03 January 2017

Riddles of Fundamentalism Part 2: Epistemology, Social Context and the Charge of Anti-Modernism

Industrialisation proved traumatic for Western society. Traditions, what we might call social forms of coherence, accepted norms, standards and commonalities were modified and in many cases jettisoned. A new urban culture began to form that changed many economic, social and thus finally familial and traditional dynamics. While on the one hand this was the outcome of modern thinking and the science and technology it produced, in another sense its non-coherence and fragmentation led to a social crisis. The mechanistic view of the universe first moved God to the periphery and then abandoned Him altogether. Science and technology came into their own and created a new type of Foundationalism for the new era. The previous coherence of what we might call Enlightened Christianity, the form familiar to late colonial and early Republican America was no longer needed or viewed as valid.


The new society built upon cash and finance, urbanisation (and with it the destruction of the rural community), as well as different roles for men and women in the industrial economy, created a social crisis leading to the suffrage and temperance movements. In these trends were found the seeds of both a reactionary and progressive sociology. Society became schizophrenic and Fundamentalism was almost a cry of "Put on the brakes, I want to get off!"
Relatively few Fundamentalists were content to abandon the American narrative and their claims to it. While some indeed fled to the so-called Christian ghetto, most modified their views and expectations, and in the wake of World War II began to find common cause with Capitalism, anti-Communism and other socially conservative movements that wanted to preserve the old status quo. Though downplayed today, this was often in response to the growing chorus for minority civil rights and its application by the judiciary.
Ultimately this approach to sociology devolved into political factionalism. Politics in terms of society always contains elements of dynamism that defies the monolithic constructs put forward by the academy. And though there was an Anti-Modernist inclination to Fundamentalists and some Evangelicals, their embrace of America and its post-war status also contained a vibrant progressive impulse. This was also fed by their tendency to synthesise Classical Liberalism, their particular 'Christian' read of the American narrative and their understanding of Protestant theology.
By progressive we don't necessarily have to mean Social Progressivism in the sense of improving conditions for the poor etc., but instead an optimism with regard to the future, and the eager embrace of technology as a means to improve domestic life and defend the nation. Many socially Anti-Modernist Fundamentalists were more than happy to embrace the culture of the automobile, domestic appliances, as well as the radio and television, even though these inventions drastically changed the warp and woof of daily life and also contained within their use a profound shift in ethics and ultimately the form and function of the family.
And their commitment to Capitalism led to an almost blind embrace of American consumer culture and the ever-escalating standard of living. This was even while they (at times) decried the growing materialism within the culture. Once again Classical Liberalism in its individualism and pursuit of happiness, when synthesised with Christianity afforded a doctrinal framework for the embrace of the post-War American experience.
To be sure there were and are some groups that reject certain aspects of the great change that took place after World War II. There are still some that conscientiously reject television and computers, the cinema and all forms of popular music, but they are few, and their numbers continue to decrease. Often arbitrary and inconsistent the arguments and taboos don't stand the test of time. Rather than resting upon moral absolutes they often reek of a particular social context and failed narratives.
As an aside, there is a small but growing movement within Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism that has embraced Anti-Modernism with regard to industry and agriculture. Once again though, the heart of this argument is sociological and often wedded to a meta-narrative concerning American history based on themes of agrarianism vs. industrialism as well as interpretations of the Civil War and its meaning.
Whatever the nuance, the sociological basis for Fundamentalism's Anti-Modernism has little chance of remaining static. Without some kind of objective principle, it has little hope of compelling its members to remain within the fold and maintain its legacy. Its Anti-Modernism is exposed as an incoherent and subjective sociological epistemology. It is self-defeating by its own standards. Fundamentalism actually devolves into a type of wistful romanticism, a type of Idealism which (philosophically) is the very notion or modality of thought that is most abhorrent to its epistemological and ethical sensibilities.
If the sociological form can't hold it together, what about its theological basis?
The argument has already been made that despite Fundamentalism's claims to the contrary, it did embrace a type of modernistic theology. This needs additional consideration.
It could be argued that the groundwork for Fundamentalism's epistemological approach was laid in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment and that modern Liberal Theology was merely the outworking and implication of the method. Liberals unshackled the method from its Textual foundations. And yet Fundamentalism's epistemology, and thus hermeneutic are still on the same trajectory which ultimately leads toward Liberalism. Once confidence in the text is shaken, the descent is rapid because the methodology is already in place and it has no hermeneutical apparatus to deal with seeming incoherence.
