Berfrois

Body of Christ and Body Politic

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The Time Machine, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1960

by Joe Linker

Worshiping Politics: Problems and Practices for a Public Faith,
by Luke J. Goble,
Cascade Books, 240 pp.

In one of the early scenes of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the Time Traveler discovers a group of Eloi lounging in the sun by a small river, bathing in the shallows. One of them, Weena, cramps and is caught in a rapid, and is in danger of drowning, but her screams are ignored. None of the other Eloi help her. They don’t even seem interested. They don’t seem to care. The Time Traveler saves Weena and learns the Eloi live lives of elite, privileged pleasure. But they pay a price. Each evening, the Eloi are summoned by a kind of futuristic church siren, a pair of giant doors slide open, and one by one the Eloi enter, walking slowly and devoutly into the underground home of the Morlocks, where the chosen Eloi are cooked and eaten. The remaining Eloi, after the siren stops and the doors close, without protest wander back to their pleasure dome to a dinner of luscious fruit and vegetables, never missing their lost ones. The Eloi have no religion and no politics.

What do the Christians of today want, and why? And why would what they want be any different from what anyone else wants? And what should Christians want, since they don’t all seem to want the same things?

Worshiping Politics: Problems and Practices for a Public Faith (2017) is an even-tempered argument exploring the place and practice of politics as a consequence of religion. Definitions (what is politics; what is justice) are patiently unpacked and assumptions and predispositions brought to light and questioned within an academic shell (researched citations, references, extensive bibliography), but the text is written in an accessible, at times almost conversational, style. Written in the first person throughout, the book is carefully organized to include discussion of multiple opposing, diverse, or varying viewpoints. Each chapter closes with personal reflections and concrete examples of practices of political importance showing politics as a necessary, wanted, and useful element of daily life. The target audience is probably the thinking Christian, but as in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, which argues for a citizen of the world, a more diverse, broader audience is implied and addressed. The tone of “Worshiping Politics” is not arrogant or preachy. The occasion is not knocking door to door, evangelical Bible in hand. The book’s claims are challenging and their opposition anticipated, acknowledged, and handled respectfully.

The author of Worshiping Politics, Luke J. Goble [1], a Harvard graduate, professor of history, and adoptive parent, does not simply break with the old convention of etiquette that advises one not to talk about politics or religion. He argues that religion is politics. To ignore talking about either is to miss the point in a vapid exercise of politeness. But to talk about politics and religion in a qualified academic argument is not to rant and rave, attack or scare, browbeat or arm-twist, inflict guilt or wish perdition. In any case, that’s not Luke’s style. Militant atheists might be surprised by this book, as might many militant Christians. We should not ignore, or worse, scorn, those in need of help, and, arguably, our politics and religion need help, separately and together. But how do we help a drowning victim if we don’t recognize a call for help when we hear one, or we can’t swim either, or we just don’t want to get wet, or when we do jump in and reach them they are in such a panic they drown us with them?

Common words and terms are carefully qualified: “Based on my emerging definition – that politics means engaging in the process of debating, negotiating, and pursuing the good of a particular community – and by almost any definition of church (other than a building), it should not be difficult to grasp the political nature of church. If church is a kind of community with a common call, goal, or good, then participating in that community is inherently political.” That is what effective argument does – defines, specifies, draws a field of play. Goble references the Bible, but his book is not simply a collection of biblical quotes selected to create a convenient credibility. Whatever else it might be, the Bible is a historical artifact, and Goble uses it for proof and backing of claims in a historian’s voice. For some readers, Christian and non-Christian, this might come as a kind of revelation, that the Bible is not necessarily read literally, that there are insider questions regarding how and when its books were written, and why, and how some writings came to be included and others left out, while at the same time the Bible does provide historical evidence. The Bible is history, or at least a part of history. That the Bible is interpreted in various ways and often used for what might seem cross-purposes should come as no surprise; the US Supreme Court interprets the US constitution – no one questions the historical fact of that constitution, but what any part of it might mean today is backlogged with case reviews.

