“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Luke 20:46-47)
Our Lord often rebuked religious leaders for their hypocrisy and, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us find these passages to be the most engaging (if not entertaining) segments of the Gospel narratives. This is because, for the most part, we intensely dislike hypocrites. Few things are as profoundly offensive, hurtful, and damaging than that of a man who lives in a manner which is inconsistent with his ideals. Perhaps even more unsettling is the man who performs great deeds for impure, self-edifying, reasons; like the Scribes and the Pharisees who put on the show of true devotion but were, as Jesus so eloquently pointed out, simply motivated by vain conceit.
We dislike hypocrisy because we are made in the image and likeness of God, and hence, have an innate desire for what is real. Not only are our cognitive faculties aimed at discovering truth and our hearts built with a longing for truth; but Truth Himself is in love with us and desires to be in a real relationship with us. It is because we were made to be in the truth that we all have a natural distain for hypocrisy–for at the heart of hypocrisy is dishonesty and falsehood: unreality and untruth.
Yet, we have grown accustomed to hypocrisy–especially to the sort of empty religious posturing so common among Christian leaders. We have grown accustomed, for instance, to discovering that the Senator who’s entire career was built on conservative Christian values has been using campaign money to fund his rather distasteful habit of sleeping with male prostitutes. We are quite used to hearing about the pastor of a mega church who has been absconding with church funds. We grow cynical and begin to suspect that every idealist or religious fundamentalist is merely a phony used car salesman (I deeply apologize if you are reading this and happen to be an honest used car salesman).
As we grow more cynical we also grow more antagonistic towards anyone or anything that smells of hypocrisy. This is especially true among Christians–at least the ones in my generation. We want authenticity, we want honesty, we long for leaders and laypeople who are truly devoted to the cause of Christ. We justifiably long for these things–and Jesus longed for these things too–but, without even realizing it, we become fixated, almost exclusively, on the external world without examining our own hearts. We are so busy uncovering and condemning the hypocrisy around us that we forget to look for and condemn the hypocrisy in our own lives.
St. Francis De Sales noted that the great majority of religious devotion we observe in the world is simply an empty show:
“When the messengers of Soul sought David, they found only an image in his bed, which, being dressed by Michol in David’s garments, deceived them so that they imagined it to be David himself. Thus many persons clothe themselves with a garb of external devotion, and the world believes them to be really devout and spiritual, whilst in truth they are mere statues or phantasms of devotion.”
What we often fail to consider is that our own religious devotion might just be a statue or phantasm of devotion. My challenge today is for us to stop focusing on the hypocrisy of others and focus, instead, on our own hypocrisy; for us to sincerely examine our own hearts; to take stalk of our motives; to root out any inconsistencies (and I guarantee you will unearth them if you look deep enough). The fight for authentic Christian faith begins when we examine our hearts and seek to free ourselves, through the power of the Holy Spirit, from self-love. It begins when we develop a sincere love for God in our own hearts and work through the sin and ugliness in our own lives. My advice to my generation: stop attacking the mere ‘phantasms’ of religious devotion we see around us and focus on becoming an authentic self-giving lover. Make true devotion to Christ your own personal goal and not merely another catch phrase or bumper-sticker slogan.
Pride lies at the heart of nearly all of the devisions we find in the Church. We Christians are often too quick to judge those who differ from us and place far to much stock in our own vain opinions. We blatantly ignore the One who binds us together as one body, the creator and savior of the universe, our Lord, who commands us to be humble, and opt, instead, to cast a critical and unrelenting eye on anyone we meet whose theology deviates from our own in only the slightest degree. Quite frankly, we Christians tend to think far more of ourselves, and of our own private interpretations and opinions, than we should. We suffer from a deplorable, and often vehement, lack of humility–I invite you to mediate on the profound words of Thomas A Kempis in the eighth chapter of his master work The Imitation of Christ:
“Do not consider yourself better than others, for you may be worse in God’s sight. Do not be proud of your good works, for often what pleases us displeases God, Whose judgments differ from the judgment of humans. Whatever goodness or virtue is in you, believe that your neighbor has better qualities; in this way you will preserve humility.
It will not hurt you to consider yourself worse than others, even if this is not really so; bu it will hurt greatly if you prefer yourself above another, although that person might be a great sinner. A humble person is a peaceful person; but the hearts of the proud are full of envy and resentment.”
I hope this letter finds you well. I’m writing to you because I’m concerned about a few things within your movement and also to let you know how you come across to us non-emergents. Of course, this letter is written generally as not all emergent believers come across this way. Not all criticisms in here can be levied at all emergent believers. I’m friends with many emergent-minded folk, so obviously not all of this applies. But it is written out of love and out of some concerns I have. Before I launch into some of the problems I see, however, I want to say a few positive things.
Many years ago when I was going through a very rough patch in my life, I turned to a few books that could be called “proto-emergent” or books written in the earlier stages of the emergent movement. Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo’s book Adventures in Missing the Point, Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality, and Jay Bakker’s Son of a Preacher Man gave me the strength and grace to get through a very hard time in my life.
Obviously I’ve moved away from such spirituality, but I don’t want to simply toss it out entirely as it was very beneficial to me and prevented me from sliding deeper into an abyss. In fact, even as I’ve moved away from more “emergent thinking” I still found common ground with the emergent authors. At the time I was attending a church that I despised, mostly because of the pastor. His absolute disdain towards the poor, homeless, and nonwhites forced me to ultimately leave (that and other problems he had). It was nice to see that there were other Christians out there willing to talk about the flaws in the Christian community rather than cover them up.
I’ve always appreciated the emergent movement’s willingness to expose the flaws of the Christian community, to admit that we’ve been wrong in the past, which is why it perplexes me as to why there seems to be little self-criticism among emergent thinkers today. Perhaps I am just ignorant, but I’ve yet to see a major emergent author come out and speak about how he or the community as a whole were wrong in how they handled something. Even in terms of race relations, most emergent authors seem to think that their movement is “race-friendly,” when it’s not.
For those that think it is helping to bridge the racial gap, ask yourself this very simple question: How many popular emergent authors are nonwhite? That’s not to say nonwhites haven’t written books that could be considered emergent, but how many are best-sellers? Of the nonwhites involved in the movement, how many are lower class, or are they also middle-class to upper-class? To someone like me when I look at the emergent authors, I see a white, bourgeois revolution. The complaints and solutions generally only apply to people wrapped up in a Starbucks culture.
Now, none of this discredits the movement or the teachings at all, but what bothers me is that many in the emergent movement are seemingly oblivious to this problem! And that’s why I’m asking you, pleading with you, to please be self-critical. It was your criticisms – accurate criticisms – of conservative evangelicalism that took you out of the conservative movement of the evangelical church, but don’t stop examining everything. Examine your own beliefs, even your more progressive beliefs, for those could be wrong.
One way to help in the self-criticism is to listen to the criticisms of the outsiders, the non-emergents, specifically the conservative critics. Even when they’re overly harsh and just downright rude and mean spirited, perhaps it’s worth listening to what they have to say. If they criticize your theology or the reasoning behind what you’re saying, perhaps it’s best to look at and contemplate what they’re saying rather than immediately go on the defensive. After all, and perhaps many emergent thinkers miss this, some conservatives are still conservative even after questioning their beliefs and researching alternatives (such as myself). So we’ve been down the path of questioning as well, but came up with a difference answer than you, so don’t we have something of value to say?
And even if someone hasn’t explored their beliefs, shouldn’t they also be listened to? Certainly those who are abusive and rude can just be cast aside, but not everyone who strongly voices their opposition to what you’re teaching is being “abusive” or “rude,” they’re simply engaging you in dialogue. So why shut out their voices? You act as if there’s no way conservatives could possibly be right, which is another way of saying you have no idea how you could possibly be wrong. Isn’t that antithetical to the central idea behind the emergent movement?
Along the same lines as the above, I would ask that you stop mocking conservative Christians. Yes, they do it to you at times (not all, but some do), but does that justify the “eye-for-an-eye” mentality? “Well they do it too!” How is that turning the other cheek or even taking the high road? While there is still an emphasis on the words of Jesus among emergent believers, it seems that some ignore His command to love one’s enemies. While loving one’s enemies doesn’t prohibit strong discourse, it would prohibit mocking evangelicals or comparing them to the Taliban, which is unfair, untrue, and serves no purpose. After all, how are conservatives to be challenged by what you say if you’re simply accusing them of being heinous human beings?
I think it would go a long way with conservatives if emergent Christians began to recognize that conservative evangelicals have actually done a lot of good in this world. They have worked against sex trafficking, racism, poverty, and the list goes on. While some conservative evangelicals have helped to perpetuate these problems, others have worked to end them, indicating that one’s theology isn’t necessarily congruent with one’s actions. But to demonize and alienate all conservative Christians is problematic; it closes down the conversation and leads to intellectual inbreeding where your ideas are only bounced off those who already agree with you.
In short, emergent Christians shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A major evangelical church downtown decides to raise money for its new sanctuary, but chooses not to help the poor; this doesn’t mean we should eradicate all conservative doctrines. The mistakes of conservative evangelicals shouldn’t necessarily reflect on the doctrines; so while I would agree that “everything must change” on how we act, I’m not so sure that everything should change on what we think. After all, there are certain doctrines that lay a foundation to helping the poor and oppressed, even if believers don’t always follow through on these actions.
Many emergent Christians need to realize that traditionally Christian doctrine has presented an ideal, but Christians have rarely – if ever – reached this ideal. What many emergent Christians have seemingly done is change the ideal to one that is almost obtainable. You’ve adopted “worldly philosophies” that present an ideal that can be obtained in one way or another, but it removes all the supernatural elements from Christianity. Instead, refocus on the ideal. If the ideal is the problem, if it’s a bad ideal, then yes, we ought to change it. But if the ideal is good, if it is right, then we should find better ways of obtaining it rather than simply making a new, obtainable, ideal.
For all of the above to occur, however, you must begin to allow conservatives to take part in your discussions. While it is true that some conservatives will willingly remove themselves, others are more than willing to embrace you in dialogue (such as myself), but are often shut out because we’re critical of the movement and see flaws in the emergent movement. As indicated above, this isn’t helpful to anyone and will (and has) stunt the growth of the emergent movement. Beware the sound of one hand clapping.
In closing this letter, I would make three final suggestions. First, rather than attempting to reinvent Christianity, perhaps it is best to discover what Christianity was meant to be. All attempts to reinvent Christianity in the past 2,000 years have failed for one distinct reason; they aren’t products of the Holy Spirit. While certain branches of Christianity have succeeded, it is because they still held onto the idea of there being some absolutes in the Christian faith. For all the differences between Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, all three remain viable and existent because all three still agree and hold onto the core doctrines of the faith (such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc). They hold these doctrines as absolute. But all other groups that have attempted to move away from these doctrines simply die out or fade away.
The above leads me to my second suggestion, which is to open yourself to the idea that you might be wrong. Maybe conservatives are right on a few things, maybe they aren’t. But the idea of abandoning absolutes as a “product of the Enlightenment” is one area where you could be (and I believe you are) wrong. However, what good does it do me to explain this if you’re not even open to the idea of being wrong? True bias isn’t thinking you’re right, instead it’s not seeing how you could possibly be wrong. So open yourselves up to the idea that all these new ideas you’ve discovered and adopted could be wrong, and the ideas you’ve left could be right.
My third suggestion ties all of the above together, which is to have humility and to act in grace towards others. Be humble in both your actions and beliefs, because in all honesty the emergent movement comes across as extremely arrogant to those of us who aren’t in it. To be told that we’re not enlightened or that we’re regressive in our thinking doesn’t exactly make us look at you and go, “Wow, such humility!” Nor does it inspire us to join you or to take what you have to say seriously. Humility would go a long way, even if those of us who disagree with you fail to show it. Humility would disarm your critics and make them look like fools. Humility would make it easier to talk with you and discuss these issues with you.
In the end, I hope you take all of this well and take it to heart. Certainly I’m wrong on some of what I perceive and I’m okay with that. But at the same time, perhaps you should ask what caused me to perceive you in this way. In the end, I hope this isn’t simply ascribed to bias or bigotry and subsequently ignored, as this would truly be sad and completely miss the point. Continue standing up for what is right, but also please evaluate yourselves and see if this letter is at least partially true.
My internet friend David Hayward (The Naked Pastor) wrote a post yesterday posing some good questions about the rise of fundamentalism in today’s world. He sees the retreat to fundamentalism as a response to our uncertain and changing times. To him, it is merely an unwillingness to deal with mystery that causes people to become more and more rigid. To a certain extent I agree with him.
