Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

The Challenge of Naturalism

At an ethics colloquium this week, I heard a professor tell a story (which I hope is okay to repeat here since both the storyteller and the subject of the story are anonymous) of a former theology student who had recently written with proud news of an upcoming publication on the topic of liturgy. She went on to tell him that she was flourishing in her job as the campus minister at a Catholic school. She had recently gotten into spiritual direction, which was going okay, despite the fact that she no longer believed in God, and overall, she was very happy with her life and career.

Wait. . . she no longer believes in God? In America, this is not as rare as you might think. While Europe is becoming increasingly more secularized, and the churches are becoming more and more empty, in the US, something else is happening. Externally, we are a very religious nation with a high percentage of churchgoers (about 47% of Americans attend a weekly religious service as opposed to about 20% in Europe). Nevertheless, there are signs that we are a nation a lot like this professor’s former theology student—involved in the act of religion without the corresponding belief. As Terence Nichols puts it in his very fine book The Sacred Cosmos:

Supernatural realities such as miracles, angels, afterlife, a sacred cosmos, and so on are rarely broached, at least in mainline Protestant denominations (and less and less so in Roman Catholic churches). God has become distant from everyday life. People may still believe in God, got to church, even pray, but without deep conviction. . .(8)

For Nichols, the problem is naturalism, “the belief that nature is all that exists, and that everything can be explained by natural causes and therefore by science. There is no nonmaterial reality, such as God.” The problem, he says, is deep and

. . . originates further back—with the separation of God from nature, a split that began in the late medieval and early modern period. This resulted in the (perceived) separation of god from everyday life that is so characteristic of contemporary secular societies. . .Ancient and medieval Christians lived in a sacred cosmos and saw nature as a window or sacrament that expressed the beauty, majesty, and glory of God. . . Sacraments make God present and invite the believer into a sharing of God’s presence. But for a sacrament to work, there has to be some similarity, some unity. . . If nature is seen sacramentally, rather than as an object to be investigated and used, it also can mediate the presence of God. Seen sacramentally, nature is a sacred cosmos, for whatever mediates God’s presence is sacred (9).

Instead of a sacred cosmos infused with the supernatural, what we have now, according to Nichols, is a universe completely subject to natural laws, where even religion (to quote E.O. Wilson), is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. This metaphysical naturalism is the greatest challenge Christianity faces in the contemporary world. As Nichols puts it,

For if nature is all that exists, there cannot be any reality that is greater than and independent of nature. Nor can there be any hope of an afterlife, nor any means to really transcend our natural condition. The consoling grace of god, which frees us from sin, addictions, selfishness, hopelessness, and lovelessness, is, for naturalists, a fiction.

Must we then, as Christians, be anti-science in order to avoid the dangers poised by naturalism? Not at all. Christians have long held (rooted especially in the Thomistic tradition) that scientific naturalism is perfectly appropriate for the natural sciences. Science can tell us much of the world—how it originated, how it fits together, where it is headed. The laws of nature that scientists study are laws created by God and hence are very, very good.

But just because a scientist is committed to scientific naturalism, she need not commit herself also to metaphysical naturalism, i.e., the belief that these natural laws are all that exist. More specifically, a Christian evolutionary biologist very committed to the principles of natural selection need not conclude that simply because evolution exist, God does not. As Nichols points out, some of the greatest scientists were also Christian (Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Max Plank). The problem is not evolution (or any other natural “law”), but rather, when evolution becomes an all-encompassing philosophy. Science and theology are meant to be complementary, not antagonistic.

No, the solution for Christians, what Christians need to do if they are to survive the naturalist challenge, is not reject science (and hence the “natural”), but rather, they need to recover the supernatural. In a Christianity Today article, Hwa Yung writes on this,

A careful reading of the Bible and the sheer weight of empirical evidence eventually brought me back to a supernatural Christianity. In this, I found myself out of sync with much of Western theology. Here liberals were at least consistent, but not evangelicals. Most liberals denied the supernatural both in the Bible and in the present; evangelicals fought tooth and nail to defend the miraculous in the Bible, but rarely could cope with it in real life.

Now, Yung is writing about the recovery of a more charismatic Pentecostal form of Christianity, which I am not arguing for here, but his basic point is sound. Christians need to recover the idea of the miraculous, the realm beyond science, the invisible, the graced. To describe how this might take place liturgically or in other Christian practices is beyond the scope of one blog post (though I would love to hear your thoughts), but at the very least, Christians can recover the supernatural in conversation. We can admit that knowledge of God is beyond the capacity of reason. The natural world can lead us towards God, but true knowledge is a supernatural gift, elevating the intellect beyond what it is naturally capable of.

We can also admit that simply because knowledge of God is a gift, and one which we do not experience fully in this life (see 1 John 3:2 and 1 Corinthians 13:12 for when we can expect full knowledge), we can still do theology. In other words, we can still speculate about God, and even do so “scientifically.” Thomas Aquinas tells us

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God (I, Q. 1, art. 2).

For Aquinas, the object of this science is God, and its principles are the articles of faith (things like the Incarnation and the Trinity). Sacred Scripture is important, but is of itself neither the object nor the principle of theology:

Such are the Trinity of Persons in Almighty God [The Leonine Edition reads: The Three Persons, the omnipotence of God, etc.], the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, and the like: and these are distinct articles of faith. On the other hand certain things in Holy Writ are proposed to our belief, not chiefly on their own account, but for the manifestation of those mentioned above: for instance, that Abraham had two sons, that a dead man rose again at the touch of Eliseus’ bones, and the like, which are related in Holy Writ for the purpose of manifesting the Divine mystery or the Incarnation of Christ: and such things should not form distinct articles (II-II, Q. 1, art. 6).

And in the end, although theology is a matter of disputation (I, Q. 1, art. 8), it ultimately does not get us knowledge of God, but only a certain knowledge of God’s effects, and how those effect pertain to our salvation:

Although we cannot know in what consists the essence of God, nevertheless in this science we make use of His effects, either of nature or of grace, in place of a definition, in regard to whatever is treated of in this science concerning God; even as in some philosophical sciences we demonstrate something about a cause from its effect, by taking the effect in place of a definition of the cause.

Ultimately, the point of theology is not to render God understandable or to possess God, but rather, to seek a mysterious God in love. And when we talk of God (or do theology), it should be this gifted love that we communicate, especially to our friends in the natural sciences. We do not have to make Christianity “natural” in order to speak to scientists. We need rather to speak confidently, humbly, and reverently about the supernatural, and listen to what the sciences have to say about the natural. Maybe, with a little grace, we can actually get a conversation going in which the scientist learns a little about grace and eternal life, and the Christian learns a little about the world.

