Fundamentalism dressed up in Postmodern clothing?

We have batted around the continuities and discontinuities between contemporary evangelicalism (of the N. American and British varieties) and 20th century fundamentalism, and I am afraid we never get very far. Perhaps it’s the nature of this particular conversation, but I remain interested in the subject. Teaching in an institution of Christian higher education with historical ties to fundamentalist Christianity means the general tendencies are never far off.  So I was intrigued to see a post by Geoffrey Holsclaw on the dynamic between recent postmodern revisions to Christianity and their relationship to the very fundamentalist forms of thought and commitments they try and overcome.

Holsclaw suggests that at least three forms of thought which claim to move beyond fundamentalism under the guise of postmodern re-alignments are simply inversions of fundamentalism all over again: inerrancy to pure errancy, biblical primitivism to rabbinic primitivism, and conservative anti-intellectualism to liberal anti-intellectualism.  Read the entire post here, but let me highlight for discussion his comments on anti-intellectualism  (he has the emergent church crowd in mind):

I’ve become more and more concerned at a creeping anti-intellectualism among some of the loudest voices who rest on rhetorical questions, anecdotal evidence, and communal experiences over philosophical and theological articulation and argument.  This, I believe, follows from the previous inversions because your don’t have to really say anything or land anywhere because we are all merely in an endless conversation.  Essentially, everything is a rhetorical display without any real substance. I have been a part of numerous conversations that only go so deep before an implied anti-intellectualism takes over.  If one probes too deeply all of a sudden you are part of the establishment, you are on a heretic hunt, or you are defending an ideology which we are trying to overcome with our radical questioning.  Well, that can only go so far.  When a certain form of radical questioning takes the well worn paths of protestant liberalism, or mirror forms of Hegelianism, it does not good to just assert that “we” aren’t doing that old thing, you have to actually show how things are different, you have to defend and articulate what is going on.  This is the role of an ‘organic theologian’, to both articulate within a community what is happening, and express to larger communities why it makes sense.  To only do the former without the latter is to perpetuate a fundamentalism on the other side of the equation.  Hence my claim of an inverted anti-intellectualism.

Does this ring true to anyone?

I worry about a similar phenomenon – which might have its roots in the same soil – exhibited when some of my students seem unwilling to probe beyond quickly accessible, pragmatic solutions to theological issues. They don’t default to rhetoric so much as to the quick assumption that “all that really matters is how you live out your faith.” Everything devolves into what “works” and what doesn’t “work”.

Well yes, how you “live out your faith” is critical, but doctrine directs how you “live out your faith” both in mission and worship (even if implicitly which is often the case). Doctrine directs the church’s fitting participation in the drama of redemption. It’s one thing to say that worship generates theology, and another to follow this into the crucial next step of affirming how doctrine directs the church’s worship and mission. Both steps are necessary, but the later is  lopped off in a fearfully large number of discussions.

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8 thoughts on “Fundamentalism dressed up in Postmodern clothing?

  1. I frequently find myself on the receiving end of anti-intellectual (or at least anti-intellectualism-tinged) barbs from all ends of the spectrum: conservative Protestant, liberal Protestant, conservative Catholic, etc. It seems to me that honest intellectual inquiry and the quest to learn and articulate truth are looked upon by a fairly vocal minority not as the means and end of the theological enterprise, but as the disregard for tradition/Scripture (among conservatives) or intellectual imperialism (among liberals).

    I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with yourself and Holsclaw when you suggests that among the emergent church movement (and indeed elsewhere, modern strands of Catholic feminist theology springing immediately to mind) is an element that couldn’t care less for intellectual rigour and privileges “personal experience” above all else. The disregard for doctrine in the face of “more practical” concerns is certainly to the bad for the theological (and larger Christian) community. The twin disciplines of scholarship of historical doctrine and the articulation of new doctrinal teachings are essential to the Christian community because, as you have said, they form the backbone of our mission and worship.

  2. Reminds me of how Peter Leithart argues that ‘inversion’ is one way that postmodernity protests against modernity by intensifying modernity.

    With their many “humble” questions, postmodern revisions of Christianity can fall prey to merely repeating the mistakes of late 19th Century/early 20th Century liberalism.

    For example, I think of figureheads in the emergent movement like Brian McLaren, I see someone who has by and large abandoned orthodoxy with his “questions.” It’s the same Harnack-like liberalism that Barth realized would kill a church, and I think it’s only time before this “emergent” movement suffocates.

    Paradoxically, McLaren is a prime example of anti-intellectualism. The very program he advances was birthed in the academy, and yet he is betrayed by his disparaging comments at every turn of academic theological training (which, by the way, the church has always had, Brian). Yet The flip side to this paradox resides in the fact that he and his ilk presume to have broken through the intellectual fog that holds Christianity captive with . . . yes, their intellects. Another example is Pete Rollins, who reads like a beat poet who’s read a lot of books, but can’t really tell you anything of substance.

    These people undoubtedly fancy themselves intellectuals, but I do think it’s fair to say they’ve fallen prey to this ‘inversion’ that Holsclaw hints at.

  3. This whole anti-intellectual phenomenon is quite perplexing. I think that the whole movement has actually morphed into what is in fact intellectual snobbery. Both the emergent and contemporary conservative movements have become exactly what they are fighting against. The emergents think they know better because McLaren thinks many of our theological problems stem from Platonic dualism and the conservative side thinks they have overarching authority because John Piper, Wayne Grudem, or R.C. Sproul, who are all very educated, said the bible is inerrant and women shouldn’t be pastor’s. I also find it frustrating that when engaging in conversation with those from either of these movements, all statements about theology or God are overly vague. Just because you have read a book or two or an educated person has informed you doesn’t mean that you have an in depth or well informed theology. I don’t me to be too harsh, but it is especially frustrating because both movements are stemming from those who are educated.

  4. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. When addressing persons with a simple, Fundamentalist orientation, people who like simple, fast answers, a few quick (if not dismissive) one-liners, can be reasonably effective. When sustained intellectual argument is wasted.

    And it can be fun. It’s sort of like writing short Zen koans, instead of books.

    When teaching, I like to offer both: a few simple phrases and rhetorical questions for those who like that; and some longer, sustained intellectual arguments too.

    I don’t think postmodernists, therefore, are really so fundamentalist as they might appear at times. They are just adopting the quick rebuff or fast remark, as a useful, temporary rhetorical strategy.

    By the way, even a rhetorical question, is a bit more complicated than a flat, simple assertion. Since it, at least technically, invites you to think, it asks you a question, rather than flatly imposing an “answer.”

  5. Does this miss your point? That such a postmodern lack of an answer, is itself a new dogamatism, that does not help the community? Personally, I’m rather attached to be sure, to the notion that God is infinite, and therefore not entirely knowable. And that thereore, all our quick and dirty descriptions of him, will always be wrong.

    Therefore, if there is a central lesson to teach in religion, it might be the very postmodern answer these entries reject: the unknowability of ultimate truth.

    I would rather have a dogmatic indeterminacy and openness instituted generally, than instituting a simplistic notion of God.

    To be sure, it is hard to teach much that is specific, to a class raised on such radical/dogmatic indeterminacy. So in class, I do both: teach some simple answers, some fixed structures. But then suggesting that ultimately, all fixed targets, fixed notions, are really just idols. And stiff as they are, they are all too easy to shoot down.

    • I am not sure I entirely follow. If you are saying that our “certainty” (speaking as a Christian theologian here) is an eschatologically chastened certainty, one that holds itself in faith until the final revealing of God in the second coming of Christ, then I think your comments on divine infinity can have real currency. If you are saying everything reduces to a general, all-pervasive skepticism, then I have to part ways.

  6. My position is that historical Christianity has always had some invaluable truths in it. At the same time, it has also often had some even physically fatal untruths in it; like promises of physical miracles. Promises which don’t seem to always reliably come true.

    For that reason, I find a very pious presentation of traditional Christianity, which presents it as perfect, to be offensive and even dangerous. When we present something that is flawed, as holy and perfect, that is the same as selling a car with bad brakes as perfect. Those who trust and believe in it, will be surprised when they try to stop for a speeding truck, and the brakes don’t work. Whereas, if we had just warned them earlier that there were things that did not work in that car, they might have taken precautions to prevent the accident. (Towed the car, for example, instead of driving it). Likewise, I think we need to warn people if there are things in historical Christianity that don’t work. Rather than pretend everything is perfect.

    If Historical Christianity has many good things in it, but also many things that seem bad or false – like promises of “all” and “whatever” we “ask” – is the glass half full or half empty? The truth is probably, somewhere in-between. So, when surrounded by those who overstate the case for traditional Christianity, I attempt to balance things out. By noting – with postmodernists – many signs of sin and error in our holiest theologies. In another setting – among those who totally reject Christianity – I would note its good points. In order to find the proper balance or proportion.

    In this forum – which I think occasionally over-states the perfection of holy men – I take the opposite tack; for the sake of balance.

    Though to be sure, generally I feel that the glass is say, half full.

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