Rome - St Peter's Basilica - photo by Kevin A. Davis

St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

I am reading the long-anticipated “apostolic exhortation” finally issued by the Vatican. The title is “Amoris Laetitia,” or, “The Joy of Love.” I am enjoying it for the most part.

It is exceptionally long at around 260 pages. I have read enough of it now to get a good sense of the whole, and I do not see the value in releasing an exhortation this long. Much of the material is simply quotes from the final document produced by the Synod on the Family and already published. Why not distill and summarize this material? Why not simply refer to it in the footnotes? “The Joy of Love” is overly laborious.

That’s a small complaint, perhaps, but it makes a difference in whether it will get widely read, even among priests and theologians. This means that nearly everyone will rely upon journalists and reporters to give us the important stuff. That is not normally a good thing. For example…

Same-sex Unions?

I heard on NPR this afternoon an interview with an “expert” discussing the document. When the NPR host asked him directly about what “The Joy of Love” says about same-sex unions, the “expert” said that it leaves the matter open to the conscience of the individual in dialog with his priest. Sorry to disappoint this “expert,” but that is most definitely not what the document says about same-sex unions.

There is actually not much that pertains directly to same-sex unions, which is not surprising. The point of the synod and the point of the exhortation is to strengthen marriage (which same-sex unions are not and cannot be) in the midst of the unique challenges that face this institution and sacrament in the 21st century. But, of course, everyone is curious what it does say about same-sex unions, which is this:

There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life. We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society. (52)

In various countries, legislation facilitates a growing variety of alternatives to marriage, with the result that marriage, with its characteristics of exclusivity, indissolubility and openness to life, comes to appear as an old-fashioned and outdated option. Many countries are witnessing a legal deconstruction of the family, tending to adopt models based almost exclusively on the autonomy of the individual will. (53)

In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”. It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.” (251)

Moreover, there is an important section, featuring the theology of John Paul II, near the beginning of the document. Herein, the male-female, husband-wife union in love is an icon of the Trinity, imaging and revealing the inner life of God, indeed his own “very being” (see 10-11). Rome is still standing athwart the West’s sexual revolution and gender revolution. The difficulty is the pastoral care of individuals, especially innocent victims in a failed marriage. There is much more happening in this lengthy document, but understandably our attention is on these issues.

And as for gender, there is this:

Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time”. It is a source of concern that some ideologies of this sort, which seek to respond to what are at times understandable aspirations, manage to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised. It needs to be emphasized that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.” (56)

I do not expect this paragraph to be widely quoted among Francis’ admirers in the media.

Against Individualism

In the second chapter, there is an important quote from a Spanish Bishops’ Conference document, Matrimonio y familia, from 1979:

…equal consideration needs to be given to the growing danger represented by an extreme individualism which weakens family bonds and ends up considering each member of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the idea that one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute. (33)

As we all know, the belief that one’s personality is “shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute” is the rallying cry of our day — regardless of one’s sexual orientation. As a result, the family is only convenient or expedient in how it may service the desires of the individual. A little later we read:

As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer. It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them. (35)

In this effort to present a positive and attractive vision of marriage, the pope then cautions about “the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people.” He writes, “We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation” (36). As a result, there has been an “excessive idealization” that has contributed to an insensitivity toward the particular circumstances and struggles of couples. Unfortunately, the pope is not entirely clear on how the conscience is to be evaluated:

We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. (37)

This can be interpreted in a way consistent with the Catholic Church’s longstanding teaching that the conscience must be formed properly by right doctrine and practice. Formed properly, the moral agency of the individual is truly free and not controlled or coerced from without. However, it would not be hard for someone to interpret this passage as giving the conscience a certain autonomy and intrinsic justification.

All in all, the pope is warning us about how we center ourselves around our desires, obsessed with cultivating ourselves, our independence. “We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop” (39). The social teachings of the Church on justice and fairness are frequent throughout the document. For example, “The lack of dignified or affordable housing often leads to the postponement of formal relationships” (44). “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union” (54). Many more examples could be given.

