Daughter asks mommy: ‘Are we fundamentalist Christians or liberal Christians’?

It’s not exactly the kind of question my wife expected but when a 9-year-old comes up with that, you just know she has been doing RE at school.

  • Mum -, ‘that’s an interesting question – what makes you ask it?’
  • Daughter – ‘we were doing it in RE’
  • Mum – ‘so what do you think?’
  • Daughter – ‘Well Miss says that fundamentalists believe that all of the Bible is true but liberal Christians think only some of the Bible is true’
  • Mum – ‘So what do you think about us?’
  • Daughter – ‘ Well I thought maybe we were liberal Christians but as you think the Bible is really important I suppose we are fundamental Christians?’ (asked questioningly)

[Contextual information: Mum is a lay minister who leads worship and coordinator of the Sunday School team. Dad is a sometime RE teacher, RE teacher educator and RE researcher.]

We talked about this incident quite a lot, wondering how religious children make sense of the categories they hear in class and the language they see in the media.

I wonder if we need to take greater care of the categories we use in RE. I remember a conservative evangelical telling me that her daughter had come home with questions about Genesis and that the teacher had presented binary alternatives – either you believe Genesis is literally true or you believe it is a symbol for something or some sort of myth.

I wonder if we place too much importance on these categories and too little time focussing on the lives of Christians and the ways they discern things, which may not fit our categories. Most conservative evangelicals (I suggest) do not believe every word and book in the Bible is ‘True’ in precisely the same way as every other word and Book in the Bible. In other words, some texts have a kind of reach into Christian life that is different from other words (think the difference between poetry, history and moral command).

I suspect my daughter thinks we place a lot of importance on the Bible because we have about 20 different bibles on my bookshelves and I write about this sort of stuff (http://ethicalstudies.co.uk/). But maybe I would prefer her teacher to focus on the different ways religious people discern meaning from religious sources, rather than obsess about which category bucket people can be put inside. Sometimes I am pretty literal about bits of the Bible. Sometimes I think its meanings are (also or alternatively) much, much more important that that. I mean if you say ‘God saves’ the literalness can’t be fully accounted for in terms of a linguistic literal notion of saving. I may be saved from drowning today, but no inner transformation is necessary with that sort of saving, and I may still drown tomorrow. To say a Christian literally believes she is saved by God is not enough. We need to know much more to understanding what is meant by saving. To believe Jesus literally rose from the dead in the past, need not imply anything about what will happen to me after my death. Belief in the risen Christ is not the same as the belief that Jesus rose from the dead (one time). There is a link of course (for many/most Christians) but, again, we need to get beyond categorising terms which actually are more about labels and less about understanding.

I think meaning can have a more powerful and universal significance than a literal reading so I am not sure that the liberal – fundamental, symbolic – literal binaries really help do much, apart from creating essentialized notions of Christians that limit, reduce and simplify religious life.

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