Taking Captive Every (Political) Thought
No.89: January 7, 2022
Happy New Year! I hope you had a good and productive first week of 2022. Ours featured a winter cold snap of snow and (very) subzero temperatures. For the first time in memory, I was able to actually keep up on my shoveling—that counts toward the “productive,” doesn’t it? I did discover that I need some new and better winter gloves. Ten minutes in minus-10 and my fingers hurt for a long time. But I woke up today to discover that our high today is going to be 40 degrees. Balmy! Short-sleeve weather!
Without further adieu:
It’s “walk-and-chew-gum-at-the-same-time” time again.
I can, believe it or not, hold two thoughts in my head simultaneously. To wit:
I can think that the American left’s hyperbolic outrage and meltdown over the January 6th riot—Vice President Harris compared it to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and President Biden gave a bad Shakespeare impersonation: “He held a dagger at the throat of Democracy!”—is 100-Proof cynical political messaging. Ridiculous.
I can also think that the January 6th riot was a disgraceful event in American history, and we would do well to make sure that no President (especially not that one) ever has the opportunity to do it again (so, e.g., let’s re-write the Electoral Reform Act of 1887 in such a way that even John Eastman couldn’t possibly misunderstand it). It may not have been an organized “insurrection” or coups d’etat, but it wasn’t nothing. It was a mob riot that should be condemned in no uncertain terms, and it was stoked by someone who really was trying to overturn an election and retain power.
What, you say? Condemn the riot and condemn naked political posturing? Impossible!
Actually, it’s easy if you try. But you do have to leave your zero-sum polarized political presuppositions aside first.
Since this isn’t our first “walk and chew gum at the same time” opportunity, I think we would do well to think a bit deeper about this phenomenon of polarization. Everything is a binary choice, an “either/or,” a “who’s side are you on?”
I haven’t been on Twitter since they kicked me off, but at the time I was removed there was a thriving cottage industry of people slamming Pastor Tim Keller. I know, I know. I hope that sounds as crazy to you as it does me. Slamming and dunking on… Tim Keller? He’s a national treasure and has been an unqualified blessing to the Christian church and beyond. Most of that thriving cottage industry is engaged in simple bad faith, intentionally misleading people or pretending to be so dense as to not understand him (although, in fairness, I guess it is possible some of these people actually are dense, so maybe it’s not bad faith after all). In my view, most of it is a cynical bid for attention; there’s an audience to be had bashing popular Christian figures, and money and support to be made by proving one’s sterling courage and purity by defenestrating “compromisers” like Tim Keller. People with a thimble-full of Tim Keller’s experience and education and godliness and wisdom and, yes, success, enjoy imagining themselves great dragon-slayers.
Nevertheless, in the face of such hostility, Keller insists on rejecting false dichotomies, and he spends a good deal of time explaining why many binary choices are actually false dichotomies. Now, sometimes I disagree with him about particular issues or his analysis in finding a “third way,” but I never begrudge him his valiant effort at getting people to widen their perspectives. But some people think that “third-wayism” (finding an alternative to an entrenched division) is itself compromise. And sometimes it can be compromise, a balancing act that involves granting too much to one side and too little of another. But it isn’t, in and of itself, compromise. Keller’s core conviction—which is, in fact, a hill I myself will gladly die on—is that Christianity is its own way. Its own worldview. Its own theology, cosmology, philosophy, historiography, aesthetic, and ethic. It resists assimilation into foreign frameworks; It is its own framework, and because of its gospel power it demolishes the falsehoods and anti-God pretensions of all foreign frameworks, and plunders their intellectual goods by bringing them into captivity to Christ:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. —2 Cor. 10:4-5.
This is the “third way.” Not by “splitting the difference” between two antagonistic positions, but by transcending them. We are so often blinded by the “horizontal,” the immediate “us versus them,” and forget that God stands vertically over us, over both sides, his Word stands over us, over both sides, always judging, critiquing, probing, rebuking, and challenging every thought. Christopher Watkin calls it “diagonalizing.” Letting the Bible expand our horizons and sit in judgment over our dichotomies. (I highly recommend you read that short article.)
