The anti-sexism of Christianity

There are a lot of historical arguments made to support the proposition that Christianity is bad.  Many of them are sheer, unmitigated tripe.  For instance, there’s the myth of the so-called “Dark Ages” in which, supposedly, the Church suppressed science and rational inquiry.  The truth is that the roots of modern science were firmly laid in the true Renaissance of the twelfth century—and that what’s commonly called “the Renaissance” was a reactionary movement that worked hard to unlearn all that medieval scientists had learned about the errors in Greco-Roman natural philosophy.  That doesn’t suit the agenda of anti-Christian polemicists, though, or the general chronological snobbery of our time.  It also doesn’t suit the triumphalist narrative of scientific history in which the work of science always advances, which has no room for the times when science regresses.

Another is the myth of the Crusades.  Yes, the Crusades happened (that much is no myth), but it’s a widespread myth that they were “brutal and unprovoked attacks against a sophisticated and tolerant Muslim world.”  In reality, they were a counteroffensive against Islamic expansionism.  Islamic armies invaded the Byzantine Empire in 634, southern Italy in 652, and the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in 711, plus they sacked Rome in 846.  The First Crusade wasn’t until 1095.  There’s a lot more to be said here, and maybe I’ll write a full post on this at some point, but the Islamic world only remembered the Crusades for the victories of Saladin until Westerners brought the myth to them in the 19th century.

Yet another canard is the idea that Christianity is intrinsically sexist.  To support this idea and buttress their claim that contemporary Christianity is anti-woman, some argue that early Christianity was particularly oppressive to women.  This is perhaps the most indefensible myth of all, resting on nothing but chronological snobbery.  Read more

A theology for suffering

All whom the Lord has chosen and received into the society of his saints ought to prepare themselves for a life that is hard, difficult, laborious and full of countless griefs.

—John Calvin

Calvin knew the truth of this in his bones.  As Peter Sanlon writes in his essay “Calvinism: Best Drunk Shaken,”

It impossible to read Calvin’s work and not see that he spoke from experience.  Calvin himself had a sense of God’s goodness to him, even in trials and struggles.  Exiled, bereaved, persecuted, reviled and unhealthy—Calvin’s life was one in which he still felt God goodness toward him, personally.

Sanlon’s analysis of the ways that Calvin’s suffering shaped his theology, and his expression of his theology, is fascinating.

Read the opening sections of his 1536 Institutes.  The famous first sentence is present in a recognisable form:  ‘Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts, knowledge of God and ourselves.’ . . .

in the 1536 edition, Calvin, after his opening sentence proceeds to assert, ‘Surely we ought to learn the following things about God . . .’  He then lists four lessons all should learn. In the next section, about the knowledge of man, he follows a similar approach of listing the main lessons.  All he says is true and important—but the tone is in stark contrast to later editions of his work.  After Calvin and Farel were forced out of Geneva in April 1538, Calvin wrote another edition of his Institutes.  This version, published in 1539, added the words:  ‘Which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.’  A note of uncertainty, humility and awe begins to permeate what had previously been merely a clear explanation.

The humility Calvin seemed to feel before the awesome reality of God, climaxed in his 1559 edition, which may be seen to be markedly different in tone to the edition published in 1536.  Calvin probes and explores the obscure and intangible links between knowledge of God and humanity.  Gone are the three or four points that must be learnt; added is the section on piety quoted above.  The final 1559 edition carried readers into an experience of the knowledge of God, precisely because Calvin had himself matured and entered more fully into a personal sense of God’s goodness in suffering.  Doubtless there were people that Calvin ministered to in his time of exile from Geneva; they and us benefit from the embarrassment caused to Calvin by his experience of suffering.  Calvin’s sufferings were a shaking which caused his knowledge to be more personally appropriated.  His struggles inculcated piety.

Calvin’s suffering developed his theology in a profound and unusual way.  Many theologians have developed a theology of suffering, wrestling with it as a theological abstraction.  Calvin ended up writing a theology for suffering, in which suffering is incorporated into theology.  Suffering gives theology living depth, moving it from an intellectual exercise to an existential truth, apprehended at the deepest levels of the heart.  In turn, theology gives suffering existential meaning.

Suffering and sadness is a large part of our lot in this fleeting life.  It is how the theology of Calvin is shaken, so that it can be truly refreshing to those who drink it.  I would like to suggest that Calvin was cognizant of this need for theology to be shaken by life’s sadnesses. . . .

Calvin is teaching that a personal, existential appreciation of God’s kindnesses is essential to real Christianity. Indeed, bringing about such an experience is a key goal of his theological endeavors. There must be a sense of God’s kindness which goes far beyond the speculation so highly prized by Aquinas. Piety necessitates a ‘heart certainty’ (certitudinem cordibus) Inst.1.7.4.

