#19  One Doesn’t Have to be a Liberal to Reject Fundamentalism

EITHER/OR THINKING IS quite common, although it is usually not the best kind of thinking, as we saw in an earlier chapter. Nevertheless, people’s ideas about theological stances, as about many other matters, tend to be either/or. Many people, thus, seem to think that Christians are either fundamentalists (or at least conservatives) or liberals.

In the previous chapter, I asserted that one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a good Christian. I am convinced that that is the case. My distaste for Christian fundamentalism is so strong that, as I have stated previously, I wrote an entire book that was published under the title Fed Up with Fundamentalism. Consequently, many people have assumed that I am a liberal; one of my Facebook friends once even referred to me as a “proud liberal.”

But does opposing fundamentalism make one a liberal? Not necessarily, and that is the main point I am making in this chapter: you don’t have to be a liberal to reject fundamentalism. In spite of the fact that many want to label Christians as being one or the other, seeing Christians as either fundamentalists (conservatives) or liberals is not the only option. It is true, though, that many of the leading liberal Christian thinkers of recent times are people who have reacted strongly against fundamentalism.

Coincidentally, the very week I was working on the first draft of this chapter I received the first shipment of my second book, The Limits of Liberalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Liberalism.[1] In that book I give examples of several leading liberal theologians whose liberalism, in my opinion, is an over-reaction to various problems within fundamentalism. So it seems to be quite true that liberalism is the opposite of fundamentalism in many cases. But it doesn’t have to be that way, for there can be a suitable stance in between.

It Is Not Necessary To Go from One Extreme to the Other

Although the tendency of so many Christian thinkers has been to move from one extreme to the other, in most matters we should seek to find the optimal position between the extremes. Such an endeavor sometimes involves both/and thinking as advocated in an earlier chapter, seeking simultaneously to incorporate the truths that seem to stand in opposition to one another. In other cases it may mean rejecting emphases of both sides in order to affirm a better position in between. But whether we talk about balancing the extremes or holding the extremes in tension, for the most part we want to seek and hope to find a position between the extremes. Let me give an example.

In my book on fundamentalism, I wrote that I am fed up with fundamentalism’s attitude toward the Bible. That was the subject of the whole fifth chapter. But the fifth chapter of my book on liberalism is all on “the limits of liberalism’s understanding of the Bible.” In the former book, I write about the problem of belief in biblical inerrancy, and in the latter book I indicate that rejection of biblical inerrancy is one of the positive aspects of liberalism. But there are still problems with liberalism’s view of the Bible.

For example, there is a tendency for liberals to see the Bible as a sacred religious book, but as only one among many sacred religious books. Thus, rather than refer to the uniqueness of the Holy Bible, many liberals see the Bible as simply one of the many “sacred scriptures” of humankind. The Bible is completely relativized; that is, it has no universal relevance, for it is only the sacred scripture for people in the Christian tradition.

There is much to be said, of course, for not demonizing the beliefs and the scriptures of other religious traditions. Far too often Christians in the past have shown disrespect for the faith of people in non-Christian traditions and have dismissed the significance of the normative writings of those religions. But arrogance, contempt for those who are different, and belittling the sacred books of others are not Christian virtues. To put it bluntly, such attitudes are downright sinful.

But is it necessary to go to the opposite extreme? I think not. It is not necessary to react to one extreme so strongly that one embraces just the opposite. The way some Christians have mistreated people of other religious faiths and profaned their holy books is certainly most regrettable, but does that necessitate treating all religious books as of equal validity? Again, I think not.

More Examples of the Extremes

In addition to the fundamentalist and liberal understandings of the Bible just considered, let’s look at some other central Christian beliefs that are interpreted in widely different ways by extreme Christians on the right and on the left.

Think about the way God is understood. Although there are not so many Christians on the right who still picture God as looking like an old bearded grandfather and who think of God as existing physically somewhere in the universe, there are many who still seem to think of God very anthropomorphically (that is, they think of God as having humanlike features). Thus, there is a rather strong belief by Christians on the extreme right that God should be thought of as male and addressed only in masculine terms. They are, accordingly, offended by those who refer to God as “Mother” as well as “Father.”

But on the other side there are now liberal Christian theologians who deny that God has any “objective” existence at all. Such persons reject theism, the philosophical/theological position that affirms the independent existence of God (or of gods); that is, they reject the idea that God “exists” except in the ideas humans have about God. Such people may affirm God as a symbol or as a metaphor, but they do not believe that God exists as a Being independent of human beings.

Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong and former Dominican priest Matthew Fox are just two of many who could be introduced at this point. Spong’s rejection of a theistic conception of God is the cornerstone of what he envisions as a “new reformation” in Christianity. And Fox, who has written a book titled A New Reformation, boldly declares, “Theism (the idea that God is ‘out there’ or above and beyond the universe) is false.”[2]

So with reference to God, the understanding of some fundamentalists is far too physical or anthropomorphic, but the opposite extreme advocated by some liberals denies any “objective” existence to God at all. Neither extreme is satisfactory.

There is similar polarity with reference to Jesus Christ. Fundamentalists, and most conservative Christians who are not as extreme as fundamentalists, generally understand Jesus as the incarnation of the one true God. Christians have consistently and persistently through the centuries referred to Jesus as the “one way” to eternal salvation, and that is still the bedrock belief of most evangelical Christians. But partly because of the “intolerance” of such an exclusivist position, many liberals have come to talk about Jesus as an exemplary human being but not as a unique savior sent by God for the salvation of the people of the world.

