Worth Reading - 8/11

1. One of the failures of contemporary society is the reduction of all thinking to economical terms. In this helpful essay from 2010, economist Paul Heyne relates the dangers and limitations of thinking in only economic terms:

As already stated, I am a devoted practitioner of the economic way of thinking. I am also, as anyone can readily infer from this essay, a staunch defender of markets. Nothing in this essay should be interpreted as a call to replace either one. I would prefer that we learn to celebrate their strengths. I ask only that we do so with a clear consciousness of their limitations. Market systems and the economic way of thinking are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the nurture of a free, prosperous, and just society.

We must also learn to nurture social institutions about which economics can say relatively little that is interesting or important, face-to-face institutions as distinct from the largely impersonal institutions that respond to monetary signals. These are often the very same institutions that the market system tends over time to displace: the family, the church, and the neighborhood.

The operative word is displace, not replace. The market cannot be a complete substitute for the family, but it can and does provide family members with attractive opportunities that make participation in family activities less important. Time spent eating dinner together becomes too costly to prolong when the television set is calling.

2. An ongoing debate about the relationship of sexual revisionists to the orthodox tradition that has festered into childish insults of credo-baptists by figures like James K. A. Smith, but has produced some helpful thinking about the nature of orthodoxy. One example is this essay by Matthew Emerson:

A sentiment with which I sympathize and which I hear often is that “Nicaea is enough.” By this people seem to mean that, when trying to articulate boundaries for orthodoxy and, thus, for who is and who isn’t a Christian, the Nicene Creed, or more often the Apostles’ Creed, serves as the arbiter. In this model, someone who affirms historic Christian teaching on the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the necessity of Christ’s work for salvation, the church as the people of God, and the expectation that Christ will return in glory should be considered a Christian. I sympathize with this approach because, well, look at that list! It covers many issues that are vitally important for the Christian faith.

But often when I hear or see people say, “Nicaea is enough,” it appears to me that what they mean is that we don’t need to hold others to doctrinal or ethical standards beyond what was laid down in the fourth through eighth centuries. On the former, I am not talking about those working toward an evangelical ecumenicity, like Timothy George; I am referring, rather, to those who seek to elide and escape doctrinal convictions beyond what is taught in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. So, for instance, bibliology is not addressed in the Creeds; therefore, according to this “Nicaea is enough” way of thinking, Christians can believe a whole host of different positions about Scripture. The latter rationale for “Nicaea is enough,” the ethical, is the more popular these days, though. In this respect “NiE” is used to say that, for instance, sexuality is not addressed in the Creeds, and therefore Christians can believe a whole host of different ideas about gender and sexuality. To be frank, it seems to me that “NiE” is used most often not as a genuine attempt at doctrinal catholicity but rather as a euphemism for giving in to our current cultural climate regarding sexuality. Rather than an attempt at a catholic (small c!) orthodoxy, this sentiment is more often used to sneak in non-traditional ethical or doctrinal teachings through a supposed creedal gap.

3. Another helpful (and longer) essay in this discussion came from Matthew Lee Anderson, writing at his former stomping groundsMere Orthodoxy:

These are sound reasons to be wary about extending ‘orthodoxy’ to ethical stances, I think. And yet, that distinction itself seems to presuppose that the ‘gay marriage’ debate within our churches is a debate fundamentally about ethics, such that the same descriptions of the doctrines which fall under the umbrella of “orthodoxy” could generate both an “affirming” and a “traditionalist” view of whether gay people can marry.

It’s this move that I think we should call into question, and that helps explain why conservatives (like me) tend to lump affirming positions under the rubric of ‘heresy.’ How one describes “sex” and “marriage” are not secondary implications of a theological anthropology, but rather essential aspects. “The Lord is for the body, and the body for the Lord” is said of the body in its sexual dimension, and expresses something like the totalizing role sexuality plays in our understanding of persons. (Paul differentiates the body in this respect from the stomach, which the Lord “will destroy.”) The sex of our Savior, the gender of his bride, the nature of their union together, the fruitfulness at stake in it: describing the scope, the content, and the means of salvation is impossible without staking out some sort of view on such matters.

But theological anthropology is also—theology. The biblical depictions of sexual complementarity and marriage demarcate humanity’s relationship in the church to God through Christ, and render the name of “Father” intelligible to us. Even in his humanity, the witness of Christ is unintelligible apart from the mother who bore him and the father who adopted him. If this familial architecture is only accidental, or inessential, or on an equal plane theologically to a same-sex familial structure, then the scope and content of what Jesus would mean when he says “Father” (of God) would doubtlessly also be very different than what he in fact discloses to us.

4. A second essay at Mere Orthodoxy deserved solid attention this week, which addressed some misrepresentations of property and John Locke at a forum a few weeks ago. The conservation has continued with a rebuttal from Elizabeth Bruenig, but this essay is fun and helpful in several ways. There are disputable aspects of the essay, but it's good to see push back on the growing number of voices that socialism is (a) moral and (b) the only moral option for Christians.

Without teleology, without a normative vision of how things are supposed to be and become, moral enquiry becomes impossible; without telos, morality is jettisoned. As myriad philosophers have pointed out, even descriptive enterprises fail without some level of telos and guiding norms. Descriptions, after all, are always bound within norms. For otherwise, what is the distinction between a war and a genocide?

More interesting, however, is whether MacIntyre is right in laying this claim about the loss of teleology against John Locke. Is Hobbes a just representation of every intellectual classified ex post facto as an Enlightenment thinker? Were the problems of the Enlightenment a miasma of which no one (perhaps other than the occasional Roman Catholic saint) could break free? And finally, is the loss of teleology a fair criticism of the whole of Enlightenment thought or is it simply a useful rule of thumb to describe the Enlightenment’s Hobbesian impulses?

5. Sociologist George Yancey continues to do research on the intersection of politics and religion. His recent study, summarized informally here, shows that theologically conservative Christians tend to value theology a great deal, while theologically progressive Christians tend to value politics more significantly. This is an idea worth engaging.

Now what do the results of this study mean? Basically when you look at what we found, it becomes clear that theological conservatism tends to manifest itself most strongly as it concerns theological distinctions between Christians and non-Christians. However theological progressiveness tends to manifest itself most strongly as it concerns political distinctions between progressives and conservatives. When I lump the results of this research with my previous study I come to a conclusion. Theological issues matter more to theological conservatives while political issues matter more to theological progressives.