Two Questions on Authority
Over the last several years, American evangelicalism has become increasingly divided. And while that claim is certainly nothing new—particularly for readers of American Reformer—what’s particularly striking about this rift is how ambiguously defined the core concern still seems to be. Political commentators, to be sure, have been keen to lay the blame at President Donald Trump’s feet, arguing that the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections were crucial litmus tests.1 But that causal story does little to explain why these disagreements have lingered into 2022, with Trump no longer on the ballot. Whatever is driving this cleavage within the evangelical movement, it is something larger than electoral politics.
The obvious answer to this question, for many, would be the rise of “wokeness” or “cultural Marxism” or “progressivism” or something similar—a novel “successor ideology”2 diametrically opposed to Christianity in critical ways, and now spreading like a virus through congregations and other institutions. This ideology, for its part, is understood in terms of the distinctive complex of political beliefs and values dominant within secular white-collar environments in contemporary America: a strong emphasis on the salience of race, valorization of marginalized or “subaltern” groups on the basis of the fact that they are the subaltern, an embrace of “intersectionality,” and so forth.
There have been many efforts in recent years to nail down a workable definition of this thing called “wokeness.” And those efforts are entirely understandable. After all, to define a thing is to wield power over it. (A familiar trope of horror literature is that a demon can’t be exorcised until its name is known.) Defining “wokeness”—and in particular, defining it against Christian orthodoxy—allows a clear line in the sand to be drawn between Christians and the “woke.”
But it is time to confront an important fact: these efforts have largely failed, because no one actually agrees on what counts as “wokeness.” There is no catch-all definition of the term that can do the work that many evangelicals want it to do. Indeed, the quest for such a definition—at least within a Christian context—may be futile in principle.
Now, that observation certainly isn’t meant to suggest that the concerns of many evangelicals about the trajectory of their denominations and institutions are misguided. They are not. Rather, ongoing efforts to distill a fixed “essence of wokeness,” which can then be used as a criterion for categorizing individuals as either “woke” or “Christian,” are probably destined to fail, for reasons that are distinctive to the Christian tradition.
Without a better understanding of what is actually meant by “wokeness,” evangelicals concerned about the disintegration of their institutions risk stumbling into the dynamic that writer Samuel James has called “the hamster wheel of anti-wokeness,” in which “[m]istakes and misjudgments by major evangelical institutions galvanize the anti-woke into periodic mobility, which lead them into their own overstatements and exaggerations, which in turn give credibility back to mainstream evangelical leaders.”3 No progress in understanding is made, relationships are damaged, and the Church suffers for it.
Accordingly, evangelicals require a new strategy for understanding whether a theological “meeting of the minds”—that is, fellowship in the truest and deepest sense—can be possible between those who disagree about political and cultural issues. This strategy must be one that takes the how of theological reasoning every bit as seriously as the conclusions reached through that reasoning. And it is a strategy that relies on just two very simple questions.
But first, some groundwork must be laid.
In his popular recent volume Christianity and Wokeness, Owen Strachan defines “wokeness” as “[t]he state of being consciously aware of and ‘awake’ to the hidden, race-based injustices that pervade all of American society; this term has also been expanded to refer to the state of being ‘awake’ to injustices that are gender-based, class-based, etc.”4 For present purposes, this definition will suffice as a reasonably representative one.
Arguments against this “wokeness” tend to rely heavily on origin stories, which often look something like this: First, there was Western civilization, in all its strength and glory. Then came an evil influence from outside, an intellectual poison that ensnared the minds of the unwary. And it was a one-way train from there to the toxic, cancellation-happy culture that predominates today.
But there are at least two different historical stories, or genealogies, of “wokeness.” And assuming there are certain elements of truth in each, one is left with a messy intellectual account that does not make for effective polemics, and left without a stable criterion for maintaining doctrinal boundaries in practice.
The first narrative—the “discontinuity narrative”—lays the blame at the feet of 1960s-era academics, many of whom were disillusioned Marxists, who are accused of introducing a disruptive poison into the West.5 According to some versions of this narrative, Marx’s account of economic oppression was transposed into a “cultural” key, honed and refined by the Frankfurt School, and mainstreamed in Western universities.6 Where this narrative controls, those opposed to “wokeness” tend to think of it as a kind of heathenism, an anti-Christian rival faith. (The best-known version of a narrative like this one is probably Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories.)
The second narrative—the “continuity narrative”—locates the seeds of “wokeness” within the Christian tradition itself. Friedrich Nietzsche was keen to point out that Christianity has always been particularly concerned for the oppressed—and indeed, the faith’s care for the vulnerable and downtrodden was one of the key factors that distinguished early Christianity from its Roman pagan surroundings. As Joshua Mitchell argues in American Awakening, it is not difficult to see echoes of this concern for justice—for a final eschatological reckoning and the casting down of the mighty from their high places, one might say—in contemporary political discourse that often gets characterized as “woke.”7 Where this narrative dominates, critics of “wokeness” see their target less as heathenism—a rival faith—than as heresy, a “sub-Christian” deviation ultimately springing from a common root.
The difference between these two narratives can be summarized simply: Is “wokeness” a self-conscious subversion of the Christian tradition, or a conscious extension of it?
And here the definitional problem comes into view. For one thing, whenever “wokeness” is formally defined, that definition inevitably tends to be overinclusive, implying opposition to efforts to become aware of, and to fight, injustice in general. Was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s really “woke” in the modern sense? Intuitively, it feels anachronistic and wrong to project this definition backwards into the past.
More importantly, the Christianity/wokeness dichotomy that underpins Strachan’s book—and others like it—is a dichotomy that depends on the premise that “wokeness” is, in its essence, something anti-Christian. But identifying and fighting injustice is clearly a significant element of the Christian tradition, historically speaking. Indeed, those Christians who would advance “woke” arguments—who would allege, for instance, that the deconstruction of oppressive power relations lies at the heart of the faith—simply reject Strachan’s dichotomy on the basis of the continuity narrative (they would, of course, also reject any characterization of their views as “heresy”).
In short, because there are two dueling narratives about the origins and nature of “wokeness”—one of which happens to be a plausible account of “wokeness” as an extension of Christian ideas about justice and inherent equality—it simply doesn’t work to label some cluster of concepts and priorities as “woke,” and assume that this can self-evidently mean “anti-Christian.” Or, put differently, it is hard to question the influence of “wokeness” on theology in a context where both parties self-identify as Christians, because all one needs to do is label themselves as such. And given the continuity narrative, there’s at least a plausible “hook” for both parties to do so.
The crucial flashpoint is what it means to address an alleged injustice Christianly. And this question is a “how-question”—a matter of the way in which a Christian makes his or her case for a revision of existing teaching or practice, rather than being about any single teaching or practice as such.
When conservative federal judges interview applicants for law clerk jobs—one-year positions, in which young lawyers serve as research and drafting assistants for sitting judges—one of the most important considerations is whether the applicant is an “originalist.” Originalism, generally speaking, is the judicial philosophy that the original public meaning of the Constitution—in all its historical particularity—ought to govern how present-day judges interpret the text.
However, when conducting these interviews, it does no good simply to ask the applicant whether they’re an originalist. Clerkships are prestigious positions, and any savvy applicant will know to say “yes” right away. Instead, it is more important to ask questions that get at how the applicant, if tasked with analyzing a complex legal problem, would go about reasoning through it. What sources of authority would be consulted first? What sources wouldn’t be considered at all? (An applicant who mentions the need to consider policy implications before the constitutional text probably isn’t a bona fide originalist!) Originalists can and regularly do disagree about substantive conclusions (for example, whether the Constitution prohibits blasphemy laws8), but they’re unified—at least to a certain extent—by the methodology they employ.
Something analogous can be said of theological method. It’s one thing to claim allegiance to a creed, but quite another to understand that creed in the sense that generations of Christians historically have. And when hot-button questions arise within the church—should we ordain women to the pastoral office? Should we revise the traditional Christian position on sexual morality?—the method of reasoning matters as much as the conclusions reached. So, when Christians “do theology,” how do they do it?
Here is a new proposal: those concerned about the erosion of traditional doctrinal boundaries within evangelicalism should be prepared to ask their interlocutors two straightforward questions, which strike at the very heart of most current controversies:
- Is it appropriate to ground authority relations, and theological claims more broadly, in the created order?9
- Is it possible to legitimately exercise spiritual authority, and if so, what are the criteria of legitimate authority?10
For an individual whose source and norm of doctrine is first and foremost Scripture, answering “yes” to these propositions should not be particularly controversial. Both claims follow from an ordinary, “plain” reading of the biblical text.
