Thursday, 17 September 2009

Divine flu: a health warning

by Kim Fabricius (originally printed in this month's Reform magazine)

This is an ecclesiastical health warning for “divine flu”. There are two potentially fatal forms of this malady afflicting the church. One is caused by the Tweedledum virus, the other by the Tweedledee virus.

Theo-chemically, the viruses are mirror images of one another, and can only thrive in symbiotic relationship. The technical terms for the related illnesses they cause are “neo-liberalism” and “conservative evangelicalism”. Here is a list of ten symptoms associated with each pathology. Sufferers may not exhibit all of these symptoms, but if you experience some of the symptoms you should immediately seek medical attention.

Neo-Liberalism

Sufferers

• Feel the omission Old Testament readings from Sunday worship is a welcome relief rather than an egregious truncation. They regard the preacher as a reflector on experiences, or a community life-coach, rather than one called to confront the congregation with God’s living word of grace and judgement.

• Tell us the Creeds are old-fashioned, bang on about “relevance” and, with “chronological snobbery” (C. S. Lewis) masking historical ignorance – the idea that the Church Fathers or Reformers believed in a bearded celestial pensioner is risible – instruct us about what modern people can and cannot accept.

• Give Trinity Sunday, the climax of the Christian year, a miss. Or if that is not possible, delight in the crypto-unitarian images – the three lobed-leaves of the shamrock, or the three states of water – of the children’s address, as if the doctrine of the Trinity were a mathematical puzzle rather than a description of God’s very identity.

• Deny the divinity of Christ (while acknowledging him as great guru, right up there with the Buddha), speak of the resurrection as a “spiritual” reality (i.e. as something that happened to the disciples, not to Jesus), and so cannot worship or pray to Jesus; and, consequently, don’t know what to do with Paul.

• Think “Calvin and Barth” is the name of a comic strip, that orthodoxy is dull rather than dangerous, and that John Spong is a “progressive” theologian rather than a recycler of Enlightenment ideas.

• Mistake counselling for the cure of souls, clinical psychology for spirituality, and prefer the nostrums of Myers-Briggs and James Fowler to the wisdom of the Desert Fathers.

• Argue that Jesus’ silence on the subject of homosexuality is germane to the contemporary debate about same-sex relationships, presumably not realising that an argument from silence is a non-argument, i.e. a fallacious argument.

• Believe near-death experiences are relevant to our understanding of what St. John calls “eternal life”.

• Seem reluctant about declaring that “Christ died for our sins”, and shy, even embarrassed, about saying that they are “born-again”, or that they “love the Lord Jesus”.

• Are fans rather than followers of Jesus when it comes to his absolute rejection of violence; for example, they will kill other people if the state tells them to.


Conservative Evangelicalism

Sufferers

• Read the Bible only in the original version – the NIV, of course! – as if there were a neutral and stable position from which this library of a book could be translated, as if translations weren’t themselves interpretations, and as if our interpretations of these interpretations didn’t go all the way down and resist closure – they do.

• Hold tenaciously to the quite unbiblical, relatively newfangled, and deeply problematical doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

• Act like the doctrine of penal substitution is in the Creeds, find nothing at all sub-Christian in the idea that God “punished” Jesus on the cross, and deploy this model of the atonement as the litmus test for distinguishing “real” Christians.

• Argue that the Levitical and Pauline condemnations of homosexuality conclusively settle the contemporary discussion of same-sex relationships, insisting, however, that “while we hate the sin, we love the sinner.” (Gay/Lesbian Christians: “Yeah, right!”)

• Worship with “choruses” that are four lines long, a half-inch deep, and take 20 minutes to sing.

• Punctuate their prayers with the word “just” (“Father, we just pray this, and Father, we just pray that”) with mind-numbing repetition, and assume that the more people you have praying about something, the more likely you are to get a result.

• Despise Richard Dawkins while actually believing in the kind of God he rightly rejects, as if the existence of God were, in principle, demonstrable, as if the proposition “God exists” were a hypothesis to be affirmed or denied, as if God were simply the hugest of individuals.

• Treat the visions in the book of Revelation as if they were the prognostications of a Nostradamus rather than imaginative murals of encouragement for confessing churches and protest against militant empires.

• Believe, sometimes with quite unpleasant schadenfreude, that hell will be full rather than empty – and that they have access to the Inferno’s census.

• Are fans rather than followers of Jesus when it comes to his absolute rejection of violence; for example, they will kill other people if the state tells them to.


I repeat: both forms of divine flu are very serious and potentially terminal. However, if forced to choose, this theo-clinician would say that neo-liberalism rather than conservative evangelicalism is the greater danger to the life of the church itself. Why? Because (to rephrase the American Presbyterian Hugh T. Kerr) it is easier to cool down the feverish than to warm up the undead.

Neo-liberals, the problem is not that you are too critical, but rather not critical enough; and conservative evangelicals, the problem is not that you are too biblical, but not biblical enough. Let the healing begin!

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