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God’s Providence

After reading Douglas Farrow’s “The Secret of the Saeculum” (May), I found myself unsure of how to understand it. Take, for instance, the following striking passage:

Our age is a very definite age, a very well-defined age, precisely because it is bracketed by the first and second comings of the Christ. It derives its limits, its lineaments, its character from those brackets. It cannot be understood apart from them.

That seems clear enough. And yet in much of the lecture, when Farrow mentions “our age” or “the present age,” he seems to be talking about a time that is at once much more limited and much less “well-defined,” sometimes corresponding to what is called “modernity,” or (more often) to what we might call our “present time,” the time of “Rapid Onset ­Gender Dysphoria,” for instance.

There is much talk about God’s providence, including an emphasis on “the mystery of lawlessness” ­unleashed: “Before our age is out, it will reach its limit, its absolute limit.” For me, there is a strong implication that, while we cannot know the day or the hour, the time of reckoning is nigh: “The heavenly court will sit, whether we like it or not. Surely it is already stirring in its chambers.”

This is how the argument proceeds in my judgment. Perhaps the tone of the lecture as I “hear” it, with its air of hints to those who know, those who are not afraid to see things as they really are, is something I’m wrongly attributing to the speaker. But what if the second bracket, the second coming of Jesus, is still in the far-distant future, as difficult for us to imagine as it would have been for Christians a thousand years ago to imagine our world today? Or, in Farrow’s judgment, is this inconceivable? If so, why?

There are parts of the lecture that are very clear to me: “What we call secularity is, by all appearances, systemic ingratitude, a refusal to give ‘full thanks to God’ for the benefits we receive.” And this: “Gratitude, eucharistia, is the issue of the age.” I love this, and I would like to see others taking up the theme in various ways. Many of our fellow Christians (to say nothing of secular people, including many who are dear to me) would balk at this. “Systemic ingratitude”! But one way to be faithful to this insight would be to live in such a fashion that our abundant gratitude, far from seeming a mere formula to be trundled out at appropriate times, so animates our very existence as to allow others, amazingly, to see Christ in us, if their hearts are open.

I am thankful, among other things, for the provocations of this lecture, even as I disagree with some of its thrust.

John Wilson
wheaton, illinois

Douglas Farrow’s lecture is a delightful exposition of the gospel. It echoes St. Paul’s condemnation of his age in the Letter to the Romans: “For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened” (1:21). As Farrow puts it: “What we call secularity is, by all appearances, systemic ingratitude, a refusal to give ‘full thanks to God’ for the benefits we receive.”

But Farrow dismisses Charles ­Taylor’s account of secularity too easily. To Taylor’s observation that in our day “belief in God is no longer ­axiomatic,” Farrow retorts that, on this analysis, “collectively, we are now those whom God, if he exists, has not addressed.” He appears to take the fact that God has addressed us as a sufficient refutation of the notion of a “secular age.” Even the serpent “knows better than to ask, ‘Does God exist?’” Farrow treats our age as definable in terms of the Lord’s ascension and second coming, with no further specifying property of its own. Opposition to the gospel has its root simply in the will of man, homo ingratus.

Surely Farrow would concede that our age, while situated between our Lord’s ascension and return, also has unique properties with roots not only in the will but also in the mind. “Secularity” as Taylor presents it is internally incoherent and refutable, but it is a real condition of mind nonetheless, resulting not only from loss of ancient truths but also from failure to incorporate new truths into the fabric of knowledge. To hear God addressing us, we must recover a great many “first things.” For our age, that God exists is indeed part of the good news.

Jeremy Holmes
lander, wyoming

Douglas Farrow replies:

Thanks to both respondents for thoughtful remarks and for pressing my main point.

John Wilson’s query about “our age” is easily addressed. I use that expression to refer to the age and order (saeculum) defined by the two comings of Christ between which we live. I deny that it is merely a succession of eras or of world orders more or less influenced by Christ. It is more than that because it has throughout a common governance on high that determines its character as an age of announcing who it is who actually sits on high, and of responding to that announcement. That it ­comprises nonetheless a succession of eras is not in dispute, though the beginnings and endings of those eras, and their chief characteristics as viewed from below, often are.

