November 17th, 2016
In this week’s Backstory: suffering, politics, and Advent.
We’ll see if there’s an appreciable difference between the first two, and then turn to the third as an antidote to them both.
In the recording below are two professors, one who finds God a credible belief, the other finding such belief only a product of evolutionary adaptation. They nonetheless agree on at least one thing: that one must think hard and well about suffering.
Since they, too, took up that question we asked last Sunday (in our suffering does God care?), we post their reflections here.
(Adding to the sobriety of the conversation is the fact that the moderator, Dr. William Klug of UCLA’s engineering school, was the professor shot and killed this summer by a deranged student.)
Making sense of what happened last week, for all the intriguing theorizing, is not nearly so critical as how to respond to this upheaval. Three quotes came across our desk this last week, two from whom we’ve heard on numerous occasions, the other his inaugural appearance on these pages. All three address what we tried to cover in our discussion on recovering civility during Q&A.
“There is much talk of the polarization of this country. Most disturbing, I think, is the way both sides are of one mind, and they are of one mind in this: neither acts in a way that acknowledges the beauty and complexity of individual human experience. Neither treats the public – the people – with real respect.”
– Marilynne Robinson, “On ‘Beauty'”
It is not enough for a population or a section of the population to have Christian faith and be docile to the ministers of religion in order to be in a position properly to judge political matters. If this population has no political experience, no taste for seeing clearly for itself nor a tradition of initiative and critical judgment, its position with respect to politics grows more complicated, for nothing is easier for political counterfeiters than to exploit good principles for purposes of deception, and nothing is more disastrous than good principles badly applied. And moreover nothing is easier for human weakness than to merge religion with prejudices of race, family or class, collective hatreds, passions of a clan and political phantoms which compensate for the rigors of individual discipline in a pious but insufficiently purified soul. Politics deal with matters and interests of the world and they depend upon passions natural to man and upon reason. But the point I wish to make here is that without goodness, love and charity, all that is best in us—even divine faith, but passions and reason much more so—turns in our hands to an unhappy use. The point is that right political experience cannot develop in people unless passions and reason are oriented by a solid basis of collective virtues, by faith and honor and thirst for justice. The point is that, without the evangelical instinct and the spiritual potential of a living Christianity, political judgment and political experience are ill protected against the illusions of selfishness and fear; without courage, compassion for mankind and the spirit of sacrifice, the ever-thwarted advance toward an historical ideal of generosity and fraternity is not conceivable.
— Jacques Maritain, Christianity and Democracy, 1944
American politics is now nothing more than rival assertions of tribal identities. There are no Americans; there are no human beings; there are only instantiations of racial and sexual identities looting the store of our economic and cultural capital. In such a world the most ruthless bullies acquire more loot than everyone else. Tomorrow’s bullies will have a different set of policy proposals but will be temperamentally and morally identical to today’s.
When you’re ready to start the political conversation with by affirming that everyone in the room is a human being — not necessarily right about anything in particular, not necessarily good or even decent, but a human being in precisely the same sense that you are a human being, and that every single human being in this country should be subject to the same laws and norms enforced equally across the board, then get back to me. Until then, I don’t know what to say to you. I’m not refusing to speak; I just don’t know how to speak your identity-politics language without giving up everything I believe about humanity, and about what politics is for.Alan Jacobs
The thought that threads its way through each comment is the lament that what’s been lost in our discourse is the ability–the responsibility–to see one another as like ourselves, despite our long-standing or deep divisions. Until we can admit the dignity of all we cannot responsibly or profitably converse about the differences of each.
I suppose that reflexive response to vilify one’s disputant can be attributed variously. But one prime candidate for our preference for recrimination over respect is the way we tend to view politics. That we ascribe so much to the outcome of elections, platforms, and appointments engenders that fear of losing something important which then fuels our suspicions and our grievances against our fellow man.
That is why I here recommend that article from Jamie Smith I mentioned in Q&A. Written months before the election, he argues first of all that the church cannot responsibly retreat from its inherently political character. (It may have been Gandhi who said, “He who says politics and religion don’t mix understands neither one.”) The church is a little city whose ability to flourish is not unrelated to the vitality of the empire or state in which it exists. Prayers for, respect of, even appeals for justice to (cf. Acts 25:11) those who govern are therefore not incidental to the teaching of the NT. There can be no indifference to the political realm in a responsible expression of discipleship.
But Smith places the church’s responsibility to political realities in a context which at the same time requires the church to manifest a principled “ambivalence” toward those same realities. Yes, the health of the state should be a concern of the church. But, no, the church ought not entrust its character or its future to political entities whose priorities and proclivities can change as fast as the wind.
If you think all your hope is in the state’s acceptance of your outlook you are more likely to think of those who oppose you politically as more like an enemy than a disputant. So how you view the state has, it would seem, a direct correlation to how you see one another.
Advent, the very start of the Christian calendar, begins the last Sunday in November (27th). Turning our attention toward patient expectation is the intention of marking the time leading up to Christmas.
Last year we let the book of Ruth be our guide through this season. This year, something a bit different: a doctrine–namely the doctrine of union.
Now before you roll the eyes of your heart at what might sound like dull and lifeless theology, let’s make clear why this doctrine matters in this particular season of the Christian year.
Advent typically and properly underscores the miracle of the Incarnation, the uniting of God to our flesh in the person of Jesus. Of God becoming human we shall speak, sing, and wonder for the duration of these four weeks leading up to Christmas.
But while the Incarnation deserves attention in its own right, it would be incorrect to hold that doctrine as if it were true for its own sake. That is to say, the astonishing act of God to send Himself into harm’s way, entering into the limitations of humanity for the sake of that humanity, can only be properly regarded unless we see for what purpose God united himself to flesh. And that purpose was that we would be united to God through faith in the God who became flesh.
So His Incarnation was for our union. God united Himself to our flesh in the person of Jesus so that we might be united to God through faith in Him.
Since that notion of being “united” to God invites all sorts of questions, both about what it means and why that should matter, we’ll spend our Advent gleaning what tidbits we can on this massive and foundational doctrine of the Christian life. As John Calvin puts it quite bluntly in the opening chapter of Book III of his magisterial Institutes:
First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from Him, all that He has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.
In other words, all that it is said we’ve received from Him is of no consequence unless we are found in Him–and He in us. Why that distinction expressed in a difference of a mere preposition matters will be our primary task.
We’re entitling this series “The Gifts of our Union.” And although this doctrine may sound like it lives high up there in the theological ether, we think you’ll find that it has everything to do with life here on the ground.
Among the ways we’ll observe Advent, two we’d like to preview here just a bit.
As you may have heard us mention at the end of worship last Sunday, for our annual Liturgy in Blue, a service particularly furnished to provide a space for those in need of comfort in an otherwise mirthful season, we will devote the largest portion of the liturgy to prayer. Specifically we’ll invite anyone who wishes to present their requests for healing of whatever sort (physical, spiritual, relational) and for hope in the midst of their affliction.
We’ll do that by inviting you to come forward to ask for prayer and there be prayed for on the spot. Twelve members of CtK, both elders and others, men and women, have gladly volunteered to form four small prayer groups that will gather at the front (and one of them mobile for those who can’t quite make it up front).
This will be the first of its kind in the history of CtK. We hope it will become more of a fixture of our life together. We hope you’ll invite anyone you know who might be encouraged by a time of hopeful lament and earnest prayer.
And then, not long before Christmas, we’ll gather for a party, but unlike one we’ve held before. There’s more details to come in the days to come, but for now, a little hint of what it might involve can be found here at this link. There are no creative “types”–only those with courage to give expression to what they observe, or what is within. So everyone is hereby invited to take courage. More soon!
Backstory will take a break for the week of Thanksgiving, but will resume the first week of Advent. Until then, we’re dusting off our favorite Advent hymns. Like this one. Won’t it be good to sing these?