And this brings us back to naturalism. In terms of religion, naturalism pushes us to make all matters of faith matters of natural science. The Bible becomes an anthropological and sociological document, sacraments become merely rituals, God becomes an idea, and the afterlife becomes a naiveté. Christianity becomes a voluntary association that anybody can “do,” like the girl in the opening story of this post, rather than a graced invitation into a relationship with God. Terence Nichols expresses well the appropriate Christian response:

The greatest gifts of grace are faith, hope, and the love of God (1 Cor. 13) which, Paul tells us, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us (Rom. 5:5). It is this love that allows us to love others, even enemies, and that characterizes the converted Christian life. Such a love is beyond our natural abilities. . . Christianity is not about rules and laws, guilt and fear of punishment, or extrinsic rewards. It is about grace: the experience of God’s transforming love and power in our lives that elevates and perfects our natural abilities and allows us to do more that we thought possible. In this sense, the life of every fully converted Christian moves beyond naturalism. It is god’s grace that makes the Christian practice of everyday life possible. And it is this same power of grace that one day will bring us to the resurrection, the ultimate transformation of nature, and to eternal life with God (226-27).

Why Religion is Bad: A Strawman

Family Guy is one of those TV shows I watch with guilty glee. I still giggle when I think of Stewie’s Tab commercial (“Just gettin’ my bronze on, baby”). However, I do admit that the show is an effective communicator of bad values.

This is no less true than last week’s episode entitled “I’m Joyce Kinney” where Lois reveals that she was in a pornography film in college. We’ll leave aside the rather explicit scenes of said film and focus on the bigger problem in the show: the church’s reaction when they find out.

Lois, an active member of what appears to be her mainline Protestant church, is reviled and ridiculed when she walks in on the Sunday following the revelation that she had been in a dirty film. Parishioners whisper as she walks by, culminating in the pastor looking down at her menacingly, declaring, “Lois Griffin, you are no no longer welcome in this church.”

As might be expected, Lois heroically overcomes the church’s reaction. She marches in next Sunday and states vehemently, “Who did Jesus hung around with? Mary Magdalene, who was a prostitute. If video cameras had been around then, she probably would have done a porno too! And if she did, I know Jesus would have forgiven her. Are you all better than Jesus? You all need to admit that I made a simple mistake. And here it is.” Everybody gasps and Lois shows her film to the entire congregation.

Those already biased against the religious will watch this and say this is exactly what is wrong with religion. Churches are filled with hypocrites, casting judgment on sinners while ignoring their own sin. But this is a strawman. In reality, few religious communities, even the most conservative and sectarian, would condemn Lois as the show depicts. Her repentance is clear, and her sin is far in the past. In many ways, she is not the [cartoon] person now as she was when she made the film. And practically every church in this country would recognize that.

Priests in their homilies constantly bring up the common complaint, “I don’t go to church because I can’t bear to sit with all those hypocrites.” The complaint is half-right. We are hypocrites, unworthy of bearing the name of Christ. But we are hypocrites who rest in the assurance that God is a merciful God, slow to anger and quick to forgive.

Family Guy wants to reveal Christians as hypocrites, but they do so in such an over-the-top way that it ceases to be realistic. But there is a lesson to be learned for Christians even in this relatively offensive show, a lesson Dominican Timothy Radcliffe makes better than I can. In What is the Point of Being a Christian, Radcliffe writes,

Even when Christian teaching seems clear and unambiguous, we must still be prepared to enter into the complexity of people’s lives as they struggle to discover what is right. . . . the truth is simple, but unless it is the simplicity that has passed through the complexity of human experience then it is a childish simplicity that we dimly glimpse in God. Those who feel that the truth of our teaching must be protected with denigration and violent attacks on others may well be insecure in their convictions, frightened to hear the other side in case they begin to doubt. It is precisely when we are most confident in the teaching of the Church that we should be most fee to listen and to learn, and to open our minds and hearts to those who have arrived at conclusions with which we agree (38-39).

Radcliffe goes on to quote the great Thomist Josef Pieper: “‘A friend, and a prudent friend, can help to share a friend’s decision. He does so by virtue of that love which makes the friend’s problem his own, the friend’s ego his own (so that it in not entirely ‘from outside’)’ (The Four Cardinal Virtues, 29). We have to become that other person, enter their imagination and share their dilemmas, before we share our teaching.”

It is a good lesson to be learned from a very bad episode of a show that, like us, has a lot of evil mixed in with the good.

Does Science Render the Bible Untrue?

Stephen Hawking’s new book A Grand Design allegedly debunking God (I haven’t read it, but I bet the evidence against God is scanty) has re-energized debates among Christians and non-believers about the relationship between faith and science, between scripture and evidence. In the wake of people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other notable evangelical atheists who want to convert Christians to science, Christians are in danger of forcing the choice between two extreme options–rejection of the truth of scripture in favor of science, or rejection of science in favor of a literal reading of scripture. Yet, Christian tradition provides us with a middle ground which allows us to see the Bible as the true word of God without interpreting every word in a strict, literal manner.

We are accustomed to thinking that the debate about the creation account in Genesis being a relatively modern debate between young earth creationists and those who accept evolution. In actuality, the early church was also perplexed as to how they were supposed to interpret the story recounting how God created in six days. The Antiochian school, to which John Chrysostom belonged, argued that the story should be interpreted literally as meaning that God actually created in six days. The Alexandrian school, characterized by figures like Origen and Jerome, argued that this story was an allegory, not a historical account of what happened. The Alexandrian school would eventually become the dominant model for scriptural interpretation in the Christian tradition, and St. Augustine would eventually write a treatise on the allegorical meaning of Genesis.

By the middle ages, it was well accepted that Christians should not stop at a literal account of scripture, but should probe for a deeper spiritual meaning. The study of scripture in the first university’s was guided by the quadriga, the four-fold sense of Scripture (See Aquinas’ Summa Ia, Q.1, art. 10). According to the quadriga (which is simply the Latin expression for a carriage drawn by four horses), scripture can be divided into two general senses: (1) the literal or historical which aims at getting at what is actually being said, and (2) the spiritual sense which aims at getting at how God is speaking in the text. The spiritual sense is divided into three more specific senses:

1. allegorical: the most important spiritual sense which examines how the passage in question points to or symbolizes Christ
2: moral or tropological: the way in which the scripture is providing guidance for Christian living
3. anagogical: the way in which the passage is pointing to the eschaton or the way in which the passage shed light on eternal life.

We can apply the quadriga to Genesis 22, recounting the disturbing story of Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of Isaac. According to the quradriga-method, we would want to start at the literal meaning of the story, that is, what is plainly being described. The literal meaning of the story is that Abraham hears the voice of God commanding him to sacrifice the son he loves, and he obeys. God, in God’s mercy, sends and angel to stop Abraham the moment before he draws Isaac’s blood. A ram in the thicket provides the flesh for sacrifice instead.

Although the literal meaning of the story is important, according to the quadriga, it would be dangerous to stop at the literal meaning. Rather, the spiritual sense of the passage must be pursued if the full truth of its meaning is to be discovered. Thus, we must ask what the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses of the passage might be.

Allegorically, we might say that Isaac represents Christ, and Abraham represents God who sacrificed his only son. We might go even deeper and say that both Isaac and the ram represent Christ, the latter representing the man Jesus who actually was sacrificed and shed his blood on the cross, and Isaac representing the risen Christ who did not die. As Origen notes in his commentary on Genesis and Exodus, the allegorical lesson is that “Abraham offered to God his mortal so, who did not die, and God gave up his immortal Son who died for all of us.”

