The Christ of North American Evangelicalism: A word on my Ecclesiological-Identity Crisis

On Facebook I wrote that I am having some ecclesiological-identity crisis, and tis true. I have grown up as an Fundy-Evangelical all my life (emphasis on the Evangelical side of that … culturally), and only, say, in the last few years have I began to become really disillusioned with it. For awhile I had been holding out hope that for some reason Evangelicalism could make the turn, and get past the inward turn of theological pietism that had given them their shape from their inception. But I have finally come to the conclusion—and I don’t mean just intellectually, but existentially—that North American Evangelicalism has given up the ghost (generally speaking), and it is a terrible feeling of loss that I am experiencing as a result.

schleiermacherI know, I know, you’re thinking; well, Bobby, just get in there and make a difference, don’t just sit there and gripe about it, do something about it! Blah! Thing is, I have tried. While it might sound like I am just disgruntled, it really isn’t reducible to that; the problem I have been having for years, and now is at an existential head, is that Evangelicalism in North America, by and large is dead, spiritually. Its center is man, and what blinds Evangelicalism to this, is that they assert in their piety that the center is Christ; but what they have failed to recognize, by and large, is that the Christ they say is the center, has been given his shape by their needs, their anxieties, their wants, their feelings, etc. And this is not the Christ that I have come to know. Indeed, Christ is full of grace and truth; indeed Christ looks out over people with compassion, like sheep without a shepherd. But this is different than the Christ of Evangelicalism. The Christ of Evangelicalism has been taken captive by collapsing him into our situation so closely, that the Christ of Evangelicalism cannot also be Lord, he is just our buddy. But then on the other extreme, there are those Evangelicals who have seen Christ as Lord, but only in a legalist fashion, which is given shape by their conception of what Lordliness means; a Lord is a brute sovereign who cares more about Law-keeping than he does about Love-making. Both expressions of Evangelicalism suffer from taking Christ captive by their conceptions of how he ought to be according to their desires; there is no room for Christ to be the Christ, and no space for Him to contradict us with His Word, because we have either made him our buddy, or we have made him our judge; and neither fit with the revelation of Himself as the true Lord.

This is just some of the problems I have been having with Evangelicalism; in fact, I would say that what I just kind of described is the source of the other symptomatic stuff that I have experienced over and over again at various Evangelical churches we have been a part of over the last many years. There is a sterility that makes me want to gag at most Evangelical churches, I feel oppressed, very often, when in attendance. There is no depth, and no desire to go deeper; in fact in most venues we have been a part of, going deeper is frowned upon as if going deeper would mean quenching the Spirit’s organic work in the body life of said church—which ironically and sadly I see just the opposite happening.

On Facebook I also said that I think North American Evangelicalism is the new theological Liberalism. What I meant was that in many ways I see Evangelicalism epitomizing what the so called Father of Theological Liberalism, Schleiermacher, was about; he was about a ‘feeling’ religion, wherein the Christian religion is based upon an existential category of belief that is resonant deep down within the heart of the individual. And so ultimately, the Christian religion becomes a matter of projecting a personal belief about God, assenting to it corporately in the church, and worshiping this God. But this God, then really, is only the worship of the self, the worship of the self projected out upon a conception of God who then ends up really only being the self (even corporately and methodologically), instead of the true God revealed in Jesus Christ. Karl Barth offered another way against this conception of God, and yet he realized that for better or worse Schleiermacher was here to stay among Protestants. Here is what he wrote of Schleiermacher’s impact:

[L]ittle need be said about the importance of the subject and the legitimacy of devoting a whole semester to it. Scheiermacher merits detailed historical consideration and study even if only because he was the one in whom the great struggle of Christianity with the strivings and achievements of the German spirit in 1750–1830, in whose light or shadow we still stand today, took place in a way which would still be memorable even if he were dead and his theological work had been transcended. None of his contemporaries with the possible exception of Hegel took up that struggle so comprehensively or with such concern, and none of the theologians of his age has anything like the same representative siginificance for what took place at that time. But Schleiermacher is not dead for us and his theological work has not been transcended. If anyone still speaks today in Protestant theology as though he were still among us, it is Schleiermacher. We study Paul and the reformers, but we see with the eyes of Schleiermacher and think along the same lines as he did. This is true even when we criticize or reject the most important of his thelogoumena or even all of them. Wittingly and willingly or not, Schleiermacher’s method and presuppositions are the typical ferment in almost all theological work; I need only mention the basic principle, which is so much taken for granted that it is seldom stated, that the primary theme of his work, both historically and systematically, is religion, piety, Christian self-consciousness. Who is not at one with Schleiermacher in this regard? In 1859 the Bremen preacher F. L. Mallet wrote concerning Schleiermacher: “It once seemed [even then!] as though his day was over, as though he had done his work. . . . But it is not the same with Schleiermacher as with the discovering of thinking faith [Paulus in Heidelberg]: he has a tenacious life, and to the surprise of his detractors and despisers he is suddenly remembered in a way and from an angle which cannot be overlooked or missed” (“Biographie,” 16). [Karl Barth, “The Theology Of Schleiermacher,” xiii]

And unfortunately, to me, this Schleiermacherian piety has gone full circle in Evangelicalism, and indeed has rendered, in my opinion, Evangelicalism, impotent to deal with their own problems, and the problems of the world.

I will have more to say later. I should add, that I realize there are millions (literally) of good intentioned, Christ loving people within Evangelicalism; but I don’t think good intentions have enough resource to make up the deficit of a Christian religion that is ultimately sourced and projected from the self, instead of the Christ. I am sure many many will disagree with me, and even write me off at this point, but I think over time, you might come to the same conclusion that I have currently.

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2 comments

  1. This tendency you have identified of projecting our own ideas and desires upon God has been with us since Eden, has it not? Another name for a “feeling” religion that has surfaced in contemporary times is MTD: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – the idea that we are supposed to be “good,” and that God is really separated from us (like the “two story universe” I have referenced before) and that God is there for us when we need him, just not all the time. We chose to gloss over the revelation that we are inexorably bound up in God, not in some Hindu nirvana sense, but in the sense that in Christ’s incarnation, we have been taken up into the life of God, sharing in the Triune relationship. Our pea-brains want to put this on a timeline, to say it happened THEN, but, of course, God is free from all timelines, which is how it can be said that Christ “was slain from the foundation of the world.” We are NOT separate from Christ – Colossians tells us that Christ IS our life; Paul told the pagan busybodies of Athens that we ALL “live and move and have our being in Him.” It has been revealed to us by God (not determined by human reasoning) that our moment by moment existence is sustained by God. This is the truth of our existence, and it gave God great pleasure to do it thusly. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit is at work in the world to make this clear. Hang in there, Bobby!

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  2. Hi Jerome,

    Thanks. And thanks for your encouraging email. I think you are right about a Bible study, I already have those kinds of relationships established with folks … I just need to do it!

    Here is what I wrote at the end of the day yesterday on my Facebook wall, where I made some other comments in the same flavor of this post, and this post fed through to my FB wall as well:

    You’ll have to forgive my ranting and raving from earlier about the evangelical church. I love the church because I love God’s people, and even though the evangelical tradition of the church is imperfect, and even though it has some major things to deal with; one thing I know to be true of it: It is full of people who are loved by Jesus Christ, and full of people who love Jesus (and I am one of them). That said, there is major work to be done for all of us.

    I was just having a moment yesterday :-).

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