Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Fundamentalist and the Fossil

I was raised in an small, Scotch/German conservative evangelical church but my experience is different than most because the little sect my parents belong to differed from the dominant form of Christian fundamentalism in several, very significant ways. So before I share a story that explains the rise of a fool like Sarah Palin, the lure of fear-based Tea Party politics, and radical Christian militias, I would first like to describe a little church group that taught me some things worth knowing, even if it wasn't always quite the lesson they intended:

1. Science & Evolution:

They taught that "A day to God is as a thousand years" which is church-speak for "We don't know how long it took to make the world and we're not going to go there. Go study science, kids and get a good job!"

2. Hell, No:

They had no concept of hell as most people know it. Hell was "a
separation from God". Church members were encouraged to pray for the souls of those who had died but were wandering "lost", quite literally, in the underworld. They were imagined as weighed down exactly like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, by the chains of unkindness, greed, resentments, etc. Services were held in our church twice a year in which congregants prayed for these souls. They believe that during these moments of prayer those who had died in a loving relationship with God were allowed to go down into the dark places and lead out any who could follow. No hell fire, no tortures, and no demons. Imagine, instead, that some hikers have gone missing in a steep and rocky gorge. Night has fallen and they're scared and unequipped to go any farther but the search teams are out there with the divine light of understanding, looking to bring them home. My friends who study Eastern religions recognize this story immediately. They might describe it as the consequences of our own attachments mitigated by compassion. Those who study myth and folklore recognize this version of death and the hero/heroines journey. It is a kinder, gentler way of imagining the Christian understanding of the afterlife, one that saved me from many a screaming nightmare. (1)

3. A
Relevant and Useful Lay Ministry

When I was young, that church's ministry in my area numbered several hundred strong. These were all lay ministers which means they were not paid by the church for their work. Anyone who preached on Sunday had a day job the rest of the week. My uncle, a faithful deacon, was a carpenter. (Yes, I liked that, too. I've often thought Jesus would have liked this good, quiet man's company on the road). The priest of our congregation was a construction worker and his family owned some of the last little bit of farmland left in our valley. I remember how much fun we had as children looking for Easter eggs in his apple orchard. The evangelist, a stern but caring man, was in charge of several congregations. He was a famous tile man. An artist of the old school, he was sought after to work with Italian hand made tiles and created complex art mosaics on beautiful buildings all over the world. Some of these men (and yes, they were all men) had gone to college, many had not, but all of them had skills. Lucky for them, they also had wives who did as much, if not more, for their church as they did. From this I learned that ministry is
a) a calling,
b) hard work
c) done as well or better by lay people with good hearts and a mind to good works and
d) best when done from a spirit of love and compassion

These people taught me that dedication to any path is shown in real and concrete ways, in their case by visiting the troubled and the sick, and tending to the poorer ones among us. They showed up three times a week to speak and to serve, not to mention fixing whatever broke, cleaning the church every week, organizing pot lucks dinners for 300 or more, and doing all the gardening on the grounds. (2) "Can Do" was built into their genes. So was "Give unto others".

4. "Love thy neighbor as thyself" was more than words to them

They believed (and still do) in the End Times but they also believe they'll be taken up to heaven by then, and are content to leave the timing up to God, rather than try and force events by sending red heifers to the Holy Land or starting religious wars. Many of them owned guns for hunting and, when I was a kid, many of them still had the guns they had used in WWII, unloaded and locked up in the gun case, my father included among them, but it would never had occurred to these good men and women to turn these weapons on their neighbors.

Modern Pagan Culture

Their example is one reason why I have a poor opinion of so many of the Pagan "high" priests and priestesses I meet because I do not see these Pagans putting in the "sweat time" for their circle's members.
Nor do I see the circle members supporting the group in their turn in the useful ways that the congregation I knew growing up would do as a matter of course. Pagan culture has lost something vital by not expecting Pagans to contribute to good causes, and support one another, including a sense of pride and community.

As for our Pagan "leaders", well, too often I see an obsession with pomp and circumstance to the exclusion of common sense and general kindness that rivals that of Rome. I am not impressed. Show me the Pagan carpenter who helps rebuild an older circle member's porch on his or her day off for free, and never says a word to anyone else about it, and I'll put them up there in my personal pantheon along with my aunt and uncle.

On the Barricades

Like many who were raised in such churches and left to find another way, I am fascinated by the history of the fundamentalist phenomena, especially here in the U.S. As a result of all that bible study and my later reading, I often have a better understanding of the history and teachings of Christianity than many of the fundamentalist Christians I meet. This made standing at protective barricades with other women volunteers (3) in the 1980's and defending Planned Parenthood clinics a good gig for me. You wanna throw a bible verse at me? Huh, huh? Do ya? I got yer Western Cannon right here!

I could wish more Pagans did such reading. I realize that for many of them this brings up painful memories so I can see why they might avoid it. As for me, I'm a teacher by trade, and I've seen that knowledge is power. As a Pagan woman I believe that naming a thing takes away it's power to hurt. So, in that spirit, I would offer you a excellent, short read on early fundamentalism in the U.S. It's worth your while, especially if, like me, you love to laugh.

Foraminifera and the Fundamentalism of Denial

If you want to understand fundamentalism in the modern age says
KA Munstan of The Daily Kos, then you need to know the history of a fossil, the oil rush of the 1860's and the publication of a book that set the stage. Published in 1909 the book is called The Fundamentals; A Testimony to the Truth.
Lyman and Milton endowed $300,000 for the publication of 12 volumes (90 essays) in defense of what he believed were the five fundamental tenets of Christianity; the total absolute accuracy of the bible, the divinity of Jesus, his death for humanities’ sins, and his second coming, which was expected soon, perhaps in the lifetime of people then living.

However there were a few other points made in "The Fundamentals", in particular a listing of the enemies of Christianity, as detailed later by Robert Wuthnow, of Princeton University. These enemies included "...Romanism (Catholicism), socialism, modern philosophy, atheism...Mormonism, spiritualsim,...and Darwinism, which appeared to undermine the Bible's authority." Formed originally as a response to "modermism", the foundations of Fundamentalism are primarily negative, insisting upon what they are against, rather than what they seek to be. It is impossible to decipher early 21st century conservative politics without an understanding of "The Fundamentals; a Testimony to the Truth".
My favorite part of this story is the bit of historical irony that goes with it. The publishers of this book, two Texas oil men made their immense wealth because of a fossil.
The desperate search for oil drove capitalists to take a hard look at the pulverized rocks drawn up from both dry and successful holes. It was the only emperical evidence they had. They found these cores to be filled with Foraminifera. There are some 4,000 species of these single celled aquatic creatures in today’s oceans, from the surface to the bottom mud, from the artic to the tropics. But the fossils of 275,000 Foraminifera species were coming out of the drill holes...And they were now basing multimillion dollar drilling decisions at individual well sites on the fossilized shells of now extinct microscopic creatures found in drilling cores. And these decisions were making oil companies like Union Oil, richer and richer.
...millions in profits from this oil provided for the Los Angeles Mission, which has helped to feed and shelter tens of thousands of homeless and lost souls, and a Fundamentalist Christian collage, which explicitly teaches that those creatures used to find that wealth had all died in a great flood, which had occured, at most, a few thousand years ago.
I recommend reading the whole article, titled Fundamentalist Creed. It's worth your time.

And do take his poll, titled

Such fun....


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That is, until I read Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God in college. Thank goodness those sick minded b$#@!ds had no part in my childhood.

If they wanted a church building, they built it. Most of the adults in my congregation were from that Greatest Generation, and many grew up on farms, so urban or not, all the men and women I knew as a kid were tool users. If they didn't build their church, they bought a old church building nobody wanted and fixed it up.

(3) A good many of them were Liberal Progressive Christian feminists, so I was in very good company.

Photo of Foraminifera found here.

1 comment:

Morgaine said...

Oh, sister. Thank you!!! That's the kind of "sermon" needing to be given in the greatest of circles.