The traditional job description for an Anglican incumbent is ‘the cure of souls’, and that is what I see as the core of my ministry – the healing of the psyche, the binding up of the wounds which destroy meaning in life – worked out both through individual pastoral conversation and through group teaching, and all summed up in worship. Whilst this is in an obvious sense a pastoral task, it is also precisely a theological task, for that is what theology essentially is – the right description of our relationship with God, ie the correct understanding of the world. If Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life then it means that establishing a right relationship with Him is something which leads to the fullness of life that He promised, that we become ‘at home in the world’, that our Joy in him will be made complete (Jn 15). The task of the theologian, the pastoral task of the priest, is precisely to enable that right relationship which leads to life. This is what drives theological argument at its best – the search for what most gives life.
A significant proportion of the damage that I deal with, and which is successfully cured by the application of good theology (ie the orthodox faith) comes from contact with fundamentalist traditions. Most of the time this occurs at a young age; there is a breaking off of contact, but the inner guilts and torments are embedded, twisting barbs deeper and deeper into the wounds, until, through grace, they are pulled out into the light and destroyed (no demons can withstand the power of Christ). My impression – borne out from quite a lot of experience of it – is that the consequence of embracing fundamentalism is the opposite: that fundamentalism is something which destroys lives, which is a blight upon all that a Christian holds to be of value, that it is, in short, a spiritual cancer. I mean that description not just in an offensive fashion (although if I do offend a fundamentalist, I would take it as a sign of the truth of my argument) I mean it as quite a strict analogy. A cancer, as I understand it, is a part of a body that has become malignant: a group of cells that is no longer regulated and contained within the usual rhythms of the wider organism, but which replicates itself catastrophically, first hindering the wider body, and eventually destroying it.
Fundamentalism today seems to be precisely what Christ fought in the Pharisees: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the Kingdom of Heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are!”
So, having set out my stall rather robustly, what is it that I object to? Well, first a clarification, because if I didn’t make it, everything else that I say would be misunderstood.
Fundamentalism is not the same as conservative evangelicalism.
They often get lumped together, but they are not the same – even if they occasionally make use of the same arguments. The difference, as I perceive it, can be explained like this. Consider this spectrum:
Nice, bright, colourful, lively. That’s what I think is a good representation of the Body of Christ. A lot of variety, but also a clear continuum from one point of view to another. You could say – all the different parts are in communion with one another.
Now consider this:
Which is simply the same spectrum converted into a grayscale image. The life has gone. What I am trying to convey by the difference is that something essential has now been lost – there is no longer any light passing through; the form and outward structure might be present, but now the spirit – that which animates – is absent.
So in the first, whatever the theological differences, Christ is present. Love for the brother is present (1 John 4.20). Fear is absent. In the second, those things have vanished. All of which is really just a commentary on what St Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3.6: “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Whatever the overlap on questions of doctrine between a fundamentalist and a conservative evangelical there is a vast difference in the way of life embodied.
To return to my fundamental metaphor: in the first example, conservative interpretations of Scripture take their proper place within the life of the Body, aiding the whole in its expression of the divine life. In the second example, the conservative arguments have become separated from the wider Body, they are no longer part of the shared life, they have become autonomous, and therefore cancerous.
Now a second clarification, a bit more straightforward: I object to the –ism, not (necessarily) to the –ists. In other words, someone may hold the beliefs of a fundamentalist and yet, in practice, be a vessel for the Holy Spirit. I am happy to concede that possibility, partly from personal experience of people who would qualify, but also because I don’t see doctrine as having over-riding importance… but I’ll come back to this point, because it is crucial.
Having set out my conclusion, and cleared some grounds for potential misunderstandings, let me press on to the substance. What is it that I object to so strenuously about fundamentalism? In a word: inerrancy. The key thing about fundamentalism, in so far as I understand it, is the notion that the Bible is without historical or scientific error. There are serious theological problems with this (and remember: the theological is pastoral).
1. It places Scripture under human authority, specifically the human authority of scientific and historical modes of investigation. The highest authority in matters of human understanding is given to ‘facts’, and the Bible gains its authority through being the reliable vehicle for accessing those facts. As such this doctrine shrivels the human spirit; it renders impotent the wider human faculties of intuition and imagination; it embraces the secular assumptions of Enlightenment modernism; it distorts what the Bible actually is. Note well: fundamentalism is not the same as giving Scripture supreme authority. That is Protestantism (it’s even Anglicanism, where Scripture is seen as the principal authority, just not sufficient on its own, ie not sola scriptura. Sola scriptura isn’t fundamentalism either, needless to say). Fundamentalism is essentially the claim that the authority of Scripture rests upon its scientific accuracy. This is not often stated so explicitly, but the shortest conversation with a fundamentalist swiftly reveals where authority lies. Often the line is trotted out ‘if one error be proven in the Scriptures, then the whole becomes worthless’. That is the attitude which I believe has lost touch with the wider Body of Christ, and which is therefore – using that as my working definition – cancerous. Bizarrely, this is how fundamentalism is the siamese twin of scientific atheism – Richard Dawkins, for example, holds a fundamentalist view of Christianity, and the only difference is that he rejects what a fundamentalist would accept. A plague on both their houses! Both misunderstand Christian faith.
