Exorcising theological demons

Over the last few semesters, teaching both upper-level Bible majors, most of whom plan on going into some kind of formal ministry, and freshman non-majors, who are required to take a sequence of two courses on the New Testament, I've noticed a number of assumptions shared among them. My students are by and large low-church Texans: non-denominational evangelicals, Baptists, Church of Christ-ers, and the like. They are diverse in terms of race and ethnicity and socioeconomic background, but quite similar in terms of ecclesial and theological identity and commitments.

By the end of last year I realized there were two primary "isms"—but let's call them theological demons—I was implicitly seeking to exorcise in class: biblicism and Marcionism (or supersessionism). Upon reflection, as I plan to teach some upper-level majors this semester in their one and only Theology course before graduation (it all comes down to me!), I realized I have a lot more theological demons in view. Ten, in fact. Here's a brief rundown of what this pedagogical exorcist has in his sights this spring.

(I should add, before starting, that these are specifically intellectual-theological: they aren't moral or political. So, e.g., nationalism is ripe for mention, and that comes up in a different class I teach; but it's not in view here.)

1. Biblicism

By this term I mean the view that the one and only factor for any and all matters of faith and Christian life is the Bible. Think of this as sola scriptura, only with "sola" in all caps. It isn't that the Bible is sufficient for faith and morals, or the final arbiter of church teaching and practice. It's that, in a real sense, there is nothing but the Bible. This can lean in the direction of fundamentalism, but it can also lean toward hollowed-out, seeker-sensitive non-denominationalism: if teaching X or practice Y isn't explicitly commanded/forbidden in Scripture, then not only is it automatically permissible; there is no other relevant theological factor for consideration. The market wants what the market wants.

2. Primitivism

Here I mean the idea that the ultimate goal for Christians is to approximate whatever the church looked like during the time of the apostles. Just to the extent that our worship, doctrine, or practices look different from that of the "early church" (however plausibly or implausibly reconstructed), we are departing from what God wants of us.

3. Individualism

This is in the DNA of each and every one of us, so I don't fault my students for this. Nevertheless, I do my very best, across the 15 weeks I have them, to interrogate the received notion that the individual is the locus of ultimate significance, and propose alternatively that there is a way of being in the world that gives priority, or at least equal significance, to the community. They rarely bite, but the attempt is worth it. This particular demon manifests as religious autonomy: faith is a private business between me and my God, and the church is an optional add-on that I am free to accept or reject as I see fit.

4. Subjectivism

Each of these is cumulative, and subjectivism builds on the foregoing through the implicit belief that the primary, or even sole, criterion for an action is how it affects me, or how I experience its effect on me. So, e.g., certain styles of worship are self-validating because I, or the worshipers in question, self-report a positive experience. Combined with biblicism, this becomes the working principle that everything is licit that (a) produces reportage of positivity and (b) is not expressly forbidden by the New Testament.

5. Presentism

What I mean is twofold: on the one hand, the view that what is new is prima facie superior to what is old; and, on the other hand, a widespread historical amnesia to the church's past, bordering on an active, principled ignorance about and opposition to "tradition," understood as whatever the church has believed, taught, or practiced between the death of the last apostle and the day before yesterday. The former is often explicit: innovation and creativity are chief virtues in all areas of life, including religion. The latter is almost always implicit, merely inherited from church leaders and teachers who inculcated it in them, wittingly or not. I find a great deal of success in using this latter assumption as the point of entry for introducing students to a different way of thinking about the church, faith, theology, and tradition. It's hard to overstate how receptive students are to that conversation.

6. Constructivism

Here I mean what I describe for my students as "DIY Christianity." No one fancies him or herself a proponent of the view that "Christianity is whatever I make it to be," but an astonishing number belong to churches that come very close to suggesting it. As you can tell, all six of these theological assumptions are varying forms of anti-catholicity: the church is not a living community with a rich storehouse of wisdom, knowledge, and teaching built up across the centuries; it is the sort of thing a pastor with entrepreneurial ambition can found, alone, in a local abandoned warehouse, with not a single concrete connection to either actual existing churches or the manifold saints and doctors long departed. Doctrine, statements of faith, liturgical rituals: they're built from the ground up, each and every year, each and every generation starting from scratch.

7. Anti-intellectualism

Christian faith, for most of my students, is a matter of the heart, a feeling expressed in an intimate relationship with the Lord. So far, so good. But as such, it is adamantly not a matter of the mind. Theology might be relevant to pastors—though, on the evidence, their pastors disagree—but, at best, it is optional for the laity and, at worst, is a dangerous and irrelevant abstraction. "Irrelevance" captures the heart of it: if I don't have a clear answer to the question of what I can do with a doctrine, what its practical implications for daily life are, then what could it be good for? Practicality trumps the theoretical every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

8. Marcionism

Switching gears, it is perhaps my principal goal, in every one of my classes, to exorcise my students of this ancient, wicked demon. Again, rarely consciously held, the idea is nevertheless pervasive that there is some sort of disconnect or disjunction between "the God of the Old Testament" and "the God of the New Testament." Or, the church replaces the Jews as God's people. Or, Jesus came to save us from the Law (which was, hands down, the worst). Or, God is finally loving and forgiving rather than violent and wrathful. Etc., etc. The sheer volume of times I refer to Abraham's election, or "the God of Israel," or "Jesus, the Jewish Messiah," is meant as a rhetorical corrective to what I'm sure are years of marinading in supersessionist and even at times full-on Marcionite language in their churches.

9. Gnosticism

Just as all Americans, Christian or not, are individualists, so they are Gnostics of one variety or another. In this case it manifests in one of two ways. Either none of "this" (i.e., creation, materiality, the body) "matters," since we're all going to heaven anyway (and, as I say, putting words in their mouths, nuking the earth as we depart). Or what "really" matters in Christian faith and spirituality is "the heart" or "the soul" or "the inside," not the body or what we do with the body. Fortunately, this doesn't usually lead to flat-out libertinism, though I do think there's an element of that informing behavior outside of sex. But it does inform a kind of anti-ascesis, that is, the view that spiritual disciplines are dead routines, and the notion of self-imposed (not to mention externally imposed!) periods of self-restraint in food, labor, entertainment, or sex is a conversation-stopper. It's not even intelligible as an idea.

10. Anti-ritualism

Last but not least, building on individualism, subjectivism, and Gnosticism, hostility to ritual as such rules the day. Ritual means "going through the motions," which is always and everywhere a bad thing. Hence why innovation is so important, not least in worship: what we do needs to be new lest we slip into dead routines, which we would then do "just because" rather than because "our hearts are in the right place." One's relationship with God is modeled on the early courtship or honeymoon period of young lovers: it's always summer, always sunshine, and you only spend time together—doe-eyed, deeply in love—spontaneously, because spontaneity signifies the depth of true love. (Think about contemporary Christian worship songs.) Rituals, on this picture, are what middle-aged spouses do when they schedule dates and have "talks" and even "fights." That's not what faith is like—which means we know what's happening when it starts to look routinized and ritualistic. Something's the matter.

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