Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 2

Last temptation

Read Part 1 of this series here.  Read Gerson’s Atlantic piece here.

Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  In this essay, Marsden writes: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity.  More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins.  People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption.  For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.

Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian.  When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things.  I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just.  Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned.  They have failed to live according to New Testament standards.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Yes and yes.

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus.  His historical analysis in this piece is only half right.  But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format.  As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.

More to come.

Mike Pence’s Failure

Kim Yong Nam, Kim Yo Jong, Mike Pence

AP photo

Mike Pence’s behavior last night at the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics raises a few questions.

In case you missed it, Pence was sitting in the same diplomatic box with Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.  Pence did not acknowledge the North Korean diplomat and refused to stand when the unified Korean team marched into the stadium.

I guess there might be good political reasons to avoid shaking hands and greeting the North Korean delegation.  Frankly, I don’t know how these diplomatic things are supposed to work.  But Pence is also a Christian–and likes to make a big deal about that fact.  I would think that an evangelical Christian would make every effort to make a real human connection with his enemy, especially if she was seated only a few feet away.

Pence dehumanized Kim Yo Jong and the North Korean delegation.  He placed his global politics over an acknowledgement of basic human dignity.

Is There an “Evangelical Mind?”

400e1-nollscandalAfter a weekend of conference-going and watching one of the greatest NCAA Division III volleyball rivalries in history (Hope College vs. Calvin College), I am easing my way back into the blogging life.

As regular readers know, I spent part of the weekend in Indianapolis attending (and speaking at) the “State of the Evangelical Mind Conference.”  I hope to carve out some time this week (in addition to my regular links and posts) reflecting on what I heard and what I learned about the state of the so–called “evangelical mind.”

On Thursday evening, University of Notre Dame historian and self-identified evangelical Christian (although he implied that he is no longer entirely comfortable with the label), Mark Noll reflected on the state of evangelical intellectual pursuits since the publication of his 1994 classic The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  He argued that since 1994, the evangelical mind was cultivated through the now-defunct periodical Books and Culture (which took the place of Reformed Journal for many Calvinist evangelicals); the now-defunct Pew Evangelical Scholars Program which poured millions of dollars into the work of evangelical scholars and intellectuals; the now-defunct Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE), an organization at Wheaton College that published books and hosted scholarly conferences on American evangelicalism; and the ever-growing number of evangelical scholars working in the academy today–both the Christian academy and the secular academy.

No one in the room at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis could miss the fact that three of these institutions–Books and Culture, the Pew Scholars Program, and the ISAE–no longer exist.

While Noll was optimistic about the proliferation of Christian scholarship and the increasing number of Christians doing first-rate intellectual work, he was no longer convinced that such work should be labeled distinctly “evangelical.”  Here he drew on some of the ideas in his book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.  (Noll said that not many people read this book because it wasn’t as “angry” as Scandal).  He noted that many believing scholars today are drawing on the rich tradition of the ancient Christian creeds and the insights of a variety of Christian expressions, including Roman Catholicism, the Reformed tradition, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Anabaptism, etc….  In other words, Noll doubts whether or not there really is a distinct and unique “evangelical mind.”  He encouraged evangelicals to press on in their work, drawing from the larger, confessional, and ecumenical resources of historic Christianity.

About twenty-four hours later, Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, took the stage to deliver the final presentation of the conference.  Galli agreed with Noll about the importance of evangelical scholars drawing on a variety of Christian traditions, but he was not yet ready to abandon the word “evangelical” as either a distinct way of pursuing Christian faith or as a unique way of thinking about scholarly endeavors.

According to Galli, “Evangelicalism” is a “unique way of being a Christian.”  He described it as a “mood” and compared it the kind religious ethos Perry Miller uncovered in his studies of 17th-century New England Puritanism.  Galli argued that because Evangelicalism is ultimately rooted in Augustinian theology, it will never go away.” At the heart of evangelical religion, Galli reminded us, is an “encounter with the triune God.” This encounter, he added, will ultimately lead one toward a life of piety.  Borrowing a term from writer Anne Lamott, Galli said that evangelical Christians are “Jesusy Augustinians.”

Galli did not elaborate fully on how this “Jesusy Augustinianism” should inform scholarly endeavors, but he did think that evangelicals can make a distinct contribution to intellectual work.  For example, Galli pushed the evangelicals in the room to think hard about how they use the Imago Dei in their scholarship.  Many Christians, including myself, argue that we should love all people–Muslims, drug addicts, enemies, people who are not like us, etc.–because all human beings were created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  This understanding of human dignity provides a theological foundation for much of Christian scholarship today.  All voices matter.  All of the human beings we study are important because they are image-bearers.  But Galli finds such an approach to be rather vague and generic for the evangelical scholar.  Instead of always appealing to the Imago Dei, evangelical scholars might argue that all people have human dignity and worth because they are sinners for whom Christ died.  Such an approach puts the Gospel and the the doctrine of the atonement at the heart of our scholarship.

After Noll spoke on Thursday night, I was convinced that Evangelicalism, the term “evangelical,” and the project of the “evangelical mind” had seen its last days.  Galli made me think harder about such a proposition.

I will keep thinking.

My Latest at Religion News Service: Christian Historians and Trump

Supporters of Trump stand during a prayer before a rally with Trump at Clemson University's livestock arena in Pendleton

Here is a taste:

(RNS) Donald Trump told a large crowd at Regent University in Virginia Beach last week that if elected president he would defend religious liberty, champion evangelical values, and repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment forbidding clergy from using their pulpits to endorse political candidates.

His message drew loud cheers from supporters gathered at the university founded by televangelist and former GOP presidential candidate Pat Robertson.

Within earshot of Trump’s voice, in a building adjacent to the Regent chapel, sat several hundred Christian historians, most of them evangelicals.

They were at Robertson’s university to attend the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. The topic of the conference was “Christian Historians and the Challenges of Race, Gender, and Identity.”

When Trump took the stage at Regent, Susan Fletcher, a historian who works for the Christian parachurch group The Navigators, was lecturing on how she talks about race with visitors to the Colorado Springs, Colo., organization. A session titled “The Inclusive Classroom” included papers on how to incorporate women and people of color into Christian college American history classrooms.

These thoughtful and nuanced presentations, and many similar sessions, stood in stark contrast to the way the GOP presidential nominee talks about race and gender.

Read the entire piece here.

A Theological Narrative of America

serenejonespress

Serene Jones

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I wrote:

How might the reality of human sin influence our work as historians?  Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologicans and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.”  Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”  Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history.  While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God.  Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.  In other words, they understand the tragic dimensions of life. (p.90-91)

In my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I also wrote:

…the imago Dei should…inform the way a Christian does history.  The doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past.  It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.  An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of the imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer…. Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless.  God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social and embodied selves with their specific needs.”  What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past?…A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

My attempt to connect theology and history in these passages came to mind again when I read Serene Jones‘s recent piece in Time titled “How to Heal the Spiritual Pain of America.”  Jones, the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, calls for a new national story informed by theology.  Here is a taste of what she means:

Over the past year, streams of commentaries have analyzed the ferocious and alarming combat marking this year’s presidential campaign. Few among them, however, include wide-ranging spiritual or theological accounts of what is transpiring. From where I sit, as a religious and spiritual leader, I see it as the manifestation of a profound spiritual crisis in our nation, one grounded in a deeply distorted view of ourselves, and our past and future.d94aa-whystudyhistory

As a theologian, I think about stories all the time because theology is nothing but big stories we tell ourselves about the universe and the meaning of our lives. We find these “ultimate” stories everywhere; they are conscious and unconscious, and not just in religious communities, but also broader, secular cultures.

 

As Americans, we have a “theological” national story we tell about our country. It begins with the Constitution and typically describes the constant progress that good people have made since the start. It’s a relentlessly positive story.

From a spiritual perspective, the problem is that this story has not incorporated a serious account of our wrongs. Our enduring flaws, profound failures, egregious harm and horrendous evils–none of these are part of our core story. The clearest example of this is our failure to sufficiently deal with our two most obviously horrific wrongs—the carefully orchestrated genocide of Native American and the 300-year-long story of the most brutal social system ever created, chattel slavery.

Why is this absence a spiritual problem? There is no religious or spiritual tradition, at least any worth their salt, that does not begin with a serious account of both the good and bad that people can do. There are many names for the negative side of human existence, such as sin, evil, illusion, moral absence, iniquity, transgression and negative karma. All recognize that human beings, alone and collectively, can do really bad things. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a good side. But these stories insist that if we do not existentially reckon with the ugly side of our beliefs and actions, we will not have healthy communities. Egregious harms will continue to unfold and profound despair and alienation inevitably set in. Why? Because deep down, we are living a spiritual lie.

I should add that in many traditions, spiritually reckoning with moral flaws and egregious harms is not considered debilitating but liberating and freeing. It allows people to be honest about their lives, and with this comes insight and fresh possibility. Any well-trained therapist would agree, as would evolutionary biologists, positive psychologists and a growing list of behavioral scientists.

Read the entire piece here.

