Rethinking Church–Just Released

I am excited to let you know of the release of my new popular level book Rethinking Church. Some of you followed my 2020 series “Rethinking Church” in which I developed many of the ideas that now comprise this book. I hope you will go the Amazon page and read John Wilson’s Foreword to the book and my Preface. Perhaps you will think of people who would be encouraged and challenged by reading this book. It has questions for discussion at the end of each of its seven chapters and would serve well for small group discussions. I also believe church leaders need to consider my criticisms of churches that continue “business as usual.” And I present a different and much simpler vision of church life.

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The Christian View of Oppression and Freedom

In my last series in which I reviewed Pluckrose and Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody, I promised a follow up essay in which I contrast the view of freedom that animates both Liberal Political Theory and Social Justice Theory with the Christian understanding of freedom. Here is how I ended that series and set up this essay:

For all their differences, classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory are animated by the same definition of freedom: freedom in its pure form is the state wherein there are no restrictions on doing what you wish to do. In practice, both viewpoints restrict the freedom of some people so that others can enjoy a freedom of their own. Liberalism restricts government power so that everyone can enjoy equal civil rights and equal economic freedom. Theory wishes to use the power of government and woke social institutions to restrict the freedom of white people, men, and heterosexuals—which, taken together constitute the oppressor group in society—to do and become whatever they wish in the name of greater freedom for people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and all other marginalized groups to do and become whatever they wish.

Hence both classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory adhere to a nihilistic, anti-Christian, anti-nature, and anti-human vision of freedom. The logical implication of their view of freedom is the dissolution of everything human, natural, divine, good, and right in the name of the arbitrary will of the self-defining self to become and do whatever it wishes. Social Justice Theory is just one more step in the progressive movement wherein a false view of freedom works itself out toward its logical end, that is, self-conscious nihilism and anarchy.

https://ifaqtheology.wordpress.com/2021/01/17/social-justice-theory-versus-classical-liberalism-a-logical-analysis-and-a-christian-reflection/

Freedom from External Oppression

All views of freedom have negative and positive aspects. They envision an enslaving power, a self that is enslaved, a liberating power, and a state into which the self is liberated. Theories of freedom differ by viewing each of these four aspects differently. Liberalism’s and Social Justice Theory’s discussions of political and personal freedom focus on liberation of the self from oppressive forces external to the self. Social Justice Theory defines the self primarily in intersectional terms, that is, in terms of membership in an oppressed race, gender, or other group. Liberalism defines the self as an individual, happiness-seeking human being. But in both philosophies it is the fulfillment of the will, wishes, or desires—whatever term you prefer—of the self that are being inhibited by something outside the self. The liberated state, then, is envisioned as the power to do as one wishes. Likewise, Liberalism and Social Justice Theory differ in the external forces they consider oppressive. Liberalism wishes to liberate individuals from inequality in law or government enforcement of law. Social Justice Theory also recognizes these oppressors but extends the list to include many more ways the self’s fulfillment is restricted—by racial stereotypes, presumed norms governing gender and identity, systemic racism, and an ever-expanding list of others. Both Liberalism and Social Justice Theory, as all political theories do, rely on coercive power—soft or harsh—to liberate the victim self from external oppression.

Christian Freedom

Christianity also wishes to liberate people from oppression. There are, indeed, places where Christianity’s program of liberation overlaps with those of Liberalism and Social Justice Theory. However in the Christian understanding, the root cause of all external injustice is self’s internal bondage and corruption. For Christianity, the goal is not to liberate the self from some external power so that it can become and do whatever it desires. This action would only enable the self to externalize its internal bondage and corruption more readily. Christianity advocates liberation of the self from its own perverted will, that is, its inability to love God with all its heart, mind, soul, and strength and its idolatrous love of itself. In case you need reminding that what I am saying is the unambiguous teaching of the New Testament, read these statements from Paul:

17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. (Rom 6:17–18)

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Eph 2:1–5)

In this respect Christianity relativizes the worldly distinction between oppressors and victims. Everyone is a victim of sin and everyone oppresses their neighbors by not loving them as God loves them. There are no innocents.

Christian freedom is the state of possessing the inner power to love God and your neighbor. It is not leeway to sin as you like. It is the power to will and do the good. Christian freedom does not embrace or entail nihilism and anarchy. It embraces Jesus Christ as the model for divine and human identity. Christian freedom does not advance through coercion, harsh or soft. It advances in a way consistent with its nature as free, that is, by inner illumination, empowerment, and transformation through the Word and Spirit of God.

The Bottom Line

Liberalism and Social Justice Theory view

the oppressive power from which we need liberating as external restriction,

the self as the totality of the desires of the individual,

the liberating power as political coercion,

and the state of freedom as the power to do as one pleases.

Christianity views

the oppressive power from which we need liberating as sin,

the self as God’s created image made to image God,

the liberating power as the grace of the Holy Spirit,

and the state of freedom as the power to image God in all our actions and loves.

Further Reading on Freedom

I’ve written many essays and one book that touch directly or indirectly on Freedom:

https://ifaqtheology.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/jesus-means-freedom-god-and-the-modern-self-14/

https://ifaqtheology.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/freedom-means-freedom-period-god-and-the-modern-self-6/

https://ifaqtheology.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/freedom-aint-so-free-after-all-god-and-the-modern-self-7/

The Goal of Politics: “Earthly Peace for the Sake of Enjoying Earthly Goods”

In a time when politics seems to be the only subject people talk about, I thought we might benefit from considering a quote from Augustine’s City of God. In reading another work, I ran across a quote from City of God, which I placed in Italics in the quotes below. I was so taken by it that I looked up the context.

“Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God…In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, “I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength.” And therefore the wise men of the one city, living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls … But in the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men, “that God may be all in all.” (Book XIV, Chap. 28)

“But the earthly city … has its good in this world, and rejoices in it with such joy as such things can afford … desires earthly peace for the sake of enjoying earthly goods, and it makes war in order to attain to this peace … But if they neglect the better things of the heavenly city, which are secured by eternal victory and peace never-ending, and so inordinately covet these present good things that they believe them to be the only desirable things, or love them better than those things which are believed to be better,–if this be so, then it is necessary that misery follow and ever increase.” (Book XV. CHAP. 4)

Social Justice Theory versus Classical Liberalism—A Logical Analysis and A Christian Reflection

This essay is my third post interacting with Pluckrose and Lindsey, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody. I advise taking a look at the first two parts before you read this one.

Today I want to address this question: Is reasserting classical liberalism the best way to the challenge the activist, reified postmodernism of contemporary race-gender-identity theories? Lindsey and Pluckrose, Cynical Theories, think so. And in part I agree with them.

Social Justice Theory versus Classical Liberalism

As previous posts documented, Social Justice Theory values marginalized identity, experience of oppression, and equity. In contrast, classical liberalism, as articulated by John Locke, the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, and John Stuart Mill, values reason, truth, freedom of expression, civil liberty, common humanity, debate, and evidence-based knowledge. Lindsey and Pluckrose juxtapose them in the following ways:

Knowledge—liberalism asserts that knowledge of objective reality is to some extent attainable. Theory asserts that knowledge claims are merely constructions designed to justify privilege and power.

Identity—liberalism values unique individual identity. Theory prizes group/intersectional identity.

Universal Values—liberalism measures human behavior against universal human values. Theory denies universals and replaces them with the interests of marginalized groups.

Debate and Truth Seeking—liberalism encourages debate, evidence-based argument, and submission of private and group interest to truth. Theory rejects the notion of truth as an illusion designed to support the status quo; it asserts that language is a means by which we construct “our” truth, that is, a narrative or ideology that supports our interests.

Progress—liberalism is self-correcting because it believes in objective reality, truth, and knowledge but admits that human beings can never achieve perfect knowledge. Theory does not accept criticism because it rejects the idea of objective reality, truth, and knowledge. Hence it treats every criticism as a power play to which it responds not with self-examination but with suspicion and outrage. It does not accept the obligation to listen to its critics.

Liberalism’s Rhetorical Advantage

When the positions of these two approaches are placed side by side most people in the Western world—even most university professors, including me!—will choose liberalism over postmodernism as the best available political philosophy for creating and maintaining a just society. And I think this popular preference may be the ground of Pluckrose’s and Lindsey’s hope that exposure of Theory’s irrationalism, intolerance, censorship, and potential for violent suppression of its opponents to the light of day, will encourage those who have been intimidated into silence by Theory to speak out. If nothing else, you can say, “No, that’s your ideological belief, and I don’t have to go along with it” (p. 266). Even though there are some places—university faculty meetings and classrooms, for example—where advocating liberal values in opposition to Social Justice Theory will get you shouted down, in most public spaces you will have the rhetorical advantage.

Two Twists on Freedom

Pluckrose and Lindsey consider classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory “almost directly at odds with one another” at every point (p. 237). And as documented in the list above there is much truth to this assertion. However I think they share a common view of freedom that animates their political activities. Liberalism and Theory both view freedom as removal of external limits that keep people from becoming and doing what they want. This view of freedom is the core value that has animated Western liberation movements from the seventeenth century until today. This understanding of freedom possesses a negative and a positive side. On the negative side, freedom negates every boundary and limit outside the self as a potential oppressor. On the positive side, the self—its desires and will—is the force that determines itself and its world and is the sole animating principle of its activity.

Clearly, this type of freedom can never be fully realized in its pure form. It is extremely individualistic and it views the self as a self-creating god. It is nihilistic in that it negates all values and structures outside the self—other people, moral law, nature, and God—to clear space for the realization of its own will. The debate in liberal politics, however, centers not on the nature of freedom in itself but on how and to what extent it must be restricted to keep it from destroying the community and itself. In this way, classical liberalism contains within itself an unrealizable ideal as its animating principle, which it must always compromise in practice. Theoretical idealism combined with practical realism is an unstable mixture that will produce wave after wave of radical movements intent on rejecting compromise and realizing the ideal no matter what the cost.

Social Justice Theory is the latest wave of idealists who, dissatisfied with the compromises made by liberal politics, think putting into practice their theories will create a better world. Don’t let the word “justice” distract you from Theory’s the quest for freedom. In the lexical world of Theory “justice” is indexed to liberation. In fact, the traditional meaning of justice can have no place in Theory, because “justice” means conformity to the way things ought to be, and in Theory, there is no objective way things ought to be. Theory’s use of the word “justice” is a cynical rhetorical ploy. In both classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory the world is divided into the oppressed and their oppressors, and liberation from oppression, that is, removing restrictions on liberty so that one can to do as one wishes, is the goal in both. The difference between the two theories lies in the differing lists of oppressive forces and victims of oppression and the places where liberty must be restricted in favor of the victims.

Classical liberalism views centralized government power as the greatest threat to liberty and it works to enshrine equality of civil rights into law. And over the last two and a half centuries it has viewed progress as the advance of individual liberty and the retreat of government sanctioned inequality. Liberal politics attempted to ameliorate the worst negative effects of unfettered economic freedom—that is, concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few families and corporations—by instituting inheritance taxes, graduated income tax rates, regulations of all sorts, and creating a quasi-welfare state. Theory’s list of threats to freedom includes religion, moral law, objective truth, biological nature, and God. Its list of oppressors includes white people, men, and heterosexuals. It flips its prized intersectionality of marginalized groups on its head by making white, heterosexual men into the evil twin of the intersectional victim. It works to free people from restrictive notions of gender and identity and liberate people of color from the systemic racism of contemporary American society.

Summary

For all their differences, classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory are animated by the same definition of freedom: freedom in its pure form is the state wherein there are no restrictions on doing what you wish to do. In practice, both viewpoints restrict the freedom of some people so that others can enjoy a freedom of their own. Liberalism restricts government power so that everyone can enjoy equal civil rights and equal economic freedom. Theory wishes to use the power of government and woke social institutions to restrict the freedom of white people, men, and heterosexuals—which, taken together constitute the oppressor group in society—to do and become whatever they wish in the name of greater freedom for people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and all other marginalized groups to do and become whatever they wish.

Hence both classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory adhere to a nihilistic, anti-Christian, anti-nature, and anti-human vision of freedom. The logical implication of their view of freedom is the dissolution of everything human, natural, divine, good, and right in the name of the arbitrary will of the self-defining self to become and do whatever it wishes. Social Justice Theory is just one more step in the progressive movement wherein a false view of freedom works itself out toward its logical end, that is, self-conscious nihilism and anarchy.

Next Time: What is freedom understood in a Christian way?

Understanding Academia’s Obsession with Race, Gender, and Identity (Part Two)

In the previous essay I promised to complete my description of Theory (or Critical Theory), which is the framework that makes sense of the “crazy talk” about race, gender, and identity we often hear emanating from the modern university. The original postmodernism, with its two principles and four major themes—discussed in the previous post—takes a playful, skeptical, and ironic stance toward all truth claims. It affirms nothing and criticizes everything. Pure postmodernism cannot function as a philosophy for political activism. For it deconstructs everything and constructs nothing. Whereas science aims to describe the world and radical politics wants to change it, postmodernism wishes only to criticize it.

Social Justice Theory as Applied Postmodernism

According to Pluckrose and Lindsay, Cynical Theories, between the 1980s and 2010 race, gender, and identity theorists drew on postmodernism for the critical parts of their activist theories. Theory uses postmodern knowledge principle to create suspicion of the knowledge claims and narratives of the dominant groups in society. And it uses the postmodern political principle to expose the pervasive presence of power in society and its control over what counts as truth and justice. However, in contrast to the original postmodernism, Theory uses postmodernism’s critical tools only against ideologies and narratives it deems supportive of the oppressive forces in society. It does not turn them against the narratives of society’s oppressed and marginalized.* The latter are treated in practice as true and expressive of justice. The former are treated as false and expressive of injustice. Postmodernism’s universal deconstruction of all truth claims, every power center, and each assertion of stable identity, was transformed into a binary order–a new metanarrative–defined by the division between oppressor and oppressed.

*I don’t have space to define the “marginalized.” As the term indicates, the marginalized are defined by what they are not. They are not the dominant group. Look up Cynical Theories in your favorite search engine.

Social Justice Theory as Reified Postmodernism

After 2010, Theory (Social Justice Theory or Critical Theory) confidently asserted the truth of its critique of knowledge and the political order. The mood is no longer skeptical and playful but cynical and dogmatic. Pluckrose and Lindsey speak of this shift as the “reification” of postmodernism. Within the world of contemporary Theory it is presupposed that any moral or scientific justification of the status quo (the oppressors) is merely an ideology originating from desire to maintain dominance over people with marginalized identities. In contrast, narratives that free and empower marginalized people are by definition true. Social Justice Theory is a strange combination of cynicism and dogmatism, which makes sense only as an arbitrary decision to apply postmodern cynicism to the narratives of one group and superstitious credulity to the other. What motivates this seemingly arbitrary decision? Lust for power, guilt, resentment, and envy or passion for justice?

Ironically, because of Theory’s dogmatic assertion that truth and right are always on the side of the marginalized, a marginal identity has become a coveted possession within the Social Justice universe. And the more marginalized your identity, the higher your status in the new order will be. A person’s identity as marginalized is enhanced when it is constructed by the intersection of two or more marginal identities. In a reversal of postmodernism’s universal suspicion of power, contemporary Theory uses its claims of truth and right to demand submission from the heretofore dominant group. Theory, then, flips the social order on its head. The oppressors become the oppressed, truth becomes falsehood, good becomes evil, and right becomes wrong. And there is no arbiter, via media, no common ground. There are only winners and losers.

Classical Liberalism as the Response to Applied and Reified Postmodernism?

As their response to the irrationality and socially destructive effects of Social Justice Theory’s activist and reified postmodernism, Pluckrose and Lindsey urge a return to classical liberalism, that is, to reason, truth, freedom of expression, civil liberty, common humanity, debate, and evidence-based knowledge.

Next Time: I will explain my partial agreement with Pluckrose’s and Lindsey’s proposal and offer a Christian response to the view of freedom common to both postmodernism and liberalism.

Understanding Academia’s Obsession with Race, Gender, and Identity

The modern university prizes imagination, theorizing, and experimentation. It is fascinated with the new, the possible, and the impossible. It is not satisfied with the way things are but dreams of the way things could be. The general public values the university primarily because it generates scientific and technological discoveries, which makes everyone richer, more comfortable, and healthier. And for the sake of these scientific and technological discoveries, the public tolerates activities, theories, and speculations it considers odd, crazy, or even dangerous. Most people trust experimental science because it can be tested against empirical reality and it has proven effective and useful. Insofar as other disciplines—history, sociology, psychology, language studies, political science, economics, and others—also submit their research for testing against publicly available data, most people will take them seriously.

However when academics theorize in ways that cannot be tested against real world data, where theories are supported only by other theories, ideas only by other ideas, and words by other words, the average person is mystified. Critics of such theorizing often characterized it as “gnostic” because of its similarity to the quasi-mythical, metaphysical speculations of “gnostic” thinkers in the first three centuries of the Christian era. Only those initiated into such systems truly understand the hidden nature of the world. Outsiders are ignorant and immoral. To understand the truth and become morally acceptable, outsiders must trust the true knowers and submit to penance and reeducation under their guidance. The resemblance to religious conversion is not an accident.

Theory

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsey devote their book, Cynical Theories to exploring the gnostic precincts of the modern university. And I want to share with you their analysis.

An Introduction for Inhabitants of the Real World

Anyone who watches the news, keeps up with movies, TV, and Netflix shows, or whose children attend public schools has heard something about race, gender, and identity that left them scratching their heads: racism, it is said, is not so much a personal attitude as a systemic order of society hidden to white people but obvious to people of color. Hence every corporation, university, and government agency must hire a diversity officer to examine the institution for hints of systemic racism. Gender comes in an infinite range of combinations of traits and feelings and has nothing to do with biological sex. Identity is created by the intersection of all the oppressed groups to which one belongs.

Meanwhile the torturous neologisms coined in university departments whose names end in “studies” have begun to appear in popular media:

heteronormativity, cisnormativity, gender performativity, intersectionality, patriarchy, hegemonic masculinity, homophobia, whiteness, inclusion, diversity, equity, critical theory, white privilege, white fragility, antiracism, white supremacy, problematize, decolonialization, subalterns, lived experience, hybridity, knowledges, social justice, research justice, climate justice, epistemic injustice, biological essentialism, ableism. fatphobia, queering, and more.

Unless you live in the theoretical world constructed by contemporary academia, you will most likely try to make sense of these terms in one of two ways. If you are feeling generous, you will understand them within the traditional framework of liberal tolerance, that is, as expressions of the desire for personal freedom from injustice and as criticisms of oppressive forces. Everyone accepts to one degree or another the basic rules for liberal society: “live and let live” or “you are free to do as you please as long as you don’t harm anyone else.” On the other hand, in your less generous moods, you may conclude that these expressions are crazy, insane, and unhinged: what in the world is gender performativity, hegemonic masculinity, and queering (as a verb)! Such ideas seem completely out of touch with the real world of hard facts and objective truths.

Making Sense of Nonsense

However, if you try to make sense of contemporary race, gender and identity talk within liberal categories or dismiss it as nonsense, you will misunderstand it. But there is another framework within which the “crazy talk” makes a sort of sense. Pluckrose and Lindsey call this framework simply “Theory,” always with a capital T. Theory is a shortened form of Critical Theory. Critical Theory is the product of sixty years of theorizing within humanities and various “studies” departments within modern universities.