Morally, we might say that this passage teaches Christians to trust in God’s mercy,and to offer our lives up as a living sacrifice to God, in faith and hope that God will bring us to fullness of life. Anagogically, we might say that the passage points to the beatific vision where we will gaze at the “Lamb who was slain,” at Revelation 13:8 relates.

The important point is that the truth of this passage cannot be reached by stopping at the literal meaning. We might say the same about the creation story. If we stop at the literal meaning that God created in six days, we are doing an injustice to the truth of the text. We must delve deeper to understand the spiritual truth underneath the text. Perhaps we might say that the words God speaks in creating (“Let there be . . . “) allegorically represent the Word which was made flesh (John 1). We might say the six days allegorically represent salvation history in which God worked over time to call a people to Godself, ultimately culminating in the creation of the Man who is the epitome of creation, all of which is subject to Him. We might say that the moral or tropological meaning of the six-day creation account is that God, in Christ, has subjected all things under us, and that we are to thus govern creation accordingly. Anagogically, we might say that this passage points to the rest that we too will share in “on the seventh day” when we join God the Creator in eternal life.

In John 4:24, Jesus says, “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” It is odd that Christians have thought they must stop at the literal meaning of the text in order to remain faithful to scripture. God is spirit, so surely God has placed a spiritual meaning in the “flesh” of the words. If we recover the quadriga, we find that the scientific “evidence” of people like Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Hawkings is no more a threat to our belief in the truth of Scripture than their arguments against God are a threat to our faith.

The Moral World of the First Christians

I just got finished reading Wayne Meeks’ The Moral World of the First Christians. The “moral world” which Meeks analyzes here is more of the “social world” of the early Christians, that is, the cultural context which helped shape their worldview and moral judgments. This social world was a complex one, rooted partially in Hebrew culture and religion, and partially in Hellenistic culture and religion.

Meeks is not concerned here with a careful delineation of the specific moral judgments of the early Christians. There is no mention of what members of the infant church thought of homosexuality, of abortion, of divorce. Rather, Meeks has something much more comprehensive in mind than figuring out what Christians thought of particular issues—he wants to figure out the worldview which framed any particular moral decision. In other words, he wants to know how the first Christians engaged in moral reasoning, not what their specific conclusions were. This is what he calls “looking at ethics from the bottom up,”

[According to ethic from the bottom up] it is a perfectly proper form of ethical directive to say, for example to a child, “We do not do that.” Probably the response from the child, and perhaps also from the professional ethicist, will be, “Why not?” Very often that is an important question to ask, but there are other occasions when it may be more productive to ask a different question: Who are “we”? The question “Why?” calls for an explanation; “Who?” invites understanding. . . . Most, perhaps all, of the writings that now make up the New Testament, and a great many of the other earliest Christian writings as well, had as their primary aim the shaping of the life of Christian communities. Arguments and rules, of course, had their place in those writings, but we fail to understand the force of the arguments and rules if we take them out of the contexts in which they stand. A much more comprehensive process was going on, by which participants in the new movement we call Christianity were discovering a new identity–learning to think of themselves as”the churches of God,” “the holy ones,””children of God,” “slaves of Christ,””brothers and sisters,” “those for whom Christ died,” and so on. “Practice” or custom” was not something added to that process of developing identity, but an integral part of it. The writers repeatedly urge all the Christians to “exhort,” “admonish,” and”encourage” on another. The aim of such moral conversation is, as Paul puts it in another place, “that you should behave in a manner worthy of the God who calls you”(1 Thess. 2:12) (11)

Hauerwas fans will find much to be lauded in this description of ethics, and Meeks explicitly mentions Hauerwas’ term “communities of character” as particularly apt for describing what he is trying to describe as “‘character’ suggest the essential dialectic between community and self. Groups as well as individuals have character. Character signifies identity, and it implies specifically moral identity. Character takes shape, moreover, within a social process.” (11)

So who was this early Christian community? Meeks places heavy emphasis on the prominence of the Hebrew influence. In his chapter on Israel, Meeks surveys later wisdom literature (Sirach), Qumran, Philo, and the Rabbinic tradition as providing much of the basis of the symbolic world that the first Christians occupied, with a special emphasis on the themes of purity, Torah, and a moral interpretation of history (i.e. God’s intimate involvement in the trajectory of history). The early Christians drew explicitly from the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that they did not with other literature of their social world (e.g. Homer or Plato).

However, Greece and Rome also provided much of the substance of the early Christians’ moral world, particularly the philosophical traditions of Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Platonism. It is from the Romans and Greeks that the first Christians learned to think of the polis, of the virtues, of ways of conceptualizing pleasure, of the legal process. Even for Christians who did not study the legal, literary, and philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome, their was a top-down transmission of the ideas of the academic elite to the masses.

In chapter 4, after surveying the great traditions of Greece, Rome, and Israel, Meeks compares the social forms of the early Christian communities with those of the surrounding cultures, first by comparing the early Christian communities to messianic Jewish sects, and second with household associations in the polis. In chapter 5, he turns to the “grammar of early Christian morals,” examining both canonical (1 Thess. and 1 Corinithians) and non-canonical sources (The Didache, Iraneus) in order to discern the “grammar of their sensibilities and their behavior, which of course includes the force of ideas” (125). The goal of this chapter is to show how the first Christians were “re-socialized” into a new distinctively Christian symbolic world.

What does this volume teach us? It teaches us that the ethics of the first Christians was not a deductive process of applying certain principles, rules, and norms to concrete issues. Rather, the ethics of the first Christians was an inductive process of first figuring out who they were, and then discerning what behavior was appropriate to that sort of identity. The parallels with contemporary virtue ethics should not go unnoticed, and MacIntyre’s useful summary of virtue ethics as asking three questions (Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I get there?) definitely seems operative in Meeks’ understanding of ethics.

What is useful about such an approach for our contemporary world is that it allows us to see Christian ethics not as something fixed and unchanging, but rather a dynamic process of identity influencing behavior. Thus, to figure out what the “Christian” way to behave in our world today, Meeks would not advocate turning to the Scriptures for specific rules of conduct to apply:

We cannot every fully know the world of the early Christians; still less can we re-create it. to be sure, those movements in the history of Christendom which have sought to restore the church to its “primitive” purity, from the Montanists to the Campbellites, have released powerful currents of change. Yet what they in fact brought about was inevitably something unlike the past. there is no time machine. We must live in our own world, which is irreversibly different from the of the first Christians (162).

Moral concepts like “duty,” “virtue,” “sin,” and “purity,” had very different meanings for the first Christians than for Christians today because they occupied very different symbolic worlds than we do. We Christians today have formed our own synthesis from the influence of the various symbolic worlds we occupy (post-Enlightenment rationalism, humanism, scientific empericism). Thus, we must live with the messy understanding that what we deem sound Christian moral judgments regarding sexuality, political involvement, the economy, and the environment are largely syntheses of the moral worlds around us, influenced of course by the literary and living tradition of the Christian church. We must be willing to accept change, not because there is something inadequate about an earlier form of Christian ethics, but because that earlier form is not our own and can never be recovered. As Meeks concludes,

In the first generations of Christians, we see many people who have a kind of double vision. Two different kinds of symbolized universe overlap in their minds and in their social experience. . . . Somehow, they had to live in both, and it was not easy to find a way to do that. There were many disagreements, many alternative ways, some of which failed. From them everyone who craves a vision of a juster, kinder world, everyone caugt not merely between what is and what ought to be, but between conflicting certainties, disparate but impinging maps of what is, all may have something to learn” (162).

Overcoming Realism with the Anabaptist Vision

When Barack Obama was elected, I wrote a post on his connection with Christian realism of the Reinhold Niebuhr variety, which you can read about here.

Christian realism is basically the idea that the world is evil and that in order to fight that evil, you have to get your hands dirty. Christian realism says that an idealistic stance of non-violence allows evil to triumph over good. Although non-violence or pacifism may be an ideal, Christian realists say that this ideal must be subordinated to the utilitarian calculus of political force and violence. Augustine adopted a Christian realist position in advocating an interior ethic of love, but an exterior ethic of expediency. Luther adopted a Christian realist position against the peasants in his treatise “Against the Thieving, Murderous Hordes of Peasants.” Reinhold Niebuhr was the Christian realist par excellence in his support of strong-armed cold war politics.

In a recent op-ed, David Brooks notes that realism is still alive and well in the political philosophy of Barack Obama, articulated so very eloquently in his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. . . I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

Brooks commends President Obama for a “thoroughly theological” speech which “talked about the need to balance the moral obligation to champion freedom while not getting swept up in self-destructive fervor.” Brooks, himself a Christian realist, clearly finds the president’s moral position a prudent one.

I agree that Obama did a fine job articulating a realist stance and defending his political foreign policy on respectable moral grounds. But remember the context—Obama’s realist speech, which Brooks says “was the most profound of his presidency, and maybe his life,” was given at his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize is meant to acknowledge those idealists like Martin Luther King Jr. who choose not to get their hands dirty, who refuse to succumb to violent tactics even in the defense of a just cause. Such prizes are meant to provide recognition and encouragement to those idealists who provide a witness for what is morally possible, even if it isn’t morally expedient.

Christians like Brooks are supportive of the president’s speech because, since Christianity has existed, Christians have been more comfortable compromising with the world’s evil than they have been resisting the world’s evil with non-violent agape. Those idealistic, non-violent witnesses, minority that they are, are necessary and important reminders of the task to which Christians are called. One group of such idealistic witnesses were the Anabaptists.

The Anabaptists were a group of Christians involved in what was called the “Radical Reformation.” Concerned that reformers like Luther and Calvin were compromising too much in their political stances and failing to live up to the demands of the Christian life, the Anabaptist vision offered a new conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship (die Nachfolge Christi), the essence of the Christian church as a community of brothers and sisters, and the essence of Christian ethics as one of agapic love and non-violence.

The Anabaptists refused to accept the state church system which reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin were a part of. They did not participate in the government for the precise reason that earthly institutions like the magistracy required moral compromise that the Anabaptists found inconsistent with Christian life. The Schleitheim Confession of Faith, an early Anabaptist collection of beliefs states this as an agreement to separation [from the world]:

A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them [the wicked] and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations. This is the way it is: Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do His will, are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who [have come] out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other. To us then the command of the Lord is clear when He calls upon us to be separate from the evil and thus He will be our God and we shall be His sons and daughters. . .

Therefore there will also unquestionably fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force — such as sword, armor and the like, and all their use [either] for friends or against one’s enemies I would like the records — by virtue of the word of Christ, Resist not [him that is] evil.

In other words, the Anabaptists did not believe that Christ came so that we could continue resisting the corruption of the world with the tools of corruption or using evil to fight evil. Rather, Christ came to liberate us from evil, and by choosing to follow Him, the Anabaptists believed we must necessarily forsake force, violence, and political power of any kind.

Because of their commitment to non-violence and the principle of worldly separation, the Anabaptists had a lot of enemies. From 1527-1560, the Anabaptists were severely persecuted. The 1529 Diet of Spires passed a death sentence on all Anabaptists of either sex [by] fire, sword, or some other way.” The 1551 Diet of Augsburg decreed that any judge or juror who had scruples about executing an Anabaptist be removed from office, fined, and/or imprisoned. As a result of these decrees, thousands of Anabaptists were executed in the 16th century, without trial or sentence. Yet, as Harold Bender writes in his quippy “The Anabaptist Vision,”

The authorities had great difficulty in executing their program of suppression, for they soon discovered that the Anabaptists feared neither torture nor death, and gladly sealed their faith with their blood. In fact, the joyful testimony of the Anabaptist martyrs was a great stimulus to new recruits, for it stirred the imagination of the populace as nothing else could have done.

Bender goes on to conclude:

However, the Anabaptist was realistic. Down the long perspective of the future he saw little chance that the mass of humankind would enter such a brotherhood with its high ideals. Hence he anticipated a long and grievous conflict between the church and the world. Neither did he anticipate the time when the church would rule the world; the church would always be a suffering church. He agreed with the words of Jesus when He said that those who would be His disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Him, and that there would be few who would enter the strait gate and travel the narrow way of life. If this prospect should seem too discouraging, the Anabaptist would reply that the life within the Christian brotherhood is satisfying full of love and joy.

Compare this to Obama’s Nobel speech:

[A]s a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [Gandhi and King’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. . . So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another – that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

Understandably, Obama cannot reasonably embrace the Anabaptist vision, but I do think that the Anabaptist vision can embrace Christians who have too long capitulated to the claims of realism. David Brooks seems pleased with the theological underpinnings of Obama’s political philosophy. He writes, “Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.” While Brooks may be correct in noting the theological underpinnings of Obama’s politics, Christians need to question whether those underpinnings adequately reflect the nature of discipleship to Christ.

Love and evil are not two warring powers, as Brooks so dualistically proposes. What the Anabaptist vision reminds us is that Christian love overcomes evil not by force, but by inspiration and imagination. Christian love, as lived out by the Anabaptists, provides a witness to what is best and noblest in human nature. In the wake of such love, evil simply becomes impotent. The County of Alzey, after executing 350 Anabaptists in Palatinate, was said to exclaim, “What shall I do? The more I kill, the greater becomes their number!” Barack Obama’s speech says that such love cannot ultimately triumph against the world’s evils, and that if good is to overcome evil, force will be necessary. But the Anabaptist vision says otherwise. Heinrich Bullinger, one of the Anabaptist’s enemies and persecutors, wrote that the Anabaptists taught,

One cannot and should not use force to compel anyone to accept the faith, for faith is a free gift of God. It is wrong to compel anyone by force or coercion to embrace the faith, or to put to death anyone for the sake of his erring faith. It is an error that in the church any sword other than that of the Divine Word should be used. The secular kingdom should be separated from the church, and no secular ruler should exercise authority in the church. The Lord has commanded simply to preach the Gospel, not to compel anyone by force to accept it. The true church of Christ has the characteristic that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict persecution upon anyone.

