Evangelicalism and anxiety
Ever since I started hanging around evangelicals (12 or so years ago) I’ve noticed—among a whole host of laudable and praiseworthy qualities—a persistent anxiety within their culture. You can hear it in their sermons and their songs. You can see it in the sorts of books they read (or don’t read) and movies they watch (or don’t watch). On an academic level it becomes even more acute when you read their bible scholars and theologians. What is this anxiety to which I refer?
As I see it, it is that anxiety which is born from the tension between the meaning of life and the unity of truth.
Similar (but less adequate) ways of putting it would be the the tension between: faith and reason, the Bible and science, theological conservatism and liberalism, “Bible believing” Christians and those who entertain critical biblical scholarship, etc… Those experiencing this anxiety are faced with a strong temptation to settle for a fretful ideology, rather than a vibrant and integrated faith. There is the worry that following our questions too far may lead to the undermining of our faith. In this post I intend to explore this dynamic. A constructive response will be the task of later posts.
Although the rest of Christianity is by no means exempt from the sort of anxiety I’m concerned with here, evangelicalism tends to exacerbate it in a way unique to itself. The following three propositions begin to demonstrate why. Evangelicals tend to,
1. see salvation as based upon a cognitive understanding of “faith.”
(That is, “faith” means believing in the factuality of certain things external to one’s own experience)
2. see the “authority of Scripture” as a matter of supreme importance rather than the “authority of God.”
3. place a low emphasis on “interpretation,” and a high emphasis on Scripture as “God’s Word.”
Taken together, these three propositions bring about a situation where the unconditional faith placed in Christ becomes extended to an unconditional acceptance of a fairly face-value reading of Scripture. From this we get such mantras as “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” As long we don’t ask too many questions it is now possible for a person to comfortably buttress the reoriented meaning of their life (conversion) with God’s straight-forward truth as found in the Bible. The meaning of life found in their received gospel is affirmed, and all is well. But then the trouble starts…
For those evangelicals who are encouraged to spend time studying the Bible, they are often taught about the need to avoid “proof texting” (reading passages without attention to context). And with this one little word, “context,” the trouble begins; for to understand context, one needs to ask questions. And asking questions can lead places that don’t sit comfortably with 1-3 above. For example: Why do Bible translators render some words differently? What does the author mean by X, Y or Z? Who wrote this book anyway? When was it written? Where? What else was going on during this period? Why do certain segments of narrative repeat themselves in seemingly contrary ways? How did other cultures of the time understand this idea? And so on. Such standard questions force us to recognize the interpretive dimension of our interactions with Scripture as well as reveal a very human side of the text that more superficial readings find easy to ignore. Thus, we have our fourth proposition which most evangelicals should find uncontroversial:
4. Interpretive success is dependent upon attention to context.
A fifth proposition that I’ve heard tossed about in evangelical circles regards one of the two poles of the tension we are exploring. It may not be as common of an emphasis, but I doubt that many evangelicals would find it to be controversial.
5. All truth is God’s truth (the “unity of truth” principle)
With this fifth proposition in place we are now in a position to see the basic problem: If the meaning of our life is found in our embrace of the gospel of Christ, and if reception of that gospel is based upon faith (understood as believing the factuality of certain things), and if these “certain things” are derived from Scripture, then we ought to read and believe Scripture. If, in the process of reading Scripture, we are taught to take context seriously, then we will ask questions. But if one asks enough questions, one will eventually discover that most biblical scholarship doubts the factuality of much that is recorded in the Bible (even evangelical scholars are beginning to accept this), and they have many good reasons behind their doubts.
Did you feel your blood pressure just rise?
If you did, you are likely steeped in the dynamic I am describing here. Your intuitions regarding the unity of truth are being opposed to the meaning of your life. This is a scary place to be, for it appears that one or the other will have to be be abandoned. It is this anxiety, combined with an unwillingness to abandon what has become the deeply felt meaning of one’s life, that causes many evangelicals to accept the second horn of the dilemma and vigorously oppose (or systematically ignore) nearly all biblical scholarship. On a larger scale it is this same dynamic that drives the evangelical opposition to science. Just like biblical scholarship, scientists offer good reasons to doubt a straight-forwardly historical reading of a number of cherished biblical texts (Most obviously, the creation narratives).
What I want to be clear at this point is that I’m not concerned to debate whether or not scientists or biblical scholars are correct in their assessments (although I tend to think they are likely on the right track). Instead, I want to call attention to the way hitching the meaning of our lives to a problematic view of faith leads to a fear of vigorous inquiry into any and all questions of interest. If faith is understood as believing in a certain set of facts that have occurred “out there,” or “back then,” then the meaning of our life will always be threatened by the possibility that asking too many questions will end up showing that “it just ain’t so.” This fear leads to a dis-integration of our person. Our rational capacities are tyrannized by fear. If in Christ we find “life abundantly” (Jn 10:10), and if that life encourages love of God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, then a life characterized by intellectual anxiety is a deplorable situation. What I hope to show in the future is that this anxiety is not necessary. The meaning of our lives cannot be threatened by the unity of truth, for the meaning of our lives is a complex not exhausted by “external” reality.
And so ends my analysis of the problem. I’ve done my best to articulate the mess as I see it. In future posts I hope to suggest a way forward. Contrary to what one might infer from the foregoing, I have a deep love for evangelicals. I think their emphasis on the personal and unconditional commitment to Christ offers something very important to the wider body of Christ. However, I’ve seen this zeal become directed in such a way that it threatens to “dis-integrate” individual evangelicals, as well as scare off thoughtful people who might otherwise be quite compelled to sympathize with Christian faith. As such, this ought not be read as an attack, but rather a labor of love.
An interesting question to ponder here would be “how big is the context?” Are there any levels of context that are “out of bounds?”
It is worth noting also, that this is often the same dynamic that brings about such heat in political disputes, for visions of the good are being opposed to each other. And our “visions of the good” are where we locate the meaning of our lives.