaginary, although in her case I recall things working out just fine. But there is definite animus against Christianity in some elite circles. Look at the Senate’s disgraceful grilling of judicial nominee Amy Barrett for her Catholic faith. She openly and carefully discussed the implications of her faith for public service and had her words turned into the literal opposite of what she said (you can read more about it in item six of last week’s Things Glen Found Interesting).

But even as we recognize that our faith might at times bring negative repercussions into our lives, we need to remember that we are not allowed to hide our light under a bushel. You don’t have to report to work wearing a Christian t‐shirt, but you must never pull a Peter and say, “I don’t know the man!”

In other words, don’t sacrifice faithfulness on the altar of presence. Gaining a seat at the table is not worth your soul.

CHAPTER SIX: TOWARD A NEW CITY COMMONS

In this final chapter Hunter summarizes his argument and then lays his cards on the table: he thinks changing the world is a foolish goal.

Will engaging the world in the way discussed here change the world? This, I believe, is the wrong question.… The question is wrong because, for Christians, it makes the primary subservient to the secondary. By making a certain understanding of the good in society the objective, the source of the good—God himself and the intimacy he offers—becomes nothing more than a tool to be used to achieve that objective.… To be sure, Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world. Don’t get me wrong: these are goods we should care about and pursue with great passion. But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do. (285–286)

I appreciate so much of Hunter’s perspective throughout this book, and in particular am glad that he warns us away from focusing on what I have heard called “causes more worthy than holy.” We love God first and most and whatever social good we do (and it should be significant) flows out of that.

Hunter closes with this:

The fact is that Christ’s victory over the principalities and powers was a victory over the power of oppressive institutions—the sense that reality is what it is, that all is as it should be, that the ways of the world are established and cannot be changed; that the rules by which the world operates are ones we must accept and not challenge. We are not bound by the “necessities” of history and society but are free from them. He broke their sovereignty and, as a result, all things are possible. It is this reality that frees all Christians to actively, creatively, and constructively seek the good in their relationships, in their tasks, in their spheres of influence, and in their cities.

Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help to make the world a little bit better. (page 286)

I hope you enjoyed the book as much as I did!

Here endeth the reading.

To Change The World, Week Twelve

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2017. The reading schedule is online at https://xastanford.org/summer-reading

We’re almost done. One more week of reading and we finish out the book. Wow.

So now we come to chapter 4: Toward A Theology of Faithful Presence
The first few pages amused me, mostly because it sounded like something I would hear from a word‐faith preacher. The word‐faith movement (also known as the positive confession movement or the word of faith movement) is a charismatic movement that emphasizes the power of our words as expressions of our faith. Hunter has got nothing to do with them and may not even be aware that they exist, which I found tremendously entertaining.
And now Hunter comes to the main thesis of the entire book: the best response to the challenges of our world is faithful presence. As a reminder, Hunter thinks the two chief challenges we face are dissolution (pervasive uncertainty) and difference (pluralism). See my notes on week ten.
This, in short, is the foundation of a theology of faithful presence. It can be summarized in two essential lessons for our time. The first is that incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it. From this follows the second: it is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to challenge of difference.  page 241, emphasis in original
In the rest of the chapter, Hunter advances his own theology of faithful presence while critiquing other theologies of work and vocation.
One common view Hunter rejects is that our work is only useful insofar as it directly advances the gospel:

To the extent that work had “kingdom significance,” it was as a platform for evangelism. The mark of true piety for a committed believer whether in skilled or manual labor or in the realms of business, law, education, public policy, and social welfare, was to lead a Bible study and evangelize their associates in their place of work. In this paradigm, work was instrumentalized—it was regarded as simply a means to spiritual ends.  page 249

Instead, Hunter contends that work (indeed, any task) can be done in a way that glorifies God:
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Col. 3:22–24). What we do certainly would include our jobs, but the reality is that our tasks are many, and they range far beyond paid labor. They involve our work as parents, students, volunteers, citizens, and the like. But in the many capacities in which we operate, St. Paul’s instruction is that we pursue our tasks with all of our hearts. This not only suggests that we give our full attention to those tasks but that we pursue excellence in them.  page 246

And he gives a few examples of the way our work can express our devotion to God:

To manage a business in a way that grows out of a biblical view of (p.254) relationships, community, and human dignity before God has divine significance, irrespective of what else might be done from this platform. Policy pursued and law practiced in light of the justice of God is a witness to the right ordering of human affairs. Inquiry, scholarship, and learning with an awareness of the goodness of God’s created order is a discovery of what is truly higher in higher education. And, not least, reflecting the beauty of God’s creation in art or music is nothing less than an act of worship. (page 253–254)
So whatever your major, work at with all your heart!
Next week we finish up the book.

