The Desperate Necessity for ‘Common Ground’

“There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground.” This was the headline for a recent article in Time magazine, penned by novelist and professor Tayari Jones (Emory). In her article Jones tells a compelling story about her upbringing. Her parents were activists, “veterans of the civil rights movement,” and under their tutelage she also learned to stand up for what she believed was right. On one occasion, riding in the back of a car for a zoo trip, she was astonished to discover that the driver was getting gas from Gulf, a company complicit in financing Apartheid. Young Tayari got out of the car and refused to ride further. She missed out on the zoo that day, but when her father came to collect her he was proud of her choice.


Jones uses her story as a launching pad to critique the desire for ‘common ground.’ She writes,

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

Where was the ‘middle,’ she asks, with regard to American slavery? Where is the ‘middle’ with regard to Japanese internment during WWII? “What is halfway,” she queries, “between moral and immoral?” (The implied answer is ‘no place.’)

To be fair, I think Jones is right to critique the rhetoric of platitudes. There are times when appeals for ‘common ground’ are, as she suggests, rooted in “conflict avoidance and denial.” There are times when the language of ‘good people on both sides’ is a cheat, a deception, a statement intended to diffuse the perception of discomfort. In this I am reminded that when eight clergymen approached Martin Luther King Jr. and critiqued his methods of nonviolent resistance, he responded in his famous letter from the jail in Birmingham, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Those clergyman didn’t want King to delay for the sake of compromise, they wanted him to delay because they were uncomfortable. They advocated for a kind of ‘common ground’ in order to ease their own discomfort.

mlk jr

And yet the blanket dismissal of compromise which Jones’s piece advocates is deeply troubling. Above all else, in the rejection of compromise there is a presumption that one side is completely right, while the other side is completely wrong. This might make sense when fighting Nazis in Germany, and it might have validity when defending yourself from an advancing army of cannibals, but things in real life are rarely so clear-cut. Furthermore, an appeal to no-compromise sounds compelling, and can effectively galvanize a base, but what if you find yourself on the outside of that base? It’s one thing to claim no compromise, as Jones does, with respect to issues of immigration, Black America, and White Nationalism, but what about no compromise on the part of abortion, or gender identity, or the dissolution of the family? Aren’t these also issues that display a spectrum of ‘moral and immoral’? Am I to reject compromise with Jones, or any other disputant, when a moral question is in play?

But there are deeper problems still. What has happened in the past when we have rejected compromise? Consider the following:

There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it. And that party is either the Left: and then God help us! for it will lead us to complete destruction – to Bolshevism, or else it is a party of the Right which at the last, when the people is in utter despair, when it has lost all its spirit and has no longer any faith in anything, is determined for its part ruthlessly to seize the reins of power – that is the beginning of resistance of which I spoke a few minutes ago. Here, too, there can be no compromise – there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew. (Adolf Hitler, 1922, emphasis added)

Here lies the real danger, to which Jones (unwittingly) points but to which both sides of the ideological debate are prone: the logic of Hitler applies to both sides of the ideological spectrum. And the grim truth is that if I determine you to be irredeemable—a misfit, a deplorable, recalcitrant, unwilling to change—then if I will not compromise with you I must do other things to you. In short, I open a door to the possibility of removing you from the equation. A refusal to compromise is the proto-rhetoric to murder. And if we aren’t planning to murder one another, then some form of compromise is going to be in order.

Adolf Hitler holding a speech

What is compromise? I can think of two definitions. First, compromise is the art of living within a complexity of differences. Every marriage is built on compromise. Two agents inhabit the same space but with different wills and desires. She wants to watch one film, he wants to watch another. Without compromise, how do you resolve the situation? Second, compromise is the art of disagreeing with someone without killing them. Sometimes a compromise is an agreement to disagree. Sometimes compromise means both of us giving up something we like for the sake of living in relative peace. And it’s worth noting that some compromises work, while others don’t. For example, the American government is founded on a “Great Compromise” which created our two houses of government (bridging the competing factors of states-rights and population). This compromise has been working successfully for hundreds of years. In the same vein, the Mason-Dixon line was a compromise with regard to the spread of slavery in early America—this was a compromise that failed, catastrophically.

