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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Wrath of Gatekeepers

Written by: on January 26, 2018

Last week we were assigned Charles Taylor’s 700+ opus text, A Secular Age, which I quickly realized would take me the better part of a decade to digest. When I saw this week’s text, The Soul of Doubt, by Dominic Erdozain, I looked forward to quickly reading the 266 pages and getting my post written early. I started making my way through the text on Monday afternoon.

It’s now 10:45pm on Thursday night and our posts are due by midnight, if that tells you how far off base I was in my assumptions. This small book is packed with ideas and insights that deserve to be explored at a much more leisurely pace, without a looming deadline or panicky realization that I need to write SOMETHING, even if I don’t feel ready to do just that.

Erdozain’s book is intriguing and offers a fresh perspective on historic Christianity as it has crept toward what Taylor refers to as this secular age. Where Taylor told us HOW the stage was set for unbelief, Erdozain discusses WHY doubt and unbelief are products of healthy faith. The chapter on Luther alone makes this book worth the price, as it helped me flesh out my own issues with Luther and, to be honest, a big part of the Reformation. I have always felt that many of the Reformers actually became the thing they detested – gatekeepers and power-mongers. Or as Erdozain puts it, “a message of liberation looked like a doctrine of control…he replaced one kind of ‘servitude’ with another.”[1] Charlotte Methuen summarizes Erdozain’s point, “that Luther moved from a conviction that faith could not and should not be coerced, to the implementation of a system of visitations in Saxony that required church attendance.”[2]

It’s Erdozain’s conclusion that the strictures placed by the Reformers actually lead many believers to skepticism. “It emerged from an essentially moral intuition that a dangerous God cannot be real – cannot be the real God.”[3]

I disagree with the idea that a loving, merciful God cannot be dangerous. Fire is good, but it can be dangerous, for example. I think dangerous is perhaps the wrong word here. Vindictive, cold, unkind, autocratic – these are words that come to mind when I think of the God often portrayed by the Church (Protestant and Catholic). It amazes me that any Christian feels that killing another human being based on a difference of beliefs could ever please God. I think skepticism grew as believers – be they philosophers, theologians, scientists, bakers, or artists – were faced with the cognitive dissonance of a reportedly loving God who, wrapped in sovereignty, seemingly directed Church leaders to punish anyone who did not believe or act according to the Rule of God (as interpreted by those leaders and no one else). Skepticism says, ‘This is not the God I read about or experience.’ Erdozain quotes war poet Wilfred Owen as writing this to his mother: “I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom.”[4] A good paraphrase might be that I become more and more Christlike as I defy the gatekeepers of Christianity.

One of the things I struggle with is the idea that our secular age came from either science & reason OR doubt. Taylor suggests science and reason gripped the culture, Erdozain suggests doubt by people of faith. I think they are really saying the same thing. As Reformers questioned the actions of the Catholic church, as science began to show us that perhaps the earth isn’t flat and that an apple landing on your head is due to gravity, not a persnickety demon, the voice of reason/wisdom opened new avenues of thought among the masses. For those who were simply done with the church (and this continues until now), science provided an easy ‘excuse’ to embrace secular thought and set aside all religion as superstitious nonsense. On the other hand, as more and more people of faith embrace science, reason/wisdom allow us to see that science can point us to the Creator rather than away. This reason/wisdom is, I believe, what Erdozain refers to as the conscience. It did not suddenly appear during the Enlightenment; it was being explored in the pages of Proverbs, Psalms, and other Scriptures. It has simply taken awhile to get through to us.

One of Erdozain’s comments that has stayed with me about the Reformation era is that “the dominant emotion was fear.”[5] The religious leaders who claimed to be bringing freedom in Christ, relied on fear to keep people in line. Fear of punishment, fear of death, fear of a cold, autocratic (but merciful) God. There was no room for open doubt, but that alone caused deep-seated doubt to grow. Once it was boldly written and spoken, doubt became public. Fear ruled for 20-ish centuries (and in some ways it still does) in the West. Christians have long used fear (‘you’re going to hell,’ ‘wait till you meet your Maker,’ ‘one day you’ll stand before the judge,’ ‘Do you know where you would go if you died today?’) to motivate salvation. Even our language about sin includes wrath and cold judgement.[6] Now that we are in this secular age, people just aren’t afraid of God or judgement anymore. Sin doesn’t feel like a death sentence, and hell doesn’t register on most people’s radar except as an epithet. So with Erdozain’s discussion of the Reformers in mind, I think we have to start looking for ways to avoid being gatekeepers who promise pain and trade in fear. What kind of language can we instead use to discuss God, sin, redemption, etc.? How do we tell our stories from a position of trust, hope, and love?

 

                  [1]. Dominic Erdozain, The Soul of Doubt: the Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 21.

                  [2]. Charlotte Methuen, Review of The Soul of Doubt: the Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx, (Review number 2031), DOI: 10.14296/RiH/2014/2031, Accessed January 24, 2018.

                  [3]. Erdozain, 262.

                  [4]. Erdozain, 264, taken from Wilfred Owen, Collected Letters (Oxfort: Oxford University Press, 1967), 461.

                  [5]. Erdozain, 264.

                  [6]. Note – I’m not opposed to discussing sin with people, but I am opposed to trying to strike fear in their hearts about it.

About the Author

Kristin Hamilton

13 responses to “The Wrath of Gatekeepers”

  1. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Kristen, your discussion of FEAR and HELL hit home with me. Honestly, I love reading about some of the great revivals/awakenings in the United States and Great Britain. Even more, I love to read about some of the great missionary pioneers, many of whom sacrificed their lives in order to reach the unreached.

    I love to read the stories of these men and women who sacrificed so much in order to, in their minds, rescue people from eternal damnation.

    The biggest question for me is not “Do people no longer believe in Hell?” But is is “Is Hell real?”

    Or better yet… “WHAT IF Hell is real?”

    I agree that Hell may not be the best talking point for an initial spiritual conversation in this secular age. Yet, I wonder if we, the church, are also becoming secularized.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      I don’t think the church can avoid being secularized, Stu. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Rather than retreating into a fortress mentality, we are now going out into the community as members who paint the society with the sacred. Secular just isn’t a bad word to me. I remember getting in trouble for listening to “non-Christian” music, but then it was okay if my music sounded the same but had barely recognizable “Christian” lyrics. All beauty belongs to God – even secular beauty.
      I rarely have conversations with people about whether or not hell is real. They don’t care. When we have any discussions about my thoughts on “afterlife” I simply say that I have a relationship with God and can’t imagine ending that when I die but I’m okay with however the story ends because this relationship has made my life richer. They seem to understand that better than anything about hell or even heaven.

  2. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Kristin I think the questions you pose about fear can be related to what Smith affirmed about Taylor’s stance on the God question our neighbors no longer ponder. Hell is not a question many people reflect upon. Even some believers have a concept of Heaven without having the same for Hell. I have heard people assert that we are already living in Hell on earth. Our redemption is based on our survival here on earth. Disney said “All dogs go to heaven” and there are those who believe the same about all of humanity.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      There are a lot of views about heaven and hell out there, Christal. My own views stem more from the early church mothers and fathers than those most evangelicals hold, but I consider that to be kind of a non-issue when discussing my faith. People want to know why on earth an educated intelligent woman would believe in superstition so I explain to them why it is real for me, why faith has played a huge role in my heritage, and then I ask them about their thoughts because I have lived a “privileged” faith life and I want to learn why heaven and hell and God are simply myths to them.

  3. Mary says:

    Perceptive as always, Kristin, you wonder, “I think we have to start looking for ways to avoid being gatekeepers who promise pain and trade in fear.”
    It’s the ‘gatekeepers’ part that bothers me more than whether or not there is a hell. Who made the Fundamentalists the gatekeepers? If the message of the gospel is real then why not share it in a loving way?
    “What kind of language can we instead use to discuss God, sin, redemption, etc.? How do we tell our stories from a position of trust, hope, and love?” These are good questions for us to ponder while we are studying in our program.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      The gatekeepers irritate me too, Mary. I tend to rant about them quite a bit because I can’t quite wrap my head around how a group of people who came out of the Reformation can stomach the idea of setting new hurdles for humanity to jump to reach God. I don’t understand how people get to use theology that has only been around since the 1800’s to determine “orthodoxy.” Mostly I don’t understand how a faith rooted in love comes to sound so much like hate.

