Progressive Fundamentals

By Douglas Sloan

During the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade, my mother enrolled me in swimming classes at the YMCA – this is long before Village People. Mom showed me the way and thereafter I walked to swimming lessons by myself. I went east two and a half blocks on Spring Street and then 6 blocks south on 12th Street. The YMCA is at the intersection of Church and 12th. I walked to the northwest corner of the intersection and crossed diagonally to the YMCA on the southeast corner. 

One week, as I approached the intersection of 12th and Church, I observed that the City was paving 12th Street. The paving started at the south edge of the intersection. Now, I could have gone the long way around the intersection and avoided the new pavement. But, that is not what I had been taught and that is not what I had been doing. I cautiously tested the new pavement – enough time had passed so that it was only warm. So, as I had the previous weeks, I crossed diagonally across the intersection – across the new asphalt – barefoot.

Jim Kinsinger, the manager of the YMCA at that time, would remind me of this story for the rest of his life. Over the years, Jim informed me – repeatedly – that my steps could be followed like a path on a pirate treasure map. Plainly visible little black footprints walked the sidewalk from the corner to the front of the YMCA, up the front steps, across the tile floor of the foyer, down the two flights of smooth stone steps to the dressing room, along the side of the pool, and – into the shallow end of the pool – on the bottom of the pool. By the time I got home, Jim had already phoned my mother and informed her of the situation. I was not allowed to enter the house. I was carried to the bathtub and had my feet washed with turpentine.

In the story of a 7-year-old crossing warm asphalt we see the oblivious faithfulness of every fundamentalist to their particular ideology regardless of the consequences. Never mind the cost paid by others to clean the sticky footprints from the sidewalk, the outside steps, the foyer, the inside steps, the dressing room, the pool perimeter. Never mind that cleaning the bottom of the pool required the entire pool to be drained. Never mind the cost or consequences to myself, to others, or the YMCA for I had not swerved. I had stayed faithful to my path. I was a 7-year-old going-to-my-swimming-lesson fundamentalist.

The danger and appeal of Fundamentalism is not in a particular philosophy. To embrace Fundamentalism is to no longer need and to no longer be concerned with dialogue or discovery, questions or doubts; to no longer need to consider costs, consequences, exceptions, or facts that do not fit or facts that refute the Fundamentalism paradigm. Dialogue and facts and consequences and questions and doubts are pitfalls to be avoided. To engage in any of them is a sign of weakness. They are temptations to be resisted, tests to be endured and passed, obstacles to be met and conquered, enemies to be repulsed or defeated. To embrace Fundamentalism is to no longer consider what is relevant, to no longer consider the specifics or peculiarities of a situation, and to no longer consider that something or someone could possibly be more important than the predefined answer provided by Fundamentalism.

The excruciating difficulty for the rest of us is to not be fundamentalist in our disagreement. We do not oppose either fundamentalists or Fundamentalism. We do this because anything that is not within the world of Fundamentalism is either irrelevant or anti-Fundamentalism. So, our response is to carefully offer an alternative interior view, a different way to be faithful. The most difficult part in our response and our understanding of Fundamentalism is we must first accept that Fundamentalism neither implies nor requires ignorance or hate. Second, we must accept that there are fundamentalists who live constructive lives of love, nurture, compassion, and charity. Third, we must accept that Fundamentalism is ancient, unavoidable, and maybe even necessary.

Our response to Fundamentalism is three-fold:

  1. We celebrate and affirm the seriousness with which Fundamentalists hold their source documents and their faithfulness to those documents and their understanding of those documents. This gives us a possible opening for dialogue by meeting them where they are.
  2. We continuously invite, welcome, and include fundamentalists in community events and community conversations. We do this with eyes and ears wide open and with these publicly proclaimed ground rules:
  3. Nobody owns God, Jesus, the Bible, Christianity or any philosophy or any issue – not them and not us.
  4. Do not mistake graciousness or scholarly carefulness or a commitment to non-violence for a lack of resolve. Willfully and unwaveringly, we will oppose war, oppression, injustice, prejudice, discrimination, exclusion, and language that stigmatizes or belittles and we will oppose them with our minds, bodies, and lives. When we see people being harmed in that way, we will choose to actively engage for justice over sitting still and being quiet.
  5. We do not engage in debates with fundamentalists. To a fundamentalist, a debate is a win-win situation: either it gives them a chance to look reasonable, resolute, congenial, to be seen as a person of strong faith or it makes them look persecuted, justifiably fearful, martyrs.

