The Headache of Fundamentalism

Last October, my wife and I purchased our first home. It was an amazing time in our lives; we finally stopped renting and what I had formerly seen as a far-off possibility in my life became real. It was nothing short of surreal. The man we bought it from was obviously in some sort of tax trouble and we got a great deal on it. Now, I’m not complaining, but he was kind of an oddball. He was a “know it all” type of guy, and it was immediately noticeable. He was of the variety of people who spew upon you their entire body of life’s work within the first five minutes of meeting them and talks on and on and, after a few minutes, you have found a significant number of things he said that can’t all be true at the same time; each statement revealing more and more of his weaknesses. It might be a useful attribute in cognitive therapy, but it certainly didn’t work in his favor in selling a house. So we stayed silent and “yada yada yada”, we snagged a great home at an insanely great price. But hey, don’t take issue with us. He shouldn’t have put it up for sale by owner; no agent would have let him give us this home at the price we paid for it.

Anyhow, while I’m knocking on wood over here, it’s worth mentioning that he did some weird things with the home. For example, he put some shelves on both side of the garage walls, which is a fantastic and practical idea, except for one annoying misstep: he put them at about five and a half feet up from the ground. That means that every time I get in or out of the car, I have to duck quite a bit to make it. Not a big deal, right? Well, it actually sucks in a major way. They’re plastic shelves with really sharp edges and at least once a week, whether it’s because I’m in a rush or just forget that they’re there, I, at fluid speed run straight into them. It’s like stumping your toe but with your face. It’s a blinding, sometimes crippling pain. I unintentionally drop my coffee, backpack, keys or whatever I’m holding and screech random arrangements of words that could have made George Carlin cringe. Sometimes, my head hurts for hours. All I wanted to do is just get in my car, man.

I’m telling you this story for a reason: These shelves are something that the former owner thought was important (and in themselves they are), but just because they were put at the wrong level, they’ve turned the simple task of getting into my car a nightmare. I’ll return to this in a moment . . .

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines dogma as a “definite authoritative tenet”[1] to the beliefs of a group. That, in a Christian context, means that it is a belief that defines what it means to be a Christian. It’s doctrine that is central to the faith itself. So, in other words, it’s what you have to affirm in order to call yourself Christian. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:14, Paul writes, . . . “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Wow. Okay, so bodily resurrection of Christ is definitely dogma. You can’t be a Christian without upholding this belief. God is love and we are to love others, we have sinned against Him and need forgiveness; these are all dogmatic. The Trinity, divinity of Jesus, substitutionary atonement of Christ and, obviously, the existence of God, are also dogmatic in nature because their affirmation is needed in order to comprehend the central tenets of the Gospel.

Then, there is non-dogmatic doctrine. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines doctrine as a “belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church”[2]. Notice that neither “definite” nor “authoritative” are present in the definition. This means that these beliefs are open for discussion. These are often called “in-house debates”. They are the issues in which we all, as brothers and sisters in Christ, are free to disagree with each other. Examples of these doctrines would be views on the afterlife, forms of worship, use of spiritual gifts, interpretations of Genesis and other books of the Bible, the ways in which substitutionary atonement was accomplished, and the church’s relationships with the State, among other topics. They are differences that don’t separate us from Christian belief.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines Christian fundamentalism as a “a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching.”[3] It’s second definition emphasizes “strict adherence” to the teaching. Now, my purpose in writing this blog is not to attack literal interpretations of the Bible (that is for another time). It is to refute the view held by a large group of Christians who make their individual doctrine as if it is an unquestionable and fundamental element to “Christian life and teaching”. It is a refutation of those who hold all their doctrine to be dogma. It is also to address the group of believers who cut you down, then out, as soon as you disagree with them.

This an enormous problem in today’s Christianity. So many, and I mean a lot, of churches have non-dogmatic doctrine crammed right in with dogma and defend it with a rabid vitriol that keeps Christian believers segregated. Not only is it divisive, but it is also a rather new idea that ignores giant theological disciplines, such as hermeneutics (the branch of study that is dedicated to appropriate Biblical interpretation), and imposes upon others these ideas that are not Christian imperatives, nor were they held by early Christians or early Church fathers. It rejects Christianity’s’ lush intellectual tradition in place for a stiff and unmovable will to ignorance.

Fundamentalism is a branch of Christianity that lacks any intellectual rigor whatsoever. It shuts off the last 2000 years of rational discourse to the extent that their members are not even aware that it existed. It’s an indoctrination of indolence. It’s just regurgitating what you’ve been told. I’ve ceased to be stunned by how many fundamentalist members cannot consistently answer the second or third question about their own doctrines. It’s just blind faith concerning one Biblical interpretation or doctrine, and their faith stands or falls on any one of these issues. In a fundamentalist’s mind, when you knock one domino down, the rest will follow. It’s an built-in slippery slope fallacy.

You don’t believe Hell is literally burning as a form of everlasting punishment? No Christ for you! No six 24 hour day creation? No Christ for you! You have doubts about every word of the Bible being taken literally? No Christ for you! You’re a Democrat (still don’t know how this became a fundamentalist issue)? No Christ for you! It’s basically a Christ-Nazi.

This, as you can imagine, can produce superficial and oftentimes dangerous understandings of what it means to “have faith”. It goes from the “trust” or “conviction” described in Hebrews 11:1 to a shut-up-and-do-it brashness shoved into theology with an authoritarian assertiveness. I can speak from experience when I tell you that the slippery slope mentality is real and can harvest an opposite understanding of the word “Christian”. It can create cancerous relationships with others, both believers and unbelievers alike. Fundamentalist worldviews often foster close-minded upbringings, despair-filled views of the world, fear of those who are “different”, and force-feeds a twisted and legalistic understanding of Christian grace and morality, resulting in a relentless shame of one’s self. It’s when the Gospel ceases to be good news. And sometimes, it’s what happens when you make the concept of Christianity evil.

It is a constantly forced false dilemma and many, understandably, leave the faith under a fake notion that they have to choose either A or B. You’re either “in” or “out”. So, many gladly opt “out”.

Now, I don’t want to make hasty generalizations regarding the atheistic community. All I can do is speak from my own personal experience, and from that experience I can tell you this: virtually all of the militant atheists (known in apologetics communities as “hatetheists”) that I have met were raised in fundamentalist Christian homes. I’m talking at least 90%. When I speak with an atheist about religion, and I immediately hear “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about, I was raised in a Christian home”, or “Trust me, I’ve read more of the Bible than you, I’m sure”, I instantly know what I’m dealing with: a fundamentalist.

So I ask them what they take “Christian” to mean and, behold, they have no idea what they’re talking about! They’re, ironically, just as fundamentalist as they were raised to be, just on the other end of the spectrum. They can’t answer the second or third question about the doctrines they rejected and usually can’t even articulate the “atheistic” views that they currently claim to hold. All I get are slogans, one-liners and more blind faith. They might as well be handling snakes while they’re telling me God is dead.

Now, back to the shelf-in my-garage problem. Consider my car Christian dogma: that God is love and we should express that love (1 Jn 4:8). He is so loving that He offered us His own son to accomplish this goal of reconciliation (Jn.3:16-17). That Jesus became a man to show us how to better serve one another, offering his life for us as a ransom for us all (Mk 10:45). That he was raised from the dead for the forgiveness of our sins (1 Cor. 15:17). That we can be set free from guilt and condemnation by his grace if we put our trust in him (Romans. 8:1). That we may be free (Jn 8:36).

But, then, there’s this oddly-installed shelf: This non-essential doctrine that was set in an inappropriate place by someone who thought they had it all figured out, and in their own ego, lost so much of the value in what it meant to be Christian in the first place. So much that when one thinks of the vehicle, all it represents is confusion and frustration. It’s just a painful obstacle in the path of Christian dogma.

I speculate that these are the type of people that Paul warns us about in Romans 16:17-19 when he writes, “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own appetites. . . . they deceive the minds of naïve people.”

C.S. Lewis, who is celebrated in evangelical theology (yet was FAR from a fundamentalist), wrote, “Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God–experiences compared with which many thrills of pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further you must use the map.” [4] A lot of fundamentalist Christians don’t like maps.

This closed-off confab comes from a distortion of God. It dilutes His pure message to the point that believers cannot discuss matters of faith with each other in a healthy manner. It retards an enhanced understanding of what it means to reason together towards hope, both inside and outside of our church walls (1 Pt 3:15). It keeps us from a humility that is an organic outcome of Biblical Christianity (Colossians 3:12, Eph 4:2, Philippians 2:3).

I think Soren Kierkengaard added a wonderful insight into the type of humble faith that we can all share when he wrote, “It (faith) is not only the highest good, but it is a good in which all are able to share, and the person who rejoices in the possession of it also rejoices in the countless human race, “because what I possess.” He says, “every human being has or could possess.” The person who wishes it for another person wishes it for himself; the person who wishes it for himself wishes it for every other human being, because that by which another person has faith is not that by which he is different from him but is that by which he is like him; that by which he possesses it is not that by which he is different from others but that by which he is altogether like all.”[5]

Whether we agree on all doctrine is not important. What is important is understanding the doctrines that give the Gospel its substance and how it should bring insight and hope to the human experience, not ignorance and grief. It’s what happens when you have both your faith and brain turned on. God commanded us to serve Him in this way (Lk. 10:27) and we should celebrate it. To not do so is a disservice to the unbeliever, the Church, and therefore, to Christ. It’s a misplaced impediment waiting to knock your lights out on your honest way to becoming a follower of Jesus. And, I, for one, am getting sick of the headache.

[1]Dogma.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 7 June 2016.

[2]Doctrine.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 7 June 2016.

[3]Fundamentalism.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 7 June 2016

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2001)

[5] KIierkengaard, S., Hong, H. V., Hong, E. H., (1990). Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses. Print.

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10 thoughts on “The Headache of Fundamentalism

  1. so, my coming from a former fundamentalist christian standpoint, what would you see as foundational christianity? and does it matter if it’s historically accurate and true or not? -KIA

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    1. Dogma would be the foundation. What C.S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity”. You would have to give me examples of what belief would be “historically accurate” and I can be more specific to your question. But the life, death, empty tomb of Jesus are one of the most established facts in antiquity, alongside the sincere belief in a bodily resurrection by the disciples. These are facts even atheist historians agree upon. Could you give me an example or two?

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      1. i agree. truth does matter. that seems to be the crux (excuse the unintended pun) of the issue when ‘dogmatists’ quarrel over doctrines they feel are necessary or unnecessary within christian circles. at least in my experience.

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  2. Been reading some of your blog and really enjoyed it. Have you read any of my other blogs? I’ve been ramping up on this kind of stuff. I’ve been working in apologetics, philosophical theology and such in my coursework for a long time but have become so sick of the online debates. Getting into the experience of others is kind of my new desire. So its nice to see your blog. Kudos

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