Is Evangelicalism a 6th Grade Version of Mature Christianity?

Peter Traben Haas, former evangelical and now senior pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Waterloo, Iowa, recently posted at Contemplative Christians his reflections on evangelicalism, Seven Steps to Leaving “Evangelical Christianity” without Losing Your Faith. Haas is also the author of The God Who is Here: A Contemplative Guide to Transforming Your Relationship with God and the ChurchThe book blurb may give you an idea of Haas’s orientation:

While some suggest the problems we face today can be solved by updating Christianity or ridding ourselves of religion altogether, The God Who Is Here demonstrates how the rediscovery of the contemplative way can lead to a deeper relationship with God and a vibrant way of worship. This work draws on the rich tradition of Christian mysticism and contemplative prayer (as expressed through the work, most recently, of Fr. Thomas Keating). With deep biblical insight and poetic expression, The God Who Is Here speaks to those longing for spiritual guidance with the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

I am not a practicing contemplative Christian, but over the past several years I have come to understand something of this movement, mainly through reading Thomas Keating. Briefly put, I think I understand what I am missing. I have come to see something of the spiritual (not to mention intellectual) inadequacies of evangelicalism (particularly its American version).

I don’t mean that as an attack nor do I mean to sound condescending, but this has been my experience. My only wish is that I had an extra brain and set of eyes, another 6 hours a day, and didn’t need to earn a living, and I would be more intentional about exploring this.

For me, I rely on the insights of contemplative writers, whom I find to be generally gentle and incisive, which brings me back to Haas’s post. Here are his 7 steps:

– Step #1 “It’s OK to see God differently”

– Step #2 “It’s OK to see the Bible differently”

– Step #3 “It’s OK to see salvation differently”

– Step #4 “It’s OK to see the earth differently”

– Step #5 “It’s OK to see prayer differently”

– Step #6 “It’s OK to see sex differently”

– Step #7 “It’s OK to see your destiny differently”

Of course, all of these would likely raise an eyebrow or two within evangelicalism, and readers can do with these what they want. But what drew my attention more than anything was a series of 4 main points Haas makes. I see much wisdom in his observations.

Here they are in abbreviated form, and the one that struck me the most was the third. I invite you to go to the post and read it for yourself, and you will see that Haas’s intention is anything but hostile.

1. “Evangelical Christianity is an expression of one level of consciousness among many possible levels of consciousness. It is one way of seeing things.”

2. “No one is really designed to remain at the Evangelical level of consciousness. In my interactions with Evangelical Christians, including my own personal experience within the Evangelical mindset, I have discerned tacit internal dissonance about the Evangelical way of being Christian, whether we admitted it or even knew it or not.”

3. “Please don’t take this personally or literally. It’s an analogy. Evangelical Christianity is a developmental stage of faith, like 6th grade is a stage of learning on the journey to post-graduate study. No one who wishes to grow stays in grade school. Everyone who wishes to grow graduates to higher/deeper levels of being and understanding.”

4. “I have been so blessed to discover the contemplative dimension hiding in plain sight all along, moving beyond both denominationalism and evangelicalism. The contemplative dimension has helped me stay rooted in my own tradition and not leave the pastorate altogether. It also was the bridge I needed to leave the unworkable perspectives of my Evangelical Christian land of birth.”

I said the third point struck me the most, because this same thought has been growing in me for many years and finally reached a tipping point not long after I resigned in 2008 from my teaching position at a seminary (Westminster Theological Seminary) that participated in the same type of American Fundamentalist/Evangelical paradigm Haas describes

A few months after leaving, as I began breathing a different kind of air, I began asking myself, “Really? Is evangelicalism it! Is this the final form of the Christian faith? Does this really sum up the gospel, or is there something more? What kind of dense fog have I been living in, to think that I had reached the mountain top?”

I am sure many out there can relate. Maybe contemplative Christianity isn’t the silver bullet, but then again, it doesn’t pose to be an answer, only a path toward an answer, or better, the answer: communion with God.

  • Jim

    Your blog must have been reading my mind. I, too, have not attained the contemplative, but have definitely left the Evangelical. And I’m loving it – like coming up for a fresh breath of life.

  • Ron

    My wife and I have made similar comments to each other the past few years We find ourselves “estranged” from many forms of evangelical Christianity today. In fact we no longer attend the meetings and groups we attended 10 years ago. We “have moved on” to find that our faith is enriched by unbelievers who are in search of the Truth, interactions with our Muslim and Jewish neighbors, and by those who seek to follow the words of Micah 6:8 “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

  • Brian P.

    One of the implied challenges here is that of elitism. How does one recognize this without being, to some degree at least internally, slightly dismissive of the faith of those around who hold their beliefs so sincerely?

    With elitism sufficiently diminished even, another challenge is that of intimacy. Sure, one can have compassion if not even pity to those with 6th-grade faith, but what about intimacy? How does one have a reciprocal intimacy with those with faith they think robust and meaty, but yet oneself find lacking in ways?

  • 7th grade man

    interesting points. So, does this mean you and your wife no longer see Jesus as a savior, and find equal validation in Islam and Judaism? Or, are you holding to Christian beliefs of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross but just appreciating other religions more.

  • mark

    Here’s a Catholic take:

    1. Haas’ seven step program sounds a bit like “I’m OK you’re OK.”

    2. The classic book on the shortcomings of Evangelicalism (to my mind) is Thomas Howard’s Evangelical Is Not Enough. Personally, I found it very helpful in understanding certain Evangelical trends within Catholicism.

    3. Centering prayer is next to useless for a believer in Christ without a strong doctrinal framework. That’s said by someone who has never read Keating, but who did read many of the people he references. The great mystics were also mostly very learned theologians.

    • peteenns

      Mark, what do you mean by “Catholic take”? Keating and Rohr, for example, are RC priests.

      • mark

        I guess I meant a couple of things.

        1. I’m Catholic, whereas the previous posters seemed to be non-Catholic, as also the majority of commenters here. I was alerting people to where I was coming from. A courtesy sort of thing.

