January 16, 2021

iMonk 101: The Tactics of Failure: Why the Culture War Makes Sense to Spiritually Empty Evangelicals

From 2006, this is my diagnosis of why evangelicals are increasingly drawn to the culture war. It’s not, contrary to what the rhetoric wants us to believe, because we have a Jesus shaped mission to the world, caring passionately about the issues Jesus cared about. No, it’s a bit less flattering.

I’m suggesting that spiritually empty, poorly led and poorly taught evangelicals are mistaking the Kingdom of God on earth for the victory of their political and cultural preferences. The Culture War is a poor replacement for the mission of the church as a Jesus shaped community, pointing to the eschatological Kingdom of God.

Read: The Tactics of Failure: Why the Culture War Makes Sense to Spiritually Empty Evangelicals.


  1. Patrick Lynch asks what the alternative is to the culture wars. I believe it is in learning to live in the place we are and loving the people we are with; simple, yet impossible apart from Christ.

    Eugene Peterson, when asked to distill his years of Christian knowledge into a sentence said something along the lines of, “Attend the church nearest you and learn to love the people that are there.”

    Kathleen Norris wrote a book called “Quotidian Mysteries” wherein she explores the mystery of God being revealed in the most repetitive and mundane of everyday duties. Washing the dishes, doing the laundry, feeding the dogs, brushing your teeth; the very things that are prone to seem meaningless and unworthy of our time is where God is active in shaping and changing us into His very likeness.

    Jacques Ellul I believe was the first to say “Think globally and act locally”. We must try to understand as much as we can with the intellect God has given to us, but it is only in the small, face to face encounters, the spirit to spirit washing and drying of dishes that life is given and received. And we seldom will know what was passed on through our own life. God knows. That is enough.

    This may not sound like an answer to the question, but it’s what I feel God is telling me. It is this I am trying to learn to be happy with. I’m prone to grand met-narratives that have me riding into town on a white horse; God’s chosen Lone Ranger who will bring light to the world. But all he’ll let me do is feed the dog, fix a few things that will make my wife happy, and be a father to my children when they need me to be one.


  2. Thanks that perspective, MDS. As a mother of 2 small ones who stays at home, I have had the thought, “Is this all there is to serving God, or is there more?” The thought is an indictment on myself, I know, but it is there nonetheless and I have struggled to find the meaning in the mundane. Just recently I’ve thought in a rhetorical response to that question that these mundane things are where I will find Christ. Serving my children in selflessness is where I will be emptied of myself and filled with him. It MY cost of discipleship in this season and a difficult one to plod into day after day. I will look into that book by Kathleen Norris. It sounds like one that I could learn a few things from. Thanks!

  3. Redeemed,

    Norris just released a new book called “Acedia” that is an extension of the things she writes of in “Quotidian Mysteries”. “Mysteries” is a quick read. I’d recommend it first with “Acedia” as a follow-up.

    Thanks for telling your story.

    God be with you and your children.


  4. That Other Jean says

    MDS: “I believe it is in learning to live in the place we are and loving the people we are with; simple, yet impossible apart from Christ.”

    No. No, it’s not. This, I think, is part of what makes non-Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christians and those who aren’t Christian at all think that those who are are so peculiarly wrong: mindful living, person-to-person connection, and love for others is HUMAN, not exclusively Christian. It is when these ordinary, daily parts of living can be imbued with the love of Christ and the determination to model your life on His that they become transcendent. Of course, modeling Christ is a lot harder to do than to yell at people who disagree with you.

  5. That Other Jean says

    Let me be clear that I agree with MDS on many points of his analysis. The last sentence of my post above is aimed at the “Culture Warriors,” not at him.

  6. MDS, I understand you, it’s just not moving me like I wished it would. Living meditatively is one thing, but it’s not exactly a comprehensive social presentation of the faith.

    I see this whole culture-war thing as a reply to secularity. It at least pretends to be missionally-minded.

    Without dissolving into emergent-church gimmickery, is there a way to reply or behave in culture that is distinctively Christian and not dead-hypocritical?

    The Other Jean – well, then outside from the culture war, what IS exclusively Christian? Ethically and behaviorally, not confessionally, I mean.

  7. That Other Jean says

    Patrick, what’s ethically and behaviorally Christian? Ideally, I’d point to the Sermon on the Mount. Most other religions don’t enjoin believers to love their enemies, be meek, humble, merciful, and makers of peace, and pray for their persecutors. Seen much of that happening lately in the US?

  8. That Other Jean, I guess I’m approaching this thing from the wrong angle. I’m trying to tease out some opinions on what that would look like on a wider-than-individual scale. Christianity hasn’t been much of a force for peace, humility, mercy, or meekness in the eyes of most people – rather, we’re sort of an enclave of theological pride, boasters of our “forgivenness”, culpably aggressive, etc.

    I’m imagining over here that our culture expresses our values moreso than our religious profession. Ergo, what “christian culture” does, could or should validly exist that would express Christian values – such as the ones you’ve outlined? Any? None?

