A Few Questions for the ‘Healthcare is a Human Right’ Crowd (or, The Death and Birth of Subsistence Functionalism)

 

 

evening-1824

Evening, by Caspar David Friedrich (1824)

I do not, myself, know anyone who doesn’t think that ‘universal healthcare’ is an idea worth aspiring toward. One who does not dream of a world in which everyone is properly covered in medical emergencies is, frankly, either sadistic or unfeeling. This is, perhaps, ad hominem, but I’ll indulge the fallacy for this occasion:  If you want people to be without healthcare, something is wrong with you. 

I am not, of course, rehashing that repugnant adage, echoed uncritically in the dimmer corners of the blogosphere, that reticence about ‘socialized medicine’ amounts to a quiet genocide. “If you don’t support Obamacare, you want people to die,” one cherished friend posted to his Facebook wall, to no one in particular. “Rationalize all you want. Healthcare is a human right, and repealing/replacing Obamacare is taking it away from millions. They will die, and you pulled the trigger.”

Well. Hastiness is not a virtue, and there is among those like my aforementioned friend a certain disdain for questions of practicality when principles are on the line. No one, by default, has a well developed ideological attention span, and that is not, per se, a vice. But the notion that ‘healthcare is a human right’ has implications, and they are staggering.

For starters – at risk of parroting what has become a cliche – healthcare is a service requiring labor, and a laborer. Until we have fully automated healthcare machines – which is probably inevitable and will certainly be the crux of the modern Luddite controversy – any and all medical treatment will require actual, real human doctors. Now, if healthcare is a human right, then the sick have an inalienable right to the services of doctors who provide it. (I warned you that, early on, I may sound like caged bird amening the usual Rand Paul talking points, but track with me). If we all have a baseline, irreducible right to healthcare, then we all have a baseline, irreducible right to the labor of whoever is able to provide it.

Well, so long as we’re in a place where plenty of folks are studying to become doctors, the sentiment may never bear bad fruit. And yet, if the public has an inalienable right to healthcare but the milieu changes and very few are studying to become doctors, then what? In the absence of an automated system of machinery providing comprehensive healthcare to the sick without requiring the services of a human doctor, how might we maintain a universal healthcare system in a world with a deficit in doctors who could provide it?

Do we institute a ‘Draft’ in which everyone registers at 18, and is liable to be called on by their country to become a doctor ‘for the good of the community’? That’s certainly the most practical solution – and it isn’t without historical precedent, (i.e. the military). If so, how might we gauge the ‘Draft’? Is it random – perhaps by way of a lottery system, as was used during Vietnam. Or do we aptitude test from a young age? Or something else? In any case, we can, potentially, see to it that the supposedly inalienable right to ‘healthcare’ is secured – but only by indenturing some citizens.

This does not, of course, mean that they won’t be paid. We are a civilized country, after all. ‘Indentured’ is not, at least, entirely the same thing as ‘enslaved’ – citizens conscripted into the medical profession would be paid, perhaps generously, for their work. Indeed, it is not simply ‘work’, as such; doctors, like soldiers, would be premier countrymen – American heroes.

This invites us to reconsider, at last, the question of whether ‘forcible indenturing’ is inherently wrong. Is it not, after all, acceptable in the service of some higher good (such as healthcare for all)? Marx himself certainly thought so – he did not, as one might assume, dismiss slavery out of hand as unsalvagably evil; there is, he suggests, a time and place for chattel bondage – and the time is probably nigh that his legacy is retrieved from the distortive grip of the U.S.S.R.

Well. Marx is a remarkable social theorist, and certainly not worthy of the well nigh universal scorn of which he has been the postmortem recipient, but I’m inclined to disagree – it is not, as a matter of fact, morally acceptable to indenture a human being for utilitarian ends, even if those ends are inexhaustibly beneficial. If healthcare is an inviolable human right, then freedom from forcible indenturing is not. And I happen to think that the latter, distant and ethereal as it may sound, is infinitely more important than the former. I would not, frankly, subject anyone to citizenship in a community in which they are owed healthcare by merit of their existence, but are not owed the dignity of freedom from involuntary indentured servitude.

Of course, one certainly might disagree. But in that case we have to reckon with what, exactly, constitutes a ‘human right’? A more direct question, perhaps, would be ‘do people have a right to determine the trajectory of their own lives apart from institutional coercion?’ If not, why? Why does the notion that every human being ought to have healthcare (and food, and water, and sun, and so on) obliterate the notion that human persons should not be institutionally coerced into following a particular path that may grate against their desires? This is not, in fact, a question of ‘individualism’ over against ‘collectivism’, as it is often framed by pundits, so much as it is a question of humanism – with its emphasis on humanity’s innate dignity, and the naturally outflowing right to pursue happiness in the directions that one so desires (provided, of course, that in doing so they do not infringe upon the dignitious rights of another), which has always been, I should point out, the basis for such notions as sexual autonomy, and so forth, – over against a kind of ahumanistic subsistence functionalism – whereby questions of human dignity are co-opted by a threadbare commitment to securing basic subsistence for all by annihilating prospects of social mobility, autonomy, and so on. When pressed on this, I have found, friends enraptured by the functionalism I have outlined above will reply that ‘autonomy’ is, at best, a luxury for the bourgeoisie, unnecessary and, at worst, a kind of stick, carrot and string designed to dull the masses to their more basic needs – such as, again, food, water, and healthcare.

Well, if that’s what you think, then that’s what you think, but that, again, has implications. If, to be painstakingly unsubtle,  healthcare is an inalienable human right, and, consequently, the government can indenture individuals to doctorhood (for the good of the community), then, naturally, whom else can they indenture? And, to bring it a little closer to home, what else can the government coerce ‘for the good of the community’?

Studies indicate, for example, that two-parent families are indispensable for the healthy development of children. That is to say, depriving a child of a two-parent household does concrete psychological damage that treatment can only rectify in part. This is not to say that children of single parents are ‘damaged goods’, but simply that, to again be painstakingly obvious, the mechanics of human evolution, and of generations of environmental adaptation have wired us to need certain ‘structural’ constants – one of which is the ‘two-parent’ family – and when these constants are permanently interrupted, our development is wounded, and lifelong emotional shrapnel embeds itself in the psyche of the deprived. In light of this, the question emerges: Are two-parent families a human right? If so, can the government forcibly preserve an unhappy marriage (or assign a replacement parent) to protect the rights of the children? If two-parent families are a human right, and it is not, in itself, wrong for the government to indenture individuals in order to protect the inalienable rights of the community, then it is within the government’s right to ‘indenture’ citizens into permanent ‘spousehood’, or ‘parenthood’ in order to guarantee that no child is deprived their ‘inalienable right’ to a two-parent family.

