The Kingdom of God is Entos Hymōn: Part 2, "Within You"

Again, by far the most common interpretation of entos hymōn in Luke 17.21 is "in your midst" or "among you," with the reference being to Jesus' own presence before his audience.

And yet, there's a different, somewhat controversial, reading that goes back to the King James Version:

Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
Many modern translations recognize "within you" in a footnote as an alternative translation to entos hymōn. And "within you" is a very defensible translation, as entos in the Greek most often means "within" rather than "among." This is why David Bentley Hart, in his translation, translates Luke 17.21 as "The Kingdom of God is within you." Hart defends his translation in a footnote:
[I]t is occasionally argued that this phrase [entos hymōn] would be better translated  "among you" or "in your midst," especially by those who instinctively prefer social to mystical construals of Jesus's teaching; but this is surely wrong. Entos really does properly mean "within" or "inside of," not "among," and Luke, in both his Gospel and the book of Acts, when meaning to say "among" or "amid," always uses either the phrase...[en meso] or just [en], followed by a dative plural; and his phrase for "in your midst" is [en meso hymōn] as in [Luke] 22:27...He uses entos only here, with a distinct and special import.
I am not a scholar of Biblical or Classical Greek, so I can't wade into these waters. But Hart is correct that, when you see scholars opt for "among you" over "within you," they tend to justify this choice by arguing that surely Jesus would not have proclaimed a radical interiorization of the kingdom of God. The horror!

Well, it does seem to be a horror given American individualism and its effect upon evangelical Christianity, how Christianity has become a "heart issue," salvation a purely private, individualized experience with no social or political implications. The pathologies of this sort of theology have been well documented, how "personal salvation" has been radically decoupled from a social vision of the kingdom of God.

And yet, this is a modern, contemporary worry, so we should be careful in rejecting a good and proper translation of Jesus just because it makes us uncomfortable 2,000 years after the fact. So, let's ask: Could Jesus have been speaking of an interiorization of the kingdom of God in Luke 17.21?

I most definitely think he could have been. Specifically, I think a strong argument could be made that a key aspect of Jesus' kingdom proclamation is that God's reign would fundamentally concern itself with a reign and rule within our hearts. Call this the "heart theology" of Jesus.

One of the key texts of this heart theology comes from Ezekiel 36, God speaking to the exiles of Israel:
“For I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and will bring you into your own land. I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God."
The restoration of the kingdom of God will involve removing Israel's "heart of stone"--their stubborn, recalcitrant hearts that led them into rebellion and exile--and replacing it with "a new heart," a "heart of flesh." This tender heart would be responsive to God, enabled by the Spirit, allowing Israel follow God's statutes and carefully observe his ordinances. 

In fulfilling this prophecy, we'd expect that Jesus would say something about this new heart. And he does in many, many places. This heart theology is a huge player in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, where Jesus describes both murder and adultery as being issues of the heart. In Mark 7, Jesus declares that "all foods are clean" because food "doesn't go into the heart." What makes a person unclean, says Jesus, is what "comes out of people's hearts." 

But we're looking at the gospel of Luke, so we should look for this heart theology in Luke as well. And we also find it in Luke. Here's the heart theology in the Parable of the Sower:
“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. The seed along the path are those who have heard and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the seed on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy. Having no root, these believe for a while and fall away in a time of testing. As for the seed that fell among thorns, these are the ones who, when they have heard, go on their way and are choked with worries, riches, and pleasures of life, and produce no mature fruit. But the seed in the good ground—these are the ones who, having heard the word with an honest and good heart, hold on to it and by enduring, produce fruit." (Luke 8.11-15)
Basically, the entire Parable of the Sower is about Jesus' heart theology, how the kingdom of God comes to reign in those who receive the word "with an honest and good heart."

Paralleling the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, we also see this heart theology show up in Luke's Sermon on the Plain:
“A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs aren’t gathered from thornbushes, or grapes picked from a bramble bush. A good person produces good out of the good stored up in his heart. An evil person produces evil out of the evil stored up in his heart, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. (Luke 6.43-45)
Like the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain is, pretty much from start to finish, a comprehensive articulation of Jesus' heart theology. 

All of this fits perfectly with the prophecy of Ezekiel, that the kingdom of God would manifest itself in a reign of the heart, in stony and stubborn hearts becoming the soft, receptive "good soil," hearts tender and responsive to the word of God.

All this to say, I think it's perfectly reasonable and consistent to think that in Luke 17.21 Jesus does mean to say, "the kingdom of God is within you." The kingdom of God is the rule and reign of God in our hearts. 

The Kingdom of God is Entos Hymōn: Part 1: "In Your Midst"

I want to devote three posts to Luke 17.20-21:

When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with something observable; no one will say, ‘See here!’ or ‘There!’ For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
The bit I want to reflect on is how Jesus describes the kingdom of God as being, in the Greek, entos hymōn.

There's a lot of debate about how best to translate entos hymōn, and I'd like to explore three of the main contenders.

Most translators translate entos hymōn as the CSB does above: "The kingdom of God is in your midst." 

To what, then, would this refer? What did Jesus mean when he said the kingdom of God is "in your midst"? 

That answer in Luke seems to be a reference to Jesus himself. Jesus is the kingdom standing there, right in front of his audience. Three examples from Luke for this reading.

First, from the Nazareth Manifesto, the sermon Jesus delivers in Nazareth to inaugurate his public ministry:
Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. As usual, he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him, and unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. And the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. He began by saying to them, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.” (Luke 4.16-21)
The shock of the audience following this sermon, to the point where they tried to kill Jesus, comes from the final line: "Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled." The kingdom is in your midst, right here and right now, in the person of Jesus.

A second example of this theme comes from an exchange Jesus has with the followers of John the Baptist, who come to Jesus expressing questions from John about if Jesus is, in truth, the Messiah:
Then John’s disciples told him about all these things. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

When the men reached him, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to ask you, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”

At that time Jesus healed many people of diseases, afflictions, and evil spirits, and he granted sight to many blind people. He replied to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news, and blessed is the one who isn’t offended by me.” (Luke 7.18-23)
Jesus' message back to John is clear: "Look at the things that are happening through me. The kingdom has come, John."

Finally, in a public dispute regarding Jesus' ministry of exorcism:
Knowing their thoughts, Jesus told them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is headed for destruction, and a house divided against itself falls. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say I drive out demons by Beelzebul. And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons drive them out? For this reason they will be your judges. If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11.17-20)
As Jesus casts out demons he declares, "the kingdom of God has come upon you." 

There are other places in Luke where we can find this theme, but these suffice to make the point. The kingdom of God is inaugurated and made manifest in the person and ministry of Jesus. So when Jesus says in Luke 17 that the kingdom of God is "in your midst," he's talking about himself, in the same way he points to himself in Nazareth, with John the Baptist, and in his debate about exorcisms. 

This, then, is the consensus view about how entos hymōn should be translated in Luke 17 ("in your midst"), and what it means (a reference to the person and ministry of Jesus standing before his audience). 

Tomorrow we'll turn to a more controversial view, but one I think has some merit. 

"He Devises Means So That the Banished One Will Not Remain an Outcast": Salvation and Divine Resourcefulness

One of the issues at the heart of universal reconciliation is the question of free will. People who object to universal reconciliation often argue that, if all will be saved, that this would have to imply some form of divine coercion. 

