Saturday, December 6, 2008

Why I Can't Be A Fundamentalist

It's been a while since I've blogged but something has been running through my mind for the past week and I wanted to be able to give it some thoughtful consideration. I'm aware that I may prompt a number of questions here, I'll answer as many as possible through comments and may choose to answer others through future blogs so look out for both...

I've been working through some discomfort about a certain type of evangelism that is rooted in a fundamentalist mentality and that explicitly disdains other forms of Christianity (let alone what it says about people of other faiths or of no faith).

Firstly, let me say that I see myself as an Evangelical but not necessarily an evangelist. There's a technical distinction there that I won't bother with for the moment, but it is fair to say that I am interested in sharing my Christian experience with people and I want to invite people to be a part of Christian community and to actively participate together in the transformation of this world towards the image of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated (more about that another time).

I also need to put on the table my very clear interest in something that becomes a 'side issue' if evangelism becomes the one thing that all Christians must focus on: I have a deep passion and interest in the social services of The Salvation Army. My initial conversion to Christianity was rooted in a desire to see a better world and I believed (and still do) that Christianity provided a valid framework from which to see and work towards this objective. I began working in social services in The Salvation Army nearly 20 years ago and it has changed me more deeply than anything else - personally, philosophically, politically and theologically.

The problem I see is both simple and complex. At its foundation is a desire to simplify everything to a binary decision - black or white, good or bad, heaven or hell. It becomes complicated when you add some theological overlays - the nature and authority of the Bible, the meaning of God, the purpose of Jesus life and death, the relationship between the human soul and the idea of eternity.

Many people find the simplicity of black and white choices highly attractive. To illustrate how easy it is, I myself have begun to wonder whether there is a psychological tendency for humans to fall into two categories: those who see everything as binary options and those who don't. I think there's a joke in there somewhere.

I find the reality of life to be a whole lot more grey than black or white. I am pretty sure this is largely because of my involvement in social service delivery, perhaps I have been sucked into the post-modern mindset, or maybe I just have deep trauma from a lifetime as a Collingwood supporter. I think this is why I can't be a fundamentalist. I tried to be for a while, but it didn't take - real life got in the way. I couldn't believe the things I was supposed to believe about the Bible after I'd read it (several times, the whole way through, eventually much of it in Greek and Hebrew). For a while I thought that my apparent dissent would marginalise and isolate me, maybe even make it impossible for me to stay a Christian. However, I soon found (and continue to find) many people who feel as I do. I also have come to understand through an appreciation of Christian history that the noisiest voices are not always the ones in the centre - though they might like you to think that they are.

I believe that many of us are losing, or have lost, the capacity to appreciate the value of metaphor and story as vehicles for communicating truth. We might even say things like 'that person's life must be Hell' without taking seriously how right we might be. Why do we have to be forced into choices between Hell on earth or Hell as the burning fires of eternity; salvation as rescue from an existential predicament or salvation as eternal insurance for the soul; Jesus as a human being or Jesus as the definitive manifestation of the Hebrew God? The denial of these choices is rooted in a recognition of the concrete experiences and expressions of salvation throughout the Bible: the Exodus from Egypt, the return from exile, Jesus' feeding, healing and reconciling people to themselves, their communities and their God.

I refuse to believe that because I can't be a fundamentalist therefore I can't be a Christian and I refuse to be forced into making false choices that don't reflect my experience of life. I'm also not very good at being quiet when something upsets me... but at least I'm learning to take my time in responding.


Anonymous said...

It seems obvious to me why fundamentalism is not valid. A more difficult question to answer is why people are fundamentalists. Are they just brain-washed? Stubborn? Afraid of Hell? Shallow thinkers? Uneducated?

I think a good project/activity for the Salvos would be to pair two people of different theological persusasions, fundamentalist and liberal, to jointly write a Salvos' theology.

JDK said...

Hi David,

I like the idea, though I can't imagine that you would be able to get a unified theology from such an effort. However, even the ability to see two arguments side by side would be valuable.

I have a couple of books (though not from The Salvation Army) that demonstrate the possibilities of this kind of juxtaposition and I'd recommend them both to people who are interested:

The Meaning of Jesus - Two Visions (Marcus Borg & N.T. Wright)

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? (William Lane Craig & John Dominic Crossan) ed. Paul Copan

I don't think I'll wait by the phone for a publisher's call just yet :-)

Regards, JDK

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you are trying to intellectualize your faith too much. From my own personal experience when I have tried to do this I get more confused and in the end it is something that you experience not something you try to explain. I cannot explain away some of the encounters I have had with the Holy Spirit. I cannot explain the why or the how of many things in the end it boils down to the Holy Spirits guiding and guiding in the reading of scripture and the guiding in the way I live my life....