The “what if” query—what if the closing bracket will appear only after a great many more eras have come and gone?—is more difficult. In one sense, it makes no difference. “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). In another sense, it matters a great deal that we understand in broad outline the progress of these eras as the age unfolds. Jesus provides us with that outline in response to an earlier question from the disciples (Luke 21). Paul develops it in response to the anxieties of the church in Thessaloniki. Here, my new commentary on Thessalonians may prove helpful. 

Jeremy Holmes may be overestimating my dissatisfaction with Charles Taylor’s sophisticated account of secularity, which I am certainly not trying to dismiss, though I work with a somewhat different genealogy and taxonomy. I am only pointing out that Taylor’s analysis, which allows that insisting on the view from below is characteristic of our era, itself remains a view from below, even where it attempts to reopen the possibility of a view from above. Further, the question that appears from below (Does God exist?) is not the question proper to the saeculum, nor even a question that can honestly be put, as Paul shows in Romans 1, if put skeptically. 

As for the rest: All sin is rooted in the proud and ungrateful will; all sin engages the mind and eventually the body. The Spirit, by means of the gospel, is capable of restoring and perfecting all three, and the cosmos itself (Rom. 8). But it is not now, nor was it ever, “news” that God exists. That we exist for God in Jesus Christ—that is news, the best of news! The reason for the saeculum is that this news should be proclaimed and gratefully received. Or refused, as the case may be. On the interplay between reception and refusal as it shapes the course of the saeculum, I refer Holmes to chapter 6 of Ascension Theology and chapter 7 of Theological Negotiations. And back, of course, to The City of God, where we may all rejoice in that wonderful description of divine providence that appears at 22.24, which makes ample room for the ingenuity of modern man.

School Prayer

Steven D. Smith can try to return prayer to public schools (“Why School Prayer Matters,” May), but the horse is out of the barn. Many public schools have voluntary prayer—See You at the Pole events, Bible clubs—but public schooling is inherently inhospitable to official prayer, and has become more so as the country has evolved.

As Charles L. Glenn has catalogued in The Myth of the Common School and elsewhere, public schooling was beset by religious controversy from the start of Horace Mann’s ­nineteenth-century crusade to establish it. Members of different Protestant denominations disagreed about what was essential to religion and, hence, what could be jettisoned to achieve common schooling. Finding common ground became harder with influxes of Roman Catholics, Jews, and other religious, as well as growing secularism. As diversity grew, prayer could not be sustained.

Given religious pluralism, we should not want official prayer; government would inevitably marginalize people who should be treated equally. More directly to Smith’s goal to legalize prayer and revive Americans’ understanding that they are a people “under God,” even if legal, official prayer would be rare. As we’ve seen with other hot-button issues, such as teaching evolution, most schools would dodge it to avoid instigating conflict.

Rather than trying to return official prayer to public schools, religious Americans should focus on school choice. Attach funding to children and let families select schools that share their beliefs. Promote both religious education and equality under the law.

Neal McCluskey
washington, d.c.

Steven D. Smith’s “Why School Prayer Matters” provides a succinct account of how, in the decades since World War II, a series of Supreme Court rulings have sought to privatize religious belief. While I agree with Smith’s criticism of the legal chaos that has ensued, I disagree with his apparent hope that the practice of teacher-led prayer in public schools can be restored.

Recital of a “To Whom It May Concern” formula of prayer rooted in no shared belief makes a mockery of deeply rooted faith and can only persuade children that religion is irrelevant. In England, the requirement since 1944 of a “daily act of collective worship . . . of a broadly Christian character” in government-funded schools no doubt contributes to the low rate of religious participation by adults who endured such charades as children.

Prayer still has a place in the life of schools, but only under conditions of educational pluralism, in which parents are free to choose schools for their children, including schools based upon shared convictions. In such schools—Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Islamic, and others—prayer has an important place. ­Unfortunately, because of the confused Establishment Clause ­jurisprudence that Smith chronicles, such choices have carried significant financial penalties for parents and the religious communities supporting these schools.