According to Pluckrose and Lindsey, contemporary Theory is best understood as an applied and reified* form of postmodernism. Postmodernism came on the scene in the 1960s through the writings of three French thinkers: Michael Foucault, Jean-Françios Lyotard, and Jacque Derrida. The original postmodern perspective can be summarized in two principles and four major themes. Between 1990 and 2010, the original postmodernism underwent a transformation to what Pluckrose and Lindsey call “applied postmodernism.” And between 2010 and 2020, applied postmodernism became what our authors call “reified* postmodernism.” Hence Theory (or Critical Theory) is applied and reified postmodernism.

*To reify is to (mistakenly?) treat theoretical ideas first encountered in words as real things or states of affairs.

Two Principles of Postmodernism

The original postmodernism was a philosophy of complete despair, despair of attaining truth and building a truly just society. It despaired of science and progressive or utopian political movements. Not surprisingly, its two principles are the “knowledge principle” and the “political principle.”

The knowledge principle declares a “radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism” (p. 31). We should dispense with any confidence that so-called scientific or common sense “knowledge” or “truth” corresponds to the way things really are. Knowledge is not a copy within our minds of external reality; it is a linguistic artifact constructing by the society in which we live. We live in a humanly constructed house of words, images, desires, rationalizations, expectations, and prejudices.

The political principle is the assertion “that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how” (p. 31). Societies are ordered and held together by an omnipresent and diffuse matrix of power exerted in the service of private and group interests. Power in some form is exerted in every relationship and interaction, so that everyone at all times is playing the role of oppressor or victim. Since what counts for knowledge is constructed rather than discovered, the ones with the most power construct “knowledges” that justify and reinforce their dominance.

Four Major Themes of Postmodernism

In keeping with its mood of despair, postmodernism employs a strategy of irony, cynicism, and playfulness—and sometimes intentional obscurity— to deflate the pretensions of science, undermine traditional morality, and upset accepted ideas of beauty. Indeed, postmodernism debunks all knowledge claims, because of their inherently oppressive nature. Its four major themes describe the ways in which postmodernism carries out its project of upsetting settled orders and creating suspicion of accepted truths.

According to Pluckrose and Lindsey, postmodernism (1) blurs boundaries. Boundaries that must not be crossed, either/or dichotomies, given identities, and fixed categories limit and oppress those placed into them. (2) Postmodernism views language with suspicion because it is a tool of oppression which the powerful use to construct prisons for their victims and castles for themselves. (3) Postmodernism denies that any culture is superior to any other, for such claims of superiority arise from and lead to domination. And (4), postmodernism repudiates the idea of the autonomous individual as a myth and disavows supposed universal ideas. Both of these notions, too, support the power structures that divide people into oppressors and victims.

Absolute Freedom

Clearly, the overriding concern of postmodernism is freedom, not western notions of political freedom, the free market, or free will, but absolute freedom, freedom from any fixed category, theory, myth, narrative, metanarrative, meme, natural structure or law, stereotype, truth, or value. Its irony, cynicism, and playfulness are designed to deconstruct all confining socially constructed houses of knowledge, truth, and reality and keep all options open every moment. At the end of this series I will return to this thought.

Next Time: We will look at the two transformations by which the original postmodernism became Theory, that is, activist and reified postmodernism.

After Whiteness by Willie Jennings—A Non-Review Review

I hate to break promises! Well, perhaps, I’m not breaking my promise. I’m just not able to fulfill it to the degree I had hoped. In the previous post “Race, Gender, and Identity…Oh My,” I promised to reflect next on Willie Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Eerdmans, 2020). I re-read the book this morning—It’s only 115 pages long—and I came away a second time with that I-don’t-get-it feeling. In part, it’s that perplexity I want to explore in this essay.

At present, Jennings is an associate professor of theology and Africana studies at Yale University. He also taught at Duke University Divinity School and served as an associate dean while at Duke. His latest book focuses on theological education at seminaries and divinity schools. As someone who has written several books and hundreds of essays, I understand an author’s and a publisher’s desire to select a title that is both descriptive and provocative. Authors want to be read and publishers want to make money. “After Whiteness” is provocative.

Jennings lets us know in the Preface that “whiteness” is not completely synonymous with being white. For Jennings, whiteness is an ideal image of a fully developed human being constructed by Europeans over centuries. This ideal is embodied in the individual white male who has mastered himself and others (especially white females and all non-white people) through scientific reason and technology. He is self-sufficient, analytical, heterosexual, and individualistic, and he objectivizes everything and everyone. According to Jennings, this ideal human being serves as a mold into which Western education—specifically Western theological education—attempts to squeeze everyone. Switching metaphors, the theological school is Procrustean bed in which those who do not naturally fit—women and people of color—are trimmed and shaped according to the ideal pattern. Note the violence in the language. Those for whom whiteness is simply the truth view this educational process as civilizing, uplifting, and empowering.

