Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Liberal "Evangelicalism"

I think this is a great article, but the problem with the solution is that liberal's don't have a good argument, and so need to paint their opposition in a worse light in order to present their views as a better alternative. It's a lot of rhetoric and poisoning the well, i.e., tons of posturing. And what one needs when one postures so much is its caricatured opponent that is supposedly unthoughtful, arrogant, stubborn, ignorant, etc. Hence, in order to survive, liberal evangelicalism needs its strawmen conservative evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and orthodoxy.

I recently saw it observed by a leading progressive evangelical blogger that there are few progressive evangelical churches. This, I believe, is a crucial point to reflect upon, if we are to understand the dynamics of the progressive evangelical movement and online debates surrounding the movement.

The question that we need to ask ourselves is how the progressive evangelical movement is being formed in the absence of progressive evangelical churches. My suggestion is that, given the lack of progressive evangelical churches, the progressive evangelical movement that is forming online is primarily formed of highly disaffected people from evangelical contexts, people who are often isolated and alienated in their own communities, but who find common identity online. It is formed of many people who are survivors of abusive churches, of discontented people who have a deep personal animus towards churches they have left, of individuals who bear painful relational wounds, and of young people who feel alienated by their evangelical church upbringing. It is a movement dominated by refugees, spiritual migrants, and discontents.

In other words, the progressive evangelical movement is not formed around a positive core of shared beliefs, patterns of discipleship, and a shared life and identity in self-confident and self-defined communities, but around a deeply felt and often visceral reaction against dysfunctional evangelical contexts and the isolation, anger, and sense of betrayal that results from broken relations. It is defined more by its common resistance to evangelicalism than by any concrete and coherent alternative.

When a movement lacks strong and self-defined spiritual formation of its own, but finds its common identity more in a shared rejection of a previous context of formation, a context to which many of its members still feel exposed and vulnerable, it is prone to a number of dangerous tendencies. The loose communities of disaffection that can result lack self-definition, constantly deriving their identity from reacting against evangelicalism in its worst forms. What results is akin to a community fed on medicine – material designed to counteract the toxic varieties of evangelical formation – rather than on solid and edifying food.

People who feel vulnerable and exposed in such a manner who often have a spiritual and personal immune system in hyperdrive. Anything that is perceived to present any sort of external challenge will tend to be viewed as hostile and attacked, which is why criticism can’t easily be handled. These dynamics are poisonous and, more troublingly, contagious and it is difficult to try to have critical engagement with such a community, which can act on pure emotional instinct, like a cornered animal. There is such a fixation upon self-protection from the former abusive context that often no alternative that isn’t the current reaction can seemingly be conceived and the reaction is adhered to with the strongest of resolve.

For such a reactive person practically anything that a perceived opponent says can be a cause for outrage. After a while one begins to realize that many things are objected to by such persons almost purely on account of the person who said them. If someone in their own camp had come out with the same statement, they wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid. This is just one example of what a reactive antagonism likes like in practice.

A Girardian scapegoat mechanism can also easily become integral to the operation of such groups. The movement can find its unity in attacking evangelicalism. However, if evangelicalism were removed from the picture and it had to define itself on its own terms, it would be at risk of breaking up into infighting. When such an antagonism has become a constitutive focus of a community’s identity, the community will feel an almost existential need to present the scapegoated group, irrespective of the actual scale of its faults, in a highly negative light and to keep drawing attention to the antagonism, often in subtle ways.

This does not make for balanced and healthy thinking and theology. The progressive evangelical movement widely operates with conservative evangelicalism as its foil, a foil that is caricatured, typically presented in its worst light and in terms of its most dysfunctional forms, and viewed with the most jaundiced and suspicious of eyes. This leads to a locking of the imagination, and a polarization of parties, as everything starts to become framed in terms of the underlying antagonism.

When such an antagonism is in force (and progressive evangelicals are hardly the only party with such antagonisms – evangelicals have several of their own), it is very difficult for people to think in a balanced fashion. Every theological question will become mediated by the antagonism with evangelicalism, making it difficult to think in an imaginative or non-reactive manner, arriving at positions that are more determined by evidence or theological truth than by the existential need to maintain the antagonism with evangelicalism.

The only way that this will change is when progressive evangelicalism can become self-defined as a movement. This will require robust communities in which people can feel safe and no longer exposed to evangelicalism in abusive, unhealthy, or otherwise objectionable forms. As it starts to define itself as a movement, it will be able to give up its polarizing scapegoating of evangelicalism, replacing an antagonism that sets the terms for the movement with a knowledge of what it itself is within its own bounds. Unfortunately, without such self-definition, as a movement it will be especially prone to herd dynamics.

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