Monday, November 2, 2009

“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” (Harry, Emerson Fosdick, a sermon from 1922)

Has been described as a call “for an open-minded, intellectual, and tolerant ‘Christian fellowship.’”

Thankfully, my studies often resonate with my genuine interests because I am able to pursue a major (Religious Studies) that I enjoy (regardless of next year’s job opportunities, or lack thereof). This week’s assignment “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” sparked something unusual in me – enough so that I felt inspired to write about it for the Stanford Interfaith Blog. I read Fosdick’s sermon this weekend because it was assigned as homework for my History class about Religion in America (HISTORY 154A) but as I was reading through the short document (only 8 pages!) I couldn’t help thinking how the sermon is a wonderful defense of the interfaith movement as I see it.

Fosdick makes the claim that Fundamentalism jeopardizes not only Christian unity and fellowship, but also tolerance and peaceful solutions to problem-solving in general. In this blog post, I want to share with you some of the quotes that I found most relevant to our mission as interfaith activists and discuss the reasons why I find his sermon inspirational. Its still difficult for me to comprehend how a sermon over eighty years old can still be relevant today. Have we progressed at all since then? How can we win the fight in the future?

1. “We should not identify the Fundamentalists with the conservatives. All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists. The best conservatives can often give lessons to the liberals in true liberality of spirit, but the Fundamentalist program is essentially illiberal and intolerant.”

This sermon sets out from the very beginning to identify the particular group of Christians with whom Fosdick has problems: the Fundamentalists – who are conservative in nature, but unique in that they are “essentially illiberal and intolerant.” I consider myself to be a liberal and tolerant person, and therefore flatter myself by imagining Fosdick on my side. But my identity aside, I am very glad that Fosdick makes the distinction between conservatives in general and the particular brand of conservatives that are Fundamentalist – since we often wrongly equate the two still today.

2. “This is a free country and anybody has a right to hold these opinions or any others if he is sincerely convinced of them. The question is—Has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship? The Fundamentalists say that this must be done.”

Great point! How can we really look someone in the eye and say “Well, I don’t think you’re a Christian because you don’t believe x, y, and z! Stop calling yourself a Christian! Only people like me are real Christians!” How is it our place to judge others so harshly and shut them out from our brotherhood? [I believe same argument can be made for many other religions, by the way.]

3. “Here in the Christian churches are these two groups of people and the question which the Fundamentalists raise is this—Shall one of them throw the other out? ... Is not the Christian Church large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested? The Fundamentalists say not.”

Why can’t they just “agree to disagree” about the small points until the “fuller truth” is revealed? I guess one objection is that the Fundamentalist groups consider these “small points” to actually be “big points” deserving of such hatred and animosity. However, it would take a lot of arguing to convince me that anything is worth this kind of judgment and conviction. But if even one side of the debate sees it in terms of “who will win and get to throw the loser out of the ‘church’ officially”… then there will be a lot of ‘churches’ in existence. Too bad unity is so hard!

4. “The first element that is necessary is a spirit of tolerance and Christian liberty. When will the world learn that intolerance solves no problems?”

Genius: “intolerance solves no problems.” I agree. Enough said.

5. “…there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is.”

Another touching line: love is never mistaken. Why can’t we all love each other and get along? Boo reality; w00t idealists.

6. “Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young man, “Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths which we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.” Can you imagine any man who is worthwhile turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to 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. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.’”

This part of the sermon was extremely moving for me because I very much enjoyed Fosdick’s portrait of Science vs. Fundamentalist Religion. In this story, science is portrayed as a welcoming and challenging field of study with open-ended results. On the other side, Fundamentalist religion is portrayed as a confining and prescribed set of beliefs that minimize actual thinking. No wonder one is more attractive than the other (to me, at least, who likes to use my mind).

7. “The second element which is needed if we are to reach a happy solution of this problem is a clear insight into the main issues of modern Christianity and a sense of penitent shame that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs.”

I think that these lines will be particularly inspiring to those people who feel the call of social action and want to solve the world’s great problems together instead of arguing over each other’s minute differences. This quote forces me to broaden my perspective and realize that the little debates between sects are just the small problems in this world; and that instead we should focus our energy on solving the big problems --> like Malaria! (that one’s for you, Anand!)

8. “God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship; intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.”

What a great ending note: let us be tolerant in a caring way.

Feel free to comment on the blog :-)

With love,

~ Jenny

1 comment:

  1. "The sun rises and the sun also sets and there is nothing new under the sun."

    Not quite accurate in that new things do appear; however, much happens again and again. Admittedly Fosdick isn't that long ago (he apparently lived to 1969). For an earlier interfaith attempt look to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago 1893 (though I'm not sure atheists were invited). Robert Ingersoll, the best known American agnostic of the time, stated

    "It was a good thing to get the representatives of all creeds to meet and tell their beliefs. The tendency, I think, is to do away with prejudice, with provincialism, with egotism. ...[I've chopped a bit here that is likely to offend some]" (page 535, The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, 1909).