Early in Goble’s text, five foundational claims are examined: “1. The Bible is political 2. Jesus was political 3. The gospel is political 4. The church is political 5. Christians are called to be political.” But if everything is political, what remains? If “Come follow me” is a political invitation to vote one’s religion, how authentic are the called who only vote, or vote their conscience, as the saying goes? Of what is the conscience made? But Goble isn’t talking about simply voting, or voting at all. He’s talking about living a political life as an outgrowth of the religious life, what he calls a formative life, which, in one sense, means making an existential decision to break from one’s learned, emotional reasoning to reach a more clear understanding of why and how one thinks and behaves and what one wants to do and how to go about doing it. Formation is not an easy process. We are easily and naturally formed, but our formation does not necessarily inform us. We are rather like the Eloi. When the siren goes off, we get in line and follow. We don’t always choose what is good for us or for others. We may not know what is good for ourselves or for others.

When it comes to negotiating power and pursuing the good of a community beyond ourselves (i.e., politics), we are deceived about our capacity to be fair, honest, and objective. So, while most of us tend to represent our political views and activity as what is best for the community (or country) overall, we are not very good judges of what is good for others (30).

Central to his argument about how we think and behave (what informs decisions such as how we vote or who we help or who we scorn), Goble closely examines Jonathan Haidt’s work on decision making informed by rationalizations and justifications that suit us comfortably, that make us comfortable with our decisions and behaviors. Conscience is a deeply embedded magician performing sleight of hand tricks we come to believe are real.

We are not as good as we think we are. Our behavior is conditioned by factors like 1) our natural propensity to want to be liked by those around us, 2) our need to protect the group(s) that comprise our core identity, 3) our desire to preserve our current self and path unless otherwise forced, and 4) our need to be ‘ok’ with our existing behavioral patterns and our ability to find ways to do so. In the studies referenced by Haidt, these conditioning factors all take on a negative light. But the same propensities can also make us the kind of human beings that can live well in community – to seek compromise, to build commonality, to operate according to convictions. What they show most of all is that we are creatures whose deep feelings drive our behavior even though we think it is our reason. (42).

Or we don’t think about it at all. We behave first, then we create a reason that seems to give that behavior some kind of sense. We do something similar when judging or trying to explain someone else’s behavior. What were they thinking? Likely they weren’t thinking at all. Their siren went off and they behaved accordingly, according to assumptions and predispositions so deeply rooted they are not thought out at all. This may be particularly true of religious behavior, which presupposes and assumes good. If we behave a certain way for what we or others take to be a religious reason, that behavior must be good.

Does that mean people of faith operate under an illusion of moral superiority? Does it mean that religious convictions do not have anything significant to contribute to public justice or cultural mores? I would say yesand no. Yes, sometimes people of faith operate under an illusion of moral superiority. Research in moral psychology seems to defy any claim that beliefs or religious identity labels are accurate predictors of behavior. But perhaps convictions that come by way of belief also have something significant to contribute to the ways in which our deep feelings are formed, and subsequently the kinds of actions that emanate from those ways of being formed. (43).

Goble’s book, an argument that religion is politics and politics means caring for others, “opening up to the interests and circumstances of others” (57), takes turns that lead down paths of psychological work; historical precedent and interpretation; practical applications for regular community exercise; works of classic and contemporary philosophy; popular expressions of contemporary life (for example, scenes with dialog from the television series The West Wing); scripture and the history and practice of reading, studying, and passing down scripture, his discussion of Talmudic study compared to contemporary Christian reading of the Bible, for example: “…when we read the Bible, we don’t typically read the most important interpretations or debates alongside” (57); and his own personal reflections from his experience of “living in the world,” of “being in the world.”

