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Fundamentalism and the Abandonment of Reason

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 18, 2011

Is fundamentalism a significant problem? Do we even know what fundamentalism is? Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil drew my attention to it at the end of September when he asserted that, in Asia at least, “the greatest danger is precisely religious fundamentalism”. Archbishop Menamparampil is the head of the evangelization office of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. He was referring to Christian fundamentalism in the form of Pentecostalism and to Islamic fundamentalism. He asserted that “the answer to fundamentalism” is “authentic religion.”

Definitions

But if authentic religion is the answer, what is the question? What is fundamentalism? Apparently, the term is not so easy to define. Dictionary.com offers three definitions, all of them flawed. Here is the main entry:

1. a movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming.

This definition captures some features of Protestant Fundamentalism, but although its list of beliefs stems from an early work on the subject, this list is wildly inaccurate as an attempt to state what is unique to Christian Fundamentalism as the word has come to be used. All Christians believe God created the world (though not all believe He created it in six literal human days); physical resurrection, the virgin birth, Christ’s atonement and the Second Coming are all part of what C. S. Lewis would have described as “mere Christianity”—that is, the set of beliefs common to all those who hold historic Christian doctrines as opposed to professing merely a vague Christian moral aspiration. Again, as the term has come to be used, fundamentalism does not purport to be a label for all serious Christians.

The second definition fails by its complete dependence on the first: “2. the beliefs held by those in this movement.”

The third definition tackles the extension of fundamentalism beyond Christian theology: “3. strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles: the fundamentalism of extreme conservatives.” Unfortunately, the example tells us more about the predispositions of the definer than about fundamentalism itself. Fundamentalism is in fact often used as a term of scorn, not for those who embrace basic principles but for those who adhere to principles which differ from what is held by our cultural elites. But writers who use the term this way, rather than engaging their opponents, prefer to dismiss them as merely rigid and inflexible. Clearly, strict adherence to a set of basic principles is far too broad a definition unless we wish to argue that fundamentalism and consistency are the same thing.

Collins’ World English Dictionary does not do much better:

  1. Christianity (esp among certain Protestant sects) the belief that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired and therefore true”—but again, Biblical inspiration and inerrancy mark the Faith of Christians in general. A proper definition would have to tell us much more about what is different about the way Fundamentalists hold these beliefs.
  2. Islam a movement favouring strict observance of the teaching of the Koran and Islamic law”—but here, too, there are significant differences among Muslims about what the Qur’an enjoins and how this should be enshrined in law. All would claim to adhere to the Qur’an.
  3. “strict adherence to the fundamental principles of any set of beliefs”—but this mingles and muddies two closely related concepts, principles and beliefs, without shedding light on the nature of either. Would a strict adherence to the fundamental principles underlying a belief in the ability of human reason to discern truth make one a fundamentalist?

Cultural Baggage

The Encyclopedia Brittanica, also cited on Dictionary.com, defines fundamentalism broadly, in the hope of capturing its essence no matter where it may appear. For Brittanica, fundamentalism is a “type of militantly conservative religious movement characterized by the advocacy of strict conformity to sacred texts”. This definition at least calls to mind the specific groups which most of us have learned to recognize based on how the term is commonly applied in the media. But if we were not already aware of the usual suspects, would this be an adequate definition? Surely it raises more questions than it answers.

In what sense, for example, can Islamic fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists both be regarded as “militant”? Are we to assume that both wish to exercise some sort of military force or theocratic rule over non-fundamentalists? And what constitutes “conservatism” with respect to religion? Can we identify conservatism without seeing in liberalism a real departure from an original Faith? Finally, don’t all serious Christians and Muslims in some sense adhere strictly to their religious texts? What sense would it make for anyone to ignore a text he regards as containing a message from God? Are all those who take a sacred text seriously therefore fundamentalists?

