What is the greatest danger facing our world? Well, maybe that’s too large of a question. But really, what is quickly becoming the biggest hindrance to the reasonable exchange of ideas? I’ll give you a clue: This problem becomes especially evident when it comes to discussions on matters where any sort of stake in change or affect in the human condition is concerned.
What am I talking about? Well, fundamentalism of course! One online source defines fundamentalism this way: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principle.
Now before you write this off as just another rant against conservative, religious fundamentalism, it’s not. In fact, I picked up a new term this week in reading another piece of writing that I would also like to share: Liberal Fundamentalism.
Before we get into explaining new terms, let’s begin with the well-known concept of conservative fundamentalism. In my religious profession, this beast rears a pretty ugly head when anything new, or “outside of the box”, or even “edgy” is introduced into the discussion of faith, values and Christian practice. I’ve addressed the problems with claiming so-called biblical authority before. True to form, much of conservative fundamentalism uses the Bible to advance authoritarian notions that would lead one to believe, in the end, that Christian Triumphalism is the greatest form of Christianity. History has shown us that such views have lead to the exploitation of entire cultures of people through measures including mass genocide and even enslavement. This view of Christianity would offer the shackles of a very particular Western, European, and capitalist on all who come into contact with it.
Now I’m offering a bit of an extreme portrayal of conservative fundamentalism. What about its more subtle manifestations? How about nationalism cloaked as Christianity? My hometown used to offer a fireworks show every July 4th called the “God and Country Celebration.” Now I think it’s important that we celebrate both God and country whenever we can. But we have to be careful lest we merge the two into some sort of American Christianity that runs the risk of blinding itself to the presence of God in cultures outside of America. Not to mention such a view could blind us to the ways in which America falls short of its calling in the world. All of a sudden, critiquing American policies becomes not only anti-American but also anti-Christian. This would be a grave mistake to make. Patriotism is very important and a worthy practice. But it’s not identical to faith in God found in Jesus Christ.
So how about that new term I mentioned, Liberal Fundamentalism? Lately I’ve come into contact with more and more self-professed “liberals” who come across just as rabid (if not more) in their beliefs than their conservative counterparts. Today our national government is split over a federal budget because BOTH liberals and conservatives seem too busy upholding their personal political agendas instead of seeking to reach an agreement for the good of everyone involved. Conservatives have long labeled tax increases as public enemy #1 but liberals have demagogued their own issues now. For instance, if one were to support any adjustments in the Medicare of Social Security systems, they hate all old people everywhere (I actually heard that on one of our illustrious 24-hour news networks). Forget that when both systems were created they were never invisioned to support such a large population at one time who would live so long (we’re living 10 years longer on average from 1950 to 2010). But all of this is besides the point. The point is, it’s become pretty clear that you can’t talk about any changes to the system receives major backlash from those who have historically supported it, thereby (according to our definition) running the risk of cross the fine line over into fundamentalism.
Another example: the Church. Theological liberals would lead one to reducing the mystery and magnitude of the biblical narrative in an attempt to make it more palatable and universal. Miracles are now seen as magic tricks and Jesus is the essence of what it means to be a “good person.” On the other hand, theological conservatives would lead one to cherry-picking their favorite one-liners out of the biblical text in order to uphold whatever political or social opinion they have. Forget that these words were also written for a very distinct people who were not Americans living in the 21st Century. On either side of the divide the mystery and incomprehensible power of the story of God’s relationship to humanity is lost when we try to boil it down to its lowest common denominator.
Fundamentalism is what my grandmother would call a “funny bird.” It can take the shape of bible-beating, narrow-minded conservatives who are rigid to anything different from them. Equally, it can take the shape of “peace and love” loving, throw away money on so-called social welfare, equally narrow-minded liberals who are rigid to anything different from them. When the two versions meet, people demonize one another based on their beliefs. All of a sudden there’s no merit whatsoever in another person’s viewpoint because of the ideals they uphold. Before we can even hear what they have to say, we’ve written them off as ignorant (or at least not as enlightened as we are).
Before we solve the great problems of our time maybe we should begin by solving the problems with how we hold and express our opinions. Maybe then we can see each other in a different light-one that doesn’t demonize another for their respective opinion. You see, it’s not about merely being civil. It’s about being Christian and a disciple of Jesus.
How have you experienced fundamentalism?