On Nov 5, 2009, Karen Armstrong was the guest on Speaking ofFaith, a public radio show about life’s big questions. Karen was a nun in the 1960’s, but she realized it was not for her. She has remained interested in the theologies of the world and in 2008 won the annual TED prize which she used to launch the Charter for Compassion, an examination and promotion of the idea that there are good ideas shared across all religions.
In this interview on Speaking of Faith, she told a story of an earlier conference she had been in called “God 2000”. It was an interfaith conference examining those shared good ideas. Near the end of it, a man appeared at the back of the room, yelling somewhat incoherently about how everyone there was a sinner and they would never accomplish anything because they did not believe in the right god in the right way. They attempted to engage him but couldn’t and to the time of the Speaking of Faith interview, Karen still did not know how it was possible to engage such people at all.
A Great Question
I think it is a great question, how do we as modern people, attempting to live in a pluralistic world, remain in dialogue with those who want their ways, the ways codified in centuries old scripture, to be the ways that the rest of the world adopts? Sometimes called “fundamentalists”, they pose a problem not just for the secular world which has set up boundaries against them, but for what are sometimes called “moderate” religious people whose boundaries are not quite as clear.
At the time, I was a moderate Christian, I would say a liberal Christian. I had joined a liberal church partly in reaction to the political world being infiltrated by conservative Christians. I had discovered Liberation Theology and The Jesus Seminar and Reconciling Congregations, but I still had not figured out how the core concepts of Christianity differed from the fundamentalists. I knew my politics differed and my fellow liberal Christians were saying their politics stemmed from their faith. But I couldn’t see how. I wondered what I was doing wrong.
To understand how to approach this, I first had to understand what fundamentalism meant. I had heard it was a recent phenomenon, that they had hijacked the true faith or even that Jesus’ message had been corrupted as far back as Constantine. But those were claims, not explanations. I had to start looking for answers on my own.
The “recent phenomenon” part is more about the use of the word itself. Between 1910 and 1916, a series of pamphlets were written anddistributed for free titled “The Fundamentals”. They contained guidelines about believing in Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, the truth of prophecies and miracles, salvation, the Second Coming and other such standard dogma. They were a reaction to centuries of critiques of the Bible as literature, known as Higher Criticism, to Darwin’s new theory of evolution and to the rise of science as a new source of truth and understanding of the universe.
The beliefs they thought were important should sound pretty familiar. Jesus was born of a virgin. He suffered on the cross and rose again to provide salvation for our sins. Jesus performed miracles and fulfilled prophecies. Heaven is real, hell is real. Jesus will come again and reign over his kingdom. Creation happened as described in Genesis. God is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Although the pamphlets are recent, there is nothing new in the above list of beliefs. Some other beliefs commonly associated with Christian fundamentalists are actually recent, so I’ll take a minute to run through those before getting back to what I think the heart of the problem is.
Intelligent Design: This was a theory that began a little before Darwin to try to integrate scientific discoveries such as dinosaur bones and plate tectonics with a God created world. It had other names and ebbed and flowed in popularity. It could not have come about except as a reaction to scientific discoveries. Before that it was just assumed God created the universe, so in a way this is nothing new.
Dispensationalism: This is definitely new. It is an odd analysis of the Bible saying it is divided into phases or dispensations, and that we are currently in the final one. In some ways it is just a new look at the old idea of an end of times.
Bible Inerrancy: The first explicit statement that the Bible is the inerrant word of God was not written into a church doctrine until the 16th century by a Baptist church. I don’t wish to argue theology, but I think the case could be made from statements and writings throughout history that it was a common belief, a belief so obvious, it didn’t need to be written down.
Existence of an actual hell: The Old Testament definitely does not have a hell and some say the New Testament doesn’t either. The word “hell” as used by Jesus was translated from “Gihenna” which was a really bad neighborhood in Jerusalem filled with burning garbage. It also appears to be a Greek myth that entered the Jewish community in the 1st century. The modern reference to “fire and brimstone” began in 1670. So, this one is a gray area.
Government should be based on Christian principles: It was the French and American revolutions that codified religion out of government, at least in terms of a declared faith for its leaders or a faith requirement. So saying that is “recent” would only mean its return since then. Before that, Kings were anointed by Popes and before that, in antiquity, religion was part of daily life, so separating the two was not even in the vocabulary.
