Typology and the Realignment of Western Christianity

In the most recent post in the series looking at religious commitments through a linguistic analogy, I introduced the idea that different religions function like languages and different theological traditions, denominations, or lineages function as the dialects of those languages. But I also noted that we’re in a time of significant realignment and that new differences seem to be arising as old ones fade away.

Another concept from linguistics, linguistic typology, might be helpful for understanding what’s happening. Typology classifies languages not by their historical relationships, but by their features — essentially how they work. So, languages can be classified based on such things as how they order words in a clause, how they form words, or a certain aspect of their sound systems — any number of ways — irrespective of their histories. 

We can do the same with religions and their dialects. It can be helpful, for example, to classify religious groups based on social factors like wealth or marginalization, the different moral or ethical concerns that drive their identity, or their dominant modes of religious experience. The point isn’t to find a single classification into which to fit religions, but to look at the infinite ways they can pattern together based on similarities and differences.

Factors like these can act as bridges between religions or denominations and simultaneously as faultlines within them. 

Let’s quickly look at two such patterns as examples. First, we could look at how religious communities value different ways of knowing God. Ken Wilber helpfully identified three different perspectives through which we experience the divine, which he refers to as the first-, second-, and third-person approaches. First-person is the direct, transcendent or ecstatic experience of the divine that we associate most with mystical traditions around the world. Second-person is the “I/Thou” encounter with God as the great Other; this is the approach we associate most with the Abrahamic religions. And, third-person is experiencing God in the interconnectedness of all things. While a healthy spirituality will engage in all three of these approaches, most of us are more naturally oriented towards one of them. 

These modes of knowing God act as strong bridges between traditions: mysticism in one form or another is found in all faith traditions; or, if we’re experiencing God through the interconnectedness of all things, we’re going to be following the same strands of connection as people in other traditions. But, they can also make it hard for us to understand people in our own tradition who experience God differently from us: as universal as mysticism may be, it has also — especially in the West — historically been derided and suspected of heresy by the powers that be.

A second set of patterns we can look at is the group’s dominant worldview: whether it is predominantly looking at the world through a ‘pre-modern,’ ‘modernist,’ or ‘postmodern’ lens. With our religion as much as our politics, this is a huge force within the new alignments in Western culture. Much of contemporary evangelicalism, for example, (whether it likes to admit it or not) can be understood by its commitment to modernist ideals, from its foundationalist approach to Scripture through to the industrial efficiency of its suburban megachurches. By comparison, my own faith community, the Anglican Church of Canada, is increasingly postmodern, with a care for typically postmodern things such as story, systemic violence, and mystery.

When we look at how Christianity is realigning in the West today, more and more, the theological distinctives that historically defined the boundaries of Christian denominations and sects are becoming less and less important, while moral and ethical commitments — the stuff of cultural worldviews — are becoming more important. On both the ‘right’ and the ‘left’, this is creating new alignments and new divisions. Thirty years ago or so, we saw the emergence of ‘common evangelicalism.’ The idea that people who had grown up Mennonite were now worshiping with Baptists and disaffected conservative Anglicans at the Christian and Missionary Alliance suburban megachurch down the highway would have been laughable in previous generations, but it was increasingly the norm. But, as this pattern was crystallizing, new divisions also emerged, and we’ve started to see an exodus of younger evangelicals who reject the new common evangelicalism’s commitments to unfettered capitalism, climate inaction, and the so-called culture wars. Instead, this younger cohort is starting to align with progressive Christians in the old Mainline Protestant churches who tend to share their postmodern concerns.

These are just two examples of how typology works. We could equally explore different faith traditions through looking at their attitudes towards their holy books, or whether they are based in philosophy or prophecy, their attitudes towards gender, or the role of ritual. I think however that these two patterns are particularly helpful for understanding the realignment in contemporary Christianity and spirituality in the West writ large. 

But how is this helpful? First, it’s helpful in that it allows us to see a bigger picture of human faith and spirituality. Second, this bigger picture can help deepen our experience of God; once I know that faithful Christians have, from the very beginning, engaged with God from all three perspectives in Wilber’s typology, I might be more willing to experiment and explore more of the breadth of my tradition — not just meeting God as an Other through prayer and in the Scriptures, but also experiencing God mystically, and seeing God in the ancient third-person Logos theology first expressed in the Gospel according to John. Third, it can hopefully take the edge off of some of our disagreements within faith communities. Even if we disagree deeply — and may even decide we need to walk apart from one another — all Christians love the Bible and seek to follow Jesus as faithfully as possible.

The next post in this series will look at what the idea ‘language games’ might contribute to understanding religion and spirituality.

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