To Change The World, Week Eleven

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2017. The reading schedule is online at https://xastanford.org/summer-reading

I found chapter three much more engaging than chapter two. If you’re getting bogged down, it gets better.

Chapter Two: Old Cultural Wineskins

If sincerity were the same thing as faithfulness, then all would be well, for Christians, as a rule, are nothing if not sincere—not least in their desire to be “faithful in their own generation.” But if I am even partially correct about the nature and profundity of the changes of late modernity, then against these sincerity could never be enough by itself. At least a fragment of wisdom would be required as well. (page 213)

As a Protestant, I truly believe in sola fide (faith alone). But very often I find Christians in our culture treating faith as if it were a feeling or some mere sentiment. Faith encompasses so much more than that! Faith that lacks faithfulness is not the faith God requires — and faithfulness is a matter that springs from the convictions we have cultivated and the habits we have developed far more than it does from the emotional impulses we experience.

Chapter Three: The Groundwork for an Alternative Way

In a milieu where the church and its people are so quickly and roundly criticized for their shortcomings, it is easy to overlook a central theological truth; that is, that however inadequate or pitiful the church may seem at times (and may, in fact, be), where the scripture is proclaimed, the sacraments administered, and the people of God continue to seek to follow God in word and deed, God is at work; the Holy Spirit is still very much active. (page 225)

If I could have one truth tattooed on your generation’s arm, something like the above would be a strong contender. Always remember that you are not merely inviting people to follow Christ, you are inviting them to become part of the Body of Christ. You should love it and invite others to love it alongside you. Sadly, the Body of Christ is often slandered by believers who think only of her faults (often with shocking inaccuracy) and little of her strengths.

Be slow to assume you have a good read on how the church has acted in history. For that matter, be slow to assume you have a good read on how the church is acting today. Have you heard that Joel Osteen’s church has been callous during the flooding of Houston? Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook users sure got that impression. Before you apologize to your friends for Osteen’s alleged hypocrisy, read these articles: Flood him with criticism: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at Joel Osteen and his church (Bobby Ross, Jr, GetReligion), Was Joel Osteen’s Houston ‘Megachurch’ Affected By Hurricane Harvey? (Snopes), The Joel Osteen Fiasco Says A Lot About American Christianity (Laura Turner, Buzzfeed). Based on the evidence I’ve seen, Lakewood Church not only acted defensibly  but actually acted wisely and helpfully. Acting in a manner unfamiliar to some of their critics, they were more concerned with actually doing good than with merely giving the appearance of doing good.

This, incidentally, is a useful reminder that the Bible isn’t kidding when it tells us there will be those who “those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ” (1 Peter 3:16, NIV). I often meet young Christians who believe that if we just act nicely enough that the world will love us. You’re not going to be a better representative of Jesus than Jesus Himself was, and He was tortured to death. Temper your expectations.

I say all that to say this: if you hear a negative report about a church, do your homework before you assume the criticisms you are hearing are accurate. A surprising amount of the time the criticism will be false or will be misleadingly true.

But when a criticism of the Church is true we need to take it seriously.

Nowhere is the task of critical resistance more urgent than in the church itself for the ways that it too has accommodated to the spirit of the late modern age. St. Peter is right to say, “judgment begins with the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17). Antithesis, then, means that the church’s own structures and its own engagement with the world must be continually scrutinized. Here especially, critical resistance must always be creative and constructive; guided by devotion to the beloved community. (page 236)

Moving on, Hunter identifies a problem that I think is particularly strong at Stanford:

In contemporary America, Christians have faith in God and, by and large, they believe and hold fast to the central truths of the Christian tradition. But while they have faith, they have also been formed by the larger post‐Christian culture, a culture whose habits of life less and less resemble anything like the vision of human flourishing provided by the life of Christ and witness of scripture. The problem, in other words, is that Christians have not been formed “in all wisdom” that they might rise to the demands of faithfulness in a time such as ours, “bearing fruit in every good work.” (page 227)

We need to recognize that our culture is always trying to create unchristian convictions within us. Stanford does it more aggressively than American society because the campus is a much less free environment.

