Thursday, May 12, 2005

Pure Religion, Undefiled

James 1:23-27 (New International Version)

23 “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.”
26 “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

David Brooks wrote an interesting piece that was syndicated in yesterday’s Kansas City Star. His theme is the same one that’s intrigued me for about a week now – how to heal the growing divide between secular and religious conservatives. It’s a battle I suspect that’s been brewing for a while, and, since the rhetoric has become white hot, healing will be difficult.

Brooks put his finger directly on the pulse of the problem for the religious “wrestler,” the person who is an odd combination of faith and doubt, with these words:

“We reject the bland relativism of the militant secularists. We reject the smug ignorance of, say, a Robert Kuttner, who recently argued that the culture war is a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism.”

“But neither can we share the conviction of the orthodox believers, like the new pope, who find maximum freedom in obedience to eternal truth. We’re a little bit nervous about the perfectionism that often infects evangelical politics, the rush to crash through procedural checks and balances in order to reach the point of maximum moral correctness.”

While I’m not from Mr. Brooks’ school of politics or religion, I do take his point. Like an automobile, politics is a vehicle that has both a gas pedal and brakes. In order to use these vehicles properly one must know when to put his or her foot on one or the other. Stepping on the wrong pedal at the wrong time can produce disastrous results.

Brooks sees a middle ground in the divide in the person of Abraham Lincoln, a model who tempered faith with doubt to bring the nation through its most trying times. He put it this way:

“Lincoln came to believe in a God who was active in human affairs but who concealed himself.”

One lesson we should carry from Lincoln’s belief, Brooks says is that:

“We can learn that there is no one vocabulary we can use to settle great issues. There is a secular vocabulary and a sacred vocabulary.”

Abraham Lincoln was a master of both languages. Even in his use of secular language, the hint of the sacred is always there. In his first inaugural, for example, he pleaded for the nation to remain unified with these stirring words:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Then, in the throes of a bloody Civil War, at his second inaugural, Lincoln, in language that is theologically rich, expressed both remarkable faith and doubt about divining God’s will and purpose in the conflict. The language was theological/metaphysical, but it held something for both the saint and the skeptic:

“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”

And so I take Mr. Brooks’ point once more. We must try to find ways to make room for both languages in our civil discourse if conservatism is to continue being viable, and believable, in the days ahead.

There’s also another model from history who I believe can also instruct us in this ideological conflict. We would do well to heed his words.

Edmund Burke, according to the Cambridge Biographical Dictionary and many scholars, ranks “as one of the foremost political thinkers of England. He had vast knowledge of affairs, a glowing imagination, passionate sympathies, and in inexhaustible wealth of powerful and cultured expression.”

For conservatives in our time, both religious and secular, Burke has wisdom for both the religious and the secular conservative. For the secularist, particularly those who would have religious conservatives jettison their faith in the public arena, there is this:

“If there be a God such as we can conceive, He must be our Maker. If He is our Maker, there is a Relation between us. If there be a Relation between us, some Duty must arise from that Relation, since (we) cannot conceive that a reasonable Creature can be placed in any Relation that does not give rise to some Duty.”

“The Relation betwixt God and Man, is that Man has received several Benefits but can return none. That he may suffer all Manner of Mischief, but can return none, or by himself avert none.”

“Therefore by no act can he perform this Duty; but he can by the Sentiments of the Mind.”

“Where we have received good, ‘tis natural to praise.”

“Where we hope good, it is natural to pray.”

- This is the foundation of Religion

“We have a Relation to other Men. We want things compassable only by the help of other beings like ourselves. They want things compassable with our Help. We love these beings and have a Sympathy with them. If we require help, ‘tis reasonable that we should give help. If we love, ‘tis natural, to do good to those whom we love. Hence, one Branch of our Duties to our fellow Creatures is active – Hence Benevolence.”

- This is the foundation of Morality

“Morality does not necessarily include Religion, since it concerns only our Relation with Men. But Religion necessarily includes Morality, because the relation of God as a Creator is the same to other Men as to us. If God has placed us in Relation attended with Duties, it must be agreeable to Him that we perform those Duties.”

- Hence Moral Duties are included in Religion, and enforced by it

If secularists could see that this is the motivating force for the religious conservative brethren, the conservative movement would be all the better for it.

By the same token, religious (particularly Christian) conservatives would do well to heed Burke’s further wisdom about attempting to make religion solely utilitarian and political:

“If you attempt to make the end of Religion to be its Utility to human Society, to make it only a sort of supplement to the Law, and insist principally upon this Topic, as is very common to do, you then change its principle of Operation, which consists on Views beyond this Life, to a consideration of another kind, and of an inferiour kind; and thus, by forcing it against its Nature to become a Political Engine, you make it an Engine of no efficacy at all.”

If religious conservatives could see this, I believe the rhetoric from their secular “brothers in arms” might very well cool down.

And so I conclude with this. For the sake of society, and the conservative movement, a truce needs to be declared before the saber rattling becomes open warfare. Secular conservatives need to tone down the rhetoric and find room for their religious brethren. Religious conservatives need to loosen their grip on their new found power and find avenues of compromise with the secular brethren. Without this sort of moderation by both parties in the dispute, modern conservatism’s fate could well be a split that would bring great injury to both sides and all that religious and secular conservatives have worked to so hard to build in this generation.

1 comment:

James Fletcher Baxter said...

America has gained for the world what it has gained by loyalty to eternal truths - and it has lost what it has already lost through wimpy compromise of those truths. They aren't compromised: we are!

Friendship with the secular world is enmity with God. In every way, compromise means 'less.' The body of Believers has nothing to offer if we seek first an 'acceptance' of self.

Example: Half-way between Collectivism and Individual Value is still Collectivism. We do our following generations no-favor by seeking first our own such personal secular 'acceptance.'

We do not follow as Lincolnians, or Brooksians, or...

If you think this is extreme, wait until you see and hear the soon-coming roar of The Lion of Judah!