By / Jan 27

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a series engaging the authors of new or notable books. Because discipleship and spiritual formation go hand in hand, the goal of this series is to introduce you to beneficial and enriching works in order to better equip you to love God with your mind as well as your heart and strength. Find the entire series here.

What would you say to someone on the verge of walking away from the faith? What about someone questioning essential truths of Christianity? In Another Gospel?, Alisa Childers offers incredible help to those struggling with these and other questions about faith and the Christian religion. In the book, she takes on the movement known as progressive Christianity, considering its claims and where it falls short of historic Christian doctrine. More than critiquing this progressive strain of Protestantism, she also charts the way forward for Christians fighting against unbelief and helps to (re)anchor their faith on the solid ground of the gospel. We explored more of these ideas in our interview with Childers below.

Your book engages with what you call “progressive Christianity,” which is something we often hear about in political or social contexts. What do you mean by progressive Christianity? And how does it differ from historic Christian faith?

Progressive Christianity is a movement of people who identify as Christian, but have adopted theological liberalism, mixed with a bit of postmodern relativism. The unique characteristic of this particular brand of liberalism is that it is springing up and out of the evangelical church. 

What are common issues that drive people away from evangelical Christianity and toward progressive Christianity? Are there valid critiques that progressive Christianity raises that the church needs to hear?

Because progressive Christians are largely ex-Evangelicals who are reacting against their Christian upbringings, there are several factors that could lead to their deconstruction. For example, in listening to different deconstruction stories, we learn that many progressive Christians grew up in hyper-legalistic or even abusive church settings. Others grew up in a “Christian bubble,” in which they weren’t taught the difference between essential beliefs, and nonessential beliefs. 

Still, others began to see the Bible as morally dubious. In her book, Inspired, the late Rachel Held Evans, a key figure in the progressive movement, noted that when she was a little girl, the Bible was a magic book. As she grew older, she began to notice the true nature of the Noah’s Ark story, and the Canaanite conquest. This caused her to doubt the moral character of the God who was supposed to be the hero of the story. This led her to begin interpreting the Bible through the lens of liberation theology, feminism, and historical criticism. 

What would you say to someone on the verge of walking away from the faith?

And others, who grew up with a “name it and claim it” type of faith, didn’t have a theological category for suffering, and were left in a dark night of the soul following a trial or figuring out how to cope with unanswered prayers. When progressive Christianity first began to materialize through the Emergent church in the late ’90s and early 2000s, they brought in valid critiques of evangelicalism such as hyper-fundamentalism, abuse, and a lack of providing a safe place to bring doubts and questions. However, the progressive Christian movement ended up throwing out the gospel as well. 

The progressive approach to faith that you profile in your book might appeal to certain Christians who are struggling with their beliefs. What are some of the unforeseen pitfalls of this expression of faith? Why should we question the credibility of progressive Christianity?

The progressive movement is extremely appealing to those who are unsatisfied or disgruntled by their evangelical upbringing. Particularly for those who are asking difficult questions like “Why God would allow suffering?”, or, “How we know the BIble is the Word of God?”, it can be appealing because they are given a lot of space to ask these questions, without expectation of conformity. It can also appeal to Christians who are pressured by culture to capitulate on issues like abortion and sexual ethics. Because it is a movement largely driven by personal conscience, there is no pressure to side with the Bible on these issues. I think we should question the credibility of the movement because it is a belief system that holds feelings and personal preference as the highest authority, even over biblical mandate. 

Do you see a difference between unbelief and doubt? How do you think this distinction can help Christians understand the questions they have about God and the Bible?

I think there is a difference between doubt and unbelief. Sometimes, people think the opposite of faith is doubt, but the actual opposite of faith is unbelief. In fact, one can only doubt something they already believe. When we look at it from that angle, we see that doubt can be a very normal and healthy part of spiritual growth. However, progressive Christianity has created a culture of doubt, where agnosticism largely becomes the highest goal. 

Are there common questions or theological issues that tend to lead people toward a “deconstruction” of their faith? What is some practical wisdom for Christians feeling the first impulses toward the “spiritual labor” you describe in the book?

There are several different factors that can lead someone into deconstruction. When I’ve listened to deconstruction stories, there is often a mix of apologetics questions like, “Why does God allow evil and suffering?”, and, “Is the Bible really God’s reliable Word?”, and, “Has science disproved Christianity?” But when I listen closely, there is almost always an undercurrent of doubt regarding the biblical teaching on morality, and specifically, sexual ethics. I think in many cases, Christians feel pressured to align themselves with the cultural narrative on sexuality, which I have found to be a core tenet of progressive Christianity with advocacy for same-sex marriage and relationships being a main theme. 

My encouragement to Christians who are experiencing impulses toward this type of spiritual labor is to not give up. Often, it seems people begin deconstructing, but they don’t press through to find truth. Often, they’ve already decided they don’t believe what God says about morality or theology and look for reasons to change their minds. But if we keep our hearts set on truth, we will keep digging until we find it. 

You outline in your book how progressive Christianity often redefines or alters core tenets of historic Christianity. Can you give an example of this? Why is this so harmful?

One example of progressive Christianity altering a core tenet of the faith has to do with the atonement. Substitutionary atonement, and specifically, penal substitutionary atonement is referred to as “cosmic child abuse.” Progressive Christians don’t believe Jesus died on the cross for our sins as a sacrifice. Often, the atonement is described as God allowing the cross in order to submit to the bloodlust of humans, and to show how forgiveness works. This is harmful because it removes any mechanism for real atonement—to be reconciled to a holy God. But in progressive Christianity, humans aren’t separated from God in the first place, so there is no need for reconciliation. 

Are there cultural narratives or beliefs unique to our society that drive people toward adding or subtracting to the gospel? What are some ways we are guilty of the “chronological snobbery” that C.S. Lewis cautioned about?

The shift on sexuality and gender norms is a deeply influential cultural narrative leading people to redefine, add to, or subtract from the gospel. There is a push to accommodate the gospel to include the acceptance of premarital sex, homosexuality, and transgenderism. The cultural acceptance of critical theory and intersectionality, which divides people into groups of oppressed and oppressor has paved the way for these changes to be made. 

Another cultural narrative that is influencing Christians to add or subtract to the gospel is the broader push for valuing the self above all else. Messages like “just follow your heart” and “you are perfect just as you are” have led a large swath of Christians to reject the doctrine of original sin, trading it instead for “original blessing,” or “original goodness,” which teaches that humans are not inherently sinful, and if they are, that sin doesn’t separate them from God. If they feel separated from God, it is simply their shame or lack of realizing their belovedness that makes them feel the separation.

You encountered progressive Christianity through the emergent church, a previously popular movement that has now faded. Where do most people come into contact with progressive Christianity today?

The Emergent church planted the seeds for progressive Christianity. Largely speaking, it is the same movement, with the same philosophy and theological conclusions. When it was perceived that the Emergent church faded out, that is because Emergents were largely pushed out of the evangelical church, but then they grew and festered online on social media platforms, internet chat rooms, and blog sites. With fresh faces and voices, the movement continued to grow in numbers and influence, finding themselves published on major Christian publishing houses and being invited to evangelical churches and conferences. With this fresh crop of voices, but not excluding the original Emergent voices, progressive Christianity successfully infiltrated the evangelical church in ways the Emergent church was unable to accomplish. 

What have you personally gained from the reconstruction of your faith? How has that journey strengthened your relationship with Jesus and conviction in the historic Christian faith?

