An extraordinary thing is happening in Bakersfield, the "City of Righteousness." It began on July 7 and, week by week, seems to grow in strength in an old church property downtown. Fundamentalism is being dealt a mighty blow by the new and inclusive community at the historic St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
The prologue to this story is easily drowned out in the Kern religious landscape. Over 10 years ago, irreconcilable differences tore apart one of the oldest church families in Bakersfield; and though you may have heard it, only the children of a broken family can know the story.
But Bakersfield Christians and non-Christians alike can learn from this story, because the foundation of the Anglican-Episcopal schism is a darkness that has cast a heavy shadow over us all.
Fundamentalism is not having deep and sincere religious beliefs; being faithful to faith; or having a "scriptural basis." Nor is it feeling a need for salvation in a harsh world. Fundamentalism is never about these "fundamentals" that make up the elements of all human faiths. Once more, humanity is a family, Christians are taught, wherein each person is made by God in his image.
Christianity especially is defined by juxtaposition, believing in an immeasurable and all powerful creator who is also the personal father to all his creation. The creed different people profess, and what they think it means, doesn't change that.
So how can any Christian find just cause to condemn any member of that family based upon differences? I believe in God's revelation and read daily the Bible, but I still have to interpret it. I would be damn(ably) arrogant to think I do so perfectly. So then why arrogantly assume that the way God speaks to my soul is the only way he speaks to people when I share his universe with such teeming diversity? Why would I follow any Christian leader who would teach me to condemn that diversity, especially when the world is a painful enough place and repenting for my own sins and serving the needy is a full-time job itself?
Fundamentalism is that arrogance. It takes otherwise good people and clouds their hearts until they believe that innocuous differences (in biology, background or belief) turn neighbors into persecutors that must be crushed. Fundamentalism happens when good people shut down their intellect, created uniquely in us by God, in order to hate. It turns brother against brother, and disagreement evolves from strife to fight. The fight is sometimes in court over an old building and sometimes on the street corner with a vest full of explosives, but it is the same fight caused by the same evil.
I am a son of the broken St. Paul's family who fled a house torn by fundamentalism. For 10 years I wandered into many other church families. In most cases, I was warmly welcomed before I was duly warned who wouldn't be. I was cynical when returning to St. Paul's, but I've been stunned by what I observed there amongst the congregation. It is a feeling best summarized by the Rev. Dr. Tim Vivian's July 7 sermon: "We must (make St. Paul's) not in our image; not in the image of the past; not even in the image of the Episcopal Church. Those are, to be frank, idolatries. We here have the opportunity to recreate Saint Paul's in God's image and likeness, in the image and likeness of Christ and his Good News, seeking and serving the Christ in all persons."
While I have my bias, and experience never led me to literally every church in town, I have a feeling that this new St. Paul's is unique in Bakersfield. Certainly the steadily growing numbers of attendees and members is evidence that there is a larger local need for more inclusive churches. To attend a service at St. Paul's is to see every branch of American life represented and joined together in a common worship without expense to any group.
Nathan Boles, a local educator with experience teaching high school theology, received his B.A. in religious studies from Cal State Bakersfield in 2007. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.