How does one be in the world, working outward from nature to self to family to community to state to a world where one feels safe, and why does being in the world often seem so fraught with conflict that all we can think to do is run and hide to the supposed safety of our own affective emotional constructs? Or, as Appiah puts it in Examined Life: “There’s a certain kind of philosophical universalism, which is often associated with evangelizing religions, where, yeah, we love everybody but we want them to become like us in order to love them properly. There’s a great German proverb, which says, ‘If you don’t want to be my brother, I’ll bash your skull in’…And that’s the opposite of cosmopolitanism. It’s the universalist who says, ‘Yeah, I want you to be my brother, but on my terms,’ whereas the cosmopolitan says, ‘I want to be your brother figuratively, your fellow citizen, but I don’t make it a condition of that that we come to be the same’” (p. 92 of the text of the film). And “but the Bible says,” regardless of what we might think it might say (i.e. how we interpret and determine what’s most important in the Bible), is an inadequate response.

Once certain connections between guiding narratives and political dispositions are made explicit, it is easy to see how political biases shape interpretive choices…the tendency to interpret Scripture according to intuitive frameworks of meaning but to see and declare our own interpretations true, absolute, and unchanging. Our intuitions lead us to choose different narratives to emphasize. This approach leads to deadlock and disunity among Christians, not to mention a confusing and compromising witness to those who put little or no authority in Scripture to begin with. (56)

At least one reason some citizens may give no authority to Scripture might be found in the history of the Church. One is tempted to take the metaphor to its rhetorical end, its reductio ad absurdum, the body of Christ so infected by the worms of heresy and hypocrisy it is now a skeleton hanging in the closet of a high school biology class, a dried up framework that without muscle supports nothing. Goble recognizes the fickleness of the Church though the centuries: its WASP-ish table settings; its compromises, treaties, or concessions; its contradictions; its inquisitions – in short, how for many of the world’s people, the body of Christ has been either a turned back or an experience of acculturation. That history though is fascinating reading. Goble’s book includes a survey of changing church paradigms over the centuries, including “the early church, the early Roman Church, the medieval church, the Lutheran ‘Two Kingdoms’ model, Puritan Theocracy, Kuyperian Calvinism, Christian Realism, Amish/Anabaptist Sectarianism, Christian Anarchy, Liberation Theology, Yoder’s Middle Axiom Model.” Readers may begin to wonder what held the body of Christ together throughout time and the world, the good news continually subsumed by the bad.

Not only has theology excluded voices, but like other forms of dominant discourse, it has participated in constructing and maintaining structures of power. A huge blind spot in each of the previous paradigms is in the conception of the social body or society itself. Taking society or ‘the world’ for granted without thinking about the political implications for those who do not wield dominant power, essentially multiple societies or social bodies, is a gap in the paradigms that come after the Middle Ages. (116).

It seems ordinary members of the faithful may have over time held more sway than Church leaders in restoring what health we might find currently in the body of Christ.

Corresponding with the cultural and national liberation movements that came about after World War Two, new spaces of reception opened up for previously marginalized voices in theology. One of the most important developments out of that milieu has been liberation theology. In short, liberation theology grew out of the struggle for justice by Latin American peasants who had long experienced marginalization in all aspects of society – politically, economically, and spiritually by the (mostly Roman Catholic) church. Many Catholic priests, already living and working in solidarity with the poor also recognized the contradiction that the gospel should be ‘good news’ for the poor, yet the institutionalized church and other forms of power in society that it reinforced were not good news at all. (116).

Who were these Catholic priests (and nuns), where did they come from, and from what were they formed and how were they informed?

Our political behavior is not thought or even taught but ‘caught’ – meaning it is shaped affectively and, at least to some degree, out of our control. (31).

