Many of the recent debates within evangelicalism and the larger culture (health care, complementarianism, etc.) have turned on a number of more basic issues like how one gets at truth. As I was on my way in to the office this morning, I thought about important differences between absolutism and fundamentalism. Sometimes I think we get these confused in the popular culture when we rush to defend the truth.
Let me begin by defining the terms more succinctly to avoid creating another layer of confusion for my readers.
By abosolutism, I really mean moral absolutism, which is a position that there are indeed absolute moral norms. These norms are always obligatory like “thou shall not lie,” “thou shall not murder,” and other moral commandments.
By fundamentalism, I mean a mindset that views the world in stark dichotomies (black and white) and refuses to consider situations outside of such dichotomies. Fundamentalism, as I have defined it, has little to do with the historical movement within evangelicalism known as Fundamentalism.
If fundamentalism is a mindset and absolutism is a position, then one could be both at the same time, or one could be an absolutist without being a fundamentalist or vice-versa. Keep in mind that I’m not concerned about whether a person is consistent here, but what happens in actual practice. As a historian, I have often observed that people can exhibit mindsets that are inconsistent with their positions.
With that in mind, let me give two basic differences that get lost in the heat of debate:
The Moral Absolutist recognizes the subtleties involved in apply such absolutes. Moreover, recognizing such subtleties does not mean that one is a moral relativist.
To hold that all instances of murder are wrong, for example, does not mean that we always know what does and does not count as murder. Is every instance in which a human life is taken a form of murder? Of course, we know that the answer must be no since we do not consider the taking of life in wartime as murder; nor do we consider it murder if an intruder in a home intent on killing its occupants is killed by those same occupants. If a man breaks into my house to kill my family, the I am justified in the use of force to the point of taking his life in order to save the lives of my wife and children.
The same holds for lying. We recognize that telling the truth does not always require full disclosure of everything one knows or feels about a situation. Most husbands and wives know that a solid marriage depends upon not disclosing every thought or desire to one’s spouse. This is because while in the heat of an argument one’s thoughts and desires are not fully reflective of the truth about one’s marriage even if they might be fully reflective of the truth about one’s state at that moment. I may be deeply angry at my wife, even resentful, because of something she did or said, but I know that a honest disclosure of those emotions actually twists the truth about my relationship with her.
For the fundamentalist, such nuances and subtleties tend to get lost. In the name of truth, the fundamentalist would destroy relationships if necessary because it’s either tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or it’s a lie. There is no effort to ask the question, “what does telling the truth require of me in this concrete situation?”
The Fundamentalist tends to confuse opposition to a position with hatred for a person
I can usually spot a fundamentalist because the individual is spewing some form of verbal venom at an opponent. The Christian aphorism “hate the sin, love the sinner,” turns into “hate the sin, hate the sinner;” or, at least, express deep disdain for the sinner. This is because most fundamentalists refuse to put themselves into the place of the opponent. They have convinced themselves that the other side is either intellectually inept and thus beneath them (the Bill Maher approach) or that the opponent is so dangerous that an “outbreak” of misguided opinion may lead to a contamination of some pure doctrinal position (the heresy hunter approach).
Take three examples:
- Complementarian vs. Egalitarian
At the end of the day, complementarians and egalitarians are brothers and sisters in Christ and should strive to see the issues from the perspective of the other. Sometimes, however, I get the impression that holding a specific position is really a doctrinal contagion that, if left unchecked, will spread and destroy everything.
This is the tendency among some forms of the “slippery-slope” argument that get applied. It’s tantamount to saying, “you folks are almost liberals, which is just as bad as being liberals.”
- “Arminian” vs. Reformed
A second example is the long-standing debate between what is called the Arminian and the Reformed branches of evangelicalism. I say, what is called Arminian because I myself do not like the label and consider myself a Wesleyan Pentecostal. Nevertheless, it is a useful heuristic device. The recent situation in the Southern Baptist Convention reveals how quickly such a debate can turn into a heresy hunt. And, this can happen even among seemingly sophisticated theological thinkers. A person no less than Cornelius van Till, a theologian of some importance to conservative Reformed folks, has equated Arminianism with Catholicism in his writings, which, at the time, meant a heretical system of Christianity. Insofar as any person perpetrates the system, then, that person is a contagion.
It’s like the old Reformed tag, “you folks are semi-pelagian,” which in the minds of some is just as bad as being pelagian.
A third example more challenging example is homosexuality. There are plenty of instances where homosexuals are treated as though they are a contagion and thus they become the target of verbal assaults. Of course, the opposite is also the case, as the recent episode with Doug Wilson in Bloomington, Indiana.
As a mindset, fundamentalism can be exemplified by theological, moral, or political conservatives and liberals because the mindset is different from the position itself. For the Christian, such a fundamentalist mindset is ironic since it fails to reconcile the moral principle of do unto others with the theological principle that we are all sinners deserving of condemnation. At minimum, do unto others requires that we attempt to put ourselves into their frame of reference and seek to understand their own concerns. This attempt to see the perspective of the other does not require agreement with the other, a mistake people often make in their fear of being contaminated.
Yet, beyond do unto others is a theological principle that should make it easier to see life from another person’s angle. If we’re all sinners, then we’re all sinners, which levels the playing field. To put it another way, the ground at the cross is level ground.
In our debates with one another, we must resist any tendency to embrace a fundamentalist mindset that would see our opponents merely in terms of black and white. We can do this when we recognize that holding to moral absolutes (or even theological positions like Jesus is Lord) does not remove the need to think through the subtleties of life, but, in fact, requires us to do just that. We can also do this when we try out best to find out what is so attractive about the position we are against. By doing so, we place ourselves in the position of our opponent and try to see life from their perspective.