This article is the fourth and final installment of my series on evangelicalism. The central question is whether there is faith after evangelicalism and a theology to support it. Obviously, there is; there are post-evangelicals. If understood purely temporally, there are a lot of people who once were evangelical but are now “post,” i.e. “after.” They’re done. It is also obvious that there are plenty of post-evangelical theologians when we understand the “post” in post-evangelical temporally. I happily call myself a post-evangelical theologian in that sense. I once was able to dig the gig and then I couldn’t and then I didn’t. I became “post.”
But I’m interested in more than that. I wonder if there is more than just saying that we’re “post” and “against.” Indeed, those readers who have read the previous installments in this series may wonder if I have anything positive to say when I talk theology. Are post-evangelical theologians able to formulate there own positive statement of what theology ought to be? Are they willing and able to construct their own creative proposals for a theology for today?
Moreover, the breakdown of evangelicalism that a lot of people are experiencing today, is not a completely new phenomenon. Ever since the Enlightenment stormed onto the stage of Western history, people have been dropping out of Christianity left and right. As a European, I’m particularly aware of the emergence of a post-Christian Europe in the postwar era of the 1950s and after. The answer that the post-Christian generations in Europe would give to my question about a viable theology for the future will be: No, forget it! We’re done and done. No, to the Church and No, to organized religion. Maybe some spiritual inclinations remain but it stops there. Europe is thoroughly “post!”
As a post-evangelical, I wonder though if there is a “post” to the “post.” This is, on the one hand, a temporal question. Is there a place for positive theology after all the deconstruction and negative talk is over? But it is also a question about location. Is there a place that is no longer negatively tethered to all the unhealthy constructs and stifling doctrines of the rejected paradigm? Is genuine theology still possible? This question is related—not just to an abandoned evangelicalism but also—to a post-Christian Europe and a North America in which the postmodern embrace of a postmodern approach to religion and spirituality is in full swing.
I think there is a post to post-evangelicalism as much as I think there is a post to the post-Christian mindset of many Europeans. Let’s call this the post-post era. I’m convinced that this post-post era is at the same time a place to begin anew. This is because all human life is innately religious in nature but also because the Christian religion still has something to offer to our age. Denying the reality of a religious orientation prevents post-Christian Europeans from making proper analyses of our culture and society. They run the risk of being blinded both to the causes of what is wrong with our world and blind to where the solutions can be found. This is not the place, however, to elaborate on this interesting topic of how to retrieve the religious as a category for public discourse. I want to briefly outline the contours of the theology I have in mind. I do this as a post-evangelical trying to get behind his “post-ness.”
A Bunch of “Beyonds”
I will formulate this theology by means of a few “beyonds.” In this way, I still refer to the evangelical theological framework, but also show how the “beyond” is, in fact, a kind of “post-post” that reaches wider and further and begins to do its own creative work of fulfilling the task of theology without continuing to wallow in the negativity of deconstruction. After that, I will, briefly, highlight a few central orientations around the cross that I think are necessary for a successful theological articulation for the 21st century.
Beyond the dualism of conservatism v liberalism
The first beyond takes the bull by the horns. The criticism of evangelicalism has not much to do with becoming a liberal Christian. Both theological fundamentalism (which current evangelicalism in many ways is) and theological liberalism are old paradigms in need of replacement. Schleiermacher’s liberal theology was the first to creatively respond to the challenges the Enlightenment, Kant, and Hegel posed to theology. Conservatism’s knee-jerk response to it in the form of doctrinal rigidity and biblical inerrancy is, as the response to the response, no less a child of the Enlightenment. It betrays itself in its desire for epistemological certainty.
We need to get beyond this controversy. Theology is not about affirming or denying the certainty of the content of revelation and our alleged or denied ability to know this. Theology seeks to give words to the reality of the living God come in Christ. It seeks to aid the process of this reality becoming manifest through the self-giving of Jesus in those who desire to follow him.
Th new theology outlined here may be in some ways more like liberalism in its insistence that our knowledge of reality must be integrated with our intuition of God’s presence in an ongoing dynamic interpretative process. But at the same time, it may well be more like evangelicalism in its radical insistence on the centrality of Christ as the paradigm of incarnational divine love.
Beyond the Dualism of Belief and Unbelief
This new theology will also move beyond the dualism of belief and unbelief. This may sound strange, but if faith is to address real existence as we know it, it needs to take the condition of unfaith in our secular—and now also post-secular—society with utter seriousness. That is to say, it cannot treat it as a pathological condition or an unfortunate state of mind to be forcibly replaced with faith in a god. Unbelievers cannot be treated as people who haven’t yet seen the light. They should not be seen as in need of a transformative repair of their broken minds and sinful hearts.
Christian faith today is one attitude in a sea of other attitudes. No one really has a patent on ultimate truth (although from observation it is quite likely that some are much closer to it than others). Moreover, those who claim to have faith often exhibit the same reproachable patterns of behavior as unbelievers only worse. Not only that, Christian faith communities the world over have been notoriously resistant over the past 200 years to developments in science, such that today unfaith is more prone to lead to enlightened existence than faith.
Instead of a limited atonement of intellectual assent that draws people away from the world, there must be an ever-widening reach of the world in God’s salvific embrace. This is a mouthful. Let me explain. Calvinism teaches a heretical doctrine of limited atonement which teaches that Christ died only for the elect (you know, Calvinists are pretty hung up on their doctrine of election). Another form of what I like to call limited atonement is the idea that salvation comes about only by confessing with your mouth that Jesus is your personal savior. You’re only saved when there is cognition of the topic at hand and intellectual assent to the topics at hand.
In addition, salvation is often explained as something that sets one apart from the world and forces one to embrace an otherworldliness that looks away from humanity and our place on this planet. That too contributes to a further limitation of salvation. This otherworldliness, in turn, leads to a separation between the saved and the unsaved, the believers and the unbelievers, faith and unfaith. But when Jesus spoke about the dangers of hell he always exclusively addressed the community of faith he belonged to. We need to move beyond the faith and unfaith division and like Jesus emphasize fruits rather than confessions.
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Beyond The Word-World Dichotomy
Christians are known as people of the book. That is because they revere the Bible as the word of God. With this book in hand, Christians have often assumed the privilege of exclusively knowing what God wants. Even though Jesus and Paul had said some dangerously subversive things about the Law of Moses, these Christians combined it with the New Testament into some new kind of ethical code of behavior.
In certain circles, the importance of the word of God has grown to such large proportions that a dichotomy has come into existence between the word and the world the word was intended to address. Word and world are played off against each other. The otherworldliness addressed above wreaks havoc here as well. The word is seen as a supernatural entity whose origin lies outside of this world. This word addresses the world in judgment and calls its listeners to separate from and move out of the world.
In this way, everything God becomes antithetical to the world. This happens both in terms of doctrine and in terms of ethics. Doctrines and ethical rules, deductively derived from the text are imposed rigidly, on an unsuspecting world. This leads to a lot of mental, emotional, and developmental damage. Besides, it is not even very biblical to think about the word in this way.
As a result, some have rejected the word and opted for the world, either by becoming unbelievers, atheists, or agnostics, while others have reinterpreted the word of God as a purely human word, thereby robbing it of its sting as well as transforming beauty.
The way forward, I’m convinced, is to move beyond the word-world dichotomy. Some reject the word while others reject the world. Neither is an option for genuine Christian theology that reinterprets and recalibrates its message for the 21st century. Indeed, this is yet another place where we move beyond the conservative-liberal divide.
We must understand three things.
(1) The word is always a human word about God, a human interpretation of the ineffable reality of the divine the reality of which we can only intuit. But being that human word, it speaks in response to something it has heard, something that has called its name. The word is a response to an address; it answers the calling. In this response, this interpreting, this intuiting, revelation is genuine and real, but at the same time not to be pinned down.
(2) The word is only a signpost to something else: the Word (capitalized). The incarnated Word is the referent of the signifying word. Jesus Christ is the content, fulfillment, and worldly manifestation of God’s self-revelation. The word can always only point to it.
(3) The implication is that revelation cannot be captured in statements or responded to my mere intellectual assent. One can only encounter revelation because the Word is a person. The word may help in facilitating the interpretation of this encounter. Another implication is that, since the incarnated Word as embodied human life affirms worldly creatureliness, word and world do not stand over against each other. They belong together. The word is spoken and written so that the Word’s coming in the flesh is made possible. The word communicates the Word to the world and intercedes and laments on behalf of the world.
The Cross Again
We’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of what a theology after evangelicalism might look like. The idea was not to develop a full-blown outline but to show how such a theology moves beyond the dichotomies of today, dichotomies that were the cause of my leaving evangelicalism and also the cause of the de-Christianization of Europe. Something new must come. Something new is possible! The new thing moves beyond the criticism and the anger. It opens its arms wide in affirmation of a world in dire need of the self-giving love manifested in Christ.
I finish with the cross. I hate the cross because it speaks of my implication in the evils in this world and the way the cross speaks of my future if and when I continue to labor for love, truth, and justice. I love the cross because it speaks of forgiveness and liberation of those who are suffering, and those who are oppressed exploited and discriminated against.
I also finish with the cross because it forces us to reorient ourselves to the central belief in the Christian faith: In Jesus Christ, God has come to save the world. By turning the word into a divine oracle that reveals the divine precepts of how we have to live and what we have to believe we are drawing our attention away from the center of our faith: God’s self-giving grace in Christ. By separating faith from unfaith we set ourselves up as Lord and forget that Christ came for all. By dividing Christianity up in conservative or liberal we forget that Christ unites and that this unity is beyond allegiances to human ideologies. It is the cross that gives the lie to all these constructs and calls us to the life of Christ that exists in its self-giving, which is the divine ontology of the impossible that is yet real.
I finish with the cross because in its two bars we see how heaven and earth meet. We see how the orientation of the vertical bar speaks of reconciliation with God and how this connects with the horizontal position of the crossbar that interprets this reconciliation as extending to all relationships in the world. What Christ came to do, reconciles and transforms the world.
Lastly, I finish with the cross because the cross is my end and my beginning. All genuine theology can only begin with the cross and also end there. It can only receive the gift and help others understand and ponder the nature of this gift. But then it has to become silent and give itself. Thus we walk toward our end which is also the true beginning.
This article is part of a 4 part series:
My Experience in Evangelicalism: Four Things that Pushed Me Out
My Struggle With Evangelicalism: From Inerrant Word to Subjugated World
A Sundered Cross: Evangelicalism and the Public Sphere
On Being Post-Evangelical: Moving Beyond the Anger of “Post-ness”
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