The second chapter of Leithart’s Against Christianity is “Against Theology.” There are three aspects of this chapter that I would like to comment on.
The first is the troublesome matter of timeless truths. When many conservative Christians hear any kind of critique of timeless truths, the automatic assumption is that some form of relativism is launching an attack on the eternal verities, showing relativism’s constant hostility to the permanent things. And, if we are talking about the kind of balloon juice that emergent writers like Brian McLaren put out, that suspicion is quite justified.
But there is another kind of critique of “timeless truth,” which objects to this concept, not because the timeless truth collides with relativism, but rather because theologians have the timeless truth locked up in a museum case in Plato’s heaven, and the timeless truth therefore collides with nothing. This is the sense in which Leithart critiques timeless truth.
“With regard to content, theology frequently aims to deal not with the specifics of historical events, but with ‘timeless truths’ of doctrine.
But he is no relativist. Is there a sense which truth is timeless? Of course (p. 44). We are not relativists. “God is eternally a Trinity, eternally righteous and holy and just and true.” But we know about this because the Second Person of the Trinity invaded time and made himself known to us here (p. 45), smack in the middle of history.
Truth is to be obeyed here, and is not to be uprooted as some deracinated plant, withering up on somebody’s spiritualized weed pile. One man objects to “timeless truth” because he is trying to get away from the Mosiac condemnation of anal intercourse, and he wants the law of God to be a little more friendly to his anatomically confused yearnings. But another man objects to “timeless truth” because he wants the confession that Jesus is Lord to be made in time and history, and he wants that confession made by the president, Congress, and Supreme Court justices, along with all the people, and the sooner the better. The reason for this is that “timeless truth” that gets lifted clean out of history is just as relativized as the gumby truth of the liberals. This objection to timeless truth is actually an objection to dehydrated truth, and is not an objection to the recognition that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. But yesterday and today are different, and so the constant word of God has to confront the current idolatries (that are in flux) in timely ways.
This leads to the second point. The story that the Church tells is an all-encompassing story. It is not just one more story among many. It takes second place to no other story. It is the story within which all other stories must make their sense. If they refuse, and insist on telling their own story on their own terms, they soon deteriorate into chaos. Those who therefore think that Leithart is doing the same kind of thing as our current crop of angst-ridden pomo-enablers are simply tone deaf. More about this in a minute, but proof first and application second.
“Contextualization be damned. The Church’s mission is not to accomodate her language to the existing language, to disguise herself so as to slip in unnoticed and blend in with the existing cultures. Her mission is to confront the language of the existing culture with a language of her own” (p. 52).
“Christianity [remember, what Leithart is against] insists that biblical language is a special language for Sunday, church, and private devotions, not a language that names the universe and what is beyond the universe, not a language for the market and the town hall” (p. 55).
“Contextualization be damned. We have our own story, and if it clashes with the stories we find around us, so much the worse for the other stories. Our story, after all, is big enough to encompass every other” (p. 59).
“The dominant story of America and the modern West is the liberal democratic narrative” (p. 61).
“This is a product of the heresy of Christianity. It is a product of theology. We adopt the culture’s story because we forget that we have an all-embracing story of our own” (p. 63).
Leithart is obviously not against “totalizing.” He is against any idols trying to totalize, because they do it badly or wickedly, or both. But preachers and prophets are called to do nothing but totalize. Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth. He is not Lord of heaven and earth in my head, or in my heart, or in my faith community. He is not Lord behind our eyes, or between our ears. He actually is Lord of heaven and earth. This means that He has sent His prophets and preachers out into the world to declare the fact of His universal dominion. He did not send us out to dither about confusedly, or to shuffle our feet in embarrassment because we are not as sentimentally-correct as the Dali Lama, or to open up a constructive inter-faith-conversation about how we do things in our church/synagogue/mosque.
So Leithart’s abandonment of deracinated theology means that he is insistent that the Church function as a public faith, right out in public, and he also asserts that we have clearly compromised with modernity (and its ugly step-child, Christianity) if we adopt anything less than a “take no prisoners” approach. Theology is to be rejected because it provides us with a multitude of excuses for our continued disobedience. The problem with theology is that “one of its chief effects is to keep Christians and the Church in their proper marginal place” (p. 43). And many Christians like being left alone in their marginal place. The problem with theology is that it allows itself to be relegated to a specific (marginalized) spot in the social curriculum. “Theology keeps Christian teaching at the margins and ensures that other voices, other languages, other words shape the world of temporalities. Politics is left to politicians, economics to economists, sociology to sociologists, history to historians, and philosophy to madmen” (p. 45). Leithart is clear — the entire world is to be shaped by biblical and Christian language.