R. L. Stollar in his blog, “Overturning Tables” makes this point:

[T]o a fundamentalist, debates are quests for linguistic dominionism. Debate gives fundamentalists the chance to extend their loaded language into a larger context. (Stollar)

To a fundamentalist, a debate is not an opportunity to share ideas, to exchange viewpoints, or to gain new knowledge. To a fundamentalist, a debate is an opportunity to stand tall and be seen. A debate is an opportunity to preach and to evangelize.

Fundamentalism is the valuing of an ideology over everything else. Fundamentalism is not a specific set of beliefs or a specific theology and – again – Fundamentalism is not about ignorance or hate. Just because a belief system is embraced and protected by Fundamentalism does not mean that belief system is inherently evil or harmful. Fundamentalism is a stance, an attitude, a way of rigidly viewing and automatically responding to life in a way that is narrow, singular and exclusionary, well-defined and unquestioned.

The appeal of Fundamentalism is in its comfortable and comforting predetermined answers and responses for every question and every situation – no further thought is required. The danger of Fundamentalism is in the implementation and expression of Fundamentalism as a coping and response mechanism to everything in the life of the fundamentalist. The adoption of Fundamentalism requires the abandonment of critical examination and logical analysis of anything that is outside or contrary to Fundamentalism, the abandonment of diverse relationships and choosing empire instead of community, and accepts the unavoidably harmful – even fatal – injury of others and their environment as justifiable or an inescapable consequence. Choosing to be a fundamentalist is choosing to be like 7-year-old children who walk across warm asphalt because they refuse to walk a different path or because they cannot see any other way.

Yet, in every religion, Fundamentalism is an inherent and inescapable and necessary half of it. The story of a 7-year-old unable to swerve from a single predefined path, the inability to see any other way or the unwillingness to travel any other way is half of the call and message of every ancient enduring well-established religion. It is half of the story of the universal human search for meaning beyond bare existence. Every religion presents a tension between two callings, two understandings. If Fundamentalism is a necessary half, what is the other half?

As we transition from child to adult, our intellect changes. We change from seeing one path to seeing multiple different paths. We begin to see different possible outcomes. We begin to calculate costs and benefits, to make decisions in a deliberate attempt to achieve a specific future. We see the inevitability of death, the inescapable chaos of the universe, and – even if not personally experienced – we understand how others see life as hopeless, meaningless, useless. We seek meaning and purpose for our lives and in our lives. Maybe we are fortunate enough to witness one of those exceptional people who, instead of being consumed by hopelessness, exude hope; who live a life filled with rich meaning and invigorating purpose far beyond the impoverished stasis and putrid stagnation of Fundamentalism. These exceptional people of hope share a message that speaks to our needs beyond our maturation, education, and experience. When queried about “what happened,” they reply about an epiphany-initiated metamorphosis, a personal transformation into a new being – they are not who they use to be. Their transformation enabled a new world-view that differed in scope and detail and interpretation and response. They speak of an experience that was an inexplicable leap across an experiential chasm and forms a discontinuity with their previous experience and existence – and they find that there is no going back. It is a transformation that is so unforeseen and so positive and so profound that it is labeled transcendent, holy, divine. For example, in Christianity, we celebrate it as Easter and we call it “Good News” and “The Way”.

The non-fundamentalist or Progressive Christian message is this: Something happened on Easter. Until that morning, the disciples still saw the message of Jesus as an unassembled upside-down puzzle with no idea as to what image would be revealed by the completed puzzle.

What happened on Easter was a transformative epiphany. The women had it first – a profound comprehensive epiphany. It was the best of epiphanies. When the women shared their insight with the others, the others had the same epiphany and experienced the same transformation.

In the Roman Empire, the intent of crucifixion was oblivion. The crucified person was to be erased from memory, from history, even from conversation. It is not that a crucified person was dead and gone; after their execution, it was to be as if they had never existed. Whatever happened that first Easter, the life and ministry and lessons of Jesus escaped or transcended oblivion. Regardless of whether a body was in the tomb, Jesus was not there. Jesus was resurrected – Jesus was in the world: in gardens, in locked rooms, walking dusty roads, sharing meals, still listening and teaching. That is possible only if Jesus is transformed into a discernable recognizable presence that is familiar, personal, and both transcendent and tangible.

It was as if every piece of the puzzle had been turned upside-right and sufficiently assembled so that the picture could be easily perceived. In those first few years, this same epiphany happened to the Apostle Paul and hundreds of others. Repeatedly, it was such a powerful experience that people were transformed. The isolation and desperation and fatalism of day-to-day living in an oppressive empire supported and legitimized by imperial dominionist theology was replaced by the realization that what is divine is a universal infinite expression and existence of unrestrained love and unconditional grace. The miracle of Easter is not so much about the resurrection of Jesus as it is about the resurrection of the Disciples – a miracle that continues to this day. In this way, Jesus does return – again and again and again and…

If your previous understanding of the divine was expressed as:

  • the piety of the empire elite
  • miles of roman highway lined with dozens – even hundreds – of crucifixions and their rotting corpses
  • blood sacrifices of any kind to appease any god.
  • storms
  • volcanoes
  • earthquakes
  • 50% mortality rate for children under the age of 10 (PBS)
  • housing for peasants and the working class that was so inferior, it is estimated that in the larger Roman cities, one multi-story dwelling collapsed every day
  • plague
  • war
  • angry brutal divine judgements and capricious miracles by a remote detached deity

– if that was your previous understanding of the divine, then there is no hyperbole that can overstate the effect of discovering and embracing the divine as unrestrained love and unconditional grace and as personal, relational, and universal; a better and more humane way of living and a way to live without empire.

The Good News is good. The Way is true. Progressive Christian theology is an understanding that instead of fearfulness elicits fearlessness. Fundamentalist Christian theology tends to have been developed in the last half of the history of the church. Progressive theology tends to align with ancient Jewish theology and, thus, with the theology of Jesus, the Disciples, and the Beginning Church. Progressive Theology is not fundamentalist, it is fundamental. Progressive Theology is not new, isolated, or singular. Progressive Theology is ancient and wide-spread, orthodox and universal, and dangerous. It is an understanding that instead of open opposition or armed insurrection, it elicits an understanding and a way of living that makes empire irrelevant and unnecessary. The Roman Empire knew how to combat armed rebellion. The Roman Empire did not know how to combat being irrelevant and useless.

There is more to the Good News: That which is divine calls us to be a community of peace, justice, and compassion.

Peace means we are non-violent and actively oppose war and systemic injustice.

Justice means repair, rehabilitation, restoration, and – where possible – reconciliation.

Compassion means feeding, quenching, clothing, sheltering, healing, educating, visiting the prisoner and the home-bound, and inviting and welcoming and affirming and including and providing safety and hope and justice for the stigmatized, the marginalized, the excluded, the oppressed. The TV show “The Sisters in Law” says it with alliteration: the least, the last, the lost.

There is more to the Good News: That which is divine calls us to be people:

who are fearless and humbly gracious,

who offer an embracing hospitality and abundant generosity, and

who provide healthy service without pretense and without belittling those being served.

The entirety of all scripture of all ancient religions is filled with questions and layers of meaning:

How do we live a divine life?

How do we not live a divine life?

Is a divine life about legalistic obedience and ritual purity?

Is a divine life about justice and compassion?

Is the divine about indictment, judgment, eternal punishment for a vast majority and eternal reward for an elite few?

Is the divine about relationship, unrestrained love, and unconditional grace?

Is a divine life about empire or is it about community?

Is a divine life about the rugged independent self-sufficient individual?

Is a divine life about family who nourish, shelter, heal and care, support and uplift, forgive, embrace, stand with you through all trials, walk with you on all journeys?

Is the divine life about the eternal there and then?

Is the divine life about the eternal here and now?

All sacred writings embrace and explore all these questions and many others and present many possible responses. Instead of providing specific incontrovertible answers, all Scriptures plead with us to deeply ponder and unendingly explore these questions – both in solitude and in community. It helps us and baffles us to know that these questions predate our recorded history. These questions will not leave us and we must not ignore them. All scriptures are filled with the tension of these questions and we do a grave disservice to any collection of sacred writings unless we acknowledge and embrace that deliberate and inherent tension. When we understand the purpose of the tension and the purpose that Fundamentalism has in creating that tension, we will more easily hear and respond to the divine call to turn away from the poverty, stagnation, and death of Fundamentalism and turn toward a rich vibrant living love and grace as a community of peace, justice, and compassion as lived and exuded and provoked by a fearless people of graciousness, hospitality, generosity, and service.

Amen


PBS. "Family Life." 2006. The Roman Empire in the First Century. Devillier Donegan Enterprises. Web. 19 April 2016. <http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/family.html>.

Stollar, R. L. "Whether or Not It’s Possible to Debate Fundamentalists, Fundamentalists Want to Debate You." 5 February 2014. Overturning Tables. Web. 8 April 2016. <https://rlstollar.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/whether-or-not-its-possible-to-debate-fundamentalists-fundamentalists-want-to-debate-you/>.