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Shall The Fundamentalists Win?

from http://ellsworthme.org/uuce/Sermons/fundawin.html SHALL THE FUNDAMENTALISTS WIN? a sermon by the Rev. Mark Worth Sunday, November 8, 1998

READINGS: 1. From Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, by Bruce Bawer, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1997: “In a 1996 sermon, a friend of mine who is an Episcopal priest recalled that he cringed when, at a social event, he met a man ‘who rather quickly identified himself as a Christian.’ When the man said the word Christian, several other words immediately went through my friend’s mind: ‘bigot, arrogant, mindless, intolerant, rigid, mean-spirited.’ Though the encounter proved pleasant, my friend was struck by his initial reaction to the man’s self-identification as a Christian, and by the fact that the word had come to stand for so many bad things that even a devout clergyman could find himself recoiling at the sound of it.”

2. From People Magazine, 11/9/98: “On the evening of Oct. 23, just moments after returning from a synagogue to mark the anniversary of his father’s death, [Dr. Bart] Slepian, 52, was shot in the back as he stood chatting with his wife in the kitchen of his two-story brick house, apparently by a sniper lurking somewhere in the woods outside. Slepian was pronounced dead at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital at 11:30 that night… “Some observers celebrated the murder. In Virginia, Rev. Donald Spitz, founder of Pro-Life Virginia, called the gunman a hero for stopping the doctor’s ‘bloodthirsty practice.’ But in Buffalo, where Slepian’s patients remember him as a man, not a target, there is little rejoicing. In 1997 Slepian helped homemaker Amy Clop give birth to a healthy boy following a pregnancy jeopardized by toxemia. ‘The thing that bothers me most is, we’re planning on having more children,’ says Clop, now 29, ‘and I can’t imagine having a baby without him.'”

THE SERMON My father is one of my heroes. He was a Methodist minister. One of his heroes was a Baptist preacher named Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick was born in 1878, and served first as the minister of New York’s First Presbyterian Church, then Park Avenue Baptist Church, and finally Riverside Church. In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s he was considered by many to be America’s greatest preacher — and that was in a day when great preachers were often as famous as entertainers or sports figures. The 1920s was a time of conflict in many Protestant churches and denominations. On one side of the controversy were the “modernists” or liberals, who said that reason and scholarship must be used when reading the Bible; that the miracles of Jesus should be interpreted symbolically; that Darwin’s theory of evolution does not conflict with religious faith and should be accepted by thinking people; and that the message of Christianity was that you should love God and your neighbor, seek justice for the poor and the outcast, and help to build a better world. On the other side of the controversy were the fundamentalists. They said that one must believe that the Bible is the Word of God without error; that one must believe literally in the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the miracles of Jesus; and that the message of Christianity was “believe in Jesus and be saved.” Does this controversy sound familiar? It is being played out again in churches and public arenas around our nation. In the midst of the controversy in the 1920s was the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick. On May 21, 1922, he delivered a sermon titled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick’s sermon is recalled in Stealing Jesus, Bruce Bawer’s recent book about fundamentalism. It was a sermon that drew the lines clearly between the liberals and the fundamentalists.

MIRACLES AND THE VIRGIN BIRTH In his sermon, Fosdick examines three doctrines — the virgin birth, biblical inerrancy, and the second coming — and sets forth the fundamentalist and liberal perspectives on each. In the case of the virgin birth he notes that it was common, in fact almost routine, for the founders of religions to be described by their followers as having been born of virgins. Fosdick said that Buddhists claim a virgin birth for the Buddha; Zoroastrians claim a virgin birth for Zoroaster, and Taoists claim the same for Lao-tse. We might also point out that Alexander the Great’s father was said to be not King Philip of Macedonia, but the god Zeus himself. The Romans said that Caesar Augustus was a god, and attributed miracles to him. The Greeks not only claimed that Achilles was a great warrior; they also claimed that Achilles had been dipped into the magical River Styx so he became invulnerable except where he had been held by his heel. Pythagoras could stand on a magic arrow which could take him instantly to any spot in the world. Claims for such miracles were commonplace in the ancient world. “When a personality rose so high that men adored him,” Fosdick writes, “the ancient world attributed his superiority to some special divine influence in his generation, and they commonly phrased their faith in terms of miraculous birth.” So it was with Jesus. Like us, Fosdick says, early Christians saw Jesus as having come “specially from God.” But in ancient times it wasn’t enough to believe that the founder of your religion taught important things or led a superior life. If he was sent specially by God, then it was believed that he must perform miracles, or be born in a miraculous way. When those who actually knew Jesus began to die off, the next generation expanded on the stories they had heard. By the time they were written down, the stories had grown like the fish story where the fish gets bigger and bigger.

INERRANCY OF SCRIPTURE In the late 1800s fundamentalist Catholics adopted a new doctrine which claimed that the Pope was infallible when he spoke on certain matters in a certain way. Around the same time, fundamentalist Protestants introduced a new doctrine which claimed that the Bible was without error. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not “that old-time religion,” but is a fairly modern response by fundamentalists to 19th Century biblical scholarship and to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Regarding the “inerrancy” of Scripture, Fosdick noted that fundamentalists believe that “everything there [in the Bible] — scientific opinions, medical theories, historical judgments, as well as spiritual insight — is infallible.” But Fosdick pointed out that when you read the entire Bible front to back, you find the idea of God constantly changing, so that statements in two parts of scripture contradict each other. (For instance, the Gospel of John 1:18, and the Epistle 1 John 4:12, both say clearly that no one has ever seen God. But back in Exodus 24:9-11, Moses and Aaron and seventy Hebrew elders climbed Mt. Sinai and saw God.) Consequently, liberal Christians view scripture not as an inerrant historical account, but as “the record of the progressive unfolding of the character of God to [God’s] people” from very early and primitive days until the time of Jesus. Fosdick believed Jesus to have shown us God most perfectly.

THE MILLENNIUM Finally, Fosdick examined the second coming. The fundamentalist belief “is that Christ is literally coming, externally on the clouds of heaven, to set up his kingdom here.” Believing this, Fosdick says, “they sit still and do nothing and expect the world to grow worse and worse until he comes.” In Fosdick’s day, the fundamentalists stayed out of the political arena, choosing to wait for Christ to return and bring paradise with the millennium. In the 1970s the fundamentalists reversed their long-standing aversion to politics, and became involved in the anti-abortion movement, and began to lobby against equal rights for lesbians and gays, among other issues. On the other hand, liberal Christians tend to work for issues such as world peace, better public education, child care for working parents, environmental issues, availability of birth control and family planning, compassion and acceptance for people who are persecuted, and nutritional programs for poor families. The liberal Christians feel it is their duty to build the kind of world Jesus taught as the “kingdom of God.” To a liberal Christian, Fosdick said, the idea that “Christ is coming” means that “his will and principles will be worked out by God’s grace in human life and institutions.” Thus we are responsible to help build heaven right here on earth.

MODERN KNOWLEDGE AND TOLERANCE And finally Fosdick asks, “Has anybody the right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with them on such points and to shut against them the doors of Christian fellowship?” He answered in the negative, and made some observations: He said there is a need for tolerance on both sides. Though “just now the fundamentalists are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches of this country have ever seen,” religious liberals need to respond “not by controversial intolerance,” but by living lives of depth and strength, nobility and beauty of character. Love is more important than doctrine. Fosdick said, “There are many opinions in the field of modern controversy concerning which I am not sure whether they are right or wrong, but there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right.


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