Monday, May 18, 2009

Shades of Fundamentalism

The Jesuit Martyrs of Canada: "Fundamentalists" Who Took Their Faith Seriously

Sometimes we give ground to the enemies of the Catholic Faith (or Christianity in general) by doing nothing else other than discussing the issues on their terms using their vocabulary. I have come to see this as being the case whenever Catholics start using the words fundamentalism or fundamentalist in religious discussions. I am convinced that these terms cause more confusion than clarity, are almost completely meaningless and actually harm Christianity whenever they are used in conversation, even when being used by Catholics.

Fundamentalism is a tricky word. It is one of those rare words that we all seem to know what we mean when we use it, but would be hard pressed to put a definition to it. Everybody seems eager to reject all forms of fundamentalism today. We Catholics often think of baptist fundamentalists who condemn dancing and playing cards, and so perhaps fundamentalism is associated with a kind of purtanical approach to the faith.

Islamic fundamentalism is also a common phrase, and in this context I suppose it denotes violence.

We often hear the media talk about Christian fundamentalists who want creationism taught in public schools - and in the context in which the media adopts these words, then fundamentalism implies an anti-scientific mindset and a blind adherence to faith even when it contradicts (supposed) science.

For Catholics, a fundamentalist may be somebody who has an ignorant bigotry against the Catholic Church - someone who thinks it is the "Whore of Babylon" or something similar. Therefore, we could also add general ignorance to the mix of definitions.

So, we have puritanism, violence, anti-science and ignorance. In any case you choose, the media has made fundamentalist into a bad word. Nobody these days wants to be labeled a fundamentalist, and a lot of times Catholics who want to appear respectable will try to distinguish themselves from Catholic "fundamentalists" who take the Church's opposition to contraception and abortion seriously.

So what is the problem with this phrase?

The problem with this phrase is that the categories listed above (puritanism, violence, anti-scientific tendencies and ignorance) have been subtly expanded by the media to include many other things beyond their scope. Take, for example, some common definitions of "fundamentalism" from the media and conventional wisdom. I have not cited these from any specific source, but anyone who has been paying attention has heard them ad nauseam:

"There's a lot of fundamentalists out there who think the Bible ought to be taken literally."

"I can't stand these religious fundamentalists who want to impose their religion on everybody else."

"We can't let religious fundamentalism get in the way of scientific progress in the field of stem cell research and technology."

"Religious fundamentalists don't believe in the separation of Church and State."

"Most Protestants and Catholics have accepted the use of contraception, but a small minority of fundamentalists continue to oppose it on biblical grounds."

There are more I could come up with, but I think you get the point. Originally, fundamentalism referred to a term that came out of the Niagara Bible Conference, a Protestant, millennarian-dispensationalist convention that met annually from 1878 to 1897. The Conference met in order to meet what it rightly perceived was the danger to Christianity posed by progressivism and biblical criticism, and therefore came up with a set of "fundamental" tenets of Christianity that (in the opinion of the Conference) one had to believe to be Christian. Some of the "fundamentals" they came up with were things any Catholic would agree with: the Virgin Birth, reality of Christ's Resurrection, His propitiatory death, etc. As the opponent was higher criticism, the fundamentals were directed against those who denied the historicity of Christianity. These positions were summed up in a series of books, aptly named The Fundamentals, that were published from 1910-1915.

Here we see problem one: at least originally, fundamentalism within the Protestant Churches was something traditional Catholics could sympathize with. It was their answer to the modernist rot that was spreading throughout Christianity as a result of the methodology of the German biblical critics. So, in its origin, fundamentalism simply meant adherence to the central tenets of historic Christianity. It was these "fundamentalists" who continued to assert the bodily Resurrection and the need for grace as the 20th century wore on and people, even Christians, increasingly rejected these beliefs.

This historical fact ought to give us pause: though "fundamentalism" means something a little more than that now, when we condemn Christian or Catholic "fundamentalists" we are using a derogatory word in the which, had we lived back then, we might not have seen as such a negative. Yes, I know we don't agree with Protestants, especially millennarians, on a lot of things. But at least they were trying to formulate some cogent response to modernism, which is admirable. So why should we use this word as a put down?

"Well, because fundamentalism means more than just that now!" This is true. Today, the word implies all the things mentioned above (violence, ignorance, etc). But who gave the word that connotation? Was it not those who oppose Christianity who started broadening the definition of fundamentalist and constantly using it in a negative light? What has happened is that fundamentalist has been universally deemed a negative word, and then once everybody agrees it is negative, the definition of what a fundamentalist is has been expanded until it actually encompasses all faithful Christians.

Let's look at the first sentence:

"There's a lot of fundamentalists out there who think the Bible ought to be taken literally."

So fundamentalists take the Bible "literally?" Doesn't the CCC teach that all interpretations of Scripture have their foundation in the literal? And if it is fundamentalist to take the Bible literally, then if I don't want to be a fundamentalist, how am I to take the Bible? Allegorically or metaphorically I suppose. I guess this statement is saying that if you don't take the Bible metaphorically you are a fundamentalist. This hang up about taking the Bible literally is really a subtle attack against people who take the Bible seriously. It is an extension of the argument that fundamentalists are puritanical, but it extends "puritanical" to mean anybody who takes the Bible at face value; i.e., all real Christians.