In both liberal and conservative sects, the more we eradicate mystery, the more rigid we tend to become. For conservatives it’s the eradication and elimination of drinking, smoking, women wearing pants, and so on. For liberals it’s the eradication and elimination of the belief in any miracles, in using Scripture for spiritual purposes, and so on. So I would contend that fundamentalism comes in both variations; one is remaining fundamental to conservative ideals with the other is pointing to the fundamentals of liberal ideals.
Where I would disagree is in pointing out that today’s world isn’t any less confusing or less mysterious than the world of yesterday. Think of the people who were experiencing the collapse of the Roman Republic. Certainly that was a confusing time when the Senate seemed to be impotent and the Emperors began to rise. With this change also came a dynamic change in Roman culture. Or what about the rise of Christendom, which also would have confused the masses. We could turn to the collapse of the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam in the East, the power vacuum of Europe shortly after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the collapse of Constantinople, the Protestant Reformation, the discovery of a New World, and the list goes on and on. The point being, our world has seemingly always been in a time of upheaval and that today would be no different from any of those times.
What has remained consistent during this times, however, is that the fundamentals of the Christian faith have stayed constant. Christians today who claim orthodoxy would differ very little in their central beliefs from Christians two thousand years ago, even though we are separated by time, culture, and language. The reason for this is that though Christianity has fundamentals to follow, it is ultimately based on a mystery. Being based on a mystery means that nothing can overcome it, nothing can overpower it, and as confusing as our world is, it’ll never be more mysterious than God.
It is in uncertain times when we need to embrace the stable mystery of Christ, lest we be swept away by the turbulent seas of uncertainty.
When the video of Rob Bell came out in early March promoting his book Love Wins (see my review here), controversy ensued when Rob Bell and other Reformed leaders began to critique the video. Many progressive/emergent Christians were up in arms, decrying such actions saying, “You haven’t even read the book yet!” So of course when Francis Chan wrote a book and then posted a video for it, one that is supposed to function as a response to Love Wins, you’d expect that people would follow their own advice and wait to read the book.
But no. That didn’t happen.
Instead, what many of the neo-Calvinist were accused of doing (e.g. hating Rob Bell, insulting him, going after him as a person, jumping the gun, assuming things about his theology, etc) they have actually been up to themselves. When Bell was criticized before his book was even out, many decided to say that the criticism revealed more about the critics than about Bell’s book. They were upset that people would slam Rob Bell as a person. They accused the Calvinists of hating Rob Bell in fact. Even I implicitly pointed out that we should read Bell’s book before criticizing it or uplifting it.
But with Francis Chan’s announcement of his new book, the Progressive and Emergent ground has apparently forgotten all their righteous indignation when it was Bell being attacked. For one, back during the Bell controversy, one progressive Christian went so far as to insinuate that any Christian who believed in Hell should be treated like a moron. In response to the Chan video, one emergent blogger essentially did a hit piece on the video, criticizing how Chan came across and making light of Chan’s theology (essentially treating Chan like an idiot). The same writer who compared people who believe in Hell to children also attacked Chan as a person rather than dealing with the message. He goes after the style of the video and then attacks Chan’s beliefs on Hell…even though Chan never states his beliefs and his book isn’t out yet. In essence, the same criticisms people had against the Reformed crowd concerning Bell’s book could easily be levied against the progressive and emergent crowd concerning Chan’s book.
Now make no mistake, I’m not a fan of Chan (rhyming not intended). It’s not that I’m against Chan, I just don’t know who he is. I haven’t listened to any sermons by him or read anything written by him. Perhaps it’s because I’m a closet hipster and haven’t read him because he’s too mainstream for my taste, or I just haven’t had time to read him because I’ve been busy reading other things. But this post isn’t meant to be a defense of Chan or his beliefs. I don’t know what his beliefs are. I haven’t read his book.
The bigger point I want to make is one that I’ve made numerous times before; the emergent movement is highly hypocritical and woefully lacking in its own self-criticism. How many posts can you find from an emergent author criticizing anything about progressive Christianity or emergent thinking? It seems that for all their finger-pointing and ridicule of all things conservative, the emergent crowd has forgotten to look into the mirror.