When I say of Jennings’s book “I don’t get it,” I do not mean that I disagree with him. In fact, I’ve long resisted the ideal he describes as “whiteness,” and I think theological education is long overdue for a radical reformation. I hope to voice my critique of the state of theological education in future essays. What I mean by “I don’t get it” is that Jennings presents his critique and offers his vision as a series of extended metaphors and vignettes. They convey a mood and articulate feelings, but I don’t see a clear vision of the new community of belonging of which Jennings dreams. The book’s subtitle indicates that Jennings’s alternative to whiteness is belonging. From what I read in the book, this community of belonging will be founded on a decision for mutual acceptance of everyone’s identity, their experience, and their stories. What I don’t get is how this book, with its metaphors and stories, offers a critique of “whiteness” (as defined by Jennings) that meets whiteness on its own turf and demonstrates its theological and ethical weaknesses. Perhaps my assessment on this score says as much about me as it does about Jennings. After all, to meet whiteness on its own turf and use its own weapons against it would be to grant it a kind of legitimacy.

I wondered briefly why Jennings used the term “whiteness” in his title only to explain in the Preface that he did not mean “white people.” It’s an eye-catching title, to be sure, and publishers love that sort of thing. But is there more to it? To use the term “whiteness” to describe the Western rational and scientific approach to education, whatever the term’s descriptive truth, seems to me akin to Ibram Kendi’s use of the terms “racism” and “racist” to designate those who decline to support his political policies. That is to say, it tars those who support traditional Western theological education with a term loaded with negative moral implications. Those who support traditional Western theological education, consciously or unconsciously, support whiteness. And surely no one who supports whiteness, with its oblique connection to white supremacy and white privilege, can be a good person.

What I longed to hear but did not was a critique of “whiteness” from a deeply Christian perspective, a stance of profound humility, repentance, faith, hope, and love rooted in the crucified and risen Jesus, empowered by the life-giving Holy Spirit, and directed to the God who is and shall be all in all. I did not see a vision of unity vivid enough, power enough, or profound enough to create Jennings’s desired community of belonging…a vision in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). For sure, the unity spoken of by Paul is not that of universal conformity to the ideal of the white male, self-sufficient, isolated, and masterful. Nor is it a unity created by everyone agreeing to accept everyone’s natural and self-chosen identity. It is the unity forged between Jesus Christ and everyone who by giving themselves to Christ are given a new identity as images of Christ who is the Image of God.

Race, Gender, Identity…Oh My

I can already hear you saying to yourself, “Really? You’re going to talk about race, gender, and Identity? Are you crazy? I thought you avoided discussing politics on your blog?” I hear you, and I assure you I am not changing my policy. The problem is that moral issues often become politicized, so that political lines get drawn between partisans based on their stances on moral issues. Since Christianity cannot surrender its moral teaching to the secular order without denying that God is the author of the universal moral law, Christians cannot remain silent on moral issues even if those topics are also matters of partisan political disputes. My discussions of moral issues on this blog will remain apolitical in this sense: I will not argue on theological or rational grounds for a secular public policy. However I would be a faithless theologian, a thoughtless Christian, and a cowardly blogger if I surrendered morality to individual choice or political deliberation.

As I promised in my previous post “What A Year It Has Been,” I want to share my reflections on three books I read this year. Ibram Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist, Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, and Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsey, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—And Why This Harms Everybody. I do not plan on doing full reviews of these books. Perhaps I will do that later. I want, rather, to set before you the central arguments of each and then reflect theologically on the issues raised.

Ibram Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist

How To Be An Antiracist is a rhetorically brilliant book. The point of each chapter is woven in and around a compelling autobiographical story. The story draws the reader into the narrative that produces the knowledge claim of the chapter. This technique, I think, fuels the persuasive power of the book. However I found myself needing to disengage my emotions from Kendi’s enthralling story to examine his argument rationally.

The book aims to teach readers “how to be an antiracist.” In the minds of most people racism is one of the ugliest character traits imaginable and racist individuals are rightly discredited from public respectability. So, the average reader opens the book with the expectation of agreeing with the author. After all, how could a person who repudiates the ugly doctrine of racism not also wish to be an anti-racist? As you begin reading the introduction and the first chapter, however, you realize that you and Kendi are working with different definitions of racism. Most people think of racism as a conscious attitude of animus toward a particular racial group and a racist as an individual who harbors such attitudes. A person who does not harbor racial animus and attempts to treat all people regardless of race with equal dignity and fairness is not a racist. This is the common sense view.

Kendi includes the common understanding of racism and the racist character type within his definition of racism, but he expands his definition to include unconscious attitudes and seemingly innocent actions and inactions. For Kendi, racism is the hidden, implicit ideology that justifies the interlocking system of public policies and practices that creates and sustains inequity—that is, unequal possession of life’s (mostly material) goods—between racial groups. A racist is someone who by what they do or what they neglect to do supports this system of policies. An antiracist is someone who refuses to support and actively resists the racist system of policies.

In this way, Kendi shifts the locus of racism from self-conscious attitudes of individual racists to the unconscious system of values, policies, and practices that structures American society. These values and practices include the free market economy, meritocracy, color blindness, and mere equality before the law. All these values tend to perpetuate the status quo and, hence, are racist, according to Kendi’s definition. The evidence for systemic racism is the de facto inequity in income, housing, education, health care, and other measures of wellbeing between white people as a whole and people of color as a whole. Even if no one harbored conscious racist feelings or exhibited commonly identified racist behaviors, this lack would not disprove the racism of the system and those who participate in it. Your feelings of goodwill toward all people do not prove that you are not a racist. Only your active support for public policies that promote equity and your active resistance to policies that sustain inequity qualify you as an antiracist. There is no neutral ground such as might be designated by the term “not-racist.”

In Kendi’s lexicon, racism’s center of gravity has shifted from the moral core of the individual to a diffuse socio-political order. Yet he retains the emotionally loaded moral terms “racism” and “racist” to describe the character of this order. The effect is to make it grossly immoral not to support the political policies that Kendi thinks will best ameliorate the inequities among the races or to lend support to policies and values that Kendi thinks will perpetuate the status quo. Kendi is a bit coy about stating his antiracist political policies in clear terms, but I think we can infer from his criticisms of the free market economy, meritocracy, color blindness, and mere equality before the law that he would favor policies designed to achieve greater material equity among the races even if it means abandoning these principles.

Don’t miss this shift: policy differences arise not simply from different rational conclusions about what means will best achieve agreed upon goals but from profound differences in moral character. To support traditional liberal policies—free markets, merit-based reward systems, individualism, and so on—is a racist act, whereas to support policies designed to produce equity—equality of outcomes—is an antiracist act. The first is morally wrong and the second is morally right. The categories by which to evaluate public policy shift from sound or flawed reasoning to good or evil motives.

I will save my theological assessment of How To Be An Antiracist until I have summarize the other two books.

What A Year This Has Been!

What a year this has been! Of course you don’t need me to tell you about the pandemic of politics or the politics of the pandemic! You’ve had to endure both. But I would like to share some thoughts from this year’s reading, writing, and experience.

As the year began I was putting the finishing touches on my book, The New Adam: What the Early Church Can Teach Evangelicals (and Liberals) About the Atonement. On May 31, after 5 ½ years of research and writing, I turned over my final draft to Cascade Press. I will tell you more about that book when it is published in early 2021. A day later, on my birthday (June 1), I began a blog series on Rethinking Church. That 30-essay series continued through the summer, and in the fall I revised and edited it into a little book, which will be published in early 2021 as Rethinking Church: A Guide for the Perplexed and Disillusioned (Keledei Publications).

As far as reading goes, I’ve continued my project of reading or re-reading some of the great authors of the past. Let me say a word about that project. Long ago I gave up the illusion that I (or anyone else) can keep up with all the books published in the area of theology. According to Cascade’s marketing questionnaire, “4,000 books enter the US market daily.” That is 1,460,000 a year! How many focus on religion and theology, I don’t know, but I suspect it’s in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. Given the impossibility of reading even one percent of them, I decided to be very selective. I read books I need to read for my research and writing. And as I said earlier, I read the greats. In the past year, I read or reread most of the well-known works of Immanuel Kant as well as The Kant Dictionary. I’m impressed with Kant’s critique of realism, that is, the idea that the ordered and meaningful world we know through our senses is identical to the world as it is in itself. There is no way we can know that; it’s an assumption based on the notion that our knowing powers and the world in itself are made for each other. In my thinking, confidence in this assumption requires something like the Creator of heaven and earth, that is, a universal and creative mind that embraces our minds and all things. I read some of Hegel’s works and The Hegel Dictionary. I should say, rather, I tried to read Hegel! If we agree with Hegel that everything actual is also rational, we would also be forced to agree with him that the world and its history would make perfect logical sense to the absolute Mind. What tempts me in this idea is that I believe that to God the Creator everything is transparent and clear, because God created everything. There is no obscurity. But I cannot follow Hegel in denying divine transcendence and thinking that the absolute Mind is in process of becoming self-conscious as our minds.

I read several books critiquing metaphysical materialism and advocating idealism or panpsychism, that is, the idea that every fragment of the actual world possess an element of consciousness or soul. There are lots of them out there. I am sympathetic with their critiques of materialism–Materialism makes absolutely no sense to me–but their alternative explanations trail off into fanciful speculation and reified metaphor. Since I cannot read all the original works of the great authors, I began reading the 2,200-page, two volume Great Ideas Syntopicon in the Great Books of the Western World series. I read articles on Matter, Duty, Eternity, Necessity and Contingency, Nature, Principle, One and Many, Education, Democracy, Change, Cause, Being, and others. I came across many familiar names, Plato, Parmenides, Aristotle, Aquinas, Boethius, Augustine, Locke, Spinoza, Descartes, Hume, and so many more. Also, I read Gregory Nazianzus’s oration to the First Council of Constantinople in which he resigned as Patriarch of Constantinople. I will tell you more about Gregory and his oration at a later date.

