For the first half of my life, the advances of science constantly challenged my faith. Every new dinosaur fossil … every new distant galaxy found … proposed examples of evolutionary adaptation … the discovery of basic building blocks of life on meteorites … discovery of Sumerian tablets and artefacts at Stonehenge … multiverse theory … each of these forced me to adjust my belief system or compartmentalize it. Put my faith in a box and insulate it from these external assaults. View the world around me through one set of glasses on Sunday morning, and then revert back to a completely different world-view on Monday morning.
It’s rather ironic, then, that I pursued a career in science!? Perhaps it was forbidden fruit to me.
But eventually I began to ask questions about that belief system. Why did I believe what I did? This opened up a Pandora’s box for me. Actually, Plato’s Cave is a far better analogy, a classic which I highly recommend to any person of faith (you can get my two-paragraph version here). As I made my way out of the Cave, I learned more and more about the way things really are. That I had suffered too long with a severe case of tunnel vision. A blind denial of empirical facts simply because they conflicted with another ‘higher truth’.
But how can that be: truth is truth, right?
I realized that knowledge does not need to be a threat to faith. Moses is said to have been taught in Pharaoh’s courts (Acts 7:21-22). Daniel was schooled to become a counselor of the royal court in Babylon, the empire of his time (Daniel 1:3-6). Paul the Apostle was taught in all the ways of Judaism by a leading rabbi (Acts 22:3). Luke the writer of the third gospel and the Book of Acts was a doctor (Colossians 4:14), and was therefore trained in Greek and Roman thinking. So higher learning and intellectual pursuit are not things for which anyone needs to apologize.
Instead, what I now see as a bigger threat to Christianity is unchecked fundamentalism. Science seeks to ask and answer questions, while fundamentalism often tries to silence questioning altogether. By ‘fundamentalism’ I mean an attitude that uncritically adheres to a strict ‘literal’ reading of the words on the page, even if that conflicts with common sense. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all advocating that we throw out the Bible. The fact that I myself frequently quote from it says that I too believe we can read from it ‘literally’. And sometimes what we read will pit us against society’s norms. But many times, we need to adjust our thinking.
So why do I say that fundamentalism is so dangerous?
To start with, it’s killing off the faith of too many people. It becomes too difficult to hold a rigid Bronze Age concept of the universe together with 21st century knowledge. One thing has to give, and since the one side has an overwhelming weight of evidence, and the only thing supporting the other side is denial of truth and blind faith, well, the choice for some is obvious. Too often this happens when students go off to high school, college or university. Their upbringing has given them glass armor which looks nice and stands up well to some rough handling, but hit it just the right way and it shatters easily and lacerates the person wearing it.
Another reason is that fundamentalism fuels unnecessary ridicule and criticism of a faith position. The ‘debate’ earlier this year between Ken Ham and Bill Nye was embarrassing (and was viewed nearly four million times). So are the frequent predictions of the end of the world that come and go and then pop up again despite the 100% failure rate. The recent buzz about the Four Blood Moons. The Torah Codes. The Health & Prosperity message (aka ‘name-it-claim-it-frame-it’ or ‘doubt-it-and-go-without-it’ theology). Picking up snakes and drinking poison. The deaths of children denied professional health care because their parents thought that to do so would represent doubt. All of these have been in the news this year. All are based on an uncritical and overly literal application of scripture. All are perpetuated when people only repeat what they’ve heard someone else say. And all dissolve away when one begins to do some original research into what the authors actually intended and the audience to whom they were writing.
And lastly, an uncritical reading of scripture has given us too much intolerance, judgmentalism and even hate. Let’s be honest: it has been used to justify the slave trade, the KKK, the Salem witch trials, apartheid, Westboro Baptist church, capital punishment and eye-for-an-eye thinking. It’s been too easy to use scripture to find targets: women, homosexuals, other religions or even other ‘flavors’ of Christian faith.
But who did Jesus oppose in his time? It could have been ‘sinners’ (prostitutes, murderers, tax-collectors), people with diseases (the ‘unclean’), women (second class citizens), gentiles and Samaritans (they were ‘other’), Greek/Roman philosophers and religious leaders (conflict with Judaism), or especially the Roman government and military (who were brutally occupying his country). But he didn’t take issue with any of those; rather, he often embraced them.
Instead, the single group he DID target in his teachings was the people who could give you chapter and verse for any theological point (euphemistically speaking, since the chapters and verses weren’t numbered until over a thousand years after the Bible was collated). Who spent all their time parsing scripture. That should give pause for concern to anyone who wants to be overly dogmatic about basing belief only on Scripture. Passages like Matthew 7:3-5 (“sawdust in your brother’s eye … plank in your own eye”) and Matthew 7:21-23 (“Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me…”) should prompt intense introspection.
These are the reasons why I feel fundamentalism could be the greatest danger to the church.
Asking questions can in fact complement faith. It made mine stronger.
And it was the realization that I’d left behind me a whole community of fellow believers down in that metaphorical Cave that prompted me to set up this blog and to write a book. My goal is to show them a way out that worked for me into a much larger faith.