A Sympathetic Critique of Fundamentalism

My study of philosophy and comparative religion notwithstanding, I am at heart a Christian.  My mother began teaching me about Jesus as soon as I was able to talk–no doubt even before that in the songs she sang and the prayers she prayed as she held me in her arms or as I toddled around the house, not far from her apron strings.  I also attended fundamentalist and evangelical Sunday schools and churches with her from about the age of 5 until I was 25.

These lessons were significantly reinforced, but also called into question, at home, by my father– who took the Bible seriously and read it with great care (along with various Christian classics) as he attempted to come to terms with what he sometimes referred to as the human predicament.  He also listened regularly, if somewhat critically, to most of the popular Christian voices of that era (at least the ones on radio and television during 1970’s and early 1980’s).  But he was not at all with the program when it came to orthodox (small “o”) interpretations of the scripture and evangelical standards of Christian living.  He had tried that for a time, during the early years of his marriage, but at some point left the reservation, so to speak, looking for answers in his own rather unique– if not exactly private —reading of the scriptures (cf. II Peter 1:20).  So while I attended church religiously, with my mother, I got a different take on things at home, in conversation with my father.  Needless to say,  I pondered all these things in my heart… 

As a young man (with the encouragement of both my parents), I even attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago– my mother’s alma mater –for a semester and a half in the fall of ’81 and spring of ’82, but decided to return to WV after having been hospitalized and diagnosed with Addison’s disease.  I had missed too many classes to successfully complete that semester and– due in large part to my exposure to my father’s views –I felt that I didn’t quite fit in at Moody Bible Institute.  Nevertheless, I continued to pursue God/truth with my father, at home, and with my mother, at church until, at some point in the mid-1980’s, having embarked upon a career in real estate– and having taken up with some camping and fox hunting enthusiasts on Saturday nights –I stopped attending church.  But even then I continued to study the Bible and still thought of myself as a Christian.

It was only after my father died– only after reading Spinoza and Nietzsche, on the one hand, and after taking college level classes in Biblical criticism in the late 1980’s, on the other –that I began to radically question my Christian faith.   This was by no means a happy turn of events–in fact, for many years, I grieved terribly over (what was for me) the death of God.   At the same time, I felt very guilty for feeling that way, since I understood my grief– a la Nietzsche –to be a species of weakness to which I ought not succumb.  When I ended up studying philosophy, in graduate school, at a Catholic university, I sometimes felt as if I was, in the words of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “sneaking around the grave of my God” :

Zarathustra is gentle with the sick. Verily, he is not angry with their kinds of comfort and ingratitude. May they become convalescents, men of overcoming, and create a higher body for themselves! Nor is Zarathustra angry with the convalescent who eyes his delusion tenderly and, at midnight, sneaks around the grave of his god: but even so his tears still betray sickness and a sick body to me (On the Afterworldly).

But in the course of time– in conjunction with the school of hard knocks and under the tutelage of an extraordinary professor who both knew and appreciated Nietzsche but who was also a rather devout Catholic –I became open once again to thinking and speaking of God.  Not only was I exposed to a good bit of Christian philosophy while in graduate school, I also attended Catholic services from time to time, and later had occasion to attend a Russian Orthodox Church for about 10 years.  Very gradually– and through many personal and family difficulties –I became aware of the difference between thinking and speaking about God and hearing and doing the will of God as I became more and more attuned to his still small voice in my heart.

Fast forward another 10 years– passing over my marriage, my employment as an IT professional and as an over-the-road Trucker, and, then, my subsequent divorceand I found myself back in WV where (after my mother and sister died in 2009) I once again had the opportunity of attending an evangelical church with my brother.

Since my brother is disabled– and I am now his primary caregiver –it has seemed good for us to continue to attend church where he had previously attended with our mother and sister.  In addition to his desire to attend, I too have been rather keen to interact with that world again– for my own sake, as well as his –sensing, perhaps, an opportunity to finally lay to rest some of the outstanding questions and unresolved conflicts of my youth.

Indeed, having come full circle, in this way, I feel as if I have almost come to terms with my Christian upbringing,  with Nietzsche, and with Biblical Criticism.  This is a long story– some elements of which I have previously shared elsewhere:

But the short explanation is that,

1) I began to see that a myth is a story that is true on the inside, whether or not it happens to be true on the outside;


2) I learned to distinguish between the written word and the living Word (between the outer tradition and the inner Truth). 

With these two keys in hand– more about which, later –I not only feel quite comfortable in more progressive Christian circles, but also sincerely enjoy the worship services and the preaching at the Baptist church that my brother and I attend.  The people are friendly, the atmosphere is welcoming, and in many respects I feel quite at home there.

Having said that, however, I must also admit that there are times when it is still a challenge to interact with that world–especially when I hear the positions of those outside the church (i.e. those who stand  outside the worldview promulgated in that particular congregation) misrepresented and/or ridiculed in an attempt to reinforce their particular teachings in the hearts and minds of those on the insideShame and fear play a big role in what can only be described as indoctrination.  While such rhetorical techniques are employed to some degree in most any human culture or subculture– see also group think and confirmation bias –they play a particularly prominent role in conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches and seem particularly coercive in conjunction with the threats of hell and hopes of paradise that are also held over one’s head–often, as in my case, from a very young and impressionable age.  In addition to this modus operandi of indoctrination, there are two doctrines in particular that I find especially problematic:

1) Biblical Inerrancy (and the related “young earth creationism” — YEC for short).

2) The Eternal Torment of non-Christians in Hell (even those who have lived and died without ever hearing the gospel).

In my opinion, it is primarily these two doctrines that force those Christians who hold them into defending untenable positions and, after painting themselves into various practical and theoretical corners by reason of these beliefs, prevent them from effectively communicating with people outside (or on the margins) of their communities.  Not only does this tend to isolate them and keep them tied to a very narrow view of both the grace of God and their own creative potential, under God, it also makes them fair game for demagogues of various kinds.  Once again– in my opinion –the two aforementioned keys suggest a two-pronged approach that would go a long way toward resolving these problems:

1) we need not be concerned with the possibility of errors in the written word— as regards science or history, for example –as long as it is functioning effectively to point us to the living Word (and, IMO, idealizing the written word as “inerrant” actually detracts from its effectiveness in this regard).

2) the living Word speaks within the heart of every human being, whether or not they’ve heard the name of Jesus (i.e. the story of Jesus is one way of communicating the universal truth that we are reconciled to God, that the Way is One, and that all who are on the Way are One –whatever story or stories may be functioning as their particular on-ramp(s) to the Way).

Thus, the living Word (or logos) is seen, indeed, to be the light of the world–the light that lights everyone who comes into the world (and not just those who are fortunate enough to have been born within earshot of the Christian gospel).  What each one does with that light– and why –is a mystery which is sometimes spoken of in terms of human freedom and at other times in terms of God’s love and grace.  While I am rather inclined to speak of it in both ways, I know that God is good and that to err on the side of love and grace is probably closer to the truth.

For the last several years– and especially since 2012 –I have attempted to discuss these ideas with Christians and non-Christians alike (via the Internet) and have met with mixed success.   If nothing else, however, have at least made some progress towards translating this point of view into the evangelical idiom (see Yeshua21.com).   And, in any event, it has given me an opportunity to reread major portions of the Bible more closely and more carefully than I have in many years–and also to be introduced to the  general contours of various contemporary debates on the cutting edge of evangelical theology.   My intention, at this point– in addition to growing in grace and knowledge of the truth –is to do what I can to help nudge evangelical Christianity into the 21st century (or at least to help open up new avenues of religious expression for those evangelicals who are looking for them–new avenues which value free and open inquiry  instead of isolation and indoctrination).

So far, the result has been a new blog— two of them, actually, counting this one –and my growing familiarity with various strains of contemplative Christianity and progressive evangelical theology.  While the resources for this kind of study are almost unlimited, I will here present– in reverse alphabetical order by last name –a few of the very diverse authors and/or speakers that I have found to be of interest from time to time:

N.T. Wright
Dallas Willard
Tim Suttle
Francois du Toit
Richard Rohr
Henry Nouwen
Ted Nottingham
Brian D. McLaren
Denis O. Lamoureux
Thomas Keating
Stephen Freeman
Peter Enns
Marcus Borg
Francis Bennett
Rob Bell
Ahyh & Libby (The Calling)

As time permits, I may add other people to this list and will include some additional information about each of them, together with links to their blogs and/or websites and other resources.  My inclusion of someone in this list should not be construed as any kind of blanket endorsement.  It simply reflects my opinion that they really do understand at least some of the issues at stake and that they are– each in their own way –attempting to blaze some new trails for those who feel trapped in what has become for so many an untenable worldview that is hindering rather than helping them in their desire to know and love the Lord and their neighbor as themselves.

Finally, this is not meant to be a condemnation of those who defend the older evangelical or fundamentalist worldview, as it stands, and who– in sharp contrast to the more progressive and/or contemplative voices echoed here –are taking their stand in opposition to what they conceive of as serious threats to the fundamentals of the faith.  If these more conservative voices must be left behind, so to speak, it is not without a certain respect and gratitude for that which they have contributed and will continue to contribute to the life of the church.  They will continue to function in much the same way that the inside of a tree trunk functions (without being immediately involved in its current growth). The tree must continue to grow on the outside–sending its roots deeper and its branches upward and outward while, at the same time, expanding it’s trunk.  And while it’s inner trunk may, in a sense, be “history”, it is by no means irrelevant to its contemporary growth and development.  So– to the more conservative and even reactionary voices throughout the broad spectrum of protestant Christendom –we may sincerely say:

Thank you for your support!

–>  Getting to Know Jesus in the 21st Century


6 Responses to A Sympathetic Critique of Fundamentalism

  1. Kathy McFarland says:

    If we are Christian, we follow Jesus Christ. Jesus warned us that there are TWO “ways” In the kingdom of [GOD]….and, of course, the SHEEPFOLD where HE leads His own sheep.

    “Religion” [is] the ‘roadblock’, so to speak, to “working out our own salvation”….

  2. M. Rodriguez says:

    Interesting testimony…. yours brought you to a main stream moderate god. and you ended up dropping some of the hardline fundamentalist views. That is interesting.

    • Thanks for stopping by, M. I checked out your blog–read a couple of your posts and skimmed a couple more… Looks like you have thought rather deeply about all this. If I have anything to add to what you already know, it can probably be gleaned from the Nonduality link (above) and/or in some of the posts at Yeshua21.com. If you’re not familiar with the latter, you should probably start at the “Skeptics Corner”. Thanks again for your feedback and feel free to communicate whenever you are so inclined!


  3. Wayne, I am glad you worked through you earlier beliefs and found a firmer foundation. I am a former fundamentalist who had a similar journey. I agree with you that the fundamentalist/evangelical issues of inerrancy and hell must be addressed and dealt with.

    • Thanks, Tim–the list of “prominent baggage” on your blog resonates with my own. I will include that list here, together with a link for anyone who is interested. Thanks again and keep up the good work!

      ◾The belief that the Father is an angry, capricious God
      ◾The concept of eternal punishment and torture in hell
      ◾An insistence that the Bible is somehow inerrant in every word
      ◾Insistence on a literal approach to creation in Genesis
      ◾An over-emphasis on rules and doctrinal requirements
      ◾Disapproval and rejection of gay people
      ◾Promotion of end-times mythology


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