May 28, 2012

Political Visions and Illusions – Why we’re all liberals (but shouldn’t be)

In David Koyzis’ book Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies, he spends a chapter giving an insightful analysis of the ideology of Liberalism. He points out the oddity which exists in North America, where Liberal and Conservative are spoken of as polar opposites, when in fact the representatives at both extremes still fall comfortably under the label of “liberal.” He writes,

“What both self-proclaimed liberals and their opponents do not realize, however, is that in the larger historic sense they are all liberals of some stripe and actually share the same fundamental assumptions concerning the nature of man and of political community…Liberal ideal have been so influential on American political culture that even self-styled conservatives there are actually old-fashioned liberals…” (45-46)

All forms of liberalism (from progressive to conservative) share the same philosophical foundations, beginning with a fundamental belief in human autonomy. The basic principle is,

“Everyone possesses property in their own person and must therefore be free to govern themselves in accordance with their own choices, provided that these choices do not infringe on the equal right of others to do the same. If my proposed actions effectively violate the property another enjoys in her own person, then I have transgressed the primary liberal precept and must thereby be held accountable for what I have done…According to liberalism, humanity has certain rights that inhere in each person as an individual. The individual is autonomous: that is, she pursues a rational self-interest as she thinks best. This is not to say that the community and its claims lack importance for the liberal. The more thoughtful and nuanced liberal acknowledges that healthy communities are necessary for the well-being of individuals. Nevertheless, the communities claims are subsidiary to the rights of the individual.” (47-49)

According to liberalism, individuals as sovereigns precede the community and these communities come into existence by means of the social contract. Under this view, the state exists for the sole purpose of serving the needs of the individual. However, safeguards needed to be put in place to prevent the state from assuming to much authority and becoming oppressive.

In perhaps the most insightful portion of the discussion, Koyzis explains the development of widely divergent views of the role of government by means of an expansion that has taken place over the centuries in five stages:

  1. The first stage, which he calls the Hobbesian Commonwealth, the state is actually the sovereign (such  as an absolute monarch) and provides the subjects protections from the “vicissitudes of life in the state of nature.” Even though the rule may be oppressive, it is better the the alternative lawlessness and serves to meet the individuals right of self-preservation.
  2. The second stage, the Night Watchman State, expands the idea of self-preservation to include the right to property, which is necessary for well-being. It is in this emphasis on property that we “encounter classical liberalism’s pronounced preference for the free market and a concomitant aversion to government intervention in economic transactions” (54). It is here that we see the rise of Capitalism, a la Adam Smith, et al, the American Revolution (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”), and the Industrial Revolution. The right to equality, previously understood as an equal right to preserve ones own life is expanded to include the equal right to amass property for oneself. The result was a great economic expansion in Europe and the United States. However, the increased economic activity left people far from equal, and the successes of capitalism did not put an end to poverty but may have increased it or perhaps changed its distribution. This tension demonstrates the  “paradoxical quality to freedom, given a society of fallen human beings. All people are in theory equally in possession of freedom, yet by virtue of this very freedom, people make themselves unequal, as we have noted. Freedom further makes it possible for some to take freedom away from others and to accumulate for themselves the capacities that accompany it. All this can occur quite legally and without violating the received mores of the community” (57).
  3. The third stage, the Regulatory State, arose out of the tensions created by the second stage. Recognizing the limitations to freedom that could arise from private interests, these liberals saw the opportunity for government to be “brought into the service of freedom.” Rather than seeing government as the principal threat to freedom, a larger state could serve to actually protect freedom from infringement by non-state powers. This could be seen in Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive movement in the early 20th century.
  4. The fourth stage, the Equal Opportunity State, developed out of the recognition that some individuals were not only limited by infringements of their freedom by other powers, but were also limited by a lack of economic resources, whatever the source. At this stage, the governments role includes ensuring not only equal treatment, but also taking positive action to ensure that all people have the opportunity to start at the same position. A difficulty arises here in trying to provide equal opportunity (while not fixing the game to provide equal result), which as Koyzis points out is caused by a central weakness of liberalism, namely that “it is not only unable to account for the ontological status of community; it also ignores the connectedness of individuals to previous and succeeding generations. It pretends that the individual is an isolated runner in the race, whose success or failure depends wholly on herself. When it becomes apparent that this is not the case – that is, when liberals bump up against reality – they are often driven to pursue policies quite at variance with classical liberalism’s initial antistatist orientation…It is perhaps one of history’s ironies that liberals came to be identified with such programs so thoroughly that in North America the “liberal” label is almost always used to describe someone favoring an expansion of the welfare state to ensure greater economic equality” (60).
  5. The fifth stage, the Choice Enhancement State, is the most recent expansion of liberal freedom. Rooted in the idea that there is no common good or greater good, other than those which individuals hold to be good for themselves, the task of liberalism is to accommodate each individual’s desires as much as is reasonably possible, while in no case prejudging the choices they face. “Such accommodation requires to as great an extent as possible what might be called a metaphysically neutral state, or what might better be called a spiritually vacant state. Because the individual citizens are sovereign and because, further, individual preferences differ from one person to the next, the state must refrain from favoring one person’s preferences over another’s. It must simply establish the broad procedural framework within which individuals are enabled to pursue their chosen goals…This means that what is conventionally called “legislating morality” is not to be admitted in the liberal state…But at this point fifth-stage liberalism encounters a dilemma. While the liberal state is supposed to refrain from judging the goodness of people’s choices and while it claims benign neutrality toward the various options lying before its citizens, it cannot overlook the unequal consequences following from the exercise of these choices” (61-62).

    The example of sexuality is case in point. Policies that would make divorce difficult, restrict abortion, or give official preference to reproductive sex over nonreproductive sex are viewed as “unfair and discriminatory insofar as they infringe on freedom of choice” (63). However, they have a tendency to ignore the negative consequences to the community that can result from these choices, such as shattered families, increased poverty, proliferation of unwanted pregnancies, and fatherlessness. “When these undesirable consequences do occur, rather than acknowledge that the quest to validate all lifestyle choices equally is a utopian one doomed to failure, fifth-stage liberals increasingly call on government to ameliorate, if not altogether eliminate, such consequences so they can continue to engage in this fruitless quest…Rather than calling on citizens to live up to their communal commitments and to fulfill their responsibilities throughout the range of communal contexts, this final stage of liberalism demands that government effectively subsidize irresponsible behavior for fear that doing otherwise risks making government into a potentially oppressive legislator of the good life” (64).

Often the most vocal and focused criticisms of the later stages of liberalism come from classical liberals, often under the name of conservative. Koyzis makes the valid point that the response is “fundamentally inadequate because it seeks merely to reverse a lengthy – and possibly inevitable, given liberalism’s presuppositions – historical process rather than to question in the first place liberalism’s reduction of the state to a mere voluntary organization charged only with the fulfilling the shifting terms of a social contract” (64).

Koyzis predicts that it will be liberalism’s “spiritually vacant state” that is most likely to spell its end as the primary political theory, though the presuppositions currently remain nearly unchallenged. He explains:

“Liberalism makes a pretense of benign neutrality within the political realm toward such ultimate convictions commonly labeled religious. Because traditional religions are deemed inherently divisive of the body politic, liberals would prefer – no, demand – that they be limited to the realm of private conviction. In contrast to the theocratic pretensions of earlier monarchies, the liberal policy no longer attempts to prescribe an official creed for its citizens. Yet as a price for granting religious freedom, the followers of traditional religious must limit their beliefs to the realms of family, home and church, and must concomitantly keep them out of the public square. Undergirding this approach lies the assumption that traditional religious beliefs are fundamentally subjective and irrational, and thus not subject to thoughtful public discourse….In the midst of a pluralistic society, it is argued, the state is obligated to exclude from the public square all beliefs that might have the effect of tearing apart the body politic…

Yet the spiritually vacant state is, after all, nothing of the sort. As Richard John Neuhaus observes, the “naked public square” cannot remain naked for long: ‘When the value-bearing institutions of religion and culture are excluded, the value-laden concerns of human life flow back into the square under the banner of politics. It is much like trying to sweep a puddle of water on an uneven basement floor; the water immediately flows back into the space you had cleared.’