My journey to discover historic Christianity has been a two-fold blessing. On one hand, my experience at the progressive church left a wound. Like Jacob, I walk with a limp, but that limp has humbled me and made me even more dependent on the Lord. That is, in and of itself, a deeper blessing than I could have known to ask for. Second, the Lord has seen fit to bless me with an opportunity to help others who are encountering and interacting with progressive Christianity and help equip them to answer the claims and minister to their friends who are confused by it. Ultimately, my faith in God is stronger today than ever. I have learned to trust in what I know about God and not depend on my feelings. 

Encountering unasked questions created a faith crisis for you because your faith was, as you described, “intellectually weak and untested.” This is an experience shared by many Christians. How would you counsel believers who encounter questions they don’t have immediate answers for? How can the church better equip people to handle doubt?

My main advice for Christians encountering new questions they don’t have answers for is to begin with knowing that there is nothing new under the sun. This may be a new question to you, but it’s not a new question for the church. We have 2,000 years of a robust intellectual tradition that has been interacting with these types of questions. Keep digging. Don’t give up just because a clever skeptic spins something in such a way that causes confusion. It takes work, but as I say in the book, the hungry doubter will do the work. 

I think churches can help by providing apologetics and theological training for young people, starting in elementary school. Our kids are encountering skeptical claims about what they believe at such tender ages. We have to expose them to skepticism in the safety of our homes and churches, teaching them how to think critically and navigate these things before they go out into the world. Also, churches need to learn how to diagnose doubt. Not every doubt is intellectual. An apologetics class won’t necessarily help someone who is doubting because of cultural pressure to capitulate on sexuality. 

Seeking to understand the question behind the question can go a long way to help prepare Christians to stand strong in this increasingly more post-Christian culture. 

You can order Another Gospel? here.

By / Oct 19

Political philosophy is rarely a topic of conversation in popular culture today. Streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu alongside myriad social media platforms generally provide more than sufficient entertainment to forestall discussions of the finer points of political theory—though, in fairness, both Facebook and Twitter routinely provoke considerable volumes of political squabbling. Even so, all of us live together in the real world. And as we live our lives, we encounter each day a common culture, the state of which concerns all of us. So the question merits discussion: what is the state of things today?

In his book, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen offers a stark appraisal of Western culture. Deneen, professor of Political Science at Notre Dame University, is a first-rate scholar in the history of political thought and a critical observer of American culture and public life. Within the pages of Why Liberalism Failed, readers will encounter Deneen’s critical assessment of our current situation structured around his devastating critique of classical liberalism—the longstanding political theory that lies at the foundation of modern Western culture.

Broken by design

Deneen’s primary contention is that liberalism has failed. More specifically, in his estimation liberalism failed because it has, for more than two centuries, been wildly successful. And this is no mere wordplay. Deneen recognizes that classical liberalism has produced impressive results and that the unprecedented successes, innovations, and achievements credited to liberalism would have otherwise failed to become reality (19). Such breakthroughs include advances in industry, technology, medicine, flight, space exploration, and countless other scientific developments. All of this Deenen regards as fruit of the liberal vision that emerged from the Enlightenment, the fundamental elements of which were the democratic ideals of human equality, personal liberty, and limited government.

But as he surveys the many triumphs of modern Western culture, Deneen suggests that even these colossal feats may be insufficient to insulate liberalism from intense scrutiny. As Deneen contends, what we are witnessing in the West today—the fracturing of modern society—is the result of a flourishing liberal order. And this, he submits, is the problem: liberalism is killing itself.

Central to classical liberalism is a vision of freedom, a kind of libertarian autonomy that stands opposed to limitations or restraints—regardless of their nature. The problem with this vision, according to Deneen, is that it destroys the vital link between individuals and the institutions that separate individuals from the state. And this is no minor issue. Such mediating institutions including the family, the church, one’s local community, and sundry forms of civic engagement have, for millennia, borne primary responsibility for the formation of individuals. Together, these various institutions, whether it be religious gatherings, Girl Scouts, little league, or domestic labor, worked in cooperation with the family to form a sort of crucible for shaping a child’s character and morals. Or, to put it in Deneen’s words, to cultivate a strong vision of “virtue” and “self-rule” (37). To our detriment, liberalism’s vision of freedom has eroded society’s commitment to this process. Thus, we no longer reap its benefits.

Loosening the bonds

It is at this point that Christians can benefit most directly from Deneen’s work. Each of us profit from the successes of liberalism on a daily basis, but we likewise suffer from its liabilities. Unfortunately, as we live our daily lives within such a well-established liberal society, we are for the most part ignorant of its design. Deneen’s book highlights briefly the assets of liberalism—things we are sure to enjoy by default—but the work is dedicated to exposing its deficiencies. And as he demonstrates, it is liberalism’s weaknesses that most threaten both the culture on a larger scale, and the lives of our families, churches, and communities on a smaller—but arguably more important—scale.

Most concerning among the issues Deneen examines is this idea of loosening bonds. As he remarks, “The loosening of social bonds in nearly every aspect of life—familial, neighborly, communal, religious, even national—reflects the advancing logic of liberalism and is the source of its deepest instability” (29). In other words, liberalism’s vision of freedom and autonomy has taken us too far. As a society, we’ve determined to remove every obstacle and to sacrifice all in the name of self-determination. One is now expected to view these “social bonds” with suspicion and permitted to consider any obligations that arise from things like familial and religious commitments as burdensome or oppressive.

Deneen claims that this is much more than a glitch in the system; it is instead, the inevitable outworking of the liberal vision. And this is his larger point. Since its inception, liberalism has depended on borrowed capital—on the vestiges of practices and social commitments that heretofore served to churn out responsible and respectable citizens. But through its success, liberalism has brought down the curtain on these practices by freeing us from all social responsibilities and commitments. But what kind of future—we may ask—awaits a society without such things? As Deneen sees it, liberal society will be ruined ultimately by an illiberal citizenry.

A Christian view of liberty

To remedy our current state, Deneen contends we need a new vision, a “liberty after liberalism”—not another comprehensive theory to supplant liberalism but a simple commitment to build upon the natural and fundamental relationships of human life. To that end, he calls for “people of goodwill to form distinctive countercultural communities in ways distinct from the deracinated and depersonalized form of life that liberalism seems above all to foster” (179). In other words, he calls for dissent.

There is much to appreciate in Deneen’s work. He writes with precision and makes a compelling case regarding the failure of liberalism. But while he skillfully exposes many of its deficiencies, I would join those suggesting there are a multitude of corrective efforts available short of abandoning the liberal order. Still, Deneen’s solution is, at least in part, precisely the correct course of action: the church must dissent.

For too long, Christians have willfully followed the culture wherever it led. But as society continues to place greater emphasis on the freedom of the individual and the value of self-determination, the church must offer a different vision. We must not shy away from calling sinners to deny themselves and follow Christ (Matt. 16:24). We must redouble our efforts to promote healthy families and to cultivate true community among our congregations. We must be concerned with instilling virtue, by teaching one another to live in obedience to the gospel (Rom. 1:5).

We may not turn back the tide of the culture, but we can offer the world a better picture of both liberty and flourishing. And we can do this by renewing our focus on the church as an outpost of the kingdom of heaven, a place where individuals are welcomed into a new family and a vibrant community being built by the Spirit. As the apostle Paul stated, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). That is a political philosophy for the church.

By / Aug 30

Richard Rorty once defined truth as “what your contemporaries will let you get away with,” and in a way this notion captures the pragmatic gist of John Rawls’ doctrine of public reason surveyed in part I of this post: the reasonableness of any political claim or assertion is determined by what “the public” finds reasonable. So you might think of “public reason” as conceptual proxy for what we as a society think is true or false, wise or foolish, fair or unfair. Rawls is not suggesting that truth itself is relative, as Rorty sometimes wants to say, but is rather explaining why adjudication of political discourse is conducted by Public Reason. The “overlapping consensus” constituting Public Reason is united by a common commitment to fairness. He thinks fairness is something we all want regardless of whether we’re outspoken about it or not. Crucially, on Rawls view, this shared understanding remains independent of any one philosophic, scientific, or religious viewpoint. “Public reason” is the name of the independent understanding we share in

I also alluded in part I to a couple of ramifications for Rawls’ doctrine of public reason: (i) that knowledge of distinctly political language — knowing the rules of play — is a requirement for participation in public discourse and (ii) that one must refrain from explicit appeal to a comprehensive doctrine unless terms are translated for public discourse. I’d like here to expand upon these implications by highlighting how Rawls’ account of Public Reason controls the terms of public discourse, and then conclude with a few pointed criticisms of his account.

The recurring challenge for someone holding a comprehensive doctrine is detecting the resonances and dissonances that one’s comprehensive doctrine shares with public reason. Suppose you identify as Christian and want the truths of Christianity to shape your life. And suppose further that this commitment has prompted you to take special interest, say, in contemporary immigration policy. For theological reasons you feel that immigrants deserve a place to dwell safely and to pursue their own flourishing. But you quickly discover that your theological rationale for securing a prudent naturalization process does not translate easily into the terms of political debate. You cannot say every human being has dignity because made in the image of God, because on Rawls’ account theological reasons are publicly inadmissible. What you have to do is explain how and why prudent naturalization comports with public reason’s ideals, which would mean explaining how and why prudent naturalization results in a fairer society.

It doesn’t matter that your charitable motivation is Christian in character, or that you wish to affirm the dignity of the person and act for their good, or even that you’d like to give families a place to belong without fear. Public reason is disinterested in love. It requires that you translate your charitable motivations into terms of social justice. Love the immigrant all you want, but to contribute to public discourse on the issue of immigration you are required to demonstrate the comparable fairness of your proposals. This is partly what I mean by “learning the rules of play.” Regardless of what you personally believe or how you feel, all political pronouncements have to be stated as public reason dictates.

But what happens when public reason becomes less and less knowledgeable of the religious traditions from which it arose? Or to put it another way, how are we to respond when it becomes apparent that public reason is religiously illiterate? These are much harder questions. In some cases it is not clear that specific faith commitments can be translated into terms of public reason at all. Take an example.

Suppose I were to claim, following Gilbert Meilander, that on the Christian account we may never seek euthanasia because our lives are not “ours” to dispense with as we please, but belong instead to Christ. That would be a profoundly theological ethic against euthanasia. But public reason will balk at the claim, and the euthanasia advocate will likewise stress the very opposite point: our lives are irrevocably ours to dispense with as we please, especially if we wish to avoid intense suffering. This impasse of whether we “own” ourselves or not is not politically remediable, not purely on Rawls’ terms anyway. Other argumentative strategies are available for the Christian, however, like showing euthanasia’s contradiction to the hippocratic oath of physicians, or highlighting the troubling expansion of eligibility standards in Europe, provided that such points finally reaffirmed the ideals of public reason. Thus there is a definite sense in which the ethical core of a comprehensive doctrine can remain fundamentally irreconcilable with public reason. In such cases public reason always prevails.

Let me turn now to that second ramification of not explicitly appealing to one’s comprehensive doctrine during public discourse. For Rawls, public reason is normative — it decides things — yet remains “freestanding” and religiously ambivalent. If a Christian, for example, wishes to participate in the public square, she will be heard and understood only if she speaks the language of public reason. But this raises again the natural question of whether the core tenets of Christianity are fully translatable for public address, and in turn to an even deeper question: should the Christian set the theological terms of their existence aside, or perhaps compromise them, in order to gain public hearing? Should anyone, irrespective of their comprehensive doctrine, be required to jettison the very terms of that doctrine in order to participate in political discourse? Plainly the answer to these questions is No.

I pose the questions in this way primarily to draw our attention a still larger, and perhaps even more decisive point: Public Reason is itself a comprehensive doctrine. It has a dogma, narrative, and ends just as longstanding religious traditions do. “The public,” as Rawls describes it, is endowed with a logic, or creed, that mimics other comprehensive doctrines. And on this point I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s short but memorable quip in his Kenyon College commencement address: everybody worships. Everyone bends the knee to something. Humans are worshipping creatures. As such, public reason and indeed the whole project of Social Justice that Rawls account typifies, is religious all the way down. The so-called secularist is as committed to his comprehensive doctrine as the Christian is to hers.

Public reason is an ideology. All political discourse must comport with it, and in determining the validity of a contribution it can weigh the merits only against what has already been judged true. Public reason is indistinguishable from the prevailing opinion, whatever that is. And because public reason is by definition self-validating, it is an ideology in the truest sense of the word; the inerrant authority on what is and isn’t politically correct. And it’s the ideological character of public reason coupled with its uncanny ability to resist falsificaiton that has lent it so much of its theoretical force. Rawls’ doctrine is elegant in theory, but when subjected to more concrete, granular examination it becomes practically untenable. To illustrate, one explanation for the rise of protest candidates this election season, arguably, is to view them as a revolt against the settled rule of public reason.

It is perhaps fitting at this point to speculate momentarily on just what it means to “be public” in the first place. When is it, exactly, that we are public? At what moment? The rather common assumption today is that being public means presenting oneself to a watching or reading audience of some kind, so that “public” just means not-private. But what are we then to make of the obvious disjuncts in publicity, like when someone who wishes to be public fails to gain an audience, or conversely, when the same person this time seeking an audience fails to acquire one? “Bad publicity,” too, is puzzling. The scope of publicity far surpasses our meagre intentions to capture or avoid it. The slipperiness of publicity is attributable in part to the mediated character of social life today. To the extent that “the public” is predominantly mediated, the terms of what counts as public and so according with public reason are often determined by those who control how their respective medium will disclose the very terms of reality and of ideas about it. As John Paul II reiterated in Aetatis Novae, modern media controls through the selection of language not only the way things will be thought, but even whether a thing will be thought at all. “The public” is us as we see ourselves through these mediums.

Rawls thought he was simply describing the way political society worked. What I’ve tried to show is that when Rawls’ doctrine of public reason moves from the descriptive–this is how political society works–to normative–this is how political society should work– it cannot live up to its own criteria. It’s unclear why we shouldn’t think of public reason as constituting a comprehensive doctrine, nor is it clear that we have a shared understanding of what “the public” represents. The very “authority” making public reason right and reasonable itself is questionable. Thus I think it is more fitting to speak of society as composed of many publics rather than of only one public. Rawls’ public is too speculative and mythic.

Now, I certainly do not mean to suggest that these ambiguities should somehow disallow or discourage the Christian from engaging public discourse. Civic participation is imperative. But we do not have to do it as we’ve always done it. Speaking more clearly and persuasively in public requires knowing better what a given public thinks. What are the claims and arguments? Why has it settled on these aims rather than others? Etc. In becoming better informed about the texture of public discourse we will begin to see — because of our commitment to a comprehensive doctrine (Christianity) — the false binaries that paralyze discussion of our most pressing political debates. We’ll also learn a great deal about the proper tone of discourse. In any case, the aim in public discourse can no longer be that of adapting commitments to comport with public rationality, but to challenge the very terms in which that rationality justifies itself. Public reason has its gods–let’s call them out!

By / Aug 18

His name is John Rawls. Born in Baltimore, his father was an attorney and his mother president of the League of Women Voters. He attended Princeton as an undergraduate. For a time he contemplated entry to the priesthood. Combat during War World II brought that prospect of clerical service to an abrupt end. Rawls lost his faith. The carnage of the battlefield and the barbarity of the Holocaust was, for him, just too much to bear. Such evil meant God simply could not exist.

