On fundamentalisms

September 25th, 2018

The Christian movement we call “fundamentalism” began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, largely in reaction to the rise of modernity and liberal theology. Its adherents came from a variety of Christian traditions, including established mainline denominations and independent churches that we would today call “non-denominational.” Proponents of this diverse anti-modernist movement joined together in five key affirmations, which they called the “fundamentals”:

  1. Biblical inspiration and inerrancy 
  2. Christ’s virginal conception and birth 
  3. A substitutionary theory of atonement 
  4. Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead 
  5. The historicity of biblical miracles 

There have always been serious intellectual defenses of each of these affirmations, and of the five as a group. Each of the five fundamentals has received considerable scholarly attention, though of course none of them has gone uncontested. Mainline Christians often speak derisively of fundamentalist Christians as unsophisticated and irrational, but this caricature is neither helpful nor necessarily accurate. In fact, most mainline Christians would affirm at least some of the five fundamentals.

All this is to say, there is a particular stream within Protestant Christianity that is properly called “fundamentalism.” It takes on more and less sophisticated forms, and it is characterized by affirmation of the “five fundamentals” as a group. Let’s called this “type 1 fundamentalism.”

Over time, the term “fundamentalism” took on a broader meaning in Western culture. It began to be associated with anti-intellectualism and religious fanaticism. No doubt the behavior of some fundamentalist Christians contributed to this perception, though unfavorable characterizations of Christian fundamentalists by their ideological opponents surely contributed as well. Today the term “fundamentalism” is used to describe groups from a variety of faith traditions. In the early 2000s we often heard people speak of “Islamic fundamentalism.” Of course, Muslims would not affirm the “five fundamentals.” Rather, references to Islamic fundamentalism are meant to describe a form of Islam characterized by an unreasoned fanaticism.

Put differently, in popular culture, “fundamentalism” has come to refer to a kind of extreme, uncompromising, reactionary and unreasoned position. Let’s call this “type 2 fundamentalism.” By this definition, there is no particular ideology or religious tradition that holds a monopoly on fundamentalism. While Christian fundamentalists of the first type are certainly not immune from demonstrating fundamentalism of the second type, there is no reason they should necessarily do so.

As indicated above, it is also possible rampantly to display type 2 fundamentalism without any connection to type 1. For example, progressive protesters who react violently to conservative speakers on college campuses exemplify type 2 fundamentalism. There are voices, they hold, that simply should not be heard. There are arguments and perspectives they must silence. There are ideas that harm our cultures more gravely than the outright suppression of ideas. Fundamentalism of this type — and it is quite common today — is deeply anti-intellectual. Ironically, it has taken root in many institutions of higher learning.

Along with religious fundamentalists, then, there are also political fundamentalists. There are ideological fundamentalists. There are conservative and progressive fundamentalists. Type 2 fundamentalism is a pervasive element today in Western culture, and it is in no way restricted to people of faith.

Holding a position strongly does not make one a fundamentalist. It is, rather, the absence of intellectual virtue that most marks one as a fundamentalist of the second type. It is a refusal to hear, a desire to win rather than to understand, a desire to impose rather than to persuade.

Rejecting fundamentalism of the second type does not mean giving up on your core beliefs. It means developing genuine empathy for the ideas of others and cultivating a desire for deeper understanding. It is exceedingly unlikely, for example, that I am going to give up my affirmation that Jesus is the Son of God and savior of all creation. I suppose it could happen; better Christians than I have lost their faith. Nevertheless my beliefs about Jesus are so deeply woven into my life it is almost inconceivable to me that I would someday reject them. That said, even with these beliefs so firmly in place, if I am intellectually virtuous I can still be in conversation with people who believe differently than I do. In fact, I can learn from them, and even grow in my faith through these engagements. (Along these lines, check out my colleague Anthony Le Donne’s book, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God.)

Our current cultural modus operandi commonly involves attempts to silence voices we do not agree with through public shaming. If someone voices opinions we don’t like, we make them pay. They’ll think twice about saying such things next time. In many cases we simply do not engage ideas we disagree with at a deep level. Rather, we attempt to discredit those who hold such ideas. Type 2 fundamentalism is so woven into the fabric of Western culture today that we most often don’t see it. It is our “new normal,” and we can adopt its values without ever realizing we are doing so.

That way, however, lies intellectual death. Abandon hope, all ye who enter there.

I believe that the renewal of Christianity in Western culture will involve a renewal of the intellect. It will involve a rejection of the jingoism that so characterizes the world around us, and a love of neighbor that includes a willingness to listen. If the Christian life is characterized by love, shouldn’t this come to bear on our intellectual lives as well? “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7). For Paul, love is not simply an emotion. It is the fruit of a transformed life. It affects not just how we feel, but how we think.

Fundamentalism of the second type that I have described is not a properly Christian way of thinking. The God who assumed all that is human in order to save us from sin and death calls us to the same self-giving love and empathy as we bring that message of salvation to the world. We can do better. For the credibility of our witness, we must.

David F. Watson blogs at davidfwatson.me.

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