Why am I So Hard on Christian Fundamentalists?

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No dancing

No dancing (Photo credit: chrisinplymouth)

I agree with most of what Christian Fundamentalism accepts–the virgin birth of Christ, the incarnation, the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead, the resurrection and judgment of all people at Christ‘s second coming. I am pro-life on the abortion issue (even in cases of rape or incest the act is objectively morally wrong). I believe that premarital sex and any kind of homosexual activity is sinful. It would seem that Fundamentalists should be blood brothers. Yet some of my posts have been rather “outspoken” against Fundamentalism, to the point that I offended some old friends of mine. I owe them–and anyone who reads this blog–an explanation.

It is true that I largely agree with Fundamentalist positions. I think it is far better to be part of most Fundamentalist Christian Churches than to be part of a liberal Protestant body such as the Episcopal Church (ECUSA). However, Fundamentalism harms Christianity because the unfounded positions of many Fundamentalists, the rabid legalism and Puritanism of some Fundamentalist groups, and the extreme ignorance of some Fundamentalist Christians drive people away from the Gospel of Christ.

One example is the Fundamentalist belief in the strict inerrancy of Scripture, even in historical and scientific matters. All I would have to do to discount that view is to have students read two different Gospel accounts of the Limited Commission, one in which Christ exhorts His disciples to take a staff, and the other in which he exhorts them to take no staff. I could also point out that Genesis 1-11 is modified from earlier Babylonian accounts of the creation and flood and reflects the ancient world view of a flat earth, a solid firmanent in the sky with holes for the sun, moon, and stars, and an underworld wherein dwell the shades of the dead. The Bible is not absent of theological error–no Christian should emulate the attitude of the psalmist in Psalm 137, who says, “Happy is he who takes your little ones [i.e., babies and children] and dashes them against the rock.” Holy Scripture is inerrant in all matters necessary to our salvation–but there is no theological requirement for a stronger doctrine of inerrancy.

Young-earth creationism is a view held by some Fundamentalists–the view that the earth is several thousand years old and the Great Flood made most of the fossils and geological formations we see today. As I have noted before in this blog, this position does not fit the facts, such as the difference between flood-based deposits of sediment and sediment laid out over a long period of time. Although there are concerns with how some scientists interpret evolution, evolution as such is not contrary to Christian faith. A young person who is brought up on young earth creationism as the only proper way to interpret Genesis may lose his faith when confronted with the actual evidence.

Puritanism is a part of some Fundamentalist groups. Some forbid dancing, not realizing that there is a difference between the lewd, simulated sex in dance today and the traditional forms of dancing. The same groups allow kissing but not “necking” or “petting,” apparently oblivious to how much a kiss can turn on people. Where I went to school, dancing was banned, so many students engaged in horizontal “dancing” in the dorms. Such hypocrisy is inevitably the result of legalistic moralizing.

Forbidding consumption of alcohol ignores the fact that Jesus drank wine (no, dear Fundys, it was not grape juice–it was wine and one could get drunk on it) and that drinking in moderation is not unhealthy. Some people should not drink alcoholic beverages, not because it is wrong in itself, but because they have a propensity not to stop drinking once they start. For others, however, there is nothing wrong with moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages.

A more serious problem is the acceptance of Dispensational Premillenialism by many Fundamentalists. This had led Christian Fundamentalists to support Israel blindly and to be warmongers, especially if the war involves fighting nations they perceive to be a threat to Israel. Some of the most rabid voices hankering for war with Iran have been from Christian Fundamentalists. They ignore the symbolic nature of the 1000-year reign (10x10x10, a perfect number symbolizing the fullness of time) of Christ, and locate that reign in a literal Jerusalem. Such a view of God’s kingdom was rejected by Jesus Himself (“my kingdom is not of this world). It ignores the fact that the Book of Revelation was written to be understood by its original readers, who would have known that the opponent of God in that book is the Roman Empire that was persecuting Christians.

Fundamentalists are often consumed with fascination about Satan, demons, and hell, to the point that every teenager wearing a trench coat and listening to heavy metal music is a violent threat to others. Fundys fear difference of any kind instead of using practical reason to determine which differences are worthy of negative judgment and which ones are not. The Robin Hood Hills murder suspects who were wrongfully convicted (the “West Memphis Three“) of murdering young cub scouts were convicted by ignorant Fundamentalists who saw Satanism everywhere. Damien Echols had a name that reminded them of the movie, “The Omen,’ and Fundys were too stupid to realize that Echols was referring to Father Damien when he changed his name. His use of the name was to honor the great priest who labored among lepers and eventually died of the disease himself. I listen to heavy metal music (and to classical, jazz, bluegrass, anything but rap, hip-hop, and most contemporary country). I enjoy Iron Maiden, Pantera, Rob Zombie, Anthrax, Zao, and Yog Suggoth. Does that make me a Satanist? Some Fundys would think so–and they would be dead wrong. It is sad that Echols states in his autobiography that the behavior of Christian Fundamentalists in getting him wrongly convicted turned him against Christianity–even so, he has a rosary and engages in some Christian spiritual disciplines. How many people who otherwise would have become active, loving, and orthodox Christians have been driven off by the extremism of Fundamentalism? God only knows, but those guilty of driving others away from the faith will answer for it.

On Christmas

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Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1

Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think my favorite Christmas special is the Charlie Brown Special, in which Linus reads from the Gospel of Luke–the story of “what Christmas is all about,” and at the end the children sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The theme of the show was against the commercialization of Christmas. That trend has continued to the point that for retailers, “Christmas” begins in September. That is a shame. For Western Catholic Christians, Christmas begins December 25 and continues until January 5, and then there is the Feast of the Epiphany (the coming of the Wise Men) on January 6. The time before Christmas is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, with the focus being on the Second Coming more than the first.

For orthodox Christians of whatever stripe, Christmas is about the coming of God into man, in which God Himself, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was born as a baby in a manger over 2000 years ago. The notion of a being who is fully God, fully man is an offense to many in the intellectual classes–Kierkegaard recognized this in his writings. The belief seems absurd. Yet the Christian faith teaches the coming of the eternal into time, the infinite into the finite, the God-man. Because of that, sin and death are overcome and human beings have not only the hope of salvation from sin, but of salvation from death. Salvation is far more valuable than anything than Santa Claus can bring! I have no problem with children believing in Santa Claus as long as they are taught the true meaning of Christmas–God, born like the rest of us, as a newborn baby who grew up, struggled as we do with temptation, taught a “more excellent way,” was crucified, died, and was buried, and was raised from the dead. Now God the Son remains incarnate, fully God, fully man, for all time. It is an incredible message, that is for sure. I believe it to be true. For those readers who also believe it to be true, consider the wonder of it and thank God for the gift of Himself for us.

God and Judgement

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Икона "Страшный суд"

Икона “Страшный суд” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today many people desire a God who is nonjudgmental. This God will not judge anyone for their behavior. Even if He does judge, He always forgives, whether or not a person is repentant. He never condemns any act as intrinsically wrong. If the Bible or church teaching that something is essential for salvation, this God says, “Religion gets in the way of a relationship with me. Be spiritual, not religious.” This God demands no religious duties. This God is easygoing when it comes to moral rules. For this God, Hell is an impossibility. All people will spend eternity with Him in Heaven.

One of the amazing facts about contemporary America is that some people will actually worship a deity like the one described in the above paragraph. This pusillanimous being is as worthy of worship as Santa Claus dropping down a chimney. A God without judgment is no God at all. He can be merciful–and mercy only makes sense in the context of judgement anyway.

If God is our Creator, it is reasonable to suppose that He would reveal Himself to man, not only though natural revelation but also through special revelation. He would have further reason to reveal Himself if human beings are fundamentally flawed. Now human beings are fundamentally flawed–it does not take the mass killings of the twentieth century or the conflicts of the twenty-first to see that this is the case. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Gulag Archipelago:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”

God would, if He is the personal God in which Christians believe, provide information essential for deliverance from this flawed state. For Christians, God reveals Himself in Holy Scripture (in Roman Catholic thought, through Holy Tradition as well). Both sources of authority for Christianity reveal a God of both judgement and mercy. God holds people responsible for both their moral and religious lives. Humans all sin–they all do things morally wrong–sometimes not knowing an action is sinful, sometimes being controlled by a force such as lust, and sometimes they plan to perform an action they realize is wrong. All sins are forgivable under the condition of repentance. An obstinate lack of repentance yields the judgment of God, and Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition make is clear that God will allow those who wish to sin to keep to themselves. It is not as much that God withdraws from them–He allows them to withdraw themselves. Since God is the source of all being, goodness, and happiness, their state can only lead to misery. Saying to the sinner, “THY will be done” is a form of judgment, for it says that the sinner cannot live in the presence of God. The attitude of rebellion against God can be fostered by a rebellion against the moral law (which is a subset of the natural law that is available to all people who are able to use their reason). Rebellion against religious limitations, especially against the “scandal of particularity” of Christianity, can also influence someone to stop following God’s revelation to man.

The Church sets theological limits through the Creeds, short statements of belief that summarize the fleshing out of Scripture via Holy Tradition. There are certain beliefs Christians must affirm–if a Christian openly denies these key beliefs (the bodily resurrection of Christ, for instance) and teaches that error, he is liable to be excommunicated. This does not imply he is going to Hell, but the attitude underlying heresy, a pride that refuses to submit to the Church’s teaching, may reflect a character that would not enjoy being in God’s presence.

Holy Scripture and Tradition also make moral demands–no one can keep them perfectly, and they are challenging. “Love your enemies” is almost practically impossible to follow, though some Christians have done so. Avoiding hatred, envy, spite, jealousy, and excessive anger are imperative on the Christian, but no one avoids practicing at least one of these flaws at some point in one’s life. The church states that abortion and active euthanasia as well as physician-assisted suicide are morally wrong–and there is an arrogance to the claim that “I have the right to determine the time and manner of my own death.” Such arrogance is spiritually dangerous. The refusal to follow the Church’s sexual morality can occur due to weakness–or someone may be sexually immoral on purpose yet realize it is wrong. There is spiritual hope for such individuals. But God’s judgment may fall upon those individuals who say that “wrong is right” and “right is wrong” concerning the Church’s sexual ethics. This also reveals an arrogance, a refusal to submit to legitimate authority. Such arrogance may result in God’s judgment in the sense that God may allow those people to do what they will on their own. I am sure He will always be open to receiving them, but they, due to their free will, could decide to eternally reject God. “The doors to Hell are locked on the inside,” said C. S. Lewis.

The Christian God is worthy of worship not only because He is Creator of all things, but also because He is our ultimate judge. He is also a God of mercy–but mercy extends to those open to correction and repentance. Others will refuse to receive such mercy, and God’s judgment is to allow them to live in such a state in their own world–that is, Hell. I personally do not want to worship Santa Claus. God in His glory, justice, and mercy is the only being worthy of worship.

The 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference

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English: Lipscomb University in Nashville, Ten...

English: Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

550 scholars from throughout the nation and some from overseas participated in the 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference at David Lipscomb University. This was the first CSC I attended. It was only two years ago that I discovered that those outside Churches of Christ could present papers and/or attend the conference. Since Lipscomb was my Alma mater, I could not pass up the opportunity.

Besides seeing old friends I had not seen in years, I was treated, as were the other conference attendees, to top-notch Christian scholarship. I learned something valuable at every session I attended. In the session in which I presented a paper on functional magnetic resonance imaging and mind-reading (I do not think fMRIs can read minds!), respondents gave me some names of people from the computer science field whom I need to read. That advice should strengthen the paper considerably as I try to get it into journal-submission shape.

The theme was reconciliation, but there were papers in many areas: religious studies, theology, Biblical studies, church history, pastoral theology, and philosophical theology. The strong interdisciplinary focus of the conference is one of its strengths.

The highlight of the conference for me was the talk by Immaculee Ilibagiza, a woman who hid in a small bathroom with seven other women during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Her entire family was killed. During her time hiding, she discovered faith in a God who acts, a God who requires forgiveness, and she was able to forgive those who murdered her family. Her willingness to forgive, the seriousness with which she takes her Christianity, her love for others, and her humility make her a saint of God. Her story put me to shame—and so many others who often refuse to forgive much less serious offenses than Ms. Immaculee Illigabiza suffered. What a fitting end to a splendid conference.

Having been outside Churches of Christ since 1986, and a member of the Anglican Catholic Church, one thing that surprised me was the openness of the members of the Church of Christ to those of other faith traditions. Another surprise was the higher liturgical religious services with litanies and responsive readings of the psalms. The participation of women in various parts of the service was also a big change from my days at Lipscomb. A big shock was that I was more conservative, both theologically and politically, than the majority of the conference participants. There were a number of papers covering issues of race, class, and gender, areas that, in my judgment, are too often abused by people on the left to further their particular agenda. There was a strong liberal political bias toward social democracy in the sense of the New Deal/Great Society model. There was also a strong sense that the Courts should override the power of the states for the sake of what is good. The difficulty with that strategy is that a Court that has the power to rule for the good also has the power to rule in favor of evil—and world history does not provide a particularly favorable picture of the use of government power. Those who assert such positions mean well and believe that they are practicing their Christianity by changing society for the better and by being “prophetic.” A friend of mine once said that a man at church who is tired after driving a truck for a living does not need a “prophetic sermon” on what a jerk he is for ignoring the concerns of (pick your favorite one or more of the liberals’ “favored groups”). What I hope is that the more liberal people at the conference realize that both liberals and conservatives are concerned for justice and for the poor, but they differ on strategy and on the role of government.

