Conservative Theology

November 08, 2009

General / Academics vs. Laity


I am often appalled at the way in which many academics treat laity.  Whether it is the way in which academic theologians think about the faithful Bible-believer in the pew who knows only how to read the Bible devotionally or it is the way in which evolutionists think that no other discipline (or especially someone just making use of common sense) might have something to add to biology.

If I've ever treated someone this way, I'm sorry.  It is a bad habit, and it is bred into you in the post-graduate level.  Basically, any thinking like a lay person should be thought of as stupid, and talked down to, rather than addressed seriously.  That is the way nearly every academic professor I've run into has behaved when teaching classes, and so that academic elitism gets transferred to the students by osmosis.

What academics don't realize is that there is a perspective that lay people can offer that is simply unavailable to them in an academic setting.  This isn't to say that lay people are more knowledgeable than the experts.  On the contrary, the perspective that lay people offer is important precisely because they do not know all of the details. 

Think about the view of earth as a fly, a person, an airplane, and a satellite.  Each of them might be looking at the same spot, but each one is seeing very different things.  The satellite will never see the details that a fly does.  However, the satellite may in fact have data, or even a perspective, that would be useful to the fly.

I often challenge evolutionists to try to find something of value in the way in which creationists (not me, but the lay creationists that annoy them so much) are thinking.  They often respond that while they can value the person, there is no way in which they can value such idiotic ideas.  Really?  Nothing?  Can you value the way in which they rest solidly on their faith, even though you might disagree with its content?  Can you value some aspect of the way their worldview works?  I have trouble thinking of any thought pattern which is completely valueless.

But this looking-down-your-nose attitude continues to prevail throughout culture.  And it's not just evolution.  If you hear the way in which theologians talk so condescendingly about people who read the Bible who have no idea of the synoptic problem, but just want to know God better, it is truly disgusting.

The fact is that lay people have, among other things, the following attributes in which academics simply cannot have:

  • A fresh perspective on the issue that is not clouded with the discipline's own history of investigation
  • A view of the discipline only from the perspective of how it interacts with other disciplines
  • A view of the data using alternate rubrics of interpretation and reliability
  • A habit of sorting through the data so as to ignore the unimportant and grasp only the essentails (let me tell you - academics are habitually trained to focus, in a razor-sharp manner - on the unimportant)

Any particular lay person will have additional perspectives which are valuable.  This doesn't mean that academics should abandon their post for a lay-only view of their subject.  But it does mean that people who aren't part of a discipline might have valuable insight that is simply unavailable to the unaided academic community.  If a layperson is incorrect, belittling them is not the answer - but rather a process of both finding out where they are coming from and explaining where you are coming from is the answer.  I've often found that, even when someone is completely wrong, there is a kernel of truth to what they say, and if you find it this kernel will be greatly valuable.

For you lay people, be encouraged.  Just because an academic treats you like mud doesn't mean your ideas are worthless.  It just means that you having gone through the right hazing rituals to be respected by their community.  For you academics - lighten up!  A two-way dialogue is the best way to interact with the lay public, not a one-way lecture.

November 06, 2009

General / Critique: Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith


I have been reading Cox's The Future of Faith.  There seems to be a rash of reinterpreting what Christianity means.  I don't know if there is a direct-causal relationship, or which way the causality goes, but I will say that the rise of "reinterpreting Christianity" seems to match, almost step-for-step, the rise in theistic evolution among evangelicals.  I think that what is happening is that they stem from a common theological sea change - the move from an emphasis on special revelation to an emphasis on general revelation.

Cox describes what he views as the direction that Christianity is headed in as "the age of the spirit".  He says that we have been in the "age of belief", where Christianity was identified by adherence to specific doctrines, and are moving into a period where Christianity will be defined by people who are empowered by the awe they see in the universe, however they define it, to live it out in their lives by doing good.

Cox tried to make a connection to this view of the world to the early days of Christianity, but really it doesn't stack up.  The Bible - the book produced and used by the early Church - makes it clear both that (a) there is doctrine, and (b) that it is important.  It is true that sometimes Christians go overboard with doctrine and forget our calling in the world.  Nevertheless, scripture (and likewise the early Church) makes it clear that doctrine is, in fact, important.  Of course it is wildly popular today to talk about other types of Christianity in the early period (Paul had some interesting things to say about these other types of Christianity himself).  However, this was not mainstream Christianity, nor was it an extension of the apostle's teaching.

The fundamental flaw with the move to general revelation over special revelation is that Christianity is a historical religion.  It's very foundation is the fact that God has indeed done special things throughout history.  God is Himself involved in history.  Christianity cannot be replaced with a sense of awe that invokes a desire to do good.  It is about God doing specific things with specific meanings.

Did God do these things?  If so, then they matter - both their historical reality and their implications.  If not, then we need to not improve Christianity, but rather simply switch religions.

Cox on several occasions tries to convince the reader that the old way of believing is invalid, but his arguments are excessively weak.  He argues against end-times notions on the basis that it doesn't help environmentalism.  He argues against Biblical Christianity on the basis that Catholics and Jews have different Bibles.  He argues against fundamentalism on the basis that people get carried away with it (has he never read any of the liberation theologians he espouses?).

It is true that Christianity is often suffocated by creeds.  But the fix is not to abandon them, but to rather, (a) be more cautious about our own ability to fully rationally understand and articulate the faith, and (b) put them in their right place within Christianity.  Creeds are important, but God calls us to be united.  Cox, like others (see Spong, for instance), call for a "shift" in Christianity, which is actually an abandonment.  What you believe is important, because these are God's acts in history.  If Jesus did in fact come down to be a sacrifice for us all, then what you believe about that event matters. 

The God that Christians worship is a God who has been active in the world from the beginning - not in some nebulous manner - but a real, active, and detectable presence throughout history.  Christians live in continuity with God's message, believing in His works, and trusting Him about what the future will hold.

But that is not the future of faith that Harvey Cox sees.