Fundamentalism


On a side note…

This isn’t really part of the sequence I’m working on, but it is related to the overall topic. Lately I’ve been kind of challenged by some folks over what I believe (or, more precisely, don’t seem to believe). I’m trying to avoid an inquisition, but the basic issue seems to come down to interpretation of Scripture. So a few thoughts on Bible and interpretation seem to be in order.

Many Christians, and practically all evangelicals, regard their position vis a vis the Bible to be the real litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Sure, Jesus is important. But on any issue, whether its what we think of Jesus, or of ethics, or of science, or anything else, when the rubber meets the road, it comes down to “well, what does the BIBLE say?”

And this is where things get dicey. Often the straight up, literal answer can only be “Nothing.” The Bible doesn’t talk about abortion. It has little to say about homosexuality. It has nothing to contribute, positively or negatively, to evolution. It certainly is completely unhelpful in determining what translation we should read. And so on. Most of us realize this, which is good, but we are then forced into the realm of interpretation; even though the Bible doesn’t talk about the scientific theory of evolution, it does provide a story about how the universe was created, and so it’s possible to line these two things up (so the thinking goes), and then start labeling people as “in” or “out” based on their opinion of Cretaceous fossil remains. “Real Christians” don’t believe in evolution; they believe in the Bible’s creation story. In rejecting the evidence of science, we are also rejecting interpretation(s) of the Bible that we do not share.

Whether we realize it or not, we all bring to the interpretive table a certain perspective on the Biblical text. Evangelicals like to use words like “Bible-believing,” a pop version of the more technical theological concepts “inerrancy” and “infallibility.” Another important theological label in the “bible believing” understanding is the Bible’s homogeneity, the notion that the Bible uniformly speaks with one voice on every subject.

Last year I taught Logic at a local college, and we spent a considerable amount of time working with the distinction between inductive and deductive logic. For those who aren’t familiar with this, deductive logic works by applying a known general truth or idea to specific situations or experiences. It is known to be generally true, for example, that cats enjoy catching mice and birds. Armed with this knowledge, then, we can predict that if we put a cat in a room with mice, the cat is most likely going to at least try to catch a few. Or take the example of a GPS device: we know going in that the GPS is going to get us where we want to go, and so when it tells us to turn left, even if we think we should perhaps go straight, it will still get us to our destination.

Inductive logic works the other way around. In inductive thinking, we work from the specific to the general. In the example of cats from above, let’s assume that we don’t, in fact, know that cats are good mousers. But if we watch our cat catch mice every day, and then we hear from our neighbor that her cat catches 6 mice every evening, and then my mother calls me and tells me that her cat caught three this morning, we can make a general conclusion that “based on all this evidence, cats are good mousers.”

Now, where am I going with this? In general, Christians who believe in Biblical inerrancy are approaching the Bible deductively. The general truth here is God is all-powerful and perfect, and so if he were to write a book, it would also be completely authoritative, reliable, and, of course, perfect, meaning free from errors, inconsistencies, discrepancies, and the like. Usually Christians will then turn to 2 Timothy 3.16 (often in the King James, which is more poetically powerful than more modern translations, at least on this point) to prove the point: “All scripture is given by God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for inauguration in righteousness.”

I feel obligated to point out here, that this verse doesn’t really mean what people think it means. All the writer is saying here is that the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament should continue to be read as scripture by the church. Secondly the word translated as “inspired” or “god breathed” (theopneustos) simply refers to Scripture’s ultimate origins and has nothing to do with God writing or dictating the texts of the OT. Finally, there are almost 90 direct quotations of the Hebrew Bible in the entire Pauline collection, and Paul is notorious for rewording, adjusting, and otherwise “fixing” his quotes from the Old Testament to suit his arguments. So which would be “god-breathed scripture?” Paul’s wording of it, quoting from the Greek translation of the Bible, or the Hebrew text? It certainly does NOT include what we know as the New Testament, because a) there WAS no New Testament; b) the letters of Paul and pseudoPaul were not “scripture” and c) the Gospels hadn’t even been written yet.

The deductive approach is attractive for its simplicity, but as I taught my logic students, there are no simple answers because there are no simple questions. This is especially true with the Bible, a book written over nearly a thousand year period by many writers from different societies dealing with different experiences and crises. It simply will not do to recite “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” But the simplicity of the deductive logic behind inerrancy overpowers the problems it presents to the point that when I engage with those who hold to it, I am told that “you’re making it way too difficult” or “you’re just being too academic. Just give me a simple direct response.” For interrantists, if you have to explain why you don’t subscribe to the inerrancy of scripture, you’re too academic, apparently.

