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The Tensions of Theological Tribalism

In an ongoing effort to supplement my law school education with some focused theological training, I’ve recently been taking some courses from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. These courses—covering topics ranging from intertestamental Palestinian Judaism to contemporary views on Pentateuchal authorship—have been outstanding across the board.

I consider myself a fairly inquisitive, well-read layperson where theology is concerned, and these courses have presented many arguments I’d never previously encountered in the mainstream evangelical sphere. For example, courses covering the Old Testament discussed ways of reconciling Genesis 1-3 with modern geological and biological discoveries, without ever slipping into the rigidly literal interpretations required by young-earth creationism. Lecturers explained the Hebrew translation problems underpinning Bishop Ussher’s chronology of the earth (source of the “6000-year-old earth” hypothesis), thereby allowing for symbolic language to be properly treated as symbolic without diminishing the sovereignty of God. Most notably, Gordon-Conwell—a nondenominational seminary within the evangelical tradition—is certainly no hotbed of queer, ecofeminist, or liberation theology. Intellectually robust, yet still theologically conservative, perspectives are being articulated.

Having since gained a broader exposure to contemporary evangelical academia, I write this essay as a partial recantation of an argument I previously articulated here at Conciliar Post. I was wrong to suggest, a la Mark Noll, that evangelical academic culture generally lacks the rigor present in Catholic or other high-church traditions. The problem of theological-intellectual breakdown is much more complicated than that. (A brief disclaimer: the observations in this essay draw heavily on anecdotal experience rather than any broader collection of data. I make no claim that this is a comprehensive explanatory paradigm, but instead simply hope to offer a starting point for future research and discussion).

A part of me has been tempted to categorize the problem Noll discusses—and that I wrote about in this piece’s predecessor—as part of a general pattern of anticlericalism in the American evangelical tradition—a “me and my Bible” approach to Christian thought. (As an aside, the great irony of this method is that, assuming very few evangelicals are reading the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek, the volume they hold was translated by the same pool of scholars whose grammatical-interpretive commentary is ignored). In my assessment, this explanation is unpersuasive. The anticlericalism (read: anti-Catholicism) of past generations seems to have been consigned to the historical dustbin, and a broader ecumenism—on issues as diverse as the doctrines of grace and the pro-life movement—has taken its place. A sounder explanation of the “scandal of the evangelical mind” is perhaps less theoretical and more instinctual.

I have increasingly come to realize that there is a gulf of breathtaking size between evangelical culture and the evangelical academy. (I’ve had years of education in evangelical communities, and many of the well-reasoned arguments and perspectives in the courses I’ve taken were foreign to me). I tentatively suggest that, at least on one level, this gulf is linked to a tribal approach to religiosity, one in which in-group identification takes priority over careful evaluation of a given truth-claim.

To illustrate this, consider the following proposition: “A reflective Sufi Muslim writer may very well express an objectively truer statement about God’s nature and character than a major evangelist might.”

Is this proposition problematic? I don’t think so, and neither would the vast majority of Christian thinkers throughout human history, including the Apostle Paul. As the New Testament reveals, the Athenian concept of the “Unknown God,” and the principle that “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:16-34) was more correct than Peter’s belief that God demanded that Gentiles embrace a Jewish lifestyle (Galatians 2:14). Erroneous ideas are erroneous ideas irrespective of the intentions behind them and irrespective of the speaker. I have a gut suspicion, however, that many evangelicals would take strong umbrage with my proposition.

This tribal, “they’re-not-really-one-of-us” impulse creates a churning backwash in which probably-incorrect ideas proliferate without encountering real challenge. The questionable theology in books like The Shack and The Boy Who Went to Heaven may often be shrugged off because the authors are “in the tribe”: they identify as evangelicals and speak the right conceptual language. Over time, bad ideas become more and more entrenched through repetition and a lack of internal self-policing.

This problem is exacerbated by the dramatic detachment between those best equipped to dismantle bad theology and those responsible for promulgating it. The academy (broadly defined) has been castigated as “liberal” and “biased” for so long that even evangelical scholars will face an uphill battle when confronting entrenched positions. For instance, the view that the “days of creation” should be construed non-literally dates back to St. Augustine (and even further, to Origen), but influential evangelical figures have repeatedly declared over the last few decades that old-earth approaches to Genesis are part of a Darwinist plot to dismantle Christianity. This revisionist perspective has become so reified that those who would argue for a “conservative” (read: historical/traditional) stance are treated as traitors.

In light of these dynamics, as a layperson I have the utmost admiration and appreciation for those who have devoted their lives to full-time ministry in evangelical congregations. The rise of group tribalism means that clergy—tasked not only with communicating objective truths about the Bible, but also performing the self-sacrificial duties of daily ministry—are placed into an extraordinarily difficult position. It’s easy to pick on the Da Vinci Codes of the world, but no one really wants to be told that their beloved Left Behind series is full of disputed theological points. (That said, lest it be thought that I’m suggesting some sort of ideological purity test, I’ve always been of the opinion that the overwhelming majority of theological, artistic, and academic works reflect some true things about God and His creation. This essay is concerned with the cultural problem of elevating third-party interpretations to the level of unquestioned truth based on the interpreter’s stated “affiliation,” not with the existence of differing doctrinal views).

This dilemma does not lend itself to easy resolution, but a few significant points do stand out. First and foremost, despite the derisive opinions of some commentators, seminary is no “cemetery.” Theological education really matters: intellectually sound doctrine is essential in an ever-more-fragmented modern world. Second, those responsible for Noll’s “scandal” are probably not denominational presidents or professors in some faraway academy: the responsibility lies with us. That is a difficult truth to accept.

For my part, I will pray for my pastor’s witness, and try to be cognizant of any “tribal” defenses I might be tempted to mount in support of my favorite writers or theologians. And perhaps that is all we Protestants can do.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School, and is pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

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