Willimon/Hauerwas: Resident Aliens

Resident Aliens is an important analysis of how Christians should interact with late 20th-century and early 21st-century culture. [1] The book’s primary argument is that churches should focus on developing Christian life and community rather than attempting to reform secular culture. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon reject the idea that America is a Christian nation; instead, Christians should see themselves as “resident aliens” in a foreign land.

For those familiar with Stanley Hauerwas’s work, the book’s theme is no surprise. He has long been of the view that (1) the “Constantinian” merger of the Christian faith with the Roman Empire and (2) the identification of Christian faith with some idealized form of the “American Way of Life” were great mistakes that can only be remedied by the church recovering its identity as the body of Christ.

When I was in seminary, like most seminarians, one of the required courses was “Christian Ethics,” by which our professor meant “public ethics” since there was no interest in personal ethics. After many weeks of reading liberation theology, Reinhold Niebuhr, and a host of academic theologians, most of whom were uninterpretable, we read Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom. [2] Finally, a book that seemed more or less biblical, understandable, and applicable to ordinary Christian life and ministry. I read A Community of Character and After Christendom in rapid succession. [3]. When Resident Aliens was published, I bought it, read it briefly, and forgot all about it. Only when I realized it was a necessary part of this series did I get a copy and read it again, this time more closely.

The authors are two of the most prominent figures in Methodism over the past many years. Hauerwas was a distinguished professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University. Willimon was a pastor, Chaplain at Duke, and later a Methodist Bishop. Together, they wrote Resident Aliens as a book for laypersons and pastors with chapters relevant to Christian ethics, public ethics, and pastoral ministry. Willimon also happened to be a college friend of a fellow church member, elder, and leader in our church in Houston.

The Constantinian Church

I’m sure many lay people get confused by terms like “Constantinian” and church by people like me. Just to be sure we understand what is meant, in the years between 303 and 313, Emperor Constantine defeated his enemies, became the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire, declared himself to be a Christian, and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before that time, the Christian church had, at best, been tolerated and persecuted many times, including in the recent history before 310. Until modern times, beginning about 300 years ago, the Christian faith was the official religion in all parts of Europe. Although other groups were tolerated, they were not the official religion. Occasionally, as with the Jews, they were persecuted. Even the protestant reformation did not change the Christian nature of Europe and its colonies. Although they were now both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and the official state church was not always Roman Catholic, Europe was still Christian.

In such a situation, the church had a privileged position in society. In the United States, that privilege position continued until relatively recently. For example, even as late as the 1990s, in small towns in the rural south of North America, the pastors of the local churches were part of the leadership of the community. This leadership was not merely spiritual but included many things like fundraising for community projects, supporting the local government in its initiatives, and providing a spiritual gloss to government and business activities in the community. In such a situation, it was relatively easy to blur the distinction between what characterized American values, including American political values, and what might constitute a Christian view of the world.

The End of the Constantinian World

Europe became secular after World War I and even more remarkably after World War II. The vast majority of people never attend church, the church has lost its privileged position in society, and an enormous number of immigrants, primarily of the Muslim or Hindu faiths, began a process in which those states were no longer Christian. [4] During the 1950s and early 1960s, the United States was more or less exempt from the process. However, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, a variety of Supreme Court decisions, and other actions that the center of the church in America all have produced a current situation in which the Christian church in the United States is in nearly the same circumstances as the Christian churches in Europe today. In other words, the “Constantinian Settlement” is over.

To their credit, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon were early to understand the changes coming to the American church and American society. In particular, Hauerwas was an early advocate that the church had to learn how to be the church in an era vastly different than anything experienced in the West in 2000 years and anything that the Christian church in America had ever experienced. Today, Christian leaders can look back on the last 30 years and wish they had paid closer attention to the warnings and advice people like Hauerwas and Willimon are giving.

Similarities Betweem the Religious Left and Right

When Hauerwas and Willimon began writing, they had to be careful what they said so that the religious and political left would not misunderstand them. While they were critical of the religious left, they were also critical of the religious right. In fact, Hauerwas and Willimon believed that these two groups were just two sides of the same mistake: They were trying to maintain the alliance between the powers of this world and the Christian message that would continue the church’s importance in modern secular democracy. Their difference was not in their strategy but in their tactics. Underneath both was the desire to maintain the alliance between the government and the church.

For the religious left, what is sometimes called liberal Christianity was obviously true. The social policies of the left that favored the United States academia were obviously true, and the proper course of action for Christians was to support liberal Christianity and left-wing politics. For the religious right, it was obvious that the prescriptions of the Religious Right were true. The religious beliefs of conservative Christians were true; therefore, it was obvious that the Christian church should support traditional Christianity and right-wing politics.

Hauerwas and Willimon believe that both approaches are profoundly mistaken and misguided. The two positions are heads and tails of the same religious coin. Both liberal and conservative Christianity are incorrect about the implications of Christianity for public life, and the actions were compromised by their pretensions to favor the secular leadership of the nation. In both cases, their error made them susceptible to manipulation by those in or seeking power. We can now see clearly that Hauerwas and Willimon were onto something.

Resident Aliens

Resident Aliens’s title catches the reader’s immediate attention and incorporates the book’s primary message. In the author’s view, Christians in America and the West need to become accustomed to being resident aliens. Christians live in our society, but they are citizens of another kingdom. [5] The biblical basis for this is the biblical notion that Abraham and the patriarchs were led to the promised land but never received that land. They wandered as resident aliens among the peoples of the land. As the author of Hebrews puts it:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from afar, admitting they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

The patriarchs were aliens in the lands through which they traveled and lived. Similarly, the early church was ostracized from various aspects of Roman society and maintained its presence as “resident aliens.” They were in the Roman Empire but citizens of the Kingdom of God. This passage and others like it constitute the Biblical foundation for the proposal made in Resident Aliens.

Hauerwas and Willimon also use the phrase “colony’ to describe the church’s situation in Western culture. [6] The church is like a colony of heaven planted within the societies of the world, colonies populated by resident aliens. As the authors put it:

We hope to recover the sense that we try to live the Sermon on the Mount because this is the nature of our God, and it is our destination that we should be such people. The colony is the vessel that carries us there. It is not apart from the vessel but within this vessel that we not only know the truth but are carried along with it. [7]

In these two metaphors, “resident aliens’ and the church as a “colony” lie the book’s strengths and limitations.

Resident Aliens. Let’s take the term resident aliens first. A resident alien is a citizen of one nation who resides in another country. For example, my wife and I lived in Scotland for a short time. We resided in Scotland for an entire summer. I was still a citizen of the United States of America. I was resident in Scotland. I couldn’t vote in Scotland. I was not a member of the national health or retirement schemes. I was living in one place but a citizen of somewhere else.

It’s beguiling to think this is an adequate description of the church. But the question is raised, “To what extent is it? “I am a Christian, a church member, and a resident of Texas in the United States. I’m not completely an “alien” in any of those roles. Compelling sermons can be given to Christian audiences saying we should be resident aliens in our culture. Still, in reality, to some degree or another, the description is incomplete. In reality, Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God and citizens of the United States at the same time.

In another context, I’ve pointed out that when I travel abroad, particularly in Third World countries, I am very aware that I am an American. I’m not a citizen of the country I am in, a part of their culture, or, in most cases, a full participant in the life of their churches. I am a guest. In Scotland, even though I was preaching regularly in a Scottish church, I was a resident alien. In Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines, I am even more aware of my status as a foreigner. In America, I’m a citizen and a Christian.

This is not just an academic point. It’s a point of life and ministry. It’s not that we can or should learn to be full citizens of the kingdom of God who happen to be residents of the United States. The reality is that we have an even more difficult job than being resident aliens. Western Christians must learn to be citizens of their nation and love and serve it as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

A reason why this is important has to do with its implications for our citizenship in both worlds. If I am fully a citizen of the kingdom of God and fully a citizen of the United States, then I must find a way to be loyal to both of my citizenships. I have to struggle and make decisions with loyalty to both my citizenships. As a Christian, it seems to me that the binding requirement is self-giving love. My citizenship in the United States does not eliminate my duty to act in love toward my fellow citizens—even if they’re not Christians. My citizenship in the kingdom of God demands that I love others—even if they’re my enemies.

This situation can put Christians in some difficult situations. As the life of Dietrich, Bonhoeffer illustrates, one can be a citizen of a nation whose actions and values put one in tension with the values and intentions of the kingdom of God. [8] When that happens, we have to decide what we will do. We must find a way to be loyal as best we can to both. It may even be impossible to make a wholly moral and Christian response as with Bonhoeffer. I might have to make a choice that is either contrary to the values of the kingdom, the values of the kingdom of God, or both. A good deal of the scholarship concerning Dietrich. Bonhoeffer ignores that Bonhoeffer was committing treason under German law in choosing to join the conspiracy against Hitler. He also potentially violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Bonhoeffer was very aware of his dilemma and the compromise he was making. He knew that if captured, he would be lawfully executed as a traitor. He felt he must take that action as a German and Christian. He died as a result. Even today, many people do not consider him a martyr for that reason. That’s human life as it really lived.

An implication of the duty to be fully resident in both kingdoms and bring God’s love to bear in our Christian roles is that Christian faith cannot justify my being “subversive.” This is a popular word in academia today and very popular among certain Christians, but it’s the wrong way of looking at our duties as Christians. When confronted with aspects of my society that are wrong, my duty is not to subvert that society. I must love it in such a way that it changes. That love might even require a cross. It did for Jesus. His enemies saw Jesus as subversive, but he was not. He loved his enemies enough to oppose the injustice and lack of faith that prevented them from also enjoying their status as creatures made in God’s image.

Colony. The authors also employ the metaphor of the church as a “colony” of heaven located on earth. This metaphor is also helpful but ultimately of limited utility. First of all, what a colony! The apostle Paul and others in the ancient world would have been familiar with what a colony was. For example, the nation-state of Greece had colonies in what is today part of Italy. The people there were Greek. They spoke Greek. Their social institutions were Greek. Their culture was Greek. The colony was an outpost of Greece in Sicily and southern Italy.

Now, there is a part of this metaphor that is true. The church, as it exists in any culture, is, to some degree, to be seen as a colony of the kingdom of God planted amid another culture. But it’s different. The people in my church are primarily Americans, but we have a few members and regular attendees from elsewhere in the world. We are all Texans, the number of them or imports from the northern part of the United States in California. We live in America, in Texas, and San Antonio. We are subject to the laws of each of these jurisdictions. We participate in the culture of our home. We are also gathered as a colony of heaven. We are that, but we are more. We are the family of God, the household of God, and the people of God, also Biblical metaphors that point to the full reality of the church.

Conclusion

In my former church, I had a friend who went to college with Willimon and often spoke admiringly of him as a person and thinker. While at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, I got to hear Stanley Hauerwas in person for some reason. As mentioned, Hauerwas’s work was and is crucial for me as a pastor and thinker. They are two great leaders of the Wesleyan tradition with an impact on many Christian groups. I would not want any of my little criticism to indicate that their insights have not taught and continue to teach me. They do. Before the series is over, I will have the opportunity to talk about what I call “just war pacifism.” In thinking about Hauerwas’s defense of pacifism and pondering the example of Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, and others, I began to see the dangers of an unmodified form of just war theory. (I am very confident that Hauerwas would never agree with my conclusions and would mount a devastating critique of my ideas! That is part of my reluctance to share my thoughts. The other is the comments of a young philosopher with whom I talked about the idea years ago.)

In the meantime, Resident Aliens is a wonderful and informative book that all pastors and laypersons should read in considering their ideas about faith and politics.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014).

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer on Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983),

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) and After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave is Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991)

[4] France is often used as a poster child for this phenomenon. France entered the 20th Century as a secular state with a strong Christian, primarily Catholic presence. Since World War II, it has become an almost militant secular state with a limited Christian presence. Recently, the government has taken measures to secure its “secularity” because of the enormous Muslim population, a population that is growing much faster than the secular French population. It has also suffered social unrest as a result of the activities of more radical Muslim groups.

[5] Resident Aliens, at 49.

[6] Id, at 50.

[7] Id, at 91.

[8] Hauerwas and Willimon use Bonhoeffer as an example, and Hauerwas has written on Bonhoeffer. Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Non-Violence (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015).

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day “A Longing for Justice”

When I was in undergraduate school, I took a class in Political Philosophy. We discussed a big question: “Is there really any such thing as justice?” Interestingly, Many people think power is the only thing that really exists. Later, in law school, I trained to be an officer of the court system, which theoretically seeks justice. Interestingly, we never had a single discussion about the subject. We were preparing to win cases and assumed that justice would happen if we all played by the Rules of Civil Procedure. Every so often throughout the years, I would wonder, “Is there anything called ‘justice,’ or is justice the name we give to the opinions of whoever wins in a social or legal conflict?”

This Christmas, our mediations have centered around Isaiah and the verses of a chosen Christmas Carol. Without a doubt, my favorite carol is “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written during the American Civil War, a time that bears some resemblance to our own. Here are the Poet Laruate’s lyrics:

I heard the bells on Christmas day/Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,/ There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”

I thought how, as the day had come,/The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song/ Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

And in despair, I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
[1]

The Carol speaks for many of us this Christmas Season.

Our Innate Sense of Justice

When Kathy and I had children, the subject of justice never came up so long as we had one child, the apple of our eyes and the eyes of her grandparents. Our lucky first child got pretty much whatever she wanted. Then came our second child, and when they got old enough, we would hear one or the other claim, “That is not fair. _____ got more than I did.” By the time we had four children, we heard this complaint a lot. For a time, we tried to be fair about everything, but no matter what we did, someone would think that someone else got a better present, a bigger room, or whatever.

At some point, every parent has experienced the claim that what they are doing is unfair. What interests me about the claim is not whether it is true or false but the fact that children and adults seem to have a kind of natural idea of justice and fairness, and we complain when we are not treated as we believe we deserve or when we feel that we have not received what we deserve. In other words, the idea of justice seems to be an innate part of human nature.

The Jewish People and Injustice

Humans do not necessarily agree about what justice is, but we long for justice. We want ourselves, our people, our family, our religion, and our friends to be treated fairly. People have always had such a longing. On the other hand, injustice is a fact of human existence. The Jews had a heightened sense of injustice. The history of the Jewish people is filled with instances of great injustice. After being invited to enter Egypt, they were enslaved for over 400 years. After they escaped that captivity, they were frequently attacked by neighboring tribes and nations. After the kingdom of David was divided, the ten northern tribes were subjected to dispersion and terrible treatment by the Assyrians. After Judea was captured, it was subjected to captivity by the Babylonians. The Greeks and Romans mistreated the Jews. Throughout history, anti-Semitism has been a terrible problem. The Jews have been mistreated in the 20th century, especially in Germany under Hitler. Today, we see the reemergence of anti-Semitism in the West, even in our own country.

Isaiah and the Just King

The prophet Isaiah longed for a just society. One central theme of Isaiah is the theme of justice and injustice. Isaiah believed that the punishment of God was coming upon Judah partially because of social injustice (See Isaiah 1:21 and 59:4-8). Repeatedly, the prophet speaks of the injustice of Jewish society. Here is a vision from Isaiah:

See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear. No longer will the fool be called noble nor the scoundrel be highly respected. For fools speak folly, their hearts are bent on evil: They practice ungodliness and spread error concerning the Lord; the hungry they leave empty, and from the thirsty they withhold water. Scoundrels use wicked methods, they make up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just. But the noble make noble plans, and by noble deeds, they stand (Isaiah 32:1-8).

A Cold and Unjust World.

Several years ago, the Christmas theme came from movies made from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels. [2] In the first book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie are magically transported into the world of Narnia. It turns out that Narnia is ruled by an evil witch who has arranged for Narnia to be frozen in winter. It is always winter and never spring, and Christmas never comes. The witch is cruel and powerful, and her magic wand immediately freezes everyone who opposes her. There is no justice in Narnia.

Of course, Narnia is meant to be a magical rendition of the Planet Earth. Just as Narnia is under the rule of the White Witch, our world is often under the domination of evil rulers, including that spiritual reality or person we sometimes call “Satan.” Just as the White Witch has made Narnia a cold place, our world is not as intended. Just as there is no justice in Narnia, there is a lot of injustice in our world. There is social injustice, racial injustice, prejudice against all sorts of people, including Christians and Jews, laws that discriminate, judges that do not do justice, and a host of other kinds of injustices. We  easily join the poet in saying, “there is no peace on earth.” None of this makes God happy.

The same thing was true in the time of Isaiah. Here is how he describes his day and time:

No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments; they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil, and acts of violence are in their hands. Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. They pursue malicious schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths (Isaiah 59:4-8).

The situation, as Isaiah saw it, was just as complex as the situation we sometimes see around us. And, just as our own prophets foresee trouble if we do not change our national ways, Isaiah predicted suffering if the Jews did not change their national behavior. Sin, it seems, has consequences—something we sometimes forget.

The World We Long For.

In the Narnia books, the true King of Narnia, Aslan—a Christ figure—is coming. One indication that Aslan is coming is that the long Narnia winter is ending, and Spring is finally coming. Even Santa Claus appears to give the children gifts before Spring arrives. In Isaiah, the prophet also uses an image of nature being changed because of what the Messiah will do when he comes as a symbol of the spiritual healing of the land of his people. In Isaiah 11, after speaking of the supernatural justice of the expected Anointed One, the prophet has the following vision:

Righteousness will be his belt, and faithfulness will be the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11: 5-9).

The idea is that nature is impacted by justice and injustice. Human beings and human life are changed for the better when we seek justice and live peacefully with others. [3]

Whether or not we visualize the future in poetic terms, we all long for a just world and believe that a just and peaceful world would be happier than the world we live in. Unfortunately, almost all of us also desire our injustice to remain in that world. We want the injustice that impacts us removed, but we do not feel so strongly about the injustice we inflict on others. God will not have it this way. God wants to get rid of all injustice, the injustice of the rich and the poor, of the powerful and the powerless, of the insiders and the outsiders. God desires a perfectly just world.

The Work We Do in the Meantime.

Of course, we will not have a perfect world, at least not for the foreseeable future. This world will always be imperfect. Just as the Bible gives us a humanly unreachable standard for leadership, the Bible also gives us an unattainable standard for justice. We are not God, and we are not gods and goddesses. Therefore, we will never have a perfectly just world or society on this earth. This does not mean we should not work towards one.

Not so many years ago, Kathy and I had the opportunity to meet the singer Sarah Groves. She sang for a retreat we were on. I learned that she donates a bit of her time to an organization called “International Justice Mission” or “IJM.” IJM is an international justice mission dedicated to eradicating slavery worldwide. We do not like to think about it, but there are more slaves today than ever before in history. In particular, many women are essentially enslaved in the prostitution industry. Some of these women are kidnapped, drugged, and sold into the trade. In poorer countries, families may sell one member into slavery to provide for the rest of the family. IJM attempts to expose, halt, and assist in the prosecution of this kind of slavery.

