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I don’t mean to complain, much less to sound petty. I don’t mean to lay blame, either.  It is what it is. Own it and figure out where to go from here.

Anyway, as I think about my life of Christian faith, many of my experiences have, in hindsight, done more to hurt my perception of faith than help it—in large part because they are so under the surface, so much mixed in with the concrete of my “faith foundation.”

The thing is, I’m getting bored.

These 4 things are part of the mix. And you can see they are interrelated.

First, as a western Christian, my faith is overly intellectualized. I cannot remember a time when my Christian culture wasn’t dominated by the idea that being Christian meant being right, of essentially tapping into the data base of the universe and coming out with the right answers, of having the mind of God.

And with that, there is no room for mystery and for the spiritual value of not-knowing. I understand better now why “mystery” and “subjectivity” were mocked in much of my Christian training. I get it.

I’m NOT against rational processes (see here), but when “truth” is something that can only come to us through our rational activities, then there can be no room for mystery—indeed, no room for other ways of thinking.

I find such a mentality in which I participate bizarre, even arrogant. But more important, even central, is this: with an overly intellectualized faith the practice of the faith is minimized (except the act of “going to church” so doctrine can be taught.) And as a result, so much of what I read in the Bible (both testaments) about “doing” has fallen on deaf ears. All of those uncomfortable passages get catalogued for future consideration, after your theology is solid and secure.

Second, western faith is overly individualized. I see myself, far more often than I wish to admit, as functionally the center of the cosmos and that the Creator does too.

No, I don’t pray for a good sale at the mall and a great parking spot when I get there. But I do stop myself at times when I am praying or pondering some thought about God, faith, life, etc., and have a flash of insight, “Dude, you are so into your own little life, as if that’s the whole point of this Jesus business.”

Part of what lies behind this seems to be the co-opting of God in support of American individualism, and the corollary, that the end goal of all of this is “What will happen to you after you die?” As if that is the central question in Scripture and the primary concern of the Creator.

Unlike English, the Greek language of the New Testament has both a plural and singular form of the pronoun “you.” When I read “you”—even though I know better—my default is singular. And so I miss a lot.

And people like me whose default is the individual tend to think less of justice than we should, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Third, White male privilege really is a thing. It’s hard to see because I’m not on the outside looking in. And I was never challenged to critique white male privilege and that doing so would be an expression of my faith. Rather, white privilege was allowed to fit far too comfortably with my faith.

Not being an oppressed person puts me at a disadvantage. I rarely need to cry out as the psalmists do about being treated with injustice, prejudice, with violence. I don’t need to worry about being pulled over by uniformed protectors of the public. There are many more places I can go and things I can do because I am part of the dominant culture.

And I don’t worry about my competence or value being questioned because of my gender. I am the default, the norm. I do the judging.

An iteration of the Christian faith that doesn’t see the problem here, really see it, is its own refutation.

Fourth, I rarely reflect on how rich I am and the effect of having all I need. I’m not rich rich (I’m a college professor, for heaven’s sake), but I’m still rich by global standards.

I own a lawn tractor that usually works and probably costs more than many impoverished American’s (let alone in developing countries) earn in months. I use that tractor to manicure the grass on a property with a house on it that has air-conditioning, ceiling fans, a refrigerator, stove, running water, internet, cable, and heat. We have 5 pets who will never starve or be without, which is more than I can say for the 19,000+ children who starve to death each day.

I was never really taught, except perhaps in passing, how much having wealth affects your outlook on life, and therefore your life of faith. The more you have, the less conscious you are of a deeper truth—that our lives are to be lived in trust of God rather than in what makes our lives artificially comfortable. Jesus said something like, “Blessed are the poor,” after all.

Wealth is prized in western culture as a sign of success, what to aim for. Wealth is needed to make the western church run—and it is. Salaries have to be paid, buildings need to be maintained, neighborhood projects are waiting. I get it—and that’s the point. We’re stuck in a system where it is hard to critique wealth and it is easy to get caught up in it.

Again, this isn’t about playing the blame game. For me, it’s more about insight, seeing more clearly the lay of the land, and proceeding forward with that understanding and owning it rather than being oblivious to it.

It’s on me to see myself as part of something bigger and far more interesting than what I have seen thus far.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

26 Comments

  • mhelbert says:

    Yes, Pete! This! This is a conversation that the Church needs to have if She has any hope of being a viable, relevant voice within the culture.

  • Wayfaring Michael says:

    This resonates with me for several reasons, and I think its a sermon that lots more people need to hear.

    First, as a retired professor myself, I struggle with that overly intellectualized faith problem myself, even as, late in life, I try to learn as much as I can on the intellectual part. I grew up, though, as a Cajun Catholic, where the faith was NOT intellectualized at all, around Catholics and Protestants of all stripes that did believe strongly in angels and demons both. Now, I’m glad all that education didn’t completely shake all of that out of me.

