Transforming Christians to Transform Culture

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Buffet Multiculturalists

Posted on December 9, 2014

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John Gray, post-postmodernist, perpetuates the merely postmodern idea that reality and ethics must be local and “perspectival”: right and wrong are just a matter of personal preference, like “Boxers or briefs?” and “Chicken salad or tuna salad?” Universal, transcultural ethics are a humanly constructed illusion often designed to vest merely local, perspectival ethics with universal authority that we Enlightenment Westerners impose on everybody else:

The universalizing project of Western cultures, which in our historical context has become a nihilist expression of the will to power, must be surrendered, and replaced by a willingness to share the earth with radically different cultures. Such acceptance of diversity among human communities must not be a means of promoting ultimate convergence into sameness, but rather an expression of the openness to cultural difference. The acceptance of cultural diversity which is most needed is not the pluralism of plans and styles of life affirmed in Western liberal cultures, but a recognition of the reality of cultural diversity among whole ways of life.[1]

We arrogant Westerners, in short, need to be more ethically modest: learn to live with people on the other side of the world (or street) who maintain different ethical standards than we do. This is the lovely cornucopia of multiculturalism, in which we revel in ethical diversity and the peacefully mutual respect of multicultural non-judgmentalism.

And a recipe for the most grievous tyranny. Gray somehow doesn’t tell us how we should live and let live with (for example) an ISIS culture that decapitates children, a Nazi culture that gasses Jews and homosexuals, or even an antebellum American culture that lynches blacks, all examples of “cultural diversity among whole ways of life” if there ever were any. The late Allan Bloom employed this intellectual tactic on his uncritical relativist students, relativism being the moral postulate of multiculturalism:

The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated. The best they can do is point out all the opinions and cultures there are and have been. What right, they ask, do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others? If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, “If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?,” they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place. It is not that they know very much about other nations, or about their own. The purpose of their education is not to make them scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue — openness [moral relativism].[2]

Bloom’s simple exercise would undermine Gray’s sticky-sweet relativism. It’s an inconvenient thought experiment. Therefore, relativists usually skip it. They are conceptual or theoretical relativists. They are relativists when chafing under the restraints of God’s universal moral law. Until somebody steals their late-model BMW. Then they rise up with a universalized moral indignation, an ethical grammar with which they expect every reasonable person to sympathize. They are buffet multiculturalists. They want to defy God’s universal moral law on the cheap.

I urge them to have the courage of their convictions: celebrate Islamofascists raping miniskirt-wearing women, slave owners bullwhipping recalcitrant blacks, and Dr. Josef Mengele dismembering Jewish children.

Then, finally, we’ll get a little moral consistency, and hustle the argument along.

–––––

[1] John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 269, emphasis added.

[2] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon $ Schuster, 1987), 26.

Swapping Good Universals for Bad

Posted on December 1, 2014

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John Gray, self-appointed academic assassin of the Enlightenment, observes that the United States, unlike other Western democracies, has little history of regional and local cultures that stand out as authoritative communities in the face of the universalizing culture of the Enlightenment.[1] Like many other postmodernists, Gray deplores how the Enlightenment de-privileges the local and particular. The Enlightenment championed universal knowledge, universal truth, universal reason, universal experience, and universal virtues as an increasingly secular continuation of the same universals fostered in the Christian culture of medieval and Reformation Europe. Gray joins other historians of ideas in judging the Enlightenment a basically secularized Christendom. Among the postmodernists, he heralds — and relishes — the breakdown of the Enlightenment in favor of localisms and particularisms, of older, simpler, regional cultures “uncorrupted” by the rapacious technological science and universal values of the West, sounding a lot like Heidegger in his nativism. Gray agrees with Nietzsche that once you get rid of the synthesis of Christianity and Greco-Roman culture that is the heritage of the West, you must recreate culture from the ground up — new “truth,” new ethics, new aesthetics. Or else: re-privilege the cultural particularisms that the Enlightenment universals vanquished (without pretending that the Enlightenment never happened).

