Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Custom-made Christianity

I'm going to comment on some statements by John Marriott:

He's an adjunct professor in Philosophy and Intercultural Studies at Biola, and author of A Recipe for Disaster: How Parents and Churches Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith, And How They Can Instill a Faith That Endures (Wipf and Stock, 2018). 

As I mentioned previously, many deconverts reveal in their deconversion stories that the catalyst for leaving the faith came as a result of being disappointed with God, or at least the concept they had of him.

In reality though, they had a significantly unbiblical conception of God, one that more closely resembled the God of Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism identified by sociologist Christian Smith, than the God of the Bible. MTD holds that God exists (deism), he wants us to be happy (therapeutic), and we should treat others in ways that maximizes their happiness by being good, nice, and fair to each other (moral). If that is how we make others happy, it is reasonable to conclude that is how God makes us happy, by being good, nice, and fair. According to Smith, for American teenagers “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, [and] professionally helps his people feel better about themselves.” But biblically speaking, this is not what God is like, nor how he acts. The conception is not mapping onto reality.

When one’s conception of God does not adequately map onto the reality of who God is, it can cause a crisis of faith. But it doesn’t have to. We can largely avoid these kinds of faith shaking disappointments by providing believers with a more biblical conception of God and what to expect as one of his followers. Without question there is great reward to be expected from following Jesus, both in this life and the next. But the rewards, which are primarily spiritual and relational, are experienced amidst a fallen world. Over and over again, the Bible tells us through stories and direct statements that this is a broken world, controlled in significant measure by a malevolent being. That suffering is par for the course. That followers of Jesus often will suffer both moral and natural evil. That God himself will allow bad things to occur, or even have a hand in bringing them to pass for reasons that may be opaque to us, but are for an ultimate good.

In that respect, they never lost faith in the Christian deity because they never had faith in the Christian deity. Their concept of God wasn't biblical to begin with. 

I think there are at least three factors. The first is mistaking a particular take or interpretation of Christianity for Christianity itself. This becomes problematic when the take or interpretation that is assumed to be Christianity elevates an excessive number of doctrines and practices to the level of the non-negotiable. This produces a house of cards faith. If an individual comes to reject any one of those doctrines or practices, the entire edifice will collapse.

For example, a common refrain among the deconverted is that they were told that the creation account had to be a literal 6 day, 24-hour period of time. If not, the rest of the Bible had no foundation and thus no justification for it’s claim that we are sinners in need of a savior.  When, for various reasons, they came to the conclusion that the universe was billions of years old they felt that they could no longer be Christians. For them, being a Christian meant “believing in literal 6 day creation”. In rejecting the young-earth view they assumed they were rejecting Christianity. In reality they were only rejecting a doctrinally bloated take on Christianity they mistook for the real thing.

If Scripture doesn't teach young-earth creationism, then it's wrong to make that a dealbreaker. But, of course, that's the very issue in dispute. We can't prejudge the answer to that question. That's an exegetical issue–although natural knowledge can inform exegesis. Whether that's a make-or-break issue depends on what Scripture actually teaches in that regard. 

The second factor is unmet expectations. When God and / or the Bible doesn’t live up to what deconverts expect a crisis of faith results. The problem, of course, is not God or the Bible but what many deconverts were taught to expect from the God or the Bible. One of the most common expectations that deconverts have is that the Bible is completely error free. And not just that it is inerrant but that it must be inerrant or else it cannot be the word of God. Somewhere along the way they were told that in order for the Bible to be the word of God it had to be free of error. Furthermore, the discovery of even one error would prove it wasn’t the inspired word of God. Eventually, they encountered what they believed was an error in the Bible. And, given what they assumed about the Bible, they were forced to conclude the Bible wasn’t God’s word. Rather than question the assumption of inerrancy, they took the more drastic action of concluding Christianity was a sham. The unquestioned assumption that the Bible is, and has to be inerrant, or else it cannot be the word of God, is the number one assumption / expectation that appears in deconversion narratives.

That raises several issues:

i) Marriott is employed by Biola. And Biola is formally committed to the inerrancy of Scripture:

The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind.

By contrast, Marriott is not committed to the inerrancy of Scripture. He thinks commitment to inerrancy is a mistake. A looming threat to Christian faith. 

So either the Biola administration is unaware of his position, or else the institution's official commitment to inerrancy is a sham. It dates back to a time when the faculty and administration took that seriously, which no longer the case but it would be too controversial to revise their doctrinal statement, so they leave that intact to keep the donor class happy while they quietly hire faculty who deny it. 

ii) It's true that inerrancy is often a wedge issue. Some professing Christians defect from Christianity when they become convinced that Scripture is factually or ethically erroneous on one or more issues. So coupling Christian identity to inerrancy can be, and often is, a practical hazard. 

However, even considered on its own grounds, the objection cuts both ways. Rejecting inerrancy can be, and often is, a practical hazard–and not simply or primarily because their Christian identity was bound up with inerrancy. Rather, for many apostates, having lost confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture, they don't think Scripture can be trusted to provide reliable guidance about the big existential questions. So Mariott's alternative is problematic in the very same way. For many, a limited inerrancy position is unstable in principle, practice, or both. 

iii) Inerrancy is bound up with inspiration. If Scripture is fallible, then does God ever actually speak to and through humans? Or is God, if there is a God, unreachable? Is the Bible just a reflection of human ideas about God? 

iv) There are challenges to inerrancy. There are challenges to the alternatives. So why not defend the orthodox position rather than some diluted substitute? Why not go for the gold?

If my first critique involved requiring believers to affirm an excessive and bloated set of non-negotiable beliefs in order to be a Christian, what is the alternative? I suggest that we identify those beliefs that are minimally sufficient to adopt in order to be considered a Christian and then emphasize those, leaving all others open for discussion. I think there are two sets of beliefs that meet that requirement: The salvation message and the ecumenical creeds of the church. The first is sufficient for salvation, the second for orthodox belief.

Salvation, as far as correct belief is concerned, has to do with possessing a fond appreciation that the work of Christ on the cross and his subsequent resurrection are the means by which an individual has their sins forgiven and are reconciled to God. Fond appreciation, in this sense, includes both believing what the Bible claims about Christ’s substitutionary death and trusting him as the savior.

There is more to being a Christian, however, than just being saved. There is also the matter of what the Christian community has identified as the boundary markers for correct belief. Soteriologically speaking, an individual may be a Christian, that is they are saved, but in the broader theological sense they may not be very Christian at all. A person can be born-again and hold to all kinds of aberrant and unorthodox theology. To guard against this the early church crafted statements that identified specific beliefs that were important for Christians to hold in order to be orthodox in their faith.

These are commonly known as the ecumenical creeds of the church, the Apostles’ Creed 200 CE, the Nicene Creed 381 CE, and the Chalcedonian Creed 451 CE. These three creeds, accepted by all three major branches of the church, identify the minimal set of beliefs that a person ought to affirm in order to be orthodox in belief. It is these major theological doctrines that we should be concerned to pass on. Not the unique and sometimes picayune convictions we hold individually or as a church.

i) God didn't reveal the so-called ecumenical creeds. That's not the object of faith. Biblical revelation is the object of faith. Creeds are useful and necessary, but no substitute for biblical revelation as the object of faith. 

ii) The so-called ecumenical creeds are silent on the calling of Abraham, the binding of Isaac, the Exodus, the Davidic messiah, the miracles of Jesus, the parables of Jesus, &c. By Marriott's logic, you can deny all that but still be orthodox!

iii) It's artificial to stipulate a minimum. What does that make the cut? It has no principled basis in revelation. While it's wrong to raise the bar arbitrarily high, it's equally wrong to lower the bar arbitrarily low. 

By emphasizing these minimal tenets of the faith, we do two things. First we make it less likely that we will pass on a distorted version of Christianity by equating our denominational distinctives and personal opinions of what it means to be a Christian with Christianity itself. Second we give believers a faith that is both sturdy and flexible. Sturdy in that it is built upon major doctrines accepted and defended by believers throughout history; flexible because the creeds do not commit one to any particular theological model for making sense of their content.

To sum up my first suggestion on how to avoid setting up believers for a crisis of faith, I suggest we should place no greater doxastic burden on individuals than that which is sufficient for salvation and mere orthodoxy. In all other areas of belief there should be freedom to reject beliefs without fear that in doing so one is rejecting Christianity.  

i) There is a danger in driving people away from the faith by making some interpretations or theological traditions obligatory which may in fact be wrong. But I don't think there's a failsafe solution. The best we can do is to expose Christians to a variety of theological viewpoints and the arguments for those alternatives. That way they know what the options are, and whatever reasons are provided for each option. Some of them may still commit apostasy, but not because they were only exposed to one point of view. 

ii) There's a difference between leaving Christianity behind due to false offending doctrines and leaving it behind even if the offending doctrines are true. I don't see Marriott draw the crucial distinction. 

iii) Marriott's proposal is a recipe for token Christians. It's not even good pragmatics. Many people find minimalism decidedly uninspiring. Many people are fired up by big idealistic causes. Challenging causes. Sacrificial causes. Even martyrdom. If it's not worth dying for, it's not worth living for. 

iv) Moreover, if the definition of Christian can be manipulated to make it easy, the implication is that Christianity doesn't coincide with reality reality, since reality can't be manipulated. The frame of reference isn't reality but what people are prepared to believe. You have to take reality as is. If the Bible maps onto reality, then you must accept it as is. 

v) It's better to walk away from the faith than to delude yourself that you're heavenbound when you're hellbound. You didn't lose your faith in Christianity if your faith was just an empty shell all along. 

1 comment:

  1. Marriott’s minimalist position seems to be something like the polar opposite extreme of the Pharisees’ maximalist position to build a fence around the Torah (khumra).