“God” is a word that is at once fundamental and mysterious. Most people talk about God–affirmatively or dismissively–as if they are talking about something they are well acquainted with. God is understood as a celestial father, or an impersonal force, or a wrathful ruler, or an-loving presence. God is attested to in a variety of scriptures; people claim to have experienced God in a variety of revelations and mystical experiences. The more skeptical dismiss God as a psychological aberration or a political ploy. So what is God? When we are talking about God–that is, when we are doing theology–what is it that we’re talking about?
I’m more interested in talking about what I think God is (and isn’t…we’ll get to the problems with this language in a bit) rather than in dismissing all the approaches to thinking about God that I disagree with. For one thing, there are a lot of ideas about God. Most of them are either outdated or crazy, and there’s centuries worth of literature that enumerates, in excruciating detail, just why those approaches are so wrong.
But I will touch briefly on the main currents of thought present in the West now, as I see them. I will now launch in a very long discussion of them, since once I started writing, I realized I couldn’t really say anything worthwhile in just a few hundred words.
Basically, I think you can talk about three broad approaches to thinking about God: one is fundamentalism, which argues that there is a book somewhere that tells us everything we need to know about God. The book is assumed to be revelation, that is, the unadulterated Word of God, unquestionable, and without which any knowledge of God is impossible. The second is complete skepticism, which dismisses the idea of God outright as either a psychological aberration, a holdover from our primitive days that we need to evolve beyond; a cynical political invention used to manipulate poor and/or foolish people; or an idea that intellectually deficient people hold on to as they face the brutal reality of life. Third, there are people who attempt to build a sort of compromise approach. They don’t deny or assert God in any particular way. They often believe in God in the same way that we believe in black holes: they’re interesting, but irrelevant. This is approach is common among folks who ascribe either to agnosticism or who believe in God and may even define themselves as belonging to a specific religious group, but who don’t really assert anything in particular. Often, these folks treat their religion more as a cultural or social group that they enjoy being a part of. While this approach to spirituality has plenty of things going for it–it tends to be highly tolerant, for example–it also strips religion of most of its social criticism and spiritual insight. A compromised theology is unlikely to inspire people to change themselves or their society. It is easily co-opted by the society around it, and lacks any “prophetic” potential to really challenge anyone or anything.
OK, so let’s talk about
these each in turn really quickly fundamentalism now and I’ll address the others in subsequent posts (Parts 2 & 3). Fundamentalism is pretty ubiquitous in the US these days. Most people probably assume its the default form of Christianity, and probably think that most Christians are die-hard fundamentalists. The reality, though, is that fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. While there have always been people who have insisted on a very literal reading of the Bible, for the most part, the dominant thinkers in both Eastern and Western Christianity didn’t, for centuries on end. It was the rise of modern science, which overturned many traditional mythologies, that really launched fundamentalism as a major theological force within western Christianity. With geology, biology, and physics all questioning traditional creation myths, histories, and ontologies, some Christians felt backed into a corner. But it’s worth pointing out that the initial reaction of many prominent theologians to, for example, Darwin’s Origins of Species was positive; they immediately perceived that evolutionary theory could be easily dovetailed to an understanding of God as a creative agent in the world. It would take a less-than literal reading of some passages of the Bible, but most serious readers of the Bible for centuries had known that most of the Bible was never meant to be read literally anyway. It used metaphor, analogy, myth, and poetry to discuss things that can’t be easily discussed–or in some cases, discussed at all–with literal language.
But quickly, a number of church leaders, especially within some Protestant denominations in North America, came out railing against Darwin, modern geology, and any other science that challenged their comfortable interpretations of religious truth. Even though Jesus himself directly challenged religious orthodoxy, a large number of Christian leaders were uninterested in any contemporary challenges, and worked to turn lay believers against the new sciences.
It would be easy to dismiss this as simply an act of ignorance or creedal closed-mindedness, but the truth is probably a lot more complicated. Ultimately, fundamentalism is a lot more about politics than theology. Wealthy elites always need a system to keep the people beneath them in line. Normally, they do this in at least two central ways: first, they pay some small proportion of people decent wages to act as police or soldiers, who then keep the status quo in place through force or threat of force. This is obvious, but in some ways is less insidious than the other major approach: the elites also cultivate ideologies–political, religious, economic, and otherwise–that act to legitimize their position in the society. If they can convince a large enough minority of those below them that they (the elites) deserve their wealth, power, and privilege, those same elites can save a lot of money on police and military security, and much of the work of maintaining the status quo will be done for them by the very people they are exploiting.
Now, some more skeptically-minded folks (who we’ll get to
in a bit in a subsequent post because this post is already nearly 2000 words long) might, at this point, argue that religion itself is nothing but a very old and complex form of social manipulation by elites. This is a tempting answer, since it ties everything up in a neat bow, but unfortunately, much of the reality of religion is left outside the knot. For one, religions have launched far too many riots, revolutions, and resistance movements to explain their existence so simply. And these upheavals are not the result of some peripheral aspect of religion; most religions’ central texts are full of contempt and condemnation–and often damnation–for the wealthy and powerful. The idea that they were designed to act as an opium of the masses doesn’t fit the history or the texts. The truth is more complex than that. However, such skeptical dismissals of religion aren’t all wrong–it’s clear that many, really, all, religions, once they become popular enough over a given group, are often appropriated by elites for their own ends. So even if the vestments weren’t sewn in the first place to act as the Emperor’s New Clothes, they certainly are often custom-tailored to the purpose later on.
