Edward’s Quarrel with God

By Robert Winslow

Editor’s Note: This short story by my friend Robert Winslow is both beautifully written and deeply theological in its reflections on theodicy and the Reformed tradition.  Enjoy!

He came into the church and sat down in a pew, pausing a moment before he recited the prayer by heart: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

When he had finished, he looked around the sanctuary and then at the altar.  Speaking to himself, but not to himself, he said: “I want to raise again my claim pertaining to the loss of three family members.  I do this in spite of certain misgivings about filing the suit in the first place. It occurred to me that perhaps it should be a class action suit, but I decided I would be able to control the discussions much more if it were just me making the claim. For me it still is a clear case of breach of contract and damage claims.

“You have to realize that you brought this on yourself.  First you introduced the idea of a covenant with mutually binding obligations.  Then you let the Calvinists interpret it by means of all sorts of decrees and laws.  Whatever you intended got translated into legal stuff and it is binding.  You said we would be a community of life and love and I accepted that as the basis for my life.  So when my son was killed in the war, my wife died of cancer and my daughter was killed in an auto accident, those were violations of the contract.

“Since the original claim was filed I have received a ruling from the lower court, which I appealed several times, since more information seemed to be relevant than at first seemed to be the case.  The issues are mounting up and I want to discuss them with you before it all gets lost in the mysterious workings of the layers of courts.  I must say, you really do have a large organization.

“Now the first ruling which came down from the lower courts simply said the claim was frivolous, since lots of people lose loved ones, and unlike Job, I have not been struck by diseases or lost all my possessions. All of that is simply legal subterfuge, refusing to take my claim seriously.  The deal was that we would have life, were supposed to be fruitful and multiply, and enjoy the gifts of the earth and life together.  That clearly has not happened.  So I have filed an appeal, which I hope would make it up to the highest court of the Almighty Judge.

“I know some in your organization want to argue that you also lost a Son.  They even go so far as to argue that since it was your Son, that one life has infinite value and therefore would exceed the value of my three loved ones.  But that is claiming that one life is of more value than others, or that the pain of losing one is less than if you lose six or a hundred.  These are all claims based on false premises.  The value of loved ones cannot be quantified, but if they could be, I have you three to one—if you will pardon me for using the numbers 3 and 1 in a slightly different way.”

“You will have to excuse me for a few moments since the service is about to begin.  I will return to this matter when I am home this afternoon.”

After Ed had a light lunch and read the paper, he went out on the deck with a cup of coffee and said a brief prayer.  Then he resumed the conversation:  “Before I return to the case itself, I have to interject into our discussion a comment.  During the service the choir sang the familiar words from Romans as part of our prayers: ‘If God be for us, who can be against us… Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God that justifies; who is to condemn?  Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?’

“What in the world are your people talking about? Who cares whether anyone can bring charges against me?  You have already taken everything I valued.  I already made this point to some of your representatives, and they replied that it is most important that we hear the good news of your grace.  Without forgiveness we suffer the condemnation of hell.  My answer is: Where do you think I am now? Could anything get worse?  What astounds me is that there is this obsession about sin and condemnation when the world is suffering from all manner of disasters and people are dying by the thousands.  Something is amiss here.

“Let me now return to my brief.  You have to realize that I was raised in old school Presbyterian traditions.  As a child I had memorized large sections of the Heidelberg Catechism and was quite adept at finding answers in the Westminster Confession to every conceivable question.  I was a juvenile lawyer for Reformed legalism long before I went to law school and learned the ways of arguing the law.  You may have been the one to introduce the covenants, but the people readily agreed to it.  It was sort of a religious version of the Magna Carta: the people accepted the idea that you would govern the universe in a certain way. But that only got you into trouble because you promised too much. You should have insisted that the Romans Catholics were right—it all has to do with authority and who has the power.  You should be able to do whatever you want.  But when you agreed to all that stuff about covenants and decrees, then you are required to give an answer.  And that is the point of my brief: What is your answer to my losses?

“Now I have received further rulings from the lower courts which try to squelch my complaint by traditional arguments.  One is that I don’t understand: since I am only a wretched human, there is no way I can comprehend the secret mysteries of the divine plan, so I should respectfully withdraw the complaint.  A second is to shame me into silence: I ought to realize that I am a miserable sinner and that my sufferings are not nearly as bad as those of millions of other people.  Well, I reject both arguments because they do not speak to the basic issue: my loss.  It is not speaking to my loss if you tell me that it is inconsequential, or that it would be acceptable if I saw it from your perspective.  I see it from my perspective and it is a grievous loss.

“Going over all these arguments wears me out, so I think I must ask for a recess until tomorrow.  Thank you for your attention to these matters.”  As he sat in the soft chair, pondering what he had said, his thoughts ranged from the specific arguments to memories of Margaret, his wife.  Soon the efforts of the day caused his eyes to blink and he was lost in his usual afternoon nap.

On Monday morning Ed was off to his weekly gathering of men for coffee at Al’s diner.  Al was kind enough to let them occupy a large table in the far corner for over an hour every week. If they only ordered coffee and a donut or sweet roll, they usually came back during the week for a full breakfast or lunch.  This group had been together for over five years, half from the Presbyterian Church, the others related by neighborhood or family connections.  They talked family news, sports and the weather, but were close enough to argue politics, economics and even religion.  But what everyone enjoyed the most was the spontaneous good humor and friendly insults shot every which way.

After the usual topics had been dealt with, Ralph reminded the group that First Church was thinking of buying a handy-man’s special small house for a refugee family, which meant that they needed a work crew to do whatever needed to be done.  Most of the guys, including Ed, were adept at some aspect of home repairs.  So they talked it over, with several indicating a willingness to help.  When Ed remained silent, they looked at him.  Finally he said: “Let me think about it.  I am reluctant to get involved in too much stuff right now.  But I will let you know.”

When Ed’s daughter, Anne, was killed in an auto crash two years ago, Ed had been overcome by grief.  It took him several months before he could even return to the Monday Coffee Club.  His daughter was divorced, and upon her death her son had gone to live with her ex-husband, who had remarried. It is hard to say which loss affected Ed the most—his son, wife or daughter.  At this point the cumulative effect of the three seemed to be the growing problem. When his son was killed in the First Iraq War, it was a terrible blow.  Ed remembers everything about opening the front door and seeing two officers of the Marines standing there.  Their purpose was of course well known, and Ed could hardly bear to call his wife to come into the living room.  When she entered the room, she too immediately knew what the message was and almost collapsed in Ed’s arms.  But through all the grieving they had one another. Then years later, Anne had been the one to be with him during Margaret’s illness and then her death and the weeks afterward.  Now she was gone and he had no one.  With his grandson living with his estranged son-in-law, his day had no order except for the few appointments he might make.  The only sure things were the Monday Coffee Club and Sunday worship.  Now, however, his claim before God had become his major concern.

It was for good reason that the guys worried about Ed.  He always had been in good health and loved to argue issues, which he was trained to do.  But in the last two years, his interest in that seemed to wane and he was preoccupied with his losses. No one knew how to help Ed except for trying to get him to be with people or getting involved in some project or activity.  All of these overtures were resisted by Ed, with vague excuses.  What he never said was that he knew what they were thinking: if he could find some purpose or be with people, perhaps he could move on.  Ah, that awful phrase “Move on.”  As if grief and the pain of loss were confined to a geographical place, and all one had to do was vacate that place and go to another place and grief would be left behind.  He hated these pop-psychology remedies.  At this point in his life, his purpose was to confront God with the devastation visited upon him. Yes, he did have a purpose, but he was not telling them about it.  His purpose was to present his claim to the Almighty in hope for some relief—though he could not imagine what that might be.

The next week proved to be uneventful.  The simple routine was basically repeated each day: some shopping, preparing meals, doing a few things around the house, a nap in the afternoon, then relaxing after supper, with a final drink before bed.  Each day he worked on his notes in preparation for filing another appeal.  Sunday morning he went to church, but did not open the case before the service started.  As best he could, he entered into the worship.  His claim would have to wait until later.

After his lunch he went out to his deck with coffee and said:  “I want to return to the lower court rulings, which also referred me to some recent perspectives on losses in general, which argue that the answer lies in the fact that your Son suffers with us.  Actually this is a well-known theme but it strikes me that it is now being used to replace the older approach which dominated my childhood and younger years.  Whether you agree with this shift in thinking is something you may wish to reflect on and advise me as we proceed.

“To be specific, in my childhood, when a terrible thing happened, or someone died, the minister said that our beloved friend and relative has died and we mourn his loss. Even though we cannot comprehend why this happened, we must recognize by faith that this happens according to the mysterious plan of God and we should take heart that in the end all will become clear to us and we shall be reunited with him in heaven.

“But the newer approach, so common among the younger generation of preachers, makes no mention of the secret decrees or wisdom which you have used to order things.  It jumps forward to Jesus suffering on the cross.  This is laid before us in the midst of our grief to help us see that Jesus suffers with us in our suffering.  I am struck by the seriousness of this shift in emphasis—that preachers would totally skip over the decrees and secret wisdom is amazing.  Don’t they realize that we are trying to understand what is going on in this terrible world?  Instead, they simply ask us to remember that Jesus is suffering with us.

