Saturday, December 15, 2012

Where Evangelicalism Shoots Itself in the Foot

In homage to the born-again experience and in search of a deeply personal savior, evangelicals and fundamentalists (hereby referred to as fundagelicals) make Christianity a very personal thing. It must happen within the person at the point of conversion and the experience must continue within the person through a personal relationship with God.
Fundagelicals also insist upon the authority of the Scriptures. This authority is presumed to have direct import on the fundagelical's life. However, the nature of doctrine within fundagelical circles removes the determination and application of Scriptural mandates from the individual's purview. Hence such things as statements of faith, church covenants, etc. The body of doctrine espoused by any fundagelical sect forms a creed, whether it is considered a creed or not. The nature of church and church membership holds the fundagelical to whatever such creeds are delivered by the church leadership (either local or denominational).
The battleground of what is up to personal determination versus what is important to establish as a matter of communal creed is akin to the fight over what doctrines are fundamental or not. This and the discussion of heretics in the New Testament inform us that doctrinal stringency is oftentimes less a matter of unity and more an issue of power. The Apostle Paul specifically speaks of heretics as divisive persons who use disputed issues as wedges to draw people after themselves. One is justified to think that the oft-used justification of unity for doctrinal stringency is normally a cover for what is at least a benign attempt to consolidate power.
This relates back to our topic of the individual nature of the fundagelical faith in that the very authenticity of the individual Christian experience is judged on the basis of communal creeds that may or may not reflect the actual experience and mindset of the believer. Attempts by individual believers at living authentically in any manner inconsistent with communal creeds invite swift condemnation of that person's individual Christian experience.
The importance of the individual Christian experience within fundagelicalism is seen then as less of a call to authenticity and more of a tool to prod followers into internalizing the creeds espoused by the church community. It is a form of take-home catechism realized through the type of endless self-comparison with others that the Apostle Paul so roundly condemned as unwise.
Indoctrination and catechism must happen in any religion but to do it in a system and through means that pretend to exalt the importance of individual religious experience is inconsistent. In any case, fundagelicals are left church hopping in search of authenticity, endlessly looking for some community with a creed that validates their personal experience and understanding.
Perhaps some may complain that I am confusing the importance of a personal relationship with God with some notion of personal authenticity and understanding that doesn't really exist within fundagelicalism. If that is the case, then perhaps the whole situation is best understood as fundagelicalism completely missing the connection between relationship and authenticity. In the pursuit of holiness is common to compensate for the difficulty of such an endeavor by pretending to succeed even when one is not, or by keeping the externals polished even when one is seething with vile feelings on the inside. Yet we should not confuse the maintenance of a facade with evidence of the real thing. The fundagelicals' God is (supposedly) still one that looks inside the hearts of men.
The more consistent route is to centralize catechism through formalization (think Catholics and liberal Protestants). But this is anathema to fundagelicals. Also anathema is alternate solution of a thoroughgoing ecumenicalism. Both solutions together--a formalized catechism and a thoroughgoing ecumenicalism--provide a strong measure of both objective clarity and love. It also allows one to be searching spiritually without the imminent threat of rejection or the existential dilemma that occurs when the uncertain Christian is forced to look at their own personal spirituality as the ultimate barometer for whether they are in the faith or not.
One's personal spirituality is an extension of faith, not the measure of it. Believers are first and foremost in Christ and of His body, and the necessary grace for life flows through both.
Spiritual narcissism is dangerous...

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