Is evangelicalism in trouble?

Is evangelicalism in trouble?

I was listening to a podcast recently where the Presbyterian speaker proclaimed ‘Evangelicalism is in serious trouble.’ This was news to me yet the statement has stuck in my mind and I’ve been turning it over ever since. Is this man true? Is this man false? I don’t really want it to be true and to some measure I think we’re all in trouble all the time if we consider enough different angles. Yet is there anything specific to evangelicalism that makes it in trouble in a clearly visible way?

The appeal of evangelicalism to society at large has always been something prominent to me. James KA Smith in his book on Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ suggests that the appeal of ‘scientism’ to some is the story it offers to others. One that is a stance of ‘maturity, of courage, of manliness, over and against childish fears and sentimentality’ (p.77). He suggests that our response to argue over the nature of evidence for one thing or another doesn’t really address the underlying issues at work. A better approach is to offer these people a more compelling story that offers a more robust vision of faith. A faith that in the words of James KA Smith channeling Taylor ‘isn’t some vague theism but the invitation to historical, sacramental Christianity’.

Atheism, as mentioned previously is one of the few belief systems that skews heavily towards men at a nearly 70/30 gender split. This would feed into Charles Taylor’s assertion that the narrative of scientism is one of ‘manliness’ at least in image and appeal. That the words of St Paul ‘When I was a child I thought like a child but when I became a man I put away childish things’ is applied more by those who leave the faith or reject it today than those of us who adhere is indicative of something wrong. Is our faith perceived or in fact increasingly childish or outlandish and alien to the public? Does it offer no challenge? No courage? No maturity? Is it overly sentimental?

One of the claims laid at the feet of evangelicalism is its panacea-like vision of God at work in the life of the believer. Drawing close to God and being open to his work in your life would sort you out. The movement in general is replete with stories of lives turned around or struggles left behind. We come together to celebrate and rarely to lament. We seldom engage with lasting challenges because we believed God would inevitably overcome all of them on our behalf. From some perspectives this can seem childish, as a child my parents solved my problems, as a man I have to solve not just my problems but am expected to help those I come into contact with. Its not that we don’t want lives turned around and struggles left behind, its that we don’t know what to do with people when their lives don’t turn around and their struggles stay with them. Their is no challenge other than that of continuing in the growth of our love for God.

As an evangelical I personally felt somewhat directionless. I was expected to draw closer to God but what did that look like? Was I supposed to become more like my Pastor? Like Jesus? Did my Pastor reflect Jesus? Evangelicalism is complex precisely because its so open ended. In our effort to draw closer to God we can be lead down all sorts of bizarre (at times heretical) cul-de-sacs of which our only gauge can be our emotions, which is to say no real gauge at all. It also places the self at centre of this process, we lead a private self-defined faith thats ultimately is between us and God alone. This is why we see trends of many who consider themselves Evangelicals feeling led to dispense with Church altogether at times as it doesn’t square with their relationship to God. This is why we see increased theological divergence even amongst those who sometimes attend the same church. Its partly a lack of discipleship but its partly evangelical nature. Just recently I was swimming and caught myself wondering ‘I want a faith that is simple like swimming, one arm in front of another, towards some goal.’ Then I realised thats precisely part of the nature of liturgy. There might be different types of swimming but we don’t all swim in our own way, we use the same strokes and movements which gives us something in common, and even children can do it well. Evangelical dispensation of classical liturgy can be disorientating, its like being thrown into the lake with no knowledge of how to swim and being forced to invent our own style. That might lead to some creative and original techniques, but many people will likely drown without support. For much of Church history some form of liturgy has been present, Christ himself gave us the sacraments of baptism and communion.

The problem then, if it exists, with Evangelicalism is that many people on the outside increasingly don’t relate to it. It came into being as a renewal movement within the church but we live in an age where the vast majority of people are outside of it. The public doesn’t seem to relate the evangelical experience to their own experience of life (generally). The inside of evangelicalism is also becoming increasingly fragmented as time goes on as the relationship with God for the private individual is prioritised over the publics shared relationship and experience of God. The current worship/lecture system both focus on the interior self driving a wedge between the interior (mind) and the exterior (body). This is unfortunately wherein our society is currently orientated more around the exterior than the interior. However it might explain the appeal of the charismatic movement in bringing an exterior dimension to the Evangelical church, albeit one that is still privatised and in some ways the antithesis of liturgy.

This entry is no doubt me projecting my own thoughts onto the statement outlined by the Presbyterian in question at the start of this entry. One might also ruminate on the current state of the Presbyterian church, perhaps it is no better than Evangelicalism in some ways. Yet the statement stayed with me and chimed particularly with what I’m reading currently and my current thinking on evangelicalism. I think it has a lot of good things going for it, but it also has some major problems. I still consider myself evangelical but I think we should be Christians first and anything else second, when we get it round the wrong way thats when we suffer.

The basis of society

The basis of society

For a long time I thought of myself, or rather the individual, as the basis of society. Like pixels on a screen make an image individuals en masse make a society. I didn’t really think the church had a great deal to say on this matter, to my mind it was something so basic that it went unchallenged. God made the Man alone in the beginning and we all ultimately live and die alone before God. Yet whilst God did make the Man alone, this wasn’t good, it only became so when out of his side God made Woman.

It is in the dynamics that emerge between husband and wife that I am now beginning to believe form the basis of society. It is the first point in which the interior world of the individual moves beyond itself and engages with the interior world of another at its most comprehensive degree. The world of ideas becomes incarnated in the physical interactions of a husband and wife, more so, it is the most basic unit that is self-perpetuating. The presence of children ensures this society continues and the means by which they are raised communicate what is collectively held of value and importance. In fact the catechism of the Catholic church describes the family as.

The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honour God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.

Catechism of the Catholic Church #2207

An individual in their interactions with others may form something approximating society yet it is not self-sustaining. Nor does it hold the special intimacy found between husband and wife, parent and child. If we boiled everything back and some tragedy struck England it is the family through which everything begins again. What the parents pass on to their children defines the shape of the subsequent society.

Looking at the issue from another perspective, we have the individual and we have contemporary society-at-large, a family of families. The individual alone, something only possible more recently, is subject to the values and expectations of the society they find themselves in. The family is the most basic institution where the individual might flourish and work out there own vision of the world, to create their own culture. As a result the family can be the foundation of resistance, it stands between the individual and overbearing external authorities. It creates space for new culture to emerge. Just as it is the most basic unit of society, a healthy family enriches even the largest society. To lose the family is a loss of the bedrock of individual liberty. Other institutions; formal societies, guilds, religious institutions, unions, orders, organisations and corporations do this too but none in quite such a foundational way as the family. The extent to which these groups facilitate the family or oppose it collectively determines the ultimate flourishing of the individual in any given society. Likewise these things can lead to the flourishing of the family and help unite separate families together to form the bonds that make increasingly large scale societies successful. This is why the assault on these institutions, ultimately all rooted in the family, is the hallmark of authoritarians who seek to impose their own will upon a mass of individuals.

When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale

G.K Chesterton, Heretics

On the subject of the individual, Charles Taylor in his work A Secular Age highlights the shift in where we find meaning as integral to the rise of the individual as a form of ‘buffered self’. Prior to secularisation we found meaning inherent in the world around us but the secular mind places it as something generated within the mind. With the shift in posture from an communal self to a individualist self it follows that our association with any institution or external influence is progressively questioned and negotiated. Does this now mean that society is found in the mind of the individual? So if the family was once the basis of society, has it now become the individual? Can the basis shift?

Yet for the buffered self, if meaning is generated within the mind, can one mind reach out and genuinely touch another? Or is it simply giving itself the impression that such a thing is occurring? For the buffered self its a subject always open to debate, a lingering doubt. Could such a private mind be driven to create a sustainable society? Its more reasonable that the buffered self can inherit a society, rather than found one. Yet even then its inherent doubt will over time contribute to the renegotiation of public institutions to the point in which they cease to exist in any ‘meaningful’ sense. Even the language used in such a setting becomes increasingly contentious as people can no longer agree over the very meaning of words. During such times a society either eventually becomes possessed by more robust visions of society or it becomes increasingly authoritarian in an effort to maintain current social arrangements. Something I think we are seeing in the West.

Considerations of the individual aside it does nothing to address the inherent creative nature of the family. The individual will expire, family will not but instead changes over time, children becoming parents who give rise to their own children. The individuals can transmit beliefs but if they have no vision for the family it cannot be considered sustainable.

The individual is often put forward for the basis of society as opposed to that of the family. However I would contend that the individual is most enabled when emerging from the context of the family. As a result the healthy society is only guaranteed by, among other things, the promotion of the family as its most basic constituent unit. From this individuals are taught a vision of the world and find, in the words of the catechism above ‘initiation into life in society’. That life might take the form of meaningful work and participation in organisations that reach across families as necessary and form nations. Yet we should never forget it all started with the union of a husband and wife.