        2. I took it that the post was mostly about Haas, who is not Catholic. Again, I mentioned “Catholic” just to alert others that my comment was that of a Catholic commenting on a Protestant.

        3. While I was (of course) aware that Keating is an RC priest, Haas was the one commenting re Keating, not Keating re Haas–and I was commenting re Haas, not re Keating, and I’m Catholic. Ergo (as we Catholics of a certain age sometimes like to say) a “Catholic take.”

        4. The substantive part of the post that I was commenting on was the “7 step” section. That is specifically attributed by you to Haas, who is Protestant. Again, I’m Catholic, and I thought I’d alert anyone for whom that might make a difference in understanding where my comment was coming from that they were reading a “Catholic take” re a Protestant’s ideas. If the post had said that Haas had derived his “7 steps” from Keating that might have made a difference, but the post doesn’t say that. Then again, I am Catholic and I thought some people would find that knowledge useful in evaluating what I had to say. Kinda like people saying, great post, that’s why I stopped being Evangelical, as seems to happen fairly often. Just letting people know where I’m coming from.

        5. Rohr wasn’t mentioned in the original post. First mention of him is in your comment that I’m replying to. Not sure why you bring him into it. Your mention of Keating and Rohr together makes it sound like you thought that I thought that you’ve never read a Catholic author or thought seriously about what a Catholic has said. If that’s what you thought, then you’re wrong.

        • pgepps

          I would have thought von Balthasar’s Christian Meditation would have to come up in this conversation. He’s pretty clear on the respective places of various practices within Christianity. Of course, if one has no true Eucharist, it will be hard to order these things, especially given the distortions of Christology which flow from opposition to the Marian doctrines and devotions. The “money quote” from von Balthasar would be

          ‘If we consider that the believer’s closest approach to God takes place in the
          eucharistic mystery of the surrendered flesh and blood of Jesus, we shall reject
          as incongruous with the Christian way any attempt to “elevate” ourselves in

          This page offers several helpful extracts:

          Not that I think any of you would have completely missed this, but just to add it to a conversation it hasn’t shown up in, yet.

    • Keith Johnston

      Mark, I really like your point #3 above “Centering prayer is next to useless for a believer in Christ without a strong doctrinal framework.” I think that is absolutely right. I think evangelicals have a lot to learn from Catholics and Orthodox and even from Muslims and Jews. If being open to those new insights makes me an “evangelical of a higher order” then I can live with that label. But I would not want to disparage those who disagree with me even though I have been guilty of judging “evangelicals of a lower order” from time to time.

      • mark

        Thanks, Keith. I suspect that pgepps is making the same or a similar point in more detail than I did, by offering the von Balthasar quote. The pgepps comment is just above yours. I’m also guessing that pgepps would agree that there are some complex issues involved here.

  • PJ Anderson

    What a disappointing post.

    So now that I’ve discredited myself with you, let me continue. Are there plenty of folks within evangelicalism that lack scholarly erudition, who have a less than intellectually informed faith, who don’t have graduate and post-graduate levels of understanding, who struggle with the “big words” of theology, and an assortment of other issues? Sure, absolutely. But it isn’t just isolated within Evangelicalism. These people also exist within mainline churches, Catholic Churches, and other segments of Christianity.

    Folks, I’ve got a PhD in historical theology from an upper level institution. I attend church with doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, pipe fitters, plumbers, carpenters, and amazing homemakers among other people. We are a committed, evangelical, conservative, complementarian congregation who affirm inerrancy, a literal Adam, and all the fun theology that drives people crazy. These are some of the finest people who have a deeply personal, deeply reflective, highly motivated faith. We welcome diversity both ethnically and theologically. Indeed one of my good friends at this churc disagrees with me on a number of issues I just listed…and I love him as a brother in Christ.

    Posts like this attempt to make evangelicals out to be the bad guys, it seeks to demean a group of people of the same faith. I’m truly sorry if someone has had a bad experience with any segment of Christianity. But Jesus is bigger than Christian sectarianism. If you’re a mainline believer I pray you find an extraordinary faith. However, Christianity isn’t simply an intellectual exercise but a faith of profound meaning. I absolutely agree with Mark Noll’s first line in “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” If we believe that we make the Church stronger by perpetuating stereotypes and demeaning other faithful believers, well, I don’t believe that is a Christ honoring practice.

    Thanks for the time. (Apologies for any typos, Patheos doesn’t like my iPad.)

    • peteenns

      You haven’t discredited yourself with me by disagreeing with the post, PJ.
      I think your comment that “Jesus is bigger than Christian sectarianism” is a pretty good way of summing up some of what Haas is after! The problem is when a “system” is set up as an endpoint of the faith, so to speak, and unfortunately, in evangelicalism, such examples aren’t hard to find. But an issue in evangelicalism that Haas I think is also getting at is how Ev. is rooted in doctrinal fine-tuning and debate. I think it is a very fair question to ask whether that is truly the mark of a mature spiritual life.

      • PJ Anderson

        Well I suppose the larger question then is, what is spiritual maturity?

        Some of the most spiritually mature people I’ve ever met have been thorough going evangelicals. Perhaps if we only tie one sector of knowledge to maturity we have a problem. Anytime we approach religion as a system with an end point we find trouble. Certainly you and I have seen that in all expressions of Chritianity. Thanks for the reply! :)

      • brad

        Dr. Enns: I think it would be more helpful to say that, given its emphasis on the authority of scripture, Evangelicalism can be “prone to” (not rooted in) doctrinal fine-tuning and debate. Or do you really think it’s inevitable that people who travel with the Evangelical tribe will eventually be led into a fundamentalist-type spirituality that grows out of an unhealthy focus upon doctrinal purity? I do recognize that this type of neo-fundamentalism exists . . . and that I grieve. Perhaps you feel it more given your experience at Westminster. But, I don’t believe that type of neo-fundamentalism is inherent in Evangelicalism. I object to the “sixth grade” analogy that Haas uses, not because it’s never true, but because it replaces Evangelicalism as a destination spirituality with some other tradition (Contemplative, in this case) as a destination spirituality. As a self-identified Evangelical, I wholeheartedly agree that our “tradition” has profound limitations. And I’m deeply grateful for the richness that the Contemplative tradition has brought in my life. But, I would never call it a destination spirituality. I know too many contemplatives that are a little “off the rails” (with all due respect), and who would benefit greatly by exposure to a more Evangelical engagement in scripture. Hate to sound like Rodney King, but . . . can’t we all learn from one another?

      • Jim V

        ‘”3. “Please don’t take this personally or literally. It’s an analogy. Evangelical Christianity is a developmental stage of faith, like 6th grade is a stage of learning on the journey to post-graduate study. No one who wishes to grow stays in grade school. Everyone who wishes to grow graduates to higher/deeper levels of being and understanding.”’

        I’m sorry, Dr. Enns, but there is no other way to take that quote, as an evangelical, than as insulting, and if you agree with it, you are being equally insulting. I’m quite familiar with the theological underpinnings of the PCUSA, and if that is your idea of “mature” Christianity, you and I have absolutely diametrically opposed ideas of what well-thought out theology and spirituality look like to mine.

    • Mike Berry

      PJ, what you say doesn’t add up. You say you believe in “inerrency,” however you define it, and a literal Adam, and also diversity.

      So which is it? Do you have to agree to extremist fundamentalist doctrine to be a member of the church? Or can people of different theological bents get accepted as members? If they can, then you aren’t fundamentalist. If they can’t, then the church isn’t as diverse and accepting as you make it out to be.

      Maybe you think that being friendly toward people who you believe are wrong counts as some type of diversity. And surely it is Christian to be nice to all. But that is not the definition of a diverse church.

      Fundamentalism proudly sets itself apart from others because all others are wrong and headed toward condemnation. So when fundamentalists complain about more tolerant Christians being judgemental, they seem to forget that being judgemental is baked into their world view and they don’t see it because it is one of their own basic assumptions.

      • PJ Anderson

        Mike, you and I don’t know each other. Though I suspect if we sat down and talked this over we’d find many commonalities.

        One thing which I am perplexed about concerning your reply is that you linked my belief in inerrancy with both fundamentalism and being less than appreciative of diversity. This isn’t my understanding of inerrancy at all. We have extreme members of our community (in many points) and we teach toleration for each other. Is the only proper and diverse position to deny inerrancy? Deny a literal Adam? to Deny complementarianism? etc etc etc.

        Just like the caustic nature of maligning evangelicals by saying they are spiritual 6th graders and such doesn’t advance the conversation, misrepresenting a person’s view of inerrancy and such doesn’t seem to do that either. Doctrine ultimately divides, yes, but we prefer to approach things appropriately and not make peripheral issues foundational to our faith. We do this as graciously as possible while affirming an evangelical ethos and a fairly conservative theology. In doing so we have a rather vibrant community that is marked by love, charity, and hope more than doctrinal disputes and calling into question the sophistication of one’s intellectual or spiritual views. Thanks for the reply. :)

        • Mike Berry

          PJ, I’m not calling into question your niceness. You sound like a terrific guy and I’m sure youd be fun to have a conversation with.

          What I was commenting on was the seeming contradiction in the depiction of your church, and you didn’t answer that at all. Yes, I linked your belief in inerrency with fundamentalism because they are the same thing! Fundamentals almost all define themselves as fundamentalists because they believe in inerrency. And a literal Adam is an extreme form of fundamentalism.

          Still, what I’m curious about is the rules in the church for membership. Can you become a member or deacon or whatever if you don’t believe in inerrency? If so, as you seem to be saying, then that’s wonderful but I don’t see how you can then define yourself as a fundamentalist.

          • Mike Berry

            err. define your church as fundamentalist, not yourself.

          • PJ Anderson

            Mike, inerrancy doesn’t automatically equal fundamentalism. It never has. Believing in a literal Adam isn’t hard core fundamentalism. If you believe that it does, I’m very sorry but that isn’t true.

            As for my church, we don’t condition membership on anything other than faith in Jesus and baptism. As for leadership, we do take that seriously but inerrancy isn’t a lithmus test for leadership. Thanks!

          • Taylor

            Mike, you seem to be confusing inerrancy with Biblical literalism. They are not the same thing.

      • susan gerard

        “Fundamentalism proudly sets itself apart from others because all others are wrong and headed toward condemnation.”
        I am no learned theologian, just a woman searching for truth. Your pride puzzles me; isn’t pride a sin? your comment above gave me a mental picture of a Pharisee.

  • Paula

    Thank you so much for posting this. My earliest experiences as a Christian were Evangelical. And for many years that was my mindset and practice. But from my observation, Evangelical Christianity in America changed from what it was in the 1970′s. And in recent years, I don’t fit there, no matter how hard I try. I discovered many of the practices of Contemplative Christianity, and felt it to be the “right way of being Christian” for me personally, but have not successfully found a church in my area that practices it. And in the meantime, I feel I am a misfit in any Evangelical Church I try to attend, and ultimately, I stop attending. The worst of it is that I have blamed myself, as if this reflected a flaw in my faith or my steadfastness, and I’ve prayed continually for God to change me. I am so thankful to know that there are others like me who struggle with Evangelical Christianity, no longer find it to be a place they can feel comfortable and flourish spiritually, and are seeking an alternative. I know many in the Orthodox ranks have arrived there from Evangelical Christianity, and I’m sure that can be said of Catholicism as well. I’ve explored both, found much to love in both, and yet do not feel they are where I am meant to be personally. So, bottom line, I’m still searching.

  • Richard Clark

    Oh cool, thanks for that headline bro. This one’s sure to change hearts and minds.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I think that this actually gets to the root of what is wrong with humanity. We are continually looking for a steady state to exist at and cling to while overlooking the fact that everything in all of creation is continually growing and developing. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing as well.

