Weekly Edgework #44 - May 2, 2005

The Failure of Fundamentalism

I would define fundamentalism as a defense against the overtones of life, and the richness of imagination. [In fundamentalism]…the sacred teaching story, which has the potential of deepening the mystery of our own identity, instead is used defensively to spare us the anxiety of being an individual with choice, responsibility, and a continually changing sense of self. The tragedy of fundamentalism in any context is its capacity to freeze life into a solid cube of meaning (Care of the Soul, by Thomas Moore, p. 235-236).

In my growing up years I frequently heard the word fundamental used to describe the notion that what we believed in had a sure foundation. It exuded a sense of confidence that while others were preoccupied with peripheral issues, we were concentrating on things that really mattered. The very sound of the word reassured us that our lives were built on solid rock, not on shifting sand that under-girded the lives of all others.

When, in my early 20s, I obtained a copy of the book, I Am a Fundamentalist, by John R. Rice, I could not help but notice that the picture on the front cover radiated a sense of smugness. Mr. Rice, a large and homely looking man, was seated behind a huge desk, his folded hands resting on an open Bible, and his tilted head sporting a satisfied grin. The unspoken words emanating from the picture were, “Here I sit. I will not be moved. Do you have a question? I have the answer.” And upon reading the book I found my first impressions to be correct.

It was with some dismay that in later years I learned that there were other kinds of fundamentalists, like Islamic, Marxist and Republican fundamentalists. Gradually I learned that fundamentalism is not necessarily a system of sound biblical revelation from God. I discovered that it is a way of thinking that can arise within any religion or ideology or even a person’s life. In essence fundamentalism is the notion that everything in one’s system of belief is crystal clear to the rational mind. There are singular and solid answers for any questions you could ask of it. Everything is frozen into a solid cube of meaning.

Thomas Moore more uses a musical analogy to describe the nature of fundamentalism.

If you go to a piano and strike a low C rather hard, you will hear, whether you know it or not, a whole series of tones. You hear the “fundamental” note clearly, but it would sound very strange if it didn’t also include its overtones – C’s and G’s and E’s and even B-flat.

In other words, fundamentalism always narrows the focus, causing one to think simplistically about whatever concept one is contemplating. There are reasons why people become fundamentalists. First, the mind always looks for a clear-cut, rational and summary meaning for everything it encounters. It is uncomfortable with ambiguities. And second, our insecurities call for foundational certainties that we can use as a defense against the fears related to choice, responsibility and change. Once you become a true fundamentalist you can basically stop thinking – someone has done that for you. And you can press all the experiences of life into pre-cast molds. You don’t expect to learn or experience anything new.

But our souls crave more than fundamental facts and cookie-cutter molds. They thirst for nuances and overtones, for imagination and heart. Our souls look for meaning behind stories and allusions to the secrets that lie hidden beneath the factual rubble they get covered with. Our souls know instinctively that there is more to reality than statistical data and foolproof boxes in which to store all our experiences.

The failure of fundamentalism then, in any context, is that it defines truth and life in terms of brittle facts and singular meaning, leaving little room to explore and embrace the ambiguities that surround us. In the end it leaves us with not much to talk about except the weather and a rehearsal of our limited list of facts. Fundamentalism may give birth to passion, but it is incapable of nurturing the deepest needs of our souls.

Christian fundamentalists tend to see the Bible as something to believe in – a place to find support and proof for their limited worldview. It is a book designed to spare them any doubt or anxiety about making responsible choices as individuals. Every life situation has its accompanying chapter and verse where clear-cut answers are found. I find Christian fundamentalists to be on the defensive most of the time. Whenever you talk about a perspective or an experience that doesn’t fit perfectly into their scheme of things you are regarded with suspicion. Sometimes you even need to endure the wrath of fundamentalists who understand it to be their duty to defend God – or more rightly put, their one-dimensional view of God.

I am learning to read the Bible as an open book, not so much to line up all my theological ducks in order as to find inspiration, insight and hopefully wisdom. It is a book that stimulates my spiritual imagination and searches out the depths of my heart. I no longer feel a need to defend the historical accuracy of every word in each of the gospels, for example. I am free to allow all four writers to draw on the rich pool of memories about Jesus and craft them into unique stories specifically suited for their varied purposes. Even if that means they contradict each other at times. The Bible is a window through which I can see the heart of God and the varied experiences of his people – not an exclusive repository of data that answers every question directly every time.

My personal journey is leading me away from fundamentalism, although I am aware that I may never be fully free of its grip. Gradually I am beginning to hear the overtones of and to reflect on the nuances of faith and life that were denied me within my fundamentalist past. So take a picture of me sitting behind my desk and label the picture, I Am Not a Fundamentalist.