Fundamentals of Faith

Doubt in Faith's Clothing is a blog post of Dr James McGrath, who I greatly admire for his pithy posts. It's hung around in my mind for a couple of weeks, because it discomforts me, despite my essential agreement.

MGrath's opening sentence says

I found myself thinking today that what fundamentalists call "faith" looks surprisingly like "doubt", and what they consider "doubt" at the very least demonstrates a greater amount of "faith" than their own so-called "faith".

This sums it all up. Those who know, say internet writing should have the whole post in the first sentence, and he certainly does!

When I hear the word "faith," I often think of the farmers from whom I come. They borrow thousands of dollars, maybe tens of thousands, to plant a crop. And then wait for rain, and get maybe none at the right time and too much at the wrong time. Then there is hail, frost, fire, locust, wind, rust, and rain during the harvest. Faith in this situation is the putting of one's livelihood and possessions on the line. If the land does not deliver, the banks move in, and the farm is taken away. Faith is about risk.

Some fundamentalists take lots of risks. This is where I struggle with the neatness of James' posting. For he goes on to say

Fundamentalists increasingly take measures to try to insulate themselves, and in particular their children, from other viewpoints, and in particular discussions of topics related to science or the academic study of the Bible. Where, in such actions, is any expression of faith that God will watch over them, or even faith that honest seeking after answers and consideration of the evidence will lead to the truth, and that that is a good thing? Where is faith that there is power in their message and the gates of hell cannot withstand it?

I get the point. There is often a fear of study in certain directions. "Keep your head down, tell them what they want to hear, but don't believe it," was the sort of thing that was said when I prepared to enter the denominational theological college. As a card carrying fundamentalist, I began to gird myself for the fight to come. But where I was working on the mission field, fellow fundamentalists had sold their farms, and left high paying jobs to follow the calling of the Lord. They were living in faith, ignoring the danger to their career prospects. Indeed, the idea of a career path, or safety in a government job, seemed a contradiction to faith. They were often hundreds of miles from medical care if something went wrong. There was no protection if people were violent. If donations failed, they could go very hungry!

As one of them, I remember looking askance at "liberal" Christians who were also very comfortable, safe, and well off. Where was the faith and the courage?

McGrath goes on to say ...the behavior of many extreme fundamentalists reveals what they really have, deep down: doubt, fear, and uncertainty.

If there is one thing that they seem in general to be certain of, it is that exposure to intelligent, rational discussion is something dangerous. Their faith, when they have any, is in insulation of themselves into "holy huddles" as protection against the onslaught of reason, discussion, investigation and even honesty. Is it any wonder that apocalyptic is so popular in such circles?

This is where it really goes wrong for me. He forgets, or omits to note, that for the fundamentalist, it doesn't look like he or she is being exposed to "intelligent, rational discussion." From inside that system, it looks like ignorance of God's revelation, or even wilful self blinding and disobedience to what has plainly been made clear about God. I know this; I was there for a while.

I think that some fundamentalists are actually very well aware they have fear, doubt and uncertainty. And they are struggling against it with all their might. They spend a lot of time talking and praying about it. And a lot of time trying to study more deeply what is going on in the world.

That said, I no longer understand what it was like. Leaving- being converted- and finding a less insular and rigid religious understanding of life was like entering another universe. I can't really remember clearly, much less understand, how and why I felt and thought. It no longer makes sense. So from my present perspective, when he says "... the behaviour of many extreme fundamentalists reveals what they really have, deep down: doubt, fear, and uncertainty...." a part of me says "Amen." From my present perspective, it's an accurate observation; but only from my present perspective.

We need to remember the differences between f and non-f world views. In a sense, when I read James today, he is "preaching to the choir." Had I read him thirty years ago, I would have prayed for his soul and his deliverance. I would have prayed well aware of my own doubts and fears and lack of faith, but still knowing he was in mortal danger.

McGrath concludes

Honest investigation... involves faith. Faith that it is worth getting to know the Bible better, even if it turns out to be a far more human and far less perfect collection of writings than we had hoped. Faith that seeking after the truth is a good thing, even if it doesn't lead us to places we would have foreseen. Faith that when we change our minds as we learn, grow and mature, this is healthy and helpful.

To allow the simplistic understanding we had as children, and the childish and immature attitude that went along with it, to be shattered and transformed, involves great faith, in the sense of trust in a process of growth, in the sense of confidence in the ability of honest inquiry to lead to truth and understanding, and also in the sense of courage. On the other hand, avoiding exposure to other views, and attempting to insulate and isolate ourselves, is as clear an expression of doubt as I can imagine.

I can only agree. But this is not the whole story with respect to people residing within a religious fundamentalist world view. I've often felt that there is "small f" fundamentalism and "large F" fundamentalism. "Small f" is the person who has perhaps not ever met a theological alternative. "Large F" are much more strongly, or self consciously,  committed to the world view. McGrath notes something of this with his mention of extreme fundamentalists. The range of fundamentalisms leave me asking how much fundamentalism is a useful delineation of the issues around faith and growth and doubt and withdrawal?

As I read posts in news groups, there seems to be a pattern. One group are hardline, maintaining their point of view at all costs. The logic of an argument is not important. The facts of history or science are not the issue. Victory in the argument, and the holding of the line, are what counts. Sometimes this may indeed indicate doubt and fear. Other times it may suggest some kind of emotional commitment. I've been reading someone responding to criticism of Israel's actions in Gaza. Emotion is red hot. Politeness, manners, and logic have not been present. The issue for this person is Israel, land of my father, right or wrong. In another situation, a scientist, arguing demonstrable facts, can border on the irrational, demonstrating some inability to accept defeat in an argument. Perhaps ego is the issue here. And this group certainly has its christian fundamentalists!  It also has some very "fundamentalist" atheists.  They sound the same.

Another group of people are more irenic. They can consider the arguments of others. They are secure enough to be polite, to listen, and to accept where the other person is correct. They actually seem to read and consider articles before replying. This does not depend on whether they agree with the original article, or not. There is something here to do with personality type, gentleness, and emotional maturity that does not necessarily line up with a division based on fundamentalism as a religious system.  In fact, some of them may hold to a religious fundamentalist system. I wouldn't know; we often only call them fundamentalists when they are agressive and obnoxious.

Andrew Prior


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