Posts tagged with: Religion & Liberty

Tom Oden


In the forthcoming Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Thomas C. Oden. The interview mainly focuses on the importance and wisdom of the Church Fathers and their deep relevancy for today’s Church and culture. The content below however delves into Marxist liberation theology and the direction of Oden’s own denomination, The United Methodist Church. Some of the below portion will be available only for readers of the PowerBlog.

I’d like to add a short personal note about Tom Oden as well. His work and writings have been an immense blessing in my own life. His research was vital to my own spiritual formation in seminary and beyond. I have many friends and colleagues who would testify to the same. I still read his three-volume systematic theology as a devotion. It was a pleasure to spend time with him during this interview and his pastoral heart is every bit as big as his heart for scholarship.

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Thomas C. Oden is a retired theology professor at The Theological School of Drew University in Madison, N.J. He is the author of numerous theological works, including the three-volume systematic theology The Word of Life, Life in the Spirit, and The Living God. Currently he is director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pa. He is the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series. He recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.

Obviously Marxist theology peaked in the 70s and 80s, to a large degree. Is liberation theology as a Marxist construct on the decline? And if so why?

Marxist praxis has been since the Gulag’s of Stalin, the Great Leap of Mao, and the poor economy and police state of Cuba. By the Berlin Wall it was intellectually caput. But theologians were late in recognizing its vulnerabilities. That is because they were far too indebted to the basic moral assumptions of modern consciousness: hedonic narcissism, absolute relativism, and naturalistic reductionism. The rapid decline of Marxist solutions was not recognized by many of its advocates, especially those in the knowledge class.

There are a number of different kinds of liberation theology, so if you’re asking about feminist liberation theology or black liberation theology, or more in a global sense of the liberation of colonized nations from Colonialism, those are all different questions.

I have a personal history of being slow to give up those illusions, but not as slow as many of my theological colleagues, still stuck in a pseudo-revolutionary dream. I was very deep into the socialist imagination until about forty years ago. I read a lot of Marx for 20 years before unmerited grace changed the direction of my life.

The Marxist vision of history is a deterministic one, an economic determinism that imagines it knows how history is going to turn out. It proved to be a very dangerous imagination. For Christians, the unfolding of universal history is guided by providence, but not so as to deny human choice. For a Marxist, that unfolding is due to an economic determinism which pits class against class. What you are trying to do in Marxism is raise the consciousness of the proletariat, in order that they will rebel against their oppressors. That basic model is easily seen analogously in most forms of liberation theology.

What I had to go through is a disillusionment of my Marxism. How did that happen? It happened by the recognition of the immense injustices created by Marxism. I’m talking about millions of people killed in Cambodia, one fourth of the population— a Marxist vision inspired in expatriate pseudo-intellectual salons in Paris.

When you actually look at the social consequences of Marxism, it is extremely hard to defend them. I found it harder and harder to defend them. The Marxist view of history is on the decline because it’s a historical failure. There are a few little pockets where it still pretends to be the future, as in Venezuela, which is mimicking Cuba. But look at Cuba. Cuba has already decided that communism doesn’t work after how many years now? Sixty sad ones. The Cubans are trying. They’re trying very hard, actually, to get their economy out of the box of a state operated system.

You are a United Methodist and have been a lifelong Methodist scholar. What do you think about the future of the United Methodist Church? I think a lot of conservative evangelicals hear negative things about the denomination as it relates to theological liberalism. But what are some positive aspects?

Many aspects are far from depressing. The liberal Protestants still have the Scriptures, their hymnody largely intact, and their confessional standards, which in my tradition are the 25 Articles of Religion and Wesley’s Standard Sermons. We still have our doctrinal standards. They are a part of our constitution. They cannot easily be tampered with.

There is obviously an awful lot wrong with our present liberal bureaucratic form of governance. Our question is really: What is there to be learned from this? I’m now working on a four volume work on John Wesley. I think the key answer is Wesley himself. Liberal churchmanship is like being a Lutheran and not having read Luther, or being a Reformed Evangelical and not having bothered to read Calvin. We have a lot of Methodists that haven’t even touched the great wisdom of Wesley. Now let’s tie in Wesley with the patristic tradition. Wesley happened to be at Oxford at a time when there was a great patristic revival going on. That means that these early Christian writings were being avidly read in Lincoln College at Oxford in their original languages. Wesley could easily read Clement of Alexandria in Greek, or Cyprian or Augustine in Latin. He brought all this wisdom with him to the evangelical revival of the 18th-century. He published a lay person’s version of the Ante-Nicene writers.

