Hermeneutics of Charity, Eyes of Grace (On Richard Mouw)

Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Seminary in California.  I’m halfway through his nice little book “Consulting the Faithful” which essentially is a book arguing that Christian academics need to pay more attention to what laypeople think, rather than dismissing the views of people who haven’t studied theology. 

I like Mouw, although I’ve never met him.  What I like is his approach to life, his generosity.  He is charitable, and seems to have eyes to see value in places and things others would dismiss.  Although an evangelical and Calvinist, he sees great value in Cardinal Newman and Catholic thought.  Mouw sees Vegas not just as a den of iniquity, but as a representation of the New Jerusalem, and he sees fundamentalism positively as a refusal to allow highbrow intellectuals to dominate theology.  

As he points out, “laypeople have often served as guardians of a tradition that might otherwise have been lost to the church…” 34    He quotes from Nathan Hatch’s great book, Democratization of American Christianity: fundamentalists have refused to “surrender to learned experts the right to think for themselves…[and] have taken the faith into their own hands and molded it according to the aspirations of everyday life”.  In this sense, fundamentalists Mouw positively describes share something in common with self proclaimed ‘enlightened’ humanists (who maintain a worldview oriented around humans rather than God)    who are critical of religion– both fundamentalists and enlightened humanists demand to not be told what to believe. 

Now we tend to often think of fundamentalists as people who dogmatically believe certain fundamentals regardless of evidence for or against them.  But a more positive (and gracious) way of seeing them is as individuals who will not surrender their real lived experience of faith to academic theorizing. 

Mouw describes the experience of Abraham Kuyper, the famous Dutch Calvinist theologian and thinker who went on to be Prime Minister of the Netherlands for a time.  Kuyper graduated from seminary a card carrying liberal theologian, but his parish experience and encounter with authentic believers in the pew led him to a conversion experience:

When he entered his first pastorate in the village of Beesd, he encountered some pious Calvinist parishoners, especially Pietje Baltus, an uneducated millers daughter, who strongly opposed his liberal preaching.  Much to his own surprise, Kuyper was attracted by the faith of these simple folk and experienced a profound evangelical conversion.

As Mouw puts it: “Only God’s grace can rescue us.  We are all in the same condition…Theologians have no better access to God than do farmers and waitresses.  We all desperately need God’s mercy.  And we all need other Christians, to encourage and admonish and nurture each other in our attempts to respond appropriately to God’s sovereign grace.” 28

Mouw makes it clear that his point is not that laypeople don’t need and benefit from trained theologians.  His point is rather that trained theologians and Christian academics need to learn from people in the pew. 

Mouw writes a bit about “tacky theology”  First, he brings an example of the former Bishop of Edinbugh in the Scottish Episcopal Church, Richard Holloway, who said once that evangelical litugical and spiritual tastes tend toward “Fast food rather than haute cuisine…” and goes on to say that “one of the courageous things about evangelicals is their ability to embrace bad taste for the sake of the gospel”.  In place of evangelical low-church pragmatism, Holloway suggests to the Catholic tradition as a corrective, whose incarnational approach has “bred in Christianity, at its best, an affirming and generous attitude towards human beings, their struggles, their joys, their tragedies and their sorrows.”  Mouw critically responds to this Anglican advice.  What is more incarnational?  To be aloof from the everyday world of discos and fast food, or to bring Christ and the gospel into that world?  Does an incarnational Christianity keep itself at a distance from the ‘normal culture’ of society?  Does incarnational Christianity look down its nose at the ‘little people’ who are too poor (culturally or financially) to join the aloof perspective of the theologically enlightened?  “A more intentional focus on the incarnation will not by itself, then, cure evangelicalism of its low aesthetic proclivities.” 6 

Mouw also highlights David Wells book No Place for Truth where Wells chastizes evangelical culture for alligning itself too closely to popular culture, saying that Jesus never did his ministry by first seeing which way the fickle changing winds of cultural preference were blowing.  While Mouw does not entirely disagree with Wells general point, he thinks Wells went too far in criticizing the popularizing tendencies of evangelicalism in its attempt to reach people for Christ.  Referring to Augustine’s point that Jesus and the disciples seemed to use miracles to gain the attention of the crowds (in a popularizing fashion) Mouw wisely concludes ‘”Blanket statements about whether we as servants of Christ are to take popular sensitivities into account in the way we communicate do not really get us very far.  What we need is a more nuanced understanding of how the gospel speaks to the impulses of pupular religion.”

Mouw refers to  an experience of one new believer describing his relationship with God as “God is my CEO”.  While some of Mouws colleagues shook their heads in derision over this ‘tacky theology’ Mouw says we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize.  “Let me make it clear that I am not willing to settle for tacky theology…But I am willing to live with a little tackiness for starters as a pedagogical strategy.  My hope for the yound middle manager is that he will soon outgrow the CEO analogy for God.  Mangement and profit are not good organizing principles ina theology for the long haul.  But as entry level concepts, they are appropriate.” 11

Many of my friends find evangelicalism difficult for exactly these sorts of reasons: they find it overly pragmatic– willing to sacrifice anything for the sake bringing people to Christ– which thereby leads to evangelicalism having a pretty low bar aesthetically.  Anything goes for the Gospel.  This instrumentalistic Christianity seems crass, too simple, too lowbrow, and devoid of the majesty and transcendence of God.  But it is useful I think to bring the full tension of the Trinity into perspective here.  God is as father transcendent and majestic and awesome, and as Jesus: human, infant, broken, killed, dirty.  The incarnation of God in Christ brings God to earth, into the world.  Christ did criticize certain parts of culture (particularly the arrogance, pride and hypocrisy he saw in the religious culture), and we should too.  But he also embraced culture and the world of the rest along with them in many ways– ways many of the religious of his day would not.  

All of this is to say that we must beware of confusing having high brow aesthetic tastes with having a higher level of Christian understanding or relationship to God.  As pointed out in the conversion of Kuyper, it is the steadfast ardent real-Christian witness of true believers which really has the transformative power to change minds and lives, and one does not need high level aesthetic or intellectual tastes to achieve deep relationship with Christ.  This is the great leveling belief of Christianity– that it is not by our works or knowledge, but by acceptance of the grace of God in Christ which brings us into real relationship with God.   

I really have found Mouws insights and perspective helpful and encouraging.  He has a heart for bringing theology and Christian thought to the people in the pew, and in my view, he does a great job of it.

May God have mercy on us all.

And if you want to read any of Mouws other stuff, he has a lot: http://www.amazon.com/Richard-J.-Mouw/e/B001HD17QU/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1295270044&sr=8-1

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