Revisiting the Protestant Theory of Religion

Some time ago I wrote on what I called the Protestant Theory of Religion. I won’t reiterate that post here, but I got some pretty good feedback. In fact, in the comments, Derek Rishmawy made some interesting-ish observations and posed a couple of challenges. I want to interact with one of them here and perhaps develop a more well-rounded view of the PTOR – with the intent being to open up space more than defend a hard and fast conclusion on my part. Continue reading

Rant on Youthful Christianity

I have a feeling that if Christianity in America ever decides to stop patterning itself after the youth it generally spends most of its time either converting or trying to keep converted, things might go a little smoother for it. We might have quiet virtue and devotion, instead of having to constantly be in ‘FIRE! PASSION! RUNNING! CHASING! DANCING! YOUTHFUL ENERGY! MORE! MORE! MORE!’ Perhaps we’d have less ‘Acquire the Fire’, and fewer corresponding burnouts because of people being unable to maintain such a level of ENERGY for very long. Perhaps, just perhaps, we might have more focus on doing the will of God in the world and living in faith, instead of having to pursue teenage-esque romance under the guise of A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS, and being burned out when we simply get tired of trying to be teenagers.

Believe it or not, Christianity is not defined by the traits of horny teenagers.

No, this isn’t a false dichotomy, and yes, I know we are told not to despise our youth.

Karl Barth on the Covenant

‘What, then, we gather from the Noahic covenant, and everything that belongs to this strand, is that according to the Old Testament conception itself the special divine covenant made with Israel does not exclude the human race as a whole from the gracious will of God towards it. What we find in Isaiah’s view of the status of Israel as a representational and messenger to the nations is that the covenant made with Israel has a meaning and purpose which reaches out beyond the existence of Israel. And now, from the prophecy in Jeremiah of a new covenant of forgiveness and of the Spirit and of free obedience on the part of man, we learn that the Old Testament looks beyond the past and present to a form of the relationship between God and Israel in which the covenant broken by Israel will be set up, that the Israelite, for whom ultimately God has nothing but forgiveness, but does have it actually and effectively, must now take his place directly alongside his Gentile fellows, and that if at all he can hope for the grace and salvation of God on this presupposition. In the light of this passage from Jeremiah 31 we are indeed enabled and summoned to give to the concept of the covenant the universal meaning which it acquired in the form which it manifestly assumed in Jesus Christ.’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics IV.1 p. 34)

Some Bonhoeffer Thoughts

These are my comments on Kevin Davis’ outstanding 2-post series on Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity – do give them a read here. At the risk of self-advertising, here are some more of my thoughts on Bonhoeffer

‘We really don’t know what Bonhoeffer meant by “metaphysics,” and that is a big part of the problem with interpreting him here — but it is clear that he wants to secularize Christian concepts in some sense.’

There is definitely a problem there – I suspect, based on his reference to 12th-13th century as being when man ‘came of age’ that he has *some* form of scholastic metaphysics in his sights, but as you note, none of these things are carefully defined or discussed. The safe route would be to take him as simply trying to say how we can be Christians and have something to say to the world when God isn’t a given – stop trying to plug up apologetic/existential ‘gaps’ with God, stop trying to make man feel guilty when he’s oblivious to it, and simply live in faith in the world. That seems to be the safest option. But, again (again) this may not be the case – he speaks of Bultmann ‘not going far enough’ but then he also writes about how the mythology ‘is the thing’ of Christianity. Does he want us to return to the God of the Bible – revealed in weakness, operating in ways that are foolish to the world because of that weakness – or does he (as he almost seems to hint at) want us to do away with god-talk altogether and simply live in the world in faith?

Part of this also turns on the issue of the ‘secular’. You see that a lot, in guys like Charles Taylor, James KA Smith, etc – but who has pronounced us to be residents of a ‘secular’ age? No doubt our everyday experience may reflect a deepening secular-ity, but so what? Experience may be (and often is) wrong – why do we need to make the faith fit into our experience of the world as secular? There’s a lot of baggage here that needs to be opened and subjected to scrutiny when it is all too often simply taken to be truth.

The critique of Bonhoeffer’s uncritical acceptance of modernity or nonreligious man is right and could probably be extended to most modern theology. What’s interesting is that there still is a ‘given’ – only it’s no longer God’s existence but man’s non-religiousness. It’s not enough to just say that man has come of age – to paraphrase Plantinga, you don’t call something into question by simply saying (even loudly and passionately), ‘I hereby call this into question’ – you have to so why such and such is the case. Simply saying that man has learned to live without God as a working hypothesis won’t do it.

‘But I would caution ourselves. For example, the “Hellenization thesis” where Greek and Hebrew thought forms are strictly contrasted, which dominated 20th century theology, is not entirely without merit, even if we now know its over-simplifications.’

I agree completely – one shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater in any case. The ‘problem space’ that we’ve been given by your example of the Hellenization thesis (though I more or less ocnsider the thesis *as a whole* to be wrong) has given us a good deal worth thinking about. Let’s not write off the good that can come from any problem space, even if we see what caused it as quite mistaken (as I think)!

I almost get the feeling that Bonhoeffer really didn’t know *how* to be modern in a way that is recognizably Christian but also not merely an apologetic religion. I think a good deal can be gleaned from his earlier writing – his christology lectures show how he was willing to affirm orthodox doctrines (virgin birth etc) while also affirming that they can’t be verified as an object of strictly historical study. His point being that things like the VB etc aren’t historical in the sense that their truth is contingent upon correct historical methodology. This does away with the need to base faith on ‘evidence’ as apologetics would have us do without relegating it to the realm of ‘myth’.

This can, I believe, be tied in with a remark he made about Bultmann in which he states that he doesn’t believe that Bultmann went far enough – and that remark really puzzled me. I think we can reasonably assume that he meant that, as a matter of consistency, Bultmann should have also demythologised God instead of rather arbitrarily stopping with him. So Bonhoeffer is perhaps caught between the affirmation of orthodoxy and his rebellion against apologetic religion – one of which leads to demythologization (which, as you noted, he saw as ‘the thing itself’) and one of which leads to a form of historical rationalism.

More Notes on Augustine’s Ethics

– Nicholas Wolterstorff charts a transition in Augstine’s though – a movement from roughly Platonic/neo-Platonic ideas of ascent and hatred towards this-worldly goods and relationships to an moral vision much more informed by Biblical ideas.

Reading Wolterstorff’s treatment of Augustine in Justice: Rights and Wrongs, I’m struck by how much Augustine modifies and breaks the ancient eudaimonism – while God alone will fail to disappoint love, our mutable neighbours are, in fact, love and disturbance-worthy, while locating the much sought after tranquility in the life of the world to come. To quote Wolterstorff, in this life, love trumps tranquility.

An example:

Augustine never loses the idea of tranquility or happiness being that which we should strive for – he holds that along with the various pagan schools quite firmly. What he does, however, is to modify and in some cases break away from the eudaimonism of those schools. His idea of tranquility becomes grounded not in an ascent to the heavens but in the eschatology of the life to come – we are not to seek tranquility among the evils and miseries of the world but to acknowledge these evils, and, in his most dramatic break with the eudaimonistic traditions, be compassionate towards others, feel sorrow, joy, and anger for people and events. To do otherwise is to deny our created nature.

– Augustine’s emphasis on compassion is probably the most non-eudaimonistic aspect of his ethical and moral thought – compassion being a profoundly kenotic kind of thing, opposed to eudaimonism and certainly opposed to (explicitly so) the Stoic conception of ethics:

‘Unlike such emotions as fear and grief, it (compassion) does not have a eudaimonistic basis. Because it does not presuppose any investment in the well-being of the other, it cannot have as its basis the perceived or threatened impairment of one’s investment. On being moved to compassion, the (Good) Samaritan proceeded to care for the man in the ditch; he invested himself in his recovery. The compassion evoked the care, the investment, not the other way around.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 218)

Scruton on Religious Differences

‘Fine differences are always more important in determining membership than large differences, precisely because they permit comparison. The person whose religion differs from mine by a tiny article, or a barely percievable gesture, is not a believer in other gods, but a blasphemer against my gods. Unlike the person with other deities, he is automatically an object of hostility, since he threatens the faith from a point within its spiritual territory.’ (Roger Scruton, ‘The West and the Rest’, p. 23)

The Eschatology of the Transcendentals

Thinking on the symposium on Roger Scruton, I found myself wanting to flesh out a bit the relation between the classical Transcendentals and his philosophy of beauty-as-belonging, so let’s see what can be done with that.

The classical Transcendentals are Beauty, Goodness and Truth – the most important universals or forms (the Christian way of looking at things has generally ascribed them to the divine life – perhaps as divine Ideas, or something else along that line). The will and mind are oriented towards these transcendentals by virtue of the desire evoked by our desire for particulars which instantiate one (often more) transcendental – our desire for a beautiful thing isn’t satisfied by the thing, because our desire for a beautiful thing is ultimately a desire for the beautiful as such. On this view, beauty is a rather abstract thing.