I think that most of the Methodist tradition and the Anglican tradition from which it came, and as well, I believe, the Presbyterian and Lutheran traditions, are all experiencing the same kind of amnesia toward their own roots. In each of those cases, as in the case of Luther and Calvin and Wesley, all of these were far more grounded in the ancient Eastern and Western traditions of orthodoxy than in the contemporary church. So I want to see Methodists read Wesley. I also want to see them read the ancient Christian writers.

The core of the dilemma of liberal Protestant ecclesiology lies in our clergy and the seminaries that spawned them. The laity, on the whole has remained loyal to the faith once delivered to the saints. They come and sing the hymns of the church and they listen, sometimes to bad sermons, sometimes to good sermons. But the laity’s faith hasn’t really changed. It’s the clergy’s faith that has grown weak, and after fifty years of living within the liberal seminary ethos, I charge that largely to the confusions that have occurred in the seminaries. More specifically the responsibility has been flubbed by the trustees of seminaries. The original benefactors of the seminaries would be shocked. Donor accountability is lacking. The bishops have defaulted on their major task of being the guardians of Christian doctrine. The doctrine they agreed to uphold in their ordination vows. They have created a problem that will take a long time to correct.

We do have already within the United Methodist Church, a lot of very active, significant movements giving resistance to the “church of what’s happening now.” I’m thinking of the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church that began in 1993 and now has over 600,000 correspondents. It’s not something either the bishops or seminaries can ignore.

In a follow up to Jordan Ballor’s commentary last week, “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church,” here is a related excerpt from Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the rise of Evangelical Conservatism. I will review the new book published by Norton in the next issue of Religion & Liberty and for the PowerBlog. The excerpt from Dochuk’s book is an excellent reflection of not just how the local church can fulfill their Gospel mandate to help the poor, but also empower and build the community:

The sense of community the Allens found in this congregation was deeper than anything found in Dodson. Theirs was not an uncommon experience. During the last stages of the Depression, southern evangelicals relied heavily on their churches for support of all kind. After moving from Oklahoma to Compton in the 1930s, Melvin Shahan, for instance, saw his parents falling into debt, even with his own weekly ten-dollar paycheck from Goodyear helping out. In response, the Shahans’ church organized a “pounding,” a ritual that saw congregants stock the pantry of a needy and unsuspecting friend with canned goods, preserves, and smoked meat. Melvin would later recall that such acts of kindness were facilitated in part because his neighbors lived so nearby, something he did not experience in Oklahama:

‘So many people there are at Guymon [Oklahoma] came from neighboring farmhouses out around town. When they came into town for the services, it was farther for them to drive than it was here [Compton] where people lived right in the immediate area of their church.’

For the Shahan family, the intimacy of the country church often idealized by those from the South was a reality not enjoyed until after arriving in Southern California. The same applied for the Allens. When wartime conditions sent fathers to the front and mothers to work, the congregants of Southern Missionary leaned especially hard on each other. Since women constituted a majority of church membership during these years, the onus for community fell on them. Churchwomen not only organized drives to increase Sunday attendance but also made sure that neighborhood families were provide with child care, transportation, and, when needed, financial support. For Marie Allen, whose family livelihood depended on her full-time work at a local defense plant, such neighborly assistance proved financially critical. More importantly, it strengthened the bonds of Christian sisterhood and her ties to the church family. (p.21)

Over the years Religion & Liberty has compiled a lot of interview gems and first class content for our readers. The new issue, now available online, highlights some of that content, with new material as well. This double issue is an Acton 20th Anniversary tribute with an interview with John Armstrong as well as a collection from some of our best interviews. Regarding the compiled collection, the responses selected represent a range of timeless truths of the Gospel, the importance of human liberty, and the importance of religion and moral formation in society.

There are three book reviews in the issue. Bruce Edward Walker has written a review of Literature & the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture. Jordan Ballor reviews Carl Trueman’s Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative. A main theme from Trueman’s book is that “The gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing.” Ballor offers up a clear concise analysis of Trueman’s arguments. I reviewed Richard Reinsch’s book Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary. The book was an excellent reminder that there must be more to conservatism than just free-markets and limited government. And in the review I noted:

Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is, at its core, within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.