    I came to realize a while ago that going back to the story of the fall, Adam and Eve were children. They were perfect in the way children are perfect – not the sort of super humans we are often told they were. (Ireneus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria also said this, so I’m hardly the first to notice.) But after the fall, what had previously been normal – their nakedness – became shameful to them. And we’ve been acting out of that shame ever since. It’s normal not to understand everything fully. It’s normal to grow and develop. But we still tend to react to our nakedness like Adam and Eve did – thinking it’s a sign of something wrong which needs to be covered.

    We try to play at being all grown up and become hostile to those who do grow past what we know. We reject the sort of growth and development which all of creation gives witness to as the natural and life-giving way of things and seek a faith which is steady and unchanging. But this steady state we seek is not faithful to God’s ways and it’s not what we’re made for. After a while it begins to chafe and bind us and trying to resist it is like trying to be a hermit crab who won’t leave a shell it has clearly grown out of. At some point, we are going to recognize that this growing process is normal, good and life-giving – as it is for all created things. That the steady state we keep trying to find and put our faith in is unnatural and stunting. But like everything else, getting to that point is something we’re still learning how to do.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    People who are apparently stuck in the 6th grade:
    J.I. Packer
    Kevin Vanhoozer
    J. Todd Billings
    Alvin Plantinga
    Timothy Keller
    N.T. Wright
    Mark Noll
    Francis Collins

    I think I’m okay here.

    • peteenns

      Derek, don’t take the “6th grade” comment from Haas woodenly (I assume you’ve read his post, not just mine). Look past the offense it gives you and see what he is saying. And yes, you may be “okay here” but you are not suggesting (are you?) that these men are (1) all at the same place (I assure you they are not), and (2) represent as mature a working faith as there can be, that they have arrived on the journey? That is Haas’s point, I believe.

      • Derek Rishmawy

        I read Haas’ post and the whole thing still struck me as condescending and tired. My point in listing these men is that Evangelicalism can be as deep, developed, and mature they are at their various places, in their various communions. There are 6th grade versions of every tradition as well as mature, developed ones in every tradition.

        • David Walker

          I’ve read lots of Packer and Keller. While I respect much in the work of both, I also find plenty of it immature.

          They’re both very smart. Like many smart people, they’re adept at arranging abstractions to construct “plausible deniability” defenses against criticisms of their cause – dissonant positions that don’t get much traction outside communities eager to accept them. I’m not saying that describes all of their work. I’m saying it describes more of it than Evangelicals are generally willing to acknowledge.

          The fear that leads Evangelical leaders to craft dissonant positions is the fear that traps Evangelical followers in those positions is the fear that prevents people from “getting real” with themselves and God is the fear also known as spiritual immaturity.

          An above-average ability to shuffle theological concepts in a way that delights the doctrinal gatekeepers of the Evangelical world has no necessary connection to spiritual maturity. It renders one no more a Hero of Faith than does a lawyer’s ability to win cases make him a Champion of Justice.

          • Derek Rishmawy

            Thanks for the response. I’ve read it, and, maybe I’m just dumb, but I read you say:

            Keller and Packer are smart but they do X. (Providing no example of X.)
            Explain why X is a bad thing rooted in fear (assuming some magical knowledge of Keller and Packer’s psyches) and leads to spiritual immaturity in themselves and their followers.
            Dismissal of theological acuity paired with analogy and use of menacing but vacuous terms like “doctrinal gate-keepers” that probably made you feel really good to write.

            Color me less than impressed with the spiritual maturity this response.

          • Jim V


            I concur in your criticism of Haas, Enns and David, here. I’ve read several of the theologians who they would call “mature” and they all make these same errors that David describes. For a really good time, try reading Bishop John Spong as he twists himself into intellectual pretzels deconstructing everything he culturally hates about belief in the Christian (and Hebrew) God and then tries to retain some semblance of logic in order to retain the label “Christian.” Even atheists like Dawkins and Dennet mock such twisted feats of supposed reason. Yet, these are the “mature” Christians compared to Keller and Packer – at least according to Haas, Enns and David.

      • Jim V

        Dr. Enns – you can’t look past the analogy. I’m not sure if you decided to give up civility towards your previous evangelical colleagues when you left WTS and gave up Evangelicalism, but your posts are getting increasingly insulting and uncivil and then in the comments you keep saying things like – “don’t take this personally” or “I’m not saying they are all idiots” or some such deflection. Let me make this very clear – YES YOU ARE. Embrace it, deal with it. If you have come to hate Evangelicalism and, according to this and other posts, evangelicals, so much, I think you need to accept it, come to grips with it and come out of the closet. Haas is being condescending. If you can’t see it, then there is something blinding you.

    • Steve W

      Yeah, they all are stuck in sixth grade. Thank God I moved on from them.

  • Wayne

    It seems that many of us are ready to graduate from the 6th grade. There are any number of middle schools or high-schools available to the prospective graduate and Peter Traben Haas’ website is a good point of departure (as is your blog, Peter Enns!).

    Perhaps the most prominant voices among us are: Richard Rohr, Brian McClaren, Rob Bell, and N.T. Wright (not all of these are “contemplatives”, per se, but all are leading the way out of 6th Grade). It is not easy to speak of “contemplation” or “nonduality” in the evangelical idiom, but for those who would like to learn, “Getting to Know Jesus in the 21st Century” may also be worth a look [].

    ["My only wish is that I had an extra brain and set of eyes, another 6 hours a day, and didn’t need to earn a living, and I would be more intentional about exploring this."]

    This really isn’t necessary. Contemplative insight is not a cerebral activity. It’s simply seeing what is seeing–simply seeing, in the words of Meister Eckhart, that “the eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.”

    That seeing is always taking place–here & now (He is the light that lights everyone that comes into the world — in His light we see light). When it is recognized, life goes on– chop wood, carry water… blog… write books… make a living –seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you! :)

    • peteenns

      You are right, Wayne, about contemplative insight not being cerebral. Part of my journey is learning to honor my head without that being my “default drive.” Good point.

  • toddh

    6th grade sure does sound pejorative. But it resonates with me, and I’m guessing a lot of others. I think the best I can do is talk about my spiritual journey and how it has felt like growing up from childhood in evangelicalism to greater maturity (I hope). And no doubt there is much more growth awaiting.

    • toddh

      And also to remember that I can still learn from 6th graders!

      • peteenns

        Good point, toddh. I think Haas was trying very hard not to be pejorative in his use of “6th grade” but maybe something simple like “less mature” would have been less “electric”?

  • Phil Miller

    I wonder if seeing Evangelicalism as a sort of “suspended-animation” sort of state doesn’t have a lot to do with the semi-recent intermingling of Evangelicalism with neo-Reformed theology. A major tenet of Reformed theology is that all the work needed for salvation is already done, so there’s not really anything left for us to do as Christians. Sure, Reformed folks can give lip service to good works and participate, but it seems to me that there’s always a “so what?” quality about the actual living life aspect of the Reformed faith. If I’m saved and there’s absolutely no way I can lose my salvation, it kind of encourages a type of complacency.

    I grew up in Pentecostal circles, and sanctification was something that was always preached. It was probably emphasized too much. But the idea that a person was OK staying where they were at was unacceptable. It was expected that Christian should be moving forward in their relationship with God. This too, of course, can lead to some bad effects – it can make it so we see the Church as having different classes of Christians, for one. But I do think overall, the idea that we should be progressing toward something more as Christian shouldn’t really be a controversial idea.

  • Tim


    I have to disagree with this post, if anything the charismatic strain of evangelical Christianity is probably the most “advanced” form of Christianity on offer right now (if there is such a thing), as it places the greatest emphasis on an active faith in Jesus through God’s spirit out of all the other traditions. Naturally, this strain of Christianity is also the most difficult given that it most clearly situates the disciple against a world that is (for the most part) not aligned with Jesus, which can be very upsetting for the disciple (e.g., the world thinks that anal sex and grinding is acceptable sexual behavior but Jesus almost certainly doesn’t think this). Unfortunately for more intellectual types, this difficulty is further heightened by the fact that the intellectual challenges to Christianity are put in much starker relief in this strain of Christianity given the greatly diminished emphasis placed on the religion’s institutional forms.

    • peteenns

      I think you’re putting your finger on something important here, Tim. What I think Haas is getting at–and other contemplative I have read–is an over-intellectualizing of the faith. That’s not to say there is no intellectual dimension, of course, but the ego, which seeks control, is most at home in the world of the mind. Now, I’m not sure if the charismatic movement is the answer to that problem (though what do I know), but your point is well taken.

      • Tim

        Yes, I agree with that sentiment.


    I want this to be a real question, not a statement masquerading as a question:

    Are essays and books like this primarily about the theological substance of this or that variety of Christianity, or are they primarily about the aesthetics of religious social groupings?

  • Steve Schuler

    Well, nobody looks down on 6th graders as often or as scornfully as do 7th graders.

    I’ve read the “Seven Steps” post, and I am still trying to figure out why the contemplative life is supposed to be impossible within Evangelicalism. Difficult, sure. But the contemplative life isn’t easy within any tradition. (I suspect that it is impossible outside of some kind of tradition, formal or informal.) A contemplative life runs against the whole current of American and indeed Western culture. Living the contemplative life is a great struggle in any age, ours included.

    I do not know much about the contemplative life myself, but it seems that ancient and medieval Christian contemplatives frequently suffered the scorn and suspicion of their own religious traditions. Though they did not frequently heap similar scorn upon their persecutors, they had sharp words for Christians who were too enthralled by worldly business to tend to the health of their own souls. We should be gracious to those who struggle to practice contemplation in our own day. But scorn for beginners–for those who are sincere but immature in the faith–has never been a mark of Christian contemplatives.

  • Fr. Stephen De Young

    If I may weigh in from the East, I think the schism seen here between dogma and mysticism is one of the core issues that Western forms of Christianity never seem to escape, but seems to vacillate from one side to the other. In one era, spirituality will explore into dangerous regions, and in response, the West retreats to doctrine to set up boundaries, then the Faith begins to chafe at those boundaries, and the pendulum swings in the other direction.

    A big part of the problem is our modern assumptions regarding what the mind is. For the early Church Fathers, the mind was not a self-contained computing machine that processed information. Rather, the mind is a sensory organ that perceives the invisible creation, and finds its highest purpose in the Vision of God, that is, the Vision of the Risen Christ. The clearing of the mind to approach and prepare one’s self for that vision is the goal of contemplative Christianity, or mysticism, or whatever we want to call it.

    But for the Fathers, this was not at odds with the idea of dogma as established at the great Ecumenical Councils. Rather, dogmatic pronouncements were seen as (limited) attempts to translate the Vision of Christ into words borrowed from human languages and concepts borrowed from human thought. These few dogmas are the necessary boundary stones at the edges of the Christian Faith, and serve to verify whether any vision I might receive is or is not the same one received by the Apostles after the Resurrection, by St. Paul on the road to Damascus, by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, by St. Symeon the New Theologian, by St. Seraphim of Sarov, etc.

    Because doctrine is therefore always communicated as being limited and a reference, an allegory or allusion, you never find the Fathers being dogmatic about things like a historical Adam or 24-hour creation days. Because it is communicated, however, they never proclaim a state of spiritual lawlessness or chaos that can lead to delusion or destruction. So from an Orthodox perspective, we find three types of persons in the world: Those who have shared in the Vision of Christ in His Uncreated Glory, those who have not yet shared this Vision but believe and follow the testimony of those who have (i.e. those who believe but have not seen), and those who have neither seen for themselves nor believe the testimony of those who have.

    • Bev Mitchell

      Thank you Fr. Stephen. Here is a more homely expression of some of what you are saying – I think.

