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Raymond Brown on Fundamentalism

Catholic Update is a newsletter-format publication produced by St. Anthony Messenger Press. Each issue is devoted to a single theme. Rummaging through our research files, recently we came upon a back issue devoted to “The Fundamentalist Challenge.” The author is Raymond E. Brown, S.S., a well-known Scripture scholar and professor of biblical studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York. 

We don’t want to critique the whole of Brown’s essay. Much of it is right on point, especially most of the questions and answers that comprise the last half. We wish to look at a few lines in the early paragraphs of the piece. We think they misrepresent Fundamentalism and misadvise Catholics who enter discussions with Fundamentalists. 

1. “Fundamentalism . . . really distorts the challenge of Jesus Christ. It provides an absolute certainty based on a belief that every word in the Bible really has been dictated by God and one needs only hold to the literal meaning. It does not recognize that every word in the Bible, even though inspired by God, has been written by human beings who had limitations.” 

This is an inaccurate description of what Fundamentalists believe about the Bible. We haven’t come across many Fundamentalists who believe God dictated the words of Scripture, except for those passages, mainly in the Old Testament, in which a revelation is being reported verbatim. That is error number one. 

Error number two is that Fundamentalists aren’t literalists, at least not in the common meaning of that term. The common meaning suggests that literalists take every word of the Bible literally. Fundamentalists don’t do that. They take the last half of John 6 figuratively, for instance, while Catholics take it literally. (Does that mean Catholics are literalists?) Let’s not call Fundamentalists literalists. Let’s call them biblicists, a biblicist being someone who argues that the Bible is the sole rule of faith and practice. 

Fundamentalist writers know well that the Bible was reduced to paper through human hands, and those hands were attached to human beings who suffered from limitations – moral, mental, and physical. Unlike some non-Fundamentalists, these “Bible Christians” don’t conclude that the weaknesses of the human authors have produced weaknesses in the sacred text. They realize God not only writes straight with crooked lines, but with crooked lives. 

2. “Those familiar with what works and what doesn’t work in responding to Fundamentalist challenges have come up with the following bits of wisdom. Don’t waste time arguing over individual biblical texts with Fundamentalists. The question is a much larger one of an overall view of religion, of Christianity, and of the nature of the Bible.” 

Yes, it is true that there are larger questions which Fundamentalists need to address. They tend to take a restricted view of things, and often that restricted view collapses into anti-intellectualism. But keep in mind that there are Catholic anti-intellectuals also, including those folks who refuse to read any books written prior to Vatican II. Beyond all this, it doesn’t seem that “those familiar with what works and what doesn’t work” know what they’re talking about; if they did, they wouldn’t be advising Catholics to stop “arguing over individual biblical texts.” We don’t know who these unnamed authorities are, but we suspect they have little practical experience in Catholic/Fundamentalist dialogues. They might converse across the table with Fundamentalist scholars (yes, there are a few), and in such cases arguing about verses may be inappropriate, but for most Catholics-surely for the audience that reads Catholic Update – what counts is the discussion with the Fundamentalists next door. 

And the fact is that with them such discussions work quite well, presuming sufficient knowledge of the Bible, Catholic doctrine, and the social graces on the part of the Catholic participant. We feel comfortable saying this because we have dealt with thousands of Fundamentalists this way and have seen many of them come into the Catholic Church or, at least, cease to be active anti-Catholics. The proof of the method is in the numbers. 

Yes, we would like to raise the discussion to a high level as soon as possible, but the discussion will go nowhere unless we first consent to engage Fundamentalists on their own terms, and that means “arguing over individual biblical texts” – not crudely, not raucously, but clearly and lovingly. This brings us to the third admonition Brown gives. 

3. “Were you to be successful in convincing an intelligent biblical Fundamentalist that [his] position is wrong, you might be surprised to find that the former Fundamentalist does not become a more moderate Christian but an atheist.” 

Perhaps some Fundamentalist we dealt with lost his faith and embraced atheism. Perhaps – but we haven’t heard of such a person. We know that some Fundamentalists, without any prodding from Catholics, do abandon Fundamentalism and then abandon religion altogether. One might allege plausibly that the risk of becoming an atheist is greater for Fundamentalists who aren’t engaged in discussions by Catholics. When such Fundamentalists abandon Fundamentalism, they may see no alternative other than a complete absence of religion. Those who have gone one-on-one with a Catholic, on the other hand, might find the Catholic Church waiting as an unexpected safety net. 

A last point. We’re not interested in transforming a Fundamentalist into “a more moderate Christian.” We much prefer transforming him into a zealous Catholic. “Moderate Christian” is a synonym for ” Christian wimp,” and the world has enough Christian wimps already. Better to remain a Fundamentalist, but better yet to become a thoroughgoing Catholic, one who actually allows his faith to determine his day-to-day life. In today’s world, no one who surrenders his life to God in that way can be termed a moderate or can be a wimp. 


 

Here are some young Catholics to whom the label “wimp” never can be applied. They’re members of Miles Jesu, an organization doing much good throughout the world. From their house in Brno in the Czech Republic comes these words from member Mark Whelan

“We are always looking for new ways to spread the gospel. We are very active in the Czech Republic and Slovakia in evangelization. We teach a weekly Bible class is Bratislava and have two apologetic youth groups in Brno. At the local prison we give conferences on the Catholic faith, and we pass out evangelization tracts on the streets. Our whole aim is to get an educated Catholic laity, to protect them from sects and also to get them to a deeper spiritual life. 

“We are being overwhelmed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Moonies, and, worst of all, secularism. The people and the Church here have no idea of how to cope with these problems. We are doing all we can to help. But raising funds for evangelization seems to be impossible in average Catholic circles.” 

Of course, Miles Jesu needs not only funds, but volunteers. It has begun a one-year mission program. Patterned after the missionary program operated by the Mormons (why not take a cue from their success?), the Miles Jesu program asks young people to donate a year of their lives to service of the Church. Expenses are paid mainly by the missionary and his family, which is the way the Mormon missionary program works. 

If you or some young person you know might be interested in this outreach, contact Miles Jesu at its main house: Miles Jesu, P.O. Box 256528, Chicago, IL 60625-6528, or call (312) 769-0485. 


 

We regret to announce the death of Ruth Norman, lauded in her obituary as a “poet, humanitarian, visionary.” She died in her sleep at age 92. 

With her late husband, Ernest, who died in 1971, Mrs. Norman founded the El Cajon, California-based Unarius Academy of Science. She was best known for her prediction (and hope) that extraterrestrials would land in the countryside near her home in 2001 and for appearing in public dressed in a royal robe and crown. Her pro-alien movement claims to have half a million followers worldwide. 

In her book Visitations: A Saga of Gods and Men, Mrs. Norman said her prior reincarnations included Socrates, Peter the Great, Charlemagne, Elizabeth I, and Akbar of India. We don’t know what she did in her immediately prior life to end up as Ruth Norman of El Cajon.

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