Saturday, August 20, 2022

Wesleyan philosophy 6a -- How should we then live together?

The next question in the series. Doing my best to be objective...


Social, Political, and Economic Philosophy
We have just finished looking at ethics: "How should we then live?" Or better yet, "Who should we then be?"

The seventh question in these Wesleyan thoughts on philosophy broadens ethics out to society: "How should we then live together?" How is society best structured? How should society be governed? How might we best exchange our goods and services? From a Christian standpoint, a crucial question is, "How should the people of God relate to the people of the world?" 

These are the questions of social, political, and economic philosophy. Social and political philosophy is ethics written large.

This subject will take several posts. Here is a tentative map for the next few weeks:

  • How should the church relate to the world?
  • What is the best way to govern society?
  • What are the fundamental social concerns of Christians and Wesleyans?
  • How might we best exchange our goods and services?
  • Wesleyans and race
Christ and Culture
Few of us, Christian or otherwise, get to choose how our society is governed. Occasionally, there are moments when Christians had the opportunity to choose sides. There was the Jewish War from AD66-70, when Christian Jews in Jerusalem had to decide whether to stay and fight the Romans or retreat to Pella. My sense is that most fled (Mark 13:14). In the 1500s, English Christians could either go with the flow of Henry VIII or resist with the Roman Catholics.

In 1600s England, English Christians could either go with the flow of the Puritans or support the king. Perhaps some of my German Baptist ancestors left Germany for the Americas in the early 1700s because they sought religious freedom. In 1776, Christians in the colonies picked sides between the revolutionaries and the crown. There were choices on governance that could be made in the lead-up to the Civil War. Perhaps some of my Quaker ancestors left North Carolina to trade a place of slavery for southern Indiana. 

In 2021, many of those who stormed the US Capitol saw an alignment between their actions and their Christian values. Evangelical Christianity is playing a major role in current civil unrest in the United States, and it remains to be seen where it will lead.

But most of the time, our governance is a given. Most of the time in history, the way we are governed is not something we could effectively change. The more poignant question for Christians is thus how we engage the society in which we find ourselves.

In the end, most of us are not fully aware of the historical forces at work on us. We have likely inherited certain assumptions about how the church should relate to the world. We may not even know we have them. Rather, there is often a prevailing wind in the groups to which we belong. We typically go with the way the wind is blowing. 

We always have arguments, to be sure. We probably think we have thought deeply about the positions we have. But most of us are fairly unaware of the historical forces at work on us. [1] Our arguments come more from our social groups and our historical situation than from reason. We seldom change our minds, just our rationalizations.

In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested five different approaches of Christians to culture. [2] His categorization has not been without critique. [3] Nevertheless, I still find his categories generative. Here is a simplification of his schema:

  • Christ against Culture -- withdraw from society, live in a bubble in a world to which we do not belong
  • The Christ of Culture -- accommodate the broader culture, modifying our Christianity
  • Christ above Culture -- synthesize Christianity with culture, blur them together
  • Christ and Culture in paradox -- live like Christ at church, like the world in the world
  • Christ the transformer of culture -- try to influence the culture to become more like Christ
These categories are suggestive, but there is no such thing as a social group that does not have a culture. Culture refers to the norms and practices of a social group. Faced with this typology, almost everyone puts themselves in the last category, as if we stand outside culture in some way.

Every word of the Bible is incarnated in a culture of some kind. There is no such thing as a culture-less Christianity, and the people of God go through cultural shifts within the pages of the Bible.

I wonder if we might categorize Christian engagement with the surrounding culture by way of two "axes," one of which is a spectrum about how activist or separatist we are from society. Then the other axis would relate to whether the church aligns more with the way culture is changing or the ways in which culture is resisting change. We might plot such a grid as follows:

Some Christians assume that the job of the church is to make the laws of America mirror that of their particular Christian group. The law of the land should be the law of their church, a kind of Christian sharia law.

Other Christians see the broader society as something quite separate and removed from the church. Let God take care of the world. Our business is to be the church. "Come out from among them and be ye separate."

Still other Christians think that the world is getting better and better. Society is actually getting more and more like the kingdom of God should be. The church should change for the better as the world changes for the better.

Finally, there are those who think we have to live in the world even though we cannot agree with the world. We inevitably have a split personality. In the church we live and think as the church. Then when we go to work, we live and think like the world.

The last four paragraphs describe different positions Christians--and various Wesleyans--have toward how the church might engage the world. I would argue that Wesleyans have taken most of them at some point or another. Let's look at each of them in turn.

Christ above Culture

1. Niebuhr wrote his classic work in 1951. We had just become the world's greatest superpower coming out of World War II. We had played the key role in the defeat of an incredibly evil force on the earth. The Nazis were outside us. We could be honest about them. Nothing stopped us from seeing Hitler for the pure evil he was. We had no media channel telling us the Holocaust was a hoax. 

As a side note, it is hard for us to realize how many "mild-mannered Germans" did not see through Hitler. [4] Their media broadcast that all Jews were evil, and dissenting voices were squashed. Think of how illegal immigrants are sometimes portrayed on certain media channels today, almost as if they are all murderers and rapists. Many Germans thought it was justice, moral law in action, for Jews to be rounded up and separated. Their removal protected society from their evil influence, they rationalized. Germans were shown pictures of happy Jews playing in the camps. 

See, they are happy in those camps. We've brought justice. We've protected society. They are being treated nicely.

What we call Germany's invasions were, in their view, setting right the injustices of the past. It is the same argument that the Russian church is supporting right now in Russia in relation to Crimea and Ukraine. Those territories belong to Russia, the argument goes. So Germany was recovering the lost German territory of the past. It was liberating Germans from peoples who were oppressing them, and redressing the injustices of World War I. 

Our human capacity to rationalize our social situation and to justify the groups to which we belong is immense.

We like to think that we would have seen Hitler for who he was. I'm not so sure many of us would have, including many Christians. They made the mild-mannered citizens of Dachau walk through the camp after it was liberated so that they could not deny the reality of what had happened there. It seems absurd to us. They must have known. But I doubt that your average German at that time was much different than your average American today, including your average American Christian. 

Coming out of World War II, it was easy for us to think of America as God's nation. We helped restore Israel as a nation in 1948. We put "in God we trust" on our money in 1956. More than ever we saw ourselves as the savior of the world, the hand of God. We were God's favorite nation. As any sociology textbook would predict, we accentuated our virtues and ignored that we had plenty among us with the spirit of Nazis.

2. I would argue that the grassroots of the Wesleyan Church has thoroughly participated in these winds of culture. Niebuhr's "Christ above Culture" refers to a blurring, a synthesis of our traditional cultural values and our faith. Robert Bellah coined the phrase "civil religion" in 1967. [5] He referred to the way in which our patriotism can take on a quasi-religious form. 

Predictably, since our national fervor and our religious fervor have a similar character, they get mixed together. Our patriotism becomes sanctified and mixes imperceptibly with our faith. We have US flags on our platforms. July 4 becomes a religious holiday. Veterans and soldiers become saints. Our political party becomes the only party a Christian could belong to.

I have participated as a minister in a few funerals and burials where the deceased had served in the military. As a minister, I know that the spiritual dimension of a burial far supersedes any memorial of earthly military service. Yet I did not experience those funerals in that way. It seemed to me that the greater religious fervor often attached to the memory of military service. The truly Christian part seemed more a formality to get out of the way. "Are you done yet, preacher?"

This is civil religion, where we cannot tell where our devotion to America ends and our devotion to God begins. It is all intermingled almost imperceptibly. Our political associations are synthesized with our religious ones. It is, frankly, idolatry.

Let me suggest that "Christ above Culture" has been the dominant way grassroots Wesleyans have related the church to the world perhaps since World War II. We have had a hard time distinguishing our faith from certain cultural traditions, including our political affiliations. 

3. If you look back to the founding of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, it is no surprise that most of those Wesleyans were Republicans. After all, it was the party of Lincoln that had, in the end, been the side that abolished slavery. It is no merit since I had no choice in it, but I am grateful that my ancestors were Quakers who left the world of slavery for Indiana. My great-grandfather happened to fight for the Union. That is not to say that his cousins who fought for the South had much choice in the matter.

So being Republican in 1865 was very understandable for a northern Wesleyan Methodist. This association was passed on to the next generation. Inevitably, other Republican positions became associated with our Christianity. If the Republican party tended to be the party of (northern) industry, then capitalism and faith become blurred. Capitalism and faith would eventually become synthesized. [6] 

I'm not sure that many northern Wesleyans paid much attention to the injustices of the South toward former slaves in the late 1800s and into the twentieth century. These would have been reasons for northern Wesleyans to continue to lean Republican in the early 1900s. However, I suspect that our Republicanism was more baked into our religion by that time. It had become part of our culture, the blurring of our faith with our tradition.

My family was afraid the four-term Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, might usher in the tribulation. There were similar fears about the first Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. Might not a Pope turn out to be the Antichrist? Nixon was revered. He was firmly believed until he publicly confessed. Even then his own confession was almost not believed. He was mistreated by those liberal Democrats (who, after all, were probably communists).

The reasoning changed. The blurring of faith with our culture was the deeper, constant reality.

In many circles similar to ours, there is a kind of sanctification that takes place once a person is chosen as the Republican candidate for president. No matter what we might have felt about the candidate in the primaries, he almost becomes a saint once the election cycle has begun. One of the most fascinating tidbits of Wesleyan history is that the 1972 Democratic opponent to Richard Nixon, George McGovern, was raised as a Wesleyan Methodist. Yet I doubt very seriously that many Wesleyans or Pilgrims in Indiana voted for him. The political synthesis prevailed over any religious commonality.

Before we knew his name or any details about President Trump, before we knew any charges against him, (I have joked, before the foundation of the world) we could have predicted strong Wesleyan support for him. We could have predicted that opposition to him would be cast in religious terms as the work of the Devil, with Democratic opposition on the side of evil. 

This is Christ above culture, the blurring and synthesis of faith with cultural tradition.

The rationalization of why the Democratic party is the party of evil and the Devil has changed over the years, but the position has stayed the same. It is significant to reflect on the fact that this was true long before Roe v. Wade gave the argument to end all arguments. Most historians would argue that the Democratic and Republican parties have almost switched sides on some issues, [7] yet the synthesis of Republicanism has persisted.

4. Even the religious-political synthesis on the issue of abortion is not as straightforward as it may seem to us. I have already argued for the Wesleyan position in a previous post. This is a post on social forces and the fusion of traditional culture with our Christianity. There are social forces at work here of which we may not be fully aware.

