Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fundamentalists react

To understand what the Fundamentalists were reacting to, you need to know where liberal Christianity came from. Finding the roots of any philosophy always comes with the danger of not starting early enough in history, but you have to start somewhere. A good place would be the end of the “Dark Ages” because it was then that scholars started to more freely comment on the Bible.

The Italian scholar Petrarch coined the term “Dark Ages” in the 14th century when he noted the lack of Latin literature over the preceding centuries. The name came to also denote the lack of historians and of any decent architecture. This was primarily a European phenomena as Baghdad in Iraq and Cordoba in Spain were flourishing.

If you look at lists of important writing through European history, you will see a huge gap after the Greeks, then Erasmus. He wrote of free will and religious tolerance, those were radical ideas in his time. He wrote of the need for church reform, as did Martin Luther, but Erasmus wrote in Latin and was less partisan than Luther. He did not gain as many followers. This is unfortunate as Luther was less tolerant of other religions and his Lutheran party became increasingly violent, something the scholar Erasmus wanted to avoid.

Fighting over who should be able to interpret the Bible and how, led to war. Catholics were reading mass in ancient languages and telling the congregation what it meant and Luther and others believed the scripture alone should be one’s guide. This was known as Sola Scriptura. This led to wars. At the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, part of the treaty stipulated that princes within the Holy Roman Empire could select either Lutheranism or Catholicism as their official religion. (Thank you oh wise Prince for selecting for me from so many choices). Later in that century, John Calvin entered the debate with another form of Christianity. Relative peace was maintained until 1618, the beginning of the 30 Years War.

Noteworthy, during this time, were the trials of Giordano Bruno and Galileo. Bruno’s ideas were less scientific than Galileo’s, but they were still considered wrong strictly based on dogma, not on a review of his scientific accuracy. Some consider the trial of Galileo more of a political one rather than anti-scientific, due to the pressure on the Roman Catholic Church from the emerging Christian sects. They may have wanted to demonstrate their resolve to remain dogmatic. Also at this time, one of the largest monarchies of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg family, was allowing their subjects to choose how they practiced Christianity, further upsetting the Vatican. Notably, near the end of this war, Descartes published his famous works, stating, “I think, therefore I am”. He is considered the father of modern philosophy.

Finally, when the 30 Years War ended, The Peace at Westphalia stated that Christians had the right to practice their faith publicly under any denomination (any Christian one of course). Pope Innocent X called the treaty null and void, but his powers were diminished. This was the beginning of modern international law, ending the feudal system.

Soon, critiques of the Bible were openly discussed. Scholars began to notice errors and discrepancies. This became known as Higher Criticism. It is not criticism as in "criticizing", but a search for the true meaning of the text. Also about this time was the earliest written statement that the Bible was inerrant. I don’t think the statement came so late because it was a new idea, so much as it was the first time that anyone felt the need to write it down and make an explicit rule for their denomination. Simply saying the Bible is the word of God had been sufficient up until then, in my opinion.

You might also notice that Isaac Newton was born near the end of The 30 Years War and his scientific breakthroughs were nurtured by the newly formed Royal Society. The society performed experiments, published their results and reviewed the works of their members. They repeated each other’s experiments and compared results. If someone refuted another’s ideas, evidence was required to back up what they said. In other words, modern science was taking off.

This leads us up to Charles Darwin and to where we were in the first of this series. The only question left is how did the Roman Catholic Church come to dominate Europe for 1,000 years? To the point wars had to be fought just for the right to go to the church of your choice. Today, most of the world considers that wrong. So, was the RCC right about their theology? So right that they should demand everyone follow them, lest we all burn in hell? If not, then what is right? Were the Lutherans or Calvinists right to start a war over their ideas? These questions seem almost silly today, but they dominated European history.

In the last of the series, I’ll look at how this idea of dogma, of one true God, took over all other philosophies. 

First in the series

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Pope and the Big Bang

Something caught me ear, so I briefly interrupt the series on fundamentalists:

I heard a Hitchens clip this weekend about the history of the term “Big Bang”. He said, when the theory was first proposed, the Pope liked it and offered to make it dogma, so everyone would have to believe it. Fortunately, the cosmologist who proposed the theory said ‘no thank you’. As Hitchens said, ‘that would be missing the point’. This was told as a joke, but looking into the history, it’s pretty accurate.

