Monday, December 15, 2008

self feeding and the endless challenge within Protestant evangelicalism

... And I would suggest that one's first reaction as an evangelical is to go feed yourself until you find the answer. Now that may including reading the Puritans and reading your church confession or going to seminary but you're, you're taking your plate and putting the food on it. And it seems to me there is this vast missing piece of the puzzle of who is feeding whom because evangelicalism ultimately doesn't WANT to solve the authority problem, doesn't WANT to say "What's the official teaching of the church", but wants to leave a very large component of self feeding as part of the journey.

This is a fascinating quote and a fascinating observation. When we discuss the term "authority" it gets to the basis on which an interpretation of Scripture can be considered to have any weight or credibility. The old saw amongst Catholics and Orthodox is that it does not good to take the approach of sola scriptura because even if you posit an inerrant Bible you do not have inerrant interpretation without some ground rule of authority. Of course this is not to say there is no epistemic challenge in establishing the authority of Orthodox or Catholic interpretation but the challenge there lays simply in the challenge anyone would face affirming faith in what Lewis called "mere Christianity".

I would agree with Spenser's suggestion that self-feeding is axiomatic in evangelicalism. I would go further to suggest that a crisis latent in any sort of Christian life or community is that when you feed yourself and when you fill your plate (which you invariably do even in settings where the question of authority is considered settled) what are you putting on your plate? To borrow the categories proposed by the author of Hebrews there is milk and there is solid food. As has been pointed out by countless people over the ages Jesus told Peter, at the time of his restoration, "feed my sheep." The apostles were tasked with providing spiritual food to those who would come to believe in Jesus.

Paul wrote that teachers should be careful what sort of building they work upon the foundation of Christ. This is where, if I may venture a bit in mixing the metaphors shared in Scripture, we should consider that the apostolic role, and the role of the teacher, is to provide food to the body of Christ. The provision of this food is that which was entrusted the apostles, the bread and wine that are the flesh and blood of Christ.

Now if milk represents elementary teachings it may be that a challenge in any church tradition is to consider the quality of the milk given. Is it possible that in evangelicalism there are different forms of solid food and different forms of milk? Some milk is raw and full while other milk is skim milk or pasteurized. Some would contend that this milk has been so processed that even it is no longer what it would be for the baby Christian. As for solid food, let us suppose it is meat per the colloquialism, some meat is of a very high quality while other meat is ground up into hot dogs and may not even be meat as we would normally wish to call it.

The central question here is do self feeders REALLY self feed? If they do then what sort of solid food or milk do they feed themselves with? If Spenser is right that evangelicals don't want to solve the issue of authority and that self-feeding is the norm perhaps it's helpful to reformulate this observation. Self-feeding means you decide what you put on your plate. Any iteration of church authority of any kind at any level supposes that what you put on your plate should be what the teacher puts there.

And this gets back to the issue or claim of "I'm not being fed." There are many ways this could be parsed. It could mean you want to hear something you haven't heard before. This sort of "I'm not being fed" could be nothing more than a case of itching ears. But other kinds of "I'm not being fed" could be because the milk is so processed or the meat is so processed that one begins to believe that the food one is being presented with is not really the food of the Gospel, not really the bread of Christ's body and the wine of Christ's blood. To labor this analogy of food a bit it may be that evangelicalism has a problem of obsessing over processed food. Grape juice and wonder bread have replaced the real bread and wine.

Now I'm still thoroughly Protestant enough to not be pessimistic about things. I believe that self-feeding happens in every Christian tradition but I also believe that the challenge of authority in evangelicalism and Protestantism does amount to how people determine what food should be options, at the risk of extening the food/feeding metaphor beyond any reasonable bounds.

There's a sense in which pastors who want the congregation to feed themselves have a point. We should all, as believers, study the Scriptures. For evangelicals (or any other branch of Christianity) the challenge of "private interpretation" comes up. A person who studies the Scriptures and concludes that people have free will will suddenly find himself odd man out in a Presbyterian church. A Methodist who holds that unconditional election is biblical will likely be invited to consider fellowship elsewhere. We want you to feed yourself, to be sure, but we want to make sure that what you put on your plate is what we consider food. Twinkies do not count. Nor do tootsie rolls. You should have meat ... but not just hot dogs ... unless the hot dogs were produced by your local pastor and then they are okay! By the way, I'm not necessarily saying hot dogs are never appropriate food. They have their time and place.

But it does seem to raise the spectre of what is considered solid food. Some things that are considered solid food may really be the Gospel while other things may be the bread and wine of legalism or antinomianism. The trouble is perhaps not the self-feeding aspect as who goes where for what food.