We Are Still Them: Non-Denominationalism and the Hermeneutics of Silence

By: J. Aaron Simmons – Department of Philosophy – Furman University – aaron.simmons@furman.edu

 I.

I was raised in the American evangelical subculture and have recently been part of several different non-denominational, generally evangelical, (mega)churches in the American South.  As a result of these experiences, I have become increasing concerned about the way in which the rhetoric of invitation and inclusivity, so often found in such churches, can serve to shut down critical conversation and engagement within those churches themselves, and between those churches and the culture at large.  In this essay, I will offer a philosophical consideration of this phenomenon and propose the following thesis: As a result of a history of resistance to the hermeneutics of suspicion, some contemporary non-denominational, generally evangelical, (mega)churches have given in to, what I will term, a hermeneutics of silence that serves to mask a rather traditional, conservative, and decidedly denominational, version of Christianity in a quasi-postmodern rhetoric of openness, welcome, and authenticity.   In short, I contend that internal to a presentational mantra of “unity around the essential beliefs” is a refusal to be open and honest about exactly what it means to be an “essential” belief and how these and not those beliefs came to be adopted as essential within a particular community of believers.  Moreover, and perhaps more troubling, what are defined as “theological essentials” often cover over quite particular social and political positions that are not brought to the surface as such.  Despite defining themselves as welcoming, these communities actually deploy the same exclusivist tendencies of classical denominational organizations, but now—which is really what concerns me—without being self-critically reflective about the role of such exclusion in their ecclesial structures, theological perspectives, and social engagements.

I will begin by discussing the hermeneutics of suspicion and offer what I take to be a plausible account of its role in the emergence of the sort of church about which I am concerned.  Then, I will provide a discussion of the key characteristics of these churches and demonstrate how my conception of the hermeneutics of silence operates within such organizations.  Finally, I will offer a few suggestions as to why this unstated hermeneutic is potentially so dangerous for the continued flourishing of the Christian community in the context of American polity.

Throughout this essay, I will refer to my own experiences in these varied churches.  However, since my intention is not to draw attention to a particular church, but to make a structural point about a hermeneutic tendency found in numerous churches, I will simply refer to all of these experiences as having occurred in “Church X”—which will function as a stand-in name for all of these churches and, hence, will be referenced in the singular.  I want to make clear before proceeding any further that in no way am I indicting megachurches, evangelicalism, Southern Christianity, or any other wide-ranging category of description as such.  Indeed, even describing Church X as a “generally evangelical megachurch” is already mistakenly to focus on the outward characteristics rather than the defining self-narrative with which I am primarily concerned.

Finally, I also want to emphasize that what follows is neither meant to be a sociological study supported with empirical data nor a contribution to the phenomenology of religion in the vein of thinkers like Gerardus van der Leeuw and Mercea Eliade.  Rather, this is simply my attempt, as a professional philosopher and someone who takes seriously the religious heritage that I have received from my grandfather (who was a Pentecostal pastor for over forty years), to make sense of certain experiences that, as I have learned through many conversations with friends, students, and colleagues, do not seem to be unique to me.  What follows is meant to be a suggestive philosophical hypothesis rather than a definitive claim about contemporary ecclesiology.  That said, I am sure that some will dismiss my essay as simply being a matter of “sour grapes” as a result of my unfortunate personal experiences at Church X.  Though I have tried my best to write in a way that would minimize such dismissive readings, this essay is, admittedly, my attempt to work through a philosophical problem that has arisen for me as a result of personal experience.  However, just because this problem arose for me in a very personal manner does not mean that it is simply relevant to those personal contexts—the scope of the possible problem extends as a structural concern far beyond the specifics of Church X.  Additionally, I would hope that those readers who come from within the Christian community, and for whom testimony is an important part of their faith-life, that some latitude will be allowed for my own philosophical testimonial, as it were.  Ultimately, I hope that this essay will stimulate discussion about this under considered issue (at least within philosophy) of the frequently unacknowledged relationship between hermeneutics, church practice, and political existence.

 

II.

Scholars of contemporary thought are likely well familiar with the notion of the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”  This phrase was offered by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur (1970) and is used to describe the loose connections among of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.  What these thinkers display is a general interpretive trajectory that focuses on unmasking or bringing to light the hidden perspectives and deep commitments that often get overlooked in our practice of reading a particular text (whether understood as a book or not).  So, for example, Marx (and Marxists) read and interpret texts through the lens of economic intercourse and social alienation; Nietzsche attempts to discover the genealogical narratives that shaped the moral, theological, and philosophical commitments of his time; and Freud argues that psychoanalysis provides a helpful perspective from which to both consider literature and also relate to one’s own identity and history.  In all of these thinkers we find a deep devotion to the task of critique and questioning as a central dimension of human inquiry.  As Nietzsche once wrote, there are questions and question-marks everywhere.  For the “masters of suspicion,” question-marks are never entirely replaceable with periods.  What the history of Nineteenth and Twentieth century hermeneutics teaches us is that the reception of meaning from particular texts is never as straightforward as it might seem.  We always read and write from particular vantage points and this makes the task of interpretation stand as a constant challenge to all claims to fixed and stable knowledge of the “meaning of a book,” or the “message of an institution,” or the “essential identity of a community.”

