Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.

I’ve had my review copy of Molnar’s latest book, graciously sent by IVP Academic, for most of the summer. Planning a vacation and other matters got in the way, but I finally finished. It is a dense, technical work of over 400 pages, entirely pertaining to a high-level, intramural debate within systematic theology today, namely among students of Karl Barth’s theology. In other words, this is not for beginners or for those generally curious about Barth and Torrance. It is an important debate, however, to which every student must give attention — with ramifications that extend beyond the fluid borders of Barth scholarship.

The dispute, as I know that many of my readers are familiar, is over Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of Barth’s theology. For McCormack, the key to Barth’s doctrine of God is how — in McCormack’s reading — the divine election precedes ontology, the ontology for both God and man. God’s being is determined in the act of electing man in Jesus Christ. As a primordial act, this should not be understood as a temporal sequence (election and then ontology) but as a singular act where “being” and “act” are bound-up with one another. There is no other God than this God who elects himself to be this God. Here are a few quotes, among many others, that Molnar cites from McCormack:

The act in which God determines himself essentially is election. If then this act is primordial, then election is primordial. There is no triunity in God apart from election, for the two occur in one and the same event. (Trinitarian Theology After Karl Barth, eds. Habets and Tolliday, 114; Molnar, 190)

There is no longer any room left here for an abstract doctrine of the Trinity. There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace. (Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology, ed. Michael Dempsey, 128; Molnar, 192-193)

God’s being is grounded in an Urentscheidung (i.e., a ‘primordial decision’) in which he gives to himself his own being as God. (Mapping Modern Theology, eds. Kapic and McCormack, 14; Molnar, 194)

God has elected to be God in the covenant of grace and to be God in no other way. This is not a decision for mere role-play; it is a decision with ontological significance. It is a free act in which God assigned to himself the being God would have for all eternity. (Orthodox and Modern, 216; Molnar, 290)

…God gives both to himself and to humanity his and their essential being and does so with respect to one and the same figure, Jesus of Nazareth. (Orthodox and Modern, 228; Molnar, 311).

“There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace.” “There is no triunity in God apart from election.” These and similar expressions are the focus of contention. If it is true that God is only triune — that is, who God is in his very being — in the covenant of grace, then the covenant of grace is necessary for who God is, which is to say, necessary for God. McCormack sees this as Barth’s most significant contribution to theology and is the basis upon which theology today should move forward. For McCormack, this is the consistent and thoroughgoing application of Barth’s rejection of natural theology and classical metaphysics, and Barth only fully discovered the decisive move (election determines ontology) in his volume on election (CD II.2) and decisively in the doctrine of reconciliation (IV.1), as with Barth’s treatment of the logos asarkos, most famously, even though McCormack does not see Barth as always consistently applying this revolutionary insight.

Molnar disputes all of this. There is no change in Barth’s doctrine of God in II.2. Rather, Barth’s pointed insistence in II.1 resonates throughout the subsequent volumes:

God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not, therefore, who He is only in His works. (CD II.1, 260; Molnar, 308; also cited by Alan Torrance, The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster, 90, n.28)

God is not bound to his works. He is God without his works. And later in his dogmatics, Barth writes of God becoming man, “God did not owe it to man. He did not owe it even to the man Jesus. He did not owe it either in His eternal counsel or in its execution. He did not owe it even to himself to an inner dialectic of His Godhead” (IV.2, 41; Molnar, 306). “Its occurrence cannot, therefore, be perceived or understood or deduced from any ontology which embraces Himself and the world, Himself and man, or from any higher standpoint whatever [than his ‘gracious good-pleasure’]” (Ibid.). This is one example of where Molnar attends to Barth in disputation with McCormack. It is beyond the scope of a blog review to lay-out all the merits and demerits of McCormack’s work on Barth. Suffice it to say that I found Molnar to be persuasive on these critical matters.

The debate over Barth’s “actualistic ontology,” as some like to say, does not begin until the third chapter, and Molnar covers a great deal more than my quotations above would indicate. The first chapter covers the pneumatological basis of Barth’s epistemology. In this chapter, Molnar uses Karl Rahner extensively by way of contrast with Barth. Rahner, unlike Barth, “attempts to validate knowledge of faith from the experience of self-transcendence” (22). However, “Any attempt to know God that seeks some form of direct knowledge of God (a knowledge without the mediation of his incarnate Word), in Barth’s view, always would mean the inability to distinguish God from us; and that would mean our inability to speak objectively and truly about God at all” (23). Rather boldly, Rahner claims that “the hope that a person’s history of freedom will be conclusive in nature…already includes what we mean by the hope of ‘resurrection'” (Theological Investigations 17:16; Molnar, 54) and “knowledge of man’s resurrection given with his transcendentally necessary hope is a statement even before any real revelation in the Word” (TI 9:41; Molnar, 55-56). As a result, man is innately disposed toward God, in Rahner’s theology, not opposed to God, as we find in Barth. Molnar then shifts to a consideration of Tillich and Bultmann’s non-conceptual knowledge of God, which bears similarities to Rahner.

In the second chapter, Molnar continues discussing how the Holy Spirit yields knowledge of God. Now, John Courtney Murray and Wolfhart Pannenberg are his interlocutors, making contrasts with Barth and Torrance. The remainder of the book, chapters three to eight, pertains directly to the debate with McCormack. The third chapter notably includes some interesting discussion of other theologians who have appropriated aspects of McCormack’s theology: Benjamin Myers, Kevin Hector, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafydd Jones.

The seventh chapter is significant because it marks the one area of disagreement with Barth’s trinitarian theology. Favoring T. F. Torrance’s account, Molnar criticizes Barth for subordinating the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity. For Barth, this is the basis for the subordination of the Son (for our salvation) in the economic Trinity. This chapter was previously published last year in the Scottish Journal of Theology, which is where I first read it. I am still undecided on precisely where I land in this debate about subordination in the Trinity, and you can read my previous posts on this topic here and here. I will need to postpone this particular discussion until another day.

In the final chapter, Molnar ties together the epistemological considerations in the first two chapters with the metaphysical considerations in the subsequent chapters. All together, this chapter serves as a nice summary presentation of Barth and Torrance’s theological program. It also serves as a nice testimony to the theological vision that inspires Professor Molnar.

This is an excellent book. I recommend it highly. This review is, obviously, not sufficient to demonstrate the depth of analysis involved. Let me quote from Ian Torrance’s blurb on the back cover: “The best studies of Karl Barth have moved well beyond mere exegesis of his text and now probe the fundamental assumptions on which exegetical perspectives have been based.” And D. Stephen Long, author of my favorite Barth book from last year, writes, “Few Protestant, let alone Catholic, interpreters of Karl Barth read him with as much skill and conviction as does Paul Molnar.”


Disclosure: I received this book from IVP Academic for purposes of review without any obligation to endorse the product.

Chartres Cathedral

September 1, 2015

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

I am back from Paris and Barcelona! There is so much that I could write about, including pedestrian observations — such as how every Parisian smokes cigarettes, like it’s the 1960’s.

Instead, I will write a few posts about specific places that I especially enjoyed. First is Chartres Cathedral, or The Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, southwest of Paris. Chartres is easy to access by train, about 60 miles from the center of Paris.

All pictures are mine.

Chartres is a much-beloved and storied cathedral, with its present construction dating to the early 13th century, including most of the stained glass. It was a very popular pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages, and its popularity as a pilgrimage site is returning, at least according to one book that I read. The cathedral emerges over the rolling hills of golden wheat fields, with the beneficence of the Virgin Mother awaiting the faithful.

Madonna and Child chapel

Madonna and Child Chapel

Every church we visited has a side chapel dedicated to the Madonna and Child. The one at Chartres is especially lovely, and you can see (click the image to enlarge) some people praying. All of these cathedrals and basilicas are active churches. There is a wedding occurring in the central nave, as I am taking this picture.

