Being Good Without God: A Recipe for Fools

In his Dialogue with Trypho, the 2nd century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, summarizes the Christian life:

And we who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons,–our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage,–and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified; and sitting each under his vine, i.e., each man possessing his own married wife. For you are aware that the prophetic word says, ‘And his wife shall be like a fruitful vine.’ Now it is evident that no one can terrify or subdue us who have believed in Jesus over all the world. For it is plain that, though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but the more such things happen, the more do others and in larger numbers become faithful, and worshippers of God through the name of Jesus.

For Justin and the earliest Christians, several things about their newfound, and newly founded, faith were still obscure, e.g. the nature of the Trinity, the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus, the role of the Holy Spirit, etc. However, other things were crystal clear, e.g., that Jesus was God (somehow), that He rose from the dead, and that any virtue that could be attained by man, was attainable only by the grace of God, who was crucified for mankind. “Piety, righteousness, philanthropy” and even “faith, and hope” are all “from the Father Himself” through Christ. The virtues of man are not generated by man’s own powers, nor do they emerge from some inherent goodness in him. Also, because of God’s grace it was possible not only for men to become moral creatures, but it was God’s grace which also allowed them to live freely, to be truly liberated from the powers of supernatural oppression (Ephesians 6:12ff) and the oppressive weight of sin. In this freedom, the Christian had no fear of losing his head (literally), being thrown to wild beasts, put in chains, crucified, burned alive or otherwise tortured. God’s grace provided the path both to virtue and to victory over death.

There was no place for victimization in the thinking of the early Christians. Their oppression was God’s glory, and in spite of every torture and malice of the Roman “system” in which they lived, a system that was objectively oppressive, they saw themselves everywhere free. Nothing and no one in the early church believed in the need to overturn the system in order to be truly liberated. Liberation had already occurred, and the rest was the charitable outworking of that reality.

A New Vision of Man

Fast forward roughly 1600 years to early-modern Switzerland (“Helveticus” in Justin’s day). A philosopher named Jean-Jacques Rousseau says famously, “Man is born free, yet everywhere finds himself in chains.” For Rousseau, and the multitude of disciples who followed his theory of man, man is not “filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness” at birth, the way Justin and the early martyrs believed. Rather, it was the imperfections in man’s government, in man-made systems, that corrupted and oppressed the otherwise “free” and moral individual. Other men followed in this interpretation of human nature, men of great historical influence like John Stuart Mill, Condorcet, and Robespierre. For these there was nothing inherent in man that prevented him from being virtuous in his own power; man could attain virtue unaided by any divine or extra-mundane force. Rationality and reason alone, and human effort, could generate virtue—the kind of virtue needed to perfect government and its institutions, and most especially its laws. All that was required on this vision was an intellectual elite that could put the institutional pieces together in the right way, and, upon doing so, set free the inherently good will of “the people.”

Thomas Sowell in his book, A Conflict of Visions, contrasts this “unconstrained” view of man proposed by Rousseau and his intellectual successors, with that of others like Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, who saw man “constrained” by an inherently flawed nature. On the constrained view, this human nature would inevitably produce evil in any system it built or constructed. An evil that could at best be extenuated or curbed through social institutions and processes, but that could not be eliminated or excised completely from the individual or the institutions he creates. On the unconstrained view man was perfectible and only the right solutions had to be developed to solve our societal ills. On the constrained view, there was no perfection that could be attained by man alone, and therefore social and economic trade-offs had to be made to prevent the worst from happening. The unconstrained view sought political and economic answers to man’s human condition, the constrained view sought best practices in light of that condition. Sowell describes the constrained view of Adam Smith this way:

The moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular, were neither lamented by Smith nor regarded as things to be changed. They were treated as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in his vision. The fundamental moral and social challenge was to make the best of the possibilities which existed within that constraint, rather than dissipate energies in an attempt to change human nature—an attempt that Smith treated as both vain and pointless.

For those of the “unconstrained” party, however, this was just negative thinking, archaic pessimism grounded in atavistic religious dogma. It was this cumbersome inclusion of past knowledge, of unenlightened thought, that hindered man from becoming the kind of exceedingly rational and virtuous creature he otherwise is by nature. The progressive vision of man becoming fully authentic and actualizing all of his potentials, thus entailed the renunciation of any notion of an inherently flawed nature, and, consequently, any need for some kind of divine influence to aid that nature. We could, if we just tried hard enough, really do it ourselves.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

In every generation the unconstrained impulse, the impulse of man to believe in his own righteousness, and to act upon that belief, rears its head. Today we see it in the radical Leftist agenda in America, an agenda fueled by ambiguous intellectual movements like Critical Race Theory, which seeks not just to find flaws in the system and continue to slowly rework areas that can be reworked, but cries out for the system’s total destruction— to “tear the whole thing down!” The forces of those who hold to the unconstrained vision, who reject any need for divine aid or help, and who really believe, and always will believe, that a new revolution can solve the problem, are once again at work. Trade-offs are unacceptable for the advocate of the unconstrained view, only total solutions are acceptable. Perfection is within our grasp, if we would only reach out and grab it. But perfection is a high bar, and any identifiable flaw in the fabric of society must inevitably spur on the next revolution.

The problem of course with this view, a view that Justin and the early church Fathers would have roundly decried as heretical, is that it does away with what it sees as the most detestable doctrines of the Christian faith: original sin and man’s desperate need for grace. Conversely, it was these doctrines that the classical conservatives like Smith and Burke maintained in their political and economic thinking, regardless of their understanding of the doctrines source. Man, apart from God’s grace, was sinner, not saint. To fail to recognize this double problem of man, i.e., our own inherent corruption and the need for God’s saving and sanctifying grace, is to fundamentally mis-analyze the human condition. It is in this manner that Smith and Burke were far closer to Justin, and St. Paul (Romans 5:12), than Rousseau, Condorcet, or later legal philosophers like Ronald Dworkin.1 see Sowell, A Conflict of Visions, chapter 5: Summary and Implications.

For Justin, then, three things are clear: 1) man before Christ is sinner, prone to war and wickedness and “mutual slaughter,” 2) any virtue in man is a gift from God, and 3) it is in our cultivation of these gifts that we are liberated from the world’s system, and that to the point of even welcoming our own persecution, which is God’s glory and the glory of His Church.

The alternative to this anthropology is that of the progressive minded man, who believes with all sincerity that he has the capacity “in himself” to be perfecter of his own nature and of the society in which he lives. Which of these comes first, however, he hardly bothers to contemplate. But, if one were to guess, one would guess the latter, for to point to the external problems of “the system” will always act as a way to relieve oneself of personal responsibility and one’s own sense of moral guilt. If only we could change the system, then we ourselves would be changed. Indeed we would return back to the Eden of our youth, frolicking in our original sinlessness!

Of the unconstrained view and its perennial attempts to fundamentally transform society, Roger Daltrey put it best in one of the greatest rock anthems of all time,

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again…

Meet the New Boss
Same as the Old Boss

The Who, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

Are we praying that “we won’t get fooled again?” If not, perhaps we should start.

As The Family Goes, So Goes God

The institution of marriage is not an undue interference by society or authority, nor the extrinsic imposition of a form. Rather it is an interior requirement of the covenant of conjugal love which is publicly affirmed as unique and exclusive, in order to live in complete fidelity to the plan of God, the Creator.

John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (1981)

We make our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We dismantle the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work “double shifts” so that they can mother in private even as they participate in public justice work.

We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.

Black Lives Matter Mission Statement (formerly)1 After many complaints and a drop in approval rating, this portion of the BLM Website has since been removed.

“The nuclear family,” the term itself is nuclear in our culture today. Nevertheless, the connection between the family and the vitality of a culture has been noted since antiquity. For example, in her book on Seneca’s understanding of the family, classicist Elizabeth Gloyn highlights the ancient stoic view of familial integrity and societal welfare:

For now it is enough to say that oikeiosis [affiliation, affinity] is arguably the primary building block of human relations. The first stage, which [Seneca’s] Letter 121 describes, is the process by which babies begin to realise that their bodies belong to them, and thus that looking after their arms and legs is in their own best interest. More advanced stages involve the realisation that the interests of other humans are also our interests; a parent’s relationship to a child is often used as the classical example of assimilating someone else’s interest into our own. So oikeiosis begins in the basic bond between parent and child, and is a key stage in the moral development that ultimately lets humans achieve virtue.2 Elizabeth Gloyn, The Ethics of the Family in Seneca (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 6.

Elizabeth Gloyn, The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, 6.