Politically, Republican opposition to abortion has a background in southern opposition to desegregation. Southern states had argued that the federal government did not have the right to make them have black children in white schools. It was the same argument for "states' rights" that they had made prior to the Civil War. 

(Note on which side of that issue the Wesleyan Methodist church was. Some southern history books have tried to gloss over the reasons for southern secession, but the majority of historians would agree that "state's rights" was really a proxy for the issue of slavery. The South could see the writing on the wall and wanted out before the broader country would limit or abolish slavery. State's rights was the rationalization for a more basic underlying reason. We could resurrect most any 1800s Wesleyan Methodist, and they would fully agree with this interpretation.)

In the late 1970s, Jerry Falwell shifted the state's rights argument from desegregation to abortion. Did the Southern Baptists really care that much about abortion? They would come to. But in 1973, most Southern Baptists supported Roe v. Wade. In that year, a former president of the SBC made a statement that only considered a child a person after it is born. [8] He would change his mind in the decade that followed. Then, under Ronald Reagan, the abortion issue became synthesized not only with states' rights but also with Republicanism.

Again, I have argued for the Wesleyan position on abortion in a previous post in this series and elsewhere. Similarly, I do not belong to the Democratic party. My purpose in this post is self-awareness, not to oppose the Republican party or favor the Democratic party. 

5. This post is about our assumptions on how the church should engage the world. My argument is 

  1. that we are often unaware of the historical forces on us in such matters, 
  2. that we give arguments that are often not the deeper, underlying forces behind our positions, which often involve a lot of sociology, and 
  3. that having a position does not automatically entail how we should engage the world in relation to it.

As Christians, as Wesleyans, we need to be able to distinguish our kingdom identity from our political identities. Paul recognized this need when he told the Philippians that their citizenship was in heaven (3:20). As a Roman colony, citizens of Philippi were citizens of Rome, a real treasure in that world. Paul says it is not who they are.

Hebrews similarly distances its audience from its Jewish political identity. "Here we have no lasting city" (13:14), almost certainly a reference to the earthly Jerusalem. I would argue that there are equally godly Wesleyan individuals in all the principal political parties. 

I believe there are times when the appropriate Christian action is to call the world back to past strengths in our culture. There are times to affirm positive elements of our culture that are in danger of passing away. American culture is increasingly nihilistic, meaning that it is plagued with an increasing sense of purposeless, which often leads to violence. A celebration of truly positive virtues in America's past isn't a bad thing. However, it would be beneficial for us to be more self-aware of instances when we might confuse our faith with elements of our tradition that aren't actually Christian at all.  

Christ against Culture

1. I was not alive in the first half of the twentieth century. For those who were, we should also keep in mind that human memory tends to color our earlier memories each time we reflect on them, "infecting" them, as it were, with our current experiences. That's why primary sources are so important, so we can see how people really thought in another time. [9] We may think we always thought a certain way when in fact our perspective or emphasis has actually changed over the years. [10] 

My hypothesis is that World War II marked a shift in the paradigm of many Wesleyans from "Christ against Culture" to "Christ above culture." Christ against Culture is a perspective that withdraws and separates from society rather than trying to make society conform to our Christian values. My hypothesis is that our positions may have stayed much the same but our stance of engagement with culture changed after World War II. After the war, we became increasingly zealous to convert the world to our synthesis of traditional culture with Christianity. 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, I'm suggesting, Wesleyans were more separatists.

I would describe the paradigm of the holiness movement as "Come out from among them and be ye separate" (2 Cor. 6:17). We recognized that we were a "peculiar people" (Deut. 14:2). The world was lost. It was doomed. It could not be saved. In the late 1800s, D. L. Moody preached that all we could do was try to get as many people as we could into the "lifeboat" of the true church. The Pilgrim Holiness stream of the Wesleyan Church was a firmly dispensationalist church. They were pre-millennials like Moody. It was all headed for the Tribulation. 

No use trying to save the world other than a few souls.

Although the Pilgrim side of our heritage did favor urban centers, the Wesleyan Methodists generally located their colleges in the middle of nowhere. The founder of Houghton College explicitly spoke of Houghton as a place removed from the world. Central was located smack between Atlanta and Charlotte--as far away as you could get from both.  

2. Christ against culture is largely the paradigm of the New Testament as well. Before we say that this paradigm must then be ours, we should remember that the social situation of the Roman Empire was quite different from ours. To impact the culture with a "Christ above culture" synthesis in the first century would have been impossible without revolution. (Some Jews of course tried it.)

When the powers of government are overwhelmingly disproportionate to the church, living as a somewhat isolated community of faith is probably the only option for the true church. There is no real option to synthesize the culture of the church with the world. The options are either to accommodate and disappear (Christ of culture) or be separate and weather the occasional persecution.

Jesus shows this attitude toward Roman money when he says in effect, "Give Caesar his money back. It has nothing to do with God" (Mark 12:17). Paul shows this attitude toward policing sexual activity in the world: "What is it to me to judge those outside? Is it not those inside you to judge? God will judge those outside" (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Paul would never even think about trying to get the Romans to pass certain laws about marriage or sexuality. It wasn't even a possibility.

I have heard an anecdote about a Pilgrim District Superintendent in the 60s who on election day would muse to his children, "I wonder who they'll elect as their president." It's not that he didn't vote. He voted. That wasn't the point. The point is the paradigm. The world was something different, something separate. This was a quite different paradigm than the strident engagement of the evangelical church today in politics.