    As iMonks post asserts, American (Evangelical) Christians are culturally identical to the economic, cultural, and ethical concerns of their demographic.

    Christianity, as a religion, has proven itself to be uniquely resistant to unifying people in our country across economic and political boundaries in our country. Why?

    Why are “un-Christian” ethics, existentialist ethics, et. al., more appealing and practicable to so many people? Why do some people find them to be so much more effective than ours?

    Not trying to thread-jack, but these are definitely things that are a barrier for me in accepting the Sermon on the Mt. as the last word in Christian ethics – implicitly, I keep thinking that we’re Supposed to position ourselves decisively in ethical and cultural matters, and as this recent Focus on the Family letter nonsense attests, that isn’t something that Christians can get behind one another on easily. Lots of things stupid things disunite Christians – and we all think we’re trying to follow the Sermon on the Mt. What ELSE is there than unites us?

    From the gay-bashing Christians to the gay-loving Christians – where’s the faith-based harmony we’re supposed to have? What’s the Right attitude?

  9. There is no Right attitude. There is only the whisper of the Holy Spirit speaking to your own heart. If such a view seems alarmingly subjective to some, or hopelessly simplistic and naive to others, that can’t be helped.

  10. Bob, what you said just doesn’t answer any questions. People claim to hear the “whisper of the Holy Spirit” leading them to syncretism or even blasphemy all the time – not to mention, teaching division and probably-corruptive error to others. Do we have the lee-way to obey the ‘Spirit’ if it’s advice is contra to the faith we formerly practiced? In some cases, yes, and in some cases no – but how do we determine which cases constitute heresy?

  11. That Other Jean says

    Patrick, there are so many divisions within the broad framework of Christianity that I don’t think that a “Christian culture” can exist to identify with. Some sub-cultures certainly can be identified, but they seem to be conspicuous in their conservatism, not unity of belief–fundamentalists of various denominations, the Amish, and plain-dressing Quakers, for instance. I don’t hold out hope for a mainstream Christian harmony. Too many groups, each convinced that they alone have the right answers.

    I’m not such an individualist as Bob Brague, though. If being a Christian has to do with following the teachings of Jesus, then there are GUIDELINES for this stuff, besides the “whisper of the Holy Spirit” in one’s own heart. The New Testament is full of them.

    For me at least, the Right Attitude, hard as it is, works out to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

  12. “From the gay-bashing Christians to the gay-loving Christians – where’s the faith-based harmony we’re supposed to have? What’s the Right attitude?”

    I have (and do) work with some people who are homosexuals. And they are my friends, and I’ve gotten to know them (I’m just using this as an example) and one day one of them turns to me and says, out of nowhere, “but, you’re not one of those christians that believes abortion is wrong, and being gay is wrong and all that, right?” and I replied “actually, I am” ….knowing how much pain had already been inflicted on her by other people when she wasn’t even responsible for it(when she was growing up),….the funny thing is, we’re still friends. I was ready to take any sort of rejection because of my answer, even though all I wanted was for her to know what love really was- for her to understand there was something better.
    I do think there is a right attitude, I do not however think that there is some set formula for how things will look.
    The bible says love it patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not rude, is not self-seeking, not easily provoked, keeps no record of wrongs, does not rejoice with falsehood, but rejoices with the truth.
    We all know what these things mean, we know what it is to be patient, know what it is not to boast, etc…..the hard part, really, is living it.
    The thing is we aren’t specifically told what to do in every detail of every scenario- but we are told how to do it. We are told what our response should be made of. If it isn’t made of the stuff love is made of….if it doesn’t look like Christ, it probably isn’t.

  13. oh, one other thing. This also kind of reminds me of Israel. They were meant to be a nation that followed God, and, in that sense – to show the people around them who God was. They usually failed pretty badly….but somehow God still used them. We as a church are called to be God’s people. We are held to a certain standard because we claim to know God, and we are to help hold our brothers and sisters to that standard as well (in humility). But how is it that we expect the world to see things the way we do, and worse yet, to live up to who God wants them to be when they don’t even know who God is, and they look around and see us, and we can’t even seem to get it right?
    Perhaps we need to learn to walk like Jesus first,…..and then they will actually notice something different?

    I have fought with myself long and hard about this, about how to practically show God’s love. But I think what it really comes down to isn’t a matter of confusion (usually)- it isn’t a “I don’t know what to do, or how it should look” when I am honest with myself, it really tends to be that I am afraid of actually doing it,-lets not kid ourselves, most of us know what we should be doing and how we should be acting.
    …and just because others misconstrue things-that was never an excuse to inaction. If you know God, follow only Him.
    I’m sorry. I have no brilliant insight into exactly how it should look.
    I only think we need to go out and learn to see people the way God does.

  14. That Other Jean, that doesn’t bother you? As far as I can tell, it shakes the whole ship to shivers if one denomination declares a corner on the Gospel and does inane things with special revelation that their whole community believes in and defines themselves as Real Christians by – and they’re not your people – and you suddenly realize you can’t locate your own beliefs, predilections, experiences, suppositions, or even personality, within the belief-system you’ve been identifying with. And when it’s EVERY denomination that’s introducing one heavily cultural or syncretized take on the Gospel against each other, no wonder so many kids feel that even the contents of what you confess are arbitrary.

