Theories of Change

David Brooks wrote a nice piece on the legacy of the British Enlightenment in today’s NY Times. Unlike their French counterparts, British Enlightenment thinkers didn’t just extol reason’s capacities, they underscored its limits. There is no greater example of the this tradition than Edmund Burke, who rejected the radical approach to social change advocated by the French.

Burke, a participant in the British Enlightenment, had a different vision of change. He believed that each generation is a small part of a long chain of history. We serve as trustees for the wisdom of the ages and are obliged to pass it down, a little improved, to our descendents. That wisdom fills the gaps in our own reason, as age-old institutions implicitly contain more wisdom than any individual could have.

Burke was horrified at the thought that individuals would use abstract reason to sweep away arrangements that had stood the test of time. He believed in continual reform, but reform is not novelty. You don’t try to change the fundamental substance of an institution. You try to modify from within, keeping the good parts and adjusting the parts that aren’t working.

If you try to re-engineer society on the basis of abstract plans, Burke argued, you’ll end up causing all sorts of fresh difficulties, because the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know. We could never get things right from scratch.

Brooks sees this tension between radical and more traditional Enlightenment perspectives as playing out in our politics today:

We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one.

Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems. You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.

No surprise where Brooks comes down.

Is Mainline Protestantism’s Decline a Sign of Success or Failure?

The decline of Mainline Protestantism is a fact. But what does it mean? What’s at the root of it. Christian Smith offers some suggestions in Souls In Transition, at least where that decline concerns young adults.

It is old news by now that mainline-liberal Protestant denominations in the United States are suffering major declines in membership and social prestige. Sociologists have for decades been documenting a hemorrhaging of members from mainline Protestant churches. And the religious and political ascendancy of American evangelicalism since the 1970s has drawn the spotlight away from the once mainstream religious presence of the more liberal Protestant churches. What was once mainline is now regularly dubbed the “sideline”
and the “old-line.” These are not the glory days of mainline-liberal Protestantism in America. Yet many observers are so focused on membership statistics and apparent political influences that they miss an important fact: that liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and
is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory. In this idea, we follow the argument of the University of Massachusetts sociologist of religion N. Jay Demerath, in a perceptive but we think underappreciated journal article he published in 1995 entitled “Cultural Victory and Organizational Defeat in the Paradoxical Decline of Liberal Protestantism.” Demerath’s argument is fairly simple.  “Far from representing failure,” he says, “the decline of Liberal Protestantism may actually stem from its success. It may be the painful structural consequences
of [its] wider cultural triumph. . . . Liberal Protestants have lost structurally at the micro level precisely because they won culturally at the macro level.” What Demerath means by this is that liberal Protestantism’s core values— individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the
authority of human experience—have come to so permeate broader American culture that its own churches as organizations have diffi culty surviving. One reason for this development is that these very liberal values have a tendency to undermine organizational vitality. The strongest organizations are generally not built on individualism, diversity, autonomy, and criticism. Furthermore, having won the larger battle to shape mainstream culture, it becomes difficult  to sustain a strong rationale for maintaining distinctively liberal church organizations to continue to promote those now omnipresent values. Liberal Protestantism increasingly seems redundant to the taken-for-granted mainstream that it has helped to create. Why organize to promote what is already hegemonic?…very many mainline Protestant emerging adults simply could not care enough to talk about religion in any specific terms, but those who did in fact
usually talked like classical liberal Protestants. In short, many emerging adults would be quite comfortable with the kind of liberal faith described by the Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr in 1937 as being about “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the
ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” They simply would have no idea about the genealogy of their taken-for-granted ideas, that is, from where historically they came. On more than a few occasions, in fact, while listening to emerging adults explain their views of religion, it struck us that they might just as well be paraphrasing passages from classical liberal Protestant theologians, of whom they have no doubt actually never heard, from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The likes of Adolf von Harnack, Albrecht Ritschl, Wilhelm Hermann, and Harry Emerson Fosdick would be proud. (p.288-289)

So perhaps the reason why the Mainline loses its young is not that they don’t listen, but that they listen all too well.

Does Natural Law Exist?

