Monday, September 9, 2019
Monday, September 9, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated
It's Monday, September 9, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A Church Without Theology? A Parable of What Happens When Politics Replaces Christianity
There is not much religion news in most of the mainstream media these days. That's for a couple of reasons, but they are all tied to the general pattern of the secularization of the culture. And, of course, the greatest degree of that secularization, the leading edge as well, is found where you have the very people who are in charge of the mainstream media.
Just to take one example, the journalistic class. Every sociological study indicates that when not looking at individuals but at the class, you're looking at the leading edge of secularization and often a political and ideological liberalism as well. And often when there is religion coverage, it's not very good coverage, but these days, it's almost always interesting. That was especially the case in an article that appeared in yesterday's edition of the New York Times. Just pause for a moment. The New York Times: that is the leading newspaper, probably the most influential in the world in one of the most secular cities in the world, and one of the cities that in the United States most represents this secular trajectory.
What would be the story? Well, the headline would be, "A Congregation That Is United By Cause If Not Faith." Well, let's just think about that for a moment. Now in the headline, we're being told of a congregation that is united in political cause rather than in any kind of theological conviction. The story looks interesting. I guarantee you it is interesting. The article is by Rick Rojas, "Observant Presbyterians are always part of the gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church, but much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is in fact an atheist."
I told you this was going to be interesting. What could be more interesting than the throwaway line here that the message of the morning in church was about the dangers of genetically modified vegetables. Well, as you might imagine, the story continues. I quote, "It's something I never thought would happen," she said of the bond she has forged with the church’s community. This is again the woman cited in the article, Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, the atheist who is going to church, which is one of the points made in the article. She says she didn't expect this to happen, "She was drawn to the church, she said, by something in the spirit of Rutgers and something in the spirit of the outside world."
The article by Rojas is basically telling us that this church is part of something like an influential religious left in the United States. It's an interesting example because as presented in this article, it has replaced theological conviction with passion for social justice issues.
Rojas understands what's going on here when he writes, "Typically a congregation's connective tissue is an embrace of a shared faith. Yet, Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God, any God at all isn't necessary. Instead, the community there has been cobbled together by a different code of convictions pulled in by social justice efforts, activism against climate change, meal programs for the homeless, and a task force to help refugee families."
Rojas further elaborates, "Houses of worship including Christian churches from a range of denominations as well as synagogues have positioned themselves as potent forces on progressive issues promoting activism on social justice causes and inviting in the LGBTQ community," but according to the article, "Religious scholars said Rutgers was reaching a new frontier where its social agenda in some ways overshadows its religious one." Now, that's an understatement. You're not talking about a social justice platform overshadowing the religious conviction of the church. There isn't any apparent religious conviction that establishes the core identity of this church.
The article begins by telling us that the sermon is about the dangers of genetically modified vegetables, and then later in the article, we are told that alternatives even to the most central components of historic Christian worship are supplied so that those who believe anything or basically nothing, any kind of religious belief or no religious belief, can even participate in what is called here worship, but there's also really no indication of who is being worshiped.
James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University said, "Rutgers,” meaning Rutgers Presbyterian Church, “has periodically reinvented itself as the Upper West Side has gone through changes like this." He continued, "This isn't the first reinvention. It's one of their more interesting ones."
The article by Rojas then explains that the approach represented at Rutgers Presbyterian church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, "Reflects how spirituality has shifted in fundamental ways." The article goes on to tell us that, “Those who enter the unassuming brick and limestone sanctuary on West 73rd Street find a place for pancake breakfast fundraisers, activism, and developing ties to a neighborhood.” Rojas also notes the fact that mainline protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church USA, of which Rutgers Presbyterian Church is a part, they are experiencing a hemorrhage of membership.
"Mainline protestant denominations like Presbyterianism has seen their followings diminish in recent years." He puts in parenthesis, "Leaders of the Presbyterian church put out a news release in April announcing that fewer followers were leaving declaring that they were encouraged by the slowing trend downward." The pastor of the church described the congregation as having a, "Unapologetically progressive outlook." The church building itself evidently makes the statement as Rojas tells us, "A large Black Lives Matter banner hangs from the front of the church and nearby are colorful Tibetan prayer flags. Inside, there are buttons for worshipers to wear to declare their gender identity: He/him, she/her, they/them. During services, worshipers recite alternatives to the Lord's Prayer. They use more inclusive language."
