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What do I believe? Consequences of the Enlightenment for the Church

Written by: on November 30, 2017

It would be foolish to deny the need for a well-established theology lest the faithful prove themselves to be nothing more than “….children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4:14 NRSV)  While few may claim the title of ‘Theologian’ for themselves, the text ‘Who Needs Theology’ by Stanley Grenz reminds readers that “No one who reflects on life’s ultimate questions can escape theology. And anyone who reflects on life’s ultimate questions-including questions about God and our relationship with God-is a theologian.[1]  And while theological thought has been integral to the Jewish and Christian faiths from their inception, it must be acknowledged that much of what is considered theology in the contemporary context stems from the age of Enlightenment.

The scientific method, developed during the Enlightenment, did much to quantify the thinking of humanity, even in regard to ethereal disciplines like philosophy and theology.  However, this penchant for what can be quantified had significant consequences for the Church, particularly in terms of what was required for full acceptance into the community of faith.  “A number of thinkers have argued that the church in the West, in both its evangelical and liberal forms, tied its coat tails to, and was basically shaped by, the values of the enlightenment.”[2]  The effect of this has largely been that “…the gospel was reduced to a matter of individual belief and conversion a matter of a rational choice. It was buying into the beliefs of Christianity, clearly and logically presented.”[3]  The idea continues to be that if someone is convinced through reason that the Christian faith is valid they will pursue a connection to a community that affirms the newly accepted beliefs, as a result the Church will grow.  We call this ‘conversion’, the process by which someone changes the course of their lives through “the hearing and believing of the Gospel.”[4]

Where has this left the Church in the West?  The number of those connected to faith communities continues to decline and even those churches that retain or attract new members seem to do so mostly by transfer rather than through new faith commitment.  This in effect is a form of consolidation, a gathering together of like-minded people into fewer but larger clusters.  Grenz astutely points out that pursuing rigorous theology is not merely for academic, intellectual, or even apologetic purposes.  “…the final goal of theology lies deeper than intellectual commitments, as important as they are. Our task is more than merely developing a Christian belief system.[5]  For many who have left the Church there has been a disconnect between what happens on Sunday morning and the challenges faced in life during the remainder of the week.  Practical and meaningful theology needs to be something “that brings Sunday morning into our Monday world.”[6]

I happened to be on sabbatical in the US in the Fall of 2001, about 90 minutes West of NYC.  I well remember the flood of people to churches across the country the weeks immediately after 9/11.  The services were packed.  Additional morning and evening services were held to accommodate the influx of people.  The people came for comfort, hope, out of fear and worry.  They came with the expectation that the Church was a community that may have answers to the questions that had surfaced for them following the terrorist attack.  Yet, within only a few short weeks attendance was back to ‘normal’.  All but a handful of those who had turned to the Church during that crisis had returned to their lives as they were prior, without any consistent connection to a worshiping community.  That event has haunted me since that time.  It is as though they found no transcendent answers to the difficult questions being asked and they moved on.  The ‘answers’ that were presented from pulpits across the nation, representing the theological and denominational spectrum, were insufficient to capture a willing and hungry audience.  More than 15 years on I wonder whether if a similar national crisis were to occur today if many would even turn to the Church.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge where the complete reliance on Enlightenment thinking in our theologizing has led us.  “Scottish theologian John Drane suggests that churches are “the last modernist, Victorian bureaucracies that are left.”[7]  If we genuinely believe that Jesus is the answer then maybe our theologies should reflect this more clearly.  Sound theology is integral to the life of the Church but it must be meaningful and relevant to those outside academia, living in the hardscrabble that is life for many.  The vast majority of those who walk this earth are pragmatists, living one day at a time with little thought for the bigger questions of life.  Meaningful theology needs to reflect that in order to help average people connect their everyday existence with the transcendent reality of a God who has given them breath.  “Good theology, therefore, brings the theoretical, academic, intellectual aspect of Christian faith into Christian living. In so doing, theology becomes immensely practical-perhaps the most practical endeavor one ever engages in![8]

If our desire is to genuinely share the Good News with those who have yet to hear, then what we share needs to be more than Good Information in an effort to convince people of some universal truth.  That emphasis reflects the vestiges of The Enlightenment that no longer connect meaningfully to our present context.  But, if our theology demonstrates the incarnate reality of Jesus, engaged in the everyday, practical components of life there are multitudes who desire to meet him.  The Jesus they desire to know will enter their reality and transform them from the inside out.  This will happen not because they have committed themselves to accepting the ‘right’ information but because they have understood His presence in their lives as the transcendent reality that cuts through to the core of existence.

[9]

[1] Stanley J. Grenz; Roger E. Olson. Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God (Kindle Locations 56-57). Kindle Edition.

[2] Ward, Kevin. “Christendom, Clericalism, Church and Context.” Presbyterian.org.nzt. Accessed September 25, 2017. p. 7

[3] Ibid p. 8

[4] Stanley J. Grenz;Roger E. Olson. Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God (Kindle Location 381). Kindle Edition.

[5] Ibid (Kindle Locations 1277-1278).

[6] Ibid (Kindle Location 1284).

[7] Ward, Kevin. “Christendom, Clericalism, Church and Context.” Presbyterian.org.nzt. Accessed September 25, 2017. p. 8

[8] Stanley J. Grenz;Roger E. Olson. Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God (Kindle Locations 375-376). Kindle Edition.

[9] The Miracle Maker: The Story of Jesus. Dir. Stanislav Sokolov and Derek Hayes. Perf. Ralph Fiennes. William Hurt. FFILMIAU S4C FILMS, 1999. Web. 29 Nov. 2017.