Christians can also separate from the world on some issues and not on others. For example, evangelicals might say on issues of racial inequality, "God will take care of things. We just need to pray. It's a soul matter." Or on guns a Christian might say, "This is a heart issue. You can't change people's hearts by legislation." On social issues in general, someone might say, "The job of the church is to see souls saved, not to change the world. The world will get worse and worse until Jesus returns." But on abortion or gay marriage, the same person might be quite activist. "We need to vote for politicians who will make decisions from a Christian worldview."

3. My sense is that John Wesley was not a "stay separate from the world" kind of person. He was not a "the church is just in the business of saving people's souls, not their bodies or relationships or bank account or society." He was a social activist. He favored the empowerment of the poor. He empowered women in his movement. He favored the abolition of slavery. I will return to him below.

There are times when the appropriate stance is to separate like the New Testament church. But if we can do good in the world, why wouldn't we?

The danger is when we have mixed foreign DNA into what we are trying to transfer the world into. We probably cannot help this dynamic because we can never fully see ourselves. Christ above culture does this by mixing non-Christian elements from our past and from our human traditions. Christ of culture, our next stance, can do this by mixing non-Christian elements of the present and future. We thus need to be careful always to remember that our kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). We are ultimately aliens and strangers in the world (Heb. 11:13). 

In that sense, Christ against culture is the most fundamental of the stances from a New Testament standpoint, even if we should try to transcend it when we can.

Christ of Culture

As Niebuhr described the "Christ of Culture" perspective, it was the church selling out to the pagan world around it. Some non-Wesleyans would say that we have accommodated culture by letting women preach. The newly formed Global Methodist church would say that the United Methodist Church is accommodating culture with regard to the ordination of practicing homosexual ministers.

As Niebuhr laid out this position, I find it to be his least helpful characterization because it makes it easy to say "those who believe like me are the true, faithful Christians and other groups that disagree are compromising to culture."

Take the issue of women in ministry. Wesleyans believe in leadership and ministry. We would point to examples in Scripture where women are:

  • the highest political and military leader (Deborath)
  • a higher spiritual authority than the high priest (Huldah)
  • an apostle (Junia)
  • evangelists and teachers of men (Priscilla)
  • a deacon (Phoebe)
  • etc.

Many Wesleyans have historically been egalitarian. Luther Lee, a founder of the Wesleyan Methodist church, preached the ordination service of the first woman ordained in the US. Again, we find the core truth here in Scripture, in Galatians 3:28 and Acts 2:17.

However, many other voices in the church today would consider the Wesleyan support of women in ministry as an infection of the church by culture. Even within the Wesleyan Church, there is an increasingly louder group claiming that egalitarianism is an infection of the church by culture. They would argue that complementarianism is the more Christian view. This view tries to affirm women as equal in value while believing they simply serve different roles in the church.

Clearly, the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist church were progressives in their day, even revolutionaries in their social context. Donald Dayton has done a good job of laying out these dynamics in Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage: A Tradition and Trajectory of Integrating Piety and Justices, a must-read for all Wesleyan ministers wanting to understand our heritage. The Princeton Calvinists of the mid-1800s were the traditionalists of their day. They were the ones who used Scripture to push that slavery was biblical. They were the ones using Scripture to push that women should be in submission to their husbands. The first Wesleyans were radicals.

In revising Niebuhr, I find it more helpful to identify this position as one that sides with social change over social tradition. Some of my readers may wonder where his "Christ the transformer of culture" goes in my chart. The answer is that it depends on the moment. There are times when Christians should be activists and times when they should separate. There are times when they should pull culture back to tradition and times when they should be on the side of change.

The mistake Niebuhr and so many of us make is in thinking we can actually remove ourselves from the culture around us. Christianity is always incarnated in culture. It can never fully separate. Even if we go to live in the middle of nowhere, we take it with us. The Amish are half-frozen in the culture of the 1800s but still affected by the contemporary world around them.

There can be elements of secular culture that are actually more in keeping with Christian principles than parts of the church. Where did secular culture get the idea that women are just as valuable as men? Is it not the fumes of Judeo-Christian values? Could it therefore be that what part of the church sees as an accommodation to culture is actually an example of the world being more Christian than that part of the church? 

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul tries to dance between the newness of the gospel and tradition. The gospel opens the door for women to pray and prophesy in worship. But that causes significant social conflict as the dynamics between men and women at Corinth are in conflict with the culture. Paul's solution is for the women to veil. That way they are respecting their husbands. They are not creating a sexual obstacle to the other men. They are not causing jealousy from other wives. But they are vessels of the Spirit. I have a hunch that 1 Timothy 2 reflects the effects of trying to work through similar tensions.

So there will be times when "Christ the transformer of culture" sides with change in the culture from tradition. And there will be times when "Christ the transformer of culture" sides with tradition over change in the culture. And there will be times when the church lays low and doesn't make waves with the culture (e.g., 1 Peter 2:12).

Christ and Culture in Paradox

At its worst, "Christ and Culture in Paradox" reflects the divided mind of James 1:6-8. The person is one way in church and another way in the world. The person is loyal to God on Sunday, and loyal to the world the rest of the week.

There are individuals who live with this sort of inner tension. There have always been individuals who work in the field of science and have never fully reconciled the operating assumptions of their work with the assumptions of their church. For example, some graduate students in biology go into their study convinced that evolution is irreconcilable with their faith. If they then become convinced of evolution, they lose their faith. 

