Friday, March 07, 2014

“What’s Your Magisterium, Baby?”

A few years back geez magazine asked a pre-selected group of people, “How Evangelical are you?” Individuals’ answers were posted in the sidebar, with their pictures, and a graphic of a needle-gage which swung either to the right (“Very Evangelical”) or left (go figure). I thought the issue was perfect for a Buzzfeed-like questionnaire that reveals a person’s deepest, truest self, but geez disappointed me on this front. Too bad. I was game to play along, even — especially — if it meant I’d prove to be Very Evangelical. Missed opportunity, there, geez-ers.

Bathrobes? I thought we were a hornier bunch.

When I was born, my parents attended — and my father eventually pastored — an Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church. When I was 13 my father shifted denominations to pastor an MB church in Winnipeg. The “E” might have been dropped* but the MBs were still a determinedly Evangelical bunch. At 16 or so I consented to baptism in that church.

In the next five years I questioned, then vigorously protested Evangelicalism. I couldn’t see any distinctives that separated this so-called “movement” from its hillbilly cousins, the Fundamentalists. I moved to a bigger city, and eventually the fellow that took over pastoring from my father called me on the phone and asked if I still considered myself a member of my childhood church. I said, “No.”

Onn daut je’wast daut.

From the git-go Mennonites have been an evangelical bunch — their namesake made an emphatic point of it, with this manifesto. Of course, Menno’s evangelicalism is resolutely small “e” — as holistic in scope as things got in the 16th Century. At the time, people lived and died over this sort of parsing, so you don’t get much more holistic than that. But from a 20th and 21st Century American POV, Simon’s evangelicalism has more than a whiff of “get your feet on the dirty street, and roll up your sleeves, ‘cos we got work to do” Social Gospel — which is too concerned with earthly practicalities to qualify as capital “e” Evangelicalism.

Anyway, if you bothered to follow that earlier Menno Simons link, you can see that Mennonites are still devoting a heap of head-scratching over whether they are “Evangelical” or “evangelical,” or if “evangelical” isn’t a word Anabaptists should discard altogether.

Mennonites are not unique in their intellectual struggles: by now a significant number of American Evangelicals are asking the very same questions. Journalist/Historian Molly Worthen surveys what’s going on, and, in The Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority In American Evangelicalism takes a fair stab at historical and intellectual summary.

If, like me, you reflexively snort at the application of “intellectual” to “evangelical,” this is a link worth reading. The tendency to equate North American Evangelicalism with anti-intellectualism is not without justification, but still a presupposition worth scrutiny. The beholder can declare a given intellectual struggle “false,” while the struggle rages on, both unabated and (in its uniquely false way) intellectual.**

Determining common intellectual ground among Evangelicals is its own minefield, of course, which Worthen navigates by reducing Evangelical concerns to three questions: “how to reconcile faith and reason; how to know Jesus; and how to act publicly on faith after the rupture of Christendom.”

I have to admit that, after reading her summary, I wondered whether I had in fact left Evangelicalism behind, or if I was just fooling myself. Worthen acknowledges, “These are, in some sense, universal questions that all human beings who care about the supernatural wrestle with at some level.” She goes on to say that, “Liberal Protestants, in practice, tend to treat human reason as their magisterium — either allowing reason to adjudicate their relationship with religious authority, or allowing reason to rule in its own separate sphere. They don’t get too angsty when faith suggests other things about reality than reason does.”

Trent vs.Urbana, FTW

“They don’t get too angsty” whew: I’m off the hook!*** Mind you, that’s arguably more likely a by-product of temperament than of intellect. As for “caring about the supernatural,” that will have to wait for another post, hopefully the next.

In the meantime, Worthen’s book gets a good review by Chris Lehman, over here. Tangentially related, here is a conversation between Steve Paulson and Roman Catholic theologian John Haught. I’d guess from Paulson’s Salon contributions (hey, Ken Wilber!) that his “magisterium” may reside on the “liberal” side of things. Haught confesses he’s striving to build on the work of Teilhard de Chardin, who didn’t originally get much sympathy from the Magisterium he shares with Haught. As is often the case with interviews like this, I’m less inclined to pick up the new book on offer and more inclined to return to the author’s source of inspiration (which also includes Tillich, and the usual triad of blasphemers, Camus, Sartre and of course Nietzsche. Good luck with that, John).

Right then: forward in all directions, people.

*Or, more likely, added in the case of the EMBs. I’m a little sketchy on the history, but I’m thinking the EMBs are a more recent Mennonite splinter.

**Evangelical attempts to align Darwin with the Genesis accounts, and (more to the point) Evangelical interpretations of Pauline theology, are a prime example. They might strike the more liberal or non-faithful observer as just another energetic attempt to align all of Copernicus’s Heavenly Spheres, but it still counts as intellectual activity. Best done with tongue-in-cheek, IMO.

***Speaking of Buzzfeed questionnaires: this one has me pegged as “Aristotle: You think that everyone should aim to be as happy as they possibly can, and that happiness is best achieved by challenging yourself academically. You’re always reading and you enjoy going to art museums and galleries.” I don’t know if they’ve “got” Aristotle, but Id like to think they’ve just about nailed me. 

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