Neuhaus is surely right as far as he goes. But his argument must be taken a step further: the naked public square is not only quickly filled, but is itself an illusion. The spiritually vacant state is never such in reality. If liberalism is rooted in an idolatrous religion, as I’m arguing here, then even when its followers presume to have banished the spirits from the public square, they have done no more than to infuse it with their own spirit. In other words, they have successfully privatized all religions except their own, which they have in fact privileged above all others.

But perhaps through an ingenious sleight of hand, they have persuaded the followers of these other religions that liberalism is not rooted in any religion and, quite against the testimony of their own traditions, that the privatization of their ultimate beliefs is right and proper and in the public interest. When people finally see through the ruse and decide to accept no longer the terms of this Faustian bargain, liberalism’s ascendancy is likely to end. Until then its assumptions appear incontestable and it continues to set the ground rules” (67-68).

In my view, Koyzis’ analysis is spot on, and he proceeds to end the chapter describing the fundamentally religious nature of liberal ideology, including its own distinct form of sin, salvation, and eschatology. There is a lot of good in liberalism and the world has benefited greatly from much of it, but as an ultimate ideology it fails because it does not cohere with the world in which we live. The individual is not sovereign (though neither is the state). The state cannot be reduced simply to a voluntary social contract, and the idea of “benign metaphysical neutrality” is a myth whose time will soon be up.

This chapter alone is worth the price of the book, and is only one of the several ideologies that Koyzis addresses. The others include Conservatism, Nationalism, Democracy, and Socialism, all of which are full of valuable insights. The final two chapters propose a way forward for Christians to transcend the various ideologies and approach the political world in a more holistic way, drawing on examples from various Christian traditions as providing guidance.

May 7, 2012

Bible Study Notes for Colossians 2:8-15

A (somewhat forced but helpful) outline of the argument – Theology expressed and applied:


  • (v8-10) Don’t be led astray by false teachers, who do not hold to Christ, the fullness of God
    • (v11-12a) You have been buried with Christ in his death
    • (v12b-13a) You have been raised with Christ in his resurrection
    • (v13b) You have been forgiven of your sins
    • (v14-15) You have been delivered from the law and the enemy


  • (v16-19) Therefore, don’t let this false teacher trouble you or seduce you
    • (v20-23) If you died with Christ, then you have died to all false religion
    • (v1-4) If you have been raised with Christ, then set your mind on him with hope
    • (v5-9) Since you have died with Christ, put away all that is sinful and worldly
    • (v10-11) Since you have been raised with Christ, you are part of the renewed creation
    • (v12-13) Since you have been forgiven, live in love and forgiveness
    • (v14-17) Since you have been delivered, serve Christ as Lord with joy and thanksgiving

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition,  according to the elemental spirits of the world and not according to Christ.

At its most basic level, the warning here is to watch out for false teachers. Unlike the cartoon bad guys, these teachers do not wear black cloaks and have a shifty look on their faces. They have the appearance of wisdom, of standing on the authority of respected people or traditions, and of teaching something that appears to accord with reality. It’s called deceitful because it appears to be one thing but is, in fact, something else.

