Being on God’s Side without Knowing It
Friday, June 8, 2012, 3:35 PM

Luther Gasoline 300x168 Being on Gods Side without Knowing It

Luther: "So many times I’ve tried to help people by doing things that I shouldn’t have done, and it’s only made it worse."

Over at the website for Comment magazine, run by the fine folks at the Canadian think tank Cardus, I have a piece on the BBC drama “Luther,” which focuses on the trials and travails of DCI John Luther (played by the very talented Idris Elba).

The point of departure for the essay, “Get Your Hands Dirty: The Vocational Theology of Luther,” is, well, just how Lutheran DCI Luther is. I don’t mean that in any straightforward way. There’s little religiosity in the series, although as with any good fiction it does deal seriously with the realities and messiness of the moral order and the permanent things.

No, John Luther is “Lutheran” in the very unconventional sense that he fulfills a kind of sacrificial calling, not toward salvation in any ultimate sense, but certainly in at least a temporal and transitory way. One of the taglines for the series is: “What if you were on the devil’s side without knowing it?” By the same token I wonder: “What if Luther is on God’s side without knowing it?” Beyond the traditional Lutheran formula of simul iustus et peccator, I have another reason for inverting the question this way.

It’s said that the first meeting between Karl Barth and the younger Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in the context of a seminar that Barth was conducting. Barth took notice of Bonhoeffer when the latter quoted Luther’s dictum: “God would rather hear the curses of the godless than the hallelujahs of the pious.”

Well, it was a creative paraphrase, in any case. What Luther really said (LW 25:390-91) was,

For our God is not a God of impatience and cruelty, even toward the ungodly. I am saying this for the comfort of those who are perpetually troubled by thoughts of blasphemies and are in great anxiety; since such blasphemies, because they are violently extorted from men by the devil against their will, they sometimes sound more pleasant in the ear of God than a hallelujah or some kind of hymn of praise. For the more horrible and foul the blasphemy, the more agreeable it is to God, if the heart knows that it does not will this, because the heart did not produce it or choose it.

So at least one of the analogues in Luther’s own work isn’t about the “godless” at all. But for a long time I have struggled with Bonhoeffer’s paraphrase.

I think in DCI John Luther we see an aspect of what Bonhoeffer’s paraphrase might be taken to mean. Even the godless fulfill God’s purpose, and indeed, especially in the case of the civil authorities, are tools God uses to maintain order and punish evil. For Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought, the idea of “vicarious representative action” (Stellvertretung) is central. In DCI Luther, we see a secular image of what a broken and impartial reflection of such action might look like.

This aspect of the series reminds me of the “scapegoat” motif that can be found in such contemporary works as The Hunger Games trilogy. As Rev. Robert Barron noted in that context, “at the heart of Christian revelation is God’s utter identification, not with the perpetrators of violence, but with the scapegoated victim. The crucified Jesus is hence the undermining of the dynamic that has undergirded most civilizations and that continues to beguile the human imagination to this day.”

Even the godless, then, who curse the injustice they see in the world and sacrificially work against it in their own small, imperfect, and incomplete ways, might in some limited way be on “God’s side without knowing it.”

Quebec Student Protests at 100 Days
Tuesday, May 22, 2012, 8:59 PM

Over the next couple of weeks I have the pleasure of visiting the beautiful city of Montreal, Quebec. I’m teaching a course on Christian ethics and contemporary culture at Farel Reformed Theological Seminary, located in the heart of downtown Montreal. Ahead of my time here I had attempted to at least superficially familiarize myself with some of the recent local news.

One of the stories that has dominated news, not just in Quebec and Canada but has even received coverage more broadly, are the student strikes in Quebec. The Canadian think tank Cardus has helped me to keep abreast of some of the developments. Today, Cardus’ Peter Stockland wrote,

This is a province in the grip of reactionary progressives afflicted with severe intellectual and institutional sclerosis. Their malaise prevents any proposals for change from being given fair hearing, much less a chance of being put into play. Real change, not merely revolutionary play-acting, is anathema in this province.

