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A Sociological Primer, BTYB Scott Alexander

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Over the past year I’ve followed Scott Alexander’s blog Slate Star Codex.

It is obvious from his writings that Scott has a strong background in sociology and philosophy. Over time I’ve started to pick up on his writing style and insights (and his sense of humor?).

He has mastered the synthesis essay. This helps, after all, when your stated hobby is to ‘say complicated things about philosophy and science.’ It’s really quite breathtaking to read a good SSC essay and realize “this is what he’s been cluing me in on for months, and now, though it took mental effort, I understand.” I need to coin a term for this.

I also appreciate that he doesn’t try to systematize everything. SSC has no grand overarching philosophy to Describe Everything. He has some common themes, but Scott just tries to “package an obvious truth in a way that people would notice it.” This builds a “useful model and explanatory tool,” and soon enough you have yourself some amateur sociology (link).

So then, most of his ideas are very helpful, regardless of your political views. In these essays he has seemingly transcended the political and entered into a discussion of the mind itself. This can be described as critical thinking, epistemic virtue, intellectual honesty, or what have you.

Thought experiment:

If I were teaching a class on critical thinking, my syllabus would look something like this:

  • 15 classes on logical fallacies
  • 10 classes discussing readings
  • 12 classes debating on pre-assigned topics
  • 6 standalone classes
  • Begin each class with current events from the media
  • An essay on any current events topic, 15 page minimum, due at midterm
  • An essay disagreeing with someone else’s midterm essay, 25 page minimum, due a week before the final

For the sake of consistency, every class discussion reading would be from the same author. And for the sake of quality, that author would be Scott.

So then, I offer you an opportunity: over the next several months, in just your free time, you can take Ross Neir’s introductory critical thinking class, with some benefits:

  1. You never have to show up to class.
  2. You never have to debate other people
  3. You never have to listen to me discuss current events (unless you know me in person, in which case, you have no choice, as I dictate this aspect of your knowing me).
  4. You have no 15 page paper
  5. You have no 25 page paper

This reduces the class down to just the SSC readings. 10 of them, each an exercise of Scott’s critical thinking, from which we all can learn. This is like taking my college class, but much easier, with unlimited flexible hours, no grading, and no 8:00 am cross-campus trek.

Here are the 10 assigned readings from SSC for my critical thinking course:

End thought experiment.

In all seriousness, these essays have reshaped my perspective on political engagement. Society is complex, and it’s hard to take it all in at once, but Scott’s bit-by-bit breakdown will help you begin to make sense of it all.

What does the 2016 election mean?

The 2016 election, more than any before, has eroded the deontological foundation of American government. Never has moral relativism — justifying decisions because other decisions are worse — been so prevalent.

Let me break down the terminology.

  • Deontology looks at moral questions and tries to answer “what should I do?” and “what must I do?”
  • Consequentialism looks at moral questions and tries to answer “what would have the best impact?” and “how can I maximize benefit and minimize cost from this?”

For example:

  • A deontologist could say “abortion is wrong because it is wrong”
  • A consequentialist could say “abortion is wrong because of all these negative things it causes.”

When you think relatively on morals, you justify one thing because something else is worse. Heaven’s gates are open if you aren’t Hitler. Morality is just a relative issue, it can be compared, and as long as you’re better than a certain percentile of people, or not worse than a certain percentile of people, then congrats, you’ve been good.

Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton could rationally be considered virtuous candidates themselves. Clinton has all her dozens of scandals. Emails. Emails. Emails. Emails. And more telling is what’s found in those emails: widespread corruption, pay-to-play, conflict of interests, and whatever was in the 33k emails. Likewise, Trump has enough scandals to beat Clinton. Various sexual assault charges (which we know to be at least partially grounded in Trump’s psyche, given the Access Hollywood revelations), dozens of business misconduct cases, racial discrimination in renting practices, going far out of his way to alienate large sections of the electorate in order to win the xenophobic vote, etc.

Does anybody, beyond the most extreme partisans on each side, actually support either of these candidates? Without naming why they don’t like the other candidate, can they really provide a convincing, holistic, positive argument for their candidate?

But lets get beyond personalities and histories. Look at policies. Do either advocate virtuous policy? I’m not hearing much of an argument on this.

(I understand that it is notoriously difficult to define “virtuous policy,” in fact that is the whole question of politics. In an increasingly polarized system, beyond the obvious things, we aren’t going to find much agreement here. But whatever their support for virtuous policy, they hold that support inconsistently).

As a result, voters with an eye for deontological consistency were forced to turn to 3rd party candidates Johnson, Stein, Castle, etc., who by definition of first-past-the-post voting, had essentially no chance to win the election or even garner mildly significant support.

Woah, slow down there. Couldn’t Johnson have won if he wasn’t just an idiot?

Enter: Duverger’s Law, Per Wikipedia:

A two-party system often develops in a plurality voting system. In this system, voters have a single vote, which they can cast for a single candidate in their district, in which only one legislative seat is available. In plurality voting (i.e. first past the post), in which the winner of the seat is determined purely by the candidate with the most votes, several characteristics can serve to discourage the development of third parties and reward the two major parties.

Duverger suggests two reasons this voting system favors a two-party system. One is the result of the “fusion” (or an alliance very much like fusion) of the weak parties, and the other is the “elimination” of weak parties by the voters, by which he means that voters gradually desert the weak parties on the grounds that they have no chance of winning. (link)

People are thinking on the margin.

There is a certain marginal analysis (definition) happening whenever someone says “I support Trump because Clinton is…” or “I support Clinton because Trump/Trump Supporters are…” and we ought to reject this style of thinking not just because practically it enables the second worst evil to win election after election, but because it fails to provide a positive, self-enclosed justification for the candidate of choice.

This is mostly what has gotten us into the whole social-political landscape we have today. The product of choosing the lesser of two evils (when both are legitimately evil, like in the past ~50 years) is the system we have today.

American government and law used to be founded on the principle of Natural Law. Ever since and resulting from the gradual destruction of Natural Law in the presence of instrumentalist law in the 1880s-1910s (link), the country’s polity has become completely consequentialist. What is right? That which leads to my desired outcomes.

In backlash to these trends:

Candidates considered “ideologically pure” like Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders were as successful as they were because they cornered the deontological market during their year.

Here is the conclusion I draw: People want to return to Right = Right and Wrong = Wrong morality. This is true regardless of how you define right and wrong; all that matters is having them at all. It doesn’t matter if you use Christian morality or vaguely defined secular morality or some new synthesized xenophobia+classist morality. Just have something, some ideological standard, hold to it consistently, and then win.

The people want intellectually purity and consistency based on first principles, not some shape-shifting, internally contradictory realism that dominates “moderate” choices like Clinton, Romney, Jeb! Bush, and such.

Deontological thinking is dead to Americans. But we can resurrect it. Here’s how.

The problem is that people have to think marginally when they vote. So how can we eliminate or minimize marginal thinking on election day?

Ultimately the goal is IRV or other proportional voting systems, any of which would eliminate First Past The Post. Proportional voting actually allows people to be “consequentially deontological” if that’s not a contradiction in terms, because they can hold to moral imperatives but vote for them selectively. This would be a more ideal system.

How could the country conduct this? Many details remain unclear. This is not because the details are confusing, but because there are so many workable options.

States could still be winner-take-all, and it could still be separated by states and not a popular vote. So, it could still be Constitutional. For example, everyone in Illinois goes to the polls, ranks all options on the ballot, and ultimately through the tricky process of counting IRV votes, someone is declared the winner. That person get the electoral votes.

[THEN in the most interesting twist of all, each elector at the electoral college also gets to do IRV among everyone who had ballot access in enough states to mathematically win 270 electoral votes. This part would certainly require a constitutional amendment given the 12th amendment’s wording of “the person voted for as President”].

It wouldn’t be much of a practical advantage to 3rd parties, since most people actually do prefer the Democratic or Republican Parties to the Libertarian Party, but it would eliminate the vote-splitting effect, which currently holds 3rd party votes to well below their legitimate vote share.

Understanding Romans 13 without the Hyper-Calvinist Spin

[The title and idea for this essay come from and compliment the essay “Understanding Romans 9 Without the Calvinist Spin,” which I highly recommend for reasons unrelated to this post].


1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

This passage is the main scriptural text on governance in the New Testament. As John Piper pointed out 35 years ago, this text has “often been used to justify an unseemly conformity to the status quo in this country and in others” (link). This passage is often thrown around in Evangelical circles, from my experience, with the weight of divine authority. Justly so, since the passage was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Yet not so. The words themselves are divinely inspired, but the misunderstanding of the twin doctrines of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility is not inspired by the Holy Spirit. So then, before fully explaining Romans 13, I must dissect the entire debate over free will and determinism.

But first, go read this.

D.A. Carson here articulates a position called Compatibilism. This is the argument that the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are, in some way, compatible.

The Sovereignty of God

People who believe in this doctrine will point to areas of scripture like Ephesians 1 and Romans 9, and several stray verses here and there that imply man is powerless to choose.

For example, the deafening mention in John 6 that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” is explicit that salvation cannot ever come without God’s expressed permission (if not more). In John 17 the same idea appears again: “None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction,” and, well, does this require more convincing?

If you do need more convincing, in Ephesians 1 Paul writes that God “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world” and that “in love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,” oh and also that believers have “been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” This really doesn’t cover it, but the prooftexting can relent for now.

The sovereignty of God is another way of saying that God is omnipotent — all powerful. He can do anything he wants, with no restrictions. David Platt has this to say on the sovereign power of God:

“Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things and by Your will they existed and were created.” By Your will. God is sovereign over it all. He is sovereign over all nature — the wind blows at the bidding of God. The sun’s heat radiates according to His commands. Every star in the sky comes out at night because He calls them each by name. There is not a speck of dust on the planet that exists apart from the sovereignty of our God.

He is sovereign over all nature, and He is sovereign over all nations, our God charts the course of countries. And he holds the rulers of the Earth in the palm of His hand and this is good news. It is good news to know that Ahmadinejad in Iran is not sovereign over all, and neither is Hamid Karzai or Hu Jintao or Kim Jong Un or Benjamin Netanyahu or Barack Obama. Our God is sovereign over every single one of them and He holds them in his hands. He is sovereign over them, sovereign over you, sovereign over me, sovereign over everything.

He creates all things, sustains all things, knows all things, He ordains all things. He owns all things. The author of Creation has authority over all creation. He has all the rights. American Christians: you don’t have rights. God alone has rights. He has the right to save sinners, and He has the right to damn sinners. People say well what about man’s responsibility? Doesn’t man have anything to do with his destiny? Well sure he does, man is certainly responsible in human history, but God is sovereign over human history. (cool video link).

(If this doesn’t clear it up, here are at least 3 dozen more resources from Desiring God, here are more from Ligonier, the Gospel Coalition search results, a wiki article on the omnipotence of God, and after that a good book to read would be this book or this book)

The Responsibility of Man

There was a great debate 1700 years ago between the writings of Augustine and Pelagius, the former believing in original sin and the latter rejecting it. Pelagius’s idea was that God only holds us responsible for sins we had the option to commit. So, we must have the ability to do good.

This was roundly rejected by Augustine, who argued that man’s default position of sin as nature (original sin) meant that we actually are “dead” in sin as Ephesians 2:1 teaches. But this is besides the point. Wayne Grudem observes the real issue at hand:

“If our responsibility before God were limited by our ability, then extremely hardened sinners, who are in great bondage to sin, could be less guilty before God than mature Christians who were striving daily to obey him. . . The true measure of our responsibility and guilt is not our own ability to obey God, but rather the absolute perfection of God’s moral law and his own holiness (which is reflected in that law). “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). (Systematic Theology, 499).

In quoting this verse from Matthew, Grudem notes a powerful logical dynamic: we have been commanded to obey, and by issuing a command, God has placed the responsibility outside of himself to achieve its completion.

In fact, if we reject Pelagius’s argument, there is no way to avoid the conclusion that man bears the responsibility for all his actions. God has created man with this inherent responsibility. Grudem, elsewhere in his book, writes this:

If we do right and obey God, he will reward us and things will go well with us both in this age and in eternity. If we do wrong and disobey God, he will discipline and perhaps punish us, and things will go ill with us. The realization of these facts will help us have pastoral wisdom in talking to others and in encouraging them to avoid laziness and disobedience.

The fact that we are responsible for our actions means that we should never begin to think, “God made me do evil, and therefore I am not responsible for it.” Significantly, Adam began to make excuses for the very first sin. . . Unlike Adam, Scripture never blames God for sin. . . Now we may object that it is not right for God to hold us responsible if he has in fact ordained all things that happen, but Paul corrects us: “You will say to me, then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, a man, to answer back to God?” (Rom. 9:19-20). (334).

Really, every commandment given in scripture could be cited here as further proof of human responsibility, because a command itself implies that the recipient must obey, because if there is no “must” (to be replaced by “could”) then it is just another option, and do remember that “options” also indicate human free will. So, then, either way, the burden of responsibility falls on man.

Compatibility

The argument from the initial D.A. Carson link is that, despite the complete contradiction, both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are found in abundance in scripture.

These should be mutually exclusive because if humans are passive recipients of someone else’s decisions, they would not be considered morally responsible for their actions, since they didn’t act freely. Conversely, if humans act from their own will, how could their actions be retroscribed upon God? Would that make him a God-of-the-retrospect, like the Mandate of Heaven from ancient China, where anything that happened was retrospectively declared the will of God? This was in spite of the fact that every action along the way came from humans.

Yet, we have both. There isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, a logical synthesis other than to suspend logic and act like the problem isn’t there.

John MacArthur, with his usual clarity of theology, writes this:

Scripture affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We must accept both sides of the truth, though we may not understand how they correspond to one another. People are responsible for what they do with the gospel—or with whatever light they have (Romans 2:19, 20), so that punishment is just if they reject the light. And those who reject do so voluntarily. Jesus lamented, “You are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life” (John 5:40). He told unbelievers, “Unless you believe that I am [God], you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). In John chapter 6, our Lord combined both divine sovereignty and human responsibility when He said, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37); “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life” (John 6:40); “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44); “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47); and, “No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65). How both of those two realities can be true simultaneously cannot be understood by the human mind—only by God.

And recall again D.A. Carson’s statement from the bottom of the first link:

at the end of the day, what the Bible does do is insist that those two propositions I gave you stand at the very heart of any faithful Christian understanding of the mystery of providence. God is sovereign, but his sovereignty doesn’t mitigate human responsibility. We human beings are morally responsible creatures but that doesn’t mean God is contingent. And we live with those tensions and all the mysteries of how God in his eternity relates to us in our time. We live with those tensions until the very end.

Returning now to Romans 13

Forgive me for the above longwindedness, but this topic of the sovereignty of God is directly implicated in this passage when Paul writes “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” So we see that God has acted in His omnipotence to appoint someone as king.

But how, practically speaking, did that person become king? Did the Roman Senate hold an emergency meeting and elect a new king at the death of the last? Did the existing king have two sons, and the younger killed the older so that he could ascend to the throne? Did the property-owning citizens of Athens gather together and write names on stones to cast their vote?

In the first example, the Senators are the ones directly responsible for the King coming to power. In the second, the younger brother is responsible for his own coming to power, and sinned in the process. In the third, the citizens of Athens are responsible for their actions.

All rulers, besides the direct ascendancy of a first-born son, come to power because of some actual choice made by a human. (Even in the first-born son case, the Father decided to have a child, or decided not to have the child killed, or decided not to have the throne filled otherwise, or what-have-you).

This is especially true in democracies (read: systems that hold a vote), where the responsibility actually falls upon everyone in the country. This is part of the argument (though not consistently followed) by conservatives who decried President Obama as a sign of God’s judgement against the nation. It could also be true of President Trump, though only time will tell.

My argument in interpreting Romans 13 is this: Paul is giving the sovereignty of God position, but like other texts that depend upon the sovereignty of God, we must look elsewhere in scripture to receive the whole message.

You wouldn’t read Ephesians 1 and think “well, since God is sovereign, man has absolutely no responsibility for his actions,” yet this is exactly what people do with Romans 13 all the time.

So what would it look like to apply the Compatibilist model of the will of God to something like Government?

In this model, when discussing salvation, the following things are true:

  1. we do not know the future
  2. we are held responsible for our choices
  3. God commands a response

And I would say that, when applying this Compatibilist model to Government, those translate roughly into these three principles:

  1. we do not know who will win an election, and therefore God’s will can only be acted upon in retrospect (which means it can’t be acted upon).
  2. we must act according to conscience, which I venture to say should be informed by Scripture, by history, and by political science (though blending these can be difficult work).
  3. we must participate in the decision making process, and if not, we implicitly still are, much like a person who makes no decision about salvation is actually just deciding to reject God.

So then, let us return to the original passage. Romans 13, with some commentary.

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

“Those that exist have been instituted by God” is true in the same way that the color socks you wore today were instituted by God, or that you took 31ml of Nyquil last night rather than 30ml was instituted by God. In no way does this abrogate the responsibility of the people doing the tangible action of choosing the authorities. This is especially obvious today, when hundreds of millions of people cast votes, rather than 30 in the Senate or some other less-than-obvious system. So then, while God can be credited when a good ruler comes to power, man must take the blame when the ruler turns out to be sour.

This type of theological minutia may seem nitpicky, or irrelevant. “What difference does it make?” someone may ask.

The difference is that, as a result of human responsibility, we must treat governance like any other choice. We are responsible! We must take action when things go wrong! Now this action must occur within the confines of the system, and violent revolution is never prescribed in scripture to overthrow existing evil governments (except in the entire book of Joshua where the Israelites are commanded to overthrow the existing governments in the land of Caanan … though this does not translate to today)

This lays out the foundation of my belief in Christian political activism. I must take seriously the notion that God can and does act through humans to change governments, to elect leaders, to restructure society. I can safely push against the system, in one sense because God will override my actions if they are outside his will, in another sense because my actions themselves are determined by his will (?) and therefore they cannot happen unless they are allowed by him, and in one final sense because I have been commanded to love justice and hate evil, and this includes any institution for which I am responsible.

Notice that Paul gives the function of government: the authority must be an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. But notice also that Paul says nothing about the proper Christian response to authorities who themselves are wrongdoers. Who is the King above all Kings? God, yet what if in his silence he is commanding humans to act on his behalf? This seems to be exactly what he does with kings themselves.

My main takeaway point from this pedantic essay should be: to read Romans 13 without the hyper-Calvinist spin, simply add in the recognition that humans are responsible for their actions, and suddenly the all-too-familiar blurry line between His sovereignty and our responsibility has reappeared. What do we do? This is just as difficult a question to answer on government as it is on anything else.

Several explanations for why Conservatives are more easily clickbaited

Yesterday I shared on Facebook this clever article making the point that people online fall for fake news.

There always have been fake news stories online. I remember seeing articles like “Obama announces he will not step down at the end of his term!” and “Obama set to confiscate all guns — we must act now!” especially in the conspiracy theory circles of my 2012-13 days. I’d imagine this is not new. This is probably as old as the internet itself.

But these became much more common this year.

I blame the social media clickbait effect: when websites get money based on click traffic, they profit more from stories that generate clicks than stories that are true, provide a unique perspective, or give boring-yet-important analysis. In time, all click-economy websites will become Buzzfeed.

(Further reading at this link and also this link).

Even more interesting is my perspective (echoed by many others) that the social media clickbait effect affects conservatives more than liberals.

The success of Donald Trump’s candidacy has been at least partially blamed on the susceptibility of conservatives to clickbait-style media. From my experience on social media, I would agree.

The Huffington Post article uses Bernie as an example, which is a brilliant use of tribal signaling to convince conservatives that this effect is real. Most of the people who liked my post are conservatives, even far-Trump supporters. A more accurate example would have been to somehow demonstrate this to liberals, but they don’t seem to need any more convincing. The good ol’ “Obama announces emergency plans to stay in office as President until 2020.” would have been good enough.

Why does this impact conservatives more than liberals? Here are some of my possible answers:

  1. The media clickbait effect impacts skeletal websites more than full-flesh websites, and skeletal ones tilt conservative. By skeletal website I mean websites with generall low traffic, minimal content because it is new, and a general framework that gives the appearance of being a legitimate site, despite being owned by an immediate parent company that actually makes news. A full-flesh website has the same framework as a skeletal website, but has higher traffic and a large quantity of content. A good example of this distinction is Red Alert Politics being a skeleton site and Breitbart News being a full-flesh website.
  2. There is a large category overlap between conservatives and conspiracy theorists. This isn’t an even split. Conservative seems to be an over-category, and conspiracy theory fits within that, but not vice versa. So while all conspirary theorists are conservatives, not all conservatives are conspiracy theorists. You’d be hard pressed to find a liberal conspiracy theorist, but that doesn’t mean you will not find non-conspiracy conservatives (in fact, most are this). In addition, conspiracy theorists tend to have much lower standards for verification of truth. I speak from experience as an ex-conspiracy theorist, and also from just the defintion of a conspiracy theorist being someone who almost unquestioningly accepts ideas considered baseless or incorrect by most rational people in society.
  3. More educated people lean liberal, and more educated people will probably check sources before reposting/trusting an idea. This is interesting because I actually think conservatism is more correct on more issues when built from the facts to the narrative and not narrative to the facts. At any rate, I consider this the strongest argument.
  4. The conservative moral narrative of society running down is more suited to crazy, conspiratorial attention seeking than the liberal moral narrative of society progressing to better futures. It is easier to sensationalize headlines about doom and destruction than about the water supply in some-country-you-can’t-name increasing in quality by 5% over the last two years, but the latter are exactly what real life is. The vast majority of time, in a society improving daily by technology, the main stories supporting the liberal idea of progress are boring and don’t make good clickbait. So, clickbait sites can only survive on conservatism.
  5. The conservative disgust reaction is stronger than the liberal disgust reaction (also explains many other things too, homosexuality and transgender issues notwithstanding). Here is a link with a survey. I’m fairly certain it will correctly predict your party affiliation without asking any political questions.
  6. It just happened to happen within conservative circles before it happened in liberal circles. There is no actual explanation other than random chance, like the Butterfly effect. Some things just happen to form because of some arbitrary cause that doesn’t actually depend on anything in conservativism or liberalism, and could have just as easily gone the other way.
  7. Big money interests put forward online propaganda. Especially because of the media clickbait effect, this ad revenue is self-sustaining and even profitable. These same big money special interests tend to tilt conservative by definition of big money interests and also by definition of conservative.
  8. Conservative and liberal sites do this equally often, but because Facebook thinks I’m a conservative, it floats red news stories to the top of my newsfeed, yellow stories to the middle, and blue stories to the bottom or not at all. This makes me *think* it is more common among conservatives. This is entirely possible, although I’m afraid if I accept this conclusion that I would become an epistemic Facebook agnostic (we can’t know anything about Facebook), and I will put that on pause until someone comes out with a quantitative Facebook study (these do exist) in a few months.

To argument number three, one of my Facebook friends said that “It [being liberal] ‘s what their “education” has taught them.”

I’d say this is a common argument among conservatives. You go to college and they convince you that liberalism is right and conservatism is stupid, and after four years you’ve been thoroughly conditioned.

Certainly true: higher education is a liberal-leaning institution. Here is a link to an NPR analysis of the situation and changes in the past decades. Summary: we could be seeing a number of variables, according to NPR, like polarization increasing in general in society, an increasing number of women becoming a part of higher education (assuming women lean liberal), and insularity meaning wallbuilding is getting worse and people are listening to opposing views less often.

Not certainly true: college convinces students to become liberal. It’s really had to prove this claim. Here are some potential other explanations.

  1. Could their liberalness have allowed them to thrive in higher education, while conservatives have to fight an uphill battle and either avoid the process or choose state schools over known-liberal schools?
  2. Or, could liberalism actually be more correct, and therefore smarter people find it true?
  3. Or, does this association just run along in-group trend lines, and people live within insular bubbles?
  4. Or do conservative circles tend to promote entering the workplace immediately or 2 year or technical school, while liberal circles tend to promote going to 4 year university?
  5. Maybe education just forces people to be more ideologically consistent, and people enter academia with premises that, when followed consistently, lead to liberalism?

I would say (6.) it is because liberals are progressives, and progressivism’s insistence on Newness means they need new intellectual foundations. Since the university is the main source of new intellectual foundations, liberalism thrives there. Deconstructionist philosophy, for example, is an exclusively academic phenomena, but we see progressives picking up these premises to build their theory of radical social inclusivity and elimination of social constructs.

 

What every discussion of Colin Kaepernick has forgotten

Colin Kaepernick has had an interesting NFL season so far, and this week the narrative took yet another twist.

Kaepernick entered the eternal national debate on race relations in August by refusing to stand for the National Anthem because he is “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

The United States has been debating race relations since the colonial era. We argued over whether slaves should be 3/5 of a person or an entire person or not a person at all, we had a big debate with guns and uniforms in the 1860’s, there was another debate with fire hoses and lunch counters in the 1950’s, and today this debate continues with body cameras and lives mattering. I’m not sure this will ever end.

Kaepernick’s protest incensed conservative football watchers and some football executives. These are executives who, I’d speculate, don’t care about patriotism as much as they care about looking hyper-American to keep conservative football watchers watching their games.

This week’s twist: Kaepernick did not vote in the Presidential election. He lives in California, a forgone conclusion in the election anyway, but people are mad about the message it sends.

This morning I overheard the conversation of several old guys (mid 60’s, probably retired) who thought Kaepernick was stupid. They used this word. The guy leading this conversation didn’t make any argument about political impact, didn’t say anything about the conservative moral narrative about minority violence, and didn’t mention the liberal moral narrative about equity governing.

He probably was just saying “I disagree with him” but was searching for a word that sounds more powerful. With “stupid,” he can demonstrate to his conservative friends that he is super double dog conservative. Any regular old super single dog conservative would say they disagree. Only the most super double dog conservative would think that Kaepernick is stupid.

Factcheck to the rescue: Colin Kaepernick scored a 38 on the Wonderlic intelligence exam.

Wonderlic is an intelligence exam the NFL uses at the annual Combine. Head coaches receive this, along with dozens of other statistics gathered that day, to help decide players for the draft. The combine, really, is just one giant standardized test for football players.

12 minutes, 50 questions, averaged at 20, standard deviation probably somewhere around 8. Nobody expects test takers to even finish all the questions, and essentially nobody scores within 5 of perfect. A score above 10 generally indicates being functionally literate.

Kaepernick scored a 38. A thirty-eight. Many words can describe Colin Kaepernick, but stupid is not one of them.

He scores in the 98th percentile on this test. If 100 people stood around in a room, he would be smarter than 98 of them. Only 2 would beat him. According to their website, Kaepernick could be admitted to Mensa with this score. Mensa, that one group with membership restricted to geniuses only.

This breaks the usual stereotypes about the intelligence of

  • black men,
  • professional football players, and
  • black men who play professional football.

This may seem minor — really it is minor compared to the entire debate about race relations — but it may serve some people right to recognize that “I disagree with you” and “I am smarter than you” are two different arguments. In this case, assuming that that group of old guys were near average intelligence, these happened to be two very different arguments.

 

Evangelicals, let’s get something straight.

My fellow Evangelicals, I’d like to explore a topic that matters more than abortion, the Supreme Court, governorships, the Electoral College, and globalism — combined.

I’d like to talk about the purity of the Gospel message.

Not purity in the sense of sexual abstinance, but in a “let’s not pollute the core of our message” kind of way.

The biggest problem for the church, now that the 2016 election has ended, is the tragic sacrifice of its message to achieve the election result. I’m talking about one specific thing here.

Donald Trump claimed to be a Christian, and this is a mockery of the truth of the Gospel.

Let me break this down:

Fact: Donald Trump claims to be a Christian.

Apparently this is very hard to track down, although even that should be a red flag. There was an awkward moment in June when James Dobson made a strange, vague remark about it. Over the years Trump has said various things here and there about religion. The clearest moment seems to be here:

People are so shocked when they find … out I am Protestant. I am Presbyterian. And I go to church and I love God and I love my church.

This is from the Frank Luntz interview, which comes up later.

The statement “I am Protestant” “I am Presbyterian” and “I love God” are all the closest thing Trump has acknowledged. His use of imprecise language doesn’t help. At any rate, this is certainly claiming membership in Christendom, explicitly claiming intellectual agreement with a denomination, and forwardly making the statement that he loves God. These all seem characteristic of someone’s profession of faith.

Unarguably he claims affinity with the wider cultural Christianity phenomena. Perhaps he best fits what Christian Smith called Moralistic Theraputic Deism, or the belief that a God exists who gives us our desires and comforts us when we need emotional support, but otherwise remains detached from the world. This may be a stretch, and it’s partially based on intution I’ve built up over the years, but let’s operate with this as our minimum.

Moreover, Trump later made the statement that “I have a great relationship with God.” So that’s about as clear cut as you can get. Billy Graham-style, 1950’s individualistic Christianity (although he didn’t say personal relationship) between the creation and Creator. Pretty straightforward, right?

Fact: Donald Trump is not a Christian.

There are several red flags for consideration that demonstrate what may be going on beneath the surface in Trump’s mind & soul.

CP summarizes it like this:

Throughout the campaign, Trump has struggled with issues related to his claim that he is a Christian. He declined to name his favorite Bible verse. Later, he cited a verse that’s not in the Bible as his favorite while claiming no one knows the Bible better than him. He said he never asked for forgiveness, a necessary step to becoming a follower of Jesus Christ, because he hasn’t done anything that needed to be forgiven. He claims to be a Presbyterian and a member of Marble Collegiate Church, but Marble Collegiate is not Presbyterian and has no record of him being a member. And, at a Liberty University speech, he referred to 2 Corinthians as “two Corinthians” and then blamed Tony Perkins for giving him the scripture and writing it as “2 Corinthians.”

Stop.

Stop right there.

Forget “two Corinthians” and lying about church membership and fake Bible verses. There was something incredibly important tucked within that paragraph of otherwise-telling information. “He said he never asked for forgiveness, a necessary step to becoming a follower of Jesus Christ, because he hasn’t done anything that needed to be forgiven.”

Before the context police cry out for justice, Trump made the initial comments in July of 2015, followed up a week later in another interview, and then repeated them once more in January at a Republican primary debate. (You can scroll past these if you want, it is essentially the same thing three times).

A. With Frank Luntz, July 2015:

Trump, who told CNN earlier that he is both anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriage, said people are surprised to learn about his Christian faith.

“People are so shocked when they find … out I am Protestant. I am Presbyterian. And I go to church and I love God and I love my church,” he said.

Moderator Frank Luntz asked Trump whether he has ever asked God for forgiveness for his actions.

“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Trump said that while he hasn’t asked God for forgiveness, he does participate in Holy Communion.

“When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed,” he said. “I think in terms of ‘let’s go on and let’s make it right.’”

B. With Anderson Cooper, one week later:

The Christian Post previously reported on comments made by Trump regarding his faith at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa.

Clarifying his comments on forgiveness, Trump declared, “I go to communion and that’s asking forgiveness, you know, it’s a form of asking forgiveness.” During the interview the current GOP frontrunner stressed that he “likes to work where he doesn’t have to ask forgiveness.”

Trump has reiterated on several occasions on the campaign trail his Protestant and Presbyterian background, and more recently, his admiration for his former pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, a popular Reformed minister.

When further asked about repentance again by Cooper, Trump said “I think repenting is terrific.”

“Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?” asked Trump. “I work hard, I’m an honorable person.”

In talking about his Iowa appearance, Trump said, “We were having fun when I said I drink the wine, I eat the cracker, the whole room was laughing.”

Trump denied that his statements damaged his chances with Evangelical voters and accused Cooper of only wanting “to bring up the negative.” Trump countered that his polling in Iowa is very strong.

Trump, known for his bravado and aggressive criticism of opponents on the campaign trail, admitted to Cooper that he’d “change” his “tone” as president.

“Right now I’m trying to do something to make this country great again,” he declared.

C. With Jake Tapper, January 2016:

TAPPER: Well, let me ask you because one of the potential attack lines has to do with an answer you gave to Frank Luntz months ago when you said that you’ve never asked God for forgiveness.

