A Psychology of Fear: Evangelicals and Fear of the Theologian in Their Midst

I am going to speak from personal experience in this post; it will be something of a reflection on what I am calling a psychology of fear in evangelical Christianity (and my reference for ‘evangelical’ will be a sub-set within that sub-culture itself).

I have grown up in the evangelical church in North America my whole life. My dad is a retired Conservative Baptist Pastor, and so I was involved in evangelical ministry right from the very beginning of my life. The Lord has used the evangelical ‘tradition’ in my life in untold ways; for the good, for the positive. He has used this tradition to inculcate in me a love of Scripture, and the scholaridea that intimacy with God is what it means to be a child of God. Evangelicalism has a heartwarming trajectory, even a pietistic (in a healthy way) sense about its spirituality. These are some positives of the evangelical tradition, and I would be remiss if I did not share them; I still consider myself an evangelical Christian and fellowship with other evangelical Christians.

It is from this space that I write this post, and make my observations; observations that are largely personal. There is a fear that permeates the evangelical sub-culture, it is a fear that is so deeply interwoven into the fabric of what it means to be evangelical that I would contend that most who are indeed evangelical have a hard time seeing it; for most evangelicals this ‘fear’ is as necessary as the air they breathe. In my experience, particularly because of my “intellectual” pre-disposition (or so I am often perceived), being a critical deep theological thinker is frowned upon. As I noted above a strength of evangelicalism is its warm-hearted piety towards God, but built into this is a fear of being too critically engaged, of being too theo-logical. There is a fear among evangelicals, of a certain stripe, that to do theology is to quench the Spirit. There is a fear that if theology or critical biblical study is elevated too much that ‘love of God’ (I Cor. 13) is jettisoned and thus theology and critical biblical studies mean nothing. It is this attitude that I think in many ways shapes the evangelical psychology, in certain environs in particular.

What is the effect of this then upon those of us within evangelicalism that are inclined towards thinking deeply and theologically; who might even be considered to be a “theologian?” At the very least there is a deep suspicion, and in a sense a shunning. People are afraid to talk about God with you because they fear that all you are about is nit-picky theological shibboleths that only egg-headed intellectuals query about; they fear that if they spend too much time with you they might end up like you and quench the true love of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives (meaning the simple, emotional, mystical, experiential relationship they think equals ‘love’). And so in these circles the theologian instead of being looked at as a resource is looked at as a potential pariah; someone who might suck the life blood out of their spirituality—so they tend to shy away from people like that.

One sad consequence of this type of fear towards theologians in the evangelical’s midst is that these types of churches with this type of culture of fear end up losing, one way or the other, these types of Christian thinkers. The theological type will most likely abandon these types of churches for churches that are more intellectually accepting (which often times mean leaving the “evangelical” fold altogether for more mainline traditions), or even more sadly the theologian will shut-down, close up, and simply go through the motions of attending church, putting on a fake smile, and knowing their place—which for them, in such contexts, is nowhere.

Irony

The irony of this situation is that evangelicals who fit into this type of psychology of fear are biting the hands that have fed them. In other words, evangelicals are Protestants, and Protestants have a Bible reading ethic based upon some very deep theology. These types of evangelicals usually have a very high regard for the Bible, for all things Bible; but they don’t seem to be aware of where that regard came from. They seem to think that all of the spirituality that they have simply fell out of the heavens and landed in their lap. In other words for this type of evangelical there is no sense of church history, there is no connection to the communion of the saints; it is a very American religion, one that emphasizes me-and-my-Jesus/me-and-my-Bible. This type of evangelicalism does not recognize that they are just as much of a product of certain theological commitments as the theologian is in their midst; the difference is that the theologian wants to be critical about those and attempt to be counter-cultural and Christ concentrated counter the type of individualism that shapes so much of this type of evangelicalism.

But because evangelicals like this fear the theologian they in effect shut-down any critical possibility to be all that God in Christ would have them to be. They either end up shunning the theologian, or typically expelling the theologian in their midst by their attitudes of fear and suspicion.

I pray that evangelicals, those shaped by this psychology of fear might repent, and realize that God might’ve placed the theologian in their midst in order to be a source of edification rather than the stumbling block that so many of these evangelicals have come to think of the theologian as.

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4 comments

  1. Unfortunately your thoughts here are right on point. More unfortunately, your thoughts have a much wider reach than simply American evangelicalism. This kind of antipathy toward rigorous and detailed theological thinking, conversing, and writing is rife among Italian evangelicals as well. Something we’re working on!

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  2. I think a lot of this thinking started with the likes of campus Crusade, and Bill bright, who was really mostly interested in cramming the whole counsel of God into peanut-sized shells of silly phrases like: “God has a wonderful plan for your life.”

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