How about this statement:

"I can't stand these religious fundamentalists who want to impose their religion on everybody else."

This one is an extension of the idea that fundamentalism implies violence. Of course, the sentence does not imply violence, but there is an attempt to make a connection between the words "violence" and the word "impose." The effect is that, while nobody wants to be forced violently to adhere to another religion, this distaste for violence is extended even to persons who evangelize or witness about their beliefs. When people say they don't want others "imposing" their religion on them, they usually mean they don't want people speaking out about the moral tenets of their faith. So saying abortion is wrong, homosexual so-called marriage is immoral or that one needs Jesus to be saved, even just uttering these things, becomes "imposing" your religion on others and is equated with a kind of violence of opinion; i.e., the bugbear of "intolerance." Thus, it is deemed "fundamentalist" to wish to spread your beliefs and your faith.

With the statement, "We can't let religious fundamentalism get in the way of scientific progress in the field of stem cell research and technology," we have the same argument applied to science. Since the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925), fundamentalism has been seen as opposing legitimate science. Whether it is evolution or stem cell research, the tacit assumption is that any questioning of either the morality or the soundness of the science in question is just religious scruple. I oppose evolution on scientific grounds. I oppose stem cell research on scientific grounds as well. I can debate those two issues without bringing up religion - but the issue itself is never debated, for debate is silenced by the charge of fundamentalism, the false accusation that objections to immoral science are purely "theological," and perhaps a passing reference to Galileo. Thus, fundamentalism has come to be applied to anybody who disagrees with the morality of certain scientific or medical procedures. Those who legitimately disagree about what is moral are treated as though they are simply ignorant. And since ignorance is one of the popular marks of a fundamentalist, nobody wants to risk being labeled ignorant.

It is often said that a sign of fundamentalism is the wish to establish a "theocracy." "Religious fundamentalists don't believe in the separation of Church and State," people say. This line of thinking places an absolute value on separation of Church and State and, as with the above issue, circumnavigates the question of whether Church and State should be separated with the unstated assumption that they of course should be, and then proceeds to denigrate the religious person who may in some way call this into question, as if to question Church and State separation itself if devious. The Catholic Church has frequently supported the state sanctioning of Catholicism, and so again we are drawn into a position where to simply do nothing other than adhere to what the Church has said is labeled fundamentalism.

With the last quote cited above we have again another extension of the idea of fundamentalism being puritanical: "Most Protestants and Catholics have accepted the use of contraception, but a small minority of fundamentalists continue to oppose it on biblical grounds." Fundamentalism certainly can be puritanical; I am not making a defense of Christian fundamentalism as we know it, but rather attempting to show how people have expanded this term to include all faithful Christians, and this is the case here as well. If the "fundamentalist" is accused of opposing contraception, either on biblical grounds or in accord with the Church's teaching, then what would be the unstated "non-fundamentalist" position? Why, to accept them, of course! If you accept contraception (because, of course, the "majority" does), then you are enlightened, progressive, fair-minded, etc. But if you continue to reject it in obedience to the Church, you are puritanical and fundamentalist for following Rome's "rules"; you're probably even one of those kooks who takes the Bible literally! So again we have fundamentalism expanded to simply mean anyone who is a loyal son of the Church or who takes the Bible at face value.

So, where are left? Personally, I am left at the point where if you are going to say that anybody who takes the Bible literally and obeys the Church is a fundamentalist, then fine, label me a fundamentalist. If that's what you mean by the term, I can accept it. I am a Catholic fundamentalist. But I, for one, am going to reject the use of this term in referring to other Christian groups or otherwise, because it is so convoluted and twisted that I don't think it helps anything. If I oppose a certain baptist group's teachings, I am going to oppose them because they are too legalistic about cards; because they wrongly believe in the false doctrine of the Rapture; because they think the Church is the Whore of Babylon. Fine. Let's oppose them on those grounds. But will I call them fundamentalists because they take the Bible literally? Or because they believe in the Virgin Birth? No. To have Christians calling each other fundamentalists is not something I am willing to do.

Hence, I reject the use of this term when I am referring to other groups, but I happily appropriate it to myself, since it has come to mean nothing other than a faithful Christian. After all, isn't the Creed a list of "fundamentals" of the Christian faith? All real Catholics are fundamentalists, since ultimately fundamentalist denotes anybody who takes their faith seriously - and this is why the term is given a negative connotation, because it is nothing other than a veiled attack on Christianity itself.

1 comment:

Smiley said...

One of the key tricks of the media is to swap the meaning of words and there by create confusion. Infact this is also a very subtle but effective trick of the devil.

For exmaple:

Gay - this word means happy, happyiness is a good thing. Now note that the media (with the support of the evil one) has usurped the meaning of Gay to mean homosexual. The underlying usurpation is that homosexual people are happy because Gay acutally meant happy.

This can be seen in many words which have lost thier meaning or the meaning has been changed to promote a evil agenda. Further examples are words like - Tradition, Orthodox, progressive, liberal etc etc