“While I recognize some value in this new approach, with its reliance on key passages of Scripture, there are also some problems which I take rather seriously:

“First, I don’t understand how one can simply drop all reference to the decrees and the infinite wisdom of God.   Are they conceding that the current state of things cannot be explained now or ever?  If that is the case, then one is acknowledging that the world really is fallen, or as Hobbes is supposed to have said: Life is ‘nasty, brutish and short.’  That is hard for a Calvinist to accept.  Are we conceding that the world has gone mad or that you are totally powerless in changing the sufferings of this world?

“Second, while it may be a powerful rhetorical device to focus attention on the Son of God suffering on our behalf—thereby shifting our focus from our suffering to his–that still does not speak to the issue of my complaint, i.e., my loss. As I have said before, I refuse to allow this to be moved from center stage, or to be made to feel guilty for wanting to speak of my loss rather than yours or anyone else’s.  That just gets us back into a contest as to whose loss is greater, which does not solve the problem. Once we decided whether my loss or someone else’s is greater,  that would still leave that person with legal standing to file the greater complaint.

“I must say, there are times when the intricate nature of these arguments causes my head to spin.  They also wear me out.  Why can’t we talk in simple terms?  But I am repeatedly drawn into these elaborate arguments because of the rulings of the lower courts.  I am not sure they have any interest in my situation, but only in denying my right to present this claim.  With that I shall leave the matter for today.”

The coffee gang met as usual the next day Al’s Diner.  This time everyone was there.  Ed was greeted by six other men, all retired, with ages ranging from 67 to 85.  After the usual greetings, bad jokes, comments on the headlines, the weather and sports, there was actually a pause in the conversation.  Ralph, who also went to First Presbyterian, saved the group from an extended silence by asking Ed to come to the Seniors’ monthly supper.  Ed shook his head and said: “I don’t like casseroles.  They look good but when you take a bite, they never are as good as they look.”

John immediately replied, “Are you talking about food or women?”  This evoked laughter and more encouragement for Ed to join the group.

“It will do you good to get out of the house and meet some people—men and women.  You never know what will happen.  Just look at Ron here.  He came away with the best looking single gal from the group and look at him now.  Happy as can be.  Tell him, Ron.”

Ron’s story was actually well known and something of a legend.  Whether it had been embellished was unknown, but Ron enjoyed the telling and everyone seemed to enjoy hearing it. Ron held up his hands for silence.  “Yes, I am happy to testify on a stack of Bibles before our learned barrister here that it is a great group.  Jean and I met at the supper, and then would see one another at the coffee hour on Sunday morning.  We would talk about the cookies and the weather.  After nearly exhausting these subjects for about three weeks, I finally asked her to have lunch and talk about something other than the weather, coffee and cookies.”  This of course prompted the first round of laughter and comments.  “So we went out to lunch and had a very nice conversation.  When I took her home she asked me if I would like to come in and have a piece of chocolate cake.”

This brought a loud response, which included: “If he crosses that threshold, it’s all over.”  Another chimed in: “Does he have any idea what is happening?”

But Ron continued: “We were having cake and coffee, and she says: ‘Ron, you were married for a long time and I knew Mary very well.  I was married for years and you knew George.  Now they are both gone and we are sitting here having chocolate cake and coffee.  I would like to propose…no, that is not the best choice of words for this…I would suggest that we go out for three months without any entanglements of any kind, if you get my meaning.  At the end of that time, we will sit down and see what is the temperature of the water, but we will not keep asking before then.’”

Now the comments flowed freely, directed at how he was being led down the path, or his inability to see what was happening.  Someone said, “Can you imagine this, she has him hooked and is going to reel him in quicker than you can imagine.”  Everyone laughed until Ron insisted on finishing the story.

“Well, I said, ‘Jean, that sounds like a great plan.’  So we would have breakfast on Tuesday, lunch on Thursday and brunch after church on Sunday.”  Again, the guys could not resist commenting on how he was in deep trouble, with lots of laughter.  But Ron continued: “Finally after two months, I said to her: ‘Jean, I can’t stand this anymore.”  She said, ‘Oh, I am so sorry.  Do you want to end this?’   I said:  ‘Of course not, I want to kiss you now.’ Well, she looks at me and says: ‘Actually, the plan has a clause that allows the three month period to be terminated at any time if both parties agree. It would appear that both parties are ready to do that.’  More laughter occurred, with pounding on the table so that they were in danger of spilling coffee.  “So when we got to her place she kissed me on the cheek.  I looked at her and kissed her on the lips, and the rest is history.”

Cheers erupted, followed by applause.  Ralph immediately jumped in to make the point: “So you see, Ed, this could be a great opportunity for you to have some company.”

Ed, who had enjoyed the story, tried to regain a serious tone when he said:  “You guys ought to know by now that I have no intention of getting into an entanglement with someone from the Seniors club.  So just drop it and let’s go back to spring training.”  The guys saw that Ed was not in the mood for this, but actually he never was, since they had tried many times before.  The conversation went back to sports.

On the way home Ed was annoyed at how they could make serious relationships a laughing matter.  He knew they meant it all in good fun. On most other subjects he was as ready as any to engage in light hearted banter and even some foolishness. After all, how else could one survive?  But they ought to know by now that something had gone wrong with his ability to find relief in these sorts of things.  He had never really gotten over grieving Margaret’s death.  He had not spoken to them about his claim before the heavenly court, but he just could not think about starting all over with someone else.  He was still trying to figure out why his first marriage had come to an end.  Now, without Anne to at least give him some encouragement or be a buffer against the burden of despair, he was left unprotected.  His grief had continued and he discovered that the only way he could deal with it was to prepare his complaint for the heavenly courts.

Two days later at around noon Ed answered the phone.  It was Mike, his ex-son-in-law.  Mike reported: “Ed, things are not going well at all with Jimmie.  He just can’t get along with Arlene and the two girls.  And he has been acting up in school so much that yesterday they sent him home.  We have to do something to break this cycle of behavior.  Could he come and live with you for a few weeks?”  Jimmie was Anne’s son who had been living with Mike and his new wife Arlene, and her girls.  The report surprised Ed because in general, Jimmie was well behaved and had not seemed adverse to living with his Dad’s new family.   But apparently things had gone bad.  Sizing up the situation Ed realized that there really were not any other options.  He was in fact Jimmie’s grandfather.  And he could not think of any valid reason for saying no.  “Well, that would be fine.  When were you thinking of having him come over?”

“If it is o.k. with you, the sooner the better.  Could I bring him over this afternoon?

Ed was a bit surprised.  In five minutes he was moving from a single old man living alone to a new family of grandpa and grandson in a medium size house.  The good news was that Ed’s house was in the school district Jimmie attended as a 12 year old, so it would not involve a change in schools.  “Sure, bring him over and I assume you will bring enough clothes and things that will make him comfortable here.  I don’t have an extra computer or much stuff that relate to Jimmie’s world.”

“Ed, thank you very much.  Yes, we will bring some of the things he needs for the stay.  We will see you in about two hours.  Take care.”

When Ed had put the phone down he began to think of how this was going to change things.  Not only would he have someone living with him, but it was his grandson—a 12 year old boy.  For months people had been hinting and suggesting that he needed some new project or purpose.  Suddenly here it was.  But this was not like what they had been suggesting. If he went out and found something to do, that by nature would be limited in terms of time and emotional outlay.  Plus, this was not a choice—unless you consider taking in a grandson in need of a safe home a choice.  Ed did not feel he volunteered for this, but amazingly he did not regret the decision.  All he could hear was that his grandson—the only living member of his family—needed his help.  And the help needed was quite unlimited.  There would have to be changes in the house, the food supply and menus, waking up and going to bed—just to name the obvious.  And it would start in two hours!

He thought the best thing to do was run to the store for some things for dinner and breakfast.  Trying to recall what Jimmie liked, he decided on fried chicken and potato salad, with green beans (a question mark), ice cream and cookies, plus peanut butter and jelly, dry cereal and granola for breakfast.  When he had put the food away back at the house, he went upstairs to decide which room to give Jimmie.  Two of the bedrooms had been transformed into guest rooms, while the third had been used as a work room for his wife.  Neither bedroom bore any ties to their son or daughter, except in his memory.  He was not even sure if Jimmie knew which was which, but he decided on giving him the room his son had used.  One advantage was that it had a small desk, looking out on the back yard.  This might be a good place for him to do his school work.  After making up the bed, he thought he was ready for Jimmie’s arrival.

At about 5 o’clock Mike arrived with Jimmie and one large suitcase and several boxes of stuff.  He told them which room was for Jimmie and they took everything up to it.  When they came down Mike again thanked Ed and turned to Jimmie with instructions to listen to Ed and spend time on school work.  He gave Jimmie a hug and said he would call, then left.  Ed looked at Jimmie and asked: “Are you hungry?”

“Yeah, I suppose I am.”

“I usually have some cheese and crackers. Would you like that with a soda before we have dinner?”

Upon an affirmative, Ed laid out the food and drinks on a tray and took it out to the deck.  As they munched on snacks, Ed asked: “Do you want to tell me about what happened at Mike’s?”

“Arlene was always on my case and telling me I was not treating the girls nice.  I told her I did not want to babysit the girls and then things were not going well at school. She blew her lid.  But that was three weeks ago.”  Jimmie said this with a smile, to see what mood Ed was in.  When Ed chuckled, he continued, “So we kept going round on this kind of stuff and then my Dad had to go out of town, and Arlene started saying I was not helping.  So that kept going on—stuff about my radio and TV—and then I had more trouble at school and Dad really got upset.  So yesterday he proposed I come and spend some time with you, because he had to go out of town again.”

Ed saw quickly that the story probably left out some things, but all in all it sounded like a mutually caused chain of events.  He had never been sure that Arlene was happy about Jimmie coming to live with them.  And he knew Jimmie well enough to know that he could be sharp tongued and had a short fuse.  Perhaps he should add to his claim against the Almighty an inquiry why children had to bear the brunt of divorce and the death of parents. But that was for later.  “You are welcome to stay here but I am an old man living alone and I must tell you that you will have to follow certain rules.  I expect you home for supper by 5, unless you call me; you must do your homework before lots of TV or games; you must go to school and behave; and there will be some simple chores around the house that need to be done.  Can you do these things with a smile?”

Jimmie looked at him: “That’s it?  Gee, Grandpa, I thought you would have lots and lots of rules.  Sure, I can do those.”

“Then let me get things ready for supper.  You can relax until it is ready.”

They ate together in the kitchen at the table in front of the window looking out on the yard.  Ed asked about Jimmie’s classes and he reported that his favorites were history and math.  He liked soccer but needed to work at it, but he and some friends usually played after school.  He hoped he would get better so that he could be on a team.  Over ice cream they settled on the schedule: Jimmie usually went to bed around 9:30 to 10:00 and had to get up at 6:30 in the morning.  They calculated that the school was about six blocks from Ed’s house and Jimmie did not want to take the bus, but preferred to walk.  Ed agreed to that and offered to drive him on any day there was bad weather.  He also suggested he drive him in the morning and asked Jimmie to go to the office and tell them about his new address and Ed’s name and phone number.

School days the rest of the week went according to plan.  Ed had picked up some food high on Jimmie’s list of favorites, Jimmie was home between 3 and 4, spent time relaxing or on homework.  The walk to school was not too long and presented no problems.  Ed was a little concerned about the weekend.  On Friday he asked Jimmie what they would do.  Jimmie looked a bit surprised, not realizing he would be spending the weekend with his Grandpa.  Ed caught the surprise and rephrased the issue: “Usually on Saturdays I do a few things to clean up.  I do most of the shopping during the week to avoid crowds.  Sunday we will go to church.  Tell me what you normally do on weekends?”

“I usually sleep in on Saturdays but Dad always got me up for church and drove me there.  Now I can go with you.  Sometimes I would see a couple of friends, maybe do something like a movie or play soccer.  My Dad says he will give me my allowance while I am here, so I will have some money for stuff.  He also said he would take me shopping for clothes if I need something. If I have homework I usually do it Friday or Saturday so most of the weekend is free. Did you know I have a cell phone?  I talk to my friends with it—usually texting.  I’ll write down the address so you can call me.  I have your number.”

When they had finished the planning and Jimmie had left the room, Ed began to realize what was before him.  Shopping for food, meal preparation and cleanup, probably some transportation service, adjusting his schedule to be available, and in general, looking out for Jimmie.  He had observed Anne and Mike raising Jimmie over the years, and he and Margaret had done their share of babysitting.  But grandparents are one step removed from all the responsibilities parenting involves—including the emotional trauma.  He remembered how nervous he was when his son went through all the stages of childhood.  There were concerns for John but also for himself.  It was easier with Anne because she was the second child, not because of the gender difference, though he often wondered if Margaret had a different set of problems than what had occurred with John.  So here he was again in the thick of things with a child, though he was one step removed as grandfather.  Would he react to seeing Jimmie’s report card in the same way he had upon seeing John’s?  Would he be disturbed if Jimmie was late after school?  Welcome to the world of parenting, in the mode of grandfathering.

On Sunday evening he sat with a drink on the deck at about 9:30.  Jimmie was in his room—either on his cell phone or reading or already in bed.  The weekend had gone quite well—at least in his opinion.   Saturday he drove Jimmie and two friends to a movie and then picked them up.  Sunday they went to church and Jimmie went out in the afternoon.  Food selection and preparation had gone well, if eating what was on your plate was any indication.  Now they faced a full week of school.  He had asked Jimmie if there was anything he needed for the week.  All that was in place and he was, not surprisingly, exhausted.

After resting a few moments he recited a prayer and then said: “You will have to excuse the delay in my responding to the latest ruling.  My new family responsibilities prevent me from dealing with the case.  I think it best if I request a delay and I will report to you when I am able to resume.  Peace.”

Ed had been apprehensive about this full week.  Last week only involved three days.  Now he had five.  When a rain storm hit on Tuesday he drove Jimmie to school.  On Thursday he took some boys to a park where they could play.  Another parent would bring him home.  Cell phones were actually great.  From Ed’s perspective, Jimmie was his normal self and seemed to be getting along well at school.  His teacher had even sent a note saying just that and thanking Ed for being such a good grandparent.  Ed concluded that teachers were more aware of family situations and problems than he had expected.

On Saturday Jimmie asked if Ed would pick up some kids and take them to a soccer field.  He also mentioned something he had forgotten to tell him.  Last Sunday at church in the Sunday School, the Syrian family was there.  They have five kids included a boy Jimmie’s age, who was also at his school.  He was going to play soccer with them and his name was Sam. Ed took this in, remembering the reference to the family at the Coffee Club.

At the Coffee Club everyone was in good form and the discussion moved from the great triad of weather, politics and sports.  This reflected this age group, since a younger age would put cars and sex in the triad, omitting the weather and politics.  But the group was not adverse to talking cars whenever someone was shopping for one or curious about a repair matter.  As for sex, that entered the conversations primarily when it came up in the news or politics, the exceptions being some tame jokes, especially about the failings of male organs.  When all the big news had been covered, Ed volunteered that he was back in parenting, with his grandson staying with him.  He was glad to report that things had gone well for almost two weeks, though he confessed he was winging it.  Of course they wanted to know how long Jimmie would be with him, and he did not know.  He also mentioned that Jimmie had met one of the children of the Syrian family.  They were glad to hear the family was getting settled, but that still left the issue of rehabbing that house.

The week proceeded without any problems, making Ed wonder if he was just lucky or if he and Jimmie were just a good match.  To his credit he was approaching this matter with a certain laid back attitude.  He did not watch over Jimmie or insist on knowing everything that happened in his day.  But then on Saturday the first crisis arose.  In the afternoon he got a call that Jimmie had banged heads in the soccer game and was in need of assistance.  Ed drove over to the field and found Jimmie on a bench with two other players, holding a shirt to his head.  Jimmie said: “The guys looked at it and think it needs stiches.”

Ed felt he ought to assess the matter himself, and asked him to slowly remove the shirt.  When he saw the cut, he agreed and told Jimmie to come with him to the ER.  The other boys said they would get home by themselves.  As they walked off the playground, Jimmie said: “That tall guy is Sam.”

To their surprise the ER took Jimmie in rather quickly and the doctor determined that he needed to be sewn up.  Jimmie had never had this happen before.  The cut was on the left side of his forehead, below the hair line.  When the doctor and nurse had assembled everything they needed, they asked Jimmie to sit on the side of the exam table.  Jimmie looked apprehensively at Ed.  Without asking Ed sat down next to him on Jimmie’s right side and held his hand firmly.  He suggested that Jimmie look straight ahead.  The doctor went through the basic steps and in no time Jimmie had five stiches.  They held up a mirror for him to see—his first soccer injury, meaning that he was now an official soccer player.  After giving him something to drink and checking that he did not have a concussion, they said he could go.  Ed kept an eye on him as they walked out to the car, lest he faint or become ill.  But he handled the whole thing well and in 25 minutes Ed had him lying down on his bed.  When Ed went downstairs he called Mike and told him what had happened.  Mike said he would come by Sunday afternoon to see Jimmie.  A few minutes later Ed returned to find Jimmie was sleeping.  At about 7:30 Jimmie came down from his room and Ed suggested some chicken soup.  After the soup and crackers, they watched television for a while and Jimmie said he was ready for bed.

If Ed thought they might be staying home from Church on the next day, he was quite mistaken.  Jimmie was up early asking for something to eat and ready to go to church.  Ed complied, thinking that maybe Jimmie wanted to show everyone his bandaged head.  In the afternoon Mike came over with his two step-daughters to visit with Jimmie.  The girls were actually glad to see him and they enjoyed the ice cream Ed served.  Mike quietly thanked Ed for all that he was doing and said he would talk to him in a week or so.  When they left, Ed thought he should think about supper.

As expected Jimmie went to bed early, indicating that he would go to school on Monday.  Ed found himself with his evening drink on the deck.  Since he had not thought much about his claim, he felt he ought to make sure the heavenly court realized the case was still active.  After a prayer, he then said:  “I am sure you are aware of what has been going on here for the past three weeks.  How could you not know?  Given my responsibilities here, I have not been able to proceed in drafting a fuller response as part of my appeal.  But I will get to it and want to insist that the claim not be placed in some in-active category.

“It has occurred to me that some of your lesser representatives may have thought this development was just what I needed to take my mind off my losses and thereby drop the case.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  But if it is true that this was some kind of ploy to turn my attention to other things, I would be deeply disappointed.  It is too late for me to ask how these things could have happened without your knowledge or participation, so I will let that go.  I have repeatedly resisted attempts by friends to get me involved in some kind of romance or hobby or project, which would take my mind off what has tormented me for so long.  But I guard against that, though I must admit my grandson has needed by attention.  Therefore, given all this, I shall speak with you at a later time to re-open the complaint.”  He realized it may have been a bit brash to speak that way, but it annoyed him to think that he would suddenly have a different outlook on life because he was taking care of Jimmie.  Plus, this was probably not going to last much longer, so he would be right back to where he was before.

The next Wednesday Mike picked up Jimmie for dinner at his home, since he wanted to visit with him in the context of his current family.  This had dangers, but it was something Mike felt he had to try.  If Jimmie was going to return, they all had to develop some workable plan.  Then on Saturday he stopped by to visit with Ed and Jimmie, which extended into lunch.  This pattern was repeated the next week.  At leaving Mike said privately to Ed that they needed to talk about the summer, since it was only a month before school let out.

Ed did not say anything to Jimmie but he started a process of thinking about the entire matter.  That was Ed’s way: when confronted with a serious problem, he allocated blocks of time over several days to consider it.  Unlike his work, there were no cases to study up on or calculate the application of the law.  But he did need to estimate the needs of Jimmie and Mike, as well as Mike’s family.  And did he have any needs relating to this matter?  That would be something to discover.

His first exercise was to lay before himself the facts of the case: His daughter and son-in-law had divorced, leaving Jimmie in the custody of Anne.  Subsequently, Mike had married a woman with two daughters and then Anne had died.  In one sense it was a simple case: the father has full rights and custody of the son.  But that had not worked out, to the frustration of nearly all parties, including the school, where Jimmie had acted out his anger toward his new family.  The matter was not so much a legal issue but a practical matter: what would be needed for the members of this family to live together?  Counselling?  Strict leadership from Mike?  More rules?  Visits to Grandpa as a way of relieving pent up frustrations?  Long visits to Grandpa?  Certainly no one would propose permanent residence with Grandpa—that was out of the question.

What Ed could not understand was why Mike had so little interest in Jimmie.  Yes, he had started the once a week dinner and several hours on Saturday.  But he was not acting like a Father who missed his son, or who wanted to play a determining role in his son’s life.  Had the divorce from Anne so affected his ties to Jimmie that he did not have normal feelings toward the boy?  Or was it Arlene, who married Mike on the assumption that he was coming into her life, with her two girls, to start a family of four.  In that situation, Jimmie represented Mike’s past marriage and family.  He was an intruder, always reminding everyone that the new life they wished to create was built on a former life, broken by divorce and death.  Ed had to admit that the most Arlene had signed up for was occasional visits from Jimmie, not full time membership in her new family.  And Mike probably did not want to be reminded of his past.

When he factored into these thoughts the additional point that Mike had not been over to see Jimmie in the first three weeks, he had to assume that he was in damage control back at Arlene’s, or he really was moving in the direction of very little contact with Jimmie.  What options did that leave:  Very few.  Parents—even single parents—did not usually give 12 year old boys to adoption agencies or foster homes.  With only one relative in the extended family, that left Ed as the likely candidate.  All Ed could think was: “What a bastard.  The son-of-a-bitch is going to ask me to take him.”

As June 1 approached Ed had still not heard from Mike.  He and Jimmie were getting along.  Jimmie was doing more things around the house, including cutting the grass, and earning some money for what they called The Special Fund.  After the rocky period in the middle of the semester, Jimmie had raised his grades and was likely to end the year quite well.  Finally, Mike came over and spent some time with Jimmie.  When they both came out on the deck where Ed was reading the paper, Mike said: “I would like Jimmie to come over and spend a week with us in July.  I am going to take the week off and we will do things together that week.”  There was a pause and Jimmie and Ed waited for what was coming, though both suspected the direction this was going to take.  Mike then said: “I would like Jimmie to come back and live with you, Ed, if that is o.k. When school starts we can do a weekly dinner at our place.  So, Ed, what do you think?”

Ed looked at Jimmie, who seemed stunned.  His father had just told them he did not want Jimmie in his house.  The boy was about to explode or run out of the house.  Before that could happen, Ed moved forward and put his arm around Jimmie.  “I think that will be just fine.  Why don’t you go on home to Arlene, Jimmie and I have some things to talk about.”

Mike was taken back by both comments—Ed’s ready acceptance and his dismissal.  He knew Ed was a tough lawyer and had no interest in tangling with him, especially since he was asking so much of him.  But it did annoy him that he was kicking him out.  Without saying good bye he left.  No sooner was he out the door, Jimmie muttered “Go to hell,” and ran upstairs.

Ed let him go, knowing that there was not much he could say or do right now.  Since it was going on 5, he decided to make supper.  Meatballs and spaghetti would probably be a good choice, since it was one of Jimmie’s favorite.  Around six o’clock Jimmie came down and rather cautiously came into the kitchen.  He saw the table set for two and Ed putting the dry pasta into boiling water.  He went over to the table and sat down.  After a long pause, he asked: “What are you going to do this summer?”

Ed let the question hang there for a moment, noting especially how it had been phrased.  The he said:  “I thought we would take a trip out west.  There are some national parks I have not seen and I doubt if you have either.  I also have a brother in Michigan who still lives on a farm, but his son runs it.  It is near where I grew up.  We could go stay there for a few days, maybe you would decide to be a farmer.  Then the Coffee Club is forming teams to work on Sam’s new house.  I would like you to be on my team.  This would be when school lets out.”

It was obvious that the wheels were spinning in Jimmie’s head, though he did not say anything.  They ate in silence and finished the meatballs, with a little pasta and sauce left for lunch.  When they were having ice cream, Jimmie asked: “Could Sam be on our team working on the house?”  Ed told him he thought that would be a good idea.

Next Sunday evening, after Jimmie had gone to bed, Ed opened discussions regarding his claim.  As usual, he offered a prayer and then said: “Every week seems to be drawing me farther and farther away from the case.  I don’t regret what I am doing but I am concerned that the case will get lost.  May I say again for the record that I have no intention of letting that happen.  The issue is as real and important for me now as it was when I raised it a year ago.

“I do not have any new material to be added to my claim, though I do want to offer several comments in light of the sermon presented today in church.  You will recall that some time back I noted the shift in emphasis regarding the trials of this world.  The older Calvinism resorted to the mysterious workings of your covenants and decrees, which, though we may not understand them, will finally be proven to be wise at a future time.  This we are to accept by faith, trusting in your eternal love.  The newer approach moves quickly to the cross of Christ, reminding us that Christ suffered as we suffer, died as we die, and in that we take comfort.  As your anointed one, so even you share in our sufferings.  I still am not sure I want to abandon the older approach, since I think the new approach appears to concede that the Almighty has lost control of things.

“Now my purpose in returning to this debate is that there would appear to be a variant on the new approach, which I think makes more sense.  It has to do with the Great Commission in Matthew, which I am sure you know.  Now of course, the emphasis in the sermon, and throughout the ages, is that here we have the marching orders for the church: make disciples, baptize and teach.  Nothing could be clearer when it comes to what the church is to be about.  The fact that churches have tended to emphasize only part of the mandate is of interest, but not relevant to the matter at hand.

“What struck me about this morning’s sermon was the complete lack of attention to Jesus’ final words: “…and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  That hit me as a most profound affirmation.  Of course it is close to the theme that Christ suffers with us, but the two are not entirely the same.  If the one points to the unity of Christ with us in our sufferings, the other simply affirms an eternal presence.  I confess I had not heard, with my head or heart, this part of the Commission.  Now I mention all this simply to say that perhaps your people might want to give more attention to this powerful theme.  In its simplicity it is so easily missed, as I in fact have done.  When I heard it this morning I found myself deeply moved and did not know what to say, except to receive this, not as a future promise but as a present fact.  For reasons not clear, it affected me greatly.

“When time allows I shall return to the claim already before you. In the last few years I have been through a lot and do seek a resolution of the matter.  But for now there is a young person who feels very alone and there are things I must do.”

Copyright © 2019 Robert Winslow

Mike Pence and Religious Liberty

Bill Evans head shot

Earlier this week, a person connected with a national news-media organization contacted me and asked what I thought of Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement address at Liberty University.  I responded with the substance you find below.  Of course, it wasn’t used (I’m quite sure it didn’t fit the narrative they wanted to tell), but I thought I would share an expanded version here.

