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Secular Wisdom ≠ the Prosperity Gospel

April 30th, 2012 No comments

Is this the kind of thinking that gets you a berth at the New York Times? Ross Douthat apparently can’t distinguish between “Prosperity Theology” and the use of secular tools in promoting religious faith:

I should say that I’m an admirer of Rick Warren and I do quote him in the book specifically condemning prosperity theology. But, I think what you see a lot of in American religion, even in areas of American Christianity that don’t go all the way with Osteen to the idea that God wants you to have this big house and so on, the nature of American religion right now, the fact that it is so non-denominational and post-denominational, the most successful churches have to be run more like businesses than ever before. I think that just exposes Christians to a constant temptation to think about the ministry more as a business than they sometimes should.

Of course he’s right to reject prosperity theology. But that doesn’t mean he can’t use secular wisdom to promote his faith. This is an old debate. Tertullian said that Christians had no use for secular ideas (“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”). Augustine, by contrast, argued that Christians should use the (secular) discipline of Rhetoric to persuade their opponents (On Christian Doctrine).

On the one hand, we have the purists, who insist that God will provide us everything we need. On the other hand, those who agree, and say that God, not uncommonly, provides what we need by secular means.

Calvin, who believed the age of extraordinary miracles had ceased, thought that God gave us brains so we wouldn’t need miracles. Instead we had science:

It is also from the true science of astrology that doctors draw their judgments concerning the appropriate time to order blood-lettings, infusions, pills, or other medical necessities. Therefore we must admit that there is some correspondence between the stars and the planets and the dispositions of human bodies. All of this, as I have said, is included in the science of natural astrology.—from his “Warning Against Judicial Astronomy.”

We can smile at the idea of using the moon to time a blood-letting, but the point is legitimate. If you use your brains to develop medicine or provide food for the hungry, can’t you use them to spread your faith? Or does God’s providence only work on the horizontal dimension?

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Church and State

April 30th, 2012 No comments

When I hear Christians talking about something “we” ought to do, it often disturbs me how easily they confuse what “we” should do as individual Christians, as the church, and as citizens of a secular state.

Christians from the ideological right often ask the state to base its policies on a Christian understanding of marriage, or sexuality, or the point at which life begins. Christians from the left ask the state to base its policies on a Christian understanding of generosity and responsibility to help one’s neighbors.

Take this article about Republican Paul Ryan, who was chastised by (his) Catholic Bishops. (The article summarizes and critiques an original article in the Washington Post.)

I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t help their less fortunate neighbors. Anyone who’s read Matthew 25 should tremble at the responsibility Christ lays on we who are his disciples. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that Christians have the responsibility to help their neighbors by implementing a welfare state, any more than they have a responsibility to help their neighbors by providing for prayer in public schools.

We should do good for several reasons: because Jesus told us he credits good done to others as if it were done to him, or the golden rule (Leviticus 19/Luke 10). We do good as a way of “putting on Christ” — of stretching ourselves, or more accurately, allowing ourselves to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. And we do good to exhibit the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. It’s not at all clear to me that there is a role for the state in any of that.

To be sure, people can take off their Christian hats. Then they can argue in their capacity as citizens that the state should do something or other for reasons of state. We should help the poor to reduce crime, or to build a solid middle class, or whatever. But it’s not obvious to me that Christians are expected to do any of those things. (We may do them, of course, but there is no obligation to reduce crime.)

(If it did, that would lead to another discussion, which is whether or not a government program is the best, or even an effective, means to do something. After all, Jesus was unmoved by the argument that nobody realized it was him they were seeing hungry, naked, in prison, etc. How much less will he be impressed with an argument that we voted for a program, but didn’t bother to ensure it was doing what it was supposed to?)

So there may be a “marriage of convenience” where the work we do as Christians, and the policies we favor as citizens, reinforce and support one another. But we should be very cautious about tying the knot. The history of Church-State interaction is fraught with peril.