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Fundamentals of Fundamentalism


Fundamentalism presents the observer with many paradoxes, and one I want to consider with you today is this: Fundamentalists, whether Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, all claim to represent "that old time religion" that was good enough for Moses, for David, for Jesus, and by God it's good enough for them. And yet if we examine the ample religious writings of antiquity no writer claims to be a fundamentalist. Granted, many, like the writer of the so-called Epistle of Jude, claims to be standing up for "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" against some perceived challenge to that faith. But what we call fundamentalism is, I think, something distinctly new. New, let's say, as of the nineteenth century. Fundamentalism's difference from the dogmatic supernaturalism of the past is the difference between what Paul Tillich called naive literalism and reflexive literalism.

Throughout most of history people have believed the world was created and governed by supernatural forces. They had no way of knowing better, and even today, sophisticated theological minds reason the same way whenever they argue for the existence of God by means of the argument from design. "Order implies an orderer." That's anthropomorphic thinking, not far removed from saying, "If water pours out when I turn on the faucet, then Zeus must turn on the heavenly faucet when it rains." It is natural, though false, and you don't have to be particularly stupid to make that mistake. So it is no surprise that most people throughout history believed in supernaturalism. Their belief in it was naive, as yet unchallenged. But once the challenge comes, once scientific method and historical method make their appearance, grave doubt is cast upon the miraculous and the supernatural. Many people have given up their earlier, supernaturalist beliefs. Others refuse to do so. But they know too much just to forget. Either they have to come to some sort of terms with the science-inspired doubts they harbor by some makeshift solution (like Scientific Creationism or Teilhardianism), or they have to expend a lot of emotional energy telling themselves there's nothing to worry about after all. The result is reflexive literalism. And pugnacious defenders of the miraculous, the resurrection of Jesus, the inerrancy of the Bible, are reflexive literalists.

Theirs is not the old, traditional faith they think it is. Something new has been added. In the age of science, believing in the supernatural is simply no longer the same proposition it was for people in traditional cultures. Old time religionists were safely ensconced within what Peter Berger calls a plausibility structure, a social peer group in which unbelief seemed impossible, since it would go against universal consensus. You would fear for your sanity if you began to doubt, much as if you decided today to question the law of gravity. Old time religionists were safely ensconced within what Wittgenstein called a language game. Everyone they knew shared the supernaturalist frame of reference. If someone was flattened by a tree, you might discuss with your neighbors whether the man was done in by divine punishment or by malicious witchcraft, but your debate was contained within certain parameters, and within them, all the discourse sounded reasonable. An outsider might think all of you mad, but traditionally there weren't any outsiders. None you had to take seriously anyway.

But these conditions do not obtain in the world of modern supernaturalist beliefs. Believers cannot escape the fact that they live and move within a culture filled with rival belief systems and with scientific anti-supernaturalism. And so today's literalists must try a lot harder than the ancients did to hold onto their beliefs, beliefs that once would have been taken for granted. The naive literalist never had to try at all! The reflexive literalist knows he is at sea and so he holds on tighter to the plank which bears him up. No wonder fundamentalists are militant!

Let me give an example that is not strictly religious but which parallels reflexive literalism pretty well. Astrology used to be counted one of the sciences. But as the stellar sciences advanced, some aspects of it bore fruit and others did not. Some traditional hypotheses proved out experimentally, while others didn't. The ones that did bear experimental scrutiny we now call astronomy. The ones that didn't are called astrology. Various philosophers and theologians of old were astrologers, like Philip Melanchthon, and we do not think ill of them. The same with most of so-called Renaissance occultism. The so-called occultists were simply exploring all available branches of purported knowledge. But what do we think of astrologers now? Why do we regard them as cranks, quacks, humbugs? Because they ought to know better! They are hanging onto what has proven to be pseudo-science. In Melanchthon's day, it was still a live option. It isn't any more. And likewise, the reflexive literalist ought to know better. In fact we must suspect he does know better. As Tillich said, "In this respect fundamentalism has demonic aspects: it destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth and it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, since it forces them to suppress aspects of the truth of which they are dimly aware." Why do you think they are so vehement? Who are they trying to convince--but themselves?

But there is another major difference between naive and reflexive literalism of belief. If the believer is not careful, the focus of his faith may shift. That is, he may elevate the form over the substance as chief in importance. Let's take the myth of the seven-day creation. For thousands of years Jews and Christians took this story as literally true. But they didn't exactly believe it. It's more like they assumed it was true. And they believed something else on the basis of it, namely that the world was good and that a godly person could in good conscience enjoy food, wine, sex, beauty, as the gifts of God. It was this point that was at issue, against hyper-spiritualists like the Gnostics who were sour-pussed old killjoys and thought all physical pleasures were evil. The affirmation of the naive literalist was of the goodness of the world against the nay-sayers. No one was challenging a supernatural creation, and so no one had to make that an object of faith. It was no challenge to believe that. But once modern science threw grave doubt on Genesis, the focus shifted. All of a sudden it seemed to have become the point to believe that the story was literally true, whatever its moral or theological value might be. In the old days, the "natural science" of the seven-day creation belief was wrong, but it was irrelevant. Now, with the reflexive literalist, the false science has become an article of faith. What for the naive literalist was harmlessly assumed has become for the reflexive literalist a fool's errand to defend what is patently false.

Tillich called the belief of the reflexive literalist, the fundamentalist, "idolatrous faith," since it had raised to ultimate importance that which had previously been secondary. And, as Tillich predicted, the consequences are serious. The one who believes his party line must be defended at all costs has come to redefine "truth" as simply synonymous with the party line. Thus any and every argument he can think of to defend it is automatically a good argument. You know what kind of cynicism this breeds. You can see it every night on CNBC, as the pathetic spin-doctors take the stage to use whatever misleading rhetoric they can think of to make their candidate look good. Do you wonder why Creationist debaters use the same old arguments again and again when they have been soundly flattened time and again? Whether true to the facts or not, they are still arguments for the "right side," and so one must use them till something better comes along. Truth becomes mere propaganda. And that is not good for the character.

So fundamentalism is different from the naive supernaturalism of all traditional cultures before the nineteenth century. It is as much a reaction to scientific modernity as religious modernism was. In fact one can see fundamentalist and modernist religions as warring twins, as in some Genesis legend cycle. Both were desperate attempts to come to terms with a common enemy. 

As scientific modernization has spread over the world, first through colonization of the Third World, then through the export of technology, traditional cultures have been threatened with erosion and extinction. And this especially includes traditionalist belief systems. Imagine the existential angst of some tribesman, some foreign national whose country has been taken over by colonial powers with vastly superior technology, in terms both of weapons and of manufacturing. Your beliefs are suddenly shaken if for no other reason than your traditional gods did not protect you from the foreign onslaught. Their gods must be more powerful, hence the relative ease with which Africans converted to Christianity in the wake of European colonization. Might as well go with the winners!

But the challenge to traditional faith goes deeper than that. The arrival on the scene of a rival belief-system is itself enough to create anomie, since the traditional belief always seemed self-evident for the simple reason that everyone believed it! If non-believers, believers in something else, suddenly appear on the scene, it makes the impossible, the unthinkable, into an unsettling reality: it is possible to believe something else! And then one may realize that since their belief seems no more securely founded than ours, why, perhaps there is no real reason to believe anything! This is why Socrates was killed. He was associated in the public mind with the Sophists who had traveled outside Athens and returned with the disturbing news that other peoples have other gods, other religions, other ways of doing things, and this seemed to encourage relativism.

It goes deeper still. At first peoples in newly-colonized societies do not understand the science of Western technology. They think it is magic, which is all they understand, which is why sometimes Melanesian Islanders would carve out wooden rifles and expect them to fire like the thunder-sticks of the foreigners. Or they would make fake radio sets out of crates, because they didn't know how the real ones worked. But as more and more of them come to understand how the machines work, they move into the modern form of consciousness. They become rationalists, and the world, as Durkheim said, becomes disenchanted. Demons, fairies, and the Providence of God are replaced by the laws of physics. God eventually gets the pink slip, having lost his job to automation.

What happens in the Third World as it has had greater contact with the West is, of course, just what had already happened in the West itself. It was the crisis of modernization, of pluralism, of secularization. And in America and Europe there were three main forms of religious reactions to the crisis of modernity. We might use the analogy of various countries' responses to Hitler in the Second World War.

First, like Italy and Romania who saw Hitler as a good bet, there were Religious Humanists who decided to just swallow hard and admit the truth of Darwinism, biblical Higher Criticism, etc., and just break ranks with supernaturalist belief.

Second, like Vichy France, occupied by the Nazis but still ostensibly independent, the Liberal Protestants accepted the basic understanding of modernism but took what refuge they could in the safety zones of philosophy and "religious experience." They still believed in a God who was not so foolish as to stick his neck out via falsifiable miracle claims.

And, third, there was the French Resistance, the radical underground opposition who refused to yield a foot of ground to the invaders even when their cause seemed lost. They kept on fighting a rearguard action and regarded the accommodationists as traitors. These were the fundamentalists. Many yet do not accept evolution and the critical understanding of the Bible. They are our reflexive literalists.

The radical Humanists like the old Unitarians, Ethical Culturists, etc., are off the charts for our purposes. But the liberal Protestants and the Fundamentalists are both modernist reactions to modernity. The Liberals, like Harry Emerson Fosdick, were willing to make great accommodations to modern thought and learning in order to survive. They parted with seven-day creation and made God the author of evolution. They rejected resurrection in favor of Platonic life after death. They jettisoned the second coming in favor of Social Gospel Utopianism. For them the Bible was no more an infallible revelation from God, but rather a treasury of human attempts to capture in words the religious experience. But the Fundamentalists had accommodated themselves with modernity, too. It just wasn't as obvious.

They rejected the ancient notion of God being the cause behind every event and embraced Newtonian natural law. There was a generally inflexible nexus of cause-and-effect, but it was God's creation. And this shift enabled them to explain miracles as suspensions of natural law. Thus they sought to show that, e.g., the resurrection of Jesus was not susceptible to natural explanations, and that left only miracle as a viable explanation. By process of elimination, one could demonstrate the resurrection of Jesus, the truth of his teaching, and the reality of God and Christianity! Similarly, Fundamentalists did not simply dismiss Bible critics like Strauss as unbelievers. To try to win back doubting seminarians to the fold, apologists adopted the probabilistic approach of the historian but bent it to their own agenda, finding arguments that would seem to support their inherited views, e.g., that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the miracles all occurred literally, the whale swallowed Jonah. The problem here was that they had admitted the Trojan Horse. Naive literalists had never needed convincing that the old faith was true. Reflexive literalists, who try to prove things, have, like it or not, admitted the propriety of requiring evidence. And sooner or later their own apologists may take a second look at the balance of the evidence, something that would never have upset a naive literalist. I know, for I am one of them! A disillusioned apologist. I confess.

The other irony, and I think a fatal one for their movement, is that reflexive literalism makes a hollow mockery of the old fundamentalist preaching of the gospel of grace. The old revivalists used to preach to people that they needn't fret over their unworthiness; God loved them and would forgive them by grace if only they would come to Jesus. In all this, preacher and sinner were speaking the same language, playing the same language game. The point at issue was Luther's: How can I find a gracious God? But now things are different. Now the whole thing is up for grabs. Evangelical apologist Francis Schaeffer used to argue that before evangelism could begin, evangelicals had perforce to engage in pre-evangelism. They had to strive to get the potential convert back playing the same language game. The evangelist had to make the Christian worldview seem plausibly real before the sinner could feel convicted of his sin. Schaeffer, I think, understood just how great the drift had been. Christianity has become a marginal voice in the world of modernity. But liberal theologian Rudolf Bultmann understood something about Schaffer's position that Schaeffer did not grasp. If you have to persuade the outsider to embrace a lost and alien worldview, that of traditional supernaturalism, before he can accept the gospel of grace, you yourself are making it impossible for him to accept the gospel of grace. For you will be requiring of him a set of cognitive "good works" before he can be saved. Somehow you must get yourself to belief outlandish things, or you are cut off from the grace of God. Thus Bultmann advocated demythologizing the gospel. Rejecting supernaturalism and miracle as so much outmoded myth, Bultmann preached the existential self-understanding of the New Testament, which in his view was virtually the same as Heideggerian "authentic existence." The only difference was that, according to Bultmann, one could attain such personal authenticity only by reliance, AA style, upon a higher power.

For fundamentalists, this kind of modernist, liberal theology is so watered down as to be scarcely recognizable as religion, and one can understand their reaction. But again, their alternative is not the old time religion they think it is. For it is no longer naive literalism. It is reflexive literalism, where literalism itself, no longer simply assumed, becomes the actual object of belief. And as Tillich said, that is idolatry, and the practical results are a stifling intellectual and spiritual legalism, where one dare not think outside the creedally ordained box lest one fall down the express shute to Hell.

There are still naive literalists around. Plenty of them. And it is my perception that these are not the fundamentalists we Humanists fear and loathe. These are good neighbors and regular people. They don't know what's going on in the intellectual arena, like the clueless villagers encountered by Nietzsche's mad prophet. The light from the distant nova has not yet reached them. So they cannot understand what all the shouting is about. The people we grouse about, and who grouse about us, are of course the reflexive literalists. And sometimes some of them do pretty frightening things, both legislatively and concretely. But they would never do these things if they did not recognize what I recognize: that their days are numbered. They panic because it is clear that they do not in fact live in a Christian country. They seek to impose on a pluralistic society a unity that was once indigenous but is no more. And that can never work.

Paul Weyrich, once a major voice in the Religious Right, saw things pretty clearly, I think, when recently he urged fellow fundamentalists to drop politics and to give up the larger society as a lost cause. Instead, Weyrich urged, true Christians ought to retreat to their subcultural conclaves and live their lives there by their own rules, their outside influence restricted to that of being a city set on a hill for outsiders to see, emulate, and even join, if they like what they see. Weyrich is right. Eventually it must come to that, as the Amish and the Hassidic Jews of Williamsburg have seen.

There is a logic of pluralization. First a cultural monolith fragments into variegated factions, who eventually find their common life enhanced by a policy of peaceful coexistence. But unless one actually retreats to geographical isolation, each sectarian or ethnic enclave will sooner or later erode by intermarriage and assimilation. Look at the situation of American Judaism today. The community elders may raise the walls higher, but this will only make the youth inside more curious about the tempting world beyond, and the strategy will backfire. Pluralism inevitably results in the wholesale mixture of ethnic and religious identities.

Religious identities can mix only by the spouses relativizing their respective religious heritages. Mixed-faith spouses/parents see pretty quickly what it seems to take ecumenical theologians generations to see: that beliefs can separate us only as long as we take them literally enough to argue about. We can have harmony if we decide our beliefs are less important than our common morals or are different symbolic ways of saying the same thing. And then we will be no longer either naive nor reflexive literalists. That's where it is all headed sooner or later, and a society in which religious beliefs retire so completely to the background is a secular society. Fundamentalists see that, and they fear it. That accounts for their fury: their days are numbered, and what we are seeing is a last hurrah.

Are you worried about fundamentalists? Let me quote Martin Luther: "His rage we can endure for, lo, his doom is sure. One little word shall fell him." That word is pluralism.




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