By / May 28

Imprisoned near Berlin in 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a famously enigmatic letter to his disciple and confidant, Eberhard Bethge. Bonhoeffer, noting the changes in the world around him, observed that people were becoming “radically religionless” and wondered aloud, “How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well? Is there such a thing as a religionless Christian? If religion is only the garb in which Christianity is clothed—and this garb has looked very differently in different ages—what then is religionless Christianity?”

Summarizing his concerns, Bonhoeffer wrote, “The question to be answered would be: What does a church, a congregation, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life, mean in a religionless world?”

What is “religionless Christianity?”

Bonhoeffer’s apprehension still speaks to us today as every week brings a new report or survey showing diminishing religiosity in the United States and across the West. But Bonhoeffer’s comments also present challenges. Most notably, what does Bonhoeffer mean by “religionless Christianity?” Is this a radical departure from Christian orthodoxy, a heretical musing toward the end of a saint’s life, or something beneficial, some insight to aid American Christians in a secular world?

To understand the direction which Bonhoeffer leads us, we must understand how Bonhoeffer defines “religion.” Bonhoeffer scholar and editor of The Bonhoeffer Reader, Clifford J. Green, explains Bonhoeffer’s conception of religion in a preface to the infamous letter:

‘Religion' for Bonhoeffer does not mean the church institution and its various beliefs and practices, as if a 'religionless Christianity' would abandon congregations, clergy, worship, prayer, sacraments, the Bible—what people usually understand by religion. Bonhoeffer does not define religion by these forms, in an institutional way; he defines it, rather in an operational or functional way—it is a certain way of behaving, feeling and thinking, a particular psychic posture.

Deus ex machina

While Dr. Green’s insights help us understand what Bonhoeffer is not rejecting, we are left with more questions. What is this “certain way of behaving, feeling, and thinking?” What does Green mean by a “particular psychic posture?” Bonhoeffer’s letter makes these comments clear. “Religious people speak of God at a point where human knowledge is at an end (or sometimes when they’re too lazy to think further), or when human strength fails. Actually, it’s a deus ex machina they’re always bringing to the scene.”  

Bonhoeffer criticizes and rejects a particular orientation toward God. Consider the famous novel and movie War of the Worlds. Aliens have invaded the world and are thoroughly dominating human resistance. We humans have absolutely no response: our knowledge and strength have run dry against infinitely more powerful foes. To solve this dilemma, H.G. Wells inexplicably introduces an element completely foreign to the plot. Spontaneously, the invading Martians simply die and retreat as Earth’s unfamiliar bacteria destroys them. This is a deus ex machina, a miraculous intervention that consoles human tragedy.

Bonhoeffer believes we, for hundreds of years, have treated God the same way—when we cannot explain some phenomenon, or when we shutter at our own finitude, we hypothesize God, creating some comfort for human ignorance and weakness. What happens after we die? From where did life come? How do we know right from wrong? To answer these questions, we imagine a being we call “God.”  

These thoughts are not necessarily bad, but they place God at the boundaries of human life. And inevitably, humans become knowledgeable and powerful enough to push these boundaries further back, diminishing the intellectual need for God. Hundreds of years ago, for example, we may have attributed long life to individual righteousness and God’s favor; today, we often assume some conglomeration of medicine, dieting, exercise and genetics produces long life, and we no longer must assume that God continues or ends our lives. Thus, God becomes less necessary as we have alternative explanations via science or philosophy.

God in the center

Thus, when Bonhoeffer rejects “religion,” he is criticizing that “we leave room for God only out of anxiety,” only when we encounter something unknowable, like human origin. To the contrary, Bonhoeffer wants “to speak of God not at the boundaries but in the center.” Rather than running to God only when martians genocidally invade our world—or more poignantly, when we face crises in our personal lives—Bonhoeffer wants personhood, the church, and the Christian life to always revolve around God, even when life apparently makes sense without God.

