Doubt, dissent and powerlessness

April 28th, 2016
by Chris

Peter Enns has written a new book, “The Sin of Certainty”. I can’t wait to read it, particularly bearing in mind that a while ago I wrote a blogpost called “The Heresy of all Doctrine”. I can’t help thinking there may be some similarities! There’s a nice review of it at Baptist News, and an interview here.

But I don’t want to talk about the book itself before I’ve read it, what I want to pick up on is the reviewer’s heartfelt sorrow that post-evangelicals (a term which the reviewer thinks applies both to him and to Professor Enns) have little or no basis on which to evangelise, and thus little or no basis on which to increase their numbers other than from those evangelicals who find the confines of evangelicalism too stifling.

Now, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an “evangelical”. I grant you, I have been a member of a few evangelical congregations in the past, but always as something between “the token liberal”, who says interesting but sometimes scandalous things to provoke discussion, and “the dangerous liberal who we need to show the door to and prevent from talking anywhere where our weaker brethren may hear him”. No, that is not an exaggeration. Theologically I started out super-liberal and have drifted gently to a position of fairly liberal with a radical edge.

So, why, you might ask, am I trying to fit in with congregations which are far from agreeing with me theologically? Well, firstly, I gain more from talking with people who do not agree with me than I do from discussing things with people who do. Secondly, I find far more verve and energy in evangelical congregations, and I am not very good at generating this myself. Thirdly, perhaps as a side effect of the last, evangelical congregations (at least near me) seem to have more and better social gospel programmes.

But lastly, and probably most importantly, evangelical churches – well – evangelise. The more theologically liberal ones don’t (such as they are, as in general there are no churches near me with a theologically liberal stance overall, merely some with theologically liberal clergy leading rather less liberal congregations). I may be a liberal, but I take on board the “Great Commission”, to go out and make disciples. The snag is, liberal theology doesn’t sell church to non-believers. Oh, it can readily attract non-believers, I’ve found, but not in such a way that they want to “do church” thereafter (and particularly when they find that most churches are less than wholly welcoming to liberal theologies). Any change of thinking it produces doesn’t result in a change in living, a change of heart (rather than of intellectual conception) which I can measure, because by and large I’m not going to be seeing them or hearing from them regularly in a community.

It seems that this afflicts not only the liberal, but also the post-evangelical (many of whom now style themselves “progressive”). I read a lot of progressives, and find more in common with them than with perhaps any other group, even though I lack their roots in evangelicalism, but here we see from two directions the same complaint I have myself. It also afflicts radical theologians, as Father John Skinner of the European School of New Monasticism mentioned in a recent conversation, reminding me that John Caputo had described radical theology as parasitic on the mainline churches. Caputo sees radical theology not as something which can stand on its own, but as a gadfly, something to knock the complacency out of the mainline and perhaps, just perhaps, get it a little fired up again from time to time. Heaven knows, the mainline could do with being fired up! However, the mainline churches themselves are declining, and radical theologians will eventually have nothing to be gadflies to.

So what’s the problem here? Liberal/Progressive/Radical theologies are, to very many people, far more attractive and believable than is the standard evangelical message, which boils down to “We are sinners and deserve death, we need saving, Jesus died to save us, we are saved from death by making a commitment to follow Jesus”. Sadly, to me and very many people, this looks more like the message from Dorothy Sayers outlines in this post. I went into a lot more detail about why I find that message impossible to accept in my previous post.

On the whole, however, L/P/R theologies don’t have the emotional impact which the standard evangelical story has. They engage the intellect rather than the emotions, and a commitment to follow has to be an emotional commitment, quite aside the fact that the main components of faith are love and trust, both of which are more emotional than rational matters. By and large, you create emotional impact through a story, not through rational argument, and L/P/R doesn’t deliver an emotionally compelling story.

OK, these theologies may deliver a number of emotionally compelling stories (for a start, the Bible contains a lot of narratives other than “personal salvation”, some of which are major features in Judaism), but the multiplicity is confusing (particularly as some of them are mutually inconsistent), and a common feature of L/P/R theologies is that the real truth of things, the quiddity, the isness, is not knowable or only expressible as paradox. Some radical theologians identify that there is a fundamental lack in us, a yearning for something more, and where Evangelical Christianity says “It’s Jesus!” (and I’m inclined to say “It’s God”), they say that the lack is structural and cannot be filled, so we should just get used to it.

This is just not an emotionally satisfying narrative, quite apart from the fact that it argues against the validity of mystical experience, which when it has an unitive character, completely and very satisfactorily negates any sense of lack. Sadly, I cannot point to a “quick fix” route to becoming a mystic (would that I could); my initial experience of that kind was extremely powerful and came entirely out of the blue, and without a powerful base experience it is both more difficult to attain one (as I suspect) and definitely more unlikely that anyone would try.

Well, here’s a progressive evangelical suggesting that we should be less co-dependent and that  the simple message is “be transformed by Christ”. There’s mileage in that. For those who have an identifiable twelve-steppable problem, twelve step is the answer to living life despite the problem, and it requires a spiritual element; the best fit for that spiritual element is Christianity (let’s face it, although twelve step is religiously colour blind, its principles grew out of an evangelical Christian organisation). An alcoholic, for instance, might in step one admit that they were “powerless over alcohol and that their lives had become unmanageable”; for a gambler, the powerlessness would be over gambling.

Let me gently suggest that a really major problem for a very large majority of the population is powerlessness over other people. Some of us pursue a solution to this directly, entering politics or management, some indirectly via trying to make enough money that they are not dependent on anyone else, others work through manipulative personal relationships. Are our lives therefore “unmanageable”? Well, in the sense that we ultimately cannot control other people, yes.

This is co-dependency, and there is a twelve step programme for this (CODA), whose relevant step is  “We admitted we were powerless over others – that our lives had become unmanageable”. A slightly wider version admits powerlessness over persons, places and things, which should nail most of us, if not all.

Now, I’m not recruiting for CODA (I’m not a member, though I probably would qualify); there can be an answer in a local church, where you can be transformed – by Christ, by God or by the expression of Christ or God in a group of people. Perhaps this is what Liberals, Progressives and Radicals could agree is the simple message? Perhaps it’s compelling enough?

 

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