I worked at Christian summer camps for most of my twenties, and during my final year there I remember a specific conversation I had with some younger counsellors. The topic was common: predestination, did god purposefully create some humans knowing they wouldn’t believe in him damning them to hell? The issue is that free will doesn’t work cleanly in a universe that contains both an all-powerful god and an almost mathematically firm belief in a judged afterlife. How can God be both good and willing to punish humans for choices they had no choice but to make?
I was on my break when it happened. The other group of counsellors arrived and sat down around me, already deep in conversation. Even at the time I was done with this topic and wanted nothing to do with it; however, I was pulled in against my will because everyone knew me to be a ‘smart person’. I was asked directly what my opinion on the matter was, and I gave it. “I do not see how something like belief could undo the miracle at the cross.” A junior councillor stammered, “but belief is important,” as I got up and left. That was my last year as an evangelical; I will never go back.
Growing up in an evangelical church, I was frequently warned about something called ‘new age relativism’. The advent of post-modernism and other ‘new age’ movements in the eighties, right before I was born, really spooked a lot of people. I was plenty warned about the dangers of ‘new age’ thinking and particularly the horrors of believing that ‘what is true for me might not be true for you’. Honestly, I don’t know exactly which movements I was being warned against, only that they were dangerous and should be avoided. 1 Evangelicals are terrified of relativity; the consequences of Christianity not being the ‘one true religion’ are unthinkable. The very foundation of their beliefs rests on the notion that they have access to a truth of the universe that other people do not. The very word ‘evangelism’ is a moral obligation to share this truth with the world. The whole belief system is neatly summed up in the very first bible verse I was required to memorize, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)2 That alone marks the road to salvation, those who believe in God will live and those who do not will die.
John 3:16, stripped of the context that the rest of the bible provides, seems like a commandment so simple that even children can understand it; believe in God and he will save us from evil. However, it reifies belief in ways that are difficult to describe to someone who didn’t grow up in a religious setting. What does it mean to believe in something? Am I sufficiently believing right now or am I just pretending? What can I do to convince myself and God that I sufficiently believe? I remember at least once checking in on my parents at night to make sure they were still there; it terrified me that they might be taken up to heaven leaving me behind due to insufficient belief. I was a child, and children believe both everything and nothing. Things only got worse when pastors would point out all the time Jesus attacked the religious elite noting that following the rules is not good enough to make it into heaven; actions are empty without belief. None of this made any sense. To tiny me, make-believe and real life were much closer together. How could I know for certain I wasn’t just pretending to believe when existence itself was just an elaborate ritual designed to trick others into thinking I was somewhat normal.
Fundamentalism is both forward-thinking and a backward-thinking ideology. It begins as a reaction to a perceived drift between Christianity and its roots in the Bible. They believe that we are no longer reading the bible and as a consequence are making decisions that directly contradict the straightforward commandments that the bible offers. So they wish to return to this pure path of biblical truth and nothing else. Yet, their interpretation of the bible relies very heavily on a very modern literal and constructivist interpretation of the Bible, and as a purity movement, they reject much of the unnecessary context around the Bible. They believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God and therefore reject its history as an object. It is a protestant movement and therefore rejects most of the history of the church after the events recorded in the book of acts. Most importantly, it rejects the bible as a work of literature and treats it more like a mathematical textbook. It is perfect as it is, in English, without thinking about its oral traditions, its monastic traditions, its complicated relationship with language, or the process of translation from any of the many languages it was written into the one we are reading it in. The Bible is true in the same way that Euclid’s axioms are true, it just is: no further discussion is necessary.
Because of this, biblical fundamentalism is weirdly mathematical in how it treats truth. Statements are true or false based only on how well they link back to the Bible. If A is biblical, and A implies B, then we conclude that B is also true. This means that the doctrine is very fragile. There is suddenly no such thing as an inconsequential part of the bible; everything stands and falls together. This creates a need to vigorously defend even portions that have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus.
- Everything inside the bible is true.
- The accounts of the creation of the world in genesis are true.
- The genealogies following these accounts are true.
- Therefore, the earth must be only a few thousand years old.
Even though the details of how the world came into being are, at best, only contextual to Christ’s core message of death and rebirth, evangelicals are forced to defend such details with the same ferocity that they defend their interpretation of John’s message.3 Much of the Bible’s metaphysics isn’t even necessary to make the story of Christ work. If we look at the bible as a work of literature we can interpret its metaphysics as a type of soft magic system that is purposefully vague and poorly defined. Much older Christian traditions, like the mystics, view this vagueness as an attempt by human writers to understand something that is fundamentally unknowable. The written word is simply not sufficient to accurately reflect God. From here, it is much easier to admit that Genesis, and other parts of the bible, might be poetry without undermining the core themes of death and rebirth. Yet, this is not the Evangelical perspective. Their interpretation leaves very little room for metaphors and therefore forces them to defend the least important parts of the bible as historical fact. To a modern fundamentalist’s interpretation of the bible, doubting the creation story in genesis leads to doubting Christ’s resurrection, which leads to disbelief, which leads to death. Thus we arrive at a place where we must either accept the entire Bible as it is written or throw it out completely. The term I have heard used in sermons for those who pick and choose what to believe from the Bible is ‘grocery shopping Christians’ because they walk down the aisle of God’s teaching and pick which ones are convenient to them.