This is just a thought experiment, to clarify. If ‘healthcare is a human right’, then ‘determining one’s own life’ is not, and, if determining one’s own life is not a human right, then it is not, in itself, wrong for the government to determine your life for you. To be, perhaps, more specific, this would mean that, conceivably, the government could criminalize embodying LGBTTQQIAAP+ identities in public and we wouldn’t have, at least, de facto grounds on which to oppose them. The precedent will have been set, and any future government that could pseudo-philosophize its way into a working theory whereby non-cisgender, non-heterosexual embodiments of of sexual identity could be construed, honestly or not, to ‘harm society’, could justify suppressing whole groups of people and forcibly ‘indenturing’ them into heteronormativity. A conservative regime could, on the basis of some dubious psychological studies, regulate, say, gender presentation ‘for the greater good’ – and more.

The takeaway, then, is that healthcare can only be a ‘right’ in a world where humans are owed basic subsistence and nothing else. Implications matter, because they tend to give birth to themselves over time once the precedent has been set. And a world in which healthcare itself – not ‘access to healthcare’ or ‘opportunity to afford healthcare’ and so on – is an inviolable ‘human right’ is one in which the best progressions of modernity could unravel, what leaps we have made toward liberation for the oppressed could evaporate.

I dream of a world in which healthcare is universally enjoyed – where no one dies in the street because they were turned away at the hospital, where vaccinations are universally accessible, and no one goes bankrupt from hospital bills. To abhor such a future is inhumane. To desire something less is inexplicable. Healthcare is not a luxury. It is a necessity. But as a necessity, it is also privilege. It cannot be owed, at least not within the framework of the humanism that has freed us from the varied feudalisms from which we have come, and will, if we can keep it, carry us further into freedoms we have not yet learned to desire. We trade this humanism for ‘subsistence functionalism’ at our own peril – and not only our own, but that of our progeny, and theirs. Healthcare is a right only if almost nothing else is. This is a bitter trade off, and the consequences are well worth considering.

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But really, what does it mean to speculate?

It is funny to me how our culture feels about the noun, “speculation,” and the verb, “to speculate.” It has the same roots as words like, “spectacles, spectacle, spectators, spectacular,” etc., which means that it derived from the concept of sight, of seeing something. But if it derived from sight, and we as a culture like to talk about and uphold sight, then how did it come to mean something ungrounded, essentially something you couldn’t see? I am pretty sure that this is from modern responses to about two thousand years of philosophical and theological history, in which much of what was practiced was called “speculation” in a positive sense – basically “sight.” Sure, it referred to sight of the mind’s eye, in many ways. But at the same time, often enough we use and refer to the same kind of sight regularly at least in popular America. Much of American culture is made up of speculations – sights justified because they are the sights of the mind’s eye (we make mistakes about these sights, but such sight is still how we justify many beliefs and actions – and even scientific thought is a history of mistakes, hopefully being corrected, but still a history of mistakes – and so is philosophical history).

The elite and some people who pride themselves on their scientific education will probably object to this precisely on the grounds that only the scientific is reliable. But then the grounds of scientific method are non-scientific. In fact, they are speculation. How do we know that nature obeys laws and will continue faithfully to do so? Well, “sight” of the speculative kind, is what justifies such belief – the specific speculative kind which also happens to be extremely unique since most of the 6 billion people on the planet do not share that exact speculation. This is important because people who talk about science in America commonly assume that the bases of science are self-evident – but if they are self-evident why did we not come to them sooner? And why don’t most people hold to them regularly today? In fact, they are speculation. They may be good speculation – a lot of medieval speculation was good speculation. But they’re still speculations, to be held up or knocked down on those grounds, not as self-evident authorities. It is also the case with the belief that we can consistently and coherently observe, theorize, and experiment in the natural world – this essential belief of modern scientific method is speculation which is not held universally or by the majority in history or the present, and it is not a self-evident authority. It falls or stands on speculative grounds – on the sight of the mind’s eye, and our reasoning about such sight.

‘Disinformation’ and the Death of Romulus

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All is not well as Paul and his cohort Silas write to their converts in Thessalonica. The churches into which they had formed have made quite the impression on their city, which is glorious enough, but the result has been blowback.

If every church is a microcosm, they’re a microcosmopolis, where Jew and gentile share bread and wine like brothers, and pool capital like countrymen, entombed beneath the concrete walkways of an empire that does not co-mingle and will not change. Their affront to the norm has not gone unnoticed. The gosh-dang world is upside down.

Neither has it gone unnoticed by the Synagogue leaders who do not appreciate the threat these early Pauline communities pose to the continued livelihood of their faith community. None too pleased to lose a portion of their Jewish attendants and perhaps the bulk of their “God-fearers,” – (gentiles drawn to the monotheism of the Jewish religion who had attached themselves to the synagogue worship) – they found these egalitarian cultists troublesome. Worse, “not a few of the leading women,” drawn by the teaching of these new missionaries, departed from their assembly. Their influence and financial resources departed with them. The Pauline mission robbed the synagogues of attendants and hegemony, and power, and prestige.

Of course, none of these issues couldn’t be resolved with a smear campaign. Paul and his cronies had constructed a message, said the synagogue leaders, that would naturally appeal to ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles. Like all theological novelties, they went on, it was really a ploy for financial gain. The missionaries who brought the message are, after all, chasing prominence and glory. And they fled the scene once they met opposition – hardly behavior that denotes sincerity.

Well, smear campaigns are never really about misinformation. The particulars of propagandist blather never really have to take root in order to undermine the stability of its target. And the synagogue leaders, having saturated the public square with slanderous accusations, at the very least destabilized what the missionaries had built. Misinformation is an understatement. This was disinformation. 

Unsurprisingly, their claims were baseless. In reality, the missionaries had come to teach in Thessalonica on the heels of ‘shameful treatment’ in Phillipi for having preached the same ingratiating gospel, having stirred up the wrath of some of the same ingrate Synagogue leaders. Someone is incapable of handling resistance, but it isn’t the missionaries – who, by the way, the Thessalonians may remember had insisted on working side jobs to support themselves during their stay. In truth, they didn’t make any demands on their converts, although they were certainly entitled to. If they’d been thirsty after renown, they would have acted a bit more like their interlocutors.

As the Thessalonians will also remember, they were “gentle among them, like a mother taking care of her own children,” or “a father with his children, exhorting each one of them.” They had been “holy and righteous and blameless in conduct toward them,” and the only explanation was that “being affectionately desirous of the Thessalonians, they were ready to share with them not only the gospel of God but also their own selves, because they had become very dear to them.” Having been “torn away” geographically, their hearts remained in Thessalonica. These new believers were their glory and joy.

