Article on Fundamentalism

A comment in this blog and an e-mail from one of my brother priests drew my attention to Fundamentalism is intellectual suicide by an Orthodox abbot. He does not go very much into the question of what fundamentalism is in theological or philosophical terms. He contrasts the twisted notion of martyrdom held by some Muslims with the banal comments uttered by this most boring of Popes in regard to the martyrdom of Fr Jacques Hamel.

For Pope Francis, it was just a banal murder that had nothing to do with Islamic fanaticism. For someone in the Orthodox Christian tradition the link is understood as with the 21 Copts who were beheaded last year on a beach in Egypt by Daesh, clearly in odium fidei.

Abbot Tryphon gives a good overview of the effects of fundamentalism. It destroys culture, humanity and beauty. It is not always religious, as we find in atheistic systems like Robespierre’s Terror, Nazism, Soviet Communism and other closed-in systems of tyranny and terror. It can affect any religion, as it has done in Christianity as well as Islam and certain forms of Judaism. In Christianity, it has its effects in Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy alike.

Such a short article could not be expected to go into the background of fundamentalism or what there is in common between the atheist Robespierre and those who fire the hatred of Daesh, Al Qaida and other terrorist groups. What is this “fundamentalism” they hold or held in common?

It would seem to describe several characteristics: non-negotiable fidelity to a given set of principles, refusal of the ambient culture, the refusal of any free discussion or difference of belief or opinion. We find the literalist understanding of a foundational text like the Bible or the Koran. Surely, these characteristics are manifest in a spectrum between the extreme of Liberalism which can become fundamentalist its own way to the historical examples of Cromwell’s Roundheads and the defacing of English churches, the French Revolution and the Terror, the Nazis and Communists, Muslim terrorists and so forth. Who can say what is fundamentalist and not fundamentalist when we all hold our beliefs and convictions as precious and refuse to put them on a free market with ideas we find manifestly erroneous and false? What is “ambient culture” today other than nihilism and hard rock? Even when we don’t kill people, we are forced to entrench ourselves into a space in which we can live.

The definition of fundamentalism is far from clear, even if we are “liberal” rather than “conservative”. The Afghan mujahiddin was once praised as freedom fighters against the Russian occupation, but then they became the Taliban and protectors of the new American-backed Al Qaeda and Daesh in Irak and Syria. Is one man’s freedom fighter another man’s terrorist? I can’t believe they started to persecute Christians and behead people with knives simply because the “enemy” changed along with their “legitimacy”.

It is possible that the term fundamentalism is misleading, and we need to find another term to describe the anti-humanist tendencies I have mentioned above and which dog our world. It is perhaps simply human nature. Perhaps the contrary.

We need to look to the lights of what I would call humanism that goes through history like the ravages of evil humanity. Prophetic voices, including those of Christ, incite us to love and tolerance. Sometimes, the movement would take on amplitude as did the Renaissance in both philosophy and culture. Romanticism and Liberalism also went contrary to the absurdity of the late eighteenth century, the excesses of the Revolution and Royalist nostalgia. Time must go ahead and humanity must become more human.

Man will go on killing man and thus discrediting both theism and atheism. The killing is in our nature, unless we have learned to overcome our brutality with culture and love, tolerance for imperfection and difference. The cause is not our religion or philosophy, but ourselves. I have always understood the Christian idea and mystery as a means by which man can overcome his murderous nature and learn to embrace love, diversity and culture. As proposed by the men of the Renaissance, this is achieved not only through piety, but also through education and methods of government and politics from the ancient classical cultures of Greece and Rome. These are the only ways out of dark ages and brute ignorance. Nowadays, all that seems naive when we see the perversions of science and knowledge. The humanist ideal only ever touched very few.

We would do well to study what Liberalism really is and how it was expressed by some of the Romantic thinkers of the early nineteenth century from Alexis de Toqueville to Lamennais and Gladstone among so many others in different countries and with different agendas. We might not agree with everything, but we certainly need to distinguish the love of freedom from the promotion of nihilistic and destructive tendencies of our own time that masquerade under the banner of liberty, equality and fraternity. It is a step in the right direction.

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7 Responses to Article on Fundamentalism

  1. J.D. says:

    As someone from a Buddhist background there are times where I think that the Buddhist answer is actually quite sound. Ultimately there is nothing that doesn’t change and pass away, so clinging to anything is bound up with stress and suffering.

    Ultimately even our various religious ideas and ideals can become a source of suffering for ourselves and others. I always found that rather than being peace a rigid dogmatic worldview becomes divisive and full of much pain and suffering. We divide the world into “us versus them”, with us being the only ones that see clearly and them being at best deluded ignoramuses and at worst enemies that must be destroyed either by words or by force. This is no way to live.

    While I’m no longer a Buddhist I find that the many insights of Buddhism are very helpful at putting things into perspective and helping to clear the mind of clutter, as well as to help us see where we are clinging and causing our own suffering and stress.

    Sometimes I think fundamentalists are really just profoundly insecure individuals who cannot abide the cognitive dissonance and ambiguity of real day to day existence and so they try to put everything in neat little boxes but only end up living a siege mentality life where the abstractions in their heads push them further info darkness and division.

    What we ALL need is the courage to cultivate that space within ourselves where we are not led on by our every thought about things, and where we can see people as basically just like ourselves. We can let go of our own clinging and suffering and try to be patient with others. We don’t need to beat people over the head with our own worldviews and kill them when they don’t agree. The only way I’ve found to cultivate this inner space is through self reflection,prayer or meditation. We must get away from the noise inside for awhile.

  2. Fundamentalism, in the public mind, is associated with people taking their beliefs to an extreme. But, supposing you subscribe (whether through indoctrination, or after the most rigorous intellectual inquiry) to an Islamic code of which the modern-day continuation of Mohammed’s militaristic Jihad is logically an integral component, then in following this faith you are neither an extremist nor a fanatic. You are, according to your lights, faithful and good. You are the loyalist, when everyone else is a bad person and is surrendering to a secularism of which God disapproves. You’re on the side of the angels. We may think that the belief system is wrong – and as Christians, we must do so – but we may not judge so easily the person who carries out its demands, as presented to him, into effect, provided he does so in good faith.

    The Pope’s typically weird comments apparently putting “Catholic” violence on a level playing field with Islamic terrorism conveniently ignore the fact that there is a mainstream strand of Islam that takes seriously (as it were) the aggressive worldview of that religion’s founder whereas in contrast, Our Lord’s ministry and his teaching on evangelism – “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave… shake the dust off your feet” are of a very different hue. Yes, there was Torquemada and there were the Conquistadores; but forced conversion is nowhere condoned by the New Testament.

    In this tolerant and ecumenical age we imbibe with our mothers’ milk the modernist mantra that all religions are equal. At the level of a simple comparison, of course, they are. But if you are a genuine believer, then you must, in a sense, be a fundamentalist. I cannot be, say, truly a Roman Catholic and yet hold at the same time that Islam is a good thing. And only those areas in which the moral and theological tenets of other religions and of atheism overlap with those of my Church, am I at liberty (intellectually speaking) to consider of value. Ultimately, one’s faith – if one is honest with oneself – must trump everything else, including “humanism”.

    On a lighter note, you might have chuckled to see two of your regular correspondents – myself and Timothy Graham – side by side in the queue for Confession at our parish a couple of weeks ago. Purely coincidence, I’m sure – and nothing to do with the guilty pleasure of frequenting your blog.

    • I think the point you make is implicit in my comment. Fundamentalism is a subjective term that just about describes everything and nothing. I don’t think anyone minds other people being convinced of whatever is their “thing”. I don’t think anyone has done better than the 18th century philosophers in the matter of tolerance. The alternative is total war, which if it is fought with nuclear weapons would leave the earth looking like something between Venus and Mars with the jagged remains of human constructions. Perhaps that is how it should be: innocent children dying in the conflagration as much as those who pushed the button. Frankly, I would prefer a world without “absolute truth” and tolerance for diversity (excuse the vocabulary often hackneyed by single-issue people).

      I find it difficult to imagine most of my commenters. I have never seen you and trying to imagine you and Timothy would be misleading. I can’t even imagine what kind of clothes you wear. Your going to confession is a very private and personal matter between yourselves, the priest and God. I would hope that my blog does not incite readers into sin!!! 🙂 Naughty but nice… like in an old commercial for cakes.

  3. J.D. says:

    I agree, any religion is really an all encompassing worldview that should guide ones life. Part of the problem of the relativistic culture we live in is that we expect that religion ought to be the stuff of private pub chats and coffee hours after church on Sunday, with no room for trying to take seriously what the Incarnation means or could mean for the whole world. While I’m no longer a Roman Catholic I feel indebted to Dr. John Rao for really getting me to understand this, both in his talk on pluralism and in his book Black Legends.

    How can we be true to our religions without killing each other or forcing our views on others? It’s like a zen koan. Perhaps it’s through a genuine humility, and a willingness to somehow be open to the ambiguities and gray areas of life.

    As for islam it is undeniably a religion that was born and bred in violence and whose official divinely sanctioned text literally allows for everything from keeping sex slaves to killing infidels. The Roman Catholic Church and her officials have been utterly unwillingly to engage with this reality for a long time now.

    The Roman Catholic Church and in fact the whole western world ignores this at their own peril. I’m convinced there is no place whatsoever for sugarcoating islam or for allowing Muslims to live in the west. There is no real separation between religion and daily life expected of Muslims if they are true to their own religion. Live and let live but not in my country, and not in the western world.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    While I’m not well enough read to evaluate it critically, I’m very glad to have read Friedrich Sieburg’s Robespierre (originally published in German in 1935, and later translated in French and English), which I remember as being especially interesting in its attention to his championship of the Culte de l’Être suprême [Cult of the Supreme Being].

    I enjoyed Trollope’s La Vendée (1850), with its striking miniature portrait of Robespierre, and, more recently, the translation of de Tocqueville and Beaumont’s letters from America (where there are glimpses of the ‘Vendée’ in the background) – which has finally gotten me to start on Democracy in America (in English translation).

    Something probably relevant, here, which I also do not know enough about, yet, are discussions of ‘ersatz religion’.

  5. John Sanders says:

    Fr., off the subject, but do you know what has happened with Patrick Sheridan? Liturgiae Causa seems to be blocked or dismantled.

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