My Review of Wear at TGC

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Today TGC carries my review of Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope:

Conservatives and progressives are both defined by their strong sense of alienation from the advanced modern life they see around them; both view modern life as morally empty. Progressives like Wear tend to believe our moral emptiness consists of insufficient concern for the well-being of those in greatest need. Conservatives tend to believe the moral emptiness of modern life consists of an excessive focus on people’s material circumstances as the measurement of their well-being, to the exclusion of personal virtue and authentic spiritual community.

Both impulses become dysfunctional if pursued to an extreme, but both are necessary elements of any well-balanced understanding of what it means to do justice and mercy. The church and the nation must overcome our polarization so that all of us—on both sides of the aisle—will equally value the command to feed the hungry and the insistence that man does not live by bread alone. In the present circumstance, that means we need more people like Wear and more books like Reclaiming Hope.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

My Initial Thoughts on TBO

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Well, the book is out, and I’ve contributed to a Colson Center symposium on the idea. We were invited to submit up to 175 words, which I know is a truly vast torrent of verbiage, so if you don’t have time to read my whole contribution I would stress this point:

Transformation is needed, but withdrawal does not transform. Instead, as we saw at Pentecost, by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, the gospel is now to be expressed within the daily life of all the world’s nations. We must rely on the Holy Spirit to make us disciples in our daily lives as Americans—for we have no other lives to live.

For the sake of honesty, I want to record that I was invited to contribute to the symposium even if I hadn’t read the book, which I haven’t (it’s only just out, after all). We were told that we could look at this CT article and then respond to the Benedict Option rather than to The Benedict Option, and that’s what I’ve done. In my contribution, I quoted the specific claims to which I was responding, in hopes of avoiding the impression that I was responding to the whole book (which I haven’t read) rather than to those specific claims (which I have).

I’m sure I’ll read the book eventually, but frankly, it’s hard to find the motivation. The way TBO has been discussed publicly for years has struck me as similar to a phenomenon common in academia: You popularize a phrase that appeals to many people, but for multiple reasons that are not easily reconciled with one another, and then build a career for yourself as the only person who is allowed to authoritatively resolve disputes about what the phrase “really” means. So those who see TBO exemplified in Tim Keller’s church and those who see it exemplified in monestaries will provide Rod Dreher with job security as a referee. But whatever TBO means to Dreher, if some champion it because they love Kuyperians and other champion it because they love monks, it’s not clear to me just how much of a clear and stable meaning it will ever have in the public mind.

To the person who originally coined the phrase, of course, it meant hateful resentment toward our neighbors (“the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time”) and an implicitly totalitarian political philosophy. But we’re not allowed to remember that now.

If Dreher’s book provokes a fruitful rethinking that doesn’t lead into the dead end of MacIntyre’s resentment of freedom and hatred of flourishing, I’ll be glad he wrote it.

Religious Pseudo-Pragmatism

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The latest in my series on different models of the kingdom of God is up at The Green Room. I propose that “accommodation paradigm” churches – the ones whose critics call them loosey-goosey and marketing-driven – are struggling with what I call “religious pseudo-pragmatism.” I trace it to the decline of pragmatism after its initial success in the early 20th century, when the swindle at its heart was exposed both by the challenge of totalitarianism and the general disintegration of western culture:

The swindle exposed, some abandoned pragmatism in search of certainty in various fundamentalisms, secular or religious. Those who stuck self-consciously with pragmatism, like Richard Rorty, doubled down on the swindle, essentially accepting a world in which they would be forever fighting and killing totalitarians while acknowledging that in this eternal war no one is “right” or “wrong” in a deeply meaningful sense.

But the large majority in the West have retained their phobia toward absolute truth claims, even while they are also (as a result of the challenges of totalitarianism and disintegration) phobic toward not making absolute truth claims. While the swindle at the heart of pragmatism has been rejected, pragmatism’s deconstructive attacks against the making of absolute truth claims has not.

The result has been pseudo-pragmatism: We believe in absolute truth claims but we are afraid or ashamed to act like it.

Stay tuned for my next post, which will discuss how accommodation-paradigm churches can grow toward greater maturity in this area. In the meantime, I welcome any and all absolute truth-claims made in reply to my post!

Liberal Education and Political Freedom

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I don’t always put my education policy writing here on HT but this seems of particular interest – a piece I just published on liberal education and political freedom. Truly liberal education inculcates an understanding of truth and the human mind upon which political freedom depends.

A hundred years ago, educator J. Gresham Machen summed up the connection between liberal education and political freedom: “Reasonable persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club.” Machen even testified to the U.S. Congress against a scheme for federal control of education on grounds that it would remove freedom for diverse ideas in education. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)

Illiberal education begins not with the selfish desire to indoctrinate and manipulate (that comes later) but with a conviction that truth is constructed, not discovered:

It is out of a sincere conviction that freedom of thought produces only incoherence and fragmentation, not knowledge. If the human mind does not have a power of reason able to discover truth, we ought to demand a strong social authority because that will be our only source of knowledge.

If this illiberal view of human nature were right, highly controlled social environments such as OU would become islands of harmony and agreement. The continual degeneration of such institutions into fiercer and fiercer conflict, leading to schemes of indoctrination and brutal suppression of dissent, shows how wrong the illiberals are. Just look at how the attempt to create a women’s march on Washington ahead of the Trump inaugural was torn apart by infighting among the mutually hostile factions that make up the coalition of the illiberal left. The illiberal project eats itself, as parties fight each other to control the social instruments of indoctrination.

Because I am not a university administrator, I welcome your free thoughts in reply!

Getting Loosey Goosey

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My latest in a series on different understandings of the kingdom of God is up at The Green Room. I look at the kind of church that gets dismissed as loosey-goosey:

The point here is not just grace but the hermeneutic of grace. It is not just the job of the church to proclaim grace and practice grace but to make grace intelligible. In every time and place, it is hard for people reared and formed amidst the darkness of the world to wrap their heads and hearts around the reality of grace; it is the job of the church in every age to discern how to interpret grace in, and into, their culture’s system of symbols.

Accommodation paradigm churches care intensely about interpreting grace to people. As a result, they have set themselves to the enormously hard work of studying and learning how to use the complex system of symbols in the surrounding culture. In doing so they have gained mastery of a knowledge and skill set comparable to that required of an engineer or medical doctor.

As always, your comments are welcome!