Not long ago I removed myself from an internet discussion group that focused on the theology and praxis of my religious tradition. The level of hostility directed toward other Christian traditions and the dismissiveness of what I know to be responsible scholarship on the part of some were toxic.
A number of years ago evangelical mathematician and philosopher Bill Dembski wrote: “There’s a mentality I see emerging in conservative Christian circles that one can never be quite conservative enough. This has really got me thinking about fundamentalism and the bane it is.”
I think Dembski is right, and I also think it’s worth asking why a more-conservative-than-thou defensiveness has become the default position of too many today. I suspect it has to do, at least in part, with a batten-down-the-hatches response to an increasingly hostile cultural environment (more about that below).
Another interesting aspect of this conservatizing phenomenon is that it is especially evident among younger white males, and I’ve frequently used the term “young fogies” to reference it. Psychologically and sociologically, I suppose it makes sense. Couple a sense of marginalization and the anxieties that go with being a younger white male in the current cultural environment with the desire to differentiate themselves from an older generation of evangelicals they regard as squishy and compromising and stridency is what you are likely to get.
One frequent explanation proffered for fundamentalism, and one dating back at least to H. L. Mencken in the early 20th century, is intellectual softness. A Facebook friend recently suggested to me that we “really don’t have a very well-educated ministry” and that “most conservative ministers lack the competence and the confidence to engage challenging issues theologically.” Of course, there’s at least something to that. For one thing, we’re sometimes starting from a deficit. As historian Mark Noll famously put it, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 3).
Also, due to a variety of factors—the “professionalization” of the clergy, declines in student aptitude and preparation, and so forth—seminary education has been dumbed down in recent decades. In terms of a typology I developed a number of years ago (catechetical vs. critical, confessional vs. ecumenical, and school for pastors vs. graduate school of theology), the most common seminary model in conservative Reformed circles seems to be catechetical/confessional/school for pastors, and that’s not necessarily the best training for navigating troubled cultural waters or thinking through difficult theological issues.
That being said, I’m somewhat skeptical of the explanatory value of this intellectual-mediocrity argument, and for reasons that will be evident below. More interesting is the deeper question of why such intellectual softness is not only tolerated but celebrated.
So how should this fundamentalism be characterized? The common account—the conflict of rationality vs. irrationality or reason vs. faith—is clichéd, frequently self-serving, and doesn’t, in my opinion, get one very far. For one thing, all positions have a “faith element” to them. You can’t prove everything; you have to start with certain foundational, pre-theoretical convictions about the nature of reality. As the late Presbyterian theologian John Leith aptly put it,
All people . . . live by faith. To be a human being is to live by faith. There is no other alternative. . . . The events of life compel us to faith commitments, whether explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious. Each day before we have been up three hours we have made decisions in the light of some faith commitment about the nature of the universe, about the nature of the human being, about the significance of a human being, about the meaning of human life (John H. Leith, Basic Christian Doctrine, 6).
For another, some of the fundamentalists I know are cerebral; they pride themselves on their reason and scholarship. The problem is that their reason and scholarship are sometimes skewed or misdirected and this tendentiousness can lead to odd results.
Rather, I suspect the problem lies in a lack of balance, an inability to hold together perspectives that are needful for good theology and church life. Cultural pressure is leading some to choose the binary logic of either/or when both/and may be more appropriate. Here are two examples.
Reformed theology at its best has sought to do justice to the both/and of what the neo-Calvinist tradition has called “common grace” (e.g., the epistemological potential that belongs to all by virtue of God’s creation grace) and the “antithesis” (the difference between what God intended for humanity and the post-fall human condition as it actually obtains). This is an apt way of getting at both the grandeur of human potential and achievement and the tragedy of the human condition. Fundamentalism, it seems to me, tends to camp out in the antithesis, and effectively to deny the doctrine of common grace. Thus the findings of various disciplines (geology, biology, astrophysics, textual criticism, etc.) are sometimes discounted without a person really wrestling with them.
With regard to Scripture, Christian theology at its best has sought to do justice to Scripture as divine and human—as fully authoritative Word of God and as human text that can be studied in terms of the cultural context of the ANE and the Graeco-Roman world. Fundamentalism is strong on the divine character of Scripture, but the human dimension is often ignored or effectively denied. What can emerge is a pretty docetic view of the Bible, as if it simply dropped out of the sky with no connection to the historical context in which it actually emerged.
The last sentence of the preceding paragraph perhaps hints at a deeper problem. Notice that both examples cited evince problems with human endeavor as enculturated and embodied in time and space. Is there an analogy to be drawn between the Gnostics of the second century and modern fundamentalism? I’m still pondering that one, but I suspect more parallels could be drawn.