After leaving the army Rawls returned to Princeton to complete his PhD in philosophy. He taught at Cornell for a brief stint before joining the faculty at Harvard in 1962, where he would teach for the next three plus decades. After sustaining some debilitating strokes in the mid 90’s, slowing his productivity, Rawls passed away a few years later (in 2002) at the age of 81.

On first take that’s not exactly what you would call a life of intrigue or stardom, is it? Seems almost sort of dull. But make no mistake, John Rawls is quite possibly the most important western thinker of the latter 20th century. He’s the most important guy you’ve probably never heard of. But trust me, you do know Rawls. You know him really, really well. He’s everywhere you look.

Here’s what I mean: Rawls thought has been so persuasive for so long that in many ways it has come to define the very political terms of American public life today. It’s not just that Rawls contributes in some significant way to how we think about politics and law, or about what kind of society we want. His influence is far more pervasive than that. American society is now in large measure a Rawlsian society.

How did this happen, you ask? Partly through a small army of wildly gifted students, who studied with Rawls and then went off to have their own careers in the academy and elsewhere. But primarily through his two monumental works: A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993). I don’t throw this word around often, but both books are masterpieces. Even if you don’t agree with him, it is impossible to grapple with any part of his general argument and come away unscathed or unimpressed. His writing is so crisp and clear, his claims so tightly argued, his theories so intuitive and compelling that he often feels unassailable. Whole books have been written on mere pages of Rawls work.

Suffice to say, I can’t really survey the whole of Rawls’ political theory here and do it justice. What I can give you is a sort of thumbnail sketch of one narrower idea that conveys a sense of Rawls importance and that also illustrates how formative his thought has been in American law and politics. Central to Rawls’ political thought is a doctrine, or idea, he refers to as public reason. Let me tell you what he says about public reason and then in a second part to this piece I’ll explain how the doctrine has infused American public life today.

What one thing must we say something about in order for it to alter an entire political theory? Justice. Rawls thought begins with a now famous definition of justice: fairness. Justice is fairness. And as definitions go it seems commonsensical enough — we all want a fair shake in life and, on the whole, think others should get fair shake too. Don’t mistake Rawls for an ideologue, though. He doesn’t think justice should or even can be totally level and equalized. He’s concerned more with making social institutions, or ordering mechanisms, widely beneficial to all.

We live in a society composed of diverse viewpoints about life’s most important truths and yet somehow a political equilibrium (of sorts) is achieved with rather considerable regularity. Despite all our tremendous differences, Rawls believes that what holds us together as a society is our shared understanding of justice. We all wish to be as free and as equal as possible. That’s what all liberal societies — in the narrow, historic sense of the word “liberal” — most want. The challenge in modern times has been how precisely to balance freedom and equality in a pluralistic society with differences of opinion about who needs or deserves what.

So, Rawls proposes “a conception of justice that may be shared by citizens as a basis of a reasoned, informed, and willing political agreement.” The key word there is “shared.” This “shared” understanding must remain independent of alternate philosophic or religious viewpoints vying for political supremacy. “Public reason” is the name of the independent understanding we share in. Getting along is important to us, and this means we need to agree on what justice will look like for us as a society. This doesn’t have to be conscious for us; it happens gradually over time.

According to Rawls we’re after something “we hope can gain the support of an overlapping consensus of reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines in a society regulated by it.” This consensus the plurality of folks have in common he thinks amounts to a “freestanding” view of justice reliant only upon a long-negotiated and entirely neutral public reason. To clarify, an “overlapping consensus” is what we all essentially think is the case despite our great many other differences. We’ve got this common idea of justice as fairness and that’s our political starting point.

A somewhat superficial example might help here. Suppose you are a college football fan and you feel your team’s chances of winning the conference championship this year are pretty good. You’re not alone; a lot of other fans think so too. All of the fans, you included, want more than anything for the team to succeed. But there is a wide difference of opinion about specific parts of the team. Some think the team is too young at crucial skill positions, some worry about the coach’s offseason problems, and some think the secondary is weak. Opinions are all over the map. The thing held in common by true fans, however, is an unwavering commitment to support the team and stick with them regardless of wins or losses. They’re your team. Nothing can change that for you and every genuine fan sticks with them. In a way, this undying commitment to the team is sort of like Rawls’ public reason — the thing we all agree on without much thinking about it.

A final point of clarification. Rawls calls justice a “political conception,” by which he means that “justice as fairness” is what the overlapping consensus has come to agree upon. Political concepts are neutral. They’re mutually agreed upon, even if tacitly, and apply to everyone. But, and this is a huge but, the neutrality of public reason means that it cannot be religious. Rawls is confident his theory can be accepted reasonably by all citizens irrespective of viewpoint, even by citizens with definite religious convictions, provided those religious citizens understand that their convictions cannot figure into “political discussions of constitutional essentials and basic questions of justice.” The cost for any religious citizen wishing to contribute to these important political discussions is the privilege of appealing to religious convictions. In other words, to contribute means checking “comprehensive doctrines” at the door and entering the discourse on purely political terms. These are simply the terms of social cooperation; any political conception of justice must remain invulnerable to special interests of any comprehensive viewpoint.

So, despite the great plurality of viewpoints represented in constitutional democracies it remains possible on Rawls’ account to achieve modest social consensus if citizens show some willingness to compromise. And notice, the decisive criterion here is the reasonableness of one’s viewpoint (i.e., comprehensive doctrine). What determines whether your religious viewpoint is sufficiently reasonable? The public! For Rawls, public reason determines finally what is and is not a legitimate viewpoint. A governor may appeal to some religious viewpoint in her speech, for example, but only if it can be translated into terms accordant with public reason. Religious appeals must comply with the public values of freedom and equality. Thus, public reason is what he thinks makes his conception of justice “freestanding” and ideologically neutral. Democratic societies rise or fall on the willingness of citizens to recognize the terms of justice set by public reason, and comply.

As you may already detect, Rawls’s doctrine of public reason carries tremendous ramifications for participation in public discourse. First, it means that the person who chooses to engage in such discourse knows the political language and its many discrete dialects. Wanting to participate and knowing how to participate are two very different things. A discourse is by definition something already underway, and so every new entrant is required to learn the terms of its procession. No one can play baseball, after all, without knowing what strikes and balls mean, or when and how to run the bases. The same idea applies here: political participation requires learning the rule of the game, and on Rawls account the rules are determined by public reason. At the very least, participation will require identifying and respecting salient political values public reason enshrines.

Second, because participation in public discourse requires doing so on political terms, as Rawls would have it, the person holding a “comprehensive doctrine,” like that of Christianity, say, must refrain from direct appeal to the terms of that comprehensive doctrine. If you want to be heard in public, you have to say what you want to say on purely political terms. It is OK to draw privately on your own faith commitments for engaging in public discourse, but deploying those commitments explicitly in public is a mistake, not because it’s wrong in principle, but because it either cannot or will not be heard. If one’s faith contributes to the logic of one’s political commitments, then to be heard requires translation of one’s faith into language that is publicly intelligible, which is to say in keeping with public reason.

Now you have the wildly truncated account of Rawls doctrine of public reason. In my next post I’ll unpack a few of its implications for our contemporary political experience.

By / Jul 31

Earlier this year, National Geographic’s ran a cover story called, “The War on Science.” In the feature article, writer Joel Achenbach addressed a number of issues about which many people dispute the received scientific wisdom.

Ranging from the moon landing to evolutionary theory, Achenbach detailed why skeptics refuse to accept what to many scientists seems established fact. Personally, I’m with Achenbach on the moon landing, vaccinations, and GMOs; on climate change and evolutionary theory, not so much.