Gospel First

The overall thrust is that the pope firmly believes that grace and joy, not law and condemnation, is far more effective in achieving the Church’s moral goals in the lives of individuals. For example, “…we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness” (38).

The pope is not necessarily pitting grace against law, though that has surely been the impression of many casual observers of Pope Francis. I would rather say that (like Karl Barth?) he is reversing the traditional law-gospel order and presentation to a gospel-law order and presentation. This aspect of Francis’ ministry deserves a whole other article.

Communion for Divorced-and-Remarried?

The major headline for both the synod and now for the apostolic exhortation has been about the divorced and remarried. I will wait until I have studied the eighth chapter before I talk about it in any detail. The issue concerns those Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried. As such, their previous marriage is valid — unless it has been annulled and therefore declared an invalid marriage from the beginning — and therefore their subsequent civil marriage is invalid. Their current civil marriage is objectively immoral and a scandal.

But what to do when such a person is now wholly penitent and in fact may even have been the innocent victim in the separation from his or her spouse? How is mercy applied in this case? How is mercy applied without effectively undermining the indissolubility of marriage?


Image: Bernini’s baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. The photograph is mine.


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)

Pray for Joey Feek

June 14, 2015

Joey Feek and daughter, Indiana

Joey Feek and daughter, Indiana Feek

I recently posted a performance of “Are You Washed in the Blood?” by the husband-wife country duo, Joey and Rory. They are much beloved by traditional country fans. Their joyful and warm Christian piety is infectious.

Joey gave birth last year for the first time, to a daughter with Down Syndrome. Ken Morton has a lovely story about how Joey and Rory gave an unsolicited show for special needs children at the Golf & Guitars charity event in 2013. Soon thereafter, they learned that Joey was pregnant, and she gave birth about nine months after the charity event. As Ken puts it, “Little Indiana was born with Down Syndrome and I can’t help but think that their performance for a few dozen of our own California Eagles kids wasn’t some sort of audition for them to be parents to a beautiful little special needs girl in front of the heavens.”

Just a few months after giving birth, Joey learned that she had cervical cancer. She scheduled for surgery, which was successful in removing the cancer. But this morning, her husband (Rory) announced that the cancer has returned. You can read the announcement on Rory’s blog. This is so heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking for anyone — but especially for a young mother with a special needs daughter. And it is heartbreaking for all of us who know how special, how beautiful this couple is. They are the salt of the earth.

Rory expresses their faith:

Here’s what Joey and I know…

God has a plan, and His plan is our plan.  Each day that we’re given is a beautiful gift from Him to us.  And while we will pray each day for a miracle, we’re gonna live each day as if it’s a miracle.  And it is.

“Lord, as believers… we trust you completely and pray for your will to be done.  Not ours.

But as flesh and bone, husband and wife… we pray for complete and total healing in Joey’s body, so we can grow old together, holding hands in rockers on our front porch watching the sun go down.

So that our sweet little baby Indiana can not miss one precious moment with her mama.

Amen.  Amen.  Amen.”

Pray for Joey and her husband. And after you pray, you can enjoy this beautiful performance of “A Bible and a Belt”:

Andrew Sullivan - by Trey Ratcliff, Flickr

Andrew Sullivan

Rod Dreher, “The Revolution Devours All” (The American Conservative):

“It’s inimical to me that any religious entity or organization should be compelled by government to compromise any jot or tittle of their doctrine,” Andrew [Sullivan] said.

Addressing [Gordon College President] Lindsay’s case, he said, “Any personal hurt that he experienced, I want to ask his forgiveness for. It really hurts me that people would demonize, stigmatize, and attack people for their religious faith, whatever it is. I think the Gordon College thing is a clear step beyond anything we have seen before.”

Rod Dreher, “Biopolitical Tyranny and the Nominalist Family” (The American Conservative):

In order to justify biotech reproduction outside the womb, in order to justify surrogacy, and in order to justify same-sex marriage, that natural connection [between biology and parenthood] had to be denied. It is the nominalist position: there is nothing natural inherent in the structure of nature; it’s only matter, upon which we can impose our will.