Others reconcile their faith with evolution. But still others continue on with a kind of inner contradiction. Their mind says that evolution makes sense, but they can't square it with the belief they also have that the Bible is true. That is a conversation for another place. My point is simply that there are individuals who live with a kind of contradiction of worldviews inside.

Similarly, there are those who personally live by one set of rules as a Christian but operate by a different set of rules in their public life. In the past, President Biden has suggested that while he is personally opposed to abortion, he does not believe that position should be enacted in US law. I know military chaplains who have struggled with the religious neutrality the military expects of them and the expectation that they treat all religions neutrally and perhaps even perform gay marriages.

Here we get into the question of church and state. The first amendment to the Constitution indicates that Congress shall not establish any law respecting the establishment of religion. Thomas Jefferson coined the expression, the "separation of church and state." We live in a time when the interpretation of this concept is a matter of significant debate. 

The background of this clause was the tension within the colonies over the establishment of state churches. New England was Puritan and Calvinist. Maryland was Catholic. Rhode Island was a place where you did not have to be one church or another. This was the position that won out in the Constitution.

In effect, then, we theoretically live in a land that tries to be religiously neutral. It does not aim to favor or squash any particular religious perspective. This context creates immediate conflict with the Christ above culture perspective, whose implicit aim is to fuse Christianity and culture. Can gay marriage or early first-term abortion be legally prohibited on any grounds that are not specifically religious in nature?  

When you look at the Thirty Years War in Europe or the back and forth blood shed in Reformation England, much of that conflict had a Christian overlay. Should Germans be Lutheran or Catholic? Should the French allow Protestant Huguenots to practice Christianity their way? Should Zwingli allow the Anabaptists to rebaptize? Should the English burn Catholics or Protestants at the stake?

The Puritans fled England for religious freedom only to impose their own approach to faith on everyone else in the New World (Christ above culture). The Quakers just wanted to be left alone to practice Christianity in their own way (Christ against culture). In my opinion, the Founding Fathers were wise to go for religious neutrality, even though some of them were people of faith. Others were Deists, who believed God created the world but was no longer directly involved.

There is an anecdote that probably is not historical but still provides insight. In the story, Charles Spurgeon is asked why the Baptists never burned anyone at the stake in English history. His answer was reportedly, "Because we were never in charge."

I would argue that a system of government that is religiously neutral fits very well with Arminian theology. It fits with Calvinist theology to force (predestine) the rest of a country to abide by its own religious understanding. The US ended up with a more Arminian theological paradigm. God wants the world to choose him, but he does not force the world to choose him.

It is thus fitting for the US to be a country with basic moral laws that keep us from killing each other, stealing from each other, etc. These are all concrete instances of harm that are moral but not specifically religious. Then the Constitution keeps us from imposing specific religious views on each other. This protects us from our own Christian infighting. After all, which Christian understanding would we make the law of the land?

Christ the Transformer of Culture

It is not historically Wesleyan to think of the church's role in society as purely one of spiritual influence. Wesley tried to change England societally for the better. I believe it is possible to synthesize the above conversation into a coherent approach to Christ and culture in the US context. 

First, there are universal moral principles that cohere well with a representational democracy. The US was founded on the theory that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Mind you, that language already involves some "Christ of culture." The biblical perspective is arguably one of graces not rights.

We might think of this principle as nothing other than "love your neighbor as yourself." A societal structure in which all persons are valued equally, protected equally, and equally given rights thus provides an intersection between Christian values and American values. It provides a framework in which we can work for good in the culture without trying to impose specifically Christian convictions. It does roughly correspond to the second half of the Ten Commandments.

We can work to abolish slavery on this understanding. We can work to protect the life of the unborn to the extent we can convince the world that the unborn are children. We can work to undo discrimination against individuals on the basis of their race or gender. If we can make the world a better place, why wouldn't we? This is intrinsic to Wesleyan roots.

However, as Arminians, we do not try to legislate morality beyond doing fundamental harm to others. We leave room for the world to choose God. We are content with the separation of church and state in specifically religious matters. We try to woo the world to Christ rather than synthesize a Christian Frankenstein of culture.

Christ the transformer of culture may adopt each one of the four basic stances at appropriate times and places. There are times when we should call culture back to its previous values and a time to push it toward change. There will be times when we are activist and times when we separate and hunker down. The Holy Spirit provides the wisdom to know when to do which.

[1] An excellent window into the fact that our reasons for our politics are often not the real reasons comes from Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage, 2012).

[2] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951). 

[3] I have heard several in recent days express a strong preference for Andy Crouch's Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Task (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008). However, his position is that we cannot change the world.

[4] Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the "banality of evil," how completely unordinary those who carried out the Holocaust and the Nazi agenda were. See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 1963).

[5] Robert N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America," American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96 (1967): 1-21.  

[6] In the early 2000s, I used to joke to my philosophy classes that some in my family were somewhat sympathetic to the NRA because they were against abortion. Evangelicals are against abortion, so they tend to be Republican. Republicans tend to be in favor of the NRA. So evangelical Christians are in favor of the NRA because they are against abortion.

[7] This is the insidiousness of Dinesh D'Sousa's argument. He equates the southern Democratic party of the early 1900s with the Democratic party of today when some very important transitions in that party took place in the 1950s and 60s. It was the Democratic party of the 60s that passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, for example. Over a thirty-year period, that element of the southern Democratic party largely transitioned to the Republican party.

[8] William Criswell. See here and elsewhere.

[9] This is a reason why journaling is so personally valuable too, to put us in touch with our real self from the past.

[10] I have found myself having to adjust my language over the years as certain terms explode. A word or phrase that caused no controversy one year might be something to strongly avoid the next, as phrases become highly politicized. This is true for both the right and the left. "You can't have used that word and not have meant something big by it."

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

The Passing of David Riggs

We are deeply shocked and saddened at the unexpected passing of Dr. David Riggs of Indiana Wesleyan University today. I do not know the full details, but his trip to church Sunday morning apparently became a trip to the hospital followed by unexpected medical events. We grieve with his dear family and mourn a life that should have flourished for decades more.

David came to IWU not long after I did. The Honors College had only just started. There is no question that he made it into the national success it has become. Over the years he brought scholars of the highest quality to teach for the HC, many of them at the very beginning of what have become stellar careers. He brought a regular string of world-class scholars to speak on campus. In some respects, David should get a good deal of the credit for Indiana Wesleyan becoming a place of high scholarship. Some of the brightest alumni/ae that IWU has would not have come to IWU if it weren't for David.

I received a Facebook message from David a little over a week ago. Apparently, we had both been mentioned by a former student as "leftists" who had infiltrated the Wesleyan tradition. We had a good electronic chuckle at the absurdity. He asked me when the next meeting of the leftist Wesleyans was so that he could be sure he was sticking to the agenda. I suggested we might schedule the next meeting of the secret society on a beach somewhere.

David was extremely principled. He was a fearless warrior for orthodoxy. When I told my mother of a friend's passing, she asked if he was right with the Lord. I answered without hesitation. David was a fully and fiercely devoted follower of Jesus Christ. If at any time he was involved in controversy, rest assured everything he said and did came from a fervency for Jesus Christ and the truth.

I taught Honors New Testament for him several years before the HC created its own unique integrated curriculum. He was always a champion for me to teach Latin in the School of Theology. His doctoral work was in North African Christianity. He also did some great work with Chris Bounds on the concept of grace in early Christianity. Like Wesley, he brought organization with his enthusiasm, and it has paid off over the years for IWU.

Our differences will ever bring a smile to my face. I think he used to be surprised at them because we liked so many of the same things. I used to lead worship for a "Liturgical Service" that he often attended. It was important for him to partake of the Eucharist every week. But our investment in the service was different. I thought it was valid and should be an option. He leaned more toward it being the best option. I thought infant baptism was preferable and should be an option. I think he thought it should be the option.

I am a pragmatist. I considered him an idealist. He loved Augustine. I am more shaped by Wittgenstein. He had the flavor of the phenomenologists and the post-liberals who relied more on faith than reason. I'm more of an analytic philosopher and a critical realist. He was no fan of online education and emphasized learning in a physical community. I think online is destined to predominate, whatever we might think the ideal is.

A few weeks ago, I tweeted that we had reached a turning point where textbooks would increasingly be replaced by interactive media. He responded on Twitter: "C’mon. There’s no doubt a place for multimedia, but books remain fundamental to genuinely formative education."

I have other IWU stories about David that I'll keep to myself. Let me simply say that I am deeply grieving the loss of such a great and godly man when he had so much more to give the church and the academy. And dare I say, I grieve the loss of a dear old friend. May God give peace to his family and to generations of the Honors College community.

Saturday, August 06, 2022

Wesleyan Philosophy 5c -- Gender and Sexual Ethics, Part 2

Last week I attempted to sketch out the general contours of a biblically-based, Wesleyan sense of sexual ethics. This week we dive into even deeper waters. Here are some reflections as part of the ongoing conversation of the church. I am not the church, just a voice in the choir.


Truth versus Relationships
I start here where I started the previous post on sexual ethics. There is a distinction between truths regarding LGBTQ questions and our relationships with individuals. This dynamic can cut both ways. 

If something is true, the truth does not change if it troubles someone or even if it causes them problems. I may not like that I am going to go splat when I fall off a tall building, but the concrete doesn't care. There is a distinction between truth and the impact of that truth (no pun intended). Similarly, I can be right on a truth and morally wrong in how I treat others in relation to that truth. It is not Christ-like to berate, beat up, oppress, or mock someone who has a different conclusion than I do or who struggles with something I don't struggle with. There are individuals who love God and the Bible who have sincerely come to differing biblical conclusions. The truth is never an excuse for hate.

The former president of a Wesleyan college used to say that the college "welcomed" gay students while not "affirming" a homosexual lifestyle ("welcoming but not affirming"). Although I believe this is the Wesleyan position, that president understandably got hit from both sides. One side objected to the idea of welcoming sin, while she meant welcoming people. The other side objected to not affirming people, while she meant not affirming sin.

In the end, it is unclear whether most evangelical colleges could actually be welcoming to individuals who are attracted to the same sex. Even if an administration could walk that fine line of welcoming but not affirming, even if you could get all the faculty and staff to walk that fine line, it is unclear that you could get all the students on campus to do so. This is a dilemma for Wesleyan schools. I suspect that we are generally not pleasant environments for Christian young people who are processing these issues at the same time that we presumably want to be.

Activity versus Orientation
We all operate with "paradigms" of which we are generally not aware until we encounter others who operate with different ones. A recent paradigm of "Western" culture is to think of homosexuality in terms of an "orientation." The paradigm divides people into those who are attracted to the same sex ("homosexual") and those who are attracted to the opposite sex ("heterosexual"). I might add that in the 1950s, the psychologist Alfred Kinsey developed a scale from 0 to 6, plotting desire from purely heterosexual to purely homosexual in orientation.

In the last couple of decades, the types have multiplied. A "bisexual" is someone who can experience attraction to both sexes. Then a person may be "transgendered." For example, a biological female may want to identify as a male while being attracted to either males or females. The acronym LGBTQIA+ stands for:

  • Lesbian (female attracted to female)
  • Gay (older term for someone attracted to the same sex)
  • Bisexual (attracted to both sexes)
  • Transgender (identifying with a different gender than one's biological sex)
  • Queer (generally, different from traditional heterosexual sexuality, not straightforwardly "cisgender" or heterosexual)
  • Intersex (someone whose body has both male and female sexual features)
  • Asexual (someone who does not really have sexual drives) 
  • + (something else)

Suffice it to say, none of these are categories with which the biblical texts operate. Even a hundred years ago, the terms homosexual or gay were not used in these ways in common parlance. A "sodomite" was a pejorative reference to someone who engaged in male homosexual sex. There was really no clear category for a person who was tempted by the same sex but never demonstrated or acted on those desires in any way. 

Similarly, the seven biblical passages that relate directly to homosexual sex seem pretty clearly to be about the act of sex rather than some orientation in the modern sense. Genesis 19 is about an attempted act of rape at Sodom, to which Jude 7 also refers. It would be anachronistic to think of these men as homosexuals in the modern sense. Ancient readers would likely have assumed they had wives and children. They seem like the men of Benjamin in Judges 19 who, after being denied access to do violence to the priest, go on to rape his concubine to death. 

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are about men lying with men as men lie with women. Romans 1:26-27 is about the "use" of the same sex instead of the opposite sex--the only text in the Bible that mentions female homosexual sex. All these passages are about homosexual acts. The "passions" of Romans 1:26 are not temptations but passions expressed in sex acts. James 1:15 indicates that temptation itself in general is not yet sin, which is how Jesus could be tempted without sinning.

The word used in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 (arsenokoites) may actually have been coined from Leviticus, although we have no way to know for certain. It appears for the first time in all Greek literature in 1 Corinthians. Its etymology suggests it refers to "male-bedders." The parallel term in 1 Corinthians 6:9 means "soft." A reasonable hypothesis is that arsenokoites refers to the active role in male homosexual sex and malakos to the passive role. This is presumably why the NIV1984 translated malakos as "male prostitute." In the end, we don't really have enough context or background evidence to say for certain what these terms meant exactly. These are educated guesses.

The Bible thus does not condemn someone who would discipline their thoughts by the power of the Holy Spirit (like a heterosexual must) and who would not act on homosexual temptation mentally or physically. It indicts the homosexual act. Matthew 5:28 presumably would apply not only to heterosexual lust but homosexual lust as well. Wesley Hill is a good example of a Bible-believing Christian who is tempted by the same-sex but is committed neither to lust in his heart nor sin with his body. [1]

These seven passages inevitably leave us with many questions of context. Where was homosexual sex practiced in the ancient world? Was prostitution normally involved? Were pagan temples or gods typically involved? Were those who engaged in such sex normally married? These verses took their precise meaning and connotations from a world about which we do not have complete knowledge. [2]

The Core Principle
Some would argue in effect that there are "hidden variables" in the Bible's indictment of same-sex, context that is not clear in the words removed from their background in history. Some argue that these texts are about same-sex rape or perhaps temple prostitution relating to another god. Some argue that these instances of same-sex prohibition assume that adultery was taking place in the act.  

However, if we assume that there is no hidden context, the core underlying principle against homosexual sex in Scripture would seem to be that it is not "the natural use" of men and women's bodies, as Romans 1:26-27 puts it. In effect, human bodies are designed to function in a heterosexual way. The implicit claim would seem to be that humanity is most fulfilled and thrives the most when it acts sexually in accordance with how its bodies were created. Heterosexual sex can fulfill the command to be fruitful and multiply. It has provided social stability in history by containing sex within marriage and commiment. Homosexual sex would thus reflect a world out of order with its design.

I believe it is possible to abstract a Levitical, priestly "theology of kinds" from Leviticus. The world of clean and unclean things in Leviticus is a world of certain "boxes." Mary Douglas once analyzed the Levitical food laws along these lines. [3] Why are things in the sea without fins and scales unclean (Lev. 11:9-10)? Why are things that go on their belly on the land unclean? 

Her answer in part was that these things do not fit their kind. As she put it, "Dirt is matter out of place." It's ok in the yard but not on the carpet.

We see this theology in Genesis 1, which has sometimes been seen as a priestly introduction to the Pentateuch. God creates all the entities of Genesis 1 "according to its kind" (e.g., Gen. 1:11, 21, 24). The birds that are prohibited also seem to be of the predatory kind or the kind that eat already dead prey (Lev. 11:13-19). Some features of health may be going on here, but it seems that much more than health is going on. [4]

So when we look at the prohibition against male-male sex in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, it is quite possible that something similar is going on at least in part. In these situations, men are not joining with the right kind. The New Testament seems in continuity with this underlying thought. Jude 7 may have angelic "flesh" in mind when it speaks of going after "different flesh," but it could also mean flesh different from its appropriate kind. Paul says something similar in Romans 1:26-27. Both women and men exchange the "natural use" of the other sex. [5] 

The inner logic of Leviticus thus may in part be analogous to not wearing clothing of mixed thread or sowing more than one kind of seed in the same field or breeding two different kinds of animals (19:19). However, the word abomination in 20:13 suggests an intensity that goes beyond these other practices that made something unclean. Similarly, the punishment is death, much more severe than your run of the mill unclean. Admittedly, we do not have enough context to know the full dynamics of what is going on here.

