Monday, April 25, 2005


Of Babies and Bathwater

I want to take issue with the blurring of two ideologies/belief systems – Conservative Christianity and Christian Fundamentalism. While the fundamentalist is a conservative Christian, a conservative Christian is not necessarily a fundamentalist. I have observed that most backlashes purportedly against those on the right of the political spectrum in general are actually targeted against a subset of the right, Christian fundamentalists.

There is good reason for this and I sympathize with much of the frustration targeted at fundamentalists. Fundamentalists, much like the Pharisees of the New Testament, are often much more concerned with obeying the letter of the law than they are with the principles of grace that Christ espoused and displayed so prevalently.

The self-righteous legalism and hypocritical condescension of these folks has deterred legions of people from ever even hearing the message of Christianity. Also, fundamentalists are often sufficiently preoccupied with the end of the world and their own path to eternity to the extent that they often neglect the crucial need to live out the gospel of grace by example here on earth.

So the backlash against fundamentalism is not at all surprising and is largely justified. However, I would submit that in many corners the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. We need to be careful not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Focusing on grace, to the exclusion of any real core moral convictions, can result in a watered down sort of spirituality.

The result of a complete refutation of all aspects of fundamentalism is a foundation built on sand. In the name of pseudo-humility, everyone lives by his or her own sense of right and wrong and there is no common moral code. This is a dangerous road to tread for it leads to a steady corrosion of morality. Kevin at Short Attention Span offers some interesting insights on this subject.

On the other hand, the anti-scientific, anti-intellectual strain all too common among fundamentalists is antithetical to the type of conservatism I would advocate. Unfortunately, some do not differentiate the above characteristics of fundamentalists from the broader categories of conservatives and evangelicals. Here is an example of this blurring of the lines by the blogger Gaunilo:

It's simply wrong-headed to reject the findings of modern thought or science because a literalistic hermeneutic would interpret the scriptures a particular way… Christianity today is a laughingstock in the culture because it arrogantly has decided that on the basis of a religious text it is competent to judge matters of science that it knows nothing about.

I don’t disagree with this sentiment, but I disagree with the author’s conclusion that this should serve as a refutation of conservative Christianity.

The problem here lies in a false choice that is all too often offered. Are you a judgmental, hypocritical zealot of the "religious right" or an open-minded, loving, grace-filled liberal Christian? There is a lot to learn from those on the left (particularly in areas of compassion), and it is not my intention to paint with too broad a brush.

However, the left tends to lose its way because, as G.K. Chesterton put it, they are humble in the wrong area. From the perspective of many on the left, they are humble because “they have no right to tell others what is right and wrong”. Dave at Grace Pages takes that argument a step further by alleging “slander” against those who believe in an inherent sort of moral code:
To be blunt, I think this is something of a myth constructed by conservative Christians, among others. What they're really saying when they accuse someone of having no moral standards is that they do not share the same moral standards. It really amounts to slander: You don't share my agenda; therefore you have no principles.

I would assert that it is not “my” agenda or principles for which I am advocating, but rather God-given truths and principles which we abandon at our own peril. Liberal arguments against an absolute moral code sound modest and unassuming, but in reality, the proponents of relative morality are egotistical in espousing the assumption that man, not God, determines ultimate truth. Under such a scenario, man’s intellect and emotion hold the keys to ultimate discernment of truth. I would argue that is the most arrogant of worldviews.

Instead, I’d assert that the answer – the reasonable middle ground if you will – lies in an open-minded sort of conservatism. We should strive for a broadening of perspective without watering down our core beliefs. Assuming a divine inspiration of Scripture need not imply the need to blindly adhere to a completely literal interpretation. Quarrels over doctrinal differences should not overshadow common belief in the core principles of the Apostle’s Creed.

Balance. We need to find it. Demagoguing the other side will accomplish nothing.

UPDATE: Dave at The Grace Pages has issued a seething repudiation of my commentary above (or at least loosely based on my commentary). A word of caution: For those of you entering a blog entitled "The Grace Pages" expecting, oh I dunno, grace?, you may want to brace yourselves. No seriously, he makes a thorough and intelligent rebuttal, albeit in an overly sensitive manner. "An insult to (your) character." Really, Dave? I was excited at the prospect of beginning some real dialogue. I can assure you no personal affront was intended. Anyway, I can "take it on the chin," but I will need a separate post to return the favor. To be continued...

For a more specific dilineation of the differences between fundamentalists and evangelicals I would recommend checking out Blake Kennedy's post.

For some specific examples of characteristics that might be attributable to fundamentalists, see Parableman's post on "Defining Fundamentalism," which was prompted by Blake's post. One thing that I seem to be in disagreement with Jeremy on is the notion that not all Fundamentalists are Evangelicals. It would seem to me that Fundamentalists would also be Evangelicals, but perhaps I am just not aware of situations in which this would not be the case. However, I would clearly agree that not all Evangelicals are Fundamentalists, hence the reason for this post in trying to avoid the blurring of the lines between the two.


