According to legend, thousands of years ago the mighty King Croesus of Lydia consulted with the oracle of Delphi to determine whether he should battle the great Persian Empire. The oracle famously replied, “If Croesus goes to war he will destroy a great empire.” Assured, Croesus engaged the Persians in battle, only to have his army massacred. The oracle’s words proved true. The king’s decision for war destroyed a great empire. His own.
My fear is that for people of faith, our modern-day oracles are not spiritual or theological so much as they are political. And as the legend of King Croesus warns, we should take great caution in where we place our faith.
As the president of a faith-based liberal arts university—I am acutely aware of the challenges before us. Daily life is awkwardly reconciled with a pervasive, persistent global pandemic. Social unrest continues, and we lament the ongoing unjust and violent treatment of black and brown skinned Americans. The future is a web of uncertainty whose unpredictability feels unparalleled. We talk of a “post Covid” era, but no one can predict when that is.
Yet I want to consider one challenge above the rest: our polarized and divisive political environment, particularly as we head into a fall election.
I highlight this challenge because today’s noxious political condition and its inflammatory discourse has an alarming capacity to accentuate, complicate, and accelerate all other challenges before us. Further, the temptations of political hyper-partisanship threaten the authenticity of our faith. Christians are called to be holy. Literally, “set apart.” For a Christian educational institution whose identity is bound up in its spiritual and theological heritage, bypassing the wisdom and practice of the Christian faith tradition and consulting the political oracles of our day is tantamount to institutional obsolescence.
Therefore, I am making an appeal to the Christian faith community.
First, I want to appeal to our wisdom tradition. Specifically, I want us to embrace the liberal arts and the intellectual rigor and seriousness associated with that moniker.
Second, I want to call followers of Jesus to more deliberately elevate our Christian identity above every other form of identity in this season.
While I am discouraged about the threats posed by our present environment, there is good news. As people of faith, we have the tools to navigate the complexities of this moment and truly be set apart.
Education in the Liberal Tradition
Today, higher education is often understood as existing to foster the economic potential of tomorrow’s workforce. The sentiment is valid. Preparing students to enter a dynamic global economy is advertised by most if not all colleges and universities. But a liberal arts education is not simply an instrument to get a desirable job. Properly understood, the liberal arts is an education in freedom—not freedom to do as I want, but liberty to become who I should. From Aristotle to C.S. Lewis, the case is made that good education exists to produce rightly ordered love and desire. Education is not about what we know; it is about what we love and who we become.
Cornell West has persuasively argued for instruction in the liberal tradition to avoid “uncritical deference to dogma.” That is, we need liberal arts education so we do not unreflectively commit ourselves to the loudest voice or trendy ideas. As Dallas Willard reminds us, elements of skepticism can be good because it challenges illegitimate claims to authority.
As a community of believers that desire to worship God with “all of our minds,” we should never concede to dogmatic certainty that invites us to stop listening. On the contrary, as Christians who desire to elevate veritas, we should commit ourselves to both norms of truth seeking and the norms of persuasion. What does this involve?
First and foremost, the norms of truth seeking include viewpoint diversity. We want to understand all perspectives, even those with which we disagree. This requires us to engage in the discussions of great thoughts and thinkers throughout history. Additionally, understanding the arguments and perspectives of others helps us dispel confirmation bias, our innate tendency to process data in unconsciously motivated ways.
To be clear, viewpoint diversity is not equivalent to “open-mindedness.” It is very important to distinguish between having an open mind and being a good listener. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, open minds are like open mouths—they will eventually close onto something. The purpose of an open mind is to arrive upon a reliable conclusion, and the purpose of a question is to responsibly reach an answer. Truth has no fear of investigation, but it must be equally recognized that investigation exists to determine truth.
So the end goal is not an open mind. However, to reach a conclusion, to arrive upon an answer, and to get at the truth—we must learn to think and process, listen well, discern, interrogate our own biases, engage other views, and understand the arguments being made (not simply attack and dismiss the caricatured, cartoonish versions of unpalatable viewpoints).
In the end, the norms of truth seeking will foster a rigorous, self-examined life. One of today’s most necessary dimensions of self-examination is to ask: How do we know when we are wrong? Put differently, what is authoritative in our life? Tish Harrison Warren has written persuasively on the necessity of being governed by modes of authority. Authority is not bondage; on the contrary, it is liberation. For people of faith, the authorities of Scripture, tradition, ecclesial commitments, established disciplines, and communal ties have served as helpful guideposts for cultivating judgments and practices necessary to live well and afford us a faithful witness.
Related to the norms of truth seeking are the norms of persuasion. The institutions of our democracy were established with the fundamental recognition that individuals are prone to disagree. Our framers understood the contentious nature of social and political discourse and consequently, constructed institutions that anticipated dissent and discord among its members.
Institutions presuppose disagreement, and disagreement presupposes tolerance. Tolerance, however, is a freighted word and should not be understood as blind acceptance. If anything, just the opposite. The late philosopher Jean Beth Elshtain helpfully suggests that “tolerance does not require the suspension of judgment. Rather, it requires restraint.”
So, disagreement presupposes tolerance and restraint, and tolerance and restraint presuppose persuasion. Persuasion is not punitive; it does not rely on contempt or cancellation. By contrast, persuasion seeks to compel, sway and convince.
Finally, persuasion presupposes that some answers are right, and some are wrong. Trying to reason with someone we disagree with is a foolish undertaking if we do not first begin with the notion that some ideas are better, more morally excellent, and more truthful than others.
These are the norms of truth seeking and persuasion. They characterize what it means to live in the liberal tradition—to apprehend freedom and live well with our neighbor.
But, my second appeal is perhaps more important. I want to give attention to the norms of a Christian community and Christian “citizenship.”
Citizenship in Heaven
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul warns of those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” They are on a path to destruction, says Paul, because their minds are moored in earthly things. “But,” he says, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:18-20). Similarly, in his letter to Ephesus, Paul calls believers “citizens with the saints” and “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19-20).
Paul was writing to men and women who occupied a specific place at a specific time. The church of Philippi was in the region of Macedonia. Ephesus, modern day Turkey, was a port city along the coast of Asia Minor. Like Americans today, Paul was writing to a people whose citizenship was constituted by a setting with its own laws, customs, and practices.
Despite their location and national identity, Paul declares that early Christians have another, elevated citizenship. This message is no different to us today. Our citizenship is in heaven. And what exactly does this mean?
Among other things, it means when we hear comments relating to immigration reform and concern for refugees, care for the poor and marginalized, environmental stewardship, the empowerment of women and the elevation of gender equity, or the desire for racial justice—don’t think “liberal.” Think Christian.
Likewise, when we hear comments relating to the importance of mediating institutions to inculcate values, a biblical view of sexuality or sexual ethics, lamenting the dissolution of the family, pro-life initiatives, or the importance of tradition and governing values—don’t think “conservative.” Think Christian.
These are God’s themes. Granted they have a political hue, but we must not forget that they are Christian in their orientation. Citizenship in heaven does not require people of faith to abandon political perspectives—perhaps just the opposite. It does suggest, however, that our identity as a person made in God’s image should not rise proportionate to our political views. Unequivocally and without rival, our identity must be in the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
And there’s the rub.
It is easy to say we are children of God. We are fond of describing Scripture as “a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.” We proclaim “Jesus is Lord” without effort.
But do we mean it?
In his book Mere Discipleship, Lee Camp delivers a blistering appraisal of 21st Century Christianity: “Could it be that ‘Jesus is Lord’ has become one of the most widespread Christian lies? Have Christians claimed the Lordship of Jesus, but systematically set aside the call to obedience to this Lord?”
I often witness men and women who call themselves Christian—who say “Jesus is Lord”—but appear to my eyes indistinguishable from a modern-day liberal democrat or indistinguishable from a modern-day conservative republican.
When we utter, “Thy will be done,” “He is risen,” and “He is worthy,” or when we express our desire to be holy and set apart, do we mean it? Or, when we worship in church and collectively sing “How great is our God,” “I surrender all,” “Oh Lord I need you,” and “In Christ alone,” do we live as if it is true? In our day to day lives, is Jesus really Lord? Or, is the variability in our thoughts, words, and actions explained by an entirely different kingdom with an entirely different set of values?
To this, I echo the words of James Chapter 3: “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
A Holy People
In Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Hamlet, we are provided wise counsel through the mouth of Rosencrantz: “The Cease of Majesty dies not alone, but like a gulf, doth take what is near it with it.” The statement is prescient; instructive. Majesties expire. Kingdoms rise and fall. But they do not die alone.
As people of faith, if we find ourselves too proximate to political figures, party lines, and ideology, we risk a compromised witness to the person of Jesus Christ. Moreover, when our political kings fade away and die out—and they will—we risk perishing with them.
This is a unique moment—a hard moment. This political season is only going to accentuate and complicate the extraordinary challenges we already face. The temptation to be inhospitable to those with differing perspectives seems irresistible.
The life of a Christ-follower must be different. The call to holiness is evident throughout Scripture. God desires a people purified and set apart (I Peter 1:16). Jesus prayed that we would be a unified body (John 17:21). Our language must be animated with love, otherwise we are a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (I Cor. 13:1). And we should act in a way that looks out for the interests of others—even those with whom we disagree (Phil. 2:4; Matthew 5:44).
One of my favorite quotes comes from the British evangelist Gypsy Smith. “There are five gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Christian,” he says. “And most people will never read the first four.”
With a commitment to the norms of truth seeking and the norms of persuasion—and with a “citizenship in heaven” and its associated practices—this moment provides us a remarkable opportunity to be set apart, and to be the “fifth gospel” to our neighbors around us. My appeal to institutions of higher education, to the community of Christians, and of course, to myself, is to be different. Let us be holy, purified, and set apart.
Why? Because “Jesus is Lord.”
And on November 4th this year, the day after the election, Jesus will still be Lord.