The Ultimate Bankruptcy of the Social Gospel

So I have just finished reading Shane Claiborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution. It’s been popular for a while, especially in certain circles at UNC.

The book and author are the latest iteration of the stream of Christian theology which was known as the Progressive Gospel in the early 20th Century, Liberation Theology in the 1970s and 80s and the Social Gospel in the early 21st Century.

What these theological movements have in common is an emphasis on the church’s role in doing good works on the earth in the present as opposed to proclaiming the world to come. As Claiborne himself writes, “We can tell the world there is life after death, but the world really seems to be wondering if there is life before death.” In his view, the church’s goal is not so much to convert people to faith in Christ as much as it is to convert them to a better way of living. He argues that “conversion is not an event but a process, a process of slowly tearing ourselves from the clutches of the culture.” By practicing social justice, we are, in Claiborne’s words, “practicing resurrection.” The salvation of man’s soul through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ takes a secondary place to the salvation of man’s earthly body from poverty through following the earthly example of Christ. In short, we are to “believe so much in another world that [we] cannot help but begin enacting it now.”

Whatever else you can say about Claiborne, he does attempt to live out his philosophy. He lives in a communal house in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, where he ministers to the poor, homeless and drug-addicted. He lives a life of poverty and chastity, and his ministry (called The Simple Way) is run based on donations.

Part of the problem is, Claiborne’s proposals to enact heaven on earth are simplistic, naïve and juvenile. He advocates not only for the abolition of the death penalty but of the prison system as well. He dispenses with the nuclear family, saying that God has achieved “final triumph over patriarchy” and that fathers are no longer necessary because “only God is worthy to be seen as Father.”

He does not stop there. He calls for the abolition of money, because it encourages materialism and the unequal distribution of wealth. In its stead, he proposes replacing it with a system of bartering. He does not seem to recognize that bartering is simply a less complicated version of the materialism of monetary exchange. The underlying problem, as Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 6:10, is the love of money, not money itself. Replacing money with another form of wealth exchange will not change this.

But it’s not just money that Claiborne is after, it’s the entire system of market economics. In Claiborne’s ideal world, the free market will be replaced by sharing or bartering, and there will be what he calls “mystical multiplication” of resources. He remains hazy about what this means, which is easy to do when one’s economic model is reliant upon miracles to function.

Claiborne uses the event of Jesus feeding the 5,000 as an illustration of his economic model. He does not ever address the fact that this event was a miracle, and as such it was a singularity rather than an economic pattern. What’s more, the purpose of the miracle was surely not to provide an economic model, otherwise Jesus would have repeated it many times instead of only performing it twice. Rather, Jesus later explained (John 10:38) that the purpose of these miracles was so that “that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” Jesus performed miracles to show that he was God, not to provide examples for us to live by. It is not our job to take on the role of Christ and perform miracles.

But the biggest problems with Claiborne’s philosophy are not his proposals for social change but his theology.

Claiborne persist in perpetuating the idea that Jesus came as a social revolutionary. He goes so far as to write that “Jesus was crucified not for helping the poor but for joining them.” In portraying Jesus as an agent of class conflict, Claiborne conflates the Biblical idea of the poor with the Marxist concept of the proletariat. As Josef Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in his 1984 pamphlet, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of ‘Theology of Liberation’“:

…The “theologies of liberation”, which reserve credit for restoring to a place of honor the great texts of the prophets and of the Gospel in defense of the poor, go on to a disastrous confusion between the poor of the Scripture and the proletariat of Marx. In this way they pervert the Christian meaning of the poor, and they transform the fight for the rights of the poor into a class fight within the ideological perspective of the class struggle. For them the Church of the poor signifies the Church of the class which has become aware of the requirements of the revolutionary struggle as a step toward liberation and which celebrates this liberation in its liturgy.

Claiborne also goes off the rails in his definition of faith and conversion. For Claiborne, “conversion is not an event but a process, a process of slowly tearing ourselves from the clutches of the culture” after which we begin “practicing resurrection” by enacting true biblical social justice.

This has no basis in scripture at all. Biblically, when a person comes to faith, they acknowledge Christ as their savior, and are, in Jesus’ words, “born again.” However, in Claiborne’s theology being converted means to tear yourself away from the dominant culture and begin enacting the process of cultural change Claiborne wants to see in the world. Rather than works becoming an expression of our faith, it appears that works become our faith. Claiborne’s view of a converted Christian is closer to Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky’s idea of the “New Man” than a Biblical view of salvation.