    I’m really good at predicting which people I know are going to come to believe stuff that they haven’t yet been exposed to. You can practically smell a person and know that they’re heading towards some kind of Buddhism-lite or Camus or Calvinism or are ripe to be Born Again. How all that fits in with What Faith Is vs. it’s ethical articulation, I don’t know what to do with – they don’t actually change who they are when they change their beliefs, they just adopt a rationale that they feel represents them better when they explain to others what justifies what they do. So it seems..

    Anyways, from the rafts of Evangelical kids I’ve watched defect from the Culture War to something else, I’m beat by the idea that they don’t ethically change their tune necessarily, they just change their key: they modulate to philosophies that match their personalities. I’m struck by how little difference it makes between Belief and Unbelief, socially, except to the individual. So it must be for me, I guess – in that case, what am I wasting time in the Christian sect I’m in (Catholicism) if there’s one out there with an ethic and a theology that would make it easier for me to find happiness in? And since there’s no Christianity for me to play for socially, just denominations, I might as well choose an easy league.

    They all equally believe that they’re right and Gospel-good, and my beliefs hurt and confuse me, so why shouldn’t I try to believe in a more “sensible” formulation thereof?

    Does God love you less if you join a less-demanding version of His church?

    I know this is really inside-out thinking, but I’m just trying to be honest, not theological. We all have subconscious answers to these questions that keep us where we are, or help us move when we change churches or join or leave the faith.

    No idea what to do with this…

  15. e.hope, once again, I find myself agreeing with you:

    But I think what it really comes down to isn’t a matter of confusion (usually)- it isn’t a “I don’t know what to do, or how it should look” when I am honest with myself, it really tends to be that I am afraid of actually doing it,-lets not kid ourselves, most of us know what we should be doing and how we should be acting.

    One of my neighbors recently committed suicide. Her mother is now living with her son and husband to take care of her son while her husband is overseas working. I have a desire to reach out to the family, suspecting that not many people, if any, in my neighborhood have. And, I want to share hope in Christ in such a dire time in their lives. But I’m afraid. I was thinking earlier that if I really want to show Christ’s love, I have to get over my fear. If I really want to love my neighbor as I want my neighbors to love me, then that means I show up and knock on their door and begin a relationship so I can show Christ’s love because if I were in their shoes and I was in that much pain, that is what I would want a neighbor to do for me. I have to get over myself. I think if I’m just willing, then God can use me. If I’m not willing, he certainly can’t.

    That said, my goal this week is to stop by with some flowers just to introduce myself and let her mother know I’m usually home and available for company and a cup of coffee if ever she’s lonely (especially since this is not HER neighborhood.) I’m sure her mother can use a friend at this time. Pray for me if you all think about it. I could use some courage to be obedient.

  16. So I said all that (in my previous comment) knowing that it applies to how I should follow/reflect Christ on an individual basis. But questions remain about how we are to live and love in the kingdom of man as a church. I found myself nodding my head in response to Patrick Lynch’s questions. I suspect that he, like me, understands by analogy or example to help grasp a concept, not necessarily use it as a “rule”:

    I’m trying to tease out some opinions on what that would look like on a wider-than-individual scale. Patrick Lynch

    Though I can understand much more easily how I should live with “Jesus Shaped Spirituality” as iMonk states, as an individual, it’s much harder for me to understand how Christians collectively should live in the kingdom of man. We have a democratic system that we can participate in on an individual basis as well as collectively.

    While we’ve witnessed the horrible pitfalls the church has wandered into politically, are there any ways we can represent Christ in the sphere? I think of MLK as one way, but then his civil rights movement was on behalf of an oppressed people. Our issues don’t tend to be about that (unless you count the abortion issue, but in that case, none of us actually are part of that oppressed group).

    Not sure if I’m making sense, but like Patrick, I find myself in want of examples to help me grasp these ideas or statements I keep reading.

  17. Patrick, such great questions you have. I’ll have to think on them.

    I have been conversing about Prop 8 with a former co-worker who is not a Christian and lives in CA. He is Jewish by birth only, not in faith. He is so much more loving than most Christians I know in his acceptance of gay people, etc. And it struck me how many times I find that people outside the fold of Christendom are much more loving in the face of sin than we Christians. And I too, wondered why that is so.

    If the church is unique in that it and it alone can dispense grace, why is it that we fail so badly, but those outside the fold seem to show some semblance of it better than we do? (By semblance of grace I mean in some way they may not grasp the reality of sin they way Christ followers should and so find it easier to love, but love nonetheless).

    I don’t have any real answers to that question other than “Real Christians” can be found in every denomination, and in my experience, they are smaller in number than their own denomination. When I run into one, I find that they “smell different” than the rest of us. There’s that “je ne sais quoi” about them and I suspect it’s Jesus.

