Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth

There are books that make a difference in a person’s life. For me, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth was one of those books. [1] I was a first-year seminary student, trying to put together my Christian faith and the teachings of a moderately liberal seminary, when I came upon Truth to Tell, bought copies for several of my classmates, and began a love affair with the writings of Lesslie Newbigin.

Lesslie Newbigin is best known among scholars and religious professionals as the founder and a leading writer of what is sometimes called the “Gospel and Culture” and/or “Missional Church” movements. Newbigin was a missionary in India for some years, a Bishop in the Anglican church of South India, before working with the World Council of Churches, of which he was the Associate General Secretary before retiring. His experience in India gave him a unique understanding of the cultural climate in the West and the way in which culture impacts Christian faith. After returning to England, he penned some of the most influential theological works of the late 20th Century. [2]

An Analysis of Where We Are

In Truth to Tell, Newbigin outlines in a readable way his analysis of Western Culture. It is Newbigin’s view that the West since Newton and Descartes has lived under a false ideal of objectivity, in which it is possible for the observer to be separated from that which is observed. In Newton the ideal of a mathematically describable, and therefore technologically controllable, universe was given a scientific foundation that resulted in the Modern World. The ideal was a kind of objective truth that would be true for everyone and recognized as such by everyone. It was an impossible dream.[3]

With the work of philosopher Rene Descartes, the West began a movement into a kind of moral and religious subjectivism from which we have not yet escaped. Descartes attempted to find a ground for human faith, reason, and morals in the subjectivity of the human person. (“I think, therefore I am.”) Religiously (and unintentionally) the attempt by Descartes to found human knowledge on logical certainties, ultimately resulted in morals and religion being exiled to the subjective choice of individuals.  Religion and morals were a private truth, not public upon which people could agree. By the end of the 19th Century, the West was left with the critique of Nietzsche and the primacy of the will to power. The result has been the moral and religious collapse of the West, and the emergence of a series of left and right-wing dictatorships of increasing mendacity.

We see the reality and the impact of the loss of meaning every day in our moral arguments and in politics: the search for dominance by interest groups unbridled by faith, morals, or any other constraint. We experience the endless debate about moral questions, with each side talking past the other—and paying little or no attention to the other. What is needed is a new starting point for thought and action.

It is at this point that Newbigin’s analysis meets the need for a different kind of public philosophy to inspire and guide our leaders. The Post-modern West appears to be in the same condition that prevailed in the Greco-Roman World at the time of Augustine. By the beginning of the Fifth Century, Roman society was immersed in decadence morally, philosophical skepticism, moral nihilism, and corrupt decline in the realm of government. The philosophical brilliance of Greece, and the legal, engineering, military. and practical brilliance of Rome, had reached a dead end.

We forget that, before Augustine, Rome and Greco Roman culture was in a period of religious, moral, and political decay not much different than what we see around us today. Augustine wrote his masterpiece, City of God as a response to the Roman pagan charge that the decline of Rome was the fault of the new religion of Christianity. The solution Augustine crafted, a division of the earthly city based on power and the City of God based on love, with the earthly city spiritually and morally subject to the heavenly city, provided a basis for Western Civilization until the modern times.

Until recently, even after the emergence of modern science and technology the moral and spiritual foundations of our culture were Christian. The two great wars of the 20th Century, begun by the “Christian” powers of Europe, the development of the modern secular state, and the secularization of education, and the emergence of a post-Christian society combined to bring this long era to an end. The end, however, was not what anyone considered possible even a century ago: the abrupt decline Western civilization. By the 21st Century, the West had come to reject even the notion of truth, goodness, truth and beauty as human ideals. As Newbigin notes in Truth to Tell, there is nothing more characteristic of our society than the view that all truth claims are relative. He specifically quotes a Chinese Christian theologian for a trenchant description of Western Society: “Technological optimism and literary despair.” [4]

A Proposal For Where We Might Go

In Truth to Tell, Lesslie Newbigin distinguishes between “Agnostic Pluralism” and “Committed Pluralism”. [5] Agnostic Pluralism is the kind of pluralism characteristic of our society, in which truth is unknowable and there are no real criteria for judging between different views. Committed Pluralism, on the other hand, sees human beings as capable of real knowledge of God, subject to human limitations and revision based upon new information. In the emerging postmodern reality Christians face today, what is needed are people committed to reaching out to others in the spirit of acceptance and dialogue, who boldly proclaim what it is they believe and why in humble, truth-seeking conversation with others.

This is the place at which Newbigin adopts the post-critical philosophy of Michael Polanyi, which will be the subject of the next of these blogs. [6] Polanyi recognized the false ideal of objectivity, so common in popular culture as a misunderstanding of human reason, including scientific reasoning. For Polanyi, all reasoning is personal, the action of a responsible human actor, and there is always at work a history and tradition of thought. For example, a scientist does not work in a vacuum, but as part of the group of scientists who are trained in the tradition of the particular branch of science involved. These scientists are motivated by the conviction that they are in contact with a reality beyond themselves—and to which their thinking is subject.

The same is true for any inquiry. Those who seek God or the Good are part of a tradition of persons from different faiths and traditions which have sought the True and the Good in their areas of inquiry. They have taken personal responsibility for their beliefs and been guided by them. Over centuries of inquiry and thought, progress has been made. Finally, those who have sought God, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful  have come into contact with a kind of  reality, spiritual and moral realities which reveal themselves to those who seek to know.

One name for the position that Newbigin outlines is “critical realism.” When a person says that something is “real,” he or she is confessing that it exists independently of their own subjective perceptions. To say that something such as “God,” “Truth,” “Justice,’” “Goodness,” or “Beauty” exists independently of my perception of it and will impact my life whether or not I perceive it properly, is to say that these noetic, immaterial things are “real”. As something that exists outside of my subjective preference, it will impact my life whether I subjectively recognize it or not. [7]

The intellectual move that Newbigin and Polanyi make is an important one, for it is a big step in repairing the breach between the material and noetic worlds, between the seen and the unseen, between faith, morals, and scientific knowledge, between will and reason, and between subjective though and action that has increasingly destructive impact on our political life the in West.

Conclusion: Christians as Bearers of a Public Truth

Newbigin closes his book with a chapter concerning the obligation of Christians to proclaim their truth in a kind of humble submission to the critique of others and for society to listen for the truth being proclaimed without the prejudice that is so common in the secular West. To do this, the Church itself will have to model the kind of reasonableness that it urges upon society as a whole.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), hereinafter, “Truth to Tell.”

[2] Some of his works are The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978); Foolishness to the Greeks: Gospel and Western Culture, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986); The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 1989); Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1995).

[3] Truth to Tell, 3.

[4] Truth to Tell, 18.

[5] Id, at 56. This literary despair is really a despair in every area of thought and life not scientific and technological.

[6] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962); The Tacit Dimension (Glouchester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983); and Science Faith and Society: A Searching Examination of the Meaning and Nature of Scientific Inquiry (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946)

[7] See for example, Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch Meaning (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 126. In Polanyi’s thought, real things exist independently of any particular observer. We believe such things will manifest themselves in the future in the same and similar situations.

 

“Famperlogalism”

Two of my favorite philosophers, C. S. Pierce and A.N. Whitehead have a great deal in common, more than using initials in their names. Both developed philosophies that are relational and organic. Both had the sometimes-irritating habit of inventing hard to pronounce and difficult to understand terms. Pierce termed his philosophy “pragmaticism” after other philosophers began to use his term “pragmatism” in ways he did not approve. [1] Whitehead invented a whole host of terms in this works as he outlined an organic, process view of the world. [2] With apologies to both of these great men, I have coined my own term, which is the subject of this essay.

An Exhaustion Induced Idea

The other day, as I was returning from a game of golf in the hot Texas sun, under the influence of dehydration, as well as heat, physical, and other exhaustion, I invented a term: “Famperlogalism.” The term grew backwards, as I pondered the reaction of many to what is called, “globalism,” and which largely amounts to the less-than-critical protection of big international corporations on the right and support of large international bureaucracies on the left.

My ponderings began with the “Logalism.” So much “globalist” thinking begins with the global (hence “globalism”) and deduces from that the proper local policy. This seems backward to me. Proper “bottom up thinking” begins by thinking locally and proceeds to determine what is desirable globally. I invented the term “logalism” to incorporate this idea of thinking locally first.

Then I thought, “What do we mean by the “local” part of logalism?”  This resulted in the “famperson” portion of the term. Recently, I read an article about globalism and the probable loss of jobs for huge numbers of people in the future. My response was and is that our society often misunderstands the purpose of economic activity and therefore misunderstands what constitutes a rational economic policy. The foundational purpose of economic activity is to provide valuable work for people and families so that they can support themselves and have meaningful lives. An economy, however efficient, that leaves millions without meaningful work or income, and which traps millions in poverty while a small percentage of people become incredibly rich is not a good economy, whether it is “capitalist” (the United States), socialist (Western Europe) or “communist” (China and Russia). [3]

The rest of this essay makes little sense for those who cannot accept this principle: “An economy exists to provide meaningful work for people that will allow them to support their families and live meaningful lives, not to make a few people incredibly rich.” No matter how much money can be made by companies from exporting jobs in the name of “globalism,” such behavior, and any theory underlying such behavior, are inadequate and unacceptable. The well-being of families and persons should form the core value in developing our notion of an economy and how it should operate.

“Famperlogalism” and “Oikos”

This insight is implicit in the term “Economics,” which derives from a Greek word meaning “Household.” “Oikos,” from which we get the term “Economics,” is the Greek word for household. In the ancient world, a household was more than just a house with two people and perhaps a child. It included what we would call the “nuclear family,” as well as grandparents and great grandparents, servants and employees—all those that made up the family economic unit that was the household. [4] The head of the household was not responsible just for his own personal interests, but for the good of the entire household and its members.

This has vast implications for our economy. Executives are not responsible primarily for their own economic advancement or even for the advancement of their company in the narrow sense. They are responsible for the entire family of relationships of which their business is a part. This is to say that those who own or control assets are responsible for the well-being of all the families and persons and social entities that are related to and impacted by their business. In modern business language, we call these people and entities “Stakeholders.”

This idea of economics as a life and meaning creating activity of a society of people, is why, before the late modern world, economics was classified among the moral sciences. Adam Smith, who was first a moral philosopher, recognized, as we often do not, that there is an inherent moral aspect to economics. [5] A proper economics has a moral component and is interested in persons, families, and local communities, in their support and in their health.

There is nothing more important to rethinking modern American economics than the notion that the primary goal of political and economic entities is strengthening and supporting families and persons. Why in this order? Because persons emerge from families. Healthy people cannot emerge from families that are not healthy. When families are healthy, they have meaningful work to do and time to spend raising children, supporting elderly parents, and taking care of their own friendships, family, and employees.

“Famperlogalism” implies a kind of economics that is inherently relational, organic, and communitarian. It’s relational in that it sees families, persons, small businesses, larger businesses, towns, cities, states, neighborhoods, national governments and international governments, our entire economic system from bottom to top, as related. It is organic because it sees the development of society as a process from smaller units to larger units held together by relationships of mutual dependency among communities of various sizes and types. It is communitarian because it focuses on the health of communities of all levels, types and kinds.

