The recent Evangelical Manifesto is an interesting window into the problems that evangelicals face today and a worthwhile statement of the theological issues they need to address going into the future. If you are an evangelical, or have considered yourself an evangelical at some stage in your journey, you will probably find it to be […]
The recent Evangelical Manifesto is an interesting window into the problems that evangelicals face today and a worthwhile statement of the theological issues they need to address going into the future. If you are an evangelical, or have considered yourself an evangelical at some stage in your journey, you will probably find it to be an “edifying” read. (Also, Wess at GatheringInLight has written a great review)
I was hoping the statement would inspire me more than it did. Truth is, the lack of diversity in it’s authorship and the US-centric focus in its intellectual framework were a major stumbling block. Part of the tension within evangelicalism today stems from the fact that in many ways the movement is thoroughly global and cosmopolitan, but in many local instances it is parochial and inward-looking.
The US-centric focus of the document glosses this tension in a most unfortunate way. The problematic at the heart of the document is the hoary old controversy between liberalism and fundamentalism/conservatism. In my view, any attempt to draw evangelicalism as being in conclusive support of one side or the other in this debate is not going to clarify the important issues we face today. This is a war about the US political landscape that does not map out in most of the rest of the world.
For the rest of us, the core issue in terms of liberalism and fundamentalism is the question of public policy – how we speak about the key moral and ethical issues of our day. The post-Locke liberal position is that we should seek a common language, to find a shared vocabulary for addressing the major problems of our day. The fundamentalist response suggests that any such project is flawed and that we can only really speak from within our own theological language, else we water down our message.
The theological college where I trained was right in the flux of this debate. It considered itself as both evangelical and conservative (which in many ways it was), but, was accused by some other groups as being liberal (which it also was) and non-evangelical (which was false). Some years back I wrote an unpublished paper suggesting the college was liberal (and evangelical) and that it didn’t matter.
Remember that we are talking about distinctions in terms of public speech and in particular public policy. We are not drawing distinctions about doctrine, creed or even ideas like inspiration of scripture. Part of the problem with the US-centric definitions of the debate is that it forces us into a singular view of what liberalism means. So liberalism as an idea in political philosophy is elided with liberalism as a theological project. A liberal is always a liberal all the way down.
Of course, life is not always so simple!
Going back to my old theological college, their doctrinal teaching was fundamental in the sense that they strove to present the Scriptures as divinely inspired documents, they taught a creedal and historical understanding of the Christian faith and they did not shirk from presenting Christianity as a unique theological idea in the competing realm of faith options. But, they were also liberal in that they examined ways the faith could be communicated in the common language of that culture, they looked for resonances with the Christian message in popular spiritualities and they sought to address ethical issues in a language that could be understood by those unschooled in Christian theology.
I still think that, in principle, that is a good model.
I also think it is the best that evangelicalism can aim for in our times. The problem I have with the evangelical manifesto is that every time fundamentalism is impugned we are moved further away from this goal.
The big problem today is not fundamentalism in all forms, but in specific forms. It’s the fundamentalism that opposes cosmopolitanism and globalism, that seeks only local solutions and local foci that is the real problem. BY failing to draw a distinction between the fundamentalism of narrow-mindedness and the fundamentalism of authenticity, the document is as guilty of oversimplification as those who cannot see differentiate between the liberalism of public-speech and the liberalism of no theological stability. It’s Ontological fundamentalism that we must resist today and the manifesto fails to draw in sufficiently sharp and detailed ways.
I don’t believe we can advance this debate far when the problem is stated in the terms of the US definitions of liberalism and fundamentalism. The whole issue gets blurred by the immediate political and cultural clashes that dominate the US media. In fact, the best way to address the problem is to be intentionally global and diverse; to be cosmopolitan. The irony is that evangelicalism is, in fact, incredibly well positioned to speak with this kind of voice.
But, as with so many issues that face the church today, maybe it isn’t just a problem of speaking, but also a problem of listening?
[tags] Evangelical Manifesto [/tags]