Egopapism and the Arlington Five

Over at The Catholic Thing, Francis Beckwith reflects on the “egopapism” of five Arlington diocese catechists who refused to sign a profession of faith in the catechism they teach:

The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia has recently drawn national attention because it has asked its catechists to sign a profession of faith that asserts that they believe the catechism that the Church has commissioned them to teach and are committed to the Church as the guardian and custodian of that faith.

In short, they are being asked to admit that they are Catholics and that they believe in Catholicism. This, apparently, is so controversial that five out of the 5,000 diocesan catechists (including parochial school teachers) have resigned over this request. Five, by the way, is the number of popes that have served the Church over my lifetime.

At least one of the five catechists, Kathleen Riley, who is 52, is, like me, a Catholic child of the 1970s (I am 51), which means that we were part of the first generation of Catholics who were spiritually and intellectually formed “in the spirit of Vatican II.”

All that the Church is asking the Arlington Five is that they treat the Church’s theology and its development with as much respect and deference as Ms. Riley expects others to treat the knowledge tradition about which she is an expert.

Just as she and her peers correctly require those who dissent from the dominant understandings in computer science to offer their case within the confines of practices, an established body of knowledge, and methodological constraints that have developed over time for the good of the profession, the Church requires those who dissent to offer their case within the confines of practices, an established body of knowledge, and methodological constraints that have developed over time for the good of the Church.

So what are the Arlington Five’s arguments? How do they ground their dissent, and how is it consistent with, and a natural development of, the deliverances of the Church’s theological tradition?

To simply say – without any regard to argument, precedent, or established norms of theological engagement – that “the Holy Spirit gives us the responsibility to look into our own consciences,” as Ms. Riley asserts, is in fact to embrace an anti-intellectual and fundamentally irrational position.

The Arlington Five, like many American Catholics and Protestants, have assimilated a contemporary understanding of theology that is intrinsically hostile to the faith they claim to embrace. It is an understanding that sees theological beliefs as irreducibly personal, private, preference driven, and non-cognitive.

This is not intellectual freedom. It is solitary confinement in an egopapist prison.

I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have a dog in this particular hunt. Nonetheless, it raises an interesting question: Is the Christian faith public knowledge or private belief? That question applies equally well to Catholic and Protestant Christians.

Christianity the Worst Source of Evil?

John Stackhouse responds to a claim commonly heard from New Atheists, namely, that Christianity is a great source of evil:

Those who would claim the high ground of rational and historical argument ought to sit still for some. And that argument might show–I think it does–that Christianity is not inherently hateful or violent. Instead, it would show that faithful (rather than token or cynical) adherence to Christianity generally makes a measurable positive difference: in terms of the hospitals and schools and science you mention, as well as leading markers of social and psychological health such as lasting, happy marriages, high levels of volunteerism–and, one should note, an ethical structure that actually prizes lasting, happy marriages and high levels of volunteerism.

This is a start at an answer, at least. David Martin’s excellent book Does Christianity Cause War? is worth your reading on this question, as is the volume of essays edited by Kenneth Chase and Alan Jacobs, Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology.

Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-In-Between

Rachel Held Evans weighs in on the debate between Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass over “the death of (liberal? conservative?) Christianity”:

Some of you confessed that, rather than accepting one Christian “package” or the other, you’ve simply bowed out of church altogether—unable to fit into either group. (I can certainly relate to this dilemma.) Multiple studies suggest that this is exactly what’s happening, as young adults in particular leave the Church in droves. I suspect that the liberal/conservative divide itself is a factor in these declining numbers, and yet the divide grows with every new disconcerting study as liberals and conservatives point at one another and yell, “It’s your fault!”

Frankly, I find the whole conversation a bit depressing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want either group to “meet its demise” because I love elements of both! In fact, I think there are a lot of progressive, mainline churches that could benefit from a shot of evangelicalism, and a lot of evangelical churches who could benefit from a shot of progressivism.  We have so much to learn from one another, but instead we’re like a pair of toddlers fighting over space in the sandbox.