The sense of a world out of its intention seems clear also in Romans 1. This passage, probably drawing on the book of Wisdom 13-14, gives a sequence where 1) failure to recognize God as God (1:20-21) leads to 2) idolatry, mistaking idols for the real God (1:23), which devolves into 3) sexual immorality (1:24) and eventually 4) all manner of wickedness (1:28-31). Gentile humanity seems especially in view. Because (Gentile) humanity did not glorify God as God, God let go. God "gives them up" (1:24) and the world spirals out of control.

In this sequence, homosexual sex is an illustration of what happens when the world is out of order, beginning with a failure to recognize God as the all-powerful Creator. In the thought flow of Romans, Paul is setting up a sting operation. Some Jews might love his argument here. They might be thinking, "Yeah, God is going to fry those wicked Gentiles." But he turns the tables in Romans 2. Jews have sinned too. They are no better than Gentile sinners. In effect, "all have sinned and are lacking the glory of God" (3:23).

The inner logic again would seem to be that homosexual sex is an illustration of a world that is out of order. Theologically, this is presumably a world where the love of God and neighbor are not optimized individually or societally.

The last five years have brought to the fore questions of individuals who do not identify with their biological sex. A gay man may still identify as a male. A lesbian female may still identify as a female. What would we do if a biological male identifies as a female but is still attracted to females? What would we do if a biological female identifies as a male but is still attracted to males? 

At this point we have entered waters that seem almost completely foreign to anything substantially addressed in Scripture. There is a verse, Deuteronomy 22:5--"The articles of a man will not be upon a woman and a man will not wear the garment of a woman, for an abomination to the LORD your God is everyone doing these things." When I was a boy, people used this verse to say that women should not wear anything but dresses and skirts--no slacks or pants because these things "pertained to a man."

Verses like these are obscure one day, then they become focal. This is a function of paradigm shifts. This verse was very significant in my worldview when I was 17. Should I should date a girl that wore jeans? I almost broke up with a girl for my conscience's sake until she removed the issue by only wearing skirts and dresses. Let's just say she eventually (and wisely) broke up with me.

Then the church largely ignored this verse in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, almost making fun of the old holiness people who made a big deal out of an obscure verse in the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. Now it is once again a central verse in our paradigm because of the issue of transgenderism. We should be self-reflective of how easily we make these shifts without a thought. This is how paradigms work. [6]

In my brief memory, there have always been individuals on the edges of the church who have seemed "not to identify" with their biological sex. I remember in particular from time to time a biological male or two who would come to church or camp meeting in woman's clothing. My sense is that people treated them kindly, not quite knowing what to do. I suspect the fact that they were out of the norm was quite obvious to them.

Someone once confided in me that they did not feel comfortable as a man. Their impulse was to begin dressing and living as a woman. The problem is that this person was married and had children. My advice to him was that his love and commitment to his family was more important than what might make him feel most natural, that it would be selfish for him to throw them away for his own sense of self-satisfaction. After all, he was not a bad husband or father.

I do not claim to be inerrant on that advice, although it makes sense to me within my overall sense of love of neighbor over love of self. I frankly do not understand the psychology of transgender individuals. 

"Intersexuality" seems to have an anatomical component. Such individuals would have likely been considered unclean in the Old Testament (cf. Deut. 23:1), but Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch presumably declares them full participants of the church. Modern science has made possible procedures to remove anatomical ambiguity. "Let each be fully convinced in their own mind" (Rom. 14:5). 

When one's anatomy is not ambiguous, the question of using modern science to change one's sex seems much more serious. I'll confess that this impulse does not seem healthy to me at all. The Wesleyan Church does not consider such procedures appropriate.

If Scripture did more explicitly address these issues, I suspect it would maintain the same train of thought it seems to have in relation to homosexual sex. I suspect it would argue from the "kinds" that correspond to our biological sex. When Scripture is not explicit, our normal instruction is for us to "work out y'alls salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). The Wesleyan Church has worked out its salvation by deeming transgenderism contrary to God's ideal for human identity and relationships. This position seems to be consistent with our stance on homosexual practice.

God will do what is right. God will sort out the "oughts." My commitment is to love individuals I do not understand. The idea of declaring pronouns is unfamiliar to me. I am simply resolved to be kind to others. God has it all figured out.

[1] Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015).

[2] Some historians have concluded that King James may have engaged in such relationships with two men at his court, even though he had a wife and children.

[3] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Routledge, 1966).

[4] We naturally seize on a possible health dimension because it fits our modern worldview better.

[5] Paul makes this argument from what seems "natural" in 1 Corinthians 11:14 when he indicates that nature teaches that a man should not have short hair. There thus seems to be a blurring in his language between what we think of as natural and what is also a matter of what may have cultural elements.

[6] On the issue of women in leadership and ministry, 1 Timothy 2:12 is a verse that is actually quite obscure, and yet it is huge in the word cloud of current debates, out of proportion to its place in the whole counsel of Scripture.