Peter Leithart posted a great review of J. Budziszewski’s The Line Through The Heart, a new work on natural law theory. Leithart is quite complementary in his review which concludes with the suggestion that natural law, even with all of Budziszewski’s qualifications, can’t achieve what many of its enthusiastic supporters think it can:

Paul says all know God and His requirements from creation, but J. Bud is right that we suppress, evade, rationalize, pretend, and can do that for so long that we virtually forget we’re evading.  However that law is woven into our minds and hearts, it is woven differently from the way language, thought, creativity, and many other human qualities are woven.  Somehow, it is possible to unravel knowledge of God and remain human, which must mean that it is woven differently…Let me make that point stronger, in a Hauerwasian direction. The universe has, I agree, a grain, a design given it by the Triune Creator, and we are to live in accord with that grain.  But we discern that grain not from “unaided reason” (J. Bud hedges with “so-called unaided reason”) but in the light of Christ, by the Spirit, through the spectacles of Scripture.  When we have the mind of Christ, we see how the world is to be, and how humans are to live, and we learn in turn that the world is not as it should be.   To put it more strongly, provocatively: There is nothing bigger, more basic, more universal than Christ the Lord, the One by whom all things were made, the One in whom all things cohere.   Christ must be given epistemological priority, and natural law theories, even of the best varieties, don’t honor that priority…This circles back to the practical point.  If this argument is true, then the persuasiveness of natural law of J. Bud’s variety requires just as radical a conversion as the fundamentalist demands.  It requires the same conversion.

A Genealogy Of Atheisms

One of the things I continue to appreciate about The New Republic is its serious engagement with theological issues and ideas. Today over at TNR blog Damon Linker posted a response to Kevin Drum’s reponse to David Hart’s post about the New Atheists which I excerpted here on my blog. Linker’s response is as charming and irenic as it is lucid.

He summarizes Hart’s frustrations with the New Atheists as follows:

Hart’s essay irritatedly dismissed the new atheists for two defects: First, they show no sign of confronting and wrestling with (or even understanding) the most serious philosophical arguments of the Christian theological tradition; second, they show an almost complete lack of awareness of all that was gained (culturally and morally) by the advent of Christianity and seem blithely unconcerned about what would be lost (again, culturally and morally) were it to vanish from the world.

Drum’s critique of Hart’s critique is that in the end it begs the question:

Drum responds to Hart’s efforts to highlight the positive influence of Christianity by writing that “to say merely that Christianity is comforting or practical—assuming you believe that—is hardly enough. You need to show that it’s true.” Now, this seems to be exactly what Hart was attempting to do in the very passages of his essay that Drum dismissed and mocked. But let’s leave that aside.

Linker brings out an important omission of the New Atheists that is highlighted by Hart:

What’s most disappointing is Drum’s failure to grasp the culminating point of Hart’s essay, which, as I take it, is this: the statements “godlessness is true” and “godlessness is good” are distinct propositions. And yet the new atheists invariably conflate them. But a different kind of atheism is possible, legitimate, and (in Hart’s view) more admirable. Let’s call it catastrophic atheism, in tribute to its first and greatest champion, Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in a head-spinning passage of the Genealogy of Morals that “unconditional, honest atheism is … the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two-thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” For the catastrophic atheist, godlessness is both true and terrible. [emphasis mine]

Linker doesn’t think that all atheism must be the tragic kind. He points out cheery skeptics like David Hume. But Hume’s atheism was cheery and rigorously developed, not superficial. And this I take as Linker’s (and he is not alone in this) frustration with the New Atheists. It is not their atheism. It is the seeming superficiality of it all, and the kind of unbounded optimism that characterized a naive and imperialistic early 20th century Protestantism (which gave birth to magazine titles like “The Christian Century”). Here again Linker says it far better than I can:

…the new atheists seem steadfastly opposed even to entertaining the possibility that there might be any trade-offs involved in breaking from a theistic view of the world. Rather than explore the complex and daunting existential challenges involved in attempting to live a life without God, the new atheists rudely insist, usually without argument, that atheism is a glorious, unambiguous benefit to mankind both individually and collectively. There are no disappointments recorded in the pages of their books, no struggles or sense of loss. Are they absent because the authors inhabit an altogether different spiritual world than the catastrophic atheists? Or have they made a strategic choice to downplay the difficulties of godlessness on the perhaps reasonable assumption that in a country hungry for spiritual uplift the only atheism likely to make inroads is one that promises to provide just as much fulfillment as religion? Either way, the studied insouciance of the new atheists can come to seem almost comically superficial and unserious…So by all means, reject God. But please, let’s not pretend that the truth of godlessness necessarily implies its goodness. Because it doesn’t.

