Is there anything fun about fundamentalism?

“We put the fun into fundamentalism.” – Mark Driscoll. Founding Pastor, Mars Hill Church (defunct)

Is there anything fun about fundamentalism? My answer to this question is an emphatic “No!” And this may be the most basic criticism of fundamentalist Christianity: it is simply not any fun. It makes fun people boring, and it makes boring people aggressive. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. What exactly do I mean by fundamentalism? Because I genuinely want to help. I constantly come across people who want to find a way out of this restrictive and narrow view of Christianity but don’t know where to turn. Indeed, as a first point, let me say this: leaders and pastors of fundamentalist churches on the whole make little effort to help people who have genuine questions and struggles with points of fundamentalist doctrine. This is often because they have never considered any of these questions themselves and become insecure when other people raise them. One of the main ploys of the fundamentalist movement is to claim total authority for its own interpretation of the Bible and to label anyone who disagrees as ‘liberal’. Now, of course, many of them do not actually know what the word ‘liberal’ means, but for them it becomes a catch-all term for everybody who does not agree with them, and it generally has connotations of faithlessness, apostasy and immorality. As James Barr writes, in his excellent and little-read book ‘Escaping from Fundamentalism’

(This) simple picture is used because of its effectiveness. It is a successful instrument for the maintenance of the fundamentalist position. For fundamentalist leaders well know that the vast majority of people will never read a book or consider a point of view if they have been told that it is liberal. (p.164)

Once the pilgrim believer does start to question the simple black-and-white approach of fundamentalism, however, she, rather than being helped by her pastor, is simply ignored or cast out into the world on her own resources. So,

The transition to a different understanding of the Bible, of faith, and of the church can be a time of deep uncertainty and often of severe personal suffering. Fundamentalist society will do little or nothing to help the pilgrim who becomes convinced that he must leave it and seek a different world of faith. (ibid., p. vii)

Although these are generalisations, they are unfortunately very common experiences for many believers. It has resonances with my own journey. I rarely speak in public about my experience of leaving a movement with fundamentalist tendencies because I am still deeply relationally involved with many believers who approach their faith in this way. I have a huge amount of respect and love for these people, and there is much that is good about their beliefs and their lives. I have no desire whatsoever to discourage them or to cause problems in their churches. However, my experience is real for me. I began to explore the roots of the movement I was involved in and the theological claims it makes for itself and I became deeply concerned that I was committing my whole life to a form of Christianity that was extremely deficient. I also began to read real theology that came from beyond the literature of the movement itself, and I expressed a desire to study theology in a secular university. I was met with almost complete indifference.

I write this not to criticise those people but simply to identify with the tendencies James Barr mentions: firstly, fundamentalist leaders tend to not engage with serious questions about their views and doctrines and, second, they tend not to help people in their journey beyond a strictly proscribed fundamentalist horizon. 

In my opinion fundamentalism is dangerous and it isolates and destroys people. To finish this post with another quote from James Barr (on whom I will rely heavily for the rest of the series):

The issues involved in fundamentalism are without doubt among the most serious pastoral problems for the church of today. Very many people are seriously concerned with them…The alienation that it brings about is extreme. Lay people come to regard their minister as ‘unsound’ or worse. Within families it is common for young persons brought up in a Christian home to become fundamentalists and to end up evaluating their devoted upbringing as little better than paganism. Irreconcilable religious tension between husband and wife sometimes leads to the verge of marital breakdown. For thousands of people, the question of fundamentalism is their central personal religious problem. And, on the world-wide scale, when one looks at the social and political implications, few can doubt what many observers have noted: that the continuance of religious fundamentalism, and of the attitutudes associated with it, may have great importance in determining whether or not mankind is to be destroyed through nuclear warfare. (p. x)

(Note that this book was written in 1983, twenty years before George W. Bush told the world that God had told him to invade Iraq.)

So, to conclude, there isn’t anything fun about fundamentalism. The good news is (the great news!) that there are much more fun and joyful and life-giving forms of Christian faith. When I was beginning to explore the wider world outside of fundamentalism, I remember hearing an interview with then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who said that he was first attracted to Christianity because it made his world not smaller but larger. And, although the way to that world can be narrow and the road hard, I have found that to follow it brings great joy and makes things come alive again. When once it was black-and-white, now it is filled with all the multivalent colour of God’s beauty. There is great hope.

Thank you for reading.

Further Investigation…

James K.A. Smith on A Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto

In my previous post on Radical Orthodoxy, I sketched the theological background, which is taken by Smith to be the confrontation between the liberal theology of the Tubingen School and the neoliberalism of Karl Barth’s Basel and his successors. The school most associated with RO is Cambridge, and I begin with a quote by one of the key three figures, Catherine Pickstock. She writes, “There are no sharp boundaries between RO and other identifiable tendencies within what one might call post secular theology.” For ‘postsecular’ here we could simply use ‘postliberal’, to mean those theologies (Barth etc.) which confront and oppose the theologies that identified themselves with the secular Enlightenment project. The main difference, or development, between, for example, RO and Karl Barth (that I can see, at any rate) is that Barth’s theology is a kind of complete denial of the presence of the divine within creation and all disciplines that are not explicitly based upon the Christian revelation. Therefore, Barth doesn’t do philosophy, because he doesn’t think that we can find any truth apart from the particular revelation of God in Christ. One of the great strengths of RO (in my view, and as we shall see) is that RO calls into question the opposition between faith and reason and sees reason as a participation in faith. We could simplify this by saying that both Tubingen and Basel oppose faith and reason to each other as enemies; Tubingen buys into the secular Enlightenment project and ultimately opts for autonomous reason over faith, whereas Basel rejects the Enlightenment so thoroughly that it ends up denying a role for reason in human knowing altogether and so ends up with what could be construed as an almost blind fideism. RO, however, rejects this antithesis wholesale and says that true reason is always and must be a participation in faith.

Smith then sketches five distinctive aspects of this movement that could constitute a kind of introductory manifesto.

1. A critique of modernity and liberalism

John Milbank writes, “The end of modernity…means the end of a single system of truth based on universal reason, which tells us what reality is like.” This is a critique of modernist epistemology which holds that in order to have knowledge we must have a kind of scientific certainty. This claim frames the conversation about faith and reason discussed above, and must be rejected as too constrictive a definition of human knowledge. Truth is always a participation in belief of some sort and therefore reason is always
a participation in faith.

RO is also a critic of liberalism because of “its assumptions regarding human nature (as in Thomas Hobbes, for instance) and its atomistic account of the social sphere.” Milbank famously critiques the political philosophy of, for example, Thomas Hobbes and Machiavelli (or whoever really) as being fundamentally anti-Christian because they take as their starting point a belief in a primordial war of all-against-all. Milbank, however, very powerfully argues that Christian theology posits the belief in an aboriginal peace, grounded in the loving difference of the Holy Trinity and its overflow in Creation. (This is also a claim of one of my favourite theologians David Bentley Hart in his wonderful book The Beauty of the Infinite.)

2. Post-secularity

As we saw earlier, post-secularity calls into question the modern distinction between faith and reason. Politically, the implications of this claim is that religious faith is not a private matter which can be ostracised from the public sqaure. One of the key claims of RO is that everyone is a confessional theorist,  and a religious believer of some description. Smith writes:

The hope is that, once the theoretical foundations of secularity are dismantled…the spaces for public discourse…will provide new opportunities for the expression of a properly theological or Christian account of reality.

What are the practical implications of this? As far as I can tell this is still a very open question.

3. Participation and Materiality
This is RO’s metaphysical model for understanding Creation. In contrast to the flat, materialistic and nihilistic ontologicy of modernity and postmodernity, RO has ‘a participatory ontology – in which the immanent and material is suspended from the transcendent and immaterial’. This metaphor of the suspension of Creation from the transcendent illustrates a kind of stretching or deepening of creation that creates space for difference and harmony. Modernity and postmodernity are implicitly nihilistic, and can create only an immanent sphere, in which there is no depth and hence no room for true difference or meaning. Only a participation in the transcendent can ‘stretch’ Creation so that is has depth and meaning.

4. Sacramentality, liturgy and aesthetics

Because of this participatory ontology, central to RO 

…is a renewed appreciation for the liturgical or doxological character of creation and the role that liturgy plays in leading us to the divine…A particular consequence of revaluing embodiment is an emphasis on aesthetics and the arts as a medium of revelation and worship…RO’s aesthetic correlate might be that outside the liturgy there is no visible, such that only a doxological account can underwrite the arts.

5. Cultural critique and transformation

RO calls into question the extent to which the world is under the sway of the devil. Again, Tubingen implies that the world is not under the Dark Prince’s sway at all, whereas Basel claims that everything under the sun is in his thrall. RO has a very positive view of creation – claiming that the fall is basically redeemed by God almost immediately after its occurence – whilst not wanting to make Tubingen’s mistake of capitulating to the faithless secularity of the liberal project. There is quite a diversity within RO concerning the relationship of the church to the state, raning from Milbank’s remnant Christendom theology – which advocates the gradual subsumption of the state into the church as the church is increasingly succesful in its witness – to Ward’s more conciliatory Anglican approach, to the anarchic oppositionalism of William Cavanaugh.

So, there you have it, a brief sketch of the Radical Orthodoxy manifesto. As you can see, this movement makes enormous claims about theology, philosophy, history, politics, aesthetics, the arts, the church, pretty much everything really. As such, understanding RO is like trying to absorb a holistic and diverse, sophisticated worldview, so this account is necessarily extremely brief and oversimplified. Sorry about that.

James K.A. Smith on What is Radical Orthodoxy?

So what exactly is Radical Orthodoxy? People ask me this question from time-to-time when I tell them that this movement is of interest for my academic work. It is my task here to utilise the excellent James K.A. Smith’s account in his work Introducing Radical Orthodoxy. This will take more than one post, so you’ll have to come back for more.

Smith begins by describing the basic theological antithesis that provides the backdrop to RO: the Tubigen school vs. Karl Barth’s Basel.

‘We could associate Tubingen with the center of the classic liberal theological project that could be described as “correlationist”. Here the agenda is to correlate the claims of Christian revelation with the structure of a given culture or politico-economic system such that both, in some sense, function as a normative source for the theological project. Classic representatives would include Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and, more recently, David Tracey.’

It is worth noting that Friedrich Schleiermacher is usually included in this list of names, but since Graham Ward (a key figure of RO) wants to read him in a different light, Smith does not include it. Liberation theology is a part of this correlationist project because it adopts secular sociological conclusions from Marxism; in fact, wherever the social sciences are trusted and utilised in a non-critical manner there the correlationist project is underway. John Howard Yoder (a critic of Tubingen) describes its consensus: ‘it is by studying the realities around us, not by hearing a proclamation from God, that we discern the right.’

On the other hand, Karl Barth’s project was ‘revelationist…eschewing any notion of a neutral or secular “point of contact” between the gospel and public or sociopolitical structures, proclaiming instead a revealed gospel that subverted cultural givens’. Barth’s theology saw heaven as crashing down into earth in Christ, opening the doors of perception but only through revelation, with no possibility of theological truth anywhere else. Barth’s theology was taken up by postliberal theologians such as Hans Frei and George Linbeck, and later by such figures as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder.

According to Smith, all of these theologians ‘deeply resisted the correlational and Constantinian projects of modern theology, and..emphasize the practices of being the church, informed by a narrative of Scripture, constituting an alternative community and a peculiar people…Behind this is a trenchant rejection of the Enlightenment value of autonomy both in epistemology (as in secular foundationalism) and politics (with the idolization of rights).’

 And so the major confrontation of the theological scene of the 20th century is sketched: roughly speaking, liberalism vs. Barth and all who followed him. (This, incidentally, is why Barth is so important and so highly to be praised, even if one does not accept everything for which he stood.)

A final thought on this is that it seems to me that these divisions within the Anglican Church creates a fundamental impasse between those who are correlationist and who believe that the church basically needs to support Western culture in pursuit of its various values – tolerance, freedom, equality, and so on – and those who are not correlationist and who believe that the gospel in some sense should confront the culture and bring it to conviction for its godlessness. How much common ground can there be between these two positions when their fundamental assumptions about theology and the mission of the church are so different?