July 12, 2012

A thought and a prayer

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, July 12, 2012

A thought and a prayer

A man whom I've grown to respect greatly is Harvard- and Oxford-educated Dr. Robert P. George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.

With Dr. George's permission, below I share his "A thought and prayer for my fellow Christians (and for myself)," written June 13, 2012:

"Surely no one is surprised that many Christians are swept along by cultural trends, no matter how antithetical they are to Biblical principles and the firm and constant teaching of the faith. 'Twas ever thus. (Indeed, 'twas thus for the ancient Hebrews, too, as scripture makes more than abundantly clear.)

"And Christians who fall in line with a trend always find ways to say that the trend, whatever it is, is compatible with Christian faith—even dictated by it! It's hard for human beings to actually be countercultural, and Christians are human beings just like everybody else.

"So when Marxism is trendy, there will be self-proclaimed Christian Marxists. When Fascism is fashionable, there will be self-identified Christian fascists. When racial subordination and segregation is the cultural norm, we'll baptize it. When eugenics is in vogue, there will be Christians claiming that eugenic practices and policies constitute Christian love in practice.

"If polyamory becomes the next cause embraced by the beautiful people and the cultural elite, we will start hearing about the Christian case for group marriage—'love cannot be arbitrarily confined to pairs.' And on and on.

"Being human, we crave approval and we like to fit in. Moreover, we human beings are naturally influenced by the ways of thinking favored by those who are regarded in a culture as the sophisticated and important people.

"When push comes to shove, it's really hard to be true to Christian faith; the social and personal costs are too high. We Christians praise the martyrs and honor their memories, but we are loath to lose so much as an opportunity for career advancement, or the good opinion of a friend, much less our lives. So we tend to fall in line, or at least fall silent.

"We deceive ourselves with rationalizations for what amounts to either conformism or cowardice. We place the emphasis on whatever happens in the cultural circumstances to be the acceptable parts of Christian teaching, and soft-pedal or even abandon the parts that the enforcers of cultural norms deem to be unacceptable.

"We make a million excuses for going along with what's wrong, and pretty soon we find ourselves going along with calling it right.

"Jesus says, 'if you want to be my disciple, you must take up your cross and follow me.' We say, 'um, well, we'll get around to that at some point.' May God have mercy on us."


P.S. I highly recommend Robert George's and the late Charles Colson's six-part video series, Doing the Right Thing and its companion Doing the Right Thing Simulcast DVD, available at The Colson Center or your local bookstore. In the simulcast video, Dr. George helpfully puts matters into proper perspective when he talks about the sanctity of human life: "The issue is so foundational, it has to be given priority. There are many other concerns: there is the environment, there is the economy, there is the defence of the nation. No one would treat those as anything other than urgent concerns, because they are. They are very important concerns.... But even more fundamental, and therefore entitled to an even greater priority, is the protection of innocent human life." Again, I say Amen.

P.P.S. Robert George is also an author of The Manhattan Declaration, which I highly recommend, too.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)


Ryan Turnbull said...

I just finished reading a book by Ben Myers called "Christ the Stranger". It is a book about the theology of Archbishop Rowan Williams and in it, the suggestion is made that truly orthodox theology is the adaptation of the gospel to the current cultural trends. While I respect the above quote for its call to standing firm on the message of the gospel, we must never confuse the message per se, with the message so interpreted. The book makes the point that the Arian controversy which the Nicene Creed was a response too, was brought about by theological conservativism. Arias had plenty of proof texts and reason on his side, but the Church saw a need to re-imagine doctrine and that is what made him a heretic, his inability to evolve if you will. I am concerned by the idea that we can ever draw a box around what it means to be Christian, and have a Christian position that must be defended at all costs. Perhaps the truly Christian position is to engage with some of these issues. Thus the Christian Marxist, the Christian fascist, the Christian homosexual, become redemptive forces in cultural trends, thus maintaining the catholicity of the Church and leading the advance of the Kingdom inexorably onward.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Ryan Turnbull,

Yes, I agree that we need to be careful that we don't promote just our peculiar understanding or interpretation of the Gospel. From what I gather from Robert George (who is a Roman Catholic), he is trying to encourage Christians from all major camps (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) to live in accordance with the basic principles of Christianity broadly understood (see his Manhattan Declaration and Doing The Right Thing).

