Christianity and Culture: Is Orthodoxy a “Lost Cause” in America?

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 stipulate 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 pre-modern, 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.

A Power Unto Salvation?: Science, Semantics, and the Supernatural (Part I: Defining The Views)

“In all religion there is a recollection of the Divine Truth which has been lost; in all religion, there is a longing after the divine light and the divine love; but in all religion also there yawns an abyss of demonic distortion of the Truth, and of man’s effort to escape from God.”

Emil Brunner

In this series I examine three broad approaches to engaging the question of the human condition. Those approaches are Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturlism. After defining each, the question will be asked: “Which of these, if any, has the power to save people from their existential condition?” Each view offers some answer to the problem of human existence, but I will argue only one is sufficient to truly liberate us from our present condition of alienation and oppression.

Introduction: Two Kinds of Naturalism

Since the Enlightenment and the breakdown of the Medieval Synthesis1 The Medieval Synthesis is best represented in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who synthesized the inspired Special Revelation of the Bible and the authoritative teachings of the Church with the best philosophical reflections on general revelation, namely, Aristotle. there have been, at least in the European and especially in the Anglo-Germanic speaking cultures, essentially two posited views on the nature of the human condition: the scientistic materialist view and the semantic existentialist view. The former of these places authority and power in the domain of the natural sciences and the scientific method, the other in the domain of language and human culture.

For most Christians living in English-speaking contexts today, the major battle of ideologies has played out between a very logic-centered, scientistic empiricism and a reason-oriented, metaphysical, and historical Christianity. In the 19th and 20th century this battle was waged between rationalists on both sides: metaphysical naturalists and metaphysical supernaturalists, who used arguments and evidence to both justify and compel belief– either toward atheism or in Christian theism. These engagements developed into robust philosophical debates between the great minds of the previous generation, e.g. Copleston and Russell, and those of today, e.g. William Lane Craig and Graham Oppy. Since the emergence of Christian analytic philosophy in the 1960s with the likes of men like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, this domain of intellectual dispute has informed much of our theological dialogue in the United States, especially in Evangelical Christianity.

Less familiar perhaps to many Evangelical Christians in the United States, however, were the contemporaneous developments occurring in the German and French speaking worlds of existential philosophy. As such, for many Evangelical apologists, the works of men like Sartre and Camus (on the French side), or Heidegger and Jaspers (on the German side) went unnoticed for quite some time. In addition, the Christian, or theistic, interlocutors to these existentialist philosophers have also gone under the radar, or perhaps remain entirely undiscovered, with the exception perhaps of particularly giant names like Karl Barth, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedikt XVI), or the much beloved Francis A. Schaeffer.

In particular, the most impactful group of German existentialists were the founders of Critical Theory, the philosophical grandfather of today’s multitudinous critical theories. This group attempted to develop a third way of looking at the world, one that neither denied the metaphysical naturalism of the scientistic worldview, nor that rejected the symbolic value and meaning of the religious worldview. The main figures in this very German-Jewish secular movement of philosophy were Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Weber.

For critical theorists, the result of accepting metaphysical naturalism (i.e. rejecting philosophical metaphysics), while not rejecting the existential aid of Christian theology, invested this innately Marxist philosophy with a quasi-religious flavor or tone. A flavor or tone that makes it very difficult to discern for many Christians today whether or not its tenets, or the tenets associated with any of its successor theories, are compatible with an actual biblical worldview, a worldview replete with God, gods, angels and demons, and human souls that have actual causal powers, moral natures, and that endure after physical death. This is a quite different kind of naturalism in this sense, and one harder to identify than its overtly anti-religious counterpart.2 For a prime example of scientistic critiques of religion, see almost anything by Richard Dawkins, most especially, The God Delusion.

Before we look at each of these naturalisms individually, and how they attempt to address the human condition, let’s define them a bit more narrowly, and also introduce their metaphysical opponent, Supernaturalism.

The Three Views: Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturalism

Scienticism is best embodied by philosophers like A.J. Ayers who avowed logical positivism (at least early on),3 Ayer went on to say this of his former views “I suppose that most of the defects of it were that nearly all of it was false.” or W.V.O. Quine, who tried to naturalize the philosophical domain of epistemology,4 see Stanford entry on “Naturalism in Epistemology” especially Chapter 2, “Epistemology Naturlized” or scientists like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss today. Since the days of Ayer’s positivists, who considered any claims that could not be verified through scientific means to be meaningless, modified versions of Scientism have been fairly robust and well-defended in the English speaking world. Scientism, in brief, holds that while there are true statements about the world (i.e. the way things really are), the only statements that we can know to be true are ones that can be known via the natural sciences. According to the eminent philosopher of Metaphysics, J.P. Moreland, “In scientism, therefore, science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality….There are no truths that can be known apart from the appropriately certified scientific claims, especially those in the hard or natural sciences [e.g. physics, chemistry, biology].”5 J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, 29.

Thus, when it comes to metaphysical statements about non-physical entities or agents, Scientism says these are at best speculative (weak Scientism), or, more likely than not, they are just false or meaningless (strong Scientism)6 Moreland, 29-30.. When it comes to moral issues, those who hold to Scientism may try to ground moral values or obligations in scientific facts about material reality, even though this has been traditionally seen as an inherently quixotic task, as it is almost universally agreed upon that the fact-value distinction cannot be bridged apart from something other than, or outside of, the scientific statements. In short, you cannot get “an ought from an is.”7 This idea goes back to the Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). As we will see in a later post on the question of meaning and purpose, those who avow Scientism cannot help but be noticeably quiet.

Semanticism, or what I am calling “Semanticism,” might be described as an ideology that rejects the hegemony of science to fully explain the world, but also the hegemony of any religion, most specifically of the Judeo-Christian religion, to do the same, yet that retains core components of both. On the one hand Semanticism holds on to the empirical analysis of the scientific method, while affirming the symbolic and “semantic” world of theology and religion on the other. Semanticism sees power primarily in how language is used and how concepts are employed in human societies. As such the main theories that assume Semanticism are social theories, most predominantly Critical Theory, and its successor theories (e.g. Critical Race Theory, Feminist Studies, Queer Theory, etc.) that try to rationally analyze not the composition of physical objects, natural processes, or the nature of causal relations, as in chemistry or physics, but rather analyze the meaning and value of human artifacts, i.e. of human culture itself. In empirically analyzing forms of culture, Semanticism tries to understand how individuals interact in their own socially constructed environments of communication and meaning. As such, Semanticism puts far more emphasis on human experience and the subjective life of the human person than does Scientism, which tends to reduce the human subject and her experiences down to mere natural, and impersonal, facts (i.e. facts about particles, gravity, and neuro-biological functions).

This semantic approach to the human condition can be summed up in Jürgen Habermas’ comments on Karl Jasper’s theory of the role of modern philosophy:

Jaspers regards the transition to modernity and to postmetaphysical thinking as a profoundly ambivalent process. On the one hand, the Enlightenment frees us from the dogmatism of a faith based on inherited authority [i.e. the Bible and the Church’s teachings]….On the other hand, this philosophical translation of symbolic [religious] meanings courts the danger that the enciphered truth-contents of the great traditions [i.e. Judeo-Christianity] will be entirely forfeited, while the modern sciences reduce the lifeworld to the domain of the objectively knowable and technically controllable.

Jürgen Habermas, “The Conflicts in Belief” in The Liberating Power of Symbols, 37.

What Scientism and Semanticism have in common is that they both share a common view of metaphysics, namely, that beyond the physical world nothing exists. Jaspers and other critical theorists can confidently claim along with Dawkins and Dennett that we all now live in a “postmetaphysical” world. However, as Habermas explains, the costs of accepting a full-blown Scientism is too great for the human creature, and, consequently, the existential content of religion must be salvaged to protect us from science reducing “the lifeworld” down to the merely objective and impersonal, even if we can be happy about being relieved from religious “dogmatism” at the same time.8 And here I think we could say that certain moral dogmas of traditional Christian churches, especially in the area of sexual morality and ethics, are in view for the critical theorists. For more on the deconstruction of religious sexual ethics see Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, where he argues for sexual “free play” and a “libidinal rationality.”

When it comes to morality, therefore, these two kinds of naturalism begin to differ in that those who invest their hope in the semantic power of language and symbols try to ground morality in some universally shared aspects of human culture, as opposed to merely natural facts about the human organism. As we will see, however, this is no less a quixotic, or herculean, task than that of its materialistic cousin.

Regardless, both Scientism and Semanticism are on one side of a philosophical line, while a third view, Supernaturalism, is clearly on the other side of that line.

Supernaturalism is the view that there is a real world of immaterial Being (either God or something like Abstract Objects or both), and real cause-and-effect agency beyond the mere physical world of natural processes or human biological machines. As such Supernaturalism is usually the overarching view of the traditional theist, the view of someone who really believes that the semantic content of their sacred texts actually refers to mind-independent entities: to a God or gods, angels or demons, etc. For the supernaturalist, these are real substances (albeit immaterial ones) that have causal powers, a moral dimension, and some kind or degree of free will. Those who hold to the existence of minds may also be rightly called super-naturalists, or at least metaphysical dualists of some sort.

For Christians of a classical persuasion, Supernaturalism is the correct understanding of and approach to reality. Although it may sound unfashionable or shocking to modern and post-modern ears, the true Christian really does believe that the cosmos is a lot “spookier” than the scientist or semanticist may be willing to grant. Christians who accept the full inspiration of Scripture, for example, really believe that the scriptures contain a special kind of knowledge, a revelation knowledge, part of which confirms our common sense notion of a realm that goes unseen in the normal day to day. As such, the beings the scriptures speak of, this “unseen realm”9 For more on the unseen realm of the Bible, see Michael S. Heiser’s book of the same name, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. referred to in its pages, are to be taken quite seriously, since they themselves are in some sense more real than the physical world itself (or, at least, equally as real).

When it comes to morality, the supernaturalist will have a far wider range of explanatory options than the adherent of scientism or semanticism, and that in virtue of their being an actual Divine Person, and various principles that issue forth from that Person, either directly in the form of commands, e.g. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, or wife, or ox, etc…” or indirectly through natural laws embedded in the creation itself. The same goes for meaning and purpose, as the supernaturalist, whether Christian or Jew or Muslim, will also claim some kind of true story, some universal hermeneutic that explains our position in reality, and that comes replete with an origins story and an eschatological future.

In the next post I will look at Scientism, and ask the question of whether or not it can offer us any sense of hope in light of our existential circumstances.

Critical Race Theory & The Bible: Reversing the Hermeneutical Lens

Imagine for a moment you are a scholar with a deep interest in the early Church Fathers and the Scholastic theologians. More specifically you are deeply engaged with the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the two most influential thinkers in the Church’s history (with Martin Luther a close third), and perhaps the two most influential, non-Greek philosophers in history period (with Hume, Kant and Marx a close third, fourth, and fifth). Miraculously you receive the opportunity to travel back in time, or perhaps to meet in some timeless dimension, and speak to both Augustine and Thomas personally. Obviously, you have one burning question on your mind for both men: “what is it like to wear robes your whole life?”

You flub that first question, obviously due to the anxiety of being in the midst of such giants, or maybe because you are still freaked out about being in a timeless dimension, but your follow-up question is one that has troubled scholars and laymen, pastors and their congregations for centuries: how should we interpret the Bible? Or, perhaps you ask it this way: how do we know that the Bible is divinely inspired and the infallible Word of God? What answer do you think these two geniuses might give?

I am no scholar of the early Church Fathers, nor expert in the medieval theologians, however, I think I can assert with some confidence what both Auggie and Tom would not say. They would not say this: [for Augustine] “Well, first I have to know everything that Plato said, and really understand Plato and his disciples, and then I can go read the sacred Scriptures and figure out what they mean.” Or, for Aquinas, this: “You know, first I have to read everything Aristotle ever wrote; and understand everything that great man said; and agonize over his theories; and then, and only then, can I go read the Bible and decide what is true and what is not, or what is inspired and what is merely the product of human hands.”

Not for a moment would either have said such a thing. Of course, I also do not believe either would have answered in English, but whatever the Latin equivalent of each statement is, the propositional content would still be roughly the same: “we do not study Plato or Aristotle to know that the Bible is true.” Rather, “We know the Bible is true, and then we see what Plato or Aristotle have to say about the world that might also be true, and how it might comport with the Bible.”

In other words, neither Augustine or Aquinas, these “Doctors” as the Catholic church would call them (and Calvin too!), would have ever suggested that in order to properly understand the Special Revelation that is the divinely inspired canon of scripture, one had to first understand the best reflections of a pagan philosopher from general revelation. And most certainly one does not need Plato or Aristotle to know what in the Bible is true, or to know whether the Bible in its entirety is inspired and infallible. Such nonsense and outright blasphemy would never have entered the mind of these great saints. What was clear and indubitable to both was that the Bible was the very content of divine Truth, the Word of God to man, and that the pagan philosopher was but a medium through which that Truth might be expressed in a somewhat more relevant way to a particular culture, in a particular place, in a particular time. Plato and Aristotle were servants to Solomon and Paul, not masters.

However, as depressing as it might be to actual experts in the Church Fathers or the Medieval Scholastics, we no longer live in the culture or time of Augustine or Aquinas. Unlike them, we are all children of Modernity, and Modernity has drastically changed the way we look not only at the Bible, but at philosophy, and human culture itself. Modernity, and its prolonged extension, Post-Modernity, have rearranged our approach not just to the Bible, but to the interpretation of any book or text (even scientific ones).

Philosophical Shifts and Their Hermeneutical Effects

Since the 18th century, and especially due to those three other aforementioned thinkers: Hume, Kant and Marx, ideas about Special Revelation among many in the Church, and in many churches, has been exactly the opposite from those of the Church Fathers or the Scholastics. Instead of supposing biblical Truth as prior to purely rational reflection on man and God, modern theologians have chosen to take the best (or perhaps in Marx’s case just the most influential) philosophical thinking of the day and use it as the interpretive tool by which to gauge the true or false, the inspired or merely human, parts of the Bible. Unlike Anselm’s fides quaerens intellectum, this is instead intelligence seeking faith, a methodological approach that does a great bit of picking and choosing along the way.

The prodigious Roman Catholic theologian, Bernard Lonergan, explains this modern approach in light of the modern, or empirical view, of culture:

“The classicist notion of culture was normative: at least de jure there was but one culture that was both universal and permanent; to its norms and ideals might aspire the uncultured, whether they were the young or the people or the natives or the barbarians. Besides the classicist, there also is the empirical notion of culture. It is the set of meanings and values that informs a way of life. It may remain unchanged for ages. It may be in process of slow development or rapid dissolution.”

Bernard Lonergan. “Method in Theology.”

According to Lonergan, then, since the birth of the Modern, culture has been viewed in the empiricist mode, which means, even if a given culture might sustain its values and meanings over extended time, it is nevertheless devoid of anything universal or enduring. Moreover, there is no Culture, there are only cultures. As such, on this view of culture, methodology itself becomes primary for the theologian, “When culture is conceived empirically, theology is known to be an ongoing process, and then one writes on its method.”1Lonergan, Method in Theology. He further explains what this modern method might look like, “A contemporary method would conceive those tasks in the context of modern science, modern scholarship, modern philosophy, of historicity, collective practicality and coresponsibility.” However, this is very different from how theology is done on the classicist view of culture, “When the classicist notion of culture prevails, theology is conceived as a permanent achievement, and then one discourses on its nature.”

Augustine and Aquinas, unlike theologians today, were working under the classicist understanding of culture. Thus, while Augustine clearly used Platonic and neo-Platonic modes of thought and metaphysical categories to better articulate the truths already found in the inspired Scriptures, and where Aquinas, after the rediscovery of the Philosopher in the 12th century, appropriated Aristotle in order to expound Gospel truths in a more robust and synthetic manner, the trend in the last two hundred years of the Church’s history2 actually one can find this trend much earlier in the sense of intellectual history, perhaps as far back as Spinoza in the mid 17th century. However, it was in the 19th century that Enlightenment critiques really began to sink into the life of the Church, especially in the German and English speaking worlds, has been to turn this methodology on its head— to reverse the heremeneutical lens. On the empiricist view of culture, the one ushered in by the ruminations of thinkers like Hume, Kant3 This is not to say that Kant was an empiricist, but that his views served to facilitate this empiricist understanding of culture, and Marx, it is now the engagement with “modern science, modern scholarship, modern philosophy…” that sets the stage for biblical interpretation.

For several generations now this reversal of the hermeneutical lens has deeply impacted the Protestant churches especially, although Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have not been left unscathed. The practice of taking some current and influential, yet purely immanent theory, about the world as the paradigm through which we understand the Bible, as opposed to taking the Bible and seeing how we might press into service the philosophical theory, has been vogue for quite some time. In fact, so vogue that it is, as Lonergan hints, the default methodology for knowing what is true or false, what is right or wrong within the Christian tradition. We might call this en vogue approach something like “General Revelation Prioritism,” since it makes the Bible just one part of a larger revelatory schema, a schema that itself is in the process of constant change.

Practitioners of “GRP” might appropriately be called “General Revelationists” in that they assume one must adopt extra-biblical thought patterns or paradigms by which to adjudicate the contents of the Bible, rather than the other way round, analyzing the thought patterns and paradigms of the Bible to adjudicate over extra-biblical ones. Again, this approach is not for the purpose of contextualization or elaboration of the scriptural data, an unavoidable act for any pastor or theologian, but for the purpose of actually determining the truth value of biblical propositions4 Any act of interpretation would obviously include things like historical context, grammatical analysis, and, of course, literary genre. However, it is not my purpose here to discuss the analytical tools needed for a proper, original-intent hermeneutical approach. For more on proper contextual interpretation see Michael S. Heiser’s excellent podcast, The Naked Bible at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0Ud2F59K45tT5dujVD0Qzw., or for distinguishing especially inspired and divine parts of the Bible from its less inspired and historically contingent human parts.

There is also no real sense that this trend of hermeneutical reversal will revert back to a previous paradigm, like the one of the Middle Ages, barring some massive global crisis, or maybe some very public manifestations of supernatural (metaphysical) realities. Manifestations of such entities which might shock us out of our empirical malaise, reconfirming the validity of the metaphysics that so belabored the ancient and medieval mind, and reaffirming the classicist view of culture. Thus, it becomes incumbent upon the historically and metaphysically minded Christian to know when certain philosophical or social theories5all social theories are philosophical, even if not all philosophical theories are social have not only been adopted by churches in their approach to Scripture, but also when they have been elevated above the scriptures in such a way as to make them, the theories, the norm by which the data of Scripture must be evaluated. Further, each generation of Christians must be in the position to show why a particular philosophical theory falls short, and in doing so, show why it should not be utilized as an interpretive lens for the special revelation of the sacred texts.

Today, the paradigm through which many are attempting to read the pages of Scripture in order to see which parts remain valid, and which can be relegated to a trash bin of historically situated religious aphorisms, is Critical Race Theory– a theory that itself is born out of another all-encompassing system, namely, Marxism.

What Makes A Universal Hermeneutic Universal?

What is a universal hermeneutic? A universal hermeneutic is basically a worldview, an explanatory framework of the world that acts as a totalizing system of thought, a filter through which all human phenomena are interpreted, and into which we are meant to try and fit not just public history, but also our own personal narratives, each of which is itself one member of the total set of historical, human phenomena. Traditional religions like Christianity or Islam, for example, are totalizing systems in that they seek to explain the most fundamental aspects of human existence through a single, interpretive lens (or narrative). Those fundamental aspects are: origins, meaning or purpose, morality, authority, and eschatology or final destination.

For Christians, passages like Genesis 1 & 3; Romans 1:18-32, or John 1 and Rev 21 make such totalizing claims with regard to origins, meaning, purpose, etc., and all in reference to God and Christ. The Apostle Paul sums up the Christian way of looking at reality when he writes, “He is before all things, and in Him [Christ] all things hold together” (Gal 1:17), or when he proclaims “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:9). However, it is not just traditional religions that perform this role of universal interpretive lens. Philosopher C. Stephan Evans talks about a “global” hermeneutic when referencing the work of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud:

“I call these perspectives global because they are applied to human persons as a whole and they are used to understand huge swathes of human action. I call them hermeneutical because I think their epistemic force is not captured by standard models of empirical science which emphasize prediction and verification or falsification. Such global perspectives differ from scientific hypotheses in that they rarely, if ever, can be confirmed or refuted by specific events.”

“The Revolt Against Accountability to God: A Global Hermeneutic Perspective on Contemporary Moral Philosophy” in Philosophia Christi Vol. 21, No. 2 2019.

Evans argues here that certain systems of thought act as global hermeneutics when they sidestep any critique of the natural sciences regarding their validity, i.e. their correspondence with reality, yet all the while making enormous claims about global humanity and the human condition. In fact, on these systems, the scientific project itself is under the microscope, and therefore cannot make any claims against the hermeneutic.

Agreeing with Evans, I choose however to use the term “universal” instead of global only because universal better encompasses the full sweep of history, i.e. to all trans-historical phenomena that either appear to occur in a stage-like process, or that explain why all people and cultures, regardless of their place in history, acted in certain ways. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud all constructed systems that attempted to provide this kind of trans-temporal, universal explanation. Darwin would be a fourth to add to that list. However, for the purposes of this article, we need to focus on Karl Marx.6 Of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution was very compatible with Marx’s economic theories and his dialetic of materialism.

Focusing on Marx then, whose theory will be more relevant to our understanding of contemporary Critical Race Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre makes the following point about Marxist claims:

Only one secular doctrine retains the scope of traditional religion in offering an interpretation of human existence by means of which men may situate themselves in the world and direct their actions to ends that transcend those offered by their immediate situation: Marxism.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity

Here we must pause. For how can Marx claim the kind of explanatory scope and power for his system that he seems to want to claim? On Christianity or Islam, there is at least a transcendental claim, namely, that God has revealed things to man about man that go beyond man’s own speculation. But, this is clearly not the case for Marx (nor for his counterparts Freud and Nietzsche), whose entire theory is grounded in materialism. How does the atheistic Marxist justify the self-referential claim that Marxism acts as a universal, explanatory system for all of human history? After all, isn’t the Marxist system itself, like all other philosophical systems, embedded in that same history? Isn’t Marxism also a product of human minds operating in a particular place in time, and, therefore, open to eventual irrelevancy and falsification like the other philosophical systems that came before it? How can Marxism claim to be the overarching interpretation of its own history, where other theories were not?

It is often said of Marx that he “flipped Hegel on his [Hegel’s] head.” What that means is that Marx claimed that in his own thinking philosophy itself had become conscious or aware of its own foundations. In other words the history of philosophy is not the history of rational human agents thinking great abstract thoughts, thoughts that then bear down on and shape concrete material and social realities; rather, the history of philosophy is the history of concrete realities shaping human thinkers who, for reasons intimately connected to their material and social conditions, then generate great, or apparently great, abstract thoughts. Progress (or teleology), according to Marx, is not in the great synthesizing of abstract ideas, rather, pace Hegel, it occurs in the dialectic of materialism, the transformation of previously conflicting states of material conditions into new states of material conditions. Since man just is an amalgam of material, a new set of material conditions means a new man. Thus, if material conditions are understood, and then altered, so can man be liberated from that which has alienated him from himself. First he can be liberated from toilsome labor, itself a curse of both Capitalist and of Canon (Genesis 3:17-19), and second he can finally be freed from an abstract, yet non-existent view of his own self, from a human “essence” or nature, as defined by religion or abstract philosophy (i.e. Plato). For Marx and his followers there are not “fixed natures” that endure over time, there is only the perpetual dialectic.

It is in this sense that Marx believes he has truly discovered, or created, something new. MacIntyre puts it this way,

“It is this conception of truth that enables Marx both to affirm a historical relativism concerning all philosophies and also to deny that his own philosophy is merely a product of the time, since it is in Marx’s own thought that philosophy has for the first time become conscious of its historical basis in seeking to transform that basis and has therefore passed beyond the limitations of earlier philosophy. ”

Alasdair MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.”

For Marx then, there can be no changing of “the human heart” until there is a changing of the material conditions surrounding the human body (and mind, whatever that might be). Change the material and social conditions, change the man who lives in them. This is the crux of Marxist thought, and the key to Marxism acting not only as a universal hermeneutic, but also as a direct competitor with classical Christianity, which clearly asserts the very opposite notion: change the human heart, change the material and social conditions in which men live. But, if we have two worldviews competing for the role of universal hermeneutic, then the inevitable question emerges: which one, if any, does the work of interpreting the other?

While classical Marxism has by and large been rejected by contemporary, Western culture, that does not mean that versions of it, i.e. the intellectual great-grandchildren of Marx, have been rejected. One version of Marxist thought that blossomed in the mid 20th-century is Critical Theory, and one version of Critical Theory that is taking on the properties of a universal hermeneutic in the English-speaking world today is Critical Race Theory.

Does Critical Race Theory Operate As A Universal Hermeneutic?

That Critical Race Theory has the potential to act as a universal heremeneutic or totalizing, explanatory system seems at face value plausible. First, recall the four or five domains of human existence any universal hermeneutical system must try and answer: human origins, meaning and purpose, morality, authority, and end state or eschatology.

With the exception of a clear origins story (although there is some evidence for emerging popular-level versions), CRT seems to offer an overarching meaning and purpose for human existence: the human story is one fundamentally about oppression and liberation, of oppressive groups, or hegemonic powers, and their victims. On CRT race becomes the central property determining where one stands, or has historically stood, within the oppressor-oppressed dynamic. All human existence, all meaning, relates to this very Marxist, and even very Darwinian, understanding of life. The dynamic itself is also one that is not foreign to the biblical worldview, a dynamic that C.S. Lewis creatively portrays in The Screwtape Letters, when he has Screwtape explain Hell’s philosophy:

“The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition’.”

C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.”

The goal on CRT then is the liberation from these oppressive, racist (or sexist) societal structures. Liberation is the key concept in any Critical Theory, and the psychology of always being in the place of having to be liberated from some structure of oppression, or oppressor group, can provide the individual, or community, with an enduring, sacred struggle worth fighting. This struggle, or the being actively involved in it, can also create the framework for certain moral values and obligations to emerge.

With regard to morality, CRT also addresses the age-old question of “How now shall we live?” Moral goodness on a CRT view can have two aspects: first, an intellectual aspect of awakening, i.e. “wokeness,” to one’s own role in the oppressor class–to one’s identity as oppressor. This personal, or corporate, enlightenment can then engender acts of piety, especially of propitiation and satisfaction, in the form of publicly declaring one’s newfound sense of guilt and shame, followed by various symbolic acts of repentance and sacrifice. Whether or not those acts of repentance or sacrifice will actually be accepted, however, is questionable at best. This is something the mayor of Minneapolis appeared to learn first-hand quite recently. Thus, it is yet to be seen whether or not there is room for atonement on CRT, or just propitiation without real satisfaction and ultimate reconciliation.

This second aspect of CRT morality, public moral action, could also be seen as having two facets: first, the willingness to abdicate any advantage (usually material, but not always) in life one may have attained to those in the historically oppressed class or classes, and second, becoming politically active so as to advance, or enforce, the abdication of advantage by those who resist the voluntary handing over of goods to those perceived as historically disadvantaged. This can provide many people who are otherwise immoral (according to any transcendent standard) with a public means to be moral, a means through which to demonstrate their newfound moral superiority over others who can now be labelled as immoral, i.e. the “non-woke.”

As such, there is both an element of intellectual enlightenment here akin to Gnosticism, as ignorant oppressors, for now White people, become aware of themselves as indelibly corrupt vìs-a-vìs their darker skinned counterparts, and an element of concrete, social action in light of this pseudo-spiritual illumination. This illumination, of course, is provided to them by those of the oppressed class (at least in theory), who preside over secret knowledge in virtue of their being oppressed.7 For more on this idea of “Ethnic Gnosticism” see Voddie Bauckham: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ip3nV6S_fYU.

Here again we see the Marxist ideology that underlies CRT, as CRT is able to both claim a status that places it beyond the ken of accepted, epistemic standards of justification, while also making concrete, political action its fundamental moral activity. MacIntyre sums up this dual Marxist impulse of the interconnectedness of special knowledge and political activism, “It is only those who are engaged in changing the world who can hope to see the world rightly.”8 Marxism and Christianity, Applebooks, 63. Indeed on CRT, only CRT activists have the proper standpoint from which to gauge reality.

That also opens up another domain of CRT as it potentially acts as a totalizing system: the role of authority. For the philosophical critical theorists, the goal of social theory was, of course, the perfection of democracy. A “real democracy”9 see James Bohman article “Critical Theory” in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Section 2: https://nypost.com/2020/06/07/oh-grow-up-mayor-frey-devine/ would entail human beings being in control of the social factors that affect and shape them. Again, as per Marx, if human agents are nothing more than the product of matter and social constructs, then to be able to properly understand and control material and social conditions just is the means by which we can become new kinds of creatures. Ultimately, the “real democracy” the early critical theorists were arguing for was one where the human community itself could effectively play the role of God. Authority is no longer reified and objectified into a metaphysical deity, a benevolent “sky-daddy” who will fulfill our deepest desires. Rather, we must, through the rational analysis of those things that we as human beings produce, figure out what the perfect set of conditions will be, so that we can live in a new creation of our own making.

If this is the case though, then what appears as an inescapable feature of this immanently human attempt to recreate ourselves, is the need for something like a priestly caste, or at least a teaching magisterium that guides the ignorant among us into this undiscovered territory, and that mediates the untapped potential in us all to usher in the new society. Consequently, we see evidence of an emerging authoritative group in CRT, namely, a sort of “star chamber” of gurus who have coined the various terms that impregnate the view with its symbolic content (“white fragility,” “white guilt,” “intersectionality”), and whose work has lead to pragmatic initiatives like diversity training in major corporations, the construction of diversity task forces at universities, or movements like Black Lives Matter. Priests and priestesses like Robin DiAngelo, Peggy MacIntosh, or Ibrahim Kendi come quickly to mind as leaders of the new movement.

Several thinkers like Andrew Sullivan, themselves far from being fundamentalist Christians, have pointed out how CRT, or here core tenets of it, operate as a religion, especially on university campuses where the aforementioned authorial figures are most impactful. Moreover, that other fervent non-Theists like James Lindsay or Peter Boghossian, have become prophetic voices against the threat of CRT, and have even allied with conservative Christians to fight CRT, provides additional evidence that CRT has moved into the realm of operating as a religious worldview, something that would make any classical atheist from Russell to Dawkins rightly shake in their scientistic boots. Even the realm of mathematics does not seem off limits to the interpretive power of CRT, as evidenced by a recent statement of the Mathematical Association of America.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not CRT provides any answer to the question of eschatology, or end state. That it can, like on Marxism, and perhaps even Christianity to a lesser degree, seems obscure. On CRT we are told what the societal problem is, we are told that there is means to solving it, and we are introduced to a group of authoritative figures who can guide us through it, but there is little to no sense of what that solution will look like once we arrive. Like Marxism, the undiscovered country remains shrouded in perpetual mystery until you actually get there to tread the supposedly new ground. MacIntyre states it this way, “but just as Christianity has been much better at describing the state of fallen men than the glories of redeemed men, so Marxism is better at explaining what alienation consists of than in describing the future nature of unalienated men.”10Excerpt From: Alasdair MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.” It is worth noting that MacIntyre wrote this prior to his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Pace MacIntyre, Christianity does give us some vision of the end, even if a highly symbolic one as found in the book of Revelation. However, per MacIntyre, Marxism, and by inference Critical Race Theory, clearly lack anything like an ultimate telos, a serious description of what “liberated man” is supposed to look like once his or her earthly liberation has occurred. Of course, for any true Christian the idea of final liberation, and the final happiness that accompanies final liberation, apart from a real unity with our Creator is already at the core empty. For the Christian man, any notion of a freedom devoid of a real Christ, and a real relationship with a personal God, is just the foundational sin all over again– it is the originating original sin.

In sum, there is good reason to think that CRT does attempt to fill the role of a totalizing system or worldview that acts as a religion in its answering, regardless of how poorly, the questions of, to a lesser degree, human origins and end state; and, to a higher degree, questions of existential meaning and purpose, and moral values and duties. If this is the case, then CRT may indeed become for some, or perhaps for many, a universal hermeneutic by which all other things are evaluated and put into their right place, to include the biblical revelation.

