When I first clapped eyes on this stained glass heraldry at NCBC I never guessed that it may be providing a big clue about fundamentalist resurgence since the 60s
On Sunday (22nd May) we had two excellent presentations on the creation and science question, one from an establishment academic and the other from a career scientist. The views they expressed were sympathetic to the established science account of origins. However, they expressed these views with a very Biblical fear and trembling and with an exemplary blend of commitment and understanding.
The event was largely a response to the talk we had in March from a Young Earth Creationist. Toward the end of his talk this speaker was very clear about the spiritual virtues of YEC and the demerits of not agreeing with it. The recommended book “Deluded by Darwinism” said it all. How is it that we have arrived at a juncture where the Christian fundamentalist is so polarized against establishment science that he or she sees it as a symptom of gross spiritual failure not only on the part of secular society but also of Christians who hold the established view?
If this post I wrote in December 09 is anything to go by then it seems that there was a time in our church when the YEC view wasn’t even on the horizon. In the linked post I reported on a church magazine article dated Christmas 1939 and written by the then Minister of the church the Rev. Gilbert Laws. The article is a reflection on man’s position in the cosmos. The most notable thing about it is that it displays no consciousness whatever of a dichotomy between established science and the fundamentalist account of origins. In fact Laws writes as if YEC doesn’t even exist; he takes for granted the science of the day and gives no cognizance of any issue between scientific cosmogony and Genesis. Laws’ assumed brief was to cope with the latest science by making Christian sense of it but without contradicting it.
Gilbert Laws was the minister of a church whose prestige and influence had increased steadily from the start of the industrial revolution. In fact since the repeal of the Test Act of 1828 Laws could look back on a church whose members included MPs, Sheriffs, and successful business grandees. By the early 1950s the Baptist church on Duke Street was still a respected pillar of society. Today visible manifestation of this history of civic involvement is evidenced by the stained glass heraldry in the north window of the church, heraldry celebrating civic connections. Moreover, after the bombing of 1943 the 1952 rebuild brought together a nonconformist classicism with established church gothic styles. It replaced an 1811 Regency styled “classical temple”, a style harking back to the days of a-vant-garde nonconformity. All this says a lot about how the church thought of itself in the years immediately following the war. They were patricians in a society in which they believed. In one sense they were that society
What then has happened between then and now? The quick answer to that question is: “The Nineteen Sixties”. The sixties downturn in church attendance and the move away from traditional patrician values was accompanied by a resurgence of a recrudescent fundamentalism. That fundamentalism was often accompanied by a literal interpretation of Genesis, a view well expressed by the fathers of contemporary YEC John Whitcomb and Henry Morris in their 1961 publication “The Genesis Flood”.
The slip and slide of the church as it shifted from an establishment position to the margins of society made it more attractive to unintellectual dissenters than it did to pillars of society. In particular scientific cosmogony, as is evident even from Gilbert Laws' sermon, left mankind with a rather puzzling picture of reality; science’s analytical elementalism looked more profane than it did sacred. The average Joe Pugh who was fervent about his Christian faith, unintellectual and profoundly ignorant of science, could make little sense of scientific results. His church now had less stake in society but he was too conservative to become a radical political defector and agitator, and so he became a protestor against the academic establishment. Joe Pugh’s cosmological tastes had the touch and feel of Kincaidian kitsch rather than the dispassionate universe depicted by JM Turner. Joe Pugh looked for a vision of the universe that had a sentimental ambiance and the cozy warmth of the living room. In contrast J M Turner’s presents a disinterested world of fuzzy ill defined boundaries, and potentially threatening to boot. Unlike Gilbert Laws Joe Pugh wasn’t going to cope with establishment science; rather he was going to rebel against it. In its place Pugh wanted something that domesticated and sanctified an apparently impersonal and profane looking cosmos. YEC was the perfect deal for him. YEC was used as a badge of identification that sent out messages that were the very opposite of the heraldry we see at NCBC.
For Christian fundamentalists YEC was exploited as a reactionary tribal marker that was an affront to established science. It was a form of theological punk; a safety pin and garbage bag “science” that told academia, loud an clear, that they were no longer being listened to. That the neo-fundmentalist’s identity was bound up with YEC meant that they were not going to be neither here nor there about their account of creation. They had far too much at stake for that. Rather, they were going to get uptight about it, especially with Christians who didn't assent to it. For to them it was “faith test” material. Like the heraldry we find at NCBC YEC was a statement about what these people stood for – therefore Christians weren’t supposed to prevaricate about it and a Christian couldn’t believe in an old Earth without being thought of as compromising. “Old Earth or Young Earth” was no theoretical nuance that could be discussed coolly; agreeing to differ has never been an option with fundamentalists.
Today Joe Pugh’s strong belief in literalism is self affirming – the harder he believes it the truer it seems to become – especially if he is surrounded by a heroic sacred and remnant community that are all doing the same. Anyone who doesn't affirm this belief will at best be looked at askance and at worst be considered apostate. And so we find ourselves in this polarized position today, a position where language like “Deluded by Darwinism” is de rigueur amongst YECs, thus upping the ante and feeding the process of polarization.
Polarisation passion feeds. Passion polarisation breeds. Polarisation is passion's cause, for crusade and holy wars.
The fundamentalist's kitsch view of the cosmos has only one blot on the horizon: Science.