Bonhoeffer illustrates this God-centric life in another letter to Eberhard Bethge written shortly after his initial comments about religionless Christianity. Bethge had written to Bonhoeffer, concerned that his love for his fiancée eclipsed his love for God, as he finds himself constantly thinking about her. Rather than criticizing him, Bonhoeffer surprisingly praises him using a musical analog: “God, the Eternal, wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of cantus firmus to which the other voices of life resound in counterpoint.”

In music, a cantus firmus melody runs the duration of a song, and all other notes revolve around it. While the composer writes other melodies, each note operates relative to this consistent, baseline melody, harmonizing with and complementing the steady refrain to create a beautiful song. In employing this metaphor, Bonhoeffer wants Bethge to understand that his good love for his fiancée does not compete with his love for God but flows from and complements it. Bonhoeffer thus thrusts God to the center of Bethge’s loves, refusing to consider God only at life’s margins.

Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity thus does have import for us today. As people no longer need God to explain their world or ease their anxiety, they opt out of religion. But Bonhoeffer does not believe God became flesh simply to answer our questions or reduce our stress. Rather, his “religionless Christianity” challenges us.

Instead of thinking of God only in moments of crisis or simply relying on the Lord to solve our unanswerable questions, religionless Christianity challenges us to a comprehensive “existence in discipleship” where we refuse to shove God to the boundaries of our lives. We thus reconsider how we engage the world—how we work or study, how we parent or befriend, how we serve or vote—as Christ, who commands that we selflessly love God and neighbor, comprehensively centers our lives.

By / Apr 18

PRINCETON, N.J., April 17, 2018—Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, delivered the fifth annual William E. and Carol G. Simon Lecture on Religion in American Public Life, today on the “Rebirth for the Reborn: American Christianity and American Culture at the Cross.”

The lecture, co-sponsored by The Witherspoon Institute and the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, took place on the Princeton University campus.

The following are excerpts from Moore’s lecture:

“Younger evangelicals are not yielding to the inevitability of secularization, nor are they leaving the church in large numbers because they want to liberalize historic doctrine or ethics. The obstacle, it seems, is not secularism but cynicism. Many are wondering whether evangelical Christianity is just another badge of tribal belonging or just another vehicle for political action, or, even worse, just another marketing scheme.

“There will always be those who will suggest that Christianity must change or die, defining the change they mean as downplaying the supernatural basis of the faith or the authority of Scripture, or shaving off the hard edges of Christian moral norms were those norms are unpopular. . . . This also quickly morphs into something quite different from historic Christianity, and also, ultimately, fails on its own terms. To paraphrase Carl F. H. Henry in the last century, who cares what a church that is no longer sure that it has a word from God has to say about energy policy?

“The gospel marches onward not because it is familiar, but because it is dares introduce us to the strangest concept we can imagine: a God who justifies the ungodly. Nothing guarantees that American evangelicalism, as an established movement, will be found there in the future, pointing the way to Christ and him crucified. But someone will. God does not need the evangelical movement. But the evangelical movement desperately needs God. To that end, those of us who are evangelicals should work for reform—for a multiethnic, theologically-robust evangelicalism that can pass the torch to a new generation with the message we first heard down at the cross.’”

The lecture will be posted online and broadcasted by C-SPAN at a later date.

By / Oct 20

Many of us know what it’s like to question God’s love. This needs no explaining. There are times when it is natural for humans to question God when his love doesn’t feel the way we expect it to; we often find ourselves asking if God is even paying attention.

God’s love manifests itself in an innumerable amount of ways to his people. Paul, describing love through the Spirit, says,

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away (1 Cor.13:4-8).

The last verse here provides an anchor for understanding God’s love in such a way that we may never reject God in our bitterness again. “Love never ends.”

There is perhaps no other truth about God’s character that, when put on trial in our heart’s court, can stand the “love-test”again and again. The profound and incalculably valuable reality that God is committed to his people may be the most liberating and encouraging detail about the love of God in Scripture.

This is not to say that any other part of God’s character is “less than,” or less reliable, or that God’s commitment to us is more unchanging than, say, his mercy or compassion. But when we survey the emotional and spiritual ups and downs of our walk with Christ, and when we look at the redemption story, from Genesis to Revelation, one thing is absolutely certain: God is for his people.This cannot be questioned (Rom. 8:31).

God is for his people. This cannot be questioned.

Over and over again in the Old Testament accounts of the Israelites’ journeys in and out of captivity, through deserts, wandering about and fighting brutal wars, one thing remains true throughout the narrative: God is committed to his chosen people. Along the way, they moan, complain, cry out, turn away, worship other gods, forget the Lord’s faithfulness, ignore his commands, forget his promises, and crumble beneath their fear of failure.

Again and again, God responds with messages like these in Isaiah: “In that day the Lord will extend his hand a second time to recover the remnant of Israel . . . . For the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel”(Isa. 11:11; 14:11, emphasis added). The Israelites repeatedly question God’s love, intentions, and methodology, but when we look back over these texts, one thing stands out: in the midst of their questioning, and in the midst of God’s perceived absence, his assurance to the people is, “I am committed.”

Fast forward to Gethsemane. A well-known scene where Jesus bows in a garden to pray to the Father in heaven. His prayer is short but fervent: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done”(Luke 22:42). Jesus, even until death, aligned his will with the will of the Father, the same will that led God to say to a broken “remnant” of Israel, “I will again choose you.” Jesus’s ministry was a daily re-commitment, both to the will of the Father, and to the salvation of his people. This is a game-changing revelation about the heart of God for his children.

There is a metaphor for God’s commitment to us found in marriage: When the sparks of love fade and couples forget what love is, lost in the shuffle of life and in the messiness of relationship, commitment holds them together. We cannot always expect to see love clearly for everything that it is. Whether with one another, or when wrestling with God’s presence, true love is never made more clear than when one says to the other, “I will see this through.” God uses Paul in Philippians 1:6, reminding us that, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Endurance not only means trusting God today, but also remembering his promises from yesterday.

There is a story of redemption and salvation woven into your life as a follower of Jesus that cannot be erased by any sin, anxiety, fear, or brokenness because of God’s steadfast commitment to you, and to his plan to make you like Jesus. God’s Word is his answer to you in prayer even when you do not hear his voice. Believe God’s promises, and believe God’s words to Israel as if they are being spoken into your current situation. Cry out to God, and as you wait for an answer, preach over and over until your heart believes: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever”(Psa. 73:25-26).

He is committed, above all else, to the redemption of your soul and to the restoration of your heart as he prepares you, his bride, for glory.

By / Sep 15

For many Americans, religion—particularly Christianity—is intrinsically valuable. We appreciate religiously motivated behavior primarily because it honors God and serves our fellow man.

But an increasing number of our fellow citizens are agnostic about God and skeptical that religion provides much benefit to our neighbors. This summer a Pew Research survey found that while a majority of U.S. adults still say religious institutions contribute either “a great deal” (19 percent) or “some” (38 percent) to solving important social problems, four-in-ten (39 percent) now say religious institutions make little to no contribution in this area. A minority of religious “nones” (38 percent) say religious institutions contribute at least some help to solving social problems, compared with, for example, 65 percent of Protestants who say the same.

This skepticism about religion’s value to society lead researchers Brian and Melissa Grim to conduct a study, recently published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, that shows how religion contributes to the U.S. economy. “Given the division of opinion on religion’s contribution to American society,” say the authors, “this present study seeks to shed light on the topic by making an estimate of religion’s socio-economic value to society. Indeed, we should know if the decline in religion is likely to have negative economic consequences.”

Their study provide three estimates of the value of faith to U.S. society. The first and most conservative estimate takes into account only the revenues of faith-based organizations falling into several sectors (education, healthcare, local congregational activities, charities, media, and food). The second estimate takes into account the fair market value of congregational social services and contribution of businesses with religious roots. Their third, higher-end estimate based on the annual household incomes of America’s religiously affiliated population.

By their most conservative estimate, the economic contribution of the religion sector to the U.S. society is roughly $378 billion a year: healthcare ($161.0 billion), local congregational activities ($83.8 billion), education ($74.0 billion), charities ($44.3 billion), media ($0.9 billion), and food ($14.4 billion).

