Today’s post is going to be something of a rambling rant dealing with some things I have read this past week in the blogs where I like to hang out and how they land in my life. It’s going to be a bare-knuckle ride to a lot of different places, but if you want to come along I’d love to have you.
If you are at all familiar with the sort of blogs where I hang out regularly, then you have had at least some exposure to the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. For me, the “post-evangelical wilderness” is not some idle theoretical construct created by bloggers with WAY too much time on their hands and nothing better to do with it except sit there all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. For me, the “post-evangelical wilderness” is real life. It’s where I live, and it is where I have lived for the better part of the previous decade.
My wilderness experience has been a convergence of several factors over the previous decade: professional setbacks, social and relational setbacks, coming to terms with certain developmental issues that I have struggled with since very early on and still struggle with to this day, and nagging doubts and questions that have grown up over the years and will not go away no matter how hard I try.
I belong to a megachurch. My church is in the top 10 of Outreach Magazine’s listing of the 100 largest American churches this year. Megachurches don’t get a lot of love on the blogs where I like to hang out, and while my church tries to do things the right way and does lots of things well, many of the criticisms which people on these blogs have for megachurches strike uncomfortably close to home. No doubt this is at least a contributing factor to the doubts and questions that are part of my wilderness experience.
So why not leave? I grew up in the Catholic church, and have several family members about whom I care deeply who would very much like to see me “come home” to Catholicism. I have also been reading Lutheran blogs and listening to Lutheran podcasts lately, and am finding that they present the Gospel in very compelling ways.
But I am not convinced that another move is what I need at this point in my life. First, if I were to jump ship for another church or another Christian tradition, I would simply be trading one set of problems for another. There is no perfect church anywhere on the face of the earth. And I am just the sort of analytically-minded person that, given enough time, I will find the problems in any place I happen to be.
Next, practicing the discipline of stability is counter-cultural in today’s American society. People change cities, jobs, houses, and even spouses with the weather. This carries over into people’s spiritual lives as well, which is really not surprising. People change churches, denominations, and even Christian traditions all the time, for a variety of reasons, some good, others not so good. But what if some people were to decide to stay where they are and work through things where they are?
I am finding that my heroes on this post-evangelical journey are not so much the people like Francis Beckwith or Frank Schaeffer who have an awesome conversion story to tell of how they wandered the wilderness of post-evangelicalism and found a home in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. My heroes are people like Thomas Merton, who sought to learn all he could about monasticism in Eastern religions and then apply it to his own context as a Trappist monk in Kentucky. Or J. I. Packer, an Episcopal bishop and conservative scholar/thinker whose writings won him the respect of evangelicals everywhere. He stayed and sought to work within structures that were already in place to try to achieve the change he wanted to see in his denomination. He sought to work with people, even those whom he must have considered certifiably insane, to win them over with gentleness and respect. He is no longer an Episcopal bishop; I believe they finally excommunicated him a few years back. But he never gave up on his denomination, even as it was throwing itself headlong over the cliff. They had to run him off.
What a witness that would be. In an evangelicalism where the prevailing ethos is to pick up your toys and move on and start all over from scratch if you don’t like what you see where you are, just think how counter-cultural it would be to have people who are committed to staying and working through things where they are.
Finally, the church where I am has been very good to me over the years. It has been pivotal in my spiritual formation through much of my young adulthood. It has kept me relatively sheltered from a lot of the craziness that is contemporary evangelicalism. (Example: Promise Keepers, even in its heyday, barely registered a blip on the radar screen around here.) And it has been willing to keep me around and put up with me for lo these many years. That counts for a lot.
My church is a megachurch, and it certainly has its share of megachurch problems. Too much is determined, at too fundamental a level, by the “felt needs” of those mythical creatures known as “Unchurched Harry and Mary”. Or so I think. But at the end of the day, I must be prepared to admit that my way of seeing things is not all there is. Surely I can trust this community, and others in it, to guide me into spiritual maturity and Christlikeness. If I can’t say that, then I have gone to a very dangerous place and you do not want to go there with me.