But that doesn’t mean that we give up and reject our society. Far from it.

When people are saved by God through faith in Christ they are not only being saved from their sins, they are saved in order to resume the tasks mandated at creation, the task of caring for and cultivating a world that honors God and reflects his character and glory. (page 236)

And so we participate in our society and seek to make it better, recognizing that there is goodness everywhere because of God’s common grace. But even when we find an area of alignment of our values with society’s, we recognize that there will be tension.

It is important to emphasize that the realm of “common grace” is, by no means, a neutral space. It is God’s grace after all—it emanates from him and its purpose is to give him glory. To make strong and active affirmations about the present world, then, in no way implies the autonomy of knowledge, morality, desire, justice, or beauty. The idea that there are common or objective standards for these things independent of the created order is an illusion. In the contemporary world, neutrality is the pretence of all secular establishments; a myth concealed by its hegemony. (page 233)

As a result, we need to have a level of skepticism about the structures of our fallen society.

In the present historical context, this means that Christians recognize that all social organizations exist as parodies of eschatological hope. And so it is that the city is a poor imitation of heavenly community; the modern state, a deformed version of the ecclesia; the market, a distortion of consummation; modern entertainment, a caricature of joy; schooling, a misrepresentation of true formation; liberalism, a crass simulacrum of freedom; and the sovereignty we accord to the self, a parody of God himself. As these institutions and ideals become ends in themselves, they become the objects of idolatry. (pages 234–235)

And now we’re getting close to what I take to be Hunter’s ultimate point: we don’t participate in society primarily to change the world. We do it simply to bless those around us.

If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor. (page 234, the original has emphasis that I don’t think is being reproduced here)

I’m eager to see where his argument goes from here.

To Change The World, Week Ten

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2017. The reading schedule is online at https://xastanford.org/summer-reading

This week’s reading was an interesting start to Hunter’s final essay. I’m curious to see where he goes with it.

His overall point is pretty simple: modern culture undermines faith. He frames the challenge in two terms: difference and dissolution, which seem to roughly correspond to pluralism and pervasive uncertainty (the sense that no source of information is thoroughly trustworthy).

The challenge of pluralism is that it causes any given belief to seem arbitrary.

In [pluralistic] circumstances, one is no longer enveloped by a unified and integrated normative universe but confronted by multiple and fragmented perspectives, any or all of which may seem, on their own terms, eminently credible. This social situation obligates one to choose, but once the choice is made—given the ubiquitous presence of alternatives in a market culture oriented toward consumer choice—one must reaffirm that choice again and again. These are social conditions that make faithfulness difficult and faithlessness almost natural. (page 203)

 

It is true that there are religious virtuosi who maintain strong beliefs on their own with little or no social support but these individuals are rare. Most of us, however, need the reinforcement that social institutions provide to believe coherently and live with integrity. There is a sociological truth, then, to the statement extra ecclesiam nulla salus; that “there is no salvation outside of the church.” Strong and coherent beliefs require strong institutions enveloping those who aspire to believe. These are the conditions that turn belief into settled convictions. (page 202)

The challenge of pervasive uncertainty is that it undermines all meaning, including religious meaning. Hunter spends some time talking about modern technology and media and how disconnected and superficial they cause our perception of the world to be.

An environment that is constituted by surface images and simulations and that is fragmented and flattened out cannot help but undermine the reality to which Christian belief and faith point. The words we use simply fail to have the same kind of traction they once did. In such a context, it is difficult to imagine that there is a spiritual reality more real than the material world we live in. Neither is such an environment conducive to depth in reflection, relationships, or commitments. It is difficult to discover the quality of intimacy in a friendship or in love that is nurtured through time and attentiveness to the subtleties of need, memory, joy, and hurt. So too, it is difficult to forge moral commitments capable of enduring the vagaries of hardship, boredom, failure, and even triumph. A world created by these technologies may not occlude depth in these ways but it will war against it. (page 210)

In summary:

It is critical to note that [the effect of pluralism, pervasive uncertainty, and related trends] is primarily manifested not as problems that can be seen, objectified, analyzed, and responded to but as a complex array of assumptions so deeply taken for granted that they cannot be fully grasped much less questioned. Culture is most powerful, as I have argued, when it is perceived as self‐evident. (211)

If you resonate with these observations, I recommend you take a look at one of our recent summer reading projects, How (Not) To Be Secular by James K. A. Smith. It’s a helpful (and short) book that deals with the nature of faith in modern secular contexts. A good summary of it is at The Gospel Coalition.

Finally, something worth remembering at Stanford:

But radical skepticism leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare. Apart from a few celebrity nihilists and a few disaffected graduate students, there are actually few consistent relativists or committed postmodernists for the simple reason that it is not livable. (page 207)

Some things that look good on paper simply don’t function in a real‐world setting. Nihilism is one example. In the political realm, socialism and communism are clear examples — anywhere they appear to work it is because someone has kept the label but changed the content. Whenever you hear a fellow student (or a professor) advocating a theory you suspect is wonky, examine how it works in practice. Life is the laboratory of philosophy.

To Change The World, Week Nine

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2017. The reading schedule is online at https://xastanford.org/summer-reading

After being so descriptive in the last three chapters it’s nice to see Hunter getting prescriptive in this week’s readings. He puts the religious right, the religious left, and the neo‐Anabaptist tradition on blast. I really enjoyed these closing chapters of his essay on power.

Most people think that what matters is the ideological direction of one’s politics. Are you conservative? Are you liberal? These differences occupy most of our attention and argument. What is never challenged is the proclivity to think of the Christian faith and its engagement with the culture around it in political terms. (page 168)
This is tragic because politics promises far more than it is able to deliver. Hunter observes:
There are no comprehensive political solutions to the deterioration of “family values,” the desire for equity, or the challenge of achieving consensus and solidarity in a cultural context of fragmentation and polarization. There are no real political solutions to the absence of decency or the spread of vulgarity. But because the state is a clumsy instrument and finally rooted in coercion, it will always fail to adequately or directly address the human elements of these problems; the elements that make them poignant in the first place. As a rule, when the state does become involved in such matters, its actions can often create more problems through unintended consequences, not fewer. (page 171)
This reminds me of something my dad used to tell me: some of the scariest words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” Unintended consequences abound for both the policy preferences of the left (minimum wage, family leave policy, zoning regulations) and the right (the war on drugs, tough‐on‐crime laws, immigration reform). It’s actually kind of fun to google. If you have some time I highly recommend it.

 

Hunter continues:

At best, the state’s role addressing human problems is partial and limited. It is not nearly as influential as the expectations most people have of it. It is true that laws are not neutral. They do reflect values. But laws cannot generate values, or instill values, or settle the conflict over values. (page 171)
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a similar but more powerfully worded observation highlighting the other side of this dynamic at Western Michigan University back in 1963:
…while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. (pdf source)
That’s one of my favorite quotes on religion and politics, so I’m glad I finally found a chance to drop it in. 😉

 

With that extremely important point in mind, Hunter’s reservation still stands:

Values cannot be achieved politically because politics is invariably about power—not only power, but finally about power. For politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere. It depends on moral criteria, institutionalized and practiced in the social order, that are autonomous from the realm of politics. The problem is that the impulse toward politicization extends to the politicization of values. This means that the autonomy of moral criteria on which a higher practice of politics depends is increasingly lost. Today, most of the ideals and values that are discussed in public have acquired political content and connotation. Fairness? Equity? Justice? Liberty? These have come to have little or no meaning outside of the realm of politics. (page 172, emphasis in original)

And now he loads up the howitzers and launches a barrage on modern American Christianity. He gets positively sermonic in this section and I want you to know I am proud of myself for quoting so little of it. It took tremendous restraint to limit myself to three bombshells.

