Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Is Evangelicalism Fundamentally Flawed?

* This is a repost from a while ago, at my old blog. It created good discussion then, so I'm wondering if it will again. I'm also wondering if anyone who participated in the conversation then has changed their opinions since then... to that end, I'll also repost the original comments so we can see where we've all come since that time. *

The Enlightenment. Modernism. Deconstructionism. Postmodernism. Post-postmodernism. What does the Church believe? What are the essentials that do not change and what is culturally relevant?

While it may be an oversimplification, it seems that in a broad stroke, what separates “Evangelicalism” from “Fundamentalism” is how to handle the Enlightenment… and everything post-elightenment, really. Fundamentalism unrelentingly holds fast to the “fundamentals,” without any regard for what the modern sciences have to say about things. “Evangelicals,” on the other hand, are eager to interact with all that advanced human learning can teach us. Rather than writing off evolution by insisting that the Bible teaches a literal 6 day creation, Evangelicals are willing to roll with whatever it is in vogue for scientists. After all, why would we want to remain out of the loop? Does anyone have any respect for the Roman church’s response to poor old Galileo?

In contrast, Fundamentalists could care less what the rest of the world has to say, they insist that since the Bible teaches a literal 6 day creation, we have no need for further inquiry into the matter. Why, they bravely ask, does it even matter what a modern scientist might be able to find, when we have the Bible?

An Evangelical might quickly counter, “What are we afraid of?” All truth is God’s truth! If what we believe is truly true, then there is no truth that can disprove what we believe!

Call me a sceptic or whatever you want (okay, maybe not anything you want), but I see a problem here. I am not, strictly speaking, a Fundamentalist. I think it is a fundamentally wrong assumption for one to hold his beliefs with such little regard for what is demonstable truth. I would be an idiot to believe that pigs can fly when that is simply, patently (and demonstrably) untrue. If I believe something that has no grounding in reality, then it doesn’t matter how hard I believe, I’m still a fool for believing it.

So I can’t ignore what the sciences have to say…

But then why not be Evangelical (if my dichotomy may be allowed to stand for now)? Why not simply engage with all that the world can determine to be true? Without delving too deep into theories on the nature of truth, it must be acknowledged at least in some sense, that much of the “truth” we find empirically is fluid.

For example, not too long ago smoking was not the taboo it has become today. It wasn’t bad for your health, and was socially accepted. Now, however, we have determined that it is horrible for the human body and can cause any number of diseases. A few generations ago, the “truth” about smoking was different. It was knowledge based on a changing and evolving science.

Again, we could look at the different theories that have been held with regard to homosexuality or even alcoholism. What was once known by any number of societies to be “sin” (however that community defined it) has now in many circles become simply a genetic difference. Alcoholism is something that, regrettably, some people will have to deal with because of genes. Homosexuality is something to be celebrated as a normal part of a person’s genetic makeup.

So what do we do with knowledge gained through the sciences? Bill Webb argues that modern science can demonstrate that certain traits once thought to be tied to gender can now be shown to be more from genetic makeup than gender.

Many liberals within the Church of England argue that homo- sexuality is a part of genetic makeup, and can therefore not be wrong. The homosexuality Paul condemned was that of the pagan cultic worship rituals of his day. What Paul condemned was perversion, not personality. This is not to say that either Webb or the Anglicans are right or wrong, but rather to pose the question, what do we do with science?

Do we base doctrine on it? So what if we compromise on the creation issue and argue rather for a “theistic evolution,” but then the evidence tips back the other way again? Do we then turn and argue for a 6 day creation like it was the year 1589 all over again?

What if we could demonstrably prove scientifically that men are actually more gullible than women? Would that mean that we should take 1 Timothy 2 mean that only women should be elders in our churches?

And what if it is in fact proven that homosexuality has nothing to do with genetics, but everything to do with how someone is raised and socialized? Will the Anglican church have an about-face?

Or are our methods of using the “impartial” sciences really quite partial after all? Why is it that CNN reports all the time of skulls being researched which are millions of years old, while at the same time millions of more copies of “A Case For Creation” are sold in Christian bookstores?

If Evangelicals intend to use the modern sciences to inform their interpretation of the Scriptures, ought they not to define better what role these sciences should play? And what do they do when the science “changes”? Does truth change?

If Fundamentalists intend to hold unswervingly the timeless truths of the Bible, how in the world will they gain credibility in a society that is swamped with “facts” that disprove the “fundamentals”?

Is Evangelicalism destined for a future of fluidity–always trying to balance acceptance in scholarly and popular circles with attempts to remain faithful in some sense to the biblical witness?