      Lots of those fine, conservative Christians (literalists included) who we all know and love are actually very contemplative in their faith. The ‘system’ under which they serve may not want to call it that, but they clearly operate in the Spirit. Their behaviour toward others and, apparently, their relationship with God reveal an abundance of the fruits, and gifts, of the Spirit. They would understand, for example, Saint Saraphim of Sarov “On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit” even while wondering about his “methods”. :)

      The way various Christian groups talk about things, the words they use and the variety of definitions of those words, are great barriers. Many leaders, like politicians, defend their particular choice of words and definitions and many try to tell people how they must and must not express their faith. Evidence of the fruits and gifts of the Spirit in any person should be our first guide. How we talk about our relationship with Christ should not be allowed to confuse our dialogue or our message – but we do allow this, even encourage it, all the time.

      • peteenns

        Bev, both you and Fr. Stephen are helping to clarify constructively the point that I feel Haas (and I) are making. Thanks to both of you. I say regularly that the problem is “the system” not everyone or every church in the system. Well put.

    • peteenns

      Thank you, Fr. Stephen. See my reply to Bev….

  • rvs

    “I am sure many out there can relate.” I can relate, yes. Thanks for the wisdom here. I find myself thinking of a Youtube video in which David Lynch talks about golf-ball sized consciousness and Goodyear Blimp-sized consciousness, or some such. I might have made up the blimp part. The fact that evangelical Christianity is deeply nervous about mysticism, including righteous mysticism, has always struck me as intriguing and telling.

    This post reminds me of your earlier post on Lectio Divina.

  • Rudy

    I think there may be a problem with the meaning of the word evangelicalism. Evangelicalism isn’t necessarily the problem, what is the problem is fundamentalism, which is often closely tied to evangelicalism. Fundamentalism says; we have all the answers and it’s our way or the highway. And I think it is this type of 6th grade schoolyard attitude that most people react to.

    • Andrew

      I think by most definitions, American evangelicalism is fundamentalism which chose to engage the world post-Scopes. Most evangelical churches derive from the “fundamentalist” tradition that began as a reaction to liberal Christianity/”modernist” ideas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The American evangelical tradition has more in common with the Stewart brothers than the Wesley brothers (and others under the more generic 18th century definition of evangelical)

      • peteenns

        I agree with you here, Andrew. Actually, in the “world at large,” there is no appreciable difference between the two.

  • Craig Hurst

    What is the step beyond being beyond Evangelicalism? Is anyone claiming to be there. This contemplative Christianity that seems to be espoused here sounds just like the subjective faith of narrow fundamentalists who say you can’t touch my Jesus because He lives within my heart. Well, you can’t touch my deeper level of consciousness of faith because it lives within my mind, says the contemplative Christian. Help?

    • peteenns

      Craig, Contemplative Christianity goes back to the monastic movements of the early centuries of the church. It is not fundamentalist, narrow, or “subjective” but deeply spiritual. Also, “He lives within my heart” is an evangelicalism.

  • Kimberly Muehling

    I don’t think Evangelical Christians as 6th graders is a helpful, or even correct statement. I’ve been thinking a lot about spiritual development as I watch my children grow and disciple others. How many of us as children simply took what our parents said as truth? Jesus loves me, yup, but because Mommy and Daddy tell me so. This is not Evangelicalism. But in our teen years, with so much angst in our worlds, we sought out the black and white, the “yes is yes” and “no is no” of faith. That, I believe is where we find most Evangelical denominations, especially those with an emphasis on Reformed thought. Lots and lots of thinking but only defined and absolute answers are accepted. This is a great peaceful place for people to land. The answers are all there. It’s only with that nasty dissonance hits you in your “college” years (usually in actual college for people who have grown up in the faith, but also a phenomenon for those to come to faith later on) where you learn to be ok with a little mystery, to keep seeking outs answers that you will never really find. What happens after that- “adulthood?” I have no idea! I’m not there yet! :)

  • Keith Johnston

    Schleiermacher in 1802 wrote to his publisher: “Here [with the Moravians] my awareness of our relation to a higher world began…Here first developed that basic mystical tendency that is so essential to me and saved and supported me during all the storms of scepticism. Then it germinated, now it is fully grown and I have become a Moravian again, only of a higher order.”
    It seems to me that some want to be an “evangelical, only of a higher order” without recognizing that it was that supposedly “lower” and inferior foundation that allowed you to go to a “higher” order. I am not sure if the Christianity of John Wesley was of a “higher order” or not, but if the theology of people like Paul Tillich and Marcus Borg is of a “higher order” then I may just stay down here with those whose faith of a “lower order” and who are actually doing something about what they believe. Of course, I was not raised as a fundamentalist nor have ever been a fundamentalist so I have not experienced the kind of nausea that background can cause. I believe in Evolution and the Second Coming and reject Inerrancy and Dispensationalism so maybe I have not been infected by the malignant viruses that plague many evangelicals.

  • http:/ Nan Bush

    Here’s a quote from something I wrote recently. Maybe it will help someone see the difference:
    “Yet as [developmental psychologist James] Fowler and others discovered, properly understood, giving up the convictions of one life phase, while it may be painful, is not loss of faith but its transformation; it is a process that leads to growth and deepening of faith, the leaving of childhood for maturity and, perhaps, wisdom.

    It is like climbing a mountain and seeing the horizon expand: what is invisible from the valley will open to view as the climb progresses. For those who believe that all of truth resides only in the laws of the valley, this can terrify.”

  • Stephen Ranney

    >A few months after leaving, as I began breathing a different kind of air,

    After leaving my particular scenario, I used exactly this expression ‘breathing a different kind of air.’ It describes well the experience, partly because so much of the oppression is not directly stated – it’s like it’s pumped in through the A/C ducts.

  • Harris

    The mistake I hear in Haas is his notion of progress (a trait I have met more than once in reading “spiritual” or contemplative writers). I would suggest that there are sixth grade versions of just about any tradition, including that of contemplation. I would suggest that maturity consists of understanding that our traditions are both necessary (a sociological/theological construct), as well as a frame for ongoing life understanding how God intersects our life. Perhaps it might be better to think of these traditions more as languages, each endowed with its ability to say some things well, and to be quite tongue-tied in other matters.