Their second estimate shows a contribution of about $1.2 trillion. Faith-based healthcare networks contribute $161 billion annually (13.9 percent of the total contribution of religion to the U.S. economy). Congregations contribute about $327 billion annually (28.2 percent), plus an additional $91.3 billion if schools and daycare are taken into account (together making 36.1 percent of the total). Higher education adds $46.8 billion annually (4 percent), charities add $95.2 billion annually (8.2 percent), and businesses add $438 billion annually, slightly more than a third of the total (37.8 percent).

Their third estimate is based on recognition that “many, if not most people of faith, aim to conduct their affairs (to some extent, however imperfectly) guided by and inspired by their religious ideals.” This higher-end estimate is based on the household incomes of religiously affiliated Americans, and places the value of faith to U.S. society at $4.8 trillion annually, or the equivalent of nearly a third of America’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The study discuss the limitations of this type of research but note that it provides a “useful starting point for further studies of the socio-economic contributions of religion.”

By whatever estimate we use, though, the result provides support for the economic benefit of faith on society. “The data are clear,” say the researchers. “Religion is a highly significant sector of the American economy.”

By / Aug 27

After a 34-year career, Atlanta fire chief and former U.S. fire administrator Kelvin Cochran was terminated from his position in January, 2015. The reason? He had written a 162-page book on his personal time that touched on issues of marriage and sexuality from a biblical perspective.

Despite facing devastating racism in his early career and working his way up to being the first African American fire chief in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, Cochran was fired by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed even after a city investigation determined that he did not actually discriminate against anyone. Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith, is currently fighting to reinstate him.

“There are worldly consequences for standing for biblical truth,” Cochran testified during the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission 2016 National Conference during a special post-conference session about religious liberty August 27. “Kingdom consequences are always greater than the worldly consequences.”

Alliance Defending Freedom partnered with the ERLC for the free post-conference session entitled, "The 2016 Presidential Race, Religious Liberty, and the Future of the Church,” aiming to educate pastors and other evangelical leaders on how to handle religious liberty issues happening now and in the future.

The political climate: How we got here

National Review staff writer David A. French launched the session by offering a context for how the U.S. has found itself in the current political climate. Overall, he offered, the juxtaposition of the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns come from an understudied culture of rage, ignorance and lethargy; the pursuit of Fox News fame among the political subculture; and the popular view among those paying attention that politics is mostly entertainment.

“If this election isn’t humble pie for conservatives, I don’t know what is humble pie,” French said. “We substituted a set of policies for just a dude, the dude, who he alone can change your life. How? No idea. No clue.”

To combat the lethal combination of lethargy and anger, conservative leaders need to teach people to fight for themselves, French said. “We need energy instead of lethargy,” he said.

In a panel about the future of evangelical politics, Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Erik Stanley offered a reminder that “there’s a lot of down ballot stuff that’s happening,” as local judicial decisions and the role of local politicians are often eclipsed in the excitement of the presidential election.

ERLC president Russell Moore said that he believes “politics in American life, across the board on the far left and on the far right, has become a religion. It has become a kind of transcendent source of authority and a transcendent source of identity.”

The political climate: A way forward

If the Christian “Moral Majority” is declining in American political life, what is the role of Christians in politics, and what does religious liberty actually mean?

“Whatever you think the solution is, when you see people who are targeting and demonizing immigrant communities themselves, or refugee communities themselves – anyone who is in a place of vulnerability –  our answer cannot be silence,” Moore said in a roundtable titled, “Questions and Ethics.”

“Even if you hold to a different position on how to address that, fundamentally we have to be the people that say, ‘these are persons created in the image of God, and when you come after them, you come after me.’”

Moore added that religious freedom is a worthwhile fight because all liberties are “endowed by God” tied together. 

“Once a liberty becomes too politically toxic to uphold or to maintain, and that means you toss it aside, other liberties that are going to go down the pipe,” he said.

Education on what religious freedom is, its biblical foundations, and how to fight for it is key, he said. It’s not special leverage or control in society.

