Disillusion with Fundamentalism

I had the opportunity at the end of this month (May 2016) to update an interview I did four years ago at TheBestSchools.org:


In the updated interview, I elaborated on my concerns over fundamentalism. Below are the relevant two questions and answers:

Disillusion with Fundamentalism

TBS: In a debate with Christopher Hitchens in 2010, you cite Boethius in saying that goodness is a problem for the atheist in the same way that evil is a problem for the theist. We would like to hear more about both sides of this interesting observation. First, the problem of evil, which is a main topic of your book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B&H Academic, 2009). For the sake of our readers: The “problem of evil” is the apparent incompatibility of evil with the omnipotence and goodness of God. In a nutshell, could you tell us about your personal take on this perennial problem?

WD: My basic line on the problem of evil is the very traditional Christian view that God allows evil temporarily because of the greater good that ultimately results from having allowed it. My entire prepared remarks in the debate with Hitchens are available online. I encourage readers of this interview to look at it. The entire debate is also available here:

What I was dealing with in The End of Christianity is a more narrow problem, namely, how to account for evil within a Christian framework given a reading of Genesis that allows the earth and universe to be billions, rather than merely thousands, of years old. I’m an old-earth creationist, so I accept that the earth and universe are billions of years old. Young-earth creationism, which is the more traditional view, holds that the earth is only thousands of years old.

The reason this divergence between young-earth and old-earth creationists is relevant to the problem of evil is that Christians have traditionally believed that both moral and natural evil are a consequence of the fall of humanity. But natural evil, such as animals killing and parasitizing each other, would predate the arrival of humans on the scene if the earth is old and animal life preceded them. So, how could their suffering be a consequence of human sin and the Fall? My solution is to argue that the Fall had retroactive effects in history (much as the salvation of Christ on the Cross acts not only forward in time to save people now, but also backward in time to save the Old Testament saints).

The book is a piece of speculative theology, and I’m not convinced of all of its details. It’s been interesting, however, to see the reaction in some Christian circles, especially the fundamentalist ones. Ken Ham went ballistic on it, going around the country denouncing me as a heretic, and encouraging people to write to my theological employers to see to it that I get fired for the views I take in it.

At one point in the book, I examine what evolution would look like within the framework I lay out. Now, I’m not an evolutionist. I don’t hold to universal common ancestry. I believe in a real Adam and Eve (i.e., an original human pair) specially created by God apart from primate ancestors. Friends used to joke that my conservativism, both politically and theologically, put me to the right of Attila the Hun. And yet, for merely running the logic of how a retroactive view of the Fall would look from the vantage of Darwinian theory (which I don’t accept), I received email after email calling me a compromiser and someone who has sold out the faith (the emails are really quite remarkable).

There’s a mentality I see prevalent in conservative Christian circles that one can never be quite conservative enough. This got me thinking about fundamentalism and the bane it is. It’s one thing to hold views passionately. It’s another to hold one particular view so dogmatically that all others may not even be discussed, or their logical consequences considered. This worries me about the future of evangelicalism.

When I first began following the conservative resurgence among Southern Baptists in the 1990s, I applauded it. You have to understand, I did my theological education at Princeton Seminary, which was representative of the theological liberalism that to my mind had sold out the faith. The pattern that always seemed to repeat itself was that Christian institutions and denominations that had started out faithful to the Gospel eventually veered away and denied their original faith.

With the Southern Baptists, that dismal trend finally seemed to be reversed. Some of the Baptist seminaries were by the late ’80s and early ’90s as liberal as my Princeton Seminary. And yet, the Southern Baptist Convention reversed course and took back their seminaries, attempting to reestablish Christian orthodoxy. But Christian orthodoxy is one thing. A “canst thou be more conservative than I?” mentality is another. And this is what I saw emerging.

What’s behind this is a sense of beleaguerment by the wider culture and a desire for simple, neat, pat solutions. Life is messy and the Bible is not a book of systematic theology, but to the fundamentalist mentality, this is unacceptable. My book The End of Christianity has, more than any of my other books (and I’ve done over 20), been an eye-opener to me personally in the reaction it elicited. The reaction of Darwinists and theistic evolutionists to my work, though harsh, is predictable. The reaction of fundamentalists was to me surprising, though in hindsight I probably should have expected it.

Why was it surprising to me? I suppose because during my time at Princeton and Baylor, I myself was always characterized as a fundamentalist. “Fundamentalist” is typically a term of abuse (Al Plantinga has described it as “a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’”). But I intend fundamentalism here in a very particular sense.

Fundamentalism, as I’m using it, is not concerned with any doctrinal position, however conservative or traditional. What’s at stake is a harsh, wooden-headed attitude that not only involves knowing one is right, but refuses to listen to, learn from, or understand other Christians, to say nothing of outsiders to the faith. Fundamentalism in this sense is a brain-dead, soul-stifling attitude. I see it as a huge danger for evangelicals.

For a concrete example of fundamentalism at its worst, consider how hyper-conservatives, pushing a jaundiced view of biblical inerrancy, have treated my good friend, colleague, and collaborator Mike Licona (we coedited a book titled Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science). Even though he holds to the entirely traditional view that Jesus resurrected bodily from the dead and is by any accounts conservative in his understanding of the New Testament’s historical reliability, he isn’t quite conservative enough for the hyper-conservatives.

Why? Because he questions whether the account in Matthew 27 of Old Testament saints bursting their tombs and walking around Jerusalem might best be taken allegorically. In consequence, Licona has been ostracized by much of the seminary world in which I used to teach and lecture. Interestingly, you have the story on your website inasmuch as you have interviewed Licona here at The Best Schools.

I’ve digressed. Let me return to your question on the “problem of good.” This problem poses an obvious and devastating refutation of the materialist position the moment one reflects on it. Whence the indignation of the New Atheists against the injustices and evils in the world, if the world is without value, if it is, as Dawkins puts it, a place of “pitiless indifference”? What is pitting these New Atheists so passionately against the objects of their outrage? Good? The Good? The Platonic form of Good? The goodness of God? The irony gets compounded when they need to explain holocaust rescuers or a Mother Teresa.

I purposely ended my formal remarks in the debate with Christopher Hitchens by citing Mother Teresa. I knew this would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Hitchens had done a documentary and then written a book claiming she was a fraud. True to form, Hitchens went on a rant against her once I brought her up, which did not help him in the debate. Hitchens is not the only atheist who needed to explain away Mother Teresa’s acts of charity. E. O. Wilson has done the same.

In a world so filled with evil, why go after Mother Teresa? Because, despite her faults, if her goodness is left unchallenged, it challenges a materialistic worldview that at bottom has no substantive values. It’s fine, on such a view, for values to be explained as culturally or evolutionarily conditioned. But real goodness that transcends such relativism is unacceptable.

TBS: Your digression concerning the fundamentalist reaction to your book The End of Christianity is in fact no digression at all. We want to ask you about a strange episode involving that book that occurred in 2010 shortly after its publication, while you were still teaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Tom Nettles, a professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where you had previously taught, wrote a scathing review of The End of Christianity. In response, the president of your seminary as well as the dean issued a white paper defending you and your work in this book, sort of. In that white paper you had a four-paragraph statement, whose main purpose seems to be to assure readers of your orthodoxy. It all feels very carefully choreographed. What was up with that?

WD: Good question. Perceptive question. The white paper you describe and the events surrounding it are, probably more than anything, the reason I’m no longer teaching at theological seminaries. Indeed, this entire incident left so bad a taste in my mouth that I resolved to leave teaching, leave the academy, and get into a business for myself, in which my income would not depend on political correctness or, for that matter, theological correctness.

Sometimes I marvel at my own naiveté. I wrote The End of Christianity thinking that it might be a way to move young-earth creationists from their position that the earth and universe are only a few thousand years old by addressing the first objection that they invariably throw at an old-earth position, namely, the problem of natural evil before the Fall. I thought that by proposing my retroactive view of the Fall, that I was addressing their concern and thus that I might see some positive movement toward my old-earth position.

Boy, was I ever wrong. As a professional therapist once put it to me, the presenting problem is never the real problem. I quickly found out that the young-earth theologians I was dealing with were far less concerned about how the Fall could be squared with an old earth than with simply preserving the most obvious interpretation of Genesis 1–3, namely, that the earth and universe are just a few thousand years old. Again, we’re talking the fundamentalist impulse to simple, neat, pat answers. Now I’ll readily grant that the appeal to complexity can be a way of evading the truth. But so can the appeal to simplicity, and fundamentalism loves keeping things simple.

In any case, after the review of Tom Nettles appeared, I sensed a seismic shift against me at Southwestern Seminary where I was teaching. Previously I had been a golden boy, with my visage even being used to advertise the seminary in publications such as World Magazine. Now, however, fellow faculty showed a solicitude for me that I had not seen before, as though I might be facing the gallows.

Perhaps I was. I was to meet in the president’s office, and those present would include the president, the provost, the dean of theology, and one of the senior professors. I knew that I was not up for the Nobel Prize or any honor that might warrant a meeting with such an august assembly. And so, with a keen sense for the obvious, I concluded that I was in a heap of trouble. Indeed, I was.