Jeff Shafer, “How Same-Sex Marriage Makes Orphans of Us All” (The Federalist):

There is a biotechnical revolution upon us that treats children as products to manufacture. In the United States and around the “civilized” world, individuals flip through catalogues or search online to purchase sperm and eggs from (usually anonymous) donors whose genetic characteristics they find appealing. These shoppers then hire lab technicians to create embryos for implanting in a womb, often of a leased surrogate, for purchaser retrieval after gestation completes.

Thereby do these people manipulate children into existence in a manner divorced from marital love, in which adults intend to deprive them of relationship with or knowledge of at least one, and perhaps both, of their biological parents, as well as their extended kin.

This practice of human reproduction without relationship, of reproduction arranged by commercial transaction with service providers, graphically instantiates the precepts of same-sex marriage ideology. By eliminating the husband-wife marital norm, that ideology sunders even the conceptual connection of the marital union and fertility.

Joe Carter, “How the Federal Government May Put Christian Schools Out of Business” (Acton Institute):

This threat is more radical than many people realize. It’s not merely that Christian schools will have to choose between accepting federal funds and keeping their religious views about sexuality. If the choice were to follow the example of schools like Hillsdale College or New Saint Andrews College and forego taking any federal money, the decisions about what to do would be painful, but obvious.

But what is being proposed is to revoke non-profit status, a move that would destroy many schools. According to the IRS, if an organization’s tax-exempt status is revoked it is no longer exempt from federal income tax and is not eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. As Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, notes, “The loss of tax-exempt status would put countless churches and religious institutions out of business, simply because the burden of property taxes and loss of charitable support would cripple their ability to sustain their mission.”

Roger Scruton, “On Philosophy, Music & Death” (The European Conservative):

Given the constant threat of terrorism with which we now live, do you believe we are facing a cultural war? Is Samuel Huntington’s thesis that the world is divided into several civilisations based on religious ideals that can be fault lines for conflict still valid for the 21st century?

Scruton: There is certainly some kind of clash of civilisations occurring. However, Islam seems to have forgotten its civilisation, and it is rare now to meet a Muslim who has ever heard of enlightened Islamic scholars like Ibn Sinna, or Rumi, or Hafiz, or who is even aware that a great civilisation once existed, built upon the revelation of the Koran. Western civilisation, too, is losing the memory of its religious inheritance. I am reminded of Matthew Arnold’s “On Dover Beach” in which he expresses his fear for a future in which “ignorant armies clash by night”. So yes, there is a clash—not of two civilisations but of two competing forms of stupidity: one given to violence and the other to self-indulgence.

[emphasis mine]


Image: Andrew Sullivan portrait by Trey Ratcliff (Flickr)


Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture could serve as an excellent entryway into Scruton’s body of work. It is frequently demanding on the reader, in regards to the insane amount of material (artistic, philosophical, political) that Scruton references. And in regards to this, he too often assumes a basic familiarity from the reader. But even with these hurdles, this is a superb primer on modern culture, answering the broad question, “Why do we behave and believe, in the way we do, today?” By the way, the British title, image above, is Modern Culture and published by Continuum.

I initially considered providing some excerpts from his discussion of fantasy versus imagination, which covers three chapters in a bewildering and exhilarating discussion (ch. 6, “Fantasy, Imagination and the Salesman”; ch. 7, “Modernism”; ch. 8, “Avant-garde and Kitsch”). The material on T. S. Eliot is alone worth the purchase of the book. But there is too much in these chapters for a blog post. So, I have elected instead to provide excerpts from chapter 11, “Idle Hands.”

In this chapter, Scruton aims to trace the origins of the “intellectual” and their preoccupation with “power.” Some of this presupposes material from the prior chapters, but I think you will find it interesting as it stands. We shall go from Russian Orthodoxy to Foucault.


…The Romantic poet, the ‘man of feeling’, and the hermit had all been extolled and ridiculed, with Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock effectively putting the lid on their pretensions. Thereafter, thinking and feeling re-assumed their old functions in social life: they were useful, provided you did not notice them. The very idea that someone should draw attention to his intellect and emotions, and regard them as a qualification for overthrowing the established civil order, was anathema to the ordinary English person.

