Fundamentalism and Provisionality: The hard road ahead.

Thinking Anglicans have put us on to several very useful essays:

Don Cupitt, fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and an extraordinary theologian, has written an important short essay on the theological struggles ahead for Anglicanism, published in the Guardian. He concludes,

“… the great churchmen know that sooner or later Christian thought must undergo a very great transformation. A handful of writers are already describing it, but they are not popular, for it is a change far too big for the church to contemplate as yet. In the short run most of Christianity will choose to go fundamentalist and countercultural, and in the short run church leaders cannot give us a worked-out rational alternative to fundamentalism. It would be much too radical, and people would not accept it. Hence the impotence of liberal theology.

What are church leaders to do, then? As they put the old metaphysical language on the back burner, they are hoping that new ideas and public debate will gradually change the climate. And that I think is about the best they can do, in their unenviable position.”

Giles Fraser, vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, whose columns appear often in the British press, has written a review of American Fascists: the Christian right and the war on America by Chris Hedges. Thinking Anglicans rightly references the last paragraphs of the review and its warning about fundamentalism in England. But the review is of considerable importance for us on this side of the Atlantic because it both points us to the book and to an understanding of fundamentalism and its relation to fear and the emergence of an underclass which includes much of what we think of here as parts of the middle class. Giles says,

“The common denominator, and the key difference between the fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist versions of any worldview, has to do with an ability to accommodate ambiguity and uncertainty. Fundamentalism is a closed system of thought, demanding certainty and providing emotional security. For fundamentalism is commonly an epiphenomenon of change, and has grown in parallel with the rapid social and economic changes that have come about through globalisation. "Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest not, abide with me."

... the need for strict internal coherence has little to do with the dem ands of truth and a great deal to do with the way people keep their demons at bay. The glue of the whole intellectual structure is fear. ... That's why debate with fundamentalists is all but impossible. Doubt and rational inquiry serves only to open the jaws of hell.”

When we look at why the Anglican Communion is in such a mess these days, and why the Episcopal Church in particular is not an easy carrier of good news to some, surely part of the problem rests with the Anglican propensity to live with provisionality – with the idea that matters including the language of theological and moral conversation is subject to revision, development, or unfolding depth… in other words, subject to change.

Only part of this provisionality derives from post-modernism. Some of it arises from much older problems of attempting to bring peoples whose beliefs were considerably different to the same table. The quote, attributed to Queen Elizabeth I, that “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles,” provided for a sort of provisional attitude toward all theological and moral discourse. Living with the uncertainty of just how the faith in the One Lord Jesus Christ is to be expressed and with the notion that moral reason is subject to development makes for a church in which there are lively debates, even if sometimes about trifles. But it does not provide what the fundamentalist craves – a certainty not found elsewhere in the culture – and does not conform to the theological structures of the past.

Don Cupitt’s remark, “In the short run most of Christianity will choose to go fundamentalist and countercultural, and in the short run church leaders cannot give us a worked-out rational alternative to fundamentalism. It would be much too radical, and people would not accept it. Hence the impotence of liberal theology,” is a sobering one. One conclusion is that in these unsettling times the Episcopal Church and perhaps its parent church the Church of England, will either be overtaken by fundamentalism or smothered in locked down theological conversation, in which case these churches, as we know it will cease to exist. Another is that if we are up to the task the Episcopal Church, and perhaps some others within the Anglican Communion, will begin the provisional risk taking that will both require us to live less assured lives and at the same time lives faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ in ways we now cannot easily imagine.

As to the costs, they are trifles, for perhaps Elizabeth was right. Keep our eyes on the prize: the “One Christ, Jesus, one faith.”

About the exercise of that faith in the continued effort to gather with others in community and communion, I like Dr. Katherine Grieb’s comments regarding the need for Anglicans to work with one another on matters of interpretation and understanding of a biblically based faith community. She said,

"What we need right now are for biblical interpreters and theologians and all the people living in our churches hearing the Word every Sunday, living it out in their lives all the days of the week, to reflect on these traditions of biblical interpretation," she said. "As we reflect also on our present context, we can recommit ourselves to welcome those who share another understanding of Scripture and therefore another interpretation of doctrine or ethics than we do."