Among the content from our archives to celebrate our anniversary is a piece about Lord Acton by James C. Holland. No Acton anniversary would be complete without something pertaining to Lord Acton. The other article from the archives “Views of Wealth in the Bible and Ancient World” by Scott Rae was originally published in the 2002 November and December issue of Religion & Liberty.

The issue also features an excerpt from Work: The Meaning of Your Life – A Christian Perspective by Lester DeKoster. The book has been newly made available in the second edition by Christian’s Library Press.

There is more content in the issue, so check out all the articles and content online. The biggest challenge on this anniversary project was making decisions about what was going to be included in the issue. Still, there was a lot of great material that had to be excluded only because of space. Thank you for reading, and you can always read and search all of our issues here. Stay tuned for future issues of Religion & Liberty in 2011. We will be kicking off the first two issues with new interviews of two very well known and influential theologians and Church thinkers.

Religion & Liberty’s issue featuring an interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn scholar Edward E. Ericson Jr. is now available online. Acton also published Solzhenitsyn & the Modern World by Ericson in 1994. It was a joy to have Ericson sit down with us in the Acton office to talk about Solzhenitsyn, his work, his life, and his legacy.

The issue also includes an excellent essay on the federalist and anti-federalist debate by Dr. John Pinheiro, a historian at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. Pinheiro points out in the piece that the anti-federalists are important for understanding the balance between liberty and order in our Republic. He also adds that the anti-federalists are essential reading “if Americans hope to restore a sane balance between state and federal power.”

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shearlThe new issue of Religion & Liberty, featuring an interview with Nina Shea, is now available online. A February preview of Shea’s interview, which was an exclusive for PowerBlog readers, can be found here.

Shea pays tribute to the ten year collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, which began in the fall of 1989. The entire issue is dedicated to those who toiled for freedom. Shea is able to make the connection between important events and times in the Cold War with what is happening today in regards to religious persecution. Her passion on these issues is unmatched. Her experience and expertise on issues of religious persecution definitely shine through in this interview. I encourage readers to pay attention to her work.

Mark Tooley offers the feature piece for this issue, “Not Celebrating Communism’s Collapse.” It is an excellent look back at the religious left and their grave misjudgments about the true danger of Marxist dictatorships. Tooley declares, “Communism’s collapse did further discredit the Religious Left, and the political witness of mainline Protestantism and ecumenical groups like the WCC and NCC has arguably, and thankfully, never quite recovered from the events of 1989-1990.” Tooley is president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

In this issue I offer a review of Steven P. Miller’s Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, which appeared first on the PowerBlog.

“Repressions” is a series of voices that speak to the danger of an ideology that reduces man to merely a material creature, while violently squelching the spiritual. Because of the danger of an all controlling state, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution considered religious liberty the “first freedom,” the foundational freedom upon which others are built. They understood that religious freedom is the hallmark to a truly free and virtuous society, and is also meant to act as an important wall from encroachment by the state into our lives.

The issue also pays tribute to a well known figure, especially among evangelical Christians, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). Scaheffer, who spoke out against the godless totalitarian state also powerfully reminds us: “I believe that pluralistic secularism, in the long run, is a more deadly poison than straightforward persecution.”

Power Line has a post over at its site titled “Why Don’t Christians Care?” Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit also linked to the post today. Powerline’s question refers to the lack of concern from the “mainstream” Christian community on Christians being massacred by Muslims in the Middle East and Africa. It’s a great question to ask.

Just for the record, we want to remind people that the Acton Institute cares. Last month I wrote a piece that received a lot of attention on the plight of Egypt’s Coptic Christians. It’s also an issue we heavily address in the next issue of Religion & Liberty, which features an interview with Nina Shea. Shea talks about many pressing issues concerning global Christian persecution. An exclusive preview of the interview is currently available on the PowerBlog. Christianity Today referred to Shea as the “Daniel of Religious Rights.”

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Friday, February 26, 2010
Nina Shea

Nina Shea

In the next issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Nina Shea. The issue focuses on religious persecution with special attention on the ten year anniversary of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. A feature article for this issue written by Mark Tooley is also forthcoming. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington D.C. In regards to Shea, the portion of the interview below is exclusively for readers of the Powerblog. In this portion of the interview Shea discusses Egyptian Copts, Sudan, President Barack Obama’s record on religious freedom and Iranian dissidents. Below is a short bio of Shea:

Nina Shea has served as an international human-rights lawyer for over twenty years. She joined the Hudson Institute as a senior fellow in November 2006, where she directs the Center for Religious Freedom. For the ten years prior to joining Hudson, She worked at Freedom House, where she directed the Center for Religious Freedom, which she had founded in 1986.