For certain, it is not always the case that failed compromise ends in the murder of your disputant—some failed compromises end in divorce, or loss, or never speaking to one another again. But when we’re speaking of a political entity—such as a state—and when we are advocating through our rhetoric for a set of members in that state to be regarded as fundamentally immoral and irredeemable, then we are sidling up to a very dangerous line. Are there times when it is the right thing to do away with an ideological bloc? Certainly. Can we kill Nazis with impunity? Sometimes. Have we found a better way, in the past 2000 years, of changing someone’s mind than violence? The answer is uncertain—gulags and re-education camps are some of the 20th century’s greatest horrors. The only way, it seems, of changing someone’s mind without violence is, well, compromise. Finding common ground, highlighting the good ‘on the other side,’ and patiently, sometimes painfully, waiting while working for change. The alternative is to murder them.

Unapologetically Unimpressed by Francis Spufford’s “Unapologetic” (Part 2)


I think I would skip this one if I were you.

In the first part of this post, I’ve talked at length about why I think Spufford’s book ought to be fuel for the bonfire of history, but I’d like to finish by turning from Spufford to the culture which embraces him, because his book, its rhetoric and overall vibe, can help us to identify several trends in culture which stand contrary to the Christian faith. So, then, here are three final comments to judge the spirit of our age.

First: Irreverence is not ‘freshness,’ and piety is not inauthentic. Somewhere along the way we’ve been hoodwinked by a falsehood. We’ve been told that Christian piety is hypocritical and pretentious, and we’ve believed our accusers. As a consequence, we’ve largely thrown piety under the bus. More and more Christians look just like everybody else—we swear, we get drunk, we sleep around, and we do all these things in the spirit of attempting to be ‘relevant,’ ‘transparent,’ or ‘authentic.’ Spufford is a nice exhibit of this, and one of the key places we see it is in his language. See, Spufford likes to swear. Quite a lot, really. And this would be unremarkable except for the fact that he’s writing a book about Christianity, and that should give us pause.

A worthy and wholesome read.

A worthy and wholesome read.

Why should this be? Philip Jacob Spener, in his classic book Pia Desideria, observes the following, that “the study of theology should be carried on not by the strife of disputations but rather by the practice of piety” (PD 50). Just prior to this Spener had spoken about the roles appropriate to defenders of the faith. In the process he lamented a culture that had become more disputatious than concerned with God’s holiness. There he observed the following, “Not only should we know what is true in order to follow it, but we should also know what is false in order to oppose it” (PD 49). Spufford’s book fails catastrophically at precisely this point, because it admixes what is true with what is false, so that we, the readers, are neither equipped to cling to what is true, nor challenged to reject what is false. Somehow, oddly enough, Spufford has managed to write a book about God that claims to defend the faith while being impious.

This casts light again on why Spufford’s book has such cultural appeal. They perceive its cultural relevance, and as a consequence label the book as ‘fresh.’ But to this I say again, irreverence is not freshness. It might be bracing, or temporarily humorous, but in the end irreverence is more akin to immaturity. It lacks depth. It exalts stupidity. And this brings us back to the myth that culture upholds: that piety is inauthentic. As if choosing the high ground makes you a liar, or a hypocrite.

The critical truth is this: possessing a standard and attempting it does not make one a hypocrite. Just because I am a failure with respect to the law of God doesn’t mean I take that law and flaunt my breaking of it as a way to prove my ‘authenticity.’ The proper study of God ought to generate piety, and the proper presentation of apologetics ought to present what is admirable in Christian piety, rather than actively undermine those who strive to uphold it.

Second: You cannot effectively fulfill the second greatest commandment without reference to the first. Jesus, when asked about the greatest commandment, answered that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, body, and strength, and that the second greatest commandment was to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s a high calling, and fulfilling it will be impossible if we don’t properly order our operations. If we don’t define the terms, then we cannot fulfill the task. In short, if we don’t know what ‘love’ is, with reference specifically to Who God is and how He defines love (through the sending and sacrifice of His son), then we won’t have the faintest notion of what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Christ on the Cross_VelazquezAnd yet this is precisely the thing that many are attempting today—to love our neighbors without reference to the love of God. We see this in Spufford’s book when he talks about hell. There his words reveal that he is judging hell based on his idea of love, rather than God’s. If we are to take God’s idea of love as authoritative, then Exhibit A of God’s love is Christ on the cross, dying for our sins. We see that God, who is Love, demands an accounting for sin, and that Christ, who shows us God’s love, stands in the place of our debt on our behalf. Hell is the necessary consequence of rejecting the offer of God’s forgiveness in Christ. When Christ hasn’t paid for you, you pay for yourself. And so Hell, far from being an invention of Spufford’s HPtFtU, is actually a necessary consequence of it.

Another example of this is one place where Spufford expressly references the second commandment. It falls in a passage where he speaks about Christianity and sexual ethics—particularly homosexuality. He argues that the church is given to a kind of small-c ‘conservatism’—a preference for what is stable, a reticence to change. Therefore, the church is hesitant on issues of sexual change, not because those issues are fundamentally wrong, but because we’re just too comfortable with the past. Spufford is confident that we will change in time, and makes the following claim based on that belief:

It strongly suggests that the church will get there in the end. Slow and late and pathetically reluctant, it will eventually allow the central commandment we have got, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to overrule the poetry of custom; and the church will reconfigure, at snail-like speed, for a new social reality. (194-196)

In Spufford’s estimation, we will be fulfilling our “central” commandment when we “overrule the poetry of custom” with the love of our neighbors. And this sounds nice because, of course, it is partly true. But if our love is going to be meaningful or, might I say, principled, then it must be a love that is ontologically grounded in the love of God. Without His love, or without reference to His love, we are pathetically unmoored and quite frankly incapable of action. Or at least incapable of good and godly action. It will be our best ideas and best intentions that are the apex of our praxis in the world, and not God’s best ideas or God’s intentions. The result is a thoroughly human Christianity without reference to Divine standards. It would be an un-godly love, if you will.

Ask the critical question: Why does Jesus write in the dirt? Where else does someone's finger write out messages in the Bible? What were those messages?!

Ask the critical question: Why does Jesus write in the dirt? Where else does someone’s finger write out messages in the Bible? What were those messages?!

But if we hold to Divine standards—that is, if we take Scripture seriously as a way to know and love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls—then those standards are going to have particular impact on our behavior, both sexual and otherwise. And while, true, this doesn’t mean that we take on the Levitical laws about mixed fabrics and goats boiled in their mother’s milk, it does mean that we take with absolute seriousness both the purity and otherness of our God, and how that purity impacts our practical relationships in the now. True, as Spufford claims, Jesus makes no particular claims about human sexuality (excepting, of course, his command to the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more”). But Jesus does claim that “I and the Father are one,” and that when we hear Jesus’ voice we are hearing the Father’s. To separate Jesus from the sexual ethics of the whole Judeo-Christian system is to ignore Jesus’ own words about his revelation. Jesus wasn’t required to say everything because we have a way to listen to his voice in both the Old Covenant as well as the New.

Third: Belief in Christianity is not based on feelings, but on truth, which trumps feelings. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 claims that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then we are to be pitied above all people. The Christian faith, in other words, is grounded on historic events, not emotional states. Personally, I believe in Jesus because he rose from the grave and was revealed as God incarnate, not because I happen to like Jesus. And this is really the gravest and most critical lack of principle that saturates Spufford’s book—the principle of the truth. When my emotions are primary, then I am free to accommodate the truth to my feelings. Truth becomes malleable, adjustable. But when truth is primary, then my feelings must accommodate the truth. There will be days when I feel the faith and am enlivened and invigorated. There will be days when I feel dead and faithless. But my feelings on those days are ultimately irrelevant, because I have banked my life on what is true, rather than what I feel.

This, in the end, is the most fatal flaw which we make today—we have made truth a convenience, rather than a conviction. We are comfortable with contradicting ourselves. We chase fleeting emotional states rather than the bedrock of faith. And I might add as well that this is a fatal flaw in any apologetic, because under this logic Spufford isn’t defending anything but his own perception. There is no outer reference to give meaning or significance to his claims. It’s just Spufford talking about Spufford’s feelings and neither really about God, nor about Who God has revealed Himself to be in the Christian Scriptures.

It's the best for a reason.

It’s the best for a reason.

A good apologetic needs to maintain the right ordering of these things—truth first, emotions attendant—and of the apologetics which seek to accomplish this task, none is superior to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. In fact, I suggest that it is precisely this ordering, this balance between head and heart, which makes Lewis’s book so enduring. In it he presents what is true about Christianity, and uses his images and metaphors to connect those truths to the human heart. His apologetic does not seek to escape from Christianity, but to embody it as accurately as possible. There is no need to distance himself from what is unpopular because his primary goal is to anchor himself on what is eternal. That difference makes all the difference in the world.

This brings us back, at last, to Spufford’s book as a whole. In it he has distanced himself from Scripture, belief in Scripture, and belief in value—and this distancing process has made his ‘apologetic’ very appealing. Perhaps it is even appealing precisely because he is no longer defending anything but his own impressions, which are now unmoored and without reference to anything resembling historic Christianity. His opinion is no longer a thing we can argue about—it is just his opinion. This makes his un-apologetic tragically appropriate for our present culture—the elements of culture we celebrate are exhibited to great effect in its pages. And this leads me once again to observe that while you might enjoy what you’ve read, what you read will not have been very Christian.

The Two Aspects of Heresy

NB: I don't actually think we should roast the people we disagree with.

Heresy is, much like the word Christian, a term that is used to make an argument without saying much in particular; it is a convenient label, cunningly attached, and at this point so frequently misused that it is near to finding itself void of content. This emptying has so progressed that, today, identifying yourself as a ‘heretic’ is perceived as a badge of honor. As if calling yourself an idiot, fool, charlatan, or deceiver were a thing worthy of praise.

Let’s set the record straight and get a handle on this thing called ‘heresy’ so that we can know why we don’t want to be one. It will help to know, first, that heresy and orthodoxy are antonyms. If you are a heretic you are not orthodox, and vice versa. And this simple contrast sheds light on the cultural popularity of heresy today, because orthodoxy (right, traditional thinking) represents authority, and the rejection of authority is considered praiseworthy. To accept authority—orthodoxy—without reservation is to open yourself to the ironic accusation that you are small minded and unthinking. Authority and orthodoxy being the social pariahs that they are, any ‘thinking’ person who believes in orthodoxy is thus left with two alternatives: he must tacitly question authority (to prove that he isn’t a theological lemming), or rework it in such a way that while the beliefs are still orthodox, all the language of orthodoxy is eschewed (i.e., phrases like “I’m not a ‘Christian’ I’m a Jesus follower,” or, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship,” or some other such hogwash).

Our word ‘heresy’ comes from a form of the Greek word ‘haireo’ which means ‘to choose’. Implicit, therefore, in the idea of heresy is this ‘choosing’ of an opinion which deviates from what is straight—i.e., ‘orthos’ (hence, orthodoxy). Heresy is deviation. But it is also willful deviation. And if you are a heretic, it is because you have chosen, in the face of all the authority the Church has to offer you—the Traditions of the Church, the Scriptures of the Church, the Dogma of the Church, the Reasons of the Church, and the History of the Church—in the face of all this you have chosen your own way against the way of the Church. And unless you are part of a tradition that has, as a whole, chosen its own way, nobody is ever a heretic by accident; you are always a heretic by choice. That in itself—the idea of choosing our own way—once again sounds appealing in our world today. Accusing voices thus resound with statements like: “Do you just do what people tell you?” “Are you just going to trust these unknown authorities?” But there is no virtue in choosing your own way if your own way leads to certain doom. Bridges are there for our benefit. Ignoring the bridge and driving off the cliff is not ignorant, blind submission to mysterious authority. You may not know who built the bridge, you may not understand its physics, but your personal understanding has no impact on the importance of that bridge for your ability to cross. Of course, learning the history and physics of the bridge may enrich your experience, and in the event that you must ever construct your own bridge it will certainly help you to have some experience of these. But my main point is that to remain orthodox—on the straight path—is simply good common sense.