Edwin Hubble laid the groundwork for the theory. Georges Lemaitre proposed a more complete theory in 1927. He was a cosmologist and had once been a Roman Catholic priest. This minor factoid is often mentioned as proof that science and religion are compatible. In 1949, Fred Hoyle used the term “Big Bang” as a pejorative, he preferred the steady state theory. In 1951 in a speech before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Pope Pius XII endorsed the theory, and connected it to the correctness of the Genesis account,

"…it would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies."  

And, to make sure no one missed the point,

“Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator.  Hence, creation took place.  We say: therefore, there is a Creator.  Therefore, God exists!”

After hearing the Pope’s speech, a friend of Hoyle’s commented to him, “I had not dreamed that the Pope would have to fall back on you for proof of the existence of God.”  

Lemaitre and the Vatican’s science advisor saw the problem here. If the Pope were to go beyond a mere mention of this theory, and make any more official statements about its relation to the proof of God or accuracy of the Bible, it could lead to problems in the future if the theory had to be amended. Theories of course are amended all the time. Changing Pontifical proclamations is not so easy. We only know that the two scientists spoke to him in private and he did not make any more comments on the matter.

Publicly, Lemaitre was as delicate and conciliatory as can be,

“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”

As we have seen since, despite silence from the Popes, and explanatory notes from the scientists, this idea of “creation took place, therefore God exists”, lives on. It’s as if any science since 1951 never happened. It’s the easy explanation that gets transmitted, not the hard work of collecting real evidence and holding on to what might have happened while experiments try to confirm what did happen.

In “A Brief History of Time”, Stephen Hawking tells of his audience with the Pope. He humorously notes his trepidation with such an audience, given past encounters with scientists and Popes. Although disputed, he claims the Pope told him to stay away from commentary on the moment of creation. Since then Hawking has made statements about the lack of need for a creator.

For me, I’d rather live in the world where scientists can be scientists, and not take orders from Popes or any other religious leader. Pope Pius XII tried to take the latest evidence and make it part of his religion. Popes have been doing that forever and getting away with it because most people are unaware of the evidence of their time and even less aware of earlier evidence and why the one trumped the other. Lemaitre knew all this and knew the difference between science and dogma. That he wanted to be respectful of the Pope doesn’t say anything about the debate between science and religion. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Fundamentalism today

This entry is a bit clunky, I wanted to connect the previous blog on the origins of modern fundamentalism to where we are today. Many of the sentences in this one could be expanded to full articles. Many lack subtlety. Hopefully I’ve laid out the general idea without any inaccuracies. Next time I’ll return to the roots of liberal Christianity that led to the fundamentalist backlash.

After the Scopes Monkey Trial, Christianity faded from public debate. In presidential campaigns, no one cared about much about the religion of Harding, Coolidge, Hoover or Roosevelt. They did not mention it. The McCarthy era was somewhat of an exception, but the addition of “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance was more about anti-Communism than pro-Christianity. Then Eisenhower started inviting Billy Graham to the White House. In 1964, the evangelicals supported the conservative agenda of Barry Goldwater.

In 1962 prayer in school, led by any school employee, was declared unconstitutional. Vatican II also occurred that year, a move toward a more liberal Catholicism. A turning point was Roe v Wade in 1973. Leaders of the various Christian sects realized that as divided denominations, they could not hope to fight these broad secular changes. The use of the term “Christian” in a broader sense came into popular use. Jimmy Carter’s Christianity was an issue in the 1976 campaign and Reagan’s conservative social agenda even more so.

Also during the 1960’s a quieter movement was going on to study the roots of these changes and find ways to show that Christianity was still the answer. Francis Schaeffer started the L’Abri Institute in Switzerland and wrote extensively on the topic. He said;

 “If there is no absolute moral standard, then one cannot say in a final sense that anything is right or wrong. By absolute we mean that which always applies, that which provides a final or ultimate standard. There must be an absolute if there are to be morals, and there must be an absolute if there are to be real values. If there is no absolute beyond man’s ideas, then there is no final appeal to judge between individuals and groups whose moral judgments conflict. We are merely left with conflicting opinions.”

In his documentary series, available on YouTube, How ThenShall We Live, he carried this theme through the history of Western civilization. He applies it first to the Roman’s then other cultures throughout history. He uses oversimplified analysis of those cultures to say how and why they collapsed and intersperses it with the history of Christianity, claiming it carried this absolute moral system with it despite the pressures of those cultures. He never considers how we could question and study any particular proposal for a moral absolute and decide if it is indeed good. He never really even discusses what “good” is. He just says we need a standard, picks the Christian one, and says that is good.

