Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Politics Can’t Avoid Religion

There is a recent New Yorker article titled “Of Babies and Beans:  Paul Ryan on Abortion.”  The author, Adam Gopnik, is agitated over something said by Paul Ryan at the recent vice-presidential ‘debate’ (I still can’t bring myself to say that those things are really debates).  Here is what shocked Adam Gopnik:

Paul Ryan did not say, as John Kennedy had said before him, that faith was faith and public service, public service, each to be honored and kept separate from the other. No, he said instead “I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do.” That’s a shocking answer—a mullah’s answer, what those scary Iranian “Ayatollahs” he kept referring to when talking about Iran would say as well. Ryan was rejecting secularism itself, casually insisting, as the Roman Catholic Andrew Sullivan put it, that “the usual necessary distinction between politics and religion, between state and church, cannot and should not exist.”

Pause to note something significant in the sub-quote above from Andrew Sullivan:  the assumption that “politics and religion” is parallel to “state and church.”  State and church are institutions.  Politics and religion are (here at least) concepts.  The mere fact that we see wisdom in separating two institutions does not require that we agree that these two concepts can be separated.  Keep that in mind as we proceed.

Gopnik is especially disturbed with one place Ryan took this:  his opposition to abortion.  As Gopnik went on to say:

Ryan talked facilely of what “science” says in this case. But what real science has to tell us, of course, very different; it says that life has no neat on and off, that while life may in some sense begin at conception, the moment when the formed consciousness that distinguishes human life from bean life arises is a very different question, not reducible to a dogma or a simple claim. A bean isn’t a baby; a baby was once a bean, and between those two truths it is, or ought to be, every woman for herself.

Albert Mohler wrote a response to Gopnik.  I often like what Mohler has to say about such things.  Mohler emphasized Gopnik’s insistence that an early-stage baby is nothing more than a bean, and where such a view inevitably leads us.  But it was interesting that Mohler did not mention what is really a key point is this, and many related, debates.

Gopnik naively assumes that his assumptions and conclusions in this case are not religious.  By ‘religious’ here I obviously don’t necessarily mean ‘Christian’ (or any other religion in that sense).  What I do mean by ‘religious’ is something like this:  necessarily involving assumptions that cannot be directly empirically tested.

Secularists do this constantly, and they should just as frequently be called on it.  Science itself involves this kind of religious assumption.  Such assumptions, and the conclusions to which they lead, are not necessarily extra-rational.  But they are, in an important sense, religious.  The conclusion that there is no God, that there is a God but we can’t be too sure we know much about God, and all sorts of views like this, are religious.  Secularism itself is a religious idea in this important sense.

And very much so also is Gopnik’s idea that “consciousness distinguishes human life.”  This is an utterly religious idea, and Gopnik should know it, but seems oblivious to the obvious here.  When Gopnik brings this idea into his political views, he is guilty of exactly the same thing he condemns in Ryan.

I don’t begrudge Gopnik his religious ideas, nor do I think he can avoid bringing them into this kind of debate.  But he, like many secularists, need to realize that it is not a matter of mixing politics and religion – that is unavoidable.  The only real question is:  which religious ideas will you bring to your politics?

We get bad politics not because we rely on religious ideas to form our political ideas, but because we use the wrong religious ideas to form our political ideas.  Those dreaded ‘mullahs’ do not have horrible governments because they are religious.  They have horrible governments because they have wrong religious ideas.

This conclusion is exactly what a Gopnik-style secularist is desperately seeking to avoid.  But such avoidance is impossible – utterly impossible.  Religious views are everywhere, including every conceivable political position.  Everyone has them; no one can avoid them.  We need to make the Gopniks of the world face up to that.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

‘Just Do It’ Faith

Michael S. Horton, professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California, said Christians appear to be creating future "nones" by failing to adequately pass the faith on to successive generations.

"We are about a generation away from a worshiping community that is rather small in terms of those who know what they believe, why they believe, and practice their faith with some real conviction," he said.

[from a Christianity Today article found here]

Kent comments:

In my now significant number of years teaching people the Christian faith, I have to agree with this assessment.  It has been coming for a long time now.  My analysis is that lack of knowing what we believe and why we believe it is a significant contributing cause of the lack of practicing the Christian faith with real conviction.

The article focuses on a recent Pew poll that showed Protestants losing majority status in the U.S.  As the article points out, most of this has come from the “mainline” Protestant denominational churches.  Given my analysis, this is not surprising.  For many years most mainline Protestant churches have been moving in the direction of deemphasizing what they believe and why.  Instead, they have focused on promoting a somewhat distorted version of “doing good” that is often defined by current cultural fads.

So it is no wonder that people eventually tire of doing that kind of so-called ‘good’ – there is no real reason to motivate anyone to do it.  But even among more conservative groups, including the now-popular no-brand ‘community’ style churches, I get the impression that the emphasis has now fallen on the “just do it” approach.  People in our culture generally have no patience with whats and whys – they just want to do it.  We are a culture of people who want to try to play the game without ever understand, or even reading. the rules.  You can sometimes do that to a point, but the game will fall apart in the end.

