Fundamentalism and the Darwin anniversary

I was in Oxford recently, for the latest conference of the excellent Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in Britain project (website). Focusing on the first half of the twentieth century, almost every paper was interesting and serious. Particular highlights for me included insight into the British contributors to the Fundamentals and a strikingly revisionist account of the 1909 split between the Student Christian Movement and the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, but really, there were no weak points amongst the main papers. Listening to an exchange between Martin Wellings (whose paper on Methodist Fundamentalism was also very good) and Andrew Atherstone, I finally came up with what, for me, is the perfect definition of ‘fundamentalism’: Andrew cited Methodist leaders who shared platforms with the fundamentalists, and held to many of the same doctrinal points, even quoting one as saying that he would sooner cut his own arm off than compromise. Why were these people not considered fundamentalists, he asked? My answer: a moderate threatens to cut his own arm off; a fundamentalist is after someone else’s… Rob Warner gave an interesting and entertaining paper on two fictional accounts of children rejecting the Evangelical religion of their parents, in the classic novels Father and Son and The Way of all Flesh. Both reflect the late Victorian crisis of faith in personal, powerful and (in the case of Butler particularly) bitingly humorous narrative, and Rob brought the themes out well. The 2009 Darwin anniversary (bicentenary of his birth; 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species) will generate all sorts of events (see here…). Many of them will assume a historical account that views Darwin’s discoveries as the key moment in the crisis of faith, and so of Western secularisation: evolution disproved a literal reading of Genesis and so led to the gradual, but inexorable, decline of religion in Europe and the USA. No need, I trust, to rehearse the multiple errors in this account here, but one aspect, that interests me, and that I have commented on before, came up in Rob’s paper, entirely in passing. In a list of the intellectual failures of their parents, both the narrators of the novels mention the influence of uniformitarian geology. Long before Darwin ever published (1830-33), Charles Lyell had argued for the antiquity of the earth on geological grounds. I have on my shelves Pye Smith’s attempts to reconcile geology and Scripture, first published in 1840; also a book claiming that a survey of American churchgoers in the 1840s demonstrated already a significant move away from a ‘literal’ reading of Genesis 1. The idea that Darwin is the cause of the crisis of faith is, as far as I can see, simply false, derived essentially from reading back events from 1920s America into 1850s Britain. At best, Darwin was a minor contributor to a cultural mood; more realisitically, as Butler and Gosse implicitly demonstrate, orthodox Christianity, often evangelical, remained culturally normal through the second half of the nineteenth century. If a scientific challenge to this was felt, it came (rightly or wrongly) from geology, not biology. Worth remembering as the year’s hype builds,...

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The Wise Men

The Wise Men G.K. Chesterton The house from which the heavens are fed, The old strange house that is our own, Where tricks of words are never said, And Mercy is as plain as bread, And Honour is as hard as stone. Go humbly, humble are the skies, And low and large and fierce the Star; So very near the Manger lies That we may travel far. Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes To roar to the resounding plain, And the whole heaven shouts and shakes, For God Himself is born again, And we are little children walking Through the snow and rain. Step softly, under snow or rain, To find the place where men can pray; The way is all so very plain That we may lose the way. Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore On tortured puzzles from our youth, We know all labyrinthine lore, We are the three wise men of yore, And we know all things but the truth. We have gone round and round the hill And lost the wood among the trees, And learnt long names for every ill, And served the mad gods, naming still The furies the Eumenides. The gods of violence took the veil Of vision and philosophy, The Serpent that brought all men bale, He bites his own accursed tail, And calls himself Eternity. Go humbly … It has hailed and snowed … With voices low and laterns lit; So very simple is the road, That we may stray from it. The world grows terrible and white, And blinding white the break of day; We walk bewildered in the light, For something is too large for sight, And something much to plain to say. The Child that was ere worlds begun (…We need but walk a little way, We need but see a latch undone…) The Child that played with moon and sun Is playing with a little hay. Merry Christmas (and a happy Epiphany …) to anyone who happens to be reading....

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Theological textbooks

Ben has a teaching job (congratulations, Ben!), and asked on Facebook about textbooks for introductory theology courses. I started writing a comment, which rapidly became an essay; but it seemed a question of more general interest, so I thought I’d move my thoughts here… Which is the best textbook? I can’t answer this without answering several prior questions about the nature of the course, how it fits into the wider curriculum, the identity of the students, &c., &c. I’d start by thinking about these: 1. What do I want to achieve in this course? (Not ‘learning outcomes’, although including those as well): Do I want students to have a basic understanding of the major loci of theology? Do I want them to have a detailed knowledge of certain key loci (Trinity & Christology, say)? Do I want to introduce them to the breadth of the theological tradition? Do I want them to be seriously grounded in one tradition (Wesleyan; Reformed; Pentecostal; neo-Thomist)? Do I want them to face up to modern critiques of theology and possible answers? Do I want them thoroughly grounded in the patristic debates and ecumenical decisions? Do I want them to understand the nature of theological claims and argument? Do I want them to be excited about the possibilities of theology? Do I want them alive to majority world and gender issues concerning justice, and how these impact theology? Do I want to emphasise the ethical and social implications of theology? These all pull in different directions. I grew up on the ‘worthy but dull’ tradition of evangelical textbooks – we had Erickson, but McGrath and Grudem are now more popular. For a while, I reacted badly, emphasising interest and excitement over content (if they’re up to it, give them Gunton’s Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, and let Jenson and Hauerwas provoke them with idiosyncratic views). When Colin Gunton, Murray Rae and I wrote a textbook, it was designed explicitly for a course on theological method, and with an eye to introducing people to the major voices of the theological tradition. The thing is, you can’t be both comprehensive and deep, both balanced and provocative; in the space of one module including one thing means excluding something else (or failing to do either…). Only when you know what the course is aiming to achieve can you choose a textbook that will help, rather than hinder, your aims. 2. What does the wider curriculum look like? What opportunities for supplementing or reinforcing your course are there? Are all the students doing level 1 church history at the same time? If so, what is it about? If it is patristics (it often is, rightly or wrongly), you can choose to focus on ecumenical debates over Trinity and Christology, and expect some reinforcement between the courses, or you can choose to go light on the ecumenical debates, trusting your colleague to give the students the things you are skipping in her lectures/seminars. How much other theology are the students forced to do? How much are they able to do? If yours is the only compulsory course, what is so central that every student should have met it? If there is another compulsory course in year 2, what does it contain? What do students need to know to engage with that course effectively (you need to give it to them)? What are they going to do in detail there, allowing you to go light on it? Here in St Andrews, Alan Torrance teaches our introductory module. He does a stunningly good job of exciting students about the possibilities and relevance of theology, and of introducing them to certain absolutely central concepts and debates. I get them in the second year; knowing this background, I feel constrained to give them a survey course that introduces most doctrinal loci and the general shape of them. The broader curriculum has to fit together. 3. Who are your students? This question includes intellectual ability; previous academic achievement; faith commitments; vocational intentions; age, gender and ethnic profile; and some other things. I first taught theology in Spurgeons College, a Baptist college for ordinands. The students there varied extraordinarily widely in intellect and academic background, but were united by a broadly evangelical faith and a commitment to the Christian ministry. Here in St Andrews, the students are uniformly intellectually able and academically well-prepared, but vary significantly in their beliefs and intentions. In Spurgeons, I needed a textbook (or a suite of textbooks) that would interest recent Oxford graduates and be accessible to ex-bricklayers, but I could assume a particular angle on the subject. Here, I can assume a certain level...

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