Monday, 27 December 2004

America's Theological Complexion

With the election behind us, I've wondered what direction to take this web log. While the election was a prime motivator in pushing me to start it, I have no wish to abandon the effort, though quiet periods will likely punctuate it, as other foci intervene.

No it will not become primarily a theological blog, but theology is clearly an area of interest, and one which contributes strongly to the political debate which continues in America. A recent article by Tim Appelo in the Seattle Weekly caused me investigate further the religious, and in particular the Christian, challenges to the doctrines of the religious right which have garnered such attention lately. I bought Bruce Bawer's Stealing Jesus; How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, and have almost finished it. While it can serve as an excellent primer on the most radical elements of the fundamentist, evangelical, and charismatic movements in today's American culture, it falls short of examining in detail (at least so far) those portions of the conservative Christian movement which still buttress the main parts of conservative evangelicalism while distancing themselves from the most simplistic, doctinaire, or hate-laced portions of the movement.

A visiting relative brought into my home a book from that very perspective, Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey. Thumbing through its pages, I quickly became skeptical of its scholarship, as the Apologetics therein, defend Intelligent Design as the truthful alternative to a Darwinistic worldview of the emergence of life. Intelligent Design is generally thought of by liberals and those who revere church/state separation as a buzzword created to mask "Creationism" in fancier clothing to give it greater legitimacy in the public classroom of the future. The ACLU is currently involved in a case challenging its introduction in a public school in Pennsylvania.

Unlike 6-day creation literalists though, Pearcey accepts what she differentiates as micro-evolutionary principles, and writes with considerable force and intellect, though I have yet to read even close to all of the 400-page tome. While I doubt she will convince me that macro-evolution is less likely than the theory which she proffers, I've decided to give it a read and decide if the ACLU would do better spending its energy elsewhere. The book deals with other general cultural considerations, and is subtitled "Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity". Pearcey is largely informed by the theology of Francis Schaeffer whose L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland she visited in her youth.

What troubles me most about Apologetics is that it is shamelessly referred to as the intellectual backing for the more extreme forms of fundamentalism, which Bawer and others such as John Shelby Spong correctly note distort the teachings of Jesus into something legalistic and hateful. I am speculating that Pearcey and others who advance Apologetics realize that their theories need the backing of the religious right establishment, and refrain from highlighting their differences with these natural allies in order to avoid alienating them. References to her book on the Web are almost uniformly supportive and associated with right leaning sites, this critique being the sole exception which I found. The absence of reference to it by liberal theologians may be in large measure simply due to the newness of the book. I wonder, though, if there is not a strategic element in liberals' avoiding analysis of more intelligent writing from Christian conservatives, as it is much easier to dismiss the excesses of Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell and the like, and then dismiss others such as Pearcey, simply by association.

Given the huge proportion of the population of America which identifies itself as Christian, it strikes me that greater public conversation about the faith and its many faces is sorely needed, perhaps a rare point on which Pearcey and Bawer could agree. As important as the separation of church and state is to the running of the government, we lose much if we translate that principle into keeping matters of faith entirely private. To do so is to grant the religious right the title of the standard bearers of Christianity, which is the danger Bawer so urgently seeks to avert.

Having delved into this area at all, has reminded me of the extraordinary theological diversity within Christendom, just as having examined the foregoing election exposed the extraordinary political diversity in America. And yet in both politics and Christianity a deep bifurcation has developed which results in unfortunately simplistic analysis of what the "two" sides believe, when in fact the question is so multi-faceted.


-epm said...

One of my problems with the Intelligent Design argument -- as I know it -- is that incorrectly frames Darwinism and/or Natural Selection as being random, or evolution based on chance and coincidence. However, natural selection, is in effect a form of "intelligent" design, where those attributes of a species that aid in it's survival evolve and those which do not, devolve.

I'm speaking very broadly, of course, but Intelligent Design sets itself up as an argument against what *they* believe the scientific argument is, not what the scientific argument actually is.


Anonymous said...

Good thoughts on ID, fundamentalism, and the like. As a Christian who is scientifically literate (I have a Bachelor's in Biology), I'm very dismayed by the seductive pull of the anti-evolution movement on so many Christians, and how it so unnecessarily portrays them as anti-science. The issues are awfully complicated, but Eric's summary assessment of the fundamental flaw with ID is pretty much dead-on, as I see it. It's basically another iteration of a "god-of-the-gaps" argument, and even if it is a gap, it does not help one's cause to rush to plug it with such a god. As near as I can tell, current science's understanding of macroevolution is sketchy at best, but if the past is any indication, it's only a matter of time before that changes. And when it does, anti-evolutionists will find their god-of-the-gaps chased away by advancing knowledge, which cannot be but a huge embarrassment. (shameless plug) My own "little" (ha, ha) treatise on the subject is here:

Ryan Miller said...

Glad you read my critique of Pearcey's book, I share your concern that there isn't enough actual engagement going on from either side as people polarize into groups of like-minded-individuals who we dare not criticize for fear of handing ammunition to the enemy, and foes who aren't worth the time to criticize individually, but only straw-man collectively.

I caution you, however, against taking people like Spong to be the intelligent wing of Christianity...I think you'll find his historical studies to be a bit lacking. May I suggest the eminent N.T. Wright as an alternative?