It is worth noting the definite article “the” in Gloyn’s statement about what “the classical example” of “assimilating someone else’s interest into our own” is. For the ancients, the beginning of social morality and public virtue was the parent-child relationship. It was not just one option toward moral development, it was the paradigm example for it. Without this “basic bond” there would inevitably be a deficiency in moral development and a breakdown in virtue; or, more accurately, moral development would be nipped in the bud. This failure to launch would likely demand tremendous expenditures in other areas, and from other domains, to bring virtue to fruition. However, one could probably assert with confidence that in most ancient cultures moral deficiency did not end in long, state-sponsored and tax-payer funded rehabilitation programs for the unvirtuous. Rather, it usually (almost always) ended in incarceration or execution.

By extension, an entire culture comprised of multiple families living and working within in a common geographical and linguistic space will, to a large degree, rely on the ingrained virtue of its individual members for its own continuity and prosperity. This is a truth as old as the Greek polis itself, but one revealed even earlier on the very first page of the Hebrew Bible.

In modern times, Pope John Paul II echoed Seneca on the crucial relationship between the welfare of the organic family unit and the commonwealth of the nation, saying:

Yet it still seems that nation and native land, like the family, are permanent realities.  In this regard, Catholic social doctrine speaks of “natural” societies, indicating that both the family and the nation have a particular bond with human nature, which has a social dimension.  Every society’s formation takes place in and through the family: of this there can be no doubt.  Yet something similar could also be said about the nation.

John Paul II, Memory and Identity, 67.

The formation of society takes place “in and through the family,” and of this there “can be no doubt.” The relationship between family and nation has been attested to throughout history, both in philosophical and political theory, as well as in concrete social and legal action. As John Paul II went on to say in more succinct fashion, “As the family goes, so goes the nation.”3 The full quote, from a 1986 sermon given in Perth, reads “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.”

However, the relationship between the health of the individual family and the health of a nation is not the only deep correlation that has been recognized by great thinkers. The relationship between the make-up of the family and the very belief in God has also come under scrutiny, at least since the Enlightenment, but especially since Freud’s psychoanalytic theories of man and civilization. The formation of familial structures and inter-familial needs relative to religious beliefs have been seen as intimately connected, if not altogether the same thing. The father of social psychology, Erich Fromm, argued it this way:

As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection–protection through love–which was provided by the father, and the recognition that this helplessness would last throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have often so remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place.

Erich Fromm, The Dogma of Christ, 28-29.

For Fromm, and other Marxist Freudians like him, the need for a divine “Father figure” starts with the fundamental social relationship of parent and child. Religion is the imaginative projection that provides a parallel solution to the basic familial need of protection, guidance, and security in an uncertain world of natural forces. However, because these needs are abstract, like justice and love (not like food or water), they are libidinal in nature. They exist in the category of non-physical needs and can therefore be met by religious institutions and their practices:

Religion serves to make it easier for the masses to resign themselves to the many frustrations that reality presents. The satisfactions religion offers are of a libidinous nature; they are satisfactions that occur essentially in fantasy because…libidinous impulses…permit satisfaction in fantasy.

Fromm, The Dogma of Christ, 26-27.

If these reflections by men like Seneca, Wojtyla4 John Paul II’s family name, and Fromm are accurate, then it makes sense that the nature and well-being of the “family” is something that is not only controversial in our culture today, but that should find itself at the center of political and social movements like that of Black Lives Matter. It would make sense for a group like BLM to address the family, if the family is really as important as these thinkers of the past have suggested. After all, if it is the case that “as the family goes, so goes the nation” or even “as the family goes, so goes religious belief in God,” then to control the definition and language of “family” becomes a very desirable goal indeed.

Deconstructing the Family, Reconstructing God

As alluded to above, Freud believed that it was in primitive man’s confrontation with untamed nature that God was invented in the mind of man. Feeling helpless before the power of nature, as in his infantile state, early man fantasized an all-powerful father figure who could protect him from the harshness of reality (the reality principle). Further, as moral intuition and reasoning developed in early society, the need for ultimate justice at the sight of apparent wrongdoing and incomprehensible suffering, as well as the desire for prolonged satisfaction (the pleasure principle), led to the further imagination of an extended realm of conscious existence where punishment and reward would be meted out in full. Nevertheless, much of this imaginative work was generated on account of man’s harrowing battle with “nature red in tooth and claw.”

However, with the rise of modern society, the advance of technology, medicine and industry, the increasing explanatory power of the natural sciences, and man’s increasing mastery over nature, it was thought that the religious illusions devised by earlier civilizations would ultimate fade away. And, to some degree, one could argue they have, since in the most technologically advanced cultures, one sees an empirical increase in what Charles Taylor might call “exclusive humanists,”5 I am adapting Taylor’s notion of “exclusive humanism” which entails people who never come to actually hold to any religious doctrine or faith for the entirety of their earthly existence. i.e., a greater number of people who live the entirety of their lives without regard for the transcendent or any serious religious commitment. The so-called “rise of the nones.”

Nevertheless, even if we assume a posture of victory over nature (albeit COVID-19 has in some ways exposed this presumptive claim), and even if the natural sciences have undermined some religiosity, there is the other fundamental human relation over which man has not yet gained full supremacy,6If one can truly say that man has gained supremacy over nature, which may not actually be the case, even if we have a sense of it. and that is the relationship between the natural family and culture.

While the natural sciences may have given us a way to understand nature without appealing to divine agency, as Laplace suggested in rejecting the “God hypothesis,”7 I do not actually believe this to be the case, but it is not my point in this article to raise the serious challenges to scientism of this sort. it is questionable as to whether the social sciences have been able to give us a way to understand society without making the same appeal. For some reason we can now look at the Grand Canyon and see only natural elements and millions of years, but we cannot look at our neighbor and see only molecules in motion and bio-chemical exchanges. It was argued by some critical theorists in the mid 20th-century8 I am thinking in particular of Herbert Marcuse’s argument in his magnum opus Eros and Civilization, where he sees the locus of societal transformation in the redefinition of both structures of labor (the Marxist feature) and in the redefinition of human sexual identity and marital structures (the Freudian feature). that there remains a vestige of traditional religious belief that lingers in spite of our otherwise progressive, Western culture. That vestige is the nuclear family. We may have successfully suspended belief in providential design in the natural world, but when it comes to social relations the divine still haunts us.

Therefore, if social theorists like Fromm and his manifold disciples are right, then to gain control over the family structure itself would be the primary means to altering religious belief or even belief in God more generally. It is, therefore, significant that Black Lives Matter, a group whose founders openly declare their Marxian heritage, may have a vision of the family that is different than the one presented to us in Genesis 1:27 and 2:18-25. After all, for the true Marxist (and Freudian), those passages themselves are nothing more than the product of culturally situated people. The culture, and its people, are not the product of the passages.9 This, of course, would be the orthodox Christian view, for the passages would be revelatory communications to us, not mere projections by human minds. It is therefore very likely that the far more central issue for groups like Black Lives Matter is not really race, but actually the family structure, regardless of race. We have drifted far afield from MLK’s vision for racial equality with Garza, Cullors and Ometi‘s vision of social justice.

Conclusion: The Real Trojan Horse is Not Race, It’s Sex

If race10 Of course race for most Critical Race Theorists is not a biological category, but a social construct. really is the central focus of movements spawned by theories like Critical Race Theory, then why is it the case that almost every concrete manifestation of that theory is accompanied by an alternative vision of the human family structure and of human sexual nature? Where is the logical connection there? Of course, it does seem to be a logical entailment that if one messes with traditional understandings of gender and sexuality, one will also be messing with traditional understandings of the nature and design of the family. But groups like BLM for some reason need both race and sexuality involved in their program. It is never just about race.

The truth is that far more fundamental to us as persons than our racial identity is our sexual identity. And, far more fundamental to us as persons than our racial community is our biological family. If the Marxist-Freudian approach to the human person is correct (which it is not), then it is more important to change these structures in order to change society than to change anything about race or racial structures. Race is not the real Trojan horse standing outside the walls of American culture or the Church today. The real Trojan horse is, and always has been, a false view of human sexuality and the God-ordained nature of the family. If these change then, at least according to the Marxist-Freudian, so will our belief in God.

