CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #19
WHAT IS FUNDAMENTALISM?
The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines fundamentalism as "the strict maintenance of traditional orthodox religious beliefs or doctrines". We could describe it more fully as:
A psychological disposition
that inclines a person to cling unbendingly to certain rules and dogmas,
holding that the major questions have already been resolved and
all that is required is conformity.
The concept of fundamentalism may apply, for example, to economists, politicians, educationists as well as adherents of a religious tradition. In this discussion we will concentrate on the latter.
First of all, fundamentalism is an a psychological disposition. It is first and foremost about psychology, not theology, despite its rhetoric. Fundamentalism may initially present as a reasoned position or a justifiable stance. Sooner or later it will reveal itself as an irrational attitude towards the world. It is more about anxiety and fear than faith or reason. Fundamentalism, of whatever kind, is essentially an attempt to put things in order and thus allay the anxiety that comes from feeling that the world is out of order and therefore potentially overwhelming.
Secondly, fundamentalism is unbending because it is confident of its dogmas. This is perhaps the surest sign that we are dealing with raw anxiety rather than reasoned thought or genuine faith or even healthy emotion. Like the Gnostics of old, fundamentalists claim - at least implicitly - some special unassailable knowledge and insight into truth. They believe this knowledge and insight must be enforced if people are not willing or able to accept it voluntarily. And the only people, according to the fundamentalists’ perspective, who will not accept this knowledge and insight are either too stupid to see it or too perverse to accept it. Either way, such people must be regarded as enemies.
Thirdly, fundamentalism does not allow for questions or open conversation. Life is monologue for the fundamentalist, not dialogue. Why would you want to explore and search and question when the answers are already given? Thus, fundamentalism reduces complex issues to clear-cut options. It draws a line in the sand and wants to know which side you are on. Fundamentalism focuses on laws rather than people. It is generally rigid and often enough very angry in its proclamations – especially when it does not get its own way. Typically it is accompanied by an embattled feeling or siege mentality in its proponents. In exercising authority it tends towards severity and straightforward punitive measures.
Fourthly, fundamentalism demands conformity. This is the inevitable outcome. Fundamentalism cannot tolerate any person, event or thing that would erode the illusions of confidence and being in control. That would expose the anxiety. And it can hardly be over-emphasised: anxiety is the key.
LIVING WITH FUNDAMENTALISM
Notwithstanding the foregoing, there may be a limited case for fundamentalism. Take, for example, the man who has little or no education, has been caught up in a life of crime and finds himself serving a long jail term. While in jail he is "converted" and espouses a very fundamentalist style of Christianity. We would have to judge such cases by their fruits. Limited as the Christian commitment might be, it may also be a significantly better option than the hopelessness of that man’s previous life. However, we can hardly use this kind of exception as a defence of fundamentalism.
Let us look a little more closely at the problem. The religious fundamentalist may appear very committed, articulate, reasonable - at least initially - and courageous enough to make sacrifices for what is "right" and "true" and "orthodox". But the central issue is not theological. It is psychological. What drives the fundamentalist is not a living relationship with God, who is full of compassion and mercy, faithful from generation to generation. What drives the fundamentalist is anxiety. Authentic religion is a relative structure that connects us with God. Religious fundamentalism is an absolute structure that connects its adherents with a human system pretending to be "god". Fundamentalism is, in other words, a form of idealisation.
The fatal flaw at the heart of religious fundamentalism is that it allows laws and dogmas to usurp the role reserved to God. The relative is absolutised. The Great Mystery we call God, at work in the world through the mysterious Spirit of Jesus Christ, certainly uses laws and dogmas. In one form or other they are necessary. But rules and dogmas are not the ultimate thing. God alone should occupy that place in our lives.
It has become a truism that the Australian Church and society - like the rest of the human family - are in transition. We have many serious social, political, cultural, economic and religious questions and issues that will not, indeed cannot, be easily resolved. We must live with many unanswered questions that call for intelligent and honest ongoing conversation. We must struggle for creative and imaginative strategies to promote the common good, amidst much uncertainty about what will or will not achieve that end. We must endeavour to respond intelligently and bravely to what life puts before us, especially when that is not very palatable.
None of the major questions or issues before us can be reduced to simply this or that. Every response we make will be, in some measure at least, unsatisfactory and inadequate. That is part of life in general, but it is particularly part of the curse of being born in an exciting time. This situation inevitably generates a good deal of anxiety. It is fertile ground for fundamentalism in both Church and society. People will look for simple black-and-white answers, desperate attempts will be made to rein life in and reduce it to manageable proportions. "Heretics" will be hunted down and dealt with.
In fact, the times demand something quite different from us as disciples of Jesus. We are a people who, after all, profess to always experiencing life as "not-yet", as "in-between", as ultimately a mystery to be lived rather than a problem to be solved. Our times call for a deep and well-grounded spirituality, one that will give birth to great patience, sincere respect, a willingness to listen, a genuine commitment to personal transformation, humility, courage and, above all, hope. They also demand intelligence and imagination, hard decisions and committed action and an unashamed trust in Divine Providence.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
Was there ever a time when your religious commitment was in any way fundamentalist?
Do you see any relationship between sectarianism, violence and fundamentalism?
Describe your own experience of anxiety and the effects it has on the way you relate with people.
What do you think is the best way to deal with excessive anxiety in others?
Is there any sense in which you could describe the "pharisaism" of the Gospels as fundamentalism?
Do you see any signs of fundamentalism in the Church – Catholic or other – today?
What can we learn from the person and teaching of Jesus about dealing with fundamentalism?
Have you ever met anyone for whom fundamentalism may in fact have been a good option?
In what sense might we speak of fundamentalism as a form of idealisation?
What do you see as the biggest danger of fundamentalism?