On Idols and Idolatry: Feuerbach, Trump, and Female Self-Identity

 

women-statue-cross-monumentWritten by: Christy Flanagan-Feddon

Christy Flanagan-Feddon (Ph.D. in Religion from Florida State University) is a Lecturer at the University of Central Florida.  Her teaching and research interests relate to the points of intersection between the areas of religion and identity, culture, ethics, and philosophy.

 

For the last six weeks, the world has been ablaze with the news that Donald J. Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States.  Feature news stories and social media are fixated on pondering the future implications of a Trump presidency.  One common criticism from women that frequently cuts across political lines and religious affiliations, and is offered particularly by mothers of young daughters, is a concern about the role model that a President Trump will be for young women.  We’ve all heard the sound bites from his Playboy interview, the conversation with Billy Bush, statements in the media about women, and so on.  I am also the mother of two young children, a boy and a girl, and it is of the utmost priority to me that we teach them both how to treat women with respect and expect to be treated, respectively.

So I get the worry.

I also have many concerns about a Trump presidency, namely the impact on the environment, healthcare and issues of tolerance and diversity, among others – but the impact on my daughter and her self-identity is not one of them. 

Let me tell you why.

The issue relates to the extent to which idealized external figures or influences are constitutive of human self-identity.  This relates not only to how we view ourselves as individuals, but also to how we view other human beings as well.  I think that 19th-century philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, has much to contribute to this conversation with his thoughts on religion, self-consciousness, and idolatry.

Feuerbach is probably most known for his projection theory discussed in the Essence of Christianity.  He explained that in Christian practice believers conceive of God by projecting an idealized version of human traits.  Where human beings display wisdom, love, temperance in limited and imperfect forms, God represents these traits absolutely.  In this regard, he presented an ambivalent view of religion: insofar as religious consciousness relates to a reflection on the potential of human self-identity it was positive, but it was also negative in that the emphasis on the idealized God human beings alienated themselves from their own inherent source of goodness, believing that good comes only from the ideal God and not as the own traits of our human nature.  In Feuerbach’s view, this has the consequence of human beings denying the value of our own essence, rendering us passive to the idealized God and believing that goodness comes only from this being.  He relates this to problems of not only human self-identity but also religious violence.  More on this in a moment.

In the 20th century, some authors appropriated versions of Feuerbach’s projection theory in relationship to issues of religious identity and gender.  In Sexes and Genealogies, Luce Irigaray argued that we need to posit a vision of a God with female predicates in order to help women establish a robust female self-identity in religious consciousness. This line of thinking also relates to the aforementioned concerns about the impact of the Trump presidency on women: that the positive self-identity of our young girls is dependent upon a President who affirms such views in his words and actions.

Irigaray’s model is helpful in the sense that it forces us to expand paradigms of the divine and acknowledge the importance of language and symbolism in both religious consciousness and society in general.  However, I’ve argued in other forums that this model misappropriates the most important aspects of Feuerbach’s understanding of human self-consciousness. He explains how we come to understand that our identity is not only comprised of what exists in the present state but also what is abstract or possible (for example, we might say, “I’m really mad right now, but I really should think about this situation from her point of view”).  In his view, when we think about the ideal God in religious consciousness, we are also thinking about the best version of human nature.  We need to do this in order to grow and become the best possible versions of ourselves. It’s also an activity that binds us to other human beings both morally and socially as we collectively think about the potential of the human species.

However, Feuerbach is worried that we have lost the idea that these assertions about God really begin as self-assertions about the potential of our nature.  It is on this point that Feuerbach is the most ambiguous: is he saying that “God” is nothing more than a psychological projection, or that this is what we do when we make assertions about God?  This is a complex question that I do not have the space to tackle here, but at the very least Feuerbach is speaking within the inherent limits placed on knowledge and language after Kant. Namely, I do not have knowledge of the speculative realm outside of my observation, so I can only make reference to what I see in this horizon.  In spite of his many criticisms of religion, Feuerbach believed that it was in religious consciousness that we most essentially engaged in fundamental deliberations about the nature of selfhood and the human species.

The question therefore is how do I perceive this God to which I relate in order to contemplate my potential and the potential of the human species?  In Feuerbach’s view, too often we forget the fact that the contemplation of self and God is inherently relational and an extension of the complexity of our own self-consciousness.  We become passive in the process, believing that our worth can only be given to us by an external source.  We become alienated from our own inherent goodness and this causes a number of dangerous psychological and social effects.  Not only does this alienate ourselves from our own sense of goodness, damaging our sense of self-worth, but also from the goodness we perceive in other human beings, establishing an inherent sense of competition and divisiveness.

If I am fixated on the external God and goodness only comes from this being, what happens when our definitions of God differ?  According to Feuerbach, this creates a “partisanship” that cultivates a culture of religious intolerance and even violence.  It’s also the inevitable and ironic fate of many understandings of religion: in their emphasis on the speculative and non-natural, they become fixated on their own sense of truth at the cost of all others.  In his own words, “faith gives man a peculiar sense of their own dignity and importance.  The believer finds himself distinguished above other men, exalted above the natural man.” In this hyper-exaltation, believers worship their own worshiping, they have no sense of intrinsic worth so they become fixated on a sense of worth gained through the ideal object. Sadly, they collapse into a type of idolatry themselves.

And it is on the issue of idolatry that brings us full circle.  I began this discussion with a consideration of the concern about the external influence of our future President on our children’s identities, which led us to Feuerbach, the consideration of human self-consciousness and how its misunderstandings relate to concerns of idolatry.  Yet I would argue that it is, in fact, a kind of idolatry itself that gave rise to this specific issue in the first place.  Merriam-Webster gives us two definitions of idolatry: 1) the worship of a physical object as a God; and 2) the immoderate attachment or devotion to something.

Much has been written about the underlying reasons for the Trump victory and there is no need to rehash those claims here.  However, it does seem to be well established that in spite of a general view that many believed Hillary Clinton demonstrated the competence to be President, she failed to carry the needed votes of Americans living in rural areas. Generally speaking, this constituency was disenchanted by Washington, felt that their needs were underrepresented in politics and their plight ignored.  Simply put, they felt alienated by the standard political process and were undeterred by Trump’s seeming shortcomings – in fact, some of these traits even further cemented his “outsider” reputation and gave him more validity.

If such political assessments are in fact accurate, then Merriam-Webster’s second definition above rings true here.  In a situation where a group of people feel not only unheard but powerless, Trump speaks their language and embodies their hopes. He will build the wall, apparently without cost to us.  He will personally control who is entering our country.  He will make the necessary deals and in fact “Make America Great Again.” It does not matter if these proposals end up being implausible or even potentially unreasonable.  For these voters, these are needs that must be fulfilled even if it is at the cost of creating a more divisive and fractured union. The system is broken and he will make it right.  This is a partisanship that suits not only the political definition of idolatry, but also Feuerbach’s.

So what do we tell our children regarding how to view themselves in light of our President-elect?  The same things we would tell them anyway: that they are loved and their opinions are valuable, that identity and self-worth comes from within (as people made in the image of God) and is never ultimately defined by another (lest we project our own images as idols).  We will tell them to respect and care for others, even in disagreement.  We will encourage critical thinking and seek to cultivate the confidence they need to think for themselves. If we wish for something to change, then we must consider how we can ourselves effect that change rather than believe someone or something will do it for us.

Both history and religion have surely taught us one thing—and that is to beware of false idols.

Knowing How to be the Church?

church-and-mountainsWritten by Kevin Timpe

Kevin Timpe is currently the William Harry Jellema Chair in Christian Philosophy at Calvin College. Most of his previous work has focused on agency, virtue, and issues in the philosophy of religion. These days, he thinks a lot about disability and how we could reconfigure our social structures in ways that would better include those who have them. His website can be found at kevintimpe.com.
Here’s a question I’ve been thinking about (in part because people have asked me it): What should the role of the church be in response to the turmoil of the recent election?

In one sense, this is an easy question to answer. The Church’s response should be what the Church’s response should always be. To faithfully proclaim the good news. To participate in the redemption of the entire world through sacrificial and sanctifying love. To help its members love God with all their being. To embody the Flesh broken and the Blood poured out for all humanity. To care for the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the oppressed. To lay down our lives for the lives of others.

All that is to say, the Church’s response is to be the Church—the Body of Christ—as it is called to be.

All that is, I think, true. And in one sense, that’s the most true answer I know to give. But in another sense, it’s a cop-out, a platitude, a ‘Sunday school answer’ of the sort that I’ve grown to despise. Such words may be true, but they can also ring hollow.

Even now, two weeks after the election, how does one attempt to answer this question in a non-platitudinous way, a way that doesn’t cheapen the situation our country and those in it are in by suggesting such an easy answer?

