Tuesday, May 08, 2007

"I miss fundamentalism..."

Andrew Sullivan's blog is a regular stop for me, and a post today ("The Plight of the Moderate Christian") recounted a recent letter from a reader who was responding to Andrew's serial debate with atheist Sam Harris in which Andrew defended moderation in faith. The reader was a conservative practicing Catholic until he broke with Church teaching on the issue of contraception as his wife, a Type I diabetic, faced serious health implications were she to become pregnant. He had this to say:

Currently, I have no church in which to practice, or justify, my faith. Essentially, I’m a wannabe fundamentalist forced into moderation. This leaves me intellectually stripped of any argument about why my “faith” is more attuned to God’s will than a your average Mormon/Muslim/Amish. Sometimes, when the wind blows just right, I smell the distinct odor of oblivion. There was a time when it blew by unnoticed.

I miss fundamentalism.

He may, but I don't. Christian fundamentalism is only comfortable with giving God a wide berth as long as the mystery of his work doesn't intrude upon fundamentalism's ample body of decided "truths." Fundamentalism, by my lights, spends more time being afraid of being wrong (or perhaps more accurately, afraid of being uncertain) than being humble in its lack of knowledge.

Fundamentalism broadly understood (both of the religious and the secular variety) has helped to create in America a culture of fearful, angry culture warriors girded with a secure knowledge that the Truth is vested in their creeds--the religious their Scriptures, the secular their studies, theories and experts.

The mystery upon which Andrew's reader catches the whiff of oblivion is to me a breath of fresh air after too much fundamentalist doctrinalism. I have come to appreciate less the human-spun received wisdom of scriptural interpretation than the simple truths of the Gospel coupled with the stunning mystery that is Creation. "I don't know" is for me becoming the way in which I trust Jesus. I don't know, but he does. I may screw things up, but he won't. I may not understand the whys and the hows, but he does. So in a way, I am more childlike and trusting than I was before. I just have tightened up the box around which I've drawn the lines of Truth.

For some, that's scary. For me, I think it's more the makings of a new phase of spiritual growth.

Now I just need to add some discipline.


At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



At 2:55 PM, Anonymous luthsem/Rich said...


At 1:33 PM, Blogger ChemE said...

I'm with you about 90%. The modern fundamentalist movement came as a response to a move away from GOD's word (Darwin, Frued, etc.). Being humans, the fundamentalist didn't just react to this condition, but overreacted. While I believe the movement away from the current form of fundamentalism is heading in the right direction, it also risks going too far at some point in the future.

Modern fundamentalists, in their attempts to love GOD, forgot to love their neighbor. Let us, in our attempts to love our neighbor, not forget to love GOD.

At 12:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Normally, I would describe fundamentalists as those who believe something only because they want it to be true. Moderates, then, are those who are intellectually honest about the arguments for/against their beliefs. For example, a moderate Christian will not just take the bible as the infallible word of God without first examining how the bible came into being. A moderate respects history, reads the early church fathers, and seeks to understand the historical interpretations of scripture and how they developed into doctrine.

After your fundamentalists and your moderates, we have the mushy believers. These are usually people who don’t change to fit God’s will. Instead, they try to make God fit their will. Thus, the bible is simply reinterpreted in more convenient “politically correct” ways.

Andrew, on the other hand, presents a fourth category of believer. To him, a moderate is one who takes his inner compass of right/wrong, combines it with scholarship, and refuses to submit to an earthly religious authority. He is not a “mushy believer,” in that he does not ignore history, logic and biblical scholarship. However, he does impart more personal conviction than my definition of a moderate generally allows (his heart drives him as much as his logic). Thus, homosexuality is ok, not because it has historically been ok in the church, not because the bible says its ok, but because a merciful God would not allow him to love a man and simultaneously deny him that love.

The nice part about Catholicism is that it presents a feasible argument for why it’s right. (Apostolic succession, putting the bible together, defining the trinity, etc...). Once you reject Catholicism, you’re stuck self-interpreting a two thousand yearold book that you can’t prove was correctly assembled, you’re believing things that aren’t fully outlined in that book (trinity), and you’re having to justify why your interpretation is better than the next guy (protestant, evangelical, presbyterian, etc). Eventually, this line of reasoning forces you to completely disregard certain parts of your religion as a “mystery” that even the first Christians got wrong (eat my body/drink my blood = Eucharist).

Therefore, while liberating, rejecting Catholic magisterial authority is vary scary for someone who actually wanted a reason to believe his faith was more logical than your average (mormon/muslim/amish). After all, if there is a heaven/hell, and God is merciful, you would think that he would set up some logical framework whereby we could find out the rules of the game before it was too late.

BTW: Good blog, I’ll be back (with shorter comments)

At 1:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To clarify, by fundamentalist I mean someone who believes something without reason (i.e. parents believed it, preacher says so, etc). This is contrasted with the "mushy believer," someone who believes something solely because it "feels right" to him/her. (i.e. new age religions, convenient biblical interpretations, etc...)

At 2:02 PM, Blogger Zeke said...

Anon, I might add to your list a category of believers who make a noise of being intellectually rigorous when it comes to testing the historicity and internal consistency of the faith as received, but end up coming to their conclusions far more easily than the nature of the challenge warrants. These people usually end up being enthusiastic apologists.

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen Zeke

At 5:39 AM, Anonymous John said...

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. It is always great pleasure to read your posts.


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