Yesterday we began our series on the importance of theology with a question that Veli-Matti Karkkainen’s students often ask at the beginning of his theology classes.
“What is the point of these finely nuanced disputes – what difference do they make at all?” “Why didn’t the church just stick with the Bible?”
These questions reveal something about Evangelical attitudes towards theology
- Many don’t see theology as being vital to our faith
- There is an anti-intellectual/anti-thelogical streak that runs through certain segments of Evangelicalism
Today we turn to what I believe is the root of Evangelical anti-intellectualism… these roots run deep.
One question that Karkkainen’s quote brings up for me, is
“What is the root of the anti-theological attitudes within certain traditions in the church?”
I believe that Nathan Hatch in The Democratization of American Christianity provides some possible answers to that question. In this book, Nathan Hatch argues that the central force behind evangelicalism has been its democratic or populist orientation. He sees the democratic or populist orientation playing out in various ways. First it is played out in the fact that evangelicals consider individual religious experiences of utmost importance (even more than doctrine). Second there is a lack of a firm distinction between clergy and laity. During the rise of evangelicalism ordinary people began to distrust their established leaders and sought out to shape their own faith according to their own likings and to choose their own leaders. An extreme focus on religious experience and a distrust towards people who were different than the average-joe created a division among Evangelicals (not so much among mainline churches) between the average lay-person and the educated lay-person/minister. Although the democratic impulse in Evangelicalism arose during a time when most people did not go to college and most Christians didn’t even go to High School, think about the 2nd great awakening, the mindset has stuck within our tradition. I think that these two results of the populist orientation of evangelicalism explain why students ask the questions that Karkkainen mentioned. I also believe that this explains why some people are so skeptical of Christians who desire to pursue higher levels of education.
This is not simply a stereotype… early on in my college years I told several people that I wanted to study philosophy. I repeatedly got warned that no good could come from my study of philosophy. People even used the Bible to warn me not to pursue this major. They told me, “Don’t study philosophy! The Bible says it is evil!” and then they quoted Colossians 2:8:
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition…”
Luckily I did not listen to them. I did not listen to them because I believed that thinking hard about tough issues really does matter to our faith. Yet I faced an uphill battle because my own tradition (Evangelicalism) has its roots in populist movements…. and populist movements never trust those who stick out as being “different” than the rest.
For more on the populist tendencies in Evangelicalism check out The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan Hatch: