The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Evangelicalism

by Hal Miller

Every form of Christianity tries to be faithful in its time. The problem comes in trying to discern when its time has passed.

Forty years ago, Carl F. H. Henry made that discernment in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. In his eyes, fundamentalism had become trapped in a mire of antagonism toward the world around it. Fundamentalism had become closed to the world and therefore irrelevant to the world. Its time had passed.

Back when the movement began in the early twentieth century, fundamentalism saw itself as an ark of refuge from the intellectual floods of the modern age. Critical study of the bible was making it seem more and more a human book- perhaps a merely human book. Nineteenth-century science had cast doubt on the Christian account of reality. True, Christianity had survived the new astronomy of the sixteenth century and the new physics of the seventeenth century with renewed vigor. But when Darwin's new biology came into vogue, some Christians began to wonder whether things had gone too far; the fundamentalists gathered up some gopher wood and started building.

They withdrew into the ark, closing the door after them against the scientific paganism of "the world." They dealt with the flood of modernity by removing themselves from its waters. Fundamentalism spoke a resounding "No!" to the modern world, preferring the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual security of their ark. But in so doing, they became culturally closed, looking on every new insight or approach to life with suspicion. In their own minds, they were being faithful to God by shunning their world's scientific paganism. But because they were culturally closed, they became increasingly isolated and irrelevant.

YET FUNDAMENTALISM HAD an "uneasy conscience." Its more articulate children had become uncomfortable with its irrelevance because they felt the bible pulling them in a different direction- toward openness to the world. Among them were the youthful discontents of postwar Christianity in America: Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, Billy Graham, and Harold Lindsell. They launched out on a new experiment that sought to overcome the cultural isolation they saw in fundamentalism.

These "evangelicals" had a simple goal. The fundamentalists, they reasoned, may have saved themselves and their families by boarding the ark, but they did so at great cost. The floodwaters had not risen as high as the fundamentalists had feared, and so the world sat on the hills around the ark and gawked at it as an irrelevant relic of a past era. By refusing to be culturally open, the fundamentalists had removed Christianity from the only place where it can thrive- the world. The evangelicals wanted to come out of the ark and live a culturally open Christianity once more.

Spiritual ghettos, they said, were not healthy places for Christians, so they chafed against fundamentalism's rejection of "worldly" activities like movies and dancing. Political problems, they said, were indeed the Christian's business, so their periodical Christianity Today began its life in Washington, D. C. Intellectual problems, they said, could not be ignored, so they worked vigorously to engage the cultured despisers of Christianity with reasons for their faith. All this gave evangelism a new vigor and left us indebted to the evangelicals for their labors.

They breathed a far less sectarian spirit than did the fundamentalists. The latter anxiously wanted to preserve the theological purity of those in the ark, so they tried to silence divergent opinions. They seemed bent on cutting off all creative thinkers before they had a chance to infect others, even though this radical surgery meant amputating limb after limb of the body of Christ. Fundamentalism had sought doctrinal purity at any cost; the evangelicals sought to build a diversified alliance of those who were "close enough" on the crucial issues.

And the evangelicals brought a new interest to the Christian task in the world. They refused to envision Christians as fundamentalism had: a saved remnant plucked out of a dying world. Christians were this, in one sense, but they were also the vanguard of the kingdom of God, sent back into that world to work for reconciliation and justice there.

THE EVANGELICALS ACCOMPLISHED much. But now they too have an uneasy conscience. Oddly they seem to have failed at the central task they set for themselves. Paradoxical as it might sound, they became culturally open but remained culturally irrelevant. They shook off fundamentalism's closed attitude toward "worldly" things only to find themselves "open" in a way that gave them nothing relevant to offer their world.

Think about why you find something relevant. When my car is running well, for instance, I ignore the automotive section of the newspaper. I already have transportation, so it offers me nothing new. But when my car increasingly shows its age, that same section becomes highly relevant to me because it offers me something I need. In the same way, being culturally relevant requires offering your culture something it does not already have.

The evangelicals failed to do this because they did not examine their own culture's values closely enough. We all carry the deeply ingrained patterns of our culture, but the evangelicals did not bring those cultural assumptions up for examination or criticism.

Take the meaning of "success," for example. American culture understands it in quantitative terms like dollars and cents or number of cars. The evangelicals assumed this idea of success was adequate, so they treated the church with a growth-industry mentality. The bottom line was souls saved (rather than dollars earned) but the concept was the same- we measure success quantitatively. But what if success ought to be measured qualitatively, by things like "love, joy, peace...?" Questioning the meaning of success did not occur to them; they simply accepted the meaning they found in their culture.

