The Danger of Triumphalism in the Church



Marcelo Gleiser, a Brazilian physicist and astronomer and currently Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College, won the Templeton Prize for his outstanding contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.[1] He is an agnostic, but he isn’t hostile to religion or faith. He maintains an open mind, stating:

“Atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method….

“Atheism is a belief in non-belief. So you categorically deny something you have no evidence against.

“I’ll keep an open mind because I understand that human knowledge is limited.”[2]

In listening to Gleiser recently on a podcast[3], I was reminded of another gentleman I listened to recently. Dr. Soong Chan-Rah, an evangelical professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. On first glance, these two gentlemen might seem like odd companions in my thoughts, but they inspire this blog piece.

Gleiser grew up in Brazil. His mother died when he was 6. He described that her death led him into a dark time in his life. He was Jewish and lived in a conservative Jewish community, but it wasn’t Judaism that led him out of the darkness that threatened to undo him as a young boy. It was science.

Gleiser was drawn by the wonder of science and scientific discovery. His interest in science was sparked by the gift of an autographed photo of Albert Einstein from his uncle. It became his “altar”, and it led him to become fascinated with the “exploration of the mysterious”. He left the darkness of his teenage years with a purposeful decision to engage the mysteries of the world to find answers.

Though Gleiser reveres science, and even speaks of it in terms like an idol, he isn’t hostile to faith, and he is humble enough to make room for the possibility of God and spiritual reality. Hearing him talk about the limits of science and possibilities of faith from “outside the fold” can be instructive. Dr. Soon Chan-Rah doesn’t come from the outside of faith, but he also introduces a perspective that is outside the framework of typical American evangelicalism.

Dr. Chan-Rah didn’t tell his story in the talk I listened to, but he is obviously Asian by descent. I bring that up only because it suggests he has a perspective that isn’t colored wholly by the fabric of western civilization.  I think it is vitally important that we hear from outside perspectives, lest we never question the assumptions we take for granted – the extra-biblical (and maybe unbiblical) influences that creep in with our cultural environment that go unquestioned.

Dr. Chan-Rah spoke about the noticeable influence of lamentations in the Old Testament, and the conspicuous lack of lamentations exhibited in American evangelical culture. For an example, about forty percent (40%) of the Psalms might be characterized as lamentations. Whereas, only about twenty percent (20%) of the songs in modern American hymnals might contain some form of lament, and those songs often go unsung in our church services. As for contemporary Christian music, we might be hard pressed to find more than five (5) songs out of the top one hundred (100) containing any form of lament.

Whether the math is exactly right, the point is clear. We don’t engage in lament in our American evangelical culture to the same degree as reflected in the Scripture. Chan-Rah attributed that cultural characteristic with several things, including the sense of triumphalism that has permeated our culture. That observation is what brings me to write this blog piece. Please allow me to explain.

Triumphalism is defined as “excessive exultation over one’s success or achievements”. It’s also defined as “the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others.”

The idea of American triumphalism has been challenged in recent years, particularly by progressive politicians and “leftist elites”. In fact, many conservatives might say that the very fabric of American life, values and history is threatened to be undone by this progressive movement that questions American progress and superiority.

I don’t want to get into the politics except to note the divide that leaves most American evangelicals on the opposite side of the progressive left. But there is a danger to being reactionary. I say that because I believe that American evangelicals have some blind spots caused by an unquestioning acceptance of triumphalism.

I believe that triumphalism has crept into the American evangelical world from some very unbiblical sources. It is an idea that bled over from secular influences with uncertain grounding in biblical theology. I didn’t realize it so completely until I listened to Marcelo Gleiser talk about triumphalism in science.

Gleiser described science as flirting with the unknown and opined that “science only advances when you accept the obvious fact that science is what we don’t know about the universe”. He described science with the metaphor of an island. The knowledge gained through science is like an island surrounded by the ocean, which is the unknown. The paradox is that, as the island of knowledge grows, the boundaries between the known and the unknown also grows.

As we learn more about physical reality, we become equipped to ask questions about things we hadn’t even considered before. For instance, the invention of the microscope opened up a whole new world that was theretofore unknown. Knowledge is a constructive narrative. It’s an endless pursuit.

Gleiser contrasted this approach toward science that is characterized with a humility about what we don’t know against the idea of triumphalism – the idea of progressive science that is ever advancing, leading to a false sense of having arrived somewhere. Justin Brierley, the podcast host, observed that scientific triumphalism leads to scientism – the idea that science is the only way to achieve knowledge of the world, and dogmatic atheism is the result.

