Christian Fundamentalism and Spiritual Certainty

This post took a long time to write because every paragraph brought up three other ideas that begged to be written. My wife suggests I should write all these other ideas down elsewhere and continue with my writing. That’s not the way I work. Nothing would get done at all if I tried to write that way.

My wife deserves credit generally because she edits what I write. Once upon a time she was a professional editor. Beyond that she is my soul-friend. I talk to her about all these subjects and her reflections are invaluable.

I sometimes wonder if I ever was a Christian Fundamentalist. I did make a profession of faith at the age of eight. I was and still am a diligent student of the Bible. I attended church almost every Sunday during my high school years. But somehow the fundamentalist part never really took hold. The profession of faith and subsequent baptism did take hold – I’m still a Christian. A story from my junior year in high school will explain Christian Fundamentalism better than any theological or philosophical argument I could present.

I had a Sunday School teachers, Fred and Mary, who were a married couple and who were both graduate students at the University of Illinois. Both Fred and Mary had undergraduate degrees from Baylor University. My relationship with these two very fine people went beyond teacher and student to friendship. All of a sudden they disappeared from church altogether. Nobody would tell me what had happened or where they went. After about six months they returned to church but weren’t teachers any more. I asked them what had happened but didn’t really get a satisfactory answer.

Then one day Fred and Mary and I ran in to each other at church. Mary said she wanted to ask me a question. Her question was about biblical inerrancy. Fred and Mary had a co-worker at the University who was a Roman Catholic. The work relationship they had blossomed into a friendship. Fred and Mary eventually brought religion into the relationship probably because they felt that their Roman Catholic friend wasn’t “saved”. The religious discussion—and whether the Roman Catholic would convert to Southern Baptist—revolved around the Bible and if every word in the Bible were literally true. Mary and Fred said, of course, that every word in the Bible was true, thinking that the Roman Catholic was on the verge of conversion.

The Roman Catholic then asked Mary and Fred to explain a certain verse in the Bible. That verse is John 6:53: “Jesus said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’ ” Fred and Mary were asked if they believed this scripture to be literally true. They said no. The Roman Catholic co-worker said he did believe the words to be literally true. Fred and Mary had a crisis of faith. Biblical inerrancy was one of the foundations of their belief system.

The person who hasn’t been exposed to Christian fundamentalism and biblical inerrancy will probably find the belief system professed by Fred and Mary to be absurd from an intellectual point of view. Having been on the inside looking out (Fred, Mary and I shared much of this belief system), I think I can make sense of what was happening here and in the process shed some light on a number of issues.

The most important content in a Christian fundamentalist’s life is their conversion experience. That conversion experience tells them that Jesus is alive and is spiritually present in their lives. The second most important thing in a Christian fundamentalist’s life beyond the new relationship with Jesus is the Bible. The Bible contains all the information needed to live a redeemed life. Biblical inerrancy is introduced as the surest way of understanding what the Bible says. Biblical inerrancy has an added advantage in that it can be presented as a non-theological method of understanding the Bible. Both the conversion experience and a literal interpretation of the Bible provide a profound sense of certainty. We live in uncertain times. We live in a time when almost everything is changing at once.

There have been other times in history when society experienced radical change. The Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution are three such ages. Living with radical change is unpleasant for most of us. Some people thrive in such environments. The people who don’t go crazy and who take appropriate risks can make a lot of money. A more normal, even rational, response to radical change is to look for certainty. Religion has always been been a place where people have looked for certainty.

For me, there is something deeply wrong about Fundamentalism as a religious expression. My wife points out that “if you have certainty, why would one need faith.” One possible way to enter into a genuine religious journey is to walk from faith to doubt and back several times. Such faith journey need never end.

In my own experience I found the certainty provided by Christian fundamentalism and Biblical inerrancy to be unsatisfactory. My spiritual journey didn’t end with my conversion experience. The situation above with Fred, Mary and their Roman Catholic friend illustrates that people choose what they want to believe is true in the Bible. Those choices are formed by unconscious theological and philosophical points of view.

And yet, my understanding of how the Holy Spirit works is that she responds to a person’s deepest need. If certainty is your deepest need, and you ask for it with your whole heart, you will receive certainty. But certainty by itself is not enough. The kind of certainty I’ve found among Christian fundamentalists tends to express itself in rigid responses to new situations. Any spiritual gift brings with it the responsibility to use that gift with love and compassion.

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