Likewise, his definition of faith has problems. “Faith is loyalty,” he writes. In fact, it isn’t. A precise definition is hard, but faith is trust would be the best I can come up with. You can be loyal to someone without trusting them. Claiborne argues that the early Christians were executed for their lack of faith in the state. This is only true if you define faith as loyalty. In fact, they were executed because their refusal to sacrifice to the cult of the emperor undermined the Roman civic religion. Roman civic religion was not about belief, it was about unifying the people around a common symbol. As Dr. Richard Talbert has taught me, Christianity introduced the idea of faith and belief. It was a concept which was foreign to Roman civic religion. After all, it was the Roman gods which Seneca was referring to when he wrote that “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.

But Claiborne’s biggest problem, and one that eclipses all the others, is his view of the role of good works in the world. Claiborne wants to see Jesus as a social revolutionary, a savior of men on earth rather than just of men’s eternal souls. By wanting people who “believe so much in another world that [we] cannot help but begin enacting it now,” he wants to bring heaven to earth. In the words of Josef Ratzinger, he wants a “temporal messianism” in which Christ’s church works not only to save people’s souls but to save their physical, material lives as well.

The problem is, this is a fallen, broken world full of imperfect people who cannot redeem themselves  by their own efforts. Claiborne wants to bring to earth what is reserved only for heaven. Yet, no matter what people do, this broken world will remain broken. As Paul wrote (Romans 8:18-25):

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and   brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Creation is in a fallen state, and it will one day be liberated. We can do nothing about this. However, our present sufferings “are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed” in the future when all creation is set right after Christ’s Second Coming.

When Jesus was in Bethany two days before his crucifixion, a woman came to the house he was staying in and poured a jar of expensive perfume over his head. His disciples decried the waste, saying that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus replied by saying “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.” Here, Jesus indicated that his spiritual ministry – his death and resurrection – was more important than his temporal ministry to the poor.

The primary role of the church is to reach the lost with the message of the gospel. This is a spiritual ministry, not a temporal one. Temporal ministries may be carried out by the church, but it is not the primary mission of the church. We are called by Jesus to be the “salt of the earth.” Salt is a preservative. It slows decay. It does not stop decay, only decreases it. It certainly has no restorative power. Likewise, we have no power to restore the earth, just to slow its decay.

Claiborne’s teachings are not only wrong, they are extremely dangerous. When people put their faith into an ideology which promises to save the world, they inevitably get their faith shattered when their ideology fails to deliver.

For many decades, communism was such an ideology. Utopia, it was believed, was right around the corner. Yet, in 1991 the system met its final collapse. It was shown once and for all to be practically and morally bankrupt. As a result, the masses lost any remaining faith in communism. The faith survives in a few scattered pockets left behind by modern society, but it is for all intents and purposes dead.

Likewise, suppose a large number of Christians someday put their faith in Claiborne’s ideology. Like all ideologies which promise to bring heaven to earth, it will someday catastrophically fail. Will this mean a mass exodus of Christians who leave the faith? This already happened in the 1940s, when the global horror of World War 2 showed that the Progressive Gospel rang hollow. As a result, Christianity declined, somewhat in the United States but especially so in Europe.

Temporal ministries to the physical needs of people are not wrong. But they are not redemptive. We can feed a hungry person, but we cannot end hunger. We can find a homeless man a home, but we cannot end homelessness. We can heal a sick person but we cannot end sickness. We can end a war, but we cannot end warfare. We can save a person’s life, but we cannot stop them from dying. Only Christ can do that, and it is not our job to attempt to take his place.

31 thoughts on “The Ultimate Bankruptcy of the Social Gospel

  1. shiers Reply

    yeah claiborne's ideology (clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, ministering to the downtrodden, taking politics out of religion, denying yourself for god's kingdom, etc) is pretty dangerous. i mean, if he got enough of us "christians" to actually start behaving like christ then the world would be in danger of….being saved?!

    don't you think we serve a generous god, who will provide for us on earth and in heaven? are we not called to be good samaritans?

    i am sorry that you read this book predisposed to disagree with it. claiborne might not be perfect, but his book can awaken us to living a life of love and compassion. there is no danger in that.

    • cwjones Reply

      Claiborne doesn't take politics out of religion. He just replaces it with politics that he likes better.

  2. Jonathan Pattishall Reply

    I respect Claiborne. Most Christians both believe in ghost stories AND live in the most disgustingly hypocritical manner possible. That’s two strikes. Claiborne believes in ghost stories, but he lives in such a dramatically honest and consistent way that he makes ghost stories almost look attractive. To illustrate my point, let me use words and pictures. You are attempting to refute Claiborne’s neo-liberation theology with the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, now actually Pope Benedict XVI. In doing so, you are taking the words of a man who dresses like this (… travels like this (… and lives here (… while most people in the world dress, live and travel like this… I’m no Christian myself, but if I were ever to be converted it would be by the example of the Claiborne’s of the world, and certainly not the Ratzingers. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? If Christianity is about saving the soul and finding the lost, who is the more effective Christian? The pope who flexes his mind on remote theological concerns, even if he is correct in remote, theological ways? Or the worker on the ground who strives to live like Christ? Just the two cents of an agnostic; take ‘em for what they’re worth.

    • cwjones Reply

      Truth is not determined by how rich you are or what you do in life. You can live out your philosophy and still be wrong about it. Sacrificing yourself for something doesn't create truth, it could just mean you are misguided.

      • Jonathan Pattishall

        All of this is correct. And yet, what good is a Christian's truth if they can't use it to help save other people through the knowledge of Christ? Are you prepared to say that one can be a Christian by sitting on a "true" doctrine like a golden egg in a nest? I think Claiborne, by taking Christian eggs out to the people, even if they are slightly cracked, is doing more service to your creed than anyone else today.

        What is Christianity by remote control? I think it's a sham used to prop up the clergy. Claiborne has relinquished remote control. He's got his feet in the mud and his hands in the mess pot.

    • Riley Matheson Reply

      Jonathan, your perception of Christianity is so immature, modern, and clichéd that your intellectualism mixed with it is nauseating. You obviously missed Chris’ point, which was that the hippy, effeminate, masochist, shampoo model version of Jesus that is so prevalent in our culture is wrong. In the Catholicism of Benedict XVI, feeding the hungry is a CORPORAL work of mercy. Since I’m sure you’re woefully ignorant of Catholicism, let me “instruct the ignorant” (a SPIRITUAL work of mercy). All works of mercy are considered good and even necessary for salvation, but spiritual works of mercy are of a higher order in Catholicism than corporal works of mercy. It therefore makes sense to focus more on the spiritual realm than the corporal realm. Feeding the hungry is great, but if they don’t have salvific faith, then all their worldly comfort is for naught.

      All the while, your own belief system completely lacks any real power at all to bring food to the poor, or do anything “good” at all, as I demonstrated during our last debate (

      You know, for someone who purports to be such an intellectual, you are quite naïve. Do you really think that, regardless of what Benedict XVI wears, or how he travels, or where he lives, poverty is EVER going to be erased? Sorry, buddy, but it’s here to stay. It ain’t going anywhere. Being wealthy, or even just comfortable, on this earth is the least of anyone’s concerns, at least according to Christianity. The way see it, count your blessings if you’re one of the lucky few, don’t apologize for it (which, 99.99 times out of 100, is insincere anyway), don’t be greedy, and don’t purposely hurt those who aren’t as fortunate. And don’t forget that there is a natural hierarchy among men. According to Christianity, God never intended people to be equal, in any respect at all. He never said that it was wrong to be wealthy, He never said that there couldn’t be different classes of people, and He never said that there wouldn’t be poor and rich, hungry and satiated. He has a plan for everyone, even if the high and mighty intellectual Jonathan Pattishall can’t see or understand it.

      But perhaps the best advice I can give you is to stop talking about stuff you don’t understand.

      • Jonathan Pattishall

        This is an unnecessarily long-winded rant. I understood Chris's point about the wrong perception of Jesus perfectly. I didn't address it because I implicitly agree with it. Many radical Christian leftists probably do have the wrong perception of Jesus. However, they do know that Jesus did good works in the community, so they strive to live like him in that respect. Maybe in the mess of their ideology they lose sight of how Jesus really lived? I don't know, and I don't care. It's not important to the point that I was trying to make, which was that if Christianity is about saving people's souls through belief in Jesus Christ, I could only imagine (because I can only put myself in the place of the possible convert) that the Claibornes of the world are doing more than the downright silly vestiges of Popery to bring Christ to the people. On that note, I find it absolutely hilarious that you disparagingly refer to the wrong perception of Christ as an effeminate, masochistic shampoo model. Last time I checked, popes had a well-deserved reputation for being self-flagellating, boy-loving runway models for men's wedding gowns. That's three out of four of your criteria (everything but the hippie part). I may not know shit about the annals of Catholic dogma, but I sure can spot bogus, hokum pageantry when I see it.

        And while I may be naive in many respects (hell, I even thought the Saints could win tonight!), I never insisted or even insinuated that the Pope living and acting like a king prolonged poverty, or that by ceasing he could end it. It's a matter of appearances. It looks bad. It looks hypocritical. Maybe it's not in your Catholic understanding, but a whole host of notable and revered theologians in the Puritan tradition think it is. As I've said elsewhere, I'll take Milton over Burke any day.

        We all know by this point that you're supercatholic, and that you don't like it when people rip the clergy. I'm sorry if I've offended you. But personally, the last vestiges of state-sanctioned religious monarchism offend me, and I will mock, chide, deride and dismiss them until people see them for what they are: "Lords are lordliest in their wine, / And the well-feasted priest then soonest fired / With zeal, if aught religion seem concerned."

      • NJR

        "Last time I checked, popes had a well-deserved reputation for being self-flagellating, boy-loving runway models for men's wedding gowns."

        You are speaking out of your ass and you know it. Once again, you are arguing from examples, although this time, you don't even provide them. To say that popes have a reputation like that is either simply spite, or simply a lack of intelligence.

        Just let me get this straight though. You are bashing the pope because he doesn't live in poverty? And the Catholic Church does NOTHING to help alleviate the pains of the poor? You are simply insane if you honestly believe this. The Church as an institution donates an excessive amount of time and money to help the poor. Are you really saying that anyone who has wealth and tells people to join them in helping the poor is a hypocrite?

      • Riley Matheson

        “It’s not important to the point that I was trying to make, which was that if Christianity is about saving people’s souls through belief in Jesus Christ, I could only imagine (because I can only put myself in the place of the possible convert) that the Claibornes of the world are doing more than the downright silly vestiges of Popery to bring Christ to the people.”

        I’m not sure what you mean by “vestiges of Popery.” The tradition of the Papacy is alive and well, just as alive and well in terms of what it’s supposed to be as it ever has been. But what else should I expect from you…

        And despite your insistence that you understand Chris’ point, you clearly don’t, as you show by the former quoted remark. The “Claibornes of the world” are converting people to a heretical version of Christianity. A version of Christianity that pits poor against rich and fortunate against unfortunate, a version that insists upon earthly equality and denies that there is a natural hierarchy among men. His converts are either going to be self-righteous do-gooders or discontent, embittered freeloaders who lack pride and independence.

        Finally, don’t call “downright silly” what you clearly don’t understand. I mean, you acknowledge that you don’t understand it with one breath, and then with the next, you call it “silly.”

        “I may not know shit about the annals of Catholic dogma, but I sure can spot bogus, hokum pageantry when I see it.”

        You are so prejudiced against the Catholic hierarchy that it apparently hasn’t occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, there is a reason for the regal manner in which the Pope dresses. Ever heard of dressing for the occasion? Would you wear a T-shirt to a wedding? I’ll tell you what: Invite me to your wedding and I’ll wear a wife-beater. You can explain to the guests that you don’t believe in “pageantry.” The Pope’s class essentially honors God. We take our earthly wealth and essentially “sacrifice” it to God by giving it to the Church to show how greatly we revere our God. When I and many Catholics walk into a beautiful, magnificent cathedral, that is nicer and more expensive than any home I have ever walked in, we are awed by the royal majesty of the place. It’s a reminder of the glory, power, and kingship of God.

        Crappy, ugly churches (which, unfortunately, exist in Catholicism nowadays as well) don’t express the royal power of God as king of the universe. They create a mundane image of God, as just a good guy with long hair who loves us. Let’s worship. Alleluia.

        “We all know by this point that you’re supercatholic, and that you don’t like it when people rip the clergy.”

        Actually, I’m not “supercatholic,” because that’s not actually a word. You could say that I have traditional Catholic beliefs. But, trust me, I’m no saint. Most traditionalist Catholic priests would not approve of my personal life. So stop pretending like you know me. And I’m not offended by what you said any more than I’m offended by any other equally stupid group of things that people say. You have strong, biased opinions about topics that you don’t understand. Maybe it’s because you have a guilty conscience, and this is your way of dealing with it? I don’t know. I don’t want to judge you or pretend to know your motivations.

    • pyelena Reply

      i definitely agree with Jonathan and I think that is the point Claiborne is making with his ministry.

  3. Chelsea W. Reply

    To me, some of the most dangerous parts of Claiborne's philosophy that Chris pointed out are his beliefs in the abolition of the nuclear family, the death penalty, and the monetary system, as well as his idea that somehow men can save other men by enacting social change. What does he want to do with all the criminals? And who is actually stupid enough to think that all children are in general better off without fathers? Also, I don' t know if you've seen The Book of Eli, Chris, but it's basically about how people live after a nuclear war, and they have to barter for everything and start killing each other because the economy they had was destroyed. In the movie, this guy decides to try to find a bible (they were ostensibly all destroyed in the war) in order to try to control everyone by making them think only he can save them. Not saying that this Claiborne guy is that bad, but he sounds like he's making the classic mistake of every social critic who thinks that utopia is possible on earth through the efforts of men rather than in heaven through the grace of God.

  4. PanzoDanzo Reply

    I see Clairborne's book as an attempt to stretch religion beyond its means to meet the needs of the modern world and still failing. Your lazily written final paragraph is mere discouragement from even trying.

    It's unfortunate that evangelicalism is giving so much of the Global South false hope, but at least it is a form of Christianity that's subject to destruction by local interpretation. Catholicism has to have a few luminaries die off before the same can be said for it. I am hopeful that the world will be free from religion in a hundred years if it is not dead yet from our mismanagement.

    • Jonathan Pattishall Reply

      Come on Anthony, don't kid: Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Biblical Aspects of Apartheid, Schwedentrunk. I encourage anyone who thinks that religion has not perpetrated evil in the world to Google any and all of those things.

      For every plus in the moral tables of religion, there is a corresponding minus. For every Mother Theresa there is a Sixtus IV. For every Bonhoeffer there is a Ludwig Mueller. Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of history knows this. As far as I know, no example of religious morality exists that is not equaled or exceeded by an example of religious depravity and barbarism. I encourage anyone to try and prove me wrong.

      • NJR

        I'll prove you wrong. You are arguing from examples which is a fairly common logical fallacy. The burden of proof does not lie on us to prove that you are wrong. That is never the case. It is up to you to prove the absurd claim that every example of religious morality is equaled or surpassed by an example of religious depravity. That doesn't meant here are examples x,y, and z. You have to show that religion as a whole results in more bad than good.

        I dare you to actually try and prove that. I'll tear apart any argument that you put forth, since it is not only wrong, but also nearly impossible to prove.

      • Jonathan Pattishall

        You haven't proved me wrong, you've simply exploded the terms of the debate. Very anti-foundationalist of you; I approve. But you're still avoiding the point in question, which is that (as of yet) we have no example of religious morality that cannot be equaled or topped with an example of religious immorality. I don't have to prove any metaphysical moral calculus involving "religion as a whole." I never claimed I could, because that is naturally impossible. It involves historical variables stretching back into unrecorded human history that we don't know. What we do know are historical constants. Catholics will never erase the Inquisition from the history books, no matter how long they bandy about images of Mother Teresa. (Just an example, Catholics. Don't get huffy!) So give me a constant and don't try to switch the argument to unknown variables. I promise you I can level it.

      • NJR

        Once again, examples do not matter. I simply won't play your game where I provide an example of good, and you provide a worse or equal example. It is pointless. Of course there is no example of religious morality that cannot be equaled or topped with an example of religious immorality. You said it yourself that it is naturally impossible and completely illogical. You can say that about ANYTHING.

        You're correct. Catholics will never erase the Inquisition. However, some Catholics, like myself, don't care to either. The modern understanding of the Inquisition horribly warped. Just as a lot of "Catholics" literally slobber all over Mother Theresa, every non-Catholic just says "the Inquisition" as if that proves that the Catholic Church is evil (not that you have) I'd love to argue the Inquisition with you, but that's an entirely difference debate.

      • Jonathan Pattishall

        Examples matter. Of course examples matter. The example of the Inquisition, and Catholic apologism on its behalf, is one of the most meaningful examples we have. It's what the whole problem here is. Some Catholics (yourself and Riley) just won't admit that the Inquisitions, in all of their manifestations and effects, were horrible, despicable, disgusting things that didn't need to and never should have happened. It's a lot like old hard-line Communists in Eastern Europe who grew up with Stalinist propaganda and won't admit to Communist atrocities. In fact, that's exactly what it is. It is the dirty connection between religion and totalitarianism, between dogma and party lines.

      • NJR

        I have to ask you. What was it about the Inquisition that is bad? All that I've seen is that it is SO OBVIOUS, and how horrible it was. Make a claim, and support it. I'm pretty sure that I know what you plan to say, but I want to know if you know anything more than the common "understanding" of the Inquisition.

      • Jonathan Pattishall

        I wouldn't be so sure about that. The Holocaust has to be questioned, thanks to the notorious complicity of many religious institutions and groups with the Nazi regime. (You're more than welcome to ask me for a laundry list if you want.) You haven't done it justice by any means.

        Still, against your wager I'll lay down European fascism (an almost uniformly Catholic phenomenon), the Crusades (all 10+ of them, spanning multiple centuries), genocide in Uganda, Rwanda and the Sudan, Islamic terrorism and the state of Utah. Shall we play for keeps?

        But at least you can admit that the Inquisition was evil. More than can be said for some of the faithful.

      • Riley Matheson

        “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. The Holocaust has to be questioned, thanks to the notorious complicity of many religious institutions and groups with the Nazi regime.”

        Give me a break, Jonathan. Not only did the Church actively speak out against Nazism and try to temper the excesses of Nazism, but also there was little the Church could do against Nazism. Let’s face it, the Germans were an incredibly powerful and disciplined force that the little Vatican could simply not fight against. I’d like to see how much of a martyr you’d be if someone stuck a gun up to your head and told you to shut up.

        And you’re right. I’m not going to apologize for the Inquisition for two main reasons. First, I’ll acknowledge that I’m not an historian on the Inquisition. As a result, I’m not going to condemn it just because it’s the trendy thing to do. Second, at least from a sociological perspective, the Inquisition is justifiable. First, I’m going to go based on some “facts” that I got from Wikipedia. According to one article, “The last Muslim bastion, Nasrid Granada fell around 1492.” According to another article, “King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile set up the Spanish Inquisition in 1478…” So, as we can see, the Spanish Inquisition came during a time of political and religious upheaval. The Catholic Spaniards were afraid that the victory they were winning in Spain would be fruitless if they couldn’t control non-Catholic forces in the country. You’ll have to acknowledge that Catholics and Muslims have never really been at peace. And I know that you’d love to blame that all on the Catholics, but reasonable people know otherwise. Would it have made any sense at all for the Catholic Spaniards to go easy on non-Catholics, if they were to have a Catholic country free from the heresies that were about to plague Europe in a matter of a few years? And even if you wanted to argue that the coming heresies had no influence on the reasons for the Spanish Inquisition, you still have to acknowledge that Catholics view(ed) Islam as essentially a heresy and Judaism as a false religion. And Catholics have never been fond of the idea of plurality of religion, and, whether PC Americans want to admit it or not, this makes perfect sense and is totally understandable.

        You see, plurality of religion is bad because it misleads people who, let’s face it, do not have the ability to make wise decisions. Do you honestly believe that your average Joe can do what St. Thomas Aquinas did, or what St. Augustine did, or even what Benedict XVI is doing/has done? Of course not. Not everyone can be an expert on theology, and I hold myself as no exception to that rule. And now, I’m going to step on the toes of a LOT of people. Protestantism is a perfect case in point. In this country, we have probably hundreds of thousands of different little Protestant churches, that, for the most part, make up their own rules as they see fit. They answer to no one, ultimately. They change their rules, they have a very small list of theologians as compared to the Catholic Church (not only the Catholic theologians who are alive today, but also the theologians who have lived and taught and studied for the past two thousand years). As the Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis has said:

        “I would estimate that the Magisterium’s official decisions on faith and morals comprise, to date, about 85% of what Catholics believe and practice (not counting those Catholics who reject official Church teaching, for example, on contraception). The other 15% we are still debating, for we simply do not have enough information from either Scripture or Tradition, and thus the Magisterium has not seen fit to address the issue and make a definitive judgment. Hence, it is generally in this 15% category of unsettled issues that Catholics may have various disagreements. Of course, they may also have some disagreements about the other 85% due to their own human limitations and misunderstandings, but those disagreements will usually be minor compared to the other 15%.

        “Protestants simply don’t have anything close to this. Yes, they, for the most part, believe Jesus Christ is God and savior, but beyond that, they disagree on almost every other issue, whether it is general or specific. In my 18-year experience as a Protestant, I would say the percentages are the exact opposite of what we find in the Catholic Church. Whereas Catholics agree on about 85% of doctrinal matters and disagree on the other 15%, Protestants agree on only about 15% of doctrinal matters and disagree on the other 85%. I’m not saying these figures are exact, but from my experience they are pretty close.”

        You see, the Catholic Faith is a very holistic faith. It views the nation in a very similar way to the way in which it views the family. Perhaps, as a leftist, you have a limited ability to understand this concept, but, just as a good Catholic father does not allow his 15-year-old son or daughter to deny the Catholic Faith in their own home, so a good Catholic leader does not allow heresies to pervade an entire nation that has the potential of being wholly Catholic. And perhaps you view this as suppressive. So be it. In this country, we suppress views all the time, even if we suppress them in a different manner from the manner in which the Church suppressed heretical views. I can’t just walk around saying whatever I want, as is evidenced by the way I was treated when I brought Tancredo to campus. And sure, you can say that the campus largely supported my “right to free speech,” but I was still social pariah, which was not very comfortable. Someone with less courage, independence, and self-reliance simply couldn’t have done what I did, not to beat my own drum. There are many things I simply can’t say, unless I want to be a Wal-Mart greeter until I’m an 85-year-old (not that I’m one right now or anything…). With the advent of the Internet, people I don’t think have ever had to walk on eggshells more than they do today. Every once in a while, I counsel young conservatives, and my most consistent advice is for them to watch what they say and do, because, if it’s not PC, it WILL wind up on the Internet, and they WILL have to explain it. They are guilty until proven innocent. Is this not thought-control? Is this not suppression? I’d rather take a beating to be honest…

      • Jonathan Pattishall

        Keep talking Riley. You make Claiborne look better every time you open your mouth.

