I recently read a review by Chris Smart on the Solas blog of the book, Strange Rites, by Tara Isabella Burton, published by Public Affairs, New York 2020. My thoughts come third hand, but I found enough meat to chew on (hopefully) in the review to warrant some attention.
The author of the book is an American, though she establishes some objective distance through her Oxford education in the UK. Only about five percent (5%) of people in the UK attend church on Sundays, and the trend in the US is moving in that same direction.
Into the vacuum that is growing with nones in the US are rushing other objects of our religious impulses. This seems to be the focus of the book, analyzing the places religious impulses are taking modern Americans as they drift away from Christianity.
If Protestantism that has dominated the religious landscape in the US in the past is a religion of the printed book, the new spiritual movements in the US are “religions of the Internet”. That remark certainly doesn’t surprise me, though I had not thought of it that way.
The Internet is larger than life in our world. It has replaced encyclopedias and asking our parents (or even your doctors) for information. It eats up our spare time more completely than the television did in my youth and the radio did in my father’s youth.
The Internet is everywhere. It never leaves our sides. We turn to it feverishly at all hours of the day and night. We can’t wait to communicate with it, and we constantly check it for validation through its communication with us.
Chris Smart, summarizing Burton’s observations, describes our preoccupation with the Internet as a search for transcendence in which people are “looking to create meaning, purpose and community through new rituals”. Those “modern rituals” are exploited and perpetuated by big business.
Some of the largest big businesses are the purveyors of community and connectivity on the Internet. They help to lead people with the breadcrumbs of their own preferences to tribes that are personally tailored for them. Our new temples are the echo chambers of our own inclinations and the tribes to which they tend to lead.
“Earlier this summer, before I decided to take the time to read the three books I have covered in this series on critical race theory, I didn’t feel I really knew enough about it to say anything about it. I had heard a few talking heads on cable news decry it as Marxist and racist in and of itself, but didn’t really know much more than that. After a few people wrote to me and asked me what my view of CRT was and if I’d ever write a few posts on it, though, that is when I decided to read up on it and try to distill what I had learned about it in a short blog series.”
My past concerns about the critics of CRT I echo here: our baseline should be the Word of God, not political, ideological and philosophical standards. If we devolve into non-biblical standards, we loose our saltiness. We lose our distinctiveness as children of God, citizens of the kingdom of God and aliens and strangers in the world.
Because of the unique position of believers in relation to the world – in the world but not of the world – Christians have often staked out claims against injustice, including the abolition movement, while other people ignored the plight of the oppressed. I believe this is (partially) what it means to be salt and light.
Setting captives free was an essential component of the work of Jesus in the world, but it was only a component of his work. Preaching good news to the poor (the first of the things Jesus announced he came to do) is part and parcel of his purpose in the world. (Luke 4:17-20)
Neglect or rejection of the Gospel (the good news) is a chief complaint of critics of the proponents of CRT. Captives are not truly set free without it. Yet, those who would preach the good news cannot ignore the setting of the captives free. Jesus focused on both, and so should we. Thus, I agree with this first caveat of Anderson:
“I think it has to be clearly emphasized that criticism of CRT isn’t a denial of racism in America or a refusal to try to address clear problems in America that stem from our racist past.”
Anderson goes on to state:
“Rather, disagreeing with CRT means disagreeing with the claim that the American free market system and constitutional law is inherently racist and that Marxist principles and a Marxist system is what is needed to eradicate racism for good.”
I don’t disagree with him on the point that the American free market system and constitutional law is not inherently racist, or that Marxist principles are a poor substitute for a governmental system that has elevated more people out of poverty and oppression than other system of law in history. At the same time, I am not going to die on that hill. Calvary is where I will take my stand.
The Gospel spreads and the kingdom of God thrives under any system of government, no matter how good or bad, precisely because it is not of this world. The kingdom of God cannot be equated with any system of human government. It transcends them all.
Anderson goes on to criticize CRT, but he comes back to this, which I think we MUST confront, especially in the body of Christ, who came to breach good news and set the oppressed free:
“[T]he reason we even have CRT, and the reason why we have growing calls for Socialism and Marxism, is because, quite frankly, there still is racial healing to be done and there still are issues of racial injustice to be addressed—and too often those instances have been ignored. America has indeed come a long way in healing racial injustices, but America has still nevertheless failed in certain areas—that is undeniable.”
CRT developed as a critique of an American system that has expressly addressed a history of racism with laws that have produced the promised outcomes of equality and fairness and justice for which people have hoped. It developed as a legal tool to address latent racism – racism that lies below the surface and continues on despite laws that prohibit overt racial behavior.