Having said all of that, let us jump into the time machine and go back. Way back. Like, several centuries back.
To guide our thinking here, I direct your attention to a post by a regular contributor at internetmonk.com who writes under the handle “Mule Chewing Briars”. This post is entitled “He Who Proceeds From The Father”. It is part of an ongoing series called “Winning The War”, which is a continuation of his earlier series “Losing The War”. In “Losing The War”, he looked at several new realities which contemporary evangelicalism must face in light of recent defeats in the culture war; in “Winning The War”, he looks at what Eastern Orthodoxy has to say when speaking to these realities. In the post in question, Mule Chewing Briars asserts that much of what is sick in Western society and Western Christianity can be traced to a misguided conception of the Holy Spirit and his relation to the Trinity which goes back for several centuries.
Five centuries before the Protestant Reformation there was the Great Schism by which Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy separated from each other. Now, the Great Schism did not happen overnight. It was the final outcome of a long process of estrangement which played out over a window of time large enough to contain the entirety of United States history from Jamestown to present. (Plenty of time for you to get up and go grab a cup of coffee.) This period was filled with political intrigue as the Carolingian kings broke away from the Merovingians, then encouraged the Popes of that time, who were basically their tools, to assert themselves against the power base at Constantinople. There are lots of interesting characters here and the historical aspect of this thing would make for a very interesting study. But it is one which we will not address today.
Instead, we will confine our attention to the theological aspect of things. Here, it all boils down to three simple words.
The Nicene Creed, as rendered in the 1892 Book of Common Prayer, reads as follows. I have bracketed and bolded the added words.
I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible :
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God ; Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father ; By whom all things were made : Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man : And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate ; He suffered and was buried : And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures. And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father : And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead ; Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son]; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified ; Who spake by the Prophets.
And I believe one Catholic and Apostolic Church : I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins : And I look for the Resurrection of the dead : And the Life of the world to come. Amen.
“And the Son”. Those three simple words are all that separates the East from the West.
This is what is known as the Filioque controversy. People MUCH MUCH smarter than yours truly have wrestled this thing to the ground for centuries and have yet to reach anything remotely resembling a resolution. In order to reach a level of understanding of the issues involved that is proper for an intelligent layperson, it is recommended that you at least read the writings on the Trinity by the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine’s De Trinitate. I haven’t done this. I work for a living and I do not have that kind of time on my hands. In light of that, I have nothing to say that will contribute substantively to the Filioque debate, let alone bring it to a resolution. But what I can do is give you my readers a 30,000-foot-high view of the issues involved here, according to such understanding as I have. So put on your thinking caps (you’ll need them) and at least make an attempt to track with me here.
Just prior to the Great Schism, the prevailing view of the Trinity was that the Son proceeds from the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Orthodox still hold this view. They believe that this is the only way to capture both the absolute unity of the Trinity and the absolute diversity of its members the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
But once you introduce the idea that the Holy Spirit proceeds from not just the Father but the Father and the Son, you introduce a whole new wrinkle to your conception of the Trinity, and this wrinkle has some very serious consequences. Now the Trinity is split in two. On the one side you have the Father and the Son together, and on the other side you have the Holy Spirit all by his lonesome. The Father and the Son together have something which the Holy Spirit does not. Once you get to this point, it is not hard to imagine the Holy Spirit being a subordinate to the Father-Son, a sort of divine lackey if you will.
A consequence of this is the disappearance of the Holy Spirit. Much of Western spirituality which has accepted this view of things becomes a search for the missing Spirit. The unity-in-diversity of the Trinity is lost; so first unity asserts itself as the Papacy rises to dizzying heights of power after breaking out of the shadow of Constantinople. Then diversity reasserts itself in the Protestant Reformation and the rising nation-states of that era. And back and forth it goes, where it stops nobody knows.
