The Modesty Debates: Combating Unilateralism and Myths of Strength

In a recent post I made a number of comments on the subject of modesty and modesty culture. I noted the lure of black-and-white ways of tackling such complex issues. Within this post I wish to highlight some of the particular dangers that lie in this direction.

Partisan Interests and the Common Good

Within discussions such as those surrounding modesty, there are a number of different sets of valid and important concerns particular to different groups of persons. Parents have different sets of concerns relating to their boys and their girls. Males and females have different sets of concerns about themselves that they bring to the debate. Other specific concerns may arise relative to more general Christian principles or to the functioning of particular institutions. For each of us, there are concerns that have a greater immediacy to us than others.

Our constant danger is that of elevating those concerns that are most immediate to us in a manner that overshadows all others. The temptation that we face is that, in recognizing the validity of our most immediate concerns, we derive an absolute principle from those concerns, a principle to which all other parties must submit. Principles derived solely from more immediately male concerns can lead to an exceedingly onerous and typically capricious set of demands of women when it comes to permitted dress. Principles derived solely from more immediately female concerns can lead a culture that fails to make any allowances for the problematic reality of male lust.

When the crucial concern that perpetrators not be absolved of any degree of their responsibility for their actions on account of the behaviour or dress of their victims is exalted into an absolute principle from which all else must be derived, we can end up where women, who in such a framing are typically culturally coded as ‘victims’, are absolved of responsibility and agency for their actions. When the concern that women not encourage or provoke the lusts of men is exalted into such an absolute principle, we swiftly start moving in the direction of absolving men from their agency and responsibility and making incredibly unreasonable judgments upon and expectations of women.

The sets of valid concerns that different persons bring to these debates will frequently seem to be in direct opposition to each other. However, I suggest that this perception arises primarily from our exaltation of valid concerns into axiomatic principles, rather than recognizing that their validity only extends so far.

These dangers are perhaps especially acute for a movement which takes the generally valid concerns of a particular group within society as programmatic for social change more broadly, feminism being the most relevant example here. Even where there is a concern to represent the concerns of that group as relevant and beneficial to the society more generally (‘the patriarchy hurts men too’, etc.), there is typically a failure to make allowance for the valid interests and concerns of other parties and principles in questions that impinge directly upon that group’s interests (e.g. the concerns of the unborn, fathers, medical and Christian ethics in abortion). Rather, the concerns of the group in question will almost invariably be presumed to take priority in such cases of conflict, as a matter of necessary justice. Also, lest it be forgotten, such movements all too often arise in response to social orders in which another group’s interests typically override all others.

A true society, of course, must include many different constituent persons and classes of individuals, each with their valid sets of concerns. It is composed of many differing members, and is far from monolithic in the way that identity groupings can be. A society establishes itself through the securing of and commitment to common goods and through bringing the interests of its various members into some sort of fruitful harmony. A society achieves its reality through such things as the establishment of institutions that serve common ends, establish common practices, and uphold common values and commitments, through communal debate and deliberation, through arbitration, through the sustaining of interactions, discourses, and communal practices over time, and through ensuring the recognition and representation of all of its constituent members.

And it is on this account that I feel so disappointed at the way that discussions on such subjects as modesty typically proceed. What I so frequently encounter is the absence of a clear orientation of discourse towards any sort of common good or harmonization of interests, the absence of genuine communal debate, deliberation, and arbitration, and the absence of recognition and representation of all interested parties. In short, what I see is an ‘anti-social’ form of discourse on these matters, one which proceeds as if we were not members together of the same society.

A truly ‘social’ discourse would be concerned to identify relationships and boundaries, to identify what is mine, yours, his, hers, theirs, and ours. It would seek to identify duties and responsibilities, rights and privileges of various parties. It would explore the ways in which my rights are qualified by my responsibilities to you and the ways in which the establishment of boundaries between private and common goods and interests enable us to live a life in peace together. It seeks to identify where my responsibilities end and yours begin.

Within such a discourse, our own voices must always be conditioned by the others within the conversation. We must raise our concerns, but it is important that voices from other perspectives push back against ours. Such pushback is not typically a denial of the legitimacy of our concerns, but a means by which countervailing interests can, through respectful yet challenging conversation, achieve harmony. My voice on this blog must always be situated within larger conversations: I cannot carry out a true conversation by myself. The refusal of so many within such conversations to countenance interests that place limits upon their own is worrying for those of us who desire to see wider mutual recognition of the various parties here.

Ideological Master Keys

A further related failure to recognize the complexity of these issues is revealed in the belief that there is an ideological master key that will unlock all of our problems. All of the problems surrounding modesty culture would supposedly be solved if women just covered up much more, or if we all became good feminists.

Of course, a society is far too complex and multi-faceted a reality to be managed effectively by approaches that focus upon one factor alone. A society is a rich ecology, with delicate balances and relationships to be maintained. Throwing one element out of balance can have a catastrophic ripple effect across the entire system. Unfortunately, many Christians consistently seem to adopt single factor solutions to complex ecological problems.

I was recently chatting with a close friend about his experience in certain evangelical circles. He told me about a conversation he had with a church leader, who was claiming that strong preaching and good doctrine sufficed for all pastoral needs within the Church. There is a very modern conviction in many Christian circles that, if we could just identify some all-important single factor and double down on that, all of our problems would be solved.

Yet the problems of the Church seldom yield to single factor solutions. Modest dress could only ever be one element of an ecological solution and a myopic focus upon that alone would lead to clusters of problems elsewhere. Even churches with the most orthodox doctrine are vulnerable to the occurrence of abuse or catastrophic moral failure. In fact, they are typically more vulnerable, because they fail to take account of the ecological measures required to guard against such things.

Most modest dress won’t singlehandedly solve our problems. The elimination of pornography wouldn’t either. Good doctrine isn’t enough. Nor is good worship. Nor is a loving and committed community. Our overweening trust in single factor solutions can leave us with unrealistic expectations of certain courses of action. Even if every woman dressed in a perfectly modest manner, the Church would still face a lust problem and problems with women’s sense of self-worth.

Ecological problems require ecological ways of considering solutions. Such solutions don’t place the burden of solution at one party’s door, but recognize that we are all co-creators of our society and that we must pursue new and healthy harmonies of interests if we are effectively to change it. Abandoning the quest for an ideological or practical master key, we need to start to expand our frames of analysis to include all implicated parties and factors and to think accordingly. As I have already suggested, this will require forms of discourse that are truly social and no longer governed by a single party’s interests.

Myths of Male Strength

One of the areas where this can relate to the concerns raised in my previous post is in the area of the myth of male strength. This myth is the idea that male self-control is sufficient to handle male lust by itself. Yet an inordinate amount of weight is placed upon this single factor by many parties, often in the name of maintaining the autonomous rights of other parties, whether they are other men or other women.

At the 2011 Los Angeles SlutWalk, the self-proclaimed ‘male feminist’ Hugo Schwyzer gave a charismatic speech on the subject of ‘the myth of male weakness,’ claiming that men’s self-control does not at all depend on how much skin a woman is showing. Two years later, following a slew of revelations concerning extra-marital relationships with porn stars, students, and other individuals, Schwyzer’s entire reputation lies in tatters, precisely on account of his weakness, a weakness abetted by its public denial. At the very time of his speech, he was having a relationship with a student who he declared made him ‘weak with lust’. Later, Schwyzer admitted that he was purposefully telling women what they wanted to hear to get their affirmation, painting an unrealistic picture of men’s power of self-control in the process.

