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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. · Opinions may be mistaken. Love never is.” The mind is a terrible thing to waste. Fosdick said, “Science treats a young [person’s] mind as though it were really important.” Too many churches say , “Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions.” The mind is not a threat to faith but an instrument by which we can understand those things which are the highest, the best, and the most holy. The main business of Christianity should not be in the details of theology, but to minister to human misery. At the time that Fosdick gave his sermon, Armenians in Turkey were being slaughtered by the tens of thousands. Such “colossal problems” he insisted, “must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake.” To devote our energies instead to theological controversy is “immeasurable folly.”

To read Fosdick’s once-famous sermon today is to be astonished by its continuing power and by the enduring relevance of the points he made. Among them: 1. That while fundamentalism is often mean-spirited, Jesus was not. If Jesus walked into an American church some Sunday morning, could we imagine that he would claim as his own those who believe in biblical inerrancy and cast into hell those who do not? Of course not! 2. The fact that letting go of fundamentalism does not imperil faith but actually makes the Bible “more inspired and inspiring” and renders spiritual experience more vital. 3. That if the fundamentalists prevail in the churches, they will drive thinking people away and destroy the institution. Because of fundamentalism, Fosdick warns, “educated people are looking for their religion outside the churches.” This cannot go on, he says, because “a religion that is afraid of the facts is doomed.” His preaching in general, and in particular the sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” eventually led to such pressure that in 1925 Harry Emerson Fosdick resigned as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in New York and agreed to become pastor of Park Avenue Baptist Church. Every major stage of this job switch — his resignation, its acceptance, his farewell sermon at First Presbyterian, the invitation to First Baptist, and his acceptance of it — made the front page of the New York Times.

THE SCOPES TRIAL AND AFTERMATH Yet the defining moment of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy took place that summer not in New York, but in Dayton, Tennessee. It was there in July of 1925 that William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist who had been nominated for president three times, prosecuted a case against John T. Scopes, a science teacher who had been accused of violating a Tennessee law against teaching evolution. Clarence Darrow, a notorious agnostic, defended Scopes. The trial was on the front page of the New York Times for nearly three weeks. Toward the end of the trial, Bryan himself took the stand, agreeing to be questioned as an expert on the Bible. Darrow questioned Bryan, and Bryan made a fool out of himself, unable to give answers to Darrow’s questions. As recounted pretty accurately in the movie Inherit the Wind, Darrow’s questions exposed the conflict between common sense on the one hand, and biblical literalism on the other. For example, since we now know that the earth goes around the sun, what does it mean to say that Joshua made the sun stand still? And if God created Adam and Eve, and they had a son Cain, and Cain had a wife as the Bible says, where did the wife come from? Bryan had no clue, and was jeered by his own supporters. A week after the trial ended, Bryan died from an aneurysm complicated by a cerebral hemorrhage. Although Scopes was convicted of teaching science in a science class, fundamentalism was discredited in the eyes of the mainstream media. From the end of the 1920s until the fundamentalist resurgence in the 1970s, the mainstream media ignored fundamentalism. But as we now know, fundamentalism did not go away. In the years after the Scopes trial, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s career flourished. In 1931 he began preaching at New York’s non-denominational Riverside Church, which John D. Rockefeller (a modernist Baptist) had built for him. Fosdick went on to be the nation’s best known minister, preaching on God, Jesus, Christianity, faith and social justice from a liberal Christian perspective. Yet he largely left the modernist-fundamentalist debate behind him, only rarely taking on the fundamentalists directly. It was as if everyone on both sides had decided there was no reason for further debate. The fundamentalists were about one thing, the moderates and liberals about another.

RELIGIOUS FAITH TODAY My father, a Methodist minister, was a great admirer of Harry Emerson Fosdick. Dad described himself as a “neo-orthodox” Christian. He said he believed in the traditional or “orthodox” tenets of Christianity, but was “neo” in the sense that he also believed in modern science including evolution, and he understood that the mythology and poetry and metaphors in the Bible should not be taken to be literal scientific or historical facts. Like Fosdick, my Dad understood that there was no real argument between religion and science. He believed in God and believed that evolution was God’s way of creating. Dad looked at the first chapter of Genesis and said, “Genesis says that ‘in the beginning’ the earth was barren and lifeless. It has life in the sea before life on the land; it has plants before animals; other animals before humans. Science agrees. The problem comes when people take the ‘days’ of creation literally. But the Psalms and the New Testament tell us that ‘a day in the eyes of God may be a thousand years in human eyes.’ So if the Bible doesn’t take the word ‘day’ literally, why do we have to?” In his 1932 book, As I See Religion, Fosdick had distinguished between religious truths. He noted that “though religion is interested in truth,… it is interested rather as art is; and in a scientific age this leads to all kinds of misunderstanding.” The truths of religion are to be compared to the truths of poetry, music and art. They are not to be compared to the precision of mathematics. Do we say that if the music of Bach is true, then the music of Beethoven must be false? If the art of Rembrandt is true, must the art of Van Gogh be considered false? No. Fosdick writes, “Many who use the symbols of religion do not know what they are doing. They read poetry as prose, take similes with deadly literalness, make dogma from a metaphor.” Today we are faced with a revived and ever-strengthening fundamentalist-literalist movement. In the United Methodist Church in Crystal Falls, Michigan, where my neo-orthodox father once served, the current pastor is a fundamentalist. Some denominations, like the Southern Baptists, have been taken over by the fundamentalists. Some, like the United Church of Christ – not to be confused with the Church of Christ -are firmly in the moderate-to-liberal camp. Others, like the United Methodists, are divided. (Here the congregation laughed. I had not realized that it was a funny line.) In the 1950s and ’60s, fundamentalists opposed equal rights for African-Americans. Since the 1970s, they have sought to take away the right of women to make their most personal decisions about abortion; and they want to deny lesbians and gays the same rights heterosexuals have and expect, by calling equal rights “special” whenever lesbians and gays ask for justice. At the most extreme, some have given encouragement and comfort to those who murder gynecologists or beat gays to death. We Unitarian Universalists have long known where we stand in this debate. We have been pro-choice since the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961. We have supported fairness and equal rights regardless of sexual orientation since 1970. Our church, like others, has a spectrum of belief. But our theological spectrum is a different one — we have liberal Christians, theists, humanists, agnostics, Jews, Buddhists, neo-Pagans and other forms of spirituality. We believe that moral living is more important than “theological correctness.” If there is any danger of fundamentalism in our ranks, it comes not from the right but from the left — from those who believe that the only truth there is must be found in a literalist view of science. Then why have we been talking about Harry Emerson Fosdick today? It is to remind us that the modernist-fundamentalist debate is not a new one. It is to remind us that, while fundamentalists claim they are the only Christians, we must understand that there are other Christians in the various churches — thinking people who actually follow Jesus’ teachings of love, compassion, justice, and acceptance — and that such people are our natural allies in our efforts to build a better world. And it is to remind us that the religious life can be moral without being narrow; it can be spiritual without being literal; and it can expect justice without being hateful.


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