Its Not About You!

In Against the Protestant Gnostics, Lee contends that for gnostics of all historical types, salvation is about knowledge of the self for the sake of the self, as opposed to knowledge of the mighty acts of God:

As far as the gnostics were concerned, the “many” were overly fascinated by historical happenings, even by the historical events in the life of Christ. Elaine Pagels, writing on the ahistorical views of Heracleon, reports that he claimed: that those who insist that Jesus, a man who lived in the flesh, is Christ fail to distinguish between literal and symbolic truth. . . . Heracleon goes on to say that those who take the events concerning Jesus “literally”—as if the events themselves were revelation—have fallen into flesh and error. Concern about the mighty acts of God in both the Old and New Covenants was from a gnostic perspective a lower stage in the development of an authentic Christian understanding. To know Christ was not in any sense to have knowledge about the “historical man of flesh and blood” but rather to be personally related to the mythical heavenly being who liberates humanity from historical concerns…

…The reason for this totally different concern of the gnostics is their conviction that the root problem of humankind is ignorance. Judaism and Christianity in their orthodox expressions would understand the basic source of all our misery to be sin, humanity’s failure to meet God’s expectations or its own potential; gnosticism would see the human predicament as resulting from a profound blindness concerning the human situation. “Ignorance of the Father,” states the Gospel of Truth, “brought about anguish and terror. And the anguish grew solid like a fog so that no one was able to see.



What Breeds Gnosticism?

Before delineating the various aspects of the gnostic type, it should be understood that the one primary ingredient for the birth of gnosticism is a particular mood. The mood is one of despair. The gnostic solution can be satisfying only to those who have no tangible or rational hope. Because a certain number of people at every stage of history are caught up in despair, gnosticism of one sort or other always has a following. Throughout Christian history, certain individuals and small groups have been drawn toward the gnostic way. That historical reality is not terribly alarming; every great religion has variations on the theme. When, however, we come to a period like that of the first four centuries of the Church, when the gnostic way almost prevailed, how can we speak of a mood? Can an entire culture be in despair? And if so, why?

-Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics

The Weakness of Religion


“The religion of man is always conditioned absolutely by the way in which the starry heaven above and the moral law within have spoken to the individual. It is, therefore, conditioned by nature and climate, by blood and soil, by the economic, cultural, political, in short, the historical circumstances in which he lives. It will be an element in the habit or custom with which, quite apart from the question of truth and certainty, or rather at the very lowest and most rudimentary stages of his inquiry into it, he compounds with the terms of existence imposed upon him. But the terms of existence, and therefore custom, are variable. Nature and climate, or the understanding and technique with which he masters them, may change. Nations and individuals may move. Races may mix. Historical relationships as a whole are found to be in perhaps a slow or a swift but at any rate a continual state of flux. And that means that religions are continually faced with the choice: either to go with the times, to change as the times change, and in that way relentlessly to deny themselves any claim to truth and certainty; or else to be behind the times, to stick to their once-won forms of doctrine, rite and community and therefore relentlessly to grow old and obsolete and fossilised; or finally, to try to do both together, to be a little liberal and a little conservative, and therefore with the advantages of both options, to have to take over their twofold disadvantages as well. That is why religions are always fighting for their lives. That is why they are always acutely or chronically sick. There has probably never been a religion which in its fateful relation to the times, i.e., to change in man (or rather in its own liberalism or conservatism or in both at once) has not been secretly or openly sick. And it is a familiar fact that religions do actually die of this sickness, i.e., of an utter lack of fresh believers and adherents. They cease to exist except as historical quantities. The link between religion and religious man in his variableness is the weakness of all religions.”

-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2

Separating Theology And History?

Someone passed this quote along to me the other day from a book review J. Greshem Machen wrote in the 1920’s. Still has something to say to us today perhaps.

The entire book is really based upon the pragmatist assumption that religion can be separated from theology and that a man can obtain the values of the religious life apart from the particular intellectual conception which he forms of his God. This assumption leads in the first place to an artificial treatment of history, which altogether fails to do justice to the real complexity of human life; and it leads, in the second place, and in particular, to the reconstruction, contrary to all evidence, of a primitive Gentile Christianity which shall exhibit just the type of nontheological religion which the modern pragmatist desires.
J.Gresham Machen, “Review of Arthur Cushman McGiffert’s The God of the Early Chrisitans” (1924) in Selected Shorter Writings, edited by D.G. Hart, 499-50.

Founding Amateurs?…18th Century American Trust and Mistrust of Government

A fundamental suspicion of government and its tireless capacity for overreaching is part of the American DNA. That’s a fact that is relatively indisputable. But the 18th century roots of this attitude are more nuanced than we might think, or so says Gordon Wood in a really nice op-ed piece in the NY Times today. Wood begins by noting that less than a third of voters polled are not interested in voting for their current incumbents. One Illinois woman typifies this attitude in a response to a Washington Post reporter:

“I am not really happy right now with anybody,” a woman from Decatur, Ill., recently told a Washington Post reporter. As she considered the prospect of a government composed of fledgling lawmakers, she noted: “When the country was founded, those guys were all pretty new at it. How bad could it be?”

