Thursday, August 14, 2014

FUNDAMENTALISM: Simplicity this Side of Complexity

Mormon Teachers’ College student: ‘We Mormons believe that God is physical, like a giant male.’

Me: ‘Is that general Mormon teaching?’

‘I think so. But I also believe we can measure the size of God.’

‘Really? How?’

‘Well, one of the Hebrew prophets says God walks on the mountains. Figure out where those mountains are, use a bit of trigonometry, and you can roughly tell how big God is…’

‘So if you were to draw a picture of God, he’d have wings and feathers…?’

‘Oh no. He’s like a human male.’

But Psalm 91:4 says ‘God will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge...’

(Her face went white).


Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is reported to have said ‘I would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my right arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity.’ And: ‘A mind stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions.’

Skip these two pages if this is not an issue for you. I spent the first 19 years of my life attending two-to-four ‘meetings’ a week in a Dispensationalist/Fundamentalist Brethren ‘Assembly’ in Sydney, so writing this summary has been a nostalgic experience for me. My boyhood Bible teachers loved the Scofield Reference Bible (but one of them - a wise person - suggested I stick to the material 'between Scofield's notes' – ie. the basic scriptural text ).

We believed in the Rapture: the return of Jesus to set up a millennial kingdom and reign for a literal thousand years from Jerusalem. (Though I don’t remember seeing a picture apparently popular in Bible-belt American homes of a man cutting the grass outside his house, gazing in astonishment as his born-again wife is raptured out of an upstairs window). The world was going to hell and there wasn’t much we could do about that. There were no ‘messages’ about social justice: God will fix the world's mess. By 16 I’d probably read a couple of hundred books within their theological parameters, and filled several notebooks at their monthly Bible conferences…  [ ]

The first few lines of 1,140,000 results if you Google Fundamentalism Definition offer this:A form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.’ That’s OK for starters, but there’s also Roman Catholic, Jewish and other religious fundamentalisms. The term also applies to a strict/literal interpretation of any ideology or set of beliefs: political, economic, what-have-you. The common element is belief in the inerrancy of the defining text.

In a system committed to an ideology (eg. every religious group or church), people will range left-to-right across a spectrum from radicals, through progressives, conservatives, to traditionalists. Radicals want to change everything, progressives many things, conservatives some things, traditionalists nothing. Radicals are angry (concerned for justice as people-in-power and their structures rip off the poor); traditionalists are fearful (with a great emotional investment in the status quo, so ‘law and order’ may be their catch-cry).

Prophets (eg. Jesus with the Pharisees) are invariably radical. Priests are traditionalist, passing on a tradition (cf. Jesus’ teaching about the law). Incidentally, if religious leaders are perceived to be too prophetic or  traditionalist, they’ll have trouble with people at the other end! Leaders as change-agents know that innovation cannot be commended by people two removes away. For example, conservatives won’t listen to radicals, but may be persuaded by a progressive. And if the whole population of the movement was surveyed, the result would probably end up with people spread along a bell-curve if the group is large and diverse enough. Not too many are radical: they’re noisy, but bleeding isn’t very popular... Similarly only a minority will be traditionalist: as time and ideas pass them by they are eventually very uncomfortable in their ‘has been’ basket.

Here I’ll tantalize with a few notes about modern Christian (Protestant), Islamic and Catholic Fundamentalism:

# Christian Fundamentalists are often accused of having as their trinity ‘The Father, the Son and the Bible’. Karen Armstrong’s memorable comment: ‘[Christian] Fundamentalism sees the Bible as a kind of holy encyclopedia one may look up to find information about God’.

# Fundamentalists tend to be inerrantists. That is, their Bible – at least in its original form – was dictated to about 40 different authors by God, and has no errors whatsoever in it. The Bible dictated from on high by God-who-is-truth: writers are simply stenographers, reporters.

But yes, some sleepy scribes copying manuscripts by candle-light can make an error or two: so it’s the ‘original documents’ which are inerrant. Problem for those who hold this position: we have no access to any of these original manuscripts, nor any inerrant interpreters.

The Qur'an is considered by Muslims to be ‘The Word of Allah’ – a book written directly by God, through the prophet Muhammad. [See here - - for more]
 [RC- note preferred spellings of Qur’an and Muhammad]

# And yes, Fundamentalists also tend to be literalists. But, as Professor James Barr notes in his book Fundamentalism (1977) they are adept at abandoning a literal mode of interpretation when it becomes an embarrassment to believe in the nonsense one has to subscribe to. James Barr regards Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth as a 'farrago of nonsense'. (In my youth some liked quoting 1 Peter 3:8 ‘One day is like a thousand years’ to bring a bit of flexibility into their creationist thinking).

# Fundamentalism and Atheism: Christian Fundamentalism tries to make Christianity an alternative to materialistic atheism. It tries to make it an answer for everything. But it has to read the Bible as badly as the atheists do to get there. It is no mistake that both fundamentalism and atheism have grown as parallel movements - they have an almost symbiotic relationship. Both exhibit (to use the American scholar R. Scott Clark's term) a QIRC - a Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty. [Rediscovering the Reformed Confession: our Theology, Piety and Practice, P&R, Phillipsburg, 2008, p. 39. Cited in Michael Jensen, Pieces of Eternity, Acorn, 2013, p. 161. Jensen concludes his interesting little book with this:
‘Christian liberalism, for its part, pretends to be a kind of believing unbelief, but it is really just a failure of nerve. It sits somewhere in the middle, neither believing nor sufficiently doubting. There is a kind of craven unbelief, or a persistent doubt-for-no-purpose, which revels in its own posture of superior not-knowingness. It characterizes much of English Anglicanism, in fact. It is smug, but without reason to be. 

‘Rather, truly biblical and orthodox Christianity keeps nagging away at us, challenging our human pride and upsetting our self-made securities. It turns us always to the twin wonders of a crucified Messiah and an empty tomb. It speaks to us of the majesty and the steadfast love of the God of Jesus Christ... and it offers us confidence, just enough, to live in the turbulence of this difficulty world.' [pp. 161-2]]

# Fundamentalists tend to follow a variety of infallible teachers. Protestant fundamentalists often teach that the Catholic Church is the ‘whore of Babylon’, but they have their popes too (in the U.S. for example, Bill Gothard, Hal Lindsay, James Dobson). Yes, traditional Catholics believe the Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra  (literally ‘from the chair’) eg. in 1950 when Pius XII  defined the Assumption of Mary as being as an article of faith. How can popes be infallible if some of them lived scandalously? Catholics respond that we must not confuse infallibility and impeccability. Further, a pope’s private theological opinions are not infallible. And note this concomitant of a closed system: When Catholic Professor Hans Kung questioned the somewhat modern notion of papal infallibility, the official Vatican response was not to discuss the issue, but to condemn and remove the one who raised the question.

There's also a brand of atheist fundamentalism: these people are desperate that other people agree with them, so that they won't have to re-open old questions. They shut God up in a box labelled 'Doesn't Exist', but God keeps breaking out of it, as their own weight on the lid is not enough to keep God in there.



Here's a pot-pourri of quotes, comments, opinions etc from my files - emanating from hundreds of conversations over nearly three-quarters of a century - on modern variants of Christian fundamentalism... You decide!

Fundamentalists’ doctrine arises from a literal interpretation of an inerrant text. Evangelical scholar Clark Pinnock says he defended a strict view of inerrancy in his earlier years because he desperately wanted it to be true. For the hard-line fundamentalist, the possibility of being wrong carries with it awful consequences. They have a desperate need to stuff the Bible into an ill-fitting hermeneutical suit. To acknowledge even the smallest error would destroy the credibility of the entire biblical witness; if the doctrine of inerrancy falls, the whole movement collapses.

Contrary to fundamentalist claims the doctrine of biblical inerrancy they have formulated is not a return to primitive Christianity/orthodoxy. Rather, it was an innovation fashioned mainly in the American South 100-200 years ago. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy with its appeal to non-existent original autographs/ manuscripts did not exist in either Europe or North America prior to the nineteenth century.  

They believe, in general:

Everything was created in six days - or, at least, quite recently (say about 10,000 years ago)... The better-educated tend to place the act/process of creation earlier rather than later...

The better-educated also reckon the waters of Noah's flood did not cover Mt Everest (nor did Noah have a miraculous way of getting Australian koalas across the world to the Middle East and then deliver them back DownUnder, not to mention sloths from South America: sloths can't swim). 

Only strict sectarian groups forbid women *ever* to teach men. (In our Brethren Assembly a woman missionary - who in the African Sahel area was the equivalent of a bishop - could bring a - sanitized - report of her work, together with a Bible text-with-homily, but what she was doing was, of course, not strictly 'preaching' or 'teaching'.)

Fewer these days are conscientious teetotalers (and those who are have to stretch credulity by asserting that Jesus' wedding wine was not intoxicating). 

Scripture provides a forecast of contemporary history...

Fundamentalists have a frantic desire to fill the void with certainty: they’re very anxious that you should agree with them: they need to convert you. A common Pentecostal version loves the texts Hebrews 13:17: ‘Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves... and/or 1 Chron. 16:22 'Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm' (KJV).

And Fundamentalism is a fertile breeding-ground for Pharisaism/Separatism. ‘Liberals’ – or ‘Modernists’ - are pejorative terms for those who have too many ideas-about-ideas, and they must be avoided (even excommunicated, if the group is sectarian). [See ] Bob Jones: 'Anybody who knows and believes the Scriptures will agree with me. If you do not agree, you are an apostate.'

Who today do they ‘love to hate’? Well, Bishop Spong would probably head the list. In his Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism he writes that their main problem is to define Christianity so narrowly that only fundamentalists or conservatives can be included within the definition of 'Christian'. Or, as Dr Peter Cameron points out [Necessary Heresies, Fundamentalism and Freedom], fundamentalists have little imagination or creativity. Or Tillich: they 'destroy the humble honesty of the search for truth'.

And certainly they have problems with Paul’s 'the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life'... 

Rowland Croucher
August 2014

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