Pitted against that view is an appeal to divine resourcefulness. That, plus an eternity with which to work. God doesn't have to coerce a soul. God is resourceful, and has all of eternity to educate and heal recalcitrant souls.

An Old Testament text that points to God's resourcefulness comes from the life of David in 2 Samuel 14. 

Absalom had been banished from Israel from taking revenge upon his brother Amnon. You'll recall that Amnon raped Tamar, Absalom's sister. Hating Amnon for violating his sister, Absalom eventually murders his brother and then flees Israel to escape punishment.

During Absalom's banishment, Joab sends a wise woman to David. She tells a story about having two sons who quarrel, leading one to kill the other. She asks David, as an act of grace, to protect the son who murdered his brother. David assures her that he will.  

And then, much like Nathan does in the case of Bathsheba, the wise woman turns the story back on David, saying that he needs to extend the same grace to the banished Absalom for killing his brother. Making her point, the wise woman says to David:

For in giving this decision the king convicts himself, inasmuch as the king does not bring his banished one home again. 

And then the wise woman connects this grace to how God treats the banished. She says,

We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast.

There it is, that is the divine resourcefulness:

God "devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast."

Starting Lent in Texas

There won't be an installment about the Lord of the Rings this week. We'll pick up next week, Lord willing.

The reason for the pause, if you missed this news, was the emergency situation here in Texas this week. Jana and I lost power late Sunday night in subfreezing temperatures. And then the city of Abilene lost its water supply Monday. So from Sunday to today (Thursday), things have been very precarious here.

Though stressful, there was a grace in seeing family, church, and neighbors respond to each other. People shifted around town to the homes of friends who had power. Jana and I had so many offers and options to be safe and warm. And churches in town opened themselves up to the community as warming centers (even for the pets!). I love the church and don't know how people survive without one.

Anyway, it was an interesting situation to be in on Ash Wednesday. Obviously, all church services were canceled in town. But I felt the ashes on my head nonetheless. We were living through days where our mortality and the precarious nature of life were at the forefront of our minds.

On Trinity and Politics: Part 4, The Economic Trinity and the Shape of Political Engagement

So, we absorb Kilby's prophetic caution. We should not be too-quick or too-literal in drawing social, relational, or political implications from the Trinity. 

And as Kilby remarks in her talk "Trinity and Politics: An Apophatic Approach" this is actually one political takeaway from her position, that we should be wary of any totalizing political system and ideology. She says,

If one cultivates an awareness of the ungraspability of God, the impossibility of finding an image, or model, or integrating vision of the the Trinity, if one cultivates the capacity to live with questions to which we have no answers, might this be correlated, not with a particular political commitment to one form of socio-economic system or another, to one social vision or another, but with a resistance to an absolute confidence in any system and any social vision? Economic and political regimes do, after all, tend to take on a sacred aura. They tend to demand unconditional commitment, to imagine themselves as the end and goal of history. If Christians are schooled by the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as in other ways, to know that God is not within our grasp, that we possess no concept or overarching understanding of that which is highest, then we are in a sense schooled into suspicion of systems that present themselves with a kind of sacred, all-encompassing necessity.

So might we not imagine that an important political contribution of Christian thinking about God be then, not that it provides us with something like a shortcut to formulating a distinct alternative of our own, but that it helps us call in question, helps relativize, all such systems that we find we might be enticed by? Might there not be a correspondence, in other words, between a resistance to idolatry in relation to God and a resistance to ideology in relation to political systems?

This is excellent, and a much needed reminder. Let us all take it to heart. And yet, it still leaves us with the question about if the Trinity has any positive social, relational, or political implications. 

To explore this, let me go back to Kilby's point at the end of "Perichoresis and Projection." Specifically, she states, correctly, that words like perichoresis give us no window into what the Trinity is in se (Latin for "in itself"). Think of the Trinity like the sun. We can't stare into it directly. We can't ever grasp what the Trinity is in itself. And on this point, I think Kilby is raising a good caution. 

However, this is an observation about the immanent Trinity, God's life in se. But that's not all we have when it comes to the Trinity. We also have the economic Trinity, the revealed and visible actions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in salvation history. 

In short, I think Kilby is wrong to assume that we are only ever drawing from human models of love and relationality then projecting those onto the Trinity. Of course, whenever we do do that, and we do it a lot, we are in danger of idolatry, making God into the likeness of human beings. But that's not all we are doing. When we think about God we are mostly using the revealed and visible actions of the economic Trinity to understand what the immanent Trinity might be like. To be sure, this is still a fraught process, temptations to idolatry on every side, but when it comes to the Love that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit something of that Love has come into view in both Scripture and, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, into the church. And that Love, I would argue, gives us a glimpse of what perichoresis might be like. Not because it exists in any created thing, but because the Trinity has entered into human history and made itself visible. 

And having made itself visible, one can most definitely say that this Love has relational, social, and political implications. Everywhere in Scripture we are told to emulate and participate in the Love revealed to us in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is a Trinitarian politics. 

In fact, if you watch Kilby's entire talk on "Trinity and Politics," this is where she ends up, speaking about the Incarnate Jesus and the political implications of engaging, first hand, with the brokenness and suffering of the world. Kilby's point is subtle, and stays true to her apophatic approach. Jesus' first-hand, personal engagement with the oppressions of the world do not yield concrete policy proposals. Politics at a given time and place are too historically and contextually dependent. But what Jesus' engagement with oppression does reveal, and reveal to us if we follow him to the cross, is a clear vision of what exactly is broken and dislocated in our world. As Kilby points out, when it comes to politics we are never lacking in totalizing systems and high-altitude analyses. Political think tanks abound. Elites always have their answers about how to fix the world. No, the trouble isn't that we don't have political opinions, it's that our opinions lack a honest, gritty engagement with what's really going on in the world, "on the streets" if you will. Following Jesus to the cross keeps us on the streets, close to the suffering, close to the people and stories that aren't taken into consideration in Washington, DC. Phrased simply, our politics is blind without the cross. One could describe Kilby's proposal as an Incarnational politics, a politics that starts with and keeps close to the suffering and pain of the world. Yes, there may be diverse and competing policy proposals about how to ameliorate this suffering, but an Incarnational politics keeps our politics focused on this hurt and perpetually engaged in healing it.  

All that to say, when it comes to politics Kilby also turns to the economic Trinity. There is a Trinitarian politics. And while it's important to note that this politics doesn't offer concrete and specific policy proposals, it does describe the shape of our political engagement in the world. 

On Trinity and Politics: Part 3, Apophatic Trinitarianism

Having set out her criticisms of social trinitarianism in "Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity," or at least how we rather predictably extract our preferred politics from that doctrine, what does Karen Kilby share as an alternative approach to the Trinity?

Kilby shares what she describes as an "apophatic trinitarianism." Recall, apophatic theology concerns itself with the mystery of God, the wholly Otherness of God, how any human description of God not only falls short of God, but actually distorts our understanding of God. Apophatic theology places us in the cloud of unknowing. As Thomas Aquinas taught us, we don't really know what we are talking about when we are talking about God. Our only positive knowledge of God is what God is not.

And of all the apophatic mysteries of God surely the Trinity has to be at the top of the list. We just don't know what or how the Trinity exists. It's a mystery that confounds all human attempts at comprehension. That is the heart of Kilby's concerns about political proposals extracted from social visions of the Trinity. In describing the Trinity with such human precision, so precise we get clear policy proposals from the doctrine, we've been tricked into a literalness and conceptual clarity that shouldn't exist when speaking about the mystery of God. 