State-level politicians, motivated by anti-Catholic fears, campaigned to withhold public support from faith-based schools, making it difficult for parents to exercise their right of conscience. Since the fifties, efforts to correct this injustice have been blocked by the legal reasoning that Smith describes, beginning with cases about prayer in public schools. Government’s religious neutrality has evolved into the doctrine that the public sphere must be secular rather than pluralistic as befits a free society.

Secularism is not religiously neutral; it is a worldview that directly contradicts other worldviews. Under our Constitution, government should neither promote nor oppose any system of beliefs, including secularism. Smith shows how contradictory the Supreme Court’s decisions have been in this regard, and how divisive the results have been for American society.

Meanwhile, public schools in the U.S. have been emptied of positive moral content. They no longer offer any guidance on how to live a decent life, apart from the negative virtue of being tolerant. Introducing a formulaic prayer to an unspecified deity would do nothing to correct this educational bankruptcy.

Smith asks, “Why should views of morality or virtue be illegitimate bases for public policy just because, like so much else in our culture, they were informed by the Bible or some other religious teaching?” The answer, of course, is that we now have an “established religion” of secularity that refuses to share the public sphere with any rival understanding of reality. Smith’s essay is a valuable contribution to unveiling the conceptual confusion behind jurisprudence in the consequential spheres where we seek to live out our most deeply held beliefs.

Charles L. Glenn
boston university

Steven D. Smith replies:

I’m honored that my essay on school prayer has generated responses from two such knowledgeable and thoughtful critics. Here are four quick points in response.

First, even before the Supreme Court stepped in, practice regarding school prayer varied widely from state to state and region to region. The same would be true, I expect, if the Court’s decisions were overruled. Maybe most schools would “dodge” the matter, as Neal McCluskey predicts, but other schools and regions would likely react differently. (I take it as a given that no student should or would be compelled to participate in any prayer.)

Second, both commenters make or at least gesture toward the familiar objection that any prayer devised for a public school would be so vacuous as to be an insult to genuine devotion. That objection may be valid for some prayers—but not, I think, for all. The prayer invalidated in Engel v. Vitale (“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country”) was succinct, to be sure, but it was not insipid or impious. And the prayers prepared for a middle-school ­graduation by Rabbi Leslie ­Gutterman and declared invalid in Lee v. Weisman were likewise brief but also thoughtful, ­devout, and appropriate.

Third, much of the controversy here, and its significance, lies in ­symbolism—the symbolism of the prayers themselves, but also of what the Constitution is said to mean for the issue. Communities are “imagined,” as Benedict Anderson has ­explained, and symbols are vital in shaping that imagining. On this level, there is an important difference between a public school class or ­graduation that begins with prayer (even if the prayer instills little genuine piety in most ­students), one that chooses not to begin with prayer, and one that does not begin with prayer because the nation’s founding document is thought to prohibit the practice.

Finally, both commenters suggest that the solution lies in private education and school choice. Although I support that alternative, I also think that public schools are not going to disappear anytime soon, and probably should not. Public schools will continue to serve their practical, symbolic, and constitutive functions. Consequently, the issue of prayer in public schools will continue to matter.

Religious Liberty

The exchange between Douglas ­Laycock and Matthew Schmitz (“The Right to Be Wrong” and “An Informal Establishment,” May) invites a couple of clarifications regarding contemporary Catholic teaching on religious freedom.

Schmitz notes that Vatican Council II’s declaration on religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) allows for state religious establishment (“special civil recognition . . . granted to one religious community”) under certain conditions. However, the final revision added to that generic affirmation the specification that, in principle, the state not only may but must accord such “special recognition” to Roman Catholicism. Article 1 states that the religious freedom being affirmed “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” It was officially explained to the ­Fathers that the additional (italicized) words were being inserted to make it clear that the declaration would complement, and not contradict, the nineteenth-­century papal encyclicals that insisted, as the relator put it, on “the duties of the public authority toward the true religion (officia potestatis publicae erga veram religionem).”

Commenting on Schmitz’s view—supported by quotes from then-­Bishop Karol Wojtyła and Avery Cardinal Dulles—that “religious freedom does not enshrine ‘a right to be wrong,’” Laycock objects that such restriction “is not religious freedom at all.” He would be correct if denying “a right to be wrong” meant denying our right to immunity from state coercion in following a false religion or an erroneous conscience. But that is surely not what Dulles and the future Pope John Paul II had in mind. The Vatican II relator also posited a crucial distinction between affirming (a) a right to propagate a false religion and (b) a right not to be prevented by government from propagating a false religion. The ­relator emphasized to the Fathers that the text presented for their approval affirmed only the latter (albeit within certain limits) and never the former, which he described as manifestly false (Acta Synodalia). For Catholics, a right to propagate a false religion would imply the heretical and absurd idea that there can exist per se (that is, prescinding from the role of government) an objective moral right to do something objectively immoral.

Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
st. louis, missouri

Douglas Laycock replies:

Fr. Harrison says that there is only a legal right, and no moral right, to believe a false religion. Eighty-five percent of the world’s people are not Catholic; I do not believe that makes them all immoral. But what is immoral in the understanding of any religious tradition is a matter for that tradition; my views from outside the tradition hardly matter.

I replied to the original Matthew Schmitz essay (“Limits of Religious Freedom,” March) because he had discussed law, not morality. I understood him to say that there should be no legally enforceable right to religious freedom for religions that are not true and good. His rejoinder (“An Informal Establishment”) did not say that I had misunderstood him. He did not explicitly abandon that proposal, but neither did he return to it.

I said that government should override religious liberty only to prevent substantial harm. Schmitz and I agree that this standard is vague and underenforced. But often it is enforced. Variations on this standard have led to fourteen Supreme Court wins for the free exercise of religion or religious free speech in the past thirty years, six of them unanimous (so it is not just conservative Justices), against one loss and one nondecision, plus two losses in cases refusing to apply the standard at all. Eleven of these wins were on behalf of conservative Christian practices or viewpoints, and barely half of these Christian litigants could persuade a majority of Americans that their challenged practice or teaching is true and good.

Both Fr. Harrison’s letter and Schmitz’s rejoinder suggest that the country needs a tolerant religious establishment. This would not be nearly so bad as limiting free exercise to the true and good, but even a ­tolerant establishment burdens religious ­minorities.

Chief among these burdens is that it presses fellow citizens to pretend to participate in short Christian prayer services at the beginning of government meetings. Christians cannot credibly dismiss objections to this feigned participation—not while they revere martyrs who accepted death rather than pretend to worship Roman gods. The penalties for not participating are radically different, and today’s dissenters are far more easily intimidated. But the objections are the same in both eras: People do not want to go through the motions, pretending to engage in someone else’s idea of worship.

I will continue to defend the greatest possible religious liberty for believers in all faiths and in none.

Muslims in the West

I applaud Matthew Kaemingk for addressing the Christian response to Muslims in the West, and Diederik Boomsma for giving Kaemingk’s analysis a clear-eyed appraisal (“Just Hospitality,” May). But while ­Kaemingk’s unqualified pluralism is not the answer, Boomsma’s critique presents an Islamic strawman and misses an opportunity for cooperation.

Boomsma argues that Islam “lacks a tradition of tolerance, and . . . needs to develop a theology of pluralism powerful enough to counter fundamentalist claims.” In fact, those claims have been repeatedly denounced. In 2014, scores of prominent Islamic clerics, scholars, and activists issued an open letter condemning Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They noted: “It is forbidden in Islam to oversimplify Shari’ah matters. . . . It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings. It is forbidden in Islam to kill the ­innocent. . . . It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.” And so forth.

Boomsma points in a more helpful direction by drawing attention to the Salafi interpretation of Islam, which rejects scholarly theological and legal frameworks, Islam’s long poetic tradition, forms of popular piety, and all else outside a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith. While many Salafis are politically moderate, some have advocated or adopted violence. Islam is most dangerous when it is unmoored from tradition, authority, and the wider community. Muslims in the West should be encouraged to connect with their faith, not relegate it to a marginal sphere.

As a traditionalist Christian in a post-Christian society, I worry about secularist invective against revealed religion. Boomsma’s contention that “there are serious political and theological problems with Islam” sounds eerily like secularist claims about Christianity. Even without ascribing moral equivalence to the two religions, it is clear that Christians need a firmer basis from which to criticize, lest the tables of intolerant liberalism be turned on them.

