How do we respond to fundamentalism? Raymond E. Brown has the answer!
Raymond E. Brown (1928-1988), an American Roman Catholic priest and renown Biblical scholar, answers this question in his short and accessible book, 101 Questions and Answers on the Bible. He has written many famous scholarly texted, used in many Protestant and Roman Catholic seminaries, including An Introduction to the New Testament, and a commentary on the biblical nativities titled, The Birth of the Messiah, and a commentary on the passion narratives titled, The Death of the Message (2 vols.), and An Introduction to New Testament Christology and too many more to recommend...
Reading 101 Questions and Answers on the Bible is a sobering experience, sitting at the feet of a seasoned biblical expert. In this book, R.E. Brown is a sage providing candid advice after a lifetime of work in biblical studies that all American Evangelicals should meditate long and hard upon heading.
Q. 33. How would you counteract this biblical fundamentalism?
That is an immense subject: I can only outline some suggestions.
1. Do not waste time arguing over individual biblical texts with fundamentalists. The question is a much large one of overall views of religion, of Christianity, and of the nature of the Bible.
2. Do not attack fundamentalists as if they were fools or ignorant. Often, biblical literalism is an attitude of self-defensiveness for even extremely intelligent people who have been trapped. They want to preserve their faith in God, and this seems to them the only way. They will understand your attacks on them as an attack on their faith. There can be fundamentalists very well-informed in biblical archeology and languages. They will have developed apologetic arguments against any nonliteral positions. For example, if one is against evolution, one can argue that God created the world with fossils already in it and, therefore, that the fossil proof for evolution can be dismissed!
3. If you encounter a convinced fundamentalists, beware of trying to convert that person too suddenly away from fundamentalism. The result may not be the fundamentalist's adherence to a more centrist Christian view, but a complete loss of faith. The more important goal is not to devastate fundamentalists, but to offer those who have not already been swallowed up by fundamentalism a richer faith and a more intelligent presentation of the Bible.
4. That last remark leads me into the key step we must take. The bible must be presented intelligently and in a non-literalist fashion on the media, in the churches, in Bible classes, etc. If people want to know about the Bible, and the only ones who offer them a chance to know about it are the fundamentalists, they will go to the fundamentalists. I do not care how rich the liturgy is, how firm the catechism is, how marvelous the personal devotions are—if the Bible is left out, the situation is dangerous. It is dangerous on the American scene in particular, where, as I explained, the Bible is the lingua franca of religion. Here, unless one can talk biblically, one cannot talk religiously. This is dangerous on a personal level because the Bible has such tremendous attractiveness that it cannot simply be counteracted, nor should it be, by substitution.
5. There is a shortage of Catholic priests and many Catholic priests are not good expositors of the Bible. At the same time there is a real interest among the laity, and they should be tapped for this service. But they have to be informed, and that task requires people with education to supply some of the basic starting insights. If as a church we recognize this as a major problem, then we should mobilize our forces in order to supply intelligent biblical leadership among Catholics. That will prevent them from becoming fundamentalists. I do not think we have done this as a church. We are very aware of trying to meet the challenge of over liberalism or of secularism. We do not sufficiently see the danger to the right.
6. This is not a danger that affects Roman Catholics alone. There is no reason why the mainline Protestant churches and Roman Catholics cannot join in a common effort to present the Bible intelligently. Some of the Protestant churches have already developed excellent aids for reading the Bible. The fear of loss of Roman Catholic doctrine if we cooperate with Protestants is largely exaggerated. Indeed, were the media cooperation sponsored by various church leaders, I think they would recognize that the essential issue is to communicate a basic intelligent approach to the Bible that respects Christian doctrines on which we all agree.
7. There are accompanying elements in fundamentalism that make it attractive. Fundamentalists often have a strong sense of community, and they lovingly care for those who participate in the fundamentalist church or group. We should be aware that with our large Roman Catholic parishes, often handling several thousand people on a Sunday, we do not have that same sense of community. We may have to break those parishes down, at least functionally, into smaller groups. This was not so necessary in the cities of the North where there was a lot of impersonality in the lifestyle on all levels. But in the more folksy and overtly friendly atmosphere of the Sun Belt, we are not going to be convincing if the fundamentalists out-brother and out-sister us. Community is a value, and perhaps we can learn it from them.
8. The fundamentalists often proclaim a vivid love of Jesus. Roman Catholics once did quite well on that, in our popular devotions. We may have lost some of that ethos in the laudable development of liturgical language that is less emotional. Nevertheless, the love of Jesus is an enormous attraction within Christianity. When people encounter it, and it seizes them emotionally, it sweeps them off their feet. There is no reason on earth why the love of Jesus cannot be proclaimed by the mainline churches with an equal sense of appropriateness. It was not to a fundamentalist, but to Peter, that in John 21 Jesus three times placed the demand, "Do you love me?" For ordination or for preaching, if we made that a requirement, as Jesus did before he entrusted any of his sheep to Peter's care, perhaps we could also match the fundamentalists in getting people to realize that neither works nor faith without the love of Jesus constitutes the whole Christian picture.
Brown, Raymond E. 101 Questions and Answers on the Bible. New York: Paulist, 1990. 46-48. Print.
Related: 101 Questions and Answers on the Bible, An Introduction to the New Testament, Biblical Literalism, Birth of the Messiah, Death of the Messiah, Fundamentalism, Inerrancy, R. E. Brown, Raymond E. Brown