Like many other people, I don’t know. Our default, or at least my default, is to think about what needs to be done on a systemic level. End racism, sexism, economic oppression, and the continued (and likely irreversible) destruction of the environment? Of course—though I don’t know how. Organize to mobilize against the unjust, irrational, and unloving social structures that permeate our contemporary American lives? Sign me up—but someone will have to tell me the details. Take to our college campuses and streets in public protest? I’m all for it—but I hope and pray that such protests don’t inspire further violence in a deeply polarized political climate. Abolish the two party-system and the electoral college? Maybe.

But how to do any of this?

The structural issues for many of us are paralyzing. As soon as I come across what I think might be a good idea, I come across reasons why it’s a bad idea or won’t work. I, like probably millions of individuals across the country, don’t know how to take on the structural issues. I’m left in a paralyzing haze of anger, uncertainty, and good intentions run amuck.

We absolutely need to figure out these issues. We need to keep thinking about how to best work on the macro-scale to improve our country, our culture, our communities. But as we do that, we absolutely cannot wait to take small steps in our own lives, in our neighborhoods.

May I take a stand against every injustice in my local community that I see. May I help erase the racist graffiti on the houses of worship that are the object of hate. May I talk with my kids about why they shouldn’t exclude others simply because they’re different in some way, visible but ultimately unimportant. May they come to know that race, gender, sex, political affiliation, disability status, degree of beauty or socio-economic status is less important than our common humanity. May I work to make sure that people in my own community aren’t denied housing based on their refugee status or ethnicity or gender identity. May I tolerate no bullying and speak against it wherever I see it. May I model to my students that tolerating an injustice we could stand against is to be complicit in that injustice. May I not forget that nearly every economic choice I make has environmental implications that my children will have to live with. May I take steps both small and large to undermine the sexism and misogyny that is so interwoven into the fabric of our daily lives. May I admit, both to myself and in public, the ways that my privilege is largely a result of historical oppression and mistreatment, even if I played no active role in either. May I not minimize the fear that so many feel and is historically understandable simply because I am safe and likely to remain so.

And let us not forget that the Body that is broken and the Blood that is poured out for me is also poured out for my ‘political enemy’. It’s poured out for the president whom I think will be bad for our country. For those of different religious creeds and faiths. For the oppressed. And also for those who perpetrate the oppression.

How do we love the oppressed and the oppressor, without condoning the harm the latter perpetrates against the former?

If I knew that, I’d know how to be the Church.

 

When Pastors Talk Politics: A Political Scientist’s Perspective

usa-heart

Written by Danielle Vinson

Danielle Vinson is a political science professor at Furman University where she teaches courses on American Government, the Presidency, and Congress.  Her research focuses on media and politics.  She is the author of “Religion and Politics and the Media” in the Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics, and (with James L. Guth) “Misunderestimating Religion in the 2004 Presidential Campaign” in Blindspots: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion.

 

When I hear a pastor start talking politics from the pulpit, I hold my breath and wait for the cringe-worthy moment.  It’s not that I mind political talk.  I’m a political scientist; I talk politics for a living.  And it’s not that I think pastors shouldn’t discuss politics from the pulpit.  As a Christian, I believe it’s appropriate, necessary even, for pastors to address public issues from a biblical perspective and offer guidance to their congregations in response to current events.  It’s just that there are so many ways to go wrong when pastors talk politics.  They can become partisan, leaving parishioners in the opposing party to wonder where the biblical commandment regarding party affiliation appears.  Pastors can pass on speculation as fact and validate unfounded political fears that reinforce the polarization and dysfunction of our political system.  As a political scientist, I’d like to recommend a few guidelines for pastors who want to talk politics from the pulpit.

1) Stick to issues, not parties and ideologies.  The Bible offers principles that can readily be applied to issues and events.  For example, consider our responses to poverty in society.  The Bible advocates personal responsibility and also compassion for those in need, providing a rationale for policies dealing with poverty from opposing ends of the ideological spectrum.  But I find nowhere in the Bible that God has a registered party affiliation.  To suggest that one party or ideology always has the moral high ground or correctly displays a biblical worldview is to set yourself up to be labeled hypocritical when the one you’ve exalted inevitably fails.

2) Stick to your expertise. This expertise should be understood as related primarily to moral and biblical principles properly applied.  Moral issues and politics intersect in many ways.  As a political scientist, I readily admit to my students that there is a moral or religious component to many of the issues we discuss.  For example, when the Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriage is a constitutional right and some county clerks refused to grant licenses to same sex couples, I acknowledged that for some this issue was a matter of civil rights but for others it was a violation of their religious tenets.  However, I did not debate or evaluate those moral claims in my political science class; that’s beyond my expertise.  Instead, we considered how government might deal with the constitutional problem this issue raises—one person’s civil rights potentially in conflict with another person’s religious freedom.  How could we accommodate one’s religion without discriminating against the other person? That’s the political issue—not whether same sex marriage is a violation of God’s laws.

In contrast, pastors should absolutely preach on what they understand the Bible to say in relation to these issues and our individual responses to them.  I don’t, however, want to hear my pastor taking on the task of constitutional interpretation from the pulpit and claiming the court misapplied the Constitution or simplistically blaming ideology for the decision.  Leave the political explanations to the political scientists.

3) Stick to reality. Don’t acquiesce to the hype and fear conjured by candidates, parties, and the media.  MSNBC, CNN, and FOX News have one thing in common—they exist primarily to entertain, not to inform.  Consequently, they rely on drama, exaggeration, and oversimplification to evoke fear, concern, or outrage among their viewers.  If you watch FOX exclusively, you will soon fear all things liberal.  MSNBC viewers will be horrified, or mystified, by the latest conservative utterances.  And CNN viewers will fear flying and weather disasters.  And our social media echo chambers tend to reinforce whichever partisan news sources we embrace because our friends are like us.  This leaves us narrowly informed and often disconnected from political reality.  For example, in the wake of the gay marriage ruling, I heard pastors suddenly worrying they would be forced to perform gay marriage ceremonies, in part because conservative media outlets were raising the issue.  However, there is nothing in the Supreme Court ruling that requires such an outcome, and there is much in the court’s history to prevent it.  The Court protected Hobby Lobby from having to provide contraceptives it objected to, and Roe v. Wade did not force doctors to provide abortions.

What’s my point?  If you’re going to talk politics, ground your comments in reality not the hyperbolic speculation of partisan media or politicians.  Understand the issue from reputable, preferably nonpartisan, sources, or at least consult sources on different sides of the issue.

I conclude with a tale of two sermons that I recently heard from two different pastors.  One discussed the Court’s gay marriage decision and worried that religious freedom would be stripped away, forcing pastors to perform ceremonies for gay couples.  It blamed college faculty and liberal politicians for leading our country to this point.  The speaker quickly lost credibility with me (and, no doubt, my full attention) because of the unfounded speculation and the simplistic casting of blame.  The take-away from this sermon was that the country is going to hell in a hand basket, barring the appointment of more conservatives to the Court, and that college professors and liberals are undermining the moral foundation of society.

The second sermon began by mentioning the transgender bathroom debate and the unappealing presidential candidates as examples of rising fear that the world is falling apart morally.  Then, the pastor pivoted from our fallen world to God’s sovereignty and the hope Christians have in knowing that whatever is going on around us, God is in control.  I walked away from that sermon with a better understanding of how my faith should dictate my response to current events.  Instead of fear or worry about the direction of the country, I should pray to God who could do something about it.  Instead of wringing my hands and wishing for some better past, I should look hopefully to the future that God is authoring.  Instead of waiting for judgement, I should get on with doing what God has called me to do now.

The first sermon was partisan and political—blaming disfavored groups for the country’s moral decline and offering political speculation as reality in a way that simply fed the audience’s fear.  Though the problem was defined as people having departed from God’s laws, the implied solution was political, not theological.  The second sermon focused on biblical principles and how they should affect Christians’ responses to the unsettling political world in which they live.  In the first sermon, I found cringe-worthy moments throughout and exasperation with the factual inaccuracies.  In the second sermon, I did not cringe but found guidance in applying my faith to current events because the pastor did his job, not mine.

 

Bending the Formats of Liturgy: An Interview with Edward F. Mooney

church in woods

Edward F. Mooney is an Emeritus Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book, Excursions with Thoreau, Philosophy, Poetry, Religion was published by Bloomsbury in 2015, and he has also published numerous books on Kierkegaard. He still writes on Kierkegaard, and contributes to the interdisciplinary blog Zeteo on everything from Bach to Wittgenstein. He settled into Portland, Maine, after two years living and teaching at Tel Aviv and Hebrew Universities. He plays chamber music (violin and viola) and sings (bass). In a breakaway moment, he’s delivered several sermons at a local church. His email is efmooney@syr.edu.

J. Aaron Simmons (JAS): You have spent most of your life as a philosopher working on the thought of the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. He had a notoriously difficult relationship with the Lutheran Church in Denmark. That said, how has thinking with Kierkegaard helped you to think about the relationship between philosophy and the church here in your own context? Do you think that there are specific things that Kierkegaard’s critique of “Christendom” can offer to us here and now as resources for reconsidering church practice?