Stockland is writing within the context of the 100th day of the student strike over “modestly higher annual tuition fees” at the college level in Quebec. This is, of course, an enormously complex phenomenon with important history and local context that I could not hope to understand from skimming a few headlines and visiting here for a couple of weeks.

When seeing a story like this, for instance, in which protesters broke up classes after which “professors fled,” you have to take into account that there are student unions that authorized a strike. This certainly does not legitimize violent behavior or intimidation, what Stockland calls “violent, bully boy tactics.”

But I did have a chance to see some of the protests firsthand today, which were perfectly timed by the students to disrupt the city’s rush hour traffic this afternoon. They were essentially marching around a number of city block preventing cars from moving.

And over at the Acton Institute PowerBlog, I do take the liberty of musing on whether striking over the cost of higher education is the inevitable end of the logic of the welfare state.

Strange Maps of the Past
Tuesday, May 15, 2012, 11:43 AM

Tarald Rasmussen Strange Maps of the PastLast week I was at the second annual RefoRC (Reformation Research Consortium) conference hosted by the theology faculty at the University of Oslo. Tarald Rasmussen of Oslo gave a plenary, “The Uses of Comparative Methods in Reformation History,” which argued persuasively for historical approaches that are not limited to merely national interests, particularly defined in terms of contemporary national identity. The test case he focused on was that of early modern Scandanavia, and Rasmussen showed the benefits of more regional rather than nationalist perspectives.

One of the challenges, of course, is to find support for such research agendas when national or state agencies are the primary source of funding. But Rasmussen also made clear that there are analogous intellectual topographies to those we usually think of mapping, like national boundaries and geographical features. We run into ideological understandings of history that are anachronistic in a similar way, looking for the history of a particular idea or construction that is uniquely contemporary, and did not exist in the same way in the past.

A New Series for Students
Tuesday, May 1, 2012, 7:44 AM

I just received note of the first volume of a new series of student’s guides from Crossway, “The Christian Intellectual Tradition” series, described as “a series of reader-friendly guidebooks for Christian students.” The inaugural volume is, The Great Tradition of Christian Thinking: A Student’s Guide, by David Dockery and Timothy George.

Forthcoming volumes include offerings from Touchstone friends Hunter Baker (Political Thought) and Louis Markos (Literature), as well as David K. Naugle (Philosophy). I had a chance to offer an endorsement for Hunter’s book, and if it is representative of the rest of the series then these will serve as excellent introductory volumes to decisively Christian thought on a variety of pressing subjects. Be sure to check them out.

Chuck Colson’s Last Interview
Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 11:33 AM

Amid the many ongoing and worthwhile remembrances of Chuck Colson’s life and legacy, I thought I’d pass along this moving feature on Chuck’s transformative experience in prison, in his own words.

This is the last full interview that Chuck gave (September 2011) before his death, and in his own words we can see how he came to see prisoners as human beings, people who were just “like I am.” In prison Chuck met not mere criminals, but “human beings who had committed crimes.”

I found this video to be extremely moving, and to have provided some depth of insight into Chuck’s story that I hadn’t experienced before. Take the time to watch it and share it with your friends and family.

You can find out more about this feature, “Like I Am,” here.

The Audacity of Satan
Tuesday, April 10, 2012, 12:45 PM

Satan had the audacity to quote Scripture at Jesus during their encounter in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11):

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Like any good heretic, however, Satan didn’t bother to consider the quote in context. The very next line of Psalm 91 reads, “You will tread on the lion and the cobra; / you will trample the great lion and the serpent.” It’s a verse that hearkens back to the very beginning of Satan’s temptations, to the promise in the midst of the curse in Genesis 3:15: “He will crush your head, / and you will strike his heel.”

Maybe Satan was suffering from selective amnesia, or was just testing Jesus to see if he really was the Messiah. Whatever it was, Jesus answered Satan’s audacity in kind: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Our Sins, His Wounds
Thursday, April 5, 2012, 9:49 AM

Psalm 89:30-33 reads,

If his children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my rules,
if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with stripes,
but I will not remove from him my steadfast love
or be false to my faithfulness.

Isaiah 53:4-5 reads,

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.

The Psalms text leaves it indeterminate who the object of punishment for the iniquity of the children will be. We might assume it would be the children themselves.

But as the passage from Isaiah makes clear, whatever punishments for sin God places upon the sinners themselves (and as Augustine observes, sin is its own punishment), it is ultimately Jesus Christ, the servant who suffers, who bears the punishment, the stripes and the wounds by which we are healed.

By our sins he is wounded, and by his wounds we are healed.

Charting the Mainline Ecumenical Decline
Tuesday, March 13, 2012, 1:50 PM

As Baylor University professor Thomas S. Kidd writes in his review of Mark Tooley’s Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century, “Politicized faith is a key historic ingredient in denominational decline.” A few years ago Joseph Bottum penned an essay exploring some of the reasons behind the decline of the mainline as well as some of the implications for America’s common life, “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline.”

I think we could safely propose a version of that connection with regard to the ecumenical movement as well, and say that politicized faith is a key historic ingredient in ecumenical decline. After the jump is a piece from ENI outlining the hope for an “ecumenical spring” amid the downward spiral of mainline ecumenical institutions. As an of the decline, “The National Council of Churches (NCC), the flagship agency of ecumenism, has shrunk from some 400 staffers in its heyday in the 1960s to fewer than 20.”

In many ways the mainline ecumenical bodies, whether at the national or global level, have functioned as kinds of super-denominational bureaucracies, providing a thin veneer of catholicity to the denominations on which they depend. I examine recent trends in the politicization of ecumenical social witness on the global scale in my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. Toward the end of that book I muse on the decline of mainline ecumenical bodies, observing with William Temple that “nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which are not part of the official system of the Church at all.” Thus, I contend,

there is also a kind of mere ecumenism that is a basic feature of the twofold reality of the church as institution and organism. When Christians from different denominations and traditions, outside of the institutional church, have conversations and dialogue, engage in forms of prayer and worship, and do works of charity and justice together, they are engaging in meaningful ecumenical endeavors.

Indeed, “the hope for a vigorous, effective, and obedient ecumenical social witness is not coextensive with the institutional ecumenical movement itself.” And so the decline of the mainline ecumenical movement might portend the death of the body, but certainly not of the soul, of Christian ecumenism.

What you’ll likely see is that some of these groups become defunct while others hang on, but that there will be little in terms of substantive reform. It is unfortunately much more likely that ecumenical institutions become more politicized and not less as the end nears. If the corollary to Kidd’s observations about the mainline denominational decline holds true for the ecumenical movement, then ecumenical activism around the Circle of Protection or Obamacare, for instance, would be symptomatic of a sickly, rather than a vigorous, ecumenical social witness.

Twenty Questions and Ten Categories
Monday, March 5, 2012, 3:31 PM

One of the games I play with my son as I drive him to school is “Twenty Questions.” It struck me the other day while we were playing this game how necessary it is to be able to think in terms of “kind” when playing. I’m having to teach him to ask scholastic questions first to narrow things down: “Does it exist (An sit?),” “What is it (Quid sit?),” and, “Of what sort is it (Qualis sit?).”

I was having a bit of trouble early on, because he insisted on using all his question to guess particulars: “Is it our dog?” (No.) “Is it my sister?” (No.) And so on. In order for the game to work, you have to move from the general to the particular…you can’t start at the level of the particular and win. There are just way more than twenty possible particulars. (There was just that one time when I was trying to make it easy on him and guessed it on the first try.)

This experience speaks to the necessity of human thinking in terms of genus, species, and so on, defined by something along the lines of Aristotle’s Ten Categories. It doesn’t on its own answer the debates about the reality (or lack thereof) of immanent forms, of course.

