Does Christian Faith Obey 'Spiritual Laws'?
Westmont College Monroe Scholars' Weekend
February 11, 2012
Telford Work, Religious Studies
Sources: Brad J. Kallenberg, Live to Tell: Evangelism in a Postmodern Age (Brazos).
Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans).
James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (IVP).
James J. Buckley and David Yeago, Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church (Eerdmans).
Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Trinity).
James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Biography as Theology (Wipf & Stock).
Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (Oxford).
George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Westminster).
Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Eerdmans).
What is Christian faith, and how do we learn and live it?
What seems like a straightforward question is actually an invitation into a centuries-old debate whose twists and turns have shaped our different communities and set them against each other.
George Lindbeck offers a simplistic but helpful list of three ways to conceive of (Christian) religion.
Each way has massive implications for how we live, learn, and teach Christian faith (and everything else) — and for your college search too!
1. 'The Case for Christ': Christianity as Fact/Belief System
Christianity is a system of beliefs and ideas about God and the world.
Our 'values' are based on the 'facts' of this system.
The substance of Christian faith is its truth claims and worldview.
This system or worldview is justified if it refers accurately to reality 'out there'.
It can be learned through the acquisition of information and defended through apologetic arguments ("Do you know the four spiritual laws?").
Evangelism becomes the transmission of information.
Teachers are experts.
Conversion becomes assent to sufficient or even conclusive evidence about God and 'decision' on its basis.
Christian training becomes the cultivation of further expertise (Bible knowledge, theology, etc.).
The Bible becomes a study text.
Worship services center in lecture-style sermons ('feeding').
Sermons move from Scripture to universal principles through 'application'.
The Christian 'walk' becomes the navigation of life by heeding divine wisdom.
If the Christian faith is primarily factual:
Why is it a personal decision rather than a public verdict?
Why do we call it 'faith'? What is faith's relationship with reason?
Is knowledge of God fundamentally intellectual?
How do we move from universal 'facts' to voluntary 'values'?
How do we move from thoughts to actions (theory to practice)?
Do I or my culture contribute anything to Christian faith besides assent?
Is Christian faith a form of imperialism?
Is informing in this way how we actually learn and teach Christian faith?
What are other religious traditions (such as Judaism or Islam)?
Does converting Bible material into principles make the Bible ultimately dispensable?
What about people who are less intelligent, less educated, or less biblically/theologically literate?
Is Christianity-as-information satisfying?
Is Christianity as sound as science?
2. 'Experiencing God': Christianity as Articulated Experience
Friedrich Schleiermacher: Christianity is one name for a universal experience of the divine.
Our language and life express this experience in a particular way.
The substance of Christian faith is the way we name its experiences.
Christianity is a superior language for and way to this experience.
It can be learned through spiritual encounters and defends itself by the absolute priority of personal experience ("he lives within my heart").
Evangelism becomes the facilitating of experiences of God.
Teachers are mystics.
Conversion becomes an affirmative response to a supernatural encounter with God that invites one into a personal relationship.
Christian education becomes the nurturing of spiritual practices to promote further, deeper encounters.
The Bible becomes a means of encountering God; Bibles become devotional guides.
Worship services and evangelistic efforts (such as short-term missions) become facilitators of experiences ('feeling').
Sermons move from music through Scripture to altar calls.
The Christian 'walk' becomes an experienced inward (but also outward) relationship with Jesus.
Is others' experience (including non-Christians') determinative for God too?
What if I have no such experience?
If personal experience is determinative, how can the Church regulate its members' beliefs?
How do we know a 'transcendent' experience is an experience of God?
Is a name ('God', 'Jesus', 'Spirit') arbitrary?
Can it be shown that different people experience the same thing?
Is knowledge of God fundamentally subjective?
What does 'spiritual dryness' signify?
Is Christian faith relativistic?
What if 'religious experience' is a function of quirky areas of the human brain?
What if different people's brains are 'wired' differently?
What do the history of Israel, Jesus, and the Church have to do with my experience of God?
Is Christianity-as-experience satisfying?
3. 'Live to Tell': Christianity as Language
Christianity is a life with particular forms and thus a particular language.
Language arises in the midst of the world's life and is bound up with it.
The substance of Christian faith is our practices (e.g., worship and discipleship).
Michael Polanyi: One learns by 'indwelling' specific practices and 'getting it' (e.g., learning scientific method or riding a bike).
This includes informing and experiencing, but moves way beyond them.
Without using the language of Christian faith we neither know nor experience 'God in Jesus Christ' (cf. learning a sport; learning a trade; becoming a part of a community).
Christian faith can be learned in the same ways by which we gain fluency in other languages.
Evangelism becomes the showing of a way of life, like exposure to a new activity or foreign language.
Teachers are mentors.
Conversion must involve the taking on of new forms of life.
This means a change of social identity, a shift from one linguistic paradigm to another, and the acquisition of a new conceptual language (maybe quick, maybe gradual).
Training becomes further growth in fluency until Christian faith becomes a 'first language'.
This happens by exposure, by immersion, and by catechetical training.
The Bible becomes a 'grammar', with which we in its world learn, exercise, and show Christian trust.
Worship services become 'liturgical' and 'ethical', communally retelling the Bible's story through actions.
The Christian 'walk' becomes participation of that story by taking part in particular forms of life (e.g., hospitality).
Is Christian faith 'contained' in the Church that lives it?
How is one language better than another (say, Islam, Marxism, or capitalism)?
Is there room in this account for aspects of the others?
Is knowledge of God fundamentally social?
If Christianity is 'just' language, is Christianity real, or just constructed?
Is the uniqueness of Christianity just like the uniqueness of every other community?
Is Christianity only as true as its practitioners?
Do new forms of life (e.g., industrialization) mean inevitable and essential changes in Christianity?
Do we have any choice over our languages and paradigms (e.g., English or Copernican heliocentrism), or do they simply choose us?
Our culture and churches are transitioning among these.
The first vision springs from early modernity, the second late modernity, and the third from one form of postmodernity.
The dominant culture has moved somewhat from the first to the second over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The 'culture wars' are to some extent a battle between the first and second visions.
Liberal Christianity moved to the second from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.
Conservative Christianity remained at the first, and has recently been moving to the second.
'Postliberal' Christianity is moving from the second to the third.
Some social observers report that wider western culture has been shifting towards the third.
So both churched and unchurched westerners are all over the epistemological map.
A question for us: How well do these visions respect the whole biblical witness? (Is the gospel a fact, an experience, or a form of life?) A question for you: Which schools, faculties, curricula, and student bodies are healthy theological and practical contexts for your collegiate education?