Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: Prologue

A good man ther was of religioun,
That was a poure PERSONE of a tonn:
But riche he was of holy thought and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche.
His parishens devoutly wolde he teche.
Benigne he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversite ful patient:
And swiche he was ypreved often sithes.
Ful loth were him to cursen for his tithes,
But rather wolde he yeven out of doute,
Unto his poure parishens aboute,
Of his offring, and eke of his substance.
He coude in litel thing have suffisance.
Wide was his parish, and houses fer asonder,
But he ne left nought for no rain ne thonder,
In sikenesse and in mischief to visite
The ferrest in his parish, moche and lite,
Upon his fete, and in his hand a staf.
This noble ensample to his shepe he yaf,
That first he wrought, and afterward he taught.
Out of the gospel he the wordes caught,
And this figure he added yet therto,
That if gold ruste, what shuld iren do?
For if a preest be foule, on whom we trust,
No wonder is a lewed man to rust:
And shame it is, if that a preest take kepe,
To see a shitten shepherd, and clene shepe: soe
Wei ought a preest ensample for to yeve,
By his clenenesse, how his shepe shulde live.
He sette not his benefice to hire,
And lette his shepe acombred in the mire,
And ran unto London, unto Seint Poules,
To seken him a chanterie for soules,
Or with a brotherhede to be withold:
But dwelt at home, and kepte wel his fold,
So that the wolf ne made it not miscarie.
He was a shepherd, and no mercenarie.
And though he holy were, and vertuous,
He was to sinful men not dispitous,
Ne of his speche dangerous ne digne,
But in his teching discrete and benigne.
To drawen folk to heven, with fairenesse,
By good ensample, was his besinesse :
But it were any persone obstinat.
What so he were of highe, or low estat,
Him wolde he snibben sharply for the nones.
A better preest I trowe that no wher non is.
He waited after no pompe ne reverence,
Ne maked him no spiced conscience,
But Cristes lore, and his apostles twelve,
He taught, but first he folwed it himselve.

Let me preface this by saying that my qualifications to express an opinion on fundamentalism are not so much scholarly as experiential. I am not drawing on my rather scanty reading of studies of fundamentalism, so much as on the fact that my upbringing was among fundamentalists. Of my American acquaintances, the majority in my generation wound up going to Bob Jones University –or to institutions which considered BJU as somewhat deficiently conservative. Harold Sightler was a familiar voice from his sermons on tape: my father was an admirer of Carl McIntire. I believe the first theological topic I became conversant with was the doctrine of separation: and I first learned to pour scorn on labels by being taught to see through those who mocked the pursuit of purity in the church as “secondary separation”. For many years I have been part of a church with historic ties to Dr. Ian R.K. Paisley. In my own upbringing, it may suffice to point out that I did not enter a movie theater for the first time until I was in my twenties, and drinking, smoking, gambling, and listening to rock music were all placed on the same level of unbelievable and intolerable wickedness which perhaps someone might have done once years ago before they were saved. I believe, in other words, that I have enough experience among the fundamentalists to say something about them.
And let me say as well that it is not my purpose to undervalue fundamentalism. They have certainly opposed liberalism and apostasy and compromise. They have not been afraid to call error by its own proper name. They have been generous: they have sent out many missionaries; they have been certain enough of the Bible to stand out against contemporary culture on the strength of it. I think it is indisputable that without them the numbers of those who actually believe that the Bible is God’s word would be much smaller. In my own experience, the most shining examples of hospitality, of generosity, of prayerfulness, of zeal have usually come from my fundamentalist, rather than from my Reformed or broadly evangelical acquaintances
And yet it is obvious on the face of it that there are problems within the movement. Doctrinal minimalism (and at least at times a sort of anti-intellectualism) is one point that springs to mind. Instead of keeping a full-orbed confession, they have deliberately shaved doctrinal statements down to a minimum. In close connection with this, there has been a massive emphasis on points of external conduct, and many are more zealous for maintaining a code of standards than for upholding the law of God or preaching the Gospel of Christ. They have seized on ancillary points (sometimes legitimate, sometimes without even that) and elevated them to absolute criteria for fellowship, obscuring more fundamental concerns. Naturally in many cases this has led to a great deal of hypocrisy.
Obviously in many cases there has also been an undue belligerence. The separatists have become schismatic, and in an ironic turn have become those who cause divisions, whom, according to the apostolic precept, we must avoid (Romans 16:17). In connection with this must be mentioned the lack of self-control manifested in fits of temper and self-righteous outbursts which have plagued many adherents of the movement. And of course there is a great lack of love manifested in and strengthened by this tendency. And these points often show up in graceless, legalistic, browbeating preaching which is nothing short of spiritual abuse of the sheep of God’s flock.
But these, I think, with the possible exception of the doctrinal minimalism, are symptoms rather than the disease itself (in part because of the exceptions which I, and anyone well acquainted with fundamentalism of the variety I am describing here can easily come up with). There is a common thread which binds these different defects together, and is clearly seen in the grasping for power and control, the hunger for notoriety, which can often be observed within the movement. Closely allied to this is the spin, the way of excusing or justifying or concealing obvious abuses within the institutions. Dissenters are vilified: people who leave are sadly prayed for as being in spiritual peril, or denounced as spiritual traitors. Authority and influence (legitimate or illegitimate) are systematically used and abused for the preservation of people and institutions, to achieve the continued hegemony of a particular leader, organization, or platform.
Our Lord makes two statements which I believe sum up the root of the problems that fundamentalism has been plagued with since its inception (to pursue this further may I recommend the sympathetic history by David O. Beale called In Pursuit of Purity and published by Bob Jones University press). These words cut through the pretenses and lay bare the real suppurating wound in the heart of this Christian movement.
John 5:44 “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?”
John 7:24 “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”
There is a real, in many cases a patent, ignoring or twisting of God’s word in order to maintain a certain position within the world of fundamentalism. Preachers who seem to be polar opposites in methodology and what theology they have, nonetheless invite one another to preach: politics dictates who is “godly” and “a good preacher” and “a great man of God”. Fawning introductions are given in introducing guest speakers. And of course this can only be sustained by a persistent refusal to look on anything except the outward appearance –and even that, only in a limited sense.
In what may seem like a paradoxical twist, the fundamentalists who are constantly mocked by the world, have developed a consuming concern for their own reputation for respectability. Many times this eagerness to be thought well of is concealed under or justified by an exaggerated concern to “have a good testimony”. This seems paradoxical, because of course many fundamentalists are perfectly willing to be scorned by the world and be written off as crazy, illiterate, behind the times, or fanatical. But those are not the points on which they pride themselves: their positive self-image does not depend on favorable views from the world. But it does depend on being perceived as godly, anointed, steadfast, fearless, in the right. This is the explanation of their externalism: “we must look godly.” This is the explanation for a lot of their rage: “those who might make us look bad must be so thoroughly discredited that no one who matters will ever believe them.” Hence the rather frequent question, “Are you going to take the word of some malcontent over that of these godly men?” But what if the malcontent has documents, recordings, witnesses? And what if the godly men aren’t actually godly?
In other words, my thesis is that the explanation for the defects of fundamentalism is almost brutally simple. They have fallen prey to worldliness. The pride of life has consumed them (see this previous post for a documentation of worldliness with regard to the ministry). Their zeal has become a zeal for their own righteousness –a paltry, external thing that must be propped up by unbiblical standards and maintained in the minds of other fundamentalists whatever the cost. We thought that in the last days men would be lovers of themselves (though we didn’t always see that it would be in their own self-righteous self-image); we knew that they would be boastful (though we haven’t always understood that it would be in how well they kept their precious standards); but what we didn’t see was that these people would be in the church, that they would have a very impressive form of godliness.
What if there was always a creeping worm of self-righteous pride at the back of this movement? And what if it has become a mighty dragon of worldliness, an insatiable longing for being acknowledged as godly? It would certainly not mean that there are no true believers within that movement: it does not mean that even among the leadership there are not many who will sit down in the kingdom with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, instances of people who having been redeemed by the Lord have become holy, and humble, and happy. But it does mean that many have lost their first love: it does mean that many have a name that they live and are, in fact, dead. And it does mean that we are called upon to turn away from such as have the form of godliness, but deny the power of it (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

Praise Because Things Are

February 13th, 2008

Here is a quote by Chesterton, which says what Annie Dillard was driving at in other quotes on this blog and also explains how she (and Cicero) could come to say some of the things I’ve quoted.

G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer

There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking. For he who has realized this reality knows that it does outweigh, literally to infinity, all lesser regrets or arguments for negation, and that under all our grumblings there is a subconscious substance of gratitude. That light of the positive is the business of the poets, because they see all things in the light of it more than do other men [or they are able to give expression to what they see better than other men]. Chaucer was a child of light and not merely of twilight, the mere red twilight of one passing dawn of revolution, or the grey twilight of one dying day of social decline. He was the immediate heir of something like what Catholics call the Primitive Revelation; that glimpse that was given of the world when God saw that it was good; and so long as the artist gives us glimpses of that, it matters nothing that they are fragmentary or even trivial; whether it be in the mere fact that a medieval Court poet could appreciate a daisy, or that he could write in a sort of flash of blinding moonshine, of the lover who ‘slept no more than does the nightingale’. These things belong to the same world of wonder as the primary wonder at very existence of the world; higher than any common pros or cons, or likes and dislikes, however legitimate. Creation was the greatest of all Revolutions. It was for that, as the ancient poet said, that the morning stars sang together; and the most modern poets, like the medieval poets, may descend very far from that height of realization and stray and stumble and seem distraught; but we shall know them for the Sons of God, when they are still shouting for joy. This is something much more mystical and absolute than any modern thing that is called optimism; for it is only rarely that we realize like a vision filled with a chorus of giants, the primeval duty of Praise.

The Inscrutable Trinity

February 11th, 2008

A reminder, from a fine Franciscan, that God is incomprehensible.

St. Bonaventura, Journey of the Mind Into God, ch.6 3
But when you contemplate these, see, that you do not consider yourself able to comprehend the incomprehensible. For in these six conditions you still have to consider what leads the eye of our mind vehemently into the stupor of admiration. For there is the Most High Communicability together with the property of the Persons, the Most High Consubstantiality together with the plurality of the hypostases, the Most High Configurability together with discrete personality, the Most High Co-equality together with order, the Most High Co-eternity together with emanation, the Most High Co-intimacy together with emission. Who at the sight of so great wonders does not rise up with others in admiration? But all these we most certainly understand to be in the Most Blessed Trinity, if we raise our eyes to the most superexcellent Goodness. For if there is a most high communication and true diffusion, there is a true origin and a true distinction; and because the whole is communicated, not the part; for that reason that which is given, is what is had, and it is the whole; therefore emanating and producing, they are both distinguished in properties, and are essentially one. Therefore because they are distinguished in properties, for that reason the have personal properties and a plurality of hypostases and an emanation of origin and and order not of posteriority, but of origin, and an emission not of local change, but by the gratuity of inspiration, on account of of the authority of the one producing, which the one being sent has in respect to being sent. But because they are substantially one, for that reason it is proper, that there be a unity in essence and in form and dignity and eternity and existence and incircumscriptibility. Therefore while you consider these things singly through themselves, you have that from which is the truth you contemplate; while comparing these one to another, you have that from which you are suspended into the highest admiration; and for that reason, as your mind ascends through admiration into admirable contemplation, these things must be considered at the same time.