Saturday, November 28, 2020

More debunking of Christian fundamentalism

It is not my bias and experience only that underscores the futility and outright malignancy of fundamentalism. In fact, there are far more relevant and impactful arguments that need to have as many voices uttering them in this wave of cultural , conspiracy theories, rejection of science and truth, and the toxic power of tyranny that comes with all of that.

Given that fundamentalism itself is a “conspiracy theory” of its own, based on a ‘rapture, a division of the saved and unsaved and their respective eternal ‘sentence or reward, there is an already extant appetite among those who adhere to its tenets for conspiracy theories which rise to the dangerous, lethal and cancerous.

There has always been a tension between things we ‘know’ through our faculties and through our reason and those things we ‘dream, imagine, envision, and generate as our attempts, however legitimate, to relate to the eternal, the ephemeral. Words and concepts like the apocalypse, hell, heaven, the rapture, satan, and purgatory portend not necessarily a literal end of times, but rather a metaphor for how we conceive of our relationship to our chosen deity. And although science has been elevated to the top of a cultural and cognitive and epistemological totem pole, the literalism science embodies and upon which it depends serves only as a reduction to our concept/projection/vision/interpretation of that deity.

Previously in this space, and repeatedly, the argument against any human attempt to know and to assert and to believe and to practice an ethic and a morality, especially in the most minute weed-like details, catapults human beings into a highly treacherous position, that of playing god. There is a significant danger of hubris attached to this posture, especially when it imposes itself on those who find themselves in highly vulnerable and threatening circumstances. The parable of the good Samaritan has been deployed by agencies around the world as justification for the multiple and various acts of rescue of those in threatening situations. And while the spirit of those rescues itself, and the accounts of those rescued from fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, draughts offers hope and new life to the rescued, as well as meaning to the rescuers, there is a legitimate and somewhat controversial view of the biblical story that points to the Jew taken for dead in the ditch as the metaphor for the Christ of Christianity.

At the core of these two variant perspectives on that ‘good samaritan’ parable are two different visions of the Christian faith: one that focuses on the ‘good works’ that received prominence in the book of James in the New Testament; another that focuses on the spiritual reality of the dark night of the soul, a moment, or a series of moments, that seem to come to each and every human in which the ‘bottom falls out’ of our life, gravity seems to give way to chaos, hopelessness, alienation, ostracism, failure, shame, loss, grief and even potentially the thought and too often the plan to terminate one’s own life in suicide. At the centre of this prospect, the prospect of intense and seemingly unendurable and insufferable pain, exhaustion, desperation, depression and hopelessness, lies the profound and inscrutable belief, from the Christian point of view, as well as from the perspective of other world faiths, that there is even then, or perhaps especially then, at the moment when all of our “strength and capacity and will have seemed to evaporate” we are still being somehow sustained, upheld, supported and although we will emerge bent and different, we will see light at the end of that tunnel. This is not merely a story of scientific proportions; it is rather an account of spiritual dimensions, a belief cornerstone that is fashioned on the deepest and broadest and longest human conception of how the infinite and the finite ‘touch’. And it is not a moment that can be attributed to the strong will, the limitless imagination, the physical or mental or emotional fortitude of the ‘survivor’…but can be attributed only to something ‘other’….and for many that ‘other’ is God.

Naturally, in the course of our daily lives, we like to tell stories of the ‘rescuing’ kind, and to connect whether consciously or unconsciously those stories to something ‘larger than ourselves’ that might be ascribed to that good Samaritan. It is not to disdain that parable but rather to note that ‘good works’ while necessary and noble and honourable and worthy of note are different from the experiences of that dark night of the soul, when we are so shaken, disturbed, transformed and re-birthed however wounded, yet nevertheless more conscious and aware of the depth of the human spirit including its resilience, its strength, its universality, its ignorance of race, ethnicity, social or economic status, political ideology, academic achievement, personal genetic code or even faith membership. There really are ‘things’ far beyond our capacity (intellectual, emotional, cognitive) to grasp fully, and it the indisputable ‘ground’ of that truth that stretches and enriches and ennobles and also sustains the human family.

One of the more challenging truths of this ‘other’ truth and dynamic is that it escapes the entrapment of human words, those frail instruments by and through which we attempt to communicate. There is nevertheless a significant difference between “voodoo” spirituality and accounts from multiple and various sources of the dark night of the soul and its repercussions. Just as the mystery of birth is so infrequently captured in fiction, by even the most accomplished, talented and seasoned writers, and when attempted, there is so much left out whenever a writer ventures into that mystery. Any account of an autopsy, too, fails to represent adequately the incredible and awesome mystery of the complexity of the human body/person/existence. Public discourse ventures into the area of specific illness, symptom, including even those considered chronic, without even considering at the same time, the totality of the human being. And such is the manner by and though which we relate to some of our most challenging health issues.

There is a fortunate aspect to this ‘narrow view’ through the lens of our apprehension; we are once again, cast in the light of our own ‘resistance to the truth’. The other side of this cultural perspective “that we cannot stand too much truth” is that we project our perceptions of our humanity onto others including god. Anthropomorphism, while inevitable, does not because it cannot denote or connote the ‘wholeness’ or any deity. And one of the most obvious dangers of approaching the shadows of infinity, eternity and deity on the wall of the cave in which we all live, is that we will be overcome, overwhelmed and thereby crushed by the immensity of its power.


However, the reductionism of God that underscores the fundamentalism movement is inescapable. A cultural historian, Catherine M. Wallace, also a member of the faculty of medicine of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern has written a series of book to confront fundamentalism. So in addition to the theological, spiritual legitimate disputes against this social and cultural disease, her words are recorded in a journalistic piece on the website, by Bill Tammeus, of the Kansas Star, November 26, 2016. From Wallace’s book, the “Controlling God”, Tammeus takes these words:

Christian fundamentalism speaks for God with breathtaking arrogance and sweeping authority, laying out in no uncertain terms what God demands and whom God condemns..and…Christian fundamentalism does not seek the just, humane, inclusive society preached by Jesus of Nazareth. It offers a religious cover to a political agenda that is sharply opposed to democratic government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Other quotes from Wallace, through Tammeus:

The theology of an ultimately controlling God legitimates—indeed requires—human political tyranny at the hands of ‘believers’. When these same believers are biblical literalists immune to arguments based on rigorously established fqacts, we are in trouble….Christian spirituality confronts Christian fundamentalism with a simple but profound insight: all God-talk is necessarily and inescapably symbolic”…it is hazardous to attempt to speak about God while remembering that God is not a topic about which we can speak. Anything anyone might say ab out God, no matter how persuasive, is ultimately contingent….The whole point of Jesus, theologically speaking, is demonstrating that God is also present to us in and as other people…Our knowledge of God is never complete nor final nor absolute, because we have no way to know what God in God’s creative fecundity will either come to be or come to reveal to us…Theological literalism is ultimately just as serious a mistake as biblical literalism. Churches that insist upon literalism are committing intellectual suicide. Irrationality is not a prerequisite for faith in God…The sanctity of gay marriage will never be widely acknowledged unless Christianity takes the lead…But Christian fundamentalism, is frankly homophobic just as , in the 1950’s, it was frankly racist and then vehemently opposed to equal rights for women….Christianity as I understand it centers itself in a God of love and compassion, not a God of command and control,. The Lord of command and control is the God of empire, the God of violence, vengeance, condemnation, and deliberately inflicted pain. The God of Jesus is someone else….The problem with religious absolutism, then, is not simply that it worships its own unquestionable interpretations. That’s bad enough, heaven knows. It’s a setup for the situation we face today: the Christian ‘brand’ has been co-opted. Its symbolic resources and its commitment to common good have been rendered invisible to most people. All of that should worry any thoughtful person, regardless of religious allegiance….I hope to convince you that the Gospels are not the story of a God whose outrage can only be mollified by brutal human sacrifice.

Wallace’s books bear these titles:

Confronting a Controlling God

Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage

Confronting Religious Violence

Confronting Religious Denial of Science

Confronting Religious Judgementalism

The Confrontational Wit of Jesus

Not only does this scribe heartily endorse the spirit and the essential content of Wallace’s perspective, I also humbly suggest that her thoughts, perspective and arguments need to be read in the theological seminaries across North America. In fact, those schools of theology whose intellectual premises are based heavily on a fundamentalist foundation, especially, need to expose their students and faculty to this anti-fundamentalist critique.

There is a need also for a renewal of the fundamental importance of the teaching of reading, language development that stretches far beyond the ‘how-to manuals’ of the digital age. And that also includes the renewal of the curriculum common known as the liberal arts curriculum not merely for the sake of the restoration of those jobs for lecturers in Literature, History, culture and the grounding of poetry, the imagination, the basic difference between the various genres of literature, including the many genres incorporated into all works considered ‘scriptural’ or sacred.It says here that the sacred, by definition, cannot be captured in the finite, in the “power” agenda that has come to be identified with the colonial, the empire-building, the ‘divine right if kings’ partly underlines much of the cultural history of inordinate assumption and justification of abusive deployment of power. Ironically and paradoxically, the very sine qua non of a profound spiritual/religious/Christian life is not power over others, but rather the acknowledgement of powerlessness, vulnerability, need, and a reliance on the ‘hand of God’ that has never abandoned any of us.

Does Catherine M. Wallace accept invitations from Christian churches and theological schools and seminaries to deliver needed and cogent lectures about the Christian faith? She can be reached at Her CV reads:

She received has PhD. From the University of Michigan in 1977 and was Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University from 1976 to 1982. She set aside her scholarly career in literary theory to stay at home full-time with newborn twins and a two-0year-old-all three of whom are now in high school. She has spent the last fifteen years reading eclectically, speaking and writing about literary approaches to spiritual issues, and working as a homemaker. Her writing has appeared in pamphlets published by Forward Movement Publications and in scholarly journals. 

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