19 January 2018

Plato on Transhumanism

Michael Plato, that is.

Over the years I have posted on the transhumanist phenomenon here, here, and here. For a thoughtful and even more up-to-date piece go here to read his post, "The Immortality Machine: Transhumanism and the Race to Beat Death."

As Plato observes, "That so many atheist transhumanists look at death with hostility and hunger for immortality should be, at a very basic level, encouraging for Christians." On the other hand,
Transhumanism sharply diverges from Christianity in its rejection of the idea that our human bodies are good as is because they are created by a good God. That Christ himself has a human body and possesses a human nature affirms the goodness and completeness of the human. In this, transhumanism is more akin to the Gnosticism of centuries past, which treated the body as malleable or even outright repugnant and disposable.
Victory over death won't come by prolonging and even enhancing the lives we have. Human life, even as wonderful as it can be, is deeply flawed and death is the final exclamation point on its flaws. We need something more than more of the same and the gospel of eternal life in Christ promises more than perduration. "Eternal" partakes of the nature of Life of the one who is life and that life will transcend the paltry imitation hoped for by the transhumanists.

16 January 2018

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 7.0

(You can read my comments on chapters 1 through 6 of "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology" (AtK)  herehereherehere, here, and here.)

Reaching Smith's concluding remarks fully justify reading the previous six chapters. My previous posts have suggested something of a mixed response to Smith's venture into political theology. His critique of neo-Kuyperian transformationalism in light of a biblical eschatology (the now and the not-yet of God's work of restoration) was trenchant. I hope hIs introduction to Oliver O'Donovan will send many to O'Donovan's works. And his frank acknowledgment that reviving serious liturgical practices is not a panacea for what deforms the loves of Christians is consistent with this book's title: awaiting the king.

On the other hand, I have criticized Smith's dismissal of the insights of the natural law tradition. The proponents of natural law, from the Stoics to the Medievals to post-Reformation Christians, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, understood natural law as a set of mid-level principles derived from human nature that should be applied in each polity with an eye toward the history and practices of its particular people. Smith (and O'Donovan, for that matter) pick up the story of natural law from its nineteenth-century despisers. I wish Smith had done better on that score. Other criticisms have included some confusion about the separation of church and state and some overuse of movie metaphors. But these were minor nits in the grand scheme of AtK.

Smith brings his Augustinian insights to his conclusion that is dialectically clear. Dialectical because Augustine, drawing from a biblical eschatology, correctly frames Christians' penultimate political concerns in light of their ultimate eschatological telos. On the one hand, "both the Religious Right and the Christian Left are evidence that evangelical Protestants have shed their otherworldly quietism. ... Politics is affirmed as one of the 'spheres' of creation over which Christ resolutely says, 'Mine!'" On the other hand, those same Evangelical political activists need to be reminded that "one of the dangers of eagerly diving in to the political sphere is that it tends to underestimate the strength of the currents already swirling around in that 'sphere.'" In other words, "the political" is not simply something we "do;" political activity does something to us. And the direction in which the formative activities of politics bend can be deeply deforming.

Enough on-the-one-hand-and-the-other, what are Smith's take-aways? How does he recommend we calibrate the tension between penultimate public interest and the ultimate love of God? Summarizing his concluding points:
  1. Recognize that even the disordered loves of the earthly city attest to creational desires. The idolatrous loves (and lives) that find expression in the practices of politics are derived from the ontological reality that human beings were created to love.
  2. Every critique of the practice and results of political activity is ad hoc; there is no such thing as the one-size-fits-all Christian theory of penultimate earthly justice. Because there cannot be (and certainly should not be) a Christian "theory" of how to harness misdirected earthly loves, the only "theory" of Christian political activity is "Come quickly Lord Jesus.
  3. Yet we should be able to recognize penultimate convergence even where there is ultimate divergence. Practical compromise (as I discussed here) to make our earthly sojourns less bad, less deformed, and more just should be pursued.
  4. "Don't lose your eschatology: cultivate a teleological sensibility." Since for the time being the City of God and the City of Man are intermingled, "it is in the interest of the 'pilgrims' of the city of God to seek the welfare of the earthly city."
  5. Nonetheless, there are limits to political participation by Christians. We must always ask the question of the extent to which the configuration of a polity's political practices--"these secular liturgies--deform and deflect the people of God from their longing for the heavenly city."
Even before I reached the end of AtK I concluded it is an excellent book that I recommend to everyone reading this post. My criticisms notwithstanding, AtK is more than an onramp and it is deeper than a roadmap to reforming public theology. It provides thoughtful readers with a means by which to frame and guide our lives and loves in the City of Man while waiting for the full and final revelation of the City of God.

12 January 2018

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 6.0

(You can read my comments on chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 of "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology" (AtK)  hereherehere, here, and here.)

Chapter 6 of AtK ("Contested Formations: Our 'Godfather' Problem") extends across a long 43 pages (compared with a mere 13 pages in the preceding chapter). It begins and ends strong but the lengthy middle tries to cover a lot of ground and fails fully to develop its arguments. Its lengthy middle may keep some folks from the fundamental--and excellent--point of the chapter.

Chapter 6 begins with Smith's description of "The Godfather" problem: if liturgical character formation is all it's cracked up to be, then how do we account for its obvious and stunning failure in the life of fictional character Michael Corleone? Smith succinctly describes a scene from The Godfather that depicts the contrast between the baptismal liturgy of his young child and the simultaneous series of hits on his enemies ordered by young Michael. As Smith explains,
While I extol the formative power of historic Christian worship practices, it would seem that there can be--and are--people who have spent entire lifetimes immersed in the rites of historic Christian worship who nonetheless emerge from them not only unformed but perhaps even malformed.
The frank acknowledgement of this conundrum introduces the long middle section of Chapter 6 where Smith leaves behind Oliver O'Donovan's careful theological work and turns to the race-informed sociology of Calvin College grad Willie James Jennings. Jennings is the real deal when it comes to the origins and meaning of race in Western society. Even more than we see in Smith's reliance on O'Donovan for his political theology, however, we see his dependence on Jennings for his understanding of the place of race. This isn't to say that Smith (channeling Jennings) is wrong but only that we don't really hear Smith's voice for many pages.

Coupled with the derivative nature of his sociology, at least some of Smith's prescriptions for the role of a pastor seeking to re-form the Christian characters in a congregation are unhelpful. For example, to counter the deforming effects of nationalism, Smith suggests a service of anti-nationalism on the Fourth of July (although he acknowledges to so might cost a church much of its congregation). Heck, I've been in churches where it took years of education before removing the national flag from the worship space. Perhaps Smith wrote tongue-in-cheek but modifying long-practiced modes of worship involves more patience than sociology.

More broadly, Smith urges that leaders in congregational worship "'read' the practices of the regnant polis, to exegete the liturgies of the earthly city in which we are immersed ... [on a] local and contextual level." Exactly how do we expect the average pastor to do this, at least in a way that's not simply pandering to the SJW side of evangelicalism?

Here's my liturgical 2 cents: how about having worship leaders stick to worshiping in accord with the Word and even doing it twice every Lord's Day? After all, restoring a worship-bracketed approach to Sundays would double the formation opportunities and help combat the idolatries of spectator-consumer-consumption.

At last, Smith comes to the end of Chapter 6 and makes an extremely important point: ecclesiastical liturgy is not about character re-formation. Let me quote Smith here:
Finally, the argument about the centrality of worship and the importance of historic Christian liturgy is not, ultimately or only, a claim about effectiveness. In other words, Christian liturgy is not just a strategy of discipleship or an instrument of formation. ... Worship is ultimately and fundamentally a theocentric act, commanded and invited by the King.
Amen. While worship done well, thoughtfully, and regularly should mold the loves of its participants, worship is not a means to such an end. Its end (telos) is God and it is the Triune God we worship "who will ultimately transform us and hence undo the injustice we've wrought."

07 January 2018

Report on a Regional Convivium

Faithful readers may recall that I have posted brief reports on the papers presented at the annual summer convivia sponsored by the Davenant Institute. (Go herehere, here, and here for the concluding posts for the past four years.) With the surfeit of great papers, Davenant decided to add several regional off-season convivia to the roster. The most recent one took place at Davenant House in Landrum, South Carolina January 5-6.