About the Arian controversy, when I first began to take Christ seriously I had my own deeply intense struggle with deciding what to make of the resurrected Jesus. Who is Jesus: God, or not? One of my sisters was a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who, like Arius, deny that Jesus is God and say, rather, that Jesus is a created being. After several months of study, intellectual turmoil, and prayer (and after having a spiritual vision), I came to believe that the preponderance of New Testament textual evidence points to the Trinitarian understanding of God: one God in essence and a unity of three distinct persons all equally God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). I came to believe this not because I wanted to fit in with any particular orthodox Christian church (in fact, I truly loved [and continue to love] my sister and I was quite attracted to the strength of the commitment of the JWs); rather, I came to believe this because I wanted truth to be my master. I came to believe that Jesus is the God of the universe come to earth in human flesh because the evidence and the best reasoning point in this direction. Of course, I don't fully understand this (and I'm sure no human does), but the evidence and careful reasoning therefrom make the God-man hypothesis the best interpretation. Also, careful reasoning by the likes of philosopher Thomas V. Morris (author of The Logic of God Incarnate) shows that the concept of a human being also being God is not logically contradictory. All this to say: Although the Arian controversy involved a political dimension in the motivation to bring about the Nicene Creed (if I understand history correctly, Constantine wanted to put an end to the various church divisions), the fact remains that the Nicene Creed is grounded in good reasons and truth, unlike the Arian denial of Jesus' full deity. Subsequent creeds, which reflect the work of careful thinkers who also have struggled with what the biblical texts communicate, confirm this grounding and the view that Jesus is God. Yes, as you say, Arius "had plenty of proof texts and reason on his side," but it seems to me (and many others much smarter than me) that there is a cumulative case of texts and good reasons which show that Arius was mistaken. That Jesus is the God of the universe come in the flesh is a position that I believe is true and on which I have staked and continue to stake my life.

(Continued below)

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Is there a "box" that we can draw and say what's in the box is Christian and what isn't in the box isn't Christian? I understand that we don't want to, and shouldn't, elevate our personal fallible judgments to a God-like status. I get that, and I know that many succumb to such thinking (e.g., the Watchtower Society used to take a God-like position for Jehovah's Witnesses, predicting specific dates for Jesus' return, pronouncing on whether blood transfusions are appropriate, etc. ). Nevertheless, I believe that all truth is God's truth, and I believe that we can know, or at least have some good reasons for believing, some truths. Also, I think that we (whether we are Christians or not) should engage the claims of Marxists, fascists, homosexuals, etc. (whether they are Christians or not) to discern and appreciate whatever is true, noble, excellent, and praiseworthy. But where the claims are false, ignoble, mediocre, or evil, we should discern and appreciate that too. Moreover, where there is evidence for God's revelation, e.g., Jesus' life, death, resurrection vis-à-vis Jesus' claims to be God, then we should go with that as well. All this to say that a Christian is a follower of Jesus, the God-man who claims that He is the Truth, the Way, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father but by Him. (The question of whether someone is "saved" without having conscious knowledge of Jesus' identity, I will leave for God and His theologians to decide; the fact remains that this knowledge is publicly available and Jesus asks His followers to present it to others.) If this is a box, then it's a box. The more important questions are these: Is the box found in reality? Does the box reflect reality? That is to ask: But, is it true?

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Ryan. I appreciate your willingness to probe philosophically and theologically. I believe that such probing advances the Kingdom of God.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

P.S. For a look at some good reasons for thinking that Jesus understood Himself to be God, see William Lane Craig's "The Self-Understanding of Jesus," in Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd edition (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 287-332.