A heart certainty which is to be sensed and experienced, must be forged in the travails of life. By definition that which is sensed cannot be attained by mere speculation. Calvin placed great emphasis upon the fact that knowledge of God must ‘not merely flit in the brain, but take root in the heart.’ There it must be ‘felt, sensed and adored.’ It must ‘affect’ and induce ‘wonder.’ Inst.1.5.9. With these and other terms Calvin urges readers to appropriate his theology.

The sufferings of life shake Christians; the result is that they experience, by faith in the Spirit’s power, God’s goodness in the midst of sadness. Such piety is not, as many Christians imagine, merely an extra, optional comfort to some who suffer. Rather, it is essential for all real Christians. Calvin’s theology must be shaken by life’s trials before it can be tasted for the revitalising drink that it is.

As Sanlon says, “One of the most satisfying aspects of Calvin’s views is that they taste best when shaken by life’s sadnesses.”  This is a great gift to the church.

Conservatives are calling Trump a fascist . . . and they aren’t going far enough

It’s a mark of the way that the term “fascist” has been abused as a contentless perjorative that Walter Hudson felt compelled to title his essay on PJ Media “No, Seriously, Trump Is a Fascist”:

Right now, we have an actual fascist running for president of the United States, and he seems poised to secure the Republican nomination.  Donald Trump is a fascist, not in a vague rhetorical sense, but according to the father of fascism’s own definition.  Benito Mussolini coined the term and defined it as complete subjugation of the individual to the state. He wrote:

The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim.  Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State . . .

The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone. . . .

Conservative author Matt Walsh, known for his provocative commentary in defense of principle, notes that Trump is perhaps the first serious contender for president of the United States who campaigns openly as a tyrant. Other presidents may have exhibited tyranny to one degree or another, but none have been as unbridled as Trump promises to be. . . .

Donald Trump is not Adolf Hilter, but both are fascists.  Each believes that the individual should be subordinated entirely to the state under the whim of an unbridled leader.  That’s the relevant comparison, and one which should inform a voter’s decision.

He’s right, but there’s actually more to be said.  To understand this, we need to recognize that fascism and Nazism are different beasts.  They are obviously compatible rather than contradictory, but they are fundamentally different concepts.  Fascism is a totalitarian political/economic philosophy which is a product of the modern age.  Thomas Sowell’s succinct summary of the differing economic approaches of socialism and fascism (which I’ve noted before) is useful here:

Socialists believe in government ownership of the means of production.  Fascists believed in government control of privately owned businesses.

Sowell goes on to point out that economically, the Obama Administration has clearly operated in a fascist key–but fascism does not automatically mean Nazism, and Obama is not a Nazi in any respect.  In fact, he’s the exact opposite.

This is because Nazism isn’t a political philosophy, it’s a pagan atavism.  It’s a rebirth of the ancient worship of deities like Ba’al, Ishtar, and Molech, which was made possible by modern totalitarianism. Read more

About that first Thanksgiving . . .

I had been wanting to post on this yesterday, or this morning at the latest, and to do so at greater length.  Unfortunately, life did not cooperate.  Even so, I couldn’t let Thanksgiving pass without at least noting an excellent column in the Boston Globe from eight years ago titled “The Opposite of Thanksgiving.”  I also want to give my own thanks to my colleague the Rev. Winfield Casey Jones, who brought this piece to my attention.  The column is by Eve LaPlante, who puts the point starkly in her third paragraph:

This modern version of Thanksgiving would horrify the devout Pilgrims and Puritans who sailed to America in the 17th century. The holiday that gave rise to Thanksgiving—a “public day” that they observed regularly—was almost the precise opposite of today’s celebration. It was not secular, but deeply religious. At its center was not an extravagant meal, but a long fast. And its chief concern was not bounty but redemption: to examine the faults in oneself—and one’s community—with an eye toward spiritual improvement.

A thanksgiving day, as actually celebrated by 17th-century Americans, was a communal day of fasting, meditation, and supplication to God.

LaPlante centers her account on the story of Samuel Sewall, one of the nine magistrates who presided over the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.  In 1697, Sewall publicly repented of his part in those trials.  After telling his story, she closes her column with this telling comment:

The belief in repentance—and its power to improve the American experiment—has also retreated.  It’s hard to imagine, for example, that this Thursday a powerful leader will stand before the nation and admit to a disastrous mistake—or say, quoting Samuel Sewall, “I desire to take the blame and shame of it, asking your pardon, and especially desiring prayers that God would pardon that sin and all my other sins.”

I can actually imagine President George W. Bush doing so, or having done so.  He’s about the only powerful politician of whom I can say that, though.  “The belief in repentance—and its power to improve the American experiment—has . . . retreated,” and we are much the poorer for it.


“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” 1914, Jennie A. Brownscombe.  Public domain.

