Author Archive

On How My Mind Has Changed

I used to spend a fair amount of energy defending libertarian positions on politics and economics on this blog. In the time that has passed since then, I have shifted my positions on a number of issues, but the conclusion is, I don’t regard myself as a libertarian in any sense anymore. In general, my political/economic views probably come most near to Philip Blond’s Red Toryism (or, insofar as it is another name for the same thing, Blue Labour). Since I have changed positions quite substantially, I feel I owe it to my readers to be explicit in my shift. (more…)

Some Political Musings

I’ve been reflecting a bit on the significance of the US presidential election. Especially the voting habits of the “millennial” demographic. The following are some unorganized and totally biased suggestions I have for how churches could be discipling their members in political matters.

1. Natural law. Christian conservatives sometimes speak and act as if the order of grace totally replaced that of nature. The practical application of this principle becomes a wholly divine positive law approach to policy. A bible verse must be found for everything, and that becomes the whole (or basically the whole) of our argument. I think a recovery of natural law thinking can be a corrective here. It can help both believers and unbelievers to see that God’s commands are not arbitrary impositions of a cosmic despot who wants to spoil our fun; they are instead simply the will of God inscribed in our very nature. God tells us to act the way he made us to act, and when we act the way he designed us to, we flourish, not wither. This suggestion will imply recovering a great deal of Christian jurisprudence, antique, medieval, and modern, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. It probably should include knowledge of the jurisprudence of other cultures, too (Arabic, Indian, Chinese, Jewish, etc.). Of course, not every individual would need to study all these things, but seminary professors probably should have some knowledge of it all, and it should filter down in vocationally appropriate ways through the ministers to the laity.

2. More specifically, in recovering natural law teaching, the conservative Protestant church should be open to rediscovering a different part of the political “spectrum” than it currently inhabits today. The tradition of the church really is socially “conservative” in most ways, but not economically libertarian. The American libertarian tradition is really the odd one out on this, and it is important to at least recognize this, even if a person or institution ultimately wants to side with it. I think, though, conservative Christians might be able to have a real effect on the political world, in the long haul, if they were to present an actual third way: a politic that strives for the common good in all areas of life, not just sex and death issues.

3. Also more particularly, the church desperately needs to get back in touch with the just war tradition, and to a lesser degree, even its pacifistic heritage. It needs to understand why it is not pacifist, if it is not going to be pacifist, and it needs to understand how its approach to war is grounded in something other than sheer brute desire for conquest and self-satisfaction. The just war tradition, ultimately, is guided by (duh) justice, which means “to each as he deserves”. It means a preferential option (not indefeasible) for the preservation of life, a respect for order, and proportionate and discriminate use of force (not terrorism and blood lust).

4. This may go without saying, but I’d like to say it anyway: part of discipleship in our age needs to be the inculcating of a critical distance from partisan politics. Though we may vote a certain way in elections, we ought not to be doing this out of loyalty to a brand. It ought to be the result of a careful moral calculus. And Christians should not have a problem criticizing even their own preferred candidate or policy if it is defective from the point of view of ideal justice. I am firmly convinced that a vigilant people is the only thing that will keep a society free and just, and the church cannot contribute to such a society if it is basically in the bag for one power-seeking party or another.


Greg Koukl On Pockets Of Agnosticism

The following is part of a meditation by apologist Greg Koukl that has been a companion of mine over the years. I always find myself coming back to it now and then, as a reminder that my experience of what he describes is not unusual. Perhaps others will feel the same.

I mentioned a little while ago that I was challenged by a thought made by a professor of mine, and the thought had to do with the notion of pockets of agnosticism in our lives. He simply made the observation that all Christians have pockets of agnosticism in their lives.
Now agnosticism simply is uncertainty, lack of knowledge. Technically speaking, an agnostic when expressing his world view says, “I don’t really know whether God exists or not. I don’t know what the structure of the world is. I am withholding judgment.” In a broader sense it is simply, in people’s lives, uncertainty about those things which are true. And the point that he was making is that all of us as Christians, and you can expand that to all of us as human beings, regardless of what it is that we happen to believe in, have pockets of agnosticism in our lives. We have times of uncertainty. We may have a conviction about a particular thing–about God’s existence or about His non-existence, for that matter, but we have times when we are pressed, and we get to reflecting, and we are just not quite sure.

First of all, I want to say I think if we are honest we would all acknowledge that that’s true. No matter what it is that we happen to believe in or disbelieve in, we’d all have to acknowledge that that’s true. That one has pockets of agnosticism is not necessarily a negative reflection on his belief, whatever it happens to be. This is not a reflection on any particular belief that there are problems with it, or uncertainties associated with it. This is a problem of knowledge in general. There is no system of belief that you will ever have that is going to answer all of the questions all of the time in a way that is coherent and satisfies all of your thinking. It seems that the nature of reality and the limitations of knowledge are such that there are going to be things that we’re just not certain about. And so in a sense, we have to place our bets with the best hand.

Read the rest.

Wanted–A Man

Brett and Kate McKay, the geniuses (IMHO) behind The Art of Manliness, share an excerpt from a motivational book published about a century ago. Thankfully, I can say that I am not so shaped by the cynicism of our culture that it did not move me. Maybe some of our readers will feel the same.

If the youth should start out with the fixed determination that every statement he makes shall be the exact truth; that every promise he makes shall be redeemed to the letter; that every appointment shall be kept with the strictest faithfulness and with full regard for other men’s time; if he should hold his reputation as a priceless treasure, feel that the eyes of the world are upon him that he must not deviate a hair’s breadth from the truth and right; if he should take such a stand at the outset, he would . . .come to have almost unlimited credit and the confidence of everybody who knows him.

What are palaces and equipages; what though a man could cover a continent with his title-deeds, or an ocean with his commerce; compared with conscious rectitude, with a face that never turns pale at the accuser’s voice, with a bosom that never throbs with fear of exposure, with a heart that might be turned inside out and disclose no stain of dishonor? To have done no man a wrong; to have put your signature to no paper to which the purest angel in heaven might not have been an attesting witness; to walk and live, unseduced, within arm’s length of what is not your own, with nothing between your desire and its gratification but the invisible law of rectitude;—this is to be a man.

Psychology And The Christian Difference

Below are some comments a friend wrote, reflecting on issues raised by Ed Welch‘s book Blame It on the Brain. The thoughts on the significance of original sin especially, seemed important to me:

Welch’s basic map is actually very useful. The question is one of subjectivity and agency. Modern psychology is generally, though not entirely, under the spell of the “hard” sciences, which means, mechanistic figuration. This means that much of modern psychology will tend toward an impersonalist, materialist account of human behavior- not just abnormal behavior, but normal behavior too. As Welch notes, there are in fact basic physical injuries or imbalances which lead to behavioral abnormality, and for which the person is not culpable. And there are in fact conscious decisions which, however sneakily or self-deceivingly executed, are the person’s full responsibility. But then there is a vast range of things which are neither one nor the other exactly, and many of these are impressions and habits of soul which predate age of reason or full moral agency, that is, date from childhood exposure to traumatic circumstances when the person is still very plastic and impressionable, and deforming responses developed to such trauma can be very compelling and experienced almost as “nature”, rather than habit. Too, even in adulthood, certain kinds of trauma can strike a person’s heart so profoundly that pre-conscious deformative responses are developed in reaction. And these deformations can create certain specific dispositions to sin, though, as Welch notes, barring real insanity, we have to assert that the person is not compellingly determined to sin by these complexes.

The problem with Freud, of course, is that although he described “neuroses” with great acuity, he regarded the human person as epiphenomenal to a mechanical (he liked hydarulic metaphors) libido which was “channeled” this way or that by stimuli, rather than seeing neuroses as responses of the whole person, though at levels which seem or feel pre-conscious or unconscious. But the truth is that “neurotic” responses are in fact responses of the whole person, though we cannot identify the whole person with the fully “conscious” ego which we habitually regard, in reflection, as the “self”.

Thus far, any philosophical psychology can and should go, and in this regard, I recommend highly the works of JH Vandenberg and the other phenomenological psychologists of the 20th century.

