Monday, April 19, 2010

Darren Marks on "The Mind Under Grace"

[UPDATE 04/20/2010: See below, at the end, for an evaluation of the statement of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the 4th Global South to South Encounter in light of the post that follows.]

Catching up on my print reading this weekend, I came across this wonderful article in Christianity Today by Prof. Darren C. Marks at Huron University College, part of the University of Western Ontario: "The Mind Under Grace." Although he speaks of "American Christianity" rather than its individual denominations, Prof. Marks delivers about as good a diagnosis as I have read anywhere of the current ills that infect ECUSA.

The article's subtitle is "Why a heady dose of doctrine is crucial to spiritual formation." Prof. Marks teaches an introductory course in theology, and early in the article he draws a fascinating distinction between theology and doctrine:
I see doctrine not as a boundary but as a compass. Its purpose is not to make Christians relevant or distinctive but rather to make them faithful in their contexts. Doctrine is a way of articulating what God's presence in the church and the world looks like. . . .

In addition, I believe the crisis in the Western church is not about information itself but about the kind of information we absorb in our churches. Philosopher James K. A. Smith put it best: "Theology is not some intellectual option that makes us 'smart' Christians; it is the graced understanding that makes us faithful disciples."

I'm using the terms doctrine and theology interchangeably. To be exact, doctrine is more or less settled theology. You find doctrine in creeds and statements of faith. Theology or "doing theology" is about the process and rules we use to talk about things that may end up as doctrine. A doctrinal statement (Jesus is "true God from true God," as the Nicene Creed testifies) is always a theological statement. But not all theological statements become doctrine. Still, in this essay, I will use doctrine and theology to refer to our intellectual grappling with the faith, which, as Smith notes, can give us graced understanding and lead to faithful discipleship. Doctrine, while static at times, is meant to help us think about our lives more deeply by considering alongside other Christians the implications of our thoughts and deeds. Doctrine is wisdom that helps us clarify our mission.
Ponder those words. Savor them. Let them slowly sink in, one by one, to your understanding. Think what it means to say doctrine is "not a boundary but a compass . . . [it] is meant to help us think about our lives more deeply by considering alongside other Christians the implications of our thoughts and deeds. Doctrine is wisdom that helps us clarify our mission." With this article, you are in for a real intellectual treat. You will come out of reading it far better equipped to deal with the daily onslaughts on Scripture and doctrine that so infuse the words of most of ECUSA's leadership in these times.

Now, as you read the next passage, think of ECUSA's recent brush with Buddhism in the Diocese of Upper Michigan (not confined to that diocese, but actually cross-linked to many others, as I documented in this post):
Sociologist Steve Bruce has observed that Western spirituality is "Buddhist by default": that Westerners, even Christians, are obsessed with what goes on inside, with spiritual experience. We don't usually welcome any external testing of our thoughts or actions. Subjectivity takes the ethical and doctrinal teeth out of every religion. Doctrine can help us think.

Bruce does not mean that we are actually Buddhists. We don't practice its asceticism. Instead we prefer a pallid, easy Buddhism, a series of feel-good statements supposedly culled from the Buddha. Our culture does this with all religions, Bruce says. It boils them down to one basic principle: Do what makes you feel good about yourself, and preferably in 10 minutes or less. As religious consumers, we warp every tradition by subjecting it to our needs. The Christian West's consumer needs, he notes, have by and large led us to abandon traditional Christianity, and the Eastern spirituality we adopt is actually the vapid form of Christianity created by modernity. This is a Christianity of self-experience.
I added the italics for emphasis -- is it beginning to sound as though the author is describing something familiar -- and disturbing at the same time?

Dr. Marks is a professor of theology, and he knows his subject well. Thus please do not be put off when you hear him bring up the 19th-century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher; he is only doing what he does for a living, and making the past relevant for our benefit. As you will see in how he develops this next point, one could say of much of what passes for Christianity today that "We are all followers of Schleiermacher now" (just as President Nixon once said: "We are all Keynesians now"):
In this sense, Western Christians are children of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the 19th-century Enlightenment thinker who built his theological system on the foundation of spiritual experience. In many cases, we find his influence unwittingly embedded in our church leadership, our seminaries, and our theological faculties. A theology grounded in experience ultimately fades into soft moralism, humanism, or, in the unique case of American Christianity, a civic religion wherein God and country are easily confused. . . .

At the heart of Schleiermacher's work lay an important quest: to understand how to be faithful in a particular context. Schleiermacher and his progeny wanted much to be relevant Christians. The problem lies in where he started.

