In a recent interview with Peter Enns, author and theologian N.T. Wright notes that in America, “the spectrum of liberal conservative theology tends often to sit rather closely with the spectrum of left and right in politics,” whereas, in other places, this is not quite the case:
In England, you will find that people who are very conservative theologically by what we normally mean conservative in other words, believing in Jesus, believing in his death and resurrection, believing in the trinity are often the ones who are in the forefront of passionate and compassionate social concern of a sort which if were you to transport it to America would say, oh, that’s a bit left wing.
I think what I want to do is to uncouple some of the connections which people have routinely made, particularly in America, and to say actually the whole idea of a spectrum, whether it’s theological or political, is probably very misleading because there are all sorts of insights that we need. We need to get them from bits of the Bible we don’t normally expect and perhaps from people in bits of the church we don’t normally expect.
Such liberal/conservative match-ups certainly exist, and tend to differ regionally as Wright indicates. But I’m not so sure the mere existence of such differences provides all that special of an occasion for “uncoupling” one’s connections. Though I can appreciate certain aspects of Wright’s various attempts to prod us outside of claustrophobic spectrum-think, he’d do well to stretch his own legs while he’s at it.
I, for one, have read far too many of Wright’s books and lectures, absorbing striking insights and compelling exegesis, only to find out by chapter 4 or 5 that all of his enriching talk of “putting the world to rights” crumbles apart in basic application. But alas, where I come from, being “in the forefront of passionate and compassionate social concern” is, well, a bit right wing.
We should certainly stay wary of boxing in our theology according to some idol of political conformity, but at a certain point in the naval-gazing process, one man’s narrow-minded “spectrum” is really just another man’s sensible symmetry.
Echoing sentiments expressed in R.J. Moeller’s recent Acton Commentary, Douglas Wilson offers a sharp critique of Wright’s response, pointing out that “many who claim to love Jesus with their theology hate the poor with their economics,” and we’d do well to figure out what the latter actually looks like. This will not come from designating the “passionate and compassionate” to Progressive Ideology X and pretending that such an assumption is ho-hum, even from the perspective of the opposition. “The gospel is not some airy fairy thing that fails to apply to how people have to live out their actual lives,” Wilson writes. “When Jesus taught us to feed the poor, instead of turning their place of habitation into a desolation, this necessarily excludes every form of Keynesianism.”
Or: application matters.
For Wilson, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll end up with the following options, and the quicker we come clean about it, the better:
We might conclude, for example, that Jesus doesn’t care what our economic policies are, so long as we love Him. Or we might decide that those who are conservative in their economics need to quit it, and become progressive, because that’s what Jesus wants. Or we might go the other way, and say that the progressives ought to become conservatives, also in the name of Jesus. The correct answer, boys and girls, is the last one.For Wilson, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll end up with the following options, and the quicker we come clean about it, the better:
The first one is out because we are told to seek the good of the city where we dwell (Jer. 29:7). We are instructed to do good to all men (1 Thess. 5:15). Apathy and indifference are therefore out. The second option is excluded for the same reason, only more so. If we are told to do good to all men, not only does it exclude leaving them alone in their misery, it also excludes doing bad things to them, creating misery for them. Keynesianism destroys jobs, wages, families, neighborhoods, education, opportunity, and more. How is it seeking the good of the city to saddle them with sub-standard schools? How is it seeking the good of the city to start subsidizing waste, fraud and abuse? All such meddling is economic stupidity, and God did not tell His people to fan out over the globe, doing stupid things to people.
Wright says he’s out to “uncouple some of the connections” that certain folks, “particularly in America,” have tended to make when it comes to matching up this theology with that ideology. And yes, where the puzzle pieces are forced together and peeling at the edges, I say, “decouple away.” But let’s not pretend that certain things can’t be abundantly clear, and that those same things might just maybe result in one of the various spectrum mash-ups we see before us — particularly, I might say, in America.
However we decide to label the connecting of those dots — spectrum or symmetry — some things don’t budge, and shouldn’t, because they’re nice and snug in all the right ways.
Wilson concludes by calling for an open and direct debate on these disagreements, asking, “Does the gospel of Christ, in setting men free, bring in free markets or not?”
Now that, my spectrum-seeking friends, is an opportunity for coupling.