Righting America

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Charles Taylor and the Disenchanted World of Fundamentalism | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy 

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – for which he has a contract with Wipf and Stock (Cascades).

Breaking of Inner Harbor Levee, New Orleans, August 2005. Image via if i only had a time machine

Fundamentalists apply what they consider “science” to the Bible and insist that they have discovered all truth. Instead, what they have actually done is flatten faith, mystery, creation to the empirical. Almost in a state of denial, they resist the reality that they themselves live in a “secular” world sanitized of faith and transcendence, flattened to the empirical. 

Of course, young Earth creationists seek to defend the intervention of the “supernatural” (God) in the creation of the universe. But in A Secular Age Charles Taylor argues that to hold to the natural/supernatural distinction – so central to fundamentalism – is itself is an effect of the “immanent frame” (542, 548), in which the world is disenchanted, and in which the presence of supernatural beings or forces are impossible or nearly impossible. So in conceding the natural/supernatural binary young Earth creationists actually place themselves squarely within the paradigm of the immanent frame, which is why Taylor says that fundamentalists and materialists actually share the same “view of things” (547) – they are modern cousins.

This is obvious in the fundamentalist approach to the Bible. George Marsden says that fundamentalists assumed (and assume) that their approach to the Bible – their biblical inerrancy – represents the intellectual and scientific approach to Scripture. They were (and are) convinced that they were just taking the hard facts of Scripture and discovering what was actually there. 

But such an approach leaves no room for a reading like Rowan Williams gives us in Tokens of Trust, in which Genesis doesn’t give us a view of the modern cosmologist, but instead the view of a person of faith expressing joy in the purposes of God to create beings capable of experiencing the ecstasy of aliveness. Creation, in Genesis, is doxological before it is theological, and to flatten the story to our reduced prose of the immanent frame is to destroy the praise.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it in Finally Comes the Poet, we now do business with a “truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane” (1).

So the fixation on intelligent design, on a young Earth, is already a sign of the waning of devotional practice: 

once people come to live more and more in purely secular time, when God’s eternity and the attendant span of creation becomes merely a belief, however well backed up with reasons, the imagination can easily be nudged towards other ways of accounting for the awkward facts (Taylor 328).

Fundamentalism arose as a fearful response to the emerging new disciplines of knowledge, especially in science and theology. In his 1922 sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”,” Harry Emerson Fosdick saw clearly the fundamentalist response to new knowledge: 

The Fundamentalists see, and they see truly, that in this last generation there have been strange new movements in Christian thought. A great mass of new knowledge has come into man’s possession—new knowledge about the physical universe, its origin, its forces, its laws; new knowledge about human history and in particular about the ways in which the ancient peoples used to think in matters of religion and the methods by which they phrased and explained their spiritual experiences; and new knowledge, also, about other religions and the strangely similar ways in which men’s faiths and religious practices have developed everywhere.

Basing theology on the fear of new ideas just feels wrong from the outset. Such epigrammatic attempts at doing theology seem like reducing thought to bumper stickers or tweets. Nineteenth century fundamentalists assumed that the “enemy” was science and critical study of Scripture. But the idea that science is the cause of unbelief is to pick the wrong enemy. 

But when it comes to creation, Christians possess an unlimited appetite for picking or even creating the wrong enemy. For example, young Earth creationists are repeating an earlier mistake made when, in the second century, theologians (primarily Irenaeus) rushed to defend God against the charge of “creating evil” by making up the doctrine of ex creatio nihilo. (Odd isn’t it to create out of “nothing” a doctrine of nihilo?) 

To this day, self-righteous preachers leap from bridges of irrationality to blame God for hurricanes and tsunamis and COVID-19.  Besides producing a doctrine of divine omnipotence that led to an insoluble problem of evil, this postbiblical doctrine of creation from nothing has been the primary basis for thinking that the Christian faith is incompatible with scientific naturalism in the generic sense. 

