In my previous post, I discussed my experience in evangelicalism and focused on four things that were instrumental in pushing me out. These four were: the hunger for power, the lack of freedom to ask questions, the inability to deal with suffering an lament, and the know-it-all attitude that places evangelical thought on a pedestal. These four things describe the environment as it was and why I started to feel more and more uneasy. They eventually became objections too.
These things not only pushed me out but also opened my eyes to issues that were plainly wrong. These thing created bad vibes in and of themselves, of course, but they pointed to an underlying problem of a theology gone awry. Or perhaps better; a theology that had the wrong foundational assumptions. How else is it possible that political games to gain power are whitewashed as victories for Jesus? Or how else is it possible that evangelical Christians generally show a rather diminished interest in social justice issues? And I know because I was one myself.
As my unease grew and the fabric of my adherence continued to unravel at, ironically, the very evangelical institution I had started studying theology in order to become an ardent apologetics expert, it was precisely on the theological front, more than anything, that the criticism began to grow. And out of the theological criticism grew the ethical-social critique. Because of the enormity of both, I will devote attention to each in separate blog posts. It should be clear, however, that the two cannot possibly be separated so neatly. Theology impinges directly on ethics as much as thoughts affect action.
Two Basic Patterns
As I outline the various theological points below, it must be noted that they are all interrelated and that many of them overlap or interlock with multiple others either as cause or effect and often in mutual reinforcement of each other. Also, before I unleash these points, I best first start with two central motifs that mark the evangelical movement theologically and ethically. After briefly outlining them I will first need to start with a bit of philosophy. That sounds scary but is actually really fun and helpful.
The first central motif is that in evangelicalism, as is not uncommon in other traditional religions, the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of faith, where the vertical pertains to the relationship between God and believer and the horizontal touches on the social spheres of humanity, have been separated in some ways. Evangelicals will often deny this is the case, but in what follow I hope to make clear that this is in fact true. The vertical and the horizontal no longer form a cross, that is to say, do no longer combine to represent and live out Christ in the world today. To say it more pointedly: the relationship with God in Christ does not implicitly, automatically, and immediately transform the social relationships. This is a deeply ethical problem. I hope to elaborate on this in my next post.
The second motif is the deep-seated urge for certainty in evangelical thought. A well-known evangelical hymn, titled “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine,” unintentionally (but quite nicely) gives expression to this urge. Jesus has to be my “blessed assurance” but in such a way that I know exactly what this means, that I cognitively and exhaustively, but especially verbally can express what it means that “Jesus is mine.” The need for epistemological certainty, that is, the thought that theology must yield indubitable claims about God pervades the entire evangelical project.
Its roots probably go as far back as the emphasis on the Bible as the Word of God in the Reformation and its resulting Word-theology. But it really took off with the doctrine of inerrancy that, through providing absolute knowledge about God and God’s will, was reworked as a theology with an indubitable foundation and guaranteed absolute doctrines that were set in stone. It eventually led to a rigid social ethics, a black and white attitude to everything from daily issues to the culture wars in the USA, and ultimately a political theology that understands its task as building a political power block that aims to enforce a certain Christian morality over the entire population.
Ultimately this theology is a lording over God. God has little to do with it.
1. Being Stuck in the Enlightenment and Modernity
These two motifs of certainty and an ethics/spirituality decoupled from each other have a lot to do with being stuck in Enlightenment. This requires a bit of philosophy. Conservative Christianity during the time of the Enlightenment (roughly the 1800s) was not too keen on the critical voices against religion of the time and vehemently resisted religion being pushed out of the halls of power. The way it did this resisting was through trying to beat Enlightenment thinkers on their own turf. They were no less than the thinkers of the Age of Reason bent on being reasonable and logical. They tried to come up with even better arguments and reasons.
Weird thing is that the fundamentalists and evangelicals who emerged out of this struggle in the early 20th century remained stuck in this mode of thinking long after modernity (the cultural and philosophical extension of the critical attitude toward religion in the 19th and 20th century) had given way to the postmodern era (the 1960s and later). Postmodern thought was tired of the optimism and sense of progress of modernity. After two world wars had ravaged much of the world, such optimism was no longer warranted, many thought. Postmoderns became also very suspicious of the claims of knowledge that used to hold sway as they realized that knowledge is power and is invariably used as a tool to gain and wield power, as was the case, for instance in colonialism.
The evangelicals knee-jerked back into their hard-won expertise in modernist logic and its corresponding claims of absolute knowledge. Now they were the Enlightenment thinkers, not the forward-thinking ones of the 18th century but reactionary ones who used the modernist toolset to resist the new. They saw in postmodernity an even greater enemy than the critical voice of Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche or Freud. One claim to knowledge can resist another one but if the counterclaim is that all claims to knowledge are just power games, the card house collapses. Evangelicals didn’t like it one bit. So as the rest of the Western world embraced the sensitive insights of the postmodern era, evangelicals kept insisting more than ever on absolute knowledge founded on irrefutable claims and watertight syllogisms.