It is unfortunate that a peace prize meant to recognize those idealists who believe peace without violence is possible ended up rewarding a spirit of moral compromise this year. But it is even more unfortunate that Christians like Brooks think that Obama’s message is grounded in theology of Jesus Christ. So I will conclude this post with the same words in which I concluded my last post arguing against Christian realism:

As Stanley Hauerwas notes,

Jesus’ cross . . . is not merely a general symbol of the moral significance of self-sacrifice. The cross is not the confirmation of the facile assumption that it is better to give than receive. Rather, the cross is Jesus’ ultimate dispossession through which God has conquered the powers of this world. The cross is not just a symbol of God’s kingdom; it is that kingdom come.”

Jesus does not play power politics. He does not fight the evil of the world on evil’s terms. He does not use violence, power, and coercion to fulfill his mission. Nor does he expect his disciples to. Jesus invites his disciples to his own non-violent love, a love that will indeed overcome the powers of the world, but not through coercion and force.

The Anabaptist vision gives us a glimpse of what Jesus’ non-violent love actually can accomplish.

How do Academicians Become Holier? Renewing Hagiography for the Professional Ethicist

In New Wine, New Wineskins, Christopher Steck, SJ has an article entitled “Saintly Voyeurism: A Methodological Necessity for the Christian Ethicist?” In this essay, Steck notes the lack of attention to the personal qualities and character of the professional ethicist, and argues that contemporary Catholic moral theology should incorporate of his proposed method of “saintly voyeurism” into moral education. “Saintly voyeurism” according to Steck is a return to concrete models of Christian holiness as found in the stories of the saints in order to facilitate a neglected goal for the moral practitioner, namely, their own holiness.

Steck’s concern is that contemporary moral theologians are not sufficiently rooted in and transformed by the Christian story. On an institutional level, Steck complains that that there is insufficient support both from the church and the academy to support the development of catholic ethicists own development of Christian disciples as they practice their trade. He writes,

Achieving such a vision [of Christian discipleship for the professional ethicist] is complicated in the academic culture in which Catholic ethicists practice their trade. That culture is given shape by a constellation of values whose form does not align well with that of the field of Christian ethics, especially insofar as it is concerned with questions of what constitutes the holy life. This misalignment, I argue, is due in part to the dominance of rationalistic and acutely critical modes of contemporary research, along with a lack of concern for the personal moral character of the one engaging in research. . . More though needs to be given too how Catholic moral theologians can ‘form’ themselves into Christian ethicists and address issues of Christian discipleship and the holy life.

In essence, Steck’s concern is that not enough attention is being directed towards making ethicists more ethical, and within a Christian context, more holy. Instead, the virtues of the professional ethicists encouraged in the academy are the virtues which Steck identifies with scientific rationalism. They are

• Agorism: the virtue of argumentation and debate, or the “need to position one’s work in opposition to someone else’s and disprove others’ arguments in order to be original, [to] make a contribution and demonstrate intellectual ability” (28).

• Circumscription: the inclination against universalist or comprehensive claims

• Unmaking: a kind of hermeneutic of suspicion or “belief that truth claims conceal subtle and pernicious advancements of self-interest (whether personal, group, social, or institutional) and unconscious desires of power” (28-9).

Such critique-oriented rationalistic virtues have their advantages in the academy and particularly for scholarly research, but Steck worries that such virtues are not in themselves sufficient for the development of the scholar, and particularly the Catholic ethicist. That is, such virtues encourage intellectual competency but neglect other fundamental parts of the academician’s character. As Steck puts it, “Our ends [as scholars] are not just intellectual ones; they have to do with what brings us emotional well-being, psychological peach, and deep satisfaction about a life lived well” (30).

What we need in the academy, argues Steck, are spiritual practices that nurture a more comprehensive vision of the Christian life for the professional Catholic ethicist. That is, the Catholic academy needs institutionalized ways of encouraging Christian discipleship and Christian holiness among its professional ethicists.

What Steck recommends is a sort of “saintly voyeurism,” or as he describes it, “ethical reflection on the ordinary acts of a holy existence to better understand the demands of Christian discipleship” (36). Concretely, this takes the form of a kind of revised hagiography, a study of the lives and actions of the saints with an eye toward discerning which actions are most consonant with a saintly life. He quotes Richard McCormick who says “that the meaning of Christian discipleship is best gathered from the lives of the saints” (37):

Elizabeth of Hungary’s disobedience of her husband’s wishes in order to serve the poor, Elizabeth Ann Seton’s engagement with religious antagonism of her time, and Ignatius of Loyola’s apostolic choice to minister not only to the poor but to the powerful represent choices that raise interesting ethical issues for those wishing to better understand the saintly life.

Steck does not recommend an exact imitation of the saints, but rather a “casuistry at a distance,” that is, an observation of what sort of actions might be considered saintly in a given situation in order to train the ethicist’s own vision of holiness. This moral tutoring through hagiography can occur in five ways, according to Steck:

1. It can confirm for the ethicist the viability of the Christian vision, and strengthen the ethicist’s commitment to living as a Christian disciple even in the face of great adversity
2. Studying the lives of the saints can reemphasize the theological dimension of the Christian life by emphasizing such features as surrender, obedience, participation in the paschal mystery, and trust in the abiding power of love
3. The saints can offer new paradigms for how Christian discipleship can be lived out in changing historical situations
4. The lives of the saints can offer a context for examining how holiness can break through the trial and limitations of creaturely existence.
5. Finally, the saints challenge us always to respond to the situations we find ourselves in, rather than passively accepting the lot we are given. The saints give us options for our own lives for how to live out a life of holiness.

Steck concludes:

Christian moral theology is not simply a deductive or rationalistic science. It requires that its practitioner have a well-formed heart that is attuned to the Gospel and the values at its core. In an ideal world, Catholic moral theologians would be saints and scholars. However, Catholic ethicists now perform their trade in a context that often does not sustain the kind of Gospel vision associated with a saintly existence. The indifference of the academy toward traditional virtues and the loss of preconciliar spiritual practices within Catholicism leave Catholic moralists more susceptible than moralists of an earlier generation to an almost exclusively secular and narrowly rationalistic formation. . . . Scriptural mediation, prayer, devotional practices, and liturgical participation are just some of the practices that form the Christian into a disciple. But examining the lives of the saints, ordinary people achieving great moral character, is one practice that allows ethicists to practice their art—that is, scholarly reflection on human action—and thus represents a distinctive resource for moralists.

I think Steck is right on the money. I would recommend two developments to his argument. First, I think we need to accept the fact that much of the lives of the saints can be psychologized in today’s rationalistic environment, but that need not deter us from recognizing moments of great holiness or the fact that God has worked throughout history through very flawed individuals. My pet example is St. Catherine of Sienna who allegedly went seven years eating nothing but the Eucharist and occasionally some bitter herbs. Clearly, this part of her life seems psychologically unsound, and for good reason. However, the important point to be gleaned from a study of her life is that God inspired her to do great feats of holiness requiring great courage, like caring for victims of the plague and confronting the pope concerning matters of politics, despite the fact that she was a flawed, psychologically fragile and vulnerable individual. Clearly, a great lesson for us all.