Debunking the myth of the “Dark Ages”

I have another book to put on my Christmas list.  I’m not sure how I missed the publication of James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, or why it’s taken me this long to discover it, but from the review I just read, it looks like a fascinating work.  Usually, you hope a book is as interesting as the review says it is; in this case, I hope it’s as interesting as the review, and for that matter the reviewer.  The reviewer in question is an Australian medievalist named Tim O’Neill who appears to specialize in the history of medieval science and technology.  He’s also an atheist who gets as irritated as I do at the ways atheists abuse and misuse history to smear Christianity.  (Rest assured, I get just as irritated at the ways Christians abuse and misuse history.  In this area, my first allegiance is to the discipline.)

O’Neill writes,

One of the occupational hazards of being an atheist and secular humanist who hangs around on discussion boards is to encounter a staggering level of historical illiteracy. I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.

Perhaps it’s because I can’t think of any parallel consolation, but I’ve had to accept that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is indeed so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.  I’d like to believe that atheists and secular humanists are worse than Christians in this respect—but, no.  Indeed, as O’Neill notes in passing, the myth of the Dark Ages is as much the creation of Protestants attacking the Roman church as it is of atheists attacking Christianity in general.

It’s an excellent review essay because O’Neill has a fine eye for nonsense, a firm command of his subject, and apparently no use for people who value scoring cheap rhetorical points over getting their facts right.

In the academic sphere, at least, the “Conflict Thesis” of a historical war between science and theology has been long since overturned. It is very odd that so many of my fellow atheists cling so desperately to a long-dead position that was only ever upheld by amateur Nineteenth Century polemicists and not the careful research of recent, objective, peer-reviewed historians. This is strange behavior for people who like to label themselves “rationalists”.

Speaking of rationalism, the critical factor that the myths obscure is precisely how rational intellectual inquiry in the Middle Ages was. While writers like Charles Freeman continue to lumber along, claiming that Christianity killed the use of reason, the fact is that thanks to Clement of Alexandria and Augustine’s encouragement of the use of pagan philosophy, and Boethius’ translations of works of logic by Aristotle and others, rational inquiry was one intellectual jewel that survived the catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire and was preserved through the so-called Dark Ages. . . .

Hannam . . . gives an excellent precis of the Twelfth Century Renaissance which, contrary to popular perception and to “the Myth”, was the real period in which ancient learning flooded back into western Europe. Far from being resisted by the Church, it was churchmen who sought this knowledge out among the Muslims and Jews of Spain and Sicily. And far from being resisted or banned by the Church, it was embraced and formed the basis of the syllabus in that other great Medieval contribution to the world: the universities that were starting to appear across Christendom.

Read the whole thing—it’s well worth your time.

9/11: A reminder that freedom isn’t free

The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt.

—John Philpott Curran

During the decade of the 1990s, our times often seemed peaceful on the surface. Yet beneath the surface were currents of danger. Terrorists were training and planning in distant camps. . . . America’s response to terrorism was generally piecemeal and symbolic. The terrorists concluded this was a sign of weakness, and their plans became more ambitious, and their attacks more deadly. Most Americans still felt that terrorism was something distant, and something that would not strike on a large scale in America. That is the time my opponent wants to go back to. A time when danger was real and growing, but we didn’t know it. . . . September 11, 2001 changed all that. We realized that the apparent security of the 1990s was an illusion. . . . Will we make decisions in the light of September 11, or continue to live in the mirage of safety that was actually a time of gathering threats?

—George W. Bush, October 18, 2004

History will not end until the Lord returns, and neither will the twist of the human heart toward evil. The idea that we can just ignore or deny this reality and go on about what we’d rather be doing, whether in domestic or in foreign policy, is the political equivalent of cheap grace; and it is no more capable of bringing what blessing our politics can muster than its theological parallel can bring salvation. It may be true, as Theodore Parker said, that the arc of the moral universe “bends toward justice,” but if it is, we must remember that it’s only true because God is the one bending it—taken all in all, the collective effort of humanity is to bend it the other way.

This world is fallen, and all of us are tainted by the evil that rots its core; and all too many have given in to that evil and placed their lives in its service. Most have not done so knowing it to be evil—there are very few at the level of Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s version of Richard III—but that doesn’t make them any better. Indeed, the fact that people like Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden do vast evil believing they serve what is right and good only makes them more dangerous, because it makes them far more effective in corrupting others, and far less likely to repent. Evil is a cancer in the human soul, and like any cancer, it will not stop growing until either it or its host is destroyed—which means that those who serve it will not stop unless someone else stops them.

Which is why the 18th-century Irish politician John Philpott Curran was right. There are those in this world who are the servants of evil, those movements which are driven by it, and those nations which are ruled by such—some in the name of religion, some in allegiance to political or economic theory, some in devotion to nation or tribe—and in their service to that spiritual cancer, they operate themselves as cancers within society, the body politic, and the international order; they will not stop until they are stopped. As Edmund Burke did not say (but as remains true nevertheless), the only thing that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing; the logical corollary is that to prevent the triumph of evil, those who would oppose it must be vigilant to watch for its rise, and must stand and fight when it does.