The problem is that the United States was birthed in the Christian/classical synthesis, and simply has no bevy of robust local and regional cultures to which to return and, therefore, faces “an outbreak of nihilism of a violence and intensity unknown in other Western countries.”[2] For the United States, the breakdown of the Enlightenment universal means replacing it with the horror of Nietzsche’s universal nihilism, since no “particularistic” substitutes for it are readily available in the Unites States’ heritage. It’s universals or bust. Apparently, it’s either universal nihilism or universal Christianity.

You get to pick only one.

_____

[1] John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 216–218.

[2] 217.

Thanksgiving Isn’t Christmas’ Entrance Ramp

Posted on November 26, 2014

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If you assume that Thanksgiving has been canceled this year, you might be forgiven. Wall-to-wall commercials for Black Friday began even earlier this year — some of them I heard as early as October. Let’s be clear: as a proponent of God’s moral law and, therefore, of free markets, I have no objection whatsoever to honest advertisement. I do object, however — and vehemently — to the mad rush to get to Christmas by marginalizing Thanksgiving. In past years, the calendrical proximity of Thanksgiving to Christmas was irrelevant, since Christmas advertisement began in earnest only in mid-December. In the early 80’s, as my wife Sharon and I were launching our family, we could count on the sequestered integrity of a Thanksgiving celebration on which Christmas — or even the longer Advent season — did not impinge. We celebrated Thanksgiving, and then, about a month later, we celebrated Christmas. Today, neither we nor anybody else in the United States enjoys such a calm, unimpeded luxury.

A National Christian Holiday

While Thanksgiving may not generate inky-black department-store sales, and while it is not a part of the traditional church calendar, it is a deeply Christian holiday (= holy day). President George Washington, a Christian of the formal, establishment type, proclaimed November 26 as a day of national Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln, who was not by most accounts a professing Christian but who, like the ancient Persian kings Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes (Ezra 6–7), knew and reverenced the true God of heaven and earth. Lincoln issued his proclamation during the dark years of our nation’s Civil War, and his tone of humility amid offering thanksgiving to God is striking even today. After recounting God’s abundant national blessings even during the ravages of war, Lincoln states:

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

Lincoln, though personally not a Christian, was deeply imbued by the Christian culture in which he was reared, and consequently weaved together the specific, irrevocable Christian themes of God’s goodness, sovereignty and mercy; the validity of his moral law; human sinfulness; the reality of God’s forgiveness for those who repent; and the imperative of thanksgiving to our God. Lincoln knew that God both blesses and judges nations to the extent that they trust him and obey him. Though his language was non-sectarian and did not specifically invoke Christianity, it is compatible only with Christian revelation and certainly not with the Deism prominent among the European and Eastern elites of the previous generations.

Our National Apostasy

This cluster of deep Christian themes has been almost entirely absent from presidential administrations of both political parties over the last few decades. Would to God that Pres. Barack Obama, or, before him, Pres. George W. Bush, had indicted our nation for its depravity and urged us to repentance and humility and gratitude before a God who has not given us the national judgment we deserve.

But to be blunt, these unmistakably Christian themes don’t sell to a self-congratulatory, narcissistic population for which the ideas of sin and judgment are not so much repugnant as foreign. For this reason, Thanksgiving has become a vague secular sideshow to the vague, secular mainshow known as Christmas. The Thanksgiving holiday as originally conceived by Lincoln stands in sharp antithesis to the vague holiday secularisms (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one) to which Americans, including many professed Christians, have become accustomed.

Thanksgiving and Renewed Christian Culture

Reviving Thanksgiving as a distinctly Christian national holiday might be a vital part of restoring Christian culture. Days of national repentance and thanksgiving were a reality during the early years of our Republic, and it is hard to imagine the present success of our nation apart from these acts of national obedience. The fact that we have turned our back on them, and on the Triune God that they presuppose, invites God’s national judgment (Ps. 9:16–17; Jer. 51:20; 1 Pet. 4:17–18).

This Thanksgiving, do not allow Black Friday and the ubiquitous Christmas commercialization to dilute and divest Thanksgiving. Join me in reinvigorating the true meaning of Thanksgiving, not merely the true meaning of Christmas. The aphorism “Jesus is the reason for the season” is no less true of Thanksgiving than for Christmas.

