Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Religious fundamentalism

The essence of religious fundamentalism is the desire to interpret one’s sacred books as they were originally intended to be understood. Religious revisionists (theological liberals, moderates, progressives) seek to re-interpret their Scriptures more in line with the conventional wisdom of the modern world We could draw a line placing religious fundamentalists on one end and religious revisionists on the other end (with varying degrees on both sides).

Christian fundamentalists try to interpret the Bible in light of its historical and literary context. For example, as repugnant as some Old Testament commands are to modern sensibilities (e.g. the commands to kill or drive out the Canaanites from the Promised Land) Christian fundamentalists point out that many of these commands were directed to specific people (Hebrews) at a specific time, under specific circumstances and were never intended as universal commands “to kill the infidels.” Christian fundamentalists, therefore, do not use violence in an attempt to coerce people into submission to Christianity.

Based on the commands of the New Testament, fundamentalist Christians believe they have a mandate to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel,” that is, to tell people that all have sinned against God and stand condemned before Him, but that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ to die an atoning sacrifice for the sin of all who turn to Him in repentance and faith.

“Christian” revisionists, on the other hand are pretty much embarrassed by all this ancient theology. They are generally embarrassed, for example, by the idea that Jesus was an atoning sacrifice since the idea of atoning sacrifice is not a very politically correct concept in the modern world.

Further, they point out that modern people can’t really believe in miracles and resurrections any more (all evidence to the contrary). And in sharp contrast to the writers of the New Testament, “Christian” revisionists don’t talk about sin or repentance much either. After all, no one wants to be told that they are living in sinful rebellion against a God who doesn’t take it very well and will one day be their judge. Most people would rather think of sin as a “mistake” or a “poor judgment.”

[Or we can always blame it on our parents, our environment, our society, our genes, or our government—or, we can simply deny that our behavior is sinful at all. Throwing out such inconvenient teachings as the Sermon on the Mount or Ten Commandments (and removing them from public places so we don’t have to be reminded) revisionists simply re-define sin relative to the conventional wisdom of the day. So, for example, serial sexual relationships are no longer considered sin—sin, rather is re-defined, as the fact that government doesn’t pay for everyone’s health care, fix everyone’s houses after a hurricane, or crack down harder on polluters of the environment. Anything to avoid personally responsibility for the fact that we have individually, willfully and sinfully rebelled against our Creator]

So while Christian fundamentalism takes the New Testament seriously when it teaches that Jesus is the Son of God who died an atoning death and was physically resurrected, it doesn’t really matter to “Christian” revisionists what the New Testament actually says or what the authors intended to communicate. Since such ideas are not accepted in the modern world “Christian” revisionists either flatly deny that this ancient theology is true (which makes one wonder why they continue to consider themselves “Christian”), or they explain the texts away as some kind of symbolic narratives (e.g. Marcus Borg).

Muslim revisionists (i.e. moderates) largely do the same thing with their own sacred books. While both moderates and fundamentalists in Islam take seriously Muhammad’s claims to be the latest and greatest prophet, many Muslim moderates are not entirely comfortable with all the violence in the Qur’an, the Hadith, and Sura. Unlike the commands to violence in the Old Testament which were for a particular time and place, commands to the violence in Islamic texts are often universal, i.e. kill the infidels wherever you find them. Muslim moderates, therefore, tend to focus on, and emphasize, the parts of the Qur’an about compassion, and peace. They tend to ignore, downplay, or spiritualize (as only an inward struggle) Muhammad’s life and call to violent jihad (I’m glad they do. Far from being a “Muslim hater,” I’ve said before that I probably have more in common with Muslims who support American freedoms and renounce violence than I do with secular American hedonists).

On the other hand, Muslim fundamentalists, like Christian fundamentalists, attempt to interpret Islamic texts in light of their historical, literary context. Muslim fundamentalists would point out that after Muhammad left Mecca for Medina, he was no longer persecuted, but became a powerful warrior who fought battles, ordered executions and killed “the infidel” in his efforts to bring the world into submission to Allah. Muslim fundamentalists argue that Muhammad’s commands to violent jihad and to kill the infidel abrogate his earlier, more peaceful sayings.

Muslim fundamentalists interpret the words of Muhammad in historical, literary context and conclude that in order to be faithful to Muhammad their mission is to bring the world into submission to Allah, peacefully if possible, but violently if necessary.

Christian fundamentalist interpret the New Testament in historical, literary context and conclude that in order to be faithful to Jesus Christ their mission is to go into all the world and preach the gospel of repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ, showing love and compassion even to their enemies.

[Footnote: As with any summary, all of this, of course, is overly simplistic. In reality there is much more involved. For example, when I identify with Christian Fundamentalism, I probably identify most closely with the scholarly, fundamentalist side of the Fundamentalist / Modernist controversy of the 1920’s which eventually produced the four volume set, “The Fundamentals.” Although all Christian fundamentalists continue to believe in the five “fundamentals” (Inspiration of Scripture, Deity of Christ, His virgin birth, His substitutionary atonement, and second coming), they eventually splintered into more and more separatist groups with more and more defined theology—often with vitriolic attacks against any group that doesn’t dot their “i” or cross their “t” in the same way. So although I identify myself with the fundamentalist side of the Fundamentalist / Modernist controversy, I am frankly embarrassed—not by the theology, but by the practice—of much of Christian fundamentalism today. Nevertheless, to equate Christian fundamentalism with Islamic fundamentalism as many do today, is shear ignorance—and that was the point of this entire lengthy post]