Fundamentalism: our ideas or trust God?


Dance home

Who is Christ?

What must we do?


























































Two dynamics in fundamentalism
To understand fundamentalism we must consider two dynamics. One is personal while the other is doctrines and beliefs.

The personal dynamic is that fundamentalists tend to be binary — people and things are good or bad, you are with us or against us. They have dogmatic feelings about women and other social issues. They often use fear: of certain people or ideas or of eternal punishment.

Beliefs, ideas
"Fundamentalism…is basically a love affair with words and ideas about God instead of God himself or herself," says Fr. Richard Rohr.

The history of the church is a series of controversies over what Christians should believe. These arguments were about words and ideas used to express belief, love, trust. Church people argued over beliefs as early as in Acts 15 — in 48 C.E. or 15 years after Jesus' death!

Our creeds or affirmations of faith came out of conferences. The "apostles creed" in its present form first appeared in the writings of Caesarius of Arles who died in 542. The Council of Nicea in 325 created the "Nicene Creed," which Emperor Constantine influenced for his political purposes. Here is a link if you want to learn more. Or read Elaine Pagels' book Beyond Belief.

Flying is an analogy. The Wrights and other pioneers experimented with the elements of flying — wing shapes, drag, weight, control, power — often using simple tools such as fish weighing scales to determine which wing shape had the most lift. After they succeeded people began to theorize how flight happens. A hundred years later there are multiple theories. In the same way people had experiences of God, and afterwards they or others tried to explain how it happened and why. But these theories or theologies came afterwards and are never as certain as actually experiencing God — or flying.

The doctrines that we believe are our agreeing to certain words to express human ideas. To talk about the One whom we trust means relating to this one, which usually strengthens and deepens our faith and understanding. But we dare not confuse trusting the One with the words of doctrine or beliefs. What doctrines you believe or do not accept is not as important as who or what is the foundation of your living.

Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs for Sep-Oct '06 wrote: "the term 'fundamentalist' involves three characteristics: a high view of biblical authority and inspiration; a strong determination to defend the historical Protestant faith against Roman Catholic and modernist, secular, and non-Christian influence; and the conviction that believers should separate themselves from the non-Christian world."

Why fundamentalism
Fundamentalism among Christians is a movement about what Christians must believe that began in America in the late 1800s. It was a reaction to historical crises.

  • One was the Civil War with its death toll and destructiveness and the southern backlash including the KKK.
  • Scientific findings of the universe, but worst was Darwin's theory of the origins of the earth and of humans, the literary study of the Bible, and Freud's teachings.
  • Social and labor problems that resulted from industrialization, immigration, and urbanization that led to unregulated corporate control, child labor, women working in sweat shops, and urban crowding.

Social gospel
Some Christian leaders confronted these problems and their personal and social dysfunction. They worked to change conditions and help people that Jesus said was his mission in Luke 4. Some 2,000 Biblical commands say, care for the needy. The "social gospel" applied Christ's teachings to heal the societal chaos, while fundamentalists called it "that godless social service nonsense." One result of the social teaching in Methodism was Branch Rickey's actions.

Increasingly people felt that “the Christian belief in a God who acted through revelation and grace appeared wildly incompatible with everything common sense and science suggested about the way the world actually worked. With Luther, the monolithic structure of the medieval Christian Church had cracked. With Copernicus and Galileo, the medieval Christian cosmology itself has cracked. With Darwin, the Christian world view showed signs of collapsing altogether. In an era so unprecedentedly illuminated by science and reason, the “good news” of Christianity became less…secure a foundation upon which to build one’s life, and less psychologically necessary.” (Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind, 305)

Fundamental reaction
Some church leaders felt threatened by these changes. They taught that this world is evil; it will end in the near future with a "rapture" at the return of Christ. This conflict between work with people in the world and retreat from the world began in the Old Testament between prophets and the apocalyptic.

Theologians who rebelled against science and the social gospel held "Bible conferences" and after the Niagara Conference of 1895 published what they claimed were the "fundamentals" of Christian faith: if a person was Christian, then they must agree with these ideas:

  • every word of the Bible was inspired and of equal worth, called Biblical "inerrancy" — compare that to my view of mountains, valleys, or a mesa,
  • the virgin birth of Jesus,
  • Jesus' came to die on the cross as a legalistic paying for sin — the substitutionary theory of the atonement,
  • the physical resurrection of Jesus, and
  • certain beliefs about the end of the age and the world

Notice that all of these are ideas or theories. To agree with them is more important than trusting in the God of Christ and building a relationship with this God and among his people. Fundamentalists make human ideas their God the foundation of their faith and life.

Some of these ideas are really strange.

  • The virgin birth is not a major Biblical message. Instead, Scriptures in many places claim that God has become fully human in Jesus but the earliest witnesses, Paul and Mark, don't say how this happened.
  • The substitutionary theory of the atonement first appeared in 1097! It is related to judicial theories of that time, and sounds crazy to many people.
  • Elsewhere on this site I talk about differing reports in the gospels about the resurrection of Christ.

In the last fifty years fundamentalism has made war against sex. They focus on three experiences that often traumatize people. These are complex issues with many facets. We deserve open and honest discussion of these traumas rather than condemnation:

  • opposition to abortion, because they believe a zygote is a person,
  • homosexuality is the worst of sins, and
  • birth control is condemned, and condoms are demonized, because they are convinced that condoms increase premarital sex.

Summary of fundamentalism
First, fundamentalism in Christianity shares certain core beliefs with fundamentalism in other religions and in politics. Three core beliefs underlie both beliefs and actions of those groups:

  • absolute certainty about beliefs and actions with no questions or doubt,
  • uniformity of beliefs trumps individuality, so everyone must believe these ideas, and
  • men are in charge and dominant so women must be subjugated.

Second, fundamentalism makes human ideas or abstractions into their God. Human ideas replace the One "whom no eye has seen nor ear heard nor has entered into the mind of anyone." One that we can describe cannot be the Eternal God! This One who became one of us in Jesus is replaced with human ideas and beliefs such as the virgin birth.

Third, Beverly Harrison, recent professor of Christian ethics at Union Seminary, sees fundamentalism insisting "on a religious monopoly of knowledge grounded in fear of alternative knowledges, particularly 'scientific' … which the 'God-knowledge' people cannot control." Fear, she says, is the pulse of fundamentalism. Part of this fear is of women being respected in their humanity, women free to enjoy, to make choices, so fundamentalism insists on paternalistic male supremacy.

Fourth, there is evidence that fundamentalism appeals most to people who like to have answers, and do not like to discuss shades of interpretation and meaning.

Is reality black and white? For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed he was morally right to be the courier for the Resistance plotting the assassination of Hitler to end World War II. Reality is usually gray, and decisions and ethics are complex. They often depend on the context, such as Hitler and World War II.

Now fundamentalism may be Christian, Islamic, or patriotic. There is no place for the individual initiative and the give-and-take debate and compromise that are at the root of mainline Christianity and America.

Copyright © 2002, 2007 John F. Yeaman




The earliest witness to Christ Jesus in the New Testament is the Apostle Paul in his letters that were written decades before the earliest gospel. Paul often refers to God being present in Christ, but never any hint of the virgin birth. For example, in Galatians 4:4-7 "…born of a woman…" he certainly would have added "virgin" if it mattered, see 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Philippians 2:5-13, Colossians 1:15-20.










Strangely, fundamentalists want the latest evolution of computers and to fly in the latest evolution of aircraft with the latest evolution of air traffic control. Their major anti-science is the science of cosmology — the origin and development of life and of this earth. Their faith is threatened by evolution and Darwin, while I find my faith strengthened and my image of God glorified by the study of geology and of evolution. When I look at the face of a cliff with its strata, time becomes deeper and broader and the Creator more profound and mind-bending.





Copyright © 2003, 2006 John F. Yeaman