Are Christian arguments dead dogs in the world?

Soren Kierkegaard suggested that many Christians conceive of the Church as a fire brigade whose task is to run about extinguishing fires in the world. This is wrong, Kierkegaard said.... 

 “Strictly speaking, it is not I who am ringing the fire bell; it is I who am starting the fire... For according to the New Testament, Christianity is incendiarism. Christ Himself says, “I am come to set fire on the earth, and it is already burning.”
(Attack Upon Christendom, tr. by Walter Lowrie, Princeton University Press, 1944.)

I thought of Kierkegaard today while reading Peter Leithart's comments on a recent debate over homosexual marriage between Douglas Wilson and Andrew Sullivan. In his piece Dr. Leithart laments the inability of Christian arguments to penetrate the nut of modern American secularism. A scattering of quotes from the piece and then several comments...

  • I came away . . . deeply impressed with the difficulties that Christians have, and will continue to have, defending a biblical view of marriage to the American public. It will take nothing short of a cultural revolution for biblical arguments to be heard, much less to become persuasive.
  • That leaves Christians with the option of making theologically rich, biblically founded arguments against gay marriage. But do we have the vocabulary ready to hand? And even if we do, does the vocabulary we have make any sense to the public at large?
  • In the end, these dilemmas may not matter. Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness. 
  • Whatever the political needs of the moment, the longer-term response to gay marriage requires a renaissance of Christian imagination. Because the only arguments we have are theological ones, and only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find them cogent.

What more has God ever expected of His witnesses than that they "speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness?" Hasn't it always been the case that the wisdom of God is folly to the perishing, that the Kingdom and its message are hidden from those who "ever seeing never see and ever hearing never hear?"

The need for the "Spirit to give ears as He pleases" is not unique to our day but ubiquitous throughout history.

Paul writes to the Corinthians, "For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God."

Surely the needs of our day are no different than Corinth's. We do not need "nothing short of a cultural revolution for biblical arguments to be heard." Nor do we need "a renaissance of Christian imagination" producing a "people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture." What we need is precisely what Paul sought in his approach to the sophisticated, pagan Greeks of Corinth: a "demonstration of the Spirit and of power."

Honestly, you'd think on reading Dr. Leithart that what America needs is more C.S. Lewis (wiith perhaps a pinch of Tolkien and George McDonald)  if it's ever to be persuaded that homosexual marriage is wrong. But imagination will never conquer the world for Christ. Imagination is the mental creation of what is not physically present. It stands against experience and reality. We don't need imagination. We need power--and power comes by faith, not imagination.

Homosexual marriage is no tougher nut to crack than the message of the Cross. Christian witness has always depended on the power of the Spirit. Christian witness has always spoken words of folly in the eyes of the world. This is not new. 

Dr. Leithart's words are surprisingly pessimistic coming from a man who believes that the triumphant Church ushers in the millennial kingdom of Christ. Are we firemen? Is this the role of the Church and her people? Running around trying to put out fires? Or are we arsonists? Christ said that He came to cast fire on the earth. Who are we to do otherwise? 

Comments

Homosexual marriage shouldn't be a hard nut to crack. It's a ridiculous idea from practically every perspective except, unfortunately, from the US/European intellectual perspective of 2013. It's foolishness is not something only Christians can see. Oddly enough, in fact, homosexual marriage seems to be accepted only in formerly Christian cultures. Plato, Confucius, and your ordinary pagan  would have thought it was absurd-- witness what Suetonius says of Nero's same-sex  marriage: 

"He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife. And the witty jest that someone made is still current, that it would have been well for the world if Nero s father Domitius had had that kind of wife. This Sporus, decked out with the finery of the empresses and riding in a litter, he took with him to the assizes and marts of Greece, and later at Rome through the Street of the Images, fondly kissing him from time to time.  

 That he even desired illicit relations with his own mother, and was kept from it by her enemiess who feared that such a relationship might give the reckless and insolent woman too great infiuence, was notorious, especially after he added to his concubines a courtesan who was said to look very like Agripinina. Even before that, so they say, whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, he had incestuous relations with her, which were betrayed by the stains on his clothing." 

    I add the bit about his mother to emphasize that Suetonius is putting these acts of Nero  in the same category of weird and perverse behavior. 