Morning View from the Deck
In addition to great food, worship (including singling psalms a cappella), fellowship, and libations, we enjoyed plenary speaker D. Blair Smith of Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte) on "The Fatherhood of God in Fourth-Century Pro-Nicene Trinitarian Theology." Quite a mouthful but Christians today need to recall that it took the church centuries to develop concepts and their ramifications and interrelations we now take for granted. Except when we forget what certain expression meant and re-fill them with our own, contemporary meanings (more on this phenomenon below).

Other papers included "John Owen: Proto-Barthian?" by Thomas Haviland-Pabst, in which Thomas showed that Barth could have avoided the excesses of his "Christo-monism" had he read the Christo-centric Trinitarian theology of seventeenth-century Puritan theologian, John Owen. Both Barth and Owen serve as good reminders, however, that the Christian God is Trinity and that failing to begin theology proper with Trinity can lead to either a functional modalism or tri-theism.

Nathan Johnson presented "The Polyphonic Melody of Grace: Identity, Consecration, and Deliverance in the Passover and Eucharist” in which he developed a rich, biblical-theological understanding of the Lord's Supper that, if taken seriously, would help restore the sacrament to a meaningful place in the liturgy. Next, Zachary Groff, talked about his paper, “The Ancient Branch: 17th C. Scottish Presbyterian Commentaries on Romans 11:26." How to understand Paul's prophecy of the salvation of "all Israel" has perplexed commentators for over a thousand years but the seventeenth-century Scots had a take on it that was new to me. 

Mark Olivero gave his paper on “The Eternal Sovereignty of the Son: The Co-regency of Christ Reveals the One Absolute and Indivisible Authority of the Triune God” in which he revisited last year's dust-up over the alleged eternal subordination of the Son to the Father (see above) with a careful review of 1 Corinthians 15, the putative proof-text for subordinationists like Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem.

Finally, I read my paper, "Unconscionability: Reciprocity and Justice" and received valuable comments on my theological arguments.

All in all, great edification and a great time.

Lengthening Shadows at Davenant House

04 January 2018

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 5.0

(You can read my comments on chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4 of "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology" (AtK)  herehere, here, and here.)

Smith continues his slow advance into his take on the specifics of a Christian public theology with "Redeeming Christendom: Or, What's Wrong With Natural Law." If the preceding chapter was a critique of Neocalvinist pluralism, chapter 5 represents an attempt to rehabilitate the notion of Christendom. Long discredited in the Liberal tradition (early or contemporary), Christendom is enjoying something of a comeback in Protestant circles through the works of Peter Leithart. (You can go here to read one of my posts about Leithart from six years ago.)

Smith's Christendom is hardly the sort popularly identified first with Constantine and then onto the Christianized culture of Western Europe. At least I don't think so. On the one hand, he quotes approvingly from Augustine's City of God:

We Christians call rulers happy if they rule with justice ... if they put power at the service of God's majesty, to extend his worship far and wide, if they fear God, love him and worship him ...
And then in his own words Smith writes "Our imaginations have been sufficiently disciplined by the assumptions of liberalism to be uncomfortable about and embarrassed by such forthrightly Christian hopes for temporal government." Duh.

But does Smith really mean that the only truly happy civil ruler is one who seeks to extend the worship of the one true God across the globe? I don't think so for in the course of the remainder of this chapter he walks back the Christian witness in political life to something like faithful presence: "The church is now the site for seeing what Christ's kingly rule looks like; and it will be from the church that the authorities ... of this world might come to recognize their own penultimacy." For Smith, for at least the foreseeable future, quoting (again) Oliver O'Donovan, "Christ conquers rulers from below, by drawing their subjects out from under their authority."

I'm not sure where that leaves us, which is one of my problems with AtK. Smith invites multiple readings by failing to define his terms and work out their implications. AtK is more a pastiche than a full-fledged program, or even the architecture for a program, of the relationship between the Church and the civil powers of the world.