But at least one way of reading the Genesis account of human existence before the Fall indicates that not only must we think in these kinds of ways, but also that this manner of thinking corresponds to the way things really are. As Abraham Kuyper writes in his essays on common grace in science and art:

In our current situation we can arrive at the knowledge of things only by observation and analysis. But that is not how it was in paradise. For we read that God brought the animals to Adam, and that when he first saw them, Adam immediately perceived the nature of these animals in such a way that he immediately gave them names (Gen. 2:18-20). Naturally this cannot mean that when each animal paraded past him, Adam simply uttered a sound that had no sense or meaning. Imagine that someone carried two- or three-hundred suitcases past you, and that when you saw each of these suitcases, one after the other, you invented a sound, without purpose or sense. Long before the hundredth suitcase came by, you would have forgotten the name you had given the first one.

What purpose was served by Adam naming the animals? Eve was not there yet. No one heard him. This story makes sense, then, only if you realize that Adam immediately perceived the nature of each animal, and expressed his insight into the animal’s nature by giving it a name corresponding to its nature.

320px Fresco0001 Twenty Questions and Ten Categories
Kuyper goes on to explore the implications of the Fall and what that means for human pursuit of knowledge via science. But I find his explanation of that episode in Genesis 2 rather compelling, and it speaks to the inherent realism of the created order. Or as Kuyper puts it elsewhere in the essays, “A thought of God constitutes the core of the essence of things, and it was primarily this thought of God that prescribes for created things their manner of existence, their form, their principle of life, their destiny, and their progress.”

Consider the delicious implications for understanding of theology as “thinking God’s thoughts after him”!

Gambling, Lotteries, and Social Justice
Tuesday, February 21, 2012, 12:01 PM

Albert Mohler and Russell Moore have recently come out quite strongly (perhaps as you might expect) on the question of gambling, particularly with respect to expansion of gambling as a source of revenue for economically-depressed states.

Moore argues that although gambling is a complex phenomenon, it isn’t one that can be simply viewed as a personal and not a social and political problem: “Gambling is a social justice issue that defines how it is that we love our neighbors and uphold the common good.” Mohler focuses especially on the “casino culture,” and the entanglements of state interest (perhaps a form of corporatism) in casino profits : “The worst aspect of the casino culture is not just that the state has decided to prey on its own citizens, but that it has decided to do so with gusto.”

I don’t really disagree with much, if anything really, in the analysis in either piece.

But I would first say that the best example of the state deciding to prey upon its own citizens would be in the state promotion and monopoly of lotteries, which aim to turn gambling into a kind of civic virtue (which I have argued previously here, here, and here). Lotteries are the most obvious example of “state-empowered” gambling there is.

And secondly I would say that it is not so obviously clear to me that gambling in all its forms and in all instances is a clear moral evil. Obviously institutionalized gambling in many cases has created a structural evil that has many negative consequences that both Mohler and Moore outline.

As with so many things, the question comes down to where to draw the legal line regarding things that are presumably immoral, or at least questionable, knowing as we do that we live this side of the eschaton. As Moore puts it, “Of course conservative Christians don’t support gambling because they see gambling as immoral, so they want it illegal.” He proceeds to argue that the best opposition to gambling is achieved through cultural, and not primarily political means.

There’s another advantage to this approach beyond its long-term efficacy and its responsible approach to engaging the various aspects of human social life. And this advantage is that if you are actually wrong about the moral status of the thing in question, you haven’t improperly used the coercive force of government to turn something that is, at least in some cases, morally permissible into something that is illegal.

Consider in this light the rather balanced assessment of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2413): “Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.”

In this sense I certainly concur with Mohler that the governing consideration must be moral and not merely economic. As he puts it, “In the final analysis, the greatest danger posed by the casino is not anything that can be determined by economic analysis, because the greatest injury caused by gambling is not financial — it is moral.” We have to bring to bear the Christian categories of stewardship, justice, and the common good in order to make informed judgments about complicated matters like gambling in its various forms.

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