Saturday, June 30, 2012

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.

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