Since 1999, Shea has served as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency. She has been appointed as a U.S. delegate to the United Nation’s main human rights body by both Republican and Democratic administrations. She recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.
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Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Monday, November 23, 2009

shirley-reaganPresident Ronald Reagan was far from the common Republican. If anything he was the exception to the rule in a party dominated by moderates and pragmatists. It’s one of the overarching themes of Craig Shirley’s new and epic account Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. The book follows Shirley’s masterpiece Reagan’s Revolution, a study of Reagan’s 1976 insurgent candidacy against President Gerald Ford.

Shirley is exceptional at taking the reader back into the time period rather than reading back into the history from today’s vantage point. The account chronicles Reagan’s run against the Republican primary field and President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Today many think Reagan’s victory over the Republican field and his general election landslide over Carter were inevitable and Shirley is superb at recalling all the forces lined up against Reagan during this time. Since Carter could hardly run on a positive record his campaign strategy was to “scare the hell out of them with Ronald Reagan.”

Echoing a topic addressed by Hunter Baker in the pages of Religion & Liberty, Shirley discusses Reagan’s broader appeal:

He proposed a fusion between those mercantile and economic interests long associated with the GOP, who were mostly concerned with government regulations, and social conservatives, who believed the fabric of society was also threatened by big, intrusive government.

One of the areas where Reagan was transcending politics was his appeal among Democrats. In many open primaries he had strong crossover support from Democrats that helped him carry states. “As for Reagan, the [Washington] Post discovered an astonishing fact: the Gipper’s commercials were more popular with Democrats than they were with Republicans,” Shirley writes. The book also notes how many in the new right and followers of Reagan were making a visible break with big business. “Big business has become the handmaiden of big government,” said Congressman Jack Kemp. Shirley elaborates further on his appeal:

Reagan spoke to these urban, ethnic Democrats in a way no other politician had since JFK. He talked about community, responsibility, privacy, patriotism, the evils of Communism, and their children’s future. Although Reagan was Protestant, his father had been Roman Catholic and he had inculcated in his young son a parish perspective. As an adult campaigner, the Gipper still preferred the pronouns ‘us’ and ‘we’ over ‘me’ and ‘I,’ and these voters loved him for it. He made them feel good about themselves and, by extension, America. ‘Reagan has a personal following all his own,’ noted Time magazine.

Of course one of the biggest jabs against Reagan was that he wasn’t intellectual and was often referred to as a “simpleton” or merely a performer. Clark Clifford famously called him an “amiable dunce.” Shirley recalls many of the attacks on his intellectualism from the media and opponents. He also delves into the manner in which Reagan was so successful at popularizing conservative principles. The author captures the great wit and lines of Reagan from the campaign trail as well as some embarrassing gaffes.

Some who lived in this period may not remember just how hard George H.W. Bush fought Reagan for the nomination. He ended up lasting through many of the primaries and had many supporters in the party who were terrified of Reagan, but loved Bush too. Bush had a lot of support from GOP moderates. He capitalized on some of Reagan’s early mistakes and the author discusses how Bush and other candidates used the age issue against Reagan. Bush of course famously attacked Reagan’s tax plan dubbing it “vodoo economics.” The two absolutely did not like each other, and privately Reagan called Bush “a wimp.” Tough words from a man who was known for his graciousness. Of course after Bush was chosen as Reagan’s running mate a lifelong and genuine friendship would emerge, so much so that the 41st president would eulogize his former boss saying with a cracking voice, “As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life. I learned kindness; we all did. I also learned courage; the nation did.”

In the general election campaign of 1980 Reagan hit Carter hard on the economy. He delivered this memorable line in front of the Statue of Liberty:

Let it show on the record that when the American people cried out for economic help, Jimmy Carter took refuge behind a dictionary. Well, if it’s a definition he wants, I’ll give him one. A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his!

The crowd was largely an ethnic blue collar constituency and at the end of his speech when Reagan embraced Stanislaw Walesa, the father of Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, the crowd went wild.

