Much of the literature on the fundamentalist – modernist controversy of the 1920’s and 30’s is described as the struggle of fundamentalists against modernity — its science, its ways of thinking, approaches to Scripture, and, in particular, the theory of evolution. But what we don’t talk about very much is the way in which the desire not be thought of as fundamentalist has shaped mainline Protestantism. If you read the history of that period, you will discover that big donors to Riverside Church in New York City — where Harry Emerson Fosdick was the preacher for so many years — gave to the building of Riverside, precisely as an effort to stem the spread of fundamentalism. If you read the steady stream of blogging, there is no end to the skewering
Now, there were a lot of issues at stake in the 20’s and 30’s and there still are in the debates that Christians have about what to believe and how to read the Bible. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we should be fundamentalists.
But the tensions between the two groups also set up a dynamic in American Christianity which, without too much of a stretch, could be described as a face off between people who were willing to be weird — often in the wrong way — and people who want no part of being weird — in any way at all. And, to some extent, people in both groups are still living more out of what they don’t believe, than what they do.The net result is a century-long theological slugfest that re-ploughs the same ground to no particular advantage to either party. Neither side is persuaded by the case that the other makes and the endless debates in which the two sides have been engaged for nearly a century are of little interest to those outside the conversation. The Orthodox Church and Roman Catholics could care less. And, if they could care less, you can imagine how little people outside the church think about it all.
Worst of all, perhaps, this form of mainline fundamentalism robs the church of time, energy, and the space to speak effectively, cogently, and in creative terms to the intellectual, moral, social, and spiritual challenges of the day. No one outside of progressive Protestantism is moved by the earthshattering announcement that a former fundamentalist has embraced heresy instead. No one is drawn to a proclamation of the Gospel that begins and ends by pouring skepticism on its own message. Nor should they. If we are, in the words of Friedrich Schleiermacher, simply “cultured despisers” of the message that we preach, why should the world congratulate us on our integrity as we cling to our jobs and pensions?
What the world might be moved by is God-given weirdness: weirdness that takes the Gospel seriously; weirdness that owns the Christian identity without diffidence; weirdness that engages the intellectual, social, and technological challenges that we face in a fresh, trenchant, and faithful fashion; weirdness that calls for a church that has more to offer than baptized party politics.
There are examples of that effort out there, but they are too few and too far between.