The Love of Knowledge and Why Josh Hawley Can’t Think

Prominent among the many incapacities on display in the Capitol and country this past week, the incapacity for thought is most striking. It was not just the rioters in favor of the Holocaust (according to their shirts), in favor of murdering the vice president, willing to do violence to the media, and demonstrably willing to kill police and politicians, but the impenetrable and apparently imperturbable presumption that the election was stolen. The long line of conspiracy theories circulating among Trump supporters: that the coronavirus is a hoax or a Chinese lab product, that a group of Satan-worshipping elites running a child sex ring are in control of our politics, that there is no climate change, that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, and most recently, that the insurrectionists invading the Capitol building were Antifa radicals imitating Trump supporters, compounds the stupidity. Given this exuberance of stupidity, it is futile to hope distinctions might be made between legitimate protest (e.g., against racial injustice and police brutality) and insurrection and violence. From my perspective in rural Missouri, it seems futile to even imagine that there might ever be a consensual willingness to wear masks, to socially distance, to take active measures to end this plague. But the core and more enduring problem is not COID-19, but the epidemic of stupidity which is proving to be the deadliest foe this country has faced.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

While there are multiple (endless?) sources for stupid, conservative Christians are clearly the key resource for energizing the base of stupidity.  Since I am speaking from inside the problem of conservatism, it should be clear, it is not a matter of my prejudice against the orthodox tenets of Christianity.  In fact, I would suggest that Christian orthodoxy is the remedy for the stupid that has gripped evangelicalism and that there is an incapacity for thought linked to a particular theological failing. Which brings me to the case of Missouri’s native son, Josh Hawley.

Hawley, with degrees from Stanford and Yale, is not lacking in mental capacity but his inability to distinguish truth from fiction is, I would argue, connected to his version of the Christian faith. His clenched fist support of the pro-Trump rioters and his objection to the results of the election on the floor of the Senate, can, to a large degree, be chalked up to the peculiarities of his reformed fundamentalism, though, certainly, his own craven ambition has played a role. His Lutheran/Calvinist understanding of the role of government and his convoluted notion of the protections required against “free will,” go a long way in both demonstrating a lack of depth and something like a religious commitment to shallow forms of thought.

In his widely circulated Christianity Today article, it is the Augustinian/Pelagian debate, or the argument over the role of free will to which Hawley attributes societies present problems and it is here that he sees his special contribution. For the uninitiated, this may seem like an obscure reference but for the initiated it is an even more obscure reference, as the true role of Pelagius (as the loser, heretic, in the argument) has undoubtedly been exaggerated and mythologized and the position of Augustine was inconsistent. To connect modern notions of freedom and individualism to Pelagius is a stretch, which conveniently passes over the true source of the problem. The hardening and reaction against free will, as occurs with Martin Luther and John Calvin, is in response to Catholic and Anabaptist notions of free will more than any survival of Pelagius and his doctrine. So, Hawley’s true point of reference is a thousand years removed from what Hawley imagines is the point of origin, but this also enables him to ignore contemporary scholarship which would credit the Reformation with key elements of individualism, capitalism, and modern notions of freedom. Nonetheless, he lays at the feet of Pelagius blame for most all modern ills surrounding the notion of freedom and individualism. It is his “particular philosophy of freedom” with its “liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community” that Pelagius got going some 1700 years ago, that is bearing fruit in America today.

Hawley points to Pelagius’ notion of perfection as the root cause of the problem, but he misses both Pelagius and the New Testament. He exaggerates even the myth of Pelagius, in maintaining “Pelagius believed he could save himself” (he is a Christian Monk, after all) and he misunderstands the notion of perfection. Jesus, in fact, commands perfection (Matt. 5:48), but in Hawley’s Christianity this is to lend too much credibility to human capacity. Hawley and evangelicals imagine God uses necessary evils, such as Trump and all this entails, precisely because people are not to be trusted, as original sin has stolen their true agency.

It is the Reformed concern to separate out the heavenly kingdom and the role of the earthly civil government (Luther pictures it as God doing one thing with his left hand on earth, and another with his right hand, kept busy with the spiritual realm in the heavenly kingdom), which requires governmental restraint (e.g., against globalism, for protectionism, and isolationism) and utilization of worldly oppression by God and his human instruments (capital punishment, war, trust in chariots and horses). The fallen nature of humanity means that human nature requires the guidance and constraint of civil government, and certain key teachers and civic leaders who are saved, will be the best choice. On the other hand, it is this sort of two-kingdom separation that has allowed evangelicals to give up concern with the morality of leaders like Trump. God can use a tyrant for his purposes, and thus the foibles of Trump can be overlooked. They would maintain, we need a strong force for God, and morality is beside the point, and as has been argued by some (e.g., Robert Jeffress), it will only get in the way.

