Tag: Kyle Roberts

The Future of Evangelicalism: A Follow Up

It’s been a little over a week since my post at Patheos on The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism. I appreciate the questions and comments. This week, Patheos added The Future of Progressive Christianity. While the new responses were as varied as last week’s, there is some fascinating synergy here worth watching.

Updates on My Post

First, some reflections on my own piece. Some have suggested that I was arguing that evangelicalism was more fragmented than at any point in the past. I don’t think I ever said that but I can understand the implication.

Let me clarify a few things. First, as a sociologist, my time frame was limited to the past 75 years — the period from the foundation of the National Association of Evangelicals to the present. That is why I referenced Molly Worthen’s history of what I call Industry Evangelicalism — the organizational dynamics that defined what we think of as “evangelical” in the popular realm. As Molly points out, there was significant variability among religious groups in the broad Evangelical umbrella, but there was a “mainstream evangelicalism” (a term often evoked to demonstrate someone is outside that stream). Those focused on defining mainstream are the ones that Putnam and Campbell identified as the source of their “second aftershock” of millennials becoming disillusioned with institutional faith (a pattern David Kinnaman has documented well).

Second, the fragmentation today is taking place in a remarkably different social context than any past fragmentation. This is well documented in the Pew Religious Landscape Report. We have seen a remarkable decline in Cultural Christianity because the social sanctions for not being religious have basically disappeared. Business owners no longer suffer in their local environments for not being members in good standing of the local Presbyterian Church. Furthermore, as a variety of institutional figures have found themselves on the wrong side of social media, abuse claims, or authoritarian personalities, it has coincided with a general anti-institutionalism within the society. In an age of social media, there is a democratization of viewpoints that would not have been present in the past. These changes in the social context, along with others, exacerbate the fragmentation that is present and makes consensus building much more difficult.

Finally, my call for an embrace of big-tent Bebbington definitions isn’t an “anything-goes” invitation. It’s a recognition that even evangelicals who disagree on social issues or come from different generational perspectives are all holding the scripture in high authority. They may not use the scripture in the same way in their positions, but they are trying to ascertain the meaning of the Word of God as best they can. The same can be said of the importance of Jesus Christ as the means to salvation and the desire to spread the Gospel to all who will hear. Their methodology may differ but their commitment is the same. If we can find ways of acknowledging the legitimacy of those commitments, even if we disagree with the interpretations arising from them, we can find some very solid ground for the future.

The Future of Progressive Christianity

When the next phase of the Patheos series came out this week, I was struck by a post by Kyle Roberts. Titled Will Progressive Christians Become More Evangelical?, it explores the same Pew data and makes use of the Putnam and Campbell book. Kyle suggests that as some evangelicals have found their way to mainline churches, the mainlines need to adapt. This raises the possibility for some healthy convergence. As I’ve written before, when you compare regularly attending mainliners and evangelicals, the differences are not as stark as our standard portrayals would assume. And Kyle finds a hopeful synthesis very close to what I was suggesting in my Bebbington paragraph:

We’re are seeing more experiments of faith, which might involve not only ecumenical Christian communities and initiatives, but inter-religious ones as well. And we’ll see more progressive evangelicals and former evangelicals (post-evangelicals)  joining up with mainline Protestants, progressive/liberal Catholics, and people of other faiths (or no particular institutional faith at all) in bringing a little more hope, peace, and gospel to their neighborhoods.  These progressive/post evangelicals are bringing with them a heart for the gospel, a deep respect for the Bible, and a “missionary” (or better: missional) view of the vocation of the Christian.

Today, Zach Hoag wrote a post aligning my fragmentation post with one from University of Washington sociologist Jim Wellman. Jim had argued that progressive Christianity lacks the infrastructure to be able to survive. As Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope documented in Church Refugees, those “done” with Church will find other institutional means of pursuing social justice concerns. Because too many progressive leaders are more likely to be isolates rather than part of broad networks, they run the risk of simply fading from sight over time.

Zach encourages us to explore the “messy middle lane”. He calls us to “rethinking and reforming” our religious institutions.

I think this is absolutely right. We need to find ways that the institutional church is an expression of the Body of Christ, is a place where people find authentic purpose in relationship with God and others (see this by Roger Olson), and is capable of speaking in Kingdom language to a post-Christendom culture.

