Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

How to be a Good Samaritan

parable of the good samaritan

5 Ways Christians Can Apply the Parable
of the Good Samaritan Today

by Meg BucherWriter and Author
January 22, 2020

“‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Luke 10:36-37

It’s easy to assume no one in modern society would pass by someone ailing on the side of the road. But we can all recall a time when we witnessed someone pulled off to the side of the freeway … alone. We so often don’t pull over to help. Sometimes, out of a healthy fear of very real and opportunistic evil in the world. Other times, we choose not to put ourselves in danger on account of another accord. Further still, we are all consumed by the amount of time we have in each of our days. The story of the Good Samaritan reminds us to take time to notice, and inconvenience ourselves to stop and sacrifice our precious minutes and resources to love our neighbor the way we’re called to as Christians. God has purposed us to love one another. Let's take a look at the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Who Is the Good Samaritan in the Bible? And What
Happens in the Parable of the Good Samaritan?

"But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’” Luke 10:33-35

The Good Samaritan is a character in one of Jesus’ New Testament Parables. When questioned by a Jewish lawyer who he should consider a neighbor, Jesus picked a Samaritan to be the heroine of the story. This is significant because Jews hated Samaritans. The NIVSB confirms, “Jews viewed Samaritans as half-breeds, both physically and spiritually. Samaritans and Jews practiced open hostility, but Jesus asserted that love knows no national boundaries.”

As Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, he said, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22) The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible says “Samaritans believed in the one God of Israel and claimed to be true heirs of his promises …(they) rejected the history of Israel after Joshua, and changed the Ten Commandments to include the requirement to worship on Mount Gerizim …” which the Judeans (Jewish) destroyed. The Samaritans believed in God but didn’t fully understand and know Him. Jesus rebuked them for what they got wrong, but all the more powerful when we consider the love the Samaritan man showed versus that of the priest and Levite who fully understood God and could call themselves God’s chosen people.

Why Did Jesus Tell the Parable of
the Good Samaritan?
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher’, he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” Luke 10:25
Jesus taught in parables and communicated in a way they understood. People like the lawyer questioning Jesus were akin to answering inclinations with questions. Thus, Jesus replied to his inquiry with, “‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’ Luke 10:26 His concern was for their souls, not in arrogantly winning an argument He already held the heavenly victory too. His compassion for those who questioned Him is possibly one of His most remarkable characteristics. He had the patience to honor their curiosity, even when deviously tried to trap or trick Him. “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29

The priest and the Levite passed by the suffering man on the other side. Significant, because Jesus illustrated living a legalistic life and following religious rules is nothing if we purposefully pass by a hurting soul. Love is leveling. Anyone can choose to help someone. Jesus shattered their perception of class and division by illustrating that love is love. We aren’t called only to love other Christians or others like us. We are called to love … period.

How Can Christians Apply the Parable
of the Good Samaritan Today?

Here are 5 ways Christians can use the parable of the Good Samaritan for inspiration today.

1. Be Noticers

“We live in a fast-paced world where it is easy to overlook the needs of others,” wrote Courtney Whiting, "But if we learn from this parable, we will be careful to be aware of those who are around us.” We can take notice of the people God places in our lives, both those who encourage and help us and those who need our help and encouragement. “The neighbor we’re called to love is often not the one we choose but one God chooses for us,” writes Jon Bloom “In fact, this neighbor is often not one we would have chosen had not God done the choosing.” Scripture says the man on the side of the road appeared dead, a condition that would make a religious authority ritually unclean (Leviticus 21:1-3). The priest in the parable let his holiness hold him back from helping. “He didn’t want to be stained by the stuff of life,” writes Pastor Rick Warren, “When we live a lifestyle of avoidance, we try to keep all our relationships superficial. If we can keep everyone at arm’s length, we can pretend we don’t see their pain and their needs. If we don’t get involved, we can avoid getting hurt or inconvenienced.” 

2. Prayerfully Prepare for these Moments

“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you-‘ when you already have it with you.” Proverbs 3:27-28

A disciplined life of prayer will allow to see people from God’s perspective and fight any fear holding us back from taking immediate action. “Pray for people,” wrote Anne Dahlhauser in “10 Ways to Love Your Neighbor," “Ask God for love for your neighbors.” When we pray for eyes open to see people in need, God is faithful to reveal them. When we do take notice of someone in need, it’s not just our action that needs to be immediate in aid, but our prayer. It's only humanly possible to help someone to a certain extent, so we need to cut God into the moment through prayer. Vaneetha Rendal Riser reflects in her article, “How to Pray When Life Falls Apart,” “I need to remember his limitless power when my situation looks insurmountable.”

3. Don’t Hesitate

“In Christ we are given a right standing before God (justification), and we are propelled in love for God and others by the new power of his Spirit in us (sanctification),” writes Jonathan Parnell, "This affects the way we see those around us.” Instead of weighing our options and wondering if we have time to stop and help, trust God to stretch minutes when we are convicted to help. The Samaritan man wasn’t prepared with a medical kit in case he crossed paths with someone who needed bandaging. He gave of what he had, choosing to invest in the struggling stranger. “We may quote scripture and recite platitudes on love and God, but unless we are willing to get involved in the lives of others, we are only blowing smoke,” wrote Joe Plemon, “But he [the Good Samaritan] didn’t. As the scriptures say, he had compassion …and he acted on it.” Given the man was robbed, the Samaritan probably put himself in danger of meeting the same fate. “Love is something you do,” writes Pastor Rick Warren, “Love doesn’t just say, ‘I’m sorry for this guy. Isn’t it a shame? Isn’t that too bad?’ Love seizes the moment.”

4. Reflection and Gratitude

Resist the cultural urge to frame those struggling as soft or weak. Suffering from the consequence of their own decisions doesn’t afford us a license to love them any less. We’ve all made bad decisions, suffered through our own consequences, or been hurt at the hands of another. Let gratitude for the people God had in place to pull us through fuel our love for them now. Remembering keeps us humble, reminds us to be grateful, and spurs us to pass it on. Instead of convincing ourselves we don’t have the time or the means to help, focus prayerfully on allowing God to show us how He wants us to love those suffering around us. John Bloom wrote, “if our restlessness is due to the disillusionment of having to deal with difficult, different people and defective programs, then perhaps the change we need is not in the church community but in our willingness to love our neighbors, the ones God has given us to love.”

5. Generosity

“It is a sin to despise one’s neighbor, but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy.” Proverbs 14:21

Christians are called to live generous lives, both in meeting the physical needs of others and in our outpouring of compassion for our neighbors. The Samaritan man gave what he had. We are all too often led by a cynical mindset of short supply. However, God promises the more we share the more we have. Proverbs 14:31 says, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” Benching worry to care for others first models trust in God. He asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves and is the great Provider we can trust in to make it happen. Proverbs 28:27 assures us, “Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.” The goal is not to get something in return for helping one another, but trusting God enough to let go of what we have in order to do so, being a good steward of what He’s provided us with.

10 Bible Verses About Loving Our Neighbors
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the enters of the others.” Philippians 2:3-4

“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” 1 Peter 3:8

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Ephesians 4:25

“Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you’- when you already have it with you. Do not plot harm against your neighbor, who lives trustfully near you.” Proverbs 3:28-29

“Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.” Romans 15:2

“The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:31

“honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” Matthew 19:19

“For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” John 15:12

“Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40

A Prayer to Love Others
Jesus, Not only did you come down to earth and live among us, but you choose to communicate on a level we can understand. Thank you for parables and stories we can apply to our daily lives, in order to understand a mere fraction of Your glory. We are humbled by your forgiveness and grace for the times we do indeed walk clear around those who need help. Convict us to stay alert, in prayer, and ready to love those You place in our paths. 

In Your Name, Amen.

Further Reading

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Jan Wijnants [Public domain]

Meg, freelance writer and blogger at Sunny&80, is the author of “Friends with Everyone, Friendship within the Love of Christ,” and “Surface, Unlocking the Gift of Sensitivity,” She writes about everyday life within the love of Christ. Meg earned a Marketing/PR degree from Ashland University but stepped out of the business world to stay at home and raise her two daughters, which led her to pursue her passion to write. She has led a Bible Study for Women and serves as a Youth Ministry leader in her community. Meg, a Cleveland native and lifelong Browns fan, lives by the shore of Lake Erie in Northern Ohio with her husband, two daughters, and golden doodle.

The Church and Religious Politics From the Middle Ages to The Modern Age

Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy (1998) | Credit: Thomas Struth


by Mark Lilla
Aug. 19, 2007

I. “The Will of God Will Prevail”

The twilight of the idols has been postponed. For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity — these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.

An example: In May of last year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sent an open letter to President George W. Bush that was translated and published in newspapers around the world. Its theme was contemporary politics and its language that of divine revelation. After rehearsing a litany of grievances against American foreign policies, real and imagined, Ahmadinejad wrote, “If Prophet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Joseph or Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) were with us today, how would they have judged such behavior?” This was not a rhetorical question. “I have been told that Your Excellency follows the teachings of Jesus (peace be upon him) and believes in the divine promise of the rule of the righteous on Earth,” Ahmadinejad continued, reminding his fellow believer that “according to divine verses, we have all been called upon to worship one God and follow the teachings of divine Prophets.” There follows a kind of altar call, in which the American president is invited to bring his actions into line with these verses. And then comes a threatening prophecy: “Liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today, these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems. . . . Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things.”

This is the language of political theology, and for millennia it was the only tongue human beings had for expressing their thoughts about political life. It is primordial, but also contemporary: countless millions still pursue the age-old quest to bring the whole of human life under God’s authority, and they have their reasons. To understand them we need only interpret the language of political theology — yet that is what we find hardest to do. Reading a letter like Ahmadinejad’s, we fall mute, like explorers coming upon an ancient inscription written in hieroglyphics.

The problem is ours, not his. A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism. This assumption shapes the way we see political theology, especially in its Islamic form — as an atavism requiring psychological or sociological analysis but not serious intellectual engagement. Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more. We live, so to speak, on the other shore. When we observe those on the opposite bank, we are puzzled, since we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. We all face the same questions of political existence, yet their way of answering them has become alien to us. On one shore, political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption; on the other they are not. And that, as Robert Frost might have put it, makes all the difference.

Understanding this difference is the most urgent intellectual and political task of the present time. But where to begin? The case of contemporary Islam is on everyone’s mind, yet is so suffused with anger and ignorance as to be paralyzing. All we hear are alien sounds, motivating unspeakable acts. If we ever hope to crack the grammar and syntax of political theology, it seems we will have to begin with ourselves. The history of political theology in the West is an instructive story, and it did not end with the birth of modern science, or the Enlightenment, or the American and French Revolutions, or any other definitive historical moment. Political theology was a presence in Western intellectual life well into the 20th century, by which time it had shed the mind-set of the Middle Ages and found modern reasons for seeking political inspiration in the Bible. At first, this modern political theology expressed a seemingly enlightened outlook and was welcomed by those who wished liberal democracy well. But in the aftermath of the First World War it took an apocalyptic turn, and “new men” eager to embrace the future began generating theological justifications for the most repugnant — and godless — ideologies of the age, Nazism and Communism.

It is an unnerving tale, one that raises profound questions about the fragility of our modern outlook. Even the most stable and successful democracies, with the most high-minded and civilized believers, have proved vulnerable to political messianism and its theological justification. If we can understand how that was possible in the advanced West, if we can hear political theology speaking in a more recognizable tongue, represented by people in familiar dress with familiar names, perhaps then we can remind ourselves how the world looks from its perspective. This would be a small step toward measuring the challenge we face and deciding how to respond.

II. The Great Separation

Why is there political theology? The question echoes throughout the history of Western thought, beginning in Greek and Roman antiquity and continuing down to our day. Many theories have been proposed, especially by those suspicious of the religious impulse. Yet few recognize the rationality of political theology or enter into its logic. Theology is, after all, a set of reasons people give themselves for the way things are and the way they ought to be. So let us try to imagine how those reasons might involve God and have implications for politics.

Imagine human beings who first become aware of themselves in a world not of their own making. Their world has unknown origins and behaves in a regular fashion, so they wonder why that is. They know that the things they themselves fashion behave in a predictable manner because they conceive and construct them with some end in mind. They stretch the bow, the arrow flies; that is why they were made. So, by analogy, it is not difficult for them to assume that the cosmic order was constructed for a purpose, reflecting its maker’s will. By following this analogy, they begin to have ideas about that maker, about his intentions and therefore about his personality.

In taking these few short steps, the human mind finds itself confronted with a picture, a theological image in which God, man and world form a divine nexus. Believers have reasons for thinking that they live in this nexus, just as they have reasons for assuming that it offers guidance for political life. But how that guidance is to be understood, and whether believers think it is authoritative, will depend on how they imagine God. If God is thought to be passive, a silent force like the sky, nothing in particular may follow. He is a hypothesis we can do without. But if we take seriously the thought that God is a person with intentions, and that the cosmic order is a result of those intentions, then a great deal can follow. The intentions of such a God reveal something man cannot fully know on his own. This revelation then becomes the source of his authority, over nature and over us, and we have no choice but to obey him and see that his plans are carried out on earth. That is where political theology comes in.

One powerful attraction of political theology, in any form, is its comprehensiveness. It offers a way of thinking about the conduct of human affairs and connects those thoughts to loftier ones about the existence of God, the structure of the cosmos, the nature of the soul, the origin of all things and the end of time. For more than a millennium, the West took inspiration from the Christian image of a triune God ruling over a created cosmos and guiding men by means of revelation, inner conviction and the natural order. It was a magnificent picture that allowed a magnificent and powerful civilization to flower. But the picture was always difficult to translate theologically into political form: God the Father had given commandments; a Redeemer arrived, reinterpreting them, then departed; and now the Holy Spirit remained as a ghostly divine presence. It was not at all clear what political lessons were to be drawn from all this. Were Christians supposed to withdraw from a corrupted world that was abandoned by the Redeemer? Were they called upon to rule the earthly city with both church and state, inspired by the Holy Spirit? Or were they expected to build a New Jerusalem that would hasten the Messiah’s return?

Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians argued over these questions. The City of Man was set against the City of God, public citizenship against private piety, the divine right of kings against the right of resistance, church authority against radical antinomianism, canon law against mystical insight, inquisitor against martyr, secular sword against ecclesiastical miter, prince against emperor, emperor against pope, pope against church councils. In the late Middle Ages, the sense of crisis was palpable, and even the Roman Church recognized that reforms were in order. But by the 16th century, thanks to Martin Luther and John Calvin, there was no unified Christendom to reform, just a variety of churches and sects, most allied with absolute secular rulers eager to assert their independence. In the Wars of Religion that followed, doctrinal differences fueled political ambitions and vice versa, in a deadly, vicious cycle that lasted a century and a half. Christians addled by apocalyptic dreams hunted and killed Christians with a maniacal fury they had once reserved for Muslims, Jews and heretics. It was madness.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes tried to find a way out of this labyrinth. Traditionally, political theology had interpreted a set of revealed divine commands and applied them to social life. In his great treatise “Leviathan” (1651), Hobbes simply ignored the substance of those commands and talked instead about how and why human beings believed God revealed them. He did the most revolutionary thing a thinker can ever do — he changed the subject, from God and his commands to man and his beliefs. If we do that, Hobbes reasoned, we can begin to understand why religious convictions so often lead to political conflicts and then perhaps find a way to contain the potential for violence.

The contemporary crisis in Western Christendom created an audience for Hobbes and his ideas. In the midst of religious war, his view that the human mind was too weak and beset by passions to have any reliable knowledge of the divine seemed common-sensical. It also made sense to assume that when man speaks about God he is really referring to his own experience, which is all he knows. And what most characterizes his experience? According to Hobbes, fear. Man’s natural state is to be overwhelmed with anxiety, “his heart all the day long gnawed on by fear of death, poverty, or other calamity.” He “has no repose, nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep.” It is no wonder that human beings fashion idols to protect themselves from what they most fear, attributing divine powers even, as Hobbes wrote, to “men, women, a bird, a crocodile, a calf, a dog, a snake, an onion, a leek.” Pitiful, but understandable.

And the debilitating dynamics of belief don’t end there. For once we imagine an all-powerful God to protect us, chances are we’ll begin to fear him too. What if he gets angry? How can we appease him? Hobbes reasoned that these new religious fears were what created a market for priests and prophets claiming to understand God’s obscure demands. It was a raucous market in Hobbes’s time, with stalls for Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Quakers, Ranters, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchy Men and countless others, each with his own path to salvation and blueprint for Christian society. They disagreed with one another, and because their very souls were at stake, they fought. Which led to wars; which led to more fear; which made people more religious; which. . . .

Fresh from the Wars of Religion, Hobbes’s readers knew all about fear. Their lives had become, as he put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And when he announced that a new political philosophy could release them from fear, they listened. Hobbes planted a seed, a thought that it might be possible to build legitimate political institutions without grounding them on divine revelation. He knew it was impossible to refute belief in divine revelation; the most one can hope to do is cast suspicion on prophets claiming to speak about politics in God’s name. The new political thinking would no longer concern itself with God’s politics; it would concentrate on men as believers in God and try to keep them from harming one another. It would set its sights lower than Christian political theology had, but secure what mattered most, which was peace.

Chiesa dei Frari, Venice, 1995 | Credit: Thomas Struth

Hobbes was neither a liberal nor a democrat. He thought that consolidating power in the hands of one man was the only way to relieve citizens of their mutual fears. But over the next few centuries, Western thinkers like John Locke, who adopted his approach, began to imagine a new kind of political order in which power would be limited, divided and widely shared; in which those in power at one moment would relinquish it peacefully at another, without fear of retribution; in which public law would govern relations among citizens and institutions; in which many different religions would be allowed to flourish, free from state interference; and in which individuals would have inalienable rights to protect them from government and their fellows. This liberal-democratic order is the only one we in the West recognize as legitimate today, and we owe it primarily to Hobbes. In order to escape the destructive passions of messianic faith, political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man. This was the Great Separation.

III. The Inner Light

It is a familiar story, and seems to conclude with a happy ending. But in truth the Great Separation was never a fait accompli, even in Western Europe, where it was first conceived. Old-style Christian political theology had an afterlife in the West, and only after the Second World War did it cease to be a political force. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a different challenge to the Great Separation arose from another quarter. It came from a wholly new kind of political theology heavily indebted to philosophy and styling itself both modern and liberal. I am speaking of the “liberal theology” movement that arose in Germany not long after the French Revolution, first among Protestant theologians, then among Jewish reformers. These thinkers, who abhorred theocracy, also rebelled against Hobbes’s vision, favoring instead a political future in which religion — properly chastened and intellectually reformed — would play an absolutely central role.

And the questions they posed were good ones. While granting that ignorance and fear had bred pointless wars among Christian sects and nations, they asked: Were those the only reasons that, for a millennium and a half, an entire civilization had looked to Jesus Christ as its savior? Or that suffering Jews of the Diaspora remained loyal to the Torah? Could ignorance and fear explain the beauty of Christian liturgical music or the sublimity of the Gothic cathedrals? Could they explain why all other civilizations, past and present, founded their political institutions in accordance with the divine nexus of God, man and world? Surely there was more to religious man than was dreamed of in Hobbes’s philosophy.

That certainly was the view of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who did more than anyone to develop an alternative to Hobbes. Rousseau wrote no treatise on religion, which was probably a wise thing, since when he inserted a few pages on religious themes into his masterpiece, “Émile” (1762), it caused the book to be burned and Rousseau to spend the rest of his life on the run. This short section of “Émile,” which he called “The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar,” has so deeply shaped contemporary views of religion that it takes some effort to understand why Rousseau was persecuted for writing it. It is the most beautiful and convincing defense of man’s religious instincts ever to flow from a modern pen — and that, apparently, was the problem. Rousseau spoke of religion in terms of human needs, not divine truths, and had his Savoyard vicar declare, “I believe all particular religions are good when one serves God usefully in them.” For that, he was hounded by pious Christians.

Rousseau had a Hobbes problem, too: he shared the Englishman’s criticisms of theocracy, fanaticism and the clergy, but he was a friend of religion. While Hobbes beat the drums of ignorance and fear, Rousseau sang the praises of conscience, of charity, of fellow feeling, of virtue, of pious wonder in the face of God’s creation. Human beings, he thought, have a natural goodness they express in their religion. That is the theme of the “Profession of Faith,” which tells the parable of a young vicar who loses his faith and then his moral compass once confronted with the hypocrisy of his co-religionists. He is able to restore his equilibrium only when he finds a new kind of faith in God by looking within, to his own “inner light” (lumière intérieure). The point of Rousseau’s story is less to display the crimes of organized churches than to show that man yearns for religion because he is fundamentally a moral creature. There is much we cannot know about God, and for centuries the pretense of having understood him caused much damage to Christendom. But, for Rousseau, we need to believe something about him if we are to orient ourselves in the world.

Among modern thinkers, Rousseau was the first to declare that there is no shame in saying that faith in God is humanly necessary. Religion has its roots in needs that are rational and moral, even noble; once we see that, we can start satisfying them rationally, morally and nobly. In the abstract, this thought did not contradict the principles of the Great Separation, which gave reasons for protecting the private exercise of religion. But it did raise doubts about whether the new political thinking could really do without reference to the nexus of God, man and world. If Rousseau was right about our moral needs, a rigid separation between political and theological principles might not be psychologically sustainable. When a question is important, we want an answer to it: as the Savoyard vicar remarks, “The mind decides in one way or another, despite itself, and prefers being mistaken to believing in nothing.” Rousseau had grave doubts about whether human beings could be happy or good if they did not understand how their actions related to something higher. Religion is simply too entwined with our moral experience ever to be disentangled from it, and morality is inseparable from politics.

IV. Rousseau’s Children

By the early 19th century, two schools of thought about religion and politics had grown up in the West. Let us call them the children of Hobbes and the children of Rousseau. For the children of Hobbes, a decent political life could not be realized by Christian political theology, which bred violence and stifled human development. The only way to control the passions flowing from religion to politics, and back again, was to detach political life from them completely. This had to happen within Western institutions, but first it had to happen within Western minds. A reorientation would have to take place, turning human attention away from the eternal and transcendent, toward the here and now. The old habit of looking to God for political guidance would have to be broken, and new habits developed. For Hobbes, the first step toward achieving that end was to get people thinking about — and suspicious about — the sources of faith.

Though there was great reluctance to adopt Hobbes’s most radical views on religion, in the English-speaking world the intellectual principles of the Great Separation began to take hold in the 18th century. Debate would continue over where exactly to place the line between religious and political institutions, but arguments about the legitimacy of theocracy petered out in all but the most forsaken corners of the public square. There was no longer serious controversy about the relation between the political order and the divine nexus; it ceased to be a question. No one in modern Britain or the United States argued for a bicameral legislature on the basis of divine revelation.

The children of Rousseau followed a different line of argument. Medieval political theology was not salvageable, but neither could human beings ignore questions of eternity and transcendence when thinking about the good life. When we speculate about God, man and world in the correct way, we express our noblest moral sentiments; without such reflection we despair and eventually harm ourselves and others. That is the lesson of the Savoyard vicar.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Terror and Napoleon’s conquests, Rousseau’s children found a receptive audience in continental Europe. The recent wars had had nothing to do with political theology or religious fanaticism of the old variety; if anything, people reasoned, it was the radical atheism of the French Enlightenment that turned men into beasts and bred a new species of political fanatic. Germans were especially drawn to this view, and a wave of romanticism brought with it great nostalgia for the religious “world we have lost.” It even touched sober philosophers like Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel. Kant adored “Émile” and went somewhat further than Rousseau had, not only accepting the moral need for rational faith but arguing that Christianity, properly reformed, would represent the “true universal Church” and embody the very “idea” of religion. Hegel went further still, attributing to religion an almost vitalistic power to forge the social bond and encourage sacrifice for the public good. Religion, and religion alone, is the original source of a people’s shared spirit, which Hegel called its Volksgeist.

These ideas had an enormous impact on German religious thought in the 19th century, and through it on Protestantism and Judaism throughout the West. This was the century of “liberal theology,” a term that requires explanation. In modern Britain and the United States, it was assumed that the intellectual, and then institutional, separation of Christianity and modern politics had been mutually beneficial — that the modern state had benefited by being absolved from pronouncing on doctrinal matters, and that Christianity had benefited by being freed from state interference. No such consensus existed in Germany, where the assumption was that religion needed to be publicly encouraged, not reined in, if it was to contribute to society. It would have to be rationally reformed, of course: the Bible would have to be interpreted in light of recent historical findings, belief in miracles abandoned, the clergy educated along modern lines and doctrine adapted to a softer age. But once these reforms were in place, enlightened politics and enlightened religion would join hands.

Protestant liberal theologians soon began to dream of a third way between Christian orthodoxy and the Great Separation. They had unshaken faith in the moral core of Christianity, however distorted it may have been by the forces of history, and unshaken faith in the cultural and political progress that Christianity had brought to the world. Christianity had given birth to the values of individuality, moral universalism, reason and progress on which German life was now based. There could be no contradiction between religion and state, or even tension. The modern state had only to give Protestantism its due in public life, and Protestant theology would reciprocate by recognizing its political responsibilities. If both parties met their obligations, then, as the philosopher F. W. J. Schelling put it, “the destiny of Christianity will be decided in Germany.”

Among Jewish liberal thinkers, there was a different sort of hope, that of acceptance as equal citizens. After the French Revolution, a fitful process of Jewish emancipation began in Europe, and German Jews were more quickly integrated into modern cultural life than in any other European country — a fateful development. For it was precisely at this moment that German Protestants were becoming convinced that reformed Christianity represented their national Volksgeist. While the liberal Jewish thinkers were attracted to modern enlightened faith, they were also driven by the apologetic need to justify Judaism’s contribution to German society. They could not appeal to the principles of the Great Separation and simply demand to be left alone. They had to argue that Judaism and Protestantism were two forms of the same rational moral faith, and that they could share a political theology. As the Jewish philosopher and liberal reformer Hermann Cohen once put it, “In all intellectual questions of religion we think and feel ourselves in a Protestant spirit.”

V. Courting the Apocalypse

This was the house that liberal theology built, and throughout the 19th century it looked secure. It wasn’t, and for reasons worth pondering. Liberal theology had begun in hope that the moral truths of biblical faith might be intellectually reconciled with, and not just accommodated to, the realities of modern political life. Yet the liberal deity turned out to be a stillborn God, unable to inspire genuine conviction among a younger generation seeking ultimate truth. For what did the new Protestantism offer the soul of one seeking union with his creator? It prescribed a catechism of moral commonplaces and historical optimism about bourgeois life, spiced with deep pessimism about the possibility of altering that life. It preached good citizenship and national pride, economic good sense and the proper length of a gentleman’s beard. But it was too ashamed to proclaim the message found on every page of the Gospels: that you must change your life. And what did the new Judaism bring to a young Jew seeking a connection with the traditional faith of his people? It taught him to appreciate the ethical message at the core of all biblical faith and passed over in genteel silence the fearsome God of the prophets, his covenant with the Jewish people and the demanding laws he gave them. Above all, it taught a young Jew that his first obligation was to seek common ground with Christianity and find acceptance in the one nation, Germany, whose highest cultural ideals matched those of Judaism, properly understood. To the decisive questions — “Why be a Christian?” and “Why be a Jew?” — liberal theology offered no answer at all.

By the turn of the 20th century, the liberal house was tottering, and after the First World War it collapsed. It was not just the barbarity of trench warfare, the senseless slaughter, the sight of burned-out towns and maimed soldiers that made a theology extolling “modern civilization” contemptible. It was that so many liberal theologians had hastened the insane rush to war, confident that God’s hand was guiding history. In August 1914, Adolf von Harnack, the most respected liberal Protestant scholar of the age, helped Kaiser Wilhelm II draft an address to the nation laying out German military aims. Others signed an infamous pro-war petition defending the sacredness of German militarism. Astonishingly, even Hermann Cohen joined the chorus, writing an open letter to American Jews asking for support, on the grounds that “next to his fatherland, every Western Jew must recognize, revere and love Germany as the motherland of his modern religiosity.” Young Protestant and Jewish thinkers were outraged when they saw what their revered teachers had done, and they began to look elsewhere.

But they did not turn to Hobbes, or to Rousseau. They craved a more robust faith, based on a new revelation that would shake the foundations of the whole modern order. It was a thirst for redemption. Ever since the liberal theologians had revived the idea of biblical politics, the stage had been set for just this sort of development. When faith in redemption through bourgeois propriety and cultural accommodation withered after the Great War, the most daring thinkers of the day transformed it into hope for a messianic apocalypse — one that would again place the Jewish people, or the individual Christian believer, or the German nation, or the world proletariat in direct relation with the divine.

Notre-Dame, Paris, 2000 | Credit: Thomas Struth

Young Weimar Jews were particularly drawn to these messianic currents through the writings of Martin Buber, who later became a proponent of interfaith understanding but as a young Zionist promoted a crude chauvinistic nationalism. In an early essay he called for a “Masada of the spirit” and proclaimed: “If I had to choose for my people between a comfortable, unproductive happiness . . . and a beautiful death in a final effort at life, I would have to choose the latter. For this final effort would create something divine, if only for a moment, but the other something all too human.” Language like this, with strong and discomforting contemporary echoes for us, drew deeply from the well of biblical messianism. Yet Buber was an amateur compared with the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, who used the Bible to extol the utopia then under construction in the Soviet Union. Though an atheist Jew, Bloch saw a connection between messianic hope and revolutionary violence, which he admired from a distance. He celebrated Thomas Müntzer, the 16th-century Protestant pastor who led bloody peasant uprisings and was eventually beheaded; he also praised the brutal Soviet leaders, famously declaring “ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem” — wherever Lenin is, there is Jerusalem.

But it was among young Weimar Protestants that the new messianic spirit proved most consequential. They were led by the greatest theologian of the day, Karl Barth, who wanted to restore the drama of religious decision to Christianity and rejected any accommodation of the Gospel to modern sensibilities. When Hitler came to power, Barth acquitted himself well, leading resistance against the Nazi takeover of the Protestant churches before he was forced into exile in 1935. But others, who employed the same messianic rhetoric Barth did, chose the Nazis instead. A notorious example was Emanuel Hirsch, a respected Lutheran theologian and translator of Kierkegaard, who welcomed the Nazi seizure of power for bringing Germany into “the circle of the white ruling peoples, to which God has entrusted the responsibility for the history of humanity.” Another was Friedrich Gogarten, one of Barth’s closest collaborators, who sided with the Nazis in the summer of 1933 (a decision he later regretted). In the 1920s, Gogarten rejoiced at the collapse of bourgeois Europe, declaring that “we are glad for the decline, since no one enjoys living among corpses,” and called for a new religion that “attacks culture as culture . . . that attacks the whole world.” When the brownshirts began marching and torching books, he got his wish. After Hitler completed his takeover, Gogarten wrote that “precisely because we are today once again under the total claim of the state, it is again possible, humanly speaking, to proclaim the Christ of the Bible and his reign over us.”

All of which served to confirm Hobbes’s iron law: Messianic theology eventually breeds messianic politics. The idea of redemption is among the most powerful forces shaping human existence in all those societies touched by the biblical tradition. It has inspired people to endure suffering, overcome suffering and inflict suffering on others. It has offered hope and inspiration in times of darkness; it has also added to the darkness by arousing unrealistic expectations and justifying those who spill blood to satisfy them. All the biblical religions cultivate the idea of redemption, and all fear its power to inflame minds and deafen them to the voice of reason. In the writings of these Weimar figures, we encounter what those orthodox traditions always dreaded: the translation of religious notions of apocalypse and redemption into a justification of political messianism, now under frightening modern conditions. It was as if nothing had changed since the 17th century, when Thomas Hobbes first sat down to write his “Leviathan.”

VI. Miracles

The revival of political theology in the modern West is a humbling story. It reminds us that this way of thinking is not the preserve of any one culture or religion, nor does it belong solely to the past. It is an age-old habit of mind that can be reacquired by anyone who begins looking to the divine nexus of God, man and world to reveal the legitimate political order. This story also reminds us how political theology can be adapted to circumstances and reassert itself, even in the face of seemingly irresistible forces like modernization, secularization and democratization. Rousseau was on to something: we seem to be theotropic creatures, yearning to connect our mundane lives, in some way, to the beyond. That urge can be suppressed, new habits learned, but the challenge of political theology will never fully disappear so long as the urge to connect survives.

So we are heirs to the Great Separation only if we wish to be, if we make a conscious effort to separate basic principles of political legitimacy from divine revelation. Yet more is required still. Since the challenge of political theology is enduring, we need to remain aware of its logic and the threat it poses. This means vigilance, but even more it means self-awareness. We must never forget that there was nothing historically inevitable about our Great Separation, that it was and remains an experiment. In Europe, the political ambiguities of one religion, Christianity, happened to set off a political crisis that might have been avoided but wasn’t, triggering the Wars of Religion; the resulting carnage made European thinkers more receptive to Hobbes’s heretical ideas about religious psychology and the political implications he drew from them; and over time those political ideas were liberalized. Even then, it was only after the Second World War that the principles of modern liberal democracy became fully rooted in continental Europe.

As for the American experience, it is utterly exceptional: there is no other fully developed industrial society with a population so committed to its faiths (and such exotic ones), while being equally committed to the Great Separation. Our political rhetoric, which owes much to the Protestant sectarians of the 17th century, vibrates with messianic energy, and it is only thanks to a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks that political theology has never seriously challenged the basic legitimacy of our institutions. Americans have potentially explosive religious differences over abortion, prayer in schools, censorship, euthanasia, biological research and countless other issues, yet they generally settle them within the bounds of the Constitution. It’s a miracle.

And miracles can’t be willed. For all the good Hobbes did in shifting our political focus from God to man, he left the impression that the challenge of political theology would vanish once the cycle of fear was broken and human beings established authority over their own affairs. We still make this assumption when speaking of the “social causes” of fundamentalism and political messianism, as if the amelioration of material conditions or the shifting of borders would automatically trigger a Great Separation. Nothing in our history or contemporary experience confirms this belief, yet somehow we can’t let it go. We have learned Hobbes’s lesson too well, and failed to heed Rousseau’s. And so we find ourselves in an intellectual bind when we encounter genuine political theology today: either we assume that modernization and secularization will eventually extinguish it, or we treat it as an incomprehensible existential threat, using familiar terms like fascism to describe it as best we can. Neither response takes us a step closer to understanding the world we now live in.

It is a world in which millions of people, particularly in the Muslim orbit, believe that God has revealed a law governing the whole of human affairs. This belief shapes the politics of important Muslim nations, and it also shapes the attitudes of vast numbers of believers who find themselves living in Western countries — and non-Western democracies like Turkey and Indonesia — founded on the alien principles of the Great Separation. These are the most significant points of friction, internationally and domestically. And we cannot really address them if we do not first recognize the intellectual chasm between us: although it is possible to translate Ahmadinejad’s letter to Bush from Farsi into English, its intellectual assumptions cannot be translated into those of the Great Separation. We can try to learn his language in order to create sensible policies, but agreement on basic principles won’t be possible. And we must learn to live with that.

Similarly, we must somehow find a way to accept the fact that, given the immigration policies Western nations have pursued over the last half-century, they now are hosts to millions of Muslims who have great difficulty fitting into societies that do not recognize any political claims based on their divine revelation. Like Orthodox Jewish law, the Muslim Shariah is meant to cover the whole of life, not some arbitrarily demarcated private sphere, and its legal system has few theological resources for establishing the independence of politics from detailed divine commands. It is an unfortunate situation, but we have made our bed, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Accommodation and mutual respect can help, as can clear rules governing areas of tension, like the status of women, parents’ rights over their children, speech offensive to religious sensibilities, speech inciting violence, standards of dress in public institutions and the like. Western countries have adopted different strategies for coping, some forbidding religious symbols like the head scarf in schools, others permitting them. But we need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principle, and that our expectations should remain low. So long as a sizable population believes in the truth of a comprehensive political theology, its full reconciliation with modern liberal democracy cannot be expected.

VII. The Opposite Shore

This is not welcome news. For more than two centuries, promoters of modernization have taken it for granted that science, technology, urbanization and education would eventually “disenchant” the charmed world of believers, and that with time people would either abandon their traditional faiths or transform them in politically anodyne ways. They point to continental Europe, where belief in God has been in steady decline over the last 50 years, and suggest that, with time, Muslims everywhere will undergo a similar transformation. Those predictions may eventually prove right. But Europe’s rapid secularization is historically unique and, as we have just seen, relatively recent. Political theology is highly adaptive and can present to even educated minds a more compelling vision of the future than the prospect of secular modernity. It takes as little for a highly trained medical doctor to fashion a car bomb today as it took for advanced thinkers to fashion biblically inspired justifications of fascist and communist totalitarianism in Weimar Germany. When the urge to connect is strong, passions are high and fantasies are vivid, the trinkets of our modern lives are impotent amulets against political intoxication.

Realizing this, a number of Muslim thinkers around the world have taken to promoting a “liberal” Islam. What they mean is an Islam more adapted to the demands of modern life, kinder in its treatment of women and children, more tolerant of other faiths, more open to dissent. These are brave people who have often suffered for their efforts, in prison or exile, as did their predecessors in the 19th century, of which there were many. But now as then, their efforts have been swept away by deeper theological currents they cannot master and perhaps do not even understand. The history of Protestant and Jewish liberal theology reveals the problem: the more a biblical faith is trimmed to fit the demands of the moment, the fewer reasons it gives believers for holding on to that faith in troubled times, when self-appointed guardians of theological purity offer more radical hope. Worse still, when such a faith is used to bestow theological sanctification on a single form of political life — even an attractive one like liberal democracy — the more it will be seen as collaborating with injustice when that political system fails. The dynamics of political theology seem to dictate that when liberalizing reformers try to conform to the present, they inspire a countervailing and far more passionate longing for redemption in the messianic future. That is what happened in Weimar Germany and is happening again in contemporary Islam.

The complacent liberalism and revolutionary messianism we’ve encountered are not the only theological options. There is another kind of transformation possible in biblical faiths, and that is the renewal of traditional political theology from within. If liberalizers are apologists for religion at the court of modern life, renovators stand firmly within their faith and reinterpret political theology so believers can adapt without feeling themselves to be apostates. Luther and Calvin were renovators in this sense, not liberalizers. They called Christians back to the fundamentals of their faith, but in a way that made it easier, not harder, to enjoy the fruits of temporal existence. They found theological reasons to reject the ideal of celibacy, and its frequent violation by priests, and thus returned the clergy to ordinary family life. They then found theological reasons to reject otherworldly monasticism and the all-too-worldly imperialism of Rome, offering biblical reasons that Christians should be loyal citizens of the state they live in. And they did this, not by speaking the apologetic language of toleration and progress, but by rewriting the language of Christian political theology and demanding that Christians be faithful to it.

Today, a few voices are calling for just this kind of renewal of Islamic political theology. Some, like Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, challenge the authority of today’s puritans, who make categorical judgments based on a literal reading of scattered Koranic verses. In Abou El Fadl’s view, traditional Islamic law can still be applied to present-day situations because it brings a subtle interpretation of the whole text to bear on particular problems in varied circumstances. Others, like the Swiss-born cleric and professor Tariq Ramadan, are public figures whose writings show Western Muslims that their political theology, properly interpreted, offers guidance for living with confidence in their faith and gaining acceptance in what he calls an alien “abode.” To read their works is to be reminded what a risky venture renewal is. It can invite believers to participate more fully and wisely in the political present, as the Protestant Reformation eventually did; it can also foster dreams of returning to a more primitive faith, through violence if necessary, as happened in the Wars of Religion.

Perhaps for this reason, Abou El Fadl and especially Ramadan have become objects of intense and sometimes harsh scrutiny by Western intellectuals. We prefer speaking with the Islamic liberalizers because they share our language: they accept the intellectual presuppositions of the Great Separation and simply want maximum room given for religious and cultural expression. They do not practice political theology. But the prospects of enduring political change through renewal are probably much greater than through liberalization. By speaking from within the community of the faithful, renovators give believers compelling theological reasons for accepting new ways as authentic reinterpretations of the faith. Figures like Abou El Fadl and Ramadan speak a strange tongue, even when promoting changes we find worthy; their reasons are not our reasons. But if we cannot expect mass conversion to the principles of the Great Separation — and we cannot — we had better learn to welcome transformations in Muslim political theology that ease coexistence. The best should not be the enemy of the good.

In the end, though, what happens on the opposite shore will not be up to us. We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique crisis within Christian civilization. This does not mean that those societies necessarily lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order; it does mean that they will have to find the theological resources within their own traditions to make it happen.

Our challenge is different. We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men.
Mark Lilla is professor of the humanities at Columbia University. This essay is adapted from his book “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West,” which will be published next month.

Theologian Douglas John Hall - "What Christianity is Not"; and, "A Theology of the Cross"

Theologian Douglas John Hall
"What Christianity is Not"; and, "A Theology of the Cross"

January 16, 2020 

Douglas John Hall is Canada’s greatest living theologian & emeritus professor of theology at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. He is a theologian of the cross, a contextual theologian, and a wonderfully articulate one as well. In this conversation we discuss his latest two books What Christianity is Not & Waiting for the Gospel, his love of music, personal interactions with Moltmann, Billy Graham, Tillich & company, and a number of intense theological topics. It was a complete joy to chat with him. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did… and of course share the brew!

Titles By Douglas John Hall - go to link here

What Christianity Is Not:
An Exercise in “Negative” Theology

by Douglas John Hall
Feb 12, 2013

What really is Christianity? If all the religious packaging in which it is wrapped were removed, what would remain? These were Bonhoeffer’s questions, and they must be ours today—even more urgently! For in many quarters Christianity is being so narrowly identified with some of its parts, cultural associations, and past ambitions that like all militant religion, it represents a threat to the planetary future.

We may no longer speak clearly of the essence of Christianity, as von Harnack and other nineteenth-century thinkers did; but perhaps we may still have a sufficiently shared sense of the kerygmatic core of this faith to be able, in the face of these misrepresentations of it, to say what Christianity is not.

“Those who know the work of Hall will know what to expect in this book: wisdom that comes from long years of faithful discernment, pathos about foolish fickleness in the name of the gospel, and buoyancy because he trusts the God of the gospel. Readers who do not know his work may take this book as an access point. In his critique of idolatrous misconstruals of the faith, Hall is himself a forceful antidote to the dysfunction of our society and to the dismay of the church.”
—Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary
“As one of this generation’s most profound theological thinkers, Douglas John Hall reveals his magisterial grasp of the depth and complexity of the Christian tradition. His elegance [is] matched only by profound understanding of human longing in his presentation of the God of steadfast and loving kindness. He is a master craftsman whose building blocks are the broad themes of systematic theology, which he brings together with his legendary stylish and grace-filled writing.”
—Patricia G. Kirkpatrick, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible, McGill University
Douglas John Hall is Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology in McGill University, Montreal. He is the author of twenty-five volumes, including two recent offerings from Cascade Books.
—The Messenger: Friendship, Faith, and Finding One’s Way (2011); and Waiting for Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant “Establishment” (2012).

Waiting for Gospel: An Appeal to the
Dispirited Remnants of Protestant “Establishment”

by Douglas John Hall
April 16, 2012

Christianity, as faith centered in Jesus as the Christ, as it came to be called, got a foothold in the world, and for a vital and vocal minority changed the world, because it proclaimed a message that awakened men and women to possibilities for human life that they had either lost or never entertained. That message the first Christian evangelists (and Jesus himself, according to the record) called euangelliongood news,  or gospel. For its first two or three hundred years, Christianity was largely dependent for its existence upon the new zest for life that was awakened in persons who heard and were, as they felt, transformed, by that gospel; and at various and sundry points in subsequent history the Christian movement has found itself revitalized by the spirit of that same ‘good news’ in ways that spoke to the specifics of their times and places.

“The lesson of history is clear: the challenge to all serious Christians and Christian bodies today is not whether we can devise yet more novel and promotionally impressive means for the transmission of ‘the Christian religion’ (let alone this or that denomination); it is whether we are able to hear and to proclaim . . . gospel! We do not need statisticians and sociologists to inform us that religion—and specifically our religion, as the dominant expression of the spiritual impulse of homo sapiens in our geographic context—is in decline. We do not need the sages of the new atheism to announce in learned tomes (and on buses!) that ‘God does not exist.’ The ‘sea of faith’ has been ebbing for a very long time.”
from the Introduction
“Douglas John Hall is a treasure, a man I have known whose intellectual depth is matched only by his spirit of kindness. . . . So too is Waiting for Gospel. As people continue to discuss the place of the church in North America leaning on sociology and cultural studies, Doug Hall reminds us that in the end it will be only theology, a lived theology of existential depth, that will help. All the contemporary talk of church in North America has so often failed to provide truly unique and insightful thoughts . . . how God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is encountering people in [their] context, [in their] time. Waiting for Gospel propels us in that direction and therefore shines brightly, giving the reader value upon value.”
—Andrew Root, Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota; Author of The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church (2010)
Douglas John Hall is Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology in the Faculty of Religious Studies of McGill University in Montreal. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, including Lighten Our Darkness (1976, 2001); Why Christian? (1998); God and Human Suffering (1986); The Steward (1990; Wipf & Stock, 2004); and The Messenger (Cascade Books, 2011).

He has lectured widely in Canada, the United States, Germany, and Japan, and is the recipient of many honors, including the Distinguished Alumnus Award of Union Theological Seminary, the Joseph Sittler Award for Leadership in Theology, and the Order of Canada. 


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Notes by R.E. Slater
July 7, 2021

Today marks yet another sad remembrance

Today marks the sad anniversary of my brother's death who died alone after a terrible losing fight with what many call bipolarism, but technically was a "border-line personality disorder." I remember the calls which came that morning after his death - both incoming and outgoing calls. These prevented anytime for sorrow for most of the week. The conditions of harm my brother had left were too many to recount and the grief that should've been there turned to anger for what he had left, and later relief that this page of family history had finally, horribly ended. 

My lasting impression will be, as it was then, that when he finally took his spiritual life seriously and attempted to repair the disrepair he found himself in it appeared insurmountable. This observation came from his last girlfriend who noted a tone of change three months earlier and who called nearly everyday after his death with some insight or another as she attempted to make sense of the events swarming around her.

Myself, I heard my brother's change of heart when his girlfriend said he was singing in the church pews as if the hymns held more meaning for him than they once did. But the remorse he was dealing would required acts of courage to admit the harm he had done to so many and for so long. The requisite repair to his soul (and to those harmed) which lay ahead prevented any further progress though perhaps some kind could have been made. The truth of it was his actions could not be so easily forgiven. They were too deep to be meaningless.

And so, I imagine it was all too much for his shattered soul for which many had tried to reach out and help in the past but failed... as they all did. In the end he finally let go of his life, leaving without resolution for wife, family, son or daughter, parents, and friends. When he was at his best he was a very good man. But at his worse he was all dark and emotionally charged. The remaining years left to him could never eclipse his malady though he tried through feeble attempts with care givers and support groups. These were long years with many disruptions and set backs. At the last, when he passed, I, like my father, were again left holding the phone to our ears hearing sobbing, anger, harming willful acts, criminal wrongs, and thoroughly unable to heal the unhealable from the mess he left everywhere he went.

The Church is dying in its own beliefs

In many ways Christianity feels like it too is in its own death stages of faith and belief. Once a vibrant, soul-transforming experience, lately its become harming to others; politicized out of proportion to its missionary call to love all and bring into fellowship a circle of healing; and deluded to its inner a circle beliefs, teachings, rantings, pulpiteering, and hunger for bare-knuckled secular power. Its dogmas preach wrath, judgment upon everyone it denounced, and charged insults and vectums upon fantasized enemies. It felt like a very old friend to my former experiences not only with family but with the fellowsips circles I was participating in. Eventually I would step away and seek refuge elsewhere wherever it might be found.

Many of us have been down these roads before listening to family members telling us what they hate about people while blaming everyone for everything they fear or rage against rather than circumspectly looking inwards to see the great anger in their heart refusing to allow any goodness or light in. As if those simple balms would at once be so feared in breaking apart the poisons held for too long inside their heart as to cause personal stress at  the necessary reconstitution, patching, and removing of personal toxins held within, coupled with a humble spirit donned with ears and tongues of contrition, listening and healing.

What is the Gospel? What is the Gospel's
Meaning, Message, Mystery?

So too today's church is in deep trouble. It is not repenting for its apostasy nor is it willing to listen to a society attempting to befriend it and trying to speak reason to its outrageous beliefs and demands. The church is no longer a safe have for fellowship and love, but self-isolating islands of fierce congregants thrashing out at the world at its post-Christian and posts religious communities embracing all cultures, races, religions, and genders. To these communities the conservative church rages against them calling down hell and abomination upon all... not unlike what some of us have suffered at the hands of our so-called superiors, societal members, unkind neighbors, hard-hearted friends, and so forth.

Yes, today's church has changed and become as secular as the society it designs to preach against. But to those of us who see beauty everywhere and in everything; who have hope as we slough through pits of vipers and muds of deep soulful suffering; we work to resist and effectively speak the gospel of Christ to those minds and hearts which can truly hear. Who are willing to hear regardless of church affiliation or not. To this we call down the power of the Spirit to help us engage a wicked world - whether church, evil, or death-eaters blinded and blinding to all about them.

Speaking Christianity is hard

The object of Christianity’s search is not an object but a living subject. How can we speak of knowing God when we cannot even describe the people we think we know best? There must be a kind of modesty in Christianity when we speak of God. This is so with any discipline, be that of a philosopher, scientist or theologian. Each can only speak modestly of the subjects they study because such subjects are so vast, so infinitealtogether, so mysterious.

The thinking Christian is connected with the deep traditions of the church. Christians are the inheritors of a long, long tradition spanning many cultures and eras. Our conversation has been going on for 2000 years (Jesus), nay, 4000 years (Israel re Yahweh). This vast tradition is full of contradictions; its dialectic is wonderfully oblique; its many religious beliefs confounding, confusing, and deeply entangled. We must become students not only of the Scriptures, but of the church's traditions, its philosophers behind the tradition's theological beliefs, and society in general at every level, in every era, in close contextuality with itself.

Moreover, we must ask the questions which are underneath the questions we are not asking. To neglect the philosophical foundations residing underneath the many theological structures of the church is to miss the meaning of God and Gospel altogether. 

Suffering is a major theme of the Church and its beliefs

One key theme of the church is suffering. Theological study must necessarily involve itself with humanity's suffering if a Christian faith is to understand anything about God at all.

Suffering is a mark of a holy cause when approaching the why's and wherefore's of God's abidance with humanity. The education of theology must then walk with the world, acknowledge and experience its suffering, and see with God's eyes the deep needs so many bear and endure.

A theology of the Cross ties Jesus to humanity in its most basic elements. Through humanity's suffering. For Moltmann, his theology of hope came out of his theology of suffering. For him, contextuality is the most profound key to understanding the Christian hope amid its deepest sufferings.

Jurgen Moltmann's titles on hopeclick this link here

Also for Moltmann, his theology of the church had to come to terms with the great amount of suffering his church had caused the world during its Nazification era that had spanned decades. To do this his second series of books addressed the Crucified God.

Jurgen Moltmann's titles on the Crucified God - click this link here

The church generally prefers its gospel to be hopeful and loving rather than seeing itself as the cause of suffering and harm…. But in the great historical movements of the church it has ended up too often on the side of inhumanity, pillage and rape, blaming, scapegoating, harming, and killing, all in the name of Christ...

To hear more... listen to the podcast provided by
Tripp Fuller in his interview with Douglas John Hall.

R.E. Slater
July 7, 2021

Bound and Free: A Theologian's Journey
by Douglas John Hall
Written by North America's premier theologian, this book takes the measure of contemporary theology and urges theological renewal for our more secularized and pluralistic age.

Amazon Link

The Messenger: Friendship, Faith, and Finding One's Way
This is a book about the importance of mentors in the lives of the young. But rather than developing the theme of mentoring theoretically, Douglas John Hall demonstrates its significance quite personally, autobiographically. In his twentieth year and hoping to study music professionally, Hall met a young minister whose "different" Christianity both surprised and intrigued him. In the end, this friendship altered the course of his life.

The book traces the story of this friendship of more than half a century, and the impact of the times upon the lives of its two principal figures.

Douglas John Hall

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Douglas John Hall

Born1928 (age 92–93)
IngersollOntario, Canada
Rhoda Catherine Palfrey
(m. 1960)
Ecclesiastical career
ChurchUnited Church of Canada
Academic background
Alma mater
Academic work
Sub-disciplineConstructive theology

Douglas John Hall CM (born 1928) is an emeritus professor[1] of theology at McGill University in MontrealQuebec, and a minister of the United Church of Canada. Prior to joining the McGill Faculty of Religious Studies in 1975[2] he was MacDougald Professor of Systematic Theology at St Andrew's College in the University of Saskatchewan (1965–1975), Principal of St Paul's College in the University of Waterloo (1962–1965), and minister of St Andrew's Church in Blind River, Ontario (1960–1962).

Early life and education

Hall was born on March 23, 1928, in IngersollOntario. He attended high school and business college in Woodstock, Ontario, and worked for four years in that city's daily newspaper. In 1948–1949 he studied composition and piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He was graduated (Bachelor of Arts) from the University of Western Ontario (London) in 1953. His graduate degrees are all from Union Theological Seminary in New York CityMaster of Divinity (1956), Master of Sacred Theology (1957), Doctor of Theology (1963).

Professional life

The author of 25 published works, including a three-volume systematic theology, and numerous articles, Hall lectured widely in the United States and Canada during the period 1974–2010. He was Gastprofessor at the University of Siegen, Germany, in 1980; Visiting Scholar at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, in 1989; Professor of Theology at the Melanchthon Institute of Houston, Texas, in 1999; member of the Campbell Seminar on the Future of the Church at Columbia Seminary of Decatur, Georgia, in 2000; Distinguished Visiting Professor at Trinity Lutheran SeminaryColumbusOhio, in 2001; Theologian-in-Residence, Church of the Crossroads in HonoluluHawaii (2003 f.); and Theologian-in-Residence, International Protestant Church in Vienna (2003).

Hall was an active participant in many international consultations including the World Convocation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in SeoulSouth Korea, 1990, and the UN AIDS theological symposium in Namibia (2003). He served on theological committees of the WCC and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the United Church of Canada, the National Council of Churches USAet al.


Influenced by his teachers Reinhold NiebuhrPaul Tillich, John Coleman Bennett, and others, as well as fellow-Canadians including George Grant and Emil Fackenheim, Hall desired to understand and further the biblical and mainstream Reformation Protestant traditions of critical and constructive theology. He argues that over the past two centuries the Christian religion has been experiencing a momentous and (for most) disconcerting transition ("metamorphosis"): after fifteen centuries of legal and cultural "Establishment" in the West, Christianity is being challenged by the evolution of planetary history to assume a more modest, dialogical and humanly responsible position in the new global society.

Accordingly, he believes, the church must abandon the theological triumphalism that has typified its long fraternization with empire, and search its biblical and doctrinal traditions for ways of engaging, rather than seeking to monopolize the spiritual and intellectual life of humankind:

In his books and lectures Hall argues that the stance (modus vivendi) appropriate to Christianity in the post-Christendom context is best illuminated by the ("never much loved" [Moltmann]) theological tradition that Martin Luther named theologia crucis (‘theology of the cross’). That tradition, which Luther distinguished from the dominant religious and ecclesiastical conventions of Christendom (all variations of the theologia gloriae ,‘theology of glory’), accentuates God's compassionate solidarity with the world; thus it opens the Christian movement to both secular and other faith-communities that seek planetary "peace, justice and the integrity of creation" [the theme of the World Council of Churches, Vancouver 1983-1990].

Hall affirms that theology, in contrast to both "doctrine" and piety ("spirituality"), involves both historical knowledge and conscious, informed immersion in one's cultural context [contextuality]. Authentic theology only occurs where the claims of faith meet and wrestle with the great (characteristically repressed) questions and instabilities of the Zeitgeist [spirit of the times]. "Establishment" Christianity was content to transmit dogma and morality from place to place, generation to generation; post-Christendom theology entails original and diligent thinking [Denkarbeit!] including the entertainment of doubt and disbelief, on the part of the disciple-community. Today faith in all its forms and expressions is called to rescue human thinking as such from its captivation by "technical reason" (Tillich) or rechnendes Denken (Heidegger), as it manifests itself today (e.g.) in the West's educational emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) often to the virtual exclusion of the arts and humanities (Sciences humaines et sociales).

Personal life

Hall married the late Rhoda Catherine Palfrey, a fellow Canadian and graduate student at Columbia University, in 1960 at Riverside Church, New York City. They have four adult children (Kate, Christopher, Sara and Lucy), three of whom are professional musicians, and eight grandchildren.

Selected publications

  • Lighten Our Darkness: Towards an Indigenous Theology of the Cross (1976)
  • Has the Church a Future? (1980)
  • The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age (1982)
  • Christian Mission: The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death (1985)
  • God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (1986)
  • A Trilogy: Christian Theology in a North American Context
    • Thinking the Faith (1991)
    • Professing the Faith (1993)
    • Confessing the Faith (1996)
  • "Why Christian?" - For those on the Edge of Faith (1998)
  • Remembered Voices: Reclaiming the legacy of 'Neo-Orthodoxy' (1998)
  • The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity (2002)
  • When You Pray: Thinking Your Way into God’s World (2003)
  • Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (2004)
  • The Messenger: Friendship, Faith, and Finding One’s Way (2011)
  • Waiting for Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant "Establishment" (2012)
  • What Christianity Is Not: An Exercise in "Negative" Theology (2013)


  • Member of the Order of Canada (C.M.) - 2003
  • Distinguished Alumnus of Union Theological Seminary – 1995
  • The Joseph Sittler Medal for Leadership in Theology, Trinity Seminary (Columbus) – 2002
  • Three Book of the Year awards, Academy of Parish Clergy -1994, 1997, 2004
  • Ten Honorary Doctorates:
    • Queen's University, Kingston – D.D. 1988
    • The University of Waterloo – LL.D. 1992
    • The Presbyterian Theological College of Montreal – D.D. 1995
    • Victoria University in the University of Toronto – D.D. 2003
    • Montreal Diocesan College – S.T.D. 2007
    • United Theological College, Montreal – D.D. 2007
    • Huron University College, University of Western Ontario – D.D. 2009
    • St Andrew's Theological College, University of Saskatchewan – D.D. 2011
    • Wartburg Theological College, Dubuque, Iowa – D.D. 2013
    • Vancouver School of Theology -D.D. 2013


  1. ^ "Douglas John Hall | School of Religious Studies - McGill University"www.mcgill.ca. Retrieved 2017-11-19.
  2. ^ Lott 2013, p. 1. sfn error: multiple targets (2×): CITEREFLott2013 (help)


  • Lott, David B. (2013). "Introduction" (PDF). In Lott, David B. (ed.). Douglas John Hall: Collected Readings. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press. ISBN 978-0-8006-9986-4. Retrieved 14 June 2017.

Further reading

External links