I didn’t watch the Pence speech (we were preoccupied with my daughter’s graduation from medical school), but I did read the transcript of the commencement address that was released by the White House.  I was surprised by how little was actually said about the topic of religious freedom.  Much of it was the usual commencement niceties and Pence establishing his evangelical Christian bona fides by telling his conversion story. My sense was that the Vice President was “preaching to the choir.”

A couple of sentences did, however, stand out to me. In fact, they made me cringe a bit.  Pence said, “The freedom of religion is enshrined in our First Amendment and in the hearts of every American.  And these attacks on Christian education are un-American.” As sociologist James D. Hunter of the University of Virginia has noted in his book Culture Wars, the cultural conflict often takes the form of a “struggle to define America.”  This sort of rhetorical game happens on both the right and the left, as both sides try to depict their opponents as “un-American” and as “opposed to what America stands for,” but this sort of language is often unhelpful; it can further deepen the cultural divide and make it more difficult to find common ground and have civil conversations.

But does Pence have a point in warning the Liberty graduates about discrimination against people of faith?  I think he does.  The progressive left by and large now prefers to speak of “freedom of belief” rather than the “free exercise of religion.”    Such people seem to think that one can hold religious beliefs but one cannot act on them, especially if such actions can be construed as unfavorable to those deemed to be oppressed on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, etc. Can you lose your job for affirming traditional morality? Sure.  Just as Brendan Eich. Can your business be excluded from economic activity because you affirm traditional Christian morality?  Sure.  Just ask Chick-fil-A.

The rather clear failure of many on the progressive left to speak out against the killing and persecution of Christians elsewhere in the world (and the difficulties that some Christians have faced in seeking asylum in the West from religious persecution elsewhere in the world) at least suggests that secular elites view Christians as a problem.  It’s interesting to ponder why that might be.  I can think of two reasons—one more social/psychological and one implicitly religious.

Shortly before his death, the eminent sociologist Peter Berger penned a number of essays (here and here) in which he basically suggested that there has been in the broader culture a lot of ideological backfilling of the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies.  Berger used the analogy of a candy store. The sexual revolution, he suggested, gave people the key to the candy store, and once people have that key they will respond viscerally and negatively to anyone who is perceived as trying to take the key away from them.  Traditional Christian affirmations of sexual morality will almost inevitably be seen as a matter of trying to take the key to the candy store.

But I think there’s more to it than that, and here we get into matters religious.  The theme of self-creative autonomy is a pretty powerful assumption in much contemporary cultural discourse.  The prevailing conviction is that we create ourselves. We can decide even something as seemingly basic and given as our gender.  And this sensibility has clearly replaced the older conviction that human beings are creatures of a transcendent God who established a creation order involving, for example, the gender binary. From the standpoint of functional religion, the autonomous, sovereign, self-creative human agent has effectively replaced the traditional deity.  To challenge the ultimacy of this self-creative human agent is to blaspheme what is sacred, and from time immemorial blasphemers of the sacred have been excluded and punished.

T. F. Torrance and Michael Polanyi on Moral Inversion

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Editor’s Note: I’ve been reflecting on the theological implications of recent societal debates involving matters as disparate as homosexual rights, BLM, and the confirmation hearings of a certain nominee to the US Supreme Court, and the notion of moral inversion has come to mind.  What I did not realize is that the term moral inversion was coined by philosopher Michael Polanyi, whose insights are used to great effect by the Scottish theologian Thomas F. Torrance in this excerpt from an essay in Torrance’s Theology in Reconciliation (1975). It provides a rather remarkable description of the state of our contemporary moral discourse.

2 . The Church must learn again the meaning of justification by grace
A few years ago Fr Jock Dalrymple, sometime Roman Catholic chaplain at St Andrews University, remarked, mainly with Edinburgh in mind, that some of our young men being trained for the ministry seemed unable to distinguish between helping a person therapeutically and leading him to Jesus Christ. Such a shrewd evangelical critique of the Church of Scotland, coming from the Roman Catholic Church, seems to indicate that the tables are being turned on the Reformation! It is certainly the case that Protestant Churches everywhere today appear, and want to appear, highly meritorious, giving themselves out as the great patrons of goodness: that is, precisely what Jesus warned his disciples against at the Last Supper. How has this come about?

Some of the sharpest thinkers in modern times, coming from Eastern Europe, see us in the West in a way that we cannot easily manage ourselves, and have been warning us against the moral inversion of the guilty intellectual. That is, I believe, the insidious infection that has been afflicting western, and particularly Protestant, Churches. Moral inversion (Polanyi’s phrase) is a hybrid of idealism and scepticism, of high moral demands on society and individualistic naturalism. It comes about when moral passion is uprooted from its authoritative ground through rationalistic critique of transcendent moral obligation, and becomes embodied in a tangible realm of socio-moral objectives regarded as less open to destructive philosophical analysis. ‘The morally inverted person,’ Polanyi says, ‘has not merely performed a philosophic substitution of moral aims by material purposes, but is acting with the whole force of his homeless moral passions within a purely materialistic framework of purposes.’ 1 It is distinctive of moral inversion that it carries with it a strong sense of righteousness and moral superiority, evident in passionate moral indignation against prevailing evils, social injustice, racial discrimination, overpopulation, etc. These are all of course very right and highly laudable causes, but the inflamed moral passion for social betterment that lies behind this, appears to go hand in hand with a guilty detachment from an objective and divine source of moral obligation and a replacement of a personal religious ethic with a naturalistic ethic of self-determination in which man assumes absolute responsibility for himself. This is often accompanied by bitter denunciations of explicit expressions of personal religious morality as hypocritical and dishonest, together with an inverted moral fervour in the alleged ‘honesty’ that characterises such denunciations. Moreover, this whole approach finds not a little support in the moral nihilism of modern sociology, that is, its deliberate suspension of value in the explanation of human behaviour, without reference to its rightness or wrongness, and therefore apart altogether from moral motives.

There is another important aspect of moral inversion that must be noted. The uprooting of moral passion from its creative source in Christian faith and therefore its lack of Holy Spirit, makes it quite helpless unless it can secure centres of power, from which it can move and change society. Hence it moves into the political arena where it can develop pressure groups and forge the kind of instruments through which it can exert force upon every area of life until its ends are achieved. But this is to move into an area of operations in the technological society where the achievement of social perfection is committed to a political machine which develops its own ideological rationale and generates its own functional momentum, so that inevitably moral motives are submerged in a struggle for power: self-determination is converted into collective power and moral persuasion is replaced by force. In the nature of the case, change one way or the other can take place only through violence of one kind or another. Thus the high moral demands for society geared into a naturalistic concept of man lead paradoxically into inhumanity: that seems to be the case whatever kind of government is in command.

The vast slide of Church leaders in recent times into something like an obsession with socio-moral concerns reflects (does it not?) a nagging sense of guilt over their own personal Christian convictions, which over-compensates for itself, not merely in public demonstrations and loud protests of ‘involvement’, but in passion- ate moral extravagances and drives which our modern critics have sometimes described as pathological moralistic excess. Whether that kind of language is justified or not, we must certainly be ready to face up to the criticisms they direct at us. But what concerns me here is that moral inversion of this kind has so infected the Churches, especially Anglo-Saxon Churches, that our evangelical convictions are persistently submerged if not replaced by consciously meritorious involvement in socio-political issues, which is associated with a serious degeneration of genuine ethical substance and indeed a widespread moral laxity of the individual in our society. Thus the moralistic externalisation of life in the Churches is concomitant with a fatal loss in spiritual depth. Or perhaps it should be put the other way round: it is an atrophying of the soul, a deep inward emptiness, that forces people outward where they become absorbed in externalities on the surface of existence, but where, as every true pastor knows, the flock of Christ grows weary with the husks of morality and. hungers for the sheer grace of God.

I would not like to be misunderstood, for I am not asking for the slightest curtailment of concern for any genuine human, moral or social need anywhere in the world. But I am more and more staggered at two things: first, the astonishing volte-face that has been taking place in the Churches of the Reformation, in that they reveal a serious lapse from the centrality of the Gospel of Christ, together with a failure to understand that it is justification by grace alone which creates the ethical disturbance that turns the world upside down; and secondly, the growing contradiction that the western Churches exhibit to Jesus’ total rejection of every value-system based on power, and his proclamation of the new order which cannot be brought about by any form of force, together with a failure to remember that Jesus was crucified by contemporaries who bitterly resented his refusal to have anything whatsoever to do with their political theology.

Let us perform a double thought-experiment. First, let us put the Church of today in the place of Jesus in the wilderness where he was tempted of the devil, and ask how it would be able to stand up to those temptations. Would we be able to resist the temptation to turn stones into bread, in face of the vast hunger of mankind? And what of the temptation to have a compelling demonstration of divine, supernatural power in the temple—could we withstand the seduction which religious prestige like that would bring? And the ultimate temptation of political power which would bring into the Church all the kingdoms of the world and their power and glory? Jesus resisted that temptation too and chose instead the way of the servant, with complete renunciation of all power, in order to fulfil his mission in the utter weakness of the man on the Cross.

