Category: Bible and Theology

Arnold Kling continued last week’s conversation about the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism over at EconLog.

Kling’s analysis is worth reading, and he concludes that the divide between conservatives and libertarians has to do with respect (or lack thereof) for hierarchical authority. Kling does allow for the possibility of a “secular conservative…someone who respects the learning embodied in traditional values and beliefs, without assigning them a divine origin.”

I’m certainly inclined to agree, and I think there are plenty of historical cases of such a “secular” conservatism. The question at issue really is, though, whether there is room for a “religious libertarian.” Kling distinguishes between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives on the basis of their answer to the question of what fuels social progress: movements and leaders, liberty and markets, or religion, respectively.

But it’s not clear to me that any of these options are exclusive. Indeed, one could quite coherently argue that proximate causes of social progress are primarily liberty and markets and that these are means of a common or general sort of divine grace.

The question, then, comes down to whether you think religion and liberty are ultimately and fundamentally opposed. Many secular libertarians suppose that they are. This is a flawed and ultimately untenable position, a development of a particularly closed off and secularized form of Enlightenment rationalism and anthropological arrogance (of course I say this as a Christian believer and as a theologian).

As with so many things, it comes down to a question of first principles. If libertarianism means that any and every human commitment must be subsumed to liberty as an end in itself, then any (other) meaningful religious commitment is excluded.

On the question of respect for authority, we should not be so quick to simply lump all religious adherents, or Christians in particular, into a category that views the state as such as divine. This is a very complicated historiographical and theological question, but the Christian tradition’s ambivalence toward the state is clear. The institution of civil government is most certainly a divine ordinance. This does not amount to a gross or crass blessing of a “divine right of kings” that allows for unlimited or unrestrained use of coercive force in the pursuit of any arbitrary agenda.

Kling’s claim that “the state historically derives from gangs of thugs demanding protection money from settled farmers and herders,” even if taken as true, does not rule out a divine origin. We are talking about two completely different levels of causality, in a way analogous to my previously noted relation of divine grace to liberty and markets. One need not rule out the other. God works through means.

And as I’ve noted previously, we have to take into account a standard of justice or equity, which whether communicated through the natural law or the Ten Commandments restricts legitimate civil authority (see the claim regarding OT Israel as a constitutional monarchy).

Augustine himself writes,

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies.”)

Kling’s claim regarding the historical origin of governments and Augustine’s description don’t seem that far off from each other. At least in Augustine’s case, he certainly didn’t think that such an account was any evidence against the existence of God or the legitimacy of just civil government.

drdog-2In August, the Wall Street Journal Europe published an article exploring the difference in health care received by domesticated animals and humans. (see “Man Vs. Mutt: Who Gets the Better Treatment?” in WSJ Europe, August 8, 2009) The editorialist, Theodore Dalrymple (pen name for outspoken British physician and NHS critic, Dr. Anthony Daniels) argued that dogs and other human pets in his country receive much better routine and critical healthcare than humans: their treatment is “much more pleasant than British humans have to endure.”

Dalrymple outlines just why this is so: pets in the U.K. actually have it better than their owners since: a) they receive immediate treatment with no waitlists or postponed operations “(and) not because hamsters come first”; b) there is no fear that somehow they are being denied the proper treatment for economic reasons: there is “no tension, no feeling that one more patient will bring the whole system to collapse…; (no one is) terrified that someone is getting more out of the system than they.”; and c) pets in veterinary facilities have more options and flexibility for choosing a healthcare practitioner: “if you don’t like him, you can pick up your leash and go elsewhere.”

British humans, on the other hand, have to deal with navigating the rapids and swells of NHS bureaucracy, which requires the skills of a “white-water canoeist”. They must also endure interminable wait-times for prostheses and life-improving operations. Often they receive sub-standard administrative services, nursing assistance and meal provisions.

As President Obama continues to promote a Europeanization of the American healthcare model, the WSJ Europe editorialist beckons us to listen to such howling in the twilight of the Old Continent’s rapidly aging nationalized healthcare systems. Part of this howling is caused in the less dignified forms of public health services and treatment of human patients. Yet, there is plenty of loud barking over the mismanagement and abuse within nationalized healthcare across Western Europe, particularly in terms of mishandling budgets and sources of revenue. (more…)

Last week Rick Warren’s church hosted the fourth Saddleback Civil Forum. This time the forum focused on reconciliation, particularly on the roles of the church and the government in promoting and fostering reconciliation after crime and conflict.

The forum included special guests Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and Miroslav Volf, a prominent theologian and native of Croatia.

One of the things that typically happens in the course of tyranny and genocide is that the church’s social witness is either sidelined and marginalized or simply subsumed under governmental control. President Kagame said that during the Rwandan genocide, the government and the church “were almost one and the same.” This severely hampered the church’s ability to act as a critical and mediating institution between the government and its individual citizens.

We featured the book, As We Forgive, on a past series of posts here on the PowerBlog when we asked, “What social conditions promote reconciliation?” This book is a powerful exploration of concrete cases of restorative justice at work in Rwanda after the genocide.

