Sometimes I encounter a blog post so compelling, it stops me in my tracks.
The other night I couldn’t sleep. Wind shrieked outside as a cold front clawed through Columbus. I padded downstairs over thick carpet and curled on the couch beneath my blue blanket.
I drank a cup of blueberry coffee and turned on my iPad. What is Rachel Held Evans up to these days? I wondered. I’ve only ever read a couple of her posts, but she always has a way of provoking me to think.
She entitled one of her recent posts “The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart,” a play on the book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll.
The post honestly addressed some of Rachel’s struggles with doubt, including her inability to understand God-ordained genocide in the Old Testament. It received over 500 comments from people who agreed, disagreed, or were flat-out scandalized by Ms. Evans’s new-found comfort with embracing tension and mystery.
Here are some of my favorite parts of her post:
“For what makes the Church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority?”
Rachel goes on to say that Christians must not only exercise intellectual integrity, but also emotional integrity. To disconnect our emotions from our minds is to create a sub-human, sociopathic monster. (As a person who grew up in a cerebrally-oriented Bible cult, I can testify to the dangers of living a life unbalanced by honest emotion.)
Rachel says of this emotional-intellectual disconnect:
“Richard Beck has also observed this phenomenon and refers to it as ‘orthodox alexithymia’:
When theology and doctrine become separated from emotion we end up with something dysfunctional and even monstrous.
A theology or doctrinal system that has become decoupled from emotion is going to look emotionally stunted and even inhuman. What I’m describing here might be captured by the tag “orthodox alexithymia.” By “orthodox” I mean the intellectual pursuit of right belief. And by “alexithymia” I mean someone who is, theologically speaking, emotionally and socially deaf and dumb. Even theologically sociopathic.
Alexithymia–etymologically “without words for emotions”–is a symptom characteristic of individuals who have difficulty understanding their own and others’ emotions. You can think of alexithymia as being the opposite of what is called emotional intelligence.
Orthodox alexithymia is produced when the intellectual facets of Christian theology, in the pursuit of correct and right belief, become decoupled from emotion, empathy, and fellow-feeling. Orthodox alexithymics are like patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex brain damage. Their reasoning may be sophisticated and internally consistent but it is disconnected from human emotion. And without Christ-shaped caring to guide the chain of calculation we wind up with the theological equivalent of preferring to scratch a doctrinal finger over preventing destruction of the whole world. Logically and doctrinally such preferences can be justified. They are not “contrary to reason.” But they are inhuman and monstrous. Emotion, not reason, is what has gone missing.” Read the entire post.
Rachel says: “It’s not enough for me to maintain my intellectual integrity as a Christian; I also want to maintain my emotional integrity as a Christian. And I don’t need answers to all of my questions to do that. I need only the courage to be honest about my questions and doubts, and the patience to keep exploring and trusting in spite of them.
“The bravest decision I’ll ever make is the decision to follow Jesus with both my head and heart engaged—no checking out, no pretending.”
As Professor Michael J. Svigel of Dallas Seminary recently tweeted: “Orthodoxy often involves holding several paradoxical truths in excruciating tension. Heresy always relieves the tension.”
Let’s think hard, love well, and be okay with a little bit of tension and doubt. Christ calls us neither to sacrifice the integrity of our mind nor our heart as we follow him.
*For anyone interested in an evangelical book which deals with the genocide issue in the Old Testament, I highly recommend Show Them No Mercy, in the Zondervan Counterpoints Series. You can locate it here. I read this book during my first year at seminary, then wrote a summary of it. If you want a detailed 25-page summary instead of reading the whole book, click on my paper: Show Them No Mercy Summary by Stephen Smith. As I look back at my conclusion in the spring of 2009, I realize that I disliked the emotional tension that the topic presented, so I opted for an intellectual solution. I’d nuance it different today.