Chartres Cathedral, woman carrying a candle

Along the North side aisle

And here is a woman carrying a candle as a votive offering. As you turn around, this is the view of the South rose window:

South Rose Window

South Rose Window

As you can see from this picture, the cathedral is undergoing an extensive interior renovation (or “restoration,” depending upon your point of view). The purported aim of the restoration, which began in 2009, is to restore the interior to its original appearance. The only possible way to do this is through plaster and paint. The white is the new; the brown is the old. Here is another picture that vividly displays the difference:

Rib vaults

Rib Vaults

That’s a significant difference. The deterioration of the interior has been rather severe, much more so than the other cathedrals we visited, such as Reims or Notre-Dame de Paris. But the renovation is rather severe too. It entirely erases the marks of time. As you could have guessed, this renovation has received some harsh criticism, such as from Martin Filler writing for NYR Daily. Filler makes some good and important points, but I will reserve judgment until the renovation/restoration is complete. It will certainly give an entirely new atmosphere to the cathedral, and perhaps it will serve to even better showcase the marvelous windows.

La Belle Verriere window

La Belle Verriere Window

This is one of the most renowned windows, La Belle Verriere, along the South aisle. The Virgin and Child are surrounded by angels in the adjacent panels. In the lower panels (bottom-up) are the temptations of Christ and then the wedding at Cana.

Nave and South Aisle

Nave and South Aisle

Here is another spectacular view, which also allows you to see the contrast between the renovated nave and unrenovated portions of the southern aisle.

Charles Péguy memorial

Charles Péguy memorial

Charles Péguy is an important literary figure who immortalized Chartres in his writings at the beginning of the 20th century. The plaque above says that Péguy walked here to entrust his children to the Virgin Mary and, following his example, students from France and abroad make pilgrimage here by the thousands.

That’s the end of my tour of Chartres Cathedral! As with any of these sites, the pictures only capture a small glimpse of its wonder and majesty.


Images: All of the photographs are mine. You are free to download for private use. If you want to republish, my permission is required.



I am getting ready for a two-week excursion to Paris and Barcelona with my brother. We fly to Paris on Saturday. I will be sure to post pictures.

Not your average tourist, I have been preparing for the trip by reading some academic works on Medieval art and Gothic architecture. Otto von Simson’s The Gothic Cathedral is fantastic, though I am not even half-way through it. It definitely deserves a blog post in the near future. I would also like to read Erwin Panofsky’s classic study, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. And, finally, I will need to read Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St. Denis. I am very excited about seeing St. Denis, on the northern outskirts of Paris. It is reckoned as the birthplace of Gothic architecture.

Of course, I will be seeing Chartres, and I will finish reading Henry Adam’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres on the plane.

The reason I wanted to go to Barcelona is not merely because Samantha Brown calls it her favorite city in Europe, as do many others. My primary reason is, of course, Antoni Gaudí. I’ve been fascinated with La Sagrada Familia for years, albeit from a distance. There are a few houses and other sites related to Gaudí as well. A couple years ago, CBS did a short documentary on Gaudí and the Sagrada Familia:

Gaudí’s works are the biggest tourist attractions in Barcelona, though perhaps rivaled by the beloved Gothic Quarter. El Barri Gòtic is home to five Basilicas, all within a few blocks of each other. That’s a bit excessive perhaps. And there are four more Basilicas in Barcelona: Saint Joseph Oriol, The Immaculate Conception (near our hotel), the Sacred Heart on Mt. Tibidabo (overlooking the city), and the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia) as the most recent and most famous.

It will be an exhilarating and exhausting two weeks!


Image: Barcelona (source)

Niebuhr against Barth

August 3, 2015

Niebuhr, Reinhold - Essays in Applied Christianity

“If the Barthians are socialists, I think it is not unfair to them to say that they don’t work very hard at it.”

— Reinhold Niebuhr


I do not have an invested interest in situating Barth or Barthianism in regard to “political theology.” I am just offering this as an interesting bit of criticism from Reinhold Niebuhr in his volume, Essays in Applied Christianity:

The Barthians are very critical of present society but they are also very critical of every effort to improve society. They regard it as necessary but dangerous; dangerous because moral and social activity might tempt men to moral pride and conceit and thus rob them of salvation. If the Barthians are socialists, I think it is not unfair to them to say that they don’t work very hard at it.

It ought to be said that the moral sensitivity and the lack of social vigor in Barthian thought flow from the same source, and that source is religious perfectionism. God, the will of God, and the Kingdom of God are conceived in such transcendent terms that nothing in history can even approximate the divine; and the distinctions between good and evil on the historical level are in danger of being reduced to irrelevancies.

True religion does save man from moral conceit in the attainment of his relative goals. But if the sense of the absolute and transcendent becomes so complete an obsession as it is in Barthian theology all moral striving on the level of history is reduced to insignificance.

[Reinhold Niebuhr, “Barthianism and the Kingdom,” in Essays in Applied Christianity, New York: Meridian Books, 1959, pp. 148-149]

It is important to recognize that Niebuhr is writing in response to Barth’s early essays in the volume, The Word of God and the Word of Man, which was the first introduction to Barth for many English-speaking readers. It is from these essays that Niebuhr quotes Barth. He is not engaging with Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

I will allow others to decide whether that makes a difference — as it certainly does in other regards — or whether Niebuhr is even on target in regard to the early Barth or his disciples.

Fra Angelico - St. Dominic detail of The Mocking of Christ

St. Dominic

Everything you need to know about the major Roman Catholic religious orders will be included in this post.

Gratuitous stereotypes are also included.


Order of Preachers (Dominicans)

When you see an O.P. after an author’s name, you know some serious brain-storming is coming your way! The Dominicans are my favorite Catholic order, because everyone needs a favorite. It’s like baseball.

The Dominicans are Thomists. All of them. If they discover a non-Thomist in their midst, he is unceremoniously booted out of the order. I don’t have proof of that, but it is surely common knowledge. As Thomists, they are theological. Real theology. Doctrine of God. Christology. Sacraments. The whole shebang. They treat systematic theology like it’s a religious duty, because it is. While the Franciscans cuddle bunny rabbits (see below), the Dominicans are fine-tuning the difference between substantia and accidentia, as I once blogged.

As a Dominican, you may have a shot at becoming the Theologian of the Pontifical Household, a.k.a., “the pope’s theologian.”

In America, the Dominicans have done the seemingly impossible — attract members to their order. In the city that made Hank Williams famous, the Nashville Dominicans are gaining novices like it’s the 13th century. In the city that made Bill Clinton famous, the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., is doing the same, even running an impressive blog/journal. The Nashville order is for women; the D.C. order is for men. Both are doing St. Dominic proud.

I am told that the Dominicans had a role to play in the Spanish Inquisition. But, as I say, let bygones be bygones.


Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans)

While the Dominicans are busy discerning whether the souls of brute animals are subsistent, the Franciscans are busy loving anything and everything that comes across their path. Rabbits. Kittens. Spiders. Trees. Mushrooms. I would rather hang-out with the Dominicans, but I would rather entrust my two cats to the Franciscans when I’m on vacation.

As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, I knew the Franciscans who ran the parish church across the street from the university. Fr. Martin endured my many questions, God bless him. In Fr. Martin’s office, he would deflect attention toward his pet bird whenever I asked weird questions about the sacraments. He was (and is) a good Franciscan.

The Franciscans are, of course, inspired by their founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Every Christian has sung the hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” attributed to St. Francis. Perhaps the greatest portrait of Francis was written by G. K. Chesterton, now published in the second volume of his collected works, alongside his much-praised biographical interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas. According to Chesterton, St. Francis was a joyful beggar and St Thomas was a joyful scholar, both discovering the secret of the Cross. Life from death.


Society of Jesus (Jesuits)

Everything I know about the Jesuits comes from The Mission and The Exorcist. In sum, they are the kickass order. Whether they are resisting Portuguese slave-traders or fighting the Devil himself, you can count on the Jesuits to get it done. They are originally famed for their opposition to Protestantism and impressive missionary endeavors, all in the service of the bishop of Rome — to whom they vow a fourth vow.