Consider all the descriptions of perichoresis as a "divine dance" of love and mutuality. It's a lovely picture, but it's a human picture that is read too literally. A loving community does participate in the life of God, but a loving community in no way gives us insight into what perichoresis actually means. Loving human community just isn't a model of perichoresis, simply because nothing human can serve as a model for God. 

Consider the assessment of John of Damascus, one of the early church fathers to provide us with one of the first descriptions of the Trinity as perichoresis:

The abiding and resting of the Persons in one another is not in such a manner that they coalesce or become confused, but, rather, so that they adhere to one another, for they are without interval between them and inseparable and their mutual indwelling [en allais perichoresin] is without confusion. For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit is in the Father and the Son, and Father is in the Son and the Spirit, and there is no merging or blending or confusion. And there is one surge and one movement of the three Persons. It is impossible for this to be found in any created nature.
Note that last line. After describing the trinitarian relations as perichoresis, John ends with the apophatic mystery: "It is impossible for this to be found in any created nature." Whatever perichoresis might be, we've never laid eyes on it. There's no word picture we could paint that even gets close to describing this mystery. 

Anyway, that is Kilby's point. Her argument is that the doctrine of the Trinity isn't really giving us a vision of what God is like. The Trinity, she argues, is more of a grammatical rule about how to speak properly of God. So we shouldn't expect "insight" from these grammatical rules, a window into the life of God. Of course, Kilby admits, we still want to penetrate that mystery, to get a peek behind the curtain if you will. But Kilby is quick caution that such desires, while well intended, won't yield clear and easy answers or insights. The mystery abides. Kilby summing all this up in her essay:
If not the social doctrine, what then? The beginnings of an alternative are present already in what was said above. I suggested that problems arise when one looks for a particular insight into God of which the doctrine of the Trinity is the bearer. My own proposal, then, is not that one should move from the social back to, say, a psychological approach to the Trinity--this would simply be to look for a different insight--but rather that one should renounce the very idea that the point of the doctrine is to give insight into God.

The doctrine of the Trinity, I want to suggest, does not need to be seen as a descriptive, first order teaching--there is no need to assume that its main function must be to provide a picture of the divine, a deep understanding of the way God really is. It can instead be taken as grammatical, as a second order proposition, a rule, or perhaps a set of rules, for how to read the Biblical stories, how to speak about some of the characters we come across in these stories, how to think and talk about the experience of prayer, how to deploy the "vocabulary" of Christianity in an appropriate way. The doctrine on this account can still be seen as vitally important, but important as a kind of structuring principle of Christianity rather than as its central focus: if the doctrine is fundamental to Christianity, this is not because it gives a picture of what God is like in se from which all else emanates, but rather because it specifies how various aspects of the Christian faith hang together.

But surely, one might respond, if I am told that God must be spoken of as three persons and one substance, I will inevitably try to make sense of this. If God must be spoken of in this way, what does that mean about how God really is? The question, perhaps, is inevitable, and the history of theology is littered with (conflicting) attempts to answer it. What I am suggesting, however, is that it is nevertheless a secondary question--affirming a doctrine of the Trinity does not depend on being able to answer it, nor does establishing the relevance of the doctrine depend on finding the "right" answer to it.
You might find that conclusion a bit unsatisfying. There is something in us that feels certain that the Trinity must be relevant and practical. The Trinity just has to have moral and political implications. It must, shouldn't it, if our lives and social relationships are to participate and share in the life of God? What are our lives supposed to look like if not the love that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

We'll turn to that question in the next post. But what, you might be asking today, do I think of Kilby's apophatic approach to the Trinity? 

I think she makes a good point. I think we get a bit too literal and specific when we speak about God, the Trinity in particular. So specific we too easily draw a straight line from the Trinity to our preferred politics. That's a very important caution. 

As we'll talk about in the next post, I do think the Trinity carries moral and even political implications, but Kilby's apophatic trinitarianism helps chasten and humble all too-easy, too-cozy, too-obvious, too self-serving political and social readings of the Trinity. Kilby is a prophetic reminder that idolatry remains a constant temptation whenever we speak about God, especially when we invoke God for political purposes.  

On Trinity and Politics: Part 2, Projecting Our Preferred Politics Onto God

I want to discuss Karen Kilby's much discussed essay "Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity" in two parts. 

The first part, today's post, sketches out Kilby's main criticism of social trinitarians who claim that "the Trinity is our social program." As we'll see below, Kilby argues that social trinitarians are projecting their preferred politics onto the Trinity. In tomorrow's post we'll turn to Kilby's own description of the Trinity, what she describes as an "apophatic trinitarianism."

At the start of "Perichoresis and Projection" Kilby traces out the moves theologians and pastors make to reach the conclusion that "the Trinity is our social program," the now ubiquitous calls for us all to join the "divine dance" of love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Kilby sketching the first move:
The first step is to offer a brief characterisation of contemporary social theories of the Trinity. Most basically, social theorists propose that Christians should not imagine God on the model of some individual person or thing which has three sides, aspects, dimensions or modes of being; God is instead to be thought of as a collective, a group, or a society, bound together by the mutual love, accord and self-giving of its members. 
The second move is to introduce the notion of perichoresis, the "divine dance," to paint a compelling relational picture of the Trinitarian life:  
God is presented as having a wonderful and wonderfully attractive inner life. I already mentioned Moltmann’s notion of “the most perfect and intense empathy” existing between the persons. Another proponent of the social doctrine, Cornelius Plantinga, in what is in general a very carefully constructed and restrained presentation, writes of the Trinity as “a zestful, wondrous community of divine light, love, joy, mutuality and verve”, where there is “no isolation, no insulation, no secretiveness, no fear of being transparent to another”. So the interrelatedness of the Trinity, the divine perichoresis, makes God intrinsically attractive.
And the final move: draw a straight line from your description of the Trinity to your preferred vision of social and political relationships:
God’s inner life is [then] presented as having positive implications for that which is not God...In the hands of these thinkers, then, the claim that God though three is yet one becomes a source of metaphysical insight and a resource for combating individualism, patriarchy and oppressive forms of political and ecclesiastical organization. No wonder the enthusiasm: the very thing [i.e., the doctrine of the Trinity] which in the past has been viewed as the embarrassment has become the chief point upon which to commend the Christian doctrine of God: not an intellectual difficulty but a source of insight, not a philosophical stumbling block but something with which to transform the world.
Late in the essay, Kilby summarizes the three moves:
In short, then, I am suggesting we have here something like a three stage process. First, a concept, perichoresis, is used to name what is not understood, to name whatever it is that makes the three Persons one. Secondly, the concept is filled out rather suggestively with notions borrowed from our own experience of relationships and relatedness. And then, finally, it is presented as an exciting resource Christian theology has to offer the wider world in its reflections upon relationships and relatedness.
So that's how social trinitarian thinking gets to "the Trinity is our social program." But after sketching out the now familiar moves, Kilby turns toward her criticism of this approach.

Kilby's basic argument borrows some from Freud. As you can see from the title of the essay, Kilby argues that social trinitarians are "projecting" political hopes and desires onto the Trinity. We imagine a perfect, idealized relationship, economy, or political arrangement and then project that vision onto the Trinity, which then projects that vision back toward us, giving us divine justification for our preferred "social program." But you can see the problem here. The social vision we are using to interpret the Trinity--our preferred social and political arrangement--is the very same thing we are saying is the moral implication of the Trinity. God isn't showing up anywhere in this process, as the social vision we're advocating for is baked in from the very start. 

