In the last year I have started to perceive my evangelical faith becoming a bit threadbare. Not to imply that I am rejecting my faith, per se. Evangelical theology may feel like an itchy sweater made from burlap, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need some sort of clothing. But as I continue to learn about life, faith, God, and history (both of the Church and secular history) I am having difficulty reconciling my experiences and perceptions. In essence, faith in God from an evangelical perspective just doesn’t seem to be doing it for me.
Perhaps, before continuing, I should set out a working definition for “evangelical”. This is difficult in large part because of the denominational diversity in the United States. We can’t really seem to agree on the details of faith, and so we agree to disagree, with some people/ideas being more agreeable than others. However, I was struck by something I found quite profound in a recent Books & Culture article by Andrew T. Le Peau entitled “As Different As We Think”. In this article, Le Peau explores the difference in the thought processes between Protestants (especially evangelicals) and Catholics. According to Le Peau:
“Evangelicals tend to think in either/or terms. If one thing is right, its opposite is wrong. . . . There is a yearning for consistency of faith and practice. Knowing that we have flawed natures, evangelicals warn against error and in prophetic tradition, call God’s people back to his truth and purity.
Catholics, by contrast, are very happy to think in terms of both/and. John Paul II was highly revered by Catholics, yet large majorities of Catholics (particularly in North America) felt perfectly at peace disagreeing with him on birth control, priestly celibacy and stem cell research. (Books & Culture. March/April 2010, pg 33)
Le Peau goes on to introduce the idea of analogical thinking. Basically, evangelicals process faith in terms of propositional statements of faith, while Catholics process in terms of analogies or symbols . . . analogical thinking.
Analogical thinking has a significant appeal to me because I find my faith suffocating under the weight of a world devoid of wonder, mystery, or magic. As an artist, I feel a certain castration of imagination. Is it any wonder that evangelical art is a very mixed bag, primarily focused on getting the statements of “truth” correct, but not so much the art. I submit the controversy over the theology of The Shack.
My life of late has been one of observation and questioning. I believe in God. I believe in the truth of the Gospel. But I do not feel joy and have often felt great swaths of hopelessness. I find myself in varying degrees of disagreement with the firmly held and stated beliefs of some of the Christians I encounter. Such statements are voiced with the stated implication that disagreement is heresy. And perhaps most of all, I find great sadness that this Hope, this Light to the darkness of the world that is supposed to be embodied by the church seems so . . . dim, so . . . weak. I am confused that so often the Gospel seems to be presented with all the force and subtle deception of an advertisement rather than the heartfelt cry of “amazing grace, how sweet, the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see!”
I find it highly interesting that Jesus taught primarily in parables. Parables are metaphoric, symbolic. It is true that there are times when he made statements, but the bulk of his teachings were parables. In contrast we have Paul, the other dominant figure in the development in church traditions. Paul, while not averse to symbols (we have the armor of God, after all), spoke primarily in statements. This is due in large part to the fact that his epistles were often responses to specific questions or situations, but we could also posit that Paul was also operating from a Hellenistic Jewish tradition. Paul was legally a Roman citizen, and Rome was highly steeped in Hellenistic thought. Our world has yet to escape the influence of Greek philosophy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in the Western World it dominates with a certain amount of exclusivity. Eastern thought is largely unexplored in terms of Christian thought, which is interesting since the Jewish religion, the religion Jesus was born into, has as much (if not more) in common with Eastern thought as it does Western. According to Ingrid Shafer in “Harnessing the Power of Love,” both types of thinking were part of the Catholic tradition until the Reformation. If it is true that analogical and dialectical reasoning were united in pre-Reformation Catholicism, then this divide could very well be why evangelicalism has relied so much on logic, on reason, and in the end, on either/or. I sometimes wonder, with the Emerging Church Movement, where we seem to see some battle lines drawn around Reformed Theology, if we are seeing a pendulum swing (in a very unconscious way) toward the analogical. Is the Emerging Church an attempt to recapture and merge the two lines of reason, or is it a response that will just work in opposition, not in complement?
Are Evangelicals wrong and Catholics and Emergents right? They are both right in their own way. I believe that analogical and dialectical thinking are complementary. Is it possible that for all the good of the Reformation in shaking up the abuse of power by certain clerical forces, an unintended consequence was to divide the Church into a manifestation of the left brain/right brain divide? We can’t have one without the other, but so often it seems evangelicals are quick to dismiss Catholics as heathen half-brothers. But in my perceptions of reality, in my attempt to understand God, I may very well think like a Catholic.
I have always believed the Christian faith to be a journey, and while a journey has an implied end, that end doesn’t necessarily come quickly or easily. Every day is a touch with The Divine or The Enemy in varying degrees. The battlefield is in our minds, our interactions with one another, and the very substance of our lives. But I am coming to believe that the moment of faith and confession is one stop on the journey, one that provides a further path, not an end point. Our lives don’t culminate with our conversion, with a statement of faith. Conversion is a calling, Christ calling to us to step out of the boat and trust that we won’t drown. I welcome any who wish to continue reading and conversing with me on the topics I wrestle over. I don’t do this to refute others, or brag, but to come to terms with them. Even the voice in the back of my head is warning me against doing this in the fear that I will say something wrong, make the wrong statement. But this fear stifles. If I listen to this voice, my faith truly will burn out. Questioning may seem to work counter-to developing my faith, but in reality, questioning is like a shot of breath upon ashes, hoping to ignite a spark in nearly dead fire. Please journey with me.