While the notion that men can control their lusts singlehandedly appeals to those who are appalled by the notion that women should be expected to make allowances for men’s weaknesses, or take any responsibility for helping and encouraging them to exercise control, it is not in fact true. Schwyzer’s isn’t the only tragic and repeated failure on account of a very male weakness to have been played out before our eyes recently. Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign, dogged with very public accounts of his sexting and infidelities on and offline, ended yesterday with a lost primary and a flipped bird through a car window. Last week we also heard the incredibly tragic revelations of Robert F. Kennedy’s failed struggle with lust and adultery that in all likelihood ultimately led to his wife’s suicide.

One of the things that all of these figures have in common is the lack of many of the restraints that save many of us from facing the full force of the power of lust within our lives. As charismatic and influential public figures, many young and attractive women gravitated to them, many of whom were proactive about encouraging them to commit adultery. Many of us are profoundly thankful that we don’t have to face such temptations.

Most men’s internal restraint against the full force of sexual temptation really is naturally very weak. This is a fact that we all need to be much more open and honest about. Developing such restraint is very difficult and will typically depend greatly upon external obstacles or restrictions or self-imposed limits for holding things in check.

There are natural external constraints that exist for many, such as lack of available interested women or the harsh consequences of such indulgence or infidelity. There are also motivators against, such as love for wife and family, or moral or religious principle. However, without constraints, these motivators can be weak in the face of immediate temptation. Men in positions of extreme power have many of the natural external constraints removed so, unless they develop new ones, will often fall prey.

Porn is an increasing problem in the digital age, as the external constraints that used to make it easier to keep things in check are removed and sexual sin is offered in a way that is free, anonymous, and readily accessible. I am sure that if you were to ask most users of porn about their relationship to it, I suspect that most would recognize that their use of it is driven by weakness in relation to their lusts. It is used on account of compromised and weakened agency, less on account of a pure choice.

Self-control and willpower alone aren’t solutions. Effective solutions in these areas must recognize the weakness of men and propose ecological solutions. Accessibility to porn may need to be restricted. Accountability structures may need to be set up. Openness is necessary. The man will need to get to know his weaknesses, recognize when they are most exposed and avoid such situations when at all possible. When he cannot do that, he must consider ways to deal with them in such situations.

We do no one any favours when we perpetuate the myth of male strength, not least ourselves. For most of us, the ability to control ourselves—and, yes, it is possible to control ourselves—comes only to the extent that we realize that we don’t have supernatural powers of will and that we can’t do these things effectively alone. Rather, we need to set ourselves limits, so that we aren’t exposed to an extreme dose of temptation. We need constantly to remind ourselves of our values and commitments, develop structures of accountability, practice openness, commit ourselves to alternative practices, identify different outlets for our drives and healthy ways of dealing with frustration, etc. We need to know our weaknesses and develop methods for dealing with them. It is possible to fulfil our responsibility to control ourselves, but we might need some help along the way.

People have this notion that all virtue is self-contained, that if we are truly virtuous we should just be able to ‘control ourselves’ and achieve virtue single-handedly, with a great feat of will. However, we often can’t. This is why we need such things as social structures, institutions, norms, and support. This is why we pray that we not be tempted beyond our ability to resist. It is one of the reasons why modesty culture has cause to exist and why the rejection of it probably won’t make things better.

Male weakness shouldn’t be viewed fatalistically. It does not doom us to failure, but just means that we will need to fight and struggle. Weaknesses can be dealt with, compensated for, guarded against, and even overcome. The idea that men are without any means to resist their lusts is indeed a pernicious myth. We have the means to resist and to overcome our lusts. Many such means exist, one of the greatest of which is the commitment of those around us, both men and women, to the encouragement of godliness and faithfulness within us (and this commitment runs far deeper than ‘modest’ clothing).

Myths of Strength and Immunity

Myths of strength take many forms and are related to myths of immunity. One of these myths of strengths is the myth of self-sufficient or heroic character, the myth that irrespective of the structures and systems that we find ourselves within, we will be able to find it within ourselves to do the right thing. This vastly underestimates the corrupting power of external influences, cycles of imitation, the way that increased power weakens us against our vices, and the corrosive effect of corrupt systems upon character.

We can mock Christian churches and organizations that establish strict protocols for interaction between the sexes, for instance, without recognizing the degree to which abandonment of such external provisions and dependence solely upon self-sufficient virtue has been accompanied by the common occurrence of fornication in many Christian circles. The dropping of cultural restraints upon dress and behaviour and the freer integration of the sexes has not in many circles encouraged sexual holiness. While many of the restraints may have been excessive, the presence of appropriate and considered restraints, though they may often chafe, can be profoundly beneficial. They serve as an acknowledgement of our weaknesses and limits.

A further myth of strength and immunity, mentioned above, is the myth of doctrine, the myth that, if we all just deeply believed the right things, we would develop an immunity to all sorts of problems. This can take very dangerous forms in churches, where a trust in right doctrine blinds leaders to the way that sin will invariably find ways to exploit our doctrine as means for it to grow. It also fails to reckon with how bastardized our theology can become by the time that it actually touches the ground.

The myth of the immunity provided by strong doctrine and close knit church communities has often been a powerful means of dulling leaders to the potential for sexual and spiritual abuse within their communities. These forms of abuse will all too typically depend upon the force of the church’s togetherness for much of their power, perverting what ought to be a godly togetherness into a demonic lie.

Even the most beautiful ordered garden will be overrun by weeds if not regularly tended. We have no invulnerability to the activity of sin within our lives and communities and deep weaknesses. The acknowledgement of these and the rejection of single factor solutions are imperative. The collaborative creation of a new social ecology is what these problems most require of us, an ecology that recognizes the needs, interests, interdependence, and vulnerabilities of all parties within it.

A deeper acquaintance with our weaknesses is essential for all of us. Whether in our churches, communities, families, or our own lives, a recognition of our many weaknesses and consequent dependence upon others is paramount. Much time must also be spent identifying and guarding vulnerable points, learning the tactics of the evil one, the patterns of sin’s activity and growth, and the lies that it employs. There is no ideological master key or single solution to our problems, but only faithful, committed, vigilant, communal, wakeful, and coordinated action on several fronts, all in prayerful dependence upon God.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christian Experience, Controversies, Culture, Ethics, Sex and Sexuality, Society, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Modesty Debates: Combating Unilateralism and Myths of Strength

  1. Pingback: Some Rambling and Unwelcome Reflections on Modesty Debates | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Paul Baxter says:

    I think that was all well said, particularly the section about the atomization of ethics. I imagine much of that problem stems from the more general atomization/individualism of contemporary society. We can only really conceive of ethics that apply either to ourselves or to people who are directly bothersome to us.

    My memory is a bit hazy, but I seem to remember Bonhoeffer’s Ethics being something of a counter force to this, talking about ethics being determined by existing relationships.

    • Thanks, Paul.

      One related area where this is interesting might be in connection with premarital sexual relations. Just a few minutes ago, I was reading a piece that was arguing that we should be far more relaxed about premarital sexual relations, because 94% of people have them. While it is true that there will always be people having premarital sexual relations, if we truly value marriage and sex’s relation to it, it really is possible to create a culture where this is the exception, rather than the norm (many such cultures exist worldwide).

      The problem is that such a culture is difficult to create in an individualistic society, where no external limitations will be tolerated on the degree or forms of the social integration of the sexes or upon access to sexually explicit materials or sexualized entertainment, no pressures towards earlier marriage allowed, or no greater familial and cultural involvement in romantic relationships countenanced. Without cultural support and a lot of countervailing social pressure, it is naturally difficult for people to reserve sexual relations for marriage.

      When the idea of cultural commitment to virtue has been ruled out a priori as oppressive and restrictive, it is difficult to form virtue in particular persons.