Coherence is the test of validity and this is wed to correspondence with both logic and an appeal to the uniformity of nature and the laws it reveals. These commitments lead to a constant barrage on the Fundamentalist foundation... the authority of the text. Once there's a chink in its armour, the damage spreads like a cancer.
One might posit that Evangelicalism in breaking with Fundamentalism in the 1950s, opened the door and abandoned its post. Seeking social and academic respectability as well as highly desirous of attaining a certain cultural and social influence, Evangelicalism began to adopt the language of the academy and its assumptions began to creep into their scholarship. The cancer had been introduced and today it would seem that we're left with Evangelicals who try to maintain the 'text' by flirting with Barthian constructs and on the reactionary side we find in the remnants of Fundamentalism, the formulation of various King James Only positions which seek to put an end to all inquiries concerning the text and the complex questions surrounding inspiration and the nature of the Bible's claims vis-à-vis sociology and science.
With this come a host of reactionary sociological positions, usually rooted in legalist constructs regarding the Christian stance to sociological development. This manifests in anti-modernist positions regarding dress and grooming standards etc. And yet as just mentioned, these standards are necessarily dynamic and subjective.
Fundamentalism is doomed to fail and it would seem we're beginning to witness its death throes. While ostensibly conservative it contains within itself, the seeds for its own destruction. While claiming to take Scripture as axiomatic, on that foundation it builds a type of Enlightenment superstructure... one that is something of a relic but still clings tenaciously to the same Empirical model employed by its enemies.
We see this prominently in 'Creation Science' and in their apologetics which usually tend toward Evidentialism.
As a Biblicist I cannot but appreciate the mindset which would uphold Scripture as axiomatic self-evident truth. Yet, I would argue that when thought of in this manner it is cast in a philosophical framework and is immediately followed by a quest for 'system' determined by a series of criteria related to logical coherence. And yet once this secondary rational apparatus is embraced the Scripture's authority claims become subject to method and the cognitive reflections and processes of creatures who cannot think beyond the finite limitations of language, space and time. While seeking to develop and enrich the experience and message of Scripture, the extensive labours of the systematician's theological volumes instead prove to be exercises in speculation and can even result in spiritual and intellectual limitation... and thus impoverishment with regard to the meaning and depth of the text.
The authority of Scripture must be absolute and it must be understood as revelational and spiritual. As flawed as Barth was he seemed to grasp the potential danger in theological endeavour reducing Scripture's spiritual content and essentially equating it with Natural Law, something accessible to the spiritually unenlightened. In other words if theology is a 'science' rooted in the mastering of philosophical method and consistent logic, then it is a field that is potentially open to anyone trained in the method. One need not necessarily be a Spirit-transformed believer to be a good theologian. How clearly we have seen what happens when the methodology is employed by the infidel! The Mainline academic uses the theologian's toolkit and weaponry to wage war on the foundations of Scripture itself. The philosophical approach to theology (which shares many presuppositions with Fundamentalist epistemology and hermeneutics) consequently sows the seeds of its own destruction. The Fundamentalists are not alone in this but are in all actuality merely an amplified subset.
Barth took this concept in unfortunate directions but like Karen Armstrong there are truths to be found in the observation. If the wisdom of God is a mystery revealed (1 Cor 2.7) then it cannot be discovered or elaborated by means of natural and thus fallen reason. The 1 Corinthians passage elucidates (and tempers) the extent and nature of knowledge Paul deems possible in Romans 1. The Romans passage establishes a basis for guilt while the 1 Corinthians passage reveals the necessity of the Spirit and revelation as not only the basis for knowledge, but something of its very nature. Human categories and attempts at logically constructing systems of reality based on either correspondence or coherence fail. Neither can hope to penetrate, apprehend, let alone comprehend mystery. The implications for the philosophical project and systematic theology are nothing less than profound.
Rome and its theological allies might say otherwise as framed by their philosophical synthesis and narrative concerning the Fall, but the Scriptures themselves are clear on this point. Though Rome arrives at this point on a different intellectual road than the Fundamentalist, the end result and confidence in natural man's ability is not all that different.
Fundamentalism is sometimes identified as fideistic in its perceived 'blind adherence' to the Scriptures. And yet as I continue to point out their 'faith' in the Scriptures is somewhat misleading. They 'believe' the Scriptures but faith is understood as merely intellectual, a type of Right Reason, even good and proper or common sense. They're hardly alone on this point but the tendency is enhanced in their system and by its context.
