Fundamentalism and the Dark Ages

Jim West noted an article (by Allan Powell) about fundamentalism and evangelicalism yesterday that basically expresses the idea that evangelicalism/fundamentalism is a return to the Dark Ages. I must say that I, in general, agree with Michael Pahl’s critique, though I do want to add some thoughts, some different but some similar to Pahl’s (though I’m sure he won’t agree with everything I say). And I’ll try not to make this a rant.

But before I say my thoughts, I’ll briefly mention my perspective so you’ll know where I am coming from. I come from evangelical roots (grew up Southern Baptist, went to a SBC university). I went to an evangelical seminary (DTS). I think I know evangelicals pretty well. But at the same time I’m not completely comfortable with American evangelicalism, but mostly because of differences in understanding regarding the nature of Scripture. By many American evangelicals I wouldn’t be considered very evangelical at all, though I get along just fine with evangelicals who aren’t so uptight in that regard. I do agree with most evangelicals to a large degree on issues in the realm of both politics and theology, though I wouldn’t feel comfortable with how they formulate their thinking in lots of areas. So that let’s you see my own presuppositions.

According to the article, evangelicals/fundamentalists are a brash and haughty bunch. That is sometimes true. But, personally, if I were to find a fault with evangelicalism it would be the "anti-intellectual, anti-rational and anti-science" bit that the author spoke about. Evangelicalism is often (though certainly not always) too anti-intellectual. As for haughtiness, I find it to be as much of an issue amongst the enlightened liberals like Powell than I do with evangelicals, though continuing in these broad strokes will really do no one any good at all. The reason evangelicals look more haughty than they are, I think, is a misunderstanding of how their thinking really works.

For example, the author assumes that a move toward exclusivism is necesarily a move toward being filled with hubris. Let’s take a step back for a second and look at a hypothetical situation. First, let’s assume for the sake of argument that naturalism may not be true (as the author would seem to be assuming) and that God exists. Second, let’s say that an individual is given a particularly convincing sign from God that he exists, and that all other faith paths outside of faith in Jesus Christ are all futile. Third, we’ll assume such a person believes the message.

Now, in this example, is that person filled with hubris? I really don’t think so. "But you’re making all sorts of assumptions, and this is a completely different case than what Powell is talking about" says the antagonist. Yes, I am making assumptions, but no more so than the author. But, and this is the point I’m trying to get at, this is NOT a completely different case. Evangelicals today probably haven’t themselves received a sign from God personally (like I have not), but are quite convinced that some people did 2000 years ago. And some believe that not only because they look at historical and logical arguments to say that happened (and many evangelicals or like-minded do think through history, logic, science, etc.), but because they too think that God speaks to them through His Spirit. I, for example, believe that Christ is the only way to a right standing in God’s plan. I do it for intellectual reasons. I also do it for subjective reasons. Because of this, it’s not always a case of pure pride that leads evangelicals and those like them to be as fervent as they are. It may just be some convincing intellectual arguments stacked on top of a relationship that we think we have with the creator.

Now, the antagonist will want to attack such a worldview in a number of places. Go ahead. But once you start doing so, I think you’re going to have to assume that evangelicals are more complex than Powell is assuming. It’s not just intellectual pride that drives them.

Now back to exclusivism. As said above, I don’t think exclusivism is necessarily a sign of haughtiness. It can have its roots in something else entirely, that is, the belief that God has revealed himself through a particular revelation (like that found in the Bible). And it doesn’t have to breed incurable disharmony among people of different faiths. For example, two friends of mine (both "evangelicals" who were not seminary trained) and I attended meetings with some Muslim folks for over a year to talk about the differences between the two faiths. All three of us were convinced, and remain convinced, that if they do not repent they will fall under the judgment of God. And they thought similarly. Were their tense times? Yes. Were we able to have good discussions for a long time? Yes. Are we the only evangelicals/like-minded folks who can do that? Of course not.

