Category Archives: Theology

the progressive fundamentalist

In the thick of the street festival, some demo...
In the thick of the street festival, some demonstrators used the occasion to get their message out. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, because of a shared post on FB and my recent post on Rob Bell (1 that was critical v. the dozens or so that are supportive), I have encountered what can only be called progressive fundamentalism. Do not get me wrong. Not all of those who disagreed with me can be labeled as such, nor do I want to make a sweeping generalization, but in these examples and in my continued defense of orthodox Christianity (doctrines, creeds, councils, etc…), the progressive fundamentalist will regularly rear its head. As a former fundamentalist of the opposite side, it is pretty easy to spot one. The behaviors are the same, almost exactly so.

It is neither logical nor fair to label everyone who is different than I a “fundamentalist.” Indeed, this term is often debated. Does it refer to the early 20th century movement? Yes, but when I do so, I usually try to capitalize the “f” (Fundamentalist). However, it can and should refer to those who have adopted an unquestionable stance. Like the Fundamentalists who drew a line around historical inquiry into Christianity, these modern-day fundamentalists draw lines around certain things as well. Granted, for them, the line is drawn rather tightly around specific axioms of individual experience and belief. While we often look to conservatives to be the bastions of immovability, progressives have their fair share of individuals who simply require intellectual inquiry.

Unmovable and unquestionable are two different things, to be sure. For example, I have a high Christology (which is connected to my orthodox stances). This is unmovable because what makes up orthodox Christianity begins with a high Christology. Yet, this belief (in the divine sonship of the Second Person of the Trinity) is questionable given new data regarding such things as Second Temple Judaism and the like. I welcome questions because, frankly, a faith without questions is stupid. And it keeps me less judgmental because I’m usually okay with most things, even Gnostics (Gary!).

The one thing I usually lack the strength to overcome is fundamentalism. Why? because fundamentalism is a harmful system.

Progressive fundamentalism is a real thing. These PFs tightly define a set of specific believes, albeit even if it is a “this is what we cannot allow” and require others to follow it. As I wrote previously, even progressives build walls to keep people in.

Because I want to use others sources to help flesh out fundamentalism as a label (before adding “progressive”), I want to turn to a recent post highlighting a growing trend of fundamentalism in the Orthodox Church, a system I once thought impenetrable to fundamentalistic thinking.

Dr. George E. Demacopoulos writes,

Like other fundamentalist movements, Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms and then measures the worthiness of others according to them.  Typically, this manifests itself in accusations that individuals, institutions, or entire branches of the Orthodox Church fail to meet the self-prescribed standard for Orthodox teaching.

We can see this easily applied to both the conservative (not merely Westboro types, but the Ken Hams, Mike Huckabees, and Robert Jeffresses of the world) and the progressive sides of Christianity (for instance, those who think we cannot dare challenge Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and current attitudes towards justice, peace, and inclusion). Each side has a litmus test established, usually on individual preference, to insure that the axioms of the “faith” are followed and in this litmus test, they deem all others unworthy, if not sinful/heretical/evil — or, ironically, fundamentalist.1 Equally so, they are legalistic. If you step out of line, you will know about and you will be shamed into compliance.

If you read Demacopoulos’s post, you will see more connections between what he describes as an Orthodox fundamentalist and what you might see demonstrated by both the left and the right (especially in Protestant circles). For instance, the regular use of misrepresentations of history and act to achieve their goals. In reality, Jesus wasn’t about inclusion (unless it was about Gentiles into Israel’s covenant). He excluded (abusers, sinners who refused to heed the call, and those who hated others). Further, Jesus did have social justice aims (what the ancients called a “leveler”). Eunuch doesn’t mean what you want it to mean. Yet, often times these facts are chucked in order to make a point. They create this fanciful notion of the idyllic Christian message — either to the welfare line or to hell.

Demacopoulos goes on. “The insidious danger of Orthodox fundamentalists is that they obfuscate the difference between tradition and fundamentalism.  By repurposing the tradition as a political weapon, the ideologue deceives those who are not inclined to question the credibility of their religious leaders.” If you remove “Orthodox” and replace it with conservative, progressive — or, better, just the word “ALL”, it becomes truer.

Fundamentalists, as he writes, are reductionists. They (both conservatives and progressives) remove Tradition so that their interpretation remains unchallenged. They create a basic set of unquestionable doctrines or tenets of belief required to be “right.” They remove points of departure and unity so that the walls remain high — to keep people in. Then they go heresy hunting.

Both sides, both extremes, include more fundamentalists than they care to admit. They share similar behaviors, and similar worldviews. Indeed, they inhabit the same system of abusive, control, and manipulation. Neither side allows questioning and if it happens, such action is met with abusive behavior and shunning.

There is no way to stop it — it develops naturally in every system. The best we can do is to recognize it and attempt to provide a buffer against it — without becoming fundamentalists ourselves.

  1. The term “fundamentalist” is often thrown around by progressives as a way to stop conservation and is used as a wall to keep people in. After all, the one thing you cannot tolerate as a progressive is a fundamentalist.

Does God want us to be more than human?

The Tree of Knowledge, painting by Lucas Crana...
The Tree of Knowledge, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2 Peter 2.14 is hardly the sum total of the doctrine of theosis, but it is what gives us a sound start and finish when we begin to explore it. St. Athanasius puts it like this, “God became human so that humans can become divine.”

What if this was God’s plan all along? That we become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 2.14)? Indeed, if one starts in Genesis 2 and then goes to the last few chapters of Revelation, we see a great cosmic plan, The Great Code, that does not merely recapitulate itself, but has this circle of life that prepares us for something else. Let me explain.

In Genesis 2, we are told there are 2 trees in this Garden. The Garden should be seen as the cosmic temple, and I believe if you know your Book of Kings (x2) you will immediately understand why I suggest this. In this Garden, God gives the first covenant — this is yours, he says, except for this one tree. What tree? It is the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was one that related to more than moral information. It included a valued knowledge that would be necessary in order to have the ability to make a clear distinction between what was beautiful or ugly, helpful or harmful, approved or disapproved. Knowledge is obtained from instruction, but what is done with that information can be either good or evil. Putting knowledge into life requires the ability to discriminate between the two.1

The Jewish Study Bible says the same thing. The merism of “good and evil” is meant to represent not merely the extremes, or opposites (good v. evil) but everything in between. But, it goes deeper. Good and evil are not merely right and wrong. Knowledge is not merely the intellectual understanding of right and wrong, either. It is, rather, the knowledge that comes from experience.

I know that a red burner means the stove is hot. I know that if I touch it, I will burn my hand. However, I know this two ways. One, I was always told that. Two, because I did not listen, I touched it and it burned my hand.  This is experiential knowledge and understanding.

Growing up, one reads the great love stories. We even “fall in love” throughout our adolescent years. We fantasize what it would be like to be loved. Why? Because we have read about it and believe it is necessary to our existence. But, we know only of it by word of mouth. Perhaps we see it too, with our parents or caregivers. But, we do not really know love until we experience it ourselves. (And because love is so elusive, we may not really know it then!)

Returning to good and evil for a moment, Bonhoeffer captures well what it is meant here. He writes,

Good and evil, tob and ra, thus have a much wider meaning here than good and evil in our terminology. The words tob and ra speak of an ultimate split in the world of humankind in general that goes back behind even the moral split, so that tob means also something like “pleasurable”  and ra “painful”  (Hans Schmidt). Tob and ra are concepts that express what is in every respect the deepest divide in human life. The essential point about them is that they appear as a pair, that in being split apart they belong inseparably together. There is no tob, nothing that is pleasurable/good/beautiful, without its being always already immersed in ra, in that which is painful/evil/base/false. And what is painful/evil—in this wide sense—does not occur without a glimmer of desire for pleasure, which is what makes pain so completely pain. That which is good, in the sense of tob, is for us always only something that has been torn from evil, that has passed through evil, that has been conceived, carried, and borne by evil. The luster of the pleasurable/good is its origin in evil, in its overcoming of evil, to be sure, but in the same way that a child overcomes the mother’s womb, that is, in such a way that the good is enhanced by the greatness of the evil from which it has torn itself. To us Ignatius is ‘greater’ than Francis, Augustine is greater than Monica, Hagen is greater than Siegfried.2

Good and Evil can be the same as pleasure and pain, wealth and woe, joy and hurt. This is a phrase, I contend, for the sum total of human experience. This is what it means to be human, to experience everything — individually and corporately.

But, did it have to be that way? I do not wish to step into the realm of the mystery of suffering, or theodicy, but maybe it did have to be this way.

Perhaps God wanted us to be more than human. If humans had stayed only in the Garden, we would not know the beauty of the rest of the world. If we had never lost, we would not know gain. If we had never hated, we would not know love. If we as a species had never warred, we would not know peace — if we had never killed, we would not know the value of life. Again, I speak not about an intellectual understanding, but that knowledge that can only come from having experienced it.

St. Justin Martyr said, “…but to prove to you that the Holy Ghost reproaches men because they were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons, and yet they, becoming like Adam and Eve, work out death for themselves…yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming “gods,” and of having power to become sons of the Highest; and shall be each by himself judged and condemned like Adam and Eve.” (Trypho, CXXIV)

Perhaps it was God’s plan to always have us become partakers of the divine nature, to be more than human. Surely, the divine has experienced all of the things we do. As Christians, we believe that the suffering of Christ was not limited to the suffering of the physical body. Does God grieve with us when we grieve? Is God joyful when we are? Think about the wide range of experiences God shares with us (as mentioned in Scripture). Then, remember that what Scripture mentions is not the total of the Infinite.

When the command is given, followed by the prohibition of “you shall surely die,” remember, the opposite — unsaid of that command — is, “but you will surely life.”

If this tree is meant to represent the totality of what it means to experience everything (good and evil is a merism), does that mean that at some point that experience will be over? Perhaps that is why we no longer see that tree at the back of the book (of the Christian canon). The only tree remaining is the Tree of Life (Revelation 22.2) and it is for all nations to gain healing.

If we look at Christian Scripture as a great cycle, or circle, we begin with a tree that promises to reveal what it means to experience everything, continuing with a goal from God to become sharers in the divine nature, and finally ending with that tree no longer there but with the hope of life from eternity. Or, we see that the human experience is necessary to achieve, through Christ, the chance to become a sharer of the divine nature. Indeed, this view must transform what the Incarnation means as well.

Genesis 2 begins with a covenant and Scripture continues to build on that covenant until the final consummation, when we are simply with God. How is this achieved? As the Fathers knew, it is achieved only through Christ.

  1. Wilbur Glenn Williams, Genesis: A Commentary for Bible Students (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 1999), 52.
  2.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3 (ed. Martin Rüter, Ilse Tödt, and John W. de Gruchy; trans. Douglas Stephen Bax; vol. 3; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 88.

erecting walls around the mind

John F. Kennedy
Cover of John F. Kennedy

I am forever the recovering fundamentalist — reminded of those times and that system by various things in my life. Further, I am trying to prepare a post about orthodoxy (again) and why it is healthy. I heard something on the radio this morning and it struck me as something pertinent to mainline Christianity. It got me to thinking…

Fundamentalism is about walls and restrictions — the aim is to control even the thoughts of the Christian. Indeed, how many of us have heard of “tearing down the strongholds” of the mind. If you search that phrase, you will find commentary regarding this. What does it really mean? Ironically, it often means the exact opposite. Rather than helping to clear away the selfishness of our human side, this phrase simply means that any hint of independence in the individual believer must be destroyed.

Fundamentalism builds walls to keep people in. As a system it rejects science, Tradition, change, and introspection. These things provide doors and windows for people to see the outside world. And like these governments, it terrifies them that they cannot control the mind of every individual. And yes, like the Berlin Wall, there are guards, gatekeepers, and watchers in fundamentalism that serve to prevent people from leaving.

I rather enjoy Mainline Christianity (and I won’t even begin to tell you what that is) because it is Christianity that reaches back into Tradition but forward into the unknown. Maybe it is not the best, but to borrow something from John F. Kennedy —

Our Christianity is far from perfect but we do not have to erect walls around the mind to keep our people in…

I hope the sides in our current UMC debate understand that. We see the sides becoming more rigid. We see threats and mistreats when one person steps away from their side on particular issues. We see walls being built to keep the sides clearly defined and to keep people in their respective sides. Indeed this is why people deny that a middle, a via media, can exist — because there is no wall that keep us in.

St. Bonaventure on what comes with being in “the image of God”

Saint Bonaventure
Saint Bonaventure (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, the loftiness of power requires that there be produced creatures that are not only traces, but also images; creatures not only irrational, but also rational; creatures moved not only by natural instinct, but also by free will. Moreover, a creature made to be the image of God is by that fact capable of possessing God and hence is called to the beatific vision; a creature that is rational is capable of distinguishing the truth; and a creature possessed of free will is capable of ordered or disordered actions in terms of the law of justice.1

Image, if you will, a creature without free will claiming to be in the image of God. Yes, while we can wrestle with what it means to have free will, we have to understand that this is what the image of God means. Are we merely minions of God, His pawns in some cosmic chess game against Himself?

Admittedly, I do not believe in free will in many ways, yet I do not believe in determinism either. Either we chose to worship God or we do not (yet). Either we are rational (which, by the way, means we have a sense of right and wrong) or we are not and thus not bound by any sense of morality.

  1. Saint Bonaventure, Breviloquium (trans. José De Vinck; vol. 2; The Works of Bonaventure: Cardinal Seraphic Doctor and Saint; Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1963), 278.

John of Kronstadt, the Image of God in Everyone, and Unity

Icon of Saint John of Kronstadt.
Icon of Saint John of Kronstadt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am unfamiliar with the stylization of “saints” in the Russian Orthodox Church. John of Kronstadt is a saint, I believe, of that patriarchy. 

There are among us ways to interact with ourselves — and with those who are not of the household of God. Often times, we see even our brothers and sisters in Christ as opponents. There can be no reconciliation if, in the end, one side has lost. Indeed, when any body becomes factious, it has ceased to be a body.

In reading Christian Century yesterday,  I came across this quote from John of Kronstadt:

Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.

I wonder how this would play out, I mean if we actually felt this way, in the way we treat secular prisoners or those we have so easily deemed sinners? Could we stop seeing them as wretches and then begin to see them as unhealed (Revelation 22.2)?

In another part, John says:

Remember that every man is an image of God, and that all his glory is within him, in his heart. Man looks upon the face, whilst God looks upon the heart.

Christ, the Son of God, the Most Holy God, “is not ashamed to call us sinners brethren;” therefore do not at least be ashamed to call brothers and sisters poor, obscure, simple people, whether they be your relatives according to the flesh or not, do not be proud in your intercourse with them, do not despise them, for we are all actually brothers in Christ — we were all born of water and the Spirit in the baptismal font and became children of God; we are all called Christians, we are all nourished with the Body and Blood of the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, the sacraments of the Church are celebrated over all of us, we all pray the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father…” and all of us equally call God our Father.

How unified would we be if we actually treated the waters of baptism as the blood of family?