It is clear, I think, that “conservatism”, “militancy” and “strict adherence” in the definitions of fundamentalism are, at root, far too self-referential to those who claim the power to apply the label. A person is conservative if he is unwilling to constantly recast his principles according to changing intellectual fashions; he is militant if he actually seeks to resist and counter the efforts of others to eliminate the influence of his principles on the social order; and he is characterized as a strict adherent insofar as, given his conservatism and militancy, it is not easy to get him to ignore or reinterpret his sacred texts to fit the contemporary dominant Western cultural narrative.

In reading this, you might fear (or hope) that I have taken all of the sting out of what is generally considered a most unflattering term. But that is not the case at all. I may have taken the sting out of a number of words used in the definitions on offer. But it just so happens that none of these definitions comes close to capturing what fundamentalism really is.

Over-Simplification

Fundamentalism is neither more nor less than the unwillingness to recognize that the task of grasping the Revelation of an infinite God in a finite mind is so difficult as to require the patient application of reason to correctly balance in diverse propositions what is beyond the mind’s ability to see whole. By extension to areas of life that do not involve Revelation, it is a refusal to recognize the very same thing about the task of understanding reality. Thus the error of fundamentalism always consists in a sort of willful oversimplification. The fundamentalist gets a few ideas in his head. He believes them to be exceedingly obvious ideas. And he proceeds to interpret all of reality in the light of these ideas.

As we all know, the word “fundamentalism” evolved in a religious context, and in particular with respect to religions which claim their revelation is static because it is enshrined in a sacred text. The fundamentalist is not differentiated by his belief that the sacred text is true, but rather by his belief that the text is exceedingly clear and easy for anyone at all to understand. He believes that its meaning is obvious in a relatively small collection of verses he has been taught to regard as definitive, no matter how many other verses may seem to pull in different directions, or how many conflicting interpretations may otherwise undermine his simplistic understanding.

Fundamentalism, then, is the manifestation of l’idée fixe—the fixed idea—in a religion that claims a revelatory text. The secular analogue of fundamentalism, though it lacks a ready text, is ideology. While the literati of the modern secular West have a tendency to paint all strong religious conviction as fundamentalism, they make poor critics because they are almost blind to ideology, which typically draws its water from irreligious springs. Nonetheless, like fundamentalism, ideology seizes on one or a few ideas which seem, to the ideologue, to be as plain as the nose on your face, and the resulting ideology serves as a sort of lens through which reality is always viewed.

In both cases, the lens determines what we see. Within its focal area, whether produced by secular ideology or religious fundamentalism, it is impossible for the viewer to discern that the lens is warped. Or rather we should say that it is very difficult to discern this distortion. For man does possess one faculty, and only one, for discerning that possibility, for testing whether the lens is warped and whether its view is in some ways false or incomplete. That faculty is reason. And so it may also be said that the fundamentalist, like the ideologue, is characterized by a peculiar reluctance to bring reason to bear on his fixed ideas.

It is reason alone which suggests that all of reality, or all of Revelation, is too great to be emblazoned in the mind in a single glance. Reason, with its constant insistence on breaking things down into components which can be managed and studied, first demands that all of reality, and all of Revelation, be examined piecemeal, and then demands that it be patiently reconstructed in a series of accurate propositions which, taken together, tend to corroborate or correct each other, depending on how carefully and correctly they have been developed. In this way, reason reconstructs reality in a finite mind, so that the human mind can actually contain and grasp what is true.

One could, of course, write a whole book on the flight from reason into ideology, particularly since the 18th century. But I have introduced the concept of ideology in this essay for two subordinate reasons. First, I wish to make it clear that, though the term “fundamentalism” is associated with religion, it is rooted in a broader phenomenon that also afflicts those who pride themselves on having cast off the sort of tunnel vision which, they believe, is associated only with religion. Second, I wish to render the essence of fundamentalism easier to grasp by explaining that it is really the result of this broader phenomenon—the refusal to engage reason—when applied specifically to a static revelation, as in a sacred text.

