In a recent article entitled “Fundamentalism Vs. Wonder,” The American Conservative writer Rod Dreher suggests that evangelicals tend to be hostile to spontaneous expressions of awe and wonder at the grace and power of God. Such expressions are often mystical in nature, because we find ourselves dumbstruck at the mysteries of God. Dreher argues that while this kind of Christian mysticism is “an ordinary part of Catholic and Orthodox theology and spirituality,” evangelicals unfairly pounce upon it with unfounded accusations of New Age heresy.
It’s not a new accusation; G. K. Chesterton wrote that where Christ turned water into wine, Calvin turned wine into vinegar. And there is a kernel of truth behind some of Dreher’s observations. On the whole, however, I think his criticism is unfair.
Tension Between Devotional and Doctrinal
Dreher explains at some length that he doesn’t mean to attack evangelicals, and I believe him. The content of this article, Dreher’s consistent track record, and my limited personal interactions with him all lead me to believe that he is speaking sincerely in love. And Dreher is careful to note that the traditions of his own experience (he has converted from Roman Catholic to Eastern Orthodox) have their dysfunctions as well.
Moreover, it is true that an unpleasant level of tension often persists between authors with a devotional/pastoral focus and those with a more theological/doctrinal focus. And it’s also probably true that these tensions are more serious in evangelical quarters than elsewhere. That would only make sense; our simultaneous commitments to biblical authority and also to authentic personal belief and Spirit-driven renewal would naturally increase pressures between the two imperatives. That’s the kernel of truth I find in Dreher’s article.
Tim Keller has written very wise advice on this tension in a paper that I would urge all ministry leaders to read. Those who prioritize doctrine and those who prioritize devotion tend to think, speak, and act in different ways. Keller points out some specific instances of related suspicion, alienation, and unnecessary division in the church. We have to learn to speak one another’s languages and cultivate a spirit of brotherhood and gentleness, especially when correcting each other.
Grim and Gradgrinding God
But Dreher goes far beyond this acknowledged problem. He argues that the devotional side isn’t welcomed and cultivated among evangelicals. That notion wouldn’t survive even the quickest glance at the bestseller lists, or the agendas of the big conferences, or the teaching curricula in the influential megachurches. Almost all of this features the kind of devotional awe-and-wonder stuff Dreher seeks.
If evangelical authors who focus on doctrine are anxious about the urgency of correcting theological errors in devotional writers, it’s mostly because they speak from a position of weakness, whereas the devotional writers are in a position of strength. If the doctrinal writers were strong, they would probably feel more comfortable making allowances for legitimate Christian mysticism and the like. Meanwhile, if devotional writers were weak, I expect they would become much more harsh and unforgiving of what they see as cold intellectualism and hubristic rationality in the theologians.
Worse, Dreher paints with a very broad brush, yet points to no specific examples. The subject of his article is a recent experience of seeing “many articulate, educated Protestant pastors and writers” harshly denounce an evangelical author whose reflections on the mystery of God he found beautiful:
It was very, very harsh stuff. Of course one doesn’t expect fundamentalists and other very conservative Protestants to agree with traditional sacramental theology, and I certainly see grounds for criticism of this writer’s book, at least from a conservative Protestant perspective. What shook me up was the vehemence of the theological attacks on this writer, and the absolute— absolute!—insistence that the kinds of things she identifies smack of “mysticism,” and are the first step to becoming a New Ager. . . .
I thought: if the God of these stern and severe men were the only God I was ever shown, I doubt I would ever have become a Christian, because God would have seemed to me to be grim and gradgrinding.
However, Dreher declines to specify either the author allegedly being vilified or her vilifiers. I wish he showed some sensitivity to the position in which his reticence places those of us on the evangelical side who wish to engage in this conversation. If some people on our team are misbehaving, I for one would like to join Dreher in lamenting it. So would many other evangelicals I know. And we would be much better placed than Dreher to make our objections heard among those who need to hear them.
However, without the names, we have no way to evaluate Dreher’s accusations. What if the author in question really was teaching heresy? Dreher himself admits that her writings come into some kind of conflict or tension with Protestant theology. How can we know whether it might not have been worth reproving?
More important, Dreher says he found these evangelical voices to which he’s responding by googling the name of the author they were criticizing. And he’s surprised he could find harsh criticism on the internet?
Up to Our Necks in Mystical Awe and Wonder
Are these voices really representative of evangelicalism? Are they influential? Are they prominent? Or are they web kooks no one else listens to? Dreher describes them only as “articulate” and “educated.” That doesn’t cut it. For my sins, I have spent considerable time in some quarters of the internet where articulate and educated evangelicals met to exchange views that I can only describe as bonkers.
Is this the yardstick by which Dreher would evaluate our faith tradition? Does he think that I cannot appeal to my father Google, and he will at once send me more than 12 legions of links to websites where “articulate and educated” people in his tradition also say crazy things?
But let me rise to higher ground. If I’m right in my contention that evangelicals are actually up to their necks in mystical awe and wonder before the glory of God, what would explain that? If Dreher will forgive me, my answer is: Protestant theology.
The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions interpose the church between the believer and God, reducing the miracle of salvation until it is small enough to work through visible and manipulable human operations. Protestant theology places the believer’s soul directly in God’s hands. God did not create an ecclesiological salvation system and then sit back and hope you got plugged into that system one way or another. He saves you, personally, immediately, by smashing through the orderly system of nature and human institutions to work unfathomable miracles right inside your heart. Protestant theology gives us a salvation that is more mysterious, more awesome and wonderful, and even more “sacramental” in the broadest sense of that term.