Second, I would encourage Catholics to look beyond the boundaries of Catholicism to identify both historical and contemporary saints that were not necessarily a part of the Catholic faith. Due largely to my husband’s influence, I consider the Christian singer Rich Mullins a great saint. Mullins, inspired by the Christian message and anxious to live a life of Christian witness, gave his profits from his singing career to charity, and dedicated large portions of his life to charitable activities not associated at all with his career, like moving to a Native American reservation to teach the children there about music. When I listen to Rich Mullin’s music, I cannot help but be inspired by the vision of the Christian life he encourages both through his music and the story of his life. Clearly, Rich Mullins can be considered a contemporary saint for Catholics today.

I’m interested for all the professionals or soon-to-be professionals reading this post: (1) what role do the lives of the saints play in your own professional and personal life, and (2) what ways institutionally can you think of that you are encouraged to live a life of holiness within your profession, rather than a life of pure academic achievement?

An Ethical Response to the Fragility of Human Life

Human life is a fragile thing. The goodness of human life is dependent on (or threatened by) external circumstances such as wealth, health, beauty, talent, and simple luck. Since antiquity, people have pondered how to factor in the seeming necessity of external contingents into an ethical account of the “good life.” The Stoics were notorious for their conclusion that external contingents like health, wealth, friends, and family were not relevant factors in the formula for a good life. For the Stoics, all that mattered was virtue. If you were a virtuous person–that is, a courageous, temperate, just, and prudent person–you could lose your home, your friends and family, all your possessions, and even your health and still, if you kept your virtue, you would still be happy.

Although most of us probably feel that the Stoic response is somehow not really human, we can be sympathetic to what this school of philosophy was trying to achieve. Bad things happen to good people. Even in antiquity, this was a truism. In light of this, the task of ethics is to keep good people from turning into bad ones when disaster hits. The Stoics concluded that detachment from the need for external goods was the only way to stay good in a world full of badness. “Love only virtue,” was the Stoics’ rallying cry. If you loved only virtue, you could lose a child and remain unfazed. If you loved only virtue, you could get a cancer diagnosis and not be troubled. In the face of any adversity, you stayed stoic, and most importantly, virtuous.

The alternative to the Stoic conception of happiness and morality in light of the fragility of external goods is Aristotle’s way. Aristotle said that we need more than just a virtuous character to be happy. As humans, we need food and shelter, we need a certain degree of wealth and life success, we need good health, and we need relationships. No amount of virtue will create a happy life if we are missing any of these things.

The Stoic tendency shows up a lot in history, Christianity included. Christian morality is often caricatured as teaching the saints live an austere life, indifference to grief, joy, pleasure, or pain. I want to argue, however, that the Christian conception of happiness is much closer to the Aristotelian notion than the Stoic, namely, that we need certain external goods to be happy.

Enter Job. Job is a righteous man, and blessed by God. He has a big family, robust health, a huge estate with lots of animals, and quite a bit of wealth. Not only is he a happy guy, he’s virtuous as well.

But then he gets tested. He loses his animals, his children die, his home is destroyed, and eventually, even his health goes. Poor Job is sitting on the ash heap covered with boils and sores, and he is miserable. Not only is he miserable, but he wants answers from this alleged “good” God that has allowed him to suffer so.

And God gives an answer:

Then the LORD addressed Job out of the storm and said: Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7)

I heard my husband preach on this text this weekend, and he brought Job into dialogue with Paul in 2 Corinthians 6 who is not, unlike Job, complaining about his suffering, but actually boasting and rejoicing in it. My husband pointed out that there is a major difference between Job and Paul when they confront the contingency of external goods, and the terror that comes with losing them. The difference is that Job has something to lose, but Paul, as well as the other apostles, have already given everything up. They have left their homes and their families, and given up any hope of being rich. With nothing to lose, suffering does not present the same sort of problem for the disciples of Christ as it does for Job.

The moral lesson of the story, according to this sermon, was to be preemptive when it comes to losing the external goods that cause so much suffering by giving up these goods voluntarily. If you don’t want to be afraid of losing your money, give most of it away. If you don’t want to suffer badly when you lose your job, don’t get to attached to it.

That sounds nice in theory, but Paul’s boasting in his suffering and the disciples’ total renunciation of worldly goods is not the way most Christians live. And it sounds a little too Stoic for my taste. Plus, it is fine to talk about the renunciation of external goods like property and wealth, but what about external goods like relationships and health? Surely Christians are meant to have at least some attachment to these external goods. So how are Christians to make sense of external goods that the world offers, and which sometimes are cruelly taken away?

Thomas Aquinas is Aristotelian in his approach to the question of external goods. This means that he is not going to recommend detachment from externals, like the Stoics or some Christian interpretations of the command to “hate the world.” Instead of detachment, Aquinas recommends “ordered love.” External goods can be loved, but they have to be loved in the right way. This means that goods like a nice home, a reliable car, a big family, and a sound bill of health are all goods that we can and even should desire. We just may not desire these goods as ends in themselves. Ordered love prefers always the greatest good, which is God, to all other lesser goods.

We pervert the proper order of love when we either love lesser things inordinately, like loving someone loving their car so much that they go bankrupt in taking care of it, or we pervert the proper order of love when we don’t love greater goods enough. The greatest good being God, all other goods should be subordinated to Him. This means that it is disordered to love your friends so much that you skip worship to spend time with them. It is disordered to love our health so much you spend all of your money on gym memberships and supplements and health food, to the neglect of other financial pursuits like charity and tithing.

But what is important to note about this idea of ordered love is that according to Aquinas, Christians can still love the goods of this world, and be attached to them, and mourn them when they are lost. It is good and proper to mourn for a lost loved one, and it is appropriate to worry about losing your home and possessions during tight economic times. Aquinas recognizes that we need these things to be happy, that is, to lead full and flourishing human lives. Aquinas’ way is not a way of detachment, but rather of proper attachment. Aquinas recognizes that becoming a Christian disciple does not necessarily prevent you from becoming Job yourself, sitting on top of an ash heap and mourning the fact that you’ve lost everything against your will.

Life on this earth is full of contingents. Sometimes things work well for us. Sometimes, we get to marry the person of our dreams, land a dream apartment in a cool city, get a job that is not only a career but a vocation, and surround ourselves with friends and family that love and care for us. At other times, we may have to deal with the mess of losing our job, or having a spouse lose their job. We may have to face a debilitating illness or watch a loved one succumb to a terminal disease. We may lose our home to the force of nature, become victims of violence, or find that the love we once thought was strong has grown dim or even disappeared. A good ethical response to the fragility of life on this earth is not detachment from external goods, but rather, fostering the sort of attachment that allows you to desire and love and mourn properly, without losing your desire and love for the greatest good—the God who is the source of all good things.

Part Three of the Christian Response to Abortion: Christology

We have already addressed how God is the sovereign Lord of life and death. We have also addressed how human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that the human condition is characterized by the same frail, mysterious vulnerability of the pre-born in the womb. In light of both of these realizations, we have seen that the proper Christian response should be one of awe and humility. Reflecting on both God and our own human condition should always turn our eyes upward.

What gives us the power to turn our eyes upward to the merciful heavenly Father is Jesus Christ, who reveals to us the Father, and reveals to us the salvation from this human condition that the Father has provided for us, and who pours out his Spirit on us so that we have strength for the journey. John Calvin writes,

Since we have fallen from life into death, the whole knowledge of God the Creator that we have discussed would be useless unless faith also followed, setting forth for us God our Father in Christ. The natural order was that the frame of the universe should be the school in which we were to learn piety, and from it pass over to eternal life and perfect felicity. . . [But after man’s rebellion] even if God wills to manifest his fatherly favor to us in many ways, we cannot by contemplating the universe infer that he is Father. . . As all our senses have become perverted, we wickedly defraud God of his Glory. We must, for this reason come to Paul’s statement: ‘Since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe’” (II, vi.1).

What Calvin is saying here is if we were to only reflect on God and the human condition, we would either despair that we are separated from God, or try and become God’s ourselves. Only the “foolishness” of Jesus, the God-man, reveals to us what it truly means to be both God and human.

This is why we turn to Christ, to attempt to construct a Christological understanding of abortion to complement the numerous arguments that already exist. It is because we cannot know God’s will apart from Christ. Moreover, we cannot fully know what it means to be human apart from Christ. Science and philosophy may lead us to some understanding, and reflecting on the magnificent achievements of mankind in history may lead us to some awareness of our creation in the image of divinity, but apart from Jesus Christ, we cannot know who we humans truly are and what we have been called to be. As Paul says, we are not to be “conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds, to discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Scripture makes it clear that the life of Jesus Christ begins in the womb: The angel Gabriel tells Mary, “Behold, you shall conceive in you womb and bear a son.” When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, the infant [John] leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, crying out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The sovereign God, who the Psalmist declares to have knit him together in his mother’s womb, saw it fit to take human flesh, not initially in the form of a man, but first, in the dark and formless void of the womb.

The mistake that we make as Christians is that we try and compare Christ’s humanity with whatever definition of humanity we have created through human means. A Christological argument does not say, “life begins at conception, therefore Jesus’ life as a human must have begun at conception.” A Christological argument starts rather with Christ himself. The life of Christ shows us that God does not conform Himself to our human definitions and our human expectations in that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin. The virginity of Mary is important, not because sex is bad, but because it reveals to us that human beings do not know through science or philosophy or any other human discipline how God works. Science cannot make sense of the incarnation, and likewise, science cannot ever fully reveal to us the meaning of our humanity. Calvin, again, puts it nicely:

As philosophers have fixed limits of the right and the honorable, hence they derive individual duties and the whole company of virtues, so Scripture is not without its own order in this matter, but holds to a most beautiful dispensation, and one much more certain than all the philosophical ones. The only difference is that [the philosophers] as they were ambitious men, diligently strove to attain an exquisite clarity of order to show the nimbleness of their wit. But the Spirit of God, because he taught without affectation, did not adhere so exactly or continuously to a methodical plan; yet when he lays one down anywhere he hints enough that it is not to be neglected by us (III, vi, 1).

In the womb of a virgin, where God saw fit to take flesh, we see the life of Christ begin. We do not know the exact point that matter and form came together to form the person of Jesus. Conception is a mystery. But what we do see is the response we are called to have when we reflect on this mystery. Mary says, “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”

I see great potential for Christian unity on the issue of abortion. However, I do not think this unity will be founded on natural law arguments or scientific explanations or talk about human rights. Those arguments have a place, but that place is to reveal to the world what Christians already know in Christ. That God is sovereign Lord, and “nothing will be impossible with God;” that human beings are His creation, made in His image and likeness. And that Jesus Christ shows us what that image and likeness is. And like Mary, with each mysterious new life, we as Christians are called to say, “The Lord has looked with favor on his lowly servant” because we know that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).

A Distinctively Christian Response to Abortion, Part One

Today we solemnly note the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This is largely a symbolic anniversary. Although much hype surrounds the 1971 Supreme Court decision, it simply guaranteed what individual states were already doing–giving women a right to have an abortion. If Roe v. Wade were revoked today, every state, in all likelihood, would re-institute that right on a state level.

Nevertheless, the symbolic importance of today remains. Abortion is legal and culturally acceptable. This country considers abortion a right. Abortion is also widespread. Today, approximately 3,700 women will have an abortion in the United States. This year, about 1.3 million abortions will occur.

There are lots of statistics one can refer to today. There are also many, many rational, secular, scientific conversations one could have, both in support of and in opposition to abortion. I have written about abortion in these terms before. But I want to do something different. I want to examine what a Christian response to abortion might look like, not according to the world’s standards, but according to the standards of faith and life in the church. My goal is not to contradict or downplay the importance of other arguments against abortion that are not explicitly Christian. I think that these arguments, based in natural law, in utility, or other standards of morality are necessary to fight abortion in the public square. However, I am troubled that the Christian response to abortion is divisive, that Christians claim they can follow the law of Christ and still support abortion. As part of this week of Christian unity, I want to examine how the theological resources in our shared Christian faith might formulate a unified, authoritative, and distinctively Christian response to abortion.

Due to length, I will divide my argument into three posts, modeled on the tripartite format of Thomas Aquinas‘ Summa Theologica. This first post will examine abortion from the perspective of the sovereignty of God; the second will examine abortion from a Christian anthropological perspective in light of the sovereignty of God; the third will posit a Christological argument against abortion.

I. God is sovereign Lord over life and death

We live in an era of rights. We are told that human beings have a right to life, to health, to happiness, to education, to our bodies, to property, to a nation. We also live in a culture that prioritizes control–control over our bodies, control over our lives, control over our destiny. Rights and control are what the world offers, but the Christian is called to recognize these as deceptions. Our faith demands that we recognize that we are not the ones in control over our lives, our plans, or our destiny. We are subject to the sovereign God, who is the Lord over life and death.

Scripture tells us over and over again that our lives are not our own. God tells Moses in Exodus, “Who gives one man speech and makes another deaf and dumb? Or who gives sight to one and makes another blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11). The Song of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy is really an extended sermon on God’s sovereignty: “Learn then that I, I alone, am God, and there is no god besides me. It is I who bring both death and life, I who inflict wounds and heal them, and from my hand there is no rescue” (Deuteronomy 32:3). Hannah dedicates her son Samuel back to God, recognizing that he was not her own: “I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request. Now I in turn give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD” (1 Samuel 1:27-28). The sovereignty of God is the overarching theme of the wisdom literature, emphasizing that the root of human wisdom is acknowledgment of God’s lordship: “The pronouncement of mortal man: ‘I am not god; I am not God that I should prevail‘” (Proverbs 30:1).

The New Testament also emphasizes the sovereignty of God. Jesus tells his disciples to not worry about what they will wear or what they will eat because God is the one who provides for his creation: “Your heavenly Father knows what you need. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides” (Mt. 6:32-33). Paul writes that God “gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist” (Romans 4:17). Paul attests that Christians must know that their lives are not their own: “Who indeed are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker, ‘Why have you created me so?’ Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one?” (Romans 9:20-21).