But it was at this very moment that the Russian concept of the ‘intelligentsia’ was first emerging: the concept of a class of people, distinguished by their habit of reflection, and entitled thereby to a greater say in human affairs than had been granted hitherto. …

The attitude led in Russia to a calamity the effects of which will be always with us. And it is worth raising the question why such a view of the intellectual life should have emerged in Russia, and why it should have had an impact there quite out of proportion to its impact in the West. Part of the answer is to be found in the nature of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the ‘exit’ from society which it has provided to men who are that way inclined. Those who turn their back on day-to-day life could acquire an enhanced social status as priest or monk, with an authority passed down to them from God himself. Every society needs those people — usually men — who wish to exchange the burden of reproduction for the grace of spiritual leadership; and one function of the priesthood is to impose upon them the discipline necessary to their task, and to ensure that, having made this choice, they contribute to social stability, rather than undermining it. The Russian Orthodox Church abounds in escape routes for men, and with honours and privileges which will reward their loyalty. Take away faith, however, and those privileges are no longer consoling. It is then that the dreamer becomes dangerous. Unable to enter society, and without the vision of another world that would prompt him to accept the imperfections of this one, he nurses an unstaunchable wound of resentment. His ‘right divine to govern wrong’ goes unrecognised, by a world that gives more credit to material than intellectual power. At the same time, he instinctively identifies with the poor, the oppressed, the misfits — those at the bottom of society, who are the living proof of its injustice. He turns against religion with the rage of a disappointed lover, and refuses to recognise the virtue of any earthly compromise. There arises the peculiar frame of mind of the exalted nihilist — a posture brilliantly described by Turgenev and Conrad, and exemplified in virtually all the characters who instigated the Bolshevik coup d’etat.

Nihilism is not peculiar to the Russian Orthodox tradition, nor did it occur for the first time in nineteenth-century Russia. The Jacobins were pioneers of nihilism, and in the person of Saint-Just is concentrated all the senseless venom of the modern revolutionary. Nevertheless, the Orthodox tradition paved the way for the intelligentsia, by offering ‘exit’ signs on the periphery of ordinary society, and inviting the thoughtful, the sad and the disaffected to pass through them to a higher social status. Once faith had vanished, this higher status could be achieved only by threatening the foundations of society, and seizing real temporal power from those who had supposedly usurped it.

The gurus of the sixties are of great intellectual and spiritual interest. But none more than Michel Foucault, who re-created the agenda of the intellectual, and up-dated the Marxist critique of the ‘bourgeois’ order so as to make it serviceable to the children of the bourgeoisie as they manned their toy barricades. Foucault’s philosophy is conceived as an assault on ‘power’, and a proof that power is monopolised by the bourgeoisie. All social ‘discourse’, for Foucault, is the voice of power. The discourse of the opponent of power, of the one who has glimpsed the secret ways of freedom, is therefore silenced or confined: it is the unspoken and unspeakable language of those incarcerated in the prison and the clinic. Bourgeois domination is inscribed in the tissue of society, like a genetic code; and this fact justifies every variety of rebellion, while defining a singular role for the intellectual, as the anatomist of power and the priest of liberation.

Kant’s description of Enlightenment, as the end of man’s minority, is true; not because man grew up, but because the distinction between the adolescent and the adult state began, with Enlightenment, to fade. For two hundred years, in the midst of unprecedented social and economic change, people tried to hold on to the idea of marriage, to the rites of passage that impress upon youth the knowledge of its imperfection, and to the sexual and social discipline that would guarantee moral and political order in the face of deepening scepticism and romantic transgression, or ought to mean, by ‘bourgeois’ society. Thanks to the bourgeoisie, the show went on. Marriage, the family and high culture preserved the ethical life, in the midst of a political emancipation which — by promising the impossible — threatened the normal forms of social order.