      • Riley Matheson

        Looking good and being right are not the same thing, genius.

      • Jonathan Pattishall

        Only someone who is terribly intellectually perverse could think it's right to defend the Inquisition. By doing that, you look bad and you're wrong.

      • Riley Matheson

        Only someone who is terribly stupid could think it's logical to call anyone else immoral for anything at all and be an agnostic.

        By the way, nice job not defending your position. You are acting like the typical liberal who just assumes that he is right because most of his opponents don't have the balls to question the establishment's position on certain topics. I can't wait until the tide turns and it's politically incorrect for liberals to open their whining mouths. Of course, then we'll have to hear you guys bitch for centuries about how we "suppressed" you.

      • NJR

        Jonathan, your apparent understanding of the Inquisition can be summed up as the following:

        "It was wrong. Like. Duh."

        You attempt to sound intelligent, but you obviously cannot grasp the basics of debate. If you think Riley is wrong, then prove it. Provide a counterexample.

        I cannot fathom that you have actually researched the Inquisition. All of your arguments are the typical "People died! For Religion! OMG! That's just wrong." while dismissing anything contrary to that stance. Read a book that UNC didn't spoon feed you and maybe you'll learn something.

  5. Chelsea W. Reply

    …"Evangelicalism?" Haha, you might want to invest in a dictionary. While you're at it, buy a history textbook and look up the Orthodox Church…it's been around for 2000 years without changing, so I doubt it's going to change or die off any time soon. Catholicism and Protestantism, flawed as some of their doctrines may have become, don't seem like they're going anywhere, either. Obviously, a large percentage of the global population doesn't believe that religion is inadequate to meet the needs of the modern world. If you think the world will be "free from religion" in a hundred years, think about this: without even taking Orthodox and Protestant Christians into account, there are over one billion Catholics on this earth, and the Catholic Church doesn't believe in birth control…you do the math.

  6. Russell Johnson Reply

    (PART ONE)
    I am going to agree with essentially everything Chris wrote, and yet attempt a chastened vindication of Shane Claiborne, or rather the movement of which he is a part.

    I believe that in attempting to write theology, Claiborne is like a four-year-old attempting to use a power lawnmower– his heart is in the right place and he might not be completely ineffective, but still dangerous. The commenter shiers writes Chris entered his reading of Claiborne predisposed to disagree with it, which is undoubtedly true but an articulate author can disavow a hostile reader of their predispositions. I laud Chris for going above and beyond the now-regnant mudslinging culture and actually reading the book, something that most of its critics and many of its supporters assuredly have not done. Indeed, the fact that Chris entered his reading experience hostile and left it hostile is telling of what in my mind is the most dangerous aspects of Claiborne's book. Like the works of Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Donald Miller (and the rest of the pantheon of “latte-sipping Christians” whose books are selling like hotcakes), Claiborne's use of language and writing style allows for a variety of readings ranging from the edifying to the heretical. Two people could read this book and get radically different conclusions from it, which is not in itself unusual, but Claiborne's text is indeterminate enough as to offer us no way of determining who is right. Take as representative sentence one Chris cites: “We can tell the world there is life after death, but the world really seems to be wondering if there is life before death.” Viewed one way, this is a welcome shift in emphasis away from an antinomian other-worldly formulation of the gospel. Viewed another way, this is a heretical reduction of the other-worldly to the this-worldly in the vein of Protestant liberalism. Seeing that Chris is justified in his negative reading and shiers is justified in their positive reading, it seems in the final analysis our best reaction should be neither unqualified condemnation nor praise, but rather caution. Claiborne's fluid and glib way with words makes him readable, but so open to interpretation that one wonders if he's actually making a point or just thinking on paper. Unless Claiborne defines his terms, deals with the implications of his ideas, answers possible concerns, and distinguishes his position from others, his construction is a mere sand-castle, and both living in it (supporters) and laying siege to it (detractors) seem inappropriate.

