A previous article considered the claim that social justice is the end goal of Christianity, and how Christians should respond. In connection with this, Clarke Scheibe, head of the Canadian branch of the L’Abri Fellowship in Victoria, British Columbia also considered one of the principal manifestations of critical theory today, identity politics, and how Christians might respond to it. He cited as a Biblical example the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, in which Daniel’s three friends were renamed by their Babylonian captors.
Scheibe said that identity politics works first by renaming people and things. The ability to name things “shows who has power.” In particular it “shows who has power over an individual’s identity.” The original naming by a human being was that of Adam, who named the animals. In ancient times, the state could exert its power by naming individuals, just as Daniel and his three friends were re-named with names referring to the Babylonian gods.
Crucial to understanding the naming of people and things is that only God can identify himself without reference to anything else. Only he is truly autonomous. He says “I Am That I Am,” and “he is the one who gives names.” But the Book of Daniel refers to “God Most High,” never to Yahweh, the God of Israel. This is because the Book of Daniel is focused outside of the nation of Israel, and indicates that God is the universal ruler.
Scheibe discussed the naming and renaming of Daniel and his three friends. Daniel means “God is judge.” Hananiah means “God is gracious.” Mishael means “Who is what God is.”Azariah means “God is our helper.” The meaning of these names says that God has not abandoned his people. “When one becomes a Christian, they know that they are known by the creator … When they finally hear their name … When the Christian hears the call from God, they realize, ‘I am known.’ … In the Bible, everything is integrated into the heart … God wants to lead you into who you really are.”
Scheibe said that the Babylonian renaming is a parody of these names. Daniel is renamed Belteshazzar (Bel protect his life). Hananiah is renamed Shadrach (Protection of the moon god). Mishael is renamed Meshach (Who is what Aku is). Azariah is renamed Abednego (Servant of Nebu).
Although Daniel is renamed Belteshazzar by the king of Babylon, he continues to be referred to as Daniel throughout the Book of Daniel. But his three friends are commonly referred to by their Babylonian names. But despite the names imposed by Babylon, they never lose their true identities.
In the Babylonian account of the world, matter was the original reality, out of which the Babylonian “gods came forth.” By their power to name, the gods “had power over the material world.” In the same way, modern human beings believe mind to have arisen from matter, and human beings to be “a ghost in a machine, [who] exert power over the material.” In identity politics, there is “the central role of power, who has the power to identify, who has the power to name.”
The “power to name” Scheibe said, “comes at a cost.” The cost is “the unbearable burden of meaning.” This is because meaning in this scheme of thinking has come from nothing. A modern person is “striving for significance.” Without a metaphysical basis for naming, one “feels absolutely powerless. The only power that one might have is to say ‘this is who I am.’” For people who look at the world in this way, we should feel “great compassion,” Scheibe said.
The problem for Christians in this new world of identity politics is very similar to that of Daniel’s three friends. How do we respond in a way that is faithful to God in a “foreign land?” We need to remember first that “God has not left himself without a witness.” Important in the story of exile in the Book of Daniel is that the sacred temple vessels were “not taken,” but “handed over” to the Babylonians. These vessels were “a reminder,” and “a witness of what God will do.” These same vessels are used by Belshazzar, King of Babylon, at the feast at which he saw the handwriting on the wall. Scheibe claimed that mathematics, in which the Babylonians excelled, was used to condemn Belshazzar in the prophecy of the handwriting, which came true that night.
Similarly, for modern people, “God has not left himself without a witness … We have a deep, abiding belief, that every word has significance.” Scheibe said that in talking to secularists, “they don’t know what to do with consciousness, and they don’t know what to do with significance.” Our longing for significance has been placed in our hearts by God, Scheibe said. The Judeo-Christian worldview, with its emphasis on human dignity based on the doctrine of man in the image of God, has been appropriated by secularists, who have “tried to put it in the treasury of their gods.” However, the vessels of human dignity “cannot co-exist with meaninglessness,” which they must, if they are to be part of the secular worldview. The result in an irresolvable conflict. But in seeking dignity, secularists “are being truly human.”
The conflict that secularists feel between their materialist presuppositions and their longing for dignity is actually a witness of God “speaking to these people’s hearts.” This “existential conflict, this longing for significance” is part of the conflict between “what God has created, and what we want.”
When “we seek to try to name ourselves in a modern ideology, we lose the power of the gospel witness … we start cutting ourselves out from the promise of God, of being known and named by God.” But living inside a Christian world view “we are not alone … There is no longer an unbearable burden of meaning.”
Scheibe said that Daniel and his friends were not trying to revolt, but immersed themselves in the literature of Babylon. They also — as Jeremiah admonished — sought to “seek the welfare of the city to which I have sent you as exiles.” (Jer. 29:7) Daniel and his three friends sought to be distinctive in small ways, such as the food they ate. “They are never overtaken” by the Babylonian culture. Their faithfulness was a witness to God’s character and sovereignty. They did not “objectify and demonize” the Babylonians. Similarly, we should not do that with the enemies of the gospel today, knowing that God knows their names.
A questioner observed that those committed to critical theory “have abandoned the correspondence theory of truth” in favor of an ideology in which one’s status in a scheme of intersectionality determines truth. How is it possible to communicate with such people? Scheibe replied that it “is really difficult” to speak to people who claim oppressed status, because “there is no room for dialogue.” The only encounter they will accept has the rule “you listen to me.” Nevertheless, he said we must “preach in season and out.” We should show such an adversary dignity, not the dignity they claim (which is an authoritative voice), but “the dignity that God has given them,” (i.e., creatures in the image of God, and equally responsible to him). In this way, “you might treat them differently than they would expect.”
While no strategy covers all situations, we should try to show differences between what unbelievers believe, on the one hand, and what they want and how they live, on the other, and to “press into the heart of a person.” Like Daniel and his friends, we should become conversant in the literature and the thinking of those committed to identity politics, in order to “speak the gospel” into it.
In answer to another question, Scheibe observed that the tree reaching to heaven in Daniel 4 in which the birds of the air found refuge and the beasts of the field found shade is an affirmation of culture, even the culture of Babylon. Thus, Christians are to seek the good even of our secular society, although in light of Biblical truth.
This writer would comment that, in addition to the lessons of the final security of Christians and the truth they hold in God, and of the futility of human efforts at naming, the other lesson to be drawn from the Book of Daniel is that of non-compliance with the requirements of a sinful culture. While Daniel and his friends were renamed, and while they never lost their true identities given by God, and were conscious of their true identities, this was not a private matter kept to themselves.
Faced with the requirements of worshiping an idol, eating defiling food, or petitioning man rather than God, they were steadfastly loyal to God, despite the direst consequences of being burned alive or eaten by lions. They understood well their duty to God, assured of his ability to deliver them, but knowing their duty to obey whether he rescued them or not (Dan. 3:17-18). Similarly, in certain jurisdictions today one is legally required to use preferred pronouns. While a gross violation of the First Amendment, and applying only in employment situations, it nonetheless is a requirement to deny the divine order, and in addition to express a falsehood. And so we should not comply, regardless of the penalty.
What Christians in the modern West are currently faced with is less an adversary culture than an anti-culture, which is irrational because it is self-defined. The baseline rule is moral autonomy, or self-determination. This has been found to involve not only saying who you are, but also to involve living in a world that conforms to one’s self-determination, which necessarily involves complicity in one’s self-definition. Indeed, it is the self-determination of the moment — one must be able to claim a new identity each new moment, else one is being classified against one’s will. This is true to the secularist worldview, in which we are but a “bundle of sensations.” But it must be a world without meaning.
Only God can truly have autonomy, as Scheibe pointed out. And God does not change. His absolute determination of himself and creation gives true meaning.
But the contrived meanings of men, if they cannot be consistently held, can be made to endure by force of will for some time. That time is the time of trial for faithful Christians, always aware of our true identity, as it was for Daniel and his friends.