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Archive for the ‘General’ Category

On pretty much every high holy day, I could say “American Christians need to recover the fullness of the wonder of . . .”: at Christmas, the appreciation of downward mobility; at Epiphany, that the doors of the kingdom of God are now flung open; on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the ethic, sacrament, and theology of the cross.

But I’ve come around to the idea that the most overlooked day, the one overlooked as a middle child, is the one we mark today: Holy Saturday, Easter Even, the Sabbath of Sabbaths.

The Ancient Creeds of the Church Catholic, and the early Litany of the Church of England, did not overlook the day: “crucified, dead and buried” say the Creeds; “by thy precious death and burial” reads the Litany. The burial is more than a beat on the way to the glorious Resurrection. It is the narrow way that leads to life.

In our self-sufficiency, we call tales of self-improvement “redemption stories” — as if a prisoner on the auction block could redeem himself from slavery. In our impatience, we heal wounds lightly, proclaim “peace” when there is no peace, and pass off resuscitation as “Resurrection.” In our desperate, shallow optimism, we grasp any set of spectacles that will allow us to overlook the vaporous nature of life under the sun.

For this constitutional impatience and self-sufficiency, the only remedy is a season of meditation upon the fact that Christ was buried. On the seventh day, God rested in the tomb. In its darkness, the body of Christ rests with nothing “but the bare hope of resurrection.”*

* Austin Farrer, The Crown of the Year: Weekly Paragraphs for the Holy Sacrament (paragraph for Lent V).

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This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

The New Testament is full of sentences that are the gospel in shorthand. I have always found this one from John (1 S John 1:5) the most striking. Not only because it directly confronts the heart of both open unbelief and Christian crankiness and fear — the suspicion that God has a sadistic and miserly side — but because this message really does run through all of Jesus’s conversation. The way of life and renovation of the heart prescribed in the gospels are amazingly difficult. And yet very often Jesus’s portrait of his happy, lavishly generous Father might make one forget the difficulty: “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

When the world slanders Jesus, or remakes him after one of its own patterns, the Christian’s impulse is often to defend his elder brother, to “set the record straight.” Commendable impulse, but wrong: the “Christ’s defender” ethos is misleading. He needs no defense, unless it be the defense of our example — that we delight in listening to our Elder Brother and learning of him.

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jeffersons-grave

Reading legislation is instructive. Occasionally it’s downright inspiring, seeing legislators laying down wise markers. Take for example the following bit of legislation authored by Jefferson, passed in January 1786 by the Virginia legislature largely through the efforts of Madison, and still in full force and effect as Virginia Code § 57-1:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested or burthened, in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

And though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that, therefore, to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind; and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

Virginia Senate Bill 41, which passed both houses of the General Assembly earlier this month, was neither so inspiring nor so sweeping as the foregoing markers laid down by Jefferson and Madison. Its addition to the Code of Virginia was perhaps not strictly necessary — its provisions being implicit in the 1786 statute quoted above, and merely a clarifying response to the Supreme Court’s constitutional redefinition of matrimony. Reading the text of SB 41, the only thing about it I found striking was how narrow and modest its provisions were.

The fact that Gov. McAuliffe vetoed it, on the other hand, indicates that the Governor doesn’t really agree with Jefferson and Madison’s Statute for Religious Freedom, and regards it (if at all) only as one might regard a curious historical artifact.

As I noted last September, the Jeffersonian/Madisonian Settlement of Religious Freedom is crumbling. If it crumbles in Virginia — the land where it was first achieved — where can it endure?

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One final word on the Wheaton controversy: Increasingly, the controversy generated around this looks to me like an attack on the right of an evangelical college to define and maintain its doctrinal boundaries. Hence the consistent accusation that Wheaton College acted from a bad (and legally suspect) motive — “enmity toward Muslims” — rather than a consistent, honorable, and legally protected one — i.e. concern for doctrinal orthodoxy.

I have not yet seen actual evidence proffered that the Wheaton administrators acted from the legally suspect motive rather than the legally protected one. No matter. If you re-publish the narrative often enough, people will believe it. Evidence not necessary.

PPS. I am grateful that at least one major newspaper, The Chicago Tribune, gets it.

 

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In my last post I took exception to Miroslav Volf’s unsupported accusation that Wheaton College’s action in placing Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave was “not about theology and orthodoxy,” but “enmity toward Muslims.”

Comes now Mr. Brian McLaren, who takes that accusation and gives it another run through the spin cycle:

The hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates – much of it spewed out to impress the “Evangelical base” of the Republican Party – seems to have swayed college administrators from their professed theology, which at Christmas should remind us all that God is in solidarity with all humanity, all creation …

Dr. Volf had set forth — with no evidence — an alleged motive for Wheaton’s action: enmity toward Muslims. Now Mr. McLaren sets forth the source of that enmity: the college administrators were “swayed . . . from their professed theology” by “the hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates.” I’m not holding my breath to see Mr. McLaren present actual evidence for that claim.

Is it so impossible to suppose that the Wheaton College administrators placed Dr. Hawkins on leave for saying “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” not because they were “swayed from . . . their professed theology,” but because — I dunno — they believed it? 

If Wheaton affirms the Incarnation — a mystery that Muslims flatly deny, and Christians adore — and then also affirms that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” Wheaton is equivocating about whether it believes in God’s supreme act of “solidarity with all humanity, all creation.”

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Recently Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science at Wheaton College, claimed that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” — a statement which, in the estimation of Wheaton’s administration, contradicted the college’s statement of faith. Dr. Hawkins, in defending the orthodoxy of her claim, cited Yale theology professor Miroslav Volf as authority. The Wheaton administration was unconvinced: it placed Dr. Hawkins on administrative leave.

This morning, Miroslav Volf himself waded into this controversy by publishing the following indictment of the Wheaton administrators:

There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. More precisely, her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.

And what, exactly, is the evidence for the charge? Volf’s essay gives none. For example, Volf provides no evidence that other Wheaton professors had claimed that “Mormons and Christians worship the same God” or “Jews and Christians worship the same God” without consequence. Nor does Volf provide direct evidence of actual enmity — e.g. inflammatory statements about Islam made by Wheaton administrators. Volf’s general statement that “[m]any Christians today see themselves at war . . . with Islam,” and his allusion to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s recent asinine comments about “ending” certain Muslims, do not count as evidence against Wheaton.

Which means that Volf is mind-reading the Wheaton administrators — and interpreting their minds by a hermeneutic of suspicion — unless the claim that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God is plainly flimsy and pretextual.

But is it? Let’s play a game of identify-that-character: Say Jack is married to a dark-eyed brunette named Jane, whose nature is reserved, and whose conversation is plain, precise and rationalist. Then say that one day, Jack bumps into his old friend Jim, and Jim congratulates Jack on marrying someone as lovely as Jane — commenting on Jane’s strawberry blond hair, bright blue eyes, gregarious nature, and expansive, vivid conversation, full of jests, half-meanings and double entendres. Would Jack be inclined to accept the man’s congratulations? Would he think, “how interesting that two perspectives on the same woman can be so different”? I doubt it. More likely, Jack would tell Jim, simply, “there must be some mistake.”

Now let’s play another round: Say there’s a another man named John, for whom the testimony “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father, full of grace and truth” is the thing that moves him to wonder and worship. Say the story of Christ being slain and raised and made alive evermore, and having the keys of Death and Hades, is the story that keeps John afloat amidst all the troubles of the world. And then say John’s friend Amaar comes along and said, “we worship the same God! But all that stuff about the Trinity and Incarnation is incoherent, polytheistic and vulgar.” Why would John’s response to Amaar be any different than Jack’s response to Jim?

If the homeliness, grittiness and fleshliness of the Incarnation, Nativity, Passion and Resurrection are essential parts of the Christian story of God and the world, and if Christians adore these mysteries and hold that they reveal the essential character of God, then Christians cannot “worship the same God” as people who flatly deny that God ever did any such things.

It isn’t hateful to say so. No daggers need be drawn over it — and the Christian story supplies plenty of reasons why the Christian should leave his dagger sheathed, or at home. Dr. Volf himself states the chief reasons at the conclusion of his article: that God “justifies the ungodly” and commands us to love our enemies.

“Enmity demands exclusivity.” But does it follow — especially in a world where God commands love to enemies — that exclusivity demands enmity?

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I have now read comments by several logicians who deny that the revelations in the recent round of ‪#‎defundPlannedParenthood‬ videos are game-changing. For the principled and philosophically consistent pro-lifer or pro-choicer, these videos shouldn’t make a difference.

To computers, maybe. Not to human beings. We do not live by logic alone.

It was one thing to think about the evils of the slave trade in the abstract — quite another to see the tiny boxes in the slave ships into which living men, women and children were packed like sardines, or to catch even a whiff of the excrement and vomit they were made to lay in for weeks. It was one thing to read the “Final Solution” — quite another to walk through the camps at Flossenbürg or Dachau in 1945. It was one thing to read Plessy v. Ferguson and Jim Crow laws on a printed page — quite another to witness a lynching, or the burning of a black church, or Bull Connor’s attack dogs tearing into civil rights protesters.

And it is one thing to listen to Planned Parenthood profess concern for “reproductive rights” and bemoan “heavily edited” videos — quite another to hear its own officers and abortionists talk breezily over lunch of altering a baby’s presentation from vertex to breech in order to extract intact heads.

And to bring this, finally, up to the seventh video: It is one thing to hear someone testify “they have cut brains from the skulls of babies,” quite another to hear someone confess “I have done it.”

Abstract principles are not bad per se. But you have to take a good hard look at any principle’s real-world effects to evaluate it accurately. It would have been possible, theoretically, for slave traders to treat Africans “humanely” in the Middle Passage. You could say even that it might have been wiser to do so, because they would then have delivered more living, healthy slaves to the West Indies and the shores of New England. But the slavers didn’t — because the principle that “it’s okay to kidnap African men and women and treat them as chattels” trained them to do otherwise. Dostoevsky wrote that “man grows used to everything, the scoundrel.” Barbaric principles will reveal themselves, sooner or later, by begetting practices that are correspondingly and visibly barbaric.

Procrustes seems hospitable and tidy when he talks of making sure guests and beds are well suited to one another. And then you look at the amputated limbs. Planned Parenthood’s long-faced statements about health, rights and “not in her shoes” have an appearance of compassion and moral seriousness — but its practices have now been revealed as unmistakably callous and Procrustean. When you catechize a generation in the question-begging sophistry, obscurantism, and individual-autonomy absolutism of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, this is the harvest. The tree is known by its fruits.

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