Basically, the Trinity has become a mirror into which we are seeing our own reflection. We're seeing in the Trinity exactly what we want to see. As Kilby observes:
Projection, then, is particularly problematic in at least some social theories of the Trinity because what is projected onto God is immediately reflected back onto the world, and this reverse projection is said to be what is in fact important about the doctrine.
So that's the problem, projecting our preferred politics onto perichoresis. (That's way too many p's.) 

And because of this projection, Kilby ends her essay with her caution about projecting our preferred politics onto God. The final lines of her essay:
Theologians are of course free to speculate about social or any other kind of analogies to the Trinity. But they should not, on the view I am proposing, claim for their speculations the authority that the doctrine carries within the Christian tradition, nor should they use the doctrine as a pretext for claiming such an insight into the inner nature of God that they can use it to promote social, political or ecclesiastical regimes.

On Trinity and Politics: Part 1, The Trinity Is Our Social Program

A couple of months ago, my friend and colleague Brad East put the theologian Karen Kilby on my radar screen, and I've since been exploring her work. I wanted to devote a few posts to one of Kilby's more noteworthy papers, "Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity."

In "Perichoresis and Projection" Kilby levels some critiques of social trinitarianism, especially how the Trinity is used as an ideal or model of social relationships. The political implications of the Trinity are captured in an oft repeated phrase "the Trinity is our social program," first uttered by Nicholas Fedorov, and popularized by the theologian Miroslav Volf. 

Kilby is a critic of this move, and I'd like to share her argument along with some reflections of my own in this series. But today, to start, a post about social trinitarianism, perichoresis, and what it might mean to say "the Trinity is our social program."

Trinitarian debates are complex, and a non-specialist like myself cannot do them justice. So I just want to sketch, in rough outline, the differences between classical and social trinitarianism. 

Classical trinitarianism is the Nicene consensus that God is one substance (ousia) and three persons (hypostases). Because of this, classical trinitarianism has always been a metaphysically complex, arcane, and abstract doctrine. 

(Well, to be clear, the doctrine of the immanent Trinity--what the Trinity actually is in itself--is a complex, arcane, and abstract doctrine. Most Christians throughout history haven't been able to speak with any sort of confidence about "three hypostases in one ousia." By contrast, what is called the economic Trinity--the activity of God in salvation history--is much more clear as we witness God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit act in the biblical drama of salvation.) 

Given the arcane, and frankly impractical, nature of classical trinitarianism, there's been a surge of interest in this last generation of theologians in what is called "social trinitarianism." 

Going back to the Cappadocian Fathers, social trinitarianism emphasizes the relationality of the Trinity. What binds the Trinity together is love. The word often used to describe this relationality and love is perichoresis. The Greek word perichoresis means "going around," like in a dance, and was used by the church fathers to describe the dynamic mutuality in the Trinitarian relations. The fathers also described perichoresis as "interpenetration," the mutual "indwelling" of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It should come as no surprise why social trinitarianism has become all the rage. It's much more interesting to describe the Trinity as a "divine dance" of love than as "three hypostases in one ousia." 

But it's more than just more interesting, it's also more relevant and practical. Suddenly, with social trinitarianism, the Trinity can preach.

The move should be familiar. We describe the Trinity as loving relationality, a "divine dance" of mutuality and self-giving, an economy of gifts. With that love set before us we then call upon all social and political arrangements to reflect, embody and participate in this love. All relationships are called to join the divine dance. All marriages, all families, all friendships, all organizations, all social groups, all economies, all political arrangements. Every relationship should be characterized by love, mutuality and self-giving. Because the Trinity is our social program.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 57, The Canticle of the Eagle

The Ring is destroyed, the battle at the Black Gate is won, Frodo and Sam are rescued from Mount Doom. But news of the great victory--the proclamation of the Good News--has yet to reach Gondor. But soon it comes, the gospel herald one of the great Eagles:

And before the Sun had fallen far from the noon out of the East there came a great Eagle flying, and he bore tidings beyond hope from the Lords of the West, crying...

What follows is a song, a psalm, a canticle of victory. As Fleming Rutledge notes, Tolkien patterned the poems and songs in his story on primitive, folkloric, medieval models. But this song, the Canticle of the Eagle, much more biblical in substance and style:

Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
for the Realm of Sauron is ended for ever,
and the Dark Tower is thrown down.

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your King hath passed through,
and he is victorious.

Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed,
and he shall plant it in the high places,
and the City shall be blessed.

Sing all ye people!
The Bible is full of victory songs. The Canticle of Moses. The Canticle of Miriam. The Canticle of Deborah. The Canticle of Hannah. In the New Testament there is the Benedictus (the Canticle of Zechariah), the Magnificat (the Canticle of Mary), and the Nunc Dimittis (the Canticle of Simeon). And there is much in Tolkien's poem found in the songs of victory from Revelation 18:
Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication...

Praise our God, all you his servants,
you who fear him, small and great...

Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure.

How to Detox Evangelical Christianity

In my recent series I spent many posts pondering the spiritual anxieties that haunt progressive spaces, with an eye on what evangelism among post-Christian progressives looks like in light of those anxieties. But during that series some readers raised questions about evangelicals and their problems.

It's a fair question in light of the events of January 6. Something dark is afoot among evangelicals, something very ugly came into view in the events that transpired on Capital Hill. Given that, is my time well-spent talking about issues in progressive spaces given the troubles of evangelicalism?

As I shared in some comments to those questions, I noted that I don't have a large evangelical following or readership. And my inclination is to be self-critical and to speak to the people in the room. Which means I write as a progressive for progressives, often in a self-critical way.

And yet, if I were going to say something about what's going on in evangelicalism, here's what I would say and recommend if they were in the room.

Specifically, I think evangelicalism has become a form of paganism, the idolatrous worship of a national god. Phrased differently, evangelicalism is addicted to politics and it needs to detox in order to rediscover its Christlike witness.

If we describe the nationalistic idolatry of evangelicalism, its zeal for a "Christian nation", as an addiction, here would be my three simple steps to get detoxed and sober.

1. Do not vote in an election for the next ten years, or even ever again.

Basically, go cold turkey. An evangelical who stops voting is like an addict flushing pills down the toilet or emptying bottles down the sink. Break the connection between God and country. 

2. Abstain from or delete social media, cable TV and talk radio.

Stop going to the drug dealers. Avoid the street corners where they are pushing their pills. 

3. Invest in an apolitical local ministry that cares for the hurting or marginalized.

Sobriety requires a new lifestyle. So stop haunting the crack houses. Find a service, organization, or ministry in your town that cares for hurting or marginalized people. Invest all the hours you used to spend on social media into looking some hurting person directly in the face. Keep doing that until you know her or his name. And keep going until the names become your friends. 

This isn't a 12 Step program, but it's a three step program guaranteed to sober up an evangelical and save their soul. 

And here's the utterly fascinating thing. These are the exact same steps for all the progressive Christians similarly addicted to politics. 

The path to sobriety and sanity is the same for all of us.

Among the Post-Protestants: Part 9, You May Be Good But Are You Happy?

So, how do you evangelize people who are already better Christians than the Christians? People whose moral vision of themselves as good people is wound up with their self-esteem and self-image?