  3. Paul Baxter says:

    That’s certainly an area for further thought. To me, the only reason to be “more relaxed” about non-marital sexual relations is because of a change in public ethics, which I’m sure is actually the case. I remember reading a book on American history (Albion’s Seed–an extremely interesting book about colonial America). It spoke about the Scottish Presbyterians who lived in the North Carolina mountains. Part of their story was told via an Episcopal minister who would make occasional trips to the mountains to perform religious ceremonies such as weddings. This minister claimed that he never performed a wedding in that region where the bride was not pregnant (possibly exaggerating a bit). On the one hand, this could be taken as evidence that that community simply had quite relaxed sexual morals. This doesn’t seem to really be the case though. There were almost no cases of abandonment by unmarried fathers, and what cases there were were generally punished very harshly. The pregnant brides were simply a reflection of a people who believed in stable families, but had to adapt to not having not having qualified clergy. Young people in former times often made up their minds quite quickly about marriage partners, so I assume they combined initial sexual relations with “engagement” and proceeded accordingly.

    As we’re all aware, people in contemporary culture have come to the conclusion that 1) love, 2) sex 3) cohabitation and 4) having/raising children are all separate considerations. I don’t know if that’s a cause of, or a result of the idea that God doesn’t care especially about who we have sex with. Perhaps some of each.

    • Studying the different courting and premarital customs of the early American colonies is also interesting on this front. There were some fairly widely varying customs and mores, with rather different rates of premarital relations and premarital pregnancy (over a third in certain periods). ‘Bundling’ is a particularly interesting custom, one which often led to pregnancies. Levels of illegitimacy could vary by a factor of ten or more between colonies and different time periods. Males were punished the more harshly in some colonies; women the more harshly in others. Especially in Virginia, we have a number of accounts that male sexual predators gave of their activities, promiscuity being treated much more indulgently there than among New England Puritans.

      In most societies, a certain degree of fornication is presumed and accounted for (we even see this in Scripture, to some extent). There is also a greater tolerance and acknowledgement of non-formalized but recognized relationships (common-law marriages, etc.) in some contexts. The gradual dissolution of the connections between love, cohabitation, sex, procreation, and marriage that you mention is the real change that we are witnessing. These connections were always frayed to some extent and the order of the elements sometimes confused, but they were held together.

      My suspicion is that the main changes have been such things as the normalization of contraception and easier access to abortion, the rise of the welfare state, releasing the family from many of its former responsibilities and consequent social significance as an institution, the diminishing of the family as an economic agency, greater levels of individualism, higher levels of mobility, and the greater integration of the sexes in various areas of life, perhaps especially as a result of feminism’s influence.

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  5. I appreciated both this article and the previous one. One slight concern is the stressing that a single master key doesn’t exist. I can live with such if one also agrees that there are certain aspects of this discussion that are more basic than other aspects. Strong/accurate doctrine is a foundational aspect of this discussion. Now even if I admit that getting the doctrine correct is not 100% of the issue, it is still a big issue and one that is important in the long term success of the project. (Now I would probably define doctrine as very close to 100% of the issue but would also include how we look at institutions, accountability etc as being a result of and built upon proper doctrine. If one doesn’t do such, then one’s doctrine is faulty).

    • Thanks for the comment, Hermonta.

      Doctrine is indeed very important. However, I think that it is a long way from 100% of the issue (unless we adopt a heavily stipulated definition of ‘doctrine’). I have seen a few too many situations where a fixation upon doctrine has been a huge—perhaps the primary—source of problems and abuse in churches to believe that it is anywhere near to being a master key. Doctrine—even entirely orthodox doctrine—has its inherent weaknesses that we need to be aware of, without ever discounting its importance.

      • Alastair,
        I understand what/who you are targeting with your comments, but I am unsure why the blame is going towards doctrine. Let us imagine a 75% doctrine with 25% other stuff split. I am unaware as to what to put into that 25% other than doctrine and something perhaps extremely closely related. To say that someone fixated on doctrine and had huge problems doesnt meant that they had their doctrine down and the problem must have been that they didnt spend enough time on some other factor.