I don’t have enough time or space in this blog article to explore these ideas and really do them justice, but I will try to tie up some loose ends.

I have to credit NT Wright[4] also for my enlightenment (pun intended, as you will soon see). NT (Tom) Wright is a New Testament scholar with a particular emphasis in the Pauline epistles. He is also the research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s University of St. Andrews in Scotland. As you might already suspect, he is not American.

Wright often comments on the way in which American evangelicalism has been influenced by the Enlightenment and rationalism. One aspect of the Enlightenment that has particularly affected American evangelicalism is the idea of the progress of man (which is triumphalism in its broadest aspect). The Enlightenment worldview was very much built on the idea of triumphalism – that man has steadily and surely progressed over the centuries from the brutish Iron Age (and before) to the great advances of the 19th, 20th and into the 21st centuries.

This progression was led by science and reason. This Enlightenment form of triumphalism holds to a view that man is always advancing in science, knowledge, technology, health care, etc.; and these obvious advances also cause us to conclude that we are advancing socially, culturally, morally and in every other way.

Do you see where this is going? This idea of human progression is fundamentally the exaltation of man (kind of like a metaphysical Tower of Babble), and it has infiltrated and influenced modern American evangelicalism more than we care to admit (or even know). American Christians tend to view ourselves as advanced.

Personally, I wonder how much we have regressed.

But I digress. The point is that this attitude of triumphalism didn’t arise from biblical exegesis. It came from a far more mundane and secular source.

If you consider what came out of the Enlightenment, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Theory of Evolution. Darwin didn’t invent triumphalism; triumphalism created Darwin. The generations before Darwin were committed to the idea of the inevitable upward progress of man, and Darwin merely took that idea and created a scientific theory that matched.

Triumphalism is a construct that exalts human achievement. It is a particularly secular and particularly humanistic idea (to put it into terms that fellow evangelicals should understand). So, what’s it doing woven into the fabric of the American evangelical church?

Triumphalism, in whatever form it takes, exalts human ability and achievement beyond its due. The irony is that the triumphalism that arose from an Enlightenment view of the world influenced not only the theory of evolution and secular humanism, but also American political popularism and the American evangelical church.

I have begun to see through the eyes of non-Americans, like NT Wright (and Ravi Zaccharias and others) that certain attitudes and assumptions that I (we) have taken for granted in the United States should be scrutinized at their source. We need to test everything, and the Apostle Paul urged us, retaining only what is good.[5]

The presumptions we let lie at the center and foundation of our biblical worldviews may not be as biblical as we have unquestioningly assumed. They may be driven more by cultural adaptations that have their roots in questionable influences that are unique to our history, culture and societal attitudes about ourselves and others.

For me, I am only beginning to see the possibility that I have presumptions at the root of my worldview that may not be as biblically based as I have assumed. I am realizing that I can’t hold so tightly (so dogmatically) to those presumptions if I want to be pliable in God’s hands and continue to be renewed in my mind by God’s Holy Spirit.

This is not some kind of progressive theology that values skepticism over faith and change for change’s sake. Rather, it’s a realization that neither I nor 21st century America are at the center of God’s universe. Like the Pharisees in the 1st Century, we need to be open to the admonition of the Holy Spirit lest we become absorbed in tithing our pittances and neglect the weightier matters.[6]

Marcelo Gleiser’s point about science is that people shouldn’t be so presumptuous to think that we have arrived at a point at which we can definitely declare there is no God. We don’t know what we don’t know. Scientific triumphalism closes the door on the possibilities that exist in the unknown.

While science and faith are not necessarily analogous to each other, they also are not antithetical. In faith, we shouldn’t be so proud as to assume that we alone have an accurate view of God, His purposes and how they should be accomplished. The triumphalism that causes us to think we have progressed beyond our fellow man is a trap that feeds on pride and stifles His work in us and through us.

We haven’t arrived yet. God is still renewing our minds, still perfecting our faith. God is He who works within us, not we ourselves. Salvation is by grace, not by anything we do or have done, lest any man boast.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] See Physicist Marcelo Gleiser: ‘Science does not kill God‘, published March 19, 2019, in phys.org online.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Unbelievable? The limits of the universe and science – Marcelo Gleiser and Stacy Trasancos broadcast June 8, 2019 on Premier Christian Radio UK

[4] You can listen to NT Wright answer questions on the podcast, Ask NT Wright Anything, on Christian Premiere Radio.

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:21

[6] Matthew 23:23-24 (“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”)

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