I think it's obvious that you can't frame the gospel moralistically. That is, we tend to think of salvation in moralistic terms, going from a state of sin to a state of righteousness. But if our analysis in this series is correct, this moralistic framing isn't going to resonate with the post-Protestants. They are already saved. So telling them they aren't saved will just strike them as old fashioned, fire and brimstone, Bible thumping.

So what's the move? The move, in my opinion, is the link I noted in the last post, how the moralizing and politicizing of faith has fueled disenchantment. Specifically, while belief might be harder for us today disenchantment hasn't come without its costs. There are so many ways we're suffering due to disenchantment. We're all feeling a bit lost and unwell in this post-Christian world. We might be good people, but we aren't very happy. 

That is the approach I take in my upcoming book Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age. Parts of the book are an attempt at this new approach toward evangelism, shifting away from a focus on sin toward our deep dissatisfactions with disenchantment, less a moral frame than a focus on unhappiness. I think that approach--"You may be good, but are you happy?"--is the new opening move for the gospel in a post-Christian world.

Among the Post-Protestants: Part 8, Protestantism, Disenchantment and Evangelizing the Young

A theme in this series is point made by Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age.

Specifically, the Protestant Reformation played a significant role in disenchanting the West. That the post-Protestants ended up espousing a social gospel without the gospel--a disenchanted gospel--was no accident. 

The Protestant Reformation, in turning its attention to the moral laxity of the laity, introduced a moralism into the faith that had been largely absent in Catholicism. In Catholicism the pursuit of holiness and saintliness was a special calling, a religious vocation, placed only upon the few. This changed with Protestantism as the moral bar was raised for every believer. The monasteries closed as holiness, virtue, and saintliness was now expected from everyone. 

This moral vision also had the polis in view, a reforming civic-mindedness that looked toward the betterment of society. This focus on the polis can best be seen in Calvin's Geneva and in William Wilberforce's work to abolish the slave trade in England. 

All of this lead to a slow moralization and politicization of faith. As I tell the story in my upcoming book Hunting Magic Eels, we stopped seeking God and began to focus on being good.

This moral and political shift helped facilitate disenchantment, the West's drift away from Christianity. Once being good became the goal of faith, it was a short step to realize one doesn't need God to be good. Being a good person is enough. And as the children of the Protestant Reformation, the post-Protestants have simply traced this line to its logical conclusion. That's how the post-Protestants became post-Christian. That's how you get to a social gospel without the gospel. 

This bring me back to evangelism in a post-Christian age, specifically evangelism among young people. 

The younger generations have drunk deeply from the post-Protestant well. They are very, very clear that the entire point of life is being a good person. Full stop. My students, for example, are on the right side of history. They are tolerant on the issues of race, sexuality and gender. They are justice-minded. They are concerned about the environment and climate change. They tick all the good person boxes. And because they have, they don't have much need for the church, as the demographic decline of Christianity among these age cohorts makes clear. The church isn't holding its young people. And our journey among the post-Protestants should make the reason clear. When espousing the social gospel is how you get saved, when being a good person is the whole ballgame, traditional religious expressions, along with its associated metaphysical baggage, can be effectively discarded. Because when you are a good person, you're already saved.

And what makes this doubly hard from an evangelistic perspective, as we've also discussed in this series, is how this image of being a good person functions in self-perception and self-esteem, how being a good person isn't as critical as seeing yourself as a good person. This is why virtue signaling and performative activism are more important than actually being a good person. The goal is to see yourself and have others see you as being a good person.

That makes evangelism hard, as any proclamation of the gospel runs the risk of unsettling our highly moralized self-perceptions, our settled convictions that we already occupy the moral high ground, especially in contrast to a church associated with racism, science denialism, and backwards views on sex and gender. To be very, very clear, I'm not suggesting that a gospel proclamation should try to convince young people that they aren't good people, that we need to tell them they are sinners in need of grace, that they need to repent or face judgment. I'm just trying to describe the challenges evangelism faces when the people you're trying to evangelize see themselves as better Christians than the Christians, as already on the moral high ground in relation to the Bible and church, as already good people, as already saved. And all of it deeply implicated in a cozy, certain, and highly moralized self-perception. 

Among the Post-Protestants: Part 7, Can You Save People Who Are Already Saved?

I've taken us on a journey into the post-Christian landscape, following the work of Joseph Bottum, to point out that we aren't as post-Christian as we might think. It may be more accurate to describe the growing ranks of the irreligious, especially on the political left to center-left, as post-Protestant rather than post-Christian. 

That is to say, what motivates much of our post-Christian politics today is a highly moralized debate over the social gospel (well, the social gospel minus the gospel), the systemic forces of oppression, injustice and inequality. 

And even if you aren't one of the post-Protestants, odds are you're engaged with this vision of sin and salvation through your objections and disagreements. Let's recall, one reason for the rise of evangelicalism was as a response to the liberalism they saw at work in the mainline congregations--the watering down of the Bible, rejection of creedal doctrines, and embrace of the social gospel. Like it or not, the moral vision of mainline Protestantism is sill setting the political table, even if you refuse to eat at it.

Anyway, my interest in this entire line of analysis can now be stated. I want to think about evangelism. This is the question I want to talk about: What does a gospel appeal look like in a post-Christian world?

As I've mentioned, I swim in progressive waters. So when I talk about the gospel I'm generally talking to progressive Christians, progressive post-Christians, or irreligious progressives. Many of my students are progressive post-Christians, they were raised as Christians but now they are more social justice warriors than Christian. So my interest in this series is about my students. Along with my interest in you, dear reader. I spend a lot of my days talking about Jesus with students who are progressive as well as writing about Jesus for readers who are progressive. Most of this progressive audience is Christian, but many are post-Christian, or heading that way.

And in my many years talking about and writing about Jesus in progressive and often post-Christian spaces, I've discovered a curious thing, an observation that made me think Joseph Bottum had put his finger on something in his book The Anxious Age

The observation was this: It's hard to save people who are already saved. 

Again, post-Christians haven't left Christianity behind as the label might suggest. As this series has pointed out, the post-Christians are actually post-Protestant. They've just stripped the metaphysics out of the social gospel. But at root, the post-Christian remains very much a Christian, even in their atheisim and agnosticism. In fact, as we've pointed out in this series, the post-Christians haven't rejected Christianity, they are better Christians, see themselves as more Christian than the Christians. 

Which brings us to the conundrum and great obstacle of evangelism in this post-Christian context. Specifically, how do you convert people to Christianity if they are already Christian? 

Phrased another way, how do you talk about salvation with people who already see themselves as saved?

Or, how you talk about goodness and righteousness with people who already see themselves as good and righteous?

In many ways, all I'm really pointing out here is a curiosity others have noted about progressive Christianity. It's no great surprise to say that progressive Christians tend to not be very big on sin, judgment and damnation. And the reason for this is quite simple: You are already loved! Everything belongs! Love wins!

In short, you're already saved. You just don't realize it yet. Which means that salvation is only really about self-perception and affirmation. Salvation is now equated with self-esteem. The only outstanding soteriological issue in a post-Christian world is convincing yourself that you are already a good person. That's the point of that beer commercial: You are a good person.

And who needs Jesus if you're already a good person?

It is this, I would argue, that is the great challenge of evangelism in this post-Christian age. And not just evangelism, but the church as well. How can you possibly save people who are already saved?

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 56, Is Everything Sad Going to Come Untrue?

