In my last post, I suggested that the time may have come for American Christians to abandon ‘evangelicalism’ (see Alan Jacobs’ thoughtful response). Within this post, I want to take a step back and offer a framework for thinking about the problem that we face, and the sort of solution that we need.
In any situation, the primary battle that we face—the battle that always precedes and takes priority over all other battles—is the battle for our own souls, the struggle for self-possession. When we face bitter persecution and see our Jerusalems surrounded by armies, we must patiently fight to possess our own souls (Luke 21:19). The framing of this in terms of possession recalls earlier contrasts between the soul and possessions in the gospel: what does it profit us if we gain the whole world and forfeit our souls (9:25)? Our soul itself is to be pursued as a possession, one that is only possessed through an ongoing struggle. This doesn’t just apply to individuals, but also to churches, organizations, communities, and other bodies of people.
In my last post, I discussed the weaknesses of evangelicalism. If I were to characterize the fundamental problem with evangelicalism, it is that it was always unprepared to fight the battle for its own soul. Unable to secure its own soul, it either capitulated to prevailing cultural forces, or sought to possess its soul through external battles against them.
Proverbs 25:28 speaks of the desolation of the man who has lost the battle for himself, describing him as akin to a city whose walls are broken through. This illustration is an illuminating one. The walls of the self are those things that enable us to create an internal environment that is distinct and protected from the hostile forces of an external environment. The walls of the self are those things that enable us to be differentiated from those around us (as Edwin Friedman discusses), making it possible for us to maintain a healthy homeostasis, even in wildly fluctuating environmental conditions.
Evangelicalism has failed in large measure because it could not establish a robust walled self. Its amorphous and porous boundaries meant that it was consistently either assimilating or locked into an antagonistic immune response mode. Its character as a mass movement meant that it was already partially complicit with the de-differentiating forces of modern life. It wasn’t able to be a strong and clear presence in compromised situations without either compromising itself or being engaged in a cultural total war. As it has never been able to develop a clearly distinguished identity of its own over against American society, its identity has always been radically at stake in the culture wars. Unable effectively to develop distinctness from its surrounding environment, it has a desperate need to win the culture wars for that external cultural environment. In this struggle, it has increasingly surrendered its own soul.
To explore a different metaphor, evangelicalism is a movement without a ‘skin’. As such, its vulnerability to its environment is fairly extreme: if it is to avoid assimilating to its environment it must control the environment, maintain an extreme and antagonistic immune response to the environment, or cut itself off from the environment. Of course, with a skin, one can be present in non-sterile environments without being infected by them. A skin is that which clearly marks and maintains the division of the self from the environment in such a manner that the self is enabled to be present without being compromised by or experiencing an extreme immune response to the environment. Evangelicalism as a mass movement profoundly exposed to and invested in the dynamics of American consumerist and political society has never been able to provide that.
A great many Christians recognize the toxicity of the wider cultural environment. However, it has been far too typical to adopt approaches that amount either to disengagement and withdrawal from the environment or ramped-up immune response to it. What I am suggesting is that the most important battle must be for the differentiation of our self and that, where we are victorious in this battle we can remain engaged in the society without assimilating to it.
‘Differentiation’ sounds like psychological jargon, perhaps because it is. However, in essence it refers to what could be compared to the walls or skin of the ‘self’ (of the individual or the group), those ways in which we are shielded from our external environment while being present within it, and thereby enabled to retain internal balance and equilibrium in volatile external contexts. It refers to the ways that we establish a clear distinction and firewall between ourselves and others, making it possible for us to regulate our internal state without needing to master or defeat any other parties. When we cannot do this, we will inevitably get caught up in reactive conflicts with them.
I’ve addressed the importance of ‘differentiation’ in the context of the Internet in the past, exploring the ways in which the walls of our selves have been broken down, so that we are increasingly vulnerable to the pressures of our social environments online. I have argued for the importance of erecting and preserving differentiating structures and practices that protect us from simply ‘reacting’ to environmental or social forces and enable us to ‘respond’ as self-controlled agents.
The walls of the self that we can construct in these situations can take many forms. Sometimes they may involve ensuring the intermission of time between stimulus and response, providing the room within which deliberation and reflection can occur. Sometimes they will involve the creation of distinct communities. Sometimes they will require us temporarily yet frequently to withdraw from socially saturated environments, preserving realms of privacy and solitude within which self-knowledge and healthy meditation can take place. Sometimes it will be a matter of praying for people with whom we differ sharply, breaking the reaction-spawning immediacy of our engagement with them by ensuring that we mediate our relationship with them through our relationship with God.
Where we do not develop robust walls for ourselves, external conflicts can become all-consuming. They can suck us in and destroy us. However, with such robust walls, we can maintain calm and clear heads in highly conflictual environments. This all begins with the recognition that the battle for the self is the most important one and that this battle is won through the establishment of effective differentiation.
Without robust walls—or a thick skin—evangelicals cannot maintain their own identity and balance in a hostile environment. A mass movement that is individualistic and de-institutionalized—a movement that has an ideology, but only a fluid and porous sociological form—cannot provide this and will always have a problematic relationship with an environment from which it cannot effectively distinguish itself. This development of thick skin is also the necessary condition for meaningful social and political presence and effective engagement.
What we need is to interrupt the processes whereby we fairly thoughtlessly default to and identify with the culture that surrounds us. Rather than simply fighting against the effects of lack of differentiation from the culture, we must address the underlying issue. When we fail to do this, we will become a movement that survives only by means of regular doses of heavy ideological medication, rather than living on a rich and balanced diet of truth.
The solution here won’t primarily be a more thoroughgoing ‘worldview’ or spreading a deeper theological awareness. The walls of the self are generally far more practical and concrete than that in character. They are developed out of the habits, practices, institutions, norms, rituals, prohibitions, identifications, loves, symbols, bonds, ways of life, and places of persons and communities. These are primarily sociological rather than ideological realities. They are the things that maintain a clear distinction between one body of people and another.
The sacraments, for instance, are an important part of the walls of the self of the Church. They mark us out as a people, distinguishing us from the society that surrounds us. This isn’t about teaching us an idea, but about, among other things, making it second nature for us to think of ourselves as a distinct people, with a distinct manner of life. It is primarily a body-forming action, rather than an occasion for theological instruction and reflection. The fact that Christ commanded us to ‘do’ it, rather than to ‘meditate’ upon it is significant for this and so many other reasons. We should celebrate the Supper, for instance, as regularly as possible.
In this and many other ways, we must unplug people from the surrounding culture and connect them to a new body of people, while keeping them present within the world. Christians and the Church must become more pronounced in their sociological distinctness (which is not the same thing as cultural disengagement), perhaps even to the point of risking being perceived as weird in various respects. What is ‘normal’ for Christians in a host of areas of life should be markedly different from what is normal for the surrounding culture. This is so much easier when we have established and maintained robust differentiating structures and practices and where groups of Christians shoulder the burden of self-differentiation together, rather than relying upon a heroic individualism. A poorly self-defined evangelicalism may have been somewhat sustainable in the broadly Christianized American society that once existed in certain locations: it is no longer a viable option in a post-Christian age.
Christians that are well differentiated from the surrounding society can more easily maintain a powerful and effective presence within it, without succumbing to its lures. We can stand firm in our witness on issues of social morality without needing to win culture wars at any cost. We can engage and cooperate more widely and irenically, judiciously pursuing the common good, even while retaining importance differences from those around us.