Another focus of Shirley’s is just how nasty the Carter campaign was at attacking Reagan. Carter said Reagan would bring about the “alienation of black from white, Christian from Jew, rich from poor, and North from South.” He continually predicted that a Reagan presidency would bring the country to a nuclear precipice. The author also notes that Carter’s campaign approached Ted Kennedy after he defeated him in the primaries, asking Kennedy to attack Reagan as anti-Catholic. Kennedy refused the request.

There are some very moving quotes by Reagan in Shirley’s book about the connection between God and the free society in America. Reagan said world peace was “jeopardized by those who view man not as a noble being, but as an accident of nature, without soul, and important only to the extent he can serve an all powerful state.” He brought to the forefront the importance of America’s spiritual commitment and made deep moral contrasts with Soviet totalitarianism.

This is a lengthy book that is well over 600 pages. It is wonderfully researched and is a treasure trove of information from the 1980 campaign. It is incredibly moving too. However Shirley is also responsible by covering many of Reagan’s weaknesses and how at times it almost cost him the presidency. There are numerous new books about Ronald Reagan, and while many don’t offer a lot of new information, this one does.

The epilogue is very emotional in that the author discusses the Reagan legacy and examines all the political forces who try to claim the Reagan mantle. Inspiring words about Reagan from Alexander Solzhenitsyn can be found in the pages of the epilogue. A friend of the Acton Institute, former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar said simply, “Without this man, I would be somewhere in Siberia in chains.” Included also is a gracious quote from Reagan’s most ardent opponent in the Senate not just on domestic policy, but foreign policy as well. Ted Kennedy called Reagan at his death, “the president who won the Cold War,” and added, “His deepest convictions were matters of heart and mind and spirit – and on them, he was no actor at all.”

shales-rl1The new issue of Religion & Liberty features an interview titled “Debating the Depression” with noted columnist and author Amity Shlaes. Shlaes does a superb job at reminding us about some of the consequences associated with massive government spending and regulation. First and foremost among these consequences is the burden of debt and taxes we are heaping upon future generations. This kind of expansion, without the means to pay for it, will sadly have a negative impact upon the quality of life of future Americans.

Another tremendous contribution comes from Grand Rapids orthopedic surgeon Dr. Donald P. Condit. Religion & Liberty has published an excerpt from his Acton monograph, A Christian Prescription for Health Care Reform. As we have seen, health care is an issue that inspires passion, activism, and tremendous debate, and it’s impossible to have a holistic understanding of this topic outside of a moral framework. The Acton Institute has been at the forefront when it comes to examining the moral implications related to our health care issues.

If you missed the book reviews that have already been previewed on the PowerBlog, we have a review of two books on Byzantium from Religion & Liberty’s Executive Editor John Couretas. I reviewed Dr. Jay Richard’s book Money, Greed, and God. I stated in the review some thoughts, which are essential for defending and expanding the influence of free markets:

Richards understands that for capitalism or free markets to succeed and flourish they must have a moral framework and hold a moral value for the believer. Even if one is, however, not a person of faith, it’s hard to argue against a need for a moral component for business and industry given the current economic crisis.

There is more content in the issue, including commentary on Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Lester DeKoster was profiled for the “In the Liberal Tradition” this issue. DeKoster was first and foremost a Christian man of faith, who while serving our Lord, defended the Church against Marxist liberation theologies. Which was just one of his many accomplishments.

Dr. David W. Miller, who was interviewed in Religion & Liberty for the Winter 2008 issue, was recently on a PBS program discussing corporate morality.

Here is a portion of the PBS interview which relates to the theme in Acton’s R&L interview titled “Theology at Work: Faithful Living in the Marketplace:”

(anchor) ABERNETHY: You, as I said, you used to work in the financial business. What do your friends there, the friends that you have who’ve worked there — what do they tell you about what went wrong; how they feel about it; what they might have done wrong?

Dr. MILLER: Yeah, I work with a group up in Greenwich, Connecticut—we were known as the hedge-fund capital of the world—a group called Greenwich Leadership for people trying to connect their faith and their work and their morals and their values. Some people feel a bit beleaguered by the current situation, because they love their job and they’re good at it, and they are trying to do it in a moral, ethical way and create liquidity and creative instruments for companies. Others, however, realize they’ve bought into something. They’ve almost become addicted to the power and the money. One friend who recently was laid off by AIG, is part of their troubles, privately said he felt that he had made his company his false idol, if you will—that work had become, in his company that he is very proud of actually, had become a false idol, and he was now trying to reorient his life to have balance where faith, family, and other priorities, including his work, would have the right balance, the right perspective.