…The freedom extolled by Foucault is an unreal freedom, a fantasy which is at war with serious moral choice. Hence his need to desacralise bourgeois culture, and to dismiss as an illusion the real but tempered freedom which bourgeois society has achieved. Bourgeois freedom is the outcome of historical compromise. In place of this compromise Foucault invokes a ‘liberation’ which will be absolute, since the Other plays no part in offering and securing it.

Foucault said to one of his sycophants: ‘I believe that anything can be deduced from the general phenomenon of the domination of the bourgeois class.’ [Power/Knowledge, p. 100] It would be truer to say that he believed that the general thesis of the domination of the bourgeois class could be deduced from anything. For having decided, on the authority of the Communist Manifesto, that the bourgeois class has been dominant since the summer of 1789, Foucault deduced that all power subsequently embodied in the social order has been exercised by that class in its interests. Hence there is nothing sacred or inviolable in the existing order, nothing that justifies our veneration or stands beyond the reach of the ubiquitous salesman.

This ‘unmasking’ of power through critical analysis went hand in hand with a particular conception of power. Foucault’s ‘capillary’ form of power moves in mysterious ways, and almost emancipates itself, in Foucault’s more lyrical pages, from the pursuit of any goal. But the Nietzschean elegy to power did not appeal to Foucualt’s principal disciples, who saw the bourgeois polis as locked in the grip of a purely instrumental power: the domination of one thing over another, the power to achieve one’s goals by the use of another’s energy. Such power is linked to strength, strategy, cunning and calculation. Its principal instance is the power of the master to compel his slave — and there is working in the intellectual background that wonderful philosophical parable of Hegel’s, which shows instrumental power as necessary (though in time superseded) moment in every human relationship. [The ‘master and slave’ argument occurs in The Phenomenology of Spirit, IV.A.3. The direct influence on Foucault, however, is Sartre, specifically the Sartre of Saint Genetcomedien et martyr, Paris 1952]

The soixante-huitards believed that all power is of this kind. But that is not so. There are powers which cannot be used to further our goals, but which on the contrary provide our goals and limit them: such are the powers contained in a genuine culture — the redemptive powers of love and judgement. To be subject to these powers is not to be enslaved, but on the contrary to realise a part of human freedom. It is to rise above the realm of means, into the kingdom of ends — into the ideal world which is made actual by our aspiration. …If the only end is power, then ends becomes means: the Kantian ‘end-in-itself’ is nothing but a more subtle means to domination. Hence the attack on bourgeois society cannot stop short of an attack on aesthetic value, and on the high culture which, by giving aesthetic form to our anxieties, also reconciles us to them. [The principal debunkers of the aesthetic, as a part of ‘bourgeois ideology’ are two: Pierre Bourdieu, in Distinction, and Terry Eagleton, in The Ideology of the Aesthetic.]

[pp. 123-32]

Alright, I will have to stop there. The bracketed information is the footnotes. The missing paragraphs, indicated by the ellipses, are important as well, but I tried to keep this as trim as possible. As you can see, Scruton is attempting to undermine the basic assumptions that inform the academy and provide the intelligentsia with its moral pretext. Even if you disagree, it is an important contribution.


So, everyone saw the news reports yesterday about the pope’s statements on marriage, right? Oh, no, you probably didn’t. Although, Time and The Independent did report it. Of course, they are not sure how to square this with their best buddy, Francis, who they’ve been fawning over for months. As for myself, I like this Francis better, and it is in continuity with his previous (also under-reported) statements about gender, sexuality, and the family.

At a colloquium on “The Complementarity of Man and Woman in Marriage,” the pope said:

To reflect upon “complementarity” is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation. This is the key word, harmony. All complementarities were made by our Creator, because the Holy Spirit, who is the Author of harmony, achieves this harmony.

