Lessons From a Fundamentalist

I like reading Al Mohler’s blog, though I rarely agree with his opinions. Mohler is President of Southern Theological Seminary and one of the leading intellectuals in the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention. His writings are straightforward and well-reasoned, and he rarely engages in the name-calling and other identity-based emotional bluster we see from so many fundamentalists. He is clearly a very intelligent, very well-educated person.

So how can someone so smart be a fundamentalist? The answer can be found in Mohler’s writings, and the implications are huge – both for our public debates and for our personal quests for meaning and truth.

Here’s a link to a transcript of a speech Mohler gave at a ministry convention earlier this year. The question he was asked is “why does the Universe look so old?” In other words, if the Earth is only 6000 years old (as most fundamentalists believe) why does the physical evidence indicate that the Earth is really 4.5 billion years old and the Universe is 13.5 billion years old?

In a transcript that runs 13 pages, Mohler devotes less than a page to directly answering this question, an answer that amounts to “only God knows.” He acknowledges the evidence for the age of the Universe and against the inerrancy of the Bible – and then dismisses it not with evidence but with this argument:

“Our only means of intellectual rescue, brothers and sisters, is the speaking God, who speaks to us in scripture, in special revelation. And it is the scripture, the inerrant and infallible word of God that trumps renderings of general revelation [the physical evidence we see in Nature], and it must be so. Otherwise we will face destruction of the entire gospel in intellectual terms.”

Christian fundamentalist doctrine – which Mohler lists as creation, fall, redemption, and new creation (all literal) – is totally dependent on a literal and inerrant reading of the Bible. In The Case For God Karen Armstrong says that fundamentalist religions are initially defensive movements rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. Mohler fears annihilation of his doctrine, so he has adopted the only worldview that will sustain it.

I doubt if any readers of this blog need me to rebut Mohler’s doctrine. Instead, I want to discuss the implications of his writings for us as religious liberals and as Pagans.

Fundamentalists aren’t stupid. Or at least they aren’t stupid in any greater proportion than any other group, and we are arrogant and condescending if we assume they are. Liberals (political as well as religious) often make the error of assuming that if we could just get everyone to understand what we understand then they’d agree with us. They won’t, because they have different foundational assumptions about what is Good and what is True – not because they’re too dumb or blind or stubborn to see things our way.

Debates with fundamentalists are useless. They see the Bible as the primary authority and we see the physical evidence as the primary authority. Talking with each other is a good thing – it helps to humanize “the other” and can lead to greater respect and lesser tensions. But don’t expect to convince anyone of anything.

Be aware of your own worldview. What is Good and what is True and why is it so? What are your unstated foundational assumptions about Life and the Universe? Are you really living in accordance with your highest values, or are you mindlessly following the mainstream culture?

Be humble about your religious experiences, for they are your own special revelation. Heathens speak of “unverified personal gnosis” and make it clear that it applies only to the person who received it. If it is helpful, if it is consistent with established beliefs and culture, and if others begin to receive the same message, the group may eventually accept it as received wisdom. But no one should expect others to automatically accept their revelations as Truth.

Evidence is debatable, facts are not – even if they mean you have to change your worldview. Those of us who live in the glass house of magic and witchcraft should be careful where we throw stones. Magic can tilt the odds – it can do the improbable. But it can’t change the laws of nature. When facts become apparent, we discount them at the cost of our integrity.

I see no hatred in the writings of Al Mohler, but I see plenty of fear: the quite literal fear of losing his religion, the fear of losing his way of life, and ultimately, the fear of losing his soul to hell and damnation should he stray the slightest from his belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.

No amount of evidence, reason or logic, no experiences of transcendence or unity will convince the Al Mohlers of the world to abandon fundamentalism. But many follow them not because they share Mohler’s certainty, but because they were taught this religion and never thought to question its foundational assumptions.

Those people are why we – UUs, Pagans, and religious liberals of all flavors – must never stop preaching universalism.

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  • An interesting and thoughtful post.

    Christian fundamentalist doctrine – which Mohler lists as creation, fall, redemption, and new creation (all literal) – is totally dependent on a literal and inerrant reading of the Bible.

    I'll take it a step further and say, it is the very specific fundamentalist belief in the meaning of the story of Jesus is the linchpin for the rest of these doctrines. It's the notion that "Jesus Died To Save Us from Punishment for Our Sins" that further requires them to believe in the literal Creation story. If there is no literal Adam and no literal Fall, then the death and resurrection of Jesus as Fundamentalists and Evangelicals have always understood it — as the direct reparation for Man's Original Sin — loses its meaning.

    Now, it doesn't have to be that way; there are other ways to understand the Jesus story and millions of Christians who find deep meaning in it without buying the Fundamentalist equation. But to do so requires letting go of that equation.

  • DairyStateDad, you're exactly right.

    I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church and it took me till I was well into my 30s to get past the whole fall/sin/redemption heaven-or-hell outlook. When I learned enough physics to have confidence in the age of the Universe, enough biology to have confidence in evolution, and enough textual criticism to lose confidence in the Bible as anything other than the writings of men, then the fundamentalist story fell apart.

    Mohler correctly sees where abandoning inerrancy will lead. But when the evidence continues to mount that the Bible is NOT inerrant, what choice does he have?

    At some level I think he knows this. I rarely if ever see him rebutting scientific or historical claims. As he said in the line I quoted, the only possible response is to say "my special revelation trumps all" and ignore evidence to the contrary.

    It's sad that someone of his intelligence is wasting it propping up indefensible doctrines about Jesus instead of spreading the teachings of Jesus.

  • JohnFranc:

    I got a little kick over your ending: [we] must never stop preaching universalsm. Some of us UUs have very little interest in universalism. As a former fundamentalist, my views are now more shaped by Swedenborg's book HEAVEN AND HELL.

    It was probably in the spring of 2005 that I heard Cal Thomas give the commencement address at Tennessee Temple University where I had been a student for one year in the early 1970s. In his address he lamented the fact that Christian teenagers engaged in pre-marital sex to about the same extent as non Christian teenagers.

    HOLY TERROR (Conway/Siegelman 1984) is a good read about fundamentalism. Franky Schaeffer's work is also good. I enjoyed also RELIGIOUS RIGHT, RIP, a column by Cal Thomas written in November 2008. The recent flare up between Joseph Farah and Ann Coulter is also interesting. Something how that sneaky dominionism/Christian Reconstructionism keeps rearing its head.

  • "Universalism" (at least as I use the term) has a broader meaning than the traditional Christian version advocated by John Murray and Hosea Ballou. But in an environment dominated by Evangelical Christianity, I think the message is still extremely important. It tells people they can stop worrying about burning in hell if they pick the wrong religion and follow their hearts instead.

    Here's a post I did on the subject earlier this year: http://johnfranc.blogspot.com/2010/05/beltane-universalism.html

    So you spent a year at Tennessee Temple? I grew up in Chattanooga and didn't leave for good until 1995. Never set foot on the campus, but I drove by it plenty of times, and knew several people who went there. Glad you made it out alive.

  • Just connected with Thomas Anastasi via Facebook. He grew up in Chattanooga and is now doing a one year stint at a UU Church near San Diego after 20 years at Shoreline UU in Seattle. He found the UU faith in Chattanooga.

    Yeah let's not worry about hell fire but live with integrity and not worry about the eternal fate of those who are evil. That seems to be what Swedenborg was getting at.