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.