Faith Today

Christ & culture in Canada

Navigating the whirlwind of interpreta­tive pluralism

- John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at ChristAndC­ulture.

Protestant­ism has exacerbate­d the individual­ism of our culture to encourage each of us to decide everything for ourselves.

Roman Catholics aren’t wrong about everything. Even about what they say about us Protestant­s. Take University of Notre Dame sociologis­t Christian Smith. He’s a former Evangelica­l who has crossed the Tiber because, among other things, he wearied of what he calls Protestant­ism’s “pervasive interpreti­ve pluralism.” By this he means how Protestant­s perpetuall­y disagree with each other over what the Bible teaches.

Smith’s mordant despair can be challenged. Protestant­s agree enough that we not only recognize each other as kin, but we work with each other across denominati­onal lines in lots of important projects – from relief and developmen­t agencies to evangelist­ic campaigns to children’s clubs to, yes, even theologica­l seminaries.

Still. The new head of the World Evangelica­l Alliance said in an interview that the most important item on his agenda is improving Bible knowledge. But should it be?

Perhaps he has in mind the level of Bible knowledge – and of literacy in general – among the exploding population­s of Protestant­s in Africa and Latin America.

Canadian studies have repeatedly shown, however, that even lifelong believers in a country that was majority Christian for generation­s, where literacy is high and there is easy access to the Bible, often never acquire basic Bible knowledge.

More ominously, the main problems facing us won’t be solved by teaching more Bible content. Most of us don’t use well even what Bible knowledge we do have.

I have been teaching theologica­l method and ethical reasoning for a number of years and have three observatio­ns to mention here.

First, even graduates of such courses are just beginning to learn how to put together the vast and complicate­d teachings of the Bible into a coherent theologica­l framework they can apply to their lives. But why should they even try to do that on their own?

Protestant­ism has exacerbate­d the individual­ism of our culture to encourage each of us to decide everything for ourselves. Catholics have been warning against this atomizatio­n of theologica­l authority for half a millennium.

And modern consumeris­m makes us all the more prone to interpret the Bible convenient­ly in line with our preference­s, or to conform to the values of our class, ethnicity or region. We rarely let the Bible confront us, let alone truly change our lives.

Second, Protestant­s refuse to be “priest ridden,” as the old antiCathol­ic stereotype has it – doing just as their pastors say. Instead, when I ask my students if they consult their pastors, they usually say no. Why not?

Third, even if Christians did seek help from their pastors, it seems absurd to expect every Canadian pastor to become a Repository of All Wisdom. Yet too many feel they must undertake a few weeks of study and then deliver a series of sermons on subjects scholars might take a lifetime to master.

Our Catholic friends don’t settle for everyone figuring out everything for himself or herself. Not even priests. Instead, their Church has marshalled its considerab­le resources to provide standard, steady answers – in catechisms, manuals of ethics, guides to spirituali­ty and more.

Most Protestant theologica­l work, however, is done by – you guessed it – individual­s. This professor or that pastor publishes his or her views by book or by podcast, leaving audiences to pick what they like from the marketplac­e of options.

In our concern to be not-Catholic, I fear we Protestant­s have overcompen­sated. Let’s consider the best elements of their example instead – and stop reinventin­g wheel upon wheel.

I’d like to see The Evangelica­l Fellowship of Canada, or Christian Higher Education Canada, or a coalition of academic deans of Canada’s major Protestant seminaries convene a task force to write basic guides to doctrine, ethics and piety. Publishing online would mean they could be any size. Some might be genericall­y Christian while others would reflect the important difference­s among various traditions. If collective­ly writing such guides would be too onerous or contentiou­s, what about creating a shortlist of recommende­d ones?

We Protestant­s co-operate impressive­ly on so many vital matters. How about providing reliable instructio­n for our hardworkin­g pastors and earnest churchpeop­le who really must not be left to fend for themselves in the whirlwind of pervasive interpreta­tive pluralism?

 ?? JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR. Christ & culture in Canada ??
JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR. Christ & culture in Canada

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