Reviews > Culture

The opening of the American God

Culture | "Post-conservative" evangelicals are stuck in the same old cultural religion

Issue: "UNbelievable," June 17, 2000

A few decades ago, the mainline Protestant churches did not necessarily want their members to find out what was being taught in their colleges and seminaries. The extent of their theologians' rejection of the truth of Scripture would not sit well with the average church member, even in the more liberal denominations. Today, this theology gap-separating those in the pews from some of the scholars training their pastors-concerns the nature of God. And this gap is opening up not in the bastions of liberal theology, but among evangelicals. For the so-called "post-conservative" evangelicals, God is not all-powerful, all-knowing, or eternal. Rather, His power has limits; He does not know the future; and He exists in time. God does not condemn anyone eternally. Nor can He stop human suffering. In fact, He has to work in partnership with us, and He changes as we change. This is the "openness-of-God" theology, in which God, the church, and Christianity are "opened up" so that they become less narrow, more inclusive, more open to new ideas, and more compatible to the postmodern mind. America has given birth to lots of new religions-from Mormonism to Scientology-and this new open deity, despite all of the theological pretensions, fits the same patterns as other home-brewed cultural religions. Anti-historical syndrome
Americans, living in a young nation, sometimes have the tendency to believe, with Henry Ford, that "history is bunk." The past has no relevance for people living in the now. Thus, new American religions have often proclaimed completely new revelations. The Jehovah's Witnesses, the Flying Saucer cults, and other made-in-America religions teach that what Christians have believed for over 2,000 years is just wrong, but that now, at long last, we have found the truth. Certainly, Christians have disagreed with each other over the centuries, but even new theological formulations sought continuity with the past, and there has always been a core of agreement on, for example, who God is. In contrast, the openness-of-God theologians posit a deity never before known. According to them, the fathers of the early church, the Scholastics, the Reformers, John Wesley, Billy Graham, and probably your own grandmother were all wrong in praying to an omnipotent, omniscient, unchanging God. Only now, in this age of unbelief and moral chaos, do we have a clear handle on what God is really like. Anti-intellectual syndrome
Americans easily become anti-intellectual, turning against the precepts of reason and learning in favor of a know-nothing pragmatism. Religions that have been born in the U.S.A. tend to favor subjective experience rather than objective doctrinal truth. Ironically, the worst anti-intellectuals have tended to be intellectuals. Ordinary Americans tend to favor the rationalism of common sense, while American academics are often the ones to embrace the irrational metaphysics of postmodernism and left-wing politics. It was John Dewey, for example, who rejected the teaching of objective content, stressing that education should be a matter of teaching processes alone, a notion that has led to the decline-and the anti-intellectualism-of American education ever since. The openness-of-God theologians claim to be simple biblical literalists, rejecting the philosophizing that they claim corrupted Christian doctrine from the beginning. Of course, they are rejecting only the philosophy that tries to think about objective truth. They are uncritical in their use of existentialists, process theologians, and postmodernist philosophy. But they agree with Dewey that process is more important than content, even when it comes to the Person of God. The kind of religion that is left is emotional, effusive, and sentimental, all in the best traditions of American anti-intellectualism. Evolutionary syndrome
Americans tend to have a naive belief in progress, which has made them open to Darwinism, without the survival-of-the-fittest rough edges. Change is good, we like to think; being "open to change" is a virtue; and the new is always better than the old. In the beginning of the century, the Scopes trial defined the schism between the "fundamentalists" and the "modernists" in theology. Today, despite the continuing debates between creationists and evolutionists, many of the heirs of fundamentalism are bringing evolution into their theology. Even God evolves. He has become a lot more progressive than He used to be. And society and the Christian church need to evolve and become more progressive with Him. Ironically, this apotheosis of evolution comes at exactly the time when the whole theory is being challenged by cogent scientific evidence that the universe came into being through intelligent design. Some of its harshest critics, though, come from the ranks of post-conservative evangelicals, who are using the stereotypical fundamentalist tactic of silencing, censoring, and kicking off campus those who dare put forward a new scientific theory. Legalistic syndrome
Americans tend to be morally judgmental-even while we are being immoral. Instead of accepting the awful reality of sin, Americans tend to vacillate between a can-do moral optimism and, when this fails, the protestation that "what I'm doing isn't really wrong." American religions, in turn, have tended to be legalistic, grounding salvation in doing or not doing certain things. Thus we have had the temperance movement and the social gospel, the communal radicalism of the cults and the zealotry of the environmentalists and the animal-rights activists. Evangelicals, while insisting on traditional morality, were always characterized by proclaiming the "evangel," the gospel of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Salvation is not based on what we do, but by receiving forgiveness for what we have done and receiving new life through the death and resurrection of Christ. The openness-of-God theologians tend to cast Christianity back into the mold of simply doing good works, though at the same time they make those good works far easier and more palatable to an immoral age. This new theology often goes in tandem with a more "tolerant" approach to homosexuality and other sins. Someone in the bondage of homosexual sin might be told that what he is doing is not wrong after all. But this is a far weaker message to a tormented soul than the evangelical promise that "you are forgiven." More dangerously, the openness-of-God theologians presume to cast moral judgment on God Himself. A truly just God, they say, would never condemn anyone eternally. A truly all-powerful God would not let anyone suffer. Therefore, they conclude, God must be limited, and He must be tolerant. They are resolving the classical theological dilemma of how an all-powerful and all-merciful God could allow suffering in the world by saying that He must not be all-powerful after all. But the true resolution is not to posit a limited deity who simply looks on with sympathetic helplessness at the evil in the world. Rather, the true resolution is in Christ, the God who became man, who Himself suffered at the hands of sinners, sharing all human suffering and bearing its full weight on the cross. The post-conservative evangelicals deny the force of the gospel by implying that people do not really need saving. Sin and its consequences are not so bad, after all, and if everyone is saved in a completely inclusive heaven, then there is no need for Christ crucified. If everyone is basically OK, then forgiveness is impossible, there being nothing to forgive. Openness-of-God theologians make much of Bible passages that speak of God "repenting," which they then use to explain away all of the other passages that speak of how God never changes. But God's "repenting" is nearly always an expression of the gospel, when He changes His inclination to punish sin because of the intercession of a mediator (Exodus 32: 9-14). What the post-conservative evangelicals lose is not their conservatism but their evangelicalism. Their "open God" turns out to be far smaller, less complex, and in fact more closed-more parochial and culture-bound-than the infinite, mysterious, Holy God whom Christians have always worshipped.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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