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Religious diversity as part of civil religion

Posted: December 8, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Pluralism

Sociologist of religion Peter Berger relates the story of his visit to a Hindu house of worship in Temple, Texas:

A few months ago I was driving with a colleague in central Texas. As we passed the town of Temple, he asked me whether I would like to look at the recently constructed Hindu sanctuary. Of course I did. (I don’t know whether the choice of location was dictated by the name of the town.) My colleague was not sure of the way, so we had to ask. Everyone knew how to get to the “Hindu church”. It is an impressively large building. The architecture is unmistakably Indian. There was no priest there, but we were shown around by a very friendly lay member of the community, an engineer. (As is typical of Hindus in America, most of whom are professionals with higher education). Two things impressed me on this tour. One was the physical setup inside the sanctuary—a large common area for community worship services, attended on important holidays by large numbers from all over the region, and some eight or ten small chapels, each dedicated to a specific divinity. Our guide explained that in India, most temples are dedicated to one or two gods. This cannot be done here, as immigrants come from all over India. So the temple has to have provisions for the worship of an array of gods and goddesses—a wonderfully American modification of Hindu piety. The other thing that impressed me was our guide’s reply to a question of mine. I asked him whether they had encountered any hostility from the neighbors. None at all, he said. People were curious, but consistently friendly. Note: This is the heart of the Bible Belt. I wonder whether the neighbors’ reaction would have been equally friendly, say, fifty years ago. Putnam and Campbell are right: America has become both more diverse and more tolerant. Good news, I think.

Berger discusses this in the context of how Americans deal with religious diversity (and he believes that religions are truly diverse, in contrast to the belief that all religions are basically the same).  Interestingly, he also discusses religious diversity in the context of American civil religion, which I usually think of as a broad belief that God is pleased with our political system and a hope that he will bless us in the present in future as he has in the past.  Berger defines American civil religion differently:

As to the American civil religion, it is built on a very profound insight indeed—the intrinsic worth of every human individual as an individual, regardless of any collective identifications, including the ones based on religion. This civil religion has, of course, its sacred texts (notably the Constitution), which are often understood in a fundamentalist manner. But more importantly, I think, this creed is lived by many people who don’t read any texts.

I found these insights to be quite interesting.  I don’t know what all the positive or negative implications for Christian faithfulness are, but I thought that I would pass this on.

A Thought-provoking article on health care reform

Posted: December 8, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Christ & Culture, Ethics

Last fall, David Goldhill wrote an article that seemed to get a lot of attention.  I finally read it this summer and now I’m finally posting about it.  Sure, health care reform passed in March, but I don’t think anybody believes that will be the last word.  Many liberals felt it fell short of their hopes and they will almost certainly press for future reforms along the same lines, and many conservatives want it repealed.  So I think that it’s still a relevant topic, if only to become more informed for the whatever the next round of proposals is.

Goldhill, a Democrat, argues that the health care system is based on many faulty premises, like the idea that health insurance should pay for everything.  Two of the subtitles in the article show some of his important points: “Health Care Isn’t Health (Or Happiness)” and “Health Insurance Isn’t Health Care.”

I could do the hard work of summarizing the article, but instead I’m going to give an excerpt the estimable Peter Leithart’s post (from which I originally learned of Goldhill’s article) in which he includes two key quotes that show the gist of the argument:

The problem is with the incentives built into the system: “Accidentally, but relentlessly, America has built a health-care system with incentives that inexorably generate terrible and perverse results. Incentives that emphasize health care over any other aspect of health and well-being. That emphasize treatment over prevention. That disguise true costs. That favor complexity, and discourage transparent competition based on price or quality. That result in a generational pyramid scheme rather than sustainable financing. And that—most important—remove consumers from our irreplaceable role as the ultimate ensurer of value.”

The solution is not the kind of reform on the table in DC; insisting on universal insurance is only dealing out more of the problem in Goldhill’s view.  Rather, the solution is to return the consumer to the center of the system: “To achieve maximum coverage at acceptable cost with acceptable quality, health care will need to become subject to the same forces that have boosted efficiency and value throughout the economy. We will need to reduce, rather than expand, the role of insurance; focus the government’s role exclusively on things that only government can do (protect the poor, cover us against true catastrophe, enforce safety standards, and ensure provider competition); overcome our addiction to Ponzi-scheme financing, hidden subsidies, manipulated prices, and undisclosed results; and rely more on ourselves, the consumers, as the ultimate guarantors of good service, reasonable prices, and sensible trade-offs between health-care spending and spending on all the other good things money can buy.”

I’d really recommend the article.  I don’t know if all of his solutions are right, but the analysis of the system seems quite good.

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly had a story over the summer about a Cleveland company called Lincoln Electric.  Check out the video in the link (a little less than 10 minutes) or see the transcript by clicking on the link.  Do you think that this is a good business model?  I wish I knew more about business and economics so I’d have a better answer.

Defending Christendom

Posted: December 8, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Christ & Culture, Church History, History, Politics
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There’s a lot in Peter Leithart’s interview with Jason Hood at the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology’s website, so I won’t try to summarize it all.  Leithart is, as he says, “an advocate of Christendom” who believes that Christians are to tell rulers that they must “kiss the Son” (Psalm 2) and obey the risen Lord of the universe, Jesus Christ.

Here are a couple of excerpts, but I’d really suggest that you take 15 minutes or so to read the whole thing if this topic interests you:

Political theology is not some specialized branch of theology, but a dimension of all theology.  Politics is not simply about passing this legislation or electing that candidate.  Politics addresses questions about the distribution of power, and more broadly questions about the shape and future of a group.  Theology cannot help but address those questions, and do it all the time.  The Bible certainly deals with political questions like this.

So, even when I am not doing political theology, I am doing political theology.  Let me given a couple of examples of what I mean.  Ecclesiology has been a major focus of my work, and, as I see it, that bumps directly up against political questions.  The intimate connection between ecclesiology and politics has been obscured in modernity because the church has been marginalized and has allowed itself to be transformed into a sociologically invisible and politically innocuous religious group.  Scripture, by contrast, treats the church as a political entity in itself, each individual congregation as an outpost of the heavenly empire of a heavenly Emperor.   That means that the church and its claims about Jesus, sin, and salvation are political claims, necessarily.

Secondly,

7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

PL:  I do think that the mix of these three postures varies depending on the political circumstances, and depending on the person involved.   And Scripture indicates that men and women can work faithfully even under the worst of rulers – think of Obadiah during the days of Ahab.  In thinking through this, my thoughts again gravitate to ecclesiological issues.  Daniel was able to serve, but also maintain a critical distance, because he was a member of another community, of Israel.  It seems that Christians today have difficulty maintaining that complex stance, or doing that complicated dance, because we don’t have an alternative home.  When Christians enter political life deeply conscious of the fact that they are members of the church, Christians first and foremost, that gives them a place to stand when they critique and when they serve.

I noticed significant overlap between the eccelesiology of Leithart and that of James Davison Hunter in To Change the World.  Both long for a church that is a true alternate community and that forms its members so that they can engage with society in a way that pleases God.  A big difference, of course, is Leithart’s postmillenial confidence that the kingdom will triumph in history, while Hunter has more of a two kingdoms view.

To see a bit of where Leithart is coming from eschatologically, check out his sketch of “the long view.”  The consideration of just war and total war that he discusses can be found here.

Hat tip: Justin Taylor

A North Korean Student’s Testimony

Posted: December 8, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Korea, Missional Thought

Bill Walsh at Desiring God posted a video of her testimony and also linked to the reaction of Michael Oh, the Korean president of Christ Bible Seminary in Japan.

Oh recently wrote another post on the Desiring God blog and his mission in Japan was profiled here.

Collin Hansen has a summary here.

Also, Desiring God had posts here and here about the debate.

Finally, Trevin Wax has a post with good resources here.

Kevin DeYoung posted his friend Jason Carter’s thoughts about the Lausanne Congress here.  Here’s one part that grabbed my attention:

Perhaps the strongest prophetic voice issuing from Cape Town came from Dr. Joseph D’Souza from India when he spoke out against the Indian Caste System as (a form of modern) slavery in its subjugation of 250 million Dalit peoples.  D’Souza made the point that if apartheid was wrong, then so too the Caste System:  “25% of India’s population —  250 million people — has no rights, dehumanized, segregated, and silently enduring an apartheid system in India. We, of course, in India hang our heads in shame…”  D’Souza stated that there are more slaves in our world today than when William Wilberforce fought the Transatlantic slave trade and closed his rousing and prophetic message by calling forth the involvement of the global church:   “I am here to say to you here at Cape Town that nothing but the concerted opinion and involvement of the global church will bring down human civilization’s longest lasting slave system.”

I think that D’Souza’s eight minutes on the Lausanne platform, 20 years from now, might be one of the defining hallmarks of Lausanne III if the global church – working with Dalit Christians – manages to prophetically speak out and live out Christ’s transforming power in the midst of this (unbelievably) large-scale injustice, reconstituting Indian society from the bottom-up for the glory of Christ.

The link in the quote goes to D’Souza’s speech.

He says that the Dalits (Untouchables) have four pleas for the church:

  1. Free our children from socialization into inferiority and vulnerable to abuse and discrimination.
  2. Free our women from sexual predation.
  3. Be a voice.
  4. Bring the alternative community that Jesus promised, the church in which there is no discrimination.

Notice that in the first two points he gives examples of Dalits who saw redemption in their lives.

The BBC story that he referred to, about the Catholic graveyard with a wall between Dalit and non-Dalit graves, is here.  That’s the kind of stark image that can really symbolize injustice, like the separate Bibles for swearing in witnesses in the Jim Crow South.  Wikipedia’s article on caste and Christianity has more information.

Lord, move in the hearts and lives of your people everywhere to build your church into the community that you desire.