Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Evangelicals and doctrine

I've been thinking a lot about the issue Kevin Vanhoozer attempted to address at his recent talk here in Charlottesville. The issue is simple: why aren't Christians interested in doctrine anymore? Vanhoozer cited some study (by a "secular author," which, I suppose, was meant to indicate there was no bias in it) showing that in the past 50 years or something churches in America have gradually abandoned talk about doctrine. I suppose what they've replaced it with varies from church to church; some devote themselves to programs and activism, others to emotionalism and/or spiritual self-expression, while other churches become mere social clubs. But as Vanhoozer points out, all practice is based on some sort of doctrine. You can only abandon talking about doctrine if you've decided that there really are no doctrinal problems to be worked out, and that everything you implicitly believe about the world is basically right. Thus most teenagers who are involved in religious life, though they are unable to verbalize it, really subscribe to a "moralistic therapeutic deism" rather than authentic Christianity.

I suppose I'll grant Vanhoozer and others the basic premise, that doctrine isn't as popular these days as it should be. But I find that the explanation for this state of affairs is far too simplistic. Personally, I find obstacles to real doctrinal discussion at every turn. I thought I'd try to list all the obstacles I can think of which cannot be reduced down to a common cause; they are fundamentally distinct, yet all play an important role.

1. Traditionalism is still a big factor, whether evangelicals want to admit it or not. Being part of a tradition isn't a purely free choice for anyone; it requires an investment, and once that investment has been made, it isn't easy to openly discuss the flaws of that tradition. Clergy, especially, have literally invested their lives in a certain tradition. It becomes quite difficult to objectively assess the merits of one's own position. It is true that none of us possess a purely objective frame of reference, but the more I hear this mantra repeated the more I understand how trivial this assertion is. Just because there is no purely objective frame of reference does not mean objectivity is futile. For many Christians, it's just time to admit that we don't want to question our traditions because, well, it's too hard to see things differently. There is no point in discussing doctrine if it can't change anyone's mind.

2. The emphasis on "personal relationship" leads naturally away from an emphasis on doctrine. If we all know the same person, it is difficult to imagine why we need to sit in a room together and analytically discuss that person. To be quite frank, I do not see any use for theology if such a thing as a personal relationship with God is possible. And that is perhaps why many evangelicals do not see the use for theology. Others simply give the words "personal relationship" a strange "Christianese" meaning, which no one would ever use in normal conversation. I once asked a friend to explain what she meant by this phrase, and she said that it meant one should be concerned with personal spiritual development and holiness. That's perfectly fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't appear to have anything to do with what is normally meant by "personal relationship." Others, I fear, mean quite a bit more than this, emphasizing implicitly or explicitly the emotional content of their spiritual experiences. At its worst, this "personal relationship" is a Christian form of escapism, a belief in a great big imaginary friend who loves you and wants you to have meaning in an otherwise grim existence.

Contrast this with all the early Church fathers, who emphasized the total incomprehensibility and transcendence of God. The pursuit of theology makes a lot more sense when you start with the presupposition that God is not at all easy to know, and that anything we do know about him is the result of not just any kind of grace, but particularly of the slow, painful process of our souls' purification.

3. Doubt, not skepticism, plays a large role in the decline of doctrine. Doubt arises from the individual being free to explore many different answers to fundamental questions, and finding that none of them emerges as superior to the others. I don't think I'm the only one who has experienced this. I've watched Calvinists and Arminians debate back and forth on soteriology, Catholics and Protestants and Eastern Orthodox argue the issue of ecclesiology, Lutherans and Presbyterians and Baptists hash out the meaning of baptism and the Lord's supper, and all to no avail--I simply do not see how any one of them can be correct. And of course, it has been the tendency of Christian history for people caught in my situation to start something new, as we now see happening in the Emergent Church. But, to quote the Teacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Starting something new does not equal progress.

I bring these things up not so much to get at a solution to the problem, but rather to make the problem more difficult. If bright young theologians would have doctrine play a crucial role in the Church's witness to the world, I simply do not see how they expect to control the uncontrollable. All of these difficulties I've listed are not merely static obstacles which can be overcome with time, but ever-evolving parts of a growing society. I have no doubt that theological conversations of today will have an impact on the world of tomorrow; but it is almost certain that this impact will not be the intended one.

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