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Christianity & The Crisis Of Politics

What does 'political theology' have to tell us about dire state of liberalism today?

I’ve often said (and can’t say it often enough) that Mars Hill Audio Journal has shaped my thinking about Christianity and culture more than any other source. It’s funny, but when we Mars Hill subscribers run into each other, discovering by happenstance that we both listen to the Journal, we inevitably remark on how crazy it is that more Christian intellectuals don’t know about it. If there’s a better resource for understanding the times and what it requires to be faithful in them, I don’t know what it is.

If you’ve never sampled the Journal, or if you’re a fellow subscriber, listen to the interviews Ken Myers has posted on a special page about Political Theology. Or, get them via podcast through iTunes.  Ken wrote me to say why he decided to create the page:

This passage from Michael Hanby’s recent First Things article inspired me to do this:

The fate of Christian freedom, then, does not hinge on political power, which can neither give this freedom nor take it away, but on the renewal of the Christian mind. More than once in the history of the Church, moments of great crisis have been occasions for purification and renewal. But the purification required of us in this moment is intellectual as well as moral, perhaps more intellectual than moral. Needless to say, this makes the growing anti-intellectualism within the Church deeply worrisome. . . .

Generations of cultural assimilation and comfortable living, saccharine liturgies and therapeutic homilies, have left us unprepared in mind, in heart, and in our deeply compromised and decaying institutions, for the coming time of trial and the enormous labor necessary to weather it.

By “political theology,” Ken is not talking about whatever the Republican or Democratic parties might say to religious voters to turn them out for certain candidates on election day. Here’s, from the introduction to the Political Theology series, is what he means:

In their book The Politics of Virtue, John Milbank and Adrian Pabst offer a compelling explanation for the increasing sense of chaos within global political institutions. They argue that “the whole liberal tradition faces a new kind of crisis because liberalism as a philosophy and an ideology turns out to be contradictory, self-defeating and parasitic of the legacy of Greco-Roman civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition, which it distorts and hollows out.” This distortion includes placing a greater emphasis on the Fall than on Creation. This greater emphasis renders violence and vice (Hobbes’s “war of all against all”) as more salient factors in shaping political institutions than is the given goodness of Creation, a goodness which images the loving character of the Triune Creator in whom we live and move and have our being. Liberalism defines individuals principally as beings who require protection from each other, protection which the State provides more and more comprehensively.

Because the understanding at the heart of liberalism “goes against the grain of humanity and the universe we inhabit,” our political theories and practices are increasingly felt to be dehumanizing, even when political actors work with the best intentions. Milbank and Pabst ominously claim that the sense of political pessimism widely felt is a sign that this flawed view of human nature “is starting to be revealed in its full nihilistc scope.”

The campaign leading up to the U.S. presidential election of 2016 may be seen as symptomatic of this “metacrisis.” Against the disturbing backdrop of social and cultural fragmentation, the two principal candidates for the office seem to be equally divisive, so that whoever wins in November, Americans are certain to be living through a time of further discord and discontent. Meanwhile, American Christians have been perplexed about how to situate themselves in what seems to be an increasingly unwelcoming setting. With this in mind, Peter J. Leithart has asked “Are campaigning and voting the be-all and end-all of Christian political action, or are we better off diverting some of those dollars and hours to less flashy projects that have the potential to leaven political culture over the long haul?”

That long-haul leavening is the rationale for the interviews featured below. MARS HILL AUDIO has selected a number of thoughtful philosophers, theologians, and political theorists to talk about the long-term trajectory that brought about our present condition, and the sorts of redefinitions, reconfigurations, and repentance necessary to navigate our future. We are especially interested in thinking about politics unapologetically as Christians, not as make-believe Deists or agnostics. Christians have often succumbed to the claim that they need to check their deepest convictions at the door before engaging in conversation about public life. We believe that one of the ways in which we should love our neighbors is to recognize the true nature and source of their dignity, and that to abandon that recognition compromises our love for them.

Here’s the link to the Journal’s Political Theology page. The featured interview at the moment is Ken’s terrific, challenging conversation with theologian Oliver O’Donovan. Ken is going to be updating it over the next few weeks with fresh interviews discussing the current campaign.

I believe that now, perhaps more than at any other time in living memory, Christians must think deeply and radically about politics. What makes this moment different from the past? Liberalism — meaning the system of government under which the United States has been living since its founding — is in crisis. Can it be saved? Should it be? How can thoughtful Christians make sense of this crisis?

I hope you’ll bear with me a moment, but this is something close to my heart. People who are interested in the Benedict Option need to subscribe to the Journal. If you find those interviews interesting, please subscribe to the Journal.  I say that in part because of yesterday’s news that the Evangelical journal Books & Culture is closing down after 21 years. How is it that there are not enough Christians in this country to support endeavors like Books & Culture, Mars Hill Audio Journal, Image Journall, and other intellectually serious Christian magazines and media? As Image Journal editor Gregory Wolfe puts it rather more pointedly: