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Activism Without Pelagianism?

I read Wesley Walker’s recent article “Activism as Pelagianism” with great interest. While I largely agree with the conclusion he draws—that the Church’s first duty is the proclamation of the Word and administration of the Sacraments—I’m not altogether convinced that churches face an either/or choice. That is to say, I’m not sure the responsibilities associated with Word and Sacrament need be juxtaposed against active engagement with the challenges of contemporary life.

In particular, I submit that the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments are both “political” acts in a far older sense than we typically appreciate—and yet, perhaps paradoxically, they warn us against “over-politicizing” our commitments of faith.

As commentators old and new have noted at great length, the prophetic texts of the Old Testament lean hard into structural critiques of their surrounding social order. (Jeremiah and Lamentations do so in particularly pitiless fashion). And, unsurprisingly, such texts are often deployed by the distinct American Protestant subculture Wesley critiques (the “Moral Mondays” protests in North Carolina spring to mind).

But the Sacraments are “political” in a different, more primordial way. As James K.A. Smith discusses in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, through the Eucharist we stand alongside other congregants as moral equals before God, we kneel before the God who compels our ultimate allegiance, and we are reminded that the God who is present “in, with, and under” the physical elements is our absolute sustainer. (Amy Levad makes a similar argument from a progressive Catholic perspective—drawing in discussion of the Sacrament of Penance—in Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Approach to Mass Incarceration). And through Baptism, we are invited into a universal community that respects no formal borders, we renounce the principalities and powers of the terrestrial world, and we commit to a life of obedience to an authority beyond any human sovereign.

This political dimension of the baptismal act is clearly not lost on former Irish president Mary McAleese, who recently claimed that infant baptism makes “infant conscripts who are held to lifelong obligations of obedience.” According to McAleese, one “can’t impose, really, obligations on people who are only two weeks old, and .. . can’t say to them at 7 or 8 or 14 or 19, ‘Here is what you contracted; here is what you signed up to’—because the truth is, they didn’t.”

McAleese’s argument is patently frivolous. No one is born into a purely atomized state of nature, free from all community norms: by existing in a particular society, we are placed under discrete obligations associated with our participation. (And perhaps ironically, the force of McAleese’s argument rests on the premise that Baptism is actually efficacious—that it is something more than a mere sprinkling with water. Her claim that Baptism is coercive can only succeed if Baptism is really meaningful. In seemingly attempting to repudiate Baptism’s sacramental character, McAleese concedes that very proposition.)

In short, through the Word and Sacraments, the most fundamental aspects of our identities and values are formed in a community that preexists, transcends, and sometimes entails opposing our immediate political context. Through that process of formation—catechesis—we cultivate the cardinal and theological virtues necessary for the Christian life.

In light of this, I don’t think there’s necessarily a problem interweaving Christian convictions with political or “activist” impulses (and I think Wesley would agree with me). Were McAleese, acting as an authority figure, to outlaw infant baptism, it would be the moral duty of Christians to engage in civil disobedience and continue performing such baptisms.

What I think Wesley is getting at is a problem of value formation—one associated with the sources from which our convictions spring. Both he and I reject the ludicrous attempts of the Wild Goose Festival crowd to make every cause célèbre or intellectual fad a matter of Christian obligation (Joshua Schendel’s recent piece makes this point well). I tend to think this particular problem arises when political convictions are formed based on decidedly areligious considerations, and theology is subsequently used (in a post-hoc way) to buttress them.

It should be obvious, but often isn’t, that in many cases, it’s not absolutely clear what the “Christian position” on a given issue ought to be. This is, in large part, why it’s exceedingly difficult to make any argument from natural law that garners broad public agreement—and, by extension, why any neo-integralist efforts to align government to an objective “common good” are fraught with problems. This certainly doesn’t preclude all possibility of meaningful social critique from a Christian perspective, but it does mean that our applications of Christian thought to contemporary problems ought to be tempered with humility.

For example, reasoning from theological premises, I can reasonably conclude that aspects of our current socioeconomic order are not conducive to human flourishing or consonant with Christian morality. There are good reasons why usury has been considered a sin as long as it has. But I don’t conclude from that insight that the entire finance industry—which, among other things, makes it possible for small businesses to obtain startup capital and enrich their communities—is morally depraved. I don’t think one can reach that specific conclusion from the more general Christian teaching against financial exploitation.

Contrast this with the approach that Wesley critiques, which too often starts from a premise like “the finance system is unjust,” and then invokes religious language to support such a claim. Such a sequence of reasoning transforms faith from a terminal good—the ultimate end of man—into an instrumental good. This is a familiar tactic: Immanuel Kant employed Christian morality as the “glue” of his ethical philosophy without accepting its teleological foundations. Others have done similarly, relying—explicitly or implicitly—on the divine as an absolute ground for moral obligation, but evacuating that ground of any substantive content.

And this, I think, spawns quasi-Pelagianism: the unbreakable connection between “assent to a particular proposition regarding the ordering of society” and “one’s Christian responsibilities.” This Pelagian position is fundamentally anti-sacramental: it neglects the Eucharistic and Baptismal reminders that our first allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, and substitutes temporal aims in their place. Indeed, “alternative” approaches to the Sacraments—I’m reminded of Wild Goose’s chili cornbread Eucharist—neglect their essentially supra-political character.

To be sure, I’m by no means implying that all those who reach “progressive” political conclusions from theological priors are engaged in purely instrumental reasoning—that would be to label John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre, and countless others as intellectually disingenuous. Far be it from me to say anything of the sort. Rather, what I’m suggesting is this: in general, one should hesitate to invoke transcendent authority as a means of justifying discrete policy propositions. To do so is to set foot upon the road Wesley properly warns us against, and to distort the moral landscape within which our deepest convictions ought to be formed. Our ultimate allegiance—as the Sacraments remind us—is to a Kingdom beyond any terrestrial space, unfolding on earth in ways we cannot fully comprehend. And we play a very small part in that grand design.

Such a posture of humility, of course, requires balancing a confident defense of one’s sociopolitical convictions against the danger of speaking absolutely where God has not done so. But in order to avoid the temptation of instrumental reasoning—and the snare of Pelagianism—that balancing is a duty we must accept.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Dallas, Texas, where he works in the U.S. federal government. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School and a certificate in Theology and Ministry from Princeton Seminary.

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