Which leads me to my greatest objection thus far, Smith's offhanded and ill-considered rejection of natural law as a part of an architecture for a program of political engagement. Smith criticizes natural law for being insufficiently "evangelical" while his own approach reduces Christian involvement to a winsome well, I'm not sure what:
Christendom, then, is a missional [sic] endeavor that refuses to let political society remain protected from the lordship of Christ while also recognizing the eschatological distance between the now and the not-yet. From the center of the church as a political society, Christendom bears witness to how society should be otherwise in a way that imagines the possibility of conversion--not only of souls but of our social imaginaries.
(If you want to know what natural law really is (and isn't) don't look to AtK but instead see the short Davenant guide titled, appropriately, "Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense" (previously blogged here) or watch this video.) 

23 December 2017

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 4.0

(You can read my comments on chapters 1, 2, and 3 of "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology" (AtK)  here, here, and here.)

In chapter four of AtK, "The Limits and Possibility of Pluralism: Reforming Reformed Public Theology," Smith begins with an astute (and absolutely correct) observation:
My concern is a blind spot in some [most? all?] influential Neocalvinist accounts of pluralism and political life that stems from a wider, more systemic tendency within Neocalvinism to devalue and displace the significance of the institutional church ...
Amen. Already I had a gnawing unease about this aspect of the version of Neocalvinism I received in my undergraduate days at Dordt College. But I wonder if this devaluing of the Church has its roots already in the theology and practice of the grandfather of Neocalvinism, Abraham Kuyper? Friend Ruben Alvarado certainly thinks so. (See my blog post here.)

Regardless of the genealogy of Neocalvinism's de-emphasis of the church as an institution, how does Smith see this as a problem in contemporary Neocalvinist public theology? Smith does a nice job of canvassing the version of pluralism put forth by Jonathan Chaplin, perhaps the most insightful of Neocalvinist political theorists, and finds it wanting. When all is said and done, Neocalvinist structural pluralism "ends up making a meta-argument for what I'm calling a kind of macroliberalism wherein a 'just' society is one in which different confessional communities are free to pursue their visions of the good." In short, Neocalvinist political theology is baptized Rawlsian liberalism.

Smith contrasts Neocalvinist pluralism with what he believes is more robust formulation by John Inazu in "Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference." FWIW, I'm not as confident about Inazu's version of pluralism as Smith.

In short, I found this chapter of AtK helpful in its critique of the prevailing Neocalvinist version of pluralism but I am less sanguine about Smith's alternative. Notwithstanding, Smith's lament over the loss of place for the institutional church in Neocalvinism, I didn't find his ecclesial turn adequate. To be sure, Smith does spend several pages on the church as the place of virtue formation and he reminds his readers of the centrality of the heavenly vision that should characterize the Christian's orientation toward the affairs of the world. Yet none of this addresses the place of the church as an institutional counterweight. I was hoping that Smith could articulate a way in which the church as institution functioned not only internally but also externally with respect to the world. There are, however, two-plus chapters to go ...

20 December 2017

It's All About the Children

A few weeks ago I posted here about an article by former colleague Louis Hensler, The Legal Significance of the Natural Affection of Charlie Gard's Parents. To my satisfaction Hensler demonstrated that the common law (and, to a lesser extent, its statutory successors) presume that parents have a divinely-instilled natural affection for their children that immunizes them (and not others) from claims for actions that could otherwise amount to tort. Natural affection generally warrants deference to parental choice not because children are their property--they aren't--but because for all their foibles and limitations parents' hearts and intentions are for their children. This seems especially the case when compared to any plausible substitute such as a state-run child welfare and educational systems that are chronically underfunded and under-staffed.

For another point of view go here to read Homeschooling: Choosing Parental Rights Over Children's Interests. Cribbing from the abstract:
Homeschooling, the most extreme form of privatization of education, often eliminates the possibility of the child gaining the resources essential for success in adult life. It sacrifices the interests of the child to the interests of the parents, allowing them to control and isolate the child’s development. In addition, homeschooling frustrates the state’s legitimate interest in the child’s receiving a sound, diverse education, so that the child can achieve her potential as a productive employee and as a constructive participant in civic life. ... For all of these reasons, homeschooling should be prohibited, as it is in many other countries.
Where to start? How about, for instance, the fatuous nature of the assertion that homeschooling "often" (how's that for a wiggle word?)  "eliminates the possibility of success"? Seriously, as one who sees more and more law school resources devoted to remediation of the deformities caused by our "no child left behind" approach to primary and secondary education (which has slithered into undergraduate education as well), I can't imagine how the authors believe that homeschooling is so much worse.

But here's the real howler: homeschooling "frustrates the state's interest" in turning kids into "productive employees" and "constructive" citizens. Sheesh. And here I thought that education was to train children in virtuous truth-seeking. Silly me.

For yet a third hand, one that frames the issue separating Hensler and homeschooling-phobes, go here to read an essay by Bruce Ledewitz, Is Religion a Non-Negotiable Aspect of Liberal Constitutionalism? Spoiler alert: yes. In Ledewitz's words: " I aim to challenge the question’s implicit privileging of secularism as a constitutional norm by returning to the American experience." Unlike the authors of Homeschooling, Ledewitz is as open to the question of whether religion should tolerate secularism as vice versa. Of course, privileging one's preferred take, e.g., secularism uber alles, makes winning an argument much easier but hardly does service to honest academic inquiry.

In any event, Ledewitz demonstrates that there can be thoughtful discussion of the fraught issues in American social and political life.

And one more thing: Enjoy a blessed Advent.

11 December 2017

Stocking Stuffers Part 2

Image result for brauch flawed perfection

(Part 1 here)

Another book I can recommend is "Flawed Perfection: What It Means to be Human and Why It Matters for Culture, Politics, and Law." Written by friend and former colleague Jeff Brauch, "Flawed Perfection" addresses the "Who cares?" and "What is it?" of human nature. Arguing that there is a thing such as human nature falls outside the mainstream of post-modern identify politics but satisfying pomo critics isn't Brauch's concern. Rather, he takes a straightforward position with frequent reference to Scripture that human nature can be described with five factors, four of which are capabilities (reasoning, creativity, dominion, and relationality) and the fifth, a status (sharing God's moral image). Even here, however, Brauch explains that status in terms of the capability of volition plus the qualities of conscience and possession of "moral law written on the heart." Human dignity, a terms that bears much weight in "Flawed Perfection," ultimately finds its justification in human capabilities but capabilities underwritten by their origin in a transcendent God.

I have elaborated on Brauch's introductory chapters to indicate that those interested in subtle theological distinctions will not find them addressed in "Flawed Perfection." Brauch is content to take and apply Evangelical commonplaces to the topic of human nature and its entailment, human dignity. In other words, you won't find a consideration of other interpretations of human dignity as, for example, Nicholas Wolterstorff's use of analytic philosophy to ground human dignity in God's love of attachment (here) or Gilbert Meilaender's neo-Aristotelian approach (here). None of this should be taken as a criticism of Brauch's book. It is, after all, his book to write. It is only to suggest that the audience for "Flawed Perfection" is not the legal or theological academy.

Enough quibbling. Whatever the justification of human dignity, how does Brauch apply it? The the next seven chapter reveal Brauch at his best: clear and engaging writing about the relationship of human nature to topics ranging from human trafficking and biotechnology to the rule of law and criminal punishment. Brauch eschews certain risky topics such as systemic racism, consumer capitalism and the growing dominance of multi-national enterprises in subverting the very rule of law he praises, climate change, and rampant militarism. Even though Brauch picked on softer targets, I was pleased to note that in the final chapter he addresses the risk of "Christian Utopianism." Just as disregarding human nature leads to systemic human degradation, over-ambitious efforts at legal reform of (im)moral behavior often backfire and cause other sorts of harm.

Earlier I remarked that the academy was not audience for "Flawed Perfection." But who is? What individuals or groups would benefit from reading this book? Coming in at over 260 pages, I suspect its length makes it a daunting read for church study groups. It would, however, make an excellent addition to a church library where it could be a resource to those who want to begin to explore the implications of the Christian faith across a range of social ills. High-school age homeschoolers and teachers at Christian schools might also find it to be a good resource for students (especially politically conservative American students) who are beginning to see the systemic effects of sin and want more than a set of proof-texts to guide their entrance into the world of public policy.

In the end, "Flawed Perfection" is a good introduction to the topics it addresses and I recommend it to those interested in some implications of a robust notion of human nature for a number of the world's current ills.

09 December 2017

Stocking Stuffers Part 1

Taking a break from grading final exams and posting on James K.A. Smith's "Awaiting the King" to recommend two other books for your gift-giving consideration. Today it's a book that came off the presses less than a week ago.

The Davenant Institute is publishing a remarkable number of high-quality but very accessible books on theological topics. Davenant's mission includes retrieving the forgotten insights of the era of the Protestant Reformation. Today, beyond a few catch slogans most Protestant Christians know next to nothing about the riches of the insights of their theological forbears. And while the appeal of some of Davenant's books might be limited to nerds of a theological sort, "Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense" by David Haines and Andrew Fulford should appeal to anyone who want to know what natural law really is, whether Christians should take it seriously, and what good natural law might do us. Don't believe me? Consider philosopher J.P. Moreland's comments on the book.

First, the problem:
One does not need to be a rocket scientist to see that the increasing secularization of Western culture has lead to ethical, theological and behavioral chaos and relativism. Christians must speak clearly and convincingly about the messy issues of our day, but they, especially Protestants, are ill-prepared to engage the world of ideas without citing the Bible. Among other things, this implies that Christians should be laboring for a theocracy, but this is not what is needed and the state must have some sort of guidance to carry out its mission of punishing wrongdoing in Romans 13 without the scriptures. The existence, nature and knowability of natural moral law is what meets these needs.
Next, at least part of the solution: 
Fulford and Haines have provided an outstanding work that must get a wide readership if Christians are to re-engage the public square thoughtfully and appropriately. They follow a carefully developed order of presentation in this book. Before giving what may be the best recent biblical defense of natural law theory, they rightly are concerned to make very clear exactly what natural law is. Refreshingly, they ground natural law in solid metaphysical treatments of God’s relation to the natural law and in the metaphysics of the creation within which natural law makes sense. This is followed by unpacking the claim that natural moral law is knowable by human beings. Given this treasure-trove of background, the biblical defense of natural moral law is clarified.  I am excited about this book!

30 November 2017

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 3.0

(You can read my comments on Chapters 1 and 2 of Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (AtK) here and here.)

The heart of Chapter 3: "The Craters of the Gospel: Liberalism's Borrowed Capital" retells the story of how political liberalism (an earlier short post of mine here), comprised in equal parts of a commitment to democracy in the political realm (autonomy) and to the market (efficiency) everywhere else, owes its very origins to Christianity (if not to Christendom). Others have told this story but what makes Smith's version helpful is his use of the works of Oliver O'Donovan as a resource for explaining what liberalism is (or at least was) and does on a deeper level than most popular accounts. Recognizing the continuities as well as discontinuities between liberalism and the preceding (and continuing) Christian tradition in the West is important because Smith does not want to fall into either ditch: a near-wholesale reconfiguration of Christianity as liberalism (e.g., much of Mainline Protestantism or as au currant among evangelical Social Justice Warriors) or, on the other hand, a rejection of all that liberalism has meant and done tout court (in either its neo-Anabaptist or Kuyperian-antithesis forms).

Some examples of what I mean.

My heart was strangely warmed by this quote from O'Donovan's "The Desire of the Nations":
What has become clear … from half a century of research in political history, is that the roots of this new organisation of political priorities [the contemporary liberal order] run deep into the centuries that preceded it, not only through the late scholastics who are recognisably forebears of the Reformation, but through the earlier scholastics back into the Carolingian and patristic eras; and not only through theologians and their disputations but through the various concrete forms of life in the Christian community: corporations, monastic communities, canon law, penance and so on.
In other words, Brad Gregory is wrong: the deforming effects liberal order of democracy and the market was not brought into being by the Protestant Reformation. (For a pithy refutation of Gregory's "blame it on Martin Luther" thesis see Brad Littlejohn's review of Gregory's "Rebel in the Ranks" here.)

By the turn of the eighteenth century the slow-cooker influence of Christianity on Western society had lead to four principles on which liberalism, according to Smith (channeling O'Donovan) built its modern edifice:
  1. An affirmation of natural equality
  2. Structures of affinity
  3. A sense of reciprocity
  4. Openness to speech
Smith elaborates on each of these features at some length so here I'll merely state my quibble. As far as I can tell, many in the Classical world would have asserted that features 2 and 3 were present apart from Christianity. What, in my opinion, made Christian versions of affinity and reciprocity different than their Classical conceptions is number 1. Equality in the Church in Christ by the Spirit created a new and ever-expanding form of affinity that transcended the "natural" affinities of clan and class and reached even beyond the borders of the Empire.

Similarly, the notion of equality was fundamental to reciprocity. The expectation of reciprocity (which underlay the secondary virtue of commutative justice for Aristotle) was no longer limited to one's class. The biblical notion of covenant with its reciprocal divine and human obligations was crucial for bringing home to rulers their obligations to their subjects (who increasingly with the leaven of Christianity became citizens).

Speech, of course, was indeed crucial to the growth of Christianity and so I write merely to concur with Smith's (O'Donovan's) number 4.

Of course, the contemporary liberal state has forgotten its roots in the Christian tradition and is thus becoming illiberal. Apart from reminding the state (and church) whence liberalism came, what does Smith suggest be done about the prospect of increasing marginalization of Christians? His answer, such as it is, is embedded in a looong discussion of some insights of Ephraim Radner, the difference between common grace and providence, the relationship of the work of the Church and the common good, and so on to a meandering conclusion. Tightening up the final dozen pages of this chapter wouldn't have hurt.

But not to worry: there are three chapters and a conclusion to go.

28 November 2017

On the Student Loan Front

How many times have I posted something about student loans? I don't care to count but most recently here and one from 2012 on which I wish to elaborate here. Way back then I observed:
You may have wondered why student loans aren't priced according to the economic risk of the student's proposed course of study. Or maybe not. As I posted here and here, student loans are part of system subsidized by the federal government whose purpose seems less to provide meaningful education than to enable providers of so-called "education" to prosper.
For a good policy suggestion go to this piece by Nick Phillips at The American Conservative. Phillips acknowledges that there's little constitutional warrant for a system of federally-insured student loans but he's realistic enough to recognize such a widely-used middle-class entitlement ain't goin' away. So instead of arguing for a libertarian pipe dream, Phillips writes:
The policy solution: link the cost of borrowing to the riskiness of the underlying asset. The interest rate for federal loans should rise or fall depending on the default risk of the student’s degree program (that is, the default rate of graduates who attended the same institution and majored in the same subject as the borrower). By porting private market principles into the federal loan system, we can ensure that student borrowers are incentivized to pursue degrees that maximize their chances of paying off their debt.
Phillips acknowledges that there is a downside to pricing student loans according to risk: "Degree programs in the humanities and fine arts will likely skew wealthy, because low-income borrowers will not want to pay the relatively higher borrowing costs that such programs carry." In other words, risk-pricing will serve to enhance the current STEM mania. Phillips response is to compare relative evils: "the current system is unfair, so the relevant inquiry is which creates the greater injustice." Since most policy choices are between relative goods (or lesser bads), then why not give student loan risk-pricing a chance?

Our Republican-controlled federal government, however, is unlike to take up anything like Philips's useful suggestion. After all, rather than seeking the common good, they're more interested in rewarding their corporate donor base with sugar plum tax cuts. And notwithstanding the brake on the economy to which the current student loan situation contributes, most Republican voters are more excited to elect men of questionable moral character come hell or high water than to solve practical problems.

Addendum: Thanks to a sharp-eyed reader (I'm talking about you, Matthew Bruckner), I can send my readers to article making the argument for risk-based pricing of student loans in academic detail: Michael Simkovic, Risk-Based Student Loans, 70 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 257 (2013). Download it here.

24 November 2017

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 2.0

(You can read my comments on Chapter 1 of Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (AtK) here.)

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Two things struck me as I finished Chapter 2--"Revisiting the Church as Polis: Cultivating an Ecclesial Center of Gravity." First was pleasant surprise. The chapter title had given me cause for concern that Smith was going to rewarm the trope that the church is a full-on alternative polity (alternative, that is, to the modern "imperial" state) in the mode of "empire criticism." Prominent in the 2000s (perhaps in reaction to the War on Terror*), empire criticism identified states with the "principalities and powers" arrayed against the Church and due as little respect as prudence allows. This is most definitely not Smith's take. To be sure, the authority of states (and empires) is relativized in light of the ascension and session of Jesus as the Christ but they can (or at least should) continue to bear witness to God's judgment in and on the nations of the world. One the one hand, Christ's death bore the full effect of God's judgment on the Church and, indeed, in an ultimate sense on the world. But on the other, while we wait for the paruousia, interim acts of judgment must continue to take place.

Second, Smith shows his O'Donovan chops as he works through The Desire of the Nations. The following points stood out for me:
There is an important sense in which Christ's redemptive work in the body of Christ renews society in more systemic ways. The Spirit-led, sanctified, sacramental renewal [?] of practical judgment includes, as Joan Lockwood O'Donovan describes it, "the renewal of moral agency" that has a spillover effect ...
This "spillover effect" is one of the principal contentions in the book chapter on which I'm (supposed to) be working.

Apropos of much of contemporary Christian "prophetic" critique of the State:
Any truly prophetic critique and identification of purpose needs what we've called a canon and criterion; some outline of the substance of how things ought to be, some delineation of what "kingdom come" looks like. ... "The prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion ..."
But this critique should not be an eschatologically-couched version of modern Leftist programs as Smith suggests was once the case for him:
My Kuyperian conversion [from fundamentalist world-flight theology] to "this-worldly" justice and culture-making began to slide into its own kind of immanence. In other words ... even believers, in the name of affirming "this world," can unwittingly end up capitulating to a social imaginary that really values only this world. We become encased and enclosed in our own affirmations of the "goodness of creation," which, instead of being the theater of God's glory, ends up being the echo chamber of our own interests. ... My devotion to shalom became indistinguishable from the political platforms of the "progressive" party.
Smith does, however, make some off-handed, dismissive comments about natural law. I suspect he has not fully recovered from the neo-Kuyperian mis-take of what natural law is (and is not).  With respect to the place of natural law in a Christian understanding of the work of Christ, I recommend reading "Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed." Here, however, I'll let some comments from a post by author and friend Brad Littlejohn do the heavy lifting:
First, Scripture itself presupposes natural law at many points. It assumes a bedrock of sound moral reason and recognition of basic creational norms, and then confirms those and takes us further in understanding the implications of these. But to the extent that we neglect natural law and expect Scripture to do all the work for us, we will be apt to miss what it is telling us and place too much weight on the wrong places. ...
Second, true it may be that natural-law arguments are deeply contested in a culture in revolt against nature. But does that mean they have no persuasive value over and above straight-up biblical arguments? I find this highly doubtful. ...
Third, acknowledging the validity of natural-law reasoning enables us to recognize and embrace wisdom wherever we find it. We all instinctively do this, even the most hardened van Tillian. We come across something that some unbelieving philosopher or scientist or statesman has says that rings true, and we say, “Yeah, that guy knew what he was talking about!” But if we disparage natural law at every turn, we can’t consistently do this. We will have to deprive ourselves of useful allies in the search for truth, denying the shared reality that we inhabit and claiming that only the regenerate can ever see the world aright.
It seems that Smith leans toward imagining the well-established Protestant doctrine of natural law as if it were nothing more than a precursor to Enlightenment natural rights. If so, it remains to be seen if he'll smuggle natural law principles of judgment back into his discussion. For a discussion of the importance of natural law in the theology of the Reformers folks might want to read my article, God's Bridle:John Calvin's Application of Natural Law, which you can download here or here.

* Interest in empire criticism seems to have waned over the past decade. Whether because it was considered and found wanting or because Barack Obama was president remains to be seen.