  1. For conservatives and progressives alike, Christianity far too comfortably legitimates the dominant political ideologies and far too uncritically justifies the prevailing macroeconomic structures and practices of our time. What is wrong with their critique is that it doesn’t go far enough, for the moral life and everyday social practices of the church are also far too entwined with the prevailing normative assumptions of American culture. Courtship and marriage, the formation and education of children, the mutual relationships and  obligations between the individual and community, vocation, leadership, consumption, leisure, “retirement” and the use of time in the final chapters of life—on these and other matters, Christianity has uncritically assimilated to the dominant ways of life in a manner dubious at the least.” (pages 184–185)
  2. …Christian believers [must] decouple the “public” from the “political.” Politics is always a crude simplification of public life and the common good is always more than its political expression. As we have seen, the expectations that people place on politics are unrealistic for most of the problems we face today are not resolvable through politics. That, however, is not the most serious problem. Far more grave is the way politicization has delimited the imaginative horizon through which the church and Christian believers think about engaging the world and the range of possibilities within which they actually act. Politics is just one way to engage the world and, arguably, not the highest, best, most effective, nor most humane way to do so. This does not mean that Christians shouldn’t “vote their values” or be active in political affairs. It is essential, however, to demythologize politics, to see politics for what it is and what it can and (p.186) cannot do and not place on it unrealistic expectations. It cannot realize the various mythic ideals that inspire different Christian communities, it cannot even reduce the tension that exists between the concrete realities of everyday life and the moral and spiritual ideals of the Kingdom of God. At best, politics can make life in this world a little more just and thus a little more bearable. (pages 185–186)
  3. Everything about [Jesus’] life, his teaching, and his death was a demonstration of a different kind of power—not just in relation to the spiritual realm and not just in relation to the ruling political authorities, but in the ordinary social dynamics of everyday life. It operated in complete obedience to God the Father, it repudiated the symbolic trappings of elitism, it manifested compassion concretely out of calling and vocation, and it served the good of all and not just the good of the community of faith. In short, in contrast to the kingdoms of this world, his kingdom manifests the power to bless, unburden, serve, heal, mend, restore, and liberate. (page 193)
Bonuses
Finally, some snippets that have special resonance for us in light of recent history (all things that happened after Hunter’s book was written):

First, one of Hunter’s observations illustrates why Brexit happened — the bureaucratic state is fundamentally non‐democratic. That is hard to handle when it is constrained by your democratic elections. How much harder must it be when the bureaucracy stands above your electoral process as it does in the EU?

The state, by contrast, is where the real power resides. The state is a massive, relatively autonomous bureaucratic organization whose purpose is to administer innumerable discrete tasks that make the regime function. Decisions made are filtered through numerous, often unrelated bureaus staffed by professionals who have their own autonomous (and nondemocratic) decision‐making authority. The tasks the state undertakes may be influenced by ideals or values provided by the political class, but those tasks do not embody those ideals.  (page 170)
And I thought this was a timely insight in light of the events in Charlottesville:
There is a basis in fact for the claims made by each of these groups. Yet an identity rooted in resentment and hostility is an inherently weak identity precisely because it is established negatively, by accentuating the boundaries between insiders and outsiders and the wrongs done by those outsiders. (page 173)
This also is germane:
The capacity to define reality varies extensively and those individuals and institutions that have more engage in a kind of “symbolic violence” (or forms of coercion that are effected without physical force) against those who have less. The ultimate expression of this symbolic violence is to so thoroughly define a situation that dissent or opposition becomes unimaginable. (page 178)

The public reaction to the president’s speech on Charlottesville is a good illustration of this. The following argument, by the way, is independent of my reaction to the events in Charlottesville — it is an attempt to show that the stuff Hunter is talking about is in the news constantly. In case you’re wondering, I preached against Nazi ideology and white supremacy in a church just this Sunday and I have said publicly since before the election I do not think Trump is fit to be president. Perhaps you agree with me, perhaps not. In either case, set your own feelings aside for a moment and consider the reaction to Trump’s statements as a sociological phenomenon. What made his perspective so outrageous? The symbolic violence Hunter describes. We live in a culture that has defined reality in such a way that his statements were outside the realm of acceptable public discourse. There is no acceptable reaction to neo‐Nazis other than immediate denunciation. Anything else is literally unimaginable. Even to say something factually true — there is hate and violence on both sides — is incomprehensible to many Americans, especially those who have been the most formed by elite institutions. If you doubt “the violence on both sides” statement, by the way, consider this article from CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/18/us/unmasking‐antifa‐anti‐fascists-hard-left/index.html

Finally, one that is relevant to you as Stanford students. Always remember that Stanford’s highest value is Stanford. I have seen the university do absolutely outrageous things to students when the administration perceived a conflict between the good of the student and the good of the university. Hunter nails it:

Studies have shown that even voluntary organizations protect their organizational interests against the interests and needs of the very members they are supposed to serve. (page 179)
Good stuff. I can’t wait to begin reading Hunter’s final essay!

To Change The World, Week Eight

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

 

This week’s chapter focuses on the neo‐Anabaptist strand in American Christianity.