So there was a different reason behind the opposition they had faced. The clergy isn’t what it was. Thoroughly domesticated by an empire that shuns them, this group of foolhardy prigs are the same sort that killed the prophets and crucified the Lord, and in “hindering Paul and Silas from speaking to all the gentiles,” they demonstrate their inability to envision gentiles as full participants in the coming kingdom to be established by the Messiah. Synagogues had amassed a large multitude of ‘God-fearing’ gentiles as partial participants in the life of the community, and they were happy with it that way. Behind their visceral opposition to the missionaries was a Jim Crowesque separate-but-equal-ism in which Greeks and the like, however devout, were best relegated to a second-class citizenship. These punks were at least as reprehensible as the hecklers at Galatia.

In any case, the missionaries had sent Timothy to serve as a temporary overseer, and were delighted to learn that although the new believers in Thessalonica buckled somewhat in response to the onslaught of their antagonists, they weren’t ‘bewitched’ like the Galatians had been.

So, concluding their prayer of exhortation, the missionaries entreat God to reunite them with the churches in Thessalonica, and to knit the new believers together in holy love, and to “establish their hearts blameless in holiness” so that they will be prepared for the return of Christ. They’ve issued a renewed call for holy living, a warning against disregarding God’s call to purity, and a command to remain “in the world.” Faithful as the Thessalonian Christians have remained thus far, one wonders why the missionaries thought this necessary.

As it turns out, the Synagogue leaders – horrified at the thought of losing their relative hegemony over Jewish practitioners and Gentile seekers – sought with some success to turn both the city-folk and government against them. Their brutal treatment of Jason and his household, recorded in Acts 17, was hardly an isolated incident:

“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”

And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the synagogue leaders were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd.

And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”

And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.” (Acts 17:1-9)

It would have been tempting for a relatively new Gentile believer to quietly slide back into her old habits to avoid meeting the same fate. Others, rather than buckling under the pressure of religious and governmental opposition, grew zealous to the point of withdrawing altogether from the life of the city. That the missionaries even needed to remind Thessalonian believers to “aspire to live quietly, and mind their own affairs, and work with their hands…so that they may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one,” is amusing in hindsight. Timothy had encountered a number of well-intentioned believers who, overestimating the imminence of the second coming, had abandoned their jobs and become dependent, quite gratuitously, on the charity of others.

On top of it all, there was concern about whether those who had died would be included in the messianic kingdom at the coming of Christ. The missionaries typically drew out their instruction over the course of several days and weeks, and the religious elites had successfully driven them from the city before they could properly furnish the imaginations of newly proselytized with an accurate conception of how the resurrection of the Son of God would pave the way for their own resurrection.

Further complicating the matter, the proselytes had likely been connected to a strand of Judaism that placed minimal emphasis on the final Resurrection – or ignored it outright – so that when Paul and Silas were prematurely ejected from Thessalonica, the infant churches were left with an incomplete puzzle of sorts. In general, Palestinian Judaism was ‘earthier’ than the acutely Hellenized form that flourished in Alexandria and elsewhere, and whose general impulses would have trickled down into the synagogues of Thessalonica.

Hence, the form of Judaism in which the new converts were versed probably emphasized immortality over resurrection and downplayed the messianic hope, at least tacitly, on the grounds that “the dynamic personality of a messiah has no proper place in such a serene, eternally ordered world,” to quote the celebrated Jewish historian Salo Baron. Having been convinced by Paul and his team that Jesus was God’s messiah, they walked into the new faith carrying over anticipation of a coming “Golden Age, unrivaled in glory, when all peoples would abandon idolatrous practices and join the Jews in the worship of the one God in Jerusalem.” Yet untaught regarding the ‘final Resurrection,’ more than a few among them were concerned about whether those who had died already would be included in the ‘Golden Age’ established at Christ’s return.

As it turns out, they needn’t worry. Just as Christ was resurrected from the dead, Paul insists, so also will those who have died be resurrected at His return. In fact, his whole gospel hinges on it. “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven,” sooner or later, and “the dead in Christ will rise first.” For Paul, this meant the families he’d set ablaze at the height of his career in barbarism, and Stephen, from whose eyes he’d watched the vitality drain with the coats of his murderers strewn across his arms. For myself, it means my grandfather, Homer Chalmus Ellington, and Johnny Cash, to whom I’m supposedly related by marriage. After all this, says Paul, “We who are alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The imagery is strikingly reminiscent of a pivotal episode in the second book of Samuel:

“Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd over my people Israel, and you shall be leader over Israel’” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. 

David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. And David said on that day, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

And David lived in the stronghold and called it the city of David. And David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

And Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, also carpenters and masons who built David a house. And David knew that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for the sake of His people Israel.” (2 Samuel 5:1-12)

That’s to say, when the Thessalonian Christians meet Christ in the air, it will be like the tribes of Israel ‘meeting’ David at Hebron. They will say, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh,” and welcome Him back for good – “and so we will always be with the Lord.” Soon enough, the fermenting churches will meet their loved ones afresh, and their Savior – no longer as an itinerant healer, but as the promised Messiah – King Jesus, come to take the blood bought world back for Himself.

One couldn’t be blamed for missing that emphasis, though. Two millenia after Paul, disinformation abounds – from the press, certainly, and the academy, probably – and, regrettably, the pulpit.

If you grew up Protestant in the United States of America, you might be under the impression that Paul and his colleagues applied for a grant from the Jerusalem council, built a medium-sized rectangular church building with an impressive white steeple, and prepped their converts with the basics of Christian theology to tide them over while they waited out the rapture. This is taught nationwide in pulpits occupied by Spirit-filled ministers with good intentions and poor theology.

In reality, these Pauline communities remade the world. Apparently his exhortation to live quietly and do honest work for honest wages was sufficient to rouse them out of their retreatist stupor because, together with the scattered Church the world over, the Christians in Thessalonica quietly ushered in the death of the old West where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were functions of power and little else, people were only acknowledged as human insofar as they were useful to the State and properly assimilated into the bloody machinery of imperialism, and the order of the cosmos endorsed a thickly stacked caste system whereby the poor and others were resources to be consumed by the nobility – as labour, or entertainment, or, more commonly, as sexual playthings to be brutalized and drank to exhaustion. It is hard to oversell how Paul’s gospel toppled the empire that Aeneas built, but it did exactly that, as generations of his disciples lived together in embodied glory – a communitarian compassion that enfleshed the bones of Moses in their midst. As it turns out, all Christian theology is ‘liberation theology’ if you understand where we came from and toward what we are continually blooming.

So the churches in Thessalonica were a counterculture, so to speak – one so thoroughly contagious that it spread through the streets of Rome like a ravaging disease and devoured the ethos of strength, of ‘manly vitality,’ and sowed the egalitarian spirit that continues in each generation to give birth to itself, each time more mature than before.

Depredation was the rule in the world that crucified the Son of God, and the ages were long, the norms static – it was a world that did not change. Armed with the gospel of the crucified God, the scattered church in Rome and abroad broke apart the pavements and tended the Edenic gardens buried well beneath. Consequently, they grew, albeit slowly, into the world that is, and as we, too, see to these gardens, they will grow, perhaps, somehow, into the world to come. And we will meet the Lord in the air, and say “We are your bone and flesh,” and we will always be with the Lord, because the Resurrection of His blood bought world cannot be undone.

Trying (Not) to be Jesus for Others: A Remarkable Thing to Consider

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Like many of the Christian NF-types I know around my age, I (finally) picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. I’d heard a lot of high praise for this epistolary novel of a dying father writing to his young son. And the more I read (and reread) the final pages, the more I realized I was not disappointed by the hype. We could devote an entire series of blog posts to Robinson’s glowing coal of a novel—shining forth, Hopkinesque, with the grandeur of God—and an undergrad course I took actually intended to spend three or four class periods over it. Sadly, that class ran out of time by the end of the year; I suppose I don’t have the time to blog all of my thoughts about it, either.

In those last pages, the ones I relish rereading, John Ames imagines his son as an old man. He cherishes the thought of his son filled with wisdom and experiences and evidence of having loved creation. He blesses the body parts that will trouble him in forty or fifty years—the very same parts that trouble Ames as he imparts his novel-length goodbye. “I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years,” he writes. “But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.” The gap after this sentence in the book, marking the end of the section of text, literally underscores Ames’ impending absence.

Even though this is a passing thought (most of Gilead is, actually), I can’t help but find it a “remarkable thing to consider,” to use Ames’ oft-repeated, almost liturgical, phrase.

I’ve lived most of my life in a way that encouraged dependence. Maybe it stemmed from sibling interactions or loneliness or grade school expectations or pride. Maybe it’s just human depravity. I remember realizing in middle school that while being friends with popular kids was a lost cause, I could easily get other (obviously) lonely people to like me. It became a game in high school. A mode of survival in college. It bled into friendships where I could tell myself I was being loving: listening (a lot), offering advice, giving gifts. And it seemed to start with love.

Soon, the object was not so much loving another person—which involves, of course, another person. The object was myself. Seemingly loving behaviors became vehicles for my feeling affirmed, feeling wanted, feeling needed. None of those feelings are inherently bad, of course. But if, like I did, I preyed on other peoples’ loneliness for the sake of my own gratification, then I really couldn’t call that love anymore.

And the worst thing for those who squandered their dependence on me: I, like every other human, am imperfect (in case the previous paragraphs of my predatory predilection didn’t already make the point). Admitting that sets my teeth on edge almost as much as admitting my mercenary desire to be affirmed. I, even the wizened and bright and compassionate and obviously-humble individual that I am, will let down every single person I happen to come in contact with. I will disappoint. I will say the wrong thing. I will hurt.

I will not be able to provide for their every need. Even on my best day, with the best intentions and all of my resources available, I will be insufficient for even one single human soul.

If only this realization about my own sick self was just one of those cool metaphorical dream sequences in a movie. If only I woke up from it, whistling, and hastily changed my ways. But I think the realest lessons have to come from the realest part of our experience: the part where our hands are lacerated by even the dirt we fall down in, and we can’t look away from the fact that it’s our own damned fault. Over the course of a couple of months, I saw that I had let people down not just by my absences and mistakes—the ways that were immediately apparent—but because I simply and ravenously encouraged dependence on me.

The dying John Ames rightly admits that he can’t bear the burden of years for his son. I think he would have realized that even if he had lived to see his son become an old man himself: he writes only of helping carry, not carrying for him. And so he wisely does not express a desire to somehow absorb his son’s struggles, even if it would make Ames feel the essentiality that I crave. And how can he, when he will be gone?

He writes instead of God having “that fatherly satisfaction.” And in two sentences, he does what has been so difficult for me: he entrusts someone he cannot help to the care of someone who can. Someone transcendent and sufficient. Someone who provides the only rest for hearts that fundamentally seek an object upon which to heap their dependence. Someone who gives meaning to the term “fatherly” and, in fact, “satisfaction.” Someone perfect.

Along with Ames, I must also confess that I can’t bear the weight of many years. I can’t do it for myself, much less another human. I can’t fill those deepest wounds because I’m not meant to be Jesus. (And, sweet freedom, I truly thank God for that.) But because I am meant to be like him, I am not excused from caring for others. The way I imitate him is not by pointing dependent hearts in the direction of myself (the listening, sage, meek, and deeply predatory self). It is by turning my attention, and others’, toward the only Person who deserves the fatherly satisfaction of holding all of the aches in our aging bones and aging souls.

A remarkable thing to consider, indeed.

The Omnipresence of Suffering (and the Image of the Bloodied Christ)

Anonymous Byzantine illustration: The pre-incarnate Christ speaks to Job.

One can rarely be sure how to go about paraphrasing Calvin. He’s an almost bottomless pit of nuance – so much so that it’s nearly impossible to summarize his thought without burying each sentence in qualifications. There is a tacit existentialism to him – especially in The Institutes – and he’s well-pleased when a thought stream grows dizzying and the fragile tensions he has drawn together become insufferable. The result is that Calvinism, in the broadest sense of the term, is a magnet’s coil – always, evidently, liable to burst at the seams, and yet, consistently, holding together. It’s ‘head in the clouds’ theology, to paraphrase a much-easier-to-summarize John Piper. The unfavorable appraisals that he has obtained in recent years seem, at best, reductive.

There’s a certain poetry to the disfavor into which he has fallen of late. Calvin spent his life swinging at enemies real and imagined. He is, in fact, a prime example of the demonic perils of demanding to be proven right. The man nursed an appetite for vindication. At every turn, his words were twisted by adversaries and misinterpreted by troglodytes. He longed, sometimes violently, to be understood. And now, more than ever, he isn’t.

He is know for his rigidity and supposed authoritarian bent. Fair enough. He was insufferably rigid. And rather heavy handed in governing Geneva. These facts are unremarkable. It shouldn’t surprise us that a 16th century intellectual was vociferously combative, nor that he ruled his Protestant theocracy with a half-clenched fist of iron. It should astound us that he was as remarkably flexible as he was – both as a theologian and politician. This flexibility makes him a complex read – not that any of his writings are terribly complicated, but his willingness to tease out possibilities and to take his readers along with him as he plumbs the depths of the transcendant beauty at center of the universe makes him an author who defies systematization. It is not that his thoughts are disorderly; they aren’t. And yet, no summary of Calvin has ever captured his many-layeredness. His nuances must be felt, not simply assented to. Calvinism is a lived-theology, and, as such, can only really be understood in hindsight, and from the inside.