My views on these matters are immaterial to a much different and urgent scientific issue, one Achenbach neglected and which regularly receives at best spare coverage in the popular media: The scientific case against abortion.

There is no question that human personhood begins at conception. Not just human life – any cell in the body represents “human life” – but a person, developing and unformed, but no less human than you or me.

Even National Geographic itself, in its beautiful DVD, “In the Womb,” demonstrates vividly that it is an unborn child that begins developing at conception. Her DNA is unchanged from the moment when the sperm and egg fuse – the moment of conception.

Of course, champions of abortion refuse to acknowledge the personhood of the unborn child. Referring to the child as a “fetus” provides a veneer of detachment from the humanness of that which is being suctioned out of or dismembered within a woman’s womb.

Too, “fetus” simply means “unborn young,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. So, for those readers not Latinophiles, let’s use that phrasing: babies within the womb are “unborn young.” Quite so. We’ll go with it.

The Left jettisons science in the name of radical personal autonomy and sexual volition. It cannot abide even modest measures to protect the unborn young. Whether clinic regulations to ensure the safety and cleanliness of abortion centers, prohibiting partial birth abortions, ultrasound laws that require women to see the reality of what they are contemplating abortion, the stridency of those favoring no restrictions on abortion is remarkable.

It’s also understandable: If they concede, in even the slightest degree, that the unborn child has any value, their case is lost. Thus, they will not dialog honestly about the unborn young (and their mothers) who are being victimized by a predatory abortion industry. For example, on Planned Parenthood of America’s (PPFA) “prenatal care” webpage, the authors assiduously avoid any mention of a baby’s health or well-being. In fact, one would think the woman had a growth in her body not dissimilar to a tumor except for a few references to a “fetus” and one reference to “embryo” with respect to having an ultrasound.

Interestingly, PPFA lists a number of things that can be found during an ultrasound; the sex of the unborn youth or her visibly obvious humanity are not among them. It also mentions, repetitively, such things as fetal abnormalities, Down Syndrome, and related matters. Such information might well be useful, but does continuous reference to the possibility of something being wrong with the unborn youth not speak to a different, darker agenda than simply a safe and healthy pregnancy? Especially given that roughly 90 percent of Down’s babies are aborted in the womb?

PPFA also notes that in amniocentesis, “there is a slight chance of infection, injury to the fetus, or early labor.” So: If the mother wants to keep the baby, “injury to” her unborn youth matters. Bear in mind that this is the same organization that provides more than 325,000 abortions annually. In other words, injury to unborn youth only matters if that youth is wanted. Subjective preference determines what’s right? How is this possibly moral?

The recently videos in which Planned Parenthood personnel speak casually about marketing the organs of unborn aborted children add new, oppressive weight to PPFA’s long history of predation on the unborn and their mothers. Here is one excerpt that captures the gory dehumanization that is Planned Parenthood’s stock-in-trade, from their senior director of medical research, Dr. Deborah Nucatola:

We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.

Then there’s this, from a filmed recording of Dr. Mary Gatter, President of Planned Parenthood’s Medical Director’s Council:

Gatter talks about changing the abortion technique to get intact specimens, changing from a rather violent suction method that would destroy tissue to what she calls an IPAS, which is a reference to a nonprofit company that makes and distributes “manual vacuum aspirators” which would be a less harmful way to get at the internal organs. She said there would be protocol issues with the patient but that she saw no problem with it. She calls it a “less crunchy” way to get intact organs.

This is the use of medical science to wage war against unborn young. It is the abuse of science in the cause of death. I’d call that a war on the little ones in the womb and their mothers. And on science itself.

Earlier this year Senator Rand Paul, rightly aggravated by a reporters insistent badgering of him regarding abortion, said, “Why don’t we ask the DNC (Democratic National Committee): Is it OK to kill a 7-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and go ask (DNC Chairwoman) Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a 7-pound baby that’s just not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and ask Debbie when she’s willing to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, come back to me.”

Schultz responded, “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story.”

Not for Senator Paul: “It sounds like her answer is yes, that she’s OK with killing a 7-pound baby. Debbie’s position, which I guess is the Democratic Party’s position, that an abortion all the way up until the day of birth would be fine, I really think most pro-choice people would be uncomfortable with that.”

This is a defining example of the incapacity of advocates of abortion-on-demand to interact intelligently with the reality of life within the womb. It is indicative of their willingness to wage war on science by refusing to deal with it.

Should Ms. Wasserman Schultz and her allies in what Pope John Paul II called “the culture of death” ever concede that even the slightest provision should be made to protect or enhance the life of unborn youth, they know their house of anti-science regarding abortion would collapse.

In George Orwell’s 1984, “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.”

These ministries have nothing on the proponents of choice (i.e., abortion) or the designation of the child as merely an untoward, unwelcome collection of blood and tissue.

A fetus – I mean, an unborn youth – and her mother deserve so much better than to be victims of this war on science.

Here are some excellent resources on how unborn youth develop and what actually takes place in the womb:

What Science Reveals about Fetal Pain and Planned Parenthood: Abortion Numbers Are Up, both by Arina Grossu, Director of FRC’s Center for Human Dignity.

Fetal development: The 1st trimester – The Mayo Clinic

Slideshow: Fetal Development Month by Month – Web M.D.

By / Mar 18

Recently, someone in my Facebook news feed shared a video that carried the caption, “Is this real?” It was a newscast from FOX 25 in Boston that cited a German study that found that men who regularly stare at a woman’s breasts have a lower rate of heart problems, a lower resting heart rate, and lower blood pressure. The reporter closes by saying that the study’s authors recommend that men stare at a woman’s breasts for 10 minutes a day.

FOX 25 in Boston did run this story on their newscast back in 2011, but quickly did a mea culpa after viewers pointed out that some version of this internet hoax has been around since 1999. Yet here we are three years after this video aired and 15 years after the original hoax made its way around the internet and some of us are still wondering out loud if it’s true.

Viral videos are all the rage right now. Everyone I know has shared an hilarious or outlandish viral video of some sort. Recently I’ve shared rednecks using a chain link fence gate to shoot off 8,500 fireworks at one time, bad lip-reading of NFL players, and Minions playing soccer. I actually frequent Facebook less and less these days because my 2/3rds of the posts friends share are videos that I don’t have time nor the interest to watch. (Anyone else hate Facebook’s autoplay?) And of those on which I might be interested in wasting a few minutes of my short life, I no longer trust many of them to be authentic thanks to the rise of fake viral videos.

As with all emerging technologies, it takes time for the ability to create new content in a new technology to become ubiquitous. The first thing to become cheap on the internet was email. As a result earliest internet hoaxes were shared via forwarded email from one person to the next. Universities hosted the servers that made up the backbone of the internet. It was a cheap perk for universities to give students free email accounts and those students, fueled with spare time, a penchant for trouble, and long list of friends waiting to be suckered, happily engaged in the popularization of mass-email hoaxes. One of the earliest websites on the internet was dedicated to separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

Despite the almost immediate rise of email hoaxes, fake content generally did not apply to regular web pages. In the early days of the internet, it was really hard to create a website. You had to go to Network Solutions to get a domain name (paying $35 a year), find a provider to host your site (paying an often-steep monthly fee), and have the proper UNIX coding to ensure that when someone typed that they ended up in the right place. And then after all that, you had to actually code your content in this language called “HTML” or get someone else to do it for you (along with the opportunity to pay even more $$). A basic website in 1995 easily cost the unexperienced person hundreds or even thousands of dollars to set up the first time. And then you had to maintain it.