If you search for “the Jesuits” on YouTube, you will quickly learn that they are key figures in the New World Order, the Illuminati, the Apocalypse, and other excitements. Since the current pope is a Jesuit and Russia is on the move, you know that the end is nigh!

But, the Jesuits of the post-1960’s are not exactly the same as the Jesuits of the counter-Reformation. If you are a fundamentalist Protestant, then the Jesuits should be among the least of your worries. In the fallout of Vatican II, Jesuits were more likely to advocate for “discontinuity” than for the “hermeneutic of continuity” advocated by John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, now pope emeritus. I am, by the way, a big fan of Ratzinger. His book, Eschatology, is among my favorite books in my library.

Even though the Dominicans are known for their education, the Jesuits have likewise positioned themselves as premier educators in the Catholic Church. This is especially obvious in America where several Catholic universities have some connection, whether strong or not, with the Jesuits. These include Marquette University, Boston College, Loyola University Chicago, and Georgetown University, among many others. In Rome, the two most prestigious universities that grant pontifical degrees are the Gregorian (Jesuit) and the Angelicum (Dominican).


Order of St. Benedict (Benedictines)

The Benedictines saved Western civilization. Do you know how to read and write? Thank the Benedictines. That is perhaps an exaggeration. But it is nonetheless true — the patrimony of Greek and Roman culture was preserved and sustained by the Benedictines after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries anno Domini. By the time of the “High Middle Ages” in the 12th and 13th centuries, this reservoir of learning would also benefit from the Arab-Muslim patronage of Aristotelian logic and Indian numerals/mathematics.

Unlike the religious orders that emerge in the 13th century (Dominicans and Franciscans) or the 16th century (Jesuits and Oratorians), the much earlier Benedictines are a monastic order. The later orders are “mendicant” orders (lit. “beggar”), which gives them a certain freedom in contrast to the “monastics” (lit. “alone” or “cloistered”) who live and work in a single monastery, typically for their entire lives.

As you would expect, the Benedictines are still active in education. Here in North Carolina, the only Catholic college is Belmont Abbey College, which has a fine reputation for its orthodoxy and academics. From what I have heard, the Benedictine monks are very present in the administration and everyday life of the college.

In the history of the Catholic Church, the Benedictines include Bede, Alcuin, Rabanus Maurus, Ratramanus, Hincmar, Peter Damian, Lanfranc, Anselm of Canterbury, Eadmer — pretty much anyone important from the early to high middle ages. In the twentieth century, Benedictine oblates have included Dorothy Day, the great social worker, and Walker Percy, the great Southern novelist.


Other Orders

There are far too many religious orders to enumerate.

The Carmelites — especially the Order of Discalced Carmelites (O.C.D.) — are highly influential in the history of Catholic spirituality. The most important figures in Carmelite spirituality are St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Ávila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

The Congregation of Holy Cross (C.S.C.) are best known for founding and still operating the University of Notre Dame in Illinois. Fighting Irish!

The Vincentians — the Society of St. Vincent de Paul — are known for their service to the poor. The Shrine to St. Vincent de Paul is in Paris, near the popular Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.

The Oratorians – the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri —  are unique as communities of priests and lay-members. Perhaps the most famous Oratorian is Venerable John Henry Newman, founder of the Birmingham Oratory and the most important Catholic theologian in the 19th century.

Among many others, there are also Assumptionists, Basilians, Passionists, Poor Clares, Salesians, and the Missionaries of Charity. The Missionaries of Charity were founded in 1950 by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.


Image: St. Dominic, detail of “The Mocking of Christ” (1440-1441) by Fra Angelico, O.P.

I’m a Riser

July 27, 2015

Travis Meadows

Travis Meadows

Alcoholism ain’t pretty. This is not a common theme in mainstream music, where life is a party 24/7.

Travis Meadows is a songwriter who knows the meaning of despair, and its seductive stranglehold on a broken life. His own narrative is surrounded by death, cancer, alcoholism, and Jesus. You can read his profile at Rolling Stone, which describes him as “Nashville’s most brutally honest songwriter.” He lost a leg from cancer as a teenager. He found Jesus, the beginning of a complicated relationship.

In the album, Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, you can hear his pain, but hope dominates. “God Speaks” is a poignant example of finding God in the love of another person. “Grown Up Clothes” is an intimate display of vulnerability, from the perspective of a child of an alcoholic father. I encourage you to click on the links and enjoy the songs.

And then there is “What We Ain’t Got,” which became a chart success by Jake Owen earlier this year. Here is a performance of the song in Nashville, featuring Travis:

We all wish that it didn’t hurt / When you try your best and it doesn’t work / Goodbye is such a painful word / We all wish it didn’t hurt

But, “Riser” is the song that speaks most powerfully into his own life and into ours. He did not record it. Rather, the song was purchased and recorded by Dierks Bentley, one of the biggest names in Nashville. “Riser” became the title track of his 2014 album, Riser, both critically acclaimed and commercially successful — a rare combination nowadays. Dierks performed “Riser” at the ACM Awards this year, and it was nearly the only reason worth watching the ACM’s.

“Riser” is not a complicated song. There’s no irony. It relies upon simple and sentimental expressions, and it grabs you from the first two lines. It’s a song of defiance and redemption. Travis performed the song for Nashville Unleashed, which I highly recommend:

If we ain’t got no money I can make it / And I ain’t afraid of working to the bone / When I don’t know what I’m doin’ I can fake it / I’ll pray ’til Jesus rolls away the stone

As the steel guitarist says at the end of the video, “Thank you, Lord, for Travis Meadows.”

I always knew that country music could achieve world unity:


John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”


Goose House

Goose House

Chivalry is Dead

July 16, 2015

Whitney Rose

Whitney Rose

So, yeah, this has been a lazy summer for the blog! But I am happy to see that several posts have elicited some great conversation.

The two most important things for a well-rounded and balanced life are (1) Jesus and (2) country music. When the latter includes the former, you get a two-for-one! But this is not one of those. Whitney Rose’s “Chivalry is Dead” is about romance and fun and being a woman in the 21st century. She is not so much bemoaning that chivalry is dead as saying, “oh well, I’ll be fine.” The lyrics are clever, as is common throughout her self-titled debut album.

Her voice is silky smooth, and her vocal control is top notch. Her follow-up album, Heartbreaker of the Year, is due to be released internationally on August 21. She is the sole songwriter for most of her material.

Cameron House Records, her label, has a series of performances from “the Hacienda” that I highly recommend:


“The Devil Borrowed My Boots”

“Heartbreaker of the Year”


Image: Whitney Rose (source)

Darin and Brooke Aldridge

Darin and Brooke Aldridge

It has become a tradition for my brother and myself to attend the Red, White, and Bluegrass Festival in Morganton, North Carolina. Morganton is a small town in the Appalachian Mountains and only 1.5 hours from Charlotte. It is worth recognizing that North Carolina has a vibrant bluegrass scene, featuring Steep Canyon Rangers from Asheville and Mandolin Orange from Chapel Hill, among others.

With the pine trees waiving and the rolling hills rolling, the park in Morganton is an ideal location for a bluegrass festival, even though it is among the (relatively) smaller festivals in the larger bluegrass circuit. It is routinely praised by the performers, which has included living legends like Rhonda Vincent. I am not normally a fan of outdoor concerts. The acoustics suffer for obvious reasons. But the equipment and the sound crew at Morganton are top notch. The pluckings of the mandolins and banjos are clear. The fiddles soar high.

If you have not been to a bluegrass festival, then your life is insufferable and trite. Repent and atone! You can begin by listening to Darin and Brooke Aldrige, who performed a superb set this past weekend in Morganton. They played several tracks from their recent album, Snapshots. Here is a promotional video for the album:

A typical bluegrass festival will feature an abundance of gospel songs and probably a few testimonials. Darin and Brooke are no exception. They have some wonderful gospel tunes on each of their albums, some of which are always included in their live sets.

Jesus is “the best friend you’ll ever have,” as Darin spoke in-between songs this past Saturday. And the audience thought to themselves, “Well, duh. Of course.” The bluegrass audience is the salt of the earth!

The Empire of Desire

July 3, 2015

White House

It has now been a week since the Supreme Court issued its fanciful decision on gay marriage — legally contrived and morally suspect. In 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Justice Kennedy wrote (or co-authored), “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That is a good summary statement of postmodern nominalism. There is nothing higher, nothing to which we are accountable, except our own experience of “meaning” and “mystery.”

Justice Kennedy continued his romanticist jurisprudence in last week’s Obergefell v. Hodges case. He formulates the first premise on which the majority decided: “the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy” (p. 3). This is why, we are told, bans on interracial marriage were invalidated. He continues, “Decisions about marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make.” So, “personal choice” and “individual autonomy” are the founding principles upon which interracial marriage is a marriage? We are then given flimsy attempts to define marriage as “a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals” and “an intimate association.” Same-sex couples aspire to “the transcendent purposes of marriage” (p. 4), which are what exactly? Kennedy then finally proceeds to offer the only constitutional basis of the majority’s opinion: a highly dubious interpretation of the fourteenth amendment.

The subsequent media parade offered scarcely any attempt to digest and discuss the moral rationale. At this point, I suppose, Kennedy’s moral logic is self-evident to the culture. The corporate blitz to capitalize was unlike anything we’ve seen in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision, as seemingly every major corporation proudly displayed its support. Social media followed suit. The White House went technicolor. News anchors and reporters could scarcely contain their enthusiasm. This united front gave voice to our new era of social discourse. We emote and shame, whereas our forefathers reasoned and convinced. Twitter is more powerful than Aristotle.

If you have not done so already, I highly encourage you to read the SCOTUS decision, both the majority opinion and the dissents. Justice Scalia never holds back: “The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic” (p. 75.) Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia, offers the most conservative dissent, insofar as he directly targets the redefinition of marriage away from its procreative ends and offers this sober warning:

It [the court’s decision] will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. E.g., ante, at 11–13. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent. Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. Ante, at 26–27. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. [pp. 101-102]

Below, I have collated some of my favorite articles that have dared to wade through this torrent of powers, the potestatis publicae. I will begin with “The Empire of Desire” from R. R. Reno. Unlike most of the subsequent articles, this was not written in response to the Supreme Court decision. It was published in the June 2014 issue of First Things. This is one of Reno’s most incisive essays, more important now than then.


“The Empire of Desire,” R. R. Reno (First Things, June 2014):

Indirectly (and unknowingly) evoking the rich tradition of liberal Protestant theology, Vattimo suggests that this antinomian trajectory is “a transcription of the Christian message of the incarnation of God, which St. Paul also calls kenosis—that is, the abasement, humiliation, and weakening of God.” Here we find a wonderfully pure expression of the metaphysical dream of our era: God himself is an antinomian. Christ does not fulfill the law of Moses; instead, he undercuts Moses and evacuates the law of all normative power. Sinai becomes the Antichrist.

“The Benedict Option for Evangelicals,” Phillip Cary (First Things, June 30, 2015):

The youth group in effect competes with more secular forms of youth culture for the hearts of future evangelicals.

It’s a tough competition to win, and the momentum is now clearly on the side of the opposing team. The evangelical team is playing defense, and they have a major theological weakness. They’ve adopted a version of the liberal Protestant turn to experience. Today’s evangelical Christians are taught to find God by listening for the voice of the Spirit in their hearts. My students typically think this is what it means to know God. This theology will hardly help them resist a culture that is all about celebrating the desires we find within us. If the true God is the God of our experience, then why can’t the voice of liberated desire be the Spirit of God?

“Can Evangelicals See Themselves in the LGBT Movement?,” Alastair Roberts (The Gospel Coalition, July 1, 2015):

While most persons receive their identity from without as society imposes its sexual and gendered identities, the LGBT person recognizes that true identity arises from within. The realization of an authentic subjectivity over against the formalism of imposed norms of gender and sexuality is recounted in the “personal testimonies” of coming-out stories and tales of transition. Given the understanding of the nature of true identity within LGBT communities, it shouldn’t surprise us that same-sex marriage has been pursued chiefly as an “expressive”—rather than a “formative” and “institutional”—reality.

