Monday, October 12, 2009

Scripture, Reason, Tradition... and Jesus

I recently finished reading Walter Russell Mead's "God and Gold", a fascinating historical analysis of the development of British and American worldwide power from, essentially, 1600 to the present. Unsurprisingly, Mead covers a lot of ground in the book, from economics to politics to religion to culture, and an in-depth review would, I have no doubt, be far beyond my meager capacities! :-) But there is one particular assessment given by Mead that really caught my attention. Essentially, it is as follows (and I'll try to be brief! haha!):

Mead suggests that the British, and Americans afterward, developed a new attitude toward religion that was, in many ways, similar to their attitudes toward economics, politics, etc. In a word, religion in the Anglo-American world became "dynamic." This dynamic view, in Mead's words, was a combination of "Scripture, tradition, and reason -- each had its place and each had its devotees. But all of them went wrong if you pressed them too far." (p. 223)

In other words, religion in the Anglo-American world relied upon something similar to the balance of powers found in the American political system. Where any of the three elements -- Scripture, tradition, reason -- became too powerful or too out of balance, religion would become something that threatened the stability of the perceived order. So, religion's dynamic nature means that it is always open to change, because as we learn more and gain new experiences, the balance must be re-aligned to prevent any one of the three elements from gaining the upper hand and causing trouble.

Now, actually, there were many good reasons for Anglo-American support of this development. To list briefly, there were the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the subsequent growing realization that no one branch of Christianity held claim to the faith, since they often contradicted each other. Additionally, the enlightenment led to increased skepticism regarding the truth of religious claims in general. On top of all this, there was the recognition that religion could be and had been used by political and religious leaders for their own advantage. Both kings and popes were guilty of manipulating religion for their purposes.

Now, with regard to politics, culture, and economics, the British (like the Dutch before them, who actually got the ball rolling for many of these ideas!) learned that practical compromise and down-to-earth common sense would often lead to a diffusion of the tension created by competing interests (even if the radicals on both sides still remained). It seemed only natural to apply this approach to religion as well. Adam Smith, whose "The Wealth of Nations" solidified his status as the godfather of capitalism, also argued, says Mead, that "The common people need the support of a strong religious community." (p. 228)

Why? Because in the midst of the whirlwind of growth that is capitalism, a person needs a place where his traditional values and morals can been upheld. This provides a balance against the overwhelming activity found in the rapidly growing cities to which workers find themselves increasingly drawn. In other words, the religious community is a place of refuge, a place where "the social discipline of the home community" (p. 229) can be extended.

So, religion in Anglo-American society was not primarily seen (at least by Smith) as a way to come into relationship with the true and living God, it is seen as a tool that provides "psychological strength and social support that eventually allowed tens of millions of bewildered, hopeful, frightened peasants to find a place in the teeming cities and crowded industries of the new capitalist world." (p. 229)

But, in order to prevent a radical religious uprising, or a theocratic dictatorship, from taking hold, Smith suggested that the government should actually focus on providing both public education and pluralistic religious freedom, both of which would serve as protections against one particular religion gaining too much power. As Mead points out, an "open society" -- a society where many different views and ideas are allowed to flourish -- actually protects against any one of those views becoming monolithic.

And, intriguingly, Mead also suggests that such an open society actually increases the speed with which that society accepts new ideas. So, the more pluralistic religious "balance" is available to a society, the more willing they are to let another voice come to the table. He states, "without constant disputes, constant controversy, and constant competition between rival ideas about how society should look and what it should do, the pace of innovation and change is likely to slow as forces of conservative inertia grow smug and unchallenged." (p. 232)

Now, there are clearly valuable aspects of this worldview: social and individual improvements, including religious freedoms, have taken place more quickly and extensively in Anglo-American society than nearly anywhere else on earth. That, as Mead skillfully illustrates, cannot be disputed. Of course, there are also problematic consequences of such a worldview, and Mead discusses those as well.

However, there is a fundamental question left unanswered in Mead's assessment of religion in the development of Anglo-American society (after all, he is a historian, not a theologian), and it is a very simple and obvious question: Where does this leave Jesus Christ? It appears that, somewhere along the way (perhaps much earlier in history), Jesus was replaced as the central focus, and replaced with what Mead calls "the ideal of progress." (p. 238)

The British and American worldview has essentially been a transcendent search for a better way of life, and the democratic, capitalistic, pluralistic model they developed has done exactly that: it has given the people better lives. Not everyone, of course, but generally this is the case. Our standard of living is not only one of the highest in world history, but if it is surpassed, it is only because our worldview is being emulated by other nations all over the globe.

But, again, where does this leave Christ? For, it is foundational to Christianity that nothing -- not a political system, not an economic model, not a desire for progress, not the hope of better lives or a better world (as good as those may be) -- NOTHING is to replace Christ as our primary source of hope or meaning. All other worldviews and systems of thought must be developed in reference to Christ, who (as Bonhoeffer reminds us) must be at the center of all we do as Christians.

Now, I realize that this may sound exactly like what the Anglo-American model is guarding against -- a sort of radical belief system that is out of balance with the structure needed to protect our society from theocracy or chaos. And, of course, it is a very complicated matter to extract true faith from all of its cultural, political, and economic entanglements. But the problem is precisely that, if we are truly to be Christians, we CANNOT place Christ underneath any other worldview, even if it is the most beneficial worldview we know.

So how do we negotiate this dilemma? Well, I am not going to attempt to answer that in one post (or even a series)! But I welcome your comments and feedback. Perhaps, together, we can use the wisdom found in the Anglo-American approach to help us see new ways in which the proper balance can be restored: with Christ as our fulcrum, and all other systems of thought finding their grounding in Christ. What do you think? Is a proper balance even possible? Is radicalism our only option? Will Christianity always remain subject to Anglo-American "dynamic" religious thought?

No comments: