i spent some time reading this article on the New York Times, entitled “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason” that was posted on several of my friends’ facebook feeds. and i have a few thoughts. and before i give them, just know that i don’t know any of the authors, and have no prior knowledge of their theological or political beliefs (although i think i could make a pretty accurate assessment).
i appreciate the authors’ attempt at speaking against the anti-intellectualism that is woven into fundamentalist Christianity (not to mention American culture at large). a little background on fundamentalism: fundamentalism developed around the turn of the 20th century as a result of cultural developments that were occurring across the Western world, like historical criticism and evolution, that challenged many Christians assumptions up that point. as a result, Christian leaders created a schism between the bible and science/academia, as if these two things were incompatible, even though there were fewer conflicts between the two than anyone would acknowledge. the created a false gulf between their understanding of Christianity and modern intellectual developments, a gulf that still persists.
moreover, they demanded that Christians make a decision between the two. either one believed that the bible was “inerrant”, a term developed for this sole purpose, or did not believe in the bible at all. either one accepted that the universe had been created in seven literal days, or else that we were descended from monkeys solely through unguided evolution. in order to be a true Christian, one had to subscribe to all of the tenets of fundamentalism, or admit that they were godless. again, these choices were based on false dichotomies, but nonetheless, had a potently divisive effect on American culture, and Christianity as a whole, the effects of which still reverberate to this day. Christians felt compelled to choose one of two sides, when no such two sides existed. fundamentalism was a showcase of the danger of humans creating false theological and cultural dichotomies and demanding that others impossibly choose a side.
and this is exactly what the authors of this little piece are doing as well. let me explain:
the title of the article is called “evangelical rejection of reason”. but strangely, the main criticism of the author seems to be directed towards fundamentalists, some of whom are evangelical, some of whom are not. even by their own admission they say that “evangelicalism at its best” is somehow distinct from “fundamentalism”. so who has rejected reason, evangelicals, or fundamentalists? are they distinct and opposite camps, like sides of an army? no, the truth is that you cannot so easily separate the term evangelical from fundamentalist, because there is some degree of overlap between these two groups, more so than they would like to admit. this is a very sloppy title for a topic that is so very nuanced. i would expect such semantic sloppiness from non-Christians who aren’t aware of the differences, but for mature Christians who teach at a seminary level? not so much.
in the same way, reason is not the same thing as science. science is a discipline through which we use reason, among other intellectual tools, to distinguish the origin and mechanism of the world around us. they are obviously related, but not the same. although i’m sure that many would disagree, someone can be reasonable and yet skeptical of the authority and reach of science. that’s one of the principle generalizations that westerners repeatedly make of other cultures: a muslim fundamentalist is reasonable within their own cognitive schema – it’s just that their schema is fundamentally different from our own, not that they are madmen. so what exactly would they have people choose between, evangelicalism and fundamentalism? science, or reason? is anyone able to make a conscious choice between these options? do we have to?
and the messy and false generalizations continue. the authors make repeated mention of the issue of gay marriage, again, in the context of the evangelical rejection of reason. what this means then, is that Christians who believe in a traditional view of marriage have abandoned reason, or are not evangelicals – they have gone to the dark side of fundamentalism. but i know many evangelical Christians who are very reasonable, well-educated, even the top of their scientific field…but don’t support gay marriage. clearly, you cannot so cleanly say that reasonable Christian evangelicals all support gay marriage, because some do, while others do not, another false dichotomy created by the authors.
and these dichotomies are then used to impose a strange choice upon the reader: in order to be the reasonable Christian evangelical that they ostensibly believe themselves to be, you must pick a side…but based upon those false assumptions mentioned above. in other words, you must be pro-evangelical but anti-fundamentalist (because you can’t be both!), not only reasonable but never doubt science’s authority (because anyone who is reasonable never doubts science), and pro-gay marriage (…just because). otherwise, you are nothing but an unreasonable and backwards fundamentalist, a perverter of the true gospel – no way around it, really. and the repeated name dropping used in the article is full evidence of this “choose-your-side” mentality: who do you follow, james dobson or francis collins? sojourners or focus on the family? quick, choose your affiliation and make your loyalties known! it’s funny – i wonder if francis collins himself would feel comfortable being named as a foil to conservative Christian leaders? i somehow doubt it.
and now, think back to the fundamentalism problem of the early 1900’s, how they told everyone that certain ideas and mentalities were altogether incompatible with one another, and that you had to choose between them in order to distinguish yourself as a true Christian. how exactly is that different from what i am reading in this article? it’s not, not really. this is just fundamentalism of a different type, with a different theological and political point of view.
people often say that two ideas or mentalities are completely incompatible with one another, and make this argument fairly convincingly. but always double check that this is really true, because more often than not, they are to some degree creating false divisions between terms and ideas that are not diametrically opposed to one another. the truth is that there is a great deal of ideological and political diversity in the body of Christ – there are true Christians who serve in the military, true Christians who support gay marriage, true Christians who are anti-abortion, true Christians who are creationists, true Christians who are evolutionists. be extremely cautious with anyone tries to tell you that their unique understanding of faith exemplifies what it means to be a true Christian, whether they be a “fundamentalist” or a “liberal”, because the only way they can say that is by drawing arbitrary lines between principles that truthfully may be profoundly different, and yet, have some intersection.
likewise, don’t give in to their attempts to make you choose sides based on those faulty assumptions, to divide Christians against one another, as if one side has no strong association with the other. that is exactly what fundamentalists did over a century ago, and obviously what people continue to do now. if Jesus is God, and your Lord and Savior, then you are a Christian. that is the most basic definition of a follower of Christ. and the profound differences that exist between those who follow Christ are natural and expected, and will be made clear to us when Christ comes again. this isn’t to say that some Christians cleave closer to the gospel than others, because clearly there are those who by their actions and beliefs show that they have no understanding of who Christ truly is, i.e. Westboro Baptist. but to expect total ideological and cultural homogeneity between all parts of the Body of Christ is unreasonable for anyone to assume. we should not be forced to pick between jim wallis and james dobson – i love both of those men for different reasons, and disagree with both of them for other reasons. i’m quite sure that i will see both men in heaven one day, at the feet of Christ. and i’m quite sure that neither of them know who the heck i am.
let’s not go through the whole fundamentalism thing again, in one form or another. and we can only avoid that calamity if “reasonable” “Christians” reject false and messy dichotomies that are used to divide us messily against one another.