Thanksgiving isn’t the entrance ramp to Christmas.

Why You Should Not Sign “The Marriage Pledge”

Posted on November 20, 2014

First Things (FT) has launched a crusade to get pastors out of the marriage-ceremony-performing business, or, as they would no doubt prefer, out of the business of government-sanctioned marriage-ceremony performance. The problem for “The Marriage Pledge” they are pushing is that these two practices are identical.

A dispute among allies

FT is one of our allies in the culture wars. And don’t shy away from that moniker. When one group in society wants to redefine the very basic idea of marriage understood over the entire history of humanity, and when it has the political wherewithal to do it, and another group opposes them to the hilt, culture war is the most apt description of the dispute. By our allies in this war, I mean us neo-Reformational culture warriors, who believe all of life should be governed by the Bible. Our FT allies want what we want: a Christian culture in general and Christian marriage (= marriage) in particular. But their battle strategies are sometimes not ours, and there’s a theological reason for this, and the dueling strategies springing from different theologies aren’t inconsequential.

FT is a conservative ecumenical coalition that includes both Christians and Jews, but is guided by Catholic social thought. R. R. Reno, the magazine’s gifted, dynamic editor, is a convert to Rome. So was its founding editor, Richard John Neuhaus. Anybody who’s read FT over the years can attest to the predominantly, though not exclusively, Catholic tenor of its social criticism. “The Marriage Pledge” is a striking example.

Natural law, the state, and marriage

Which is why it’s odd that, as the Daily Caller headlines, “Prominent Protestant Pastors Vow To No Longer Perform Government Marriages.” The “Pledge” is an understandable and natural strategy for Catholic clergy in the present unprecedented crisis. Why? Catholic social criticism is anchored in its centuries-old paradigm of the nature-grace distinction. This is the distinctively Catholic idea that in nature (creation) God provides for man’s direction in abundant ways quite apart from any supernatural revelation. This is “natural law,” a subcategory of “natural theology,” a theology without Jesus or the Bible that everybody can or should agree to, Christian or not. Grace, including salvation in the atoning work of Jesus Christ and in God’s revelation in the Bible, is the capstone to nature. Nature is the foundation, and grace is the superstructure. Man (sinful man, of course) is not made to live fully without grace, but he can live, and live quite well, within nature apart from special revelation. In fact, nature is the natural [!] preparation for grace. Society is the realm of nature, and all people of good will, saint and sinner, can agree on the basics of God’s revealed law in creation.

Only they don’t. And the rub comes when it’s obvious that they don’t, when they start saying outrageous things like it’s the most natural thing in the world for a man to want to marry a man, and a woman a woman. No true Christian would dream of saying such a thing, naturally.

But the state isn’t Christian. Isn’t supposed to be. It may be Christian only in the tangential sense that the church might “sacramentalize” the state by being in contact with it, by bringing its citizens into the bosom of the church, where they’ll get the Christian grace. There they can be Christians, and being Christians, they might influence the state for broadly Christian ideals, but the state is the realm of nature, not grace.

The Reformation, the state, and marriage

The Protestant Reformers created a trajectory that opposes this distinction. Their heirs, especially the Puritans and later the neo-Reformers, knew that all of life must be Christian, and to be Christian, it must be biblical. The Bible provides the guidelines on what all of life, including the state, should look like. If the state is anti-biblical, you need to work to make it biblical, just as you would do in the family and church. You don’t get to opt out of them.

But not necessarily if you hold the nature-grace distinction. It’s the church that’s the repository of grace, truly Christian, and if the state utterly abandons natural law (as in: men may marry men), Christian marriage can survive in the place that’s really Christian, the church. Maybe even our clergy will perform marriages recognized only in the church. They’ll even take “The Pledge” to keep the Christian, grace-oriented clergy from collaborating with the anti-Christian, nature-oriented state.

But this option of cultural withdrawal isn’t available to the neo-Reformers. Douglas Wilson has offered several excellent practical, pastoral objections to “The Pledge.” I would add that “The Pledge” is flawed at its root.

