Traditionalist abstractions

Rule-Based Religion: Evasive, Abstract, Self-Assertive, & Relationally Naive

Third, rule-based religion, then, is an unnecessary prelude to relational religion that assumes relationship with God is not secure and has to be earned.

It is also a narcissistic evasion of right relating, of relational responsibilities, and of facing relational problems. It misinterprets life’s anxieties as God’s absence, and can easily get caught into ever-more complex introverted responses to anxiety symptoms read as ‘God’s displeasure’ on this or that issue.

It ties in with abstract discourse that creates an entire pseudo-spiritual or super-spiritual language that somehow never connects with real concrete life issues. Such language sounds very pious, but it is a mere abstract calculus that endlessly defers relational engagement and concreteness.

It characterises many a traditionalist setting, and even many an academic pastoral theology setting, and has nothing to do with real Christian discourse, which is relationally wise and immediate, a love which grows more and more in knowledge and depth of insight into the real. Rule-based religion is like Nietzschean self-assertion, which belongs to the same mode of self-imposed harshness and narcissistic concern for self-advancement.

Rule-based religion is beaten only by learning communion with the Holy Spirit and by learning right relating to others. The traditionalist abstractions of rule-based religion evade relational responsibility and wisdom and, in my view, have very little to say of any value in the debate about church and homosexuality. It would be all too possible to imagine a relationally astute self-designated homosexual person being incredulous at the relationally backward introversions and abstract language of the self-designated traditionalist person. Their conversation would be a clash of two incompatible discourses and, in terms of relational awareness, the fault would lie with traditionalism, even if there were faults of a different kind with the self-designated homosexual.

Rule based religion evades relational responsibility

Rule-Based Religion: Relational Rules & Spirit vs. Non-Relational Rules & Fear

Second, what is at issue here is not the abandonment of moral standards since, obviously, Paul would still have us restrain ourselves from sensual indulgence.

Rather, our point is two-fold.

(a) Where there are ‘rules’ that should be followed, they are relationally orientated, and not a system of do’s and don’ts that allow the avoidance of relationship and the avoidance of facing up to relational problems. The whole point of the Law is that we relate well to God and neighbour, and also to creation.

Any other set of rules disguises the evasion of relational responsibilities, and is false religion, a way of ‘hiding from loving’ (as opposed to John Townsend’s phrase, ‘hiding from love’, which still sounds too consumerist and self-orientated).

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Religion and rules

Rule-Based Religion: A Non-Relational ‘Righteousness’ that is not Righteousness

We can now move on to our second main focus under the heading of ‘de-relationalisation’ by noting that, abstract discourses aside, another big result of suppressing relational wisdom is rule-based religion. 

First, biblically, righteousness is relational, something you do in relation to someone, whether God or neighbour, or at very least in ‘relation’ to the created order.

Rules, however, can sometimes provide a false way of being ‘righteous’ apart from relationship, a ‘righteousness’ you can do on your own, a DIY ‘righteousness’ that avoids the real thing. Rule-based religion, then, takes the ‘relationship’ out of ‘righteousness’ to produce a ‘righteousness’ that is not real righteousness.

For example, the early Luther tried to gain a relationship with God by observing ever-harsher rules of self-discipline. His rule-based religion was not relationship, but something designed to earn relationship, something that occurred before relationship as its prelude. The turning point for Luther came when he realised that he already had relationship with God, and that no system of self-imposed discipline could change that.

Thus, the harsh regime became redundant, and he could get on with reforming the Continent of Europe. Jesus also criticised the Pharisees on this point for neglecting right relationship with their parents in order to observe a religious tradition. Paul too criticises rule-based religion in Colossians 2:23 as lacking any value in ‘restraining sensual indulgence’.

Guilty as charged?

Abstract Rhetoric: Schism within Counselling Itself

Fourth, an example of what we have just been talking about is the question of whether homosexuality relates to sexual immorality, or whether guilt associated with homosexual practice should be seen in terms of a neurosis generated by a false charge of ‘sexual immorality’ made by society and tradition.

