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What Extreme Theologies?

January 23, 2009 2 comments

I’ll attempt to highlight some strands of theology that might be seen as extreme or have extreme implications. But first, let me suggest that the word extreme is completely perspectival. If I am standing the New Jersey side of the the George Washington Bridge, I might squint my eyes to see over on the Manhattan side and point to the other extreme. But either the New York side of the bridge or the New Jersey side still crosses the Hudson River. So both sides cross the same river even while resting in different states.

Two ideas that may seem extreme opposites when they make explanations from different times and places but they may be more similar than two ideas that never traverse the same river of thought. I sometimes struggle with the joy of sitting in the center of many different bridges, because something in me wants to connect everything. And some people don’t think everything should be connected. Does that sound overly mystical? Hopefully not. Oddly enough I think the world needs connectors and dis-connectors. Somehow we all help each other out.

As I think about 20th century theology or better yet, nineteenth century theology (that found popular expressions in the 20th century), I see some theologies moving toward a “fundamentalist position.” The word fundamentalist is not from a group of terrorists but a group of theologians in the early 20th century who feared the direction some theological ideas were headed, so they drew up what they called the “Fundamentals.”

These fundamentals defined what they considered to be essential Christian theology. As the term has popularized, it has been attached to everything from a way of dressing to a way of thinking that appears to reject the modern world (which is not wholly accurate). There are two doorways of insight that might be helpful here. In the 19th century, Enlightenment thinking continued its progression into multiple fields of thought including theology in ways that seemed to threaten the foundations of Christianity.

Particularly in German schools of thought a method of applying critical sciences to Scriptural study began to grow in popularity. Applying historical tools and language tools to the text, scholars began approaching Scripture in new ways, some of which questioned the historicity of the stories. This movement accompanied by the growing popularity of Darwinism in the natural sciences (and emerging social sciences) disturbed some Christian theologians because it seemed to lead down a road that would call into question some essentials of Christian faith.

The Fundamentalists circled around fundamentals of Christian faith that could not be rejected. Liberal theologies were not afraid to question some of those fundamentals like the virgin birth of Christ, the historicity of Scripture, the divinity of Christ and so on. From what I’ve read, I tend to think the liberal theologies weren’t necessarily an organized front. They represented a variety of ideas and approaches. Some focused on social service, others focused on critical study of text, some focused on history and so on. Oddly enough, thinkers sometimes moved between the groups.

Karl Barth was trained in the liberal German school of thought. But then he watched his liberal German professors wholeheartedly support the Great War. In disgust, he responded to their tendency to make God too closely aligned with this world (too immanent) by articulating a renewed theology of transcendence (God as Wholly Other). The marks of Kirkegaard are strong in his thought, but he also made room for some liberals and non-fundamentalist to embrace doctrines like the Trinity. Interestingly, he was not embraced by many fundamentalists even though he seemed to be defending many of their ideas. While all these early 20th century strains cannot be simplified this easily on a broad level their were groups that leaned more toward believing in Biblical revelation and those who believed more in human invention.

Now this may sound strange but I think both groups were like two sides of a coin. They were both essentialist rationalist in that they tried to reduce their theologies into a containable set of ideas. One applied their “rationality” to the text as it is received. The other applied their “rationality” to the origin of the text and/or doctrines surrounding texts.

Then suddenly the post-modernist ideas begin emerging that suggest every rationalist is still subject to some kind of narrative. So pure objectivity is a myth. Alongside this kind of questions, a whole sphere of writers begin thinking about rhetoric in terms of narratives, symbol systems and so on. By mid-twentieth century there are all kinds of voices coming to the table. Marxist readings of the gospel that suggest the story about Jesus is the overthrow of powerful rulers. Feminist readings that highlight Jesus’ interaction with women and the church’s crushing abuse of women.

As the floodgates began opening, universities were and still are trying to find ways to hear the minority voices that modernism silenced, thus the emergence of African American studies, Gender studies, Native American Studies and so on.

With all this opening up, a strange thing happened to fundamentalist Christians and liberal Christians. They both were influenced by these changes in philosophy and suddenly the lines were less clear. Some liberals started sounding like conservatives. Harvey Cox, a liberal Harvard theologian, wrote a glowing tribute and exploration of the highly emotional form of fundamentalism: Pentecostalism. Some conservatives started championing social causes.

I would suggest that’s where we are now. There’s a great big mixture. Some theologies that emerged out of fundamentalist evangelical worlds are questioning things like God’s knowledge of the future. If we really read the Bible at face level, the future appears open-ended. Maybe we really can change God’s mind? Some liberals have begun to embrace liturgy so seriously that they are returning to high appreciation of the Trinity and a liturgical worldview.

It seems there is a new springtime of exploration in Christian Evangelical theology accompanied by a renewed commitment to social causes on everything from poverty to AIDS to the environment. The leading popular Evangelical magazine, Christianity Today was formed in the 1950s as a response to the liberal magazine “The Christian Century.” Today, both magazine are routinely running articles by the same authors. And recently, the Christian Century recently ran an issue by liberal theologians about the doctrine of hell and why it’s important.

All the traditional categories of modernism have broken down in theology. Some ministers are terrified that this implications of this open-ended shifting is dangerous. And in some ways, it does mirror that chaos of the Medieval Europe when Reformation thought would sweep through an area. When King Charles was executed in England and the Puritans first came to power, there was a springtime of theological thought there. All kinds of wild and strange theologies were appearing. Some sects thought the end of the world was at hand and they were the specially appointed prophets. Men like George Fox appeared and began prophesying by the Spirit. Many movements died away or went into hiding (but the George Fox’s Quakers are still here).

The results seems to have been both chaos and renewal, social upheaval and a traditional resistance. Today some of the conservative theologies are questioning traditional as too Greek and not Hebrew enough. All the categories seem messed up. Writers and movements are questioning church buildings, musical style, doctrines such as predestination and God’s Sovereignty and even traditional readings of the Jews. There is one large group of theologians that suggest our understanding of Paul is skewed because we fail to understand the second Temple Judaisms that were prevalent during Jesus’ life were not inconsistent with justification by faith. Their objection to Jesus may really have been that He (and later Paul) kept suggesting that the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies opens God’s salvation to the Gentiles.

Okay, thus far I’ve done a desipicable job of summarizing and have even managed to confuse myself. So let me cut this short by highighlting the implications of emerging theologies without listing because there are so many divergencies. In spite of some folks suggesting that post-modernism is dead. Actually modernism continues to be challenged and redefined. What is really altered is the dominance of a Western European understanding of rationality and empiricism. It still plays a role, but we might speak of a humbled epistemology (or way of knowing). In this humbled way of knowing, theologies and philosophies that have been built upon distinctly Western forms of logic/reason and experience/empiricism/observation must recognize that not all people used the same categories of thought, rely on the same forms of knowing (epistemology), or make the same either/or distinctions, and even ask the same questions.

As communication opens the way between east and west and north and south, we will be challenged on every level. The West seems to have been caught off guard by the response in the Islamic world. There are more conversations and questions and challenges to our whole notions of reality coming from all directions, including the native peoples who lived in this land before us.

As an Evangelical Christian who believes that the Gospel is God’s revelation to man, this does not terrify but excites me. Because they will open doors of revelation and thoughts that we have yet to consider. And as we learn to talk and listen to each other, the possibilities are exciting. Right now the Gospel is experiencing revival and growth in Latin America, India, Africa, and China. All these peoples are raising new questions that will join in the conversation with the Western form of Christianity to open a new door.

While I can’t begin to summarize all of the variations, I’ve included links to a few that are provocative: the changing center of Christianity, open theology, African theology, Hispanic theology, Asian theology, emergent theology, Radical Orthodoxy, New Paul Perspective, and so much more! As I wrote in my other post, at times it will seem like there is little in common with these varieties of Christian theology, but I see a conversation taking place that will always have fringes in all directions. And yet, there may be some exciting possibilities for common ground as well.

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