The logic of his argument escapes me at key junctures, but the conclusion is that Pelagian individualism “leads to hierarchy” and his notion of individual responsibility “produces elitism” and though he “proclaims liberty, it destroys the life that makes liberty possible.”[1] Overlooking the leap to modern notions of freedom from Pelagius, the leap from free will to hierarchy and the destruction of liberty, Hawley seems to be using theology, not in any serious engagement with history or the issues, but as the vehicle for his populist political realism (or his own form of elitism).

In the end, Hawley seems to be saying that only those with his interpretation of Christianity are to be trusted. Only Christians, like himself, can speak for the masses. There is no room for an open society, religious or cultural pluralism, or notions of equality, but, of course, the implicit argument is that only a religious elite, like Josh Hawley, has the correct theology so as to control society from its ever-present impulses. Evangelicalism, with its view of an ineradicable evil, an ever-angry God, a looming eternal hell, and total human depravity, requires the sort of hidden elitism that Hawley is promoting. There is a limited atonement allowing salvation (going to heaven) only for those elected by God, the rest are damned, and human will and agency do not figure into the calculations of God. Hawley’s peculiar trick is to finesse this into anti-elitism.

What Hawley and his evangelical cohort are missing is the Gospel message: real-world salvation, not just in some future kingdom, but in an-all embracing cosmic salvation. The notion that human agency or human freedom (even the false kind) is the source of all our problems does not exactly accord with Hawley’s notion of original sin, and inasmuch as the Gospel teaches that there is a restoration of human freedom and agency, his notion that there is no such thing misses the goal of salvation. The problem, as portrayed in Scripture, is not connected with an absence of human agency, but it’s opposite. It is willful self enslavement and deception – belief in a lie – from which Christ delivers. Christ does not give up on freedom and agency but aims for their restoration. Unfortunately, Hawley’s gospel preaches against what Christ presumes: the human capacity for freedom. This is not Pelagian or American or modern, it is simply the teaching of the New Testament rejected by the Reformed tradition.

His belief in the stolen election is obviously a lie aiming to establish his own power, his own potential run for president, but it is a lie easily incorporated into a gospel which does not concern itself with real world morality and salvation. The shape of the “gospel” that Hawley believes is the shape this lie always takes. Given special knowledge (the presumed elite understanding of salvation given to a few select individuals) these chosen individuals are in a place to dictate truth and to take the reigns of power. Hawley, in his drive for power, misses a key point of Christianity, which outside of its Calvinist enclave, is aimed at producing freedom, to enable human agency, and in the words of Jesus to bring about perfection or fullness (human thriving), especially the fullness of knowing God.

In his gospel lite anti-elitist, anti- intellectualism though, Hawley is true to his roots. As has been noted by a series of authors, the scandal of the evangelical mind (Mark Noll), in which there is no place for truth (David Wells), is a long simmering crisis which has led to the anti-intellectualism and formulaic populist notions of American evangelicals. Worst of all, I believe it can be directly connected to the epidemic of stupidity literally killing our fellow countrymen.

I have spent most of my life in pursuit of education, a transformation of the mind, and one of the great obstacles, which took me many years to overcome, is that posed by certain (I would claim heterodox) forms of the Christian faith. Systematic theology, especially of the Reformed bent, can be such a neat package, a closed case, a doctrinaire understanding that no further thought is allowed or called for. No one puts it like that, but that is the way that dogmatic religion functions. It is dependent on perverse forms of authority, it cannot extract itself from the heavy weight of tradition or an imagined tradition, and the end result is a deadening of thought. Christianity, for many, functions as a closure of thought, a departure from reality and facts, and may require, as with Calvin, a violent confrontation (burning some 50 heretics at the stake) so as to establish the “truth.” This violent grab for power so as to establish an alternative truth exposes the lie. The force for unthinking violence, the promotion of the necessity of evil, and the embrace of the abomination of immorality and violence (e.g., Donald Trump), as if it is the way of God, is antithetical to the loving knowing engendered by Christ.

The Love of Knowledge and Freedom

The Gospel truth shows itself as that which establishes peace and love, and the way of violence (according to Paul) it does not know. A personal universe created by a personal God means that all true knowing is further entry into the freedom of interpersonal relationship. “It is for (this) freedom that Christ has set us free” (Ga. 5:1). “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). Far from a lack of free will or agency, the whole point of Christ’s message is the full restoration of human freedom and agency.

All of this is summed up in a few verses in James 3, which describes what course to pursue for wisdom or right understanding. The reason for Luther’s disdain for the book of James (“it is,” he claimed, “a book of straw”) is evident in its clear teaching that people can rid themselves of sin and that they are on the road to fullness/perfection (the same biblical concept) through their works and agency. The straightforward teaching of James (and the New Testament) is that people can be righteous, they can produce good works, they have the capacity for freedom of thought. Certainly this freedom can be perverted, but that is part of James’ point.

Step 1, the one who has understanding will demonstrate this in his gentleness and good behavior (v. 13). But jealousy, selfish ambition, and arrogance are a lie against the truth and this sort of knowledge is not from God but is “earthly, natural, demonic” (vv. 14-15). The disorder that results from selfish ambition and jealousy exposes the evil origins of this false wisdom (v. 16). Step 2, the wisdom from God shows itself in that there is no admixture with immorality. It is pure and purity, without evil, is a real possibility, where the earthly sort of wisdom shows itself in its immorality and impurity (evil is a necessity).

Step 3, this heavenly wisdom is peaceable (v. 17). Violence is not true and cannot contain the truth. Step 4, heavenly wisdom is gentle and humble as it is accepting of the other and can listen and receive from the other (v. 17). Humility is its own epistemological method.

Step 5, heavenly wisdom and knowledge are reasonable (v. 17), which means that this sort of knowing is not contradictory, it is not a dialectic, but it coheres into a singular frame of understanding and does not collapse into two contradictory logics for two different kingdoms. Step 6, this wisdom is full of mercy and grace as it is a gift to be received and given, circulated without expectation or cost. Mercy or grace is characteristic of this knowing as it is a personal giving. God gives himself and every one who would know receives himself in the gift. Grace is not a limited possession given to a few by a stingy God, but is the characteristic form in which God comes to all of humanity in the knowing that is characteristic of this gifted reality.

Step 7, this knowing produces good fruit as it is an integrated, growing knowing (v. 17). There is a knowledge that is truncated, which halts thought, which dampens curiosity, and which is mere impersonal information. Good fruit or good works is salvation. Step 8, this knowledge is unwavering in that it contains no double mindedness (v. 17). James warns about the double minded man who seems to be pitted against himself or to wear an actor’s mask, depending on the occasion (hypocrisy). One need not switch roles or moralities or methods, depending on the kingdom.

Step 9, the summary and sign of true knowledge is that it produces righteousness (v. 18) which is often equated with salvation. This righteous knowing is out of court in a Calvinist system, yet it is the summary of both James’ and Paul’s picture of the end goal of the Gospel. This is no imputed righteousness but one literally knows it and experiences it. Step 10, James triples down on peace in that he has already mentioned it above (step 3) but here (v. 18) he mentions peace two more times as both the method (the means of sowing) and what is sown by those who make peace.

Freedom, peace, and virtue are not delayed for a future heavenly kingdom, they are the goal of this present earthly life. Further, this loving sort of knowledge gives rise to community as pursuit of true knowledge draws us together into a fellowship of those who would pursue understanding together. Rather than the sort of alienating community of dissent, or communities drawn together by what they oppose, loving knowing integrates us into the lives and thought world of other people. Just as God is ever moving outward in the processional love of the Trinity, so too pursuit of his sort of wisdom integrates us into an ever-expanding community of persons.

As a picture of how true knowledge functions, I conclude with what would normally be a footnote but which deserves to be front and center – how a community of knowing works. The adventure in peace and love that is the community of Forging Ploughshares, is to an equal extent an adventure in communal knowing. This blog is the direct fruit of class and conversation with Tim, Matt, and Tyler. Tim suggested the passage in James and gifted me with the book, A Little Manual for Knowing, by Esther Lightcap Meek, from which I drew some of the ideas on knowing. Tyler suggested the understanding of integration and Matt made the point, on several occasions about humility. My friends are my best teachers from whom I draw understanding. This is a concrete example of how love and knowledge must go together.


[1] Josh Hawley, “The Age of Pelagius,” Christianity Today – https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/june-web-only/age-of-pelagius-joshua-hawley.html

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.