10 November 2009

Harvey Cox's breathless announcement: Fundamentalism (i.e. Christian faith) is doomed!!!

by Dan Phillips

[Normally, triple-exclamation-points would be a stylistic faux pas... but in this case, they're essential!!!]

If you have absolutely nothing better to do with your time, read this 2000+ word essay by Harvard professor Harvey Cox (retired), and tell me one thing new that he says. Find me something, anything, that hasn't basically been said since at least Machen's day.

(To be clear: by "nothing better to do," I mean nothing more important than finding out who the "Grip" was for "Plan 9 from Outer Space.") (It was Art Mankin, by the way)

Cox attempts several trendy things. After a sneering nod to the historical genesis of the term "Fundamentalism," he does his best to trash it by lumping Christian fundamentalism in with the fundamentalism of Christianoid cults such as Islam and Roman Catholicism, and with some sects within apostate Judaism. (It will surprise none to note that Cox displays no awareness of Darwinian fundamentalism, materialistic fundamentalism, modernist fundamentalism, nor tweed-coated Harvard professor fundamentalism.)

It goes like this. Here is Cox' disdainful opening paragraph:
In 1910, a cohort of ultra-conservative [!!!] American Protestants drew up a list of non-negotiable beliefs they insisted [!!!] any genuine Christian must subscribe to. They published these “fundamentals” in a series of widely distributed pamphlets over the next five years. Their catalog featured doctrines such as the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of Christ, and his imminent second coming [—er, and...?]. The cornerstone, though, was a belief in the literal inerrancy of every syllable of the Bible, including in matters of geology, paleontology, and secular history. They called these beliefs fundamentals, and proudly [!!!] styled themselves “fundamentalists” - true believers who feared that liberal movements like the social gospel and openness to other faiths were eroding the foundation of their religion.
So far, in spite of his open contempt, Cox is historically at least close enough for government work. Enjoy it, because Cox seems to forget this definition almost immediately, in his rush to relativize, trivialize, and (to use a word I learned from a student at Talbot) funeralize Fundamentalism.

If nothing else is clear, one does understand that Cox thinks Fundamentalism is a bad thing, and that he wishes it "to the cornfield," where all bad things and people belong. Never mind that this has been done from the very start, and that each and every obituary thus far has been premature; never mind that this has been done to Christianity itself from the very start, leaving many generations of similarly-disappointed ill-wishers.

What Cox hopes will kill Fundamentalism is the mixing of cultures, the Intrawebs, Charismaticism, and the like. All these fundamentalisms are born of fear, ignorance, and resistance to change. This time, Cox tells us, it really really really will die. Promise! And that, to Cox, is a very good thing.

Why? Because "For plenty of thoughtful people [like, you know, Cox], fundamentalism has come to represent the most dangerous threat to open societies since the fall of communism [which these same sorts of "thoughtful people" people said wasn't all that bad, at the time... but never mind that]."

I want to go back to the premise. Cox is not taking aim at polyester suits, KJV-onlyism, the elevation of tee-totalling, anti-tobacco, anti-{insert-music-style-here}, book-and-CD-burning, opposition to lipstick and nylons, and other silliness. That may be dying, and I'd not miss it. However, for Cox, the name on the tombstone is not Cultural Fundamentalism.

According to the first paragraph, Cox is heralding the death of the insistent affirmation of "non-negotiable beliefs" definitive of Christianity, such as "the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of Christ, ...his imminent second coming[, and] belief in the literal inerrancy of every syllable of the Bible...."

With those gone, what will be left? Cox doesn't really say. Cox's only unyielding principle is that unyielding principles are bad. Well, they're bad when Christian fundamentalists hold them. What is "good," then? One has the impression of a muzzy, smeary, foggy ecumenical bonhomie, bereft of culturally-unpopular edges.

And what will be the authority of this new religion? Where will its limits be marked? By whom?

What, in other words, will be its fundamentals?

You see, the problem isn't really with "fundamentalism." That's a red herring. The problem is with Christ, with (to be specific) the only actual Jesus Christ who ever lived — the one whom we can know with certainty through Scripture.

The problem is with the Christ who calls Harvey Cox and Dan Phillips to repent of their pride and self-will, and follow Him; the Christ who calls Harvey Cox and Dan Phillips to turn their backs on the failed pursuit of the "you shall be as God" debacle; the Christ who tells Harvey Cox and Dan Phillips — and you! — that He is the way, and the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him.

The problem is with the Christ who says that His words will never pass away, that they are spirit and life, that they are binding on the life and conscience, and that continuance in them is the mark of His disciples. The problem is with the Christ who teaches that God is angry with men because of our sin, and that our only hope is in His penal, substitutionary death on the shameful and despised Cross.

The problem is with the Christ who insists that He is Lord, that He must be worshiped as God, and that we must believe Him, or suffer forever for our sins.

The problem is with that Christ who says such unpopular, untrendy things — and only secondarily with people who still believe and follow Him.

I think it isn't Fundamentalism that people want to see vanish. On such sneering lips, "fundamentalist" is a polite swear-word, a contemptuous and dismissive stand-in for Christian. And what is a "Christian"? A student of, slave of, believer in Christ Jesus.

And there's the real problem for the fundamentalist modernist. The problem isn't fundamentalism.

The problem is Jesus. What they really want to wish to the cornfield is Jesus.

And that's never going to happen.

Dan Phillips's signature


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

The problem isn't fundamentalism.

The problem is Jesus.

The LibProt/Emerger solution is simple.

Highlight that Jesus is Love. An inclusive, pluralistic, tolerant, all-embracing Love. And then join the chorus of critics who bash inerrancy-believing fundamentalists.

LibProts can have their cake and eat it too. Be a LibProt!

Anonymous said...

"The problem is with Christ."

And, it always has been, hasn't it?

Penn Tomassetti said...

Powerful words!!!

James Scott Bell said...

But Harvey Cox went to Harvard. How can you be so dismissive?

FX Turk said...

It's funny that I would hurl tons of criticisms at common Fundamentalism, but when I read something like Cox's essay, I'm torn between gaffawing like a donkey at his ignorance and taking up arms to defend the beleagued and misunderstood (ever if it is mostly their own fault) fundamentalists and their simple love of Jesus.

DJP said...

But you see, that's the thing: Cox says "fundamentalists" because they're an easy and popular target. But he doesn't mean fundamentalists.

He means Bible-believing Christians, period.

Nash Equilibrium said...

"For plenty of thoughtful people, fundamentalism has come to represent the most dangerous threat to open societies since the fall of communism..."

I wonder if the double-meaning of his quote above evaded Cox? In one sense, his quote could be saying that the fall of communism is seen to be a threat to open societies. And to Tweed-coated Harvard professor fundamentalists, it probably is!

Nash Equilibrium said...

Suddenly, an army of Harvard profs are hurling egghead criticisms at the usual non-PC strawman groups, jockeying into position for the next unearned Nobel Peace Prize...

olan strickland said...

Great job Dan of getting to the root of the problem - "The problem is Jesus. What they really want to wish to the cornfield is Jesus."

As you said, there is a form of fundamentalism that needs to go to the cornfield - but there is that pure form which defines the Christian faith.

The doctrines that are fundamental to the Christian faith are what stands in the way of ecumenical unity and therefore they are considered dangerous and detrimental to the apostate movements of our day. This is why they are caricatured as something ugly - that which divides rather than unites.

Since the fundamental truths of Christianity cannot supply the unifying essence needed for an ecumenical religion, the only solution is to do away with orthodoxy in favor of orthopraxy - forgetting that orthodoxy determines orthopraxy.

This is why red herrings, caricatures, and straw-men are used to undermine fundamentalism. In the end what they really want to wish to the cornfield is Jesus!

Solameanie said...

Isn't Harvey Cox a bit long in the tooth to be drinking bong water?

And, oddly enough, my verification word for this comment is "perilow."

David Rudd said...

I just hate it when someone redefines a term and then applies it too broadly just so they can fling mud and get applause from those who don't know better.

The worst part is that many people who aren't fundamentalists, but still think we have something to learn from the fundamentalists will protest and say, "You're not defining fundamentalism rightly"; but will Mr. Cox listen?

He'll probably say something like, "the dog squealing the loudest is the one that got hit."

Liberals are so frustrating.

Mike Westfall said...

The whole Sisyphean wish-Jesus-into-the-cornfield effort is getting long in the tooth.

It is indeed, but wishful thinking.

B Barnes said...

@ David Rudd

- He'll probably say something like, "the dog squealing the loudest is the one that got hit." -

To which I would reply, "Yeah, but if you throw stones blindly into a group of dogs, you're bound to hit something, even if it wasn't the one intended or the one that needed it"

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron said...