        An analogy here to perhaps help to understand my position is that of a student saying that they understand the physics that they learned in class but cannot do the various problem sets. If they cannot do the problems then they simply do not know the physics well enough. They may have an abstract knowledge but lack a detailed knowledge of the science. There is no extra something that they are missing beyond the physics.

      • Thanks for the comment, Hermonta.

        I think that an overwhelming focus on ideas (doctrine) can be problematic in a number of ways. For one, it can blind us to the personal dynamics of situations. I have found an almost exclusive focus on doctrine in some contexts very alienating as people’s huge needs for fellowship and presence can be denied or ignored. Doctrine is so often focused upon in a way that dulls people to the personal dimensions of their actions, trying to apply a timeless set of beliefs, but lacking all contextual and interpersonal wisdom. Different situations demand very different sorts of answers and doctrine isn’t always sufficient to teach us these things.

        For that matter, the overwhelming majority of the God’s word isn’t ‘doctrine’ as such, certainly not in the sense that the word is normally used. It is a recounting of God’s deeds in history, giving us a sense of story and identity. It is comfort and rebuke, it is worship and rejoicing, it is lament or prophetic challenge, it is the establishment of the practices of a common life, etc., etc. Calling it ‘doctrine’ really undersells the richness of God’s word addressed to us. Much of Scripture isn’t so much about idea-content, but about a word of personal presence. This is not to deny that most things in Scripture have a doctrinal aspect, but this is not what those things are often really about. A focus on doctrine alone can dull us to the affective, imaginative, volitional, existential, and interpersonal dimensions of the Christian faith.

      • I think that is quite helpful in understanding your position. However, that doctrine can be focused on in an unhelpful way still is not a slam against a robust doctrine focus.

        I think a bigger question is as you say below that various non explicitly doctrinal issues have a doctrinal aspect, can one get the doctrinal aspect perfect and still fail to properly live out the various aspects and dimensions?

        Or put another way, most would say that orthodoxy lead to/comes before orthopraxy. If one’s orthopraxy is failing then one’s orthodoxy is not robust/comprehensive enough even if it lacks any errors.

        As far as I can tell, the only way to object to an over emphasis on doctrine is to turn to some measure of mysticism. If you think that I am reading you wrongly, then I would appreciate knowing how I am doing so.

      • Thanks again for the comment, Hermonta.

        One could arguably make a case that any dearth of orthodoxy will be manifested in a lack of orthopraxy and vice versa and that, where perfect orthodoxy exists, everything else must be in order. However, this does not mean that a focus on orthodoxy is the solution to every problem in the Christian life and church. Nor does it mean that perfect orthodoxy could be achieved through a focus on perfect orthodoxy alone. That different dimensions of the Christian life may be comprehensively mutually implicatory does not mean that an extreme focus upon one dimension is healthy.

        Excessively relating to God’s truth under the aspect of ‘doctrine’, from which we draw ‘implications’ for our lives can often get things backwards, removing God’s truth from the immediacy that it should have. God’s truth often addresses our emotions, imaginations, desires, perceptions, and bodies directly, bypassing the mediation of our deeper cognitive processing. This doesn’t mean that these things are irrational or contrary to doctrine at all, just that they don’t depend upon knowledge of the logical framework of doctrine to address us powerfully and directly. When God tells us not to be afraid for he is with us, for instance, to treat this primarily as ‘doctrine’, even though the doctrinal dimension of the statement is rich and full, is to deny that statement the comforting immediacy that it should have in our consciousness. Thinking in terms of ‘doctrine’ leads us to think more in terms of detached and objective truth, rather than in terms of direct personal address.

        Likewise, the liturgy and the sacraments don’t just communicate ideas, which must be processed in the ways that we process ideas, but habits, affections, modes of perception, desires, divine presence, and the like. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper, for instance, is not primarily about the communication of ideas, even when it is undergirded by doctrinal truth. These things can’t be boiled down to the communication of beliefs and ideas (divine presence, for instance, is irreducible to doctrine), even if true ideas and beliefs are everywhere implied.