 

About the Author

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Dan Kreiss

Former director of the Youth Ministry program at King University in Bristol, TN and Dean of the School of Missions. I have worked in youth ministry my entire life most of that time in New Zealand before becoming faculty at King. I love helping people recognize themselves as children of God and helping them engage with the world in all its diversity. I am particularly passionate about encouraging the church to reflect the diversity found in their surrounding community in regard to age, gender, ethnicity, education, economic status, etc. I am a husband, father of 4, graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, an avid cyclist and fly-fisherman still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

11 responses to “What do I believe? Consequences of the Enlightenment for the Church”

  1. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Wow, Dan. There is so much good stuff here! I agree that the Enlightnement has deeply influenced how we do Christianity in the West. Which is ironic, given that the enlightenment signaled a major cultrual shift AWAY form Christianity in Europe.

    But yes, the Church depends heavily on intellectual insights, trusting that if we just get the right information into people’e heads they will experience transformation into the likeness of Christ. Not so.

    You write that in response to 9-11, “The ‘answers’ that were presented from pulpits across the nation, representing the theological and denominational spectrum, were insufficient to capture a willing and hungry audience.” If you could go back and advise pastors about how to respond in the wake of 9-11, what would you encourage them to do and say as the masses flocked to their churches?

    • mm Dan Kreiss says:

      I am not certain that even those who turned to the Church at that time knew what they were looking for but, whatever it was they didn’t appear to find it. I guess in many ways it was an opportunity to listen rather than speak. Unfortunately the Church seems to be much better at speaking, even when it is not requested.

  2. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Dan,

    Your opening paragraph was my favorite of the week. Started out strong and backed it up with Scripture. Then the perfect quote.

    Good imagery later on with your pictures and video, too.

    The words of yours that resonated with me the most were “meaningful” theology. Isn’t that the key?

    Well written Dan!

  3. Dan, this was a thoughtful post! Thanks.

    If the Western Protestant church is a child of the Enlightenment, and Enlightenment-influenced thinking has created a situation where our theology is divorced from our daily life, how should one move beyond this? What developments in theology and practices of Christ-followers would assist churches in recovering relevance to Joe the Plumber? Or is that even the right question to ask?

    And my second question, from the video: Why does Jesus always seem to have an English accent? 😉

  4. mm M Webb says:

    Dan,
    I like your quote by Ward saying that the Western church is tied to the “coat tails” of the enlightenment. I would suggest the theological tails are much longer than the enlightenment. Would you consider the diaspora, when the first organic house churches were established, as contributing theologic values to our contemporary church context?

    Thanks for remembering the impact of 9/11. Please do not beat yourself up or hold the Christian pulpit responsible for the salvation of those seeking consolation from God in the aftermath of a terrorist (Satanic) attack on the United States. I remember that morning, helping secure the area airports and cancelling all flights, including military training missions. I led the first 4-ship flight several weeks later and we did a “fly-by” of the city capitol to help instill confidence and a feeling of safety.

    Only the Holy Spirit can prepare, convict, and draw people to Christ for God. I think you have it right in your closing paragraph, that our theology must demonstrate Christ’s incarnate reality through our daily lives. I wonder if anyone has researched the 9/11 draw towards God in the context of crisis aftermath evangelism?

    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

  5. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Dan, great post! Your story about sabbatical and 9/11 is fascinating! I do believe, however, that we are crisis in this country on a regular basis – shouldn’t a random shooting where a fellow American kills 50 people and injures many more make people run back to church? We have a culture now of not feeling safe anywhere…and to cope without anxiety consuming your life requires faith (at least in my eyes). Your thoughts on this?

    • mm Dan Kreiss says:

      Those who felt a connection, even distantly, to the church went looking there after 9/11. They are not likely to make a 2nd attempt having found the Church wanting the first time. What transpires in our nation today is tragic but not of the same scale, as horrific as it is and unfortunately far too common to elicit a national response like we saw back then. Further, the younger generation does not have the connection to the Church that their parents/grandparents did back in 2001.

  6. Shawn Hart says:

    Dan, I appreciate the deep-seated nature of there being more to church than just teaching the bible. Though I am a hard-core-bible-preacher, I believe it only works when you understand what it is capable of. One of the greatest gifts and messages I believe exists in its pages is that of “family”. An interesting study shows that the concept of God as the “Father” is only taught in the Old Testament a few times, and that is primarily by David and Isaiah. However, when Christ comes into the picture, one of the first images He establishes is the family nature of God. God becomes our loving Father, Christ our Brother, and we are all united as brothers and sister; joint heirs in the kingdom of God. So many people come from broken homes, damaged relationships, and injured self-images; however, they still hold the belief that there is a place that will treat them like family and love them as they believe they can be loved. The Bible can teach that lesson, but only Christians can show it. Theology is great for study and maybe even an innocent debate or two, but it takes more than that to show someone how loved they are by God.

    • mm Dan Kreiss says:

      Absolutely, that is what I think Grenz was getting at in trying to establish practical application for his theology. It is also clear that the writers of the Gospels were communicating their own theological interpretations of Jesus and his relationship with God. Our use of the Bible is us interpreting their initial interpretations and theologizing about their theology. Not sure how well the Church has demonstrated the family relationship over the years.

  7. Great post as always Dan! I love this quote…” But, if our theology demonstrates the incarnate reality of Jesus, engaged in the everyday, practical components of life there are multitudes who desire to meet him.” I couldn’t agree more and feel like if we made our theology more practical and reflected more of Jesus then people would truly be flocking to Him and therefore churches would not have enough room. I’m curious how youth ministry is changing to connect with our youth culture and reflect Jesus at the same time. Love what you are doing for our youth.

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