Schleiermacher thought that the essence of Christianity was its spiritual impulse, not its doctrine, which seemed to cause most of the problems. [Doctrine] had fueled violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants and threatened to stifle scientific progress and human achievement. For Schleiermacher, as for many today, if one could boil ideas down to a common essence, differences would dissipate and humankind could move forward in harmony. That essence was religiosity—a connection to God that every human being has the capacity to feel and experience. We might call this spirituality or awe in everyday parlance.

Schleiermacher began with internal experiences of God and built theology around those experiences, reconfiguring doctrine as needed. He assumed that by starting with ourselves and our desires, we would glimpse a purer vision of God and perhaps a more relevant church.
The odds are great that not one in ten of those who call themselves Episcopalians could correctly identify Friedrich Schleiermacher, let alone describe his subjective brand of theology. Yet just as John Maynard Keynes once famously remarked that "Even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist", so it is that much of Christianity (and ECUSA, in particular) today finds itself in the thrall of the long-dead German theologian. Prof. Marks goes on to explain:
Take what has been called the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine, the doctrine of original sin. For Schleiermacher, sin is not primarily about trespassing against God's laws or a moral debt we owe to a divine being. Sin is misspent energy. If we only paid better attention and had better information and better situations, we would naturally want to be spiritual. This kind of thinking defines sin as a mis-education or mis-direction of our innate sense of awe. A sinner is one who is out of continuity with his own sense of self, and a religious founder is one who is aware of higher spiritual truths and awakens them in others.
Is this starting to resonate yet? Now add the next paragraph into your consideration (emphasis added):
In this trajectory, Jesus becomes a sage who, among others, came to tell us about our potential and awaken our religious sensibilities. Jesus Christ is a spiritual avatar who may be called the Son of God but is different from us only by degree, not by kind. He is certainly not the unique God-man. Church becomes a kind of group therapy we attend to be told we are all right, to share in the piety of Jesus' example. While there is much positive here, the question remains whether God matters as the agent of changed lives. In the final analysis, core Christian beliefs, even those about Jesus, have to feel authentic or they are discarded.
And now Prof. Marks delivers his summation of how and where Schleiermacher's legacy has betrayed us:
In hindsight, we can see that the belief driving Schleiermacher's entire theological machine needed correction. Schleiermacher led us astray by proposing that we interrogate theological ideas rather than allow ourselves to be interrogated by them. The emphasis on spiritual experience put us, not God, in the driver's seat.

As far as we remain the children of Schleiermacher, we either unconsciously or actively transform Christianity into something that, while seemingly relevant, is bereft of spiritual vigor.
As it happens, however, Prof. Marks was just warming to his subject. For now he gets to the real heart of what needs to be said today to Christians who are lost on the sea of Schleiermacher's subjectivity:
The sharp-eyed reader will note two things missing from my argument so far. One is positioning the Bible as the only guide to Christian faith. The other is looking at the role of the Holy Spirit. Both are integral to theology. Without them, doctrine and theology become propositions or proof-texting. The opposite of experience is dogmatism, staid religious scholasticism that sucks the life out of a relationship with God.
It was at this point in my reading that I mentally shouted "Hear! Hear!" Contrasting the subjective theology of experience (think about all the "justifications" offered for same-sex relations in the postmodern Church, pace Fr. Haller) with the proof-texting of those who simply cite Leviticus or Romans in opposition to that kind of thinking is simply brilliant. Neither approach has left me satisfied, and now, as I read further, Prof. Marks explained why:
We have to begin by acknowledging a reality that rightly makes us nervous: All Christian theology helps us interpret the Bible. Theology is what helps us read disparate writings that span thousands of years and arise out of cultures very different from ours. Further, the Bible comprises many texts that address specific problems in specific places (e.g., sexual immorality in Corinth). It presents ideas that at times seem current and at other times obscure. One seemingly crystal-clear verse (Gal. 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek …") or book (Philemon on slavery) can be interpreted by the faithful in a variety of ways. The earliest Christians knew this all too well.

The first three centuries of Christianity featured a running dialogue with the Bible. In their theology, the earliest Christians had to avoid reading the Bible as too Jewish, too Gentile, too focused on Peter, too focused on Paul, too focused on faith, or too focused on works. To read the Bible through only one interpretive lens could lead to false conclusions, like denying the Trinity or Jesus' humanity or divinity. In each case, a simple reading of a passage, usually through the reader's cultural lens, resulted in a distortion of Christian life. Those who found little biblical evidence for what was emerging as the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, usually ended up with a Christ who never knew humanity (docetism) or a Jesus who was not fully God (Arianism). Thus, doctrine became a yardstick by which to measure various readings and help Christians pinpoint the essentials.
I found this framing of the early debates in Christian theology especially helpful. Too often, those debates are portrayed as the ebb and flow of ideas, with the winning memes vanquishing all the others in a sort of Darwinian "survival of the fittest," and then rewriting Church history to make it appear as though their triumph was inevitable (or foreordained) -- pace Prof. Bart Ehrman. But that kind of evolutionary analysis (favored by so-called objective historians) leaves out the most important factors: how did Scripture itself, inspiring Christians through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, influence the final outcome? What, in short, made the "winning memes" really win? Professor Marks makes the very same point in the passage that follows, to which I have added the italics:
To some people, this will sound like the Bible is not primary, that theological discourse needs to correct Scripture. This could lead some to see the Bible as an interesting historical document to get us started, not the active Word of God that shapes us. And some argue that Christianity is more a communal practice than a personal relationship with the living God. (Schleiermacher would likely agree with that statement.)

But, at its best, Christian theology has never understood itself to be merely a human reflection on contingent truths. The best theology grounds itself in Scripture as the revealed Word of God, not in the religious experiences of ancient people. Scripture's authority is not something that the community relates to first with its own experience. . . . Scripture interrogates the community. Because it can be a difficult task to hear Christ speak clearly in Scripture, the church has used theology to test that interrogation. Some may read or hear Scripture in a new manner under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as the 18th- and 19th-century abolitionists did regarding slavery. Theology tests such new readings by asking questions of both the text and the church, helping to clarify the movement of the Spirit.
This is such a crucial point, and yet it has been wholly forgotten in today's subjective-objective debates. "Theology tests such new readings by asking questions of both the text and the church . . .".

Those who do their theology only subjectively never get around to asking the hard questions of why, if the theology is Spirit-inspired, the Church is shrinking in attendance, while it is growing everywhere that the traditional Gospel is preached. And those who rely on old-time, objective argument through proof-texting never ask themselves why, if such argument were truly sufficient, or unanswerable, legions of modern Christians are repelled, instead of drawn to worship, by such literal doctrine. The latter should take to heart what Prof. Marks said earlier: "The opposite of experience is dogmatism, staid religious scholasticism that sucks the life out of a relationship with God."

Let him explain a little further:
The church's theological task has never been only to comprehend an impersonal piece of literature intellectually. Theology has always understood itself as being under God's providential grace. It is the result of faithful Christians grappling with Scripture in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jacob wrestled with God, so have Christians wrestled with Scripture as they have sought to articulate core beliefs about the God active among them, active in and through Scripture itself.

In our conversation with the Bible, we've developed shorthand (though imperfect) to articulate what it reveals. We say God is the Trinity and Christ is Savior, and we talk about sin, heaven, and church. We use those meanings to understand Scripture even as those core beliefs have come from Scripture. These are not esoteric abstractions but fundamental ways in which Christians cross-index their spirituality (their relationship with the God who is present) with a faithful reading of the Bible.
I find that conclusion so crucial and convincing that it is worth repeating, with bold emphasis. Think about what he is really saying:
These are not esoteric abstractions but fundamental ways in which Christians cross-index their spirituality (their relationship with the God who is present) with a faithful reading of the Bible.
And now Dr. Marks brings the discussion around again to what he said earlier about the baneful influence of Schleiermacher, and repeats his language for emphasis (this time I have put it in bold, as well):
This theological method inverts Schleiermacher's. We do not start with "my spirituality" and then identify core beliefs. Instead, we begin with core beliefs—those discovered by the church as it has intellectually wrestled with the truth of Scripture in the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit. These beliefs, which come from outside myself, correct and shape my spiritual experience.

The best theology grounds itself in Scripture as the revealed Word of God, not in the religious experiences of ancient people.
What does this really mean -- theology grounded in "Scripture as the revealed Word of God, and not in the religious experiences of ancient people"? He might just as well have said: "not in the religious experiences of contemporaries." To admit Scripture's authority as the revealed Word of God is to deny the preposterous fallacy as expressed recently by one now infamous (and former) Episcopal bishop: "The Church wrote the Bible, and the Church can change it." No, it cannot. To change (i.e., rewrite) Holy Scripture is not a human prerogative. Moreover, it makes theology, per se, impossible -- because it can no longer provide an accurate map (which is why all attempts to ground the new theology of inclusivity in a "fresh" reading of Scripture divorced from all context cannot gain traction):
[Dietrich] Bonhoeffer knew, as did Calvin, Augustine, and many others, that dry, seemingly irrelevant ideas like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and eschatology are crucial elements of our spiritual formation. Theology helps map a reading of Scripture as Scripture interrogates its readers under the guidance of the Spirit.
And now comes a magnificent peroration to conclude this splendid article -- read it slowly, and savor the meaning of each sentence:
For the past 200 years, many parts of Western Christianity have labored as Schleiermacher's children. The mainline traditions have hoped to achieve relevance. The evangelical and free-church traditions have hoped to read the Bible unadulterated and alone. Both traditions, however, have made our feelings—which are, by definition, slippery and transitory—primary. Mainliners have eschewed theology for fear that it imposes another's context and assumptions, while evangelicals have eschewed theology because it might compete with the pristine Bible or become a rigid boundary. Both traditions forget that theology is a kind of memory that allows us to hear God's Word by clarifying our experiences.

