Why Fundamentalism and Liberalism Are Two Sides of the Same Coin – Where All Emerging Conversants Must Go

Nancy Murphy in her Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, showed how classic protestant liberalism (PL) and evangelical fundamentalism (EF) are really two sides of the same coin. Hans Frei before her, unveiled much the same thesis in his posthumously edited Types of Christian Theology. He put Carl F. Henry (of evangelical fundamentalism) and David Tracey ( the Catholic who nonetheless followed PL’s correlationalist strategies) in the same type and showed how these two traditionally distinct opposites in the field of theology were really doing the same thing. The implication here for both Murphy and Frei was that neither EF&PL addresses adequately the post-Enlightenment and/or post liberal worlds. Scot McKnight more recently has advocated a purple theology, a “third way” between the red and the blue states, and Brian McLaren has made the proposal for a A Generous Orthodoxy which somehow navigates a third way for Christians that avoids pitfalls of either the EF or PL position. All contest I suppose, that we must go beyond EF and PL if we would further the Kingdom of God in our times.
What I often suspect in the emerging conversations however, is that what we are really getting is an ad hoc conglomeration of the PL theology onto some assent of the basic evangelical affirmations. We are not getting a third way that engages the postmodern worlds, or a third way that avoids the pitfall’s of the old dichotomies between EF&PL. As a result, this Emerging conglomeration often yields few solutions to the shortfalls of prior manifestations of these theologies. It often falls short of articulating a faith that engages the dilemmas of our postmodern times.

I know that’s a mouth full. And I don’t have blog space to substantiate it. But maybe if we see how similar these two positions are, EF & PL, and how they both are inadequate to the task of theology at the end of modernity, we might be less tempted by the conglomeration approach and boldly pursue a way that does engage the postmodern issues and does further our faith beyond the pitfalls of PL & EF of the 30’s,40’s,50’s, 60’s, 70’s. So here’s a few examples of how PL & EF are the same and how a conglomeration gets us no where.

1.) Both EF and PL ground knowledge in the autonomous individual using foundational universalizable criteria found in the individual human person. For EF this is the universalizable reason located in individual minds which EF’s are able to use to uncover truth in Scripture and science and even defend Scripture’s authority itself. For PL’s this is the universalizable core religious experience accessible to each human as npart of being human. The problem, in the world after modernity, is that reason is given and limited to contexts. Likewise experience is formed out of cultural and linguistic shaping. To say my reason is right and every one else’s is wrong, or to say my own human experience is universal and the same as anyone else’s on the Eastern side of the world is inadequate for dialogue and truth at best, imperialistic at worst. To escape modernity we must ground our faith humbly and without violence in traditions, embodied arguments, community and the church from which we participate in God’s mission and witness to the world. Only in this way can we display truth in noncoercive embodied ways that present the gospel as good news.

2.) Both EF and PL want to keep Jesus personal and social justice detached from Jesus and the church. For both EF&PL, justice is an abstract universalizable (modern) concept. This means government can do justice as well as if not better than a Christian political body in the world without such power. For both EF &PL then, the government therefore should be an arm for God’s work thru Christ in the world. For EF&PL however, the moral issues are different. EF is for using government to advance personal morality (prohibition against abortion, homosexuality, and easy divorce) while PL seeks to use the government to advance social morality (prohibitive work against war, discrimination, unequal health care etc.). But because of this approach, we negelect to work out any of these issues politically and for real among and in a church body. Some emerging spokesmen are frightened to center the outworking of justice in the local church body. They might fear a withdrawal or sectarianism. This however reveals a lack of understanding that without a Bodily presense in the world, there is little true engagement with the world except via individualist arguments (which is fine, keep pursuing debate on the issues, I am not saying stop). But until we have a church that lives justice, it’s just Jim Wallis arguing against Jerry Falwell.

There are many other examples of how EF & PL are two sides of the same coin. For example, I contend that in response to cultural pluralism, EF’s exclusivisim, and PL’s universalism both lead to forms of imperialism. I believe both EF & PL tend to over-personalize (toward narcissism) the individual nature of salvation in Christ stripping Christ’s work on the cross of its cosmic scope and power. In both cases, these are two sides of the same modernist coin. But this post is already too long so they’ll have to wait for another post. For now I affirm that the demise of modernity has cleared a third way that makes it possible for us to hold firmly to our most precious orthodox beliefs in Christ yet not fall prey to the EF mistakes exposed by PL, and the PL mistakes exposed by EF, of the last century. I believe the emerging churches provide a space for this third way, the way I think we all must go. This is the task of the 5 Theological Issues I have been posting on and will continue to post on.

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