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Archive for November, 2016

Christian Historicism and the fine art of Political fence-sitting

Posted by nouspraktikon on November 10, 2016

This time the churches woke up, some of them…

I hear that many missions and para-church organizations, for example Franklin Graham, were able to make an eleventh hour appeal which allowed Evangelicals to lay aside their prejudice towards Mr. Trump and cast a vote with the better interests of the country in mind.

But not everyone…

A dear Christian friend of mine sent me a podcast of a sermon which he had attended the Sunday before the election.  It was, by some standards, a competent and well delivered sermon, well within the standards of orthodoxy of the denomination in which it was preached.  In fact, so unobjectionable that I had a sense of deja vu.  Not that I have any doubts that it was an original sermon, prepared with much prayerful labor the week before.  None the less I had heard its like many times before…so much so that I could tell where it was going as soon as its first lap around the homiletic field had been passed.

The theme was “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” and as with all competent preaching on the gospel passages, it noted that the coin was in Caesar’s image and each human is likewise stamped with God’s image.  Accordingly we obey Caesar but live for the Lord.  Doesn’t that sound familiar…yes, and true as well.

True as far as it goes…but is that enough?

The problem of Historicism

This genre of sermon can be improved without limit, simply by adding more detail drawing from historical and archaeological sources.  The preacher can illuminate the encounter between the Pharasees and Christ with all sorts of interesting and relevant observations on Jewish sects and Roman administration during the first century AD.  However this tends to turn Jesus into a historical figure.  Of course, Jesus is indeed a historical figure…but he is much more than that to men and women of Christian faith, for he our coming Lord as well and most importantly our now living and resurrected Savior.  If our present situation was similar to what the Church faced in early gnosticism, then the salient battle would be to convince people that Jesus was a historical person.  However, aside from certain New Age and occult movements of negligible importance, nobody today believes in a “spirit Jesus” who never suffered in an incarnate body.

Most people today do in fact believe that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died on earth, but not all understand that he is presently alive and will come again at the end of the age.  Whatever preachers may believe in their hearts, much of the preaching in mainstream churches is still infected by 19th century historicism, and therefore gives the impression that Jesus is a historical figure rather than a present Lord.

The problem of Secularization

Obviously a pure historicism would lead to infidelity.  Many great atheists, such as Ernest Renan the French author of a famous Life of Jesus, not only believed that Jesus really existed but greatly respected him as a radical thinker and ethical exemplar.  This “Jesus-ism” whatever its merits as philosophy, is far removed from Christian faith, and I don’t mean to imply (aside from some Unitarians and other extreme liberal pastors) that it is characteristic of mainstream churches.  What is more characteristic is a misplaced faith in the agency of human institutions and movements to improve human nature, as if Christ had poured his spirit out, not just into the church, but into civilization as a whole.

According to this theory, the human race has undergone two-thousand years of edification.  First Christ, then the church, and finally the generality of the human race has been lifted up into a kinder and gentler form of existence.  This is called  by some theological tyros, the process of “secularization.” Circuses have been replaced by hospitals and schools.  We are no longer barbarians, we are Christians.  If there are any barbarians left, they just aren’t up to speed with the program, and they are in bad need of edification…by schooling if possible, by force if necessary.

There is something in me that finds this way of thinking very agreeable.  Let’s call it the Hegelian temptation.  We just drift on the current of history and things keep improving.  The human race is constantly engaged in a discovery process and the cultural conversation keeps getting better and better.  Since we are basically good, we don’t need any scary supernatural interventions, and we can dispense with prayer and the Person prayed to.  It is an activist, but purely immanent Christianity.  Indeed, it is a Christianity which is ultimately “too good” to be denominated Christianity at all, and boldly declared to be Humanism.

The opposition between good intentions and Scriptural realism

All of this is quite attractive…but unfortunately a lie.  It stumbles on the doctrines of original sin and the necessity of an atonement for sin.  This atonement must be one which humans cannot self-administer to themselves apart from a Savior who breaks into our sinking world of cozy immanence.  Ultimately, the societal effects of sin are so debilitating that this Savior will have to come back to planet Earth in order to restore our planet to truth and justice.  Thus the doctrine of “secularization” runs afoul not only of the scriptural doctrines of original sin and vicarious atonement, but it obviates the necessity of a second coming of the Lord.

I doubt that I can convince anyone using mere words.  Rather, Christianity is an experiential religion.  Do you, the reader, feel that human nature is improving due to a sustained collective self-effort?  If not, why not?  Compare what you observe with the world-view that you discover in the Bible.  It may or may not be the world-view that you would embrace out of any number of possible alternatives, but never mind that, rather, is it the truth or not?

It would appear that modern men and women have a bias towards the left-wing version of Hegelianism, or what is popularly known as “progressivism”…namely,  the feeling that human society can be reformed through collective action.  Every human institution must come up for a referendum on reform or abolition, whether it be marriage, property, or the state.  The upshot is (especially since the secular millennium has take the place of the second coming of Christ) a bar of reform which must constantly be raised higher and higher, in which all particularities within society are homogenized into a undifferentiated Being.   Of course this is not called Neutral Monism, or even “the blob from outer space”…but rather is decked out in attractive slogans like “democracy” and “equality.”

In the meantime the right-wing Hegelians, the ones who still call themselves Christians, sit in the pews and listen to sermons on a man who lived a comfortable two-thousand years ago.  They too have faith, at least until recently, that that inexorable process of secularization, by which church values would become social values, bespeaking a kinder and a gentler world.  Thus the progressive and the conservative can listen to the same historical message and draw forth different applications.  For the conservative the application is quiet acceptance of a mysterious transcendental will working itself out in history, while for the progressive it is a call to social activism.  This is convenient for the pastor, who can appeal to both sectors of his congregation ( I almost said, clients) without too much discord.  I won’t speculate whether this is deliberate cunning or something beyond individual intentions.

Build the wall

Neither quietism nor autonomous activism is appropriate to the believer.  The message must be neither a call to usher in the millennium or to sit on one’s hands.  If you hear a voice saying “tear down the wall” you may be assured that the apostles of Being are calling you to action.  If you say, I won’t tear down the wall and I won’t build it either…I will allow the will of God to work itself out in the dialectic of history, you are obviously competing for the laurel wreaths of the right-wing Hegelian academy.  Unfortunately, that house is burning down quickly, and my advice is to get out with your soul intact.

Nehemiah built a wall.  It was built successfully under adverse circumstances and with much nay-saying.  None the less he prodded his countrymen to activism through a clear exposition of the will of God.   He didn’t sit on a fence…he built one.  Likewise we are called to build walls around ourselves, walls protecting decency, walls delimiting the just portion of each individual or family from the other, walls against the intrusion of occult forces which seek to penetrate into the human realm, walls delimiting the authority of various modes of social governance to their special spheres, and many, many other kinds of walls.

Whether there should be a wall between the United States and Mexico is a matter that should be decided through the agreement of the nations concerned.  However there is one wall-building from which no Christian is exempt.  Building the wall against sin.






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