Nice to meet you! Thanks for the trackback so I could find you and have a chance to respond.

I appreciate your argument here, and your critique is well stated. If I might address a few points:

I do understand that conservative evangelicalism (which is what I understand you to mean by conservative Christianity) and fundamentalism are two different entities. I have spent time in both circles. While it is the case that they are distinct, I believe (from personal experience and one of the best evangelical educations one can get) that they operate from fundamentally the same worldview, and differ as to the logical extent to which they follow their conclusions, and the doctrinal themes they choose to emphasize.

My main critique of both is, first, the fact they have chosen to separate from the universal church on the basis of doctrinal issues; and, second, that they have chosen to emphasize a biblicism that fatally handicaps their ability to understand systems of thought (worldviews) outside that of the Bible. The irony here, I contend, is that the worldview that undergirds this kind of biblicism is itself uniquely modern.

I don't feel that a refutation of fundamentalism and its absolutism leaves one w/ a foundation of sand; this is precisely the point of appealing to the tradition of the church - the tradition that gave us the Scriptures and that gives us the interpretive categories with which to understand them.

My concern is not so much one of ethics or moral systems, although that does enter into my critique. I believe that fundamentalism and evangelicalism are basically individualistic ethical systems, that largely miss (not always, in the case of progressive evangelicals) the concerns for social justice in the Scriptures. I certainly wouldn't want to deny that individual virtue is important, though!

My concern is more with matters of truth than ethics (I have a comment to this effect on Dave Rattigan's post that you quote from); what has the overriding priority - doctrinal truth, or love for the body and humility of interpretation? It is my firm belief that the latter has the biblical and theological priority.

I've got two more posts coming; I invite you to comment further. Thanks for the chance to dialogue.
I appreciate your elaboration. You make some insightful commentary which is the reason I noticed your initial post.

I want to address what you mentioned as being one of your primary concerns with evangelicalism: "What has the overriding priority - doctrinal truth, or love for the body and humility of interpretation?"

On one hand, I strongly agree that humility of interpretation, as it applies to doctrinal differences, is essential. However, we need to be careful as to not advocate a breakdown of morality for the sake of an erroneous sense of humility.

Specifically, I would argue that the widespread abortion on-demand in this country is a manifestation of this. In this case, "love for the body (and for life in general)" is actually dependent on the need to refute false humility. (i.e., "It's the killing of innocent life in my opinion, but who am I to judge...) I view this sort of relativism as a very dangerous path to embark upon.
This is a great forum for dialogue. Keep it up!
I'm tempted to respond that you're changing the terms of my original discussion somewhat, as it is primarily theological and ecclesiological questions I have in mind, not moral ones.

That said, it's not like I haven't addressed ethico-political questions on my blog before, and at any rate I should be ready to respond to questions about the ethical implications of my position.

In terms of foundations, over against your original point regarding God-given principles vs. human intellect, I have to confess my unwillingness to say that "God's principles" are all that accessible to us. I'll go ahead and open up a can of worms and say that I don't assume a divine inspiration of Scripture (in the way evangelicals do), and it is my deep fear that if we do assume such, it is very hard to avoid blind adherence to doctrinal norms (more on this issue on my blog tonite). What this means is that revelation - truth - is accessible as the Spirit wills to speak from God's word, and as the tradition has worked through the difficult task of interpreting the trajectories of moral truths that we read in the Scriptures. This requires a tremendous humility on our part about arrogating the right to speak of "God's truth".

But I don't at all feel that a critique of conservative religiosity entails an abandonment of strong moral conviction. I have to return to my point that the Christian left has a very strong moral center, one that is focused on justice for the poor, the denunciation of violence and oppression, the liberation and healing of those who are marginalized from society. I think there's a pretty good case for such values in the scriptures.

I don't necessarily disagree with you on the issue of abortion. Plenty of Christian moderates and liberals are pro-life. But I disagree that this is the place to refute false humility. Why can we not instead, say, admit the complexity of the theological and medical issues and just get to work providing support for pregnant teenagers and teaching a healthy theology of sexuality?

I know that the humility of progressives appears as wishy-washyness to conservatives; the conviction of conservatives looks like dogmatism to the progressives. Somehow we have to mediate between the two, while at the same time staking a claim for which side we feel best embodies the hope of the gospel.

I grew up around Denver, by the way. Nasty snowstorm you guys got recently.
"I know that the humility of progressives appears as wishy-washyness to conservatives; the conviction of conservatives looks like dogmatism to the progressives."

That is exactly right.
Hi, Chad. You don't seem to have trackback, so I shall leave the link to my response here:
I don't take things personally, so don't worry about my "overly sensitive" response. If you accuse me of egotism and arrogance, are you really surprised if I take that as an insult? My commentary contained some thoughts that I've wanted to address for a long time, and as I often do, I used someone else's comments as the leaping-off point.
Okay Dave, fair enough. I wasn't actually directing the accusations of egotism and arrogance at you personally any more than you were calling me slanderous, but I understand how you could have taken it that way.

Anyway, I too have been long overdue in sincerely detailing my case against moral relativism and your post is a springboard for my coming dissertation on the subject. So thanks for drawing it out of me.
Aha. I think we're getting somewhere.

I wasn't actually directing the accusations of egotism and arrogance at you personally any more than you were calling me slanderous, but I understand how you could have taken it that way.

I took the accusations of egotism and arrogance in exactly the same spirit that I intended "slanderous" to be taken. It's just that you (and someone else, via email) thought I had taken it as a "personal" insult. Are we edging towards the same page...? :)

My latest post might shed some more light on where I'm coming from.
Interesting post on passive-aggression. I struggle with the same issue without fully acknowledging it. So it was instructive to read about it. It is, of course, timely as well given our recent interchange - as you pointed out.
Well done! Linked to it Here.
Christian to me automatically implies conservative, fundamentalism implies, close minded terrorists who believe everything that is written in a religious text, even though there is no proof of what is written and they don't even know who wrote it in the first place. For some reason they think the Bible is the word of God; the bible is the word of many different men, from many different points in history, and has been edited many times throughout history.

Also,everyone doesn't live under their own sense of right and wrong, we live under the United States laws that govern what is right in wrong within our society.
There is no longer a need for religion to carve out morality for the populous; we are now an educated society that lives under the umbrella of laws and law enforcement thus providing a blue print of how we can live our lives and treat others.

Yes 2 important pieces of those laws can also be found in religion but do not have their root in religion. Thou shalt not kill and don’t steal are the only 2 of the 10 commandments that made it into our law books. As everyone knows many pagan societies, communist countries and other "Godless" people have all lived under these same rules and guidelines without the influence of Christianity.
Webster defines "fundamentalism" as:

"a movement in 20th Century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching."

How would you say conservative Christianity differs from this definition?
That's a good question. Many conservative Christians (myself included) believe that that Biblical text is divinely inspired, but don't necessarily believe in a completely literal interpretation. It doesn't lessen the meaning, but rather just implies that much of the text may be open to metaphorical rather than literal interpretational.

This is the source of much of the problem with fundamentalism in my opinion. For example, a strong adherent to literal interpretation may often denouce any scientific, anthropological, or geological findings that suggest otherwise. As such, it can result in a sort of anti-intellectualism. And the resulting accusations of "narrow-mindedness" may not be that far off because of it.
I don't consider Fred Phelps an evangelical. Evangelicals are a group that was defined by those who distanced themselves from extremists, and he's about as extreme as you get. Other fundamentalists that I won't consider evangelicals include the hyper-Calvinists who don't think anyone can know if they're saved, the hyper-Calvinists who don't believe in evangelism because God will do the work, the hyper-Arminians who don't believe in evangelism because you need to let them choose for themselves, the racists who want racial separatism and express hatred for certain racial groups, KJV-onlies who say anyone who reads books by the liberals like John Piper and D.A. Carson isn't saved, etc. I'm not even sure I'd consider Zane Hodges moderate enough to be an evangelical. Bob Jones III isn't really, but Bob Jones IV clearly is.
I get what you're saying with those examples. It does seem to me, however, that those people would probably consider themselves to be evangelicals. Whether they really are depends on who is defining the term, but I like to think you are correct in distancing these folks from the evangelical term, especially the racist and anti-intellectual elements.
Great post. I was planning on doing a very similar one in the near future - mind if I hijack some of yours, with referencing (of course)?

Seeker & Chad,
I consider myself fundamentalist by Webster's definition. However, those who call themselves fundamentalists separate themselves from my group by focusing on things that are certainly NOT fundamental - clothes, music, hair, etc.

It is one thing to state that you believe everything in the Bible to be literally true - it is another to do the work required to understand the context and application that are an imbedded part of its truth.
Hijack my material? Sorry Hammer, u can't touch this! (Cheesy I know, but I couldn't resist.)

Just kidding. By all means, paraphrase, quote, and link away as you wish. I'll look forward to seeing what you have to say. If you wanna drop a line here once you post it, I'll make sure to check it out.

As for Webster's definition as quoted by Seeker, I believe it is technically correct, but it's not complete. So, yeah, the biggest issues with those commonly referred to as fundamentalists today are not captured in that definition. It would be less broad in its application.
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