As part of my professional obligations as a faculty member on a University faculty, I read three books I would not have chosen to read otherwise. As everyone knows, the long, hot summer of 2020 effectively began on May 25 with the death of George Floyd while being restrained by a Minneapolis police officer. Exacerbated by the already tense atmosphere produced by the pandemic and the presidential campaign, cities erupted in months of protest. Every celebrity, news personality, politician, business, and educational institution felt the need to condemn racism and police misconduct. In view of the discussions, commissions, faculty deliberations, and debates in which I needed to participate as a faculty member, I read Kindi, How To Be An Antiracist, Jennings, After Whiteness, and Pluckrose and Lindsey, Cynical Theories. In a future post I will give you my analysis and theological response to these three books.

What Are We Doing When We Pray?

In times of crisis, after we think we have done everything humanly possible to cope with desperate situation, we often declare, “All we can do now is pray.” Now to be fair, when we say this we are not saying, “Let’s do nothing.” Praying is doing something. But what are we doing when we pray?

Cups of Cool Water

Consider four areas where we can do something good for others. (1) If someone has a physical need and we have the knowledge and means to help, we can render that help. We can give a cup of cool water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, seek justice for the oppressed, feed the hungry, or help the insolvent with medical bills. (2) For the unskilled and uneducated, we can teach, train, and equip them with knowledge or skills they can use to make a living. (3) We can do something for those experiencing emotional distress or trauma by supporting them with our presence, by listening, and by expressing love and concern. (4) In a person’s relationship to God, we can explain and share our faith.

Before we turn our attention to prayer let’s think about what we are doing when we help people in the above ways. Are these purely secular activities we accomplish by our own independent choice and power? No believer thinks this. We thank God for giving us opportunities, wisdom, and strength to do good for others. And we know our work would not be effective apart from God’s cooperating help.

Hence when contrasting the ordinary ways we help people with (merely) praying for them it is not accurate to say that in the former ways we do not depend on God’s help at all whereas in prayer we depend wholly on God’s help. Clearly we depend on God’s cooperation in both, in acts of physical help and in the act of prayer. But I must ask a further question: when we pray for another person, are we cooperating with God in helping others or are we merely asking God to help the other person independently of us? Let me ask this question in another way. Does praying for someone do something for them in the way giving them a cup of cool water does something for them?

Natural Action in a Natural Medium

We think we understand how giving a cup of cool water helps another person, that is, we have the wisdom and power to direct nature’s forces in a particular direction so as to quench a person’s thirst. However with regard to prayer we see no direct connection to the other person that allows us to touch them by praying—no medium like physical nature in which we both exist and can interact. So, we think of prayer as working solely by evoking God’s favorable response in some way. That is to say, praying is like dialing a 911 hotline to God hoping God will supply the needed aide. Our act of praying affects God directly but it touches the person for whom we are praying only indirectly.

This understanding of prayer is illustrated by our common practice of letting people know we are praying for them. We feel an urge to make direct contact with those for whom we pray, and we cannot imagine a way to do this other than by communicating this information to them in the ordinary way. It helps people emotionally to know that others love them and are petitioning God on their behalf. And there is nothing wrong with this desire. But telling someone you are praying for them is not the same act as helping them through your prayers.

Spiritual Action in a Spiritual Medium

To even the casual reader, prayer emerges as a major New Testament theme. Some prayers appeal directly to God for him to act. But others seem also to exert a kind of influence in the spiritual realm on behalf of others in a way similar to the way the act of giving a cup of cool water works in the natural realm. Paul tells the Ephesians that since our enemies are not “flesh and blood” but “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12), we cannot fight them with physical weapons. We need spiritual weapons to wage a spiritual war (Eph. 6:10-17). We do not just pray for God to defend us, we also fight, using faith, hope, righteousness, and the Word of God to engage the enemy. And at the end of Paul’s description of the Christian’s spiritual armor he urges his friends to pray for him and all God’s people:

“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Eph 6:18-20).

For Paul, prayer is not only a weapon with which we can resist the enemy, it is also a tool with which we can help our brothers and sisters. How does this work? Paul says that we should pray “in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18). All who have God’s Spirit are present in the Spirit. And our spirits, which are in the Spirit, are present to all who are also in the Spirit. As we pray “in the Spirit” we touch each other in this spiritual medium as surely as we touch each other in the body through the medium of physical nature. When we pray in the Spirit for each other we stand together in the spiritual battle. We are really present to each other. Praying for each other is doing something for each other as surely as giving cups of cool water to each other is doing something.

Hence when I ask you to pray for me, I am not asking you merely to tell me that you are praying for me. Nor am I merely asking you to ask God to help me. I am asking you also to stand alongside me in the Spirit, to strengthen me, to encourage me, to fight with me, and to be present with me. And with God’s help, your presence will quench my thirsty spirit as much as your gift of cool water will help my thirsty body.