Saturday, July 24, 2010

Should the church challenge Christian fundamentalism?

This is a sensitive subject because the mainstream churches want to be tolerant and accepting of difference, but at the same time the activities of Christian fundamentalists impact negatively on mainstream Christianity.

In many ways interaction with fundamentalist Christians is like interfaith dialogue because what they believe is very far from the historical beliefs of the Christian church. For example, fundamentalism tends to be unjust and confrontational which is quite different to most Christian’s understanding of the teachings and example of Jesus.

What is Christian fundamentalism?
Fundamentalist evangelical Christianity is a 19th century religious movement with its roots in the USA. It originates in a list of “fundamentals” of the faith which can be found here.

In its modern form its general identifying features include:

  • Belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture.
  • The Bible is taken to be literal regardless of the genre of writing of the passage being read.
  • Some fundamentalists hold that the Authorised Version of the bible is the only true preserved word of God.
  • Belief in dispensationalism including the special place of Israel in God’s plans and the imminent return of Christ via the rapture.
  • Growing adherence to Jewish festivals, Hebrew biblical names and dietary laws.
  • Some fundamentalists are charismatic but some are cessationist.
  • Great emphasis put on sexual morality (abstention before marriage and the condemnation of homosexuality).
  • Lack of interest in “good works” except where they are likely to lead to new converts.
  • Belief in young earth creationism.
  • Rejection of ecumenism and sometimes even isolation fro other fundamentalist groups.
  • Rejection of theological education and a detachment form church history and tradition.

How big is the challenge of fundamentalism?
There is a perception that the number of fundamentalist Christians in the UK is increasing, but I am not sure this is the case. Its a complex picture which contains a number of elements (listed here in no particular order):

  • As church attendance has fallen evangelicals and fundamentalists have become a larger part of what remains while still being of a similar numerical size to previously.
  • The increase in Christian television channels has given fundamentalist ideas a wider platform and greater currency. There are currently 16 Christian channels on the Sky satellite TV platform and 14 of these hold strongly fundamentalist positions.
  • Whilst there is anecdotal evidence of a decrease in the number of congregations within mainstream denominations who permit fundamentalist ideas the number of independent churches, especially in the west African immigrant communities, has increased.
  • The collapse of the Christian Bretheren in the UK and their members assimilation into Baptist and Independant Evangelical churches has caused their theology to become more mainstream.
  • Fundamentalist ideas are closely associated with the political right in the USA and they have mastered the use of the Internet to make their ideas appear more mainstream than they might otherwise be.
  • Strong connection between popular conspiracy theories and similar theories put forward by well known fundamentalist writers and speakers (e.g. the secular anti Europe feelings and the wish to maintain the pound, and the fundamentalists being opposed to Europe because they see it as  a recreation of the Holy Roman Empire).
  • The Internet and Christian Television has allowed individual church members to be influenced by apparently persuasive arguments outside the community of their own church and the influence of a theologically trained minister.
  • Declining church attendance has caused some churches to look at successful American churches and duplicate their methods and theology while funding from US based Christian organisations to UK based evangelical groups has encouraged them to become more open to the ideas of their benefactors.

What is the nature of the challenge?
Fundamentalist Christianity in the UK is quite small, but its influence greater than its size.

One example of this is the promotion by fundamentalists of young earth creationism. Prior to 1990 in the UK this was not something given much prominence in conservative evangelical circles. It did exist in some of the smaller groups like the brethren but during the early 90’s it started to spread. “Creation Science” was said to be able to prove that God existed by proving the truth of the bible. The argument went like this: “if the bible is true about creation then it must be true about everything else therefore God exists”. It doesn’t take much examination to realise that that statement is illogical. Even if the creation story in Genesis was found to be compatible with observable facts this would not have any definitive bearing on the veracity of the rest of scripture. Not withstanding the illogicality of this argument the fundamentalists pushed ahead in the 1990’s and created the very hammer with which the new atheists would later attack the church. All the atheists had to do was reverse the argument: “If the creation story is proved to be false then the bible is not true and there is no God”.

Another example is the blanket condemnation of homosexuality even though a literal reading of the bible’s references to homosexual acts show them to be only condemnatory in certain circumstances (e.g. if they are between people who do not have a homosexual nature or between teachers and pupils - something common in Greek culture of the time). The fundamentalist interpretation relies on a non literal interpretation of the texts in the original languages which is a strange reversal of the fundamentalists normal belief about biblical interpretation. In Christian fundamentalist ethics it often appears that the bible is used simply as a reinforcement of a previous moral zeitgeist rather than as a way of illuminating how people should treat each other.

Why do mainstream churches seem to be avoiding the issue?
It is very difficult for the mainstream church to enter this debate because it does not want to be seen as critical of other people’s faith, especially when that faith is superficially so similar to their own. There is also the risk that criticism by moderate church leaders would be seen as persecution by the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists view criticism as persecution and persecution is clear  evidence to them that they are doing the right things. The more a fundamentalist is criticised the more they believe they are correct. Mainstream churches are also seeing some growth at their Conservative Evangelical fringes. Whilst these members are not fundamentalists there is reticence to be seen as critical of evangelical ideas which on their own are not necessarily harmful. Another reason for the lack of criticism is that an increasing number of fundamentalist churches are from the African immigrant community. There is a reticence to be seen as critical of them in case this is viewed as racial discrimination, imperialism or simply cultural insensitivity.

How can mainstream churches address this?
I have no simple answers, but I can see paths by which they could start addressing the issue.

One option is for churches to treat Christian Fundamentalism as a different faith from mainstream Christianity and deal with it on an interfaith basis. This would allow it to be questioned and challenged while still retaining respect for the fundamentalist position. Previously its been quite easy for debate to turn into shouts of “fundie” which is something that does not happen in interfaith dialogue. Treating it as an interfaith issue would enshrine a respectful attitude.

There also needs to be open debate within mainstream churches on the wider fundamentalist issue rather than the narrow hobby horses of science vs religion and ethical issues like homosexuality. The divide really originates from different understandings of the atonement and the purpose of the bible (rather than its textual mechanics). Discussions about these sort of issues might discourage the pull of some people away from an orthodox position towards fundamentalism.

Christians need to get more involved in presenting their faith through online media. Not necessarily in debate or interaction, but in simple expressions of how their faith affects their lives. This has tended to be the monopoly of fundamentalist blogs and discussion boards. Look up any theological or biblical issue on a search engine and it will be mainly fundamentalist sites in the results. This balance needs to be redressed.

Theological education is also an important factor and mainstream churches should encourage the education of the laity so they can explain their holistic understanding of the bible and gospel message. One method of doing this might be to run events and classes which are open to the wider public. This will be of benefit to the churches in their mission to the world as well as a defence against fundamentalism.