Thursday, July 02, 2015

Theological Fundamentalism

One of the foundational understandings of biblical fundamentalism is that "if anything in the Bible is untrue, it's all untrue." This needs some unpacking (mostly because "true" has a relative definition depending on context), but ultimately it's set the Bible up like a tower - if any brick in the tower gets pulled out, the whole thing will fall down.

What I've been wondering lately is if there is a theological fundamentalism at play in the world as well. I wonder this because it seems to me there are people taking a hard line on some theological issues who don't necessarily have a traditional fundamentalist view of scripture. It certainly isn't fair to lump everyone into one box, especially if that box is so ill-fitting for many.

One would not need to be a biblical fundamentalist to be a theological fundamentalist, but there is a similar "tower" concept, one not dependent on a "literal" reading of scripture, but one based on a traditional systematic theology. Through the years of modernity (and even long before), Christian thinkers sought to organize our understanding of God into specific doctrines that fit together to form a cohesive whole (hence the descriptor 'systematic').

As we've reached a more post-modern way of looking at the world, some Christians are much more comfortable with a theology that doesn't fit together quite so well. There may have been some doctrinal manipulation to fit everything we know about God and the world into neat little bricks for tower building. As people are more comfortable with unknowing and mystery, some have seen fit to reshape some doctrines, to explain them in different ways that don't make for easy building blocks, some have been made more general and less concrete.

I don't believe this changes the general shape or core of Christian theology, but it's much less systematic. It doesn't arrive at a complete explanation of understanding. Theology is no longer a closed system for many people.

I suspect this is really disturbing to people who are very comfortable with systematic theological structures, especially those who operate under a modern perspective and find themselves alien in the world of post-modernity. This leads to real battles, hard lines drawn, and vociferous objections to many ways of speaking about theology (and the practical implications of such).

I might categorize the two approaches as 1) I need to know as much about God as possible to follow God well, or 2) I need to constantly ask new questions, challenge old conclusions, and embrace unknowing to follow God well.

I don't know that these approaches are necessarily incompatible, but it's certainly easy to see where conflict could arise. The problem comes because neither is really right or wrong. They're different - with different strengths and weaknesses.

Lately, we've seen some real knock-down, drag-out fights regarding how people understand God, interpret scripture, and make decisions for life in the world. It's been painful and divisive for the Church.

I'm not particularly sure what a solution might be. It's difficult for a fundamentalist (of any kind) to gracefully allow disagreement. Allowing known disagreement in others necessarily invites doubt or disagreement into one's own sphere of belief and I have great sympathy for the problems that might cause. I don't know if I can properly speak to this, since I personally consider doubt and disagreement as important parts of theological and personal faith development.

I do know, though, we need to work better of differentiating between how someone views scripture and how they view theology. We're not treating everyone with respect in the way we derisively marginalize them into boxes they find offensive. Understanding where people are and from whence they come and how their beliefs are structured should help us love one another or, at the very least, be more charitable in our discourse.

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