Last night a band of hearty travelers braved the first snow of the season here in Grand Rapids (and the attendant slick and dangerous roads) to hear Dr. John H. Armstrong speak at the November/December Acton on Tap, “Ecumenism and the Threat of Ideology.” Dr. Armstrong is founder of ACT 3 and adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College.
Armstrong spent some time discussing the thesis of his book, Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. A recurring theme was the phrase coined by Timothy George, “ecumenism in the trenches,” which is sometimes how we describe what we do here at Acton. The basic point of Armstrong’s book is that Christians must be able to come together to work in concrete ways in order to be an effective and faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the culture and the world.
As Peter writes, we are to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV). Undoubtedly this call to live “good lives” means showing love to other people, “especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10 NIV).
Armstrong also discussed the threat that ideology poses to unity in Christ. He defines ideology as “visionary theorizing, or to a systematic body of concepts, especially regarding human culture or life. I have in mind not only a body of systematic concepts but particularly the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program of some type.” This understanding of ideology coheres perfectly with the critique of liberationist ideology in the ecumenical movement in my book, Ecumenical Babel.
The night concluded with a salient quote from Russell Kirk about the dangers of ideology. Kirk writes,
We live in an era when the passions of ideology and the passions of religion become joined in certain zealots. Thus we hear intemperate talk, in many communions and denominations, of Christian revolution. Most of the men and women who use such language undoubtedly mean a bloodless, if abrupt, transformation of social institutions. Yet some of them nowadays, as in past times, would not scruple at a fair amount of bloodletting in their sacred cause. Whether bloodless or bloody, an upheaval justified by the immanentizing of Christian symbols of salvation defies the Beatitudes and devours its children. Soon the Christian ideologues (an insane conjunction) find themselves saddled and ridden by some “great bad man,” a Cromwell at best.
As Armstrong notes, Kirk’s comment about Cromwell displays his ardent Catholicism, but it also stands as a prophetic warning about the dangers of ideology and utopian thinking.
Later on in his essay, “Promises and Perils of Christian Politics,” published in the 1980s, Kirk points explicitly to the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches for places (among many others) where this “insane conjunction” is displayed.
Benedict XVI: Christian Radical
By Samuel Gregg
As the condom-wars ignited by Benedict XVI’s Light of the World abate, some attention might finally be paid to the book’s broader themes and what they indicate about Benedict’s pontificate. In this regard, perhaps the interview’s most revealing aspect is the picture that emerges of Pope Benedict as nothing more and nothing less than a Christian radical.
Those accustomed to cartoon-like depictions of Joseph Ratzinger as a “reactionary” might be surprised by this description. But by “radical,” I don’t mean the type of priest or minister who only wears clerical garb when attending left-wing rallies or publically disputing particular church doctrines.
The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root.” It’s in this sense Benedict is radical. His pontificate is about going back to Christianity’s roots to make, as Benedict says, “visible again the center of Christian life” and then shining that light upon the world so that we might see the truth about ourselves.
At Christianity’s center, Benedict states, is the person of Jesus Christ. But this person, the pope insists, is not whoever we want him to be. Christ is not the self-help guru proclaimed by the charlatans of the Prosperity Gospel. Nor is he the proto-Marxist beloved by devotees of the now-defunct liberation theologies. Still less is Christ a “compassionate, super-intelligent gay man”, as once opined by that noted biblical scholar, Elton John.
According to Benedict, Christ is who Christ says he is: the Son of God. Hence, there is no contradiction between what some call “the Christ of faith” and “the Christ of history.” In Light of the World, Benedict confirms that underscoring this point was why he wrote his best-selling Jesus of Nazareth (2007). “The Jesus in whom we believe,” Benedict claims, “is really also the historical Jesus.” (more…)
On Nov. 18, at the General Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, Gene Edward Veith of Patrick Henry College gave a lecture titled, “Vocation: The Doctrine of Christian Life.” In the lecture, he explains why theological educators can’t fulfill their own vocation until they recover the vocations of those around them. The lecture was sponsored by the Oikonomia Network, a project of the Kern Family Foundation, dedicated to integrating discipleship with everyday life by developing a biblical perspective on work and economics. The event was hosted by Greg Forster, the Foundation’s program director for American history, economics and religion.
Gene Edward Veith is the Provost and Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity and culture.
Kevin J. Jones of the Catholic News Agency interviewed Acton’s Rev. Robert A. Sirico and Dr. Steven Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, to find out how the Tea Party lines up with Catholic Social Teaching. Here’s a snip:
Fr. Sirico described the Tea Party as “an amorphous thing” with a lot of variety and as a “populist, spontaneous movement.” He thought its common themes include a desire for less government and a desire “to limit the power that politicians have over peoples’ lives.”
Participants find motivation in a variety of philosophies. Some have “well-developed Catholic sensibilities” while others’ sensibilities are “almost anarchistic.” He thought it was “remarkable” that the Tea Party could bring so many non-political people into the political process. The Church’s teaching on subsidiarity can meet these people and “augment what they’re doing,” he said, while also guarding against “the more fanatical edges of the tea party.”
Fr. Sirico explained subsidiarity as being the principle that higher levels of society should not intervene in lower levels without “manifest and real necessity,” and such intervention should only be temporary. “Needs are best met at the local level,” he said, calling government “the resource of last resort.”
Read the entire article at “Catholic thinkers examine Tea Party movement and Church teaching” on Catholic Online.
In today’s Acton Commentary I explore “The Legalism of Political Christianity.”
This quote from Ernest Lefever (not included in the piece but which does appear in my book) represents the basic position well:
It is dangerous for any Christian body to identify itself fully with any specific political cause or order, whether the prevailing one or a challenge to it. In identifying with a secular power or agency, the church runs the risk of losing its critical distance and of subverting its prophetic function, its capacity to judge all movements and systems by universal Christian standards.
For more reading of related interest, see the review survey at The Gospel Coalition of three recent books on politics from evangelical publishers.
Last week Jordan Ballor and I offered short addresses to the crowd that gathered for Acton on Tap in Grand Rapids. This is an essay that closely mirrors my comments from the event. It’s a sermon of sorts, and a personal testimonial too.
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Remarks on the “Limit of Politics” for Acton on Tap:
I love elections. Elections produce drama, conflict, and intrigue. It produces statements like this by the former Louisiana governor and federal convict Edwin Edwards: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
When I was in high school and college my biggest dream besides being a Congressman with an office full of young SEC cheerleader interns, was to be a campaign super consultant, just like two heroes of mine Ed Rollins and Lee Atwater. I idolized them through books and television. You should read Bareknuckles and Backrooms by Ed Rollins and the bio of Lee Atwater titled Bad Boy to get some of the behind the scenes ugliness, conflict, and humor of American politics.
Today is Election Day in the United States, and here’s a fitting prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, who hast created us in thine own image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Dr. Paul Oslington, professor of economics at Australian Catholic University, has a piece up today that examines the scope of social encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 and focusing especially on the similarities and differences between John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.
Comparing this tradition with that of ecclesiastical statements from other church traditions, Oslington judges (and I think quite rightly), “On the whole, statements of the Roman Catholic Church since the landmark papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891, have been of higher theological quality than most church statements, and more reticent when dealing with specific economic questions.”
He points especially to the 2004 Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) as a negative example. I make a substantive criticism of the Accra Confession within the broader context of ecumenical social statements of the last decade in my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.
I also point in that book to some of the things that the mainline ecumenical movement can learn from the tradition of Roman Catholic social thought. As Oslington rightly notes, the quality of the encyclical tradition makes it the natural starting point for broader dialogues about the role of faith and theology in relation to economics, politics, and social life. He points to the way in which Benedict’s encyclical has occasioned important discussion from all kinds of quarters, both in the secular media as well as by other Christian traditions.
Oslington is especially hopeful about the work of Benedict XVI, and says, “With these theological resources, there is hope for a much-needed deep theological engagement with economics. It is hard to image a Pope better equipped theologically to undertake this task.”
One of the most important things that Protestant social thought can learn from the encyclical tradition is the importance of the principle of prudence. This is manifested in a bias against making strict policy prescriptions in favor of articulating the broad principles that must be applied in various concrete circumstances.
As Oslington concludes, this is a fundamental element of the social encyclicals, including Benedict’s:
I don’t know what Benedict XVI’s theological engagement with economics will end up looking like. He indicates in the unfinished state of his reflections a call for “further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals” in the light of the “explosion of worldwide interdependence.”
Could this turn out something like the Augustinian theodicy of markets that Anthony Waterman saw in Adam Smith? Waterman argued that just as for Augustine government restrains sin in a fallen world until the time of a final judgment and renewal, so markets restrain the effects of human sin.
Will it include elements of the vision of economic life of early modern Franciscan thinkers favoured by Benedict and some of his advisors such as Stefano Zamagni?
Whatever direction it goes, it will be some kind of theological reframing of economics that orients economic enquiry without detailed prescription on matters of economic theory and policy.
Incidentally, Dr. Oslington was kind enough to endorse my book, and I pass along his comments here in full.
Jordan Ballor has written a useful guide for those wishing to venture into the smelly swamps of ecumenical social and economic thought. Why should non-swamp dwellers care what goes on there? Ballor’s quite reasonable answer is that ecumenical bodies claim to speak on behalf of churches, churches which many of us are part. Whether anyone outside is listening is another question—one which Ballor doesn’t address but which others such as Anthony Waterman have considered—that being less and less so. Ballor’s book is distinguished by considering not just the content of ecumenical statements on economic matters (which have given grief to a long line of professional economists), but also the theological self-understanding of the various bodies when they speak. He asks the deeper question of whether the bodies are adequately constituted to be the (or even a) Christian voice on economic matters, as well as the not irrelevant questions of their actual theological and economic competence. Fundamental questions are raised about the relationship between theological and economic discourse, and the sorts of institutions that support helpful discourse. Christian faith certainly bears on economic matters—the briefest acquaintance with the Scriptures is enough to dispel any doubts. Ballor’s book is part of the movement towards a better discussion of the links in our churches, universities and political forums.
I should note too that some serious work has been done in bringing the various traditions of Protestant and Catholic social thinking into dialogue.
This includes the proceedings of the conference commemorating Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper in the Journal of Markets & Morality. I’m also pleased to announce that in the next issue of the journal we’ll be including an introduction to and translation of Herman Bavinck’s “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” prepared for the Christian Social Congress held in Amsterdam, November 9-12, 1891 (you can subscribe to the journal here).
The Hastert Center at Wheaton College will host a debate tomorrow night between Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, on the question, “Does Capitalism Have a Soul?” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson will moderate.
In framing the debate, Dr. Seth Norton, Hastert Center director, notes in the press release:
“It’s a good chance to compare different visions of capitalism and market economies, and to discuss the role of government in those economies. There is a lot of debate on these issues in secular venues, but this is a chance to hear two people who have a spiritual common denominator address complicated issues related to economic systems, and that’s a rare event.”
The event begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public.