They assumed other cultural values, too. The evangelicals shared the American penchant for the "quick fix," and so articulated a spirituality heavy on immediate healing, light on long-term discipleship, and blissfully ignorant of problems that refuse to go away. They shared the American enthusiasm for flash and gadgetry, and so outfitted their bookstores and TV studios with the latest trinkets and gizmos. In little ways like these, evangelicalism was a thoroughly American business. But in one very important way, evangelicalism was so much a reflection of American culture that it became irrelevant: the evangelicals accepted the American assumption of individualism.

Americans see the isolated individual as the source of all moral virtue and society as nothing more than a collection of these individuals. Evangelicalism implicitly agreed. It spoke eloquently of saving individuals; but it did not take seriously what these individuals were to be saved into. They preached the gospel to individuals rightly enough; but as true Americans, they did not see that God might intend to go further and make a people out of these persons.

Christianity is culturally relevant when it offers a qualitatively different society. Jesus called it "the kingdom of God." Paul saw its first outlines in the gathered disciples of Jesus, and so he called them ekklesia- we translate it "church"- a Greek word denoting citizens assembled to attend to their common project, their city.

The evangelicals missed this. Evangelicalism sought to transform people and so transform the world. They did not see that something might be missing from this vision, something their assumption of American individualism would hide from them. The true Christian vision is to transform people, transforming them into a people, and so transform the world. The evangelicals missed that middle term. They could not see the church as a foretaste of the new society; it was a club for the new individuals. The evangelicals simply dressed American individualism in Christian clothing. They ended up with new isolated individuals, but in the old society. Since their expression of Christianity did not take form as a new society, it quickly became culturally irrelevant, even though it was admirably culturally open.

Fundamentalism, at least, had offered an alternative- a culturally closed, intellectually crippling alternative, but at least an alternative. Evangelicalism sought to overcome this closedness but did so at the cost of its relevance.

THE EVANGELICALS WERE faithful in their time. We need to find a way to be faithful in our time as they sought to be faithful in theirs.

This means we cannot jettison the past. The evangelicals wisely learned from the accomplishments as well as the mistakes of fundamentalism. Evangelicalism has accomplished much, and we need to take that seriously. The evangelicals gave us an important gift in their cultural openness. As John 3.16 says it, the world is the object of God's love. It is not a hopelessly alien and threatening place for Christians; it is the place where God has chosen to be active to redeem.

Yet being culturally open, in itself, is not enough. We also need to be culturally relevant. We need to be open to take the world seriously as God's world and the place of our own tasks; but at the same time we need to offer the world a real alternative to its present forms. That means creating an alternative society.

The problem is, America is a society at arm's length. We feel alone here, and other persons (except in the tiny enclave called "family and friends") are often at best resources for personal goals, at worst mere limitations on personal freedom. We measure our worth by our success in this jungle and pin our hopes and satisfactions to personal achievements here and to a handful of one-to-one relationships with some friends or family. Evangelicalism became culturally irrelevant because it failed to offer a social alternative to this dehumanizing aspect of its world.

To be culturally relevant, Christianity must offer an alternative. God has indeed chosen to deal with persons as individuals- in this the evangelicals were right. Yet they are not simply individuals; they become members of a social reality called ekklesia, which is the entering wedge of the new society of God's making.

Too often, for example, we assume that evangelism involves the simple aggregation of more and more new individuals. If enough people are "born again," the world's problems will diminish. But the experience of the last twenty years- in which we had more and more people "born again" as well as more and more marital tragedies, more and more international tension, and more and more bondage to the demons of our age- seems a perfectly contrived counter-example to this theory.

The Christian calling requires being reconciled with God, to be sure. But it also requires being a new, reconciling society characterized by forgiveness, acceptance, and responsibility in a common task- a society qualitatively different from its culture, yet engaged with it. Little gatherings of Christians for worship and mutual help in being disciples become the seeds of God's coming new society.

Such a new society will be culturally relevant because it springs from God's movement among God's people. The persons who make up this new society live their faith in the face of day-to-day problems that they share with the world around them. They face the same questions as unbelievers: finding joy and meaning in work, living at peace both personally and globally, raising responsible and compassionate children. And in facing those questions, Christian faith becomes relevant even for unbelievers.

As Christians confront the problems of living their faith in work, family, public and private life, their faith will have to be culturally relevant or else atrophy and die. As they engage each other in the new society which they make up, they will naturally be both open and relevant because the real world- and not a spiritual ghetto- is the place of their calling and task. Imagine a group of people gathering to help each other in the common task of seeing God's kingdom incarnated in their work, in their families, in their towns, in their world, in their midst, and (rather than only) in their individual lives. This gathering is ekklesia. It will be relevant to its world because it lives the life of the kingdom in the world, not apart from it.

The goal of such a culturally open and culturally relevant form of Christianity, of course, is to be faithful in its time. Will it ever develop an uneasy conscience? Of course. But if it is genuinely open and genuinely relevant, when its time has passed, it will know and can be faithful in its new time as well.