The Myth of the Good Heart: Syncretism

July 15, 2009 — 3 Comments

[This post is part of the Idolatry series]

Syncretism is the blending of differing philosophies into a heterogeneous whole. In the context of Christianity it is blending Christian and non-Christian beliefs and practices (Michael Horton, Christless Christianity, 167). In the case of Waking the Dead (here on out WTD), we see a core of seemingly traditional ideas of God as Triune, the cross and salvation, but as soon as the focus is turned to man, one is immediately confronted with unbiblical ideas about man being made in the image of God. This is not that the concept is wrong, just the interpretation of what it means to be made in the image of God is a reflection of a peculiar man-centered understanding of the concept. We’ll pick up on this thought in a later post, but for now, here are some examples of philosophies Eldredge borrows from either knowingly, or unknowingly:

Romanticism

Romanticism is an artistic and intellectual movement originating in Europe in the late 18th century and characterized by a (1) heightened interest in nature,  (2) emphasis on the individual’s expression of emotion and imagination, (3) departure from the attitudes and forms of classicism, and (4) rebellion against established social rules and conventions (American Heritage Dictionary entry). I’m not sure that examples of this need to be elaborated on for anyone who has read Wild at Heart or WTD. It is not wrong to employ Romantic ideals, but to use them as a controlling category of Biblical interpretation is poor and dangerous hermeneutics, but when one realizes this is the controlling lens through which “what is means to be a man” is viewed in Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, several mis-steps in Biblical interpretation occur (for example using “wild” in a positive sense, while it only appears in Scripture in a negative one, for more see this review)

Selfism

Additionally, because of his prior training, Eldredge is mainly a psychologist at heart, and has, like most who are not careful in pursuing graduate studies in counseling, been indoctrinated in the religion of psychology (for an interesting study of the topic, see Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion) rather than primarily in the finer points of historic Christian theology. As a result, his primary interpretation of man’s problem is needs driven and explanation is borrowed from psychological concepts rather than biblical concepts. In addition to a romantic hermeneutic, Eldredge then also employ a psychological hermeneutic, which is primarily concerned (over-concerned) with the individual self.

This comes out in several places in the book, but mainly it is his emphasis on the individual and on the inner relationship with God. Emphasizing the importance of the heart is being faithful to Christian teaching, but elaborating on it like Eldredge does enables him to make several erroneous conclusions, but the overall thrust of the book is a re-interpretation of the story of Christianity to serve the interests of the individual self. As presented in the first chapter, Eldredge very much seems to believe that the central promise of the Gospel is life and this life for him means happiness and freedom from pain and suffering. This is true eschatologically, however, Eldredge misses the point that the Christian life is one of suffering at the end of which is rewards. As C.S. Lewis is known to remark, if you want a happy life, Christianity is not for you, you’re better off with a glass of Port in the evenings.

Finally, it should be noted that in his four streams, there is an absence of community. Now granted, he does emphasize its importance in chapter 11, however, as vital as community is conceived to be throughout the NT, one would think life in community is an essential stream instead of the singularly individualistic streams Eldredge promotes. The Bible never promotes the sort of “Jesus and me” theology that Eldredge does in his chapter “Walking with God” and never supports the idea that God communicates to us directly through our inner self rather than through His Word and through the community of faith.

Some may gasp at that sort of a statement, but the idea of an inner dependence or inner feeling associated with Christianity is from Friedrich Schleiermacher, not the NT. In the Bible, God always communicates to us through mediators and our sole mediator now is through the Word which reveals Christ to us more fully. One could argue on the basis of some passages that Christ is our mediator and that is the reason why Eldredge makes this emphasis. But the careful reader of Scripture will note that Christ is not known apart from the Word and the relationship with Christ is mediated through the Word which bears witness to Him and shines His glory before us. The sort of introspection that Eldredge encourages is a hallmark of the cult of self, created in the religion of psychology and not a part of historic, orthodox Christianity.