The prevalence and acceptance of heresy today has created a culture of theological anarchy. Every blogger and pedant who wishes can feel free to spout off whatever they like theologically without reference to the historic, orthodox faith. This practice is obviously flawed. If you needed brain surgery, you wouldn’t appeal to a pianist, and if you needed to construct a bridge you wouldn’t contract a line cook. If you need theology, you need to listen to someone trained in the laws and history of theology. Otherwise the surgery will go horribly wrong, the bridge will fail when traffic begins to drive on it, and the theology will fail when tested against life. None of this means that questioning the reasons and history of orthodoxy is wrong. In fact, that process is precisely how one becomes a theologian in the first place. But the theologian who doesn’t respect orthodoxy is one not worth listening to. He’s like a theoretical physicist who thinks Einstein, Newton and Galileo are idiots because they lived in a previous time and are therefore archaic.

Heresy is occasioned by difficulties which the Church encounters in the world. As a consequence there are two aspects, or faces, of heresy because there are two categories of difficulty which the church faces. The first category is primarily cultural in nature. The second category is apparent difficulties in Christian theology. Heresy, to its credit, is always an attempt to resolve one of these difficulties. To its discredit, it always resolves it wrongly.

The first aspect of heresy is cultural, and the word which highlights this difficulty is compromise. Here, the church falls into heresy because it accommodates culture rather than holding firm to Christ. Here we allow the tides of culture, in all their vigor, to shape our theology more than what we know about God in Christ. We become very temporal Christians, with temporary, popular theology. The claim, quite popular in the last century, that the historical Jesus was irrelevant while the Christ ‘of faith’ (whatever that meant) was what counted, was long entertained by a great many theologians and became very popular. It was, however, a product of a culture of religious skepticism and historical doubt. To the degree that Christianity caved to the demands of that culture (i.e., Schleiermacher), we fell into heresy. Today there is a claim that globalization demands a rethinking of the exclusivity of the gospel, a temporal claim resulting in a popularization of “Universalism.” There is also a claim today that research into human sexuality demands that we rethink our biblical ethics of sexuality, and this has resulted in a popularization of theologies which bend sideways to embrace homosexual behaviour. In each of these cases we are judging Christ by the standard of culture, rather than culture by the standard of Christ. We have compromised, and compromising (to resolve the difficulty of faithfulness in a hostile culture) we have become heretics.

The second aspect of heresy is more directly theological. Here heresy arises when we reject mystery and explain away a key difficulty in Christian theology. The key word here is false resolution. Within Christian theology there are, as I see them, three big categories of difficulty: first, that we believe in the Trinity—God three and God one; second, that we believe in the two natures of Christ—that he was fully God and fully man; and third, that we believe in the fallen nature of man, which creates distrust in all our knowing and effort. Heresy in relation to these difficulties has always followed from the false resolution of something that is meant to remain mystery. Heresy, then, is the denial of mystery. Regarding the Trinity, heresy is either demanding that God is one and not three (Modalism), or demanding that God is Three and not one (Tritheism), or demanding that God is one and Jesus is a creature (Arianism). Regarding the two natures of Christ, there are some who have claimed that he only appeared to be a man but didn’t really suffer (Docetism), and others that he was fully man but not God (Nestorianism). And regarding the sinful nature of man, we have people who believe the work of man is necessary for salvation (Pelagianism), and those who believe that man is so corrupt that he has no part in salvation whatsoever (Strict Calvinism. Yes, Calvinism—and to the degree that as a system it resolves the theological mystery of the interaction between God’s Will and human wills by denying the human will it is a heresy).

There is genuine danger in deviation.

It is worth observing, briefly, that the orthodox and heretical, in both aspects, are present from the earliest days of the church. The danger of compromise runs throughout the entire bible, and the danger of the false resolution of Divine mysteries is equally present. Nothing is new in the fight for orthodoxy in the Christian life. That, at least, ought to give us some confidence.

And so orthodoxy, the straight road, is the difficult path of avoiding compromise with culture while holding firm to the mysteries of the faith. It is not an easy path, but it is certainly the right path, and it is the only path that is safe. It is my pleasure to seek to tread it.