We Have To Do This Work

There was an interesting little controversy last month over on Theopolis Blog, and now that I’m caught up on reading the whole thing (which took a little while), I’d like to offer some color commentary from out here in the cheap seats.

It starts with a forum called “Theopolis Conversations,” in which an author makes a proposal, four other authors respond to it, and finally the initial author finishes with a rejoinder to his four respondents. In this case, the topic is “Paths to Human Maturity.” The initial article by David Field (which is looong!) also has links to the follow-up responses, except for a surrejoinder Doug Wilson posted on his own blog after the discussion was over. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing; it’s worth your time. But there’s a particular aspect to the kerfluffle that I’d like to comment on, and in order for my comments to make sense, I’m going to summarize the initial proposal, below.

In a nutshell, Field proposed a project, thus:

Reformed Christians would do well to take a look at the proposals and practices of psychoanalysis, the Desert Fathers, and Zen Buddhism because these supposed ‘paths to human maturity’, at the very least, generate some important challenges and questions for us.

Field then posed the situation of a pastor named Ira, “a sincere and spiritually mature man” who “meets the requirements for elders and bears the fruit of the Spirit.” Ira has carried a great deal of repressed anger since childhood, and although of course he is not conscious of it, his anger “does come out in various ways ‘above the surface’, i.e. in conscious, visible life. There are moments when there’s a [hint] that there is something lurking underneath, but Ira does not pay them any serious or sustained attention.”

Ira, though wholly sincere and genuinely godly, is not one to slow down, attend to the surface signs of unconscious passions, and connect with the associated emotions. He certainly has quiet times but in these his mind is busy – with intercessory prayer, memorising Scripture, and theological reflection. There is not time for extended, unhurried, radically honest, and exploratory conversation with another (therapist, counsellor, friend) and in any case, this would feel self-indulgent.

Moreover, drawing from contemplative traditions that might help Ira to notice what is happening in him seems “to represent a departure from the Puritan spirituality he so cherishes and therefore…to represent also a lack of trust in Scriptural ways of maturation.”

Therefore, Ira soldiers on,

And, in his case, the repressed anger manifests in his consciousness as a critical or reforming spirit which he identifies as the desire that things should be ‘right’….[H]e may control the conscious expression of this spirit and desire which can take the form of resentment at bearing responsibility, at an endeavour to control, at an obsession with correct doctrine or social conduct, as shame at the public sins or shortcomings of family members and so on….[H]e doesn’t realise…that underlying several of these various emerging ‘pressure-points’ is the one unresolved, un-named, unconscious passion of anger.)

Ira would like, of course, to be free of these besetting temptations against which he struggles. Field suggests that the only path from where Ira is to where Ira wants to be goes through “radical honesty with God,” which will require a kind of stillness and attention that Ira has not heretofore cultivated. Field further proposes that the Desert Fathers have something to offer Ira in such a season, as do the observations of the world gathered together by Zen Buddhism and depth psychology.

Field is pointedly not suggesting that Ira abandon his Christian faith. “The proposal is that we should investigate these pathways [the Desert Fathers, Zen, and depth psychology], not that we should adopt them.” [emphasis added] Why would we look into these traditions in particular? “The address to the self and associated practices which are found in these movements…are impactful and…have interesting connections with key biblical themes.” He then goes on at some length (which I’ll let you read yourself), discussing ways in which these three traditions intersect with biblical themes and might be worth investigating.

Peter Leithart, Uri Brito, and Alistair Roberts all responded with some measure of endorsement, but also varying degrees of caution. Their responses are well worth reading, and fairly brief. (As a massage therapist who works with essential oils, I particularly liked Leithart’s jag on the biblical ramifications of aromatherapy.)

What interests me here is the fourth response, from Doug Wilson, in which he (by his own later admission) “pulled the fire alarm.” In an article titled “A Crisis, not a Conversation,” Wilson rebukes the principals for even starting the conversation, and does so on asbestos paper with napalm ink. Wilson is at his fightin’ fundie finest here, quoting the expected passages about philosophy and vain deceit and banging the drum for the sufficiency of Scripture. He voices a number of valid concerns, most of which Fields ably addresses in his rejoinder. (I’ll probably have something to say on that subject later, because Wilson’s argument here is weak in ways he doesn’t realize. He argues in ways common to, say, the NANC/ACBC/BCF group, who have made “integration” a theological swear word–but he’s publicly committed to integration. Lotta tension there.)

Wilson goes more than a little over the top in his closing recommendations that Theopolis’ financial supporters might want to reconsider their giving, and threatening to do the closest thing his polity allows to calling for church discipline for the folks that started this thing, but that’s also another matter for another time. The first thing I want to comment upon here is what he doesn’t say.

Because here’s the thing: Ira, the fictional pastor with the repressed anger problem? Not so fictional. He’s more like a cliche. I’ve known a dozen of him, at least. These guys are spiritually mature (to hear the community tell it, anyhow), doctrinally sharp, honest in their business dealings–salt of the earth, right?

Yeah, about that..multiple times I’ve seen Ira’s unacknowledged wrath tank a whole ministry when it finally found its way to the surface. (And a another one where the underlying issue was vainglory, rather than anger.) I’ve been treated to the spectacle of warring Iras in the same ministry–a lot of people (me included) got drowned in that particular pissing match. Twice, I’ve had different sets of Iras blow up my whole life. Stats on pastoral failure and burnout tell the same sad tale. Various Iras, with their unaddressed sins and consequent inability to get along with one another for Jesus’ sake, are shambling through the evangelical church, leaving bodies and burning wreckage in their wake, and nothing could be plainer than that standard-issue evangelical piety is not addressing the problem.

Field is proposing an answer. Wilson doesn’t like Field’s answer. I like the way Field addresses it better than the way Wilson doesn’t. When the problem is real, which it is, in spades, having no answer is often as bad as having a poor answer. You can’t make course corrections in a parked car, and at least the guy with the poor answer is moving….

…which leads to my second point on all this: Field’s answer isn’t a poor answer. We have to do this work. We have to do it because our parishioners are not all as clueless as Ira. Some of them know something’s wrong, and they have figured out that they aren’t getting the answers they need at church. They may or may not encounter the Desert Fathers, but depth psychology has permeated our culture, and Zen mindfulness and meditation practices are not far behind. Our parishioners are searching for answers, and they are encountering this stuff. They work alongside people who are trying meditation and getting benefit from it, who are seeing Jungian shrinks and sometimes growing as a result, because common grace works. Think they won’t dabble? Bah. Of course they will. So will Wilson’s–they just won’t tell him, and what a loss that will be, both for him and for them!

Is there a straightforwardly biblical answer for these folks that makes a foray into other traditions unnecessary? If so, then let’s flesh it out and offer it to the church. Do we need some response to these other traditions anyhow, since our people are encountering them? Obviously. Would we rather have something wise to offer them in this area of common grace, or just leave them to their own devices? For a shepherd, that’s no question at all.

And anyhow, we are called to retake the territory; we play offense. To the extent that there’s anything there of value, it belongs to Christ, and we are commissioned to return it to its proper service to Him. Field has thrown down the challenge; what are we waiting for?

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