      • “Excessively relating to God’s truth under the aspect of ‘doctrine’, from which we draw ‘implications’ for our lives can often get things backwards, removing God’s truth from the immediacy that it should have. God’s truth often addresses our emotions, imaginations, desires, perceptions, and bodies directly, bypassing the mediation of our deeper cognitive processing. This doesn’t mean that these things are irrational or contrary to doctrine at all, just that they don’t depend upon knowledge of the logical framework of doctrine to address us powerfully and directly. When God tells us not to be afraid for he is with us, for instance, to treat this primarily as ‘doctrine’, even though the doctrinal dimension of the statement is rich and full, is to deny that statement the comforting immediacy that it should have in our consciousness. Thinking in terms of ‘doctrine’ leads us to think more in terms of detached and objective truth, rather than in terms of direct personal address.”

        God’s truth does address the items on your list but we use doctrine to check/verify that it is God who is speaking to us and not our flesh/the devil etc giving us what we want to hear. It would seem to again run into the area of mysticism if one attempts to avoid grounding the project in robust doctrine.

        “Likewise, the liturgy and the sacraments don’t just communicate ideas, which must be processed in the ways that we process ideas, but habits, affections, modes of perception, desires, divine presence, and the like. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper, for instance, is not primarily about the communication of ideas, even when it is undergirded by doctrinal truth. These things can’t be boiled down to the communication of beliefs and ideas (divine presence, for instance, is irreducible to doctrine), even if true ideas and beliefs are everywhere implied.”

        I don’t disagree with anything here and I don’t think that it attacks my position in anyway. Let us assume an excessive focus on doctrine; how would that prevent any of the power of liturgy or the sacraments from benefiting us? The only way that I could see that an extreme focus on doctrine could be problematic here is if it lead one to not celebrate the Lord’s supper etc. But in that case, one would be dealing with faulty doctrine, which again would not work against my position.

        As an aside, we seem to be dealing in the area of James Smith’s kingdom project. Are you familiar with it and do you agree or disagree with his positions?

      • Thanks for the continued interaction, Hermonta,

        No one is denying the importance and necessity of doctrine here. What I am pointing out is the danger of believing that doctrine is all that we need or that it is the solution to every problem. I am also observing that it is possible to be excessively and unhealthily fixated upon it. It is one thing to say that we should found things in good doctrine. It is quite another to suggest that good buildings can be created solely from the constant digging of deeper foundations.

        The excessive focus on doctrine can lead to all sorts of problems. It can and does lead to neglect, devaluing, and profound distortion of our practice of the sacraments. There are many churches out there who, even when they celebrate them regularly, act as if the primary purpose of the sacraments were the communication of ideas, for whom every celebration of the Supper is overwhelmed with information content that they can’t just ‘do’ it. The excessive focus on doctrine leads to the idea that better doctrine can solve every problem in the church, or make it abuse-proof. It can’t and doesn’t. The excessive focus on doctrine leads to pastoral disasters (I have seen a number of these in my time). It leads people to believe that every pastoral problem just requires the panacea of doctrine, neglecting the importance of personal presence, encouragement, institutional structures, and the like.

        The focus on doctrine also tends to produce emotionally and spiritually stunted people and churches. People who are so fixated with believing the right things, but who lack the most basic awareness of how to relate to other people or to themselves in a healthy manner or people with shrivelled emotional lives. Seeing this in practice can be scary and disturbing. There is an unnerving and almost psychopathic emotional disconnect in the people that it produces. They don’t relate deeply and naturally as normal human beings relate, but artificially and ‘logically’. Ideas alone are not sufficient to form us into healthy people. Also, in my experience, often the people who most celebrate being driven by pure ideas or doctrine are the ones who are acting out of an emotional stuntedness that can be seen—though usually not by themselves—in everything that they do, not least their thinking, which is often a rationalization of emotionally stunted reactions.