The state, no matter how perverse, has a vested interest in marriage (will the church enforce disposition of children and property in the case of divorce? Hardly. And if she did, who would enforce the enforcement?). Should the church “disentangle” itself from the family since the family, too, is being redefined? To be sure: the state can and does act unjustly (“no-fault divorce,” etc.). But the alternative isn’t anarchy, which despite its best intentions, is what “The Pledge” is suggesting. The state, even an apostate one, has a legitimate vested interest in marriage and the welfare of children springing from it.

“The Pledge” states: “We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.” But marriage did not begin with the church’s life, and severing the state from marriage does not “protect” it from state depredation; it only abandons the state to further apostasy and abandons the couple to potential grief when they do in fact need the state. Marriage is a creation ordinance redeemed by Jesus Christ, but married Muslims are still married. Marriage is a Christian institution, but not a distinctively Christian institution. It is a biblical institution that predates the Christian Faith.

The Puritans went so far as to believe that marriage was a civil and not an ecclesiastical affair, and cut the church off entirely from the marriage covenant-making. I think that in this move they overreacted (as in a few other matters), but at least they understood that marriage is an inextricably civil institution that predates Christianity. Note that to be pre-redemptive is not to be pre-biblical. God’s verbal revelation predated the Fall, and while all Christianity should be biblical, God’s verbal revelation spans creation to consummation. God’s verbal (and now written) revelation must govern all of life — not just the church, but marriage and the family and the state also.

Marriage ceremonies in the Bible

Therefore, Protestants want the Bible to shape our views of marriage, but, notably, no marriage ceremony in the Bible ever occurred in the church or by clergy. They were family arrangements recognized by the state. Jesus sanctioned such a wedding by attending it. I’m not suggesting church ceremonies are contra-biblical, only that they have no obvious biblical precedent. Marriage is principally a family function recognized and enforced by the state.

A wedding is not identical to a ceremony. A wedding (marriage) is a man and woman vowing before God to lifelong love and exclusivity from all others. What makes a marriage different from exclusive cohabitation is a public vow. It is this public vow in which the state has particular interest. Strictly speaking, an officiant is not even necessary to the ceremony, much less a “church wedding.” The vow and witnesses and means of enforcing the vow are the key elements. Only the state can do the latter on matters of coercion (disposition of children and property, for example).

It’s entirely appropriate, however, that Christians should be married in the church because this is a holy community to whom they are accountable. But it’s not the church qua church that witnesses a wedding vow. It’s individual witnesses, many (though rarely all) of whom are Christians. The state recognizes this covenant vow. When the minister signs the state-generated marriage certificate, he’s implicitly serving as the attesting witness for the state. The state is an implicit witness to every marriage, because the state must be very interested in every marriage — even if it egregiously allows unions to be called marriage that are not.

And if you don’t like what the state is doing about marriage (and you shouldn’t), work to change it. What you may not do is rip away the only God-granted coercive protection (Rom. 13) that marriages have in the case of abuse, abandonment, and divorce. The church can and should do lots of things to protect a marriage — but not everything.

If all that these ministers signing “the Pledge” want to do, therefore, is lead a church ceremony that recognizes a wedding, that’s a grand idea.

Just don’t call it a wedding ceremony.

If you believe in the Catholic nature-grace distinction, or if you believe that marriage is a sacrament of the church, rather than a covenant before God between two people to whom Christians (in the church) and also the state are essential witnesses, you might want to sign “The Pledge.”

But I scratch my head as to why Protestants might want to sign it.

Political Prognostication Isn’t Rocket Science

Posted on November 13, 2014

Perhaps the greatest and most pernicious sociopolitical myth of the last two centuries is that social predictions are a form of science (“social science”), that human behavior can be predicted like spaceship trajectories. This is a perennial Leftist myth that conservatives (especially political prognosticators) sometimes embrace.

ESA just put a space probe on a comet 310 million miles away, but politicos can’t predict how which political constituency will vote in the next election. If you think African-Americans as a bloc are “destined” to vote Democratic, or corporate CEO’s are “destined” to vote Republican, think again. People are not mathematical theorems, and therefore, human history, including politics, is unfailingly dynamic. Long-term political predictions make everybody look the fool. History has real meaning. People change their minds. Especially in politics.

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