Those barriers to entry meant that the content you found online (outside of email) generally had a level of trustworthiness to it. After all, no one wanted to spend that much money or go to that much effort just to play a prank on folks. That reality slowly changed as AOL and other early mass internet providers created the ability of regular people to easily and cheaply create their own web content on the company’s own servers. Soon after, the barrier to creating your own website with your own domain name fell as well giving way to today’s standard where you can now have your own site and content for just a few clicks and even fewer dollars. Now a website content’s trustworthiness is not in the fact that it exists, but is instead based on the brand that runs and maintains it.

This pattern of ‘high trustworthiness due to high barriers of entry’ giving way to ‘low trustworthiness due to low barriers of entry’ is now underway with online video. And it’s not simply because shooting video and posting it online has become easy for anyone with a smartphone to do. It’s also because it has become extremely simple to edit those easily-shot videos into something completely fabricated.

The video that started undermining my faith in the medium was this viral YouTube sensation uploaded back in 2011 showing a man on a security camera struck by lightning twice on the same sidewalk in less than a minute. I was hooked.

The feeling you get later when you learn that something you believed to be real is actually a fake is akin to betrayal. When I saw the man struck by lightning twice, I made an emotional investment by believing what I thought I was seeing and saying to myself, “Wow, that’s amazing.”

Then I went a step further. I shared this video with lots of friends on social media. Soon a kind soul directed me to this video by a visual effects expert with a technical frame-by-frame deconstruction of the original debunking the whole thing. Embarrassed, I deleted it from my social media accounts and swore to myself about how stupid I had been for not checking its authenticity first. Not only had I been betrayed, but now countless people also knew I had been suckered. Anyone who has ever been betrayed by a friend, romantic interest or business associate can attest that it’s bad enough to be betrayed, but worse to know other people watched you waste your trust so easily.

Now there are countless fake viral videos out there that people regularly share believing them to be true such as the clumsy waitress that falls through a window (windows don’t break like that), there’s the kid who lies in between the railroad track rails and driven over by a train (which has been removed from YouTube presumably because of concern over kids actually trying this and dying), the rich girl who freaks out over her dad buying her the wrong color car (a Domino’s Pizza viral campaign), and my favorite, Hamas forgetting to remove the explosive vest before heading off to bury a would-be suicide bomber.

While there is deception and betrayal around us every day, fake viral videos in social media occupy a unique place. They are attractive to people of all ages and stages, they are often difficult to recognize as false, and they are so compelling that they beg to be shared with others. When shared, the lie often turns and bites the person who shared it in a very public and personal way. Every online social circle these days seems to have at least one person whose apparent mission in life is to publicly castigate anyone who shares fake social media content without having done an exhaustive search of Snopes, Urban Legends, Urban Myths and Truth or Fiction first.

Additionally they are visual and directly confuse your visual sensory perception. This is fundamentally different than the breakdown in trust that has existed since the Fall around the true or false nature of words. Words, whether spoken or written, do not directly communicate with the sensory perception other than to merely pass through on their way to being assembled by the brain where they are judged by the ideas they communicate. But when you lose the ability to believe what you perceive through your senses in the first place, especially when perceiving what appears to be an everyday life situation, your mooring on reality becomes tenuous. Imagine how awful perceiving reality would be if magic tricks were constantly being performed around you but without the limiting context of a magician or a stage. It would be simpler to just go crazy.

The prevalence in our culture of fake visual content will have a subtle but real impact on how we share our faith with others. The greater the doubt people have about the veracity of what they are perceiving via a particular sense, the more isolated people become, uncertain of what to believe when faced with some new information. Whenever you have to apply additional tests and verification methods to ensure what you are perceiving is actually real, you lose the desire to both pursue and know reality because getting to truth requires so much work.

A key difference between fake viral videos and any other visual manipulations is that theirs is no limiting factor that helps us differentiate between falsehood and reality. Whether it be in a movie, on a stage or the manipulator himself having an official title, there has always been a point where the false image stops and reality takes back over. With fake visuals masquerading as truth, you cannot be sure what to believe.

Eventually, the current craze over viral videos will fade. We’ll have gotten tired of them and have reached the point that we feel like we’ve seen it all. One more medium will have been saturated with an overabundance of once-compelling content that no longer entertains us.

But the assault on the once-believable medium of visual perception will have a coarsening effect of our ability to perceive truth. Not only will a method of communicating will have been co-opted, but thanks to social media, we will have all been personally and publicly betrayed by it. The quest to believe a message as truth and trust someone as authentic will be a bit harder. Rather than do the extra work to ensure we are correctly perceiving truth, it’ll be easier to simply pick a form of entertainment and allow our mind to turn to mush.

By / Sep 15

Gresham Machen is most well known for his opposition to liberal Protestantism and his trenchant defense of orthodox Christianity. He served as a professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary for 23 years during the time of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. In 1929, Machen left because of encroaching liberalism to form Westminster Theological Seminary. In his classic, Christianity and Liberalism (1923), he argued that liberalism was an altogether different religion than Christianity.

Machen’s critique of liberalism was prophetic and continues to be of abiding value 90 years after it was first published. For those observing the current move of some within evangelicalism who are taking incipient steps toward normalizing homosexuality in the church, reading Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism brings the realization that the arguments being presented as progressive and cutting edge are actually hauntingly recycled from the failed modernist project. Liberalism in every age accepts a utilitarian view of the truth that accommodates Christianity to the prevailing spirit of the age. Machen wrote, “At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin” (54). He continues, “The fundamental fault of the modern Church is that she is busily engaged in the absolutely impossible task—she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance” (68).

Theological liberalism does not set out to destroy Christianity, but rather its claim is to save Christianity by making its message more palatable to modern culture while preserving its real purpose. Make no mistake; with the legal redefinition of marriage upon us, every church in America will be forced to clarify where it stands. Many will capitulate and find that, in an attempt to save Christianity, they lost it. But, perhaps Machen can remind us of what is at stake. The discussion is not between different brands of Christianity—it is a choice of Christianity or liberalism. Below I summarize several lines of argument for normalizing homosexuality in the church being floated from self-identified evangelicals and note how Machen’s critique of liberalism deals with the logic of the contemporary argument.

The “Jesus and Me” Argument

People have same-sex feelings and attractions, and they say they are fulfilled in monogamous same-sex relationships and marriages. Who are we to judge them? They are faithful to the church and love Jesus. Many of them are better Christians than a lot of heterosexual Christians we know. We just need to love people in same-sex relationships and disciple them like we do with everyone else. After all, we are all sinners.

Machen on Liberalism:

Liberalism argues Christian experience is all that is necessary to validate faith (71).

“It is one of the root errors of modern liberalism. Christian experience, we have just said, is useful as confirming the gospel message. But because it is necessary, many men have jumped to the conclusion that it is all that is necessary” (71).
“My Christian life, then, depends altogether upon the truth of the New Testament record. Christian experience is rightly used when it confirms the documentary evidence. But it can never possibly provide a substitute for the documentary evidence” (72).
“The only authority, then, can be the individual experience; truth can only be that which helps the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The result is an abysmal skepticism” (78).

The biblical witness authoritatively judges the validity of our Christian experience and never the other way around. This is true of our sexual feelings and experiences and every other matter as well. Machen asserts, “Christianity is founded on the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men” (79).

The “I Ask Questions But Don’t Answer Them” Argument

Don’t you think we evangelicals have unnecessarily singled out homosexuality? After all, we all have sins that we struggle with; shouldn’t we love and serve those with whom we disagree and not isolate and marginalize them? We do not refuse church membership or discipline gluttons in our churches, so why would we treat homosexuals or same-sex couples differently? Too often, we have given simplistic answers to complex questions.

