Duke University, which prides itself on being an elite and cosmopolitan institution of higher learning, has suddenly reminded the world—and probably many of its own astonished students—that it has a religious affiliation with the United Methodist Church.
Duke’s president, Vincent E. Price, joined the presidents of 92 other schools also claiming Methodist ties in voting unanimously on January 4 to endorse a statement that calls on the church to jettison a 1984 provision in its Book of Discipline (its rules for church governance) that bars “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from its ministry and forbids its clergy to perform same-sex weddings. It was a statement timed to precede—and influence—a special session of the UMC’s General Conference devoted exclusively to the church’s teachings on sex, scheduled for February 23–26 in St. Louis. The statement, from the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church, urges the UMC to honor “the past and current practices of inclusion by amending their policies and practices to affirm full inclusion in the life and ministry of the United Methodist Church of all persons regardless of their race, ethnicity, creed, national origin, gender, gender identity/expression or sexual orientation.”
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If the gospel is not preached with conviction—the convictions that humanity is in need of salvation and that Jesus is the Savior who liberates us into the fullness of our humanity and gives us eternal life—then the gospel will not be believed.
If ministers of the gospel indulge in gratuitous virtue-signaling by promoting the worst of black legends, as if the sum total of Christianity’s impact on world history were embodied by “the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition,” why would anyone come to their churches or listen to whatever’s being offered there by way of I’m-OK-You’re-OK therapeutic balm?
The alt-right is anti-Christian. Not by implication or insinuation, but by confession. Its leading thinkers flaunt their rejection of Christianity and their desire to convert believers away from it. Greg Johnson, an influential theorist with a doctorate in philosophy from Catholic University of America, argues that “Christianity is one of the main causes of white decline” and a “necessary condition of white racial suicide.” Johnson edits a website that publishes footnoted essays on topics that range from H. P. Lovecraft to Martin Heidegger, where a common feature is its subject’s criticisms of Christian doctrine. “Like acid, Christianity burns through ties of kinship and blood,” writesGregory Hood, one of the website’s most talented essayists. It is “the essential religious step in paving the way for decadent modernity and its toxic creeds.”
The temptation to dismiss the alt-right should be resisted. Like Christians in late antiquity, we ought to see ourselves through the eyes of our pagan critics and their growing ranks of online popularizers. They distort many truths, through both malice and ignorance, and lead young men into espousing views and defending authors they scarcely understand. Yet we can learn from their distortions, and in doing so show how Christian theology, whose failings have contributed to the movement’s rise, might also be its remedy.
The alt-right’s understanding of human identity is reductive, and its rejection of Christian solidarity premature. “Christianity provides an identity that is above or before racial and ethnic identity,” Richard Spencer complains. “It’s not like other religions that come out of a folk spirit.” Spencer is right that the baptismal covenant transcends our local loyalties and identities. It does not, however, eradicate them.
A good bit of Lewis’s success can, I think, be attributed to the fact that he actually writes relatively little “theology” in this technical sense. Clearly, he’s read a good bit of it and been instructed by it—he does not in any sense belittle it—but he tends to seek language that captures and communicates the quality, the feel, of living and thinking as a Christian. As Austin Farrer put it: “[Lewis’] real power was not proof; it was depiction. There lived in his writings a Christian universe that could be both thought and felt, in which he was at home and in which he made his reader feel at home.” That is the universe I want to explore. It illumines the everyday, so that we may find in it shafts of the divine glory that point to God, so that we may sense the eternal significance of ordinary life.
Christianity thus has an intrinsically dogmatic character, which is to say it remains confident in the truths on which it is founded. The Christian way is not based on pious feelings and good intentions. Inspired by the Spirit, faith is the enduring disposition of assent to and reliance upon God’s revealed Word. A Christian assents to truths made evident by God’s self-disclosure in Scripture, truths about God as Trinity, creation, redemption, and the consummation of all things at the end of history. These truths are reliably transmitted by human beings who, inspired by God, have also been shaped and influenced by their historical circumstances. They have been communicated, reformulated, and deepened in ways that invite ongoing discussion and debate about their full meaning and import. (See the ECT statement “Your Word Is Truth.”) This does not undermine the dogmatic character of faith. The Christian way uses reason to understand more fully divinely revealed truths, not in order to decide whether or not to believe them.
Even now, the Christian way bears witness to the fullness of life promised in Christ. Caring for the sick and the poor, friendship for the prisoner and the outcast, comforting the sorrowful and educating those who need instruction: These are works of mercy that embody the love of God in Christ. This active witness is crowned by ongoing prayer for the needs of fellow Christians, as well as for the world. The Christian overleaps the boundaries and limits imposed by a broken world. As Jesus teaches, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44–45).
A great many preachers, Protestant as well as Catholic, overlook the distinction between law and Gospel, thinking they can change people’s lives by giving them practical advice—as if telling them how to be inwardly transformed could help them do it. Augustine already knew better. Luther’s addition to Augustine’s insight is merely the glad recognition that there is indeed something preachers can do to help us be transformed: Instead of advice, they can give us Christ.
He sees that Christianity is not a matter of blood, or of race, or of victory in this world. It requires accepting defeat in this life before promising triumph in the next. A Catholic cannot be certain that his line will continue or his country thrive. He only knows that the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church. This is why Waugh could happily entertain the idea that black men would bear forth a faith and culture abandoned by whites. Perhaps it will not happen, but no Christian would mind if it did.
Holmes had definite moral views, but his sensibilities about war required magnanimity toward enemies, which included admiration for their bravery, the purity of their motives, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for a cause. There was, moreover, a brotherhood of sorts among veterans, for they shared a common experience of walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
The great age of Civil War commemoration came as men like Holmes aged. In that time, Romanticism made lost causes into things of beauty. Isaiah Berlin has this to say about the Romantics: “You would have found that they believed that minorities were more holy than majorities, that failure was nobler than success, which had something shoddy and something vulgar about it.” We look upon the Southern cause with moral horror, for its purpose was to preserve slavery. A Romantic can be anti-slavery, but to him the “lost cause” is sublime, tragic, and heartbreaking, which is why the Alamo was not memorialized as a shameful defeat. We fail in our responsibility to history when we do not permit ourselves to see Civil War memorials from a Romantic point of view, and when we fail to recognize the phrase “lost cause” as a shorthand for a morally complex, tragic understanding of the South’s defeat.