Sunday, January 29, 2012

Faith and Fundamentalism

I have been accused on occasion of speaking, writing, and preaching as if I’m right and everyone else is wrong concerning issues of religion (and politics) (and everything else). That is probably so. It is the nature of declaring oneself, and one person’s persuasion is another’s elitism or fundamentalism. I do like to raise questions and would like to help others think through questions of faith and fact, but I guess I ‘m not very good at being gentle in these ways.

I am adamant against claims of Truth. I always distrusted such claims, but when I visited Northern Ireland in 2000, I became entrenched. What I saw and heard there, from Presbyterians and from their history (not the official teachings of the denomination there) was so serious that I will emphasize it here: CLAIMS  TO  TRUTH  ARE  OPPOSED  TO  PEACE. Truth leads to discrimination against and ultimately killing people because they disagree with the teachings of those with power. Simple truth. Maybe that one has a capital “T.” There can be no peace among peoples if they are claiming Truth over acceptance or at least tolerance of other beliefs.

Marcus Borg has accused some progressives of  “fact fundamentalism” or imposing enlightenment values on the Bible. He says this of Richard Dawkins and other “new” or “angry” atheists of recent years, and he said it in the ‘90's about certain scholars of the Jesus Seminar. His argument is that Biblical writers did not seek scientific evidence for truths, and we should not expect them to do so. We need to return to experiencing faith that allows the Bible to be true without being literally or factually true.

Borg actually helps many people with this by offering a definition of “faith” as “seeing.” Faith isn’t just assent to doctrines or even trust in God or Jesus. Faith is adopting a particular way of seeing the world, life in it, and the cosmos. Faith is a worldview. Science then is a “faith.” What I had done as a young man was to adopt Jesus’ way of seeing the world, as expressed in his teaching and way of dying.

The Jesus Seminar and I lost a great scholar and friend when Daryl Schmidt, then Chair of the Religion Dept. at Texas Christian U. In Ft. Worth, died suddenly in 2006. For the last six years of his life, Daryl led the Paul Seminar, specifically translation of Paul’s letters, now published in . The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning The huge problem addressed in this "Scholars' Version" of the text is how to read Paul without reading him through Augustine, Luther, and Calvin.

One of Daryl’s most important contributions, I thought, was the insight that Paul did NOT say that “a person is justified...through faith in Christ.” (Galatians 2:16) Daryl notes that English translations up to 1881 (including the King James) translated this “the faith of Christ.” This Paul uses in arguing from the parallel “trust/faithfulness of Abraham.” (Romans 4:12,16) We are not asked to “believe” in (or “on”!) Jesus, but in the words of the Cotton Patch Gospels, we are “to live the way of Jesus.” It is this philosophical wisdom not the pre-scientific worldview of Jesus that attracts many of us, e.g., “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.”

Actually, the fundamentalism of the late 19th century that causes such grief today grew out of a marriage of orthodoxy and the enlightenment at Princeton Seminary. Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield chose not to fight rationalism but to make literalism rational. To believe in scripture means that it has to be "true" even in the senses put forward by the sciences.

Alvin Plantinga, philosopher from Notre Dame, has become popular with his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies. He has a rationalist argument against “naturalism,” the view that there is a single, non-supernatural reality. Plantinga also has adopted the view that philosophy doesn’t matter (!) because there are no foundations in philosophy to which we might point. I heard him on NPR today and understood him to be calling in a deus ex machina to explain why or how Jesus happened to perform so many miracles as are recorded in the Gospels. Anyone who can logically argue a case for Jesus performing miracles deserves some sort of prize.

Dawkins says “We believe in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if new evidence arose to dispute it. No real fundamentalist would ever say anything like that...” Naturalists or evolutionists do not assert that there is no god; only that there is no evidence for a god. The problem really lies in the claims of revelation, from hearing the voice of God directly or through scripture. These things “make sense” within the circle of faith (belief in the fundamentals of supernaturalism, revelation, and divine beings). Again, I say that the language of religion is metaphor and myth. If everyone in the room understands that we are speaking in those ways, I am willing to expound the Christ myth passionately. Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t, so I am inclined to play the anti-fundamentalist fundamentalist.

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