Friday, March 30, 2012

The Myth of the Founding Fathers: Answering the Wrong Question

Having established in the last installment that the faith of the Founders is ultimately irrelevant, it may seem odd or even self-defeating to turn now and attempt to shed light on the question of whether or not the Founders were Christians. I can offer only two excuses. The first is a reiteration of Thomas Kidd's assertion quoted in the previous post that, no matter how inconsequential the faith of the Founders may be, it nevertheless presents an interesting topic for inquiry. Additionally, even while the debate over the faith of the Founders is ridiculous because the topic is ancillary at best, there is a whole additional layer of absurdity in the way it is being argued. The arguments are so utterly superficial and historically naive that they couldn't be said to demonstrate the point one way or the other, even if the point were relevant. With that in mind, I would like to suggest two misconceptions in the popular discourse which when corrected allow for a clearer insight into the religious make up of the Founders.

Most attempts to co-opt the Founding Fathers suffer from the common flaw of anachronism. This is particularly true in the discussion of their religion, as people fail to recognize the fluidity of language and the concepts which it represents. This is certainly true of the deism of the more liberal Founders. When people read the critiques of contemporary Christian concepts (e.g. biblicism, election, hierarchy), they transport them too readily and too directly into modern discourse. What modern pundits do not seem to be aware of is that eighteenth century deism was a movement within Christianity. E. Brooks Holifield, in his Theology in America, points out that not only did deists at the time typically not see themselves as a religion separate from Christianity, deists actually "saw themselves as contributing to a reform of Christian thought in accord with eighteenth-century norms of reason." Certainly there were some exceptions, and Thomas Paine would likely be in that category, but Holifield stresses that the strongest and most influential deists, among whom he includes Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, "tended to be sedate, aristocratic, prudent, and willing to identify themselves with a purified Christian theology." It is critical to remember that Thomas Jefferson self-identified as a Christian and assumed that the freedom of religion he thought to enshrine at every level of government would lead to a generation of Americans who were predominantly Unitarian Christians. Deism, pluralism, and even Unitarianism have all been caught up in a liberal, secular drift that wants to, and perhaps rightly does, claim people like Jefferson in their intellectual heritage. These are the movements of history, however, and an intellectually honest appraisal of religion among the Founding Fathers must admit that, almost to a man, the Founding Fathers were Christians. They were diverse in their shades of Christianity, certainly, but Christians nonetheless, both by self-identification and contemporary standards.

But before anyone gets too excited, I am not endorsing any argument that the Founders were Christians in any way that is meaningful in the present and certainly not in a way that legitimates an understanding of America as a Christian nation. Just as the contemporary understanding of Deism is read incorrectly back onto the Founders, so too is a contemporary understanding of what it is to be a Christian. Those who argue most ardently that the Founders were Christians tend to be of a certain conservative, democratic, conversion-oriented brand. In short, they are almost uniformly evangelicals. It is important for evangelicals to remember that to whatever degree the Founders may be have been Christian, they were not the kind of Christians that most politically vocal Christians are today. Evangelicalism certainly contributed to revolutionary thought because the movement had its inception in the First Great Awakening. Nevertheless, as it would not reach its ascendency until the Second Great Awakening, one should not overestimate the degree to which even the most Christian Founders would have felt at home in the religious context of modern Christianity. Positions of power, intellectual and political, were as likely or more likely to be occupied by the theologically liberal, socially progressive patriots than any of the new revivalist groups. Add to these the Anglican power structures which dominated spheres of power in the South in the earliest republic and the ultra-conservative Reformed thinkers of New England, and what is left is a religious landscape in which the radically revivalistic, individualistic, and socially conservative evangelicals of modern times would have been largely without a home. Modern Catholics are even more self-deluded in appealing to the faith of the Founders, because for early Americans Christianity was synonymous with Protestantism. They had no qualms for centuries resorting to oppressive legislation to stem the power of Catholicism in the States. The same is true of Mormons.

In short, people who appeal either to the secular humanism of the Founders or to the pious Christianity both misunderstand the religious climate of the earliest days of the nation. Were any of the Founders whisked into the present on a time machine, they would like be considered by most liberals to be Christians and by most Christians to be nominal adherents if not outright pagans.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

J. W. McGarvey: On Prayer

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey's Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

“No assurance is more solemnly given than that God is a prayer-hearing God, answering the prayers of His people.” It is tragic that such a statement should find so little unified assent in the Christian community. McGarvey says of his own day that “there is no subject of revelation on which there is more skepticism than on that of prayer,” and that skepticism continues to pervade the present discourse. McGarvey even goes so far as to recount the “scientific” experiment of physicist John Tyndall, who proposed setting up two hospital wards, one of which was being prayed for by Christians and one of which wasn’t, in an effort to prove the ineffectiveness of prayer. Similar experiments continue to be proposed and carried out today, and prayer is still a major battleground within Christianity and between Christians and the world.

Yet McGarvey correctly notes that prayer is one of the core features of the biblical narrative. More than baptism or the Eucharist or sacrifice or almsgiving, prayer saturates Scripture. Before Israel was a nation, the patriarchs prayed. Moses prayed before God covenanted with His people. The judges prayed long before the kings prayed; the prophets prayed and the psalmists prayed. Daniel prayed, even when it got him thrown in with the lions, and, from the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed. Jesus prayed, and he taught his disciples how to pray. How can Christians but pray, and do so fervently and with the certainly that God hears them?

As had been the case with so many subjects before, McGarvey does not pretend to understand how prayer worked or what, precisely it accomplished. Like providence, he thinks it both mysterious and mundane, and he tells the story of Elijah and the great drought to illustrate this. The first analogy he has recourse to, however, is a martial one. Understandably, as one who lived and worked in the Upper South throughout the Civil War, McGarvey (as well as his audience) knew the impact even a poorly aimed canon could have:

A man fires a rifle, taking aim, very careful, deliberate aim, and misses the mark; does that bullet accomplish nothing? Is there no force in it? In a great battle, the immense cannonading which begins the fight does little execution; most of it is vain so far as striking the mark is concerned; most of it is vain so far as killing the enemy is concerned; would you say, then, that there is no power in it? Would you say it avails nothing? Every one of those cannon balls does something. If it does nothing but split open the air, and plough up the earth, it does something. It is a tremendous force. So, if the Bible teaches the truth, every prayer that goes out of a good man's heart, goes somewhere and hits something. It is a power in this world. It has force and power, even if it misses the mark at which it is aimed; and no man is wise enough to track it and see what it does. The bullet goes out of sight through the woods. Sometimes it strikes an animal out of sight and kills it, sometimes, a man. A prayer goes out of the heart of a good man into the world; you don't know what it accomplishes; you can not follow its flight and see what is its effect; but you can believe that it avails much. When He to whom prayer is offered tells you that it is heard and that it avails much, can't you believe that? His eye can trace it when ours can not. So this matter of the force of prayer is, in the main, like everything else; sometimes, like the artillery fired in a great battle, or like a rifle shot, it strikes the mark and there is visible proof of its efficacy; and at other times it misses the mark, but strikes something else.

Here he strikes a note which has recurred throughout his sermons and which clearly functioned as a defining theological paradigm for McGarvey: the trustworthiness of God. Time has, unfortunately, not permitted us to examine all the sermons McGarvey published in his Sermons Delivered in Louisville (God just didn’t put enough Tuesdays and Thursdays in March to cover twenty-four sermons), but it will be profitable in this final entry to look at the way this overriding impulse in McGarvey’s thought has shaped the way he looks at so many features of the Christian walk.

The theme came out most clearly perhaps in McGarvey’s discussion of redemption, which is ultimately why that entry focused on it. McGarvey’s central theme contradicts prevailing misconceptions about the Stone-Campbell Movement (at least historically) that it was essentially a movement founded on an assurance that human reason could lead to salvation. To whatever extent that may be true, even comparatively, cannot undermine that for McGarvey the ultimate assurance for redemption did not rest with human effort, but divine agency, not in the bounds of human knowledge, but in spite of human ignorance. This is echoed as McGarvey outlines his vision of providence. While he rejects the popular notions of his day of a heavy-handed, irresistible providence micromanaging the world, McGarvey does trust in a God who is actively, responsively working in the world to achieve his ends cooperatively with humanity. The duty of humanity is not to set its own course or to devise its own salvation, but merely to seek out and recognize the will of God and try to submit to it.

McGarvey is more than happy to admit that this will is not comprehensible and insists that its incomprehensibility is no reason to question it. Undermining, again, common stereotypes about the Stone-Campbell Movement, McGarvey says of baptism that, if we follow Paul, we cannot give too strong a voice to the countless questions that arise from our imaginations: is baptism really necessary, why is it necessary, how are sins removed in baptism? It is enough that Jesus commissioned his disciples to baptize. From there—whatever our debates may yield—our salvation is a matter of trust in God. Scripture, McGarvey reminds us from the outset, is surprisingly unreceptive to the kinds of questions we want to put to it. That is because it records the messages and purposes of God for His people and of the people for their God.

We must trust in the God who has kept His promises countless times and for countless generations that He will keep His eternal promises to us. We trust that He has not deceived us about the magnitude of sin or about our need to repent of it. We trust that He has shown us the way He has ordained to lead us out of sin and into life, even if we don’t understand that way. We trust God, foolishly and uncynically, because with childlike eyes we have perceived a God who is trustworthy. It is on this note that McGarvey ends his sermon on prayer and we end our series on his sermons:

If God was a God who did not hear our prayers, or care anything about our prayers, He might as well be made of ice. He is a living God; a God who has friends, and loves His friends; and this is the reason that He will do something for them when they cry to Him. Don't think of God as mere abstraction, or as a being who keeps Himself beyond the sky; but think of Him as one who lives with you, who is round about you, who lays His hand under your head when you lie down to rest. So in praying, pray with the confidence of little children. One of the bitterest cries I ever heard of, came from one of the great historians of England, when he said, "I would give all I am and all I ever hope to be, for one hour of my childhood's faith, when I looked up at the sky and called it heaven." He had lost the simple faith of his early days, and could not get it back again. We are to believe that God is with us, that His eyes are upon us, and that He hears the prayers of His saints. Pray in the morning; pray at the noontide; pray when you lie down to sleep…Pray often; pray earnestly; and in order that your prayer may amount to anything, be righteous men and women. Walk humbly before God, and truly with the people, and your prayers will be heard.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

J. W. McGarvey: On Money

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey's Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

Admittedly, I find matters of church finance to be a great deal less inspiring than questions of providence or even baptism. Yet, McGarvey rightly notes that it is the “experience of all religious bodies” to struggle with money, so much so that “the very first sin and scandal within the Church in Jerusalem was connected with its financial matters--the sin of Ananias and Sapphira.” It is appropriate, therefore, that McGarvey should take time in his sweeping homiletical programme to say a few words about money. Thankfully his sermon does not take the form—as so many modern ones do—of a thinly veiled appeal to boost donations.

McGarvey’s first point is to define the biblical principles which ought to guide regular contribution for church maintenance. The first is stewardship, which is more often than not a euphemistic way of attributing theoretical ownership to God while claiming all practical rights for humanity (e.g. the stewardship of natural resources). In McGarvey’s estimation, however, a proper understanding that humanity truly owns nothing in the world and that everything is owned by God would radically redefine the way Christians deal with their money. “Don't you suppose there would be reproduced in that congregation [that understood stewardship] the liberality of the first Church?” The absence of that liberality with God’s goods by Christians is perilous for Christians; just consider the parable of the unjust steward.

The second principle is proportionality, tied closely to the third principle of equality. First, God has commanded that all give proportional to the degree they are blessed or burdened. There is no fixed fee for membership in the church, and God has made allowance for times of fiscal hardship just as He has proportional expectations for times of great blessing. “If I am to give to the Lord of that which he has entrusted to my hands for the time being, it follows, as a necessary conclusion, that the amount I am to give is proportioned to the amount which He gives me.” Yet, proportionality is not intended to shift the burden onto the blessed. Even as there is a quantitative disparity between the duties of the rich and the poor, everyone shares equally the command to give. This is not the US tax code; there is no line beneath which you are no longer expected to contribute. Even the widow offered her mite.

After listing the principles which ought to govern church contributions, McGarvey takes a moment to remind his audience that the Christian’s fiscal responsibility to the church does not nullify the Christian’s fiscal responsibility to the world. To be in Christ is to be committed not only to the body of Christ but to the world which Christ came to save:

With these principles to govern us, I do not think it will be very difficult for us to decide what is the best way to secure from the members of a congregation that portion of their funds which is necessary to carry on the work of the Church. I am guarded in saying that portion of what they have, because I do not think it can ever occur in this country (it certainly can very seldom occur) that all the giving to be done by the members of a congregation is that which is necessary for its own regular and current expenses. Of course, that must be met. But what man is there that is willing to be contented with that? What man who loves the Lord, and desires to do some good in the world, is willing, while giving what he ought for his own congregation, to never give a cent for the broad, outlying world that is perishing in sin for the want of aid from those who have the knowledge of the truth? The home demand can not bound the liberality and the benevolence of any man or woman who has a heart to feel for the suffering and dying nations of the world. A man can not be contented to give to the treasury of his own congregation what is necessary to keep it up, and refuse to give to the suffering poor in the city. Our benevolence must reach out beyond the narrow circle of our own congregation's wants.

It is here that McGarvey makes a contentious suggestion, controversial in his own day and exponentially more so in our own: “Just here let me remark, that I find men all over the country in the churches, who think that they are not responsible to anybody except God, as to their giving;--Nobody's business but mine and my God's. I wonder if those men could give a reason why a man should be held accountable by the authorities of the Church for all the other sins he is guilty of, or maybe guilty of, and not be held accountable for this particular sin…The Church has greatly sinned in not dealing with them as it ought. The time is coming when we shall deal with them more faithfully.” In our own time, there is a prevailing sentiment that every sin is “nobody’s business but mine and my God’s.” McGarvey was lucky enough to live in a time with the more biblically defensible worldview that sin was a community matter among the members of Christ’s body. If we believe that—or, in the case of the modern church, if we can reclaim that belief—it is difficult to circumvent McGarvey’s suggestion that what we do with our money ought to be just as much a matter for concern among the brethren as the much more popular topic of what we do with our genitals.

Finally, McGarvey turns his barbs to his own ilk, preachers. Insofar as he hoped from the beginning that this sermon series would be a homiletical aid for young minister for generations to come, this exhortation rings especially true:

I am afraid that we preachers are not as faithful as we ought to be in dealing with this subject in the pulpit. I have myself tried to be, and consequently I have never yet lived and labored regularly for a congregation that was not a liberal one. I remember an incident told me by an aged brother when I was a young preacher, which often comes to me in this connection. There was a man about to die, the richest man in the congregation. He sent for his preacher. When he came, he said, "I want you to read and pray with me; I think I am going to die." The preacher sat down, and not recalling at once any particular passage to read, opened the book at random. His eye fell on this--"Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust do corrupt, and where thieves breakthrough and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven." He said to himself, I will not read that to the dying man; he will think I am hitting at his great failing. So he gave the leaves a flirt at random to another place, and the first passage his eye fell on, was the story of the man who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day, but who, when he died and was in hades, lifted up his eyes in torment. He would not read that. Then he flirted the leaves towards the back of the book, and the first passage was this: "But they that desire to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and hurtful lusts, such as drown men in destruction and perdition." The preacher's conscience began to hurt him now. He felt as if the Lord was dealing with him. He said to himself, maybe it is the intention of the Lord that I should read these very passages. So he read this last passage; he turned back to the story of the rich man and read that; he turned back to the passage in the sermon on the Mount and read that; and when he got through, the dying man looked up at him and said; "Why haven't you called my attention in your sermons to these passages? You know, and I know, that they strike the very sin of my life, and you have been unfaithful to me."

What is there to unite these seemingly disparate threads? McGarvey offers very little in the way of an explicit overarching theme. He concludes with an uncharacteristically short invitation with an all-too-familiar tie-in to the trustworthiness of God, but for the most part his musings on church finances show no signs of coherence. In truth, however, there is an obvious principle which undergirds all of them: the Christian use of money is essentially a matter of ethics. That is not all that revolutionary a suggestion, at least in its formulation, and yet McGarvey applies it with remarkable consistency to push the bounds of Christian thought on money. If improper use of money really is a sin, why do we marginalize it in our ethical discourse? Why do we care more about a man’s divorce records than his tax records? Why are we not afraid to condemn homosexuality but terrified to preach that it is harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle? That last one is easy: American Christians are more likely to be affluent than sexually aberrant. Undoubtedly that is the motive behind all marginalization of monetary ethics. In an American society that worships the unbridled power of wealth, our pulpits are conspiring to teach the church how to serve two masters. Unfortunately, we’ve been told that doesn't work. It was perhaps a little easier for McGarvey, who was born into a Southern society that, at least in his youth, still had a built-in cultural critique of Yankee capitalism and “mammonism.” How much harder is it today to hear the truth of his message?

