Stanley Fish on the Foundations Baptist Fellowship and American Protestant Fundamentalism More Generally

Readers of my blog know that I have a strong (and perhaps strange) affinity for Stanley Fish, the pragmatic, antifoundationalist literary theorist and classic public intellectual gadfly. I find him always stimulating and incisive, even when I disagree. But because his strength is analysis and not so much evaluation (indeed, in what I’m about to quote he makes a rare statement of something he “certainly” believes in—and it just happens to be original sin!), I don’t really have to disagree very often.

Recently, Fish has been called up to the lecture circuit because of rising interest in some of his long-term themes: academic freedom and the proper justification for the liberal arts. And in his recent comments defending the idea of a university against the hordes of student protesters (who, Fish says, should be listened to but ultimately told to shut up, because academic freedom is not for students, and giving into them will destroy what the university was created to do), he offers genuine wisdom for someone like me who is currently engaged in defending the existence of certain institutions of American Protestant Christian fundamentalism. A narrower ideology is not supposed to be available than this one, so why do I defend it? Because, in part, as Fish says, every ideology is narrow. Every culture proclaims and defends its values and not others. I hope my proclamation and defense hew to a standard external to my subculture, namely the standard of Scripture. But I can’t pretend that I have no culture through which I view that standard, or that I think other cultures are equally valid. If I want to give to my children what I was given, I have to work to maintain the relevant traditions.

Bear with me here, because my extended quotation of Fish is going to be off-putting at points for much of my readership. But I genuinely believe there is wisdom here. I give different supporting reasons for the conclusions that Fish reaches, but those conclusions most certainly resonated with me.

I have transcribed the following from the Hugo Black lecture Fish gave (audio) a little over a year ago. I won’t be breaking this up with commentary, so have patience until I can explain a few more things. Fish again, is talking about higher education:

The perfectionists are, by definition, progressivists. They do not believe in original sin, but hold rather to an optimistic view of human potential, and they are in search of the political methods that will liberate rather than shackle that potential. Perfectionism or progressivism could possibly flourish on either side of the political aisle; it has a liberal as well as a conservative face. But as many have pointed out, it’s natural home these days seems to be on the left. Political theorist Jacob Talmon puts it this way: “The left proclaims the essential goodness and perfectibility of human nature.” That was a statement made in the 1950s, but here is a statement made last week, by William Voegli, editor of the conservative journal, The Claremont Review:

Liberals believe in progress because they believe in a virtuous circle. As a society becomes more free it progresses, and as it progresses it becomes more free.” (citation)

The natural movement of history, unless stymied by reactionary forces, is from less freedom to more, and never from more freedom to less. Conservatives, on other hand, do believe in original sin, as I certainly do, and I quote Voegli again:

Conservatives see little basis to embrace the conviction that progress will reveal humans to possess unfulfilled or unrealized capacities for reason, freedom, and love. They believe, rather, that it is wise to take our bearings from the abundant historical evidence that human nature reveals astounding capacities for savagery, hatred, and idiocy. (Thomas Hobbes, thou art living at this hour.) Therefore, while liberals want to make the world a better place, conservatives want to keep it from becoming even worse. [could not find citation after repeated searches; it is possible that the quotations ends before the parenthesis]

Voegli concludes that “the urgent work of maintaining civilization is constant.” By that he means, and I agree with him from a postmodernist perspective he would probably reject, that the absence of a view of history assuming an internal logic in the direction of the good means that we had better take care to maintain those institutional arrangements that we cherish, institutional arrangements that in the course of a history that has no teleology but only events we have been lucky enough to hit on. That is, there are certain arrangements, associations, structures, and institutions that turn up in the course of human history that are extremely beneficial and healthy and inspiring—but it’s just a contingent accident that this has happened, which means that we must work contingently, empirically, pragmatically, to ensure that they stay around.