And this is where the motif concerning the vertical and horizontal dimensions of faith comes in. The Enlightenment had proposed that revelation and the worldly affairs of governing, culture, and thought be firmly separated. The Evangelicals took the Enlightenment up on it and assigned theology to a vertical axis that connected God and the individual human, while social ethics became more and more an outside thing that was part of a lost world that first needed to know Christ before society could be redeemed.
One solution to the resulting problem of a retreating and increasingly marginalized evangelicalism came in the form of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority Movement that eventually led to evangelicalism being co-opted by the Republican Party. In so far Christian ethics pertains to the public square it has to be enforced through legislation, evangelicals now usually think, and so they have aligned themselves en masse with Donald Trump whose lifestyle opposes just about everything their social ethics demands. The vertical axis of the relationship between God is based on grace, but social ethics is based on law and must be enforced. Personal ethics, sanctification or the spiritual life, as it is often called, becomes a form of works righteousness, an issue that was one of the very reasons why the Reformation got underway in the 16th century.
As conservative Christians set about to beat Enlightenment thinkers and modernists at their own turf, with arguments and reasonability, they basically became themselves enslaved to that strange trust in the ability of human beings to master its environment by means of reason. They claim to be able to prove God, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the miracles in the Bible, as well as the historical reliability of the Scriptures. This brings us to inerrancy, easily the core theological issue that defines and characterizes evangelicalism through its effects.
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In the 19th century, Charles Hodge developed a new theological method that he thought was entirely scientific. And this was a good thing since science and scientific progress were the thing of the day and threatened to completely sideline Christianity and thus theology. Just like science works with hard facts that go into scientific theories and explanations so he could do “hard” theology with the help of a Bible that consisted of statements and presuppositions, the theological equivalence of hard facts, but this time derived from divine revelation instead of nature. (As an aside, but not unimportant in the larger scheme of things, you don’t really need the Bible anymore once you’ve extracted the hard facts as the latter are the perfect extract from a difficult to understand text, much like you don’t need the filter and its drab once you have percolated fresh coffee).
Of course, in order to get hard facts, you need a Bible without any mistakes, hence the notion of inerrancy. This is basically the only reason why inerrancy was invented: to get prepositional-foundationalist theology going. The doctrine of inerrancy has very little to do with protecting the Word of the Lord against the godless assaults from the critical historical method. Rather, it is simply the needed foundation for an unshakable propositional theological bulwark that stands against all outside influence.
This theological construction, this systematic theology, is an extraction of the absolute truth of the Bible and as such itself indubitable, absolute, and basically inerrant. One wonders, though, what would happen if a voice from outside this system would want to address the people inside it. Suppose this would be the voice of the Holy Spirit. After all, both the idea of inerrancy and the resulting bulwark are human inventions and products of human interpretation. The Spirit will have bad luck because the Christians who erected this theological system already have and know the truth exhaustively. They will resist the Spirit at every cost (especially since the Spirit does not require the erection of large edifices in the name of God, but wants humility, teachability, the manifestation of the mind of Christ, that sort of thing). Rather would a lion give up its prey than a theologian his theological construct.
4. The Lord’s Reign Over Alle Domains of Life
With the doctrine of inerrancy firmly in place, see for instance the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, 1978, the Lord’s reign over all domains of life could be proclaimed. The idea of this lordship was not new, of course. It was already mentioned by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians and Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will be done on earth, but now it also meant that theologians could know exactly what that meant in actual practice. All of a sudden there is the biblical pattern of family life, the biblical teaching on how women and men relate, the biblical teaching on sexuality, etc. We know exactly what God wants on just about everything because we have the inerrancy, the prepositions, and the theologians who’ve figured it all out.
It must be said that evangelicalism is not alone in this and that it is not guilty of inventing the idea that somehow the Christian Church can determine all these things. Anyone who knows a bit about Church history, or Western history for that matter, knows that the Roman Catholic Church did exactly that and still suffers from ethical overdetermination today. The Anabaptists and the Calvinists in the 16th century and later did exactly the same thing.
Apart from the inerrant basis of the enterprise, there is one thing that makes evangelicalism stand out though. Evangelicalism maintained its all-knowing attitude as a marginalized ethical community over against a world that initially was quite similar in ethical outlook but then suddenly transformed radically under the influence of the sexual revolution, women’s lib, and the cry for social justice. Oddly, evangelicals remained aloof to these changes and hardly took the message of these and other ethical movements to heart. As a result, its ethics of the past, defended as it is with recourse to its inerrant basis, now comes as hypocritical and insincere, especially in the face of evangelical power politics and support for Trump.
5. Truth is Black and White
Since this spills directly over into social and sexual ethics, we’ll leave a further consideration of this point for our next post. What this lordship over all domains of life does entail, though, is that everything becomes very black and white. Something is either good or bad, either permitted or forbidden, either glorifying to God or not, etc. Because God’s Word is kind of a passageway into God’s mind, there is complete or nearly complete clarity about most subjects; Christians can figure out what the only right stance is on a particular issue.
