From the Editor: First Principles - by Ray Waddle
Musician David Olney does a growling honky-tonk song called “God Shaped Hole” about the miserable stuff that fills the void when the soul wanders away from belief. Yet a divine indentation remains, despite every self-defeat. The spirit escaped, but people can still imagine it returning. Flickering thoughts of an empty tomb survive. “And it might come back/God only knows.”1
It’s tempting to transfer this image of deficit to the public world, where a hole gets wider and deeper. One hears now of the guilt that many feel about the world’s cruelties and injustices but who have no metaphysic for grasping their sense of failure or dread or paths of repair, no frame for forgiveness.
A divine deficit leaves an imprint on real life, and other notions plausibly rush in to fill it. Individualism and self-invention install themselves as the basic social unit, cut off from relations with neighborhood, governance, and church. A real-estate tycoon becomes commander in chief, merrily upending presidential ethics, decorum, and prestige. Conspiracy theories are a national pastime.
One milestone of contemporary religious bewilderment became as clear as the night sky starting around 1947, when UFO sightings surged in the US. It’s as if the ordeal of world war and Holocaust, then the new anxiety about atom bombs and communist infiltration, all conspired to destroy a certain theological confidence. People scanned the Cold War heavens for help, harboring a terrible new secret thought: In the nuclear age, if God can’t save us from ourselves, maybe only ET can.
Around this same time, a famous theologian was charting vectors of new divine movement, the persistent dynamics of redemption. Paul Tillich called it the Protestant Principle. By that he didn’t mean Reformation religion or the Protestant Era. Even in the late 1940s, he thought modern Protestantism wouldn’t last. Some other religious expression would someday take its place. It might not even be called Protestantism. But the Protestant Principle would always be in play. It was ready at hand – in every religion.
Tillich described this principle variously as the creative spirit of God, the ethic of love, the fire of the biblical prophets, the person of Jesus, the power of New Being. It is double-edged. It stands poised to criticize the times and also transform them.2 It undermines spiritual arrogance, political idolatry, denominational moralism, religion’s captivity to the complacencies of culture. It keeps alive a liberating vision about the future. It is an eternal flame of human endeavor and hope.
Catching it, riding its next wave, means paying attention to the gritty specifics of the everyday, staying alert to openings. I was handed a new book the other day regarding Christian politics. In it Jim Wallis of Sojourners said believers must step up and commit to a Matthew 25 ethic, the protection and defense of vulnerable people in the name of Jesus.3 He spells out three things to do:
• support undocumented immigrants threatened with mass deportation.
• stand with African Americans and other people of color threatened by racial policing.
• defend the religious liberty of Muslims, threatened with travel restrictions, monitoring, even registration.
He doesn’t mention the Protestant Principle, but his words summon it.
A certain kind of Protestantism is fading. A familiar old-time religiosity declines. The trouble with writing about the decline of anything is it right away looks like sentimentality, a wistfulness about the way something was before decline set in.
But nostalgia’s a non-starter. Filling the God-shaped hole requires taking a measure of the depths of it. It has to do with calling out every brutal ism of the new era and hearing out the next person you meet and facing down the cold wind and confiding in powers of renewal you didn’t expect to turn up.
1 From his CD The Wheel (Loudhouse Records, 2003). See davidolney.com.
2 The Essential Tillich, edited by F. Forrester Church (Chicago, 1987), p. 79.
3 Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump, edited by Miguel A. De La Torre (Orbis, 2017), pp. 161-162.