When Houston Baptist University introduces its Liberal Arts Core Curriculum in the fall of 2011, Systematic Theology will become a required course. This change is part of a core overhaul that will make HBU one of only a few universities in the world offering an education centered on the classical texts in both philosophy and theology. Though I enrolled under the previous system, I have tailored my personal academic experience toward a balance of old and new. Systematic Theology, for example, is the course I preferred to take over the three alternatives, with permission from the dean.
I wasn’t quite sure what would be included in the course, but I knew that I wanted a deeper study of the nature and ways of God. I had questions that were not being answered in church sermons. Truthfully, I’ve been disappointed with most church speakers today, whose messages consist of various forms of the same ten or fifteen concepts, packaged up in twenty minutes worth of easily digestible garb.
Theology is an academic inquiry into the who, what, when, where and why of this being we call God. As I had hoped, the course has brought me into a new sphere of understanding of and relationship with that being. But there’s something fascinating that begins to happen when the origin of all things takes center focus in the hearts and minds of His people: a light is cast on creation itself. By creation, I don’t just mean people and things. I mean ideas, emotions, moments, seasons, conflicts, and laws of nature and justice. All academic disciplines come under the microscope of graceful revelation. Though I understood, conceptually, the vision put forth by the leadership of the university, only recently have I begun to experience it in a fuller sense.
One particular realization, of many, came one evening while reading about the free will of man. I thought of how many people I have met that point to the suffering of good and innocent people—the injustice in the world—as the primary reason for disbelief in any supreme being who claims to be just and good. I have empathized with this view, and at times struggled with this seeming contradiction, though I do not come to the same ultimate conclusion. Yes, there is pain, but this is a world in which humans walked away from God, and it is by His grace that there is any goodness whatsoever. Rather than point to the suffering, we ought to be thankful for beauty and joy wherever it is found. But on this evening I saw something new.
I was struck by two irreconcilable notions: that I should doubt God for want of goodness, yet not doubt goodness for want of God.
If it were suddenly proven that no god could possibly exist in the vast ordered cosmos, I would be at a loss attempting to understand why I should care in the very least what happens to my neighbor. There should be no definition of “good” or its opposite. My sense of justice must necessarily be interpreted as a construct of my imagination or social interaction. I should, by the direction of rationality and self-preservation, lie, cheat and steal in every circumstance where direct repercussions are unlikely. I should pursue no honor, no dignity and no restraint, except unless doing so will result in personal gain. If humans are mere physical shells with no purpose of life, then none of the things we value are of any worth after all.
This interpretation of the human being is a common one, though its implications are not laid out in quite this way. Consensus advises against attempting to convert people by telling them that there are no real virtues but hate and deception. I find it interesting that popular imagination has been sold an idea that essentially negates everything that we cherish in our common humanity. We look forward to giving a friend a gift, we smile when a stranger waves a sincere “hello,” and we celebrate the mysteries of love and passion through film and literature. We feel sorrow when another person is harmed, and we feel unsettled until justice is reconciled. Where do this things come from, and why do they matter?
Pain and suffering are real. But rather than view them as obstacles to faith, I see my concern and desire for justice as manifestations of God’s spirit, compelling me to make right what has been wronged. Without confronting injustice, how would I know justice? Without feeling the full range of possible human emotion, how can I relate to the One in whose image I am made, who is Himself angry, jealous and despairing over a fallen mankind and our constant efforts to keep Him at a comfortable distance.
I was asked in a recent interview what my view of the “ideal role” of government is. My initial thought was that the answer ought to be an easy one. But the more I considered the question the more I realized that perhaps there is no answer.
My political philosophy is heavily influenced by John Locke, according to whom the purpose of government is the protection of life, liberty and property. But we must acknowledge that in pursuit of that goal concessions must be made. This is where I part with many Libertarians. The maximization of liberty is not an absolute principle—government authority can and does provide many great things to society. For instance, the very Constitution that we love to hail as the greatest contribution to freedom in the history of mankind was created because of the need for more government. The institutions and powers that it vested in the national government—and removed from states—served to strengthen and sustain our freedoms.
Modern provisions for basic food and drug standards, air travel regulations, and public education greatly increase our standards of living. There is no worthwhile liberty without some sense of order and stability, thus through the institution of government we surrender a liberty that is absolute for one that is sustainable.
But admittedly, this creates a grey area in terms of the limits of legislative power. Where do you draw the line? Well, there doesn’t seem to be a universal “line” per se. A society, by all principles of democracy, should be able to shape itself in whatsoever fashion, and by whatever values it may choose. Additionally, unforeseen events and circumstances require us to allow flexibility in the law. What seems like an overstep today may be a necessity tomorrow—desperate times call for desperate measures. If this is true, where does that leave me in attempting to answer my initial question: what is the ideal role—or, let’s say, the true and justified role—and extent of government power?
To answer this, I begin with the most simple explanation for why God would allow one man to have control over another: to bring justice to a fallen world; reconcile the will and desire of God to humanity, in whatsoever capacity that a secular authority can achieve such. That’s an important caveat. Since the only mode of coercion available to secular authority is physical or financial subjection—a form of slavery—there are clearly limitations to its use. One thing is certain: secular authority cannot change the heart. God works on the hearts of individuals separately, and others attempt to assist through counsel and prayer—this we call the “church,” which is a spiritual force and has no authority to use physical or financial slavery. Secular authority, however, does have such a power as a consensual agreement among people.
In summary, the church tends to the moral spirit, while the State tends to the correction of physical/material injustice.
Yet, this still does not give government license to arbitrarily dictate the actions of individuals. Since any consent to particular laws and punishments is an agreement only between a portion of a population and not its entirety, then in order to retain the integrity of coercion by consent, those with the secular power to enslave must be restricted to a specified set of laws which is active as a mere condition of citizenship—a constitution that applies to every single member of society. Individual laws can still be created, repealed or amended as needed to reflect the desires of the community, but these laws must ultimately yield to the pre-established constitution, upon which the approval of the entire community rests.
In conclusion, the ideal role of government—as a justified application of slavery—is to establish a set of agreed-upon principles and systems, within which all future use of force must operate. This allows a society the freedom to shape itself according to its best judgment of what is “necessary and proper”, but only within the boundaries of that system. If changes must be made to the original agreement, a full consensus must be met once again through a rigorous constitutional amendment process.
If you are even moderately interested in politics and what happens in our government, you’ve probably tried to place yourself into one of the major teams – Democrat or Republican.(for a brief explanation of parties in America, read this short post)
We like teams because they make us feel like a part of something. Political parties help us identify our goals and ideas, and help us connect with other people who share them with us. But if you’re like most people, trying to “pick a side” isn’t so easy. You may agree with some things, but not others, and there may be things on both sides that are important to you.
Most traditional political diagrams show a horizontal line with liberalism on the left and conservatism on the right. This is confusing, and somewhat misleading. The concept (and the terms used) came from the French Revolution, when the people who were for radical change sat on the left, and those that wanted to hold onto some traditions and allow change to occur gradually sat on the right. So today the terms seem out of place. The I’d like to make this a little easier, through a political ideology spectrum that I developed, and that has won the approval of several Political Science scholars. This spectrum comes from studying the different approaches to governing, which is essentially a two-fold question – 1) How do you think society should be? And 2) What is the best method for achieving that goal? And Here’s what I came up with:
Most of us believe in the values of liberty, morality, and equality. But when applied to government these ideas do not coexist peacefully. If equality is a priority in your society then it is impossible to also allow liberty, and if liberty is a priority you cannot expect morality, and so on. The extent to which you are willing to sacrifice one for another determines your place on this triangular spectrum, and defines your political positions.
For those who are less politically savvy, it’s important to understand what is implied by the terms liberty, morality, and equality. They are words we use every day without fully considering their meaning.
America was founded on a relatively new concept – humanliberty. That we are born into the world free people, with certain “inalienable rights.” The basic idea is that you should be able to pursue your life path the way you want to as long as you’re not hurting anyone, and that no one can step in and take what is rightfully yours – be it your time, money, or possessions – without your consent. The only exception is government, which we establish and to which agree to authorize certain powers to rule over us. Therefore government assumes the only legal form of organized crime, and it is up to the people (all of us) to keep it in check. If you have never heard the story of Alexander the Great and the pirate, it’s worth a read. As much as we love liberty, absolute liberty is essentially no government at all; allowing citizens to do whatever they please without correction, and inevitably leading to complete chaos. There can be no such actual society for long, as human nature swiftly steps in to establish a pecking order. There is always someone in control and someone being controlled. Just look at the many troubled nations of Africa as an example. There is always government.
