On Conversation without Conversion: Reflections on Church Practice and Participation

By J. Aaron Simmons
Originally published at The Other Journal – The Church and Postmodernism (2014)

Though I think a lot about church practice, I don’t write much on it. My writing, for better or worse, tends to be very intentionally philosophical and offered in the aim of inviting a broader readership into the technical debates of philosophy of religion. The one main exception to this general trajectory, though, is a piece I posted at Church and Postmodernism a few years ago on what I termed the “hermeneutics of silence” that operate problematically in many non-denominational evangelical communities. The claim that I defended in that essay was that though there are a lot of things that seem right about the rise of non-denominationalism, one thing is very problematic: a self-narrative of inclusivity and hospitality (often to those who have been hurt by the legalism of denominational practice) that can mask the exact same politics of exclusion on offer in the denominational context. Rather than a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” I suggested, a “hermeneutics of silence” can emerge such that, in the attempt to maintain the inclusive self-narrative, the inclusivity cannot allow for conversations admitting to the complexity of social, moral, and political issues that are assumed to be obvious for Christian life and character. In the effort to remain “unified,” such communities often simply eliminate the conversations that could potentially challenge such unity. Yet, I suggested, this does not foster unity, but exclusion under the guise of inclusion. In this way, it is potentially more problematic than the outmoded denominational exclusivity because now we are faced with an exclusion that doesn’t name itself. Indeed, it can’t name itself—because that would require engaging in the very conversations that are excluded from the life of the church. What results, though, is a dangerous appeal to what we simply might term “the obvious.” The pressure to conform to what is “obvious” for a community is significant because non-conformists are not only threatened with being asked to leave the church, say (which is not that big of a deal since at least here in the South, there are usually four or five other churches within walking distance), but also with failing to be “good Christians.” This is disastrous for a global community defined by the example of Christ’s dialogical welcome to all and Christ’s frustration with the religious leadership who took it as “obvious” how the Messiah would act and speak.

Those are the broad strokes of what I tried to work through in that previous essay. In what I expect will end up being a series of posts throughout the summer, I want to think a bit more about church practice in a specifically post-evangelical context. Now, by “post-evangelical,” here, I am not thinking of anything too determinate. Rather, I am simply trying to narrow my focus so as not to be too sweeping in the generalizations that I am sure I will be accused of making. Many mainstream Protestant denominations, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, etc., will likely offer important counterexamples to what I will put forth here. My aim is not to be exhaustive, but merely suggestive and reflect nothing more “scientific” than my own experience. I am a philosopher, not a sociologist. So, I welcome comments and criticisms from readers who might have different experiences with the sorts of churches that I am thinking about here—primarily non-denominational post-evangelical communities. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, my sincere hope is that I am deeply wrong about much of what I will be talking about. I keep hoping that my experience is too narrow and something that visiting more churches would correct; but my fear is that it is far more generally reflective of the experience of many others as well.

In this post, I will simply outline a particular meta-issue that I think accompanies, and may even underwrite the appeals to the “obvious” that function so problematically to exclude rather than to invite others to engagement and serious reflection about the content of Christian truth and the substance of Christian practice. Simply put, that which we don’t want to talk about (because it is divisive, or controversial, or just too difficult, etc.) is usually that which we make maximally present in our discursive community.

I imagine that this will sound odd, but it really shouldn’t. The idea is just an ecclesial version of the old adage that you should “hide something in plain sight.” When an idea or belief is taken for granted so deeply that it becomes definitive of a community’s self-identity, that idea or belief is no longer a matter of discussion, but simply of affirmation. It becomes “obvious.” To be part of this community is, “obviously,” to hold this belief as true.  But, here is the problem: very little . . . almost nothing, is obvious (I am appropriating Simon Critchley’s terminology here). Accordingly, what we take as obvious is often that which we talk most about, but spend the least amount of time thinking through. Careful consideration would seem to indicate that the issue is not settled, not obvious—and that can’t be allowed if the church needs the “obvious” in order to name itself.

As most students of philosophy, history, sociology, and theology already know, but our churches continue to seem to ignore, is that what we affirm as “obvious” is a matter of how we find ourselves in long histories of contestation and struggles for identification. “We” are at stake in what “we” say about ourselves and the history of how we have come to say it.  Unfortunately, many communities (whether religious or not) forget their own histories and, thus, cover over the deep contingency that underlies their identity. To avoid some potential confusion, let me make clear that I do not think that there is anything problematic with a specific community defining itself relative to a specific set of beliefs or practices. Such self-definition is required for community participation—and that is a good thing. It allows us to make sense of how we choose to name ourselves (and find ourselves being named). For example, there are important distinctions between being a Presbyterian and being a Baptist. Similarly, there are important distinctions between being an American Baptist and being a Southern Baptist. And so on. But, when we confuse what has become normalized internal to a specific denomination, or a specific church (in in non-denominational contexts), as that which is “obviously” the case for all Christians, or all rational persons, or all moral individuals, more broadly, then difficulties result because those who view things differently, or simply may view things differently but aren’t entirely sure because they are still thinking things through, are now “un-Christian,” “irrational,” and “immoral.” When we find ourselves in a situation when serious questions are dangerous to a community, then that community is probably not held together with a humble confidence in Christian truth, but an arrogant triumphalism about its own status. At this point, the “us” and the “them” become dangerous categories indeed.

As a postmodernist, which I always and only ever understand according to Merold Westphal’s idea that we “can’t peek over God’s shoulder,” I am a fan of contingency and complexity. Yet, postmodernism also stresses the locality of identity and so I am a fan of taking seriously how we identify ourselves relative to our local communities of discourse. I choose to go to loosely post-evangelical churches because I want to affirm my own identity in particular ways as I constantly try to work through the stakes of the complicated self-narrative that I perform every day: a pentecostal, an open theist, a southerner, a husband, a father, a postmodern philosopher of religion, etc. When I go to church, I bring all of this with me and continue to renegotiate my identity as I rethink what these various labels and terms have meant and will mean. In this way, going to church is hard work—let me stress this, going to church is very hard work! It is not simply a matter of whether the church has a good children’s program that my son will enjoy attending (though that certainly matters). It is not simply a matter of whether the church has a music program that fits with what my wife and I enjoy (though that certainly matters and my wife and I are at seriously odds on what counts as “good music”). It is not simply a matter of what specific doctrinal statement is available on the church website (though that certainly matters to a postmodern, pentecostal, open theist like myself). All of these things matter, but so do issues of whether the church is nearly exclusively made up of one race, whether the church allows women to be in positions of leadership, whether philosophical engagement and serious discourse are fostered or viewed as threatening to Christian life, and so on.

The point is that going to church is, itself, a practice in identity formation. It is not simply a matter of participating in very old Christian traditions, but a matter of deciding what those traditions will be for us and for those who will inherit them from us. Signification is not a once and for all sort of thing. Signification is an ongoing process because identity is always something that we dynamically and contingently live (as individuals and as communities), rather than something that we stably and finally are. This process of signification has got to be historically aware and hermeneutically sensitive.

Let’s consider just one example of this broader meta-claim that I am trying to illuminate. The church that I currently attend, and in which I hope to become more involved moving forward, understands gender to be a fundamental category for Christian life. As such, getting involved in the church is often first and foremost a matter of getting involved in the men’s groups or the women’s groups, etc. Recently, I had a conversation with some of the pastors at the church and I made the point that I agree with them about the importance of gender in Christian practice, but not in the way that they seemed to present it. In brief, I suggested, we should focus on gender, but not because we want to train up godly women and men according to some supposed conception of biblical norms regarding gender identity, but because of the way in which gender has been so centrally part of Christian history and practice. Yet, this central role has usually operated according to patriarchal assumptions and power-structures. So, yeah, let’s do a lot of thinking and talking and training about gender, with the hope of overcoming the problematic mechanisms of power that have minimized the role of women in church practice and theological education. I then suggested that a good habit is to ask ourselves who benefits from the maintenance of what the church takes as obvious. Is it the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, as it were, or is it those who are already in positions of power and leadership? Does affirming what we affirm (without discussion, because, again who talks about what is obvious?) expose us to the complexity of human existence and the difficulty of identity formation, or does it problematically make it seem that such existence is easy (if we just affirm this or that truth)? Specifically, does talking a lot about gender actually serve to keep in place the obviousness of masculine dominance, or does it interrogate that dominance in the name of Christian charity and the servant model of Christ? The point here is not that I happen to disagree with the specifics of how gender seems to be understood at this church, but that the constant discussion of gender at the church might end up precluding such conversation.

Hide stuff in plain sight. Don’t talk about things by talking about them all the time. This practice is understandable, and rarely (I believe) is it intentional, but it is something that should warrant our attention and possibly our criticism. We might do well to ask why churches that talk a lot about femininity and masculinity, say, rarely have women included on the church council or elder board. Moreover, why is it almost never the case that such churches have staff members who are trained in gender theory? The point is not that the church would appeal to the “expert” academic to solve the issue, but simply that it would recognize that being a businessman or a graduate of (usually conservative) seminaries, two groups that I think disproportionately occupy staff positions at the sorts of post-evangelical churches I am concerned with here, are the only relevant voices in conversations about things as complicated as gender (or race, or freedom, or justice, or interpretation, or community building, etc.).  A good first step, as I see it, toward fostering (in practice) the inclusivity and hospitality that function so centrally in the self-narrative of many churches would be to rethink the ways in which individuals are considered “obviously relevant” to the ministry of the church itself as concerns leadership positions. In a time when academic jobs are so difficult to find, there is an abundance of talented very well trained academics who would likely be receptive to revisioning themselves in relation to ecclesial responsibilities.

Here is the point: Pay attention to what a church says about itself and presents as “obvious,” because that is probably going to be what it takes as not open for conversation. Rather, regarding that issue it might be that only conversion is possible. “This is who “we” are . . . take it or leave it.” Though this is rarely said, I think that things might be better for all concerned if it were what we said more often. Such honesty would foster an awareness of the contingency of the community’s self-narrative. Things could be otherwise, but we don’t want them to be. That is ok, even if it means that we have to look elsewhere for a church in which we will invest ourselves. Again, here in the south, there are plenty of other churches to go to. There are plenty of other ways to make sense of one’s participation in the complicated history of what it can mean to signify as a “Christian.” And yet . . .

And yet, surely we post-evangelicals can do better than this. Surely we can welcome conversation without assuming that it must lead to conversion. Surely we can invite difference in our local churches without abandoning who it is that we “locally” are. Such invitation requires an appreciation of contingency as part and parcel of our locality itself. Personally, though disagreement continues, I deeply appreciate the pastors at the church I am currently attending for taking the time to meet with me, to talk with me, and hopefully to think with me. I look forward to more such conversations moving forward as I continue to work out who it is that I am as a Christian and who I will be as an example of what Christianity can mean to others (namely, my son, my students, my neighbors, and my readers).

Come, let’s walk together and talk along the way.


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