By: David F. Wells
The following are excerpts from David Wells’ excellent book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, (Pg. 158-175)
The casual embrace of what is postmodern has increasingly led to an embrace of its spiritual yearning without noticing that this embrace carries within it the seeds of destruction for evangelical faith. The contrast between biblical faith and this contemporary spirituality is that between two entirely different ways of looking at life and at God. Nygren, some years ago, used the Greek words for two different kinds of love, Eros and Agape, to characterize these worldviews, and his elucidation is still helpful. In one worldview, which he calls Eros, it is the self which is at the center. In the other, which he calls Agape, it is God who is at the center…if [eros] is a preparation [for the gospel], it is one which carries within itself and understanding about God and salvation which is diametrically opposed to what we have in biblical faith. In this sense, it is less a preparation and more a wrong turn. Why is this so?
The movement of Eros spirituality is upward. Its essence, its drive, is the sinner finding God. The movement of Agape, by contrast, is downward. It is all about God finding the sinner. Eros spirituality is the kind of spirituality which arises from human nature and it builds on the presumption that it can forge its own salvation. Agape arises in God, was incarnate in Christ, and reaches us through the work of the Holy Spirit opening lives to receive the gospel of Christ’s saving death. In this understanding, salvation is given and never forged or manufactured. Eros is the projection of the human spirit into eternity, the immortalizing of its own impulses. Agape is the intrusion of eternity into life coming, not from below, but from above. Eros is human love. Agape is divine love. Human love of this kind, because it has need and want at its center, because it is always wanting to have its needs and wants satisfied, will always seek to control the object of its desires. That is why in these new spiritualities it is the spiritual person who makes up his or her beliefs and practices, mixing and matching and experimenting to see what works best, and assuming the prerogative to discard at will. The sacred is therefore loved for what can be had from loving it. The sacred is pursued because it has value to the pursuer and that value is measured in terms of the therapeutic payoff. There is, therefore, always a profit-and-loss mentality to these spiritualities.
By contrast, in Agape faith, God is not loved simply for the benefits that flow from that loving such as the forgiveness of sins. He is loved for what he is in himself. If Eros loves the sacred because it is worth doing, Agape, by contrast, loves God without ulterior motives. Agape surrenders; Eros grasps. Agape loves simply and only because it should, because God is most lovable. This Agape faith loves God because it is the consequence of his Agape and in his love there is no calculation. It is a completely free and spontaneous love. He is to be worshipped even if there are no returns. Furthermore, he is sovereign and cannot be controlled or manipulated within the human spirit. Indeed, he is not even found naturally in the human spirit. His salvation is not by mystical technique or psychological understanding, but by grace, grace alone, grace coming from the outside, and grace that will not tolerate any human contribution. In Eros spirituality there is always a sense of self-sufficiency, on which is also suffused with pride; in Agape faith, it is precisely the recognition of the self’s spiritual
insufficiency that is the condition for the coming of grace The one tries to storm eternity borne up on its own mortal wings; the other receives eternity as the pauper does the help which kindness extends.
Contemporary spiritualities must be recognized as a form of temptation. The question they raise…is whether the Church is able to take its own revelation seriously…Christian faith, constituted by the Word of God and the Spirit of God, is not just an outcropping of human beings’ internal spirituality but something which, in its supernatural construction, in its uniqueness, stands apart from all other spiritualities. It is by the Word of God, given to the Church, that all religions and all spiritualities are to be judged. The “faith” of the spiritual seeker and the faith of the Christian believer may, in some way, look alike but, in fact, they are radically different. The one is the upward questing of the human spirit which speaks of human emptiness and uncertainty; the other is a work of God which speaks of His grace and judgment. As authentic as the human questing may be, it is still in biblical terms, unbelief. For the searching is not a search of the one locus in which God has spoken and decisively acted; it is a searching for its own sake, a searching for its own rewards. In religion of a Christian kind, we listen; in spirituality of a contemporary kind, we talk. In religion of a Christian kind, we accept a gift; in spirituality of a contemporary kind, we try to seize God. In the one, we are justified by the righteousness of Christ; in the other, we strive to justify ourselves. It is thus that spirituality is an enemy of faith.
Many in the new seeker-sensitive movement in “doing church” have seen only the surface habits of this postmodern world and have not really understood its Eros spirituality … And what is emerging, as the evangelical Church continues to empty itself of theology, is that it now finds that it is tapping, wittingly or not, into this broad cultural yearning for spirituality, and capitalizing on that disposition’s inclination not to be religious. Evangelical spirituality without theology, that even sometimes despises theology, parallels almost exactly the broader cultural spirituality that is without religion. Evangelical faith without theology, without the structure and discipline of truth, is not Agape faith but it is much closer to Eros spirituality.
This, however, is not understood. Church talk about “reaching” the culture turns, almost inevitably, into a discussion about tactics and methodology, not about worldviews. It is only about tactics and not about strategy. It is about seduction and not about truth, about success and not about confrontation. However, without strategy, the tactics inevitably fail; without truth, all the arts of seduction which the churches are practicing sooner or later are seen to be the empty charade that they are; and because the emerging worldview is not being engaged, the Church has little it can really say. Indeed, one has to ask how much it actually wants to say. biblical truth contradicts this cultural spirituality, and that contradiction is hard to bear. Biblical truth displaces it, refuses to allow its operating assumptions, declares to it its bankruptcy. Here, indeed, is an anti-god, dressed up in the garb of authenticity, but whose world is a world of fiction. In the evangelical Church faithful enough to explode the worldview of this new spiritual search? Is it brave enough to contradict what has wide cultural approval? The verdict may not be finally in but it seems quite apparent that while the culture is burning, the evangelical Church is fiddling precisely because it has decided it must be so much like the culture to be successful.
…The premise beneath all these spiritualities is that sin has not intruded upon the relation between the sacred and human nature, that human nature offers instant access – indeed, we assume unblemished access- to God, that human nature itself mediates the divine. Gone are the days when people understood than an avalanche has fallen between God and human beings, that human nature retains its shape as made in the image of God but has lost its relationship to God and stands in pained alienation from God…how can we be so knowledgeable about evil in the world and so innocent about sin in ourselves?..The reason of course, is that we have lost the moral world in which sin is alone understood…The consequence is that we have come to believe that the self retains its access to the sacred, and access not ruptured by sin.
… 52% of evangelicals agree with the statement “when people are born they are neither good nor evil-they make a choice between the two as they mature. Here is raw American individualism, the kind that places the burden of one’s own deepest self-definitions on one’s own individual choice,” to use Bellah’s words, and here is the heresy of Pelagianism which asserts that people are born innocent of sin, that sin is a set of bad practices which is caught later on in life rather like a disease. Sin, however, is not some small aberration, some violation of inconsequential Church rules; it is the clenched fist raised up against God. It is this rebellion which is now native to all human nature from its inception. IN America today, though, only 17% define sin in relation to God. The sense that God stands over against us, that there are any habits, practices, or beliefs of which he disapproves, has left us and so has our understanding of sin. Indeed even some prominent Christians, such as Robert Schuller, have come to think that we ought not to speak of sin because this kind of thing hurts people’s feelings and assaults their self-esteem. It is our lost moral compass that produces this fallacious understanding of human nature, and it is this fallacious understanding which fuels and drives Eros spirituality. Our presumed innocence leads us to the assumption that the sacred is naturally, easily, and conveniently available to us, when we want it, and how we want it. The sacred is as available, as accessible, as the artifacts of capitalism which are displayed with such allure in the mall. It is there for the taking and we can have it in an unmediated way. [that makes Him] accessible on our own terms. In this understanding there is evil in the world but no sin. Sin is the breach of the divine order, the fist of rebellion shaken at God. Evil, on this postmodern understanding is simply something lacking between ourselves and the sacred and it is something which can be overcome. The gap can be closed.
…The reality…is that God stands over against us. To know him is not the same thing as knowing ourselves. This is the fatal principle of all paganism, that the divine and human are part and parcel of each other, that there is no absolute barrier between God and the creature, that the sacred is found in the self. …[but] Grace is known only as God acts to make himself known through his Word and Spirit. It is only as the self-revealing God speaks again his ancient Word into the contemporary world that it is heard, only as the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit enters the recesses of a hearer’s being that God’s address as address is heard. Yet this hearing does not happen … disconnected from the redemptive acts of Israel’s history but, rather, it happens through and in connection with the acts within this narrative.
Revelation, then, is public, not private. It is public in the sense that God’s primary locus of communication is not within the self nor are his intentions accessed by intuition. He has spoken, and he continues to speak, through the words of Scripture which constitute the Word of God… since God brooks no rivals, he respects no self constructed sacred spaces. These are spaces in which the sinner declares his or her own sovereignty and, in projecting human want and need into eternity, is, in that very act, seeking to control eternity, to have it on his or her own terms. Eros spirituality, however, dies in the presence of God’s Word because biblical truth destroys the sinner’s sovereignty which is at the heart of this kind of spirituality.
Agape spirituality and Eros spirituality, therefore, are not variations on a common theme but stark alternatives. In the one, God reaches down in his grace; in the other, the sinner reaches up in self-sufficiency. Not only are they entirely different in their structures and motivations but God’s reaching down into someone’s life actually excludes the possibility of that person reaching up. There is no possibility of a synergism here, of God’s grace in Agape cooperating with the human desire of Eros. These spiritualities belong in two entirely different worlds. God’s sovereignty exercised in the one excludes the humanly seized sovereignty exercised in the other. His grace is grace only when it does what no human effort or desire can do.