Wood goes on to address her question:

Actually, our founders were not all that new at it: the men who led the revolution against the British crown and created our political institutions were very used to governing themselves. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and John Adams were all members of their respective Colonial legislatures several years before the Declaration of Independence. In fact, these Revolutionaries drew upon a tradition of self-government that went back a century or more. Virginians ran their county courts and elected representatives to their House of Burgesses. The people of Massachusetts gathered in town meetings and selected members of the General Court, their Colonial legislature…If one wanted to explain why the French Revolution spiraled out of control into violence and dictatorship and the American Revolution did not, there is no better answer than the fact that the Americans were used to governing themselves and the French were not. In 18th-century France no one voted; their Estates-General had not even met since 1614. The American Revolution occurred when it did because the British government in the 1760s and 1770s suddenly tried to interfere with this long tradition of American self-government.

Wood describes how the surging populism of the period of the Articles of Confederation was tempered during the the late 1780’s:

Although federal term limits have been confined to the presidency, the fear of entrenched and far-removed political power, as the present anti-incumbency mood suggests, remains very much part of American popular culture. Yet precisely because we are such a rambunctious and democratic people, as the framers of 1787 appreciated, we have learned that a government made up of rotating amateurs cannot maintain the steadiness and continuity that our expansive Republic requires.

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.

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.

What do the Fathers of Conservatism and Communism have in common?

Eva Illouze begins a recent essay in The Hedgehog Review entitled “Love and It’s Discontents: Irony, Reason, Romance” with the following quote from Edmund Burke:

All the pleasing illusions that made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of lifeare to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our weak and shivering nature, and to raise it to a dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd and antiquated fashion.

Illouze points out that Burke here “anticipates what would become one of the chief sources of the dynamism and discontent of modernity, namely the fact that beliefsin transcendence and authoritybecome accountable to Reason.” The gifts of imperial reason wind up, however, being more than we can bear:

The scrutinizing of social relations by the implacable gaze of Reason can only tear down the harmonious web of meanings and relationships on which traditional power, obedience, and fealty rested. For only lies and illusions can make the violence of social relationships bearable. To be tolerable, human existence requires a modicum of myths, illusions, and lies. Put differently, Reasons indefatigable attempts to unmask and track down the fallacies of our beliefs will leave us shivering in the cold, for only beautiful storiesnot truthcan console us.

She then moves on to point out the strikingly similar insights that Marx shares with Burke:

Marx, the most forceful heir and defender of the Enlightenment, curiously concurred with the ultra-conservative views of Burke in his famous dictum: all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men. Marx, like Burke, views modernity as a sobering of the senses, as a violent arousal from a pleasant if numbing slumber and a confrontation with the naked, bare, and barren conditions of social relationships. This sobering realization may make us more clever and less likely to be lulled by the fanciful and vain promises of the Church and of the Aristocracy, but it also empties our lives of charm and mystery, and of a sense of the sacred. Knowledge comes at the price of desecrating that which we revered. Thus Marx, like Burke, seems to think that cultural fantasiesnot truthmake our lives meaningfully connected to others and committed to a higher good. Although Marx neither rejected the new empire of light nor longed to return to the defunct rituals of the past, we can detect in him the same Burkean dread of what lies ahead for a humanity in which nothing is holy and everything is profane.

Illouze goes on to point out the ambivalence that is at the heart of modern culture. Moderns claim to be “free of the shackles that had fogged the mind and consciousness,” at the same time longing for that which they claim to be free from: “a sense of the sacred and transcendent and the very capacity to believe.”

So we’re left as moderns in what Weber calls the perennial state of “disenchantment”.

Disenchantment does not mean simply that the world is no longer filled with angels and demons, witches and fairies, but that the very category of mystery comes to be disparaged: for, in their impulse to control the natural and social world, the various modern institutions of science, technology, and the market, which aim at solving human problems, relieving suffering, and increasing wellbeing, also dissolve our sense of mystery. The vocation of scientific work is to solve and conquer mysteries, not to be under their spell. Similarly, capitalists whose principal wish is to maximize their gains, often disregard and undermine those valuesreligious or aestheticthat limit economic activity. Precisely because science and economics have considerably expanded the limits of our material world, helping us to resolve the problem of scarcity and making Nature yield to human needs, the gods have deserted us. What in an earlier age was governed by faith, personal fealty, and charismatic heroes, becomes a matter of calculable means. But this process toward rationalization does not eliminate all manifestations of passion; rather, it generates attempts to restore, even if vicariously, orders of experience dominated by fervor and passion.

So whether we’re at a tea party or a coffee party, neither will offer us an enchanted evening, which is perhaps what we long for most.

What you need to know to understand the Bible…

martin-luther1“No one can understand Virgil in his Bucolics and Georgics unless he has been a shepherd or a farmer for fifty years. No one can understand Cicero in his letters unless he has been involved for twenty years in the life of a state. Let no one think that he has tasted Holy Scripture unless he has for a century ecclesias gubernarit and has been responsible for the Church.”-Martin Luther