Scruton, in a nutshell, brings beauty down into day-to-day life. The beautiful for Scruton is something which, when pursued, gives meaning to the world and to our endeavors, and from this follows our sense of belonging. Hence, beauty-as-belonging (see the above symposium for more detail). Scruton grounds a lot of his meaning-talk and beauty in the actions of a community – generally, for Scruton, a religious community, where reconciliation and forgiveness can be had.

A possibly fruitful way to put these two themes together might be as follows: suppose we bring the notion of the eschatalogical into play here (which Scruton does, albeit in a somewhat vague manner) – specifically, Christian eschatology? What might that look like?

Perhaps we can think of the transcendentals as ‘orienting our sense of belonging’, that is, as conditioning how we achieve and even express belonging. On the Christian scheme of things, the transcendentals have ‘come down’ to us in the person of Jesus Christ – the embodiment of God, who is Truth, Goodness and Beauty as such. They will, however, ‘come down’ further at the eschaton – this is the now/not yet tension of Christian theology. Thus, in this ‘coming down’, that which orients our mind and will towards action in pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness is seen to be not an abstract form but a concrete person doing concrete things.

Building of Scruton’s philosophy of belonging as being something we practice and ‘build for’, and bringing in the Christian idea of being ‘in Christ’, wherein we participate in both the suffering and vindication of Christ, we might say that we act ‘transcendentally’. Our acts of love, sacrifice and charity are ways in which, borrowing again from Scruton, we redeem the world and build our home in anticipation of when we truly come home at the eschaton. In short, by making the world beautiful, whether through art, or acts of love, acts of service, tending a garden or simple acts of kindness, we act the transcendental – instead of being ‘out there’, they have been shown to be right here in our communities and acts of faith. Our actions becomes practices of belonging in preparation for the final redemption. By ‘coming down’, the transcendentals orient us towards redemptive practices.

Here we need to take careful account of the role of grace – it is only by grace that any of this happens because it is only by a free movement of grace from above that any of our actions are in fact actions of grace and redemption, because it is only by grace that we are incorporated in Christ.

As a kind of summary: by way of Incarnation, Truth, Beauty and Goodness have been shown to be concrete acts done in community, and by practicing the transcendentals (which have been shown to be actions of redemption in preparation for the final redemption) we make the world our home, where we belong, while we wait for our true Home, where we Truly Belong.

A Mess of Thoughts On Modernity, Christianity, and Presuppositionalism

Another blog post based on Facebook comments – no editing has been done here, so I’ll correct things piecemeal.

(1) Epistemology, or, more generally, knowing, is made the key ‘thing’, as it were – or, more precisely, between right and wrong ways of knowing. Knowledge tends to be (almost without fail) reduced to various forms of propositionalism and the right/wrong way to know them. Without the right presuppositions, one simply cannot know things. That’s a broad and sloppy sketch.

(2) The forms of knowing articulated by presuppositonalism fail to take seriously the critiques of knowledge leveled against it by the ‘modernity’, in particular Kant, who insisted that we cannot know from a position outside ourselves, ie objectively. There is no universal perspective, no non-contingent knowledge. This was something taken up by Wittgenstein in the context of language, and the it’s the same basic idea – knowledge is always something had in a particular context (this is Hegelian as well), at a particular time. Knowledge is contingent, not universal, timeless, etc – and these critiques are simply brushed aside. Similar differences can be seen in the disputes between continental and analytic philosophy/metaphysics. Are truths universal (analytic), or contingent/historicist (continental)?

I admire Van Til’s boldness but other than that see very little to be gained, past perhaps an initial ‘shock’ causing one to rethink just exactly how one knows. But this goes back to the modern critiques of knowledge – philosophy of the last 300 years or so has taught us that the ‘foundations of knowledge’ are far less important than were once thought. So to the insistence of the presuppositionalist that one cannot ‘account’ for various items of knowledge, I (along with the rest of the modern world) say, so what? While questions of warrant and justification do have a place in philosophy, they certainly don’t have the dominant place that they did throughout much of the history of philosophy. This makes epistemic methods like presuppositionalism much less powerful/attractive.

I doubt very much that any real analogy can be made between how we know and how God knows, for the very simple reason that God is uncreated, whereas we are created. As all our experience is with the created, we can’t really speculate on the uncreated, especially on something as specific as knowing.

It can be fairly difficult to really talk about postmodernism because it’s not really a school or movement. Most of the time postmodernism means relativism, deconstructionism, Rorty, Derrida, and seems to be more of a reaction to aspects of modernism and analytic philosophy. The major emphases is on things like contingency, non-universal truths, and the collapse of the metanarrative (that’s probably the biggest one). So in the sense that topics like contingency, metanarrative, the denial of absolute, universal categories for truth are important topics, I say it’s a good thing – postmodernism really called into question things like the universal perspective (there is one way that the world is) and brought into sharp relief the dynamic and contingent nature of the world, which is great. But in terms of the more fanciful ideas, like the lack of meaning in the world, nothing outside the text, its all interpretation (and these are fairly rough representations for brevitys sake), postmodernism has really hit a failure of nerve:

‘There is, however, another sort of reaction possible here. If it is painful to live at risk, under the gun, with uncertainty but high stakes, maybe the thing to do is just reduce or reject the stakes. If, for example, there just isn’t any such thing as truth, then clearly one can’t go wrong by believing what is false or failing to believe what is true. If we reject the very idea of truth, we needn’t feel anxious about whether we’ve got it. So the thing to do is dispense with the search for truth and retreat into projects of some other sort: self-creation and self-redefinition as with Nietzsche and Heidegger, or Rortian irony,552 or perhaps playful mockery, as with Derrida.553 So taken, postmodernism is a kind of failure of epistemic nerve.’

And in terms of wider culture, I don’t think pomo has been terribly helpful:

‘Fear of kitsch led to the routinisation of modernism. By posing as a modernist, the artist gives an easily perceivable sign of his authenticity. But the result is cliché of another kind. This is one reason for the emergence of a wholly new artistic enterprise that some call ‘postmodernism’ but which might be better described as ‘pre-emptive kitsch’.

The Protestant Theory of Religion

Let’s define the Protestant Theory of Religion (PTOR) in a broadly Augustinian way: the idea that man by nature worships (perhaps we could call this the Worship Faculty), and if he doesn’t worship God, he worships something else, with worship being (broadly, of course) defined as a fixation upon that which we love ultimately. Examples abound in the Protestant world: one can worship money, fame, power, sex, whatever. Thus, it’s not our activity as such that is wrong but the object of it, or what our desires (on the broadly Augustinian conception, man is primarily an animal of ‘desire’) and faculties are aligned to. There is always something man is worshiping, always that to which man is fixated upon. We can then lay out the PTOR as such:

‘Man is by nature a creature of desire, who worships.’

(note: this fits in with Tillich’s ‘ultimate concern’ as well)

On this theory, it is a universal condition of humanity that they are worshipping creatures, and thus religious creatures – if their religion is not that of God, it is of something else, fame, fortune, etc – but every man has a religion. This, as Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it, is part of the ‘standard Protestant apologetic’. (Art in Action, p. 85). Is it, however, an accurate description of the human condition? Can we paint every man as someone who worships something?

A first difficulty has to do with confirmation of this theory: upon close inspection, it’s a theory which can be confirmed by anything. Search deep enough, and you’ll find something you worship, even if you’re a modern Western secularist. We’re all worshippers. We all fixate upon some ultimate concern.

A second difficulty is anthropological. Wolterstorff points out that, contrary to the PTOR, many people may not have one ultimate concern but many concerns:

‘Is it not rather the case that many live their lives with a multiplicity of conerns, shifting about from time to time, with no one concern ever being ultimate? Such people care a bit for their families, a bit for their material possessions, a bit for country, a bit for personal esteem, and so forth…if some situation would arise forcing them to choose, then one or more of those conflicting concerns would, for the time being at any rate, be subordinated. But for many, no such agonizing, clarifying conflict ever arises. Their life remains a fractured multiplicty concerns.’ (Art in Action, p. 86)

In a nutshell, some people just aren’t ultimately concerned. Some people just may never have an existential crisis. Sure, you could still say that such people are ultimately concerned and just don’t know it, but this seems like a case of trying to convince someone who isn’t sick that not only are they sick, they need your medicine. That’s the peril of existential apologetics – many people simply don’t have dark nights of the soul.