But, Marxism and Freudianism are not true.11 I am making a broad statement about the overall views. Obviously there can be truths found in almost any system of thought, especially ones that have been as impactful as these.Thus, they are not the real culprit behind the construction of this Trojan horse. The real culprit is the age-old enemy of Christ, the enemy that Christ saw fall from heaven like a blitz of lightning. The “isms” of history are merely his means to attack what has been given to man by God, and to twist and turn God’s designs for his purposes and our destruction. In the beginning God did not bother to tell us that He made us “black and white.” But, He did say He made us “male and female.” To deconstruct the family then, as John Paul II pointed out, is to go against the plan of God. It is to be unfaithful to His will. It is to reject His gift to us. As such, we should be careful about embracing any theory or its accompanying social movement that would inculcate in us the notion that it might be okay to mess with the God-given structure of family. Even a charitable reading of the BLM statement (again, now suspiciously removed from the site), cannot help but notice the glaring absence of any mention of a father as the head of the family or even as a necessary component of it.

Finally, I would suggest, that this just is a way, perhaps the paradigm way, for Satan to introduce new gods into a culture. For it is not the case that groups like BLM are doing away with the idea of family completely, or the idea of god completely. They are just seeking to alter the definition and the constitution of family. Of course, the Devil can never destroy anything completely. Only God has the power over existence and non-existence. But, the Devil can counterfeit, and counterfeit family structures may very well produce counterfeit gods for us to worship.

As the family goes, so goes the nation indeed, and possibly even the Church.

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women…And his wives turned away his heart. For When Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God…

1 Kings 11:1-5

Because of the hardness of your heart Moses allowed you to divorce, but it was not so from the beginning.

Matthew 19:8

Losing Orthodoxy in America?: Part III – The Battle of the Heart

In this series, I am arguing that there are three battlefields of human culture upon which orthodox Christianity has failed to successfully contend, and in failing to do so orthodox Christianity will go into rapid decline. Moreover, those who continue to profess and practice this form of Christianity will face actual instances of persecution. I also argued that there is another form of Christianity, Progressive Christianity that will not face the same kind of persecution, if at all.1 Whether or not this progressive Christianity will also go into decline I am not making any argument one way or the other. It seems that the pattern of decline set by mainline Protestant denominations in the 20th century would continue, but it is possible that as the culture changes, new forms of Progressive Christianity could succeed as they adapt to culture. This may be the case too as correlation approaches to theology become more seasoned and accepted at the higher levels of church governance. The three battles that orthodox Christianity has lost, or nearly lost, are the battles for the senses, for the mind, and for the heart of the nation. However, before I lay out why I believe the heart of America has been hardened to an orthodox vision of the Christian faith, a few preliminary thoughts about whether this is all just an exercise in alarmism.

The Rise and Fall of…Just About Anything

The attempt to sketch the decline of something as large as “orthodox Christianity” is, of course, a foolish errand, and would require something like a 1,000 page book to do it justice. After all, anyone who does make the attempt should know that such attempts are made with every generation, and with every successive generation those earlier attempts are usually weighed in the balance and found wanting. They are “over-blown,” “hyperbolic,” and “alarmist,” and, in the end, our current generation is doing just fine. Anthony Esolen puts it this way:

Any man who speaks about the collapse of his culture or civilization must meet the charge that the same things have been said by other people in other places and at other times, and yet we are still here–the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, children are born and grow to adulthood, men and women marry and have children and grow old and die, and nothing is new under the sun. ‘We have heard it before,’ they will say.

Anthony Esolen, “No Option: Clear out the Rubble and Rebuild” (Touchstone, July/August 2020)

Of course, there are three factors which may mitigate the foolishness of my attempt to predict the future: first, I am not suggesting that American culture as a whole will decline, only the orthodox Christian culture in America. This is not an unusual phenomena. After all, there are countries which have strong cultures, economies, and infrastructures but where Christian orthodoxy is actively suppressed, take China for instances or perhaps Canada. Moreover, there are numerous historical examples of orthodoxies being almost entirely lost to whole regions of the globe: Central Asia, North Africa, Russia, etc. The loss of entire Christian cultures is a historical fact, one well documented by historians like Philip Jenkins. Jenkins lays out a basic principle of how Christian cultures have died in his book The Lost History of Christianity:

Churches must adapt, but they face the grave dilemma of just how far to take such accommodation. This is critical when churches are confronted with a powerful and hostile hegemonic culture, creating a society with many temptations to accommodate. Historically, Christians faced the issue of whether to speak and think in the language of their anti-Christian rulers. If they refused to accommodate, they were accepting utter marginality, and cutting themselves off from any participation in a thriving society. Yet accepting the dominant language and culture accelerated the already strong tendency to assimilate to the ruling culture, even if the process took generations.

Jenkins, 245.

Although Jenkins goes on to say he thinks we are “a long way away from any such scenario” like this in the West, I would argue that in the 12 years since the writing of his book things have actually progressed quite rapidly, especially with the ever increasing biases of our political media and the public emergence of potentially hegemonic ideologies like Critical Race Theory, a view that the highly regarded economist Glenn Loury has called “A threat to our civilization,” a civilization all historians agree was grounded in Christianity.2 Loury made this statement in an interview with Al Mohler here. The comment is made around the 51.45 mark. However, that Christian orthodoxy should crumble may mean that the broader culture is not far behind. This, as I noted before, was intimated by the former Cardinal of Chicago, Francis George.

Second, is the fact that much of this decline has, in great part, already occurred and has been documented by others, e.g. the Eastern Orthodox author Rod Dreher or now the Roman Catholic theologian Ralph Martin who have made strong arguments about the current crisis for orthodox Christianity in both of those ecumenical traditions.

Finally, to suggest that orthodoxy, the kind of orthodoxy I posited in the first part of this series, is in decline does not mean that all aspects of orthodox Christianity will disappear completely or that there will be no activity, intellectual or cultural, by orthodox practitioners, even under an extended period of suppression and persecution. History is far too complex for that, as Esolen points out again when drawing an analogy between America’s cultural demise and that of Rome:

If, then, I point out our cultural decline, I need not deny that we have antibiotics, or that men do not brawl in bars as often as they used to. Cultural decline is seldom universal. You can usually point out some regard in which things have not collapsed. A slave in the time of Domitian enjoyed more legal protection than did a slave in the time of the noble hero of the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus, but Domitian was cruel and mad, and the great poet Juvenal, writing in that time, said of the rabble in Rome that all you needed to keep them from rebellion was bread and circuses.

Anthony Esolen, “No Option:Clear out the Rubble & Rebuild”

Clearly the contemporary church in the West, even very orthodox churches, enjoys all kinds of benefits they did not in the past. And clearly our broader American culture has advanced in ways previous generations could hardly imagine. But, we can also detect with relative ease the crumbling of culture more broadly; the decay in the arts,3 To think that shows like SNL pass for art and entertainment today, is to realize the move from a high to a low culture. the loss of valuable social institutions,4 What ever happened to Rotary club, Knights of Columbus, Salvation Army? Most of their social functions have been replaced by government. and, most profoundly, the rejection of any notion of a national epic or ethos under which all citizens are called to unite and toward which they can strive. Even the loss of the nobility and nature of sport in the modern arenas of the NBA, NFL and MLB shows how far we have fallen from de Coubertin’s vision, the revival of the sacred games of the Olympiad, and how much closer we are to Juvenal’s lament.

For the church in this culture, a point Esolen makes poignantly, there is even a noticeable atrophy in its own language and practice, for just as Pope Gregory after the fall of the Roman culture “was quite aware that his Latin could not match that of the authors in the days of Cicero,” so too we realize today that our English cannot match the English in the days of Chesterton or Lewis, just as our preaching today does not match, or only rarely matches, that of Spurgeon or Sheen. Again, however, this is not to say there will be no Chestertons or Spurgeons in our times, only that they are rare and will continue to become harder and harder to find. And I will only make a passing remark about “skinny jeans and fog machines” as replacements for ecclesial vestments and incense.5 That was my passing remark. Taking these three qualifying observations into account, I find it at least plausible that my fool’s errand may not be quite so foolish.

Losing the Battle of the Heart

Losing the Narrative

“Winning hearts and minds” was a phrase that gained in popularity under the counter-insurgency doctrine of Gen. David Petraeus during the Iraq war. The basic idea, although not a novel one, is that it is more important to convince a local population that you are for them, and have their best interests in mind, than actually winning kinetic battles against the armed enemy in that region. In doing so, you pave the way to a strategic victory in an otherwise hostile land and in a war that cannot be won through sheer force. Winning hearts is compelling a hostile, or at least suspicious, people that you are its liberator, not its oppressor. In convincing hearts you also add allies to your ranks, allies with resources that can aid you in your mission.