JDK said...

It's a possibility, perhaps even likely, that I might do so in reaction against those who I feel have tried to 'de-intellectualise' the Christian faith. I really struggle with the 'check your brain at the door' kind of faith, so my weakness is indeed probably a tendency to 'over-think'.

I'm pretty sure that you're not saying that I might be able to be a fundamentalist if only I used my brain a bit less. However, I do agree that experience must come first, but I also feel the need to be able to reconcile that experience with everything else that I know about the world.

Thanks for your input.

Regards, JDK

Anonymous said...

If Christianity really is 'the truth', surely it should be able to easily stand up to intellectual scrutiny. Yet to me it doesn't, and if fact the more I have attempted to really analyse what I believe and why I believe it, the more I have moved away from Christianity. I feel that I am at a strange stage of being some sort of secular humanist who is not yet willing to completely give up on God.

But how far away from fundamentalism can you go without giving up on the faith altogether? If I look at two main beliefs of fundamentalism - the bible being 100% historically accurate and without error or contradiction, and eternal conscious punishment for those that do not repent and believe in Jesus, then I instantly have some very big hoops to jump through.

First to the bible - Universe about 6000 years old? Evidence everywhere to the contrary. Noah's Ark? Not possible to have actually happened (store them, feed them, get the Tasmanian Devils to Tasmania after the flood had finished). The death of Jesus? That little piece in John about tombs breaking open and dead people going into the city - not important or amazing enough for one of the other gospel writers nor any contemporary historian to have even mentioned? The visit to the tomb after the resurrection? Between the four gospels we have different people going, they're going at different times, there are different people/angels there when they get there. They can't even agree on something as important as that story. As as you are aware I could go on with many other examples, but I am sure my point is made - the bible is not historically accurate, it has many contradictions and errors and so cannot logically be considered the 'inspired word of God'.

Now as to hell, this provides with too many logical contradictions within the Christian faith. A God that loves us so much all our life turns to one who infinitely hates us at death if we have not 'repented and believed'. If hell is real, and there is an age of understanding that keeps young children from going there, then we should encourage abortion and infanticide in order to guarantee them a place in heaven. If hell is real, how could anyone be happy in heaven knowing that they have friends and family in hell?

I have found that fundamentalists that I have tried to engage in online discussion about this are unwilling to look at these type of problems and seem to just go back to the old 'the bible says it, I believe it and that settles it'. Some people I have spoken to acknowledge that there are difficulties with many aspects of Christianity, however they choose to largely ignore there and focus on 'love God, love others, everything else is minor detail'. And perhaps that is the best way for them to be - they try and make the world a better place by focusing on loving others, which is perhaps their love of God in action, they love God through worship and reading the bible (although mostly the positive bits and ignoring the problems and the bits that show God as a genocidal maniac).

But I don't really think I can be like that - it many ways I am a black and white type of person. Either Christianity is true or it's not. Either Jesus was the actual son of God whose death and resurrection provided us with a way to become acceptable to God (if we are actually unacceptable in our present state), or he was just a man who may or may not have spoken some wise words 2000 years ago (if he in fact definitely existed). For me it can't be somewhere in the middle.

Sorry to have gone on so long - I don't think I have put together a particular coherent comment but it's getting late - hopefully it makes some sense.

JDK said...

Hi Jack,

If you really are a 'black and white' person and can no longer be a fundamentalist, then you may indeed struggle to find your way in Christianity - as it seems you already are. However, there is still hope! I strongly encourage you to continue thinking about your faith, reading and being in dialogue with others who have been on similar journeys.

Also, if you can't get someone else to buy you Marcus Borg's 'The Heart of Christianity' for Christmas, then buy it yourself :-)

Regards, JDK

Anonymous said...

re. intellectualling our faith - the bible (Jesus' words) says we are to "love the Lord with all our heart, soul AND mind" - based on this I would argue it's great to think and explore theology as deeply as permitted by our own individual mental capacity. As long as we are (a) using our intellect to glorify God and love Him
and (b) giving equal priority to loving him with our heart and soul (ie. not neglecting these by "overthinking")

Anonymous said...

Hi Jase,

I've been thinking about how I could respond to this blog and normally I like to write a lot but in this case I just want to say I'm "coming out," I'm not a fundamentalist either! I'm not even conservative. Been there, done that - it didn't make sense to me either.

Keep up the good work!

james said...