When people are speaking about neo‐Anabaptists, they generally have in mind people strongly influenced by theologians like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwaus. They are best known for their commitment to pacifism, their focus on the problem of poverty and the need for justice, and their skepticism of non‐church entities such as the state and the market — sort of a baptized blend of socialist and libertarian thought.

Hunter summarizes their basic critique of the church’s relation to culture like so:

“The problem today is that the American church is caught up in a dual allegiance to both Christ and the political economy of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism. Loyalty to this political economy is nothing less than idolatry.” (page 155)

And their pacifism is not just about non‐warfare. It is usually much broader than that.

“For neo‐Anabaptists, pacifism is the fundamental mark of Christian discipleship and the central ethical teaching of the gospel.… Anabaptists, of course, are perhaps best known historically for their pacifism in wartime. Yet war is not the central problematic but violence itself—broadly defined. This is why the state figures so prominently within the Anabaptist imagination. The state is the locus of self‐legitimating violence and its very existence is defined by the exercise (or the threat of exercise) of coercion. Its power is always manifestly or latently coercive.” (pages 158, 159)

If that sounds awesome to you, you’re probably wondering why you’ve never heard of this perspective before. There’s a good reason:

[Neo‐Anabaptism] is mainly known through its intellectual apologias; it plays out more in theology than in practice, more in political sensibilities than in institutional structures.” (page 150)

This seems almost inevitable given the instincts of neo‐Anabaptist Christians. In Neo‐Anabaptists and the Benedict Option, Jake Meador summarizes the predicament well:

To begin, the obvious problem for any religious tradition that defines itself in such essential opposition to the government but also, increasingly out of necessity, the modern market, is that if you preach repentance to Caesar (or the Wolf of Wall Street) and they say “OK, I repent,” you don’t know what to tell them.

I once read an essay which claimed you could understand most of the problems in the modern world if you simply grasped that Muslims do not know how to exist as a minority and Christians do not know how to exist as a majority. This latter point is what Meador is driving at. The neo‐Anabaptists are good at critiquing existing structures but less skilled at crafting superior structures.

The neo‐Anabaptists claim their message is prophetic but in its net effect (that is, in what people both inside and outside of the tradition hear), it is overwhelmingly a message of anger, disparagement, and negation. (page 165)

As a Pentecostal, I found this bit interesting:

The concept of “principalities and powers” bears some further reflection because of its importance to the neo‐Anabaptist tradition. The concept refers to the institutional or systemic patterns of thought, behavior, and relationship that govern our lives and the spiritual realm that animates them. They were originally part of the created order and as such, were good. They were intended to mediate the creative purposes of God in the world, but like us they are now fallen. Rather than reflecting truth, they became adversaries of the truth. Rather than serving the aim of human flourishing, they came to dominate, coerce, and enslave humankind by claiming for themselves absolute power. They are “the rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:6). The power they wield is, at its source and in its consequences, demonic in character. (page 157)

Whether you consider yourself conservative or liberal, I encourage you to carefully reflect on these last three chapters (on the religious right, the religious left, and the neo‐Anabaptists), seeking to gain sympathy for the positions you shy away from.

Which reminds me: I forgot to send the Christian critique of liberalism with last week’s readings. Sorry! Read the linked essay “The Problem With Liberalism” by J. Budziszewski, a Christian political philosopher at the University of Texas. In case you missed it, I sent his companion essay on conservatism with the chapter notes two weeks ago. My hope is that these critiques by Budziszewski will complement the readings from Hunter so that whether you lean left or right you’ll both find a chapter that describes your views fairly while also encountering a thoughtful critique of your tribe.

To Change The World, Week Seven

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

I thought Hunter’s chapter on the religious left wasn’t as strong as his chapter on the religious right, although I appreciated that he highlighted the long history of a politically‐engaged religious left. I am baffled when people act as though the politicization of the faith is exclusively a problem of the right. The religious left is FAR more political than the religious right. It’s not even close. It is not unusual to hear overtly political sermons in religious left congregations whereas it is vanishingly rare to hear political sermons in a religious right congregation.

Something to keep in mind is that neither the religious left nor the religious right are above the partisanship that dominates America.

Given the resources of the Democratic Party and the special interests that drive it, there is little question that progressive Christianity is instrumentalized (or used as a means to an end) by the Democratic Party in its quest for power, just as conservative Christianity has been used for quite some time by the Republican Party. (page 148)

Hunter explain what he considers to be the driving force of progressive politics: a particular conception of justice illustrated by the French Revolution’s call for liberty, equality, and fraternity.