…the LGBT community and the same-sex marriage cause are advanced in large measure through emotional personal testimony and stories of subjective self-realization. This is the language evangelicals were raised on, and it can resonate with us. Evangelicals, having placed so much store on the truth and immediacy of the personal narrative and the value of unfeigned emotion, will face particular difficulties in considering how to respond to these.

“After Obergefell: The Effects on Law, Culture, and Religion,” Sherif Girgis (Catholic World Report, June 29, 2015):

It’s not that the majority opinion offered bad interpretations of the Constitution’s guarantees; it hardly interpreted them at all. Huge swathes of it read less like a legal argument than the willful paradoxes and obscure profundities you might hear at a winetasting.

…now the most prestigious secular organ of American society—the Court that helped make Martin Luther King’s dream a reality—stands for the propositions that deep emotional union makes a marriage, and that mothers and fathers are perfectly replaceable; indeed, that it “demeans” and “stigmatizes” people to think otherwise.

“The Supreme Court Ratifies a New Civic Religion,” David French (National Review, June 26, 2015):

This isn’t constitutional law, it’s theology — a secular theology of self-actualization — crafted in such a way that its adherents will no doubt ask, “What decent person can disagree?” This is about love, and the law can’t fight love. …

Christians who’ve not suffered for their faith often romanticize persecution. They imagine themselves willing to lose their jobs, their liberty, or even their lives for standing up for the Gospel. Yet when the moment comes, at least here in the United States, they often find that they simply can’t abide being called “hateful.” It creates a desperate, panicked response. “No, you don’t understand. I’m not like those people — the religious right.” Thus, at the end of the day, a church that descends from apostles who withstood beatings finds itself unable to withstand tweetings. Social scorn is worse than the lash.

“A Conversation With My Gay Friend,” Jennifer Fulwiler (July 9, 2012):

“Yes, marriage is about sex. But it’s about sex because sex is how new life is created — and, ultimately, it is an institution ordered toward protection and respect for new people.”

[Andrew:] “So if you have a straight friend who’s infertile, you’d tell her she can’t get married either?”

“I said ordered toward. When a man and woman have sex they’re engaging in that sacred act that creates human life, even if none will be created in that particular act. It’s still sacred.”

…”If you’re totally open to having kids, then there are the sacrifices that come with birth and raising children; if you’re abstaining during fertile times, you’re sacrificing. Infertile couples sacrifice by not using artificial methods like in vitro to force new life into existence. Gay men and women sacrifice by living chaste lives, as do people separated from their spouses, and people who are not yet married, or whose spouse has died. Notice that we’re all sacrificing, and that all of the sacrifices are about the same thing: love and respect for new human life, and specifically the act that creates new human life.”

“Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?,” Wesley Hill (Spiritual Friendship, June 27, 2015):

Yet I’m also a Christian, and according to historic Christian orthodoxy, marriage isn’t the only, or even the primary, place to find love. In the New Testament, as J. Louis Martyn once wrote, “the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.” Marriage in Christian theology is, you might say, demythologized. With the coming of Christ, its necessity is taken away: gone is the notion that without it we are doomed to lovelessness.

“The Episcopal Church on Its Way Towards Adopting Gay Marriage,” George Conger (Anglican Ink, June 29, 2015):

“God has given us a new revelation not shared with our forefathers in the church,” the bishop said. “As such, we must proceed slowly and with generosity of spirit,” to ensure that the revelation given to the majority was not in error. The bishop said the history of the surrounding community, Mormon Salt Lake City, was an example of what not to do.

Apropos, the Episcopalians now have something in common with Mormons: new revelation. By the way, TEC officially voted — overwhelmingly — to adopt a new rite for the marriage of any gender configuration. The ACNA will continue to attract the remaining few evangelicals in TEC over the course of the next year.


Image: The White House in rainbow colors after the SCOTUS decision on June 26, 2015 (source)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 236 other followers