Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Either my way or the highway

I've often been told that I have to decide whether I want to follow God (i.e., the Bible) or the atheistic skepticism of scientism (or the anti-theistic spirit of secular humanism). One word comes to mind here, "bifurcation." Evangelical ultimatums are often invoked to help clarify the "real" issues that are at stake, but more often than not they actually obscure more than they elucidate because not only might a person give preference to the former rather than the latter (God, not skepticism) or to the latter rather than the former (skepticism, not God), one might also insist upon both together (God and skepticism) or neither (neither God nor skepticism).

Evangelical ultimatums are the most common argument strategy that I have encountered when talking with conservatives (both ministers and laypersons [and theology professors!]), but Os Guiness includes precisely this kind of rhetorical polarization in his list of weaknesses of evangelical thinking (see his Fit Bodies, Fat Minds). Evangelicals, time and again, like to dissolve critical inquiries by issuing pious ultimatums. Maybe that’s an effective way to keep students from asking hard questions, but it also has the unhealthy effect of constraining one's God-given ability to think. To prematurely and artificially close a student's line of inquiry is not only a disingenuous response to genuine questions but it comes back to haunt in undesirable ways. Students become disillusioned and may begin to hate and rage inside. They may even finally defect from the faith. Teachers and ministers must be more candid and thorough when dealing with their students' investigations of options.

This is precisely my point in my book, Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals. It was also one of the main points that Mark Noll drove home in his classic, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Anti-intellectualism is the least of the concerns. The very future of evangelicalism, I think, is at stake. For if the students begin to feel so spiritually groundless, how will the next generation feel? Evangelicals should beware not to let an acute and hyper sense of faithful Christian commitment work to their detriment. Maybe in some cases God's way is the highway.

For example, I've been told by some ministers and some ministerial students, "Either you believe in a young-earth, six 24-hr day or you're not a 'true' Christian." There it is again: either my way or the highway. Could not God have inspired a myth? Could not God have authenticated a folkloric narrative? For example, how might God have "told" Bible readers that they are not to take various portions of Scripture literally? Might he have inspired a story that is so unlike normal human experience that humans would be "forced" to conclude that the story is fictive? Is it really a sign of "true" faith to believe such stories? What does it take for a person to stop believing that a story really happened or what is the most unbelievable thing one might imagine in a story that would cause one to disbelieve it? I have to say that for me one of those things would have to be animals talking. If there is a story where an animal begins talking, the storyteller has just lost me, at least, with regard believing that the events being related actually happened. Why on earth should that sense of incredulity change because a story's found in the Bible? Does the Holy Spirit make one credulous? Is disbelief really a sign of apostasy? Is disbelief really indicative of naturalism run amok? If a student is at the point where he's intellectually forced to take the highway here (i.e., disbelieve a story with an animal talking in it), then he/she should not be threatened with the evangelical ultimatum. The evangelical must simply let that person be.

The worst thing that can happen is for the evangelical (or evangelical community) to covertly and overtly ostracize such a disbeliever and do all in their power so that that disbeliever has little or no contact with other believers, especially the students in their midst. When "my way" is internalized in such a way that it becomes the way, the highway is actually be the better place to be.