Don’t feed the hermeneutic of suspicion. It feeds on fear. God is not a god of fear but of love. Be wise, listen to those that are wise, be in awe of God but be wary of the holy huddle.
I can imagine the title of this blog post, that question of suspicion, going through the head of people, Christians in fact, who come from my church tradition and background. This happens when they come across teaching or a book, or even a person that does not quite tick the right boxes theologically. I am using the phrase ‘tick the right boxes’ on purpose because I used it in a post earlier where I described the lecture of the systematic theologian Wayne Grudem when he came to London to promote his book, the work of the Christian Institute and galvanise Christians to take part in the political process. In that review I said that Grudem ticked all the “right” boxes, but that I was not sure the boxes where framed correctly.
In this post I want to revisit that image. I also want to soften the ground for my next post which will be about Stanley Hauerwas‘s political theology. I think it is safe to say that people from the Reformed and Evangelical tradition will suspect (and with regards to some of his teaching for good reason) that Stanley is not “sound”, or in other words that he does not tick some of the right boxes. Nevertheless, I think it is important that we listen to some of the things he is saying. After all, even if he isn’t “sound” somethings he says are worth listening to.
Lets start by using some stories. The issue of soundness in teaching takes me back to being at University. At my College, Professors are never granted tenure because if a member of the teaching faculty starts to become heterodox or God forbid heretical there would be no way of getting rid of such a person. They might then lead students astray. There is good sense in keeping the standards of a university high and in line with the church’s teachings. After all, it is a Uni-versity not a Multi-versity. Harvard started out as a Christian College and has, let us say, drifted from its origins. The teachers at Covenant are expected to sign up to a type of doctrinal statement of belief that is based on the Westminster Confession and more recently a further battery of statements. This is also true for some of the senior administrative faculty but not for all staff, because not all staff teach. So it would be possible for a Roman Catholic to work in the grounds department. The implication is clear. The college only wants people who agree with the vision and outlook which is Reformed to teach and lead at the college.
In recent years an applicant for a teaching post was not hired because he said in an interview–and I have this from a good source–that he thought women should be allowed to preach. Just for clarity’s sake, women are allowed to teach at the college. It was in answer to a question asked pointedly by a member of the interview panel that the teacher-to-be volunteered his opinion. Whether there where other reasons why he did not get the job I don’t know, but that the question was asked at all pricked my attention. What frustrated me was that his role at the college would have been to teach English, not Doctrine.
More recently a friend mentioned to me that he heard a senior member of staff from a church very well-known in London and across the UK describe somebody as “sound” because the person in question took a conservative position on three issues. Namely, he was conservative on the gay question, on women’s ordination and took an anti-evolutionary stance, though not necessarily a six-day creationist view on the creation story. So what do the above illustrations have to do with framing and then ticking the right boxes? We like to know that we can trust the person who teaches our children or teaches at our Universities (more so in Church) and so I understand why my college has these rules in place even though it does go against the grain of reason and to some extent the principles of being Reformed and always reforming.
It seems it is inappropriate for an English Professor to teach at a Reformed Christian College because he believes that women should be allowed to preach, yet we are happy with the idea that the Philosophy students read and understand Nietzsche and Heidegger, or that the Psychology students reads Freud and are trained in behaviorist psychology, or indeed are steeped in capitalist assumptions about economics, politics or business practice in other disciplines. I will let the seeming inconsistency slip. [Edit: Please note, it should be clear that I do not view all of the above as a priori ‘anti-Christian’. I believe capitalism to be quite a good thing in fact.]
But as adults, are we willing to be challenged by somebody who questions how we have framed our boxes? Moreover, is our reaction to people who don’t tick the right boxes suspicion? Do we give them the benefit of the doubt and let them speak without worrying about the state of their salvation or their motive before they have spoken? It might be that when they are challenging us they are challenging us in areas where we are blind to our own mistakes. It might even be that we are so fully steeped in an understanding of God, creation and our ecclesiology that Jesus would scarcely recognize us.
Is our practice (perhaps not our teaching, but our praxis) fundamentally based on utilitarian-pragmatism? Is the way we read and understand the Bible and how we view knowledge based on an enlightenment epistemology, rather than spirit filled wisdom? Of course it might be that the way we run our churches is in order. But are we open to the possibility that it is not? Are we willing to listen to someone who does not “tick the right boxes” because he sees our mistakes and therefore cannot but challenge the shaping of those boxes and then by definition cannot participate in fitting into our expectations so that we are ready to hear what he says?
In the current political and theological climate, what counts as “sound” relates to the areas of teaching and doctrine where some of us fear the “world”, or the people outside of our holy huddle, are giving up on timeless truths. Some of us particularly fear this “liberalization” because we have gained a security, a blanket of comfort (though we wouldn’t describe it as such), from strong and often rigid beliefs in the face of the fluidity of morals around us. We may have escaped into the harder line church (or for others the Mosque) to find stability.
It is quite right that where biblical teaching is concerned some things should never, indeed can never change because they concern the character of God. But if we label somebody “sound”, it should be about the fundamentals, the real fundamentals.
I remarked recently to the friend who heard that conversation that it almost feels like we (and by extension, I) are increasingly being defined by what the “world’s” or the “liberal church’s” problem with us is, and not by who we are. So with pride (and I would say misplaced pride) we somehow have to emphatically emphasise that we are anti-gay marriage, anti-woman’s ordination and that evolution should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism. We have internalized this definition and by extension we award and recognize those that stand as bulwarks against the encroaching heretics who would lead the sheep astray. We do this rather than focusing on who the person we are calling “unsound” actually is, and by extension what the person who is “unsound” is actually saying. In a sense, and rather ironically this means that our boxes are being framed by people who we disagree with. Moreover, because we have internalized their definition of us, we are willingly participating in ticking those boxes and expect others to tick them because it makes us feel safe.
I beseech you. Love God, read the Bible and pray. Let the Holy Spirit form your understanding of the all mighty creator and sustainer of reality. Meet wise men and women and talk with them, learn from them. But be open to challenge and don’t feel threatened by people who don’t tick the right boxes. Don’t be afraid. Don’t feed the hermeneutic of suspicion.