However, the question now emerges of whether or not there is evidence of this being done within the confines of the Church itself? Has there been a capitulation to CRT in the domain of Christian education, or within the walls (or Zoom services) of evangelical churches?

Evidence that CRT is Acting As A New Heremeneutic in the Church

The natural sciences may be the last domain of culture holding out against the new hermeneutic of Critical Race Theory, although as alluded to above, that fortification also shows signs of crumbling. With regard to the Church however, CRT already seems to be for many Protestant churches and seminaries, to include some areas of Catholicism, the go-to paradigm for biblical interpretation, theological construction, and pastoral application. A quick look at something like the missions statement of a Wake Forest School of Divinity, or this recent post by Union Theological Seminary should suffice to justify this claim. However, the orientation of institutes like these should not surprise us, since they have long since accepted the Enlightenment critique of metaphysical knowledge, and the post-modern critique of epistemology.

Not only does the Bible become a merely human book for primarily critical analysis at institutes like these, but also in their embrace of current social theories and post-modern epistemology11 Post-modernism cannot rightly be called an epistemology, since it rejects any and all notions of the entire epistemic endeavor to gain or have knowledge. Post-modernism is essentially an anti-epistemological school of thought in that it rejects any need for beliefs or truth claims to be rationally justified. As such it works on an entirely different Theory of Truth than classical Correspondence Theory., the Bible can become a means to various worldly ends. Thus, the Scriptures no longer present us with a means for “how to go to heaven” but become a user’s manual for how to create heaven on earth. But, even then, the Bible is at best only a marginally useful tool, one that can be readily supplemented, or must be supplemented, by other “sacred” texts like the Koran, the Upanishads, or again, by Marxist doctrines.

What may be new however for these classically liberal institutions is not their already long-standing methodology of deconstructing a historical Gospel proclamation in order to reconstruct a social gospel correlated to the philosophical theories of the day and the existential needs of culture, but the raw material from which they can draw in order to engage in biblical interpretation and theological reconstruction. The Social Gospel of the 1920’s and 30’s was one thing, one theory located in its own time and it its own culture. The Social Justice Gospel is a new thing. After all, institutes that have divested themselves of the ontology of Scripture, i.e. its inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy, and sufficiency, to include any robust version of natural law, will always have a new gospel to preach as speculation on general revelation shifts and moves with the flow of time. Again, for the General Revelationist, the Bible will tell us the truth only when we have first discerned from current social theory what in the Bible is even worthy of consideration. Only then can its wisdom shine, and that only as long as the current social theory maintains its influence.

But, there is even more evidence that CRT is now taking over in places that once would have been considered bastions of historical, orthodox Evangelicalism. Seminaries that have adamantly held on to the classicist view of culture, and the fixity of human nature, now seem susceptible to the influence of CRT. For example, a recent petition signed by over 4000 former students of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) located in La Mirada, CA provides additional support for the claim that even more traditional Protestant schools are drifting from their original, missionary intent, and potentially moving toward a new, universal hermeneutic. Recent chapels held at the same institution seem to suggest that it is through the lens of CRT that we must learn to re-read the text of Scripture, even the Beatitudes themselves.

While it is not clear whether the hermeneutical lens will be reversed at places like Biola, or other evangelical schools, some of which have been explicit in their rejection of CRT, that CRT has the potential to become the accepted mode of biblical interpretation is, I think, quite plausible. Unfortunately, this would not the first time the church has fallen for the speculations of men over the Word of God.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas, indeed, pray for us!

*For more detailed information on Critical Race Theory, see Neil Shenvi-Apologetics here. For an atheist perspective on the dangers of Critical Race Theory, see James Lindsay’s excellent interview with Al Mohler here.

Christian Moralism and The Presidency of Donald Trump

“21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Matthew 7:21-23

One of the most subtle and, therefore, most dangerous temptations in the Christian life is to judge for oneself who God has chosen to be a vehicle for His truth, His goodness, or His purposes. More egregious is to judge who God has chosen not just as a vehicle for His truth or goodness, but who God has chosen to be one of His own. For the two are not always the same. Various scriptures, known to all, present us with a paradox that does not allow for an easy answer to these questions. For example, in Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus announces with great force that there are many who we think are God’s servants in this life based either on their good works, or their religiosity, but who God knows are not true servants, and, being false believers, will consequently be cast from His eternal presence. Further along in Matthew’s gospel we find the parable of the weeds, where Jesus explains to His disciples that only at the end of days will it be revealed who was of God, and who of the evil one (see Matt 13:24-30). In this parable the implication is clear, neither the disciples, nor by extension their successors, are in a position to know who is a true follower of Christ, and who is not. That knowledge is reserved for the divine Mind only. It may very well turn out we find ourselves quite surprised (pleasantly I imagine) about who we bump into in the Almighty’s new creation.

However, on the other side of this attempt to discern spiritual good from evil, Christ does tell us there are some things we can know about people and their relationship to God. In Mark 9:38-41 Jesus tells the disciples that anyone who is not against Jesus is for Him, and that anyone who does mighty works in His name cannot afterward “speak evil of [Him].” So people who are not against Him, but maybe are not yet fully on board with Him, could yet be His in some way (a few very thoughtful atheist who often defend Christianity come to my mind rather quickly).

Also, in a passage highly favored by Christians skeptical of our current president, Jesus tells us straightforwardly that a tree is known by its fruit, Matthew 7:15-20. Passages like these appear to give us some criteria by which we can judge the moral and spiritual character of others. If people cast out demons in Jesus name, then maybe they are or soon will come to be His. If there is the fruit of good works in the life of a professed believer, then maybe they are also truly His. If the moral character of someone seems rotten however, then maybe we can rightly criticize them, or at least distance ourselves from these bad apples, even if we can not with certainty know the final status of their salvation.