Then, let us project the Church of today forward to the last judgment where it will meet Jesus face to face, as he divides the sheep on his right hand from the goats on his left, in the way which he anticipated for us in the parable of Matthew 25. The meritorious Church of today could hardly be placed with the sheep on Christ’s right hand, for they did not know that they had cared for the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick or the imprisoned. That is after all a parable of justification by grace, for grace always takes us by surprise.

1 See The Logic of Liberty (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1951), p. 106; Personal Knowledge (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1958), pp. 232 ff.; Knowing and Being (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1969), pp. 14, 16 ff., 21 f., 44 f.; and ‘Science and Man’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine (1970), vol. 63, pp. 971 ff.

 

From T. F. Torrance, “The Church in the New Era of Scientific and Cosmological Change,” in Theology in Reconciliation: Essays Towards Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 275-78.

Rendering to Caesar: Civil Religion in Transition

 

Bill Evans head shot

I presented an earlier version of this material at Erskine College and Seminary three weeks after 9/11.  In the wake of that horrifying event we Americans struggled to make sense of it all, to recover our national sense of equilibrium.  One of the more visible ways that Americans sought to make sense of it was through religion. Across the nation, countless candlelight prayer vigils and church services were held. Church attendance went up, at least for awhile.  One particularly interesting religious exercise took place at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC on September 14, 2001. This ecumenical service was quite unlike the church services most of us are accustomed to attending. There was a brief but moving speech by President George W. Bush. There were prayers and readings from various religions’ scriptures by a variety of religious leaders—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. The name of Jesus did not figure prominently in the service, except in the sermon by Billy Graham. Shortly after that a prayer service was held at Yankee Stadium in NYC. Here the participants included a Christian minister, a Rabbi, a Muslim Sheik, an Imam, and a Buddhist monk. At these events something “religious” was going on, but it was not, strictly speaking, the religion of the church, nor of the synagogue, nor of the mosque, nor of the Buddhist temple. It was something else. Now I want to pose a question here at the outset: was this “something else” a good thing or a bad thing? In order to answer that question we need to explore a phenomenon that has come to be known as “civil religion.”

We may define “civil religion” as the attempt by a nation or people to understand its history, character, and leadership in terms of transcendent reality and a larger meta-narrative or story, the results of which are not fully identifiable with any particular churchly tradition. This effort finds expression in sacred texts and symbolic events. For Americans, such sacred texts include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and so forth. Symbolic ritual events would include the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the remembrance of wartime dead on Memorial Day, Fourth of July Celebrations, and the like. In all of these texts and ritual events, the name of God is almost invariably invoked. As we explore this topic, I’d like first of all to outline a brief history of “civil religion.”

A Brief History of Civil Religion

The Roman Empire is a convenient place to start. Soon after the fall of the Republic and the establishment of a dictatorship under Julius Caesar, it became common to deify emperors after their deaths. That is to say, shortly after their deaths men such as Octavian and Tiberius were honored as having taken their place among the gods. By the end of the first century AD, living emperors began to be acclaimed as gods, and the public veneration of these “living gods”—the offering of sacrifices and the pouring out of libations—came to be regarded as a mark of good citizenship. Such citizenship requirements posed obvious problems for Christians, who regarded sacrifices to the emperor as idolatry (which, in fact, they were). The struggle between Christianity and Roman civil religion continued until the triumph of Christianity under the Emperor Constantine, and for the remainder of late antiquity and the medieval period it was largely the Christian church that provided the framework of self-understanding for European society.

That situation continued until the Reformation. Suddenly, western Europe was no longer united by a single religious tradition and set of authorities. Wars of religion tore the European continent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. European nations were split between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and since neither could defeat the other, the result was chaos. And so people began to think, “What sort of belief system might provide a basis for a stable society?” Thus the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau called for a “civil religion” of reason in his famous work The Social Contract. Not too many decades later, leaders of the French Revolution tried to impose a religion of reason on the nation of France, with rather disastrous results. Turning to the twentieth century, some historians have suggested that the Nazi ideology was a form of civil religion in extreme form, as a religion of the state effectively sought to subvert and then to replace traditional churchly religion.

But what about the American experience? In America we encounter a complex and interesting form of civil religion, and one that has been extensively studied since the 1960’s by scholars such as Robert Bellah, Peter Berger, Sidney Mead, Michael Novak, Jerald Brauer, and others. Incidentally, my historical summary here is dependent in part upon Robert Bellah’s seminal 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” which is still a good place to start if you want to pursue these issues further.

The roots of American civil religion lie in the Puritan period as thousands of people left England in search of the freedom to worship God as they believed the Bible requires. Moreover, they believed that theirs was a noble and righteous endeavor–they were a chosen people, a “New Israel” establishing a New Jerusalem that would be a light to the world. Witness these words by John Winthrop, first governor of Puritan Massachusetts:

we shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us.

Notice here how biblical imagery is being used to bring a sense of meaning and significance to the early American experience. Out of this Puritan period comes the persistent notion of America as a chosen people, a special nation unlike any other, a special recipient of divine blessing. Moreover, this special nation is viewed as having a divinely appointed role to play—America will enlighten the nations. Some even went so far as to suggest that America’s efforts would usher in the millennium, a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth.

By the Revolutionary period, America’s population has become much more diverse, but once again we find biblical imagery being used. The trip from Europe to the New World was viewed as an exodus from Egypt, with George Washington cast as a second Moses. By this time, the conception of America’s role has been somewhat secularized. The national task is now is not the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, but to be a herald of political freedom and democracy. America’s job, as a later generation put it, was to “make the world safe for democracy.”

The documents of this early national period often refer to God. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, we read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Note that here God is viewed primarily as creator and as one who safeguards the moral order of right and wrong. The documents of the period do not quite approach the Christian God—there is nothing of a Trinity, nor of redemption for sinners through the blood of Christ. This is, after all, “civil religion” rather than churchly religion.

The next crucible of American civil religion was the Civil War period. Here earlier images of America as a chosen privileged nation were augmented by other images of suffering, atonement, sacrifice, death, and rebirth. The most intriguing figure of the period is Abraham Lincoln—a president who never joined a church, but who sought to understand the national situation in powerfully religious terms.  Witness these remarkable words from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, as he muses on the irony of North and South both praying to the same God for victory:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe clue to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him. Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

After Lincoln’s death by an assassin’s bullet, his own person and role came to be viewed in biblical and religious terms as a Christ figure, dying to redeem the nation and to establish what Lincoln himself in the Gettysburg Address called “a new birth of freedom.” These themes of national sacrifice, death and rebirth were then ritually depicted year after year in Memorial Day observances throughout the nation after the war, observances which continue to this day.

By the twentieth century, America had become a much more diverse nation religiously and ethnically than it had been during the Civil War. From its founding though to the mid-nineteenth century, America’s population was predominantly Christian and Protestant. After that, waves of Roman Catholic and Jewish immigration changed the religious face of America. During the nineteen forties and fifties America’s civil religion was further adapted to the new situation of a more pluralistic nation. What emerges is a civil religion of bare formal theism, the lowest common denominator of what most people could identify with. To be sure, during the 1950’s the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and legislation was passed requiring the inclusion of “In God We trust” on all coinage. At the same time, however, it became increasingly gauche to speak of this “God” too specifically. It was during this period that the phrase “Judeo-Christian Tradition” came into common usage. President Dwight Eisenhower was quoted as saying, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith–and I don’t care what it is” (quoted in Bellah, “Civil Religion,” p. 3).

American civil religion and its symbols fell on hard times during the Vietnam conflict of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Even as some such as Richard Nixon sought to support the war effort in Southeast Asia through the symbolism of civil religion, others rejected both the war and the civil religion that seemed to support it. The results of all this seemed to be a sense of national anxiety and malaise that extended through the 1970’s. But with the election of Ronald Reagan, civil religion once again became respectable. Presidents Reagan and Clinton were both adept at wielding the symbolism of civil religion.  President George W. Bush extensively used the rhetoric of an American mission to the world—in this case bringing democracy to the Middle East—but that rhetoric fell rather flat.

If public ritual events are any indication, we are in a new stage of American civil religion. Today, America is more diverse than at any previous stage in its history. Furthermore, there is an ideology of multiculturalism at work, which celebrates diversity for its own sake. It affirms not just the presence of multiple perspectives, but their validity. Today even the notion of a Judeo-Christian ethos seems too narrow and confining for many. And so, at public prayer services we often see not only Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish clergy taking part, but also Muslim and Buddhist clerics. While the older civil religion celebrated what Americans had in common (however little that may have been) the new civil religion celebrates diversity itself. Moreover, there is reason to think that this new civil religion of ideological pluralism is aimed at subverting the exclusiveness of traditional Christian teaching that salvation is only through Jesus Christ. The implications of this new civil religion for our nation remain to be seen.

Observations and Prospect

What can we learn from this survey? Several conclusions stand out from all of this. First, civil religion emerges in situations where no single church or religious faith can claim an overwhelming majority. Where all subscribe to a single faith there is simply no need for civil religion. We should also note that the idea of civil religion is foreign to Islam, which holds that the mosque must control all aspects of life.