In the context of American (especially evangelical) Christianity, this notion of a hermeneutics of suspicion (though not often discussed directly and not frequently recognized as a product of French appropriations of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, occurring in the tradition of post-Heideggerian Continental philosophy) is widely regarded as something to resist.  The logic of this position is fairly straightforward: If texts are not stable and meaning is not clearly accessible as a fixed thing to be grasped by all rational people, then the relation to the Bible is a matter of historical narratives about contextually located communities and not a relation to God’s direct, and infallible, revelation to all of humanity.  Now, I do not mean to suggest that all evangelicals hold such a position on either Biblical infallibility or the hermeneutics of suspicion (indeed, I don’t!), but I do think that it can safely be said that (1) figures such as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are not widely incorporated into the faith-lives of generally evangelical believers, and (2) many evangelicals understand postmodern culture to represent a threat to Biblical authority.[1]  Accordingly, it is important to locate the rejection of the hermeneutics of suspicion within a larger context of the widespread evangelical resistance to “postmodernism.”

Evangelical resistance to postmodernism, though certainly not monolithic, is widely recognized in the literature (both scholarly and popular).[2]  For many evangelicals, rather than being a sophisticated account of hermeneutic humility, “postmodernism” becomes the name for all that is wrong about the increasing secularization of American society.  “Postmodernism” is often said to be to blame for the loss of “absolute truth,” “clear ethical guidelines,” “family values,” and even the expansion of political “corruption.”  For, as the argument often runs, once one abandons Truth (with a capital ‘T’) there is no moral center to one’s life.  Without God, with which postmodernism apparently wants nothing to do (Nietzsche did say that God was “dead” after all, right?), we are simply awash in a sea of uncertainty.  Internal to this framework, it becomes easier to see how Marx (read as the advocate of communism), Nietzsche (read as the proponent of the death of God), and Freud (read as a defender of alternative notions of human sexuality), can, for many evangelicals, become (on superficial readings) examples of how postmodernism is incompatible with Christian Truth and Christian ethics.

I will not, here, attempt further to defend postmodernism against these charges of what could be called an intrinsic atheism.  Elsewhere I, and many others, have demonstrated the value of bringing postmodernism and Christianity into conversation in ways that are productive to both sides and so I will not repeat those arguments here.[3]  Yet, I have provided this general account because I find that it is helpful for framing a possible rationale for why some Christian denominations have come out with public stances against what might be seen as a slide towards the postmodern relativism perceived in the thinkers associated with the hermeneutics of suspicion.

The rejection of postmodernism and any hermeneutic approach seen to be aligned with it is, for many evangelicals, apparently made from a position of epistemic clarity that is guided by correct interpretations of the “message” of God as revealed in the Bible.  Since the “masters of suspicion” challenge such notions of hermeneutic transparency, defending Biblical Truth, at least for some, appears to require a rejection of postmodernism and the hermeneutics that is seen to accompany it.[4]

 

III.

As just one example of the how this sort of rejection might proceed, consider the following.  The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ELRC) (which is the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention) states its “vision” as follows: “An American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority.”[5]  One might read this as allowing for a complicated task of hermeneutic nuance relative to what such “values” might entail, what “rooted in” actually signifies, and what constitutes “biblical authority.”  But, a further exploration of their website makes quite clear that a pro-life (though still pro-capital punishment) and pro-marriage (read as anti-gay-marriage) stance is posited as essential to such a value-theory.  Given such content, it becomes clear that the vision statement is meant to stand as a contrast to what is perceived as the free-floating winds of relativistic whim that are viewed as so prominent in postmodern thought and secular society.  To remove any ambiguity on this point, consider Barrett Duke’s 2005 essay “The Christian Doctrine of Religious Liberty” which is available on the ELRC website.  Therein Duke claims: “As the church seeks to speak to . . . new and old threats to religious liberty, she must also contend with a postmodern mind-set among Western intellectual elites that no longer believes in absolute moral truth.”[6]

Now, I grant that if one views postmodernism, and the hermeneutics that attends to it, as something to be overcome (due to its perceived threat to the central tenets and practices of Christianity), then it is entirely sensible for many churches and Christian organizations to attempt to articulate a vision of church practice and civil society that avoids such a slide to moral nihilism.  With that said, though I disagree with the way in which the ELRC goes about constructing such a project (and the ELRC’s position on many important issues), I understand their attempt to stand against something that is seen as threatening to the key values that these Christians affirm.  In light of the postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion, religious groups such as the ELRC conceive of themselves as taking a stand for objective values and absolute truth by operating according to what we might term a Biblical hermeneutics of revealed Truth.  Sure, we still have to interpret things, this hermeneutic approach would say, but this process occurs within a relationship to a God who ensures that the Bible will not be misunderstood by those who genuinely seek to understand it and live according to its precepts.  Stated otherwise, this hermeneutics guarantees both correct interpretation and also correct application.  This hermeneutics is not one that attends to the contingency that accompanies embodied, historical existence, but rather one motivated by theological absolutism. Hence, the Truth claims of Christianity regarding both theology and ethics are clear and non-negotiable.  Since God’s word is “clear,” “strong,” and “precise,” as one evangelical scholar says, the Christian community can recognize a settled and definitive meaning of the Bible.[7]

