Tacit theology and feelings of guilt

April 14, 2008

Ever went to a church where you feel guilty all the time and can’t seem to see why? Or went to a church where you had a gutt feel that something was wrong but you just couldn’t put your finger on it? I just came onto the concept of tacit theology, which gave me an idea what might be behind this. But first, the story how I got onto this idea:

On Friday I visited a church which a friend of mine has been attending for some months now. We had some conversations about the church, and she was very uncomfortable with her experience there, so we arranged that I would join her one evening – she wanted an outside opinion. They call the church “fellowship”, and I obviously had my ideas of what to expect, but the reality with which I was hit was much more complex.

We were some of the first people there, and as the people arrived, we were greeted very warmly. It was obvious that they everyone know each other, they immediately knew I was new and asked my name. Luckily they didn’t ask what I was studying, because I have a feeling that I would have been immediately suspect if they knew I was studying theology! But all in all the people was quite nice. One of the guys asked my friend why she didn’t come to “fellowship” (what they call the Friday evening church service) the past few weeks, and I could see he didn’t like her answer that she was socializing with some friends.

When we went in I experienced a typical attempt at being informal and low-liturgy which had gone wrong. At some point I guess it really was an informal service, but now they were just too many for this. So it was a typical church, with a guy in front with a mike, all of us in the pews, the guy making announcements, a few people then sharing testimonies, and then we did some praise and worship. It brought back so many nice memories of when I was 16, but isn’t really my type of thing anymore. Then the sermon started… I feared for the worst when I heard that the theme was on holiness. Luckily I didn’t have a Bible with me, so I can’t say anything on the exegesis. But over and over the guy said that when talking about holiness the idea is not that we should feel guilty (which I found enlightening, since my friend was especially struggling with feelings of guilt because of this church), and generally said a whole number of things which I didn’t really agree with, but which you could have found in any random evangelical church, so I still though nothing funny of the place.

Afterwards we divided into groups, and had to discuss a number of questions. Well, there wasn’t much discussing, the leader was more like explaining the questions, and doing a horrible job at it, since he clearly didn’t read some of them before explaining it (and anyone fluent in English should have seen this). Clearly the idea that we shouldn’t feel guilty was a big thing for them, because similar to the preacher, he also constantly said this. Problem was, the longer he went on, the worse I felt. It really was horrible, I felt worse and worse the more he talked! Luckily he couldn’t see what I was doing with my hands, so at a point I just got my phone out and started reading some blogs. I couldn’t put it into words, but told my friend that I think she rather need a psychologist to visit the church with her than a theologian.

Revelation dawned on me while reading some of the work of Fritjof Capra on Saturday morning. I was familiar with the categories of explicit and tacit knowledge before, but he again reminded me about them. Tacit knowledge is that which is known within a group, which isn’t, and usually cannot, be explicitly communicated, and cannot simply be copied from one group to another. It is the underlying knowledge of how we do things, which is independent of the latest memo or training session. This is what I experienced on Friday night! Although this group has somewhere learned to communicate that we shouldn’t feel guilty and that God forgive, their tacit theology is something totally different. Now, if you take them into a debate they would definitely disagree with what I’m about to say, but this is what they are communication, this is what their tacit theology states:

“Some of us have “made is” in our spiritual journeys, mostly the leaders. The rest still have a lot to learn, but worse than that, they aren’t that great Christians, they aren’t “radical enough”. They communicate a spirituality which is mainly religious with little ethics, although underlying a lot of personal ethics is assumed. The religious part of what they are communicating is a very literal relational view, where God is said to talk directly and literally to us, where God is supposed to be more real than the people around us, or at least as real. And since most people I know would admit that they don’t experience religion like this, what they are communicating implies that there must be something wrong.”

Personally I think that this church is psychologically dangerous. I see what it did to a friend, I experienced something of it within one night. But a simple analysis of the sermons, or an interview with the pastor won’t point this out. The dangerous elements in their theology becomes apparent only when you are sitting there, taking part, and experiencing everything being communicated, explicitly, but especially tacitly.


2 Responses to “Tacit theology and feelings of guilt”

  1. Roger Saner Says:

    A psychologically dangerous church? Interesting analysis. I’m not disagreeing with you – this is the first time I’ve seen that term used to describe a church. Nice distinction between that which is explicitly communicated and that which is implicitly communicated 🙂

  2. Cobus Says:

    I do believe we can learn a lot from the psychologists, part of the problem with the church is that too many times we didn’t listen to those from other professions.

    Maybe psychologically dangerous is a very hard critique, but I have no doubt that churches sometimes REALLY mess people up.

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