At the end of Wells’s The Time Machine, the Time Traveler, having returned to his present and met with some friends and told his story of the future, decides to return to the future: “I came back through the corridor. The Time Traveler met me in the smoking room. He was coming from the house. He had a small camera under one arm and a knapsack under the other.” Wells did not tell his reader what was in the knapsack. In the 1960 film version of “The Time Machine,” staring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux, it’s suggested that the Time Traveler takes with him back to the future two books. In the film, the Morlocks are destroyed in their underground caverns by a giant fire fed by the Time Traveler assisted by the Eloi. The Eloi will now no longer be food for the Morlocks, but they will now have to care for themselves, take care of one another, work, worry. The addition of the question of what books the Time Traveler selects is an interesting Hollywood edit to the Wells text.

The Time Traveler wants to help the Eloi. But then why would he take anything in his knapsack from his own time, his own time having proven to be such a disaster? If there is good in the world, where and what is it? Is what’s good for Christians also good for non-Christians? Goble explores good and justice and explains why we should be careful imposing our own values of what is good or just on others. How do individuals influence the future, their own or that of others? What is the extent of an individual’s influence over religion or politics? How can we be sure our actions in the present are good for the future?

Belief in the lordship of Christ allows for patience, peacefulness, hope, and sacrifice now. It allows for Christians not to try to force peace through violence, justice by imposition, or well-being through coercion. (129).

There is in Goble’s book a dichotomy at work that readers may find puzzling or problematic. That isn’t Goble’s fault; it comes with the territory. In one sense, the dichotomy is shown in Augustine’s “two cities,” the City of God and the City of Earth. In another sense, the dichotomy might be seen in the insistence that Christians maintain a distinction from other entities also working toward good and justice. And here not that their ideas of good and justice might be different than secular ones, but that the impetus to work toward them “should flow out of our [Christian] identity and not our ambition” (128). That, because the Christian’s identity presumably includes the idea of a happy ending for the good. Phrases like, “…the last thing, the end event, when the Lordship of Christ is full realized” (129) may sound a bit mystical or esoteric to the general reader. Metaphor is always at work. Words like kingdom and lordship suggest a state and subservience to that state as well as class distinctions, from peasant to knight. These are images that enable views. Goble wants to make sure his reader understands he is “not a biblical scholar” (129). (Had me fooled.) Readers might also feel a dichotomy between the old and new testaments. Thomas Merton said that God is un-seeable, unknowable, almost unthinkable – that we can only approach an understanding of God through our human images or symbols or rituals – but those images are human images. They’re not wrong, but they are human-made and serve only a human purpose. Yet there are times the word God appears in Goble’s text as if God’s a go-to-guy. Goble acknowledges that language translations and cultural contexts add to our confusion. Is God’s love for his people a human love or divine love? Does God love everyone, or only his chosen ones? Another dichotomy. We can add love and God to our list of difficult concepts to unpack: good, justice, love, God. God so loved the world that he sacrificed his only son. What the hell kind of love is that? I have seen many sons sacrificed by their fathers, beginning with Vietnam, some on the battlefield, others at the kitchen table. But I digress. Onward, Christian soldier.

The last chapters of Goble’s book are the most difficult, not to read, but to reflect upon, to perhaps put some new way of being or thinking into practice. The arc of the book is threaded. We see how we are predisposed to think and behave and we learn to self-justify our dispositions. We then see examples of that at work in history, philosophy, popular culture, psychology. We then discover how we might work to change our dispositions, change ourselves from being driven by emotional affective design toward being more intentional about how we think and behave, about who we are. Here is an example of the book’s arc. This is just one thread. Goble talks about how we self-deceive: “We are self-justifying creatures who construct narratives about the world necessary to maintain the views of ourselves that we hold” (41). We might think the more educational experience we gain the less likely we would be to self-deceive and be forced to self-justify, but Goble cites research that shows “IQ and education levels do not markedly improve one’s ability to see an issue more objectively, but they do increase one’s capacity to support and defend one’s initial judgment. In other words, greater intelligence or education can help us defend our ideas better, but they do not necessarily result in better thinking” (39). Those quotes are from Chapter 3: “The Problem of Self-Deception.” In Chapter 10, “The Problem of Practice,” the thread of how we think is picked up again, under the sub-heading “Against Closed-Mindedness”: “Intellectual humility describes perfectly rational, disinterested truth-seeking, involving openness and willingness to accept information because it is true…involves an established sense of one’s self and worth apart from how one’s intellect, accomplishments, or legacy are viewed, and a genuine intrinsic concern for knowledge and truth” (165). Since most of us are probably not intellectually humble, but we might agree such humility might make us more effective working and being with others, the question becomes how do we intentionally change our dispositions. Related threads that form the arc include “self-promotion, tribalism, self-justification, self-deception” that “are [not] easily overcome by the cultivation of counter-virtues through material practices” (166).

