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Fundamentalism v. Scepticism: the Middle Way

Posted on 13 February 2013, 11:07

As a liberal Anglican clergyman, I feel caught between fundamentalists and the clergy who deny the reality of the spiritual dimension. Such clergy really exist! Books published by White Crow can be important in nourishing open-minded churchgoers who have not become materialists.

I was invited to review a book called Why weren’t we told? By Rex A.E. Hunt and John W.H. Smith published in January this year, and found myself agreeing with many of their aims for what should happen in church, but being upset by ill-informed extreme scepticism. Readers may be interested to read how I reviewed this book:


This publication is designed as a resource book for “progressive” freethinking Christian congregations wishing to escape bondage to a literally interpreted Bible, and to foster a spirituality in touch with the world around us. It is to be “inclusive not exclusive, not just in the sense of gender, race or species but also in rejecting the fundamentalist mindset. It recognises that the ‘truth to live by’ may be revealed in varying and multiple ways.” (p.188)

Actual “progressive” congregations described are largely located in Australia and New Zealand, as are also the numerous contributing scholars. A good anthology of prayers and hymns is provided.

There is an interesting section on “reclaiming the heretics for progressive purposes”, discussing Arius, Origen, Pelagius, Meister Eckardt and others.

The book is made up of almost one hundred contributions, with many authors, sure to stimulate much thought and creativity. People of varied philosophical persuasions will find much to value.

From the point of view of this reviewer, there is also an important defect that prevents this work being even better.

Materialism or Naturalism is presented as the only proper belief. Only “the world of nature is real… Nature is necessary in the sense of requiring no sufficient reason beyond itself to account for its origin… Nature as a whole may be understood without appeal to any kind of intelligence or purposive agent… All causes are natural causes, products of other natural events.” (A.E. Hunt, p.69)

The book goes no deeper than this. There is no consideration at all of the nature of mind. There is no reference to phenomena reported by all races of humankind at all periods of history, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognitive dreams, near death experiences. We gain no inkling that a large minority of scientists are not materialists: we hear nothing of what some eminent QM physicists have to say about mind, such as Brian Josephson, Wolfgang Pauli, Albert Einstein, (all Nobel Prize winners) or David Bohm, F. David Peat, or Rupert Sheldrake the biologist. All these and many others it seems can be ignored, for materialism here is deemed to be the only valid way of interpreting reality. Readers of this book could well echo the title, and ask, “Why weren’t we told” about such matters?  Are not “progressive” congregations wishing to find “the ‘truth to live by’ [that] may be revealed in varying and multiple ways.”? Are we to fall into the same trap as the 18th century philosopher David Hume, when, in talking about miracles, he assumed that he had knowledge of natural laws, when the “laws” were only theories?

Materialism, like religious fundamentalism, is the enemy of open-minded science. It prescribes conclusions and attempts to preclude the research. As “progressive” Christians our choice is not between fundamentalism and materialism, but between both of them and open-minded investigation. Such investigation will not lead us back to the God of the Old Testament but to some glimmer of understanding of what is meant by That which is “in all, through all, and above all.”

Some questionable statements are made in this book: for instance, on page 72 we find New Testament scholar James Veitch stating that “the Gospel of Mark, circulating about the year 75 CE… told the story of Jesus in the form of a novel. Mark is not a historical novel but a story made up by the author.”  He later implies that any supposed resurrection appearance would be the product of grief-stricken imaginings.

Elsewhere, in his book Christianity without God (2002) , Lloyd Geering, who writes the Foreword to our present review book, is similarly dismissive of the stories of the resurrection appearances.

Veitch and Geering both enjoy considerable prestige, and this may lead readers to accept the opinions of “the experts.” But it should be remembered that both men are committed to materialism/naturalism, and will reject any evidence that might overturn that doctrine. Neither are fond of St Paul who is seen as a theist, and as accepting the resurrection stories. But no one doubts that St Paul was a real person and that, while some epistles ascribed to him may not be his, his letters to the Galatians (written about 50 CE) and his first to the Corinthians (about 56 CE) are generally accepted as genuine. 