What then is the specifically Christian difference? There must be one, by Brunner’s Law, because this isn’t math or physics or carpentry. This has to do with the image of God and his God-ordained path to blessedness. The problem with many “Christian” approaches is that, as the Dooyeweerdians rightly note, they work with a picture of a “spiritual” man who is basically an angel in flesh, but ahistoric and simple. Thus, there is a tendency to want to reduce all psychotherapy to either a) exorcism, or b) church discipline. This is an enormously stupid mistake. In reaction, we now have Christian counseling which, although it might be fine philosophically (meaning, personalist and non-materialist), is hardly Christian at all, though in a secularist and materialist age, philosophical rectitude is already *so* different from the prevalent model that Christians can mistake it for being specifically Christian. So what is the Christian difference?

I’d say that in part it lies in pointing out the sinful nature of deformative responses even if they aren’t per se sin or conscious sin. The old distinction between original and actual sin is useful here. If I’m bullied badly as a kid, and no adult steps in to restore justice, I might develop some really ugly wrath-responses which, although quite intelligible as self-defense maneuvers, derive from my fallen heart’s supposition of scarce, merely general, or even nonexistent Providence (not knowing truly that God is my Father), and ignorance of unity of man and the divine law of charity. And most specifically, the fallen heart is ignorant of the fact that God’s Son has absorbed and quenched in His flesh all sin, not just of man against God, but of man against man. Or I might develop fear-introversion responses; but the roots would be the same- original sin, by which I am totally depraved. Merely philosophical psychology runs aground here precisely on questions of constitutional depravity, and also of theodicy, and here, it has to be informed by Christian revelation in order to be of final use to people.

We cannot bypass the specific personal history and habituation of persons and reduce their problems, if they are genuine, to abstract “sin” categories, though those categories are certainly relevant to the consideration. The complexity and depth of original sin is, as it were, transpersonal; and grasping the historicity of persons is essential in getting to the cure of them. But must also insist that life in Christ, although not a magical abolition of problematic history, is indeed redemptive of it, and not just in the abstract. The concrete ways it is so can be shown in particular cases.

With some qualifications, I recommend the the works of Tournier as exemplary.

The Nature Of OT Laws

I just today found some thought provoking work done by my friend Brad Littlejohn a couple years back on the nature of some OT case laws. More specifically, he is, in various ways, fielding arguments from the perspective of Reconstructionists and theonomists (though also to some degree from people outside those camps, such as Christopher Wright and Umberto Cassuto) which suggest that many laws, especially several of an economic nature, were not enforced in Israel. They were considered as moral exhortations without legal force. Littlejohn argues ultimately that this is an anachronistic imposition of modern liberal legal perspectives onto the Torah.

Three posts on the subject: 1, 2, 3.

And his main essay: The Heart of Torah: Understanding Law, Justice, and Mercy in the Old Testament. [Since the direct link didn't seem to work, to find the essay, go here and scroll to the very bottom of the page: Writings]

Class War Is Mutual Destruction

I’ve been slowly ploughing through Emil Brunner’s Justice and the Social Order. Soon, I hope to have some more extensive thoughts on it to share. It has been an encouraging experience. For the moment, though, I’d like to offer one passage I just read that, I think, demonstrates Brunner’s insight into the connection between the created order and our everyday realities.

The capitalist or employer who regards his workers merely as “factors in production,” as “hands” whom he can dismiss whenever he finds it more profitable, who feels no common bond with them but his immediate interest in profit, repudiates the bond of common service with them. He regards his workers in the same way as a bad general regards his men as cannon fodder. The Marxist worker, on the other hand, for whom even the employer whose attitude is totally different, and who has a full sense of responsibility, is only the exploiter, denies the community of labour and rends asunder what belongs together by order of creation. The primary wrong has to be laid to the charge of that kind of capitalist, but the secondary wrong, arising as its result and hence more pardonable, is not less disastrous. On both sides the class war is the mutual destruction of the community of labour. And yet economic life is precisely the field in which the mutual bond, the mutual dependence of the responsible chief with the authority vested in him by the matter in hand, and the worker submitting in confidence of his own free will, exhibits most clearly the difference of kind and function and the equality of personal dignity established in creation. (192)

On Becoming Machines

Nicholas Carr relays a profound warning from Joseph Weizenbaum in his fascinating book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

What makes us most human, Weizenbaum had come to believe, is what is least computable about us— the connections between our mind and our body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy. The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers— as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens— is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate, Weizenbaum wrote, is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly “tasks that demand wisdom.” (Kindle Locations 3526-3532–and yes, I recognize the irony).

