Series Topic : Fundamentalist Myths
This post will the first in a continuing series that examines the origins of commonly held positions promoted within modern evangelical American Christianity.
Comments, corrections and clarifications are welcomed, as always.
Beliefs vs. Myths
Throughout my lifetime some persistent themes have circulated in the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups that have become almost mandatory beliefs of “true believers”. Some of these ideas I now consider to be myths or misunderstandings, since they seem to advocate support for agendas other than advancing the Kingdom of God.
Here are some recent examples…
1. The End Times are upon us – Jesus is coming soon!
This may happen within our lifetime, or it may not. Jesus himself, before ascension, did not know the timing of His own return, but deferred to God the Father for that decision. We are instructed NOT to guess the timing of the return of Christ, but to always be ready to meet Him, no matter the timing.
Jesus spoke of His return as if it would be within the lifetime of some of His 12 disciples, or at least that was how they interpreted what He said. Later writers concluded this was not what Jesus had intended to convey, since He did not return within the lifetime of the 12 apostles.
The early disciples and apostles conveyed the urgency of the mission to spread of the Gospel with the assumption that Jesus might return at any time within their lifetime. This was the thinking behind some of their writings in the epistles.
According to historians and biblical scholars, in the time of Jesus, the near east culture was steeped in the expectation of some apocalyptic event in the near future, not only by the Jews, but by other groups as well. In part this may have been the subjugation of so many nations by the Roman Empire seemed to them to be a devastating event comparable to the end of the world.
Within this context, and the confirmation by Jesus that the time of the end of this world has not yet been disclosed, believers would be better off preparing for the end, but assume that our great-great-grandchildren might live on this planet as well, if Jesus does not return as soon as we expect. Thus we would be motivated to win the lost of our generation, as well as care for our own planet as a matter of stewardship, which was originally delegated to Adam by God.
2. Secular Humanism is our enemy because it denies the existence of God.
Secular humanism grew out of the rationalism of the “Enlightenment” period in western civilizations which led to a belief in human potential to better the state of all mankind. This movement was, in part, a reaction against the demand by church leaders that their flocks must believe everything that was taught by the church as absolute truth and beyond questioning. The attractiveness of secular humanism was increased by the negative reaction of church leaders against the spread of rational “scientific” thinking as a means to understand the world. Church leaders tried to assert that the Bible (when interpreted literally) was the absolute authority for life, even on scientific matters , but were later proven by science to be factually wrong. This loss of credibility by church leaders (who were speaking outside their realm of training) began to create skepticism of their other “absolute” teachings in the in the minds of believers. Many began to ask questions and seek answers for themselves, especially as education became more commonplace and more people were able to apply the rules of logic and the scientific method to other areas of their lives, including religion.
The response of church leaders contributed to the growing divide as they became even more adamant and shrill critics of the scientific method, especially in seeking spiritual truths. This defensive overreaction was possibly driven by the fear of loss of authority by church leaders. However, this hostility motivated many intellectually honest seekers to ask more difficult questions about the Bible and how it was to be interpreted. Those who were already predisposed to disbelief probably embraced the new challenge by Rationalism (against the “old, constrictive” religious teachings) as a path to personal liberty. In this sense, the rise of science contributed to the “loss of faith” by those already questioning the teaching of the church. However, the scientific community (in general) later agreed with the church that spiritual and religious matters were not readily discerned using the scientific method. They conceded this realm of inquiry to theologians and philosophers, while they concentrated on understanding the physical universe.
Apparently it was the church leaders who did not want to concede any ground and continued their animosity toward science by proclaiming the Bible to be the absolute authority on all matters of life, including the workings of the physical realm. This proclamation was based on doctrine and theology, but few religious leaders actually obtained formal training in science to better understand the scientific matters along with the religious interpretations then prevalent. Theologians and scientists in the academic sphere mostly worked out their differences and agreed upon the domain of inquiry for each field of study, while many church leaders still advocated that they were the proper authorities in both areas. Eventually it became clear that the real underlying issue of the dispute was the continuing power struggle between religious and secular leaders, not the search for absolute truth.
Ironically, the attempt to rationalize theology in a systematic and logical manner by the Protestant Reformed groups was enabled by the tools of the scientific method and rationalism. Even many of the doctrinal positions and theology of the modern church owe their development to Enlightenment Rationalism, which encouraged development of more logically robust approaches to apologetics. Yet the debate between science and religion is now perpetuated mostly by religious leaders who are apparently still trying to win the battle over the source of truth regarding physical laws, which was not the original intent of scriptures. At this point, those attempts seem to be the vindictive retributions of sore losers. Instead, the church should be willing to gracefully acknowledge that past positions of the church regarding matters of science may have been inadequate, or incorrect. By removing the antagonism, perhaps both sides can reach a deeper understanding of things spiritual and material.
3. If someone becomes an atheist after being taught the Way of Truth, they are backslidden and beyond hope.
Christians should not feel overly threatened by atheism as a belief system, because this is really not our problem. God is big enough to take care of himself, as He has done for thousands of years, so the idea that we are to “defend” Him against attacks is arrogant, presumptuous, and absurd. The only reason we might feel threatened would be if we are still uncertain about our own belief in God and therefore derive some security from convincing others to agree with us. This, again, is our problem, not God’s.
According to academic research into spiritual development, atheism may reflect one stage of questioning and clarifying one’s own beliefs, so even if our family, friends, or even fellow church-goers reach this stage, it is not necessarily a spiritual catastrophe. Rather than argue to convince them to our way of thinking, the most mature action that can be taken by a true believer is to simply love the person who is questioning and seeking answers for themselves and be supportive of their search for truth. If they do truly seek truth, they will eventually find this search leads back to God, and He is willing to receive them and meet them where they are, even if that is during a stage of questioning. Reviewing the biographies of many notable Christians, it is very common to find that they went through extended periods of doubt and questioning, sometimes along with deep depression. After this period, their faith was typically much stronger and more mature. In some cases there was a renewed spiritual awakening once the doubt, skepticism, and questions were worked through.
There is a striking parallel between the progression of physical growth and development to spiritual growth and development. The spiritual stage of seeking truth and questioning beliefs is analogous to the typical rebellious stage of normal teenagers. The questioning and challenges exhibited by teenagers is simply a stage of growth when the individual identity is being established apart from parents and family identity. While exasperating to parents, this stage normally leads to the progression into responsible adulthood. Likewise, questioning of religious teaching and finding satisfactory answers for oneself is a normal stage of spiritual growth as we internalize beliefs from intellectual agreement into firm convictions that become part of personal identity. To circumvent this stage, such as by repressing any questioning of group beliefs, will lead to either rejection of these beliefs in total, or a passive acceptance of the belief system without development of firm personal convictions.