In a guest post on the PowerBlog, author Catherine Claire Larson described the essential role that economic institutions play in reconciliation. In describing ministries that work to promote micro-finance, Larson writes that “by creating economic opportunities where interdependence is vital, they are really creating ideal environments for reconciliation and restoration.”

The inspiration for Larson’s book, a documentary film of the same name, premiered on PBS earlier this year.

I also explored different Christian views of the government’s role in promoting restorative justice in a law review essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF).

That the government has some positive role to play in promoting restorative justice rings true in a number of concrete cases. Of course the state must respect the vital role that other institutions, like the church, must play. But sometimes punishment can be a means toward restoration.

Chef Jeff, a prominent personality on the Food Network, was in Grand Rapids earlier this year to discuss how his time in prison gave him the opportunity to reflect on his life and make positive changes to promote social well-being.

“In prison, it was the first time in my life I ever read a book. The first time in my life that someone told me that I was smart. The first time someone told me I had potential,” he said.

As Chef Jeff puts it, “Prison saved my life.”

Blog author: rnothstine
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
By

Rev. Robert Sirico delivered a sermon titled “Whistling Past the Graveyard” at Mars Hill mega-church in Grand Rapids, Mich on September 20. You can listen to his sermon in its entirety by clicking on the sermon title above. Mars Hill was founded by Rob Bell in 1999.

Rev. Sirico addressed Christology, mortality, atonement theology, and the problem of evil. In his remarks Rev. Sirico declared:

And the vision of that hill, there on Golgotha’s bloody mount, is the answer to the riddle of human existence. There in the crucified Christ, we see one who not only suffers for us…but he suffers with us. He enters our grief, our solitude, our pain. And because the one who is suffering so is innocent, he has the capacity to subsume into himself, into his divine person, all of humanity’s suffering, all the history of limitation and death.

In a column in this past Saturday’s religion section, Charles Honey reflects on the second great love commandment in the context of the national health care debate.

Honey’s piece starts out on a very strong note, detailing the perspective of Dr. John Vander Kolk, director of a local non-profit initiative focused on the uninsured:

“Where would we see Jesus in our culture?” asks the member of Ada Bible Church. “He would be down there with his sleeves rolled up, helping the people that don’t have any access (to health care). That’s what we’re being called to do.”

An editorial published this month by George Barna takes a similar point of departure.

In short, Jesus Christ showed us that anyone who follows Him is expected to address the most pressing needs of others. You can describe Jesus’ health care strategy in four words: whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever. Whoever needed to be healed received His healing touch. Whatever affliction they suffered from, He addressed it. Whenever the opportunity to heal arose, He seized it. Wherever they happened to be, He took care of it.

But it is after this shared perspective that the respective pieces on health care and the Christian faith part ways.

Honey’s piece continues to argue, in the vein of the Forty Days for Health Reform, that the gospel imperative is best met through government action. “For many, it’s about treating others as you would want to be treated — seeing to it that they get the decent medical care you and I would expect. It’s just not that complicated.”

Barna, however, ends on a note of personal challenge. He writes,

Government clearly has a role in people’s lives; the Bible supports its existence and circumscribed functions. It is unfortunate that when God’s people, collectively known as the Church, fail to exhibit the compassion and service that He has called us to provide, we are comfortable with the government acting as a national safety net. In a society that has become increasingly self-centered and self-indulgent, we simply expand our reliance upon the government to provide solutions and services that are the responsibility of Christ followers. Some Christians have heeded the call, as evidenced by the medical clinics, pregnancy centers and even hospitals across the nation that were initiated and funded by small numbers of dedicated believers who grasped this responsibility. Imagine what an impact the Church would have on society if it truly reflected the model Jesus gave us of how to care for one another!

This echoes the words of Abraham Kuyper, who in an address on the social question of poverty, wrote, “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honour of your Saviour.”

Blog author: hunter.baker
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
By

Well, at least the book is, anyway. The End of Secularism is now in stock at Acton.org and should be available in stores, too. Help me, faithful readers.

I don’t think I’ll disappoint you. Francis Beckwith, David Dockery, Russell Moore, Father Robert Sirico, Herb London, Jennifer Morse Roback, and Glenn Stanton all liked it. I hope you will, too.

Did you get the best part, by the way? FATHER ROBERT SIRICO. Here is his take on the book:

The task of discerning the alternative to practical atheism lived by many nominal Christians and the pretense of a neutral secularism has been made easier by this rich study. Once authentic Christians grasp the ramifications of the incarnation of Christ, then and only then will it be apparent that, as Baker argues, secularism only makes sense in relation to religion.

In what deserves to be considered a modern classic, Lester DeKoster writes on the relationship between work and stewardship. These reflections from God’s Yardstick ought to be remembered this Labor Day:

The basic form of stewardship is daily work. No matter what that work may be. No matter if you have never before looked upon your job as other than a drudge, a bore, a fearful trial. Know that the harder it is for you to face each working day, the more you will to persevere schools the soul.

Here is a sense of work as soul-forming that anticipates the contemporary Shop Class as Soulcraft discussion.

