Faith is not belief in spite of evidence but a life in scorn of the consequences.
Note: this post is co-authored with my wife, Lindsay, a soon-to-be California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). We've included some responses from a cyber dialogue we had with fellow post-Evangelicals.
Although herself a secular scholar, Stanford professor of Anthropology Tanya Luhrman has spent hundreds of hours in Evangelical Christian churches, interviewing the faithful. She has written a book on the subject and has spoken extensively on her findings. Last week, the NY Times published her op-ed on on her unique analysis of the underpinnings of Evangelical Christian faith.
Evangelicals are known sociologically as those sorts of Christians who commit themselves to the ABC's of faith:
Activism: a determination to evangelize the non-believer
Bible: the error-free, self-evident, unquestionable Word of God
Conversion: all humanity is stained with sin and destined for hell...unless one commits to "believing" in Jesus
However, following the work of Emile Durkheim a century ago, what Luhrman consistently dicovered, in her observations and research, was that Evangelicals were far more practical than what outsiders usually anticipated, not as obssessed with doctrine:
And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.
As it turns out, Evangelicals experience Something bigger than themselves the same way most of humanity does: by joining up with communities of folk who want the same thing. The ABCs are a sort of glue that binds these congregations together in certainty (or as they say "Absolute Truth"). Of course, their own distinctive political conservatism, emotionalism and anti-intellectualism all fuel the unity and inspiration of these dynamic church settings.
It was difficult to discern the thesis of Luhrman's article. Of course, Luhrman's NY Times piece was a short synopsis of a larger work. She was charged with the challenging task of narrowing thousands of hours of work into a 600 word article. With that said, it was difficult to get at what she, as a self-proclaimed secular intellectual, was getting at. Her concluding paragraph serves to clarify her main point:
If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.
We greatly appreciate that she seeks to sympathetically understand what is good and positive about what draws Evangelicals to their faith communities (and keeps them there), as there are way too many in her camp that have more fun dismissing them off-hand and making fun of how archaic and wrong-headed they are. We, indeed, would actually concur with and completely understand the frustration of nonreligious folk with Evangelicals, but, too often, we are left unsatisfied with the motives behind their blustering critiques. They seem to be more about winning a grand intellectual Head Game by humiliating their opponent by appearing far smarter and superior instead of actually doing the Real hard & constructive work of trying to bring about a more just, good and peaceful world.
Our issue is that--as self-proclaimed post-Evangelicals--we simply cannot "sidestep the problem of belief--and the related politics which can be so distracting." In fact, it is probably easier, at this point in our journey, to sidestep (or just be uninterested in) the "problem of belief," as she poses it, than it is "the related politics that can be so distracting." As our good friend, a twenty-something-post-Evangelical pastor, wrote in response to Luhrman's article:
If belief is about the ability to intellectually affirm specific propositions about God's identity, then belief should not be the most important part of Christianity. From my understanding, belief in the biblical context was always more about trust and fidelity to a way of living in relationship with God than knowing the facts. Only in a post-Enlightenment world can we get belief so messed up.
Belief is not just a head game. It is a pledge of allegiance to a way of life. Indeed, the late Anabaptist theologian James McClendon argued for the "chronological priority of ethics" in his 3-volume, 1000-page(+) set of narrative systematic theology. He embraced the postmodern shift by going back to the biblical texts and the early centuries of Christianity while bunking the scholarly guild by audaciously starting with Ethics (1986)...and then Doctrine (1994) and Witness (completed on his death bed in 2000). This crucial concept is, perhaps, best articulated by the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr:
We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.
Our friend, Chase, a recent Stanford grad who has engaged with Luhrman's work far more extensively than we have, has told us that Luhrman's main focus is on "how people learn to belong to a community, and how both that learning and that belonging changes their perception or experience of reality" and that, ultimately, "belief is a product, rather than the source, of action and interpretation." We deeply concur. Yet, the Evangelical world is stumbling in an Enlightenment hangover, dualistically attempting to divide their lives into walled off categories like "belief" and "politics" and "ethics."
Another young post-Evangelical friend of ours couldn't resist pointing out the irony of Luhrman's findings in regards to just how vocally committed Evangelicals are to their "beliefs":
The majority of the people I know who have remained loyally committed to the Evangelical Christian movement throughout my lifetime value a shared sense of belonging with a group over epistemology. The irony of that statement is that the majority of those Christians demand a very specific type of epistemology and the affirmation of a great many fundamental (Absolute) truths in order to gain access to that shared sense of belonging.