 Edward F. Mooney (EFM): Thanks for opening up this informal dialogue, Aaron. I’m quite surprised that I now give occasional sermons and perform occasional weddings. I’ve had no pastoral training, and although when I was ten my minister’s wife told me that I should become a minister, by the time I was twenty I’m sure she would have recanted. For the next five decades or so I studied and taught philosophy and kept a friendly distance from both from church and divinity schools. This is my first attempt to say something coherent about this late-life transition. Your questions will guide.

You ask about Kierkegaard’s battle with the Danish Lutheran establishment.  Kierkegaard’s anger at the State Church for its pomp and circumstance is paired contrastively, in my mind, with his quite reverent listening attentiveness to folk of all sorts with whom he fell in stride and conversation on his daily walks. He had no anger but only respect, perhaps gentle love, for them. He was not a grump or misanthrope or intellectual elitist. In a sense (for me, at least) his church was the streets.

Of course this is a very personal image of him that I share now, but it’s one way to see my own sense of a terrain where one can be fully Christian, as Kierkegaard was, without fussing over doctrine or chapel attendance.

Another angle on Kierkegaard comes from my immersion in his labyrinthine, explosive, strangely gentle, often perplexing texts. I love the challenge. I love the fact that a writer can be simultaneously soaringly philosophical, literary, and dramatic, so brilliantly intelligent, so satirically cutting. And entertaining. And funny. And sermonic. He defies genre-schemes and categories of mood, writing temperament, or style.

His writing is more a scattered, impulsive barrage of creativity that an ordered easy-to-follow oeuvre. We find an overwhelming variety of paragraphs on an overwhelming variety of issues wherever we dip into his volumes upon volumes.

How does all this bear on the practice of the church? I suppose it’s an invitation to improvisation, to bend formats of liturgy, to encourage daring sermonic and liturgical imagination. And it’s an invitation to listen to street conversation.

Dogma and doctrine should cohere in theory. But Kierkegaard is non-doctrinaire and anti-dogmatic—which is to my taste. I am always more interested in the snippet, the paragraph, the three pages here or there, full of almost random insight—rather than in any supposed grand thesis.

As you know, we’re in the midst of this conversation because I’m eager to make better sense of my migration in the past year or so into a wonderful church community in Portland, Maine. This is after a life-time of being a respectful outsider—apart from the pleasure of frequent choir and chorus performance in various sanctuaries, and youthful, pre-college memories.  This change is slowly getting into focus, but by bit. There was no grand revelation or conversion experience. But Kierkegaard and Thoreau give me lots of tools for understanding it.

I guess my take on things now, with regard to Kierkegaard’s relevance to church practice, is that a church can, and should, gently spill into the streets, and it should welcome the streets to enter under its roof, setting aside for as long as possible confessional commitments or family lineage and upbringing as litmus tests preliminary to soulish encounter. A church should welcome good-hearted improvisation and imagination.

Exchange among souls, co-mingling, is primary. Rigid adherence to set doctrines or practices is secondary. I find Kierkegaard to be an anti-dogmatist through and through. And he had what I’d call a street—and literary—religious practice. In a provocative moment from a posthumous typescript, he writes “I am not a Christian”—and yet he’s as Christian as can be. Bruce Kirmsse calls this Kierkegaard’s “sublime lie.” [See his essay in Anthropology and Authority: Essays on Søren Kierkegaard, ed. by Poul Houe, Gordon D. Marino, Rodopi 2000.]

I think Kierkegaard has taught me, over the years, to become progressively sensitive to what is soul rather than self—where ‘self’ has come to be too wedded to self-assertion and getting ahead in life.  You might say that Kierkegaard teaches us to exchange self for soul, and to see soul as both inner and outer, as a matter of what we do in solitude, but also of how we listen to the souls of others, and through openness to them, nourish and be nourished.  Thus we become who we are, fluid ensembles of listeners and singers who periodically break into solos only to return to duets or larger groups.  But all this verges on philosophical-theological reflection rather than on what Kierkegaard can inspire with regard to church practice.

(JAS): Your own story is interesting in that you have recently begun offering “sermons” in Christian contexts. How does delivering an academic lecture differ from offering such sermons? What do you think academics and pastors can learn from each other in this regard?

(EFM): I’m only a beginner here, but the challenge is to speak to an intelligent and caring but non-academic audience. One can become stale taking only to professors, graduate students, and undergraduates.  Topics or themes I’d use in a university setting need to be refreshed with a new ‘public’ in mind.  And I suspect facility gaining audiences outside a university can’t help but to enhance their success in reaching the hearts and minds of students.

I might digress here to urge that teachers in the humanities take their vocation as a ministry to souls reaching for depth and maturity. Too often classes are conceived as a locus for information-transfer or practice in writing. I’ve written quite a bit about teaching, at its best, being a form of passionate speech meant as an invitation to realign the soul. Teaching should resemble 40 minutes with Kierkegaard or Thoreau as they entice us with words rather than a training session on mastering a new computer app or new methodology for research.

I like the challenge of a twenty-minute talk to a congregation that carries (I hope) a vibrancy we weed out in professional deliveries, and a sense that the soul is to be rent or uplifted. I think the congregation I face is not afraid of difficult thought if it’s delivered poetically. It’s not just the rhythms of delivery but also a down-to-earth diction that nevertheless sparkles.  The congregation is for the most part loyal and welcoming in listening, not distracted by thoughts of rushing to a next class or by worry about tests—or by the glance from next row down.

In the congregation I’ve joined I’m not restricted in sermons to biblical commentary—I might start recalling a scriptural passage, but I can quickly wander. I can learn the discipline of scriptural interpretation, a boon. And I suppose some pastors might be intrigued both by my wandering and by my discipline in listening to language philosophically.

(JAS): Postmodernism is often seen by many in the church as a significant threat to Christian Truth (always expressed with a capital-T). Alternatively, many postmodern philosophers suggest that postmodernism is what makes Christianity possible again after the “death of God” as it were. How do you think pastors and academics can work together in a postmodern world to navigate this tension? 

(EFM): I’m old enough to remember when existentialism was seen as a threat to Christian Truth. Existentialism became atheism, pure and simple. When French Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and Post-modernism moved center stage, they too were regarded as a threat.  But individual thinkers are almost always more nuanced and rewarding than a general rubric like “Post-modernism” or “Existentialism.” I read Sartre and Kierkegaard, Marcel and Tillich, and discover riches unavailable if I try to characterize “Existentialism” or “Death of God Theology” or “Post-modernism” in the abstract.

I suppose if we focus on the demise of “Big-T-truth,” we might have a manageable theme for discussion.  But I’m cautious here, too, even though I’ve written on “Tactile Truth” and “Truth in the Trenches.”

Donald Trump is sometimes announced as having opened post-truth politics. If so, it’s time to defend truth—period.  When I think of the philosophers I most admire—say Kierkegaard and Thoreau—I’m not sure they were devoted to “Big-T-truth,” though they weren’t out to deconstruct it, either. I suspect they thought it was an issue beyond their ken, for only the gods to debate and decide (keeping their conclusions to themselves). I suspect they thought that truths saturate everyday life and appear glancingly in transcendent moments in everyday life. That’s where they’d focus their efforts.

I suspect that for Kierkegaard and Thoreau, debates about “Big-T-truth” would fall into the same collection can as debates about proofs for the existence of God.

Maybe I’m stuck with pre-post-modern texts; that would account for my flat-footedness in responding to your question. Musing, I’d rather construct and sing praises than deconstruct. I’m a romantic at heart. I want to build castles, or admire them, or admire their ruins, or study their blue-prints, or get a photo of sunrise behind the spire, dappling a meadow. Believe it or not, that’s philosophy and theology for me.

My most recent paper is on Moby Dick as fluid, episodic philosophy-literature-theology-disaster with a strong dash of demonism, but also a song in praise of life, spirit, and soul, and full of truths scattered all about.

Wittgenstein is not Melville, but he too is a religious-existentialist-romantic, unafraid of episodic illumination and absence of grand theory. If we turned to perplexities about truth or truths, he’d ask us to attend to ‘truly sorry,’ ‘true friend,’ ‘true pitch,’ ‘truthfulness,’ or ‘truing up the angle.’ These exercises would shed light on our quite legitimate and wide ranging craving for truth.

(JAS): What two or three books do you wish all pastors would read? Why?

(EFM): I’d want to know what a pastor has already read, and where her passions lie. There are three retired pastors in my congregation, and one is reading Martha Nussbaum, whom I recommended.  He’s looking for clues for changing our feelings from worse to better. Nussbaum’s Fragility of Goodness is wonderfully moving and helps place positive emotions, love and friendship, back to the center of human existence.

James Edward’s The Plain Sense of Things: the fate of religion in an age of normal nihilism is inspiring and always insightful. He discusses, among others, Heidegger, Thoreau, and Kierkegaard as thinkers who have not utterly abandoned a religious sensibility.

I think Kierkegaard’s “Lilies of the Fields and Birds of the Air” is exemplary in embodying lyrical spiritual insight. Of course, I’m still giddy from immersion in Thoreau, a first-rate poet, philosopher, and religious thinker. I’d recommend dipping here and there in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

And I’d recommend Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, by Paul Woodruff. All of these books evince sensitivity to theology, philosophy, literature, and a moral-religious sensibility. They help dissolve the great walls between these domains of thought, feeling, and expression, and help energize an ecumenical spirit among those of faith, faithful doubters, and those who admire faith even while lacking it.

Thanks, Aaron, for prompting my thought on these issues, unfinished as it is.

Thinking, Talking, and Doing: Reflections on Gender Roles in the Church

men in churchWritten by Anna Brinkerhoff

Anna is currently working on her Ph.D. in philosophy at Brown University. Born and raised the child of a campus minister in Auburn, AL, she received her B.A. in philosophy from Pepperdine University in 2015. Her philosophical interests lie in epistemology, moral psychology, and philosophy of religion.

 Confession: A few weeks ago, I snapped at someone I care deeply about. He and I were talking theology, I felt dismissed, and I responded in a condescending if-they-can-take-me-seriously-in-the-ivy-league-so-can-you sort of way. He called me out on it. And I’m glad he did, in part, because it gave me a chance to apologize. But also because it made me reflect on why I reacted uncharacteristically defensively.

Upon reflection, I figured out why: this summer, I’ve been listening to a slew of thinkers from the Calvinist tradition who preach a view known as conservative complementarianism. They contend that I should devote myself to a husband I don’t have, that I should defer to men in conversation (even if I’m smarter or better educated), and that it’s problematic for me to teach men about theology (even in written form!). Whether they’re right or wrong, and even if I don’t think they’re right, it’s belittling. And, in response to feeling belittled by them, I’ve developed a temporary sensitivity to being dismissed intellectually by Christian men. Hence why I snapped at one a few weeks ago.

This got me thinking: listening to Calvinists preach conservative complementarianism this summer affected me so much that it altered my behavior in at least one obvious and unsavory way. How much, then, did growing up in a congregation that practiced conservative complementarianism affect me?

My home congregation is a lovely congregation. It brims with smart, servant-hearted Jesus followers who taught me a lot and loved me well. But, as with many congregations in my tradition, and many congregations from other traditions in the Bible Belt, it severely limited the roles of women. Women did not occupy leadership roles. During corporate worship, we did not make announcements or lead singing or read Scripture. We did not say prayers. And we did not teach.

Upon reflection, I realized that my church background affected me quite a bit, personally, yes, but also professionally.

I want to share some of my reflections with you.

Reflection #1: When I began doing philosophy in college, I didn’t speak in class. I had things to say, but I couldn’t bring myself to say them. It’s something I agonized over: I was failing to meet an academic standard that I was expected to meet. In fact, I almost quit philosophy over it. Of course, my quietness in class stemmed from shyness and intellectual insecurities. But I think it stemmed, too, from a message that I internalized from growing up in a congregation that forbade the voices of women in corporate worship. Because, just like the philosophy classroom, corporate worship is a formal setting in which we talk about the most important things, about matters of heart and mind and soul. Growing up, then, I imbibed the message that, in formal settings, the most important things are talked about by men (and only men). People like me didn’t – and shouldn’t – speak about those sorts of things in those sorts of settings. That’s the message I carried with me into the philosophy classroom. And it’s taken me a long time and ample encouragement – much of which I’ve received from wonderful and affirming Christian men, including my father and my undergraduate philosophy professors – to embrace a different message: when it comes to the most important things, my voice matters, too. Even in formal settings.

Reflection #2: In grad school, I do philosophy with a community of non-Christians. Among them, it’s automatically assumed that my voice always belongs, that my voice always counts equally. I don’t have to fight for my voice to be heard. I don’t fear that someone will cringe or walk out when I speak up. I don’t feel that others are doing me a favor by letting me speak. My voice is welcomed, not just tolerated. In fact, my voice is required. And that’s liberating. Today, I find myself flourishing intellectually in a community of non-Christians to an extent that I’ve never before flourished in communities of Christians. I don’t know what that says about the church, but I don’t think that it says anything good.

Reflection #3: When I speak about important things in a community of Christians, I feel like I am representing all women. And I worry that, if what I say isn’t good enough, they might not ask a woman back again. What’s more, I feel that, as a woman, if my ideas are going to be heard in the religious circles that I care most about – which is important to me not because they’re my ideas, but, I hope, because they’re ideas worth considering – they have to be so good, communicated so effectively, and written about so clearly that they can’t be ignored. That, my friends, is a heavy burden to carry.

I share these reflections in hopes of making this point: your beliefs about gender roles in the church are important.

Beliefs that, when acted upon, affect many people in big ways are important. And how the church involves women, and how it restricts us, affects us (half of the church body!) in big ways. It affects us profoundly and on many levels: psychologically, and spiritually, and intellectually. It affects our minds and hearts, in our careers, and in our homes. Especially if they’re ones that tend to affect women negatively, then, your beliefs about women’s roles are worth thinking twice about. They’re worth talking about, and, perhaps, doing something about.

What does this look like? Here’s the practical, tangible, and specific.

  1. Think about it. Critically evaluate your beliefs on women’s roles.
    1. Read people who disagree with you. If you’re a conservative complementarian, “Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism” by John Stackhouse is a great place to start.
    2. Seek guidance from someone with formal exegetical training – a pastor or professor, perhaps – who can point out things you may not have thought of. With one eye on the cross, and informed by their context, re-approach troubling parts of Scripture.
  1. Talk about it. Nothing is going to change tomorrow unless we talk about it today. We’re all already breaking the no-religion-or-politics-at-the-kitchen-table rule this election cycle. So instead of bemoaning Trump’s latest gaffe, for example, let’s talk about something that’s actually worth talking about.
  1. Do something about it. To the extent that your theological convictions allow, take extra measures to include the voices of women.
    1. Ask us what we think, and listen to what we say. And then challenge our ideas, push back on us, and give us constructive feedback: it lets us know that you’re taking us seriously!
    2. Assume that we want to participate in theological conversations. It’s been my experience that, when the conversation steers toward theology, men assume that women don’t want to take part. I wonder what would happen if men started consistently assuming the opposite. My guess is that, with an increase in contributions from women, our theology would be richer, the brain of the body of Christ would grow bigger and brighter, and a sense of shared intellectual responsibility would foster unity across genders within churches.
    3. Appreciate that not all women are cut out of the same cloth: some of us have gifts that lend themselves to something other than attending nursery and organizing potlucks. Invite us to use those gifts – whatever they are – to do good kingdom work: there’s nothing more we’d rather do with them than that, and there’s nothing that hurts more than when we’re told we can’t.

After doing these things, you may end up even more convinced of your original opinions. But you may end up with a changed mind. Or – like me! – you may end up even more confused than when you started. If this is the case – if it’s unclear which one is the right view on gender roles within Christianity – I encourage you to err on the side of love and mercy in your practice. That is, after careful consideration, if you’re unsure about whether view A or view B is the right view, and view A is more affirming of women, act on view A.

Let me be clear about my goal in sharing these reflections with you: I’m not giving you reason to think that one view on women’s roles is true, or that another is false. And I’m not suggesting that you should believe a certain way. Honestly, I don’t know exactly what to believe myself! What I am suggesting is that these beliefs are important and that they need to be handled with care. After all, these beliefs are not merely abstract points of theological doctrine: they impact the daily lives and self-conceptions of many people in our churches. And so for the sake of your daughters, of your sisters, of your wives, of your friends, for Christ’s sake: think about it, and talk about it, and maybe even do something about it.

The Future of Evangelical Colleges: From Neo-Evangelicalism to Neo-Fundamentalism?

Written by Bruce Ellis Benson

Bruce Ellis Benson is Executive Director of the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology. He works in aesthetics, hermeneutics, phenomenology, and philosophy of religion. He is the author or editor of a dozen books. Among his most recent books are Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship and (with J. Aaron Simmons) The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction.

old cross

 

Whatever else resulted from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth-century, the fundamentalists emerged rather scathed. At least in the eyes of much of society, they appeared to be ignorant and backward. Even the fundamentalist Bernard Ramm once wrote of his fellow fundamentalists that “many times they were dogmatic beyond evidence, or were intractable of disposition, or were obnoxiously anti-cultural, anti-scientific, and anti-educational.”

There’s an old joke to the effect that “fundamentalism” is “no fun, all damn, and no mental.” To what extent that was simply a caricature is certainly open to debate. Yet what is not at all open to debate is that fundamentalists were largely marginalized, both by themselves and by society at large. Partly this results from the very ideal of fundamentalism, the insistence that true Christians should be “set apart” from society at large. Thus, fundamentalists practiced what was called “double separationism,” and so attempted to have as little to do with “the world” as possible. With this in mind, for instance, it’s not surprisingly that fundamentalists didn’t go to Hollywood movies or Broadway plays: they realized that paying for a ticket was subsidizing industries that they saw as inimical to their very identity. Of course, Hollywood and Broadway returned the favor: fundamentalist Christians were generally portrayed as out-of-touch bumpkins.

But, in the forties, a certain group of fundamentalists wanted to break away from that identity and perception. They wanted a different sort of climate, one that still held to what they perceived as the fundamentals of the Christian faith, but without being dogmatic and divisive. They were open to scientific research and education in general. They were also open to historical-critical study of the Bible. In short, they wanted to move away from the fear that had generated fundamentalism in the first place. Among these reformers were Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry. They realized that, if they were to become relevant to society at large, they had to move away from their narrow enclaves and become players in a broader cultural context. But given their fundamentalist history and the prominent social perceptions of that history, they needed a serious makeover. In place of the word “fundamentalist,” they adopted the word “evangelical” or “neo-evangelical.” To be sure, the word “evangelical” had been around for a long time, but now it was being repurposed. It was a shrewd move. The fundamentalists were known for their fiery rhetoric against the “liberals,” but these new evangelicals wanted to tone things down. Not surprisingly, the classic fundamentalists responded, well, just as you would expect. John R. Rice wrote: “Although they claim to believe the Bible, they are buddy-buddies with the infidels who spit on the blood of Jesus, deny the inspiration of the Bible and the blood of the atonement, while they despise us fundamentalists.” Showing the historical connection between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, the historian George Marsden defines a fundamentalist as “an evangelical who is angry about something.”

The questions and challenges faced by Graham and Henry are not simply of historical note. They remain important today in the context of the very evangelical colleges and universities that were established in light of the neo-evangelical upsurge. But, how does one, practically, continue to move away from the angry, fearful world of fundamentalism within an evangelical academic setting? One way is to broaden the curriculum to include more mainstream theology while teaching students theories regarding how the Bible came to be within specific historical and cultural settings. Or, another way might be to take philosophy seriously and to present evolution as a view worth considering. Further, one might invite speakers to campus who don’t necessarily sound or look like the student body or faculty. Yet another way is to admit of disagreement and allow flexibility regarding lifestyle expectations for both faculty and students. Such steps are certainly in keeping with the history of evangelical colleges. For example, it is hard for many students at such colleges today to fathom that, not so long ago, students were not allowed to use tobacco or alcohol or attend movies or play cards, and that their professors were expected to live by the same rules. In general, most evangelical colleges have made these and other moves in the attempt to live into the dual vision of the initial neo-evangelical reformers: standing for what they took to be Christian truth while also standing for the importance of intellectual rigor. In other words, evangelical colleges have historically been defined by an attempt to bring the life of the mind and the life of faith together as a lived reality.

All along, though, faculty at these institutions realized that there were limits as to just how much they could say and what they could teach, even if those limits were constantly changing and never perfectly defined as evangelicalism itself continued to change. Yet before we can address this concern, it is important to set these limitations in a wider context. Consider the following claim: “We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like or where we like.” While that line could easily come from a professor at an evangelical college, it is actually from a lecture (L’ordre du discours) Michel Foucault gave at the Collège de France in 1970. In other words, there are always boundaries, whether we are talking about colleges, or the Rotary Club, or your kid’s soccer game. One can argue that the climate—at least in American colleges and universities—is more restrictive than it would have been for Foucault in Paris. Today it is common to hear that “political correctness” restricts speech on college campuses, both by faculty and students (and even speakers who get “uninvited” if they are perceived to be saying something one can’t say). No doubt, these complaints have some basis in fact. Yet the idea of “political correctness” hadn’t even been invented when Foucault made that statement. Indeed, Foucault is speaking about social discourse in general, not just academic discourse.

So what do we make of his point about discursive limits when applied to the task and identity of evangelical colleges? Some might argue that evangelical colleges actually are more upfront than secular institutions about what can and cannot be said, since the former have doctrinal statements and the latter don’t. The thinking behind this line of argumentation is quite simple: every place has its exclusions and prohibitions, but they are more explicit at evangelical colleges due to their Christian commitments. In such cases, maybe it is better because at least you know which things are not open to discussion. In contrast, at secular institutions, very little is spelled out and yet the limits continue to exist. There is something to this argument that should not be too quickly ignored. By having a doctrinal statement that everyone is expected to endorse, the limitations are made public. Most evangelical colleges even have such statements on their websites.

Yet, as always, the devil is in the details. What normally is not published—on websites or anywhere else—is exactly what those statements (and individual clauses) mean and, more important, what those statements entail. In regard to the former, if the clause concerns something like the inerrancy of the Bible, what does it mean to say that the Bible has no errors? In other words, define “error.” This seems like an easy enough task, until one actually tries to do it. Socrates was particularly deft at showing that things like “virtue” that we all supposedly understand turn out to be really difficult to define. Alternatively, by entailments, I simply mean: if you believe X, what other things are you thereby affirming (however implicitly)?

It should go without saying that documents are not self-interpreting (though perhaps our current cultural and political climate would benefit from more people actually saying it more often). The stability of a doctrinal statement depends upon who gets to do the defining and determining the entailments. So things aren’t nearly as cut and dried as they might seem. With this in mind, the argument that evangelical colleges are more upfront about their prohibitions than secular institutions loses a good deal of its force because it all depends on

  • how narrowly or broadly these documents are interpreted,
  • how far reaching those entailments go, and
  • who defines these two items.

Likely, this varies significantly among evangelical institutions. So one needs to know the culture of the institution in order to know how its principal documents have been interpreted and what the entailments are as a result. But then we are right back to the situation found on secular campuses, namely that there are unwritten codes about what you can and cannot say. Since they are unwritten, a faculty member has to figure them out by asking colleagues (who may or may not be forthcoming, often out of fear). So, not only is discussion limited by explicit statements, it is likewise limited by all of the implicit statements that go along with them. And one may not find out what those implicit statements actually are until one has already said something that conflicts with them. But by then it may be too late. If you add into the equation that the doctrinal statements of most evangelical colleges take quite a lot off of the table for discussion to begin with, then it is hard to think that evangelical colleges really have as much intellectual freedom as might be ideally desired for an academic institution, regardless of its religious affiliation.

You may have noticed that the title of this blog post ends with a question mark. That is because I’m wondering what is happening at evangelical colleges, today, at this particular moment in time. Part of why I say that I am “wondering” about this, rather than that I believe that such and such is the case for them, is that there are quite a few evangelical colleges and it would be rather presumptuous to claim to understand them all. Actually, it’s hard enough to understand any one in particular. As Foucault also reminds us, discourses aren’t really “owned” by anyone. Power is much more diffuse than that. So one can’t point to faculty or students or administration and say “well, there’s your answer” to the state of evangelical colleges.

Still, my question boils down to this: are evangelical colleges at risk of sliding from neo-evangelicalism to something like “neo-fundamentalism”? In other words, are evangelical colleges (or perhaps evangelicals in general) making a retreat from the world and embracing a new sort of solitude? Fundamentalism, as we noted, is not just about standing for the truth but doing so in a way in which one purposely separates oneself from the “world.” Here I should point out that this question cannot be answered simply by saying “this is what evangelical colleges are ‘intending’ to do.” The famous principle of double effect is that one might well intend to do X and, in so doing, also do Y. So I’m not asking whether evangelical colleges are explicitly moving to neo-fundamentalism. Instead, I’m asking whether, given the ways in which they are responding to the world around them, neo-fundamentalism is actually the direction they are heading even without realizing it or intending to do so. Further, and perhaps this is where the real rubber meets the road, if they are sliding toward neo-fundamentalism, does this mean that they are becoming culturally irrelevant as a result?

Perhaps my question comes as a surprise. After all, there was a time during which evangelicals as a whole exerted an important influence on politics or culture at large in the US. Because of the election of Jimmy Carter, Newsweek named 1976 “the year of the evangelical” (a bit premature, since many evangelicals hate him—and I choose the word “hate” quite deliberately). In 2000, George W. Bush, a self-identified evangelical, became president. Even as recently as 2005, Time had a cover story on “America’s Twenty-Five Most Influential Evangelicals.” Yet, even though political commentators still talk about the “evangelical vote,” that influence seems to be waning. In effect, evangelicals marched right into the culture wars—and were soundly defeated. My impression of evangelical colleges is that they are hunkering down, rightly realizing that they are increasingly in the minority when it comes to academic institutions generally and, more specifically, the broad trends of cultural awareness and political orientations of the students they have traditionally attracted. And this gets us back to the whole motivation of fear. Earlier, we noted that fundamentalism was motivated by fear of the modernists. But were Graham and Henry—and those who followed in their footsteps—ever able to get beyond that fundamentalist fear? From all of my exposure to evangelicalism, I simply can’t think of a more powerful motivating emotion in its history.

So I wonder if that fear, which at best went underground in evangelicalism but was really running the show all along, has now become so acute that, in place of the expansion into the world at large, evangelical colleges are slowly creeping back toward their fundamentalist strongholds. It seems that they are not just holding on to the fundamentals of the faith, as it were, but are seeking a new sort of double separation from anything that is other than their own interpretation of those fundamentals (and the entailments of that interpretation). That fear of the other might be understood as directed toward “liberal” Christians (with whom they cannot associate for fear of being made “unclean”), or perhaps it can be seen in all-too-thinly-veiled attacks on Muslims, or even completely unveiled attacks on gays and transgendered people. Or, and perhaps this is the most troubling for both the church and the academy, maybe it is most often manifest in the difficulty of evangelical colleges (and, for that matter, evangelical churches) coping with faculty and students who simply ask too many questions.

Is what Graham and Henry tried in effect a grand experiment that is at risk of ultimately failing? Or is it slowly in the process of being revealed as the sham it always was such that evangelicals simply are fundamentalists—whether angry or not? Perhaps it is too soon to tell.

 

On Commonalities and Differences: How Intellectual Complexities Can Increase Worship

TreeWritten by John Lancaster

John Lancaster is a husband of 1, a father of 5, a campus minister who is in need of Jesus’ grace all the time. Just ask my family! I have been with Cru for 19 years in the Upstate of South Carolina while the last 6 years have been with Faculty Commons, the Cru ministry to professors at Clemson University and other colleges and universities in the Upstate.

 
When Aaron Simmons asked me to write something for Philosophy goes to Church, I felt appreciation and fear. I felt appreciation because the integration of faith and scholarship/work has become a passion/interest of mine over the past 8-10 years of ministry to professors and college students. I felt fear because of my worry that my writing would be judged as subpar by those very professors with whom I have worked. But I will try.

As a young Christian in college, it bothered me when friends stated after failing an exam, “It will burn anyways,” as an excuse for not studying. It seemed to me that college was a great place for ministry because of the people, but it should be a great place to learn about God’s creation whether it is Bernoulli’s Principle, or Thermodynamics, or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Self-Actualization. To dismiss the importance of the life of the mind is not to take Christianity more seriously, but to downplay its relationship to serious thinking. Now years later as I have transitioned from working directly in college student ministry to faculty ministry, this realization can provide Christian professors with a God-given purpose to their teaching and research.

In this challenge to integrate my faith with and my academic setting and interests, I was influenced early on by two books: Love God with all your Mind (1997) by J. P. Moreland. and Darwin’s Black Box (1996) by Michael Behe. Moreland makes the general claim that from the Second Century C.E until 150 years ago, the Christian pastor was the most educated person in a community. Now, however, too many Christians are seen as anti-intellectual, Illogical, bigoted and ignorant. Sadly, for many Christians, there is good reason for such labels. Moreland compellingly argues that Christians have drawn back from intellectual and academic engagements with their faith, and have resorted to a simplistic response of “Take it by faith.” Despite such a situation, Moreland gives hope that the Christian community can recover its intellectual foundation in order to give hope and blessing to this world. While Moreland opened my eyes to the wider world with his account of the historical context, Behe opened up the molecular world to me in his account of the way that life itself requires serious intellectual consideration. He used several chapters to discuss the molecular complexities of such common items and events such as the cilium, the bacterial flagellum, and blood clotting. I am still amazed whenever I or one of my children have a cut or scrape because the body begins 27 chemical switches to make the blood clot so we don’t bleed out. Being aware of those complexities increases my worship, not decreases it.

As I have thought about this struggle between Intellect/the Academy and Faith/the Church, I wanted to think through what values are inherent in these two as well as the challenges and opportunities that these values represent and those for which they allow.

In my limited experience, here are some things that the Academy values:

  • Books (peer-reviewed, intellectual, not popular bestsellers unless it matches the Academy’s priorities and focus)
  • Research
  • Logic
  • Position
  • Credited sources

It does not value:

  • Personal feelings or opinions unless supported by logic and/or research or a respected source

Alternatively, the Church values:

  • Faith
  • Humility
  • Authoritative Scripture/sources
  • Logic

One might think there isn’t much common ground between these two areas, but I would offer a few areas of commonality:

  • Humility: This is valued in the church by name. In the Academy it is not valued by that term, but in all articles, books, papers authors cite their sources. One does not take credit for someone else’s work. There is a humility in giving others credit. There is also the threat of plagiarism but its root is in honesty and not taking credit for something one didn’t do.
  • Authoritative sources: The two groups don’t agree on which sources are authoritative, but they do value sources.
  • Logic: Both groups value logic and supporting their claims, yet probably most in the church have not been trained in Logic or Critical thinking skills like professors have been, and what counts as support might look different in the different communities (in some ways this results from the different authoritative sources operative in the different spaces).

In light of these commonalities, there are still important challenges that remain for a substantive engagement between the church, specifically the Evangelical church, and the academy.

Generally the evangelical church as a whole:

  • Doesn’t read much (a lot depends on specific denominational tradition here)
  • Fails to think about the other person’s point of view, but instead reads disagreement as a sign of someone’s being immature or immoral
  • Can be Argumentative in ways that stifle genuine argument
  • Fails to appreciate the expertise that professors have as an important resource for the church

Alternatively, generally the Academy:

  • Reads voraciously, but this can create a situation in which it is difficult for the church to catch up
  • Is particular about words in ways that can put off outsiders without the technical background and vocabulary
  • Fails to think about the other person’s view, especially when that “other” is not also an academic
  • Can be argumentative in ways that assume all engagement must be argumentative

Importantly, however, these differences can make for unique opportunities that should not be missed by either the church or the academy. 

Within the Church: By embracing the Academy, the Church can re-open a world of history & science that has been hidden. This leads to greater worship as we discover the complexity of life. In the past, I would gloss over the miracles that Jesus and others accomplished like they were cool magic tricks. I didn’t put much thought into them. But as I am beginning to understand the need to worship well and to think deeply, I see biblical miracles not as magic tricks but as a matter of complex healing. In order to heal someone of blindness Jesus would need to repair the optic nerve, rods, cones, lens, pupil, etc. He must understand it and control it all on a molecular level, even an atomic and subatomic level! So knowledge can lead to greater worship, not less.

Within the Academy: Professors want to meet life-long learners. Generally, faculty are thrilled to find someone interested in their work. They can be surprised when Christians demonstrate humility and interest in academic pursuits which in turn can open doors to further dialogue.

I would love to see the church value higher education in substantive and theological ways, not just as a matter of bragging about what college one’s child gets into. Instead, higher education should be a place where Christians pursue graduate degrees, cultivate trust in God for answers to tough research questions, and welcome truth seekers. Ultimately, the university can be a place where doubters are encouraged by Christians who are professors, rather than simply a place that pastors warn their congregants to avoid for fear of their becoming atheists, or even worse, liberals. When we pay attention to the commonalities and also the differences between the church and the academy, we can better appreciate the ways in which differences do not need to be signs of antagonism, but rather sites for mutual understanding, and more effectively appropriate the commonalities as foundations for continued work together.

How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling

Written by Mark Reynolds as a follow up to last week’s post about the Culture of Success.

Mark E. Reynolds is currently the senior pastor at Shepherd’s Community United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL, but will be moving to First UMC Cocoa Beach, FL, in June 2016. The author of New Life in Christ: Understanding Your Decision to Follow Jesus and Finding Your Next Steps, Reynolds holds graduate degrees from Emory University and Vanderbilt University and teaches as part of the course of study at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

prayer

 

 

 

 

 

Dear God,

Ministry is wearing me out, and I’m not seeing the kind of fruit I envisioned at the beginning. I’ve become so busy doing your work that my devotional life is a distant memory. I know that I should practice what I preach, so I’m recommitting myself to daily spiritual discipline.

I’m confident that this will improve my life. Spending time with you will lead to a deeper sense of peace, joy, and wisdom, making me more attractive to others. I’m also convinced that more devotional time will help me write better sermons that draw bigger crowds.

As these crowds are transformed by my anointed preaching, they will gain buy-in to what we are doing around here and the money will finally start to flow! The church will pay all of its bills—including one-hundred percent of apportionments. The excess that is “pressed down, shaken together, and running over,” will be used to improve our environments, technology, production value, and programing. We will hire new staff and start new building campaigns. Since people want to feel like they are part of an organization that really makes a difference in the world, we will increase our missional giving and constantly remind everyone of the difference their money is making through heartwarming stories. All of this will bring in more people and expand our influence in the surrounding community.

Given the world in which we live, all of this will be highly visible on social media. As my colleagues see posts touting my accomplishments in ministry, I’ll be admired (and maybe even envied). The District Superintendent will promote my church as a model of vitality, and (knowing how important I have become) exempt me from mandatory clergy meetings. The Bishop will see me as a rising star in the Conference, and my hard work will be reward with more prestigious and lucrative appointments. I will be recruited into the inner circles of the higher-ups and consulted on important issues in the life of the church. These accolades will open doors for publishing opportunities and speaking engagements. Given all this evidence, there will be no doubt that I am a good pastor.