The simplicity of the deductive, inerrant approach though is also what causes all the trouble. Obviously, on purely deductive logical ground, if there are reasons to believe that the Bible is not, in fact, “perfect,” “inerrant,” or what have you, those who defend this position will immediately accuse you of not believing in a perfect sovereign God. But the fact is that there are problems. How many times did Jesus clear out the Temple, and when did he do it? John records it at the beginning of Jesus’ career, while the synoptics place it near the end. In order to protect inerrancy, it must have happened twice. (Not likely.) Another classic case here is the Last Supper; John places it the day before the others.

At the end of the day, the logic is circular, and the conclusions are already written into the premises of inerrancy. Contrary evidence, errors, and inconsistencies in the text are ruled out before even a word of it is read.

The other approach, however, helps a great deal. An Inductive approach to the Bible starts with the texts themselves and lets THEM teach us about the rest of the Bible and its Author/s. Only through thorough reading of individual texts can we formulate opinions about the entire Bible and about the God and the Christ it presents. An inductive approach doesn’t presuppose a result to which the Bible must conform, and it certainly isn’t intimidated by inconsistencies, factual errors, unscientific presentation of the origins of the cosmos, and so forth.

And that’s all I have to say about that. For now, at least.

 

Lucifer FallsAs a homeschooling family, every year we’re confronted with the  task of buying curricula for various subjects; math, reading, grammar, and… science. As a homeschooling family involved in the local coop, there are, um, certain expectations revolving around the science curriculum. If you do it with the coop group, for example, it is a pretty standard, “creationist” science orientation. (And yes, I’m fully aware of the problem placing “creationist” and “science” right next to each other in the same sentence.) If you DON’T have your kid do their science with the coop, it’s assumed that you’re doing  creationism at home. At the very least, something Intelligent Design-ish.  But to actually teach evolution? If you’re going to do that, you might as well forget homeschooling altogether and just stick your kid into your local secular, democrat, hegemonic public school.

The Gorge Trail runs at the base of the glen.

The Gorge Trail runs at the base of the glen.

An anecdote: a few weekends back I spent a spectacular day at Robert Treman State Park in New York, which houses two glacial glens and some breathtaking gorges and waterfalls. You cannot but be stunned by the power of water and time and what it can do to rock.  I commented something to this effect; my 8 year old gets my drift and asks “how old is all this daddy?” Before being able to answer, the wife cuts in “oh, sometime between Adam and Noah, honey.” Well, yeah, that puts it in a context that the kid can understand and is still sufficiently vague enough to allow for a LOT of time. Fine, but when I pointed out that the glens were formed over a number of ice ages over two million years, well before “Adam,” I got the cynical “well, who knows if the earth is even that old anyway.”

Sigh.

Look, having been brought up fundamental Christian and who yet still is somehow wired to find elements of the sacred in the natural world, I have had a long struggle with evolution. But I can say this; I’m more unimpressed by religious responses to Darwin and evolution than I am by  evolution itself. Let me be clear: I take Darwin’s understanding to be a reasonably close approximation of how life has developed, and natural geological physics to be an equally fair approximation of the formation of planet earth as we now live in and experience it. In my own religious and academic development, I have gone from the combative creationist to the reluctant Intelligent Designist to a rather apathetic “science is science, and Bible is Bible, and ne’er shall the twain meet” approach. Now, not only do I find all three of these standard Christian “reactions” wide of the mark, but in reality irresponsible theologically as well as scientifically.

Part of the reason I’ve turned my back on these three so-called Christian/religious opposing positions is that I’ve come to realize that these, in fact, all give assent to the materialist skepticism promoted by the leading lights of neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought (namely Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Jay Gould) who have argued that religion, theology, and evolutionary science are fundamentally irreconcilable with each other. On this, Creationism, Intelligent Design, and “separatists” agree with their hostile critics, thus ceding the defining terms of the debate to their opponents. I no longer believe this starting point is even true, and as a result, I have to pull the rug out from under pseudo-scientific Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the separatist wall between church and scientia.

What this means is that I’m not signing off on a classically Christian fundamentalist oppostion curriculum for my school to teach (as homeschooling principal and Chair of the School Board) and I’m not signing off on my kids getting pseudo-science from the local coop (as the concerned, diligent parent). For the purposes of basic elementary education of my two kids, though, separatism is probably the best approach; teach Bible, teach science, and teach them both right and on their own disciplinary terms. In the meantime, during expeditions such as we love going on, I need to work on an evolutionary theology to make room for science in the concept of the sacred, and make room for the sacred in natural, scientific, evolutionary history. As a result, I’ve started a most fascinating powder-keg of a book by John F. Haught entitled God After Darwin. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. I’ll report back with some results as I make some headway.