The perspicuity (clarity of meaning) that Calvin maintained was characteristic of the Bible leads in the evangelical paradigm to absolute knowledge concerning all manner of issues. Therefore it is a black and white situation. You either walk in the light or the dark, you either conform to Christ on this issue or you’re living in sin, you either give in to the black of satan and his demons or stand for the white of God’s truth.
Such a perspective on truth becomes laughable in the light of the fact that even evangelicals cannot agree on the absolute truths that the Bible teaches or the insight, more or less generally accepted by most people in our culture, that interpretation is the necessary buffer between something as it is and people saying what it is. Even if inerrancy were true the outcome would always depend on the context of the interpreters. Evangelicals prove that to be the case since they hardly ever agree on any doctrine. Inerrancy can’t possibly fulfill the purpose for which it was invented.
6. Inside is the True Outside
This black and white mentality leads to easily identifiable boundaries and categories. The two categories that matter most are those of lost and saved. If you’re lost, you need to be saved and if you’re saved you need to save the lost. It’s as simple as that. Of course the category “saved” applies to the evangelicals who wield the categories while “unsaved” applies to pretty much everyone else. The ultimate black, then, is the outside, while the ultimate white is the inside. Evangelicals are white (and funny enough, racially they indeed mostly are); most everyone else is black (metaphorically speaking).
What is odd though is that the inside of evangelicalism is in a way the true outside. The words of Christ come to mind who repeatedly tells the Pharisees that they will find themselves on the outside where there is gnashing of teeth, where the burning flame is not extinguished, and the maggots don’t die. Inside, is, in a real way, the outside; outside of humanity, away from the crowd, away from the city, hiding into solitude, retreating into sanctification. Only because we think our inside is better than that of the world. Little do we realize that our inside is something of our own creation and that as such, when we separate it (or better ourselves) from the rest, we turn out to be the outsiders. The inside is the true outside. Because, for sure, Christ did not come for those who don’t need salvation but those who are lost. And “inside” is where Christ is.
7. Faith versus Science
Nowhere does the absolutism of self-affirming certainty make itself felt than in the religion versus science debate. Much can be said about this controversy that bears an affinity with the faith-reason tension, but then in a charged and overheated fashion that is not helpful at all. This is where the legacy of the Enlightenment makes itself felt in a sometimes arrogant and rationalistic attitude among some in the scientific community who think scientific knowledge is superior to religious knowledge.
I will not get into this here, but I will say that this arrogance has not helped evangelicals come to terms with the genuine advances of the sciences. They responded with a knee-jerk into the direction of ignoring any science that contradicts their doctrinal beliefs. On the other hand, evangelicals have made themselves the laughingstock of the intellectual establishment with a creation museum, rejection of the evolution theory and rejection of the findings of the critical historical method.
If faith implies rejecting generally accepted findings from science, it turns itself into irrationality and loses its right to be a voice in the public square. If doctrine trumps truth (indeed, scientific fact equals truth) in order to protect a self-invented truth that is exposed by said science as untruth, you are ensuring that religion has already lost half the battle. And this is what evangelicals have done with their creationism. How could their specific reading of an alleged inerrant Bible have more plausibility or explanatory power than the plainly visible findings of scientific research? One wonders. Sure, evolution throws a monkey wrench in the engine of creation-sin-redemption, because there is no longer a historical fall into sin of the first pair. But the way to deal with that is by means of more and creative theological work, not by rejecting science.
It is Time to Change
Evangelicalism used to have respectability, even when it existed in the margin. It was, in spite of being a counter-cultural or marginal conservative phenomenon, part of the cultural or social imaginary in which absolute truth claims were culturally acceptable, and in which an inerrant Bible was something people understood at a basic level even if they did not agree with it. It ws also a culture in which almost everybody rejected the gay lifestyle as an abomination. Evangelicals did not stand out in this regard.
Where our Western civilization made huge shifts in terms of epistemology (toward a postmodern outlook) and ethics (social justice, sexual revolution), evangelicals continued to express themselves in the terminology and conceptuality of a passing era. It absolutized cultural aspects and thereby allowed the Gospel to be increasingly seen as an antiquated institution and faith as an irrational mental aberration. Evangelicalism stood still and so did its Gospel and its understanding of how theological method and social ethics are formed.
Some who are still within the movement will say: what do you mean when you say we absolutize things and make things up? Doesn’t the Bible teach them simply and plainly? This objection is understandable. The problem, however, is that the question is phrased within the paradigm of evangelical thought, where teachings, whether doctrinal or ethical, are abstracted from an inerrant Scripture and thus absolutely valid for all ages. I reject this very movement from inerrant Word to subjugated world, because there is no reason to think like that. It is a theological construct, foundationalist in nature, that is outdated and now actually quite harmful to the wellbeing of people like you and me. It once worked, because all people thought in a certain way. Now it is time for change.
Before we will be able to explore the transformation needed, we will, in our next installment, look at the ethical side of the problem.
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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”