Now, I believe that the liberal arts college…is one of those arrangements that should be maintained and preserved rather than perfected. “Perfection” is a bad idea, in part for reasons that Isaiah Berlin gave in his famous essay on two kinds of liberty. I believe that because the schemes of perfection given to us in the statement of the student protestors all have the fatal defect of turning the college or university into a vehicle for the realization of a political ideal, the equal freedom of all people in a world untainted by injustice and discrimination. I do not quarrel with the ideal. I quarrel with the assumption that it is the university’s job to implement it. Not only do colleges and universities have their own job, … to enquire into the truth of things and to do so in a way that leads to understanding rather than to political action, but if universities allow their energies and resources to put in the service of other jobs, no matter how worthy, they will lose their distinctiveness, and any rationale for their existence. After all, if the academic life is just an extension of politics, why not just dispense with all that scholarly apparatus and get right down to it—get right down to the business of canvassing for votes and securing political power? Perfectionist progressivism is the enemy of what we have, and given that what we have here at Wesleyan and elsewhere is a precarious achievement, it behooves us to hang on to it, even if in the eyes of many, the liberal arts model is outdated, reactionary, and something in the nature of a museum. Another way to put this: we should wear the label “ivory tower” proudly, and should wear no other.

It is sometimes said that the postmodernist or deconstructive view of human actions as untethered to any foundational truth is a recipe for relativism and nihilism, on the reasoning if there’s nothing holding everything up or holding everything together, we can do whatever we like without fearing any ultimate consequences. But in fact, the reverse is true: if there is nothing holding everything up or holding it together, we cannot rely on time and history to protect those things we love, and, to borrow a phrase of the poet John Milton, to protect those things we would not willingly let die. If you like something, a way of life, a mode of practice, a mode of being, a mode of practice that captures you to the extent of becoming indistinguishable from you, I am what I do, then you had better work hard to ensure that it will still be around for you and for those who come after you and want to live that life and not another.

In a non-foundational world, no abiding fundamental truth is going to save us, and no abiding fundamental truth is going to preserve what we cherish. We have to do it ourselves. Which means doing consistent battle with those, including our students, who would take it away from us, who would appropriate and “occupy”—not a verb casually chosen—the structures that house and enable the distinctive activity that goes by the name “liberal arts education.”

You might think that my talk of “battle” is hyperbolic. But listen to a Yale student in the course of harassing a hapless, low-level administrator. At one point, she relaxed the stream of expletives she was hurling at him to say, and I quote, “What you’ve got to understand is that it’s not about creating an intellectual space, it’s about creating a home.”….

What should be done, and who is to do it? Well, given what I have said here, the resolution of the present set of controversies will not be found in some theory or master algorithm or failsafe, all-purpose method. It will be found, if it is found at all, in the actions of skilled administrators who, after all, are the ones responsible for keeping the enterprise going.

Now, quite clearly I am not an anti-foundationalist. But I’m anti-everybody-else’s-foundation; I mean, I’m anti-all-non-Christian-foundations. So Fish and I actually share a great deal. I’m also not a straight-up postmodern, so I am not “absen[t] of a view of history assuming an internal logic in the direction of the good.” History has a teleology to which we have access; something Someone is holding it all together.

But someone’s also trying to break it apart, and in the age that that adversary rules internal logics go awry, and not everything has yet been brought under Christ’s feet to fully serve their created teleology.

So once again Fish and I can share a lot of agreement. The fact that God is holding everything together, including my own life and sanctification, doesn’t absolve me of the responsibility to “make every effort” to add virtue to my faith (2 Peter 1). Likewise, the fact that man proposes and God disposes doesn’t mean I should stop proposing. I propose to do what I can, what little I can, to maintain the institutions that stabilize and promote my values. It is the leaders of these institutions—the “administrators” of Fish’s example—who are charged with keeping the enterprises going. And I’m trying to help them, and to be a bit of a junior administrator myself.

The portions of fundamentalism that shaped me were 92% “beneficial and healthy and inspiring”—although that means they were 8% fallen, and that means some weeding within my tradition. What can I do when I see the good except to try to preserve it, even in the face of persistent original sin? There aren’t any unstained mantles available out there; I checked. And though weaving a new one is always an option, I don’t think it’s very humble or grateful to try that first. I have to pick up the holes and stains in the fundamentalist mantle if I’m going to pick it up at all. I’ll add my own holes and stains as time passes, through my own “savagery and hatred and idiocy,” but I seek by God’s grace to restore more of the mantle than I rip. What else can I do?

 

My Room off the Hallway of Christianity

C.S. Lewis writes in his intro to his world-famous book, Mere Christianity,

I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?’ (xv–xvi)

I waited years to start this blog, before I felt like I could write without wasting people’s time. I’ve waited almost another decade to write an article defending in a systematic way why I’ve stayed in the room I was born in. Yes, I have a room, a denomination, even though the others in my room don’t like to call it that, and even though our label is commonly associated with other rooms—even other religions. Here is my testimony and defense. I invite your critical engagement.

David Brooks on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, Or, The Ironist Us Vs. the Purist Them

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David Brooks has responded in the New York Times to Rod Dreher’s just-out, “already-the-most-discussed-and-most-important-religious-book-of-the-decade” The Benedict Option. His response is not negative so much as graciously dismissive. He does this by labeling Dreher a “purist.”

Brooks’ critique sets “purists” like Dreher against “ironists” like Niebuhr (and, apparently, Brooks); and at first he had me assuming I’d land clearly in Dreher’s category, conservative Protestant that I am.

But the way he describes ironism had some theological appeal, too:

Ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one. In this world, the pieces don’t quite fit together and virtues often conflict: liberty versus equality, justice versus mercy, tolerance versus order. For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs.

This all seemed to fit me, too, given my belief not just in creation but in fall—at least until he said,

[For ironists] there is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living.

Whereas I think there is such a system, found in the Bible—though this system is more for the individual than for the society. I distinguish the two not because the Bible has nothing to say to society as a whole (it does; if Moab and Ammon can be judged guilty of oppression in Isaiah, there must be standards available by which nations can be judged innocent of oppression), but because the Bible never holds out hope that there will be societies in which all people are citizens of Christ’s kingdom, in which all people have the new heart of the New Covenant. How can a society full of rebels against God possibly be successful? And, sadly, human rebellion isn’t limited to unbelievers. Even now, New Covenant members still have our horrid flesh. I know I’ve got mine. We can’t be relied upon to create heaven on earth either.

I can’t follow Brooks’ ironism as far as he takes it:

The real enemy is not the sexual revolution. It is a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.

The sexual revolution most certainly is an enemy, and an incredibly destructive one. And though I hope I’m a humble enough ironist to see plenty of mystery out there, my difficulty is not with accepting that we see through a glass darkly, it’s accepting the particular list of things Brooks thinks we won’t see clearly until the eschaton. He repeatedly mentions “LGBT issues” as a matter over which he disagrees with Dreher. And though even there I don’t pretend to have perfectly solid answers to all questions (how do nature and nurture relate in the formation of homosexual desire, do the “eunuchs from birth” Jesus spoke of include celibate homosexuals), I do have a few solid enough answers—divinely revealed answers—to guide public policy. One is that heterosexual, monogamous marriage is a reality, a given, not an ad hoc social construct. I can’t compromise this point for the common good when the common good relies on it.

If I’m a purist, I’m one that is resigned to empirical pluralism and more than prepared to work in good ironistic fashion with other groups for the common good—and to await pure perfection only in the New Earth. But it’s meaningless for me to work for that common good now unless I get to retain my biblically informed vision of what that good entails.

Brooks thinks,

Rod is pre-emptively surrendering when in fact some practical accommodation is entirely possible. Most Americans are not hellbent on destroying religious institutions. If anything they are spiritually hungry and open to religious conversation. It should be possible to find a workable accommodation between L.G.B.T. rights and religious liberty, especially since Orthodox Jews and Christians aren’t trying to impose their views on others, merely preserve a space for their witness to a transcendent reality.

And I hope he’s right. I think he may be. But one reason I think Dreher may win me over—I began reading The Benedict Option moments after it became available in the Kindle store—is the ironically sad blindness of the NY Times commenters.

“cljuniper” from Denver said,

[I] agree with Brooks that purism is the real enemy. In my view, any religion that creates an “us and them” mentality is likely more cost than benefit to humanity.

Thank you, Stanley Fish and John Frame and St. Paul, for giving me tools to see what’s going on in a sentence like that. Do you see it? cljuniper critiques an “us and them” mentality by naming an enemy—by establishing a new us-and-them.

cljuniper lands squarely in the trap her liberal secularism has made for her by calling what her enemy does a “harm,” by assuming that her definition of “harm” is uncontestable and obvious and neutral and beneficent and “progressive”:

What people like Dreher don’t get is that the progressive community that accepts and embraces human diversity are all about religious and personal freedom and we aren’t about to come hunting for Christians—we are about not judging people by their flavor of religion or lifestyle preferences unless they are hurting others. We are not “authoritarian liberals” whereas the Christian Right and the Right generally is full of “authoritarian conservatives”…who want government to tell us how to live.

