Saturday, December 26, 2009

Frank Schaeffer's Patience With God--Problems with Certainty

One of Frank Schaeffer's primary aims in Patience With God is to UNPACK fundamentalism. On page 147, Frank says, "How does one have faith in God after surviving an evangelical/fundamentalist background? One place to start discovering faith after the craziness is to try and unpack the misbegotten 'foundation' of what amounts to the evangelical madness."

Thus, to unpack fundamentalism, Frank names and articulates the craziness so that we can see it. Then, we can separate the craziness from actual faith in God, so that faith in God is no longer mixed with craziness. Patience With God accomplishes this unpacking.

  • Frank defines fundamentalism.
  • Frank illustrates how fundamentalism contradicts reality.
  • Frank shows that fundamentalism is not limited to Christianity but exists across belief systems, including Atheism.
  • Frank explains that fundamentalism is a very recent phenomenon.
  • Frank details the problems of integrity that result for fundamentalists.

DEFINITION. Frank equates fundamentalism with certainty. On page 9, Frank says, "My definition of fundamentalism, religious or otherwise, is the impulse to find The answer, a way to shut down the question-asking part of one's brain. Fundamentalists don't like question marks. Fundamentalists reject both Christian humility and postmodern paradox."

OPPOSITION TO REALITY. Fundamentalist certainty is completely at odds with reality. As Frank says on page 8, "We are specks on a tiny planet and our concept of truth, time, and place is related to our limited perspective." We simply cannot have certainty. Ideas that we hold with rock-solid certainty may turn out to be untrue. There was a time when people absolutely knew that the earth was flat--only it's not.

Frank explains that the only proper response to a world of paradox, where science indicates that a particle can be in two places at the same time and where we embody contradictions within ourselves (for instance, on page xvi, Frank says, "I find both sides of the faith/no faith debate coexisting within me") is humility. On page 44, Frank says, "Life is too short to know, so religion's most basic lesson--humility--is not just a good idea but also logical. And humility is, I think, also the most basic lesson taught by science, which, by definition, illumines the vastness of our ignorance."

In addition, the devotion to "The answer" precludes thinking. Christian fundamentalists claim to take the whole Bible as God's word, with no picking and choosing. On pages 147-148, Frank points out that "picking and choosing is what thinking is." To refuse to pick and choose is to refuse to think. Frank also points out that Christian fundamentalists must pick and choose anyway: most Christian fundamentalists do not worry about wearing clothing of mixed material, nor do they stone adulterers, though the Bible prohibits mixed-material clothing and prescribes stoning for those who commit adultery.

EXISTENCE WITHIN ALL BELIEF SYSTEMS. Frank shows that the New Atheists are fundamentalists every bit as much as Christian fundamentalists are. In fact, every religious system can have a fundamentalist group. Frank illustrates parallels between Atheist fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists.

  • Atheist proselytizing tools, such as the conversation-prompting Scarlet A Lapel Pin offered for sale on Richard Dawkins's website
  • Lists of answers to Christians' most frequent objections to Atheism, also on Dawkins's website
  • After Atheist lectures, calls by the event organizer for those wishing to proclaim belief in Atheism to declare themselves, reminiscent of church altar calls
  • During Atheist lectures, cries of "Yes!" and "Right on!" reminiscent of "Amen!" and "Preach it, Brother!" heard in churches

RECENT PHENOMENON. Frank speaks of two strands in Christianity. The more ancient strand is the mystical, questioning, community-oriented strand. The more recent strand is the factual, certain, Bible-oriented strand. Frank calls the former the apophatic strand, which recognizes that God's fullness is ultimately unknowable to us and that we can more profitably speak of who or what God is not rather than who or what God is. In other words, God cannot be defined but remains a mystery. The latter strand is the fundamentalist strand, which believes that God has revealed Godself to us, once and for all, through the Bible. Since God has told us exactly who God is in the Bible, we can have certainty that our knowledge of God is correct and that any differing views are wrong.

Here are some of the differences between the apophatic strand and fundamentalist strand.

  • A living faith that is open to change versus a faith that is set in stone for all time
  • A mystical view that opens to the mystery of God versus a dogmatic view that captures God
  • Openness to myth as embodying deep wisdom versus confinement to factual truth
  • Openness to questions and doubts as a path to growth versus a view of questions and doubts as sins against faith
  • Emphasis on compassionate relationships versus emphasis on correct belief
  • Living in love versus obeying rules
  • Authority invested in the community of faith versus authority invested in the Bible
  • Salvation as a process versus salvation as crossing a line at the moment of praying to accept Jesus as one's personal Savior
  • Faith as a journey versus a sharp distinction between the saved and the damned
  • Openness to nuance versus a black-and-white view of life and faith
It is important to add that faith is a continuum, not a polarity. Any given Christian will be at some point on the apophatic/fundamentalist continuum. There are extreme fundamentalists as well as fundamentalists with apophatic leanings, and vice versa. Frank Schaeffer points out that his parents were far more compassionate than their stated fundamentalist beliefs would lead one to think. On page 144, Frank says, "Mom and Dad were much better than their theology; in fact, they were nicer than the 'God of the Bible' they paid lip service to."

Furthermore, the point at which a given Christian finds him- or herself on the apophatic/fundamentaist continuum will change at different stages in that person's life. On page 19, Frank says of his father Francis Schaeffer, "And if you ask me, 'What was Francis Schaeffer about?' the only true answer would be for me to ask you what stage of his life, thinking, and work you were talking about. There were several 'Francis Schaeffers.'"

Even more, the whole apophatic/fundamentalist continuum exists at once within a given Christian, and his or her point on that continuum can change from moment to moment. Frank describes his own frequent movement on the faith/no faith continuum. Even though the faith/no faith continuum is different from the apophatic/fundamentalist continuum, the parallel is strong. Thus, on page 228, Frank says, "Some days I know that life has no ultimate meaning. Other days I know that every breath I take has eternal meaning. I also know that I'm crazy to believe these two opposites simultaneously. I'd feel even crazier denying them. I believe that both statements are true. Like that particle in a physics experiment, I am in two places at once."

Finally, Frank points out that the fundamentalist over-emphasis on factual truth to the exclusion of mythical truth is a modern aberration. From ancient times, people understood that God was a mystery and that myths told important universal (not factual) truths. Early Christians understood this, too. It has been only very recently that the fundamentalist strand has developed, with its insistence on limiting truth to facts.

PROBLEMS OF INTEGRITY. Fundamentalism results in problems of integrity for the fundamentalist. I will discuss this in my next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment