Each year STILLPOINT and the Jerusalem and Athens Forum (JAF) sponsor an essay contest that challenges students in that program to reflect on an important current issue in light of JAF readings and discussions, and other works of theology, philosophy and literature. This year students explored how the Scriptures and Christian theological traditions can help us think well and wisely about the political arena. Jeanette Christianson wrote this year’s winning entry. Excerpts from the two essays awarded honorable mention follow.
By Jeanette Christianson '12
In a world where time is always “of the essence,” I’ll admit to cutting corners. There is barely time, it seems, to get all my schoolwork done, call home, and do basic cleaning—forget cooking real meals when the dinner hour rolls around. I have to be satisfied with a little less than perfect on just about everything, and it’s rare that I revisit conversations, arguments, or ideas to reevaluate them—or, in the words of Martin Luther and his contemporaries, to be semper reformanda, “always faithfully reforming.”
But I’m starting to get the idea that this “good enough” philosophy of living is not, ultimately, anywhere near good enough. Not if I’m going to be particularly good and thoughtful at anything: daughter, student, or (in light of this November) citizen.
Looking outside of my own little sphere, I see that Christianity has never been satisfied with the status quo. Whatever you think about the nature of politics or the relation of Christ to culture, this much is certainly true. Satisfaction and completeness do not form parts of this world’s vocabulary. Clement of Alexandria recognized the implications of this for the life of the Christian citizen; as Richard Niebuhr explains Clement’s thought, a Christian “must then first of all be a good man in accordance with the standard of good culture . . . but this is by no means the whole of the Christian life.
There is a stage of existence beyond the morally respectable life of the church-goer.” If politics can be considered a part of our societal situation, we would do well to follow the warning implicit in his view: satisfaction and perfection do not belong to our realm of the political. There is always something more to strive for, always work to be done.
Not everyone seems to be getting that memo. Political solutions to problems are routinely described as all-encompassing by our media, who seem to promise that we can realize perfection here. But there are two sides to this argument. One is Augustine’s well-worn dichotomy between the two cities: whether it is possible to divide everything into the temporal and the eternal, Augustine’s two cities at least remind us not to confuse which city our eternity should be spent in.
But then there is Max Weber, who wrote persuasively that “It is entirely true, and our entire historical experience confirms it, that what is possible could never have been achieved unless people had tried again and again to achieve the impossible in this world.” Even knowing that we will miss the shot, then, we still must aim high.
Luther also acknowledged the limitations of politics. He argued that “the world and the masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in name. Christians are few and far-between.” This pluralism essentially dictates that a purely Christian government is out of the question, but that does not grant us an excuse to give up on meaningful political participation.
From Clement’s view, we must push the boundaries—albeit in a way sensitive of our neighbors and suited to the modern, pluralistic context. Instead, we must continue striving. Regardless of what we think about the clash between philosophies on a number of policy questions, we all agree that progress is needed. Some things should—indeed, must—change. Despite the arguments that will ensue, and the “public square, private faith” dichotomy that will be thrown back at us time and again, semper reformanda remains our charge.
Jeanette Christianson '12 majored in history and is now an M. Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Fair and Balanced vs. Divine Sovereignty (excerpt)
In spite of the massive cloud of theological controversy that swirls around Calvin and his thought, it is a fact that Calvinists have made immense contributions to the development of a Christian conception of governance. Whether in their support of the controversial ethics of theonomy, or in their continuation of Abraham Kuyper’s work within the concept of sphere sovereignty, Calvinists have offered a wide variety of thoughtful, articulate voices that would benefit the political discourse of the moment. However, it is the voice of the Reformer himself that Evangelicals must hear first.
The whole of Calvin’s theology rests upon a radical confidence in the absolute sovereignty of God. However, one does not have to agree with conclusions that Calvin arrives at in his theology in order to agree with this assertion. In stressing God’s control over everything, Calvin was not breaking any new ground, as the sovereignty of God has been a foundational truth of Christianity ever since its origins in Judaism. Where Calvin displayed his genius was in his decision to ground his conception of Christian governance in this truth, just as Paul did in Romans 13.
Matt Clemmer '13 is an English and philosophy major from Paoli, Pennsylvania.
Read the full essay at www.gordon.edu/jafesssay
Political Proof Texting (excerpt)
As presidential candidates emerge, so too do the political pundits, who can butcher and abuse some of the basic foundations of political theory. For example, key concepts like justice and mercy commonly fall victim to this hype, and are often carelesly used as if they were interchangeable.
Justice is the perceptible truth. Justice is rational, logical, and reasonable. Justice is beautiful, definitive, and clear—but justice is cold. Justice is structured; justice is knowing that you earned and deserved what you worked for; you reaped what you sowed. Justice is tradition, justice is the law. Justice is relief—when you know, in the light of all evil, that you may make an appeal—that all may be accounted for and paid in due. Justice is the way of man—the means to order a finite world with finite capabilities. Most importantly, justice is practical.
Mercy is hope for something that extends beyond truth. Mercy is creative, excusing—an embodied reprieve. Mercy is the longing for an idea beyond a system; the “but” in “I know it should be that way, but...” Mercy is wishing for an exception. Mercy is like faith—it is forgiveness when you deserve your sentence yet grope for the possibility of something more. Mercy is tragically theoretical.
Dawn Cianci '14 is a philosophy and political science major from Clovis, California.
Read the full essay at www.gordon.edu/jafesssay