Method, Politics, and the Supreme Court: More on “Literalist” Creationism from Ronald Osborn

Once more into the breach, dear friends!

In this installment, I want to highlight an interesting sequence of thoughts that I came across in Osborn. These are all tidbits that I noted as I read so that I could share them with you, gentle readers. But the more that I reflected on them, the more I realized that they are tied very closely together. So come with me for another hop, skip, and jump through Osborn while we consider whether “literalism” with reference to the Genesis creation narratives is a question of method or of doctrine, the consequences of “literalism’s” answer to that question, and an alternative way of thinking. As always, bold is mine and italics are in the original.

Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

To begin, what is the real engine of “literalist” understandings of the Genesis creation narratives? Are folks in this camp concerned with maintaining a particular set of doctrinal positions, or are they more concerned with theological method? Here’s Osborn:
The reason literalists read the creation narratives and other parts of Scripture the way they do is because they are already committed to a very specific philosophical and theological research program, namely, to a kind of foundationalism that owes its lineage to the ideas of Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers as much if not more than to the ideas of Scripture. The burning heart of modern creationism is not a doctrine but a method. Doctrines will be creatively reinterpreted or even rewritten without hesitation by literalists in order to sustain this methodological project. What must be protected from change at all cost is the paradigm of philosophical foundationalism-cum-literalism itself, which ground the literalist’s sense of certainty and security in an uncertain age. To change this would mark the collapse of the literalist’s research program and require a significant paradigm shift – and there is no greater fear among creationists than the fear of paradigm lost. (74-5)
Talk about a great concluding line! I’m sure that many of you, gentle readers, threw up your hands upon reading this passage and thought that’s bad enough. But wait, there’s more! Because the primary concern here is methodological rather than doctrinal – that it, it has to do with a way of being in the world rather than with particular conceptual positions to be maintained – it cannot be defended by mere argument. It is tied up with a set of values in which people are emotionally invested, and which therefore (so these folks’ thinking seems to go) must be defended. As a result, this sort of fundamentalism is a political entity:
Fundamentalism, then, is not simply a way of reading texts. It is a plan for political action. And fundamentalist political action in secular as well as ecclesial realms has often lead to violence, whether in the form of the righteous crusade against “heathen” outsiders or the scapegoating of “heretical” insiders. Once it becomes clear to the fundamentalist that he cannot win the day by citing verses alone since other stubbornly read the same verses differently than he does, he will move to create a centralized political power of ecclesial body with the authority to suppress rival interpretations, to monitor for unacceptable thoughts, to denounce infidels and to vigilantly police the boundaries of the community. Yet even as the fundamentalist sows great destruction and inflicts real violence on the Other . . . he invariably thinks of himself as a victim of the Other’s aggression. . . .

The mere fact that others disagree with the fundamentalist’s interpretations and openly offer other ways of thinking about the text is felt by the true believer as a direct existential threat to themselves and to the entire community – a sinister danger that must be exposed and cleansed. . . . As a form of foundationalist philosophical reasoning, fundamentalism declares that failure to hold fast to the “correct” interpretation of any one of the fundamental beliefs must necessarily unravel all the others [ed. note: precisely b/c it’s a method not discreet positions that matter], spreading rings of contaminating influence throughout the community and finally toppling the entire faith. As a totalizing political narrative . . . , fundamentalism declares that the dissent of even one member pollutes the body.

But fundamentalists readings of Scripture are of course precisely that: readings that may be challenged . . . (80-81)
Against the sort of creeping totalitarianism that North American fundamentalism seems hell-bent on becoming, one way or the other, Osborn offers a different way of thinking about theological disagreements within church groups. This is especially pressing in the realm of higher education, where subtle but nonetheless blood-thirsty political battles are often fought over these issues and people’s reputations and livelihoods often become casualties. What if, Osborn asks, we think of authority in these contexts not on a centralized industrial model (e.g., a shoe factory), but in terms of a different model?
Unanimous Supreme Court decisions are rare. Practically every US Supreme Court ruling on every major issue includes one or more dissenting opinion(s). These dissenting opinions are clearly and publically articulated and might in the future influence the overturning of an earlier decision. The health of a democratic polity that is oriented toward questions of truth and justice, the framers of the American legal system understood, depends not only on consensus but also on dissent. And a dissenting judge is not being “unpatriotic” or defying the law by disagreeing with the majority opinion. They are in fact upholding the deepest meaning of the law in the very act of raising principled objections to it. So here is a question we might ask those who have become convicted that institutions of higher education are corrupting the youth: What if Christian colleges and universities – even those affiliated with traditions with highly literalistic doctrines of creation – embraced a picture of unity in the body of Christ that included the concept of necessary loyal dissent within a framework of basic respect, transparency and honest searching for truth? Communities that instead strive to model their inner workings on pictures of corporate power and control will in the end come to resemble . . . oppressive authoritarian regimes. (114-115)
Well now, this post has gotten quite long. But this certainly is an interesting train of thought . . . And one that can be applied for the sake of Christian unity not only in conservative ecclesial circles but others as well . . .



James Gardner said…
Great job of digging to deeper moral issues in this. Foundationalism seems to be tied less to truth as such, but more to satisfying oneself. I'd be curious if you or any other readers of this blog have any reading recommendations for a positive account for anti-foundationalist philosophies or theologies.
Thanks, James. As for an anti-foundationalist, the name that jumps to mind is John Caputo. I haven't read it yet, but you might enjoy his recent book:
May I recommend a couple books that were helpful for me, from the same Fortress series? They're a little bit older, but I think still relevant: (1) Paul Lakland, Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age. And (2) Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture.
Sorry, Paul LAKELAND.

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