Now I don’t say this in a triumphal way or as a way to negate anything they’re saying, but instead I point it out as an honest plea to those who consider themselves emergent (or those who just want to be “beyond labels,” which is a label…). For all the criticisms the emergents have towards the Reformed authors (some criticisms I agree with) they forget or ignore how self-critical these authors are when it comes to conservative Christians or their own churches (some criticisms I agree with). For instance, the best books I’ve read about how dumbed-down many conservative evangelicals seem to be have come from conservative evangelical authors! Continue reading
It’s popular, these days, to bash fundamentalists for being “anti-intellectual”–I’ve read entire books dedicated to explaining how evangelicals are responsible for dumbing down Americans. My purpose today is not to refute these claims (after all, most of them are true); but, merely, to point out that the grass is not all that greener on the other side. By the other side, of course, I mean Liberal Protestantism (with all of its modern manifestations).
Friedrich Schleiermacher is acknowledged by virtually everyone as being the “father of Liberal Protestantism.” According to Roger E. Olson, he was the, “first professional Protestant theologian to call for sweeping changes in Protestant orthodoxy to encounter and come to terms with the Zeitgeist of modernity.” The key phrase here is that he was the first to call for, “sweeping changes.” He was not the first Protestant to respond to the challenges of modernity (there were, in fact, other Christians attempting to do this). What makes Schleiermacher significant is the solution he brought to the table. In his famous work, On Religion: Addresses in Response to Its Cultured Critics, Schleiermacher outlined this position; and, in Olson’s words, “laid the foundation for liberal theology to come.”
In his book Schleiermacher argued that, “the essence of religion lies not in rational proofs of the existence of God, supernaturally revealed dogmas or churchly rituals and formalities, but in a ‘fundamental, distinct, and integrative element of human life and culture’–the feeling (Gefuhl) of being utterly dependent on something infinite that manifests itself in and through finite things.” In other words, he insisted that religion is epitomized by feelings rather than rationality. In his mind, Christianity did not deal with concrete objective truths–it simply expressed an overarching feeling of dependency shared by all human beings.
Olson explains that Gefuhl is, “the distinctly human awareness of something infinite beyond the self on which the self is dependent for everything,” and that, “Christianity has its own unique form of Gefuhl, which Schleiermacher believed to be its highest form.” Christianity, therefore, is merely the best of the various human attempts to express Gefuhl.
Albrecht Ritschl later built upon Schleiermacher’s ideas and is perhaps the most influential of the two progenitors of Liberal Protestantism. Ritschl set out to, as Olson puts it, “disentangle Christianity from science.” By “science,” he meant any objective discipline whose stock-in-trade was “facts.” Essentially, Ritschl advocated a form of moderate scientism in which only scientific claims could be counted as knowledge.
As Olson explains: “Ritschl believed and argued that religious propositions, including Christian doctrines, must be understood as completely different from scientific ones. Science deals with facts and speaks the language of assertions of facts. Religion deals with values and speaks the language of judgments of value.” By judgments or values Ritschl did not mean objective truths about reality; but, subjective opinions or feelings that individuals hold–which may or may not be true.
My point is this: if anti-intellectualism is characterized by an uncritical, blind, dogmatic allegiance to one narrow set of propositions, or, as uplifting feelings and emotion above reason, then Liberal Protestantism has, in deed, fostered a form of religious anti-intellectualism. Both Schleiermacher and Ritschl docilely embraced the entailments of modernity with little to no criticism (as do their followers today). Their mindless acceptation of the “death of metaphysics” (via Hume and Kant) and scientism has led to a complete intellectual retreat–culminating in the removal of religion from the sphere of knowledge and rationality. If Christianity, as they argued (and as many still argue), is merely a set of subjective emotions or values it can hardly be viewed as an intellectual pursuit.
Consequentially, it is extremely rare to find Liberal Protestants who are Christian intellectuals. This is because Christian intellectualism entails the belief that Christianity can function as a rational enterprise–that Christian beliefs fall within the realm of knowledge and reason and not just subjectivity. Furthermore, Christian intellectuals, being intellectual, are inclined to question the philosophical viability of modernism and challenge its basic presuppositions–something Liberal Protestants seem incapable of doing.
The conclusion, of course, is this: one should clear the anti-intellectual log out of their own eye before attempting to clear the anti-intellectual speck out of another’s.