Category Archives: precision in language

A Christian Britain?

British-Empire-Flags1Brantley Gasaway presented the issue of whether or not it is appropriate to consider Britain as a Christian nation the other day at Religion in American History. A very interesting question, and one that is getting attention because of Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments on the subject.

Gasaway begins his piece with an acknowledgement that many readers may be somewhat tired of thinking about the idea of a Christian nation. I certainly hope not! A large share of my scholarship addresses the question of whether America is a Christian nation or not. But he also raises a really important point–Americans aren’t the only ones who have ever considered themselves a Christian nation.

One of the best books I have ever read on the history of religious exceptionalism and nationalism is Anthony Smith’s Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity. In this work, Smith locates four objects in what he calls “the sense of the sacred” in national identity: 1) the community, which considers itself chosen by God, 2) the land itself, which the nation considers sacred, 3) what Smith calls “the glorious past,” that is, the mythological/glorified past of the nation, and 4) “the glorious dead,” and the sacrifices of those who laid down their lives for the causes of the nation.

One of the many values of this book is that Smith shows how western civilizations going back to the fourth century have considered themselves the chosen people of God, and uniquely Christian. Americans are only one of many western societies that have considered themselves Christian, and the British are another.

The British have historically seen themselves as a Christian nation, and sometimes have even seen themselves as the only true Christian people in the world. In the eighteenth century for example, the British considered themselves to be the Christian answer to the Anti-Christ, which was embodied in the French nation. The wars Britain fought with the French in the 1700s were seen by them as an apocalyptic struggle of true Christianity against the forces of the devil and the Anti-Christ of Catholic France. And any nation that styles its monarch as “Defender of the Faith” has a much more explicit claim on being a Christian nation than America ever did.

Still, I’m with Gasaway on remaining open to questioning the propriety of classifying any nation as Christian. What is a Christian nation, anyway? I deal with the ambiguity of the term “Christian nation” extensively in One Nation Under God. Defining precisely what a Christian nation looks like is a thorny path indeed, and I have never found anyone who has met with success in the endeavor.


C. S. Lewis helps us to define our terms more precisely

Lewis sets out in this work to address the philosophical question, are miracles possible? He does not answer the question of the possibility of miracles with the use of historical evidences, but begins his answer by looking to the fundamental worldview of the person. Is the person considering the question a naturalist or a supernaturalist? Does the person considering the question believe that the materials found in the natural order are all that exist—is Nature the whole picture? Or is there some other Reality that supersedes Nature, that is above Nature, that created Nature? Lewis analyzes the differences between naturalism and supernaturalism, and shows that naturalism suffers from internal inconsistency and only supernaturalism can account for the rationality of man’s mind and the intelligibility of the universe. Naturalism also suffers from an inability to account for the morality of humans, for the idea of ought and ought not. In this way, Lewis shows that, since naturalism is irrational and invalid, supernaturalism is the only other reasonable option. Since this is the case, miracles are possible.
After dispensing with naturalism as a coherent philosophical system, Lewis examines the idea of miracle, giving definitions for the term and defining the term’s boundaries. He clearly does not accept the view that miracles are a violation of the laws of nature. Orthodox Christianity certainly does not deny the laws of nature, nor does it deny that order which is found in nature. A miracle, by definition, does not break those laws which are easily observable and which make the universe intelligible. A miracle, Lewis describes, is an interruption into those laws, but the laws of nature take over where the miracle had interrupted. If law A causes effect B, then when miracle A(1) occurs, effect B(2) will take over. In other words, when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary to conceive in her womb the baby Jesus, she was, in fact, pregnant, and the laws of nature took over from there.
Lewis proceeds to differentiate between Christianity and Religion by stating that the modern concept of religion is pantheistic. A pantheistic God, Lewis writes, is impersonal, predictable, and easily understood and thereby kept under control. The reality is, the God of the universe, the God that Christ has made known, is King and is alive and is not so easily understood. The pantheistic God of modern religion is not capable of bringing about miracles. In contrast, the God of Christianity, the true God is not only capable of causing miracles—miracles are inevitable.
Lewis takes the time to critique Hume on his objection that miracles are not possible because they are improbable. One can observe a million human deaths and never witness a miracle of resurrection, therefore, miracles of resurrection do not occur. Lewis shows that this proposition is based on the uniformity of nature. But if this principle is questioned, then Hume’s hypothesis no longer is valid. Thus, Lewis states that the criterion for the probability of miracles must not be the uniformity of nature, but instead, the fitness of that miracle to occur in a universe in which God is the ultimate reality. Lewis proceeds to present the miracles of the Christian faith, namely, the Incarnation, the miracles of the Old Testament, and the miracles of Christ culminating in the Resurrection, in order to show their fitness in this universe.
Lewis closes his work by emphasizing that miracles are, by definition, very rare. He writes, “You are probably quite right in thinking you will never see a miracle done” (201). Miracles occur at moments of the most profound spiritual turning points in history.

