Tuesday, September 16, 2014

You Can't Argue with a Dying Calvinist

Presbyterian Pastor
Perishing Parishioner

John Updike
This post is a follow-up to "This Minister Lost His Faith" which you can read here. With both I am reflecting on the first chapter of John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies which portrays a Princeton educated Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Clarence Arthur Wilmot. The historical setting is the early years of the 20th century. In the first post, I focused on Mr. Wilmot's loss of faith and its consequences theological and practical. There is a section in the first chapter of the novel and which describes a pastoral hospital visit with a member, a Mr. Orr.

Mr. Orr was was a patient in Barnert Memorial, a hospital that served the poor and immigrants. He was dying. He was alone. He had been a laborer who never saw his way clear to marry. 

Mr. Orr was a professing Christian, a Presbyterian church member, faithful in attendance at services where he always sat in the same place underneath the memorial window to Protestant martyrs and heroes. He listened intently to Mr. Wilmot's sermons. He had been brought up by "pious folk":
...good people, lost their pig farm to the banks in the Panic of (18)'73, never got their heads above water since. Every night, before supper, we used to sing a hymn. Even nothing on the table, we used to sing a hymn. 'Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh.' That sort of thing.

Mr. Wilmot finds Mr. Orr asleep and would have slipped quietly away (today a relieved pastor might leave a business card with the scribbled note "Sorry I missed you" on the bedside table) but the patient forced his eyes open so the pastor inquired in the falsely optimistic way pastors sometimes do, "How is your cure progressing?" Mr. Orr is not doing well. Clarence deflects Mr. Orr's response with, "This unseasonable muggy spell has got us all down. My wager is you'll be up and about within a week or two." 

But Mr. Orr will have none of it: 
Ah, don't talk foolishness, sir, in trying to be kind.  I'm nearing the end, and I'm ready to face the verdict. Reverend Wilmot, tell me true now. The time for soft talk is by. What do you think my chances are, to find myself among the elect?
Wilmot says, "I should estimate your chances to be excellent." He inquires about Mr. Orr's experience:
Have you, in the course of your life, as best you can remember, ever enjoyed a palpable experience of the living Christ?
Mr. Orr is not sure but thinks not:
I cannot honestly recollect ever enjoying that. I've searched my heart, but it's hard to say, now, isn't it?...I've had what you might call promptings, during prayer and on occasion in the middle of the day, while about business of another sort. But I wouldn't want to make claims for them as palpable experiences. A palpable experience, I guess you'd have no doubt - isn't that the so?
Mr. Wilmot knows what Mr. Orr is doing. "He had struck a note of sly wheedling that brought home to Clarence the cruelty of a theology that sets us to ransacking our nervous systems for a pass to Heaven, even a shred of a ticket." But he recovers:
You're too modest, Mr. Orr. Anyway, some among us teaching elders hold there can be no palpable experience - just the impalpable experience of existing in God's grace, won anew by His Son Jesus Christ.
Mr. Orr responds with his brand of Calvinism:
Well, if I'm not to be among the saved, it was laid down at the beginning of Creation, and what can a body do? Tell me, sir. What can we poor bodies do?
Mr. Wilmot finds that "dying was making the man conversationally ruthless." Nevertheless, he responds:
What can we do, Mr. Orr, is to do good to our fellow man and trust in the Lord and enjoy his gifts when they are granted to us. I don't see how any deity can ask any more of us than that.
But Mr. Orr won't accept that kind of pap:
You don't. That's right? You talk like it's six of one and half-dozen of the other. We're not dealing here with any deity. We're dealing with the true and only God. He asks the world and then some.
Reverend Wilmot, my life's been hard. I never had any advantages...Having put up with a hard life for sixty-six year, without much comfort in it but hope of the next, I'm not afraid to face the worst. I'll take damnation in good stride if that's what's to come.
That's too much for Clarence. "Oh come now, Mr Orr! - there can be no question of your damnation." But Mr. Orr will not relent: 
No, sir. No question. And why would that be?
Damnation's what my parents brought me up to believe in. They were regular pious folk...There are the elect and the others, the damned. It's in the Bible over and over, right out of Jesus' mouth. It makes good sense...How can you be saved, if you can't be damned? Answer me that....So tell me, Reverend Wilmot, where's the flaw in my reasoning? You're a learned man - that comes across real clear, on Sunday mornings.
This kind talk is not new to Wilmot, but he has not before heard it from the dying.
Clarence had had such conversations before, but usually they were abstract, amiable disputes among professionals of the faith; laymen on their deathbeds he had generally found modest and mannerly, anxious not to embarrass the minister of God come to offer rote comfort, their thoughts absorbed by their bodily upheavals and their final arrangements with loved ones. He sensed that Orr was terrified...
Clarence had already lost his own faith, but he resorted to familiar concepts:
You've left God's mercy out of the equation, Mr. Orr - there's the flaw...God showed Man his love twice - when he created him out of clay and when He gave His only begotten Son to redeem him from Adam's sin. In the Old Testament, we read how he loved Israel, His chosen people even when they strayed. Don't bother yourself about damnation, I beg you, my good friend, but think instead of the glorious Resurrection and eternal life. Think of the thief on the cross to whom Jesus said, 'Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.'
Wilmot is afraid Mr. Orr will hear that as though he has given up hope of Mr. Orr's recovery: 
Not that the state of your health is comparable to the thief on the cross. You've got a peck of years left in you, I can tell by your argumentative spirit. You're on the mend. You'll be back in your pew under the Reformers' windows before we know it.
Orr, despite his weakness, will not let up: "Don't you believe in damnation at all?" Wilmot tries to comfort, for Orr has evidences:
Me myself? Absolutely I do. Without a doubt, absolutely. But not for you, Mr. Orr. Not for as hard a worker and as faithful a churchgoer as you.
Mr. Orr's brutal work on his pastor is not done:
I never heard enough damnation from your pulpit. Many mornings I had to strain to take hold of what your were saying, Reverend. I couldn't figure it out, and got dizzy the way you were dodging here and there. A lot of talk about compassion for the less fortunate, I remember that. Never a healthy sign, to my way of thinking, too much fuss and feathers about the poor. They're with us always, the Lord Himself said. Wait till the next go-around, if the poor feel so sorry for themselves in this. The first shall be last. Take away damnation, in my opinion, and a man might as well be an atheist. A God that can't damn anyone to an eternal Hell can't lift a body up out of the grave either.
Mr. Wilmot wants to put Mr. Orr's mind at ease, but Mr. Orr falls back on his Calvinism:
Young man, don't worry about relieving my mind. I told you, I can face it. I can face the worst, if it was always ordained. God's as helpless as I am.
Wilmot thinks he has found an opening: "Well, now, that's just it, isn't it? How can God be considered helpless --" But Orr's logic is relentless:
If He's made his elections at the beginning of time, He is. He can't keep changing his mind.  I guess that's something He can't do. Well, in a few days I am going to know what His mind was and is...
Eternal damnation it has to be, if there's to be any sense of it at all. Mark my words.
Wilmot has one last word before the man closes his eyes, effectively dismissing him:
I have and I will, Mr. Orr. I wish you well. Forgive me...if I can't quite believe damnation is for you...I can see the signs of election sparkling right in your eyes.
Several weeks later Mr Orr dies in the hospital.

I know the tendency - because I experience it in myself - to analyze this conversation of a pastor and a parishioner theologically. What holes can we find? What criticisms can we make? How defective is Wilmot's counsel? And, since he has lost his faith, wouldn't his counsel have to be defective? How defective is Orr's Calvinism? Isn't he really a fatalist, not a Calvinist? Where is the Gospel?Isn't it muddled? We can so analyze as to be unable to see.

Perhaps it would be wise for us to resist the tendency to analysis long enough to observe the men and listen to the conversation. There are insights here into the struggles of parishioners, into the weaknesses of ministers, into the fears of both, into the kinds of things that are in the hearts of these seriously ill, into popular concepts of Calvinism, into the avoiding strategies of ministers. There are moments in this conversation when we may well say, "There I am," or "I know that person." 

What would people say to us as pastors if they were able to be open? If they felt they could trust us enough and if they thought us understanding enough to tell us their true thinking and feeling? Especially when they are facing terminal illness and death. Do the things we say in sermons or the stories we tell of saints ancient and modern lead them to crawl into their shells and hide when they most need to stick their heads out and talk?

How well do we know people and their struggles? Do we know what to say and not say? Do we know when it is more important to be present than to say something? How often do we engage in unreal, superficial, and defensive talk when we visit the sick? How much spiritual BSing to we do? How hesitant are we to draw them for fear of what they will say? How afraid are we to face our own questions, doubt, and fears?

Swift to its close ebbs out life's 
little day,
Earth's joys grow dim, it's 
glories pass away, 
Change and decay in all around 
I see, 
O thou that changest not, 
abide with me.


Monday, September 15, 2014

What Is a Family?

What Is a Family?

The Lectionary links two sets of verses from St. Mark chapter 3 for The Gospel Lesson. These are verses 20-21 verses 31 through 35. They are separated by the verses  in which Jesus speaks of the sin for which there is no forgiveness, the sin against the Holy Spirit. I will take the liberty to read these again and then to make a note about them.

Gospel: Mark 3: 20-21, 31-35
20 And the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread.
21 And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.
31 There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him.
32 And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee.
33 And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren?
34 And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!
35 For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

In verse 21 the King James version mentions Jesus “friends.” Others translation have his “associates” or his “ own people.”  When you come to verse 31 Mark clearly refers to  Jesus’s brethren, or brothers, and his mother. In light of that most translations now translate the word translated “friends” in verse 21 family. Besides the link between the two sets of verses, there is also the question of who these “friends” or associates could have been since St. Mark could hardly refer to the disciples whom Mark tells us were busy along with Jesus.  I think the reason the verses 20 and 21 are linked with verses 31-35 is because the lectionary assumes both sets of verses refer Jesus’s family.

What is a family? That used to be an easy question. A nuclear family included a husband, wife, and their children. An extended family included the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s a lot more complicated now.

Jesus was part of a family, but he also challenged the traditional definition of family.

1. The Family to which Jesus Belonged

Most of us like our privacy and our meals. Mark tells us about a time when Jesus could enjoy neither. Peter and Andrew had a home in the Galilean town of Capernaum. Jesus stayed there when he was in town. Because his miracles that showed that God was uniquely at work in Jesus and because of his teaching that rung true and had a note of authority, this was a time in his ministry when Jesus was very popular. On this occasion, and probably many others, as soon as people heard Jesus  was in town, they crowded not only around the outside but also inside the house. This multitude of people demanded so much of Jesus’s time that he and his disciples could not even get time to eat.

When Jesus’s family got word in Nazareth heard what was going on, they became so concerned about Jesus they made an emergency trip of about 20 miles to Capernaum.

Who are these family members? If we are right in linking the two sets of verses, then the family members are Mary, Jesus’s mother, and his brothers. But who were these brothers? The natural way to take “brothers” is to refer to sons who were born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus. However, some say these must be either cousins or step brothers who were sons of Joseph by a previous marriage. The only reason I know of to say these are not real, though half brothers, is to maintain the perpetual virginity of Mary. However, there is no reason to think that Mary and Joseph did not have a normal marital relationship after Jesus was born and that children were born to this relationship.

Why did Jesus’s mother and brothers feel such urgency that they traveled from Nazareth to Capernaum. They considered it a family emergency. They needed to do something. They had come  to the conclusion that Jesus  must have “lost it.” You know how we sometimes see the stress and the zeal of a person under pressure, and we fear that he is close to “flipping out” or that he has “flipped out.” Jesus’ family decided that He had gone over the edge. So they did what a family of their day would have done. They decided to have a family intervention.

