The F-Word — and the E-Bomb?
I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.
—Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford UP, 2000), pp. 244-245
I can remember when people could proudly call themselves Christian ‘fundamentalists’. I guess that’s still so in some places, but it seems to be getting fairly rare. What Plantinga calls “the most common contemporary academic use of the term” – or at least something like the use he (jokingly) describes above — seems to be pretty common all around. What I have in mind are uses in which the term has some kind of badness built right into its very meaning. That could be because it has some term of abuse as part of its meaning, as Plantinga jokes above. Or, more seriously, it could be because, instead of the indexical element of meaning Plantinga postulates — ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends’ — it instead carries this closely related element of meaning: ‘(way) too far to the right’.
It’s a very subtle but important change when a term like the f-word shifts from designating a certain range of things, which many critics consider to be too-something, to actually meaning that the thing being described is too-something. Before the shift, one can reasonably say, “Yeah, that’s me. My views are in that range. I know many think views in that range are too-whatever, but they seem just right to me.” Afterward, well, it’s hard to reasonably say, “Yeah, my views are too-whatever.” The shift may be so subtle that it’s unclear or perhaps even indeterminate when it’s occurred. But perhaps something like that has happened to ‘fundamentalist’.
So, many are now ‘evangelicals’. That’s still a label many proudly own. In fact, it sometimes marks out a certain club that one might want to be a member of — and have one’s credentials for membership be challenged. “You’re no evangelical!” a critic might charge, while, say, making the case to get you kicked out of the Evangelical Theological Society, or whatever. (How often these days do we hear the likes of “You’re no fundamentalist!” as an accusation?)
But what is an ‘evangelical’? And (since this all about me, after all!): Am I an evangelical? I have difficulties with those questions. And, apparently, I’m not alone in that regard here at GOTT; In the comment thread to this post, James K.A. Smith writes:
The skittishness I expressed about “emergent” is, I think, a subset of frustrations I have with “evangelicalism”–and even knowing what that is. (I confess I have a hard time knowing what it would mean to be described as an “evangelical” theologian–though I often am, and I don’t even necessarily reject the label. I’m just not sure what it means.)
In the comments to this post, there was some discussion of whether I am an evangelical. I opined that it’s probably more accurate to say I am one than to deny that I am, but, like Jamie, I feel quite certain about that matter, and what ‘evangelical’ means.
So, unable to give much of an account, I’ll settle for scattering a few quick observations / unsubstantiated opinions.
1. As I’ve already observed, ‘evangelical’ still has positive connotations for many.
2. Perhaps some use it in such a way that the term has some sort of goodness (or at least non-badness) built right into its very meaning – in much the same way that I said that ‘fundamentalist’ may have badness built into its very meaning. Perhaps it then has something like this as an element of its meaning: having theological views not too far to the left.
3. It’s probably best to avoid using either the f- or the e- word in such a way that it has either goodness or badness built into its very meaning. If you use them, just use them descriptively, to describe a certain ranges of positions. You may think that the views so designated are good or bad, but don’t make it analytic that f or e views are good or bad.
4. Those who are pickiest in what they’ll count as ‘evangelical’ come pretty close to requiring for evangelicalism that one hold views that would make one count as a “fundamentalist” by the lights of the more liberal (!) users of ‘evangelical’.
5. Despite the fact that the picky users of ‘evangelical’ that I have in mind think of the term positively, there is a danger, given 4 (i.e., given how far to the right one must be to count as an ‘evangelical’ on their picky use) and some other considerations, that ‘evangelical’ may soon go the way of ‘fundamentalist’, and come to be as negative a term as ‘fundamentalist’ now is. Then what will we do? Invent still another term that means pretty much what ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ mean, except that this new term, at least temporarily, is supposed to be positive rather than negative?
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