For some reason, one I have not quite figured out, there are many soft Christians out there (drifting steadily deeper into the modern confusion called postmodernism) who just love linking to Leithart’s blog. Nothing wrong with that — lots more people should do it. But people who obviously have no idea about what he is actually up to should read a little more carefully.
Leithart is arguing that theology is the friend of a secular marketplace of ideas, of a liberal democratic public square. The prophet will have none of it, and a faithful preacher calls all the sons of men to repentance and faith. But theology has worked out a whole series of compromises and truces for us, and theologians get upset when someone within the Church, on behalf of the Church, and in the name of Jesus Christ, declares war. That threatens the truce for everybody. They do say that it is all right for us to vocalize support for “our values,” but we must not do so because Jesus is the Lord of everything.
“Christian political writers claim that when Christians enter the public arena they must theologically neutral language like ‘natural law’ and ‘human rights’ and never, ever utter the name or office of ‘King Jesus'” (p. 54).
This is why opposition to what Leithart calls Constantinianism, and what I have (cheekily) called theonomic postmillenialism is always done in the name of modernity, for the sake of modernity, by men so much in the grip of modernity that they cannot conceive of any other way of living. This includes all the postmodernists, ha! The postmodernists, falsely so-called, think they are going west because they have walked a few feet west down the center aisle of an airplane flying east. The postmodernists are like a man at a bar, sloshed to perfection, ordering another scotch on the rocks in the name of post-drunkenness.
Theologians fight to keep theology out of certain human endeavors — that’s what makes them theologians. “Practical theology ensures that the secular remains secular” (p. 45). The thing that makes this possible is a truncated hermeneutic. Leithart rightly sees that it was typology that enabled Christians to apply all the Bible to all of life, and that the modernist retreat to a truncated grammatical/historical hermeneutic was a trick designed to lure exegetes on to a homiletical reservation.
“Opposition to typology not only fuels Christianity but, because of that, assists in the establishment of secular modernity” (p. 57).
But Leithart objects to a “privatizing and spiritualizing hermeneutics” that helps keep the public square naked (p. 57). He says further that “it is of the essence of the Church to occupy public terrain and to occupy it as a public community” (p. 58). Note that well. It is of the essence of the Church to occupy public terrain. This has political ramifications, of necessity, by the very structure of things. In answer to the charge that this is a move by the Religious Right, our reply would have to be, “No, it is much more radical than that.” The Religious Right is too domesticated, too tame, too willing to play by the rules laid down by our secular handlers.
Speaking of the collision between Rome and the early Church, Leithart says this: “Christians challenged every claim advanced by the imperial eschatology” (p. 60). The empire today is a different one, but it too has an imperial eschatology, one that must be challenged by the Church, as the Church, in the name of Jesus Christ.
“To exult in a crucified Messiah had radical political implications. Every time Paul said that he criminal on the Roman cross was Lord and Christ, he was implying that the empire was in the grip of some enormity of wickedness and folly” (p. 61).
But we have not done what our brothers and sisters in the early Church did.
“American democracy has followed the second path, turning the gospel into a support for the global spread of democracy and reducing the Church to a timid and tolerant participant in ‘democratic process'” (p. 63).
But when we wake up to what we have allowed to happen, we too often resort to “activism” of the wrong sort. We awake from quietist slumbers and become lobbyists for the Religious Right. The problem with this is not necessarily the content of what we are seeking to implement, but rather the way we are going about it. Abortion should be against the law. Fine. And Herod did not have a right to keep his brother’s wife. But John the Baptist did not try to slip a note to Herod during a photo op that John the B’s marketing agent set up for him. How do we challenge the regnant idolatries? Through worship, informed by evangelical and biblical faith, the kind of faith that overcomes the world.
“Every worship service is a challenge to Caesar, because every Lord’s Day we bow to a Man on the throne of heaven, to whom even great Caesar must bow” (p. 67).