Second, we have seen that American civil religion has changed dramatically. It has moved from the robust monotheism of the Puritans, to the somewhat attenuated theism of the Republican period, to the minimalistic, bare-bones theism of the 1950’s, to the contemporary celebration of theistic, polytheistic, and non-theistic religious and secular diversity. In other words, when we talk about civil religion we are dealing with a moving target.

Third, I would also suggest that civil religion is inevitable in a pluralistic society. As sociologist Peter Berger noted in his book The Sacred Canopy, there seems to be something about us as human beings that requires us to legitimize and understand ourselves and our societies in terms of ultimate reality, to seek the resources of religion as we try fathom our place in the world. We seek to justify ourselves and our way of life as that which God desires, or as the goal of history, and so forth. But if civil religion is inevitable in a pluralistic society (and our society is nothing if not pluralistic) then civil religion is something that we must come to terms with.

We began by asking whether civil religion is a good thing or a bad thing. Given the complexity of the issue, the only answer we can give is: It depends. On the one hand, civil religion can be profoundly invidious and even demonic. Here the emperor worship of the Roman empire, the civil religion of reason of the French Revolution, and the Nazi civil religion of the German Volk come to mind. In each of these instances, the state was identified with ultimate reality, and in each of these instances the result was tyranny and idolatry. Christians cannot rightly participate in such civil religion. Even American civil religion has sometimes had negative consequences. In the nineteenth century, the idea of America as a chosen nation was transformed into the secular notion of Manifest Destiny–it was God’s will that America spread over the continent from “sea to shining sea,” and woe to any heathen native Americans who got in the way. That is to say, the deplorable treatment of Native Americans was due in part to the dynamics of American civil religion. Civil religion can also quickly deteriorate into a civic boosterism that simply baptizes governmental program and policy.

On the other hand, civil religion has, historically at least, had a remarkable unifying function. It has made it possible for Americans to come together around what they have held in common, without forcing them to compromise their beliefs about specific religious doctrines. Moreover, American civil religion, with its affirmation of a transcendent Creator and lawgiver, has provided a bulwark against statist tyranny. Even the state is subject to the law and judgment of God. The state is not absolute. It cannot do whatever it wants. Thus, civil religion, with its focus upon God as moral governor, has stood in service to the noble American political experiment of democratic, limited government.

But what about the new situation, the new emerging American civil religion that we have witnessed in recent decades? Here I think some pointed questions need to be asked. Some have to do, first of all, with what we may call the problem of content. This is a problem that all Americans need to think about. We have seen that American civil religion has been gradually emptied of theistic content, to the point that we are now reduced to celebrating our differences. But here we must ask, can a nation be united on the basis of its differences, on the basis of its lack of religious unity? Furthermore, can the emerging non-theistic civil religion provide a sufficient basis for the legitimization of society? That is to say, is it capable of providing a foundation for America’s leadership and institutions so that these are generally acknowledged as worthy of respect? Now this is of great importance, for American democracy arose in the context of a broadly Christian monotheism. The Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution did not arise out of a culture dominated by Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Islam. Will our political institutions begin to collapse from lack of moral support as the older civil religion erodes and is displaced by something else?  On this issue the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas created quite a stir when he said:

Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk. (Habermas, Time of Transitions [Polity, 2006], 150-51)

In other words, for the purposes of our discussion the implication seems to be that a civil religion that diverges too far from the truths enshrined in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures may be of rather little use in preserving what needs to be conserved.

There is also what we may call the problem of observance. This is a problem that Christians in particular must confront. To what extent may evangelical Christians participate in the new emerging civil religion? This is a difficult question. Historically, Americans found it plausible to believe (rightly or wrongly) that most of us were praying to the same God. But now as our civil religion rituals present us with the public prayers of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, not to mention the “meditations” of utter secularists, some of us are not so sure. This calls for wisdom. As the new civil religion unfolds, there will doubtless be situations where Christians must withdraw in order to maintain their integrity. Other situations will present us with opportunities to bear witness to the truth. As American Christians, we are entering uncharted territory. In Matthew 22:15-22 Jesus is asked whether one should pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus answered, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This suggests that we have responsibilities both to God and to Caesar. But the time may come when civil religion (rendering to Caesar) and Christian faith (rendering to God) stand in opposition to one another. The time may come when Christian faith compels us to oppose an idolatrous civil religion.  We need discernment to read the signs of the times.

Above all, let us never make the mistake of confusing civil religion, valuable though it may be in some forms and circumstances, with the fullness of God’s revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. To put it bluntly, civil religion never saved anybody. A merely civil righteousness is not the saving righteousness of Christ.

Evangelicals, the Virtue/Voting Connection, and the Return of Instrumental Politics

Bill Evans head shot

PCA minister Tim Keller’s recent article in The New Yorker magazine excoriates a lot of his fellow evangelicals for their support of the current President, and it has provoked considerable discussion.

Keller’s point about mid-20th century lowest-common-denominator evangelicalism leaving many evangelicals historically rootless has some merit. He writes: “The desire by mid-twentieth-century leaders to foster more widespread coöperation between evangelicals and downplay denominational differences cut believers off from the past, some religion scholars have found. The result was an emphasis on personal experience rather than life in a church with historical memory.” There’s something to that, but the way Keller uses the insight—as an explanation for why many who self-identify as evangelicals vote as they do and support the candidates they support—is rather too cerebral and misses a lot.

Keller argues, in essence, that the problem with so-called “evangelical Trump voters” is that they don’t know enough theology.  This, it seems to me, is yet another example of the sort of disembodied-brains-on-sticks argument for which Reformed types, with their cerebral bent, have an embarrassing weakness. It’s kind of like the old Neo-Calvinist argument that if we just get people’s “worldview” in order all will be well—a canard that has been rightly challenged by philosopher Jamie Smith, sociologist James Davison Hunter, and others.

During the election I talked with a pretty broad range of evangelical voters—ranging from a college professor who voted for Bernie, to a well-taught PCA office holder who was a total Trump supporter during the primaries, to an ordained minister and graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary who enthusiastically voted for Trump in the primary—and I find Keller’s argument less than convincing. Something else is going on, and I’m pretty sure that the answers are cultural/sociological rather than intellectual/theological. And this is coming from someone who was trained as an intellectual historian!  I remember being rather put out with those two evangelical Trump supporters I mentioned, but they were sensing something in the air or water to which I was oblivious.  Apparently a lot of people were!

Two additional aspects of Keller’s article strike me as open to question.

First, his distinction between big-E “white Evangelicalism” (in bondage to conservative politics) and small-e evangelicalism (politically and racially diffuse and characterized by a dogged commitment to the quadrilateral of evangelical identity outlined by historian David Bebbington: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism) really doesn’t work all that well when you examine it closely. In fact, much of the Evangelical institutional establishment (e.g., The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today Magazine, Christian colleges and seminaries, etc.) agrees with Keller on these issues. It’s the more populist Evangelicals who voted for Trump and Moore, not so much because they think those men are paragons of virtue, but because they are looking to the political process for protection from an increasingly oppressive secular establishment.

Keller’s argument sounds suspiciously like a would-be member of the cultural elite bemoaning how the hoi polloi are complicating his efforts to minister to the politically progressive up and outers in Manhattan.  At the end of the day, he seems to be trying to carve out some space for a politically progressive, albeit theologically conservative evangelicalism that reflects his own sensibilities. I understand all that, but he could show a bit more sympathy and respect for the evangelical brothers and sisters who differ with him politically. And there is a certain irony here that should not be missed—Keller wants to affirm traditional sexual morality, but he recoils from those politically active conservative Christians who are trying to protect Keller and other conservative Christians from the secular progressive onslaught.

If Keller read Bebbington a bit more carefully, he would also realize that “activism” is kind of hardwired into the evangelical DNA, and that political and social activism (e.g., abolitionism, temperance, pro-life, etc.) has been more the rule than the exception among evangelicals over the last two centuries.  The exception, of course, was the large-scale withdrawal of evangelicals from politics and cultural engagement from the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy until the rise of the Religious Right, a disengagement that was driven by the cultural pessimism of a dominant Dispensationalism and a strong aversion to the Social Gospel.

Second (and building on the above), Keller’s accusation of hypocrisy rings a bit hollow. To be sure, Keller’s rhetoric is strident. He says that the “doggedly conservative” stance of some evangelicals and their willingness “to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions” has elicited “disgust” along with the “fury and incredulity of many in the larger population.” Those are strong words, and the assumption here seems to be that people should always vote for virtuous candidates or risk being labeled hypocrites.  Frankly, I was surprised by the vitriol of Keller’s piece. Even given the venue and virtue signaling, it was over the top, and was not at all what I expected from a fellow who has written some pretty solid things over the years.

But Keller’s assumption about the nexus of virtue and voting is not necessarily shared by those whom Keller excoriates, and another more charitable explanation readily presents itself. Once again, the people who voted for Trump and Moore are not stupid; nor, I suspect, are they by and large hypocritical. Rather, they are returning to an instrumental view of political process—they vote for the candidate who they think can do the things they want done.

