Sunday, July 09, 2017

Save the cheerleader

The language I criticized came from this post, which has this argument to make:

Here’s where it gets really dark. Faith can’t bridge the chasm between worldviews in part because those worldviews often see competing moral visions as fundamentally illegitimate. At the same time, we depend on shared values to confer legitimacy on our political leaders. The Founding Fathers were explicit in calling for their politicians to set aside “faction” in favor of the American project. But the singularity of that project was always bullshit, most notably in its equally explicit rejection of a role in the political body for African Americans, a rejection enforced in no small part by depictions of blacks as violent marauders who must be kept in check by the rights of white gun owners. That effort continues, as we have seen.

Now that the fraud has been exposed and there is little, if any, agreement on what the American project is or should be, there is correspondingly less agreement on who ought to lead the nation. That disagreement is in turn based on disagreements about who counts as an American, and whose moral framework should be the norm. You don’t get an ad like the NRA’s, or Charisma magazine conflating anti-government rioting in Venezuela with street crime in Louisville, Kentucky when you’re all one big happy family who can hash out their differences over the dinner table. Whatever happened to Christians not bearing false witness, by the way?
That's a logical outcome if you take faith to mean this:

Faith, then, serves in many ways as the moral demarcator of in-group boundaries, the ideology of the tribes. Don’t kid yourself: we all have a tribe. That doesn’t make faith any less true or meaningful. It’s very meaningful and provides moral guidance for the people who hold it in that particular place and that particular time and that particular community. If you don’t share the faith of the group, most likely you don’t really belong to it. 
What, then, is the solution?  Miserable creatures that we are, who will rescue us from this life?  Or, rather, what?  Wishing in one hand and pissing in the other, apparently:

So, that’s it? We should just go out in the woods and let ourselves be eaten by a bear, as one commenter suggested? Well, no. Here’s why.

We count on our morals—derived from religious faith or otherwise—to supply us with the answers to political questions. But the questions themselves are changing, as is our understanding of religion. We can’t overcome political differences through faith talk because we can’t come to even overlapping consensus because our society is changing, a change reflected in our politics.

Once Americans as a society have come to terms with the changes they are experiencing, the faith talk will regain its potency. It will serve to bridge divides. That will always be a contested process, so it’s not necessarily good news, depending on who gains the upper hand. But it will happen, sooner or later. In the meantime, we live through strange days and evil times, with wars and rumors of war, hoping that some damn fool doesn’t start an actual civil war. 
Pastor Dan painted himself into a corner, and couldn't face the outcome of his convictions.  Then again, if faith is the way we demarcate who is in and who is out, then faith will never be the bridge between disparate groups, no matter how similar they seem.   If you start with that argument, you can't decide at the end that all things shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well in the sweet bye and bye when the roll is called up yonder.  We don't live hunkered down through wars and rumors of wars hoping that somehow it will be alright.  Where's the good news in that?  Maybe we need to go back and reconsider what faith is in the first place.

I was thinking about faith in God and trust in the notion that we are all God's children and we are called as Christians (those of us who are, and are still within the sound of my voice) to help one another.  To be charitable does not require that you believe as I do; the object of my charity need not be like me.  See the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Faith is not a universal solvent.  It does not dissolve all concerns, clear away all problems, remove all obstacles to a goal.  Faith, in fact, has no telos, that idea that all things tend toward an end that Aristotle gave us.  It is a strange perversion of Judaism and Christianity to imagine that we, the faithful, the believers, have the responsibility to save the world.  In Isaiah's vision of the holy mountain to which all nations (i.e., peoples; not nation-states) will come, they are drawn there because of the life being lived there; because the people there have finally learned from the God of Abraham what is good, what is best in life, what it means to live wisely (wisdom is always bound up in the teachings of the prophets with how God would have us all live).  Israel doesn't save the world; Israel teaches the world, by example.  When Jesus sends out the 70, he doesn't tell them to go and save the world:  he tells them to tell anyone who will listen that the basiliea tou theou is at hand.  He doesn't tell them to change people; he even tells them to forget about the people who don't show the members of the 70 any hospitality.  Knock the dust off your feet is a wonderful metaphor for "don't carry anything of them with you," not even a memory.  Don't let them live rent-free in your head, we would say today.

We are the ones who want to carry everyone with us.  We are the ones who think it is our burden to save the world.  We never think who we are saving it from, except from "them."  We should consider that maybe the world needs to be saved from us.

A further consequence of modern optimism is a philosophy of history expressed in the idea of progress. Either by a force immanent in nature itself, or by the gradual extension of rationality, or by the elimination of specific sources of evil, such as priesthoods, tyrannical government and class divisions in society, modern man [sic] expects to move toward some kind of perfect society. The idea of progress is compounded of many elements. It is particularly important to consider one element of which modern culture is itself completely oblivious. The idea of progress is possible only upon the ground of a Christian culture. It is a secularized version of Biblical apocalypse and of the Hebraic sense of a meaningful history, in contrast to the meaningless history of the Greeks. But since the Christian doctrine of the sinfulness of man [sic] is eliminated, a complicating factor in the Christian philosophy is removed and the way is open for simple interpretations of history, which relate historical process as closely as possible to biological process and which fail to do justice either to the unique freedom of man or to the daemonic misuse which he may make of that freedom.

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Intepretation, Vol. I, Westminster John Knox Press 1996, p. 24.

And when that optimism goes sour, we just double down on it.  Faith will save us, even though it never has before!  But this time, it'll happen!

No; it won't.  That's not what faith is.  In Niebuhr's phrase, that's the daemonic misuse of faith.  We have to be even more careful when we wed the idea of faith as salvation, to politics.  What Arthur Schlesinger said about Niebuhr's thought applies here as well:

Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor - not much of a background for national innocence. "Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem," Niebuhr wrote, "are insufferable in their human contacts." The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).
We are good, and our goodness will prevail; they are evil, and their evil will ultimately fail.  Sound like the usual political discourse to you?  We marry our religious presumptions to our politics at our peril, primarily because what should be our prevailing religious presumption is the one we set aside first:  humility.

Jesus said the first shall be last and the last first in the basiliea tou theou.    We would rather be first now, because the kingdom of God is coming along much, much later; and we have a world to save in the meantime.  Maybe, instead, we should have faith, and live out our trust that the basiliea tou theou is at hand.  After all, what does the Lord require of us?

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