“Not everything that offends me is a violation of my religious freedom,” he said. “I don’t have a right not to be ridiculed on TV. I don’t have any right to say that everyone has to agree with what I’m saying about the Bible. But there is a very genuine threat and we see all around us and heard some of that today … peoples whose very freedom to live out their faith is being restricted.”

And Christians, he said, should stand up for freedom of conscience “even for those with whom we completely disagree. Because what I want to say is, religious liberty means not to have government shut down arguments about all that matters. Religious freedom means the government doesn’t have the right to be the referee or the bully in those arguments about ultimate matters. It needs to give space to let people plead with one another and persuade one another and argue about what these ultimate matters mean. As Christians, we believe that’s how people change.”

By / Mar 28

There is simply no avoiding the furor surrounding religious liberty and the sexual revolution. Nathan Deal, the Republican Governor of Georgia, announced today that he will veto a comparatively modest Religious Freedom Restoration Act intended to protect religious liberty in the state.

For weeks, Governor Deal has encountered mounting pressure from Big Business and the LGBT lobby to reject the legislation. According to the New York Times, “Hundreds of businesses and sports organizations, including Coca-Cola and the National Football League, had warned Mr. Deal, explicitly or implicitly, that a decision to support the bill could jeopardize economic opportunities in Georgia.” Similarly, progressive groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign, voiced staunch opposition to the measure decrying it as “deeply discriminatory” and “anti-LGBT.” Governor Deal announced his plans to veto the bill in a press conference earlier today.

Legislators in Georgia have been seeking to extend further religious liberty protections for several years. House Bill 757, the legislation at the center of this controversy, would have safeguarded the rights of faith-based groups in the state of Georgia that were unable to provide “social, educational or charitable services that violate” their religious beliefs. It would have further guaranteed hiring rights for faith-based organizations, allowed clergy to decline to officiate same-sex weddings and protected churches and their affiliated ministries from being discriminated against by the state because of opposition to same-sex marriage.

Deal’s announcement marks a strategic victory for cultural cronyism and sexual progressives and a stinging loss for religious conservatives. Most disheartening are the words of Governor Deal himself,

In light of our history, I find it somewhat ironic that some in the religious community today feel that it is necessary for government to confer upon them certain rights and protections. . . . If indeed our religious liberty is conferred upon us by God, and not by man-made government, perhaps we should simply heed the hands-off admonition of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

While religious conservatives would love nothing more than to seek refuge in the First Amendment’s guarantee of Free Exercise, since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges last June—legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide—such claims have fallen on deaf ears. In his capitulation to cronyism, Governor Deal characterized the efforts of religious conservatives to secure guarantees for constitutional freedoms as unnecessary and misguided—something apparently at odds with President Bill Clinton who signed a similar federal bill into law, and the ACLU, which supported its passage in the 1990s. Perhaps the governor should have consulted the dissenting opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts to the Court’s Obergefell decision,

Today’s decision, for example, creates serious questions about religious liberty. Many good and decent people oppose same-sex marriage as a tenet of faith, and their freedom to exercise religion is—unlike the right imagined by the majority— actually spelled out in the Constitution. . . . The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to “exercise” religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses . . . Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage . . . Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.

The threat to religious freedom is real, not imagined. In failing to enact this bill, Governor Deal has worked to further isolate, alienate and stigmatize the millions of citizens with a religious belief about marriage. In passing H.B. 757, legislators in Georgia took a meaningful step toward safeguarding religious freedom, but unfortunately the effort was upended by Governor Deal’s decision to veto.

It is incumbent upon religious conservatives to support the efforts of lawmakers to secure the passage of carefully crafted legislation that provides reasonable accommodations and truly protects religious freedom. Ultimately, Governor Deal has cowed to corporate interests and bowed to hype and fear, rather than the interests of Georgia’s faith community who he so fervently campaigned off of and has now ultimately, and memorably, failed.

By / Jan 4

Late Saturday, scores of Iranians stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, overrunning security and setting fire to the building. The protesters were pushed back by the Iranian police before any Saudi diplomats were injured.

