Category Archives: Religion

Leftist vs. liberal

Note: The following is probably twaddle. I’ll think of five ways to say it better by Monday.

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a couple weeks, and in that time I think I’ve found several different angles on it. Let’s see what comes out when I write it down here and now.

What’s the difference between a liberal and a Leftist? It’s an important distinction, I think. I’ve been trying to avoid lambasting liberals for a while now, and targeting Leftists instead. Because there’s a distinction.

A lot of us conservatives call ourselves classical liberals, and I consider that an important point.

Leftism, I think, goes back to Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss philosopher. (I’m not an expert on Rousseau, but he’s come up a lot in my reading – mostly in Allan Bloom and Paul Johnson.) Rousseau was one of those people who, regardless of their own merits, tipped the historical scales. After him, everything was different.

I used to help out with the History and Aims class at the seminary where I worked. And one point I always emphasized was that, regardless how conservative our church body is today, our denominational forebears started out as flaming liberals.

But liberalism was different back then.

What liberalism meant in the 19th Century, I told them, had nothing to do with sexual ethics (at least in the realm of Christian liberalism – secular liberalism was different, thanks in large part to Rousseau). Liberalism had nothing to do with one’s view of Scripture. It had nothing to do with the size of government.

Liberalism was about the place of the common people in society.

Conservatives back then believed in social class. There were the “better people” and the “common people.” The better people, the nobility and the higher clergy, were ordained by God to run the world. They were wise and educated, and deserved to call the shots. The common people should pray, pay, and obey.

Liberals, on the other hand, believed that the common people were every bit as good as their betters. All the common people needed was good moral and practical education.

America, as a social experiment, was based on that belief.

Rousseau was the guy who popularized that view. He differed from Christians in having his own myth of Creation and Fall. Originally, he said, Man was a Noble Savage, living in a State of Nature. He was virtuous without effort.

Then along came civilization. Civilization brought rules and laws and social differentiation. And somehow (he never explained how) Virtuous Savage Man became Corrupt Civilized Man. It was all the fault of the laws and customs that came with civilization. (The Greens hold a variety of this doctrine today.)

I’m not sure Rousseau was looking for the kind of revolutionary uses the French would make of his theories. The whole French Revolution was an attempt to tear down the old corrupt order and replace it with a new rational order, in which the virtue of the Noble Savage might flourish again.

They got the Savage part right.

As the Rousseauean experiment in liberalism made its bloody progress through history, there was also a parallel kind of liberalism. This was the liberalism of Evangelicalism.

John Wesley was its prophet in England. England (it has been argued, and I believe it) avoided a revolution like the French largely because of Wesley. The converted Methodists carried on a practical experiment in social advancement through virtue – and it worked. His followers gave up gambling and drinking and vice in general. They worked and saved. And they prospered. “I can’t keep these people poor,” Wesley is supposed to have complained.

For a long time, the Evangelicals and the Rousseaueans were able to work together, against a common enemy – the classist old order that wanted to keep the commoners down.

But as the commoners were liberated, and moved into the middle class, the two strains parted.

The Evangelicals and classical liberals believed that Man was created in the image of God. They believed (or learned) that liberty was a divine gift, and that government should be limited, because government is made of sinful men, and neither the people nor the rulers should be left unchecked.

The Rousseaueans believed that Man was a corrupted noble savage. All that was needed to restore the State of Nature was a rational reordering of society, so that Man’s natural virtue might blossom. The government that promoted this reordering would automatically be wise and virtuous. Therefore all power could be trusted to it. Marx was an apostle of this view.

The Rousseauans took a while to abandon their old belief in personal freedom – “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” as Voltaire didn’t say (but it’s commonly attributed to him).

But they found that personal freedom is like a monkey wrench thrown into the machinery of the Ideal State the Rousseueans envision. Individual thinkers are hard to regiment. So personal freedom has to go (as the Communists decided early on). As personal freedom has lost its appeal to them, the liberals have become Leftists.