Importantly, when one group affirms a particular set of beliefs/values as “absolute,” “non-negotiable,” and “essential” to participation (or, better, “membership”) within its community of discourse, it is reasonable to assume that this group will begin to view itself over and against an “other” that it names and rejects.  So, “postmodernists,” or “secular humanists,” or “atheists,” or “liberals,” are those who are defined as “not-like-us-Christians.”  “They” are the ones who we need to guard our children against and so we send our kids to Christian schools.  “They” are the people who threaten our “Christian way of life” (which is often equated to the “American way of life”) and so we need to take stands not only in our churches, but also in our public square.[8]  “They” are the ones that we need to defeat in both the prayer closet and also the voting booth.  Whether or not this us/them dichotomy is something that is problematic in and of itself is beyond my concern here.  It is plausible, though, that it has allowed much of the American polity to perceive (evangelical) Christianity as something that is primarily “against something” rather than “for something.”

For example, consider Philip Yancey’s account of his experience of asking strangers what they thought of when they heard the word ‘evangelical.’  Yancey explains that “often in response I would hear the word against: Evangelicals are against abortion, against pornography, against gay rights” (2005, xi-xii).  Further, he details that “for many people I talked to, evangelicals were a force to fear, a gang of moralists attempting to impose their will on a pluralistic society” (Ibid.).  It seems that suspicion and polarization invite similar responses in return.  As an extreme demonstration of this response, a poll conducted by George Barna in December 2003 “noted that Americans generally disliked evangelicals more than any other social sector, except for prostitutes, whom they edged out by only a slight margin” (Zoba 2005, 2-3).  Given that many view evangelicals as those who are “against abortion” and “against gay-marriage,” rather than primarily being “for the needy and downtrodden,” or “for the poor and marginalized” say,[9] one might conclude that such Christian communities are largely interested in one’s being a member only if you are willing to become part of the “us” by splitting with “them.”

As such, such communities are intrinsically and self-consciously exclusive in their narrative of self-definition, which need not to have any link to social marginalization and group polarization.[10]  Who Southern Baptists or the Assemblies of God are as particular communities of discourse, for example, is largely defined by affirmations of particular core/non-negotiable/absolute truths that, though as a totality are likely unique to the specific community’s affirmation, do oftentimes overlap at certain spots and, thereby, allow for a Baptist to continue to recognize those in the Assemblies of God, say, as still belonging to the larger “Christian” community.[11]  The self-narrative of such denominational communities, then, is essentially exclusive—though allowing for the continuing possibility of Christian fellowship with others beyond their own denominational contexts.[12]  Now, it is crucial not to confuse exclusivist social practices with exclusive truth claims (i.e., Y and non-Y cannot both be true in the same way and the same respect at the same time).  Delimiting the bounds of community membership is not an epistemological and metaphysical issue, but is instead an ecclesial and political one.  Put simply, for better or worse, constructing a common opponent is an extremely effective way of articulating a communal identity.[13]

In the context of perceived exclusion, however, many (like the founders of Church X) have become frustrated with the arrogance that often accompanies the theological and social prerequisites that frequently characterize denominational membership and so have moved, in ever increasing numbers, towards a non-denominational identity that avoids getting bogged down in the muck of divisive rhetoric and us/them dualisms.[14]  Such individuals might variously claim that denominations divide the body of Christ by confusing “inessential” articles of the faith with “essential” tenants of Christianity.  Moreover, there is a frustration among those affiliated with Church X that too many Christian leaders have allowed themselves to buy into their own hype of Christian perfectionism and achieved holiness.  Rejecting the “masks” that many Christian communities require us to wear—namely, we put on the face of having it all figured out—the impetus behind Church X is to establish a place where everyone can “come as you are” and be “authentic.”  Claiming that we need churches that allow “messy people” to admit that they are still “in process” instead of churches that expect us to be already completed as Christian saints, Church X reaches out to those who have grown tired of the us/them dichotomies in classical denominations.  Can’t we just get past the us/them rhetoric and see everyone as constantly in need of God’s grace and mercy?  Isn’t it time that we move beyond the way that we have “done church” and begin to actually move away from institutions and towards authentic relationships between people who have all failed, and continue to struggle, in one way or another?  Such questions guide the identity of Church X.

 

IV.

With this possible historical narrative in place, I want to suggest that it is plausible that the emerging prominence of nondenominational (generally) evangelical megachurches over the past couple decades has owed much to the desire of individuals to try and get back to doing church in such a way as to focus on the “essentials” and move past the “inessentials” that serve to “divide the Christian community” and lead to “personal guilt rather than emotional and spiritual upbuilding.”[15]  In such communities, however, some issues continue to be affirmed as essential— such as the uniqueness of Christ and the necessity of repentance and faith—while other issues—for example those surrounding a particular version of eschatology, specific manifestations of certain types of pneumatology, and the role of myth and narrative in Scripture—are labeled “inessential.”  Similarly, one of the key areas that these churches tend to shy away from is politics.  Now, as someone who is firmly against a confusion of church and state and who gets squeamish at any references to “the Christian position” on this or that issue, I applaud the seeming resistance to the confusion of ecclesial community and national citizenship.[16]  Since politics is divisive, many of these sorts of organizations just choose not to allow it to be part of their shared ecclesial life.  We will see why this, albeit well-intentioned, strategy turns out to be so problematic in what follows.

Now, I want to make clear that I am not saying that all megachurches have followed such a strategy.  Some of the most prominent of these congregations—Willowcreek (Bill Hybels) and Saddleback (Rick Warren), for example—have been sites of social and political engagement around diverse issues such as global poverty, health care, environmental degradation, and climate change.  In light of such progressively activist churches, I want, again, to emphasize that my argument is not meant to be applicable to every church that falls into this general category of a non-denominational, generally evangelical, megachurch.  Instead, my point is to identify what I consider a general trend that needs recognized and named in order for the complicated issues surrounding environmental involvement to be considered in their cultural, political, and epistemological, contexts.

In the attempt to overcome the guilt and accusation commonly affiliated with Christian churches, many congregations attempt to be extremely welcoming.  At Church X, for example, the phrase from John Burke (2007)—“No perfect people allowed”—is often used as a descriptor of the sort of place it wants to be.[17]  The goal of deploying such a phrase is, as Burke’s subtitle makes clear, to create a “come-as-you-are culture in the church.”  Hence, the primary frame in which Church X operates is one that attempts to be welcoming to “messy people.”  These messy people (which, following from the “no perfect people” mantra, includes all of the congregants) are then invited to participate in a life of “authenticity” with both God and others.  Openness and authenticity, then, are two central characteristics with which the notion of “unity in the essentials” is often deployed.

So, broadly construed, we might say that the sorts of churches with which I am concerned here exhibit the following (loose) characteristics—all of the following are meant as broadly necessary conditions and not narrowly sufficient ones:

(1)   Resistance to denominational definitions.  This leads to self-identifying not as “Baptists” or “Methodists,” and often not even as “Evangelicals,” but instead as “Bible-believing Christians” (or some other similar description).

(2)   Focus on the “essentials” of the faith and an unwillingess to get involved in conversations dealing with “inessential” issues (these can be both theological and social).

(3)   Frustration with the calcification of much of American Christianity.  This is made manifest in a refusal to traffic in what we might term a “theology of guilt” that has been frequently characteristic of American evangelicalism for much of the twentieth century.

(4)   Very public deployment of welcoming rhetoric and invitational style.  In other words, all are invited to, as Church X says, “do life together.”

When positioned as a response to the arrogance and inauthenticity of traditional denominational evangelicalism, these churches seem to be providing an important step forward regarding the way that we view Christian community.  We can agree on the big stuff and let the other stuff (namely, that stuff that frequently serves to demarcate one denomination from another) slide.  But, before we too quickly applaud the move towards unity regarding essentials and silence regarding inessentials as a promising way of reconceiving Christian ecclesial practice, we should again return to the question of hermeneutics.

 

V.

In its resistance to the arrogance and lack of authenticity that can so easily characterize the Biblical hermeneutics of revealed Truth, does Church X actually slide toward a version of the hermeneutics of suspicion?  It might seem so, given the fact that “messy people” are all going to approach things differently and in an effort to not really enact a guiding principle such as “no perfect people allowed,” we would have to admit of our own lack of perfection relative to our interpretive strategies.  But, given the firm commitment to “essentials,” perhaps the hermeneutics of suspicion is still too slippery?  Maybe we need to now qualify it as a hermeneutics of suspicion guided by God’s grace or something similar?[18]  This all sounds sensible, right?

Rather than recognizing the epistemic and ethical humility that is, I believe, entailed by a focus on imperfection and messy narratives, Church X instead operates according to what I will call a hermeneutics of silenceBy “hermeneutics of silence” I mean to indicate a general way of interpreting texts and one’s communal identity that simply refuses to ask questions regarding the interpretation of texts and communal identity.  This is not a problem if you have a clear criteriological statement that guides such omission.  For example, consider how this might work regarding social ethics: The Southern Baptist Convention’s pro-life stance makes it reasonable to conclude that at least part of being a Southern Baptist means dealing with this stance as the “official” position of one’s community.  Southern Baptist communities are not refusing to have a conversation about a specific issue because of the issue itself (namely, not talking about abortion because abortion is divisive in the cultural and political context), but instead they have located themselves in a particular place regarding that issue and then are quite willing to have conversations beginning from those assumptions.  So, it is quite plausible for a member of a Southern Baptist church personally to hold a pro-choice view, say, but in so doing, she would understand the tension between her view and the views of the community to which she belongs.  Yet, it is clear that a conversation between this person and her church could occur (at least structurally, regardless of the likelihood in practice) in a way that allows both interlocutors to understand each other and clearly identify the points at issue between them in light of other shared commitments.  Ironically, what was perceived as the very divisiveness of the us/them dichotomy that characterizes some denominationalism is precisely what might allow for real questions to occur within specific frames.

