« Openness to the Other: A Challenging Necessity for the Future for American Evangelicalism »

Let me lay out two preliminary points. First, this is a blog post, not a treatise. I am expressing my opinions, formed over roughly twenty years, on a matter that has occupied my thoughts.

Second, I realize full well the perils of speaking of “Evangelicalism” (even when modified as American) as anything other than a fairly diverse movement, especially in recent decades. I restrict my thoughts below to what I see as institutional, or systemic, issues. I realize, quite happily, in fact, that scores of individuals exist on the Evangelical spectrum who would do not reflect the “system.”

That being said, I see “openness to the other” as a pressing challenge and a pressing need for the future of Evangelicalism.

The challenge is that the kind of openness I am calling for would likely threaten Evangelicalism’s raison-d’etre, i.e., a largely defensive posture assumed for the purpose of protecting and defending what is seen as the most biblical iteration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The need is that without some adaptation or transformation, Evangelicalism will shrivel and die the death of a thousand qualifications and slink off into irrelevancy.

And to be clear, by “openness” I do not mean open to superficial exchanges that leave things as they are. I mean true openness, where change is a two-way street, where the possibility of change is focused inward rather than simply outward.

So where would the Evangelical system need to be open to the other in ways it traditionally has not? For better or worse, as an academic, I live in the world of ideas, so I want to restrict my thoughts here to that familiar world and mention just four interrelated areas. I am not suggesting that all the pressing challenges reside in my universe of discourse, and I am counting on others to add their own voice from their own experience.

1. Openness to true developments in the intellectual drama of the human species. Other posts in this series have addressed this issue, which often falls under the umbrella of genuine significant advances in various scientific fields that tell us of the past.

We simply know more than past centuries of Christians, even more than the early decades of the Evangelical movement, about evolving humanity, our ancient planet, and the inconceivably large and complex universe around us. 

I am not suggesting—I hope this doesn't to be said—that science “dictates” faith, the truth of the Gospel, or whether God exists. These sorts of accusations are often first lines of defense in maintaining the system; they are obscurantist and ultimately destructive of true faith in God. 

I am saying, however, that genuine, widely agreed upon, scientific developments need to be accepted for what they are—and not at a distance, but brought into theological and hermeneutical discussions of our faith. To do otherwise is to concede that God himself is outmoded.

2. Openness to different ecclesiastical traditions. A common characteristic of Evangelical ecclesiology is the view, either explicit or implicit, that Evangelicalism is in some meaningful sense the clearest and most faithful expression of the Christian faith—which implies it is the version God most approves of. Other traditions are often looked down upon as either compromising “the clear teaching of Scripture” or lacking in some other crucial way.

The challenge to maintain some sort of Evangelical identity amid ecumenical discussions is a real one, but not necessarily impossible to pull off. How that might work itself out is not for me to say, but, in our ever-shrinking world, Evangelicalism cannot afford to be seen as anything other than in serious dialogue with other Christians communions. The global Christian faith must work toward a deep unity in basics amid diversity of various local and ecclesiastical traditions.

3. Openness to different expressions of the spiritual journey. Most global citizens claim to adhere to some sort of religious/spiritual practice and faith, and most of them are not American Evangelicals. Evangelicalism must be willing to listen as much as speak, and be willing to have its own traditions examined, and even to learn from those of other faiths and to take their expression of faith seriously.

Rather than seeing such openness as a denial of the Gospel, it is actually an expression of deep faith in God to acknowledge that our own very local view of ultimate reality is deeply conditioned by the American drama—often far more so than by the biblical story. Few things are as unsettling to Evangelicalism system than to consider that Israel’s God, in Christ, and in Spirit—who, like the wind, goes where and how he pleases—may be on the move across the world in ways the Evangelical system cannot understand or control.

4. Openness to holding to Scripture in a different way. The core intellectual foundation of Evangelicalism is biblical inerrancy, however defined (whether literalistically or its more recent progressive iterations). Inerrancy is rooted in a priori commitments to the nature of God and how that God would necessarily communicate in a written document—namely, in a manner that is essentially historically accurate and internally consistent (without contradictions of true theological diversity).

The modern study of Scripture and the events behind it study has yielded numerous insights that are in irreconcilable tension with inerrancy but are also widely accepted among scholars, and in some cases are pillars of the academic field (such as the long compositional history of the Bible and the presence of myth and political ideology in the Bible).

Though these insights form the content of most any high-level academic program in the study of the Bible and the biblical world, they have rested uncomfortably with the Evangelical commitment to inerrancy. As I see it, the recurring tensions over inerrancy within Evangelicalism are fueled by the distance between a priori theological expectations about God and how his book should behave, and the non-cooperative details of biblical interpretation.

The nature of Scripture is not a closed question, and within Evangelicalism, an invitation to open and safe discussions is sorely needed.

No tradition is perfect, and I am not saying Evangelicalism alone has problems. I am only saying that, in my opinion, the future of American Evangelicalism requires that Evangelicalism be prepared to rethink some things, even reinvent itself, by proactively, seriously, and openly addressing issues such as these—not to participate in trends and fads to keep current, but simply to remain active and contributing players in the human drama, which will not sit still waiting for the next clever defense of the Evangelical status quo.

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