It is fitting that you have gathered here in this international colloquium to explore the complementarity of man and woman. This complementarity is at the root of marriage and family. …

When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma. Complementarity becomes a great wealth. It is not just a good thing but it is also beautiful. …

The family is the foundation of co-existence and a guarantee against social fragmentation. Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity. …

Let us not fall into the trap of being qualified by ideological concepts. Family is an anthropological fact – a socially and culturally related fact. We cannot qualify it with concepts of an ideological nature, that are relevant only in a single moment of history, and then pass by. We can’t speak today of a conservative notion of family or a progressive notion of family: Family is family! It can’t be qualified by ideological notions.

You can read the full text at the Vatican Network (at the end of the report). But, oh look, ABC News has just released from the AP: “Pope Raffling Fiat, Bikes and More for Charity.” Damn, this pope is good.

The pope has also recently denounced “the false compassion” of assisted suicide and abortion.


Image: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall…because surely the pope loves Bogie and Bacall!


I was walking this afternoon through the basement floor of our church, where all of the children and youth classrooms are located. I was taking a bag of candy to one of the rooms, where I will be helping later tonight during our Wednesday fellowship. I am doing sword drills with one of the classes, and candy is the reward! You can’t expect kids to learn the books of the Bible without candy. It worked for me, so I trust that it’s a solid method!

I passed by one of the rooms where we do confirmation classes, and I saw a large bulletin board with the history of redemption outlined for the kids to understand — creation, fall, rescue, covenant, Jesus, pentecost, and such. At the bottom of the chart was vocation in the church, with two options: matrimony and celibacy, with a few bullet points for each. I was happy. I can assure you that in the evangelicalism of my youth (1990’s), celibacy was not a recognized option, at least not more than a stalemate to marital victory! Things have changed and for the better.

I know that my church is not representative of the whole of evangelicalism, but I have had enough conversations to be hopeful that it is representative of the future, if I may be so bold. Soon after I joined this church a few years ago, I learned that some of the younger parents were interested in John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” a series of homilies delivered early in his pontificate. After discussion with the pastors, they purchased a Catholic curriculum based upon JP2’s theology of the body, and we have used this curriculum for a couple years now. From what I have heard, it has been wonderfully received, with appreciation from both parents and students alike.

It just so happens, I was also enormously influenced by John Paul II’s theology of the body, and his book, Love and Responsibility, was particularly influential during my undergraduate days. I didn’t know it at the time, at least not fully, but this helped me navigate the secular terrain that was mapped by Foucault and Rorty and every other beloved hero of my professors. Here was beauty and sacrifice and heroism. The bread of life. Instead, my professors were serving me McDonald’s.

Since then, I have never seriously doubted the Christian position on sexual morality. I have struggled, to be sure. I do not know any other celibate, single male (or female) who could claim the mantle of perfection, and most of us would hasten to say that we are no better than the narcissistic denizens of our fake liberative culture. Yes, I am mixing judgment with humility, which only further illustrates my depravity!


Given the topic of this post, I should say a few words about Pope Francis. I am not convinced — and the indomitable Fr. Robert Barron agrees — that Francis is going to change the position of the Catholic Church on sexual ethics. The media conveniently fails to report Francis’ rather harsh judgments about the selfishness of our sexually “free” (imprisoned) society. At the same time, Francis is undoubtedly influenced by liberation theology, which has significantly shaped his message and messaging, and this alone marks a shift from JP2 and B16. But this is a liberation theology with a particular context, within this particular individual. It includes all of the nuance and ambivalence that (the best of) orthodox Catholics are known to emulate. Those who think Francis is basically the counterpart of a Katharine Jefferts Schori are seriously delusional. I have had enough nauseous experiences with ignorant mainline Protestants who are counting the days until Francis’ coup d’etat.

Francis can demote Cardinal Burke for whatever reason. He can give much-needed pastoral correctives. Maybe he can even change the status of divorced Catholics in some way…which, as a Protestant, is not something that I care to concern myself with. But the measures which our culture demands — gender fluidity and the redefinition of marriage — will not happen. I repeat. It will not happen. Even if we were to believe that Francis is a full-blown liberal reformer, he can do very little. The majority of the Catholic Church is in the global South, not the affluent suburbs of Boston. I know that Western progressives are intractable in their conviction that they are the future of all societies (a very modern assumption), but they are not. They are parochial, sectarian, and even anti-intellectual. They are colonialists in the sense of every heteronomous expression of that word.

I’m in the middle of a pastoral internship, so I expect that blogging will continue to be slow. I just want to pass along a piece by Corey Widmer:

“Traditional Sexuality, Radical Community”

Like yours truly, Widmer is a part of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. He is the pastor of Third Church in Richmond and the co-founder/co-pastor of East End Fellowship, a multi-ethnic church in the East End of Richmond.

The article is reflective of the discussion in the evangelical community as of late, which is encouraging.



Faithful Heart

October 31, 2014


Let’s celebrate the power of grace for this Reformation Day. Austin Stone Community Church has collaborated with TGC to produce a number of videos illustrating how God is present in the lives of those who depend upon him. Below are two of my favorites.

The first is the story of a young mother diagnosed with a chronic heart problem that could kill her at any moment:

The project is called The Storyframes Collective. They are superbly produced. And here is the story of David and Marlena, overcoming adultery through the unconditional grace of God:

Of course, these are stories that all Christians can celebrate, not just Protestants.


Image: “Why We Love Nature” by Tenteri (now deactivated Deviant Art account)


Last week, Rachel Held Evans began her blog series on Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian, the latest and most acclaimed popularization of the “open and affirming” position within the church. When I was discerning this issue, intensely, a few year ago, popularizers like Vines did not exist — though Jack Rogers’ 2009 book is very similar. I read Martti Nissinen and Eugene Rogers, the sort of scholars that Vines makes accessible.

As most of you know, I am “traditional” on marriage and sexuality in general, for reasons relevant to specifically Christian content. I see marriage as an icon of the gospel (Eph 5), with a distinct material form (Gen 1:27). And I am not an iconoclast.

But for this post, I just want to analyze Evans’ statement that Vines is “a theologically conservative Christian who holds a ‘high view’ of the Bible,” which is also Vines’ own self-estimation. She begins her second entry this week in the same way. A few problems immediately strike me. Most importantly, it implies that liberals hold a markedly low view of the Bible, somehow significantly different from Vines’ (and Evans’) own view. In reality, the average liberal within the churches and seminaries where they thrive — mainline Protestant — believes in a God in line with the creeds. They believe in the Holy Trinity and in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and they exegete these doctrines from the Bible. In other words, the Bible is authoritative for them.

Everything that I have read from Rachel Held Evans, Matthew Vines, Peter Enns, and all the current starlights of the progressive sorta-evangelicals is exactly what you can find in any mainline classroom. Exactly. None of this is even remotely surprising. Peter Enns, whom Evans extolled in a recent post, is about 50 years (or 150 years) late to the party. Like Vines, he is gifted in his ability to communicate to an otherwise still-biblicist contingent of evangelicals. But, also like Vines, he is merely repeating a given set of long-held convictions. “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.” Yawn. Welcome to the mainline, Professor Enns.

The Bible is authoritative for Vines. It is the sole source for knowledge of God in his saving revelation to mankind in Jesus Christ. Until proven otherwise, I have no reason to doubt Vines. So, of course, Vines has a “high” view and “authoritative” view of the Bible in that sense. But, so does nearly everyone else. Vines is not a “conservative” in any distinct sense that would differentiate him from the average, run-of-the-mill liberal in the mainline. And every mainline Protestant knows this, which is surely amusing when they see Vines and Enns and Evans on the “cutting edge” of theology! Hardly.

My point is simple. The liberal view of the Bible, in its most representative Christian form, is a view of the Bible that believes in its unique authority for the church. In the mainline Protestant churches, this liberal view of the Bible is no different than the “theologically conservative” view ascribed to Vines (and self-ascribed by Vines). So, what precisely makes Vines a theological conservative? If he is, then so is the National Council of Churches.

I do not care to actually answer the question in the title of this post. I am not invested in maintaining or defining the boundaries of “conservative.” But when it is used in a context that makes it functionally indistinct from its purported foe, “liberal,” then I call foul.


Image: Matthew Vines (source: AP)