Thank you, God, for the spiritual disciples, for the tools that allow me to advance on the way of salvation. Give me the strength to persist in daily devotion and reward my obedience with success, so that people will know that I’m living in your will.

In all of this, may you be glorified. Less of me and more of you.

In Jesus name, amen.

__________________

This “make believe” prayer articulates the temptation of pastors inhabiting a culture driven by an obsession with success. It is in no way intended to be an insult to my clergy friends who serve large congregations, especially since those of us serving smaller churches are probably more susceptible to this corruption of our calling. One of my clergy friends serving a huge church once told me that the only difference between my job and his was about three zeros added to all of our common problems. What is at stake in this imaginative exercise is not church size. Small, medium, and large churches can be healthy or unhealthy. The real issue is related to our motivation and value system. Are we pursuing success or faithfulness?

Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?

 

Written by Mark E. Reynolds

Mark E. Reynolds is currently the senior pastor at Shepherd’s Community United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL, but will be moving to First UMC Cocoa Beach, FL, in June 2016. The author of New Life in Christ: Understanding Your Decision to Follow Jesus and Finding Your Next Steps, Reynolds holds graduate degrees from Emory University and Vanderbilt University and teaches as part of the course of study at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

 

crossIntroduction: What Did Jesus Really Say and Can We Hear Him Today?

I recently attended a lecture given by John Dominic Crossan[1] on the violence of God in the Christian Bible.[2] His central thesis was clear: “If the biblical Christ is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the Christian Bible, then the historical Jesus is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the biblical Christ.” After making some cursory remarks about how to distinguish between the words of the historical Jesus (or the earliest oral tradition attributed to Jesus) and the words of the early church placed on his lips, Crossan developed an argument for the historical Jesus as a non-violent Jewish revolutionary who cast a radical vision of peace through (distributive) justice.

As the lecture drew to a close, what stood out as most interesting to me were the sayings that Crossan, in some sense, attributed to the historical Jesus:

  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Don’t return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Be kind to your enemies.
  • Give away your possessions.

It occurred to me that although there is rigorous debate about the authenticity of other sayings (much of which revolves around whether or not Jesus’ message was apocalyptic), the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars, whether liberal or conservative, agree that Jesus said these kinds of things. What is even more striking is that these sayings that have garnered scholarly consensus in the Twenty-First Century are precisely the ones that are most problematic for the American church today.

When thinking about why this might be the case, I have a nagging suspicion that it has something to do with our preoccupation with success. In what follows, I simply try to voice some of my informal reflections in hopes of generating a discussion. Although I have been trained as an academic theologian, this is not a scholarly article. I mean no offense to academics, but after leaving the academy almost ten years ago to devote my life to pastoral ministry, I am not interested in crafting an airtight argument supported by long footnotes that can withstand the rigorous critique of people who are much smarter than me. This qualifying statement is my way of asking for grace from those who serve the world well in an academic setting. Rather than seeing yourself as a respondent on a panel at the American Academy of Religion (and hence seeking to refute my claims), my hope is that you will read as a friend (and try to help me, as a pastor, to wrestle with a problem that is very real in the church).

money-bagsSuccess: Trying to Understand the Problem

As I serve in the local church, I get the feeling that Christianity is being co-opted by a preoccupation with success. Many pastors (including myself at times) want to be more like Steven Furtick than like Jesus, and to lead churches that look more like Fortune 500 companies than the ecclesia described in the book of Acts. In terms of the laity, instead of renouncing their quest for worldly success, many convert to Christianity in hopes that it will provide them with more effective strategies for achieving such worldly acclaim!

I have come to believe that the success culture in America has its own vision and prescription for salvation, and one of the biggest challenges for pastors is figuring out exactly what this looks like. My hunch is that the logic of the success culture is driven by a notion of power construed as willful and controlling, even manipulative and coercive. It takes many forms, including wealth, fame, charisma, intelligence, and sex appeal. To be successful means to possess and effectively leverage power to achieve a series of goals that are themselves designed to increase power, expand freedom, and merit the praise of others who have already joined the club. Inherent in all of this is the ability to control oneself and others, to effectively manipulate resources, and to manage external circumstances.

Successful people exercise the power to control their thoughts. They cultivate the “power of positive thinking,” which not only helps them manage their outlook but can even bring external circumstances into alignment with internal desires. Don’t you know The Secret of how we can leverage the “law of attraction” by the power of positive thinking to create life-changing results of increased happiness, health, and wealth? Successful people also control their emotions and exhibit an internal strength that precludes neediness, vulnerability, and anything else that can be perceived as weakness. Winners are of sound mental health, evidenced by the power to manage and eradicate anxiety, guilt, depression, and other undesirable feelings. In the parlance of much that passes for women’s ministry today, strong people “choose joy.” They don’t really need anyone else to be happy, but create their own happiness and then design relationships in ways that enhance and protect it. Successful people also possess the personal power to transform a “normal body” (which is an entry-level requirement for the school of success) into a beautiful body, which always increases one’s power! Even in the church, people are encouraged to follow biblical diets like The Daniel Plan and commit to exercise as a fifth spiritual discipline. If you can leverage personal power to control your thoughts, emotions, and appearance, then you are well on your way to managing the perceptions of others (in both real and virtual environments), thereby gaining greater influence over people who can advance your quest for success. (Who cares about people who lack the power to promote, or derail, your agenda?)

Although I am no Clifford Geertz, it seems to me that all of this has generated a powerful cultural stream in America that exercises a gravitational pull on the church. To shift metaphors, it creates a pair of glasses through which we see all of life, including the life of faith. Read through these glasses, the Gospel is not seen as a call to abandon the quest for worldly success, but a new and improved strategy for successfully completing the quest! In the most concrete terms, when I preach on Sunday mornings that we should fully surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, which includes allowing him radically to redefine our values and goals in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, I fear that many hear, “Jesus can empower me to return to work tomorrow and be more effective at what I am already doing in pursuit of goals I’ve already set.” Our “personal relationship” with Jesus can easily become another way to access the power needed to become successful, admired, and well-respected.

One symptom of this problem is the way some clergy preach the Bible and, consequently, how many lay people interpret it. Instead of the biblical Christ (perhaps normed in important ways by the Jesus of history) serving as our guide for the faithful interpretation of scripture, those breathing the air of the success culture tend to give hermeneutical priority to passages that support the logic and value system of hard won success. The clearest example is found in the “prosperity gospel” with its focus on Deuteronomic theology, but there are subtler forms that infect the American church in innumerable ways.

When confronted with the sayings of Jesus that contradict the logic and value system of the success culture, many find ways to reinterpret those passages to marginalize the intended message. For example, when confronted with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, some say, “Well, what he really meant was that violence should be a last resort and only in self-defense. If someone hits me rather softly and doesn’t draw back for a second blow, then maybe I should exercise the power of self-control and suggest a non-violent solution. But if someone hits me hard and keeps coming at me, then surely Jesus would not object to me defending myself. To turn the cheek in a real fight would simply be crazy!” If pressed harder on this issue with a clear presentation of Jesus’ direct command, some are honest enough to say something like, “Well Jesus was the Son of God, and I’m only a sinful human being. So if someone hits me, I don’t care what Jesus said, I’m fighting back and asking for forgiveness later.” Only a loser would allow himself to be assaulted without some kind of retaliation.

The problem, of course, is that the passages being ignored or reinterpreted in service to the success culture are not merely ornamental, but rather absolutely essential to Christian faith and practice. More precisely, the logic and value system of the success culture is antithetical to the logic of the gospel. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mountain shows Jesus completely reversing the logic and value system of the success culture, effectively saying, “This is not only wrong—its wrongheaded! This will not only fail to deliver happiness but it will prevent you from seeing the true way of salvation and accelerate your journey down the highway to hell.” The success culture is all about acquiring, consolidating, and leveraging personal power to achieve self-determined goals (not least, security), and to do it in a way that will merit the praise, admiration, and respect of others perceived to be more powerful and successful than we—thereby increasing our power and positioning us for even more success. In stark contrast, the logic of the gospel can be found in Matthew 16:24-26: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” In our efforts to acquire and consolidate power to secure our interests and accomplish our self-determined goals, we lose our lives (even more so, not by failing but by accomplishing those goals) and become powerless to do anything about it. The only way to truly be saved is to completely abandon the quest for worldly success and totally surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, a surrender that is so complete that it leads Paul to confess, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19a-20b).

The power of success is characterized by willful grasping, while the power of the gospel is characterized as willing surrender.[3] The former is the way of conquest; the latter is the way of the cross. The former focuses on predetermined outcomes; the latter focuses on faithfulness. The former is self-defeating, self-destructive, and self-condemning; the latter—according to Jesus—is the way of salvation and abundant life.

I want to make this point as strongly as possible. Jesus does not say, “If you do all that I have commanded then you will be successful” (and in several passages he suggested the opposite). To assume this is absolutely to misunderstand his message. Everything Jesus teaches—the logic of his gospel—runs contrary to the vision of salvation promised by the success culture and the concomitant strategies that supposedly make it possible. But this logic and this culture are exactly what we are up against in the American church, and this raises a critical question: Is a Christianity that is co-opted and reinterpreted by the value system and logic of the success culture still rightly described as Christian at all? If not, then what is the way forward?

Conclusion: Questions for Conversation

I want to end my reflections by posing a few questions to academics and pastors alike.

In your research and experience, how is success defined in American culture? How does our pursuit of success shape and reinforce American culture? Does success have its own logic and value system?

To what extent has the American church been influenced or coopted by the culture of success? Does this lead to a reinterpretation of the vision and way of salvation as proclaimed by Jesus, and does it go so far as to undermine the logic of the gospel? What is the difference between success and abundant life?

What resources would help us clarify the problem, gain a more faithful understanding of the gospel, and deepen our relationship with Christ?

As we seek answers to these questions, let us remember the words of Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

Notes:  

[1] Bible Symposium, “Reading Between the Lines: Recent Research on the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Florida Southern College, 14 April 2016.

[2] The arguments in his lecture are more fully developed in John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation (HarperOne 2015).

[3] I first discovered this distinction between willful and willing ways-of-being-in-the-world in Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (HarperSanFrancisco 1982). However, it is assumed and taught by all contemplative Christian traditions.

Trauma and Deconversion: Questions for Pastors and Philosophers

 

tear in eye

Written by Michelle Panchuk.

Michelle received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of South Carolina and will be a research fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion for the 2016-2017 academic year. In her free time she enjoys reading children’s fantasy, hiking with her husband, Yuriy, and collecting dog-sightings with her toddler, Miroslava

Content note: descriptions of religious trauma, physical abuse and mention of rape.

 

“Better to refuse even the truth for a time, than, by accepting into our intellectual creed that which our heart cannot receive, not seeing its real from, to introduce hesitation into our prayers, a jar into our praises, and a misery into our love. If it be the truth, we shall one day see it another thing than it appears now, and love it because we see it lovely; for all truth is lovely.” — George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons

Recently Seth Cain wrote about what pastors want from their philosopher friends. In part, it was a call for us to consider those weighty, soul-wrenching situations in which parishioners turn to God, and to their pastors, for support. It was a reminder that what people need is not always more theological or philosophical reflection, but a loving presence in time of need. I think Cain is exactly right. But while many find comfort in their faith in the midst of suffering, for others, faith itself is the source of deep pain. There are those who, as the result of religious trauma, have left their faith, doubt their faith, or try desperately to maintain a grasp on what used to be their faith. The church and the academy tend to have little to say to such people, and when we do speak, it has often with scorn or suspicion. I believe we can, indeed, we must, do better. Here I offer a first attempt at describing the problem and then suggest a few directions of inquiry that may provide us, as theologians, as pastors, as philosophers, and as Christians, better resources with which to respond to religious trauma.

By religious trauma I mean an array of negative experiences of the divine, of religious practice, of religious community, or of religious dogma that are personally transformative in ways that significantly diminish the individual’s capacity to engage in or experience these very things in the future. Religious trauma is related to the more general problem of evil, but raises a distinct set of questions that are not answered by more general responses to evil, just as such. Suffering in general can pose an obstacle to faith, but there is something unique, and uniquely problematic, about being harmed (or perceiving oneself to be harmed) by God, in the name of God, with the approval of God, or by those who claim to represent God.

Consider the following examples:

A young child is repeatedly and brutally beaten by her religious parents. She is told that since God commanded the Israelites to stone their rebellious children, anything they do to her short of that is divinely approved, and morally deserved for her childish misbehavior. They say that they must beat her because God wants them to. One night, they lock her out of the house as punishment for some misdeed. Sitting alone, bruised and bleeding, gazing at the stars, the girl has an overwhelming sense of the presence of God—a presence utterly terrifying because she perceives it to be of a being who delights in her suffering. This experience fundamentally shapes her feelings about the divine. Whatever she may come to believe about God, she cannot shake the deep revulsion she has at any attempt to address herself to God.

A young boy is raped by his priest in his church and sworn to secrecy in the name of God. Telling anyone will hurt the reputation of the church and displease God. Whatever he may come to believe about the church, the sight of a priest or even a church building continues to make him physically ill.

These are two cases of religious trauma. In both there is a sense in which it is almost irrelevant what the individuals come to believe about the experience or its evidential force with respect to the truth of their religious beliefs. The experience itself both transforms them and subjects them to affective (e.g., fear, revulsion), physical (e.g., nausea, racing heart), and other psychological (e.g., intrusive thoughts, doubts) states that partially or completely preclude them from full participation in religious life. In the former case, the woman’s attempts to worship are hindered because, though she may believe God to be worthy of her worship, her revulsion at every attempt to relate herself to God impedes the love and adoration she believes she must have. In the latter, the man’s ability to participate in religious practices, such as receiving the Eucharist from a priest, within his faith tradition is significantly hindered. If he is persuaded of the importance of these practices for his religious faith, then his experience has diminished his capacity to engage in his faith. Both individuals have been traumatized by religion, and that trauma negatively affects the further practice of their faith. Certainly, this is not the only way that harm done in the name of God may impact an individual, but this is one significant, and not at all rare, way that it does.

A common response from philosophers to descriptions of religious trauma is to dismiss them as pastoral, rather than philosophical, concerns. Since they are not problems about rationality of religious belief (at least not from the standpoint of theoretical reason) or the evidence for the truth of some religion, they fall outside of the purview of philosophy. But pastors are often equally unable to address the topic in a helpful way. They say things like, “But you KNOW that isn’t true! Why don’t you just move on/get over it/forgive/forget.”

In both cases, there appears to be a deep-seated assumption that religious faith is primarily an intellectual exercise. If you just adopt the right set of propositional attitudes, everything else (including those aspects of faith that are not merely intellectual—obedience to God, for example) falls into place. This, it seems to me, fundamentally ignores the kind of beings humans are, and the kind of thing worship is. While I do not yet have a fully developed theory of worship, worship cannot be simply the holding of the right set of propositional attitudes. Within Christianity, paradigmatic cases of worship seem to assume some level of belief, but also involve things like a committing of oneself to God, loving God, obeying God, adoring God, trusting God, and even enjoying God. If this is correct, and certain kinds of religious trauma preclude the individual’s ability to adopt the requisite states, might that inability count as a practical reason to deconvert? If so, what do we say of those who stay? Is it rational to continue considering oneself a follower of a God by whom one is repulsed?

My sense is that most philosophers and clergy want the answer to be, no, to the first question, and, yes, to the second. Some philosophers of religion suggest that any rejection of theism is the result of cognitive or moral deficiency (See for example, Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, Chapters 7 and 14 are particularly relevant). But even those who acknowledge the rationality of atheism often speak as if only intellectual doubts could possibly count as reasons against religious faith. This is not to say that survivors of religious trauma never deconvert as the result of intellectual doubts. Many do. But there are others who simply cannot find a plausible way to keep on doing those things they believe to be essential to calling themselves a religious believer. These, who deconvert as the result of trauma, are then labeled “angry,” “emotional,” “irrational,” or “hurt.” In the end, isn’t this just another insidious form of victim blaming? Isn’t this just a lazy way to reinforce the privilege of those of us lucky enough not have been deeply wounded by our faith?

There are a number of lines of theological and philosophical inquiry that I believe could offer helpful resources in unraveling these difficult questions and in extending greater empathy to survivors of religious trauma:

1.) Development of a robust theory of worship. The recent debacle over Larycia Hawkins statements have prompted some interesting work in this direction that I hope will develop beyond a desire to merely draw lines in the sand. As I mentioned above, taking seriously the affective aspects of worship might explain why someone who cannot manage to find herself in the requisite affective states might have a reason to deconvert. Conversely, attention to the ways in which loving the things that God loves (love of neighbor, kindness, mercy, etc.) is also an act of worship might explain how a survivor might have a reason to continue identifying as a religious believer, despite her inability to love God, or even address herself to God through prayer, as she currently perceives the divine being.

2.) Attention to the fact that Christians worship a God who is a survivor of religiously-motivated abuse. Jesus was put to death by religious leaders in the name of God.

3.) Consideration of the implications of communal faith. Can we say on one hand that religious community is essential for faith, and simultaneously believe that the fault rests solely on the “hurt” deserter when they leave their faith because of religious trauma?

4.) Consideration of the parallels between canonical cases of religious experience and cases of religious trauma like the one described above.

5.) Work on embodied religious experience (See, for example, the work being done by Christina Van Dyke and Robyn Dembroff. Religious folks are not brains believing in God and engaging in religious life from the comfort of their vats. They are embodied individuals, experiencing their faith as embodied beings.

6.) Exploration of the interplay between theoretical and practical reason in religious belief and religious practice.