Monday, March 26, 2012

J. W. McGarvey: Addendum on Providence

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey's Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

We have already seen that J. W. McGarvey's vision of a patient, mysterious, mundane providence was intended to be a message of hope for his listeners. It involved a vision of a God who manifested Himself most powerfully in those features of our lives which often escape notice, a God who speaks in the whisper rather than the gale, so to speak. Just as important, however, was the forward-looking nature of providence. For McGarvey, the beauty of providence is that it is always oriented toward the great ends which God has planned and is not thwarted by the ugly people on which it works or by the often messy means through which it works. This truth is made apparent powerfully in the story of Joseph and his brothers:

Why did God select ten men to be the heads of ten tribes of his chosen people, who were so base as to sell their brother? O, my brethren, it was not the ten who sold their brother that God selected, but the ten who were willing to be slaves instead of their brother. These are the ten that he chose. If you and I shall get to heaven, why will God admit us there? Not because of what we once were, but because of what He shall have made out of us by His dealings with us. He had his mind on the outcome, and not on the beginning. If you and I had to be judged by what we were at one time, there would be no hope for us. I am glad to know that my chances for the approval of the Almighty are based on what I hope to be, and not on what I am. Thank God for that!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Faith and the Value of History

Though these posts have entered the blogosphere equivalent of antiquity at this point, I wanted to direct you to a couple of contrasting thoughts about the role of the humanities in the ongoing progress of society. The two voices express deeply contradictory opinions, which is unsurprising that one comes from a thoroughgoing atheist philosopher and the other from a Christian historian. Both are noted in their respective fields and both offer lucid, self-consistent appraisals of the value of the humanities. It is because of this that their disparity is all the more striking and relevant.

First, consider this rosy thought from John Fea's "The Culture Wars Are Real," an answer to the vitriolic mob leashed on him by Glenn Beck:

How can democracy flourish without civility, respect for those with whom we differ, and a sense of mutual understanding? I continue to believe that the answer lies in education, particularly in history and the other humanities. It is these disciplines that have the potential to bring meaningful change to the world because they are rooted in virtues such as intellectual hospitality, empathy, understanding, and civility.

The, in contrast, here are the thoughts of Alex Rosenberg in "An Interview with Alex Rosenberg," an interview over his latest book:

Ultimately what would the success of your arguments mean for the importance of history, the social sciences, literature and the humanities? And what would it mean for philosophy?

My arguments turn the humanities and the interpretative social sciences, especially history, into entertainments. They can’t be knowledge, but they don’t have to be in order to have the greatest importance—emotional, artistic, but not epistemic—in our lives.

If you don't already know, now is the time when you get to guess which author believes in God. I'll give you a hint: the one Glenn Beck got mad at is the Christian. Fea's thoughts certainly reflect a more traditional attitude of Christianity toward the activities of the mind, tying supposedly academic pursuits to moral maturation. It certainly is more endearing to me as a historian than the suggestion that my efforts are little more than amusements, evolutionarily valid but epistemically vacuous. But it is Rosenberg's position that I find more intriguing, mostly because of its almost unbearable consistency. Rosenberg wags his finger at his fellow atheists who reject certain obvious and inevitable conclusions of their position simply because they would be "a public relations nightmare." Which of course they would be, but that is not a valid, scientific reason for rejecting them. Rosenberg courageously and correctly follows atheism down the rabbit hole in an effort to draw more perfect conclusions. Admirably, he does, at least if we define perfection as coherence. For my part, though, I have "always cared more for truth than for consistency."

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Myth of the Founding Fathers: Asking the Right Question

As already noted, the appeal to the Founding Fathers has reached almost religious proportions in contemporary political rhetoric. Often they are appealed to in order to bolster political philosophies, economic schemes, or specific features of controversial legislation. Just as often, they are marshaled vaguely as political partisans of various stripes radically identify their own idiosyncrasies with the dead revolutionaries in an effort to legitimize not only their politics but themselves as Americans. These attempts are usually met with appropriately graded degrees of incredulity. One feature of the debate about the Founders, however, seems to drawn continual attention on every level of society: what was the faith of the Founders? The question is supposed to provide the answer to the all-important question of whether or not America is a Christian nation. Unfortunately, too few people seem to realize what historians and academics are painfully aware of: the faith of the Founders is irrelevant.

"The eventual construction of a national identity, or a national culture, involved many factors, but one that contributed almost nothing was the religion practiced by the founding fathers themselves." So says Mark Noll, revealing what ought to have occurred to countless thoughtful people at every level of discourse. The Founders, however broadly you want to construe that category, were not ministers, they were not religious leaders, they were not spokesmen for the nation’s faith. They were political theorists, in their best moments, and more often simply politicians much of the same sort we have today. They never presumed to speak for the nation or even to be representative of it. They meant only to construct a government and then to commend that government to the people for their approval and interpretation.

It is in this latter role that the real folly of tying the religion of the nation to the religion of the Founders becomes evident. When we examine only the Constitution and the thought of its various authors, we ignore that they did not invest it with its significance or even its authority. Only when referred to the people does the Constitution become representative of and normative for American government. Therefore whether or not the Constitution, and thus the government it defines, is a purely secular one rests not with the authors but with those who interpreted and applied it. In describing his purpose in writing God of Liberty, Thomas Kidd points out, "So much of the popular discussion of faith and the American Founding revolves around the personal faith of the major Founders. This is an interesting topic, but I don't actually think it tells us much about the role that religion played in the larger process of creating the American republic. So I sought to broaden the focus to the level of the public religious principles that helped unite the Patriots. These included religious liberty, the importance of virtue, the dangers of vice, the principle of equality by creation, and the role of Providence in human affairs." These popular religious notions are infinitely more important because their influence on the development of a national identity and control over politics at every level were more direct.

Yet, as Kidd points out, these common religious notions actually unified Christian and secularist alike: "When you look at these principles, it is easier to understand why people of such sharply differing personal beliefs as Thomas Jefferson and the Baptist evangelist John Leland could cooperate so enthusiastically during the Revolution." If the interest in the faith of Jefferson and Madison is intended to establish whether or not America was founded on Christian principles, the explicit faith of either is largely inconsequential. It takes a person of profound historical ignorance to assume that when Jefferson and others appeal to Nature and Nature's God in an effort to discover the universal principles which ought to govern human relations, their vision of that universal God is Christian. It may be diluted and contorted, but it is not the same vision of a secular "Creator" that they would construct had they been Hindu or Muslim or even Jewish. Jefferson was quite clear that he believed Jesus to be a uniquely qualified revealer of the true nature of the world and ethics. The principles that guided his political thought were the principles of Christianity filtered through the prism of eighteenth century natural theology, even and especially the principle of religious pluralism. Consider the argument of Catherine A. Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin: "Christianity in America is not neatly contained under the steeples of its churches or the governing bodies of its denominations but has, in addition, extended out into other sectors of society. If Americans do not always recognize the Christian influence on their culture, it is because its omnipresence has made it virtually invisible."

Ultimately, it ought to be clear that the religious thought of the Founding Fathers, while interesting in itself, is not particularly relevant to the question of whether or not America is a Christian nation. There are other more pertinent questions we might ask. What did the people who ratified and applied the Constitution believe about the Christian character of the nation? What distinctively Christian impulses or thought modes governed the apparently construction of an apparently secular Constitution? Of course, as I argued previously, the question of first importance needs to be why do we care at all what eighteenth century Americans thought and, if it is important, what is a responsible way to apply that information? Still, Stephen Prothero comes closest to providing answers about the Christian character of the republic from its outset, doing so in a way that displays a delightful penchant for Christian paradox:

There is logic not only to President John Adams’s affirmation in the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796 that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion” but also to the Supreme Court’s 1892 observation that “this is a Christian nation.” In short, the long-standing debate about whether the United States is secular or religious is fundamentally confused. Thanks to the establishment clause, the US government is secular by law; thanks to the free exercise clause, American society is religious by choice. Ever since George Washington put his hand on a Bible and swore to uphold a godless Constitution, the United States has been both staunchly secular and resolutely religious.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

J. W. McGarvey: On Providence

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey's Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

J. W. McGarvey believes in the power of stories. In introducing the first of six consecutive sermons on individual cases of conversion, McGarvey justifies the minute examination of figures in Acts: "Now, the Lord knew, before men discovered it, the power there is in examples to make a matter plain, and also to stimulate men to action." True to this conviction, McGarvey spends much of his time in each of the following sermons simply retelling the story as it appears in Scripture. There is obvious value in this, especially as there is in modern preaching a tendency to lean too heavily on application. Perhaps the gradual shift away from a more narrative style typified in McGarvey has contributed to the rampant biblical illiteracy of this present generation. Regardless, McGarvey's commitment to the power of examples is not limited to conversions in Acts, and he immediately follows that series with a series of three sermons on providence which follow much the same pattern.

"God is not mocked." This is perhaps not where most, if any, modern preachers would ground a lengthy series on providence, but for McGarvey the text functions perfectly. He examines it and determines that to mock God is to attempt to circumvent providence:

This he lays down as the universal law of God's government over us, and when he says, "Be not deceived" about this, "God is not mocked," he means to inform us that, if we should think that we can sow one thing and reap another we would be thinking that we had the power to mock God--that is, to defy him by overriding his plans and arrangements. Men are very apt to think they can do that. They do so many things by means of their perseverance and determination that they are very apt to conclude they can do anything they choose, whether it pleases God or not; that they can go on trampling God's laws under their feet as long as they choose, and still come out well. Paul knew very well that men were prone to deceive themselves into such an idea as this, and hence he says, "Be not deceived; God is not mocked. For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

With this understanding of mocking God established, McGarvey offers us three stories over the course of three sermons which examine the character of providence. He begins, unsurprisingly, with the story of Ahab in which he establishes, among other things, that providence is patience. McGarvey retells the story of Ahab as essentially the tale of "a spoiled child," at one point literally describing Ahab as throwing a temper-tantrum up in his bedroom, refusing to eat, to bath, or to get out of bed until his "mommy" comes in and gives him what he wants. What he wants, a piece of land that isn't his, he gets through means of violent coercion. No sooner has he claimed his prize, however, than the Lord makes a declaration of providence through Elijah: "And thus saith the Lord God before whom I stand, Dogs shall lick thy blood, even thine, O king, where they licked the blood of Naboth." Ahab was scared sick. But, as so often happens, years went by and time and apathy worked to make Ahab forget the ominous promises of God. He went on with his life, secure in his amnesia, waging war, forging alliances, and belligerently ignoring the prophets of God. Lo and behold, years after his offense and in an apparently unrelated military incident, "it was proved that God could not be mocked." Ahab died and dogs lapped up his blood.

The second sermon centered on the story of Joseph, whose narrative is so familiar that it would be imprudent to retell it here (in direct contradiction to my earlier exhortation to preachers to retell the familiar stories). Here, again, McGarvey makes a point of demonstrating the patience of providence, noting that, after all, God could have "wrought one great miracle to translate Jacob and his children through the air, and plant them on the soil of Egypt." Certainly that would have been faster. But, somewhat unexpectedly, McGarvey sees in the actual operations of God in the story of Joseph the truth that providence is mysterious. He notes that God did not use a series of neat, clean "links" in his providential chain. Quite the contrary, "some of them are desperately wicked deeds, some of them are good deeds." Some are moments of inspiring fidelity, others of nauseating infidelity. It was a providential plan which involved the wickedness of Joseph's brothers, their suffering under the guilt of what they had done, the harsh famine that drove them to Egypt, and the blessings they found there. McGarvey notes that much of what the characters experienced must have felt like the severest punishment, and he imagines that many in his audience "whom God has disciplined, whether less or more severely than he did these men." For them he has a message about providence, "The same chain of providence which brought them unexpectedly into Egypt, had fitted them for the high honors which were yet to crown their names." However stern the workings of God may have seemed, "the kind Redeemer whom you rejected, and sold, as it were, to strangers, stands ready to forgive you more completely and perfectly than Joseph forgave his brethren."

Finally, McGarvey concludes with a sermon on Esther. He of course reinforces the previous ideas about providence, but he sees in Esther a unique opportunity to demonstrate that truth that providence is mundane. Esther is the perfect story to demonstrate this fact because, unlike the stories of Joseph and Ahab, "the story of Esther follows without even the name of God." Yet, McGarvey believes that it is impossible to read Esther without seeing God and His providential guidance writ large across the narrative. The fact that Esther was brought before the king to replace Vashti, that the king had trouble sleeping, that Haman arrived just moments too late to have Mordecai hanged, that the king extended the scepter a second time to Esther. All these coincidences--"you call it an accident, perhaps"--had they not worked together in harmony, God's will may have been thwarted, a possibility McGarvey is not ready to admit. Yet none of these is a great, spectacular miracle. They are great and spectacular, especially when viewed as an integrated story working toward divine ends, but they are certainly not miraculous. The same was the case for Joseph, whose purpose was achieved "without the intervention of miraculous power except here and there; for in all this long chain of causes God touched the links only twice, directly...all the rest were the most natural things in the world." In fact, contrary to popular perception, there is a strong sense in which much of the Old Testament is dominated by a providence which works itself out through natural rather than supernatural mechanisms. Mechanism is perhaps a good word, as McGarvey compares providence to the workings of the wondrous new technologies of his day:

A few days ago I stood in the great fair at Chicago, before a weaving machine--a wonder. There were coming out beneath the shuttles bands of silk about as wide as my hand, and perhaps a foot long, four or five coming out at one time at different parts of the loom, woven with the most beautiful figures in divers colors. One of them was "Home, Sweet Home," the words woven by that machine, and above the words was the music. There was woven at the top a beautiful cottage, trees in the yard, bee-gums, and children at play, and down below the words and music, a lone man sat, with his face resting on his hand, thinking about that distant home. All coming out of that machine. The shuttles were flying, threads were twisting and dodging about, the machine was rattling, and no human band on it, yet there the song, the pictures, the music, were coming out. Did they come out by accident? By an accidental combination of circumstances? I could not, to save my life, tell how it was done, but I saw a pattern hanging up at one side with many holes through it, and I was told that that pattern was ruling the work of that intricate machinery, and leading to that result. I was bound to believe it. Now you could make me believe that this beautiful piece of work came out of the loom by accident, and without any man directing and planning it, just as easily as you can make me believe that this chain of circumstances, of facts, bringing about, in accordance with God's faithful promises, the deliverance of his people, was accomplished without him. God was there, my brethren. And just as little can I believe that all those intricate circumstances in my life and yours, which shape and mould and direct and guide us, which take us when we are crude and wicked men, and mould and shape us and grow us up until we are ripe and ready to be gathered into the eternal harvest--that all this is human, or all blind force, or accident, and that there is no hand of God in it.

The purpose here is not to strip the wonder and mystery out of providence, as it has already been seen that McGarvey believes that the mundane workings of God are in fact the most mysterious and wonderful of all. In truth, the purpose is to reassure his audience that God is in fact working deliberately in the lives of his people, whether they recognize it or not, whether they are surrounded by supernatural miracles or apparent coincidences. It is a message of hope for people who were living in a culture where every new Christian movement tried to be more attuned to the supernatural than the last. The spiritualism and Pentecostalism of the early twentieth century was simmering somewhere just beneath the surface. McGarvey's message was that Christians may still have faith in an active, engaged, loving God who is guiding human affairs, even without the ostentation of outpoured miracles. "My friends, God is dealing with you to-day, to-night. You can not see his hand; you may not, as in this story, hear his name; but he is here. Will you believe it?"

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

J. W. McGarvey: On Baptism

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey's Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

I have heard people say, "Bro. McGarvey, I would like your preaching better if you would just preach Christ crucified, and not speak of baptism so often. Well, I like to oblige my friends, but I can't go along that way.

While I, along with many of McGarvey's audience, would have preferred less time be dedicated to "that old hackneyed theme" of baptism, McGarvey makes a compelling argument that baptism is a part of the Gospels and, as such, the gospel cannot be preached without it. So, whether excessive or not, McGarvey devotes much of his following month of sermons to baptism, it purpose and proper method. McGarvey correctly notes that the necessity of baptism is not really the primary question; in his day, he insists, "you can not go into any church on earth except that of the Quakers, without being baptized." Whether or not that is technically true, there is great truth in the generalization both in his time and in our own when the overwhelming majority of Christians belong to churches which continue to emphasize baptism ("that ordinance which the church calls baptism") as a rite of conversion and consecration. What is really up for debate is when, how, and why people are to be baptized, a subject which McGarvey treats with all the titillating rhetorical flourish of Common Sense induction:

If my mind were unsettled in regard to baptism, I would take this course:--I would take my own New Testament, and, beginning at the first chapter of Matthew, I would read it all the way through, watching for that word `baptism'; and everywhere I found it, I would examine carefully the passage in which I found it, and learn all I could about it; and when I got through I would put all of this together, and I would make up my mind on the whole subject of baptism that way. Then I would feel sure that it was God teaching me, and that he would approve my decision.

As riveting as it would be to follow McGarvey on this journey on which he dutifully leads his audience, it is perhaps more productive to consider the ways in which his sermons do not conform to our contemporary expectations. The debate surrounding baptism has been raging for centuries; McGarvey points out that it even antedates the Stone-Campbell Movement, shockingly. Yet, in a very real sense controversy surrounding baptism has played a crucial role in defining the Churches of Christ over and against all other denominations, perhaps even more so than other credo-baptist groups like the Baptists. The language which predominated the Church of Christ dogma until very recently is that "baptism is necessary for salvation." Rejection of the truth of this proposition defined all denominations against the truth of the "undenominational" Churches of Christ, and modifications or qualifications of it positioned those within relative to the core orthodox constituency.

McGarvey may or may not have agreed with that phrasing, though I imagine someone specializing in his work could quickly settle the question. Certainly he sees baptism as an essential part of the conversion process, a statement he supposes he makes unanimously with the rest of Christianity. More important, or at least more interesting, than what McGarvey may believe about that language, however, is the fact that he never uses it or any analogous language in his sermon on baptism. Rather than calling it a condition for salvation, he calls it "a most solemn, interesting and precious ordinance...the most solemn and significant ordinance ever appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ." He doesn't speak of it as a salvific work but calls it instead "a sacred and a blessed privileged." One moment he stridently argues, "We can not overestimate the value of it. We can not consent to speak of it as a mere external act." Immediately afterwards he calls it the next best thing to being able to go to Palestine and lie down in the tomb of Jesus. It is a spiritual act of communion with Christ which we are both commanded to do as an act of obedience and privileged to do as an act of worship. Whatever else may be said of it, this is certainly not the mechanistic soteriology which has been the fodder for caricatures of the Stone-Campbell Movement, stereotypes to which the Churches of Christ has lamentably conformed.

Even as McGarvey insists that to try to alienate baptism from conversion is to take a knife to the text of Scripture--and not without substantial merit--the remaining sermons play out a more nuanced view of the nature and efficacy of baptism which is distinct from but not necessarily irreconcilable with many understandings of baptism which continue to prevail. When he retells the story of Paul's conversion, he not so subtly critiques the endless spate of questions which dominate the controversy surrounding baptism:

This [vision of Jesus] caused him to believe, and when he believed, his faith was that which threw him into the agony of repentance. Then, when he heard the word, "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on His name," he does not stop to raise any questions. This thing of raising questions about the ordinance of the Lord--why is it necessary to be baptized? Is it absolutely essential to be baptized? Are our sins certainly washed away when we are baptized?--the time to raise such questions as these had not come yet. This was a time of simple faith. Men believed and accepted what the messengers of God said, just as they said it. That is faith. The very moment he heard the command, he arose from his prostrate position and was baptized. Now he is satisfied.

If not on the multitudinous trivialities surrounding baptism, what would McGarvey have us focus on? In the conversion of the Eunuch, McGarvey invites his audience to recast the narrative as if it were happening to them. In doing so he stresses as much the "special providence" at work in conversion and the faith by which he "began to see a great light" as there is on baptism. In all cases, the uniting theme is the "glorious Redeemer dying for the sins of men" and "the promise of the Lord" into which the eunuch is inaugurated. For Cornelius, McGarvey stresses that as great a man as he was on his own, he was insufficient; "he lacked something yet that was to be supplied." What was supplied, through the providence of God and the preaching of Peter, was a completion of Cornelius' faith so that it became an active faith, a faith productive of repentance and obedience.

These themes continue to express themselves in the conversion story of Lydia, and they are themes which ought to critique the way many in the Churches of Christ continue to focus on baptism as a polemical rather than a pastoral goal. First that baptism is not a work exclusively or even substantially of our own doing and that room for providence must be made at every step along the way:

I wonder if God ever does anything like this for you and me. It is the word of the Lord that conveys to our hearts the mind and power and will of heaven; but how did it happen that that particular preacher preached to us? How did he happen to be there, and how did I happen to be there, when my heart was opened? Oh, my friends, if you had an inspired writer, his mind enlightened by Him who sees all things, you might have as strange a story written about yourselves as was recorded about Lydia. I imagine that wherever in the broad earth there is a poor struggling soul, wrapt in darkness and struggling for light, sacrificing self in order to please God, God has an eye on that person; He hears those prayers, and He will over-rule and over-turn and direct, until the truth shall, some way or other, reach that soul.

Second that baptism is not some self-standing, independent rite but primarily the expression of an active, responsive, obedient faith:

Now then, when it is all through, when Lydia and those women accept the truth, and are baptized then and there without delay, showing how willing they were to walk in the way of the Lord, Luke looks back over the journey, the long, weary labor, the doubt and the uncertainty, and he sees it all explained. The Lord was hearing the prayers of these women, and in all of these strange movements He was simply reaching out toward the heart of Lydia and the others, that He might open their hearts to receive and obey the Lord.

And finally that faith along with repentance and baptism as consequences are all Christ-centered. It is Christ alone which may be appropriately said is necessary for salvation:

It was necessary, if Lydia...should be saved, that she should hear of Christ, that she should believe in Him, and that she should come to Him as the mediator between God and men, to obtain the forgiveness of her sins. This she did at once--as soon as she heard the Gospel message.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Myth of the Founding Fathers: Illusions of Innocence

It would seem strange to me to "review" a book that is now nearly twenty-five years old, and so I won't try. Still, Illusions of Innocence is a work which demands regular revisiting both as a cogent historical analysis and an insightful critique of American culture. It was in the former capacity that I picked it up recently, planning to reread portions while I waited for a new book to arrive and satisfy my thirst for historical inquiry. Yet, as I flipped through the pages I found myself drawn in by the strong undercurrent of criticism which it offers for America's ongoing self-image. It is, therefore, with regard to how Hughes and Allen's work speaks to contemporary issues that I wish to turn, specifically with what may be said about the recent explosion of interest in the founding fathers.

The authors' purpose in Illusions of Innocence is simple yet fundamental: to examine how primitivism functioned in American society throughout history. While the focus is on the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, they do not shy away from stepping beyond their stated scope into the twentieth century. Primitivism may be loosely defined as the belief in a sacred, universal primordium which stands outside of time and outside of human influence and to which it is imperative that humanity return. The authors identify two ways in which primitivism has functioned. On the one hand, the primordium can in judgment of the present and act as a guard against any attempts to universalize the particulars of a given culture. In American political thought, this can be typified in Jefferson and the belief that there is a fundamental, natural man who has essential, unalienable rights which transcend time and culture. On the other hand, a group may claim to have definitively captured the primordium, thus identifying their own particular features with universal, sacred truth. Again using American political thought, there is the belief that because America has first and best recognized and enshrined those natural, fundamental rights of man America therefore has the right to impose its representation of those values on other cultures (making the world safe for Democracy). In short, one either believed that the primordium could not be recovered and everyone should therefore be free to approximate it as each saw fit or believed instead that the primordium had been recovered and everyone should be compelled to conform to it.

For early American political theorists--the likes of Jefferson, Adams, and Paine--the primordium which provided the sacred tool for ordering the present was man in his natural state, straight from the hand of the "God of Nature." For the Puritans, the primordium was the covenanted nation of Israel. For most indigenous American religious groups, it was the early church. While Americans often disagreed on precisely what the sacred primitive moment outside of history was, depending on where their allegiances lay, they all agreed that there was such a primordium to be sought after with varying degrees of success. Hughes and Allen cite Sidney E. Mead's The Lively Experiment to summarize the three characteristic assumptions of American religion: "the idea of a pure and normative beginnings to which return was possible; the idea that the intervening history was largely that of aberrations and corruptions which was better ignored; and the idea of building anew in the American wilderness on the true and ancient foundations."

In the recent American political climate, a new (or at least revitalized) primordium has been identified and seized upon by Americans, particularly Republicans. Ron Paul says, "One thing is clear: The Founding Fathers never intended a nation where citizens would pay nearly half of everything they earn to the government." Newt Gingrich muses, "I think Jefferson or George Washington would have rather strongly discouraged you from growing marijuana and their techniques with dealing with it would have been rather more violent than our current government." Michelle Bachmann humorously insists, "Well if you look at one of our Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams...He tirelessly worked throughout his life to make sure that we did in fact one day eradicate slavery." Appeals to the founding fathers and the Constitution--which, like the Bible, is assumed to be self-interpreting--have exploded onto the political scene as Republicans seek to root and therefore legitimate their beliefs in a mythic, sacred past.

What's more, it is working, and why shouldn't it? Primitivism has always had a tremendous rhetorical effect for Americans because we share in a cultural assumption of exceptionalism, a belief that we stand outside of and in judgment of the profane history and culture of the world. The Puritans founded a fresh and efficient government on primitivist pleas. The Disciples created the fifth largest American denomination of their time in a single generation on the basis of a restoration of the primordium. The South seceded from the Union with primitivism at the heart of its identity. It should be unsurprising then that contemporary politicians should seize on the sacred founders of American civil religion--so eerily analogous to the apostles in the Christian religion--who stand in judgment of our present apostasy. Republicans, thankfully, have seen "the normative beginnings to which return was possible," have identified that "the intervening history was largely that of aberrations and corruptions which was better ignored," and are selling to the public "the idea of building anew...on the true and ancient foundations."

The parallels between the way the founding fathers have been seized upon as a sacred American ideal and the way primitivism has constantly manifest in American religion ought to be immediately striking. This only heighten the irony, then, when Hughes and Allen quote from Carl L. Becker's Heavenly City, in which Becker offers a criticism of the Enlightenment thinkers whose thought undergirds the Revolutionary experiment. The same criticism which Becker levels against the founders (among others) has an obvious and direct application to those who marshal their memory to their cause today:

...they are deceiving us, these philosopher-historians...But we can easily forgive them for that, since they are, even more effectively deceiving themselves. They do not know that...[what] they are looking for is just their own image, that the principles they are bound to find are the very one they start with. That is the trick they play on the dead.

Of course, Becker is entirely correct. They do deceive themselves more thoroughly than anyone else. This is precisely the reason why the frequent appeals to history on the part of their opponents fall on deaf ears. Just like Disciples and Mormons and Puritans before them, history has no currency in the founding fathers zeal because the founding fathers stand apart from history, as do their modern proponents who have recaptured their values. The ideology which has been discovered in the fathers is an ideology which is immune to the criticism of reason or history; it is the critic of reason and history. It doesn't matter if in a strictly academic sense John Quincy Adams is not a founding father. Insofar as he is representative of the primordial spirit of the fathers, the invocation of his name is appropriate. It doesn't matter that Jefferson and Washington (and other tobacco lords) probably would not have worked for the violent suppression of marijuana growers in actuality because the ideology they have become synonymous with would be amenable to such action in the present context. Ironically, with the same primordium in mind, Ron Paul can ignore history and context and the changes each have wrought in the way government must operate and make the historically defensible assertion that the founding fathers never conceived of income taxes in their present form.

The purpose here is not to climb up on a high horse to point and laugh at the ignorant Republicans with their primordial myth. It certainly isn't do endorse the Democrats as an alternative. (Like David Lipscomb, I foolishly believe I stand outside of such political partisanship.) In fact, the Democrats have an equal and opposite myth of progress in which they universalize a particular vision of the future rather than of the sacred past to which all reasonable, humane people must attain. While the route is more circumspect, they too--like most Americans--find their way back to grounding this formative myth in a primordium of human rights (intrinsic and apart from the circumstantial trappings of history). Instead, the purpose is to identify, and in doing so hopefully mitigate, the impact of defining myths in our culture. It is to help to reform the appropriate questions, distancing ourselves from the all to easy "Is that really what the founding fathers thought" and getting to the more basic "Should we even care what the founding fathers thought?"

To be sure Hughes and Allen do not want to assert that there are no universals or that they are totally inaccessible, though surely there is no small number of academics today who would agree with one or the other of those premises. Instead, the ongoing purpose of their work and the intent of this reflection on the founding father hysteria is to provide "checks and balances" against too nearly identifying any one person or groups ideology with the universal. Here, perhaps, we have Roger Williams as a model with whom we may critically interact:

For Williams, the radical finitude of human existence, entailing inevitable failures in understanding and action, makes restoration of necessity an open-ended concept. The absolute, universal ideal existed for Williams without question. But the gap between the universal and the particular, between the absolute and the finite, was so great that it precluded any one-on-one identification of the particular with the universal...the best one could do was approximate the universal, an approximation that occurred only through a diligent search for truth.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

World's Third Spermiest Cow Dies

Let me share the abridged Reuters eulogy:

Dairy cows across the world are mourning the loss of "Jocko", ranked as the world's third most-potent breeding bull, who has died of natural causes leaving behind as many as 400,000 offspring.

Jocko Besne had an industrious 17-year career donating some 1.7 million sperm straws that were used in France and abroad to keep alive the Prim'Holstein cattle strain, the main strain of black-and-white milking cow used in France....[Creavia] said it believed he had could have spawned between 300,000 and 400,000 offspring. Officially he is credited as being the father of a mere 161,888 cattle in 21 countries as not all nations have kept records.

Jocko was allowed to retire last year and died earlier this month. Rather than becoming prize beef, his body is to be sent to Paris' natural history museum where his prowess will be studied.

A moment of silence please.

J. W. McGarvey: On Repentance

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey's Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

In all likelihood, the title of McGarvey’s sermon “Conditions of Forgiveness” would have chaffed against many nineteenth century Christians the way that it would grate on modern ears. No one likes the idea, much less the explicit language, of conditional forgiveness. We prefer to think of salvation in terms of “a free gift,” without delving too deeply into how the offering and the reception of that gift might play out practically. In truth, however, McGarvey’s points are not all that radical and are probably less so by modern standards than nineteenth century ones. His three conditions of forgiveness are faith, repentance, and baptism, and he makes very clear that belief that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” is the bedrock on which the other two rest. He makes clear, both in this sermon and the following sermon (“Faith,” which was treated in the previous entry), that he falls well within the bounds of Protestant sole fide dogma.

McGarvey insists, nevertheless, that faith must be an active faith. Just as in faith, Enoch walked with God, Noah built his ark, and Abraham uprooted his family, the faith of the Christian must be productive or else, in the words of James, it is dead. In view of this, he launches proudly into what amounts to a month long defense of his belief that faith must manifest itself in practice. Even to an audience of Disciples who must have largely shared his beliefs about the necessary outgrowths of faith, McGarvey admits that nothing is more difficult than translating that belief into action:

The greatest obstacle to the salvation of men is the obstinacy of the human will. It is not very difficult, in this country particularly, to induce men to believe the Gospel--to plant faith within the soul. Indeed, we may say it is difficult in our blessed land for a man to be an unbeliever. Multitudes of men try to be, and fail; and some women do the same. And even when they think that they have succeeded in persuading themselves that there is no truth in the Gospel or in the Bible, often, when they come to face death, their unbelief vanishes, and they find themselves among the number who believe and tremble. Neither is it very difficult to persuade men to be baptized, when they become penitent believers. I have never yet met with a person, who was a genuine believer and sincerely penitent, that raised any question about being baptized. They are ready to go where they are led.

The difficulty is to induce them to repent. I have often, in my preaching experience, studied and prayed and reflected and read, to find some way by which I could have more power in inducing people to repent. I would rather have that power than all the other powers and gifts that could be bestowed upon me as a preacher. But we modern preachers need not be discouraged, I think, on account of our weakness here, because we find, on reading the Gospels, that our Saviour experienced the same difficulty. When He was bidding farewell, or about to bid farewell, to Galilee, where the most of His mighty works were done, and upbraided the cities whose people had heard Him most, it was not because they did not believe; it was not because they refused to be baptized by John; but it was because they did not repent. With all the tremendous efforts that He had put forth to bring them to repentance, He had failed. Not surprising, then, that there should be found the same difficulty in the way of modern preachers.

The same is obviously true in our own day, and McGarvey’s specific critiques of America still ring true. The profession of belief continues to be widespread, and many would argue (though with diminishing success) that it is difficult to be a genuine atheist in American culture. There is an abundance of faith in the States, at least faith defined as a profession of belief. What Americans lack—and what perhaps all Christians have struggled with—is manifesting that belief in practice. Looking at Jesus’ critique of the unrepentant Galileans, McGarvey imagines that much the same criticism will be made of America. That is why he concludes “that this city, and this State, and this country of ours, are the worst places on this broad earth from which to go to hell…Why? Because, if that which has been done in your midst had been done in Sodom, it would have lived.”

What McGarvey is calling for is not merely proliferation of good works, and any accusation of merit based salvation is either uninformed or malicious. He goes into minute detail, risking the damning accusation of being one who likes “to multiply words,” to explain that good works may be the fruits of repentance and sorrow over sin may be its cause but that the true essence of repentance is a change of disposition. In many ways, his view of repentance mirrors that of his understanding of faith. To come to believe is to shift the mind from confidence in itself about things seen to confidence in God about things unseen. This same transition happens in the will through repentance. It turns from an impulse toward sin to an impulse toward righteousness.

