Thursday, November 26, 2020

Fundamentalism is a zero-sum game

 In our last entry, the issue of private virtue in the Christian faith was placed adjacent what Gregory Baum called the gospel of social justice. Within the church community, these two “schools” of thought have been in tension for decades, if not centuries. What has, unfortunately become increasingly clear is that a theology that believes and practices private virtue, including a fundamentalist/evangelical/literalist interpretation of scripture is no longer defensible. Indeed, the impact of this form of religion is so negatively impacting contemporary North American culture as to beg for a vigorous push-back.

In Karen Armstrong’s penetrating work, A History of God, we read these words: Amos was the first of the prophets to emphasize the importance of social justice and compassion. Like the Buddha, he was acutely aware of the agony of suffering humanity. In Amos’ oracles, Yahweh was speaking of behalf of the oppressed, giving voice to the voiceless, impotent suffering of the poor. In the very first line of his prophecy as it has come down to us, Yahweh is roaring with horror from his Temple in Jerusalem as he contemplates the misery in all the countries of the Near East, including Judah and Israel. The people of Israel were just as bad as the goyim, the Gentiles: they might be able to ignore the cruelty and oppression of the poor, but Yahweh would not. He noted every instance of swindling, exploitation and breathtaking lack of compassion: ‘Yahweh swears it by the pride of Jacob: ‘Never will I forget a single thing that you have done. (Armstrong, op. cit. p.46)

And these words of insight from Armstrong: “All religion must begin with some anthropomorphism. A deity which is utterly remote from humanity, such as Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, cannot inspire a spiritual quest. As long as this projection does not become an end in itself, it can be useful and beneficial.” (op. cit. p. 48)

Writing in the New York Times,  Matthew Sutton, professor of history at Washington State University, May 25, 2019, in an essay entitled, The Day Christian Fundamentalism was Born, writes:

For many Americans, it was thrilling to be alive in 1919. The end of World War I has brought hundreds of thousands of soldiers home. Cars were rolling off the assembly lines. New forms of music, like jazz, were driving people to dance. And science was in the ascendant, after helping the war effort. Women, having done so much on the home front, were ready to claim the vote, and African-Americans were eager to enjoy full citizenship, at long last. In a word, life was dazzlingly modern….But from many other Americans, modernity was exactly the problem. As many parts of the country were experimenting with new ideas and beliefs, a powerful counterrevolution was forming in some of the nation’s largest churches and Bible institutes. A group of Christian leaders, anxious about the chaos that seemed to be enveloping the globe, recalibrating the faith and gave it a new urgency. They knew that the time was right for a revolution in American Christianity. In its own way, this new movement—fundamentalism- was every bit as important as the modernity it seemingly resisted, with remarkable determination…,.Beginning on May 25, 1919, 6000 ministers, theologians and evangelists came together in Philadelphia for a weeklong series of meeting. They heard sermons on everything from “Christ and the Present Crisis” to “Why I Preach the Second Coming.” The men and women assembled there believed that God had chosen them to call Christians back to the “fundamentals” of the faith, and to prepare the world for one final revival before Jesus returned to earth. They called their group the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. …Unlike more mainstream Protestants, fundamentalists did not expect to see a righteous and holy kingdom of God established on earth. Instead, they taught that the Holy Spirit would soon turn this world over to the Antichrist, a diabolical world leader who would preside over an awful holocaust in which those true believers who had not already been raptured to heaven would suffer interminable tribulations….At the conference and in the years that followed, they matched up biblical prophecy with world events. Perhaps the most significant sign was the world war. In the New Testament, Jesus had told his disciples that ‘wars and rumors of wars’ would presage the end times….The reshaping of Palestine served as another warning that the end was near. Fundamentalists believed that the return of Jews to the Holy Land must precede the second coming of Christ, and the wear seemed to make this a real possibility…Fundamentalists viewed the proposed League of Nations as another potential landmark on the road to Armageddon. They were sure that as humans moved toward the end times, governments around the world would cede their independence to a charismatic world leader who would actually be the Antichrist….Their beliefs drove them to support the Senate’s ‘irreconcilables,’ those who fought the president’s efforts to join the league….(T)hey opposed any expansion of the power of the federal government and became highly suspicious of anything that seemed to undermine their religious freedoms and longstanding privileges…..As the fundamentalist movement grew and expanded, its leaders waged war against religious modernists for control of the major Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches, colleges, seminaries and missionary boards. The liberal Christian Century magazine summed up the controversy in 1924: ‘The differences between fundamentalism and modernism are not mere surface differences, which can be amiably waved aside or disregarded, but they are foundational differences, amounting in the radical dissimilarity almost to the differences between two distinct religions.’ ‘The God of the fundamentalist,’ the writer concluded, ‘is one God; the God of the modernist is another. The Christ of the fundamentalist is one Christ; the Christ of the modernist is another. The Bible of fundamentalism is one Bible; the Bible of modernism is another.’…While modernist Protestants emphasize patience, humility, willingness to compromise and tolerance on a range of important issues, at least in terms of ideals if not always practices, fundamentalists believed that they were engaged in a zero-sum game of good versus evil.

Having passed my childhood in a church dominated by a ‘fundamentalist, evangelical preacher,’ (not incidentally the fundamentalist movement morphed in the evangelical movement of Billy Graham), I witnessed the very zero-sum game of absolutism every Sunday for at least a decade. Absolute judgement that belonging to the Roman Catholic church was a sentence to “Hell” along with the more trivial evils of wearing make-up, going to dances and movies and preparing meals on Sunday spewed in one belch from a single sermon, adequate to provoke my own sixteen-year-old decision never to return. The first-year class in theology at Huron College, in 1987 was comprised of 12 students, 8 of whom were fundamentalists, while the remaining 4 were liberals. I proudly included myself in the latter group. The most prominent feature of the ‘fundies’ was that they were determined to “save” the world from evil. Opposed to this intransigence, the liberals were determined to ask questions, occasionally prompting a ‘fundie’ to demand of the professor, “Never mind those questions; just tell us what we have to know so we can get out of here and save the world!”

On the strong recommendation of the then Dean, after completing first year, I was almost directed to find training and formation at a different School of Theology. His diplomatic, formal and professional recommendation came in the form of a strong recommendation that I seek a second unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. Knowing that such a unit was unavailable for the upcoming semester at University Hospital at Western, I was advised to pursue such a training unit in Toronto. The Toronto Institute of Pastoral Relations accepted my application, providing opportunity to pursue Clinical Pastoral Counselling, as compared with Chaplaincy, in the first unit at Scarborough Centennary Hospital.

The theological training for second and third year would be provided by Trinity College, the ‘other’ Anglican seminary, (Wycliffe is the other.) Of course, Trinity hosted primarily liberal students and lecturers, where questions were at the core, as opposed to answers, in shaping the paths of ministry development. At Trinity, the primary issue of tension, conflict and real dispute focused on the issue of feminism. Fundamentalism took a back seat to the issue of how men and women were and were going to relate in the future church.

Nevertheless, in the first parish to which I was assigned as Deacon, I immediately encountered the fundamentalist movement incarnate. Resident, long-serving wardens were aghast at the sermons I preached. One demanded my instant dismissal, only a few weeks after my arrival. He was determined to show a video produced in the United States by the fundamentalist movement to complement the fundamentalist syllabus of the Christian education program. The explicit  instructions to teachers in that program went like this: Say this to those children who are saved, and say something quite different to those who are not saved! The parish had not welcomed the most recent publication of Sunday School curriculum that then bore the title, The Whole People of God, an approach very different, more integrative, welcoming, questioning, searching and much less dependent on absolutes than the fundamentalist program. Rather abruptly, and clearly not diplomatically, I requested that the latter program replace the fundamentalist program.

The church school teachers were also engaged in the operation of a Christian bookstore, also dedicated to the interests of the fundamentalist movement. And when I inquired whether they carried the works of Matthew Fox, and/or Scott
Peck, I encountered outright hate. When I arrived home later that day, I was treated to a phone message that said, “You are a heretic, the antichrist, for even suggesting works by Fax and Peck…!” Linking the phone call to the face-to-face confrontation by the warden (also a heavy financial contributor to the parish) demanding my removal, I had to ‘stand firm’ and assert that I was not leaving. Shortly thereafter, I asked a supervisor to support my formal removal of that warden from his position as warden. I delivered a letter informing him of the decision that his service would no longer be required.

The fundamentalist zero-sum game reared its ugly head later in Toronto, shortly after the June 1995 provincial election in Ontario, in which Mike Harris was elected as premier. In a homily I delivered while pinch-hitting for the rector who was in Bejing for the United Nations Womens’ Conference, I commented that the premier needed to be restrained from his proposal to cancel provincial funding for the Wheel-trans program, a primary requisite for physically and intellectually challenged persons to access training, employment and basic necessities. Upon the return of the rector, triggered by my request for a travel honorarium, a kangaroo court of parishioners was convened, to determine a parish decision on my future in the parish. By a vote of 9 in favour with 4 opposed and 2 abstentions, the secret and anonymous court agreed to extend my relationship with the parish. As in each and every ecclesial enactment, even those held ‘in camera,’ the trickle of truth often morphs into a river. What I learned later was the eventual impact of two f pointed, highly impactful statements from parishioners that seemed to have reversed the kangaroo court’s decision. The first was, “We cannot have him arguing with the premier we had just elected!” The second was (to this day I have no idea who uttered this statement, nor did I have any prior knowledge that it would be uttered): “He’s a leader and you are not a leader!” To an aspiring female clergy, determined to rise in the hierarchy of the most prominent diocese in the nation, such a statement would be anathema. Clearly, I was toast!

A similar encounter with zero-sum game fundamentalists reared a slightly different face and head in a small mission church in the Colorado to which I arrived in the fall of 1996. Barely surviving on life-support, with 6 attendees, having failed to attract a clergy after two years of national advertising (I was never officially informed of this deficit by those in charge in the diocese!) this mission open conversations on a premise of extreme scarcity, a bone-dry well of hope, and the tightly-fisted hand of the treasurer on the bank account. They never wanted a full-time clergy; they merely wanted a sacramentalist for Sunday services, the occasional funeral and wedding and the concomitant minimal expenditure. Previous clergy warned of the need ‘for a completely new and different cast of characters’ if the church was ever going to survive. The issue that dominated my forty months there was one of cultural dimensions:

Ø the rough-individualist ‘real wild west’ county that has twice voted for trump (87% in 2016 and 80% in 2020) complete with the conspiracy theories,

Ø the RNA indoctrination,

Ø the contempt for anything smacking of “the east”,

Ø a hard-wired bias of systemic racism, a border-wall that precluded acceptance of authentic invitations to other clergy to exchange services in order to “blow some different thoughts, perceptions and personalities into the spiritual desert”

Ø a ubiquitous and also hard-wired concept of maleness that borders on ‘the outlaw’ beside a small cluster of women who acquiesce to this malignancy

Ø the proliferation of booze shops and the flow of alcohol as well as the invasion of drugs on the methamphetamine drug path

Ø acknowledged abandonment by the officials of the diocese

It is no surprise that my departure was both swift and unceremonial. It will also come as no surprise to the reader to learn that my failure to reconcile with the Anglican/Episcopal institution will outlast my time on the planet. I have attempted, obviously unsuccessfully, to embody a theology of awe, of searching, of questions, and of wonder. Absolute answers, colonialism, hierarchic unappealable authority, and the elevation of private virtue above social justice and a hard-hearted, hubristic masculinity do not, indeed cannot, embody, inspire or even authenticate a ‘christian’ theology and spirituality.

Two closing anecdotes: In an interview for another urban parish also in Colorado with a parish “leader” closely attached to the bishop (by his own proud acknowledgement) I listened to these words: “I am proud to have routed the last clergy from our parish; he was not spiritual enough and neither are you!” These words came from a Motorola executive so deeply embedded in his own material, extrinsic and political conception of the Christian church and his role in protecting its ‘spirituality’ which for him meant whatever marketing techniques would attract new members, new dollars and enhance his standing in the diocese.

In an interview in a Nebraska church, I heard one male expound, “We don’t want that pinko, Canadian communist!” words uttered in front of his wife who had already expressed a sincere interest in my candidacy. Was he feeling threatened? Duh! D’ya think?

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