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Fundamentalism Vs. Wonder

I am accustomed to defending conservative Protestants (Evangelicals, Reformed, fundamentalists, and so forth) because I know many of them, and I know they get a raw deal from many in our secular liberal media culture. It’s not because I agree with them on everything, of course, but because I know that they are more complicated than many of their critics think — and often a lot more big-hearted. Yet it is also true that I have no deep experience with the harsher side of this culture. Almost all of my experience with these Protestant co-religionists has been pleasant, grace-filled, and upbuilding. I know this isn’t the whole truth. There is no subculture, religious or secular, that doesn’t have its nasty extremes. My point is that it’s often the case when I see conservative Protestants talked about in the media, I see a caricature that I know to be untrue, and I naturally want to push back against that. This is why I felt obliged recently to defend Marco Rubio and the Young Earth Creationist crowd, even though I believe they are quite wrong on the science, and on what ought to be taught in schools.

I should say that I didn’t grow up within a culture that valued this rigid, hard-edged expression of Christianity, so I am admittedly insensitive to the unpleasant realities within certain corners of conservative Protestantism. My wife did grow up more or less in that world, and has a much more jaundiced view of it. She remains conservative in her Christianity, but gets emotional when she talks about the fear (her word) that comes with fundamentalism and the more rigorous forms of Evangelicalism. I hear her talk about some of the things she heard and did in various church and parachurch organizations as a kid, and it floors me. Somebody of my background only really sees the good side of all that, not because that’s the only thing I want to see, but because I have never traveled in those circles (the closest I came was a couple of years in my adolescence, but that involved only reading books), so my experience with those folks has truly only been good.

I say all this as prelude to my telling you about something that happened yesterday that really bothers me. I’m not going to name names, because I don’t want to stir this particular pot any more than it has been stirred. Let’s just say that I read a book by an Evangelical author with whose work I was unfamiliar. She writes about her experience of God in a sacramental way — that is, how her experience of the beauty of creation awakened something in her, and brought her closer to God through her awareness of His presence in the natural world, and in the world of things His people have made to His glory. It’s the kind of thing that’s an ordinary part of Catholic and Orthodox theology and spirituality, and I thought she wrote beautifully about this awakening.

When I googled around trying to find out more about this writer, I was shocked — honestly shocked — to find so many articulate, educated Protestant pastors and writer cutting loose on her as if she were some sort of New Age crystal guru. It was very, very harsh stuff. Of course one doesn’t expect fundamentalists and other very conservative Protestants to agree with traditional sacramental theology, and I certainly see grounds for criticism of this writer’s book, at least from a conservative Protestant perspective. What shook me up was the vehemence of the theological attacks on this writer, and the absolute — absolute! — insistence that the kinds of things she identifies smack of “mysticism,” and are the first step to becoming a New Ager.

They are right: this writer does come from a mystical standpoint, but in that she is well within the tradition of the Christian church. The criticism of her work seemed to come from writers whose theology seemed to make no space for any kind of mystery, and certainly not for emotion. It was dry and syllogistic, and to this outsider, came across as extremely suspicious of joy. I thought of the film Breaking The Waves, and how the hardcore Scots Calvinist community in that film could not handle any expression of spirituality outside of its strict conceptual confines. One of the critics of this writer spited her for discerning something holy in an old Catholic cathedral, given how “pagan” the Roman church is.

I’m pretty sensitive to New Age mumbo-jumbo with a Christian gloss, and had this writer struck me as that sort of Christian, I would have picked up on it. Rather, she came across to me as someone with an acutely artistic sensitivity, and a passionate longing for communion with God in all her senses — a longing she communicates movingly, I thought. Here is a person who found holy joy in God’s grandeur. Her writing reminded me of the famous G.M. Hopkins poem:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

She captures some of this in her writing — and there her people were, beating the heck out of her for stepping outside their narrow theological boundaries. (What did old Hopkins know? He was a Jesuit priest, after all). I don’t know this writer, but the nature of the blows she took, and the extraordinary lack of charity with which they were struck, given the irenic qualities of her writing, made me upset on her behalf, and even moved to the point of tears. I thought: if the God of these stern and severe men were the only God I was ever shown, I doubt I would ever have become a Christian, because God would have seemed to me to be grim and gradgrinding.

I hesitated to post this, because I don’t want the thread below to become an opportunity to beat up on conservative Evangelicals, who almost never catch a break in our media. Besides, I assure you that you can find extremely rigid, legalistic Catholics and Orthodox. Plus, nearly all of us, no matter how broad our own convictions may be, have been harshly judgmental from time to time (in certain conditions, the self-consciously “non-judgmental” folks can be the most judgmental people you’ll ever see). And finally, I think the Christian world in our time and place faces a greater danger from a lack of theological rigor than its opposite.

All that said, this experience yesterday made me angry and discouraged, chiefly because what these well-meaning pastors are doing, whether they realize it or not, is anathematizing awe and wonder, which is the beginning of a living faith, and making people whose souls are drawn closer to their Creator through the experience of beauty ashamed of it. This experience made me more empathetic with people who have fallen away from the faith, or who have gone to the opposite liberal extreme within Christianity, because of bad experiences with this kind of thing. I wanted to post this to say that I now have more understanding of where Turmarion was coming from in the YEC argument in this space, given his direct experience in Appalachia with fundamentalist rigorism.

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108 Comments To "Fundamentalism Vs. Wonder"

#1 Comment By Turmarion On December 6, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

Bob Mitchell: The all mean [sic] are equal and love you neighbors stuff is obviously for saps if there is no burden of sin that needs to be relieved. I mean if we are going to be empirical about the only thing that is proof positive false in the Bible is that all men are equal.

To paraphrase 1 Corinthians 1:25, God’s sappiness is greater than the wisdom of men.

#2 Comment By Glaivester On December 6, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

Actually [Hinduism and Christianity can both be true], unless one takes a literalist approach to everything.

It seems to me that what you are really saying is that you are a humanist, and see all religions as simply poetic ways of expressing humanism.

This is sort of what I was getting at before about viewing religion as equivalent to whether you are a Star Trek fan or a Babylon 5 fan.

I cannot overlook his next sentence: Hinduism and Christianity cannot both be true.

I’ve made my personal peace with this, though the vast majority of Pagans who are also ex-Christians cannot forgive their treatment or forget the emotional scars from it that they will carry to their deaths. I really would like to know how a God that invites, bordering on demands, humility can be used to support the hubris of this tenet of Christianity?

They say it takes two to tango, but this “ours is the one Truth” notion breaks that rule.

First, in this particular case, I did not say “ours is the one Truth.” I said “Hinduism and Christianity cannot both be true.” I am not arguing here whether either is the true faith, just that one being true would negate the other.

I also see nothing in the Bible that would suggest that God sees it as hubristic to believe in Him alone and to deny the truth of other religions. What you are saying only makes sense if you believe that everyone gets their own reality and to make up their own facts (I think Stephen Colbert refers to this as “truthiness”) or if you believe that religion really does not make any actual claims about reality.

#3 Comment By Glaivester On December 6, 2012 @ 10:40 pm

One of the things I am looking forward to when we all get to heaven will be the looks on everyone’s faces when we all discover that each of us (including me) managed to not get everything just exactly right.

Oh, I’m sure I have some ideas that are wrong. I don’t think I am wrong on the big issues, but certainly there are lots of details I am mistaken on.

We sit here with Rod watching the Islamist revolutions and say “See? They are so convinced of their Truth nothing can get them to stop.” Christianity, for all its advanced maturity compared to Islam, and its eschewment of violence, cannot avoid the exact same criticism.

You know, I had a friend in college who was a Muslim. We were perfectly able to think that the other was wrong in his theology and yet still respect each other and be friends. The problem comes not when someone says “I am right and they are wrong,” but “I am right, they are wrong, and I need to force them to be right.”

I’m not trying to make God as small as me. I’m not even trying to deny you your dogmas. I’m just saying God is bigger than any of us, and your dogmas are what you have grasped, accurately or inaccurately, not The Truth.

Myself I have often referred to ways of describing God as “models,” so I am aware of the limits of our understanding. In a sense here it is a little like the more abstract sciences (e.g. quantum mechanics). Your model may not be able to describe reality completely, but it can be used to determine the answers to certain questions reliably.

#4 Comment By Joseph Dooley On December 6, 2012 @ 11:04 pm

Thanks so much for this post, Rod. I really needed to read this. I’m a latecomer to Christ and am looking into joining my local Church of Christ. Hearing your wife’s mortal FEAR of aggressive Evangelicalism tells me I’m not alone. Although, to be honest, all my experiences so far with this church have been great. I’ve been waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop and someone to go all Elmer Gantry on me. I’ll just thank God that hasn’t happened yet, and pray some more that it doesn’t!

#5 Comment By Church Lady On December 7, 2012 @ 2:10 am

Glaveister,

It seems to me that what you are really saying is that you are a humanist, and see all religions as simply poetic ways of expressing humanism.

Not at all. I am very religious, something akin to a panentheist, but not even limiting God to that.

My view is that God transcends even religion, even as He inspires and resides in it. My view of God is something like the virtual Field of quantum mechanics, which includes all possibilities, all of which are simultaneously true, and yet none are the ultimate “truth” of the Field. Each of the historical manifestations of God have ultimate truth to them, and yet taken singly, none is the one and only truth, except when one goes to their very root and heart, which is the same for all. Which is not to say that all religions are the same, except at their formless heart.

So the heart of Christianity can be true, and the heart of Hinduism can be true, even if their form and function can differ. The notion that there is only one manifestation of truth, and that all others are false, is not something I believe God is limited by. He can appear as a Hindu, even as a Hindu Avatar or saint, or he can appear as Jesus, or he can appear in any form or place, and the key is to recognize the inner beauty, not the outer form and doctrine as identical. Love does not obey any doctrine or separate from anyone.

Wherever there is genuine love and devotion, there is God, so when the Hindu loves his God, that is the same love as when the Christian loves theirs. Both are true love. All else is just window dressing, or holiday outfits. If God dresses up as a Hindu, or a Christian, even speaking those doctrines, it is the same God at heart, even if the outfits are very different, and might clash.

One of my favorite sayings is actually from a Hindu teacher, Sri Nisargadatta, who taught that the world was an illusion. Someone asked him, if this were so, was there anything in the world that was real. He said, yes, the love you have for one another is real. The forms and faces may not be real, he said, but the love is real. And the purpose of life was to go beyond these forms and faces, and to find this love, and to make one’s life about that, because it was the only thing that is truly real.

So in that light, one could say that all religions are illusions, but the love people have for them is real. In this way, both Christianity and Hinduism are in some respects illusory, but in a deeper sense, they are both entirely and absolutely true. The more one loves them, the more real they become. And yet, at the same time, the more transparent, and even unimportant, their form and doctrines become. It is their love that is true.

Now, I understand this is not something many people will accept, because they are very attached not just to the form of their particular religion, but to the whole idea that truth has a specific objective form and reality. I just don’t see that as at all necessary. God transcends form, as does truth, and mysterious beauty is how one discovers this.

#6 Comment By Franklin Evans On December 7, 2012 @ 9:25 am

Glaivester,

That was an eloquent expansion of your original point, and I will admit that I read into your position more than was warranted. Thanks for cutting through that and clarifying.

I draw a similar line of distinction. I do so from a spiritual path that is quite in parallel with much of New Age philosophy, finds common ground with it, even arrives at a short list of similar conclusions… and I stand firmly with the notion that we can’t all be “right”.

As you saw, even as I believe I’ve “made my peace”, my view of that hubris still comes out strongly. Your qualification is critically important: It’s not that (yeah, picking on Christianity) a religion claims the sole path to God, it’s how its believers behave from that claim. Too much blood has been shed to not at least acknowledge it in this sort of discussion, and too much of that blood (yeah, picking on Islam) is too recent to ignore. No major religion is immune. In India, it’s the Hindus against Moslems. In many countries on that continent its Moslems against Christians. The litany of oppression goes on. (No, I’m not ignoring Israel and the Palestinians, but I am asserting that it is a much more complex conflict than can be summarized under religion.)

… one being true would negate the other.

Logically, philosophically and from my personal belief system all together, that statement is not necessarily true. I put it that way on that off chance that the Prime Cause will decide to show up and give me what-for (that’s not fully facetious). My rebuttal is simple: The human experience is so varied and complex, imposing that simple of a structure around it goes beyond faith and settles permanently in circular reasoning: Every objection not at least vaguely interpretable from holy text can have only one answer — because God makes it so.

That is the worst possible answer. Human exploration is a violent exercise. It looks at boundaries as obstacles to be demolished, not safe walls behind which to be comfortable. The vast majority of people shy away from that violence, for good and valid reasons, but where does that leave the rest of us? Do we just surrender our impulses because it upsets the majority? A “yes” answer to that would be a grief beyond all griefs, starting with the examples of Jesus, Buddha and extending through countless examples right up to Ghandi, King and others we could name from living memory.

I find the “what would Jesus do?” rather trite, but it thinly veils a critical truth. We don’t have to be the miraculously conceived children of a deity to do as He did. All we have to be is human. He did not say “mine can be the only way”. It was the way He found (or was sent to show), and 2,000 years later we still encounter new boundaries. Did He also say “okay, folks. The journey is over. You can all sit down and relax now and forever.”

I believe the answer lies in the fact that Christianity is not the unanimous and universal belief system on this planet. Quod erat demonstrandum. It can no more validly claim sole possession of Truth than any other belief system.

#7 Comment By Kiddlaw On December 7, 2012 @ 11:18 am

I think this link ( [1])
speaks well for those of us who find so much of your writing beneficial but also recognize that you (like all of us) have your inconsistencies.

Science and Faith, Reason and Wonder

Posted on 12/06/2012 by Steven Wedgeworth

The American Conservative is the most insightful and intellectually daring conservative news outlet currently available. Rod Dreher is typically excellent, and so it is with some reluctance that we give him a wag of our fingers. Don’t worry, we promise to praise him and his colleagues in the very near future. But for now we can’t let this piece go without a brief word.

Mr. Dreher’s argument is that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, while they are usually very nice people with meaningful intellectual offerings, have a tendency towards rationalism and legalism, clinging too tightly to laws and a certain sense of creedalism and disciplinarianism. This is evident in their antipathy towards mysticism and sacramentalism, as well as their adherence to “Young Earth Creationism.” If they would only open themselves up for wonder, then they could find room to accept sacraments and, one supposes, evolution.

This is a fairly familiar argument, even though it is not, strictly speaking, logical. The term “fundamentalist” is most certainly a bad thing today (this was not always the case), but we need to remember that its wide use does not actually provide its justification, as Alvin Plantinga has helpfully demonstrated. Is it actually true that an opposition to “sacramental” religion comes from an unhealthy rationalism and hostility to wonder, and if so, is this the same cause which lies behind the opposition to evolution and the support of the belief that “it pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days”?

Indeed, one could actually make an argument that adherence to “Young Earth Creationism” requires a bit of mystery and wonder, since it flies in the face of all received science (especially the “hard sciences”). The idea that God simply speaks and then things, some of them fully-formed, just appear is not exactly what comes to mind when one thinks of joyless and dry syllogisms. But then again, when we think of dry and dispassionate people, we typically don’t think of the Scots or Scots-Irish. In America today, Sarah Palin is not the face of stone-cold rationalism. The analogy really does break down and the tires end up rolling down the stream, merrily merrily or something….

Oh, yes, of course, the point is the literal hermeneutic! YECers, Mr. Dreher would say, treat the text of the Bible in a wooden, strict, mechanical, and overly literal fashion. They bring certain presuppositions about what the text of Genesis is trying to say and they awkwardly force it into their, otherwise foreign, paradigm, relying on a supposedly “plain meaning” of the words to conduct their argument for them. But this too proves the inconsistency of the argument, its arbitrary nature which really amounts to an ad hominem, and this can be proven in four familiar words: hoc est corpus meum.

You see, when one goes to find “sacramental” faith in the Bible, the literal, even sometimes the woodenly literal, hermeneutic is preferred. Jesus said you have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. He said he was bread. Baptism washes away sin. Baptism buries the believer into Christ’s death. It is actually the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who typically employ the figurative reading at this point. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and other “sacramental” groups have no trouble with the emphatically literal when it suits them.

In fact, there are plenty of Fundamentalists who believe in miracles, and we’ve even known a few that claim to have seen them visually or even performed them. We’ve heard of Evangelicals and YECers who claim to have seen God’s work in nature and even to have heard His voice, sometimes audibly! Some of these same people believe in demon-possession or speak in tongues. What Mr. Dreher means to say, we think, is not that they don’t believe in the miraculous, but that they don’t believe in the intellectually and aesthetically pleasing variety. In other words, they aren’t into the right kind of wonder.

And so maybe the Evangelicals ought to all become evolutionists and the Roman Catholics ought to sign up for the “Answers in Genesis” newsletter. That might make for a tighter argument, though not necessarily a better final outcome. Or maybe, perhaps, the argument is a bad one altogether and our socio-political imaginations should be broadened to create something new.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 9, 2012 @ 10:58 pm

It may be that “Christianity and Hinduism cannot both be true.” Certainly IF both are true, then EITHER both are highly symbolic and allegorical, communicating a much deeper hidden truth, OR, God exists on a plane where both CAN be true, in a manner that the human mind grasps as a 7th-grader grasps quantum mechanics and string theory.

But it is possible to say, “This I believe, this you believe, and neither of us knows for a certainty how either or both of us will account to God for our beliefs and actions.”

If Rod, Hector, Erin, Franklin, Glaivester, Joseph d’H, or anyone else, says “I believe…” I have no quarrel. I would, respond, with far more sincerity, and far less sarcasm, than H.L. Mencken, “You may be right.”

Ditto if, e.g., the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, says “We believe…”

Where I draw a line is the statement, “You are committing the heresy of…” Take your index of codified heresies and go to hell.