And that’s what I mean when I criticize Leftists. I mean people who hold such faith in the potential of the State for good that they consider freedom too dangerous to permit.

Which leaves us in an odd reversal. The Left, which once championed freedom of thought, now promotes the criminalization of all unsanctioned views. And the Evangelicals, who have now stepped into the space formerly occupied by conservatives, are (generally) championing freedom of thought. Not perfectly, I’m sure, but far more than the Left.

And so genuine liberals need to re-evaluate the situation, and decide whether they will follow freedom of thought, even if it leads them to the Right.

Motel, Miracles May Be Likely to Occur

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a new documentary on the making and lasting influence of Fiddler on the Roof. It first appeared on Broadway in 1964, was released as a movie in 1971, and has been on stages around the world ever since.

Through cast, crew and luminaries’ commentary, [Max] Lewkowicz examines the play’s time-transcending magic as he wonders why “mainstream America is interested in a bunch of Jews living in a pale of Russia of 1905.”

“Tevye is from the shtetl, but his message is universal,” Lewkowicz told The Jerusalem Post from his New York home. “He could be a family man in Honduras, or anywhere in the world for that matter – a father whose children rebel and want to go a different way against his will. He is a man whose tradition is being seriously challenged.”

Motel may have believed marrying Tzeitel to be a miracle of miracles, but many smarter-than-thou philosophers have argued against miracles being a thing (FWIW, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is now playing on my Your Classical stream). Michael J. Kruger of Reformed Theological Seminary has a post about a popular view on miracles, that “given how unlikely miracles are, it is always more likely that a miracle did not occur.”

But we must remember the context of every “miraculous” event. If God is living and active in our world, then miracles will occur. They may even be likely.

Praying without a List

Author Ed Cyzewski writes about learning to pray in a contemplative manner and the pushback it gets.

Christian leaders have attacked contemplatives on and off for centuries, banning their books and threatening contemplatives with prison, exile, or death. The more concentrated church power became, the more it opposed contemplation. This type of prayer is beyond the scope of leadership’s control because it is interior and personal, even if it is cultivated and supported in community or through spiritual direction.

Mystics of all stripes probably should be pushed against, because they tend to encourage a loosely defined Prozac spirituality that leaves religious distinctives in favor of personal inner peace. Contemplative prayer habits step into the space of mystical Christianity. But I suspect the modern evangelical criticism of it comes largely from modernist thinking, not solid biblical interpretation.

For generations we have been taught that segments of the Christian life can be accomplished in a few clear steps. For prayer, some teach the pattern of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Such a pattern can be helpful in directing our prayers, but as with so many things we may hold to the pattern more than we hold to the Lord. And whether we pray this way or another way, we may hold to the answers we receive more than we hold to our Lord, even telling each other that our prayers were answered because we delivered them in a specific way. Contemplative prayer puts those things aside, so we have very little to hold onto and ask whether we’re doing it right.

If this is a habit that can cultivate a deeper satisfaction in Christ, then we need not neglect it.

Adjusting to the world

Thinking about history, philosophy, and theology.

I have enough thoughts for a lecture (if anybody wanted a lecture), but I’ll lay some of them out very briefly here.

The Church adjusts to the world. It isn’t determined by the world – or shouldn’t be – but we have to relate to people as they live, and we have to live in the world as it is. So we adjust our message to the tenor of the times. We have to. It’s not necessarily bad.

But it can be bad when it goes off the rails.

The modern world, I think, began with Isaac Newton. Newton occupied the role of prophet in European civilization, sparking what we call the Enlightenment. “God said let Newton be, and all was light,” as Alexander Pope wrote. The Enlightenment achieved the level of religion – and that religion was Deism, where God was sublimated into a cosmic Watchmaker. Intellectuals believed they now understood the laws of Nature, and soon all questions would be answered.

The Church followed the Enlightenment to an extent. Great emphasis was now placed on correct doctrine. Cold reason was elevated, in some quarters, to a theological virtue.