"It is the time for the Anglican Communion at every level to renew its commitment to conversation about the Anglican Communion and about the history of biblical interpretation in Anglicanism," she said. "We're up to that; we can do this."

An attitude of provisionality, and I think Anglican sensibilities, require that we have this sense: “We’re up to that; we can do this.”


  1. Mark,

    Have recently read John Cobb's article on "A Normative View of Progressive Christianity" which is a good, not great, read (it's a pdf file so I won't include the URL but its googleable) - it suggests that "Liberal Protestantism" has '...given up on theology'. Our weakness in the west is that we haven't had many good ideas in any field of life in quite a long time - not in political life where most major parties are slight variations on their opposition, not in the delivery of social services or the provision of education or health care. The practise which would offer to 'faith communities' the role of partnership in the delivery of services is the same clutching after artefacts which motivates the fundamentalist resurgence in the mainstream denominations. Somebody did something wrong - maybe FDR, maybe the liturgical movement in the 60s and 70s. We've got to clamber back over Godspell and the Civil Rights Movement and find a strong point in the rock. You do find something - a bit of 'noblesse oblige' which helps you provide soup to homeless men in a single city but which is woefully inadequate to engage with all the causes of poverty and homelessness. In discussing an approach to Gay and Lesbian people you clutch onto a couple of verses and fragments of verses written by Paul and by somebody else who might (not) have been Paul. All of a sudden you're 'Biblical'. You may have a proof text on your side (as did the agents of James of Jerusalem when they were confronting Paul and Barnabas in Antioch) but you're not prophetic and you're not part of what God is doing.

    And - it's mostly our fault, you know. Our seminary education (I'm speaking Canada and UK here, admittedly) has tanked in terms of the basic requirements of biblical languages, Systematic Theology and even of college residence. It's no wonder that the sword is still in the stone and no one appears quite able to budge it. Now three years of Greek for seminarians isn't going to solve the problem. But when Christian theology in the mainstream denominations starts using the three legged stool rather than just waving it at the fundies we'll begin to make some forward progress.

  2. revLois Keen3/2/07 2:21 PM

    To think that Jesus lived, died and rose again so that we would no longer need to live in fear...but we just cannot trust that it has all been done and there is nothing at all we can or need do about it - all are safe in God through Jesus Christ. We just can't trust that - so we skewer one another as we once skewered him.

    Well, I for one will keep as true as I humanly can be to this good news, for if this is not the good news, there is no good news at all. And I know that is not true - I know it with my whole life and my whole being. Way too radical, yet, for the world to take in right now, I know. But still, there it is...
    In Jesus Name,
    Lois Keen

  3. Before I joined the Episcopal Church in 1992 I was a Presbyterian minister for ten years (PCUSA) and during my seminary (Princeton) read a good deal of Karl Barth. Lately (now working for a Roman Catholic university) I have picked up Barth again --I think his insistence upon the concept Word of God and its self-authenticating revelatory character builds an authentic bridge between an older world of "metaphysical" certainty and the liberal view of faith as a feeling of utter dependence. While once I found Barth annoying I now find him prescient.

    In order to fashion an authentic and self-respecting response to fundamentalism pastoral theologians (e.g. every parish minister) have to give serious thought to what he or she really thinks. Now as in the time after World War 1 and the rise of European fascism, none can afford the luxury of being "quite untheological." The casual anti-intellectualism of many parish clergy has to be seen for what it is: an abdication of responsibility by those who undeniably face too many conflicting demands on their time. But the chips are down: the dangers of fundamentalism and its creeping influence are all too apparent, and one significant candidate for connected and accurate response may well be a clearly thought-through confidence in the freedom of God who yet is for us.

  4. Just out of curiosity, how does Cuppitt rank as an 'extraordinary theologian?' Have I missed something? He's a nice man, has a kind of mystical following in the Sea of Faith movement, but really, at least as far as I know, has done very little to display just how fruitful Jesus is for thinking and living.

  5. Dear anonymous: Please find a way of signing off on your comments in addition to anonymous. There are several "anonymous" folk and some are the reason why I have to moderate this blog...they ran off in odd directions.