But if the early church could survive—and in fact, thrive  amidst persecution—when it included both Jews and Gentiles, zealots and tax collectors, slaves and owners, men and women, those in support of circumcision and those against it, those staunchly opposed to eating food that had been sacrificed to idols and those who felt it necessary, then I think modern American Christianity can survive when it includes democrats and republicans, biblical literalists and biblical non-literalists, Calvinists and long as we’re not rooting for one another’s demise.   

With this in mind, maybe being  “in between” isn’t so bad. Maybe being “in between” puts those of us who find ourselves torn between conservative Christianity and liberal Christianity in a position to act as peacemakers and bridge-builders between the two groups.  Maybe it enables us to help break down these binaries altogether, as we are living proof that you don’t have to choose one or the other.

I’m sympathetic to Rachel Held Evans’ sentiment, though not necessarily her specific examples. But with her, I wonder why certain ideas and practices get packaged together. Why is conservative theology so often packaged with support for America’s wars? Why is concern for the poor so often packaged with Progressive politics? Can’t the orthdox oppose war? Can’t capitalists help the poor?

So here’s the question: Why are certain Christian ideas and social practices packaged together?

What Legalists and Atheists Cannot Understand: Grace

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Chris Castaldo reminds us that how we Christians see God impacts how others see our God:

The parable [of the prodigal son] ends there. Unlike the earlier stories, there is no explicit lesson from Jesus. We don’t know whether the formerly lost son’s big brother joins in the celebration, though it is clear that he should. The point, you see, is not bowing to some crabbed notion of fairness, but losing ourselves in God’s grand graciousness. Will the son forsake his pride and jealousy and become more like his gracious father? Will the Pharisees and scribes?

The question also applies to us, especially to those of us who are considered religious leaders, who faithfully serve and obey God. Have we entertained the same kinds of warped notions about God? Do we secretly feel that serving the Lord is duty that deserves some sort of reward? If so, are we dangerously close to a soul-stifling legalism? When a sinner repents after a lifetime of dissipation, are we happy about a new brother or sister in Christ, or are we unhappy that he or she “got away with it”?

In these stories, we learn that celebration is the natural response of heaven to a lost sinner being found. Do we feel the same way? I am reminded of a message by Tony Campolo, “The Kingdom of God Is a Party.” While the kingdom is surely more than that, it cannot be less.

Christopher Hitchens was wrong. God is no cosmic tyrant. To entertain this kind of slur even for a moment dishonors the Lord and contradicts the good news we have been sent to share. So as we persevere in doing the good and hard work of the kingdom, let us never forget that if we see our gracious God as he is, chances are that others will see him that way, too.

Marriage, Religious Liberty, and the “Grand Bargain”: An Instance of Neuhaus’ Law?

The late Richard John Neuhaus once articulated a principle that he presumed to call Neuhaus’ Law: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” Over at Public Discourse, Robert P. George offers what I take to be an instance of this law, namely, the “grand bargain” between proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage:

Since most liberals and even some conservatives, it seems, apparently have no understanding at all of the conjugal conception of marriage as a one-flesh union—not even enough of a grasp to consciously consider and reject it—they uncritically conceive marriage as sexual-romantic domestic partnership, as if it just couldn’t possibly be anything else. This is despite the fact that the conjugal conception has historically been embodied in our marriage laws, and explains their content (not just the requirement of spousal sexual complementarity, but also rules concerning consummation and annulability, norms of monogamy and sexual exclusivity, and the pledge of permanence of commitment) in ways that the sexual-romantic domestic partnership conception simply cannot. Still, having adopted the sexual-romantic domestic partnership idea, and seeing no alternative possible conception of marriage, they assume—and it is just that, an assumption, and a gratuitous one—that no actual reason exists for regarding sexual reproductive complementarity as integral to marriage. After all, two men or two women can have a romantic interest in each other, live together in a sexual partnership, care for each other, and so forth. So why can’t they be married? Those who think otherwise, having no rational basis, discriminate invidiously. By the same token, if two men or two women can be married, why can’t three or more people, irrespective of sex, in polyamorous “triads,” “quadrads,” etc.? Since no reason supports the idea of marriage as a male-female union or a partnership of two persons and not more, the motive of those insisting on these other “traditional” norms must also be a dark and irrational one.

