Present Conditions, Future Possibilities
What is on the horizon for American evangelicalism? If the European West is wrestling with postmodernism and its aftermaths and the global South is grappling with postcolonialism and its socioeconomic convulsions, American evangelicals will continue to struggle with post-denominationalism in coming to grips with a postsecular and yet post-Christendom world.
My answers to this month’s questions are going to sound quite sharp. I don’t think American Evangelicalism has any meaningful future if it keeps classing itself as “American,” a sort of separate national religion. As a distinct movement and culture in the United States, it can only lampoon its own professed theology and wall itself off from the aspirations, sufferings, and perils of Christianity worldwide.
My vision for the future of American evangelicalism is a positive one, although I do have a few concerns. As many of the contributors to this ongoing conversation have noted, evangelicalism has a long, robust, and meandering history. Like all movements, evangelicalism is undergoing change and will continue to transform as society and culture create new obstacles and opportunities. But the underlying principles and beliefs that unite American evangelicals are strong enough to ensure that they will continue to provide salt and light for decades to come.
My June post made reference to James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, in which he contrasts differing views of connections between evangelicals and the broader society. After reviewing “Purity From”, “Relevant To”, and “Defensive Against” (which was my reference), he ends by calling for “Faithful Presence”. This simple notion is profound in its implications. He says that Faithful Presence “is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God's command to love our neighbor."
While there are a variety of voices competing for dominance in American Evangelicalism (and religion more broadly), I believe that the next decade will see an outbreak of Faithful Presence over more combative views of faith and culture. Some of this stems from changes we’re seeing in the faith of millennials. Even those who haven’t left the church are seeing the faith-culture relationship in very different ways than their parents and grandparents. They are far more aware of their identity as strangers in a foreign land who are trying to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
The future will never be the same as the past. Nonetheless, as American Evangelicalism moves into the future, we may well seek to recover and strengthen our traditional commitments. At the same time, there are important possibilities for appropriating and adapting the best of other traditions, and for breaking new ground as we follow the Spirit’s leading. After reflecting on the state of American Evangelicalism over a number of topics, writers this month will respond to the following questions about the future of American Evangelicalism:
- What is your vision for the future of American Evangelicalism?
- What do you see as the major challenges and opportunities we face?
- What steps should American evangelical Christians take to respond to these challenges and opportunities?
Somehow—in ways that I cannot see clearly—evangelical higher education needs to loosen up and embrace the truths of its mission statements with the sort of confidence that welcomes dissenting views into the conversation and even onto the faculty.
As I have reflected further on Jeannine Brown’s thoughtful posting on “Hidden Constraints to Academic Freedom” and the comment that I posted on that piece, I have concluded that there is “an elephant in the room” that we need to acknowledge and start talking about.
As one who has taught at a seminary for almost all of her career, this question has a different feel for me. For the most part, seminaries reflect particular confessional stances and locations, so the question is not so much should this wing of higher education do confessional scholarship (for the most part, it does), but how does it do its scholarship? Does it provide explicit and/or implicit constraints on scholarship? And could a scholar’s work bring them into conflict with the confessional stances of their institution in such a way that they would fear bringing their full learning and selves to their scholarship?
Two great challenges to higher education are these: the omnipresence of digital technology, and the triumph of global consumerism. Together, these two powerful forces shape human desire and patterns of thought in ways that are significantly at odds with a genuinely Christian vision of higher education and of life. Specifically, both reinforce the supremacy of the solitary appetitive Self as the moral center of the universe. What matters (indeed, all that matters) is what I want. Moreover, the intrinsic aim of digital technology is maximal efficiency in actualizing user desire. Thus, the catechesis of global consumerism teaches us that the chief end of man is the satisfaction of whatever desires we happen to have, and digital technology is our Deliverer.
At first, I planned to skip this topic, since my knowledge of Evangelical educational institutions is so distant and so slight. Wouldn’t readers be annoyed at me for having the gall to write anything? But the contrast between two sources of data I happen to have began to look so huge and so intriguing that I decided to check in after all.