One of our elders and a few others visited Thailand to visit a mission for such women. They had a week or so of helping and learning about this serious problem. Kathy has been involved with Casa Mami, an orphanage in Mexico. At least some girls Casa Mami helps would otherwise be on the streets of Reynosa and other cities. We help in a lot of ways.

I do not want to continue to go on and on with examples. Instead, I want to point out some things we can all do to bring peace and justice into the world as we await the time in which God will act to bring justice in the form of  a “New Heaven and New Earth.” Each of us, in our hearts, knows of some area in which there is an injustice that we would like to overcome or help others to overcome. None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite the Risen Lord into the situation. We can pray that God will intervene and that God’s wisdom and love will come into situations of injustice.
  • Resist the temptation to defeatism and negativity. It is easy to complain. It is hard to do something positive.
  • Study the Bible and the specific injustice you are interested in. Gaining a Godly perspective and a worldly understanding is a part of learning to overcome injustice.
  • Act. A true disciple of Christ worships God, grows in Christ-likeness, and serves others as three pegs of the Christian life. Doing something is important.
  • Be patient. No problem, especially no serious one, is quickly or painlessly overcome. We must hang in there.

It is a strength of Christianity that we look forward to God’s help overcoming injustice. We need to hold onto our need for God’s help. Nevertheless, we cannot give up on working for justice because that is what God would have us do in the meantime.

The One Hope We Have.

We cannot be entirely sure of what justice is in this world. We also cannot know completely that our actions are bringing about justice. Often, in liberal churches, sight is lost of the fact that we cannot bring the Kingdom of God upon the earth solely by our actions. Often, in conservative churches, we forget that God has created his church upon the earth to bring a foreshadowing of the kingdom until Christ returns.

The cross is a great reminder that God suffers injustice with everyone who suffers injustice. Christ was arrested unjustly, tried unjustly, and crucified unjustly. God knows and understands the reality and power of injustice. The cross is where the mercy and justice of God meet—and it is a reminder that God is with us when we suffer injustice. The resurrection is a reminder that God will ultimately win over injustice.

Christmas is our reminder that the King has come. Winter may not be over, and it may get colder before Spring, but spring is coming.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” ends with this Word of hope:

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,/ For Christ is here; His Spirit near/ Brings peace on earth, goodwill to men.” [4]

 

This is my final post of 2023. I hope that 2024 will bring an end to this long series of posts on Justice. For whatever it is worth, I also hope that 2024 produces the sequel to Marshland. Merry Christmas Season and a very Happy New Year!

Copyright 2024, G.  Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (I864). This blog is not original, but is based on two sermons I preached at Christmas in my former Church. I am a great fan of the Casting Crowns Version of this hymn, which we sang every year!

[2] The Chronicles of Narnia are published by Harper Trophy, A Division of Harper Collins, New York, New York. The first book in the series is The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

[3] I have more than once noted in the past that we modern people too often discount and fail to recognize the impact of sin on the world we inhabit and its consequences, even upon those with whom we have no direct impact. Just as in the physical world, there can be “spooky action at a distance” in the subatomic world, in the macro world, I am convinced that spiritual realities “act at a distance.” I have seen the phenomena with my own eyes.

[4] “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” previously cited.

Peaceful Light in Gathering Darkness

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1-2). There is a paradox in the life of faith. We believe that through faith in Christ, we can have a relationship with God, who dwells in light inaccessible and whose wisdom transcends any human wisdom. Christ embodied this divine light. In the words of the Nicene Creed, we believe Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” This Sunday/Christmas Eve, we celebrate the Great Light that will ultimately illuminate and renew our world, undoing the darkness of war, conflict, power politics, and human degradation and bringing a kingdom of peace. The light has come. We now await its victory.

At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery that the love of God was so great that he bridged the gap between time and eternity, between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the physical, between the demands of love and law, and became one of us so that we might be restored and become like him. Therefore, this Sunday, as Christians gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, we can join with Christians all over the world to sing:

O little town of Bethlehem,/ How still we see thee lie!/Above thy deep and dreamless sleep/The silent stars go by;/ Yet in the dark street shineth/ The Everlasting Light; /The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight. [1]

In the dark streets of our cities, wherever Christ is present, the Everlasting Light shines.

Walking in Darkness

Occasionally, humans all feel as if we are walking in a great darkness separated from the True Light of God’s Presence. Some of us think that way much of the time. Our human plans are unfulfilled and seemingly blocked. Our well-meaning prayers are unanswered. Our most important relationships are troubled. Our employment is uncertain. Our nation and the prosperity and freedoms we take for granted are at risk. Our character flaws seem impossible to overcome. In such situations, we can quickly feel overwhelmed. Our sin and selfishness seem inescapable and devastating to our hopes and dreams.

Recognizing Darkness

The prophet Isaiah foretold that those who walk in darkness will see a great light. He does not say, “Those who are already in the light will see a light.” He does not say, “Those who are sure they do not need any light will see a great light.” It says, “Those who walk in darkness, who understand their condition, will see a great light” (Isaiah 9:1-2). Light is reserved for those who recognize and are tired of darkness.

When we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” physically or symbolically, the assurance that there is a God of Mercy and Love who cares for us makes an incredible difference. The blessings of God may be delayed. The salvation of God may be impossible to predict humanly. The darkness may seem impenetrable. However, the Creating and Renewing God, who can do anything, is still there.

The True Light

How can we human beings know this? There is more than one reason, but the reason we celebrate at Christmas is this: Because God sent his one and only Son into the world, we can know that the Divine Presence is never far from us in steadfast and self-giving love, even if we cannot sense its reality at the moment. Right at the beginning of his gospel, John makes this point when he tells his readers that the true light has come:

 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:9-11).

Jesus himself refers to himself as the true light that can dispel the spiritual darkness of the human race. In John 9, after Jesus heals a man blind from birth. In explaining the healing, he declares, While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). There is no physical, emotional, or spiritual darkness that this true light cannot enlighten.

All human beings are strange conglomerations of darkness and light, good and evil, love and indifference, justice and injustice, diligence and laziness, and the like. We are all imperfect creatures, made in the image of God but in whom that image has been defaced to some degree. Nevertheless, God loves us and desires for us to be restored to the original image placed within every one of us. Each Christmas Eve, we celebrate the entrance of that true life into the world in human form.

The Peace that Passes Understanding

Perhaps this Christmas Season, the most challenging part of “O Little Town of Bethlehem for us to accept is the third verse, which reads:

For Christ is born of Mary; and, gathered all above,/while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love./O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, /and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.

Jesus warns us that his peace is not the peace we might expect. In John 14, he tells his disciples:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:7). He would not have warned his disciples not to be troubled or afraid if he had not known that the peace he offers would leave them plenty of room reason to fear. There would be opposition, persecution, and even death. There would be wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6). There would be dishonesty, corruption, and evil plots.

When we light the Candle of Peace this particular Christmas Eve, we can take heart that the peace we receive cannot be broken by terrorists or international intrigue. It is a peace that far transcends any human peace. It is not a peace that requires armies or agencies or great bureaucracies. It is a peace that requires only a heart open to a tiny baby born in an obscure village at the edge of a great empire. It requires ears to hear in the cry of that baby the Wisdom of the Ages incarnate. It needs the eyes to see the True Light that enlightens all who receive him.

Unless I am very mistaken, 2024 will be a difficult year. Fortunately, the peace and happiness God promises is not dependent on human circumstances but on the steadfast love of God.

Merry Christmas!

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved!

[1] Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” music by Peter Christian Lutkin. (Chicago, IL: C. F. Summy Co., 1867).

Joy in a Joyless World

Yesterday, in many churches, the congregation celebrated the third Sunday in Advent and lit what they called “The Candle of Joy.” In just a few days, Christians worldwide will gather to celebrate the birth of Christ. Many congregations will sing “Joy to the World,” the first verse of which reads as follows:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing, And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing. [1]

“Joy to the World” celebrates in song the birth of the savior of the world (v. 2), who will conquer the power of sin and death (v. 3) and rule the world with truth and grace (v. 4). If this is true, then indeed not just Christians but everyone should sing, “Joy to the world! the Savior reigns!” The world of political manipulation., violence, war, and dearth is over. A new kingdom has begun its entry into the world. Unfortunately, the world does not recognize the birth of this Savior of Love, the Prince of Peace, by whom, in the act of Divine love, provision was made for the undoing of sin, death, and the consequences of human finitude, selfishness, and evil.

Joy to the World

The hymn “Joy to the World” comes from a verse in Psalm 95, which happened to be my meditation psalm this morning:

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our Salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. The Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land (Psalm 95:1-5).

The meditation for this week is all about joy. Joy involves happiness, but it is more than mere “happiness.” Joy is an excellence of achievement, success, or well-being. It is not just being healthy and whole but the joyous recognition that we have achieved health and wholeness. Joy is a state of peace recognized by the one experiencing it as something final and absolute. (at least for the moment) Joy is the recognition of the reality of the Shalom God intends for the whole world, that state of perfect justice, beauty, and health for which all human beings long.

This particular Christmas, it may be difficult to feel joy for many people, myself included. In just a few weeks, I will turn 73 years old. I can feel the increasing weakness and fragility of an aging physical body. The antics of our government and prominent educational institutions, the ballooning indebtedness of our society, and evident moral and aesthetic decay are not reasons for joy. The increasing manipulativeness of elites signals difficult times ahead. The wars in the Middle East and Ukraine are not reasons for joy nor is the increasing antisemitism of Western societies. [2]

The emergence of a new round of antisemitism and opposition to almost any religious values reminds me of the words of Martin Niemöller:

First, they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time, there was no one left to speak out for me. [3]

I am afraid we live in a time similar to the time of Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a time to speak up, hoping that one day we can experience the joy of good success in a noble endeavor.

The Apostle Paul also lived in a day and time when it was challenging to sing “Joy to the World,” yet he encouraged his churches to experience the joy of Christ. In First Thessalonians, after his rejection and mistreatment there, he writes, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 16-18). In Philippians, Paul writes from prison, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Over and over again, Paul speaks of the importance of Christian joy in his letters. Near the beginning of his ministry in 1 Thessalonians, he speaks of joy, and near the end in prison in Rome, he speaks of joy. He is not, however, speaking of merely human joy.

In his letter, James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). This verse reveals to us that Christian joy is not a circumstantial joy. It is not a joy that comes and goes with feelings of health or disease, success or failure, affluence or poverty, peace or war.  Christian is the joy of faith that comes from believing and living based on the promises of God.

In the Old Testament, the symbol of the kind of joy based on God’s faithfulness to his promises is found in many places. One of my favorites is found in Isaiah 51:

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you;
for Abraham was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. You see, the Lord comforts his people; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like the Garden of Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her,
   thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:1-3).

Isaiah 51:11 goes on to conclude with the words of one of my favorite praise chorus from my younger years:

Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing into Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away (Isaiah 51:11).

Christian joy is a joy based upon the promises of a faithful God. It is faith that at the end of the Abrahamic journey of faith, there will be joy as God’s kingdom is finally a reality in our lives and in the lives of those we love, indeed in the lives of all people of whatever race, color, or creed.

The Faulty Vision of Modernity

A contrary vision has captured our sad and dark world—a vision of a perfect earthly kingdom created through technology, bureaucracy, and the ideas of an intellectual and material elite. This elite and its followers no longer hear the muffled cry of a baby born in a manger in an obscure village in Palestine 2000 years ago, long before the modern world. A kind of spiritual deafness has engulfed our world. Sometimes it engulfs me as well.

The followers of this new ideology, left and right, do not listen to hear the voice of angels. They want to hear the cry of the scion of a wealthy and influential family in London, Moscow, Peking, Pretoria, Riyad, Tehran, Tokyo, Washington, or some other capital city. They want the advice of the great universities of the West, almost all formed by devout Christians. They want the development of a new and greater technology that will create their vision of a perfect world—at least for them. They ultimately and inevitably want to hear the cry of an Alexander the Great, not an obscure baby born to be a Suffering Servant, despised and rejected by most of the human race (Isaiah 53:3).

The reasons for the rejection of Christ by Western elites are complex. The development of Newtonian physics and modern technology gave birth to the dream of a world run by human scientific reason where everything could be rationally organized according by human scientific and technological wisdom. For 300 years, this was the dream of most intellectuals. The dissenting voices of Romantics were heard, only to eventually produce the figure of Nietzsche and the glorification of human will, the Will to Power. This, in turn, created the intellectual foundation for another Alexander the Great. This figure had gone by many names: Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pot Pol—name your poison. The vision cast by the Enlightenment only began to decay when the reality dawned on a few that no such paradise was being created either in the capitalist West or the Communist East. Today, there are few true believers, but many true users of the Gospel of Power and Greed.

The New Vision

Interestingly, for over a century now, we have known that the picture of the world as nothing but matter and force is not an accurate picture of reality. Reality is much more like an organism than it is like a machine. We live in a universe of unimaginable rationality and universal relationality. It is a world in which not a sparrow falls from the sky without consequence. It is a world in which every act of love or hate is felt not just somewhere but everywhere It is a world where meaning can be found at every level of reality, from basic particles to the complexities of human civilizations.

There is plenty of room in this new vision of reality for freedom, love, grace, and other things values. This new world vision has space for real truth, justice, beauty, and goodness. There is also room for God and a God who rules in self-giving love and grace to restore his troubled creation. In this new vision of reality there is plenty of room for wisdom and love, and a savior that rules with grace and peace, if only people will listen to the voice of angels and the announcement of the kingdom. Angels can sing in this new world.

This vision means that Christians will not gather this Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and sing “Joy to the World” in vain nor as deluded participants in a dead and dying religion. Instead they gather as participants in a “New Heaven and New Earth,” looking forward to that day in which the world will freely recognize its self-centered and destructive ways and bow in humility before the power of Divine Love, of a love that never commands or demands but offers itself for the beloved. It is true, you see, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”(John 3:16). He gave. That is why we give gifts on Christmas Day. God gave us his Beloved Son, and so we give human gifts in response to that love.

The tens of thousands of congregations worldwide that will gather this Christmas Day, large and small, are what Paul called the “First Fruits” of the gift of Christ (I Corinthians 15:20-23).  Christians of every age are those who, by grace, are called to become children of God in order to proclaim and live out the birth of the Kingdom of Christ in the world—not an earthly kingdom of kings, presidents, prime ministers, chairpersons, and the like, with armies and great bureaucracies to enforce their decrees, but a heavenly kingdom of love most graciously offered and given without any demand of a response.

We can sing “Joy to the World” this and every Christmas because the One Who Was, Is, and Will Be, the Alpha and Omega, the Bright and Morning Star, has been born into the world. His kingdom has begun and he does rule, and will rule the earth in grace and truth despite what we fallen human creatures make of his creation. We can sing “Joy to the World” because this obscure rabbi and traveling teacher and healer is the Rock of our Salvation, a deliverance he enacted for us in human history and continues quietly and in love to work out in history, not just for a few but for all people and the entirety of his creation.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs,

All Rights Reserved

[1] Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” (1719).

[2] I want to be sure that it is understood that all racism and prejudice against people for reasons of color, creed, political views, race or otherwise is contrary to the vision of Christ and the nature of the God of Love..

[3] Martin Niemöller, First They Came…”  (downloaded from various sources December 18, 2023). This quote has many different versions because it came from various oral presentations. I have used the most inclusive version I could find.

The Prince of Peace in a World of War

This past Sunday, we lit the Candle of Peace, and in our Sunday school class we read these words:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end
(Isaiah 9:2-7).

As we read these verses, young men and women were dying on battlefields in Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, and Ukraine, among other places. The reading reminded us that the world is not as we wish it would be. At our Church and another we visited yesterday, there were Christmas pageants, and we were blessed to have a daughter and two of our grandchildren with us last week. Looking at the children, it is impossible not to remember that there are children all over the world suffering in places of war, oppression, disease, and death. How is it possible to take comfort from these verses in such a world?

Jesus was a Realist

When Jesus came, he recognized that the power of violence was great. He also realized that the violence and war of our world do not come from conditions outside of the human soul but from a deep disease within the human soul. It is not a disease that is easily curable. One of Jesus’s most depressing sayings is found in Matthew 25:

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matt. 25:6-13).

Jesus was under no illusions. Our world is rife with the curse of violence and war.

The cure, according to the New Testament, involves the Cross. The Prince of Peace had to be a person of peace in a violent world right up to the end. The cure was not for the Prince of Peace to be a person of peace for a little while and then raise an army to defeat the Romans. The cure was to forgo the temptation of an earthly kingdom won by conquest and create another kingdom, a kingdom of Peace, in which the Prince of Peace rules within the boundaries of a broken and violent world. Jesus was a realist. He knew the end of wars, and rumors of battles could not be one last war.

A World of Violence

If nothing else, the past few years should have convinced all of us that we live in a world of war and violence. Immediately after the First World War, the “War to End All Wars,” the world experienced the Great Depression, the harsh treatment of Germany by the victorious allies, the emergence of Naziism, and finally, the Second World War. Then, China began to emerge and fought a proxy war in Korea, the Korean War. I was born during the Korean War. By the end of the 1950s, we were involved in the Vietnam War. When the Vietnam War ended, the Cold War finally ended, and one commentator unwisely proclaimed, “The End of History.” Radical Islam emerged as a reaction against Western ideas, and the United States was soon caught up in two Middle East Wars. We and the Europeans are involved in a War in the Ukraine against Russian expansionism, and the War in Gaza has emerged in the latest confrontation with radical, terroristic Islam. Some people feel that a war with Iran is inevitable. In other words, we are experiencing exactly what Jesus predicted, “Wars and Rumors of Wars.”

The Prince and People of Peace in a Violent World

Jesus speaks in two ways concerning the Kingdom of God he came to institute. Jesus does say that the Kingdom of God is within us.  “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). It is easy to think that the Kingdom is something spiritual. That is not what Jesus meant. The “within you” is plural and sometimes translated as “in the midst of you.” The Kingdom of God is both an internal thing and a communal thing. The people of God are the Kingdom of God working within history to exemplify the character of the King of Kings and the Prince of Peace as a body. We might say, “The Kingdom of God begins at home!” Jesus is present in our violent world wherever the people of God proclaim and live out the Gospel of Peace.

