Monday, July 29, 2013

A Hill To Die On

Napoleon's Russia Campaign was over months before he left a limb-littered red trail in the Muscovite winter.  While the popular anecdote tells us that the Tsar's climate bested France, the truth is that imperial troops had overextended their supply lines the summer prior.  Alexander had adopted a brilliant strategy; the Russians adopted a scorched-earth tactical retreat.  They torched their own peasants' farms in their retreat.  The Battle of Borodino was the only major engagement of the invasion.  The French advanced with shocking speed through Russian territory.  Of course, that was the point.  When Napoleon came to quarter in the smoldering ruins of Moscow, his support lines were running through hundreds of miles of hostile territory.  His reach had exceeded his grasp.  There were too many hills to hold between Germany and western Russia.  Moscow would be remembered the high-water mark of the First French Empire.  To call the withdrawal of the Grande Armée back to Paris "inglorious" would be an understatement.  Henceforth Napoleon would not be expanding his empire but managing his decline, whether or not he knew it.  Between antagonizing the British, the Prussians, and the Russians, France had unfurled too many war flags on too much soil.  To this day the emperor's name is a byword for megalomania.

Dad always used to tell me that you have to choose your battles.  He always had a penchant for military metaphors and history, despite never serving himself.  He also saw that I was often stirred by mighty passions on the basis of my opinions.  When others--even adults--weren't swayed by my arguments or reached my conclusions, I resented them and anger would simmer in my heart.  He recognized that I was often carried away by half-truth and spiritedness more than by pure reason, so instead of addressing my poor logic at the height of my agitation he offered advice.  He would say, "Son, maybe you're right, but you have to choose your battles."

"But Dad...!" I would blurt indignantly.

"You have to decide if it's a hill worth dying on."

To an adolescent abrim with youthful fire, these sounded like the flaccid excuses of a feeble old man.  (Though he wasn't yet forty when he said this, I figured anyone who'd spout platitudes like that must be half-senile and more than half dead.)  But of course he was right.  I will spare you any trite reflections on the ignorance of youth or the wisdom of fathers.  It is enough to say that he was right.

In my time at the Baptist Geneva, I have found the culture to be at once warm and alienating.  Sometimes this warmth is genuine Christian charity beckoning the lost to repent, sometimes it is a subversive veneer for earning converts.  The nuances of this distinction can be hard to discern and I won't address them here except to say that loving the lost well that they may know Jesus is virtuous and obedient.  There is a darkness in conditional, agenda-driven love, however, if the goal is to win more adherents to your party or cause.

But the real alienation doesn't come from true and false civility; it comes from entrenched conviction.  The air of the place is thick with pathos, both on-campus and in the church bodies within the orbit of the school.  And should it not be so?  After all, we are talking about a concentration of aspiring preachers who have heeded a Divine call to proclaim (literally, "to cry forth" ) the Truth of judgment and salvation.  Such men ought not to waiver in their heed to the declaration of the Cosmic King.  Judgment shall come, salvation is available, but only for a time.  I don't object in the slightest; may the Word of the Lord fill every corner of the earth.  It becomes a problem when the sermon never ends.

Christians disagree charitably about things.  None dispute the authority of the Bible and the Apostle's Creed.  All dispute everything else (even the Catholics, as monolithic as they pretend to be).  There are instances in the Scriptures were people are clearly placed outside the faith and some where people are free to disagree.  Dr. Albert Mohler of Southern Serminary has argued for a  "theological triage" in which there are "three different levels of theological urgency, each corresponding to a set of issues and theological priorities found in current doctrinal debates."  First-order issues are those essential to Christianity, second-order issues involve organizing ourselves into denominational and church bodies, third-order issues as ones of personal preference that can arise between individuals.  First- and third-order issues are pretty obvious to most; Jesus's literal bodily resurrection is pretty clearly a first-order issue, the color of the carpet in the sanctuary a third.

On second-order issues, however, Mohler says that these "resist easy settlement by those who would prefer an either/or approach."  A hasty decision on these issues can rend the soul in knots as it can divide brother from brother.  Nevertheless, Mohler believes that heated discussions can exist on this level.

But should they?  Must they?

For example: Was Paul talking his pre- or post-conversion life in Romans 7?  Should communion be closed to un-immersed believers?  Is the penal substitutionary model of the atonement the only model?  The best?  Are those who deny it nonbelievers?  Are those who deny a forensic view of justification outside the faith, woefully misguided, or simply favoring another perspective?  Premil, postmil, amil, or premil dispensational?  How important is a "born again" experience?  Do some people become Christians by process rather than dramatic conversion?  Can Reformed epistemology or presuppositional apologists have any ground for conversing with the lost world?  How depraved is the intellect in Romans 1?  These are all important issues that get discussed at seminaries the world over and especially at my mine.  I don't deny their significance.  I must deny the obviousness of any one conclusion on these complex issues over others.  Maybe just because a debate is settled for you doesn't mean that the debate is settled for the catholic Church.

Taking a stand is one thing.  What I have grown to revile is how uncharitable many of my peers are on these second-tier issues.  They speak with the prejudice of scientists.  "The facts are plain for any who would see.  Those who don't either fail to understand or deny it to indulge their power and selfishness."  Is this not the great straw man Reformed theology builds?  (I speak here as the cranky insider or the gadfly.)  Is their no room in our doctrine of the perspicuity (for laymen: "clarity" or "obviousness") of Scripture to say that it's not all equally clear?

Perhaps the more serious failure is the Reformed anxiety toward mystery and paradox.  Holding two things in tension is easy for the poet, the artist, the child.  It is nigh-impossible for the empiricist, the activist, the adult.  Physicists have come to agree that light exists as a wave and as a particle.  Do you think experimental physicists will ever live comfortably in that tension?  Yet even they seem to know that light primarily as wave or primarily as particle is no basis for partisanship.

And ultimately isn't this the luxury of men whose world extends scarcely beyond the walls of a seminary library in seminary-churches in a seminary city?  Perhaps the arrows we fire marked "Natural Theology" or "Regulative Principle" fly so true because no enemy bashes at the gates with the troubles of real people in real trouble.  Warlike men may mistake a friend for a foe if their blood lust cannot be directed again a true Enemy.  Woe to the men who choose too many hills to die on.  They may find Moscow aflame and the walk home cold indeed.