Today we might get a person admitted to a hospital or at least get him under a doctor’s care. They did not have those options, so they went to Capernaum with the thought that they would take him under control and take him back home, where they could watch him, and where, perhaps with rest and nourishment, he could come back to his senses. But when they arrived the house was so crowded inside and out that they had no choice but to stand outside and send word in to Jesus that his family had arrived and wanted to see him.

Between the two sections in Mark 3 about Jesus and his family, there is report of an investigative commission sent to Galilee from Jerusalem by the temple authorities. What was their conclusion?  “He has an unclean spirit.” The attributed his work to the devil. And what did his family think”? “He is out of His mind.” The religious leaders thought he was demon possessed, and his family thought he was crazy.

Anytime you feel misunderstood you might pause to consider Jesus – the religious authorities think he is demon possessed and his own mother and siblings think he is crazy! What is striking and disturbing is that his own family shares with the antagonistic authorities a fundamental misunderstanding of Jesus – of Who he is and what He is doing.  It makes us wonder what we would have thought had we been there. And it requires us to ask ourselves now what we think of Him.

The reaction of Jesus’s family reminds us of the options available for understanding Jesus  - His personality and His ministry. As C.S. Lewis and others have said, Jesus was mad or bad, lunatic or liar, or else He must be who He claimed to be Lord -  Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

The response of Jesus’ family to Him and of families sometimes to Christians tells us that Jesus himself was not understood and that, if we walk with him, he, not our blood relations, will be our first loyalty and that our devotion to Him may put division between us and our families.

2. The Family  Jesus Questioned

If the conclusions of Jesus’ own family concerning him are disturbing so, too, we may find is the response of Jesus. In response to the notification that His family has arrived and wanted to speak with Him, Jesus said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” His mother and brothers are after all his family. They have traveled across Galilee to see him. They have come because they are concerned about him. And rather than inviting them to come in, or going out to greet them, Jesus remained inside and asked what seems to be rather cold question.

Was Jesus indifferent to his family responsibilities? No. We will find Him later in Mark rebuking the Pharisees for ignoring their responsibilities under the fifth commandment to care for their aged parents. And, when He was dying, one of the seven statements he is recorded to have made from the cross had to do with the care of His mother, Mary. He said to Mary, “Woman, behold your son!” and to John, “Behold, your mother!” One of his last acts was to commit his mother into the care of his beloved disciple.

But, Jesus does put something of a distance between himself and His family. Even when he was twelve he made it clear to Mary and Joseph that he was the Son of the heavenly Father and that his priority was his true Father’s business. Earlier in His public ministry, when he attended a wedding and was told by his mother that the wine had run out, he said to her, “Woman, what has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” He preserved his freedom and his independence of action. Not even his mother could intervene in these things. He loved His mother and was respectful to her, but he put a distance between them that said, “I must act in accord with my Father in heaven’s plan and according to the liberty He has given to me in fulfilling the mission He gave me.”

For Jesus family did not trump all else. It is hard to overstate the importance of the family, but the family must not become an idol.  We must not make a cult of the family. Jesus knew what it meant to leave mother and brother, to put the heavenly Father first, to forsake all and follow the Father’s will. When he calls us to follow him and to make him our first love and loyalty, he calls us to follow him in a discipleship he knows. For the Christian it is always Jesus we love first and best and him we follow no matter what that costs us, even in family relationships. Jesus was not kidding, and he knew of what He spoke when he said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

3.  The  Family Jesus Creates

Jesus turned his attention from his mothers and brothers to those gathered around Him in the house and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” The group he looked on included the twelve disciples who had left behind their connections to this world to follow him. It included others who were listening to his Word, understanding, believing, and following. At this point his family are the outsiders and those who are gathered around him listening to his teaching are the insiders.

You may have had the experience of coming into a group and wondering if there is any way you could ever belong. Maybe it was when, as a young person, you moved to a new school. Or, it may have been when you got a new assignment to work with different people at work. Or, it may have been when you came to this church. You look at the group and you know that there are those who the “insiders” who really belong, and those who are the “outsiders” who may be there but don’t belong. It’s very much the feeling a child gets when he wonders if he will ever be invited by the other kids into play circle. It’s the feeling Rudolph had as he watched but never was invited to join in tiny reindeer games. Now we look at Jesus and wonder who might get into circle he considers His family. And Jesus puts out His hand and points to people like you and like me and says, “Here are my mother and my sisters and my brothers.”

Who are included in the family? “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” That at first might seem discouraging. Who of us would claim that we do the will of God? If doing God’s will is what it takes to be in Jesus’ true family, there is no possibility you are I are going ever to be included in that holy family.  

But here, John Calvin, who so often is caricatured as a cold, logical, hard man comes to our rescue. Calvin explains.

“Moreover, by ‘doing the will of the Father’ He does not intend a precise fulfilling of all the righteousness of the Law (for if this were so the name of brothers which He gives to His disciples would belong to no-one). But in particular He commends faith, the well-spring and origin of holy obedience, and also covers up the defects and faults of the flesh so that they may not be imputed. Christ’s saying is well known: ‘This is the will of my Father, that whosoever beholds the Son, and believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 6:40).” (Calvin, Harmony of the Gospels, v. II, p. 56)

The basic thing is faith in Christ as our Savior and Lord. When we have such faith all the shortcomings of our obedience will not be counted against us. And that same faith will prove to be the living well from which will flow both the desire for and the doing of the will of God.

Good news, brothers and sisters! We’re in – we’re the brothers and sisters of Jesus Himself. We have put our faith in him for our salvation, and we have trusted him to be the Lord of our lives. Now by his grace we seek to do what he did – to do the will of the Father in heaven. And, as we seek to do that will, whatever failings there are will be forgiven and covered by the perfection of Jesus’s  performance of the will of God.

Now, if we are “in” we must not refuse to welcome all others he includes in His family.  Blood, they say, is thicker than water. The original meaning of that saying is obscure. What I think most people mean when they say it is  that the bonds of family will prove stronger than the bonds of friendship or other associations. However, I have learned that  this saying may be rooted in the Old Testament and may mean the opposite of the way we now use it. The blood means that the blood of the covenant.  The water is the amniotic fluid in the womb. The blood of the covenant is thicker - more binding - than the water of the womb. God’s covenant creates a greater bond than shared genetic material. Faith trumps family. And that it is the way it should be. Christ said he considered His true family to be those who do the will of God whether blood relatives or not. And, for us, in this family we should always affirm and practice that we are closer and more committed to those who through faith are with us the members of Jesus’s family than to those with whom we share only the kinship of the flesh.

What is a family? One answer it that it is a group of people bound together by blood relations. But there is a family with stronger bonds than that. It is the family of faith who are bound together by the blood of Jesus. Brothers and sisters, we belong to the family of Jesus!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

This Minister Lost His Faith

A Presbyterian Minister Can't Go On

It was a hot day in the late spring of 1910 in Paterson, New Jersey, “when...the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot, down in the rectory of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway felt the last particles of his faith leave him. The sensation was distinct – a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.” So John Updike describes the moment of final and full de-­
John Updike
conversion of a Princeton Seminary trained Presbyterian minister in his In the Beauty of the Lilies. Later Clarence  Wilmot will say to the moderator of his presbytery, “I did not wish to lose my faith; the reasons came upon me, irresistibly, from outside. They came from above.”

In the evening at table with company that included the elder who headed the Church Building Requirements Committee he found himself hearing but not hearing the conversation as “his mind turned away and visited the new emptiness within him, marveling at its extent, grandeur, and searing persistence. There is no God.”

Everything remained the same, yet everything had gone. He looked at the dining room furniture yet...
none of these mute surfaces reflected the sudden absence of God from the universe - His legions of angels, His sacrificed Son, His ever-watchful and notoriously mysterious Providence, His ultimate mercy, the eternal Heaven hard to picture yet for which our hearts so unmistakably yearn, the eternal Hell which even calm, gentle, reasonable Calvin could not conceive as other than indispensable to God's justice. With the mystery of His freedom vanished the passionately debated distinctions of sublapsarianism, supralapsarianism, infralapsarianism, in regard to the precise moment when God imposes election...
Alexander Hall
What happened? There had been a war in his mind between Princeton with its great defenders of Calvinistic Christian faith ­- Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, W.H. Green, B.B. Warfield - ­ and the world with its underminers of that faith – Darwin, Renan, Wellhausen, Ingersoll. The hound of atheism had relentlessly pursued him. He could outrun it no longer. His faith was gone. Not only did he know there is no God; he knew that life without God is dark and meaningless. 
Life's sounds rang with a curious lightness and flatness, as if a resonating base beneath them had been removed. They told Clarence Wilmot what he had long suspected, that the universe was utterly indifferent to his states of mind and as empty of divine content as a corroded kettle. All its metaphysical content had leaked away, but for cruelty and death, which without the hypothesis of God became unmetaphysical; they simply became facts which oblivion would in time obliviously erase. Oblivion became a singular comforter...The former believer's habitual contortions decisively relaxed. And yet the depths of vacancy revealed were appalling. In the purifying sweep of atheism human beings lost all special value. The numb misery of the horse was matched by that of the farmer; the once-green ferny lives crushed into coal's fossiliferous strata were no more anonymous and obliterated than Clarence's own life would soon be, in a wink of earth's tremendous time. Without Biblical blessing the physical universe became sheerly horrible and disgusting...

When Mr. Wilmot loses his voice in the pulpit, he must explain to his wife, "My faith, my dear, seems to have fled. I not only no longer believe with  an ideal fervor, I consciously disbelieve. My voice voiced rebelled..." She is practical, angry, and scorning:
Clarence, we all have moments when life seems empty and not worthwhile. But they pass, and we push through them for the sake of the children we have brought into the world and all those others who depend on us...You have cold-heartedly decided to inflict on your family an entirely needless sacrifice...I thought I could make a man of you. Well all I have done is make a pretty mess for myself and the three harmless souls I brought into the world...
In the end her counsel is to think and read less and pray more.

When he goes to the leading ruling elder, and confesses his loss of faith, he is finds both sympathy and encouragement:
Fight on, my friend. Never give up the good fight. You will win through in the end to renewed certainty - of that I am certain - if you stay the course...Yes, still, you are too gullible. Out of your gullible nature you've let the enemy infect your thinking, my friend. Think of the state of your mind as a disease.  You need to convalesce, to rest...Under the weather, as even young men sometimes are, eh? You'll emerge from this siege of trouble strengthened, I am a hundred percent certain.
He is 100% wrong.

As a Presbyterian clergyman, Wilmot must inform the moderator of his Presbytery that he has lost his faith and must leave the ministry. The moderator believes that Mr. Wilmot's problem is theological conservatism:
I believe your seminary was Princeton, was it not?...There could be the trouble. You imbibed conservatism there, and it limits your thinking now. The two Hodges, and Benjamin Warfield - fine men in the old muscular tradition, but quite helpless when the winds of history blow. They cannot bend Mr. Wilmot , and those that cannot bend break. If you had gone to Union, as I did, you would not be afraid to let history into your understanding. Into your understanding of the Bible, into the workings of our lives, into the future of the church...the staunch liberal tradition has nothing to fear from the future; no development can upset it...not to fear admitting that the Holy Book is embedded in history - that it contains the best wisdom of its time, but that time is not our time. Relativity is the word we must live by now.
The moderator has a way of modernizing, recasting, and explaining away every tenet of Christian belief. But Clarence sees through it all: "How easy it is, Clarence thought, to use the word 'God' when the reality has been construed out of existence. The God Who confronted Moses with a terrible burning presence, unspeakable."