* * *

There are no good theodicies. As Austin Farrer observed half a century ago, nothing in the world can quite make up for the fact that the universe runs on suffering. There are also no pacifists. Not unless we so thoroughly restrict the term as to render it meaningless: Research has suggested that plants can feel pain and think thoughts, recognize relatives, and support one another by sharing photosynthesized sugars through a rather complex entangled-roots system. A rapidly multiplying group of animals have proven to be more nearly ‘sentient’ than we ever previously imagined. The boundaries between human and beast, and beast and plant are ever-narrowing. And no creature, human or otherwise, can exist without inflicting suffering on other creatures. One is reminded of a Noah and the Whale song:

When the baby’s born
Oh, let’s turn it to the snow
So that ice will surely grow
Over weak and brittle bones

Oh, let’s leave it to the wolves
So their teeth turn it to food
Oh, its flesh keeps them alive
Oh, its death helps life survive
Oh, the world can be kind in its own way

To understate: The classic ‘Problem of Evil’ is a bit passé. And in light of the sheer brutality of existence, so are theodicies. How can life be meaningful – or, even tolerable – in the face of such horrors? Can anyone stay sane who takes seriously the fact the the world literally runs on the suffering of creatures? It is not simply that unnecessary suffering pervades the goings-on of the current milieu. The ecosystem mainstains itself and adapts as creatures, some microscopic and others magnificent, fight and claw for resources. And there is no rest, no escape route: If creatures did not kill each other on purpose for resources, some would kill others by accident. Larger creatures would still crush smaller creatures by no fault of their own. Sizable creatures would still crush those too small to be seen by the naked eye. And worse yet, if creatures did not kill each other on purpose, even more would die than before. Plants are alive, but herbivores have to eat them. Trees feel the pain of losing bark to hungry herbivores – they emit an ultrasonic noise when feasted upon. Trees scream in horror when predators sink their teeth in and fungi drink them dry from the inside out. And even if plants did not think and feel and scream in pain, there would be unspeakable animal suffering if creatures stopped competing for resources. It is the bloody struggle for survival that guarantees that as few creatures die as is necessary. If they stopped killing each other, there would still be such a scarcity of resources that most of them would starve to death – a worse fate, even, than being mauled. No creature, anywhere, can exist, in any sense, without inflicting senseless suffering on other creatures.

How does one keep from going insane in this world? Interestingly enough, Calvin – who did not have access to the findings of modern science and had not read The Hidden Life of Trees – was remarkably in tune with the absurdity of the universe. I don’t, of course, mean that he grasped the particularly sordid depths of animal suffering. And yet, he grasped, long before it had become self-evident, that the world is precisely as fleeting, as cruelly indifferent, you might say, as Solomon had posthumously warned, and Job had (rather repetitively) chronicled. And yet – he was also the man who, long before Edwards, had declared that ‘there is not one blade of grass that does not exist for the glory of God.’ The world is a horrifying factory of barbarism that somehow, still, is an indefatigable repository of transcendant beauty. If you can accept it, the horrors that travel the veins of everything are a characteristic absurdity, which, though omnipresent, contradict the very fabrics of reality. God is love, and God is the Ground in which we have our being, and yet, to be at all is intolerably painful, and yet, the transcendant beauty at the bottom of everything beckons us onward into the absurdity in pursuit, we hope, of transcendance itself.

And so Calvin eschews theodicy, instead goading his readers on to something less clear and more satisfying. Endlessly qualified and characteristically dizzying, he says to the downtrodden – and, my paraphrase will be unsatisfactory here – ‘You will suffer, and often, perhaps unthinkably so, and others will suffer worse, too, unbearably. And God’s hand is in it, somehow – like all things, your suffering, seemingly needless, traces back to God’s eternal decree. And you have no grounds for protest, because He is the very Ground you stand on. But you can endure it and, by grace, find yourself hammered more nearly into the image of the bloodied Christ.’

On Lemuel Haynes and ‘Late-Night Talk-Show Liturgies’

‘The Lonely Ones’ by Edvard Munch (1899)

​I’m not sure America’s that much less religious than it used to be. Television is more common than it was half a century ago and we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which religion can function as entertainment. ‘Nominal’ religion, of course, is certainly evaporating. There are less ‘religious in name only’ folks these days. Our ‘liturgy fix’ is easily attainable in our media saturated culture, and many who might have sought to quiet the pangs of utter hopelessness in a Church building a few times a week a century ago can self-medicate more economically by tuning in to The Late Show.

In the absence of other accessible forms of entertainment, previous generations were more apt to attend seasonal revivals, involve themselves in religious activities, etc. I’m talking about the way in which things like television and other now  accessible forms of cheap entertainment have come to fill a gap that previously religion filled for large subsets of the population: the desire to be entertained.

In centuries past, when Christianity – usually, some form of Protestant Christianity – was simply assumed to be true by most of the public, and there were fewer forms of widely accessible entertainment available as competition, involving oneself in Christian activities (such as bible studies, revivals, etc.) was one of the most common ways to pass the time.

This could give the sense, then, that America was more devout than it was. By circumstance, we were ‘more’ religious, but the roots weren’t particularly deep. Now that there are numerous alternatives by which we can entertain ourselves, religion’s hegemony in American life has predictably waned.

My question, then, is to what extent we can truly say that America is substantively less religious than it was, when previously the truth of the Christian story was merely assumed, rather than embraced, and the function of religion for a sizable portion of the population was chiefly its ability to fill a certain universal human need – that is, to pass the time in the absence of accessible competition, like television, etc. If my suspicions are true, America is as ‘religious’ as ever, we’ve simply reallocated our devotions.

I’m not being cynical. I certainly don’t think that hope is lost. None of this means that the gospel will no longer take root on American soil, or that the Great Commission is somehow out of reach. It simply means that we no longer have some of the crutches that our great-grandparents’ generation had.

But, as Lemuel Haynes was always quick to remind his cohorts, everything – everything – that happens, happens in order to further along the Triune God’s eternal plan to reconcile the world to Himself. If we face unprecedented challenges because there are infinitely more opiates from which the average person can choose, then so be it. As Lemuel would also have pointed out, true religion – at least, the religion of Jesus, is a balm for the wounded but is hardly an opiate for the bourgeoisie. If it is anything, it is a merciful buzzkill, jostling us awake and demanding our submission to the strange moral vision of the gospel of grace.

So it may be a good thing that television has taken away our hegemony. Bad for numbers – at least for now – but good for the world. To paraphrase David Bentley Hart, the Church has only ever been half-Christian (at best) when we’ve run the world. And to paraphrase Rod Dreher, we’re well on our way to becoming a minority religion in the West. To paraphrase Anthony Bradley, though, the majority of the Christians in the United States have never, actually known what it is like to be the ruling class – the historic Black church has always been a marginalized Christian group, from the colonial days to the Civil Rights movement to the modern era, where culturally dominant Evangelical institutions send missionaries into black neighborhoods to plant their own churches without involvement from the long-standing, theologically conservative Black Churches that have been there for decades (or centuries). And that’s only one example. We’ll survive like they’ve survived, and in-season we’ll multiply like they’ve multiplied – in season. The predominately white churches that make up what was the most culturally influential player in America’s religious landscape will soon enough occupy a similar position to the ethnic churches that past generations explicitly marginalized and current generations largely ignore. And we can learn from their historic witness. And, perhaps, in joining them in the society’s lower wrungs, we can learn to identify, explicitly and implicitly, with them as one Body, transcending our cultural divides without erasing them, and in doing so, become a common Church in America that begins again to turn the world upside dowm – even in the television age.

Religious Liberty, the Johnson Amendment, and the Imperial Cult

20170504_141258

A statue of Emperor Domitian (AD 51 – 96)

The Johnson Amendment, which prohibits non-profits (especially religious groups) from officially endorsing political candidates, is apparently terminal. I’m not sure who, exactly, was asking for it – save for a few folks who miss the golden age of God and country, when the broad majority of Americans at least paid lip-service to the God of the Bible.

Religious liberties are important. So much so, in fact, that Hillary Clinton lost nearly the entire Evangelical vote by (at least) implying that certain convictions, – regarding sexuality, and more – most of which are fairly mainstream among religious conservatives, should be declared anathema by the federal government. “Religious beliefs have to be changed,” she said. I don’t know what she meant, but everyone knows what it sounded like.

Which makes it interesting that anyone, anywhere is applauding the striking of the Johnson Amendment. To permit religious institutions to officially endorse political candidates is to alleviate the distance between Church and State – that much is hard to dispute. As a Baptist, that troubles me – because chipping away at the separation of Church and State helps the State domesticate the Church far more than it helps the Church influence the State.

If you look, for example, at what’s happening in Russia: Russian Orthodox churches, now sanctioned by the government, are increasingly becoming part of the the State’s propaganda arm.

Looking further back: the Protestant Reformation was always at its worst when one branch set about establishing Protestant muncipalities – the political aims of the State would largely govern the gospel proclamation within its borders. Calvin’s bizarro obfuscations regarding the connection between citizenship in Geneva and citizenship in the Kingdom, for example.

Likewise: what good came from Byzantine is largely overshadowed by the bad it created in the long run – the extremities that eventually necessitated the break from Catholicism began in good intent with Constantine and mutated, gradually, as the political necessities of the ‘Empire’ (among other things) helped to shape and distort the gospel witness of the Church through the ages.

The story never changes: you can’t Christianize a country, but you can co-opt a Church. Well nigh absolute religious liberty is the only defense any religion, Christianity included, has against being co-opted by Caesar.

Haggai’s one of my favorite books, and Haggai’s first sermon essentially runs: “You have become enculturated by the comforts afforded to you under a government that supports you. I’ll be taking them away now. It’s for your own good.” So we could lose religious liberties at the drop of a hat, and it’d be for our good.

But, as a policy, religious liberty for all is ideal. Jefferson understood what many today don’t – there are only two options: indiscriminate religious liberty, and theocracy. To establish religious liberty, there has to be an insurmountable wall between the Church (and Mosque, and synagogue, etc.) and the State.

In that scenario, First Baptist Church Shawnee, Emmanuel Synagogue, Grand Mosque of Oklahoma City, etc. can all work among themselves for the good of their cities (i.e. Jer. 29:7, “seek prosperity for Babylon”), but cannot be regulated by Nebuchednezzar.

State sanctioned religion, after all, is never the religion it purports to be. State sanctioned Christianity, history has shown, is never the religion of Jesus, and so on: it always amounts, instead, to a sacrilizing of whatever the State already values; State mandated religion is Jereboam’s golden calf.

The obvious exception, of course, the Nation of Israel throughout the OT, which, at least in theory, was a monarchy with Yahweh as its king. But this is America, today. And the slow erosion of Church-State separation is the way religious liberty dies. I’m no alarmist, of course, but this is nothing to be excited about.

Paul, on Moses (and the Scumbags Who Misquote Him)

The Lover’s Whirlwind, William Blake (1827)


“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, pederasts, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Tim. 1:8-11)

Paul is funnier than the folks who preach him. His first letter to Timothy opens with a pun: “we know, after all, that the Law is good – if you use it lawfully.” 

He’s getting at something, here. Depending on the context, says Lawrence Boadt, the term ‘The Law’ can refer to the Decalogue, – that’s the traditional name for the Ten Commandments – or the entire ‘Mosaic Law,’ – that’s shorthand for the whole 613 laws given throughout the Pentateuch – or, even, the Pentateuch itself – which is the traditional name for the first five books of the Old Testament, traditionally attributed to Moses. 

It’s not immediately clear which meaning of ‘Law’ he’s alluding to in this passage. It comes from a letter sent to his friend and ministry partner, Timothy, who was struggling to lead a group of churches in Ephesus while a troublesome pack of false teachers sought to lead his congregations astray. To be specific, they were trying to undermine the missionary work of Paul and others by reinterpretting the ‘Law’ to for their own ends. In Paul’s words, they “desire to be teachers of the Law” and were “devoted to endless myths and genealogies.” 

Apparently, fetishizing the Law didn’t do much to make them holier. They were as immoral, evidently, as your congressman (1 Tim. 1:13;15;19; 3:1; 4:2; 5:6;11; 6:5-10), and superstitious, too (1:4; 4:7). There were others, in and before Paul’s time, who were fond of ‘myths and endless geneologies.’ To heavily ‘allegorize’ the Old Testament, scholar W.D. Mounce noted, was to tap into a popular – and, probably, profitable – trend among certain groups of second temple Jews. There was a tendency within post-exilic Judaism to imaginatively retell “the pedigrees of the patriarchs,” writes J.N.D. Kelley. But whereas Philo and others taught from genuine love for God and faithfulness to the scriptures to creatively allegorize their content, – a practice soon after adopted by early Christian theologians – the charlatans stirring up trouble in Timothy’s congregations did so in reckless disregard for the holiness of God. Between their obsession with the more extravagant forms of rabbinic Midrash and their flagrant immorality, it’s unlikely that they meant well (1:7).

Their zeal for the Law led them to “wander away into vain discussion” (1:6) but did not prevent them from indulging in greed, sexual immorality, and divisiveness. They saw it, in other words, as a ‘roadmap’ to the ‘secrets’ of the ‘heavenly realm’ – think Left Behind, or Blood Moons. In much the same way that some modern teachers use the Old Testament prophets and the book of Revelation as springboards from which to make dubious predictions about the end times but don’t heed their rather unambiguous ethical imperatives, so also the troublemakers at the churches in Ephesus allegorized the Pentateuch in an effort to uncover the “secret meaning” beneath the text and obtain “higher” knowledge (6:20). 