  4. Lynda Gittens says:

    Kristen, we had this similar conversation in our ‘after the zoom’ meeting about the times of killing nonbelievers.
    Your statement “I disagree with the idea that a loving, merciful God cannot be dangerous. Fire is good, but it can be dangerous, for example. I think dangerous is perhaps the wrong word here” waved at me. First I enjoyed your post and thoughts. You always add to my new perspective bucket list.

    God has shown us that he is dangerous to mess with as demonstrated in the old testament. He has also shown us is compassionate side. As I looked at this word dangerous I saw the word ‘anger’.
    As a church in sharing the word, we must ensure that when we discuss the anger of God we discuss the compassion of God. We are still here because of his compassion (love).

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      True, Lynda. Isn’t it interesting that people who are invested in claiming God has no emotions have no trouble ascribing anger and wrath to God, but struggle with compassion and mercy and love?

  5. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    A great, concise summary for two very complex books: “Where Taylor told us HOW the stage was set for unbelief, Erdozain discusses WHY doubt and unbelief are products of healthy faith.” I will never look at doubt and unbelief the same again. These were the seeds of a rebellion against anti-Chrisitan behavior and beliefs that led to great revolutions.

    It reminds me of the Obedience Experiment where the “teacher” has to shock the “student” with increasing intervals of voltages if they miss the answer. Even though they were not really electrically shocking the student, the teacher did not know this. 65% of the teachers continued to “shock” the student even when he was expressing signs of obvious distress, despite the doubt and uncertainty they felt with provoking the pain. Only 35% expressed doubt but then FOLLOWED their doubt and exited the program. I hope I’m in the 35%.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      Oh gosh, Jen. Reading about that experiment made me physically ill. I hope that I would walk away when first suggested to shock my students. We train dogs with vibration and sound, but the idea that we punish humans for “wrong” answers is pretty disgusting. Yet you are right, this is exactly what we often do in Christianity, inflicting pain and shame when people don’t believe exactly as we believe. God help us.

  6. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    For a 10:45 essay, this is well worded. 🙂
    You write, “A good paraphrase might be that I become more and more Christlike as I defy the gatekeepers of Christianity.” Yes!- I think going to the fringes of the church and living in Kenya disillusioned me to “church” as it’s commonly expressed in America.

    One way I’ve looked at this tension between orthodoxy and doubt is the two primary leadership roles in ancient Israel: priest and prophet. The priest’s role was to maintain order and perpetuate the institution; the prophet’s role was to disrupt all that. Both were essential, but often at odds with one another.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      Thanks Katy. When I first experienced God’s call to ministry, I thought I was being called to be a “priest.” Years later, when I realized the call was to be a “prophet” I balked and begged God to let me be one who soothes the church rather than the one who riles it up. My spiritual director helped me see that riling the church helps to soothe the ones who live on the margins. I’m okay with that.

  7. Kristen, what a great post – especially because you said so many things that were ruminating in my mind that I couldn’t quite put voice to yet.

    You made several good points, but this one below, I think, was most important:
    ‘One of Erdozain’s comments that has stayed with me about the Reformation era is that “the dominant emotion was fear.”[5] The religious leaders who claimed to be bringing freedom in Christ, relied on fear to keep people in line. Fear of punishment, fear of death, fear of a cold, autocratic (but merciful) God.’
    I have been thinking about just this – why did all these leaders – who I think genuinely believed in the freedom in Christ that they professed – resorted to the use of fear and coercion?
    Is it as simple as understanding that despite their good intentions, they relied too much on their own abilities and lacked the trust required to ‘let go and let God’ (I don’t like that saying, but it kind of works here)?

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