N.T. Wright on the Appeal of Fundamentalism

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N.T. Wright, in his recent work The Last Word, has what to me is a keen insight regarding the appeal for many of Fundamentalism.  Wright contends that the reason Fundamentalism has such appeal for many is due to the (understandable) amount of fear and uncertainty that the “postmodern” world has produced.  As Wright puts it:

“Thus understanding the world, understanding reality, and understanding myself all threaten to collapse into a morass, a smog of unknowing, of not even knowing what ‘knowing’ itself might mean (9).”

Wright contends that this “uncertainty in turn, of course, begets a new and anxious eagerness for certainty: hence the appeal of Fundamentalism . . . (9).”  What i find interesting about this observation is tht Wright thus argues that Fundamentalism isn’t a “return” to an archaic way of thinking as much as it is an offspring of the modern mind (eg “reading the Bible within the grid of a quasi- or pseudoscientific quest for ‘objective truth [10]).'”

What i appreciate about Wright’s analysis is that it situates the rise of Fundamentalism within the context of Modern/Postmodern developments.  I think that many believe that Fundamentalists are those who simply never “got with the times (eg embracing the modern world).”  I think the strength of Wright’s analysis is that he shows how the very climate we live in today is what generated such an approach to the world, Scripture, God, etc etc.

I think such an understanding should help us be more sympathetic towards our Fundamentalist brethren.  Beneath the (apparent or perceived) inflexibility and arrogance stands people frightened and intimidated by the prospects of living in the times that we do, wrestling with uncertainty and fear.  For them they take comfort in their “objective knowledge” of the Scripture, and hence also God’s mind. 

Now i know that my initial reaction to this line of thinking is to attack it and denounce it, but when looking at what lies beneath the surface of their views i can see that i’m guilty of doing the same thing, although it isn’t with a literal interpretation of the Bible.  I think that we all want to believe in something (or someone).  It is how we are wired.  I think that we must always bear this in mind when dealing with our Fundamentalist brethren.  They are on the same journey we’re on, trying to deal with the same issues we are.  They may be handling it poorly, but are we not hypocritical when we denounce their methodology and views in a triumphant manner, talking as if we are certain of their ignorance and hypocrisy

This is not to say that we can’t disagree with them.  However, all i’m saying is that we need to practice the same humility and sense of the difficulty of living in the modern world as we wish that they would.  May not by “thinking ourselves wise, we become fools.”  My prayer is that somehow we could learn to be empathic when interacting with them, and who knows they may actually teach us (me) a thing or two. 

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5 responses to “N.T. Wright on the Appeal of Fundamentalism

  1. It’s not simply that Fundamentalists are afraid and decide they need to find some certainty in the confusing and ever-changing world. Instead, they find themselves in a world (shaped by modern philosophy) that says real knowledge is CERTAIN knowledge. They want to say that as Christians they have REAL knowledge, so they need to develop a strategy to show that what they take to be knowledge has sufficient credentials. Modernity (via Descartes & Locke et al.) tells them they need an indubitable foundation on which to build their knowledge claims. They say, “Where can we possible find an indubitable foundation? I’ve got it! Since God is perfect, and perfection entails never erring, surely God’s Word must be inerrant. We have God’s Word – the Bible! It will be our indubitable foundation!”

    As Wright and many others observe, this strategy doesn’t work very well. From my point of view it’s not merely that a Fundamentalist approach to scripture has been found wanting, but that the Foundationalist epistemology that inspired it has been found wanting. Foundationalism works no better in theology than it does elsewhere.

  2. Nice post, Derek. Thanks.

  3. Hey Richard, thanks for the comment. I agree with you that there is a dangerous view of epistemology lurking underneath the Fundamentalist approach to Scripture. I think you and i agree on this, but are stating it different ways. I agree that they are afraid and seeking out certainty b/c of the way they have been told that knowledge=certainty.

    I appreciate the way you have approached this Richard, as it has brought out a different slant on this that i agree with, as far as your analysis goes.

    One last thing. Regarding foudnationalist epistemology, i do this it is dangerous, if let alone to be the sole way to have knowledge. I think (and i haven’t worked this out) that we need a more integrative approach, combining evidentialism, foundationalism, coherentism, and others. I believe that ultimately we need a more social, relationally grounded epistemology. This is the promise that the Incarnation has for us, a way to “ground” reality “in whom, by whom, and for whom” all things are made.

  4. I happened across your website today and noticed you discussed N. T. Wright. You may be interested to know that we at Logos Bible Software are publishing an electronic edition Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. You can visit its Pre-Pub product page here: http://www.logos.com/products/prepub/details/3101. The Logos edition will be fully searchable, and all references and footnotes will operate as hotspots, immediately presenting the cited information whenever the cursor rolls over them. All this and more make this esteemed work even more useful for study. And you can help us see this product get the attention it deserves! Contact me for more info: zrock [at] logos [dot] com.

  5. Hey, cool tips. I’ll buy a glass of beer to that person from that chat who told me to visit your site 🙂

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