More on what this might look like in my next post.

Wake Me When the Revolution is Over

[My October contribution to the Respectful Conversation project on science and religion]

When I think about issues of science and religion, which frames this month’s respectful conversation, my thoughts go in two directions. One direction goes to dinner with Francis Collins. The other direction invoves Thomas Kuhn and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

One of the highpoints in my career came in the Spring of 2008 when Francis Collins came to the school where I was. He gave a public talk on Friday night, spent all day Saturday in an undergraduate biology seminar, and then joined a small group of us for dinner conversation that night. I’d  had the joy of sitting across from him at dinner both nights. It wasn’t a long conversation but it was enough to gather a sense of how a man of faith wrestled with his scientific expertise without crisis. He was done with his stint as director of the Human Genome Process and it was before President Obama named him director of the NIH.

Dr. Collins was warm, engaging, sincere, intelligent, funny, and musical (look up the YouTube videos). He was launching BioLogos at the time to explore fruitful conversations between science and religion (he had to give up leadership with the NIH gig came along). I was actually looking forward to another dinner after church on Sunday (he came to our church) but that didn’t happen. He may not remember me, but I think of him as a friend who taught me much about science and about religion.

I never met Thomas Kuhn, but his analysis has been a part of my thinking since graduate school (sociologists like paradigms). A philosopher of science, he outlined the ways in which scientific developments occur. My grad school theory text summarizes his argument in this figure:

The key focus of the process is from “Normal Science” to “Revolution”. Once an establishment understanding has developed, certain patterns are discovered that don’t fit the established theoretical framework. These anomalies are the source of puzzlement and are often thought to be a matter of methodological or theoretical challenge. But soon, there are too many anomalies to explain away. Faith in the prior paradigm begins to weaken and alternative theories better suited to include the so-called anomalies are developed. As the new paradigm begins to be institutionalized, younger generations and selected pioneers begin to articulate the comparative advance the new paradigm brings. Over time, it actually becomes the new Establishment Paradigm which wrestles with anomalies, new models, and so forth.

So when I read the great posts this month by Amos Yong, Kyle Roberts, and Peter Enns, I see them with eyes of Collins and Kuhn.

Peter observes that there are natural conflicts between evolution and evangelicalism. He says there is a high price of “not doing the hard and necessary synthetic work” of reconciling faith and science in adequate ways. That’s what has motivated Peter in his own work as a biblical scholar, even when (maybe especially when) that work means unpacking the anomalies that don’t fit the establishment paradigm. He ends his piece with a call for trust in God in the midst of uncertainty.

Kyle’s piece on seminary education picks up similar themes. He rightly suggests that one of the drivers of the whole “millennials are leaving the church” phenomenon is partially related to an inability to resolve the faith and science issue. His call for an intenal apologetic can be thougth of as the latter part of Kuhn’s crisis stage as a new paradigm begins to emerge.

As I think about this, I recognize that it might have been good to have brought up Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions in the July conversation about Scripture. Because there is not only a revoluton that happens in science but one in religion as well. As we approach and/or embrace postmodernity, we find ourselves having to engage new questions in new ways. The anomalies are many. But many folks still want to hold tightly to the Establishment phase and denounce the anomalies as errors instead of opportunity for new Paradigms. It is a remarkable fact that segments of the evangelical church are using essentially modernist argument to support scriptural postions at exactly the time when many in science (if you ignore the neo-athiests) are asking serious questions about the assumptions of scientism.

Which is the point I think Amos is trying to make. Both the rigid modernist biblical hermeneutic and the supposedly pristine scientific strategy are incomplete. There is a need to find space of supernaturalism within the context of inquiry. It’s an unfinished process and involves seeing through a glass darkly. But as Amos suggests, “those who are led by the Spirit can therefore pursue the life of the mind, even the scientific vocation, and in thei way also bring their own questions, perspectives, and curiosities to their scientific endeavors.”

Which brings me back to dinner with Francis Collins. What we need in the midst of these paradigmatic shifts are people of faithful character who neither duck the hard questions, settling for pat answers, nor abandon their faith because the answer is uncertain. Rather, they press on toward the mark in pursuit of the new Paradigm that brings some measure of reconciliation, at least until the next anomalies come along.