Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Uncertainty, Fear and Fundamentalism

A Gallup Poll released last month indicates that 34% of Americans believe that the Bible is "the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word." Far more interesting than that number, at least in my opinion, is the trend. In February 2001, only 27% indicated that they so believed. That represents a 26% increase (if I'm doing my math right) of Biblical absolutists in America in merely three years. Yes, these polls do have a margin of error. But these results, even assuming the maximum amount of error, are statistically significant.

The broader trend concerning the authority of the Bible is telling:
1980: 40% actual word of God, 10% fables
1998: 33% actual word of God, 17% fables
February 2001: 27% word of God, 20% fables
2002: 30% word of God, 15% fables
2004: 34% word of God, 15% fables

So, something happened between early 2001 and late 2002 to reverse the clear trend away from Biblical absolutism. I wonder that could have been?

It is become cliché to say that the events of September 11, 2001 changed everything. Nevertheless, I do think that the terrorists attacks and the consequent rise in public fears that massive violence and destruction could occur at any moment has been an important cause in the rising popularity of fundamentalism. In times of fear and crisis, people yearn for certainty, assurance and purpose.

Fundamentalism provides those psychological benefits. The Bible provides all historical, scientific, moral and theological answers. Fundamentalism tells us that God is in complete control; that the wicked will be punished in the end; that righteousness will eventually prevail.

Liberal Christianity is finding it tough to compete because it doesn't provide the same psychological assurances. We point to the historical Jesus for moral answers, but there is tremendous historical debate over even the most basic points of Jesus' life. Many of us reject the idea of a God who micromanages the affairs of the world. Many of us do not believe in Hell.

I don't know what the answer to this dilemma is. Any thoughts?


At 1:03 PM, Blogger DLW said...

The problem with fundamentalism lies in how it passes over the problems of interpretation and reads its traditions into scripture and then errantly proclaims them inerrant.

For most debates, at issue is not the authority of the Bible, but the implications of how the Bible is not an exhaustive definite blue-print for right conduct in every conceivable ethical situation. Christians have always needed to rely on traditions based on experience and deliberation in discerning how best to let their light shine and we have proven most fallible in this regard.

Liberal Christians like Crossan throw the baby out with the bath-water as they denude the Bible of everything but the specific passages they like. The result is like the "sources" excavated by Pentateuch JEDP scholars. They lose all of the aesthetic beauty and their ability to convict others. Christianity becomes reduced to enjoyment of cultural symbols that don't really mean anything and the use of absolutist language to affirm sets of fallible proposed policy changes.


At 10:33 AM, Blogger jj said...

I may not fit into the stereotypical "Liberal Christian" category that you find problematic. I do you use absolutist language and will continue to do so as a matter of faith. But unlike many Liberal Christians who pick and choose which parts of the Bible to be absolutist about, I have a consistent and objective position. The historical Jesus' teachings are binding solutions to ethical problems. Difficult/impossible to follow, but binding nonetheless.


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