This wasn’t uncommon among post-exilic Jews, especially in Alexandria – but these false teachers went further. They were not just churning out the sort of helpful folklore found in extra-biblical works like Jubilees and Biblical Antiquities. They were indulging unfounded fantasies about the patriarchs with the ‘Law’ as their inspiration, but neglecting – or rejecting – its moral boundaries. In doing so, they side-step its primary function: to be a ‘restraint’ or ‘guardian’ for the people of God (Gal. 3:24-29). 

It wasn’t just the the 613 literal ‘laws’ that were meant to serve as a ‘guardian’ over the covenant community of Israel, but the whole Pentateuch. The whole Torah was meant to be their ‘guardian,’ their ‘restraint.’ So Paul’s indictment is against an abuse of the Pentateuch – especially the ‘law’ portions. There is not, after all, much material to allegorize in the Ten Commandments alone, and although it is possible to produce a system of ‘mystical allegorizations’ of the Levitical and Deuteronomical Laws, the product would, almost certainly, be of a distinctly ethical nature. The scumbags heckling Timothy and his churches were scumbags, though, whose allegorizations were little more than “irreverent, silly myths” (1 Tim. 4:7), so that’s unlikely. Since their error consisted in “false knowledge” in the form of mythical stories surrounding the patriarchs but not rigid adherence to an upright lifestyle, their more flamboyant allegorizations probably dealt with the narrative portions of the Pentateuch along with the more pointed “law” sections. In other words, they did damage to the whole of Pentateuch. 

But “the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully.”  That’s essentially a wise-crack on Paul’s part, but it’s a remarkably rich one: noting the connection between v. 9 and Galatians 5:13-26, J.N.D Kelley suggests that the legal aspect of the Law “applies only to those who are under the influence of the flesh and who in their lives follow its promptings.” That’s why earlier, Paul says:

“Why then the Law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made   . . .  before faith came, we were held captive under the Law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the Law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith.” (Gal. 3:19-26)

So Paul’s insistence that “the Law is not laid down for the just but the unjust” assumes what he had previously taught in the epistle to the Galatians. There he writes that inclusion into the ‘covenant community’ of Israel precedes binding under the law (Gal. 3:9;17;18-19;21), and that the Law itself was, in fact, a gift to those who belonged to God’s covenant commumity of Israel (3:19-22). The argument would go as such:

‘Human nature is insatiably self-destructive (5:17) and, consequently, people have an inescapable bent toward enslaving themselves to sinful practices (4:3;8). The moral, ceremonial, cultic, etc. stipulations of the Law were intended, specifically, to enslave God’s covenant people instead to an ethical system consistent with God’s character (3:23;5:16;24-25). Communal adherence to the Law would, among other things, prevent God from having to pour His wrath out on the people whom He had rescued from Egypt for Himself. Although the Law was gifted to the covenant people of God for their protection, the redemption brought about in Christ means that the covenant people no longer need to be enslaved to the Law, but set free in Christ (4:1-7).’

So in Paul’s eyes the Law is good and holy, but must be used as it was intended to be used. It cannot be used as a means to enter God’s covenant – that is, following the Mosaic Law can’t save you, because the Law is only for the ‘already-saved,’ so to speak – or as a ‘pathway in to a higher realm of knowledge’ – that is, recklessly allegorizing the Mosaic Law (or the prophets, or Revelation) will not make you wiser, help you predict the future, or give you significant insight about the end-times, but it might turn you into a heretic.

Rather, the Law was given to people who were already in the covenant, it ‘protected the already-saved’ against becoming like the Canaanites again. Gleason Archer Jr. sums it up well: “grace reigned supreme in the Sinaitic covenant just as it truly did in the Abrahamic. The whole body of Law revealed to Moses and his people from this point on was a testament of grace, although mediated through a different economy from that of the gospel.” The legal portions of the Pentateuch, when originally given, were about ‘taking captive’ those who were already captive to sin. To put it another way, it was a glorious bit of divine pragmatism.

Now, though, in the ‘new covenant,’ the time has come to be set free from both ‘Law’ and sin. Don’t misunderstand – the Law is still for ‘new covenant’ people because it reveals the heart of Yahweh. When one has received the Holy Spirit, the Law becomes a tool in His hands to conform them into the image of Jesus.

A proper understanding of the Law was, in Paul’s mind, a non-negotiable component of that process. God gave the Law to Israel immediately after freeing them from slavery in Egypt. They were brought from the bondage of a cruel Pharaoh into the covenant bondage of a gentle Lord- literally, a feudal Lord, a suzerain – so that when the time would come, having been preserved by the grace of God by the boundaries set up in the Law, they could be set free from all bondage in the Spirit, whether to sin or to the Law.

So today, the violent need the Law because they are enslaved to their destructive appetites; the sexually immoral need the Law because they are slaves to their ‘animal urges’ – or, perhaps, their desire for approval or intimacy; enslavers need the Law because they themselves are enslaved to the human propensity to conquer and dominate. On this side of the Christ’s resurrection, the Law is ‘lawful’ when believers allow it to reveal in them what is not consistent with God’s heart for the world so that the Holy Spirit can recreate in them what has been broken.

Stewarding Creation Well, (and Other Things That Aren’t Negotiable)

A friend recently posed the question: “Should we be more focused on saving our Humanity or saving creation.”

He clarified what he meant: “By ‘humanity’ I mean, our civilization – our ability to be compassionate, to be kind, just, and peaceful. Our creativity, our expression, and our pursuit of truth. It seems like we are having a global ‘cultural’ crisis. We are also having a global ‘material’ crisis: the destruction of our planet. Which do we solve – or do we solve first? Or, which is the most important?”

Ellen Davis touches on the question in her book ‘Getting Involved With God.’ She offers a few relevant considerations:

First, the concept of ‘stewardship’ actually subordinates humanity to nature, in a way. We rule over it by serving it. Ignoring needs of the creation over which we were placed to steward is an abdication of our God-given responsibility. Our being stewards did not cease because of ‘the Fall.’ We should conduct ourselves – our families, and our churches – accordingly.

Secondly, our ‘subordinary’ rule over nature is woven into our humanity, and all the components of our humanity intersect, so embodying our role means integrating environmental and humanistic concerns. They both emanate from our role as stewards of God’s rule over the natural world. This is true of all humanity – again, we did not cease to be responsible for the well-being of creation because of the Fall. But it is especially true for those of us in the Church. Not only are we divinely charged with stewardship over creation, but we are actually aware that we are charged. 

That’s to say, irreligious environmentalists do instinctively what Christians ought to do out of obedience. How to properly care for the environment in an increasingly Globalized world is its own conversation. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m tend to advocate for limited government, and the avenues that I would suggest toward more faithful environmental stewardship will inevitably reflect that. I’m under no delusions that GMO foods are inherently “dangerous,” and I’m far more interested in what the farmer who goes to church with me has to say about stewarding the earth than I am with the blogger from New York. There are, of course, others better suited than myself for making the case for one avenue over another. As an expositor of the Bible, though, my concern is pointing out that we do, indeed, have that responsibility. Complacency regarding the environment is a theological error.

