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A Reply to Enroth

Cultic Studies Journal, 1987, Volume 4, Number 1, pages 78-84. 

A Reply to Ronald Enroth's Comment on "Teaching Students Who Already Know the Truth"

David McKenzie, Ph.D. Berry College


I appreciate Professor Enroth's careful reading of and provocative response to my article on fundamentalism in the classroom. As I understand it, he has two basic objections to what I have written: one, that my critique is on the side of relativism and thus flies in the face of the recent academic concern for the consequences of such a position; and two, that I have generalized throughout my article in such a way as to overlook fundamentalists who are genuinely intellectual in their faith and fine academicians to boot. The first of these objections misses the point and is by and large irrelevant, as I shall attempt to show. The second is quite to the point and partly correct, though I shall insist in some important respects, incorrect.

As to relativism Enroth begins by positioning me and my concern regarding dogmatism over against Allan Bloom’s widely read and very eloquent book, The Closing of the American Mind. The apparent correlative implication is that fundamentalists, at least those of an intellectual sort are on the side of Bloom since they hold some absolutes. And more directly, since I deny the absolutes of fundamentalism Enroth seems to think that I am therefore a relativism or that my work unwittingly supports relativism. As he put it, “in his zeal to ‘attack dogmatism’ Professor McKenzie may well be contributing to what many consider the malaise of modem learning - a nameless toleration of diversity and a dogmatic commitment to the relativeness of truth." And again, the corollary appears to be that in order to escape relativism one should hold to the basic tenet of fundamentalism - the absolute authority of the Bible. This is all wrong. In the first place, it is a false dichotomy to suppose that one must be either a fundamentalist or a relativist. There are numerous ways by which to hold to the objectivity of truth without endorsing the inerrancy or infallability of scripture. As I pointed out in the article, fundamentalists attempt to place the opinions of human beings over against the divine authority of the Bible. With such a scheme, the word of human beings is always relative to culture, individual interests and goals, etc., even to sin itself, whereas the word of God is absolute, transcending such relativities. But the contrast is unfair since no one is in a position to say without qualification what the word of God is. Those who give the simple answer that it is the Bible beg the question. Their assertion is only their human interpretation as to the content of the word of God. Muslims may as well say that it is the Koran.

In the second place, nothing in my article should lead anyone to believe that I am a relativist. In my view, epistemological relativism is just as irrational as fundamentalism. It is a doctrine that cannot be held without contradiction because of the obvious problem of self-reference in the statement, “All truths are relative.” I do believe that both the absence of verification procedures in theology and the rule of charity in the Christian faith require a kind of religious pluralism in which all the major traditions are respected. But there are moral and rational limits to what should be accepted theologically, thus disallowing pure relativism in this context.[1] Furthermore, I strongly support the recent critique of the sloppy thinking which has often characterized the academic approach to morality and religion, especially its unwillingness to take up the question of truth. Indeed, my objection to fundamentalism arises out of just such a concern.

In the third place, the appeal to Bloom is interesting, even provocative, but I think in the final analysis of little value to the fundamentalist academic cause. Bloom's work appears to render my preoccupation irrelevant The real problem, according to his analysis, is not the prominence of students with strong religious beliefs but just the opposite, the prominence of students with virtually no beliefs at all. And the problem is compounded, in his opinion, by numerous complexities in modem society and within the university itself, particularly the latter's compromise of its curriculum as a result of the student revolution of the sixties.[2]

It may be that my concerns are provincial, that they arise from the facts that I teach in the Bible Belt and that my own denomination (Southern Baptist Convention) was taken over politically by fundamentalists. But it is not at all clear that this is so. Indeed, there is much evidence to the contrary. The growth of private, church-related schools in the last decade has been phenomenal, and many of these have a strong Christian fundamentalist orientation.[3] Fundamentalist churches are growing by leaps and bounds.[4] Further, although fundamentalists recently lost two important challenges at the Federal appeals court level, the 1987 annual report of People for the American Way shows a continuing annual increase in the number of suits from fundamentalist groups who wish to challenge public school texts as expressions of secular humanism and to have a religious alternative provided for their children.[5] These shifts in the society at large are bound to produce a corresponding shift in the orientation of students, a change which I personally have observed in my fifteen years of experience in academe.