Stanley Hauerwas, in his book The Peaceable Kingdom, puts it this way:

…Jesus’s life is integral to the meaning, content, and possibility of the kingdom. For the announcement of the reality of this kingdom, of the possibility of living, a life of forgiveness and peace with one’s enemies, is based on our confidence that the kingdom has become a reality through the life and work of this man, Jesus of Nazareth. His life is the life of the end – this is the way the world is meant to be –and thus those who follow him become a people of the last times the people of the new age. [1]

Hauerwas constantly reminds his readers that this is the fundamental aspect of Christian ethics: the building of a community of character in which the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the foundation of life.

The Prince of Peace and a False Eschatology

Sometimes, Christians speak of Jesus coming once as the Lamb of God but will come again at the end of history as a conquering hero. This is a false and dangerous eschatology. God is the same: yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. Sometimes, this view is expressed as based on Revelation, which reads as follows:

Then I saw Heaven wide open, and before my eyes appeared a white horse, whose rider is called faithful and true, for his judgment and his warfare are just. His eyes are a flame of fire and there are many diadems upon his head. There is a name written upon him, known only to himself. He is dressed in a cloak dipped in blood, and the name by which he is known is the Word of God. The armies of Heaven follow him, riding upon white horses and clad in white and spotless linen. Out of his mouth, there comes a sharp sword with which to strike the nations. ‘He will rule them with a rod of iron,’ and alone he will tread the winepress of the furious wrath of God the Almighty. Written upon his cloak and upon his thigh is the name, KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS(Revelation 19:11-16, Phillips).

Some see in this verse a bloodthirsty Jesus now come to defeat the enemies of God in a battle just like all the battles that mar human history.

Note, however, the phrase “Out of his mouth there comes a sharp sword with which to strike the nations” (Revelation 19:15). No ancient warrior put a sword in their mouth to fight an enemy any more than a modern soldier would put an AK-47 or M-16 in their mouth during combat. The sword is the sword of the Spirit, the sword of the Gospel of Peace. In other words, the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow can be counted on to defeat his enemies with Truth and Love within and at the end of history. The robe the victorious Christ wears is already stained in his blood, the blood he shed on the cross for the world’s sins, before the final battle even begins. [2] The only weapon the Risen Christ needs to defeat his enemies is the Gospel of peace [3] We Christians do not need to sharpen our physical swords in preparation for the last day. We need only live a life reflecting the wisdom and love of Christ.

Back to Our Broken World

Where does all this leave us? We stand in precisely the same position as did Isaiah and John in Revelation: We live as a people of peace, who seek a world of shalom, where justice and righteousness reign (Isaiah 9:7), the enemies of human flourishing have been defeated, and the King of King rules (Revelation 19:16). However, we should not and cannot delude ourselves. We are not in such a time. The battle is not over today. We are neither in Heaven nor the Heavenly City. We are here on earth in the midst of human history. There is no escape. There is only the call to “Follow me.”

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1983), 85. This is one of the finest books on Christian ethics ever written. While I cannot bring myself to subscribe entirely to his view, all Christians should hope his view is correct. As for me, Like Walter Wink, I find myself”not a very “nonviolent person” Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and resistance in a world of Domination (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 279). I do not regard this as a virtue.

[2] Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993, 2006), 91).

[3] C. B. Baird,  The Revelation of St John the Divine (New York, Harper & Row, 1966), 245,

No One Likes Waiting

This week is sometimes called the “Week of Anticipation,” and the candle in an Advent wreath is the “Candle of Anticipation.” Anticipation is, unfortunately, another word for “Waiting.” We like anticipation. We dislike waiting for what we anticipate.

The last book of the Old Testament ends with the following:

Remember the teaching of Moses, my servant, and those laws and rules I gave to him on Mount Sinai for all the Israelites. In any case, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before that great and terrifying day of the Lord’s judgment. Elijah will help parents love their children and children love their parents. Otherwise, I will come and put a curse on the land (Malachi 4:4-6, NIV).

The timeline goes something like this: Malachi was written somewhere around 400 years before the birth of Christ, and the coming of John the Baptist, whom Jesus states was the fulfillment of the promise that there would come a prophet like Elijah. In the meantime, the Jews were to observe the law and wait patiently for the Messiah to come and an end to their suffering and subservience to foreign powers. The Jewish people anticipated the Messiah but disliked the waiting and the events of the time between the prophecy and its fulfillment.

400 Years of Waiting

During those 400 years, Israel was ruled by Persia, Greece (Alexander the Great), and Rome. There were events of importance during those years, such as revolts and attempts by Israel to free themselves from captivity. It is possible that parts of Daniel were either written during that time or refer to events of that time, but the days of the Old Testament prophets were at an end. In particular,  no great wonder-working reincarnation of  Elijah appeared  (I Kings 17-19).

What were God’s people to do in the meantime? They were asked to continue to be faithful to the covenant God had made with them when he delivered them from captivity in Egypt, pray, and obey the commandments and teachings God had given them.

The Problem with Waiting

I don’t think very many people enjoy waiting. Today, Kathy and I went Christmas shopping. I anticipated purchasing her a Christmas present. Unfortunately, for part of the time, I waited while Kathy picked out a perfume. It turns out that picking out perfume is not as straightforward or as simple as I thought. It’s not like buying a carton of milk. You have to try on several perfumes. You have to try on many different perfumes from, in our case, five different stores. Then, you must walk around to see if you still like the perfume after it dries. One lovely lady explained to me that she always had to walk around for some time to see if the perfume gave her a headache!

Frankly, shopping for perfume gives me a headache. My headache, caused by a couple of hours’ delay, does not begin to approach the problem of waiting 400 years. I have trouble maintaining my faith when the wait is in the days or weeks, and maybe a year or two—400 years seems impossible. Perhaps you are like me.

Unfortunately, we live in an age that lacks patience. We want what we want, and we want it right now. God, on the other hand, is very, very, very patient. For God, “a thousand years is like an evening gone” (Psalm 90:4). That makes 400 years a blink of an eye.

 If modern science is correct, God created the universe we inhabit and the human race over billions of years—13.7 billion years, to be exact. Scientists tell us that most people, myself included, have difficulty understanding the vision of science in this area because we simply cannot imagine a time scale that is billions of years long. A God who can work on that kind of timeline is a God we can hardly imagine. A God who works on a 13.7-year timeline just to get you and me born and raised is a patient God who works his purposes slowly, patiently, wisely, and lovingly, no matter the time required to accomplish his will and purpose.

It is easy to see that a God with a few billion years of patience does not count time in quite the same way we do. This may not seem like good news, but it is. For one thing, God’s patience means that God does not get discouraged. When things don’t exactly go as he wishes, like when humans fell in the Garden and sin entered the world, God patiently sets things right. As we know the story, it began with one man and woman (Abraham and Sarah) and continued through that one family for generations until one Christmas night, a baby was born in Bethlehem in Judea—a spec on the Roman map and not even a spec when one considers the infinite size of the universe.

Forgiveness and Fulfillment

Today’s text in my devotional guide was Isaiah 40:

Comfort my people and console them, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim that her time of servitude is over and her guilt has been expiated. Indeed, she has received double punishment from the Lord’s hand for all her sins (Isaiah 40:1-3).

The story the Old Testament tells ends with Israel, having been disobedient to God, and lost its promised land, returning to slavery, this time in Babylon. From the Babylonian captivity forward, Israel was subservient to Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Chronicler describes the situation and its causes as follows:

The Lord, the God of their ancestors, unceasingly sent them word through his messengers because he had compassion for his people and dwelling place. However, they continued to ridicule the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so fierce that there was no remedy. Therefore, the Lord God brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who slew their young men with the sword in the sanctuary and spared neither young man nor maiden, neither the aged nor the feeble. God gave them all into his power (2 Chronicles 36:15-17).

Following the Babylonian Conquest around 587 B.C., the Jewish people served seventy years in captivity until Cyrus the Great sent a contingent home. That is the event celebrated in Isaiah 40:1-3). Although a remnant returned home, they were still under the rule of the Medo-Persians, Greece, and Rome.

The End of Waiting

When Jesus came nearly 500 years later, they were under Roman rule and waiting. Then, a baby was suddenly born, and about 30 years later, the ministry of Jesus and his death and resurrection unfolded. Mark describes the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of Elijah with these words:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'”

Hence, John the Baptist appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the entire Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem went out to him, and as they confessed their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River(Mark 1:1-5).

Of course, not everyone accepted John as the return of Elijah; after all, it did not happen in quite the way we might anticipate—perhaps descending from the clouds of heaven in a whirlwind (3 Kings 2:11-12) or riding a “Chariot of Fire” (2 Kings 6:8-23). John denied that he was the reincarnation of Elijah (John 1:21, 25). Jesus clarified the matter, stating that it was prophesied that Elijah must come first and, for those who have faith, Elijah had indeed returned in the person of John the Baptist, saying, “I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands” (Matthew 17:11-13).

As is often the case, people could not understand that John fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy spiritually, not literally. This is an error we must avoid in our day. It is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.” It is always a mistake to take too literally what God intends we take spiritually.

Conclusion

Jesus reminds us that we will have to wait for the coming of the Messiah and gives us instructions concerning what to do and how to behave while waiting. He wants us to use our time, talents, money, and energy to bring into existence some slight evidence of the kingdom of God within our time in human history. He tells us that we are like stewards whose principal has gone on a long trip, leaving us in charge. Because of the delay, we may doubt that he will come for an accounting, but he will (Matthew 25:14-30).

We are no different than the ancient Jews. We are called to wait for the return of Christ just like a small child waits for Christmas Day to arrive. Like a child, we may be impatient. Like a child, the delay will teach us patience. We need our annual Advent journey to remind us that waiting is part of the life of faith and ultimately good for the soul.

The King of Kings is no Ordinary King

This Sunday is “Christ the King Sunday,” the last Sunday of what liturgical churches call “Ordinary Time” or the “Season of Pentecost.” It is also the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday, these churches will celebrate the beginning of Advent, the annual celebration of the coming of Christ. The year ends with an affirmation that the one whose birth we celebrate about a month from now was, in fact, the king of kings, the king of the universe, the Lord of Lords, the power above all other powers, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

The Reformed churches will mostly sing “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” which begins:

Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne.
Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own.
Awake, my soul, and sing of him who died for thee,
And hail him as thy matchless king through all eternity.
[1]

The hymn takes two passages from Revelation and puts them together. On his throne in heaven sits the Great King, who is worthy of all praise, and Christ, the son of God, having defeated death on the cross, is the king of kings (Rev. 4:2). Not everyone in the modern world believes this is a good or holy text, but it would seem that God is taking the role of the ultimate warrior king. A king that will defeat all the enemies of his people. The imagery of Revelation is often war-like, which can hide that the text is not about an earthly war. John knew better than that. He had seen Christ on the cross. He knew the love of God shown on the cross. He also knew of Rome and its kings and lords.

The King of Kings as Lamb of God

To understand what it means to speak of Christ as the “King of kings” and “Lord of lords,” we must begin with a text from Revelation not quoted in the hymn. The scene is as follows: Christ is on his heavenly throne (v. 2). Around the throne are twenty-four elders sitting on thrones representing the tribes of Israel in the Old Testament and the twelve apostles in the New Testament (v. 4). Before the throne, are seven torches of fire symbolizing the seven spirits of God (v. 5).

This is not any earthly throne. It is a symbolic throne that reveals something about God outside of time and eternity. For as those who stand around the throne sit before it and worship the Lord God Almighty, who was and is, and is to come (v. 8), John, perhaps, troubled by the oppression of the church by the Roman Empire, sees a scroll upon which the history of the world and its future is written (5:1). There is no one worthy to open that scroll and break the ski seal (v. 3).

Then John is told to look again at the throne. There, he sees “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” on the throne (v. 5). He then looks again and sees the lamb of God as though it had been slain (v. 6). This is no ordinary lamb.  It is a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, an eternally powerful and wise lamb (v. 6).

Then, suddenly, all of those gathered around the throne begin to sing, and this is what they sing:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (v. 9-10).

Then John looks and hears the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircle the throne and the living creatures and the elders and are crying out in a loud voice (v. 11):

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (v. 12).

Then John hears every creature in heaven and on saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation v. 13).

What Kind of King is This?

From the beginning, one of the biggest problems the Jewish people had with the Messiah was the fact that the Messiah was supposed to be a certain kind of leader. He was to be the true son of David, the lion of Judah, the liberator of his people, the savior of Israel. He was not supposed to be a traveling rabbi who annoyed the governing class and ended up dying on a cross. Nevertheless, the apostles make just that proclamation almost immediately after the resurrection (Acts 3:14-18).  It had never been the intention of God to give the people of Israel a military Messiah. Instead, the prophets of the Old Testament indicated that he would be a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, a person whose life was given for the sins of others (Isaiah 53). They saw in Jesus the fulfillment of those prophecies.

John knew all this. In 1 John, we learn that Jesus the Messiah is a Messiah of love. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16). The love of God is not the love of a particular people or race. It is a love that gives itself to all human beings—even those who reject him. As Paul put it: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8). The love of God is not a love reserved for just a few, for God intended in Christ to save everyone (I Timothy 2:6) The love of God that was revealed in Christ is a special kind of love—it is a love extended in self-giving sacrifice for all people whether or not they are open to that love or accept and appreciate the lover.

Implications of the Love of the King

In the past few weeks, we have been exposed to a return of antisemitism by some and, of course, a renewed fear of Palestinians or Muslims by others. It is worth spending a moment thinking about the love of God that has purchased at great cost “persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). The nature of the King of kings is such that his followers must also love everyone since the King of kings himself loved everyone.

We can quibble about how exactly this desire of God that all men should be saved from every tribe and nation works. We can spend time debating how predestination plays into this. But, for practical disciples of Jesus, perhaps it is best to think most about the fact that we are called in his name to love everyone and work for the salvation of everyone with the same kind of love Christ showed on the cross. We will find out exactly how predestination works in heaven.

In addition to working for the salvation of everyone, Christians are called to pray for everyone. The reference to God’s universal desire for the salvation of every human being is contained in the following passage:

 I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time (I Timothy 2:1-6).

God does not just want people to be “saved” in a vague way. He wants Christ-Followers to pray and intercede for all people, even those in authority with whom we disagree, so that we may become godly and holy, as Christ was godly and holy. There’s a reason for this: God wants all people to come to a knowledge of truth and to receive the same blessing of godliness and holiness he reserved for his church. This means that God has the same desire for Jews, Palestinians, Iranians, and others as he has for us. This means that God has the same desire for Republicans and Democrats. It means he has the same desire for Donald Trump and Joe Biden. God wants everyone to receive the benefits of his salvation. He wants it so much that he died on the cross to make it available to anyone and everyone.

Conclusion

If you were like me, the past few years, months, weeks, and days have been a source of some anxiety. When John had his vision and wrote Revelation, he was in such a time. There were wars and rumors of wars. There was an evil or at least incompetent emperor on the throne. The church was experiencing persecution. John himself was in prison. In the midst of all, John looked beyond current events and saw a vision of the future. This vision was a vision of hope, based upon the fact that the work, the real work of the world’s salvation, had been accomplished on the cross; Christ was indeed the Messiah. Therefore, no earthly ruler who did not embody the character of Christ could ultimately prevail. There might be suffering, persecution, and pain, but it would pass away. For the risen Christ rules in heaven.

Perhaps this Christmas season is enough for us to ponder that simple fact. There are wars and rumors of wars. There are persecutions and rumors of persecution. There are manipulations and rumors of manipulations. All of that is real, but it doesn’t matter in the end. The king of kings and Lord of Lord is on the throne, and the lamb that was slain has paid the price of our release from the worst kind of captivity—our own brokenness and alienation from God.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Matthew Bridges, “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (1852).

 

Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

On October 3, 1789, President George Washington signed the first Thanksgiving Proclamation, and the President sent a copy to the executives of the States.  [1] I will not engage in a detailed comparison of this proclamation with those of today, except to note that many of those signed today focus more on the personal, human side of Thanksgiving. Instead of that focus, I would like to lift up just a few aspects of the First Thanksgiving Proclamation that may be lost in the United States today but which surely were on the mind of the new President.

On April 30, 1789, Washington took the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York City. [2] Two years earlier, on July 2, 1788, the Constitution was fully ratified. Additionally, Congress met for the first time that year and one of its first actions was establishing a Federal Court system. Thus, in 1789, the fundamental form of government we enjoy today was implemented. 1789 was a year in which many years of suffering, war, and oppression bore the fruit of a new nation with a functioning national government.

Features of the Proclamation

This week is Thanksgiving week. Thanksgiving is a national holiday, so perhaps it is a good time to look at the title “holiday” and its meaning then and now. Just a few comments in hopes that readers will read the text of the proclamation for themselves and mediate on its purpose.

  1. There is a transcendental source of value and power in society. The word “holiday” has, at its root, “holy day.” [3] Washington begins his proclamation: “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor,…”. Today, Thanksgiving is often a day away from the usual routine of overeating and watching movies or sports. Perhaps for some, it is the day before Black Friday, a day to go shopping for bargains. Strictly speaking, I am unclear whether America has any “holidays,” for we have lost our sense of the “holy” at the foundation of human life.
  2. Americans are not the sole source of their achievements. In the first “Whereas” clause, Washington acknowledges “the providence of Almighty God.” In the first paragraph of the proclamation, Washington describes God as “the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” If anyone might have claimed a personal responsibility, Washington was one. He had been Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. He was the President of the Continental Congress. Now, he was President of the United States. Nevertheless, he could see the hand of Providence in the events in which he had such an active and vital part.

At the beginning of the proclamation, Washington used the word “humility,” recognizing that imploring God needed to be done in the spirit of humility. Once again, he suggests that prayers be given humbly. The word “humility” comes from a root word meaning dirt, the humus of the earth. Later, he will speak of national sins and shortcomings. Washington does not approach his office or the nation’s future with the arrogant confidence of many today who believe they know the right course of action for the new government. He understands that he and others need help to perform their duties so that the new nation prospers.

  1. Americans are imperfect, and so are our achievements. In the second paragraph of the proclamation, Washington submits the following to the nation:

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, ….

Washington recognizes that the new government is not assured of success because of the wisdom and perfection of its leaders. Instead, he offers a prayer for pardon because he is aware that his achievements and those of the other leaders of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army, the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the various states comprising the United States and its citizens, were not perfect and were not achieved without compromise and failure of moral courage. Therefore, he approaches the National Day of Thanksgiving, recognizing the moral and spiritual limitations of the new nation and its government.

  1. Americans look to the future, hoping that our nation will bless other nations with its example of wise and moral governance. The proclamation is not a document of American exceptionalism or one of “America First.” Instead, Washington desires to see the nation receive the blessing of becoming a blessing to all nations “by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed,…”. Our country is not automatically good or wise in its decision-making. It becomes so only as it seeks a transcendent ideal and is wise, just, and faithful in its government and citizenry.

The Proclamation

Here is the complete text of the proclamation:

City of New York, October 3, 1789.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and

 Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee78 requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

The Senate concurred in the House resolve to this effect, September 26.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th. day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Conclusion

What is often called “American Civil Religion” is not popular today. Some see in it the danger of a theocracy. Neither Washington nor any of the founding Fathers had any such desire. On the right, it is often noted that many founders were Deists, and some were of dubious faith. In the mind of these folks, the religious language of many of the founders can be translated into real-political language—they were just seeking votes and support. In my mind, what is essential in the “civil religion” of the founders is the recognition that their wisdom and goodness were limited and provisional. Their plans and policies were as frail as their humanity. Therefore, they need a transcendental ideal set before them to achieve the society they hoped to build.

Of course, a “Civil Religion” or “Transcendental Approach” of the 18th Century cannot be the civil religion of America today. Nevertheless, I suggest that there can be a sort of common American faith for the 21st century, one that incorporates those who have a religious faith of whatever kind and those who do not. Its fundamental principles might look something like that assumed by Washington’s proclamation.

  • Metaphysical ideals, such as Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Justice, are important.
  • Americans are not the sole source of their achievements and no one group has a lock on what is best for the nation.
  • Americans are imperfect, and so are our achievements.
  • Americans look to the future, hoping that our nation will bless other nations by its example of wise and moral governance.

This kind of metaphysical approach will not satisfy the doctrinal faith of the adherents of any particular creed. It is not intended to, nor does it satisfy mine. It will not meet the religious longings of those who are faithful Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or the adherents of any particular faith, including secularists.  It is not intended to, nor does it satisfy mine. It is an area of common space, and that is all.

 The approach places us all in that humble position of knowing we need help to be faithful and wise. We are not solely responsible for our successes or failures in life. We are imperfect and flawed, fallible and foolish, and our achievements share these characteristics. We have hope because we seek a better, more just, and more humane future for ourselves and every other citizen of the nation, whether we agree with them or not. With this highly imperfect suggestion, I sign off.

To all my friends, wherever you may be from San Antonio, Texas, to the ends of the earth, I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving Day.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] George Washington, “Thanksgiving Proclamation” at October 3, 1789 Thanksgiving, Library Of Congress https://www.loc.gov/resource/mgw8a.124/?q=1789+Thanksgiving&sp=132&st=text (downloaded November 21, 2023). Washington was an Anglican. Scholars differ, but I think he was a relatively pious and active member of the church, remembering that he was a farmer, businessman, soldier, and politician, not a religious professional.

[2] The capitol would not be moved to Washington D.C. until 1800, when Congress first me in the new city. The site of the new capital was chosen in 1790.

[3] The word comes from the Old English “haligdæg,” which means “holy day, consecrated day. A holiday is not a vacation day. It is a holy day in which we should remember our blessings and their ultimate source.

“Moral Inversion” (Moral Reductionism) and the Current Gaza War

Like many people, I have been horrified by the images of the recent pro-Hamas demonstrations on college campuses and elsewhere and the resurgence of antisemitism in the West generally and in America in particular. One of the most disturbing images involves those where young people are screaming irrationally at one another, yelling what can only be described as hateful speech. Each day, I read a feed of news that allows commentary, and I am equally appalled by calls to drop unconventional weapons on Gaza and to destroy the nation of Israel by creating a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.” For those who do not understand the phrase, it means that the state of Palestine would run from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, eliminating the State of Israel.

I have traveled to Israel and the West Bank in the past and had the opportunity to see the complexities of the relations between the citizens of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. I have taken some time to study the creation of the State of Israel after the Second World War and the warning to President Truman given by some of his advisors that the course of action proposed would involve the United States in a long and complex conflict. Those advisors have been proven correct.

In the end, the power of the Jewish lobby in Washington and the moral outrage at the situation of the Jewish people in Europe convinced Truman and the United Nations that the State of Israel should be created. Since 1948, the United States and Western Europe have struggled to find some way to make a lasting peace where there is much hate and distrust. This is not to say that the decision was wrong or unjustified or that Truman made an error. It is simply to outline the complexity of the situation.

Recently, the Abraham Accords and the gradual process of normalizing relations have created some hope that progress is being made toward an end to the overarching conflict.  I believe the recent war, in part, reflects the reaction of those who do not wish this to happen, particularly the regime in Iran. The problem Israel and the West face is both complex and challenging, and simplistic jingoistic solutions from either side are not helpful. Indeed, they are harmful. Unfortunately, many intelligentsia in the United States have fed the problem. This leads to a discussion of how contemporary political thought is damaged by a kind of moral reductionism that fails to understand the complexity of many moral quandaries and the need to balance many and sometimes conflicting moral impulses.

The Problem of Moral Inversion

The philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, famously critiqued what he called the “moral inversion” that often characterizes modern radical political movements. Polanyi saw moral inversion as a perversion resulting from the moral idealism of the Christian faith being cut off from its deeper roots in the process of secularized, materialistic thinking.Polanyi believes the strong demand for moral perfection characteristic of Christianity, combined with the materialist reductionism of modern thought, ends in an objective moral nihilism. This, in turn, results in a destructive form of moral reason. [1] In Logic of Liberty, Polanyi describes the phenomenon (speaking of Russian Marxists and German Nazis) as follows:

“In such men, the traditional forms for holding moral ideals had been shattered and their moral passions diverted into the only channels which a strictly mechanistic conception of man and society left open to them. We may call this the process of moral inversion. The morally inverted person has not merely performed a philosophic substitution of moral aims by material purposes, but is acting with the whole force of his homeless moral passions within a purely materialistic framework of purposes.” [2]

In this statement, Polanyi describes a process by which people who have lost confidence in traditional morality channel their moral energy into a single cause, believing that force and power are the only relevant realities, in the vain attempt to create a better world or right a perceived moral wrong. In the process, they create even greater injustice and human suffering.

Human beings are, by nature, moral. When denied an intellectual ground for their moral passions by education or training, these passions, like a river that has run out of its banks, flow in an uncontrolled flood into whatever channel lies conveniently at hand. In modern, materialistic societies, that channel has been revolutionary action designed to create a “more humane” society along strictly materialistic lines. Communism or some form of national socialism has been the preferred channel. The political disasters of the 20th and now 21st centuries are often powered by moral energy resulting from this destructive rechanneling of moral passions.

Moral Reductionism

What Polanyi calls “moral inversion” might better be called “moral reductionism” or “moral absolutism.” The problem is often not with whether the underlying idea of morality is immoral or moral but with the fact that one moral ideal is sought to exclude other important ethical principles. For example, the willingness of Lenin, Mao, and their followers to destroy human life and engage in great cruelty sought the goal of an economically more just society at the expense of the equally important value of human freedom and human life. This phenomenon involves not so much an inversion as a kind of reductionism or absolutization of one value to the exclusion of others. This same kind of thinking is embodied in the modern slogans of “right to choose” and “right to life.” The attempt to reduce the moral quandary to a single maxim oversimplifies the moral reality.

Dynamo-Objective Coupling, Moral Inversion, and Hypocrisy

According to Polanyi, the false ideal of objectivism, when coupled with the moral urges of humankind, creates a “dynamo-objective coupling,” whereby alleged “scientific assertions” of a group are accepted because they satisfy the moral passions of human beings. [3] In other words, the dynamic power of moral impulses can be perverted by denying conventional morality coupled with an objectivist excuse for unleashing moral energy in service to a particular cause. Paradoxically, this is precisely what Marxist and Nazism and a host of modern “isms” can achieve, particularly among the young.

There is no critique of Christianity more common than the complaint that Christians are hypocrites—that is to say, Christians do not live up to the high moral ideals of Christ, which they profess to admire. This is, of course, true. One only needs to read the Beatitudes to see that Christ upholds a moral standard we may aspire to but can never obtain. In Polanyi’s view, the perfectionistic impulse of Christian faith is responsible for a great deal of the moral progress of Western civilization. Unfortunately, among those afflicted with a loss of belief or no faith at all in any moral or spiritual ideals, the deeply seated moral urge to achieve moral objectives can become a breeding ground for moral inversion powered by a feeling that all traditional morality is hypocritical. [4] This potential for the emergence of a kind of moral inversion is not limited to Western society. The criticism can be and has also been urged against other traditional ethical systems. [5] The postmodern charge makes this more dangerous because of the claim that all moral claims, whatever their source, are merely bids for power.

Beginning with the Enlightenment and its exaltation of critical reason, virtually all forms of faith and morals, including the social ideal of justice, have been placed under the dissolving power of reductionistic, critical thinking. The materialism of the modern world, with its reduction of all reality to material particles and forces acting upon that reality, eventually led to the critique of Nietzsche that God (spirit) is an illusion, that Christianity is a slave religion, and that the Will to Power is the final characteristic and justification of sound moral reasoning. This thinking leads directly to the appalling irrational immorality of contemporary politics, where winning is everything, and any immoral action is justified if it furthers a moral ideal held by a particular group.

The reductionist character of modern thought is seen in the tendency of the left and the right to reduce and constrict moral thinking to personal preferences. It is a short step from this position to a decision for a single moral good to the detriment of other, seemingly less important, ethical goods. [6] In contemporary society, we have seen played out the view that some moral ideal held by one particular group is the supreme moral good. Other ethical duties, such as protecting the rights of the accused to a fair trial, the responsibility of the prosecutors to investigate carefully before bringing charges, the rights of businesspersons to their property and businesses, the rights of the public to safe streets, the need of children and others for secure homes, etc. can and should be abandoned in the search for some single moral good urged by a particular group. [7]   All these are examples of a kind of moral inversion or moral reductionism that seeks a single moral good at the expense of other equally important moral goods.

Conclusion

It should be evident that the extreme views of many contemporary political groups, the violence of rioters and looters, and a media egging them on are incompatible with the freedoms they purport to be advancing. A society built on terror is a terror to everyone: good, evil, rich, poor, powerful, and powerless. I was able to travel to Russia just after the fall of Communism. Communism was physically, morally, and spiritually impoverishing to everyone in Russian society. What we see playing out on the streets of our cities in America is unfortunately too similar to the phenomena that led to millions of deaths under Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pot Pol, all of whom played upon the moral sentiments of their people and created unmitigated horror and suffering.

There is much suffering in the world. Currently, the situations in the Ukraine and Gaza vie for the attention of Western people. Both involve complex problems with long and complex histories. Neither side is entirely right in both cases, and complex moral issues are involved. There is no easy or simple solution—and it is improbable that war alone can create a just and lasting peace.

To focus for a moment on the current Israel-Gaza situation, there is no doubt that the activity of terrorists in attacking and raping and killing innocent civilians is both a moral evil and a just cause for war. On the other hand, the notion that Israel can, by military means, eliminate Hamas and its supporters and create a peaceful neighbor in Gaza is fantastical. The idea that the United States and the West can impose a solution to warring parties engaged in a decades-long conflict is also delusional. In the Middle East, we see a situation where power politics and reliance on violence to achieve political ends reach logically and practically impossible conclusions. The “politics of love,” that is a realization by the parties of themselves that they live in a common land and must recognize their common interest in a lasting peace (while accommodating one another through a process of dialogue and rational adjustment based upon their common need for stability and a flourishing of their citizens) provides a counter-intuitive way out of seven plus decades of war and violence. [8]

In Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love, a Christian restatement of the Tao Te Ching, it is remarked that war is a catastrophe for the victor and defeated alike. When any conflict is over, bad feelings and a desire for revenge remain—often breeding additional conflict. [9] Therefore, the following advice is given—good advice, I think:

The best policy is this: Avoid conflict if at all possible.

If conflict arises, the best policy is this: Avoid unnecessary destruction.

If conflict continues, the best policy is this: Seek a just solution.

If conflict reaches a conclusion, the best policy is this: Show mercy and restore good relations. [10]

Blessings to all my readers, and a prayer for peace-Salam/Shalom.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This blog is partially taken from both prior blogs and a short monograph I am writing on what I call “Sophio-Agapic” political theory. This is not the place to outline the long line of moral reductionism that ends in a Marxist denial of traditional morality. Nor is it the place to discuss the movement of the Enlightenment towards nihilism, first fully exposed by Nietzsche and his concept of the Will to Power. Suffice it to observe that modern Western Society, lacking a transcendent faith in the reality of moral values, has entered a period of moral nihilism that impacts even those who deny that they accept it. The power orientation of our culture is a part of its plausibility structure. Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991).

[2] Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis Indiana, Liberty Fund, 1998), 131.

[3] PK, 230-233.

[4] Everyman Revisited, 99.

[5] While Polanyi was primarily interested in Western society, it may be observed that the phenomenon of moral inversion can be present in other cultures as well. For example, Mao encouraged the criticism of Confucianism because it had formed the basis of the historic order of China.

[6] The Christian author, C. S. Lewis, speaks of this tendency for contemporary people to discount the vast interlocking web of morality, which he sometimes calls the Tao, to exalt one moral principle to the detriment of ethical thinking. This has led to a preference for public morality and, on the right, a preference for private morality. See David Rozema, Lewis’s Rejection of Nihilism: The Tao and the Problem of Moral Knowledge” in Pursuit of Truth | A Journal of Christian Scholarship http://www.cslewis.org/journal/lewiss-rejection-of-nihilism-the-tao-and-the-problem-of-moral-knowledge/ (September 28, 2007, downloaded June 4, 2020).

[7] I do not want to minimize the activities of political opportunists and terror groups that may have contributed to the problems we are currently experiencing. These groups use the moral inversion of others for purely selfish purposes.

[8] As an aside, in my view, the so-called “two-state” and “one-state” solutions are inadequate for the complexities involved. The parties must look beyond the nationalism of current national and international politics and consider the creation of smaller independent political units in Gaza and the West Bank that are not fully national and cannot have offensive forces but are fully independent and self-governing. For example, there is no question that Gaza could become the Luxemburg or Monte Carlo of the Middle East, with great freedom and prosperity for its inhabitants.

[9] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love rev. ed. (Booksurge, 2016), Chapters 31 and 79.

[10] Id, Chapter 68.

Reflections on Violence in a Time of War

During the past four weeks, many of us have been confronted by the images of the terror attacks in Israel and the response by Israel in Gaza. We have seen terrible pictures from the initial attack and subsequent scenes of destruction caused by days and nights of war. In the media, we see and hear accusations and counter-accusations. Unsurprisingly, many people have become confused and weary. Nevertheless, we cannot merely choose not to see and hear. For disciples of Jesus, this and every war present special challenges. In a few weeks, we will celebrate the coming of the “Prince of Peace,”—whose very name implies that war and violence are contrary to his nature and the world God intends.

The term “just war” has an implication sometimes lost on Christians. In the ordinary course of events, war and violence involve injustice. One might say that Just War Theory implies that war is intrinsically evil and causes endless suffering, the limits of which are set by the governments of the world and the nature of their armies.

Interestingly, to say that a war is just or unjust is to imply that there is such a thing as justice, and it can be applied to the kind of state-sponsored violence that war inevitably involves. To say that one embraces just war theory is to believe that combatants have moral and ethical limitations to what can and should be done before and during conflict. This, in turn, implies that there is a moral order to the universe outside of mere human feelings and desires.

Just war theory is often considered significant only in deciding to go to war, but just war theory also constrains what can be done during a war by those engaged in combat. An otherwise just war can be waged by unjust means. Beginning with the American Civil War and the emerging doctrine of total war, some implications of just war theory began to erode. By the end of the Second World War and the Allies’ victory over two enemies who regularly violated the rules of war, the theory had become as much a public relations tool as a valid constraint on war. This has been especially true during the recent Gaza conflict, in which the press and at least one combatant have misinterpreted the laws of war to justify otherwise unjust acts. In a world that worships power and the will to power, restrictions on violence are difficult to maintain.

This blog briefly covers the basic concepts of just war theory and hopefully helps readers determine their views on wars, including those currently dominating the headlines. The blog has two parts: the justification for war and rules that limit what may be done in conducting the war.

A, Deciding to Go to War (Jus ad Bellum)

 Just cause

For a war to be just, it must begin with just cause. A typical example of just cause is self-defense, though coming to the defense of an innocent nation is also a just cause. One result of treaties of mutual defense is that coming to the defense of a country with which one has a treaty of mutual protection renders the reason just if the underlying conflict is just.

In the situations of the Ukraine and Gaza, from the perspective of just war theory, Russia’s attack on the Ukraine cannot be just. As to the current Gaza conflict, the onslaught of Hamas on Israel and the death of many civilians also cannot be cause for war. After September 11, 2001, there was no question that some response to the World Trade Center and other attacks was warranted. Interestingly, the situation was not so clear as to the subsequent decision to invade Iraq. Some think the Afghanistan campaign was just but deny that status to the Iraq campaign.

Just Intention

In deciding to go to war, the parties’ intention is important. Even if a cause might be construed as just, the war cannot be just if the true motive is unjust. For example, if a political leader creates a war to advance their power or cling to power, this would not be a just intention. War-time political leaders are to be motivated, personally, by reasons that make a war just for the nation.

 One argument made against the Second Iraq War was the fear that the President of the United States was perhaps partially motivated by threats made against his father, a former President. One is not entitled to begin a war for merely personal reasons. In the case of Ukraine, if the rationale for the war is simply to reconstruct the Russian Empire, the cause cannot be just. If Hamas intended to draw Israel into a fight in Gaza in hopes of destroying its army and bringing other nations into the conflict, the cause is not just.

Legitimate Authority

A just war can only be declared by leaders of a legitimate political authority in compliance with the political requirements of that community. This means, for example, that a terrorist organization is never entitled to declare war, and any war in which a terrorist group engages is not a just war. Terrorist groups are not governments. (Hamas has recently denied that it has a duty to citizens of Gaza, claiming their safety is the responsibility of the United Nations. This is inconsistent with being a legitimate government.) In the case of Al Qaida, the situation is obvious: Al Qaida was not a government, nor did it have a warrant to conduct a war.

This element of just war theory is important concerning the present conflict in the Middle East. Hamas and Hezbollah are terrorist organizations. They have no warrant to attack Israel, and as we shall see below, the laws of war prevent the means used—violence against civilian populations. Furthermore, if Hamas attacked Israel not to protect the interest of the citizens of Gaza but on orders of a third party (Iran), there is no question but that the war is unjust. In thinking about just war, it is essential to distinguish between the attack of private agents and organizations and the attack of a legitimate authority.

Just Proportionality

The principle of just proportionality is one of the most complicated to evaluate. Not every action by a state towards another state can be used as a pretext for unlimited war. For example, let us suppose that, instead of invading Israel, killing many people, and taking captives, Hamas had merely fired a missile that landed in the middle of the Sinai desert, killing no one. Such an act would justify some kind of response; however, it would not justify the kind of war now unfolding.

