Deconstructing the Dominionists, Part V
Carl F. H. Henry (who died in 2003) is perhaps the most mainstream of the essayists who have contributed to this booklet. He was the first dean of Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical seminary in Pasadena, CA, and the first editor of Christianity Today, conceived by Billy Graham as an evangelical alternative to the more liberal The Christian Century. In short, Henry is a conservative evangelical, but he is not a pure Dominionist. In his first book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (first published in 1947), Henry argued that Christian fundamentalists failed to understand their vocation by withdrawing from the world. The modern fundamentalist is called to apply the fundamentals of the Christian faith to culture and society, and it is only through engagement with the world that the world can be transformed.
This thesis, in its most basic form, is also shared by many liberal theologians, representatives of what H. Richard Niebuhr called the "Christ the Transformer of Culture" type. The difference between conservative and progressive Christians on this issue is rooted in their respective theological justifications for engagement with the culture and the goals of such engagement. As we have seen in this series, the Dominionists engage American culture with the specific goal of transforming culture according to biblical law. Progressive Christians, on the other hand, engage American culture with the goal of emulating Christ by working for justice and peace.
Henry begins his essay, "The Fight of the Day," with a passage from Paul's letter to the Romans:
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Rom 13:11-14).
When Paul speaks of "the flesh," he is speaking of sinful desires - references to "the flesh" usually include lists of inappropriate behavior, as in this passage. For Paul, faith has moral consequences. Faith is active in love, love of neighbor and love of God. The believer is called to a life of holiness, to focus on spiritual pursuits rather than selfish desires. Self-gratification, for Paul, cannot coexist with true love of the neighbor, for self-gratification is a turning inward, while neighbor love (agape) is a turning outward. This is important to remember, and Paul makes precisely this point in the passage immediately preceding the quoted text:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, `You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet' and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, `Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:8-10).
It is not coincidental, I think, that Henry chooses not to include these verses in his quotation of Romans. For Paul, love trumps all. The love of God infuses the universe, it permeates creation, it creates the standard for human community. For Paul, even God's judgment is superceded by God's love. Human beings are called to love, not to judge. Judgment is God's alone, and it has already been executed. The moral absolutism of extreme conservative Christianity is rooted as much in judgment as in love, perhaps more so. This is exemplified by the typical statement, "Love the sinner, but hate the sin."
The emphasis on individual sins is a typical theological move made by many conservative Christians, but it is thoroughly un-Pauline. For Paul, "sins" are not the issue. The issue is "Sin," the state of being alienated from God, of "falling short of the glory of God." While Sin certainly is manifest in particular actions that we might call "sins," these particular actions are always symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Sin is not only individual - it is also institutional or structural. There are sinful structures in which all human beings participate, so that no human being is without sin. Sin, understood in this way, is not primarily a moral category. It is primarily a theological category. Focusing on the moral consequences of sin, as many fundamentalists do, misses the important theological point. And that point is quite simple: sin is not merely a matter of choices, a matter of failing to do our best. Sin is an original characteristic of human life in community, and it is inevitable. It requires forgiveness. And that forgiveness, according to Paul, is a gift of the gracious God who reconciled the world to God in the cross of Christ. But sin never completely disappears. It is an existential reality, part of how the world works. As Martin Luther liked to put it, the Christian is simultaneously a sinner and a saint: always both, never exclusively one or the other. Human perfection is not a possibility in this life. Acknowledgment of this reality encourages humility. The key is not to judge the actions of others as sinful, but to acknowledge one's own alienation and to accept forgiveness. Forgiveness of sin, in the Pauline sense, is liberating. The forgiven sinner is then free to turn outward toward the neighbor for the neighbor's sake. The forgiven sinner is free to love.
This theological detour through the Pauline doctrine of sin is important because it demonstrates how different Paul's doctrine of sin is from that of the so-called "culture warriors." For Henry, America's moral decline is the result of individual choices, rather than institutional failures to uphold the principles of justice, equality, fairness, peace, and generosity. Henry suggests that American culture is "sinking toward sunset." American culture is sinking toward sunset, not because of unprecedented limitations of personal liberties and civil rights, not because of rampant corporate greed and unaccountability, not because of environmental recklessness, not because of national hubris, and not because of indifference to the suffering of the nation's poor. No, America is "sinking toward sunset" because of abortion, the demise of the nuclear family, and homosexuality.
Henry argues that these three factors are united by personal choice and a disregard for the sanctity of human life:
All that the Bible means by life - spiritual life, moral life, eternal life, a life fit for eternity - is emptied into an existence fit only for beasts and brutes (Henry, 99).
Characteristic of many Dominionist thinkers, Henry has a specific definition of morality in which sexual purity is paramount. According to this definition of morality, poverty is not a moral issue, minority rights are not a moral issue, stewardship of the environment and natural resources is not a moral issue, freedom of religion is not a moral issue, and peace is not a moral issue. The only moral issue that matters is sex and its various manifestations:
Western society is experiencing a great cultural upheaval. More and more the wicked subculture comes to open cultural manifestation. More and more the unmentionables become the parlance of our day. More and more profanity and vulgarity find expression through the mass media. The sludge of a sick society is rising to the top and, sad to say, the stench does not offend even some public leaders. Our nation increasingly trips the worst ratings on God's Richter scale of fully deserved moral judgment (Henry, 99).
Profanity, an exposed nipple, and sex scenes on television are the most urgent moral threat to American culture, according to this type of moral thinking. An unjust war in Iraq, the continued exploitation of the working poor for the sake of increased executive profits, the slashing of government funding for education, social programs and healthcare, reckless ignorance of the looming ecological disaster - these are not serious moral threats. This is a morality that is warped by a preoccupation with an individual's sexuality and with sexual norms. This is a theology with an authoritarian understanding of God, in which God keeps a "cosmic ledger" and threatens immanent vengeance. It is a theology of fear and of judgment, not a theology of hope and of love.
There are many differences between conservative and liberal Christian theology. One of the most significant points of difference is in terms of certainty. Many conservative theologians (not all, but many) claim to know the will of God with close to absolute certainty, because they believe God's will is clearly revealed in detail in the Bible. Many liberal theologians (again, not all, but many) hesitate to claim absolute certainty of the will of God for at least two main reasons. First, these liberal theologians do not believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God. They believe that the Bible is a record of the faith in God of various religious communities, a record in which God's word is revealed to faith. For these liberal theologians, the Bible as the revelation of God is not an objectively established fact - it is only available to the eyes of faith. Second, these liberal theologians emphasize the qualitative distinction between the human being and God. They attempt to avoid overtly anthropomorphic understandings of God, preferring instead to emphasize the "otherness" of God. This is most important in terms of knowledge of God: God is not an object like any other object, and thus cannot be known like other objects. Human thinking and knowing are limited to objects that can be observed and controlled in some sense. Liberal theologians confess that God will always remain, to some degree, a mystery. Claiming absolute certainty of God's will, therefore, is considered to be an act of theological hubris.
Another significant difference between conservative and liberal Christian theology concerns the sources for moral deliberation. Many conservative Christians refer to the Bible alone as absolutely sufficient for moral deliberation, using it as the sole norm and guide for faith and life. Progressive Christians, on the other hand, refer to a broader range of sources for moral deliberation, including but not limited to the Bible, philosophical ethics, psychology, sociology, the hard sciences, history, and anthropology. Liberal theologians acknowledge the historicity of cultural norms, recognizing that moral deliberation does not occur in a vacuum. Our moral and cultural norms are subject to change, to evolution, according to historical, social, and political developments. If we ignore this reality and attempt to enshrine an ancient document as our sole norm of morality, we risk moral stagnation, the inability to adapt our moral thinking to address contemporary problems.
What is at stake here are two very different understandings of the Bible, American history, and Christianity itself, specifically what it means to be a Christian in a cosmopolitan society. The Dominionists claim absolute validity and exclusivity for Christians, relegating adherents of any other religion to second-class status (or worse), they place the blame for America's failings and problems squarely at the feet of the political and social left, whom they regard as dangerous anti-Christian radicals. The Christian left, on the other hand, celebrates the diversity of the world's religions while affirming our own commitment to the Christian tradition, we value and affirm the religious experience of our fellow Americans as well as their right to worship (or not worship) according to their own conscience, and we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of the Enlightenment and of the Founders - reason, tolerance, respect for science, personal liberty, and religious freedom.
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