Thursday, January 23, 2014
When Fundamentalists are Too Liberal
The fact that the most natural response would be "too conservative" reveals just how misleading and unhelpful our current all-embracing binary of liberal/conservative really is. (More on that in a second.)
This media-constructed polarization affects, and infects, nearly all public discussions, including those in the church. By forcing every position into a package of positions that must be labeled either "conservative" or "liberal," we miss any possibility of nuance and lose any hope of actual rational discussion. Instead of interaction, there is merely assertion and counter-assertion from "both sides."
But any attempt to fit the varied rich intellectual and moral positions of a religious tradition into only two categories is bound to involve confusions and oversimplifications.
Back to the creationist question.
In my experience, many people assume that the Genesis story has historically been interpreted in a very literal way, but with the rise of modern science, especially Darwinian evolutionary theory, we now have to abandon this literal interpretation in favor of a more modern metaphorical or allegorical approach. But so-called "young earth creationists" have held on to the past and refused to move forward in adopting new biblical interpretations that adapt to changing scientific knowledge.
That whole way of thinking, however, is completely false. The vast majority of ancient and medieval theologians in the Christian tradition did not understand Genesis to give a factual report on exactly how God created the world. The most influential Western theologian, St. Augustine, explicitly warned against trying to use Scripture to trump scientific knowledge. He taught that Scripture should be interpreted in such a way as to conform to undeniable knowledge of the natural world. This is why many of Darwin's religious contemporaries, including Cardinal John Henry Newman, found nothing objectionable in his proposal.
So when in the early twentieth century a movement arose in the United States among some Christians to make a literal, factual interpretation of Genesis a fundamental tenet of Christian belief, they were not in fact acting as "conservatives." That is to say, they were not conserving what the dominant stream of thought in the Christian tradition had to say on this matter. Instead, they were acting as "liberals," proposing a very new way of approaching these texts in reaction to the modernist intellectual culture of their day. In a manner which exposes the fluidity and relativity of these terms, you have fundamentalist Christians who are not being conservative enough.
The moral of this story for me is that this is an instructive example of how sometimes debates get stale and stuck because we have made an error in the way we have framed the question and the way we have labeled the positions.
Sometimes our task isn't to carry on a debate, but to question the very frameworks and labels within which the debate has been taking place. I suspect this is why Jesus so rarely gave a direct answer to the burning debates of his day. He didn't want to give support or energy to a framework that itself was in need of rethinking. He knew that sometimes you don't just need new wine, but new wine skins.