Sound and Silence

when necessary, use words


July 2009

Fundamentalism’s fatal flaw

“The Earth is the Lords, and the flatness thereof.” [Ps 24, NFV]*

If it does not seem possible to dialog directly with fundamentalists, we can at least reflect on why this is so. While some refuse point blank to enter any debate regarding the/ir truth, other might see this fact as an opportunity to learn about compassion, difference, peacemaking and unity, and allow the potential “logs in their own eye” to be challenged as they identify the splinters in the eyes of their detractors.

Fundamentalism may have had a good purpose once, as a response to liberal modernism. But now, it is not just unnecessary, or outmoded. It is not only unpleasant and damaging. It does not just discredit the God of Compassion. No, its final flaw is more basic: from where I stand, fundamentalism is in fact impossible.

One of its chief features is its lateralization of language. To literalise is to flatten, removing all poetry or ambiguity – all Life – from ideas. A true fundamentalism outlaws all metaphor. But who does not use metaphor daily: “I’m just popping out” means I am leaving then returning, but true fundamentalist literalisation would be bound to ask “You mean your eye? Or are you leaving us via an explosion?” Yet they do not – they accept metaphor.

And did Jesus not abundantly describe his mission via simile – “The Kingdom is like a net…” Perhaps the fundamentalist requires a strict delineation between metaphor and simile, so that we are very explicit about abstract comparisons, by using the disclaimer “like”. If Jesus had said “The Kingdom is a net”, what would anti-metaphorical fundamentalists make of his words? “Not so Lord, it will never be a net”? No, Jesus assumes his message will be filtered via our imaginations, in order to fire them up and grow faith for the hearers.

And when Jesus says (rather curiously I have always thought) “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” is he not implying that it is impossible for this earth not to be good, so long as those who trust him remain true? It is a chemical fact that salt – Soduim Chloride – is extremely stable, and can virtually not lose its salty properties.

As Kabir says, “I laugh when I hear that the fish is thirsty.” Meaning, it is impossible for the fish to be thirsty, and that it is impossible for the earth not to be good:  seasoned, purified, preserved and fertilized via the Grace of God and the Salt of Faith.

As I read the scriptures, and as I contemplate the world in which I live, I see abundant evidence of a Poetic God at play in his Universe of Marvels. My ultimate response to Life is one of awe. It is to perceive an endless mystery at every level of being.

If Life, God or the Cosmos are even in the slightest bit Poetic, then any attempt to do away with this poetry in the name of God, Life or the Cosmos, is impossible. It goes against the Truth, and this attempt at the impossible is therefore hypocrisy. And hypocrisy is sin.

From this reasoning, the sin of fundamentalism, and its fatal flaw, is the rejection of the Poetic God of Multifaceted Beauty and the embrace of the Reductionist Idol of Unifaceted Fact.

As we wrestle with truth, these are some of the questions we might ask:

  • Is this created Universe reducible, as the Newtonian approach would have it, to an objective series of mere facts?
  • Is this essentially Greek approach to truth “biblical” – does it line up with almost all other non-modern traditions, especially the Hebraic – of narrative truth as revealed through story?
  • Are the words of Jesus and the biblical authors reducible to a set of codified truth propositions – in effect, laws?
  • Is there a single meaning of the cross by which we determine a single, simple approach to Salvation?

To the extent you answered yes to these, you are a modern fundamentalist. Your worldview, whether you know it or not, is deeply influenced by the Enlightenment and Scientific rationalism. You probably see this as normal, and are unwilling to countenance another point of view. You partake in an “excess of confidence”.

If all of this remained merely a philosophical issue, then the sin of fundamentalism would not be that serious. It would fall into the category of abstract problems like any other “ism” might. But the fact is this: the actions and morality based on an impossible belief system, one at odds with Life and ultimately with God, is bound to be problematic. The fruits speak for themselves: a hypocritical belief framework leads inevitably to hypocritical deeds.

In my online skirmishes with fundamentalists I often find myself cast as the villain, the renegade and the rejecter of God. My attempts to effect reconciliation which as I see it are a foundational (fundamental in fact) part of the gospel of reconciliation, are met with scorn and worse. My desire to forge peace is mirrored back as an act of war. Any talk of truth is interpreted as deception on my part.

It is this same toxic thinking that makes people hate homosexuals, for instance. Or kill them. In the name of the Christian God.

We should not be surprised then at the vehemence with which certain people reject the emergent message. The postmodern tendencies of this message, which attempt to reclaim the mystery which rightfully belongs in the broad tradition of Christian spirituality, confound the Modern thought process. Any attempt to question or any hint of ambiguity in the written words of scripture is demonised and condemned as compromising truth by making it less clear and less one-dimensional.

To this, Peter Rollins can have the last word:

“… if we were to do the impossible and render the text into the ultimate fantasy of the fundamentalist (a text at one with itself) then the Word of God would not be clearer; rather, the Word of God would be systematically eradicated.” (The Fidelity of Betrayal, Peter Rollins, Paraclete 2008, p 57)

* The New Fundamentalist Version is not currently available (and will hopefully never become available).


Waging Peace: Emergence vs. Fundamentalism

Peace, like war, needs to be waged.

It’s stating the obvious to say that emergents and fundamentalists see the world differently. In this age of blogs and the conversational web, spats around theological issues are a daily occurrence. Many emergent leaders have had to take a tremendous amount of criticism for their association with new thinking and their deviation from traditional approaches to understanding the gospel. And to be fair, some traditionalists have felt deeply betrayed by the emergent approach.

When we speak of fundamentalism, we should bear in mind that like emergence, it manifests in a wide variety of sectors. It is helpful to see the patterns at play – the overview across these – whether it be Islamic Militancy, Scientific Materialist Dogma, the Leninist party line, even a simple bureaucratic lack of imagination and insistence on fixed rules.

But here I want to address the issue of Christian (and predominantly Modern) Fundamentalism, for this is the shade which affects me most directly. Moreover I consider myself qualified to critique it as I have been a fundamentalist myself; I am still recovering.

I have in recent months encountered the ire of a pro-Modern backlash. Many judgments have been issued, much misunderstanding experienced, and many a personal slanging match has ensued. While I feel a kinship with Salman Rushdie, fortunately for me these “fundy fatwas” have all been online and virtual.

For example, I have been portrayed as an imbeciletaken as a hateful, divisive and provocative New Ager, and most recently, been roundly dismissed as a false teacher and wolf in sheeps clothing, allied with Satan. I’m not moaning, just stating what adventurous thought can led to when it is read by those who do not know how to read

Now many a balanced brother and sensible sister have questioned the value of face-offs with these detractors, especially where those concerned are suffering from what Brian McLaren has described as “excessive overconfidence”. While restraint or even silence seems to be one biblical response to slander, malice, and willful misunderstanding, there is a time to stand and fight, to give an answer for the hope that is within, and above all to demonstrate a better way to those intend on disagreement, whose modus operandi is to emphasize difference rather than encouraging similarity.

There are several things to consider when engaging in these faith wars. No war is ever won without a thorough understanding of the issues at stake, and how the opponent thinks. If we are to have any success in effecting transformation amongst a population of fellow believers who view us with deep suspicion, fear, and cast us in the role of “the other”, we have to identify our actual differences, rather than missing an opportunity by misdiagnosing the problem, or concentrating on surface dissimilarities.

In future posts I might address some of these issues. But as an introduction, I would like to consider this exploration a part of the great Restoration of All Things by God spoken of in Colossians 1:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Our “enemies” are often our neighbors, and the starting point in waging this Peace, should be at and near home.

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