Counsellors taking the first line of thinking would counsel ‘repentance’ of homosexual practice. Counsellors taking the second line of thinking would seek to empower people by exposing the way they had been made to feel ‘guilty’ by ‘traditionalist propaganda’. If, however, the human person is actually built one way and not the other, then one of these counselling strategies would produce an irreconcilable internal conflict.

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Undermining biblical wisdom

Abstract Rhetoric: Schism between Academic Theology & Biblical Wisdom

Third, there is even a sense in which abstract pious rhetoric that suppresses relational wisdom has come to pervade academic theology. In particular, as Thiselton reminds us, the influence of Kant and neo-Kantianism has reduced the status of biblical language to mere ‘human projection’ for some. Since the status of biblical language is undermined, it is sidelined as a source of wisdom that can shape our discourse and lives.

In fact, however, philosophical tools can be used to highlight dimensions to biblical wisdom that have often been marginalised in this way. For example, the philosopher Gadamer used Hegel’s insight into something called ‘historical dialectic’ to ground his investigation into the process of relational understanding. When this was developed, it began to look like the biblical doctrine of love. This meant that ‘love’ could be unpacked as including ‘respect for the particular horizons of the given and giving ‘other’’.

This meant that proper ‘affection’ included releasing the other from one’s own need-generated strategizing, and promoting them as who they were created to be, within the boundaries that they determine, to the extent that one is able, given the priorities and responsibilities pertaining to one’s own call. This is the opposite of labelling, stigmatisation, and ‘politeness’ disguising structures of exclusion. Relational wisdom is being suppressed beneath the Kantian call to develop the Christian tradition away from Scripture rather than towards it.

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Perpetuating prejudice

Abstract Rhetoric: Schism between ‘Biblical Doctrine’ & Biblical Relating

Second, I will go further: in my view God is shutting down many churches because the religion is pervaded by ‘system’ and not ‘relational wisdom’.

In one church it is the other way around, and it is growing. It is built on a social trinitarian model of God and not on a Platonic model of God – i.e. it is relational, rather than overly hierarchical and abstract. This is not to doubt the great quality of many of the Christians in these churches. It is not their fault that they have been handed down a religion that suppresses relational wisdom, and many have such wisdom despite this fact.

But if loving God and neighbour is the heart of obedience, then any sermon on sin, for example, must focus by definition on relational distortion. So, to be more biblical, it is necessary to preach more in a relational vein, and less in terms of abstract systems, and certainly less in terms of abstract systems dumbed down to pre-school levels and put to the music of jingles that just use the word ‘love’ without explaining it.

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The preacher and the counsellor

Abstract Rhetoric: Schism between Preaching & Counselling 

First, interpreting the Bible so as to systematise it without hearing its relational wisdom tends to split Christian discourse into two – between the discourse of the pulpit and that of the counsellors.

Whilst there should be a distinction between the private specifics of counselling and the public language of preaching, the two should not be so different as to seem to belong to entirely different frameworks. I do not see such a sharp split in Scripture. Unfortunately, it is all too possible these days to attend church for decades and yet receive nothing from the pulpit that ‘strikes home’ with concrete relevance to the life issues being faced by the congregation.

One famous preacher-theologian, Gerhard Ebeling, speaks of ‘pious words which have no bearing on reality’. Elsewhere he writes, ‘we have to bring a certain measure of goodwill to the average sermon if we are not to be bored or furious, sarcastic or melancholy in our reactions’.

Recently, for example, I learned that a few centuries ago it was common knowledge in Baptist circles that genuine Christian experience in relation to guilt followed the following sequence, ‘conviction, compulsion, confession, fear, sorrow, faith’. If one felt guilty about something, one could ordinarily expect to go through a compulsion-confession-fear nexus. It was nothing to do with ‘illness’.

