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.
(more…)



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.



Catholics Split: If True, So What?
Friday, February 10, 2012, 7:19 AM

The media continues to show just how tone deaf it is to religion in the recent coverage surrounding the HHS mandate concerning religious organizations and health insurance. This piece from NPR’s Morning Edition today is representative: “Catholics Split Over Obama Contraceptive Order.”

One of the things we began hearing right away was that the position of the bishops is undermined because Catholics already use contraception. According to the NPR piece, “98 percent of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lifetimes.” And the latest poll to be trotted out has to do not with behavior but with attitudes: “A new survey by Public Policy Polling shows that a narrow majority of Catholic voters think women employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have access to contraceptive coverage through their health plans.” Even assuming the validity of the results of these kinds of polls, such arguments fundamentally misunderstand the nature of religious doctrine, particularly as expressed in the Roman Catholic Church. Allow me, as an evangelical who shares the sentiments of so many others like Chuck Colson, Timothy George, Richard Land, and Rick Warren about the solidarity that we must show in this matter, to make a couple of observations in this regard.

First, the fact that many Catholics have at one point not lived up to the teachings of the church regarding contraception is no evidence that the teaching is wrong, irrelevant, or appropriately ignored. It just is evidence that Catholics, like the rest of us, aren’t perfect and go astray…”all we like sheep.”

And second, as to the attitudes of the laity, this is again irrelevant in the context of church teaching. The Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy, and the opinion of the majority does not determine the truth value of church teaching. So what if Callie Otto, a student at CUA, thinks the bishops are “wrong” and that they should “back down” so that the president “doesn’t have so much pressure”? (You actually have to listen to hear the inflection as she utters these words. Reading them on your screen just won’t do. You have to hear the self-righteous, patronizing tone of her voice. She sounds like a typical sophomore know-it-all.)

As long as news outlets continue to assume that this is merely a political issue and treat it as such, the real scale of the Obama administration’s overreach will continue to elude them.



Obama and Metaxas Compared and Contrasted
Tuesday, February 7, 2012, 1:04 PM

Over at Christianity Today, Sarah Pulliam Bailey highlights supposed similarities between the talks given by Eric Metaxas and President Obama at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast:

Author Eric Metaxas and President Barack Obama made similar addresses with different emphases during the National Prayer Breakfast’s 60th anniversary, both noting a religious motivation to “care for the least of these” and concern of “phony religiosity” while standing on different positions politically.

Obama’s remarks partly mirrored Metaxas when talking about mutual respect, though the two part ways on the issue of abortion.

But over at The Corner, I think Mark Joseph correctly notes the radical dissimilarities between their talks, such as the disconnect between characteristics of “phony religiosity” (Metaxas), including using the Bible as a weapon, and the president’s interpretation and application of Scripture to contemporary tax code debates.

If the organizers of the national prayer breakfast ever want a sitting president to attend their event again, they need to expect that any leader in his right mind is going to ask — no, demand — that he be allowed to see a copy of the keynote address that is traditionally given immediately before the president’s.

That’s how devastating was the speech given by a little known historical biographer named Eric Metaxas, whose clever wit and punchy humor barely disguised a series of heat-seeking missiles that were sent, intentionally or not, in the commander-in-chief’s direction.



Mollie Hemingway on the Church of Planned Parenthood
Monday, February 6, 2012, 10:24 AM

Joe Carter noted here last week that Russell Moore described Planned Parenthood as a thrall of Mammon. GetReligion contributor and Christianity Today columnist Mollie Hemingway has this to say about the coverage of Planned Parenthood in the context of the last few week’s of religion reporting:

But this week? Whoa. If you thought that the media were irreligious, you were proved wrong. They couldn’t be more religious. It’s just that their church is Planned Parenthood. Their sacrament is abortion. Any attack against their church, such as Susan G. Komen’s decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood, has been met with the most fervent defense of the faith I’ve ever seen. Never mind that Planned Parenthood doesn’t even do mammograms. Never mind that the money in question is a small fraction of either organization’s budget.

As I said before, I think we’re mistaken if we think Planned Parenthood and the abortion culture is just about “profit motive.” We are dealing with true believers.



Politics, Prooftexting, and the Prayer Breakfast
Friday, February 3, 2012, 11:59 AM

Joe noted today some furor over President Obama’s invocation of Luke 12:48 (“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.”) to justify an increasingly progressive tax code at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast (over at the Acton PowerBlog I write how glad I am that the president stopped reading at Luke 12. Imagine what a tax code based on Luke 19:24-26 would look like!).

By all accounts Eric Metaxas brought down the house with his talk, although from watching the speech online, it seemed to me that it took the crowd a little bit to warm up to him. This says more about the crowd’s stodginess than the merits of his speech, though.

One of the things Metaxas contrasted was “dead religion” with living faith in Jesus Christ. Dead religion, Pharisaism, and legalism use the Bible as a political weapon, he said. Did he have something like the comments from the president in mind?

Now as my friend Joseph Sunde notes, the president did add a caveat to his statement about the tax code by quoting C.S. Lewis: “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another.” Joseph calls that “a flat out contradiction of the entire first half of Obama’s address, in which, as detailed above, he methodically explains how his redistributionist schemes are consistent with Biblical teaching.”

Part of the question turns on how strongly you think the president was in his use of Scripture. It’s one thing to say that something is consistent with the Bible; it’s quite another to say that something is mandated by the explicit teaching of the Bible. Here’s some broader context from President Obama’s remarks:

But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required”… To answer the responsibility we’re given in Proverbs to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” … Treating others as you want to be treated. Requiring much from those who have been given so much. Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need.



Heine’s Advice to France
Wednesday, January 25, 2012, 9:35 AM

At the conclusion of his essay, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1835), Heinrich Heine warns the French of the future conflagration that will take place within Germany: “A play will be enacted in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like a harmless idyll.”

He continues, “I advise you French, when that time comes, to keep very still and, on your life, do not applaud. We could easily misunderstand you and, in our impolite manner, ask you somewhat curtly to be quiet…. Take care! I mean well with you and therefore I tell you a bitter truth. You have more to fear from a liberated Germany than from the entire Holy Alliance including all Croats and Cossacks.”

He writes that what little love for the French there is among Germans is held by “the better and more beautiful half of the German people. And even if this half actually loved you, it is the half which does not carry weapons, and whose friendship therefore does you little good.”

In conclusion, he reiterates the warning:

In any case, I advise you to stay on your toes. Let happen in Germany what will… always be prepared, remain calmly at your post, rifle in arm. I mean well with you, and it almost gave me a fright when I heard recently that your ministers intend to disarm France.

Since you are born classicists, despite your present-day romanticism, you know Olympus. Among the naked gods and goddesses who amuse themselves there with nectar and ambrosia, take note of one goddess who, though surrounded by such joy and amusement, always wears a suit of armor, a helmet on her head, and keeps her spear in her hand.

It is the goddess of wisdom.

The later development of “French-German enmity” would include the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and two World Wars.



A Gospel Culture of Curiosity
Monday, January 16, 2012, 2:06 PM

In Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, one of the suggestions he has for “creating a gospel culture” (ch. 10) is for Christians to get to know the history of Christ’s church. Now in your evaluation of this advice you have to take into account McKnight’s evangelical audience, many of whom will be highly skeptical about positive assessments of church history. One of the major criticisms I have of the book, in fact, is McKnight’s treatment and evaluation of the Reformation and its legacy (full disclosure: I’m a Reformed theologian and a Reformation historian).

But aside from the particular disputes about this or that era or this or that particular figure, McKnight’s got the right instinct about what is lacking in the largely a-historical evangelical approach to the Bible. The remedy need not simply be an embrace of Tradition with a capital T, although many converts to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy find this embrace compelling. But the remedy must at minimum include a knowledge of those who have gone before, especially perhaps (but not exclusively) those who have gone before in your own tradition. As McKnight writes, “We need more of us to be curious about our ancestors.”

I’ve had the distinct privilege of being involved with a project devoted to bringing to light some of the many primary sources and writers from the early modern era, the Post-Reformation Digital Library. I’ve described the project at Mere Comments before, but this last fall we went public with a major new upgrade of the site. We are now approaching 2,500 authors from a variety of ecclesiastical and theological traditions. The ability to search the site for early modern works in English makes the site potentially useful not just for specialized scholars of the early modern period but also for those laypeople who want to dig in to some of the primary documents of our ancestors.



Calvin and the Pope Agree on Occupy Wall Street
Wednesday, November 9, 2011, 2:22 PM

First the Vatican and now Geneva's own John Calvin are claimed to be kindred spirits with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The former claim comes via the Center for American Progress. The latter comes from the World Communion of Reformed Churches.

More here and here, respectively.

Update: "It will encourage a revival of the Catholic Left, which will do nothing to solve our current problems and only suggest solutions that would make them worse." –Peter Berger on "Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary System in the Context of Global Public Authority."


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