Comfort In The Midst Of Controversy

After having studied Romans 14 this week in church, conduct in the midst of theological disputes and church conflict is fresh in my mind. Paul suggests that regarding food and calendar practices the Roman Christians all should “be fully convinced” of their position in their own minds (14:5) at the same time resisting the temptation to pass judgment on those with differing convictions (14:13) I began re-reading Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology this evening and came across some wonderfully relevant passages about the penultimate nature of our theological convictions and our confidence in a fallible church’s fidelity.

No structures of historical continuity merely as such can assure the integrity of witness to reality that is other than the transmitting group, at least if that witness is such as to require hermeneutical reflection. Thus neither Scripture nor creed nor liturgy nor teaching office, nor yet their ensemble, can as historical structures guarantee the fidelity of our proclamation and prayer to the apostolic witness. Affirmation that the church is still the church pledges the certainty of a historical continuity that no structures of historical continuity can make certain. This affirmation therefore reaches beyond its immediate object to be faith that God uses the church’s communal structures to preserve the gospel’s temporal self-identity and so also the temporal self-identity of the gospel’s community.

Invoking such an activity of God, the church speaks of the Spirit. Thus the church believes that her Scriptures are instruments of the Spirit in her life; that her dogmatic decisions may truly begin, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”; and that ordination grants a “gift” of the Spirit to preserve continuity of the apostolic teaching. Faith that the church is still the church is faith in the Spirit’s presence and rule in and by the structures of the church’s historical continuity. Indeed, even the church’s recognition through the second century of who were and who were not apostles cannot be justified except by trust in the Spirit’s leading.

But if it is God the Spirit who sustains the gospel’s and so the church’s self-identity through time, then that identity cannot be mere historical continuity with the church’s past beginning. For the Spirit is precisely God as the power of the future, God as his own and our transforming outcome. If it is the Spirit who sustains the gospel’s and the church’s self-identity through time, then that identity is primarily anticipation of an end and just so perpetuation of a beginning, anticipation of the “eternal gospel” and just so reiteration of a historic message.

Therefore, until we have identified the particular deity of the Spirit that is, until we have the trinitarian interpretation of God more fully before us we cannot fully understand the church’s tradition, nor therefore Scriptural or creedal or liturgical or ministerial authority. [emphasis mine]

Recognizing that in the midst of our disagreements the Spirit is in our midst guarantees us two things. First, that all parties see through a glass darkly regardless of whatever partial truths are affirmed on either side of any given argument. Any truth confessed is a truth that is confessed on the way to a future which still awaits our arrival. Second, the Spirit’s presence is our guarantee that despite any and all falsehoods either party may hold, they hold them as member’s of a community not abandoned by the Spirit, and thus one that will be safely (if begrudgingly at times) led into all truth.

Enough With The New Atheists Already

David B. Hart’s assessment of the New Atheism is a must read for believers and non-believers alike. If one has an exceedingly low tolerance for feisty rhetoric, then this piece will be tough to slug through, though still well worth the effort. For example:

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel…But how long can any soul delight in victories of that sort? And how long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for?…I am not—honestly, I am not—simply being dismissive here. The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe.

It’s not as though Hart has no appreciation for atheism. On the contrary, he recognizes that

…Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.

What I enjoyed most about Hart’s reflection was the marked appreciation for Nietzsche, who comes off as a figure who (rightly in my opinion) deserves our admiration and gratitude:

Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become…Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?…For Nietzsche, therefore, the future that lies before us must be decided, and decided between only two possible paths: a final nihilism, which aspires to nothing beyond the momentary consolations of material contentment, or some great feat of creative will, inspired by a new and truly worldly mythos powerful enough to replace the old and discredited mythos of the Christian revolution (for him, of course, this meant the myth of the Übermensch).