Thus, advocates of redefinition are increasingly open in saying that they do not see these disputes about sex and marriage as honest disagreements among reasonable people of goodwill. They are, rather, battles between the forces of reason, enlightenment, and equality—those who would “expand the circle of inclusion”—on one side, and those of ignorance, bigotry, and discrimination—those who would exclude people out of “animus”—on the other. The “excluders” are to be treated just as racists are treated—since they are the equivalent of racists. Of course, we (in the United States, at least) don’t put racists in jail for expressing their opinions—we respect the First Amendment; but we don’t hesitate to stigmatize them and impose various forms of social and even civil disability upon them and their institutions. In the name of “marriage equality” and “non-discrimination,” liberty—especially religious liberty and the liberty of conscience—and genuine equality are undermined.

The fundamental error made by some supporters of conjugal marriage was and is, I believe, to imagine that a grand bargain could be struck with their opponents: “We will accept the legal redefinition of marriage; you will respect our right to act on our consciences without penalty, discrimination, or civil disabilities of any type. Same-sex partners will get marriage licenses, but no one will be forced for any reason to recognize those marriages or suffer discrimination or disabilities for declining to recognize them.” There was never any hope of such a bargain being accepted. Perhaps parts of such a bargain would be accepted by liberal forces temporarily for strategic or tactical reasons, as part of the political project of getting marriage redefined; but guarantees of religious liberty and non-discrimination for people who cannot in conscience accept same-sex marriage could then be eroded and eventually removed. After all, “full equality” requires that no quarter be given to the “bigots” who want to engage in “discrimination” (people with a “separate but equal” mindset) in the name of their retrograde religious beliefs. “Dignitarian” harm must be opposed as resolutely as more palpable forms of harm.

Evangelical Scientists Debate Evolution, Bible

Over at HuffPost Religion, Travis Loller writes about an interesting dialogue between Southern Baptist theologians and evangelical scientists at the BioLogos Foundation:

Many Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant Christians today see parts of the Bible such as the creation as metaphorical, but for many evangelical Christians such a belief is untenable.

Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler, a young-earth creationist, has called the attempt to reconcile evangelicals to evolution a “direct attack upon biblical authority.”

Keathley, meanwhile, calls himself an old-earth creationist who accepts that the universe is billions of years old, but also believes that God directly intervened at certain points in natural history.

In an introductory essay to the series, Keathley lays out several points where he believes Southern Baptists are at odds with the BioLogos model. Among them is whether Adam and Eve were real people who experienced a real fall from grace with God that brought sin into the world. The concept is also central to the idea that Jesus saved the world from sin through his death on the cross.

Falk and two other writers state respond that science tells us “there was never a time when the human population from which all modern humans descended was as small as two individuals.” Instead, they suggest the possibility that “God began a covenantal relationship with a real, historical first couple who brought about spiritual death as a result of their disobedience.”

Keathley also points out that for some Christians, evolution presents a problem because it implies that suffering and death have been with the world from the beginning, rather than resulting from rebellion against God.

“Young-earth creationists ask, `What does this do to the nature of God if God created the world with pain and suffering from the beginning?'” Keathley said in an interview.

Another essayist, Bill Dembski, who is a research fellow at the Discovery Institute and one of the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement, takes it a stretch further when he says, “In terms of strict logic, nothing takes you from natural selection to atheism, but, as a practical matter, many people find that Darwin makes atheism seem plausible.”

Falk and others say in their essay that the problem of evil is a challenge, but that “Scripture does not take a universally negative view of suffering and death in the present age. Rather it is recognized as being both a tragedy and a creative force.”

So far, BioLogos has published four essays and responses with three more planned. Writers on both sides say the dialogue has been useful. Keathley said the response he has heard from other Southern Baptists has been overwhelmingly positive.

You can read the essays for yourself here.

“A religious organization is a remarkably poor vessel for either piety or prophecy.” Randall Balmer

In a review of Embattled Ecumenism by Jill K. Gill, Randall Balmer writes:

…one of the lessons of the NCC is the frailty and ultimately the impotence of institutions, especially in the absence of popular support. A religious institution may be a sociological necessity, but it ultimately seeks its own perpetuation. The NCC became obsessed with various bureaucratic reorganizational schemes as its cultural influence waned.

A religious organization is a remarkably poor vessel for either piety or prophecy. And when religious leaders seek favor and influence in the councils of power, the prophetic voice suffers—an indictment that applies as much to the religious right as it does to the NCC.

As America heads into its presidential election, it’s a good idea for evangelicals of all political stripes to keep Balmer’s warning in mind.

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.” @JohnPiper Really?

Here’s how John Piper begins his response to a question about God’s commandment to slaughter the Canaanites:

It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.

Peter Enns has some problems with that.

I do too, though I’m not sure I completely agree with Enns’s critique of Piper.

Your thoughts?

Childlike Faith: Are Kids Born with Belief?

Christianity Today has an interesting interview with Justin Barrett, author of Born Believers.

Why do you suggest children are “born believers”?

I’m using that term in a folk sense, the way we might say that Michael Jordan was a born basketball player, or Mozart was a born musician. I don’t mean that Mozart came out of the womb playing the clavichord, but that given very minimal cultural and environmental input, he was going to take to it like ducks to water. Virtually all humans are essentially born believers—they have a natural receptivity to religious belief.

I’m contributing a new line of research that affirms [Swiss developmental psychologist Jean] Piaget’s insight that children see design and purpose and meaning, but challenges his idea that they see human design or purpose. Piaget posited that young children believe that humans made the mountains or the sun. He thought they believed that God is just a human being involved in this creative process with other humans. But new research is showing that by the age of 4, children say that humans make some things, such as chairs and tables, but not mountains and trees. Even preschoolers know that humans are not the answer to the “who made the world?” question. Someone else is needed.

What scientific evidence do you see?

We are not starting with unformed blobs that can be shaped into anything we like. Research from developmental psychology suggests children learn some things more easily and are attracted to some ideas more than others. There are certain kinds of ideas that children can learn more easily and rapidly than others, and internalize more deeply, such as believing in gods.

Children have a natural disposition to see the natural world as having purpose. Research has shown that children have a strong inclination to see design in the world around them, but they are left wondering who did it. They also know design doesn’t arise through random chance or mechanistic processes. In fact, children (and adults) automatically look for a person behind purpose or design. By five months old, infants already make the distinction between things that are acted upon and those things that do the acting, that is, intentional agents (like people). And preschoolers’ default assumption is that these agents are super-knowing, are super-perceiving, and are not going to die. If a child is exposed to the idea of a god that is immortal, super-knowing, super-perceiving, the child doesn’t have to do a lot of work to learn that idea; it fits the child’s intuitions.

How do you respond to arguments that say that what you are describing is normal childish belief in magical creatures, such as Santa?

There are all kinds of childish beliefs, such as the idea that other people have minds, that there is a real world out there, that the laws of nature are stable, that my mother loves me. All these ideas are rooted in children’s early developing intuitions. If that is someone’s claim, I accept it; religious belief is in awfully good company.

There are interesting similarities to Santa Claus. He is an agent, with special powers to account for certain kinds of peculiar events in the world. But Santa falls terribly short in other domains. He matters only a few weeks of the year at best. He doesn’t fill the conceptual gap about why the natural world is the way it is. There are limitations as to what Santa knows and doesn’t know, what Santa perceives and doesn’t perceive. At the core, the reason children believe in Santa is that Santa is propped up through ruse and deception. If that’s all religions had going for them, they would die out pretty quickly.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: