The more things change…
…the more they stay the same.
This is why learning history is important. When we learn history – actual history – then we see patterns and themes emerge. We see the same reasoning and logic run through a variety of topics and issues. We see how the same arguments have been going on for a long time.
For example, I’m reading “The Evangelicals” by Frances Fitzgerald. It’s the story/history of the Evangelical movement in America. It’s really quite fascinating. What is most interesting though is reading the arguments that Evangelicals have been making all along.
Part of the Evangelical story is the rise of Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism rises up as a way to combat what was considered modernism at the time. The key battles take place in the 1910’s and 1920’s around the time of World War I. This is when evolution is put on trial, the world has been at war, and the order of things is changing.
Sounds similar to our current time in which we face a pandemic, economic uncertainty, arguments around race, climate issues, and politically unhealthy systems. Things are changing. In both cases, this leaves people without a sense of control over their lives. When the world (and people’s lives) are out of control, many respond in one of two ways – to embrace the uncertainty and know that things are changing and adapt accordingly, or to assert more control. This usually doesn’t end well when we try to assert more control and make reality fit our desire.
In the book, the author tells of Evangelicals/Fundamentalists writing about the alarming threat of modernism.
One example is of William B. Riley, a fundamentalist preacher who was pastor of a large church and a Bible School, as well as editor of religious journals and a speaker at conferences. “[in 1917], he published the Menace of Modernism, a book with a more alarming message than the first. Numerous Antichrists, he reported, had invaded not just the seminaries but also most of the institutions of American higher education, including the state universities and many of the colleges founded as Christian schools. Wishing these hallowed halls of learning, professors were teaching Darwinism and contempt for biblical truth. In alliance with modernist ministers they were attacking the nation’s Christian heritage and undermining the more foundations of the society. The book was pervaded by a sense of alarm about the danger to American culture…” (Pg. 114)
With some slight changes, this could have just as easily be similar arguments that we hear today. Not much has changed. The names of those making the arguments change, but the core arguments themselves don’t. Modernism of 1917 was a recognition that things were changing. And the Fundamentalists felt like the world was going out of their control.
“Fundamentalist ministers, were, after all, men of strong egos. Those who had built up their own churches or Bible schools were rulers of their own fiefdoms, and, as believers in absolute standards of right and wrong, they tended to be authoritarian of temperament.” (Pg. 116)
Again, this is still true today. Strong egos, rulers of fiefdoms, and absolutes are all things that point towards the desire for control over one’s life, and the world.
We don’t talk about a fundamentalist/modernist divide in Christianity today, but the same divide still exists. It’s a divide over whether we are going to exert control over ourselves, others, and the world, or whether we adapt to changes based on new information.
In a theological sense, this comes down to a key question – when are the best days? Are the best days in the past, or are they yet to come? Fundamentalist belief systems answer that question pointing to the past based on how they operate. You’ll often hear about trying to restore a certain morality, or take a more literal view of Scripture, or reestablish a culture and a cultural system. All of these are oriented towards a known quality – a sense of control and enforced order. Back to a simpler time in which people knew what was right and what was wrong (supposedly). it’s a fondness for the past – a type of nostalgia the ignores inconvenient truths about the past (like abuses, exploitation, dehumanizations, etc.).
Modernist belief systems tend to look at the question and answer that the best days are yet to come. It’s a look to the future – the fulfillment of the promises that God has made. Most of this comes from seeing the present (and past) for what they are, and believing the promise of what is to come. Modernists don’t fear new ideas. They don’t worry about their faith falling apart if science shows a new learning. Modernists see faith and science and reason all working together, not in conflict. For modernists, it isn’t control and order that they value highest. Rather it is the pursuit of the vision – because the vision holds great promise and will make the world and lives much better than they are today or at any point in the past. Why go back? It’s better up ahead.
So, whether we are talking about 100 years ago and the debate between fundamentalists and modernists, 500 years ago between Reformers and the Catholic Church, 2000 years ago between Jesus and his followers and the Roman Empire and established Temple authorities, the arguments are not all that different. The names and the faces change, as do the issues, but the core beliefs don’t. This was true then and it’s still true today.
Are the best days in the past, or are they yet to come? The answer to that question determines so much. And when you know history, you’ll know the arguments. You’ll see the trends. You’ll hear the themes. And you’ll be ready to face them.