Fundamentalism represents the primary approach to this appropriation in the modern era. While I’m now definitely diving out of theology and more deeply into politics, I don’t think one can understand fundamentalism without talking about politics. The initial reaction of a number of theologians and Christian leaders to Darwin’s Origin of Species, as I mentioned above, was actually positive. They saw his theory of natural selection as a newer, more scientific way of interpreting God’s creative agency in the universe. But within a few years, that sort of open-minded critical engagement with science was being dismissed, especially in North American Evangelical Christianity, as surrendering to an ominous new threat. Battle lines were drawn, with “Bible-believing” Christians on the one side and the Enemies of Civilization on the other. Industrialization had created vast new wealth, but had also plunged millions into not only horrific poverty, but grindingly inhuman work. The social order was being completely overturned, and many elites recognized a serious threat to their power within society. And a number of Christian leaders decided to step in, ally themselves to those within power, and offer their services to keep at least one sizable segment of the population from embracing any unsettling new ideas–scientific or political. They overlooked the fact that at its heart, the Gospel message is one of liberation, of equality, and of rejection of power, wealth, and privilege, and instead crafted–like so many church leaders before them–a modified Christianity designed not to nurture, enlighten, and liberate their fellow Christians, but rather one customized to keep their fellow Christians in their place.
In the 20th century, the clearest demonstration of this is the “Culture Wars” which were launched by conservative thinkers in the 1970s. Christian allegiance was reinterpreted to mean toeing the line on a limited number of issues–especially a rejection of gay rights and an absolute ban on abortion. Other issues much more central to the Gospel–combating poverty, resisting war, denouncing wealth and power, building loving and compassionate societies–were all sidelined or completely ignored, because they represented a threat to those in power. Gay rights and access to abortion are largely unimportant to powerful people, who have the money, access, and immunity to pursue whatever sexual lives they choose, and the resources to access, for example, contraceptives or abortions if they need. Money can buy anything, even if its illegal. So these two issues are great ones for the elites’ fundamentalist allies to focus on, since by focusing millions of Evangelicals on them, other questions will be left unaddressed, and the status quo can be much more easily maintained. The fact that this has led many Christians to hate, persecute, and even attack and kill homosexuals, their allies, abortion providers, women who seek abortions, and their allies, is seen by fundamentalist leaders not as deeply un-Christian and shameful, but rather as evidence that the Culture Wars are being won.
So what does all of this mean for theology? What does all of this political maneuvering have to do with our understanding of God? Well, the fundamentalist vision of God is one crafted not out of intellectual or spiritual exploration or research, but one that has been designed to fit into the fundamentalist social framework. So, through fundamentalism, politics invades theology and subjugates legitimate theological questions to partisan interests. Not surprisingly, then, the fundamentalist vision of God is not only childishly simplistic, but out of line with Biblical and Patristic theological viewpoints. Fundamentalism isn’t a re-capturing of Christianity’s traditional core, its an utterly warped caricature of that core.
The heart of the most central prophet books of the Tanakh (Old Testament) as well as the Christian Gospel was and is a cry for social justice. Isaiah, for example, in chapter 10:1-3, warns “…those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees,to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?” Psalm 12, verse 5: “Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will protect them from those who malign them.” Jesus told his disciples, “[i]f you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” In the Epistle of James, chapter 2:3-4, the writer warns his readers that “if you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”
The heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition has always been social justice. God was seen time and time again as the Avenger who would punish the wealthy and powerful for their arrogance, selfishness, and oppression. Fundamentalism’s primary role is in distracting modern Christians from this reality and convincing them that their faith obligates them to toeing a partisan line designed to make it easier for rich people to exploit them. The very heart of the Christian faith is the crucifixion and resurrection: a poor peasant from a peripheral province of a vast empire is killed by the State for sedition. His resurrection was seen then as the proof of God’s promise to overturn the corrupt worldly order and institute the Kingdom of Heaven, where, in the words of Isaiah, chapter 40:4-5: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together…” Fundamentalism is the modern incarnation of the effort by those in power to obscure this message, and replace it with a reactionary one designed not to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven, but to keep the current social order intact for as long as possible. As such, fundamentalism is a betrayal of Christ’s message and a huge failure on the part of the church.
OK! So that ended up being way longer than I originally intended. I recognize that my “history” of fundamentalism is very simplistic; I wasn’t trying to describe all the specific historical causes involved in creating the modern fundamentalist movement in all its complexity, but rather in explaining what I think essentially motivates it. I’ll address the other two major modern approaches to theology in later posts, and then try to outline the alternative(s) that many people are developing and that I think is(are) crucial for the future of spiritual systems in general and Christianity in particular.