A while back I offered up Joel Osteen and a work by Sinclair Ferguson, wondering what exactly the difference was. We all are pretty well familiar with Osteen’s “here and now” work. But Ferguson once penned a book called Discerning God’s Will. Essentially, I tried to make the point that those efforts which ignore something like Dt. 29:29 have more in common with American and western notions of creaturely comfort and ease than with Christianity. According to these dogmas, finite and sinful creatures actually can insulate themselves from either having to make perplexing decisions or, heaven forbid, live with potentially regretful consequences. While admittedly Ferguson may represent the more staid and tutored version, like a Ouija board, it is proposed that, even if we don’t use the exact language and thereby admit to it, we believers can crack open the heavenlies and live with a dialed-down fear and practically no regret. Check off the six ways in Discerning and chances are you can’t go wrong—or lat least, the edge can be significantly reduced. In the end, it’s just the sort of popular theology one might expect in an age that outfits tykes in head-to-toe crash gear to peddle all of one block to a friend’s house.
While poor Joel gets the lion’s share of Reformed disdain, a book like Ferguson’s more or less flies under the radar. This is odd to me. I don’t readily understand either what’s wrong with an evangelical behaving like one or what’s negligible about a Presbyterian speaking like an evangelical. But if Americanism yields the sort of yuck readily found in Osteenism it also has something to do with the mere culture of politeness that recoils at “peeling off those dollar bills and slapping them down.” After all, it’s just bad manners to flash cash—we’re a society of wallets, not money-clips. In other words, does Osteenism repel because it’s brazenly open about it, or because something fundamentally is wrong? How much is the common censure of Osteen more Erasmian than Lutheran?
As I watch Joel get a beating and Sinclair a pass, I wonder if what is missed is the deeply seated principle that seems common across religious traditions in the western world, namely that true religion has a direct bearing on and obvious implication for the cares of this world on the world’s terms—the doctrines of relevance and felt needs. If so, Osteenism is not simply guilty of being uncouth but, more importantly, guilty of believing that Christianity really is relevant the way we think it is.
But if Osteenism meets the felt needs of the low-brow religious consumer, and if Ferguson’s little tract helps the more subdued suburbanite, it would also seem that when it comes to the demographics of the educated, cultured and sophisticated the doctrines of relevance still afflict. Consider Nicholas Wolterstorff in Until Justice and Peace Embrace:
If we had lived as God meant us to live, we would all be members of an ordered community bound together by love for each other and gratitude to God, using the earth for our benefit and delight. In fact we do not live thus. A fall has occurred. God’s response to this fall of mankind was to choose from all humanity a people destined for eternal life. They in obedient gratitude are now to work for the renewal of human life so that it may become what God meant it to be. They are to struggle to establish a holy commonwealth here on earth.
If by “commonwealth” he means the Church, that’s fine. The Church is a holy nation and a royal priesthood. But the Church is a commonwealth only in a metaphorical sense. It doesn’t have a representative at the U.N., it doesn’t maintain an army or put people in jail or issue drivers’ licenses or any other things commonwealths do. At this point Wolterstorff has lost his biblical-theological horizon.
True enough. But even beyond that, I think what subsumes a view like Wolterstoff’s is the same principle that attends Osteen and Ferguson. While a dippy narcissism attends Osteen that doesn’t the likes of Wolterstorff both seem to really be haunted by a theology of glory, each in his own way. The here and now is what each seems concerned for. One is obnoxious and crudely wants his best life now, the other intones more piously by speaking of a “holy commonwealth here on earth.” Patience and a waiting upon the Lord are pushed aside. Not only that, but necessarily the definitions of just what rushes in to fill the gap has a distinctively more human tone than divine. For Osteen, a feel-good and therapeutic buzz in the tummy; for Ferguson, a sealing off from worry and regret; and for Wolterstoff, a peaceable kingdom, which his disciples around my parts usually mean when they speak of “kingdom work and shalom.”
But if Vos was right about the “eschatological ache,” and if it is true that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him,” all of these human fantasies give the truer soul no satisfaction, regardless of whose felt need they meet.