A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a guy who, after years of devoted membership (and various forms of leadership) in Reformed churches, had decided to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. Not so much because of any deep-seated disillusionment with Reformed theology, or an intellectual decision that Orthodox doctrine on disputed points was more compelling, nor because of the frequently-cited “aesthetic appeal” of its liturgy, icons, etc.; to be sure, that was a factor, but could hardly be the decisive one for someone deeply-rooted in the Reformed faith. Rather, it was because “he needed someone to submit to”; he was tired of the burden of always making up his own mind about everything, of the Protestant “heretical imperative” (to use Peter Berger’s term) that drove everyone to define themselves over against everyone else, and to elevate private judgment above all else. Time to put an end to such individualistic arrogance, he reasoned, and submit my judgment to something higher, older, and more authoritative—rather than “let go and let God…” it was a matter of “let go and let the bishop…” At least, such was the story.
It struck me that among the many evangelicals and Reformed folks converting to Rome or Orthodoxy, this was a common story. “We Protestants, we’re so divided, we’re so individualistic, we have no sense of authority, we have to make up our own minds about everything rather than submitting to the judgment of others. It’s time to stop trying to do all the thinking for ourselves, and submit to authority and tradition.” And then it struck me that, while this sounds superficially humble, pious, and mature, it starts to look considerably less laudable when you put it in other terms. “It’s time to stop taking responsibility for my own commitments and value judgments and let someone else make those difficult determinations for me.” “The commitment to faith and obedience is what’s important, not the content, so I should just leave the question of content to others and focus on relinquishing self-will.” “It’s too much work being expected to think for myself amid all these different questions and options, so I think I should just check my brain at the door, and embrace a set of ready-made answers.” Now I don’t mean to be too harsh, of course, on all those who make such moves, and there is certainly a balance; some of us are too arrogantly insistent on making up our own minds about everything, and need to learn to defer to the judgment of others on occasion. But despite how often we tell ourselves in conservative Protestant circles that this is our big problem, I am not at all convinced that it is, at least for us Reformed in particular.
I would like to suggest on the contrary the bold proposition that this search for authority, this quest to unload on someone else the burden of forming truth- and value-judgments, is in fact an intensification of a pathology that is already rife in our communities. Our use of epistemic individualism as a bogeyman, then, is another example of the phenomenon C.S. Lewis identified, which I mentioned recently in my post “The Fashionable Outcry of Each Generation,” in which we are always “running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”
It struck me once a few years ago that while we very often warn against the dangers of individual pride, considering the guy who always thinks he’s right as the paradigmatic, and most dangerous, form of arrogance, that the Bible is often much more worried about the sin of corporate pride. This, as New Perspective scholars have noted, is Jesus and Paul’s greatest beef with the Pharisees—yes, some of them are individually self-righteous, and that’s a problem, but much bigger and more insidious is their national pride, their sense that they are part of the chosen people, the community that’s got it all right, and outside of which are the fools, the ignorant, the sinners whom God will judge. This kind of pride can do far more harm than any individual’s silly puffed-up pomposity, and what makes it so dangerous is that it is so easy to hide under a cloak of humility (as I noted in my post on The Screwtape Letters a couple weeks ago). The zealot who maintains that he himself has nothing special to offer, and is just fortunate to have discovered the great leader who has all the answers, or to be born into the community that knows how to serve God, can indulge in the most execrable pride and scorn toward those outside the chosen community, while convinced that he is being humble, and just following his wise leaders. Indeed, I would suggest that this kind of corporate pride is extraordinarily insidious, and almost impossible to escape. For even those who have escaped it, by recognizing the unhealthy parochialism of the community in which they started, will then begin to pride themselves on being part of the blessed community of those who now know better. This kind of pride calls for constant vigilance and constant repentance.
Once alerted to the danger of this sort of pride, it takes little time to recognize the temptation to it everywhere in our conservative Protestant and Reformed communities. In that post from The Screwtape Letters, I quoted where Lewis has the devil say, “We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity of a secret society or clique.” The more conservative, and thus smaller and more embattled, sectors of American Protestantism acquire this “uneasy intensity” almost automatically, and it takes great effort to resist the impulse. And of course, the great defining mark of a “clique” is its pressure to conformity, its pressure not to think for oneself, not to act for oneself, but to follow the party line, to throw in one’s lot with a particular club, commit oneself to a particular orthodoxy, and fight tenaciously for it without a second thought.
When we look around at the various Reformed and evangelical micro-denominations and church splits, what strikes us first is the cacophonous difference and variety, individuality run riot as everyone pursues their own vision of the faith. Too much love of difference, we say, is the root problem, and many, in response, jump ship and align themselves with Rome or Orthodoxy, praising their unity, uniformity, stability. But when we look more closely, we find that almost every one of these micro-denominations and particular church communities is characterized within itself by a striking lack of difference, an almost stifling uniformity, as members are expected to share the same convictions, values, traditions, and habits on almost every conceivable subject. I was deeply struck by this tendency on moving back to my home community from a Scottish evangelical church. In the latter, the church was characterized by extraordinary diversity of theological backgrounds, opinions, worship tastes, preaching tastes, visions of leadership, ministry priorities, etc.—many of these opinions quite strongly held—and yet somehow it all held together. It wasn’t necessarily always a pretty picture, and sometimes you wished that the community would do more to work through some of these differences and come to a common mind; being Brits, they had difficulty airing differences in public, which often made for deep frustrations. But at least there was never a sense that just because you were going to this church, you somehow needed to agree with everything it taught, or prioritize everything it prioritized, or share exactly the same ideals of liturgy. When we moved back here, however, we were struck by how the mere existence of difference was threatening, and voicing it publicly was sometimes seen as an act of betrayal or aggression against the community.
Differences still exist in such communities, of course, since we are dealing with human beings, not robots, but there is great pressure to bury them beneath the surface. When these differences boil to the surface, the community does not know how to handle it, and fragments, only to re-align itself, as soon as possible, into a new set of perhaps smaller communities each of which manifests very little difference within itself. The problem, then, is not too much individuality, but too little, not too much of a “heretical imperative,” a love of difference, but a choking fear of difference. The problem is not that, in these communities, everyone is so busy thinking for themselves on every subject that they just need to learn to let go and submit their judgments to something higher or older or bigger, but that they’re so busy looking for a guru or an orthodoxy to which they can wholeheartedly submit to, lining up their judgment on every point, that they don’t know how to do anything else. It’s only a question of whether they’re going to check their brains at the door of some very small community or some very large community. What we need in Protestantism, in short, is actually more people willing to think for themselves, as crazy as that sounds!
Of course, it doesn’t sound crazy within certain discourses. Among more liberal Protestants, it is of course obvious that what afflicts conservative Protestants is hide-bound traditionalism and dogmatism. The solution is freedom for people to think for themselves, freedom to embrace a diversity of truth-claims as relative, freedom to abandon the arrogant dogmatism of firm conviction. But this, as many good conservatives have pointed out, is itself another version of the fear of difference, inasmuch as it seeks to dissolve all truth-claims and all value-claims into a homogenous soup of equally vacuous and un-threatening “I feel”s and “Maybe”s. Such liberalism has great difficulty handling a genuine clash of genuinely-held convictions, just as much as most contemporary conservative communities do. It can handle only differences of preference, and indeed it seeks to reduce all differences of conviction to differences of preference.
In fact, genuine freedom of discourse is very elusive and difficult to achieve; it arises only in a community where members have the confidence to hold different convictions, and to voice different views, without being unnerved or frightened or angered by encountering someone who thinks otherwise. Not because they think that their view is not true, or even because they think it doesn’t matter—but because they are humble enough to recognize the reasonable grounds others may have for differing, and because they recognize that it does not matter in an ultimate sense. This distinction—it matters, but not in an ultimate sense—is easy enough on paper, but devilishly hard to preserve. We are constantly drawn to one of the much simpler black-and-white alternatives: either we can freely disagree about it, because it is a mere matter of personal taste and preference, or we must agree about it, because it is a matter of spiritual life and death.
This was one of the things that bothered me slightly about some of the otherwise helpful responses to the recent kerfluffle on heath-conscious and ethics-conscious food choices. Broadsides such as those by Toby Sumpter seemed to imply that the problem was that many Christians were legalistic or idolatrous because they were insisting on the necessity of certain food choices as a matter of righteousness. The easiest response to this criticism then was to say, “No, I do care about buying free-range eggs and avoiding processed foods that will destroy my children’s health, but that’s just my personal decision, and of course no one’s sinning to decide otherwise.” I’d much rather have this response than Pharisaic legalism, but there ought to be a middle ground somewhere between legalism and laissez-faire. In fact, such a middle ground exists, and within its vast spectrum lie most of the judgments that the task of ethics is called to address, as I’ve written elsewhere. The person who buys free-range eggs ought to think, I would contend, that she is making some kind of moral judgment, and if it has the status of moral judgment, then it has some kind of universal force: all things being equal, everyone ought to try to buy free-range eggs. Likewise, on somewhat different grounds, one could reason that all things being equal, everyone ought to generally avoid unhealthy processed foods.
So a moral claim is being made, but it can still tolerate different moral judgments. Why? Because one recognizes, first, that all things are not equal, and there are enough circumstantial variables and complexities that others may quite reasonably reach different judgments. Accordingly, one may deem someone else to be wrong without being at all wicked or stupid. Second, because one recognizes that we are justified by faith, not by works. This means that I can feel confident in my moral judgments and decisions, without indulging in the silly fantasy that this makes me a wonderful special righteous person, and without needing to get too worked up about my neighbor’s failure to share these moral judgments. (I should add that all of what I am saying here about moral judgments applies also to truth judgments in the realm of doubtful and debatable secondary matters.) We are both justified by faith, and this gives us space to differ with one another, to think these differences objectively matter, and yet at the end of the day to love and embrace one another.
In short, to wrap all of these wandering reflections up: the problem with many of us Protestants is not that we’re too Protestant—too individualistic, free-thinking, and anti-authority—but that we’re not Protestant enough. We’re afraid of the real “liberty of a Christian man” and so we take refuge in tight-knit coteries with respected gurus, official doctrine, and detailed (though often unspoken) rules of conduct. And this is because we don’t take our justification by faith seriously enough; we look for our justification in our adherence to doctrinal minutia, or to “a Christian worldview,” or to a comprehensively anti-worldly lifestyle, and accordingly we still live in fear, fear of a failure to conform, and cannot bring ourselves to live together as individuals, each exercising our own judgments in submission to the Word and in humble but lively debate with one another.