Friday, June 17, 2005

A little exile and a lot of American history

The theme I've been trying to unpack in my own understanding of what the church is and its role in relation to the larger culture has led me repeatedly to the New Testament language of exile and the Old Testament periods of actual exile for the Israelites. While during the OT period, the exile of God's people was predicated on their apostasy and unfaithfulness; God warned them ahead of time that they would be expelled from the land if they didn't obey Him, in the NT period, the same language is used, but in a markedly different way. The NT church exists as an organic community of internal exiles living in the midst of all the temporary kingdoms. These momentary kingdoms are all established by God in His providential manner, yet are all also entirely contingent. They are all at least secondary to God's kingdom, which is both here spiritually and being looked forward to for an eventuall fullness upon Christ's return.

This kingdom of priests that we are live in a world that does not acknowledge our power, or even our relevance. The sad thing is, we don't acknowledge our power and relevance either. We effectively deny both by allowing ourselves to be snookered by the various bells and whistles that are thrown our way as the "latest answer." Of course, the "conservative" evangelical church in America has imbibed deeply of the latest draught of political power, and thus has believed the lie that God's kingdom can be advanced by these momentary means. After all, doesn't the "end" justify them? But the problem is the end. American evangelicalism has bought into a deeply flawed doctrine of salvation which is itself established on a false understanding of the human condition. American evangelicals believe that if we just get enough laws, put in the right judges, elect enough "conservatives," and so on, then we will inaugurate some great revival. This underlying assumption is based on a Pelagian view of mankind. BTW, by Pelagian, I mean the view that says that we are sinners because we sin, not that we sin because we are sinners. In other words, our natural state is that of innocence, and that we are born with a "clean slate" or tabula rasa. This view stands in contrast to the classic Christian view of mankind being born into sin; the whole "original sin" idea. This other philosophical notion is an enlightenment idea and not a basic Christian idea. This, along with a few other philosophical ideas, undergirds almost all of our assumptions about ourselves and western society. If this isn't dealt with, then the rest of our analysis is going to be skewed. And as we all know, fault lines grow as they spread.

But I digress. So, the American evangelical concept is based on a theology that owes more to Charles Finney than to John Calvin, the Puritans notwithstanding. What unites these two seemingly disparate forces (Puritan Calvinism and Finneyite revivalism) into modern evangelicalism, and its idolatrous relationship with our government, is this: Puritan Calvinism saw America as the "city on a hill." They existed in a context that saw no real separation between church and state. They looked at this "new world" as a holy commonwealth, both in regard to the church and the civil government. Thus, when they saw this New Israel established on these shores, they thought in explicitly ecclesiastical terms, but with a civil component. While I certainly agree with the Puritan's Calvinism, their view of God's kingdom being coterminous with the civil authorities owes more to their European state-church roots than to an exegetical reading of the Old and New Testaments. So, in Puritan thought, they were establishing a new beachhead for God's kingdom, a beachhead that saw no real separation between the civil/religious authorities.

The next step leading to today's situation came when there was a slide towards Deistic and enlightenment beliefs among the leading intellectuals, and even more importantly, among the theologians and pastors during the colonial period. This period, stretching from the mid 1700's to the early 1800's, was characterized by a populace that was largely unchurched and even when they were, were very lukwarm in their religious affections. The leadership of the main churches in the colonies moved away from the Calvinism of their forebearers towards an Arminian theology that focused much more on man's free will than God's sovereignty. This, along with the move towards greater unorthodoxy in Theology proper (doctrine of God), such as the Unitarianism and Deism of the Congregationalists, informed the intellectual thought of most of the founders and their religious (and secular) supporters. America's founding documents can be read much more accurately if read in light of these factors. "Nature's God" is straight up Deism, yet vague enough to be acceptable to more devout (yet less discerning in my opinion) Christians. This god that is less than the God of the Bible became the god of the republic.

The next big change naturally followed this earlier change, in that it moved from the trinitarian God of Scripture to the unitarian god of Deism on the theological side, while on the human side it moved from the earlier Calvinism to Arminianism, and then to an outright Pelagian revivalism borne out of the enlightenment idea of the absolute rule of reason over revelation. Again, this view assumes that men are naturally born "good," or at least neutral in their moral inclinations, and that any evil that comes from them is due to environmental effects. In this sense, we've all become Rousseau's god-children. It was, after all, Rousseau who said (approx.) "Men are born free, yet everywhere are in chains." Mon Dieu! We're French (at least philosophically) after all!

Well, the Buzz is about to close, so I better end this post now. As you can see, my main interest in dealing with American issues is to look into the theological and philosophical precedents that have led to what we have today. It may seem rather ivory tower, but it plays out into real life pretty quickly, and with devastating results if based on unreality. I'll continue with the period of "Manifest Destiny" leading into the Darwinian period next, Lord willing.

1 comment:

Andy B. said...

Pelagius is a perfect role model for the American dream. If you need an example- look a how he is idolized in movies like King Arthur, where Pelagius preaches freedom where destiny is a fetter. Liberty becomes a civil rather than a religious right.
The question becomes then: what is liberty? I would argue that liberty is a political issue in America, but neither of the "two" parties gets it right. The right would have us believe that liberty is safety, and the left sees liberty in personal choice. Both come from a basically Pelagian point of view, whether saving us from "sinners like Muslims" or the loss of our "rights."