Goble’s book concludes with an existential examination of formation. Existentialism suggests that existence precedes essence. That means we are born into a circumstance and predicament not of our choosing, but we do have a choice – to decide for ourselves what the essence of that existence might be. For cradle Christians (those born into a Christian circumstance and predicament), that choice can be profoundly difficult. A Franciscan Friar once told me Catholicism was not a religion for children. I thought, then I might want to stay a child forever. As an existentialist, I might successfully make that choice. But Goble suggests the Christian’s choice is not existential, because “Desire for God is not willed, it is a gift” (172). “How [then] does [intentional] formation happen?” (172).

Goble’s idea of formation does seem to share with the existentialists the idea of freedom. It might seem paradoxical, but he seems to think that belonging to God differentiates in a way that creates a freedom from the world that continually works its formation of us without our approval or even awareness. Borrowing from Jesus’s prayer for his disciples, Goble says Jesus is saying something like don’t mix up me with “where you live, who you are with, or the trappings of religiosity or culture that you might mistake for me” (190). In other words, we might want to be very careful with the alliances and treaties we make with the powers that be, because we will be formed and reformed by whatever accommodations we might make. It’s not enough to be born again once. If you really want to be a Christian, you must be born again every day. The existentialist also renews the choice of essence, of existence preceding essence, on a daily basis. The Body of Christ must be very careful not to get too cozy and fall into bed with the Body Politic. Goble summarizes this problem: “How can the church faithfully engage the world while still being set apart? Being in the world makes being formed by the world inescapable. Withdrawing from the world makes engagement impossible. Wherein lies the balance?” (193).

That’s an important question, because one wants to maintain one’s freedom. In the last chapter, Goble provides an example, what he calls a “Model for the Moment,” of a possible balance. The example involves Embrace Oregon, a coalition of diverse forces attempting to care for the needs of orphaned, vulnerable children. “Real relational knowing is mutually formative, and only by being formed by significant relationships with those who are ‘other’ in multiple intersectional ways (race, class, gender, socioeconomic, class, education, nationality, language, sexual orientation, religion) can we live out a culture forming faith. There is always a dynamic movement between formation and culture creation” (200).

The text of The Time Machine suggests a characteristic of the Eloi not seen in the film version referenced above. In the text, the Eloi are little people. In a sense, they are children, or they are like children in that they are completely vulnerable. Their caretakers, the Morlocks, care for them. It might be said that the Morlocks may even love the Eloi, but the Eloi are not free.

In Goble’s very last “Practice,” he says, “Cultivate and struggle for relationship in the face of rules that remove, economics that exclude, addictions that alienate” (207).

I don’t know if H. G. Wells, in naming the Morlocks, had in mind the biblical Moloch, but it seems likely he did. Goble recognizes the need for Christians to work with the Morlocks to free the Eloi, without themselves becoming coopted by the Morlocks, becoming a new Moloch, or putting the Eloi at risk of a new captivation.

Originally published at The Coming of the Toads.


Note:

[1] Disclosure: Luke teaches at Warner Pacific College, where I’ve done work as an adjunct instructor.

  • benny black

    you engage in politics because you believe you can change things to what you believe are better, but you engage in religion because you are brainwashed at a young age or havent the confidence to reason for yourself.