    • brad

      Thanks for your insight. I know there are a lot of people whose experience of Evangelicalism is too close to fundamentalism. But, as you note, it doesn’t seem very hard to see that all traditions have mature and immature versions. I like your paradigm of traditions being like “languages,” all of which say some things better than others. Another paradigm that I’ve found helpful is set theory, in which “bounded sets” focus on defining insider/outsider boundaries . . . and “centered sets” focus upon pointing people towards the goal (union with Jesus in this case). In this paradigm, we might say that traditions are helpful in as much as they are used to point people to a life with Jesus . . . and unhelpful as boundary markers. I well imagine that those, like Dr. Enns, who’ve experience Evangelicalism as a bounded set spirituality (expelled b/c of a view of Adam, evolution, etc) would find comfort in Haas’ post, imprecise as it may be.

  • ct

    On the mark, orthodox biblical doctrine is more mystical than the malcontents here are able to see.

    I.e. being
    2Ti 3:7 Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
    does not make a terminal understanding of biblical doctrine wrong or immature. I’m adding to that fact the fact that orthodox bilbical doctrine is sophisticated mystical doctrine. On the mark, hard truth biblical doctrine reorientates you – when you can see it and accept it – internally from being man-centered to being God centered. It draws you up via the acting and thinking from God’s will rather than self-will. Only the Doctrines of Grace and the Five Solas do this. Only they assault your inner fallen nature and demands. Classical Covenant – Federal – Theology is an assault on man’s fallen nature, and because of that it is the most valuable thing you can possess.

  • James

    The concern of Haas with his church experience seems more of form than substance. He smells consumerism, theatre, satelite campuses, media flash and dash in the ‘mega church’ approach. One could add ‘business model’ to the list. Trouble is, this is where a lot of Christian vibrancy seems to be centered these days, at least in Western Canada where I live. Is it stuck in Grade 6? I don’t see greater vibrancy elsewhere, at least on a large scale. Let’s work with the present phenomenon. There may be exciting changes in the wind (of the Spirit).

  • mochajava76

    I was at the ETS conference yesterday (I asked you about Yooouuuk), and so resonate with the way people grapple with challenges to their hermeneutical grid/Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
    A professor of mine wrote a paper that argued for different levels of belief in Paul’s writings (
    I appreciate that as a reminder that not everything is of a primary importance that we should break fellowship over.
    As to whether Evangelicalism is stuck in 6th grade (and I admit I only read your take and not Haas’), I can see where he is coming from. Sometimes these are helpful, but I am reminded of a statement in Mark D Baker’s “Religious No More”, where he quoted his professor: “Many evangelical students see their life as a progression from the legalism of their youth to a more mature Christianity that stresses issues of lifestyle and justice and explores authentic Christianity. It appears they have moved forward . . .They move along, but they are not going anywhere. They just change one means of judging themselves as superior for another”. And I would add it is an often used tool to measure others and emotionally strengthen one’s position.

  • Karen

    I think spiritual maturity is indicated by how well we love others. I am a Spiritual Director trained by Catholic sisters in the Ignatian tradition. Contemplation is great. However, all this talk about evangelicalism being less mature and other traditions more mature is just silly talk. Any time you have human beings involved in the picture you have immaturity. Ultimately, God is not as concerned with how well we can engage in contemplation. God is concerned with how we treat others. How does this conversation help us treat others well–especially those from whom we are different? Everyone is always looking for the perfect church, the perfect spirituality. We are always testing and comparing so that we can assure ourselves that our spirituality is the best one–which means there is always a scapegoat. I’ve worshiped in many different denominations and traditions. They are all full of their own unique immaturities and maturities. Just love.

    • Percival

      What she said!

  • Chuck Sigler

    One problem with Haas’s “analogy” is the implied hierarchy of spiritual growth. Yes, “Everyone who wishes to grow graduates to higher/deeper levels of being and understanding”; and reaching the deepest “level” doesn’t happen in this lifetime. However, his sense that “Evangelical Christianity is a developmental stage of faith, like 6th grade is a stage of learning on the journey to post-graduate study” can only be a valid analogy for his personal experience of spiritual growth.

    He also seems to be sailing into a William James sense of personal religion or spirituality as individuals encounter whatever they consider to be divine; jettisoning the trappings of Jame’s “institutional religion” of doctrine dogma, etc. Contemplative Christians will encounter a rich variety of views as they explore these steps of Haas. And much of what they encounter can enrich their own spiritual journey and relationship with the Christian God. True Christian religion is not simply Evangelicalism; it is “okay” to see Haas’s steps differently than it does. But true Christian spirituality cannot be divorced from certain aspects of Christian doctrine. True Christian spiritual experience is necessarily a product of what true Christian religion has to say about God, the Bible and salvation, etc. Depending on how differently the person sees God, the Bible, and salvation (for starters) will have a lot to say about whether or not this journey ends at the Augustinian “City of God” or remains sailing on the sea of subjective experience.

  • Steph

    This is a general comment to no one in particular:
    I have met theologians who are intellectually mature, but seem to be lacking in areas of spiritual maturity/understanding. Reversely, I have met theologians who would be considered less intellectually mature, but have a spiritual maturity way beyond intellectual knowledge of God: these theologians tend to have a more sacramental outlook than others. There are always going to be individuals who buck the trend, so does this post hurt your feelings because you know individuals who go against it? Can you give a real reason why it is wrong, with more than evidence of individuals? Does the words in this post hurt you because you know it might be true to a certain level?
    Food for thought, not personal attack.
    And if anyone is interested, I found a book which some may benefit from: “How (Not) to Speak of God” by Peter Rollins.

  • peteenns

    For what it’s worth, I’ve read all of these comments, and it seems that a number of you are reading “maturity/immaturity” in a personal sense. That is not what Haas is referring to (and neither am I or contemplative Christinaity as a whole). It’s the “system” that is “immature.” (And, but the way, I very much appreciate he analogy offered by one commentator that high school would be better than 6th grade to make the pint.) Agree or not, but the immaturity of the evangelical (and fundamentalist) system from a contemplative point of view is seen in things like: tendency to debate due to an intellectual ozone of the faith, boundary marking, excessive insider/outsider thinking, and other things. If you want to disagree with Haas, that is where you should focus. But “every movement has immature people in it” etc., is beside the point and does not invalidate the critique.

  • Steve W

    one example of evangelical immaturity is its approach to higher criticism. it’s not good enough to say that it’s all ‘true’ or that some impossible event must be true because ‘god can work miracles.’ come up with an argument that works without reference to special pleading or get-out-of-jail magic cards.

  • ct

    If you’re mightily pulled in the direction of wanting to make evil good and good evil then truth will be a constant pebble in your shoe, won’t it?

    If you constantly demand that everything be watered down and negotiated down to the demands of your fallen nature then truth is going to be seen by you are an enemy.

    Truth exists. On the mark biblical doctrine exists. It’s not hidden from view. The Reformation recovered it. There are many wrong answers to 2 + 2, but there is one right answer. And it – 4 – is not merely a launching pad for yet another ‘conversation’ to lead everything back to the demands of our fallen nature.

  • Caroline

    Peter – Sorry I’m late to the party. I just wanted to say thank you. The first time I read this article, honestly, it was too much for me. The notion that my traditional Christian faith was something to graduate from like 6th grade was just too painful to process right away. But your comment about the “dissonance” that so many thinking evangelicals feels spoke to me in a deep deep way and has resonated throughout the past week. Since then, I’ve started a blog, read constantly, prayed almost as much, and am just beginning, as you said, to breathe again. It’s as if my faith is breaking free all over again. First it was from the bondage of the law and into grace. Now it’s from the bondage of the “right way” of thinking about Christianity into grace (again). Isn’t it amazing?

  • Lydia

    I wish someone would define Evangelicalism for me because I never know in what sense it is being used.

    All I can say is that it seems like being a Christian toda, aligned with some sort of institution, is so much more complicated than it was for my parents. It seems they were allowed to disagree, carry on and be involved in the local church where there were no “Christian celebrities” telling us what to believe. We were all struggling together and you were most definitely allowed to disagree with the preacher because you were considered equal before Christ.

    The focus was more on BEING like Christ than all this minute doctrinal warring and need to control other people’s thought processes. Perhaps being mature is being more like Christ?

    I have given up on the institutions when it comes to living out beliefs. Those systems evolve to grow and maintain themselves (meaning power, jobs,groupthink, etc) much how all institutional systems function. Funny thing is when this is brought up with believers, so many people agree about the institutional church that it astounds me. Since I live in the South, it could be a total fatigue with the church growth movement of the megas on every corner for the last 30 years. Or, it could be exhaustion with the Neo Reformed movement that is in your face and striving to take over churches here. I don’t know.

    All I know is the believing” nones” are growing and finding one another. And it absolutely stunned me to find many of them in their 50′s and 60′s in my neck of the woods! Perhaps it is because I live at ground zero for the YRR?

  • RedWell

    An important sociological point here: evangelicalism, charismatic movements and all the rest draw new believers into the church because they are simplified and energetic. The “sixth grade” system may leave some (or perhaps many) frustrated over time, but it may also be necessary for the vitality of the church and to keep the more contemplative folks on their toes. Personally, I no longer feel at home intellectually with many Evangelicals, but I am grateful for evangelicals and charismatics who maintain an accessible and fervent faith.

  • Fred Wallis

    Somehow I feel that Christ is less impressed by intellectual acumen than by commitment to what we are convinced of as His will for how we respond to the grace He has given. I wrestle continually with many of the issues life experience raises. How to have confidence in an ancient text that has come to be viewed so diversely? What I believe it means may be distorted, but I feel with great assurance that it means something, not everything or anything. I will spend my life grappling with my limitations in understanding the depth of God’s mind. But I refuse to be paralyzed by them. I pastor a church in a denomination whose educational institutions treat fundamentalism like a disease. We are neither inerrantists nor dispensationalists. But I am delighted we are evangelical in the sense that we believe that a salvific relationship with Jesus Christ may be entered into in a moment of faith and commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God whose sacrificial death and resurrection provides for the salvation of all who would come to Him in faith. We are also evangelical in that we feel the great commission found in Matthew 28 is the call of all those who call Jesus both Savior and Lord. When our mental abilities are measured with the mind of God, we all find ourselves incredibly lacking. We just need to remember that most of us do the best we can. Of all our sins, pride will break our closeness to Christ like no other.

  • marius


    i’m not sure i understand… i see fundamentalism and evangelicalism to be quite distinct. of course, it depends how we define those terms. evangelicalism underwent it’s own evolution in the last century. conservative evangelicalism can also be distinguished from post-conservative evangelicalism.

    i moved from fundamentalism a few years ago to what roger olsen calls post-conservative evangelicalism.

    dunno if this makes sense… i’m not always good at expressing my own thoughts. but i’m sure the evangelicalism i hold to (as I would define it) is a match for what you call contemplative christianity.

    could you maybe comment on my distinctions and explain if your understanding of contemplative christianity is necessarily also distinct from my post-conservative evangelicalism?

    maybe if you could also distinguish contemplative christianity from liberal christianity?

    I know i’m probably asking for a lot of explanation. if your time is too limited that’s okay… ;)


  • Al Cruise

    Where are Mark Driscoll, Pat Robertson, and Fred Phelps?

    • herewegokids


  • Howard Pepper

    It’s encouraging to find yet another “former Evangelical” in Haas. I know a number of them and am one myself… but never felt I “lost (my) faith.” However, I wasn’t sure about the entire Christian framing of God, love, spirituality, etc. for a long time and have only found a workable paradigm in Process.

    And the concept of Evangelicalism as merely one stage for seriously growing people is one that has been well developed within Integral Theory, and of very recent years, its branch called “Integral Christianity”. I LOVED the book by that title by Paul Smith and recently reviewed it on my NaturalSpirituality blog.

  • herewegokids

    Yes. And fundamentalism is kindergarten Christianity.