It is important here to note that my metaphor breaks down when we think of actual hearts changing in such a way that they become captive to Christ, as in, they become saved hearts. What I am saying here does not relate to theological soteriology, a work that all historical Christians believe (and even many progressives) can only be initiated by the Holy Spirit Himself. Anything, or anyone, that says otherwise has a special place reserved in the hall of heresy, next to the likes of Pelagius and Socinus. Rather, winning hearts in this sense has to do with messaging the Christian worldview and the accompanying Christian life in such a way that even those who refuse its ultimate offer of salvation, still appeal to Christianity as a commendable or even indispensable feature of a moral and just human culture. Pascal put it this way “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” That said we can find people in the West, some very prominent, who while not believers themselves, do find Christianity attractive, and in finding it attractive, also find it indispensable, and in finding it indispensable become allies in its defense.6 I think here of the agnostic author, Tom Holland, who makes better defenses of historical Christianity than many Christians I know of. Their numbers are few however and increasingly far between.

Of course, if there is a war of wars, one requiring the winning over of hearts and minds, it is the spiritual war over the souls of men; a war, as C.S. Lewis once put it, between a “dark power” in the world and the creator of that power. Some might say it is at this point, the very idea of a dark power that keeps the world in a constant state of cruelty, confusion, and death coupled with the belief in an all-loving creator of that very same power, that the battle to win the human heart is already lost. Still this kind of skepticism has usually been reserved for the educated elite and philosophers of religion. While this “problem of evil” has certainly been pushed further down and out into the broader culture, especially due to the “New Atheists” of the early 2000’s, in the end there is a subtler face of secularism that lures away from Christian orthodoxy.

What does seem to be the point of departure for many hearts, is not the difficulty of reconciling an all good and all powerful God with the existence of free moral creatures, both human and spiritual, but rather the sense that Christianity cannot deliver the goods when it comes to a heart longing to be a part of a greater story, a cause that aims to fulfill our deepest longings. There are simply other stories out there, other causes: racial justice, climate change, fair trade coffee, anti-vaping campaigns, and now mask wearing that seem to offer more legitimate, more relevant, more immediate, and, of course, far less morally restrictive, life goals. Many of these causes and movements, all of them perhaps, operate entirely within what Charles Taylor called the “immanent frame.” They attract because, in short, they often are genuinely good moral endeavors that have a sense, or are given a sense, of great urgency. They offer the individual seeker of purpose a meaning that goes beyond their own lifestyle interests and narcissistic wants; at least sort of.7 In my own life, after my conversion as an adult, I became very aware of why I did many of the objectively good deeds I had done prior to that conversion. There is, as Kierkegaard elucidated, a universal ethic of which we are all aware, and which we long to try to accomplish on our own. We also long to be seen as good. But, this desire of the “ethical man” to do good and be good is deficient, for in man’s arrogance and pride he thinks and tries to be it and do it apart from God. It is the originating original sin reproduced in history.

However, this seeking for a cause in the world to which one can attach their existential hopes and alleviate their existential angst, if Christianity is true, is merely apparent. For while any one of those narratives, stories, or causes could be incorporated into the grander narrative of Christianity, Christianity cannot be reduced to fit into their overarching narratives (even if some, like Critical Race Theory, are trying to do just that). The problem of course is whether or not the vast majority see Christianity as the story in which all others come together, cohere, and find their ultimate meaning, or whether Christianity is just one option among a smorgasbord of purpose-giving pursuits.8 It reminds me of the 1965 George Stevens movie, The Greatest Story Ever Told with Max van Sydow as Jesus. The cast was incredible, even if the film was a dud. Many are accustomed to hearing about the “bigness of God” in kids’ classes and young adult ministries, but are we able to defend the bigness of Christianity as God’s story? This is often where the heart of the matter lies. This story cannot be detached from the life of the mind and the rigors of the intellect, but the mind and the intellect alone cannot do the cultural lifting necessary to win the war.

However, far be it for me to cast stones, for many great men and women have tried their hand at this task of weaving the art of the Christian faith and their works have done just that. Whether it be Augustine’s City of God in the 5th century or the worlds of Lewis and Tolkien in the 20th, there have been defenses of the Christian faith that have compelled millions. It is in this creative work that the wonder of Christianity becomes very real to many, the kind of wonder that we only rarely glimpse in America today. Andrew Davidson puts it this way:

It is the work of the apologist to suggest that only in God does our wonder reach its zenith, and only in God do our deepest desires find their fulfillment. The apologist may labour to show that the Christian theological vision is true, but that will fall flat unless he or she has an equal confidence that it is supremely attractive and engaging.

Andrew Davidson, Imaginative Apologetics (xxvi)

It is no wonder that many today are drawn to the musings of men like Jordan Peterson, another valiant defender of Christianity who nevertheless remains agnostic. For while Peterson is not inept as a philosopher, it is clearly his trafficking in the register of Jungian archetypes, and his ability to weave back into modern parlance the art and myth of the past that has made him such an impactful prophet of the post-modern era.

However, there is another arena of the heart that is not won on the battlefield of the imagination, but rather on the battlefield of relation. How the orthodox Church has related to the culture it lives in has not been without its problems. In fact, many have earned orthodoxy a justified bad name.

Losing Relationships

Inevitably orthodox Christians will lose relationships and that due to their orthodoxy. Jesus told us as much,

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.

John 15:18-20

However, there are ways that one should lose relationships and ways that one should not. Several factors play into any relationship, and the nature or quality of even one relationship usually has a degree of complexity too hard for any single mind to fully grasp. If we could, there would rarely be divorce as therapists would have long ago discovered the secret formula for marital success. Children and parents would never find themselves estranged from each other and fights among siblings quickly resolved.

But, in spite of this complexity, there are always relationships inside the orthodox church that will spoil the story it intends to transmit. This, again, is an inevitability of spiritual war. However, when we see messengers of God, trusted voices of the Gospel, fall from grace, and that through various forms of abuse, it should not surprise that one result is a turning away of the heart from orthodox Christianity itself (at least, a momentary turning away). The rejection of Roman Catholicism resulting from the scandal of priestly sexual abuse; the walking away from Evangelicalism on account of sexual immorality or greed among high-ranking members of Protestant churches or ministries; or the myriad other failures of orthodox communities that hold to the high biblical standard all matter greatly. Further, in most cases, healing does not simply occur overnight.

Finally, there are corporate relationships that turn away hearts from the orthodox faith. While I reject the notion that it was unjustified or immoral for Evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics to vote for and support Donald Trump, that that support had a negative effect on the hearts of many Americans cannot be denied. I am not in any way advocating for the idea that “image is everything.”9 A line made famous by tennis great, Andre Agassi several years ago. I have argued elsewhere that images often deceive, and we must discern the truth of the inner core over being satisfied with the outer appearance. Still, I am saying that, whether right or wrong, some things that orthodox Christians have attached themselves to have caused a stigma. Donald Trump, a man I voted for twice, is part of that current stigma against the orthodox family, and how we respond to both his presidency and now his loss of the presidency does matter to the Gospel. It is at least worth us considering very carefully. Good moves in the right direction are begin made by folks who do matter to the perception of the Church in America. Still, that there are rallies being held, ecumenical ones at that, that are calling for some kind of enduring resistance to the legitimacy of the Joe Biden presidency may, on the one hand, be refreshing, while on the other hand deeply upsetting. For while it is good to see a passionate unity of Christian orthodoxy, nevertheless, what we are unifying around and why we are doing it matters just as much.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has Screwtape, the elder tempter, advise his nephew Wormwood on how to divert the focus of the Christian man from his identity in Christ to his political identity. In the days of WWII, Lewis uses the political images of the “Patriot” and the “Pacifist”10 Today we might say the conservative and the liberal to make his point:

“Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. ”

C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books.

If our Christian faith becomes merely a part of our political loyalty, and the “World” made our ultimate end, then our heart is for politics instead of for Christ–we are living for the finite, not the eternal. This will be noticed by the eyes and the hearts of the culture around us. To be fair to Trump supporters like myself, this temptation to loyalty to politics over Christ clearly cuts both ways, as Progressive Christianity has for some time now found politics to be a golden calf. The alternative, however, is also not the answer, for to do nothing politically may indeed be to allow evil to triumph, something the abolitionists understood well. That a balance between worldly good sought through lawful means and heavenly good sought through unwordly means must be struck is foundational to the Christian life of faith. But, if one had to err on the side of caution, that side should be the heavenly.

In sum, both the failure to capture the imagination of the culture for the sake of Christ, as well as the loss in the realm of relationships has resulted in a major blow to the orthodox Christian story that is, in truth, one of goodness, and hope, and beauty. To use the Hebrew idiom, it is the story of stories.

