Monday, 18 September 2017

Evangelical Christianity: The Good and the Bad

The austerity doctrine is as bad as the prosperity doctrine.
During our Sunday night service, at a fairly normal (in some ways...) Evangelical Charismatic church, a lady gave a testimony of soul healing. It was a personal breakthrough for her at a difficult time, finding greater emotional wholeness through facing the fears and pain of her past brought up by present difficulties.

For her it involved not just facing and acknowledging the pain, but letting go of it and giving it over to God. In this she found an experience of love and peace, reconciliation with herself and her current circumstances through dealing with the past. It was very moving and beautiful, obviously so real and meaningful to her.

This is the conception of self and healing that is found in Evangelical Christianity. It is an understanding that the totality of who we are is in our depths and understanding the way that our character is formed by the past and our experiences. Also that understanding ourselves and finding freedom and wholeness is a journey of a lifetime and that life can bring us into this if we let it. Whilst I question the full depth of the understanding within this understanding (in a broader sense, not for this lady) it's not far from the truth and in its way very beautiful.

It's interesting to compare the similarities between this conception of self and what I've found in meditation and through my understanding of psychology: Meditation Revisited: A Conception of Self.

However, my favourite bugbear about the way Evangelical Christianity interprets the teachings of Christ follows. It seems to me that this bugbear demonstrates that within its own terms Evangelicism is not a complete mindset. It has internal inconsistencies and therefore within its own terms cannot be a full or correct understanding.

The Bible, even just the New Testament, is huge and if parts are picked skillfully enough can be used to justify almost any point of view.

However, in attempting to understand the message and teachings of scripture (what it actually means, the truth within and behind it), there are still key passages that define the core beliefs and understandings of Christianity.

Which verses you see as key, if you are a believer, will depend on your particular theological background and of course your own character. The ones I'm particularly interested in are two verses, which encapsulate two different ways of seeing "the gospel" (the gospel is the "good news" within Christianity):
1 John 4:7-8 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
Here John explicitly says that anyone who loves knows God.
John 4:6 Jesus told him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.
Along with this scripture go multiple scriptures about salvation coming through confessing and proclaiming the name of Jesus. The Evangelical interpretation of this is that the only route to salvation (to being reconciled to God and able to know God) is by becoming a Christian, knowing the name of Jesus and accepting him as Lord. This appears to directly contradict what John says in 1 John 4:7-8.

The most common attempt I hear at a reconciliation of these two different ways of understanding God is something like:
"The bible contains many apparent contradictions and the truth is in the tension of these contradictions, finding the balance between the two different truths there."
In other words, "we know our understanding contradicts itself and therefore can't be right, but we'll ignore that because we're sure we're right". I'm sorry but that's not how you deal with contradictions in understanding. The right approach is to accept this means your understanding is wrong and incomplete and to search for a deeper understanding. Much as we know that the understood (and tested) rules of quantum mechanics contradict our understood (and tested) rules of relativity and more specifically the operation of gravity. We know this means our understanding is incomplete and we are searching for a deeper understanding that can explain both. This is a matter of intellectual integrity.

The other explanation I hear is that in 1 John 4:7-8 John was only talking about agape love, which is love from God. There are other kinds of love that aren't from God. Aside from the fact that dividing love into different types is a pre-Christian Greek idea, aside from the fact that this isn't how the different words for love are used in Biblical Greek (Bible scholars now think that Phileo and Agape were actually used interchangably in second temple era Biblical Greek), that would effectively render the passage as "God's love is from God". This is tautological and would be an odd and meaningless thing for John to write. It feels to me like an attempt to twist the meaning into something that fits a different understanding and not really an obvious reading of what the writer is trying to say. Plus the obvious understanding is more beautiful, and of course we all know that truth is beauty so the most beautiful understanding must be the true one.

In recent years a new movement with Christianity, called Progressive Christianity, has had a different understanding that allows the apparent contradiction to be reconciled without discarding the truth from either side. I attempt to write about this, and the beauty within it, in my article "God is Doing a New Thing". That article explores in more depth some of the well known scriptures that are problematic for a traditional or Evangelical understanding of salvation.

The topic of soul healing is, I think, in some ways central to the application of Christianity. How do we find wholeness and freedom and how do we bring other people into healing and freedom. Other aspects of Evangelical teachings on the nature of self and soul healing are generally a bit fuzzier, and seem to be an attempt to fit doctrine into a psychological framework and language rather than genuinely deep insight into human nature. This is especially true in the practise and application that I've seen of these ideas. This includes concepts like "the father wound", soul ties, binding and loosing, the discerning of spirits and "curses" or "generational issues", about which more should probably be said.

I explore the topic of soul healing in a couple of other articles:

"There are two paths to understanding, rationality and experiential. Either one alone is insufficient."

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