Paul's Perambulations a personal blog

March 1, 2011

My First Fundamentalist

Filed under: Religion — admin @ 10:38 pm

I remember being surprised when, as a teenager, I met my first fundamentalist. I was from a household that was educated in religious matters, attended a religious-based school, and I found religion courses interesting. But I never understood Biblical material in a strictly literal way. That was not expected in my family, and I never gave that approach any particular thought (not being aware that it even was an “approach”).

 I respected Christmas as a religious commemoration of how God can reveal himself in the humblest of circumstances and is alive in all our hearts, and is not just for the rich and powerful. That was the obvious meaning of the crèche that we displayed every Christmas. So when this very nice older man (my work boss at the religious school I was attending) asked if I believed in the Bible literally, I simply said “No.”  He was a sincere hard-working New Englander with probably little more than a grade-school education. He was sorry I felt that way (but not surprised), and I, in my way as a 14-year-old, felt sorry for him. Today, I would say there was no reason for either of us to feel sorry for the other, because I believe we respected one another.

However I was never comfortable with the Nicene/Apostle’s Creed when it was occasionally recited in church services. My problem wasn’t with the quaint/historic language per se. I am comfortable with the King James Version and with my own interpretation of it, while I also realize that it is one of the least accurate of Bible translations. It was that I didn’t believe it literally any more than I believed my crèche was literally accurate. But no one asked me to define my beliefs about Christmas, or why I found it significant even when I did not “believe” the story as traditionally recounted. I could sing Christmas carols without qualms, but saying “I believe” was too much. So I stood silently for that recitation.

I was not, as a teenager, sophisticated enough to be aware of the following (from Google on Congregational Creeds).

“Looking at the principles of Congregationalism, which involve the repudiation of all human authority in matters of religion, it is impossible to believe that persons holding those principles can consistently regard any ecclesiastical creed or symbol in the same way in which Catholics, whether Roman or Anglican, regard the creeds of the ancient Church. There is a strong feeling among English Congregationalists against the use of such documents for the purpose of defining the limits of religious communion, or for the purpose of checking the exercise of sober, free inquiry; and there is also a widely spread conviction that it is impossible to reduce the expression of Christian belief to a series of logical propositions, so as to preserve and represent the full spirit of gospel truth. No doubt there may be heard in some circles a great deal of loose conversation seeming to indicate such a repugnance to the employment of creeds as would imply a dislike to any formal definition of Christian doctrine whatever; but I apprehend that the prevailing sentiment relative to this subject among our ministers and churches does not go beyond the point just indicated. Many consider that while creeds are objectionable as tests and imperfect as confessions, yet they may have a certain value as manifestoes of conviction on the part of religious communities.”

Various Creeds are regularly printed in the ‘Congregational Year-Book,’ but it disclaims any authority as a standard of subscription, as follows:

‘It is not intended that the following statement should be put forth with any authority, or as a standard to which assent should be required…Disallowing the utility of creeds and articles of religion as a bond of union, and protesting against subscription to any human formularies as a term of communion, Congregationalists are yet willing to declare, for general information, what is commonly believed among them, reserving to every one the most perfect liberty of conscience.”

Creeds were considered unnecessary (certainly not as tests of faith), because authority came from the Bible and its proper understanding. Of course, some were better educated to read and understand the meaning of the Bible than others. Congregationalists (at least educated ones, perhaps not the fundamentalist who was my focus at the start of this essay) were well aware that the first versions of the Bible (NT) had been written fifteen hundred years ago in a number of languages. Thus, we have Harvard and ministers/divines. But church differences and controversies could begin with educated laymen. So in some ways the theology and procedures were similar to early Quakers, except no ministers led Quaker worship.

I would be fine with many aspects of a liberal and universalist form of Congregationalist theology, but not with their methodology, which differs from that of Quakers in some critical ways. Congregational Creeds are described as “a statement of fellowship but not a test, with unity in essentials (God, Jesus, Spirit).” Physical resurrection and reincarnation need not be stressed and can be interpreted as a “spiritual” resurrection and ongoing spiritual source (“inner light” for Quakers) for all those living. This sounds a lot like Quakers (and also Unitarians). New England Unitarian Churches were often Congregational Churches in which the congregation voted to change membership to Unitarian principles. For all three denominations, each individual congregation determines its own faith criteria and membership, owns its own real estate, determines its own budget, and decide who to employ or release from service. Congregational tradition focuses more on Bible education and church history than do Quakers (things that Quakers are often woefully ignorant of). The strict democracy of New England churches, to me, is far inferior to the “sense of the meeting” (congregation) that directs Quaker worship and business. This distinction, although superficially appearing to be only a procedural difference, in fact demonstrates a highly-significant religious distinction for those of the Quaker faith.

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