Fundamentalism and Mainline Christianity

I’ve recently been telling different groups of people that the United Methodist Church is a mainline, not fundamentalist, denomination (although some of our pastors prove to be unfortunate exceptions). I assumed that people knew what I meant, but they didn’t understand the terms I was using. I tried to remedy this problem in an email to a friend, and my wife suggested that others might be interested in my response. What is written below is the beginning of a sketch outlining some main ideas. I know it is limited, but I’m also hoping that it will be helpful.

Fundamentalism is grounded in a specific view of scripture. Adherents typically embrace (usually unwittingly) a theory of divine inspiration developed by a Presbyterian Princeton professor named Charles Hodge in the 1800s. The technical name of the theory is Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and it basically teaches that every word of the Bible is historically, scientifically, and factually infallible or inerrant. In the imaginations of some, it’s as if God dictated the Bible and human beings served merely as passive secretaries. This view erases the humanity of the biblical authors and focuses almost exclusively on God giving us a perfect and divine book. Furthermore, according to fundamentalists, a strict literal reading is the only correct way to interpret the Bible (and some would say that they are not even interpreting but simply reciting the Word of God). In this way, the Bible is pitted against modern science and historiography, and being a “real” Christian means rejecting what science teaches about cosmology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, etc.

The final step is to say, “Our way of understanding inspiration and how to interpret the Bible is the truth, and, therefore, the only legitimate way of thinking.” Do you see the subtle shift? They slip from biblical infallibility into assuming that their theory about infallibility is infallible! Furthermore, these truths are to be protected at all costs from any competing theories or interpretations, which are invariably seen as corruptions or heresies. People who hold different views (and there are many) are to be corrected, converted, or excluded. Fear of false teaching leads fundamentalists to study apologetics from other fundamentalists so they can mount what they believe to be incontrovertible arguments, and the only proper response to these arguments is, “I have seen the light and you are right!” Any push back leads to more forceful arguments, sometimes buttressed by the threat of eternal hell, in a last attempt at conversion. If the person with a different view does not convert, then they are excluded from the community of true Christians (if not physically then theologically and/or socially). So the key elements are:

1. We have the only true understanding of the inspiration of scripture and the only proper way of interpreting the Bible. All other views are necessarily wrong.

2. If you don’t agree then you must be corrected with arguments, converted with threats of hell, or excluded as a corruptor of the true faith.

In stark contrast, mainline Christians believe that God inspired human beings to record the words of scripture, but didn’t erase or bypass their humanity in the process. God worked in, through, and with their humanity to communicate what is necessary for our salvation. This means that the divine message of the Bible is communicated through the human words of the authors, and these words emerged from their own personal and corporate experiences of God. In short, God does not need a perfect, inerrant, infallible book to effectively communicate with us.

Mainline Christians often point out that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God (John 1), and the reason the Bible is important is because through its words (in the power of the Holy Spirit) we encounter the risen Christ. Given the ways that fundamentalists erase the humanity of the Bible, some mainline and liberal Christians accuse fundamentalists of “bibliolatry” (turning the Bible into an idol).

Once you acknowledge the humanity of the biblical authors and the Bible itself, you can also see that it is not a single author book. It is a library of books written by many people, living in different cultures, who spoke different languages, and wrote in different genres over the course of 100s of years. Instead of insisting that every letter of every word of the Bible is literal and factual (in terms of history and science), we can begin to discern different genres, and different genres warrant different interpretive methods. So we read the historical parts differently than the poetic parts (e.g. the Psalms), and we read the poetic parts differently than the gospels, and we read gospels differently than letters, and we read letters differently than apocalyptic, etc. In all of this, we realize that the Bible is a religious text, not a modern historiography or science book. A fortunate consequence is that Christianity does not have to be an enemy of the natural and social sciences, but can engage them as conversation partners from whom we have much to learn.

