Martin Corner – Tolerance International
In talking to church groups about fundamentalism, it is necessary to take into account the particular issues that arise for Christians in facing this problem. Whereas a purely secular audience might (perhaps wrongly) assume that it stands outside the phenomenon, Christians may have an uneasy sense that, as religious believers, they are somehow involved, if unwillingly.
It is important, therefore, to make the distinction between religious belief and fundamentalism, and to show that the one does not imply the other. The following notes represent no more than one way of doing that; they are written from a position of committed Christian belief.
Fundamentalism: the word
The word â€˜fundamentalismâ€™ is derived from the Latin for foundation; and plainly all belief systems, religious or otherwise, have foundations. To oppose fundamentalism is not to say that belief should be without foundation, or that all truth is relative or subjective. There are, after all, foundations for the belief that fundamentalism is wrong.
Some audiences may need reassurance on this point. People may ask, â€œAre you saying that there is no ultimate truth, that truth is whatever we want it to be?â€ We should make it clear that to reject fundamentalism is not to reject truth, or the foundations for a personâ€™s belief.
Fundamentalism is less about the presence or absence of foundations, than about how we relate to those foundations. What status do we give them? How do we relate them to the rest of life? How do we relate them to the beliefs of other people?
What is fundamentalism?
Fundamentalism is the conviction that there is one sole source of truth that is beyond question, does not change, and applies to everything. That source may be a book, or a theory, or an interpretation of history. There are religious fundamentalists, but also political and even scientific fundamentalists. Each believes that there is a point where argument stops.
If I kept my belief to myself, fundamentalism might not matter. But since I am convinced that my truth applies to everythingâ€”and to everybodyâ€”I am unlikely to do that. Fundamentalism inevitably seeks to impose itself and to replace all other views. It does that because it knows itself to be true.
Why are people drawn to fundamentalism?
Ours is a world of rapid change. People find that disconcerting. They look for something that doesnâ€™t change, to which they can attach their lives. Fundamentalism offers them that. At the same time traditional social links are threatened. To join with others in a sure belief gives them a community and a sense of belonging.
Then there is the globalisation of market culture. The market offers a deal: forget your traditional values and be a happy consumer. Believe in innovation and choice. But people know that those are not real values. So they look for something that is firm. Manyâ€”whether in the US Bible-belt or in Iranâ€”turn to a form of fundamentalism.
But fundamentalism carries a price, even for the fundamentalists. Because they locate all truth in one place, they are blind to truth elsewhere. In the end, they lose touch with reality, and the ability to deal with the world. Fundamentalism is a poor adaptation to how things are.
The answer is to give people the courage to face the diversity of truth. Yes, the world is disconcerting and much conventional wisdom is rubbish. But that should not panic us into fundamentalism. Beliefs are only worth anything if they can listen as well as shout.
Christianity and fundamentalism
Fundamentalism is always around. During the Cold War, there was Marxist fundamentalism (as in Cambodia). Now we are more aware of religious examples. Christianity has its own experience of fundamentalism, and it is important to acknowledge that when looking at fundamentalism in other religious traditions.
â€˜Christian fundamentalismâ€™ is not one thing; historically, it has taken a variety of forms, Catholic as well as Protestant, ecclesial as well as Biblical. Whenever a single element of Christian lifeâ€”Church, Bible, the saved communityâ€”is elevated above everything else and given the characteristic fundamentalist attributes of being beyond question, unchanging, and universally applicable, a fundamentalism is born. Whenever the Church (or a church) has tried to make itself a theocracy, the result has been fundamentalism, whether in Calvinâ€™s Geneva or Inquisition Spain or Savonarolaâ€™s Florence or the Western Isles of Scotland.
In the last two centuries, Christian fundamentalism has generally taken the form of Biblical fundamentalism. This involves the absolutising of the literal Biblical text above tradition and the Church as an interpretive community. In the attempt to counter positive science, Biblical fundamentalists claim for the scriptural text a comparable positive status. Thus they believe that you can set Genesis against Darwin, because each text is seen as making the same kind of statement about the world.
One effect has been to treat the Bible rather as Islam treats the Koran. But Christianity has never seen the Bible as the verbatim, directly-delivered words of God. God is not supposed to have spoken in Greek to the gospel-writers. When Christians speak of the Bible as â€˜the word of God,â€™ they mean that it conveys the truth of God. It is the word, not the words. And that word, or Word, is continuous with the truth of God that is Jesus Christ.
For Christians, the Word of God is not a text, nor even a teaching, but a person: God acting in his world to redeem his world. Biblical fundamentalism profoundly betrays that truth. In the place of the free, personal, illimitable action of God, it places a fixed, textual, defined body of human words. Because it replaces God in his fullness with something less, it is, strictly, a form of idolatry.
Is there a Christian answer to fundamentalism?
The answer is to point to the free action of God in Jesus Christ; to insist that God does not confine himself to a specific ecclesial or textual structure; to point out that the Bible itself bears witness constantly, in both Testaments, to the futurity of Godâ€™s action, to its power to surprise and to make all things new.
Fundamentalism, in whatever form and even when it presents itself as revolution, always resists the future; it is always about pastness. The truth has always already been delivered, and all we need to do is to follow in the prescribed track. It shackles us to the past. But Christianity is about what is to come.
From the website of Tolerance International: www.toleranceinternational.com