Come on in, Fish. We need you. Ah, thank you for stopping by.

Fish says,

A religion deprived of the opportunity to transform the culture in its every detail is hardly a religion at all.

The fact is that every religion—even secularism and progressivism, which are faiths, make no mistake about it—feels the natural impulse to order all of life, including society, by its principles.

Despite cljuniper’s apparent belief in the benignity and live-and-let-livety of her progressivism, Rod Dreher and many others have detected a distinct uptick in progressive authoritarianism, from the well-publicized attacks on Christian wedding cake bakers and florists, to the HHS Mandate that the Little Sisters of the Poor provide abortifacient contraceptive coverage, to the Middlebury students shouting down Charles Murray by calling him anti-gay when he isn’t. What can Rod, an expert culture-watcher say, except that he has his ear to the cultural ground and believes that the times they are a-changin’? Brooks—admittedly an expert culture watcher himself—disagrees. But I’m leaning heavily Dreher’s direction. I just don’t see how the commenters at the New York Times can repeatedly call me and Rod Dreher, and all orthodox Christians “bigots” without threatening social cohesion. What used to be called “disagreement” is now called “hate”—and how is compromise possible with an irrational being such as a hater, someone who clearly doesn’t “respect existence”? Secularist progressives are playing the morality card, they are claiming the cultural high ground. They are appropriating the mantle of the civil rights movement. Even some of their own have complained about their illiberality.

Them are not completely evil (being made in God’s image and all), and cultural accommodation may be possible in the short term, but us have good reasons to contemplate the Benedict Option. I read with avid interest.

Everybody’s a Fundamentalist No. 13

Everybody’s a fundamentalist. Everybody’s a separatist. Everybody has a vision of the good that differs from the visions of others and ends up excluding others from their club.

Everybody limits academic freedom in the next breath after invoking it. Everybody has a conception of the academic enterprise that leaves certain viewpoints out of bounds, no matter how strenuously its representatives insist that those viewpoints count as “academic.”

At least biblical, orthodox Christians can publicly, explicitly, and self-consciously advertise the standards on which they found themselves, by which they separate, and through which they establish the boundaries of academic freedom. The pro-diversity forces have to persuade themselves that their list of acceptable viewpoints counts as “diversity,” that the width of their pluralism is as far as anyone need go to earn the label.

I’ll paraphrase Stanley Fish (my adjustments in bold; original quotation here):

What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the biblical vision for sexuality and a so-called pluralistic school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (homosexuality is immoral or it isn’t). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed. (156)

Is homosexuality moral or immoral? Issues of diversity and academic freedom (and consequent disinvitations of campus speakers) are impossible to sort out until we know how we can even answer that question—until we know what moral foundation we’re standing on, and who if anyone is going to keep us accountable for failing to standing on it.

The unified testimony of the Bible and of the church throughout history is that homosexual acts and desires are immoral—because all sexual acts and desires outside the bounds of heterosexual monogamy are sin (see Jesus in Matt 19). When Princeton students deny this, they actually take aim at the the gospel, or perhaps its flip-side, by virtue of delisting the human sins which make us need it. The Bible makes homosexuality (and sexual immorality, and idolatry, and adultery, and theft, and greed, and drunkenness, and reviling, and swindling) a sin that keeps people out of the kingdom of God. And I want you to know that just now as I read 1 Corinthians 6 I experienced a wave of genuine fear—fear of the Lord. I have been guilty of several of the sins on the list. I don’t aim this passage merely at others. I dare not justify my own (heterosexual) lustful thoughts, my own greed, etc., or anyone else’s, lest I alter the biblical terms by which I can be said to be a member of that divine kingdom. Thank God for the blood of Christ and the sanctifying power of the Spirit. I am not as I once was. God has granted me repentance.

The best brief book I know on the topic of homosexuality is still Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? And the best endorsement of that book I’ve seen comes from an Amazon reviewer who gave the book two stars:

I did not find this book as useful as I anticipated. It seemed to me to revert back to, “The Bible says it, so that settles it.”