Subjugation of women: Although not usually stated that way by fundamentalists, they do say things about Jesus being the head of the church and the man being the head of the house. The New Testament has specific statements about women not speaking in church and although Jesus welcomed women into his circle, churches traditionally have not. Definitely not new in principle although new in how it is applied. There is some evidence that the early Christian communities were much more egalitarian but that ended in the 4th century. More about that later.
But, who is right?
So putting those few actually recent ideologies aside, the question remains; did the men who wrote The Fundamentalist pamphlets get it right? This is a much easier question than you might think. What makes it seem difficult is that there are 30,000 versions of Christianity, so how can we sort out what it is right if they can’t? The answer is, that is what Christianity has always been. There were competing sects from the beginning. That’s why we have 4 gospels. Peter and Paul argue about how to obtain salvation in their letters and they don’t settle it. The Book of Revelations was controversial in the early centuries and some denominations still don’t have it in their Bible and many don’t read from it. Religion, like philosophy, is defined as a discussion that is never really settled.
It is not necessary for all us to become theologians and enter into the fray of arguing about whether or not fundamentalists are right or not. In fact, it is better to keep some mystery. That is, if you want to keep people coming back every Sunday. When questions about why God does not heal amputees can’t be answered, the answer is that God works in mysterious ways and we can’t know his ways. The most liberal “spiritual but not religious” person uses some version of that. Most religious traditions have something about people not being able to know the mind of God, we are supposed to always only be on a path toward something that we don’t completely understand.
The answer to what is a Christian is very broad. I would put a minimum requirement of accepting that Jesus did something for humanity. After that, any argument should only be between Christians themselves. Leave the rest of us out of it and leave it out of public schools and government. If anyone brings up that they have a special friend who knows everything, therefore that friend is right and can’t be argued with, then the argument is over. That type of absolutism does not belong in the public square and is simply not reasonable. Unfortunately, for most people who get elected in the US government, and for many people just getting along in their community, they have to pick the right special friend.
God is the God beyond God
Karen Armstrong tells the story that the rabbis, when asked “what is Torah” answered, “it is the interpretation of Torah”. She thinks that means something about it being good to always be working through these ideas. She also thinks “God is the God beyond God” means something. She is no more capable of getting out of the trap of religion than a person who was raised in a fundamentalist church, home schooled and not allowed to use the internet. If anything, a fundamentalist has made a deal with God and may at some point realize that bargain was not made fairly. Their break from religion may be painful, but it will be clean. A liberal Christian has no such deal and can continue to find comfort in religion simply by altering their relationship to it.
I’m thankful that I live in a modern world where there are Christians who use scripture to support ideals of feeding the poor and being in fellowship with homosexuals. And it’s great that the government is not arresting them. But that’s my government. With these modern advances also comes dealing with other governments and convincing them that it is better to treat their citizens with the same respect. We’ve tried leaving them to their own devices and that has not gone well.
When we get to the discussion of human rights, the usefulness of the religious argument breaks down. The basis of the religious argument is that God is right. The argument then shifts to who is right about God or sometimes it is which god. That argument has never been settled and it can be demonstrated why it never will be. Even if I accept that some god is sending some people messages, those messages are no more decipherable than the combined wisdom from all of human history. In my opinion, they are considerably less decipherable and less useful. We are not going to figure out which religion is right, we are going to have to figure out how to get along by talking to each other.
Back to Basics
Getting back to where this came from, the first thing that made me really question the liberal view of fundamentalists was the NiceanCreed. Very few churches are so liberal as to avoid ever reciting it. It contains most of what I listed in the above summary of the pamphlets. It goes all the way back to the 4th century, when Constantine got tired of those early sects arguing all the time. There are many myths and legends about what happened at the Council of Nicea, but that motivation for it, to get them to agree so violence in the kingdom would be reduced, is pretty well agreed upon.
Often forgotten, is that before bringing the Christians together to settle their differences in 325, Constantine wrote an edict of religious tolerance in 313. This allowed Christianity to be practiced without prosecution from the Roman authorities. Constantine did not make Christianity the law of the land. That came later. In fact, he at first embraced the Nicean Creed, but later regretted that. His famous baptism near his death was done by an Arian bishop. Again, we don’t all need to be theologians and know the difference between the Arian and Nicean versions of the Trinity, we just need to know that they were different and that they fought about it.
Depending on who you ask, the fighting either ended or was taken to a new level in 381 AD. That year, Theodosius, who had come from the Nicean western half of the Roman Empire to be emperor in the Arian eastern half, passed an edict declaring Christianity the only legal religion in the empire. This was fundamentalism on steroids. If you look up Theodosius in theCatholic encyclopedia online, it says he “expelled” Arians from the empire. Sounds like a nice word, but “ethnic cleansing” would be more accurate.
This was not just a law to support Christianity, it was for a certain type of Christianity. The details of which involved something about the Trinity, whether the son comes from the father and/or the Holy Spirit or some such nonsense (See the link to the Nicene Creed above). Because it was no clearer then than it is now, enforcing it had its challenges. To do so, the Roman army was authorized to burn books and the people who attempted to hide them. Soldiers were not trained in theology and did not spend much effort sorting out what they destroyed. The next couple centuries were the worst for Catholics destroying pagan temples and works of philosophy and science.
These are also the centuries when Christianity increased its following many fold. No wonder, if the empire is not only supporting it and building churches, but also eliminating your competition. There was descent at the time that has survived, men such as John Chrysotom, and there are many today who label this as the time when church was hijacked by “corporate rule”. It may be true that Augustine used Platonic philosophy to harmonize the gospels with Roman law and make them acceptable to the elite. But what exactly was hijacked?
Saint Augustine’s work in creating the final form of the Nicean Creed has survived all forms of Protestantism. Peter and Paul had debated circumcision, dietary laws and how to obtain salvation. The more egalitarian, philosophical days inspired by St. Peter were replaced with the harsher rules of St. Paul (Note some may argue that the Paul was not harsh. I’m referring the Pauline writings in the Bible). After a few centuries of enforcing that theology, common wisdom would be that the Church fathers had worked out the difficult questions of Jesus’ message for us. A thousand years later, when more Bibles were printed and in a language more people could read, that would be questioned.
What you do to the least of these, you do to me
Military force alone was probably not the only factor in changing Christianity from several small sects meeting in homes, helping their neighbors and tending to community needs into an integral part of an evil empire. I think it had to be a flaw in the philosophy itself. There is nothing wrong with loving your neighbor, a common belief of many successful civilizations. And the more unique ideas of caring for “the least of these” is no doubt a reason for Christianity’s longevity. The flaw I believe is that they kept the idea from Judaism that these moral imperatives were imparted to us from an absolute authority that could not be questioned.
Worshipping Jesus and praying to the Lord most likely did not entail working out the details of how to distribute resources to both help the needy and maintain infrastructure to promote commerce. I doubt those early Christian communities spent any more time discussing exactly what it means to turn the other cheek than Christians do today. You would think that someone would have noticed that the Sermon on the Mount says both to “let your light shine before men” and “do not sound a trumpet before thee”. I know of no famous theologian who has ever mentioned it. It was pointed out to me by a famous atheist. For those early communities to grow, they would have had to work out these details. I know of no record of them attempting to do so.
When all of your loyalty is put into a small set of rules, whether it be certain scriptures or certain charismatic leaders, there is a danger. If those rules fail, you are left with no system to come up with new ones. It is particularly dangerous when those ideas survive a generation or two so the loyalty is passed on to people who no longer need to prove the power of the ideas, they only need to claim knowledge of the earlier generations and point to the past successes. Claiming things were better in the past is always easier than dealing with the real problems of today. Once the miracles of Jesus were believed by enough people to create a culture, and some good could be seen coming out of that culture, the leaders were legitimized. Once it became a sin to question them, anything they did could be considered legitimate.
In the ancient world there was no difference between religious and secular life. How you prepared your food, how you dressed, and who you married was all tied into what you worshipped. Questioning what you wore meant questioning God. The Greco-Roman world was starting to come out of that when Theodosius and his might reversed it. He did not do this single handedly. I am only highlighting one of the many major turning points in the fall of Rome. For Christian history, it was a significant one.
In AD 409, a Roman law states “If perchance any person should be convicted of having hidden any of these books under any pretext or fraud whatever and of having failed to deliver them (for burning), he shall know that he himself shall suffer capital punishment, as a retainer of noxious books and writings and as guilty of the crime of maleficium.” It only takes a few hundred years or so of laws like that to destroy intellectualism. It would be harder today with mass communication. But people are still trying. The 2012 Texas Republican Party platform states:
“We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
But that was then, this is now
Rather than descend further into the darkness of how these ideas were past on for 2,000 years, I’d rather shift to some thoughts about what can be done about it. I have written about that if you want to explore more.
I’ve already mentioned that you can bring your special friend to the public square and claim him or her as your source of inspiration, but understand that is not a logical argument. If when you say, “love your enemies” or “house the homeless” you want to give credit to where you heard that, that’s great, I reference quotes all the time. But the idea still has to be weighed by the merits of the idea. If you say, “follow these rules and be rewarded in heaven, open your heart to the spirit of this one man and you will find understanding and guidance”, I’ll ask you to explain how that works and to give some evidence for it.
But that’s not my Christianity
The affect that moderate have on all of this as a whole is, in short, very little. Moderates may be in the majority, but that is a reflection of how religion has been changed from the outside. When the Peace at Westphalia in 1648 took away power from the Vatican the Pope was not happy about it. Since that time the ideas supported by religions have had to compete on an increasingly level playing field with ideas coming from the whole of the human experience. That playing field is still not very level, but it is trending that way for now.
When the power of religion to organize is used to fight for something like civil rights, the source of the ideas is secondary to the power of the ideas. An ideal like equality couldn’t’ be claimed to be from a single cultural source, or by definition you would not be talking about equality at all. You be emulating the pigs in George Orwell’s 1984, saying you were more equal than those others.
When religion is used to organize and fight for political gains that include religious intolerance they are opposed primarily by the ideals of equality, fairness, freedom and the rule of law. If the opposition state their claims in ethnic terms, it will probably be considered a civil war and building a multi-cultural coalition will be difficult. The rest of the world is much more likely to come to your aid if you show you support egalitarian governance rather than simple military might.
When it comes to important social issues, there is no distinction between a moderate Christian who accepts homosexuality and a LGBTQ person who wants to marry a have children and has never been to church. When it comes to how you treat your neighbor, there is no difference between a moderate Muslim and the guy next door who was born in Turkey and doesn’t practice the faith, but he does shovel your part of the sidewalk. And here’s the key point, the moderates are different from the fundamentalist in the same way the non-religious are different from the fundamentalists.
To the fundamentalist of course, there is a big difference between themselves and moderates. Moderates are doing it wrong as far as they are concerned. To some that’s worse than doing nothing. The fundamentalist standing outside the abortion clinic doesn’t care if you are a moderate anything. And, the reasons for me wanting that fundamentalist to stop harassing people going into that clinic are exactly the same as a moderately religious person. You can attempt to engage them in a theological debate, but ultimately the discussion needs to be based on moral principles common to all cultures. Attempting to have the theological debate just legitimates the idea that proper interpretation of scripture matters to the unique situations of all the individuals involved.
End on a high note
We can see examples of combining inspirational voices from the past with practical steps in the present by paying attention to our leaders. One of the great speech makers of the 20th century was Martin Luther King. In one of his last at Gross Point High he said “No lie can live forever” and he referenced it saying “as Carlisle said”. He wanted us toknow who his inspiration was and wanted us to look that person up. As we all know, he also referenced the Bible frequently. But that was a speech, intended to inspire and rally to action. If we left it at that, it would not be much different than scripture.
If he were in a more intimate setting, he might agree that lies can in fact live for quite a long time. Oppressing the truth is a time tested tradition. It’s also true that oppressing truth takes resources, it takes constant pressure. And King did not just make speeches to get people to protest, he negotiated legislation, he gathered data and made a case to governments to change policies, he exposed the oppression using evidence and data and helped developed plans to end it. There was much more to Martin Luther King than great speeches.
I think people who look to the 1st century for answers are missing 20 other centuries, also full of answers. It’s easy to say that empires have failed and philosophies have failed and it’s a lot harder to figure out why. Martin Luther King is not here to tell us if he thought the answers were in the Bible, but his words and actions indicate he was looking to other sources of wisdom in addition to that one.
I’m not so sure looking for answers is the right approach anyway. It may be we just need to get the question right. Perhaps the question is, how do we build a caring community that seeks justice and lives in peace? Perhaps the question is not where is God, the question is where are we?
For further reading:
God Laughs and Plays
Sense and Goodness Without God