02 January 2017

Riddles of Fundamentalism: Modernist Epistemology and the Question of Biblicism Part 1

The other night I was watching the old Fess Parker version of Davy Crockett and found myself trying to explain to my kids his mannerisms and the 'can-do' and 'aw shucks' common sense of the frontiersman.

It's just a movie of course and yet there's something to be said on that topic. The old backwoods sensibility and pride in lack of sophistication is something deeply rooted in sections of American culture. It took one form in the log cabin and another in the halls of academia along the Eastern Seaboard, and yet it's something common to the American experience and its intellectual tradition.

This history has hardly been static and in many ways the old Common Sense Realism that dominated Colonial America has been dethroned and cast aside. That said, there are interesting ties with the whole British Empirical tradition and the way in which American philosophy has largely followed this path into the Analytic method. While Logical Positivism was more a British phenomenon, the naive realism it posited shared a certain epistemological camaraderie with the old Common Sense Realism of Thomas Reid and his disciples.

I was thinking about some of this the next day when I was sitting in a Fundamentalist Church and reflecting how on the one hand as a movement it is profoundly anti-intellectual and yet in another sense it is still strongly wed to the naive realism and Empiricist epistemology of the Enlightenment.

I'm not at all a fan of Karen Armstrong and yet this quote is interesting.

'Before the modern period, Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture. The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation. Preoccupation with literal truth is a product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge.'

She is of course only partly right, guilty of generalisation and is wrongly dismissing any notion of orthodox hermeneutics even within the referenced traditions. Christian orthodoxy has in the past permitted a richer and more layered potentiality in hermeneutical method and application and yet it was hardly the subjective free-for-all she seems to suggest. The boundaries of orthodoxy, even in the realm of interpretation and method are not merely a product of the modern period.

As a Biblicist I of course believe there is a right interpretation of the text but I too believe in layers, symbolism, typology, and redemptive-historical narratives. I can be a 'literalist' and yet have a more nuanced and sophisticated (in the good sense) understanding of the text.

Fundamentalism tends to fall into a restrictive and sometimes naive minimalism and it is at this point Armstrong is right at least in identifying its origins. Well, partly right and yet I think we can go further.

Yes, on the one hand the Fundamentalist adherence to literal evidence, an 'objective' reading rooted in an epistemological monism (what you see is what you get) is tied to the Enlightenment and in fact finds similarities in the hyper-empiricism of the scientific worldview. At this point in order to go further we would have to revisit a great deal of intellectual history spanning Medieval Scholasticism to the Renaissance and finally the Enlightenment and what it truly represented.

There's little agreement here and the sharp disagreements become all too clear when we consider figures like Hume or Kant. To some schools of thought these transitional figures represent a reaction to the Enlightenment or Anti-Enlightenment while to others they merely represent the outworkings of the Age of Reason and its various stages and schools of thought. Hume to some would represent the end or collapse of Empiricism and depending on your read of Kant he's either the saviour of the philosophical project or the nail in its coffin, the progenitor of Idealist and ultimately Continental philosophy, which to many is a dead end. Detractors from Bertrand Russell to the present view this development as a degeneration into subjectivity and scepticism. Others would say Hume and Kant laid the foundation stones for modern relativism or what is sometimes (and often improperly) labeled post-modernism.

Common Sense Realism was largely a reaction to Hume and of course as a movement utterly rejected Kant and all that was born of his synthesis.

Interestingly modern Objectivists of the Rand school seem to flourish in the American intellectual milieu. Could this be due to the pervasive and lingering influence of Common Sense Realism? There are significant similarities in their epistemological commitments.

Likewise Fundamentalism assumes a great deal of epistemological confidence and optimism. The Grammatico-Historical method is an almost scientific approach to Scripture. Commitments to propositional truth, induction as a methodology (with some exceptions) and an almost fanatical desire to extract 'to the letter' statements and apply them to science, history and prophecy are all hallmarks of the school. Whether they are successful in this endeavour and whether or not their use of Scripture in this regard is correct, is of course another matter.

On the one hand, though Fundamentalism is viewed as anti-modern it's actually very much rooted in Enlightenment Empiricism and thus qualifies as modern in its outlook, or at least embraces a cohort of concepts identified with modernity. Karen Armstrong has something of a point. Its requirements for knowledge and coherence are rooted in common experience both in terms of logic and justification. The role of 'testimony' is interesting to consider at this point in both the revivalist and Fundamentalist traditions. While subjective, it smacks of evidence-based epistemology and in the 20th century a case could be made that strains of this thought were integrated with another American philosophical development, that of Pragmatism.

And yet paradoxically Fundamentalism is also anti-modern. In fact its primary identity is rooted in an anti-modern stance to theology and society. How can this be?

I think the strain of anti-modernism has to be understood primarily in sociological rather than specifically theological terms. While Fundamentalism rejected Liberal Theology, the basis for doing so was not rooted in pre-Enlightenment commitments, some kind of doubt concerning Empiricism, the scientific method or a correspondence theory of truth. Additionally, its rejection of Liberalism was not rooted in a Counter-Enlightenment response or development that expressed scepticism regarding man's ability to learn from nature and experience. Like the theological basis for many Liberal theologies, Fundamentalism maintained a commitment to these principles.

To clarify, some at this point might argue that Theological Liberalism divorced content from experience, that it was Counter-Enlightenment and succumbed to a type of theological Romanticism. That may be true in some quarters and yet the basis for divorcing content from experience was a scepticism... not generated due to epistemology in general, rather a scepticism regarding Scripture rooted in Rationality. This could be built on Empiricist or Rationalist foundations. Either way, regardless of the method, Liberals believed and argued Scripture did not accord with historical and scientific fact. Therefore, in order to 'salvage' Christianity and Scripture some turned to Idealist constructs, experiential revisions, comparative religion (approached analytically), and/or a stripped down de-mythologised type of social philosophy.

Just because Schleiermacher and others emphasised emotion and experience does not mean that their basis for doing so wasn't ultimately still rooted in a commitment to Enlightenment principles regarding rationality and science. They weren't so much turning to a subjective epistemological theory regarding reality but rather were turning to the subjective attempting (at least in their minds) to salvage Christianity from its complete and utter collapse. A foundational commitment to intuition, emotion and mysticism is more akin to Quakerism or the Catholic Mystical tradition... not Theological Liberalism.

Fundamentalism retained this same commitment to these Enlightenment principles but it did so while retaining a faith in Scripture. Scripture was taken a priori which it may be argued was incoherent, and yet taking Scripture as axiomatic the whole of their system and thought still functioned within an Enlightenment framework. It is admittedly an odd historical and intellectual phenomenon and I also argue it won't stand and largely hasn't.

That said, Biblicism can still be salvaged but a different approach must be taken.

But first we need to return to the question of Fundamentalism's Anti-Modernism to understand how the movement came about and provide context for its continuation and/or collapse.

Continue reading part 2