James K. A. Smith wrote a new blog post this morning: God Doesn’t Need Our Help. And since, per usual, no comments are allowed, I thought I’d respond with a post of my own. And, per usual, your comments are welcome!
He begins with this notion that there is now a “new apologetics” afoot in Christianity to make the faith more palatable in an age of intellectualism and postmodernity:
In our age of post-Christian anxiety, where so many worry about young people leaving the faith and the implausibility of Christianity in a secular age, we get a new apologetics. The goal of the new apologetics is not to prove or defend the puzzling and scandalous aspects of orthodox Christianity. Instead, the goal is to show that “authentic” Christianity, or the “true” Gospel, is not offensive–that the “God of love” worshiped by Christians is pretty much the God you would want.
I’m guessing that the efforts he has in mind are generally emergent-style approaches, such as Brian McLaren’s “Naked Spirituality” or Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.” These folks make God so warm and fuzzy as to remove all objectionable content, Smith is arguing. One wishes he would provide specific examples, and then counter with a better approach. He does gloss over a few such theological touchstones like hell and the atonement, but fails to articulate what he feels is an insufficient understanding, or how he would like it framed.
He goes on to note the dubious path of this ‘new apologetics’:
That presents a challenge, of course, but the challenge is not located where you might think. Instead of spending its energy on articulating, explaining, and defending the coherence of biblical, historic Christianity (including all the “hard truths” that attend it), the new apologetics expends its energy convincing the skeptic that all sorts of aspects of “Christianity” are, in fact, non-essential accretions or downright deformative perversions of “true” or “authentic” Christianity. This is undertaken in the name of removing “intellectual hurdles” to the Christian faith. If you look again at how many new apologists frame their “reconsiderations” of hell, or the doctrine of the atonement, or the doctrine of original sin in light of evolutionary evidence, or traditional Christian sexual ethics, I suggest you’ll often find they “frame” their project something like this:
“These are aspects of Christianity that are just not believable today. But that’s OK, because it turns out that they’re also aspects that are not really biblical and not really Christian. So don’t let those things stop you from believing.” [Then cue your favorite tale about "Hellenization" or "Constantinianism" or "fundamentalism" here.]
Where to begin? First of all, most efforts I am tuned in to that are rearticulating the faith have nothing to do with making Christianity more palatable, but with honest attempts to engage the biblical and historical material, and go where the evidence leads. He intentionally twists this around, noting that many begin with deciding something is not believable, then attempt to justify it biblically and historically. Is there any evidence that this is the actual motivation of these “new apologists”? It is quite a charge to make, and we might wish to have this in hand before agreeing to the point.
Smith wishes that this new approach would spend its energy “articulating, explaining and defending the coherence of biblical, historic Christianity (including all the “hard truths” that attend it).” Yet the hard truth here is that a single, unified “historic Christianity” simply doesn’t exist. It’s a convenient fiction by which we tell ourselves we are simply walking the path that began with the first disciples undistorted down to our day.
As Harvey Cox notes in The Future of Faith: “When I attended seminary, most historians conveyed the impression that once upon a time there was a single entity called “early Christianity,” but that gradually certain heresies and schisms arose on the margins and disrupted the initial harmony. In the last few decades, however, all these assumptions have proven erroneous. There never was a single “early Christianity”; there were many, and the idea of “heresy” was unknown.”
Are some folks interested in changing theology to make it more ‘believable’? Probably. That may well be true in certain cases. But many, many folks I study and read are simply interested in studying the biblical and historical record to know what a text or doctrine actually meant when it was written, and the context in which it arose. The consequences for theology only come later, if at all. It strains credulity to imagine this hard work of studying, gathering and analyzing all the evidence from linguistic, archaeological, cultural, literary and historical sources is done simply for the sake of inventing a more believable Christianity!
In fact, Smith himself would prefer us to begin with the answers, pay attention only to evidence that supports his version of orthodoxy, and ignore everything else. Which does the very thing he claims the “new apologetics” does: it makes Christianity more palatable for his particular audience. Smith teaches at Calvin College, a private, Reformed institution. [Cue your favorite tale about “John Calvin” or “Heidelberg” or “ham on buns.”]
This version of the faith is meant to be more amenable to his audience, precisely because it is the same version that his students’ parents hold and the same version his administrators hold, not to mention the donors who fund the whole enterprise. In seeking to display honest attempts at understanding the Bible and church history as dishonest marketing efforts for Christianity, Smith succumbs to his own charge: he defends the status quo under the guise of honest theological discussion.
Instead of having a response to those who may look at early church doctrine and the influence of Hellenization (i.e., being shaped by Greek thought and philosophy), he wants us to ignore it. Instead of acknowledging the troubling political realities surrounding the church councils at which some of the core doctrines of “historic Christianity” were founded, Smith would prefer us to just ‘take their word for it’ and carry on, because ‘there’s nothing to see here.’ Who cares if Nicea was presided over by a corrupt Roman emperor who had power and national unity in mind rather than any real interest in theological accuracy? That’s no business of ours! Our charge is to assume they got it exactly right, and continue to uphold the “hard doctrines” upon which our forebears spent so much personal capital. Speaking of ignoring intellectual challenges.
Listen to Calvin College’s own statement of its calling, as articulated by Neal Plantinga: “We [Christians] learn to distrust simple accounts of complex events and to be prepared for the place human irrationality has in the course of human history. All this equips us to understand the world in which we are to be peace agents. Just as no CIA agent would be sent to an area of which she was ignorant, so it’s folly for us to expect to serve and transform a world we do not know.”
Smith argues that such a “new apologetics” (which, by the way, is a convenient title for something that doesn’t exist) avoids intellectual rigor, but it is clear enough that he is the one advocating for ignoring historical realities that might challenge one’s doctrinal heritage. Yet to articulate that would ruffle some institutional feathers (something a few of his colleagues learned is not to be done).
I hate to break it to Jamie, but there is no “new apologetics.” However, there is renewed interest in discovering more closely what was going on in the first century in Galilee and the Ancient Near East, what was behind early church councils that codified doctrines for all time, and what it might look like to live out a meaningful Christian faith today.
Smith then goes for the bread and butter of his audience:
But it seems to me that this sort of project is predicated on a particular account of faith that is often left implicit. In particular, it seems to assume that if someone is going to come to believe the Gospel they must be convinced since their belief is a matter of their choice. Or at the very least, the intellectual hurdles that stand in the way of their believing must be removed. If we do that, then the way is clear for them to choose to believe.
The new apologetic, in other words, is fundamentally Arminian, perhaps even Pelagian (and yes, I know the difference*). The drive to eliminate intellectual and “moral” hurdles to belief is a fundamentally Arminian project insofar as it seems to assume that “believability” is a condition for the skeptic or nonbeliever to then be able to “make that step” toward belief.
While this might confirm a lot of prejudices, it should be said that this is an odd strategy if one is an Augustinian or a Calvinist–since in an Augustinian account, any belief is a gift, a grace that is given by God himself. So if God is going to grant the gift of belief, it seems that God would able to grant and empower a faith that can also believe the scandalous. In other words, God doesn’t need our help.
Here Smith attempts to resuscitate a long-dead theological squabble because he knows mere mention of the word “Arminian” still might rankle a few folks in West Michigan. To get non-Reformed folks up to speed: Arminianism is based on the theological ideas of the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) and his historic supporters known as the Remonstrants. It is known as a soteriological sect of Protestant Christianity. The crux of this Arminianism lay in the assertion that human dignity requires an unimpaired freedom of the will. In other words, one can choose faith or resist it. One can choose to follow Jesus, or not. (Seems fairly obvious on the face of it).
Ah… but how do we pair this common sense, seemingly obvious reality with the doctrine that God has elected people before they were born for either heaven or hell? Forget common sense: nobody chooses Jesus. Jesus chooses you. In a word, Arminianism attempted to give people dignity, to show that faith is not a farce, and that God, in essence, hasn’t rigged the game.
But let’s wake up to the fact that such arguments are about things that have little or nothing to do with a life of actually following the very earthy (and earthly) Jesus of Nazareth, whom one can scarcely imagine had time for such esoteric theological squabbling. Smith is worried we might violate a theological construct from the Middle Ages that almost nobody cares about today. Rather than constructively present a coherent theological impetus for engaging the world and society today, including concerns about peace and conflict, environment and ecology, and human sexuality, Smith would rather us look worriedly over our shoulder at a conflict from 600 years ago about something that no one can figure out conclusively anyway.
But Smith knows this much: in Calvinistic circles, accusing your opponent of being an Arminian ends the argument. Case closed! They’re heretics, so they’re obviously wrong.
Jamie Smith’s conclusion: God doesn’t need our help. He can choose us or not. He can save our world from ecological or military disaster just fine without us. He can grow his church without us (wait, I thought we were the body of Christ… but I digress). Why worry about new constructive efforts for living out the faith today? Why bother with things like Christian education? Why even write blog posts on the topic? Such human efforts are surely irrelevant in the face of this austere and omnipotent Calvinistic Zeus. God must be genuinely grateful for such an eloquent defense of his inscrutable ways (though God knows he doesn’t need it).
Much of this seems contrary to the picture one finds in the Scriptures: a God who willingly partners with humanity, and sets them as caretakers over his entire creation (The original Hebrew hides this line in chapter 2: “Just kidding, Adam! Don’t need you at all. Especially if you mess things up.”).
All through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures God not only needs our help, he asks for it.
A Jewish perspective (which, by the way, precedes later “heretical” developments like Pelagianism or Arminianism by just a wee bit) is that God has chosen to partner with humanity. That he does, in fact, need us, and has chosen to need us. To say otherwise is to belittle the hard fought efforts of people such as Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and many, many other unheralded people of faith who work hard every day to bring a bit of God’s healing into this broken creation. And more specifically to Smith’s point on belief: God has used men and women to carry the message of the gospel to people far and wide so that they would believe, from the very beginning.
As Jesus said to Paul on the road to Damascus:
“Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
God doesn’t need us? Someone forgot to tell that to Jesus.