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Thursday, May 30, 2013
Confessions of a Former Quasi-Fundamentalist
Confessions of a Former Quasi-Fundamentalist
When I was a child, I recall my mother taking pains that I should only be sent to "fundamental" elementary schools. At the age of six or seven, I had no idea what "fundamental" meant, and being curious, I asked her what made a fundamental school different from other schools. I honestly don’t recall her answer. Whatever it was, it doesn’t really matter now anyway. The point is, because of this, I had always kind of assumed that my parents identified themselves in some general sort of way as being aligned with fundamentalism, so I figured I was too. The other day I realized that I had never known what the "fundamentals" of fundamentalism were. Being curious, I decided to find out.
In 1874, Charles Hodge, an influential American Presbyterian got right down to brass tacks and said that evolution was just atheism in disguise, and therefore can never be reconciled with Christianity. In 1895, the Niagara Bible Conference whittled down the earlier Niagara Creed to just five "fundamentals." In 1915 a series of 90 essays expounding these five doctrines were collected into an anthology which was distributed far and wide, entitled, "The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth." A movement was born. Their "truth," of course, was predicated upon the preeminent "fundamental" doctrine: literal biblical inerrancy.
The term "fundamentalism" was originally coined by militant conservative Christians as a direct reference to their five fundamentals. Reeling from evolution, conservatives were fighting to prevent their "truth" from being "eroded" by how scientists were putting together the evidence. (If scientists are biased by atheism, Christians are biased by theism. Either way, I don’t think that anything which really is true has anything to fear from evidence.) In their desperation, the fundamentals were enlisted as a weapon to attack, not atheists, but other Christians, by distinguishing "genuine" ones from imposters. Fundamentalists began trying to drum out popular liberal ministers and take back "their" congregations. The liberals fought back, asserting they were no less sincere, merely prepared to face facts that fundamentalists were not.
The Worldwide Church of God (WCG) in which I was raised had a list of "fundamental" beliefs too. Even though I had never connected the dots, I had definitely been taught to believe all five of these "fundamentals." And all that unchristian behavior in the name of "truth" sure sounded like my church. For a little while, I thought that settled it. I had, in fact, been raised in a type of fundamentalism.
But the five fundamentals are very basic; they’re just the things you’re supposed to believe about Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection. It’s the bare minimum just to accept Jesus as your personal savior, which is all that’s "necessary for salvation." It doesn’t even include the trinity. The five fundamentals aren’t about doing anything. They don’t mention the ten commandments, showing up for church, or even giving money. This is where fundamentalism and WCG definitely parted ways. In fact, one of my pastors called it "Christianity Lite." That’s when I remembered that I hadn’t even been raised on the same theological planet as your typical Protestant fundamentalist. In WCG, there was a lot of stuff you had to do to continually prove to god, or at least to the other people at church (same difference) that your Christian credentials were current. I wasn’t so sure I had been a fundamentalist anymore. Fundamentalists are mainstream and I’d always been an ultra-conservative legalist.
It’s odd, coming from an ultra-conservative legalist background, to think of mere "conservative fundamentalists" going on the warpath over so little. From the perspective I’m accustomed to, there just wasn’t that much difference between a conservative, a liberal, and an atheist. Yet the reason why the term "fundamental" has been used as a label and stuck all over other militant and violent religious movements is because militantism is original to the fundamentalist movement. Herbert Armstrong may have been militant, regularly savaging Protestantism, but militantism was never a WCG church value. Sure, we were judgmental hypocrites, but we weren’t militant. In this sense, I was never a fundamentalist at all.
Since September 11, the terms "radical," "extreme," and "fundamentalism" have all gotten a lot of bad press and their connotations have dipped into an even steeper nosedive. People have come to associate them with violent militantism. But strictly in terms of their definitions, radical, just means continually reconnecting back to your roots, and extreme just means, outside the mainstream. Had I been raised to be a radical extremist? By the dictionary definitions, yes, but by their connotations, definitely not. All these labels were like the sticky nametags that peel off your shirt and fall on the ground by themselves.
But there’s a lot of semantic wiggle room going on within the sanctuaries of fundamentalism. How different were we really from our fundamentalist neighbors? The word "necessary" is a very telling word. It’s a word that gets right to the heart of things. My first recollection of the word "necessary" being used in a theological sense was during the Tkach days of WCG. To soften the blows of their doctrinal changes, they simply moved unwanted doctrines from the "necessary for salvation" category over to the "unnecessary" category. They’ve been milking that conceit for a long time now, claiming that doctrines, especially ones like tithing, aren’t "necessary for salvation," but must still be practiced anyway. Of course, that immediately begged several questions. Why should anyone ever do unnecessary things? What’s the difference between "unnecessary" and "garbage"? If something really is "unnecessary", can’t we just dispose of it altogether? That’s what normal people do. Legalism didn’t have these problems because there was only one bin.
As I looked at what fundamentalist churches were saying, I realized I’d been silly in thinking the Tkaches were so original that they invented this way of talking out of both sides of their mouth about doctrine. How many fundamentalist churches load you down with all sorts of "unnecessary" mandatory things you don’t have to but have to do? What’s the difference between "mandatory unnecessary" and "necessary"? In fact, what’s the difference between "mandatory unnecessary" and "legalism"? But legalism or fundamentalism, everything was always set in terms of one thing: salvation. But why do people wad up their panties so much over salvation anyway?
To be saved, or not to be saved, is that the only question? Over time, I came to be against Christianity being formulated solely in terms of the external motivator of salvation, as though "genuine" Christians would never consider doing the right thing simply because it is right. Curiously absent from everyone’s fundamentals is the New Testament command of Paul, "Imitate me just as I also imitate Christ." Preachers often say things such as, "If you’ve accepted Jesus in your heart, then you’ll want to … " or "Jesus gave his life for you, now you have to … " But if I still don’t want to then I don’t have to, right? I suppose this is where the guilt trips begin in earnest. Whatever. All I want is salvation, and I want to get it at the lowest possible cost. They call that "rational self-interest," right? Well, not necessarily. How it’s formulated has everything to do with what you perceive to be in your "rational self-interest."
Regardless of how you slice it or what terms you put it in, it’s hard to escape the fact that anything worthwhile, whether it’s being a Christian, just living ethically, or any human endeavor, will incur human costs regardless of accounting tricks. The bottom line won’t ever be zero. If the bottom line human cost to be a Christian is zero, then it doesn’t mean anything to be one, although, I’ll allow that could just be my dyed-in-the-wool legalism showing through.
Back when I still believed in salvation, the mainstream theology always seemed like an à la carte buffet theory of Christianity. You can place any items you want into the bag individually and pay for only what you want. So you can put some free salvation in a bag and just walk out. Show up on Christmas and Easter, if you feel like it, and forget about that imitation Jesus—that shit’s REALLY expensive. This is one explanation of the classic self-righteous person whose routine behavior is anything but Christlike.
But our legalist theology wasn’t any better. Believing that everything was necessary for salvation just make people look for ways to rationalize deserving it at a discount. Legalism might have had a higher cost, but still, no line item for imitation Jesus. Either way, you wind up with the same self-righteousness and similar behavior. Fundamentalists probably had an edge over us in the behavior department. Maybe the differences between legalists and fundamentalists were more about semantics than substance. Maybe we weren’t quite so far away from our Protestant neighbors as I thought.
What I’ve come to think makes a lot more sense is the homeowner model. Christianity is like buying a home. Salvation is the house, and imitating Christ is the land. You can buy an empty lot without a house on it, but you can’t have a house, not even a free one, without having a lot. There are no castles in the sky. So even if you want to say salvation is free, which Paul definitely does say, it’s a package deal, not à la carte, and there’s a total cost at the bottom of the receipt. In fact, by virtue of the fact that salvation is free, the cost is all an investment in your own equity that’s yours to keep. Many Christians view it merely as an expense to be minimized, like rent. If you formulate it this way, it changes what you perceive to be in your "rational self-interest."
I had always assumed that the aspirational teachings were the original kernel of Christianity, or for that matter, of any credible religion. I still believe in the inherent value of Jesus’ teachings, which is what kept me tied into organized religion for as long as I was. But I’m not sure how fundamental acting like Christ ever was to fundamentalism. Despite Herbert Armstrong’s bluster about preaching Christ’s gospel instead of a gospel about Christ, I know Jesus’ teachings were never fundamental to WCG. What was "necessary" wound up being arbitrary while the aspirational was relegated to the "unnecessary" bin.
I’m finally left with the impression that much of what’s considered "fundamental" by fundamentalism and Armstrongism alike might be so many barnacles that have come to encrust more helpful, and presumably more original themes. Moreover, I feel maybe organized Christianity has deteriorated over the centuries until all that’s left is barnacles. I know that once I got to the tootsie roll center of Armstrongism, I was disappointed. What I found was a hollow void where I would have expected to find the original kernel. Armstrongism certainly had everything except the one thing I was most looking for. Sometimes stripping off barnacles isn’t enough.
I was never in the fold of mainstream Christianity, to be sure. But still I find it ironic that to follow Jesus’ teachings today, 2,000 years later, may in fact, also put one outside of what is today considered mainstream Christianity. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but I’m not convinced it’s even possible to follow Jesus’ teachings in modern organized religion at all. If any of this is true, then by the dictionary definition, to follow Jesus would be both radical and extreme. But one thing it would not be is militant.
I guess it’s not that important to figure out if I ever qualified as a fundamentalist or not. "Ultra-conservative legalist" probably has a better connotation in the media these days anyway even if only by a degree. More importantly, going by those five fundamentals, I’m definitely disqualified now. If the Judeo-Christian god were the real deal, he would definitely not have muddied the water with salvation, but instead, kept that a secret, as a nice little surprise. There would probably be fewer Christians that way, but being one would mean a lot more.
There are other movements, such as Christian atheism or Jesuism that try to follow Jesus without bribes such as salvation, or many of the other barnacles inherent to organized Christianity I suppose. I don’t know how organized any of these movements are. Maybe they have their own barnacles. In any case, they’re more accurate labels of where I’ve come to find myself. I’m definitely not an ultra-conservative legalist anymore. Maybe now I’m a softer, gentler radical extremist, just because, you know, I believe that being good to your neighbor strictly for its own sake is the right thing to do? I guess I'd rather have an empty lot than a castle in the sky. If a free prefab house shows up later, fabulous, but I'm not convinced anybody's going to get one of those. Leaving that entirely out of the equation certainly keeps one's panties less bunched. I think Jesus had fresh panties, don't you?
Even if I wasn’t a fundamentalist, I still used to be one of those people who refused to deal with the facts. Now I can’t help but think that maybe "erosion" is just "correction." Religion’s problems with science aren’t going to go away anytime soon. In fact, I wonder what evidence scientists will come up with next that fundamentalists and ultra-conservative legalists alike will refuse to deal with? It’s a little hard not to come to the conclusion that just maybe the liberals were onto something. Something like, I don’t know, being able to admit when you’re wrong? If that’s a vice, deal me in and pour me a drink.
I guess I have some right to be upset. None of those fundamental beliefs protected me from the evils of evolution and liberalism the way they were supposed to. Maybe that’s a good thing?