Democratized Theology vs. Theology of the Demos (Mob)

Democratized Theology vs. Theology of the Demos (Mob) May 8, 2019

“Bible with Cross Shadow,” David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

I should have known that I was going to get snarky replies from conservative evangelicals when I said that Rachel Held Evans democratized theology. They said all the predictable things about ordinary people being totally depraved and untrustworthy interpreters of the Bible (with the exception of those who have infallibly interpreted scripture the way they have). Their criticism did help me realize that I need to further refine how I articulate the concept of democratized theology.

Talking about theology as a democracy raises a lot of questions. Does that mean it’s a majority rules process like the United Methodist Church General Conference? For example, could a majority of white Christians decide that they want to paint their God in the image of Donald Trump whom they voted to be president? In Greek, the word demos means mob, so the original definition of democracy was literally “the rule of the mob,” which is certainly what our country’s democracy as well as United Methodist church politics have come to feel like.

Still I want to contend that there are two very different phenomena which I’m going to label democratized theology and theology of the demos. Here’s how I would contrast their differences.

I. Democratized Theology

A Christian community defined by democratized theology is a space in which each individual believer is trained to think theologically for themselves and there is not an expectation for everyone to come to the same conclusions because there is not a sense that having an imperfect grasp of doctrine has eternally catastrophic consequences. The Bible is seen as a resource for helping people to grow in their intimacy with Christ with the understanding that God can use the same verse to speak differently to different people. Worrying about who or what has authority is simply not part of the thought process in such a community, because the assumption is that God reveals himself generously to those who earnestly seek him.

In a space of democratized theology, each person’s voice is understood to be indispensable and important to the community’s wisdom as a whole. To try to force everyone into a uniform set of beliefs would be to diminish the community’s wisdom by silencing the more diminutive voices. On the contrary, democratized theology seeks especially the most marginalized voices because their perspective hasn’t been heard and needs to be heard in order to have a fuller perspective on the truth.

One way to illustrate how truth is understood in a democratized theology is to think about a symphony in which there is an entire orchestra of instruments. The truth is not what the trumpets play or what the violins; it’s the entire symphony when all the sections of the orchestra are brought together. Truth is not uniform; it’s a harmonious diversity of perspectives that are held in tension with one another. That doesn’t mean that the trumpets and the violins can play two entirely different songs, but it does mean they should be expected to play different notes in the same song.

Democratized theology recognizes the value of specialized scholarship because it provides resources for helping each member of the community interpret the truth more effectively. At the same time, democratized theology does not simply defer to the scholars because people who aren’t specifically theologically trained can bring a fresh perspective that a scholar who has been immersed in esoteric conversation for years can no longer see. Nobody’s interpretation is invalidated on the basis of not having engaged all the authoritative scholars in conversation (or not having read every single article/book by a scholar before responding to a stand-alone idea the scholar has put out there). A new blogger who has new ideas (or ideas that aren’t new at all) is encouraged and supported in their theological journey rather than being shot down and dismissed for the audacity of speaking up.

II. Theology of the Demos

A theology of the demos has the expectation that everyone in a community submit to uniform agreement about theological doctrine. The demos maintains itself through continually making comparisons between people inside the demos (who are superior, orthodox, going to heaven, etc) and people outside of it (who are depraved, heretical, going to hell, etc). In this interest, a theology of the demos gives the loudest amplification to the theological points where clear lines have developed between insiders and outsiders, and a competition develops to demonstrate the greatest zeal in articulating the most provocative, radical formulation of the insider view.

This continual comparison between insiders and outsiders generally crystallizes into a singular scapegoat whose opposition becomes the litmus test for measuring the “orthodoxy” of insiders. How the demos determines who’s in and who’s out is measured by how firmly committed the person is to opposing the scapegoat. If someone starts to cave in their opposition to the scapegoat, they have begun descending the “slippery slope.”

A critical part of the demos is the authoritarian demagogue who is their lightning rod. It might seem that the demagogue is the one who has power, but that’s an oversimplification. In Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, she explains how the demos basically creates the demagogue who emerges to lead it. A demagogue cannot seize power unless a demos already exists to empower him.

The subtlety is that the demagogue has to tell the demos what they want to hear without allowing them to realize that the authority to which they are submitting is their own self-affirmation, because part of the glue that holds the demos together and gives it emotional security is the notion that its members are submitting themselves to a greater authority who will tell them what to do and protect them from error. Thus, the demagogue must speak in ways that evoke a sense of heroic sacrifice without actually demanding sacrifice of his listeners, whose act of listening to a tough-sounding message is the sacrifice that validates them.

A critically important paradox about the demos is that it’s authoritarian and populist at the same time, which is to say that it wants to believe it is an orderly hierarchy with a wise leader rather than a mob with a self-validating demagogue. We see this paradox at play in the way that the demos uses scholarship opportunistically. When someone with a Ph.D. affirms the priorities of the demos, that Ph.D. is weaponized in debate as a trump card (e.g. N.T. Wright in the sexuality debate). But when Ph.D. scholars contradict the demos, they are out of touch, irrelevant, and improperly trained.

The same goes for official church authority figures. It’s been remarkable to see how much scorn the traditionalist Methodists have heaped onto our bishops, since one would think that authentic conservatism would be innately deferential to the wisdom of bishops and the apostolic process by which they were consecrated. But a populist demos views authority figures as only relevant and worthy of authority insofar as they enforce the will of the demos.

Even a hierarchical Christian tradition like Roman Catholicism can become a de facto demos. We see this in the way that radical right-wing Catholics have been sharpening their knives to take out Pope Francis for being a heretic since he hasn’t proved himself to be adequately firm in condemning remarried divorcees and gays. He is about as safe and securely in power as King Joffrey at his wedding banquet in Game of Thrones.

No traditionalist Catholic is clamoring to exclude military leaders from the Eucharist when they violate the church’s teaching on just war, nor to exclude business owners when they pollute the world or oppress their workers in violation of whatever papal encyclicals have said on those topics. The only ways to get excommunicated today if you’re Catholic are to be gay, support women priests, be involved in an abortion, or remarry as a divorcee. That’s why it appears to me that neither the pope nor church teaching itself are actually authorities in the Roman church, but the underlying demos that will erupt in violence if there is ever a shift on gays, women priests, abortions, or remarriage.

In any case, what I have done here is to describe tendencies. Obviously there are many people with sincere motives and authentic spiritual journeys in churches that tend more towards a democratized space and those that look more like a demos. I’m sure that authoritarian Christians would frame all of this very differently. But as I said in my original post about Rachel Held Evans, I think the democratization of theology allows individual Christians to develop deeper, more authentic intimacy with Christ than theology that emerges within a demos where everyone is performing “orthodoxy” for each other to avoid getting kicked out.

Browse Our Archives