October 19, 2006

The Appeal–and Peril–of Fundamentalism

2006 1530 page8 capOUR GREAT-GRANDPARENTS PROBABLY never knew the term “fundamentalism.” But your children, sadly, will find it all too unavoidable.
“Fundamentalism,” linguistically speaking, is a relatively recent entry into the vocabulary of many modern languages. In the English-speaking world, where it was first used in the 1920s in the United States, it has come to connote a broadly based traditionalist religious movement that opposes itself to the excesses and the omissions of “liberal religion” and secularity.
This movement began as a powerful theological and social reaction against the nineteenth- and early twentieth- century “higher criticism” of the Bible, and the concentration of “modernist” church leaders and theologians on the social and political issues of the day. Christian fundamentalists also took dead aim at the “demon of evolution,” which they believed needed to be exorcised from American public education and even from institutions of higher learning.

All Around the World

Though the fundamentalist movement first gained international attention with the publication of a series of 12 books (“The Fundamentals”) in the United States between 1910 and 1915, it quickly became apparent that the fundamentalist impulse was at work in societies other than American and religions other than Christianity. In the 80 years since the term “fundamentalism” emerged in popular discourse, both its connotation and denotation have shifted markedly. Fundamentalism can no longer be simply associated with one religion; it has become a worldwide phenomenon that has infiltrated, so to speak, all major religions and has become a dominant factor in many local or national situations.


New Equals Bad

2006 1530 page8Various definitions can be offered for fundamentalism, all of them containing at least an element of truth. I would agree with the church historian Martin Marty who says that fundamentalism is essentially a reaction to and fear of “modernity.” It is also a reaction against “secularization.” Most human societies in our world today are generally favorable to rapid change and pluralization. 

The fundamentalist, in contrast, is opposed to change in general, and more specifically, to pluralism of worldviews. He (and it is generally a “he,” though it may also be a “she”) wants one view—always his own view—to have exclusive validity, and therefore domination and control. His worldview or religion protests—even with anger and violence—against the sweeping changes that have already overwhelmed some societies or threaten to do so. Fundamentalism as an organizing principle expresses his resentment—even rage—against the secularization of society, with its resulting moral permissiveness and amoral consumer-oriented materialism and globalization.

The cumulative effects of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the American (1775-1783), French (1789-1793), and Russian (1917-1919) political revolutions, and the scientific revolution of the last two centuries have resulted in diminished attention being paid, especially in the West, to moral and ultimate issues (e.g., sin, salvation, the afterlife). The focus has shifted more and more to gaining the most now from concrete material opportunities. (Some philosophic systems, such as utilitarianism, made this not only acceptable, but “good.”) The trend in human societies—at least in theory, if not always in practice—is toward toleration and freedom, to “live and let live,” for flexibility in dealing with sociopolitical and cultural issues.
Fundamentalism, it seems, is in its essence not a doctrinal phenomenon (though this is often a significant component that draws attention), but a basic outlook directed toward the current world, protesting against laissez-faire civilization. The result is often vehement, inflexible, pitiless opposition to anything new and the trampling on the human rights of the exponents of change and different opinions. Fundamentalism makes its case in blood every day, from misguided zealots who blow up abortion clinics in the name of Jesus to doctrinal fanatics who blow up villagers in the name of Allah.

What’s at the Core?

Despite all the differences of creed and kind, there are some consistent threads running through the tapestry of fundamentalism that hold it all together: the quest for purity and perfection; the search for absolute certainty; tradition and authenticity; and the predilection for a total, global worldview that controls, or at least impacts, all aspects of life. The attention to tradition and the past—often in an illusory attempt to “restore” that which is historically unreal, which never really happened and is therefore partially false—characterizes most expressions of fundamentalism.