    Second, though, that problem of the English language with the word “you.” This is absolutely a major problem. I’m no intellectual historian, but I’m guessing it does have something to do with that whole “I’m-the-center-of-the-universe” problem we have in our culture, unlike our close cousins in Europe. (Not to mention that whole “God’s people” thing vs. “I-know-God-loves-me-but-I’m-not-sure-how-he-feels-about-the-rest-of-you” thing.) But this problem has actually already been solved, “y’all.” And I’m really serious about this. We can even drop the apostrophe and just go with “Yall.” It could really help us understand that sometimes, it really is about us only as one member of perhaps a VERY large group.

    Jesus was real clear about how problematic wealth was for one’s soul, much clearer than he was about most things. So, yeah, Pete, we need to work on that.

    (And yeah, keep writing those intellectualized books anyway…)

  • drewpop says:

    So, I have a thought about this and I’d love to know what you think.

    I think what you are doing here although seeming to be helpful, might actually be dangerous. Here’s why: People reading this might resonate with what you are saying and consequently, think they are called to reject 4 aspects of Western Christianity. Feeling convicted, they might seek to make progress on the four, but all the while, they might (a) inherit/embrace newly emerging aspects of Western culture that are likewise distorting the Gospel, (b) totally overlook about 100 other ways Western culture has historically distorted the Christian faith [maybe not 100, but surely, there are more than 4] and (c) misunderstand the ways in which the Gospel must be placed in a cultural context (and thus, reflect part of the culture).

    This hypothetical reflects a core assumption of mine: Regardless of what culture we find ourselves in, we are to engage in critical reflection upon the relationship between the Gospel and that culture, a relationship which then becomes manifested in the church. (I’m sorry, am I sounding too much like Newbigin here?) As you might surmise, my thought here is based on an observation: sounds like you inherited a faith that was acculturated instead of inculturated. The solution is not to pick apart 4 (or 3 or 6) ways in which it is acculturated, but to learn to do the work of critically reflective inculturation and teach the next generations how to do the same, as one of the primary acts of discipleship. (and, it should be noted, this helps avoid the “blame” thing you’re trying to work around … because the approach overtly takes personal responsibility)

    Thoughts?

  • Snowflake says:

    Your singing my song, Pete. It wasn’t until my health crashed and burned that my worldview was jarred out of self-focused, complacent American-style Christian religiosity. I’m convinced that we are meant for something bigger and far more interesting than what we have seen thus far. I haven’t entirely worked through all of what should be entailed in that, but I’m inclined to believe that it should have a little less to do with acquiring perfect theology and with building our own Christian American dream than I used to think.

    We might occasionally benefit from taking some atheist derision to heart.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/084ff0db84441845d93117705ffbe78b25fb8060cbdce115bc6cc827cfbf95fd.jpg

  • Kc Dayton says:

    This post reminded me of when I first came to a deep rooted trust in Jesus — I did not know the “right doctrines,” or the “wrong doctrines,” I simply had a love for Jesus (the Jesus I knew at that time) and a deep love for people — hell, I remember even disagreeing with certain authors of the Bible and not thinking 2 cents about it (when I thought they were judgmental — and being corrected for this – bad KC)… Basically, I wanted the world to be made whole and good — then doctrine, systematic theology, school, calvinism, came creeping in — and I found myself broken and unsure about this whole God business — but rather than admitting to this, I played the game out of fear of being wrong, going to hell, God hating me. I was afraid of admitting my uncertainty to those around me — reading this reminded me of simply following (trusting) Jesus in a world that literally lives in poverty and injustice ( we should not be praying/wanting vengeful Justice, but compassionate restorative justice).

    This is where the kingdom is found, in the midst of a child like trust, one that cares about the needs of others — it’s not a wall that we build, it’s a gate that has been opened.

    Thank you for writing this and being so vulnerable — I discovered your writings in 2014 and wish I had found you sooner (would have saved my faith sooner)… Keep writing Pete — if you ever have time (I know you’re busy), I would love to interview you for my buddy and I’s website amateurtheologians.com….. Much love and respect man!!

  • Stuart Blessman says:

    Lawn tractor? lol

  • EmanColi says:

    I agree with much of what was said here, but I wonder if overly intellectualized is the right descriptor. My anecdotal eyes often see a good portion of people deny evolution, take on a subjective reading when it fits their doctrine, hang out with their Calvinist/Armenian buddies, and condemn others in their wrongness. To me, that’s condemning knowledge.

    I think people today are becoming more polarized and calling it holiness. Individualism is promoted more and more. Perhaps your next project Pete should be to compare America’s real religion (capitalism) with those eastern religions I keep hearing about.

  • Tomke says:

    My college prided itself on its academics. I had always viewed myself and had been viewed as ‘smart.’ I’d worked out explanations for lots of ‘problems’ I found in the Bible. But there were many things giving me difficulty. Then my junior year at a conference I suddenly saw–I didn ‘t.have to explain everything to my intellectual satisfaction. Christianity is not a set of propositions one must intellectualy ascribe to, as my SBC churches’ ‘legalistic’ approach had taught me. It was/is something much different. Now I would say it’s following the meaning of the story of the separation of the sheep and the goats at the end of the gospel of Matthew.

