Sunday, January 23, 2011

Atheists, Christians, and Fact Fundamentalism

In 1910 Harvard Professor Charles Elliot advocated for a new form of Christianity, a Christianity that would have only one commandment, “love of God expressed in service to others.” At the time, most
Christians were radically opposed to this expression of the new scholarly and liberal Christianity. Feeling threatened a group of Christians published a series of booklets called The Fundamentals in which they laid out a list of fundamental beliefs required to be a Christian. They listed five beliefs that they then used to define which people were Christian and which were not: 1) Biblical inerrancy, 2) virgin birth of Christ, 3) substitutionary atonement, 4) resurrection of Christ, and 5) the second coming of Christ in glory.

This was the birth of fundamentalism, but in order to understand the social context that gave rise to this movement a fuller understanding of the history of both the religion and philosophy is necessary.

In the 4th century the Christian religion began to be expressed in creeds. As Harvard Professor Harvey Cox succinctly notes the creeds began “replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him.” As expressed in the fundamentalism of the 1900s all five beliefs are beliefs about Jesus, and though they deal with his birth and death not a single one touches on his life or teachings.

The Enlightenment era moved the West, religious and non-religious alike, towards a scientific view of the universe, a view in which the only truth that counted was a propositional truth. Statements must be either true or false. The law of the excluded middle (A or –A) formed a large part of the basis for the development of philosophical logic. There was a place for metaphor and symbolism, but only in literature and art, not religion.

This in turn gave rise to two main responses by the religious establishment. One is a kind of postmodern religion which emphasizes human spirituality and liberation from religious and political hierarchy. The two most prominent examples today are liberation theology and non-fundamentalist expressions of Pentecostalism in which the spirit truly is privileged over the written word.

The other response is fundamentalism, which grew as a reaction to the moral uncertainty of the scientific view of the universe. Feeling threatened with the loss of a religious context from which to discover meaning fundamentalist fought back by accepting the viewpoint of propositional truth and arguing for certain propositions that they determined to be fundamental to the faith.

The new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, etc.) fought back with fiery rhetoric denouncing the blind belief in propositions that are clearly non-factual. Despite an appearance of intense disagreement with fundamentalists both the new atheists and Christian fundamentalists share a common premise, that the importance of religion is belief in a set of propositional truths.

I would like to suggest that religion at its core is not about belief.  Rather, it is about faith, a faith understood not as propositional assent to certain dogmas, but rather as trust, love, and awe at the mysteries of self, other, and universe. Albert Einstein wrote beautifully about the feeling of mystery that I consider to be at the heart of faith:
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.
Religion at its best is a human community attempting to grasp the ungraspable. It is a community developing a shared understanding through the use of poetry, symbol, myth, art, music and ritual to express that which can never be expressed in scientific prose.

Marcus Borg expressed the task of today’s theologians as follows, “I see my generation of public theologians as helping church people move into a form of Christianity that is non literalistic, non exclusivistic, deeply in touch with tradition, but with a historical [and] metaphorical way of understanding tradition and so forth.”

I inevitably find that whenever I attempt to talk or write about mystery or meaning I use Christian myth and symbol because Christianity is my native religious language. I think it is important to preserve that language while recognizing that it is not the only framework from which to interpret life, but rather one of many. I look forward to learning more about the others through my participation in State of Formation as well as working to refine my understanding of Christianity and move in a direction that avoids the fact fundamentalism that has hampered so much interreligious dialogue. I think we will have much more productive dialogue when we begin to express our religions in terms of stories rather than doctrines.

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