I’ve been reading and enjoying the work of Robert Webber recently. Webber led a change in evangelical circles to recover some of the treasures from the early church into our (post)modern mission, worship and thinking.
In the appendix of his book ‘Ancient Worship’ he gives a short critique of modern evangelical modes or ways of practising faith (pp.182).
He lists a number of aspects common to modern evangelical expressions of faith, but the following three caught my attention;
- Mere intellectual knowledge (Simply something to be understood)
- Overly therapeutic focus (focussed on healing or fulfilling people)
- New Age Gnosticism (experience-oriented, otherworldy focus)
He goes on to say, each of these focusses leave the Church with a lived experience that is inadequate for the challenges we face in today’s world.
I think Webber’s list is very perceptive and it led me to consider how each of these exists today (almost 10 years after the book was published).
I think each of these aspects have actually become streams or denominations within current evangelical Protestantism. Without naming names, it is fairly straightforward to see how certain popular movements within evangelicalism fit into one of these categories. While each of these aspects can often be grounded in desires that fit within true Christian spirituality, they are often touted as the only or most-important aspects of spiritual life. It is normally this over-emphasis that leads them to be destructive.
The Destructive focusses of evangelicalism explained
A sole focus on Intellectual knowledge
While it is true that Christian life must be grounded in thinking that comes from a mind renewed, often those who prescribe a renewal of intellectual vigour towards the scriptures and theology are in their own way succumbing to the desire to ‘sum it all up’ and in that way ‘control’ their environment. Even the most articulate and orthodox expressions can be dead shells of the lived Christian experience.
A sole focus on the Therapeutic
True Christian Spirituality heals, forms and reforms people out of their brokenness and pain, into people who are humble, aware of their weakness and in many ways whole-hearted people. But often the therapeutic impulse unchecked ends up turning Christian spirituality into a space where transformation is for one’s own sake. Inner Healing becomes an endless investigation into one’s own navel. Ultimately the fruits are people who are self-absorbed and only relate to others in a helper mode. While inner healing focus’ look caring they can sometimes entail the very nature of sinfulness, which as Luther termed it, is being ‘curved in on oneself’.
A sole focus on New-age Gnosticism / Experientialism
True Christian spirituality involves experiencing the empowering presence of God in a way that gives life, love and wholeness to all their being. New Age Gnosticism though, is fixated on experience as its goal. Consistently chasing and then comparing experience, it creates side projects of extra-biblical theories and special areas of knowledge that have come from these experiences. The highest goal is to feel and anything that doesn’t create that feeling is not God. Another outcome of this is an invisible focus which leads to a dualism where the world is bad and heaven is good. The goal then becomes to go to heaven and leave the earth to go to hell. As G.K. Chesterton said, it is possible to be “less orthodox by being more spiritual.”
How to Reconstruct Christian Spirituality
In many ways what I have described above might poke a little close to home for you. The reason is likely that the most destructive errors are the ones which border the true sources of life. As I mentioned above, a renewed mind, a whole-heartedness, and a Spirit-empowered life are at the centre of true Christian Spirituality. But Protestantism seems to endless produce tribal groups that focus on one of God’s gifts to the point where the people they form end up limping in their discipleship. It is increasingly popular to be parasitic and endlessly deconstruct evangelicalism but that is not my goal here. I want to observe these traits in order to consider how they might be redeemed and renewed in order for evangelical Christians to reclaim their witness and vocation.
So what is the remedy to these disfigurements of true Christian Spirituality?
While it would be fairly presumptuous and simplistic to offer a one-size-fits-all solution for the state of 21st Century Christianity, I have a couple of thoughts on how we might recover some of these excesses;
A return to the Biblical narrative
All of the errors that I mentioned above are practised and perpetuated by a lack of grounding in the biblical narrative. Now, I don’t mean by this, biblical knowledge. Many of the streams involved in these areas can quote bible verses to back their focus. But what is missing, is recognising the great arch of the biblical narrative, creation-Israel-Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-Ascension-Pentecost, is a narrative we are invited to participate in. This requires teaching, sung worship and life together to include continual remembrances of what God has done in His salvation history. This would encourage us to see our place within it so that we can faithfully work towards the fulfilment of this great story that we are called to live in.
The Mission of God
When the biblical narrative is what grounds Christian life, We realise we are involved in the story of God, which is the mission of God. Not just some narrowly defined evangelism project, but that all of our lives are in the midst of something God is doing to reconcile all of Creation to Himself. The mission of God helps us recognise that the goal of Christian life is to be other-centred. Intellectualism can be a way to feel smarter than others, a Therapeutic focus can be a way to feel more compassionate than others, Gnosticism can be a way to feel more special than others. Each of these errors are essentially about the individual, not ordered towards God’s creation that is waiting to be reconciled with their Creator.
A commitment to Christian Community
God’s salvation story and His mission help us recognise that the purpose of a renewed mind, a whole heart, and a Spirit-empowered life is that we would show the world what God looks like. God is three persons in one, a loving communion that spills over into the life-giving act of creation. He is calling us to be one body, united in his son and in our love for one another, for the sake of the world. Community isn’t a nice addition to Christian life, it is both the vehicle and the goal of God’s mission. We can’t learn to love and live for others without being in close God-imaging community with others. As Lesslie Newbiggin has said, ‘the Church is the hermeneutic of the Gospel’. Christian communities are the way in which the world sees whether the Gospel is true or not.
The biblical story reminds us that there is ‘too much of a good thing’, in fact, when God’s good things get disordered in the hearts and minds of His people, it is called idolatry. It is worth reflecting on whether we are committed to thinking better, being more healed, experiencing God in ways that could actually be keeping us from God Himself.