Conclusion: Winning Hearts, Minds, and Senses Is Not Ultimately Up to Us

As difficult as it may be to accept that our success as orthodox communities to win the hearts, minds, and senses of a nation is ultimately not up to us, and, in some sense, that failure is inevitable, nevertheless it should be recognized as a mystery– a mystery any orthodox Christian must ponder with great seriousness. We, in the end, do not win the war, at least not in a manner that would afford us to boast of a victory we might imagine to have won on our own strength or through our own wits. To depart from this truth would be to move away from the orthodoxy I have been describing and move into the Progressivism I have called its antithesis.

The hope of the orthodox Christian is not to declare victory over a culture or a nation, ours is only to participate in the war for a culture or nation’s souls. Should we overstep our bounds in fighting with other than spiritual weapons, we become like the very culture we aim to see transformed. Should we abandon the spiritual weapons we do have to join the culture, we step off of the spiritual battlefield itself and right into the hands of the enemy.

One lesson I learned in Afghanistan was that one could lose the battle to evil men in two ways: one could fail to resist their aggression with the proper means of warfare and in doing so cede over the land to those who do evil. Or, one could take on the features of one’s enemy and, in doing so, become similarly evil. I’ll admit, there are times in the course of human history, and in particular moments of great moral complexity, when even the most faithful Christian can be tempted to the breaking point and so participate in real evil.11 Do not think that in the West we are not capable of this. We must consider the reality of Christian men and women who have before their very eyes seen their own children raped and savagely murdered. Is everyone of us so certain in our own spiritual formation, that we would not exact revenge upon the murderers if the opportunity presented itself? Is this not why we honor the martyrs who resist that temptation?

Therefore, as was even the case with the ultimate counter-insurgent, Jesus Christ Himself, the Word made Flesh who came to live among the enemies of God, victory in this war is never more than partial. This is reported in John’s Gospel, when the eyewitness writes,

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.

John 1:9-11

God Himself came into His own creation, now broken with sin and death, to rescue people from that sin and that death, yet not all believed in His liberation, and still today most see Him as oppressor and not Liberator. Nevertheless, the things Jesus did were the kinds of thing that could and should win the hearts of men and women. Healing the sick, casting out demons, freeing people from the guilt of their own conscience. All acts of genuine love of the other, all expressions of agape love, which seeks the ultimate for the other even at great cost to oneself.

Winning the heart, however, is the victory of Christianity in the world. For as I already pointed out, one could lose both the battle of the senses and the battle of the mind, yet if one wins the heart of an individual or group, then Christ has conquered them. For one can have all of the most beauteous and spacious church buildings in the world, or all of the best formulated and most cogent arguments of the Truth, but if neither affects the human heart, then salvation has not been gained and the individual or her community remains lost.

As orthodox Christianity dies in the West we should take comfort in two truths about Christianity and its historical persecutions: first, it is always for the benefit of God’s true chosen ones that persecution comes. Jenkins points out that the church under persecution has often understood the persecution itself as part of a communal soul-building:

Such punishments could be understood as a form of correction from which the society would learn lessons for the future, and from which it would emerge stronger. This was, after all, a society in which fathers were expected to apply strict corporal punishment to erring children.

Jenkins, 251

And errant children we are. Further, we should accept, as orthodox believers, the wisdom and traditions, and interpretations of the past. For they are not irrelevant or defunct, no matter our post-modern sensibilities. That God Almighty chastises is a fundamental mystery grounded in the revelation of Scripture. The history of Israel attests to it thoroughly. Through suffering we gain in both purity and wisdom, learning what really matters and how to persevere with the saints.

Second, however, is the more hopeful vision of our transhistorical and eternal connection to all of those who have come before us and suffered, the community of the church militant that wars against powers and principalities as well as flesh and blood throughout time. Jenkins references a work by Charles Williams regarding this profound truth:

Charles William’s Descent into Hell, […] also deals with themes of martyrdom and, in worldly terms, failure. One of the book’s characters is a sixteenth-century Protestant about to be executed for his faith, but his fear of suffering and pain means that he dreads giving in to his persecutors. He draws courage from a mystical linkage with his descendants, a woman in the twentieth century. The lives of both individuals find meaning and purpose across long centuries that for us demarcate separate worlds, but which have no existence in the mind of God. Such a connection is absurd in terms of secular thought, as God does a miserably poor job of respecting human precision about time and space. But such a story reminds us that long ages of Christian absence that we might clumsily term an ‘eternity’ might in reality be no such thing.

Jenkins, 256

What is it then to the orthodox Christian who might face persecution? It is to his or her benefit that he or she join into full communion with women like Perpetua in the 3rd century or men like Tyndale in the 16th. It is for our good that we enter into the complete fellowship with the 21 Coptic priests beheaded on a beach in Libya in 2015. For it was the beheaded apostle Paul himself, the one who saw Jesus in the Heavens, who said, such present sufferings as these are indeed not worth comparing to the vast weight of glory yet to be revealed.

Losing Christian Orthodoxy in America?: Part II – Losing the Battle of the Mind

In this series I am arguing that a certain form of Christian faith and practice, an “orthodox” form, will soon find itself under governmental persecution, and its pastors, priests, bishops and laypersons will likely incur concrete instances of state sponsored oppression. The reasons for this are critical losses on three battlefields of culture: the battlefield of the senses, the battlefield of the mind, and the battlefield of the heart or emotions. In the first post I argued that orthodox Christianity is quickly losing the battle of the senses. In this post I will show how it is losing the battle of the mind.

Orthodoxy vs. Progressive Christianity

Before I try to show how orthodox Christians have lost the battle for the intellect in America, let me first return to the notion of “orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy in the context of this series should not be equated with Eastern Orthodoxy, an easily identifiable tradition of theology and practice which separated “officially” from Roman Catholicism and Western Christendom in roughly 1054 AD. Here, rather, I am talking about orthodoxy as it relates to the kind of religious beliefs that term might entail, beliefs which can be said to be held in common by all major Christian traditions in Christianity’s roughly 1,980-year history. In other words, the kind of “Mere Christianity” that Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century, Richard Baxter in the 17th, and C.S. Lewis in the 20th century would have agreed upon. I laid out five criteria by which an orthodox, ecumenical church could be recognized. I will not review those criteria here, but try to expound on the term “orthodoxy” so as to get in sight more precisely the kind of Christianity I expect to see fall on hard times.

In addition to the actual beliefs then, orthodoxy refers to the kind of believers who hold such orthodox views, and who arguably will be (or already have been) most affected by concrete forms of persecution in America. For those who think that this cannot or has not already occurred in part in the United States, I would make reference to the following cases: the Jack Phillips case, the Little Sisters of the Poor case, the case of the 2016 Bill 1146 in the State of California. Other examples could be easily multiplied.1 I am bound morally to acknowledge that each of these cases has had positive outcomes for the religious institutions or persons involved. However, these cases show a few things: one, how extraordinarily important it is to have non-constructivist judges on the Supreme Court, and second, that cultural leaders in America are very willing to pursue such litigation against conservative Christian organizations and persons. Third, the idea that such litigation will simply stop, arbitrarily, is naive.

One way to bring orthodoxy more clearly into sight is to look at its main alternative. The primary alternative then to this orthodox form of Christianity, right or wrong,2 I am not arguing about the truth values of orthodox claims vis-a-vis progressive ones. I am only trying to define and distinguish the two. is what we might call “Progressive” Christianity. It is Progressive Christianity that I expect will be less affected by any persecution by the state or through culture. Progressive Christians will be less likely than orthodox Christians to experience any real blow back from secular authorities or pressure from culture.

Thus, let me lay out some possible features of this Progressive Christianity. It is better to speak of “features” here rather than “criteria,” since Progressivism is not something that can be defined apart from its deviation from orthodoxy. Progressive Christianity is itself only clear in so far as we recognize some essentials of orthodoxy, and, as such, there is not a fixed set of criteria by which one could identify as progressively Christian, especially considering that the term “progressive” implies an embrace of change or flux. These features are, therefore, by no means exhaustive, and there will be exceptions in so far as there may be some churches that label themselves “progressive” yet do not display all these features. Nevertheless, here are five features by which we might better understand the distinction between orthodox and progressive versions of Christianity:

  1. Progressive Christianity will likely hold to some form of “correlation” or “correlative” theology. Correlation theology and the methods that define it are known both in the Protestant world and Roman Catholic one.3 I imagine that there are Eastern Orthodox theologians who apply this method as well, I am just unaware of any. A prime example of a Protestant theologian who advanced the theory of correlation would be Paul Tillich, while a Roman Catholic example would be Yale theologian Margaret Farley. In short4And I mean very short, correlation theology is a rich concept and I cannot do it or its proponents justice in this short space., correlation theologies argue that Christians and Christianity are in an open dialogue with the words of the Bible. While the words of the Bible and the propositions found therein might be considered inspired and edifying to any given Christian community, those same words and propositions do not necessarily contain or refer to a fixed, universal, and binding moral or theological content.5 For a comprehensive take on the idea of fixed, universal, and binding theological propositions, see Catholic theologian Eduardo Echeverria’s Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. At a minimum, the moral and metaphysical content and theological truths presented in Scripture must be repackaged to answer the questions of our modern (or post-modern) times. As such, Christian answers are ultimately subject to what drives us existentially today, and what drives us most profoundly today will ultimately determine what we need to retrieve from the Scriptures, or Church History, and what we might conveniently leave behind: what we have in a sense “progressed beyond.”

    This dialogical approach6 This term, I believe, was coined by Margaret Farley to the sources of Christianity that shapes Christian communities often takes broad, biblical themes such as “love,” “justice,” or “liberation” without taking into account the specific moral commands enshrined in the text of Scripture. As such, biblical themes which are still important to us today can nevertheless be detached from specific moral laws found in the Bible or pronounced through the church’s historical teachings.7 One Roman Catholic theologian and personal friend roughly put it this way: correlation theologians and their followers don’t like what might be called “Churchianity” whereby “Churchianity” stands in for fixed, universal, and binding pronouncements of the Church that apply today just as always. The result of a correlation theological approach is often, but certainly not always, an elevating of philosophy and contemporary experience as the norms by which we gauge the validity of biblical truth. In sum, the church today confers authority on those parts of Scripture which correlate best to our current existential experiences and normative judgments about the world.
  2. In light of feature 1, progressive Christian churches will tend to evaluate moral claims differently than orthodox churches. Non-negotiable moral judgments that orthodox Christians make, especially in the areas of life issues (e.g. abortion and euthanasia), human sexuality, and the nature of marriage, will likely find revision among progressive churches that hold to the correlation approach. For these churches, contemporary lived experience and the judgments of certain sciences will demand theological claims be revised to answer the questions which emerge from those experiences and those judgments. Theologian Margaret Farley puts it this way regarding sexual ethics,

“New philosophical links between sex and freedom, sex and power, sex and history, gender and just about everything else, are in some respects so important that there can be no turning back to simpler ways of interpreting human experience.”

Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

In other words, going back to how pre-modern, biblical authors like Paul “experienced” sexuality when he wrote the sixth chapter of his first letter to Corinthians is no longer possible in light of new “philosophical links.”8 Notice, however, that Farley actually goes beyond just sexual ethics here, stating that “just about everything else” is open for revision as well. Philosophy and the sciences have trumped the theological judgments of Paul and maybe even Jesus, each of whom had different cultural experiences of sexuality and no sense of modern science.

3.Progressive forms of Christianity will, unlike orthodox forms, tend to reject the exclusivity of Christ with regard to salvation, instead opting for a religious universalism that allows many (perhaps all) to be saved through means other than Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

4. Progressive forms of Christianity will often see ongoing human experience and the process, or “progress,” of history as equally revelatory of God’s nature and will as the Biblical revelation itself. In other words, the “canon” of revelation is not closed.

5. Progressive forms of Christianity may also be more likely to deny or underplay the metaphysical realities that ground the truth claims of many creedal statements of the historical Church, as well as downplay the supernatural aspects of the biblical witness. In other words, references to demons, angles, spiritual powers or perhaps even a personal God, are often seen as merely symbolic or metaphorical.9 One look at the statements of belief by divinity schools like Wake Forest will demonstrate that the biblical language about God is itself primarily symbolic and therefore contingent upon its historical conditions. As such, it is not a binding revelation to refer to God as “YHWH” or “Father” since those terms are relative to the cultures that produced them. Today we can freely call God “mother” or perhaps just “Ground of Being.”

In sum, any churches or Christian communities that exemplify these features can reasonably be called “progressive.” Moreover, these features of this form of Christianity help us better see what orthodoxy is, and, finally, it is more likely that the churches and communities which exemplify this form of Christianity will not experience the kind or degree of persecution that their orthodox brothers and sisters will have to endure.10 I am not trying to set Christians against each other, I just think it is an obvious truth that churches which are more open or more in sync with the conclusions of the culture in which they live will have a far easier time surviving in that culture. Again, I am making no arguments here as to whether progressive forms of Christianity or orthodox ones are true or false.

With this now in mind, let me turn to the claim that it is on the battlefield of the mind that orthodox Christianity has lost much ground. Perhaps too much to recover the land.

Second Sign: Losing the Battle of the Mind (or Intellect)

The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett was truly a shocking turn of events in recent Supreme Court history. Considering what it took to get such a devoted and brilliant conservative Catholic a seat on the highest court in the land, however, shows the resistance in the culture to thoughtful Christianity.11 I am not unsympathetic to the arguments from Christians who found the way in which Judge Barrett was nominated less than entirely virtuous, although this in no way should diminish the obvious excellence and competency of the nominee herself. The fear of dogmas living loudly in the hearts of men or women with equally powerful minds is palpable among many in positions of social and political power. But, perhaps more shocking than Barrett’s nomination and appointment, is the fact that there even is someone like an Amy Coney Barrett– a serious Christian executing serious social functions in the present culture. When one considers, for example, the rates of conservative Catholic and Evangelical voices in high academia today in comparison to liberal, agnostic and leftist ones, it is amazing that women like Judge Barrett even exist. It is perhaps a credit to her alma mater, Notre Dame, that at least some semblance of orthodox Christian faith remains acceptable among the academic elite. References to the evidence of these astounding disparities between conservative scholars and liberal ones can be found here, here and here.

That said, my argument rests on an assumption, that being that Christians who tend to vote Republican or who identify as politically conservative will be more in line with the criteria of orthodoxy which I set out in the previous post. The corollary to that assumption is Christians who are politically liberal and vote Democratic will also tend to find themselves in churches or denominations that display the features of “Progressivism” I listed above. While I think there is good prima facie reason to think that these correlations hold, I also recognize that there will be exceptions: for example, orthodox Christians who for whatever reason find it more appropriate to vote for political liberals, and progressive Christians who vote for or support Republican candidates for office. Nevertheless, there is data that suggests that political views matter to how one views Evangelicalism in America12 I would extrapolate the same to apply to Roman Catholics. Indirectly then, one might infer that if Evangelicals are mostly viewed by Democrats negatively and by Republicans positively, and if the social agendas of the Democratic party line up better with progressive forms of Christianity13We might also call these forms “mainline Protestant”, while the agendas of Republicans with orthodox forms, then we might conclude that in the academy when we see a tremendous disparity between political liberals (Democrats) and conservatives (Republicans), this shows that the influence of orthodox Christian voices or ideas in the high academy is marginal.

The President of Ratio Christi, Corey Miller, highlights more directly the fact that there are few Evangelical voices in the high academy:

According to Harvard’s recent Crimson Survey, the single largest religious group of the class of 2019 is atheist/agnostic. 4 Erstwhile Harvard student Bill Gates dubs Enlightenment Now, by Harvard atheist professor Steven Pinker, his “new favorite book of all time.”5  Pinker, like a great number of his colleagues, is a self-proclaimed atheist and liberal. From top to bottom, Harvard isn’t what it once was. He points out that in 1990, 42 percent of faculty were far left or liberal, 40 percent moderate, and 18 percent conservative, for a liberal-to-conservative ratio of 2.3 to 1.6 Today, for those ages 65 and older preparing for retirement it is 12:1; and for younger scholars ages 36 and under it is 23:1.7 In Religion departments it is a whopping 70:1!8  There is extreme bias against hiring evangelical Christians.9  It seems there is an all-out assault on the Christian faith where the major battlefield is the universities. Some professors explicitly target Christian faith: “Employing universities in the struggle against faith is a cornerstone in the larger strategy to combat faith, promote reason and rationality, and create skeptics.”10

Dr. Corey Miller, “How We Lost the Universities and How to Reclaim the Voice of Christ” in CRI online

Further, one Barna survey shows that when Democrats think of Evangelicals they think of very different traits then when Republican think of the same subgroup:

The terms chosen most frequently by Democrats were: politically conservative and religiously conservative, narrow minded, homophobic and uptight. The ones that Republicans selected were: religiously conservative (but not politically conservative), caring, hopeful and friendly. It would almost appear that these partisan affiliations are talking about two completely different religious groups. Democrats seem to be pointing out some of the worst qualities they perceive about evangelicals, while Republicans are quick to emphasize positive characteristics.

