The Danger of Christian Fundamentalism or Looking for a Place to Stand: Whitterings, September 2007


I am highly reluctant to wade into the controversial area of religious freedom. There is no safe way through this particular arena without becoming trapped in paradox and hypocrisy. However I can no longer ignore such a huge issue facing us as a faith community. Simply put I am unsure how a moderate religious voice, such as mainstream Anglicanism, can safely navigate between voicing its intolerance of fanatical, fundamentalist religiosity and not undermining its own claim to religious freedom.

I was taught at New College, Edinburgh, the great bastion of stoic Presbyterian academia, that the religious in the world were now separated in a way that is completely different from even a couple of decades ago. The denominations or schools of Christianity were no longer separated from one another by their theological beliefs but rather by their understanding of what religion is, or more precisely what religion does. The two sides can be simply described as believers in the literal and believers in the figurative. The literal religious person believes completely in the historical, linear, objective truth of revelation. The beliefs they hold are reinforced by an a priori philosophical system in which everything is self referring. The system is always a closed system that does not acknowledge claims to truth that fall outside of it. The figuratively religious person usually takes as a starting point the understanding that there is no linguistic or philosophical way to make objective truth statements using religious language. Their religious claims are more metaphorical, cyclical, and subjective. They concentrate more on what is meant, or what is pointed to or created by belief statements. The New College argument was expanded to include other religions as well. The argument in a nutshell says that it is no longer divisions such as Catholic and Protestant or even Christian and Jewish that separates us but rather the way we are religious. Therefore a figurative Rabbi and figurative Catholic Priest will be closer in their understanding of God than a literal Baptist and a figurative Methodist.

“She kept asking if the stories were true. I kept asking her if it mattered. We finally gave up. She was looking for a place to stand and I wanted a place from which to take flight.” B. Anduas

I want to elucidate on couple of points that are often misunderstood. Those of the figurative school do not say that language is useless or that it can not describe truth at all. However they do assert that language is very limited and by its nature and is created to categorise and dissect. It is completely dualistic and so is not suitable for the discussion of God. As a matter of fact it can not be used to discuss God in any real way. For example, if you are asked if you believe in God the only truthful answer for a faithful person is ‘no’. This is because if you say ‘yes’ you are assenting to the belief in a God that can be reduced to the subject of a sentence. This limits God by having Him be part of the created order and therefore limited so that he can be described. The God believed in is only an idol. So we tend to concentrate more on the teleological (what a thing does as opposed to ontology which is what a thing is) side of language, what does it do to us, how does it change us? So questions such as the literal historical Resurrection of Christ from the dead are simply not useful questions. As a matter of fact the only answers to that particular question go in the opposite direction of the purpose of faith. “Why seek ye the living among the dead. He is not here He is risen.” This does not mean that Jesus of Nazareth did not literally and historically rise from the grave on Easter morning. What it does mean is that a historical, literal, linear belief says nothing of worth about the nature of Resurrection, what it means, or who we become when we hold this belief in faith. As language does not work when we get close to God we must rely on faith, which is a state of openness to God, and it’s language which is prayer.

What most marks the figuratives is their rationality and pragmatism. They believe that religion is true only insofar as it produces results: Soeteriological efficacy, or by their fruits you shall know them. They believe that all things that are true somehow fit into the same system. Another way of saying this was suggested by Simone Weil. If you must choose between Jesus Christ and the truth you must always turn from Jesus and choose the truth. If you choose Jesus you are only picking an idol of Him that reflects the understanding of Him that you already have. By choosing the truth you choose who He really is and in wrestling with the expanded image of Him you grow more into Him.

Both are highly criticised: the figurative because they seem too abstract and mystical, the literalist because they seem to believe in Christ in such a linear way as to be little different from the beliefs of the pagan, mythological world.

However one thing has become increasingly clear, the figuratively religious in this world are not responsible for rise of religious hatred and intolerance or for psychologically destructive or abusive belief systems. There is a difference. This is not to say that the literalists are always destructive or intolerant, what it does say is that the danger from religion comes from this area. By its nature its truth claims are exclusive and eventually lead to, at best, a stalemate with another belief system of the same literal type.

I have already written about linguistics, teleology, and soeteriological efficacy in other columns. What I have not explored is how to witness to healthy religion in a world that is becoming either increasingly religiously fundamentalist or increasingly intolerant of religious fundamentalism. Unfortunately those who are starting to see religious fundamentalism as a kind of social evil seldom distinguish moderate, rational religion from fundamentalism. We all end up tarred with the same brush. We tend to be silent about joining our voice too loudly against religious intolerance in the world because we know that in the end if religious extremism is found to be too destructive by our culture and religion itself is attacked we will lose our own religious freedom.

I believe that is coming to the point where moderate religious voices must join in the debate about religious freedom for our own integrity. It will mean being accused of intolerance for other religious points of view. So be it. If we keep silent we deny our own witness to truth and allow ourselves to be caught in the crossfire between extreme religiosity and extreme secularism. There is no way to do this without being accused of hypocrisy and stepping over and over against into paradox. So be it. I remember The Most Reverend Richard Holloway, former Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church, coming out of the fog at five in the morning after a terribly intolerant and hatful day at the Lambeth Conference of 1998. He had not slept and had been up all night thinking and walking. He seemed defeated and said to me that it was always the fault of the moderates that the extremists won. The moderates were too nice and thought too highly of people and assumed a degree of decency and middle class, educated, respectability that simply did not exist. We were the ones to blame because we were na├»ve. Martin Luther King Jr said something similar, “It is not the bad people in this world that are the problem, it is the good people who do nothing.”

I end with an example. There is in North American Christianity (although seldom in Anglicanism) a strong belief in a doctrine of the Atonement that says: there is a God, he is an angry God, he is angry at us because we are sinful and fallen, he demands a sacrifice and blood to be appeased, we are not good enough for the sacrifice, so he tortured and killed his own Son to appease Himself, and now although we are still sinners there is a chance by believing in this truth that we can escape everlasting damnation, which is our true birthright. Those of us who believe that God is loving and that He “Loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son”, and that the Atonement is only understood through this love need to take stock. It is time to speak up and say that to teach children and young adults about the reality of a wrathful God is actually a form of psychological abuse that seriously hinders childhood and adolescent development.

I have a tract by the Evangelical Tract Distributors from Edmonton Alberta entitled “What Every Young Man Should Know”. It is short, it simply says “Fools Make a mock at Sin (even their mind and conscience is defiled. Titus 1:15), The Wages of Sin is Death (Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell. Mathew 23:33), God Shall Bring Every Secret Thing into Judgement (Depart from Me, ye cursed into everlasting fire! Math 25:41). It ends with a non scriptural sentence “Will Jesus say this to you, ‘Christ died for your sins that you might spend eternity in Hell?’” This is not a straw dummy, if you doubt it please see the new documentary ‘Jesus Camp’ which depicts the formation of young Americans as militaristic Christ warriors. Which would be worse to live with this fear and belief and grow old or to die young as another type of fundamentalist, such as a teenage suicide bomber? Although the outcome of one kills the body the other surely kills the soul. A suicide bomber takes other lives with them, so it is by far the worst kind of intolerance. The question is how much of a difference is there? A difference in kind or simply a difference in degree? I wonder.

“The greatest danger for a child, where religion is concerned, is not that his father or teacher should be an unbeliever, not even his being a hypocrite. No, the danger lies in their being pious and God-fearing, and in the child being convinced thereof, but that he should nevertheless notice that deep within there lies hidden a terrible unrest. The danger is that the child is provoked to draw a conclusion about God, that God is not infinite love.”
Soren Kierkegaard