I am more concerned that theologically those questioning much of the tradition in which they were reared would be careful “not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.” There are essential Christian beliefs which are stated by the Apostle’s and Nicene-Athanasian Creeds and by the early councils of the church. The bodily resurrection of Christ, the Incarnation, that Jesus is fully God, fully man, the virgin birth, the Holy Trinity—all are essential tenants of Christianity that cannot be jettisoned without destroying the faith. In addition, the traditional moral teachings of the Church, including traditions concerning sexual ethics, should be affirmed and lived. When people are unsure of the identity of their tradition, especially intelligent and sometimes brilliant academics, it is tempting to lose one’s way.

Another temptation is intellectual arrogance, that “we are better than all those ignorant people in the pulpit.” I have been down that road—and it is a road of sinful pride. Everyone should read Helmut Thielicke’s A LITTLE EXERCISE FOR YOUNG THEOLOGIANS.

All that being said, the 2012 Christian Scholars’ Conference was a splendid conference, and God willing, I hope to present a paper there next year.

Christianity and Victimology

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Jesus Christ Crucifix

Jesus Christ Crucifix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christian scholars often tilt toward social democracy or to full-fledged socialism in their thought, as well as an activist role for the federal courts in overturning immoral laws passed by the states. I admire their sincerity and zeal in their cause, but I cannot agree with their naivety about human nature and the realities of political life in a fallen world. In addition, the moralistic way in which they present their message is sapping with more sentimentality than with logic.

There is no question that Jesus demanded the highest standards of conduct toward God and toward one’s fellow human beings. The first and greatest commandment, as Jesus said, is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, with the second greatest requiring that a person love his neighbor as himself. These are not abstract demands–they require that a person take concrete actions to fulfill them. When it comes to loving one’s neighbor, this begins with one’s self, then moves out to family and friends, and finally to strangers in need. The command is also incompatible with any treatment of individuals that violates their dignity–this is like Kant’s third version of the Categorical Imperative that says one should act as much as possible so as to treat a person as an end in himself and not as a means to an end.

Now politically liberal Christians often claim that the federal government should love its neighbor by large-scale social programs for the poor. This sounds like a good, loving idea, but it runs into the problem that poor people are most effectively helped at the local level by people who know their overall situations. Throwing federal money at the poor has only made them dependent and lacking initiative to improve their lot in life. Any observer who has a modicum of objectivity can observe the failure of Lyndon Johnson‘s Great Society. A more modest government, oriented toward the states and to more local areas of control and resource allocation, can do more good to stimulate business to hire more workers and to help those among the poor who desire to raise themselves out of their situation of poverty.

The federal courts should not be in the position of enforcing the particular moral obsessions of judges into the federal law books. Well-meaning court rulings in the 1950s and 60s on Civil Rights were meant to fight clear injustices, but it would have been more in line with the Constitution to allow good people from the states along with people of good will from other places to persuade the good people in each state to fight against immoral laws. With enough political pressure, or with enough voters turning out those who support immoral practices, the state legislatures would most likely follow their best interests in changing the law in the direction of the good. There are no guarantees, but the seizing of state power by the federal courts will only lead to long term erosion of the power of the states and the growth of an inefficient, over-regulating federal government with the power to intimidate individuals through exercise of police power.

Well-meaning Christians look at the world simplistically–“We can change society for the better.” It is a short jump to go from “we” to a mammoth federal bureaucracy that will only grow in power until it engulfs the power of the states–and eventually guts freedom in general.

Victims are created and maintained to support the federal bureaucracy. Group identity trumps individual identity, and the individual is subsumed into a victim-group which in turn is kept dependent by the state in order to keep the ruling order in power. Christians are sympathetic to victims because Christ was also a victim of injustice and suffered a terrible death by crucifixion. Being a victim raises the moral status of the victim in the eyes of many Christians. The victim becomes a Christ-figure who does not need to reform his life, but only needs to say, “I am a member of minority victim Group A, therefore I should receive federal benefits B and C and D, etc.” Christianity needs to open its eyes to its own doctrine of the Fall, so that it recognizes that even well-meaning strategies to bring about justice do not work in real life, especially when those individuals who live irresponsibly do not amend their ways. The victim, in turn, enjoys the status of victim since it takes away his responsibility in life and turns his care over to others.

Christians should take care that their well-meaning, loving strategies do not leave the world a worse place than before. They can do what they can to help individuals in their own communities–that way, one small step at a time, without the poison of identity politics, people can be truly helped.

One Year Later in a Journey of Grief

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Natchez Trace Trail

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Last May my best friend died after a six-year battle with breast cancer. Karen showed great courage in facing her disease and lived life to the fullest, remaining asymptomatic over most of the course of her disease. I visited her in Hospice a couple of weeks before she died, and tomorrow I return to the city where she lived to meet with some of her beloved friends to reminiscence. The deep sense of loss remains palpable, an ache in my heart, and it remains difficult to face the fact that she is gone, at least this side of eternity. I believe in the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” but emotionally that promise often seems too good to be true when facing the finality of a loved one’s death. I long for a “visitation” from her, as may loved ones of the dead have experienced, but then I feel guilty, remembering Jesus‘ words that “an evil and corrupt generation seeks after a sign.” I wonder if I received a visitation, such as a few days ago when I was at a stream near the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, and two butterflies kept landing on me–Karen loved butterflies (which are also a traditional symbol of the resurrection), and her boyfriend released some after her funeral. But then I doubt since butterflies like to drink the sweat off people. Rage at God taking her away all too soon fights it out with guilt at my own lack of faith, and fear that that lack will separate me from God–and from her. Soon my journey in grief will be a literal journey, and I pray that God will grant all of us who visit places of fond memory that we will rejoice in those memories while realizing the extent of loss, realizing that grief for a loved one only eases but never ultimately comes to an end. If God be so gracious that we sense her presence with us, thanks be to Him; if not, we should still thankful for her life and the promise that this life is not all there is.

I marvel at those individuals who believe in God but deny life after death. St. Paul said in I Corinthians 15 that “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” This is not egotistical; it is an acknowledgement of the value of others, a value that can only be truly sensed by love. I have hope in Christ. I have doubts. “Lord, I believe; pardon Thou my unbelief!” When the veil is parted and reality in its fullness is finally revealed, may those of us who knew and cherished Karen embrace her and speak with her once more. For those reading who mourn loved ones, I pray that you discover the hope beyond all hope, that “this body of death” will “rise in newness of life” in a world where love never dies, and neither do those we love.

Bloodthirsty Evangelicals

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Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

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A sad fact of contemporary American Christianity is the open-ended support many Christians give to war. Among the most fervent supporters of George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan have been conservative, Evangelical Christians. This is not to say that all Evangelicals support the wars–as with any group, there are exceptions. However, Evangelicals, who are mostly politically “conservative” (though I fail to see what is “conservative” about waging war) have tended to support U. S. military intervention abroad. Many Evangelical churches will have special services to honor our “heroes,” the troops returning from Iraq or from Afghanistan. Evangelicals in general are the most zealous supporters of “American Civil Religion,” with a U. S. flag prominently displayed in church and with patriotic songs sung at services on or near the date of national holidays such as July 4. Christians who protest the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are labeled as “wimps,” “liberal peaceniks,” or worse. Sometimes the rhetoric comes across as saying that a person who opposes these war is less of a Christian than those who support the wars. And some Evangelicals I have heard are bloodthirsty–there is no other accurate description. They will talk about nuking all “enemies of America” with an expression of sadistic glee.

Even if a Christian supports the notion that war is sometimes necessary, that does not imply that the Christian should accept the justness of any war a nation wages just because he is a citizen of that nation. Some advocates of just war theory opposed the Iraq War in particular–Iraq had never invaded the United States and was not a threat to the United States. “Preemptive war” is nowhere a part of just war theory. Yet millions of traditional Christians naively supported Dubya, Cheney, and Rumsfeld in their execution of an unjust war that killed many thousands on  both sides.

Even if a war is necessary, no Christian should support it with glee, nor should the Christian rejoice at enemy deaths. Such a message is contrary to Christ‘s command to “love one another” and to “love your enemies.” A bloodthirsty attitude toward killing is incompatible with Christianity. Such an attitude is so contrary to the message of Jesus that, from a traditional Christian point of view, it is difficult to see how one who accepts that attitude could live in the eternal presence of God. Hatred of others and joy in killing and in war are products of Satan, not of God. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps Evangelical Christians, who are so literalistic on other parts of the Bible, should follow this advice literally.