…acceptance of pluralism relativises truth. Once it is allowed that there are different paths to truth, a person’s religious allegiance becomes a matter of choice, and choice is the enemy of absolutism. Fundamentalism is one response to the crisis of faith brought about by awareness of differences…

This from here. (Emphasis mine.)

I read this recently and have been chewing on it for a couple of days. The logical outcome of a faith that lays claim to absolute truth is the fact that everyone else is wrong. If truth is important, life saving even, then we have to try to convince them of their error, at any cost. Even if it costs us (or them) our lives.

This is the story of fundamentalism in all the different traditions- be they Islamic, Jewish, Christian or Hindu.

In my tradition we are emerging from a mess of what happens when the religion named after a man of the poor becomes the religion of empire- first via Constantine, more recently the British Empire, now America, despite its attempt to separate church from state, is making the same mistakes.  We talk as if the power  and privilege we have is a result of the blessing of God on our embracing of moral and theological truth.

Other forms of fundamentalism grows as a direct result of the mess we have made- it is stoked by a sense of deep injustice, by loss, poverty, by an identity forged outside and in the dark shadow of empire. The truth of this kind of fundamentalism is the truth of a people in exile.

For most of us, fundamentalism is mediated, softened by other things- secularism, separation from people who are different, a gap between our cant and our mission, or… a change in our theology. Some despise the latter as weakness, corruption.

But others see it as the kind of truth that sets us free.

The way, the truth and the life by which we come to the Father.

This is not easy journey, but I think it is one that many of us are on.

10 thoughts on “Fundamentalism…

  1. “The logical outcome of a faith that lays claim to absolute truth is the fact that everyone else is wrong.”

    True enough. But any claim that anything is true has a logical outcome that everyone disagreeing is wrong. Surely that doesn’t mean that anyone making a claim that something is true is a fundamentalist.

    I have to suspect most of this kind of talk stems from that the fact that too many who don’t care for fundamentalism hesitate in asserting that it is simply wrong–I suppose because saying that calls one’s pluralism into question.

    And, if the Christian faith indeed lost its way after the conversion of Constantine, I don’t see how pluralism provides an effecive platform for criticising it. If Caesar’s enforcing the rules works for others, who am I to pass judgment on that, if I can’t say that that’s wrong?

    • No, not every assertion of truth makes one fundamentalist Rick- this happens when we regard the truth we have found to be exclusive and final. This kind of truth tends to become a weapon- whether in the hands of an Emperor or an insurgent. Disagreement comes with theology- we all think our truth is truer than yours. To try to find a theology of peace that celebrates our own truth whilst listening with interest to that found by others seems to me to be a noble pursuit however, and worthy of followers of Jesus- who when faced with fundamentalism, tended to go around it. This is not the same as pluralism, though I am sure many would disagree.

      As for Constantine, I am not quite sure what point you are making- that if there is no objective truth we can not reflect upon, or even criticise, what the church became following it yoke to the power of empire?

  2. Chris, I didn’t understand the paragraph that begins “For most of us, fundamentalism is mediated ……”. Please would you explain a little more?

    • I meant that most Christian Fundamentalism in the UK (and probably USA) is a passive statement of belief- we learn that if we are ‘Christians’ then we have to believe certain things, ascribe to certain views – particularly in relation to a narrow reading of the Bible. Most of us have struggled to hold on to these views anyway- we let some things slide, we struggle with other bits, and they are never really tested as we do not often come into contact with people or experiences that require us to really work it all through.

      Does that make more sense?

  3. HI Chris

    I think this is a really interesting topic and one I’ve been thinking about a fair bit since hearing McLaren speak on his latest tour of the UK and reading his latest book, which addresses the issue of pluralism vs fundamentalism.