A Brief Outline of “Famperlogalism”

With this long introduction, I’d like to set out a brief outline of what a different kind of economic and political organization might be like and upon what ideas it might be founded:

  1. The world is inherently relational. From the smallest units of energy and matter to the universe as a whole, everything is related. That is to say, the universe is a community.
  2. The world is inherently an organic process. From the creation of the smallest elementary particles, to the organic unfolding of universe as a whole, a relational process is unfolding.
  3. We human beings are a part of this process, connected with the entire universe and to each other in powerful and important ways. In other words, “no person is an island”.
  4. Each level of reality builds on every other level of reality and is related to it. From the mysteries of quantum physics to the mysteries of sociology and politics, different levels of reality emerge and have both an independent and dependent reality that must be considered for understanding and action. There is no independent level of reality and no human person capable of seeing or understanding the entire complex relationality of any human or complex natural system. This is why tolerance and freedom are important: We all need the correction of each other.
  5. These levels of reality include not only physical levels of reality, but also “noetic levels” of reality: spiritual, moral, aesthetic, social, cultural, religious, mathematical, theoretical, and other immaterial levels of reality. Physical levels of reality cannot be healthy or complete except in the context of both the seen and unseen aspects of reality. This is the ground of a healthy environmentalism. There can be no healthy human life unless the entire ecology of the person, material and noetic, is healthy, which is why it is so difficult to nurture healthy people.
  6. The world of immense complexity we inhabit developed from fundamental particles. The world emerged and emerges not from the top down but from the bottom up. Therefore, the health of any emergent phenomena, including social phenomenon, is dependent upon maintaining health and vitality from the bottom up. This is true of political institutions and cultural institutions.
  7. Persons emerge from families. From the standpoint of healthy human society, the fundamental unit is the family. Each human person is profoundly impacted by the family and local society in which they are born and raised. The health of families, neighborhoods, and local economies and cultures is vitally and fundamentally important, and should be treated as such by political and cultural decision-makers. In order to have healthy persons, there must be healthy families. The initial formation of the human person, physical, intellectual, social, and moral, all occur early in human life when the family unit is the most important aspect of the person’s development. When this fundamental unit of reality, the family, is not healthy it is difficult for healthy persons to be formed. A wise society is constructed with health family life in mind and expends its resources to support, encourage, and make healthy families and persons, for these are the fundamental units of any society.
  8. Just as material elements emerge from the immaterial fundamental “particles” of physics, persons emerge from families and have their own independent reality. [6] Healthy societies are constructed so that individual human beings can fulfill their potential and live healthy lives. Among other things, this means that human societies are responsible to organize themselves in such a way that people have meaningful labor and other meaningful human relationships.
  9. Each part of a functional society: families, neighborhoods, businesses, local governments, towns, cities, nations, international businesses, for-profit companies, not-for-profit companies, religious institutions, social groups, and all other cultural units, are both independent and related, dependent entities. Just as people and families are independent but dependent upon one another so are all human institutions.
  10. The result is this: We can’t have healthy people unless we have healthy families. We can’t have healthy neighborhoods unless we have healthy people. We can’t have healthy communities unless we have healthy neighborhoods. We can’t have healthy cities unless we have healthy smaller communities. We can’t have healthy states (regional political units) unless we have healthy cities and towns. We can’t have healthy nations unless we have healthy states. We can’t have a healthy world, and global economy and polity, unless we have healthy nation-states. The health of all are impacted by the health of every particular level. These levels are related and interdependent. [7]
  11. It is important that local communities be supported and people be able to make a living and support their families within their local communities in which they live, support their families, find meaning and purpose in life, and from which the next generation emerges. This is especially true of smaller agricultural communities upon which the economy of any nation rests.
  12. Larger economic and political groupings are dependent upon a sense of healthy community among their members, whether human or social. Large cities and other political groupings depend upon the health of smaller, more local, institutions. A society that destroys the sense of community among its citizens by excessive individualism will decay and become unhealthy. Without a sense of mutual community, large political, social, and economic entities become dysfunctional. This has happened in the United States and all over the Western world. No political society can hold together without communal roots based on shared history, culture, language, economies, etc.
  13. The separation of “local” from “national” or “global” is a false separation. There can be no healthy national or global economy that does not involve healthy local economies. There can be no healthy national or global political organization that is not dependent upon local healthy political organizations. By the same token, there cannot be healthy local communities if larger social entities are not healthy.
  14. A certain level of perceived inefficiency from a purely economic perspective may be necessary to maintain the moral and communal health of a social organism. Put more clearly, if we think that the destruction of a lower level of reality is necessary for the health of a higher level, we don’t understand the system in its entire complexity.
  15. A wise society sees the local as small and beautiful. It nurtures small local businesses. It constrains the power of larger entities to harm local, more fragile parts of the social system. It recognizes the various capacities of persons, physical, emotional, and mental, and provides meaningful work for all of them. In a wise society the small is not the only beautiful, but it is to cherished and protected. [8]
  16. If it can be done or managed locally, it should be. Each higher level of society should carefully not control anything not required on behalf of the health of the whole. This is true of families, neighborhoods, cities and towns, states, larger social units, nation states and global political entities.
  17. Larger social political, and economic entities need to see themselves as servants of smaller, local entities, not as their masters. In a global, highly interdependent economy such as ours, there will be large, transnational companies and supply lines. The question is, “Do they serve local interests and the health of smaller, local units?”
  18. Freedom is important because it is by protecting freedom that local, smaller units are allowed independent function. This is true politically and economically. The Communist and Socialist dream of wise central planning of society was built upon an illusion of the capacity of larger units to wisely manage smaller political and economic units. It assumed a human capacity that does not and cannot exist. It is by maintaining the maximum freedom in relationship that the best and wisest decisions are made.

Conclusion

I’m sure as time goes by I’ll be able to think of even more aspects of “Famperlogalism.” In my mind, all this demonstrates the dangers and benefits of an occasional game of golf on a hot Texas day. You never know what will happen or what you will think of when you’re late to dinner, tired, dehydrated, and exhausted. [9]

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Edward C. Moore, ed.,” Pragmatism and Pragmaticism” in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972), pp 261-299.

[2] See, A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York, Free Press, 1969). I have a book that is nothing but terms Whitehead uses and their definitions. It is almost impossible to read him without such help. Nevertheless, it is worth it.

[3] One unfortunate feature of present day “crony capitalism,” Western “social democracy,” and Soviet and Chinese “Communism,” is that they all bear little resemblance to what they pretend to be and, in fact, look like the “National Socialism” of Germany in the 1930’s. Government, the media, business, and industry have come together with the favored few, robber barons, political elite, and the children of the elite controlling the economy of entire nations.

[4] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Abridged Version, Geoffrey Bromily, trans (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 674-5.

[5] Smith believed that human persons by nature think and act in terms of their perceived “self-interest;” however, their notion and pursuit of self-interest is defined, guided, restrained and confined, by their “moral sense” concerning how we should act in our deeds toward others and ourselves. See Richard M. Ebling, “Economic Ideas: Adam Smith on Moral Sentiments, Division of Labor and the Invisible Hand” The Future of Freedom Foundation (December 12, 2016), downloaded from https://www.fff.org/explore-freedom/article/economic-ideas-adam-smith-moral-sentiments-division-labor-invisible-hand/ May 5, 2020. The modern idea of a morally neutral competition is incompatible with such an idea.

[6] One of the most difficult ideas to comprehend, at last for me, is that the fundamental particles which quantum physics describes are not particles, like a small stone. They are activities in an underlying wave structure of the universe. In this sense, the material emerges from the immaterial, potentiality of the quantum world.

[7] This particular paragraph is reminiscent of the Tao Te Ching. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/ Centered Living: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Cordova, TN: Book Surge. Shiloh Publishing, 2016), especially Chapter 54, pages 108-109.

[8] See, E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1973). See also, Centered Living, Centered Leading previously cited, at Chapter 80, pages 160-161.

[9] For those who have read the last couple of posts, you know that I am also deeply indebted to Wendell Berry, who began my thinking in this area as I read some of his essays. See, Wendall Berry, Sex Freedom and Community (New York, NY & San Francisco, CA: Pantheon Books, 1992).

2. Christianity and the Survival of Creation

This week, just for one more week, I am reflecting one last time on Wendell Berry’s book of essays, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. [1] Among some secular opponents of Christianity, it has become commonplace to blame the environmental crisis partially on Christian faith. There is a kind of half-truth embedded in the charge, which Berry acknowledges. The Judeo-Christian world view, with its emphasis on the independent, contingent reality of nature, has long been credited with the emergence of modern science and its child, modern technology. However, it would be more accurate to lay the blame not on Christianity, but on the mechanistic world-view that prevailed from the time of Isaac Newton until the early 20th Century.

One reason I am studying political theology just now comes from a conviction that we are at the dawn of a new era, ushered in by the revolution in modern physics at the beginning of the 20th Century with the insights of relativity and quantum theory. An older, mechanistic world-view has been supplanted by the relational and organic process insights of modern science. Unfortunately, every day one sees the impact of decisions by an academic, business, and political elite still held captive by an outdated worldview. [2]

There is a second response that Berry makes to the charge of secularists, which might be levied against many contemporary Christians: We have often formed our views without reading and studying the Bible in detail to understand what it really says. When one does study the Bible in detail, one finds an enormous wealth of passages that deal with the wonder of creation, the beauty of creation, the responsibility of the human race for creation, and the need to treat all of creation, human, animal, and inanimate with the love of a faithful steward of the blessings of our planet. [3] Berry’s basic argument is that (i) God created the world good (Genesis 1); (ii) the reason we human beings are unreliable stewards of God’s good creation is that we are sinners, alienated from the God, creation, and others; and (iii) it is part of God’ redemptive purpose in history to restore human beings and our relationship with God, other humans and all creation (Berry, 96-97).

Berry understands that God is not a distant landlord, a kind of mechanistic watchmaker who made the world and is now just watching things unfold. He is immanent in his creation, holding it together and sustaining the earth as he works for the restoration of all things (95). As Paul mentioned to the Athenians in the first Century, “…in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The God of the Old and New Testament is not a distant designer, but an intimate lover of his creation, who continues to hold all things together (Colossians 1:17). As stewards of his creation, we should have the same intimate, self-giving love for the earth that God has.

Berry sees a problem in the way many Christians view themselves and the world as a key to understanding a lack of interest in environmental concerns: a tendency to see the human person as made up of two radically things (i) matter and (ii) spirit. Christians often read the creation story to teach that God formed the man out of the dust (matter) and then breathed spirit (Spirit) into the man (Genesis 2:7; Berry at 106ff). This is a profoundly wrong idea. We were created as a unity not as a duality. “The dust, formed as a man and made to live, did not embody a soul; it became a soul” (Berry 106).  We are both dust and spirit, matter and mind, soul and “stuff”. The dualistic vision of human personhood ignores that God created and is in the dust and in the spirit and both are precious to God (107).