2. It is an entirely human philosophy; specifically, it is a form of philosophical Modernism owing a vast amount to the school of Scottish Common Sense philosophy. It assumes an emaciated account of human language - the idea that language is transparent and independent of any mediation. No sane person now holds this philosophical background to be true – the only place where it is insisted upon is in the fetid miasma of fundamentalist philosophy. One particularly pernicious consequence of this philosophical stance is the status given to propositions, that is, that faith is reduced to propostional assent. Correct belief replaces correct life. (See my post on orthodoxy here.)
3. It is an entirely human philosophy: specifically it elevates into the role of pope particular human thinkers, eg John Nelson Darby, and it allows the individual interpretation of prophecy to overcome that which has been established and accepted within the wider Body of Christ over millenia (this being in direct conflict with the instructions given in 2 Peter). Specifically, its understanding of apocalypse owes more to the Stoics than to the Hebrews.
4. It is an entirely human philosophy: it is particularly formed by the wider culture of the United States. It tends to join forces with the heretical revival evangelicalism stemming from Charles Finney (see my previous post), elevating human free-will in an Arminian fashion, and is liable to diabolic Concordats with the secular principalities and powers.
These are the specifically intellectual criticisms that I would throw at fundamentalism, which all boil down (if it wasn’t obvious) to the argument that fundamentalism is a doctrine of recent, philosophically driven human origin. I think it fits perfectly with the warning in 2 Peter. It discounts all scope for the Holy Spirit – all that the Spirit achieved in the first 1700 years of Christian history; all that the Spirit achieves now; all that the Spirit may be able to achieve in the future. You could say that fundamentalism is characterised most precisely by sinning against the Holy Spirit, for it rules out as illegitimate anything which is dynamic and new.
However, these intellectual criticisms, cogent as I find them to be, aren’t really the most important thing. They all centre upon doctrine, and underlying these specific disagreements lies a more profound disagreement on the nature of doctrine itself. This is where I believe the biggest difference between the mainstream tradition and the fundamentalist innovation can be found. If you take the apophatic tradition at all seriously, then you must acknowledge a point at which language fails, when we can no longer even attempt to capture the reality of God with our words. In other words, in the mainstream tradition, there is a prominent place given to intellectual humility. There is a vast amount of Scriptural support for this (inevitably!). Think of what St Paul says about prophecy and tongues in 1 Corinthians 13, for example, or what Jesus says in Matthew 7. So, part of the doctrine is that doctrines in and of themselves will not take us fully into the Godhead. This is something that I view as humanly essential, and as pastorally imperative. The denial of intellectual humility is to erect an idolatrously closed mental system, which inevitably seeks to displace God. The practical consequence of which is to deny life to those who submit to it, which is precisely what seems to characterise fundamentalism.
Again, to return to my underlying metaphor – this is where the doctrines associated with fundamentalism become cancerous, where they are no longer regulated by the other elements in the Bodily system. The understanding in which the Christian church has found consensus for two thousand years, ie that represented by the Nicene Creed and all associated with it, has been jettisoned, and these human philosophies have been set up as barriers against interaction with the wider Body.
So can a person accept the doctrine of inerrancy and find salvation? Possibly. Just as I believe that Gandhi was ‘saved’ (ie pursued the will of the Father) despite not confessing Jesus as Lord, so too I believe that it is possible for someone to accept a particular doctrine, and yet not succumb to the corruptions inherent within heresy. That is grace (something which has no real home in fundamentalism). The real question is whether they recognise Jesus’ voice when he calls. What we say, or even what we believe (in an intellectual sense) doesn’t matter quite as much as the shape of our lives. After all, as we are assured in the Book of Revelation, we shall be judged according to our deeds.
Pondering these things, and pondering the strong reaction that they have provoked within me, I am led to a surprising conclusion. There are lots of heresies in the world; lots of ways in which false teaching is put around, and which also destroys lives (eg materialism). Why should fundamentalism anger me so much? Partly, I think, it is because it is too close to home, too similar to Christianity itself. It is like ivy shaping itself around a tree – from a distance it may seem part of the same organism; it is only up close that it is possible to perceive a mortal struggle taking place, from which there can be only one survivor.
More personally, though, I think what drives me is an anger, for it is the doctrines associated with fundamentalism that I rejected as a teenager which prevented me from understanding Christ, and from coming into that fullness of life which was God’s eternal intention for me. Knowing what I know now, and knowing ‘from the inside’ how liberating Christianity is, I am enraged at the spiritual havoc and cost of fundamentalist ideology. I now see fundamentalism as a Satanic ideology, a demonic possession: a cancer against which the Body must be eternally vigilant. Each instance must be excised and brought out into the light, thence to be cast out into the place where there is great wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Let’s give St Paul the last word, as he sums up what I am trying to say: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5.1)