Fundamentalism and Freedom

Peter Cameron, Doubleday, 1995, 213 pp. ($24.95, available from Epworth Bookshop, PO Box 6133, Wellington)

Reviewed by Lloyd Geering, SOF NZ Newsletter #14, December 1995

Peter Cameron is a Church of Scotland minister who was for some years Principal of St. Andrew's College in the University of Sydney. This is a Presbyterian College, having been claimed by the continuing Presbyterians when the greater number of Presbyterians moved into the Uniting Church of Australia. The continuing Presbyterians are extremely conservative, even to the point of now refusing to ordain any more women into the ministry. Peter Cameron opposed this backward move and soon found himself embroiled in a theological battle within the church. In 1993 he was charged with heresy and eventually ousted. He has subsequently published his story in a book entitled Heretic.

While that book is more personal, and chiefly of interest to the Australian scene, this second book is of greater interest and value to us here in New Zealand, where very conservative theological convictions have already become quite dominant in the so-called mainline churches. The Presbyterian church in particular is deeply divided over the question of ordaining homosexuals to the ministry and this is fast becoming a battle between liberal and fundamentalist attitudes towards the Bible.

This book is not an academic one. The person to turn to for that is James Barr, a Scottish Old Testament scholar, who has been writing about fundamentalism for some thirty years, in such books as Fundamentalism, SCM, 1977, and Escaping from Fundamentalism, SCM, 1984. More recently Barr has written, "Fundamentalism has suddenly become a matter of concern for everyone, whether or not they are personally religious. It affects education in science and history; it affects political elections in some countries, and through this it affects international relations; it may affect the question of whether mankind survives [far] into the twenty-first century. Therefore, if people want to understand the world in which they live, they may find it necessary to understand something about fundamentalism".

So Cameron's book is very timely. Though it is written in a lively and personal style it nevertheless brings clearly into the open why the rise of modern fundamentalism can no longer be ignored, either by the churches or by the community. There are two reasons why Christian fundamentalism has not been adequately countered in the past. The first is that while fundamentalists are often quite intolerant of those who differ from them, more liberal Christians, believing in the value of tolerance, have been reluctant to be openly critical of fundamentalists. In this respect Cameron does not pull any punches at all. He asserts that fundamentalists conceive God to be "an authoritarian idol-god, who bullies his worshippers into submission" and that this inadequate conception of God is "simply a projection of their own fantasies".

The second reason is that fundamentalists, by claiming to be the guardians of the only true form of Christianity, have captured the high moral ground, from which they are able to condemn all who differ from them as renegades and enemies of the "faith", who follow their own (misguided) inclinations instead of being faithful to the eternal truths which God had laid down in his eternal Word.

In adopting this position fundamentalists show not only that they have an inadequate understanding of the history of Christianity but, worse than that, they are setting themselves up as the only true interpreters of Christianity and hence the only true Christians. Fundamentalism inevitably becomes divisive, sectarian and self-righteous.

Fundamentalists are very dismissive of all things human and draw an absolute line between human thought and divine thought. This turns out to be Achilles heel. As soon as it become clear, as it has in the last 150 years, that the Bible is of human origin and reflects at all points the thoughts, customs, and world-views of the various people whose words are there preserved, fundamentalists are raising to divine and absolute status the (human) thoughts of people of ancient times. In other words they are idolising past human thinking and rejecting modern human thinking. Far from being the guardians of the true faith, fundamentalists are guilty of what the biblical tradition regards as the most heinous of all sins, namely idolatry.