Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
February 23rd, 2015 by Joel Watts

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.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

18 Responses to “the progressive fundamentalist”
  1. Know More Than I Should says

    There is a reason why Catholics refer to “the morass of Protestantism.”

    Meanwhile, like everything else, fundamentalism is evolving. While it may be egressing through an ideological maze, it is nonetheless evolving.

  2. Correction, I am not a Gnostic. But I find them interesting, and unfairly “dumped on” by the proto orthodox 2000 years ago. OK, maybe Marcion has strange ideas. But I would hate to try and defend the actions of some VERY strange Popes throught the Christian Era (who, by the way, formulated your orthodoxy).

    • No, the popes didn’t formulate orthodoxy – not the strange ones. But, yes, there are strange ones all the way around.

      • Know More Than I Should says

        Alexander VI comes to mind.

      • I used the term Pope generically. I should have included Bishops. Irenaeus is a nice candidate to consider. Logic behind four gospels, four directions on the map. Actually, the analogy is complete. People dump on Bell, like Irenaeus dumped on Marcion, including calling Bell a Gnostic. Primarily because he is thinking outside the box, and challenging (in Bell’s case), orthodoxy established by a bunch of up-tight, sexually frustrated (thinking of Origen now) Bishops who criticize anyone that do not think EXACTLY like them. I say this with a 🙂
        Although the Gnostics had to be pretty frustrated sexually too.

  3. If this post is directed at me (which indeed I challenged your “Farewell Rob Bell…” post as lacking in substantive argument, and merely piled on with the same things that fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals are saying — and even used the same tropes), let the record note that I am not one who thinks “we cannot dare challenge” Bell. There are a number of matters on which Bell can be criticized (or Jones or McLaren or $WhoeverElse) and I’ve posted many of these and am in sympathy for.

    But the post you reference was shallow, and purposefully a drive-by bomb lobbing — and you admittedly did not engage with his record of discourse on what he (Bell) actually believes about Scripture (and as I noted in the FB post, there’s a 75 post series he wrote on “What is the Bible?”, that you could have engaged with.

    Instead, you highlighted a verbal stumble that was made in defense of LGBT inclusion and marriage equality. In other words, you threw your lot into the culture wars, at least in this particular instance, on the exclusionary side.

  4. What I find in most progressives, though, is the absolute (fundamental?) belief that everything can be questioned, even Christology. I had a progressive tell me that the reason for the Incarnation of Christ was because God wanted to find out what it was like to be a human being. I just choked on my tongue with that one.

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