    That said, I don’t think it’s about the denom you belong to. And as a believer in the doctrines of grace, I can’t believe that God will love you any less, no matter what you do, if you are his — even if you join a “less demanding” church than the one you belong to.

    That said, I would also say that Christ’s yolk is light. And if you’re finding that what you’re being taught is burdensome, maybe it’s time to dig deeper and really question the teaching? That’s not to say that following Christ is easy, or that understanding certain doctrines aren’t hard — following Christ is hard at times and it requires sacrifice, and expanding your mind on thoughts of God is not often easy either (otherwise iMonk might not have an audience except for his wit.) But the life of his followers should produce joy where it almost always isn’t found and that the burden doesn’t have to do with the work of one’s salvation, but overcoming the obstacles we often find we must overcome in trying to respond to his love in obedience to him.

    I’m writing stream of consciousness here, so I don’t claim any “corner on truth”. Just thoughts coming to mind as I walk this journey of faith in Christ.

  18. I still think listening to the whisper of the Holy Spirit has to be involved in the answer, and certainly what you are hearing from any ‘spirit’ has to be tested against what is in the Scriptures because, I’m sorry, but it *is* the written Word of God.

    Patrick, you can argue with your own inclinations and analyze yourself till you’re blue in the face if you like, but we have to walk in the Spirit one step at a time and we have to let the Word be a lamp to our feet. It’s not a searchlight a half mile down the road.

    I know this sounds fuzzy and unworkable and naive as can be, but try it, you might like it. Jesus makes an awfully good leader and guide if you ask Him. And of course That Other Jean is right, our part boils down to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Well, that’s really only half of it. The other half is “Love the Lord your God with all you heart and soul and mind and strength.”

  19. Bob Brague, I understand what you’re saying.

    I try to love my neighbor as I love myself.
    I try to love God.

    I agree with you all that these are important things to try and do better.

    But these suggestions don’t make us Christian in the world. They don’t even make us Jewish. They don’t make us anything in particular at all – and certainly, nobody recognizes that I try to do these things, because I’m not very good at them. I do not improve much with time.

    The Holy Spirit tells some people that others are possessed. The Holy Spirit tells people in some churches to speak in tongues. The Spirit of God destroyed ancient armies, and helped people not “fulfill the lust of the flesh” – and we all know that to liberal Spirit-filled Christians, that means something different than to Catholics and to Pentecostals, etc.

    I’m not saying the Spirit doesn’t help, but Christianity is as fractured as it is WITH people claiming authority from the Spirit, not without it. Good, gentle Christians in every denomination cheerfully agree with each other that the Spirit provides, and then completely disagree about what a transformed life looks like, accepts, believes about God and the church.

    Bob, maybe you can tell me why so many of the people I’ve known who used to say things that began with “I really feel like God is telling me that I should…”, now say dippy things like “Love is all that matters..” – in the SAME SYRUPY VOICE.

    Only now they smoke, drink, and have casual sex.

    I’m jealous.

  20. Redeemed, your comments have been really interesting.

    You wrote, “That said, I would also say that Christ’s yolk is light. And if you’re finding that what you’re being taught is burdensome, maybe it’s time to dig deeper and really question the teaching?…But the life of his followers should produce joy where it almost always isn’t found…”

    The more I question the teachings, the more I run into unabashed good sense in every way, shape, or form. I’ve read more treatises by excellent moralists thanks to Christianity than I could have ever guessed existed, heard sermons, apologetics, religious studies…

    The problem isn’t that I’m hearing things that don’t make sense. The problem is that great, intelligent, passionate, obviously devout people advocate teachings that are mutually exclusive – and they clearly derive meaning, hope and benefit to their character from them. At their best, their beliefs even produce harmonious and caring communities and do good, loving work – “the fruit of the Spirit” if you want to call it that.

    If you weren’t a Christian today, what kind of Christian do you think you’d become?

    Makes Joel Osteen seem a lot more sensible all of the sudden – “empty” Gospel accusations notwithstanding.

  21. as far as what it looks like for the church- as a group, to collectively live out something…..
    ummm… forgive me, I’m sure you all know this, so it may sound repetitive (or just be one of those ‘duh’ statements), but a group is made up of individuals.
    The problem with that being, …we have huge unity issues….which maybe was what all this was pointing at. So i guess to me, it still goes back to the fact that you have to have a group of individuals entirely following Jesus to actually do something together(of the kind you are talking about). which is why I think it is so rare to see a group really making a difference, so often ‘ourselves’ get in the way.

    I wanted to write more, but I seriously have to get to sleep, I work in the morning. : )

  22. That Other Jean says

    Patrick, you asked if it bothered me that Christianity was so fractured into exclusive little groups. It does, but not as much as you’d think, for two reasons: it was always like this, from the earliest days of Christianity; and everybody’s wrong anyway. That is, there has never been complete agreement–even among the Apostles–about what Christianity means; and no denomination or person has a complete picture of Truth. Anybody who claims that they do is just wrong.

    I don’t really have a problem either with the fact that groups of people who hold contrary beliefs can still call themselves Christians and be loving, insightful, useful people. Although no group has a lock on Truth, no group is entirely given over to falsehood, either (Westboro Baptist Church excepted). To my mind, you do the best you can, with prayer, study, and service to others, believe that God knows you’re a fallible human being and loves you anyway, and try not to be afraid.

    It’s easier to be Christian in a group of like-minded believers, and easier to do good if you don’t have to do it alone, which is why I don’t think God would hold it against you for choosing a Church that matches your beliefs better than the one in which you started. I’m pretty sure God doesn’t want you to be a hypocrite, professing a faith you don’t actually hold.

    I suspect that your “I really feel like God is telling me. . .” people who have switched to “Love is all that matters” have been listening to the
    insides of their heads all along. There’s a lot of that around, not just among Christians.

  23. There’s also the little matter of the church being like a body (Paul Somebody said that). The ear is not the eye and the hands are not the feet. It’s a “blind men and the elephant” sort of thing: each part of the elephant or church has its own function and look and feel, and you can’t deduce the function of the whole elephant or the whole church merely by examining only one part to the exclusion of others or insisting that all other parts of it must be just like the part you know and love best or it’s not part of the body.

    Even though I’ve now had my breakfast, I’m still incoherent.

    Patrick, there are a couple of words for those smoking, drinking, casual-sex people who used to say things that began with “I really feel like God is telling me that I should…”:

    fallen from grace
    deceived (then)
    deceived (now)

    Pick one, take two aspirin, and call me in the morning.

  24. Bob….Bob….

    >smoking, drinking, casual-sex.

    Uh….Christians can’t smoke tobacco? Or drink Alcohol in moderation?

    Are we Muslims or Mormons here? 🙂


  25. Of course they can. C. S. Lewis did.

    Wait a minute.

    …or have casual sex?

    Maybe not.

  26. Patrick,

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you wrote: “The problem isn’t that I’m hearing things that don’t make sense. The problem is that great, intelligent, passionate, obviously devout people advocate teachings that are mutually exclusive – and they clearly derive meaning, hope and benefit to their character from them. At their best, their beliefs even produce harmonious and caring communities and do good, loving work – “the fruit of the Spirit” if you want to call it that.”

    Do you mean you see a problem with so many denominations making mutually exclusive teachings, yet some way all those mutually exclusive teachings produce good? And the fact that they all produce some kind of good negates that their teachings are mutually exclusive and so it’s difficult to come to the “real truth”?

    This question really made me pause:
    If you weren’t a Christian today, what kind of Christian do you think you’d become?

    At first I didn’t get what you meant…then I saw I had to take an outside-in look at the church to get at your question. I honestly never thought about it before simply because I was basically born to sit in a pew of some sort, meaning my parents brought me to church as soon as I was birthed.

    I don’t know how to answer that question honestly because I AM a Christian and am satisfied with the system of theology I embrace. I can’t answer that question without this bias. But, I’ll be quick to add (and I’ve learned this from the leadership of my church) is that I don’t have all the answers, neither does my theological “system”. How I came to embrace what I embrace now has been a journey. And, that’s not to say that at some point I’ll change my mind from believing that this system is the best “expression” of the gospel. In holding to this system, I don’t think that those who don’t embrace it aren’t “real” Christians. Just Christians with a different opinion on scripture interpretation. My life experiences have also played into my view of theology.

    What I do think Christendom would benefit from doing is agree on the “fundamentals” of our faith and allow grace to flow for all our differences (not unlike how secularists promote tolerance in diversity). In this way, I think sadly, that the world is sometimes miles ahead of the church in knowing how to love others who are different from us.

    All that to say, I don’t think looking for the “perfect” or “best” denomination is really the best way to go about being a follower of Christ. I think you have to start somewhere, with a bible in hand, and ask that God teach you what he wants you to know. “When you seek me, you will find me if you seek me with all your heart.” And then you compare what you read with what you hear in the pulpit. And the journey begins…and we should never stop learning. Sometimes I think we Christians tend to think that if we arrive at the “right interpretation” of Christ’s teachings that we have arrived as a “real Christian”. But that’s not sanctification. It’s a continual process of growing in Christlikeness until he glorifies us at his coming.

    I know this is confusing and somewhat nebulous, but I have to say that I’m sure somewhere in my beliefs, there are some things that are wrong. The problem is, I can’t tell you what those things are. But I am okay with that. I don’t think I have to have all my i’s dotted and my t’s crossed for me to be a Christian. I know God will still love me in my theological wrongness. Isn’t that why Christ died for me? I just need to understand the basics well and move on from there. What I think the church has done so well is major on the minors to the detriment of the basics.

    With all our differences as denoms in Christendom, I think we all see somethings about Christ that are right, but we can’t see the whole picture of him clearly. So, until we can, we need to show love in our differences and pursue Christ and the knowledge of Him as best we can.

    1 Corinthians 13:11-13 NLT
    11 When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. 12 Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.[a] All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. 13 Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.

  27. Redeemed, you said this:

    “I think you have to start somewhere, with a bible in hand, and ask that God teach you what he wants you to know. “When you seek me, you will find me if you seek me with all your heart.” And then you compare what you read with what you hear in the pulpit.”

    And I wonder if it’s sane to think that Jesus Christ wants some of us to be Catholic and some of us to be Protestant? A world in which we make up our theological minds about unseen and fathomless things based on how they occur to us from the Bible is the world we live in – and it’s a pretty schizophrenic world.

    If you start by saying that we all have wrong beliefs and meaningless beliefs, you save us from having to wonder if we’re sincere – but at the price of not being able to make sense of the beliefs we want to evangelize. All we have is a limited, quite part-time personal experience, maybe nothing more than a flush of emotion, to back up the moral authorizations and exhortations of the faith. Fervor and tender eisegesis tend to replace the confidence of clear, focused moral vision.

    What’s the difference between believing that you’ll never believe in the whole truth with your whole spirit and not believing in truth at all?

  28. What’s the difference between believing that you’ll never believe in the whole truth with your whole spirit and not believing in truth at all?

    I think that’s like asking, “what’s the difference between being short-sighted and blind?” Neither have perfect sight, but the answer is sight nonetheless. Just because I can’t be completely sure which parts of my belief are true in the truest sense of truth doesn’t mean that I don’t have what I need to understand the gospel. And I guess I see the various denominational stances on truth as either 1)true or not true or 2) more or less true than other stances.

    There are things we can know about God from the bible (through exegesis). It’s the nuances I think we’re not so sure about.

  29. As far as I can tell, the people who deny that truth exists aren’t really all that different functionally from the people who claim to have (and evangelize) the Perfect Truth, aka Whatever Theological Formulation They’ve Mastered.

    Is believing in truth really “seeing”? Jesus didn’t even paint us into that corner.

    I tend to think that the nuances, some of which tend to have the most to do with our behavior (the comments on the Adam-and-Eve thread demonstrate this pretty definitively), matter the most – and that’s where we have the least amount of consensus and clarity and sense of mission.

    I keep thinking that it’s the competing claims to truth that force us to throw up our hands and realize that circumstance, and the negative lensing effect that authority imposes on us as disciples, seems to have assign us our teams, and faith is no longer the province of believing in the pervasive significance of one doctrine or another (outside of arguing), but is more about exegeting a few favorable character of God from the Bible to find things to complement him with – and then trying as we can to figure out how to be worthy worshippers of that God. If this observation holds water, it certainly explains why Christians have such poor ethics and such detailed theologies.

    We get our ethics from our communities instead of our beliefs, and our theologies are the stretching out of our insecurities, our intellectual fears of our UN-belief – which is why so many people are willing to go to war, figuratively speaking, over their theological inheritances. We believers have tacitly admitted that we have them and nothing else.

    If believing isn’t like seeing, but is more like belonging, this line of argument makes a decent amount of sense.

  30. Patrick, something in your last post reminded me of the way we played “London Bridge is falling down” as kids. When someone coming through the bridge was “captured,” he or she was taken aside and asked something like “would you rather be a golden apple or a silver pear?” and depending on the answer the person would line up on one side or the other behind the two individuals singing the song. When everybody had been captured, a tug-of-war ensued between all the golden apples and all the silver pears.

    At the end of your antepenultimate paragraph, I envisioned a game of London Bridge and being asked, “would you rather have poor ethics and detailed theologies, or detailed ethics and poor theologies?”

    I’m not sure I can answer that question.

    I must be extremely prophetic, given to visions, in touch with God’s Spirit. Either that or increasingly senile.

    iMonk, HELP!!

  31. Whatever happened to “Now we see through a glass darkly”? This all reminds me of when I was about twenty and stationed in Germany, reading philosophy and every kind of religion, taking acid and wandering in the vineyards, seeking with every ounce of my being to discover “ultimate truth”. Through sheer power of will I forced my mind to stop racing for fear of losing my sanity. Wasn’t this the fate of Nietzsche?

    Who is the one you love most? OK! Now give me the doctrine of that person; the ultimate truth of them in such a way that I can study it and ultimately come to know and love the one you love in the same way you do. It’s an absurd question, is it not? It’s no less absurd to imagine we can do this with God.

    Some here will not like this, but TRUTH is a person, and his name is Jesus the Christ. Theology is not the same as TRUTH. It is a lesser truth, and will never be capable of encapsulating TRUTH. To imagine it can is idolatry. The idea of a final and perfect formulation of truth is no more than a desire to control God. It is a means of avoiding him by becoming God ourselves.

    I once heard the ancient creeds described as formulations that said less about who God was than who he wasn’t. People had come up with a number of ideas about who he was that had to be taken off the table because they limited him and tried to contain his being. As such, the creeds are formulations of negative theology. Negative and apophatic theology attempts to speak of God by describing what cannot be said about him. This is at least one of the reasons the Creeds continue to guide the faithful and why they have endured for so long. What God is not and never was, he will never be. Outside of what he is not remains an infinity of possibility we can explore and contemplate. And so some will love him as a Catholic or this or that kind of protestant. The only sin as I see it, is when we think one of these is exclusive to the others and has the market wrapped up in terms of how God is to be understood and worshipped. If we are able to affirm our faith in accordance with the creeds, we are family and the sons and daughters of the one true Father.


  32. MDS,

    Thank you for saying so clearly what my heart was wanting to express. And, for some sound reasoning behind it. You need to publish that…

  33. Redeemed,

    Instead of publishing, I’m starting a new denominational chain. It will quickly go global with $0.00 down franchising opportunities that balloon about the time the economy picks up again. I am calling this new denomination Mysterionism. The creed of the Mysterion will be “We don’t much, and neither do you!”

    Wanna’ pick up a franchise?

  34. Sorry,

    I left a word from my creedal statement. It should be, “We don’t know much, and neither do you.”

  35. MDS, that’s ultimately just a way of avoiding the argument though. An appeal on behalf of the faith based on the superfluity of any other knowledge is exactly what I’m trying to sidestep.

    My point is, in practice you can’t meaningfully uphold doctrine without appealing to personal experience, and as I’m trying to demonstrate, you can’t verify doctrine WITH experience either.

    Not all insight is of the same quality. Nietzche’s life demonstrates this ironically: he did go insane, but lots and lots of people have found value in his insight anyways, having discarded one or another religious tradition in the process.

    You can’t employ a simple logic to say that they’ve moved from a lesser understanding to a greater one – it has to bear fruit for them. There’s a big difference between insight that people clone themselves after and insight that pervades them.

    I like the doctrine that Truth is a person, but I can’t help but notice that when people describe Truth, it sounds like they’re talking about different people.

    As I mentioned before, I think we exegete the qualities of God that we like and want to worship, and try to strain a communal system of ethics from that. We end up with a huge system of compliments about God, and a watery broth of behavioral recommendations to go on. We try to fortify it with things like special revelation and insist to one another that this intellectual fasting is good for us, but I’m not convinced that participating in systems that work this way is really what it means to be Having Faith.

    I think it’s just a convention of our times, and we’re so submerged in this set of meta-cogitations that weave religion and social life into sense and practice for us – that piety is either intentional and based in suppression or perhipheral and based in ‘Catching the Spirit” or somewhere in the argument between, for instance – that we don’t easily see how little this “faith” actually distinguishes us from the culture. We’re too caught up trying to find the rhythm in this gymnastic faith exercise to believe we can really get some meaning out of it. The appeal of faith as something you just shrug and accept is certainly attractive in an age where there is more abrasive intellectual crosstalk than at any other time in history, because it’s a way to bow out and cut your losses and live. A de-facto theology is still a theology, no matter how un-confident we are with it.

  36. Patrick,
    This is not an attempt to address or answer each of your points. What it will be is an effort to describe why it seems to me that your approach is doomed to failure through the limited lens of my own experience.
    You make the point that we are limited by a multitude of factors that distort our ability to clearly see and articulate truth. I wholeheartedly agree. But then you go on to try and find an imaginary point outside the self where an absolute foundation exists that you can build a theology of God upon in such a way that it will forever be free of challenge and doubt. How is this different from Descartes’ failed project?
    I’m certainly no scholar, but it seems to me that the understanding and thought of the Hebrew authors of scripture did not compartmentalize mind and matter as we do. Mind, body, soul, spirit, God, and creation were seen in a more whole and interconnected way, though fractured as it were by sin of course. They used intellect to the fullest extent, but did not expect of it what we do. It took them to the edge of an alternate and fuller reality, where then another vehicle was required if one was to navigate further. They seemed to be capable of nimbly moving between these realities without losing themselves; kind of like those “Magic Eye” pictures that appear to be an abstract design until one focuses past the picture and a 3-dimensional image materializes. The reality of God is similarly multi-dimensional. We are limited by our physical being, cultural circumstances, genetics, and many other things that leave us incapable of fully accessing reality as God does. Faith gives us a glimpse of the fullness of that reality, but only a glimpse.
    And how do we get to faith? When I was a non-Christian seeker, Christians told me, “Just believe……….” (Fill in the blanks). Each Christian I spoke with seemed to have their individual and-or denominational list of what it was I was to believe to be saved and what-not. But it was obvious to me, and it still is, that to command someone to believe is absolute foolishness. One cannot believe what they do not believe. To say I believe what I do not believe is to become a liar, hypocrite, and charlatan.
    Bonhoeffer argues that belief is secondary to obeying. Christ says, “Follow me.” We are free to choose to follow or not to follow. Faith arises from the experience of following. Certainly, faith of a sort precedes following, or why would we follow. But the kind of faith we desire does not come until we follow Christ, observe him, and try to be obedient to his commands. Then, at some later date when he asks us who we think he is and we reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, we find that we have come into faith, and that it came to us not from any man, but from God alone. Such a faith is a gift and the most profound of mysteries. But for most of us, it will not come before we begin to follow him. We can be very poor followers, for certainly I am one. But follow we must if we desire to know Him and want to see His life begin to be lived out through us.
    Like the blind man said, “I can’t answer all your questions. All I know is that I was blind, and now I see.”

  37. MDS, I’m not so much trying to build a theology outside of error, but find a place to stand among all the theologies, historical and current, preached and implicit, that circumscribe my life. I’m trying to understand where they come from, and how deep they work themselves into the lives of individual people.

    The problem is, the more I try to figure this out, the less theology seems to be able to guide me, and the less sure I am of what belief is.

    The Hebrews you brought up have innumerable cultural advantages over us that individuals could use to locate themselves in the practice of their faith: their theology was also their Law, for one thing. Their faith and ethnicity were coextensive and distinguishing, for another. Their racial story was as much a part of their philosophy as anything – our culture has replaced that with the ideology of objective reality instead. They faced all the same temptations and weaknesses, but the Hebrews weren’t faced with the all-pervading identity crisis that Christianity (and modern-day Judaism!) is today faced with.

    I also wonder how we could possibly have lost what the ancient Jews had in their mystical philosophies if the Spirit was supposed to have been guiding our churches all this time…

  38. Patrick,

    I see you’ve added another response. What I’m adding here is an addition to what I wrote previously, so doesn’t address this.

    I hope I do not appear to take your questions lightly. I honor the honesty of your questions, even if I think they are unanswerable in the way you ask them.

    It may also seem to you that I am saying, after all is said and done, to simply quit thinking and believe. I am not.

    Finally, what separates the faith of which I speak and every other kind of faith? Faith, by definition, is in the final analysis unprovable. What separates a faith that connects one to real reality and one that floats on nothing at all? I cannot answer such a question briefly, but I am convinced there is a difference, that it makes all the difference in the world, and that it is supported by rational analysis, experiential analysis, historical analysis, and on and on. But in the end, it remains faith, and all the analysis in the world will never add up to equal this faith. But what one does find is that all those other realities begin to have a luminosity to them that was not there prior to faith. And through these things faith is strengthened, re-established, and deepened. And when I awaken, I find myself more fully of earth and creation. And once more, faith and life, heaven and earth, cycle into one another.
    The only final proof of the truth of this faith is the life I live. It will never be my clever, or not so clever arguments, but only the truth of my life. If I follow the Christ, His life will be manifest and Truth will be seen, healing will occur, and new life will spring up. Where TRUTH IS, THERE IS LIFE!”


  39. Hmmm…Mysterionism. Tempting, but my denomination might kick me out bc of its mutually exclusive teachings. 😉

  40. Ahhhh well………just more room in heaven for the rest of us then. (I don’t have a winkie face like you do, but I’d add it if I did.)

  41. Patrick,

    You said “I also wonder how we could possibly have lost what the ancient Jews had in their mystical philosophies if the Spirit was supposed to have been guiding our churches all this time…”

    I see the history of faith as that displayed through the stories about the remnant in the Old Testament. It seems this continues to be how God works in our world. When a particular geographic location of the church ceases to need God, the Spirit picks up and moves to another place where he is welcomed. He does not, of course, abandon the church outright, but the power and display of the Spirit is hidden from those who have, in effect, lost their faith. This seems to be what is happening as the West continues to become more secular, while the vitality of African and the Eastern churches appear to be growing.

    So I would say the ancient Jews never had an “IT” or SPIRIT that was lost in a way that is different from us. The SPIRIT was always present. Sometimes it was in evidence throughout the entire Jewish culture, while at other times it was hidden in the remnant.

    Now, does the SPIRIT guide our churches in a manner that leads to ever increasing light and glory? Not in the way you might hope for. He still seems to honor our freedom to choose to go our own way.

    In my opinion, God takes an exceedingly impractical, drawn out, and non-pragmatic course toward establishing his Kingdom on earth. If I were him, I’d do it otherwise. But I have to assume there is wisdom in the way he is working these things out, and this calls for me to learn patience and involves seemingly never-ending lessons in humility. I have to admit, I get tired of it at times.

    You also wrote, “The problem is, the more I try to figure this out, the less theology seems to be able to guide me, and the less sure I am of what belief is.”

    Exactly! My experience of faith is fairly existential. I’ve had several crisis moments (Jonah in the belly of the whale sorts of things) where I’ve reached moments of total loss of faith, only to find Christ with me, holding me, and loving me in spite of my faithlessness. They were all cleansing experiences, for through them I was freed from false beliefs and attachments that had nothing to do with God at all. And more importantly, God was made more real to me than anything else, including myself. And another thing; abstract doctrines, such as grace, became real when I found that God was with me in the very moment that I had abandoned myself to hell. Doctrine gains solidity through the experience of faith. Prior to that, it’s all just intellectual b.s.

    It’s quite marvelous, I find. Through death, comes life. It’s all backwards and upside down. I love it.

    Perhaps you are approaching your own moment of existential crisis. I can’t say. But I’m for you.


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