Many of us believe that the real problem is not that students have too much natural science and too little instruction in good and evil, as Bloom appears to hold, but that students are able to go through high school and college with no genuine exposure to natural science or critical thought, holding rock-hard religious beliefs all the while. I am hesitant to suggest this, given his university and scholarly status, but it may be that Bloom’s perspective suffers from a kind of provincialism of its own. His work seems to be dictated by his expertise in a tradition of political philosophy which insists against all appearances to the contrary that ours is an age of decadence and nihilism and by his own personal experiences of some very poor administrative decisions at Cornell University in the heyday of the student rebellion.[6] Bloom works at a prestigious university (Chicago) among the elite, both colleagues and students. I am not sure that he knows or understands the American people, the students who are not among the elite, or certain crucial developments in American society in the last decade.

There is one sense in which the apparently contrary perceptions of Bloom's relativists and my fundamentalists might be reconciled, and it is a sense which makes contact with the Platonistic tradition from which Bloom comes. In the Republic (Book VIU), it is in the context of a society given to democratized and relativistic truth that a tyrannical ruler may arise. The tyrant can take advantage of the ignorance, lack of direction, and general confusion of such a society to exploit and manipulate people for his own purposes. Though I am sure that my conservative religious friends will be appalled, I see the advent of fundamentalism in our society during the last decade as parallel in some respect to the ascent of the tyrant in Plato. Perhaps it is specifically due to the absence of critical scrutiny and the ignorance and confusion that have confessedly played a significant role in American culture that powerful fundamentalist leaders have ascended to positions of prominence not only religiously but also politically. Fundamentalism as a cultural movement, in other words, may be the flipside of a generation without strong views on much of anything and without the ability to scrutinize conflicting moral and religious claims. It does not take sociological genius to note that the strong commitment to biblical authority is the one very generally accessible alternative that might allow youth to weather the storm of relativism and its accompanying epistemological insecurities. Students, in other words, who have not the foggiest idea how to establish objective truth will see all truth-claims as having the same epistemological basis in their own subjective and personal feelings, whether the claim be from natural science on one side or religion on the other. They become easy prey for religious leaders who seem to have the truth and to be satisfied with their possession.

Whatever the case may be about fundamentalist and relativist students, Bloom is really no friend of fundamentalist, moderate, or liberal Christians, as a careful reading of his book will show. He is really a kind of philosophical fundamentalist, as Richard Rorty recently remarked, who absolutises Platonism and idealizes the Socratic intellectual community.[7] In his view, as is common for Platonists, religion is useful basically as a source of moral training for youth and political cohesion for the society as a whole. Genuine intellectuals may appear to believe, and they should surely deceive the public into thinking that they do, but they really know better. Their sources of truth are not the imagery and mythology of religion but the abstractions and logic of philosophy. And their ideal community is not the church but the intellectual elite, that small number of individuals in any society who are “great souls,” who look down on the “vulgar” and "trendy," to use Bloom's language, or more accurately, who share the interpretation of the history of philosophy which says that our only recourse is a move back to Plato through Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Rousseau. Fundamentalists will find no consolation here. In one passage, Bloom seems charmed by the possibility that the Bible might be studied in the university for what it claims to be - the revelation from God.[8] Such an approach would surely run counter to the way in which scripture is often trivialized as a historical book of casual literary interest But, if this possibility were taken seriously, that is, if we really assume that the Bible contains the revelation of divine truth (whether inerrant or not) and studied it as such in college, Bloom's program would be destroyed. His is from beginning to end an endorsement of reason, not revelation.

Enroth's second basic point of criticism is that I have committed a hasty generalization about fundamentalists by overlooking the work of many fine conservative Christian scholars who are “competent writers and Christian thinkers,” who combine belief in the infallibility of the Bible and “the life of the intellect” and who are just as concerned as I about the anti-intellectualism which characterizes some fundamentalist and charismatic groups.

This accusation is in part correct My own life and thought have been influenced by the simplicity and power of C.S. Lewis, for instance, though I have a difficult time linking him to modern biblical inerrancy. The social and political commentary as well as the theological works of Carl Henry contain rich contributions. Even books on mission and evangelism, such as John Stott's Christian Mission in the Modern World are written from a standpoint which makes them attractive and interesting to Christian thinkers of whatever party. I know that there are genuine intellectuals working in fundamentalist circles around the country.