Whereas fundamentalist and conservative Christians profess that Jesus Christ was (and is) divine, most liberals and many progressive Christians see Jesus mainly as a “man for others,” a spiritual leader who taught by word and by deed what it means to live a life of love. Or, if liberals affirm that Jesus is somehow divine, it is in the same way that many other notable religious leaders are divine. They acknowledge the plurality of saviors just as they recognize, and generally applaud, the plurality of religions.

But is it really necessary to see God as either transcendent, existing beyond and “above” the world of us humans, or as immanent, present only within the world and, particularly, within the hearts of those who acknowledge God as a “unifying symbol”? And is it really necessary to see Jesus as either a divine being and a transcendent Savior sent from beyond to be the redeemer of humankind or a human being who lived an extraordinary life as a fully human person in the world of ordinary people? Is there not a position between the extremes in which the truth on both sides can be held at the same time?

Finding a satisfactory position, or following a proper path, between the extremes is not usually easy, however.

The Difficulty of Finding the Middle Position

In The Limits of Liberalism I wrote about how in ancient Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were the names of two sea monsters situated on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy. The fearful monsters, representing a hazardous whirlpool and a dangerous reef, were located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to sailors who sought to pass between them: avoiding Charybdis usually meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa.[3]

Many writers have used those mythological monsters to refer metaphorically to the difficulty of avoiding opposing extremes, and it is a helpful metaphor. I certainly agree with those who seek to escape the “monster” called fundamentalism, as evidenced by the content of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism. Still, I see the danger of fleeing the “monster” on the right only to be gobbled up by liberalism, the “monster” on the left.

Those who seek to navigate the narrow channel between the two may well argue that the monster on one side is not as dreadful or as destructive as the monster on the other. And some may see the monsters as being so unequal that they are willing to risk being captured by the lesser monster so as to not be devoured by the other. But is it not better to steer clear of both monsters?

Should we not try ardently to escape both the Scylla of liberalism and the Charybdis of fundamentalism? That surely is the most prudent course to pursue. But, unfortunately, some have been so intent on escaping Charybdis that they have sailed straight into the jaws of Scylla. However, the point of this chapter is that one does not have to become a thoroughgoing liberal to oppose fundamentalism, in spite of the fact that many have become liberals because of their opposition to the many questionable aspects of the fundamentalist form of the Christian faith.

More rigorous thinking is needed. It is never enough to adopt a theological stance on the basis of what one is against. That has been the trouble with some liberals; they know they are against many of the ideas, attitudes, and excesses of fundamentalism. As well they should be. But they are not equally sure about what they are for, nor are they aware of all the ramifications of taking a position on the opposite side of fundamentalism.

Seeking the Radiant Center

While working on The Limits of Liberalism, I came across a delightful book by Adam Hamilton; he is the dynamic pastor of Church of the Resurrection, a Methodist megachurch in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area. Hamilton titled his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.[4] While I largely agree with the centrist position Hamilton takes on most issues, I decided I did not like to talk about that position as being gray, for generally gray is not a very appealing color. So I went on to suggest that perhaps we can seek a position “between the extremes” of black and white which is a brilliant blue, a gorgeous green, or a rousing red. Maybe the future of Christianity does not have to be just some shade of gray, but a rainbow of colors with many hues blending together to produce a form of the faith that is more appealing than one that is black or white—or gray.”[5]

So even though I like Hamilton’s position, and even though I found his calling for a “radical center” appealing, I decided to call my vision for the desired middle position the radiant center. That center “glows with the heat (passion and compassion) and light of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the gospel about Jesus.” It radiates out “to warm and enlighten everyone within its scope.” That radiant center will also be radical, in the sense that it goes to the very roots of the Christian faith. Its radiance comes from the Son, Jesus Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15, NIV), “who is the ultimate root, basis, and energy source of the center.”

Proposing such an attractive center or middle position doesn’t mean that all other Christians will necessarily affirm such a stance or flock to it—although I hope more and more will. Perhaps most of those on the right, especially the rigid fundamentalists, will likely see the radiant center as being “liberal” and will criticize it for abandoning some of the fundamentals of the faith. Similarly, many of those on the left may see that center as being too conservative and will continue to advocate a position that is more in harmony with the ethos of secular humanism than with the historic Christian faith. Being in the middle almost always opens one to attacks from both extremes.

Yet, I continue to insist that rejecting fundamentalism doesn’t make one a liberal, just as one can reject liberalism without being a fundamentalist. Actually, I would like for Christians to move on past the “two-party” system that has been so prevalent for the past century, a system which has been injurious to Christianity in many ways.

The radiant center is not a small or limiting position. It is large enough to include Christians with various emphases and understandings of the Christian faith. The radiant center doesn’t seek uniformity or unanimity. It realizes the vitality of having different interpretations and the dynamism of constant dialogue.

The radiant center is the between-the-extremes place for those who reject fundamentalism as well as those who recognize the limits of liberalism. Among the many who identify with that center are both those who realize full well that one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a good Christian (the emphasis of the previous chapter) as well as those who know that one doesn’t have to be a liberal to reject fundamentalism.

[1] (4-L Publications, 2010); unfortunately both of my books are now out of print.

[2] (Inner Traditions, 2006), p. 63. Fox (b. 1940) was dismissed from the Dominican order in 1992 and two years later was received into the Episcopal Church.

[3] This and the following paragraphs are heavily dependent upon the subsection titled “The Sea Monsters,” pages 87-88 of The Limits of Liberalism.

[4] (Abingdon Press, 2008). Hamilton is the founding pastor of the 22,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.

[5] The Limits of Liberalism, p. 273. The last subsection of the final chapter is “Recommending the Radiant Center,” and the subsequent quotations above come from p. 274, the last page of the chapter.


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