    For a long time I have thought that one of the characteristics of the Christian faith *should* be to be non-judgemental, being aware of the plank in our own eye and all that. As you point out, as soon as you believe that you have exclusive ownership of the truth you elevate yourself above the “other” and becoming judgemental is practically unavoidable, in my opinion. Couple that with a tribal, imperial attitude that the “other” should be feared and our identity is strengthened by hostility to those different to us (McLaren’s observation) and there is little hope, perhaps.

    What McLaren asks early on is whether a strong faith identity always has to be associated with hostility to the other and whether acceptance of others has to lead to a watering down of beliefs? He argues that these 2 sit on a spectrum that we move up an down. His hope is that there can be a paradigm shift towards something completely different:

    A strong faith identity that is benevolent to the other.

    A benevolence that is rooted in a strong faith identity in Jesus (not the church or denomination) because Jesus was benevolent to the other.

    Was Jesus a fundamentalist?

    This from an online dictionary:
    1. A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.
    a. often Fundamentalism An organized, militant Evangelical movement originating in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century in opposition to Protestant Liberalism and secularism, insisting on the inerrancy of Scripture.
    b. Adherence to the theology of this movement.

    What do you think?

    • Well said Sam (and Brian!) I have not got round to reading that book yet, although also heard him speak on the issue.

      As for Jesus being a fundamentalist- all I can say is that the fundamentalists of his time did not think so- they thought he was a liberal heretic.

  4. “No, not every assertion of truth makes one fundamentalist Rick- this happens when we regard the truth we have found to be exclusive and final.”

    It is the simple nature of truth to be exclusive–it necessarily excludes the converse. So I don’t know how one can express any truth, even one as simple as “one and one is two” without excluding the opposite.

    The sense that one’s judgment about what is true is accurate is not fundamentalism, but conviction. Conviction is sometimes misplaced (The best lack all conviction/And the worst are filled with a passionate intensity”), but surely it isn’t limited to fundamentalists.

    I don’t mean to be saying anything extraordinary. I just find it incoherent to say “my truth” and “your truth,” unless you only mean by “truth” something that is limited to my own preferences and tastes, like my liking a certain set of foods, or books. Since I don’t believe that the assertions and imperatives of the Christian faith are simply personal preferences, they are just as much “yours” as “mine.”

    Fundamentalism has a meaning, and it fudges it to simply identify it with treating truth as working like truth always works, or with carrying extraordianry conviction. Fundamentalism is a set of theological assertions, which I think wrong, and which I assume you think wrong, and which, like many wrong assertions, may have harmful consequences. I think we are more honest in saying that, and in recognizing the source of the conflict, rather than blaming it on their alleged monopoly on stubbornness.

    • Surely that depends on your definition of ‘truth’; a highly complex and slippery concept which always has huge room for subjective application, particularly when applied to highly abstract concepts like theology. I found Pete Rollin’s book “How (not) to speak of God” really useful on this.

      I tried (badly) to summarise some of the discussions about truth here;

      As for your determination to call Fundamentalism as adopting a set of theological assumptions that are ‘wrong’, I am not sure that I agree with you, because surely, some of these assumptions and propositions may be ones that we DO find ourselves in agreement with?

      Brian McLaren talked about religion of the ‘open hand’ and religion of the ‘clenched fist’- defining the latter as religion that always wanted to do battle, always wanting to call someone else out in their errors. If we engage with Fundamentalists like this we are playing by their rules- seeking to out-truth them.

      I try to approach truth as a poet might- I am less interested in hard propositional conclusions, and much more interested in creative engagement.

      Where I would agree with you though is that this does not mean that I have not (both consciously and unconsciously) adopted my own positions on the truth of things. I do not think that Fundamentalists have a “monopoly on stubbornness.” The way we use our convictions however is what is important rather than the fact of them as an end in itself. Fundamentalists hold truth to be the goal of faith- like some kind of pure holy code that will unlock the doors of heaven. I simply believe that this does not fit with the unfolding history of our understanding of how God has engaged with people through history. we change. Our understandings should be changeable because how else do we grow, develop, mature?



  5. Pingback: Was Jesus a fundamentalist? | samirdawlatly

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