Over the past 30 years or so, two of the most effective opponents of Christianity have been former fundamentalists. The first is the somewhat infamous John Shelby Spong, now the retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark. The other is Bart Ehrman, professor of Religious Studies at UNC, Chapel Hill.
Both men would certainly declare themselves Christian, but, since most of their work is focused on removing the Divine nature of Christ, its hard to agree with their description of themselves. I find myself wondering how it is they arrived at their current positions. Is it because of their fundamentalist backgrounds that they have become such ardent non-believers? How many other people, born fundamentalist, have arrived in the same place? Spong and Ehrman, of course, are somewhat unique as they hold positions as Christian educators. Spong, as a retired bishop, is still a bishop of the Episcopal Church, and thus is responsible for teaching Christians. Ehrman, as professor of religion holds a similar responsibility. I won’t make any arguments about the appropriateness of them holding their current positions, but it is because of their positions that they have such an impact on the Christian world.
Let’s begin by a brief description of fundamentalism. I am referring to the specific Christian movement of the early 20th Century, not to the overuse of the term to apply to anyone of a conservative religious bent (with violent overtones, I might add). You can read something about the movement at Wikipedia, with the caveat that the article has been flagged as not being sufficiently neutral, and lacking sufficient citations. I think the background material in the article is pretty solid, but it probably goes astray as it begins discussing the rise of the Christian Right in the U.S. As an aside, that probably doesn’t belong in the article other than as a passing reference to a separate article. Christian Fundamentalism came about as a reaction to a number of factors, but most notably to 19th century scholarly developments – most notably Darwinism and so-called “Higher Criticism” of Scripture which developed in Germany. The movement developed 5 “fundamentals” which all orthodox (note the small o) Christians must adhere to in order to properly be considered Christians: Inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth and divinity of Christ, the second coming, the vicarious atonement, and the resurrection.
Unfortunately, the movement came to have a reputation as being anti-intellectual. Although I have not read the 12 volumes of “fundamentals,” which may, indeed, not have been anti-intellectual, the movement clearly became that over time. It is fine to have a basic formulary which describes the faith, the Orthodox Church, in part, relies on the Nicene Creed for this. However, at the same time, we are required to be able to give a defense, an apologia, for our faith. Fundamentalism largely failed to do that, and many groups that adhered to the fundamentals became known as churches that required one to check their brain at the door.
I think it was this phenomenon that produced Ehrman and Spong. The excessive reaction to liberalism, which certainly challenged basic precepts of traditional Christianity, itself caused the pendulum to swing even farther away and we end up with those who don’t believe in anything that would resemble Christianity. In fact, I would argue that the views of Ehrman and Spong are not so much liberal as anti-fundamentalist. In an odd twist, they have adopted an essentially religious dedication to 19th century scholarship that results in them holding those opposed to such views in disdain in much the same way that their fundamentalist forebearers held liberal theologians in disdain.
Spong relies very heavily on his somewhat limited knowledge of Darwinism ( a view of evolution that is not universally held, even by the most atheistic evolutionists in academia), Newtonian physics absent any knowledge of quantum mechanics, and, of course German higher criticism. The problem is that all of these schools have since gone their way. While Newtonian mechanics are still valid, they are only valid within certain limited contexts. Quantum mechanics and subsequent developments have made it obvious that the universe is much more complex than previously understood. Whereas Newtonian physics would not allow for things like the warp engines of Star Trek, modern physics tells us that such things are not so impossible. I recall once reading an article by Spong dismissing the accounts of the Ascension simply because its absurd, in a purely Newtonian world, to posit that heaven is up in space somewhere. It completely escaped him that Christ’s rising into the sky and disappearing into a cloud could have been an essentially sacramental act. That is, a physical act describing a spiritual reality. Could it have indicated his moving into a higher state (such terminology being commonly used in Quantum physics)?
Ehrman, similarly, relies on 19th century scholarship, apparently unaffected by modern developments. I ran across a very interesting review of one of his books at this site. He and Spong have much in common.
Unfortunately, Ehrman and Spong have trapped themselves in a very limited view of the world. They, too, appear to have come to place where in order to visit, one has to check their brain at the door. I wonder if their arrival in that place is merely because after a youth spent among fundamentalists, they sought out a different place that looked pretty much the same as the place they came from.
The lesson to Orthodox is that, while we have a well established definition of the faith, we need to not be afraid of engaging new trends in academia. While a purely intellectual approach to life leaves one open to spiritual delusion, we do not need to automatically dismiss such endeavors. For sure, we need to evaluate new developments in the context of our faith. Sometimes, in fact probably frequently, we’ll find such developments consistent with the faith. Where it is not, we need to (as a Church – I don’t think every Christian needs to become some sort of scholar who is an expert on everything) examine it closely and see where it has gone astray. Once we know that, we can make intelligent arguments and hopefully lovingly lead people closer to God. I fear that the back and forth between Fundamentalism and the followers of Spong and Ehrman has not resulted in anyone growing closer to God. I think the example we need to look to is St. Catherine of Alexandria, not the Spanish Inquisition.