Drifting toward Fundamentalism – or moving boldly to a new Christian world-view
without a theistic God?
In June, 1941, an influential Christian theologian, Rudolph Bultmann, declared that the stories and accounts which make up the Christian New Testament could not be believed as literal accounts of historical events but must be considered myths. The task of theologians, he said, should be to “demythologize” the Bible, and find meanings significant for the life experiences of modern Christians living in an era dominated by science and technology. His proclamation has been termed “the single most discussed and controversial theological writing of the [twentieth] century.” Its effects are reflected in the liberal views of many mainline Protestant churches today and in the world-views of many Americans, both Catholic and Protestant.
Bultmann’s characterization of the creeds of Christianity as “incredible” – not worthy of belief – came after many decades of scholarly attempts to deal with the conflict between what science was revealing about the nature of the world and the Bible’s own story of how the world came to be and its insistence on god’s minute control of events especially the natural calamities some call the “the wrath of god.” Geology, biology, genetics, plate tectonics, paleontology and a host of other sciences said things just didn’t happen the way the Bible described. In a world moving toward increasing polarity in world-views, the ideas of Bultmann and his followers drew the ire of another branch of Christian believers: the fundamentalists.
“Fundamentalism” is a term derived from a series of booklets written between 1910 and 1915 by a group of Protestant religious clerics and scholars which were titled “The Fundamentals.” These booklets were distributed as part of a crusade against religious liberalism. They were written to defend “the five essential beliefs required for all true Christians:”  the literal truth of scripture,  the virgin birth,  the physical resurrection of Christ,  the historical authenticity of the miracles, and  the atonement by Christ’s death for the “original sin” of Adam and Eve. Some added a sixth essential belief: the second coming of Christ. It’s surprising to realize that fundamentalism is less than 100 years old and that it does not represent some bedrock historical position of Christianity over the centuries. Karen Armstrong provides an excellent history of the rise of Christian fundamentalism, along with the history of Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism in her landmark book entitled The Battle for God.
This battle for God continues and dominates much of the political and social justice agendas of religious and political communities in America today. A Harris poll in October, 2003, showed 79% of Americans believe in God – a much higher percentage than in other developed countries. However, the poll didn’t ask the respondents to describe the kind of god they believed in. So without this precision, politicians can continue to speak of America as a “god-fearing nation” or even as a “Christian nation.” Today we’ll explore the world-views (and god-views) of some of these four fifths of Americans who claim belief in god, and talk about currents of movement in these world-views. In doing this we’ll focus on three different categories of Christian believers: the Fundamentalists, whom we have touched on and will consider again in a moment; the “intelligent design” believers – a midway group on the spectrum, and a group that you may not have heard of, the “Christianity without god” or “Christianity without theism” proponents. As we visit these three camps, we’ll also talk about one very important functional aspect of Christianity that distinguishes it among the world’s principal religions and which may also (hopefully) be in for a change.
Let’s begin by reviewing three classic definitions relating to god:
First, a theistic god is one who exists outside of the universe, who created the universe and everything that’s in it. The theistic god continues to manipulate the universe as a manifestation of his emotion – “the wrath of god” or “the love of god” – or in response to the prayers of those who have faith in him. This is the creator god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The popular conceptions put this god in male anthropomorphic form – the old gentleman on the Sistine ceiling. Each denomination holding this view of god, however, picks the set of characteristics and attributes which they identify in their god.
Next, a deistic god is a creator god who exists outside the universe – just like the theistic god – and who created the universe but then — and here’s the difference — when the creation was completed, went on to attend to other matters. The deistic god is the watchmaker who made and wound up the watch and then left it to run by itself. Deism was a popular concept of god in the period of the Enlightenment, and appears to be the concept held by many of America’s founding fathers. Deism is presently regaining favor with some scientists and others who see order and design in the formation of the universe, but who observe randomness and chance in the world’s day-to-day unfolding.
The last of the big three concepts of deity is pantheism which is the belief that god exists within the universe and is an “all that is” which includes everything and everyone existing as part of the universe. The pantheist deity is conceived in many diverse forms; most Eastern religions are pantheistic and in some of these religions the deity is said to manifest in human or animate forms. Other Eastern religions don’t even have a word for god as a person but recognize instead an impersonal enlightening force which pervades the world. Thus, belief in any general all-pervading force or spirit or organizing intelligence (even to the extent of “the Force” in the Star Wars films) is a pantheistic belief.
Now, lets return our attention to the fundamentalists.
One group that we don’t readily think of as “fundamentalist” is the very conservative Catholics who call themselves “Traditional Catholics,” a small segment of Catholicism that wants to go back to the way things were before the Vatican II council of the 1960s. A year ago their doctrines were receiving wide-spread publicity in the popular Mel Gibson film, The Passion of the Christ. This film portrays a classically defined theistic god — a god of wrath who demands a quantum of suffering for every quantum of sins committed – a god who is going to burn us all in hell if we don’t accept the gift of grace that Christ offered, by virtue of his suffering, to all who believe in him – and for Gibson and the members of this small group, this means those who believe in the Christ just the way they believe in him. Many of these Traditional Catholics believe that the four popes who have led Catholicism during and since the Vatican II council (through Jean-Paul II) are all emissaries of the anti-Christ. Like many other fundamentalists, they believe in a immanent second coming of Christ and in a pre-scripted end-game that will be played out at that time.
Traditional Catholics and their Protestant fundamentalist counterparts illustrate a major functional characteristic of Christianity that distinguishes it from most of the worlds’ other great religions. For the great majority of its adherents Christianity is a religion of ortho doxy. “Ortho” meaning right or correct, and “doxe” meaning opinion or belief. Most of the other world religions are religions of “ortho-praxis;” “ortho” again meaning correct and “praxis” meaning doing or action or practice. Said another way, the criterion for being a good Christian is believing correctly, while the criterion for being a good whatever else is living or acting the right way.
It’s true that there are definite belief differences among Muslims, but they all go together on the annual Haj to Mecca and no-one is excluded because of variance in beliefs. Likewise, the defining differences in Judaism are differences of lifestyle or practice. Hasidic and Orthodox Jews live more closely the literal details of the Torah commandments and Talmudic interpretations while Reform Jews do not. No Jews gets kicked out because they don’t believe the right way.
Fundamentalists are the ultimate defenders of the view that to be a “born again” or “saved” Christian one has to believe correctly. Thus, in Christianity, the battle between fundamentalism and liberals is a battle for the mind. Christian fundamentalists define this battle in very stark, monochromatic terms: on their side is their literal reading of Biblical stories of creation, their view of the role of a wrathful God intimately involved in everyone’s daily life, and their expectation of an end-game scenario involving a “rapture” or taking into heaven of the righteous and a battle called Armageddon which will decimate the unbelievers. (By the way, this end-game scenario is in no way explicit in the New Testament, but is the interpretive creation of fundamentalist teachers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) They present this set of views in challenge to the whole array of alternative world views which can be found in the multi-cultural, pluralistic, scientific modern secular world.
For the children of fundamentalist to grow up retaining this set of beliefs, their parents must do everything they can to assure that their children are not overly exposed to or influenced by any of the inconsistent beliefs prevalent in the secular world surrounding them. One way to accomplish this is through isolation – parents concerned about their children’s religious upbringing make up about 2/5ths of those who home-school their children. Others send them to private schools where they are exposed only to acceptable ideas.
Another method, more threatening to the rest of us, is an agenda to control American society in general so that ideas acceptable to fundamentalists are more widely available and ideas objectionable to them are restricted. At minimum, the goal is to influence the school boards, the state legislatures and the higher courts to the end that fundamentalist views get at least equal footing with liberal and scientific concepts. In this same agenda, unacceptable practices, like reproductive health choices and homosexuality, are to be suppressed. Some fundamentalists apparently long for a theocratic government where their beliefs will control everyone. Gary Bauer, former member of the Regan administration, presidential candidate and proliferous commentator on “American Values,” has said: “We are engaged in a social, political, and cultural war. There’s a lot of talk in America about pluralism. But the bottom line is somebody’s values will prevail. And the winner gets the right to teach our children what to believe.”
During the past year the power and appeal of the fundamentalist emphasis on “moral values” has been demonstrated. While Gibson’s Passion was filling the movie theaters, the issue of same sex marriage was being splashed across the newscasts and headlines, with pictures of happy same sex couples lining up for marriage licenses in Massachusetts, Portland, San Francisco and New York. These gleeful celebrations apparently crossed over a line, and there was a backlash at the polls last November that put “preservation of marriage” amendments into the constitutions of eleven states. Flushed with this success, the promoters of these amendments, largely fundamentalist Christians, have seized this momentum toward their broader agenda by lobbying for confirmation of ultra-conservative judges, the enactment of a “preservation of marriage” amendment to the Federal Constitution, and greater incursions of “faith-based” Christian social service organizations and schools in our society.
My high-school physics teacher said that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I don’t know if that’s still considered true in today’s physics, but it remains roughly true in politics, it seems. So now we’re seeing these efforts at fundamentalist domination being at least slowed by development of bi-partisan centrist coalitions and the drawing of compromise lines that may not go nearly as far as the fundamentalist agenda had hoped. While there is a threat of a “preservation of marriage” amendment for next year’s ballot here in Arizona, the Federal “preservation of marriage” amendment doesn’t show much life, and a poll in the Boston Globe indicated that in the year since same sex marriage has become legal in Massachusetts public opinion has shifted from 53% being opposed to it to 56% now being in favor. Nevertheless, for the moment, Christian fundamentalism seems to be flourishing and its adherents appear to be growing in number.
Now let’s move to the middle of the spectrum and consider the many Christian believers who believe in a Christian theistic god and, at the same time, acknowledge the validity of evolution and scientific progress. These so-called “mainline” Christians have a problem which shows up as a long term erosion of their membership numbers. Part of that problem is this: in the belief department, is there still room to believe that God has a role in the ongoing events of life, or has the flood of scientific knowledge simply put the theistic god of Christianity out of a job?
The god of the Old Testament had a very extensive job description. He had to set off the volcanoes, launch the earthquakes, control the winds and the rains, as well as intervene in the many battles of warring tribes and determine the victor in each case. He watched over the sparrows and all other creatures and meted out rewards or punishment as human beings deserved.
By early Christian times most religious thinkers realized that god wasn’t really carrying out justice very quickly, and the idea of an afterlife began to take hold including a final judgment day on which god would settle all scores and make everything right. God thus acquired the added job of being the end-time judge, the inflicter of punishment and the deliverer of rewards.
In the early centuries of Christianity a concept of “original sin” was developed. This referred to Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden and therefore was a sin which tainted all of their descendants in the human species. This is also a dogma which is not in any way explicit in either the New Testament or the Old, but which was created by the early Christian fathers. “Original Sin” served Christianity well by becoming the basis for explaining the need for Jesus’ crucifixion and suffering and, first and foremost, by justifying the need for the church and its the role as an intermediary between humankind and God. The church was thought of as a repository of “grace,” and grace was treated almost as a commodity which the church banked away in heaven because it controlled a surplus arising from the redeeming sacrifice of the Christ, as well as from the good works of the Saints. The church had the power to dispense doses of grace to penitent sinners, all of whom needed it because without the forgiveness which grace bought god would send them straight to hell. In essence, the early church became a dominant marketer of the accumulated grace of Christ and the Saints through a brokerage system of priests and bishops. Over the centuries, the concept of “salvation,” and particularly “salvation by grace” through the ministry of the church has substantially weakened, and most mainline Christians, I suspect, now think of “salvation” as the pleasant prospect of an afterlife won by good works, and do not dwell very much on the threat of hell.
Today, as the educated world has come to understand the immense expanse of the universe, with billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, scattered across incomprehensible dimensions of space and as we listen to news stories of the Cassini space probe sent on a seven year journey across vast reaches of space to study the moons of Saturn, the niches left for a theistic god’s whimsical activity in the creation and continuing evolvement of the physical universe are difficult to find. There is a middle-ground group of Christian believers who accept the “what happened,” the “how it happened” and the “when it happened” answers to cosmic questions provided by science and question only “why” things happened. For them, the universe is a purpose driven universe – that purpose being god’s plan for mankind. Thus, we are here not by chance, but as part of a grand design – a human centered design that will culminate in the judgment and after-life punishments or rewards that Christian dogmas foretell.
The bases of the “intelligent design” arguments are not much different from the arguments for the existence of god made more than seven centuries ago by Thomas Aquinas: the universe is a marvelously complex place and intelligent humankind is the highest manifestation of its cosmic development. Something this complex had to be designed, and has to have a purpose. Intelligent design proponents focus on the “missing links” or gaps in current summaries of evolution and on a few currently unexplainable ratios or “constants” in science’s account of the evolvement of the cosmos. Arguments for intelligent design don’t say anything about the nature of the designer god, or offer any facts or evidence as to how the design was implemented. It’s simply a matter of divine magic coming into play at every point that science can’t offer explanations other than chance to tell “why” things evolved that way. Opponents of this concept respond that the intelligent design god has become a “god of the gaps” – a being who functions mainly to bridge the current gaps in our scientific understanding. As we learn more about cosmic evolution, we won’t need the explanation of “intelligent design” to fill in the gaps. President Bush signed on in support of intelligent design in the past few weeks and proposals for giving Intelligent Design equal time with Darwinian evolution are popping up at school boards all around the country.
Obviously, believers who offer intelligent design arguments want their listeners to make the assumption that this undescribed intelligent designer god is the god of the Christians, although nothing in the arguments compels that conclusion.
Now it’s time to move on to the last group we will examine, those who propose a Christianity without god — or at least without a theistic god.
Let’s begin by looking at a survey of the religious attitudes of over 100,000 freshmen at 236 colleges which has just been completed by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. One of the questions asked was: “Which of the following best characterizes your conception of or experience with God?” There were 14 possible responses and the participants were told to mark all that were applicable so responses totaled more than 100%. As I summarize the responses, think not only of the percentage that listed the concept in question, but often more importantly — because we are trying to discover trends — the percentage that did not list that particular concept.
“Creator” was listed in 56% of the responses – 44% omitted it.
“Protector” was mentioned by just under 50% – 50+% do not think of god as protector.
“Supreme Being” came in at 43% – 57% do not think of god in that way.
“Teacher” and “Father Figure” scored in the high 30% range – meaning more than 60% do not think of god in those terms.
“Judge” appeared in only 31% – 69% don’t hold that concept of god!
What’s happening here? These terms: “Creator,” “Supreme Being,” “Father Figure,” “Protector” and “Judge” are words traditionally evoked in the Christian concept of god. In the survey from just under half to well over half of these college freshmen don’t include those terms in their concepts of god. Less than a third thought of God as a “Judge” so we can infer that two-thirds are not buying into the end-game judgment day scenario which traditional and fundamentalist Christianity preaches. If these respondents are to be included in the almost 4/5ths of Americans who “believe in god,” they must believe in some god other than the traditional Christian theistic god.
What do the other answers suggest?
“Love” came in high, in over 56% of the responses.
“Part of me” showed in over a third as did “Universal Spirit.”
“Enlightenment” and “Divine Mystery” each got around 26% with “Nature” at 23%.
Add to these the equivocal terms like “Teacher” and “Protector” and this list is beginning to suggest unorthodox concepts that are quite compatible with the pantheistic concept of divinity – a god who permeates the universe and is within all of us. Are these answers indications that pantheism is becoming more and more prevalent among non-dogmatic Christian believers? My own experience and the reports of a number of credible observers indicate that this is, in fact, the case. I suspect that many of you here, if your consider yourselves believers in god, are more comfortable with the divine force or universal spirit concept than with the judge and father figure images you were taught to believe in as children.
Let me interject a personal experience. Jerry and I often take a morning or evening walk out Oregon Ave and Idylwild taking a loop past the Lovejoys’ place and back home. Last fall on such a walk we noticed what appeared to be a crop of whitish colored cherry size fruit on some of the oak trees. A closer look showed that these little globes had no stem but each was attached directly to an oak leaf. I picked one of the leaves and carried it with me, saying to myself: “If the universe really wants us to know what this is, it will have Jeff Schalau walk out of his driveway as we pass by on our way home and explain it to us. Jeff Schalau is the UofA’s extension agent for Yavapai County and lives up a long driveway across Miller Creek at about the midpoint of the return leg of our walk. I had walked that route several times a week for over two and a half years and Jeff had never once walked out as I was passing. Moreover, he didn’t even know me other than to be introduced once in the midst of a crowd. Well, sure enough, as we got within hailing distance of his driveway, Jeff walked out and crossed the street to pick up his mail. We called and waved, he waved back and headed back up his long driveway so we shouted louder and jogged the half block distance still separating us as he stopped and stood, with a very perplexed look on his face, waiting to see what these apparent strangers wanted of him. I explained to him that we were keeping an appointment made by the universe and posed my question. He told us the object of our curiosity was an “oak leaf wasp gall” – a cocoon for wasp larvae – the sort of thing that Alfred E. Kinsey studied before he turned his attention to the sexual mores of the American people.
Our experience wasn’t the sort of thing one would tell about in a Mormon testimony meeting to validate the existence of a theistic god. Would a theistic god arrange a meeting for me to learn about such an insignificant matter as a wasp gall, while on the other hand, a few months later devastate the homes and lives of hundreds of thousands in Southeast Asia with an unheralded earthquake and tsunami? Or the homes and lives of hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast Americans with a hurricane? Questions like these are a dilemma for believers in a moral theistic god.
But the universe, which is not charged with moral judgments might well do just that. Scientists tell us the universe operates according to the principles and laws of physics upon which it is founded, and these include evolvement, renewal and finally, ultimate destruction in cataclysmic, earth-rending events. While science doesn’t have much of an explanation for my experience with Jeff Schalau – other than coincidence – it acknowledges that much in the realm of human capabilities is not fully understood, and some of us believe that everyone and everything in the web of life are interconnected in ways that can be used for our enlightenment and advancement if we tune ourselves to those interconnections.