Of course, we’re in no danger of doing that…

Bruce Winter On 1 Corinthians 7:17-24

I want to engage briefly with an argument regarding 1 Cor 7:17-24 Bruce Winter has put forward in Seek the Welfare of the City. In that text, Paul commends Christians to remain in the calling (Winter argues this should be translated “class”) they were in when they were converted. He then applies this to several specific cases: (1) removing circumcision; (2) becoming circumcised; (3) being released from slavery; and (4) becoming a slave.

Winter’s suggests that general reason Paul opposed changing classes in these cases was that the motive behind doing so was to increase social status. This would imply Paul did not approve of desiring increased social status.

To add a bit more detail to his case (see chapter 8 of the book, “Social Mobility”, for the full case) In the case of removing circumcision, being circumcised was often looked down on by Gentiles, and thus removing all traces of Jewish ancestry could indeed help one to be upwardly mobile. On the matter of becoming circumcised, Winter argues (more specifically in regard to Galatians 6:12, but says it applies here as well) that Gentile Christians could be tempted to do this in order to attain the status of religio licita, which would obviously be an improvement for someone who could not worship the emperor but had no legal exemption from doing so (the precarious position of many Gentile Christians). On being released from slavery, Winter emphasizes that this was a concession, and that Paul also that Christian slaves should not be anxious about their status. On becoming a slave, Winter notes that some forms of slavery available in the Roman empire could actually lead to improvements in status for some free people. He also notes that becoming a slave normally included an act of implicit idolatry, swearing by the genius of the paterfamilias. (more…)

A Study In Contrasts

James K. A. Smith put up an interesting post the other day, responding to a pointed question about his ecclesiology: Response to Deroo: Whose Church? Which Ecclesiology?

I basically just want to use this post to set out a contrast. Smith’s position is nicely outlined in the post itself:

Can I begin in a negative mode by identifying what the church is not? When I speak of the church, I am not thinking of the “one, true denomination” and certainly not thinking of my denomination—or some other denomination or communion that I romantically think is “the” church. I’m also not primarily thinking of a local congregation, though local congregations are necessary instantiations of the wider body of Christ. Furthermore, nowhere do I suggest the two definitions that Neal articulates (“those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God…” or “those who have the Holy Spirit inside them”) would be adequate to define an ecclesiology.

So what do I mean by “the church,” then? Let me try to improvise in response to that question. Neal is right to see my understanding of the church is “institutional” and bound up with “Nicene orthodoxy.” He also rightly highlights that I see the “the church” primarily as a community of practice, which I would articulate in the MacIntyrean sense.[2] As a community of practice, the church would be informed by a narrative and a tradition that specify and substantiate the “standards of excellence” for that community of practice (without which there is no community of practice[3]).

So perhaps I could say that the church is that trans-national community of practice (a “body politic”) rooted in the biblical narrative as specified by the “catholic” tradition of both the creeds and the liturgical heritage.[4] In the history of the church, our language for “standards of excellence” has been “canon.” As William Abraham helpfully emphasizes, the “canons” of Christian orthodoxy include more than “the canon”; they also include “ecclesial canons” which “comprise materials, persons, and practices officially or semi-officially identified and set apart as a means of grace and salvation by the Christian community. They are represented by such entities as creed, Scripture, liturgy, iconography, the Fathers, and sacraments.”[5] This is what it means when we confess the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”

So the church is an international community of practice, a body politic, normed by the ecclesial canons of documents (“in which the very ‘canon’ of Scripture is a product of the canons of the ecclesia”), persons, and practices that have come to be part of the bedrock of Nicene Christianity.

In contrast, I’d like to quote from Peter Escalante, summarizing the magisterial Protestant position on what the church is: (more…)