Mar 03 2010

The Left at Christian Universities, part 18: Fear of Fundamentalism

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 8:11 am

The previous post in this series is here.

It’s really funny, almost.  And sad.

There is a too-large group of faculty at Christian universities who are more afraid of “fundamentalism” than they are of agnosticism, outright atheism and its secularist implications, or, most dangerous of all, simple Christian Leftism, which acts almost exactly like agnosticism or progressive secularism, and supports approximately the same social and political policies, but simply quotes scripture while doing it.

To those suffering from fear of it, “fundamentalism” equates to willful ignorance, stubborn resistance to fact, anti-intellectualism, blind faith, and probably barely suppressed violence in the defense of rigidly held values.  Most frightening of all, some “fundamentalists” appear to think that some things are actually true.

To the Left, of course, and the Christian Left is little different, nothing is really true.  Certainly nothing that can be stated in human language, anyway.  Everything is up for endless re-interpretation.  Not to mention re-interpretation of the re-interpretations.  There is always a way to tease a new meaning out of something whose meaning has been understood for centuries, or even millennia, and then simply replace the old meaning with the new, while claiming to be “faithful to the text.”  So Leftist Christian academics are busy finding support for diversity, multi-culturalism and affirmative action in the Old Testament, socialism and “anti-nationalism” in Luke, pacifism in the Sermon on the Mount, and abortion-on-demand and same-sex marriage in (apparently) “emanations of the penumbra” of the New Testament.  None of these things (with the possible exception of some strains of pacifism) were discovered in the Scripture by the previous 19 centuries of exegesis.

Why do these new meanings point in the direction favored by the secular-progressive left, in terms of social and political implications?   I think a case can be made that outcomes were chosen, and that interpretive methods were selected to support those outcomes.

So, to me, the real question is not why does the Christian Left tend to favor textual deconstruction and relativistic interpretations, thus aping the secular Left.  The real question, to me:  Why is the Christian academic Left  so enthusiastic about those outcomes listed above, so much that it is willing to distort its traditional hermeneutics into intellectual pretzels in order to prefigure the desired outcomes?

There are many possible answers.  I may suggest a few of them in a subsequent post.  But for now, I simply observe that the word “fundamentalism” is sometimes hurled as an epithet on some Christian campuses, in response to the suggestion that maybe the Bible simply means what it says (or at least that should be our first assumption until evidence and context prove otherwise).  Just as the new McCarthyism in politics starts by calling someone else a McCarthyite, the new “fundamentalists” these days are the Christian Left, for whom socialism, sustainability, diversity, climate change and same-sex marriage are the badges of “five point progressivism.”  And from their point of view, anything and anyone who challenges this new orthodoxy or its presumed intellectual underpinnings is dangerous, and probably a “fundamentalist.”

From where I sit, what the Left calls “fundamentalism,” these days, is simply historic, traditional Christianity.  Maybe “fundamentalists” should co-opt the word and make it into a badge of honor.  I’ll bet it would look good on a t-shirt.

But on too many Christian campuses today, “fundamentalist” is the new F-word.  It is used to stop conversation, and to intimidate voices that dissent from the emerging leftist orthodoxy.

And that’s fundamentally wrong.

The next post in this series is here.

25 Responses to “The Left at Christian Universities, part 18: Fear of Fundamentalism”

  1. K dippre says:

    Interesting, as many Catholics refer to Protestants as “fundamentalists” in a not-so-flattering way. Are they then aligning themselves with the current Christian left?

  2. Melody says:

    So would the new epithet be “fundamentalist you!”? Or, “what the fundamentalist?” is that? It might be fun(damentalist) to start a new craze on campus. It just might mess with the liberal minds, and that can be lots of fun (no, I didn’t do it this time).

  3. Mike C says:

    Nice post;from a man who reinterprets the the six days of creation to fit a hypothesis that “resolves” a problem that never really existed.

  4. Bill says:

    What you are pointing out is the current method of arguement that I find intellectually lacking and intentionally devisive. The mis-use of language to make a positional statement (not even a point). I will use a word to associate with a position and then villify or promote attributes to that word in order to solidify my position. It isn’t liberal – it’s progressive / it isn’t pro-abortion – it’s pro choice / it isn’t conservative – it’s the radical right wing religious sect. We through these labels change the meaning of the word.

    C.S. Lewis sites that the original meaning of the word Gentleman meant that you had a coat of arms and land. Therefore, it was perfectly legitimate to call a person a liar and a gentleman. That changed when people redefined the word gentleman to define inward properties people would like to see – moving the term gentleman from a fact to an opinion.

    As far as taking sections of writings to prove a point – that has been a cheap tactic for years. I remember talking to market researchers complaining that their CEO was going to make a speach about X – go out and find some statistics to prove the point I am making.

    When reading scripture to find proof of your beliefs, some very curious results follow.

  5. harmonicminer says:

    Keith,

    The Catholics are still reacting to the anti-Catholic bias and discrimination by the “first and only true ‘fundamentalists’ of Protestantism”, namely the early 20th century groups that were reacting to Darwinism and its associated intellectual fellow travelers. Generally, modern conservative evangelicals (the ones called “fundamentalist” by the Christian Left) agree with modern Roman Catholics about more than they disagree… even if they don’t always know it, and are reacting out of habit. These days “serious” Roman Catholics have figured out that conservative evangelicals are their allies on most issues.

    Mike,

    I was careful to say “the Bible simply means what it says (or at least that should be our first assumption until evidence and context prove otherwise)”. History is not with you on the age-of-the-earth controversy… the “day-age” interpretation of Genesis goes back at least to Augustine. It will be hard to claim that six-day creationism is the historical, traditional interpretation of the text.

    Melody,

    Now we need a “by-word” for “fundamentalism”, much as “fricking” has become a byword for another word. I think my suggestion is “fundie”, as in “What the fundie did you do that for?” For extra entertainment, “fundie” begins like another “f-word”, and people will be shocked while they play back what you said and figure it out.

    Everyone,

    My point in the post is carefully circumscribed. It is that “modern conservative evangelicals” (essentially what all evangelicals were 30 years or so ago) are called “fundamentalists” by people who should know better (and do), in order to shut them up, so that the Christian Left can have its day. This is not a discussion about true “fundamentalists” of the early 20th-century sort, of which there are very few anymore.

    So that what the academic Christian Left now calls “fundamentalism” is nothing more than mainstream conservative evangelicalism, which comes in many flavors, most of which are quite far from that older “fundamentalism.”

  6. amuzikman says:

    The term “fundamentalism” is a wet bar of soap. It is slippery term to define. There is a historical component but I don’t get the impression the term is used today within that context. In Christian academia I have never heard it used in any context other than as a pejorative, which I find to be more than a little ironic. It seems to mean stiff-necked, blindly dogmatic, red-neck, and Falwellian, probably resulting from married cousins somewhere on the family tree. And I agree it’s use is to intimidate and to silence. In fact I would go so far as to say that holding steadfastly to a set of fundamental beliefs or principles of any sort is positively gauche these days.

    And that is fundied up.

  7. Melody says:

    It seems to me that the word ‘fundamentalist’ was created about 100 years ago within religous circles to self-identify a legalistic group of believers (grace plus works – i.e. Catholicism without Mary, the saints and the sacraments – or the money). There it resided until the liberal media decided to use it to describe terrorists. Suddenly the ‘Fundamentalist Baptist Church’ had to change their name in order to maintain respectability in the community. Fastforward about 30 years and today a fundamentalist (or as Phil says, evangelical) Christian is perceived as a terrorist within Christian circles. Isn’t this the philosophy of Karl Marx? Change the meaning of words and you change society.

  8. Mr. Music Lover says:

    “Change the meaning of words and you change society.”
    It is working quite well. “Progressive” sounds so enlightened; “Gay” sounds so happy and care free; “Fundamentalist” sounds so stiff necked and un-”progressive“. Even the word “Christian” has come to mean narrow minded, intolerant and weak among our “Progressive” establishment. The American masses, especially our youth, are falling for it thus, we are getting the “change” they voted for.

  9. innermore says:

    Why do them words always gotta be them’s fightin’ words? Why do both sides always have to come out swingin’? Fundamentalist progressive conservative liberal secular academic christian left right up down and side-ways. I feel reluctant to participate in any of these current (temporary) causes. Not that some are, or aren’t worthy, it is just the seemingly required fanaticism of it all that makes me squeamish.