Alternatively, when a “come-as-you-are church” meets someone who begins to question exactly what it means to “come as you are” or wonders who it is that is included in the “you” in this statement, then things begin to break down.  Surely the real point of such a claim is “come as you are and be transformed,” but when you inquire into exactly what such transformation entails and whether it is required to be a Christian and whether it is only a theological development or also includes ethical and political transitions, etc. the invitation to “come” seems to get quickly rescinded because of the underlying worry about divisiveness that is woven into the communal identity.  Because of the refusal to engage in discussions that “divide,” such questions can be perceived as themselves corrosive to the identity of the church.  This has definitely been the case at Church X.  For example, recently I attempted to teach a small group at Church X on “Christianity and Social Justice in a Postmodern World.”  My reading list included such names as Tony Campolo, Randall Balmer, Brian McLaren, Ron Sider, Anne Lamont, and a few others.  As proposed, the small group was going to cover the following issues: evangelical political history, the relation between church and state, race, gender, sexuality, the environment, economics and poverty, and all within the context of postmodern culture.  Given the characteristics of Church X outlined above and labeled as (1-4), I was quite surprised when I was told by several members of the pastoral staff that they would have to “approve” my reading materials.

My first response was that this seemed like a sensible request of all small group leaders just so there was some general oversight on behalf of the church leadership.  However, I quickly learned that this was not really what was going on.  Instead, after a long conversation with one of the pastors, I discovered that the real issue was a concern that my discussion of these topics was “straying from the message of Christianity and Church X.”  When I then demonstrated that all of the people I was going to be reading with the small group were themselves identified with evangelical Christianity and nothing in the syllabus conflicted with any of the statements of doctrine or practice affirmed by Church X, I was informed that the problem was in my attempt to raise questions regarding how Christianity stood in relation to social issues themselves.  After asking for some clarification, I was told that Church X was a pro-life, pro-family, and pro-marriage community and that my reading list was seemingly in conflict with these positions.  In response, I pointed out that these three “pro” statements were not part of any of the communal belief statements of Church X.  Nonetheless, I explained that it was my own concern for these notions that motivated my engagement with such issues as educational achievement gaps, economic inequalities, environmental justice, and health-care.  I also noted that there was substantial ambiguity built into such “pro” phrases.

For example, I explained that being pro-life seems also to mean that we are opposed to the death penalty and that being pro-family might include a recognition that getting orphans out of governmental institutions and into a context of long-term committed partners (whether they are married or not, and whether they are heterosexual or not) is a good idea.  Moreover, all of the homosexual individuals who are lined up to get married in those few states where same-sex marriage is legal would also likely define themselves as “pro-marriage.”  Additionally, if pro-life is really just a claim about being against abortion, I suggested, then shouldn’t those who are pro-life be working against some of the likely causes of abortion such as poverty, hopelessness, and the lack of education.  I tried to point out that all of the commitments that were articulated as key components of Church X’s self-identity are things that are not clear cut, but actually invite a sustained conversation about what it means to say that we are “pro-life,” “pro-marriage,” and “pro-family.”

The final response was simply that I was sliding away from the “message” of the Bible.  I then asked the minister with whom I was speaking whether he took the Bible to be clear about how social issues are meant to be addressed and his answer was an uncompromising “yes.”  I then commented that apparently a very specific view of biblical hermeneutics (also not explicitly recognized in our communal statements) was somehow being included in the “essentials.”  Now, though I substantively disagree with the pastor, in no way do I mean to say that the position held by this pastor of Church X is necessarily irrational, unthoughtful, or even wrong.  Rather, my concern is, again, one of hermeneutics.

Internal to the self-narrative of the ELRC and the Southern Baptist Convention (a narrative that is made public in repeated writings, speeches, and press releases), the perspective of the pastor of Church X could be deployed as a coherent and consistent position.  Conversation, then, could always occur between this position and the position represented by another organization, but then a certain conception of the us/them dichotomy is, again, what allows for such conversation to be open and honest.  Both interlocutors would begin by making clear what assumptions are normatively operative in their discourse and also what premises they affirm as true—dialogical honesty would expect nothing less.  Indeed, only then could there really be argumentative engagement such that both sides understand the stakes of the engagement itself.  Here is where the question of social practice runs into a question of epistemology.  Without a discursive context in which our positions are clearly stated, it becomes incredibly difficult to know what it means to actually hold a position at all.  That is, we must be able to distinguish claiming that “p” instead of claiming that “q.”  As any freshman logic student knows, when you operate with hidden premises or allow ambiguity to creep into your claims then it is extremely difficult to make progress towards one’s goals for inquiry.

In a “come as you are church” that is welcoming of all types of people with different stories and where we encourage people to throw away the “masks” of inauthenticity and  enter real relationship with God and others, it is problematic then to build-in criteria for inclusion without ever making explicit that these criteria are operative.  In the case of Church X, I have repeatedly found that discursive (and logical) ambiguity enters precisely because the stated “essential beliefs” around which there must be unity are supplemented by a whole host of unstated “essentials” that operate under the cloak of silence.[19]  This silence is, ironically, necessary because these are often the same things that caused so much division in the denominational contexts against which Church X attempts to define itself .  The move of labeling some things as essential and some things as inessential (which is not itself always problematic—C.S. Lewis’s notion of “mere Christianity” is an example of a productive attempt to say that our communal narrative is one that does require certain propositions and without these things in place then our community is not able to locate itself as such) ultimately serves to reinscribe an us/them dichotomy, only this time it is done without explicit recognition—notice the straightforward problem with saying that “we” distinguish ourselves from “them” because “we” don’t use “us/them” dichotomies!  Crucially, my worry about the hermeneutics of silence is not an objection to the claim that some things are essential and some things are not (that seems trivially true for any community), but instead is directed at the fact that much of what is labeled as “inessential” and is, thereby, placed off the table of discussion, is actually smuggled back into our very understandings of “essentiality” itself.