What is a Christian College?

a9fde-messiah2bgraduationHere are some of my thoughts about evangelical higher education in light of the Larcyia Hawkins case at Wheaton College.  I pitched it a few places, but no one seemed to want it.  My opinions here are solely my own.  Regular readers at The Way of Improvement Leads Home will find some of this stuff familiar–JF

It has been a few years since I taught Messiah College first-year students in our “Created and Called for Community” course.  The course begins with Genesis 1 where we read of God speaking his word into the darkness which covered the face of the earth.  He said “let there be light,” and there was light.  He then went on to create the water, land, plant life, the universe, and all living creatures.  His greatest creation, of course, was human beings.  Genesis 1:26-27 reminds our students that women and men are the highest form of God’s creation as they were created in His image.

“And God saw that it was good.”

I like to think of these first days of the Created and Called for Community course as a fitting introduction to a Christian liberal arts education.  Students learn that all of their fellow human beings have dignity, worth, and value because of the doctrine of Imago Dei.

As a historian and a Christian.  I am especially appreciative of this aspect of Messiah College’s curriculum.  Historians, after all, are a very earthy bunch.  We are in the business of studying human beings. The Imago Dei reminds us that the human beings we study have a very special identity, independent of their actions and behavior.  While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subjects bear the image of God and thus have inherent value in his eyes.

If life is indeed sacred and valuable, then Christians have a responsibility to celebrate and protect it.  Scholars debate the way a belief in Imago Dei should be applied in our lives, but most would agree that it serves as a foundation for Christian social teaching and, by extension, a Christian education.  I want the students in my history courses to know that all the voices of the people we encounter in the past count in the stories we tell in the classroom, on the printed page, on the Internet, and in museums and other historical sites.

I have been thinking a lot about “Created and Called for Community” and the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Imago Dei in light of the recent Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College.

In case you have not heard, Hawkins is a political science professor at Wheaton, the Chicago-area school that many consider American evangelicalism’s flagship institution of higher education.  Last December Hawkins decided to wear a hijab during the Advent season to show solidarity with her Muslim neighbors.  It was a compassionate, even Christ-like gesture that at least one Wheaton alumnus believes was fitting with the college’s nineteenth-century commitment to social justice.

But when Hawkins claimed that Muslims and Christians worship the same God she apparently went too far.  The Wheaton administration has placed her on leave, threatened to take away her tenure, and has decided to move to terminate her employment at the college.

After listening to Hawkins speak in a video posted by The Chicago Tribune it seems that her decision to wear the hijab and acknowledge the common monotheistic ancestry of Christians and Muslims was a direct expression of her evangelical faith.  Think about it.  How many political science professors in the United States engage in what Hawkins calls “Advent worship?” Better yet, how many evangelical Christians–the kind of folks who could sign Wheaton’s statement of faith–participate in “Advent worship?”  On this front, Hawkins appeared to be a model faculty member.

Of course the leadership of Wheaton College has every right to draw theological boundaries as they see fit.  If we believe in religious liberty we must defend the college’s right to terminate Hawkins, whether we agree with the decision or not.  But this entire case does offer some interesting opportunities to think about the identity of Christian colleges.

I imagine that there are a lot of evangelical colleges and universities who would have responded to Hawkins’s Advent worship in a similar fashion as Wheaton. But not all Christian colleges are alike.  I would hope that any administrators at Christian colleges would take Imago Dei seriously, but they would not all apply this doctrine in the same way amid the day-to-day life of their institutions.

What is an evangelical Christian college?  First of all, Christian colleges are not churches.  Churches exist to uphold, defend, and promote Christian theology and the proper worship of God.  Churches are primarily in the business of formation and catechism in a particular Christian tradition.  One should expect the leadership of a church to promote what they believe to be correct doctrine and, in the process, show how other manifestations of religion are wrong.

Second, Christian colleges are places of learning, just like every other college. They are educational communities where students should feel comfortable asking the “big questions” about the meaning of life.  They are places where intellectual risks are taken and ideas—even ideas that we may believe to be sacred—are critically analyzed.

But what makes Christian colleges unique is the fact that they occupy a space somewhere between the church and the broader non-Christian academy.  This makes them different from the public university down the road or the private, non-sectarian liberal arts institution.  Christian colleges do not offer the same kind of academic freedom afforded to faculty at other institutions.  They have statements of faith and community expectations that result in the drawing of specific intellectual boundaries.  They attract faculty who feel comfortable pursuing their academic vocations in such a confessional environment.  (Some have argued that this is a kind of “academic freedom” unavailable to faculty at a public university). They attract students who want their college education to be steeped in a particular Christian tradition.

At the same time, Christian liberal arts colleges are in the business of educating young minds and thus do not draw boundaries in the same way that churches draw boundaries.  We hope that students who attend Christian colleges will be more confident and secure in their faith when they leave four years later, and we want spiritual formation to happen on campus (and we should be concerned when it does not), but this is not the primary goal. Spiritual formation is primarily the job of the church.

So to what extent should an evangelical college carve out space for the celebration of the universal values that apply to all human beings as created in the image of God?  And how should such space exist alongside, or in conjunction with, the more particular or specific doctrinal beliefs that define evangelical Christian faith and the identity of an evangelical college?  These questions seem to go to the heart of what recently happened to Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton.

Don’t get me wrong. The particular doctrines and faith commitments of historic Christianity (however they are defined by the institution) should always be paramount at an evangelical college. These commitments should inform the life of the institution in every way–from student programs to faculty hiring and from the classroom to the chapel. But the kind of expression of human solidarity that Hawkins exemplified in this situation– an expression rooted in Christian theology (the Imago Dei)–is also appropriate at times.

One cannot deny that both Christians and Muslims trace their roots to Abrahamic faith. So in that sense, they do worship the same God.  Of course there are some major distinctions between the way Christians and Muslims worship this God, understand His identity (the Trinity, for example), and interpret his plan for the human beings he created.

Hawkins never denied these distinctions.  Instead, her Advent worship was meant to show us that we all belong to the same family–the human family. And there are times, even in the life of an exclusively Christian college, when those human connections should be acknowledged and even celebrated.

Caution, care, and education must accompany such expressions of solidarity.  They must be explained in the context of a theology of Imago Dei.  But dialogue and conversation on these matters is good.  I am afraid that Wheaton  either missed such an opportunity or, perhaps more likely, was unwilling to be a host to this type of discussion.  In the Hawkins case Wheaton College erred on the side of being Christian over its identity as a liberal arts college.

 

Hart: Larycia Hawkins Should Wear a Hijab on the Fourth of July

Wheaton College

Darryl Hart thinks that the theology I have used to defend Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins’s decision to wear a hijab during Advent is too inclusive.  


Here is what I wrote:

I think Hawkins is trying to say that we all belong to the same family–the human family. And there are times, even in the life of an exclusively Christian college, when those human connections should be acknowledged. And they should be acknowledged, and even celebrated, for Christian reasons–namely the Imago Dei. So I am not sure that someone saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a statement that is necessarily out of bounds at a Christian college, but it must be carefully nuanced and explained.

Here is what Hart wrote at his blog Old Life:

Once again, as is so often the case when Christians opine about matters of common interest, the real problem is a confusion of categories. So two-kingdoms theology again to the rescue. What’s wrong with showing solidarity with Muslims a little more narrowly than John Fea proposed? Why can’t we identify with Muslims living in the United States as Americans (or people who want to be citizens)? As such, Christians and Muslims would be people who support freedom of religion, speech, association, as well as laws against murder. The way to do this might be to wear the hijab or (for men) shemagh on Presidents’ Day, July Fourth, the three weeks of March Madness. What does Advent have to do with it? And such an identification allows us to affirm something that we really do have in common — the greatest nation on God’s green earth as opposed to the places of worship that actually keep Muslims and Christians separate.

I am not sure about March Madness, but I actually like this idea.

But if we really believe in the theological commitment to Imago Dei we need to think about the various ways we exercise this belief in public life.  Again, it must be done carefully and with an appropriate amount of explanation.  In a Christian college this kind of connection with our common humanity should never trump the real and fundamental differences between Christians and Muslims. These differences should be paramount.  They mean that a Christian college must draw theological boundaries.

I appreciate Hart’s secularism.  I really do.  But a Christian college, as I understand it, occupies a middle ground between the church and public life.  It seems like there are times when theology–in this case a belief in Imago Dei— might come to bear on the way the students and staff of a Christian college make sense of public life.

This Week’s "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "The Historian and Imago Dei"

Two weeks ago I wrote in this space about the relationship between the historians work and the reality of human sin.  This week, I want to focus on the historian’s work as it relates to the Judeo-Christian belief in Imago Dei.  Those committed to the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God has created humans beings.  In the opening chapters of the Old Testament book of Genesis we learn more about what that means.  One central theme in the Genesis creation story is the affirmation that human beings are created in the image of God (“Imago Dei” in the Latin).  Consider Genesis 1:26-27: 

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our own image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

The fact that God created us in his image, as the most beautiful and highest form of His creation, implies that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth independent of their actions and behavior.  Because we are made in the likeness of our creator and thus share, in some fashion, the divine image, human life is precious and sacred.  There are no villains in history.  While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subject bears the image of God and thus has inherent value in His eyes.

Read the rest here.