The Ring falls into the Crack of Doom with Gollum. And with that, the power of Sauron is destroyed. All the works of the Dark Lord disintegrate and blow away. The Nazgûl fall from the sky.

Rescue comes to Sam and Frodo when Gandalf arrives with the Eagles. Sam awakes among friends and surrounded by the green, living things in Ithilien. Upon waking and seeing Gandalf, whom he last saw falling into the abyss with the Balrog in the Mines of Moria, Sam exclaims in disbelief:

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?"

"A great Shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known.
In the Book of Revelation Jesus declares, "Behold, I am making all things new!" Our hope is looking toward "a New Heavens and a New Earth" where "everything sad" is mended and healed.

Of course, as is so often said, Christians live in the world "between the times." Our enemy has been defeated, the Great Shadow has departed. Newness and life have begun to break out. And as Tolkien recounted, he shed tears of joy as he wrote the pages after the defeat of Sauron, sharing with us the sweet reunions between the Company. These scenes from the story are Easter scenes.

And yet, sad and broken things still remain. There is still work to be done, evil still afoot. As we'll soon learn, all is not well in the Shire. And Frodo is never full healed of his wound from Weathertop. Like us, Middle-Earth begins to live "between the times," between the Departure of the Shadow and the Grey Havens. All is not perfect or whole, but the Shadow has departed and "the pure sound of merriment" has returned to life. This joy a foretaste of what awaits us. The green things are growing again. And we live in hope that everything sad will, one day, come untrue.

Among the Post-Protestants: Part 6, Culture Wars Have Been Denominational Wars

Before turning to my interests in this series, a post to bring the Evangelicals into the story.

Summarizing, the children of the mainline, in their embrace of a social gospel without the gospel, became the post-Protestants, now broadly associated with the left to center-left of the nation. On the political right, center to far, are the Evangelicals. 

The denominational divide that separated the Protestant mainline from the Protestant evangelicals should be familiar history. The key thing to note is that this denominational fight has now between shifted from the mainline churches toward their children, the post-Protestants. But it's still basically the same fight, rival denominational visions of salvation.

Basically, one way to explain the political divide that has been at the heart of America is as a Protestant debate about salvation. 

We tend to think that the current political divide in the nation is between irreligious progressives and religious evangelicals, as a war between secularism and faith. But with Bottum's work in hand we can see that this secularism vs faith framing is misleading. The moral vision of secular progressivism is post-Protestant, the social gospel without the gospel. We're still dealing with the mainline/evangelical debate.

Ponder one of the main issue that sits at the heart of our cultural wars, personal responsibility versus systems. On the one side is the evangelical vision that sin is fundamentally about individual responsibility and guilt, issues of personal values and morals. And on the other side is the post-Protestant (read: mainline) vision of the social gospel, that sin is fundamentally about unjust and oppressive social systems.

(Let me pause to say a word about the paradox of evangelical support for Donald J. Trump. To the bewilderment of many on the left, evangelicals support Trump, an obviously immoral person. But the answer here is straightforward: Trump does not espouse or embody evangelical values, he defends them. Trump fights for evangelicals, gloves off. He fights for them in a way no GOP leader ever has, giving him the stature of "savior" among evangelicals. That said, after the Jericho March and the events of Jan. 6 I really can't say what evangelical "values" are anymore. I think Trump and QAnon effectively destroyed evangelicalism. Which means that a lot of this post is more of a retrospective postmortem about what American evangelicalism used to be prior to Trump.)

Anyway, the point is that America remained a very Protestant nation even as it became more post-Christian. Our culture wars since the 60s have not really between between post-Christian progressives and fundamentalist evangelicals. Since the 60s, our culture wars have been a continuation of the longstanding denominational war between mainline Christianity and evangelicalism, rival Protestants visions of sin and salvation, redeeming souls versus redeeming social structures. 

In short, our political debates in America often have been theological debates. We are a nation that has been debating soteriology--sin versus the social gospel. A denominational war haunts post-Christian America. 

Among the Post-Protestants: Part 5, Self-Esteem Among the Righteous

My observation yesterday about how advertisers and marketers are selling us the message that we are good people gets to the heart of what Joseph Bottum thinks is at the heart of post-Protestant America. Our self-conceptions have become highly moralized. Seeing ourselves as "good people" is integral to our self-image and self-esteem. 

Some have called the post-Protestants the "elite," as post-Protestant views on social issues are held by the cultural influencers on the West and East coasts. But that fails to capture how widespread post-Protestantism is, and how it cuts across lines of power and privilege. As Bottum observes, post-Protestants "are rewarded not necessarily with wealth and power but...with the certainty of their own redemption." The pay off is in the currency of self-esteem.

This feeling stems from the knowledge that you are on the right side of the battle against the social forces of evil in the world. As Bottum writes:

[T]he members of the post-Protestant class share a defining religious attitude.

This is the final remnant of the Christianity of their ancestors, the last enduring bit of their inheritance: a social gospel, without the gospel. For all of them, the sole proof of redemption is the holding of a proper sense of social ills. The only available confidence about their salvation, as something superadded to experience, is the self-esteem that comes with feeling that they oppose the social evils of bigotry and power and the groupthink of the mob.

Going back to Rauschenbush and the social gospel, salvation comes as a form of enlightenment about the social forces of evil populating the world, and then placing oneself in opposition against them. Here is Rauschenbush:

As long as a man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present order, he is still in a state of moral blindness and without conviction of sin...No man can help the people until he is himself free from the spell which the present order has cast over our moral judgment. 

A feeling of righteousness is earned, therefore, in coming to see social evils correctly, as a battle between darkness and light. As Bottum summarizes:

Freed from stultifying churches, freed from any theological requirement for faith in Jesus, freed even from the need for any particular action [because holding the proper social views is all that is necessary], they found that salvation demands only the sense that, in personality, one has chosen the right side of the almost Manichean division between the supernatural entities of the coming Kingdom of Heaven and the present Kingdom of Evil.

All that is necessary for self-esteem, for the certainty of individual salvation, is possession of the class markers of social suspicion that indicate one belongs to the fellowship of the redeemed.

This is the key insight that I've been driving us toward, how our views about justice, social problems, and politics are implicated in our self-esteem. Or, as Bottum describes it, how post-Christian and non-Christian progressives feel themselves to be, not elite, but elect, as "people who understand themselves primarily in spiritual terms."

With that insight now on the table, let me pause before turning a corner in this series. If you've been reading along in these posts you likely are wondering where I'm going with all this. And you probably have a bunch of questions, like "What about the Evangelicals?" Evangelicals aren't post-Protestant, what about them? 

I'm going to talk about the Evangelicals in the next post and then turn to the point of this series. As a progressive, liberal Christian I live among the post-Protestants. I don't speak to Evangelicals. I swim in post-Christian and post-Protestant waters, among the people who see themselves as holding all the right views on social and political issues, the people who espouse "a social gospel without the gospel." That is the context where I find myself making an apology for things like faith, God, and the church. And what I've discovered in this context is the point Bottum is making above. The issues aren't just about social justice. Self-esteem, self-image, and self-perception are implicated as well. And that needs to be recognized if you want to speak a word for God among the post-Protestants. It's that which I want to talk about.

Among the Post-Protestants: Part 4, I Am a Good Person

It was a beer commercial that got me thinking about all this post-Protestant stuff.