We tend to be enthusiastic about consulting God’s revelation and using it to judge, critique, probe, rebuke, and challenge the other fellow’s thoughts. We’re pretty self-satisfied and confident we’ve already got everything figured out for ourselves. So we coast along, oblivious to the ways in which we ourselves are being compromised. How is it that someone attends a political rally carrying a “Jesus Saves!” sign in the morning, and in the afternoon finds himself breaking down a Capitol barricade and participating in mob behavior? It isn’t, as critics on the left often insist, that Christianity itself is “white supremacist” or “nativist” or “nationalist” or whatever. No. He’s been taken in by a seductive and deceptive cultural and political movement that very well may include some of those odious elements. In my view, the entire Trump era was something of a slow-motion exercise in compromise (ironically, by the self-proclaimed uncompromising ones), one that largely happened because so many conservative and Christian leaders resolutely refused to think in anything other than binary “horizontal” terms: “It’s an existential crisis,” a “Flight 93” moment, along with the ever-present “But the other side is so much worse!” Once internalized, it was easy to abandon the basics of one’s moral convictions, to let a thousand outrages pass by with a wink (“He doesn’t mean it.” “Take him seriously, but not literally.”), to tell oneself assuaging fantasies (“He’s actually a baby Christian.”) and to be thoroughly manipulated by demagoguery.
The vertical moral demands of Christ were suddenly viewed as inconvenient, unworkable, a recipe for catastrophe, not suitable for the “real” world. Donald Trump, Jr.’s very recent remarks at a Turning Point USA gathering capture this perfectly:
If we get together, they cannot cancel us all. Okay? They won’t. And this will be contrary to a lot of our beliefs because—I’d love not to have to participate in cancel culture. I’d love that it didn’t exist. But as long as it does, folks, we better be playing the same game. Okay? We’ve been playing T-ball for half a century while they’re playing hardball and cheating. Right? We’ve turned the other cheek, and I understand, sort of, the biblical reference—I understand the mentality—but it’s gotten us nothing. Okay? It’s gotten us nothing while we’ve ceded ground in every major institution in our country.
I can guarantee you that among the throng of people cheering this were a large number of professing Christians. I find that disturbing.
Let me put it this way: Do not ask yourselves whether Jesus is on our side. Ask yourselves if we are on Jesus’ side. And the only way we can figure that out is to “diagonalize,” to transcend the horizontal moment by allowing God’s eternal word to judge not just the other side, but ourselves. Christ the Lord will not submit to nor be assimilated by foreign powers—not the arrogance of philosophical naturalism, nor the supposedly neutral “rules” of Enlightenment rationalism, nor the bigotry of white supremacy, nor the demands of Critical Theory, and certainly not the passions of a mob. He is not here to baptize our thoughts, but to take them captive. He is not a magic incantation that makes your “Jericho Rally” righteous. He doesn’t care about your red, white, and blue painted shofar.
And, by the way, if you think I’m being unfair and just “punching right,” and ignoring the follies of the left, I get it. It’s the go-to way of dismissing the likes of, say, David French (who arguably can be a bit out of balance), so I expect some of that to come my way. I assure you that I have no shortage of critique for the left, but I also care about my people (Christians) and my side of the political aisle (conservatism). And I sense there is a reckoning delayed (if the poll numbers showing Donald Trump’s level of support for 2024 are any indication). There are thoughts among us left un-captivated by Christ. And, after all, “judgment begins with the house of God” (1 Peter 4:17). Sometimes we need to “punch right.”
There is much more to explore and much more to say, because these are deep and “architectonic” matters. I was prompted to write all of this because of something my friend Jerry Bowyer wrote on Facebook this morning. It is deeply profound, and I hope that in time I might expand further on a few of its insights. In particular, there are books to be written on Christianity’s influence on our classically liberal order and system of government (the very thing certain Christians are now foolishly denouncing as intolerable and a thing of the past); our own founders were diagonalizing in some ways, attempting to transcend factionalism and binary oppositions. But for now, I will leave Jerry’s post for you to ponder this week.
The tendency is for Christians to look at the great divide in a society and then to decide which side to align with. And in the short-run, maybe that's needed.
But Christian philosophy has always known that paganism tends to create dichotomies, not unities. The Trinity is both one and many: mankind made in his image is also both one and many. We're not merely individuals and then things like nations are not real. We're not really just part of a society, and individuals [simply have] moral worth to the degree that they serve the interest of society.
Pagan thought has never been able to solve the problem of the one and the many, and so it splits into different schools of thought: one which believes in unity (under the state) above all. Another which is always tearing down institutions, fomenting revolutions, disobeying authority just to disobey.
Christianity does not stand with the tower of Babel party, nor with the burn-it-all-down party. It stands in antithesis to those intertwined idolatries.
Of course, anyone who has read Van Til or Dooyeweerd of John Frame or Vern Poythress will immediately see that there is nothing original in what I'm saying.
What might be original to some degree is that this is not just a metaphysics thing. It's as real and palpable as some teacher shoving a needle into the arm of a minor without parent's permission, or a lunatic Yeehawd assault on the nation's capitol.