Orig published: Sunday, February 17, 2008
In early January I wrote a post dealing with the open letter from 138 Muslim scholars, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” to which a group centered at but not restricted to Yale Div School wrote a vapid response entitled “Loving God and Neighbor Together.” The latter was signed by many prominent evangelicals, such as Richard Cizik, president of the Nat’l Association of Evangelicals, John Stott, Jim Wallis and Bill Hybels. It was also criticized by Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and John Piper, the man more Calvinist than Calvin.
Turns out two of the evangelical signatories, Wheaton College’s President Duane Litfin and Provost Stan Jones have removed their names from it, as the Christianity Today Liveblog reports. In the February issue of First Things, Fr. Neuhaus wrote this (p. 60):
A prominent evangelical who declined to sign the letter told me, “I’m telling our guys to wait and see how the Vatican responds. Rome has guys who know this stuff and has been dealing with Muslims for centuries. Our guys don’t know from squat and are jumping on a train run by liberals who have been wrong on just about everything you can name.” Thereby hangs a tale.
Amen to that. If I can put on the Freud hat, it seems to me we evangelicals have an oversized desire to be accepted by the wider world, to be granted a place at the table, to be taken seriously by the so-called chattering classes. (I’m saying that as one who’s in the middle of some of these discussions, not as an annoyed recalcitrant pew-sitter harrumphing at things that don’t square with and affect my purported suburban lifestyle and presumed loyalty to the GOP.) And because of that, we jump on bandwagons. Some of those bandwagons we might should be jumpin’ on; the problem is that we often don’t do the substantive theological reflection to get there (and how can we? our theological tradition is somewhat shallow and fractured compared to the Catholic or Orthodox tradition), and that our motives for doing so are far from pure, even if on a conscious level we think they are.
Maybe this is true of most Christian communions, but we evangelicals have a hard time holding steady. We bump back and forth, here and there, to and fro, doctrinally, socially, liturgically, etc. Here in particular I have in mind evangelism vs. social action. In a recent column entitled “A Hole in our Holism,” Stan Guthrie writes:
Today, it’s great to see how much easier it is to draw crowds by organizing a conference dealing with race, anti-Semitism, abortion, Darfur, homosexual marriage, sex trafficking, AIDS, or environmental stewardship. Loving our neighbor via these issues is right and good. And our newfound activism also can help make the gospel we preach attractive to outsiders. As Jesus said, “[L]et your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
But it seems harder for us to get excited about evangelism. Our holistic mission has a hole in it—not enough evangelism. For instance, while the American population continues growing, our own evangelical numbers barely tread water. […]
Does our heightened social consciousness—from the Left and the Right—actually drain our evangelistic zeal? It shouldn’t, because we are called to do both.
But maybe our preference for social activism reveals a more basic problem: that we don’t really believe our neighbor’s deepest need is to be forgiven by and reconciled to God. We seem to think that if only he or she is fed, or lives in a society brimming with Christian principles, or sees our battles against the world’s many injustices, then we will have discharged our responsibility to Christ.
Evangelical Christianity is at risk of becoming nothing more than a caucus, and it seems that is what we’re often quite deliberately aiming for. We have no tradition to keep us rooted as we consider how to relate all these concerns. That is, we have no deep, robust conception of the Good, and so we have no touchstone by which to evaluate movements, issues, fads and with which to reflect on how best to be involved with that which is worthy of involvement. We think: The Church should support the Good; This Issue is Good; therefore we will support it. Instead, we should think: This is the Christian conception of the Good; This Issue has arisen within culture; let us reflect on it, and consider what we should do.
In short, because we’re so shallow, it seems we borrow our understanding of Good from the culture, instead of having a conception of the Good determined through and through by our Christian faith.