One woman cited as attending the church said that she does not consider herself an observant Christian, "I believe he was a good guy,” she is speaking of Jesus Christ, “but she found comfort in finding people who hugged her, asked about her health and joked with her. ‘I'm more into the social aspect,’ she said. ‘I care about a lot of the people and they care about me.’" The subhead in the article by the way set out within the text is this, "At Rutgers Presbyterian in Manhattan, a belief in God isn't strictly necessary."
The professor at Vanderbilt mentioned that the Rutgers Presbyterian Church has had an interesting history throughout its years and that this isn't the first transition within the church. Indeed, its history goes all the way back to the year 1798. The church had an existence of its own by the time you get to 1909, and at one point by the year 1830 — that's almost 190 years ago — the church had 1,157 members. The history of the church on the church's own website says that by the time the church had celebrated its 100th anniversary, it was already in significant decline. Remember in 1830, it had over a thousand members. By the time the church reached its anniversary in 1898, it had 386 members, "Many of whom were prominent in civic circles."
The church merged with another Presbyterian congregation in 1942, and the current pastor is the church's 22nd. The church's website isn't exactly what you would call up to date, but it did have a newsletter dated October the 1st, 2018. The newsletter appears to be ample evidence of the kind of liberal direction the church has been taking for some time. Groups identified as officially networked with the congregation include Lambda Legal and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center. The church also officially networks with the National Women's Law Center and International Planned Parenthood.
The church has a YouTube channel that includes a series called Theology Unhinged. No, I didn't call it that. They called it that. The episode that is advertised in this newsletter from 2018 is entitled “Theology Unhinged: Ask a Bisexual.” The church's order of worship for July 8, 2018 is still posted to its website. The theme is rainbow celestial theology. At one point in the official order of worship is the Gloria Patri identified as the Gloria Patri, which after all in Latin means “glory to the Father,” but you won't find “Father” in the words of the song as listed here.
The same thing is true with the doxology that historically ends “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Instead, it is “Praise Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost,” and there is no “Father” in the Lord's Prayer either. Instead, as it is listed for congregational reading in the order of service, it begins, "Gracious God, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." In the confession of sin, according to the theology of the congregation, the prayer includes these words, "We have hurt the sky, O God. We have polluted it. We have clouded it with light pollution. We have burned holes in the ozone layer through our carelessness and greed. Forgive us. Teach us ways to treat the sky more gently that it may be a source of wonder and of life. We pray in Christ's name. Amen."
At the official website of the Presbytery, that's the association of PCUSA churches there in New York City, we are told that those churches together have 17,000 members in 97 churches. You can pretty quickly do the math. There was, believe it or not, a live stream available of a recent worship service at Rutgers Presbyterian church, and I decided that I would view it. At one point, the camera panned the congregation. I counted less than 30 people in the entire facility.
It is possible I can see that there were persons there who did not show up on camera, but the point I want to make is this: Evidently, what the New York Times finds interesting in a story like this is a congregation of just a handful of people who evidently are supposed to represent a resurgence of the theological left in the United States, but the words “resurgent” and “theological” and “left” just actually don't go together. There's much more publicity about a theological left than there is an actual audience for it.
What we also see here is a crystal clear lesson of what happens when this kind of leftist political agenda takes the place of an evacuated theological agenda, but the point I want to make is that this very leftist political vision didn't really displace any orthodox theology. The orthodox Christian theology had to be gone for a long time before this kind of political nonsense could show up. You're not really talking about some kind of church that shifted from preaching about the substitutionary atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ to the dangers of genetically modified vegetables. You're not talking about a small or a quick transition here. You're talking about a congregation that for decades and decades has demonstrated the theological damage, indeed the deadly nature, of a liberal theology that eventually ends up being no theology at all.
Pete Buttigieg’s Theological Tightrope: To Be Religious in a Way that Will Not Offend the Irreligious
But then that takes us to a related pattern that we see in the media right now, and that is the fact that when you're looking at the 2020 presidential race, particularly at the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, there is now repeated attention to what's being identified as a resurgent theological left and the particular investment in that hope by South Bend Mayor, Pete Buttigieg.
Just about a week ago, Religion News Service ran two articles. One headline: “Pete Buttigieg: Religious Left is Stirring.” The other headline: “Buttigieg Walk's Fine Line in Courting Religious Left.” The author of both articles is Jack Jenkins of Religion News Service, and he explains the issue when he says, "When it comes to the brass tacks of how he will use faith outreach as a modern Democrat, however, the strategic path for Buttigieg is less clear. As with other campaigns,” he continues, “Buttigieg mixes spiritual rhetoric with grassroots efforts to target the resurgent religious left." Again, we're being told that the religious left is resurgent. I'll just point out, that remains to be seen.
