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Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources for a Middle Position

A mentor once suggested to me that the devil is an extremist. If my inclination is toward conservative Christian living, he will tempt me to travel a pathway to the radical right. If I lean toward a liberal orientation, he will attempt to lead me too far to the left. My teacher advised that my only safe course is to practice moderation. I should preserve the principles of the past while remaining open to progressive thinking.

In a similar spirit Peter Berger has compiled Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources for a Middle Position [Eerdmans, 2009]. It is a collection of essays by different authors who join him in quest of a middle position between believing that discussions on “What is truth” are irrelevant, on the one hand, and claiming to be the sole possessors of absolute truth, on the other. It is one of the most interesting books that I have read.

Berger, a well known sociologist and influential author, is a senior research fellow at Boston University where he has taught for many years. He is also the founder of its Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. One of his most recent publications is a book he co-authored with Dutch sociologist Anton Zijderveld titled In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic [HarperOne, 2009]. He is a Christian layman with a Lutheran background.

Berger included in this book contributions from Protestant, Catholic and Jewish scholars. All of them define middle alignments that will accommodate a modern lifestyle without compromising the integrity of their beliefs.

Berger’s stimulating introduction contends that both extremes are unacceptable. One of his arguments is that there are moral positions in every religious philosophy that are essential if diverse people are to live together in civic peace.

He described an episode in India where the British had established another colony for their empire. British General Charles James Napier, the Commander-in-Chief, had left local customs in place except for a few that he a deemed unacceptable. Among these was suttee, the burning alive of widows. A delegation of Brahmin priests came to him and said, “You cannot ban suttee. It is an ancient tradition of our people.” “We British have our traditions too,” Napier replied. “When men burn a woman alive, we hang them.” No one bothered him with appeals based on relativism again!

Craig Gay’s chapter will be of particular interest to evangelicals. He chides this group making up “one fourth of the electorate of the most powerful nation on earth for missing a historic opportunity for not contributing to the shaping of public policy in ways that would contribute to the well being of the whole earth.”

Gay includes the views of several Christian scholars. One of these, Nicolas Wolterstorf, has a view that should bring comfort to Adventists and others respecting the value of church and state separation. In seeking to establish a theological foundation for an evangelical philosophy he states, “The biblical vision does not expect the government to be Christian, to enact specifically Christian legislation, or to be staffed by Christians. It does expect Christians to interact positively and honorably with government, both for their sake of the love of God and for their neighbors.”

The chapter by Ingeborg Gabriel titled “Christianity in an Age of Uncertainty: a Catholic Perspective” is probably the most significant one for Protestant Christians. “The stumbling block in the relationship between modern political culture,” he says in relation to the Catholic church, “was the right to religious freedom.” Gabriel attempts to resolve this difficult dichotomy with a unique answer.

Peter Berger himself wrote the chapter that was the most interesting to me. He acknowledged that he had hoped to find a Lutheran theologian to deal with his church’s answer to the division between relativism and fundamentalism, humbly stating that he has no theological credentials for this assignment. He confessed that he might be “deviating sharply” from original meanings and then offered a rationale that may reflect a picture of developments in Adventist theology over the past 50 years.

“I think that a religious tradition is not an inert object to be handed on as is from one generation to the next,” he wrote, “but rather a living thing to (sometimes surprising) interpretations.” His essay is filled with insights that might be new to our church. He points out, for example, that a civic government could not operate on the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet the Ten Commandments would be a desirable guide for moral justice on the civic level.

Berger’s commentary reminds us that in the Christian Church there are some absolutes that are not negotiable. Yet there are some beliefs where there is room for two schools of thought. The ultra conservative fundamentalist will often treat areas where there is room for latitude as if they were absolutes. And the relativist ultra-liberal will take some absolutes and treat them as if there is room for diversity of thinking. The challenge for the moderate in the middle is to sort this all out.

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