This, they say, is relativism.
Now I won’t pretend that there isn’t disagreement in the evangelical world about what it actually means for the bible to be true or which parts of it are literal and which parts are metaphorical; however, this disagreement is philosophically unimportant for two reasons. The first is Evangelist’s insistence that only the Bible is true creates an environment where any opinion that isn’t a direct quotation from the Bible can be ignored. These writing are not, and can never become canon, there is no reason to ever teach these works at bible colleges, there is no reason to refute their arguments, and there is definitely no reason for students to even know that these works exist in the first place. Everything not biblical is the work of fallible humans and can be safely ignored; therefore, The conversation doesn’t ever move forward and issues can never be addressed because fundamentalism, by design, is stuck in place and can neither move forward nor address issues.
Secondly, there is no single unified ‘Evangelical movement’. Instead, they are loosely aligned groups of culturally similar churches. Some denominations, like the Christian and Missionary Alliance which I grew up in, are hierarchical organizations with written statements of belief that hold local pastors accountable to the denomination, while others, like the Pentecostal Association of Canada, are loose confederations of individual churches that are free to teach just about anything they want. In both cases, entrenched belief structures are nearly impossible to update because no amount of discussion can ever overpower the initial Biblical reading that created the denomination in the first place. Both systems tend to only allow the distribution of secondary literature that supports their preexisting beliefs while dismissing everything else. More importantly, each denomination is only accountable to themselves and not to each other. Disagreements do not result in change, they just result in more churches. The result is a world where churches are driven more by cultural similarities than any amount of doctrine. The easiest theology that adhere closest to pre-existing cultural touchpoints are the doctrines that collect the most followers and are the best situated to spread those beliefs to others. This is a culture of disposable theology. Sermons live by how well they connect to a culture and die when that culture moves on. They can resonant strongly with those who hear them in the moment, but they rarely have any effect beyond their immediate audience.
The omnipotence of God is a core concept of Christianity, yet how it is expressed is subtly different among its many variations. Fundamentalism, as a conservative philosophy, shares its interpretation of God’s omnipotence with its non-theistic relatives. To the Evangelical, God is sovereign in the political sense. More importantly, he is exceptional in the sense described by German philosopher, and Nazi sympathizer, Carl Schmitt. Schmitt was a fierce critic of liberal philosophy and firmly believed that in order to maintain ‘order’ in a society it was necessary for its government to operate with no external limitations. He didn’t reject the need for a rule of law, only that the government should be sovereign and the, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”4 To Schmitt the liberal ideal that ‘no one is above the law’ is flawed because a government needs to be able to step in to deal with circumstances that the law is unprepared to deal with. Ideally these moments would be rare, reserved for the sovereign himself, and not be outsourced to agents acting in the interest of the sovereign.
In the context of Christianity, exceptionalism is expressed through the miricles of Christ. By breaking the laws of creation and performing the impossible, Jesus is proving that he is sovereign over creation: by raising Lazarus from the dead he is proving that he is master over death, by miraculously feeding his followers he is proving he is master over the natural order, and so on. God is sovereign and is therefore not subject to the same rules that we are. However, the miracles of Jesus are also limited. He did not resurrect everyone, he did not permanently remove the need to eat, and most importantly he did not rescue his people from Roman oppression as the religious establishment expected him to do. He only did what was necessary to fulfill scripture and prove he was who he said he was, thus proving that his arrest and subsequent execution by Roman authorities happened only because he let it happen. He could have prevented it but didn’t. Christ’s resurrection frees his people from the law of Moses not by making an exception out of it, but by proving mastery over it, and fulfilling it. God broke the rules not to destroy the rule of law, but to improve it.
The main complaint of Schmittian politics5 is that it has no defence against corruption. What starts as a power intended to maintain order quickly degrades into an unstoppable force of Chaos. If the sovereign is without limits and is supposed to maintain order, then what is stopping him from defining ‘order’ as that which benefits him and his friends personally. Nothing can challenge whatever narrative the sovereign wishes to push because any competing narrative can just be counteracted by declaring an exception. This results in a dual system where the ruling party can, at their own discretion, dictate which things are normal and which things are exceptional. To the average citizen, this creates a world where the rules can change at any moment, and the future becomes impossible to predict. Those who have been wronged under what normal law would consider a crime can only hope for justice so long as the judge they are facing doesn’t get a phone call from the sovereign informing them that they are an exception. As a real-life example, David Lewis, in a discussion of the hybrid democratic/authoritarian post soviet Russian government, identifies exceptionality as a primary contributor to the country’s political issues.