Is American Exceptionalism a Christian Idea?

Battle of Veracruz. Image from Wikipedia

Oliver Thomas has a column in USA Today on the topic. The title of piece is “A Christian View of American Exceptionalism.”

I am working on a paper and a book proposal on the topic of American exceptionalism. My intent is to write a historical and theological analysis of American exceptionalism, and argue that it is not an idea in alignment with Christianity. This column caught my attention.

Thomas begins his piece by saying,

Even before we could get off the ship, Massachusetts’ first governor, John Winthrop, explained it to us. We were to be a city on a hill, a light to the nations, the new Israel. Iconic politicians from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan have invoked this famous biblical imagery to explain America’s role in the world.

Winthrop was the governor of Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, not the same thing as the state of Massachusetts. He could not have envisioned that what he described as a “city on a hill” would move beyond the shady boundaries of what he could see in 1630. We can also question whether or not his metaphor of “city on a hill” is rightly applied to America’s adventures over the centuries. And while Winthrop intended Massachusetts Bay to be a Puritan commonwealth, and thus a “Christian nation,” that is not what the framers of the Constitution produced, but a nation with full religious freedom. Furthermore, the descriptions of “city on a hill” and “light to the nations” are used in Scripture to apply respectively to the followers of Christ (Matt 5) and to Christ Himself (Isa 49, 60).

America’s self-understanding as a shining “city on a hill” helps explain both our westward expansion and our paternalistic foreign policy. From Cuba and Central America to the Philippines, Vietnam and Iraq, Americans have been willing to impose their will on others. Some will argue it was because we wanted their land or oil. Perhaps. But it was also because we thought we knew what was best.

Thomas is right in his last sentence of this quote. But what nation acts in a particular way thinking they didn’t know what was best? This doesn’t mean they are right all, or even most, of the time. America has been right a great deal in its history as it has acted in its interests. But not all the time.

But probe the biblical metaphor that forms the foundation of the American psyche and you find that exceptionalism is always for service — never for favor. The prophets of Israel emphasized this point. Even the ancient book of Genesis establishes this baseline principle when God speaks to the patriarch Abraham: “By your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”

This first sentence is problematic. One need only to look to the Mexican War of 1846-48, which was primarily a war of conquest. Also, does Thomas truly mean to suggest that Gen 12.3 ought to be applied directly to the United States of America? Certainly if America has replaced Israel as God’s chosen nation, it must. But to reach this conclusion, one must ignore everything the Bible says about God’s plan for Israel and the church.

If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is for service, not domination. Parse Winthrop’s words, and you’ll find a similar message. The American experiment was to serve as an example of right living and right governance. “A model of Christian charity,” as he put it. It was never intended as American entitlement.

Again, Winthrop did not envision himself starting “an American experiment.” He saw himself establishing a covenant community in a strange and distant wilderness, an “errand in the wilderness.” He saw himself doing God’s work, but did not see this work in the same nationalistic way that we ascribe to him. This is an anachronistic way of interpreting Winthrop’s sermon.

That’s ironic given the extraordinary generosity of individual Americans. We tend to be good neighbors. When the roof caves in, Americans pile in with blankets, hot coffee and all the rest. From the Salvation Army to Boys and Girls Clubs to Habitat for Humanity to the Gates Foundation, the generosity and creative problem-solving ability of Americans is legendary. But a blessing to the world and a light to other nations? Only on occasion.

No argument here.

I’m thinking of America’s stand against Nazism and Japanese imperialism; her willingness to help rebuild post-World War II Europe; and, more recently, her stunning response to the 2004 tsunami. America also boasts the world’s oldest Constitution, an extraordinary system of governmental checks and balances, almost two-thirds of the world’s top universities and the collective talent to do anything we set our minds to. Ironically, we cannot rely upon our politicians to get us there. They can’t even get to a balanced budget! If America is to live up to the dream of her Founders, it will be because of us. We the people.

No urgent argument here, except to ask what exactly is the dream of America’s “Founders”? The “Founders” were not one thing. They all had dreams for the country, and many of them deviated sharply from one another. Read some of the debates over the proposed Constitution in the states before it was ratified, and you’ll see that the “dream” was not as simple and obvious as it is often sentimentally described.

The path forward is surprisingly simple yet exceedingly hard. We will have to begin acting more like our parents and grandparents. They put duty first, not self-actualization or the titillation of their nerve endings. No wonder they were able to accomplish all they did. And they never whined — not about gas rationing or individual tax rates that soared to as high as 90% in the 1950s. They seemed to live by one simple code: We will leave the world a better place than we found it.
The path to greatness is never well-trod. It is, though, well-marked. Discipline, courage and self-sacrifice are what get you there, not fidelity to narrow partisan agendas. Can America live up to her lofty dream as a shining city on a hill? You decide.
I agree with this also, but we must be careful when we consider the generations that have gone before us. They were just as flawed as we are. Our grandparents’ generation, the same one that won World War II, had the same proclivities to complaining, grandstanding, and power-mongering that we have in our day. They were not demigods. Read some of the political speeches of the candidates during the 1930s-1950s.
Thomas is exactly right, however, to draw a contrast between that generation and this. There was a greater willingness to sacrifice, to accept adversity, to look out for others, to deny selfish desires, to strive for common goals. Americans are special, without a doubt, because of its history, its traditions, its sincere desire to bring individual freedom to every nation, and its willingness to “bear any burden” to relieve the suffering and oppression of others.
Still, we must be careful not to import biblical imagery that was directed in one direction and forcefully point it elsewhere for patriotic self-service. America should certainly be marked by self-sacrifice, duty to others, commitment to justice, and rule of law. These commitments should stem from the fact that they are rooted in the truth, even biblical truth. But to advocate for these things on a shaky theological and historical basis that America is God’s New Israel? That’s bad history, bad interpretation, bad theology, and wishful thinking that can only lead us to impossible “dreams” and disillusionment.


Great Resource on Logical and Critical Thinking

     The goal of Asking the Right Questions is to give the reader some tools to use when evaluating the reasons given for a particular conclusion in a specific argument. The authors state early on that critical thinking is a term meaning three components: 1) “awareness of a set of interrelated questions,” 2) “ability to ask and answer critical questions at appropriate times,” and 3) “the desire to actively use the critical questions” (2). The authors’ purpose is to help the reader build these skills of critical thinking and use those skills not only in what they hear and read, but also in what they speak and write themselves. Critical thinking skills are set in contrast with a simple act of absorbing information as it comes in the first chapter. While it is valuable and right to absorb information as it comes in the form of writing or speaking, it is not enough to stop there. Critical thinking does absorb information, but it takes the information and evaluates it in order that an independent and intelligent conclusion may be reached.
     The book is divided into fourteen chapters. Chapters 1 and 14 deal mostly with various introductory and concluding issues, while the substance of the book is met in chapters 2 through 13. These chapters, each in their turn, deal with the critical questions in the order that they may be asked. As the reader proceeds through the chapters, the critical questions become more and more complex. The critical questions which the authors present are centered around the following: 1) issue and conclusion, 2) reasons, 3) ambiguous terms and phrases, 4) value conflicts and assumptions, 5) descriptive assumptions, 6) fallacies, 7) evaluation of evidence, 8) rival causes, 9) potentially deceptive statistics, 10) potentially omitted information, and 11) possible reasonable conclusions.
     The book is designed so that the reader may master each critical question by reading the material in the chapters, encountering and considering the examples offered, and working the practice exercises at the end of each chapter. More practice exercises are offered on the book’s website to the ambitious learner. The practice exercises provided by the authors are certainly valuable, but it is better to try the skills out on actual articles, editorials, speeches, and other sources. Doing this is much more challenging, as well as much more practical. Once the reader has proceeded through the entire book, he should have a good idea about how to think critically about any issue, whether it is found in written or spoken form. The chapters are meant to be analyzed individually, but then taken as a whole package once they are studied in their entirety.
     The intended audience is primarily an academic one, although the authors make clear at the outset that everyone with sufficient motivation may hone their critical thinking skills using the questions addressed in the text. I have found this to be true, having recently taught an eighth grade logic class through this book and seeing the effect of the application of critical thinking skills upon young teenagers.
     Once the authors have concluded their practical study on critical thinking, they close their book with some helpful advice on the tone of critical thinking. Several suggestions are offered in order to communicate friendship rather than hostility while exercising critical thinking skills. It was refreshing to see the authors stress that, even if we are being misled or tricked in some way by a politician, salesman, lawyer, etc., it is always imperative to offer argumentation in a positive and edifying spirit. This is especially important to remember in an often adversarial society, as well as one whose general idea of argumentation and critical thinking too often insists scoring victory at any cost.
Browne, M. Neil and Stuart M. Keeley. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, 10thedition. New York: Longman, 2011.