Monday, October 4, 2010

On Disagreeing With Your Heroes: Robert W. Jenson and American Civil Religion

At times I find myself wondering, as I spend so much time reading my theological heroes and teachers, whether I simply imbibe their views and opinions without critical inspection or suspicion, whether I am only a drone lapping up whatever they happen to be pontificating about. And then I come across a passage like this one, and I am reminded that, thankfully, I needn't worry so much:
It is not, however, so often asked what America would have been like without such vision [of divine election]. It is surely worth noting that the one great American enterprise so far undertaken by leaders thoroughly disabused of "moralism" in public policy, was the Indochinese intervention. America cannot deny power; the only question is by what warrants we will determine its use. One need not share politically recrudescent evangelicalism's mission to save the world from Communism, to think America must have some mission, if God's providence lives.

If, as chastened and demythologized post-millenialists, American Christians were still to insist that there can be a better future also in this world, and this by the standards and energy of the gospel; and if we were to think that God's providence can hardly have left our nation with no role in the coming of this future; what might that mission be? The suggestion that can come from [Jonathan] Edwards is surely: advocacy and practice of a human solidarity whose very principle is its transcendence of all barriers of interest or historically momentary affiliation. There has never been a peace-loving nation. But why should there not be?

And if indeed, as seems likely, only common worship of the true God could enable such endlessly self-transcending mutuality, the question of civil religion is reopened. Is it really so, as mainline American denominations have recently argued, that a civil religion can only be a despicable 'lowest common denominator' of various real faiths? Might there not be an appropriation of the biblical eschatology, and even a civil worship appropriate thereto, which can be shared also with those not called to baptism or the prayer of the synagogue? (Robert W. Jenson, America's Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards [New York: Oxford University Press, 1988], 173)
The count of scribbled "no!"'s on this page is nine, including a stand-alone "!?". How fitting that the reason I read this book was for a synthetic comparison with John Howard Yoder. And how reassuring to know that, in fact, I do not simply agree with everything I read.

(And by the way, the correct answer to Jenson's last two rhetorical questions are, happily and conclusively and adamantly, "Yes, it really is so" and "No, there is not.")

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