Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Are You A Fundamentalist?

The word "fundamentalist" is being used with increasing frequency, not only by secular commentators but also by Christians. The meaning of this term has now been stretched far beyond its original usage. The term was originally used to designate a conservative movement within Protestantism which began in the early part of the last century. While the controversies surrounding the theory of evolution had a great deal to do with the birth of the movement, it derived its name from an insistence on "the fundamentals" such as Jesus' virginal conception and bodily resurrection, the inspiration of Scripture and the historical truth of biblical miracles, most of which were being called into question by what came to be known as "liberal protestantism". Despite this, fundamentalism is now exclusively identified with the conviction that Scripture must be interpreted literally.
Today, the term fundamentalist is increasingly being applied to any orthodox Christian, any Christian who dissents from the spirit of the age. And the New Atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have essentially made it a synonym for "Christian". What is going on?
We need to recognize that as it is used now the term fundamentalist has more rhetorical than descriptive value. Today there are Christians who have aligned themselves with he spirit of the age and who therefore like to think of themselves as sophisticated. For such people, the only reason why someone might dissent from the spirit of the age is ignorance and this ignorance manifests itself in a "literal interpretation of Scripture". At a time when the ideal in religion is vagueness bordering on vacuousness, "fundamentalist" now designates anyone who believes something relatively definite and permanent. The great divide in the Church today is not between fundamentalists (in the classical sense) and liberals but between those who see Christianity as a substantial body of doctrine which demands the assent of heart and mind and those who see Christianity as a series of compromises with the spirit of the age. Fundamentalism now refers to any type of Christianity which might change one's mental habits and lifestyle.
The great trick of calling a fellow Christian a fundamentalist is that you can shut him or her down without having to actually responds to what is being said or argued. The fear of being called a fundamentalist can act to keep us in line with he spirit of the age because none of us wants to be thought ignorant or narrow minded.
But isn't it those who are using the term as threat or verbal weapon who have the really narrow minds? There is far more to the interpretation of Scripture than the choice between "literal" and "symbolic" readings. One can come to the conclusion that, for example, the practice of abortion is wrong without thereby being a "literalist". And is it not narrow to think that our own culture (with its mixed blessings) is the font of all wisdom? Tradition is not the dead weight of the past but the living wisdom of the past which God has imparted to those who came before us.
In a sermon entitled "The Religion of the Day" (preached at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford and published in 1834), John Henry Newman makes some incisive comments on religion in Victorian Britain which apply to our own situation today. For Newman, the "religion of the day" is a Christianity whose rougher edges have all been smoothed down and whose demands have all but been eliminated: "...those fearful images of Divine wrath with which the Scriptures abound...are explained away. Everything is bright and cheerful. Religion is pleasant and easy; benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal, are the first of sins." For many Christians ( both liberal and conservative) the Creed has been reduced to the affirmation that God is nice and we should be nice too. Newman put his finger on the central issue of both his age and ours when he that "we have not from a love of the Truth, but from the influence of the Age". Looking around at the prosperous and seemingly Christian nation which was Victorian Britain, Newman could say that "I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction, that it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion than at present it shows itself to be. Not, of course, that I think the tempers of mind herein implied desirable...but I think them infinitely more desirable and more promising than a heathen obduracy, and a cold, self-sufficient, self-wise tranquility."
In John Wesley's day, the term "methodist" was a term of derision indicating someone who took their Christianity a little too seriously. Wesley seized the term and made it a badge of honor. Perhaps the same thing may happen with the term fundamentalist.

5 Comments:

Anonymous RJ said...

People have used "names" to cast others in highly disadvantaged spots for a long time. If we listen closely to shouts of "bigot!", "chauvinist", "walking saint", "goody-two-shoes", and others of like ilk, we can gain some measure of the darkness of the souls around us. We find a need for prayer for them and I begin with "May God have mercy on your soul!"

RJ

June 11, 2008 at 8:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never thought of myself as a fundamentalist, and I've never thought of myself as ignorant. I have never had a desire to be sophisticated, but rather innocent as a child. It's sad to see the spirit of the age turning toward religious sophistication - after all, isn't that what the Greeks and Romans did? If believing in something definite and permanent makes one a fundamentalist, then I must be one and am thankful to be one!

June 11, 2008 at 12:47 PM  
Anonymous Pat said...

I've never thought of myself as a fundamentalist. But, if believing in something definite and permanent that doesn't change with every wind that blows and if the religion that I practice and believe in calls for a change in one's mental habits and lifestyle, then, I must be a fundamentalist. So what are the folks on the other end of the spectrum....bargain hunters?

June 11, 2008 at 1:05 PM  
Blogger Betty said...

“ Jesus said unto him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your MIND.”
-Matthew 22:37

Christianity is not all emotion, it also involves thinking, knowing and understanding. Loving God is not a mindless act. In our relationship with God, this is a command from Him, not an option. Our intellect is not excluded in our relationship with God. He has given a sound Mind to use. It is of God. God who loves us and desires our heart and soul-felt love in return, created us in His image. He includes our Minds in this love relationship. He wants us to UNDERSTAND with our MINDS, Whom we are loving and why.

This is an eternal and fundamental truth.

June 11, 2008 at 11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt 22:37 Jesus replied:"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 2:38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 2:39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Matt 2:40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Aren't we trying to be like Jesus? Can we succeed? No. Jesus was human and God and the HS resided in him (after baptism and before?)
But we are all made in God's image and the HS resides in us too.
Matthew continues with Jesus words "the first and greatest commandment ..."
But this would mean that we must love ourselves first. What a delimma?!?! We are all such fallen sinful creatures. Created in God's image yet full of sin (original sin b'c we also have free will). So we try very hard to love ourselves and not to become prideful after all this is sinful too. Some days it is easier to love ourselves than on other days! When we love ourselves we are better able to love our neighbors as ourselves and serve God to his fullest.
It is very comforting to serve when we remember all this. And when we feel the joy of Christ who goes before us and knows our sins before we even commit them. Thank you Michael and the saints that serve and try to remind us of this each day. Thank you to those who serve with such peace and humble spirits.
We are the body of Christ. All we can do is to try our best to live into this ideal!

June 20, 2008 at 2:44 PM  

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