Do you regret making that remark?

TRUMP: No, I have great relationship with God. I have great relationship with the evangelicals. In fact nationwide, I’m up by a lot — leading everybody. But I like to be good. I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try and do nothing that’s bad. I live a very different life than probably a lot of people would think. And I have a very —

TAPPER: Always or just now?

TRUMP: I have a very great relationship with God and I have a very great relationship with evangelicals. And I think that’s why I’m doing so well with Iowa.

TAPPER: The life you have now when you say that you try to do good, that sounds very different from decades of tabloid media coverage in New York in which some of your wilder escapades were —

TRUMP: No, I’m talking about — I’m talking about over the last number of years.

TAPPER: OK.

Does this need explanation?

If it does, then notice right away the great tension: Trump claims to be a Christian, as I’ve tenuously established, and Trump simultaneously also does not believe in the need for forgiveness, as these interviews establish. Yet the need for forgiveness is central to the Gospel message in two separate ways.

In one way, a person needs forgiveness as justification. At the intital moment of salvation, when from nowhere the Holy Spirit enters into a person’s spirit and indwells them, they are justified — declared right — before God. Here, forgiveness is the nullification of sin’s penalty on the human account, because it had previously been paid by Christ. This forgivenes is a change in status, it becomes permanent and secures the believer in an officially right relationship with God.

But in another way, forgiveness of sins means something totally different. What did it mean when Jesus said “Our Father … forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”? This type of forgiveness does not imply the same official status as justification does. Wayne Grudem writes that this is “a prayer that God’s fatherly relationship with us, which has been disrupted by sin that displeased him, be restored, and that he relate to us once again as a Father who delights in his children whom he loves” (Systematic Theology, 740). In this case, forgiveness is the process where people, already being justified, reestablishing right relations with God.

In either case forgiveness is necessary. Forgiveness from God to initiate salvation and forgiveness from God to continue sanctification are essential to the Christian life. In fact, without them, there is no Christian life.

(On a side note, perhaps none of this should surprise us when the two most influential spiritual figures in his life are Paul White and Norman Peale. Look up their theology.).

Does this matter?

Trump was elected Commander in Chief, not Sunday School Teacher in Chief. Why bring theology into the mix when his job is to run the nation?

I agree that this shouldn’t impact policy. Evangelicals can continue to support or not support each individual policy that Trump proposes, and I hope that we do not just support them all because “our guy” made it in. I’d put forward three non-policy reasons why this matters.

For one, Evangelicals should harbor great concern for the soul of the President, as for all people.

Second, we have been explicitly commanded in scripture to pray for the ruling authorities over us, and this prayer should not stop at wisdom and success. Here before us we see a president-elect who has spent his entire life desperately clining to his sin. He, like all, needs forgiveness.

But third and most importantly, the Church must preserve the integrity and purity of the Gospel message. The Gospel message — that though humans have erred, God offers forgiveness — is the only doctrinal objective of the church. We do not seek to advance our particular view of infant baptism vs adult baptism, views on predestination vs free will, or wine communion vs grape juice communion. No sidebar doctrinal squabble matters compared to the message of redemption through Christ.

To uphold Donald Trump as “living a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment” without reference to salvation is to nullify the salvific grace of God at the expense of common grace, performed by a man desperately caught up in the love of money. This wouldn’t matter if any random person in a Facebook comment said this. This was Jerry Falwell, Jr., the President of Liberty University, one of the most prominent Evangelicals in the country. Falwell, Jr. personally benefited tremendously from his endorsement of Trump.

I feel anger, partially because I’m about to throw my entire life away for the message here bastardized by Falwell, Jr. and partially because nobody seems to care.

Evangelical credibility has been largely swept under the rug — because Hillary! — but now that Hillary has lost, we no longer need to think on the margins. Marginal analysis makes sense when there are two candidates, but now we have one president-elect, and Evangelicals can safely return to moral absolutes by calling out Trump for what he is.

This has already happened once

I should mention that after the Access Hollywood tapes came out in October, Evangelicals did exactly what I am recommending. Endorsements were pulled, strongly worded statements issued, and stump speeches cancelled. I am saying: this should now continue.

There is no legitimate threat to the presidency anymore. Evangelicals, you’ve won! Now please, before things get ugly and people start calling us out for hypocrisy because people have called us out for hypocrisy, we must get on with the rest of the Trump denunciation:

  • Mexicans are thieves and rapists
  • the whole Khizr Khan incident
  • expanding and promoting the Birther myth
  • Scamming people through his “university”
  • Supporting abortion for decades
  • Lying about giving to chairty
  • Failing to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s through extensive tax loophole manipulation

I’m just going to stop the list there. I have some more, but after thinking about it, these are the natural byproduct of the sinful nature of man.

Failure to control his language? James 3.
Failure to turn the other cheek? Matthew 5.
Failure to make any attempt at peace? [“bomb the shit out of them”] Also Matthew 5.
Being unkind to others? Ephesians 4.
The love of money, leading to all types of evil? 1 Timothy 6.
Rampant sexual immorality? Romans 1.

So I refine my argument to this: Trump, as unrepentant as he is, does not deserve the public moral affirmation of Evangelical leaders or the private moral affirmation of the Evangelical base. For the credibility of the faith, and by extension the Gospel message itself, movement leaders must begin to denounce.

 

 

A Theology of Election Trauma

To my Evangelical friends, a plea:

A common refrain at my Evangelical university yesterday was to melodramatically say “oh, well, no matter who wins God is still in control.” And I laughed a bit then, because they are right, but now that we see the results, this idea means so much more than I anticipated. America has spoken — or rather, the xenophobic alt-right conspiracy theory underbelly of America has spoken.

Yet even in a philandering, casino and strip club owning, adulterous, undignifiable, hyper-materialist fool, God will act. Maybe this is the judgement social conservatives for years have been proclaiming will fall on America?

No matter who won today, we see a great loss ahead for personal liberty, for international economic freedom, for social and political justice and for global peacekeeping efforts (so, everything?). Yet even still, He uses our worst circumstances to advance the opposite of what those people had intended.

Consider this remark from Joseph after reuniting with the brothers who sold him into slavery:

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”‭‭ Genesis‬ ‭50:20‬

Or consider the prayer of the Apostles in early Acts when discussing Jesus’s death:

“They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” ‭‭Acts‬ ‭4:28‬

In both, we see that God’s total authority over the earth extends to acts of evil, working through and around and within them to achieve whatever good may lay ahead.

I’m shocked. I really am. Not in the failure of public polling or the betting markets to predict the outcome. I know enough about statistics to recognize margin of error and vote trending tabulation when I see it.

I’m shocked that, 17 months after his campaign started, in the whole time that anyone else could have been chosen — and there were many other Republican options — 48% of America went with him.

I’ve got a lot to say about Christian engagement in the public and political realms. About the electoral college. About the social media clickbait effect. About racial inequality. In time I will say those things.

But for now, all I can say is that we will need prayer and action, and both for two reasons each.

-We need prayer because through it God affects circumstances and makes actual change in the world. I believe it works.

-We need prayer because in it God realigns our will with his, he motivates us to action, he checks out double standards and biases, and refocuses our attention.

-We need action because it is the process, in that strange way that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility overlap, where God works through us to affect change in the world.

-We need action to demonstrate that Evangelicals only marginally preferred Trump. We must be the thorn in his side that Bernie had promised to be in Hillary’s side. May we never offer what we cannot give: our unconditional approval.

Let’s not choose between prayer and action. Let’s defy the Evangelical Right leaders who endorsed Trump, who will now call for us to pray, but will shun those who act. Likewise, let us defy those who act without the power of the Holy Spirit via prayer.

 

The Christian is called to submit to governing authorities and to pray for and honor the king. In one sense this gets flipped in a popular sovereignty system, because we are the king, and in another sense Paul lived in an empire, so his points may need minor adjustment to be applied today.

Nonetheless, we pray. For the reasons above, we pray. Mostly because we know that America needs it, we pray. Trump certainly needs it.

We have as president-elect a man who, for all I can tell, has falsely claimed to be a follower of Christ. This is a mockery of the gospel, and honoring the king comes second in my priorities to the purity of the message.

82% of Evangelicals voted for Trump. This can mean many things, like that Evangelical as a term is far too inclusive, or that Evangelicalism is actually just a proxy for in-group social ties and has little to do with the gospel, or that Evangelical voters stand for nothing.

All three are probably true to some extent, and all three dampen the witness of the gospel in society. Evangelicals: now that the election is over, can we stop being the moral relativists we so passionately denounced 10 years ago? (Russell Moore quote). Let’s stop thinking on the margin and let’s denounce Trump as the moral degenerate and foe of the gospel he is. Sure, you can argue Hillary is too, but Trump also is, and now that the election is over, marginal preferences are irrelevant. Let’s return to absolute morality.

In the Providence of God we see the potential for American destruction at the hands of a demagogue, or American success and prosperity at the hands of a demagogue. But notice, a demagogue nonetheless.

We will pray for Trump, we ultimately will obey whatever rulings he and his inane congressional counterparts issue, and we will civically and vocally denounce anything that hinders the purity of the gospel message.

Trump included.

Evangelicals and Postmoderns Together (Part 1 of 3)

[This began as an essay for a class at Trinity International University on worldviews and Christian thought. It now runs more than triple the length of the original — because the internet, unlike my professor, has no page limit. This post is the first of three, and is certainly the most academic, nuanced, boring and wordy. I highly recommend skipping to the second or third post.]

Millard Erickson’s book Postmodernizing the Faith reviews the attempts by six Evangelicals to respond to postmodernity. After introducing the concept of postmodernism, Erickson summarizes three negative and three positive perspectives, at length, and criticizes each before presenting his own preliminary answer. He also encourages Evangelicals to listen to attempts at synthesis with critical but open ears.

The book is intricate — almost irreducibly complex — but regardless I will attempt to briefly summarize each summary before evaluating some aspects of the overall dilemma of a postmodern Evangelical theology (Part 2) and concluding with some anecdotal observations and future study direction (Part 3). 

My summaries sequentially grow in length; I attribute this to my own writing incompetence and lack of focus, and to the content itself becoming more abstract and less accessible as Erickson continues.

Author Meta-Summaries

David Wells: “Just Say ‘No!’” Wells, a historian by trade, begins with the argument that somewhere between the middle of the eighteenth and middle of the nineteenth centuries lies a great historical divide. Before this divide was the Age of the West and after the divide lies Our Time.

The word modern means two different things: modernity was an intellectual movement that began with the Enlightenment, and these people fit all of reality within the mindset of natural reason; additionally, modernity is a sociological situation involving many factors. Interestingly, the intellectual half is irrelevant compared to the societal half, because ideas are not what really count.

“What shapes the modern world is not powerful minds but powerful forces, not philosophy but urbanization, capitalism, and technology. As the older quest for truth has collapsed, intellectual life has increasingly becomes little more than a gloss on the processes of modernization. Intellectuals merely serve as mirrors, reflecting what is taking place within society. They are post-modern in the sense that they are often disillusioned with the emptiness of the old Enlightenment ideals, but they are entirely modern in that they reflect the values of the impersonal processes of modernization” (27).

Intellectual modernity began with the Enlightenment and died near the end of the nineteenth century; around that same time, sociological modernity began (26-27). So, this all muddles the relationship between modernity and postmodernity, which is much more complex than historians and philosophers would like to admit. The word modernization refers to the transitional phase, and modernity is the result after that transition has happened; the same is true of secularization, after which one can observe secularity.

The transition from pre-modern to modern was accompanied by secularization, as “the restructuring of thought and life to accommodate the absence or irrelevance of God” (31). Modernization has divided life into a private and a public sphere, and to minimize antagonisms in the public sphere, religion is moved in the private. As a result, most people, if not religious, learn values from systems like the economy, the political government, universities that generate and disseminate knowledge, and mass media.

After this historical context, Wells argues that in response Evangelicals have mistakenly abandoned confessionalism and resort to teaching love and obedience, which abrogates the formal core of Christianity (34). The formal core of Christianity is to believe the Apostle’s teachings; this is what is has always been and this is how the faith is described in scripture.  Wells is basically calling for a return to truth– not just to content of truth, but to the idea of truth itself (36). Evangelicals ought to “Just Say No!” to postmodernism.

Thomas Oden: “Back to the Future.” Oden describes modernity as

  1. the time elapsed from 1789 to 1989 and as
  2. a combination of self-actualized freedom, moral relativism and naturalistic reductionism, autonomous individualism and narcissistic hedonism (47, 49). 

These are the ideas that: humans should strive for freedom based on self-actualization, or “finding yourself”; morality is not a fixed code to be discovered but a set of values that are neither right nor wrong; all things can be reduced to natural explanations, including human behavior; the individual is greater than the collective and has claim to sovereignty of themselves; an idol is made of one’s sensuality, body and immediate pleasures, meanwhile all values are subservient to making oneself happy.

Each of these modern strands are hidden killers. Oden examines in great detail how each of these tendencies has led to “friendlessness, disaffection, divorce, drug abuse, and the despairing substitution of sexual experimentation for intimacy,” among other effects (51). But we haven’t seen this effect until long after modernity began. The postmodern phase is therefore not actually post-modern, but ultra-modern, a “terminally fragmenting” form of the same period as modernity (50). Modernity has reached its death throes, seen in what philosophers call postmodernity.

What will come after postmodernity for Evangelicals? Oden believes the answer is

“classical orthodox Christianity. By that he means the consensual core of beliefs that has been held by a majority of the church throughout the span of its historical existence, embodied in such documents as the ecumentical creeds of the early centuries. It is this body of material, long over-look or ignored by mainline Christianity, that will prove to be a vital source of postmodern [meaning after ultramodernism] orthodoxy” (54).

Oden is also recommending a new voice for the Scriptures, which have unfortunately been subjected to critical assault; the critical assault has carried many modern assumptions; these criticisms will die as modernity dies (55, 56). The problem with modern theology is that it has “bought into the whole mentality of modernity, and thus suffers all the shortcomings that it posses” (57).

Christianity ought to be the true post-moderns by rejecting the modern emphasis on only objective historical events and returning to paleo-orthodoxy, a term coined Oden uses to mean the replacement of historical event emphasis with an emphasis on the early century creeds and writings (57).

Francis Schaeffer: “Escape to Reason.” A movement started in the nineteenth century whose product was not seen until the twentieth century, as “later modernism” (64). There was a whole set of assumptions then, which happened to accord nicely with Christianity, that are different from the assumptions of later modernism. Among these assumptions is the idea of absolutes in morality and in physicality. Around 1890 in Europe and around 1935 in the U.S., this changed, and society began to slip below the “line of despair.”

The Line of Despair is a contrast between two types of thinking:

“living above the line of despair, philosophers had attempted to develop a worldview, an effort to interpret the whole of reality from within one’s own experience”

“All this changed below the line of despair. Now Kierkegaard and those who followed him abandoned the idea of being able to draw a circle that would include everything. Now if rationalistic humanity wants to deal with the real things of life, such as purpose, significance, and the reality of love, it must be done by a nonrational leap of faith.”

Postmodernism is “the loss of logical antithesis, thoroughgoing relativism, and the loss of metanarrative” (64), or the natural products of living below the line of despair. The postmodern perspective cannot be lived in the world (69), but the Christian persepective can (70-76). A real, living human just cannot consistently live below the line of despair; they can claim to do so intellectually, but to also do so physically and socially would lead one to suicide. 

This forms a great tension within the non-Christian perspective, where their beliefs oppose their world, but they live closely enough to their world that they settle on inconsistency. How can Christians deal with such inconsistent people?

Rather than convincing non- Christians to adopt Christian presuppositions (as many attempt), Schaeffer tries to push them towards consistency, to remove the brakes holding them from living the logical conclusions of postmodernity (78). This may have very dangerous results (again, suicide), but is the solution to evangelism and leading them to Christian presuppositions.

Having considered three negative responses to synthesizing Evangelical theology with postmodernity, Erickson turns to three positive responses to synthesis.

Stanley Grenz: “To Boldly Go Where No Evangelical Has Gone Before.” Grenz defines postmodernism not as time period so much as a broad cultural phenomenon. Postmoderns reject the modern mindset, but under the conditions of modernism. First, what is modern?

Descartes and Newton both contributed to the modern mindset, their ideas founding the view that “human reason is the means of discovering the systematic truth present in the orderly word” (84), the human reason half coming from Descartes and the orderly word from Newton. For these moderns and those who would come after, knowledge is certain, objective, and inherently good.

This all started to crumble in time. Nietzsche was an early attack, but it didn’t really pick up until deconstruction, which was a response to structuralism. Structuralists said that since life is meaningless, societies try to make documents and texts that give it some meaning. Deconstructists replied, twenty years later, that even those texts are meaningless because readers always read-in their own meaning to the texts, so the meaningless life cannot really be encapsulated in a meaningful text, since even “meaningful” is up for interpretation! The world “is only an arena of one person’s interpretation against another’s” (86), and as Foucault argued, people in power are often the ones putting forward interpretations (which advance their power and violence).

Grenz thinks that Evangelicals are moderns. Even though Evangelicalism really formed in the fundamentalist movement in the 1910s and 20s, which was a pushback against modernity, Evangelicalism is based on the same modern mindset of certain, objective and inherently good knowledge. (I would add that the anti-modernity of fundamentalists was in response to the results of modernity, namely evolution, not against modernity itself). But since our society is moving past modernism, Evangelicals need to find a way to present the gospel in postmodern terms (89). But is this possible? And more importantly, how will this be done and how will Evangelicalism and postmodernism have to be altered?

Grenz thinks that Evangelicals cannot accept postmodernity’s skepticism; they must retain the correspondence theory of truth. They also must retain the metanarrative of redemption (creation-fall-redemption-consummation).

But, Grenz does think that the scientific method isn’t the only pathway to truth; some things remain outside of reason (91). Also, keep in mind that Evangelicals believe in original sin; a natural subdoctrine of original sin is that all aspects of humanity are fallen, including the mind. Can humans be rational if blinded by sin? Even more, Grenz rejects the inherent goodness of knowledge since, though knowledge of science has increased dramatically in the past century, so has the destructive application of that science against other humans also increased in the past century. We learned a lot about atoms. We used the atomic bomb. Knowledge itself is not good, people must apply knowledge in a good way.

So what does a postmodern Evangelical theology look like?

  1. “[it] begins with a shift in the basis of the definition of evangelicalism from primarily a theological system to a type of spirituality, focused on the experience of the new birth.
  2. Second, the locus of theology is revisioned. Rather than a summarization of the doctrinal teachings of the Bible, it is reflection on the beliefs of the community.
  3. There is also to be a revisioning of the sources of theology. For Grenz’s theological methodology calls for the employment of three sources: the Bible, the tradition of the church, and the culture. The latter is to supply the though-forms for the expression of the message…
  4. Finally, the nature of biblical authority is to be revisioned. Traditionally evangelicalism has moved from the idea of revelation to the doctrine that the Bible is an inspired preservation of that revelation and is therefore authoritative. But, says Grenz, ‘the assertion of the inspiration of Scripture cannot function as the theological premise from which bibliology emerges, nor as the focal point of our understanding of the relation between the Spirit and Scripture.’… ‘because believers in every age hear in them the voice of the Spirit as they seek to struggle with the issues they face in their unique and ever-changing contexts'” (92-93).

An Evangelical postmodern theology should be communal rather than individual; without altogether rejecting the Biblical emphasis on individual salvation, this brand of theology would emphasize that the individual is always part of a culture, which influences their ideas. The individual (non-community-member) dispassionate theologian does not exist.

This should be mysterious rather than rational; there are some dimensions of reality the rational scientific method does not touch. If one tries to use rationalism to understand these untouchable things, they will reduce theology to a “cool, calculating dissecting of God, listing his attributes in the form of timeless propositions” (95).

An Evangelical postmodern theology should be bodily rather than dualistic; for hundreds of years the Enlightenment modernists emphasized the soul/mind over the body, which has leaked into theology. Grenz thinks that postmoderns, who reject such a distinction, are closer to the perspective of the Biblical writers. There must be an integration of “the many dimensions of the human person into a single whole, including a new concern for the place of emotion and intuition in our lives” (96).

Finally, this synthesis must enrich the spirit rather than just the mind; knowledge is a good, but not a good in and of itself. In other  words, knowledge has instrumental but not intrinsic value. So, theologians can never settle for lists of propositions; they must have a “right heart” or the “right head” is dead, because beliefs shape conduct (97).

J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh: “Theology is Stranger Than It Used to Be.”, Middleton and Walsh had written an earlier book and were about to publish a very revised second edition, but their editor recommended an altogether new book. This new book forms the basis of Erickson’s summary.

Modernity is a combination of naturalism, belief in a progress that lies always ahead, belief that progress will be achieved through scientific advancement, and a rejection of ecclesiastical authority (104). These were problematic because in the end humanity did not achieve the progress that modernity promised; two World Wars and the Great Depression made this clear. Because society no longer believes in the progress feature of modernity, postmodernity has begun. 

What is real? Moderns thought that if one carefully guarded the objectivity of their methodology, they could find truth (105), meaning that the idea in their head corresponds to an actual thing in the world, independently of the thoughts in the thinker’s head. MIddleton and Walsh introduce this great metaphor to describe perspectives using three umpires for foil; the umpire represents a person, the ball/strike represents reality, and their phrase represents how they view reality:

The first umpire (“There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ’em the way they are”) is the naive realist, assuming that his or her judgments correctly reflect the reality that they claim to describe.

The second umpire (“There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ’em as I see ’em”) is a perspectival realist (or perhaps a critical realist).

The third umpire (“There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothin‘ until I call ’em”) is a radical perspectivalist. Many postmodern thinkers, according to Middleton and Walsh, are represented by this third umpire. They doubt whether there is anything “real” beyond our judgments (105-106).

The problem that postmoderns raise over and over is that the first umpire thinks he has access to “reality” apart from his perspective. But nobody has that access. People can never “get outside our knowledge to know reality in some direct fashion. It is always mediated to us by our linguistic and conceptual constructions” (106). Can the socially conditioned person  claim to know morality if they can’t even know truth? What if the system of morality they follow is actually just Western morality, or American morality, or Illinois morality, or Conservative morality? How, if there is more than one morality, and they happen to already be privy to one, can they objectively decide?

Postmoderns like Derrida have deconstructed these arbitrary social constructs. Deconstruction “tries to help people see that what seems so natural to them is actually cultural in origin. It attempts to dismantle the totalizing visions that have been used to disenfranchise minorities and open the door for justice” (108). The deconstructionists also do this to the very concept of self, arguing that the self always expressed itself in violence, and is socially constructed.

Middleton and Walsh often alternate between “late modern” and “postmodern” because we are in a period “of cultural transition, where genuinely novel features coexist side by side with continued, even heightened, central features of the older period and philosophy” (111).

Their synthesis begins by acknowledging that metanarratives are not themselves good or bad, but can be used for good for bad. The Biblical metanarrative does not justify oppression against various groups, like some accuse of it, but instead demonstrates concern for the oppressed (112). (This is a difficult statement to defend.) (They defend it.)

The ultimate solution to all this pedantic counterpointing and posturing comes on page 119, where Middleton and Walsh are quoted as saying “Far from being a closed book about a story that has ended, the Bible authorizes our faithful enactment of the Author’s purposes precisely in order to continue the story across the pages of history,” meaning that the Christian life is an improvised scene, acted out after the intermission (Acts 28), and believers need only stay faithful to the earlier script (everything before Acts 28) so that the scene appears continuous together with it. We also have access to the author of the story, who left us the Spirit (120). A faithfully Evangelical and postmodern thinker lives a narrative life continuous with the narrative of scripture.

B. Keith Putt: “De/con/structive Evangelicalism.” In Putt, Erickson finds a scholar who has not written much, and Erickson’s summary depends mostly on unpublished papers, Putt’s dissertation, a one chapter entry in a textbook, and such. Yet Erickson does piece together something, and from it should obviously follow that Putt has completely accepted the premises of deconstruction; the interesting fact is how he remains an Evangelical.

