Chesterton on Progress

Lately I’ve been on a reading binge of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. I have too much to say on the treasures I’ve found in them to possibly remember to blog about it all. That’s a shame. On the bright side, there’s still lots of good stuff to mention.

One of my favorite paragraphs I’ve come across (maybe, it’s hard to narrow down favorites from such writers) is one in which Chesterton discusses the notion of progress, specifically in relation to the modern world. Everyone likes to talk about progress, though the fever was undoubtedly higher in his day. We still have progressives in politics (of many kinds: economic progressives, cultural progressives, environmental progressives, etc.), and we probably have far more now in theology. In fact, these so-called “progressive” theologians are my chief targets here, whereas Chesterton was more concerned with a political temperament. But much of what he had to say is relevant to either.

A chief characteristic of progressive Christianity is questioning. They like to ask questions regarding what the Bible says about homosexuality, what the Bible says about gender, what the Bible says about salvation, and of course just how seriously we need to take what the Bible says at all. The framing assumption is that we must ask these questions afresh because the classical answers are, we now see, in some way broken, obsolete, or unrealistic. For many of these issues, a sufficient Chestertonian response might be that the classical answers have not been tried and found wanting; they have been found difficult and left untried. But I disgress. My point here isn’t about whether the progressive’s questioning process will lead us to better answers than the traditional ones or not. My point, or rather Chesterton’s, is that you can’t really call yourself “progressive” in such a state of uncertainty. If you are stuck in questioning phase, you can’t genuinely say whether you’ve been making progress towards anything or not, since you don’t know where you’re going. And in Chesterton’s day, it didn’t matter how efficiently and skillfully you could run the the government. If you don’t know where you’re running it to, you can’t say that “progress” is underway. I’ll let Chesterton himself elaborate and leave it at that. The quote is from his excellent, excellent book What’s Wrong with the World:

As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress—that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible—at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

Abraham’s Choice

Kill the miracle child. That was God’s demand to Abraham. An old man was told to take his young son, whom he had never thought would be conceived and waited patiently for years to see be born, plunge a knife into him, and burn his body. All of this for a God who had already made him leave behind his homeland and family on faith. Why? Why another test, and one of such horror?

Ultimately, Abraham chose to continue in steadfast faith, hoping perhaps desperately for even a resurrection. He seemed willing to believe that the God who brought new life out of his own all-but-dead body could also bring new life out of the ashes of his son’s. This took deep faith and surely serious internal conflict. Such a choice for God few seem truly able to make.

I find it bothersome, then, that there are people even in the Church saying that Abraham didn’t really have to make that choice, or even shouldn’t have made it. Rachel Held Evans, for example, made this argument a couple years ago. According to such arguments it would have been okay or even right for Abraham to defy what he heard as the command of God (or was it?) out of love for his son. Love is the essence of Christian morality, right? Killing a child isn’t love, and why’s a supposedly good God commanding this, anyway?

Now put that thought in hold for a moment to consider a somewhat related argument about martyrdom. Some in the Church argue that it’s not ultimately important what you say or believe about God so long as you live a life of Christ-like love. In this case, there’s no reason to confess Jesus even on pain of death. Instead, you should just trample His name under your feet when threatened and use the life you escape with to show Christ’s love to others through mercy and self-sacrifice, though perhaps without mentioning Him.

To put these two arguments in a room together, then, imagine a situation in which you are on trial for professing Christ in a hostile environment and you are told to deny Christ or your children will be killed. By the logic of both of these arguments above, you should deny Jesus and save your kids. That’s the only way you can honor the essence of Christianity, which is to love others. To follow the examples of the martyrs or Abraham would be at best a mistake.

But what if both of these arguments are wrong? They seem to share the assumption that other people are the soul of Christianity, but what if they aren’t? What if God’s love and purpose for us expressed in Christ and His Resurrection are the center? What if everything else, including love for others, hangs upon this reality?

If Christ and His Resurrection are truly central, then both of the arguments fail. If Christ is at the center, and He is the love of God, and there is no other love of God than the person of Jesus, then to deny Him is to deny the love of God. To deny the love of God is then to deny the very ground on which any love for others firmly stands, for apart from God’s electing love for man, man is nothing. If the Resurrection is truly God’s loving  purpose for us in Christ, then death cannot be regarded as a final evil, but only as a temporary one forced to serve the victory of God in His love toward us. Death ushers in eternal glory rather than being a true obstacle to the welfare of man in Christ.

By this logic, the logic of grace, we would find ourselves once again called to make Abraham’s choice. Do we truly believe in Jesus Christ as the end-all, be-all? Do we trust the promise of God to raise His people from death into the glory of their Lord? Will we doubt that those who lose their lives in Christ will find them in Him? Or are we skeptical of God’s promise to crown His martyrs with His Son?

The idea, of course, of sacrificing our children, or any loved ones, to remain faithful to the God of love is still as confusing and horrifying as ever, to be sure. We may be tempted to ask how a good God could ever expect such a thing out of us. How is there love in this? But as always, we must be pointed to Christ. God may someday ask our sons of us, but He has already given up His Son for us. In doing so He has also revealed in advance what happens to sacrificed sons: resurrection and eternal glory and power. If we can make Abraham’s choice, then we will receive our children back to us in greater form than we gave them up, and we will still have Christ as well. In the resurrection, martyrs and their parents find, to speak colloquially, that they can have their cake and eat it, too. Indeed, when we understand love from a center in God’s love in Christ rather than in ourselves, we find that this was the way to truly love our family all along.

None of this changes the awful terror of any such prospect. Would I be able to give up my children in faith that God would raise them from the dead? As someone planning to spend considerable time on the mission field, I have no guarantee that this question will always be hypothetical. Will I be ready? Will my faith be that deep? I hardly know from the comfort of my air-conditioned home full of food at a Christian educational institution. May God have mercy on myself and my family if the situation ever does arise. But in the meantime, I believe, and pray the Lord to help my unbelief, that for both me and my household to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Jesus, Love Mascot? (Or, the Wrath of the Lamb Does Exist)

Every culture in history has had its own problems with the Bible and Christian teaching. Ours struggles especially with the violent judgments of the Old Testament, including broad application of the death penalty and Israel’s conquests of Canaan (a topic I’ve written on recently). Unfortunately, for an increasing number of Christians these days, the solution to these tough texts is to discard them. How is this justified? Here’s the argument (which, for reasons which I will make clear by the end of the post, I am labeling the love-mascot argument):

Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God.

Jesus showed in His life that He would never kill, harm, or otherwise violently judge anyone.

Therefore any portrayal of God as doing such things in the Old Testament is at best revelation made imperfect by humans.

The love-mascot argument starts from a true premise, but the second point is, well, simply not Biblical. Jesus may not have harmed or killed anyone in His earthly ministry, but that’s certainly not because He was opposed to such judgments. Consider these words of our Lord:

Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:28

The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness. They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 13:41-42

But if that wicked slave says in his heart, “My master is delayed,” and starts to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 24:48-51

But I will show you the One to fear: Fear Him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the One to fear!

Luke 12:5

So Jesus preaches that God will very harshly judge unbelievers, even condemning them to a Hell of eternal suffering. He even uses the analogy of cutting someone to pieces. And this is the God Jesus Himself worshiped, served, prayed to, and loved. Jesus Himself believed that these acts are right and just. Also note that in the second text, Jesus—not the Father—is the one who commands this tough judgment.

Of course, none of this even counts Revelation. The book of Revelation tells of many plagues and harsh, violent destruction. This is not just the wrath of some pagan deity. This is “the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16) who was slaughtered (Rev. 5:6). The same Jesus who said “Neither do I condemn you” also “judges and makes war with righteousness” (Rev. 19:11) at the conclusion of the age.

With these terrifying pictures of the wrath of Jesus Christ, we can’t apply the love-mascot logic. It breaks down if Jesus is allowed to judge violently, which He clearly is willing to do. If Jesus is like this, we cannot simply scratch out the OT revelation of God’s painful dealings with people, because they are indeed in line with the eternal Word (John 1:1).

So on to the word “mascot.” Why do I call this argument the love-mascot argument? Because of the way progressive Christianity (a movement which generally encompasses people who use this argument) handles Jesus. Progressive Christianity, albeit with decent intentions, refuses to let Jesus be who He is. Instead, they start with a modern, Western conception of love as something which cannot involve harshness or violent judgment. Then they take the Biblical statement “God is love,” load it with such a niceness-shaped love, and apply it to Jesus in the Gospels. This culturally conditioned Jesus is then used to cut up the OT. But in all this Jesus serves the role as only a mascot of love, and “love” strictly in a very uniquely American sense.

There is more evidence for this throughout the writings of progressive Christians (I do not wish to name any in particular right now, but if you are familiar with them at all this might make sense anyway). If you read much of their stuff, you will find that they treat Christianity as simply one religion out of many. All the religions are spoken of on equal terms, with Christianity seeming to just the preference of the authors. What people do in and for Christ is often equated with what people do in the name of Mohammed or Buddha. A Christian life is given no priority or advantage over a devout Hindu life. Only some of them would be willing to say that Christianity and other religions are basically equal, but they mostly all speak that way.

This does not merely degrade a system of belief. This pulls down Jesus Christ. He is not treated as the only way to the Father, the only name by which we may be saved, or the One Mediator who is Himself God and Man. Instead, when Christianity is spoken of as though it were merely one way among many to lead a life of “love,” Jesus Himself becomes little more than a mascot of love. Instead of being our life, salvation, sanctification, and only hope, He is mostly our example, and good name to cling to in the pursuit of a loving life. Indeed, the more radical end of progressivism, which barely even deserves to be included, would even be willing to say that Christianity is nothing more than living a life of love and compassion. In this, the Son of God becomes a mere mascot.

So what do we do and say? We refuse to let modern, Western ideals of what love should be like be the last word. Instead, if Jesus is God, and God is love, we should let the actual Jesus dictate what we understand of love. The actual Jesus as we see Him through Scripture is not a mascot, but instead lives simultaneously as our Redemption and our Judgment. He is filled both with love for all people and wrath for all people. This is the kind of love which confronts us unapologetically in Jesus, and this Jesus is the means by which we have to interpret the Old Testament. Of course, in that case we should be able to accept the harsh realities of God’s judgments there, because even the Exodus plagues pale in comparison to the end of the age at which the wrath of the Lamb will be unleashed on the world. The Lamb who was slaughtered does love unto death, but those who do not join in His death will find their own much worse. This Jesus is no mere mascot of culturally restricted ideas of love. He is the one and only I AM, the uniquely exclusive path to the Father, who was and is and will be.

With this in mind, let us pray that our hearts and minds will be conformed to the image of Jesus. Let us ask the Father through His Spirit to mold our ideas of love and justice to those He Himself performs in His Son. For who has known the mind of the Lord to be His counselor? But we have the mind of Christ. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!