When we take this understanding of repentance as situated less in behavior than in the will, we begin to find grounds on which to approach understanding in Christian ethical discourse. I am by no means one to shy away from the rigorous and frequent examination of moral behavior, and I as often as not disagree stridently with those around who seem to propound a Christian ethos (particularly when it smacks of jingoism, chauvinism, or militarism of any kind). But Christians need to realize that to repent from one’s sins is not to receive an infallible understanding of right and wrong. It is only to commit oneself to pursuing the right instead of the wrong. I will never stop trying to convince my fellow Christians who are politicians or soldiers that their vocations are incompatible with Christian ethics. I will never stop combating the notion that abortion can be morally justified through appeals to exigent circumstances. This is in no sense an appeal for ethical agnosticism. At the same time, we all need to understand that, just as a faith in a common God does not automatically equal a perfect understanding of that one God, our common repentance from evil does not automatically ensure a perfect and common understanding of what the good is to which our will is now directed.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lawmakers Resort to Schoolyard Antics

Throwing caution to the wind--not to mention principle and process--several lawmakers have decided that the most effective political tool is sarcasm. A number of female lawmakers around the country have been proposing facetious bills in what is best described as a legislative effort to prove "anything you can do, I can do better:"

Democratic Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner is the third female lawmaker to introduce a bill that would limit men's access to Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs to make a statement about the dozens of anti-abortion bills that have passed statehouses around the country over the last year...Turner's bill would mandate that men seeking Viagra be "tested for heart problems, receive counseling about possible side effects and receive information about 'pursuing celibacy as a viable lifestyle choice.'"

Turner said on MSNBC Monday that the bill is about showing "men as much love in the reproductive health arena as they have shown us over the years. My Senate Bill 307 is all about the love and making sure we look out for men's sexual health."

The fact that the public trust in their various elected officials and their confidence in the ability of government to be efficient and productive are at startling lows does not seem to bother these lawmakers. When asked why she would waste congressional time by proposing legislation which she herself admits is repugnant simply because other lawmakers are wasting congressional time by proposing legislation she finds repugnant, Turner responded, "Because my mama always taught me that two wrongs do make a right." Or, at least, what else could she say?

Trustees Continue to Rationalize Paterno Firing

The Penn State board of trustees are at it again, reverse-engineering excuses for firing Joe Paterno in the frenzied weeks following the Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Following the tried-and-true policy of shoot first, ask questions later, the powers that be chose to dismiss Paterno unceremoniously over the phone in the middle of the season rather than allowing him to retire a few months later (or even giving him the simple courtesy of firing him in person). When we last heard from the board of trustees, they explained to an expectant public that the firing had taken place because they did not feel that Paterno could effectively carry on as coach in the midst of the scandal. "Paterno could not be expected to continue to effectively perform his duties and that it was in the best interests of the University to make an immediate change in his status."

An outraged but reasonable public and an abysmal conclusion to the football season (8-1 before Paterno's dismissal; 1-3 after) combined to make that kind of rationalization insufficient. Now the board of trustees is taking a more aggressive tack, claiming that Paterno's fulfillment of his legal duties actually amounted to a failure on his part, demonstrating the remarkable ease with which the living are willing to speak ill of the dead. "We determined that his decision to do his minimum legal duty and not to do more to follow up constituted a failure of leadership by Coach Paterno." In other words, that Paterno did what was required of him and did not have the benefit of hindsight to indicate that he would be required to do more, represented the leadership deficiencies in a man who had been a leader in the entire State College community for decades.

According to trustee Keith Eckel, “Many people have indicated that they did not understand, and this is our last attempt to try to make it as clear as possible.” Curiously, many people still don't understand even this last attempt; if this is as clear as it is possible to make the motivation, that says something about the clarity of the trustees thinking, both at the time and as they try to reconstruct a viable excuse in retrospect. Paterno's lawyer, Wick Sollers, is among those who think that this newest explanation only makes clearer the true, rather than the professed, motivation for Paterno's firing: "to deflect criticism of their leadership by trying to focus the blame on Joe Paterno. This is not fair to Joe’s legacy; it is not consistent with the facts; and it does not serve the best interests of the University...The Board’s latest statement reaffirms that they did not conduct a thorough investigation of their own and engaged in a rush to judgment." Sollers is unsure why the board "believes it is necessary and appropriate to explain—for the fourth or fifth time—why they fired Joe Paterno so suddenly and unjustifiably on Nov. 9, 2011."

Maybe it would benefit everyone to return to the moment of Paterno's untimely demise (the one before his ultimate untimely demise) and consider what the board had to say about its motives then. "'I’m not sure I can tell you specifically,' board vice chair John Surma replied when asked at a packed news conference why Paterno had to be fired immediately. 'In our view, we thought change now was necessary.'" There you have it, the unvarnished truth. The board had no idea why they needed to dismiss Paterno without investigation, without cause, and without the coolness of reasoning that even a moment's delay may have prompted. They felt it needed to be done, because they felt the rising heat of controversy and felt compelled to make a burnt offering of the choicest calf. Everything that came after that has been an effort to self-justify in the cold light of hindsight.

The sick irony, sickest of all ironies, is that from the grave Paterno is proving a model of leadership for the board. When he looked back on his actions with the benefit of full knowledge and found them wanting, he admitted his shortcomings like a man and expressed regret. Would that the board could emulate that kind of leadership.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

J. W. McGarvey: On Trust in God

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey's Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

Members of the Stone-Campbell Movement are often accused, now and in times past, of gross overconfidence both with regard to humanity’s ability to know facts about God and our role in our own salvation. There is a degree to which both these accusations have merit, and J. W. McGarvey often does as much to confirm them as to refute them. In a pair of sermons preached on redemption and forgiveness, however, he goes a long way toward reaffirming not only the limits of human knowledge but the limits our redemptive powers. In the process he carves out a place in restorationist thought for both human ignorance and divine agency. Consider this abbreviation of his first sermon, “Redemption in Christ” where the dual theme shows through clearly:

As sins are acts performed in the past, they can not be undone. A man may as well attempt to snatch the sun out of the sky, as to undo a single act, good or bad, that he has ever done. And, inasmuch as suffering is the inevitable consequence of sin, it is a most serious question how it is possible for men ever to escape the penalty due to their sins. I presume that this is the most serious problem ever considered by the minds of created beings, and perhaps by the mind of God, if God stops to consider any question.

Men commit crimes against human law, and escape the punishment by outrunning the sheriff, by bribing the jury, by breaking jail; by a great variety of corrupt methods which they employ. But there is no similar way of escaping the penalties that are assessed against our sins by God. We can not run away from Him. A part of that penalty is within our souls, and we can not run away from ourselves. We can not deceive anybody in this matter, because the eye of Him against whom we have sinned searches us through and through. Death is a very swift messenger when he starts after us, and when God calls on the Great Day we shall all appear before Him in judgment. How then can we escape that eternal penalty for our sins, which was the subject of the two discourses last Lord's day…

What is, then, the explanation? Well, I don't know. I don't know. I don't believe any other man knows what the reasoning of God was on this subject, by which he felt compelled, according to His own infinite nature, to refuse to pardon a single sin except through the blood of His Son. I don't know. I don't know how many sermons I have heard, trying to explain it. I don't know how many pages--heavy pages--in many books, I have read, from some of the ablest men in the world, trying to set it forth; but I have never yet been able to see it; and if any of you have, I congratulate you.

God's thoughts are not as our thoughts on many things. His ways are far above our ways, as heaven above the earth, and we may not expect to understand the reasons in His mind for the wondrous works of His prudence and mercy. I think, on all such themes, we are prone to look at the subject from the wrong point of view. We try to get at God's ideas about it. It is enough for us to see the part which addresses itself to man. There are multitudes of things that God does in nature, and in the providence that He exercises over the world, the divine reasons for which it is utterly impossible for any human mind to penetrate; but it is not difficult, generally, when we look at these same inscrutable workings and ways of providence, to see their effects, and to know by their effects that there is wisdom and prudence, as the apostle says in my text, behind them all.

Note that when it comes to our own means of redemption, McGarvey is not so much confident in human nature as he is confident that we can neither understand nor accomplish on our own the great plan of redemption which has been worked out mysteriously by God. He summarizes in his following sermon: “He it is who forgives. He it is who blots the record out of the book that He keeps. He it is that throws [our sins] away. It is He who will remember them no more forever.” Human efforts to escape the consequences of sin are themselves as sinful as they are futile. It is in the hands of God alone to redeem his people and forgive their sins; it is for us to be the delighted, unworthy recipients of that gift, for which we will never understand in this life fully divine means or motivations.

Now, so as to avoid the accusation that I am remaking McGarvey in my own image, it is important to recognize that his appeals to human ignorance are incomplete, and he gradually moves from his own profession of ignorance into declarations of confidence in the Christian’s ability to fully grasp the promises of God, thus allowing each to be assured of forgiveness. Moreover, he offers such a confident view of humanity’s cooperative role in their redemption that he all but does away with any divine role in the process of sanctification. Yet, both of these impulses need to be understood historically as reactionary statements, rhetorical flourishes against the “very doleful life…that low ground of doubt, and gloom, and hopelessness” that is Reformed thought on conversion. Whatever his anti-Calvinist polemics, he still supposes that “Paul was no more able to look in and see how God's mind worked out the problem, than you or I” and begs Christians to “to come and cast yourselves into the deep flood of the Saviour's dying love.”

Neither his endorsement of human ignorance nor his confidence in the ability to interpret and understand divine promises, neither his appeal to divine agency nor his exhortation for Christians to take hold of their own salvation are ends in themselves. They are all impulses toward a common theme to him which is foundational for his soteriology: the trustworthiness of God. This theme finds its culmination in the latter sermon "Faith," in which McGarvey tries to define the causes and consequences of our "confidence as to things hoped for; conviction as to things not seen." He launches from this scriptural definition into an examination of the so-called Heroes of Faith and discovers therein a common thread. Faith in God comes "not by reasoning about it; not by dreaming; not in answer to prayer" but through divine self-revelation. It is on these grounds alone that Christians can be confident in their faith. In fact, he scoffs at the idea that we would need any assurance beyond God's own testimony of the objects of faith. "Why, my friends, if God's word will not do it, what power is there in heaven or earth that you can conceive of, that could?"

The readers (as I’m sure was the case with the listeners in 1893) leaves with a confidence that no matter what they can or cannot do, no matter they can or cannot know, they can trust the steadfast promises of God. McGarvey reminds his readers that when they put money in a bank, they trust, on the basis of the character of the bank, that the money will still be there when they come back. When they make a contract with a person, they trust it will be honored based on the character of the signatories. How much more is a supremely trustworthy God worthy of our trust? So when McGarvey asks how we can know that we are redeemed, how we can be confident in our salvation, he has his set up his answer well:

Now there is a way, and it is this--God has said, over and over again in his blessed written word, in the plainest possible language, what you and I shall do in order to forgiveness of our sins; what we shall think; what we shall feel; what we shall believe; what we shall do; and He pledges His own blessed word that when we do these He will forgive us. When a man knows these things, and complies with them to the very last point, he has God's pledged word that his sins are forgiven--the word of Him who can not lie. Here is something solid to build on, the pledged word of the living God. This makes it certain.

We can certainly quibble with the language here, about complying with everything “to the very last point,” but in doing so we miss the message. When we rely on our feelings, on a vague sense of forgiveness, to assure us that our sins are remitted we make the same gross error as those who believe they are forgiven because they have reasoned what they need to do in order to get God to do what they want Him to do, balancing a rationalistic salvation ledger as it were. In either case, assurance is located in the sinner, in the heart or in the mind. Insofar as both are susceptible to error and doubt, Christians set themselves up for failure. We can have confidence in our forgiveness and redemption not because we feel it or have reasoned it out but because God is faithful; He has told us that forgiveness is there and that, if we seek, we will find. Whatever else may be said, that is an optimism with a sure foundation.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

J. W. McGarvey: Addendum on Sin

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey's Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

Previously, J. W. McGarvey’s sermon on sin was examined, the main purpose of which was to employ hell as a vehicle through which we could begin to express the enormity of sin. McGarvey, of course, did not leave his congregants with nothing but the magnitude of sin to weigh on their hearts. In a series sermons focused on redemption, forgiveness, faith, and conversion (all of which will be addressed in time), he offers his listeners the path from death into life. At the conclusion of the following week’s sermon, entitled “Redemption in Christ,” McGarvey does offer at throwback to the theme of the magnitude of sin. Much as he suggested that sin could be better grasped by first grasping hell, he suggests that if we truly grasp the significance of the cross we can begin to grasp the atrociousness of sin:

If sin is of such a nature that God Himself, with all His infinite wisdom, and all His undying love toward our race, could find no way to redeem us from it, without the shedding of the blood of His own dear Son, the heart's blood of Him who came down from Heaven to endure the ignominious death of the cross for this great end, what an awful thing sin must be! Just think of it. And let me ask you another question in connection with this. Was the evil consequence which God foresaw that sin would bring upon us, some little thing, like a scratch upon your hand? Was sin a mere peccadillo? Was it a mere mistake that could bring but little pain upon us? Would the Almighty send His own Son to suffer the agonies of the cross in order to redeem us from a little thing like that? Ah! my dear friends, it is only when we know what we endeavored to show you last Lord's day, the darkness, the gloom, the gnashing of teeth, the awful agonies of the eternal world to which sin is bearing us, that we can realize why it should cost such a price, and why God should be willing to pay such a price, to redeem us from it. Are you living in sin? Oh! tremble before your God; get down on your knees; lift up your hands and your heart, and plead with Him to have mercy on you; smite your breast, and say, "God be merciful to me a sinner." Cast yourself into the arms of this Redeemer who is so ready and so anxious to redeem you--to blot out your transgressions, and to grant you everlasting life.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Mormons Grapple with Sacred History

All my life I have never heard of anything but progress in the growth of the Mormon faith. With Mormon friends in my youth, I accumulated scores of anecdotal evidence about the triumphs of Mormon missionaries (though I never became remotely convinced of the truth of their message). This perception was reinforced as an undergraduate studying under, and eventually working under, a specialist in religious statistics. Mormons are one of the largest religious groups in America, and however much my professor qualified the statistics with references to natural growth, no one denied that aggressive evangelism and a certain social appeal of the religion were major contributing factors. Some time ago, however, an article awoke me to the fact that whatever may be said about the continuing growth of Mormonism, there is also a substantial amount of disaffection. There has been a sharp rise in "apostasy" in the last ten years, and a recent survey suggests that 39% of those leaving cite church history as the primary reason for losing faith, 84% at least a strong or moderate factor.

Mormons, like Christians, have a strong sense of sacred history. One of the peculiarities of the Mormon history, however, is that it includes a rejection of the standard Christian retelling of history in favor of a latter day reinterpretation. It is grounded in the belief that the initial revelation on which the church was founded was incomplete and open to misinterpretation by subsequent Christians. The result is a period of profane history between Christ and Joseph Smith before the narrative is once again picked up and purified. "Put another way," in the words of Hughes and Allen, "early Mormons, by rooting themselves int he primal past, simply removed themselves from history and the historical process and claimed instead that they had sprung full blown from the creative hands of God. In April of 1830, they said, their prophet had restored to earth the ancient church with all its gifts, miracles, and visions." The problem which arises from this is that, in the cold light of day, it is easy for Mormons to look at the supposedly restored, ancient church--born as it was directly form the mind of the divine--and to become disenchanted with what they see.

The article mentions the rather conspicuous blots of polygamy--which was undeniably abandoned not out of religious conviction but political expediency in the Utah statehood process--and racism--particularly the ban on people of "African descent" participating in sacred rites or ordination which was not lifted until the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. These deserve scrutiny, given that the Mormon faith is rooted in the more perfect revelation of God given to its leaders in the nineteenth century. If this revelation really was intended to correct and redeem Christianity out of its flawed state, why were so many of the special beneficiaries of God's revelation so utterly misguided? Why did Joseph Smith and Brigham Young endorse polygamy? Why did their racial attitudes seem to reflect the lowest common cultural denominator rather than an eternal God? Most importantly, why were both these issues reformed under the guise of "new revelation" at moments in history when it was most politically expedient to do so?

There are of course other issues from a historical perspective. Early apostates give an interesting alternate account of the beginnings of the faith, particularly those who were supposed eye witnesses to the first miraculous underpinnings of the movement. There is also, of course, the wealth of outlandish mythology which dominates Mormon narrative, made all the more difficult to accept because it lacks the antiquity and alien culture of traditional Jewish and Christian myth (whether they are factual or not). Consider also the driving belief among early Mormons that the absence of abundant charismatic gifts (e.g. healings, visions, prophecies)--now muted in the contemporary church--indicated the absence of divine approbation. The list could, obviously, go on.

Nevertheless, the purpose here is not to try to convert Mormons--mostly because I doubt many are reading this. Instead, it is to highlight the peculiar problem which history ought to (and apparently does) pose for Mormons. The strong root of the faith in corrective revelation makes the historical stumblings (which is a grossly inadequate euphemism for a century of institutional racism) of the religion that much harder to reconcile with. After all, it is easy for me to distance myself from the Crusades or the Inquisition (grossly misunderstood as both are by uninformed modern critics) or, more to the point, "Christian" defenses of slavery in the antebellum South. God did not inspire those events, and I can specifically point to the authoritative text which joins me in my condemnation of them. Mormon history is not so easily dispensed with. The gross errors are those of the authoritative actors themselves operating within a normative, sacred history. Their best defense has been to duck behind a progressive revelation which declares polygamy, for example, appropriate for one time and inappropriate for another. Except I think we all know intuitively that racism was never appropriate for any time. Apparently, there are Mormons coming face-to-face with their own history and finding that they know that intuitively as well.