So how does this relate to Christianity without a theistic god? For the last dozen years I have been an “associate” or lay member of the Jesus Seminar. During the first seven years of their work the “fellows” – or scholars – of the Seminar reached a general consensus about the historical Jesus as a unique but mortal wisdom teacher and they are now talking about ways that Christianity can revitalize itself. Sixty years after Rudolph Bultmann’s challenge, they are seeking specific ways to shed much of the dogma that grew out of the limited world views people held in the first three or four centuries of the Christian era. At the same time they want to retain the wisdom teachings and ethical principles that for many are the beloved core of Christianity. Christianity would, like other world religions, become a religion of orthopraxis – of correct living – instead of a religion of orthodoxy – correct belief. There just wouldn’t be any belief test.
How could this be accomplished? There are numerous suggestions and what the Seminar is doing is really a brainstorming of ideas. John Shelby Spong, the Anglican bishop the fundamentalists love to hate, has written a book entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die! It includes chapters with titles like: “Beyond Theism to New God Images,” “Discovering Anew the Jesus of the New Testament” and “The Emerging Church: Reading the Signs Present Today.” Spong sees a great opportunity to achieve an understanding of expanding limits and possibilities for ethical human life through accepting the wisdom of non-Christian religions.
Lloyd Geering, a theologian from New Zealand, has written several books including “The World to Come” and “Christianity without God.” His thesis has two points: (1) Western secular modernity – the society all of us now inhabit — is the natural outgrowth and off-spring of Renaissance and Enlightenment Christianity and thus is itself a current leading edge manifestation of Christianity, and (2) the “wisdom” strands of the Christian Bible have been too long neglected and can become the linkage between traditional Christianity and post-theistic Christianity.
Paul Allen Laughlin traces the development of Jesus and Christ images through four stages. First, there is the historical Jesus, who really lived and who taught those things the Seminar has red-lettered in its publications. Then, there is the “narrative Jesus” who we can see in the stories in Mark, Matthew and Luke, written a generation or two removed from the actual person and from eyewitnesses. Third, there is the “sacred Christ,” suggested primarily by the writings of Paul, and finally, the “archetypal Christ,” from the Gospel of John and the philosophical and Christological views developed by early Christian fathers and the early church councils. Laughlin thinks this spectrum of choices offers something for everyone who wants to cling to the label “Christian” while demythologizing the scriptural basis and “orthodox” issue for any of the four views.
After he shared his vision of a new Christianity as a smorgasbord of choices among congregations offering varying degrees of informality or formality in worship practice Laughlin invited questions. One of the first to stand up was a lady from Oregon She said,
“I’m not a UU, but my partner is and I often attend UU services with her. It seems to me that they’re already doing pretty much what you are talking about. Do you have any comment on that?
Laughlin responded, saying, “Yes, the UUs – and the Quakers as well — seem to have achieved much of what I’m suggesting as the brighter course for the future of Christianity. But some of us tend to cling to the old ways and appreciate a little higher level of formality and worship service liturgy and god-consciousness than UUs and Quakers provide, so if we can just persuade the other denominations to follow their lead we should be well on our way.”
To conclude and summarize I’ll hazard some predictions: Fundamentalists have their act together and show increasing influence in political and social life; there are some signs of over-reaching and hopeful hints of back lash. In any event, because Fundamentalists espouse a backward-looking, reactionary world-view in conflict with much in modern science I don’t believe that the future of Christianity lies in that direction, though they will continue as a powerful force. Fundamentalism in all religious faiths will be a major counter-thrust against progressive thought throughout the world, but progressive thought will survive and will ultimately prevail.
Those holding the middle-ground “intelligent design” world-view are not nearly as well organized. Fundamentalists will utilize some of their ideas as stepping stones toward their agenda, but mainline churches that insist on orthodoxy – allegiance to traditional dogmas — will continue to dwindle in numbers.
“Christianity without Theism” reflects the change in world-views, and particularly the generational change, suggested by the recent UCLA survey. Some mainline churches are already moving in that direction by scheduling “contemporary” services capturing an atmosphere of popular culture in their religious worship without emphasizing doctrinal matters. Other denominations bridge across New Age and Eastern religious concepts with some amorphous Christianity mixed in. The smorgasbord of choices within Christianity will certainly expand.
In any event, it’s nice to know that at least some of those trying to influence the future of Christianity think that UUs have the right approach.
Thanks for your time and attention.
[Talk given at Prescott Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Sept. 4, 2005]
The author can be reached at email@example.com.