So the question is put to me, what’s so wrong with a denomination establishing criteria of doctrinal consent that are required for official ordained ministry within the denomination? It came up during a documentary that included discussion of the 5 fundamentals of early 20th century Presbyterianism and the resulting division in the church (and which paved the way for mid-twentieth century evangelical-liberal fear of each other in general).

My answer is that there’s basically nothing wrong with doing this, so long as it is recognized that this is not a universal absolute that has to be adhered to by everyone. In other words, if the denomination recognizes that this is essentially the “membership standard” in order to be part of the club of Denomination X and not membership requirements for determining who is “Christian” and who isn’t, fine.

More specifically, some denominations (such as the PCUSA) have historically been at the forefront of “updating” the Christian mission to reflect the needs of the age it finds itself in. 100 years ago, it was science and modernity, and the 5 fundamentals reflect the issues the church was faced with in how to do Christian work. In particular, colonialism, Darwinism, historical criticism, “progress,” scientific and psychoanalytic analysis, and so on, all hallmarks of modernity, were the major issues confronting the churches, and the Fundamentals themselves were completely modernist answers to a very modernist slate of issues. Absolute certainty in religion was the mirror image of absolute certainty in science and historical factuality.

As seminaries now are very clear that their mission is no longer “conversion” to Christianity, many conservatives and fundamentalists, I think, misunderstand what is going on with current Christian training. If it is truly Christian, as I’ve written on this blog in the past, there is but one essential, and that is the confession of Christ as Lord and Master. If a church’s work and mission stems from this, it is doing Christian work, Kingdom work, as I call it. Conversion may or may not be a part of this. What is happening with Seminaries and Churches and other institutions that are in the field of Christian vocations is they are cognizant of the fact that “conversion” is virtually synonymous with Colonialism, and specifically western colonialism. It recognizes that doing Kingdom work does not mean “making everyone a Christian.” But many conservatives and fundamentalists think this is exactly what it means to save the world: convert every last person to Christianity.

God save us, no!

The Church should have standards for its own governance, and it needs ways and means and an ethic of not being of the world even while it is in it. And those should be determined through much critical thought and excruciating prayer. But our mission is not to make everyone in the world “like us.” Confessing Christ’s lordship means not turning the world into a planet of Christians, let alone Presbyterians or Baptists or Methodists or Adventists or what-have-yous. Our mission is simply to bring the Kingdom of God to places where it is needed most. And these days, I daresay that the places it is most needed is in the institutional churches themselves. Getting all caught up in absolutes and certainties and doctrines and issues of “who’s in and who’s out” distracts us from our real work: to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love God with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind, to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; and to preach Christ crucified, using words only when necessary.

Focus on the Family recently published a sixteen page hypothetical letter from “A Christian in 2012” that “looks back” on the first four years of the Obama presidency. The whole thing reminds me of how ancient apocalyptic works, like the Book of Revelation; paint up a vision of the future that induces mass-panic with the express aim of persuading readers to resist to the end now, before it’s too late.

Like Revelation, the letter is written from the perspective that the author and those who stand with him are the only ones who knew/know the truth, and criticizes those Christians who voted for Obama as being blind or too young to seriously look at why Obama was going to be a dangerous president who would destroy America. How? Here are some examples about what the author of the letter (who apparently doesn’t want his true identity to be known, but here’s guessing it’s Dobson himself):

  • Terrorist attacks in 4 US cities;
  • Christian professionals fired or quitting en masse;
  • Iran nukes Tel Aviv
  • Porn freely displayed
  • violent crime out of control because to too-strict gun control
  • Russia occupies 4 more nations
  • Energy blackouts all over the US
  • Gas prices are over 7 bucks a gallon
  • Christian ministries and organizations, including schools close up
  • Bush officials imprisoned
  • Taliban overrun not only Afghanistan, but Iraq as well (!)
  • Home school families emigrate en masse to Australia and New Zealand (!)
  • And all of this is because Obama’s Supreme Court appointments create a 6-3 majority of liberal justices, thus ceding the “ultimate prize” of the Court to the “far left.”
  • And these justices then promptly ruled that homosexual marriage was now legal in all 50 states, creating a chain reaction of decisions that the letter describes as curtailments of American freedom. In other words, all problems can be traced back to American tolerance of homosexuality.

Unbelievable.

Focus on the Family’s anonymous piece trades on fear and preys on those who are afraid of change. This is, IMO, the worst piece of fear-mongering I’ve run across. It shows that the politics of fear run by the Bush administration has had its desired affect. Focus claims to represent Christians. It does no such thing. It doesn’t even represent all evangelical Christians; the letter even admits as much by blaming the “younger evangelicals” for the result of the 2008 election. All it represents is a “boomer” value system that held sway in the 50s-70s in the US, which is now just an element of cultural memory to a very specific (and increasingly diminishing) segment of the population.

And if this is what Christianity wants to become, then I’m checking out. Focus’ version of Christian ethics has become so one-dimensional, fundamentalist, dogmatic, and hatefully intolerant of dissension on what it considers non-negotiable that it misrepresents everything Christ stood for and in fact represents more of what he stood against. It completely misunderstands the First Amendment, and in fact has a “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution,” to use Dobson’s own words from another context. Once upon a time Focus on the Family focused on …. families. Now, the focus is on fear, hate, intolerance, and sectarian politics. Is there anything more un-Christian and un-American?

The letter gets one assumption right. Obama’s America is not Focus on the Family’s America. And neither would McCain’s America. I’ve got half a mind to write a “Letter from 2012 from McCain’s America” in response.

If you’re reading this, and you’ve read the “Letter from 2012,” and you are as bothered by this as I am, write to Focus through their email at citizenlink@family.org and tell it to them straight.

… of Matthew 21.31-32. Dedicated to today’s whitened sepulchers.

paraphrase.jpg“Look, I’m trying to set it straight with you guys. The abortionists and gays and the liberals! are gonna be in God’s world before most of you guys who think you’re in the Right. I mean, guys like John, King, and Wallis, and Edwards and Obama talked about hope and justice and you don’t give them the time of day, but “those other guys” do, and even after seeing what King did and Wallis is doing and what Edwards and Obama are fighting for, you still won’t change your minds and believe them!”

armageddon3.jpgStdogbert alerted me to this little piece from Reuters earlier in the afternoon and suggested that it might be blogworthy. Yep, sure is; any time an American President gets involved with trying to bring peace to the Middle East via a resolution to the Israel-Palestine contest, there’s going to be something to talk, write, read, or blog about.

This sudden interest by Bush in the Middle East peace process is remarkable. Obviously, every President has had an interest in it and they all have been involved to varying degrees, but given the circumstances going on in Iraq (and perhaps Iran in the disturbingly-near future), for Bush to start pandering peace, especially by appealing to Jesus’ beatitude to being peacemakers, when he has so much blood on his hands in the region is hypocritical and disingenuous, or just plain clueless. (My guess is it’s the last.) What fascinates me, however, is how an evangelical President like Bush is going against the old grain with this little peace-making visit. Whatever else the Bush Presidency may be remembered as, I certainly will not-so-fondly remember it as the Presidency who tried to help God out in bringing in the so-called “End Times.” I don’t think any other President has done more that, at least on the surface of things, seems to speed up the timetable to Armageddon in the Bob Hagee-an, Jack van Impe-an, Hal Lindsey-an sense.

Not too long ago, during a call for congregational prayer requests, a fellow in our church asked the pastor and church to pray for peace in the Middle East. The pastor took the opportunity to give a little mini-sermon/lecture that reflects the dispensationalist, Jack van Impean form of End Times politics. His response was something to the effect of “Well, I’m not sure that we can really do that, [name], because the Bible tells us that there will not be peace in the Middle East until the Lord Jesus returns. No matter how many Presidents, ambassadors, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and humanitarians argue for peace and work for peace, it’s just not going to happen until then, and so I think that anything we do that tries to make peace there is just getting in God’s way. But I’ll pray for Jesus’ return and that he comes soon so that we can have peace in Israel soon.” Many evangelicals, particularly those reared and raised and under the continued influence of more traditional, 1950s-60s evangelicalism, and practically all self-proclaimed fundamentalists would agree with the pastor’s assessment here. Not too many “new” or “younger evangelicals” would, however.

Probably not surprisingly, I don’t agree with this at all, because this is not what the Bible says. But that’s not the point here. The point is that Bush’s visit looks like he’s breaking rank with the older mainstream evangelical tradition he has sought to uphold as his standard for his Presidency. Just for once, for whatever motives, he is appealing to the Christian beatitude of peacableness as represented by Jesus rather than the imperialized and horrific vision of the Revelation. I have to give him credit for this.

If Bush’s effort here is doomed to fail, as I think it is, it’s not because it’s foretold in the Scriptures that it will, but that it’s just too hard of a sell. It’s because Middle East leaders can’t trust him, or the US in general, and that is simply because the track record of US involvement in this part of the world isn’t exactly worthy of trust. For that, we can’t blame the Bible, but only those who think they are doing what it says God wants them to do.

Ummm…whatever, man. You’ll need your speakers on.  Content not exactly endorsed by Aedificium, or Benedict either.

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