Friday, August 05, 2005

Thoughts on modern Evangelicism

My friend Natalie just posted about this article about Ted Haggard and the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. I read the article, and her thoughts about it, and I have a few of my own to offer in reply.

First, about the pastor himself. Though it wasn't mentioned in the article, one of his more odious events was where his church baptized a few dozen Jewish kids whose parents left them at a church-run day camp-- without their consent, or that of their parents. A few kids were scared they weren't Jewish any longer. Personally, I was struck by his claim that Catholics, and countries dominated by Catholicism, look backwards, and don't innovate or create new things. And I suppose he has a point, so long as one ignores almost all the history of Western civilization, which was largely dominated by the Catholic Church, even after Luther, for hundreds of years.

That Gallileo fellow, always looking to the past, you know. And Copernicus-- might as well have been a historian for all the new discoveries he encountered.

As for the free market approach to spirituality, I read it as saying that where faith is freely chosen, and information about it is freely available, then that's a benefit for evangelical Christianity-- drawing a parallel between a free market allowing the best product to come to the fore, and a free market in spirituality allowing the best faith to rise to prominence. I didn't see that he suggested compromising the tenets of evangelicism; in fact, the article specifically mentioned more popular pastors who were more popular specifically because they watered down their message.

Humility as an attribute of Christianity seems to come and go over time. Matthew 6:2 says,

Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

A quick skim of the Pauline books of the New Testament shows him very strongly urging his followers to not claim any glory in themselves, but rather to lay it all at the feet of God, for much the same reasons as those Natalie lays out. I went looking for a real firebrand cite from him, along the lines of "convert those unbelievers now!" and frankly, haven't found anything quite so strong.

The key to understanding evangelical Christians for those who aren't them is to understand that, at base, they're motivated by love. That's not to say they can't do some monstrous things-- some of the stories I've read of gay "re-education" camps a truly terrifying-- but the core of their religion is a knowledge that they're going to heaven, and unless you believe what they do, you're not. And given the choice between letting you burn for eternity or enjoy the bliss of Heaven, well, the choice isn't really a hard one to make.

The problem, of course, lies in cases where what they say conflicts with what science is teaching us about the world we live in; in those cases, they claim that science is wrong, and their theology is right. Ironically, it was St, Augustine who first (to my knowledge) proposed that God might have created the earth's creatures first as a sort of "primal seed" that later evolved into the flora and fauna of (then-) modern times, but try and tell that to the kids today, and they won't believe you.

One thing I really appreciate about having been raised Catholic is that we were taught to question everything-- within limits, but those limits appear to be broader than any other religion allows. Heck, even with my strongly agnostic leanings I was allowed to get the Agnus Soli Dei, the Boy Scout's Catholic medal (not for any achievement; it's more like a merit badge in religion). I didn't lie about my questions, and I didn't claim I believed anything I honestly didn't, but I also openly disagreed with some of the things I was taught. I can't imagine that happening in an Evangelical church. We were also taught that God gave us minds for a reason, and that we were meant to use them to discover the wonder and mystery of the nature of the universe we live in. In the case of an apparent conflict between science and religion, the error was generally held to be in the person perceiving the conflict, as clearly God wouldn't deliberately tell us one thing (religion) and do another (nature).

The writer's biases, or possibly just ignorance, do come into play now and again; in one passage, he bemoans the broadening of the term Spritual War into a context that includes not just the church, but the overall society. Perhaps he didn't know that the Jesuits were originally referred to by their founder as a "battalion for Christ", and were themselves known as "Soldiers of Christ" (the title of his article) for many years.

The blog I am a Christian Too has a different analysis, and one perhaps better grounded in theology than mine.