To be specific, we are subordinate, by nature, to Christ. We serve Him as our King, our God. We ‘steward’ creation, together, as God’s image. That means that we subordinate our self-interest – say, industrial productivity, for example – to the needs of creation. It doesn’t mean that we are hierarchically subordinate to creation, or that we ‘serve’ it like we serve Christ. But it does mean that we serve Christ by ruling over nature in such a way that we care for its well being. And, there’s no way around it, stewarding creation faithfully has to take shape as protecting animals and environments threatened by certain human practices. In other words, ‘serving’ nature as its stewards, we serve Christ as His subjects.

The obvious contention – and a convenient one, might I add – that could be raised is that one day, we’re told in scripture, there will be ‘a new heavens and a new earth’ – presumably, one without an ecological crisis – and so we don’t really need to worry ourselves with maintaining the creation over which God placed us as stewards. 

And the obvious response – and an inconvenient one, might I add – is that we don’t, in any scenario, have the right to disregard our role, given to us by God at our inception, simply because He’s going to fix it all one day anyway. Again: inconvenient, but painfully obvious. And, like a lot of problems that ravage contemporary Protestantism, it can probably be traced in some way to the antisupernaturalist liberalism that trickled down from Berlin in the 19/20th century. 

I can’t draw a direct connection, because the ecological crises we face today were, for the most part, unknown at that point. Contemporary research has illuminated the extent to which human civilization has debased the environment. We have made ourselves, in a way, antistewards. As recently as a century ago, this was not so clear (or pronounced). 

But now it is, and our response has been tepid, noncommital. More than a few have denied outright that we have any responsibilty to rectify it – either because they disbelieve in stewardship, or believe it amounts to a license to consume the earth’s resources however we desire, or believe that the eventual redemption of the cosmos gets us off the hook from having to obey God by seeing to the earth’s well being to the extent that we are able. In any case, this is likely the result of the classic liberal Protestant notion that, with the coming of Christ, we ceased to have concrete social responsibilities outside of the necessary practical concerns that occupy everyday life. This notion permeated every corner of Western Protestantism, as the dubious pronouncements of the European intelligentsia took hold both in elite metropolitan cathedrals and remote country churches. Consequently, when the data began to suggest that creation had been suffering under humanity’s antistewardship, we were umoved.

So it’s ironic that Ellen Davis, of all people, would best articulate what was, until fairly recently, quite obvious. As an Episcopal priest, she is a mainline Protestant. Her theological heritage is closely linked to the earliest forms of this particular theological problem. More than is the case for any ‘evangelical,’ she is, at least in theory, the intellectual grandchild of the 19/20th century liberalism that subtly conditioned modern Protestants to approach environmental issues callously. Kudos to her for being ahead of the curve – or, perhaps, mercifully ‘behind the times.’ 

She’s not, of course, the only one. Richard Bauckham, a conservative Anglican Priest, authored ‘The Bible and Ecology‘ wherein he suggests, similarly, that our given role as ‘stewards’ over creation is, to say the least, primarily a charge to conform our own communities to the needs and rhythms of creation. 

He is not, like Wendell Berry, advocating a kind of large-scale return to an agrarian economy. But he does suggest that we, as Christians, ought to understand ourselves as part of the community of creation, rather than as distinct from it. That is, we’re not quite the mediators between creation and God so much as fellow members of creation alongside whom there is only one Mediator: Christ. As fellow members of the community of creation, we have a special role. But our role, which has us ruling over creation as God’s images, renders us creation’s servants, so to speak. We’re made to be cultivators, not simply consumers. Our stewardship is more of an albatross than a license.

A happy albatross. That is, it is good that we are commisioned with caring for creation, not bad. It’s a joyous ball-and-chain. There is no freedom from the stewardship we’re charged with. There is only a satisfying faithfulness and a draining abdication thereof. As we’ll remember from the book of Haggai, God responds to our abdications by taking the joy away from the comfort and ease that comes with it. 

So, to quote Davis again, it would be in our interest to ‘get involved with God.’ One day, all the bad we’ve done – to each other, to ourselves, and to creation – will come untrue. In the meantime, our responsibility to care for the earth has not been retracted. Though I doubt we’ll ever produce a ‘scarcity-free’ world, nor will our efforts ever undo the effects of the Fall, I would be remiss to ignore the other large, looming reality that Haggai points to: that faithfulness is remarkably powerful. And, to answer my friend’s question, it would also mean retrieving at least one component of our humanness. Whatever corruption has been wrought by the Fall, and however voluminous the ecological crisis, the power of God to bring about a new heavens and a new earth is, as always, beyond the scope of imagination. 

Surprisingly Enough, Jesus Is What God Is Like (Happy Easter)

The above image has the high and holy King washing the feet of His rowdy disciples. It ought be surprising that this is what God’s like. 

You’ve probably noticed that Jesus as we meet Him in the four gospels not just an amplification of whatever we already thought was right. ‘Good‘ as exemplified by Christ Himself was not, it turns out, just common sense baptized in Godness. Counterintuitively, He was something else entirely – something which often grates against what we call conventional wisdom. As a man, Jesus began the divine project of turning the world upside down. As the Creator of the universe, He began the project of bringing His creation into conformity with Himself. As both God and man, He bore the weight of humanity’s sin, and His own wrath against it. 2000 years later, we’re familiar enough with the story to miss the point. 

There was no reason to expect Good Friday. No reason to anticipate Holy Saturday, Christ’s descent into Hell. And no reason to count on Resurrection Sunday. And yet they happened.

These things are beyond the parameters of human creativity. Folks who imply a parallel between Jesus and the old myths of ‘dying-and-rising-Gods’ miss the point by a few degrees, like folks who can’t see much more than a ‘tribal deity’ in the Old Testament’s image of the God who sprung Israel out of Egyptian slavery. Whatever peripheral similarities exist are eclipsed by the sheer insanity of this God character who defies expectation.

There was no reason to expect the Creator of the universe to wash the feet of His disciples. There was no reason to expect the God who commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites to preach the Sermon on the Mount. There was no reason to assume that the God who vanquished Pharaoh would submit to a cross to redeem the crowds of people screaming for His blood. 

But on this side of His resurrection, it makes perfect sense. All this time we’d read our own motivations into the Yahweh character. We’d given Him our own psychology, assumed our own values in His every move. But God is different than we thought we knew. Everything He’d ever done, somehow, is part of the project of redeeming the world. 

The hasty meet Jesus in the gospels and assume that the Old Testament got God wrong. But the truth is that the Jesus we encounter there shows that we’d read the Old Testament wrong. God has always been like Jesus. The Father, Son, and Spirit has always been, as John writes, love. And now we know, on this side of the Resurrection.