Saturday, December 26, 2009

Frank Schaeffer's Patience With God--Reaching Out to Fundamentalists

Frank Schaeffer's Patience With God raises this question for me: How can we reach out to fundamentalists?

Some of what Frank says makes this seem almost hopeless. On page xviii, Frank says, "Appeals to facts get nowhere with these folks because they don't trust any sources but their own and listen only to what emanates from an alternative right-wing universe. Arguments become circular. The more impartial the source, the more suspect it becomes."

The thing that seems almost hopeless here is that, when people believe that they represent the one right way sanctioned by God, there doesn't seem any possibility of building a bridge to talk with them. Anything that differs from their one right way is dismissed out of hand. So how can any conversation take place?

However, I do see hope in Frank's description of the intolerable conflict he himself felt when he was working as a fundamentalist--a severe conflict between his stated beliefs and his actual experience of reality. At a time when anyone observing Frank from the outside would have said, "This Frank Schaeffer is a hard-core fundamentalist," the truth is that Frank was extremely conflicted within himself and that it wouldn't be long before he would leave fundamentalism. Since fundamentalism IS so out of sync with reality, might this not be an increasingly intolerable conflict for some fundamentalist leaders, even though they APPEAR hard-core, just as it was for Frank. Could we not speak to that part of those leaders, those who feel (however dimly) this conflict?

Here are some of the things that fundamentalists, even hard-core fundamentalist leaders, must be feeling.

  • The inability to have and express their own experience. Fundamentalism dictates what their experience should be, and they dare not contradict the fundamentalist declaration of truth.
  • The pain of suppressing so much of their experience. It takes an extraordinary amount of energy to suppress the ever-present mis-match between reality and their beliefs.
  • Fear. How can they continue to live if everything they have said they believe turns out to be a lie? And what will they do to earn a living when all they know how to do is to preach fundamentalism?
  • Shame. They dread the shame of being shown up as wrong in the core areas of life and of being revealed as incompetent in finding meaningful work.
  • Isolation. They must always project an image of being a correct fundamentalist. They can't say what they really think. Thus, they can't have an authentic conversation because they have to support the party line with fellow fundamentalists and to use all conversations with non-believers to find openings to witness to them.
  • Loathing. I can imagine that they absolutely hate having to be so certain of totally crazy things about God. They must hate, on some level, having to make excuses for God's tyrannical behavior in the Bible.

I wonder if we might reach out to fundamentalists with compassion and understanding of this conflict, fear, and pain. I wonder if anyone reached out to Frank during those days of inner turmoil when he seemed so entrenched in fundamentalism yet was actually so conflicted about it? Did anyone say anything that helped him to leave? Is there something that helped or would have helped Frank that could also help other fundamentalists to acknowledge the conflict between fundamentalism and reality and to find their way out of fundamentalism and into a more open expression of Christian faith?

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