The second question gets at the issue of whether the existence of spiritual authority as such is inherently abusive. Enough ink has been spilled recently on this issue—particularly in the wake of Christianity Today’s popular podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill—that it is not worth reopening the subject here. That is a topic for another time.
The first question, though, is much further-ranging, and warrants a fuller treatment. Indeed, it’s probably the more important one.
Consider, for example, one of the most contentious topics in evangelicalism today—the extension of the preaching/teaching role to women in the church. In conservative polemics, this is the archetypal case of theological drift, the first step onto an inevitably liberalizing path. But placing that question to the side, what is particularly interesting about this issue is the way in which many recent proponents tend to argue for it. As an example, take Reformed writer Aimee Byrd’s recent response to critics of her preaching during a Sunday morning worship service:
Now I’m seeing more clearly just how destructive the complementarian system is. It’s all about power and hierarchy under the guise of benevolent care. (Not everyone in it, mind you.) The Bible is read through that lens. I am free from that now. I am free from the label complementarian or egalitarian. I don’t need them. The questions are more complex than that.11
Byrd herself has undeniably faced sharp, and sometimes uncharitable, criticisms. But it is quite a move to extrapolate from those criticisms that a traditional teaching of Christianity is the product of a toxic power matrix. Nor is this a logically necessary move: the Methodist tradition has taken an expansive view of women’s ecclesiastical involvement, but you’d be hard pressed to find framings like Byrd’s among the historical arguments for such involvement.12
Significantly, Byrd’s assessment here can’t be read apart from the threadbare account of the metaphysics of sex difference that emerges throughout her previous work, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. While admitting that “there are many expressions of how this [differentiation] affects unique persons as male and female,” Byrd simultaneously rejects “an artificial ontological framework of authority and submission or . . . cultural stereotypes.”13 These are not positions that hold together especially cogently: do differences matter, or don’t they?
Note the larger shape of this argumentative framework, apart from the specific topic at issue. There is, first, Byrd’s claim that a particular received doctrine is theologically suspect in light of its relationship to, and tendency to perpetuate, an existing system of power. By itself, asking this question is not necessarily problematic: after all, would anyone argue that segregationist “Curse of Ham” theologies should not have been corrected?14
Rather, it is the second step in Byrd’s argument that raises red flags, because what’s undermined via her method is the notion of a created order which imposes real limits on readings or interpretations of the text. Assuming that all interpretations of the relevant text are not equally legitimate, on what grounds is one interpretation adopted over others? Without the constraint provided by the data of created reality, structural order and regular best practice in the church become essentially arbitrary. Any structures and practices regarding sex roles can easily be collapsed, after all, into mere “cultural stereotypes.” And this move is made despite the fact that, in this particular case, the Bible itself grounds its understanding of sex difference, and its exposition of the implications of that difference, in that created order.
All of this is to say that Byrd would likely answer the first question, above, in the negative—or likely make any concessions grudgingly. And that, in turn, is an important indicator of the direction in which her (apparent) theological method tends to lead.
It’s worth tracing that direction in some detail, even if few are willing to pursue it all the way to the end. To begin with, driving a wedge between Scripture and observable reality means that the real-world logic of God’s commands—commands intended to be followed by real human beings—becomes profoundly unclear. And when the relationship between commandment and created reality becomes opaque, consequences for biblical interpretation follow.
