Am I a fundamentalist?
unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs
What do we do when what we believe about reality is confronted by a new way of seeing things? How do we assess that new perspective or information, and in turn what do we do with it when it conflicts with a previous held belief.
Recently I was working through some of the more challenging scenes in the Scriptures depicting catastrophic acts of violence or warfare with some high school seniors that I get the privilege of teaching. My initial question began with “What are some passages in the Bible that depict God’s judgement that you have honestly wrestled with?”
A few reluctant comments began the discussion, but I knew there was more there because I remember being there my self at their age and I remember , for whatever reason, feeling like certain questions about God were off the table. Like a house of cards in my mind, if one little card gets budged in the slightest way maybe the whole thing comes down.
Again, I don’t where that feeling came from directly but it was there. Thankfully, there were some people in my life and situations (which at the time I was not thankful for at all) that lit that house of cards on fire. I can say “thankfully” today because I learned not to be afraid to examine the evidence when presented with a new perspective, that reason isn’t the enemy of faith, and that God’s faithfulness is more than up to the challenge of honest questions.
But the intellectual, religious, and political culture of America today doesn’t seem to bless questioning. The political left and the New Atheist crowd loves to point the finger at evangelicals (and other people of faith for that matter) and scream “FUNDAMENTALISTS!!” from atop their elitist ivory towers. Often times their critiques are justifiable, but theirs is a fundamentalism just the same.
Consider the naturalist/materialist, fundamentalist Richard Dawkins who’s become the Billy Graham of atheism. His is not the atheism of the past like Nietzsche with honest introspection and mindful critiques of his own worldview. He is a biologist who can speak with certainty about metaphysical claims that do require great leaps of “faith” beyond what the scientific method affords. To him, all of reality can be explained by his religious adherence to reason within a naturalist ideology, and any other possible explanation within a rich tradition of philosophical options and religious perspectives is lunacy. He ignores the fact that if naturalism is true that he could never say with certainty that it is and be consistent with the consequences of his worldview.
Let me give a basic explanation. If naturalism is true and the machinery of the universe is closed to being re-ordered and every effect has a previous cause going back to the big bang, then all effects are determined by their causes. In short, a committed and ideological consistent naturalist/materialist would tell you that there is no free will and that every action in the universe , including your own thoughts, are mechanically determined. The unintended consequence would then be that you are unable to say that your observations about the universe are true or false. They just are. There is no right or wrong, there just is. And if you can’t say that what you are seeing or “reasoning” about the world around you is right, then you can’t say with certainty that the very worldview that establishes all of these conclusions is right with 100% certainty. So to be consistent you’d have to say you’re believing that you are right by faith. And if you are unwilling to admit that, then who’s the fundamentalist?
But the enemy isn’t Dawkins (or pick any other fundamentalist), the enemy is fundamentalism wherever it exists. Whether that is an evangelical’s refusal to look at scientific explanations which may disrupt a particular interpretation of scripture (note: interpretation of scripture is the emphasis), a republican’s refusal to critique their party’s foreign policy, a democrats refusal to critique abortion, a Mormon’s refusal to critique the historical reliability of Joseph Smith’s claims, and on we could go; our fear of experiencing cognitive dissonance traps us in isolated, tribalistic prison cells.
We band together with those who will share in our views, champion it as “defending the faith” or “being patriotic”, or even ironically “open mindedness” and “tolerance” - when tolerance becomes narrowly defined as tolerating any view that isn’t from the past because …well, the people in the past were dumb and people today are smarter (so as long as we move in any direction away from the past its progress, right?)!
How can I contribute to changing this culture?
By giving permission to those around us to ask questions, being okay with the tension and the journey having highs and lows, and trusting that the Truth will win out.
Now back to my classroom of 18 year olds I described earlier. After noticing the reluctance to voice their theological concerns, I intentionally voiced permission to be honest and affirmed that that kind of honesty was important to their spiritual and intellectual health. I believe I communicated to them that this was a safe place to be honest about their struggles with the scriptures, because the result was that the floodgates of honesty opened up.
This wasn’t a bunch of angry, cynical young people, but young people who I believe are trying to know God better and understand Him. Our discussion was a holy moment of pursuing the knowledge of God. Disagreements on views were listened to, acknowledged, and respected. I mean it was way better than your average Facebook Donald Trump related diatribe. Even as their instructor, I was growing from the experience.
Sadly though, I must confess that my experience in churches has demonstrated that doing this in a church setting is very rare . And I’ve been a part of quite a few in my 32 years of church attendance and 12 years of vocational ministry. From non-denom to ELCA to Assemblies of God to house church (though my house church experience did it best) and more, churches seem to struggle with giving room to allow a plurality of non-essential view points. Certainly, you have to have some agreed upon essentials as church community, or else what are celebrating, teaching, and moving towards together as a community? But if people can’t come to our churches with their questions, where would we like them to go instead?
I was recently talking with a friend of mine, who’s a pastor, about a theological issue we’ve been processing on our own. He confessed the feeling that if people really knew about his questions (which isn’t on anything that would effect his ability to affirm whole-heartedly the Apostles Creed) that he’s concerned he would be fired.
He wasn’t suggesting that he wanted to teach a different perspective on this topic or was even certain of it for himself, but the sheer thought of a having a discussion exploring the perspectives felt like it had to be done in hiding.
This is not a healthy feeling to carry, but I certainly can understand it and have carried it myself with varying degrees of intensity in varying seasons of life. And if a well educated and experienced pastor carries this frustration, what about the new believer or the seeker who visits our churches with their really good, honest questions?
If you have come to the belief that God revealed in Jesus is the truth, don’t you believe the one who endured rejection, torture, and execution to reveal the truth will be faithful to reveal himself in the face of our doubts and questions? Or is he insecure, afraid, and desperate for our unwavering attachment to any image of him at all? Even if that image is incorrect?
What do we do when what we believe about reality is confronted by a new way of seeing things? I can’t lay out the perfect step by step process here, but I do know that we won’t get anywhere but deeper in our frustration, isolation, and rejection of others if we don’t feel free to at least ask questions.
I don’t want to be a fundamentalist. I want the Truth.