Friday, March 24, 2006

The Fundamentals, Reconsidered

A post by Benjamin Myers on "fundamentals" has been attracting a lot of attention around the blogosphere. I have some sympathy for what he says, but as seems to be inevitably the case, I think he overstates.

Say "fundamentals" and inevitably one brings to mind that liberal swear-word: fundamentalism. The real thing is reactionary in the truest sense, and it overcompensates, and it has become almost a synonym for anti-intellectual, angry, hypocritical factionalism. In ECUSA, tagging anything as fundamentalist is tantamount to refutation.

But then we have statements like this:
The most serious error of the early fundamentalists was that they tried to turn faith into a law, into a set of doctrines that must be believed—but faith is only ever a matter of freedom and permission, not of law or obligation.
As Al Kimel says, this fails as a reflection of Christian history. Until a century or so ago, Christians were united-- even Anglicans-- in their insistance that faith in Christ Jesus entailed believing the right things about Him. I have to agree with Al on this point, which has been taken up by many others, e.g. C.S.Lewis. It is fashionable in some Eastern and Roman circles to belittle Lewis's notion of "mere Christianity", but it's really not hard to establish a core set of beliefs, in which the Nicene Creed holds pride of place. Modern latitudinarian theology really needs to own up to its rejection of this consensus.

The "danger" lies in the temptation of systematically converting all of what you believe into core dogmas. Of course, if you are infallible, it's not a danger, but an invitation. And thus, as I've remarked before, faith in the institution becomes reckoned as unto righteousness. Thus, when Michael Liccione writes (in comments to Al's post):
The problem with Ben’s approach is the same as with all versions of ecumenical Protestantism: it turns the issue of the content of Christian faith into a scholarly exercise rather than one calling for the obedience of the whole self to something that has nothing to do with one’s own mind.
... I am not convinced that executing this obedience by submitting to someone else's "scholarly exercise" is an improvement. "Scholasticism", after all, is practically the name of Roman theology.

All Christian theology has the problem that it is manifestly the result of human intellection, whatever else it may be. It lends itself to the interpretation that it is the product of people talking about God behind His back, as it were, instead of speaking to Him face-to-face. He who listens to good theology should be hearing what God Himself has said, or at least what is the right conclusion of what God has said. If one follows the direction of bad theology, one simply gives one's obedience to other people, instead of giving it to God.

There is surely the possibility in this for theologians to mix bad theology with good; and that is what I believe happens as a matter of course. It is the obvious consequence of human nature, both in its limits, and in its Fall. Other sciences take this in stride; as a whole, theology would appear to need to do the same. Invocation of infallibility appears, in the same larger context, as a political response to the difficulty of acheiving sufficient consensus.

And that leads to some big problems. First, the insinuated coupling of ecumenism with rejection of the Nicene consensus simply isn't true. There are people who can be "ecumenical" with anyone, and there are plenty more (such as myself) who find ecumenism possible only within a certain consensus. It's not all or nothing: Roman Catholic anti-ecumenism is one extreme (and Eastern Orthodox opposition more so), and unitarianism the opposite extreme. They are not alternatives; they are endpoints of a scale. The badness of theology is thus potentially one of degree; and I personally believe that all theology is contaminated, to one degree or another, with this badness.

The second problem, though, is where the trouble really lies. If fealty to The Church is where it's at, it's abundantly clear that claims as to who exactly represents the church are humans talking about God. Maybe they are, but given the sinfulness of humnas, I'm betting they're talking about themselves.

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