Righting America

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Confronting the Progressive Obsession with Fundamentalism | Righting America

by Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr.

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and academic. He is the author or editor of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination, and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004),  What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and The Dave Test (Abingdon Press, 2013).

Black and white photo of Albert Einstein standing outside with Georges Lemaitre in front of two cars. and a few houses.
Georges Lemaitre with Albert Einstein, 1932, credit: Associated Press

In the pages of the Righting America website, we often rehearse the varied ways in which fundamentalism has distorted the Christian message. There is good reason for exploring that influence.  As I have noted elsewhere, the meme-like character of fundamentalist theology1 has had a profound impact on American spirituality and one that extends far beyond fundamentalist communities.  

Whether one thinks of penal substitution (on which I have shared some thoughts, here and here), or one thinks of the Book of Revelation (on which I have offered some thoughts, here and here), fundamentalist interpreters have successfully shaped the way that people think about the church’s theology.  In so doing, even where people are repelled by their approach to these subjects and others, fundamentalists have created the impression that their theology is the only orthodox theology that there is.

Given its poisonous and circular character, there is good reason for critiquing fundamentalist theology. Long ago, teaching students who had been reared in fundamentalist homes, I realized that they had been herded into an intellectual and spiritual world where learning something new placed them in an untenable position.  Initially, I had assumed that when we talked about theological subjects – including the interpretation of Scripture – the subject matter we covered in class could be treated without much ado. After all, we were engaged in the first serious religious education that most of them had ever received. But it quickly became apparent to me that the faith of many of my students was not grounded in a confidence in the goodness of God, but in a series of proximate authorities that made faith in the ultimate authority of God possible.  

Among those assumptions were theological memes that my students believed could be proven.  So, not only was their faith focused on these proximate authorities, but – in a very real sense – their faith was not faith at all.  Instead, it was faith predicated upon certainties they believed could be proven. Teaching biblical studies, many of our conversations inevitably revolved around the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and the notion of “literal” truth, but this same faith structure relies on countless other assumptions. Not only do fundamentalist teachers regularly rely on that faith structure, but – worse – those who pause to question the logic of that structure are told that to question these proximate authorities is, by definition, an act of faithlessness.   

All this said, it is time to acknowledge the way in which Mainline-Progressive Protestantism has been distorted by its obsession with fundamentalism.  From the early twentieth century forward, American Mainline-Progressive Protestantism has been living in reaction to fundamentalism. For all its constructive energy, a dominant subplot has been its preoccupation with not being thought of as “fundamentalist.”

As a result, we have shied away from owning the Creeds of the church.  We have focused on teaching people to mistrust Scripture, rather than read it in life-giving ways.  We have indulged our politics as a substitute for robust theological reflection; and we have taught our congregations to approach their own faith with a skepticism that flies in the face of the historical conviction that God has and does reveal God’s self in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  

This reactive pattern was already well under way in 1939, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer registered his dismay with Mainline Protestantism in Manhattan,2 but it remains a powerful force as the adoption of the label “Progressive” illustrates.  My own experience with the adoption of that label illustrates my point.

A word that I never dreamed would be “a thing” – let alone something I do – is the word “blog.”  But several years ago, a friend invited me to begin blogging for a religion website called Patheos. When I first started with Patheos, my articles appeared on what was called the “Mainline Protestant” channel. But after a year or so, the editors of the site decided to use the word “Progressive.”  

I’ve never been particularly fond of that adjective as applied to any version of the Christian faith.  It isn’t theological. It is more of a fashion statement. And, for many, it doesn’t mean much more than, “I am not a fundamentalist.” And when I asked what the word “Progressive” meant I was told that “Progressive Protestants believe in science.” 

Now, compared with fundamentalist Christianity – which is an American invention and dates back to the early twentieth century – I suppose that concern might make some sense.  Fundamentalists in this country were deeply disturbed by some scientific theories that gained ground during that time, and some of them continue to struggle with scientific discovery. But to suggest that today’s Progressive Protestants are the first batch of Christians to “believe in science” – whatever that might mean – is deeply misleading.  

From the eleventh century forward, there are roughly 275 Christian scientists who have made their way into the history books, or are in the process of getting there.  (And these are just the well-known Christian scientists!) These 275 include: 

  • Hildegard von Bingen, who was the founder of scientific naturalism 
  • Otto Brunfels, who is considered one of the founders of botany 
  • Robert Grosseteste, founder of modern optics and scientific research at Oxford University 
  • Francis Bacon, who is credited with inventing the scientific method 
  • Galileo, who is considered the founder of modern astronomy and physics
  • Isaac Newton, the polymath who discovered gravity and developed calculus
  • Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics 
  • George Washington Carver whose work advanced our understanding of soil depletion 
  • Arthur Eddington, who advanced our understanding of the theory of relativity
  • Gerty Cori, who became the third woman and the first American woman to win the Nobel prize for her work in physiology 
  • Rosalind Picard who founded the Affective Computing department at MIT
  • Alexis Carrel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing vascular suturing techniques 
  • Georges Lemaître, who was the first to advance the Big Bang theory
  • William Pollard, who was director of the Oak Ridge Institute in Tennessee
  • Jérôme Lejeune, a pediatrician and geneticist, whose work in genetic abnormalities advanced our understanding of Down’s syndrome 
  • Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome project, and who is now Director of the National Institutes of Health

Just the people I have mentioned include Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, a Quaker, and an Evangelical.  Among them are monks, nuns, priests, and saints of the church. For his work on genetics and Downs syndrome, Lejeune was awarded the highest honor given by the American Society of Human Genetics and the title, “Servant of God,” by the Catholic Church.  And George Washington Carver regularly pointed out that it was only his faith in Jesus that made him an effective scientist.

This list, alone, makes two things very clear: 

First, the notion that the church and science are at war with one another is simply not true.  Fundamentalist Christians may have waged a war against science, but they represent a tiny percentage of Christians world-wide, and they have been a very small part of Christian history.  A certain kind of atheist may find it profitable to argue that Christians are afraid of science and are, therefore, benighted, but that is not true. 

Second, far from being at war with science, Christians have been at the forefront of science.  They have laid the groundwork for the scientific method, they have pioneered the work in subdisciplines, and they have done cutting edge work across the sciences – including the areas that people assume would be the most controversial for people of faith: physics, evolutionary biology, and astronomy.

So, what does this say about a Progressive Protestantism that – in reaction to fundamentalism – seems to ignore both of these facts, and seemingly thinks of itself as the first brand of Christianity to embrace the benefits of science?  At a minimum, it seems to me that this can be said:

One, by reading the history of the church with a fixation on fundamentalism, Progressive Christians run the risk of distorting the historical facts.  For a movement that prides itself on its ability to embrace those facts and face them head on, this is a massive error.

Two, by measuring themselves over against fundamentalism, Progressives tend to self-isolate, confining themselves to an attenuated range of theological options.  

Related, the Progressive obsession with fundamentalism also robs Protestants of the subtlety and breadth of the Christian tradition, treating fundamentalism as the measure of orthodox expressions of the Christian faith, instead of treating it as what it is: A relatively recent and relatively minor tributary of the Christian faith that punches above its weight, thanks in part to the reactive behavior of Progressive Christians.

All this to say that it is extremely important not to be held captive by fundamentalism, given the high cost of that obsession.


1In a recent article here on penal substitutionary atonement, I coined the phrase, “theological meme.”  Theological memes are ideas and theological ideas that propagate across traditions, shaping the theological assumptions of people without them necessarily knowing it.  So, as I argued in the article, penal substitution has a meme like character which shapes how people understand atonement well beyond the fundamentalist community, even though its bona fides are late and the concept is problematic.  See: “The Monster-God of Penal Substitution”: https://rightingamerica.net/the-monster-god-of-penal-substitution/

2Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 282-284.