Monday, June 21, 2010

open response...

i really enjoyed reading this latest post over at Hackman's Musings Stop Using Big Words and a related post from 2007 on religious illiteracy. my response was too long for the comments box - so i'm sticking it up here instead...



really interesting couple of posts...

i think this phenomenon of 'no big words' is indeed correctly and perhaps intrinsically linked to the issue of religious illiteracy -- the problem is not simply one of language, but the (limited) theology underpinning it.

i see what you described across this post and the 2007 piece in my own context - in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland - aka PCI...

(background: PCI is an all-island denomination, where the vast majority are north of the border and who make up the biggest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland - which is far more conservative evangelical than the small number of Presbyterians here in the Republic)

i've lived on both sides of the border and what you describe was the very reason I left the denomination. 
the best part of twenty years ago i first became aware of an anti-theology bent from those who had encountered more 'American-style' evangelical Christianity that was becoming popular.

in a congregational student group those who had been introduced to evangelical culture became suspicious of those who were studying theology in university -- to do so meant one couldn't be a 'real Christian'. i think because it meant one was by definition questioning the tenets of faith. there were fearmongering stories of people doing so and 'losing their faith.'

fast forward to today and that notion has gained such widespread currency that it is openly and unashamedly acknowledged that those studying for the PCI ministry avoid studying their divinity degrees in more progressive universities, and those PCI ministerial students entering the theological school at Queen's University in Belfast (where the majority take their degree) do so with the plan to get through the degree with their 'faith intact' and without taking on any of the ideas presented by the more liberal faculty or the theology students not studying for the ministry.
ministerial students typically grade lower than non-ministerial students and they then enter the ministry and preach consistently and almost exclusively on the doctrine of salvation.

however important that may be to Christianity I grew up in this same denomination (south of the border) with sermons delivered by a generation that was more reflective and open to questioning and with a variety of hermeneutics than those in my own generation who now stand in the pulpit. they were sermons on a wide range of themes relevant to religious experience and praxis. but the trend toward the more fundamentalist evangelical has created a kind of infantilism - retreading the same message over and over. there is thus little time given to what maturing in faith requires of us.
ironically i left the denomination because it was both too head-driven in its Calvinism and yet also dumbing down. despite being traditionally conservative, there were and remain exceptions - those who preach with nuance and
questions (criticized for being poetic and woolly) but the trend is that from the pulpit the denomination is becoming more theologically narrow while scrambling to work out how to make the gospel 'relevant' in today's society.

anyways, i say all that not to rant or gripe, but because for me it is the phenomenon you describe not just in one-on-one conversation but happening to an entire denomination. and i can chart it by the decline in conversation at the Sunday evening dinner table in my family - my father still attends but the range of theological ideas being preached has narrowed to the point where once wide ranging meaty discussions we shared about the sermon from the morning have been reduced to frustrated rants about how the sermon was all leading up to the same point that's been made every Sunday this year.

i left the denomination in large part (although by no means exclusively) because it was too easy for me to experience Christianity only as an intellectual exercise (and thus not for me holistic or healthy as a spiritual experience) and ironically any attempt to re-enter it has left me thinking there's no longer enough on offer to intellectually engage with. 

i have often thought it is a rather weak kind of faith that cannot stand up to inquiry - when simply asking questions is reduced to indicating a lack of faith then we are not standing on solid ground at all. rather, it's suggestive of a theology that might crumble. which is why one is then criticized not for the ideas one suggests but the language one uses - because there is little or no substantive comment to be made in response to multiple or alternative perspectives on offer. 

so yep - i perceive 'no big words' is the tip of an iceberg in which a simplistic theology is an end point that crucially is without everyday consequence - there's nothing to be discussed or debated. it's a case of believe this, end of story. it's salvation without impact.
simplistic notions of faith, in avoiding thoughtful reflection, risk never maturing into the wisdom often found on a lifetime's path of 'simple faith'. and while i believe language and vocabulary can be empowering and become a powerful tool to enhancing one's perspective, one doesn't need big words to think.

but it's not the words - big or small, it's the ideas behind them that matters... the phenomenon you see and find troubling, troubles me too - it is small words for a small theology and, i fear, concepts of the divine that are all too reductionist...

a G-D that can't cope with my questions or doubts or wondering, or frankly, gives them much heed, doesn't seem like much of a G-D at all....



  1. "they then enter the ministry and preach consistently and almost exclusively on the doctrine of salvation."

    It is like so many movies, where the build up is exclusively about getting the couple together... and then the credits roll,.... we have made the "salvation" experience so pivotal, that we don't see anything of vital importance after it... we just keep everyone embedding their belief system so they don't lose it or get swayed out of it. I see Hell as the Achilles Heel that is sidelining our religion... but that is another topic.

    "the trend is that from the pulpit the denomination is becoming more theologically narrow while scrambling to work out how to make the gospel 'relevant' in today's society. "

    I see that in so many of our local churches, including my own. We smile and tell them God has an unconditional love for them... but will torture them for eternity with no hope of solace unless they believe these dictums (that tend to contradict themselves)....

    "a G-D that can't cope with my questions or doubts or wondering, or frankly, gives them much heed, doesn't seem like much of a G-D at all...."

    It is interesting to me how frail evangelical christianity makes God out to be.... when I see a father behave the way evangelicals describe God, I think of that Father as failing his child. All the fear and worry. Friends concerned that all of my "reading" is going to take me away from the faith. I had one Christian friend say to me on more than one occasion:
    "I do not believe it is wrong to have questions as long as those questions do not let you stray from your beliefs. "

    Unfortunately, I think that statement describes the intellectual ethos of much of present Christianity. Sometimes I think that if I were not OCD about God, I would bag the whole thing just because my fellow Christians wear me out.

    Thank you for your thoughtful response LB. I will be reading it many times over the coming days, because you wonderfully articulated a lot of what has been stirring around in my thoughts.

  2. you're welcome, Andrew. thanks for sparking the conversation.


    peace be with you,