Russia demonstrates very clearly the systematic duality involved in constructing a system around exceptionality. The system inevitably spawns not one sovereign deciding the exception, but a whole system in which sovereignty threatens to disperse in multiple ‘Leviathans’ across the country. Paradoxically, the assertion of exceptionality as the basis of sovereignty – and therefore of political order – has the effect of undermining order in the normal sphere, in the everyday judicial processes, business transactions and security operations.David G. Lewis, ‘Russia’s New Authoritarianism‘
If the rules can change at any moment, then the only truth is change itself. As power flows down from the sovereign, those with political power gain the ability to warp reality into whatever best suits them: creating chaos.
Through the power of the holy spirit Evangelicals also claim the power to declare exceptions. It is a trope at this point to see a televangelist cast out demons, or miraculously heal followers through ‘the power of God’. Yet, their need to defend even the most trivial parts of the bible, mixed with this freedom to declare exceptions creates some truly bizarre logical concoctions. If the earth is only a few thousand years old, then anything on the earth older than that, like dinosaur bones, are exceptions and must have been placed there by God in order to test our faith. Christian Science exists not as a way of learning about a world, but as a way to structure a meaningless discussion about what is and what is not an exception. Likewise, alliances between groups whose beliefs and goals are fundamentally contradictory are easy and manageable because God’s exceptionality means that he can use even evil to fulfill his holy plan. The truly diabolical part of this only becomes apparent when we realize that even the rule of law is subject to God’s sovereignty. A believing Evangelical is ethically free to do whatever they want so long as they ‘believe’ that they are furthering God’s will. The law is only the law so long as it isn’t an exception.
Yet, if we dig deep enough into Evangelical theology we will discover that even the bible is not immune from exceptions. I was never taught to ‘be a Christian’, no, I was instructed to foster my ‘relationship with God’. The Bible isn’t true because it is a book, it is true because it is the means by which God speaks to those who follow him. So when I read the Bible, it is not the words that speak to me it is God himself. However, the absolute interpretation of the Bible means that only the first reading has any value. Individuals, or entire churches, are encouraged to treat their first reading of the Bible as truth. Any different readings will need to be explained and can be ignored if they incorporate anything non-biblical. Anything contradictory can be made into an exception. Likewise, they do not see a distinction between objective reality and conventional reality6. There is only one truth, the Bible, and how my community interprets the Bible overrides your lived experience.
This is relativism.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.John 1:1-4
It is difficult to describe my relationship with Christianity because everything I am saying might convince you that I reject it outright: but I don’t. It’s actually very difficult to change one’s beliefs; in fact, it’s a luxury. What we believe affects every part of our lives: how we interact with ideas, who we have relations with, how we work, what we work towards, and even how we live our day-to-day lives. Beliefs are the foundation of what it means to be human. Everything we experience is filtered through the lens of our beliefs, and changing them first requires changing ourselves. Not everyone can do this as there are social consequences, political consequences, and even physical consequences to believing. Even if we want to it doesn’t mean we can. Like it or not, the things we are taught as children stick in our brains. Belief is as fundamentally a part of our human nature as Christians believe our sin to be.
Fundamentalism, paradoxically, believes in a corrupt human nature but does nothing to combat it. It celebrates being ‘changed through the holy spirit’, yet threatens eternal damnation on anyone who strays to far from their existing path. It relies on people not actually reading the Bible in any way that matters. If my first reading is true, then all of the darkness deep within me, my biases, my prejudices, and my flaws, are all true as well. Fundamentalism encourages the easy reading of the Bible by throwing roadblocks in the way of anything more subtle. We don’t need to challenge our beliefs, just to keep reinforcing that which we already believe: the old ways are best. Those readings that survive are the ones that propagate the fastest because they require the least effort to understand. Yet, with all things that are easy to understand they come with some very dire consequences. The paradox of predestination is such conclusion that originates from an unexamined reading of John. Those who don’t believe will die. Yet, what is belief if not part of our human nature, and what good is is a saviour whose sacrifice is dependent on the very thing he is supposedly saving us from. If God has saved us from our sinful nature, why is it that our sinful nature is the one thing that stops it? Predestination isn’t just an interesting theological puzzle that ‘smart’ Christians can play around with in their free time, it is cancer at the very heart of the Evangelical movement: a demonstration of how a focus on belief can undo Christ’s sacrifice.
Today, my relationship with Christianity is complicated. It is a fundamental part of how my brain works and I’ll admit that no amount of intellectual effort can change that. Christians view humans as corrupt beings, and regardless of whether this is a deep seeded truth of our species or just a product of the post-colonial late-stage capitalist society I live in, I can’t help but agree with that sentiment that there is something deeply wrong with our species. Yet, the story of Christ is a story of hope and that hope, for better or worse, is something I cling to. It is a story of how something as deeply corrupt as us can be fixed. How even though Utopia is a logical fallacy, we are still allowed to dream of a better world. However, I am no longer capable of seeing salvation through the lens of belief. A God who condemns his people based on their beliefs is no better than a God who condemns his people based on their nature. Both are part of our nature, and both are not something that we as individuals have the power to overcome. Either he saved us from our own nature or he didn’t. In terms evangelicals might understand, either God died for our sins and saved us from our sinful nature, or he did not. By ‘us’ I mean all of us, everybody, without exception7. To add any condition to this is to force a condition onto the sovereignty of God himself.
And what is a God without sovereignty?