The principle of proportionality also requires state actors to consider the likely results of the war. For example, in the case of the United States invasion of Iraq, just war theory required leaders to consider the possibilities of success or failure. Perhaps more importantly, combatants also must consider whether or not an action would involve costs and suffering beyond what was necessary to accomplish the goals of the United States.

In the specific case of the Second Gulf War, the given purpose of the United States was to prevent Iraq from becoming a source of terrorism, and in particular, terrorism using weapons of mass destruction against the United States and its allies. Many argued that the goals of the United States could be achieved without a war. This is a possibility that our leaders were required to consider in their decision-making.

The same thing is true of the current war in Gaza. One requirement on Hamas, if it is a legitimate authority, is the question, “What will the condition of Gaza be after this war?” If the answer to this question is, “It will be completely destroyed,” then just war theory restrains any government from engaging in such a war. Underlying this idea is a kind of Augustinian notion that the peace a war results in must involve a superior condition of the parties to that condition in which they found themselves before the war. For example, in the case of the Second World War, a world without the violence and tyranny of Hitler was a profound reason for the war.

Last Resort

Just war requires that the participants explore and investigate reasonable alternatives before engaging in war, such as negotiation, diplomacy, economic sanctions, etc. Because war involves inevitable suffering by innocents, the question must always be asked, “Is war really necessary?” if the war is unnecessary, then it cannot be just. Those of us who remember the beginning of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Second Gulf War remember that our government spent a good deal of time persuading people that the war was a last resort. In the case of Vietnam, it was not until after an alleged attack on US vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin that the war was felt to be legitimate. In the case of the Second Gulf War, it was only after attempts to disarm Iraq peacefully failed that the decision to go to war was felt to be just.

Both of these instances indicate the application of a prior principle to this notion of last resort. It is never a last resort if a particular circumstance is being used as a pretext for going to war. So, for example, the fact that we have been unable to peacefully get a wreck to agree to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction could not be a justification for war if the leaders of the country knew there were no weapons of mass destruction or actual threat from the alleged enemy.

For Christians, the doctrine of last resort is fundamental. For a Christian to believe that any war is just, it must be the case that there is no reasonable alternative but to engage in conflict. If there is any reasonable means by which the peace can be maintained, then, for Christians, that alternative must be taken. Although this is not a part of just war theory, in my view, this particular requirement implies that Christians have to take certain risks to avoid war.

B. Just Conduct of War (Jus in Bello)

In addition to principles that restrain the decision to go to war, ethical principles govern how combatants conduct themselves during combat.

Discrimination

Just because a war is justified, not every means can be used to conduct that war. Just war theory requires that combatants attack legitimate targets. Civilians, medical personnel, religious groups, and aid workers are not legitimate targets of military attacks. Although an army force may attack another enemy force with resulting deaths as a side-effect, they are justified only if necessary and proportionate. Targeting civilians and aid workers is never permissible.

This principle has played an essential role in the current Gaza war. The indiscriminate firing of missiles from and into civilian areas by Hamas cannot be justified. This is not a justifiable means of conducting war. It’s a deliberate attack on innocent civilians. As to Israel, the charge is often made that they are dropping bombs in civilian areas on civilians. Israel responds that they are attacking legitimate military targets. They often give examples of their diligence in determining this was a military target. If this is the case, then just war theory allows the collateral damage to civilians because the targets themselves were targets of military necessity.

Proportionality 

Just as the principle of proportionality applies to a decision to go to war, it also applies to how one conducts a war. Justice during war requires that military forces cannot use force or cause harm exceeding any strategic or ethical benefits in any particular military operation during a war. The general idea is that militaries should use the minimum force necessary to achieve legitimate military aims and objectives.

The doctrine of proportionality in the conduct of war is one of the most difficult to embrace. During the late days of the Second World War, President Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of people. When deciding to use the bomb, Truman had to decide against the views of some of his generals and admirals, who believed that it would be possible to simply blockade Japan and avoid the use of the bomb and the killing of innocent civilians. The decision to use the bomb was made to save American lives in the event of an invasion of Japan. Today, scholars of war argue on both sides of this issue.

This is of contemporary importance. In the Ukraine war, the Russians have threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons. At least once during the current Gaza war, an individual (since disciplined by the Israeli government) suggested that the use of atomic weapons would be justified in that conflict. Once again, the use of weapons of mass destruction, which are sure to kill civilians to achieve a military goal that can be achieved by other means, cannot be justified.

Since the end of the Second World War, this principle has become increasingly challenging to implement. During the Second World War, all of the parties engaged in the mass bombing of civilian areas. The idea developed that the use of the V1 and V2 weapons by Hitler was a mere terror technique, unjustified by the laws of war. Yet, the Allies defended the bombing of civilian areas in Germany and Japan on the grounds that it would shorten the war. This is an area in which just war theory must take a turn towards restraining governments in using weapons and tactics that inevitably cause disproportionate damage to the enemy.

Intrinsically Unjust Means of War

There are specific means of conducting war that may be intrinsically unjust. For example, there are conventions against the use of chemical and biological weapons during wartime. The experience of the governments of Europe during the First World War, in which sarin and other gases were used, convinced everyone that these weapons were intrinsically evil. There may be additional elements of warfare, for example, the use of torture, that are inherently unjust.

After the Second World War, the treatment of American prisoners by the Japanese and the subsequent trial of some soldiers who were engaged in that treatment proceeded on the assumption that the laws of war prevented the mistreatment of captured soldiers. During the recent incursion into Israel, it is alleged that Hamas beheaded certain prisoners, including children. The use of beheading by some combatants during the War on Terror was an example of the use of a tactic that is intrinsically unjust.

During the recent gods of war, it is alleged that Hamas has used ambulances and hospitals to shield its fighters and its leadership. If true, this would be an unjust method of conducting war. Because hospitals and ambulances are protected during combat, the use of hospitals and ambulances to shield combatants inevitably requires that the opposing force make complex moral judgments and accept the necessity of civilian casualties. One reason why soldiers must wear uniforms is so that discrimination can be made between legitimate combatants and civilians who are protected. Techniques that blur that distinction are inherently unjust.

C. Conclusion

I am sure that some readers will object to portions of the content of this particular essay. I’ve tried to use various examples, including the United States of America, to clarify that the principles of just war theory are not simply “Western” or designed to give an advantage to the United States and its allies. They are principles of war that stretch back early in Western history. Muslim and other philosophers have notions of just war theory that are similar to those discussed here. Perhaps in a future blog, I can discuss just war theory from the perspective of other cultures.

I hope that this particular blog will help readers evaluate the conduct of their governments, as well as the behavior of the governments mentioned. If all that is real is matter, power, and the wheel to power, then there cannot be universal ethical restraints on governments or their citizens regarding the use of violence. Ultimately, what matters is winning.

If there is an inherent restraint on war, and if war is in some sense a violation of the shalom of the world and there are principles of just war, then the reverse is true: Not every action is justified because it advances our cause.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Hauerwas 3: From “Theologian in Residence” to Bricklaying: Discipleship in the 21st Century

Cultural change is not easy for anyone. For those of us raised at the end of Christendom, who came to maturity during the beginning of the “mega-Church movement” within  Mainline Protestant Christianity, the current state of American society and of the American Church is difficult to comprehend.

This blog discusses Disciplemaking and church leadership for the 21st Century. I want to start at the end of the 20th Century. In 1991, I went to Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. The president of the seminary was T. Hartley Hall. Hartley came from a good family and had been a student at Davidson College, a Presbyterian four-year college. After Davidson, he served in the Korean War and was a Platoon Leader, Company Commander, and Headquarters Commandant for the 32nd Infantry Regiment. Mr. Hall was awarded a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and a Silver Star for gallantry.

Hartley then attended Union Theological Seminary and served in several pastorates. He was a pastor at a fine church in Nashville, Tennessee, when he was called to be the President of Union. Hartley was a theological moderate-liberal, suspicious of evangelical, charismatic, and other movements that might be termed “Fundamentalist” or “overly enthusiastic.” Instead of “spirituality,” Harley used the term “piety” to describe spiritual formation. One purpose of mentioning Hartley in this blog is to honor his service to the church, even though I cannot entirely agree with his conclusions or the precise content of his leadership.

When Hartley described the role of a pastor, he sometimes used the term “Theologian in Residence for a local congregation.” The job of Union was to turn out pastors with the skills to be theologians for their congregations. Although Hartley and I were never friends, we had a certain similarity. I disagreed with Hartley’s theology, but what I did buy into was the notion that professional education (eventually including a Doctor in Ministry), a deep study of the Old  and New Testaments in both the original and translated languages, proficiency in exegeting the Bible, and a solid theology were essential for pastoral success. In my mind, the pastor of a local Presbyterian congregation needed to be a highly trained and experienced professional.

Not long after graduating, I realized local congregations usually didn’t want theologians in residence. They wanted a good and enthusiastic preacher, a caring pastor, a shepherd for the flock, a friendly person of faith they could relate to, someone who they felt comfortable talking to with decent administrative skills, someone to lead a well-run youth group for their children, and a host of other things before they wanted a theologian in residence.

Don’t get me wrong, all my churches were evangelical, and they wanted their pastor to be sound theologically, Bible-based in their thinking, and capable of giving biblical sermons (and they didn’t want a great deal of abstract thought in the text of the Sunday sermon). They desired practical applications they could take home and put into practice. But, in the end, deep down, they really did not want a theologian in residence, which is precisely what the seminaries of my denomination thought they were training.

If you look at the list of things above that I have come to believe churches want, it is easy to see that only a few of them are what we would call “professional.” The personal qualities of the pastor are what congregations experience day after day, and those qualities determine ninety percent of pastoral success. Unfortunately, mainline denominations have come to see their pastors as providers of professional services, sort of spiritual lawyers or doctors for the congregation. The congregation, except in a very few cases, wants something else.

After Christendom

One focus of Resident Aliens and After Christendom is on the question, “What kind of training do pastors and leaders need to build alternative Christian communities in the 21st century?” [1] The answer can be summarized by the following statement: “Seminaries and other pastoral training organizations need to focus on training pastors who can build authentic Christian communities strong enough to sustain themselves in a hostile environment.” Since both Stanley, Hauerwas and Will Willimon are Methodist, and I am a Presbyterian, you can assume that by that statement they don’t mean, and I would not mean, that the Church doesn’t need to be worried about good exegetical skills, theological competence, some amount of professional training, etc. That’s not the point. The point is that today, the Church, first and foremost, needs pastors and Church leaders who can build, grow, and lead communities of faith.

Bricklaying, Stone Masonry, and Disciple-making

This is where we get to bricklaying. In After Christendom, Hauerwas says the following:

To learn to lay brick, it is not sufficient for you to be told how to do it, but you must learn a multitude of skills that are coordinated into the activity of laying brick – that is why before you lay brick, you must learn to mix the mortar, build scaffolds, joint, and so on. Moreover, it is not enough to be told how to hold a trowel, how to spread mortar, or how to frog the mortar, but in order to lay break, you must hour after hour, day after day lay brick.

Of course, learning to lay brick involves not only learning myriad skills but also a language that forms and is formed by those skills. [2]

Bricklaying is a trade. What matters in bricklaying is not what school you attended or what advanced degrees you earned but the simple question, “Can this person lay bricks?” Kathy and I now live in San Antonio, Texas, where limestone is abundant, and many fine old homes are made of stone or brick. I’ve had to have a stone wall repaired. The experience taught me something vital: Not everyone is a good stonemason. What matters most is not the company the person works for, the trade school they attended, or their references on the internet. What matters is whether they can lay bricks.

Bricklaying is a trade, and a skilled trade at that. Good bricklaying requires not just an understanding of the physics and math of bricklaying but also a kind of physical coordination, a kind of tacit knowledge that people possess to a greater or lesser degree based on years of experience. To say that bricklaying is a skill is not the same as saying that there’s no cognitive component to bricklaying. There is. Many books, articles, YouTube videos, and other ways to learn that mental component. As Hauerwas notes, there is an entire language to be learned as an inexperienced bricklayer learns their trade. This language enables the bricklayer to communicate with others, share information, perfect their technique, develop new techniques, and eventually train other bricklayers.

A good bricklayer or stone mason typically trains under an experienced craftsperson. This means that the quality of the mentor is directly correlated to the quality of the student. As Jesus put it, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher and the servant like his master”(Matthew 10:24-25). I suspect Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about.

After all, Jesus was a craftsman. He grew up in the home of a carpenter. His father, Joseph, almost certainly trained him to be a carpenter and to help him in his craft. Jesus knew what it meant to be the apprentice. Jesus was not above Joseph. Jesus was not trying to be better than Joseph. He was trying to be like Joseph as far as being a carpenter was concerned. Jesus knew becoming a good craftsman required imitation, time, and practice. He also knew that would be true for church leaders of every kind. He knew what it was to learn a trade at the feet of an experienced master. He had sat at the feet of his father, and he had helped his father, working beside him day after day learning to be a carpenter.

Disciple-Making Today

Unlike many pastors, I was an active layman in a local church for fifteen years before I went to seminary. On the day I walked onto the campus of Union Theological Seminary, I had experience as a Sunday school teacher and small group leader. I’d led a singles ministry, a young married ministry, and college and youth ministries. I’d been a deacon, participated in solving organizational problems, meeting annual budgets, and funding capital campaigns. I had been an elder, including an elder in a time of conflict. The senior pastor of the Church was a very experienced, well-known pastor near the end of his career. To this very day, I often ask myself “What would Jack have done?” in solving problems.

In other words, before being professionally trained, I had been an apprentice for a long time. The seminary was simply the Biblical and Theological “icing on the cake” of preparation for ministry. The fact that seminary did not teach me how to form a small group, begin a men’s ministry, disciple elders, take care of junior high boys, do a capital campaign, manage a church, and the like did not matter. For a lot of people, it does matter. They spend years failing and learning essential skills they should have been taught before they learned some of the more abstract ideas behind the craft of being a church leader. They would have learned many of those ideas, “the language of the craft,” along the way. In other words, they needed to learn to lay bricks.

Conclusion

Underneath some of the superficial complexity of Resident Aliens and After Christendom is a reasonably simple understanding that changes in Western culture require the Church to change how it trains pastors and leaders. In my day, the seminary really did not like what are called “second career students.” We often disagreed with ideas we had seen fail in practice, however popular they were in academia. We were less malleable. (We did have our pre-existing prejudices that needed to be corrected.) We were not necessarily the easiest students to handle, and because we had families and children, we couldn’t devote the kind of time to seminary that some of the younger students could.

Nevertheless, I’ve come to believe that, instead of a second career students being the exception, they need to be the norm in seminaries. The reason they need to become the norm has to do with mentoring and discipleship. When I use the term “second career,” I don’t necessarily mean someone who spent many years in a secular profession. I mean that no one should be in seminary who has not undergone a period of apprenticeship.

As far as I can tell, in the early Church, the process by which a person became a leader involved becoming an apprentice to someone like Paul and later a leader of the Church. This idea continues in some denominations and groups today: people become deacons and assistant worship for some time before they become priests or teaching elders, sometimes called “ordained pastors.” I think this idea has merit. One reason is that we have difficulty in most mainline churches in finding pastors for relatively small congregations, especially rural congregations. Training people from the community and congregation and then later on giving them the technical education that will improve their preaching and pastoral abilities seems to me to be a better way of going forward than continuing to train a lot of people in seminary from larger churches, who are not culturally fit for smaller and rural churches. A second reason involves seeing that ordained people possess the personalities and traits needed for success. As the head of a Committee on Ministry, I have also seen the damage done by having pastors in churches whose limitations cause misery and decline.

Our congregation has a relationship with a local church planting group. Some of those church planters have either no or limited prior professional education. Our church responded to that need by creating a center that helps them get that training online through an organization called “Third Millennium.” We’ve noticed that the students are intensely interested in certain parts of the theological and biblical curriculum. Why? Because they see the practical need in day-to-day ministry for additional Biblical and theological knowledge.

The current structure of many denominations for training pastors has a long history. In many cases, for hundreds of years that training system met the needs of the congregations they served. Over time, however, as culture changed, that method began to show some weaknesses. The same thing is true of disciple-making. We are in a time when changes need to be made, and new systems need to be developed.

Many churches, including mine, had reasonably sophisticated systems for making disciples and training future leaders. Somewhere around 2010, however, our church noticed that our older systems no longer worked. The programs on which we had relied for decades no longer worked well. Most serious churches have had to develop different strategies for disciple-making over the past twenty years. This is not to say that what they were doing before wasn’t good. It was. It just no longer worked. Sponsoring Bible studies was no longer enough. Weekend retreats were no longer enough. Officer training was no longer enough. Relying on the seminaries was no longer enough. They have had to grow, change, and adapt and continue to grow change, and adapt. Where will this end? No one knows. To find out, we just have to keep growing, changing, and adapting.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014) and Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave is Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991).

[2] After Christendom, 101.

Hauerwas 2: After Christendom Part 1

Stanley Hauerwas plays an important role in this series of blogs. These blogs are about political philosophy, the philosophical basis for how government should operate, and political theology, the theological basis for Christian thought and action related to public life. Strictly speaking, Hauerwas doesn’t fit neatly in either of these categories. He is not a philosopher. In his view, the Church does not so much have a political theology as a concrete reality as the bearer of the witness of the Lordship of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving world. Yet, Hauerwas is essential both because of his prominence as a thinker and because he challenges many assumptions Christians make about the nature of discipleship in contemporary culture.

More importantly, Hauerwas brings Christian discipleship to the forefront of the conversation. It is the discipleship of the Church that allows it to sustain itself within any particular political environment. This focus doesn’t mean that the theological commitments of church members don’t matter or impact public life. They do. It implies that the Church’s primary duty is to be the Church entirely. With this point, it is difficult to disagree.

Resident Aliens

Although Resident Aliens has come to be seen as an essential late 20th-century book of political theology, the book was not primarily addressed to academia or the society in which the Church lives in America. The book is addressed mainly to the Church; this is why, in various places, it is more concerned about forming disciples of Jesus within the Church than it is about politics. The focus is on the condition of the mainline Protestant churches, and particularly the United Methodist Church, as to how they might best respond to the cultural realities they face. Resident Aliens doesn’t discuss many political difficulties with which Christians are familiar. When it does, it takes a position designed to underscore the role of the Church as the primary instrument by which disciples are made. When the Church is the Church, it inevitably influences society by its integrity of faith and practice. (This. by the way, is one of the areas in which I am critical of Resident Aliens; it often seems too concerned to assure the readers that the authors have not joined the opposition and support the general theological, moral, and political drift of the mainline churches with rare exceptions.)

Hauerwas and Willimon, a Methodist chaplain and retired bishop, set out to speak to both sides of the theological divisions of our day in hopes that concerned Christians will see through them to a deeper issue: the meaning of discipleship in contemporary society. The Church and its discipleship are the basis for any Christian ethic or involvement in community. Hauerwas and Willimon put it this way:

… When it comes to Christian ethics, it is not whether we shall be conservative or liberal, left or right, but whether we shall be faithful to the Church’s peculiar vision of living and acting as disciples. [1]

In the end, Resident Aliens makes the claim its title announces: Christians in the West are called to live in a much different world than they have become accustomed to inhabiting, a world in which the secular powers and principalities rule, and Christians live as wanderers in the land just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in the ancient Middle East—a largely ignored and sometimes persecuted people worshiping a God foreign to the gods of the surrounding peoples. In America, this includes the gods of personal peace, prosperity, affluence, and pleasure, especially sexual gratification. In such a society, YHWH is an alien god indeed.

Question before the Church

If Hauerwas is correct, the primary question before the Church today is not: “How can we convert a pagan world?” (That was never the goal or motivating question of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Israel for most of its history). The question is, “How do we survive as strangers in a strange land?” Speaking as one born in the aftermath of the Second World War into a middle-class family in the Midwestern United States, where the entire life of the community was profoundly formed by the Christian week, the Christian holidays, and the Christian story, to ask the question Hauerwas asks is to ask another, one that Hauerwas and Willimon do not answer, “How in the world did we get here?” or perhaps more simply, as Dorothy observes in the Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Christians today must ask, “How will we live now that we have left Kansas and come to Oz on a path we never intended?

After Christendom

In After Christendom, Hauerwas continues the discussion begun in Resident Aliens. [2] As a result, this second book is more academic and deals with some of the philosophical and theological basis for the position in Resident Aliens. Hauerwas begins where Resident Aliens left off with a quote from George Linbeck: Christianity in the West “is in an awkwardly intermediate stage of having once been culturally established but not yet clearly disestablished.” [3]

Linbeck accurately describes the starting place where we find ourselves. Around us lies the ruins of Christian culture, symbolized by once magnificent Christian universities subverted to the service of all the “isms” of the 19th and 20th centuries, Communism, Critical-Theorism, Deconstructionism, Ecojustice-ism, Freudianism, Gaiaism, Marxism, and all the rest: breeding grounds for hatred of the West and its values and irrationally confident that its naive version of reality can bring in a paradise for human flourishing. This naïve silliness is not limited to the literary class. It is present on Wall Street and in those corporate boardrooms who admire the “efficiencies of the Chinese state.” It is much more likely that the leaders of the great cultural revolution of the West and its intellectual cheerleaders will bring in something that looks a lot more like Berlin on May 15, 1945, or Russia the week after Stalin’s death than paradise the day before the fall of the race.

We live after Christendom, and only the deluded think it is a good place to be. As Alastair MacIntyre puts it:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless, certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead-often not recognizing fully what they were doing- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes pan of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another-doubtless very different-St. Benedict. [4]

This, indeed, is where Stanley Hauerwas believes Western society has come. We are at some point in a new Dark Age, in which the powers and principalities embodied by the new barbarians reign and are busy consolidating their power. These new barbarians, working for a New Oligarchy, control most of the West and a good bit of the rest of the world. In some places, the situation is worse. In our captivity, we await a solution, much different than the solution to which we have become accustomed.

The Metaphor of the New Benedict

This is difficult for people of a certain age and background. I know that I find that my best efforts at adjusting to this new situation often amount to an attempt to rescue a now far-distant civilization of the past. Memories of a childhood in the American Midwest interfere with fully comprehending this new reality.  Like Benedict of Nursia in late 5th and early 6th Century Europe, the solution is not to restore the Roman Empire. Christians must think outside the box.

Hauerwas reminds us that seeking to restore the lost influence of the Church is neither a wise nor shrewd approach. The approach is to learn to live where we are and to maintain Christianity in the situation we are in today. The metaphor of the New Benedict is intended to warn us that restoring the past is not an option. We must await a new future.

Thus, Hauerwas believes two approaches to our predicament are unlikely to work. The first is the approach of liberal Christianity: a vain attempt to regain the Christian faith’s lost respect by embracing the social-political programs of the left, hoping the gradual evolution of society will restore the Church to its lost role in Western culture. The second approach is that of conservative Christianity: a vain attempt to overthrow the excesses of the Enlightenment and its political practitioners of “real politics” and restore Christendom in some liberal democratic form. Interestingly, Hauerwas has been accused by the left and right of subversively supporting both these approaches. He is a proponent of neither.

Salvation as Discipleship

If the analysis of Hauerwas is correct, then the issue is not how to restore Christendom. The problem is how to sustain the Church in the current era of Western history—and how Christians previously addressed Western society are no longer applicable. The strategies that were appropriate in Western culture when it was at least superficially Christian simply no longer work. During the period of Christendom, it was possible to merely believe those things that one’s Church held to be doctrinally correct and live like the rest of the members of society. Believing a set of propositions, liberal or conservative, left or right, Biblical or modernist, simply misses the point. The question today is this: “Am I behaving like a disciple of Christ?” This means that the church cannot be satisfied with teaching principles. It must instead help people adopt a form of life.

What Hauerwas recommends is what MacIntyre suggests: the formation of “communities of character” in which the virtues, practices, and modes of living demonstrated in the New Testament are learned by Christians so that they may live according to the pattern found in the New Testament, most notably in the live, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Conclusion

The discipleship portion of this series of blogs and the political and theological focus intersect every so often. Hauerwas is one of those occasions. Next week, we shall discuss discipleship as a set of skills that Christians internalize in learning to be like Jesus. In this respect, becoming a disciple is less like learning a profession and more like learning a trade in which one has to use one’s hands. This insight has important implications for disciple-making and the training of pastors. The church seems to have no alternative but to adopt a holistic approach to disciple-making, in which Biblical and doctrinal education are not more important than learning to pray and serve a hostile culture and its elites.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014).

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave is Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991).

[3] Id, at 23.

[4] Alastair MacIntyre, After Virtue 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, 261.

The “New Physics,” Process, Sophio-Agapism, and a Harmonic Universe

The “New Physics,” Process, and Sophio-Agapism

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) made significant contributions to Mathematics, Logic, Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics, and other areas of thought. He was instrumental in developing a philosophical outlook known as “Process Philosophy,” of which he is regarded as the founder. Although Whitehead began his academic life at Cambridge (as a mathematician) and then taught in London (as a mathematical physicist and philosopher of education), it was in America at Harvard that he became known as a philosopher and wrote his most famous works.

In 1925, Whitehead published Science and the Modern World (1926). [1] In 1929, he published his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh as a metaphysical work, Process and Reality. [2] In 1933, he published Adventures of Ideas, his most accessible work and the source of much of what we would call his “political philosophy.” [3] In 1938, he published Modes of Thought, perhaps the most straightforward summary of his ideas. [4]

Science and the Modern World was published in 1926. Only fifteen or so years earlier, in 1905 (sometimes called his “miracle year”), Albert Einstein published a series of papers that introduced his theory of relativity and made significant contributions to quantum physics. Fifteen years is a short time in the history of science. By this time, Whitehead, himself a mathematical physicist, had internalized the new physics of his day and gave a philosophical account of its meaning. Whitehead’s lasting importance flows from his ability to create a metaphysical system compatible with relativity theory and quantum physics.

End of Materialism

From Newton until the early 20th Century, a fundamentally materialistic worldview dominated science and philosophy. In this worldview, what is “real” is matter and material forces acting upon matter. The picture of the universe that emerged with quantum physics was radically different. Fundamental subatomic particles do not appear to be material. Instead, they seem to be what Whitehead calls “patterns” or “vibrations” in a universal electromagnetic field, an emerging disturbance in an underlying field of potentiality. [5] Whitehead recognized that the implications of developments in physics meant the end of the Newtonian worldview and its materialistic premises.

In response, Whitehead developed a “process” or “organic” view of reality in which the fundamental realities events are what he called “actual occasions.” [6] Those actual occasions that take on a stable form over some period of time, Whitehead sometimes calls “actual entities.”  Actual occasions are not fundamentally material but rather a part of a process of becoming. By making the fundamental unity of reality occasions and not particles, Whitehead laid the basis for a non-materialistic metaphysical account of reality.

In defining the fundamental reality as an event or occasion, Whitehead gives metaphysical expression to the fundamental immateriality of what science believes are the basic building blocks of the universe. [7] In so doing, “Whitehead marks an important turning point in the history of philosophy because he affirms that everything is fundamentally an event. What we perceive as permanent objects are events, or, better, a multiplicity and a series of events” that have taken up a stable form. [8] Therefore, the actual world is not fundamentally made up of objects but instead “built up of actual occasions.” [9]

Those things we perceive as stable objects (what Whitehead calls “enduring objects”) are events with an enduring character because of their underlying structure. [10] The vision of the world that Whitehead develops is decidedly not materialistic, for fundamental events are much like the waves that constitute fundamental particles—vibrations or patterns which are capable are not material entities but are capable of becoming so. Higher-order events are built up through structured combinations of actual occasions/objects. In Whitehead’s thought, not only are events primary but so are “structure” or the invisible noetic patterns discernable in actual occasions.

A Social World

Because the notions of pattern and structure are fundamental in Whitehead, the idea of “social order” is basic to his vision of reality. As occasions develop organized and orderly patterns, social order develops, even at a subatomic level. Thus, notions of social and personal order are fundamental because they are the enduring objects or creatures we are familiar with. That is to say, a human being is a society built up of actual occasions. Similarly, everything from rocks to complex social entities or societies of an impersonal type. [11] The development of order over time is a fundamental characteristic of reality, including the existence of human societies.

Early in the development of quantum physics, it was realized that one of its implications was a degree of interconnectedness among the fields of activity that make it up. As previously noted, Einstein’s Relativity Theory, which Whitehead studied and understood, describes a profoundly relational universe in which time and space, ultimate attributes of reality in Newtonian physics, are known to be related to one another and make up a “Space/Time Continuum.” Much of the argument of Science and the Modern World concerns the metaphysical implications of relativity theory, a subject to which Whitehead himself made contributions. In the end, the world that relativity theory describes is fundamentally relational. The absolute space and time of classical Newtonian physics had to give way to a notion of time and space that is fundamentally relational. Time and Space are related and cannot be separated except for purposes of abstract discussion. [12]

At a quantum level of reality, a deep interconnectedness is revealed and symbolized by so-called “spooky action at a distance,” or what physicists call “entanglement.” Reality is deeply connected at a subatomic level. Even at the level of everyday existence, there is a deep interconnectedness that is evident in so-called open systems and their tendency toward self-organizing activity—the so-called “butterfly effect.” [13]

One implication of process thought is based on the idea that relationships constitute reality. Actual occasions combine to form societies, which are fundamental aspects of reality. The essential character of a society is determined by the relationships in which it is located, past, present, and future. [14] A society of whatever character exists as a web of relationships from which it emerged in a process that leads to a future state of the society involved. According to Whitehead, the relatedness of the universe and the societies that make up the physical realities we experience is not merely external but also internal to the society itself. [15] Thus, not only is physical matter secondary, but also physical power.

The notion of reality as a kind of social order has important implications for political thinking. The idea of a society as being built up over time by the gradual unfolding of a social order that is not, at its ultimate basis, material requires a rethinking of any kind of power-based political theory—and casts grave doubt over the exclusion of moral and religious considerations in political decision making.

Humans as a Part of the Process

Newtonian physics posited the existence of an observer outside the events being observed. In addition, all connections between particles were external. Quantum physics has revealed that the observer is a fundamental part of the observed reality. Perhaps more importantly, quantum physics and relativity theory imply a universe of deep interconnection. Reality appears to participate in a profound fundamental, internal unity. As Whitehead puts it,

We awake to find ourselves engaged in process, immersed in satisfactions and dissatisfactions, and actively modifying, either by intensification, or attenuation, or by the introduction of novel purpose. [16]

In other words, all human experience and action, including science, participate in the unfolding process of the universe to which we are inextricably connected.

The relationship of the observer and the observed is illustrated by the so-called “double slit experiment.” If a researcher shines light through two slits, a pattern emerges from the other side, revealing whether light is a wave or a particle. However, the result is, in some sense, determined by our observation. It is as if human conscious involvement creates the effect and defines the character of the photon, and the photon somehow “feels” or senses the observer’s presence.

Process thought shares this view. Human beings are not outside reality but a part of the “World Process,” even our attempts at abstracting ourselves from what we observe are, at best, only partially successful. We are inevitably and inextricably connected to and sense at a deep level the social world of which we are a part. This is true of electrons and also of our families, neighborhoods, communities, nations, and world. What we say and do has an impact, however important or unimportant, on the world we inhabit. These connections are not just external but also internal. As Whitehead[17] puts it, “The whole environment participates in the nature of each of its actual occasions. Thus, each occasion takes its initial form from the nature of its environment.”

A World of Experience “All the Way Down”

One result of quantum physics is the realization that the very act of observing — of asking the question, “Through which slit will each electron pass?” changes the experiment’s outcome. In other words, the experimental results indicate that, in some way, subatomic particles “know,” “sense,” or “feel” the presence of the observer, which determines the outcome of the experiment. [18] Whitehead was well aware of this outcome. In his view, post-modern science implies that experience is a fundamental category of existence. To be is to experience. Even at the most fundamental levels of reality (the level of actual occasions and fundamental particles), a “feeling” or “experience” of reality exists. [19]

Whitehead, of course, understood, but the kind of consciousness that human beings enjoy is not present in fundamental particles, fundamental molecules, fundamental forms of life, and even, perhaps, in some animal life. Nevertheless, there seems to be a form of “feeling” or awareness of connection with surrounding reality at all levels of reality. As the phenomenon of entanglement demonstrates, this awareness of connection may extend to the limits of the universe.

Whitehead uses a technical term, “prehension,” to describe this feeling. [20] It is difficult for human beings to separate consciousness from apprehension. Whitehead, therefore, coined the term “prehension” to describe a form of non-cognitive apprehension as it exists in nature. Prehension is an outgrowth of the fundamental relatedness of reality as each form of existence (actual occasions) “prehends” surrounding reality.

Conscious perception is possible because we have a highly developed central nervous system. But this consciousness is only a tiny part of the considerable amount of consciousness contained in the universe. It would seem that at every level of reality, there is a constantly expanding and more complex form of experience available. All living creatures would seem to have some awareness of their surroundings and of the impacts their surroundings have upon them. In animal life, we see a growing form of awareness. In humans, we see still another form of awareness, but all this “experience” is built upon a kind of awareness or prehension present in the most fundamental aspects of reality.

This world of deep and beautiful order is deep and beautiful on several levels. In some way, the immaterial potentialities of the quantum world emerge, and from the indeterminate world of quantum reality, what we call ordinary reality and the laws of physics emerge. These laws that rule over matter and energy at the most fundamental levels allowed the emergence of what we would call “chemistry,” the basic elements making up the physical universe and their combination, out of which emerged biology, eventually resulting in the emergence of the human race—a race having self-consciousness and the ability to reflect the order of the universe in its relations as well as the ability to create culture, societies, and social structures. From the human race emerge families, society, social organization, law, economic systems, arts, literature, music, morality, religion, and all the myriad of complex social relations that make up any society. [21]

These levels of reality are, in some way, dependent upon each prior level in the emergent hierarchy of reality. Yet, they each possess independent rules, regulations, laws, and order founded on but not identical to the order from which it emerged. Finally, each level of reality participates in an invisible noetic order from which the material order emerges, which itself is emergent, within which various levels of existence have their conceptual order. That is to say, humans can investigate the underlying structure of reality using science and other disciplines. The means of investigation depends on the nature of the order.

This organic, interconnected, and hierarchical view of reality has critical political philosophy and practice implications. Every stable society is built ahead of multiple levels of increasingly complicated participants in the social order. For example, we tend to think that our society is made up of humans who happen to be residents of the United States of America. However, the health and functioning of the society end of the residence depends upon their interconnected participation in the universe that includes all its surrounding physical and non-physical elements.

Not surprisingly, one fundamental application of Whiteheadian philosophy has been in the area of environmental protection. The notion that the world is built up of actual occasions or objects connected by feelings and sense and responds to the existence and presence of one another implies that the members of our society are connected with its environment, human, non-human, organic, organic, and otherwise. If this is true, then it is impossible to have a healthy society that does not consider this web of relationships in which the human participants are located.

A Physical and Mental Universe

One of Whitehead’s contributions to philosophy is how he avoids the mind-body dualism inherent in modern metaphysics. According to Whitehead, every actual occasion has a mental and a physical pole. That is to say, that experience and intelligibility are present in everything from subatomic particles to human beings. In Whitehead’s view, every level of existence possesses mental and physical poles, including quanta, atoms, cells, organisms, the Earth, the solar system, our galaxy, and the universe up to God.  For God, the whole physical universe is the physical pole, and all ideas and forms are the mental pole. [22] In other words, there is no ultimate distinction between mind and matter. Mind and matter are two aspects of a single reality. The potential for the kind of consciousness that human beings possess is, thus, an evolutionary possibility within the structure of the type of universe we inhabit. [23]

There is also no ultimate distinction between those actual occasions that are in some sense alive and those (like rocks) that are not or between the human race and animals. As mentioned above, the mental pole does not imply a consciousness. Returning to the double slit experiment, when quantum physicists speak of a particle as “sensing” the observer, they do not mean to imply that subatomic particles are conscious. This can be hard to understand., but it refers to the fact that experience and intelligibility go all the way down, and therefore, mind, matter, organic and inorganic matter, humans and animals, for all their differences, are also in some sense fundamentally related in an intelligible way. [24]

Applied to political philosophy and social theory generally, Whitehead’s process view encourages investigators to look at the patterns of relationships that make up the society and polity in which one is interested—and to look at them as constantly changing events, not as an object frozen in time. What we sometimes call the American Experiment in Constitutional democracy is a good example. Our political system is not an object to be dissected and understood solely as the power applied to individuals. Instead, it is an event that comprises a complex of constantly changing and evolving relationships. To the extent that our society embraces fundamental values, those values must be continually applied to new and changing realities.

As far as political philosophy is concerned, fundamental “connectedness” implies that our tendency to divide our political world into “us” and “them” is ultimately a false abstraction. We are all part of and inevitably connected to our families, communities, nation, and world, joined in profound ways to those with whom we share all levels of human society. This includes those who disagree with us and those who agree, our political allies, and our opponents. This kind of relatedness casts doubt on the viability of any political philosophy that relies solely on power to the exclusion of other relational factors.

Once again, when one combines the process or event focus of Whitehead’s thought with its social character, one is led away from any notion of the universe as fundamentally constituted of matter and force and away from the idea embedded in our culture through Hobbes of society as fundamentally formed as conglomerations of individuals related to one another by force. Power exists, but it is grounded in a deeper reality, which we shall examine next week as we talk about God, Love, and the gradual movement of human societies from force to persuasion.

The evolution of the universe and human society reflects the propensity of the universe and society to seek the kind of satisfaction that we call “Peace” or “Harmony.”  Whitehead believes his metaphysics has practical implications, which he outlines in his book Adventure of Ideas. Whitehead’s metaphysics supports a view that sees justice as a kind of harmony within the social process that constitutes a society—a goal that policymakers should seek rather than power or ideological victory in the political sphere.

Eternal Objects

To understand Whitehead’s views on the movement from a society based on force to one based on persuasion, it is crucial to understand his notions of reality, God, and universals, what Whitehead calls “Eternal Objects.” As mentioned above, the world in which we live and have our day-to-day existence (what Whitehead sometimes calls the “Actual World”) is built up over long periods through the emergence and relationships of actual occasions. [25] Those things we perceive as stable objects (what Whitehead calls “Enduring Objects”) are events with an enduring character because of their underlying structure. [26]

For Whitehead, however, two objects participate in the emergence of the world of actual occasions that are not themselves actual occasions. These are:

  1. Eternal Objects, which are ideal entities that are pure potentials for realization in the actual world and form the conceptual ground for all actual occasions; [27] and
  2. God is both an Eternal Object and the primordial actual entity; God is not an actual occasion but is present in all occasions. [28]

According to Whitehead, eternal objects are the qualities and formal structures that define actual occasions and related entities. An infinite hierarchy of eternal objects defines each actual entity. This feature permits each real entity to be experienced by future entities in essential ways.

  1. Eternal objects participate in the causal connection of individual entities, functioning as private qualities and public structures, characterizing the growth of actuality in its rhythmic advance from private, subjective immediacy to public, extensively structured fact.
  2. Eternal objects are ideals conceptualized by historical actual entities. As such, they are the potential elements that ensure that the process of nature is not deductive succession but organic growth and creative advancement. [29] This characteristic is essential for understanding such political notions as Justice.

Eternal objects are primordially realized as pure potentials in the conceptual nature of that one unique actual entity, which we call “God.” As realized in God, eternal objects are ideal possibilities or potentialities, ordered according to logical and aesthetic principles, which can be realized in actual occasions. As realized in God, Eternal Objects transcend the historical actual entities in which they are realized. [30]

Persuasion Instead of Force

For Whitehead, God is “actual” (an actual entity) but non-temporal and the source of all creativity, the source of innovation who transmits his creativity in freedom and persuasion. [31] Whitehead’s God has two poles of existence: a transcendent pole, which is primordial, and a consequential or physical pole. The transcendent pole is the “mental pole” of God, wherein one finds the existence of eternal objects.  As primordial, God is eternal, having no beginning or end, and is the ultimate reason for the universe. [32]

God’s consequential or physical pole implies that God is present in the universe and in all actual occasions, which are the physical poles of God’s existence. In this physical pole, God experiences the world and the actualization of eternal objects in actual occasions. Because of God’s physical pole, God can be impacted by and experience actuality. Thus, Whitehead’s God experiences and grows with creation. Process Philosophy uniquely contributes to philosophical and theological ideas in postulating a physical pole to God.

For Whitehead, God is not an all-powerful ruler, a cosmic despot. God is intimately involved in the universe of Actual Occasions and impacts the future not by force but by persuasion. [33] Thus, he says,

More than two thousand years ago the wisest of men proclaimed that the divine persuasion is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such order as amid the brute force of the world it was possible to accomplish. [34]

This divine persuasion, the slow working of God in history as love and wisdom, is the hope of the world that the constant resort to force and violence in human affairs can be overcome. Writing before the Second World War, before Hiroshima, and the wars of the last century, Whitehead saw the critical role of faith and all religious groups as instruments for the evolution of the human race towards a more harmonious world based on persuasion, reason, and love rather than brute force. [35] In a much-quoted and beautiful passage, speaking of Christianity in particular, Whitehead writes:

The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as the revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world. The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory. I need not elaborate. Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in human life what Plato taught in theory. [36]

The Victory of Persuasion over Force

Plato had taught that the divine agency was persuasive, relying on reason, not coercion, to accomplish the world’s creation. Plato also taught that it was a part of the reordering of the human person by virtue to recover the primordial reliance on reason and persuasion by which the world was created and by which human beings recover an original reasonableness and harmony. This view has obvious implications for political philosophy and political practice. Human freedom and flourishing are dependent upon the emergence of ever-greater harmony and reasonableness in human society, including its political organization.

For Whitehead, “The progress of humanity is defined as the process of transforming society to make the original Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian ideals increasingly practicable for the individual members.” [37] The project of human civilization and every human society and political institution is, therefore, advanced by achieving the victory of persuasion over force. [38] Recalling the words of Plato, Whitehead writes:

The creation of the world—said Plato—is the story of persuasion over force. The worth of men consists in their liability to persuasion. They can persuade and can be persuaded by the disclosure of alternatives, the better and the worse. Civilization is the maintenance of social order by its inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force, however, unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in general society or in a remnant of individuals. [39]

Against Hobbes, Whitehead holds that persuasion has always been a part of human society and denies that force is the defining characteristic of human society. He disagrees that human society is “a war of everyone against everyone else.” The social and persuasive side of society may even be older than the recourse to force. The love between the sexes, the love of parents for children and families for one another, and even the communal love of small groups are probably older than brute force as a fundamental aspect of human society. In other words, Whitehead sees that a philosophy compatible with the best understanding of reality must, in every area, abandon the Newtonian emphasis on material objects and force.

This does not mean, however, that force is not an inevitable characteristic of society, for there is and always will be a need for laws, structures, and their enforcement and defense. Forms of social compulsion are an outgrowth of the need for social coordination but are (or at least should be) of themselves the outgrowth of reason. [40] Interestingly, Whitehead believes that Commerce is an essential component in the movement from force to persuasion, for commerce depends upon private parties reaching agreements without recourse to force, which tends to build the capacities for reason and persuasion that a free society requires. [41] The importance of persuasion is consistent with the emphasis on the role of love, cherishing, conversation, and dialogue in human society.

Freedom and Order

Whitehead believes that freedom of thought, speech and action are fundamental to social progress. However, there is always a social need to balance what he calls Individual Absoluteness and Individual Relativity. [42] Generally, Individual Absoluteness refers to the area of human freedom in a society, and Individual Relativity refers to the inevitable need for individuals to limit their freedom for the good of society as a whole and other human beings. In this dichotomy, there is a recognition of how social organization and harmony require some limitations on human freedom.

Creating a harmonic balance between the desires and wills of individuals and the maintenance of a sense of social solidarity in a free society requires an understanding of the relational environment from which the individual emerges and its needs for stability in the midst of unfolding change and how individual freedom results in the emergence of a gradually evolving society. There is always an element of chance in how societies evolve, and the resolution in any given community of the tension between freedom and order can seem the arbitrary result of chance—as it sometimes is. [43]The rate and seriousness of social change can vary within a society over time. If existing institutions are working well, and the citizens and centers of power are relatively content, the rate and dimension of change may be slow. In other situations, the rate of change may be significant. [44]

The adjustments required within a society are determined mainly by what Whitehead calls Instinct, Intelligence, and Wisdom. Instinct, which relates to what Peirce calls “habit,” are inherited modes of organization and action that have become customary for society due to inheritance, individual, and environmental factors. Intelligence includes those theoretical factors that are uncovered by human rational inquiry. Wisdom refers to how instinctual and theoretical elements intertwine in the practical accomplishment of social progress. Wisdom can be of greater or lesser effectiveness depending upon the ability to coordinate and incorporate the primary facts of human existence in decision-making.  [45]

In the end, social progress is made when human actors in the social arena make wise decisions impacting the evolution of human societies, including their political organization. In the same way, social regress occurs when human actors make unwise decisions concerning the evolution of human society, including its political organization. Finally, there is no avoiding this result because every human decision, great and small, impacts the universe in some way, creating a future, opening up some possibilities, and closing others.

In the midst of all this is each human actor making decisions. These decisions impact the human society in which the actor is located for better or for worse. The activity of free human actors is the foundation of all human thought, and any form of tyranny is antithetical to the emergence of a harmonious social order. In a particularly important passage, Whitehead notes:

A barbarian speaks in terms of power. He dreams of the superman with the mailed fist. He may plaster his lust with sentimental morality… But ultimately, his final good is conceived, as one will imposing itself upon other wills. This is intellectual barbarism. [46]

It takes a little imagination to see that Whitehead is referring to Nietzsche. Writing in the United States on the verge of the Second World War, with the terrible political results of Nietzschean thought evident in Germany. Whitehead understood, as we sometimes forget, that freedom requires a willingness to love, reason, persuade, and forgo all forms of force unless absolutely required by the circumstances. The example of Nazi Germany and the various disasters of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century is a clear argument for adopting a “politics of reason and relationship,” called agapio-sophism.

Conclusion

In the end, Whitehead believes that there are four factors which govern the fate of social groups, including our society:

  1. The existence of some transcendent aim or goal greater than the mere search for pleasure;
  2. Limitations on freedom that flow from nature itself and the basic needs of human beings;
  3. The tendency of the human race to resort to compulsion instead of reason, which is fatal to social growth and flourishing if extended beyond necessary limits and
  4. The importance of persuasion that relies upon reason and agreement to resolve social problems. In the end, it is the way of persuasion that holds the hope for social and human flourishing. [47]

Whitehead is important for a sophio-agapic analysis of justice. Through his concept of eternal objects, Whitehead is a noetic realist. He believes that values have a form of reality that can impact events and the evolution of any society, especially a complex political society. As a logician, physicist, and philosopher, his work in developing his metaphysical system indicates an orderliness to reality that can be examined by science and other disciplines, including political philosophy. Finally, his notion of “divine persuasion” is similar to Peirce’s notion of an agapic aspect of reality, including social reality. For Whitehead, human reason and emotions are essential in society, including its political organization. Whitehead’s organic, relational view of reality extends to his view of society and encourages attention to the relationships that make up society beyond mere law and power.

In setting out his organic and social vision of reality, Whitehead is highly sympathetic to a harmonic vision of society and the goal of social justice. What is sometimes referred to as a harmonic theory of justice is also an aesthetic theory of justice. [48] In the end, whitehead is captured by a vision of the search for beauty that dominates all efforts to create a better society in every area. Thus, he says:

Science and Art are the consciously determined pursuit of Truth and of Beauty. In them, the finite consciousness of mankind is appropriating as its own infinite fecundity of nature. In this movement of the human spirit types of institutions and types of professions are evolved. Churches and Rituals, Monasteries with their dedicated lives, Universities with their search for knowledge, Medicine, Law, methods of Trade, – they all represent that aim at civilization, whereby the conscious experience of mankind preserves for each use the sources of Harmony. [49]

In the end, Whitehead’s vision is a  sophio-agapic vision. A vision of a world in which the human search for truth and beauty is a search for harmony. Human society, complete with harmony and disharmony, is a never-ending, evolutionary project in which each person and society can participate in unfolding a better and more just society.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Free Press, 1925, 1967), from now on “SMM.”

[2] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: Free Press, 1929, 1957), at 90. Hereinafter, “PR.”

[3] A. N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York, NY: Free Press, 1933), hereinafter “AI”.

[4] A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York, NY: Free Press, 1938, 1968).

[5] SMM, at 132.

[6] Whitehead uses the terms “actual occasions” and “actual entities” almost interchangeably. For this reason, I think it might be best to consider a more general term.

[7] PR, 90.

[8] Steven Shaviro, “Deleuze’s Encounter With Whitehead” http://www.shaviro.com/Othertexts/DeleuzeWhitehead.pdf (Downloaded July 18, 2022).

[9] PR, 96-98.

[10] SMM, 132-133.

[11] Id, 40.

[12] Id, 118.

[13] This is not the place for a discussion of these phenomena. For those who would like a deeper discussion, see John Polkinghorne, ed, “The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). I have examined this phenomenon before in a blog entitled, “Politics and the Order of the World” at www.gchristopherscruggs.com (July 8, 2020).

[14] SM, 152.

[15] AI, 230.

[16] Id, 46.

[17] Id, 41.

[18] It should be obvious that the words, “know,” sense” or “feel” are used metaphorically. Subatomic particles do not have central nervous systems or brains and are not capable of knowing, sensing, or feeling in human terms. Nevertheless, there exists something at the subatomic level that is best described by reference to the human experience.

[19] AI, 230-233.

[20] SMM, 69.

[21] John Polkinghorne, The Way the World Is: The Christian Perspective of a Scientist (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1983), 22.

[22] PR,128.

[23] Whitehead makes a substantial contribution towards the development of “dual aspect monism” characteristic to more recent thought.

[24] It is beyond the scope of this paper, but the fundamental relatedness and meaningfulness of all reality has ecological as well as political implications.

[25] PR 27, 90.

[26] SMM, 132-133.

[27] PR, 26

[28] Id, 105

[29] Susan Shottliff Mattingly, “Whitehead’s Theory of Eternal Objects” A Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy. I am indebted to her for portions of this analysis.

[30] It is beyond the scope of this analysis to exhaustively look at Whitehead’s notion of God. He did view God as an essential element of his metaphysical system as the ground of the order and creative potential of the universe.

[31] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York, NY: The McMillian Company, 1936), 88.

[32] In Whitehead’s system all actual occasions have both a physical and a mental pole. Thus, intelligibility and the potential for the emergence of mind goes all the way down into the smallest actual entities in the universe.

[33] AI, 166.

[34] Id, 160.

[35] Id, 161. It is beyond the scope of this blog, but Whitehead believes that it is not the existence of dogmatics and religious theories that are the problem with religion, but the attitude of finality with which these opinions are voiced. In this, Whitehead echo’s Pearce. The theories of theologians are evidence of the importance of reason to Christian faith, and reasonableness is one of the ways in which brute force is overcome.

[36] Id, at 167. Plato had taught that the divine agency was persuasive relying on reason not coercion to accomplish his goal.

[37] Id, 17.

[38] Id, 25.

[39] Id, 83.

[40] Id, 69.

[41] Id, 70-84. This is a most interesting discussion in which Whitehead deals with Malthusian economics, and its limitations.

[42] Id, 43.

[43] Id, 44.

[44] Id, 45.

[45] Id, 45-7

[46] Id, 51.

[47] Id, 85-86.

[48] Id, 261. In his chapter on beauty in AI, Whitehead speaks of harmony as the objective of the search for beauty. He also describes the way in which disharmony d

(destruction) and harmony are related. Disharmony requires the searcher for harmony to seek a higher and greater harmony, a new harmony. In the same way, each perception of harmony leads to a perception of its inadequacy, which leads to a greater harmony. This is the aesthetic ground of the progress of justice in society.

[49] Id, 272

Harmonic Politics in a Disharmonious World

For the past two weeks, I’ve been discussing the metaphor of musical harmony as useful in understanding political philosophy and political theology. The classical tradition through Plato and Cicero and the Christian tradition through Augustine use musical metaphors and the notion of harmony to describe the search for a just society. In both traditions, the goal of government is to create social peace. When there is conflict, the goal is to restore social harmony. Social peace is best established in a free society through reasonable means based on shared values.

Events of this week in the Middle East allow me to address one of the most common objections to the viewpoint advanced in these blogs. Many of my friends and commentators suggest that using the word agape, or “self-giving love,” in connection with political reality is misguided. In their view, politics is the search for the advancement of self-interest, including the self-interest of social groups within or between societies. Politics is about the acquisition and use of power, and to bring non-power-related concepts into the discussion is misguided. I respectfully disagree.

The Current Example

Conflict erupted this week, beginning with an incursion from Gaza into Israel. Almost immediately, there were a series of threats and counter-threats on both sides. For the Israelis, the Hamas attack was an act of terrorism. From the perspective of Hamas and its supporters, the violence resulted from prior actions of the Israeli government. Amidst all this, the commentary of a retired American general caught my attention. Discussing what he viewed as the flaws of a prior and the present administration, which he feels represents an unrealistic understanding of international politics, he advanced the view that conflict is the basis of the relationship between nations. Such conflict may be peaceful or violent, but an element of conflict is always present. Those who seek a peaceful resolution of a conflict with a terrorist organization are simply deluded. It is this view that violence and competition sit at the foundation of the world order that I find limited, leading to unwise actions by leaders of the left and the right in innumerable situations.

What is Sophio-Agapism?

I refer to the vantage point of this series of blogs as “Sophio-agapism.” The term underscores the view that politics should be approached from the viewpoint of both a search for wisdom (sophia) and love (agape). In the philosophy of C.S. Peirce, the evolution of human society, like the evolution of the world, is characterized by chance, deterministic features, and agapistic love. To understand what Peirce is trying to say and its practical implications, it is crucial to understand what he means by “agapistic love.” In his “A Guess at the Riddle,” Peirce defines agapistic love as (i) an active bestowal of energy by the lover to the beloved, (ii) a cherishing of the beloved by the lover, (iii) and a positive sympathy on the part of the lover for the benefit of the beloved. [1] Love for Peirce is a kind of bestowal of energy that cherishes and seeks the best for that which is loved. This love is not just a human emotion but emerges as one of the elementary characteristics of the evolving universe.

Peirce begins his analysis of agapism with quotations from the First Letter of John, in which John concludes that “God is love” (I John 4:8,16). Peirce then proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ and to which John refers, as well as critiquing John’s supposed deviations from the pure gospel of love. Finally, he analyzes its application to evolutionary theory.  Peirce believed that agapism is central to the evolution of the universe and human society, and the other features of evolutionary growth, chance, and necessity are derived from this primordial love. In other words, love is a central characteristic of the world and human societies. It is not an “add-on” or a psychological reaction of certain individuals to harmonies in the world or society. It is a feature of reality itself. In another context, I have called the kind of love to which Peirce refers “Deep Love” or “Deep Relationality.” [2]

On the other hand, one should not overplay the role of love in a political philosophy. Just as the quantum world merges into the world of Newtonian physics, a world of material objects and force-dominated interactions, at the level of human society, the power of love and other factors in human society are impacted and limited by chance or fortuitous events and by the regularity, is created by a political system, an international economic system, and other systemic features that involve material objects and force. As to human society and human relationships, the impact of human freedom and the choices made by others cannot be underestimated. In such an environment, conflict cannot be entirely avoided, and the more irrational and unloving the other actors involved may be, the more likely it is that conflict is inevitable.

