Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Great Churn of Being

I was going to write about faith, especially about David Fergusson's Faith and Its Critics: A Conversation (Oxford, 2009), but my mind is still chewing its cud, as it were, over what I want to say. Besides, reading Fergusson sent me back to the great scholar James Barr's 1977 book Fundamentalism (Westminster Press), which had a great influence on me when I first read it in the early 1980s. For one thing, I'm pretty sure it was from Barr that I learned (or realized) that fundamentalists do not read the Bible literally. Fundamentalism is a big book, 340-odd pages of smallish type plus endnotes and bibliography, but for me it is fascinating, fun to read, and endlessly quotable. Here are some samples from the last chapter. Some of what he wrote is dated, but all too much of it is still relevant, more than thirty years later.
It is often argued by theologians that modern man cannot understand Christianity except where it is re-expressed in a form that takes account of the modern tendencies of modern thought. Fundamentalism shows clearly that this is not so. On the contrary, it is perfectly possible to form a version of Christianity which rejects or ignores large areas of modern thought and knowledge, but which works reasonably well for large numbers of people and is also reasonably stable. The decision between the two options is not at all a matter of inevitability: rather, it is a choice [314].
Barr also dismissed the idea, still popular among some of the New Atheists, that
one cannot listen to the radio or use the telephone and at the same time believe in miracles like Balaam's ass or the journey of Jonah in the belly of the whale[. It] is quite erroneous; thousand of people combine both of these things without the slightest difficulty [314].
I'd say, though Barr didn't, that this is the flip side of the reactionary Christian claim that atheists with moral values are unfairly and dishonestly piggybacking on religion.

This next passage has some bearing on the Atheist Bus campaign:
People say, for instance, that fundamentalism depends basically upon an attitude of fear, a sense of insecurity that demands something absolute and infallible to hold on to. This is said not only by critics of fundamentalism, but also by highly conservative people. … But, whether this is so or not, the position in this book does not depend upon it. I do not doubt that fundamentalism can be a reaction of fear, and that resistance to change can follow from fear of change. But I do not think that this is necessarily the case, and I do not see why fundamentalist convictions should not be found allied with a courageous and cheerful psychological constitution. The emphasis in this book falls not on the psychological states, but on the logical and methodological perceptions which go to form fundamentalism. This is surely a better approach, if only because it has a chance of doing some good; little is achieved by saying that such and such a religious trend is motivated by fear, except to irritate those concerned; the psychological argument is often paralyzing and useless. It is my opinion that fundamentalism can and often does go with a quite stable and balanced personality, and this fits with the point I have already made about the stability of fundamentalist ideology. I do think that fundamentalism is a pathological condition of Christianity; but that does not mean that it is psychologically pathological ... [317-18]

This immediately leads us to state a further reason why I have not in this book developed the ‘psychological’ sort of criticisms often made against fundamentalism: in so far as these criticisms are valid, they have to be levelled not only against fundamentalists but also against many other currents within Christianity. The idea that religious behaviour is motivated through fear rather than love or faith is one that could be quite broadly spread, as a criticism of the most diverse Christian traditions; the accusation of individualism has also been made on all sides; and as for pathological attitudes about sex and other matters of life-style, the less said anywhere in Christianity the better. In so far as these are difficulties for fundamentalism, they are difficulties that it shares with a variety of currents, especially minority currents and extreme currents, within diverse segments of Christianity [331-32].
On "extremism":
As with some other comparable social movements, there is always a position more extreme than the one you are talking with at any particular moment. A person whom an average mainstream Christian will regard as a rabid fundamentalist will often be found to consider himself rather moderate; beyond him there lie, it appears, whole tracts of belief that are much more intransigent and uncompromising. The fundamentalist polemicist thus puzzles people by assuming a pose of moderation. He affects to suppose, at least at times, that his is in fact a central position within Christianity. One the one side you have the severe distortions of Roman Catholicism, on the other you have the utter perversions of liberalism, and in the middle you have the sound, central and moderate position of his own conservative evangelicalism. There may indeed be persons who push the conservative evangelical position to unnecessary extremes, it is admitted, but the average sound conservative (i.e., the one you are talking to at the moment) occupies middle ground. It is thus not uncommon to find a person who holds absolutely all the tenets of fundamentalist belief, … but who nevertheless uses the term ‘fundamentalist’ not for himself but for some shadowy group of people who hold a yet more extreme position.
On human sexuality. This part probably will seem the most problematic to people who are concerned with contemporary anti-gay crusades by conservative Christians, or with abusive neo-patriarchal sects within fundamentalism. Even so, from my own observations (and books such as Heather Hendershot's excellent Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture [Chicago, 2004]), I'd say that Barr is still basically right:
In the matter of sexual relationships, the literature of central conservative groups gives little basis for the idea of a pathological prurience. My own criticism would be the opposite, that the material is childishly na├»ve in a pre-1914 schoolboy-idealistic manner, culminating perhaps in the immortal piece of advice, “To share a common interest in Sunday School work is not, in itself, a decisive indicator that you should get married.” This was published in 1964! At least as far as one can nudge from the published literature, the conservative evangelical view of sex and marriage, far from being haunted by sin and guilt, is light and superficial. What the conservative student gets from his reading matter is advice of a prudential kind about the unwisdom of playing with other people’s affections, holding hands unless one is serious, kissing before becoming engaged and, most of all, getting married hastily on the basis of a common devotion to the work of the Lord. All these are indeed not matters without any importance: but as an ethical implication of the (supposedly earth-shaking) gospel they are just laughably negligible in comparison with the perception of ethical issues in theologians in mainstream theology. I suspect that relations between men and women in fundamentalist groups are commonly quite happy and wholesome, but for this no thanks are due to the mediocre guidance on ethical questions handed out by the group. More can be ascribed to the common sense of purpose and neglect of self in common devotion to the work of the Lord [331].
The gay-marriage movement, I suspect, is partially driven by similar attitudes to human sexuality by younger GLBT Christians.

Finally, on quasi-fundamentalism among mainstream Christians:
The point is that many people in the church, though rejecting fundamentalism, continue to treat some biblical passages, or some sections of the Bible, in a manner that seems to be close to the fundamentalist understanding. This is quite a serious matter. People do not think, with fundamentalism, that everything is accurate, and they consider some passages, perhaps in the Old Testament, to have no value for the church today or otherwise not to be the Word of God; but when they come to the passages that are important for them they use them as if they were a direct transcript of the actual words of Jesus, or as if they were in the fullest sense the Word of God. Is there not therefore something that might be called a selective fundamentalism in the mind of moderate Christians? … It is quite doubtful, however, whether the cachet “selective fundamentalism” is deserved. … Nevertheless there is some cause for disquiet about this phenomenon [333-34].
Compare, for example, some of my posts on gay Christians and their use of the Bible.

It may seem odd -- it does to me, a little -- for me to be talking so favorably about a Christian writer, an elderly heterosexual one at that. (He died just a couple of years ago, and I very much regret that I never wrote to him to thank him for his work.) I should stress that Barr was on his own account conservative theologically, and I don't claim or believe that he would approve of my positions on these issues.

But he was also an enthusiastic controversialist. His first book, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford, 1961), threw down the gauntlet against the apologetic use of the dictionary by mainstream biblical scholars, and he often returned to the theme, as in Biblical Words for Time (SCM, 1969). Several of his books, like Beyond Fundamentalism (Westminster, 1984) and The Bible in the Modern World (SCM, 1973), were intended for a general audience. The Times obituary says that "For one who was so critical and sharp with his pen he was strangely reluctant to engage in serious oral debate and discussion, either on the details of his own work or on matters of academic concern in general," but according to the Independent, "When Barr debated the matter [of fundamentalism] openly with his opponents one evening in Oxford at All Saints' Church, not surprisingly the meeting was well attended." And do I need to tell you how gratified I was to read this footnote (page 51, note 17) in Barr's Gifford Lectures, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (Clarendon Press, 1993)?
It seems necessary to say this, if only to notice and to counter the suggestions of John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), who thinks, for example, that St Paul 'never suggested that there was any historical or legal reason to oppose homosexual behaviour: if he did object to it, it was purely on the basis of functional, contemporary moral standards' (p. 106) -- especially since his work includes some discussion of Paul's use of 'nature' in our passage. Interesting as his work is in its gathering of material from the later history, in its handling of biblical texts and above all in its arguments from specific biblical words I can only say that I find it to be staggering in the degree of its misjudgment.
(The full text of the lectures is available online.)

I'd had a good many doubts about Boswell's discussion of the biblical material in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, but lacking all Greek and Hebrew I couldn't confirm them, so it was very gratifying to find that an expert like Barr felt the same way I did. For the same reason I was also pleased to find that Barr's discussion of the anti-homosexual passage Romans 1:26-28 agreed at key points with the conclusions I'd already reached on my own. And as far as I can tell from Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, Barr's criticism of Boswell was not based on homophobia, as so many conservative scholars' critiques were. That's notable and impressive for a conservative Christian of Barr's generation.

According to another obituary, "it is typical of him that to the very end he was looking for new projects. Left on his desk was the beginning of a major work about prophecy." I wish he could have finished it; Barr was one of those writers whose ideas and opinions I'm always interested to read.