Machen on Liberalism:

Liberalism questions the Bible and apostolic Christianity as outdated while refusing to talk about specifics or take clear, direct positions (74).

“If the liberal preacher objected to the doctrine of plenary inspiration on the ground that as a matter of fact there are errors in the Bible, he might be right and he might be wrong, but at any rate the discussion would be conducted on proper ground. But too often the preachers desire to avoid the delicate question of errors in the Bible—a question which might give offense to the rank and file—and prefers to speak merely against ‘mechanical’ theories of inspiration, the theory of ‘dictation,’ the ‘will likely fail superstitious use of the Bible as a talisman,’ or the like” (74).
“But of course such appearances are deceptive. A Bible that is full of error is certainly divine in the modern pantheizing sense of ‘divine,’ according to which God is just another name for the course of the course of the world with all its imperfections and all its sin. But the God whom the Christian worships is a God of truth” (75).

Self-identified evangelicals seeking the normalization of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in the church are often unwilling to answer direct questions so the discussion can be, as Machen says, conducted on proper ground. Most often, they position themselves as asking in-house clarifying questions about evangelical attitudes on the issues. They often suggest the issues are too complex for short answers and when questioned adopt the posture of a victim either by saying they are not formal theologians or that they will not allow legalists or theological bullies to interrogate them. The normalizers want to have a public voice questioning the view of apostolic Christianity without the public accountability of full disclosure of their own views.

The red-letter argument—Jesus ate with Sinners

It is legalistic Phariseeism to single out and inordinately focus on certain ethical standards. The real purpose of Christianity is the forgiveness and grace found in the Gospel, which we all need. That is our mission. That is our message. Jesus never singled out homosexuality or any other behavior as a special class of sinfulness. He served, loved, and discipled all kinds of sinners. Same-sex marriages may or may not be God’s best, but we are all broken, and need to simply focus on what Jesus and what he would do.

Machen on Liberalism:

Liberalism pits the authority of Christ against the authority of the Bible (76).

“The impression is sometimes produced that the modern liberal substitutes for the authority of the Bible is the authority of Christ. He cannot accept, he says, what he regards as the perverse moral teachings of the Old Testament or the sophistical arguments of Paul. But he regards himself as being a true Christian because, rejecting the rest of the Bible, he depends upon Jesus alone. The impression, however, is utterly false. The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus” (76).
“The words of Jesus, spoken during his earthly ministry, could hardly contain all that we need to know about God and about the way of salvation; for the meaning of Jesus redeeming work could hardly be fully set forth before that work was done. It could be set forth indeed by way of prophecy, and as a matter of fact it was so set forth by Jesus even in the days of his flesh. But the full explanation could naturally be given only after the work was done. And such was actually the divine method. It is doing despite, not only to the Spirit of God, but also to Jesus himself, to regard the teaching of the Holy Spirit given to the apostles, as at all inferior in authority to the teachings of Jesus” (76-77).
“The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life-purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus—isolated and misinterpreted—which happen to agree with the modern program. It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are the teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas” (77-78).

The attempt to pit the teaching and ethics of Jesus against the rest of Scripture is a repudiation of what Jesus taught and the Bible’s self-attestation (Matt 5:17-20, 26:54, Luke 24:24-49, John 10:35, 2 Tim 3:16, 2 Pet 1:21). The words of the prophets pointed beyond themselves to the coming Messiah and the words of Jesus recorded in the Scripture (by apostles) pointed forward to the further revelation of Christ to come in the apostolic witness. Jesus taught the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture: “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Scripture has a single divine Author and the various parts of Scripture are consistent with one another. Liberalism sets Scripture against Scripture but Christianity does not.

Machen was right, “The liberal preacher is really rejecting the whole basis of Christianity, which is a religion founded not on aspirations, but on facts” (47). Evangelicals must understand as we move forward that the new liberalism will often be packaged in evangelical garb, but it will still be asking the age-old question, “Did God really say?” (Gen 3:1).

By / May 28

College education as my generation knew it deserves to die, higher education must flourish.  In four hundred years of living in the Americas no Reynolds had to go to high school let alone college to live satisfactory lives. There is vanishingly little evidence that the kind of jobs we still hold in the family, outside of my own, actually require high school or college education.

When government decided to get involved in college and university education at the end of World War II much good was done and that good has rightly been celebrated. Who has a bad word to say about the GI Bill?

I do.

In the midst of the good done by the GI Bill, scientific research funded and spreading the benefits of liberal arts education, came harm. Colleges faced explosive growth that could not be sustained in the long term, but became the “new normal.” They begin to pump out larger numbers of professors and never stopped doing so when growth slowed.  In many fields, particularly the humanities, the glut cheapened the value of professors.

Colleges also began to multiply disciplines as money sloshed through the system. Undergraduates demanded greater options and program offerings and as a business colleges responded. Put simply, the more difficult the subject area is the fewer students are attracted to that field of study. Whatever the merits of the fields, less rigorous disciplines began to sprout up all over colleges unrelated to long term social needs or market demands.

College became a rite of passage for the entire middle class and as a result the social aspects of college programs exploded. Many colleges soon had more administrators and social programming workers than professors. Athletics had already become semi-professional, but this increased and soon entered other areas. The “school play” became the drama department and the school choir at even a small school aspired to Eastman School of Music quality. Professionalization led to the growth of programmed “amateur” activities.

All this cost money and was passed on to students and parents in rising tuition. Easy student loans made it possible for anyone to pay, at least for a time, and so the system has continued to this day. Every year tuition goes up and more treats are offered students to attract their dollars. This cannot go on forever, cracks already are appearing, but even if it could there was a great loss.

What got lost? Higher education.

The Roosevelt family did not send young Theodore to Harvard to get a job. The family could have found a job for him, if a job was necessary. They sent him to become a gentleman and patriot leader. A consumer centered commodity based system does not even do a good job training for jobs, but it cannot produce a lady or a gentleman.

Many, if not most jobs, Americans will do require little education beyond basic literacy and numeracy. My challenge is this: if a woman or man could read, do basic math well, and communicate fluently how many jobs could be mastered at the end of a paid apprenticeship?

All those jobs should be removed from the college curriculum in the future. College structure is an expensive, out of date, and slow way of achieving goals. In some areas, the traditional professions (medicine, ministry, law), higher education is necessary. Scientists will continue to be trained in elite communities as will the (relatively) small number of professors needed by society.

The rest of us should get on with it . . . unless there is actually more to college. By “more” I do not mean hanging out with friends, going to sports events, and meeting new people. One can do all those things at jobs while getting paid. Nor are the “life skills” learned in dorms directly applicable to “grown up” life. Never again will an American be forced to live with people they do not know in spaces they did not pick unless they end up in prison or a monastery.

The “more” in higher education should include “finding Obi-wan:” the mentor who will train leaders in higher ways of living. This cannot be done by part-time faculty underpaid and facing classes of hundreds.  Jesus and Socrates modeled good mentoring by finding a small group and spending years in dialog.  Leadership training can take place, and historically has taken place, in the armed forces, but college is a great peacetime option.

The “more” in higher education must provide moral training. A good school must be good, but for the last few decades schools have cooperated with moral degeneracy in sexuality and the majority encourage it. When my father went to state university in the 1950s, immorality existed, but was discouraged by officialdom. It made a difference.

The “more” in higher education must train in tastes and feelings. The heart can be educated as well as the mind. I did not come to college loving opera, but education expanded my tastes and now I can love more. A higher education also can teach me when my tastes are poor or the art I love unworthy. U2 is nostalgic to me, but I also know the limits of their musicianship, because of higher education.

