Don't look at the finger

Don't look at the finger July 14, 2011

Molly Worthen’s Slate piece — “Sign Here, and Here, and Here” — on the weirdly slavery-friendly “Marriage Vow” being promoted by the Iowa religious right group “FAMiLY LEADER,” includes a shrewd summary of why such declarations and manifestos have become so common, and thus so meaningless, in the evangelical subculture:

These Declarations and Calls and Vows underscore the ongoing problem of authority that has defined evangelicals ever since they first thumbed their noses at the pope and—in many cases—fled the pews of the older Protestant churches for younger denominations or independent congregations allergic to the idea of granting too much authority to human hierarchies or historical tradition. Evangelicals say that their authority lies in the Bible alone, but agreeing on what scripture actually means in practice has always been easier said than done.

As a result, evangelicals are constantly squabbling, schisming, regrouping, and claiming their faction alone is the holy remnant and the authentic Christian voice. Obscure groups like FAMiLY LEADER have the same right as anyone else to speak as if they are the magisterium. The very label “evangelical” has been a source of consternation for decades, as rival claimants endlessly qualify or redefine the word and demand new doctrinal and political bona fides.

Yep. The steady stream of manifestos and the endless demand for “doctrinal and political bona fides” are what you get when the idea of the priesthood of all believers morphs into the papacy of all radio hosts, mega-church pastors and parachurch president/founders. Having one pope is, at least in theory, a tidy solution to the “problem of authority.” Having thousands of popes only makes it an even bigger problem.

Handwringing over this “crisis of authority” is almost as common among evangelicals as is the issuing of Declarations and Calls and Vows. These days, such concerns are often expressed as a rejection or condemnation of “postmodernism.”

That criticism assumes that this is a viable choice — that we have some other option here and now. The premise seems to be that modernism never failed, it was simply abandoned voluntarily, and that thus there’s nothing intractably chronological about that prefix “post-” in postmodern. I’m sometimes asked by these anti-pomo evangelicals if I am a “postmodernist” — the question usually coming with an accusatory tone along the lines of “are you now or have you ever been …” I’m not sure what that question even means. I understand that word in some contexts, a bit, but not really in this one. So, for lack of a better response, I check the calendar. It says I was born in the late 1960s and that it is now 2011 so, yep, I guess we’re all pretty much post-modern.

But what is the point of such a question? I suppose if I were an artist it might be useful for deciding where in the museum to display my work, but I’m not an artist and the people asking me this are not curators so, again, why such concern with this ill-defined label?

What I think prompts the question is the fact that we disagree, my inquisitors and I, about “what scripture actually means in practice.” Usually in particular about what it actually means with regard to abortion and homosexuality. I’m pro-choice and I advocate for the full equality of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons — both their civil equality and their equal treatment within the church. My inquisitors disagree strenuously, and a big part of what they mean by a “crisis of authority” is the desire for some mechanism that could settle such disagreements with finality by declaring views like mine anathema or, at least, getting people like me to stop using the words “evangelical” or “Christian” to describe ourselves.

That latter point is what Worthen describes as the endless qualification and redefinition of the word “evangelical.” Whether or not that word can or should be reduced to meaning “anti-gay, anti-abortion white Protestants” is a matter of ongoing controversy.

But having, as Worthen says, “thumbed our noses at the pope,” we lack any ultimate referee to decide such disputes. All we have is scripture or, as my friends would say, the “authority” of scripture. That understanding of the authority of scripture helps illuminate why “postmodernism” has become such a bugbear for these evangelicals. Postmodernism suggests that the clarity and certainty promised by modernist readings of a text are just illusions, and those modernist readings are the basis of this idea of “the authority of the scripture.”

Christian fundamentalism in America is, in large measure, a reaction against modernity. But it is also, in large measure, an application of modernism. The fundamentalist-modernist schisms of the 1920s could just as accurately be described as the birth of modernist fundamentalism. These fundamentalists approached texts as self-evident storehouses of singular, obvious and objective meaning. They imagined that the study of the Bible could provide the same certainty and clarity as physics, unfortunately embracing this belief just as physics itself was taking a quantum leap in the other direction. (For an excellent discussion of fundamentalism’s modernist approach to scripture, see Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind — a book I have recommended many times before and will likely recommend many times again.)

So when someone like me is accused of being “postmodernist,” what the accuser really means is that they think I’m reading the Bible wrong.

“You shall not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination,” they recite as proof that I am wrong not to treat our GLBT neighbors abominably.

OK, I say, but you eat shrimp “that have not fins and scales in the seas,” and that, too, is called “an abomination.”

Ah, they say, but in the book of Acts, God said to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean,” so the prohibition against shrimp was explicitly lifted, but the prohibition against The Gay was not.

Ah, I say, but in that very same chapter of the book of Acts, Peter says that God’s message wasn’t about diet, but about people and that he must not ever “hinder God” by excluding some category of people.

And back and forth we go. They support their position with appeals to scripture and I support mine with appeals to scripture — sometimes the very same scripture. The impasse remains unresolved. We remain stuck at just the point that Worthen described, unable to agree on “what scripture actually means in practice.”

The next step often is for my rivals to appeal to tradition. I think that’s a good and appropriate thing to do. Unlike those who cling to a naive claim of “sola scriptura,” I think tradition — the “democracy of the dead,” in Chesterton’s phrase — ought to help guide our reading of scripture. One way to better understand what the text means is to find out what others have thought it meant.

But I would not say, however, that tradition should be “authoritative.” I believe that trajectory trumps tradition.

Tradition can be like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon. The point of the pointing isn’t to direct the eye toward the finger, but toward the moon — to get you to look in the direction the finger is pointing. I think the trajectory of that direction is more important than the tradition of the finger itself.

Such concern for trajectory is a very Pauline approach. Or, for a more recent example, it’s very much like the way Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the “authority” of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” the great Virginian slaveowner Thomas Jefferson wrote. A strictly modernist approach to that statement, or any approach based mainly on tradition, would conclude that it could not possibly mean what King insisted it must mean. But King wasn’t obsessing over the finger, he was looking in the direction it was pointing.

This contrast between tradition and trajectory, between finger and moon, is probably a more useful way of describing the dispute between Christians like myself and those Christians who believe — sincerely — that my advocacy of GLBT equality is dangerously wrong.

Here at Patheos, the areas for Christians were recently reshuffled to create a “progressive Christian” portal. That’s a serviceable word, “progressive.” It requires that a bit more be said — namely, what it is that we “progressive Christians” are hoping to progress to. Without some clearer explanation of that, the word can acquire some quaintly EPCOT-ish connotations or overtones of unchastened millennialism.

I would point us back to that pointing finger and to the direction it indicates for us to go. What we are hoping toward and hopefully progressing toward can be found in that Pauline sense of the importance of trajectory. Paul wrote of our calling as “the ministry of reconciliation.” That provides both a trajectory and an indication that we have a long way to go. There remains a great deal of progress to be made.

None of that addresses the “problem of authority,” that Worthen describes so well, but it may be a helpful step toward achieving disagreement.

In the absence of an authority that can compel us to come to an agreement, we can at least choose to come to a disagreement. And that would be a marked improvement over constant “squabbling, schisming, regrouping, and claiming [each] faction alone is the holy remnant and the authentic Christian voice.”

"Which is practically never a useful thing to say, *especially when true."

12/1 Flashback: Cizik culture
"One wonders what sort of blasphemy would provoke Wee Jas to send out one of ..."

12/1 Flashback: Cizik culture
"We ran the budget on our upcoming grant yesterday, and we're over budget by somewhat ..."

12/1 Flashback: Cizik culture
"Although I didn’t grow up religious, I can identify with that fear. I had assumed ..."

12/1 Flashback: Cizik culture

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad