Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Escaping Fundamentalism: One Theologian’s Story

In a series of short essays for EthicsDaily.com, Dr. Bruce Prescott, of the Mainstream Baptists Network, who hosts the radio show “Religious Talk” in Oklahoma, shares the events that became steps leading him away from the shackles of fundamentalism. 

  1. A Baptist Youth Camp
  2. Slowly Realizing the Flaw with Inerrancy
  3. Breaking the “Chain-of-Command” Family Myth
  4. An Education in Fundamentalist Scholarship
  5. Not Confining God to Human Expectations.

September 13, 2009 Posted by | fundamentalists, progressive faith, theology | 5 Comments

Islamic Fundamentalism: Self-Reflection for Both Muslims and Christians?

Since nearly the entire world is parsing the strengths and weaknesses of Pres. Obama’s speech in Cairo, I’ll pass on that for now.  But Obama brought up some history that OUGHT to lead to (painful?) introspection on the part of both Muslims and Christians.  Many Americans are blissfully unaware of it (because our knowledge of history is notoriously TINY), but the European Dark Ages were marked by a Christian Church that discouraged learning.  The rebirth of learning in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance was largely sparked by ISLAMIC philosophers, scientists and poets.

The 7th and 6th Centuries C.E. are known to historians as the Islamic Golden Age.  They made many advances in science, engineering (including the arch and the flying buttress), mathematics (we now use Arabic numerals, the zero was invented in Arabic civilization, and Muslim mathematicians invented algebra), medicine, and astronomy.  Christians in Europe adopted these discoveries (sometimes building on them) when Arabic troops invaded Europe and again when Europeans invaded the Middle East (Holy Land) during the Crusades.  The scientific revolution of the 17th C. would not have been possible without the advances of the Renaissance that paved the way–and those depended on very forward looking Muslim scholars.

Muslim-majority nations throughout the Middle East had universities, some offering graduate and postgraduate degrees, before European nations started them (usually under the influence of the Christian Church).  They had a higher rate of literacy and were educating women as equals or near equals long before the Christian West.

Many of the Western advances in philosophy and theology also owe their roots to Medieval Islam.  The great flowering of Catholic theology came from St. Thomas Aquinas’ interactions with Aristotelian philosophy. (Originally, this was considered controversial and some called Thomas a heretic. Plato was the approved philosopher and Aristotle was suspect.) But Aristotle’s writings had been lost in Europe.  They were saved in Arabic lands, both before and after the rise of Islam.  The Islamic philosopher Averroes (the Latin version of Ibn Rushd) was not the only Islamic Aristotelian, but because he wrote much of his material in Latin (not just in Arabic), Thomas could interact with it.  Thomas also used translations of Aristotle into Latin.  (Thomas was also influenced by Jewish philosophers, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Islamic contributions to the arts (especially architecture and calligraphy), poetry, music, and drama were also many and dramatic.  Because of their ban on alcohol, and their kashrut food restrictions, they worked to create new culinary delights–including coffee, without which I would not be civilized.  Women as well as men contributed to the flourishing of Islamic societies.

But all this came crashing down about the 17th C.  Today, almost all Muslim-majority nations are poorer, less-educated, and extremely conservative.  The rise of rabid Islamic fundamentalism has increased this trend, with incredible oppression of women, minorities, and religious dissent.  Obama’s brief recitation of some of this history, along with his critique of the current state of many Muslim-majority nations, should be the cause of deep, even painful, reflection by Muslims–not by the extremists, but by the progressives, centrists, and non-extremist conservatives. 

But I think this should also serve as a cautionary tale for Christians.  I KNOW that ultra-right Christian fundamentalists hate being compared to Islamic fundamentalists, but there is much in common.  And the rise and threatened domination of fundamentalism among Christians has brought with it a terrible hatred for the equality of women, for religious liberty and diversity, and a fear of science and the arts.  Too much of Christianity today is not open and does not welcome debate, dissent, or education.  And, both Islamic and Christian fundamentalists foster violence and terrorism in pursuit of totalitarian theocracies. 

Now the “new angry athiests” would conclude that faith and religion are themselves toxic.  I do not.  But fundamentalist forms are and the problems that Islamic fundamentalism has brought to Muslim-majority nations should be troubling both for contemporary Muslims (who need to throw off fundamentalism and reclaim their progressive past) and Christians (who need to defeat the fundamentalist forces among us).

June 6, 2009 Posted by | Christianity, faith, fundamentalists, Islam, progressive faith, Reformation, Religious Social Criticism | 14 Comments

Sign of the Times?

As I try to avoid worrying about Republicans allowing the Big Three automakers to die (probably leading to a global depression!) or what happens next in the Illinois scandal, I found this interesting piece of news.

Richard Cizik, for decades the Public Policy head of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals, has resigned after an interview in which he admitted “shifting” on same-sex marriage. Cizik now says that he supports same-sex civil unions and is reconsidering civil marriage equality!  A recent study by Pew showed that younger evangelicals are also becoming more open to gay rights.  Cizik was previously the target of the Religious Right because of his push for U.S. evangelicals to become concerned about the environment (“creation care”), taking on those Religious Right leaders who believe either that the Second Coming removes all Christian concern for the environment or that global warming is a hoax or both.  Here, again, Cizik seems more representative of younger white evangelicals than most leaders of his generation.  Wow!

I’m sad that Cizik’s voice of sanity will be lost at NAE and hope that he continues to find ways to speak out to his fellow conservative Christians about these vital matters.

December 12, 2008 Posted by | ecology, evangelicals, fundamentalists, GLBT issues, global warming, homosexuality | 4 Comments

The Fragmentation of the Religious Right?

The New York Times has published a lengthy article called “The Evangelical Crack-Up” which you can read here.  Thanks to Melissa Rogers for calling it to my attention.  I have noted the trends outlined in that article before:  Most of the prominent leaders of the Religious Right are either retiring or dying off; congregations are firing pastors who overly politicize their pulpits; younger evangelical leaders are returning to a broader moral agenda than just anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality–an agenda that includes concern for the poor, the environment, torture and human rights–and sometimes even opposition to war. 

This fragmentation of the Religious Right comes at a time of resurgent militism among some atheists and secularists (e.g., the spate of bestselling books arguing that religious faith is the root of all that is wrong with the world), but also at a time of resurgence for the evangelical left and center, of resurgence for the broader Christian center and left, and of increasing religious pluralism.  But the Religious Right has been counted dead and gone and its funeral held prematurely far too many times since 1980.  In the late ’90s prominent members of the RR itself were pronouncing it dead–such as when political columnist Cal Thomas and fundamentalist pastor Ed DobsonI(no relation to psychologist and Focus on the Family founder, James Dobson),both founding members and prominent leaders of the Moral Majority. co-wrote Blinded By Might:  Why the Religious Right Cannot Save AmericaThe authors detailed the ways in which fundamentalist Protestantism had lost its soul by becoming an adjunct of the Republican Party and adopting the tactics of cutthroath politics.  Dobson stood by what he said–dropping out of the Religious Right and concentrating on his pastorate–and on the poor.  By contrast, Cal Thomas’ relapsed almost immediately–rallying the fundamentalist troops to support the presidential candidacy of George W. Bush and uncritically supporting him since then. 

So, we have to approach the current disharmony in the Religious Right with caution.  It is too soon to count the likes of James Dobson as a spent political force or to relegate fundamentalism to the cultural backwaters it occupied from the 1920s to the 1970s.   It is FAR too early to pronounce the triumph of the Christian Left or even the Evangelical Left (much less an interfaith Religious Left) or even center.  And the growth of the “angry atheists” like Hitchens and Dawkins could easily lead to a backlash that renews the Religious Right.  Theocratic and Christian nationalist forces are still a significant force–and the current fragmentation may only last one presidential election cycle (or maybe not even that–many think that if Sen. Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic Party nominee, she will reunite the Right against her–even if the GOP nominee is Rudy Guiliani)–as it did from ’96 to 2000.

Still, this current fragmentation DOES offer an opportunity for Christians and other persons of faith with a progressive agenda to change the political debate.  There are many signs that this opportunity is not being wasted: I have highlighted before the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and its evangelical counterpart, Evangelicals for Human Rights.  Now, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action is leading a group of U.S. evangelicals to pressure the U.S. to do more to support a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis–rather than the uncritical support for Israel that is typical of many evangelicals.  The “Green Christian” movement of “Creation Care” is growing rapidly. 

It remains true that the majority of U.S. evangelicals would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned and/or elective abortions made illegal.  My own stance of support for the legal right to abortions while working to eliminate the causes that lead women to seek abortions is controversial–as a perusal of the comments on this blog under abortion posts will show.  Mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s invitation for Sen. Barack Obama, known to be pro-choice, to join his conference on ways to combat the AIDS pandemic was widely criticized by other white evangelical leaders.  It is also true that the majority of U.S. evangelicals continue to believe that sexual orientation is a choice, not a given, and to believe that all same-sex behavior is immoral. Again, my welcoming and affirming stance is not widely shared–not even by progressive evangelicals such as Ron Sider or Jim Wallis.

But the message that Sider and Wallis have been shouting for years–that abortion and “homosexuality” are not the only moral issues worth addressing, seems finally to be falling on fertile ground.  I find that to be very hopeful.

November 2, 2007 Posted by | evangelicals, fundamentalists | Comments Off on The Fragmentation of the Religious Right?