Then there’s the issue of morality. When I showed this diagram to Dr. Christopher Hammons, professor of political science at HBU, his only suggestion was that I use the term “order” instead of morality, which may be a good point, but this makes it easy to exclude religious conviction as a valid political interest and a term such as “morality” reminds us that good intentions are often behind the most heinous crimes against humanity. Morality isn’t merely religion, nor is it any one set of rules. While I firmly believe in a natural and universal law, it is up to each society to determine its own rules of engagement. Good and bad is ultimately determined by the particular culture in which you live, and while these rules may be lax for some societies, for others they are taken very seriously. Steal a TV in America and you might go to prison. Steal a TV in Iran and you may have your hand removed. It doesn’t matter what type of moral code is being used, the point is that the person who has the power to control law has the unique privilege of establishing the rules and “moral” standards, and we should hope that whomever is in charge has a healthy appreciation for liberty. I’ve heard fellow Christians argue that America was founded by Christians and that we should rule our nation according to the Bible, or the will of God. First, they should understand that America was never intended to be an exclusively Christian nation, which is why they made sure that the right to religious liberty was protected. Thomas Jefferson himself, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was not a Christian but a proclaimed “Deist”, although he did attend Christian church services because, as did his contemporaries, he believed faith was an essential complement to democracy. Secondly, who gets to determine which interpretation of God’s will, or the Bible, is the correct one? Would we have denominations instead of political parties competing for the presidency? I strongly believe that governments should support ethics in society, and part of that is supporting faith-based initiatives, but I also see very good reasons why our founding fathers felt there should be a separation between church and state. The government exists to protect and preside over people, the church exists to nurture them.
Equality tends to take two different forms – one that is fully supported by our constitution, and another that it vehemently opposes. The former is the idea that we are each human, and with that comes certain rights and protections, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Some may point to the abhorrent practice of African slavery in America as evidence that our founders didn’t fully apply the principle, and while this is true in a legal sense, their comments on the practice were well documented and reveal a strong distaste for it. George Washington made arrangements for his slaves to be freed upon his death, and it was debated in the constitutional convention whether to emancipate them right away. They decided that it was impossible to do at the time, but hoped that a gradual process would end slavery in America. Several states passed emancipation laws before 1800, and over the next century America would play a significant role in ending slavery throughout the world. That people are born equal is a principle that is woven deeply into American culture and informs our priorities and our values. This definition equality is actually more tied to liberty on the spectrum.
But there is the other interpretation of “equality” that we are not only born to equal protection of rights, but are truly equal in many or all other aspects. In sociology and psychology we are consistently faced with whether people are shaped by their nature or by the environment and way in which they are raised (nature vs. nurture). People who believe that we are in fact born completely equal would say that it is only our environment that shapes us and makes us different. From this position they form their political agendas on changing circumstances, in hopes that it will result in changed people. They may think that better teachers means smarter students, and that higher pay means better teachers, thus more money is the solution to low test scores. It is this interpretation of equality that I consider a political ideology that is altogether separate and opposed to liberty, and which makes up the third point on the diagram. When it is taken to extremes nearly all individual liberty is removed from citizens in order to create a society where people are of equal wealth, equal education, equal social status, et cetera.
Comparing this government approach with capitalism, Winston Churchhill commented, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.” I say that our constitution opposes this “equality” because of the belief that capitalism – private ownership and free markets – provides not only the best form of economic freedom and growth, but also breeds competition in the marketplace. A point with which I agree. The market must be responsive to the peoples needs not only for affordable products, but also innovation. By allowing free markets, we are allowing products to be manufactured and sold at whatever cost is determined by the maker and the seller, but since the buyer is you, they have to accommodate for your needs or lose your business. This results in a broad price range for goods and services. The cost of a haircut can range from $5 to several hundred, and some Hollywood big-shots are even willing to pay thousands!
WHERE DO YOU PLACE?
I myself am probably on the line between the “D” and the grey area, in the upper-left. I believe that people are a result of a mix of their nature and their nurturing; that environments can influence behavior, but that ultimately it is the responsibility of the individual to make the best of it. Most Americans would probably find themselves in the grey area, as the lettered spaces would require very strong opinions, and those that land in A, B, or C would be a danger to society in my judgement. Hitler would have been a B, Fidel Castro a C, and Timothy McVeigh an A. In case you don’t remember, McVeigh was the man who bombed an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people as a show of his distaste for the federal government.
Libertarians, in general are near the top, and most Republicans are around the “D”, while most Democrats are closer to “F”. The shifting of public opinions and political leadership is constant, so parties can move around the spectrum quite easily. For instance, under the leadership of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi the Democratic party has moved further down and to the right. In response, Republicans are moving upward.
This model is a work in progress, so please feel free to comment with your thoughts. Does it help you determine your political values, or which parties you agree with? Does it help you understand what motivates political leaders and drives public policy? It’s easy to take sides on an issue at face value without really understanding the fundamental questions that we are dealing with. I wrote this in hopes that readers will have a broader sense of political philosophy, what our nation was founded on, and what kind of future we want to see in America.