Post-evangelical theologian reveals humanistic roots of LLF

Jun 25, 2021 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Many theories begin as a corrective to other dominant ideas. This tendency to challenge existing generally accepted narratives is important, as it can lead to positive progress. From a Christian point of view it is an important trait in our human make-up – while Christianity is often seen as on the side of conservatism, its founder figures, Abraham, Moses, Paul and the other apostles, and supremely Jesus himself, often questioned and led people away from prevailing worldviews and introduced thinking which appeared revolutionary (although it was a re-newal of what had always been true). Without this ability to interrogate existing thinking, to offer an alternative vision, and to change, there would be no repentance and conversion, and no new initiatives in mission.

But not all change is good; discernment and wisdom, informed by the Scriptures, need to be applied, often to tease out what is beneficial and what is potentially erroneous and harmful in a theory of change. So for example, socialism began by questioning why most of a nation’s resources end up in the hands of a small elite. “How can more equitable distribution be achieved; how can poverty be reduced” are questions which can be found in the Scriptures (eg some of the social laws in the Pentateuch); this had led to developments such as Western-style democracy, fair systems of taxation, financial support for the disadvantaged, free services such as health and education. But the French revolutionaries, Marx , Lenin and Mao went much further, devising a fully orbed system of class antagonism and revolution, and state control, which explicitly denied God, removed personal freedoms, and unleashed violence and cruelty.

In education too, there were always those who questioned the reliance on ‘teacher tell’ methods of imparting information to students. Rote learning of notes and regurgitating information in exams may be easier to mark by judging memory retention, but this does not encourage creative thought and cooperation, or take into account different learning styles of students; it may foster unhealthy dependence on authority figures, who might abuse their position of power. Christians would agree, and point to Jesus’ methods of using parables and actions (such as healing), as ways of encouraging discipleship based on relationship, discovery, personal reflection and response, rather than just repeating ‘right’ answers and lists of facts.

But, many ‘humanistic’ theories of education which developed in the twentieth century, associated with thinkers such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers went much further. They denied the need to teach at all, believing that as human beings are essentially good, if their basic needs are met they will co-operate harmoniously and discover the information they need for themselves. The humanists rejected the ‘behaviourist’ theories of using reward and punishment to motivate learning and behaviour beneficial for society, and opposed any idea of authority from above telling us what to believe, with religious ‘dogma’ seen as the worst form of this kind of ‘oppression’.

It’s not difficult to see how these theories have influenced contemporary education. But increasingly they have taken hold in the church. It is surely positive to find creative, learner-centred methods of enabling the faith to be passed on and for people to hear God’s word in every generation, even in preaching. But theologians and other church leaders are going way beyond this, saying the content of the faith and the meaning of the Word itself should be changed, not just the methods of passing it on and learning it. Following 20th century theorists in other politics, education and other disciplines, they deny that there is any fixed ‘truth’ to be passed on, that doctrine has a core component of information deriving from an authoritative source from the past, acting as a guide rail for discipleship, worship and church life. Instead, for them, the content of Christian doctrine is something to be decided by the innately good human self.

David Runcorn’s latest article, versions of which have recently appeared in Church Times and on Via Media, is an example of this thinking. 

In LLF: Building the bridge as we cross it, He commends Living in Love and Faith as a successful model of education for the church, where laity and clergy together “discern faith, doctrine and discipleship”. This is not done by grasping afresh ancient truths, which he sees as dependent on people seeing themselves as powerless and that truth can only be mediated through so-called “great leaders”. Instead, truth is found by “abandoning the familiar ways of speaking of and defining what is going on”, and then liberating “God’s people to imagine themselves in radically new and adventurous ways.” The role of leaders, according Runcorn, is specifically not one of “guarding received understandings, or telling people what the truth is”, but to journey with people as they discover their version of the mind of God, and flourish and grow as a result. He claims that God in the bible does not issue commands which he expects us to obey, but encouragement to listen and take “responsibility”. When he says that the aim of LLF is to produce “biblically discerning” Christians, he does not mean those who, from a worldview based on the bible and Christian tradition, discern right and wrong in the world around us and in our own character and psyche; rather he seems to advocate discerning what is right and wrong in the bible based on the ‘truth’ of our own perspective.

And in saying this, he is correctly identifying the method of LLF. The collection of videos, fat book and study guides which constitute the LLF ‘suite of resources’ are in fact an example of ‘humanist’ educational theory and method, rather than Christian teaching. They do not encourage participants to evaluate traditional and contemporary views of relationships, sex, gender and marriage from the perspective of an ‘authoritative’  Christian worldview as agreed by the church down the ages and the worldwide church today. Rather, they put forward different ways of questioning the historic doctrine from the standpoint of new ‘authorities’- personal experience and theories emanating from the world. It is here that ‘truth’ can emerge. And this is not just in the view of Dr Runcorn, but according to the authors of LLF and hence the leadership of the Church of England.

Evangelicals in the Church of England are being encouraged to take part in local discussions of LLF. The rationale appears to be, that this will demonstrate the winsome and friendly nature of a group often maligned for inflexibility and bigotry, and that participation provides opportunities to communicate the truth of God’s word to those who have not heard it properly. But as Runcorn’s piece shows, the game has moved on. LLF is not a level playing field, where different views can be expressed politely on the common ground of shared worldview. Instead, a different, humanistic philosophical and educational method, now dominant in Western society, is being employed which doesn’t recognise the assumptions of the authentically Christian understandings about how we know what is real. So at best, there can be no real communication; at worst, evangelicals will soon realise that to play the game, they will have to play by the rules of the new referees, give up the idea of objective ‘biblical truth’, and accept that their view, apostolic, historic Christianity, is no more than a minority opinion which hopefully will be still permitted in the church.

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