Tuesday, July 15, 2014

But it's such a *pretty* map.

In my opinion, there is no American theologian writing today who is more important than Fred Clark, better known to many as the Slacktivist. He has a gift for finding and explaining the simple truths at the heart of questions that people more commonly politely pretend are complicated.

Clark's formation in the heart of evangelical America means he natively understands its culture, psychology and theology. His insistence that he has every right to stand as proudly as ever as an evangelical Baptist, no matter what the gatekeepers say or do, is a welcome counterpoint to the many de-conversion narratives out there, among Christians and former Christians alike. One happy consequence of this stand is that his readers--well, me, at least, but I don't think I'm alone--never get the sense that he is letting himself off the hook when he critiques that faith community.

There is one post by Clark, "Let Us Reason Together," that I return to over and over again, not only in the context of theology, but in every aspect of life where we are required to assemble facts together in an interpretive framework. Politics, science, family dynamics, self-examination, cooking, putting together Ikea furniture, anything. The experience he turns into a metaphor is the difference between a map--an authoritative source--and direct observation:

So there I was, at the end of what was, undeniably, a dead end street, consulting a map that claimed otherwise. It was something of a Groucho moment: "Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?" I sided with my own two eyes, thus accepting the principle that reason and experience were essential considerations for evaluating the meaning and application of the text.

(Clark links this epiphany to the basic idea of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. I think it's also helpful to link "text" here to the broader understanding, as in semiotics, that text "can exist in any medium and may be verbal, non-verbal, or both." It can even be unconscious, so long as a message is sent and received. But now I'm really digressing.)

I usually say I became a Christian around late 1999, early 2000. It was a fairly classic born-again experience. My heart was strangely warmed, and for once I embraced it, after many years of giving faith in general a serious case of side-eye. Being me, my first reaction was to read all the things. What did other Christians have to say about this being-a-Christian thing?

I soon discovered two main competing "grand narratives" that spoke to my heart. One was the contemporary American evangelical narrative of the fervent individual believer, armed with Scripture and prayer, trusting that God will use these tools to give clear answers to all questions that arise in daily life. The other was the historical Catholic narrative of the Church and its magisterium, stewarding the sacraments and the deposit of faith, offering a safe harbor for all who seek God.

Inconveniently, they were (and are) both wrong. Empirically so, through my own direct observation. The Catholic vision of the Christian life relies crucially on an understanding of natural law that has little relationship to the diversity of behavior found among animals, including humans, in actual nature. (There's a reason that Pius X declared modernism to be full of heresy.) The evangelical vision of the Christian life relies crucially on a willful ignorance of the development of the historical faith and practice of Christians over thousands of years.

It's remarkable, really, how many arguments--not just theological ones, and not just from conservatives--boil down to either "because human nature" or "because we've always done it this way." And how often the ample evidence to the contrary is ignored, rationalized away or flat-out denied.


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