Must that always mean war? Not necessarily; as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, have shown, there are times when nonviolent moral resistance is the most effective form of opposition (helped in Gandhi’s case, I would argue, by the fact that the Raj was not evil). But the fact that that works in some societies doesn’t mean that it works in all, because nonviolent resistance depends for its effect on the willingness of others to repent—and not everyone is willing. Some people are hard of heart and stiff of neck, unwilling to humble themselves, liable only to judgment; they will not stop unless they are forced to do so. When such people rule nations and are bent on tyranny and conquest, then sometimes, war becomes necessary. A tragic necessity, yes, but no less necessary for all that.

We have enemies who have decided in their hearts that they must destroy us, and they will not be shaken from that decision, because they have excluded anything that could shake them; they are unflinching in their resolve to building up the power and ability to do what they have committed themselves to do. This is hard for Americans to understand or accept, because—with the characteristic arrogance of our Western culture—we think that everyone, deep down, thinks and feels and understands the world as we do, and thus is “rational” on our terms, by our definition of the word. We fail to understand people and cultures that really don’t value their own lives and their own individual wills and desires above all else. But there are those in this world who don’t, who simply have different priorities than ours, and who consequently cannot be negotiated with or deterred or talked out of things as if they were (or really wanted to be) just like us—and who in fact have nothing but contempt for the very idea.

There are people, movements, nations, who want to destroy America and our culture (which they believe to be Christian culture, far though it is from being so), and who will not be dissuaded by any of our attempts at persuasion or appeasement. Indeed, go as far back as you want in history, you’ll never find a case where appeasement of enemies has worked; rather, time after time, it only encourages them. If someone is determined to defeat you and has the ability to do so, it isn’t possible for you to choose for things to be different, because their choice has removed that option; your only choice is either to let them do so, or to try to stop them.

But is it right to try to stop them? What of the morality of force? As individuals, when someone hates us, we are called to turn the other cheek and trust to the justice of God—but that’s when we ourselves are the only ones at risk. When it comes to defending others from harm, the calculus is different; this is especially true of government, which bears the responsibility to defend all its citizens from evil, and has been given the power of the sword for that purpose. The decision to use force of any sort—whether it be the national military or the local police—must not be made lightly; it must be done only when there is clear certainty that the deployment of force is necessary in the cause of justice. But when it is truly necessary in order to defend the right, if that defense is properly our responsibility, then we cannot shrink back: we must stand and fight, or else allow evil to triumph.

Freedom and justice and true peace only come at a cost, in this lost and broken world of ours; they must forever be defended against those who do not value them, and would destroy them for their own purposes. This includes defending them against those who would use the fact that we value them against us—who would subvert our freedoms and use our willingness to accept a false peace, the mere absence of overt military conflict, to extort from us our own piecemeal surrender. If “peace” is achieved by craven cowering before the threats of the vicious, it is no real peace, merely a temporary and unstable counterfeit that does nothing but postpone the inevitable conflict; and if that false peace is gained through the sacrifice of freedom and justice, it is worth nothing at all. For any society willing to do so, the only epitaph has already been written by Benjamin Franklin:

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

The tree of liberty is rooted in the soil of the gospel

As Calvin Coolidge put it, in a remarkable speech delivered on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence,

No one can examine this record and escape the conclusion that in the great outline of its principles the Declaration was the result of the religious teachings of the preceding period. The profound philosophy which Jonathan Edwards applied to theology, the popular preaching of George Whitefield, had aroused the thought and stirred the people of the Colonies in preparation for this great event. No doubt the speculations which had been going on in England, and especially on the Continent, lent their influence to the general sentiment of the times. Of course, the world is always influenced by all the experience and all the thought of the past. But when we come to a contemplation of the immediate conception of the principles of human relationship which went into the Declaration of Independence we are not required to extend our search beyond our own shores. They are found in the texts, the sermons, and the writings of the early colonial clergy who were earnestly undertaking to instruct their congregations in the great mystery of how to live. They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit. . . .

If this apprehension of the facts be correct, and the documentary evidence would appear to verify it, then certain conclusions are bound to follow. A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if it roots be destroyed. In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man—these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.

Happy Independence Day!

John Adams, to his wife Abigail, in a letter of July 3, 1776:

Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. — This will cement the Union, and avoid those Heats and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago.

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

That it may not be in vain

I’m not sure why it had never occurred to me before to post Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for Memorial Day, but I think it’s well worth doing—not least because of its insistence that the most important thing we can do to honor those who died fighting for that which is good and true and right is to take up the work and carry it on.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.