There is an obvious and important deduction to made from all this: God created and is is in the dust, the mechanism, the order of our universe, and it too is holy. Therefore, humans must be good stewards of this “dust” as well as of the “spirit”. Humans are not just thinking matter. We are persons created in the image of God participating in the creation of which we are a part, and given a special task to care for it. This means that what we do, how we manage the resources God has given us, how we treat the environment while using it to sustain our lives and civilizations, are divine tasks. Thus, Berry concludes:

“If … we believe that we are living souls, God’s dust and God’s spirit, acting our parts among other creatures all made of the same dust and breath as ourselves; and if we understand that we are free within the obvious limits of mortal human life, to do evil or good to ourselves and to the other creature—then all our acts have a supreme significance” (Berry, at 110).

In our work, we are all craftsmen and women, artists of God ‘s creation, placed upon the earth to manage and make things of goodness and beauty from the physical world we inhabit, whether we are a painter or an automaker,  a computer designer or software analyst, a farmer or businessperson, education or public employee. Our economies are a part of the management of the household of God, and if we see economics and business in any other light, we are deceived. [4]

I am sure that I have not done justice to Berry’s thinking. In particular, I have not noted the connection between his ideas about creation and the need for human beings to steward small, local portions of the creation. For those who wish to know more and better, read “Christianity and the Environmental Crisis” in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. This book and all of its essays are well worth the time to read, especially if one is interested in agriculture, civilization and environmental concerns.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Wendall Berry, Sex , Economy, Freedom and Community (New York, NY & San Francisco, CA: Pantheon Books, 1992). Sex Freedom and Community is hereinafter referred to as “Berry” and citations will be in text by page number to this book. The essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” is found on pages 93-116.

[2] Many years ago, I traveled in Russia and witnessed first-hand the terrible environmental damage done in the name of dialectical materialism. Berry thinks that Eastern Religion and. Buddhism might be more congenial to environmentalism, but again, one sees no evidence of this when looking at the pollution in India, China, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere in the east. For Berry’s comment on this, see Berry at 93-9).

[3] Berry goes over many of the relevant texts and I am suggesting others. In addition to Genesis 1, one must study Job 38-41, the creation Psalms (especially 1, 8 and 19), the Proverbs that reflect the order and wonder of creation (Proverbs 8-9), the many creation passages in the prophets that reflect on creation (see for example Isaiah 40, 42) the parables of Jesus on stewardship, and the passages of the remainder of the New Testament that are relevant to stewardship of the gifts of God. When one does this, one is struck by the need for Christians and others to be good stewards of the creation God has given to us.

[4] Berry constructs one of his best arguments from his correct understanding of the derivation of the word economics, which comes from a Greek word meaning “household”.  Economics is a part of our management of the household God has given to the human race. When it is reduced to profit and loss, unconnected to human stewardship and to the good of the human race, economics becomes less that it was intended to be (See Berry, at 99-100).

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

I suppose that it is necessary to sell books to put the word “sex” in the title somewhere. In the case of Wendall Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, the title is not just a marketing ploy, for the title essay contains one of the most interesting and enlightening discussions of the place sex plays in a healthy society. [1] Not to disappoint readers, but my interest in Sex, Freedom, and Economy is not in the first word, except for as it impacts the larger argument of the book as a whole. Berry believes that contemporary America is characterized by the deliberate destruction of local communities under the impact of misguided politico-economic forces, and in so doing he makes a wonderful argument for the importance of community.

Underneath the environmental issues we face and the destruction of families and small communities lies the same deep cause: the modern era’s disinterest in the local, the particular, the humble, and the small. Western elites have little familiarity with or interest in agriculture and small local communities. In the creation of the all-powerful nation state and the large private corporation, the modern world has become, in a word, inhuman.

Wendall Berry, for those who do not know the name, is one of the most prominent members of what used to be called, “The New Agrarians” –- a group of writers whose work is critical of both the left and the right of American politics and of both modern capitalism and socialism. I first became interested in Berry after reading his book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, in which Berry unleashed a critique of modern “corporate” agriculture. [2] (In the sense that Berry uses the term, “corporate” includes what we might call “Centralized Management,” whether by a central government or corporate operator or by socializing national policies.

Locality and Community.

Berry’s call is to return to a closer relationship with the earth, small, local communities, wholesome family life, and the particularities of a local culture. For those who love the slogan, “Think Globally and Act Locally,” Berry has some very important advice: You cannot “Think Globally” and “Act Locally” in a rational way. The very attempt to “Think Globally” cuts a thinker off from the reality of a particular place and its climate, geography, fertility, culture and the like. So, Berry concludes, “Global thinkers have been and will be dangerous people” (19).

“A healthy community,” Berry says, “is a form that includes all the local things that are connected to by the larger, ultimately mysterious form of the Creation. In speaking of community, then, we are speaking of a complex connection not only among human beings or between humans and their homeland, but also between the human economy and nature, between forest or prairie and field or orchard, and between troublesome creatures and pleasant one. All neighbors are included” (15). It is in local communities that life becomes worth living.

A community is a society in which friendship, friendly intercourse, having things in common, a particular locality and its geographic peculiarities, form a people who belong to a place and a culture. (48). Obviously, for there to be community there must be personal connection and common interest. While Berry is interested in small, primarily agriculture-based communities, this definition is true of small communities to be found in larger cities and states. “Community” is about communion with a group of other people, and without communion among people, community is not possible. [3] And, without community, meaningful life is not possible.

The destruction of community in the industrial world, East and West, Capitalist and Communist, is a terrible thing. Berry explores over and over again the way in which modern industrial society, capitalist, socialist, and communist, has wreaked havoc on local communities and human scaled economies. The result of this is a society and cities unconnected to their biological and agricultural setting, dependent up huge international supply lines, tied to a fossil fuel based economy, and unsustainable into the distant future. Sustainable, human cities are and will be in balance with its environment and living off of its “net ecological income.” [4] The only way that political and economic groups will do this is if individuals and communities begin to “draw in” their supply lines, purchasing locally produced goods produced by smaller local farms and businesses. We need, Berry thinks, to live more simply and more connected to a local place.

Sex, the Family and Community

This gets us to sex. (Well, in a way.)  One reason why Barry is convinced that we must recover our connections to a local community, including its land, is that the modern world has become inhuman in the way that it has individualized and commodified everything. This “everything” includes sex, family life, and the fundamental building blocks of society. If sex is only about the individual, then the modern Sexual Revolution might possibly be justified. However, until the modern world throughout all human history no one thought that sex was “private”. Sex was part of a complex of relationships. Sex was and is a powerful force—an inducement for marriage, family, children, which also generally involved small family businesses and farms. Sex was not merely a private act between two people, but the private foundation for the community and therefore, extremely public in its importance. Sex is not a solely personal, individual act, it is an act involving an entire community of parents, grandparents, children, friends, neighbors, and members of the community at large.

The modern industrial economy and its child, the service economy, with its commodification of everything and its hostility to the small, local, rural, components of society, has triumphed in the last century—and with that triumph came the alienation, and death of community we have witnessed. “The triumph of the industrial economy is the fall of community. But the fall of community reveals how precious and how necessary community is. For when community fails, so must fall all the things that only community life can engender and protect: the care of the old, the care and education of children, family life, neighborly work, the handing down of memory, the care of the earth, respect for nature, and the lives of wild creatures. All of these things have been damaged by the rule of industrialism, but of all the damaged things probably the most precious and most damaged is sexual love. For sexual love is the heart of community life” (133). [5]

I have often spoken about how my life as a minister was impacted by my first pastorate in a small, rural, poor, agricultural community. In my congregation there were many farming families. In addition, there were many small business owners and employees, and state agricultural employees, as well as employees of larger businesses who served the local farmers. I am thankful for those years. I have many, many stories to tell of those days.

We lived in a small town with all of the weaknesses and limits of a small town, but it was a community. People were much closer than is possible in large cities. I could tell many stories, but will only tell one. In my congregation there was a poorer family with a grown child who had the mind of a child. One day the county sheriff’s office called me and asked if he could drop off this young man at the church to stay until his parents came home. He had wandered off and been found walking on a local highway. The sheriff knew his parents had gone to Memphis for a doctor’s appointment. (How I do not know.)

Everyone knew the young man, the family, and that the family attended our church. The care that sheriff showed that day could not be found in Memphis, just a few miles away. It could only occur in a local community in which people knew, cared for, and were in fellowship with each other.

What I think Berry longs for, and wants us to long for, is that kind of community in which true humanity can grow. I doubt it can or would involve a return to an agrarian way of life, though if it did, it would be a small price to pay. I think that it means working on building a society from the bottom up, as an integrated series of communities that give meaning and purpose to life.

Community and Polity.

This brings me to a distinction that we too often fail to make. There is a difference between belonging to a community and being a part of a political entity. As mentioned before, the idea behind community is a group bound together in a place by culture, family ties, interests, faith, etc. It derives from two Latin words meaning to be bound together with another. Polities are derived from the Greek word, “polis,” which refers to a political entity. The Latin, refers to the external legally imposed government of a place or group. It comes from public center of Greek cities. Political entities are bound together by force of law, police and police and military power. Both communities and polities are important and necessary for human life. [6]

Large political entities, like the United States of America, by their very nature, cannot be communities except in a derivative and metaphorical way. They are not fundamental to human flourishing the way local families, church, social groupings, work groupings, and the like, are. In fact, the health of larger political entities is deeply dependent upon the health of smaller communities of which they are composed. This is something that I am afraid we have forgotten in the late Modern world. The biggest and most important task before contemporary Americans is not which political party should be elected or the details of legislation or administrative decision. It is the rebuilding of community.

COPYRIGHT 2020, G. Christoper Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Wendall Berry, Sex, Economy,  Freedom and Community (New York, NY & San Francisco, CA: Pantheon Books, 1992). Sex Freedom and Community is hereinafter referred to as “Berry” and citations will be in text by page number to this book.

[2] Wendall Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berkley CA: Counterpoint., 1977).

[3] In my view, Berry’s argument is important in a deep and powerful way. However, his definition of community may be too concrete to fully explore why a more communitarian polity is important. I for example belong to several communities, churches, professional associations, etc. They are not necessarily connected to a particular place, which is one requirement for which Berry argues. Berry’s point is important and should not be lost, but theologically thinking, concrete communities reflect the Divine Community Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bound together in limitless self-giving love. See, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion Studies in Personhood and the Church (Yonkers, NY: SVS Press, 1985).

[4] This is a fairly difficult concept to understand. For Berry, our society does not count the ecological and human cost of its economic organization, and so is constantly “borrowing” from rural areas and future generations. His general policy prescription is to help cities become viable by gradually insisting that cities and society live on the net economic income after all the relevant costs, human and environmental have been factored in.

[5] I had to cut off the quote, but he goes on to say, “For sexual love is the heart of community life. It is the force that in our bodily life connects us most firmly to the Creation, to the fertility of the world, to farming and to the care of animals. It brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.” Berry at 133.