Against the wisdom of the world, which offers us the right to life, the Christian is called to respond that we belong to the LORD who gives and takes life, whose ways are inscrutable. To the world which tells us that our bodies are our own, the Christian is called to respond that our body “is a temple of the Holy Spirit, whom we have from God.” To the world that offers us freedom, the Christian is called to respond that we have been purchased at a price (1 Cor.6:20). To the world which offers us control over our destiny, the Christian is called to respond that “the world or life or death or the present or the future” belong to God, and we to Him (1 Corinthians 3:22).

Stanley Hauerwas says that as Christians, we are not to believe that we have a right to life, nor are we to think that life has any inherent dignity. We believe, instead, that life is a gracious gift from God. We believe that our life, and any life that comes from us, is a gift and a terrifying mystery. Our response to our own life, and the life around us should always be one of awe and hospitality and hope. God is sovereign, and we are his subjects. How are we to decide when life begins, who is to live, and who is to die? In his article entitled “Abortion Theologically Understood,” Hauerwas writes,

When you frame the abortion issue in sacredness-of-life language, you get into intractable debates about when life begins. Notice that is an issue for legalists. By that I mean the fundamental question becomes, How do you avoid doing the wrong thing? In contrast, the Christian approach is not one of deciding when has life begun, but hoping that it has. We hope that human life has begun! We are not the kind of people that ask, Does human life start at the blastocyst stage, or at implantation? Instead, we are the kind of people that hope life has started, because we are ready to believe the at this new life will enrich our community.

Hauerwas’ argument bears much in common with the earlier argument Karl Barth made against abortion in his chapter on the “The Protection of Life.” Barth writes, “human life has no absolute greatness or supreme value, that it is not a kind of second god, but that its proper protection must be guide, limited, and defined by the One who commands it, ie., by the One who is a real God, the supreme good, the Lord of Life” (398). Barth goes on to say that the Christian response to abortion is not merely legislative change (although that is a noble, and necessary goal), but also the cultivation of a whole new attitude: “the only thing which can help is the power of a wholly new and radical feeling of awe at the mystery of all human life as this is commanded by God as its Creator, Giver and Lord. Legal prohibitions and restrictions of a civil, moral and supposedly spiritual kind are obviously inadequate to instill this awe into man“ (418).

What both Hauerwas and Barth recognize is that a properly Christian response to abortion must begin and end with the sovereignty of God, the living God who is Lord over life and death. The Christian realizes that our lives are not our own, that God judges our hearts, our plans, and our acts, and he is the source and goal of our life, our love, and our power. To restrict life to a definition, to make distinctions about who lives and who dies, and even to assert that our life is a “right” is a usurpation of God’s sovereign power. We thus end this first of three installments with a supplication from Augustine: “This alone I know: without you it is evil for me, not only in external things but within my being, and all my abundance which is other than my God is mere indigence.”

Christian Church and State: A Barthian Response to the Two Kingdoms Doctrine

Martin Luther believed that God has two ways of ruling, known as the two spheres or the two kingdoms–the law, which is carnal, and the Gospel, which is spiritual. These two spheres were completely separate. The law, which the civil government belongs to, rules by coercion. Its existence is necessary to restrain the “ravenous wolves” of the world, which are always pressing at the Christian community and threatening to destroy it. The church, on the other hand, belongs to the spiritual sphere. This is a sphere characterized by freedom from the law, by love, and by peace.

One way to think of the two kingdoms in Luther’s thought is that they represent the right and the left hand of God. Each hand does a different task and rules in a different way. The two kingdoms, therefore, are God’s kingdoms, and both have a divine mandate to resist a third kingdom, the kingdom of Satan. Luther emphasized, however, that the spiritual realm could not prevail over the carnal, and that the two must remain separate. Thus he advocated for a rigorous separation of church and state as having different priorities and different concerns.

There is much one could admire about Luther’s political theory. He dismissed the idea that religious states of life were holier than secular, claiming that God favored both the holiness of the priest and the housewife. Against the Anabaptist radical reformation, Luther advocated participation, rather than withdrawal from society, and particularly the government. And he tried to find a way to hold both the church and the state as good parts of God’s creation, without collapsing one into the other.

The problem with Luther’s system is that it results in a heavy dualism between the church, ruled by Christian morality, and the government, ruled by whatever morality is expedient for keeping order. The Christian believer, who participated in both spheres, while only belonging to the spiritual sphere, had little recourse, and little motivation, to challenge injustice in the secular realm. This resulted in a passive and impotent church when it came to political matters. One example might be the Lutheran Church in Germany during the 1930’s which allowed Christians to lead a double life as both a believing and practicing Christian and a supportive Nazi. However, the quietistic implications of his two kingdoms doctrine became evident in Luther’s own day, which manifested itself in a complacency toward the injustices of the German princes (to give you an idea, Luther wrote a treatise called essentially, “Against the Ravenous Murderous Hordes of Peasants”).

You see a similar approach to church and politics in much contemporary American political discourse. The idea is that you can be a faithful Christian and still support political agendas wildly divergent from your Christian beliefs. Joe Biden, for example, has argued that he is a faithful Catholic who attends Mass regularly and holds to what the Church teaches, but that in his capacity as a public figure, he feels justified supporting legislation supporting abortion, which is completely inconsistent with his Catholic beliefs, based on the principle of separation between church and state. This is an excellent example of the pervasive and long-lasting influence of Martin Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” theory.

As an alternative, in honor of this week of Christian unity, I turn not to Aquinas or any other Catholic thinker, but rather to Karl Barth. Karl Barth once wrote that “wherever there is theological talk, it is always or implicity political talk as well.” Barth believed that Christians should approach politics as they approach all things–Christologically. In a 1935 essay entitled “Gospel and Law,” Barth wrote that Christ establishes the relationship between law and Gospel, such that “we can certainly make the general and comprehensive statement that the law is nothing else than the necessary form of the gospel, whose content is grace” (80). The state, therefore, is a Christological sphere.

As a Christological sphere, Barth has a somewhat positive view of the state (though he still subordinates it to the church), but more importantly, he insists that the state, like the church, serves Christ. In Church Dogmatics IV/2, he writes that the state is not just called to resist sin, but is called to be an instrument of divine service, with its ministers acting as God’s ministers. The state becomes a sphere of wrath, according to Barth, when is deviates from the path of salvation wrought by Christ.

The implications for the Christian is that he is called to participate in the state and give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but always in a way motivated by and terminating in the service of Christ. This means that there is a harmony and coherence in the activity of Christians in the world. The Christian has a political responsibility to serve Christ, not by forming a “Christian political party,” but by serving the government in ways consistent with what Christ demands, and by supporting a political agenda consistent with Christ’s lordship. As Barth writes, “No neutrality with God is possible. We must choose between the true God and idolatry” (III/4, 307).

As we usher in a new president, and as we continue to reflect on and pray for Christian unity, I encourage my Christian readers to reexamine their opinions about church and state. Just as Christ is one, so too should the Christian life be one, not divided between secular and religious obligations and practices, but consistently and tirelessly oriented to the service of Jesus Christ.

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