I can stand up for hope, faith, love
But while I’m getting over certainty
Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady — U2
With this blog during the past five years, I’ve tried to make the case that Protestant evangelicalism and its close cousins are intellectually problematic exercises in futility.
The available Reformed and fundamentalist views of God, humans, and the Bible never really work out, intellectually or experientially, without constant guess work and endless, tiny adjustments in the particulars of belief.
Unfortunately for me, this line of argument has been just as futile as evangelicalism.
Even when others have understood specific, concrete stories from my own life, they could not understand what brought me to the point of exasperation.
What can’t be explained is the aggregate of thousands of hours in conversations with friends, ministers, and psychologists.
What can’t be explained is the aggregate of thousands of hours of observations and, later, evaluation of those observations, the mulling over and over of words spoken and actions observed.
In other words, I don’t have arguments for or against evangelicalism. I have a life that offers deep and broad reasons why evangelicalism as a way of life does not work and couldn’t possibly.
When I found a church with candles and liturgy, I thought at least I could continue to believe in God and worship what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” which I took to be the Incarnation. That was the best I could do.
These days I see people going back in the same direction I came from, tempting the darker forces of religion to control congregations. But there is no way to bottle or package my experiences and my perspectives and present them concretely as a cautionary tale. Others are trying to bottle and package their experiences and their perspectives, and they carry more certainty than I do, maybe with fewer years, but with more zeal.
For them, “there’s one size for everyone.”
For me, “this particular size works for no one.”
Which is the more limited point of view?
G.K. Chesterton once contrasted the pagan circle with the Christian cross. The circle is closed, he said, with no expansion possible. The cross, however, extends infinitely in four directions, essentially in all directions.
I am sure my opposites would consider my point of view to be the circle, and their point of view to be the cross. Of course, I see it the other way around. The only thing I can say in response is that the liturgy and the candles — and, certainly, the bread and wine — enabled me to imagine the cross extending infinitely into past and future, while its crux remains firmly at “the still point of the turning world.”
The strange thing about the way sovereignty is assumed among Reformed, fundamentalist, and evangelical circles is this: there’s nothing to imagine. Only precision of abstract doctrine, none of the genuine mystery of the Baptized God and His universe as sensed and intuited by poets, novelists, and artists. Perhaps there’s nothing to imagine because the ministers feel certain they have grasped the mind of God.
The imaginations that drove Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien and Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor were Roman Catholic. The imagination that drove T.S. Eliot was Anglo-Catholic. The imagination that drove Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was Russian Orthodox. The biggest imagination that was close to evangelicalism was C.S. Lewis, who was Anglican. Are there any evangelical, fundamentalist, or Reformed authors or poets of their caliber in the last 100 years? Perhaps in parts of Europe, but certainly not in the United States or the United Kingdom. I doubt the Reformed, evangelical, or fundamental crowds would claim John Updike or Garrison Keillor — they’re too liberal.
Elsewhere, others have said that our wills fail because the images in our subconscious minds undercut us. The imagination, as most deeply engrained in our minds, as most symbolically woven together with our beliefs, runs on stores of images. Those images must have a basic goodness to them if our wills are to accomplish what our rational minds say we want to achieve.
The Christian imagination ought to be broad and deep and it should buoy our wills toward good ends. The mindset that focuses on doctrinal precision and steps and methods and curricula and numerical growth in congregations only engages the rational mind. This is a failing mindset. As Chesterton said, “The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”