In the context of a church where the doctrinal and social stances are robustly articulated, the hermeneutics might very well be absolutist and frustrating to those who disagree with such stances, but engagement is still possible at the level of whether a person can and should affirm those things that are part of the community’s identity.  In the case of Church X, the fact that the “essential beliefs” around which we must be unified actually includes things like specific positions on social issues and very particular notions of theological doctrines that are never included in the declarations of the “essentials,” simply eliminates the possibility of conversation from ever really getting started.

Let me provide personal evidence of this.  A couple years ago when I was a faculty member at Vanderbilt University, I worked as part of a research group on ecology and spirituality.  For one of the events that the group hosted, I invited Richard Land (the president of the ELRC) to come talk with us about the way environmental ethics might be put in conversation with evangelical Christianity.  Although he represented theological and social positions that were not shared by most of the research group, he graciously accepted and what resulted was a productive conversation about the different commitments that motivate behavior and activate norms.  In contrast to this meeting with Richard Land, recently I invited about a dozen of the pastors and staff from Church X to my house to have a conversation about the relationship of faith and politics.  Not one person accepted the invitation.  I was told that such issues are just not things that they want to talk about because they are perceived as divisive and simply a distraction from what Church X’s “message” is.

The central irony is that although Church X moved away from the traditional denominational structures largely due to the way that these structures lessened real relationships with people in favor of relationships with doctrinal statements and presumptions of holy living, it seems to require the existence of such relationships as a necessary requirement of its own identity.  But, recognizing the dialogical obstacles that Church X faces, we should realize that when conversation becomes impossible, personal relationship is nowhere to be found.  Claiming to be motivated by authenticity, Church X’s mantra of “authenticity” now becomes the “mask” that covers over the failure to openly wrestle with the fact that, according to the unacknowledged “essentials” that operate without being diagnosed, not everyone is included in the “you” of “come as you are.”  Apparently, “no perfect people allowed” simply means “only people who are substantially more perfect than others (but not perfect in the way that traditional denominationalism has understood perfection) allowed.”

To illustrate this last point, Church X (again this is more than one church) is typically defined by services that are “seeker sensitive” and, as such, try to avoid thorny issues of theological speculation.  The seeming problem with this approach is that there is already a specific target audience being “sought.”  In other words, Church X is not out to reach everyone or be a church that allows anyone to “come as they are,” but instead seeks to draw a particular sort of person—namely, someone who doesn’t want much controversy and who is willing to settle for a lack of theological substance.  Frequently, I have been asked by students of mine (at several different institutions) where I attend church and after telling them they will often attend a service just to see what it is like.  I have repeatedly been told by my students that Church X is simply “intellectually insulting” and that they would never go again because they felt like they had to “check their minds at the door.”  When I raised this as a concern with the leaders of Church X, the response was “we can’t reach everyone.”  I immediately responded that this was a simple truism and, therefore, they needed to stop acting like Church X was authentic in the way it claimed to be welcoming to everyone and invitational to people of all sorts of backgrounds.

This rhetoric of inclusion actually served to mask the fact that Church X was not being “sensitive” to intellectually minded “seekers.”  Importantly, it should go without saying that there is no neutral reason why they should be sensitive in this way or explicitly attempt to draw these people as opposed to some other demographic group.  Rather, the problem is that for a community claiming to provide a “hassle free service,” it was actually offering services that were quite a “hassle” for a specific type of person—namely, those, like myself, who are attempting to live according to such invitational and welcoming conceptions of the Christian faith, but seriously engaged in the question of what such a life might entail, for example.  The fact that the entire church was directed as some people rather than others is troubling internal to a rhetoric of inclusion.  When assumptions go undiagnosed and unrecognized and then are deployed as normative in one’s own narrative, there is no space in which such assumptions could be interrogated.  The hermeneutics of silence is dangerous precisely because it refuses to name itself. 

VI.

In conclusion, then, I want to suggest that Church X, and other similar churches, need to carefully examine whether their mantra of inclusion actually serves to reintroduce the very exclusion that characterizes the organizations from which they are attempting to distinguish themselves.  Having originated in a rejection of us/them dichotomies that serve to “divide the church,” Church X can be understood to have reintroduced another us/them split that functions far more insidiously than the original dichotomy it wanted to move beyond.  Now, the “us” is not “us” Christians and “them” postmodern atheists, nor is it “us” Catholics and “them” Protestants or “us” Presbyterians and “them” Baptists.”  Instead, it is now “we” opponents of us/them dichotomies who actually depend upon them at the level of actually church practice.  However, the interesting thing is that, in the case of Church X, this “we” is almost indistinguishable from the old “us” of conservative Christianity that “we” apparently wanted to abandon.  Accordingly, although the “them” is perhaps more visible as “those who chose to question hidden assumptions and hermeneutic commitments”—i.e., it seems to take the form of the good old anti-intellectualism that has for so long been a bugbear for evangelical Christianity—the real “them,” I have found, continues to be the “liberal other” that caused such a reaction from the opponents of the hermeneutics of suspicion in the first place.

When we operate according to the hermeneutics of silence, We non-denominational-inviting-inclusive-welcoming-hassle-free-come-as-you-are-no-perfect-people-allowed-I-am-not-an-evangelical-I-am-just-a-Christian-Christians become the very Them that “we” are defined as no longer being.  We are still Them.

Until we are willing, patiently and humbly, to interrogate what it means to be “us” and begin, perhaps, to learn from people such as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud that “we” are always messier than the rhetoric of “messiness” (as currently articulated within the leading figures of popular Christian thought) will ever be able to recognize, then we will likely continue to fail to be in real relationship with those who might have otherwise been interested in learning more about “our” faith-community.[20]  Perhaps beginning to see the resonance between the epistemic humility that accompanies postmodern thought and the lived example of God’s kenotic love as expressed in Christ will allow us all to maintain intellectual rigor and theological substance while simultaneously moving forward in real invitation to the “least of these our brethren” (whether the “least of these” turns out to be the oppressed, the downtrodden, the disadvantaged, or the doctors of philosophy).  We are still Them.

Secure in the success that comes from having a large congregation, Church X actually becomes less inviting than the Baptist church or the Assemblies of God church down the road that says “come on in and learn who we are.”  Due to the hermeneutics of silence, Church X potentially emerges as a community that continues to be defined by the exclusion of the Other, but in this case, no one is exactly sure who the Other is.  In the end, I find a “come as you are church” that refuses to be critically engaged with the question of who “we” are is more dangerous than the old fashioned exclusion of those who are simply not like “us.”  Cultural xenophobia can at least be diagnosed and contested as such.

Now, I realize that some might reply to my essay that if I am so frustrated with Church X, then why don’t I just go back to the denominations that allow for open engagement.  In reply to this very sensible question, I want to point out that just because conversation is possible in more traditional church communities does not mean that those who disagree with the social or theological views of such communities should continue to be part of them.  I think that there are good reasons to be frustrated with the particular sort of exclusivism that has been displayed by those Christian organizations that actively reject postmodernism and the hermeneutics of suspicion as dangerous to their clear and stable understanding of Christianity.  As such, I keep hoping that these rhetorically inclusive churches, like Church X, will demonstrate this inclusivity in practice in a way that helps to dislodge the view of evangelicals as people who are against stuff.  In other words, I write this essay in the hopes that a conversation will occur at Church X, and in contemporary society more broadly, about how to avoid the potential problems I have outlined.  Productive possibilities remain open for churches that think beyond denominations and beyond problematic dichotomies.  Yet, those communities must be self-reflective about the meaning of going “beyond” in these ways.  The “masters of suspicion” such as Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx can help us to understand that we are all better off when we embrace this recursive hermeneutic project of always continuing to allow questions, and the other people who ask them, to be constitutively part of who “we” are.  Because Church X has yet to wrestle with the potential performative contradiction in which it finds itself, some might conclude that Church X is simply Church Y—one is as good, or as bad, as another.  As a Christian and as a philosopher, I think that this assumption would be a shame.  We can do better.

 

Works Cited

Benson, Bruce Ellis. 2002. Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida, and Marion on Modern Idolatry. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press Academic.

Boyd, Gregory A. 2007. The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Burke, John. 2007. No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come-as-you-are Culture in the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

________. 2008. Soul Revolution: How Imperfect People Become All God Intended. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Caputo, John D. 2006. Philosophy and Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

________. 2007. What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism For the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Colson, Charles and Nancy Pearcey. 2004. How Now Shall We Live? Tyndale House Publishers.

Colson, Charles and Anne Morse. 1997. Burden of Truth: Defending Truth in an Age of Unbelief. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers.

Erickson, Millard J. 2002. Truth or Consequences: The Promise and Perils of Postmodernism. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Grenz, Stanley J. 1996. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Press.

Grenz, Stanley J. and John R. Franke. 2001. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Groothuis, Douglas R. 2000. Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenge of Postmodernism. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Gushee, David P. 2008. The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center. Waco: Baylor University Press.

Hatch, Nathan O. 1989. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hatch, Nathan O. and John H. Wigger, eds. 2001. Methodism and the Shaping of American Culture. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Helm, Paul. 1994. The Providence of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

McLaren, Brian. 2001. A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. Jossey-Bass.

________. 2003. The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian. Jossey-Bass.

________. 2004. A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

________. 2005. The Last Word and the Word After That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity. Jossey-Bass.

________. 2006. The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything. Nashville: W Publishing Group.

________. 2007. Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Noll, Mark A., George M. Marsden, and Nathan O. Hatch. 1989. The Search for Christian America, expanded edition. Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard.

Ricœur, Paul. 1970. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation.  Trans. Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rollins, Peter. 2006. How (Not) To Speak About God. Massachusetts: Paraclete Press.

Sanders, John. 2007. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, 2nd rev. ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press Academic.

Simmons, J. Aaron. 2006. “Review of Above All Earthly Pow’rs.” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 8, no. 1 (Winter): 72-87.

________. 2011. God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Smith, James K.A. 2006. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Vattimo, Gianni. 1999. Belief. Trans. Luca D’Isanto and David Webb. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

________. 2001. After Christianity. Trans. Luca D’Isanto. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wells, David F. 2005. Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Press.

