Note: When I write “Fundy” or “Fundies” as a shorthand for “Fundamentalists” I do it because I’m a slow typist, not because I want to denigrate my Fundy friends. For them, in spite of our disagreements, I have “all the love in the world,” as Dr. Wilson says.
I have here introduced the notion of “practical atheism,” meaning by it, that although a person may espouse a belief in God, it is quite possible for that belief to be so removed from everyday life, that God’s non-existence would make little difference.
Surprisingly, I would place some forms of Christian fundamentalism within this category (as I have defined it). I recall a group affiliated with some particular Church of Christ, who regularly evangelized our apartment complex when I lived in Columbia, S.C. They were also a constant presence on the campus of the local university. They were absolute inerrantists on the subject of the Holy Scriptures. They were equally adamant that all miracles had ceased with the completion of the canon of the New Testament. Christians today only relate to God through the Bible.
Such a group can be called “Biblicists,” or something, but, in the terminology I am using here, I would describe them as “practical atheists.” Though they had great, even absolutist, faith in the Holy Scriptures, they had no relationship with a God who is living and active and directly involved in their world. Had their notion of a God died, and left somebody else in charge of His heaven, it would not have made much difference so long as the rules did not change.
I realize that this is strong criticism, but it is important for us to understand what is at stake. The more the secular world is exalted as secular, that is, having an existence somehow independent of God, the more we will live as practical atheists – perhaps practical atheists who pray (but for what do we pray?). I would also suggest that the more secular the world becomes for Christians, the more political Christians will become. We will necessarily resort to the same tools and weapons as those who do not believe.
I think this is spot-on. I’ve often remarked that it’s a pretty thin line between atheism and Fundamentalism. Both are essentially Enlightenment postures that deny mystery and seek a purely rational foundation. That’s why the leading claims of the Fundies are claims about the Bible, primarily the claim of innerrancy, which is foreign to the scriptures themselves. This is the great Fundamentalist irony–they simultaneously claim that the Bible is perfect and all-sufficient, and that you begin by believing one thing that the Bible never says. Having asserted this view of the scriptures, everything else proceeds from there. I think this is bad theology, of course, but it also has a huge practical consequence–any Fundamentalist who begins to notice that the Bible sometimes contradicts itself or wrestles with competing views doesn’t have to just rethink his understanding of the scriptures, he has to rethink his entire faith. It was all predicated on a bad assertion. This isn’t my idea–Fundies set themselves up for this all the time when defending their notion of inerrancy. When I started really wrestling with the Bible, I must have been told dozens of times, “If there is a single mistake in the Bible, then how do you know what parts of it you can trust? It’s either perfect or useless.” I was in essence told that if I came to believe that Genesis 1-11, for example, was not straight history, or that it’s unlikely that there were two Philistine giants named Goliath, one killed by David and one by Elhanan (a contradiction that the Chronicler tries to make go away) I had only one choice–reject the Bible outright and become an atheist. Which is, for a time, exactly what I did. Online, I encounter other people on the same trajectory with surprising regularity. It is the Fundamentalist position that there are only two coherent worldviews: Fundamentalism or Atheism.
In Churches of Christ, inerracy was paired with the view that all miracles ceased when the Bible was completed (because who needs a Holy Spirit when somewhere in the world the ink is drying on the book of Revelation?) I remember a sermon when I was a child that claimed that when the New Testament says “Holy Spirit” what it means is the Bible. The Bible leads us into all truth; the Bible comforts us; Jesus said it was better for him to depart so that we could receive the Bible. Bibliolatry is not too strong a word for this view. And it’s ultimately a very lonely theology. God used to do interesting things, but quit a long time ago, so I can’t expect anything from him. Jesus is up in heaven, quietly interceding but not interacting. The Holy Spirit is the Bible, and there is no magisterium, no creed or tradition to help me make sense of it. It’s up to me and my rationality, and the stakes if I mis-interpret are eternal hell. This, among some people, counts as good news.
I think Father Freeman is right that this theology is going to tend toward gaining political power. After all, God isn’t going to fix this world. I can’t trust the Holy Spirit to change people’s hearts. What I should do is get more right-thinking people into office so that we can claim some power and privilege in order to safeguard our rights and enforce Biblical morality. That is diametrically opposed to the servant pathway of Jesus, but, on the other hand, Jesus believed that God was still at work.
There’s a further consequence in this system: having established the Republican party as the torch-bearers for goodness and faith, the Democratic party is inevitably demonized. Sometimes this is overt, as in the insistence that Obama is a closet Muslim, if not the anti-Christ, but often I see it among as disheartening number of my friends who believe that no matter what a Democrat says, there’s some other agenda lurking underneath. The insistence that Obama is a socialist because he wants to repeal Bush’s tax cuts and offer an optional government sponsored health insurance plan is one manifestation. On the other hand, no matter what Bush did, it was vital to “support the President and our troops” (an unseemly blend of faith and militarism). So we get a phenomenon of conservative Christians who don’t bat an eye at torture, secret prisons, warrantless wiretapping, optional wars, outing covert CIA operatives, etc., etc., etc., but are deeply convinced that the new guy is an authoritarian. This requires an astonishing amount of denial.
Which goes back to why I gave up voting: It’s nigh unto impossible to pick a side without beginning to view them as unalloyed forced for goodness and the other team as pure evil. I eventually decided that if I was going to believe in a living God who was King of All, that didn’t leave me a lot of reason to try to enact my agenda through political means. Let other people grapple over who the President is, I’ll look a bit higher. This does not, though, rule out prophetic critiques of those in power. In fact, I think in some ways critique is strengthed by a refusal to pick a team.