July 11, 2023 Editor

Who Truly Threatens the Church?

July 9, 2023

David French

By

Opinion Columnist

image above: Robert Stokoe | Follow

WN: There is great wisdom in the article highlighted below. I have several family relatives who variously are “liberals/progressives/leftists,” or “conservatives/right wingers.” Their commonality?: They are dogmatic fundamentalists all! Some hate the Church for its “legacy of evil” (not knowing they only know to call it “evil” because of Christian teaching1); some excoriate Trudeau/Liberals, Democrats, immigrants, gays, trans etc. (the list is long). All could learn to embrace a generous charity (me too, so it seems!😁).

excerpts:

This recent legacy of scandal and abuse should be more than enough evidence of the need for existential humility in any Christian political theology. This is not moral relativism. We still possess core convictions. But existential humility acknowledges the limits of our own wisdom and virtue.
There’s a popular story in Christian circles that’s literally too good to be true. According to legend, in the early 1900s, The Times of London sent an inquiry to a number of writers asking the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” The Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton responded succinctly and profoundly: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

The real story is just as profound, but less succinct. In 1905 Chesterton wrote a much longer letter to London’s Daily News, and that letter included these sentences: “In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question ‘What is Wrong?’ is, or should be, ‘I am wrong.’ Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.”

I’ve thought about that Chesterton quote often during the age of Trump, especially as I’ve seen the “new” Christian right re-embrace the authoritarianism of previous American political eras. At the exact time when religious liberty is enjoying a historic winning streak at the Supreme Court, a cohort of Christians has increasingly decided that liberty isn’t enough. To restore the culture and protect our children, it’s necessary to exercise power to shape our national environment.

And so the conservative movement is changing. When I was a younger lawyer, conservatives fought speech codes that often inhibited religious and conservative discourse on campus. Now, red state legislatures are writing their own speech codes, hoping to limit discussion of the ideas they disfavor. When I was starting my career, my conservative colleagues and I rolled our eyes at the right-wing book purges of old, when angry parents tried to yank “dangerous” books off school library shelves. Well, now the purges are back, as parents are squaring off in school districts across the nation, arguing over the words children should be allowed to read.

In one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question ‘What is Wrong?’ is, or should be, ‘I am wrong.’ Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.G. K. Chesterton (What’s wrong, Chesterton?)

Years ago, I laughed at claims that Christian conservatives were dominionists in disguise, that we didn’t just want religious freedom, we wanted religious authority. Yet now, such claims are hardly laughable. Arguments for a “Christian nationalism” are increasingly prominent, with factions ranging from Catholic integralists to reformed Protestants to prophetic Pentecostals all seeking a new American social compact, one that explicitly puts Christians in charge.

But there’s a contrary view, one that emanates from the idea of original sin, which Chesterton argued was “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” The doctrine of original sin rejects the idea that we are intrinsically good and are corrupted only by the outside world. Instead, we enter life with our own profound and inherent flaws. We are all, in a word, fallen. To quote Jesus in the book of Mark, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” All manner of sin and evil comes “from within, out of the heart of man.”

Under this understanding of Scripture, we are all our own greatest enemy — Christians as fully as those who do not share our beliefs. We do not, either as individuals or as a religious movement, possess an inherent virtue that should entitle any of us to rule. We shun the will to power because we rightly fear our own sin, and we protect the liberty of others because we do not possess all wisdom and we need to hear their ideas.

Of course that is not to say that external voices and ideas can have no negative effect in our lives. We might be our own greatest enemy, but we’re not our only enemy. But if we are deeply flawed, then that realization has to profoundly impact how we approach politics. It has to temper our confidence that we either can control or should control the public square.

All manner of sin and evil comes “from within, out of the heart of man.”–Jesus
But, as Professor McKenzie argues [in We the Fallen People: The Founders and American Democracy], this understanding faced an early and serious challenge in a political movement that we’d recognize today — Jacksonian populism, the idea that “the people” were, in fact, righteous enough to rule. You see echoes today in the constant refrain from the Trumpist right that “we the people” represent the “real America,” the virtuous core that can save the nation from what they see as a decadent left.

The very concept was, and is, destructive to its core. The sense of virtue creates a sense of righteous entitlement. In Christian America, the belief that “we” are good leads to the conviction that the churches will suffer, our nation will suffer and our families will suffer unless “we” run things. It closes our hearts and minds to contrary voices and opposing ideas.

This recent legacy of scandal and abuse should be more than enough evidence of the need for existential humility in any Christian political theology. This is not moral relativism. We still possess core convictions. But existential humility acknowledges the limits of our own wisdom and virtue. Existential humility renders liberty a necessity, not merely to safeguard our own beliefs but also to safeguard our access to other ideas and arguments that might help expose our own mistakes and shortcomings.

Who is wrong? I am wrong. We are wrong.

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Footnotes
  1. For more on this, please view the following quotes:

    The roots of liberalism—belief in individual freedom, in the fundamental moral equality of individuals, in a legal system based on equality, and in a representative form of government befitting a society of free people—all these were pioneered by Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages who drew on the moral revolution carried out by the early Church. These philosophers and canon lawyers, not the Renaissance humanists, laid the foundation for liberal democracy in the West.–from description of book highlighted above; emphasis added–Sir Larry SiedentopInventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism.

    Assumptions that I had grown up with—about how a society should properly be organised, and the principles that it should uphold—were not bred of classical antiquity, still less of ‘human nature’, but very distinctively of that civilisation’s Christian past. So profound has been the impact of Christianity on the development of Western civilisation that it has come to be hidden from view. It is the incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those which triumph is to be taken for granted.Tom Holland in DominionHow the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pp.16 & 17.

    The relationship of Christianity to the world that gave birth to it is, then, paradoxical. The faith is at once the most enduring legacy of classical antiquity, and the index of its utter transformation. . . It has long survived the collapse of the empire from which it first emerged, to become, in the words of one Jewish scholar, ‘the most powerful of hegemonic cultural systems in the history of the world’ (A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of IdentityDaniel Boyarin, p. 9.)—Tom Holland in Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pp. 10 & 11.

    Christianity’s principles . . . continue to dominate much of the world; Tom Holland’s thoughtful, astute account describes how and why . . . An insightful argument that Christian ethics, even when ignored, are the norm worldwide.—Kirkus (starred review)

    When we condemn the moral obscenities committed in the name of Christ, it is hard to do so without implicitly invoking his own teaching.—Irish literary critic Terry Eagleton in: Dominion by Tom Holland, review – the legacy of Christianity

    Modern reformers complain, quite justly, about the violence of Christianity, René Girard says, but they fail to notice that “they can complain [only] because they have Christianity to complain with.David Cayley in Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey, p. 404.

    A little learning is a dang’rous thing.Alexander Pope[]

Editor

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.