A third difficulty is biblical: is it in fact the biblical teaching that all men are religious in this way? Is this a universal statement made by the biblical writers? Again, Wolterstorff disagrees:

‘The Bible speaks about the true worshippers of the true God, and describes their unity-in-variety. But it never attempts to locate some ineradicable religious tendency which, though it can be turned in different directions, can never be resisted. It never tries to pinpoint some tendency such that what ultimately differentiates the true worshipper of the true God from all other men is that the former turns that universally shared tendency in a different direction than all the others – namely, in the right direction. It never contends that all those who are not true worshippers of the true God nevertheless have a Religion. It simply regards them as falling away in a vast multiplicity of different ways.’ (Art in Action, p. 87)

Wolterstorff then gives a brief exegesis of Romans 1, which for brevity’s sake I will not reproduce here. He concludes, however, that Paul is not teaching that all men have a religious tendency which cannot be resisted but only directed.

This raises some a few questions: If Wolterstorff is right, and I think he (of course) broadly is, what are the implications? Perhaps one implication is that instead thinking of man as primarily a creature of worship (note: man still certainly is a worshiping creature, only not primarily so) perhaps man should be thought of as creature of action. This, of course, is not a novel insight – the Christian idea of vocation has been around for a good long time.

Another question that’s best perhaps phrased in the form of an answer: God is not found at the limit of human life but at the center. This is a huge theme in Bonhoeffer, especially his Ethics and Letters and Papers From Prison. Instead of attempting to identify an existential crisis or God-shaped hole, which may or may not be there or may or may not be viewed as significant, the Christian should simply act in the world. It is in the real world, in the concrete actions of the Christian in the real world, in the center of our existence, not in the deep dark existential moments, where God is. When God is found in the gaps, even deep existential gaps, He disappears when they close.

Some Anti-Imperial Thoughts

The trend of identifying anti-imperial themes, rhetoric and messages in the New Testament is pretty hot right now – post-colonial readings of Scripture as well. I recently got ‘Jesus is Lord, Caeser is Not’, and spent a minute studying up on anti-imperial/post-colonial ideas regarding the New Testament, and here’s a few unsystematic thoughts. I should probably edit this down but I’m too tired.

– The basic thrust of the book? ‘Slow down there, sonny. There’s more to it than that.’ Empire critical/postcolonial studies have done a great deal of good in highlighting the dynamics of society, power, etc in the New Testament. Painting anti-imperialism as the actual main point of the NT, however, is misguided.

– The basic thrust of empire criticism? That saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ entails saying and believing that ‘Caesar is not’. A weakness here lies in the rather obvious fact that such an antithesis is never explicitly made in the NT. While this doesn’t mean that it’s an implicit antithesis, arguing from the implicit to the explicit can be a bit tricky.

– The dynamics of power, government etc are far more fluid than simple antitheses.

– The main culprit here is the imperial cult. There’s a problem here already, though, because to monolith-ize (my new term) something like the imperial cult doesn’t do justice to a movement/pattern of religion/pattern of thought that was actually fairly diverse and dynamic.

– The imperial cult, surprisingly, was more or less a grassroots movement, and not imposed from the top down.

– The deification of the emperor was less strict than one might imagine – deification shouldn’t be imagined to be so much of an ontological status (a man became divine) so much as, with regards to normal people, the emperor was divine, though with regard to the gods, he was still very much a mortal.

– Other aspects of the imperial cult that prevent it from being a monolithic kind of thing: benefaction and patronage, which reflect a real patron/client relationship aspect of ancient Hellenic society.

– There is a real oppositon between Jesus and the powers and principalites, however – but I don’t see it being between Jesus and Rome/Caesar qua Rome/Caeser. Neither is power or power structures – the critiques leveled against Rome in the NT are about rulership, ruler worship and the mode in which the power is exercised.

– Worship is to be offered only to God/Jesus/Holy Spirit – this is a big point in NT critiques of Caeser.

– Instead of an empire built by war, political intruige, with power in the hands of the elite, the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed is seen to be a kingdom in which the way that the world does power is inverted. Peace, love and the the last being first are the order of the day in the Kingdom.

– The contrasts drawn between Jesus and Caeser aren’t, then, so much about how evil Rome is and how Rome is the real topic of the New Testament, but moreso about the overthrow of the present fallen order under which Rome is a servant of the powers and principalities.

– The opposition of Jesus and Caeser must always be seen in terms of the story of Israel, which is more often than not concerned with a contest between YHWH and the pagan gods.

– The narrative of Israel provides an anchoring for the opposition of Jesus to Caeser – consider Romans 1:3, where Paul refers to the Davidic king – and then consider Romans 15:12, where Paul refers to the root of Jesse. The Davidic kingship, one of peace, is set against the powers of the world, which operate by force, corruption, etc.

– Jesus must be seen as the climax of salvation-history, which is a thoroughly Jewish history. This is and must be a first principle.