George Will began his 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft by telling his friends and critics to his political right and political left that “it’s more complicated than you think.” And this has become something of my mantra as I listen to politicians and people talking politics these days.
The bitter partisan divide of our country, its fragmentation into Red and Blue camps with membership assured only by a slash and burn mentality that can acknowledge no integrity and concede no intelligence to those who have lined up on the opposite side of a social, moral, economic and/or political issue from your own is not serving us well. The death of Howard Baker last week, and the affectionate eulogies of him as a strong partisan political leader who nevertheless understood the fine art of negotiation and the real value compromise in our governance process has left me longing for “the good old days.” As I said at the end of my sermon yesterday in our “Freedom and Democracy” Service at 8:30 am (see “When Christians Disagree” in the “Sermons” file under “Worship” @ northwaychristian.org) –
Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen were lions of the Senate in their day. Politically, at the point of party, policy and legislation, they were almost always at odds. But when he was Vice President, Hubert Humphrey said of Everett Dirksen, his longtime political rival, that while he rarely agreed with him, that he never doubted the sincerity of his heart nor questioned the validity of his Christianity.
It’s that kind of honesty and modesty that I find to be so absent from the present political climate and in most of the current political debates. Today, the motives of those with whom you politically disagree are more likely to be impugned, their concerns dismissed, their sincerity questioned and their beliefs mocked. This is bad enough when it happens in society at large, but it is even more troubling to me when I see it happening between brothers and sisters inside the Christian community of faith.
As I have said before, I have a real problem with Christians, and especially ministers, becoming so partisan politically that it interferes with their ability to share Christ with and to offer God’s grace to those who have a different perspective. My August 28, 2012 blog “Frankly, I Don’t Care Who You Are Going to Vote For” still stands. I think that it is spiritual malpractice of the highest order when a minister holds and states his or her political opinions in such a way that those whose political conclusions differ feel like they cannot relate to them spiritually or trust them with their souls. But beyond this, it seems to me that if anybody should be able to appreciate the kind of complexity that George Will identified at the beginning of his book, it should be Christians who acknowledge the inspiration and authority of Scripture.
One of the things that the evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer taught me was about how that the Bible teaches its truths. He included in the Appendix of his book The Church Before the Watching World an essay he called “Some Absolute Limits.” This is where he introduced me to the notion of “circles and cliffs.” He said that the Bible does not teach us its truths by providing us with “precisely worded” dogmatic statements which allow for no variation at all. “The Christian doctrinal and intellectual position” Francis Schaeffer explained, “lays down a circle rather than a point, or, to say it another way, doctrines are not merely lines to be repeated.” A circle has a line past which we “fall off the edge of the cliff,” but within which we have real freedom of exploration and expression. R. Paul Stevens, another evangelical theologian, takes this idea a step even further and suggests that within that circle of God’s truth found in Scripture there is a kind of “inspired ambiguity” that requires of us a “contemplative approach.”
Pick a topic of current political and social interest, and try to “think Christianly” about it (Harry Blarmires – The Christian Mind – 13), which is to say, go to Scripture and try to identify all of the relevant principles that have a bearing on the topic. Let these principles draw the circumference of the circle, and then when you’re finished, take a step back and see just how big the circle is. If you are true to Scripture, following the contours of its teachings past the neat and tidy doctrinal, moral and ethical packages that have become substitutes for actually having to look at the Bible for yourself, you will bump into what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther called the Bible’s “furious opposites.” The Bible teaches all of its important truths by way of paradox: God is one and three; Christ is God and Man; we are saved by faith without works, but saving faith always includes works; The Kingdom of God has already come but is not yet here; the Bible is the Word of God and the words of men. Need I go on?
The Jewish rabbis called this “halakic reasoning,” and they said that God’s truth is always found when both strands of a paradox are held in tension and balance (James R. Lucas – Knowing the Unknowable God – xiv). “It’s the process of firmly grabbing both ideas in a paradox and them merging the two into a greater understanding.” Our assignment as people of Biblical faith is to navigate these narrow passages between the Bible’s great opposite truths. R. Paul Stevens calls it “the contemplative approach” to Scripture.
This approach views the ambiguity of Scripture as a pointer to God, an indicator of truths so great that they can only be seen in full from God-height. A contemplative view takes seriously the fact that the Bible is more often historical than abstract, more often narrative and metaphorical than systematic. A contemplative approach welcomes the mystery…
When we fire off our political conclusions with black and white clarity and open and closed certainty, we are short-circuiting this process by letting go of the paradox, shutting down the conversation with those who have decided the question differently from us and confusing those for whom the answer to the question is just not so obvious. And, for a minister to occupy a political position, firing off his or her opinion like an MSNBC hostess or a FOX News host without any reference to the Biblical principles that are at work in their reasoning process of “thinking Christianly” is to abdicate the unique role that he or she has to play in this whole exercise.
People learn how to make chicken cacciatorie not by seeing the final product beautifully plattered on a cooking show on the Food Network, but by seeing the step by step process of the prepping, chopping, sautéing and baking. And it’s not what a minister thinks about a topic of political and social interest that matters, but rather how a minister as a Christian trained in theology, ethics, church history and Biblical interpretation thinks that is massively important. Unfortunately, it’s easier to be a pundit than a pastor, and so the political broadsides fly, hitting their targets but failing to advance the cause of “thinking Christianly” that is the greatest need of the hour. DBS+