Although he was deeply troubled by the Roe v Wade decision, Schaeffer did not advocate government takeover or any kind of theocracy. On the other hand, the conspiratorial nature of the documentary can’t be missed. In Episode 6, a strange man with a fake moustache is pouring something in the municipal drinking water. Michelle Bachmann watched this while in college and referred to it later in life when she ran for office on a dominionist platform. This is far removed from the open discussions Schaeffer once had at the L’Abri community. He always set himself apart from the wicked world, but he welcomed anyone in to discuss his philosophy.

Bachmann, and others are of course politicians. It is always hard to know what a politician truly believes and what they are saying they believe to gain power. Reagan courted them with his social agenda and George W Bush demonstrated the strength of the evangelical vote in 2000. Many more followed after that.

The Reagan presidency began with a dramatic rescue of American hostages from their embassy in Iran. For many Americans, this was the beginning of awareness of the Muslim world. The term “fundamentalist” was being applied to Islamic leaders with political ties who were advocating for laws derived directly out of the Koran. We sent arms in as Iran and Iraq fought, then we imposed sanctions on Iraq resulting in disease and the deaths of 100’s of thousands of children. The threat of nuclear and chemical attacks were used as official justification, but knowledge of Sharia law was ever present.

Then 9/11 happened.

It heightened the religious tensions and opened a door for Christians. In a 2002 National Security Strategy, George W. Bush stated that America’s “clear responsibility to history” is to “rid the world of evil.” Exactly what he meant by evil is obvious and at the same time obscure. He couldn’t explicitly claim a religious agenda because it would not be constitutional, and for that matter, would not line up with the teachings of a prophet in sandals who never sought political power. With the passing of the Patriot Act, the legal definition of “good” came into serious conflict with what it had meant for hundreds of years.

The other effect of 9/11 was a reaction by non-religious. Many realized they underestimated the potential consequences of religious zealotry. Books and articles discussing the problems and dangers increased. Secular groups have also been on the rise. The Scopes Monkey Trail has been replaced by debates about Intelligent Design. Prayer in government events is being discussed again. Hopefully these discussions have better results this time around.

First in the series

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Fundies are right.

That title is not some double meaning. I’m going to make the case that the Fundamentalist Christians are right about what Christianity is. That is, the Christianity that they practice is what most Christians have practiced throughout history. Those who say they are wrong usually reach back into the first couple centuries A.D. to make claims about what Jesus meant or what the early church fathers did. There are theological arguments for both sides, but I will be focusing more on how the differences are handled because I think that is what defines fundamentalism.

There are so many theological interpretations of Christianity today, I don’t think it is possible to choose one that matches the original. The word “theology” did not even exist then. There were gods (theos) and words (logia) to discuss them. There were many gods and many ideas about how the world worked, and these ideas were competing and changing and would continue to change. An emperor might even declare himself a god, but people knew that other emperors did the same thing. The idea of one true god having influenced all generations and all to come had not taken root.

To make my case, I’ll first need to show where the origins of the term “Fundamentalism” and how it is used today. To understand that, I’ll look at the liberalization of Christianity that was happening before that and how it led to the reaction by the Fundamentalists. We’ll see how that liberalization began with Erasmus and was further promoted by Luther and Calvin and resulted in several wars and the complete restructuring of the political boundaries in Europe. The thread of what could be called liberal or humanist Christian has existed throughout Christian history, but I will be following the Christianity that was in power. That power structure began in the 4th century, related to the often cited Council of Nicea. I will, hopefully, clear up some of the confusion around that.

I should note that I don’t really care what version of Christianity is right. I won’t be discussing much about the theology, except when pointing out who believed what when. What I do care about is how everyone deals with their differences today. Past fights over theological differences have caused tremendous suffering and we have much more powerful means to create suffering today than we ever have before. So we need a better to search for a resolution.

If there is anything we need to learn from the past, it is the manner in which philosophical differences were discussed by the Greeks before the Fall of Rome. They were developing the methods of discovering what is true then and we have refined those methods since but they barely get taught to most people. We have applied them to democracy, curing disease and exploring space. We can apply them to how we educate the next generation and make a safe world for them to live in, or we can draw lines and claim our righteousness.

Let’s get started.

Dictionary definitions of fundamentalism vary and even groups that many consider fundamentalist don’t use the label themselves, so just what it is can be debated. Here are all of the theological precepts I could find that are claimed by one or another fundamentalist group:

Belief in:
  • The Trinity
  • The Person of Jesus Christ
  • The Second Coming
  • Salvation
  • The inerrancy of Scripture
  • Dispensationalism; The interpretation of the Bible that includes periods of changing relationships with God leading up to some sort of end times.
  • Virgin Birth
  • Substitutionary atonement
  • Resurrection of Christ
  • The creation account in Genesis
  • Miracles, particularly those of Christ
  • Intelligent Design
  • Prophecies have been fulfilled and are being fulfilled now
  • We are saved by faith, not works
  • Literal Satan, hell, demons, heaven and angels
  • Do not believe in evolution
The first five appear in the original pamphlets titled “The Fundamentals” which will be discussed more in a minute. The others vary widely and some, like dispensationalism, have many variations. Espousing just a few of these beliefs would not make someone a fundamentalist necessarily. In fact you will probably note that some of them seem like perfectly normal beliefs held by Christians. That is why most definitions of fundamentalism will include not just these “whats” by also some “how” and some applications of the theology, such as:

  • Government should have values based on religion
  • Unwilling to compromise
  • Presuppositional arguments for the theology
  • Subordination of the wife, and women in general
  • Children should be taught faith beginning early
  • Radical up to and (for some) including violence
  • The scope of religious life; where it should be displayed, its inclusion in public spaces, part of public school during ceremonies or prayer in the classroom
  • Religion test for candidates
  • Rejection of modern scholarship (theological or historical)
  • Refusal to recognize scientific theories
  • Value faith over evidence.
These short versions of the beliefs mask the underlying complexity that result in long theological works going back for centuries. The differences described in those works have resulted in 10’s of thousands of Protestant sects. Some variations find harmony, for instance by saying that salvation is by faith but we must show our faith through our works, or it is meaningless. Others isolate verses and claim they are the only correct ones. This debate begins in the Book of Acts between Peter and Paul and as far as I can tell is not settled by the end of the New Testament.

Some of these are very difficult just to define, like the Trinity. Biblical support for it is difficult to find. Augustine wrote an extensive work on it in the 4th century and even he concluded in the end that it is a mystery. This made for a bit of a dilemma when teaching the Trinity became Roman law. If you can’t describe what it is, how do you enforce its proper teaching? This led to more councils, more debates and more unclear explanations, like The Chalcedonian Formula of 451. Later when Emperor Leo I asked the Bishop of Melitene if he wanted a council in 457, he responded, “We uphold the Nicene creed but avoid difficult questions beyond human grasp. Clever theologians soon become heretics.” A more concise statement against free thought would be hard to find.

Accepting miracles has always seemed important to Christians I have known, but some are harder to explain than others. Raising from the dead can just be a difference in what “dead” means, as we see with increasing knowledge of medical science. Feeding multitudes could have just been a good leader who encouraged sharing of resources. Bodily resurrection however should be considered an extraordinary event in any time. Any mythical interpretation of it diminishes Christ as a god. I could understand a Christian who refuses to accept any of the other miracles in the Bible, but if you don’t accept this one, I wonder how you define “Christian”.

This question of the definition of Christianity seems to be what some people were worried about in the 19th century. As more translations of the Bible became available and our ability to translate the original scriptures improved, scholars, Christian scholars, began to pick apart the Bible. Primarily coming out of Germany, this was known as Higher Criticism. It questioned not only the historical accuracy of the Bible, but the very authorship of its books.

This was too much for some Christians. They reacted with a collectionof pamphlets by 90 authors. They were distributed for free between 1910 and 1916. They coincided with the rising evangelical movement. This vocal minority brought their cause to national attention with the Scopes Monkey Trail in 1925. Although they actually won that trail, because the law clearly stated that it was illegal to teach evolution, the fundamentalist movement suffered afterwards. The modernist movement did not portray itself well either, coming across as somewhat of a bully in the proceedings.

It seemed for a while that this would work itself out in academic circles, but as the world began to change rapidly after World War II, people like Billy Graham and Francis Schaeffer were bringing these ideas back into the forefront. I’ll pick up there next time.

Next in the series