Hey Jason,

I feel your pain! I am a self professed fundamentalist who has done and is still doing more theological studies. I was on the other side though, I started my theology at Whitley College who were very liberal and I could not live with anything that resembled their faith, ideas etc...

I dont want to comment too much just yet but 2 questions to start off with...

first can I ask what fundamental concepts you are struggling with and second how does this affect your Soldiers and Officers covenant?

Anonymous said...

Have you considered joining a denomination that supports your Liberal Theology?

Most people when they join a denomination do so after considering the faith beliefs and then decided is this what I believe?

Certainly being a minister of religion holds a greater responsibility to be aligned with the beleifs of the denomination.

No one is criticizing you for your beleifs however you need to choose where you belong as we all have had to do...

JDK said...

I'm sure others will disagree, but I don't see my lack of identification as a fundamentalist getting in the way with my calling to The Salvation Army. I've said here before that I maintain the commitment to the doctrines that I first made 20 years ago. Of course, my understanding of those doctrines has changed over the years - I see that as spiritual growth. Surely if I still understood the doctrines the same way now as I did then, my stagnation in the faith would be a concern. I hope that I continue to move and grow in this understanding and that's why I continue to be committed to the doctrines.

The typical definition of Christian fundamentalism relates to belief in 5 ideas:

1. Inerrancy of Scripture
2. The virgin birth
3. Substitutionary atonement
4. Bodily resurrection of Christ
5. Supernatural nature of miracles

With the likely exception of number 3, none of the others are part of our doctrines.

Regards, JDK

Anonymous said...

ive been reading your blogs for the last month and have enjoyed the diversity with in it. from Music to the marinalised. i guess just like life christianity also comes with diversity.
i'm reminded that we have fundlementalists in every aspect of society. in religions, politicts, enviromental and finacial sectors in natural resourses you name it fundementalists are every where and even though i'm not one, we need to have them. with out them we never really move forward in the journey of life.they help bring a balnce to life If i didnt have fundementalists affecting me i would probably live in apathy and never really think what percentage of a fundermentalist would i be.
so i need them to help me consider what is my position on a particular subject. so as much as i'm not a radical fundementalist and probably have the same theolical base you are at at this stage in your journey. i still need them, no matter how harmful or ridiclous they can seem to be.
rob casburn

Anonymous said...

I get frustrated with people who seem to suggest that because we may not hold to 'fundamental' christian beliefs, that our commitment to the salvation army or to our doctrines is in some way less. I love God deeply, I appreciate the opportunities to serve God in the Salvation Army, and the doctrines guide my theological ministry - however, like you my understanding of the doctrines have evolved over time.

Who's to say that one understanding is the correct one. I'm frustrated that people cast suspicion on my deeply held commitment, belief and calling, because it is not 'fundamental'.

Its time for a public statement from the Salvation army recognising theological diversity within its ranks!!!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Is a set of statements that start with "We believe..." already an indication of a fundamentalism mindset?

Belief is not required where there is evidence and reason. Belief is only required when there is a strong suspicion that the assertions being made are false. Belief is a method of arrogantly ignoring evidence - a strong characteristic of fundamentalists.

JDK said...

The nature of belief is certainly an interesting one, though I disagree with almost everything David has said in this case. You can choose to believe in evolution or not - regardless of the evidence. Therefore, belief is not an alternative to evidence, but can be applied to an assessment of the evidence.

However, I do have to admit that I'm not sure the word 'believe' has the same level of integrity when preceded by the pronoun 'we'. Beliefs are always personal and can never be imposed. And I'm not sure we really have the freedom to choose what we believe and what we don't - at least I certainly don't feel like I do.

Regards, JDK

james said...

just wondering if you got my last comment about the 1st doctrine?

JDK said...

No James - sorry, didn't get that one, not sure what happened. Feel free to try again.

Regards, JDK

Anonymous said...

Anonymous writes "Have you considered joining a denomination that supports your Liberal Theology?" Please JDK hang in there ( in the Salvation Army ) as I believe it needs more officers like yourself. And thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Finally a Salvo Blogger who isn't so far "right" that he can admit his doubts and tell others about his "journey" in faith in a truly authentic way.
It'a the journey that I believe every "believer" (esp over 30yrs old) goes thru. I just think many "fundys" are a afraid to admit to it.

Good on you!

I agree with John Duthie: TSA needs you more than you can imagine!

JDK said...

Thanks John and Kenny for your encouragement. I'm pretty sure those who want to show me the door are a vocal minority, so while the organisation will keep me, I'm happy to hang around and continue offering whatever I can. A little opposition sharpens the mind, but a little support is appreciated as well!

Regards, JDK