This reminds me of the hardened hearts of the disciples when they were fearful in the storm, many Christians have become cowards.  How can we be cowards when we are with Christ?  We must pray for our faith to be strengthened and our hearts to be softened because have not even stepped in the storm, we are simply looking upon the clouds.

Maybe Leithart is saying that we need more people like him to make the church's message relevant -- only specialist experts are competent?

Maybe Leithart is saying that we need more people like him to make the church's message relevant -- only specialist experts are competent?

Yes, knowledge is the enemy.  That is why egalitarians killed the people with glasses in Cambodia.

"the longer-term response to gay marriage requires a renaissance of Christian imagination."

As if the church has always accomplished its mission via the arm of the flesh? Speak the truth of God, lovingly, to wicked America and leave the outcome to the Lord of Truth.

I don't know if I am defending Leithart or not here, but it seems to me that the problem is not that people believe in same-sex marriage, but rather that people don't really believe in marriage at all.  Perhaps we are fighting the battle on the wrong front.

I thought of the people in the office where I work.  2/3 of them have been through a divorce.  If the chance of staying together for a lifetime is minimal, then many people will conclude that it doesn't much matter who you want to hook up with.

I post this with hesitation...because I actually found Dr. Leithart’s post quite helpful and think it's worthwhile for us to get that message.

Just take away the "Renaissance of Christian imagination", and you have a solid post. Even that part isn't that bad. As evangelicals, we don't think in a particularly biblical way and love the vain idols of our culture. This is especially evident in our approach to sex. Let's not seek a Renaissance, but let's seek revival.

Dr. Leithart's post seems even better now that I’ve made it more than halfway through the debate (it’s now posted in full online). You can’t listen to it and not have certain things impressed upon you, like the fact that these debates typically center on where to place the fence surrounding two abdominally-acquainted participants in the pursuit of a resulting chemical euphoria. Procreation is not definitional to marriage…it’s optional…laughably optional.

One of the most illuminating parts of the debate comes from Sullivan who declares we live in a "sodomite culture" because we affirm childlessness by choice. His words. Sodomite culture. We are sodomites because we purpose to marry and not have children.

This is why Pastor Wilson’s grabbing hold of the polygamy argument seems ill-suited. Sure, it makes sense logically-speaking. It’s a perfectly valid point and highlights the inconsistency of sodomite marriage proponents. But that doesn’t matter. Tactically, it seems like it would be good, but it isn’t. The culture accepts that marriage is essentially arbitrary and that the purpose of marriage doesn’t include procreation. Worse yet, evangelicals agree.

So do we have a vocabulary for arguing for biblical marriage? In two senses we do not:
1) We don’t believe in the inherent goodness of procreation, so we will not be able to argue against sodomite marriage because, principally, we agree that the purpose of marriage is to set boundaries around the experience of sexual pleasure.
2) Since we agree with sodomites, by definition we can’t have a biblical vocabulary for arguing for biblical marriage. Even if we did, the culture will think we’re talking nonsense…which is to be expected. We should make these biblical arguments, however, and trust the Spirit to give ears to hear…that’s what He’s always done, and He’ll continue doing it.

Ironically, the polygamy argument won’t start any fires. It’s pretty logical, but easily suppressible. It isn’t even overtly Christian. It just so happens that it will appeal to an evangelical who rejects homosexuality while embracing sex divorced from procreation. It will probably cause an unbeliever to scratch his head for a moment, but only about a moment, then forgotten flowing down the river like water off the back of a duck.

I don't want to take anything away from the work Pastor Wilson has done here and continues to do. I don't see many other pastors putting their credibility on the line like he does...constantly. He just doesn't care about it and that's awesome! I think he took the practical route, which isn't necessarily bad...it just highlights where we're actually at and how much deeper we're going to have to root ourselves in Scripture before we can strike much of a blow against sodomite marriage.

I am amazed by stories I’ve heard from parents in our church. Something as mundane as going to the grocery store (or a family reunion) can cause a blazing inferno. Why? Because picking up produce with 4+ children they’ve produced in the marriage bed cuts across the grain. This is Dr. Leithart’s point. This is where the point of contention should be in the marriage debate: fruitfullness. We don't have a vocabulary for it by and large because we don't have ears to hear it. It isn't just the culture that needs the Spirit, it's the Church.

Dr. Leithart has a couple of follow-up posts highlighting the effects of divorcing sex from procreation: Sex Without a Third, and Families with Children.

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