Another problem here is one of abstraction. Once you have the Holy Spirit proceeding from both the Father and the Son, you really have him proceeding from neither. Instead you have him proceeding from some quality of God-ness (or whatever you care to call it) that the Father and Son share. I have run across this idea in the writings of C. S. Lewis; in attempting to describe the Holy Spirit he likens it to a “spirit” which members of a family or club or clique or faction share which causes them to behave differently together than they do separately. The Father and the Son share a similar “spirit” when together, but this “spirit” is so strong that it becomes another whole Person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit.
Mule Chewing Briars opines that these two problems, the problem of the missing Spirit and the problem of abstraction, are responsible for much that ails Western society. The breaking down of the Trinity to a binary thing (Father-Son vs. Holy Spirit) leads invariably to Western society’s dehumanizing tendency to label people and things and put each and every thing into its precise little place. He goes even further, speculating that it leads ultimately to the division between “the elect” and “the reprobate” which drives the Calvinist way of looking at things which has informed much of Western Christianity. This leads on into a division between the sacred and the secular, or the “churchy” and the “worldly”, which is quite pernicious. He closes out the post with a couple of poignant illustrations: first of an Orthodox priest describing his mission among the Welsh and how it is hampered by the residual traces of Calvinism in that culture which cause people, most of whom frequent the bars, to not even think about church (if you’re a Christian you can’t even think about going to the bar and if you go to the bar you’re not a Christian). The second is from his experience at an anime convention, seeing people whom the larger society regards as misfits, who bear the hurt and distrust resulting from this, but for whom the convention is a safe place and once they get there they blossom. He recalls his prior time as an evangelical and how his first thought in such a situation would have been to pray to God about how he could “reach these people for Jesus” (read: churchify them). In his view, this is a result of our “filioqual” culture and its tendency to dehumanize people by pegging them into groups and labels and reducing them to abstractions.
If I had gone as the crippled, frightened, insecure evangelical I still am in so many ways, I would have been asking God for a way to “reach them”, to “churchify” them. I think this a result of what the Orthodox condemn as a “filioquist culture”, a man-hating culture, one that elevates abstractions and ideals over personhood. A culture that introduces an artificial and abstract distinction into the very core of existence, into the very Triune Unity, will have no problem introducing artificial and abstract distinctions between people to their own despite.
Heresy hurts, people. It is the most savage act you can commit. Genocide is jaywalking by comparison.
So how to bring this whole thing in for a landing?
First of all, read the post by Mule Chewing Briars. You will be provoked; you may find yourself quite offended. The post launches from a very provocative starting point: “We [the Orthodox] don’t need anything the West has to offer.” If you find yourself taking offense at this, scroll down to the comments and you will find yourself in very good company. But at the end of the day, recognize that we who live here in Western society, and American evangelicalism in particular, are not the end-all, be-all of what God is doing in the world. Recognize further, once you have had time to get past the sense of offense, that Western society and Western Christianity have very serious problems, and the Orthodox way of looking at things stands in many instances as a needed corrective.
But at the end of the day, the point is not that we have to become Orthodox. Instead, we can learn from what they have to offer, and apply it to our own context right here where we are. Be like Thomas Merton, who learned all he could about Eastern monasticism and sought to apply it to his own context as a Trappist monk in Kentucky. Be like J. I. Packer, who sought to work within existing structures and win people over with gentleness and respect in order to achieve the change he wanted to see.
So what are some things we can take away from all of this and apply to our own context as Christians in a “filioqual” Western society? For starters, we can learn to see people as truly human. What would it be like to have relationships with your coworkers or the people in your running group, where the idea of “getting them saved” does not even enter into the equation? Where the impetus is nothing more than to enjoy them as people and let them enjoy you as a real person?
Now I know what some of you are thinking. “We can’t possibly do that; that would be conforming ourselves to the world. Being ashamed of the Gospel because we are in need of the world’s approval.” Put those voices out of your minds, people. We as evangelicals have done a splendid job of separating ourselves from the world in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons. Odds are, your friends already know all they need to know about your Christian commitments. At the very least, they already know that your life is different in some form or fashion.
Just for once, try having a relationship with someone outside of the Church where there is no agenda to “get them saved”. Just try to see him/her as a real person, and let him/her see you as a real person. Just try it and see what happens.