Is Fundamentalism destined for a demise into infamy as it distances itself from all things relevant with ever-increasing speed?

Is there a middle ground? Is that even what we need? Do we look for further defintion or faster departure from these classical categories of modern Christendom?


ReadingMurray said...

Your musings are thought provoking, thanks for putting time and effort into the blog! We must stand fast to what the Bible states! Sometimes I feel we get caught up in the things of this world (materialism etc) and loose sight of the things that truly matter in life. However, we are living in this age and the questions that you pose are very relivent and needs to be thought through. I think that if the Bible states that homosexual behaviour is a sin(which it does) then wether it is ‘by’ genetics or gender still doesnt change what the Bible states about it and that we are still held acountable for what we do etc. What we say about what the scientific fact is another matter…I have heard (from the literal 6 day creationists point of view),in regard to the evidence, that we all have the same evidence, it is how you interpret it that makes the difference. Whether you find facts and try and put them in the Bible or whether you take the bible and interpret the facts by it…Ill have to give this more thought my friend….

Shelley said...

The human categories (i.e. evangelicalism, fundamentalism) are just that, human. In and of itself, thinking evangelically is as flawed as thinking liberally. Its a cultural context through which I process truth. Interestingly enough, I think Jesus himself is quite a radical, conservative, liberal, fundamental, extremist. How could you label him with a particular contruct? As his followers, I think we’re called to meet him in both his fundamentalism and his liberalism, and realize that the labels are just a human idea as way to divide perspectives.

Brad Watson said...

Julian, great questions, unfortunately i somehow just lost part of what iam about to write for the second time, perhaps it will show up somewhere, it is only the first part of what i intend to write here. But great questions jules, you have posed far too many questions for me to adequately respond, as is usually the case. So you will have to settle for my comments on particular aspects of your essay. I just jotted own some notes while i was reading and it is to them that i will reply. If my response seems somewhat disconnected, i apologize, see it as simple musing to julians grand questions.

I also need to say that i really enjoyed Shelleys comment above and i echo what he has said, i found his comments very insightful. So, to echo hm, i will say yes, evangelicalism is flawed, but so is very other ism, no one ism has a monopoly on truth, though some isms might be far closer to the truth than others.

Now, i want to address a few points in your essay. The first thing i want to address is your primary presupposition that you state in the second paragraph that really, what seperates evangelicalism and fundamentalism is how they each responded to the Enlightenment. I would tend to agree with you, but your distinction seems to insinuate that fundamentalists distanced themsleves from the Enlightenment holding to what the bible “teaches.” However, evangelicalism has tended to flirt with the Enlightenment allowing its findings through science to dictate what the bible says. I am not convinced that that is what evangelicalism has done…that is for another time though…however, i would challenge those who would say that fundamentalism distanced itself from the Bible and held to what the bible “taught.” I believe fundamentalism is actually a product of the Enlightenment and it turned the Bible into something it possibly was never intended to be.

Throughout your essay you refer to the creation debate as an example of how fundamentalism has distanced itself from the Enlightenment, but in my mind, what fundamentalism did, especially in the case of creation, was yield to the Enlightenment, and in a reaction to the mindset that science could answer all of our questions and give us all truth, it placed Scripture in the place of science. By this i mean, fundamentalism made the bible an answer book, it became our science book, our history book, our math book, when, possibly, the Bible was never meant to serve this purpose. Is Genesis spelling out for us a detailed scientific answer to the beginning of life on earth…or is it telling a story with timeless truths about life (i.e. everything was created by God and is reliant on God at all times for its very existence)? This question is for another time, but i say all of this to simply say, both evangelicalism and fundametalism are a product of the Enlightenment, not just evangelicalism. Evangelicalism interacts with science in trying to interpret the bible, fundamentalism simply makes the bible science.

My next point is that one of your basic questions throughout the essay is how we are to react to science, but i find your idea of science to be flawed. For instance, you question the fluidity of science and whether because of its fluidity it can be trusted, but i do not find this satisfactory. You use the case of smoking as an example. You say that smoking was seen by science as something that was good and perhaps even healthy, however, i would argue that it wasn’t that there was a science on smoking saying that it was good, it was rather that there was no science. It was only by testing and examining people who smoked and making them go through scientific tests that we realized that it was bad for us, so i think that this example actually works in reverse, this goes to show us that science can work to correct those things we falsely believe. It wasn’t science that said smoking was good, it was the advertisers who said that, and scientific research proved them wrong.

Ultimately, your essay seems to be getting at the question of homosexuality and how ’science’ might have deemed it natural. But again here, i find your idea of science flawed, it is not science that has deemed homosexuality morally right or wrong, it is people who have taken science and come to conclusions about homosexuality as a result of whatthey found in science. But really, science, in and of itself, excluding the judgments of those who conduct science if you will, has nothing to do with moral judgments. Science is a way to find facts, but it is how we interpret those facts that determine what we believe about something.

For instance, you mentioned the Anglicans as using science to defend homosexuality by arguing that since homosexuality is genetic, it must be morally acceptable, but if we look closely we will find that argumentation flawed. First of all, science might say homosexuality is genetic, but true science makes no moral judgment, it is only there to collect the facts. It is we as humans who make those calls, but certainly no one would believe that just because something is genetic it is morally acceptable. A pedophile might be genetically prone to that, but that does not make it right, a alcoholic might be genetically prone to alcoholism, but that does not make it right. In my mind, science here is not the enemy, it is whether or not we interpret it through a biblical lense or not. In my mind, evangelicalism may be flawed, but at least it is attempting to interact with science. Fundamentalism has made science the enemy, and in my mind, that is the bigger flaw.

I just feel that you have not made a proper distinction between what people do with science (webb and the anlgicans) and science itself. Allow me to just say this as i close. I am not sure i have made much sense here, but if i must state my own position, i would probably consider myself somewhat of a liberal evangelical (mind you, true liberals would question whether or not there is such a thing as a liberal evangelical, but let’s pretend there is such a thing…on the expanse of evangelicalism, i lean towards the left). having stated my biases, let me just say this…in my mind, the real difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism is the number of fundamentals to our faith. In reaction to the Enlightenment, fundamentalists resisted that truth could come outside Scripture and so made everything in Scripture to be literally and propositionally true, so, if you do not believe in a 6 literal days of creation, than you can’t believe in the rest of Scripture, which means, 6 days of creation must be a fundamental of the faith. Instead of letting the biblical story shape us, the bible has become an answer book to all of our questions, the bible has turned into somethign of a science book. Now, of course i believe there are some things we need to propositionally agree with in the bible if we are to call ourselves christ followers. the real difference between the two, evangelicalism and fundamentalism, is yes, partly how they responded to science, but more importantly, in light of that, it is ultimately, in my mind, how many fundamentals we have.

I feel like i have just rambled on, i hope i have made some sense here, and i hope i contribute to the conversation, thanks for the instigator Jules, it is fun to think about, keep the interesting essays coming, and please, respond to my response, i might have unfairly critiqued it. Chow for now!

Ian H said...

The Bible defends some of its claims based on observation. Like, as Julian noted, one of the reasons God set up
male-headship in the order of the church was because Paul observes that women are more easily deceived than men (1 Tim), and that woman comes from man (1 Cor 11)- although these are not the only, or arguably, the ‘biggest reasons.’
Arguably, the science of observation has told us that women are no more prone to deception than males and that the female body has more to do with one being birthed than the male input.
So… was Paul wrong? And if so, is his conclusion of male headship wrong?
Here’s my query: Did the authors of the Bible use the observations of their day to explicitly prove their conclusions? Or, did they begin with their conclusions and construct proofs for their audiences to lead them in the same direction? What I think I’m getting at is that what Paul was trying to say about male-headship remains even if the observational evidence used in the Bible no longer holds. Because the Bible is not a science text-book, it is okay to concede that the cultural observations/suggestions made by Paul are now “wrong,” but the larger, grander points he was making hold true. Is my logic sound? I’m just thinking here.

JLF said...

Gentlemen, thanks for the responses. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if this one would even get much of a response, since it’s something I know most of you have already thought about to some degree.

I won’t be able to comment on everything that has been said so far, but suffice it to say for now that another follow-up post will be coming. While this post was more of a rant where I posed some questions that I think both evangelicalism and fundamentalism (at least on a popular level) need to address, the idea was to have a part 2 where I ponder some potential positive steps(?). We’ll see.

1. Shelley–Your comments are pregnantly succinct. I’d love if you could post on your blog an expansion of how you feel Jesus is conservative, liberal, extremist, etc. I would love to give that a read. I do agree wholeheartedly, however, with both you and Bradley that these isms are merely human constructions. They can be helpful for classifying our thinkers and our thoughts, but none are absolutely perfect.

2. Ian–It seems that you and Bradley have some of the same concerns about making the Bible a “science textbook” when it was never intended to be. I will not argue that your logic is unsound or that your conclusions are ultimately wrong, but I do find it a little bit harder to handle the proposition that if a biblical writer’s argumentation is flawed, his argument still stands. If the Holy Spirit is inspiring these authors, mightn’t he have moved them to use a proper reason for drawing his conclusion? In other words, surely there must have been something in Paul’s day that could have enabled him to make his argument for male-headship based on fact, rather than on wrong cultural assumptions. Couldn’t the Holy Spirit have brought that to his mind? I think there must be another explanation. Am I understanding what you were saying?

3. Bradley–Thank you, good buddy. You never fail to bring a smile to my face. My basic premise was incredibly broad and shallow. The division I made between evangelicalism and fundamentalism and their respective “histories” was superficial at best and deserving of rebuke. I was more writing based on the broad assumption to create discussion, rather than attempting to prove the difference between them was what I thought it was (that’s why I provided no defence for the presupposition).

I did appreciate your comments with regards to fundamentalism reacting to the enlightenment by “giving in” to it. I wonder, do you think we are in danger in evangelicalism of making the same mistake with (post)postmodernism? My comments with regards to the smoking example and the fluidity of science were also well rebuffed. Smoking was a bad example, but it seemed simpler than some of the other ones I thought of. People comment all the time about how “they” are always telling us a particular food (say, red meat or something like that) is bad for us, but then a little time goes by and another study says its good for us. That example is a little more convoluted, but I think it helps get the point across.

It just seems like sometimes we spend too much time trying to figure out what science says, when oftentimes, science is still a work in progress. My other point was that science can often “say” what we want it to. Hence Christians buy “A Case for Creation” and the secular world buys the Newsworld headlines about a 400 million year old rock. That’s the distinction you were getting at, I think, between science and what people do with it. It was my point exactly. Science is not so impartial in that sense, because we interpret it however we want (just like ReadingMurray said in his comment).

Hope this helps, gents, I must get to bed. Please, keep the good thoughts coming, even if it means telling me I’m an idiot or something… :)

Brad Watson said...

Jules - This blog thing of yours is great, I love it. It is a great way to throw around ideas without having to be in each other’s presence (though it can be no substitute for that). Thanks for the reply, though again, I am feeling bad because i think my reply came across much harder than it was intended to. I am just trying to dialogue with your ideas, fully realizing that you are just throwing out some ideas as well. I found your essay here extremely insightful and full of good questions that deserve good answers, or at the very least, good discussion.

In regards to your reply, I completely agree with you, evangelicalism is very much in danger of getting to close in bed with postmodernism or whatever it is, there is always that tension of getting too close to culture instead of living the countercultural life of God’s kingdom. There is always that tension, which, in my mind, is why the cry of the Reformers to be always reforming is so poignant in the life of faith. I feel we must always be seeking to refine our faith so that i might stand the accusation of culturally bound. If someone like Webb, or Wright, or even Pinnock comes along and challenges our faith convictions, that is a good thing, because it allows us to revisit what we believe and examine it against the grain of culture and the period of time we live in.

If we find our beliefs or our understandings of those beliefs to have been at all shaped or morphed by our cultural surroundings, be it pre-modern, modern, or post-modern, our duty is to reform them, to refine them so that they are as timeless and true, and as in accordance with Scripture as possible. The individuals who are challenging some of these ideas will themsleves be challenged and if they do succeed in bringing forth change to the way we believe, there will come a time i am sure (when we have reached whatever is beyond post post modernism, hopefully it is just a new word so we can stop adding posts to modernity)when their ideas will be challenged as well.

This all of course begs the question of what is allowed to be questioned and reformed or refined and what, if anything, is is off bounds? In other words what issues can be challenged or taken on before one moves from a reformer to a heretic? Perhaps we should return to the fundamentals found in the early creeds and let those alone stand as unnegotiable dogmas? Or perhaps, only things that question the character or nature of Christ should be deemed off bounds? That, to me, is the big question, and of course, as soon as one finds a line to draw in the sand of what is and is not off bound,s there will be others to question if that line is has been drawn to quickly or not quick enough.

These are interesting times to be an evangelical, but it would seem to me that we are not far off from seeing the beginning of another movement within Christianity. Fundamentalism moved to evangelicalism, and i believe evangelicalism is in the process of birthing something else. So much could be said about this, but if I can draw the readers of this post to one work, it would be ‘The Younger Evangelicals’ by Robert Webber. Anyone who is trying to understand what is happening within fundamentalism and evangelicalism should read this book. I am in the process of doing that right now and i would enjoy some company. Jules, keep the essays coming, i enjoy reading them!