Christianity: a social principle for creating a just world, or...
It seems easy to predict that Obama-mania will rise to a pitch in the second half of 2007. The notion of a political messiah is incredibly attractive to many, and Obama does seem to move down that vein.
In today's paper, the NY Times has an article about Sen. Obama's Christian faith and his relationship with his pastor. I am trying to maintain a distance from this political election and its manic fever, and I do not want to give in to the temptation to judge a person based on fleeting media reports. Nonetheless, I am struck by Obama's own (or at least, the appearance created by the writer of the article) understanding of his faith, as well as his pastor's understanding of what it means to be Christian.
If anything, this article reassures me in my conviction that Sen. Obama is simply more of the same, and really does not bring a new kind of debate or discussion to politics (certainly not the one that is needed; see Macintyre, et al.). And his seemingly fresh and unconventional relationship to his faith seems to be more of the same Secular City bru-ha-ha.
In other words, 19th century Liberal Protestantism is by no means dead. Christianity, under that guise, is about effecting social change in the world, inspired by the loving witness of the great non-violent and forgiving prophet, Jesus Christ. Things like, his Divinity, the covenantal fulfillment of Israel, spiritual metanoia, the predestination of all creation in Christ, the Resurrection of the body, the giving of the Holy Spirit and the importance of His gifts, all are marginal, unimportant, and even non-existent.
Here is something to my point:
Mr. Obama has written that when he became a Christian, he “felt God’s spirit beckoning” and “submitted myself to His will and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.” While he has said he shares core Christian beliefs in God and in Jesus as his resurrected son, he sometimes mentions doubts. In his second book, he admitted uncertainty about the afterlife, and “what existed before the Big Bang.” Generally, Mr. Obama emphasizes the communal aspects of religion over the supernatural ones.Entirely different than saying, there are social consequences to accepting the articles of Faith as first principles.
“The problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect 10 point plan,” Mr. Obama says in one of his standard campaign lines. “They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness — in the imperfections of man.”
He often makes reference to the civil rights movement, when liberals used Christian rhetoric to win change.
Using Christian "rhetoric" for social goals is the classic modus operandi of the liberal Secular City movement. Forget all that messy mythological stuff; let's just focus on the social aspects of Christianity that everyone can agree on, right?
Wrong. What is presented is simply a castrated, impotent form of Christianity. If recent Biblical Criticism can teach us anything, it's that Christianity absolutely did not begin as a kind of political beneficence, or as a message for social change. Rather, it began, in very sectarian manner, as the eschatological fulfillment of the Jewish religion centered on the notion and reality of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God.
Mr. Obama reassures liberal audiences about the role of religion in public life, and he tells conservative Christians that he understands why abortion horrifies them and why they may prefer to curb H.I.V. through abstinence instead of condoms. AIDS has spread in part because “the relationship between men and women, between sexuality and spirituality, has broken down, and needs to be repaired,” he said to thunderous applause in December at the megachurch in California led by the Rev. Rick Warren, a best-selling author.He may say so but I don't think he understands, as shown by a recent statement on the Gonzales decision:
I strongly disagree with today's Supreme Court ruling, which dramatically departs from previous precedents safeguarding the health of pregnant women. As Justice Ginsburg emphasized in her dissenting opinion, this ruling signals an alarming willingness on the part of the conservative majority to disregard its prior rulings respecting a woman's medical concerns and the very personal decisions between a doctor and patient. I am extremely concerned that this ruling will embolden state legislatures to enact further measures to restrict a woman's right to choose, and that the conservative Supreme Court justices will look for other opportunities to erode Roe v. Wade, which is established federal law and a matter of equal rights for women.As we get closer to next year's presidential election, the temptation to concede to political messianism will increase. Many Catholics, including orthodox ones, will present a rhetorical argument that so much depends upon the election of a moral candidate. What is missed of course, from looking at merely surface positions (which in fact are debatable as really being held by the politician in question, with any conviction, or merely enthused about in an election year), is how the political reality as such in contemporary America is hostile to any real substantive discussion or inquiry into the nature of the common good and how we should go about seeking it. Christianity will be used as fodder for the maintenance of the same regime, and the questions that really need asking will go unasked, the solutions that are really needed not even guessed at or imagined.
Beyond this though, the continued use by many, of Christianity as an impetus for social reform, remains deeply disturbing, especially because so many Christians listen sympathetically. Stanley Hauerwas in Resident Aliens makes the provocative claim that the worse thing that happened to the church is the acceptance of the Niebuhrian thesis that the church must transform the culture. It does not follow that such a position leaves Hauerwas with Niebuhr's "Christ against culture" alternative. Rather, the purpose and job of the church is simply that first: to be the church. Being the church is no simply denominational thing; being the church entails a whole range of actions, relations, practices, virtues, concerns, speech, etc. Any social effect the Gospels have will be a consequence of first being faithful to Christ and what it means to live the Gospel in the church (in ways like mercy, forgiveness, accountability, etc.).
If this sounds a bit naive or pedestrian, such a thesis I believe has much in common with David Schindler's thesis that it is only as the Church that the Church can offer salvation. If it tries to find a middle ground with liberalism, adopting its notions of freedom, the market, community, nature/grace, it will inevitably fail, because it has adopted principles (the principles of modernity) that are fundamentally at odds with the view of reality Christianity supposes.
Liberation theology (or how one conceives it) proves the great example here. Liberal Christianity can only result in a full-blown liberation theology, the kind which eliminates the supernatural and eschatological in favor of a this-worldly social liberation, and makes the central content of the Gospel this message of social liberation. As John Milbank has shown, this is a logical consequence of adopting the principles of the Rahnerian school (which in effect, naturalizes the supernatural), rather than the de Lubacian, which would see the flowering of the natural only in its supernatural revelation and destiny. An authentic theology of liberation is still very much needed, that will probably still be seen as threatening and radical by many, but in fact will proceed from very different principles thereby leading to different conclusions. (Jim Wallis vs. Dorothy Day, if you like.)
There CANNOT be a sufficient secular politic or philosophy. If the most we can offer is "social justice" and "equality", or if that is what Christianity, when all is said and done, moves us to work for, we have indeed lost everything for a mess of pottage.
The only true liberation that will work, that can offer what the world really needs, is the Kingdom of God, the Eucharist, the life in the Holy Spirit. Because we have implicitly adopted the modern exclusion of the sacred from the public realm of discourse, we have conceded to the failure of all worldly attempts at salvation.