I have mixed feeling about American evangelicals. On the one hand, it was among evangelicals where my faith was first brought forth and a deep appreciation and passion for Scripture was nourished. On the other hand, I look at evangelicalism and I am left wondering how it is that a people who so deeply respect the Scripture can turn out the way they do on so many social and political matters? Can we simply boil it down to a matter of how I interpret the Bible, which some might think was filled with “liberal” presuppositions and interpretations that would lead me astray?
However, another idea took hold of me today, as I was returning from a trip to a nearby commercially owned garden that I love to visit and walk in when I am in North Georgia. What if the problem with evangelicalism is that they convert but they never converted from their conversion? To be clear, I am not talking about de-converted from their faith in Jesus Chirst, but rather I am talking about the cognitive systems of meaning and understanding that gets generated when one first gets converted.
Whenever our meaning systems begin to go through a major transition, such as in religious conversion but can also happen with falling in love for the first time, the experience of deep trauma, etc. is that our new belief systems emerges from a combination of the new information, ideas, or experiences we are incorporating into our meaning systems and some of the old information, ideas, and memories. The emergence of new meaning systems is always a hybridization of old and new. In fact, it is the more entrenched and enduring parts of our older meaning systems that remain that allow us to draw inferences and further meaning from what is novel and emerging in our beliefs. When we first start learning something new, part of what is previously understood informs what it is we are not learning. When we incorporate new information into our meaning systems, we can only incorporate the new information in its “surface” form that we then use our already given beliefs to help give “depth” of understanding to the new information.
So, what happens with American evangelicalism is that when people “convert” to Christian faith, people begin to understand God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit through the background of their experiences. For a complex set of reasons that we need not get into here to make my point, most of the conversions made in the United States to evangelicalism tend to be politically conservative, patriotic persons. The end consequence of this is that they begin to filter their understanding of God and Jesus through the lens of their cultural backgrounds, leading to beliefs such as God blesses America insofar as it will be a “Christian nation” (rather than God is blessing the world including the United States through the blessing of Abraham). Concerns about moral righteousness is as much about God making the United States great again as it is loving God and being a blessing to others, although clearly such concerns are readily pushed aside when other, pragmatic considerations are lead to be able to achieve the same goal. Seeking God’s will in your life essentially amounts to realizing the two staple forces of the present form of American capitalism: (1) what job you will have that brings in the money and (2) who you will have se…. I mean get married to.1 Even the evangelical reasons for understanding marriage that aren’t reduce to marriage being an excuse for having sex can get understood in terms of something distantly related to capitalism: the eventual creation of labor through reproduction. Furthermore, as whites are predominant in American society, evangelicalism as a predominately white brand of Christian faith largely sees the world in a way that does not recognize the complaints from minorities whom they do not spend as much time around, particularly African Americans. To be sure, some of this is more explicit in what people say and some of it is perhaps more implicit, operating simply at the level of desire and not formally expressed.
Now, much of this is not something radically new to the public discussion of religion in the United States. It has been a common complaint for a while. However, what isn’t as common or readily understood is the solution to the problem? For some critics, the solution essentially amounts to becoming politically progressive. However, some of what is prescribed in progressive politics comes into tension and sometimes outright contradiction with Scripture, to which many progressives have tried to change the way they view Scripture to reduce the dissonance. Certainly, evangelicals are selective in their reading of Scripture also, but one does not change people’s thinking by devaluing the way they use and value their sources of knowledge. Most epistemic practices are deeply rooted that you can not convert people by directly going after their epistemology. Progressive politics is, for better and worse, seen as an outside, foreign way of life and knowledge to evangelicals.
Perhaps another way to change the issue is some critique form within Christian faith, such as can be offered by some applications of Barthian and apocalyptic theologies. For instance, I engaged in a brief twitter conversation of a person who criticized white evangelical’s epistemology as essentially being the same as that of Christians in Nazi Germany. In place, he advocated for a Barthian perspective. The fundamental error of drawing from the inferences similarities between two distinct periods of times and cultures, however, is one’s epistemology does not unquestioning developed in certain stages. In other words, similarities of epistemology does not determine the future of American evangelicals, as epistemology is more so used to address the specific challenges are faced in that time period rather than simply leading to the thoughtless recapitulation of the past.
Also, Douglas Campbell in The Deliverance of God and also in his chapter “Apocalyptic Epistemology” in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination is highly critical of epistemic foundationalism, which may be taking as a distant, indirect critique of evangelicalism through Campbell’s characterization and criticism of “Justification Theory.” While I share some sympathies with parts of Campbell’s project, I find most readings and understandings of Paul in light of “apocalyptic” to be woefully unwarranted, but largely rests of the evidential foundations of (1) the historical presupposition that Paul was Jewish, with the possibility implication that he shared some things in common with the patterns seen in apocalyptic literature and (2) some similarity of language and thenes that can also be seen in apocalyptic literature. While both (1) and (2) are merited, it does not warrant the idea that the interpretation and understanding of Paul should be primarily understanding around apocalyptic conventions, as Paul was neither only an “apocalyptic” Jew and much of the language Paul uses that is similar to apocalyptic literature language and themes are more wide-spread and not primarily exclusive to apocalyptic literature.
However, notwithstanding both of my methodological and historical critiques of the two options provided above, there is a reason these two options are insufficient option in response to evangelical theology, either in corrected it or as an alternative to it. Our epistemic praxis is not something we generally engage with and change directly through intellectualization about epistemology. Rather, we discover new epistemic practices. Transformation in the manner in which we learn are often accompanied by unplanned for epiphanies and discoveries of a new way of understanding and comprehending that challenge old epistemic practices, especially after our cognitive faculties have become fully developed.
Furthermore, and this is critical, there is no real overarching, systemic advocacy for specific epistemologies in the Scriptures, at least epistemologies in the traditional sense of epistemic sources and epistemic rationality. While the Apostle Paul provides a little bit in 1 Corinthians 8 in virtue of providing a contrast with Stoicism, who understood the field of logic to include thing we would now today call epistemology, it certainly is not extensive, particularly not extensive enough to prescribe some alternative epistemology. Based upon my research, I would say the two epistemic concepts that can be legitimately observed in Paul is the apocalyptically-inspired concept of epistemic resistance, where there is a subversion and tear down of previous bodies of knowledge and the practices that are used to construct them, and epistemic social dependence, which essentially describes the way we rely on specific people or God to teach and instruct us. These two concepts, while may be unfamiliar in analytic description would make intuitive sense to most evangelicals, as they both understanding being different from the culture and the idea of Jesus as a Teacher. However, beyond this, it would be rather hard to systematically and wholly engage with Americanism evangelicalism with deeply foreign epistemic practices, both explicit and implicit, to produce a change within evangelicalism, especially ones that can not be readily demonstrated to others in Scripture in a relatively common sense manner, but relies upon certain intellectual presuppositions and training to even be able to perceive them.
So, what then is the solution? I think the solution may be had in the problem: the concept of conversion. Within evangelicalism, conversion is portrayed and understood primarily as an event, something that happens in ones life that causes people to shift their allegiance from being on the outside to the inside. It is this event of conversion that is highly sought after. While certainly, continued discipleship and training is expected by many evangelicals, there is something implicit in the idea of Christian conversion that is expressed in John Newton’s famous line in Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” Put simply, once we become converted, we now have the right knowledge in virtue of faith in Jesus, that we now know the truth that we didn’t know prior. There is something momentous that often times happens when we come to our first understanding of Christian faith, especially for those who were not raised in an explicitly Christian home, and this dramatic change of belief can certainly feel like a sudden new insight, an epiphany in which everything now makes sense.
However, there is a problem with this: when we first come to faith, we do not necessarily understanding Jesus as the Father knows Jesus, but as Jesus makes sense to us from our flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 5.16), even if we have been taught by the Father previously. Even as God has accommodated to our old forms of understanding and knowledge and broken them open in calling us to Christ, we are still largely dependent on our prior understandings to make sense of the significance and purpose of Jesus. But, if in that moment, we begin to think we understand ourselves to have some new truth, some new fountain of knowledge and understanding, what will happen? We will grow highly confident, if not arrogant, in the understanding that emerges from our growth in faith, as we take the epiphany of faith in Christ to be a legitimation of all our Scriptural interpretations and theological understandings. The personal epiphany of Christ slowly grows into an epistemic ideology that increasingly and indiscriminately justifies the blending of old and new in the emerging development of faith. If at conversion one sees, often metaphorically referring to an accurate understanding, then one will grow exceedingly confident in the syncretistic combination between the American culture and Christ, even as this syncretism is overlaid with distinctly Christian language whose meanings are understood as they are significance to the traditional American life.