This is a very common warning throughout the New Testament. In the era between the resurrection of Christ and his return, the Church faces a serious threat of false teachers and spiritual forces that seek to derail the mission of the Church in the world. For example:

  • Matthew 7:15 - Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
  • Philippians 3:2 - Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.
  • Acts 20:29-30 - I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.
  • 2 Pet. 2:1 - But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.
  • 1 John 4:1 - Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

For the early Church, by far the biggest threats and the most destructive false teachings were coming out of Judaism. Sometimes it was outright persecution and explicit opposition to the truth of Jesus as Messiah. Other times it was more subtle and deceptive, accepting Jesus as the Messiah but also teaching that Gentiles must be circumcised and observe the ceremonies of the law in order to be full members of the covenant and be saved. You see clear examples of this in Acts 15 and the book of Galatians. Much of the New Testament is composed of opposition to this teaching, which went against the very heart of Christianity – that in the death, resurrection, and exaltation Jesus the Messiah, the old order of things has passed away and the new creation has dawned; that he has fulfilled all that the law foreshadowed, and that forgiveness of sins and membership in the New Covenant is freely available to both Jew and Gentile by faith in the Lord Jesus. The denial of this reality took many forms, including ceremonial requirements, teaching that required subjection to mediating spirits, magic, and other forms of pagan spirituality, or other forms of religion which explicitly or implicitly denied the gospel.

In this situation, the false teachers could argue for their position based on an appeal to traditions, as well as an apparently shared belief in powerful spiritual forces that govern the world. The word philosophy here is not limited to what we normally mean by the word philosophy today. It is much broader and can incorporate any number of religious teachings. The deceitful philosophy that Paul warns of threatens to enslave the Colossians. In contrast to what they’ve learned in Christ, the false teachers are seeking to lead them according something else, which Paul calls “elemental spirits.” What exactly does this mean? The word used here is a bit ambiguous, since it can mean “basic elements of the material world,” “the letters of the alphabet,” “rudimentary religious teachings,” “heavenly bodies,” “or angelic beings.” He uses this same phrase 3 times in Galatians 4:1-11. Once, he’s referring to himself and other Jews under the Old Covenant law, while the other two times he is referring to the former pagan religion of the Galatians. For both situations, the elements are an enslaving force in contrast to the freedom gained in Christ.

The contrast with the gospel is clear: The word of truth vs. the deceitful philosophy; the rescuing and liberating Christ vs. the enslaving teacher of the philosophy.

Whatever the specific error the Colossians faced, Paul’s warning is broad enough to apply readily to our day. The deceitful philosophies abound still, and using the Jews under the Old Covenant and the pagans of Galatia as a starting point we see similar examples today of enslavement to a deceitful philosophy following human traditions:

  1. Those enslaved to legalistic religion
  2. Those enslaved to a materialistic naturalism
  3. Those enslaved to their own lusts and pleasures

QUESTION – What are some examples today of enslaving philosophies? False religions that are prevalent?

QUESTION – What can we do to watch and ensure that we’re not taken captive by these deceptive philosophies?

QUESTION – How can we watch out for our brothers and sisters in Christ? What does this involve?

The standard for discerning truth and error is Christ. Is it in accord with the reality that is made know to us in Jesus? Any philosophy or system of thought that finds its basis in anything other than Christ is enslaving. Paul’s warning – Watch out! If it doesn’t line up with King Jesus, beware.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,

The basis for this confidence in Christ, over against all of these other sources, is the fact that in him all the fullness of deity dwells bodily. This is similar to v.3 above, where Paul says that in him are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Jesus is both fully God (the whole fullness of deity) and fully man (bodily). And in his person we have all of the power and knowledge of God himself. Unlike any other angelic beings, who are intermediaries and lesser powers, in Christ we have the fullness of God. There is no need to be subject with fear to other forces in the world, because Christ is supreme over all and his authority unmatched. Likewise, as the true image of God and the perfect human, his teachings really do accord with how creation really works, in contrast to the corrupted traditions of fallen men.

and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

In Christ, the Church has been filled with all the fullness of God. We do not need to look anywhere else for wisdom, or truth, or satisfaction. We need not fear or be subject to any other forces in the universe because out head is the head of all rule and authority.

QUESTION – If all the fullness of God is in Christ, and Christ is in us, and Christ is all powerful, how should this affect us when facing opposition?

QUESTION - Do you have any fears when it comes to speaking the truth to others?

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism,

The old covenant rite of circumcision was the means that identified someone as a member of the covenant. It signified a setting apart from the world and sin (death), and a setting apart to God (new life). In this passage we see that Christ’s death on the cross is the reality to which circumcision pointed. This death, this circumcision of Christ, is counted to use when we are united to Christ in baptism. In him we have died and have been buried, truly cut off from the sinful world.

QUESTION: Why is circumcision no longer necessary for those in the covenant?

In contrast to the false teachers, who were likely teaching that the Colossians must be circumcised to be faithful, Paul teaches that their circumcision took place in Christ, and that by being baptized into his death the gentiles are full-fledged members of the covenant of salvation in Christ. The Colossians, though physically uncircumcised, have received the true circumcision of the heart through the death of Christ.

Both circumcision and baptism are external signs that point to an internal reality in the heart. Circumcision is not longer necessary because the reality has come in Christ. Baptism signifies our spiritual identification with Christ in both his death and resurrection.

QUESTION: What does it mean for your life here and now that you have died with Christ?

in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him,

Just as we were united to Christ’s death through faith, so we are united to him in his resurrection. The resurrection is counted to us by faith in the powerful working of God. For those who are baptized but do not have faith, they end up with the sign of death but not the subsequent resurrection.

Existing in a state of spiritual death and living apart from the covenant of God and righteousness, they have been given new life by partaking in Christ’s life. As he was raised, so are they. Their state of uncircumcision is removed by his circumcision and their state of death removed by his death and resurrection.

QUESTION: What does it mean for your life here and now that you have been raised with Christ?

having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

The reference here is to a signed certificate of debt. Not only has he cleared the debt, but he has even set aside, or taken away, the instrument that keeps tracks track of the debt. The past sins have been forgiven and the present remains clean. The image is one of taking the record and nailing it to the cross. That is, Christ in his death on the cross became our record of sin and that record was wiped out in his death. The debt of the mosaic law, which kept Jews under condemnation and kept Gentiles out of the covenant, has been removed.

QUESTION: If our past sins were were forgiven, what happens with sins that we commit in the future?

2 Corinthians 5:21 - For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Ephesians 2:11-16 - Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

The defeat and humiliation of the cross was actually Christ’s victory and exaltation and served as the defeat and humiliation of the enemies. The description of defeat and humiliation is graphic here and intended to leave you with no doubt that the spiritual accusers and oppressors of God’s people have been rendered powerless by the cross of Christ. All that is needed for judgment and salvation is accomplished in Christ.

May 3, 2012

Upon the Hill

Life looks on
All around is death
Intent to see
To final breath
Friend enemy
Look in shame
The music stops
With arms stretched out wide to hug the darkness and envelop it in light
As if reaching to absorb and consume in itself all the world’s plight
Where hope meets despair and the beginning of all meets the end of night
Words are tears
Though unvoiced
With many jeers
Others rejoice
The pace slows
The story is told
Darkness knows
But will not fold
The end of ages
Is eternal peace
But evil rages
With such ease
The great why
No answer still
But every cry
Upon the hill
Will then reveal
This time to die
This is his will
Prophets testify
He lived to please
Made known in stages
Indeed, what he achieved
Was the plan of the ages
Light becomes dark and life cold
Sadness consumes and trembling grows
But Sunday comes and the earth it could not hold
Darkness swallowed up by light and from death life flows
And with the wine poured out the bread broken we come to a choice
The word goes out and proclaims the story across the nations and the years
In every place to make know his glory and the ones who jeered will then rejoice
Locked in darkness without a key until he won the victory that took our sin and dried our tears