Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What Do We Fear?

I cruised by The Jesus Creed today and found a post from the 15th that I came late for. The title of the essay is "Letters to Emerging Christians" by Scot McKnight. He responds to a question by Holly:

What a fascinating question. You are taking a sociology class, your professor says what people fear the most tells you most about them, and you and your friend begin to discuss what fear drives the “Liberal churches, the Evangelical churches, and the Emerging churches.” And you want me to weigh in the greatest fear of each. Great one . . .
These are, BTW, theological categories and not political ones. Scot's answers:

  • One of the cardinal virtues of Liberals is tolerance and that means intolerance is intolerable . . . Which all means that Liberals are most fearful of Traditionalists and Evangelicals with upper-case “T” and “E.” Why? Because they fix firm boundaries on how far tolerance can be extended, and at the same time they say “some things are just wrong.” Now it is also clear that we can’t be simplistic here: Liberals think some things are wrong and when conservatives say they are moral relativists I’m willing to bet that conservatives can’t really find a pure relativist. At least not among Liberals — for a Liberal doesn’t relativize freedom. But, they do fear the inflexibility of Tradition.

  • Evangelicals, on the other hand, are most fearful of change to the core of what is perceived as central to their faith. By nature, Evangelicals are Conservatives — some with an upper-case “C” and some not (that’s a big difference but I’ll not go there now) — and they are Traditionalists . . . When it comes down to it, change is a major, major fear for Evangelicals.

  • The emerging movement, no matter how many times I say this it doesn’t seem to convince many, is not a movement rooted in a set of doctrines. It is theological, but not the way either Liberalism or Evangelicalism are. It’s biggest fear is centralization of power and authority.
I cannot argue with these answers from what I know. However, I think there is a more central fear that we all are motivated from; and different theological responses react to differently. My comment (#96) was (in the quotes - the main text expands on my comment):
If C.S. Lewis is right and evil comes in pairs of errors (and Satan does not care which one we flee to) - then to me the two errors (the ditches on the side of the narrow road) are license and legalism: theologically liberal Christians err to the former; fundamentalists, and to a lessor degree, evangelicals err to the latter (I am, for full disclosure, very much an evangelical).

To me, what is in the middle they are both running from is obedience to a real living God. Take for the proposition that we are indwelt by a God that has a plan for us - what Americans fear most is losing their freedom and giving up control to someone else: being a puppet - even to God.

For evangelicalism, this meant for a number of years rejecting the ministry of the Holy Spirit to a degree and denying that there is continuing revelation. If there is continuing revelation, then you might have to get quiet in front of God; listen to what He says; and then actually do it. Why, He might make you sell everything and go to Africa as a missionary. Instead, we turn the Bible into a rulebook; and rather than follow the Holy Spirit in our lives - we try to do the right thing. We deny the power of Grace, and His leadership, in our lives and try to live by rules - rules defined in scripture; and not the voice of a real living God
For more of a discussion of the above, see "How to Hear God Speak"

For the theologically liberal (or at least a chunk of liberal theologians), they reject the action of God in this world at all: God does not reach into, and act, in His creation. They talk about continuing revelation; but that is revelation from the community of believers - not from a living God. That community, in consensus, determines what God really is. Love for each other is everything. Grace abounds, and rules do not. The true theologians will tell you God is not going to tell you anything except through that community of other believers. Again, you do not have to worry that God is going to tell you to sell everything and move to Africa. [This ends my comment at Scot's place]
From German "higher criticism" to the Jesus Seminar we are seeing a movement to a deist God - one where miracles and the metaphysical are dropped in the face of the "rationality" of modern culture. God does not "take a hand" in this world; and only the community of believers determines his desires [in a sense, the Body of Christ - free of its Head - becomes Christ]; and, if you do not like what the community says about your personal view of God - you can go find one that does. Even the resurrection is turned into mythology whose importance is in its lessons, and not in its actual occurance.

However, liberal theologians who object to the resurrection as a real event in real history fly in the face of a truly rational view of the historical record; which, as N.T. Wright points out:

. . . brings us to the point where we must say that the tomb previously housing a thoroughly dead Jesus was empty, and that his followers saw and met someone they were convinced was this same Jesus, bodily alive though in a new, transformed fashion. The empty tomb on the one hand and the convincing appearances of Jesus on the other are the two conclusions the historian must draw.
I propose that, at heart, they fear a God that they are required to obey when He speaks; and that is because they do not wish to give up control to that real living, and Risen, God. By reducing the Bible to interesting stories and myths (and not a revelation from God), and Christ to an great, but unrisen, moral teacher - you remove their authority to direct and lead you.

If Scot is right, and the emerging church also fears authority - I do not think that falls outside this analysis. This fear of authority also laces the theological differences: from the plethora of denominations, congregations, and theological stances; to the stripping of the authority of scripture and Christ. Humans want control and they fear submission to community, church authority, Christ and the Holy Spirit - and, ultimately, God. So, I think the central fear of Christians that drives our theological divisions (leading to both personal, and corporate, license and legalism) is:
We all fear giving up control to a real, living God
Or, maybe deeper than that, that there is no God to obey. We then substitute the Bible, or our own conception of God and Christ, for the real thing.


  1. Very interesting post. But you are behind the times in one area. We are not evangelicals anymore--at least not according to the emergents. We are now "fundamentalists." A real hot button word isn't it. Perhaps they aren't afraid of evangelicals as much as "fundamentalists?" I am still thinking about why the name change for us by them.

  2. Diane

    I cannot keep track of the "emerging" vs "emergent" category - but Scot McKnight considers himself "emerging".

    He used the word evangelical. Now, admittedly, I get to fend off being turned into a "fundamentalist" or a "Christianist" all the time.

    Oh, what the heck.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly