Were The Founding Fathers Divinely Inspired?

Were America’s founding fathers divinely inspired? Glenn Beck says yes. That’s an astounding claim. Especially when thrown out comprehensively. As a Christian I’d say the Apostle Paul was divinely inspired when he wrote the Epistle to the Romans, but not in everything he said or did. I watched this wondering what back meant. The other thing that was funny about this segment is the founders Beck points to in the picture to his left: Washington, Franklin and Samuel Adams. Now Samuel Adams was an orthodox New England Calvinist, but Washington and Franklin were both deists. While Washington attended Anglican services regularly, he never was confirmed and never took communion. This was a common practice among Anglicans with deistic sympathies and low christologies. His Freemasonry seems to have made him sympathetic to what we might call today religious pluralism. Franklin was an “out” deist who didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ, the resurrection or the doctrine of the Trinity. I wonder why Beck wouldn’t put up pictures of James Madison or John Witherspoon, both orthodox Calvinists, alongside Samuel Adams. All that being said, the theology of Washington and Franklin is not all that significant to me when evaluating their political achievements. They were brilliant, courageous, visionary men who deserve our gratitude and heart-felt respect. But why do they have to be divinely inspired? And would that make them authoritative sources for faith and life, which as an orthodox Christian I take Holy Scripture to be?

Dealing Honestly With Slavery

Henry Louis Gates set off what is sure to be a heated discussion about slavery and reparations with his Op-Ed piece entitled “Ending The Slavery Blame Game”, which appeared last Friday in the NY Times. In addition to dealing with heinous acts committed in the past by the United States and European colonial powers, Gates insists we must grapple with the role that Africans played in the slave trade:

…that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. These included the Akan of the kingdom of Asante in what is now Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern Angola and the Kongo of today’s Congo, among several others…The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred. Advocates of reparations for the descendants of those slaves generally ignore this untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade, choosing to believe the romanticized version that our ancestors were all kidnapped unawares by evil white men, like Kunta Kinte was in “Roots.” The truth, however, is much more complex: slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European buyers and African sellers alike.

In a recent open response to Gates, University of Illinois Professor Barbara Ransby openly challenges Gates, pointing out what she sees as his use of revisionist history:

Professor Gates’ selective storytelling and slanted use of history paints a very different picture than does the collective scholarship of hundreds of historians over the last fifty years or so.  A learned man who commands enormous resources and unparalleled media attention, why would Gates put this argument forward so vehemently now?  It is untimely at best.  At a time when ill-informed and self-congratulatory commentaries about how far America has come on the race question, abound, Gates weighs in to say, we can also stop “blaming” ourselves (‘ourselves’ meaning white Americas or their surrogates) for slavery.  The burden of race is made a little bit lighter by Gates’ revisionist history. It is curious that the essay appears at the same time that we not only see efforts to minimize the importance of race or racism, but at a moment when there is a rather sinister attempt to rewrite the antebellum era as the good old days of southern history.  Virginia Governor Bob McConnell went so far as to designate a month in honor of the pro-slavery Confederacy….  As we know, ideas have consequences. And misleading narratives that fuel and validate new forms of denial and given cover to resurgent forms of racism should not be taken lightly.

Both pieces are sure to be the source of controversy and spirited debate. However one weighs the arguments of these two prominent American intellectuals, we ought to be thankful for their mutual willingness to engage in frank, honest and thoughtful open reflection on race. It’s something we need much more of in American public life.

Click here for a copy of Professor Ransby’s essay.

The Quest for a Carnal Theology

It’s funny, I am sitting in the lobby of Union Theological Seminary, having come up here from Princeton Theological Seminary, reading a reflection about theological study at Yale Divinity School in the early 80’s. In it Rusty Reno talks about the joys of discovering Michael Wyschogrod in his graduate student days:

We were all the more attracted to Wyschogrod because he spoke up for the authority of revelation when the modern Protestant tradition in which most of us had been raised had gravitated to the liberal theological project. Put simply, theological liberalism tries to distill essential, timeless teachings from the historical forms of traditional teaching, thus liberating a supposedly greater and more profound religious truth from the limitations of its historical, communally authoritative formulations and allowing for a more plastic, mobile, and critical relation to church teaching…We knew the liberal theological project had to be resisted. The church’s universal mission can tempt her to deracinate her own teachings. This temptation becomes all the more powerful in the modern era when an emerging secular culture begins to compete with the church for the intellectual loyalty of educated people. Feeling torn between two masters, modern Christians seek a third and higher set of principles, a view of Christian faith that allow us to manage the difficult relations between the doctrinal truths that church teaches and modern life.

Reno describes Wyschogrod as a Jewish Barthian. He’s not the first one to do so. But what he sees in Wyschogrod’s theology that in his mind Barth lacks is carnality:

The Body of Faith read like a Barthian “No!” to liberal theology, which had its own career in nineteenth and twentieth-century Judaism. It showed us that Jewish faith is rooted not in universalizing abstractions but in the concrete reality of the seed of Abraham and the particularity of God’s commandments, what he refers to as the “carnal election” of Israel. Wyschogrod points out that the Christian notion of the Incarnation implicit in the I am that Jesus pronounces plays a role similar to the Jewish doctrine of the election of Israel. Both say that God puts all his eggs in one basket, with Jews pointing to the Jewish people and Christians pointing to the Jewish body of Jesus on the cross. Both involve a “carnal election,” or, as he puts it elsewhere, a “carnal faith”–that line of biological descent, that man hanging on the cross…Carnal election, carnal faith–the formulations arrested us. Most of us had decided to study at Yale because the program in theology participated in the Barthian “No!” to liberal Protestant theology. Yet, for all the influence Barth exerted, in retrospect I can see that we were vaguely dissatisfied with Barthian theology. His theology certainly reflected an intense and rich affirmation of that man hanging on the cross, but there was something troublingly thin about Barth’s undoubtedly impressive achievement. He once said of Schleiermacher that the great founder of modern liberal theology tried to talk about God by talking about man in a loud voice. Perhaps we were unconsciously suspicious that Barth tried to talk about God by talking about theology in a loud voice. In a word, Barth’s voice seemed to lack “carnality.”

I might want to quibble with Rusty’s assessment of Barth, but the piece made me want to go re-read Wyschogrod.

Would Glenn Beck Call Alexander Hamilton A Progressive?

I just came across a review of Ron Chernow’s Hamilton by David Brooks. Brooks notes that Hamilton’s greatest success came as Treasury Secretary where he…

…was confronted by an economically weak and fractious nation. He nationalized the debt, binding the states together and creating the fluid capital markets that are today the engine of world capitalism. He was working at a time when many around him had an entirely static view of economics. They scorned credit, banks and stock markets, and considered manufacturing the least productive form of economic activity…Hamilton dreamed of a vibrant economy that would allow aspiring meritocrats like himself to rise and realize their full capacities. He sought to smash the aristocratic fiefs enjoyed by Southern landowners like Jefferson and to replace them with a diversified marketplace that would be open to immigrants and the lowborn. Their vigor, he felt, would drive the nation to greatness. ”Every new scene, which is opened to the busy nature of man to rouse and exert itself, is the addition of a new energy to the general stock of effort,” he wrote.

Brooks doesn’t see many contemporary heirs to the political tradition Hamilton birthed:

He started a political tradition, dormant in our own day, in which energetic government doesn’t oppose market dynamism but is organized to enhance it. Today our liberal/conservative debates tend to pit the advocates of government against the advocates of the market. Today our politics is dominated by rival strands of populism: the anticorporate populism of the Democrats and the anti-Washington populism of the Republicans. But Hamilton thought in entirely different categories. He argued that ”liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.” He wanted a limited but energetic government that would open fields of enterprise and give new directions to popular passions.

The Legacy of George W. Bush, The Next Truman?

Mark McKinnon & Myra Adams wrote a really interesting piece on the potential legacy of George W. Bush last week over at The Daily Beast. This is a must read for any progressive with a tendency to engage in Bush bashing. It’s a really thoughtful comparison between George W. Bush and Harry Truman. It’s provocative, and only time will tell if McKinnon & Adams are onto something, but it’s well worth the read.

Thinking Sensibly About Net Neutrality

John C. Dvorak wrote a really nice piece on Net Neutrality the other day, and another informative one was published in yesterday’s Op-Ed section of the NY Times. On one side of this debate there are those that advocate trust in the market, on the other are those that want to trust the government to protect us from exploitative practices of telecommunication giants. I don’t think we should trust the market or the government here. We certainly need some safeguards to stop exploitative practices that actually work against market competition rather than promoting it (for instance Verizon banning Skype on their broadband so you have to use their client for a similar service). But the F.C.C. as the internet police may be a medicine that does more harm than the disease. When I think of all the ridiculous censorship cases in radio and T.V. that occurred over the past decades, I shutter to think what will happen when these regulators get their hands on the internet. Yikes!

Is Internet Dating Conducive To Falling In Love?

bigstockphoto_cyber_love_270641More from Eva Illouz’s outstanding essay. Illouz goes on to look at the modern statement of disenchantment and what it does to romantic relationships. Our need to understand everything in terms of enlightened rationality pushes us attempt to understand the phenomenon of falling in love in largely psychological, psychoanalytic, or biological terms. These scientific explanations “undermine the view of love as an ineffable, unique, and quasi-mystical experience, ultimately undermining both its absoluteness and uniqueness.”