I didn't know what the commercial was for at first, that was hidden. But as the images and voiceover rolled on it was all about you and I, the viewers of the commercial, how we are GOOD PEOPLE. You and I are brave and kind. We do the little things that keep the world together and sane. We are the hidden glue of compassion holding our communities together. We are the unsung heroes. 

And then, at the very end, the logo for the beer company appeared. And I asked Jana out loud, "What does beer have to do with me being a good person?"

I think it's safe to say that advertisers have their finger on the pulse of the American psyche, our longings, desires, insecurities, and aspirations. And if you watch enough commercials, like that beer commercial, the message comes through very, very clearly: We want to be good people. And we crave reassurances, because we fear we might not be good people. And so here comes the beer commercial, hitting me right in my anxious sweet spot, telling me that, yes, I am a good person. 


Watch commercials and keep a tally of how many of them have nothing to do with the product they are selling but with morality, some vision of goodness. Often, it's about the goodness of the company. Other companies don't care about you, but we do. Or, here are all the good things our company is doing, from caring for our workers, to helping our communities, to caring for the environment. And when the vision of goodness isn't about the company, it's about the goodness of our moral heroes, the company just taking some time to honor doctors, nurses, first responders, and those serving in the military. And then there's you, the company honoring you for being a good person in your daily acts of courage, generosity, and sacrifice. 

So, so many commercials have nothing to do with the products being sold but with selling us a moral perception of ourselves: I am a good person.

Commercials and advertising make it very, very clear. Post-Christian doesn't mean anti-Christian or non-Christian. Post-Christian means post-Protestant, carrying forward the moral aspirations and anxieties of our Protestant past. We want to see ourselves as good people, but we fear not measuring up to our high moral standards. We strive to be counted among the righteous, but that striving is haunted by guilt. Each day is filled with sins of omission and commission. And so a beer commercial becomes our priest, offering us absolution: You are a good person.  

Sure, we might be "spiritual but not religious," and the Nones might be on the rise, but it it's very clear watching TV that we are the children of the Puritans. 

Among the Post-Protestants: Part 3, Better Christians

There was a passage in Joseph Bottum's book The Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America where a lightbulb went off for me. In describing the moral atmosphere of the modern age, Bottum asks,

[How did] a large class of American Protestants [climb] up into post-Protestantism. What are the means by which they decided to proclaim themselves "spiritual but not religious"? ... And how, exactly, did they form what must be seen as the defining proposition of the post-Protestant age: the great unspoken and probably unspeakable thought that it is somehow more Christian not be be a professing Christian?

That last question clicked for me. Many assume, looking at the demographic decline of Christian churches, that our age is turning its back on Christianity, rejecting or replacing the Christian worldview. But that's not what is happening at all. Again, think about the prominence of social justice in our world, its cultural influence upon corporations, journalism, media, politics, and the arts. What is happening is that our age sees itself as bringing the moral vision of Christianity to what is deemed its proper conclusion and fulfillment. Progressives, liberals, and secular humanists see themselves as better Christians than Christians themselves. More loving. More compassionate. More concerned about justice. Shoot, many atheists see themselves as better Christians than Christians. And that's so diagnostic. It's not simply that atheists reject Christian metaphysical claims, it's that atheism perceives itself as a moral improvement upon Christianity. Atheists are better Christians.

And it's that sentiment--how post-Christians aren't non-Christian but better Christians--that marks us as post-Protestant. 

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 55, The Author of the Story

The "deep narrative" carries Frodo and Sam all the way to the cracks of Mount Doom, toward the denouement of the story. The final plot twist. 

For example, as Fleming Rutledge points out, many passive sentence constructions are used to describe Sam's actions in getting Frodo to and up Mount Doom. For example, when Sam starts to carry Frodo on his back, we read that "some gift of final strength was given him." Later, when Sam cannot carry Frodo up the mountainside any longer, he sets Frodo down and lays down beside him. And this happens: "Suddenly a sense of urgency which he did not understand came to Sam. It was almost as if he had been called: 'Now, now, or it will be too late!' He braced himself and got up." 

Even here, deep in the bowels of hell, a providential power is still present and at work.

And that providential power is revealed in the narrative shock we experience when Frodo finally--finally!--reaches the cusp of the abyss. At long last, and with an effort almost superhuman in its expenditure, Frodo finally comes to the conclusion of his quest.

And there, arriving at the climatic moment, Frodo fails. 

This is a severe shock because we are denied, here in the final moment, a heroic action and ending. What we get, at the very end, after long trial and tribulation, is a failure. 

As Rutledge discusses, many readers of the story angrily wrote Tolkien, complaining bitterly about Frodo's failure. It doesn't seem to be a very good ending for a story to have your hero fail in the end.

And yet here, in Frodo's failure, the deep narrative of the story comes into full view. No human can defeat evil. We are too powerless, too weak. And while that's not a very heroic realization, it is, nevertheless, the truth. A truth that points to a salvation that has to come to us from outside ourselves, from that providential power that has been at work from the very beginning.

In a response to one of his angry readers, Tolkien shared, "Frodo deserved all honour because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further...The Other Power then took over, the Writer of the Story (by which I don't mean myself)."

Among the Post-Protestants: Part 2, The Social Gospel

So why did the mainline churches decline, and how was it that their children retained the mainline concern for social consciousness and social justice, just without the religious key?

According to Joseph Bottum, it was the social gospel, preached by influential theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch in books like A Theology of the Social Gospel

For example, in A Theology of the Social Gospel, published in 1918, Rauschenbusch argued that six forces conspired to kill Jesus in the gospels. Rauschenbusch listing out the six "social sins" that led to the crucifixion of Jesus:

Religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit and mob action, militarism, and class contempt – every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil.

These are the sins that create, for Rauschenbusch, the "Kingdom of Evil" on earth. And Rauschenbusch goes on to lay much of the blame for these social sins at the foot of four culprits: militarism, individualism, capitalism, and nationalism. These are the forces we have to fight to do battle with the Kingdom of Evil. 

All that should sound eerily familiar. Very contemporary.

As Bottum points out, Rauschenbusch's social gospel is almost, point for point, the concerns of progressives and liberals today. Prejudice. Political corruption. The ignorant "deplorables." Militarism. Economic inequity. All this goes to make Bottum's point. Liberals and progressives might not be going to church on Sunday, but we aren't post-Christian. We are post-Protestant. We are the children of the social gospel. We are the heirs of the moral and spiritual vision of mainline Christianity who have, in the words of Bottum, "stripped out the Christianity along the way."

Among the Post-Protestants: Part 1, A Mysticism of the Social Order

I've been reading Joseph Bottum's book An Anxious Age and wanted to devote few posts reflecting on the thesis in the book. 

To start, Bottum observes how America's political, managerial, journalistic, academic, and creative classes--the culture "makers--are characterized by a moral and spiritual anxiety. This anxiety pushes against the notion that we've entered a "post-Christian" moment. Rather than being lessened or marginalized, it seems that life, especially politics, is becoming increasingly moralized, characterized by a spiritual hunger, even a desire for moral heroism, a battle between Good and Evil. 

What is the source of this moral and spiritual anxiety, especially as we see church attendance decline?

Bottum's argument is that American isn't post-Christian, it's post-Protestant. Specifically, the spiritual glue that once held the nation together was mainline Protestantism, the generations of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists, Northern Baptists, Episcopalians, and Methodists who shaped the moral sensibilities and lifeways of the middle, upper and political classes of American life. 