[6] The word “community” is derived from from the Latin, “communitas,” fellowship, which, in turn, is derived from communis, or “common”. The word “polity” comes from a Latin word, that means a particular form or system of government, such as civil polity; ecclesiastical polity. It refers to a state or other organized community or body or to a government or administrative regulation, and in this sense refers to a state or organized political body. See, www.dictionary.com/ searching for “Community” or “Polity” (downloaded, April 21, 2020).

 

 

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship

Last week, I indicated that I was going to take a break from the posts I have been doing on Christianity and Public Life to share reflections on a book by Peter Scazzero called, “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.” [1] One of our children was in a small group that studied the book. When we were visiting, she saw me looking at the book and allowed me to read it. Then, she allowed me to take it home and really study the book. I have to say that the book made a big impression.

Like everyone, I did not come from a perfect family. My parents, like all parents, had their brokenness. One of my parents grew up with a parent that can only be described as “dysfunctional.” As a spouse, parent, and pastor, I have had to deal with some of the brokenness of my family of origin. As a pastor, over and over again I have seen that the major point of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality is absolutely true: People cannot be the disciples that they want and desire to be, that God wants them to be, if they are emotionally immature, broken and trapped in dysfunctional behavior patterns as the result of experiences of childhood and youth. Worse, we all pass on to our own children, who are also wounded, some part of the baggage from our past that we have not taken the time to identify, study, lift up to God, and find healing for in this world. This should give all of us an incentive to read and study Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.

Peter Sazzero is the pastor of a larger congregation in New York City. He grew up in an Italian family with a lot of the unwritten rules and less than optimal behavior patterns present. You will have to read the book to discover the story. Both his parents had their brokenness. Early on in his ministry, at a time when he was the pastor of a multi-site campus, there was a split that, among other matters, exposed to some of his brokenness. His leadership style, impacted by his past, was hard on his family and others. In the end, it took a marital crisis to bring him to a point where he acted for positive change. Fortunately for his marriage, family, church, and us, he not only took it seriously, he wrote Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.

The action he took, and the advice he gives us, falls into two basic parts: first of all, he studied and analyzed his family history and the family system in which he grew up. Second, he began to study the resources of Christian history about the nature of Christian maturity, and especially about what we sometimes call, “Dark Nights of the Soul” and the great heritage of the Church in spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation.

As part of coming to terms with his family background, Scazzero created a “genogram” of his family’s past, going back three generations. (A “genogram” is a graphic representation of a family tree that displays information concerning relationships among family members. It goes beyond a traditional family tree, allowing the user to analyze hereditary patterns and psychological factors that impact family relationships.) [2] The author suggests that we go back about three generations, which generations seem to have the most impact on the people we become.

The biblical basis for this is the famous quote, “I the Lord will visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5; cf. Numbers 14:18). [3] For most people, three generations is enough to get an idea of family dynamics. Practically speaking, most of us will have difficulty going  further unless someone wrote down a lot of information that most people never write down.

In my own case, the impact of a family tragedy and the consequences of a dysfunctional grandparent had a significant impact upon my character, life, marriage, children, and churches. This historical fact does not eliminate my own personal responsibility, nor does it indicate that my parents or grandparents were particularly terrible people. They were just human beings, like all human beings. In fact, as I’ve grown older, I have seen that my parents and grandparents did a pretty good job—but they were not perfect by any means.

Armed with some self-understanding and understanding of the family system from which we came, we Christians are in a position to make positive change, not just for ourselves but for those closest to us. Sometimes, this change may involve counseling. It did with the author. Sometimes it may involve spiritual direction. It did with me. Sometimes, it may involve getting together with a group of other Christians and talking out where we are in life and in our walk with Christ.

Christian response doesn’t stop with therapy, spiritual direction, groups or self-awareness. It also involves spiritual growth as a follower of Christ. Scazzero recommends that all Christians study and adopt historic spiritual disciplines of the Church, particularly the ideas of having a Rule of Life by which we live and the regular practice of the Sabbath to prevent that most Americans of all sins, “careeristus” and overwork. (It will not surprise any of my former congregants that overwork and excessive dedication to career are issues with me.) By reading the Church Fathers and Mothers, engaging in regular spiritual practices, observing the Sabbath, and facing ourselves, we can become the disciples that Christ wants us to be.

From the perspective of growing as a disciple, times when we feel far from God are signs that we have work to do. When God brings a “Dark Night of the Soul” upon us, in greater or less or degree, it is an act of love. God knows that we won’t change until we are motivated—and times of suffering and sensing we are far from God are times when most serious Christians are willing to change. God also knows, as Jesus knew, sometimes he needs to recede from our consciousness for a time so that we can grow in significant ways. [4]

I read Emotionally Healthy Spirituality the first time before this COVID-19 seclusion began. One of the blessings of this time of seclusion is that it enabled me to re-read the book and work through it in a dedicated way. I think it’s been profitable. I recommend a book to all my friends, and perhaps even more importantly, I want to suggest that you get together as a group and do it as a study. Not only will you be better off, but your family and church will be as well.

God bless!

Copyright 2020, G> Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It impossible to be Spiritually Mature While Remaining Emotionally Immature Updated Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).

[2]See,www.google.com/search?q=genogram&rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS769US770&oq=Genogram&aqs=chrome.0.0l8.6623j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 (Downloaded April 14, 2020). There’s an abundant amount of information about genograms on the Internet and several fine books one can get. As will be mentioned below, Scazzero has created a course that churches an individuals can purchase for small groups. It also includes information about genograms.

[3] Neither Scazzero nor I would want this to be taken in a fundamentalist or overly literalist way. God is also a God of love who rescues, saves, forgives, and undoes the sins of the past, ours and our parents. However, the fact is our parents and other forbearers and their character impact our character. If our parents and grandparents have done things that are immoral, illogical, or foolish, the impact doesn’t stop with them; we are impacted as well. If one reads the book, one will see Scazzero’s delicate handling of this matter.

[4] The great spiritual giants who have used the term “Dark Night of the Soul” are aware that God is never absent and has in fact promised to be with us (Matthew 28:16-20). They also perceived that sometimes God is present in his absence for our own good and growth. This is a great mystery, but true. God loves us enough not to let our spiritual maturity depend upon our feelings our knowledge of his presence, so that our faith might be deepened and grow, and so that our faith will not depend upon  our feelings but upon God.

11. Why a Wise Public Theology Matters

The Danger we Face

When I began this series of posts on The Naked Public Square, one of my favorite people told me my work was unnecessary. “No one really wants to exclude Christians from the public square!” was his or her opinion. Unfortunately, this observation is incorrect. For some time, the secular far-left has been trying drive Christian principles and Christians from the Public Square. For example, in one recent incident, left-wing Senators tried to block a person from a judicial appointment due to their Catholic faith and membership in the Knights of Columbus. [1] The person was a distinguished lawyer, well-qualified for the appointment, and ultimately confirmed.[2]

One tactic that has been used is to brand any conservative group that disagrees with the left’s social agenda a “hate group” and then attempt to block nominees on that basis. Conservative think tanks, for example, have been so labeled. [3] Another tactic is to malign Christians as not believing in science if they do not believe in evolution. Most recently, the faith of the Vice President was attacked as disqualifying him from leading the President’s Covid 19 response team. [4] One left-wing politician observed that he must be disqualified because he does not believe in science. [5]

Those who study history and philosophy know that, historically, antagonism to the Christian religion was characteristic of the first 300 years of Church History. After Constantine, Christian faith was protected, and during the Middle Ages Europe was both Christian and Catholic. Beginning with the Reformation, Europe began to experience a questioning of faith, which in France particularly became a full-blown opposition in the hands of some  Enlightenment thinkers. In postmodern Europe, the impact of two World Wars and Marxist thought created a large class of people hostile to Christianity. In America, we were spared this public, vitriolic antagonism until recently, but now  experience it in a major way.

In the face of hostility and bias, a defense of the right of Christians to engage in public life and to declare the relevance of their faith on issues of public concern is important. The growing attempt to remove Christian faith and Christian people from government is dangerous for all Americans, as it undermines our Constitution and freedom of speech and religion.

The Need for Religious Wisdom

On the other hand, in the past few days, the national and local news has included stories about churches which have violated the requests of national, state, and local governments to refrain from hosting public meetings. This forces serious Christians to think carefully about what it means to have the right to engage in public life and what exactly the first Amendment is intended to protect. The First Amendment provides that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievance.” [6]

There are two things set out in this provision: (1) Congress cannot establish a religion to be the official religion of the United States and (2) Congress cannot make a law prohibiting the free exercise of religion by adherents of a faith. While this may seem simple enough on the face of things, the fact is that religion and law interact on a number of levels that impact one another. In thinking about the request that churches remain closed for large worship gatherings due to the Covid 19 situation, one needs to begin the analysis by noting that nothing in these proclamations were directed towards establishing a religion or denying people the right to express their religious beliefs. The bans, so far as we know were designed to address a health crisis created by a highly contagious virus. Many of the national, state and local officials who made the request are serious and practicing Christians. The President and the Vice President, for example, were clearly not motivated by any animosity against religion, but by a concern for public health.

Religious leaders need to be careful not to claim too much for the First Amendment, just as more secular-minded individuals need to be careful not to claim too little for religious freedom. Some years ago, in Cleveland v. United States, 329 U.S. 14 (1946), the Supreme Court upheld application of the Mann Act of 1910 to a fundamentalist group of polygamous believers, including Cleveland,, who had transported their multiple wives across state lines for the purpose of cohabitation. While not precisely on point, the decision indicates that Congress may legislate in a way that protects the public from a perceived social evil, even if it impacts a particular religious group. It is important that in that case, the law at issue was not directed against Mormons at all. It was directed against those who transmitted women across state lines for immoral purposes.

This case illustrates the  principle that that there are circumstances where government may act in ways that impact religious groups. As one author put it, “Although the text is absolute, the clause should not be interpreted to mean absolute right to a course of conduct just because it is permitted by one’s religion. The courts place some limits on the exercise of religion. The Supreme Court has held that religious freedom must give way to reasonable restrictions that have been adopted to protect the health, safety and convenience of the entire community. [7]

Faced with a global pandemic, a virus posing serious health hazards to not just the citizens of the United States but of the entire world, state and local governments have asked Christians to cease public weekly worship. This does not prohibit families from worshipping as family unites or Bible studies from meeting in small groups that do not violate applicable local proclamations. I am able to post this blog, have internet Bible Studies with our small group. and watch our congregation’s worship services without any  interference at all. There is no indication that the vast majority of public officials were motivated by antagonism to religion. They were simply trying to protect the public against a highly contagious disease.

In times like these, many religious people will fear that these temporary restrictions might be the beginning of a “slippery slope” and that governmental hostility to religion might result in this exercise of power leading to more restrictive measures. Of course, this might possibly happen, which is why all groups in America need to rededicate themselves to our historic principles of religious liberty and respect for the views of people and their right to declare those views in the public forum. Law can only take a society so far. In the end, it is the commitment of the members of a society to its fundamental values that is most important and most effective as a guarantee of fundamental rights. As time goes by, this important rededication will be the subject of future posts.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See,  Michael Gryboski, “‘Anti-Catholic bigotry’? Judicial nominee grilled by Senate Democrats over Knights of Columbus ties Christian Post (December  27, 2018, Downloaded, APRIL 5, 2020.https://www.christianpost.com/news/anti-catholic-bigotry-judicial-nominee-grilled-by-senate-democrats-over-knights-of-columbus-ties.html). Jerrat Stepman “These 2 Democrats Are Finally Standing Up to Anti-Christian Bigotry in Their Party” The Daily Signal (January 10, 2019, downloaded at https://www.dailysignal.com/2019/01/10/these-2-democrats-are-finally-standing-up-to-anti-christian-bigotry-in-their-party/ on April 5, 2020).

[2] In preparing for this article, I wanted to quote from a recent article in a national newspaper. When I googled my search, I was astounded at the number of articles the paper had written complaining about the evangelical support of the President and doing its best to diminish it. I was also amazed by the fact that other searches, some fairly specific, gave search results critical of the President and evangelicals who support him. I actually had no idea there was so much of this kind of literature on the internet.

[3] For example, not only have the Knights of Columbus been so labeled, but the American Center for Law and Justice, which opposes legalized abortion, and other groups have also been unfairly  labeled as “hate groups” on the basis of public support for traditional marriage and family life.

[4] Moshe Hill, “Corona Conniption: Left Attacks Pence’s Faith after Task Force Appointment” CNS News Report (March 5, 2020, downloaded on April 5, 2020 from https://www.cnsnews.com/commentary/moshe-hill/corona-conniption-left-attacks-pences-faith-after-task-force-appointment)

[5] Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez tweeted “Mike Pence literally does not believe in science. It is utterly irresponsible to put him in charge of US coronavirus response as the world sits on the cusp of a pandemic.”

[6] Constitution of the United States of America, Amendment 1.

[7] See, “Freedom of Religion,” Lincoln University (Downloaded April 5, 2020, at http://www.lincoln.edu/criminaljustice/hr/Religion.htm)

10. Interlocking Spheres of Public Life

A good bit of analysis in The Naked Public Square [1] flows out of Neuhaus’ understanding of the work of Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt, who saw the state, religion, and “culture” as the three great spheres or powers of a civilization. Perhaps out of a reaction against medieval Catholicism, he saw religion and the state as spheres of authority but culture as a sphere of freedom. For Burkhardt, social intercourse, technologies, arts, literature and the sciences were places of freedom. There was a natural tendency for the state and religion to impinge upon this area of freedom and upon each other.

Right at the beginning, it is important to take a look at this analysis. A culture is a bigger and more complex thing than Burkhardt believes. The “area of freedom” is much different in, say a society like Stalinist Russia or modern China where the state dominates everything, including religion, and various parts of the presumably free culture, such as the media are state run than in the modern democratic West. The culture of the East is profoundly different where the toots of religion are Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, or Shinto than in the West where Christianity is dominant. The cultures and politics of the Middle East, where Islam are different than that if the West or the East.

Furthermore, putting together the arts, literature and science with technologies is a suspect division, and in modern society it ignores the enormous power and power seeking of technologically driven media outlets. The “Fifth Estate” has become its own sphere that profoundly impacts and seeks to control the spheres of religion and the state.

Nevertheless, there is a fundamentally profound insight in the view that society ought to both have many differing spheres of influence and the relative autonomy of those spheres ought to be protected.  The state the media, arts, science, commerce and other spheres of cultural life are separate, yet interlocking spheres of life which require for their highest operation a degree of freedom. This is particularly true of religion, science, and the arts. The monstrous corruption of science and arts under Stalin are a reminder of this fact. [2]

A Christian understanding of culture and politics begins with the notion that religion is an important sphere of life for many, many people. Freedom of worship and practice one’s religious faith is central to a free society, as is freedom of the press, of science, of the arts, etc. If the danger in the Middle Ages was that religion might overshadow and control the state, commerce, the press, the arts, and other organs of culture, the danger in the modern world has been that the State would do so.

The key to the proper functioning of a free society is recognize that these and all spheres of culture should have a kind of “relational independence,” by which each sphere respects the relative freedom of the other spheres, but at the same time exists in a kind of relationship with the other spheres that protects not just their independence, but the relational freedom of all the spheres. There can be no absolute freedom or absolute power in any of the spheres, for absolute freedom of any one would mean that it had absolute power and therefore could dominate and distort the others. The working out of this relational independence is the day to day business of all the spheres in their relationship to the other.

In this “dance of interdependence,” the state is the most to be feared, for it is the modern state that has at its disposal heretofore unknown means of legal, bureaucratic and physical compulsion. [3] It is the state, whether controlled by the right (Nazism) or the left (Stalinism or modern Chinese statism), that poses the greatest danger to freedom. It is also important that the state and other combinations of independent spheres not combine to distort freedom, as can be the case with the media and the state.

Neuhaus believes, and I think rightly so, that in this “dance of interdependence” religious groups have a unique role. Theirs is the role of relativizing the other spheres against a transcendent ideal. It is religion that brings the other spheres under the judgement of the True, the Good and the Beautiful, directing each sphere to a perfection greater than its own. It is religion that draws each sphere beyond its purely instrumental goals to a greater goal of, in the Christian tradition, the Kingdom of God, where there is complete peace and where Truth, Beauty, and Love rule. This goal is not achievable inside of human history, but it is the goal towards which Christianity in particularly draws the other spheres of culture.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] [1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), referred to herein as, “The Naked Public Square.” This blog is a discussion of Chapter 9, entitled, “Private Morality; Public Virtue” found on pages 129 to 143 and Chapter 10, entitled “The Purloined Authority of the State” found on pages 144-155.

[2] See, Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983), Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962) and especially Science, Faith and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946). Polanyi’s work is a response to the corruption of science under Russian Communism and is a reminder to free societies today of the dangers of absolute governmental control over all the organs of society.

[3] The phrase “dance of interdependence” is mine not Neuhaus’. In a later blog, I will further outline the reasons for and importance of this dance.

9. Private Morality/Public Virtue

One persistent area of controversy in political theology is the extent to which private moral decisions can and should be enacted into law. A strictly Utilitarian view of law holds that the purposes of law are purely secular, and that personal morality should not be publicly enforced. This is an invention of the modern world, for in the ancient and medieval world, law was seen as the enforcing agent of community norms. In some respects, Christianity is the reason the modern secular position evolved, for it was among the early Christians that it was first perceive that the law, in this case Roman law, could be used to persecute the truth in the guise of enforcing a pagan morality and the legitimate rights of the state. [1]

In recent years in America, we have seen a change in the views of many people concerning the state and the enforcement of morality. The emergence of a purely secular society and the sexual revolution brought about a vast change in public morality and in the actions of the state related to moral issues. In 1965 in the case of case Griswold v. Connecticut the Supreme Court struck down a law that prohibited the sale of birth control products. [2] The Supreme Court found that the law violated the right to marital privacy. Seven years later, in 1972 in the Case of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting abortion as the taking of a human life. [3] While the nation accepted the Griswold decision, Catholics, Evangelical Christians and others found Roe an intolerable decision. As one author put it: “Prior to the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, in 1972, however, no one had supposed that even marriage would also entitle one to destroy third-party life that one’s own acts albeit acts of marital intimacy-had brought about.” [4] This decision appeared to be a secular state enforcing a pagan morality upon the nation. Christians who had almost unquestioningly supported the United States Government and its policies found themselves at one with the writer of Revelation for the first time since the founding of the nation.

In The Naked Public Square, Richard John Neuhaus squarely faces this new social reality and tries to build a middle ground between those who feel that Christianity has moved into the situation of persecution in America and those who support the general direction of our society.  [5] In addition, he helpfully notes the limitations on moral enforcement inherent in a free society. Most particularly, Neuhaus analyzes the restraint required when there is no consensus on what aspects of common morality are most vital to the society’s proper functioning. The fact of religious pluralism means that there is not even a clear consensus among religious leaders as to what might be the fundamental moral requirements for the society. This does not, however mean that there should be no public dialogue, discussion and debate about this important issue.

A “bottom up social thinker” is almost required to have two somewhat different guiding principles in mind as respects this matter. First, the family, as the fundamental social unit, is that part of society that most needs both freedom and protection to function. Second, because of this first commitment, so far is possible families ought to be free to follow their own notions so far as is possible. Buddhists, Christians, Hindu’s, Muslims, Secular Humanists, Taoists, and the like need to remain free to raise their children and conduct their family affairs so far as is possible as they see fit.

There are, of course, limitations. No one is entitled to engage in domestic violence, child abuse, or the like. Not even the freest society can allow any and everything. Violence is never permissible. These limitations are not the rule; they are the exceptions to the rule. One of the likely aspects of a truly postmodern polity is a deep pragmatism as opposed to an ideological orientation. This leads to the base notion that freedom and a free society are to be maintained precisely because such a society is the best way to promote human flourishing.  The difference may seem subtle, but it is important: the first commitment of a free. society is to freedom itself, and especially to the freedom of fundamehtal social units to develop healthily without unnecessary interference from the state.

Along the way, we may find that we have more in common with those with which we disagree than we think. I know very few secular people who believe that the alienation and atomization of modern American society is healthy. Very few believe that their children do not need some moral education—and while we may not completely agree with what that entails, we do agree that children need to be raised to respect others, to make sacrifices for the common good, to reject violent solutions to complicated and divisive problems, and the like. Even among those who fear moral discussion in politics, there may be a dawning understanding that to embrace differences and differences of opinion can create a better and more tolerant society, even if in the midst of the public debate we all must hear and ponder opinions with which we fundamentally disagree.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] In Romans Paul could urge Christians to respect the emperor and see the Emperor as a God-ordained enforcers of morality (Romans 13-1-3). However, by the time of Revelation, the Roman government had turned to the persecution of Christians, and so had become the embodiment of evil in the eyes of its writer, and evil that Christ would eventually overcome (Romans 17:14). Christian thinking has, depending upon societal realities historically fluctuated between these two views.

[2] Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U. S. 479 (1965).

[3] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[4] William Van Alstyne, Closing the Circle of Constitutional Review from Griswold v. Connecticut to Roe v Wade, 1989 Duke University Law Review 1679 (1989).

[5] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), referred to herein as, “The Naked Public Square.” This blog is a discussion of Chapter 9, entitled, “Private Morality; Public Virtue” found on pages 129 to 143 of the book.

 

A Break and a Prayer

I decided to take a break this week from The Naked Public Square and to reflect upon the Covid 19 outbreak and what it reveals about the need for Christians in public life and a Christian response to public life. In addition, though I think that this series of posts will last a long, long time, and involve a look at many approaches, I did not begin this without some idea of where it might end.

