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Issues Facing the Church: 55. The Seven Demons of the West’s New Tribalism

Issues Facing the Church: 55. The Seven Demons of the West’s New Tribalism

Introduction: The New Tribalism of Western Society

We are already in a post-postmodern society, a society best understood as ‘tribal,’ as I have earlier argued.  To be sure, this tribalism has a particular flavour for Western culture: being politically correct lies at the heart of post-postmodern tribalism.  Abundant examples of this can now be given for society at large—such as the latest regulations, with fines applied, regarding the ‘correct’ terminology to use for the self-identity of sexually confused persons.[1]  But how does this new culture create a new understanding of ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ within the Church at large?

In the pre-Modernist (pre-mid-17th century) and Modernist (Enlightenment, post-mid-17th – 20th centuries) periods in Western society, when the notion of ‘truth’ was still defined in terms of objective reality, heresy was a matter of denying official, orthodox teaching.  That official teaching might have been described in terms of authoritative documents (such as Scripture), authorities (such as the Church—or some denomination), or—in the case of the university and the increasingly secular society—objective research through scientific disciplines.

For both good and ill, postmodernity challenged certain established authorities.  Who is to say that the Encyclopedia Britannica was more authoritative than, say, Facebook?  Postmodernity functioned to deconstruct the established authorities that allowed an objective description of truth and reality.  This effectively called into question the very concept of ‘heresy’—and we saw a variety of ways this deconstruction was administered.  It could be accomplished in the simple enough challenge of how to ‘do church’ and turn away from denominations to the independent, mega-church of the 1980s to today.  It could also be seen in the subversive writings of someone like Bart Ehrman, who is one of the champions of deconstruction of Christian faith through distortions in scholarship.

But postmodernity has now given way to a new tribalism in Western society.  This shift from deconstruction to new tribalism reminds the writer of Jesus’ warning:

Luke 11:24-26 "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.'  25 When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order.  26 Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first."

The Seven Spirits of the New Tribalism—With Thanks to Archbishop Welby

If we have cleaned out the unclean spirit of Modernism through postmodern deconstruction, we are now beginning to identify the ‘seven other spirits’ of the new tribalism in Western culture.  Heresy is no longer understood as a denial of some objective orthodoxy but is now any affirmation of objective truth.  If ‘unity’ used to mean the confession of a common faith and following apostolically established practices and convictions, it now means acceptance of diverse faiths and endorsing alternative practices.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has recently and helpfully (although unwittingly, it seems) identified some of the clichés used to obfuscate objective truths in the interest of introducing ‘new spirits.’  Welby lists the following clichés heard in mainline denominations exploring their unorthodox unity:

 "There is a lot to do although we have journeyed far; what unites us is more than what divides us; our common history tells us . . . whatever; real unity is invisible; what we need is a new Committee."[2]

These clichés help us to identify the demons of New Tribalism.

1.     The Demon of Communal Authority: Tribalism affirms the authority of the community making decisions, not the authority in some more objective entity, such as Scripture, orthodox Christian teaching, or scientific enquiry of ‘reality.’  Tribalism locates authority in the social groups that have come to dominate the culture.  ‘Reality’ is not objective; it is negotiable and subject to being defined by dominant groups.  The dominant groups can either be a majority or a powerful minority, enforcing its perspective on others.

2.     The Demon of Socially-Constructed Reality: In such a situation, the focus comes to rest on perceived or socially constructed realities rather than reality itself, on common activities rather than convictions, and communal processes rather than careful interpretation of authoritative texts and orthodoxies.  Thus, people can enthusiastically speak of what they do together rather than what they believe, or that they ‘journey together’ rather than hope to persuade others of the truth.

3.     The Demon of Marginalising Convictions: Another example of how the new tribalism of Western society functions is in the cliché ‘what unites us is more than what divides us.’  This is a way of demoting what used to be considered truths or facts in an earlier age by giving them a certain value that is determined simply by the executive authority of those controlling the dialogue.  A good example of this is in how President Barack Obama has simply refused to enforce certain laws.  It is one thing for a legislature to pass laws but quite another for a President to marginalise these laws, giving them a peripheral value at best and simply not applying them.  In the same way, past convictions of the Church are now being demoted in mainline denominations to the periphery and, ultimately, deposited on the rubbish heap of irrelevant rules.  This takes place, in the new tribalism, through a social process: what ‘we’ decide should unite us rather than divide us.  It is not the objective truth of a conviction held by the Church but the value some group places on the conviction that determines the group’s practices.

4.     The Demon of Relational History: Further, Welby reminds us of the phrase, ‘our common history….’  This phrase has no relationship to the authority of an orthodox Church’s history, as though Church history matters.  It rather has to do with the social history of a people—quite likely the present people in a relationship.  Such a reconstruction of Ecclesiology makes division impossible, since the mere fact of relationships disallows division over essential doctrine and ethics.

5.     The Demon of Invisible Unity: The phrase, ‘real unity is invisible’[3] is a way of renouncing the possibility of disunity.  If one group breaks fellowship with another group over its convictions, proponents of this cliché can refuse to accept that the disunity is real.  This is similar to Roland Barthes’ (a French philosopher, 1915-1980) suggestion that reading is not about gaining knowledge from the author but entails the playfulness of readers.  Barthes begins The Pleasure of the Text by laying out a challenge to objective truth and therefore of unity in truth: [4]

Imagine someone … who abolishes within himself all barriers, all classes, all exclusions, not by syncretism but by simple discard of that old specter: logical contradiction; who mixes every language, even those said to be incompatible; who silently accepts every charge of illogicality, of incongruity; who remains passive in the face of Socratic irony (leading the interlocutor to the supreme disgrace: self-contradiction) and legal terrorism (how much penal evidence is based on a psychology of consistency!).  Such a man would be the mockery of our society: court, school, asylum, polite conversation would cast him out: who endures contradiction without shame? … the Biblical myth is reversed, the confusion of tongues is no longer punishment, the subject gains access to bliss by cohabitation of languages working side by side: the text of pleasure is a sanctioned Babel.

Barthes’ suggestions may have seemed an outlandish attack on truth even in non-Christian circles in the 1970s; they are, however, fairly descriptive of many in Western, mainline denominations today.  Welby’s own approach to maintaining ‘unity’ could have been taken from the pages of Barthes’ writings.

6.     The Demon of Dialogue: Relatedly, then, the practice of forming a committee for constant dialogue on issues on which the Church once had clear convictions demonstrates the playfulness towards doctrine a Barthesque philosophy has.  The Zhulu and Xhosa tribes use the term ‘indaba’ to describe an important conference of tribal elders.  Traditionally, the purpose was to come to an agreed decision on important matters.  However, the adoption of this approach—suggested first by Archbishop Rowan Williams in 2008—became a way to focus on dialogue more than coming to decisions.  The focus came to be on the social dimensions of the process rather than on conclusions.  The term ‘indaba’ is, nonetheless, appropriate for the new tribalism of Western society as it is, after all, a tribal process.  There is not an approach to doctrine through ‘right’ interpretation of authoritative texts.  There is considerable disinterest in the convictions held by the Church through the centuries.  Rather, the focus on the present persons engaged in fellowship and dialogue becomes the new process for enquiry itself.

7.     The Demon of Sexual Confusions: Finally, the specific issue dividing the Church today functions as the ‘seventh demon’ of the West’s new Tribalism: sexual confusions.  Opposition to the Creator’s intention for marriage and sex lies at the heart of a social revolution in Western society.  With no ground in nature and design, sex is disassociated from procreation between a man and a woman in marital union and is now considered a means to pleasure in any relationship.  Sexual pleasure stands at the heart of relationships rather than in a male-female marital covenant, commitment, and contract.  Tribes exercise social constraints on relationships rather than any oath, although traditionally the two went together.  The West’s new tribalism, however, downplays oath-taking and discards any concept of a ‘right’ relationship.  Relationship per se is the new focus, with sexual encounter defining the intensity of the relationship.  This is thoroughly unbiblical and non-Christian.  That this view is embraced in the West’s mainline denominations shows just how possessed they are by the demons of Western culture.


Thus, Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby’s address to the heretical Church of Scotland, which has voted to affirm same-sex marriages for its ministers, helps us to identify the seven spirits of the West’s new tribalism.  Sadly, he does so in an affirming way.  He locates ecclesiastical unity in witness to Christ [an empty statement in this context if ever there were one] and a political, historical, economic, global, and communal unity.  In other words, ‘unity’ is understood relationally and socially—a feature of tribalism.  One wonders if Welby is so much a creature of the new tribalism of Western culture that he simply does not notice the absence of any concern for unity through obedience to the Scriptures and through what all the Church has always taught everywhere—St. Vincent of Lerins’ definition of orthodoxy from the 5th century.  Or, more sinisterly, is he Roland Barthes’ man who ‘abolishes within himself all barriers’?

[2] See ‘Archbishop Justin Welby’s Speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland’ (25 May, 2016), online: (accessed 28 May, 2016).
[3] The language of real unity being invisible was already engaged in 1919 by Newman Smyth and Williston Walker, Approaches to Christian Unity (New Haven, 1920), p. 56, as a way to permit ministers to work in either Episcopal or Congregationalist contexts.
[4] Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), pp. 3-4.