Friday, April 08, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: The State of Theology

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

David B. was kind enough to forward us this link to a recent survey by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research about what Americans believe about God, Jesus Christ, sin and eternity.

Tom: Apparently they are doing this every couple of years now. Having regular new data sets to browse can be useful in noting trends of one sort or another. We discussed the LifeWay 2016 survey in this space, if I recall correctly … yes, I do. That was the one where, based on the frequency of their heretical answers, my fellow writer Immanuel Can was inspired to refer to some of the respondents as not so much Christian as “ ‘Christian-flavored’, like a really, really bad kind of tofu.”

How’s the tofu this year, IC?

Tasting the Tofu

Immanuel Can: This year’s data is on a really cool chart. It lets the viewer play around with statistical variables like “age” and “income”, and morphs the graphics instantly.

Tom: Yippee. No, actually, that’s fairly useful if you need to break down the data further for one reason or another.

IC: The problem is that both generating surveys and interpreting statistics are activities fraught with challenges. If questions are worded ambiguously or are misinterpreted by the respondents in some way, they can be very misleading. Also, two things can correspond statistically without actually being causes of each other. (A site like this one makes that point hilariously obvious.) So knowing what we’re looking at is tricky sometimes — even for experts in sociology.

Tom: This is true. On top of that, we all know what’s happening to pollsters these days: people are decreasingly inclined to express opinions that could get them in trouble, and they are also less and less inclined to carefully pay attention to what they are being asked. So a fair percentage of this data may be slop.

Getting Extreme

Those qualifications out of the way, was there anything about this year’s survey that caught your interest?

IC: Well, whatever is actually being measured, in some ways it’s getting a bit more extreme. For example, more “evangelical” people now say that “God accepts the worship of all religions” than said it two years ago. But take Statement #6: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” The response in favor is really high. Bizarrely high. But is that because evangelicals are secretly Arian, as the survey-interpreters claim, or is it reflective of the part of the question to which people were paying attention? If they heard “Jesus is a created being” and were saying “agree” to that, then yes, that’s a feature in common with the ancient Arian heresy. But what if they were hearing, “Jesus is the first and greatest …” and didn’t really notice the word “created”? Then they wouldn’t be “Arian” at all: they’d just be enthusiasts for Christ, with faulty listening skills.

Which was it? We don’t know.

Tom: Right. I very much doubt evangelical churches are full of secret Arians. There are undoubtedly a few, but in many more cases the answers may be a product of simple ignorance or immaturity. People are not well-taught these days, even after years in church. And if you ask a seventeen-year-old who has been attending an evangelical youth group for two months that question, I’m not surprised you’d get a sub-optimal response. I do notice that when you apply the “evangelical” filter, you are down to a mere 680 responses out of 3,002 total. Remove the youngsters from the equation and it’s down to 530, which is barely a sixth of the respondents. So it’s possible the number of evangelicals surveyed was so small, so poorly-defined or so liberal that it does not represent the evangelicals you and I encounter regularly at all.

Different Kinds of Confusion

IC: Good point. As we said on the last post, asking whether or not somebody regards themselves as evangelical is not a good enough way to tell if he or she really is, because people can self-identify with a group for no better reason than that they cannot think of a more appropriate one, not because they have a close adherence to evangelical theology.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t think the survey is measuring something. It has to be. I’m just suggesting we need to be very cautious about interpreting the data with the level of certainty that the sponsors want us to, or to accept their explanations without further questioning.

Tom: Absolutely.

IC: Another example of why: Statement #12: “Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.” The evangelicals are just about balanced between “disagree” and “agree”, with a slight tilt to the former. Ligonier Ministries claims this is reflective of a lack of understanding of the holiness of God. Maybe. But why isn’t that explained as a failure to grasp the nature of sin, or a failure to understand eternal destinies? It could also be more complicated. People could, for example, believe in the holiness of God as a concept, but not be well acquainted with the implications of that concept for our understanding of sin.

Tom: Or could it be mere confusion on the part of the respondents about whether the question refers to the smallest sin of a Christian saved by grace or the smallest sin of a person outside of Christ. Some of the “nay” responses could be solipsistic: a “MY sins don’t deserve eternal damnation because the Lord has paid for them on the cross” sort of thing.

IC: Sure. So while it’s not necessarily wrong, the Ligonier interpretation might just confuse them, unless the whole theological connection were carefully explained.

Lost or Imprecise

And I think that brings us to one of the major takeaways here: it’s possible our theological language has been lost or that we have become so imprecise in our thinking that ordinary folks can’t find the words to explain what they really do believe. And either way — whether we’re slipping into heresies or just becoming theologically inarticulate — I think we can make an argument that we all really need to renew our language and the precision of our theology. Is that fair, Tom?

Tom: Certainly. One of the biggest elements of that is listening and asking relevant questions to clarify meaning. I’m currently in the middle of listening to two Christians go back and forth about a particular theological disagreement, and the first five exchanges between them have basically been clarifying terminology — and these are two guys who attend the same church. It’s amazing how much we don’t hear one another.

