Some people fear that if they begin to critique their faith they may be starting on a downhill slide away from faith altogether, according to the Revd Dr Keith Mascord. Addressing the Institute of Spiritual Studies at St Peter’s Eastern Hill in March, Dr Mascord, the author of A Restless Faith: leaving fundamentalism in a quest for God, explained that his own journey on the – possibly – slippery slope away from fundamentalism had been inevitable considering his background.
“Nurtured in a journeying household” he received from his father the heritage of being a questioner, ready to engage in fervent and respectful theological debate.
“I figured that if I was going to persuade others – which it had been my passion to do – then I would need to have the very best arguments and evidence to convince them with – so I decided to study philosophy, and later I ended up teaching philosophy and also apologetics with its special interest in whether and to what extent Christianity can be rationally defended as a true path for life,” Dr Mascord said. “I have never, ever been able to understand the mentality of those who don’t want to subject their faith to critical scrutiny. And that is where fundamentalism comes in.
“Fundamentalism… had its origins… in the United States around the turn of the last century.
“It was an essentially defensive movement designed to stop the erosion of Christian beliefs – in the face of critical biblical scholarship, in the face of developments in the areas of biology, zoology, geology and psychology which were perceived to represent a threat to traditional Christian beliefs.”
Over time, the fundamentalist movement gave birth to two offspring, Dr Mascord continued. The first sought to defend Christianity using all the sharpened tools of the enlightenment. But the second, “feeling especially threatened and overwhelmed by the increasingly dismissive assaults of scientists and (so-called) Biblical scholars, descended into an anti-intellectual obscurantism; with its characteristic catch-cry being, ‘If the Bible says it, I believe it... full stop! End of story.’”
Sydney Anglican evangelicalism, Dr Mascord said, has become known for its “discouragement of open dialogue and debate”. In his early years of teaching at Moore College, and increasingly over time, he had become aware of an approach that was “essentially suspicious of anything new, or that departed from good, solid, reformed evangelical thinking.” In A Restless Faith he had told of going for a week of mission to St Matthias’ Centennial Park. He was disturbed to find that students “were discouraged from going to any event where someone of even slightly different persuasion was speaking”, in case they were led astray.
Dr Mascord suggested that the roots of such a “defensive and controlling ethos” might lie in the belief “that questions and criticism and alternatives of understanding are... incompatible with the style of religion that they believe is true religion.” This raised an interesting question: does the New Testament encourage critical thought?
Although “Jesus was very much in the tradition of the great Jewish prophets in exposing the thinking and behaviour of his contemporaries and their often self-serving traditions”, there are also large tracts of the Bible which would not appear open to discussion. Perhaps, Dr Mascord said, there will always be a struggle between conservatives wanting to preserve the fundamentals of the faith, and the radicals who can see the need for change and fresh understandings. He believes both are needed.
A second way of accounting for the on-going strength of fundamentalism might be anxiety and uncertainty caused by critiques from outside the Church.
Dr Mascord referred to a conversation he had had with Sydney’s Archbishop, Peter Jensen, in which the Archbishop had mentioned successive challenges faced by evangelical Christianity: critical Biblical scholarship, Anglo-Catholicism, the feminist movement, Pentecostalism, secularism and the gay rights movement. He had seen them as wave after wave of attack from which the Church was now reeling. Yet on balance, most of those movements had been positive, Dr Mascord argued.
Another problem he finds with the fundamentalist approach is its “unsustainable” view of the Bible. At the time of the Reformation, the reformers had decided “to restrict their attention to the literal or straightforward meaning of Biblical texts.” Increasingly, over time, this literalist view had been eroded, and being tethered to it has meant its proponents are “intellectually doomed to be always on the defensive… resistant to genuine advances in understanding.”
As Christians, we need always to be re-thinking our faith, Dr Mascord concluded. He believes seeking the truth and submitting to it lead, not to a slide down the slippery slope, but to God.
“I don’t need to be afraid or defensive. I don’t need to determine in advance what I will find. I can be at rest in my faith,” he said.
By Beryl Rule. This article appeared in the May 2013 edition of The Melbourne Anglican. Re-posted with permission. For more from TMA go to: www.melbourne.anglican.com.au