A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

We Are All Fundamentalists About Something

I grew up in a Christian Fundamentalist tradition. I no longer consider myself to be a Fundamentalist. Indeed, I really do not like labeling myself nor anyone else. If I had to personally do so, I would say that I stand within the broad Christian evangelical tradition with enough Mainline in me to appreciate both traditions, while bewilderingly shaking my head at both at the same time. While I could never return to Protestant Fundamentalism because in many ways I have moved in a different direction in my thinking and perspectives, I do not have the animosity and anger toward Fundamentalism that many former Fundies seem to have as I read their blogs and their comments on blogs. While there are many things about Fundamentalism I strongly disagree with, I have also benefited from Fundamentalism in more than a few ways.

Having said that, I wonder if perhaps we do a disservice to all Christians when we label only one group as Fundamentalists. Yes, I know that the term was used originally by Fundamentalists themselves in proud fashion, and many still do so today. But I think that too often Fundamentalists think that everyone who isn't have no fundamental convictions about life and faith, and those who claim that they aren't Fundamentalists are not nearly as open minded as they would like to believe.

But it must be said that Fundamentalists come in many and various forms. Yes, there are conservative Fundamentalists, but there are also Mainline Fundamentalists who are suspicious of anything that looks remotely conservative. Politically there are Fundamentalists who are members of the Democratic Party and there are Fundamentalists who are members of the Republican Party. I know individuals I would call Progressive Fundamentalists and others who are politically conservative Fundamentalists. I have attended gatherings where almost everyone is conservative who simply write off liberals as being morally lax. I also remember very well the time I attended a clergy gathering whose political and theological bent was clearly liberal and whose members spent the whole time referring to conservatives as Neanderthals and intellectually shallow. And, by the way, having been exposed to such persons as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, we now know that there are atheist Fundamentalists as well.

The point is that all of us have our "fundamentalisms"-- those beliefs or practices or convictions that we have put at the center of our lives and our understanding of the world. All of us have non-negotiables, and in one way or another we do attempt to forces those non-negotiables on others. Whether for some it is going to war in Iraq because of the "non-negotiable" of freedom or whether we insist on more taxes for universal health care because of the "non-negotiable" of what we deem to be a human right, we are Fundamentalists about one thing or another. And we have no trouble accusing those who take issue with our fundamentalism of moral ineptitude at the very least. Those who opposed the war in Iraq were told that they were unpatriotic and those who opposed universal health care were derided for lacking compassion for children who had no insurance.

And that is precisely the problem with our fundamentalisms whether theological or political or social or moral. We use other people's fundamentalisms simply as a way of writing off them without having to engage their views; and we use our fundamentalisms simply as a way of writing other people off without having to engage their views. So, whether we employ the fundamentalism of others or our own, we get to color the lenses of reality so that we are always on the moral, theological, and political high ground.

I don't want to be misunderstood. I am not proposing a kind of theological, political, and moral agnosticism, where one view is just as good and as truthful as the next. It matters what we believe. It matters what we take to be moral and immoral. It matters whom we vote for and the issues we support and reject. The dilemma we face is that honest, sincere, and thoughtful people disagree on what is at the core of faith and life and the common good, and we will not serve ourselves well nor those around us if we simply label people in a way that we don't have to take them or their views seriously.

The temptation for all of us, at times, is to retreat to the safety of the like-minded, to surround ourselves with people who only confirm what we already believe. It can be quite uncomfortable to have our views challenged by thoughtful and rational individuals who have thought about matters as deeply and thoroughly as we have. It is much easier simply to label them with a fundamentalism. This way they cannot challenge our own brand of fundamentalism.

The problem is not fundamentalism per se. As I said, we are all Fundamentalists about something. The problem is when we let the our fundamentalism and the fundamentalism of others get in the way of serious and respectful engagement, and when we assign that term to others while refusing to embrace it as ours too.

So... what's your fundamentalism?


PamBG said...

Yes, I think we all have our fundamentalisms. I've recently read a few paragraphs in a book about - of all things - the history of Clinical Pastoral Education which has clarified the matter of "fundamentalisms" for me an awful lot.

They talked about coercion and freedom. Do we believe that others must be coerced into certain behaviors and ways of thinking because that's what God wants? Or do we trust God to act and to be present within the agency of human freedom? I might write a blog post on this when I've digested the thought a bit.

I think a lot of what people often label as "fundamentalist behaviors" (as opposed to a theology of fundamentals) are, in fact, attempts a coercion: "If you don't believe XYZ God will cause something truly awful to happen"

Allan R. Bevere said...


Yes, good points. I don't want to suggest that individuals can live a completely non-coercive life. Having said that, however, Christians need to be conscious of how we can resort to non-Christlike use of power in a way that is manipulative and, as you say, does not trust God who acts and who allows us the freedom to act.

I look forward to that blog post.

Anonymous said...

All good points, but I think this type of thinking just leads to carte blanche equivocation. As in, it's all good, so why can't we all just get along. It's not all good. Some fundamentalist thinking is very not good. Why? Because it erects barriers to knowledge, no matter how vibrant the community that does so might otherwise be. What am I fundamental about? Truth, or rather, the idea that each individual should be encouraged to think for themselves critically and pursue truth. Why am I fundamental about this? Because the challenges of the 21st century require far too much of an informed public for us to bury our heads in the sands any longer. When Christian fundamentalists denigrate good science, uncritically except intellectually untenable concepts such as strict inerrancy (and then go on to equate their doctrine of the Bible as part and parcel, for all intents and purposes, with the inerrancy of the Bible), and then based on such a skewed view of reality try to wage a culture war against the greater society who doesn't share in their worldview....well, we have a problem.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments. While I allow for anonymous comments on my blog, once you engage in critique of another perspective, I insist that you come out of the shadows and name yourself. It is not fair to those who willingly make their identities known publicly along with their views to shoot from behind the bushes.

So, I welcome your continued reflections, but only if you identify yourself.

If you had read my post more closely you would have seen that I specifically mention that carte blanch equivocation is not what this post is about. While you are correct about some right-leaning fundamentalists, it does indeed cut both ways. As a Mainliner with more traditional leanings I have been the object of such narrow-mindedness from the left. It must be said that there are those Christian fundamentalists on the left who think that the challenges of the 21st century are so uniquely different from what has gone before, anyone who proposes more traditional answers to questions is immediately ruled out of bounds as unenlightened. Yes, there is a leftist fundamentalism that really does tout the "inerrancy" of modern sensibilities, though that is not how they would word it.

It does cut both ways. At least most right-leaning fundamentalists admit they are such. It's the left-leaning fundamentalists who have deceived themselves into thinking they are not.

Of course, the solution to this is for Christians to reject the modern constructs of left and right, but that is unlikely to happen.

Josenmiami said...

hi, while I basically agree with the overal thrust of your comments, it seems like you are expanding the word "fundamentalist" so broad that it no longer has a useful meaning. If a fundamentalist is anyone with non-negotiable opinions ... thats pretty much everyone. Karen Armstrong wrote a book about modern fundamentalism in 3 or 4 religions ...I"m going to look for her def. and I'll bring it back here. Thanks

Allan R. Bevere said...

By all means, bring back the definition. And, yes, I am basically saying that "fundamentalism" is not a very useful term.