But there is still a problem. Regardless of how scholarly one might be otherwise, and regardless of the extent to which one's intellectual life might be cultivated otherwise, on the basic belief of fundamentalists it seems difficult indeed to be reasonable or to maintain scholarly integrity. As I attempted to show in the original article, and as has been shown by scholars much more erudite than I in countless ways, the belief that the Bible is inerrant is a logically impossible view. Not only do the ancient manuscripts used in translation of the Bible contain grammatical mistakes and confusions, historical inconsistencies (What did the women at the tomb really see, given the four different and conflicting biblical accounts?), and dated scientific assumptions (a three-tier cosmos, a six-day creation, and a sun revolving around the earth, etc.), more important. it is impossible to identify what the text of the Bible is. For a text to be considered inerrant, we must at least know what it is. Otherwise, the affirmation that it is inerrant is utter nonsense. Is the inerrant text the NIV, the KJV, the RSV, or one or another of the many ancient corrections of texts, or perhaps the originals which are forever inaccessible? Biblical scholars of every stripe know about the multiplicity and variability of the ancient manuscripts. If some of these still contend, even in the light of the obvious evidence against the position, that the Bible is inerrant, that cannot be considered an act of intellectual integrity. It must either be Sartrean "Bad Faith” (a self-delusion) or a Platonic “Noble Lie” (a fiction perpetrated for the sake of political control). On this point - the basic point - I do not see how it is possible to be a fundamentalist and an intellectual.

A similar difficulty may be seen in Enroth's comments on evangelical writers such as Stott and Stephen Neill who are unusually sensitive to other religious traditions and have genuine respect for persons. His comments are most assuredly to the point, and I appreciate the sensitivity of these writers. They just do not go far enough. How can I have respect for my Jewish friends as persons, for instance, if I insist, as does Neill in Enroth's quote, “For the human sickness there is only one specific remedy, and this is it. There is no other?” No matter how much their Jewish tradition has meant, no matter how effective it has been in dealing with “the human sickness,” it is simply discounted on an a priori basis. It makes no difference how much I have listened to my friends' arguments and stories, to what extent I have examined the best rather than the worst in their faith, or how civil we have been in conversation. I have failed to view them as persons worthy of respect because of my dogma. In this case, I would have all the respect for them that Rev. Bailey Smith had when, as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, he assured his church, and indirectly the American public, "God does not hear the prayers of Jews.” His problem was, and is, the problem of all fundamentalism. He assumes himself to speak for God. No one can do that. We are all human.

Stott’s book on Christian mission is remarkably sensitive to the importance of dialogue, but the same problem surfaces there also. He attempts to steer a middle course between mere discussion and compromise, with no effort to get at the truth, on the one side, and proclamation without dialogue on the other. I agree that there must be some such middle course. But his approach finally fails to provide a basis for dialogue. In arguing against mere discussion, for instance, he says:

The gospel is a non-negotiable revelation from God. We may certainly discuss its meaning and its interpretation, so long as our purpose is to grasp it more firmly ourselves and commend it more acceptably to others. But we have no liberty to sit in judgment on it, or to tamper with its substance. For it is Gods gospel not ours, and its truth is to be received not criticized, declared not discussed.[9]

As long as this view is maintained, one of the two partners in the dialogue is absolutising his or her truth, and genuine conversation becomes impossible. Despite all of Bloom's rhetoric, one of the presuppositions for conversation is respect for the limited character of one’s own perspective. Fundamentalists do not share this assumption.

Finally, in one of Enroth's own very useful analyses of cults (A Guide to Cults and New Religions by Enroth et al., InterVarsity Press, 1983), a book that is helpful in many ways, he includes a list of characteristics that might be used to identify groups as cults. It is interesting to me that almost all of the characteristics apply as well to fundamentalist Christianity. Cults, he says, are authoritarian, oppositional (to the dominant culture), exclusivistic, legalistic, subjective (emphasizing feeling), persecution-conscious, sanction-oriented, esoteric (secrecy), and antisacerdotal (lay emphasis). With the exception of the last two, they all seem directly applicable. In most guises, fundamentalism is authoritarian, with dominating preachers and an absolute text; it is obviously a reaction to many secular themes in modem society; it is exclusivistic, allowing salvation nowhere but in the Christian faith; it is legalistic, requiring a strict adherence to biblical teaching; it has a strong emphasis on feeling in the evangelistic crusades and conversion experiences; it is very much persecution- conscious, as is shown by the numerous cases of parents who have protested that their children's rights are violated by the presence of humanist literature in the classroom; and it is sanction-oriented in that those who begin to doubt are made to feel guilty and taught that critical thinking is of the devil.

I appreciate Professor Enroth's reaction to my work and his scholarship in the realm of cult experience. He is a good spokesman for a point of view very different from my own. I hope that these remarks have helped to clarify my original arguments and to show how the concern for fundamentalism remains legitimate even in the light of Enroth's responses and the recent work of Bloom.
Notes

1. I attempt to spell out these limits in my article, “Kant, A Moral Criterion and Religious Pluralism,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, 6 (January 1985):47-56, and in a paper entitled, “Boundaries of Belief,” to be presented at the meeting of the International Christian Studies Association in Brighton, England, in August 1988 (in conjunction with the World Congress of Philosophy).

2. Allan Bloom (1987), The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster. This is the basic thesis, as I understand it, in Bloom’s large and complex analysis. See especially pp.313-382.

3. “Jerry Falwell's crusade,” Time, 126 (September 2, 1985):55-56. This article estimates 10,000 Christian schools in the United States at the time of its writing. A fundamentalist goal is to provide education for the majority of American youth, a responsibility heretofore assumed by the government

4. The growth is evidenced by the emergence of superchurches, primarily Baptist and independent, with thousands of members. Falwell's Tbomas Road Baptist in Lynchburg, Virginia is an example. The Gallup organization statistics on church membership indicate rapid growth for fundamentalist and charismatic churches and denominations. Data reported in the article, “Evangelists Bring Healing,” Atlanta Journal, March 30, 1987.

5. “Censorship attempts in schools,” Atlanta Journal, August 27, 1987.

6. Bloom mentions this experience at several points in his book, especially pp. 313-355. It provides his basic model for the chapter entitled, “The Sixties,” and for the material on the deterioration of liberal education and the university itself in his last chapter, “The Student and the University." Social scientists will no doubt suggest numerous hasty generalizations here.

7. Rorty is quoted in a review of the book by Ezra Bowen, “Are Students' Heads Full of Emptiness,” Time, 130 (August 17, 1987): 57.

8. Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, pp. 56-57, 275-285.

9. Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p. 374.

10. John Stott (1975). Christian Mission in the Moslem World. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, p-59

[1] I attempt to spell out these limits in my article, “Kant, A Moral Criterion and Religious Pluralism,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, 6 (January 1985):47-56, and in a paper entitled, “Boundaries of Belief,” to be presented at the meeting of the International Christian Studies Association in Brighton, England, in August 1988 (in conjunction with the World Congress of Philosophy).

[2] Alan Bloom (1987), The Closing of the American Mind, New York: Simon and Schuster. This is the basic thesis, as I understand it, in Bloom’s large and complex analysis. See especially pp. 313-382.

[3] “Jerry Fallwell’s crusade,” Time, 126 (September 2, 1985):55-56. This article estimates 10,000 Christian schools in the United States at the time of its writing. A fundamentalist goal is to provide education for the majority of American youth, a responsibility heretofore assumed by the government.

[4] The growth is evidenced by the emergency of superchurches, primarily Baptist and independent, with thousands fo members. Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist in Lynchburg, Virginia is an example. The Gallup organization statistics on church membership indicate rapid growth for fundamentalists and charismatic churches and denominations. Data reported in the article, “Evangelists Bring Healing,” Atlanta Journal, March 30, 1987.

[5] “Censorship attempts in schools,” Atlanta Journal, August 27, 1987.

[6] Bloom mentions this experience at several points in his book, especially pp. 313-355. It provides his basic model for the chapter entitled, “The Sixties,” and for the material on the deterioration of liberal education and the university itself in his last chapter, “The Student and the University.” Social scientists will no doubt suggest numerous hasty generalizations here.

[7] Rorty is quoted in a review of the book by Ezra Bowen, “Are Students’ Heads Full of Emptiness,” Time, 130 (August 17, 1987): 57.

[8] Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p. 374.

[9] John Stott (1975). Christian Mission in the Moslem World. Downers Grove, Illinois,