Fortunately, I was at the time a visible figure in the evangelical world. I had been cashiered by Baylor, and this was widely reported in the evangelical press, to the detriment of Baylor. Presumably, the Southwestern administration would be reluctant to make a similar example of me. One of my friends on the Southwestern faculty telegraphed me where the problem lay: my supposedly unorthodox views on Noah’s flood—I kid you not.

Strictly speaking, my project in The End of Christianity centered on the interpretation of Genesis 1–3. But at the very end of the book, I raised some questions about Noah’s flood in light of an old earth (Noah appears in Genesis 6–9). I never thought the matter through very closely, but it seemed to me if one had latitude in interpreting Genesis 1–3, then one could have some latitude here. I suggested as much in The End of Christianity.

At the meeting with president, provost, dean, and senior professor, the president made it clear to me from the start that my job was on the line. “Job on the line” in this context does not mean finishing out the academic year and giving me a chance to find another academic job. My questioning the universality of Noah’s flood meant I was a heretic, or at least not suitable for teaching at Southern Baptist seminaries, and thus I’d need to be clearing my desk immediately—unless my theological soundness could be quickly reestablished.

With a severely autistic son, debts, and a family still upset about my experience at Baylor, I wasn’t about to bare my soul and tell this second star chamber (my first being Baylor’s External Review Committee) what I really thought. I therefore finessed it. You can read the statement I wrote for yourself, especially paragraph three, where I said just enough to keep my job, and just enough to give me room to recant, as I’m doing here.

If I had been feeling less vulnerable, if I had independent financial means, I would have said goodbye to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary right then and there. This is one of the things I find most destructive about fundamentalism, the constant threat that at any moment one can run afoul of the orthodoxy du jour, and be thrown under the bus because that’s the proper place for heretics.

This is a deeply unhealthy situation for theological education, leading to a slavish mentality among faculty, who must constantly monitor and censor themselves if they are to stay in the good graces of the fundamentalist power structures.

Upton Sinclair once remarked, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” In my own case, I would amend this to, “It is difficult to get a man to admit his actual beliefs when his salary depends on not admitting them.”

I was always up front with Southwestern Seminary about my old-earth views. But over time it became clear that I was increasingly in the minority and that the young-earth position was the safer one to assume. Ironically, I had not misrepresented my views on Noah’s flood when I was hired at Southwestern Seminary—it simply didn’t come up. Indeed, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, to which I had to subscribe, makes no mention of Noah’s flood, nor was I ever asked about it during my job interview and hiring process.

In any case, outsiders saw clearly what was happening. The clearest was perhaps Andrea Bottaro, a biologist critic of intelligent design, who cut through this charade. At the Panda’s Thumb blog, he remarked,

Dembski said he is an inerrantist, not a literalist. I am not really up to speed with fundie systematics, but I think that is a fairly significant difference (to them, at least).

Also, I am pretty sure Dembski had to be an inerrantist (or profess to be) in order to be hired to teach in any Baptist seminary, so I think the big news, if any, is basically that Dembski explicitly stated that at this time he actually believes in Noah’s ark myth as it is described in the Bible. It’s a silly belief, and his groveling for forgiveness should be brought up any time the IDists whine about academic freedom, but it still doesn’t make him a YEC [= young-earth creationism, WmAD].

Dembski’s book (reportedly—I have not read it) states that he believes that the evidence for an old earth is strong and that this evidence is compatible with an inerrantist interpretation of Genesis. Although he oh-hums on the topic in his recantation [i.e., my four paragraphs in the White Paper, WmAD], he has not recanted it, and that alone rules him out as a YEC. In fact, strictly speaking his current recantation also leaves him open to later recant the recantation itself, because what he actually says says is that the Bible “**seem[s]** clearly to teach” the historicity of the flood myth, pending his “exegetical, historical and theological” (and pointedly, not “scientific”) work on the topic.

As much as I hate to admit it, Bottaro got it exactly right. I would still regard myself as an inerrantist, but an inerrancy in what the Bible actually teaches, not an inerrancy in what a reflexive literalism would demand of the Bible. Have I, as Bottaro suggests, left myself open to recanting the recantation? I have. Without the threat of losing my job, I see Noah’s flood as a story with a theological purpose based on the historical occurrence of a local flood in the ancient Near East.

To date, I have not done the exegetical, historical, and theological work that I said I needed to do if I were weighing in on this topic again. But I’m not weighing in on this topic as a theologian or exegete or historian intent on making a rigorous argument. Having left seminary teaching for good, I’m now a private citizen entitled to my opinion.