In his article, Jenkins offers details of how the South Bend Indiana mayor has been speaking of his own religious identity very openly, uncommonly openly for a modern democratic candidate and how he has been seeking to invoke religious themes, even explicitly theological themes of a sort in his presidential campaign.
But Jenkins also recognizes that there isn't a lot of theology there because there can't be. Someone running for the Democratic presidential nomination is indeed walking a very fine line as that RNS headline indicated, because invoking virtually any kind of serious theological identity is to risk alienating the increasingly secular direction of the Democratic party.
The second of the pieces at Religion News Service about Pete Buttigieg was actually a form of an interview with the mayor. The interview indicates just how little theology he can afford to bring into the race. In explaining his approach, he actually said this, "You should be able to offer messages that anyone of all religions or of no religion should find meaningful."
Now, let's just stop for a minute. How can you create a message that is going to appeal equally to persons of all religions or of no religion? Well, you have to basically say nothing that is religiously religious.
The ambiguities and the tight rope are made clear in a statement made by Buttigieg later in the article, "It's not that we're going to have a different message. Our message is the same for everybody, but we might find different relationships and connections to help ensure that message reaches people who might not have felt welcomed nor spoken to by my party for some time, even though our positions might very well harmonize with their values." In other words, straightforwardly, just enough religion to sound vaguely religious to people who are vaguely religious and who are looking for a vaguely religious reference coming from a Democratic presidential candidate.
This leads to another very interesting development just in the last several days, headlines including this one: "Buttigieg Endorses Orthodox Christian Teaching on Salvation and Predicts a Reckoning for Republicans." That came from the Washington Examiner in an article by Jeffrey Cimmino.
It's really interesting because he begins by saying, "Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an Episcopalian who has discussed his faith extensively during the Democratic primary, affirmed the Christian belief that faith in Jesus is required for salvation and questioned whether conservatism is consistent with Christianity." This came out of an interview with MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough, who asked Buttigieg if he accepts Orthodox Christian teaching. This according to the press from an interview last Thursday. When Scarborough asked Buttigieg if he believes “your salvation depends on your faith in Jesus Christ," the mayor said, "Yes, and what we do, what I do, the steps I take..." He was then cut off. In other words, this really wasn't an answer.
We also have to recognize that the question won't end here. Even though the mayor was apparently cut off, he's going to have to answer that question now, and there's a particular pinch there for Democrats because several leading national Democrats, especially in the Senate, this would include Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who after all is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, they have both made very clear that belief in the exclusivity of the Gospel is considered a form of bigotry in their sight.
That kind of affirmation, which again, Mayor Buttigieg didn't make, won't float in the Democratic party, but I'm betting on the fact that he's going to be asked that question now in a follow up. This article does remind us that Mayor Buttigieg, who is married to a man, is identified as an Episcopalian.
This reminds us of a headline that came just also in the last several days, "Episcopal Church Sees Greater Drop in Membership in 2018.” It was a drop of 36,000 members in a single year, larger even than the previous two years. You're also talking about the fact that years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the Episcopalian going the way of the dodo. That is extinct. One statistician indicated that the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana, that includes where Mayor Buttigieg is a member, lost 9.5% of attendees in a recent single year. That's almost 10% in one year.
The 80th Anniversary of the Beginning of World War II: Why Moral Certitude Was Required to Defeat Unmitigated Evil
Next, I want to shift to an issue of great worldview significance that is also of grave historical significance, and that is that in the last several days, the world has marked the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II.
We're talking about the war that killed more people than any other war in human history. By conservative estimates, between 70 and 85 million persons lost their lives as a direct consequence of World War II. Seen in a different light, that meant that 3% of the entire population of the world died in one war, which is rightly remembered as the most horrifying war yet in all of human experience. That 80th anniversary points to two things. First, the nonaggression pact that was signed between Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany and Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. You had Nazism and Communism in a nonaggression pact.
The communists learned the hard way that Hitler didn't mean that nonaggression pact, but included within it we now know was a secret pact that included the division of Europe after the war that gave the communists all the advantage they needed in order to seize Eastern Europe, even after the defeat of Nazi Germany. The other big event was the Nazi invasion of Poland. That was the military invasion that eventually brought England and France into the war as Poland's allies. Very quickly, it was a world war, especially when the United States was drawn into the war, both in the European and in the Asian theaters, specifically by the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December the 7th of 1941.
But I wanted to talk about this today particularly because of a column written in recent days by Bret Stephens of the New York Times entitled “World War II and the Ingredients of Slaughter.” The subhead in the article, "The spirit of certitude that dominated the politics of the 1930s is not so distant from us today." Bret Stephens has himself been in one of the oddest controversies of recent times. I'm not going to look at that media conflagration. Instead, I'm going to look at the far deeper issues that are raised by Stephens’s article here.
He writes about three crucial factors that made the war possible in all of its horror, "New forms of mass communication, the rhetoric of dehumanization, and the politics of absolute good versus absolute evil." He's talking in particular there about radio and then the dehumanizing ideologies. Then he's talking about this spirit of certitude, this moral certainty, this view of the world that includes absolute good and absolute evil. When he gets to the last point, he writes, "None of this would be possible without the third factor, the conviction that an opponent embodies an irredeemable evil and that his destruction is therefore an act of indubitable good. That spirit of certitude,” he writes, “that dominated the politics of the 1930s is not so distant from us today. The unpopular political figures of our day are the people who seem to convey less than 100 percent true belief: the moderate conservative, the skeptical liberal, the centrist wobbler."
Well, here, we have to concede that there can be very dangerous forms of moral certitude, the most dangerous being, being absolutely certain about something that isn't truly moral. That would be the most dangerous form of moral certitude. But I want to make an argument that it is even more dangerous to lack a certain degree of moral certitude and to fail to understand that if anything, World War II indicates that we do sometimes confront unmitigated evil. That was the case of the Nazi Third Reich. It's been the case of other ideologies. That is not to say that any specific human being is ever purely good or purely evil. The biblical worldview tells us that there is no one who is purely good, who is not a sinner. The biblical worldview also tells us that there are those who give themselves over to evil, but even in so doing, they do not lose their humanity.
In reading Bret Stephens's article, I simply had to wonder how someone operating with this view could ever have someone to the courage for the costliest war in human history, specifically to defeat the absolute evil of Nazism and the Third Reich. Listeners to The Briefing will not be surprised that I'm thinking here of Winston Churchill, and I'm thinking of one paragraph which I will argue is one of the most important paragraphs and one of the most important biographies of modern times. That's the first volume of William Manchester's biography of Churchill entitled The Last Lion.
Speaking of England 80 years ago, facing such a dark prospect, having no adequate defense and largely vulnerable to Hitler's invasion had he decided to invade, Manchester wrote,
"England's new leader, were he to prevail, would have to stand for everything England's decent civilized establishment had rejected. They viewed Adolf Hitler as the product of complex social and historical forces. Their successor would have to be a passionate Manichean who saw the world as a medieval struggle to the death between the powers of good and the powers of evil, who held that individuals are responsible for their actions and that the German dictator was therefore wicked. A believer in martial glory was required, one who saw splendor in the ancient parades of victorious legions through Persepolis and could rally the nation to brave the coming German fury. An embodiment of fading Victorian standards was wanted, a tribune for honor, loyalty, duty, and the supreme virtue of action. One who would never compromise with iniquity, who would create a sublime mood and thus give men heroic visions of what they were and might become.”
“Like Adolf Hitler,” wrote Manchester, “he would have to be a leader of intuitive genius, a born demagogue in the original sense of the word, a believer in the supremacy of his people and his national destiny, an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and then distort it to his ends, an embodiment of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people, a great tragedian who understood the appeal of martyrdom and could tell his followers the worst, hurling it to them like great hunks of bleeding meat, persuading them that the year of Dunkirk would be one in which it was equally good to live or to die, who could if necessary be just as cruel, just as cunning, and just as ruthless as Hitler but who would win victories without enslaving populations, or preaching supernaturalism, or foisting off myths of his infallibility, or destroying, or even warping, the libertarian institutions he had sworn to preserve."
Manchester then concludes the paragraph, "Such a man, if he existed, would be England's last chance."
Then a one sentence paragraph: "In London, there was such a man."
The point I want to make here is that it was not only Winston Churchill, so eloquently described in that paragraph, it was also Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was not just the Britains, it was the Americans as well who came to understand the unmitigated evil of Adolf Hitler and The Third Reich, and the fact that defeating Nazi Germany would be absolutely necessary. That was a matter of moral certitude and it was a certainty about what was truly morally right.
Bret Stephens is worried about a world in which there's too much moral certainty. I'll concede at times and wrongly directed, that can be a grave danger. But I'm far more worried about a world in which there isn't adequate moral certainty, a world in which there never could be the kind of moral courage summoned to defeat an enemy like Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. 80 years after the beginning of World War II, it's high time to ponder that question again.