Saturday, June 30, 2012

Why this Title?

             Equally helpful might be to clarify the title of this blog, “Glory Looks Forward.” There are two angles to the title as I understand it—one political and the other Biblical.
Little has been made of the rhetorical shift by liberals who proudly refer to themselves as “progressive”—they represent “progress”; looking forward rather than backward. To me, the change seemed rather abrupt—I woke up one morning and suddenly, the left was ditching the term “liberal” and opting instead for the term “progressive.” (I was a bit behind the ball on that one.) For some time, the word “liberal” meant freedom and was tied, interestingly, to contemporary libertarian market principles—thus “liberal” markets referred to capitalist, free-market economies. “Liberal” as “freedom,” in some ways, became an all-encompassing category. One thinks of the 1960s and 70s when counter-cultural cries for “freedom” were tied to drug legalization, the removal of social sexual taboos, and other works of the devil that stuffy, religious, hardened, war-torn old fashioned folks didn’t like, including The Beatles and later, Disco. (That was tongue-in-cheek, by the way.)
The word also meant “generous”—thus liberals were those who gave of themselves to help others. It came to be a very happy term for how democrats thought of themselves (and still do), and contrasted nicely with the caricature that was painted of republicans (sometimes deserving, sometimes not), where republicans are those who are greedy and wanting to cut taxes in order to keep money for themselves. Thus the root word of “conservative” is “conserve” or to save. By and large, conservatives represent that which is “traditional” (whatever that means) and are thought by liberals (sometimes rightly, I’m afraid) to be deeply reactionary—the party of “no” that is bigoted, old-fashioned, and out to rain on anybody’s parade who wants any fashion of equality. On the whole, 20thcentury conservatives do not have a history of rhetorical tact.
Yet here I am, as a conservative, finding myself largely in agreement with the principle of progress. Do not misunderstand—I wholeheartedly believe that we have much to learn from the past (“Study history, study history!”). But when we say we miss “old America” or “the way things used to be,” we’re probably talking about either the late 19thcentury or 1950s America (the former for freer markets, the latter for moral social consciousness). But consider how this sounds to, say, a black person, for whom neither time really represents much to get enthusiastic about. I watched an interesting YouTube video of a conservative at an Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest, touting how much better off we would be if we would just go back to the late 19thcentury. What he meant was that he wanted less regulation and freer markets. Fair enough. A black man holding a camera in the background, not missing a beat, responded: “Better for who? Not for us!” Some people believe (wrongly, in my view) that capital markets are intrinsically racist, intrinsically favorable to white males, precisely because this, they argue, is what history shows—that white male hegemony cannot be separated from free market capitalism.
So what do conservatives need? We need to look forward, because a 19th century-esque economic policy or a 1950’s-esque moral social consciousness will look very different when laid over the context of 2012’s plausibility structures. We need new ways, forward-looking ways, of articulating truth that is not fundamentally reactionary. Republicans must not be the party of “No, you may not have that abortion,” or “No, you may not take my money and give it to the poor” or “No, you may not marry”—we must be the party of “Yes, we cherish the sanctity of human life,” “Yes, we believe in freedom and prosperity and see businesses as partners in the alleviation of poverty,” “Yes, we treasure marriage,” all the while granting the legitimacy of liberal concerns (that women’s bodies have historically been made subject to the wills of men; that we do love the poor; that we do empathize with and love those in the LGBTQ community and stand against bullying and hurtful stereotypes). These statements are not mutually exclusive to Christianity, capitalism, conservatism, or the rule of law—they’re simply said differently and, truth be told, as far as Christianity is concerned, they are said more consistently.[1]That does not mean that we duck truth, or are ashamed in any way to speak it. Abortion is wrong. Socialism, though well intended, creates moral hazard. The state ought not force churches to wed homosexual couples against the conscience of the pastor/elders, or in any way that is contradictory to scripture. But when we say only these things, to the ears of the public, we’re merely beating the Bible or the Wealth of Nations like war drums. When we say these things first, we come off as cold and not understanding the plight of others.
Thus, with the title of this blog, I hope to create space for some rhetorical redemption, and to encourage all to post on this blog as a safe place to interact with ideas firmly but curiously and lovingly. I believe, in efforts to promote the righteousness and welfare of the state, it is to the glory of God that we take our lessons from the past and look forward to how we will apply those lessons in present and future contexts.
More briefly but of central importance is the Biblical angle to the blog’s title. Throughout redemptive history, God’s people, whether in the locus of a state (Israel) or a transnational body (the Church), have and continue to "look forward" to the coming of our Lord. The original covenant was broken through Adam. Even through continued rampant disobedience, God mercifully saved Noah and gave the Noahic covenant. Then, the Lord blessed Abraham as a “father of many nations” from whose house (dynasty, lineage) the Messiah would come. In Jeremiah and elsewhere, God promises a new covenant in which He would write His law on our hearts. We looked forward to the coming of a Messiah who would be both Davidic King and Suffering Servant. That Messiah came—Jesus the Christ—to save us from our sins and God’s inexorable wrath to come. Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose (bodily and spiritually) from the dead, proving that His sacrifice was acceptable to His Father. What Christians yesterday and today look forward to is a new heaven, a new earth and resurrection existence, much like that which Jesus enjoys, unto eternity. But what is key to see in all of this is the covenantal theology—a redemptive-historical reading of the text, where God’s people look forward to His coming; look forward to His glory, such that the Lord is who we take joy in. It is to God’s glory for us to look forward to Jesus’ coming again and to delight in our Lord’s companionship and friendship, living in the presence of our Savior, God and King forever. And with the saints of old we still say, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

Soli Deo Gloia.

[1]Some might call this manipulative. But, wouldn't voicing an objection also be manipulative? All discourse is, in some sense, “manipulative” if by "manipulative” we mean it is affirming something that we believe to be true and is thus consciously or subconsciously working to persuade others. Foucault made this point at some length (i.e., All statements are totalizing) and I am inclined to think, at least on this point, that he was right. And yet, that cannot stop us from working to communicate patiently, carefully and accurately with one another. The fact is, some ways of saying things are more loving than others. It is the part of wisdom to know the difference.

Why so Late?

              Some of you may have noticed that I’ve had this blog up for some time now, but haven’t bothered, until today, to create a post for it. Part of the issue was a lack of time. As a Teach For America corps member and a M.Ed. student, time has been sparse.
Partly, it was an issue of negotiating how much time to spend on a blog. You can push a long way in discourse and get absolutely nowhere. It looks like a concession if someone contradicts a point and the author does not take the time to respond. I’ve seen my fair share of internet debates, and one wonders how many folks on any side are willing to be persuaded. I might get a few “likes” from those who already agree with me, but in those rare instances when someone has actually let their guard down, it hasn’t been for linear apologetic—it’s been for relational investment. (Life lesson: Sometimes, it’s not enough to have the higher point.)
But really, in our over-stimulated culture of screens, social media and instant gratification, who has the time for thorough analysis? We live in a “soundbite culture”—not just clips of politicians doctored by news outlets and media pundits for cheap, not-so-nuanced jabs (Twitter maxes out at 140 characters, and that’s where we’re having debates about Obamacare? Really?), but the very manner in which we reflect shifts to a satisfaction with shallow answers that sound loving. (Who is against “healthcare for all Americans,” “a woman’s right to choose” or “equal rights” in marriage, education, or any other domain?) My personal experience at the street level has been that we are not, by and large, conscious consumers of rhetoric.
The democratization of knowledge has been in many respects a fantastic thing (more information at our fingertips faster), but can also reinforce barriers to open-mindedness. After all, if I’m losing an internet debate, couldn’t I just Google the answers that support my point? (I speak as a guy who has shamefully partaken in such behavior!) Additionally, more information online certainly means more faulty information—more junk to sift through.[1] It can be really embarrassing to admit that we have our facts wrong. So, we usually don’t. (Yes, I’ve done that before, too. Pride is an ugly thing—Lord, help my unbelief.)
Undoubtedly, part of my hesitancy was the utter transparency that comes with posting anything online. I have much to learn, and it’s likely I’ll look back on early posts in coming years and ask, “What was I thinking?” There’s that pride thing again.
And yet, as summer unfolds anew, I have the time on my hands to work out my own thoughts in writing on a variety of issues, and hope to be sharpened by the pushback of others. I’ve completed my M.Ed., and though I’ll be pursuing a M.Div. next, I’m willing to bet that a blog will be a fitting tool to compliment the literature I’m sure to be buried in by merciless but devoted professors. I also hope to learn how to strike a balance between which posts I respond to and which I do not; the sooner I learn to choose my battles, the better.
It’d be disingenuous of me if I failed to mention certain key motivators, such as the current landscapes in theology, philosophy and political thought. On the theological front, Reformed Scholasticism is making a comeback in the Western church (praise God) through the popularized works of Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Mark Dever, and even D.A. Carson (who I must confess to be my favorite living NT scholar). This is an exciting time to be a "young person" preparing for the ministry—more pastors earning PhD’s, a resurgence in desire for Biblical faithfulness, greater interaction with rather than withdrawal from culture, etc. Do not misunderstand—these are not by themselves marks of the Western church’s success (still less our faithfulness)—there is much work still to be done. And yet, we must not lose sight of the blessings we enjoy just because we enjoy them against the backdrop of cultural hostility towards Christians. There is much for which we owe thanks to God.
On the philosophical front, I’m finding more and more utilitarian thinkers (whether or not they call themselves that) who want everyone to be as happy as possible without asking tough moral questions.[2] Philosophical naturalism (or atheism, whichever you prefer) is also gaining steam in the public arena thanks, in part, to the “new atheist” movement (headed by Dawkins, Harris and the late Hitchens). Very little about this movement is philosophically new—our contemporary context and cultural location merely add fresh shades of grey to tired arguments. What is new, as Tim Keller has helpfully pointed out, is the tone of the new atheists—more aggressive, “anti-theistic.” There have been many helpful Christian contributions on this front, but few of them gain treading at the popular level.
The political sphere is ripe for fresh debate once again with the SCOTUS’ more-or-less full approval of the Affordable Care Act (ACA; “Obamacare”). When asked why I refuse to get into politics professionally, I give a simple answer: As one who hopes to herald the Gospel, I do not want to tie my flag (publicly) too tightly to either the right or the left, lest the message be rendered mute by those whose political ideology differs from my own. Figure out what to do with Jesus—then, we’ll talk politics. After all, the political perspectives I hold are merely what I believe to be an outworking of my faith in Christ. That doesn’t mean I’m always right or that I have it all sorted out—I have plenty of crafty friends who lovingly, if not cheerfully, point out inconsistencies in my beliefs. It does mean that I would not expect those who do not share my faith in Christ to also share my political viewpoints. If they do, that’s great, but the Christian who holds (what I might call) inconsistent political opinions is a greater ally than a conservative atheist. I would call both the closest of friends, but only one my brother.
I find myself sorely tempted to inject my two cents into political debates, and from a pastoral perspective, do so more often than is probably healthy. And yet, just as the abuse of the Bible (through hypocrisy, legalism or condescending judgmentalism) is more frequently the cause of public disillusionment with Christianity than authenticity in faithfulness, so too is the abuse of conservatism. Many conservatives articulate a certain standard and often fail to meet that standard, or hinge their platforms on unwinnable axioms.[3] I would venture a guess that liberals often feel the same way about their candidates and policies. On both fronts for authenticity’s sake, Biblical and political, I know that I have fallen short countless times and continue to do so daily. But I hope to pray, grow, mature, read, learn, and progress as best I can with what years I have left. Political influence, from a Christian perspective, must never be sought for its own sake, but always as a means to an end, to first allow freedom for the articulation of the Gospel and next to bring justice as faithfully as we can in a fallen world. And so, I will attempt to move forward in political discourse carefully, hopefully without too many red-flag labels, because righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people (Prov. 14:34).

[1] For my more postmodern friends eagerly waiting to ask “Which knowledge counts as true knowledge and who decides?” I beg your patience—we’ll try to tackle some of those issues later. Although, one does feel that postmodern epistemology is a horse that has been flogged half to death.
[2] Nothing scientific about these observations—they’re merely anecdotal. I’ve been referred to Samuel Harris’ TED talk more times than I can count. I’m guessing that as time goes on, social contract theory will become more popular. Shelly Kagan, for example, defends SCT rigorously.
[3] For example, arguing against the ACA on the grounds that it raises taxes when the majority of the public believes that the act saves the lives of the poor is foolish and terribly frustrating to watch. As relevant and urgent as the objection against higher taxes is (including ACA’s impact on small business owners and skyrocketing healthcare costs), at the popular level, the left has defined the terms of the debate as “money vs. lives,” which makes conservatives sound cold, dispassionate and heartless—exactly what many liberals already believe us to be. You might say, "Yes, but higher taxes bring about the morally reprehensible scenarios we're trying to avoid." I agree. But that's not what the public hears. They hear "Let me keep all of my money because I don't want to pay to save someone's life." Historical amnesia is very real, and as such, we need to make the moral case for free markets for a new generation.