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Finding Truth Amid Tension

Finding Truth Amid Tension

by The Very Rev. Dr. Peter C. Moore
www.virtueonline.org
November 9, 2019

Just pay attention to current events and you will realize that there is a fundamentalist streak in many religious movements in the world today. We see the unfortunate reality that reform movements tend to move backward towards a recovery of an earlier militancy rather than forward towards tolerance and respect for others' views. These new religious movements, which are rapidly proliferating, must have new prophetic figures, new sacred texts, new pilgrimage sites, and new forms of worship if they have a chance of succeeding. Most of these groups live in radical tension with the secular world and are profoundly convinced that they have the only way.

Fundamentalism is not only a distinguishing feature of those groups that might be characterized as on the far right. There is the surprising fundamentalist face of liberalism. Politically it's always been true that those on the left can be as intolerant as those they criticize. Even certain forms of religious pluralism can be just as totalizing as any fundamentalist sect. We often see among religious pluralists an intolerance of those who still believe traditional doctrines to be true, a rejection of views considered backward, a demonization of all who cannot embrace supposed new insights in sexuality, and an assumption that the final standard for ethical judgments must be set by enlightened secular sources. Religious liberals can be as exclusive as any they criticize.

More a mindset than a set of doctrines

But are there common features of a fundamentalist mindset to be found in these varied expressions? Consider these eight tell-tale signs:

First, fundamentalists of all stripes tend to reflect black and white thinking. They have little place for ambiguity. Certainty must be established.

Second, fundamentalists tend to have a fortress mentality. Those who disagree become enemies. Shades of this appear in all forms of fundamentalism, including its Christian expressions. Behind this defensiveness is a rejection of the image of God, for those with a fortress mentality fail to see the other as created by God, and worthy of dignity and respect.

Third, the fundamentalist mindset absolutizes secondary issues. Within fundamentalist Protestantism pre-millennial, post-millennial, and a-millennial wars over eschatology divide Christians who otherwise share a great deal in common. When the distinction between primary and secondary issues vanishes, each assertion of the Bible must have equal importance--right down to the manner and time of baptism, the nature of church government, and the forms by which we worship. Behind this is a failure to see that the Bible will always be interpreted according to some governing principle, which for the discerning Christian ought to be the centrality of Jesus Christ.

Fourth, fundamentalists become irrationally afraid of compromise. There is a basic fear that if you "give an inch" you will "lose a mile." Hence any compromise is thought to be potentially disastrous. This unyielding quality causes fundamentalists to lack balance, the ability to see both sides of an issue before making a commitment to one.

Fifth, there is often a polarization over gender. Usually, this is reflected in the treatment of women as ipso facto inferior. They must be relegated to separate and secondary places in society. In Judaic and Islamic forms, this disparity is quite noticeable. Within Christian forms it can be more subtle. Some traditionalists perpetuate the inequality of men and women within the Christian fellowship on slim biblical grounds, and ignore the overall thrust of Scripture on this issue.

Sixth, fundamentalists tend to be highly selective in their approach to scholarship. Only those views that confirm their ideology are considered worthy of study, while authors who start with different assumptions are simply not read.

Seventh, the fundamentalist mind thinks it is acceptable to impose its agenda on the world. This is why so many fear right-wing takeovers. But far-left takeovers are also quite possible. The values of God's kingdom must never be foisted on others against their will. God's way is persuasion rather than compulsion. Also, a correct eschatology will always point out that the Kingdom of God is always both here and coming. Therefore, it can never be completely "realized" by us in the here and now.

Eighth, the fundamentalist mindset has an innate tendency towards legalism. The fullness of grace is denied in practice even when it is proclaimed in theory. This legalism gives fundamentalists tunnel vision, leading to one expression of righteousness over all others. For example, personal piety tends will be emphasized to the exclusion of social justice, or vice versa.

Extremism

What I think we can conclude is that many groups which have seriously held world views have among their number those who will take that world view to extremes. There will be a certain number who will embody many if not most of these eight tendencies. Even those whose brand of fundamentalism espouses "tolerance" can quickly become intolerant of those who are not able to embrace their understanding of inclusivity.

Some years ago Harry Blamires, a British writer with an impressive array of works on theology, literary criticism and fiction to his credit, wrote a book entitled The Christian Mind. He bemoaned the loss of a distinctively Christian mind, which he saw as arising from the acceptance in both the culture and the church of a false antithesis between feeling and intellect. He saw this as a basic imbalance.

But how does one get balance when it is so rarely found among advocates of rival viewpoints? To get balance one must have a fulcrum, a center of gravity. As Archimedes once said, speaking of physics, "Give me a place to stand, and I can move the world." The gospel is just that center of gravity--that Word against which all other words must be measured. With the gospel at the center, balance is achieved because in the end all truth is God's truth. This gives the evangelical mind, the mind that finds its home within the gospel's redemptive story, the balance that is lacking in various expressions of fundamentalism.

But how does one get balance when it is so rarely found among advocates of rival viewpoints? To get balance one must have a fulcrum, a center of gravity. The gospel is just that center of gravity--that Word against which all other words must be measured. With the gospel at the center, balance is achieved because in the end all truth is God's truth

Truths in tension

The evangelical mind holds truth and love in tension. Rather than being in opposition to each other, both are equally necessary both to live and commend the Faith. Evangelicals seek to avoid a separation of heart and mind, spirituality and theology, intellect and feeling. While often tempted to one-sidedness, evangelicals seek to balance these false polarities because of a biblical doctrine of creation.

Second, the evangelical mind reads the Bible primarily as a means of grace, rather than a weapon to be wielded in defense of orthodoxy. While theological defense is legitimate, and when necessary the Bible must play a prominent role in it, what marks the evangelical mind is a longing to know God better through his Word, combined with a habit of "inwardly digesting" that word to one's soul's health and healing.

Third, the evangelical mind gives to Jesus Christ the supreme place of honor and obedience. This neither denies the fullness of the Trinity, nor rejects specific goods that may be found in the teachings of other religious leaders and philosophers. What the centrality of Christ does do is bring focus to the diversity found in biblical texts and provide a critical hermeneutical principle by which earlier texts may be evaluated in the light of later ones. Evangelicals are not literalists when it comes to the text of the Bible, despite the frequently made charge. Evangelicals see development in Scripture and acknowledge complexity and symbolism in biblical literature.

Fourth, evangelicals regard sin as a condition, rather than just an act. Instead of focusing on certain acts as particularly sinful, the evangelical, while acknowledging certain acts as wrong, tries to look beneath the specific behavior to the condition that underlies it. This yields a richer, and ultimately more biblical, view of the human dilemma.

Fifth, evangelicals embrace the Great Commission as a command of the gospel. They reject it as just a means to build up a particular sect or group. The process of making disciples may and often does lead to the growth of particular churches or fellowships, its goal is the building up the kingdom of God.

A sixth characteristic of the evangelical mind is a combination of faith with social action. Today evangelicals are notably involved in inner city ministries, the home school movement, the pro-life movement, prison ministries, and the anti-addiction movement, to name a few.

Finally, evangelicals see the Church as a precious gift to be nurtured and cared for, and ultimately to be presented as a pure bride to her Lord. Painful as are the current battles within the Church over theological, ethical, and pastoral matters, they serve as reminders that while specific religious organizations may atrophy and die, God's kingdom will come as sure as tomorrow's dawn.

The future of the American Church lies in a recovery of the gospel, and a reclaiming of our heritage as biblical Christians. There are encouraging signs of an informed, balanced, grace-filled evangelical resurgence. What we need is neither an accommodation to the secularizing culture around us, nor a reactionary embracing of fundamentalisms on the right or the left. Rather we need a resurrection faith that alone can awaken "the sleeping giant" of mainline Christianity. This will come by God's grace, working through his Word, enlivening his people to bear a credible witness through their lives. This alone will ultimately enable the Church to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

Peter Moore was Trinity School for Ministry's Dean and President from 1996-2003. He has supported Trinity since its inception in 1976 when he was the first Board Chair. We treasure Peter's keen acumen on theological issues coupled with his heart for Christian apologetics. Peter is remaining active in his preaching and writing despite a current battle with Glioblastoma. We pray for him and his wife Sandra as they wrestle with this affliction. A $30,000 anonymous gift was recently given to Trinity to honor Peter, a gift which others have pledged to match. Currently, Peter is the Director of the Anglican Leadership Institute that brings Anglican leaders to the USA twice yearly for 3-week leadership training.

.Peter Moore was Trinity School for Ministry's Dean and President from 1996-2003. He has supported Trinity since its inception in 1976 when he was the first Board Chair. We treasure Peter's keen acumen on theological issues coupled with his heart for Christian apologetics. Peter is remaining active in his preaching and writing despite a current battle with Glioblastoma. We pray for him and his wife Sandra as they wrestle with this affliction. A $30,000 anonymous gift was recently given to Trinity to honor Peter, a gift which others have pledged to match. Currently, Peter is the Director of the Anglican Leadership Institute that brings Anglican leaders to the USA twice yearly for 3-week leadership training.

This article appeared in SEED AND HARVEST a publication of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA

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