Moderns want certainty; from the time of Plato onward, men searched for a foundation upon which to build all knowledge. They have sought to

“undertake an epistemological archaeology, and ‘dig’ back through the layers until one can discover a bedrock of first principles (archai) upon which the edifice of learning rests. Only if such a beginning can be located can there be any hope for establishing objective and certain truth.”

Even though Plato and others were premodern, they had in common with moderns this search, this foundationalism.

Modern thinking is a “quest for certainty” while postmodern thinking is a “stark refusal to cultivate a nostalgia for the unattainable ” (128, 130, underline courtesy of Putt), which is a very positive framing of the perspective that since humans cannot have certainty, they should not desire it. Postmoderns abandon the search for a totalizing systemization of truth.

Much of the rest of Putt’s argument is based on his reading of John Caputo, another postmodern, Christian (but not Evangelical) philosopher. So Caputo must be summarized before Putt can answer.

Caputo begins with Derrida, saying that Derrida “is not affirming subjectivity, but epistemological humility” (though, note, this may not actually be what Derrida was saying). So, while they may seem like similar mindsets, there is a difference between saying that one cannot know truth because it’s really difficult and saying that one cannot know truth because there is no truth at all. Simple thus far, but after this, it gets messy.

For the longest time, Caputo thinks, people have turned to metaphysics or ontotheology to try to find their bearings. They point to something external to all of this, usually God or some type of highly-abstracted ethical system, and use that as a reference point for morality, truth, meaning, and such (133). They think that if you abandoned this external reference point, then you could have no morality, truth, meaning and such. But Caputo says that, actually, you can have those things without it. Here is how:

Truth must be “recognized as an effect, not something dropping into the play of textuality from some transcendental beyond.” One can avoid both absolute truth and nihilistic dread because “deconstruction gives us the desire to keep the debate open” [not sure how this follows] (134). We also need community [I’m very unsure of how the points on pages 134-135 follow each other; I am trying to summarize Erickson, who summarizes Putt, who summarizes Caputo, who at times summarizes Derrida. Maybe a meta-meta-meta-summary is exponentially more difficult than a meta-summary]. There is some fine distinction between the Greek ideal of the Body and the Sanskrit word for Flesh, and the Latin obligare for obligation comes into play, [this all gets muddy and I’m convinced I have now found a passage so far beyond my accessibility that the words are meaningless to me].

All of that aside, Putt’s theology of theopassion beings. Readers cannot enter the text of Scripture without their preconceptions; there is no “objective” starting point. This should be a common refrain by now. Putt makes the point, in more clarity here than others have managed, that though God has divinely inspired the scriptures, this inspiration “does not void their also

  1. being historical texts developing within certain contexts,
  2. being transmitted through tradition, and
  3. having to be read and interpreted by each new generation” (136).

But Putt wouldn’t say that you can’t have truth. You just can’t claim the one true interpretative structure of scripture. We should always be suspicious and question the presuppositions of interpreters. So there is an element of subjectivity

Now, sure, the scriptures are subjectivized, but they still don’t have an infinite number of meanings; the sentence “God created the heavens and the Earth” cannot legitimately be taken to indicate an interpretation something along the lines of “David’s affair with Bathsheba was legitimate only insofar as Bathsheba consented to the affair.” (This is my attempt at an example of Putt’s argument, not his). The text does limit itself.

But in addition to the text itself limiting an infinite number of interpretations, there is another factor that caps the number. Biblical interpretation is always done within communities, or by people influenced by their community.” This is how relativism and subjectivism are overcome, then: by submitting one’s interpretation to interaction with other members of the community” (138). The Spirit helps communities out.

Putt emphasizes the suffering (passion) of God (theo), or theopassionism, meaning that he largely agrees with “free will theism” or “the openness of God” theology (this can be a topic for later research) (140). Here he ties in Caputo. Caputo outright rejects incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection (?!?!?!?!?!?), so his theology obviously needs adjusting by Putt. Putt’s God (stylized with an X through the o) “is clearly not the timeless, impassible, immutable God” (141) characterized by modern Christians. Putt’s God can be affected by the events of history, since God cannot suffer or love “in some Eternal Now” outside of time as humans understand it.

There are, I will admit, myriad issues with the contradiction between Christ’s deity and the doctrine that God never changes. God obviously changed form in some way, at least a bit, in becoming Christ. How can this be resolved? By asserting that God actually does change, which is most true on the Cross of all places, where Christ becomes “the ultimate expression of nonbeing.” Also explored is the dilemma of God forgiving something by paying for the debt. Putt pivots back to Caputo, who argues that “forgiveness cannot be established upon a foundation of revenge and repayment. To forgive is to take a loss.” This amounts to a rejection of penal substitution as the theologian’s primary soteriology. All of this argument is constructed without reference to scripture, depending instead on just “the biblical view” (143). I am now sure how Putt’s theopassionate God is more defensible to the points of postmodernity than the immutable God of modernity.

End of Part 1.

Part 2 coming soon.

 

Two thoughts on Jesus as a Libertarian

Here are two quick thoughts I’ve had about libertarianism. I’ll explain a bit before giving some ideas about Jesus.

The political philosophy of libertarianism is often misunderstood by my fellow Evangelicals as freedom to do anything — this is less a misunderstanding of fact and more one of emphasis. The ideology of libertarianism isn’t that there are no morals, or no values, or no public good, just that governments are an ineffective way to decide and enforce them.

It is the ideology of Small Government, but consistently applied across the board. Gun restriction? No, because small government. Abortion restrictions? No, because small government. Fiscal and Monetary intervention into the economy? No, because small government. Being the world’s police force? No, because small government.

The Libertarian Party, unlike the Republican and Democratic Parties, is the product of intellectual consistency and first principles. The two main parties are more historically and incidentally conditioned than ordered by principles. Sometimes you can find themes that run throughout them, but these also are the product of Reaction and Progression not being themselves first principles — they are loose moral metanarratives.

So. On to Jesus.

  1. Jesus is like a libertarian because his teachings transitioned 1st century Judaism from collective salvation (think New Perspectives on Paul) to individual salvation.

    Some theologians would strongly disagree with NPOP, but here is the idea: for too long, scholars have treated 1st century Judaism like it was Works-Righteousness. This is partially true, but not the whole truth. They did not ever think that works alone could save. Rather, salvation was defined as union with the community, which collectively would be saved. Sin is something that breaks your bond with the community, casts you outside the metaphorical and literal city gates, and thus isolates you from the temple and the priestly system, (and then by extension, God himself).

    1st century Judaism was therefore a collective religion, with salvation rooted in community. Humans cannot save themselves, but not for any Christological or anthropological reasons, only because there isn’t any such thing as non-community salvation.

    Maybe this credit belongs with Paul, or maybe it belongs in myriad historical factors, but tentatively I credit Jesus for upending this community notion of salvation by himself being cast out of the community (crucifixion) and yet sealed with the Holy Spirit (resurrection, see Romans 8:11). The theological exposition can go on, but individual salvation had been forgotten, if not explicitly, then in attitude before Jesus.

  2. Jesus is like a libertarian because his teachings ignored/bypassed the creation of a political power for enforcement of the teachings. He was depolitical. He doesn’t advocate government solutions to problems.

    Then again, essentially no one advocated for government intervention at the time. The State didn’t exist, especially not in the same form as currently. Defined territory? Nope. Total sovereignty? Nope. Monopoly on the right to the legitimate use of force? Nope. (Although I’ve read somewhere that the religious elite did not have the right to exercise capital punishment at the time of Jesus.) These are what separate the State from tribal warlords.

    While on trial before Pilate, Jesus makes the point that his kingdom is not of this world (which he connects to his disciples having not revolted). The current attitude in politics would have led most to say “My kingdom is x” and someone else would reply “My kingdom is not x, it is y!” But Jesus’s refusal to establish an earthly kingdom is to say “My kingdom is not,” insofar as it applies to those who live on Earth. He circumvents the tendency of conservatives and liberals to politicize everything.

These are some quick, general thoughts. I don’t know that Jesus would support the Libertarian Party itself (and more so, there are internal debates within the Party over immigration, abortion, the degree to which the U.S. should intervene internationally — it itself is not homogeneous) but some of the underlying principles may be held in common.

If I think of more similarities I will write a follow-up post.