“Our politics are taking on a religious shape”

Michael Brendan Dougherty has a nice column on the emerging genre of advice columns on how to handle yourself at family holiday gatherings, presenting a roundup of links to current Thanksgiving examples, then saying:

These advice columns are becoming a genre unto themselves. The stock villain: crazy right-wing uncle, the jokes about stuffing.

But going on to make an important observation about them:

But I recognize them by what they unwittingly emulate: guides for religious evangelism. The gentle, righteous self-regard, the slightly orthogonal response guides, the implied urgency to cure your loved ones of their ignorance. Your raging uncle will know the truth, and the truth will set him free.

That’s a problem. Our politics are taking on a religious shape. Increasingly we allow politics to form our moral identity and self-conception. We surround ourselves with an invisible community of the "elect" who share our convictions, and convince ourselves that even our closest and beloved relatives are not only wrong, but enemies of goodness itself. And so one of the best, least religious holidays in the calendar becomes a chance to deliver your uncle up as a sinner in the hands of an angry niece.

Please read the entire column, it’s brief and very funny. But it’s not what got me thinking. That happened because of a brief comment on the column from Alan Jacobs, where I first found the link:

Michael Brendan Dougherty, speaking truth. Because there’s one thing almost every one of these pieces shares: the serene conviction that there is absolutely nothing that any of us could learn from people whose politics are other than ours. [Emphasis added]

That conviction lies at the heart of the fruitless, soul-destroying interactions that Dougherty caricatures. Thanks to Jacobs for pointing it out, and giving me something to ponder.

I’ll add my own observation: although Dougherty is exactly right to say that “our politics are taking on a religious shape”, it is only because our current religion is badly misshapen in the same ways. Perhaps the source of the ugliness lies elsewhere, and politics and religion are coming to resemble one another because the source has had its way with both.

Anyway, I think it’s worth pondering that these particular observations about politics are just as applicable to what passes for engaged Christianity these days:

  • “We surround ourselves with an invisible community of the “elect” who share our convictions.”
  • “[We] convince ourselves that even our closest and beloved relatives [who disagree with us] are not only wrong, but enemies of goodness itself.”
  • “There is absolutely nothing that any of us could learn from people whose [doctrinal views\ are other than ours.”

Inert ideas

I was surprised the day I realized that ideas are only good when they are used, and to admire them, toy with them, or otherwise treating them as aesthetic objects is a dangerous habit. Since then I’ve walked a crooked path, because there are a lot of attractive but untested ideas being promoted out there—how many parenting manuals have been written by fresh-faced couples in their 20s?—and it takes a bit of living to embrace them, employ them, and then judge the results. Only a few end up passing the test, but over the years they accumulate into a set of solid and coherent convictions.

I like Alfred North Whitehead’s warning about “inert ideas.” This comes from his essay “The Aims of Education.”

In training a child to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call “inert ideas”—that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.

In the history of education, the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which at one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius, in a succeeding generation exhibit merely pedantry and routine. The reason is, that they are overladen with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful—Corruptio optimi, pessima. Except at rare intervals of intellectual ferment, education in the past has been radically infected with inert ideas. That is the reason why uneducated clever women, who have seen much of the world, are in middle life so much the most cultured part of the community. They have been saved from this horrible burden of inert ideas. Every intellectual revolution which has ever stirred humanity into greatness has been a passionate protest against inert ideas. Then, alas, with pathetic ignorance of human psychology, it has proceeded by some educational scheme to bind humanity afresh with inert ideas of its own fashioning.

In the very next paragraph Whitehead offers advice on how to avoid the danger, which I think is sound:

Let us now ask how in our system of education we are to guard against this mental dry rot. We enunciate two educational commandments, “Do not teach too many subjects,” and again, “What you teach, teach thoroughly.”

I think this goes strongly against modern currents of thinking, where every problem is blamed on ignorance and every solution boils down to getting the right information into someone’s head. Too often we’re told that if you are having difficulty living a Christian life, you need to pick up another book on the topic, or you didn’t read the last one closely enough. My suggestion: be sure you’re already living out the things you’ve already learned before moving on to something new.

The school of Christ

One thing I like about Dallas Willard is that, rather than casting a vision for how things could be as most modern Christian teachers do—which both excites us for the moment and lets us off the hook after a decent period—he spends his time looking at the things Jesus very straightforwardly said we would be capable of as his disciples, and then asks why we aren’t doing those things.

I also like the fact that, to the extent that this constitutes a failure, he does not waste time trying to place the blame for it but instead looks to what needs to happen (and where) in order to rectify it. One important role would need to be played by the church—not as an institution, but as a gathering of believers.

Imagine, if you can, discovering in your church letter or bulletin an announcement of a six-week seminar on how genuinely to bless someone who is spitting on you. This primitive form of desecration is still practiced, much more commonly than is thought. We all recall the ceaselessly repeated television images of a professional baseball player recently spitting in the face of an umpire. You can just feel what incredible grace and maturity would be required for that umpire to respond with heartfelt blessing. And of course no one ever thought he should give such a response, thought it would have been the way of Jesus.

Or suppose the announced seminar was on how to live without purposely indulged lust or covetousness. Or on how to quit condemning the people around you. Or on how to be free of anger and all its complications. We recall the whole range of real-life enactments Jesus talked about in explaining kingdom goodness from the heart [in the Sermon on the Mount].

Imagine, also, a guarantee that at the end of the seminar those who have done the prescribed studies and exercies will actually be able to bless those who are spitting on them, and so on. In practical matters, to teach people to do something is to bring them to the point where they actually do it on the appropriate occasions. […]

Imagine further, if your imagination is not already exhausted, driving by a church with a large sign in front that says, We Teach All Who Seriously Commit Themselves to Jesus How to Do Everything He Said to Do. If you had just been reading the gospels—especially Matthew 28:20: “Train them to do everything I have told you”—you might think, “Of course, that is exactly what the founder of the church, Jesus, told us to do.”

But your second thought might be that this is a highly unusual church. And then, “Can this be right?” And: “Can it be real?” When do you suppose was the last time any group of believers or church of any kind or level had a meeting of its officials in which the topic for discussion and action was how they were going to teach their people actually to do the specific things that Jesus said?

I would guess that it has been a very long time.

Why are Christians so mean?

I’ve been reading a lot of Dallas Willard lately, and at some point I’ll write at length about the reason. Meanwhile, here’s a passage from his book Renovation of the Heart which reflects his overarching theme namely: Jesus told us how to behave, and what he said wasn’t so hard to understand—so why don’t we do it?

Warren Wiersbe tells how he was approached by an older gentleman at a church where he was to speak. The man expressed awareness that Warren sometimes quoted a certain popular paraphrase of the Bible. Warren replied, “When I write, I quote whatever translation best says what I want to teach at that point in the book, it doesn’t mean I approve of everything in it.” To this the man replied, almost shouting, “Well, I’m not going to sit and listen to a man who has no convictions about the Word of God,” and he “turned and stormed out of the church in anger, disobeying the very Bible he thought he was defending.”

One of our finest Christian college presidents recently devoted his periodic mail-out to the question, "Why are Christians so mean to one another so often?" He quotes numerous well-known Christian leaders on this theme, and says for himself:

As a leader of a Christian organization, I feel the brunt of just this kind of meanness within the Christian community, a mean-spirited suspicion and judgment that mirrors the broader culture. Every Christian leader I know feels it …. It is difficult to be Christian in a secular world …. But, you know, it is sometimes more difficult to be a leader in Christian circles. There too you can be vilified for just the slightest move that is displeasing to someone.

And he continues on with the details.

This is one of the most common points of commiseration among our leaders. The leader of one denomination recently said to me, "When I am finished with this job I am going to write a book on the topic, Why Are Christians So Mean?"

Well, there actually is an answer to that question. And we must face this answer and effectively deal with it or Satan will sustain his stranglehold on spiritual transformation in local congregations. Christians are routinely taught by example and word that it is more important to be right (always in terms of their beloved tradition) than it is to be Christlike. In fact, being right licenses you to be mean, and, indeed,requires you to be mean–righteously mean, of course. You  must be hard on people who are wrong, and especially if they are in positions of Christian leadership. They deserve nothing better. This is what I have elsewhere called the practice of "condemnation engineering."

When Willard writes that “there actually is an answer” to the question of why Christians are so mean, he isn’t pointing to the usual, “Well, we’re all fallen and imperfect creatures and will continue to be so this side of heaven..” He means that there are actual specific things that we could do, have failed to do, and need to do to conquer our meanness. Who knew?

An early liturgy?

I am significantly underinformed about early Christian worship, and I’m sure there are one or more books that could help me with this. Still, I wonder from time to time what those folks considered a proper worship service. So I was interested to run across this passage in a letter from Pliny, governor of Pontus/Bithynia 111-113 AD, to the Emperor Trajan, wondering how to properly handle those in his jurisdiction who were accused of being Christian:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.

Now that sounds like the kind of service I could get behind–especially the “ordinary and innocent food” part.

Trickle-up economics

This is a chart worth pondering:

There are several ways to read it, but what I found most helpful was to think of the “top 10%” as the richest person in a group of ten people, and the increase as 10 dollars. Given that, the increase in wealth was distributed as follows:

  • 1949-1953: Richest Guy gets 2 dollars, the other nine split 8 dollars
  • 1954-1969: Richest Guy gets 3 dollars, the other nine split 7 dollars
  • 1970-1979: Richest Guy gets 4 dollars, the other nine split 6 dollars
  • 1980-2000: Richest Guy gets 8 dollars, the other nine split 2 dollars
  • 2001-2007: RIchest Guy gets all 10 dollars of the increase
  • 2009-2012: Richest Guy not only gets all 10 dollars of the increase, the other nine chip in to pay him another 2 dollars

When it comes to economic systems I have no dog in the fight, so this chart evokes only curiosity in me, to wit: what story does a defender of the current global economic system tell that portrays this trend as fair?

Competing with automation

Nice quote from Norbert Weiner’s The Human Use of Human Beings, published in 1950 (via Nicholas Carr, emphasis added):

Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must ac­cept the economic conditions of slave labor. It is per­fectly clear that this will produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which the present reces­sion and even the depression of the thirties will seem a pleasant joke. This depression will ruin many indus­tries — possibly even the industries which have taken advantage of the new potentialities. However, there is nothing in the industrial tradition which forbids an in­dustrialist to make a sure and quick profit, and to get out before the crash touches him personally.

Traditions aren’t inevitable, we create and shape them.