Fighting fundamentalism

Will fear drive us from one bleak landscape to another?
December 31, 2003

January. Epiphany. A new year and a new beginning. Why does it seem so old? Why does the world rock on in all the same sad ways?

The only comfort we can take, and a cold comfort it seems to be, is that we have seen it all before. We know, as a friend of mine likes to say, the holes in the riverbed. And, I think, we are beginning to suspect that the biggest and most dangerous hole -- the one that could swallow us all -- must be dealt with now.

Its name is fundamentalism.

Not liberalism. Not conservatism. These are opinions, and those who hold them can have reasoned and insightful dialogue with one another. Such dialogue, in fact, is necessary to our integrity, for no idea should be completely trusted until it has been tried and tempered and hammered out on the anvil of debate with its opposite.

Fundamentalism is something quite different. Bart Giamatti, once president of Yale, defined it as "the true belief as propounded by the true believer" and called it "the terrorism of the mind." Fundamentalism has no use for debate and no capacity for dialogue; fundamentalism, by necessity, relies on intimidation and sometimes violence.

We see this clearly, of course, in such institutions as the Taliban. But this is all the more reason that we never should delude ourselves into believing that fundamentalism exists only in other faith traditions or that it is comfortably confined to the other side of the world. It shows its ugly face in our own society and within our own congregations. It is probably the most dangerous movement in our world today.

For the danger of fundamentalism is not its narrow world view nor its rulebook belief system nor even its grievous tendency to exclude; its danger lies in its insistence that everyone must be compelled, by law or force if necessary, to hold the "beliefs of the true believer." It destroys the creative tension of the community and sets in its place a community based on drab uniformity, where problems cannot be acknowledged.

I firmly believe that when our children and grandchildren look back on our era, they will see that the world, the society and the church they inherited from us were irrevocably shaped by how well we ourselves were able to deal with fundamentalism. Will we find the courage and vision to move forward, or will we allow our own fears to drive us from one bleak landscape into another?

Fear is the taproot of fundamentalism, and no one knew this better than Jesus. The boy who at the age of 12 astounded the priests in the Temple surely was destined -- or so those ancient rabbis must have thought -- to find a place in the religious structure of his time. If they remembered him at all some 18 years later, it must have been with a sad shaking of heads: Such a promising lad he was, only to waste himself as an itinerant preacher! Yet that was the path Jesus chose.

It was a dangerous choice and yet -- as Jesus knew, as his followers have known for twenty centuries -- the only possible way. Entrenched fear, cobbling together its barricades of rules and ritualism, cannot be challenged on its own terms nor fought with its own weapons. It can only be overcome by preaching -- and showing forth in our lives -- a love openly available to all, a God whose hands are safe and sure, a kingdom where men and women live in justice and equality, and a vision only the free and fearless mind can attain.

This is the true epiphany. This is the showing forth we celebrate.