Miller Chapel
Mr. Wilmot is prevented from leaving the ministry by a technicality. A year of probation is required for those who wish to demit the ministry. Wilmot returns to his parish for a year, but his faith does not return. He demits the ministry. He is surprised by how his status changes as an ex-minister: "He had not fully grasped how far his resignation from the church would drop him in the social scale; he had somehow imagined proceeding by inertia along the same path of respectability, only without the encumbrance of hypocritical pretense."

His hopes of becoming a teacher are dashed, and he gets a job in a clothing store till he is laid off because of an economic downturn. He is reduced to selling encyclopedias door to door, but he is not very good at it. Eventually he finds respite in the afternoons by watching movies.
Though he still walked erect, with a touch of the Wilmot panache, his sandy mustache was so whitened as to scarcely show in his face - the drained face of an addict enduring his days for the one hour in which he could forget in a trance as infallible as opium's, his fall, his failure, his disgrace, his immediate responsibilities, his ultimate nullity. Have mercy.
Updike has a good grasp of northern Presbyterianism at beginning of the 20th century. Historic orthodoxy was undermined by skepticism, atheism, higher criticism, Darwinism, and increasing scientific knowledge. There would be those who would press on in the old Calvinistic faith or its watered down stepchild, evangelicalism, but liberalism was ascendant. A few would leave when Machen was defrocked. Others would trickle out in subsequent decades. Some would experience the frog in the kettle syndrome while others would try (and still are trying) to use gracious dismissal procedures to get out when Biblical sexual morality was decisively rejected.

Wilmot is representative of those at the turn of the last century whose convictions were molded at Princeton or other bastions of conservatism but who could not withstand the intellectual assaults on the historic faith. However, it is not just challenges to conservatism that Updike so keenly discerns. He sees clearly both the bleakness of atheism and the inanity of liberalism.

It is a mistake, I think, but it is easy for some conservative Christians to scorn Wilmot. This is particularly true for those who have had distinct conversion experiences that left them without subsequent doubts and/or those whose ministerial training was in conservative schools where their experience of intellectual challenges to Christian faith occurred, not in the context of feeling the force of those challenges, but of being taught the errors of those challenges.

I remember an Old Testament seminary class in which we were assigned in twos to present conservative and liberal positions on various topics. I was assigned to present the liberal view of the book of Daniel. I familiarized myself with the views of liberal scholarship and in my oral presentation made the best argument I could against traditional views of authorship, date, etc. I recall the professor's saying something along the lines that I was not supposed to do quite that good a job. He was concerned lest I become convinced or convince others. The problem with not experiencing the force of other views is that they may come back to bite you in the butt later.

You have thought that the challenges to faith come from unbelievers who are out to destroy the faith and whose arguments are obviously silly. Then a baby is born with devastating birth defects, or you watch journalists beheaded, or you see the hopelessness of people in refugee camps, and you come face to face with the problem of evil and the goodness of God. You watch a person waste away with cancer and die hard, and you wonder about the triumph of faith and what became of dying well.  You wake up in the middle of night and are overwhelmed with the terror of the absence of God. You are reading along in the Old Testament, and it occurs to you that the way this reads it could be a case of cutting and pasting documents. You read the synoptic Gospels, and for the first time you ask, "Can these accounts be reconciled?" You are out for a walk and the thought comes, "Is there really a God?" You get to know a liberal minister or professor and you realize they don't have two heads or horns. You realize that people and thoughts are not so easily dismissed as you used to believe.

In my opinion this kind goeth not out by Van Til. You don't pull Wilmot back from the brink by telling him he
Van Til
must begin by assuming the whole Bible and every tenet of the Christian faith or he will never get his faith back. Perhaps part of his problem was with too much reliance on the evidentialist apologetics of the Hodges and Warfield, but presuppositionalism will not put solid ground under his feet. Telling him he is suppressing the truth in unrigheousness will feel to him like what he had been doing before he gave up his faith. To tell him his problem is not intellectual but moral will seem strange to him when he feels like he is finally being honest.

Nor in my opinion will it work to point out the implications and/or consequences of his new beliefs (or non-beliefs). He saw these things for himself - the meaninglessness, bleakness, and hopelessness of a world without God. But, implications or consequences are themelves not good reasons to reject beliefs. Wilmot's problem was that he became convinced of atheisim and then, rather than pretending he still believed, faced the results of not believing. You don't overturn a conviction a person believes is grounded in reality simply by showing them that the conviction has bad consquences if followed to its logical conclusion. The issue is not, "What are the consequences of this belief?" but, "Is this belief true or not?" For Paul it is not just that he should be pitied but that faith and preaching are in vain, and he is a liar, if Christ has not been raised.

I don't know the answers for a man like Wilmot. Perhaps there are none. But hope for him, if there is any, will not be found in treating him as as non-existent as he has come to be believe God is. The tendency of those who are undoubting and don't stumble is to treat the doubting and the stumbling as outcasts. The liberal moderator of Wilmot's presbytery had no sustantive faith himself, so he had no good reason to deal with Wilmot as anything other than a non-person he was glad to have off his list of problems. But conservative Christians who think they have the one true faith have no excuse, except that it is more comfortable. Many conservative Christians are better at writing off than hanging onto, at shunning than befriending, at denouncing rather than hearing, at disciplining rather than encouraging those who struggle.