    At the risk of being accused of blatant relativistic re-reinterpretation-ism, let me speculate. I don’t know that the Apostle Paul, or others could have imagined that their personal testimonies would later become quoted war-cries: zealously validating or opposing Cosmic Truths, Religious Faiths, Political Parties or Advocates. (Is there a contextual issue here?) Sure, I take to heart some of these truths and tenets. But I prefer not to be fanatical about it, or referred to as such. It is offensive to my faith. Standing up for my beliefs is one thing, but why is it so popular to be so touchy? Lookin’ for fight all the time?

  10. Katherine says:

    Sorry to divert the discussion, but I was curious, Dr. Shackleton, where you found Augustine saying that he believed creation wasn’t literally six days. In these quotes I found from him on the subject, he seems to support a younger than 6000 year-old Earth (note especially the very last line):

    “Seven days by our reckoning, after the model of the days of creation, make up a week. By the passage of such weeks time rolls on, and in these weeks one day is constituted by the course of the sun from its rising to its setting; but we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 4:27 [A.D. 408]).

    “[A]t least we know that it [the Genesis creation day] is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar” (ibid., 5:2).

    “For in these days [of creation] the morning and evening are counted until, on the sixth day, all things which God then made were finished, and on the seventh the rest of God was mysteriously and sublimely signalized. What kind of days these were is extremely difficult or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!” (The City of God 11:6 [A.D. 419]).

    “We see that our ordinary days have no evening but by the setting [of the sun] and no morning but by the rising of the sun, but the first three days of all were passed without sun, since it is reported to have been made on the fourth day. And first of all, indeed, light was made by the word of God, and God, we read, separated it from the darkness and called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’; but what kind of light that was, and by what periodic movement it made evening and morning, is beyond the reach of our senses; neither can we understand how it was and yet must unhesitatingly believe it” (ibid., 11:7).

    “They [pagans] are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of [man as] many thousands of years, though reckoning by the sacred writings we find that not 6,000 years have yet passed” (ibid., 12:10).

  11. harmonicminer says:

    I take this:

    but we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them”

    to mean that Augustine isn’t claiming the creation days are necessarily the same length as 24 hr days. The following seems to say the same thing.

    “[A]t least we know that it [the Genesis creation day] is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar” (ibid., 5:2).

    And this:

    What kind of days these were is extremely difficult or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!” (The City of God 11:6 [A.D. 419]).

    And this seems to confirm, again, the Augustine is observing there was no sun to define a 24 hr “day” until the fourth “day”, and again that these must have been very special or unusual “days”.

    “We see that our ordinary days have no evening but by the setting [of the sun] and no morning but by the rising of the sun, but the first three days of all were passed without sun, since it is reported to have been made on the fourth day. And first of all, indeed, light was made by the word of God, and God, we read, separated it from the darkness and called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’; but what kind of light that was, and by what periodic movement it made evening and morning, is beyond the reach of our senses; neither can we understand how it was and yet must unhesitatingly believe it” (ibid., 11:7).

    I take the following to demonstrate Augustine’s belief that 6000 years (as of the 4th century or so) had passed since Adam’s creation, when the genealogies begin, but his 6000 years don’t have to include the unusually long creation days before Adam’s creation, since all he’s doing is adding up the years in the genealogies (and he may be forgiven for not knowing that the Hebrews often skipped generations in genealogy listings…  which is why different genealogies in the Bible list different names, some being skipped here and there, etc….  a fact that inerrantists must find annoying, unless they are willing to buy into a longer time frame with many skpped names in any given list, which is an entirely reasonable conclusion, but it lengthens the timeline quite a bit.)

    “They [pagans] are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of [man as] many thousands of years, though reckoning by the sacred writings we find that not 6,000 years have yet passed” (ibid., 12:10).

    In other words, these are the texts that scholars have used to determine that Augustine did not believe in literal 24 hour creation days, hence the claim that he was an early “day-age” proponent.

    Not that it matters all that much if we lose him from the list of day-age fans, since there have been other well-respected theologians, scholars and saints down through the centuries who were fine with the idea (I can look them up at some point if you wish). Honestly, this never got to be a big deal until the Darwinists tried to claim that the entire Bible was false because of evolution. It was then that literal six-day creation became an article of faith for some. It is conspicuously absent in the creeds.

  12. harmonicminer says:

    Besides Augustine, some interpret certain passages of Irenaeus, Origen, and Aquinas as at least leaving the door open to some kind of “day-age” interpretation. I suspect I’ll find others if I spend any time looking.

    I note that the church as a whole was not threatened by the speculations of early geologists that the earth was much older than had been previously thought. Neither popes nor preachers seem to have particularly condemned the idea. That’s because the geologists didn’t construe that to mean that the Creation story was false (at least in public)… and, of course, some of them were priests. It wasn’t until the Darwinist attempt to take God totally out of the picture that this became “a hill to die on” for some Christians. I simply think they picked the wrong place to make a stand, though of course they may be forgiven for not having known that at the time.

  13. Mike C says:

    Clearly, the idea of liberalist, or, fundamentalist is in the perception of the observer. Either can be dogmatic, and, either can find others to side with or call upon for support. If scripture is not inerrant in all its pronouncements, then how could it be trusted in any of them. Finding conflict where there is none is the errand of self justification. Knowledge is not a new thing. In the words of the Teacher “there is nothing new under the sun.”

  14. harmonicminer says:

    I don’t think we can avoid interpretation on some level. No one thinks Jesus actually wants us to hate our family, understanding his comments as metaphor. There are hundreds of similar examples. Jesus is not going to actually judge sheep and goats. You have to understand the intent of the writer, or, perhaps, the intent of God in using the writer to communicate with us. If that is your goal, then, indeed, the scripture can be said to be “inerrant” provided we understand it.

    But EVERYONE doubtless makes errors in that understanding… and that isn’t the scripture’s fault.

    If one understanding of a passage requires me to believe there is no such thing as gravity, and another understanding of the same passage allows me to harmonize it with the existence of gravity, then I have a clear preference for the harmony. That’s how the Young Earth/Old Earth discussion seems to me.

    All truth is God’s truth.

  15. Robert says:

    Genealogy: Collecting dead relatives and sometimes a live cousin!

  16. tonedeaf says:

    harmonicminor, I think it’s time for you to do a post on the significance of metaphor in the Bible. I hear folks toss out that term willy-nilly for everything they can’t explain. I believe that if you are going to call something a metaphor, you’d better be able to explain what the ‘meta’ is ‘for’. Many use it to stop a discussion when they are stumped. Then they get mad and walk away when asked to explain themselves. This has become so prevalent in theology circles that it bears exposure and discussion.

    Thanks

  17. Michael Lee says:

    J. I. Packer defined fundamentalism as “just a twentieth-century name for historic Evangelicalism”. Maybe that’s a pretty good place to start.

    The term was birthed out of an ecumenical impulse, and attempt to identify doctrinal “fundamentals” that united Evangelical believers, rather than the diverse issues that had split them in the mid 1800s (Can you join the Masons and still be in the church?). The 5 issues were:

    (1) Inerrancy
    (2) The Deity of Christ
    (3) Substitutionary atonement, applied by faith, as the sole means of salvation
    (4) The bodily resurrection of Christ
    (5) The physical (an some said imminent) return of Christ.

    It’s not hard to see that people who accept those 5 fundamental truths might also share many other cultural and social values in common with each other, and within a few generations, the word came to be defined more by the cultural and social distinctions than by the original fundamental doctrines the movement upheld.

    I would gladly call myself a fundamentalist, if I thought there was any chance that the listener understood what I meant by the term.

  18. Michael Lee says:

    By the way, are we all so scared to discuss the truth of scripture out in the open that we use nicknames here? I didn’t get the memo.

    Oh well, I just got my CFEP scores back, and I’m safe for now, so BRING IT ON!

  19. harmonicminer says:

    For the uninitiated into the mysteries of assessment at APU, CFEP means Comprehensive Faculty Evaluation Program. It is, of course, incomprehensible.

  20. harmonicminer says:

    I use a “handle” because all the 20-somethings think handles are cool. I’m just trying to relate to the post-moderns. Besides, I don’t want to be ID’d.

  21. Michael Lee says:

    It is exactly like filing federal income taxes on your teaching.

  22. Joseph Merrill says:

    I enjoyed reading the comments on the post. I am finishing up two classes at Seminary that speak directly to this issue. Entitled, “Theological Hermenuetics”, and “Modern Theology”, they gave me an opportunity to start figuring out what happened between, say, Luther or Calvin, and the start of my own spiritual journey. It goes without saying that haven’t figured it all out, but some things are relatively self evident.

    Bear with me, this is the first time I’ve tried to articulate this in writing (and so naturally the size of the brush which I paint will be huge… again, sorry), but I think the current acrimony between those labeled as “fundamental” and “liberal” functions on at least two levels, with an ironic twist.

    On the first level, you have precisely the current climate which this blog describes. Fundamentalists get accused of anti-intellectualism, and a kind of retreating fortress type “you can’t take this away as well!” mentality. And Liberals get accused of sacrificing truth for there precious agendas. There is a lot of legitimate discord as the debate rages across the campuses of America.

    On the second level though, (and this is more my point) is the long drawn out history of how “Western Culture(s)” has attributed meaning to actions, and then represented that meaning through text. The wrinkle becomes apparent when we try to read those texts. Every generation since Augustine has read those texts and written their own texts for later people to read. Specifically, the council that Micheal Lee mentions as defining Fundamentalism comes as the result of nearly 300 years of actively trying to come to a conclusion on precisely how this process works. As the Modern Age went through it’s life cycle, Meaning, for the first time, becomes situated firmly within the mindset of the reader, but only for “liberals”. The fundamental movement isn’t really about the “five fundamentals” those are the result. It is really a statement on hermenuetics “you have to believe that the meaning contained in these statements actually exists in the text”.

    Now that we are planted fairly strongly outside of the old modern world, (with its own way of understanding where meaning, action, text, author, and reader) interrelate, we have a chance to reflect back on that and rewrite it however we want. We have open slate.

    I guess that is where i see the ironic twist. Both “liberal” and “fundamental” are terms that worked really well within the modern construct. But in order to move beyond them and situate a solution to the question of meaning in postmodern terms (whatever that means, ha ha, there we go again), we really must know as much as we can about the discussion that took place during that age (the very discussion that loaded the terms “liberal” and “fundamental” with all their weight!) That means engaging in legitimate hermenuetical study, and interacting with the Modern World from which we come, but in which we don’t necessarily still live.

  23. harmonicminer says:

    I agree, legitimate hermeneutical study is important. The problem is that to some degree, hermeneutic methods themselves prefigure desired outcomes. How often does anyone using a “post-modern” hermeneutic arrive at traditional doctrinal destinations? How often does anyone using a so-called “modernist” hermeneutic (roughly described: meaning is approximately “originalist”, and we can discover that meaning best through historical study, social context at the time of writing, and textual criticism) arrive at modern relativist approaches to values and beliefs?

    The point of my post above: the desired destination (chosen for personal reasons not closely related to the text) prefigures the choice of hermeneutic, all too often.

    In any case, I often think too much is made of the notion that “meaning is embedded in texts” is a “modern” notion. It is not clear to me that ancient writers didn’t intend for people to take their words, and their meaning in context, seriously. “Modern” thinkers did not invent the idea that “words mean things.”

  24. Katherine says:

    I think that Joe is arguing that the notion of meaning being “embedded in texts” is precisely NOT a “Modern” notion. He is saying that what Shack is calling “Modernism” is Modern Fundamentalism, and what Shack is calling “Post-modernism” is actually Modern Liberalism. BOTH schools of thought (Fundamentalism and Liberalism) were developed during Modernism, and interacted with each other at the highest scholastic levels during THAT period of time. While the debate has managed to trickle down to lay levels only recently, during our so-called “postmodern” age, the debate is not a “post-modern” one; it is a MODERN one, one that has already happened at high scholastic levels.

    So, in order to answer the debate between “fundamentalism” and “liberalism”, we essentially need to catch up on our history; we need to realize that the debate has already taken place on a high level. Hence, Joe’s plug for studying the high-level scholastic debates of Modernism and observing where those debates (again, on the high level of scholarship) have progressed since then.

  25. tonedeaf says:

    I submit the debate is the same as it has always been. Each generation tosses new labels on it, but the debate remains the same. A440 is the same from age to age, even for pitch benders (many of whom reside in my high school choir and can’t quite find it).

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