The “more” in college should encourage out of the box thinking and entrepreneurial activity. Modern colleges are stagnant and view moving quickly as a ten year plan. We developed “credit hours” and “programs” when file cards and folders were the only way to track progress. This leads to individualizing curriculum while standardizing methodology, but this will never produce higher education.

Higher education individualizes methodology while making sure that there is a standard curriculum.  People are individuals in learning styles, but citizenship, common culture, and truth require a body of knowledge that all leaders should know. American students should know the history of their nation, warts and all. Students should master their own and another language. This liberal arts education is for everyone who wants it and is equipped to get it.

There are too many liberal arts colleges in the United States for the number of students who are prepared to benefit from a liberal arts education. Many students have never experience mentoring in their huge centralized high schools. More than a few students are only in college to get a “good job” and to enjoy themselves. A small number are there to “find themselves” . . . college as an expensive version of the old Victorian “Grand Tour.”

There is no good reason for society to subsidize education for jobs that does not lead to jobs. There is no constitutional right for a rite of passage subsidized by the state. People should party on their own dime. Self-exploration is part of “higher education,” but should be in the hands of professors. Education is not a series of selfies, but showing students artistically rendered portraits that help them know themselves.

Oddly, schools will need more mentors and teachers to provide a higher education. Sadly, graduate school as it now exists leaves the successful graduate student looking to be paid for research in his or her field with a relatively light teaching load. Success in field is viewed as teaching fewer and fewer students on a smaller and smaller field of study.

There is a place for such research, but most students do not need it for a higher education or for a career. Nobody has shown a correlation between academic publication and success in higher education teaching.

Colleges, as my generation knew them, did good, but also less good than they might. Those schools will change or die. Research will continue. Highly technical professional training will thrive. Higher education, real liberal arts study, will also be in demand. If a higher educational institution can produce leaders who read well, write well, think well, and live well, then parents and students will come.

By / May 5

Monty Python has a memorable skit where a man walks into an office and informs the secretary that he would “like to have an argument.” She directs the man to an individual who has a different understanding of argument than what he has in mind. For the next few minutes he encounters a man who wants to have an argument as well, only he thinks “argument” consists in only speaking in disagreement to the first gentlemen, who sees an argument as a “collective series of states to establish a definite proposition.” He ends up leaving the discussion frustrated and encounters a few more gentlemen before the skit ends. The upshot of the skit (besides it being funny) is that words can mean two different things despite being used by interlocutors. So what happens when you try to take two loaded concepts, combine them, and appeal for a study of them together?

The concept of aesthetics is one that can carry baggage with it. On the one hand, it is laden with concepts and ideas that seem foreign to the average layman. Even to the trained aesthete they are fraught with mixture. Furthermore, the study of aesthetics itself has taken various ranges of meaning from the evaluation of beauty and taste to an investigation into the very nature of goodness, beauty and truth. Some theologians and philosophers have discounted the pure pursuit of aesthetics (Kant and Barth) while others have attempted to appropriate the good of aesthetics into their theology (Von Balthasar).

The concept of politics is as old as Socrates but carries significant baggage with it as well. The word itself has become a pejorative term that is thrown around as an adjective for all things unwholesome. It is more often describing paltry public policies than it is the study of the very nature of statecraft.

So what would one mean by political aesthetics? Often when discussing this area the general framework centers on how politics have used the arts as agitprop. While that can be a helpful endeavor to pursue, there is something different in mind by this article’s use of political aesthetics.

There are several ways you could define it, but this one may suffice: political aesthetics is the study and evaluation of political ideologies and systems as an aesthetic. That is to say, evaluating the ethos, environment and expressions of a political ideology and their judgments. This endeavor can include various and sundry pursuits that cannot be explored here, but it takes into account not merely textual representations of ideologies, though that is a major factor, but also the way in which those textual evidences are readand received.

What form of environment is built around such texts? How do those texts engender a judgment on beauty? Truth? How does someone represent his or her ideological commitments? Crispin Sartwell wrote a book called Political Aesthetics, which to my knowledge is one of the very few (if not only) works that trades in this discussion. However, he never directly deals with contemporary ideologies.

Yes, political ideologies have beliefs that must be attended to, concepts that must be teased out, and arguments that must be discussed. But I would suggest that in the midst of all of that, there should be a discussion of the overall aesthetic that is offered by a political ideology. This includes not only the textual references attached to such ideologies, but the surrounding by which they build, create and encourage. The architecture of an event, building or structure that is connected to a political ideology speaks volumes of the aesthetic they seek to build long before any words are spoken from the podium. When they are spoken, and spoken powerfully, the words are heard with a different perspective. Indeed, they are heard with their ears, but also are seen with their eyes in the surroundings. They understand that changing a culture requires more than mere words, but that words can be powerfully attuned to speak at a louder decibel when an aesthetic environment is constantly nourishing the words spoken.

This is nothing new. Nazi Germany understood that to truly change the hearts and minds of the people, it would take more than brute force. It takes a culture, an aesthetic environment that will allow the movement to have the forza needed to truly build the culture they so desired. The same thing happens today, minus the overt malevolence.

Take for example, modern American liberalism. In 2012 the Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte, North Carolina. Speech after speech, rally after rally, a common theme was woven throughout: the President respects the rights of women to choose their own reproductive rights.

When the party platform was adopted with an “unequivocal” support of a woman’s right to choose abortion, regardless of a woman’s ability to pay, this sets a tone and ethos to the environment that is inescapably connected to the larger issue at hand. It is not merely the textual evidence that brings about this environment, but it is also the way in which it is received. It is why, long before the convention, this aesthetic was already set in stone. Case in point: Planned Parenthood began a campaign where “Pillamina,” a woman dressed as a giant package of birth control pills, would follow the Romney campaign on several stops opposing his view of the contraceptive mandate.

If aesthetics is the assessment of what is beauty, then the judgment in this respect has to be that modern American liberalism finds the culture of abortion on demand to be a more beautiful environment than a culture that is not like that. But I would suggest that it is more than mere abortion that is at play. To think this is merely about abortion is to miss the forest for the trees. The backdrops behind abortion on demand are particular concepts of freedom and autonomy. Freedom, in this context, is expressed by limiting restraint on what one can or cannot do with one’s own body. This desire becomes the driving force behind the constant euphemisms used to express a desire for complete bodily autonomy. As stated before, texts can be judged, not merely by their words, but also by their reception. The drumbeat of autonomy and freedom for women’s rights to abortion appropriate a value judgment even further than merely abortion; it is also a judgment on what “family” should look like: celebrated only under certain proper conditions, rather than as the basic social unit for a society.

To wit, liberalism often scoffs at the traditional nuclear family, either because it is too homogenized or because it represents to them something that they assume is part of a bygone culture, something that they hope becomes more textbook than reality. Indeed, it is an ugly thing to them it seems. Once again, this is driven by text and rhetoric, but reinforced by the aesthetics surrounding it. This is the investigation of political aesthetics.

The Church understands that we all live in particular cultures that have value judgments on what is beautiful, true and real. It even understands the importance of culture, and she should speak into it as often as she has the opportunity. Prince Myskin, the main character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, remarked that “beauty will save the world.” This prophetic word, coming from the idiot prince, is a clearer picture of beauty than anything that is surrounding us today. Indeed, the wisdom of the world is confounded by the wisdom of God. In this wisdom, we find beauty. We find that the lowliest of us all can represent beauty to the world unlike anything they know.

The church may humbly express to the world that the beauty which they seek is not a place, idea or even system. Rather, it is ultimately found in a Person. This man, the epitome of Beauty, is found not in the appropriation of freedom or the celebration of autonomy, but on the road to Golgotha, where we can walk to die a death that brings us life.