But the Enlightenment didn’t last long.

In practice, it was inadequate to actual human life. Enlightenment thought was like trying to feed people with vitamin pills only. Technically all the necessary nutrients might be there, but people need more than that. They need flavor and texture and scent. They need the whole human experience. The Enlightenment didn’t feed the soul.

So the Enlightenment was replaced. It was replaced by two movements (you could call it one of them a sub-movement, but I like the sub-movement too much to subordinate it).

The secular reaction was Romanticism. Romanticism reacted against cold formalism and logical reductionism. Romanticism centered on passion. Life was to be lived with intensity. Love and freedom were what made life worthwhile.

But there was a theological corollary to Romanticism (some, as I mentioned, would probably call it a sub-movement). This was Pietism (the forerunner of contemporary Evangelicalism). To the rationality of Enlightenment Christianity, the Pietists replied, “That’s not enough! Jesus’ greatest commandment was not to understand God, but to love Him!” They emphasized a personal experience with Christ and a life of growing sanctification, learning to love Him more.

Now an argument can be made that Pietism led directly to the Liberalism of today’s mainline churches. It’s argued among Lutherans, in some quarters, that Pietism’s emphasis on personal experience led people to set their subjective feelings at the center of their faith – which is what Christian postmodernism is all about.

And there’s probably a measure truth in that.

But I would relate it, once again, to the Church’s habit of imitating the world. Christian postmodernism (I maintain) is mostly the fault of secular postmodernism. The nihilism and despair that followed the World Wars led secular thinkers to existentialism and moral relativism. The mainline churches followed suit, rejecting all authority, including that of the Bible and orthodox doctrine. (Leaving both the Pietists and the orthodox out in the cold.)

It wasn’t the Pietists’ fault, in my view. But they did get sucked in.

The one unifying principle of all these theological fashions, it seems to me, is following the world. We have to adjust to the world, but we must not let it set our agenda.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12;2, ESV)


Most Influential Pastor?

What pastor has most influenced your life?

I take this question from a recent Mortification of Spin podcast. I’d love to read your answer to it, and I think it would be remarkable if we can get good, 21st-century data on this influence. Wouldn’t it be easy to suppose your favorite pastor or minister has most influenced you when in fact it was someone else, someone whose teaching has defined your life more than you recognize? Someone like your youth pastor so many years ago or the minister at the church you visited for a couple years during your stint in Duluth.

To answer the question, my most influencing pastor has to be the founding pastor of the church I’ve been a member of virtually all of my adult life. I can’t quote many of the things he’s said, but I think many of his expressly taught conclusions as well as his approach to Scripture and manner of handling doctrine have shaped me more than anyone else could have.

What about you?

Image by Helge Leirdal from Pixabay

For His Lovingkindness Endures Forever

A great way to remember the Lord’s work in your life is to write down your prayers and experiences. My pastor has recommended a mementos box to remind you of the stories of God’s faithfulness. Others have recommended keep a diary. I know a ministry leader who has filled up dozens of journals with daily devotions, prayers, and their answers.

World News Group reports on a great-grandmother, Ernesta Wood, who has been writing letters for many years.

Wood’s home displays photos of her 53 descendants, nearly all Christians. Once a week for the past 16 years, she has sent them letters—777 in all, as of July 1—filled with stories. Some are dramatic: Her blind grandmother miraculously saw Wood’s grandfather minutes before he died. Other stories cultivate a sense of God’s presence in less dramatic moments: Once, her parents’ pet birds escaped but returned to their cage before dark, just as her mother had prayed.

Promises Not Made

I’ve seen many critical comments about “purity culture” this year from strangers on the Internet. I didn’t know exactly what they were referring to, but that’s normal when you come into the middle of someone’s conversation, which is what social media allows you to do all day, every day. And you can’t bring a pot of coffee with you. Last week such conversations couldn’t be avoided as everyone on my side of the Internet cafe took up talking about the announced divorce and apostasy of the author of a 1990s bestselling book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

The criticism has been as open-ended as the label. I think much of what I saw was from people who were pushing back appropriately on a shame-based rationale they were taught, but many critics seemed to be attacking biblical sexual ethics as a whole. The latter is ridiculous, but I’d like to write about the former for a minute.

Continue reading Promises Not Made

“Why didn’t anyone say anything?”

I wrote, some time back, about “discovering” Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” – years and years after the rest of the world did, of course. And I mourned the man’s death, having found some of his stuff both intriguing and moving. I didn’t know a lot about his personal life, though. Kyle Smith fills in the details in his article about a new documentary on Cohen’s romantic life, over at National Review:

Directed by Nick Broomfield, the new documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is intended as a tribute to the relationship that inspired one of Cohen’s best-known songs. It is actually more of an indictment. In nauseating detail, it documents the damage wrought by open relationships and other errors of the counterculture. Cohen, once he achieved success as a performer, discovered he was the Elvis of bookish depressives and indulged himself with the women who stampeded to his shows. He was living with Marianne while writing songs about hooking up with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel. A friend of Cohen from those years, Julie Felix, recalls, “Leonard was a great, uh, feminist. He said to me once, ‘I can’t wait till women take over.’” Ladies, when a man says this, listen carefully. What is he really saying? Cohen was giving himself a license to treat women badly.

And there it is again, the sour legacy of the ‘60s. And the ‘70s. When I reminisce about those anarchic decades, you must bear in mind (in fairness) that I was not a neutral observer. I didn’t envy the hippies their drugs – I’ve never understood why anyone would want to lose control of their mind – but I envied them the sex. Sex in the Age of Aquarius was a loud party in the next room, keeping me awake all night.

From Leonard Cohen to Charles Manson to Ira Einhorn (the founder of Earth Day who murdered his girlfriend and stored her body in a suitcase), the Sexual Revolution was an era of the manipulation of young women, justified by high-sounding philosophical and psychological claptrap. We’ll never know the cost in ruined lives, ruined health, and actual deaths. (The movie Forrest Gump is one of the few honest treatments in cinema.)

When we look back at that era from the perspective of contemporary sensibilities (which happens rarely, because the old hippies are still around and still determined to hush it up) it’s hard to comprehend. “How could people allow this to happen?” you might ask. “With so many victims, why didn’t anyone say anything?”

The answer is that some people were saying something. Preachers were saying something. Church people were saying something. Small town people were objecting, and farm people.

Uncool people. People nobody listened to. People they made fun of on TV.

Today, the victims are different. My friend Moira Greyland Peat, author of The Last Closet, one of the earliest “guinea pigs” in the Great Gay Experiment, has chronicled how children in “gay families” are subject to sexual abuse far out of proportion to their percentage of the population.

Again, people are sounding the alarm. But we’re not the cool people. The very fact that we don’t parrot the approved public narrative is proof that we’re bigots, and unworthy of a hearing.

We live in a new age of ignorance, I think. Through most of history, information was limited by physical unavailability. Most people knew what their neighbors knew and what their priests told them, nothing more.

Nowadays there’s so much information around, we depend on great information aggregators to choose for us what we’ll hear. We’re back to depending on the neighbors and the priests, only those neighbors and priests are wealthy strangers far away, with their own motivations.

You can’t operate on lies forever. Structures with flimsy foundations must inevitably fall. So the falsehoods won’t stand forever.

I just fear how many more innocent victims will be crushed in the collapse.

LIndisfarne

I’ve been reading a book about Lindisfarne, the English island where (according to received wisdom) the Viking Age began with a brutal raid on the renowned monastery there. The date of the raid is generally considered to be June 8, 793, so we just passed the anniversary (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives a January date, but that’s unlikely. Vikings didn’t generally raid in the winter).

I’m reading the book because I’m scheduled to do a presentation on LIndisfarne later this summer. I have a lot to learn yet — I find some disagreement in sources. The video above says the original 793 raiders stole the Lindisfarne Gospels book, but the book I’m reading says no, the monks hid it. I do believe I’ve read that the book was taken by Vikings at some point though, so I’ll have to dig a little more into that.