Semi-Pelgianism

I say semi-Pelagianism because it is never present in full blown forms. But the idea of the good heart as being the source that we are supposed to live out of is suspiciously like the Roman Catholic emphasis on infusion of righteousness. This of course is couched in the language of grace, but is still semi-Pelagian because now the locus of your good works is within you (i.e. your now new good heart). To do true justice to the Biblical data on the heart pre and post conversion one must posit that any good we ever do is because of the Spirit’s work in us and through us. Eldredge would do well to meditate on Philippians 2:12-13: “Continue to work out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God” (NET). In Eldredge’s paradigm, this is almost
non-sensical (as is most of Paul for that matter) but more on the heart later.

Gnosticism

Perhaps the most damaging of the native philosophies contained in WTD is a very subtle yet well defined Gnostic element. Wild at Heart promotes this as well and more than a few reviewers have pointed this out (see this review as mentioned earlier for a good overview). As for blatant Gnosticism in WTD, one only has to be aware of what the central ideas of Gnosticism are and for a helpful rundown (from Horton, 177) and the corresponding chapters in WTD here they are:

  • Celebrating experience rather than doctrine (really most of the book, esp Chp 6)
  • Personal rather than the institutional (again most of the book, Chps 6,7,8)
  • The mythic and dreamlike over the cognitive (the foundation of the book, Chp 2)
  • People’s religion over official religion (scattered references of disdain throughout)
  • Soft caring images of deity (not as present, but allusions here and there)

On the last point, Eldredge does evoke the category of the LORD as a warrior, however like Gnosticism, he shies away from God as judge and there is little talk of submitting one’s life to the Lordship of Christ, other than in language (see above) rather than in focus and application which would include a thirst for seeing Christ’s glory more fully rather than any consciousness of one’s own supposed glory.

For a helpful primer on Gnosticism and its pervasive roots in American Christianity, see Michael Horton’s book Christless Christianity, especially chapter 5, “Your Own Personal Jesus.”

Voodoo

This is not voodoo in the formal sense as a religion in the Caribbean characterized by a syncretism of Roman Catholic ritual elements and the animism and magic of slaves from West Africa, in which a supreme God rules a large pantheon of local and tutelary deities, deified ancestors, and saints, who communicate with believers in dreams, trances, and ritual possessions (American Heritage Dictionary entry). But, it is the pejorative use of the term where it portrays one who believes in simplistic, magical solutions or ideas to solve one’s problems (although the former does to a certain extent characterize the religion presented in WTD).

This is most clearly embodied in the culmination of the book in the “Daily Prayer for Freedom.” In the chapter that it is broken down (and has footnoted verses that sometimes support the language, sometimes not) it starts under a heading of “Fifteen Minutes to Freedom.” It is humorous that Eldredge urges us that quick little prayers aren’t going to do it anymore, but if you pray this formulaic prayer that takes 15 minutes, well, then you’ll start to experience real freedom.

If only we had all known sooner that it was this simple. Now granted, Eldredge doesn’t say it’s going to be simple but again this goes back to what we talked about with the language issue. Saying that we at war and that the fight is going to be bloody, while simultaneously offering a simplistic solution of praying a formulaic prayer runs a bit counter to that original assertion.

This is vending machine Jesus at its finest. Christ is your idol giver, here to get you what you need to self-actualize. Not to make you more like himself through suffering, but to bring you happiness and freedom from pain. Which leads us to the last point to be picked up in the next post…

Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

3 responses to The Myth of the Good Heart: Syncretism

  1. Justin McConnell July 16, 2009 at 11:59 am

    I am celebrating with you by reading your blog, as you requested.

  2. I stumbled upon your blog somewhat accidentally, and was thoroughly surprised to come upon your reference to my Wild at Heart review. Thanks very much!

    I have a few other Eldredge odds and ends at my blog, which is http://www.balanceandparadox.blogspot.com, but nothing else as extensive as the original review.

    I’ve explored your writings a bit and like your approach. For example, it’s nice to see an evangelical seminarian take a balanced approach to Kierkegaard. And your discussion of Eldredge actually adds to what I’ve read elsewhere, rather than merely repeating it.

    I’ll look forward to reading more of your posts.

    • Hey thanks, I appreciate the read and the insights, I’ll definitely check out what you’ve got on your page as well. Let me know what you think as the idolatry series unfolds and eventually comes back to indict those like Eldredge further as well as each of us too.

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