    Acknowledging that the book was published without the necessary polish, like a cake served only half-baked, all we can do is guess as to whether or not we'd approve of the final product. In doing so, we move beyond Claiborne and into the broader question of the role of good deeds in Christian theology. Unsurprisingly, Claiborne is parroting ideas that have trickled down from people with many more letters after their names. Behind every dreadlocked hippie in a Himalayan drug-rug are dozens of balding professors in Oxford tweeds. Claiborne is to thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas, Walter Wink, and John Howard Yoder what Totino's instant pizza rolls are to a Chicago Deep Dish– more accessible but less substantial. Turning to these thinkers for clues, perhaps we can recover what is beneficial from Claiborne's book while heeding Chris's criticisms.

  7. Russell Johnson Reply

    (PART TWO)
    Christianity has always had a necessary tension between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right action). Considering our twin call to love God and to love our neighbor, both of these are obviously necessary and a theology that does justice to the Scriptures must preserve the importance of both. Claiborne sees the problem with contemporary Christianity as an emphasis on doctrine at the expense of practice and can find examples of this in our culture. Chris sees the problem with contemporary Christianity as an emphasis on practice at the expense of doctrine and can find examples of this in our culture (among them Claiborne and company). This is like a dispute between football commentators who advocate defense versus those who advocate offense– the argument is fruitful but hopefully at the end of the day all will agree that both are essential. Until we recognize this, Claiborne will get away with calling people like Chris heartless and dogmatic and Chris will get away with calling people like Claiborne idealistic and unbiblical and we'll have no chance of rapprochement.

    This is where more articulate thinkers come into play– I believe that what is required is not a balance or compromise between doctrine and ethics, but a Christian theology that recognizes the essential unity of the two. After all, we don't see any conflict between Jesus' identity as a healer/“social revolutionary” and his identity as a teacher of salvation and the Kingdom of God. In fact, any attempt to ask of any of Jesus' deeds, “is this charity (prized by Claiborne) or evangelism (prized by Chris)?” will face the inevitable answer “It's both; Jesus drew no line of distinction between the two and neither should we.” Let's take a look at the core of the Great Commission– “Therefore go and MAKE DISCIPLES of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to OBEY everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19,20a) If we pursue not primarily good deeds or primarily evangelism, but rather the higher goal of obedience, we will live a life like Christ's– that is, characterized both by service and preaching the truth. But how to fuse these two seemingly-opposed callings? Should I feed my neighbor a sandwich or feed him the gospel? This is where the work of Stanley Hauerwas is illuminating– for example, his characterization of the feeding of the 5000 as an event in which Christ breaks down the division between his “spiritual ministry” and his “temporal ministry” (to use Chris's terminology). From analyses like this, we learn the paradox of Christian love: preaching salvific truth to people is best accomplished through acts of service, and acts of service are best accomplished when they are done in light of the truth of the gospel. Acts of goodwill uninformed by the truth of Christ are likely to do more harm than good (Chris rightly cites Marxism as evidence), but proclamations of the truth will never find an audience unless they are accompanied by good deeds that attest to their veracity. One is reminded of Nietzsche's reason for rejecting Christians's claims, “They don't look very redeemed.” If we are saying that the gospel transforms lives, but our lives are not transformed, then (following the book of James) we have reason to question the validity of the gospel and so do those around us. Thus Chris is right in his emphasis, witness to the truth is paramount, but the most powerful witness we can have is to live in a fully redeemed way, so Claiborne is right in his emphasis. Even on this comment board we have evidence of this– Mr. Pattishall writes, “Claiborne believes in ghost stories, but he lives in such a dramatically honest and consistent way that he makes ghost stories almost look attractive.” And what is evangelism but making the very true “ghost story” of God's redemption attractive?

    The Social (or “Progressive”) Gospel movement of the early twentieth century failed not because they emphasized helping the poor but because in their attempts to distance themselves from fundamentalism they abandoned Christ's method of social change and swallowed wholesale Marx's, with its accompanying utopianism, ends-justifying-means ethic, myopic ignorance of real need, and idealistic perception of humanity. This resulted in tragedy (see the Deutsche Christen approval of Nazism and South American churches' support for Socialist regimes). The Inquisition failed not because it emphasized doctrinal purity but because in its attempts to spread the gospel it abandoned Christ's method of personal transformation and swallowed wholesale the Roman Empire's, with its accompanying cruelty, unfeeling rigidity, preferential ethic, and undignifying view of humanity. This, too, resulted in tragedy. Good theologians are like guardrails on the highway of obedient life, keeping us from deviating too far from Christ's way on both the right and the left. For this reason, I am thankful to God for the much-needed warnings of both Chris Jones and Shane Claiborne.

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