IC: Right. And we have to be very careful, even when we have a set of agreed-upon labels. I mentioned the survey’s reference to Arianism earlier. Well, when you start using terms like “Arian”, you’re bound to confuse some people. Half of evangelicals don’t know the difference between Arianism and Arminianism. So even having a label doesn’t help, unless everybody in the discussion is operating with exactly the same definition. And that’s the value of sorting out the language at the start.

Tom: It does mean that getting into a real discussion is more time consuming, but it’s also (eventually) more profitable.

Understanding and Processing

IC: Yes. Now, let me make a pitch for something I really believe: conversation is basic to mutual understanding, and to learning in general. For too long, we in the churches have relied on the one-way format of the public lecture — some singing, a 35 or 40 minute message, and done. The problem is that we have no way of assessing how well the audience has processed anything we’ve said, or whether they’ve understood us aright at all. The scriptures tell us, “Let all things be done to edification.” Well, that isn’t edifying, and we’ve got to stop it. We need to adjust our approaches so as to incorporate feedback from those we are trying to instruct, so that we may know what they understand and what we still need to teach. That lack of conversation, I think, accounts for the confusing and potentially troubling data in this survey.

So it’s potentially not just a lack of doctrine being taught, but also a lack of doctrine being mutually understood and processed when taught.

Tom: That’s a good point, and one I won’t argue. After all, the one thing we can be almost 100% sure of in our Westernized religious culture, whatever the denomination, is that at least 75% of everything most of these folks have learned, they learned listening to 15-45 minute messages (at least I’m told some of the Anglicans and Catholics are down to 15). And if these sorts of surveys are a way to measure the effectiveness of the lecture format in communicating religious truth, then I’d say it’s not working.

Anyone Listening?

Do you think anyone’s listening, IC?

IC: I think some are trying. But it’s hard: a one-way lecture is a demanding format. It has its uses for dispensing large amounts of dense information from a genuine expert to highly-attuned audiences, as in a formal university lecture session, for example. But even there, feedback enhances the learning experience immeasurably. And for the ordinary Christian of today, it’s a very poor format. I don’t know why we think it’s sacred. It’s not. The Sermon on the Mount itself was nowhere near as long as most sermons — at least, what we have recorded of it.

Tom: See now, I didn’t know that, and I’ve even written about it extensively. Now I’ll have to time it out …

IC: It will be a test of our sincerity to see whether we can abandon our traditions in favor of real edification. What the survey does demonstrate is this: for some reason, things theologically are not as clear, or as clearly expressed, as they need to be. What we do with that fact is what really matters.


  1. Having had the opportunity to speak in those dreaded 45 minute chunks on multiple occasions over the last twenty years or so, I can aver two broad points:

    1) When there was some ability for the audience to question the points made, it generally enriched the experience. Questions point out where I have failed to be clear - or clear enough. Questions indicate to me that the audience IS connected to what I've shared and genuinely desires to know more. Questions lead me to expand or illustrate points more fully than I otherwise might have.

    2) As I've sought to communicate fewer ideas but to communicate them with greater clarity, the audience has responded in a vigorous and positive way. What I thought might be boring to them has usually instead been described as helpful. We are living in a time when theological maturity is not as common as we might wish. I would wager that many of our listeners are still needing milk rather than meat. Their (relative) immaturity is no reason to let them starve.

    I don't want to suggest a free-for-all, but in our local group, we now have a regular (moderated) Q & A at least once a month that comes on the heels of some teaching on a particular fundamental - that structure has been roundly well received and has not (thus far) been abused.

  2. A lot of time and energy is expended in these blogs to provide (logical) expositions and arguments that are intended to inform (and convince) the reader that an optimal method and path exists to deal with life's vagaries and uncertainties by enlisting the help of the supernatural (via Christian faith, outlook, attitude and action). My opinion is that this is done in a tactful, informed and compassionate manner contrary to so many other sites. As someone who sees this approach as very valuable in countering today's drift into the opposite direction of irreligiosity and nihilism with the obvious terrible results we now witness almost daily in the news, there is just one other tool that I think is not used often and systematically enough here to drive the message home. That tool is the use of actual facts that have occurred throughout history and especially in current, contemporary, times that substantiate the existence, presence and influence of God in our daily lifes. I am talking, of course, about actual and substantiated miracles that are constantly occurring but are under reported. I therefore periodically research the internet for such information and evaluate it's quality.

    Here is one of two recent items that I came across that I think are miraculous, highly relevant and informative. They both have a bend towards Catolicism (my affiliation) but were not picked by me for that reason, this being a Protestant site. I think they provide learning and insight for all Christians. To reduce the length of my append (due to limitations if this blog site) I will append the second item some other time.

    This one deals with a conversion experience of a Jewish man ( a Harvard professor) due to a miraculous, actual and real encounter with God and with blessed Mary, the mother of Jesus. His story and message strikes me as authentic, intelligent, and honest. It is encouraging that God indeed intervenes in individual lives in a public manner answering the call to affirm and substantiate the existence of the supernatural in our modern times. Here is a link to the UTube video of the conference at which he gave his talk. I hope posting this link of the talk by Roy Schoeman is possible on this blog.

  3. Very cool data and exploration tool. One can see that the data is slightly biased just based on numbers to the under each slot. But I am sure the organizers made sure to use some statistical rigor in coming to conclusions. Of interest is to compare these data e.g. with Canada or even better the Evangelicals in the EU.