The incident was provoked by the Saudi execution of a prominent Shia cleric and dissident, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, earlier on Saturday. Sheikh al-Nimr was executed along with 46 others in the largest mass execution in Saudi Arabia since 1980.

Sheikh al-Nimr was a religious leader who protested the Sunni-led Saudi government’s treatment of the the country’s Shia minority. He was convicted of a number of charges, including “disobeying the ruler,” being an “instigator of sedition,” and others. The U.S. State Department had urged the Saudi government to release Sheikh al-Nimr despite the fact that Sheikh al-Nimr had preached and spread anti-American messages. After the execution, John Kirby, State Department spokesman, shared U.S. concern about the execution, and said that the execution “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”

In response to the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the Saudi government has announced that Iranian diplomats have 48 hours to leave Saudi Arabia. Bahrain and Sudan, close Saudi allies, have also cut diplomatic ties with Iran. The UAE has “downgraded” its diplomatic presence in Iran.

Proxy conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia are raging in Syria and Yemen, but the Saudi and Iranian governments clash in subtler ways in nearly every country in the Middle East and North Africa. This recent episode could lead to a significant increase in sectarian violence across the region.

Christians in the Middle East will likely suffer more because of this. But let us also remember that Muslims themselves have suffered more than anyone else at the hands of radical Islamic terrorists.

This is a story we need to pay attention to. Let us pray for peace. And let us also pray for a future for the Middle East and North Africa where principled pluralism flourishes, protecting all religious minorities.

By / Apr 13

Is it even possible that my generation, which sends 6 billion text messages per day and 6,000 thousand tweets per second, is fatally lonely? Not only is that possible, it’s increasingly the consensus of social and behavioral scientists. Carolyn Gregoire at Huffington Post has highlighted a report from the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science that discusses the serious effects that chronic loneliness can have on health. One study concludes that the connection between loneliness and decreased physical well-being (including lifespan) is so well-established that loneliness should be considered alongside things like obesity a “public health concern.”

The loneliest generation

The irony is obvious. Millennials sit perched atop the most dazzling machines of communication in the history of human race. Of all the emotional ills that could possibly afflict someone, chronic loneliness seems like something that should be thoroughly vaccinated against by now. Yet not only are we still lonely, we are lonely in an intensity and frequency that very well may exceed any generation in our country’s history.

Secular commentators usually explain our condition one of two ways. The first and most popular explanation is that economic inequality creates this interpersonal isolation by perpetuating the class divide and rewarding self-seeking behavior. This kind of worldview tends to reduce human dynamics to personal power structures. While it is true that poverty can keep people from investing the time and resources in meaningful relationships, it’s also true that many non-Western cultures are intensely communal even at the lowest economic levels.

The second common interpretation is closer to the mark. According to this view, the astonishing mobility of the modern information age has displaced us. No longer tied by necessity to hometowns, jobs, or even spouses and families, we lack the social anchoring that creates community between people united by geo-social realities. Instead, our lives are highly atomized. Our jobs are just jobs, our neighborhoods are just streets with houses and our friends are not necessarily connected to either. We can create custom lives to suit our desires, but this often comes at the expense of a sense of place and belonging.

Personal autonomy: An enemy of friendship

This explanation is interesting because it suggests that personal autonomy–the right and ability to live one’s life absolutely according to personal desire and being ultimately accountable only to oneself–is actually an enemy of friendship. Personal autonomy, especially sexual autonomy, is practically America’s real religion of choice. Personal autonomy is the religion that undergirds no-fault divorce, abortion rights, the decline and redefinition of marriage and moral relativism. The autonomous self is the self that proudly declares “Only God can judge me” and lives as if “God” and “me” are the same person.

It’s important to note that “personal autonomy” and “selfishness” are not the same thing. It is possible to spend one’s life unselfishly advocating for the autonomy of others, and seeking to “stamp out” those who publicly critique autonomy doctrine. That’s precisely where many social progressives currently find themselves.

People convinced of their autonomy are more confident to upheave social expectations on their lives. If you live your life outside the moral universe of religion, tradition and human flourishing, then you are indeed more likely to craft a custom built code of ethics that may make you feel like a “revolutionary.” Yet such revolutionaries often tell of a sense of isolation, unmet emotional fulfillment and personal stagnation.

One example is the liberation promised by the sexual revolution, which has instead turned out to be a legacy of broken homes and deeply dysfunctional lives. Though Westerners are less likely than ever to filter out their sexual desires through transcendent moral norms, they are more likely to be emotionally isolated, sexually frustrated and depressed.

Love: Self-sacrifice for the happiness of others

Why are autonomous selves so lonely? Because the doctrine of personal autonomy is a deathblow to the foundation of genuine relationship and community. Love, the opposite of loneliness, requires the surrender of the self to the good of the other. The key to self-surrender is the seeking of our own happiness in the happiness of others. That is the true fuel of love. The doctrine of the autonomous self teaches us that only by looking inside ourselves and actualizing our felt identities can we be happy. That is the opposite of love. Even if in our quest for self-authentication we behave altruistically or advocate for others, in the end we will only do so in hopes of achieving self-actualization, not the happiness of others.

Social media plays into the religion of self autonomy by allowing us to project custom-built versions of our identities into space and await others to “Like” or “Favorite” it. This isn’t to say that social media is bad or cannot be used in relationally meaningful ways, but it is to say that the reason social media cannot cure our loneliness is because it is not intended to. Social media exists in the end to serve us, not others.

We were not created for loneliness. At the dawn of the universe’s existence, only one thing was not good: Adam was alone. God’s answer to Adam’s aloneness was not to reinforce his sense of self autonomy; quite the opposite. He created Eve, and in so doing proved that the image bearers of God are meant to live with one another, with the highest relationship being marriage between a man and his wife.  

Thousands of years later, Jesus would tell his disciples that whoever would be great among them should serve like the least, and that the love of Jesus’s followers for one another would be the distinguishing mark of their faith. The cure for loneliness is the love of God, expressed in the life of his church. As the Lord said, whoever saves his life loses it, and whoever loses his life will save it.

This was originally published at patheos.com.

By / Apr 6

Religious freedom was under attack last week as straightforward Religious Freedom Restoration Act legislation in Indiana and Arkansas created controversy. One effect was that it clarified the dividing lines in the debate over religious liberty. Here are five things we learned from last week’s RFRA disaster:

1. Sexual freedom vs. religious freedom: Last week confirmed that the fundamental threat to freedom of conscience is the ongoing rivalry between sexual liberty and religious liberty. Those who champion the advance of LGBT inclusion will stop at nothing to advance their sexuality, even if it means paving over the conscience of Americans.

2. Big business vs. social conservatives: What may have surprised many people was the way that big business aligned with social liberals to battle against social conservatives. With Tim Cook of Apple criticizing Indiana and Wal-Mart objecting to Arkansas, pro-business Republicans have a difficult time standing firm in the midst of economic risks for their state. When there is a threat to the bottom line, it often drives leaders to place their social convictions on the bottom shelf.

3. License to discriminate vs. freedom of conscience: Despite the fact that RFRA legislation has existed for more than 20 years with no pattern of prejudice emerging, the left successfully messaged the bill as a “license to discriminate.” Through misinformation and exaggeration, they convinced many in the general public that a bill designed to uphold freedom of conscience was instead the modern day equivalent of Jim Crow laws.

4. Lust vs. greed: Last week revealed, as Rod Dreher pointed out, an inter-party political rivalry between two of the seven deadly sins. With the democrats, you have the party of lust who will do anything to protect and advance the license for sexual freedom. With the republicans, you have the part of greed who will do anything to protect and advance their business interests.

5. “Religious freedom” vs. religious freedom: Perhaps most troubling of all, last week helped to turn religious freedom from an issue with widespread support and constitutional protection into a new culture war wedge issue. One indication of this change is the frequent use of “religious freedom” in scare quotes, suggesting that it is merely a cover for something more malicious. Danger arises when our first freedom becomes a second-class culture war issue.