Anders Winroth suggests that the Viking raids were a net good to Europe, as they took wealth that had been stockpiled in church institutions and injected it back into the economy.

I’m sure that was a great comfort to the enslaved monks and nuns.

“A living, breathing, 20th century desert father”

Pastor and author Andrew Arndt shared this quote from that great Christian musician Rich Mullins out of research he has been working on for a book with NavPress.

Arndt quoted Mullins from an interview:

How do you know when God is calling you? Well, for me, for years I tried to avoid loneliness, because it hurt too much. Now I am beginning to recognize that maybe that’s what it feels like when God calls. Maybe when God is calling it hurts. Maybe when God calls us it feels like a pain. And for years I tried to drown and avoid that pain, and fill the ache with stuff that was destroying me. To listen to the call of God means to accept some of the emptiness we have in our lives and rather than always trying to drown out that feeling of emptiness we allow it instead to be a door we go through in order to meet God. And this is where moral purity begins to play in. Almost everything that corrupts us is something we use to fill an ache and moral purity might be nothing more than a call to accept the ache and the emptiness and to allow ourselves to go through it to where God is calling us to go. And the joy of the Christian life is that those aches are met ultimately in Christ.

When we finally pull the lifeline we’ve created to the things we’ve tried to fill our emptiness with, when we say no, it is very scary and we think will we ever stop hurting. My answer is don’t worry about hurting. Realize that this is how badly God wants you and that the hurt you’re feeling – maybe that’s the way it feels when you’re called by God so don’t try to fill or quiet it but ask God to give you the courage to face it and walk through it to him.

Ascension Day


Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome 1510 – 20

It’s Ascension Day, a very important feast in the Christian calendar, which (like so many important feasts) is little noticed today.

I read something in one of Francis Schaeffer’s books a long time ago that left an impression on me. I’m pretty sure he was citing someone else. The idea was that the importance of the Ascension is (at least in part) that it proclaims the physical existence of Heaven. According to the testimony of witnesses, Jesus had (after the Resurrection) an actual body that could be touched and consumed food. And that body went somewhere. Not to a “philosophical other,” but to some place where bodies can live.

It’s part of our hope of eternity.

Happy Ascension Day.

Sub-creators

A snippet from Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter.

This is from his account of the long night’s conversation among Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Hugo Dyson at Oxford in 1931, which bore fruit a few days later in Lewis’s conversion. It’s tremendously important.

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil….

Lewis listened as Dyson affirmed in his own way what Tolkien had said. You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.

Logos Theatre steals Past Watchful Dragons

Dwight Longenecker talks about a remarkably good theater group based in an unlikely university that has produced some marvelous Narnia plays.

This is because plenty of religious people have as their true foundation materialistic/secularism and plenty of non-religious people instinctively believe in the reality of the supernatural. . . . I am speaking of the modernists who wear ecclesiastical costumes and spout religious and liturgical language, but whose worldview is materialistic and regard religion as no more than an extension of their preferred ideology or political party but with the sugar icing of religiosity.

The secular materialist (both the religious and the non religious variety) are the most vigilant of watchful dragons, for they breathe withering fire on any sign of the supernatural. When contemplating these dragons, I realize I have more in common with the follower of any other religion that is rooted in a supernatural worldview than I do with many of my fellow Catholics.

“Christianity Comes to the Vikings”

Below, my lecture at Union University, Jackson, TN — in case you’ve been longing to spend an hour with me. It opens with a short introduction by none other than Dr. Hunter Baker.

I was a little disappointed that my PowerPoint slides are out of shot; on the other hand, I didn’t always synch them well (my remote clicker didn’t always get through for some reason).

Probably best for me not to comment on the short portion I’ve personally viewed. I’m generally incapable of objective self-assessment. So judge for yourself.

And then make it viral.