The Right Reason approach to faith needs to be understood as a qualification to any claims regarding Sola Scriptura. Its notions of Scripture Alone are effectively subjugated to the coherence test. Further, that coherence must also be integrated with human experience, so-called common sense and even empirical evidence from nature. Belief in many of the supernatural doctrines revealed in Scripture are still cast in terms of coherence and 'proof' and thus it is without great surprise many of these doctrines suffer from reductionist tendencies and must be reckoned as somewhat impoverished in light of both Scriptural testimony and Historical Theology. At this point the very nomenclature if not the concept of Fundamentalism comes to the fore in indentifying this limiting principle. What was meant (perhaps) as a basis for a type of doctrinal Foundationalism in fact reveals (if not exposes) a larger tendency or principle at work within Modernist Christian thought. While attempting to arrest the Modernist tendency, the Reductionist approach of Fundamentalism is itself modern.
While it is often argued that the Reductionist tendency is at odds with Coherentist (often Idealist) approaches to the question of truth, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact Reductionism can serve the Coherentist project by the process of simplification and the limitation of concepts. This tendency is also fairly common. Such limitations are not always a bad thing as long as the criterion is rooted in Scriptural authority as opposed to rational coherence as is the case with Fundamentalism. Limiting concepts in the name of Scriptural integrity, human finitude or even mystery are valid. Limiting concepts as presented in the Text due to concerns of coherence is something very different. Or to put it differently, are concepts limited because the relied upon Authority (Scripture) fails to elaborate them or are they limited due to the creation of an air-tight and polemically unassailable system?
Questioning these categories will only baffle its adherents. To question 'Common Sense' is to flirt with mysticism if not madness. Yet, as is clear from the philosophical tradition, the diversities in Biblical interpretation, the wide array of religious derivations from nature etc., the very notion of 'Common' Sense is itself an absurdity. In fact, I would go further and attack the very epistemology they have retained. Direct or Naïve Realism, the monistic view advocated by Thomas Reid and the Scottish Common Sense school was revived in the early 20th century by the Neo-Realists in the United States as well as figures like GE Moore. Bertrand Russell also held the position for a time but later abandoned it and returned to the epistemological dualism of Classical Empiricism.
The monistic view continues to resonate with American cultural sensibilities with regard to Classical Liberalism, progress and man's general ability.
While man plainly possesses innate ideas and has the ability to grasp basic concepts they are clearly not demonstrable on the basis of 'Common' sense. That is to say that nothing concrete can be postulated. While everyone knows there is a God and is thus accountable, apart from Divine Revelation the result is that we're presented with millions of self-referential gods and thus idols. Natural Revelation and Post-Edenic epistemology point to certain realities but they cannot be resolved and brought into coherent forms, let alone verified or relied upon as sources of further predication.
The truth of Christ and the Gospel are revealed mysteries apprehensible only by the workings of the Spirit. They are brought forth not for examination or dissection or even in the form of philosophical discourse. Instead Scripture reveals them through the 'foolish' (i.e. the absurd, incongruous and even incoherent) form of preaching or proclamation. While Paul was not afraid to engage in discourse and point to 'Common Sense' evidences, the heart of the message was the kerygma or proclamation to submissively accept the Revelation, Jesus Christ Himself. The response on the part of man is not to resort to verification but to believe in Him (through His Word) and to repent.
Fundamentalism in its spirit grasps something of this and perhaps it could be said that in reality it acts upon this intuition, but on paper (as it were) it is thoroughly modernist and rationalistic. Sadly this plays out in its truncated formulation and presentation of the gospel, not to mention its formulaic, reductionist and wholly inadequate understanding of saving faith. Faith is reduced to intellectual apprehension based on a common-sense response to a series of mostly objective 'facts'.
This is not the faith of the New Testament as presented in the Gospels, Paul's teachings nor the famous passage in Hebrews. The struggles of faith, sanctification and mortification, let alone the exhortations to perseverance and the warnings that accompany them are all explained away, relegated to the status of healthy hypotheticals... and not all that healthy to seriously contemplate. Faith almost becomes an exercise in positive thinking, facts (not necessarily truths) that are repeated. The apprehension of facts does not necessarily lead to knowledge and wisdom which are essential components to Saving Faith and spiritual in nature.
It must be concluded that the charges of fideism are false and the Fundamentalist movement's intellectual impulses have been misinterpreted.

Continue reading part 3

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