        There is overlap here with Jamie Smith’s work. I have not been influenced by him here: I held and articulated these positions long before I read his books. I largely agree with him on the dimensions of his project that immediately pertain to our discussion.

  6. christiantrader says:

    “Thanks for the continued interaction, Hermonta,”

    Ditto

    “No one is denying the importance and necessity of doctrine here. What I am pointing out is the danger of believing that doctrine is all that we need or that it is the solution to every problem. I am also observing that it is possible to be excessively and unhealthily fixated upon it. It is one thing to say that we should found things in good doctrine. It is quite another to suggest that good buildings can be created solely from the constant digging of deeper foundations.”

    At bottom, I dont think you have demonstrated an inherent problem from focusing too much on doctrine. Now one can/could spend a lot of time on doctrine and end up in a mess but I dont see how you can pin such on doctrine. Just like time spent doing anything, it could be done inefficiently or poorly.

    “The excessive focus on doctrine can lead to all sorts of problems. It can and does lead to neglect, devaluing, and profound distortion of our practice of the sacraments. There are many churches out there who, even when they celebrate them regularly, act as if the primary purpose of the sacraments were the communication of ideas, for whom every celebration of the Supper is overwhelmed with information content that they can’t just ‘do’ it. The excessive focus on doctrine leads to the idea that better doctrine can solve every problem in the church, or make it abuse-proof. It can’t and doesn’t. The excessive focus on doctrine leads to pastoral disasters (I have seen a number of these in my time). It leads people to believe that every pastoral problem just requires the panacea of doctrine, neglecting the importance of personal presence, encouragement, institutional structures, and the like.”

    Even here, I do see the issue that you are pointing to but I dont see how you can go from there to, “the error was simply that one spent too much time on doctrine vs. applied doctrine etc.” It really seems that you are confusing correlation with causation.

    For example, I have never run into a hypercalvinist, who was not deadly serious about doctrine and having accurate beliefs. However, I don’t see how you could justify the response that the error was that they spent too much time on doctrine and if they would have spent less time there, they would not hold to such beliefs. I think a much better explanation is that this and similar errors occurred when a person or a group focus on a single doctrinal topic or subtopic to the exclusion of all other topics closely related or otherwise. If one doesnt see how everything relates then it is much easier to hold to some very odd beliefs.

    Lastly, would you consider those people, who were apart of these disasters, to have rock solid doctrine?

    “The focus on doctrine also tends to produce emotionally and spiritually stunted people and churches. People who are so fixated with believing the right things, but who lack the most basic awareness of how to relate to other people or to themselves in a healthy manner or people with shrivelled emotional lives. Seeing this in practice can be scary and disturbing. There is an unnerving and almost psychopathic emotional disconnect in the people that it produces. They don’t relate deeply and naturally as normal human beings relate, but artificially and ‘logically’. Ideas alone are not sufficient to form us into healthy people. Also, in my experience, often the people who most celebrate being driven by pure ideas or doctrine are the ones who are acting out of an emotional stuntedness that can be seen—though usually not by themselves—in everything that they do, not least their thinking, which is often a rationalization of emotionally stunted reactions.”

    Does such a focus produce such or do a number of people with such a focus express such? I don’t deny that such people exist and are as bad as your claims make them out to be. I am just confused on how this gets pinned on doctrine.

    For your claims to work it seems that you would have to hold to something along these lines – I cannot forgive my (former) brother because I spent too much time on doctrine to understand that I have been forgiven much so I must also forgive much. I cannot submit to those God has placed in authority over me, because I spent so much time on doctrine and not enough time fleshing out other areas etc.

    “There is overlap here with Jamie Smith’s work. I have not been influenced by him here: I held and articulated these positions long before I read his books. I largely agree with him on the dimensions of his project that immediately pertain to our discussion.”

    As you can probably guess, I am not a huge fan of Jaime Smith’s project🙂

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