Ryan Burge, “The Evangelical Identity Crisis”

At the end of the day, many Christians do vote based on individual persons and specific policies, so any claim here does fall prey to the fallacy of hasty generalization. Still, considering the immense discrepancies in numbers at major universities, it is quite reasonable to think that of those very many liberal or left-leaning professors some may be progressive Christian, while of the very few conservative or Republican ones, some may be adherents to orthodox Christianity. Or there are predominantly atheistic Democratic professors in higher education who despise orthodox Christianity, even if retaining some sympathy for Progressive Christianity. Either way, and in conclusion, the empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that orthodox Christians have lost the battle of the mind in virtue of losing a place in the university.

But the loss of the battle of the mind has not come solely through the discrimination of Christians by scholarly adversaries, even though that discrimination is real and has been clearly documented here and here. Students of Evangelicalism in America will be familiar with the tragic turn away from the academy in the early 20th century by fundamentalists looking to carve out a subsection of culture for themselves, a section separate from what they saw as an academic will that had little capacity for truth due to the noetic effects of sin on skeptical minds. Rather than contending with the skeptic on the battlefield of ideas, many Evangelicals decided to retreat into their own intellectual realm, a realm safeguarded by common assumptions and orthodox presuppositions. While not an intrinsically bad thing, this move left a lacuna of rigorous academic scholarship to offset the domination of the universities by atheistic naturalists.

Others, like some mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, did stay in the academic arena, but rather than contest the rise of scientistic naturalism, or its atheistic counterpart, post-modern existentialism, they capitulated much intellectual territory, especially in the areas of Metaphysics and Morality, to their more socially acceptable interlocutors. With the exception of neo-Thomist moves in Catholic Theology and the advent of analytic philosophy of religion grounded in the work of thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig, the academy was left to be fought over between the intellectual offspring of Betrand Russell and Karl Marx (e.g. Richard Dawkins and Michel Foucault). Conservative Roman Catholics and Evangelicals may have had the better arguments, perhaps not unlike Intelligent Design theorists today, but their social clout was not sufficient to stand up to the all too human pressures of their scholarly peers. In the end the will is more powerful than the mind, and winning the sociological battle is just as important as developing the better arguments.

The result of this loss on the battlefield of ideas between the 1910’s and 1990’s has been a culture that takes naturalism as a given. The classical liberal side of this materialist coin may share some common features with orthodox Christianity, for example in its embrace of instrumental reason as a means to objective knowledge,14 Right now there are strange alliances forming between atheists who would otherwise be contending against orthodox Christianity, but who are now locked arm-in-arm with orthodox Christians in the battle against intellectually harmful movements such as Critical Race Theory. Examples would be philosophers like James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian. while the Marxist socialist side of the same coin other ones, like its emphasis on the material care for all people. However, neither is truly a friend or ally of a historical Christian worldview which assumes a reality beyond nature and the truth of transcendent purposes and rewards. In the end each of these worldviews and the manifold causes and movements they birth will inevitably be in competition with Christian orthodoxy in some foundational area. And, as with orthodox Islam, these two cannot peacefully coexist if one becomes too dominant in the culture, for Christian orthodoxy will always attempt to curb, correct, or resist certain flaws inherent in those systems and the (im)moral demands that flow from them. A true Christian orthodoxy will play the prophetic voice to systems not grounded in the reality of God and in the natural law embedded in His creation. This is what Cardinal Francis George was gesturing toward in 2010 when he uttered his now famous phrase. Concrete moral issues like abortion, euthanasia, and transgender rights are all examples of cultural phenomena which orthodoxy can never accept and is called to repudiate.

In sum, philosophers like Charles Taylor have made it clear that we no longer live in a cultural context where religious belief, at least not metaphysically significant religious beliefs, appear plausible to the average person. Taylor puts it this way:

The great invention of the West was that of an immanent order in Nature, whose working could be systematically understood and explained on its own terms, leaving open the question whether this whole order had a deeper significance, and whether, if it did, we should infer a transcendent Creator beyond it. This notion of the ‘immanent’ involved denying–or at least isolating and problematizing–any form of interpenetration between the things of Nature, on the one hand, and the ‘supernatural’ on the other, be this understood in terms of the one transcendent God, or of Gods or spirits, or magic forces, or whatever.

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 15-16.

And once the metaphysical realities that underlie the moral claims and spiritual practices are undermined, the atheistic materialist of either camp can sit back and slowly watch actual churches began to cave to social pressure. That pressure creates even more skepticism about orthodox moral claims. And, if social pressure is stronger than even the strongest argument, the willingness of those who would otherwise hold to historical Christian dogma is additionally weakened.

While Taylor’s analysis goes far beyond a simple “naturalism” versus “Christianity” narrative, it nevertheless is the case that at one time all of the major educational institutions in America were Protestant universities dedicated to the pursuit of divine Truth and the clear explication of that Truth for the sake of building a more moral and just society. That this is no longer the case has been absolutely undeniable for over 100 years now. In this sense, it really is no wonder that the beliefs of women like Amy Coney Barrett seem incredible to other women, like Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Nevertheless, the gradual loss of the research university and centers of academic engagement in the 20th century have made orthodox Christianity only a near lost cause in 21st century America. For even losing the intellectual battlefield and the battlefield of the senses is not a sufficient condition for the decline of orthodoxy in a nation. For that a final condition must be met, and that condition is the loss of the heart of a nation. In my next post I will argue that in losing the heart of America, orthodoxy must prepare for its inevitable demise.

Is Orthodoxy a “Lost Cause” in America?: Part I – Losing the Senses

The late arch-bishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, said a few years before his earthly demise,

“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

While George’s successor in the Windy City, Blase Cupich, has not been arrested since George’s death in 2015, and it appears, at least for now, that incarceration is not an imminent threat to Cardinal Cupich, still, even if George’s quasi-rhetorical forth-telling has failed to come true, there is a strong and growing sense among traditional Catholics and conservative Evangelicals that indeed all is not well with the soul of America. More recent visionaries like Rod Dreher have written several powerful texts arguing as much, even offering alternative routes to preserving the historical deposit of classical Christian faith.

But why think this is the case? Is the current panic among the faithful warranted in light of the actual conditions? Or are we, perhaps like each passing generation of American Christians, overreacting to troubling but otherwise negligible sociological and political trends?

Unfortunately, I suspect the former is true— that we really are in serious trouble and our panic warranted.1 That is not to say that we should panic, rather that we should find ways to prepare ourselves for the coming crisis. There are three signs of the times which I think indicate this inevitable demise of any kind of publicly-practiced orthodox Christianity in America. Also, it is not just a fading into irrelevance I am talking about, but that orthodox Christians will actually be persecuted concretely, e.g. in the banning of public worship or the incarceration of priests and pastors who defy state-authorized religious and moral teachings. The three signs that point to this demise can be construed as lost (or nearly lost) battles. These are battlefields of culture where, should orthodoxy not find itself fighting boldly on each, the orthodox themselves will become, or have already become, a conquered people.2Of course, not in the eschatological sense, which is an important point to make.

These three battles are waged in the realm of the senses, the realm of the mind, and in the realm of the heart or emotions. All areas where orthodox Christianity is struggling to hold its ground and win the day. In part one of this series, I look at the lost battle of the senses. However, first I should give some definition of what I mean by “orthodox” Christianity.

What is Orthodox Christianity?

Orthodoxy can be a tricky term. It can be used as if everyone who hears it should know exactly what it means and specifically which dogmas it entails and which teachings it anathematizes. But, so often this is not the case, and orthodoxy is something that various churches, denominations, and movements wrestle over, each vying to claim it as their own.

For my purposes, however, I will posit the following necessary and sufficient conditions for a church community to be considered truly orthodox:

  1. A church is orthodox if its members can recite the propositional claims of the four ecumenical creeds with an authentic belief in the metaphysical and historical realities that ground the truth of each claim.
  2. A church is orthodox if it maintains a hermeneutical approach to the scriptures that is consistent with, albeit not identical to, interpretive approaches of the early, medieval and reformational eras; this would include an approach that presupposes the divine inspiration of at least the 66 canonical books of the Protestant Bible and the continuity, cohesiveness, and universality of its message, the Gospel.
  3. A church subsequently is orthodox if it professes salvific exclusivity; meaning that it is always and only through Jesus Christ that any individual person regardless of time, place, culture or level of development is saved to eternal life with God. 3 This can occur in a variety of ways, however. For example a 18th-century Muslim peasant women living in Central Asia could be saved having never heard the name of Jesus Christ or the Gospel message, but her salvation would occur through the General Revelation given to her by Christ and her response to that General Revelation. She would not be saved through her Muslim faith and practice, but actually in spite of it.
  4. A church is orthodox if it maintains the traditional teachings of the church on non-negotiable moral issues, e.g. human sexuality, the sanctity of all human life, the nature of marriage.
  5. Finally, an orthodox church retains an identifiable continuity of basic religious practice with the historical, ecumenical Church of Reformation Protestantism, Latin Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Christianity, e.g. congregating together on Sundays, a recognizable ecclesial structure, the practicing of biblical sacraments, corporate prayer and worship, preaching, charitable outreach, etc.

While this is not a comprehensive list, it seems that church communities that meet all of these conditions, regardless of denominational affiliation or even ecumenical tradition, could rightly be called orthodox.4 For a more detailed, educated, and comprehensive account of ecumenical orthodox Christianity, see Thomas Oden’s excellent Classical Christianity: A Systematic Theology.

First Sign: Losing the Battle of the Senses

In his excellent book The Lost History of Christianity, historian Philip Jenkins explains one way in which a religious identity is eliminated from culture: through the dismantling of the religious imagery and sound world that expresses its theological claims and social practices. Jenkins summarizes what happened to Christian art, architecture, and imagery when Christian cultures came under a dominant Islamic political rule:

Under Muslim rule, churches were tightly constrained in their ability to project their physical presence into the landscape, by the public display of icons and images or statuary, by bell ringing or public processions. It was no longer possible to use the liturgy and the spectacular external decorations of church buildings to offer believers a taste of the ultimate.

Jenkins, 215

In other words, Islam, not unlike the aggressive voices of secularism today, developed a program of expunging visible Christianity from the landscape of the nation or region it conquered. Church cupolas were replaced with domed Mosques, iconic imagery demolished and replaced by Arabic script, and spaces of Christian worship and practice pushed to the margins of the city and outlying country side. A contemporary analogy of this might be if one were to take a stroll down “the Magnificent Mile” of Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago where churches like the beautiful Fourth Presbyterian Church are dominated by skyscrapers dedicated to commerce, fashion, and trend.5 See the image featured at the top of this blog. Is it any wonder that Fourth Presbyterian’s theology is also dominated by the secular forces that erected the buildings which loom over its steeple?

But, it was not only the visible imagery of Christianity that was suppressed, it was also the soundscape of Christian faith that was precluded from the everyday experience of the average citizen:

Far from dominating and sanctifying the public landscape…Christian structures and rituals were forced into varying degrees of concealment, which grew all the more discreet following waves of riot or violence. Over the centuries, for instance, Nestorians abandoned what had once been their common use of icons, and had few opportunities to use the wooden clappers they employed in place of [church] bells.

Jenkins, 215

Wooden clappers in the place of church bells? Christians today don’t even have that! And, when was the last time you heard an actual church bell ring? In the late Middle Ages is was not long before former Christian cultures where dominated by the minaret and the muezzin, sights and sounds that declared the glory of Allah and the very subservient, even if honored, status of his merely human prophet Issa. Moreover, the two religious expressions were simply not compatible in the same city, since they were fundamentally at odds theologically, “Cities could have a soundscape based on the Muslim muezzin or Christian bells, but not both. Several times a day, the call to prayer sent a straightforward message about who held political power.”6 Jenkins, 216.

In spite of the lack of church bells, the realm of music may indeed be one of the last bastions of defense for orthodox Christianity, at least during the Christmas season and to some degree the rest of the year as radio stations throughout the country air Christian pop music, some of which might even be good enough to act as a counterweight to the secular soundscape that dominants our auditory world.7 Recent Christian adaptation of formerly secular, and often grossly immoral, forms of music like Rap might even be considered indicators of pockets of cultural revival. However, whether Christian popular music can maintain the pace with its worldly rivals has yet to be seen and, in many ways, it has already been found wanting, suggesting a lack of staying power. Its traditional musical predecessors, the Hymns and Gospel, however, are quickly vanishing from our sound world. Even “Amazing Grace” only makes a rare appearance in our auditory soundscape today.8 I have a terrible voice, but I make a point to hum Amazing Grace to my two-year old son every night before bed.

While today’s subjugation of Christian sights and sounds doesn’t takes place through force as it often did in the Middle Ages, it does take place through both law and the more non-coercive elements of culture. However, it is noteworthy that not all subjugation of visible Christianity in Dar-al-Islam was through force either. Much of its subjugation was also through more gradual cultural means or through de jure pronouncements that provided the initial impression of Islamic cultural domination only to over time become de facto realities. This is why it is terribly unfortunate that so many Christians today have abandoned interest in politics and law. Thinking that laws, and the Supreme Court Justices that interpret them, don’t matter in the shaping of the hearts and minds and practices of people living under them is both naive and dangerous. This is especially poignant today after nearly a year of “guidelines” restricting the gathering of church communities. For, in the end, it is the gathering church that is the ultimate “visible sign” of Christ. A church that does not gather cannot act as the embodiment of that greater Truth to which it has been called to represent.

Either way, whether through brute physical force or the more indirect mechanisms of cultural pressure and de jure laws, the careful deconstruction of anything that might remind a population of its Christian roots was one tactic in the overall offensive against the will of those Christian communities still professing orthodox faith, “Progressively reducing the conspicuous display of signs of faith reduced the number of reasons for minority believers to maintain their stubborn dissidence, and encourage conformity.”9 Jenkins, 215.

While traditional Islam today is doubling down in places that had, for a short time, drifted secular in maintaining dominance over the sights and sounds of those lands (see Turkey as a very troubling example), Secularism is also doubling down in its domination over the sensory experiences of most Americans. Apart from gaudy, zirconium-studded jewelry, many Americans today have never experienced any real overt, genuine, and powerful images of Christian piety. Most young people have not participated annually in Corpus Christi processions, heard church bells ringing on a weekly basis, or viewed statuary or painting (of a high quality) representing the transcendent principles or historical legacy of Classical Christianity. Dissident attempts to recapture the religious imagination in the domain of film are few, far between, and often of incredibly poor quality. The last, best hope probably being the cinematization of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, itself ambiguous enough to appeal to all audiences, and Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (a film that was met with considerable cultural blow back). While Jesus films come and go, their phenomenological power and influence is weak compared to the secular imaginary that daily dominates our thought world. Jesus, Mary and Joseph simply cannot compete with Han, Luke, and Leah.

In sum, the average US citizen today will have a daily array of sensory experiences of secular culture that vastly outstrips any encounter with Christian imagery, art, or sound. The shrines of secularity are legion: Sports stadiums, movie theaters, grocery stores, gyms, restaurants and bars, Walmart and Home Depot. Not to mention the political and social propaganda that floods through our screens and into our living rooms (BLM superstars and mask fanatics included) or the alternative mythologies streamed unceasingly to us in the form of Marvel, Star Wars, and Harry Potter.10 I am no expert in pop culture and at 45 I am sure the examples given here are already dated. But, whatever the 2021 versions of each may be, it is those that dominate our visual world and shape our inner one. Further, this phenomena will be most concentrated in our cities, where not only are the senses dominated by secular messages, symbols, and stories, but where nature is absent and everything seen or heard can be readily explained as “the work of human hand” rather than that of an almighty, immaterial Creator. It is the daily interactions with this Christian-less yet utterly concrete culture that wears down the otherwise stalwart defender of orthodoxy.

With the arrival of COVID this slow yet steady process has accelerated as church leaders relinquish the right to congregate at Sunday service or the Mass in order to appease the sensibilities and appetites of those in political power. Thus, the march toward a culture void of Christian presence is inevitable. Certainly Christians may continue to move freely about their world so long as their faith is not recognizably displayed, just as Christians were able to blend into Islamic societies by taking on Arabic names and dressing in Islamic fashion. Perhaps the central Christian image of the cross will also remain widespread in the culture, albeit worn in predominantly bauble-like fashion or as a gaudy adornment on an otherwise secularized body.

However, losing the battle of the senses would still not be a sufficient condition for the loss of Christian orthodoxy. For even if our cityscapes flourished with basilicas, and Sunday mornings resounded with church bells reminding the faithful of their holy obligations, at best we might be like Europe, where much of the same is present yet a genuine and practiced orthodoxy still negligible. Even there, however, is it any wonder that laws are now emerging to limit the extent of Muslim religious expressions in European cities? Our embodied nature feeds off of what we experience sensorially around us, and some of that, much of it perhaps, transmits to the soul. Another word for “soul” in much of modern philosophy and theology is “mind,” and it is in the next post I will look at the battlefield of the mind and how Christianity has lost this battle within the domain of the academy.