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On fundamentalism

By Dr. Jack Kerwick
web posted February 7, 2011

I had an interesting experience recently that has got me to thinking about a topic that is all too rarely addressed by practicing Christians.  

Not long ago I decided to obtain a Facebook account.  One of my "friends" is someone to whom I haven't spoken in nearly 20 years, a woman—"Andrea," I will call her—who I knew when I was a kid.  As it turns out, this virtual "friendship" was as long for this world as whatever friendship we had as children, for shortly after offering an abrupt response to one of my characteristically philosophical/theological posts, she deleted me from her "friends" list.  

It would be an exercise in futility to disclose the specific details of our exchange; suffice it to say that Andrea, being a self-professed disciple of Christ, evidently believes that questions of the sort that I, as a philosophy professor and a Christian, make my living exploring, are not only unimportant but offensive, if not blasphemous.  Neither philosophy nor religion has any bearing on a person's relationship with God.  All that is needed is Jesus, she adamantly insisted.

That Jesus is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," is a proposition with which I wholeheartedly agree; but that faith in Christ should somehow preclude the need or desire for reflective thought—what I take Andrea was insinuating—is patently absurd on its face.   

If this single incident were an isolated phenomenon, it wouldn't be worth remarking upon.  Yet it is anything but that.  The Andreas of America—who I will call, for lack of a better term, "Christian Fundamentalists"—are legion, and they are virtually to a man and woman solidly ensconced on "the right." Because of this, it is the rare "conservative" publication that dares to address them.  It is for the sake of rectifying this that I write this column. 

All too seldom noted are the striking similarities between the Christian Fundamentalist (just Fundamentalist from now on) and the left-wing Rationalist.  Most importantly, while the latter's contempt for tradition has long been observed, what has gone unnoticed is that the former's contempt might just be at least as great.  Though the leftist seeks to "deconstruct" our traditions, he at least has to engage them in order to accomplish his objective.  The Fundamentalist, though, disregards them altogether.  

Fundamentalism, as I am using that term, transcends denominational lines, but it is particularly salient within Protestantism. "Sola scriptura"—Scripture alone—is, after all, a Protestant principle.  Whatever its historical nuances, taken to its extreme conclusion, the logic of the concept has rendered the Bible an idol. However, this false god is even more transcendent than the One True God, for the latter, Christians have always professed, though transcendent, is also immanent, and at no time has He been more so than when He became a Man.  But the idolatry of the Fundamentalist leads him or her to deny that the world—culture, history, tradition, i.e., human intelligence—has anything at all to do with the composition of Sacred Scripture or the development of the doctrines that we read in it.  Ready-made, it presumably dropped from the heavens, the one and only "key" whereby the answer to every conceivable question can be unlocked by anyone and everyone who will but avail himself of it.   

Andrea's comment to me is as straightforward an illustration of this view as any that I have encountered—and I have had many such encounters.  In rejecting all intellectual inquiry as worthless, she derides an infinitely rich complex of intellectual, ethical, and spiritual traditions—in a word, Western civilization—that were millennia in the making.  We can only thank God that Christians haven't always thought as Andrea thinks.

Contrary to what the Fundamentalist believes, what we today call "the Bible" was centuries in the making.  Not only were its "books" composed under varying circumstances by various authors, but there was rigorous, heated debate for centuries more after Christ as to what scriptures are "sacred" and, thus, deserving of being incorporated into "the canon." The Scriptures that were eventually settled upon were preserved throughout history due to the tireless work of the relatively few literate men—monks primarily—who translated and copied them by hand.  Had these Christians from generations of long ago adopted the attitude of my former "friend" toward intellectual endeavor, it would have been quite some time since Christianity would have run aground.

Yet the Christianity that Andrea and other Fundamentalists purport to champion is an invaluable inheritance that God has chosen to bequeath to us not just through the authors of the Bible, but through a staggering array of men (and some women) of genius and vision: artists, philosophers, theologians, mystics, scientists, and other thinkers: Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas; John Duns Scotus and William of Ockam; Michelangelo; DaVinci; Newton; Galileo; Dante; Shakespeare; Milton; Chaucer; Beethoven; Handel; and many more too numerous to recount here.  The world in which we live, Western civilization, if it existed at all, would be radically unlike anything that Westerners had ever known if not for the priceless contributions of Christians over the last 2,000 years.

So, to my former friend and "friend," and to the countless others who share her view, I can only say that while I agree with them that, ultimately, Jesus is all that is "needed," they would be well served to consider that Jesus is as "Incarnate" today as He was two millennia ago.  Only today He is incarnate, not in a physical body, but in the world, in hearts and in minds, in intelligence, passion, conviction, and every other good which God makes available to the human race. 

A "Jesus" who is located exclusively between the two covers of a book, who "lives" only through select Biblical quotations that have been divested of all context and who is resurrected by his self-appointed guardians to beat down those who they deem to be insufficiently holy is a lord alright, but he is as far from the Lord as we can get. ESR

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. is the proprietor of the new blog The Philosopher's Fortress which can be found at www.jackkerwick.com.  

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