I also learned, however, that this kind of wisdom was largely lost through the influence of Western thinking such that, these days, not only do congregation members not know such things, but many pastors don’t know them either. If one has real issues to deal with, it seems – for example questions about homosexuality – one has to go to the counsellors in order to participate in an entirely different kind of discourse to that which normally characterises preaching, a discourse that may well give opposite advice.

Exegetical dangers

 ‘De-Relationalisation’: Abstract Rhetoric & Rule-Based Religion Vs Wisdom

For our second point, there is the danger of what I have called ‘de-relationalisation’.

I’m sorry to use this awkward word, but I can’t think of a better word for the problem. In short, the legacy of Western thinking has meant that biblical exegesis in traditional circles has concentrated on finding ‘eternal truths’ that can be expressed in terms of ‘propositions’ that can then be built into doctrinal ‘systems’.

At one level, this can be very useful for organising our thinking about, say, the doctrine of atonement. I always benefit from John Stott’s breakdown of atonement into four part-realised, part-prophetic, aspects: propitiation (appeasing wrath), justification (fulfilling the law), redemption (being bought at a price), and reconciliation (coming home to our Father).

At another level, however, treating the biblical texts only in this way can mask our evasion of asking relational questions of the text. This leads to over-stressing abstract rhetoric and rule-based religion at the expense of relational wisdom. This is quite serious since Jesus said that loving God and neighbour summed up the Law and the Prophets, and that these remained the first and second most important commandments in the New Testament.

In the following posts we will look at different kinds of ‘abstract rhetoric’ and at ‘rule-based religion’ in turn to illustrate what is meant here.

Unmasking our own self-deceptions

3. Subtle Exclusion Disguised by Self-Deceptive Rhetoric: ‘Climbers’

Third, worse than stigmatising by naming would be discriminating structures of judgement and exclusion cloaked or disguised by a politically correct rhetoric about inclusion or about ‘attempts’ to be inclusive.

This is where somebody is sinned against, but the rhetoric denies it. In other words, ‘politeness’ replaces relationship and love. The ugly thing about this is that, even though no sinful language is used, there is still favouritism, rejection, structures of exclusion, and hence implicit stigmatisation by naming going on at the level of practice. Thus, potentially, a leader could say to himself, ‘I have not actually said to so and so that they are such and such – I have been very careful in my speech’. But both John and James point out the hypocrisy of being polite in our speech but failing to love with our actions.

What is happening here is that the leader’s ‘politeness’ is functioning as a self-deceptive device that hides from himself his lack of love for, or stigmatisation of, somebody. The leader is effectively ‘climbing into’ his own rhetorical world of self-affirmation and believing the rhetoric to be true of himself in place of confessional honesty. But, as Gerhard Ebeling writes,

“According to Luther, the Word of God always comes as adversarius noster, our adversary. It does not simply confirm and strengthen us in what we think we are, and in what we wish to be taken for… This is the way, the only way, in which the Word draws us into concord and peace with God”.

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A subtle form of slander

2. Stigmatisation by Naming as the Manipulation of ‘Persuasive Definition’

The second give-away of a subconscious ‘parent-child’ model of authority is a way of labelling that has attached to it a strongly negative emotive content. We could call this ‘stigmatisation by naming’, a phrase coined by one of my wise friends with social work experience.

Arguably, if I labelled somebody a Swansea ‘Jack’, somebody from Swansea could take it as a compliment. If I labelled somebody as a ‘criminal’, however, then I could create a very negative emotional reaction in others about somebody who, as it happened, had only got caught stealing a Mars bar. I would be using the negative emotional connotation of the word ‘criminal’ as a way of taking revenge by causing others to reject somebody.

This is a subtle form of slander, which adds a negative value-judgement to mere false testimony. It is also a potentially disguised slander in that only a single word has been used. That is, by using a certain name or term, it is easy to stigmatise somebody without looking like you are doing so.

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