Becoming an Atheist: The Incomplete Epistemology of Christian Fundamentalism

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I do long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.” Anselm of Canterbury[1]

by John Ellis

My copy of Plato’s collected works arrived in the mail during late summer of 1999. I had joined a mail-order book club similar to the famed Columbia House’s CD Club. You know, purchase one CD and receive four free, obligating yourself to buy at least three more CDs at full price over the next two years – or something like that. It worked basically the same for the Book of the Month Club.

As a young atheist less than two years removed from Bob Jones University, I was eager to read the world’s great thinkers. At the time, that list was woefully (embarrassingly) short for me: Bertrand Russell, Einstein, Freud, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Karl Marx, and Aristotle were really the only other names alongside Plato in my mind whenever I thought about the world’s “great thinkers.” I assumed there were more, just didn’t really know where to begin to look or whom to ask at that point.[2] Scanning the list of available books on the Book of the Month Club’s advertisement, I figured that Plato was as good a place as any to start. So, and never minding that I could’ve gone to the library or spent less money at a bookstore, I committed myself to purchasing five more books at full price over the next two years in order to get my hands on a copy of The Essential Plato translated by Benjamin Jowett.

Up to that point, my only real exposure to Plato had been the required reading sections of The Republic in various English classes. That’s to say, in 1999, I wasn’t aware that the dude had been such a prodigious writer. At just over 1,300 pages, my new book was daunting, but I drew in my breath and made the plunge into ancient Greek philosophy.

Phaedo, Plato’s accounting of Socrates’ final words before his death, is situated about halfway through the volume. My copy still bears the word “fundamentalism” scribbled in my hand in page 603’s margin. Smudged, yet still readable, that word stands in condemnation next to this highlighted passage:

While we are in the body, and while the soul is mingled with this mass of evil, our desire will not be satisfied, and our desire is of the truth. For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and is also liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after truth: and by filling us as full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and every sort of folly, prevents our ever having, as people say, so much as a thought. … the body introduces a turmoil and confusion and fear into the course of speculation, and hinders us from seeing the truth; and all experience shows that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body, and the soul in herself must behold all things in themselves; then, I suppose, that we shall attain that which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers, and this is wisdom; not while we live, but after death, as the argument shows; for if while in company with the body, the soul cannot have pure knowledge, one of two things seems to follow – either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death. For then, and not till then, the soul will be in herself alone and without the body. In this present life, I reckon that we make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible concern or interest in the body, and are not saturated with bodily nature, but remain pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us. And then the foolishness of the body will be cleared away and we shall be pure and hold converse with other pure souls, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere; and this is surely the light of truth [emphasis added].”[3]

At the time, I had yet to learn about things like Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and Cartesian Dualism; I had yet to study Biblical anthropology. However, I did know that my past teachers, professors, parents, and other authority figures viewed the body with great suspicion, at best. Based on my upbringing, I believed that the apostle Paul’s use of the word “flesh” and its accompanying desires encompassed our entire material existence. To oversimplify it, I, along with many of my peers, had been taught to view the soul as good and the body as bad. And I, along with many of my peers, extrapolated that teaching from the broader worldview of the authority figures in Christian fundamentalism. Most absurdly and possibly most frequently (but not solely), this had been communicated to me via the many sermons and chapel messages I had sat through instructing me about the evils of rock music.

“Rock music is evil because its beat and music appeals to the flesh,” I was warned. “God honoring music appeals to our spirit. It uplifts us to think on higher things.”

“Except,” I would always think in rejoinder, “ice cream appeals to my flesh, too.”

Owing, among other things, to the poor exegesis of Paul’s warning about the flesh combined with the Neoplatonism coursing through much of Christian fundamentalism, I was raised in a system that failed to provide adequate distinctions between things and actions that violate God’s holy standard and good and delightful “fleshly” responses to things like ice cream, a nice breeze, the loving touch of my mother, and the guitar solo in “Free Bird.” Again, the underlying anthropology was that the soul/spirit is good; the body bad (sometimes, soul and spirit were divided to create a tripartite anthropology). Likewise, its epistemology was enslaved to the belief that facts speak for themselves (context, while given lip service, was largely dismissed); a belief enshrined within the larger epistemological system called foundationalism. And therein lies the rub: the overall story my authority figures told, the Neoplatonist-driven story that also elevated reason – propositional truth – to a position of almost unassailable epistemic authority while demeaning the body (an eisegetical rendering of Paul’s use of the word “flesh”) actually trumped the good propositional statements about the body and God’s good material gifts that I did hear. You see, we’re not just thinking/reasoning creatures – the part of us that corresponds with the /soul/spirit in the story told by my authority figures – we’re also feeling creatures – the part of us that corresponds with the flesh in the story told by my authority figures – but more on that in a bit, back to 1999 first.

So, while reading Phaedo, my memory was jolted back to the times when my high school teachers and college professors had taught The Republic. During those classes, Plato’s Cave was always viewed as positive instruction. The application was explicit – turn away from the lower things, the material – the fleshly – and turn towards the higher things, the spiritual. Per usual, the “fleshly” was reduced to things like music, movies, and holding hands with my girlfriend. The warnings about the evils of my preferred genre of music were defined and controlled by a hierarchy of existence in which the sacred occupies the seat of privilege and the secular a position of disdain and mistrust. While drilling that pesky sacred/secular divide into me – the spirit/flesh distinction – Plato’s Cave made for a handy analogy.

Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, my pejorative note of “Fundamentalism” in the book’s margin was part of my journey to the realization of how damaging and contra-Biblical Neoplatonism is and how much that idolatry is woven throughout much of post-Enlightenment conservative Christianity. In 1999, I had next to zero inclination of how the Church has been hijacked by a deceitful epistemology and an out-of-balance anthropology. I had started on the long road to figuring it out, though. In the interim, I ran as far from God’s Path as possible, driven by the story, ironically, told by the sacred/secular divide – the spirit/flesh distinction – generated by that deceitful epistemology that views humanity with an off kilter perspective that privileges reason above all else. You see, the brain/mind (no possible distinction in fundamentalism) corresponds with the spirit; our bodies, of course, with the flesh. Meaning that reason/intellect rises far above all other bodily responses in terms of spiritual value. The acceptance of propositional statements (truth claims) was all that was needed to believe. 

An existential problem with that view, ironically, is that my problem wasn’t that I didn’t know the right answers. Having grown up as a pastor’s kid attending Christian schools from kindergarten through college, I was well-versed in the Bible’s propositional statements. Again, and this is important, adding to that, the story I was told controlled and provided the interpretive context for those propositional statements. Ironically, those in a position of authority over me – those shaping my worldview – wouldn’t have used the word “story” to describe their instruction. For them, the propositional statements they uttered contained so much epistemic weight as to swamp the context in which those propositional statements were delivered.

However, not only am I made in the image of the Divine Storyteller, I was trained to tell stories; I loved stories, still do. Not only did the overall teaching and instruction construct my interpretive lens, but most of the actual stories (as they would define story – reduced to things like novels and movies and divorced from worldview) I was told from the well-intended Christians in my life were stories that lacked imagination and were almost solely structured with propositional statements. Didacticism reigned supreme. The worldview I was force fed was anthropologically and epistemologically out of balance, at best, and I knew it in my heart. Ironically, my head also began to figure it out during my teens. By the time I opened the pages of The Essential Plato, my entire being was in full on rebellion against the story I had heard and seen from my parents and other authority figures. Reading the Greek philosopher began to provide my rebellion a gravitas that I had been searching for.

So, while it’s true that my heart was steeped in rebellion, my soul and mind innately (and correctly) rebelled against the privileging of reason at the expense of the imagination and emotions. The overall story that I heard and saw from Christian Fundamentalism was one that denied important parts of my humanity.

Now, and here’s why (not where) my overall point – my thesis, if you will – begins to emerge: many of those still currently steeped in the realm of the independent fundamentalist Christian tradition will cry “foul” at almost everything I’ve written above. They’ll deny that Christian fundamentalism is a monolith, accusing me of committing fallacies like straw man and genetic. Demanding that I define fundamentalism while denying that my experience is universal enough to warrant my broad-brush claims, critics will accuse me of having an axe to grind. Fine, well, not really fine, but, still, fine. A couple of things first, though.

I don’t have an axe to grind in the way that some will believe. I am thankful for those times and ways the Holy Spirit used my fundamentalist parents, teachers, and other assorted friends and authority figures to break my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh. As I look back at past authority figures, it’s become clear to me that many of them were victims. That being said, fundamentalism has some deep flaws that unwittingly enable doubt and fear. Pulling out an even bigger brush, those same flaws are embedded within broader conservative evangelicalism. To that end, I’m going to ignore past (and possibly future) demands that I define fundamentalism. For starters, and paraphrasing Justice Potter, we all know it when we see it. Yes, there are different strands of fundamentalism. Different “camps” have differing and, at times, competing emphases. I’m fully aware of the history of the movement. Yet, among the differences exist several important points of contact, including an epistemology that is also found among broader evangelicalism because, frankly, it’s been one of (if not the) dominating epistemologies of America. Here’s what I mean.

My critics likely responses to my anecdote about reading Plato reveals that they dismiss the role stories play in the formations of our beliefs. And I’m using “stories” broadly; cultural narratives that touch and shape our imaginations, perspectives, and emotions. You see, it doesn’t matter how often fundamentalists (or conservative evangelicals) deny the accusation of Neoplatonism, their arguments based on propositional statements are no match for the narrative of my upbringing, an upbringing that mirrors that of many others who are struggling with doubts or have outright rejected the faith of their fathers and mothers.

I was reminded of this while reading the news that comedian John Crist has suspended his tour and Netflix has canceled his upcoming special over allegations of sexual impropriety. Charisma News records the cautionary confession of one of the women who has accused Crist that she struggles with, “what it means to be a Christian after being so disgustingly let down by a role model I considered to be a man of God.”

That’s a heartbreaking statement, and one that should cause all of us to weep and to pray for this young lady. Sadly, though, there are those who will dismiss her confession as nothing more than her weak excuse for her own rebellion against God. “She knows the truth,” they’ll scold. “She needs to stop blaming Crist for her own lack of faith.”

I don’t know anything about this young lady other than what I’ve read in Charisma News and other similar sources. I do not know if she’s currently abandoned any pretense of faith or if she’s still clinging to Jesus, even in her doubts, questions, and hurt. If it’s the former and she enters eternity in that rebellion, then, yes, she will answer to God for her own rejection of Him. But that doesn’t absolve John Crist for how his actions have shaped the narrative about Christianity in her heart and mind.  

How we communicate what we believe is important. The story that we write with our actions and inactions and responses and nonverbal cues and muddled words, as well as our truth claims – all of it – is an integral part of the communication process. When I taught acting, this was one of the first lessons.

I would instruct a student to ask of me, “How are you doing?” After giving a variety of verbal responses accompanied with a variety of contradictory nonverbal cues, we would discuss how the subtext is where the truth of the story is. I may say, “I’m good” to the question, but my body language and tone communicate what I really mean.

While his concern is specifically directed towards the dissemination and application of doctrine, Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer recognizes this same thing when he acknowledges, “Meaning is an affair of context. To understand what people are saying and doing we need to know something about the circumstances of their speech and action. Context refers to all those factors in a situation that have a bearing on what our words and acts ‘count as’ [emphasis kept].”[4]

We are more than just our minds. Our emotions and feelings and imaginations are not a lesser part of us. Every part of us was created to image and glorify God. Knowing the truth in its propositional form can be a cold comfort during dark and discouraging times. Knowing the truth in its propositional form can be weak weapon when the emotions and imagination of an image bearer have been deceitfully shaped by competing stories. And that has potentially devastating consequences. As philosopher Esther Lightcap Meek astutely points out, “Epistemological dualism cuts us as knowers down into disconnected compartments unable to work together – information here, body there, emotions in a third place. It depersonalizes us at the moment of one our greatest opportunities for personhood – coming to know.”[5]

Make no mistake, the default epistemology of Christian fundamentalism – the exaltation of reason combined with the dismissal of the body and emotions – engenders a personhood at war with itself. While advocating for what he calls a holistic-dualism, theologian John W. Cooper warns that too sharp of a, “body-soul [anthropological/Cartesian] dualism hampers authentic Christian orthopraxis – proper and effective living.”[6]

In his book, Cooper argues for a Biblical anthropology that recognizes the body-soul distinction but without privileging one at the expense of the other. While his primary concern lies with taking on an unbiblical anthropological monism that damages Christian orthodox teachings on the intermediate state between death and the Resurrection at the Second Advent, Cooper honestly assesses Cartesian dualism. That assessment, as noted in the above quote, calls for us to view ourselves in a holistic manner that recognizes that our entire being is made in the image of God and that we interact with the world around us with both our body and soul in holistic ways.

Of course, adopting a holistic anthropology requires submission to the Doctrine of the Fall. And it stands as an eternal truth that the Fall has affected all of us. As in, it’s affected every single one of us and the totality of our being and existence on this planet. That’s a propositional statement deduced from the Bible. Like all the Bible’s truth claims, it’s a propositional statement that is authoritative. Or, at least, it should be. Even for those of us who assent to it, we frequently fail to be controlled by its truth. That’s a sinful reality that can and will only be made right by the work of Jesus culminating in his return, meaning that it’s to be expected that we will never be fully controlled by that truth (or any truth) this side of eternity. That’s not an excuse to steer into the Fall’s effects; it’s merely an acknowledgment of the truth claim’s own effects. However, in a sad twist of irony, many of those who assent to that truth claim/proposition demonstrate that they have little to no understanding of its anthropological controls and, hence, its epistemological controls. 

Our reason is as marred by the Fall as are our emotions and body. Christian fundamentalism, while willing to give voice to that truth, operates with the unstated assumption that reason is somehow less marred than the rest of our being. This amounts to an epistemological Tower of Babel that fails to acknowledge the mysterious depths of not only the wonders wrapped up in an anthropology that embraces a holistic dualism rooted in the Imago Dei, but also in the unplumbable depths of the mysteries of God.

If our body and emotions are viewed with a level of suspicion not directed at our reason, the temptation to think higher of our ability to reason (to know) exists. In that instance, we are tempted to believe that one part of us is closer to God than the rest of us. That results in awarding humans an unwarranted intellectual access to the mysteries of God. By contrast, and paraphrasing the quote from Anselm of Canterbury posted at the top of this article, our entire being should recognize that we can only understand God to the degree to which He decrees and reveals, and that our understanding is not just a matter of belief but also of love.

Sadly, this contra-Biblical anthropological distinction was on full display in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve’s problem wasn’t what they knew, but what they loved. They had all the information and propositional statements they needed; all the intellectual evidence was in front of them. Their cognitive abilities were no match for their rebellion, though. Their desires and love had not been shaped by propositional statements, which is often the norm for all of their descendants.

This is not to deny the importance of propositional statements. Paul makes clear in Romans 10:14, after all, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”

Yes, it is vital to boldly speak propositional statements like “we are all sinners,” “sin deserves death,” “Jesus died for the sins of those who repent and believe,” and the many other glorious truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, how we package those propositional truths – how we live and how we interact with this world and with others – is also important. Vanhoozer offers the helpful admonition that, “Theology needs to attend not only to the how and what of knowledge but also to the who and why [emphasis kept].”[7] To put that another way, Dr. Michael Horton contends that, “There are no uninterpreted facts, historical events, personal encounters, inner experiences, or states of awareness.”[8]

Wrapped up in an anthropologically holistic dualism that also seeks to do justice to the effects of the Fall is the understanding that we have the tendency to warp and bend our view of reality away from the Bible. As Dr. Horton explains, “We always presuppose a certain view of reality before we ask how to investigate it.”[9]

This takes us back to Plato’s Phaedo. The adoption of post-Enlightenment anthropologies and epistemologies have steered Christian fundamentalism into an idolatrous embrace of Cartesian dualism. Yet, as John W. Cooper makes clear, “The Platonic preference for disembodiment is clearly contradicted by the Christian account of humans as essentially bodily creatures of God.”[10]

Philosopher James K. Smith takes that a step further when discussing the anthropological privileging of reason over the body that exists in broader evangelicalism, and that definitely exists throughout much of Christian fundamentalism. “In the rationalist picture, we are not only reduced to primarily thinking things; we are also seen as things whose bodies are nonessential (and rather regrettable) containers for our minds. This is why such construals of a Christian worldview are also dualistic: they tend to assume a distinction between our souls and bodies – and they tend to ignore our embodiment (or wish it weren’t there).”[11]

Smith’s “wish it weren’t there” stands as a deep accusation. Sadly, it’s an accusation that contains a great deal of merit. Christian fundamentalism harbors a deep suspicion of the body while exalting the mind. In their epistemology, propositional statements stand alone; the medium is not the message.[12] However, and again quoting Esther Lightcap Meek, “The knowledge-as-information vision is actually defective and damaging. It distorts reality and humanness, and it gets in the way of good knowing. … For example, we believe that we should keep ourselves and our passion out of knowledge if we are to be objective. So we actually cut off knowledge from ourselves, the knowers.”[13]

As a whole, Christian fundamentalism contains and preaches the wonderful message of God’s grace in and through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the “story” they tell via their entire perspective on reality often warps that message. For all the good that the Holy Spirit has accomplished through the work of the Christian fundamentalist movement, imagine how much more affective the movement would be if it embraced the Biblical teaching that we are as much bodily/feeling creatures as we are thinking creatures.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Anselm, “Proslogion,” in St Anselm, Proslogium and Monologium (trans. Sidney Norton Deane; Chicago: Open Court, 1935), 6.

[2] Owing to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I also thought of Socrates as a great thinker I needed to read. My soon-to-arrive collected works of Plato sowed seeds of doubt in my mind as to the credulity of the movie.  

[3] Plato, “Phaedo” in The Essential Plato (trans. Benjamin Jowett; New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1999), 603-604.

[4] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 311.

[5] Esther Lightcap Meek, A Little Manual for Knowing (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 3.

[6] John W. Cooper, Body , Soul & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 26.

[7] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 293.

[8] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 118.

[9] Horton, The Christian Faith, 49.

[10] Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, 12.

[11] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009) 32.

[12] That, of course, is not always true. The medium becomes the message when it supports their propositional condemnations of things like rock music and movies.

[13] Meek, A Little Manual for Knowing, 2-3.

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