Maybe Francis Schaeffer at his best (before he let the Religious Right co-opt him) gives us a hint. Schaeffer
Francis Schaeffer
who could sit with the unbelieving and immoral without scorn or fear of contamination and consider their struggles. Schaeffer who did not engage in self-righteous condemnation or give glib answers. Maybe we need a Tim Keller, who is willing to listen, to understand, to consider, to engage - to give Wilmots a reason for God.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Doubling Down in Mississippi

Chris McDaniel 

Wraps Himself in Bonhoeffer

I have not been a card player since my mother caught me with cards in hand in the church parlor with some worldly kids in the junior high group, revoked my parole, and sent me back to complete my sentence at Pensacola Christian School. My appeal to my father for a full pardon was not granted. However, I have learned from the Internet that "to double down" is a Blackjack term that means to double one's bet and receive another card. 

It is used in politics, however, to mean to make a mistake and then to stand by your mistake and/or keep making it. Here is an example of the use of the term in politics:  "Bulldog Ruff, who is running for dogcatcher, has described himself as an honor graduate of the Academy of Canine Obedience. However, an Academy spokesman told reporters they have no record of Bulldog ever studying at the Academy. Confronted with this information, Mr. Ruff double downed and growled, 'Not only did I attend the Academy and graduate with honors. I was a straight A student.'" 

Something similar happened Friday in Mississippi, a state in which I spent a cumulative 25  years beginning in 1969 when I enrolled at Reformed Theological Seminary (definitely not a honor graduate). For those who don't keep up with Mississippi politics, here is a brief summary of the current contest for the position of United States Senator.
Thad Cochran, 76 years old and first elected to the Senate in 1978, was challenged in the Republican Primary by state Senator Chris McDaniel. McDaniel campaigned against Cochran as a "RINO", not a "true conservative", a part of the "establishment". McDaniel finished the June 3 primary with a lead but did achieve more than 50% so a runoff was held. The Republican "machine" led by former Governor and Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Haley Barbour, cranked up, turned out the vote, and Cochran won by more than 7,000 votes. 

McDaniel, who was confident he would win, cried foul. He refused to concede or give the usual perfunctory endorsement of his opponent. His campaign claimed 
that some associated with Cochran's campaign appealed to Black voters by falsely accusing McDaniel of being a racist (there is always a racial component in Mississippi) and that large numbers of Democrats voted in the runoff. (Note: In Mississippi there is no party registration and primaries are open.) Hence the Cochran campaign engaged in "unfair" tactics and "stole" the election. McDaniel appealed to the Mississippi Republican Executive Committee to certify him as the winner of the runoff, but the Committee stood by its certification of Cochran as the nominee.

McDaniel's legal team went to work and sued Cochran. The judge appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court to hear the case threw it out on the technical grounds that the challenge was not timely filed. On Friday McDaniel appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The same day he posted on his campaign Facebook page the above picture and quotation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian and pastor  who opposed the Nazis, and was hanged by the regime. Since the runoff McDaniel has cast the contest as not just between "RHINOs" and "real Republicans" but between good and evil, righteousness and wrong, truth and falsehood. His ardent supporters believe this literally, and I have come to think McDaniel does as well.

I am theologically not great Bonhoeffer fan. I do, however, respect him as a man of Christian faith, conviction, and courage. I very much enjoyed the Metaxas biography of him.

I am a big fan of Haley Barber the Governor. I am not so sure I am a fan of his as a political operator (and,
yes, I know his "operating" was a big part of his success as Governor). He plays by Mississippi rules. In Mississippi politics, as in life there in general, you are an insider or outsider. Where you're from, and who indirection, maneuvering, eye-winking, and head-nod signaling. Operators usually work, not in the open, but behind the scenes to set things up. There can be a measure of malice and meanness behind the sincere face. Barbour reminds me of the politics I observed in my last Presbyterian presbytery (and BTW Barbour holds his church membership in that same presbytery).

your daddy and mama are, are very important. There is a lot of

But I digress...

I find the use of the Bonhoeffer quote by McDaniel reprehensible. Bonhoeffer was speaking about the depravity and evil of the Nazi regime. He spoke and acted against a wicked political system. But the McDaniel supporter sees the quote and thinks, "Evil=Cochran and the machine, speaking out and acting = what Chris McDaniel is doing."

McDaniel trivializes good and evil. He reveals a significant lack of historical knowledge and perspective. He shows great disrespect of Bonhoeffer's life, convictions, and death. He misuses the Bonhoeffer legacy.

As one might expect, among those who still are allowed to comment on the McDaniel Facebook page, there has been strong protest. But the McDaniel supporting Internet Mississippi Conservative Daily responded:
And when he did (post the Bonhoeffer quote) the rats crawled out from under their rocks! Senator McDaniel quoted a great man of God, which captures his resolve to fight on against any and all obstacles, and now he is being slammed for it, though it is from the same group of hacks who hate him anyway, so nothing really new here... 
But seeing the criticism this picture sparked reminded me of something Senator McDaniel said on the campaign trail, speaking of his many critics: “If they saw me walking on water, they would say it’s because I can’t swim!”
Imagine the flaming darts this man has taken throughout all these many months in his quest to defeat Thad Cochran...
One of McDaniel's strongest Internet supporters wrote in the comments section of the Mississippi Daily Conservative story:
There are no “shades” of Evil. There is not some lighter type of Evil that can be negotiated or compromised with. Evil must be purged. Evil must be annihilated. There can be no pity for Evil. The only terms for dealing with Evil is that Evil MUST CEASE TO EXIST.
Chris McDaniel is fighting EVIL. He is fighting the most diabolical force in existence in this universe since the beginning of time. And he will not yield an inch or a millimeter. This is not the time for compromise. This is the time for complete Victory and complete DESTRUCTION of the EVIL ENEMY. 
 When challenged the same author responded:
I will attempt to explain. Did you ever think that John the Baptist did not have to die? He could have been a politician. He could have compromised with the King and Salome. He might have justified in his mind and said “Yes, these are bad people. But maybe they are not TOTALLY bad. So maybe we should all just get along”. And then his head would not have ended up on the bronze dinner plate. 
What they have done to Chris McDaniel is simply despicable. Never has a Statesman been treated so unfairly. What they did is worse than a lynching. What they did is a crucifixion.
What of McDaniel and his campaign staff? The Bonhoeffer picture and quote remain posted on his Facebook page. A little wisdom would have led him to order his staff to take the quote and picture down, and he would have issued a brief statement to the effect that he is sorry that his staff made this mistake, that he respects Bonhoeffer, and that he is sure that his staff meant no disrespect. Instead, whoever is in charge, whether McDaniel or his staff, has chosen to double down on the inappropriate use of Bonhoeffer.

I doubt that McDaniel's kindergarten teacher would have checked on his report card the box next to "plays well with others." At times I have wondered if there are any mature advisers and whether there are any grownups on his staff. Be that as it may, this is a cautionary story on several levels.

1. It tells us of the danger of mixing the Christian faith and politics. Many of McDaniel's supporters are Christian conservatives who view his campaign as a conservative crusade against entrenched evil. Thad Cochran, a fellow Baptist, personifies the evil that must be defeated. A RINO, anyone who is part of the "establishment" is opposed to what is good and righteous. Now the Republican Party at both the state and national levels must be purged of evil. The Party much be reclaimed from the wicked clutches of the establishment. Righteousness and purity must be restored. This campaign is no longer about political differences. It is about religious conflict.

2. It is a large mistake to listen only to those who agree. It seems that McDaniel and his supporters reinforce one another. He whips up his supporters. They share his crusade outlook and tell him his is a righteous cause. He can't let them down so he presses on. It seems he has developed something of a Messianic complex and his followers look to him as the savior of Mississippi, the Republican party, and potentially the nation. His winnowing fork is in his hand and the axe is laid to the base of the tree. There seems to be nobody who is saying, "This thing is getting out of hand. We need to lower the heat of the rhetoric." McDaniel lacks an exit strategy that he and his followers can live with so they continue to assure one another that they are on the side of righteousness. 

3. There is a destructive tendency when good and evil are absolutized in politics. This fight must now be to the death. If McDaniel somehow should prevail in court and be declared the nominee, he will then engage the "establishment" in mortal combat for the soul of the Party. The enemies now are not just the "Barbour machine", but the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Secretary of State, the Mississippi Republican Congressional delegation, and the Republican National Committee. If McDaniel cannot prevail, his supporters (and likely he) are ready to try to kill off Cochran by supporting the Democrat nominee. They want to divide then destroy the Mississippi Republican Party so they can build it from the ashes. And there remains the possibility that in the end McDaniel will die as a suicidal martyr for truth, justice and the American way.

There are times to double down, and there are times to fold. It's wisdom to know when to do the one and when the other. So far as the use of Bonhoeffer reveals, McDaniel doesn't have it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What Do Black People Want?

Especially Black Christians

Michael Brown

Yes, the title is meant to be provocative. It is directed particularly to African American Christians who, to some extent at least, identify with Reformed theology as well as to white Christians who understand and share their concerns. 

Several weeks ago I expressed serious doubts about the necessity and justice of the shooting (language warning) of a mentally unbalanced man by St. Louis police. In fact, as I watched, I found myself saying some of the things the young man who made the video said. Immediately I got push back from a professor of criminal justice, a policeman, a former policeman now a clergyman, and others. The comments pointed out that I did not understand policeman, police work, police procedures, and police experience because I am not a policeman. It was asserted that this was a "righteous shooting." I still have my doubts. I know that I am suspicious enough of police that I would never undergo any kind of questioning by police without legal counsel. No doubt someone will say, as police interrogators do, "Well, if you are innocent and have nothing to hide, what have you to fear?" My answer is, "A lot."

The shooting to which I refer in the previous paragraph is not the shooting of Michael Brown in nearby, Ferguson, MO. Unfortunately, so far as we know, there is no video of that shooting. We do not know what happened. It could be that an unarmed and innocent black teenager, who had his hands up in surrender, was shot to death by a prejudiced, trigger-happy policeman. It could be that a policeman, who confronted a young man who had been in trouble before and was walking down the middle of the road, was attacked and charged and justifiably fired his weapon killing the teenager. We must hope that the facts will become clear and that justice will be done. 

Regarding the Ferguson shooting, I have read over the past week or so blogs by the Rev. Thabiti Anyabwile, Assistant Pastor for Church Planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and Dr. Mike Higgins, Dean of Students at Covenant Theological Seminary. 

Mr. Anyawhile says that the policing system has historically been an instrument of oppression of African Americans, especially males:

... how long do you think it takes a police system and a justice system to exorcise the poison of officially-sanctioned racial animosity? How long do you think it takes people and systems to move from embraced and open racism to something resembling a true content-of-character, love-believes-all-things heart? 
Are all the racists and the racist sentiments of a police force with hundreds of years of practice gone in one generation? Have all the attitudes and practices that made forceful subjugation of African Americans possible disappeared in a couple of decades? Does justice travel city halls that fast and that sweepingly? I suspect not. Is it possible that the basic posture of police forces—though changed significantly—continues to be one of patrolling and suspiciously judging African Americans?
Mr. Anyabwile believes the systemic racism and oppression of the police affects even blacks who become policemen:
 ...our police officers work in a system. And systems don’t change overnight. Systems have a way of molding the behavior and attitudes of the best of people. That’s true of every system, and it’s no less true of law enforcement. It’s true even when you put a black man in a blue uniform. They find themselves acting out prejudices or facing the prejudices inside the force. The invisible hand of systemic prejudice is always at work on everyone in the system.

Dr. Higgins focuses particularly on the anger he and other blacks feel as a result of the Ferguson tragedy:

 ...Black folks know that they are not the privileged race and when this becomes evident, by an alleged act of police brutality or racial profiling, they move toward a boiling point. This time the pot boiled over. 

