The Anomaly of Social Justice without faith and of Christianity without Social Justice.
Recently I have been listening to one of the “great courses” from the Teaching Company on “Transcendentalism.” Listening to the history of this movement one realizes how profoundly American culture and philosophy has been impacted by unbelief. America is not immune from the philosophies and religious opinions of the Enlightenment, Deism, and frankly, unbelief.
Some of our greatest American founders were Deists. They were educated men, they read the Bible, they just didn’t believe much of it. They certainly were culturally influenced by it, but when it came to accepting miracles they trusted their intellect more than the word of preachers. By the time of Jefferson some intellectuals, and religious folks, no longer believed in the Trinity.
This was not new of course, there had been struggle over this theological concept back to the time of Arius, writer’s such as Milton didn’t accept it (though probably with more orthodox belief) and then came the slide of Congregationalists in New England from Trinitarian orthodoxy to an unorthodox Unitarian belief. One can see a pattern of applying skeptical and intellectual judgement, with a sense of human determined superiority (“free thinkers”) in determining what is true or not, to the Scriptures.
There have always been people who have felt their own reason was superior to an old book, who have tried to be scientific, and used their best reason to determine if something could be true or not. Christianity is not one of those things that can be taken apart by reason, intellect, or science and still be left intact, especially if all of those things are undertaken by unbelief. If one starts with the proposition that supernatural things are absolutely not possible then one cannot end up with believing that the miracles in the Bible are true. Without the supernatural there is no God, and there is no salvation.
The Transcendentalists were essentially Deists with an agenda. They thought that human beings could intuitively leap (transcend) to enlightened thought as to what was moral, just, and best for humanity. They were too unbelieving to stay even in the Unitarian Church, but they nevertheless borrowed much from the Christian “capital” of justice and mercy. What they claimed as “intuitive” was often simply stuff they learned from Scripture.
They were champions of abolition from slavery, equality for women, justice for the worker, and respecters of creation (nature). These are not out of accord with concepts in the Bible, or with the character of God. Of course they found it difficult to create Utopian expressions of community with just these concepts. Human sinfulness kept getting in the way. Nevertheless they weren’t wrong about everything, and they have had a deep and lasting impact on American education, intellectual thought, and the claim of “free thinkers” thinking they could think better than believers.
Some of the people who opposed their ideas of justice were orthodox believers. Though orthodox believers weren’t trying to “transcend” to leaps of intuition about what was best for humanity they still could easily have read the Bible more closely. Transcendence has never been necessary to notice suffering or to understand justice. In fact the Bible is not shy in revealing God to be in his essential character a God of justice, the only God, actually, who is also a God of compassion and mercy. They could have read the character of Christ more perspicaciously rather than simply working to create a creedal formula for a confession of faith.
One of the great tragedies of the institutional church has often been its protection of the status quo rather than following its radical founder (Jesus) into a life of full-orbed righteousness that affects not only personal morality but also public justice.
For those who cannot believe the supernatural power of God means to attempt justice without his gracious help, to attempt to love one’s neighbor as oneself without spiritual empowerment, to endure suffering and to be a servant without the hope of eternal life. Thus, justice, mercy, and rights become causes with only human agency and means and not transcendent realities which the God of heaven and earth will finally accomplish. They become righteous causes that make us self-righteous and give us no hope against the continual reality and witness of evil in humankind.
There are so many Americans, and people around the world, who wish for a better one. They wish for justice, for peace, for equity. Unfortunately their own unbelief deprives them of the prospect of joy and hope while the intransigence of “Christians” who are racist, sexist, and oppressive gives unbelievers little witness of Biblical truth. How strange to hear so-called Christians speaking against social justice, sometimes because they see it associated with people who so vociferously tell us they can’t believe in God or the Bible. Righteousness is righteousness, and truth is truth no matter the mouth of the ass that speaks it.