Editorial:  Theological Obscurantism

My personality moves me in the direction of details, specifics, and particulars.  Sometimes a single word captures my attention for quite a while.  I have a built-in propensity to zoom in. This means that I have had to discipline myself to zoom out–to look for trends and connections–for things things that intetsect, link, overlap, etc.

I recently had a zoom-out experience with respect to something happening in certain segments of Christianity–an anti-science bias.  Putting the evidence together from fundamentalist resistance to the behavioral, biological, social, and cosmological sciences, it suddenly became clear to me that something larger is going on–a mindset is infecting certain theological thinking, a kind of “Bible only” way of viewing life and seeking for truth.  It’s called obscurantism.

It’s possible to trace the evidence for this in obscurantist thinking about the environment, climate change, meteorology, immigrants and refugees, and sexuality, to name a few.  In each of these areas, some Christians have become obscurantists, calling the ongoing discoveries of the scientific community (at least the ones they don’t like) “junk science.” Their allegation is supposed to be enough to stop the rest of us in our tracks, and prevent us from discovering things they either do not know themselves, or what they do know but don’t want us to know.

I first saw this in my reading about human sexuality.  I am far from expert in what the sciences are contributing to the Bible’s revelation that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), but I have read enough to know some obscurantists are not incorporating current scientific knowledge into their declarations.  I have since found similar junk-science allegations by obscurantists in the topics above, and others as well.

This is both amazing and sad when, looking back in history, we see that many of our predecessors in the faith were also scientists–men and women intent on discovering how “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).  Their willingness, their vocation, was to give themselves to the use of science as a means of understanding part of  what theologians call progressive revelation.  And thanks to their efforts, humankind has been advanced and enriched in ways beyond counting.

To see the reverse of that inclination by Christian obscurantists is enough to know that their conclusions about particular aspects of truth arise from a flawed methodology.  It is a methodology which prevents certain data from ever becoming influential in our ongoing attempt to know better and better how God has made us and the world–and how we are to live with ourselves, with others, and all God has made.

Theological conclusions/interpretations (hermeneutics) arise from the contributions of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.  By failing to take into account current scientific knowledge, the obscurantists skew the contributions of reason, which then has a ripple effect into the other three areas.

Almost always, obscurantism is the sign that something else is going on.  And when the obscurantism is in religion, it is usually an indication that some portion of holy scripture has been made a “sacred cow”–a cow that cannot be questioned, because it is part of what gave obscurantists their power in the first place–and keeps them in it up to the present. 

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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