Saturday, March 8, 2014

Why Modern Americans Don't Think They Need Theologians (When They Actually Do!)

My friend over at Cornerstone Seminary, Mike Wittmer, shared this article over Facebook:

The author talks about how we need professors in our public debates, but they don't seem to play much of a role.  Of course, historically, I would note, this was not always the case.  At the time of the Reformation and in the age of confessionalization, theologians and Humanists were public intellectual par excellence.  Similarly, until relatively recent times, public intellectual (secular as they may be) have played a significant role in public policy debates.  So, what happened?

Here's the problem as I see it. In pre-democratic and pre-consumerist societies, there is always a problem of the distribution of resources.  Who gets power and wealth? There's not enough to go around, and besides, most societies have historically believed that not everyone really deserves the same amount.  Within these circumstances, "thinkers", whether they be theologians, political theorists, philosophers, etc., served a valuable purpose of telling society what the rational basis is of our social organization was and what we can identify as "good." From this, societies could make decisions about social and political organization.  They could also make decisions about ultimate values, the truth about the world and what constitutes salvation, all of which of course has a direct relationship to the values exhibited in the social and political order (yes, the two things do have something to do with one another!).  In performing these tasks, societies and intellectuals in general necessarily had to refer to transcendental categories of value.  Something is good because "God wills it" or at very least, "it's the rational order of the universe" or some such thing. 

And now, in a consumerist, democratic society the problem has been solved in the minds of many people.  We don't need anyone to sit around and think about what the "good" is, we just need to know how to market things and know what's popular. How do power and goods get distributed? By popular opinion in voting, or in what consumers buy in the market place. Everything is just then a response to public opinion, or a matter of marketing to shape public opinion.  We don't need intellectuals to negotiate between desires and distribution anymore.  We don't need to know God's will anymore.  We just need to know what people want.

As we can see, this has had many disastrous effects on public policy.  For example, we are at the moment drowning in federal debt because the public desires 1. Lots of goodies from the federal government.  2. Low taxes.  And whatever you think is better and more fair way to run the federal government (minimal taxes and minimal goodies vs. high taxes and lots of goodies), what the public wants and what politicians have given them are contradictory and actually quite bad for them in the long term.

You can see this in theology and ministry as well. In a wide variety of Christian denominations, theological education is becoming increasingly less important.  Why is this the case?  I think it's important to see how the modern American Church has fallen into the theory of the good proposed by the democratic/consumerist society.

Case-in-point: What was Rob Bell's argument in Love Wins again? Remember, it wasn't that he could for certain prove that Hell is not eternal (he denies he can in the book!).  According to Bell, for a theology to be true, it needs to be something that will get butts in seats. And that's all you need to worry about. So just say whatever takes get them there.  If that means telling them that there's no Hell (or that it isn't permanent at minimum), then by God let's do it! And it never seems to occur to him that God is very real and that he may be deeply annoyed with him for saying things that are untrue. The mega church industry was always about marketing and technique, as almost an end in itself.   And therefore many within the Evangelical community are now rejecting the notion that one even need to bother with a theological education, because all one really needs to know is how to market your church.  So much for theologians!  Bring in the marketing consultants!

Bell's theology is the nadir of mega-churchism and the Arminian theology that underlined it.  It seeks to make true what appeals to the desires of the free will.  But if the will is enslaved by sin (as Scripture and the Reformers taught), then what it wants is not good for it.   From this perspective, what one finds appealing theologically will not be of God.  Instead, we must study the Scriptures and find what God desires, not what the average American desires.  And for that you need Bible scholars and theologians, and a healthy sense of the theological realism, all of which much of contemporary American Protestantism lacks (whether we speak of liberals or conservatives!).  The effects of a program like Bell's are even more disastrous for the institutional Church as debt is for federal government.  Here we are talking about eternal salvation, not just the question of budgetary solvency.


  1. You write, "whether liberals or conservatives." The more I've talked through the years to people assuming they were "conservatives" because they say "I believe the Bible," and heard them reject one Bible doctrine after another (real presence, closed communion, male pastors, etc.) the more I realize they're liberals too, and need to be called what they are - face to face.

  2. Well, yes, you are correct. My main point was that when the Mainline compromises on something like homosexuality, it's also an attempt at appealing to people and responding to popular opinion. I've had ELCA pastors make the argument that since American culture will eventually completely embrace homosexuality, we need to do so as well in order to keep butts in the seats. So, I guess the ancient Christian should have embraced gladiator games, infanticide, and emperor worship to stay relevant as well!!

  3. Jack,

    Nice job. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. C.S. Lewis in the Abolition of Man is key reading here. Also interesting is how technology seems to accelerate all of this.


  4. Another aspect that professors and artists once did for society was to define "beauty" and "good" in a way that elevated values and benefits above everyday concerns. Minimalism in 20th century art did not lead the public to a sense of "beauty" and people have been taught that values are determined by society, and can be changed. As you wrote, the professor is no longer needed in a democratic society where post-modern philosophy is in play—since there is no truth or standard by which to judge except the mirror.