Boomsma argues that “Christians, precisely because they do speak the language of faith, should engage in a respectful, theological critique of bad Islamic ideas and practices.” True, but I continue to hope for more, namely, that we undertake a profound dialogue between traditional Christianity and traditional Islam, to deepen mutual understanding and enable cooperation against our common adversaries in secularism, materialism, and radical individualism.

Boomsma rightly notes that “every polity requires . . . a shared loyalty based on a common love.” Christians and their secular neighbors seem to have fewer common loves with each passing year. But traditional Christians and traditional Muslims have a common love for God, his justice, and the holiness to which he calls us. Perhaps it offers a way forward.

Aaron Linderman
charlottesville, virginia

Diederik Boomsma replies:

Aaron Linderman is right that moderate streams of Islam exist, and that Christians should cooperate with Muslims who hold such beliefs. My review could never have been a comprehensive overview of the varieties of Islam. I only hoped to urge Christians to determine the boundaries within which cooperation with Muslims could prove fruitful. The seemingly limitless pluralism espoused by Kaemingk, including the way he misrepresents the situation in Amsterdam, risks sacrificing truth on the altar of peace, which would result in neither. Such pluralist Christians might become as gentle as doves while remaining little wiser.

Linderman may be right that “Islam is most dangerous when it is ­unmoored from tradition, authority, and the wider community.” But on many important issues, the boundaries between fundamentalist and what he calls “traditional” Islam are rather blurred. It is certainly helpful when orthodox Sunni scholars refute the views of jihadi extremists, as in the open letter to al-Baghdadi. But such statements remain a far cry from a theology of tolerance and leave ­serious questions unaddressed.

“It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.” But which rights? The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990) at times promotes quite different rights than, say, the Bill of Rights. As the Syrian-German scholar Bassam Tibi argues, Muslims in the West must give up Sharia law and unam­biguously accept the right of apostasy, for instance. Surely, the fact that modern secularists vehemently criticize Christianity is no reason to refrain from pointing out certain serious problems with Islam, whether political, theological, jurisprudential, or social. To refrain from the latter for fear of the former is a losing strategy. In the pursuit of truth and peace (and pursuing them in that order), one must respond with “caritas in veritate” both to Muslims and to intolerant liberals and secularists.

Catholic Methodism

On matters related to slavery and race, the ordination of women, and sexuality, Kevin Watson demonstrates that American Methodism’s default position is to follow the larger culture (“Methodism Dividing,” May). Methodist elites believed, and still believe, that this would keep their church popular and relevant.

Unfortunately, this proclivity reveals that United Methodists of today (and yesterday) are not serious about being part of the Church catholic. As Bishop Timothy Whitaker has argued, we Methodists are ­insufficiently dedicated to the Church’s “catholic substance.” St. Vincent of Lérins taught that the Church’s ­catholicity means that it holds “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”

Unfortunately, the Methodist tendency to diminish catholicity is present in both the United Methodist Church (UMC) and in the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). (If there is a division of the United Methodist Church, at least two denominations will likely result: a post-­separation UMC and a new WCA-related denomination.)

Last fall, the UMC’s Committee on Faith and Order, which contains some of the denomination’s best and brightest theologians, released “Sent in Love: A United Methodist Understanding of the Church.” According to this document, catholicity does not concern substance. Rather, it has to do with the Church being “spread across the whole face of the globe, and . . . the whole church [being] present in every place where faithful persons are gathered.” And it has to do with “God’s saving love [being] universal.”

Furthermore, last winter the WCA released “Reimagining the Passion of a Global Wesleyan Movement.” Note that the document’s title does not contain the word “church.” In fact, the word “church” does not appear until the fourth paragraph of the document. A denomination that is presumably forming, which sees itself “more movement than institution,” is most probably going to run a catholicity deficit.

Only when a church has substance—for example, in liturgy and doctrine—can it stand up to the ­temptations of cultural ­accommodation. God has given, gives, and will give catholicity to the Church so that it might be faithful through time. It is time for United Methodists to learn that lesson and be renewed by that hope.

Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth
whiteville, north carolina

Photo by Tiberiu Ana via Creative Commons

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