Now while the story of the empty tomb is puzzling, and provides no evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, St Paul’s testimony should be heeded: In writing to the Galatians [1:18-19 NIV] he has this to say, [After the appearance of Jesus to Paul, on the road to Damascus] “.. after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas (Peter) and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.” In writing his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, [15:5-8 NIV] “that (Jesus) that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

So we have Paul saying that he had been staying with Peter and James, and from them he probably heard firsthand about all the resurrection appearances that he reports in his first letter to the Corinthians, and compared them with his own.  James Veitch’s theory that Mark was not even an historical novel, and that all the resurrection appearances were illusions conjured up by weeping eyes, makes no sense, if we accept the testimony of Paul. 

There is so much of value and interest in this book, that it seems unjust to dwell on the lack of open-minded science, the insistence on one philosophical standpoint. Church congregations are typically made up of people of all ages, differing stages of spiritual development, and differing beliefs. Congregations are held together by their relationships with each other, and a willingness to accept what goes on. There needs to be an acknowledgement that nobody possesses the knowledge of absolute truth, that science is an ongoing process. Freedom from closed-minded philosophies are a prerequisite for our spiritual growth.

For those who have half an hour to spend, they might like to read a series of conservative evaluations of James Veitch written both from the point of view of the Roman Catholic church, and also from the point of view of Fundamentalist Evangelicals. As an open-minded person I can agree with both in accepting a spiritual dimension to reality, but strongly disagree with their claims to have the infallible unalterable truth.  It seems to me, that Veitch who was once a Conservative Evagelical, has moved to the opposite extreme to a claim that materialism is a complete philosophy, and is not to be challenged.

We might well agree that groups, seeking to help their members to grow spiritually, should try and define their beliefs in such a way that anti-spiritual people are excluded.  Who wants to pray in the presence of a jeering member of the Skeptic Society? But if beliefs are defined too rigidly, they will get in the way of the truth that can be discovered through experience.

Michael Cocks edits the journal, Ground of Faith.

Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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Afterlife Teaching from Stephen the Martyr - Michael Cocks


Michael: thank you for the clarification. You seem to be saying its a single system, created and influenced top-down, and I would agree.
If I could further speculate: perhaps the human mind is a first person perspective of a physical system (the brain) operating within the material universe, which in turn resides within and operates as part of (yet somewhat independently of) the larger spiritual world. This would explain how the mind can be influenced on three fronts: via the mind itself (one’s desires/intentions), the brain (drugs, surgery…), and the rest of the spiritual realm (spirit influences and God).
In other words, the spiritual strongly influences itself top-down (all is spirit) yet within this spirit world some of its parts—such as the human mind—exert a great deal of influence over him/her self.
I don’t know if someone else has already proposed a similar model or not, so I wanted to offer it. I hope my ideas made some sense.
Thank you for your contributions to White Crow—I enjoy reading your posts.

John Harmon, Sun 24 Feb, 23:30

In reply to John Harmon: I would have to agree that the universe of all that is, is one system, and is subject to scientific investigation. But what is being maintained by non-materialist scientists, is that the so-called physical is a product of the so-called spiritual. Mind, it is asserted, is not the product of matter, but rather matter is the product of mind. Nevertheless one system, requiring an open-minded science.

Michael Cocks, Fri 22 Feb, 05:29

@John: I like your point of view!

Jeremy Pryce, Mon 18 Feb, 13:47

Coundn’t one believe in the spirit world etc. and yet see it as part of the universe and its physical laws? I believe there is a physical explanation—just not one entirely understood. In other words, I agree with Humm—“miracles” operate within the laws of the universe just like anything else.

John Harmon, Sun 17 Feb, 17:26

Cool review Michael! I´ll try to get time to read Veitch´s evaluations.
I wholeheartedly agree with your claim that if beliefs are defined too rigidly they may get in the way of truth. In this regard I agree with the Budha - It´s up to us to find the truth within ourselves through our experience.

Jeremy Pryce, Wed 13 Feb, 23:02

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“Children and the Light” by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick – ALF Rose had this experience many years ago when he was ill with pneumonia as a young child of four or five. Suddenly I was out of my body and floating near the top of the window in my bedroom. I could see myself in bed and my mother kneeling at the side of the bed. She was crying and looked very distressed. I gazed at this scene for a little while and remember that I didn't feel any emotion at all and was completely indifferent to what I saw. Without any warning at all I was travelling very swiftly through a dense forest. Read here
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