The Suffocating Church – American Style

A number of years ago I wrote an article in response to a heartfelt letter a lady who had been hurt and confused by much that she had experienced in the church.  That she was not alone was evidenced by the mail that I have since received on the same subject. One letter in particular I would like to share with you – again with the permission of the woman concerned, whom we will call ‘Claire’.   Claire wrote me the following –

Pastor Robertson, I was encouraged by the Suffocating Church article to write to you.  I, like the woman who wrote you in that article, have much appreciated your articles.  They are fair and seek to give a Biblical answer in a way that is non-threatening in the right sense of that term. 

I have some questions about intellectual life.  I have professed for several years to be a Bible believing Christian.  But I have found since the reading of the book The Closing of The American Mind about seven years ago, that I cannot just ignore the views of philosophers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others who have tried to search for the truth.  I have a philosophical inclination and have at various times encountered doubts about whether the Bible is the Word of God, whether God exists, and so on.  One thing I have not been able to bring myself to doubt is that I am a sinner and need Christ to save me.  But of course, if God’s existence is doubtful and the veracity of His Word is also, then there is no good reason to believe in Christ as a Savior.  Understand, I am not writing to you to express my unbelief but rather my belief and the nagging doubts which plague me at times.  I suspect that these are things one never completely gets over, but Christ is sufficient even for this. 

At the same time, I am very troubled by the fact t almost at times seems to be considered wrong to be intellectually inclined in evangelical churches; Roman Catholics have a more robust intellectual atmosphere, at least in the United States, as much as I have been able to see from various writings.  My desire ultimately with Christians and non Christians is to be honest and fair, to not evade difficult questions and to try to be relevant with the Gospel to my friends who are of various philosophical opinions.  Can you offer some help?  And, what do you think the best method of evangelism is?  And how do you feel about the writings of C. S. Lewis?  Thank you so much for taking time to read and consider my email. 

Sincerely,

PS – I think a liberal education is very important as I’m sure you do as well.  How does openness of mind correspond with the apparent closedness of Gospel requirements (Matthew 7:13-14).  If one already believes certain things and is closed to questioning, can one really be said to get a liberal education or rather just a collsaid to get a liberal education or rather just a collection of historical facts not to be taken that seriously?

 

Dear Claire,

Firstly I want to thank you for your e-mail and for its thoughtful and well expressed contents. Secondly can I apologise for taking so long to reply – it is not that I had forgotten about you – but to be honest I have been very busy and the questions you raise are of such significance that it does take some time to think about them.

Your comments about the intellect, the Gospel and the Church are well put and not uncommon. In my earlier article I was writing about a particularly Scottish experience of the suffocating church (though one that is often repeated elsewhere), in your e-mail you are obviously writing from within the American context. J I Packer once said, somewhat unkindly, that American Christianity was ‘3,000 miles wide and one inch deep’. I say unkindly because there are many fine American Christians who are not as shallow as Mr. Packer suggests. Indeed as I write I am just about to head to Savannah, New York and Philadelphia where I hope to have deep, meaningful and intelligent spiritual fellowship. However there is some degree of truth in what Packer says – there is often a superficiality in the cultural ‘Christianity’ which predominates in so much of the US. What I mean by cultural Christianity is the equation of Christianity with the ‘American way of life’. This will often lead to an unthinking and unquestioning acceptance of what are deemed to be Christian beliefs and values, just because they are the cultural norm.   To some extent that happens in every culture but for Christianity it is disastrous. We are to be much more radical than that.

To think or not to think?

Which leads me to the first part of your letter and the seeming implication that in order to be a Christian one has to stop thinking and just have a blind acceptance of absolute truths without any doubt. It is true that there is a strong streak of anti-intellectualism within much of Western Christianity. I recall a conversation I had with one Calvinist conservative theologian who astounded me by claiming that one of our leading Christian publishing houses was ‘anti-intellectual’. I found that claim hard to believe until I experienced it myself. Too often there are those in positions of authority and influence who refuse to allow any other position than that of their own. This sometimes leads to the paradox of dishonesty being used to ‘protect’ the truth.   For example when writing a biography of one of the Christian heroes of the past it is all too easy to leave out what one does not like or personally agree with, and thus create a distorted and dishonest picture.   It should go without saying that such dishonesty and anti-intellectualism is not worthy of the name Christian.

Of course there are those who hide behind the idea that being intellectual is just copying ‘the wisdom of the world’. That is not necessarily the case – indeed I would argue that as we live in an increasingly ‘dumbed down’ culture, being anti-intellectual is just as likely if not more so, to be copying the world. My understanding of intellectualism is that of using the human mind to the full extent of its capacity. God has given us minds so that we can use them. Being renewed in our minds is as much part of our redemption as being renewed in our bodies and our spirits.   When asked by non-Christians what my job is and what a minister really does, one answer I often give is that my job is to help people think. Not to do their thinking for them – but to provoke and stimulate through the proclamation and discussion of the truth.

So go ahead. Yes you are right to read and think about the various philosophical thinkers. Personally I have not read Heidegger and I find Nietzsche somewhat dull. However in studying philosophy it is also good to think about it in the light of two things – firstly its consequences and secondly, and more importantly, in the light of the Word of God. Nietzsche for example was an influential thinker on the German mind which resulted in the theories and acceptance of Nazism. It is too simplistic to blame him for Hitler – but there is no doubt that he did help pave the way. The ‘God is dead’ philosophy combined with the notion of the ‘super man’ were fundamental philosophical cornerstones for Nazi actions. It is good to read these men (and women) in the light of what Scripture tells us about human beings and God. I have recently been reading Albert Camus’s ‘The Outsider’. It is a beautifully written, provocative and thoroughly depressing book. If one were to read that, and other existentialist works such as Sartre, there might be a temptation to despair. But reading it in the light of the Word of God gives a whole new perspective. Contrast the existentialist despair of Camus with the meaninglessness of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes and one can see how Camus and the Preacher were both right – without God there is no ultimate meaning to life. Reading philosophy will not undermine your faith when you realize that many philosophers are just asking questions, or giving partial answers, or in some cases just wrong answers.

One of the dangers that occurs with those who come from a fundamentalist background – where they are not encouraged to think – is that once they move out of their protected and sheltered environment they are not able to cope with the storms that they often face – as a result they either reject the faith and throw out the baby with the bathwater or they end up with a bitter, twisted and distorted view. It is interesting to read how Philip Yancy has come from this kind of background – and how much damage it has done him.  Personally I think he is a great writer with some tremendous insights but it is always good to bear in mind the background he is writing from.

In terms of thinking can I suggest that we also need a great deal of humility? We are not God and we cannot expect to understand and know everything – nor must we operate on the basis of only accepting what we understand.   The notion of ‘mystery’ is essential to true worship and understanding. But that does not turn us into passive unbelievers or non thinkers. I do not understand for example the workings of the internal combustion engine but that does not stop me driving my car. Neither do I grasp just how anti-biotics work but I will still use them when prescribed by those who do.   In the same manner I do not understand much of how God works or even who he is and yet I still trust him. In the words of a poster I used to have ‘All I have seen teachers me to trust the Creator for all that I have not seen’.  I love the idea of Paul, towards the end of his life, saying ‘I want to know Christ’. How is that possible? He has preached Christ for many years, he has had the most wonderful experiences and yet he can still say that he wants to and needs to know Christ. That is because the more you grow in knowledge the more you realize just how much more there is to know. We will spend all eternity growing in the knowledge of Christ. Amazing!

The best method of evangelism?

Evangelism is not a method. Christianity is not a formula. The Good News is about Jesus – and there are many ways of communicating that. Of course there are biblical principles, one of which is that the Gospel is not a method.   The first principle is surely that in order to bring the Good News we must first of all know it and experience it for ourselves. In theory it is possible for someone who is not a believer to tell the Gospel but in practice it comes so much better from someone who lives and knows it. Another principle is that we must live it – if the fruit of the Spirit is not evident in our lives why should anyone take a blind bit of notice of what we say?   And then we must tell. What is the use of living the Christian life if, when we are asked about it we do not know what to say?   All this requires grace, the Word, the Spirit and thought.   I have also found that caring for people and actually doing evangelism (as opposed to talking about it) is very helpful. Your leg muscles grow and develop when you walk – not when you talk about walking. Likewise your evangelistic skills grow when you do it.   If you want some further stimulus on this subject can I suggest a couple of books that I have found very helpful. Will Metzger’s Tell the Truth and Graham Tomlin’s The Provocative Church.   We have recently been working through the latter at our midweek meeting – it has been very stimulating and helpful.

CS Lewis?

I love CS Lewis. His writings are stimulating, provocative and encouraging. That Hideous Strength is my favourite novel (though Pride and Prejudice runs it close!) and some of his apologetic writings remain unsurpassed. However I do not agree with everything he says and in some areas I think he has wandered quite far from biblical truth. As a thinking Christian it is possible to disagree with those whom we admire and respect. And it is possible to discover truth and help in those with whom we would have some fundamental disagreements. For example I get a great deal from the commentaries of William Barclay although I think he is in serious error on some major points. The point is that if you are not a thinking Christian, or not a well grounded one theologically (which to my mind comes to the same thing) then you cannot go near such as Barclay because you are unable to sort out the gold from the dross. But if you do think (always in submission to the Holy Spirit speaking through the Word) then you can benefit from most people.

A liberal Education and a closed mind

 Again I find the way that you frame the question interesting.   There seems to be a presupposition that a liberal education means an open mind and a biblical education means a closed mind. Your use of Matthew 7:13-14 in this respect is wrong. Entering the narrow gate does not mean being narrow minded. In fact it means the opposite. To go the way of Christ, the narrow way, is to have one’s mind opened to his world and his way. I live in the city of Dundee. If one wishes to visit St Andrews (one of our suburbs!) then one has to go across the Tay road bridge. Can you imagine being in the centre of Dundee and being asked how one gets to St Andrews? You might reply ‘go across the Tay Bridge’. Someone else might say ‘no, head North towards Aberdeen’. Someone else might suggest heading West towards Perth. Would it be legitimate for the person who suggests going across the Tay bridge (the correct way) to be accused of being narrow minded, bigoted, fundamentalist? Is it narrow minded for me to believe as a fundamental that racism is wrong, that all human beings are created in God’s image, that two plus two equals four, that Jesus is the only way to God?

I believe in liberalism. I believe in a liberal education. At least in the Christian sense of the word (and why should I hand all the good words over to the devil?). Free, unprejudiced, open-minded, tolerant, patient, plentiful, overflowing, abundant, generous.   On the other hand there are those who consider themselves liberal and who advocate a ‘liberal education’ who are nothing of the sort. Their version of liberalism is secularistic, humanistic, vague and imprecise. It has become an excuse of rejecting God. And the irony is that some ‘liberals’ are the most illiberal people you can get. They are closed minded to any other view but their own and they have no difficulty in imposing it. Just try and get a job on a ‘liberal’ campus in the US if you hold to the biblical view on homosexuality.  They are not even prepared to debate the case – one is immediately called names and treated as though one is a Nazi. There is no discussion, no meeting of minds, no tolerance.

Now of course I accept that there is and can be an illiberalism in the Christian Church. Sometimes the ugliness of some parts of the Church on earth takes my breath away.   That is not to say that I am arguing for a Church or a society where anything goes. There are always restrictions and boundaries. Even the most ‘liberal’ of societies will recognize that – it is not true for example that anything goes in our sexually immoral society – paedophilia is still considered to be beyond the pale. The question is ‘who draws the boundaries’? My view is that the most open and tolerant of societies will result from those who respect and honour the Word of God and that the most intolerant will arise from those who put human law above God’s law, or those who misunderstand or misuse the Law of God. Sadly there are far too many power seekers within the Christian Church seeking to use ‘God’ and his Word as a tool for oppression and abuse.

Anyway that is on to a whole new subject. I hope that the above proves helpful to you and to others. It has certainly helped me to think about these things. May the Lord grant us all clarity of mind, a sense of wonder and his presence at all times. Keep thinking, keep praying, keep seeking,

Yours in Christ

David

 

 

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “The Suffocating Church – American Style

  1. Thank you David. Exploring these questions help strengthen our faith as we are buffeted from all sides. I value your reading recommendations and would particularly appreciate your thoughts on reading material related to who Christ is. I am thinking of how do we explain Christ , as described in Colossians , to an unbelieving generation. Anyway, thank you and I am sure the good people of St Andrews will appreciate being called Dundonians!!

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  2. I agree with much of this. The only thing I would add is about intellectualism. There is a tendency to approach an idea as if it must be accepted or rejected. Often, though, they exist in order to be interpreted, they are not end-points to thought but springboards to more thought. The interpretive tools we bring to an idea are crucial to what we derive from it. Christians include, as it were, Christ and the Gospel in their toolkit and therefore interpret ideas in different ways from people with different toolkits. By engaging with the world of ideas and with the persons who hold them we bring the Good News into a layer of society which would not otherwise experience it.

    The converse risk, that we bring the ideas of non or anti Christian thinkers into the Church, does exist. This means that when engaging with philosophy and the like Christian intellectuals should always ground themselves in prayer, Scripture, the shared life of the Church and in the person of Jesus Christ. In that way we never cease from interpreting ideas in the Gospel light.

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  3. David,
    almost forty years ago I ‘got something’ from reading J.A.T. Robinson, which is pretty much the equivalent of getting something from Wm. Barclay. I think he was lammenting the fact that, despite the duty he felt as a theologian to be skeptical, he increasingly found that he gravitated to holding certain ideas with a conviction that he called conservatism. Anyway his map of dispositions, which I attached to my mental pinboard, consisted of a list of four categories:
    1. The fundamentalism of the fearful.
    2. The conservatism of the committed.
    3. The skepticism of the wise.
    4. The cynicism of the foolish.

    I discovered quite recently that principled skeptics call wannabee skeptics who can’t be bothered to investigate whether or not skepticism in a particular case is justified, ‘pseudoskeptics.’ This stimulated me to find other intermediate categories and it does seem to me quite reasonable to say that traditionalism is to conservatism as pseudoskepticism is to skepticism.

    Much harder to find a term to go between ‘conservative’ and ‘skeptic.’ For historical reasons, neither ‘moderate’ nor ‘radical’ will do, but I think ‘reformed’ sits there rather nicely. The ‘Truly-Reformed’ won’t like it; nor will those who think ‘Reformed Baptist’ is an oxymoron; but surely the Reformed are those who are not afraid to put the Gospel to the test and not afraid to admit that there are things we don’t know. This is ‘Reformed’ as way of thinking rather than as body of received truth but there is an expectation that they won’t clash anyway. It recognises the Reformed Thinker’s place at the heart of the Faith Seeks Understanding programme and I find it useful in dealing with the sort of issue raised by your correspondant.

    I think it also illustrates why Atheist fundamentalism needs to be thoroughly cynical about Christianity to stand.

    a. Fundamentalist
    b. Traditionalist.
    c. Conservative.
    d. Reformed.
    c’. Skeptic.
    b’. Pseudoskeptic.
    a’. Cynic.

    Yours.
    John/.

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  4. Dear Rev Robertson – this was by far the best post I have read from you. I think several parts were used to speak directly to me (Praise God!) Thanks must go to the lady for her permission for writing such an interesting letter to yourself, but also for the thoughtful response you gave in answering. I was very blessed by this.

    I was surprised to read you find Nietzsche dull. I think he was somewhat of a very accurate social commentator. His ‘God is dead’ claim was not (i think) a celebration – and I’m not suggesting you implied as such, but Nietzsche understood that when God is removed – a moral vacuum would be created, with the end product being the death of millions. Which is what actually happened. Dull? I’m surprised!

    Have you read Dostoevsky?

    On a point of agreement, Although I prefer the beauty of Perelandra, I too think of That Hideous Strength as one of the best pieces of literature we have. And of course its philosophical partner The Abolition of Man is to my mind the most brilliant and important defence of Objective Values ever written, with perhaps the exception of our own fellow Scot, Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue.

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  5. A missing message from the church today, is one central to the New Testament. I.e. The call to repent.

    To repent is grossly misunderstood. It literally means to have a ‘change (meta) of mind ‘(noiá- from the root nous) It means to think differently. To reverse decision.

    The mind is central to repentance, yet the message is missed completely by the church. It does not mean a change of direction, that’s conversion, and conversion is not the core message of the NT, repentance is.

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