Monday, December 31, 2007

Wanted: A Conservatism Sans...

The Summer 2007 issue of Modern Age (archive here) includes an interesting symposium on "Why I Am a Conservative." While some of the essays are given to ideological whining, some are very engaging, throughtful pieces (see especially the essays by Christopher Olaf Blum and Jeffrey Hart). Anyone who is working with some caricatured notion that "conservative" simply means "pro-Bush" or "Religious Right" or "neo-con" should pull their head out of the equally-ideological liberal sands it's stuck in and dip into this symposium, starting with Blum and Hart.

I continue to find myself deeply sympathetic to a conservatism that owes more to Edmund Burke than Ronald Reagan. And so reading a symposium like this continues to be a tantalizing exercise in exasperation. My margins are regularly marked, "Yes! Amen!" and then, "What?! Why?" Why does conservatism seem to come with so much extraneous (even, I would contend, inherently contradictory) baggage? Am I the only one who dreams of a conservatism without nationalism, without militarism, and without capitalism? Can't we imagine a conservatism without Americanism (just how could a revolutionary project be "conservative," again?)? A conservatism without a Constantinian Christendom?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Last Prophet of Leviathan

Some Fors Clavigera readers might be interested in my review of Mark Lilla's book, The Stillborn God, which now appears on the "Immanent Frame" blog hosted by the Social Science Research Council.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Baptismal Promises and Automobility

I tend to waver between Baptism and Eucharist as my favorite sacraments (I'm sure the very notion of a "favorite" sacrament is rather adolescent and probably heretical, but alas...). Today, on the final Sunday of advent, a family in our congregation joined the long heritage of those presenting their child for baptism, sealing the promises of the covenant. An important part of the liturgy is not only the promises that the parents make to care for their child and raise him in the faith, but also the promises that the congregation makes to be the family of God to these parents and for this child. Turning to the congregation, the minister asks us whether we will promise to care for, nurture, instruct and support the child and his parent, to be a community that provides Christian instruction and formation, encouraging him to become a disciple of Jesus and a citizen of the kingdom, to which we respond: "We do, God helping us."

The congregational vow is a reminder that the nuclear family is insufficient for the formation of faith-full children--that the tiny enclaves of our "private" homes can't bear the weight of what the vocation of parenting calls us to do. Thus the baptismal vows are one of those glimmers in the church's life where we actually renounce the American gospel of individualism and self-sufficiency, of so-called "family values."

But I've been wondering of late: what do such promises mean in a culture of automobility and transience? What does it mean for us to promise to raise and nurture this infant when, because of our market-driven habits, either he or we will likely have moved on to "bigger and better" things before he's in 10th-grade catechism class? What is the traction of a vow for a people that tend to commercial nomadism?

I suppose, at the very least, that the catholicity of the church should mean we assume the promises made by our brothers and sisters in Denver or Pella, in St. Catherine's or London. Certainly. But it's not quite the same as sticking around to see this young baby, baptized today, emerge as a disciple of Jesus right here in the neighborhood. What if we started thinking of baptismal promises as real estate anchors--that our commitments to care for a community of children might trump our other "opportunities?"

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Quintessence of Dust

I'm not prone to "shout outs," but I'd like to make an exception to the rule in order to point folks to my biologist colleague Steve Matheson's excellent blog, "Quintessence of Dust," devoted primarily to issues in the science/religion dialogue, and particularly (of late) the issues and questions raised by Dawkins, Dennett and their ilk, on the one hand, and the "folk science" of creationism and 'Intelligent Design' on the other. He's doing battle on both fronts in a way that is both irenic and no-holds-barred. He's currently enjoying a sabbatical (doing research at the Van Andel Institute) which has been a perfect opportunity for him to regularly post thoughtful, engaging entries.

In short, I think Steve's blog is a model of why the blogosphere should exist. Add it to your feed or bookmarks and enjoy.

Friday, December 07, 2007

What's Your "Walk Score?"

The good folks at Comment magazine, published by the Work Research Foundation, pointed me to, a site that allows you to plot the "walkability" of your neighborhood, or to use as a tool when considering a move. Just type in your address, click, and see how your house rates. Our house scored a respectable 77. From first glance, it seems to me that the site should also factor walkability to public transit. But an interesting snapshot of one's built environment.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The God of Americanism: On Mitt Romney's "Faith in America"

[This post also appears on the PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly blog, "One Nation: Religion and Politics," along with responses from others such as Charles Matthews, David Gushee, Stephen Monsma, and Randall Balmer.]

A lot can hang on a preposition. Mitt Romney first promised a speech about his faith, then backed off to offer a broader take on America’s religious landscape and its heritage of religious freedom. So rather than offering an apologetic for his own faith, Romney instead offered an account of “Faith in America.” But the speech has me wondering whether there’s a difference; more specifically, I wonder what’s at stake in that “in.” From where I sit, it looks like Romney’s “own” faith is faith in America. Americans needn’t worry about Romney’s Mormonism because, at the end of the day, the faith that trumps all others is “Americanism.”

Don’t get me wrong: this religion has a long and illustrious history (documented in David Gelertner’s recent book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion). It is a noble faith that feeds off the blood of its martyrs—in particular “the greatest generation” to which Romney first appeals—who made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of the religion’s highest value: freedom (understood, I should note, in largely negative terms as freedom of choice). Indeed, “freedom” and “liberty” are the mantras of this faith, and Romney’s speech invokes these shibboleths no less than thirty times (God or “the Creator” or “divine author” comes in at a close second with 21 references). And Romney doesn’t fail to allude to the great artifacts of this religion. Americanism has its own sacred documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), its own saints (“the Founding Fathers”), and has even birthed its own cathedrals and grottos (just stroll the National Mall).

So if Mitt Romney was looking to quell concerns about his religion, I think he’s performed admirably! He has indicated, in no uncertain terms, that he is an “Americanist” like almost every other presidential candidate (from I don’t care which side of the aisle). He is an American before he is a Mormon. He is primarily interested in conserving America’s role as a hegemon (“preserving American leadership” is the guise under which he segues to talk about religion). And he enthusiastically adopts Sam Adams axiom that it’s not the specifics of piety that matters, but rather whether one is a “patriot.”

If conservatives were worried about his Mormonism, I think Romney has laid his cards on the table and said to them: “Look, don’t worry. Mormonism doesn’t prevent me from being an Americanist. We’re brothers in that cause.”

In a way, this is refreshingly honest theology. In fact, if one pays close attention to the actual theology at work here—that is, if one starts asking just which God is being invoked—one finds that it is a particular deity: “the divine ‘author of liberty.’” The god of the culture warriors has always been a generic god of theism (precisely like the god of the Founding Fathers): a “God who gave us liberty” (to do what we want). The “Creator” is a granter of inalienable rights and unregulated freedoms, a god who shares and ordains “American values.” If evangelical culture warriors had worries about Romney’s faith, his jeremiad today should confirm that he pledges allegiance to the same “God of liberty” that they do. We’re all Americanists now.

But I hope Mr. Romney and his culture warrior friends (whether on the Right or Left) won’t be surprised if some of us find it hard to believe in Americanism and its God of liberty. Some of us just can’t muster faith in the generic theism that is preached on the campaign trail, whether from the Right or Left. Some of us Christians have a hard time reconciling the Almighty, all-powerful, law-giving God of liberty with the crucified suffering servant born in a barn and executed at the hands of the elite. Some of us are trying to figure out what it means to be a people who follow one who relinquished his rights rather than asserted them, who considered submission a higher value than freedom. We serve a God-man who wasn’t concerned with “preserving leadership” and the hegemony of the empire’s gospel of freedom, but rather was crushed by its machinations for proclaiming and embodying another gospel.

We’re not out to win a culture war; we’re just trying to be witnesses. We’re not out to “transform” culture by marshaling the engine of the state; we’re trying to carve out little foretastes of a coming kingdom. And so we can’t share Mr. Romney’s evangelistic zeal for the god of Americanism.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Gospel of Freedom, or Another Gospel?

The Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago has just posted a 'working paper' of mine for their December Web Forum. The paper, entitled "The Gospel of Freedom, or Another Gospel? Augustinian Reflections on American Foreign Policy," offers a theological critique of the particular notion of "freedom" that informs recent policy. I'm looking forward to seeing responses from Eric Gregory, David C. Schindler, and Paul Williams. Here's their introduction:

In this issue of the Web Forum, excerpted from a longer work in progress, James K. A. Smith critically examines the meaning of “freedom” used to support the expansion of a new, global, market-based imperialism. He argues that this kind of freedom is at odds with other values held by those who affirm a Creator and a teleological good for humanity. A better alternative, he contends, is an Augustinian account of desiring freedom:

In the history of philosophy and theology, there have been two dominant, and competing, concepts of freedom…one is a “libertarian” understanding of freedom that equates freedom with freedom of choice or the power to do otherwise. To be free is to have options to choose and the ability to choose, uncoerced and unrestrained, from among these options….

This conception of freedom has become so dominant that it is almost impossible for us to think of freedom otherwise. And it is particularly this notion of freedom that feeds Empire and its market network. Because this libertarian, non-teleological, and negative concept of freedom eschews any specification of a telos as a restriction or constraint on my options, and therefore a restriction of freedom, it fosters the proliferation of choices without any valuation….This is precisely the environment necessary for the flourishing of the market, which requires endless creation of new “goods” for consumption…

But the primary deficiency of libertarian freedom is that it disconnects freedom from the dynamics of desire.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Advent vs. "Countdown to Christmas"

I was jarred yesterday upon entering the sanctuary: the banners and colors for advent were black. A stark black cloth was draped across the pipes of the organ, and four narrow black banners stretched vertically across the front of the sanctuary--the first marked with a flame at the base, indicating the first Sunday of Advent.

This dark simplicity was so jarring because it stood in such contrast to the festive colors that have lined the city streets, the labyrinths of the mall, and even the grocery store since before Thanksgiving. The reds and greens of a secularized "Christmas" are woven through public and private spaces, accented by glittering silvers and golds, and twinkling lights of all colors. Having gathered from this dazzling, festive space outside, the black banners of the sanctuary come as a shock.

Which, of course, is exactly the point. Having been more deeply formed by Hallmark and Target, even Christians have confused Advent with our culture's "countdown to Christmas." Most specifically, we have forgotten that Advent is a penitential season akin to Lent. It is a season in which we are confronted with our need for a Savior, thus we relive Israel's anquished hope and expectation. It is a season whose garments are the sackcloth and ashes of the prophets or the camel's hair cloak of John the Baptist, not the jolly get-up of Santa Claus. Advent is a season marked by fasting in longing, living on the meagre diet of John's locusts and honey--not the sumptuous extravagance of corporate "Christmas" banquets or the fabled indulgence of office "Christmas" parties.

We've been trained to want Christmas without waiting; rather than a beginning, Christmas day has been turned into a culmination, an end point. After December 25, it's all over except for the soon-to-be-broken toys and the mounds of leftovers. Thus we busily feast before the day. Advent gets subsumed by the frantic "countdown to Christmas." But the result is the exact opposite of Advent which is a season of penitential longing, formative denial, and hungry hoping.

This hungry hoping was captured, I thought, in a classic hymn we sang yesterday:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan's tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them victory over the grave.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death's dark shadows put to flight.

Advent is not yet Christmas--it is preparation for that twelve-day feast. The black of the Advent sanctuary weighs heavily on us, the same way that the darkness of the Lenten sanctuary--culminating in the darkness of Tenebrae--births in us an affective, intense desire for the inbreaking of Resurrection Sunday, for the light and white and lillies of Easter! So, too, the black of the Advent sanctuary can foster in us a new repetition of Israel's hoping. How I'm looking forward to the transformation on Christmas day! Then, in the midst of festive light and dazzling color, we'll sing the refrain with new fervor:

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel.