In the opening paragraph to Chapter 4 of Robert Webber’s book, The Divine Embrace, Webber writes:
Spirituality has become situated in the narrative of the self. In this privatized spirituality evangelicals look to themselves for the confirmation of their spiritual condition. The self-focused spiritualities of the twentieth century have not emerged willy-nilly but are deeply rooted in the historical movements that separated spirituality from the vision of God… The problem of these dislocated spiritualities has been compounded by the current antihistorical, narcissistic, and pragmatic nature of evangelical Christianity.
In the 20th Century, three main forms of spirituality developed: legalism, intellectualism, and experientialism. The early century saw the rise of fundamentalism, which developed a legalistic mentality, a spirituality based on what a person does not do. These lists of don’ts is what separated one group from another, creating and us/them mentality. A doctrinal legalism also was developed, as fundamentalist groups defined their theology, adding extra, more defined articles of faith that one had to believe to be “orthodox.” For example, it was not good enough for the Bible to be inspired, you had to believe it was “inerrant.” As Webber states, legalism undermines the Gospel, and actually makes grace the enemy.
An intellectual spirituality also began to develop, grown out of a rationalistic, modern world-view. Spirituality became proof-oriented, a fact to be believed and argued. From this intellectual spirituality we saw the rise in apologetics. For liberals, who saw many of the Biblical stories as not fact-based or provable, they became myths whose purpose was to instruct about morality.
Then, romanticism and existentialism gave way to experientialism, where feeling God became another way of knowing God. Wesley’s experience, Webber posits, was universalized into the “defining mark of spirituality” and “feeling forgiven” became the goal of evangelism. Experientialism “elevates experience as the apologetic for faith.” Webber also suggests that the requirement to have a “personal relationship with Jesus” has led to a works-based mentality and an individualistic understanding to Christianity.
The later 20th century, with the cultural revolution of the 60’s, saw the development of antinomianism and narcissism, especially in worship, which also incorporated romanticism. Worship became about an emotional relationship which has to make us feel good in order to be true. With the influence of the “New Age” religions, it’s sometimes hard to tell Christianity from mysticism.
Another impact upon the church was the secular field of psychology; the thoughts of Freud, Carl Jung, and others led to the belief that we could be “healed” through self-discovery. The impact of this thinking on the contemporary church is obvious as we walk through any Christian bookstore, and see shelf after shelf of counseling and self-help books. Introspection and focus on the self has replaced meditation on the nature of God.
Finally, of course, we have the post-modern influence, which has rejected the Modernist concept of absolute truth. This is a rejection of the secular culture as well as the evangelical culture, both of which are rooted in modernism. For post-moderns, even experience is not prescriptive. Your story is not my story. I might be a Christian and believe that Jesus died for my sins, but it’s not necessarily right for everyone. Individualism is at an all time high. The “emerging” church seems to question everything, but accept eveything. Evangelical apologetics is essentially useless.
As I consider the many current forms of Christianity – most of them distinguished not by theology, but by the extra-Christian influences that they have adopted – it makes absolute sense that the result is post-modernism, or emergentism. As they say, something had to give. It seems that this cognitive dissonance of the modern church resulted in the letting go of truth (or what passed for it).
The answer to this mess, Webber believes, is that first the church must rediscover God’s story. It is here, that we go next.