And what about the child? Well, I intend to teach my son and my soon-to-be-born daughter that no one can come to God except through Christ. Will I teach them this based on creating a huge foundation of intellectual arguments? Of course not, because they won’t be able to handle that when they’re young. I’ll train them up in what I think is true hoping that when the time comes they will embrace it themselves. What is the alternative. Not let my child make any statements about God till he’s out of college or something? That’s a good plan if you assume faith should only be based on intellectual arguments. If you think it can be based on an encounter with God through His Spirit, then you realize that this kind of faith can happen long before a child can wrestle with the historical, scientific, and logical issues that arise when thinking about faith. But, then again, I don’t assume naturalism as does the author of the article.

Okay, I’m going to start being really brief. So, science and theories of creation should not be in the realm of religion in any way. Creationism has no place in science? Recently Flew, a rather ardent atheist, decided that the intelligent design folks weren’t so wrong. Maybe there is a place for other theories, other than evolution, in the nation’s classrooms.

And finally, this is just the thing that makes me think that the real hubris is in Powell. "Thinking will cure evangelicalism." Is this conclusion obvious to anybody but myself? Granted, more different thinking will help evangelicals tremendously. I can’t tell you how many times in seminary that I wanted to yell out "that’s the dumbest argument I’ve ever heard" to an evangelical professor or student. I disagree with a great deal of evangelical thinking. But to say that the difference resides mainly on the level of thinking is just plain wrong. I’ve met a lot of them. There are a lot of evangelicals who are really good thinkers, professors and regular church-goers. The difference is primarily a difference of starting points and assumptions. Granted, there are a lot of evangelicals who don’t think very deeply. But there are a lot of non-evangelicals who don’t either.

Well, I need to go to work. In summary, I’ll say this: either Powell is painting in such broad strokes that he is making me think that he doesn’t understand evangelicalism, or he doesn’t understand it in reality. I get the impression that it is the latter.

Sorry about the wordy post. Comments are welcome.


Kirk H. Sowell 2005-01-24 05:50:00

[Below is my letter to the editor response to the article in the Herald-Mail Oline.]

After reading Allan Powell’s Jan. 23 article, Fundamentalism: A return to Dark Ages, my impression was that Mr. Powell is a liberal in desperate need of a liberal education. I would like to make a few points:

One, Powell’s perception of those he calls "fundamentalists" is a caricature. There are a very large number of people who are Christians and who voted for Bush and who agree with fundamentalists on a number of issues who are not fundamentalists, either because they don’t believe in creationism (which I reject myself), or don’t accept fundamentalism’s first principles (e.g. its rejection of the role of tradition). He repeatedly argues that reason and empirical science should trump those who disagree with him, amazingly unaware that many who do are themselves hard-core empiricists. Few people who voted for Bush fit Powell’s description.

Nor does Powell accurately describe the political agenda of those with whom he disagrees. On the issue of public schools, for example, the problem is that the current educational system subjects students to a holistic, Christianity-free process which monopolizes tax money and time that parents cannot effectively counteract. Leveling the playing field, not abolishing public schools, is what evangelicals seek. Powell should read more widely on a subject matter before his mischaracterizes the beliefs of others.

Two, Powell, like Bishop Spong, misuses the word "literal" when applying it to Biblical interpretation. Whether a specific passage in any text, including the Bible, is to be taken literally or metaphorically depends on context. There are many Biblical passages which are obviously to be taken as metaphors or allegories. There is therefore no such thing as a "literal" or "non-literal" interpretation of the Bible as such.

Three, Powell mocks a 9-year-old girl for believing in something because her parents taught it to her. He should consider the importance of tradition in society (as should fundamentalists). Were it not for tradition - normative conventions accepted based upon communal authority - then no society could function as every generation would have to reinvent civilization. Tradition can, of course, be wrong, and must be tempered with reason. Yet tradition at least is based on the accumulated experience of multitudes, and should be given due weight against the radical visions of avant-garde theorists who envision a different society.

Kirk H. Sowell

DarthCoder 2005-01-24 07:58:00

You sir, are a Fundamentalist, convertative, right winged nut job...I shiver at the thought that God made us the same species.