The problem of belief is not such a problem because, quite frankly, the modern focus on mental assent to various doctrines is neither compelling nor reflective of what the biblical authors and early followers of Jesus were getting at. Our issue is with the uber-conservative nature of Evangelical politics. For us (and the way we read Jesus' call to discipleship), politics can never be sidestepped because "politics" is, in fact the way we organize our lives (just about everything we involve ourselves with in everyday life).
Politics should never be equated with the "sporting event" that has become electoral politics in our country, but rather, the convictions and everyday political practices that inform and shape Christian individual and community life. As biblical scholar Ched Myers writes, basically everything Jesus did was political (Why else would the Romans want him killed? See above John August Swanson's depiction of Jesus' political act of washing his disciples feet):
...the politics of Jesus are defined not only by his attack on the Temple marketplace but also by whom he sits at table with, who comes in his house, when and where he sits at table with and whom he touches. In Jesus’ exorcisms, as with the Gerasene, the ‘possessed’ political body symbolizes territorial struggles within the body politic. Through exorcism Jesus challenges the authoritative space of the scribes, the political domain of the Powers, the military occupation of the Romans, and the sacred legitimacy of the Temple.
That being said, we see it as extremely problematic to ascribe to a community (as it is in Evangelical Christian circles) a narrative that assuages one's anxieties, fears & insecurities with the half-truth that "things will be good, even if they don't seem good now" when one see that, obviously, a lot of things are not okay: people die unjustly, people live under heavy yokes of oppression, the wealthy are drowning in their possessions while a supermajority of the citizens of the rest of the world suffer with basic needs not being met. Indeed, the entire planet groans under the weight of the toxic, Mammon-centered economy we have let spiral out of control.
We actually have A LOT of agency to do something about all these things. But if your overarching truth about the world is that God will make all things good in the end, then you are excused of the responsibility to partner with God and larger movements of faith and conscience working for social change now. In our experience, we don't think most Evangelicals are aware of evading this responsibility. Rather, it is a by-product of their unacknowledged and privileged social location within a largely white male-dominated, middle/upper-class, suburban culture.
We actually agree with what Luhrman identifies as an Evangelical conviction that "God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now..." In fact, not only do we agree, but this truth fuels our everyday life and work, knowing that we are not alone and that this global task of redemption is not all on our shoulders. We are a very small part of God's larger, still unfolding vocational narrative of what the Anabaptists call "the hard and holy work of releasing peace on earth" (a partnership of God and people of faith and conscience).
By and large, the Evangelical narrative serves as an escape from the pain and ambiguity inevitably experienced in life, propelling these "believers" to stop short of fully entering into the pain of the world. Experienced through the prism of the Evangelical narrative, pain becomes simply too much to bear, too overwhelming AND you don't HAVE to endure it, because afterall, "God has a plan for everything and God will make everything good in the end."
We cannot count how many times we've had to filter some of these kinds of statements, (all well-meaning of course) after Lindsay's father died in the Fall of 2011 (ie, "He's in a better place now." and "It was for God's glory."). We could tell it was more about the other person having no idea how to comfort or the severe limitation that comes with not being able to say anything that could make what happened alright. No doubt, we could just appreciate their care, however poorly expressed, but we share this as just a small, personal example of how this skin-deep way to live has major implications. Therapists call this addiction and denial (as all addiction stems from trying to stave off the pain life inevitably brings). People escape into their favored addictions in order to mask and evade the pain and anxiety that surrounds them.
Evangelical culture, as we have experienced and observed it, has become a large breeding ground for denial, hiding, and addiction. These sorts of religious structures, and belief systems are set up in such a way to encourage the faithful to escape from the pain of the world, to put on a happy face, to absolutely never question the pastor's interpretation of the Bible, and to cling to the security of an assured eternity in Heaven as "what really matters."
Evangelicals represent the largest and loudest group of Christians in North America and this is the brand of Christians that we are consistently in relationship with in the Trabuco Creek watershed in Orange County, CA. Many of our closest friends are Evangelicals and, yes, we used to be an active participants in their churches and ministries. This community of believers has much of our heart. We love these Christians because of their passion and sincerity, their utter willingness to give themselves for the Cause. However, we are convinced that at the end of the day, they are living off a default narrative that falls short of what both the pain and injustice of the world, and the gospel, demand of us.
All in all, we appreciate Luhrman's charitable perspective, and think it is much needed (on both sides) to work towards the healing and reconciliation of the long-standing stalemate between Evangelicals and Seculars. However, as post-Evangelical ourselves, we see our own responsibility, in relation to the Evangelical world, as both growing in love, charity and understanding as modeled by Jesus while also offering (in word and deed!) a much-needed alternative way of being Christian.