I begin with an observation that I have explored in Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers and in Crisis of Discipleship: The Way of Light and Love for 21st Century Disciple-Makers. [1] The Modern World is dying and something new is emerging. It is my view that what we call “Post-Modernism” is only the beginning of the change and might better be called “Hyper-modernism” or “End-stage Modernism.” The decent of modern thought into “hermeneutics of suspicion” and “deconstruction” is fundamentally critical reason taken to its absurd end. (This does not mean their insights are not valuable.)

Under the influence of a mechanical vision of the universe, modern thinkers were predisposed to see the world as composed of small units of matter held together or acted upon by forces. In politics that resulted in an extreme individualism and a materialism that saw the fundamental forces of government as power subject only to natural and economic forces, all of which explainable by scientific analysis. Thus, the 20th Centuries most powerful political/economic theories, Capitalism and Marxism.

By the middle of the 20th Century, wise scientists knew that this vision of the universe was false. At a macro-level (the level of Newtonian mechanics) chaos theory and relativity theory reveal a world that is deeply relational. At its most fundamental level (the level of quantum theory), today most scientists believe that the world is composed of disturbances in a universal wave field, with the result that every aspect of reality is deeply connected with every other aspect of reality. [2] Some scientists even believe that the world is fundamentally composed of information. Whichever view turns out to be correct, the fact is that matter and forces are not fundamental. In the area of theology, a powerful analysis has emerged that the world is deeply interconnected, and relationship is more fundamental than matter or energy. [3]

The inevitable result of all this is that reason, relationships, spiritual values, moral imperatives, and the like will reemerge as important factors in a wise polity. The vision of the purely secular, materially driven and scientifically managed state will wither away until it finds its proper place in a more comprehensive and human polity. We are only at the beginning of a vast and important change in the way ordinary people and governments view reality and the presuppositions of everyday life.

Just as the world is made up of an intricately intertwined web of reality, governments will recognize that human politics must begin with smaller units, like the family and move organically in more comprehensive organizational units with important but limited powers. The vision of the all-powerful nation state that controls a territory through legal, administrative and bureaucratic power will be proved inadequate. A more relational view of government will supplant the modern view with which we have all grown up.

Whether this happens as a result of a great crisis and collapse of the current nation-state, world-state visions or organically through the decisions of wise leaders, depends on the decisions we all make. One thing for sure: a wise and truly post-modern political order will value reason, dialogue and compromise as much as debate and decision.

So, how does all this relate to our current crisis? Nothing more clearly demonstrates the relationality of the world’s political economy than the pandemic we are experiencing . It is interesting that, while national and international agencies have performed an important role, at the level or ordinary folks like you and me, it has involved shopping for groceries, helping neighbors, cancelling activities with large numbers of persons, personal hygiene and a host of other small actions. Churches, neighborhood organizations, volunteers groups, non-profit agencies and the like have all responded to the crisis, and mostly in a positive way.

The virus has exposed the fragility of the supply chain and the necessity of governments retaining certain manufacturing facilities related to medicine at the local level so as to eliminate a supply chain vulnerability. Interestingly, the virus emerged from a large socialist economy the political leadership of which was slow to react to the crisis and vastly underestimated risk. Free societies and those with more robust local and regional leadership, public and private, have done better than centralized states. This should give Americans hope for the future.

Both political liberals and conservatives agree that there are fundamental problems in our society. It may be a shared fundamental world view that is at the root of the decay of our public institutions. If the world is fundamentally rational and relational than all solutions that flow from a purely materialistic view of society, a view shared by extreme capitalist and socialistic theories of government, lie at the root of the problems we face. What is needed is a new, more relational and rational ontology of government (theory of the fundamental “being” of government).  I apologize to my readers for using the word “ontology,”, but there is no other word I can use that expresses my meaning more clearly.

Today, I am going to close with a prayer I posted yesterday on Facebook, a prayer for the Covid 19 Crisis and all those who are impacted by it, which means all of us.

Almighty God of Healing and Grace: 

On this National Day of Prayer, I lift up our nation and especially those with the Covid 19 virus and those seeking a vaccine and to contain the spread of the virus. Have mercy upon them and us God of Mercy so that this virus can be contained. 

Please be with the President, Vice President, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Head of the Center of Disease Control, the Congress and all national, state, and local officials who have responsibilities with respect to this epidemic. Give them wisdom, energy and love. 

Please be with all doctors, nurses, and other health workers who are ministering your healing grace to those with this disease. Be with our soon to be strained hospitals and clinics and all those who minister healing in these places of healing. 

Have mercy, O God, upon all the businesses and workers impacted by Covid 19, and especially upon the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Protect and restore our economy and the economies of the world impacted by this disease. 

We in America have been far less impacted than many nations, and, therefore, we pray for China, Iran, Italy, the Philippines, and other seriously impacted nations. 

Hear our prayers, O Lord. Hear our prayers, O Lord. Incline Your Ear to Us, and Grant us Your Shalom. 

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit Amen.

 

God bless you all.

Chris

[1] Crisis of Discipleship is the last of the series of posts found on this blog site. Path of Life was published by Wipf & Stock in 2014, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[2] See, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London, ENG: Routledge, 1995), 19: “What is implied by this proposal is that what we call empty space contains and immense background of energy, and that matter as we know it is a small, “quantized” wavelike excitation on top of the background, rather like a ripple on a vast sea.” See Also, Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York Free Press, 1953), 129-137, where he refers to the fundamental reality as “vibratory” in nature. Id at 133-4

[3] See for example, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s University Press, 1985) and John Polkinghorne, ed, The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010).

8. The Morality of Compromise

One problem with our overly-partisan politics controlled by the ideological extremes is that it makes compromise difficult if not impossible. It is difficult for zealots of any kind to compromise. This is true of religious zealots, Marxist zealots, National Socialist zealots, and secular humanist zealots. When you know you are right and either God or inevitable historical forces are on your side, it is hard to compromise.

The Meaning of Compromise

The word “compromise comes from a Middle English term connoting a mutual promise to abide by an arbiter’s decision. The Middle English term derives from the Latin compromissum, which means to mutually promise, from com (with) and promittere (to promise). The art of compromise is the art of reaching a middle ground with an adversary and promising to abide for the time being with that proposed solution to the dispute.

The word compromise has at least two different meanings;

  • A set of meanings in which something is exposed or made liable to danger, suspicion or disrepute; and
  • An accommodation in which each party makes concessions.

The problem with compromise in political discourse is the fact that statesmen and stateswomen must have the ability to discern when a fundamental principle is being compromised in such a way that there will be long term hard to the polity and when the compromise is a pragmatic way of moving a problem towards solution. Ideologues of the left and right, by definition, lack this ability.

Political Zealots and Compromise

Humility is a requirement for compromise. Zealots left and right, religious and secular, are without the ability to compromise because they lack a fundamental requirement of wise public decision-making: the humility to recognize that the best of us are sometimes misguided and mistaken in their moral decisions, and the worst of us are sometimes correct and act with moral common sense. Zealots left and right, religious and secular, lack the sense of their own finitude and moral and intellectual weakness, necessary to effective compromise.

The second defect of zealotry in public decision-making is that it refuses to take small intermediate steps towards the solution to large and complex problems. I have already in a prior post reflected on how a kind of ideological perfectionism caused the Affordable Care Act debacle. The problems with the budget deficit are equally a symptom of the left and right refusing to take small steps to resolve (or at least begin resolving) a national problem. Some years ago, a bi-partisan group recommended a path towards a balance budget. President Obama refused to compromise as did the leaders of the opposite party, with the result that nothing was accomplished. The preference for ideologically pure policy solutions to the detriment of effective action is a barrier to wise compromise.

Democracy and Compromise

At the time Richard John Neuhaus wrote, The Naked Public Square, [1]  the religious right was at the peak of its power. At the very beginning of the chapter, he notes that some religious groups have difficulty with the give and take of democratic politics because of the assumption that they are in possession of a revealed truth that makes compromise equivalent to cooperation with evil or falsehood. [2] In what I think is one of his best observations, he puts the case for compromise as follows:

People who compromise know in accordance with the democratic process know that they are compromising. That is, they do not tell themselves or others that it does not matter, that there was no principle at stake, that there was not a reasoning that had been stopped short of its logical end. In a similar way, to forgive someone is not the same thing as saying that it did not matter, that there was no offense, if there was no offence, there can be no forgiveness. Compromise and forgiveness arise from the acknowledgement that we are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world, Democracy is the product not of a vision of perfection but of the knowledge of imperfection. [3]

Neuhaus is absolutely correct in his analysis of the necessity of compromise to a functioning democracy. Compromise is the art of seeking the common good where there is violent disagreement as to what is in the common good and what is the best course of seeking it. The more divergent the policy views of the participants, the more necessary compromise is to a functioning democracy. Hopefully with the passing of the modern world with its “isms” and the preference for large, radical, bureaucratic solutions, the problem of compromise will lessen. But, it will not lessen until and unless the current participants walk away from our currently excessive ideological and combative style of politics.

Complex problems by their very nature have complex and divisive solutions. It is the job of leaders to pick the most viable solution and implement it. One fundamental quality of a leader is the ability to address problems in an organization successfully. By this definition, our political system has been lacking in leadership for a long, long time. Some years ago, I was visiting with a religious leader about a problem that was tearing our organization apart. I was attempting to sell him on taking a small compromising step to keep that problem from damaging our organization. His response was the response of the anti-leader: “Yes, Chris it is probably going to happen, but not until after I retire.” He was correct, but the organization has sustained the loss of thousands of members in the past few years. Unfortunately zealotry triumphed because leaders would not compromise.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.” This week’s blog reflects upon Chapter 7, entitled, “The Morality of Compromise”.

[2] Id, at 114.

[3] Id.

.

7. Losing Who We Are (or At Least Have Been)

Last week, we discussed the importance of a transcendent foundation for liberal democracy. Faith, Neuhaus believes, is an essential foundation for freedom. In a chapter in The Naked Public Square entitled, “Denying Who We Are” Richard John Neuhaus defends the idea that, despite the hostility of the media and elites, America remains a fundamentally religious and overwhelmingly Christian nation and that religious belief has an important place in public life. [1] Perhaps there was a public consensus on this in 1984. It is pretty clearly less so in 2020.

In my view,  the limitations on Neuhaus’ analysis involves not foreseeing the implications of the passing of the “Greatest Generation,” which fought World War II and built many of the business and social organs of Modern America, and the passing of leadership into the hands of the Viet Nam War Generation (or “Boomers”), which is morally, spiritually and emotionally scarred by the upheavals of the 1960’s. In forty short years, what Neuhaus thought unlikely has become a reality: An educational system, media and entertainment industry dominated by persons hostile to American values and traditions, has substantially eroded the cultural foundations of our democracy. We have seen evidence of this every day during the last two or three political seasons.

The Founders Consensus

This situation would have puzzled the Founders of our nation, most of whom, whatever their religious beliefs, thought of religion as fundamental to a well-ordered democracy.[2] Washington, in his Farewell address put it this way,

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. [3]

Thomas Jefferson put it this way:

The practice of morality being necessary for the well-being of society, He [God] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain. We all agree in the obligation of the moral principles of Jesus and nowhere will they be found delivered in greater purity than in His discourses.[4]

Perhaps John Adams put it most succinctly when he said, “… [It is] religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”  [5]

The Situation Today

The question remains, “Is Neuhaus correct when he assumes that America is still a religious nation, and if not, what does that mean for our republican form of government?” According to a recent Gallup Poll, In 2019, American religious convictions were something like the following: About 70% of Americans gave their religious preference as Christian. About 1.9 % are Jewish, .9% Muslim, .7% Buddhist, and .7 % Hindu. Other world religious were at .3%, and other faiths, 1.5%. In 2019, about 22% listed themselves as “Unaffiliated,” with about 3% being atheists, 4% agnostic, and 15% of the unaffiliated listing their religion as “nothing in particular”. [6] A Gallup study shows that as recently as 1967, only 2% of Americans listed themselves as religiously unaffiliated. That number has grown consistently in recent years and is now 22%. [7]

The figures indicate that, while America remains a religious nation, and Christianity remains the dominant religious force, the real change has not been to “other religions” but to no religious affiliation at all. This may explain the difficulties in maintaining the public consensus that the Founders felt important. The drift in America has not been away from “Judeo-Christian Values” to some other religious view, such as Hinduism, but from Judeo-Christian values to no definite religious belief whatsoever. It is this trend that Americans should view as most concerning, especially since those who are religiously unaffiliated probably are disproportionately represented in the media, entertainment and higher education, which probably accounts for the trend more than any other single factor.

The Secular Society and Religious Proclamation

In The Naked Public Square Neuhaus makes the following important observation:

As in the media, then, so also in the courts and centers of higher learning it is more or less taken for granted that ours is a secular society. When religion insists on intruding itself into the public square with an aggressive force that cannot be denied it is either grudgingly acknowledged or alarums are raised about the impending return of the Middle Ages. Then the proposition becomes more explicit: if ours is not a secular society, then it ought to be. [8]

The media, entertainment industry and higher education, as well as a number of elites in government and industry take it as an article of faith that religion and public life should be divorced. This is faulty on at least two accounts: First, secularism of the type espoused by these groups is, in fact, a substitute religion, a truth felt by those who hold it to be the ultimate truth about reality. It is my view that the growth of the religiously unaffiliated from 25 to 20% explains the way in which anti-religious voices have come to dominate public life.

Second, religious views should continue to be important in concerning policy alternatives. A very significant number of Americans subscribe to the view that there is a creator God, that the universe displays something of the wisdom of that God, and that compassion (self-giving love) is a kind of ultimate virtue. [9] If religion is necessary for the stability of the society, then hardly anything could be more relevant to policy decisions than the impact of a decision on this crucial element of public life. They key is that all participants remain faithful to their fundamental views while acting with compassion for everyone, even those with whom they disagree.

The danger that secularists are concerned about, and it is a danger, is that of a return to the kind of religious strife that characterized the Thirty Years War. [10] In the Middle East, in Africa and other places we see evidence that there continues to be a danger of religious violence. This is where religious groups can be helpful by assuring everyone that believers do not view force as an appropriate way to achieve either political or religious objectives, but instead view the rational choice of people as the only sound method for making religious decisions. This involves a commitment to the First Amendment and the avoidance of any action that would indicate a purely sectarian interest in a piece of legislation or policy choice.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.” This week’s blog reflects upon Chapter 6.

[2] There are varying views about the depth of religious conviction of the founders. It is apparent, however, that all the major figures, even the deist Jefferson, felt that religion and morality were fundamental to a functioning democracy.

[3] George Washington, Farewell Address 1796, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldmand Law Library: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp (downloaded February 25, 2020).

[4]  Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Alberty Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XII, p. 315, to James Fishback, September 27, 1809.

[5]  John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1854), Vol. IX, p. 401, to Zabdiel Adams on June 21, 1776.)

[6] Pew Research Center “Pew Research Religious Landscape Study, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/ (Downloaded February 27, 2020).

[7] Gallup News “Religion” https://news.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx (Downloaded February 27, 2020).

[8] Naked Public Square, at 103.

[9] I have used the term compassion deliberately. Christians and Jews share with Buddhists, Hindu’s, Taoists and others that the compassion is a virtue. For Christians, that compassion is revealed as an ultimate attribute of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In this common view, I think that we have a ground for political and social action and harmony among groups that differ on the ultimate nature of God and of reality.

[10] The Thirty Years’ War engulfed Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. Although initially a war between Protestant and Catholic states in the fragmented Holy Roman Empire, it ultimately involved most of the great European powers and resulted in millions of causalities. It was ended by the Peace of Westphalia. This conflict is credited with alienating many intellectuals from both religion and the interconnection of religious institutions and the state.

 

6. The Danger of the Empty Public Square

There is no question but that certain powerful forces would like to see the voice of religion, and especially the voice of Christians, eliminated from the American public square. When Richard Neuhaus initially wrote The Naked Public Square, the so-called Christian Right was in ascendance. [1]There was a great deal of liberal concern, culminating with Hilary Rodham Clinton making her famous “vast right-wing conspiracy” comment, alleging that the election of conservatives was the result of some kind of conspiracy. (One interesting aspect of contemporary American politics is the constant allegation that,  for example if the Koch brothers make political contributions, it is part of a right-wing conspiracy. If George Soros does, it is a result of a vast left-wing conspiracy. The paranoia of contemporary politics is, perhaps, a reflection of the absence of religious faith in the public square. If there is no God, then we are responsible for everything that happens or does not happen. This alone is enough to drive a person mad.) Today, as I mentioned last week, there is little to be worried about from the Religious Right. This does not seem to prevent the media, and left-wing politicians from alleging that there is and from attempting to expunge religion from American public life. It is Neuhaus’ view that this is a gigantic mistake.

For the past 300 years, intellectuals impacted by the Enlightenment and the revolutionary spirit of the French Revolution, have attempted to create a purely secular state. The goal was and is a “Naked Public Square,” that is the exclusion of religious views from public debate. Because the Enlightenment began in Christian France, the initial and consistent focus of this effort has been Christianity, but it can be easily seen that eventually the logic demands that all merely religious convictions and expressions should be removed from public discourse. Sometimes this demand implies that, since religious views are “private,” and not scientifically verifiable, they should not guide public debate or policy.

This notion is at least partially based on an outdated materialistic world view that sees the world, and therefore human society, as nothing more than matter and material forces. The genesis of Marxism in all of its various forms is the notion that all there is are material forces, and in the realm of political economy, all that exist are economic forces. The result is a kind of “economic determinism.” [2] This same idea also infects Radical Capitalism, with its notion that blind economic forces can lead to the optimal distribution of wealth. Those captured by a materialistic world view are inevitably hostile to spiritual values.

In the Naked Public Square Neuhaus develops an attack on this view that has three main observations: (i) such a truncated view of the world ignores much of what ordinary people value; and (ii) the observation that wherever this has been tried in the past, a totalitarians state has resulted with untold human suffering resulting; and (iii) finally, the naked public square is an impossibility. Where religion is excluded either “eratz religion” by another name will enter the square or a kind of secular religion will be developed to provide a basis for society. [3]

While much of the media focuses attention on the danger of a Nazi-like dictatorship, Neuhaus rightly observes that the 20th century shows that left wing, socialistic dictatorships are both more probable and more dangerous. One need only look to the suffering and slaughter of Communist China, Soviet Russia, and other communist states and the current situation in Venezuela to see that the siren song of “free stuff” and economic equality spun by current proponents of a socialized economy are either misguided or worse. In an American election year in which we hear about the virtues of a socialized economy, perhaps Americans should take not of this danger. there has been but one Nazi Germany. There have been several Marxist disasters, creating totalitarianism and human suffering.

More importantly, at one point in his analysis, Neuhaus makes a comment that has a continuing relevance for thinking people concerning the danger to America of the naked public square: In all likelihood the naked public square in America will look somewhat different than in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. It would be a distinctly American, probably technologically driven,totalitarian monism that attempts to create a society without religious foundation, and therefore without meaning. [4] Those who think it cannot happen here might read the daily papers.

It turns out that a liberal democracy can only be sustained if all voices, and especially the voices of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other religious mediating institutions, can be heard. When these voices are excluded, then some elite will create its own moral and spiritual basis for society, and one in which religious voices are silenced. In contemporary America we see the danger of this happening.

This does not mean that religious people, and Christians in particular, should expect to control or dominate the public square. While religious voices are one voice in a pluralistic public square, they are not the only voice. Tolerance is a public virtue necessary to sustain a liberal democracy. We all have to listen to points of view we dislike or even regard as dangerous. More importantly for

Christians must remember that we are not called to dominate the public square but to serve it in self-giving love, emulating the One who gave himself for us. When his own leaders argued about who should be the greatest and in control, he gave this teaching:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28).

Next week, I am going to continue the analysis of this idea that all mediating institutions are necessary for a proper functioning liberal democracy.

God bless,

Chris

Copyright 2020, G Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] [1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.” This week’s blog is taken from Chapter 5, entitled “The Vulnerability of the Naked Public Square.”

[2] Id, at 79.

[3] Id, at 81.

[4] Id, at 85.

5. Critical Patriotism and Civil Community

Last week, we discussed the need for greater reliance on dialogue as opposed to political debate in the public arena. This week, this discussion continues. In The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus has a chapter on “Critical Patriotism and the Civil Community.” [1] The major point of the chapter is that, while civility is a virtue in public life, civility cannot exist without some notion of the worth of the civil community of which we are a part. If our civil community is hopelessly corrupt, as extremists left and right imagine, then there can be no warrant for civility, what is needed is a revolution. [2] It is with wisdom that Neuhaus begins the chapter with its best quote: “Civility is highly valued by the uncertain. It needs most to be exercised by the certain.” [3] We live in a time when this observation is important.

Political Certainty and the Problem of Radical Solutions

One most discouraging aspect of contemporary politics is the certainty with which the political extremes, left and right, are certain of the correctness of their policy preferences. This aspect of American politics is made more troublesome by the fact that identity politics, of which we spoke last week, has made rational compromise difficult to obtain. If, for example, decisions about how to best manage our health care system are caught between the extremes of “there can be no single public funding system” and “there must be a single payer system,” compromise becomes impossible. In a variety of areas, this lack of ability to compromise harms our nation.

Secondly, where extremes control the debate, moderate, smaller, and less disruptive policy prescriptions become impossible. The recent debate over “The Affordable Care Act” (ACA), known as “Obamacare” is illustrative.  President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and their advisors were determined to make a complete, radical change in the American healthcare system. Opponents were determined to prevent this. Many experts doubted that the public and private exchanges ACA exchanges could work, since they would attract the worst and most expensive risk and charge the lowest rates—something everyone in the insurance business knows is financial suicide. One party, did not mind this, since they saw the ACA as a step on the road to nationalized health care. The other party did not care because they believed (it turned out correctly) that the inevitable collapse of Obama Care would return them to power. Lost in all this was the need for America to have a more efficient and cost-effective medical care system. Because the extremes controlled the debate, a bad policy result obtained and billions of dollars and years of time were and are still being lost. Only recently has a more incremental revision been possible, perhaps because both parties feared the consequences of a complete collapse of the system.

The Virtues of Dialogue and Compromise

A rational government trusts that, over time, the public will embrace rational decisions if they are given time, information, and results. Even if one considers that the current policy in some area is not functional and dramatic change needs to be made, small changes in the right direction over time will lead everyone to recognize that fact. On the other hand, if the proposed polity solution turns out to be incorrect, then small changes will be easier to undo than dramatic ones.

In order for small changes to be made, the parties must set aside their ultimate polity preferences, enter a real dialogue, and compromise. This cannot be done in the setting of irrational charges, personal attacks, and public anger. Compromise requires the quiet moment of reflection on what is possible and necessary under the circumstances obtaining. In other words, it requires that wisdom and restraint be public virtues.

The term “civility” derives from the term “civil” and relates to public life. Civility is that public virtue that allows courteous, rational public debate, the absence of violence, physical, moral, or mental violence, all of which are counter-productive in the search for rational public policy. As America moves into a new era, restoration of (or at least an increase in) civility to public life is important. Without this, we are trapped into a series of policy missteps that ultimately damage our “civilization,” which is the end product of a civil public arena.

Civil Patriotism

Many on the left of America fear what they believe is a “jingoistic” irrational Patriotism. To the extent love of country, support common institutions, and care about the fundamental institutions (like the Constitution) are unreflective, there is a real danger in this fear. However, there is also a danger in jingoistic, irrational rejection of our social institutions, institutions that have served our nation well and allowed the social and economic progress we have made since our founding. True Civil Patriotism, and a love for our civil society, does not mean a lack of concern for its shortcomings and failures. It means a willingness to display respect for those who disagree with us and to listen with respect and openness to the critique they offer in the search for a better society for all.

As a Christian, I believe that it is only by injecting that most Christian of virtues, self-giving love into the public life of our nation that this is possible. Today is President’s Day. At the beginning of our nation, the wealthiest and most powerful figure of its birth, George Washington put everything at risk to create, form, and sustain our public institutions. He resisted every temptation to gain permanent power as he served our nation. At the moment when our nation was most fractured, Abraham Lincoln served our nation to maintain our union and fundamental institutions, and in the process eliminated the greatest evil present in the formation of our nation.  Perhaps it is to their example we should return as we face the problems of today.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] Id, at 69; “…civility assumes, if not a consensus about, at least a search for a reconstituted vision of the civitas.”

[3] Id, at 55.

4. Religious Pluralism, Identity Politics, and the Public Square

In this week’s post, I want to focus on an aspect of The Naked Public Square that has long troubled my thinking. [1] Neuhaus, writing in the 1980’s, was concerned to fashion a position in over and against both to secular liberalism and the resurgence of highly conservative thinking represented in his writing by the Moral Majority. The position he was staking out was eventually given the name of “Neo-Conservatism” or New Conservatism. [2] Neuhaus, as a mainline Lutheran and then Roman Catholic thinker was concerned to show how his views were different from those of, say, Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority. Naturally, in so doing, he has critical things to say about the fundamentalist reentry into American politics.

The Reality of Religious and Moral Diversity

The Moral Majority that Neuhaus was so concerned about is no more, however, the problem he recognized is still with us: One difficulty in outlining a Christian political philosophy is the great divergence within Christian groups on matters of faith, morals, and their implications for government. For example, when St. Augustine wrote City of God, there was no diversity of opinion among Christian leaders concerning the ethics of infanticide or abortion. They were universally condemned. Today, this happy situation no longer exists.

More importantly, if America was a diverse society in the 1980’s, it is immeasurably more religiously diverse today. Christianity has declined as the primary religious faith of Americans. Other religious traditions and people of no particular religious tradition have increased. There is no consensus among these traditions about many aspects of public life, and very little hope that a consensus will ever emerge.

Finally, in the 1980’s, Neuhaus did not fear that secular forces might drive Christianity out of the public square entirely. Today, we cannot be so sure. Recently one political candidate for President implied that Christians should not run for public office. Routinely candidates for confirmation to public office are attached for their Christian convictions. The danger of “anti-Christianism” has joined anti-Semitism as a real threat to our free polity.

The challenge to Christian people is to speak into this diversity with faithfulness to their particular tradition, but with wisdom and some level of respect for other competing traditions. Abortion is a case in point. For nearly half a century, different Christian groups have been speaking their views into the public arena, sometimes virulently. The public has become accustomed to conservative Christian groups opposing abortion and mainline denominations supporting it. As a result, both groups are ignored by the great majority of people. There is some evidence that the public believes that the legalization of abortion late in the term of pregnancy has little public support, but efforts to change this law spark heated debate, with charges and counter-charges being levied among the parties. Often these charges and counter-charges are levied in emotional language cut off from rational argument. It is hard to see how the bitterness of the debate helps the witness of Christians to the greater society at large. Thus far, it has also been ineffective.

Identity Politics and Its Consequences

As in so many areas of American politics, there needs to be a step beyond debate to dialogue and reasoned argument. One of the many things that the left and right hold in common is a completely modern view that politics can be reduced to political combat between variousinterest groups. The idea is to motivate various groups to support your bid for power by appealing to their opinions and prejudices, and especially those that give them their identity:  race, religion, economic class, sexual orientation, and similar characteristics. This is given the name “identity politics” and explains so much of what is deeply wrong with American politics today.

A major problems with identity politics is that it enables candidates and parties to focus on a small, emotionally laden group of issues to the exclusion of other important issues. If I can get votes by emphasizing sexual orientation or the evils of carbon based energy and promising some simple, if impossible action, I can avoid complex issues with complicated solutions that will involve compromise between various options.

For example, the national debt is only considered from the viewpoints of “they are trying to take away this or that public benefit” or “they are irresponsibly bankrupting the nation.” This allows the parties to ignore the fact that too much debt will impoverish all of us and our children and we have to compromise to bring about rational spending. The solution, if there is one, is not in the agenda of either party, but in some kind of compromise.

In another recent case, a candidate proposed eliminating the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels in a very short period of time. Lost in this proposal was the fact that such a policy would involve building something like 250 nuclear reactors in five or so years, covering large areas of the nation with solar panels that could not even be built in such a time frame, and other impossible alternatives. Perhaps a more realistic proposal would be better for the nation. This candidate did not have to deal with the reality of the situation. He just wanted to get votes from the environmental lobby.

This leads to the final problem with the political atmosphere identity politics creates: It makes compromise impossible. Once the parties have radicalized and polarized their voting base, they can never compromise on any rational solution to a problem. In the areas of the budget, medical care, entitlements, and the like we have seen the paralyzing results of identity politics at work.

Christians and Identity Politics

In the face of this, it is perhaps the best and most important witness that Christians can give is to be especially careful in how we express our internal disagreements in public. I have always felt that there was a demeaning tone to some of Neuhaus’ argument in The Naked Public Square regarding the new evangelical emergence, a kind of “snarkyness” that is both off putting and demeaning. It is as if he were trying to purchase the respect of the intellectual elite at the price of belittling fellow Christians. This is a strategy that cannot work and needs to be avoided at all costs.

I am pretty sure that a true Christian public theology for the 21st Century will attempt to transcend the polarization of 20th Century public theology. It will attempt to be dialogical as opposed to debate oriented. It is hard to conceive how this might occur, but it is an endeavor that is worth the effort.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.” The critique Neuhaus gives is so pervasive that I have not given citations.

[2] One problem with this name has to do with the fact that it is also used for a branch of the Republican Party and the defense polities it promotes. This means that religious Neo-conservatives are often mistaken with political Neo-conservatives. While they have certain similarities, they are very different. one can be a religious Neo-conservative and not support the “Neo-con” ideas on what is the best middle Eastern military posture.

3. Why Government Should Not Be “The Primary Thing that Gives Us Unity”

I thought that I might continue the line of thought that I began last week. One of the most discouraging things about the state of our national polity is the extent to which our national government has become both dominant over other levels of government and intrusive into the life of persons, families, communities and other social organizations.

In The Naked Public Square, Richard Neuhaus makes the following important statement:  “The things that matter most happen in the Mediating Structures of our personal and communal existence. These structures, family, neighborhood, church, Voluntary association—are the people sized” institutions where we work day by day at our felicities and fears. The public square is not limited to the Government Square. At the same time—and for reasons that unavoidable—government impinges on all public squares.” [1]

There is a lot to ponder in this little quote. Neuhaus begins with an observation that we too easily dismiss: even in the most intrusive of dictatorships, the family, friendships, neighborhood, community, church, and other societies have not only great influence, but they are the source of the day-to-day meaningfulness of life for most people. This past week, my wife and I have visited two of our children, entertained guests from out of town, attended an historic preservation community meeting, and been to two different church activities. We also listened to the State of the Union Address and wrote a check to a political group we support. Guess which of those activities were most meaningful and important to our happiness and to the fullness of our lives? It was family and friends. Then it was helping our local neighborhood and church. Finally, it was those activities that impinge upon our national politics.

The Tao Te Ching has a passage that I find important in thinking about politics and persons:

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a person,

virtue grows and becomes genuine.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a family,

virtue grows by loving transmission.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a community,

virtue grows through careful schooling.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a nation,

virtue grows by wise leadership.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in the world,

virtue grows as the Way is followed. [2]

One does not have to ponder this quotation for very long before what is deeply wrong with our political culture becomes obvious: We pay too little attention to the smaller, more intimate and personal aspects of our society. In so doing, we weaken our national polity, which inevitably relies upon the health of other institutions.

The modern world has created a kind of schizophrenia as “self-actualizing individuals” seeking their own happiness paradoxically diminish the very institutions that give the most meaning, purpose and wholeness to life. The rampant incidence of divorce in our society is but one example.

As a result of the interconnectedness of society, social institutions, and personal happiness, it is one of the roles of government to respect the limitations in its potential reach. The power of the sword is an important power. It inevitably creates the potential for governments of all kinds to emasculate and diminish other institutions. The temptation to do so in the search of some public good is ever present, but the temptation must be resisted, or the society as a whole will suffer.

In the United States, the national government has intruded itself into almost every aspect of life, personal and communal. It tells farmers what they can grow, small business persons what they can sell and to whom they may sell, businesses how they can manufacture, community schools what they can teach, doctors and hospitals what care they can deliver—the list could go on and on. The point is not that what they government is doing is necessarily wrong or that the motives of the national government are suspect. It is that we would all be better off if local communities decided for themselves what to do as much as possible.

One of the primary goals of any Christian public philosophy should be to give a general kind of guidance to policy makers concerning how much power they should exercise and how much restraint they should exercise in the public good. The principle I gather from all this is quite simple: Every public decision should be made at the lowest possible level and when there is a question, the lower body should remain free to do as it believes best.

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/ Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love an Adaptation of the Tao Te Ching for Christ-Followers (Cordova, TN: Permissio Por Favor (Booksurge), 2014). This quote is found in Chapter 54 on page 108.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Christian wisdom for abundant living

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