Finally, another significant difference between fundamentalists and mainline Christians is that mainline Christians uphold intellectual humility as a virtue. We insist that we are not saved by our interpretation of scripture or by having the right theory of inspiration. We are saved because God loves us and offers the gift of reconciliation through forgiveness. This means that we are not required to have all the answers, that we can hold our theories and interpretations loosely, acknowledging that we could be wrong. At the end of the day, God is greater than anyone can conceive and we are all rendered speechless before the divine mystery. Part of faith is learning to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t have all the answers, which allows us to trust God and relax into God’s mysterious and active presence.

Consequently, we don’t feel compelled to proselytize and convert people. Only God converts people, and this usually happens over a long period of time. All that Christians are called to do is live like Jesus and share their stories, allowing people to draw their own conclusions as the Spirit leads. All of this happens in the awareness that creation is floating in a sea of grace and that God is working with us on God’s own timeline.

For an accessible introduction to a United Methodist view of scripture, see Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. For a more academic read, see the articles on my website under the heading, “Course in Understanding the Bible.”

Recovering from Bad Religion: Rollins Summary 1

I recently started a new community discussion group, “Recovering from Bad Religion.” Here’s the Facebook event description:

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Have you experienced toxic or abusive religion? Many in America grow-up in churches that preach “fire and brimstone.” They tell us that a wrathful God watches our every move, and if we fail to live according to a strict moral code then God will punish us with eternal torment. The church derives this moral code, along with a list of required doctrines, from a literal reading of the Bible that is often anti-intellectual, anti-science, and anti-gay. This leaves many feeling like they must disavow everything they learned in college to be a Christian. Many cannot stomach this authoritarianism, so they leave the church and become agnostic, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious.” However, there is a different way of being Christian. This discussion group will provide a safe space to explore more loving and thoughtful alternatives.

 

After our meet and greet on 1/17, we held our first discussion this past Tuesday on the Introduction and Chapter One of The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins. In order to help those in the discussion group, I will be posting chapter summaries. By doing this on my blog, I hope to extend the conversation beyond Cocoa Beach. Feel free to jump in with comments, but please keep them thoughtful, polite, and kind. If you feel a compulsive need to correct perceived heresy or save the souls of participants with whom you don’t agree, this is probably not the right place for you. Comments that are not respectful, kind, and genuinely open to dialogue will be deleted.

Without further adieu, here is the first summary.

The Thesis of the Book

The main argument in The Idolatry of God is that most mainstream Christianity has turned God into an idol. Instead of admitting the truth of our human condition—that life is difficult and that satisfaction and certainty will always elude us—we turn God into a product that promises to satisfy all our longing, render us complete, remove our suffering, and give us the answers to all life’s problems. Like all idolatry, this leads to slavery and misery. In contrast, if we can get honest about what it means to be a human being in this world and let go of idols that promise certainty and satisfaction, then we can develop an authentic faith that empowers us to “joyfully embrace our brokenness, resolutely face our unknowing, and courageously accept the difficulties of existence.” Only then, can we enter the fullness of life and be a more loving, active manifestation of Christ’s love in this world. In other words, we don’t seek salvation from uncertainty and satisfaction, we find it amid these things.

Introduction: The Apocalypse Isn’t Coming, It Has Already Arrived

In the Introduction, Rollins argues that mainstream Christianity has become another false (idolatrous) promise: if you accept Jesus as your personal savior then he will remove all doubt and replace it with certainty, and he will remove all brokenness and replace it with wholeness. Salvation is construed as an escape from uncertainty and dissatisfaction and the promise to fulfill our deepest longings. While this logic is most clearly seen in the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which overtly promises believers health, wealth, and worldly success, Rollins argues that it’s much more widespread, but in subtler forms.

According to Rollins, this is a false form of religion, what Karl Marx called “the opiate of the masses,” that functions as a carrot on a stick (a promise perpetually deferred) and drives us through life without ever really changing anything. In contrast, he asks, what if salvation is not about fulfilling the desires that we take for granted, but changing what we desire and how we desire? Instead of fulfilling our hopes and dreams, what if Jesus is trying to change what we hope for and what we dream about? Rollins says:

For what if we cannot grasp the manner in which Christ is the solution to the problem of our darkness and dissatisfaction precisely because he isn’t the solution? What if, instead of being the solution (i.e., the one who offers a way for us to gain certainty and satisfaction), he actually confronts us as a problem, a problem that places every attempt to find a solution for these ailments into question . . . . what is Christ does not fill the empty cup we bring to him but rather smashes it to pieces, bringing freedom, not from our darkness and dissatisfaction, but freedom from our felt need to escape them? (4)

So instead of saving us from uncertainty and dissatisfaction, maybe we are saved within our ongoing experience of these things. In a way reminiscent of Paul Tillich, Rollins envisions salvation as the cultivation of a courageous faith capable of confronting, embracing, and saying ‘amen’ to uncertainty and dissatisfaction (5). Instead of finding salvation by escaping our humanity, we find salvation amid our humanity.

Chapter 1: The Church Shouldn’t Do Worship Music, the Charts Have It Covered

The main purpose of this chapter is to describe “a lack” (emptiness, discontent, unfulfilled longing, sense of loss or separation) at the heart of human existence, which originates in the process of coming to self-awareness. It also describes the feeling that there is something just beyond our reach that might help fill this void.

We tend to think that our discontent is the result of something that we don’t currently have, but if we had “it” then the void would be filled and we would finally be happy. The “it” could be just about anything: money, possessions, power, fame, admiration, a better job, a thinner body, a whiter smile, a more passionate sex life, etc.

The problem, however, is that we know people who have what we think we need to be happy, and they still experience the lack. Even more troubling, when we actually get what we hope will remove our discontent, we soon discover that it’s still there! This leads us to imagine that while our newest acquisition didn’t fill the void, there is still something else just beyond our grasp that will. More grasping results in more disappointment, which results in more grasping. A self-perpetuating vicious cycle ensues that renders even the most well-meaning person a slave. As we feed our appetite for satisfaction, it gets stronger and more destructive. (Think of the dynamics of addiction.)

At the end of the day, “this belief in something that would finally bring satisfaction is nothing more than a fantasy we create, a fantasy that fuels the obsessive drive . . .” to acquire and consume more objects and experiences that we think will fix us. But it’s like playing a rigged casino game—it never really works, and the more we try to make it work the more attached, enslaved, and miserable we become.

Rollins goes on to make the radical claim that almost the entire existing church has been co-opted and corrupted by the same logic: (1) You are separated from God by sin. (2) This is the cause of a deep sense of dissatisfaction and uncertainty, (3) If you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and lead a life of spiritual discipline, then God will permanently remove the void, utterly satisfy your deepest desires, and give you absolute certainty.

According to Rollins, this is how God is transformed into another product to be sold that promises to take away all your pain and make you whole. This is how God is turned into an idol and sold in a flourishing Christian industry of books, worship music, conferences, church services, etc. What we desire stays the same, how we desire stays the same, the promise of satisfaction and certainty stays the same, we just switch-out the terms. So instead of trusting more money, a better looking spouse, or a more attractive body to remove the void and give us a sense of total satisfaction, preachers hold out the same promise with more faithful church attendance, increased tithing, and a more disciplined devotional life (which, of course, requires the newest book or latest worship album).

In contrast, what is needed is not another recapitulation of the same old story, which reinforces a false (idolatrous) narrative and keeps us stuck in self-destructive consumption. Rather, we need a genuine alternative to this way of seeing the world, a more authentic way of developing a life of meaning and value. We need a radically different way of understanding Christianity that will enable us to be a more loving, active manifestation of Christ’s love in this world. As we will see, this alternative vision can be found in the New Testament, if we have eyes to see.