Reason and the Lack Thereof

To return, then, to the religious application, it is significant that in the two most notable examples of contemporary fundamentalism, there are historical and even conceptual reasons for the tendency to eschew reason. In the 16th century, the essentially novel Protestant doctrine of human depravity—a depravity covered over by Christ like a cloak which the Father chooses not to look beneath—was very different from the Catholic teaching that grace perfects nature. Therefore, there was immediately a strong tendency among Protestants to downplay the value of any human efforts and actions in serving God, including a marked distrust of reason itself. In other words, there was a strain of fundamentalism in Protestantism from the first.

Protestantism is not monolithic, of course, as it has no authority principle. As time went on, Protestant denominations developed and changed in various ways, and some groups came to insist on the “plain meaning of Scripture” to the exclusion of almost everything else. Others were much more open to reason, tradition, study and the influence of other human values (including, in some cases, Modernism) in shaping their forms of religious expression. The term “Fundamentalism” was coined in the early 20th century to describe the former group, as distinguished from the latter.

Something similar is also true of Islam, but for a different reason. From the first, Islam was characterized by an almost exclusive emphasis on God’s will. Whereas Christianity regards God as logos—the Word, the source and summit of reason itself, ordering all things according to the Divine Wisdom—Islam emphasizes that things are as they are simply because God wills it. There is a strong tendency toward voluntarism, or the view that the will of God is not inescapably rooted, as it is for Christians, in a Divine wisdom in which human reason can participate. It is not hard to see, therefore, why a tendency toward fundamentalism is also quite vigorous in the Islamic sense of religion.

But like Protestantism, Islam has no authority principle. It is not monolithic. To be sure, it was possible for the great medieval Islamic philosophers to fall into the error of double truth because they could contemplate the possibility of one thing being proved true through human reason and another established by the will of God. And it is quite true that such a concept was essentially unthinkable for Christians. Nonetheless, Islamic scholars grappled with such questions, as they continue to do today, and there can be no single Islamic doctrine on how these questions are to be resolved.

Both Protestantism and Islam are, in theory, weaker in the face of cultural influence than Catholicism, for neither has a Magisterium to distinguish infallibly between legitimate developments and corruptions of the original ideas. Catholics would further argue that, since these original ideas are in some measure false, they are not necessarily consistent. It is hard enough in Catholicism to keep all aspects of a question in mind, to explain God’s ways without over-emphasizing one part of the truth at the expense of others. It is inevitable, in those religions tending toward fundamentalism, that human culture itself will ultimately cause some religious strains to endure, and others to wither and die.

By the very nature of the case, then, it is certainly true that fundamentalists are extremely difficult to engage in a rational discussion which leads beyond the borders of their fixed ideas. But all persons, being persons, use their reason on some level. All persons think. Fundamentalism has nothing to secure it but the simplistic interpretation of key texts (interpretations based, if the fundamentalists could but see it, on a merely human tradition of prior interpretation). Therefore reason can, in the end, be brought to bear on it. Fundamentalist interpretations can change.

This process of change is very similar to the gradual abandonment of an ideology: Over time, the weight of a deeper understanding of reality through reason becomes too great a load for the ideology to bear. Typically, change in such human constructs occurs most rapidly when the surrounding culture appears to be attractive and supportive of the deep personal values of the fundamentalist, rather than hostile and threatening. We do well to consider, in this light, the current hostile environment surrounding both Protestant and Islamic fundamentalism—and whether our dominant Western secularism does not tend to make both of them into self-fulfilling prophecies.

Authentic Religion

The Catholic is no friend to fundamentalism, though some of our co-religionists fall into a similar trap when they seek to reduce the health of the Church to a single idea. Fundamentalist equivalents within the fold include stubborn adherence to a favorite religious guide, pursuit of alleged apparitions, and preconceived private interpretations of Sacred Tradition. On the secularizing side, we also have ideological equivalents, including Catholic variations on the myths of Progress and Scientism, and the cultural implosion of reason in Modernism. All of these abandon or subordinate reason to various fixed ideas. But taken as a whole, to be Catholic is to be continuously immersed in a rich patrimony of rational inquiry, a wide variety of spiritual insights, an ongoing tradition of immense cultural transformation and achievement, a highly-developed and carefully balanced set of doctrines, and a vigorous ongoing discussion of new questions.

