Get Them into the Lifeboat -- Future of Faith #10

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009,

Chapter 10: Get Them into the Lifeboat:
The Pathos of Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is a variant of creedalism, one that equates faith with the unwavering affirmation of certain fundamental beliefs. It is an obsession with belief, which according to Harvey Cox, makes faith itself more elusive. This concern for right doctrine creates a defensiveness and spiritual pride that isn’t “in keeping with the love ethic of Jesus” (p. 141). Cox speaks of fundamentalism with a certain level of personal experience – even if not long in duration. Like many college young people he got drawn into a conservative Christian community – his encounter was related to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the late 1940s. In telling his story, he notes that the IVF people were sincere, friendly, and inviting. They were also concerned for intellectual rigor – except that they rejected any critical study of scripture and lacked a concern for social justice. He notes also that there was a certain social prudery in this group (no necking allowed). As he navigated the social mores and the doctrinal limitations, questions emerged that didn’t find an answers, and in time he found himself moving away from the movement.

Having spent some time in such circles myself, I can concur with some of what he writes (though my experiences were 30 years later, when social mores had loosened up somewhat – necking was okay, within limits). Like him, I can say that I learned a lot from my time in the conservative Christian community, including a deep appreciation for Scripture, but I too found myself moving away from that perspective.

Fundamentalism is marked by a number of concerns ranging from biblical inerrancy to the virgin birth of Christ, but the one “fundamental” that is perhaps most troubling to him (and to me) is the focus on an end times theology that can be both “destructive and self serving.” Especially troubling is the dispensationalist form that was developed by John Nelson Darby in the late 19th century. This theology, which includes an elaborate end times scenario focused on the rapture of the church (the focus of the Left Behind novels), makes, in his estimation, “any concern for the health of the planet’s oceans and air and forests superfluous.” It also undermines any responsible engagement in the Middle East, where Armageddon is supposed to occur at the end of days.

Although troubling, the roots of fundamentalism are understandable. Consider the fears that people will lose their faith in the face of modern intellectual challenges. Cox points to a 1910 Harvard sponsored lecture by Charles Eliot that suggested that Christianity should be marked by only one commandment – loving God through service to others. In this new version of Christianity there would be no place for “theology, churches, scriptures, or worship” (p. 147). It was in response to “attacks” such as these that the five fundamentals were formulated and dispersed across the country and beyond. Each of the five was designed to counteract specific perceived attacks on the faith.
There were five. The first and most prominent “fundamental” was the divine inspiration and total inerrancy of the Bible. This conviction was the cornerstone on which everything else was built. Second, they listed the Virgin Birth of Christ as a testimony to his divinity. Next, they included the “substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world, and his bodily resurrection from the dead. Finally, they asserted that belief in the imminent second coming of Christ “in Glory” was in no way optional, but just as “fundamental” as the other beliefs in their creed” (p. 148).

He points out that this list seems arbitrary. Nothing is said of the life of Jesus and his ministry, for instance. Why did they pick these five? They counteracted the challenges – thus inerrancy was designed to respond to historical criticism, the virgin birth and atonement were responses to the idea that Jesus was nothing more than a spiritual leader and example.

With the world heading in the direction that the fundamentalists perceived the only real course of action seemed to be to rescue as many as possible before the end came. Thus, Dwight L. Moody spoke of getting people into lifeboats as the ship sank. Although they were wary of outside threats, they were most concerned about the threats from within the church – fifth columns that would offer a counterfeit form of faith that fit with the modern world.
In Cox’s view, there is definitely vigor in this version of Christian religion, but is there any future in a faith that is defined by what it’s reacting to? He admires their “commitment and drive,” but being a fundamentalist takes a lot of effort.

You must constantly fight not only the skepticism of those around you, but the doubts that arise within yourself. Mainly fundamentalists evoke from me a sense of sadness. Their pathos is that they expend such energy on such a losing cause (p. 152-153).

As noted up front in the book, Cox believes that fundamentalism is on the way out. That is because it simply cannot sustain itself in the modern world. It offers not a vision of transformation, but only of retrenchment and ultimately escape. There may be a lot of energy involved, but is it accomplishing anything? These are the questions.


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