Many complain that the church has become incapable of cultivating Christian habits in its people. No wonder, when for so many the starting point is not God but spiritual experience. How can we sustain any spiritual growth if it is grounded in something as transitory as what we feel, individually or corporately?

The decreasing lack of interest in core Christian beliefs is due in part to church leaders who chase after relevance over substance—focusing on the feeling that something is meaningful rather than the truth that something is meaningful. It is also due to church members who imagine that their experience is the touchstone of truth about God, rather than learning to evaluate their experience in light of Scripture and theology.

Over the years, I have found that the students in my classroom grow in understanding by studying "dusty" and "dry" doctrine. They learn to interrogate their experiences, asking how they may find a "theological existence" or mission. I hope that [my students] learn that they cannot have spiritual formation without doctrine, that theology is that business of graced understanding that makes us faithful disciples of Christ.
To which the only appropriate response is: Amen!

P.S.: Plus, you might consider a subscription to Christianity Today. I find it consistently carries some of the best current writing on Christianity.

[UPDATE 04/20/2010: This entire article must now be re-read in light of the message of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Fourth Global South to South Encounter, which you may read at this link. In the face of ECUSA's (and ACoC's) intransigence, what does he urge?
But I hope also in your thinking about this and in your reacting to it, you'll bear in mind that there are no quick solutions for the wounds of the Body of Christ. It is the work of the Spirit that heals the Body of Christ, not the plans or the statements of any group, or any person, or any instrument of communion. Naturally we seek to minimize the damage, to heal the hurts, to strengthen our mission, to make sure that it goes forward with integrity and conviction. Naturally, there are decisions that have to be taken. But at the same time we must all...share in a sense of repentance and willingness to be renewed by the Spirit.

So while the tensions and the crises of our Anglican Communion will of course be in your minds as they are in mine, I know from what you have written, what you have communicated about your plans and hopes for this conference, that you will allow the Holy Spirit to lift your eyes to that broader horizon of God's purpose for us as Anglicans, for us as Christians, and indeed for us as human beings.
I find this statement positive, in recognizing that ECUSA's actions (and ACoC's -- from now on, take the one to mean both in what I write) have caused "wounds to the body of Christ" -- the Archbishop does not, in other words, join in the Episcopalian meme that "the Holy Spirit is doing new things in the Church." It is additionally positive in that the Archbishop recognizes that a response is required, and that he is "in discussion with a number of people around the world about what consequences might follow from that decision, and how we express the sense that most Anglicans will want to express, that this decision cannot speak for our common mind."

The Archbishop, in short, has run out of rope to give ECUSA, and is, after bringing (as he himself recognizes) the rest of the Communion to nearly universal exasperation, prepared to let ECUSA hang itself with the rope he has already given it. Like the hanging of Judas, any such self-execution will be of its own making -- a fact which no one will be able to deny, after both he -- and out of the respect and deference afforded him, the rest of the Communion -- have given it so many chances to return to the common path. In this respect, and only if it turns out that ECUSA hangs itself, Dr. Williams will in the end be seen as having maintained the high road throughout this ordeal. But if he fudges the consequences even one more time -- or if he refuses to lead where all the others are now, after seven years of patience, prepared to go -- then he will become a mere footnote to Anglican history. Even Our Lord, after washing Judas' feet, came to the point where he said: "What you are about to do, do quickly."

This, I submit, would be the only path that is true to the verity expressed in Professor Marks's article. For if the Holy Spirit is guiding the present events, then ECUSA will be led to do what it is going to do, and will do it quickly. And if that is what happens, then the rest of the Communion will be freed to explore "the graced understanding that makes us faithful disciples."]


  1. Very good article from CT--thanks for sharing it.

    And, I will note here what caught my attention when I read the ABC's statement earlier today over on the Global South site: he uses the 'c'-word. Consequences. Granted, I've learned to be cautious in my (hopeful) appraisals of ++RW's handling of all this--but I do think this statement gives some justification to the view that he might just be letting TEC hang itself on the rope he provides.

  2. Dittos. I have a flagpole or two to run that article up.

  3. Quite a performance at Global South. Rowan stoops to flounder.