October 03, 2005

Who's afraid of understanding?

My coworker passed on a copy of “Who’s Afraid of Freedom and Tolerance” which appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of UU World. While the article may serve its purpose as chicken soup for the “religious liberal’s” soul, through a number of errors, the author fails to provide real understanding of the “conservative” Christian worldview.

Foremost of his foibles, Doug Muder fails to distinguish between his generalizations based on Ault’s anecdotal, yet sympathetic, investigation of one congregation and the actual basic differences between “religious conservative” and “religious liberal” worldviews. Being generous, let us suppose the appropriate dichotomy is between obligation and choice, which Ault does distinguish (albeit between academic friends and the middle class members of this congregation). Beyond other explanations, such as greater liberal choice resulting from socioeconomic status, which is largely beyond one’s own choice, if Mudor were to look at the Fundamentalist worldview, he would appropriately deal with issues of Fundamentalist beliefs, symbols, and practices as well as their roots in authority. Taking the risk of losing interested readers, I suggest Muder fails to discuss the basic issue at hand—-epistemology. In its best form, not the abusive form depicted in this article, a “religious conservative’s” worldview includes a reasonable choice of and a commitment to indisputable pillars based on knowledge stewarded from trustworthy sources. On the other hand, it appears that “religious liberals” tend to view knowledge more from a post-enlightenment perspective where, with often too much suspicion, one comes over above information at hand and makes his or her own determination of what constitutes knowledge—-all largely the result of reactions to abusive authorities and their metanarratives.

At this point I will not elucidate the epistemology of “religious liberals” any further. However, as an Evangelical I can speak to something else-—Muder’s failure to distinguish between Fundamentalist (fideistic and politically conservative) and Evangelical (range of epistemologies and politics) worldviews. Unfortunately, the author makes hasty generalizations about “religious conservatives” by interpreting anecdotal sociological data to fit his straw man. As David Brooks said in his November 29, 2004, column, “You have to begin by understanding the faith. And you can't understand this rising global movement (evangelical Christians) if you don't meet its authentic representatives.”

While Muder does mention the horrifying-to-liberals term “absolute” in the context of moral values, he fails to see the basic difference between a Fundamentalist worldview and an Evangelical worldview—how to determine truth and apply it to life (truth defined here as that which accords with absolute reality). While the split between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals began regarding issues of engaging non-Christians, it is rooted in a dichotomy between viewing the Bible as the only input into discerning what is true (Fundamentalists) and seeing all truth as from God beginning with God’s revelation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but including knowledge from scientific study as well (Evangelicals). The distinction plays itself out in methods of interpreting the text of the Bible. Fundamentalists fail to discern their own worldview when engaging a text, asserting their literalist reading, while robust Evangelical methods of exegesis attempt to account for them (see Oxford don and Anglican Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright’s critical realism as an example). Although Fundamentalists are depicted as conservative Evangelicals typically (and there is a case to be made for this), some essential differences exist between worldviews as communicated and lived out that must be acknowledged if one is claiming to take “a look at competing” worldviews in an effort to understand the basis for fears about liberals.

There are additional errors in Muder’s characterization of “conservative Christians” worthy of mention. First, Muder’s thesis that “conservative Christian” fears of “religious liberals” are founded (although not well-founded in his opinion) in their loss of the “obligation” order is patently absurd, simply because it is too simple—it does not account for the worldview and the corresponding authority, beliefs, symbols, and praxis as mentioned above. The larger point here, though, is that his use of anecdotes from Ault’s book throughout the article to support this claim is weak. His fictional scenario from what he sees as popular mythology that sets up “Fundamentalist communities” of “embattled citadels, islands of eternal values” against liberal communities housed in “corrupt and decaying cities,” and the resulting argument, merely set up another conservative Christian straw man only to knock it down again, this time with unbalanced data. In support of this argument, Muder sites Ron Sider’s book about moral failure within Evangelicalism without clueing in the reader to the scope of Sider’s data (surveys of Evangelical churches, not Fundamentalist communities) or to Sider’s conclusion as to the cause of the moral failure (rampant materialism, which is the result of Muder’s hero, modern capitalism). And to what evidence of “religious liberals” should the reader compare this? Muder’s own experience of being “consistently impressed by the quality of the young people” he meets in his church and in other churches he visits.

Second, Muder completely fails to see the greater issue—that “conservative Christians” (1) discern God’s intention for the nuclear family, heterosexual marriage being the cornerstone, to symbolize His relationship with His people, thusly, it is an offense against God to devalue; and (2) see solid data to back up the value of marriage and family to society (see the work of Linda Waite, Lucy Flower Professor of Urban Sociology at the University of Chicago). In short, Muder makes the “conservative” claim seem obtuse and based merely on the unfounded pre-commitment to an obligation society. He so much as says this on page 28, “If I see Western civilization as a network of obligations with millions and millions of people filling timeless roles for no reason other than the expectation that everyone else will fill their own timeless roles, then I might suspect that the whole structure was about to come down.” Muder’s despair might be appropriate if the only reason for meeting obligations was the expectation that everyone else was going to fulfill theirs. However, as an Evangelical, I find that it is not in avoiding obligations and choosing commitments that is the side-step of this despair. Actually, it is the fulfillment of all obligations in Jesus of Nazareth and trusting Him in my bearing witness to his unique glory and absolute sufficiency that provides real hope—hope beyond all despair and beyond even death. Of course, this might sound foolish to “religous liberals”.

Third, Muder uses Ault’s claim that members “generally held such views before they were ‘saved’” in support of his conclusion that they are already committed to obligations from above rather than autonomous choice from within. While Muder is right that James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh attempts to look at an appropriately termed fundamentalist Baptist community from the inside, Muder fails to provide an important point made in the book. In attempting to account for what drew conservatives to a Fundamentalist congregation, Ault concludes it is the church’s ability to bring peace to their troubled marriages. In fact, the church’s ability to save marriages was a key predictor of those who stayed in the church and those who left. It was the choice to seek help for a troubled marriage that was directly correlated with involvement in the Fundamentalist church. Of course, this choice is a problem for Muder, who'd, rather than consider this as a legitimate choice, assert, “Scriptural support for their more controversial positions is often scant and open to alternate interpretations.”

Fourth, Muder’s folly is exhibited in his quote of Ault:
Liberally minded people often do not realize…that rather than respecting fundamentalists’ views, they are denying them by insisting that religious beliefs or ethical standards be seen as personal, private matters we must all tolerate in one another—that moral standards are relative, not absolute.
While claiming to highly value tolerance and yet mocking belief in absolute moral standards, in this article Muder serves as an example of Ault’s point. Muder chooses intolerance of a view that admittedly holds to moral absolutes (based on a necessary being and the stewardship of the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth). Even while trying to exhibit a lesson in tolerance, by misrepresenting Evangelicalism and setting up quite a straw man, Muder merely mocks it.

In conclusion, there are some redeeming points to Muder’s good try. I agree that Fundamentalist groups such as the Christian Coalition are struggling to deal with the consequences of their failure to establish a theocracy. Furthermore, I appreciate the author’s willingness to try to consider a “religious conservative” worldview. At least he sees the need to. However, from 10,000 feet this article seems to be a mere attempt at understanding while failing to do so—-fundamentally.



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Who's afraid of understanding?