However, that this task of spiritual discernment will be an easy one is never said to be the case. After all, what is “good” fruit and what is “bad” fruit may not always be clear to us. And, as is often the case, our own sin will inevitably prevent us from discerning correctly this moral and spiritual fruit of which Jesus speaks. This is why Jesus also gives us another command, one often taken too literally by the Christian antinomian: “Judge not, lest you be judged yourself.” So, the hard question of “can we know who belongs to Jesus?” is only partially answered for us. Ultimately we cannot know, but in the meantime we seem to be called to try and discern the best we can, and that based on the fruit of someone’s actions, which will potentially show their moral character, and maybe give us a glimpse of their spiritual estate, something not unimportant, since it also would function as an indicator to who is safe and trustworthy, and who is not.

Unfortunately, as we will see below, ultimate safety and trust can only be found in Christ alone.

Spiritual & Moral Judgment in Our Popular Culture

Today it is fashionable to judge people based solely on their public persona. Well, perhaps this has always been the case, but today it is easier to know a persona as opposed to an actual person. These personas we encounter through the various and manifold filters of social media. Very few of us have in fact any personal connection to the people whose moral and spiritual status we claim to know, and in knowing, claim to be able to properly judge. We receive minuscule amounts of data about all kinds of people: athletes, movie stars, epidemiologists, scholars, and yes, presidents who we claim to know. Further, we are quick to ascertain not just their beliefs about God, but also their moral and spiritual standing before Him. We fool ourselves in thinking we know them, perhaps even know them better than they themselves, or their close companions, or their family.

With regard to spiritual discernment, while in some cases it is clear that a person simply is not a believer in Jesus (or not yet), and therefore needs to receive the Gospel, in other cases it remains somewhat obscure. These cases, which would apply to men and women who profess Christ publicly and perhaps even lead some part of His Church, demand, therefore, that much more discernment, that much more prayer, and that much more careful and reflective thought before an adjudication is made about whether or not to trust them. However, in the era of the internet, to actually take the time for this kind of discernment has become an increasingly rare practice (myself included!). We move quickly in our judgments of others spiritual estate, before hardly enough evidence has been collected or prayers offered. As such, we have devolved into a church of satan, here understanding satan as what his Hebrew name actually means, the accuser. We are a church of spiritual accusers.

But then there is also the broader cultural problem of moral discernment. This, on the one hand is categorically easier than spiritual discernment, since it relates only to the moral fruit of a person’s life, and has nothing necessarily to do with one’s spiritual status before God. However, confusion can arise when Christians, who are interested in both the spiritual and the moral, begin to conflate the two, expecting that for any given Christian, there you will find a very moral person. A common error to all of us, and one rooted in a deep theological enigma: the fact of salvation vs. the reality of sanctification. However, it is not just that Christians can have expectations too high when it comes to the process of moral cleansing and perfection in this life. Rather, it is also the case that we have seen too many examples of Christians who on the outside have appeared to be quite moral indeed, only later to be revealed as something entirely different. It is in this sense that Christians must exercise caution and wisdom when trying to discern “fruit.” For moral rottenness does not necessarily translate into spiritual rottenness, as moral excellence, or the appearance of it, does not necessarily translate into spiritual purity.

Who God Chooses is Not Who You or I Would Choose

It simply is not the case that every good person will look or act like a Mother Theresa. This would be simplistic and reductionist discernment. It would also be foolish and naive. In the end there will be many who display all forms of moral failure, yet whose heart and will is more aligned with God’s heart and will than those whose outward personality seems pure and untainted. For every Mother Theresa there may be an Oskar Schindler, just as for every Mary there is a David, or a Samson.

Appearances, and even good works of a tremendous kind and variety, simply will not be sufficient for us to know with any certainty the true heart of another human being. This tragic reality became very real for many followers of the late Catholic missionary, Jean Vanier, whose life looked about as close to that of Mother Theresa, or John Paul II, or Jesus, as one could imagine. Yet this founder of L’arche, a ministry dedicated to the most vulnerable among us, was simply not what he seemed to be. Now many have had to backtrack and distance themselves from someone whose inner life was deeply disturbing and whose covert actions may have been more damaging to the witness of the Gospel than even all of his good works combined. While it is difficult to come to a final conclusion about such things, what is not difficult is to know that the entire legacy of Vanier and his ministry is now tainted, and that with a very dark tint indeed.

This lesson should hopefully act as a catalyst therefore to those who are perhaps too eager to criticize the outward character that is Donald Trump. A man who we know has been a great womanizer, a foul-mouthed and lavish philanderer, a crude jokester, and, although evidence is quite scant, even potentially a racial bigot. This is not to say that one cannot reasonably distance himself from such a person, and certainly it is not to say that one cannot criticize what is rightly worthy of critique. But, it is to say that one should tread very lightly, especially as a follower of Christ, about judging too precisely who God might decide to select to be His vehicle for truth, or His providence. We must beware of acting the Christian moralist, like those many Pharisees whose superiority was known only to themselves but not to the Lord of Glory, who is also the Lord of Mercy, and the God of Redemption. In the end God will choose Who He chooses, and it is not always the most palatable character to our sensibilities. In fact, it is often those who are most difficult to accept that God will have act on His behalf. The converse of course is to be careful of those whose character does seem quite palatable to us, but who God does not know.