Today, fundamentalism is found in all major world religions. While the violent behavior of some of its adherents underscores that there is much to deplore in fundamentalism, thoughtful Adventists tend to be sympathetic to a number of its concerns, while also avoiding its mind-set. Adventists have learned that we must not idealize the past, as though life 100 or 200 years ago was wonderful, with everyone healthy, well-fed, sober, moral, justly treated, free, happy, and at peace. When Adventists yearn for a “revival of primitive godliness,” we are not wishing to go back and live in the distant past with all its sufferings, horrors of exploitation, and injustices. What we are seeking is the dedication and surrender to God’s will exhibited by the early church, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit today in order to finish the work tomorrow.
2006 1530 page8The paradox of the modern world is that while scientific standards are becoming more and more precise and demands for “objectivity” ring in our ears, moral standards are becoming more vague, more situational, and increasingly imprecise. The breakdown of traditional morality, followed by growing social permissiveness, and the economic (and cultural) exploitation of Third World countries and segments of society in Western countries are the evils against which fundamentalists appropriately are protesting. Adventists must continually give evidence that we never worship at the altar of secular progress or blindly accept the modern notion of perfectibility on earth as inevitable and irresistible.
Inequality Writ Large
One key reason for the growth of contemporary fundamentalism is marginalization. Marginalization occurs when any group of people—by race, ethnicity, religion, or economic status—is made to feel irrelevant to decision-making in their society, and excluded from participation in it. This is increasingly the case with the poor in today’s world. The speed of travel and almost instant worldwide communication have placed the poverty of whole societies and their unequal social structures in close proximity to wealth and special privilege. Fundamentalism can become attractive as a form of protest for those who feel hopelessly poor, discriminated against, powerless, marginalized, and exploited.
Another aspect of marginalization has resulted from the global shifts in politico-military power. Simplifying things somewhat, we can say that prior to the seventeenth century, there were about 10 military powers, mostly all European, except the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, this number shrank to about six. Following World War II, the world knew but two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union. Now at the opening of the twenty-first century, there is but one superpower.
Fundamentalists tend to oppose shifts in international or global power relationships and object to the socioeconomic and technological changes that have caused them. An increasing number of people groups feel “out of the loop” and marginalized. Having won independence and nationhood, many young nation-states hunger for the esteem they believed would come with national identity, and feel humiliated by the economic, cultural, and occasionally military hegemony exerted over them by more powerful states. To them, it seems a kind of “new colonialism,” an attempt to control their cultures and morally subvert their way of life. The resentment of the marginalized is still the most prolific breeding ground for fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism is also frequently a protest against the secular national state, a national government based on secular politics; religious neutrality grounded in some form of separation of “church and state”; democratic, representative government; and loyalty to a particular country or people. Fundamentalists object to having religion and religious leaders pushed from the power center, from the public square, to the periphery and the private home.
In general, fundamentalists view the secular nation both as a danger and a failure. It has not achieved social justice. It has not provided family stability, sobriety, respect, and honor. Often the result of secular national government has seemed to be greatly increased crime and divorce rates, drug culture, pornography, homosexuality, and rampant corruption in business and political life.

Going Back to “The Good Old Days”

2006 1530 page8Much as we might agree with some of the fundamentalist critique, Adventists must note that there is an element of mythology and historical blindness in fundamentalism. While its adherents are basically against change, and dislike modernity with a vengeance, they do favor one selected change: going back to the “golden age” of tradition. 

For fundamentalist Muslims this means “going back” more than a thousand years. For fundamentalist Christians, “going back” can vary greatly—to the nineteenth century, to the “united” Christendom of the Middle Ages, to the time of the Church Fathers, to the first century. Some fundamentalist Jews dream of the past theocratic period and temple, or the united kingdom of David and Solomon.

Fundamentalists all seek in their own ways to traditionalize, to go back to the past, adopt the standards of the past, the theology of the pioneers, the legendary heroism of the Teutonic knights, the fortitude of the Voortrekkers in South Africa, the firmness of the Puritans in America.
Many fundamentalists seek one major reactive change: they want to place their religious views at the center of life in the home, government, courts, media, schools, the military—in short, everywhere. There is a natural progression in fundamentalism toward religious extremism, and finally toward a totalitarian alliance of religion and state working hand in glove.
The Fundamentalist Paradox
While fundamentalism may not be as difficult to describe as, say, New Age philosophy, it also has its complexities and paradoxes. It can move in divergent and even contradictory ways. Richard Antoun’s perceptive analysis puts it this way: “It can be political/apolitical, confrontational/avoiding confrontation, separationist/integrationist, concerned with orthodoxy in this world/concerned with the individual’s fate in the hereafter, or concerned with the external enemy/concerned with the internal.”*
Any day’s newscast reveals that fundamentalism can act—or react—in different, even diametrically opposite ways. Fundamentalists can very well hate and even fight other fundamentalists.
Each According to Its Kind
There are, according to some experts, at least three types of fundamentalists: (1) those who engage in direct confrontation with the state and wish to take it over and gain power by the use of every means (the end justifies the means!), including violence and terror; (2) those who want to keep some distance, autonomy, and separation from society in order to preserve, protect, and promote their purity, exclusivism, and essential identity; (3) those who “flee” the world and avoid contact as much as possible. Those with a flight or escapist mentality try to avoid state requirements such as taxes, licenses, military or civilian service, schools, memberships, and, of course, any public office. Those with a separationist mentality stay much within groups of like-minded individuals with regard to housing, education, recreation (if any), work, and social intercourse. They even tend to use a separate vocabulary, engage with their society only on points of interest, and seek converts who are similarly searching to minimize contact with a distracting world.

Life by the Book

While Adventists share with fundamentalists a “high view” of Scripture, we have learned that they tend to quote their Scriptures selectively—be it the Torah, the Bible, or the Quran—often using an out-of-context and primitive proof-text approach. Many devout fundamentalists take passages very literally, without seeing the entire perspective, and then apply them simplistically and without reflection to very different present-day situations. Some fundamentalists even rationalize extreme interpretations of their Scriptures to justify the suppression of other opinions and dissent, to support violence, the killing of innocent people, political assassinations, and the “glory of suicide-martyrdom.”

2006 1530 page8Adventism reminds the world that God inspires His prophets, not in order to provide a weapon for intolerance and rigid dogmatism leading to persecution, but in order to give spiritual inspiration, hope, the gift of love, and reasoned guidance to all people. The truth that comes from God through chosen messengers leads to salvation, and in the words of Jesus, “makes you free indeed.”
From their Scriptures, fundamentalists have learned that all humanity is involved in a cosmic war: salvation is at stake and so is eternity. Adventists also witness to a cosmic war—a great controversy between Christ and Satan. But for the Adventist Christian, there is no physical war—no conquest, no jihad, no crusade—between true believer and infidel, but a spiritual conflict between truth and error. There is no place for obstinate, merciless, violent intransigence, harsh punishments, or for brutal retaliation against perceived wrongs. Such human-to-human conflicts are ultimately counterfeit controversies, distractions from the spiritual battle for hearts and minds.

It All Comes Down to Freedom

The fundamentalist mind-set is finally unacceptable to a child of God who is created in His image as a free moral agent and committed to the teachings of Jesus. There is in fundamentalism a built-in resistance to freedom, to learning, and to creativity that opposes itself to the God who gave us all these gifts. Fundamentalism wherever found—in Tel Aviv, Tajikistan, or Toledo—reveals its taste for bigotry, for fanaticism, for rigidity and exclusiveness at a moment when the world is crying out for bridge builders and peacemakers. It revels in control—doctrinally, politically, even in the family—and justifies its refusal to dialogue and learn by its suspicions of other opinions and other faiths. While seeking to preserve the truth about God, fundamentalism ultimately gives a terribly distorted view of His character and His attitudes.

While we may share some of its concerns, and also look forward to the day when all things are restored to God’s design, Adventists will relate to fundamentalism as they do to every other human “ism.” In the name of Him who died to set us free, we will build up the kingdom in His way.
For not with swords, loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums,
With deeds of love and mercy,
The heavenly kingdom comes.
*Richard T. Antoun, Understanding Fundamentalism, p. 160.
Bert B. Beach is the former director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Now retired (but always active), he lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.