Thursday, 17 December 2009

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism for the last time!

I was in London the early part of the week attending the final gathering of the Evangelical and Fundamentalism project at King's College. This final event was open to a wider audience than the other conferences and symposia which I've blogged about here, the idea being to disseminate the findings of the project to wider public. We had two keynote speakers, Stephen Holmes (St Andrews) and Alister McGrath (Kings), and some space in the middle of the day for three parallel discussion sessions. The project was originally designed to explore whether there was any difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, the popular perception being that evangelicals are little more than the fundamentalist wing of Christianity. Stephen Holmes addressed the issue of evangelicalism, fundamentalism and theology, exploring whether there was any substantive theological difference between the two. Holmes focussed on five areas which tend to preoccupy fundamentalists; attitudes to science, attitudes towards the Bible, ecclesiology, a reactionary mindset and eschatology. However, in each case it proved difficult to make a hard and fast distinction between the opinions and attitudes held by fundamentalists and those of evangelicals more widely. For example, creationism is often seen as one of the key defining features of fundamentalism, yet the contributors to The Fundamentals in the early twentieth century were broadly tolerant of the theory of evolution. Holmes argued that the distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists over science lay more in fundamentalists suspicion of the agenda of scientists, rather than in the scientific method itself. Similarly over ecclesiology, fundamentalists tend towards a seperatist agenda, whereas evangelicals can be more open to other expressions of Christianity. Yet on the surface Billy Graham looks a classic fundamentalist, but has maintained his openness to the wider Christian community from an early point in his public ministry. In his concluding remarks Holmes got perhaps closest to a satisfactory distinction between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, by stressing that the distinction lies more in the felt context of the two movements than in any actual theological difference. Fundamentalists have tended to be marked by a more embattled mentality than evangelicals. Evangelicals were imbued with a positivism that they soaked-up from their eighteenth century enlightenment milieu. When evangelicals lost that positive edge, they tended to morph into fundamentalists. The afternoon session by Alister McGrath looked at the attitude of fundamentalists and evangelicals towards science. This is of course a very live issue in the contemprary world, and McGrath's paper inevitably engaged heavily with Richard Dawkins and the new atheism. This did have the feeling of being recycled material from another paper; for me the most interesting parts of his paper were the more closely argued historical sections. He started by saying that there is no stark distinction between the attitudes taken by fundamentalists and evangelicals towards science; indeed hostility towards science and scientists has ebbed and flowed. Some evangelicals have been incredibly positive of the scientific agenda, the critical point coming when science seems to become totalising, pushing the need for a transcedent creator to the margins or out of the picture altogether. This argument was fleshed out in a number of case studies, none more interesting than the response of B. B. Warfield to Darwin's theory of evolution. Warfield was, of course, one of the main champions of biblical inerrancy, but saw no problem in harmonising evolution and the Genesis account of creation. For Warfield the key problem with Darwin lay not with evolution as a possible explantion of the process of creation, but with its doing away with any sort of teleology in nature. Warfield attempted to bring this teleology back into Darwinian evolution - he saw no need to interpret Genesis literally because of his underlying committment to the absolute truthfulness of Scripture. McGrath then sketched in the ebb and flow of evangelical hostility to science, reaching peaks in the 1920s, before receding into the background in the mid twentieth century, before its more recent re-occupation of centre stage in evangelical engagement with contemporary culture. Here he stressed that what is at stake in contemporary debates is the cultural hegemony of science, science has in effect replaced religion in giving sense and order to the world. While there was much in this paper of relevance to the project and of wider interest, it was much less focussed on delineating some of the distinctions, if indeed it is possible to make any distinctions, between the attitudes which evangelicals and fundamentalists have taken towards science. The conference ended with a short paper by David Bebbington drawing the strands of the project together and presenting some of our conclusions. While we did not come up with a neat one line definition of Fundamentalism, we did reach some fairly solid conclusions. Fundamentalism was certainly present in Britain in the early twentieth century and beyond; evangelicals have a tendency towards Fundamentalism in certain circumstances, but evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not one and the same thing!

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