Westphal, Merold. 1998. Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism. New York: Fordham University Press.

________. ed. 1999. Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

________. 2001. Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. New York: Fordham University Press.

Yancey, Philip. 2005. “Introduction,” in Zoba (2005), vii-xxi.

Yong, Amos. 2008. Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practice, and the Neighbor. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Zoba, Wendy Murray. 2005. The Beliefnet Guide to Evangelical Christianity. New York: Three Leaves Press.

 


[1] For notable exceptions to this trend in a number of different areas of Christian thought, see McLaren 2001, 2006; Rollins 2006; Yong 2008; Benson 2002; Sanders 2007.

[2] For a few examples, see Wells 2005; Erickson 2002; Colson and Pearcey 2004; Colson and Morse 1997; Groothuis 2000.  See also my review of Wells (Simmons 2006, and available online here).

[3] For just a very few examples of thinkers who have attempted to argue that postmodernism and Christianity are not so opposed after all, see Simmons 2011; Caputo 2006, 2007, Westphal 2001, 1999; Smith 2006; Grenz 1996; Grenz and Franke 2001.  Moreover, for an argument that postmodernism overcomes the dichotomy of thesism vs. atheism, see Vattimo 1999, 2002.

[4] Just to eliminate any misunderstanding here, I am not claiming that this is always the case.  I am simply attempting to demonstrate an argument that I take to be fairly common inside evangelical communities.

[5] http://erlc.com/erlc/about/. Accessed December 3, 2011.

[6] http://erlc.com/article/the-christian-doctrine-of-religious-liberty. Accessed December 3, 2011.

[7] See Helm 1994, 53-56.

[8] For a striking example of this, see www.worldviewweekend.com.  Accessed December 3, 2011.  For a good scholarly accounts of how the relationship between evangelical Christianity and American democracy have come to be so intertwined, see Hatch 1989; Hatch and Wigger 2001;  Noll, Marsden and Hatch 1989.

[9] Thankfully, thinkers and activists such as Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Matthew Sleeth, and many others have worked hard to change this (mis)perception of Christianity in general and Evangelicalism in particular.

[10] Of course, we might say that all communities/groups/organizations/institutions, in order to be this one instead of that one, must be exclusive.  The point, here, is that such exclusion is not necessarily a bad thing.  All that it needs to indicate is simply a commitment to communal coherence.  The problem occurs when such exclusion functions as a normative judgment about those who are not part of “us.”  So, for example, excluding African-Americans, or Jews, or women from the ranks of membership is something that tends intrinsically to affirm a view of racial, ethnic, or patriarchal authority/supremacy.  In these cases, the benefits of communal coherence are far outweighed by the moral failure of the perspective represented by the community itself and, thereby, should be strongly opposed on ethical and political grounds.  That is, communities defined in this way should simply be resisted as such.

[11] I should also note that this emphasis on faith as a matter of cognitive assent to specific propositions is highly problematic when taken too far.  Orthopraxy should always accompany any orthodoxy.  However, I am unable to consider this point here.

[12] I don’t want to suggest that all denominations face this problem in the same way.  Consider the United Methodist Church, which proclaims openness to be a key component of its self-narrative.  As such, I don’t intend my comments to be directed toward denominationalism, as such.

[13] Unfortunately, recognizing the opponents to one’s perspective often slides into a construction of an “enemy.”  This has far too often been the case within evangelical Christianity (as well as recent American political history).  Consider, as a case in point, the very language of the contemporary engagement: the “culture war.”  In this instance, the result of such rhetoric is not simply a strong sense of identity with others who share a common vision for social organization, but an encouragement to “rally the troops,” by “becoming soldiers in God’s army.”  Notice that now those who are “excluded” from a particular group because of disagreement about certain things are, thus, able to be labeled as “enemies of God” and “not on the side of Jesus,” etc.  Polarization should almost never be the point of social discourse.  This would be an example of how definitive exclusion can slide quickly into the social marginalization of those who do not agree with “us.”

[14] Importantly, Church X is not alone in being frustrated here.  One of the more prominent evangelical, or post-evangelical movements to attempt to get beyond ecclesial exclusivism and epistemic arrogance is the “emergent church.”  I do not want to confuse the emergent community with Church X.  These are different sorts of ecclesial communities that deploy, I believe, different hermeneutic strategies.

[15] All of these are phrases that I have heard in recent conversations at Church X.

[16] For a good critiques of the claim that Christianity yields specific and singular public policies, see Boyd 2007; Gushee 2008.

[17] See also Burke 2008.

[18] This sort of perspective is more often found in the literature affiliated with the emergent church.  See the work of Brian McLaren on this front.

[19] Importantly, this same situation can run in the opposite social direction.  Many “liberal” churches that also champion an inclusive and welcoming rhetoric and self-narratives actually then depend upon and deploy unstated rejections of “conservative” theological perspectives and social positions.  This problem is not unique to a particular position on this or that issue, but is, instead, a result of the hermeneutics of silence that I am attempting to articulate here—a hermeneutic that can occur in numerous different types of communities of discourse.

[20] Merold Westphal (1998) offers an excellent defense of how these atheists might be put to religious use.

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