But beyond the formation of the individual worker’s soul, the order of work has consequences for the larger society.

Work knits the fabric of civilization. We take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.

Those record numbers of people who are unemployed on this Labor Day in 2009 certainly need no reminders about the blessings that work offer.

DeKoster also provides needed perspective about what we can and cannot accomplish in this life, and how what we do has eternal consequences.

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, September 3, 2009
By

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the talk of health care as a ‘right’ is so vague as to border on willful and culpable obfuscation. I certainly advocate a rich and complex description of ‘rights’ talk, such that simply calling something a ‘right’ doesn’t end the ethical or political discussion. Some ‘rights’ are more fundamental and basic than others, and various ‘rights’ require things of various actors.

But when it is asserted that access to health care is a ‘right,’ what precisely is the claim? Is it analogous to the claim that access to food and water, too, are rights? Very often these rights are equated in contemporary discussions: food and water, shelter, and health care.

One the one hand, however, it’s very odd to assert that health care, at least as practiced in its modern form (with X-ray machines and flu shots) is a right, at least in the sense that it is something that the human person qua person has a claim upon. If that’s the case, then all those millions of people who lived before the advent of the CAT scan were all the while having their rights ‘denied’ them (whether by God, fate, cosmic chance, or oppressive regimes bent upon keeping us from advancing medical technologies). It would also follow that all of those living today without access to these advanced technologies, simply by basis of their geographical and cultural location, are having their rights similarly denied. (This raises the troubling implication, not to be explored in any detail here, that the debate about health care in the industrial and post-industrial West amounts to a series of tantrums by the coddled and privileged about the requisite level of health care, which by any standard already dwarfs what is available to the global poor, who do not have access to what has the best claim upon ‘rights’ talk, even the most basic health care services.)

This raises the further question, if it be granted that health care is in some sense a right (which I am not opposed to granting), “What precisely does that right entail?” Clearly we can’t mean, in the context of the history of humankind, that this is a right to arthroscopic surgery or titanium hip replacement. That would be a bit like saying my right to food means that I have a claim to eating filet mignon. Just because someone else can afford to eat filet mignon doesn’t mean that my right to not starve gives me a similar claim upon filet mignon.

Similarly, just because some people can afford the greatest medical care available in the history of humankind (whether by the providence of God, fate, or cosmic chance), it doesn’t follow that I have a right to health care in that particular form. My basic claim to health care merely on the basis of my humanity is something more like the right to ramen noodles than it is to filet mignon.

This only describes what I am due by rights. It’s the least that’s required by the standards of justice.

And what might love require? “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
By

Ron Sider: “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

Jim Wallis: “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”

I recently finished How to Argue Like Jesus (Crossway, 2009) by Joe Carter (The Evangelical Outpost, First Thoughts) and John Coleman. I would have loved to have had this book to assign during the 13 years I taught college composition and rhetoric. So many of my fellow evangelicals think rhetoric is a dirty word, as in “That’s just a bunch of rhetoric.” But as this primer makes clear, Jesus was a master of rhetoric, a master of principled persuasion.

Happily, How to Argue Like Jesus doesn’t act as if Jesus created a completely new rhetoric during his earthly ministry. Aristotelian categories serve as the basis for the first three chapters: Pathos, Logos, and Ethos. And in two other chapters, the comp/lit teacher will encounter many of the usual suspects found in standard overviews of poetic and stylistic devices (metaphor, simile, parallelism, chiasmus, etc.).

Chapter 5 focuses on the persuasive power of what Edmund Burke referred to as “little platoons.” Chaper 6 is a helpful summary chapter. And the final chapter provides three case studies, two taken from a Hollywood movie and one from a notable political speech from the 1960s.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the book. The brief discussion of Jesus’s use of parables is generally solid, but Jesus stated explicitly that he used parables, at least in part, to block understanding in some of his listeners. I would have liked to have seen the book explore this curious feature of Jesus’s rhetorical strategy more adequately.

Also, while the book’s writing style is generally solid and engaging (as one would expect from the creator and sustainer of The Evangelical Outpost), can we declare a global evangelical ban on the adjective “impactful” and “impact” used as a transitive verb? Mercifully, the terms aren’t a common fixture of the book, but it does crop up in a few places, and it doesn’t impact me. No, it hurts me. It moves me to tears.

Thus, I urge my fellow evangelicals everywhere to stop talking about “impactful” things that “really impacted” us. And while we’re at it, let’s declare a global evangelical ban on the cancerous overuse of “just” in the sense of “simply.” I mean, when you’re praying, just reach down into your bag of prayer words and just yank it out of there. Just do it. Carter and Coleman didn’t let it infect their book. If they can do it, so can we.

But I digress. How to Argue Like Jesus serves as a highly effective primer on rhetoric. By taking readers on a lively journey through the many persuasive techniques Jesus used in his earthly ministry, the book promises to hold the attention of young evangelicals more effectively than a typical comp/rhetoric textbook. I can enthusiastically recommend it for both Christian high school English classes and as supplementary text in college composition and rhetoric classes. I know we intend to assign it to our homeschoolers in the Witt household.