However, starting the 1960s the mainline denominations have experienced a precipitous decline. During the 60s, almost 50 percent of Americans sat in the pews of the mainline churches. Today, less than 10 percent do. That's a huge and swift cultural shift, and Bottum's argument is that it explains much of our current cultural moment, especially the moral and spiritual anxieties the characterize modern life, especially the political left to center-left. As Bottum writes, "The lost Mainline is who we are. It's what defines us."

Specifically, where did the children of the mainline congregations go? What did they become?

Bottum argues that they didn't become post-Christian. The children of mainline Christianity became post-Protestant, carrying forward into the public and political arena the social gospel they inherited from their parents, still crackling with moral urgency and passion, yet stripping off and leaving behind the metaphysical dogmas of Christianity. As Bottum describes it, the "result of [post-Protestantism] is a nearly complete transfer of Christian fear and Christian assurance into a sensibility of the need for [social] reform, a mysticism of the social order--the anxiety about salvation resolved by ecstatic transport into the feeling of social solidarity." 

If a "mysticism of the social order" sounds a lot like our contemporary spiritual thirst for "social justice" as the arena of moral heroism and our quest for salvation, well, that's exactly Bottum's point. Our world remains, in its moral and spiritual sensibilities, deeply Christian. Just without Christ. Social justice is a manifestation of being post-Protestant, a spiritual urge for social reform--"ecstatic transport into the feeling of social solidarity"--that now crackles with the moral and spirituality anxieties that once characterized Christianity. 

The Powers and Political Involvement

What is the place of politics in the life of the Christian?

On the one hand, I have serious concerns when Christians put their faith in empire as the hope of the world. My political sensibilities tend toward the Anabaptist, investing my energy, time, attention, and hope in the church rather than Washington DC.

But on the other hand, our system is one of participatory democracy. We should each do our part to use whatever political power we have, the vote most especially, to improve our common lives together.

So how do you walk that line? Involved, but not overly invested. Can such a line be walked?

I've found Hendrik Berkhof's observations in his book Christ and the Powers to be helpful on this point. Berkhof's point is that "the powers" of the world, in this case we're talking about nation states, aren't evil but fallen. The powers serve a purpose in bringing order and structure to social life. Yet in their fallenness the powers are broken and corrupted. So the way forward isn't non-participation, an attempt to keep oneself "pure" by refusing to be "political." Again, the powers aren't evil so involvement isn't morally corrupting. 

But on the other hand, the powers are fallen. So we can't put our hope in them. They are broken vessels, so we need to be realistic about what they can and can't accomplish. The powers are useful, but they cannot save us. So we must be wary of placing too much of our energy and hope in them.

For Berkhof, then, we must "Christianize" the powers. And we do that by viewing them modestly and instrumentally. We use the powers as needed, but are not overly invested in them. Berkhof describing this:

The Holy Spirit "shrinks" the Powers before the eyes of faith. [The Powers] may have inflated themselves to omnipotent total value systems, but the believer sees them in their true proportion, as nothing more than one segment of creation, existing because of the Creator, and limited by other creatures...In faith life is seen and accepted in its smallness and modesty... 

That [the Powers] are "Christianized" means they are made instrumental, made modest; one could even say "neutralized."... [The Powers] no longer pretend to offer an inspiring center for all of life...[The church strives] to neutralize the Powers and de-ideologize life...
One might summarize by saying that the issue here is one of attitude, about the size of the psychological and spiritual footprint politics has in your mind and heart.

Throw Your Pebble into the Pond

What we would like to do is change the world--make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute--the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words--we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.

--Dorothy Day

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 54, Food for the Journey

Though Sam realizes that he and Frodo do not have enough food to make a return trip out of Mordor, they do have enough food for the journey to Mount Doom. And that food has great theological significance. The manna that sustains Frodo and Sam is the waybread of Lothlórien.

I say manna because, as mentioned before in this series, Tolkien uses the Elves to enchant Middle Earth. The Elves, along with the Maiar (like Gandalf), are the "angels" and "archangels" of the saga. So it's not surprising that the waybread (lembas) of Lothlórien would provide Frodo and Sam with supernatural sustenance:

The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet, this way bread of the Elves had potency that increased as travelers relied upon it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.

This is Eucharistic talk. Tolkien's Catholicism is on full display here. The Eucharist is that food that doesn't feed desire (a small wafer isn't much of a meal), but it is the bread that feeds the will, the meal that gives us strength to endure "beyond the measure of mortal kind." 

The sacramental theology on display here is rich, deep, and thick. The Eucharist is magical. Supernatural. It is manna, the bread of angels. The Eucharist is not a dead prop or memory aid, it is an enchanted meal that gives us supernatural strength for the hard and difficult journey. And it is a meal that increases in potency the more we come to rely upon it.

This reminds me of Flannery O'Connors' quip about the Eucharist at a fancy dinner with New York writers, critics, and intellectuals. During the gathering, the topic of the Eucharist came up. It was assumed that Flannery, being the only Catholic in attendance, would defend the sacrament. In a letter to her friend Flannery describes the exchange she had with Mary McCarthy, the writer and essayist: 

"Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.' That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."

Love and Idols

The beautiful letter of 1 John has a odd ending.

I say the letter is beautiful because 1 John has such stunning passages and lines, among them the awe-inspiring "God is love."

There's so much about love in the letter that you'd think the ending would be this:
Little children, love one another. 
But that's not the final line. The final line is:
Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
This last exhortation--"keep yourselves from idols"--seems to come out of the blue. There's not a whole lot of talk about idol worship in the book.

It might seem that the issues of idols and love don't go together, but in the Christian imagination they do. Love is a matter of worship. Our capacity to love is dependent upon the right ordering of our hearts. We don't love each other well when we're worshiping idols. A person can't love their family well if they worship work. Addicts can't love well in the grip of their addiction. We can't love well if we're vain, prideful, and self-absorbed. Love requires rejecting these idols.

"Little children, love one another" and "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" go hand in hand.

"Of Being" by Denise Levertov

I know this happiness
is provisional:

              the looming presences--
              great suffering, great fear--

              withdraw only
              into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:
                              this mystery:

Glimpses of Grace

One of the things that is so compelling about the Old Testament is how multivocal it is, different sensibilities that create contrasts and tensions.

For example, we have the story in 2 Samuel 6 of Uzzah who died because he reached up to steady the Ark of the Covenant as it made its way to Jerusalem. The story seems to share the view that even the slightest deviation from God's commands can bring about disastrous consequences.

But contrasting with the fate of of Uzzah, is the story from 2 Chronicles 30 related to king Hezekiah's religious reforms.

One of the things that Hezekiah restores is the celebration of the Passover, calling all Israel and Judah back to the forgotten and forsaken ritual. Because of their collective ignorance, many of the people who come to the Passover are not in a state of ritual purity. Knowing this, Hezekiah petitions God for grace for this failure:
There were many in the assembly who had not consecrated themselves. Therefore the Levites had to slaughter the Passover lamb for everyone who was not clean, to consecrate it to the Lord. For a majority of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than as prescribed. For Hezekiah had prayed for them, saying, “May the good Lord pardon everyone who sets his heart to seek God, the Lord, the God of his fathers, even though not according to the sanctuary's rules of cleanness.” And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.
Because of their pure hearts and motivations, their desire to please God, the people were healed, even though they were breaking the rules. It's a story that pushes back on a too-easy takeaway message from the case of Uzzah. Rules can be bent. Grace can be found, even within the ritual purity codes.