The solution then, is an epistemic conversion of sorts, of a converting of the converted. However, this conversion is not rooted in simply giving a new confidence of our understanding, but rather obliterating much of the understanding so that we can come to learn afresh about God and His purposes from Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. By helping people to understand that leaning not on our own understanding isn’t code for “all knowledge but your theological or exegetical knowledge,” but that one commits one’s ways of life and even one’s knowledge to the provision of wisdom and guidance from God across the journey of our lives. Rather than the calling being a time where we go from blind to seeing, it is a time where we move from blinders to really blurry lenses, where God’s calling becomes when we living in darkness unexpectedly see a brief flashing of light that shows us the way out of the darkness, but we must pursue and go towards that light without presuming we know exactly what the light is and where it leads. Literally understanding this metaphor, it means that we begin to know God through the face of Jesus Christ, but we can not fully understand Jesus Christ, what He teaches, and the way of life He calls us to through the cross until we follow and obey because we believe and trust He is God’s light.
This epistemic conversion is comparable to falling in love with someone you feel deeply familiar with and yet is at the same time like a stranger , beckoning you to understand and know who they are in a way that is deeper beyond the surface of what one immediately sees and hears in them, but when they continue to be available and makes themselves known to you, you can come to understand who they are that helps us to comprehend what we see and hear, but only by paying attention to and listening to them. It can start off as starling and sudden and unexpected, much as I imagine Boaz felt when Ruth uncovered his feet, but then proceed to a life together in which one comes to share life with and come to know the other (excuse the attempt at humor as an inside joke if you don’t get it).
In the end, I would say that evangelicals need to converted from their conversion, which in the course of time can lead them to cast off all the old things that hinder them from living fully faithfully to God, so that they can become progressively open to the fullness of God, who is testified to in the Scriptures. Evangelicals need to go through what Paul seeks to bring about in the Corinthians, moving them from one mode of faith that largely leaves them reflecting their Greco-Roman culture, to another that leads people to a knowledge based upon love. On the surface, much of what happens may look like a deconversion or deconstruction at times, because such a liminal transition entails abandoning a lot of the false beliefs and dangerous ideas built upon the foundation of the old in order to build more on the foundation of Jesus Christ, but such “apparent deconversions” or “apparent deconstructions” are actually the movement towards a a surer way of coming to know the God testified to in the Scriptures and at work in our lives in a more secure, Trinitarian fashion. This is because going from lost to found isn’t about our epistemic understanding and certainty about God, as if we have securely found the knowledge about God, but about the God who knows us, so that the conversion of the convert may leads people to wander but they are not lost, even if they feel lost, if in their in their wandering they were called by God and seek to follow Jesus to His cross.
After all, didn’t the preacher of Hebrews, who talked about Jesus as the reflect and exact imprint of God and God and His glory and lauded Jesus as the pioneer of faith we follow say that every created thing will be shaken at the voice of God, which certainly includes our minds and its knowledge, so that what remains is what is unshaken? Ironic that my early faith which had been so developed by an evangelical fear of sin influencing my reading of Hebrews is now found to have been shaken by the voice of God in accordance with the way of knowing God through Jesus that the preacher of Hebrews commends.
- To be clear here, I am not criticism capitalism itself in its entirely, as I do think the freedom of commercial exchange is a one of the greatest political developments in human history. This is a criticism directed towards the current form of American capitalism, which has been exported globally. The way capitalism has been culturally understood through the lens of money, and the way capitalism has been enculturated through specific forms of advertising, including most prominent sex, is not healthy nor does it lead to moral ends. However, I have thought about about how theoretically a different about a form capitalism that did not create an inordinate valuing of money and sex, but rather free commercial exchange that is motivated and formed by love, blessing others, and meaningful life work. I am far from having anything concrete in mind, but I do hope that a different sort of capitalism built upon genuine Christian virtue can be thought off and established.