Love no longer becomes ineffable and mystical because when you fall in love, you’re really either reliving an early developmental psycho-drama, or you say someone that flooded you with a combination of dopamine and testosterone and host of other biochemical treats, or you’re falling prey to thousands of years of evolutionary development and your genes have told you the one in front of you is the one who can best guarantee their survival. Love falls prey to the scientific rationality just like every other sphere of life:

Scientific modes of explanation, psychological, biological, evolutionary, by their nature tend to be abstract and extraneous to the categories of felt and lived experience. In contrast, premodern religious explanations that viewed intense love as the manifestation of spirit possession or as a temporary loss of Reason still resonated with the felt experience of the subject. Scientific explanations reduce love to an epiphenomenon, a mere effect of prior causes that are unseen and unfelt by the subject, and that are neither mystical nor singular but rather located in involuntary and almost mechanical, psychic or chemical, processes. With the prevalence of scientific modes of explanation, it is difficult to hold onto the view of love as a unique, mystical, and ineffable feeling. In that sense, love has undergone the same process of disenchantment as Nature: it is no longer viewed as inspired by mysterious and grand forces but rather as a phenomenon in need of explanation and control, as a reaction determined by psychological, evolutionary, and biological laws…The overall effect of scientific interpretive frameworks on love is both deflationary and reflexive. They dethrone love of its transcendental status, making it instead a psychological or physical force, working beyond and beneath the concrete particular experiences of specific individuals. They also create a strong unreality effect,  making actors doubt love’s reality and explicitly attend to the underlying real causes for their love. [emphasis mine]

Add to all this scientific reductionism of love the phenomenon of the internet and things really get interesting, or depressing depending on your point of view.

In premodern cultures mate selection involved a lot fewer choices. Most people weren’t incredibly mobile, so they had limited partners to choose from. They often would up picking the first good candidate, with good being determined by a host of criteria including “dowry size, a candidate’s personal or family wealth and reputation, education, and family politics.” But again, with few options, the standards weren’t nearly as high, nor were the expectations of the relationship. And now…

Two main differences in the modern situation strike even the casual observer: the premodern actor looking for a mate seems a simpleton in comparison with today’s actors, who from adolescence to adulthood develop an elaborate set of criteria for the selection of a mate. Such criteria are not only social and educational, but also physical, sexual, and perhaps most of all emotional. Psychology, internet technology, and the logic of the capitalist market applied to mate selection have contributed to create a self-conscious, manipulable personality, who uses an increasingly refined and wide number of criteria, presumably conducive to greater compatibility. Psychology in particular has greatly contributed to defining persons as sets of psychological and emotional attributes, themselves submitted to the imperative of compatibility. Thus what has become a hyper-cognized, rational method of selecting a mate goes hand-in-hand with the expectation that love provide authentic, unmediated emotional experiences.

So we go through a rigorous scrutinizing process to select our potential partner, one more rationalistic than anything in history, and yet once we find the partner we want to settle down with, we expect that we will have “authentic, unmediated emotional experience” the kind that flow from a less rationalistic and more mystical understanding of love itself.

Now consider the $900 million dollar online dating industry:

By enabling users to investigate a vast number of options, the internet encourages the maximization of partner selection in unprecedented ways, in stark contrast to the methods of premodernity. Maximization of outcome has become a goal in and of itself. For example, many respondents to an open-ended questionnaire about the uses of Internet dating sites declared the choices available were so large that they would get in touch only with people who corresponded very precisely to their diverse aspirations. Moreover, the majority of respondents reported that their tastes changed in the course of their search and that they aspired to more accomplished people than they did at the beginning of the search. Clearly the case of online dating shows that actors use elaborate rational strategies to achieve their romantic desires, thus confirming Smelser’s and Alexander’s claims that computer technology has a strong rationalizing effect: the gradual permeation of the computer into the pores of modern life deepened what Max Weber called the rationalization of the world.

Once again, the process of selecting a partner for a romantic relationship is completely disenchanted. It is as rationalistic and technologized as anything else in modern culture. And yet out of such a process we expect some ineffable and mysterious that is exceedingly emotionally gratifying.

Earlier on in the essay Illouz quotes Sex in the City’s Candace Bushnell, as she epitomizes the contemporary approach to love:

When was the last time you heard someone say, “I love you!” without tagging on the inevitable (if unspoken) “as a friend.” When was the last time you saw two people gazing into each other’s eyes without thinking, “Yeah right?” When was the last time you heard someone announce, “I am truly, madly in love,” without thinking, Just wait until Monday morning?

Bushnell expresses, “a thoroughly self-conscious, supremely ironic, and disenchanted approach to love.” And when she expressed it, we all probably have a sense for what she means. This is because, in Illouze’s eyes, we are steeped in a rationalistic culture that drowns us in irony. Irony “is the trope of the person who knows too much but refuses to take reality seriously.” “Modern romantic consciousness” is thus thoroughly ironic “because it is saturated with knowledge, but it is a disenchanted knowledge that prevents full belief and commitment.” If indeed “love” is a modern religion as Illouze claims, presumably because we approach the search for it despite all the rationalization with the unswerving devotion of a zealot, “it is a peculiar one indeed, for it is a religion that cannot produce belief, faith, or commitment.”