The Ironic Relativism of Evangelical Fundamentalism

Growing up evangelical, and being theologically trained in evangelical contexts, I heard a lot of scary warnings about the dangers of postmodernity: i.e., it is based in or leads to epistemological or moral relativism. Truth is not absolute! There is no normative standard for truth! Postmodernity will lead us down a path to nihilism and narcissism–unbridled immorality and dizzying incoherence!

Over the years, however, I came to realize an interesting and ironic phenomena: the very prophets of doom who decried postmodern relativism are possibly just as relativistic–if not more so–as those they warned us about.

This idea first came to me years ago when reading a text on epistemology (for the life of me I can’t recall which one–though I suppose it’s a pretty standard idea). The idea is that classical foundationalism, despite its intentions to the contrary, can actually be quite relativistic. In the foundationalist approach to truth and knowledge, one must determine the epistemic “foundation” from which one’s belief structure derives its warrant, or justification. That foundation is presumed to be unquestionable, self-evident, and universal. In other words, the foundational proposition or basis for warrant is just so obvious that it hardly bears repeating and needs no further elaboration or argument. Once the foundationalist gets that foundation in place, then he or she has all the certainty they need. Their entire system is basically fool-proof, flawless, and immune to further questioning.

Evangelical fundamentalists tend to be epistemic foundationalists (even if they claim the “moderate,” rather than the classical, form of foundationalism). This helps explain why they are so often certain about their belief system–and why they are so certain of ideas (whether central or peripheral) held within that system. And it also explains, in my opinion, much of the anxiety that permeates fundamentalist approaches to theology. It’s deeply important that their foundations be absolutely and demonstrably true as well as universally valid. Those foundational beliefs must be absolutely true, or else the whole structure which those foundations undergird, is shaky. And if the “lesser” beliefs, which derive their epistemic warrant from the foundation, can be shown to be false or misguided, then that uncertainty traces all the way back to the foundations. There’s a clear domino effect. It’s all of a piece. A “house of cards,” if you will.

So back to my original point. What makes fundamentalists relativists, in spite of themselves? Because once the foundations have been determined, and once the system is in place, then to question that system–and the individual beliefs held within it–is a dangerous and scary idea. Fundamentalism is about foreclosing on the discussion and the search for truth. It precludes re-evaluation and the willingness to admit that one is wrong. It is deeply ideological, in the negative sense of the word. Fundamentalism requires an end to the search for truth. So, in this sense, truth (the real truth) doesn’t actually matter. What matters is the localized, individualized, understanding and interpretation of reality which is uniquely accessible to the fundamentalist and their “tribe.”



About Kyle Roberts

(PhD) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently co-authoring a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans) and A Complicated Pregnancy: Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin? (Fortress Press, Theology for the People)