Saturday, 24 June 2017

American Providence, by Stephen H. Webb




Stephen H. Webb, American Providence: A Nation with a Mission, 2004 Continuum, New York


I love reading Stephen H. Webb's books, but they are really difficult to review. The problem is that every single page contains a fascinating insight or a profound idea. Not only does this make it difficult to keep track of where his chain of thought is going, but it makes it difficult to decide which of these stack of ideas to share in a review.

It does seem that Webb loves to advocate and defend controversial positions. In this book he advocates the unfashionable idea that the United States of America has a providential destiny to be a light and blessing to the rest of the world. You may recall that a while ago, I reviewed Peter Leithart's Between Babel and the Beast, which argues directly against this view. One of his main points is that the critics of the idea of America having a providential destiny have their own ideas about providence and so an interpretation of God's providential dealings with the nations is inescapable. For instance, many of the theological critics of the USA identify her using the Biblical and providential imagery of Babylon, the Great Whore of Revelation. Along the way, Stephen Webb articulates other unfashionable positions, urging the positive benefits of globalization and advocating a neocon approach to foreign policy.

There are a lot of insights to be found in Webb's critique of Liberation Theology, which he sees as a chief rival as a view of providence to the one he articulates. Questioning the emphasis upon Christianity as a movement of the Poor, he points out that Jesus was from a middle class background within the context of his own society and that those who followed Him came from diverse backgrounds. He furthermore questions the idea that a grassroots movement of the poor is effective in achieving the goals of justice sought by Liberationists:

"For Bell, the poor become a sacrament of salvation when they advance the cause of justice. But how do they "build a new community"? Is this process of building a new community spontaneous, or does it take work, money, power and political connections? Is the new community merely spiritual affair, an invisible church, or does it exist within the network of institutions that compose a political economy? Bell admits that there is now a consensus among liberationists that structures of civil society are essential for Latin America to move forward."

Webb criticizes theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank and Rowan Williams for failing to recognize the value of democracy and accuses them of moral relativism in their failure to confront the evil of terrorism. He points out the irony of how both those on the Christian left and the fundamentalist Christian right have aligned in viewing 9/11 as a judgement of God on America.

Webb predicts the continued triumph of democracy and capitalism all over the world, though he sees Islam as an obstacle to this. He believes that Evangelism, as expressed in Pentecostalism is uniquely able to provide a religion suited to this new globalized world. Given the massive expansion of Pentecostal churches across the world, this appears to be correct. I think he could be a little bit more critical about Pentecostalism. A lot of Christians do not realize just how mainstream Prosperity teaching is among Pentecostals, especially in Africa. While Webb is right that this may promote good habits of work and industry, it may also create damaging false expectations and a sense of entitlement. Entitlement is an huge problem in Africa, where many expect to be given things by the West, while doing nothing in return. Those involved in Christian literature missions in Africa often report that they struggle to persuade African Christians to pay even reduced prices for Christian books because of an expectation that they should be given books for free. I worry that Pentecostal Prosperity teachings may encourage that sense of entitlement.

Should a Catholic be concerned about the spread of Pentecostalism converting many Catholics and leading them from the Church? Working in healthcare, I meet many African immigrants. I've met a lot of Africans who have converted from Catholicism to Pentecostalism, but I've met a few Africans who have converted from Pentecostalism to Catholicism. If a western Evangelical like me can cross from Protestantism to the Catholic Church, so can African Evangelicals. One interesting thing I have noticed is that many Africans who go from Catholic to Pentecostal continue Catholic practices like saying the Rosary. They have not imbibed the Protestant hostility to Catholicism that can be found in some sections of Pentecostalism.

I don't care for Webb's handling of the topic of Islam. I don't think he takes sufficient account of tensions and struggles within Islam and the strength of forces of modernization in Muslim communities. He quotes a number of Islamophobic writers. It's worth bearing in mind that many mainstream Islamophobic authors such as Melanie Phillips were quoted by mass murderer Anders Breivik. Maybe Islam is as bad as some people say, but if so, what is achieved by articulating this? Talking about the evils of Islam won't make Muslims disappear and it can only inflame tensions further.

One thing I have noticed is that while Stephen Webb has defended Catholic doctrines in his books, he does not really write as a Catholic, offering a specifically Catholic perspective. This means that we don't quite get an answer as to how a Catholic should regard the idea of the USA having a providential purpose. This is significant, because of the historic Protestant character of the USA. There are some Catholic traditionalists who regard the USA uneasily, often dreaming of replacing the USA with a Catholic monarchy (not a bad thing to want!).

I really appreciate Webb's positive evaluation of Postmillennialism:

"Postmillennialism is out of favour in theological circles today, in part because of overtones of triumphalism. The idea that the reign of Christ will occur before the final judgment can be taken to mean that human effort can bring about the kingdom of God. The logic of Postmillennialism does not, however, entail a view of history that minimizes God's contributions while maximizing human effort. Postmillennialism is certainly optimistic, but it is optimistic about the direction of history as that direction can be ascertained in the present, not about the strength of human nature unaided by grace. Postmillennialism reminds us that the kingdom of God is continuous as well as discontinuous with human history. It thus suggests an ultimate coordination of human politics with the coming kingdom of God. That is, the political sphere can anticipate the greater glory of the heavenly governance of God. This is a historical hope with biblical roots, but it gained credibility with the rise of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome."

Postmillennialism has seldom been explicitly advocated by Catholic theologians, but it resonates with some aspects of Catholic theology.

Webb discusses the British empire, but like Leithart's Between Babel and the Beast, I would have liked more comparison between the USA and other nations that see themselves as having a providential role, such as France and Russia. Can we agree with Webb that America has a special providential destiny? I would like to think so. However, unlike the Hebrews, we have no infallible prophets to guide us in our understanding of God's providential dealings. Our interpretation of history can only be speculative.

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