I totally know how you feel, Frank. It's the feeling you get when somebody picks on your sibling. I can criticize and chastise them, but nobody else better do it!

Phil said...

Good stuff Dan.
It's like what Ghandi meant to say
"I could be a Christian, but I hate your Christ"

Although to take up your challenge, this is not something that was said in 1881 "The fading of fundamentalism marks a decisive change in global society. It has already freed Christians, Muslims, and Jews to explore what all three have in common as they now begin to cooperate in confronting nuclear weapons, poverty, and climate change.
Denouncing Christ in order to better cooperate to curb Nuclear proliferation was not even argued in Machen's day. I would put that forward as 'new'.

DJP said...

Fair enough, Phil, except you missed my wiggle-word:

"Find me something, anything, that hasn't basically been said since at least Machen's day."

I'd say it's just a modern revisioning of the old "different servants of the one God" yarn, that we should join hands and work for the betterment of humanity. Then it might have been something like the League of Nations or something; now it's nuclear proliferation, polar bears and Brittany Spears.

Phil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DJP said...

You're right, there is that element there. But it was there in the sixties.

What I get more overwhelmingly from Cox's article is, "Come on, no one can be that stupid and parochial! And besides... no one can be that stupid and parochial!"

Which still isn't really new.

Phil said...

Yeah, I had considered that, but I think there remains an element of new in the totality of their claim. In the old days it was "Oh come now don't you see that we can do more without Christ?" but now it's "Give Him up immediately or we are all certainly dead[!!!]"
In the former case it was an appeal to reason, here an irrational appeal to hysterics that a global catastrophe will befall all of us equally unless we unite.
It just seems to me that postmodernism has constructed a new platform from which to spout the same old liberal ideology, yet just because it's message ends up being the same one the Sadducees made doesn't mean it's devoid of the new.
But I might be wrong- certainly it's up for debate and worth mulling over.

Phil said...

Oh. I had meant different between 1880 and now. I would agree that this is the same 1960s hubris trash that hasn't been new for some time.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I'm glad to have read Harvey Cox's article. A lot of people actually think like he does. A lot of people who I try to witness to actually. So I'm glad that he articulates his feelings and thoughts on the matter, regardless of muddled and wrong-headed that they may be, because it then gives me insights into the hurdles that must be surmounted.

Let's say, hypothetically, that the Pyromaniacs like to take on the hard and hardened cases for evangelism. Further, let's even say that Daniel J. Phillips had the opportunity to engage Professor Harvey Cox with the Gospel Message, and DJP decided to avail himself of this opportunity. And all DJP had for homework on Harvey Cox was the column Harvey wrote for Boston.com, and the fact that he is a Divinity Professor at Harvard.

What would DJP say and how would he say it to Professor Cox so as to help move Professor Cox in the direction of becoming a genuine disciple and follower of Jesus Christ?

Paula said...

In some ways, Harvey Cox was kinder to fundamentalism than Rick Warren was in a Pew Forum Event in 2005:

MR. WARREN: Well, I tell you, that's the reason I accepted this meeting, because I'm just tired of having other people represent me and represent the hundreds of thousands of churches where the pastors I've trained would nowhere, no way, relate to some of the supposed spokesmen of a previous generation.

Now the word "fundamentalist" actually comes from a document in the 1920s called the Five Fundamentals of the Faith. And it is a very legalistic, narrow view of Christianity, and when I say there are very few fundamentalists, I mean in the sense that they are all actually called fundamentalist churches, and those would be quite small. There are no large ones.

MR. WILLIAMS: Bob Jones is not a mega-church?

MR. WARREN: No, no, no, no, no, no no. Bob Jones is not a mega-church. That's right exactly, it's not, and that group is shrinking more and more and more...

DJP said, If nothing else is clear, one does understand that Cox thinks Fundamentalism is a bad thing, and that he wishes it "to the cornfield," where all bad things and people belong.

We have to wonder why Warren (and other ecumenists also feel the same way and wish to distance themselves from such a basic statement of faith (Five Fundamentals). No wonder Cox (and other critics) are so confused about what a Christian really is.

If the noisiest and most public Christian spokesmodels can't clearly articulate a position, what hope is there for a Harvard professor?

lawrence said...

Very well said, my man.

C. Michael Patton said...

Now that was a good post. Thanks Dan.