By / Aug 8

“In the future, it seems, there will be only one ‘ism’—Individualism—and its rule will never end,” said Ross Douthat as he summarized the Pew Research study on the millennial generation—those born between the early 1980’s and 2000. The study revealed that millennials are generally distrusting and increasingly alienated from all major American societal institutions, including the church.

No evangelical Christian should be surprised at this data. We taught the millennials who grew up in our churches to be anti-institutional with slogans like, “Christianity is not a religion it is a relationship,” “Jesus hates religion,” and “Religion says, ‘do’ but Christianity says, ‘done.’” No one can deny such assertions are good marketing strategy to skeptical millennials. Proponents of slogans like, “it’s a relationship not a religion” are attempting to rescue us from religious formalism and dead orthodoxy—a noble cause.

But what if the approach is simply delivering people over to an empty and superficial religious individualism?

Jesus doesn’t hate religion

The major problem with saying Jesus hates religion is that it is not true. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines religion as, “The belief in a god or in a group of gods: An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods: An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.” That is pretty consistent with the way the word is used in the Scripture. It is a neutral word that can be used either positively or negatively.

In Acts 17, Luke writes, “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22)—using the term in a neutral way. Later Paul asserts, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23b) pointing them to genuine religion that is only found through faith and repentance in the risen Christ (Acts 17:31). Elsewhere Paul condemns “self-made religion” (Col. 2:23) and James says a man who has an unbridled tongue may be religious, but his “religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Nevertheless, in the next verse James avers that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

People who have an anti-institutional worldview want a Jesus who hates religion, but they need the real Jesus who established the church, “which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The existence of organized local churches with corporate worship, singing, praying, preaching, pastors, deacons, ordinances and discipline is the work of Jesus Christ. Local churches, “the household of God,” are gospel lighthouses in a dark world and serve as “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Isolated individuals are not described as a pillars and buttresses of the truth. The church as the corporate body of Christ supports the glorious truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ—the exalted head of the church. Trading dead religious orthodoxy for superficial individualistic spirituality is no gain.

I could hardly control my desire to laugh one time at the irony of a preacher’s total lack of self-awareness. He began his sermon with a predictable tirade that “Jesus hates religion and came to abolish religion and call us to a relationship with him,” and moments later he affirmatively read a quote from what he referred to as John Calvin’s classic, Institutes of the Christian Religion. I am fairly certain that Calvin never considered naming his magnum opus the Institutes of the Christian Relationship. Religion can certainly be empty, formal, and dead but so can a relationship.

“Me and Jesus”

I thank God for the fact that Christianity is a religion because it demands that I stop thinking in unhealthy individualistic terms about my personal faith. A “me and Jesus” approach to Christianity leaves us with a privatized and unaccountable faith that views the church as secondary and simply an outlet for me to express my personal faith. So much of the spiritual impotence we see in evangelicalism is the result of catering to the notion that each individual is the center of his own personal faith. The reality that Christianity is a religion that did not begin with us and has historic confessions held by local churches with pastoral leaders is a gift of accountability to the Christian.

The “it’s a relationship, not a religion” approach to Christianity bears a striking resemblance to a couple that says, “We do not need a legal piece of paper to say we love each other. In fact, that would cheapen our relationship and love.” When love is defined emotively and in terms of personal self-fulfillment, then the self-giving formal commitment of a marriage license and the attendant public accountability may very well get in the way of your momentary passions. But genuine love does not focus on receiving, but giving, and it longs to formally commit, because marriage vows and a marriage license represent a pledge of self-sacrificial future love. Likewise, our love for Christ is lived out in a covenant relationship to a local church where we are discipled in the Christian religion.

The doctrine, commands, rituals, structural authority and discipline (religion) Jesus has given us in the institutional church calls us beyond momentary passions to faithful permanence and provides us a binding framework to express and nurture our love for Christ. Marriage is a covenantal and communal act, and so is our faith in Christ. Christianity is not “me and Jesus.” It is better than that. We owe millennials an apology. We allowed marketing and sloganeering to trump truth in trying to get them in our churches. It is time we tell them the gospel truth. Jesus loves religion and they should, too.