Now I’ll admit that, in light of their rhetoric in recent decades, evangelicals are to some degree open to the charge of hypocrisy, and this situation has not been helped by the more buffoonish Trump proponents like Jerry Falwell, Jr.  We are, after all, the products of our history.  Evangelicals responded to the sexual revolution and the resulting collapse of the family (actually, the collapse of the family is a lot more complicated than just an entailment of the sexual revolution) by emphasizing “family values” and drawing a close connection between personal morality/family values and voting. “Values voting” was a linchpin of the Religious Right/Moral Majority. That, of course, teed up the ball for the Monica Lewinsky/Ken Starr brouhaha involving Bill Clinton, and now many are quick to point out that some of the same people who called for Clinton’s impeachment for soliciting sexual favors from an intern are now making excuses for Trump’s boorish and sexually profligate behavior.

The Religious Right’s “values voting” strategy was inseparably connected with the notion that the culture of the nation could be changed by politics and that America could be restored as a “Christian nation.” But the cultural landscape has changed drastically since the 1980s. As Rod Dreher has rightly noted in his book The Benedict Option, the culture war is over, and conservative Christians lost. Now, in some ways at least, conservative Christians are returning to an older model of voting that is more instrumental.

Some sort of connection between values and voting has always been there, and most people like to think that the person they are voting for is, generally speaking, a decent person rather than a moral leper.  But this connection is increasingly difficult to maintain, and for at least two reasons.  First, this connection works much better when there is a basic societal consensus about matter of right and wrong. That situation no longer obtains.  We live in an age of moral confusion, and I would argue that the general moral incoherence of our culture on these matters is nowhere more evident that in the fact that we have a sitting President who is condemned for his sexual escapades and a sitting Vice President who is roundly mocked for trying to live a monogamous and sexually pure life that is above reproach.  Second, this connection has become problematic in that the virtuous are harder to find, especially in Washington, where it appears that Lord Acton was right about that business of power corrupting.  In an internet age of tabloid journalism, public figures have fewer and fewer secrets.

Interestingly, liberals delinked personal values/morality and voting/policy much earlier, in part because of the Vietnam War (that’s an interesting topic in itself that has been explored by sociologists like Robert Wuthnow) and in part because of their embracing of the sexual revolution. Now, interestingly, that delinking has come back to bite them as a host of progressive icons have been behaving badly! But I digress.

Returning to the present, many evangelicals realize that politics is a messy business, and that they are not electing a national pastor. They know, for example, that a good many recent American presidents have been serial philanderers and worse, and that if one must vote for virtue, the slate will be a short one. They know that Martin Luther King, Jr., whose leadership of the Civil Rights Movement and ability to bring biblical imagery to bear on the contradictions of the American racial situation were both remarkable and heroic, was morally compromised.

This new instrumental politics on the part of some evangelicals may be Realpolitik, but it is a realism that is not only inevitable in the current cultural climate but also may represent a pretty deep intuitive awareness of the ambiguities of the human condition. Perhaps Tim Keller can learn something from them.

Machen’s Militancy Revisited

Bill Evans head shot

It has now been over 81 years since J. Gresham Machen was laid to rest in Baltimore, Maryland on January 5, 1937 after succumbing to pneumonia while on a speaking tour in the Dakotas.

Machen’s legacy is complicated.  He was a distinguished scholar whose writings, such as The Origin of Paul’s Religion, The Virgin Birth of Christ, and Christianity and Liberalism, are still in print and profitably read, and a long-time professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who left that institution in 1929 to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He was a key player in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy as it played out in the Presbyterian Church, USA, but he was clearly cut from different cloth than many who embraced the term “fundamentalist.”  The skeptic H. L. Mencken, in his January 18, 1937 obituary of Machen entitled “Dr. Fundamentalis,” took considerable pains to distinguish Machen from the less learned: “The generality of readers, I suppose, gathered thereby the notion that he was simply another Fundamentalist on the order of William Jennings Bryan and the simian faithful of Appalachia. But he was actually a man of great learning, and, what is more, of sharp intelligence.”

Machen

Perhaps most significant for our time is the connection often drawn between Machen and conservative Christian militancy, a come-outer, sectarian mentality that draws lines both sharply and narrowly and takes no prisoners in ecclesiastical conflict.  For example, we think immediately of John Frame’s widely circulated article “Machen’s Warrior Children,” which examines the history of theological conflict in conservative American Presbyterianism.  As Frame puts it, “Machen’s children were theological battlers, and, when the battle against liberalism in the PCUSA appeared to be over, they found other theological battles to fight. Up to the present time, these and other battles have continued within the movement, and, in my judgment, that is the story of conservative evangelical Reformed theology in twentieth-century America.”

Frame goes on to examine 21 areas of conflict that have helped to divide conservative Reformed people in the decades since Machen’s death.  If I’m reading it correctly, the essence of Frame’s argument is one of theological inertia.  Once the snowball of conflict started rolling down the hill, it was difficult to stop.  Or, to use a slightly different analogy, once the genie of theological conflict was unleashed, it was difficult to put it back in the bottle: “The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a ‘true Presbyterian church’ they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.”  Perhaps even more damningly, Frame adds that a balance of truth and love “was not characteristic of the Machen movement.”

There can be little doubt that conflict—often needless and ultimately pretty pointless conflict—has been a legacy of 20th century conservative Presbyterianism, but I’m wondering whether Machen is getting a bum rap here.

For one thing, most of the 21 areas of conflict cited by Frame have nothing to do with Machen.  And more to the point, as Frame himself admits, Machen sometimes evinced a breadth of vision and tolerance, and one that I would suggest doesn’t fit without remainder into the “warrior children” thesis.  For example, the seminary he founded included faculty members representing the range of conservative Reformed thinking at that time—American Presbyterians such as Machen, R. D. Wilson, Paul Wooley and O. T. Allis, the mild dispensationalist Allen MacRae, Dutch Reformed such as Cornelius Van Til and R. B. Kuiper, and the Scot John Murray.  The fact that that that broad faculty coalition could not be sustained for a variety of reasons after Machen’s death does not detract from the breadth of Machen’s inclusive vision for the school.

Furthermore, the church Machen helped to found—the Presbyterian Church of America (not to be confused with the current Presbyterian Church in America)—was, even by our standards today, a sort of big-tent conservatism embracing American, Dutch, and Scottish strains, and including people ranging from Murray and Van Til to the premillennial fundamentalist stalwart Carl McIntire.  Once again, the fact that this rather broad coalition did not long survive Machen’s death does not detract from the broader impulse he evinced.

As it happens, I have a personal connection to Machen.  My paternal grandfather was a classmate of Machen at Princeton Theological Seminary.  They were members of the class of 1905, a class that also included Clarence Macartney and O. T. Allis.  While my grandfather remained a “Westminster Confession man” to his dying day and as pastor of the Harlem-New York Presbyterian Church was involved in the 1922-23 controversy over Harry Emerson Fosdick, he stayed in the Presbyterian Church, USA (and moderated the General Assembly of 1946). My grandfather’s stories about Machen were passed down to my father (also a PTS graduate) and so I grew up hearing tales of “Das” Machen from time to time.  Some of those stories focused on Machen’s personal eccentricities (he was a life-long bachelor and somewhat odd personally), but some were more substantial.

Perhaps the most interesting is an anecdote recorded in my grandfather’s privately published memoirs.  In a chapter on the 1920s, he wrote:

Still, the conflict set off by Dr. Fosdick’s sermon continued.  On the liberal side, Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin preached his widely-quoted sermon on a text that really had nothing to do with doctrine but, in contrast, with a storm and shipwreck—Acts 27:31: “Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.”  Using this text out of context, Dr. Coffin urged that all liberals and conservatives abide in the ‘Good Ship Presbyterian Church,’ that there be no split, no division.  His thesis was that the Presbyterian Church should be inclusive, making room for both conservatives and liberals.  On the conservative side, there were others who were for separation on doctrinal grounds, citing such a text as 2 Corinthians 6:17: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.”  Among these was Dr. J. Gresham Machen, my Seminary classmate, who said to me one day in the Princeton Inn, “Evans, we conservatives from all denominations ought to withdraw and unite in a Biblically true or Gospel Church.”  I do not know whether this distinguished theologian changed his mind before his early death.  My other classmate and strong defender and contender for the faith, Dr. Clarence Macartney, never declared himself on Separation but remained a Presbyterian Christian until “journey’s end.”  Gradually the theological conflict or fire of the 1920’s died down, only to break out again in the 1960’s.  (Frederick Walter Evans, Reminiscences of a Long Life [privately published, 1981], 22)

Here we see stark evidence that principled conservatives could come to different conclusions in the context of the struggles of the 1920s.  We also see that Machen’s separationist impulse was in service to a broader vision of Christian unity in the truth of the gospel.

In fact, the historical record seems to indicate that Machen was the, dare I say it, ecumenical glue that held the disparate conservative Presbyterian coalition of the 1920s and 1930s together, and it is more than a bit ironic that he sometimes gets blamed for the sectarianism that seems to afflict conservative Presbyterians today.