‘Fundalmentalist’ is a word so over-used and abused in modern parlance that one could almost wish it banned from the English language. Every year the Oxford English Dictionary officially recognizes new words and phrases and adds them to the ever-growing compendium of words making up the English language. Perhaps there should also be a process for removing words that have become so misused that they only serve to distort our communal dialogue.
All of this to say that for the purpose of this blog post I will use the term ‘fundamentalist’ in the modern sense and not in it’s original meaning. Historically the word has its origin in a movement in the early 20th century that sought to identify the key beliefs of Christianity that could not be dispensed with without abandoning the faith altogether. It was a response to a post-enlightenment movement in the church which felt that all, or most all, of the supernatural elements of the Christian faith must be abandoned in the light of a modern understanding of the world.
In modern usage the word has come to signify a group of people who have become so ideologically committed to their beliefs that they are unable to entertain the slightest possibility that those beliefs may be in need of refinement; if not complete abandonment. In addition to their unwavering devotion to their own understanding of the world, they become condescending, intolerant, and in some cases, violent toward those who don’t share their particular point of view. So the term, in modern usage, describes behaviour more than it does beliefs; although the two are connected.
All worldviews are prone to the virus of fundamentalism and religious worldviews are particularly vulnerable. This is why fundamentalists are to be found in every religion and ideological group. Most people are aware of Christian fundamentalists, but increasingly the focus has shifted to their Islamist counterparts. There is, however, no lack of atheist, communist, humanist, capitalist, and secularist fundamentalists as well. They may not be as noticeable, but this is only because they have better press agents. When an atheist such as Richard Dawkins states that his fellow atheists should be known as the ‘brights’ the stench of fundamentalism is all too apparent.
Throughout Christian history there has been a consistent effort to turn the good news of Jesus Christ into the very bad news of a fundamentalist religion that denigrates outsiders and seeks to construct a system of dogma that leaves little room for dialogue.
What is so ironic about this situation is that God did not see fit to provide such a rulebook for the nascent Christian movement. Jesus left us no written record and after He told the disciples that He was going away He didn’t say, ‘It’s okay, I will send you a book to guide you in building my church.” On the contrary He promised something quite different. He promised to send the church His Spirit.
Throughout the book of Acts we see the church struggling with a host of issues and in no case do any of the Apostles step forward claiming they have discovered a set of scrolls that will settle these matters. One example stands out: the question of how to accept Gentile Christ followers. This issue became so serious that eventually a council was called in Jerusalem to settle the matter. It is interesting to note that what ensued was a vigorous discussion which resulted in a compromise.
Gentiles would be welcomed into the Christian community with open arms, but asked to abstain from sexual immorality, strangled food, blood, and idolatry. In other words, under the guidance of the Spirit and through engaging dialogue they made a determination that fit the circumstances. It is hard to overstate how monumental a decision this was. If they had decided to force Gentiles to adopt Torah, and in essence become Jewish, Christianity would likely have ended up a historical curiosity – not a major world religion. It is a shame that the church has not been more faithful to this pattern.
This brings me to the main point of this entry, viz. Christianity does not make it easy to be a fundamentalist. Paul made it clear that the Torah has served its purpose. He admonishes us to, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” This is done under the guidance of the Spirit and in communion with other believers. It can be uncomfortable at times because it means we have to listen to, and love one another in our search for guidance.
Instead of a new rulebook we have the living Christ living in us and through us by His Spirit. If you want a religion with clear cut rules may I suggest you look into Mormonism, Islam, even Judaism? Christianity, however, does not have much to offer in this regard.
Paul tells us that, “…all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” The Spirit’s leading we are told in other places, is discerned through prayer, dialogue, scripture, experience, and reason. In other words it takes a concerted effort on our part and we may not always be one hundred percent sure we are getting it right. Paul reminds us of this when he says that we, “…see through a glass darkly”. When we do get it wrong God is merciful and will correct us. The one thing I’m convinced He will not do is drop a new rulebook out of the sky!