    However, your question is quite good.

    Cupitt is good in my mind for the same reason that many theologians are - he makes us fess up, at least in my mind, to the possibilities of faith / theological talk with modernity packed in around us as a primary way of life. I think we need to pay attention to his efforts to find a way to be a Christian in a post modern, post Christendom, way. I'm open to reassessment, but I did find his book Mysticism after Modernity very useful.

  6. In the short run most of Christianity will choose to go fundamentalist and countercultural, and in the short run church leaders cannot give us a worked-out rational alternative to fundamentalism. It would be much too radical, and people would not accept it. Hence the impotence of liberal theology.

    I'm wondering why so much weight is being placed on the back of "liberal" theology. It is helpful to remember that the Protestant Reformation (as one example) did not generally set out with a road-map to reforge the face of Northern Europe or even the Christian faith.

    Luther, for instance, was at the confluence of civil unrest, a population uneasy with Roman Catholicism of the period, and the arrival of the printing press. Did he say, "Aha! Now's the moment!" I very much doubt it.

    History happens. To suggest that we can plan it is modern hubris. That we are caught up in it is a more post-modern understanding. That we have some say in what happens, perhaps. But even if "the great churchmen" can see what is happening, there is very little that can be done, except to keep faith, hold our own, and speak and develop the theologies that are nearest and dearest to our hearts and salvations.

    Believe it or not, I am not a pessimist. Surely God loves us too much, no matter how ugly we get, to leave us entirely to our own circumstances and devices.

    The criticism of "liberal" theology may not be beyond reason (this is not a time for insipid leadership or sentimental junk from the pulpit, and believe me, I'm guilty of plenty), but to suggest that even the greatest among us could even see what will come of all this I think and feel is a bit much.

  7. Ah, the wonders of Liberal Theology. It lives in darkness and celebrates the fact that it cannot see. And then it wonders why it attracts only a small collection of intellectuals who rather like to ponder their own angst.

    It is interesting to me however this tendency of the religious left to reduce its opponents to psychological categories. It reveals a marked disrespect born of arrogance and completely gives the lie to all these tendentious pleas for 'dialogue.'


  8. Mark -- I'm rather surprised that you didn't include Simon Barrow's allied piece:


    Honestly, I think that Fowler's stages are basically correct -- TEC has never been a majority & church never will because it is ot a religion for children & childish regression is what most people think religion is about & expect from it.

    If TEC is going to be a faith for thinking adults, it is going to have to pray the price in increased ambiguity & small numbers (which actually, it pretty much always has).

  9. I haven't read Hedges' book, just an extract or two. I suspect that he is more interested in the fast-growing segment of non-denominational churches, often megachurches. He points to fear as a reason why many people prefer a single "official" theology and interpretation of the Bible. I might point out an equally compelling reason - the long-standing tradition of anti-intellectualism in America. And a third: the unwillingness of most of the (white) public to listen to talking heads (pastoral or other) for more than 15 minutes, and the desire to have "up-to-date" TV-like faster-paced worship activity. Putting it crassly, the non-denominationals are "marketing" a new "brand name" among churches, and need to cater to people's entertainment wishes. Nothing new in this - it's a characteristic of non-establishment combined with the capitalist spirit and the American love of novelty.

    As many people want McReligion as a security blanket - simplification serves both well. Look at some mother trying to fulfill all those suburban expectations, taxiing the kids to lessons and sports (suburban uppermiddle class kids don't get down time, it seems) - Religion on tap sounds great, given all the mother-jobs she has to do in addition to the paid job needed to keep up with the Jones.


  10. Briefly, I think your post misses the mark in a couple of ways. First of all, marking down those that disagree with you as “fundamentalists” is a lazy put-down that disallows the possibility that ECUSA can ever go too far in its revision of Christian faith and morals. Whether or not you think it has, it certainly can.

    Second, your quote from Queen Elizabeth is ironic, considering she cemented the CoE as a national church, which, for some reason, had to remain sundered from Rome, even though the latter also confesses “Christ, Jesus, one faith.” Ah, well, I suppose some trifles are more trifling than others.


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