Defending a Sophio-Agapistic Political View

In defending a sophio-agapistic approach to political theory, reason moves from the phenomena of relationality embedded in the physical universe to an analysis of the human experience of relationship and then to the emergence of the various kinds of relationality in human society. [3] The variety of ways in which a deep relationality impacts human society can be unfolded by looking at various Greek terms for love as a part of the gradual evolution of the human race and human society. In Greek, there are at least five different relevant terms for love:

  • “eros” or romantic love evoked by desire (ἔρως),
  • “storge” or affection (στοργή),
  • “philia” or brotherly love (φιλία),
  • “pragma” or practical love (πράγμα), and
  • “agape” or self-giving love (αγάπη).

In my view, these loves emerge from the relationality found at the root of creation, in which human beings participate. Human capacity for loving relationality evolved as consciousness and society evolved. Humanity’s capacity for relationality and love has evolved in important and breathtaking ways.

The Emergence of Relationality in Human Society

Reality is multilayered. At the bottom of material reality lies the principles of physics, from which chemistry and biology emerge as independent areas of reality. The human race emerged in a long process of biological and social development, with the result that religion, psychology, sociology, law, and other disciplines also developed due to the capacity of human beings to create human societies and institutions. Each level of reality depends on others yet has its degree of independence. While other levels are relevant and impact higher levels, they do not determine them. [4] At each level of reality, there is continuity, dependence on lower levels, freedom, and openness as new potentials arise. In particular, the unconscious relationality of the universe is now conscious, capable of infinitely more complex relationships on a mental and emotional level.

The emergence of human beings and human society vastly increased the range and kind of potential in the created order, including political options for the understanding and achievement of justice in society. The deep relationality of the universe involves a preference for sound relationships, for what the Jews call shalom, which is often translated as “peace”. Still, it has the more profound connotation of wholeness or completeness of order in life. The human desire and need for social interaction impact societies in the search for justice. In the context of political philosophy, when recognized and developed, what I term “noetic potentials,” such as justice, arise and can guide humans’ day-to-day activities. These noetic potentials develop and “unfold” in and among different societies in different ways. Still, all exemplify the order and symmetry in relationship potential in reality and every social reality.

The Politics of Agapism

For political purposes, all loves have some meaning, but three are most important to any well-functioning society:

  • Philia, which is considered the beloved part of a family or common community;
  • Pragma, which compromises to help the relationship work over time, showing patience and tolerancein sustaining and building a relationship; and
  • Agape, which remains committed, sacrifices, and cherishes even when the beloved, in the case of political love, a society, is unworthy. It is a commitment over time to the other.

These three loves are important to a functional society, particularly a functioning democratic society. Philia is that social bond we have because of a common family with shared norms and institutions of meaning. Societies need a sense of common history, background, life order, etc. Humans instinctively cling to family, close friendships, fellow believers, co-workers, etc. It is more than posturing when people speak of a business, a neighborhood, or even a nation as a family, or even of the “family of nations.”

As past events demonstrate, philia can negatively impact social relationships, where the bonds of a common family, race, religion, or cultural heritage overcome all other relational ties and create conflict. While all societies need a sense of community, social brotherhood, and sisterhood, where historic racial and other characteristics dominate, they can lead to conflict. The conflict in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs is a great example of this phenomenon. It is made more difficult by the religious differences between Judaism and Islam.

Pragma is that love that allows members of a society to tolerate differences and build a common society that benefits all, making the necessary compromises for any society to function. Pragma recognizes that society requires its members to be patient and loyal, even in times of stress. [5] Pragma encourages compliance with laws, even those with whom one privately disagrees, to advance the group’s common good. Pragma is “pragmatic” in that it accepts and nurtures the other to maintain a relationship of practical worth to the lover.

From a political perspective, pragma is an important form of love. Within a society, it is important to build social solidarity. On the other hand, there is a pragma among nations and societies. That is to say, we inhabit one world, and in that one world, it is in the best interests of everyone to create as much harmony as possible and to avoid destructive conflict. It is the viewpoint of this series of blogs that developing an intercultural, international pragma is of the first importance.

At the top of the pyramid of love is agape. Agape is that love willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole. Agape also means giving others the right and capacity to achieve their goals despite our questions concerning their reasonableness or desirability. Agape respects the freedom of the other and hopes for the flourishing of the other. Agape is a love that bestows itself on the deserving and underserving alike. Shared history or calculations of personal self-interest do not limit the love that is agape.

Agape is the highest form of Christian love but also appears in other religious traditions, such as the idea of “universal loving kindness” in Buddhism. [6] In Latin, agape is translated as “charitas,” from which we get our word “charity.”  This usage points to the difference between eros and agape: eros is a love evoked by something in the beloved that the lover needs; agape is a love as the free act of the lover. Agape is not a love evoked by desire but bestowed upon its recipient. Agape is not a love that can be commanded or required; it must be bestowed upon people and society by the action of free people. In international politics, agape is present, where those with power deliberately use less than all the power at their disposal in the interest of something higher—peace and harmony among people and social groups.

Agape is not unnecessary in human affairs, even amid conflict. Wise leaders avoid conflict and, when in a conflict, seek to minimize the damage and estrangement all conflict involves. As I put it in another context:

Wise leaders shun violence and conflict. This is the virtue of avoiding violence and conflict: the ability to manage people and situations as gently as snow falls on a winter day.

The best policy is this: Avoid conflict if at all possible.

If conflict arises, the best policy is this: Avoid unnecessary destruction. If conflict continues, the best policy is this: Seek a just solution. If conflict reaches a conclusion, the best policy is this: Show mercy and restore good relations. [7]

Even in conflict, the agapist approach involves self-control and the search for peace, even at personal and social cost—the cost of sacrificing to avoid and minimize violence.

The Current Situation

The conflict in the Middle East, Ukraine, and other areas can appropriately be analyzed using the ideas of sophio-agapism. Both Garza and the Ukraine are in the process of being utterly destroyed by constant bombardment in military action. When these conflicts are over, it will take years to rebuild the social and physical infrastructure being destroyed. In addition, because military activities breed resentment, the resentment created will be present no matter who wins the conflict. The Russians and the Western powers should consider the negative consequences of the Ukraine conflict, and Israel and Hamas should consider the negative impacts of the conflict in Gaza, no matter who wins. A victory that does no more than create even more embedded social hostility is unlikely to further the cause of peace in the long run.

Just War Pacifism and Sophio-Agapism

Some years ago, I suggested in a meeting that the political philosophy of John Paul II could be termed “just war pacifism.” My colleague in the conversation, a professor of philosophy, disagreed with my analysis that one could conceive of a form of pacifism that embraced just war theory and a form of just war theory that embraces pacifism. Nevertheless, I continue to think that this is a valuable way of thinking.

Plato, George Santayana, and General Douglas MacArthur are all recorded as saying, “Only the dead will never know war again.” War is a social reality that appears to be a permanent feature of human history. While it is the duty of every person to avoid conflict and war if at all possible, it’s also in the best interest of every human being to see that where war is being conducted, it is conducted in such a way as to lead to the least possible loss of life, and especially the life of innocents, and conducted in such a way as to make a peaceful result, and a more harmonious, social future more likely.

In the past few days, our televisions and media have been filled with images of the results of a horrific terror attack in which noncombatants, men, women, and children were killed and, in some cases, tortured and killed. No possible construction of just war theory condones this behavior. The inevitable human reaction is to want to make the person who did this pay, leading to more violence. For some months now, the citizens of Ukraine have been the subject of a dehumanizing conflict in which innocent noncombatants have become victims of violence. Violence has led to more violence. Human lives and human social solidarity are being destroyed.

Unfortunately, the situation in Gaza gives rise to yet another conundrum: when a terrorist organization is leading an entire social group, are members of that society willingly or unwillingly participating in the injustice of their leaders? This is precisely the conundrum that Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced in Germany before and during World War II and is not, in principle, resolvable. It is only solvable in a concrete case facing a concrete person. The citizens of Gaza and those opposing them must decide what to do to create a peaceful social environment.

Socio-agapism, when used as a principle of action in any area, is not a philosophy of weakness or inaction. It is a philosophy of wise engagement to achieve the best result for all. Even where a leader or society is in a position of great power, socio-agapism establishes a principle of wise calculation of the best interests of all involved with the belief that the best interests of all involved are also in each party’s best interests to a conflict. Socio-agapism does not provide an easy solution to all conflicts or give precise guidance to leaders. It suggests a path involving the relentless and sometimes costly search for social harmony and peaceful relationships within and among social groups.

I must conclude this week’s blog. I intend to return to the issue of just war pacifism near the end of these blogs. Those who believe that Christianity must embrace relentless pacifism will not like the conclusions of this week’s blog. Those who believe in “real politics” will also reject the notion that the search for social harmony and peace is fundamental. It’s contrary to their idea of the relentless conflict in competition among nations and social groups in which only victory removes conflict. My basic response to this point of view is that peace cannot be achieved “until swords made into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4; Joel 3:12; Micah 4:3). This is the eschatological hope that leads all right-thinking persons to embrace the search for peace.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Guess at the Riddle” in Essential Writings, 249-250.

[2] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers Rev. Ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016).

[3] This entire section is taken from G. Christopher Scruggs, A “Sophio-Agapic Approach to Political Philosophy: a Constructive “Post-ideological Proposal” (Unpublished Manuscript, October 11, 2023).

[4] John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation, 2007), 102 and Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion (London, ENG: SPCK, 2005).

[5] Roman Krznaric, “The Ancient Greeks’ 6 Words for Love (And Why Knowing Them Can Change Your Life)” in Solutions Journalism ( December 28, 2013), at www.yesmagazine.org/health-happiness/2013/12/28/the-ancient-greeks-6-words-for-love-and-why-knowing-them-can-change-your-life/ (downloaded June 19, 2020).

[6] Id.

[7] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers Rev. Ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016), 136.

The Harmony of Deep Light

The Privileged Position of Light

The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light” Gen. 1:1-3). In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the “the true light that gives light to everyone” John 1:9). Throughout history, light has been connected with the divine, and in particular with the divine reason that permeates the universe. The great theologian Thomas Torrance observed that the status of light as orderly, invariable, constant, and unsurpassable, a status confirmed by relativity theory, points to the ultimate light, the uncreated light of God, which serves as the ground of the rationality and order of creation itself. [1]

The Nature of Created Light

Visible created light consists of photons, massless packets of energy, each traveling with wavelike properties at the speed of light.  The light that we can see with our eyes is simply that part of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes can see.[2] A photon carries energy proportional to the radiation frequency but has zero rest mass. In other words, photons are not physical but wavelike. Photons are the smallest unit (quantum) of energy, and the realization that light traveled in discrete quanta was the origin of Quantum Theory.

Christian Huygens proposed that light was composed of waves traveling through the “ether,” an invisible substance thought to permeate space. This view contradicted the views of Newton, who felt that light was made up of particles, a view that a majority of physicists originally accepted Newton’s theory that is materialistic and corpuscular. Light is a thing.

In 1801, Thomas Young conducted what is known as a double-slit experiment. In the experiment, a side-by-side beam of light was sent through two small holes. When this was done, the light passing through them formed a pattern. At regular intervals, the intersecting ripples emanating from the two holes interfered constructively—combining to make brighter light—or destructively—canceling one another out. This behavior indicated that light was a wave-like phenomenon. The work of James Clerk Maxwell gave this theory much support. Maxwell developed the theory of light as a disturbance or wave in a continuous electromagnetic field. This was a strong confirmation of Young’s ideas.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Max Planck developed quantum theory, theorizing that the mysterious behavior of light could be understood by considering light to be electromagnetic waves divided into individual packets or “quanta.” This is the beginning of what we call “quantum theory.”  In 1905, Albert Einstein theorized that light behaves as both a particle and a wave, with the energy of each particle of light corresponding to the wave’s frequency. His theorizing won him the Nobel Prize in 1921 (the year my parents were born). This was the beginning of the strange duality of light in orthodox quantum theory.

            Currently, light is considered an excitation in an electromagnetic field capable of exhibiting paradoxical features consistent with wave-like and particle-like behavior. So-called quantum fields, such as the electromagnetic field, are a kind of energy-generating potential spread throughout space. Today, physicists think of every particle, including photons, as an excitation of a quantum field.  [3]  String theory holds that reality, including photons, is composed of infinitesimally small vibrating strings, smaller than atoms, electrons, or quarks. According to this theory, as the strings vibrate, twist, and fold, they produce effects that explain phenomena from particle physics to large-scale phenomena like gravity. [4] String theory sees photons as rotational vibrations (an oscillation in an electromagnetic field) in a one-dimensional string.

An Illumined Universe Made of Light

Nikola Tesla, for whom the car is named, is famously, if possibly erroneously, reported to have said, “Everything is light.”  There is some truth to the statement. Most people are familiar with Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the famous equation E=MC2. This theory implies that mass and energy are potentially convertible into one another. This is the foundation of the atomic bomb,

The “Big Bang” theory combines Einstein’s general theory of relativity with the discoveries astronomy has made concerning the universe’s evolution to reach conclusions concerning the beginning of the universe.  Thus, what is called the “Big Bang Theory” is an attempt to explain the universe’s origin based on the current status of physics and the information we have about the universe’s evolution. The theory supposes that the universe begins at a point of infinite density. At the initial moment (creation), there was nothing but a very hot and rapidly expanding cosmic soup of protons, neutrons, and electrons. This is the bang.

 About 300,000 years after the Big Bang, referred to as the “Era of Recombination,” photons began attaching as electrons to atoms, and the universe went from being opaque to transparent. This is the point of the earliest light astronomers can observe, what we call cosmic background radiation. Over the next nearly 14 billion years, the universe as we know it evolved. 5 The universe consists mostly of photons, which means that in some special sense, light is a primary attribute of the created order.

A Universe Illumined by Uncreated Light

While involved in a difficult leadership situation some years ago, I wrote Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love. [5] It was a Christian adaptation of the Chinese classic, the Tao te Ching. The book was a guide, so to speak, as to spiritual leadership, even in times of crisis and conflict. As the Preface indicates, it was born of my feeling that I was losing my center in Chris while trying to serve God in a highly conflicted situation.

One of the chapters of the paraphrase begins like this:

There was a beginning when the One Who Is created all things. All things were created and are yet being created by the Word and its Deep Light, as Deep Love seeks orderly peace ( Chapter 22).

Deep Light

What is this “Deep Light” of which I was speaking? It is not a physical light. It is a spiritual reality that underlies the created order and the physical light that illuminates our lives. It is the wisdom of God. It is the rationality that pervades our universe.  I go on to define the term in the book:

Deep Light: The Apostle John teaches that “God is light” when he says, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him, there is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5). This Divine Light is the divine ground of reason, which existed before the created order. The “Logos,” or Divine Reason, is immanent in the cosmos. In God, Divine Love and Divine Wisdom exist in harmony so that love is not separated from wisdom. God’s rationality never fails to act in love.  [6]

Deep Love

In addition to Deep Light, the universe also embodies a deep love. In these blogs, I have had the opportunity in the past to talk about the phenomenon of “Entanglement” and the deep relationality that seems to be present in the created universe. This created relationality points toward an uncreated relationality. Christians believe created relationality reflects the relationship within the God-Head, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God in Three Persons, exhibiting eternal, endless, self-giving love.

I defined this Deep Love as follows in Centered Living/Centered Leading:

Deep Love: In First John, the Apostle also teaches that “God is love.” John says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). John goes on to define the nature of this Deep Love when he says, “This is how we know what love is, Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The Deep Love of God is a sacrificial, suffering love. This kind of love works for the restoration, redemption, and renewal of the world. It was revealed most clearly by Jesus Christ on the cross. [7]

Our Harmonious Universe

Notice that the end of the passage, quoted from Centered Living/Centered Leading, reads, “All things were created and are yet being created by the Word and its Deep Light by the Word and its Deep Light, as Deep Love seeks orderly peace.” In other words, divine, uncreated Deep Light and Deep Love aims to promote harmonious peace. This notion of peace drawn from the Christian tradition goes beyond the absence of conflict. It involves wholeness, completeness, perfection, well-being, harmony, prosperity and tranquility. The peace comes when all things are in their proper place.

The notion of harmony as fundamental to the universe is deeply rooted in human history. The rational symmetries of the universe and its fundamental relatedness point to the conclusion that harmony lies at the root of our ideas of justice, wholeness, morality, peace, or shalom. This deeper harmony is a transcendent harmony that sits at the foundation of the created universe.

Our Lost Harmony

Faced with the deep rationality and relationality of the universe, why, then, do we see so little harmony in nature, in families, in society, and in political institutions? This is a question that is well worth asking, even though we can never have a complete answer. What we know for sure is that there are a lot of destructive disharmonies in nature, human beings, and human society. Something is not quite right. Christians believe Christ is the answer to restoring the harmonies of nature.

Here is the way the writer of Colossians puts it:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:15-20).

When we call Jesus “The Way,” we are indicating that following Christ is how humans can restore the lost harmony of our universe and our lives. The very image of the invisible God, his divine beauty, rationality, and love, was embodied in the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is behind the Apostle Paul’s idea that creation itself yearns for its lost Shalom:

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (Romans 8:19-22).

In some way, the disharmony of the entire universe reflects an incompletion, a defect that creation itself desires to be undone. Christians believe that, on the Cross, Christ took the first step in effectuating a remedy for that disharmony by an act of complete self-giving love. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God continues to work for harmony, peace, and shalom in and through those willing to open their lives to God, the Word, and the divine desire for peace. This is not easy. It is painful. The question is, “Do we want to participate?”

Conclusion

Is this all just wishful thinking? All I can say is that the destructive conflict that gave birth to Centered Living/Centered Leading continued for some time. Led by the idea of a divine reason and love at work in creation, the organization I led avoided litigation, extensive damage, many broken relationships, and other consequences of disharmony that others experienced. In at least one subsequent conflict, I saw signs that the insight was correct. I believe that our current social disharmony would be much alleviated by leadership willing to seek and suffer to discover the Deep Light and work for renewal in the power of Deep Love.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, “The Theology of Light” in Christian Theology and Scientific Culture (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 1980, 1998), 80-81).

[2] Oxford Instruments, “What is Light?-An Overview of the properties of Light” at  https://andor.oxinst.com/learning/view/article/what-is-light(Downoaded October 4, 2023).

[3] Amanda Soliday and Kathrin Jepsen, “What is a Photon?” in Symmetry, (June 28, 2021) at https://www.symmetrymagazine.org/article/what-is-a-photon?language_content_entity=und (downloaded October 4, 2023).

[4] Clarles Woods & Vicky Stien “What is String Theory?” in Space.com (May 18, 2023) at www.space.com/17594-string-theory.html (DownloadedOctober 4, 2023).

[5] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers Rev. Ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016), 104.

[6] Id, at 165.

[7] Id, at 165.

Christian wisdom for abundant living