  • James says:

    Regarding your first point. I grew up in the Pentecostal stream of Christianity and without leaving it learned to include and incorporate the “reasoned” side of Western Christianity into my Faith. So I started with a more mystical/experiential foundation. One of my best friends grew up as a conservative Presbyterian and then later learned to incorporate the more “experiential” side of the faith. We are basically in the same place “theologically” now, but it is interesting to me how difficult it is for him to actually find peace and joy.

    It seems the faith needs the tension of both the mystical and intellectual, I wonder if it is on a discipleship level to start with a foundation of mysticism and then incorporate the reason side?

    • Mark Kennedy says:

      Not sure I understand your rhetorical question, but I like the gist. Richard Rohr says something I have taken to heart: as we grow, it is best not to discard the previous things we learned (and have outgrown) but to transcend and include.

  • charlesburchfield says:

    One is contained in God and God’s love contains one I think. One is not the container. So things can get inside one’s awareness from God’s creation and things spring up from within one’s awareness of being connected to god. When one is contained in a cult-like situation one has not knowingly sacrificed this awareness for an illusion of safety and control in my humble opinion. how can one know what one has not been taught? But life itself teaches I think. One can be seduced for many decades of comfortably going along to get along but then something begins to wiggle. For many reasons one may be expelled from the charmed circle. One is traumatized.Then the long slide into the hideous awareness that one is in the process of being betrayed, abused, abandoned. That’s when reality of life on life’s terms begins to break one. That’s when one is stunned by the reality of death. That’s when one needs to know God keeps his promise to never leave or forsake & nothing can ever separate one from his love & that’s totally to be Till the end. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3f04c0f01f722b3b903df4f431176f93a94200ef91307763610b896d1370c546.jpg

  • Ross says:

    My own feelings are that “Christianity” is seen more as an ideology, both by its practitioners and opponents, being the intellectual agglomeration of all those propositions and maybe this has it’s roots in Luther and his stance on salvation by faith and not works. It may be that what is generally now understood by this is not what he meant, or that he countered one heresy with another one, It may be based in a misunderstanding of Paul’s writings and what he meant by both “faith” and “works”, but I think Western, particularly Evangelical Christianity sees itself as an ideology. I.e. it is what you “believe” that is important, not how you “do” following on from why you may do it. Faith being understood now as “belief” I.e. the ideology held in the head

    This seems to work out very much in a mindset which elevates evangelism on the principle of “You must believe in our ideology and change your ideology if it is different” over and above works of love, and creates a massive amount of effort in spreading an ideology, not a way of living. Maybe this is why much of the Evangelical culture in the US is engaged in its Ideological war. It may also be why the Evangelicals often seem to be against a “social gospel” as this seems to be focused on “works” and “works” are not deemed important and if anything come from a different “ideology”.

  • Robert F says:

    Can you give an example of “Eastern Christianity” (as opposed to “Western Christianity”) that wouldn’t have screwed you up in different ways? Atavistic views of women (even more than among most American evangelicals), homophobia (even worse than most American evangelicals), intolerance of differing religious views, up to an including arranging for government persecution of other forms of Christianity (ask the Jehovah’s Witnesses about the Russian Orthodox Church), a preference for retrogressive social and political systems (just take a look at Russia for a big example of how “Eastern Christianity” is worse in all these departments at this very moment): all these are rife in non-Western Christianity.

    • Pete E. says:

      I think you just gave some examples 😉

      • Robert F says:

        Maybe I’m dense, but I don’t know what you mean. I don’t see “Eastern Christianity” as ahead, but behind, its “Western” counterpart in all these areas, and promoting social and political values far more retrograde than in the West (even as bad as that is getting in some places). If I may use a text from a progressive perspective that many traditionalists would object to, “By their fruits you shall know them”.

  • Al Cruise says:

    Love, compassion and forgiveness exist outside the boundaries of all religious theologies. Always have and always will. They were there doing there thing long before any Theology surmised or penned.

  • Pete E. says:

    You largely missed my point, but thanks for your comment.

  • I’ve always found it ironic that we complain about the 1% in this country. But if you make more than $30k in a year you are the 1% in the world. Like you said, I never think of myself as rich. But when I put things in perspective I certainly am. The older I get the more truth I see in these 4 western ideals and how much damage they have done in me.

  • Eric Hill says:

    Essentially, what I hear you saying, is that we’ve lost touch with our deeply Hebraic roots. The great Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote time and again about the wonder, mystery and sublimity of God. Also, the people of the ancient near east (like pretty much every other society on earth) focused on the communal aspects of life and faith. There was no room for ethnic privilege at the core of Judaism or the Early Church, as God was always about including the “foreigner”. Finally, everything about who God is and what He did in and through the person Jesus epitomizes selflessness and charity. Two acts that force us away from relying on our riches.

    Anyhow, that was a great post. Thanks for letting me post!

  • ZZ says:

    A timely post!

    My college daughter has been struggling with this and this has been the topic of our “FaceTime”/long distance conversations this week.

    For her, though, it is dealing with these things that she so clearly sees and those around her do not.
    (We are M’s who have lived and worked overseas for 20+ years in Asia, so her worldview is decidedly NOT western.)

    I’m sending this to her to show her that there are folks who “get” it.

    Thank you!

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