Arminianism & Postmodern Spirituality
“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” -Psalm 150:6
During a recent talk at Pfeiffer University, Reggie McNeal, author of Missional Renaissance and a leader in the missional church movement, discussed the shift in spirituality from Enlightenment modernity to 21st century postmodernity. In previous generations, when there was a measure of Christian influence in the culture, evangelism could begin with certain premises. But times have changed.
A case in point is whether or not human beings are, from the outset, separated from God. Much 20th century evangelism began from the premise that the person on the street who has never heard of Jesus is in a state of sin, totally apart from God and lacking a saving relationship with Christ. Hence the old revivalist standby question: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” The answer, of course, is that if one has not “received Christ” they will certainly go to hell. Many an altar call has been successful through this strategy.
But postmodern spirituality no longer makes such a soteriological strategy wise (if indeed it ever was). As McNeal pointed out – and research from many quarters has borne out – North Americans today are less religious, but more spiritual than ever. While measures of religiosity such as church attendance, baptism rates, etc. are at historic lows, huge majorities of Americans still express belief in the Divine in various ways. Thus, beginning a conversation with non-Christians from a premise of a-priori separation is not a fruitful evangelistic strategy.
Enter classical Arminianism. Arminians affirm that God’s grace is active in all persons, preceding human knowledge of or decision for God. Unlike the Calvinist conception of grace, which is irresistible, prevenient grace (which “comes before”) is active upon all people but does not overwhelm individual will. Prevenient, or, as John Wesley called it, “preventing” grace is the common possession of all people, made in the Image of God. No one is utterly separate from God because God is always drawing us toward Himself by prevenient grace.
This makes for a powerful evangelical message to postmoderns already convinced they have a connection with the Divine. Arminian spirituality recognizes, in common with many ostensibly secular Western persons, that all people do indeed have a relationship to and knowledge of God, however incomplete. Thus, the message of a postmodern, authentically Arminian evangelicalism can, without hesitation, say to the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd: You are not fully separate from God, in fact, He’s been working on you all along. Thus a subtle but powerful shift in evangelical rhetoric occurs, from “come and meet He of whom you are ignorant,” to “come and embrace fully the One whom you know in part.”
So those of an Arminian bent are especially geared, if we own our doctrinal inheritance, to reach the inwardly spiritual but outwardly agnostic masses of the 21st century. The work of the Society for Evangelical Arminians has been superb in helping Arminians reclaim our voice in the wider Christian conversation. Such resources aid us in proclaiming, without compromise, that the instincts of an increasing number of youth and young adults are not wrong: they do apprehend the true God, albeit through a glass and darkly. This is a significantly more hopeful starting point for conversation than the lie – too often told – that anyone could be, even if they so desired, fully apart from God.
What do you think about the connections between Arminian doctrine and postmodern spirituality? How best to contemporary Christians reach out to the “nones” among us?