Even as an African American male, who is educated at the doctoral level and has reached the rank of full Colonel in the nation’s armed forces, I still deal with anger. But this anger is so deep that it is unexplainable. And when the anger is challenged–especially by a well-meaning white person–the anger just gets worse. It is like we want to say to that white person, “Do you really need me to explain it!?” “What planet do you live on!?”
Perhaps the most striking thing in Dr. Higgins blog is a seeming comparison of the death of Christ and the death of Michael Brown:
The Lord knows what it is like to lose a Son to violence. And amazingly, he is a friend of sinners, and he restores the fallen. May he restore this fallen community. Pray for the family of the victim as they are continually reminded of their loss. Pray for the police officer involved, as he too is somebody’s son.

On September 4 Jemar Tisby, President of the Reformed African American Network, followed up on his posts from earlier in the summer on the need for an "indigenous African American theology" with a report from a conference where this kind of theology was done partly in response to to the Ferguson shooting.

Mr. Tisby also addresses the matter of the anger African Americans feel:
One of the many psychological costs of living as a marginalized minority in this country is psychological vigilance. It is having to constantly ask the question, “Did that happen to me because I’m Black?” This constant hyper-awareness affects one’s emotional state. “Byproducts of psychological vigilance include
frustration, irritation, and hostility, which are the antecedents for anger and possibly depression.”

After empathizing with our anger, the panelists went on to affirm the value of Black life. Amidst many situations that blatantly or subtly undermine the humanity of African Americans, particularly young men, the Bible’s teaching on creation affirms the dignity of all people, including Blacks. The group referenced Genesis 1:26-27 which articulates the doctrine of the imago dei or the image of God. It reminds us that we all, no matter our race, are created in the image of God. Therefore, no matter what we have done or failed to do, we are entitled to life and respect from our fellow image bearers.

Having our anger validated helped assuage our rage. And pointing us to the dignity of all human life, including Black male life, helped us seek peace instead of retribution.
Most interesting is the approach of indigenous African American theology to the doctrine of the perseverance of believers. Perseverance for minorities means a struggle, not only with the sin you are tempted to commit, but with the sins others commit against you:
While I have often heard sermons or read blogs or books about perseverance in the midst of personal sin, I have seldom heard how to persevere as a racial minority. Evangelical and Reformed Christians have much more experience applying theology to issues of personal piety. Thus it is common to talk about perseverance in the face of the constant temptation to sin. We are indeed called to holiness and righteous works. So perseverance in holiness is certainly a valid and needed application. But there are further applications.

At the LDR Weekend, I heard pastors and other leaders talk about perseverance not in regards to indwelling sin but in regards to imposed sin. Imposed sin is unrighteousness that is forced upon a person or people group by another person or people group. Imposed sin is oppression, and African Americans have endured much of it.
The oppression of minorities today is, if not identical with, very close to the oppression of the people of God in the Old Testament:
So how does one endure as a Christian in the midst of oppression or the challenges of life as a minority? The Bible has much to say about this. At the LDR Weekend we were pointed to passages in the Old Testament that told about the oppression of whole people groups.
Moreover, for minorities perseverance has to do, not only with acts of sin committed against you, but with just being in the minority:
Furthermore, perseverance need not pertain to outright acts of unrighteousness. Perseverance is needed simply to be a racial or ethnic minority in the midst of an overwhelmingly White denomination or theological tradition. Most African Americans who are Reformed are one of a very few in their church or community. As such, they constantly struggle to have their particular questions and needs addressed by the majority. Minorities are frequently in the place of speaking for their entire people group. They are often subject to unfair assumptions and face feelings of isolation.
As Dr. Higgins compares the death of Christ and the death of Michael Brown, similarly Mr. Tisby connects the experience of racial and ethnic minorities with Jesus the Ultimate Minority:
So we also look to the example of Jesus who was the minority of minorities. As the only truly righteous person who ever lived, Jesus was a minority everywhere He went. Yet Jesus endured to the end and we can have confidence that our Savior understands what it is like to be the only one of His kind in a particular situation.
While I know there are highly successful black men, three of whom I cited in my August 3 post, and others who could be cited (Mr. Herman Cain, Lt. Col. Allen West, and Sen. Tim Scott, for example) it is clear that these three black men who profess Reformed theology are angry, not only about the Ferguson shooting, but about the status of African Americans in society and in the church.

So let me ask a few questions.

Government. What do you want the goverment to do? Are there laws that still need to be enacted? Are there existing laws that need more rigorous enforcement? How do these things work out in terms of support of political parties, candidates, court appointments?

Society. What do you want society to do? Do you want more affirmative action in admissions and hiring? What roles would you allow for qualifications and achievments? How long do you envision such practices (as affirmative action) needing to continue? Do you want reparations? How would these be distributed? Is there a forseeable time and/or are there measurable benchmarks by which you would judge society to have done all a society as such can do?

Education. What would you like to see happen in the nation's public schools? Private schools? Do you want integration or separation of some of both? What role do you want race play in the appointment of teachers? What role do you want race to play in standardized testing and grading? Do you want standard (majority?) English to be taught as the norm? What should be included in history courses? What would you like to change about the way African American males are educated?

Civilization and Culture. What do you want to happen with regard to the western civilization and culture and how do you think they should viewed?  Do you want all civilizations and cultures to be regarded as equal? How would your view of civilization and culture change the content and processes of education?

Church. Do you want churches to remain mainly segregated by race in order for black Christians to have a sense of dignity and of ownership? Do you eventually want a distinct African American church with its own faith statements and practices while seeking to maintain some measure of continuity with the Reformed tradition?

Law and Police. What changes to you want in  the system of laws? What changes to you want in the judicial system? What policies do you want regarding police work, arrests, trials, and sentencing? What prison reforms to you want?

The South. Do you want Southerners, and in particular Southern Christians, to do about the past? the present? the War? their forbears? their churches?

What do black people want?