Specifically, such an occlusion results in an approach to God’s Law that cordons off the logic of Scripture from the logic of everyday life—an approach, interestingly enough, that’s been employed by progressive commentators within Orthodox Judaism, as Mark Gottlieb explains:
While traditional readings [of the Torah] until just yesterday have generally identified the prohibition [on male same-sex sexual behavior] as one stemming from considerations about human nature, the metaphysics of gender, or theological anthropology, the contemporary ‘internalizers’ either historicize the prohibition, by declaring it a relic of an earlier, less morally-sophisticated age, or limit the scope of the prohibition, removing it from its straightforward context in the Torah and basing its more permissive readings on historical considerations. In some cases, the internalization takes on another form: there is an openness (or insistence) on retaining the halachic [legal] force of the prohibition but the rationale for the prohibition is ‘kicked upstairs’ by declaring it a chok, a commandment without a humanly-discernible reason, thus eliminating any possibility of teaching the prohibition in a wisdom-seeking, politically-meaningful sense (“politically-meaningful” not as in partisan politics, but in the larger, more expansive sense of politeia, a community-forming and norm-creating orientation).15
To phrase Gottlieb’s point in Christian terms, the denial of arguments from natural law—from “human nature, the metaphysics of gender, or theological anthropology”—eventually forces Christians to fall back on a crude form of divine command ethics, one that makes God’s commandments into irrational or unintelligible diktats. And when that happens, the possibility of theological reasoning as a distinctive discipline, and as something that can offer hope to an increasingly confused world, is undermined. As Gottlieb argues from a Jewish perspective, “[b]y encouraging the ‘Chokification’ of difficult laws, progressive Orthodoxy denies the reasonableness of the Torah and precludes the possibility that traditional Jewish teaching can receive a fair hearing in the marketplace of ideas.”16
This “chokification” of Scripture functions as the theological mainspring of Matthew Vines’s bestselling God and the Gay Christian. Vines writes, “as I became more aware of same-sex relationships, I couldn’t understand why they were supposed to be sinful, or why the Bible apparently condemned them.”17 And so Vines posits his own criterion for evaluating theological claims: “Jesus’s test is simple: If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree.”18 This technique—not far removed from Google’s famously facile motto “don’t be evil”— is a method that inevitably makes theological truth principally a matter of private experience and judgment.
Post-evangelical ethicist David Gushee is admirably explicit about this point. Gushee elevates Vines’s loose criterion from the level of hermeneutical lodestar to methodological building block, opining that “[t]he exclusive franchise apparently granted to Scripture (even if supplemented by Tradition) blocks off critical insights that can be gained through other resources, including ourselves and our own minds and hearts.”19 And that move makes a certain kind of sense: if the description of reality provided in the biblical text does not correspond intelligibly to ordinary experience, what possible normative claim can it exert?
One could go on at length. But it is worth noting that the untethering of “theology” from creation ultimately bottoms out in something like John Caputo’s proposal for dramatic revisions to the church’s doctrine of God. Caputo’s project of “weak theology” calls upon Christians to conceive of “God” not as the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos, but rather as the name of the event of disruption, the word that points us forward to our longing for justice.20 While Caputo characterizes his project as an effort to free God from the constraints and systems into which human beings have forced Him,21 metaphysically speaking it is very difficult not to read Caputo as advocating for, or at least making peace with, the final dissipation of God Himself into the scrum of secular politics. It would seem that this is where the “Christian” critique of power, when cut off from any reference to the created order that might bound or inform that critique, ultimately terminates.
The inherently disintegrative trajectory of a theological method like this is, in almost every case, what is likely meant today by critics of “wokeness in the church.” The concern has much less to do with any individual doctrinal debates as such. Indeed, Byrd herself illustrates the point: she contends that “you don’t see paedo-baptists telling the other side to repent. Or calling them wolves”22—but that is precisely because these arguments don’t typically employ a hermeneutic of suspicion that, if taken to its logical conclusion, places vast realms of theology up for grabs.
Christians, of every stripe, have good reason to be concerned about that outcome.
In her incisive study Apostles of Reason, historian Molly Worthen observes that “[i]t is evangelicals’ ongoing crisis of authority—their struggle to reconcile reason with revelation, heart with head, and private piety with the public square—that best explains their anxiety and their animosity toward intellectual life.”23 There’s an element of truth in Worthen’s critique, but historically speaking, it has not always been this way. The Protestant tradition possesses the resources to hold together the epistemological poles of creation and revelation.
And it is those resources that Christians must draw upon to build a lasting, theologically compelling rejoinder to what is commonly called “wokeness.” As previously noted, that term itself tends to be inapt and vague, resulting in unworkable definitions. And this is the wrong battlefront; there is no need to get caught up in debating origin stories or trying to specify the fundamental “essence” of the present threat. What’s required instead is a willingness to ask fresh questions, and listen carefully to the replies: Is it appropriate to ground authority relations and theological claims in the created order? Is it possible to legitimately exercise spiritual authority? These are questions of method, with far-reaching implications.
As Thomas Aquinas once remarked, “[a] small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusions.”24 Today’s Protestants would do well to heed his warning.
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