I am sometimes shocked at the ignorance of the Christian faith I find in those who claim the Christian faith.  Some of these people are very sincere.  Sincerity has some force, but I think that, in the end sincerity alone is dead.  It is no wonder that ‘we’ have been failing to pass our faith on to successive generations:  ‘we’ don’t really understand our faith.  It is very difficult to pass along something you don’t understand.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Syllabus for the Kingdom of God

I recently received this from a fellow campus minister:

We're kicking off a long a wholesome gander at Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, which is what folks calls Matthew chapters 5-7. Here's my thesis: Matthew 5:1-17 is like Jesus' syllabus for the rest of his teaching. So join us at Starbucks tomorrow (Friday) at noon, and let's figure out the syllabus for the Kingdom of God.

It is not uncommon to find this sort of thing, so we often think nothing of it.  What could be better than studying the Sermon on the Mount?  There is, of course, nothing at all wrong with studying the Sermon on the Mount.  It is, after all, part of the corpus of scripture which is the God-revealed content of that “faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

And yet, I fear that something like this might reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of scripture.  A syllabus should contain the main points of a course of study.  If this is the case, the Sermon on the Mount cannot be a syllabus of the Kingdom of God.  It is important ethical teaching for the Kingdom of God.  But it cannot be a syllabus for the Kingdom of God because it is limited and incomplete.

If the topics found in the Sermon on the Mount were the extent of the gospel, think of how very different the Kingdom of God would be.  The Sermon on the Mount does not mention sacrifice for sin.  It does not mention the Holy Spirit.  It does not mention many things that make the Kingdom of God the very distinctive kingdom that it is.  A kingdom of God limited to the topics introduced in the Sermon on the Mount would be a moralistic kingdom in which redemption went unexplained and even unmentioned.

And that is not the Kingdom of God.  In fact, it sounds a lot like the kingdom of 20th century Liberal Christendom.

I would never claim on my own that the teaching of Jesus found in the gospels is incomplete.  But I don’t have to be all that bold to make the claim, because Jesus said it was so.  Jesus made it very clear that during His very limited time among us, He did not tell us everything He wanted us to know about the Kingdom of God, as He made clear in John 16:12-13. He had much more to say, and He would say it through the Apostles.

If there is a syllabus for the kingdom of God in scripture, it is more likely something like the Book of Romans (though it is perhaps more of a textbook for the kingdom that a syllabus), where the Apostle restates much of what is found in the Sermon on the Mount, but adds some of the very important “much more to say to you” that Jesus promises in John 16.

Perhaps the note I received was just a bit of an attempt at hip marketing for a Bible study.  But if it was meant seriously, it was seriously wrong.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

On Capital Gains Taxes and Other Boring Things

Thomas Sowell explains something important that I think many do not understand in “Capital Gains Taxes.”  This is not a review of the article.  It is rather short, and relatively easy to understand.  In it, Sowell explains why lower income tax rates for capital gains is a fair policy.  It is not just a fair policy.  It is a policy that makes us all wealthier.

This is, unfortunately, an example of an idea that is important, but which most people will not take the time to understand.  And in not understanding it, they will often damage their own interests in the candidates for whom they will vote and the policies those candidates will promote.

It is akin to discussions of corporate tax rates, which are relatively very high in the United States.  Because people will not take the time to understand the matter, it becomes easy for the demagogue to cry, “Those rich corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes!”  There is, of course, much more to the story.  Corporations attempt to make money for shareholders.  When shareholders receive it, they are taxed on it as income also.  So a good case can be made for not taxing corporations at all.  The shareholders will pay the tax when – and if – a profit is made.

There are a lot of things like this that people won’t bother to understand.  We are much like the Ray Barone character of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”  In one episode he has begun to handle the family checkbook and bill-paying.  He screws it up, of course.  When his friend tries to explain how to do it, all Ray gets is the word “accrued” (an in “accrued interest”).  The rest of it bores him, and he refuses to listen or learn.  As a result, his electricity is shut off.  He should have paid more attention.

I was once relaxing with a fine Christian gentleman who had been a hard-core union man before he retired.  As we chatted he launched into the evils of corporations making money.  I asked him, “What does your union pension fund invest in?”  The answer:  “Stocks and bonds.”  There was a pause.  Then he said, somewhat thoughtfully, “I suppose I really want corporations to make money, don’t I?”

And even beyond that, do you realize where we would be if there were no investors in companies?  We would be poor – and that is probably an understatement.  Most of us would not even be here to be poor.  Invested money buys the tools that make all the material things we like possible.  So it makes sense, and is in everyone’s interest, to encourage investment via tax policy.

In a better world, taxes would be so low no one would notice them because government would be so small most people would seldom notice them.  But even in our big-government “taxed enough already” world, let’s not be so stupid as to promote tax policies that will make us all poorer.