This is so because the Catholic understands a fundamental truth which the fundamentalist tends to miss, a truth based on the very act of creation itself, prior to the revelation of any sacred text. That truth is simply this: God is the creator of all, including the whole man, and He therefore desires that all of these gifts be used to honor Him, including the attempt to understand His ways more deeply through His gift of reason. Fundamentalism, in contrast, discounts and devalues all the gifts of God which fall outside the focus of its own peculiar lens.

Just as a certain rich complexity is lost in the secular world to the ideologue, so too is much of the beauty and richness of God’s gifts lost to the fundamentalist. This richness, this complexity, this awareness and sanctification of all gifts in the light of God, is lost through a more or less deliberate choice to exclude the obvious in favor of the fixed idea, even if it is a fixed idea which seems to be supported here and there in a sacred text. Thus fundamentalism is both a sign and a cause of spiritual ingratitude, a profound lack of gratitude for the whole of reality and for our gifted natural ability to appropriate reality as truth.

It is well beyond the fundamentalist to conduct a careful study of the diverse ways in which a wide variety of texts speak about different aspects of the same reality. For him there is no cautious consideration of the different genres of sacred writing, each containing its own method and scope for conveying truth. Nor is there a dawning realization that there can be different kinds of meaning, that one text might teach something historical, while another conveys a moral teaching, and still another opens the mind to a deeper spiritual reality. And here the fundamentalist falls into a paradoxical irreverence as well, for he has to believe his own mind is on a par with that of the Almighty: Nothing is simpler or more natural to the fundamentalist than that God should be able to make an infinite reality completely clear to the fundamentalist in a single flash.

To return to the flawed attempts at definition cited earlier, it is not so much that the fundamentalist adheres “strictly” to his sacred text as that he adheres mindlessly to it; and it is not so much that he adheres mindlessly to it as that he thereby pronounces it facile and holds it cheap. He subordinates the whole mystery of creation, its going forth from God and its return to Him, to the unexplored shallowness of his own fixed idea—an idea which amounts, in the end, to little more than a prejudice. The great adventure of truth beckons the fundamentalist and, like the ideologue, he spurns it.

Is this dangerous? Certainly. Both fundamentalism and ideology poison the world with their misconceptions, though the danger of some misconceptions is decidedly worse than others. Different groups may be fundamentalist in very different ways. Thus Archbishop Menamparampil blamed the Pentecostals for a deleterious spiritual impact on Catholics, while charging the Islamic fundamentalists with the disruption of social and religious harmony.

These are very different consequences, but in both cases the Archbishop is right when he says the antidote to the fundamentalist poison is “authentic religion”. For with fundamentalism on one side and only ideology on the other—indeed, not infrequently the ideology of relativism—these religious and secular fundamentalisms actually feed on each other. Ideology cannot enlighten the fundamentalist any more than fundamentalism can enlighten the ideologue. Their separate littleness engenders an unending ricochet.

What we require is something other than both and more open to reality than either; something more comprehensive in approach, more balanced, and so more harmonious; something more reverent and more grateful: something more Catholic.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Bernadette - Nov. 12, 2011 6:49 PM ET USA

    The Holy Father explained it all at Regensburg.

  • Posted by: Exaudi nos - Oct. 19, 2011 7:42 AM ET USA

    Thank you. Very helpful. What is the Church Militant in these modern times?

  • Posted by: marttywinston6762 - Oct. 18, 2011 7:23 PM ET USA

    According to Wikipedia, the name itself came from from a 12-volume study The Fundamentals, published 1910-1915. It stressed five core beliefs: • The inerrancy of the Bible • The literal nature of the Biblical accounts, especially regarding Christ's miracles, and the Creation account in Genesis. • The Virgin Birth of Christ • The bodily resurrection of Christ • The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross It seems to me to be a form of hierarchy of truths and a basis for ecumenism.

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