The key word in the progressive lexicon, and arguably the paramount virtue, is justice. Justice, though, is defined as economic equity — the equality component. Within the contemporary left, there is a tension between the communitarian wing and the social libertarian wing, and the dividing line is far from clearcut. Over the course of the last two centuries, liberalism has had less to say about “fraternity,” though socialism has made this a central part of its agenda. In (p.133) contemporary America, most secular progressives define the “liberty” component in terms of individual autonomy and the freedom to choose one’s own lifestyle; that is, in terms of sexual identity and practice, relationships, entertainment, and so on. But religiously oriented progressives, Christians among them, tend to lean toward the communitarian side of this divide. For these, liberty is understood largely as liberation; often enough this means freedom for individuals and communities from poverty caused by economic domination and exploitation of the wealthy. As to community itself (the “fraternity” component), it is the idea of solidarity among equals — across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class. (page 132–133)

 

Hunter mentions that the religious left has less visibility now than in the past, but I think his description doesn’t do justice to the extent of the mainline collapse. These denominations are imploding at a crazy rate. Researcher Ed Stetzer puts it this way, “If the data continues along the same pattern, mainline Protestants have an expiration date when both trend lines cross zero in 2039. If the trend line continues, they have 23 Easters left.” (source)

Read that last sentence again. It’s stunning.

Those on the left and the right disagree about the reasons for the demise of the once‐strong denominations. I think Rodney Stark put it well:

“The wreckage of the former Mainline denominations is strewn upon the shoal of a modernist theology that began to dominate the Mainline seminaries early in the nineteenth century. This theology presumed that advances in human knowledge had made faith outmoded… Eventually, Mainline theologians discarded nearly every doctrinal aspect of traditional Christianity.” (from America’s Blessings)

So due to their weakness, organizations on the religious left were not taken seriously by politicians and academics as they had once been.

Their political advocacy was also mostly ignored until the Republican presidential win in 2004. It was only then that the Democratic Party, for many decades tone‐deaf to faith, recognized that it would not mobilize the American public and win elections until it learned to use the language and grammar of faith that has always informed the values and beliefs of most Americans. The problem was that most Democrats have been uncomfortable using the language of faith. From across the Democratic Party, many called for “soul‐searching” and internal reform that would address the so‐called God‐gap.

I am sure at the time Hunter wrote this it seemed that the Democrats had learned the importance of welcoming people of faith, but although Barack Obama’s campaign did this very well Hilary Clinton’s campaign did this outrageously poorly. This is ironic because I believe Hilary Clinton to be far more personally pious than Barack Obama.

Emma Green interviewed Michael Wear about this in the Atlantic “Democrats Have A Religion Problem

“Barack Obama was the perfect transitional president from the old party to the new. He could speak in religious terms in a way that most white, secular liberals were not willing to confront him on. He “got away with” religious language and outreach that would get other Democratic politicians more robust critiques from the left. He was able to paper over a lot of the religious tensions in the party that other, less skilled politicians will not be able to paper over.”

An even more illuminating read is by Ruth Graham at Slate: “Why Hillary Clinton Bombed With White Evangelical Voters” -

This election cycle, Christianity Today made multiple attempts to request an interview with Hillary Clinton, according to Kate Shellnutt, an editor there. The campaign never responded. Of course, campaigns turn down interview requests all the time. But the Clinton campaign was the only one that didn’t reply at all. And this wasn’t the only sign this year that the Democratic candidate had no interest in speaking to evangelical Christians. She spent little energy explaining her views on abortion to them and little time talking about religious freedom. She didn’t hire a full‐time faith outreach director until June and had no one focused specifically on evangelical outreach. She didn’t give a major speech to the evangelical community and never met publicly with evangelical leaders. Religious publications reaching out to her campaign with questions were frequently met with silence. Some evangelical insiders are now asking: Why didn’t Hillary Clinton even try to get us to vote for her?

And in a candidate for understatement of the decade:

“For all of the diversity one can find among progressives, one of the central catalysts of solidarity over the years has been their hostility to the leaders, organizations, ideology, and agenda of the Christian Right.” (page 139)

This is true of my friends on the religious left. Their anger at the religious right is a thing to behold. From afar. I am convinced that some of them are quite prepared to punch you in the name of tolerance.

Again, I thought this chapter was less strong (although I imagine the information in it was newer to many of you).