CRT was not proposed as a Marxist ideal designed to achieve Marxist outcomes. It was an attempt to get at pernicious racial disparities that persist despite laws that expressly outlaw it. Thus, I agree with Anderson when he says:
“I believe [CRT proponents] they have a genuine concern for injustice, and they want to address it.”
People are not our enemies. We can’t forget that, even people who advocate systems we don’t believe in. Even if we count them as enemies, Jesus clearly said we should love them. We in the body of Christ need to take that imperative seriously.
We may might fight against principalities and thoughts which hold people captive, but the people who hold them and and who are influenced by them are not (should not be) our enemies. They are the ones for whom Jesus was willing to leave the 99. They are in the field that is ripe unto harvest.
Again, I don’t personally disagree with his assertion:
“The problem is that they honestly think all that is needed is the implementation of a ‘better system’—the Marxist system. But that is simply detached from historical reality. It reflects the naïve wishful thinking of an ideology that has failed miserably, time and time again.”
But these are secondary matters in relation to the kingdom of God, which is not of this world. The Gospel goes forward in communist China and Russia and in theocratic Iran. The Gospel is not deterred by the systems of human government. It thrives despite them. Sometimes it thrives because of them, as people yearn for the eternity that God put in their hearts.
The Kingdom of God is always contrary to the kingdoms of this world, even free market, constitutional, and democratic kingdoms.
I wholeheartedly agree with Anderson when he says:
“CRT certainly highlights the clear racists policies of America’s past, and it sometimes points out clear instances of racial injustice still around today.”
We should not deny these things. Of all people, followers of Jesus, who is the way, the Truth and the life, should not ignore the truth of the injustice that survives in our world. Not that we can eradicate injustice in a fallen world. Injustice in a fallen world is inevitable, but we should not be any part of it.
For this reason, alone, we dare not ignore injustice, even when the majority of the people who seem to be fighting it are advocating systems of government that tend contrary to our political views.
For this reason, therefore, I suggest that we have more in common with fighters of injustice than members of our own political tribe who stand opposed because we serve a God whose throne is built on a foundation of justice and righteousness.
The nuance of that awkward positions may seem difficult to navigate, but we should be accustomed to awkward positions – being in the world, but not of the world. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways ore not our ways. We can trust Him to lead us through it.
Thompson recalls those enlightened 19th century pundits who predicted the death of God and advances in “scientific discovery and modernity” that would lead to widespread atheism. Thompson is a skeptic, himself. While Europe has largely gone the way the pundits predicted, The United States has resisted that prognostication – at least until recently.
Thompson blames “America’s unique synthesis of wealth and worship” and “stubbornly pious Americans” for the United States not going with the flow of the Enlightenment ascent of man from the superstitious dark ages into the light of science and reason.
While the rest of the western world has been drifting away from religious affiliation, and religion altogether, the United States seemed impervious to those forces working on the rest of the western world – until recently. Things began to change in the United States in the 1990’s, and that trend continues.
The article borrows heavily from Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, for figures and figurings of the reasons why. The shift is clear, though, and the statistics bear it out, that religious affiliation and interest in religion in the United States is waning and going the way of the rest of the western world.
“According to Smith, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” Smith goes on to provide some explanation for how these “events” have triggered the change. He says,
“The marriage between the religious and political right …. disgusted liberal Democrats, especially those with weak connections to the Church. It also shocked the conscience of moderates, who preferred a wide berth between their faith and their politics.”
Thompson’s article got me thinking. He is right about the trend away from religion in the United States. We don’t need data to tell us that. The “nones” are increasing while the committed believers are decreasing. That these observations come from “outside the camp” doesn’t make them false.
Thompson’s explanations for the reasons why this is may be more of a mixed bag. He (naturally) views the changes through a naturalistic lens. He may be right about some of the cause and effect, but he (naturally) isn’t likely to see the more spiritual side of those things.
I “grew up” spiritually during the mid to late 80’s when the marriage between religion and the political right was consummated. I fell out of step with it, and lost track of it, when I went to law school in 1988. Apparently the honeymoon went well.
I count myself (even today) as an evangelical (though I search for a different label). My spiritual upbringing included the experience of the courting of the religious right of the Republican Party. (Or was it the other way around?)
Law school, however, challenged even my most sacrosanct connections, and the cares and concerns of fatherhood and providing for a growing family distracted me from other relationships. It was all I could do to hold onto God during this time, and the truth is that He mostly held onto me.
Perhaps, that was a blessing in disguise, as I didn’t grow into the religio-politico affiliation that seems to characterize a large segment of the evangelical church today. I am a more distant observer of that relationship today, so I think I have some objectivity left.
I agree (partially) with Thompson’s assessment that the congruence of the religious right and the political right changed the political landscape. It also changed the religious landscape. Perhaps, more than we might care to acknowledge.
I read Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, about a year ago, and I have written about it a few times. Many Christians would not think to read a history about Western Civilization by a self-described secular humanist (once atheist, perhaps now agnostic) historian.
Most non-Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the chronicle Holland describes of the radically influential role that Christianity played in the development of Western Civilization, providing the foundation, in fact, for secular humanist ideals. When Holland dug down to the bedrock of modern, western values, he was surprised himself to find them anchored on a Christian foundation.
Holland did not set out to write a Christian apologetic, and he seems to remain somewhat uncertain how to process what he “discovered”. What he found, though, changed his mind about Christianity. He gives a brief explanation in the following clip:
Though Holland has had a turnabout on his view of Christianity, he finds himself caught in an odd position wrought by the unexpected discovery that his lifelong, secular humanist values flow from the radical catalyst of Christian influence and remain embedded ubiquitously in its very fabric. The awkwardness of his current position is evident in his interviews and discussions about the book.
Christians and secular thinkers, alike, wrestle with his book. Holland doesn’t hide any warts, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Neither does he obfuscate the thoroughly paradigmatic shift in Western thinking that Christianity worked into a society that once proudly and unashamedly championed strength and privilege over the poor, the weak, and the lowly.
Holland exposes the metanarrative developed during the Enlightenment and thereafter that belies the foundation on which the Enlightenment structure was built. Far from advancing the progression of human values, the Enlightenment threatened to undo the distinctly Christian concern for the poor, weak, and lowly while attempting to wrest western civilization from the hold of the Divine. Humanism saved the Christian ethic, albeit divorced from Christ.
Consider the full title of Darwin’s great tome which staked out the ground of a scientific (and social) revolution free from God’s interference:
“The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”
The title of Darwin’s book championing the evolutionary paradigm, harkens back to the Greco-Roman value system that despised the poor, the weak and the lowly. That value system did not just turn a callous eye at wanton and discriminate cruelty, it cheered on the strong while they snuffed out the weak. It was national sport!
The very reason the full title never “stuck” (I now believe) is due to a fundamental, pervasive, and thoroughly entrenched counter-value of the intrinsic worth of human life that is uniquely Christian in its source.
The intrinsic value of all human life, from the greatest to the least, from the wisest and strongest to the weakest and most imbecilic, from the fittest to the most infirm, is traceable to the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God. That the survival of the fittest did not take hold as a western social or ethical value is attributable to the deeply ingrained Christian ethic that survived yet, despite the efforts to eradicate its God from modern equations.
Modern humanists may attempt to recast Darwin into a humanistic mold, but the idea of “social Darwinism” bears his name through no model of random, unguided selection. According to John G. West, Charles Darwin, himself, set in motion the inertia for eugenics, among other things, that were associated with social Darwinism:
Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.
While the defense of Darwin against the charge of social Darwinism has largely succeeded in popular and polite company, the very title of the Origin of Species (by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) belies the success of that effort. The fact that the full title is merely a parenthetical today is evidence only of a concerted rescue campaign.
Christian values survived despite the Enlightenment coupe, not because of it. Humanism today assumes the evolutionary paradigm for its science alongside the uniquely Christian paradigm of intrinsic human value. That the two assumptions do not fit well together seems to be lost on modern minds.
Sprinkle and Urszynski are in agreement that Christians generally are doing a poor job of grappling with the issue of race in the United States. Most Christians are vocal in their criticism of secular solutions, but few Christians are really engaging with the underlying issues.
Critical Theory, CRT and Marxist ideology and terminology are fueling the discussion in the secular culture. Identity politics, systemic racism, police brutality is the language commonly used in the secular world to frame the discussion. Whether Christians are condemning these concepts or aligning with them, Christians are not offering much in return.
In the podcast, one the two men (I can’t remember which) said that we should have different language inside the Church. We should have Gospel language that addresses injustice.
“We should have a theological understanding of the concept of justice…. We should be immersed in care and concern for vulnerable populations, regardless of color, regardless of gender, regardless of background. We should be robustly able to think about what it means to care for the least of these, to watch out for people who are being taken advantage of…. That’s a biblical idea that we should be deeply immersed in theologically and biblically.”
That, however, isn’t happening in most Christian circles. People who are engaging in the conversation are engaging in it with the secular terminology and don’t recognize that we need to separate ourselves from that secular perspective. We are defining ourselves in relation to secular concepts, rather than driving the conversation from a biblical perspective with biblical concepts and biblical terminology.
Christian are either adopting CRT in church, which is the primary, secular approach, or Christians are rejecting CRT without offering a Gospel orientated alterative. People address CRT (by opposing it), but they are largely not addressing or effectively engaging the race conversation on a theological level.
“We have done a horrible job, generally, in embracing, and believing and obeying the rich theological theme of what the Kingdom of God is designed to look like and how it is designed to function in terms of its multiethnic backbone.”