Once this gate opened, there would be no limit on the ability of fundamentalists to name “enemies,” to create “devil” terms. For example, in the early 20th century, fundamentalists decided that evolution was the enemy. The Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee brought the fundamentalist claims about the evils of evolution to the nation’s attention. And it went badly for fundamentalists. The biology textbook that roused the ire of fundamentalists not only advanced evolution, but also taught eugenics. Think what a difference would have occurred if fundamentalists had picked eugenics as the primary enemy of the faith.

To a fundamentalist the advances of science and “new knowledge” feels as “scary as hell.” Thus, the fundamentalists scurry about, anxiously, frenetically, piling sandbags on top of a river levee that will not be able to resist the rising waters, that will eventually break the levee and flood everything. It is not a good place to inhabit. One day the levee will break. At the Old River Locks in Louisiana, the Army Corps of Engineers has constructed a huge floodgate system to keep the river from changing course and flowing into the Atchafalaya River. The engineers admit that the structure will not hold forever because of the sheer power of the Mississippi River. Analogically, one day the fundamentalist “floodgates” will open.

Yet fundamentalists, like Ken Ham, continue defending a theistic universe rather than a biblical cosmos. Eliminating mystery as a consequence of Protestant critiques of allegorization, positing a flat literalism as the only way to read the Bible, believers end up reading the Bible as if it were a scientific treatise on such a universe. In short, you get the emergence of young Earth creationism. The so-called war between science and religion has been reduced to an intramural spat, as secularism – the modern cosmic imaginary – has seeped into both believers and unbelievers. In other words, no one is more modern than Ken Ham and the folks at Answers in Genesis, and the face-off between religion and science “has a strangely intra-mural quality” (Taylor, 331).     

Young earth creationists are like football players, who, for reasons unknown, insist on challenging a basketball team to a game of basketball. Instead of postulating that God endowed creation with all the necessary elements for life, that humans came to a universe prepared for our appearance, young earthers insist on creating “out of nothing” a doctrine that finds no actual support in Scripture. Instead of engaging Scripture seriously, they pretend to be scientists. With a wink and a nod to the Bible, they set it aside and step into the ring as amateur scientists. 

Of all the problems with young Earth creationism, nothing is more difficult for Ham and fundamentalists than the fact that they are squarely stuck in the immanent frame. In their disenchanted world they have reduced the glory of creation to a surfeit of implausible explanations, pseudo-science, and impossible doctrines. Young Earth creationism is left with telling us what creation can’t do rather than glorying in a creation that has such ongoing creative powers. 

I confess to a certain happiness, as a debater, in facing opponents who reject physics, geology, astronomy, and biology. The fundamentalists’ real problem is with science, all of it, as they engage in an utter rejection of science in order to prop up alleged literal Bible beliefs. I’m not sure how much longer this charade will continue, but it has proven to be rather resilient, especially in the alternate universe inhabited by evangelical Christians adept at believing impossible things and following false messiahs. Still, the waters are rising.

Where does this leave the story? In How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor James K. A. Smith argues, 

Those evangelicals who have been raised and shaped by forms of Christianity that are roughly “fundamentalist” will either: 

 1. Become taken with the modern moral order and thus sort of replay the excarnational development of modernity, just now a few centuries later, sort of catching up with the wider culture; so under the guise of the “emerging church” or “progressive evangelicalism,” will be set on a path something like Protestant liberalism, a new deism; or

2. Recognize the disenchantment and excarnation of evangelical Protestantism, and also reject the Christianized subtraction stories of liberal Christianity, and feel the pull of more incarnational spiritualities, and thus move toward more “Catholic” expressions of faith – and these expressions of faith will actually exert more pull on those who have doubts about their “closed” take on the immanent frame.

I am especially attracted to the possibility of the move toward more “Catholic” expressions of faith as a response to the disenchanted world of fundamentalism! It is a breath of fresh air after breathing the polluted adumbrations of young Earth creationism. I will leave them to their jeremiads, their elliptical arguments, their inapposite conclusions and their constant cavils of protests. Instead I will, with the church, affirm that “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of all that is, seen and unseen.”